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The First Mate
by [?]

‘First officers are often worse than skippers,’ remarked the night watchman in Mr. W. W. Jacobs’ Light Freights. ‘In the first place, they know they ain’t skippers, and that alone is enough to put ’em in a bad temper, especially if they’ve ‘ad their certificate a good many years, and can’t get a vacancy.’ I fancy there is something in the night watchman’s philosophy; and I am therefore writing a word or two for the special benefit of first mates. I am half inclined to address it ‘to first mates only,’ for to second mates, third mates, and other inferior officers I have nothing to say. But the first mate evokes our sympathy on the ground that the night watchman states so forcibly, ‘First mates know they ain’t skippers, and that alone is enough to put ’em in a bad temper.’ It is horribly vexatious to be next door to greatness. An old proverb tells us that a miss is as good as a mile; but like most proverbs, it is as false as false can be. A mile is ever so much better than a miss.

I am fond of cricket, and am president of a certain club. I invariably attend the matches unless the house happens to be on fire. I have enough of the sporting instinct to be able to take defeat cheerfully–if the defeat falls within certain limits. It must not be so crushing as to be a positive humiliation, nor must it be by so fine a margin as to constitute itself a tantalization. Of the two, I prefer the former to the latter. The former can be dismissed under certain recognized forms. ‘The glorious uncertainty of cricket!’ you say to yourself. ‘It’s all in the game; and the best side in the world sometimes has an off day!’ But, if, after a great struggle, you lose by a run, you go home thinking uncharitable thoughts of the bowler who might have prevented the other fellow from making a certain boundary hit, of the wicket-keeper who might have saved a bye, or of the batsman who might easily have got a few more runs if he hadn’t played such a ridiculously fluky stroke. To be beaten by a hundred runs is bad, but bearable; to be beaten by an innings and a hundred runs is humiliating and horrible; to be beaten by a single run is exasperating and intolerable.

The same thing meets us at every turn. A few minutes ago I picked up the Life of Lord Randolph Churchill, by his son. In the very first chapter there is a letter written by Dr. Creighton to the Duchess of Marlborough commiserating her ladyship on the fact that Lord Randolph had been placed in the second class at the December examinations at Oxford. ‘I must own,’ the Bishop writes, ‘that I was sorry when I heard how narrowly Lord Randolph missed the first class; a few more questions answered, and a few more omissions in some of his papers, and he would have secured it. He was, I am told by the examiners, the best man who was put into the second class; and the great hardship is, as your Grace observes, that he should be in the same class with so many who are greatly his inferior in knowledge and ability. It is rather tantalizing to think that he came so near; if he had been farther off I should have been more content.’ Now that is exactly the misery of the first mate. He is so near to being a skipper, so very near. He even carries continually in his pocket the official papers that certify that he is fully qualified to be a skipper. And yet, for all that, he is not a skipper. Sometimes, indeed, he fancies that he will never be a skipper. It is very trying. I am sorry–genuinely sorry–for the first mate. What can I say to help him?