A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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The summer passed quickly. All too quickly for Captain Barber, who said that it was the shortest he ever remembered. But, then, his memory, although greatly improved, was still none of the best, many things which Mrs. Church fondly and frequently referred to having escaped it altogether.

He even forgot that he was to be married in October, and in these circumstances Mrs. Gibson, Miss Banks, and Mrs. Church put their banns up. This acted as a specific, and Captain Barber, putting the best face he could on the matter, went and interviewed the verger on his own behalf.

The wedding-day found him resigned, but dazed, The morning air was crisp and chill, with a faint odour of dead leaves and the aromatic smell of chrysanthemums which decked the front garden. The house was as clean as a new pin, or the deck of the Foam, which, having been thoroughly scrubbed down in honour of the occasion, was now slowly drying in the sun. Down below, the crew, having finished their labours for the day, were anxiously attiring themselves in their Sunday best.

The grizzled head of Ben popped out at the companion and sniffed heartily at the smell of wet deck. His coat was of black, and his new boots creaked deliciously as he slowly paced the deck and affected ignorance of the little cluster of heads at the forecastle hatch. He went below again, and a murmur, gentle but threatening, rose against Tim.

"You wait," said the youth, sharply.

"If you've made me waste eighteenpence, Timmy," said a stout A. B. named Jones, "the Lord ha' mercy on you, 'cos I won't."

The cook, who was clinging to the ladder with his head level with the deck, gave an excited gasp. "Tim's all right," he said; "look there."

The last words were jerked out of him by reason of the weight of his friends, who were now leaning on him, breathing heavily under the stress of strong excitement. Ben was on deck again, and in an obviously unconcerned manner was displaying a silk hat of great height to all who cared to look. The mate's appearance alone, without the flags which dressed the schooner, would have indicated a festival.

Three or four labourers sunning themselves on the quay were much impressed and regarded him stolidy; a fisherman, presuming upon the fact that they both earned their living on the water, ventured to address him.

"Now, then," said Jones, as he took something reverently from an empty bunk, "who's going up fust?"

"I ain't," said Tim.

"Wot about you, cookie?" said Jones.

"Well, wot about me?" demanded the other.

"I thought p'r'aps you'd like to lead the way," said Mr. Jones, mildly.

"You thought wrong, then," said the cook, shortly.

"It was jist a compliment," urged Mr. Jones.

"I don't like flattery," said the cook; "never did."

Mr. Jones sighed and shook his head irresolutely. The other A.B. patted him on the back.

"You look a fair bloomin' treat," he said, heartily. "You go up fust; you look as though you've slep' in one a'most."

"None o' your larks, you know," remarked Mr. Jones, with suspicious sourness; "no backing out of it and leavin' me there by myself."

There was a chorus of virtuous but profane indignation. It was so indignant that Mr. Jones apologised, and stood for some time regarding the article in his hand with the face of a small child eyeing a large powder. Then he clapped it on his head and went on deck.

The mate was just talking to the fisherman about an uncle of his (born since his promotion) who had commanded a brig, when his voice failed him, and he gazed open-mouthed at a stout seaman who had just come up on deck. On the stout seaman's face was the look of one who sees a vision many miles off; on the stout seaman's head was a high hat of antique pattern which had suffered in the brushing. To avoid the mate's eye he folded his arms and, leaning over the side, gazed across the river. Words trembled on the mate's lips, but they died away in a squeak as a little top-hatted procession of three issued coyly from the forecastle and, ranging itself beside Mr. Jones, helped him to look across the river.

"I never did," said the fisherman. "What are we a-coming to?"

The mate did not stay to inform him. He walked hastily to the quartette and, bursting with rage, asked Jones what he meant by it.

"Mean by wot, sir?" asked Jones, in surprise.

"Top-hats," said the mate, choking.

The four turned and regarded him stolidly, keeping as close together as possible for the sake of moral support and the safety of their head-gear.

"For the weddin', sir," said Jones, as though that explained everything.

"You take 'em off," said the mate, sharply. "I won't let you wear 'em."

"I beg your pardin," said Jones, with great politeness, "we got these 'ere 'ats for the weddin', an' we're a-goin' to wear 'em."

He took the offending article off and brushed it tenderly with his coat-sleeve, while the furious mate looked assault and battery at the other three. Tim, whose hat came well down over his eyes, felt comparatively safe; but the cook, conscious that his perched lightly on the top of his head, drew back a pace. Then he uttered an exclamation as Captain Nibletts, who was officiating as best man, came hurriedly down the cliff.

"Hats?" said the little skipper, disengaging himself from the mate's grasp, as he came on board. "Yes, I don't mind."

"Wot about Capt'in Barber?" demanded the mate, impressively.

"If they was pudding-basins 'e wouldn't mind," said Nibletts, testily; "he's that nervous 'e don't know what 'e's doing hardly. He was raving like a madman for five minutes cos 'e couldn't fasten his collar, and then I found he'd forgot to put his shirt on. He don't care."

He hurried down to the cabin and then came bustling up again. His small face was strained with worry, and the crew eyed him respectfully as he came forward and dealt out white satin favours.

"Cap'in Barber'll be all right with you looking arter 'im, sir," said Jones, with strong conviction.

"That he will," said the cook, nodding.

"There's some whisky in a bottle in my locker, cook," said Nibletts, dancing about nervously; "give the hands one drink each, cook. Only one, mind."

The men thanked him, and with kindly eyes watched him go ashore. The cook went down for the whisky, and Tim, diving into the forecastle, brought up four mugs.

"He must ha' meant another bottle," said Jones, as the cook came slowly up again with a bottle containing one dose.

"There ain't another," said the cook; "he's 'alf off 'is 'ed."

There was a pained silence. "We must toss for it," said Jones, at length; "that is, unless you chaps don't want it."

"Toss," said three voices speaking as one.

Jones sighed, and the coins were produced. The prize fell to Tim, and he leaned against the windlass and slowly poured the yellow liquid into his mug.

"There's more than I thought there was," remarked Mr. Jones, in surprise.

"Bottles is deceiving," said the cook.

"It ain't the fust toss as Tim 'as won," said the third man, darkly.

The ordinary seaman made no reply, but, stepping over to the water-cask, added with great care a little water.

"Here's your 'ealth, chaps," he said, good-naturedly, as he drank, "and may you never want a drink."

"You've never drunk all that, Tim?" said Mr. Jones, anxiously.

Tim shook his head. "There's too much to drink all at once," he said, gravely, and sat, with the mug on his knee, gazing ashore. "It's warming me all over," he mused. "I never tasted sich whisky afore. I'm in a gentle glow."

So was the cook; a glow which increased to fever heat as the youth raised the mug to his lips again, and slowly drained it and handed it to him to wash up.

A little later the men went ashore, and strolling aimlessly up and down the road, passed the time in waiting for the ceremony and making sudden dashes after small boys who were throwing at their hats and hitting their heads.

Seabridge itself was quiet, but Mrs. Banks' house was in a state of ferment. Ladies with pins in their mouths wandered about restlessly until, coming into the orbit of one of the brides, they stuck one or two into her and then drew back to behold the effect. Miss Banks, in white satin, moved about stiffly; Mrs. Church, in heliotrope, glanced restlessly up the road every time she got near the window.

"Now you sit down," said one lady, at length, "both of you. All you've got to do now is to wait for the gentlemen."

It was whispered that Mr. Gibson's delay was due to the fact that he had gone up for Captain Barber, and as time passed a certain restlessness became apparent in the assembly, and sympathetic glances were thrown in the direction of Mrs. Church. Places at the window were at a premium, and several guests went as far as the garden gate and looked up the road. Still no Captain Barber.

"It's time they were here," said Mrs. Banks at last, in a stern voice.

There was a flutter at the gate, and a pretty girl heliographed with her eyes that the parties of the other part were in sight. A minute or two later they came into sight of the window. Captain Barber, clad in beautiful raiment, headed the cort├Ęge, the rear of which was brought up by the crew of the Foam and a cloud of light skirmishers which hovered on their flanks. As they drew near, it was noticed that Captain Barber's face was very pale, and his hands trembled, but he entered the house with a firm step and required no assistance.

Of his reception there was never for a moment any doubt. Young matrons smiled and shook their heads at him, middle-aged matrons took him by the hand, while old ladies committed themselves to the statement that they had seen matrimony in his eye for years. He received the full measure accorded to a very distinguished convert, and, taking a chair placed against the wall, surveyed the company with the air of a small boy who has strayed into a hostile alley. A little natural curiosity found vent.

"Now, what first put it into your head to get married?" ask one fair enquirer.

"Mrs. Church," said the ex-mariner, simply.

"Yes, of course," said the matron; "but was it love at first sight, or did it grow on you before you knew it?"

Captain Barber blushed. "It growed on me afore I knew it," he replied, fervently.

"I suppose," said a lady of a romantic turn of mind, "that you didn't know what was happening at first?"

"I did not, ma'am," agreed the Captain, in trembling tones. "Nobody was more surprised than wot I was."

"How strange," said two or three voices.

They regarded him tenderly, and the youngest bridesmaid, a terrible child of ten, climbed up on his knee and made audible comparisons between the two bridegrooms, which made Mr. Gibson smile.

"Time we started," said Mrs. Banks, raising her voice above the din. "Cap'in Barber, you and Mr. Gibson and the other gentlemen had better get to the church."

The men got up obediently, and in solemn silence formed up in the little passage, and then started for the church some two hundred yards distant, the crew of the Foam falling in behind unchallenged.

To this day Captain Barber does not know how he got there, and he resolutely declines to accept Captain Niblett's version as the mere offspring of a disordered imagination. He also denies the truth of a statement circulated in the town that night that, instead of replying to a leading question in the manner plainly laid down in the Church Service, he answered, "I suppose so."

He came out of the church with a buzzing in his ears and a mist before his eyes. Something was clinging to his arm, which he tried several times to shake off. Then he discovered that it was Mrs. Barber.

Of the doings of the crew of the Foam that night it were better not to speak. Suffice it to say that when they at length boarded their ship Tim was the only one who still possessed a hat, and in a fit of pride at the circumstance, coupled, perhaps, with other reasons, went to bed in it. He slept but ill, however, and at 4 A. M., the tide being then just on the ebb, the only silk hat in the forecastle went bobbing up and down on its way to the sea.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.