A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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In the rising seaport of Bittlesea Captain Fraser, walking slowly along the quay on the fateful Saturday, heard the hour of seven strike from the tower of the old church wedged in between the narrow streets at the back of the town. The little harbour with its motley collection of craft vanished; he heard the sharp, hoarse cries of command on the Golden Cloud, and saw the bridge slowly opening to give egress to the tug which had her in tow. He saw her shapely hull and tapering spars glide slowly down the river, while Poppy Tyrell, leaning against the side, took her last look at London. He came back with a sigh to reality: the Swallow had dwindled to microscopical proportions, and looked dirty; Bittlesea itself had the appearance of a village with foolish aspirations to be considered a port, and he noticed, with a strong sense of pity tempered with disdain, the attentions of two young townsmen to a couple of gawky girls in white frocks.

With a feeling that the confinement of the house would be insupportable, he roamed idly about until the day gave place to twilight, and the red eye of the lightship on the horizon peeped suddenly across the water. Bittlesea was dull to aching point; a shirt-sleeved householder or two sat in his fragrant front-garden smoking, and a murmur of voices and shag tobacco floated out from tavern doorways. He paced up and down the quay, until the necessity of putting a stop to the vagaries of his crew furnished him with a little wholesome diversion.

In their quest for good beer Mr. Green and Joe had left themselves in the hands of the other members of the crew, and had gone off with them in a body to the Cap and Bells, where, in a most pointed fashion, Mr. Green, who had been regarding the fireman's complexion for some time with much displeasure, told the boy to go back to the ship and get his face washed.

"He's all right, ain't you, Tommy?" said the cook, coming to the rescue.

"Boys ought to keep their faces clean," said Mr. Green, impressively; "there's nothing more unpleasant than a face what wants washing. You don't want to grow up like that, do you? Look at it, Joe."

"It might be cleaner," said Joe, thus appealed to, slowly; "likewise it might be dirtier."

"It might be much dirtier," said Mr. Green, emphatically; "anybody with eyes in their 'ed can see that."

There was an awkward pause, during which the fireman, with one eye peeping furtively from be-yond the rim of a quart pot, saw both Joe and the cook kick Mr. Green's foot to call his attention to the fact that his words might be misconstrued by another member of the party.

"I 'ate toffs," he said, deliberately, as he placed his mug on the counter.

"They're all right when you know 'em, Charlie," said Joe, who was averse to having the evening spoiled at that early hour.

"A real toff's bad enough," continued the fireman, "but a himitation one—pah!" He buried his face in the pewter again, and laughed discordantly.

"You go aboard and wash you face, Tommy," repeated Mr. Green. "I should think you'd find plenty o' soap in Charlie's bunk."

"Do you know what you want?" demanded the fireman, regarding him fixedly.

"I know what you want," said Mr. Green, with a supercilious smile.

"Oh! Wot?" said the other.

The polite seaman rose to his feet and watched him carefully. "A banjo," he replied.

It was not the reply according to time-honoured formula, and Charlie, who was expecting something quite different, was at no pains to hide his perplexity. "A banjo?" he repeated, slowly, "a banjo—a ban——?"

Light came to him suddenly, and he flew at Mr. Green with his fists whirling. In a second the bar was in an uproar, and the well-meant and self-preservative efforts of Joe and the cook to get the combatants into the street were frustrated by people outside blocking up the doors. They came out at last, and Fraser, who was passing, ran over just in time to save Mr. Green, who was doing his best, from the consequences of a somewhat exaggerated fastidiousness. The incident, however, afforded a welcome distraction, and having seen Mr. Green off in the direction of the steamer, while the fireman returned to the public-house, he bent his steps homewards and played a filial game at cards with his father before retiring.

They sailed for London the following afternoon, Mr. Green taking a jaundiced view of the world from a couple of black eyes, while the fireman openly avowed that only the economical limitations of Nature prevented him from giving him more. Fraser, a prey to gentle melancholy, called them to order once or twice, and then left them to the mate, a man whose talent for ready invective was at once the admiration and envy of his peers.

The first night in London he spent on board, and with pencil and paper sat down to work out the position of the Golden Cloud. He pictured her with snowy pinions outspread, passing down Channel. He pictured Poppy sitting on the poop in a deck-chair and Flower coming as near as his work would allow, exchanging glances with her. Then he went up on deck, and, lighting his pipe, thought of that never-to-be-forgotten night when Poppy had first boarded the Foam.

The next night his mood changed, and unable to endure the confinement of the ship, he went for a lonely tramp round the streets. He hung round the Wheelers, and, after gazing at their young barbarians at play, walked round and looked at Flower's late lodgings. It was a dingy house, with broken railings and an assortment of papers and bottles in the front garden, and by no means calculated to relieve depression. From there he instinctively wandered round to the lodgings recently inhabited by Miss Tyrell.

He passed the house twice, and noted with gloom the already neglected appearance of her front window. The Venetian blind, half drawn up, was five or six inches higher one side than the other, and a vase of faded flowers added to the forlornness of the picture. In his present state of mind the faded blooms seemed particularly appropriate, and suddenly determining to possess them, he walked up the steps and knocked at the door, trembling like a young housebreaker over his first job.

"I think I left my pipe here the other night," he stammered to the small girl who opened it.

"I'll swear you didn't," said the small damsel, readily.

"Can I go up and see?" enquired Fraser, handing her some coppers.

The small girl relented, and even offered to assist him in his search, but he waved her away, and going upstairs sat down and looked drearily round the shabby little room. An execrable ornament of green and pink paper in the fireplace had fallen down, together with a little soot; there was dust on the table, and other signs of neglect. He crossed over to the window and secured two or three of the blooms, and was drying the stalks on his handkerchief when his eye suddenly lighted on a little white ball on the mantel-piece, and, hardly able to believe in his good fortune, he secured a much-darned pair of cotton gloves, which had apparently been forgotten in the hurry of departure. He unrolled them, and pulling out the little shrivelled fingers, regarded them with mournful tenderness. Then he smoothed them out, and folding them with reverent fingers, placed them carefully in his breastpocket. He then became conscious that somebody was regarding his antics with amazement from the doorway.

"Mr. Fraser!" said a surprised voice, which tried to be severe.

Mr. Fraser bounded from his chair, and stood regarding the intruder with a countenance in which every feature was outvying the other in amazement.

"I thought—you—were on the Golden Cloud," he stammered.

Miss Tyrell shook her head and looked down. "I missed the ship," she said, pensively.

"Missed the ship?" shouted the other; "missed the ship? Did Flower miss it too?"

"I'm afraid not," said Miss Tyrell, even more pensively than before.

"Good heavens, I never heard of such a thing," said Fraser; "how ever did you manage to do it?"

"I went to lie down a little while on Saturday afternoon," said Poppy, reflectively; "I'd got my box packed and everything ready; when I got up it was past seven o'clock, and then I knew it was no use. Ships won't wait, you know."

Fraser gazed at her in amaze. In his mind's eye he still saw the deck of the Golden Cloud; but Poppy's deck-chair was empty, and Flower, in place of exchanging glances with her, was walking about in a state equally compounded, of wrath and bewilderment.

"And you had given up your berth in the City?" said Fraser, at length, in concern.

The consciousness of a little colour in her cheek which she could not repress affected Miss Tyrell's temper. "No," she said, sharply.

"Didn't you intend to go, then?" asked the bewildered Fraser.

"I—oh, will you give me my gloves, please, before I forget them?" said Miss Tyrell, coldly.

It was Fraser's turn to colour, and he burnt a rich crimson as he fished them out.

"I was going to take care of them for you," he said, awkwardly. "I came to look after a pipe I thought I'd left here."

"I saw you taking care of them," was the reply.

There was a pause, during which Miss Tyrell took a seat and, folding her hands in her lap, gazed at him with the calm gaze which comes of perfect misdoing and the feminine determination not to own up to it. The room was no longer shabby, and Fraser was conscious of a strange exaltation.

"I understood that you had given notice in the City," he said, slowly; "but I'm very glad that you didn't."

Miss Tyrell shook her head, and stooping down adjusted the fire-stove ornament.

"Didn't you intend to go?" repeated the tactful seaman.

"I'd left it open," said Miss Tyrell, thoughtfully; "I hadn't definitely accepted Captain Martin's invitation. You jump at conclusions so, but of course when I found that Captain Flower had shipped before the mast for my sake, why, I had to go."

"So you had," said Fraser, staring.

"There was no help for it," continued Miss Tyrell.

"Didn't seem like it," said the more accurate Fraser.

His head was in a whirl, and he tried vainly to think of the exact terms in which she had announced her intention to emigrate, and combated the objections which he thought himself justified in advancing. He began to remember in a misty, un-certain fashion that they were somewhat vague and disjointed, and for one brief moment he wondered whether she had ever had any idea of going at all. One glance at the small figure of probity opposite was enough, and he repelled the idea as unworthy.

"I believe that you are sorry I didn't go," said Poppy, suddenly.

"I'm sorry for Flower," said the other.

"He will be back in six or seven months," said Poppy, gently; "that will soon pass away. I shall not be very old to marry even then. Perhaps it is all for the best—I don't like—"

"Don't like?" prompted Fraser.

"Don't like to be hurried," continued Miss Tyrell, looking down.

There was another pause. The girl got up and, walking to the window, gazed out upon the street.

"There is a nice air in the streets now," she said at length, without turning round.

Fraser started. Politeness and inclination fought with conscience. The allies won, but inclination got none of the credit.

"Would you care to go for a walk?" he asked.

Miss Tyrell turned and regarded him with an unmistakable air of surprise.

"No, thank you," she said, in a manner which indicated reproof.

Fraser shifted restlessly. "I thought that was what you meant," he said, indignantly.

"You jump at conclusions, as I said before," remarked Miss Tyrell. "It wouldn't be right."

"I don't see any harm in it," said Fraser, stoutly; "we've been before, and Flower knows of it."

The girl shook her head. "No," she said, firmly.

To her surprise, that ended the matter. The rattle of traffic and the hum of voices came in at the open window; the room seemed unwontedly quiet by contrast. Miss Tyrell sat reaping the empty reward of virtue, and bestowing occasional glances on the fine specimen of marine obtuseness in the armchair.

"I hope that I am not keeping you from a walk," she observed, at length.

"No," said Fraser.

He rose in confusion, wondering whether this was a hint for him to go, and after a supreme mental effort decided that it was, and murmured something about getting back to the ship. Poppy shook hands with him patiently. It is always a sad thing to see a fine young man lacking in intelligence. Some of her pity perhaps showed in her eyes.

"Are you going?" she asked, with a shade of surprise in her voice.

Fraser gazed at her in perplexity. "I suppose so," he murmured.

"Which means that you want a walk, but don't like leaving me here alone, I suppose," said Miss Tyrell, resignedly. "Very well, I will come."

She left him for a moment in search of her hat, and then, putting aside the gloves she was about to don in favour of those he had endeavoured to secrete, led the way downstairs. Her composure was sufficient for two, which was just the quantity required at that moment.

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