“Surely, man, you must know that?”
Billy shook his head. “I’ve what you might call a feeling t’wards the woman: and yet not rightly what you might call a feeling, nor yet azactly, as you might say, t’wards her. And it can’t be so strong as I reckoned, for when she spoke the word ‘marriage’ you might ha’ knocked me down with a straw.”
“Eh?” put in Mr. Fett, “was she the first to mention it?”
“Me bein’ a trifle absent-minded, maybe, on that point,” explained Billy. His gaze happening to wander to the wheel, encountered Captain Jo Pomery’s; and Captain Jo, who had been listening, nodded encouragement.
“Speakin’ as a seafarin’ man and the husband o’ three at one time and another,” said he, “they always do so.”
“My Artemisia,” said Mr. Badcock, “was no exception; though a powerful woman and well able to look after herself.”
“’Tis their privilege,” agreed Captain Pomery. “You must allow ’em a few.”
“But contrariwise,” Billy resumed, “it must be stronger than I reckoned, for here I be safe, as you may say, and here I should be grateful; whereas I bain’t, and, what’s more, my appetite’s failin’. Be you goin’ to give me something for it?” he asked, as Mr. Badcock dived a hand suddenly into a tail pocket and drew forth what at first appeared to be the neck of a bottle, but to closer view revealed itself as the upper half of a flute. A second dive produced the remainder.
“Good Lord! Badcock has another accomplishment!” ejaculated Mr. Fett.
“The gift of music,” said Mr. Badcock, screwing the two portions of the instrument together, “is born in some. The great Batch—John Sebastian Batch, gentlemen—as I am credibly informed, composed a fugue in his bed at the tender age of four.”
“He was old enough to have given his nurse warning,” said Mr. Fett.
“With me,” pursued Mr. Badcock, modestly, “it has been the result of later and (I will not conceal the truth, sirs) more assiduous cultivation. This instrument”—he tapped it affectionately—“came to me in the ordinary way of trade and lay unredeemed in my shop for no less than eight years; nor when exposed for sale could it tempt a purchaser. ‘You must do something with it,’ said my Artemisia—an excellent housewife, gentlemen, who wasted nothing if she could help it. I remember her giving me the same advice about an astrolabe, and again about a sun-dial corrected for the meridian of Bury St. Edmunds. ‘My dear,’ I answered, ’there is but one thing to be done with a flute, and that is to learn it.’ In this way I discovered what I will go no further than to describe as my Bent.”
Mr. Badcock put the flute to his lips and blew into it. A tune resulted.
“But,” persisted Billy Priske, after a dozen bars or so, “the latest thing to be mentioned was my appetite: and ’tis wonderful to me how you gentlemen are letting the conversation stray, this afternoon.”