The Skipper's Wooing, by W. W. Jacobs

Chapter 10

From Ironbridge, two days later, they sailed with a general cargo for Stourwich, the Seamew picking her way carefully down the river by moonlight, followed at an ever-increasing distance by a cork fender of abandoned aspect.

A great change had come over Henry, and an attitude of proud reserve had taken the place of the careless banter with which he usually regaled the crew. He married Miss O’Brien in imagination to a strong man of villainous temper and despotic ideas, while the explanations he made to Miss Harcourt were too ingenious and involved to be confined in the space of a single chapter. To these daydreams, idle though he knew they were, he turned as a welcome relief from the coarse vulgarity of the crew.

Sympathy had widened his ideas, and he now felt a tender but mournful interest in the skipper’s affairs. He read aloud to himself at every opportunity, and aspirated his h’s until he made his throat ache. His aspirations also extended to his conversation, until at last the mate told him plainly “that if he blew in his face again he’d get his ears boxed.”

They passed the breakwater and dropped anchor in the harbor of Stourwich just as the rising sun was glowing red on the steeple of the town church. The narrow, fishy little streets leading from the quay were deserted, except for one lane, down which sleepy passengers were coming in twos and threes to catch the boat, which was chafing and grinding against the timbers of the jetty and pouring from its twin-funnels dense volumes of smoke to take the sting out of the morning air.

Little by little as the Seamew who was not quite certain as to her berth, rode at anchor, the town came to life again. Men of marine appearance, in baggy trousers and tight jerseys, came slowly on to the quay and stared meditatively at the water or shouted vehemently at other men, who had got into small boats to bale them out with rusty cans. From some of these loungers, after much shouting and contradictory information, the Seamew, discovered her destination and was soon fast alongside.

The cargo — a very small one — was out by three o’clock that afternoon, and the crew, having replaced the hatches and cleaned up, went ashore together, after extending an invitation to Henry — which was coldly declined — to go with them.

The skipper was already ashore, and the boy, after enduring for some time the witticisms of the mate, on the subject of apples, went too.

For some time he wandered aimlessly about the town, with his hands in his pockets. The season was drawing to an end, but a few holiday-makers were lounging about on the parade, or venturing carefully along the dreary breakwater to get the full benefit of the sea air. Idly watching these and other objects of interest on the sea-shore, the boy drifted on until he found himself at the adjoining watering-place of Overcourt.

The parade ended in two flights of steps, one of which led to the sands and the other to the road and the cliffs above. For people who cared for neither, thoughtful local authorities had placed a long seat, and on this Henry placed himself and sat for some time, regarding with the lenity of age the erratic sports of the children below. He had sat there for some time when he became idly interested in the movements of an old man walking along the sands to the steps. Arrived at the foot he disappeared from sight, then a huge hand gripped the handrail, and a peaked cloth cap was revealed to the suddenly interested Henry, for the face of the old man was the face of the well-thumbed photograph in the foc’sle.

Unconscious of the wild excitement in the breast of the small boy on the seat, the old man paused to take breath for the next flight.

“Have you — got such a thing as a — as a match — about you?” said Henry, trying to speak calmly, but failing.

“You’re over-young to smoke,” said the old man, turning round and regarding him.

At any other time, with any other person, Henry’s retort to this would have been rude, but the momentous events which depended on his civility restrained him.

“I find it soothing,” he said with much gravity, “if I get overworked or worried.”

The old man regarded him with unfeigned astonishment, a grim smile lurking at the corners of his well-hidden mouth.

“If you were my boy,” he said shortly, as he put his forefinger and thumb into his waistcoat pocket and extracted a time-stained lucifer, “do you know what I’d do to you?”

“Stop me smoking?” hazarded Henry cheerfully.

“I would that,” said the other, turning to go.

“How old were you when you started smoking?” asked the boy.

“About your age, I expect,” said the old man slowly; “but I was a much bigger chap than you are. A stunted little chap like you ought not to smoke.”

Henry smiled wanly, and began to think that the five pounds would be well earned.

“Will you have a pipe?” he said, proffering a gaudy pouch.

“Confound you!” said the old man, flashing into sudden weak anger. “When I want your tobacco I’ll ask you for it.”

“No offence,” said the boy hastily, “no offence. It’s some I bought cheap, and our chaps said I’d been ‘ad. I only wanted to see what you thought of it.”

The old man hesitated a moment, and then taking the seat beside him, accepted the proffered pouch and smelt the contents critically. Then he drew a small black clay from his pocket and slowly filled it.

“Smokes all right,” he said after a few puffs. He leaned back, and half closing his eyes, smoked with the enjoyment of an old smoker to whom a pipe is a somewhat rare luxury, while Henry regarded his shabby clothes and much-patched boots with great interest.

“Stranger here?” inquired the old man amiably.

“Schooner Seamew down in the harbor,” said Henry, indicating the distant town of Stourwich with a wave of his hand.

“Ay, ay,” said the old man, and smoked in silence.

“Got to stay here for a few days,” said Henry, watching him out of the tail of his eye; “then back.”

“London?” suggested the other.

“Northfleet,” said Henry carelessly, “that’s where we came from.”

The old man’s face twitched ever so slightly, and he blew out a cloud of smoke.

“Do you live there?” he inquired.

“Wapping,” said Henry; “but I know Northfleet very well — Gravesend too. Ever been there?”

“Never,” said the old man emphatically; “never.”

“Rather a nice place, I think,” said Henry; “I like it better than Wapping. We’ve sailed from there a year now. Our skipper is fond of it too. He’s rather sweet on a girl who’s teacher in a school there.”

“What school?” asked the old man.

The boy gave a slight laugh. “Well, it’s no good telling you if you don’t know the place,” he said easily; “it’s a girls’ school.”

“I used to know a man that lived there,” said the other, speaking slowly and carefully. “What’s her name?”

“I forget,” said the boy, yawning.

Conversation flagged, and the two sat idly watching the last of the children as they toiled slowly towards home from the sands. The sun had set and the air was getting chilly.

“I’ll be getting home,” said the old man. “Goodnight, my lad.”

“Good-night to you,” said the well-mannered Henry.

He watched the old man’s still strong figure as it passed slowly up the steps, and allowing him to get some little distance start, cautiously followed. He followed him up the steps and along the cliff, the figure in front never halting until it reached a small court at the back of a livery stable; then, heedless of the small shadow, now very close behind, it pushed open the door of a dirty little house and entered. The shadow crept up and paused irresolute, and then, after a careful survey of the place, stole silently and swiftly away.

The shadow, choosing the road because it was quicker, now danced back to Stourwich, and jumping lightly on to the schooner, came behind the cook and thumped him heavily on the back. Before the cook could seize him he had passed on to Sam, and embracing as much of that gentleman’s waist as possible, vainly besought him to dance.

“‘E’s off ‘is ‘ead,” said Sam, shaking himself free and regarding him unfavorably. “What’s wrong, kiddy?”

“Nothing,” said Henry jubilantly; “everything’s right.”

“More happles?” said the cook with a nasty sneer.

“No, it ain’t apples,” said Henry hotly; “you never get more than one idea at a time into that ‘ead of yours. Where’s the skipper? I’ve got something important to tell ’im-something that’ll make ’im dance.”

“Wot is it?” said the cook and Sam together turning pale.

“Now don’t get excited,” said Henry, holding up his hand warningly; “it’s bad for you, Sam, because you’re too fat, and it’s bad for cookie because ‘is ‘ead’s weak. You’ll know all in good time.”

He walked aft, leaving them to confer uneasily as to the cause of his jubilant condition, and hastily descending the companion ladder, burst noisily into the cabin and surveyed the skipper and mate with a smile, which he intended should be full of information. Both looked up in surprise, and the skipper, who was in a very bad temper, half rose from his seat.

“Where’ve you been, you young rascal?” he asked, eyeing him sternly.

“Looking around,” said Henry, still smiling as he thought of the change in the skipper’s manner when he should disclose his information.

“This is the second time you’ve taken yourself off,” roared the other angrily. “I’ve half a mind to give you the soundest thrashing you ever had in your life.”

“All right,” said Henry, somewhat taken aback. “When —”

“Don’t answer me, you idle young rascal!” said the skipper sternly; “get to bed.”

“I want to ——” began Henry, chilled by this order.

“Get to bed,” repeated the skipper, rising.

“Bed?” said Henry, as his face hardened; “bed at seven o’clock?”

“I’ll punish you somehow,” said the skipper, looking from him to the cook who had just descended. “Cook!”

“Yes, sir,” said the cook briskly.

“Put that boy to bed,” said the other, “and see he goes now.”

“A’ right, sir,” said the grinning cook. “Come along, ‘Enery.”

With a pale face and a haughty mien, which under other circumstances might have been extremely impressive, Henry, after an entreating glance at the skipper, followed him up the steps.

“‘E’s got to go to bed,” said the cook to Sam and Dick, who were standing together. “‘E’s been naughty.”

“Who said so?” asked Sam eagerly.

“Skipper,” replied the cook. “‘E told me we wos to put him to bed ourselves.”

“You needn’t trouble,” said Henry stiffly; “I’ll go all right.”

“It’s no trouble,” said Sam oilily.

“It’s a pleasure,” said Dick truthfully.

Arrived at the scuttle, Henry halted, and with an assumption of ease he was far from feeling, yawned, and looked round at the night.

“Go to bed,” said Sam reprovingly, and seizing him in his stout arms passed him below to the cook, feet first, as the cook discovered to his cost.

“‘E ought to be bathed first,” said Sam, assuming the direction of affairs; “and it’s Monday night, and ‘e ought to have a clean nightgown on.”

“Is ‘is little bed made?” inquired the cook anxiously.

“‘Is little bed’s just proper,” said Dick, patting it.

“We won’t bathe him to-night,” said Sam, as he tied a towel apron-wise round his waist; “it ‘ud be too long a job. Now, ‘Enery, come on to my lap.”

Aided by willing arms, he took the youth on to his knee, and despite his frantic struggles, began to prepare him for his slumbers. At the pressing request of the cook he removed the victim’s boots first, and, as Dick said, it was surprising what a difference it made. Then having washed the boy’s face with soap and flannel, he lifted him into his berth, grinning respectfully up at the face of the mate as it peered down from the scuttle with keen enjoyment of the scene.

“Is the boy asleep?” he inquired aggravatingly, as Henry’s arms and legs shot out of the berth in mad attempts to reach his tormentors.

“Sleeping like a little hangel, sir!” said Sam respectfully. “Would you like to come down and see he’s all right, sir?”

“Bless him!” said the grinning mate.

He went off, and Henry, making the best of a bad job, closed his eyes and refused to be drawn into replying to the jests of the men. Ever since he had been on the schooner he had been free from punishment of all kinds by the strict order of the skipper — a situation of which he had taken the fullest advantage. Now his power was shaken, and he lay grinding his teeth as he thought of the indignity to which he had been subjected.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38