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Mrs. Bunker’s Chaperon
by [?]

Matilda stood at the open door of a house attached to a wharf situated in that dreary district which bears the high-sounding name of “St. Katharine’s.”

Work was over for the day. A couple of unhorsed vans were pushed up the gangway by the side of the house, and the big gate was closed. The untidy office which occupied the ground-floor was deserted, except for a grey-bearded “housemaid” of sixty, who was sweeping it through with a broom, and indulging in a few sailorly oaths at the choking qualities of the dust he was raising.

The sound of advancing footsteps stopped at the gate, a small flap-door let in it flew open, and Matilda Bunker’s open countenance took a pinkish hue, as a small man in jersey and blue coat, with a hard round hat exceeding high in the crown, stepped inside.

“Good evening, Mrs. Bunker, ma’am,” said he, coming slowly up to her.

“Good evening, captain,” said the lady, who was Mrs. only by virtue of her age and presence.

“Fresh breeze,” said the man in the high round hat. “If this lasts we’ll be in Ipswich in no time.”

Mrs. Bunker assented.

“Beautiful the river is at present,” continued the captain. “Everything growing splendid.”

“In the river?” asked the mystified Mrs. Bunker.

“On the banks,” said the captain; “the trees, by Sheppey, and all round there. Now, why don’t you say the word, and come? There’s a cabin like a new pin ready for you to sit in–for cleanness, I mean–and every accommodation you could require. Sleep like a humming-top you will, if you come.”

“Humming-top?” queried Mrs. Bunker archly.

“Any top,” said the captain. “Come, make up your mind. We shan’t sail afore nine.”

“It don’t look right,” said the lady, who was sorely tempted. “But the missus says I may go if I like, so I’ll just go and get my box ready. I’ll be down on the jetty at nine.”

“Ay, ay,” said the skipper, smiling, “me and Bill’ll just have a snooze till then. So long.”

“So long,” said Matilda.

“So long,” repeated the amorous skipper, and turning round to bestow another ardent glance upon the fair one at the door, crashed into the waggon.

The neighbouring clocks were just striking nine in a sort of yelping chorus to the heavy boom of Big Ben, which came floating down the river, as Mrs. Bunker and the night watchman, staggering under a load of luggage, slowly made their way on to the jetty. The barge, for such was the craft in question, was almost level with the planks, while the figures of two men darted to and fro in all the bustle of getting under way.

“Bill,” said the watchman, addressing the mate, “bear a hand with this box, and be careful, it’s got the wedding clothes inside.”

The watchman was so particularly pleased with this little joke that in place of giving the box to Bill he put it down and sat on it, shaking convulsively with his hand over his mouth, while the blushing Matilda and the discomfited captain strove in vain to appear unconcerned.

The packages were rather a tight squeeze for the cabin, but they managed to get them in, and the skipper, with a threatening look at his mate, who was exchanging glances of exquisite humour with the watchman, gave his hand to Mrs. Bunker and helped her aboard.

“Welcome on the Sir Edmund Lyons, Mrs. Bunker,” said he. “Bill, kick that dawg back.”

“Stop!” said Mrs. Bunker hastily, “that’s my chapperong.”

“Your what?” said the skipper. “It’s a dawg, Mrs. Bunker, an’ I won’t have no dawgs aboard my craft.”

“Bill,” said Mrs. Bunker, “fetch my box up again.”

“Leastways,” the captain hastened to add, “unless it’s any friend of yours, Mrs. Bunker.”

“It’s chaperoning me,” said Matilda; “it wouldn’t be proper for a lady to go a v’y’ge with two men without somebody to look after her.”

“That’s right, Sam,” said the watchman sententiously. “You ought to know that at your age.”