[Illustration: “The Boatswain’s Mate”]
Mr. George Benn, retired boat-swain, sighed noisily, and with a despondent gesture, turned to the door and stood with the handle in his hand; Mrs. Waters, sitting behind the tiny bar in a tall Windsor-chair, eyed him with some heat.
“My feelings’ll never change,” said the boatswain.
“Nor mine either,” said the landlady, sharply. “It’s a strange thing, Mr. Benn, but you always ask me to marry you after the third mug.”
“It’s only to get my courage up,” pleaded the boatswain. “Next time I’ll do it afore I ’ave a drop; that’ll prove to you I’m in earnest.”
He stepped outside and closed the door before the landlady could make a selection from the many retorts that crowded to her lips.
After the cool bar, with its smell of damp saw-dust, the road seemed hot and dusty; but the boatswain, a prey to gloom natural to a man whose hand has been refused five times in a fortnight, walked on unheeding. His steps lagged, but his brain was active.
He walked for two miles deep in thought, and then coming to a shady bank took a seat upon an inviting piece of turf and lit his pipe. The heat and the drowsy hum of bees made him nod; his pipe hung from the corner of his mouth, and his eyes closed.
He opened them at the sound of approaching footsteps, and, feeling in his pocket for matches, gazed lazily at the intruder. He saw a tall man carrying a small bundle over his shoulder, and in the erect carriage, the keen eyes, and bronzed face had little difficulty in detecting the old soldier.
The stranger stopped as he reached the seated boatswain and eyed him pleasantly.
“Got a pipe o’ baccy, mate?” he inquired.
The boatswain handed him the small metal box in which he kept that luxury.
“Lobster, ain’t you?” he said, affably.
The tall man nodded. “Was,” he replied. “Now I’m my own commander-in-chief.”
“Padding it?” suggested the boatswain, taking the box from him and refilling his pipe.
The other nodded, and with the air of one disposed to conversation dropped his bundle in the ditch and took a seat beside him. “I’ve got plenty of time,” he remarked.
Mr. Benn nodded, and for a while smoked on in silence. A dim idea which had been in his mind for some time began to clarify. He stole a glance at his companion—a man of about thirty-eight, clear eyes, with humorous wrinkles at the corners, a heavy moustache, and a cheerful expression more than tinged with recklessness.
“Ain’t over and above fond o’ work?” suggested the boatswain, when he had finished his inspection.
“I love it,” said the other, blowing a cloud of smoke in the air, “but we can’t have all we want in this world; it wouldn’t be good for us.”
The boatswain thought of Mrs. Waters, and sighed. Then he rattled his pocket.