The Skipper's Wooing

by W. W. Jacobs

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Wilson and the mate returned to the ship laden with their spoils, and pitching them on board first, descended themselves by a slower but pleasanter method.

"I expect our chaps are all ashore still," said the mate, looking round. "Pretty state they'll be in for a start. I suppose the boy's down with the cap'n."

"Just go down and send him up," said the skipper; "it's rather a delicate thing to do to give a man a suit of clothes. I don't want anybody standing round."

"There's no light," said the mate, looking towards the skylight. He went below and felt his way into the cabin.

"All in the dark?" he said cheerfully.

There was no reply. He fumbled about in the darkness for the matches, and having obtained them, struck a light and looked round. The cabin was empty. He opened the door of the state-room and peered in; that too was empty.

"He must have gone for a walk with the boy," said the skipper uneasily when he returned with the news.

He took up the parcel again and went below, followed by the mate, and for some time sat silently smoking.

"Nine o'clock," said the mate at last in consternation as the little clock tinkled the hour. "That confounded boy's not up to any mischief, I s'pose? He's been in a devil of a temper the last day or two."

"I don't see what mischief he could do," pondered the other, knitting his brows.

"Look's to me as if he's spirited him away," continued the mate. "I'll go ashore and have a look round and see whether I can see anything of them."

He took his cap from the locker and went. An hour elapsed, and the skipper, a prey to great anxiety, went up on deck.

The shops had closed, and with the exception of the street lamps, the town was in darkness and the streets silent, except for a chance wayfarer. Two or three seamen came up the quay and went aboard the steamer in the next berth. A woman came slowly along, peering in an uncertain fashion at the various craft, and shrinking back as a seaman passed her. Abreast of the Seamew she stopped, and in the same doubtful manner looked down on the deck. The skipper crossed to the side, and straining his eyes through the gloom, looked up at her.

"Is this the Seamew?" inquired a fresh girlish voice.

"Annis!" shouted the astounded skipper. "Annis!"

He ran up the rigging, and stepping on to the quay seized her hand. Then he drew her unresistingly towards him and was in the act of passing his arm round her waist when he remembered his position and drew back awkwardly.

"Come on board," he said gently.

He straddled from the quay to the rigging, and extending his hand in the midst of a perfect silence, helped her to the deck.

"Where is my father?" she said eagerly.

Wilson made no reply.

"Where is he?" she repeated.

Wilson shook his head. "I don't know," he said gloomily, "I don't know. He was here an hour or two ago. He was here yesterday."

She caught his arm breathlessly.

"Where is he now? What have you done with him?"

Wilson told her all he knew and having finished, watched her anxiously as she drew back a little and tapped on the deck with her foot.

A badly-blended chorus, making up in strength what it lacked in harmony, sounded on the quay, and gradually coming nearer, stopped at the Seamew for a final shout. The finale was rendered by the cook and Dick with much vehemence, while Sam, excited by his potations, danced madly before them.

"Silence up there!" shouted the skipper sternly, as Annis shrank away.

"A' right, sir," hiccupped Dick solemnly. "I'm lookin' after them. Mind how you break your neck, Sam."

Thus adjured, Sam balanced himself on the edge of the quay, and executing a double shuffle on the very brink of it by way of showing his complete mastery over his feet, fell into the rigging and descended. He was followed by Dick and the cook, both drunk, and both preternaturally solemn.

"Get below," said the skipper sharply.

"Ay, ay, sir," said Dick, with a lurch. "Come on, Sam, we—ain't wanted—here."

"It's all your damned dancing, Sam!" said the cook—who had ever an eye for beauty—plaintively.

"Will you get below?" roared the maddened skipper, giving him a push.

"I'm very sorry," he said, turning to Annis as they disappeared; "everything seems to be going wrong to-night."

"It doesn't matter," she said coldly. "Goodnight."

"Where are you going?" asked Wilson.

"Going to find a hotel," said Annis; "there's no train back to-night."

"Take the cabin," he said entreatingly, "I and the mate'll sleep for'ard."

"No, thank you," said Annis.

She stepped to the side, and, assisted by the skipper, clambered up on to the quay again. The mate came up at the moment and stood eyeing her curiously.

"This is Miss Gething," said the skipper slowly. "Any news?"

"None," said the mate solemnly; "they've vanished like smoke."

"Is it certain," asked Annis, addressing, him, "that it was my father?"

The mate looked at the skipper and pushed his cap back. "We had no reason to think otherwise," he said shortly. "It's a mystery to me altogether. He can't have gone home by train because he had no money."

"It couldn't have been my father," said Annis slowly. "Somebody has been deceiving you. Good-night. I will come round in the morning; it is getting late."

"Where are you going?" inquired the mate.

"She's going to look for a hotel," said the skipper, answering for her.

"It's late," said the mate dubiously, "and this isn't much of a place for hotels. Why not take her to the woman where her father has been staying? You said she seemed a decent sort."

"It's a poor place," began the other.

"That'll do," said Annis decidedly; "if it was good enough for my father it is good enough for me. If it wasn't my father I may learn something about him. Is it far?"

"Two miles," said the mate.

"We'd better start at once, then," said the skipper, moving a step or two by way of example.

"And perhaps you'll walk down too," said Annis to the mate.

It went to the mate's heart to do it, but he was a staunch friend. "No, I think I'll turn in," he said, blushing at his rudeness; "I'm tired."

He lifted his cap awkwardly and descended. Annis, with her head at an uncomfortable altitude, set off with the skipper.

"I'm sorry the mate wouldn't come," said the latter stiffly.

After this they went on in silence along the quiet road, Miss Gething realizing instinctively that the man by her side had got a temper equal to at least a dozen of her own. This made her walk a little closer to him, and once, ever so lightly, her hand brushed against his. The skipper put his hands in his jacket pockets.

They reached the late habitation of the mysterious Captain Gething without another word having been spoken on the journey. The mews was uninviting enough by daylight, by night it was worse. The body of a defunct four-wheeler blocked up half the entrance, and a retriever came out of his kennel at the other end and barked savagely.

"That's the house," said Wilson, indicating it—"number five. What's the matter?"

For Miss Gething, after making little dabs with her handkerchief at lips which did not require the attention, was furtively applying it to eyes which did.

"I'm tired," she said softly—"tired and disappointed."

She hesitated a moment, and then before Wilson had quite made up his mind what to do, moved proudly away and knocked at the door of number five. It was opened after some delay by an untidy woman in crackers and a few other things, who having listened to the skipper's explanation, admitted Miss Gething to her father's room. She then saw the skipper to the door again, and having wished him a somewhat grim good-night, closed the door.

He walked back as sharply as he could to the schooner, his mind in a whirl with the events of the evening, and as he neared the quay broke into a run, in awkward imitation of a small figure approaching from the opposite direction.

"You little vagabond!" he panted, seizing him by the collar as they reached the schooner together.

"A'right," said Henry; "'ave it your own way then."

"Drop him overboard," said the mate, who was standing on the deck.

Henry indulged in a glance of contempt—made safe by the darkness—at this partisan, and with the air of one who knows that he has an interesting yarn to spin, began at the beginning and worked slowly up for his effects. The expediency of brevity and point was then tersely pointed out to him by both listeners, the highly feminine trait of desiring the last page first being strongly manifested.

"I can't make head or tail of it," said the skipper, after the artist had spoilt his tale to suit his public. "He's taken fright at something or other. Well, we'll go after him."

"They're getting away at about one," said the mate; "and suppose he won't come, what are you going to do then? After all, it mightn't be her father. Damned unsatisfactory I call it!"

"I don't know what to do," said the bewildered skipper; "I don't know what's best."

"Well, it ain't my business," said Henry, who had been standing by silently; "but I know what I should do."

Both men leaned forward eagerly.

"I may be a young vagabond," said Henry, enjoying to the full this tribute to his powers—"p'raps I am. I may be put to bed by a set of grinning idiots; I may—"

"What would you do, Henry?" asked the skipper very quietly.

"Go back an' fetch Miss Gething, o' course," said the boy, "an' take her down to the ship. That'll settle it."

"By Jove! the boy's right," said the mate—"if there's time."

But the skipper had already started.

"You're a very good boy, Henry," said the mate approvingly. "Now go down and watch the Frolic again, and as soon as she starts getting under way run back and let us know. If she passes before he comes back I'll hail her and try and find out what it all means."

Meantime the skipper, half walking, half running, went on his way to Overcourt, arriving at Stagg's Gardens in a breathless condition. Number five was fast asleep when he reached it and began a violent thumping upon the door.

"Who's there? What do you want?" demanded a shrill voice as the window was thrown up and a female head protruded.

"I want to see that young lady I brought here a little while ago," said the skipper—"quick."

"What, at this time o' night!" said the lady. "Be reasonable, young man, if you are sweethearting."

"Something important," said the skipper impatiently.

"Can't you tell me what it is?" said the lady, who felt that she was in a position to have her curiosity satisfied.

"Tell her I've got news of her father," said the skipper, restraining himself with difficulty.

The head disappeared and the window was closed. After what seemed an hour to the impatient man, he heard a step in the passage, the door opened, and Annis stood before him.

With a very few words they were walking together again down the road, Annis listening to his story as they went. It was a long way, and she was already tired, but she refused the offer of her companion's arm with a spirit which showed that she had not forgotten the previous journey. As they neared the Seamew the skipper's spirits sank, for the mate, who was watching, ran out to meet them.

"It's no use," he said sympathetically; "she's under way. Shall we hail her as she goes by?"

The skipper, leaving Annis unceremoniously on the quay, sprang aboard and peered anxiously down the river. The night was starlit, and he could just discern a craft coming slowly towards them.

"Hoist a couple of lanterns, Jack, and call the crew up quickly," he cried to the mate.

"What for?" said the other in astonishment.

"You light 'em," cried the skipper excitedly. "Henry, help me off with these hatches."

He was down on his knees with the boy unfastening them, while the mate, having lit a lantern, ran forward to rouse the men. The Frolic was now but twenty yards astern.

"Ahoy! schooner, ahoy!" bawled Wilson, running suddenly to the side.

"Halloa!" came a hoarse voice.

"Are you full up?" shouted the master of the Seamew.

"No," came the roar again.

"Drop your anchor and come alongside," shouted the skipper, "I've got to stay here another week, and I've got a dozen barrels o' herring must be in London before then."

The Frolic was abreast of them, and he held his breath with suspense.

"It won't take you half an hour," he shouted anxiously.

The grating of the cable was music in his ears as it ran out, and hardly able to believe in the success of his scheme he saw the crew taking in the sail they had just begun to set. Ten minutes later the Frolic was rubbing against his side.

The hatches were off the Seamew, and a lantern swinging in her hold shed a sickly light upon the sleepy faces of her crew. The mate was at the foc'sle whispering instructions to Annis.

"Look alive," said the master of the Frolic, "I'll just take 'em on deck for the present."

He came fussily to the side to superintend, gazing curiously at Annis, who was standing watching the operations.

"What a nice ship!" she said. "May I come on board?"

"You're quite welcome if you don't get in the way," was the reply.

Accepting this qualified permission, Annis stepped on board and walked quietly round the deck. At the companion she paused and looked round. Everybody was busy; and trembling with nervousness, she hesitated a moment and then descended into the dark cabin.

"That you, captain?" said a voice. "What are we stopping for?"

Annis made no reply.

"Who is it?" said the voice again.

"Hush!" said Annis.

"Oh, all right," said Mr. Tillotson shortly. "What's wrong?"

Annis hesitated, waiting to hear another voice, but in vain. She fancied that she heard another person breathing, but that was all.

"Father!" she cried, suddenly. "It's me! Annis! Where are you?"

There was a great shout from the other side of the cabin, and in the gloom she saw something spring up and come towards her. Something which caught her in a mighty grasp and crushed her soft face against a long, stiff beard. Laughing and crying together she put her arms about its neck and clung to it convulsively.

"There, there, my lass!" said Captain Gething at last.

"We only stopped you by a miracle," said Annis hysterically. "The Seamew is alongside, and why you wanted to run away again I don't know."

"I don't understand," said Captain Gething wearily.

"You can understand that I wouldn't take you into danger," said Annis tenderly. "Put your coat on and come with me."

Without another word Captain Gething did as he was bid. He stopped, as though to speak to Tillotson, and then thinking better of it, followed his daughter on deck.

"I'm not coming with you, cap'n," he said as that ardent mariner passed them rolling a barrel along the deck.

"A' right," said the other briefly; "you won't get your money back."

In a shamefaced fashion Captain Gething, still holding his daughter's arm, stepped on board the Seamew and shook hands with its master. By the time he was half through his story there was a burning desire on the part of the skipper to go down and have a look at Tillotson—a desire peremptorily checked by Annis, who had an erroneous opinion concerning that gentleman's identity, and the Frolic having taken in its herrings, sheered off with a friendly good-night. The crew of the Seamew watched her until she had her anchor up, and then, at the impatient suggestion of Henry, who was stage managing, went below.

"Are you satisfied now?" inquired Wilson in a low voice, as Captain Gething, with a wisdom born of years, went slowly below.

"Quite," breathed Annis softly.

"I'm not," said Wilson, in tones full of meaning.

Miss Gething smiled, and leaning against the side surveyed, with some interest, the dark water and the sleeping town. She did not move when Wilson came and stood by her, and when he took her hand, made no protest.

"I'm not satisfied—yet," said Wilson, raising her hand to his lips.

His eye caught the two lanterns which were burning somewhat garishly, and crossing over, he took them down and blew them out. He turned suddenly at the sound of a smothered laugh, a moment too late. Annis Gething had gone below.


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