Mr. Sol Ketchmaid, landlord of the Ship, sat in his snug bar, rising occasionally from his seat by the taps to minister to the wants of the customers who shared this pleasant retreat with him.
Forty years at sea before the mast had made Mr. Ketchmaid an authority on affairs maritime; five years in command of the Ship Inn, with the nearest other licensed house five miles off, had made him an autocrat.
From his cushioned Windsor-chair he listened pompously to the conversation. Sometimes he joined in and took sides, and on these occasions it was a foregone conclusion that the side he espoused would win. No matter how reasonable the opponent’s argument or how gross his personalities, Mr. Ketchmaid, in his capacity of host, had one unfailing rejoinder–the man was drunk. When Mr. Ketchmaid had pronounced that opinion the argument was at an end. A nervousness about his license–conspicuous at other times by its absence–would suddenly possess him, and, opening the little wicket which gave admission to the bar, he would order the offender in scathing terms to withdraw.
Twice recently had he found occasion to warn Mr. Ned Clark, the village shoemaker, the strength of whose head had been a boast in the village for many years. On the third occasion the indignant shoemaker was interrupted in the middle of an impassioned harangue on free speech and bundled into the road by the ostler. After this nobody was safe.
To-night Mr. Ketchmaid, meeting his eye as he entered the bar, nodded curtly. The shoemaker had stayed away three days as a protest, and the landlord was naturally indignant at such contumacy.
“Good evening, Mr. Ketchmaid,” said the shoemaker, screwing up his little black eyes; “just give me a small bottle o’ lemonade, if you please.”
Mr. Clark’s cronies laughed, and Mr. Ketchmaid, after glancing at him to make sure that he was in earnest, served him in silence.
“There’s one thing about lemonade,” said the shoemaker, as he sipped it gingerly; “nobody could say you was drunk, not if you drank bucketsful of it.”
There was an awkward silence, broken at last by Mr. Clark smacking his lips.
“Any news since I’ve been away, chaps?” he inquired; “or ‘ave you just been sitting round as usual listening to the extra-ordinary adventures what happened to Mr. Ketchmaid whilst a-foller-ing of the sea?”
“Truth is stranger than fiction, Ned,” said Mr. Peter Smith, the tailor, reprovingly.
The shoemaker assented. “But I never thought so till I heard some o’ the things Mr. Ketchmaid ‘as been through,” he remarked.
“Well, you know now,” said the landlord, shortly.
“And the truthfullest of your yarns are the most wonderful of the lot, to my mind,” said Mr. Clark.
“What do you mean by the truthfullest?” demanded the landlord, gripping the arms of his chair.
“Why, the strangest,” grinned the shoemaker.
“Ah, he’s been through a lot, Mr. Ketchmaid has,” said the tailor.
“The truthfullest one to my mind,” said the shoemaker, regarding the landlord with spiteful interest, “is that one where Henry Wiggett, the boatswain’s mate, ‘ad his leg bit off saving Mr. Ketchmaid from the shark, and ‘is shipmate, Sam Jones, the nigger cook, was wounded saving ‘im from the South Sea Highlanders.”
“I never get tired o’ hearing that yarn,” said the affable Mr. Smith.
“I do,” said Mr. Clark.
Mr. Ketchmaid looked up from his pipe and eyed him darkly; the shoemaker smiled serenely.
“Another small bottle o’ lemonade, landlord,” he said, slowly.
“Go and get your lemonade somewhere else,” said the bursting Mr. Ketchmaid.
“I prefer to ‘ave it here,” rejoined the shoemaker, “and you’ve got to serve me, Ketchmaid. A licensed publican is compelled to serve people whether he likes to or not, else he loses of ‘is license.”
“Not when they’re the worse for licker he ain’t,” said the landlord.
“Certainly not,” said the shoemaker; “that’s why I’m sticking to lemonade, Ketchmaid.”
The indignant Mr. Ketchmaid, removing the wire from the cork, discharged the missile at the ceiling. The shoemaker took the glass from him and looked round with offensive slyness.