The Skipper's Wooing

by W. W. Jacobs

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In less rapid times, before the invention of the electric telegraph and other scientific luxuries, Captain Gething would have remained quietly on board the Seamew, and been delivered to his expectant family without any further trouble. As it was, the message in which Captain Wilson took such pride, reached Mrs. Gething just as Mr. Glover—who had been sitting in her parlor all the afternoon, listening as patiently as he could to her somewhat uninteresting conversation—was on the point of departure. The effect on him was hardly less marked than on his hostess, and he went on his way to the railway station in a condition in which rage and jealousy strove for the mastery. All the way to town he pondered over ways and means to wrest from his rival the prize which he had won, and by the time the train had reached Fenchurch Street he had hatched as pleasant a little plot as ever occurred to a man, most of whose existence had been spent amid the blameless surroundings of ladies' hosiery. Half an hour later he was sitting in the dingy furnished apartments of a friend of his who lived in a small house off the Walworth Road.

"I want you to do me a favor, Tillotson," he said to the unkempt-looking tenant.

"I shall be delighted," said Mr. Tillotson, sticking his hands in his pockets, and warming himself comfortably at a fire-stove ornament trimmed with red paper roses—"if I can, you know."

"It is a great favor," said Glover.

Mr. Tillotson, looking very despondent, said, of course, that would please him more.

"I wouldn't ask anybody but you to do it," said the wily Glover. "If it comes off all right I will get you that berth you asked me for at Leatham and Roberts'."

"It's coming off, then," said Mr. Tillotson, brightening visibly. "If you will wait a minute—if the girl is in I will ask her if she will go and get us something to drink."

"I had better begin at the beginning," said Mr. Glover, as, all the 'ifs' having been triumphantly surmounted, he helped himself from a small flat bottle of whiskey; "it won't take long."

He lit his pipe, and, plunging into his story, finished it without interruption.

"You are a deep one, Glover," said his admiring friend when he had finished. "I thought you had been very smart lately—not but what you were always a dressy man," he added thoughtfully.

"I believe in keeping my own things to myself," said Glover.

"And this bargee has got the old un," said Tillotson, using the terms Glover had employed in his narrative. "I don't see what is to be done, Glover."

"I want to get him away," said the other. "If I can't find him, nobody else shall, and I want you to help me."

"Go down to Stourwich, tie him up in a sack, and drown him, I suppose," said Tillotson, trying to live up to a reputation several lady friends had bestowed upon him of being sarcastic.

"Can you get away to-morrow?" demanded Glover impatiently.

"I am as free as the birds of the air," responded Tillotson gloomily; "the only difference is, nobody puts out crumbs for me."

"I can reckon on you, then," said Glover. "I thought I could. We have known each other a long time, Tillotson. There is nothing like an old friend when one is in trouble."

Mr. Tillotson assented modestly. "You won't forget about Leatham and Roberts?" he said.

"Of course not," said Glover. "You see, it won't do to be seen in this thing myself. What I want you to do is to come down with me to Stourwich and bring the old man to London; then I can find him at my own time, in the street or anywhere, quite haphazard like."

"I don't quite see how it is to be done," said Tillotson.

"Meet me to-morrow morning at Waterloo, at ten minutes past eight," said Glover, finishing his glass and rising; "and we will have a try, at any rate."

He shook hands with his friend, and following him down the uncarpeted stairs, said a few words at the door in favor of early rising, and departed to his place of business to make his own arrangements about the morrow.

He was at the station and in the train first in the morning, Mr. Tillotson turning up with that extreme punctuality which enables a man to catch his train before it has got up full speed.

"I was half afraid at one time that I shouldn't have done it," said Mr. Tillotson, in self-congratulation, as he fell on to the seat. "Smoker, too! Couldn't have done better if I had been here at seven o'clock."

His friend grunted, and, there being nobody else in the carriage, began at once to discuss the practical part of the business.

"If he could only read we might send a letter aboard to him," said Mr. Tillotson, pushing his hat back. "The idea of a man his age not being able to!"

"He's one of the old school," said Glover.

"Funny sort of school," said Tillotson flippantly. "Well, we must take our chance of him going for a walk, I suppose."

They reached Stourwich soon after midday, and Glover, keeping a wary look out for Wilson, proceeded slowly to the quay with his friend, leaving the latter to walk down and discover the schooner while he went and hired a first-floor room at the "Royal Porpoise," a little bow-windowed tavern facing the harbor.

"That's the one," said Mr. Tillotson, as he joined his friend upstairs and led him to the window; "that little craft there. See that old chap working with the rest?"

Mr. Glover, who was focussing a pair of cheap field-glasses on to the schooner, gave a little exclamation of surprise.

"That's him, sure enough," he said, putting down the glasses. "Now what are we to do?"

At Tillotson's suggestion they had some dinner, and Glover fumed the afternoon away, while his friend hung about the quay. After tea his impatience got the better of his caution, and, pulling his hat over his eyes, he went on the quay too. Fifty yards beyond the Seamew he found a post, and leaning against it with his friend, anxiously watched the deck of the schooner.

"There's three of 'em going ashore," said Tillotson suddenly. "Look!"

They watched breathlessly as the crew walked slowly off, and, dusk coming on, approached a little closer.

"There's that fellow Wilson," said Glover, in a whisper. "Don't look!"

"Well, what's the use of telling me?" said Tillotson reasonably.

"He's going ashore with another chap," continued Glover excitedly— "the mate, I expect. Now's your chance. Get him away, and I'll stand you something handsome—upon my soul I will!"

"What do you call something handsome?" inquired Tillotson, whose pulse was not so feverish as his friend's.

"Get him safe to London and I'll stand a fiver," said Glover. "Now go. I'll stay here."

Mr. Tillotson, having got matters on a business footing, went, and, carelessly twisting his small moustache, slowly approached the schooner, on the deck of which was a small boy.

"Is Captain Gething aboard, old man?" inquired Mr. Tillotson, in a friendly voice.

"Down the cabin, I b'lieve," said Henry, jerking his thumb.

"I should like to see him," said Mr. Tillotson.

"I've got no objection," said Henry.

Charmed with his success, Mr. Tillotson stepped aboard and looked carelessly round.

"He's an old friend of mine," he said confidentially. "What's that you're smoking?"

"Shag," was the reply.

"Try a cigar," said Mr. Tillotson, producing three in an envelope. "You'll find them rather good."

The gratified Henry took one, and, first crackling it against his ear, smelt it knowingly, while Mr. Tillotson, in a leisurely fashion, descended to the cabin.

A tea-tray and an untidy litter of cups and saucers stood on the table, at the end of which sat an old man with his folded hands resting on the table.

"Good-evening," said Mr. Tillotson, pausing at the doorway and peering through the gloom to make sure that there was nobody else present. "All alone?"

"All alone," repeated Captain Gething, looking up and wondering who this might be.

"It's too dark to see you far," said Tillotson, in a mysterious whisper, "but it's Captain Gething, ain't it?"

"That's me," said the Captain uneasily.

"Going to Northfleet?" inquired Mr. Tillotson in another whisper.

"What do you mean?" inquired the captain quickly, as he gripped the edges of the table.

"Are you sure it'll be all right?" continued Tillotson.

"What do you mean?" repeated the captain from his seat. "Speak plain."

"I mean that you had better bolt," said Tillotson in a hurried whisper. "There's a heavy reward out for you, which Captain Wilson wants. You can't do what you did for nothing, you know."

Captain Gething sat down in his seat again and shaded his face with his hand.

"I'll go back," he said brokenly. "Wilson told me he was alive, and that it was all a mistake. If he's lying to me for the price of my old neck, let him have it."

"What about your wife and daughter?" said Tillotson, who was beginning to have a strong disrelish for his task. "I saw in the paper last night that Wilson had got you. He's gone ashore now to make arrangements at the station."

"He had a letter from my daughter this morning, said the old man brokenly.

"He told you it was from her," said Tillotson. "Get your things and come quick."

Excited by the part he was playing, he bent forward and clutched at the old man's arm. Captain Gething, obedient to the touch, rose, and taking his battered cap from a nail, followed him in silence above.

"We're going for a drink," said Tillotson to the boy. "We'll be back in ten minutes."

"All right," said Henry cheerfully; "wish I was going with you."

The other laughed airily, and gaining the quay, set off with the silent old man by his side. At first the captain went listlessly enough, but as he got farther and farther from the ship all the feelings of the hunted animal awoke within him, and he was as eager to escape as Tillotson could have wished.

"Where are we going?" he inquired as they came in sight of the railway station. "I'm not going by train."

"London," said Tillotson. "That's the most like-ly place to get lost in."

"I'm not going in the train," said the other doggedly.

"Why not?" said Tillotson in surprise.

"When they come back to the ship and find me gone they'll telegraph to London," said the old man. "I won't be caught like a rat in a trap."

"What are you going to do, then?" inquired the perplexed Tillotson.

"I don't know," said the old man. "Walk, I think. It's dark, and we might get twenty miles away before daybreak."

"Yes, we might," said Tillotson, who had no fancy for a nocturnal pilgrimage of the kind; "but we're not going to."

"Let me go alone," said the old man.

Tillotson shook his head.

"They'd be bound to spot you tramping about the country," he said confidently. "Now do let me know what's best for you, and go by train."

"I won't," said Gething obstinately. "You've been very kind, more than kind, in giving me warning. Let me go off by myself."

Tillotson shook his head and glanced carelessly in the direction of Glover, who was some few yards behind.

"I wish you'd trust me," he said earnestly. "You'll be safer in London than anywhere."

Captain Gething pondered. "There's a schooner about half a mile up the river, which is getting away about one o'clock this morning," he said slowly. "I've worked on her once or twice, and the skipper might take us if you can pay him well. He knows me as Stroud."

"If you'll wait here a minute or two I'll go to the railway station and get my bag," said Tillotson, who wanted to confer with his chief.

"I'll wait up the road under the arch," said Cap-tain Gething.

"Now don't run away," said Tillotson impressively. "If you won't go by train, perhaps the schooner is the best thing we can do."

He set off to the station, and after a hurried consultation with Glover, returned anxiously to the arch. Gething, standing in the shadow with his hands in his pockets, was patiently waiting.

"It's all right," said Tillotson cheerfully; "and now for a sea voyage. You know the way to the schooner, I suppose."

They made their way back cautiously, Captain Gething turning off to the left before they reached the harbor and leading the way through dingy little streets of private houses and chandlers' shops. It was not a part usually frequented by people taking an evening stroll, and Henry, who had begun to get uneasy at their absence, and starting in search of them had picked them up at the corner, followed wondering.

His wonder increased as they left the houses and met the cool air blowing from the river. The road was dark and uneven, and he followed cautiously, just keeping them in sight, until at a tumble-down little wharf they halted, and after a low consultation, boarded a small schooner lying alongside. There was nobody on the deck, but a light showed in the cabin, and after a minute's hesitation they went below.

An hour or two passed, and the small watcher, ensconced behind a pile of empties, shivered with the cold. Unconscious of the amicable overtures in the cabin, which had resulted in the master of the Frolic taking a couple of cabin passengers who were quite willing to rough it in the matter of food and accommodation, and willing to pay for it, he was afraid to desert his post. Another hour passed. A couple of seamen came by his place of concealment, and stepping aboard, went down the foc'sle. A clock struck eleven, and a few minutes later the light in the cabin was extinguished.

The boy watched another quarter of an hour and then, the ship being dark and still, crept noiselessly on board. The sound of deep snoring came from the cabin, and gaining the wharf again, he set off as hard as he could run to the Seamew.


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