The Skipper's Wooing

by W. W. Jacobs

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To the cook's relief he found that the Seamew's next voyage was to a little port on the West Coast named Cocklemouth, calling at the garrison town of Bymouth on the way. He told Sam that it was a load off his mind, and showed clearly by his manner that he expected the syndicate at least to accept his story. They spent most of their time in the galley, where, secure from money-grubbing eavesdroppers, they matured their plans over the washing of potatoes and the scouring of saucepans. "On the Trail" was remarkably clever, and they obtained many helpful suggestions from it, though the discovery that Henry had got hold of it, and had marked all the most valuable passages in lead pencil, caused them much anxiety.

The syndicate were the first to get ashore the evening they arrived at Bymouth. They had come to the conclusion in their deliberations that the only possible place in which a retired mariner would spend his evenings was a public-house, and they resolved to do them thoroughly.

"The worst of it," said Sam, as they walked slowly together to the town, "is the drinkin'. Arter I've 'ad five or six pints, everybody looks to me like Cap'n Gething."

"We won't 'ave no drinkin'," said the cook. "We'll do wot the feller did in that story. 'Ave you got sixpence about you?"

"Wot for?" inquired Sam carefully.

"Workin' expenses," replied the cook, dwelling fondly on the phrase.

"That'll be thruppence each, then," said Sam, eyeing him suspiciously.

"Sixpence each," said the cook. "Now do you know what we're goin' to do?"

"Chuck money away," hazarded Sam as he reluctantly drew a sixpence from his pocket and handed it to the cook. "Where's your sixpence?"

The cook showed it to him, and Sam, whose faith in human nature had been largely shaken by a perusal of the detective story referred to, bit it critically.

"We can't go into pubs without drinkin' in the ordinary way," said the cook, "so we're goin' in to sell bootlaces, like the chap in the book did. Now do you see?"

"Why not try something cheaper first?" growled Sam—"measurin' footmarks, or over-'earing fellers talking? It's just like you, cookie, doin' expensive things."

Under the cook's glance of silent scorn he became first restive and then abusive, winding up finally by demanding his money back.

"Don't you be a fool!" said the cook coarsely. "You leave it to me."

"And get tied up in a chair with my own bootlaces p'raps," said the irritated seaman.

The cook, affecting not to hear him, looked out for a boot-shop, and having found one, walked in, followed by the discontented Sam, and purchased a shilling's-worth of laces.

"Wot am I to say?" demanded Sam surlily, as they stood outside, and the cook hung half a dozen laces over his arm.

"You needn't say anything," replied the cook. "Just walk in an' 'old 'em up in the people's faces, an' if anybody offers you a drink you may 'ave it."

"Thank you for nothin'," said Sam, with prophetic insight.

"You take all the pubs this side of the 'igh Street an' I'll take the other," said the cook. "And if you look as cheerful as you look now you ought to take a lot o' money."

He turned away, and with a farewell caution against drinking, set off. The stout seaman, with a strong distaste for his job, took the laces in his hand and bent his steps in the direction of a small but noisy tavern in the next street. The public bar was full, and Sam's heart failed him as he entered it, and, bearing the cook's instructions in mind, held up his wares to the customers. Most of them took no notice, and the only man who said anything to him was a red-nosed sergeant of marines, who, setting his glass with great deliberation on the counter, gazed fixedly at a dozen laces crawling over his red sleeve. His remarks, when he discovered their connection with Sam, were of a severe and sweeping character, and contained not the slightest reference to a drink.

In the next bar he met a philanthropist who bought up his whole stock-in-trade. The stout seaman was utterly unprepared for such kindness, and stood looking at him dumbly, his lips all a-tremble with naughty words.

"There, there," said his benefactor kindly. "Never mind about thanking me."

Sam obeyed him easily, and departing in silence, went off raving to the nearest boot-shop to buy more laces. Taught by experience, he put some of his new stock in his pocket, and with a couple of pairs in his hand, entered the next tavern on his beat.

The bar was pretty full, but he pushed his way in, and offering his wares in a perfunctory fashion, looked round carefully for any signs of Captain Gething.

"Outside!" said a smart barmaid with a toss of her head as she caught sight of him.

"I'm goin', miss," said Sam, blushing with shame. Hitherto most barmaids had treated him with kindness, and in taverns where his powers were known, usually addressed him as "sir."

"Down on your luck, mate?" said a voice as he turned to go.

"Starvin', sir," said Sam, who was never one to trouble about appearances.

"Sit down," said his new friend, with a nod at the barmaid, who was still regarding the seaman in a hostile fashion.

Sam sat down and mentally blessed the reservation regarding free drinks as his benefactor turned to the bar and gave his order. His eyes beamed softly with a mixture of gratitude and amusement as his new friend came back with a pint of ale and half a loaf of bread.

"Get through that, old chap," said the man as he handed him the bread; "and there's some more where that came from."

He sat down opposite, and taking a long pull at the pewter, watched with a kind smile to see the famished seaman eat. He noted as a strange fact that starving men nibble gently at the outside crust first, and then start on small, very small, mouthfuls of crumb, instinct rather than reason probably warning them of the dangers of a surfeit.

For a few minutes Sam, with one eye on the pewter and the other on the door, struggled to perform his part. Then he rose, and murmuring broken thanks, said he would take some home to his wife and children.

"Never mind your wife and children," said his benefactor, putting down the empty pewter. "You eat that up and I'll give you a couple of loaves to take home to them."

"My 'art's too full to eat," said Sam, getting a little nearer the door.

"He means his stomach," said a stern but youthful voice which the unhappy seaman knew only too well. He turned smartly and saw the face of Henry peering over the partition, and beside it the grinning countenance of Dick.

"He was on our ship this afternoon," continued his youthful tormentor as he scrambled still higher up the partition, and getting one arm over, pointed an accusing finger at Sam, who had been pushed back into his seat. "We gave him a lovely dinner, an' arter he'd eat it he went off on the quiet in one of our chaps' clothes."

"That's right, mates," said the delighted Dick, nodding at the audience.

"One of our chaps named Sam," went on Henry—"one of the best an' kindest 'earted chaps that ever breathed."

"Regular brick he is," assented Dick.

"Fine, big 'ansome man, he is," said Henry, "and this chap's got his clothes on."

The customers gazed sternly at Sam as he sat open-mouthed listening to these fulsome but untimely praises. In every gathering there is sure to be one or two whose self-imposed mission it is to right wrongs, and one of this type present at once suggested returning the clothes to the rightful owner. His suggestion was adopted with enthusiasm, and a dozen men closed round the hapless Sam.

"Outside, gentlemen, please," said the barmaid hastily.

They went out in a cluster, the stout seaman in the centre fighting like a madman, and nearly overturning three soldiers who were passing. Two of them were named Murphy and one O'Sullivan, and the riot that ensued took three policemen and a picket to subdue. Sam, glad of a chance to get away, only saw the beginning of it, and consumed by violent indignation, did not pause until he had placed half a dozen streets between himself and the scene of his discomfiture.

He had no intention of breaking faith with the cook, but he had a pint and thought that circumstances justified it. Then he walked slowly up and down the street a little while, debating whether he should continue the search or return to the schooner. For a time he strolled on aimlessly, and then, resolving not to be defeated by the impertinences of Dick and the boy, paused before a high-class tavern and went in. Two or three well-dressed men, whose behavior contrasted favorably with that of the vulgar crew he had just left, shook their heads, but not unkindly, and he was about to leave when a big, black-bearded man entered.

"That's a poor game," said the big man, glancing at the laces.

"Yes, sir," said Sam humbly.

"You look as if you thrive on it," said the man, somewhat sternly.

"It's only looks, sir," said Sam, shaking his head as he walked to the door.

"Drink, I s'pose," said the other.

"No, sir," said Sam.

"When did you taste food last?" continued the other.

"Yesterday morning," said Sam, clearing a soft piece of bread from his teeth with his tongue.

"Could you take something?" inquired the other.

Sam smiled expectantly and took a seat. He heard his new friend order a pot, and wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, tried to think of something nice to say as he drank it. Then his blood froze in his veins, and his jaw dropped as the other came from the counter and held out half a loaf.

"There, my man," he said kindly, "put that inside you."

Sam took it and tried to put it into his pocket, and repeating his old tale about taking it home to the children, rose to depart.

"You eat that, and I'll give you a couple of loaves to take home to them," said the other.

The bread fell from Sam's nerveless fingers and rolled on to the floor. A bystander picked it up, and wiping it on his coat, returned it to him.

"Go on," said the big man, taking a deep draught of his beer—"eat away."

"I must see my children eat first," said Sam in a broken voice.

"You eat that bread or I'll call a policeman and give you in charge," said the other, raising his voice. "I believe you're an impostor. Where's your hawker's license?"

In a state bordering upon frenzy Sam bit off a piece of the bread and tried to swallow it. He took up a water-bottle and drank some of the contents, and within five minutes had swallowed as many mouthfuls.

"Go on," said the donor sternly.

"I won't," said Sam fiercely; "damned if I will!"

The other rose and went to the door. "Just step this way a minute, constable," he said quietly.

He stood aside, and, as Sam paused with the bread in his hand, the door opened and Dick and Henry entered, and shaking their heads, gazed sorrowfully upon him. The big man sat down and laughed until he cried as Sam, realizing the plot of which he had been the victim, flung the bread at Henry and made for the door. He went down the road mad with indignation, and with a firm resolve to have no more to do with bootlaces, pitched them away.

"Hallo, Sam!" cried a figure from the other side of the road. "Any luck?"

Sam shook his head speechlessly.

"You've been drinkin," said the cook as he came over.

"I ain't," said Sam. Then a base idea occurred to him, and he took the other by the arm.

"There's a pub down here, cook," he said in a trembling voice, "an' there's an old chap there I can't be certain of. S'pose you go an' have a look at 'im."

"Which one?" inquired his innocent friend.

Full of a great joy, Sam led him to the place of his mortification, and waiting until he was fairly in, stood listening behind the door.

"Why don't they speak up?" he said crossly, as a low, indistinct murmuring reached him. He strained his ears intently, but could not catch anything, and losing all patience, was just about to push the door open and peep in when he heard a roar of laughter. Peal upon peal sounded until the bar shook with it, and an expression of peace and rest came over his face as he pictured the scene inside.

"Don't," said the cook's voice feebly.

There was another roar of laughter, to which Sam grinned a silent accompaniment.

"You'll kill me," said the cook again, in a choking voice.

"No worse for you than for me, my lad," said Sam, with great content.

There was another roar in which Sam, to his amazement, fancied that the cook joined. He was still listening in a state of maddening perplexity when he heard the cook's voice again.

"Poor old Sam!" it said distinctly. "Poor old Sam! I'd 'ave given anythin' to 'ave seen him."

The listener stiffened up suddenly and, holding his breath, went off on tiptoe down the street, the sounds of the foolish mirth in the bar ringing in his ears as he went. His brain was in a whirl, but two definite objects shaped themselves in his mind as he walked fiercely on—to smash first the syndicate, and then the cook. With these ideas firmly fixed he went aboard again, and going into the lonely foc'sle, climbed into his bunk and forgot his sorrows in sleep—in a sleep so sound that the others, upon their return an hour later, failed to wake him, until Henry, as a last expedient, threw a slice of bread at him. After which everybody had to keep awake all night to mount guard over their lives.


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