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

Chapter 4

Safe for the time being, but with the memory of his offences pursuing him, the cook first washed his face and hands in a trough, and next removed the stains of the crime from his knife. He then pushed on again rapidly until he struck another road, and begging a lift from a passing wagon, lay full length on top of a load of straw and nervously scanned the landscape as they travelled. Half a dozen miles farther on the wagon halted before a comfortable farmhouse, and the cook, after bestowing on the carter two of the few coins left him, went his way, losing himself, with a view to baffling pursuit, among a maze of small lanes, turning right or left as the fancy took him, until nightfall found him tired and famished on the outskirts of a small village.

Conscious of the power of the telegraph, which he had no doubt was interesting itself in his behalf over the surrounding districts, he skulked behind a hedge until the lights went from the ground floor to the first floor of the cottages and then went out altogether. He then, with the utmost caution, looked round in search of shelter. He came at last to two cottages standing by themselves about half a mile beyond the village, one of which had a wooden shed in the garden which seemed to offer the very shelter he required. Satisfied that the inmates of the cottage were all abed he entered the garden, and, treading on tiptoe, walked towards the shed, fumbled at the hasp and opened the door. It was pitch dark within and silent, till something rustled uneasily. There was a note of alarm and indignation. The cook tripped on a stone, and only saved himself from falling by clutching at a perch which a dozen fowls instantly vacated with loud and frenzied appeals for assistance. Immediately the shed was full of flapping wings and agitated hens darting wildly between his legs as he made for the door again, only to run into the arms of a man who came from the cottage.

“I’ve got him, Poll!” shouted the latter, as he dealt the cook a blow with a stick. “I’ve got him!”

He fetched him another blow and was preparing, for a third, when the cook, maddened with the pain, struck at him wildly and sent him sprawling. He was up again in an instant and, aided by his wife, who had stopped to make a slight concession to appearances in the shape of a flannel petticoat, threw the cook down and knelt on him. A man came out from the adjoining cottage, and having, with great presence of mind, first found a vacant spot on the cook and knelt on it, asked what was the matter.

“After my hens,” said the first man breathlessly. “I just heard ’em in time.”

“I wasn’t after your hens. I didn’t know they was there!” gasped the cook.

“Lock him up!” said the second man warmly.

“I’m goin’ to,” said the other, “Keep still, you thief!”

“Get up!” said the cook faintly; “you’re killin’ me.

“Take him in the house and tie him up for the night, and we’ll take him to Winton police station in the morning,” said the neighbor. “He’s a desperate character.”

As they declined to trust the cook to walk, he was carried into the kitchen, where the woman, leaving him for a moment, struck a match and hastily lit a candle. She then opened a drawer and, to the cook’s horror, began pulling out about twenty fathoms of clothes-line.

“The best way and the safest is to tie him in a chair,” said the neighbor. “I remember my gran’-father used to tell a tale of how they served a highwayman that way once.”

“That would be best, I think,” said the woman pondering. “He’d be more comfortable in a chair, though I’m sure he don’t deserve it.”

They raised the exhausted cook, and placing him in a stout oak chair, lashed him to it until he could scarcely breathe.

“After my gran’father had tied the highwayman in the chair, he gave him a crack on the head with a stick,” said the neighbor, regarding the cook thoughtfully.

“They was very brutal in those times,” said the cook, before anybody else could speak.

“Just to keep him quiet like,” said the neighbor, somewhat chilled by the silence of the other two.

“I think he’ll do as he is,” said the owner of the fowls, carefully feeling the prisoner’s bonds. “If you’ll come in in the morning, Pettit, we’ll borrow a cart an’ take him over to Winton. I expect there’s a lot of things against him.”

“I expect there is,” said Pettit, as the cook shuddered. “Well, good-night.”

He returned to his house, and the couple, after carefully inspecting the cook again, and warning him of the consequences if he moved, blew out the candle and returned to their interrupted slumbers.

For a long time the unfortunate cook sat in a state of dreary apathy, wondering vaguely at the ease with which he had passed from crime to crime, and trying to estimate how much he should get for each. A cricket sang from the hearthstone, and a mouse squeaked upon the floor. Worn out with fatigue and trouble, he at length fell asleep.

He awoke suddenly and tried to leap out of his bunk on to the floor and hop on one leg as a specific for the cramp. Then, as he realized his position, he strove madly to rise and straighten the afflicted limb. He was so far successful that he managed to stand, and in the fantastic appearance of a human snail, to shuffle slowly round the kitchen. At first he thought only of the cramp, but after that had yielded to treatment a wild idea of escape occurred to him. Still bowed with the chair, he made his way to the door, and, after two or three attempts, got the latch in his mouth and opened it. Within five minutes he had shuffled his way through the garden gate, which was fortunately open, and reached the road.

The exertion was so laborious that he sat down again upon his portable seat and reckoned up his chances. Fear lent him wings, though of a very elementary type, and as soon as he judged he was out of earshot he backed up against a tree and vigorously banged the chair against it.

He shed one cracked hind leg in this way, and the next time he sat down had to perform feats of balancing not unworthy of Blondin himself.

Until day broke did this persecuted man toil painfully along with the chair, and the sun rose and found him sitting carefully in the middle of the road, faintly anathematizing Captain Gething and everything connected with him. He was startled by the sound of footsteps rapidly approaching him, and, being unable to turn his head, he rose painfully to his feet and faced about bodily.

The new-comer stopped abruptly, and, gazing in astonishment at the extraordinary combination of man and chair before him, retired a few paces in disorder. At a little distance he had mistaken the cook for a lover of nature, communing with it at his ease; now he was undecided whether it was a monstrosity or an apparition.

“Mornin’, mate,” said the cook in a weary voice.

“Morning,” said the man, backing still more.

“I ‘spose,” said the cook, trying to smile cheerfully, “you’re surprised to see me like this?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it afore,” said the man guardedly.

“I don’t s’pose you ‘ave,” said the cook. “I’m the only man in England that can do it.”

The man said he could quite believe it.

“I’m doin’ it for a bet,” said the cook.

“Oh-h,” said the man, his countenance clearing, “a bet. I thought you were mad. How much is it?”

“Fifty pounds,” said the cook. “I’ve come all the way from London like this.”

“Well, I’m blest!” said the man. “What won’t they think of next! Got much farther to go?”

“Oakville,” said the cook, mentioning a place he had heard of in his wanderings. “At least I was, but I find it’s too much for me. Would you mind doing me the favor of cutting this line?”

“No, no,” said the other reproachfully, “don’t give up now. Why, it’s only another seventeen miles.”

“I must give it up,” said the cook, with a sad smile.

“Don’t be beat,” said the man warmly. “Keep your ‘art up, and you’ll be as pleased as Punch presently to think how near you was losing.”

“Cut it off,” said the cook, trembling with impatience; “I’ve earned forty pounds of it by coming so far. If you cut it off I’ll send you ten of it.”

The man hesitated while an inborn love of sport struggled with his greed.

“I’ve got a wife and family,” he said at last in extenuation, and taking out a clasp-knife, steadied the cook with one hand while he severed his bonds with the other.

“God bless you, mate!” said the cook, trying to straighten his bowed back as the chair fell to the ground.

“My name’s Jack Thompson,” said his benefactor. “Jack Thompson, Winchgate ‘ll find me.”

“I’ll make it twelve pounds,” said the grateful cook, “and you can have the chair.”

He shook him by the hand, and, freed from his burden, stepped out on his return journey, while his innocent accomplice, shouldering the chair, went back to learn from the rightful owner a few hard truths about his mental capacity.

Not knowing how much start he would have, the cook, despite his hunger and fatigue, pushed on with all the speed of which he was capable. After an hour’s journey he ventured to ask the direction of an embryo ploughman, and wheedled out of him a small, a very small, portion of his breakfast. From the top of the next hill he caught a glimpse of the sea, and taking care to keep this friend of his youth in sight, felt his way along by it to Brittlesea. At midday he begged some broken victuals from a gamekeeper’s cottage, and with renewed vigor resumed his journey, and at ten o’clock that night staggered on to Brittlesea quay and made his way cautiously to the ship. There was nobody on deck, but a light burned in the foc’sle, and after a careful peep below he descended. Henry, who was playing, a losing game of draughts with Sam, looked up with a start, and overturned the board.

“Lord love us, cookie!” said Sam, “where ‘ave you been?”

The cook straightened up, smiling faintly, and gave a wave of his hand which took in all the points of the compass. “Everywhere,” he said wearily.

“You’ve been on the spree,” said Sam, regarding him severely.

Spree!” said the cook with expression. “Spree!

His feelings choked him, and after a feeble attempt to translate them into words, he abandoned the attempt, and turning a deaf ear to Sam’s appeal for information, rolled into his bunk and fell fast asleep.

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