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

Chapter 9

To the skipper’s surprise and disapproval Annis kept her word. To be sure she could not prevent him meeting her in the road when the schooner was at Northfleet, his attitude when she tried to, being one of wilful and deliberate defiance. She met this disobedience adeptly by taking a pupil home with her, and when even this was not sufficient added to the number. The day on which she appeared in the road with four small damsels was the last day the skipper accompanied her. He could only walk in front or behind; the conversation was severely technical, and the expression on the small girls’ faces precocious in the extreme.

The search went on all the summer, the crew of the Seamew causing much comment at the various ports by walking about as though they had lost something. They all got to wear a bereaved appearance after a time, which, in the case of the cook — who had risked some capital in the affair — was gradually converted to one of resignation.

At the beginning of September they found themselves at Ironbridge, a small town on the East Coast, situated on the river Lebben. As usual, the skipper’s inquiries revealed nothing. Ironbridge was a small place, with absolutely nothing to conceal; but it was a fine day, and Henry, who disliked extremely the task of assisting to work out the cargo, obtained permission to go ashore to purchase a few small things for the cook and look round.

He strolled along blithely, casting a glance over his shoulders at the dusty cloud which hung over the Seamew as he went. It was virgin soil to him, and he thirsted for adventure.

The town contained but few objects of interest. Before the advent of railways it had been a thriving port with a considerable trade; now its streets were sleepy and its wharves deserted. Besides the Seamew the only other craft in the river was a tiny sloop, the cargo of which two men were unloading by means of a basket and pulley and a hand truck.

The quietude told upon Henry, who, after a modest half-pint, lit his pipe and sauntered along the narrow High Street with his hands in his pockets. A short walk brought him to the white hurdles of the desolate market-place. Here the town as a town ended and gave place to a few large houses standing in their own grounds.

“Well, give me London,” said Henry to himself as he paused at a high brick wall and looked at the fruit trees beyond. “Why, the place seems dead!”

He scrambled up on to the wall, and, perched on the top, whistled softly. The grown-up flavor of half-pints had not entirely eradicated a youthful partiality for apples. He was hidden from the house by the trees, and almost involuntarily he dropped down on the other side of the wall and began to fill his pockets with the fruit.

Things were so quiet that he became venturesome, and, imitating the stealthy movement of the Red Indian, whom he loved, so far as six or seven pounds of apples would allow him, made his way to a large summer-house and peeped in. It was empty, except for a table and a couple of rough benches, and after another careful look round, he entered, and seating himself on the bench, tried an apple.

He was roused to a sense of the danger of his position by footsteps on the path outside, which, coming nearer and nearer, were evidently aimed at the summer-house. With a silence and celerity of which any brave would have been proud, he got under the table.

“There you are, you naughty little girl,” said a woman’s voice. “You will not come out until you know your rivers perfectly.”

Somebody was pushed into the summer-house, the door slammed behind, and a key turned in the lock. The footsteps retreated again, and the embarrassed brave realized that he was in a cruelly false position, his very life, so to speak, depending on the strength a small girl’s scream.

“I don’t care!” said a dogged voice. “Bother your rivers! bother your rivers! bother your rivers!”

The owner of the voice sat on the table and hummed fiercely. In the stress of mental anguish caused by his position, Henry made a miscalculation, and in turning bumped the table heavily with his head.

“Ough!” said the small girl breathlessly.

“Don’t be frightened,” said Henry, popping up humbly; “I won’t hurt you.”

“Hoo!” said the small girl in a flutter; “a boy!”

Henry rose and seated himself respectfully, coughing confusedly, as he saw the small girl’s gaze riveted on his pockets.

“What have you got in your pockets?” she asked.

“Apples,” said Henry softly. “I bought ’em in the town.”

The small girl extended her hand, and accepting a couple, inspected them carefully.

“You’re a bad, wicked boy!” she said seriously as she bit into one. “You’ll get it when Miss Dimchurch comes!”

“Who’s Miss Dimchurch?” inquired Henry with pardonable curiosity.

“Schoolmistress,” said the small girl.

“Is this a school?” said Henry.

The small girl, her mouth full of apple, nodded.

“Any men here?” inquired Henry with an assumed carelessness.

The small girl shook her head.

“You’re the only boy I’ve ever seen here,” she said gleefully. “You’ll get it when Miss Dimchurch comes!”

His mind relieved of a great fear, Henry leaned back and smiled confidently.

“I’m not afraid of the old girl,” he said quietly, as he pulled out his pipe and filled it.

The small girl’s eyes glistened with admiration.

“I wish I was a boy,” she said plaintively, “then I shouldn’t mind her. Are you a sailor-boy?”

“Sailor,” corrected Henry; “yes.”

“I like sailors,” said the small girl amicably. “You may have a bite of my apple if you like.”

“Never mind, thanks,” said Henry hastily; “I’ve got a clean one here.”

The small girl drew herself up and eyed him haughtily, but finding that he was not looking at her resumed her apple.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“‘Enery Hatkins,” replied the youth, as he remembered sundry cautions about the letter h he had received at school. “What’s yours?”

“Gertrude Ursula Florence Harcourt,” said the small girl, sitting up straighter to say it. “I don’t like the name of Atkins.”

“Don’t you?” said Henry, trying not to show resentment. “I don’t like Gertrude, or Ursula, or Florence, and Harcourt’s the worst of all.”

Miss Harcourt drew off three or four inches and drummed with the tips of her fingers on the table. “I don’t care what you like,” she said humming.

“I like Gerty,” said Henry with the air of a connoisseur, as he looked at the small flushed face. “I think Gerty’s very pretty.”

“That’s what they always call me,” said Miss Harcourt carelessly. “Does your ship go right out to sea?”

“Yes,” said the boy. They had been blown out to sea once, and he salved his conscience with that.

“And how many times,” said Gertrude Ursula Florence Harcourt, getting nearer to him again, “have you had fights with pirates?”

She left absolutely no loophole. If she had asked him whether he had ever fought pirates he would have said “No,” though that would have been hard with her little excitable face turned towards his and the dark blue eyes dancing with interest.

“I forget whether it was six or seven,” said Henry Atkins. “I think it was only six.”

“Tell us all about them,” said Miss Harcourt, shifting with excitement.

Henry took a bite of his apple and started, thankful that a taste for reading of a thrilling description had furnished him with material. He fought ships in a way which even admirals had never thought of, and certainly not the pirates, who were invariably discomfited by the ingenious means by which he enabled virtue to triumph over sin. Miss Harcourt held her breath with pleasurable terror, and tightened or relaxed the grip of her small and not too clean fingers on his arm as the narrative proceeded.

“But you never killed a man yourself,” said she, when he had finished. There was an inflection, just a slight inflection, of voice, which Henry thought undeserved after the trouble he had taken.

“I can’t exactly say,” he replied shortly. “You see in the heat”— he got it right that time —“in the heat of an engagement you can’t be sure.”

“Of course you can’t,” said Miss Harcourt, repenting of her unreasonableness. “You are brave!” Henry blushed.

“Are you an officer?” inquired Miss Harcourt.

“Not quite,” said Henry, wishing somehow that he was.

“If you make haste and become an officer I’ll marry you when I grow up,” said Miss Harcourt, smiling on him kindly. “That is if you like, of course.”

“I should like it very much,” said Henry wistfully, “I didn’t mean it when I said I didn’t like your names just now.”

“You shouldn’t have told stories, then,” said Miss Harcourt severely, but not unkindly; “I can’t bear storytellers.”

The conscience-stricken Henry groaned inwardly, but, reflecting there was plenty of time to confess before the marriage, brightened up again. The “Rivers of Europe” had fallen beneath the table, and were entirely forgotten until the sounds of many feet and many voices in the garden recalled them to a sense of their position.

“Play-time,” said the small girl, picking up her book and skipping to the farthest seat possible from Henry. “Thames, Seine, Danube, Rhine.”

A strong, firm step stopped outside the door, and a key turned in the lock. The door was thrown open, and Miss Dimchurch peeping in, drew back with a cry of surprise. Behind her some thirty small girls, who saw her surprise, but not the reason for it, waited eagerly for light.

“Miss Harcourt!” said the principal in an awful voice.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Miss Harcourt looking up, with her finger in the book to keep the place.

“How dare you stay in here with this person?” demanded the principal.

“It wasn’t my fault,” said Miss Harcourt, working up a whimper. “You locked me in. He was here when I came.”

“Why didn’t you call after me?” demanded Miss Dimchurch.

“I didn’t know he was here; he was under the table,” said Miss Harcourt.

Miss Dimchurch turned and bestowed a terrible glance upon Henry, who, with his forgotten pipe in his hand, looked uneasily up to see whether he could push past her. Miss Harcourt, holding her breath, gazed at the destroyer of pirates, and waited confidently for something extraordinary to happen.

“He’s been stealing my apples!” said Miss Dimchurch tragically. “Where’s the gymnasium mistress?”

The gymnasium mistress, a tall pretty girl, was just behind her.

“Remove that horrid boy, Miss O’Brien,” said the principal.

“Don’t worry,” said Henry, trying to speak calmly; “I’ll go. Stand away here. I don’t want to be hard on wimmin.”

“Take him out,” commanded the mistress.

Miss O’Brien, pleased at this opportunity of displaying her powers, entered, and squaring her shoulders, stood over the intruder in much the same way that Henry had seen barmen stand over Sam.

“Look here, now,” he said, turning pale; “you drop it. I don’t want to hurt you.”

He placed his pipe in his pocket, and rose to his feet as the gymnasium mistress caught him in her strong slender arms and raised him from the ground. Her grip was like steel, and a babel of admiring young voices broke upon his horrified ears as his captor marched easily with him down the garden, their progress marked by apples, which rolled out of his pockets and bounded along the ground.

“I shall kick you,” whispered Henry fiercely — ignoring the fact that both legs were jammed together — as he caught sight of the pale, bewildered little face of Gertrude U. F. Harcourt.

“Kick away,” said Miss O’Brien sweetly, and using him as a dumb-bell, threw in a gratuitous gymnastic display for the edification of her pupils.

“If you come here again, you naughty little boy,” said Miss Dimchurch, who was heading the procession behind, “I shall give you to a policeman. Open the gate, girls!”

The gate was open, and Henry, half dead with shame, was thrust into the road in full view of the cook, who had been sent out in search of him.

“Wot, ‘Enery?” said the cook in unbelieving accents as he staggered back, aghast at the spectacle —“wotever ‘ave you been a-doin’ of?”

“He’s been stealing my apples!” said Miss Dimchurch sternly. “If I catch him here again I shall cane him!”

“Quite right, ma’am! I hope he hasn’t hurt anybody,” said the cook, unable to realize fully the discomfiture of the youth.

Miss Dimchurch slammed the gate and left the couple standing in the road. The cook turned and led the way down to the town again, accompanied by the crestfallen Henry.

“‘Ave a apple, cook?” said the latter, proffering one; “I saved a beauty a-purpose for you.”

“No, thanks,” said the cook.

“It won’t bite you,” said Henry shortly.

“No, and I won’t bite it either,” replied the cook.

They continued their way in silence, until at the market-place Henry paused in front of the “Farmer’s Arms.”

“Come in and ‘ave a pint, old chap,” he said cordially.

“No, thankee,” said the cook again. “It’s no use, Enery, you don’t git over me in that way.”

“Wot d’ye mean?” blustered the youth.

“You know,” said the other darkly.

“No, I don’t,” said Henry.

“Well, I wouldn’t miss tellin’ the other chaps, no, not for six pints,” said the cook cheerfully. “You’re a deep un, ‘Enery, but so am I.”

“Glad you told me,” said the out-generalled youth “Nobody’d think so to look at your silly, fat face.”

The cook smiled indulgently, and, going aboard, left his youthful charge to give the best explanation he could of his absence to the skipper — an explanation which was marred for him by the childish behavior of the cook at the other end of the ship, who taking the part of Miss O’Brien for himself, gave that of Henry to a cork fender, which, when it became obstreperous — as it frequently did on the slightest provocation — he slapped vigorously, giving sundry falsetto howls, which he fondly imagined were in good imitation of Henry. After three encores the skipper stepped forward for enlightenment, returning to the mate with a grin so aggravating that the sensitive Henry was near to receiving a thrashing for insubordination of the most impertinent nature.

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