The Skipper's Wooing

by W. W. Jacobs

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The search at Bymouth obtained no further assistance from Sam. For the remainder of their stay there he hardly moved from the ship, preferring to smoke his pipe in peace on board to meeting certain jocular spirits ashore who wanted to buy bootlaces. Conversation with Dick and the boy he declined altogether, and it was not until they had reached Cocklemouth that he deigned to accept a pipe of tobacco from the cook's box.

Cocklemouth is a small lone place on the Welsh coast. When a large ship gets into the tiny harbor the inhabitants come down to see it, and the skippers of small craft pop up from their cabins and yell out to know where it's coming to. Even when they see it bound and guided by many hawsers they are not satisfied, but dangling fenders in an obtrusive fashion over the sides of their ships, prepare for the worst.

"We won't find 'im 'ere, cookie," said Sam, as the syndicate sat on deck on the evening of their arrival gazing contemplatively at the few scattered lights which appeared as twilight deepened into night. "Lonesome little place."

"I ain't got much 'ope of finding 'im anywhere," assented the cook.

"If it wasn't for fear of Dick finding 'im," said Sam viciously, "or the boy, I'd just give it up, cookie."

"If anybody finds 'im it'll be the skipper hisself," said the cook, lowering his voice as the person alluded to passed them on his way ashore. "He goes to the police station with the portrait and arsts them there. What chance 'ave we got after that?"

The seaman shook his head, and after sitting for some time in silence, went ashore with the cook and drank himself into a state of hopeless pessimism. In this condition he forgave everybody, and feeling very low, made his will by the simple process of giving his knife to Dick and two and sevenpence to Henry. The trouble he had in revoking it next morning furnished a striking illustration of the depths to which poor humanity can descend.

It was bright and fine next day, and after breakfast his spirits rose. The persistent tinkle of a cracked bell from a small brick church in the town, and the appearance of two girls walking along the quay with hymn-books, followed by two young men without, reminded him that it was Sunday.

The skipper, who was endeavoring to form new habits, obeyed the summons of the bell. The mate took a healthful walk of three miles, while the crew sat about the deck watching the cook's preparations for dinner, and occasionally lending him some slight assistance. It was not until the meal was despatched that they arrayed themselves in their Sunday clothes and went ashore.

Dick went first, having thoughtfully provided himself with the photograph which had been lent for the use of all of them. He walked at first into the town, but the bare shuttered shops and deserted streets worked upon his feelings, and with his hands in his pockets, he walked back in the direction of the harbor. Here he got into conversation with an elderly man of sedate aspect, and after a little general talk, beginning with the weather and ending with tobacco, he produced the photograph and broached the subject of Captain Gething.

"Well, I've seen a man very much like it," said his new friend after a prolonged study.

"Where?" asked Dick eagerly.

"I won't say it's the same man," said the other slowly, as he handed the portrait back, "but if it ain't him it's his brother."

"Where?" repeated Dick impatiently.

"Well, I don't know that I ought to interfere," said the man; "it ain't my business."

"If a bob would—" began Dick.

"It would," said the man, smiling as he pocketed it. "He lives at Piggott's Bay," he said impressively.

"And where might that be?" inquired the seaman.

The man turned and pointed across a piece of untidy waste ground to a coastguard's path which wound its way along the top of the cliffs.

"Follow that path as straight as you can go," said he.

"How far?" said Dick.

"Well, some people make a long journey of it, and some a short one," said the other oracularly. "Shall we say six miles?"

Dick said he would sooner say three.

"An easy six, then," said the man smiling indulgently. "Well, good-day to you."

"Good-day, mate," said Dick, and plunging into the débris before him, started on his walk.

It was unfortunate for him in the sequel that Sam and the cook, who had started out for a quiet stroll, without any intention of looking for Captain Gething, or any nonsense of that kind, had witnessed the interview from a distance. By dint of hurrying they overtook the elderly man of sedate aspect, and by dint of cross-questioning, elicited the cause of Dick's sudden departure.

"Which way is it?" inquired Sam.

"You follow him," said the man, indicating the figure in front as it slowly ascended the cliff, "and you'll be there as soon as he will."

The comfortable stroll was abandoned, and the couple, keeping at a respectful distance, followed their unconscious comrade. The day was hot, and the path, which sometimes ran along the top of the cliff and sometimes along the side of it, had apparently escaped the attention of the local County Council. No other person was in sight, and the only things that moved were a few sheep nibbling the short grass, which scampered off at their approach, and a gull or two poised overhead.

"We want to get there afore 'e does," said Sam, treading gingerly along a difficult piece of path.

"He'd see us if we ran along the beach," said the cook.

"We can't run on shingle," said Sam; "and it don't seem much good just gettin' there to see 'im find the cap'n, does it?"

"We must wait for an hoppertunity," said the cook.

Sam grunted.

"An' when it comes, seize it at once," continued the cook, who disapproved of the grunt.

They kept on for some time steadily, though Sam complained bitterly about the heat as he mopped his streaming brow.

"He's going down on to the beach," said the cook suddenly. "Make a spurt for it, Sam, and we'll pass him."

The stout seaman responded to the best of his ability, and arriving at the place where Dick had disappeared, flung himself down on the grass and lay there panting. He was startled by a cry of surprise from the cook.

"Come on, Sam," he said eagerly; "he's going in for a swim."

His friend moved to the edge of the cliff and looked over. A little heap of clothing lay just below him, and Dick was striding over the sands to the sea.

"Come on," repeated the cook impatiently; "we've got the start."

"I should laugh if somebody was to steal his clothes," said Sam vindictively as he gazed at the garments.

"Be all right for us if they did," said the cook; "we'd have plenty o' time to look around this 'ere Piggott's Bay then." He glanced at Sam as he spoke, and read his horrible purpose in his eyes. "No, no!" he said hastily.

"Not steal 'em, cookie," said Sam seductively, "only bury 'em under the shingle. I'll toss you who does it."

For sixty seconds the cook struggled gamely with the tempter.

"It's just a bit of a joke, cook," said Sam jovially. "Dick 'ud be the first to laugh at it hisself if it was somebody else's clothes." He spun a penny in the air, and covering it deftly, held it out to the cook.

"Heads!" said the latter softly.

"Tails!" said Sam cheerfully; "hurry up, cook."

The cook descended without a word, and hastily interring the clothes, not without an uneasy glance seaward, scrambled up the cliff again and rejoined his exultant accomplice. They set off in silence, keeping at some distance from the edge of the cliff.

"Business is business," said the cook after a time, "and he wouldn't join the syndikit."

"He was greedy, and wanted it all," said Sam with severity.

"P'raps it'll be a lesson to 'im," said the cook unctuously. "I took the bearings of the place in case 'e don't find 'em. Some people wouldn't ha' done that."

They kept on steadily for another hour, until at last they came quite suddenly upon a little fishing village situated on a tiny bay. Two or three small craft were anchored inside the stone pier, along which two or three small children, in all the restriction of Sunday clothes, were soberly pacing up and down.

"This must be it," said Sam. "Keep your eyes open, cook."

"What's the name o' this place, mate?" said Sam expectantly to an old salt who was passing.

"Stone-pen Quay," said the old man.

Sam's face fell. "How far is it to Piggott's Bay, then?" he inquired.

"To where?" said the old man, taking his pipe out of his mouth and staring hard.

"Piggott's Bay," said Sam.

"You don't tell me you're looking for Piggott's Bay," said the old man.

"Why not?" said Sam shortly.

Instead of replying the old man slapped his leg, and with his pipe cocked at one side of his mouth, laughed a thin senile laugh with the other.

"When you've done laughin'," said the cook with dignity.

"But I ain't," said the old man, removing his pipe and laughing with greater freedom. "They're looking for Piggott's Bay, Joe," he said, turning to a couple of fishermen who had just come up.

"What a lark!" said Joe, beaming with pleasure. "Come far?" he inquired.

"Cocklemouth," said Sam with a blank look. "When you've done laughin', what's the joke?"

"Why, there ain't no such place," said the man. "It's just a saying in these parts, that's all."

"Just a wot?" said the bewildered Sam faintly.

"It's just a saying like," said the other, exchanging glances with his friends.

"I don't take you," said the cook. "How can a place be a sayin'?"

"Well, it come through a chap about here named Captain Piggott," said the fisherman, speaking slowly. "He was a wonderful queer old chap, and he got out of his reckoning once, and made—ah, South Amerikey, warn't it, Dan?"

"I believe so," said the old man.

"He thought he'd found a new island," continued the fisherman, "an' he went ashore an' hoisted the Union Jack, and named it arter hisself, Piggott's Bay. Leastways that's the tale his chaps gave out when they come 'ome. Now when anybody's a bit out o' their reckoning we say they're looking for Piggott's Bay. It's just a joke about here."

He began to laugh again, and Sam, noting with regret that he was a big fellow and strong, turned away and followed in the footsteps of the cook, who had already commenced the ascent of the cliff. They paused at the top and looked back; Stone-pen Quay was still laughing.

Moved by a common idea of their personal safety, they struck inland, preferring an additional mile or two to encountering Dick. Conversation was at a discount, and they plodded on sulkily along the dusty road, their lips parched and their legs aching.

They got back to the Seamew at seven o'clock, and greeting Henry, who was in sole charge, with fair words and soothing compliments, persuaded him to make them some tea.

"Where's Dick?" inquired Sam casually as he sat drinking it.

"Ain't seen 'im since dinner," said the boy. "I thought he was with you p'raps."

Sam shook his head, and finishing his tea went on deck with the cook, and gave himself up to all the delights of a quiet sprawl. Fatigued with their exertions, neither of them moved until nine o'clock, and then, with a farewell glance in the direction in which Dick might be expected to come, went below and turned in.

They left the lamp burning, to the great satisfaction of Henry, who was reading, and, as ten o'clock struck somewhere in the town, exchanged anxious glances across the foc'sle concerning Dick's safety. Safe and warm in their bunks, it struck both of them that they had been perhaps a little bit selfish. Half an hour later Henry looked up suddenly as something soft leaped on to the deck above and came pattering towards the foc'sle. The next moment his surprise gave way to indignation, and he raised his voice in tones of expostulation which Mrs. Grundy herself would have envied.

"Dick!" he cried shrilly. "Dick!"

"Shut up!" said Dick fiercely as he flung himself panting on a locker. "O my Lord, I have had a time!"

"I'm surprised at you," said Henry severely, as he dragged some blankets from the bunks and threw them over the exhausted seaman. "Where's your modesty, Dick?"

"If you say another word I'll knock yer ugly little head off!" said Dick wrathfully. "If I hadn't been modest I should have come home by daylight. Oh, I have had a time! I have had a time!"

"Where's your clothes?" inquired Henry.

"How the devil should I know?" snapped the other. "I left 'em on the beach while I went for a swim, and when I comeback they'd gone. I've been sittin' on that damned cold shingle since three o'clock this arternoon, and not a soul come near me! It's the first time I've been lookin' for Cap'n Gething, and it'll be the last."

"Oh, you've been at it, 'ave yer!" said Henry. "I told you you chaps would get in a mess over that."

"You know a damned sight too much for your age!" growled Dick. "There's no call to say anything to Sam and the cook about it, mind."

"Why not?" said Henry.

"Cos I say you're not to," said Dick ferociously. "That's why."

"P'raps they know," said Henry quietly. "Seems to me Sam's listenin' in his sleep."

Dick got up, and going to their bunks inspected the sleep of both his comrades cautiously. Then with a repetition of his caution, strengthened by fearful penalties for disobedience, went to his own bunk and forgot his troubles in sleep. He kept his secret all next day, but his bewilderment when he awoke on Tuesday morning and found the clothes in an untidy brown paper parcel lying on the deck led to its divulgence. He told both Sam and the cook about it, and his opinion of both men went up when he found that they did not treat the matter in the light of a joke, as he had feared. Neither of them even smiled, neither did they extend much sympathy; they listened apathetically, and so soon as he had finished, went straight off to sleep where they sat—a performance which they repeated at every opportunity throughout the whole of the day.


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