The Skipper's Wooing

by W. W. Jacobs

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They got under way at four o'clock next morn-ing, and woke the cook up to assist at 3.30. At 3.45 they woke him again, and at 3.50 dragged him from his bunk and tried to arouse him to a sense of his duties. The cook, with his eyes still closed, crawled back again the moment they left him, and though they had him out twice after that, he went back in the same somnambulistic state and resumed his slumbers.

Brittlesea was thirty miles astern when he at length awoke and went on deck, and the schooner was scudding along under a stiff breeze. It was a breeze such as the mate loved, and his face was serene and peaceful until his gaze fell upon the shrinking figure of the cook as it glided softly into the galley.

"Cook," he roared, "come here, you skulking rascal! Where've you been all this time?"

"I've been in trouble, sir," said the cook humbly; "you'll 'ardly believe the trouble I've been in through trying to do the skipper a kindness."

"Don't you come none of that with me," roared the mate warningly. "Where've you been? Come, out with it!"

The cook, still somewhat weak from his adventures, leaned against the companion, and with much dramatic gesture began his story. As it proceeded the mate's breath came thick and fast, his color rose, and he became erratic in his steering. Flattered by these symptoms of concern, the cook continued.

"That'll do," said the mate at last.

"I ain't got to the worst of it yet, sir," said the cook.

"If you stand there lying to me for another moment I'll break your neck," said the mate violently. "You've had two days on the drink, that's what you've had."

"It's gawspel truth, sir," said the cook solemnly.

"You wait till the skipper turns out," said the other, shaking his fist at him. "If it wasn't for leaving the wheel I'd set about you myself, my lad."

To the cook's indignation the skipper shared the opinions of the mate concerning his story, and in a most abrupt and unfeeling fashion stopped two days' pay. Down in the foc'sle he fared no better, the crew's honest tribute of amazement to his powers of untruthful narrative passing all bounds of decorum.

Their incredulity was a source of great grief to him. He had pictured himself posing as a daredevil, and he went about his duties with a chastened mien, mistaken by the men, experts in such matters, for the reaction after a drinking bout.

They passed Northfleet on their way up to Rotherhithe, where they went to discharge a small general cargo, the cook's behavior every time a police-boat passed them coming in for much scornful censure. It was some hours before he would go ashore, and when at last he did venture, it was with the reckless air of a Robert Macaire and a Dick Turpin rolled into one.

It was a damp, cheerless morning when they got to Northfleet again. It had been raining heavily in the night, and black clouds still hung low over the river. They were not to load until the next day, and after dinner Henry and the mate exchanged a sympathetic smile as the skipper took up his cap and went ashore.

He walked into Gravesend, and taking no notice of the rain, which was falling steadily, strolled idly about looking into the shop windows. He had a romantic idea that he might meet Annis Gething there. It was half-holiday at the school, and it was the most natural thing in the world that she should be sauntering about Gravesend in the pouring rain. At about four o'clock, being fairly wet through, he saw the fallacy of the idea strongly, and in a disconsolate fashion, after one glass at a convenient tavern, turned to go back to the ship. A little way along the road he stepped aside to allow a girl to pass, glancing—by mere force of habit—beneath her umbrella as he did so. Then he started back guiltily as his eyes met those of Miss Gething. She half stopped.

"Good-afternoon," said the skipper awkwardly.

"Good-afternoon," said she.

"Nasty weather," said the skipper, standing respectfully three yards off.

"Wretched," said Miss Gething. "Ugh!"

"I don't mind it much myself," said the skipper.

"You must be very wet," said Miss Gething. "You are going to see mother, I suppose?"

"I did think of doing so," said the skipper with joyous untruthfulness.

"I'm going to do a little shopping," said she. "Good-bye."

She nodded brightly, and the skipper, raising his cap, turned on his heel and set off to pay the call. He turned his head several times as he went, but Miss Gething, who knew more of men than the skipper knew of women, did not turn hers.

A quarter of an hour's brisk walk brought him to the house, and he shook the rain from his cap as he knocked gently at the door. It was opened by a man, who, standing with his hand on the lock regarded him inquiringly.

"Mrs. Gething in?" asked the skipper.

"No, she's not just at present," said the other.

"I'll come in and wait for her if you don't mind," said the skipper, speaking on the spur of the moment.

The other hesitated, and then standing aside to allow him to pass, closed the door, and they entered the small parlor together. The skipper, with a courage which surprised himself, took a chair uninvited and began to wipe his trousers with his handkerchief.

"I'm afraid Mrs. Gething will be a long time," said the other man at last.

"I'll give her a few minutes," said the skipper, who would have sat there a week with pleasure.

He rubbed his moustache and beard with his handkerchief and put them into shape with his fingers. The other man regarded these operations with an unfavorable eye, and watched him uneasily.

"No message you could leave for Mrs. Gething," he suggested, after a quarter of an hour.

The skipper shook his head, and in his turn took stock of the other man—a good-looking fellow with a waxed black moustache, a light silk tie and a massive scarf-pin. A frock-coat hung about his knees, and shoes of the lightest brown called attention to his small feet.

Another quarter of an hour passed. "Wet day," said the skipper, by way of starting the conversation again.

The other assented, and remarked that he thought it very probable that the wet would prevent Mrs. Gething from returning, whereupon conversation languished until the sound of hurried footsteps outside, and the turning of a key in the latch, made them both look up.

"Here she is," said the skipper softly.

The other man said nothing, feeling possibly that the entrance of Miss Gething was sufficient refutation of the statement. He was also in anything but a talkative mood.

"Mother not in?" said Miss Gething in surprise as she entered the room. "How good of you to wait, captain."

"Oh, it's no trouble," said the skipper, who really thought that there was no credit due to him for his action.

She shook hands with the other man and smiled at the skipper. "I've seen you before," she said, "and it is good of you to wait. I'm sure you're very wet. This is Mr. Glover, Captain Wilson."

The two gentlemen glared their acknowledgments, and the skipper, with a sinking at his heart, began to feel in the way. Miss Gething, after going outside to remove her hat and jacket, came in smiling pleasantly, and conversation became general, the two men using her as a sort of human telephone through which to transmit scanty ideas.

"Half-past five," said Miss Gething suddenly. "Have you got to catch the 6.30 train, Mr. Glover?"

"Must," said Mr. Glover dismally. "Business, you know," he added resignedly.

"You'll take a cup of tea before you go?" said Annis.

She was standing before Mr. Glover as she spoke, and the skipper, who had been feeling more and more in the way, rose and murmured that he must go. His amazement when Miss Gething twisted her pretty face into a warning scowl and shook her head at him, was so great that Mr. Glover turned suddenly to see the cause of it.

"You'll take a cup, too, captain?" said Miss Gething with a polite smile.

"Thank you," said the skipper, resuming his seat. His ideas were in a whirl, and he sat silent as the girl deftly set the tea-table and took her seat before the tray.

"Quite a tea-party," she said brightly. "One piece of sugar, Mr. Glover?"

"Two," said the gentleman in an injured voice.

She looked inquiringly at the skipper with the sugar-tongs poised.

"I'll leave it to you," said he confusedly. Mr. Glover smiled contemptuously, and raised his eye-brows a little. Miss Gething dropped in one piece and handed him the cup.

"Sometimes I take one piece, sometimes two or three," said the skipper, trying to explain away his foolishness. "I'm not particular."

"You must be of an easy-going nature," said Miss Gething indulgently.

"Don't know his own mind, I should think," said Mr. Glover rudely.

"I know it about other things," said the skipper.

The tone in which this remark was made set Mr. Glover wondering darkly what the other things were. Neither man was disposed to be talkative, and tea would have proceeded in sombre silence but for the hostess. At ten minutes past six Mr. Glover rose and with great unwillingness said he must go.

"It isn't raining much now," said Miss Gething encouragingly. Mr. Glover went to the hall, and taking his hat and umbrella, shook hands with her. Then he came to the door again, and looked at the skipper. "Going my way?" he inquired with great affability, considering.

"Er—no," said the other.

Mr. Glover put on his hat with a bang, and with a curt nod followed Miss Gething to the door and departed.

"I think he'll catch the train all right," said the skipper, as Miss Gething watched his feverish haste from the window.

"I hope so," said she.

"I'm sorry your mother wasn't in," said the skipper, breaking a long pause.

"Yes, it has been dull for you, I'm afraid," said the girl.

The skipper sighed wearily and wondered whether Mr. Glover was such an adept at silly remarks as he appeared to be.

"Has he got far to go?" he inquired, referring to Mr. Glover.

"London," said Annis briefly.

She stood at the window for some time, gazing up the road with what appeared to be an expression of anxious solicitude.

"Well, I suppose I must be going," said the skipper, who thought he ought not to stay any longer.

Annis stood aside as he rose, and followed him slowly to the hall.

"I wish we had an umbrella to lend you," she said, looking round.

"Oh, that'll be all right," said the skipper. "I'm nearly dry now."

"Dry?" said Annis. She put her little hand on his coat-sleeve.

"Oh, you're soaking," she said in dismay. "The idea of me letting you sit about in that state!"

"That sleeve is the worst," said the skipper, whom circumstances had made artful. "It's all right here."

He brushed his hand down his coat.

"That's a good thing," said Annis politely.

"Um, but not here," said the skipper, squeezing the lapel of his coat.

Annis touched his coat lightly.

"You're very wet," she said severely; "you ought not to sit about in such things. Wait a moment. I'll get you a great-coat of my father's."

She sped lightly up the stairs, and returning with a long, heavy coat, held it out to him.

"That'll keep you dry," she remarked as the skipper, after a few slight remonstrances, began to put it on. She held the other sleeve up for him and watched, with the satisfaction of a philanthropist, as he buttoned it up. Then she opened the door.

"You'll give my respects to Mrs. Gething?" said the skipper.

"Certainly. She'll be sorry she wasn't in. Are you staying here long?"

"About three days."

Annis pondered.

"She's going out to-morrow," she said tentatively.

"I shall be in the town the day after on business," said the skipper. "If it wouldn't be troubling you I might look in. Good-bye."

He shook hands confusedly, wondering whether he had gone too far; and, as the door closed behind him, put his hands in Captain Gething's pockets and went off in a brown study. Slowly and distinctly as he went along the various things grouped themselves together in his mind, and he began to think aloud.

"She knew her mother was out when she met me," he said slowly. "She knew that other fellow was here; but one would have thought—Lovers' tiff," he said suddenly and bitterly; "and doing the pleasant to me to make him smart a bit. He'll be round to-morrow when the mother's out."

He went back dejectedly to his ship, and countermanding the tea with which the zealous Henry was about to indulge him, changed his clothes and sat down to smoke.

"You've got a bit wet," said the mate. "Where'd you get the coat?"

"Friend," said the other. "Had it lent to me. You know that Captain Gething I told you to look out for?"

"I do," said the other eagerly.

"Let the crew know that the reward is raised to five pounds," said the skipper, drawing strongly at his pipe.

"If the reward is riz to five pounds the cook'll be 'ung for murder or som'think," said Henry. "It's no use lookin' to the crew for 'elp, sir—not a bit."

The skipper deigned no reply, and his message having been conveyed to the foc'sle, a scene of intense animation prevailed there.

"I'm goin' to have a go now," said Dick emphatically. "Five pounds is worth picking up."

"I only 'ope as you won't 'ave the treat I 'ad," said the cook feelingly.

"Wot we want," said fat Sam, "is one o' them things people 'ave in the City—one o' the 'er what d'yer call 'ems."

"'Ansom keb?" suggested the cook.

"'Ansom keb be damned!" said Sam scornfully.

"One of them things wot 'as a lot o' people in, I mean."

"Tramcars," said the cook, who was all at sea. "But you couldn't take a tramcar all over the country, Sam."

"If anybody was to ask me, I should say you was a silly fool," said Sam impatiently. "I mean one o' them things people puts their money in."

The wondering cook had got as far as "automatic mach—" when Henry jostled him into silence.

"Wot are you gettin' at?" said Dick. "Why don't you talk plain?"

"'Cos I can't remember the word," said Sam angrily; "but a lot o' people gets together and goes shares."

"You mean a syndikit," said Dick.

"That's the word," said Sam, with relief.

"Well, wot's the good of it?" said Dick.

"This way," said Sam; "we make up a syndikit and divide the money when 'e's found. It 'ud be a cruel thing, Dick, if, just as you'd spotted your man, I wos to come along and snap 'im up under your werry nose, for instance—"

"You'd better try it," said Dick grimly.

"It's a very good idea o' yours, Sam," said the cook. "I'll join it."

"You'd better come in, Dick," said Sam.

"Not me," said Dick; "it's five pounds I'm after."

"We shall beworkin' agin you, you know, me an' the cook an' the boy," said Sam anxiously.

"Ho!" said Henry, "don't think I'm takin' a 'and, cos I'm not."

"Werry good, then," said Sam, "the—the——what d'ye call it, Dick?"

"Syndikit," said Dick.

"The syndikit is me and the cook, then," said Sam. "Give us your 'and, cook."

In this informal way the "Captain Gething Search Company" was founded, and the syndicate, thinking that they had a good thing, began to hold aloof from their fellows, and to confer darkly in remote corners. They expended a shilling on a popular detective story entitled, "On the Trail," and an element of adventure was imported into their lives which brightened them considerably.

The following day the skipper spent hard at work with the cargo, bustling about with feverish energy as the afternoon wore on and left him to imagine his rival tête-à-tête with Annis. After tea a reaction set in, and, bit by bit the mate, by means of timely sympathy, learnt all that there was to know. Henry, without a display of anything, except, perhaps, silence, learnt it too.

"It's in your favor that it's your own craft," said the mate; "you can go where you like. If you find the father, she might chuck the other feller."

"That isn't my object in finding him," said the skipper. "I just want to find him to oblige her."

He set off the following afternoon followed by the stealthy glances of the crew, who had heard something from Henry, and, first getting his beard trimmed at a barber's, walked along to call on Mrs. Gething. She was in, and pleased to see him, and hearing that his crew were also searching, supplied him with another photograph of the missing captain.

"Miss Gething well?" inquired the skipper as, after accepting an invitation to a cup of tea, he noticed that she only laid for two.

"Oh, yes; she's gone to London," said Mrs. Gething. "She's got friends there, you know."

"Mr. Glover," said the skipper to himself with dismal intuition. "I met a friend here the day before yesterday," he said aloud.

"Oh, yes—Mr. Glover," said the old lady; "a man in a very good position. He's very nice, isn't he?"

"Splendid," murmured the skipper vaguely.

"He would do anything for her," said the fond mother. "I'm sure it's quite touching the way he looks after her."

"Going to be married soon?" queried the skipper.

He knew it was a rude question for a comparative stranger to ask, but he couldn't help it.

"When my husband is found," said the old lady, shaking her head sadly. "She won't marry till then."

The skipper sat back in his chair, and pushing his plate from him, pondered over this latest piece of information. It seemed at first an excellent reason for not finding Captain Gething, but the idea had hardly occurred to him before he dismissed it as unworthy, and manfully resolved to do his best. For an hour he sat listening to the somewhat prosy talk of the old lady, and then—there being no sign of Annis's return—he silently departed and made his way back to the Seamew.


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