A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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Time as it rolled on set at rest any doubts Miss Tyrell might have had concerning the fate of Captain Flower, and under considerable pressure from Fraser, she had consented to marry him in June. The only real reason for choosing that month was, that it was close at hand, though Fraser supplied her with several others to choose from. Their engagement could hardly have been said to have been announced, for with the exception of old Mr. Fraser and the crew of the Swallow, who had gleaned the fact for themselves without any undue strain on their intellects, there was nobody to tell.

The boy was the first to discover it. According to his own indignant account, he went down to the cabin to see whether there was anything he could do, and was promptly provided with three weeks' hard labour by his indignant skipper. A little dissertation in which he indulged in the forecastle on division of labour met with but scant response; Joe said that work was good for boys, and Mr. Green said that he knew a boy who worked eighteen hours a day, and then used to do sums in his sleep to improve his education. The other men set their wits to work then, and proved to have so large an acquaintance with a type of boy that Tommy loathed, that he received a mild chastisement for impertinence to his elders and betters.

It wanted but two days to the wedding. The Swallow was lying in the river, her deck unoccupied except for Mr. Green and the boy, who were smoking in the bows, and the ship's cat, which, with one eye on Mr. Green, was stalking the frying-pan. Fraser had gone ashore on business connected with his wedding-garments, and Poppy Tyrell, with all her earthly belongings in a couple of boxes, sat in the cabin dreaming of her future.

A boat bumped against the side of the steamer, and Mr. Green, looking round, observed the long form of Joe scrambling over the side. His appearance betokened alarm and haste, and Mr. Green, after a brief remark on the extravagance, not to say lordliness, of a waterman's skiff when a hail would have taken the ship's boat to him, demanded to know what was the matter.

"Send that boy below," said Joe, hastily.

"What for?" enquired the gentleman interested, rebelliously.

"You go below," repeated Joe, sternly, "'fore I take you by the scruff o' your little neck and drop you down."

The boy, with a few remarks about the rights of man in general and ships' boys in particular, took his departure, and Joe, taking the startled Mr. Green by the arm, led him farther aft.

"You've got a 'ead on you Will-yum, I know," he said, in a fierce whisper.

"People have said so," remarked the other, modestly. "What's the row?"

For answer, Joe pointed to the cabin, and that with so much expression on his features that Mr. Green, following his gaze, half expected to see something horrible emerge from the companion.

"It's all up," said the tall seaman, poetically. "You can put the wedding-dress away in brown paper, and tell the church bells as there is no call for 'em to ring: Cap'n Flower has turned up ag'in."

"WHAT?" cried the astonished Mr. Green.

"I see 'im," replied Joe. "I was just goin' on the wharf as I passed to speak to old George, when I see 'im talking to 'im. He didn't see me, an' I come off 'ere as fast as my legs could carry me. Now, wot's to be done? You've got the 'ead-piece."

Mr. Green scratched the article in question and smiled feebly.

"On'y two days, and they would ha' been married," said Joe; "bit 'ard, ain't it? I'm glad as I can be as he's safe, but he might ha' waited a day or two longer."

"Did George seem scared?" enquired his friend.

"Wot's that got to do with it?" demanded Joe, violently. "Are you goin' to set that 'ead-piece to work or are you not?"

Mr. Green coughed confusedly, and attempted to think with a brain which was already giddy with responsibility.

"I don't want to do anything that isn't straight and gentlemanly," he remarked.

"Straight?" repeated Joe. "Look 'ere! Cap'n Fraser's our old man, ain't he? Very good, it's our dooty to stand by 'im. But, besides that, it's for the young lady's sake: it's easy to see that she's as fond of him as she can be, and she's that sort o' young lady that if she come up now and told me to jump overboard, I'd do it."

"You could swim ashore easy," asserted Mr. Green.

"They was to be married Thursday morning," continued Joe, "and now here's Cap'n Flower and no 'ead-piece on the ship. Crool, I call it."

"She's a very nice young lady," said the mortified Mr. Green; "always a pleasant smile for everybody."

"He'll come aboard 'ere as safe as heggs is heggs," said Joe, despondently. "Wot's to be done?"

He folded his arms on the side and stood ruefully watching the stairs. He was quite confident that there were head-pieces walking the earth, to which a satisfactory solution of this problem would have afforded no difficulty whatever, and he shook his own sadly, as he thought of its limitations.

"It only wants a little artfulness, Will-yum," he suggested, encouragingly.

"Get hold of him and make him drunk for three days," murmured Mr. Green, in a voice so low that he half hoped Joe would not hear it.

"And then boil 'im," said the indignant seaman, without looking round. "Ah! Here he comes. Now you've got to be astonished, mind; but don't make a noise, in case it fetches the young lady up."

He pointed to the stairs, and his friend, going to his side, saw a passenger just stepping into a boat. The two men then turned away until, at sight of Captain Flower's head appearing above the side, they went off into such silent manifestations of horror and astonishment that he feared for their reason.

"It's 'is voice," said Joe, hastily, as Flower bawled out to them with inconsiderate loudness. "I never thought to see you ag'in, sir; I 'eard you was drowned months and months ago."

He took the captain's proffered hand somewhat awkwardly, and stood closely scanning him. The visitor was bronzed with southern suns, and looked strong and well. His eye was bright and his manner retained all its old easy confidence.

"Ah, I've been through something since I saw you last, my lad," he said, shaking his head. "The great thing is, Joe, to always keep your head above water."

"Yessir," said the seaman, slowly; "but I 'eard as 'ow you went down with the Golden Cloud, sir."

"So I did," said Flower, somewhat boastfully, "and came up again with the nearest land a mile or two under my feet. It was dark, but the sea was calm, and I could see the brute that sunk us keeping on her way. Then I saw a hen-coop bobbing up and down close by, and I got to it just in time, and hung on to it until I could get my breath again and shout. I heard a hail a little way off, and by-and-by I got along-side two of our chaps making themselves comfortable on two or three spars. There were three drowned fowls in my coop, and we finished them on the fourth day just as a whaler hove in sight and took us off. We were on her over four months, and then we sighted the barque California, homeward bound, and she brought us home. I landed at the Albert Docks this morning, and here I am, hard as nails."

Joe, with a troubled eye in the direction of the cabin, murmured that it did him credit, and Mr-Green made a low, hissing noise, intended to signify admiration. Flower, with a cheery smile, looked round the deck.

"Where's Fraser?" he enquired.

"He's ashore, sir," said Joe, hastily. "I don't know when he'll be back."

"Never mind, I'll wait," was the reply. "George was telling me he is to be married on Thursday."

Joe gasped and eyed him closely.

"So I've 'eard, sir."

"And, Captain Barber's married, too, George tells me," said Flower. "I suppose that's right?"

"So I've 'eard, sir," said Joe, again.

Flower turned and paced a little up and down the deck, deep in thought. He had arrived in London three hours before to find that Poppy had left her old lodgings without leaving any clue as to her whereabouts. Then he had gone on to the Wheelers, without any result, so far as he was concerned, although the screams of the unfortunate Mrs. Wheeler were still ringing in his ears.

"I'll go down below and wait," he said, stopping before the men. "Tell Fraser I'm there, or else he'll be startled. I nearly killed poor old George. The man's got no pluck at all."

He moved slowly towards the cabin and Poppy, leaving the men exchanging glances of hopeless consternation. Then, as he turned to descend, the desperate Joe ran up and laid a detaining hand on his sleeve.

"You can't go down there," he whispered, and dragged him forcibly away.

"Why not?" demanded the other, struggling. "Let go, you fool."

He wrenched himself free, and stood gazing angrily at the excited seaman.

"There's a lady down there," said the latter, in explanation.

"Well, I sha'n't eat her," said the indignant Flower. "Don't you put your hands on me again, my lad, or you'll repent it. Who Is it?"

Joe eyed him helplessly and, with a dim idea of putting off the discovery as long as possible, mysteriously beckoned him forward.

"Who is it?" asked the puzzled Flower, advancing a pace or two.

The seaman hesitated. Then a sudden inspiration, born of the memories of last year's proceedings, seized him, and he shook with the brilliancy of it. He looked significantly at Mr. Green, and his voice trembled with excitement.

"The lady who used to come down to the Foam asking for Mr. Robinson," he stammered.

"What?" said the dismayed Flower, coming briskly forward and interposing two masts, the funnel, and the galley between himself and the cabin. "Why on earth didn't you say so before?"

"Well, I didn't know what to do, sir," said Joe, humbly; "it ain't for the likes of me to interfere."

Flower knit his brows, and tapped the deck with his foot.

"What's she doing down there?" he said, irritably; "she's not going to marry Fraser, is she?"

Joe gulped.

"Yessir," he said, promptly.

"Yessir," said Mr. Green, with an intuitive feeling that a lie of such proportions required backing.

Flower stood in amaze, pondering the situation, and a grin slowly broke the corners of his mouth.

"Don't tell Fraser I've been here," he said, at length.

"No, sir," said Joe, eagerly.

"I'll see him in a day or two," said Flower, "after he's married. You understand me, Joe?"

"Yessir," said Joe, again. "Shall I put you ashore, sir?"

He was almost dancing with impatience lest Fraser or Poppy should spoil his plans by putting in an appearance, but before Flower could reply Mr. Green gave a startled exclamation, and the captain, with a readiness born of his adventures of the last year, promptly vanished down the forecastle as Miss Tyrell appeared on deck. Joe closed the scuttle, and with despair gnawing at his vitals sat on it.

Unconscious of the interest she was exciting, Poppy Tyrell, who had tired of the solitude of the cabin, took a seat on a camp-stool, and, folding her hands in her lap, sat enjoying the peace and calm of the summer evening. Joe saw defeat in the very moment of victory; even while he sat, the garrulous Tommy might be revealing State secrets to the credulous Flower.

"Get her down below," he whispered, fiercely, to Mr. Green. "Quick!"

His friend stared at him aghast, but made no movement. He looked at the unconscious Poppy, and then back at the mouthing figure seated on the scuttle. His brain was numbed. Then a little performance on Charlie's part a week or two before, which had cost that gentleman his berth, occurred to him, and he moved slowly forward.

For a moment the astonished Joe gazed at him in wrathful bewilderment; then his brow cleared, and his old estimate of his friend was revived again. Mr. Green lurched rather than walked, and, getting as far as the galley, steadied himself with one hand, and stood, with a foolish smile, swaying lightly in the breeze. From the galley he got with great care to the side of the ship opposite Poppy, and, clutching the shrouds, beamed on her amiably. The girl gave one rapid glance at him and then, as he tottered to the wheel and hung on by the spokes, turned her head away. What it cost the well-bred Mr. Green to stagger as he came by her again and then roll helplessly at her feet, will never be known, and he groaned in spirit as the girl, with one scornful glance in his direction, rose quietly and went below again.

Satisfied that the coast was clear, he rose to his feet and signalled hurriedly to Joe, then he mounted sentry over the companion, grinning feebly at the success of his manoeuvres as he heard a door closed and locked below.

"You pull me round to the wharf, Joe," said Flower, as he tumbled hurriedly into the boat. "I don't want to run into Fraser, and I just want to give old George the tip to keep quiet for a day or two."

The seaman obeyed readily, and exchanged a triumphant glance with Mr. Green as they shot by the steamer's stern. His invention was somewhat tried by Flower's questions on the way to the wharf, but he answered them satisfactorily, and left him standing on the jetty imparting to George valuable thoughts on the maxim that speech is silver and silence golden.

Joe tried a few of the principal points with Tommy upon his return to the steamer, the necessity for using compliments instead of threats to a ship's boy being very galling to his proud nature.

"You be a good boy like you always 'ave been, Tommy," he said, with a kindly smile, "and don't breathe a word about wot's 'appened this evening, and 'ere's a tanner for you to spend—a whole tanner."

Tommy bit it carefully, and, placing it in his pocket, whistled thoughtfully.

"Fill your pipe out o' that, young 'un," said Mr. Green, proffering his pouch with a flourish.

The boy complied, and putting a few reserve charges in his pocket, looked up at him shrewdly.

"Is it very partikler?" he enquired, softly.

"Partikler!" repeated Joe. "I should think it is. He can't think 'ow partikler it is, can 'e, Will-yum?"

Mr. Green shook his head.

"It's worth more than a tanner then," said Tommy, briskly.

"Look 'ere," said Joe, suppressing his natural instincts by a strong effort. "You keep quiet for three days, and I'll be a friend to you for life. And so will Will-yum, won't you, old man?"

Mr. Green, with a smile of rare condescension, said that he would.

"Look 'ere," said the bargainer, "I'll tell you what I'll do for you: you gimme another tanner each instead, and that's letting you off cheap, 'cos your friendship 'ud be worth pounds and pounds to anybody what wanted it."

He gazed firmly at his speechless, would-be friends and waited patiently until such time as their emotion would permit of a reply. Joe was the first to speak, and Tommy listened unmoved to a description of himself which would have made a jelly-fish blush.

"Tanner each," he said, simply; "I don't want friends who can talk like that to save sixpence."

Mr. Green, with a sarcasm which neither Tommy nor Joe understood, gave him the amount in coppers. His friend followed suit, and the boy, having parted with his reputation at a fair price, went below, whistling.

Fraser came on board soon afterwards, and Mr. Green, with his celebrated drunken scene fresh in his mind, waited nervously for developments. None ensuing, he confided to Joe his firm conviction that Miss Tyrell was a young lady worth dying for, and gloomily wondered whether Fraser was good enough for her. After which, both men, somewhat elated, fell to comparing head-pieces.

Joe was in a state of nervous tension while steam was getting up, and, glued to the side of the steamer, strained his eyes, gazing at the dimly-lit stairs. As they steamed rapidly down the river his spirits rose, and he said vaguely that something inside him seemed to tell him that his trouble would not be in vain.

"There's two days yet," said Mr. Green. "I wish they was well over."

Captain Flower, who had secured a bed at the Three Sisters' Hotel in Aldgate, was for widely different reasons wishing the same thing. His idea was to waylay Fraser immediately after the marriage and obtain Poppy's address, his natural vanity leading him to believe that Miss Tipping would at once insist upon a change of bridegroom, if she heard of his safety before the ceremony was performed. In these circumstances, he had to control his impatience as best he could, and with a view to preventing his safety becoming known too soon, postponed writing to his uncle until the day before the wedding.


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