The Skipper's Wooing

by W. W. Jacobs

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They made Brittlesea in four days—days in which the skipper, a prey to gentle melancholy, left things mostly to the mate. Whereupon melancholia became contagious, and Sam's concertina having been impounded by the energetic mate, disaffection reared its ugly head in the foc'sle and called him improper names when he was out of earshot.

They entered the small river on which stands the ancient town of Brittlesea at nightfall. Business for the day was over. A few fishermen, pipe in mouth, lounged upon the quay, while sounds of revelry, which in some mysterious way reminded the crew of their mission to find Captain Gething, proceeded from the open doors of a small tavern opposite. The most sanguine of them hardly expected to find him the first time; but, as Sam said, the sooner they started the better. For all they knew he might be sitting in that very public-house waiting to be found.

They went ashore a little later and looked for him there, but without success. All they did find was a rather hot-tempered old man, who, irritated by the searching scrutiny of the cook, asked him shortly whether he had lost anything, because, if so, and he, the cook, thought he was sitting on it, perhaps he'd be good enough to say so. The cook having replied in fitting terms, they moved off down the quay to the next tavern. Here they fared no better, Dick declaring that the beer was if anything worse than the other, and that nobody who had lived in the place any time would spend his money there. They therefore moved on once more, and closing time came before their labors were half completed.

"It's quite a little romans," said Sam thickly, as he was pushed outside the last house of call, and a bolt shot desolately behind him. "Where shall we go now?"

"Get back to the ship," said Dick; "come along."

"Not 'fore I foun' 'im," said Sam solemnly, as he drew back from Dick's detaining hand.

"You won't find him to-night, Sam," said the cook humorsomely.

"Why not?" said Sam, regarding him with glassy eyes. "We came out fin' 'im!"

"Cos it's dark, for one thing," said the cook.

Sam laughed scornfully.

"Come on!" said Dick, catching him by the arm again.

"I come out fin' cap'n, cap'n—fin' 'im," said Sam. "I'm not goin' back 'thout 'im."

He rolled off down the road, and the two men, the simple traditions of whose lives forbade them to leave a shipmate when in that condition, followed him, growling. For half an hour they walked with him through the silent streets of the little town. Dick with difficulty repressing his impatience as the stout seaman bent down at intervals and thoroughly searched doorsteps and other likely places for the missing man. Finally, he stopped in front of a small house, walked on a little way, came back, and then, as though he had suddenly made up his mind, walked towards it.

"Hold him, cook!" shouted Dick, throwing his arms around him.

The cook flung his arms round Sam's neck, and the two men, panting fiercely, dragged him away.

"Now you come aboard, you old fool!" said Dick, losing his temper; "we've had enough o' your games."

"Leg go!" said Sam, struggling.

"You leave that knocker alone, then," said Dick warningly.

"'E's in there!" said Sam, nodding wisely at the house.

"You come back, you old fool!" repeated Dick. "You never 'ort to 'ave nothin' stronger than milk."

"Ole my coat, cookie!" said Sam, his manner changing suddenly to an alarming sternness.

"Don't be a fool, Sam!" said the cook entreatingly.

"'Ole my coat!" repeated Sam, eyeing him haughtily.

"You know you haven't got a coat on," said the cook appealingly. "Can't you see it's a jersey? You ain't so far gone as all that!"

"Well, 'ole me while I take it off," said Sam, sensibly.

Against his better sense the cook steadied the stout seaman while he proceeded to peel, Dick waited until the garment—a very tight one—was over his head, and then, pushing the cook aside, took his victim and made him slowly gyrate on the pavement.

"Turn round three times and catch who you can, Sam," he said cruelly. "Well, sit down, then."

He lowered him to the pavement, and, accompanied by the cook, drew off and left him to his fate. Their last glance showed them a stout, able-bodied seaman, with his head and arms confined in a jersey, going through contortions of an extraordinary nature to free himself, and indulging in language which, even when filtered by the garment in question, was of a singularly comprehensive and powerful description. He freed himself at last, and after flinging the garment away in his anger, picked it up again, and, carrying it under his arm, zigzagged his way back to the ship.

His memory when he awoke next morning was not quite clear, but a hazy recollection of having been insulted led him to treat Dick and the cook with marked coldness, which did not wear off until they were all busy on deck. Working at cement is a dry job, and, after hardening his heart for some time, the stout seaman allowed the cook to call him to the galley and present him with a mug of cold coffee left from the cabin table.

The cook washed the mug up, and, preferring the dusty deck to the heat of the fire, sat down to wash a bowl of potatoes. It was a task which lent itself to meditation, and his thoughts, as he looked wistfully at the shore, reverted to Captain Gething and the best means of finding him. It was clear that the photograph was an important factor in the search, and, possessed with a new idea, he left the potatoes and went down to the cabin in search of it. He found it on a shelf in the skipper's state-room, and, passing up on deck again, stepped ashore.

From the first three people he spoke to he obtained no information whatever. They all inspected the photograph curiously and indulged in comments, mostly unfavorable, but all agreed that there was nobody like it in Brittlesea. He had almost given it up as a bad job, and was about to return, when he saw an aged fisherman reclining against a post.

"Fine day, mate," said the cook.

The old man courteously removed a short clay pipe from his puckered mouth in order to nod, and replacing it, resumed his glance seaward.

"Ever seen anybody like that?" inquired the cook, producing the portrait.

The old man patiently removed the pipe again, and taking the portrait, scanned it narrowly.

"It's wonderful how they get these things up nowadays," he said in a quavering voice; "there was nothing like that when you an' me was boys."

"There 'as been improvements," admitted the cook indignantly.

"All oils they was," continued the old man meditatively, "or crains."

"'Ave you ever seen anybody like that?" demanded the cook impatiently.

"Why, o' course I have. I'm goin' to tell you in a minute," said the old man querulously. "Let me see—what's his name again?"

"I don't know 'is name," said the cook untruth-fully.

"I should know it if I was to hear it," said the old man slowly. "Ah, I've got it! I've got it!"

He tapped his head triumphantly, and, with a bleared, shining old eye, winked at the cook.

"My memory's as good as ever it was," he said complacently. "Sometimes I forget things, but they come back. My mother used to be the same, and she lived to ninety-three."

"Lor!" interrupted the anxious cook. "What's the name?"

The old man stopped. "Drat it!" he said, with a worried look, "I've lost it again; but it'll come back."

The cook waited ten minutes for the prodigal. "It ain't Gething, I s'pose?" he said at length.

"No," said the old man; "don't you be in a hurry; it'll come back."

"When?" asked the cook rebelliously.

"It might be in five minutes' time, and it might be in a month," said the old man firmly, "but it'll come back."

He took the portrait from the hands of the now sulky cook and strove to jog his memory with it.

"John Dunn's his name," he cried suddenly. "John Dunn."

"Where does 'e live?" inquired the cook eagerly.

"Holebourne," said the old man—"a little place seven miles off the road."

"Are you sure it's the same," asked the cook in a trembling voice.

"Sartain," said the other firmly. "He come here first about six years ago, an' then he quarrelled with his landlord and went off to Holebourne."

The cook, with a flushed face, glanced along the quay to the schooner. Work was still proceeding amid a cloud of white dust, and so far his absence appeared to have passed unnoticed.

"If they want any dinner," he muttered, alluding to the powdered figures at work on the schooner, "they must get it for theirselves, that's all. Will you come and 'ave a drop, old man?"

The old man, nothing loath, assented, and having tasted of the cook's bounty, crawled beside him through the little town to put him on the road to Holebourne, and after seeing him safe, returned to his beloved post.

The cook went along whistling, thinking pleasantly of the discomfiture of the other members of the crew when they should discover his luck. For three miles he kept on sturdily, until a small signboard, projecting from between a couple of tall elms, attracted his attention to a little inn just off the road, at the porch of which a stout landlord sat on a wooden stool waiting for custom.

The cook hesitated a moment, and then marching slowly up, took a stool which stood opposite and ordered a pint.

The landlord rose and in a heavy, leisurely fashion, entered the house to execute the order, and returned carefully bearing a foaming mug.

"Take the top off," said the cook courteously.

The stout man, with a nod towards him, complied.

"'Ave a pint with me," said the cook, after a hasty glance into the interior, as the landlord handed him the mug. "You keep that one," he added.

The stout man drew another pint, and subsiding on to his stool with a little sigh, disposed himself for conversation.

"Taking a country walk?" he inquired.

The cook nodded. "Not all pleasure," he said importantly; "I'm on business."

"Ah, it's you fellows what make all the money," said the landlord. "I've only drawn these two pints this morning. Going far?"

"Holebourne," said the other.

"Know anybody there?" asked the landlord.

"Well, not exactly," said the cook; "I carn't say as I know 'im. I'm after a party o' the name o' Dunn."

"You won't get much out of him," said the landlady, who had just joined them. "He's a close un, he is."

The cook closed his eyes and smiled knowingly.

"There's a mystery about that man," said the landlady. "Nobody knows who he is or what he is, and he won't tell 'em. When a man's like that you generally know there's something wrong—leastways I do."

"Insulting, he is," said the landlord.

"Ah," said the cook, "'e won't insult me!"

"You know something about him?" said the landlady.

"A little," said the cook.

The landlord reached over to his wife, who bent her ear readily and dutifully towards him, and the cook distinctly caught the whispered word "'tec."

The landlady, after a curious glance at the cook, withdrew to serve a couple of wagoners who had drawn up at the door. Conversation became general, and it was evident that the wagoners shared the sentiments of the landlord and his wife with regard to Mr. Dunn. They regarded the cook with awe, and after proffering him a pint with respectful timidity, offered to give him a lift to Holebourne.

"I'd sooner go on my own," said the cook, with a glance at the wagons; "I want to get in the place quiet like and 'ave a look round before I do anythin'."

He sat there for some time resting, and evading as best he could the skilful questions of the landlady. The wagons moved off first, jolting and creaking their way to Holebourne, and the cook, after making a modest luncheon of bread and cheese and smoking a pipe, got on the road again.

"Look how he walks!" said the landlord, as the couple watched him up the road.

"Ah!" said his wife.

"Like a bloodhound," said the landlord impressively; "just watch him. I knew what he was directly I clapped eyes on him."

The cook continued his journey, unconscious of the admiration excited by his movements. He began to think that he had been a trifle foolish in talking so freely. Still, he had not said much, and if people liked to make mistakes, why, that was their business.

In this frame of mind he entered Holebourne, a small village consisting of a little street, an inn, and a church. At the end of the street, in front of a tidy little cottage with a well-kept front garden, a small knot of people were talking.

"Somethin' on," said the cook to himself as he returned with interest the stares of the villagers. "Which is Mr. Dunn's house, boy?"

"There it is, sir," said the boy, pointing to the house where the people were standing. "Are you the detective?"

"No," said the cook sharply.

He walked across to the house and opened the little garden gate, quite a little hum of excitement following him as he walked up to the door and knocked upon it with his knuckles.

"Come in," growled a deep voice.

The cook entered and carefully closed the door behind him. He found himself in a small sitting-room, the only occupant of which was an old man of forbidding aspect sitting in an easy chair with a newspaper open in his hand.

"What do you want?" he demanded, looking up.

"I want to see Mr. Dunn," said the cook nervously.

"I'm Mr. Dunn," said the other, waiting.

The cook's heart sank, for, with the exception of a beard, Mr. Dunn no more resembled the portrait than he did.

"I'm Mr. Dunn," repeated the old man, regarding him ferociously from beneath his shaggy eyebrows.

The cook smiled, but faintly. He tried to think, but the old man's gaze sent all the ideas out of his head.

"Oh, are you?" he said at length.

"I heard you were looking for me," said the old man, gradually raising his voice to a roar. "All the village knows it, I think, and now you've found me what the devil is it you want?"

"I—I think there's a mistake," stammered the cook.

"Oh," said the old man. "Ha! is there? Pretty detective you are. I'll bring an action against you. I'll have you imprisoned and dismissed the force."

"It's all a mistake," said the cook; "I'm not a detective."

"Come this way," said the old man, rising.

The cook followed him into a smaller room at the back.

"You're not a detective?" said the old man, as he motioned him to a seat. "I suppose you know that impersonating a detective is a serious offence? Just stay here while I fetch a policeman, will you?"

The cook said he wouldn't.

"Ah," said the old man with a savage grin, "I think you will." Then he went to the door and called loudly for "Roger."

Before the dazed cook of the Seamew could collect his scattered senses a pattering sounded on the stairs, and a bulldog came unobtrusively into the room. It was a perfectly bred animal, with at least a dozen points about it calling for notice and admiration, but all that the cook noticed was the excellent preservation of its teeth.

"Watch him, Roger," said the old man, taking a hat from a sideboard. "Don't let him move."

The animal growled intelligently, and sitting down a yard or two in front of the cook watched him with much interest.

"I'm sure I'm very sorry," muttered the cook. "Don't go away and leave me with this dog, sir."

"He won't touch you unless you move," said the old man.

The cook's head swam; he felt vaguely round for a subtle compliment. "I'd rather you stayed," he quavered, "I would indeed. I don't know any man I've took a greater fancy to at first sight."

"I don't want any of your confounded insolence," said the other sternly. "Watch him, Roger."

Roger growled with all the cheerfulness of a dog who had found a job which suited him, and his owner, after again warning the cook of what would happen if he moved out of the chair, left the room, shutting the door as he went. The cook heard the front door close behind him, and then all was silence, except for the strong breathing of Roger.

For some time the man and dog sat eyeing each other in silence, then the former, moistening his dry lips with his tongue, gave a conciliatory chirrup. Roger responded with a deep growl, and, rising to his feet, yawned expressively.

"Poor Roger!" said the cook in trembling accents, "poor old Rogy-wogy! Good old dog!"

The good old dog came a little nearer and closely inspected the cook's legs, which were knocking together with fright.

"Cats!" said the cook, pointing to the door as an idea occurred to him. "S-cat! Seize 'em, dog! seize 'em!"

"G-w-r-r," said Roger menacingly. The quivering limbs had a strange fascination for him, and coming closer he sniffed at them loudly.

In a perfect panic the cook, after glancing helplessly at the poker, put his hand gently behind him and drew his sheath-knife. Then, with a courage born of fear, he struck the dog suddenly in the body, and before it could recover from the suddenness of the attack, withdrew his knife and plunged it in again. The dog gave a choking growl and, game to the last, made a grab at the cook's leg, and missing it, rolled over on the floor, giving a faint kick or two as the breath left its body.

It had all happened so quickly that the cook, mechanically wiping his blade on the tablecloth, hardly realized the foulness of the crime of which he had been guilty, but felt inclined to congratulate himself upon his desperate bravery. Then as he realized that, in addition to the offence for which the choleric Mr. Dunn was even now seeking the aid of the law, there was a dead bulldog and a spoiled carpet to answer for, he resolved upon an immediate departure. He made his way to the back door, and sheathing his knife, crept stealthily down the garden, and clambered over the fence at the bottom. Then, with his back to the scene of the murder, he put up his hands and ran.

He crossed two fields and got on to a road, his breath coming painfully as he toiled along with an occasional glance behind him. It was uphill, but he kept on until he had gained the top, and then he threw himself down panting by the side of the road with his face turned in the direction of Holebourne. Five minutes later he started up again and resumed his flight, as several figures burst into the road from the village in hot pursuit.

For a little while he kept to the road, then, as the idea occurred to him that some of his pursuers might use a vehicle, he broke through the hedge and took to the fields. His legs gave way beneath him, and he stumbled rather than ran, but he kept on alternately walking and running until all signs of the pur-suit had ceased.


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