All ready for sea, and no cook," said the mate of the schooner Gannet, gloomily. "What's become of all the cooks I can't think."
"They most on 'em ship as mates now," said the skipper, grinning. "But you needn't worry about that; I've got one coming aboard to-night. I'm trying a new experiment, George."
"I once knew a chemist who tried one," said George, "an' it blew him out of the winder; but I never heard o' shipmasters trying 'em."
"There's all kinds of experiments," rejoined the other, "What do you say to a lady cook, George?"
"A WHAT?" asked the mate in tones of strong amazement. "What, aboard a schooner?"
"Why not?" inquired the skipper warmly; "why not? There's plenty of 'em ashore--why not aboard ship?"
"'Tain't proper, for one thing," said the mate virtuously.
"I shouldn't have expected you to have thought o' that," said the other unkindly. "Besides, they have stewardesses on big ships, an' what's the difference? She's a sort o' relation o' mine, too--cousin o' my wife's, a widder woman, and a good sensible age, an' as the doctor told her to take a sea voyage for the benefit of her 'elth, she's coming with me for six months as cook. She'll take her meals with us; but, o' course, the men are not to know of the relationship."
"What about sleeping accommodation?" inquired the mate, with the air of a man putting a poser.
"I've thought o' that," replied the other; "it's all arranged."
The mate, with an uncompromising air, waited for information.
"She--she's to have your berth, George," continued the skipper, without looking at him. "You can have that nice, large, airy locker."
"One what the biscuit and onions kep' in?" inquired George.
The skipper nodded.
"I think, if it's all the same to you," said the mate, with laboured politeness, "I'll wait till the butter keg's empty, and crowd into that."
"It's no use your making yourself unpleasant about it," said the skipper, "not a bit. The arrangements are made now, and here she comes."
Following his gaze, the mate looked up as a stout, comely-looking woman of middle age came along the jetty, followed by the watchman staggering under a box of enormous proportions.
"Jim!" cried the lady.
"Halloa!" cried the skipper, starting uneasily at the title. "We've been expecting you for some time."
"There's a row on with the cabman," said the lady calmly. "This silly old man"--the watchman snorted fiercely--"let the box go through the window getting it off the top, and the cabman wants ME to pay. He's out there using language, and he keeps calling me grandma--I want you to have him locked up."
"Come down below now," said the skipper; "we'll see about the cab. Mrs. Blossom--my mate. George, go and send that cab away."
Mrs. Blossom, briefly acknowledging the introduction, followed the skipper to the cabin, while the mate, growling under his breath, went out to enter into a verbal contest in which he was from the first hopelessly overmatched.
The new cook, being somewhat fatigued with her journey, withdrew at an early hour, and the sun was well up when she appeared on deck next morning. The wharves and warehouses of the night before had disappeared, and the schooner, under a fine spread of canvas, was just passing Tilbury.
"There's one thing I must put a stop to," said the skipper, as he and the mate, after an admirably-cooked breakfast, stood together talking. "The men seem to be hanging round that galley too much."
"What can you expect?" demanded the mate. "They've all got their Sunday clothes on too, pretty dears."
"Hi, you Bill!" cried the skipper. "What are you doing there?"
"Lending cook a hand with the saucepans, sir," said Bill, an oakum- bearded man of sixty.
"There ain't no call for 'im to come 'ere at all, sir," shouted another seaman, putting his head out of the galley. "Me an' cook's lifting 'em beautiful."
"Come out, both of you, or I'll start you with a rope!" roared the irritated commander.
"What's the matter?" inquired Mrs. Blossom. "They're not doing any harm."
"I can't have 'em there," said the skipper gruffly. "They've got other things to do."
"I must have some assistance with that boiler and the saucepans," said Mrs. Blossom decidedly, "so don't you interfere with what don't concern you, Jimmy."
"That's mutiny," whispered the horrified mate. "Sheer, rank mutiny."
"She don't know no better," whispered the other back. "Cook, you mustn't talk like that to the cap'n--what me and the mate tell you you must do. You don't understand yet, but it'll come easier by-and-bye."
"WILL it," demanded Mrs. Blossom loudly; "WILL it? I don't think it will. How dare you talk to me like that, Jim Harris? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
"My name's Cap'n Harris," said the skipper stiffly.
"Well, CAPTAIN Harris," said Mrs. Blossom scornfully; "and what'll happen if I don't do as you and that other shamefaced-looking man tell me?"
"We hope it won't come to that," said Harris, with quiet dignity, as he paused at the companion. "But the mate's in charge just now, and I warn you he's a very severe man. Don't stand no nonsense, George."
With these brave words the skipper disappeared below, and the mate, after one glance at the dauntless and imposing attitude of Mrs. Blossom, walked to the side and became engrossed in a passing steamer. A hum of wondering admiration arose from the crew, and the cook, thoroughly satisfied with her victory, returned to the scene of her labours.
For the next twenty-four hours Mrs. Blossom reigned supreme, and performed the cooking for the vessel, assisted by five ministering seamen. The weather was fine, and the wind light, and the two officers were at their wits' end to find jobs for the men.
"Why don't you put your foot down," grumbled the mate, as a burst of happy laughter came from the direction of the galley. "The idea of men laughing like that aboard ship; they're carrying on just as though we wasn't here."
"Will you stand by me?" demanded the skipper, pale but determined.
"Of course I will," said the other indignantly.
"Now, my lads," said Harris, stepping forward, "I can't have you chaps hanging round the galley all day; you're getting in cook's way and hindering her. Just get your knives out; I'll have the masts scraped."
"You just stay where you are," said Mrs. Blossom. "When they're in my way, I'll soon let 'em know."
"Did you hear what I said?" thundered the skipper, as the men hesitated.
"Aye, aye, sir," muttered the crew, moving off.
"How dare you interfere with me?" said Mrs. Blossom hotly, as she realised the defeat. "Ever since I've been on this ship you've been trying to aggravate me. I wonder the men don't hit you, you nasty, ginger-whiskered little man."
"Go on with your work," said the skipper, fondly stroking the maligned whiskers.
"Don't you talk to me, Jim Harris," said Mrs. Blossom, quivering with wrath. "Don't you give ME none of your airs. WHO BORROWED FIVE POUNDS FROM MY POOR DEAD HUSBAND JUST BEFORE HE DIED, AND NEVER PAID IT BACK?"
"Go on with your work," repeated the skipper, with pale lips.
"WHOSE UNCLE BENJAMIN HAD THREE WEEKS?" demanded Mrs. Blossom darkly. "WHOSE UNCLE JOSEPH HAD TO GO ABROAD WITHOUT STOPPING TO PACK UP?"
The skipper made no reply, but the anxiety of the crew to have these vital problems solved was so manifest that he turned his back on the virago and went towards the mate, who at that moment dipped hurriedly to escape a wet dish-clout. The two men regarded each other, pale with anxiety.
"Now, you just move off," said Mrs. Blossom, shaking another clout at them. "I won't have you hanging about my galley. Keep to your own end of the ship."
The skipper drew himself up haughtily, but the effect was somewhat marred by one eye, which dwelt persistently on the clout, and after a short inward struggle he moved off, accompanied by the mate. Wellington himself would have been nonplussed by a wet cloth in the hands of a fearless woman.
"She'll just have to have her own way till we get to Llanelly," said the indignant skipper, "and then I'll send her home by train and ship another cook. I knew she'd got a temper, but I didn't know it was like this. She's the last woman that sets foot on my ship--that's all she's done for her sex."
In happy ignorance of her impending doom Mrs. Blossom went blithely about her duties, assisted by a crew whose admiration for her increased by leaps and bounds; and the only thing which ventured to interfere with her was a stiff Atlantic roll, which they encountered upon rounding the Land's End.
The first intimation Mrs. Blossom had of it was the falling of small utensils in the galley. After she had picked them up and replaced them several times, she went out to investigate, and discovered that the schooner was dipping her bows to big green waves, and rolling, with much straining and creaking, from side to side. A fine spray, which broke over the bows and flew over the vessel, drove her back into the galley, which had suddenly developed an unaccountable stuffiness; but, though the crew to a man advised her to lie down and have a cup of tea, she repelled them with scorn, and with pale face and compressed lips stuck to her post.
Two days later they made fast to the quay at Llanelly, and half-an-hour later the skipper called the mate down to the cabin, and, handing him some money, told him to pay the cook off and ship another. The mate declined.
"You obey orders," said the skipper fiercely, "else you an' me'll quarrel."
"I've got a wife an' family," urged the mate.
"Pooh!" said the skipper. "Rubbish!"
"And uncles," added the mate rebelliously.
"Very good," said the skipper, glaring. "We'll ship the other cook first and let him settle it. After all, I don't see why we should fight his battles for him."
The mate, being agreeable, went off at once; and when Mrs. Blossom, after a little shopping ashore, returned to the Gannet she found the galley in the possession of one of the fattest cooks that ever broke ship's biscuit.
"Hullo!" said she, realising the situation at a glance, "what are you doing here?"
"Cooking," said the other gruffly. Then, catching sight of his questioner, he smiled amorously and winked at her.
"Don't you wink at me," said Mrs. Blossom wrathfully. "Come out of that galley."
"There's room for both," said the new cook persuasively. "Come in an' put your 'ed on my shoulder."
Utterly unprepared for this mode of attack, Mrs. Blossom lost her nerve, and, instead of storming the galley, as she had fully intended, drew back and retired to the cabin, where she found a short note from the skipper, enclosing her pay, and requesting her to take the train home. After reading this she went ashore again, returning presently with a big bundle, which she placed on the cabin table in front of Harris and the mate, who had just begun tea.
"I'm not going home by train," said she, opening the bundle, which contained a spirit kettle and provisions. "I'm going back with you; but I am not going to be beholden to you for anything--I 'm going to board myself."
After this declaration she made herself tea and sat down. The meal proceeded in silence, though occasionally she astonished her companions by little mysterious laughs, which caused them slight uneasiness. As she made no hostile demonstration, however, they became reassured, and congratulated themselves upon the success of their manoeuvre.
"How long shall we be getting back to London, do you think?" inquired Mrs. Blossom at last.
"We shall probably sail Tuesday night, and it may be anything from six days upwards," answered the skipper. "If this wind holds it'll probably be upwards."
To his great concern Mrs. Blossom put her handkerchief over her face, and, shaking with suppressed laughter, rose from the table and left the cabin.
The couple left eyed each other wonderingly.
"Did I say anything pertickler funny, George?" inquired the skipper, after some deliberation.
"Didn't strike me so," said the mate carelessly; "I expect she's thought o' something else to say about your family. She wouldn't be so good- tempered as all that for nothing. I feel cur'ous to know what it is."
"If you paid more attention to your own business," said the skipper, his choler rising, "you'd get on better. A mate who was a good seaman wouldn't ha' let a cook go on like this--it's not discipline."
He went off in dudgeon, and a coolness sprang up between them, which lasted until the bustle of starting in the small hours of Wednesday morning.
Once under way the day passed uneventfully, the schooner crawling sluggishly down the coast of Wales, and, when the skipper turned in that night, it was with the pleasant conviction that Mrs. Blossom had shot her last bolt, and, like a sensible woman, was going to accept her defeat. From this pleasing idea he was aroused suddenly by the watch stamping heavily on the deck overhead.
"What's up?" cried the skipper, darting up the companion-ladder, jostled by the mate.
"I dunno," said Bill, who was at the wheel, shakily. "Mrs. Blossom come up on deck a little while ago, and since then there's been three or four heavy splashes."
"She can't have gone overboard," said the skipper, in tones to which he manfully strove to impart a semblance of anxiety. "No, here she is. Anything wrong, Mrs. Blossom?"
"Not so far as I'm concerned," replied the lady, passing him and going below.
"You've been dreaming, Bill," said the skipper sharply.
"I ain't," said Bill stoutly. "I tell you I heard splashes. It's my belief she coaxed the cook up on deck, and then shoved him overboard. A woman could do anything with a man like that cook."
"I'll soon see," said the mate, and walking forward he put his head down the fore-scuttle and yelled for the cook.
"Aye, aye, sir," answered a voice sleepily, while the other men started up in their bunks. "Do you want me?"
"Bill thinks somebody has gone overboard," said the mate. "Are you all here?"
In answer to this the mystified men turned out all standing, and came on deck yawning and rubbing their eyes, while the mate explained the situation. Before he had finished the cook suddenly darted off to the galley, and the next moment the forlorn cry of a bereaved soul broke on their startled ears.
"What is it?" cried the mate.
"Come here!" shouted the cook, "look at this!"
He struck a match and held it aloft in his shaking fingers, and the men, who were worked up to a great pitch of excitement and expected to see something ghastly, after staring hard for some time in vain, profanely requested him to be more explicit.
"She's thrown all the saucepans and things overboard," said the cook with desperate calmness. "This lid of a tea kettle is all that's left for me to do the cooking in."
* * * * *
The Gannet, manned by seven famine-stricken misogynists, reached London six days later, the skipper obstinately refusing to put in at an intermediate port to replenish his stock of hardware. The most he would consent to do was to try and borrow from a passing vessel, but the unseemly behaviour of the master of a brig, who lost two hours owing to their efforts to obtain a saucepan of him, utterly discouraged any further attempts in that direction, and they settled down to a diet of biscuits and water, and salt beef scorched on the stove.
Mrs. Blossom, unwilling perhaps to witness their sufferings, remained below, and when they reached London, only consented to land under the supervision of a guard of honour, composed of all the able-bodied men on the wharf.