"What did they ask you?" demanded the shipper.
"They asked me what Cap'n Flower was like an' where 'e lived," said Tim, "an' they asked me whether I knew a Mr. Robinson."
Captain Flower, his eyes blazing, waited.
"I said I 'adn't got the pleasure o' Mr. Robinson's acquaintance," said Tim, with a grand air. "I was just goin' to tell 'em about you when Joe 'ere gave me a pinch."
"Well?" enquired the skipper, stamping with impatience.
"I pinched 'im back agin," said Tim, smiling tenderly at the reminiscence.
"Tim's a fool, sir," said Joe, suddenly, as the overwrought skipper made a move towards the galley. "'E didn't seem to know wot 'e was a sayin' of, so I up and told 'em all about you."
"You did, did you? Damn you," said Flower, bitterly.
"In answer to their questions, sir," said Joe, "I told 'em you was a bald-headed chap, marked with the small-pox, and I said when you was at 'ome, which was seldom, you lived at Aberdeen."
The skipper stepped towards him and laid his hand affectionately on his shoulder. "You ought to have been an admiral, Joe," he said, gratefully, without intending any slur on a noble profession.
"I also told George, the watchman, to tell 'em the same thing, if they came round again worrying," said Joe, proudly.
The skipper patted him on the shoulder again.
"One o' these days, Joe," he remarked, "you shall know all about this little affair; for the present it's enough to tell you that a certain unfortunate young female has took a fancy to a friend o' mine named Robinson, but it's very important, for Robinson's sake, that she shouldn't see me or get to know anything about me. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," said Joe, sagely.
His countenance was calm and composed, but the cook's forehead had wrinkled itself into his hair in a strong brain effort, while Ben was looking for light on the deck, and not finding it. Flower, as a sign that the conversation was now ended, walked aft again, and taking the wheel from the mate, thoughtfully suggested that he should go below and turn in for five minutes.
"I'll get through this all right, after all," he said, comfortably. "I'll lay up at Seabridge for a week or two, and after that I'll get off the schooner at Greenwich for a bit and let you take her up to London. Then I'll write a letter in the name of Robinson and send it to a man I know in New York to post from there to Miss Tipping."
His spirits rose and he slapped Fraser heartily on the back. "That disposes of one," he said, cheerily. "Lor', in years to come how I shall look back and laugh over all this!"
"Yes, I think it'll be some time before you do any laughing to speak of," said Fraser.
"Ah, you always look on the dark side of things," said Flower, briskly.
"Of course, as things are, you're going to marry Miss Banks," said Fraser, slowly.
"No, I'm not," said the other, cheerfully; "it strikes me there's plenty of time before that will come to a head, and that gives me time to turn round. I don't think she's any more anxious for it than I am."
"But suppose it does come to a head," persisted Fraser, "what are you going to do?"
"I shall find a way out of it," said the skipper, confidently. "Meantime, just as an exercise for your wits, you might try and puzzle out what would be the best thing to do in such a case."
His good spirits lasted all the way to Seabridge, and, the schooner berthed, he went cheerfully off home. It was early afternoon when he arrived, and, Captain Barber being out, he had a comfortable tete a tete with Mrs. Church, in which he was able to dilate pretty largely upon the injury to his foot. Captain Barber did not return until the tea was set, and then shaking hands with his nephew, took a seat opposite, and in a manner more than unusually boisterous, kept up a long conversation.
It was a matter of surprise to Flower that, though the talk was by no means of a sorrowful nature, Mrs. Church on three separate occasions rose from the table and left the room with her handkerchief to her eyes. At such times his uncle's ideas forsook him, and he broke off not only in the middle of a sentence, but even in the middle of a word. At the third time Flower caught his eye, and with a dumb jerk of his head toward the door enquired what it all meant.
"Tell you presently," said his uncle, in a frightened whisper, "Hush! Don't take no notice of it. Not a word."
"What is it?" persisted Flower.
Captain Barber gave a hurried glance towards the door and then leaned over the table "Broken 'art," he whispered, sorrowfully.
Flower whistled, and, full of the visions which this communication opened up, neglected to join in the artificial mirth which his uncle was endeavouring to provoke upon the housekeeper's return. Finally he worked up a little mirth on his own account, and after glancing from his uncle to the housekeeper, and from the housekeeper back to his uncle again, smothered his face in his handkerchief and rushed from the room.
"Bit on a bad tooth," he said, untruthfully, when he came back.
Captain Barber eyed him fiercely, but Mrs. Church regarded him with compassionate interest, and, having got the conversation upon such a safe subject, kept it there until the meal was finished.
"What's it all about?" enquired Flower, as, tea finished, Captain Barber carried his chair to the extreme end of the garden and beckoned his nephew to do likewise.
"You're the cause of it," said Captain Barber, severely.
"Me?" said Flower, in surprise.
"You know that little plan I told you of when you was down here?" said the other.
His nephew nodded.
"It came off," groaned Captain Barber. "I've got news for you as'll make you dance for joy."
"I've got a bad foot," said Flower, paling.
"Never mind about your foot," said his uncle, regarding him fixedly. "Your banns are up."
"Up! Up where?" gasped Flower.
"Why—in the church," said the other, staring at him; "where do you think? I got the old lady's consent day before yesterday, and had 'em put up at once."
"Is she dead, then?" enquired his nephew, in a voice the hollowness of which befitted the question.
"How the devil could she be?" returned his uncle, staring at him.
"No, I didn't think of that," said Flower; "of course, she couldn't give her consent, could she—not if she was dead, I mean."
Captain Barber drew his chair back and looked at him. "His joy has turned his brain," he said, with conviction.
"No, it's my foot," said Flower, rallying. "I've had no sleep with it. I'm delighted! Delighted! After all these years."
"You owe it to me," said his uncle, with a satisfied air. "I generally see my way clear to what I want, and generally get it, too. I've played Mrs. Banks and Mrs. Church agin one another without their knowing it. Both 'elpless in my hands, they was."
"But what's the matter with Mrs. Church?" said his depressed nephew.
"Oh, that's the worst of it," said Uncle Barber, shaking his head. "While I was in play, that pore woman must have thought I was in earnest. She don't say nothing. Not a word, and the efforts she makes to control her feelings is noble."
"Have you told her she has got to go then?" enquired Flower.
Captain Barber shook his head. "Mrs. Banks saved me that trouble," he said, grimly.
"But she can't take notice from Mrs. Banks," said Flower, "it'll have to come from you."
"All in good time," said Captain Barber, wiping his face. "As I've done all this for you, I was going to let you tell her."
"Me!" said Flower, with emphasis.
"Certainly," said Captain Barber, with more emphasis still. "Just get her to yourself on the quiet and allude to it casual. Then after that bring the subject up when I'm in the room. As it's to make room for you and your wife, you might fix the date for 'er to go. That'll be the best way to do it."
"It seems to me it is rather hard on her," said his nephew, compassionately; "perhaps we had better wait a little longer."
"Certainly not," said Captain Barber, sharply; "don't I tell you your banns are up. You're to be asked in church first time next Sunday, You'll both live with me as agreed, and I'm going to make over three o' the cottages to you and a half-share in the ship. The rest you'll have to wait for. Why don't you look cheerful? You ought to."
"I'm cheerful enough," said Flower, recovering himself. "I'm thinking of you."
"Me?" said his uncle.
"You and Mrs. Church," said his nephew. "So far as I can see, you've committed yourself."
"I can manage," said Uncle Barber. "I've always been master in my own house. Now you'd better step round and see the bride that is to be."
"Well, you be careful," said his nephew, warningly.
"I'm coming, too," said Captain Barber, with some haste; "there's no need to stay and wait for trouble. When you go into the house, come back as though you'd forgotten something, and sing out to me that you want me to come too—hard enough for 'er to hear, mind."
The bewildered master of the Foam spent the remainder of the time at Seabridge in a species of waking nightmare.
A grey-haired dressmaker and a small apprentice sat in the Banks' best parlour, and from a chaos of brown paper patterns stuck over with pins a silk dress of surpassing beauty began slowly to emerge. As a great concession Flower was allowed to feel the material, and even to rub it between his finger and thumb in imitation of Captain Barber, who was so prone to the exercise that a small piece was cut for his especial delectation. A colour of unwonted softness glowed in the cheek of Elizabeth and an air of engaging timidity tempered her interview with Flower, who had to run the gauntlet of much friendly criticism on the part of his fair neighbours.
Up to the time of sailing for London again the allusion to Mrs. Church's departure, desired by Captain Barber, had not been made by the younger man. The housekeeper was still in possession, and shook hands with him at the front door as he limped slowly off with Miss Banks and his uncle to go down to the schooner. His foot was still very bad, so bad that he stumbled three times on the way to the quay despite the assistance afforded by the arm of his betrothed.
"Seems to be no power in it," he said smiling faintly; "but I daresay it'll be all right by the time. I get back."
He shook hands with Captain Barber and, as a tribute to conventionality, kissed Miss Banks. The last the two saw of him, he was standing at the wheel waving his handkerchief. They waved their own in return, and as the Foam drew rapidly away gave a final farewell and departed.
"What's the game with the foot?" enquired the mate, in a low voice.
"Tell you by-and-by," said the skipper; "it's far from well, but even if it wasn't I should pretend it was bad. I suppose that doesn't suggest anything to you?"
The mate shook his head.
"Can you see any way out of it?" enquired the other. "What would you do if you were in my place?"
"Marry the girl I wanted to marry," said the mate, sturdily, "and not trouble about anything else."
"And lose thirteen cottages and this ship and my berth in the bargain," said the skipper. "Now you try and think of some other way, and if you haven't thought of it by dinner-time, I'll tell you what I'm going to do."
No other scheme having suggested itself to the mate by the time that meal arrived, he prepared to play the part of listener. The skipper, after carefully closing both the door and the skylight, prepared to speak.
"I'm in a desperate fix, Jack, that you'll admit," he said, by way of preparation.
The mate cordially agreed with him.
"There's Poppy down at Poplar, Matilda at Chelsea, and Elizabeth at Seabridge," continued Flower, indicating various points on the table with his finger as he spoke. "Some men would give up in despair, but I've thought of a way out of it. I've never got into a corner I couldn't get out of yet."
"You want a little help though sometimes," said Fraser.
"All part of my plans," rejoined Flower, airily. "If it hadn't been for my uncle's interference I should have been all right. A man's no business to be so officious. As it is, I've got to do something decided."
"If I were you," interrupted Fraser, "I should go to Captain Barber and tell him straight and plain how the thing stands. You needn't mention anything about Miss Tipping. Tell him about the other, and that you intend to marry her. It'll be beat in the long run, and fairer to Miss Tyrell, too."
"You don't know my uncle as well as I do," retorted the skipper. "He's as obstinate an old fool as ever breathed. If I did as you say I should lose everything. Now, I'll tell you what I'm going to do:—To-night, during your watch, I shall come up on deck and stand on the side of the ship to look at something in the water, when I shall suddenly hear a shout."
The mate, who had a piece of dumpling on his fork, half-way to his mouth, put it down again and regarded him open-mouthed.
"My foot," continued the skipper, in surprisingly even tones, answering his subject, "will then give way and I shall fall overboard."
The mate was about to speak, but the skipper, gazing in a rapt manner before him, waved him into silence.
"You will alarm the crew and pitch a life-belt overboard," he continued; "you will then back sails and lower the boat."
"You'd better take the lifebelt with you, hadn't you?" enquired the mate, anxiously.
"I shall be picked up by a Norwegian barque, bound for China," continued the skipper, ignoring the interruption; "I shall be away at least six months, perhaps more, according as things turn out."
The mate pushed his scarcely tasted dinner from him, and got up from the table. It was quite evident to him that the skipper's love affairs had turned his brain.
"By the time I get back, Matilda'll have ceased from troubling, anyway," said the skipper, "and I have strong hopes that Elizabeth'll take Gibson. I shall stay away long enough to give her a fair chance, anyway."
"But s'pose you get drowned before anything can pick you up!" suggested the mate, feebly.
"Drowned?" repeated the skipper. "Why, you didn't think I was really going overboard, did you? I shall be locked up in my state-room."
The mate's brow cleared and then darkened again, suddenly. "I see, some more lies for me to tell, I suppose," he said, angrily.
"After you've raised the alarm and failed to recover the body," said the skipper, with relish, "you'll lock my door and put the key in your pocket. That would be the proper thing to do if I really did go overboard, you know, and when we get to London I'll just slip quietly ashore."
The mate came back to his dinner and finished it in silence, while the skipper kept up a rambling fire of instructions for his future guidance.
"And what about Miss Tyrell?" said the mate, at length. "Is she to know?"
"Certainly not," said Flower, sharply. "I wouldn't have her know for anything. You're the only person to know, Jack. You'll have to break the news to 'em all, and mind you do it gently, so as not to cause more grief than you can help."
"I won't do it at all," said the mate.
"Yes, you will," said Flower, "and if Matilda or her mother come down again, show it to 'em in the paper. Then they'll know it'll be no good worrying Cap'n Flower again. If they see it in the paper they'll know it's true; it's sure to be in the local papers, and in the London ones, too, very likely. I should think it would; the master of a vessel!"
Fraser being in no mood to regard this vanity complacently, went up on deck and declined to have anything to do with the matter. He maintained this attitude of immovable virtue until tea-time, by which time Flower's entreaties had so won upon him that he was reluctantly compelled to admit that it seemed to be the only thing possible in the circumstances, and more reluctantly still to promise his aid to the most unscrupulous extent possible.
"I'll write to you when I'm fixed up," said the skipper, "giving you my new name and address. You're the only person I shall be able to keep touch with. I shall have to rely upon you for everything. If it wasn't for you I should be dead to the world."
"I know what you'll do as well as possible," said Fraser; "you've got nothing to do for six months, and you'll be getting into some more engagements."
"I don't think you have any call to say that, Jack," remarked Flower, with some dignity.
"Well, I wish it was well over," said the mate, despondently. "What are you going to do for money?"
"I drew out L40 to get married with—furniture and things," said Flower; "that'll go overboard with me, of course. I'm doing all this for Poppy's sake more than my own, and I want you to go up and see her every trip, and let me know how she is. She mightn't care what happened to her if she thinks I'm gone, and she might marry somebody else in desperation."
"I don't care about facing her," said Fraser, bitterly; "it's a shady business altogether."
"It's for her sake," repeated Flower, calmly, "Take on old Ben as mate, and ship another hand forward."
The mate ended the subject by going to his bunk and turning in; the skipper, who realised that he himself would have plenty of time for sleep, went on deck and sat silently smoking. Old Ben was at the wheel, and the skipper felt a glow of self-rightousness as he thought of the rise in life he was about to give the poor fellow.
At eight o'clock the mate relieved Ben, and the skipper with a view of keeping up appearances announced his intention of turning in for a bit.
The sun went down behind clouds of smoky red, but the light of the summer evening lasted for some time after. Then darkness came down over the sea, and it was desolate except for the sidelights of distant craft. The mate drew out his watch and by the light of the binnacle-lamp, saw that it was ten minutes to ten. At the same moment he heard somebody moving about forward.
"Who's that for'ard?" he cried, smartly.
"Me, sir," answered Joe's voice. "I'm a bit wakeful, and it's stiflin' 'ot down below."
The mate hesitated, and then, glancing at the open skylight, saw the skipper, who was standing on the table.
"Send him below," said the latter, in a sharp whisper.
"You'd better get below, Joe," said the mate.
"W'y, I ain't doin' no 'arm, sir," said Joe, in surprise.
"Get below," said the mate, sharply. "Do you hear?—get below. You'll be sleeping in your watch if you don't sleep now."
The sounds of a carefully modulated grumble came faintly aft, then the mate, leaning away from the wheel to avoid the galley which obstructed his view, saw that his order had been obeyed.
"Now," said the skipper, quietly, "you must give a perfect scream of horror, mind, and put this on the deck. It fell off as I went over, d'ye see?"
He handed over the slipper he had been wearing, and the mate took it surlily.
"There ought to be a splash," he murmured. "Joe's awake."
The skipper vanished, to reappear a minute or two later with a sack into which he had hastily thrust a few lumps of coal and other rubbish. The mate took it from him, and, placing the slipper on the deck, stood with one hand holding the wheel and the other the ridiculous sack.
"Now," said the skipper.
The sack went overboard, and, at the same moment, the mate left the wheel with an ear-splitting yell and rushed to the galley for the life-belt which hung there. He crashed heavily into Joe, who had rushed on deck, but, without pausing, ran to the side and flung it overboard.
"Skipper's overboard," he yelled, running back and putting the helm down.
Joe put his head down the fore-scuttle and yelled like a maniac; the others came up in their night-gear, and in a marvellously short space of time the schooner was hove to and the cook and Joe had tumbled into the boat and were pulling back lustily in search of the skipper.
Half an hour elapsed, during which those on the schooner hung over the stern listening intently. They could hear the oars in the rowlocks and the shouts of the rowers. Tim lit a lantern and dangled it over the water.
"Have you got 'im?" cried Ben, as the boat came over the darkness and the light of the lantern shone on the upturned faces of the men.
"No," said Joe, huskily.
Ben threw him a line, and he clambered silently aboard, followed by the cook.
"Better put about," he said to the mate, "and cruise about until daylight. We ain't found the belt either, and it's just possible he's got it."
The mate shook his head. "It's no good," he said, confidently; "he's gone."
"Well, I vote we try, anyhow," said Joe, turning on him fiercely. "How did it happen?"
"He came up on deck to speak to me," said the mate, shortly. "He fancied he heard a cry from the water and jumped up on the side with his hand on the rigging to see. I s'pose his bad foot slipped and he went over before I could move."
"We'll cruise about a bit," said Joe, loudly, turning to the men.
"Are you giving orders here, or am I?" said the mate sternly.
"I am," said Joe, violently. "It's our duty to do all we can." There was a dead silence. Joe, pushing himself in between Ben and the cook, eyed the men eagerly.
"What do you mean by that?" said the mate at last.
"Wot I say," said Joe, meeting him eye to eye, and thrusting his face close to his.
The mate shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly aft; then, with a regard for appearances which the occasion fully warranted, took the schooner for a little circular tour in the neighbourhood of the skipper's disappearance.
At daybreak, not feeling the loss quite as much as the men, he went below, and, having looked stealthily round, unlocked the door of the state-room and peeped in. It was almost uncanny, considering the circumstances, to see in the dim light the skipper sitting on the edge of his bunk.
"What the blazes are you doing, dodging about like this?" he burst out, ungratefully.
"Looking for the body," said the mate. "Ain't you heard us shouting? It's not my fault—the crew say they won't leave the spot while there's half a chance."
"Blast the crew," said the skipper, quite untouched by this devotion. "Ain't you taking charge o' the ship?"
"Joe's about half mad," said the mate. "It's wonderful how upset he is."
The skipper cursed Joe separately, and the mate, whose temper was getting bad, closed the interview by locking the door.
At five o'clock, by which time they had cleared three masses of weed and a barnacle-covered plank, they abandoned the search and resumed the voyage. A gloom settled on the forecastle, and the cook took advantage of the occasion to read Tim a homily upon the shortness of life and the suddenness of death. Tim was much affected, but not nearly so much as he was when he discovered that the men were going to pay a last tribute to the late captain's memory by abstaining from breakfast. He ventured to remark that the excitement and the night air had made him feel very hungry, and was promptly called an unfeeling little brute by the men for his pains. The mate, who, in deference to public opinion, had to keep up appearances the same way, was almost as much annoyed as Tim, and, as for the drowned man himself, his state of mind was the worst of all. He was so ungrateful that the mate at length lost his temper and when dinner was served allowed a latent sense ot humour to have full play.
It consisted of boiled beef, with duff, carrots, and potatoes, and its grateful incense filled the cabin.
The mate attacked it lustily listening between mouthfuls for any interruption from the state-room. At length, unable to endure it any longer, the prisoner ventured to scratch lightly on the door.
"Hist!" said the mate, in a whisper.
The scratching ceased, and the mate, grinning broadly, resumed his dinner. He finished at last, and lighting his pipe sat back easily in the locker watching the door out of the corner of his eye.
With hunger at his vitals the unfortunate skipper, hardly able to believe his ears, heard the cook come down and clear away. The smell of dinner gave way to that of tobacco, and the mate, having half finished his pipe, approached the door.
"Are you there?" he asked, in a whisper.
"Of course I am, you fool!" said the skipper, wrathfully; "where's my dinner?"
"I'm very sorry," began the mate, in a whisper.
"What?" enquired the skipper, fiercely.
"I've mislaid the key," said the mate, grinning fiendishly, "an', what's more, I can't think what I've done with it."
At this intelligence, the remnants of the skipper's temper vanished, and every bad word he had heard of, or read of, or dreamt of, floated from his hungry lips in frenzied whispers.
"I can't hear what you say," said the mate. "What?"
The prisoner was about to repeat his remarks with a few embellishments, when the mate stopped him with one little word. "Hist!" he said, quietly.
At the imminent risk of bursting, or going mad, the skipper stopped short, and the mate, addressing a remark to the cook, who was not present, went up on deck.
He found the key by tea-time, and, his triumph having made him generous, passed the skipper in a large hunk of the cold beef with his tea. The skipper took it and eyed him wanly, having found an empty stomach very conducive to accurate thinking.
"The next thing is to slip ashore at Wapping, Jack," he said, after he had finished his meal; "the whar'll be closed by the time we get there."
"The watchman's nearly sure to be asleep," said Fraser, "and you can easily climb the gate. If he's not, I must try and get him out of the way somehow."
The skipper's forebodings proved to be correct. It was past twelve by the time they reached Wapping, but the watchman was wide awake and, with much bustle, helped them to berth their craft. He received the news of the skipper's untimely end with well-bred sorrow, and at once excited the wrath of the sensitive Joe by saying that he was not surprised.
"I 'ad a warning," he said solemnly, in reply to the indignant seaman. "Larst night exactly as Big Ben struck ten o'clock the gate-bell was pulled three times."
"I've pulled it fifty times myself before now," said Joe, scathingly, "and then had to climb over the gate and wake you up."
"I went to the gate at once," continued George, addressing himself to the cook; "sometimes when I'm shifting a barge, or doing any little job o' that sort, I do 'ave to keep a man waiting, and, if he's drunk, two minutes seems like ages to 'im."
"You ought to know wot it seems like," muttered Joe.
"When I got to the gate an' opened it there was nobody there," continued the watchman, impressively, "and while I was standing there I saw the bell-pull go up an' down without 'ands and the bell rung agin three times."
The cook shivered. "Wasn't you frightened, George?" he asked, sympathetically.
"I knew it was a warning," continued the vivacious George. "W'y'e should come to me I don't know. One thing is I think 'e always 'ad a bit of a fancy for me."
"He 'ad," said Joe; "everybody wot sees you loves you, George. They can't help theirselves."
"And I 'ave 'ad them two ladies down agin asking for Mr. Robinson, and also for poor Cap'n Flower," said the watchman; "they asked me some questions about 'im, and I told 'em the lies wot you told me to tell 'em, Joe; p'r'aps that's w'y I 'ad the warning."
Joe turned away with a growl and went below, and Tim and the cook after greedily waiting for some time to give the watchman's imagination a further chance, followed his example. George left to himself took his old seat on the post at the end of the jetty, being, if the truth must be told, some-what alarmed by his own fertile inventions.
Three times did the mate, in response to the frenzied commands of the skipper, come stealthily up the companion-way and look at him. Time was passing and action of some kind was imperative.
"George," he whispered, suddenly.
"Sir," said the watchman.
"I want to speak to you," said Fraser, mysteriously; "come down here."
George rose carefully from his seat, and lowering himself gingerly on board, crept on tiptoe to the galley after the mate.
"Wait in here till I come back," said the latter, in a thrilling whisper; "I've got something to show you. Don't move, whatever happens."
His tones were so fearful, and he put so much emphasis on the last sentence, that the watchman burst hurriedly out of the galley.
"I don't like these mysteries," he said, plainly.
"There's no mystery," said the mate, pushing him back again; "something I don't want the crew to see, that's all. You're the only man I can trust."
He closed the door and coughed, and a figure which had been lurking on the companion-ladder, slipped hastily on deck and clambered noiselessly onto the jetty. The mate clambered up beside it, and hurrying with it to the gate helped it over, and with much satisfaction heard it alight on the other side.
"Good-night, Jack," said Flower. "Don't forget to look after Poppy."
"Good-night," said the mate. "Write as soon as you're fixed."
He walked back leisurely to the schooner and stood in some perplexity, eyeing the galley which contained the devoted George, He stood for so long that his victim lost all patience, and, sliding back the door, peered out and discovered him.
"Have you got it?" he asked, softly.
"No," replied Fraser; "there isn't anything. I was only making a fool of you, George. Good-night."
He walked aft, and stood at the companion watching the outraged George as he came slowly out of the galley and stared about him.
"Good-night, George," he repeated.
The watchman made no reply to the greeting, but, breathing heavily, resumed his old seat on the post; and, folding his arms across his panting bosom, looked down with majestic scorn upon the schooner and all its contents. Long after the satisfied mate had forgotten the incident in sleep, he sat there striving to digest the insult of which he had been the victim, and to consider a painful and fitting retribution.
The mate awoke next morning to a full sense of the unpleasant task before him, and, after irritably giving orders for the removal of the tarpaulin from the skylight, a substitution of the ingenious cook's for the drawn blinds ashore, sat down to a solitary breakfast and the composition of a telegram to Captain Barber. The first, a beautiful piece of prose, of which the key-note was resignation, contained two shillings' worth of sympathy and fourpence-halfpenny worth of religion. It was too expensive as it stood, and boiled down, he was surprised to find that it became unfeeling to the verge of flippancy. Ultimately he embodied it in a letter, which he preceded by a telegram, breaking the sad news in as gentle a form as could be managed for one-and-three.
The best part of the day was spent in relating the sad end of Captain Fred Flower to various enquirers. The deceased gentleman was a popular favourite, and clerks from the office and brother skippers came down in little knots to learn the full particulars, and to compare the accident with others in their experience. It reminded one skipper, who invariably took to drink when his feelings were touched, of the death of a little nephew from whooping-cough, and he was so moved over a picture he drew of the meeting of the two, that it took four men to get him off the schooner without violence.
The mate sat for some time after tea striving to summon up sufficient courage for his journey to Poplar, and wondering whether it wouldn't perhaps be better to communicate the news by letter. He even went so far as to get the writing materials ready, and then, remembering his promise to the skipper, put them away again and prepared for his visit. The crew who were on deck eyed him stolidly as he departed, and Joe made a remark to the cook, which that worthy drowned in a loud and troublesome cough.
The Wheeler family were at home when he arrived, and received him with some surprise, Mrs. Wheeler, who was in her usual place on the sofa, shook hands with him in a genteel fashion, and calling his attention to a somewhat loudly attired young man of unpleasant appearance, who was making a late tea, introduced him as her son Bob.
"Is Miss Tyrell in?" enquired Fraser, shaking his head as Mr. Wheeler dusted a small Wheeler off a chair and offered it to him.
"She's upstairs," said Emma Wheeler; "shall I go and fetch her?"
"No, I'll go up to her," said the mate quietly. "I think I'd better see her alone. I've got rather bad news for her."
"About the captain?" enquired Mrs. Wheeler, sharply.
"Yes," said Fraser, turning somewhat red. "Very bad news."
He fixed his eyes on the ground, and, in a spasmodic fashion, made perfect by practice, recited the disaster.
"Pore feller," said Mrs. Wheeler, when he had finished. "Pore feller, and cut down suddenly like that. I s'pose he 'adn't made any preparation for it?"
"Not a bit," said the mate, starting, "quite unprepared."
"You didn't jump over after him?" suggested Miss Wheeler, softly.
"I did not," said the mate, firmly; whereupon Miss Wheeler, who was fond of penny romance, sighed and shook her head.
"There's that pore gal upstairs," said Mrs. Wheeler, sorrowfully, "all innocent and happy, probably expecting him to come to-night and take her out. Emma'd better go up and break it to 'er."
"I will," said Fraser, shortly.
"Better to let a woman do it," said Mrs. Wheeler. "When our little Jemmy smashed his finger we sent Emma down to break it to his father and bring 'im 'ome. It was ever so long before she let you know the truth, wasn't it, father?"
"Made me think all sorts of things with her mysteries," said the dutiful Mr. Wheeler, in triumphant corroboration. "First of all she made me think you was dead; then I thought you was all dead—give me such a turn they 'ad to give me brandy to bring me round. When I found out it was only Jemmy's finger, I was nearly off my 'ed with joy."
"I'll go and tell her," interrupted Mr. Bob Wheeler, delicately, using the inside edge of the table-cloth as a serviette. "I can do it better than Emma can. What she wants is comforting; Emma would go and snivel all over her."
Mrs. Wheeler, raising her head from the sofa, regarded the speaker with looks of tender admiration, and the young man, after a lengthy glance in the small pier-glass ornamented with coloured paper, which stood on the mantel-piece, walked to the door.
"You needn't trouble," said Fraser, slowly; "I'm going to tell her."
Mrs. Wheeler's dull eyes snapped sharply. "She's our lodger," she said, aggressively.
"Yes, but I'm going to tell her," rejoined the mate; "the skipper told me to."
A startled silence was broken by Mr. Wheeler's chair, which fell noisily.
"I mean," stammered Fraser, meeting the perturbed gaze of the dock-foreman, "that he told me once if anything happened to him that I was to break the news to Miss Tyrell. It's been such a shock to me I hardly know what I am saying."
"Yes, you'll go and frighten her," said Bob Wheeler, endeavouring to push past him.
The mate blocked the doorway.
"Are you going to try to prevent me going out of a room in my own house?" blustered the young man.
"Of course not," said Fraser, and, giving way, ascended the stairs before him. Mr. Wheeler, junior, after a moment's hesitation, turned back and, muttering threats under his breath, returned to the parlour.
Miss Tyrell, who was sitting by the window reading, rose upon the mate's entrance, and, observing that he was alone, evinced a little surprise as she shook hands with him. It was the one thing necessary to complete his discomfiture, and he stood before her in a state of guilty confusion.
"Cap'n Flower couldn't come," he stammered.
The girl said nothing, but with her dark eyes fixed upon his flushed face waited for him to continue.
"It's his misfortune that he couldn't come," con-tinued Fraser, jerkily.
"Business, I suppose?" said the girl, after another wait. "Won't you sit down?"
"Bad business," replied Fraser. He sat down, and fancied he saw the way clear before him.
"You've left him on the Foam, I suppose?" said Poppy, seeing that she was expected to speak.
"No; farther back than that," was the response.
"Seabridge?" queried the girl, with an air of indifference.
Fraser regarded her with an expression of studied sadness. "Not so far back as that," he said, softly.
Miss Tyrell manifested a slight restlessness. "Is it a sort of riddle?" she demanded.
"No, it's a tale," replied Fraser, not without a secret admiration of his unsuspected powers of breaking bad news; "a tale with a bad ending."
The girl misunderstood him. "If you mean that Captain Flower doesn't want to come here, and sent you to say so—" she began, with dignity.
"He can't come," interrupted the mate, hastily.
"Did he send you to tell me?" she asked
Fraser shook his head mournfully. "He can't come," he said, in a low voice; "he had a bad foot—night before last he was standing on the ship's side—when he lost his hold—"
He broke off and eyed the girl nervously, "and fell overboard," he concluded.
Poppy Tyrell gave a faint cry and, springing to her feet, stood with her hand on the back of her chair regarding him. "Poor fellow," she said, softly—"poor fellow."
She sat down again by the open window and nervously plucked at the leaves of a geranium. Her face was white and her dark eyes pitiful and tender. Fraser, watching her, cursed his resourceful skipper and hated himself.
"It's a terrible thing for his friends," said Poppy, at length. "And for you," said Fraser, respectfully.
"I am very grieved," said Poppy, quietly; "very shocked and very grieved."
"I have got strong hopes that he may have got picked up," said Fraser, cheerfully; "very strong hopes, I threw him a life-belt, and though we got the boat out and pulled about, we couldn't find either of them. I shouldn't be at all surprised if he has been picked up by some vessel outward bound. Stranger things have happened."
The girl shook her head. "You didn't go overboard after him?" she asked, quietly.
"I did not," said the mate, who was somewhat tired of this tactless question; "I had to stand by the ship, and besides, he was a much better swimmer than I am—I did the best I could."
Miss Tyrell bowed her head in answer. "Yes," she said, softly.
"If there's anything I can do," said Fraser, awkwardly, "or be of use to you in any way, I hope you'll let me know—Flower told me you were all alone, and—"
He broke off suddenly as he saw the girl's lips quiver. "I was very fond of my father," she said, in extenuation of this weakness.
"I suppose you've got some relatives?" said Fraser.
The girl shook her head.
"No cousins?" said Fraser, staring. He had twenty-three himself.
"I have some in New Zealand," said Poppy, considering. "If I could, I think I should go out there."
"And give up your business here?" enquired the mate, anxiously.
"It gave me up," said Poppy, with a little tremulous laugh. "I had a week's pay instead of notice the day before yesterday. If you know anybody who wants a clerk who spells 'impatient' with a 'y' and is off-hand when they are told of it, you might let me know."
The mate stared at her blankly. This was a far more serious case than Captain Flower's. "What are you going to do?" he asked.
"Try for another berth," was the reply.
"But if you don't get it?"
"I shall get it sooner or later," said the girl.
"But suppose you don't get one for a long time?" suggested Fraser.
"I must wait till I do," said the girl, quietly.
"You see," continued the mate, twisting his hands, "it might be a long job, and I—I was wondering—what you would do in the meantime. I was wondering whether you could hold out."
"Hold out?" repeated Miss Tyrell, very coldly.
"Whether you've got enough money," blurted the mate.
Miss Tyrell turned upon him a face in which there was now no lack of colour. "That is my business," she said, stiffly.
"Mine, too," said Fraser, gazing steadily at the pretty picture of indignation before him. "I was Flower's friend as well as his mate, and you are only a girl." The indignation became impatience. "Little more than a child," he murmured, scrutinising her.
"I am quite big enough to mind my own business," said Poppy, reverting to chilly politeness.
"I wish you would promise me you won't leave here or do anything until I have seen you again,'' said Fraser, who was anxious to consult his captain on this new phase of affairs.
"Certainly not," said Miss Tyrell, rising and standing by her chair, "and thank you for calling."
Fraser rubbed his chin helplessly.
"Thank you for calling," repeated the girl, still standing.
"That is telling me to go, I suppose?" said, Fraser, looking at her frankly. "I wish I knew how to talk to you. When I think of you being here all alone, without friends and without employment, it seems wrong for me to go and leave you here."
Miss Tyrell gave a faint gasp and glanced anxiously at the door. Fraser hesitated a moment, and then rose to his feet.
"If I hear anything more, may I come and tell you?" he asked.
"Yes," said Poppy, "or write; perhaps it would be better to write; I might not be at home. Goodbye."
The mate shook hands, and, blundering down the stairs, shouted good-night to a segment of the Wheeler family visible through the half-open door, and passed out into the street. He walked for some time rapidly, gradually slowing down as he collected his thoughts.
"Flower's a fool," he said, bitterly; "and, as for me, I don't know what I am. It's so long since I told the truth I forget what it's like, and I'd sooner tell lies in a church than tell them to her."
He looked expectantly on the cabin table for a letter upon his return to the ship, but was disappointed, and the only letter yielded by the post next morning came from Captain Barber. It was couched in terms of great resignation, and after bemoaning the unfortunate skipper's untimely demise in language of great strength, wound up with a little Scripture and asked the mate to act as master and sail the schooner home.
"You'll act as mate, Ben, to take her back," said the new skipper, thrusting the letter in his pocket.
"Aye, aye, sir," said Ben, with a side glance at Joe, "but I'll keep for'ard, if you don't mind."
"As you please," said Fraser, staring.
"And you're master, I s'pose?" said Joe, turning to Fraser.
Fraser, whose manner had already effected the little change rendered necessary by his promotion from mate to master, nodded curtly, and the crew, after another exchange of looks, resumed their work without a word. Their behaviour all day was docile, not to say lamb-like, and it was not until evening that the new skipper found it necessary to enforce his authority.
The exciting cause of the unpleasantness was Mr. William Green, a slim, furtive-eyed young man, whom Fraser took on in the afternoon to fill the vacancy caused by Ben's promotion. He had not been on board half an hour before trouble arose from his attempt to introduce the manners of the drawing-room into the forecastle.
"Mr. Will-yum Green," repeated Joe, when the new arrival had introduced himself; "well, you'll be Bill 'ere."
"I don't see why, if I call you Mr. Smith, you shouldn't call me Mr. Green," said the other.
"Call me wot?" enquired Joe, sternly; "you let me 'ear you callin' me mister anythink, that's all; you let me 'ear you."
"I'm sure the cook 'ere don't mind me callin' 'im Mr. Fisher," said the new seaman.
"Cert'nly not," said the gratified cook; "only my name's Disher."
The newcomer apologised with an urbanity that rendered Joe and old Ben speechless. They gazed at each other in silent consternation, and then Ben rose.
"We don't want no misters 'ere," he said, curtly, "an' wot's more, we won't 'ave 'em. That chap's name's Bob, but we calls 'im Slushy. If it's good enough for us, it's good enough for a ordinary seaman wot's got an A. B. discharge by mistake. Let me 'ear you call 'im Slushy. Go on now."
"I've no call to address 'im at all just now," said Mr. Green, loftily.
"You call 'im Slushy," roared Joe, advancing upon him; "call 'im Slushy till I tell you to stop."
"Slushy," said Mr. Green, sullenly, and avoiding the pained gaze of the cook; "Slushy, Slushy, Slushy, Slushy, Sl——"
"That'll do," said the cook, rising, with a scowl. "You don't want to make a song abart it."
Joe, content with his victory, resumed his seat on the locker and exchanged a reassuring glance with Ben; Mr. Green, with a deprecatory glance at the cook, sat down and offered him a pipe of tobacco.
"Been to sea long?" enquired the cook, accepting it
"Not long," said the other, speaking very distinctly.
"I was brought up for something quite different. I'm just doing this till something better turns up. I find it very difficult to be a gentleman at sea."
The cook, with an eye on Joe, ventured on a gentle murmur of sympathy, and said that he had experienced the same thing.
"I 'ad money," continued Mr. Green, musingly, "and I run through it; then I 'ad more money, and I run through that."
"Ben," said Joe, suddenly, "pass me over that boot o' yours."
"Wha' for?" enquired Ben, who had just taken it off.
"To chuck at that swab there," said the indignant seaman.
Ben passed it over without a word, and his irritated friend, taking careful aim, launched it at Mr. Green and caught him on the side of the head with it. Pain standing the latter in lieu of courage, he snatched it up and returned it, and the next moment the whole forecastle was punching somebody else's head, while Tim, in a state of fearful joy, peered down on it from his bunk.
Victory, rendered cheap and easy by reason of the purblindness of the frantic cook, who was trying to persuade Mr. Green to raise his face from the floor so that he could punch it for him, remained with Joe and Ben, who, in reply to the angry shouts of the skipper from above, pointed silently to the combatants. Explanations, all different and all ready to be sworn to if desired, ensued, and Fraser, after curtly reminding Ben of his new position and requesting him to keep order, walked away.
A silence broken only by the general compliments of the much gratified Tim, followed his departure, although another outbreak nearly occurred owing to the cook supplying raw meat for Mr. Green's eye and refusing it for Joe's. It was the lack of consideration and feeling that affected Joe, not for the want of the beef, that little difficulty being easily surmounted by taking Mr. Green's. The tumult was just beginning again, when it was arrested by the sound of angry voices above. Tim, followed by Joe, sprang up the ladder, and the couple with their heads at the opening listened with appreciative enjoyment to a wordy duel between Mrs. Tipping and daughter and the watchman.
"Call me a liar, then," said old George, in bereaved accents.
"I have," said Mrs. Tipping.
"Only you're so used to it you don't notice it," remarked her daughter, scathingly.
"I tell you he's drownded," said the watchman, raising his voice; "if you don't believe me, go and ask Mr. Fraser. He's skipper in his place now."
He waved his hand in the direction of Fraser, who, having heard the noise, was coming on deck to see the cause of it. Mrs. Tipping, compressing her lips, got on board, followed by her daughter, and marching up to him eyed him severely.
"I wonder you can look us in the face after the trick you served us the other night," she said, fiercely.
"You brought it on yourselves," said Fraser, calmly. "You wouldn't go away, you know. You can't always be coming here worrying."
"We shall come whenever we choose," said Mrs. Tipping. "In the first place, we want to see Mr. Robinson; anyway we intend to see Captain Flower, so you can save that fat old man the trouble of telling us lies about him."
"Captain Flower fell overboard night before last, if that's what you mean," said Fraser, gravely.
"I never saw such a man in all my life," exclaimed Mrs. Tipping, wrathfully. "You're a perfect—what's the man's name in the Scriptures?" she asked, turning to her daughter.
Miss Tipping, shaking her head despondently, requested her parent not to worry her.
"Well, it doesn't signify. I shall wait here till he comes," said Mrs. Tipping.
"What, Ananias?" cried Fraser, forgetting himself.
Mrs. Tipping, scorning to reply, stood for some time gazing thoughtfully about her. Then, in compliance with her whispered instructions, her daughter crossed to the side and, brushing aside the outstretched hand of the watchman, reached the jetty and walked into the office. Two of the clerks were still working there, and she came back hastily to her mother with the story of the captain's death unmistakably confirmed.
Mrs. Tipping, loath to accept defeat, stood for some time in consideration. "What had Captain Flower to do with Mr. Robinson?" she asked at length, turning to Fraser.
"Can't say," was the reply.
"Have you ever seen Mr. Robinson?" enquired the girl.
"I saw him one night," said the other, after some deliberation. "Rather good-looking man, bright blue eyes, good teeth, and a jolly laugh."
"Are you likely to see him again?" enquired Miss Tipping, nodding in confirmation of these details.
"Not now poor Flower's gone," replied Fraser. "I fancy we shipped some cases of rifles for him one night. The night you first came. I don't know what it all was about, but he struck me as being rather a secretive sort of man."
"He was that," sighed Miss Tipping, shaking her head.
"I heard him say that night," said the mate, forgetful of his recent longings after truth, "that he was off abroad. He said that something was spoiling his life, I remember, but that duty came first."
"There, do you hear that, mother?" said Miss Tipping.
"Yes, I hear," said the other, with an aggressive sniff, as she moved slowly to the side. "But I'm not satisfied that the captain is dead. They'd tell us anything. You've not seen the last of me, young man, I can tell you."
"I hope not," said Fraser, cordially. "Any time the ship's up in London and you care to come down, I shall be pleased to see you."
Mrs. Tipping, heated with the climb, received this courtesy with coldness, and having enquired concerning the fate of Captain Flower of six different people, and verified their accounts from the landlord of the public-house at the corner, to whom she introduced herself with much aplomb as being in the profession, went home with her daughter, in whom depression, in its most chronic form, had settled in the form of unfilial disrespect.
Two hours later the Foam got under way, and, after some heated language owing to the watchman mistaking Mr. Green's urbanity for sarcasm, sailed slowly down the river. The hands were unusually quiet, but their behaviour passed unnoticed by the new skipper, who was too perturbed by the falsehoods he had told and those he was about to tell to take much heed of anything that was passing.
"I thought you said you preferred to keep for-'ard?" he said to Ben, as that worthy disturbed his meditations next morning by bustling into the cabin and taking his seat at the breakfast table.
"I've changed my mind; the men don't know their place," said the mate, shortly.
Fraser raised his eyebrows.
"Forget who I am," said Ben, gruffly. "I was never one to take much count of such things, but when it comes to being patted on the back by an A. B., it's time to remind 'em."
"Did they do that?" said Fraser, in a voice of horror.
"Joe did," said Ben. "'E won't do it ag'in, I don't think. I didn't say anything, but I think 'e knows my feelings."
"There's your berth," said Fraser, indicating it with a nod.
Ben grunted in reply, and being disinclined for conversation, busied himself with the meal, and as soon as he had finished went up on deck.
"Wot yer been down there for, Bennie?" asked Joe, severely, as he appeared; "your tea's all cold."
"I've 'ad my breakfast with the skipper," said Ben, shortly.
"You was always fond of your stummick, Bennie," said Joe, shaking his head, sorrowfully. "I don't think much of a man wot leaves his old mates for a bit o' bacon."
The new mate turned away from him haughtily, "Tim," he said, sharply.
"Yes, Ben," said the youth. "Why, wot's the matter? Wot are you looking like that for? Ain't you well?" "Wot did you call me?" demanded the new mate.
"I didn't call you anything," said the startled Tim.
"Let me 'ear you call me Ben ag'in and you'll hear of it," said the other, sharply. "Go and clean the brasswork."
The youth strolled off, gasping, with an envious glance at the cook, who, standing just inside the galley, cheerfully flaunted a saucepan he was cleaning, as though defying the mate to find him any work to do.
"Bill," said the mate.
"Sir," said the polite seaman.
"Help Joe scrub paintwork," was the reply.
"Me!" broke in the indignant Joe.
"Scrub—Look 'ere, Ben."
"Pore old Joe," said the cook, who had not forgiven him for the previous night's affair. "Pore old Joe."
"Don't stand gaping about," commanded the new mate. "Liven up there."
"It don't want cleaning. I won't do it," said Joe, fiercely.
"I've give my orders," said the new mate, severely; "if they ain't attended to, or if I 'ear any more about not doing 'em, you'll hear of it. The idea o' telling me you won't do it. The idea o' setting such an example to the young 'uns. The idea—Wot are you making that face for?"
"I've got the earache," retorted Joe, with bitter sarcasm.
"I thought you would 'ave, Joe," said the vengeful cook, retiring behind a huge frying-pan, "when I 'eard you singing this morning."
Fraser, coming on deck, was just in time to see a really creditable imitation of a famous sculpture as represented by Joe, Tim, and Ben, but his criticism was so sharp and destructive that the group at once broke and never re-formed. Indeed, with a common foe in the person of Ben, the crew adjusted their own differences, and by the time Seabridge was in sight were united by all the fearful obligations of a secret society of which Joe was the perpetual president.
Captain Barber, with as much mourning as he could muster at such short notice, was waiting on the quay. His weather-beaten face was not quite so ruddy as usual, and Fraser, with a strong sense of shame, fancied, as the old man clambered aboard the schooner, that his movements were slower than of yore.
"This is a dreadful business, Jack," he said, giving him a hearty grip, when at length he stood aboard the schooner.
"Shocking," said Fraser, reddening.
"I've spoken to have the coast-guards look out for him," said the old man. "He may come ashore, and I know he'd be pleased to be put in the churchyard decent."
"I'm sure he would," said Fraser. "I suppose there's no chance of his having been picked up. I slung a life-belt overboard."
Captain Barber shook his head. "It's a mysterious thing," he said slowly; "a man who'd been at sea all his life to go and tumble overboard in calm weather like that."
"There's a lot that's mysterious about it, sir," said Joe, who had drawn near, followed by the others. "I can say that, because I was on deck only a few minutes before it happened."
"Pity you didn't stay up," said Captain Barber, ruefully.
"So I thought, sir," said Joe, "but the mate saw me on deck and made me go below. Two minutes afterwards I heard a splash, and the skipper was overboard."
There was a meaning in his words that there was no mistaking. The old man, looking round at the faces, saw that the mate's was very pale.
"What did he make you go below for?" he asked, turning to Joe.
"Better ask him, sir," replied the seaman. "I wanted to stay up on deck, but I 'ad to obey orders. If I 'ad stayed on deck, he wouldn't have been cap'n."
Captain Barber turned and regarded the mate fixedly; the mate, after a vain attempt to meet his gaze, lowered his eyes to the deck.
"What do you say to all this?" enquired Barber, slowly.
"Nothing," replied the mate. "I did send Joe below and the skipper fell overboard a minute or two afterwards. It's quite true."
"Fell?" enquired Captain Barber.
"Fell," repeated the other, and looked him squarely in the eyes.
For some time Captain Barber said nothing, and the men, finding the silence irksome, shuffled uneasily.
"Fred saved your life once," said Barber, at length.
"He did," replied Fraser.
The old man turned and paced slowly up and down the deck.
"He was my sister's boy," he said, halting in front of the mate, "but he was more like my son. His father and mother were drownded too, but they went down fair and square in a gale. He stuck by his ship, and she stuck by him, God bless her."
"I'm obliged to you for bringing my ship from London," said Barber, slowly. "I sha'n't want you to take 'er back. I sha'n't want you to stay in 'er at all. I don't want to see you again."
"That's as you please," said Fraser, trying to speak unconcernedly. "It's your ship, and it's for you to do as you like about her. I'll put my things together now."
"You don't ask for no reason?" asked Barber, eyeing him wistfully.
The other shook his head. "No," he said, simply, and went below.
He came up some little time later with his belongings in a couple of chests, and, the men offering no assistance, put them ashore himself, and hailing a man who was sitting in a cart on the quay, arranged with him to convey them to the station.
"Is 'e to be let go like this?" said Joe, hotly.
"Will you stop me?" demanded Fraser, choking with rage, as he stepped aboard again.
"Joe," said Ben, sharply.
The seaman glared at him offensively.
"Go for'ard," said the new mate, peremptorily, "go for'ard, and don't make yourself so busy."
The seaman, helpless with rage, looked to Captain Barber for guidance, and, the old man endorsing the new mate's order, went forward, indulging in a soliloquy in which Ben as a proper noun was mixed up in the company of many improper adjectives.
Fraser, clambering into the cart, looked back at the Foam. The old man was standing with his hands clasped behind his back looking down on the deck, while the hands stood clumsily by. With an idea that the position had suddenly become intolerable he sat silent until they reached the station, and being for the first time for many months in the possession of a holiday, resolved for various reasons to pay a dutiful visit to his father at Bittlesea.
Captain Barber walked to his house in thoughtful mood, and sighed as he thought of the uncertainty of life and the futility of earthly wishes. The blinds at his windows were all decently drawn, while the Union Jack drooped at half-mast in the front garden. He paused at the gate, with a strong distaste for encountering the subdued gloom and the wealth of womanly love which awaited him indoors, and bethinking himself of the masterless state of his craft, walked slowly back and entered the Thorn Inn.
"No news, I suppose, Captain Barber?" said the landlady, regarding him with great sympathy.
The captain shook his head, and exchanging greetings with a couple of neighbours, ordered something to drink.
"It's wonderful how you bear up, I'm sure," said the landlady. "When my poor dear died I cried every day for five weeks. I came down to skin and bone almost."
"Well, if I was you—" said the old man, irritably, and regarding the lady's ample proportions with an unfavourable eye.
"What?" enquired the other, pausing with her fingers on the whisky-tap.
"If I was you," repeated Captain Barber, slowly, in order to give time for full measure, "I should go an' cry for five months all day and all night."
The landlady put the glass in front of him sharply, and after giving him his change without looking at him, thoughtfully wiped down the counter.
"Mrs. Church quite well?" she enquired, with studied artlessness.
"Quite well," replied the captain, scenting danger.
The landlady, smiling amiably, subsided into a comfortable Windsor-chair, and shook her head at him so severely that, against his better sense, he felt compelled to demand an explanation.
"There, there," replied the landlady, "get along with you, do! Innocence!"
"It's no good, Cap'n Barber," said one of the customers, with the best intentions in the world.
"It struck me all of a heap," said the landlady.
"So it did me," said the other man.
"My missus knew it all along," said the first man; "she said she knew it by the way they looked at one another."
"Might I ask who you're talking of?" demanded the incensed Barber, who had given up the effort to appear unconscious as being beyond his powers.
"A young engaged couple," said the landlady.
The captain hesitated. "What have you been shaking your head at me and telling me it's no good for, then?" he demanded.
"At your pretending not to have heard of it," said the landlady.
"I have not 'eard of it," said Captain Barber, fiercely, as he took up his glass and walked towards the parlour. "I've got something better to do than talk about my neighbours' affairs."
"Yes, of course you have," said the landlady. "We know that."
The indignant Barber closed the door behind him with a bang, and, excited with the controversy, returned with a short and suspicious nod the greeting of a small man of shrunken and forlorn aspect who was sitting at the other side of the room.
"Mornin', Cap'n Nibletts," he growled.
"Mornin, sir," said Nibletts; "how's things?"
Captain Barber shook his head. "Bad as bad can be," he replied, slowly; "there's no hope at all. I'm looking for a new master for my vessel."
Nibletts looked up at him eagerly, and then looked away again. His last command had hoisted the green flag at the mouth of the river in a position which claimed attention, respect, and profanity from every craft which passed, its master having been only saved from the traditional death of the devoted shipmaster by the unpardonable conduct of the mate, who tore him from his craft by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his trousers.
"What about Harris?" he suggested.
"I don't like Harris's ways," said Barber, slowly.
"Well, what about Fletcher?" said Nibletts.
"Fletcher's ways are worse than wot Harris's ways are," commented Captain Barber.
"I can understand you being careful," said Captain Nibletts; "she's the prettiest little craft that ever sailed out of Seabridge. You can't be too careful.".
"If things 'ad been different," said the gratified owner, rolling his whisky round his mouth and swallowing it gently, "I'd have liked you to have 'ad her."
"Thankee," said Nibletts, quietly.
There was a pause, during which both men eyed the noble specimens of fish which are preserved for tavern parlours. Captain Barber took another sip of whisky.
"I'm going to use my own judgment, Nibletts," he said slowly. "I've always rose superior to the opinions of other people. There's nobody you know would give you a ship. I'm going to give you the Foam!"
Captain Nibletts, rising from his seat, crossed over, and taking his hand, thanked him in broken accents for this overpowering expression of confidence in him. Then he walked back, and taking his whisky from the table, threw it on the floor.
"I've had enough of that," he said briefly. "When am I to take her over, Cap'n Barber?"
"So soon as ever you please," said his benefactor. "Old Ben'll stay on as mate; Fraser's gone."
Captain Nibletts thanked him again, and, clapping on his hard hat, passed hastily into the bar, his small visage twisted into a smile, to which it had long been a stranger. With the customers in the bar he exchanged remarks of so frivolous a nature in passing that the landlady nearly dropped the glass she was wiping, and then, crimson with indignation, as the door swung behind him, realised that the melancholy and usually respectful Nibletts had thought fit to publicly address her as "Gertie."
In the same high spirits the new master swung hastily down the road to his new command. Work had already commenced, and the energetic Ben, having been pushed over once by a set of goods in the slings owing to the frantic attempts of the men at the hand-crane to keep pace with his demands, was shouting instructions from a safe distance. He looked round as Nibletts stepped aboard, and, with a wary eye on the crane, bustled towards him.
"Wot can we do for you, Cap'n Nibletts?" he enquired, with a patronising air.
"I'm to be master," replied the other, quietly.
"You?" said Ben, with offensive astonishment, as he saw the death of his own ambitious hopes in that quarter. "You to be master?"
Nibletts nodded and coloured. "Cap'n Barber just gave me the berth," he remarked.
Ben sighed and shook his head. "He'll never be the same man ag'in," he affirmed, positively; "'e went away: from 'ere dazed, quite dazed. 'Ow was 'e when you saw 'im?"
"He was all right," was the reply.
Ben shook his head as one who knew better. "I 'ope he won't get no more shocks," he observed, gravely. "It'll be nice for you to get to sea ag'in, Cap'n."
Captain Nibletts raised his weather-beaten countenance and sniffed the air with relish.
"You'll be able to see the Diadem as we go by," continued the sorely-aggravated Ben. "There's just her masts showing at 'igh water."
A faint laugh rose from somebody in the hold, and Nibletts, his face a dull red, stole quietly below and took possession of his new quarters. In the course of the day he transferred his belongings to the schooner, and, as though half fearful that his new command might yet slip through his fingers, slept on board.
On the way back to London a sum in simple proportion, set by Joe, helped to exercise the minds of the crew in the rare intervals which the new mate allowed them for relaxation: "If Ben was bad on the fust v'y'ge, and much wuss on the second, wot 'ud he be like on the tenth?" All agreed that the answer would require a lot of working. They tarred the rigging, stropped the blocks, and in monkey-like attitudes scraped the masts. Even the cook received a little instruction in his art, and estranged the affections of all hands by a "three-decker," made under Ben's personal supervision.
The secret society discussed the matter for some time in vain. The difficulty was not so much in inventing modes of retaliation as in finding some bold spirit to carry them out. In vain did the president allot tasks to his admiring followers, preceded by excellent reasons why he should not perform them himself. The only one who showed any spirit at all was Tim, and he, being ordered to spill a little tar carelessly from aloft, paid so much attention to the adverb that Joe half killed him when he came down again.
Then Mr. William Green, having learnt that the mate was unable to read, did wonders with a piece of chalk and the frying pan, which he hung barometer fashion outside the galley when the skipper was below, the laughter of the delighted crew bearing witness to the success of his efforts, laughter which became almost uncontrollable as the mate, with as stately an air as he could assume, strode towards the galley and brought up in front of the frying-pan.
"Wot's all that, cook?" he demanded, pointing to the writing.
"Wot, sir?" asked the innocent.
"On the frying-pan," replied Ben, scowling.
"That's chalk-marks," explained the cook, "to clean it with."
"It looks to me like writing," snapped the mate.
"Lor, no, sir," said the cook, with a superior smile.
"I say it does," said Ben, stamping.
"Well, o' course you know best, sir," said the cook, humbly. "I ain't nothing of a scholard myself. If it's writing, wot does it say, please?"
"I don't say it is writing," growled the old man. "I say it looks like it."
"I can assure you you're mistook, sir," said the cook, blandly; "you see, I clean the sorsepans the same way. I only 'eard of it lately. Look 'ere."
He placed the articles in question upside down in a row on the deck, and Tim, reading the legends inscribed thereon, and glancing from them to the mate, was hastily led below in an overwrought condition by the flattered Mr. Green.
"Cook," said the mate, ferociously.
"Sir," said the other.
"I won't 'ave the sorsepans cleaned that way.
"No, sir," said the cook, respectfully, "it does make 'em larf, don't it, sir, though I can't see wot they're larfing at any more than wot you can."
The mate walked off fuming, and to his other duties added that of inspector of pots and pans, a condition of things highly offensive to the cook, inasmuch as certain culinary arrangements of his, only remotely connected with cleanliness, came in for much unskilled comment.
The overworked crew went ashore at the earliest possible moment after their arrival in London, in search of recuperative draughts. Ben watched them a trifle wistfully as they moved off, and when Nibletts soon after followed their example without inviting him to join him in a social glass of superior quality, smiled mournfully as he thought of the disadvantages of rank.
He sat for some time smoking in silence, monarch of all he surveyed, and then, gazing abstractedly at the silent craft around him, fell into a pleasant dream, in which he saw himself in his rightful position as master of the Foam, and Nibletts, cashiered for drunkenness, coming to him for employment before the mast. His meditations were disturbed by a small piece of coal breaking on the deck, at which he looked lazily, until, finding it followed by two other pieces, he reluctantly came to the conclusion that they were intended for him. A fourth piece, better aimed, put the matter beyond all reasonable doubt, and, looking up sharply, he caught the watchman in the act of launching the fifth.
"Hullo, old 'un," said George, cheerfully, "I thought you was asleep."
"You thought wrong, then," said the mate, sourly; "don't you do that ag'in."
"Why, did I 'urt you?" said the other, surprised at his tone.
"Next time you want to chuck coal at anybody," continued Ben, with dignity, "pick out one o' the 'ands; mates don't like 'aving coal chucked at 'em by watchmen."
"Look who we are," gasped the petrified George. "Look who we are," he repeated, helplessly. "Look who we are."
"Keep your place, watchman," said the mate, severely; "keep your place, and I'll keep mine."
The watchman regarded him for some time in genuine astonishment, and then, taking his old seat on the post, thrust his hands in his pockets, and gave utterance to this shocking heresy, "Mates ain't nothing."
"You mind your business, watchman," said the nettled Ben, "and I'll mind mine."
"You don't know it," retorted the other, breathing heavily; "be—sides, you don't look like a mate. I wouldn't chuck coal at a real mate."
He said no more, but sat gazing idly up and down the river with a face from which all expression had been banished, except when at intervals his gaze rested upon the mate, when it lit up with an expression of wonder and joy which made the muscles ache with the exercise.
He was interrupted in this amusement by the sound of footsteps and feminine voices behind him; the indefatigable Tippings were paying another of their informal visits, and, calmly ignoring his presence, came to the edge of the jetty and discussed ways and means of boarding the schooner.
"Mr. Fraser's gone," said the watchman, politely and loudly, "there's a new skipper now, and that tall, fine, 'andsome, smart, good-looking young feller down there is the new mate."
The new mate, looking up fiercely, acknowledged the introduction with an inhospitable stare, a look which gave way to one of anxiety as Mrs. Tipping, stepping into the rigging, suddenly lost her nerve, and, gripping it tightly, shook it in much the same fashion as a stout bluebottle shakes the web of a spider.
"Hold tight, mar," cried her daughter, excitedly.
The watchman stepped into the rigging beside her, and patted her soothingly on the back; the mate, coming to the side, took her foot and assisted her to reach the deck. Miss Tipping followed, and the elder lady, after recovering from the shock caused by her late peril, fell to discussing the eternal subject of Mr. Robinson with the new mate.
"No, I never see 'im," said Ben, thoughtfully; "I never heard of him till you come asking arter 'im.
"You must make up your mind he's gone," said Mrs. Tipping, turning to her daughter, "that's what I keep telling you. I never was so tired of anything in my life as tramping down here night after night. It ain't respectable."
"You needn't come," said the other, dutifully. "He was last heard of on this ship, and where else am I to look for him? You said you'd like to find him yourself."
"I should," said Mrs. Tipping, grimly; "I should. Me an' him are to have a little talk, if ever we do meet."
"If he ever comes aboard this ship," said the mate, firmly, "I'll tackle him for you."
"Find out where he lives," said Mrs. Tipping, eagerly.
"And let us know," added her daughter, giving him a card; "that's our address, and any time you're up our way we shall be very pleased to see you, Mr.——"
"Brown," said the mate, charmed with their manners. "Mr. Brown."
"Ben," cried a voice from the wharf.
The new mate gazed austerely at the small office-boy above.
"Letter for the mate," said the youth, who was unversed in recent history; "catch."
He pitched it to the deck and walked off whistling. There was only one mate in Ben's world, and he picked the letter up and put it in his pocket.
"Don't mind us, if you want to read it," said Mrs. Tipping, kindly.
"Only business, I expect," said Ben, grandly.
He took it from his pocket, and, tearing the envelope, threw it aside and made a feint of reading the contents.
"Not bad news, I hope?" said Mrs. Tipping, noticing his wrinkled brow.
"I can't read without my glasses," said the mate, with a measure of truth in the statement. He looked at Mrs. Tipping, and saw a chance of avoiding humiliation.
"P'r'aps you'd just look at it and see if it's important," he suggested.
Mrs. Tipping took the letter from him, and, after remarking on the strangeness of the handwriting, read aloud:—
"Dear Jack:—If you want to see Mr. Norton, come to 10, John Street, Walworth, and be careful nobody sees you."
"Jack," said the mate, stooping for the envelope.
"Why it must be meant for Mr.—for Jack Fraser."
"Careful nobody sees you," murmured Miss Tipping, excitedly, as she took the envelope from the mate; "why, the address is printed by hand."
Mother and daughter looked at each other. It was evident that their thoughts were similar, and that one could have known them without the expenditure of the proverbial penny.
"I'll give it to him when I see him," remarked Ben, thrusting the letter in his pocket. "It don't seem to be important. He ain't in London, at present, I don't think."
"I shouldn't think it was important at all," said Mrs. Tipping, soothingly.
"Not at all," echoed her daughter, whose cheek was burning with excitement. "Good-night, Mr. Brown."
Ben bade them good-night, and in his capacity of host walked up the wharf with them and saw them depart.
"Nice little thing, ain't she?" said the watchman who was standing there, after Mrs. Tipping had bidden the mate good-bye; "be careful wot you're a-doin' of, Ben. Don't go and spile yourself by a early marriage, just as you're a-beginning to get on in life. Besides, a mate might do better than that, and she'd only marry you for your persition."
In happy ignorance of the changes caused by his sudden and tragic end, Captain Flower sat at the open window of his shabby Walworth lodging, smoking an after-breakfast pipe, and gazing idly into the dismal, littered yard beneath. Time—owing to his injured foot, which, neatly bandaged at a local dispensary, rested upon a second chair—hung rather heavily upon his hands as he sat thinking of ways and means of spending the next six months profitably and pleasantly. He had looked at the oleographs on the walls until he was tired, and even the marvels of the wax fruit under a cracked glass shade began to pall upon him.
"I'll go and stay in the country a bit," he muttered; "I shall choke here."
He took a slice of bread from the tray, and breaking it into small pieces, began to give breakfast to three hens which passed a precarious existence in the yard below.
"They get quite to know you now," said the small but shrewd daughter of the house, who had come in to clear the breakfast things away. "How'd you like your egg?"
"Very good," said Flower.
"It was new laid," said the small girl.
She came up to the window and critically inspected the birds. "She laid it," she said, indicating one of the three.
"She's not much to look at," said Flower, regarding the weirdest-looking of the three with some interest.
"She's a wonderful layer," said Miss Chiffers, "and as sharp as you make 'em. When she's in the dust-bin the others 'ave to stay outside. They can go in when she's 'ad all she wants."
"I don't think I'll have any more eggs," said Flower, casually. "I'm eating too much. Bacon'll do by itself."
"Please yourself," said Miss Chiffers, turning from the window. "How's your foot?"
"Better," said Flower.
"It's swelled more than it was yesterday," she said, with ill-concealed satisfaction.
"It feels better," said the captain.
"That's 'cos it's goin' dead," said the damsel; "then it'll go black all up your leg, and then you'll 'ave to 'ave it orf."
Flower grinned comfortably.
"You may larf," said the small girl, severely; "but you won't larf when you lose it, an' all becos you won't poultice it with tea leaves."
She collected the things together on a tea tray of enormous size, and holding it tightly pressed to her small waist, watched with anxious eyes as the heavy articles slowly tobogganed to the other end. A knife fell outside the door, and the loaf, after a moment's hesitation which nearly upset the tray, jumped over the edge and bounded downstairs.
Flower knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and slowly refilling it, began to peruse the morning paper, looking in vain, as he had looked each morning, for an account of his death.
His reading was interrupted by a loud knock at the street door, and he threw down the paper to be ready to receive the faithful Fraser. He heard the door open, and then the violent rushing upstairs of Miss Chiffers to announce his visitor.
"Somebody to see you, Mr. Norton," she panted, bursting into the room.
"Well, show him up," said Flower.
"All of 'em?" demanded Miss Chiffers.
"Is there more than one?" enquired Flower in a startled voice.
"Three," said Miss Chiffers, nodding; "two gentlemen and a lady."
"Did they say what their names were?" enquired the other, turning very pale.
Miss Chiffers shook her head, and then stooped to pick up a hairpin. "One of 'em's called Dick," she said, replacing the pin.
"Tell them I'm not at home," said Flower, hastily, "but that I shall be back at twelve o'clock, See?"
He produced a shilling, and the small girl, with an appreciative nod, left the room, and closed the door behind her. Flower, suffering severely from nervous excitement, heard a discussion in the passage below, and then sounds of a great multitude coming upstairs and opening various doors on its way, in spite of the indignant opposition afforded by the daughter of the house.
"What's in here?" enquired a well-known voice, as a hand was placed on his door handle.
"Nothing," said Miss Chiffers; "'ere, you go away, that's my bedroom. Go away, d'you 'ear?"
There was the sound of a diminutive scuffle outside, then the door opened and a smartly-dressed young man, regardless of the fair form of Miss Chiffers, which was coiled round his leg, entered the room.
"Why, Dick," said the skipper, rising, "Dick! Thank goodness it's you."
"I've no doubt you're delighted," said Mr. Tipping, coldly. "What are you doing with that knife?"
"I thought it was somebody else," said Flower, putting it down. "I thought it was another attempt on my life."
Mr. Tipping coughed behind his hand and murmured something inaudibly as his sister entered the room, followed by the third member of the party.
"Oh, Fred!" she said, wildly, "I wonder you can look me in the face. Where have you been all this time? Where have you been?"
"Give the man time to think," said her brother, exchanging a glance with the other man.
"I've been everywhere," said Flower, facing them defiantly. "I've been hunted all over the country."
"But where did you go when you left me that day?" enquired Miss Tipping.
"It's a long story," said Flower, slowly. "But you got the letter I wrote you?"
Miss Tipping shook her head.
"You didn't get it?" said Flower, in surprise. "I can't think what you must have thought of me."
"I'll tell you what I thought of you, if you'd like to know," interrupted Mr. Tipping, eagerly.
"I wrote to you to explain," said Flower, glibly "I went abroad suddenly, called away at a moment's notice."
"Special trains and all that sort o' thing, I s'pose," said Mr. Tipping, with interest.
"Dick," said Miss Tipping, fiercely.
"Well," said Dick, gruffly.
"Hold your tongue."
"I've not had any real sleep since," said Flower, pathetically, "what with the danger and thinking of you."
"Why didn't you write again?" enquired Miss Tipping.
"I asked you to write to a certain address in that letter I sent you," said Flower, "and when I came back to England and found there was no letter, I concluded that you couldn't forgive me."
Miss Tipping looked at him reproachfully, but Mr. Tipping, raising his eyes, gasped for air.
"But who are these enemies?" asked Miss Tipping, tenderly drawing closer to Flower.
"A man in the Government service——" began the captain.
He broke off disdainfully until such time as Mr. Tipping should have conquered a somewhat refractory cough.
"In the secret service," continued Flower, firmly, "has got enemies all round him."
"You'll have to get something else to do when we are married, Fred," said Miss Tipping, tearfully.
"You've forgiven me, then?" said Flower, hoping that he had concealed a nervous start.
"I'd forgive you anything, Fred," said Miss Tipping, tenderly; "you'll have to give up this job at once."
Captain Flower shook his head and smiled mournfully, thereby intimating that his services were of too valuable a nature for any Government to lightly dispense with.
"May I come round and see you to-morrow?" he enquired, putting his arm about the lady's waist.
"Come round to-morrow?" repeated Miss Tipping, in surprise; "why, you don't think I'm going to leave you here surrounded by dangers? You're coming home with us now."
"No, to-morrow," said the unhappy mariner, in a winning voice.
"You don't go out of my sight again," said Miss Tipping, firmly. "Dick, you and Fred shake hands."
The two gentlemen complied. Both were somewhat proud of their grip, and a bystander might have mistaken their amiable efforts to crush each other's fingers for the outward and visible signs of true affection.
"You'd better settle up here now, Fred," said Miss Tipping.
Flower, putting the best face he could upon it, assented with a tender smile, and, following them downstairs, held a long argument with Mrs. Chiffers as to the amount due, that lady having ideas upon the subject which did more credit to her imagination than her arithmetic.
The bill was settled at last, and the little party standing on the steps waited for the return of Miss Chiffers, who had been dispatched for a four-wheeler.
"Oh, what about your luggage, Fred?" enquired Miss Tipping, suddenly.
"Haven't got any," said Flower, quickly. "I managed to get away with what I stand up in, and glad to do that."
Miss Tipping squeezed his arm and leaned heavily upon his shoulder.
"I was very lucky to get off as I did," continued the veracious mariner. "I wasn't touched except for a rap over my foot with the butt-end of a revolver. I was just over the wall in time."
"Poor fellow," said Miss Tipping, softly, as she shivered and looked up into his face. "What are you grinning at, Dick?"
"I s'pose a fellow may grin if he likes," said Mr. Tipping, suddenly becoming serious.
"This is the first bit of happiness I've had since I saw you last," murmured Flower.
Miss Tipping squeezed his arm again.
"It seems almost too good to be true," he continued. "I'm almost afraid I shall wake up and find it all a dream."
"Oh, you're wide-awake enough," said Mr. Tipping.
"Wide-awake ain't the word for it," said the other gentleman, shaking his head.
"Uncle," said Miss Tipping, sharply.
"Yes, my dear," said the other, uneasily.
"Keep your remarks for those that like them," said his dutiful niece, "or else get out and walk."
Mr. Porson, being thus heckled, subsided into defiant mutterings, intended for Dick Tipping's ear alone, and the remainder of the drive to Chelsea passed almost in silence. Arrived at the Blue Posts, Flower got out with well-simulated alacrity, and going into the bar, shook hands heartily with Mrs. Tipping before she quite knew what he was doing.
"You've got him, then," she said, turning to her daughter, "and now I hope you're satisfied. Don't stand in the bar; I can't say what I want to say here—come in the parlour and shut the door."
They followed the masterful lady obediently into the room indicated.
"And now, Mr. Robinson," she said, with her hands on her hips, "now for your explanation."
"I have explained to Matilda," said Flower, waving his hand.
"That's quite right, mar," said Miss Tipping, nodding briskly.
"He's had a dreadful time, poor feller," said Dick Tipping, unctuously. "He's been hunted all over England by—who was it, Mister Robinson?"
"The parties I'm working against," said Flower, repressing his choler by a strong effort.
"The parties he's working against," repeated Mr. Tipping.
"Somebody ought to talk to them parties," said Mr. Porson, speaking with much deliberation, "that is, if they can find 'em."
"They want looking after, that's what they want," said Dick Tipping, with a leer.
"It's all very well for you to make fun of it," said Mrs. Tipping, raising her voice. "I like plain, straightforward dealing folk myself. I don't under-stand nothing about your secret services and Governments and all that sort of thing. Mr. Robinson, have you come back prepared to marry my daughter? Because, if you ain't, we want to know why not."
"Of course I have," said Flower, hotly. "It's the dearest wish of my life. I should have come before, only I thought when she didn't answer my letter that she had given me up."
"Where 'ave you been, and what's it all about?" demanded Mrs. Tipping.
"At present," said Flower, with an appearance of great firmness, "I can't tell you. I shall tell Matilda the day after we're married—if she'll still trust me and marry me—and you shall all know as soon as we think it's safe."
"You needn't say another word, mar," said Miss Tipping, warningly.
"I'm sure," said the elder lady, bridling. "Perhaps your uncle would like to try and reason with you."
Mr. Porson smiled in a sickly fashion, and cleared his throat.
"You see, my dear—" he began.
"Your tie's all shifted to one side," said his niece, sternly, "and the stud's out of your buttonhole. I wish you'd be a little tidier when you come here, uncle; it looks bad for the house."
"I came away in a hurry to oblige you," said Mr. Porson. "I don't think this is a time to talk about button-holes."
"I thought you were going to say something," retorted Miss Tipping, scathingly, "and you might as well talk about that as anything else."
"It ain't right," said Mrs. Tipping, breaking in, "that you should marry a man you don't know anything about; that's what I mean. That's only reasonable, I think."
"It's quite fair," said Flower, trying hard to speak reluctantly. "Of course, if Matilda wishes, I'm quite prepared to go away now. I don't wish her to tie herself up to a man who at present, at any rate, has to go about wrapped in a mystery."
"All the same," said Mrs. Tipping, with a gleam in her eyes, "I'm not going to have anybody playing fast and loose with my daughter. She's got your ring on her finger. You're engaged to be married to her, and you mustn't break it off by running away or anything of that kind. If she likes to break it off, that's a different matter."
"I'm not going to break it off," said Miss Tipping, fiercely; "I've made all the arrangements in my own mind. We shall get married as soon as we can, and I shall put Dick in here as manager, and take a nice little inn down in the country somewhere."
"Mark my words," said Mrs. Tipping, solemnly, "you'll lose him again."
"If I lose him again," said Miss Tipping, dramatically, "if he's spirited away by these people, or anything happens to him, Dick won't be manager here. Uncle Porson will have as much drink and as many cigars as he pays for, and Charlie will find another berth."
"Nobody shall hurt a hair of his head," said Mr. Tipping, with inimitable pathos.
"He must be protected against hisself," said Mr. Porson, spitefully; "that's the 'ardest part. He's a man what if 'e thinks it's his dooty 'll go away just as 'e did before."
"Well if he gets away from Charlie," said Mr. Tipping, "he'll be cute. There's one thing, Mr. Robinson: if you try to get away from those who love you and are looking after you, there'll be a fight first, then there'll be a police court fuss, and then we shall find out what the Government mean by it."
Captain Flower sat down in an easy posture as though he intended a long stay, and in a voice broken with emotion murmured something about home, and rest, and freedom from danger.
"That's just it," said Mrs. Tipping, "here you are, and here you'll stay. After you're married, it'll be Matilda's affair; and now let's have some tea."
"First of all, mar, kiss Fred," said Miss Tipping, who had been eyeing her parent closely.
Mrs. Tipping hesitated, but the gallant captain, putting a good face on it, sprang up and, passing his arm about her substantial waist, saluted her, after which, as a sort of set-off, he kissed Miss Tipping.
"I can only say," he said truthfully, "that this kindness hurts me. The day I'm married I'll tell you all."
In happy ignorance that the late master of the Foam had secured a suite of rooms at the Blue Posts Hotel, the late mate returned to London by train with a view of getting into communication with him as soon as possible. The delay occasioned by his visit to Bittlesea was not regretted, Mr. Fraser senior having at considerable trouble and expense arranged for him to take over the Swallow at the end of the week.
Owing to this rise in his fortune he was in fairly good spirits, despite the slur upon his character, as he made his way down to the wharf. The hands had knocked off work for the day, and the crew of the schooner, having finished their tea, were sprawling in the bows smoking in such attitudes of unstudied grace as best suited the contours of their figures. Joe looked up as he approached, and removing his pipe murmured something inaudible to his comrades.
"The mate's down below, sir," said Mr. William Green in reply to Fraser. "I shall be pleased to fetch him."
He walked aft and returned shortly, followed by Ben, who, standing stiffly before his predecessor, listened calmly to his eager enquiry about his letter.
"No, there's been nothing for you," he said, slowly. He had dropped the letter overboard as the simplest way of avoiding unpleasantness. "Was you expecting one?"