Fraser, gazing blankly at him, made no reply, being indeed staggered by the thoroughness with which he imagined the wily Flower was playing his part.
"He's going to be lost his full six months, that's evident," he thought, in consternation. "He must have seen the way I should be affected; it would serve him right to tell the whole thing right away to Captain Barber."
"If anything does come I'll send it on to you," said Ben, who had been watching him closely.
"Thanks," said Fraser, pondering, and walked away with his eyes on the ground. He called in at the office as he passed it; the staff had gone, but the letter-rack which stood on the dusty, littered mantel-piece was empty, and he went into the street again.
His programme for the evening thus suddenly arrested, he walked slowly up Tower Hill into the Minories, wondering what to do with himself. Something masquerading as a conscience told him severely that he ought to keep his promise to the errant Flower and go and visit Poppy; conscience without any masquerading at all told him he was a humbug, and disclaimed the responsibility. In the meantime, he walked slowly in the direction of Poplar, and having at length made up a mind which had been indulging in civil war all the way, turned up Liston Street and knocked at the Wheelers' door.
A murmur of voices' from the sitting-room stopped instantly. A double knock was a rare occurrence on that door, and was usually the prelude to the sudden disappearance of the fairer portion of the family, while a small boy was told off to answer it, under dire penalties if he officiated too soon.
This evening, however, the ladies had made their toilet, and the door was opened after a delay merely sufficient to enable them to try and guess the identity of the guest before the revelation. Poppy Tyrell opened it, and turned upon him eyes which showed the faintest trace of surprise.
"Good evening," said Fraser, holding out his hand.
"Good evening," said the girl.
"Fine weather we're having," said the embarrassed ex-mate, "for June," he added, in justification of the remark.
Miss Tyrell assented gravely, and stood there waiting.
It is probable that two members at least of the family would have been gratified by the disappearance of the caller then and there, but that Mr. Wheeler, a man of great density and no tact whatever, came bustling out into the passage, and having shaken hands in a hearty fashion, told him to put his hat on a nail and come in.
"No news of the cap'n, I suppose?" he asked, solemnly, after Fraser was comfortably seated.
"Not a word," was the reply.
The dock-foreman sighed and shook his head as he reflected on the instability of human affairs. "There's no certainty about anything," he said, slowly. "Only yesterday I was walking down the Commercial Road, and I slipped orf the curb into the road before you could say Jack Robinson."
"Nearly run over?" queried Fraser.
Mr. Wheeler shook his head. "No," he said, quietly.
"Well, what of it?" enquired his son.
"It might just as well have been the edge of the dock as the curb; that's what I mean," said Mr. Wheeler, with a gravity befitting his narrow escape.
"I'm alwis telling you not to walk on the edge, father," said his wife, uneasily.
The dock-foreman smiled faintly. "Dooty must be done," he said, in a firm voice. "I'm quite prepared, my life's insured, and I'm on the club, and some o' the children are getting big now, that's a comfort."
A feeling of depression settled on all present, and Augustus Wheeler, aged eight, having gleaned from the conversation that his sire had received instructions, which he intended promptly to obey, to fall into the dock forthwith, suddenly opened his mouth and gave vent to his affection and despair in a howl so terrible that the ornaments on the mantelpiece shook with it.
"Don't scold 'im," said the dock-foreman, tenderly, as Mrs. Wheeler's thin, shrill voice entered into angry competition with the howl; "never mind, Gussie, my boy, never mind."
This gentleness had no effect, Gussie continuing to roar with much ardour, but watching out of the corner of one tear-suffused eye the efforts of his eldest sister to find her pocket.
"Hold your noise and I'll give you a ha'penny," she said, tartly.
Gussie caught his breath with a sob, but kept steam up, having on some similar occasions been treated with more diplomacy than honesty. But to-day he got the half-penny, together with a penny from the visitor, and, having sold his concern in his father for three halfpence, gloated triumphantly in a corner over his envious peers.
"Death," said Mr. Wheeler, slowly, after silence had been restored, "is always sudden. The most sudden death I knew 'appened to a man who'd been dying for seven years. Nobody seemed to be able to believe he'd gone at last."
"It's a good job he wasn't married," said Mrs. Wheeler, raising herself on her elbow; "sailors 'ave no right to marry at all. If I thought that one 'o my gals was goin' to marry a sailor, I don't know what I shouldn't do. Something steady on shore is the thing."
"I don't know," said the tactless Mr. Wheeler. "I think if I was a gal I should like to marry a sailor; there's something romantic about them. I often wish I'd been a sailor."
"Then you wouldn't 'ave 'ad me," said the lady from the sofa, grimly.
Mr. Wheeler sighed, but whether at the thought of what he might have lost or what he had gained, cannot be safely determined. Still in a morbid mood, he relapsed into silence, leaving Fraser to glance anxiously to where Poppy, pale and pretty, sat listening to the clumsy overtures of Mr. Bob Wheeler.
"I might 'ave 'ad two or three sailors if I'd liked," continued Mrs. Wheeler, musingly, "but I wouldn't."
Fraser murmured his admiration at her firmness.
"There was Tom Rogers, 'e was the first," said Mrs. Wheeler; "you remember 'im, father?"
"Chap with bow legs and a squint, wasn't he?" said the dock-foreman, anxious to please.
"I never saw 'im squint," said his wife, sharply. "Then there was Robert Moore—he was number two, I think."
"'Ad a wife a'ready," said Mr. Wheeler, turning to the visitor; "'e was a bright lot, 'e was."
"I don't know what they saw in me, I'm sure," said Mrs. Wheeler, with a little modest laugh; "it wasn't my good looks, I'm sure."
"You 'ad something better than good looks, my dear," said the dock-foreman, affectionately, "something what's wore better."
Mrs. Wheeler turned on the sofa, and detecting Gussie in the act of using his mouth as a moneybox, upbraided him shrilly and sent him into a corner. She then brought sundry charges of omission and commission against the other children, until the air was thick with denials and explanations, in the midst of which Fraser turned towards Poppy.
"I want to have a few minutes' talk with you, Miss Tyrell," he said, nervously.
The girl looked up at him. "Yes," she said, gravely.
"I mean alone," continued the other, marvelling at his hardihood; "it's private."
He lowered his voice from a shout to its normal tone as Emma Wheeler in self-defence opened the door and drove the small fry out.
"I've not got my rooms now," said the girl, quietly.
"Well, my dear—" began the dock-foreman.
"Don't interfere, father," said Mrs. Wheeler somewhat sharply. "I'm sure Mr. Fraser needn't mind saying anything before us. It's nothing he's ashamed of, I'm sure."
"Certainly not," said Fraser, sternly, "but it's quite private for all that. Will you put your hat on and come out a little way, Miss Tyrell?"
"That I'm sure she won't," said the energetic Mrs. Wheeler. "She's that particular she won't even go out with Bob, and they're like brother and sister almost. Will she, Bob?"
Mr. Bob Wheeler received the appeal somewhat sullenly, and in a low voice requested his parent not to talk so much. Fraser, watching Poppy closely, saw with some satisfaction a tinge of colour in her cheek, and what in any other person he would have considered a very obstinate appearance about her shapely chin.
"I'll get my hat on, if you'll wait a minute," she said, quietly.
She rose and went upstairs, and Fraser with a cheerful glance at Mrs. Wheeler entered into conversation with her husband about overside work in the docks, until the door was pushed open a little to reveal Miss Tyrell ready for walking.
They walked on for some little time in silence. The sun had set, and even in the close streets of Poplar the evening air was cool and refreshing. When this fact had thoroughly impressed itself on Mr. Fraser's mind he communicated it to Miss Tyrell.
"It's very pleasant," she answered, briefly. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
"About a lot of things," said Fraser. "What a tremendous lot of children there are about here."
Miss Tyrell coldly admitted an obvious fact, and stepping out into the road to avoid spoiling a small maiden's next move at "hop scotch," returned to the pavement to listen to a somewhat lengthy dissertation upon the game in question.
"What did you want to say to me?" she asked at length, turning and regarding him.
"In the first place," said Fraser, "I wanted to tell you that, though nothing has been heard of Captain Flower, I feel certain in my own mind that he has not been drowned."
Miss Tyrell shook her head slowly.
"Then I ought to tell you that I have left the Foam" continued the other. "I think that there is some idea that I knocked Flower overboard to get his place."
The girl turned quickly, and her face flushed. "How absurd," she said, indignantly, and her manner softened.
"Thank you," said Fraser. "If you don't believe it, I don't care what anybody else thinks."
Miss Tyrell, looking straight in front of her, stole a glance at this easily satisfied young man from the corner of her eye. "I should never expect to hear of you doing anything wicked," she said. Fraser thanked her again, warmly. "Or venturesome," added Miss Tyrell, thoughtfully. "You're not the kind."
They walked on in silence; indignant silence on the part of the ex-mate.
"Then you are out of a berth?" said Poppy, not unkindly.
Fraser shook his head and explained. "And I told my father about you," he added, nervously. "He knew Flower very well, and he told me to say that he would be very pleased and proud if you would come down and stay with him at Bittlesea for a time."
"No, thank you," said Miss Tyrell.
"The air would do you good," persisted Fraser; "you could come down by train or come down with me on the Swallow next week."
Miss Tyrell repeated her refusal. "I must stay in London and get something else to do," she said, quietly.
"What do you think of doing?" enquired Fraser.
"Anything I can get," was the reply.
"And in the meantime——" he began, nervously.
"In the meantime I'm living on the Wheelers," said the girl, pressing her lips together; "that was what you were going to say, wasn't it?"
"I was not going to say anything of the kind," said Fraser, warmly. "I was not thinking of it."
"Well, it's true," said Poppy, defiantly.
"It isn't true," said Fraser, "because you will pay them back."
"Shall we turn back?" said the girl.
Fraser turned and walked beside her, and, glancing furtively at the pale, proud face, wondered how to proceed.
"I should be delighted if you would come to Bittlesea," he said, earnestly, "and I'm sure if Flower should ever turn up again, he would say it was the best thing you could have done."
"Thank you, but I prefer to stay here," was the reply, "and I don't wish to be ungrateful, but I wish that people would not trouble me with their charity."
She walked on in silence, with her face averted, until they reached Liston Street, and, stopping at the door, turned to bid him good-bye. Her face softened as she shook hands, and in the depths of her dark eyes as they met his he fancied that he saw a little kindness. Then the door opened, and, before he could renew his invitation, closed behind her as rapidly as Mr. Bob Wheeler could perform the feat.
When the tide is up and the sun shining, Sea-bridge has attractions which make the absence of visitors something of a marvel to the inhabitants. A wandering artist or two, locally known as "painter-chaps," certainly visit it, but as they usually select subjects for their canvases of which the progressive party of the town are heartily ashamed, they are regarded as spies rather than visitors, and are tolerated rather than welcomed. To a citizen who has for a score of years regretted the decay of his town, the spectacle of a stranger gloating over its ruins and perpetuating them on canvas is calculated to excite strong doubts as to his mental capacity and his fitness to be at large.
On a summer's evening, when the tide is out and the high ground the other side of the river is assuming undefinable shadows, the little town has other charms to the meditative man. Such life as there is, is confined to the taverns and the two or three narrow little streets which comprise the town. The tree-planted walk by the river is almost deserted, and the last light of the dying day is reflected in the pools and mud left by the tide.
Captain Nibletts, slowly pacing along and smoking his pipe in the serenity of the evening, felt these things dimly. His gaze wandered from a shadowy barge crawling along in mid-channel to the cheery red blind of Boatman's Arms, and then to the road in search of Captain Barber, for whom he had been enquiring since the morning. A stout lady stricken in years sat on a seat overlooking the river, and the mariner, with a courteous salutation, besought her assistance.
"I've been looking for him myself," said Mrs. Banks, breathlessly, "and now my Elizabeth's nowhere to be found. She's been out since two o'clock this afternoon."
Nibletts pointed up the road with his pipe. "I see her only ten minutes ago with young Gibson," he said, slowly.
"Which way was they going?" demanded the old lady, rising.
"I don't know," said Nibletts. "I don't think they knew either an' what's more, I don't think they cared."
The old lady resumed her seat, and, folding her hands in her lap, gazed in a troubled fashion across the river, until the figure of another woman coming along the walk brought her back to every-day affairs.
"Why, it's Mrs. Church," said Nibletts. "He's nowhere to be found," he shouted, before she reached them.
"He?" said the widow, slowly. "Who?"
"Cap'n Barber," replied the mariner.
"Oh, indeed," she said, politely. "Good evening, Mrs. Banks."
Mrs. Banks returned the courtesy. "It looks as though Cap'n Barber has run away," she said, with attempted jocularity.
Mrs. Church smiled a superior smile. "He is not far off," she said, quietly.
"Resting, I suppose," said Mrs. Banks, with intent.
Mrs. Church took higher ground. "Of course this sad affair has upset him terribly," she said, gravely. "His is a faithful nature, and he can't for-get. How is Miss Banks bearing up?"
Mrs. Banks, looking up suspiciously, said, "Wonderful, considering," and relapsed into silence until such time as her foe should give her an opening. Mrs. Church took a seat by her side, and Nibletts, with a feeling of something strained in the atmosphere, for which he could not account, resumed his walk.
He was nearly up to Captain Barber's house when he saw a figure come out of the lane by the side, and after glancing furtively in all directions make silently for the door. The watching Nibletts quickening his pace, reached it at almost the same moment.
"Mrs. Banks is looking for you," he said, as he followed him into the parlour.
Captain Barber turned on him a weary eye, but made no reply.
"And Mrs. Church, too; at least, I think so,' continued the other.
"Cap'n Nibletts," said the old man, slowly, "I 'ope you'll never live long enough to be run arter in the way I'm run arter."
The astonished mariner murmured humbly that he didn't think it was at all likely, and also that Mrs. Nibletts would probably have a word or two to say in the matter.
"From the moment I get up to the moment I get to bed, I'm run arter," continued the hapless Barber. "Mrs. Church won't let me go out of 'er sight if she can help it, and Mrs. Banks is as bad as she is. While they was saying nice things to each other this morning in a nasty way I managed to slip out."
"Well, why not get rid o' Mrs. Church?" said the simple Nibletts.
"Rid o' Mrs. Church!" repeated Captain Barber, aghast; "why don't you get rid o' your face, Nibletts?" he asked, by way of comparison merely.
"Because I don't want to," replied the other, flushing.
"Because you can't" said Captain Barber, emphatically. "And no more can't I get rid of 'er. You see, I 'appened to take a little notice of 'er."
"Oh, well," said the other, and sighed and shook his head discouragingly.
"I took a little notice of 'er," repeated Captain Barber, "and then to spare her feelings I 'ad to sort o' let 'er know that I could never marry for Fred's sake, d'ye see? Then on top of all that poor Fred goes and gets drownded."
"But have you promised to marry her?" asked Nibletts, with a cunning look.
"Of course I've not," rejoined Captain Barber, testily; "but when you know as much about wimmen as I do, you'll know that that's got nothing to do with it. It gets took for granted. Mrs. Church's whole manner to me now is that of a engaged young person. If she was sitting here now she'd put 'er hand on top o' mine."
"Not before me?" said Nibletts, in a shocked voice.
"Before the Prince of Wales and all the Royal Family," replied Captain Barber, with conviction. "You've no idea how silly and awkward it makes me feel."
"Here she comes," said Nibletts, in a low voice, "and Mrs. Banks and her daughter, too."
Captain Barber coughed and, sitting upright, strove to look unconcerned as the three ladies came into the room and expressed their pleasure at seeing him.
"I couldn't think what 'ad happened to you," said Mrs. Banks, as she sank panting into a chair, and, unfastening her bonnet-strings, sat regarding him with her hands on her knees.
"I knew he was all right," said Mrs. Church, folding her hands and regarding him with her head on one side; "if anything happened to him I should know if he was a hundred miles away."
She sat down by Captain Barber, and laying her hand upon his, pressed it affectionately. The captain, a picture of misery, exchanged a significant glance with Nibletts, and emitted an involuntary groan.
"Don't take on so," said Mrs. Banks, compassionately. "Do you know, I've got a feeling that poor Fred has been saved!"
"That's my feeling, too," said Captain Barber, in a firm voice.
"It's very likely," said Captain Nibletts, slowly.
"What's easier than for him to have been picked up by a passing vessel, and carried off goodness knows where?" enquired Mrs. Banks, with a glance evenly distributed between her daughter and the housekeeper.
"I heard of a man once who fell overboard," said Captain Nibletts, softly, "and he turned up safe and sound twenty years arter."
"Married man?" enquired Miss Banks, softly.
"He was," said the captain, with the doggedness of a witness under cross-examination.
Mrs. Church turned her eyes upwards. "Fancy the joyful meeting of husband and wife," she said, sentimentally.
"She died just two days afore he turned up," said Captain Nibletts, simply.
There was a frigid silence during which the three ladies, sinking for a time their differences, eyed him with every sign of strong disapprobation, Mrs. Banks giving vent to a sniff which disparaged the whole race of man.
"As for men who fall overboard and get picked up and turn up months afterwards," continued the faithful Nibletts, "why, every sailorman knows scores of 'em."
"I knowed seven," said Captain Barber, with the exactness of untruth. "They didn't seem to think much of it, didn't seem to think it anything unusual, I mean."
"It ain't," said Nibletts, stoutly.
The room relapsed into silence, and Captain Nibletts, finding Mrs. Church's gaze somewhat trying got up to admire a beautiful oil painting on glass in a black frame which hung over the mantelpiece, and after a few encomiums on his host's taste, bade him good-bye.
"I'm coming with you," said Barber, rising; "I've got some business to talk about."
"What, out again," said Mrs. Church, tenderly, "after being on your poor feet all day?"
Captain Barber murmured something inaudible in reply, and taking his hat from the sideboard went out with Nibletts, For a time they trudged along in silence until the latter, who wanted to go to his own home, ventured to ask where they were going.
"All places are alike to me," replied the old man, dismally. "I only want to get away, that's all. She an' Mrs. Banks are sure to have a turn and try and drag me into it."
He clasped his hands behind his back, and, pausing at a turn of the road, looked down upon the little quay below. Out in the river two or three small craft rode at anchor, while a bauble of cheerful voices from a distant boat only served to emphasise the stillness of the evening.
"Looks quiet," said Captain Nibletts, after watching him for some time.
"I'm thinking of my nevy," said Captain Barber, slowly. "I remember me an' my sister bringing 'im here when he was three year old, and I 'ad to carry him all the way back. He put his arms round my neck, and I can smell peppermint-ball now."
Captain Nibletts, who did not quite follow him, attributed the outrage to a young couple who had just passed.
"I'm all alone now," continued Captain Barber, unheeding, "but I don't want to marry. Why not? 'Cos I'm too old, and because it's like beginning where other people leave off."
"Well, make up your mind and tell her so," said the other.
"It wouldn't do any good," said Barber, dolefully.
"Tell her to-night," said Nibletts, "Come into the Thorn and have a glass, just so as to warm you up to it, and then get it over."
Captain Barber made no reply, but turning round led the way slowly back to the inn, and after acknowledging the respectful salutations of the crew of the schooner who were in the bar by ordering the landlady to fill their pots again, led the way into the parlour and began to charge himself for the interview.
That he did not underestimate the difficulties of the ordeal was evident by the extent of his orders, and Captain Nibletts noted with satisfaction as the evening wore on that the old man's spirits were improving considerably. Twice he sent out instructions to the bar to have the men's mugs replenished, a proceeding which led to Mr. William Green being sent by the grateful crew to express their feelings in a neat little speech.
"A very nice-spoken young fellow," said Captain Barber, approvingly.
He had some more whisky, and at the sounds of a step-dance on the brick floor of the adjoining taproom, took up his glass, and, followed by Nibletts, watched the proceedings from the doorway. Mr. William Green, who worshipped wealth and position, sidled up to him, and with much deference discussed the dancing.
He made such a favourable impression that Cap-tain Barber, who was in a semi-maudlin mood, took him by the arm to the now deserted parlour, and ensconcing him in a corner, told him all his troubles and warned him of the pitfalls which beset the feet of good-looking bachelors. Mr. Green was sympathy itself, and for some time sat silently evolving various schemes for the deliverance of his patron.
Captain Nibletts returning to the parlour a little later found them in close consultation. A ray of hope illuminated the somewhat heavy features of the old man, and, catching sight of the captain, he beckoned him to his side.
"Me an' this young man have thought of something," he said, in a voice rendered husky with excitement.
"He's goin' to call at my place," continued the other, "and tell Mrs. Church that I've been took unwell at the Cauliflower at Mapleden, and want to see her, and he's to bring her there at once. Arter they've started I go in and get to bed, and earthquakes wouldn't wake me, let alone a knock at the door. D'ye see?"
"What good's that goin' to do?" enquired the astonished listener.
"Next day," said Barber, in thrilling tones, as he placed his forefinger on the other's arm, "I refuse to believe her story. Green, here, denies of it too, and sez 'e saw her at the gate and asked her to go for a walk with him."
Captain Nibletts fingered his beard. "It don't seem to be the sort of trick to play on a woman," he expostulated, "an' it's four miles to Mapleden. What's she goin' to do?"
"That's 'er lookout," observed Captain Barber, with much composure, "all I know is she won't wake me. I daresay she'll come on to your place. Wimmen wot sets their caps at men wot don't want 'em set at 'em must put up with the consequences."
"You give me half an hour, sir," said Mr. Green, impressively, "and then you can come on as soon as you like. You'll find the coast clear by then."
He bit off the end of the cigar presented by Captain Barber, and, thanking him effusively as he struck a match for him, quitted the inn. The two captains waited restlessly for the time specified, and then, finishing their drinks, went outside, and, standing in the light which streamed from the windows and doorway of the Thorn, gazed at the dark road beyond.
"It looks all right," said Barber, shaking hands. "Good-night."
"Good luck," said Nibletts.
The other, not without a little trepidation, walked towards his house, and opening the door, after a little difficulty, stood safely inside. The house was quiet and in darkness, except for the lamp which stood on the parlour-table, and after a moment's survey he proceeded to shut up for the night.
As a rule he was careless about such matters, but to-night no gaoler saw to his bolts and bars more carefully than he did. He returned to the parlour, having made all secure, and lighting his pipe for a few final whiffs before retiring, winked at himself solemnly in the glass. Then fearful that the housekeeper might return sooner than was expected, he blew out the lamp and smoked in the dark.
He knocked out his pipe at last, and walked slowly and ponderously upstairs. He grinned again as he passed the door of the housekeeper's room, and then, with a catch in his breath, clutched heavily at the banister as a soft female voice bade him "Good-night."
Captain Barber, surprised beyond all measure, was unable to speak.
"I thought you'd got lost again," said the voice, playfully. "Good-night."
"Good-night," rejoined the other, in hollow tones. "Mrs. Banks stay long?" he enquired, pausing at his door.
"She went just about half an hour before you came in," replied the housekeeper. "Elizabeth went soon after you did, but her mother stopped on. She went very suddenly when she did go, and was very mysterious about it. Not that I want to know her business."
"Mysterious?" faltered the captain.
"Some young man came to the door," continued the innocent woman, "and they were talking in a low voice. I don't know who it was, because Mrs. Banks let me see quite plainly that she didn't want me to know. Then she just called out 'Goodnight,' and went off as fast as you please."
Captain Barber supported himself for a moment by the handle of his door, and then in a dazed way blundered into his room. He was a good-hearted man in a way, and pushing open the little casement he thrust out his head and sighed with genuine feeling as he thought of his poor old friend plodding slowly to Mapleden. Incidentally he felt a little bit sorry for Mr. William Green.
He was awaked next morning after a somewhat restless night by the sounds of an unwonted noise downstairs, and lay in amazement listening to a hum of excited voices below. Knuckles rapped on his door and the voice of Mrs. Church, much agitated, requested him to rise and attire himself.
He was out of bed at that and looking from the window. A small group of children stood in the road outside the house, while Joe and the cook with their arms on the fence were staring hard at his parlour window, occasionally varying the proceedings by a little conversation with the people next door, who were standing in their front garden. In a state of considerable agitation he hurriedly dressed himself and went downstairs.
His sitting-room was full. Mrs. Banks, looking very tired, was sitting in the arm-chair taking smelling-salts at intervals, and staring fiercely at Mr. William Green, who was huddled in a corner smiling sheepishly behind Captain Nibletts and Ben.
"What's all this?" demanded Captain Barber, in a trembling voice, as his eye met Mr. Green's.
Several of Mrs. Banks's relatives began speaking at once, assisted by some of the neighbours. The substance of their remarks was that a man. whose polite tongue hid the falseness of his heart, had lured Mrs. Banks for a four-mile walk to Mapleden late the preceding night under the pretence that Captain Barber, who was evidently hale and hearty, was lying ill at the Cauliflower. They demanded his immediate dismissal from the ship and his exemplary punishment by the law.
"What 'ave you got to say to this?" demanded Captain Barber of the villain, in tones of righteous indignation tempered by fear.
"It isn't true, sir," said Mr. Green, respectfully. "I didn't say anything of the kind."
"Wot did you say, then?" enquired Captain Barber, in a voice which the company thought far too mild for the occasion.
"She was standing at the door as I passed," said Mr. Green, nervously, "and I asked her to go for a walk with me."
"Lawk-a-mussy me!" screamed the horrified Mrs. Banks.
"We went for a nice little stroll," continued the graceless Mr. Green, "and then I s'pose she found it was later than she thought, and she began to make a fuss."
"Me, at my time o' life?" demanded the indignant Mrs. Banks of the audience.
"You did make a fuss," said Mr. Green.
"O' course I made a fuss when I found out how I had been deceived. You were here when he came, Mrs. Church, weren't you?"
"I would rather not say anything about it," said the housekeeper, freezingly.
"I insist upon your speaking," said the old lady, getting very red in the face.
"Well, I don't know much about it," said the housekeeper, looking round appealingly. "I heard you speaking to somebody at the door in a low voice."
"It wasn't a low voice," interrupted Mrs. Banks, sharply.
"Well, I couldn't hear what you were saying, and then when you went outside and I asked you whether you were going home you said 'yes,' didn't you?"
"Are you sure she said she was going home?" said Mrs. Banks's brother-in-law, in an awful voice, as the old lady sank back in her chair.
"Yes," said Mrs. Church, with a fine show of reluctance.
There was a dead silence, during which they all heard the smelling-salts drop.
"If this man said Captain Barber was ill at Mapleden, why didn't you tell me?" continued Mrs. Church, in a mildly aggrieved voice. "I think if anybody ought to have known, it should have been me."
"It's all a fuss about nothing," said Mr. Green, brazenly. "She stayed out a bit too late, and then wanted to put it all on to me."
A good Samaritan picked up the smelling-salts and held them to the victim's nose, while her scandalized relatives discussed the situation in hurried whispers. The brother-in-law eyed her with bewildered disapproval, and in the disjointed accents peculiar to surprise was heard to make use of the words "friskiness" and "gallivanting" and "old enough to know better."
Her relatives' remarks, however, caused Mrs. Banks comparatively little pain. Her attention was fully taken up by the housekeeper, in whose satisfied smile she saw a perfect recognition of the reasons for her action of the previous evening. She got up from her chair, and with a stateliness which her brother-in-law thought somewhat misplaced, took her daughter's arm, and slowly left the room, her departure being the signal for a general breakup. By twos and threes the company drifted slowly up the road in her wake, while Captain Barber, going in the other direction, accompanied Captain Nibletts and party as far as the schooner, in order that he might have the opportunity of saying a few well-chosen words to Mr. Green on the subject of precipitancy.
"If it 'adn't been for me tipping 'im the wink, so as to let him know what line 'e was to go on when I came down, where should I 'ave been?" he demanded of Captain Nibletts.
And that astonished mariner, with a helpless shake of his head, gave it up.
The Blue Posts, Chelsea, is an old-time public-house pleasantly situated by the river, with an extensive connection amongst gentlemen's servants, 'busmen, and other skilled judges of good beer, the subtle and delicate perfume of which liquor pervades the place from cellar to basement, and has more than once taken the policeman on duty to the back door, under the impression that something wanted looking into.
To some men imprisonment in such a place would have been little short of ecstasy. In the heat of summer they would have sat in the cool cellar amid barrels of honest beer; in winter, they would have led the conversation cosily seated around the taproom fire. For exercise, profitable employment at the beer-engine in the bar; for intellectual exercise, the study of practical chemistry in the cellar.
To Captain Fred Flower none of these things appealed. He had visited the cellar certainly—in search of subterranean exits; he had sat in the tap-room—close to the open window; but his rabid desire to get away from the place and never see it again could not have been surpassed by the most bitter teetotaler that ever breathed.
His greatest trouble was with Porson, whose limpet-like qualities were a source of never-failing concern to the unfortunate mariner. Did he ascend to the drawing-room and gaze yearningly from the windows at the broad stream of Father Thames and the craft dropping down on the ebb-tide to the sea, Uncle Porson, sallow of face and unclean of collar, was there to talk beery romance of the ocean. Did he retire to the small yard at the rear of the premises and gaze from the back door at the passing life of a Chelsea by-street, Uncle Porson was looking over his shoulder, pointing out milkmen with histories, and cabmen with a past.
The second week of his stay was drawing to a close before he fully realised the horror of his position. His foot, which had been giving him considerable trouble, was getting much better, though it was by no means well enough to give him a chance in a foot-race with Mr. Porson or Charles, and as the family at the Blue Posts realised the improvement, the attentions of his personal attendants were redoubled. The key of his bed-room door was turned every night after he had retired, a discovery he had made the first night after carefully dressing for flight and spending an hour over the composition of a farewell note to Miss Tipping. There was no chance of reaching the roof from his bed-room window, and the pavement below offered him his choice between a wedding and a funeral.
And amid all this the fiction was maintained of preserving him from his lawless foes and his own inconvenient devotion to duty. A struggle for escape was not to be thought of, as the full measure of his deceitfulness would transpire in the event of failure, and the wedding drew nearer day by day, while his active brain was still casting about in vain for any means of escape.
"Next Tuesday," said Mrs. Tipping to her stepdaughter, as they sat in the much decorated drawing-room one afternoon, "you'll be Mrs. Robinson."
Miss Tipping, who was sitting next to the skipper, looked at him languishingly, and put her head on his shoulder.
"I can hardly believe it," she said, coyly.
Flower, who was in the same predicament, patted her head tenderly, as being easier than replying.
"And I must say," said Mrs. Tipping, regarding the pair, "I'm a plain woman, and I speak my mind, that if it was me, I should want to know more about him first."
"I'm quite satisfied, mar," said Miss Tipping, without raising her head.
"There's your relations to be satisfied, Matilda," said Uncle Porson, in an important voice.
Miss Tipping raised her head and favoured the interrupter with a baleful stare, whereupon Mr. Porson, scratching his neck feebly, glanced at Mrs. Tipping for support.
"Our relations needn't come to see us," said his niece, at length. "He's marrying me, not my relations."
"He's making me his uncle, at any rate," said Mr. Porson, with a sudden access of dignity.
"You don't mind, Fred, do you?" asked Miss Tipping, anxiously.
"I'd put up with more than that for your sake," said Flower. "I needn't tell people."
"That's all very fine," said Mrs. Tipping, taking up the cudgels for the speechless and glaring victim of these pleasantries, "but there's no mystery about your uncle; everybody knows him. He doesn't disappear just as he is going to get married, and be brought back in a cab months afterwards. He isn't full of secrets he mustn't tell people who ought to know."
"Never kep' a secret in my life," agreed Uncle Porson, whose head was buzzing under this unaccustomed praise.
"I know quite eno'ugh about Fred," said Miss Tipping, tenderly; "when I want your opinion, mar, I'll ask you for it."
Mrs. Tipping's reply was interrupted by the entrance of a young man from the jeweller's with four brooches for Flower to present to the bridesmaids. Mrs. Tipping had chosen them, and it did not take the hapless skipper long to arrive at the conclusion that she was far fonder of bridesmaids than he was. His stock of money was beginning to dwindle, and the purchase of a second wedding suit within a month was beginning to tell even upon his soaring spirits.
"There's another thing about Fred I don't quite like," said Mrs. Tipping, as she sat with the brooches ranged upon her capacious lap; "he's extravagant. I don't like a mean man, but one who flings his money away is almost as bad. These 'ere brooches are very pretty, and they do him credit, but I can't say but what something cheaper wouldn't 'ave done as well."
"I thought you liked them," said the indignant Flower.
"I like them well enough," said Mrs. Tipping, solemnly; "there's nothing to dislike in them. Seems to me they must have cost a lot of money, that's all—I suppose I may make a remark!"
Flower changed the subject, and turning to Miss Tipping began to speak in a low voice of their new home. Miss Tipping wanted a sort of Eden with bar improvements, and it was rather difficult to find.
They had discussed the matter before, and the wily skipper had almost quarrelled with his bride-elect over the part of the country in which they were to live, Miss Tipping holding out for the east coast, while Flower hotly championed the south. Mrs. Tipping, with some emphasis, had suggested leaving it until after the honeymoon, but a poetic advertisement of an inn in Essex catching her daughter's eye, it was decided that instant inspection should be made.
They travelled down from Fenchurch Street, accompanied by Dick and Mrs. Tipping, the skipper, who was painfully on the alert for any chance of escape, making a great fuss of his foot, and confessing to a feeling of unusual indisposition. He sat in one corner of the carriage with his eyes half closed, while Miss Tipping, with her arm affectionately drawn through his, was the unconscious means of preventing a dash for liberty as the train steamed slowly through a station.
The nearest station to the Rose of Essex was five miles distant, a fact which (owing perhaps to the expensive nature of newspaper charges) did not appear in the advertisement.
"It's a nice little place," said the landlady of the Railway Hotel, as they asked her opinion over lunch; "there's a little land goes with it. If you want to drive over, I'd better be having something got ready."
Mrs. Tipping, who halved the duties with Flower, she doing the ordering and he the paying, assented, and in a short time they were bowling rapidly along through narrow country lanes to their destination. The skipper noticed with pleasure the lonely nature of the country, and his heart beat fast as he thought of the chances of success of a little plan of escape.
So far as appearance went, the inn was excellent. Roses clustered round the porch and hung in fragrant bunches from the walls, while three or four sturdy lime trees in one corner threw a grateful shade over a rustic table and settles. Flower, with a grateful sigh, said that it was the very thing. Even Mrs. Tipping, after a careful inspection, said that they might do worse; Dick, with an air of professional gravity, devoted most of his attention to the cellar, while the engaged couple walked slowly round the immense garden in the rear exchanging tender whispers.
"We'll think it over and let you know," said Mrs. Tipping to the landlord.
"There's been a lot after it," said he slowly, with a glance at his wife.
"And yet it ain't gone," said the business-like Mrs. Tipping, pleasantly.
"I'm going to take it, mar," said Miss Tipping, firmly.
Mrs. Tipping sighed at her haste, but finding her determined, went down the cellar again, accompanied by Dick, for a last look round. Captain Flower, leaning heavily on Miss Tipping's arm, limped slowly to the carriage.
"Tired?" she enquired, tenderly, as he sank back in the cushions.
"Foot's painful," he said, with a faint smile. "Good gracious!"
"What's the matter?" asked Miss Tipping, alarmed by his manner.
"I've left my pipe in the garden," said Flower, rising, "the one you gave me. I wouldn't lose it for the world."
"I'll get it," said Miss Tipping, springing out of the carriage. "Whereabouts did you leave it, do you think?"
"By the bee-hives," said Flower, pale with excitement, as he heard Mrs. Tipping and Dick coming up from the cellar. "Make haste; somebody might take it."
Miss Tipping darted into the house, and immediately afterwards the Tippings ascended from the cellar, attended by the landlady.
"Driver," said Flower, sharply.
"Sir," said the man, looking round and tenderly rubbing his back.
"Take that to the lady who has just gone in, at once," gabbled Flower; "hurry up."
For want of anything better, he handed the astonished driver his tobacco-pouch, and waved him to the house. The lad descended from his perch and ran to the door just as Dick Tipping, giving vent to a sharp cry, was rushing out. The cry acted on the skipper like magic, and, snatching up the whip, he gave the horse a cut in which was concentrated the fears of the last fortnight and the hopes of his future lifetime.
The animal sprang forward madly just as Dick Tipping, who had pushed the driver out of the way, rushed out in pursuit. There was a hard white road in front and it took it at a gallop, the vehicle rocking from side to side behind it as Flower played on it with the whip. Tipping was close behind, and the driver a good second. Flower, leaving the horse to take care of itself for a time, stood upright in the carriage and hurled cushions at his foremost pursuer. The third cushion was long and limp, and, falling on end in front of him, twined itself round his swift-moving legs and brought him heavily to the ground.
"He's winded," said Flower, as he saw the coachman stop and help the other man slowly to his feet; "shows what a cushion can do."
He clambered onto the seat, as a bend in the road shut the others from his sight, and gathering up the reins, gave himself over to the joyous feeling of his new-found liberty as they rushed through the air. His ideas of driving were elementary, and his mode of turning corners was to turn them quickly and get it over; but he drove on for miles without mishap, and, the horse having dropped to a steady trot, began to consider his future movements.
"They'll be setting the wires to work, I expect," he thought, soberly. "What a comfortable old world this must have been before they invented steam and telegraph. I'll go a little bit farther, and then tie it up to a tree."
He made what he considered an endearing noise with his mouth, and the startled animal at once bounded forward with the intention of getting out of hearing. A gentle incline favoured the pace, which was now so considerable that the skipper, seeing another craft approaching him, waved his hand towards it warningly.
"I wonder who ought to get out of the way?" he said, thoughtfullly; "I s'pose the horse knows."
He left it to that able quadruped, after giving it a little bang on the flank with the butt end of the whip to keep its faculties fresh. There was a frenzied shout from the other vehicle, a sudden violent stoppage, with the crashing of wood, and Flower, crawling out of the ditch, watched with some admiration the strenuous efforts of his noble beast to take the carriage along on three wheels.
"Look what you've done!" roared the driver of the other vehicle, foaming with passion, as he jumped out and held his plunging horse by the head. "Look at my gig, sir! Look at it!"
Flower looked, and then returned the courtesy.
"Look at mine," he said, impressively; "mine's much the worst."
"You were on the wrong side of the road," shouted the other.
"I was there first," said Flower; "it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't tried to get out of my way. The course I was on I should have passed you easily."
He looked up the road. His horse, trembling violently, was standing still, with the wreck of the carriage behind it. He stooped mechanically, and picking up the whip which was lying in the road said that he would go off for assistance.
"You stay here, sir," said the other man with an oath.
"I won't," said the skipper.
His adversary made no reply, but, having by this time soothed his frightened horse, took his whip out of its socket and strode towards him with the butt raised over his head. Flower arranged his own whip the same way, and both men being new to the weapon, circled round each other two or three times waiting for a little instruction. Then the owner of the gig, whose temper was rising every second, ran in and dealt the skipper a heavy blow on the head.
The blow dispelled an idea which was slowly forming there of asking the extent of the damage, and, if it were not too much, offering to make it good. Ideas of settlement vanished; ideas of honour, morality, and even escape vanished too; all merged in the one fixed idea of giving the other man a harder blow than he had given.
For a minute or two the battle raged fairly equally; both were securing a fair amount of punishment. Then, under a heavy blow from Flower, his foe went down suddenly. For a second or two the skipper held his breath with fear, then the other man raised himself feebly on his knees, and, throwing away his whip, staggered to his feet and, unfastening the reins, clambered unsteadily into his gig and drove off without a word.
The victorious skipper looked up and down the lonely road, and shaking his head sadly at the noble steed which had brought him into this mess, tenderly felt his bruised and aching head, and then set off as fast as his foot would permit up the road.
He looked about eagerly as he went for a place of concealment, fully aware of the inability of a lame shipmaster to outdistance horseflesh. Hedges and fields bounded both sides of the road, but half a mile farther along, on the right-hand side, the field stretched away upwards to meet a wood. Towards this wood Captain Flower, having first squeezed himself through a gap in the hedge, progressed with all speed.
He sat on the trunk of a fallen pine to regain his breath, and eagerly looked about him. To his disappointment he saw that the wood was of no great depth, but was a mere belt of pines running almost parallel with the road he had quitted. With the single idea of getting as far away from the scene of his crime as possible, he began to walk through it.
The wood was very still, and the shade grateful after the heat of the sun. Just beyond, the fields were shimmering in the heat, and he pricked up his ears as the unmistakable sound of wheels and hoofs came across the silent fields. He looked round wildly, and seeing a tiny cottage standing in a bit of a clearing, made towards it.
A little old man twisted with rheumatism rose as he stood at the open door and regarded him with a pair of bloodshot, but sharp, old eyes, while an old woman sitting in a Windsor-chair looked up anxiously.
"Can I come in?" asked Flower.
"Aye," said the old man, standing aside to let him pass.
"Hot day," said the skipper, taking a seat.
"No, 'tain't," said the old man.
"Not so hot as yesterday," said Flower, with a conciliatory smile.
"It's 'otter than it was yesterday," said the old man. "What ha' you done to your face?"
"I was climbing a tree," said Flower, with a laugh, "and I fell down; I've hurt my foot, too."
"Served you right if you'd broke your neck," said his amiable host, "climbing trees at your time o' life."
"Nice cottage you've got here," said the persistent Flower.
"I wish you 'ad to live in it," said the old man.
He took a proffered cigar, and after eyeing it for some time, like a young carver with a new joint, took out a huge clasp-knife and slowly sawed the end off.
"Can I sleep here for the night?" asked Flower, at length.
"No, you can't," said the old man, drawing at his cigar.
He smoked on, with the air of a man who has just given a very clever answer to a very difficult question.
"We ain't on'y got one room besides this," said the old woman solemnly. "Years ago we used to have four and a wash-place."
"Oh, I could sleep on the floor here," said Flower, lightly. "I'll pay you five shillings."
"Let's see your money," said the old man, leaning forward.
Flower put the sum in his hand. "I'll pay now," he said, heartily.
"The floor won't run away," said the other, pulling out an old leathern purse, "and you can sleep on any part of it you like."
Flower thanked him effusively. He was listening intently for any sounds outside. If the Tippings and the man in the gig met, they would scour the country-side, and almost certainly pay the cottage a visit.
"If you let me go upstairs and lie down for an hour or two," he said, turning to the old man, "I'll give you another half-crown."
The old man said nothing, but held out his hand, and after receiving the sum got up slowly, and, opening a door by the fire-place, revealed a few broken stairs, which he slowly ascended, after beckoning his guest to follow.
"It's a small place," he said, tersely, "but I daresay you've often slept in a worse."
Flower made no reply. He was looking from the tiny casement. Through an opening in the trees he saw a couple of figures crossing the field towards the wood.
"If anybody asks you whether you have seen me, say no," he said, rapidly, to the old man. "I've got into a bit of a mess, and if you hide me here until it has blown over, I'll make it worth your while."
"How much?" said the old man.
Flower hesitated. "Five pounds for certain," he said, hastily, "and more if you're put to much trouble. Run down and stop your wife's mouth quietly."
"Don't order me about," said the old man, slowly; "I ain't said I'll do it yet."
"They're coming now," said Flower, impatiently; "mind, if they catch me you lose your five pounds."
"All right," said the other. "I'm doing it for the five pounds, mind, not for you," added this excellent man.
He went grunting and groaning down the narrow stairs, and the skipper, closing the door, went and crouched down by the open casement. A few indistinct words were borne in on the still air, and voices came gradually closer, until footsteps, which had been deadened by the grass, became suddenly audible on the stones outside the cottage.
Flower held his breath with anxiety; then he smiled softly and pleasantly as he listened to the terms in which his somewhat difficult host was addressed.
"Now, gaffer," said the man of the gig, roughly.
"Wake up, grandpa," said Dick Tipping; "have you seen a man go by here?—blue serge suit, moustache, face and head knocked about?"
"No, I ain't seen 'im," was the reply. "What's he done?"
Tipping told him briefly. "We'll have him," he said, savagely. "We've got a mounted policeman on the job, besides others. If you can catch him it's worth half a sov. to you."
He went off hurriedly with the other man, and their voices died away in the distance. Flower sat in his place on the floor for some time, and then, seeing from the window that the coast was clear, went downstairs again.
The old woman made him up a bed on the floor after supper, although both he and the old man assured her that it was unnecessary, and then, taking the lamp, bade him good-night and went upstairs.
Flower, left to himself, rolled exultingly on his poor couch, and for the first time in a fortnight breathed freely.
"If I do get into trouble," he murmured, complacently, "I generally manage to get out of it. It wants a good head in the first place, and a cool one in the second."
He was awake early in the morning, and, opening the door, stood delightedly breathing the fresh, pine-scented air.
The atmosphere of the Blue Posts was already half forgotten, and he stood looking dreamily forward to the time when he might reasonably return to life and Poppy. He took a few steps into the wood and, after feeling for his pipe before he remembered that Miss Tipping was probably keeping it as a souvenir, sat on a freshly-cut log and fell into a sentimental reverie, until the appearance of a restless old man at the door of the cottage took him back to breakfast.
"I thought you'd run off," said his host, tartly.
"You thought wrong, then," said Flower, sharply, as he took out his purse. "Here are two of the five pounds I promised you; I'll give you the rest when I go."
The old man took the money and closed his small, hard mouth until the lips almost disappeared. "More money than sense," he remarked, cordially, as the skipper replaced his purse.
Flower made no reply. Some slices of fat bacon were sizzling in a pan over the wood-fire, and the pungent smell of the woods, mixed with the sharpness of the morning air, gave him an appetite to which, since his enforced idleness, he had been a stranger. He drew his chair up to the rickety little table with its covering of frayed oil-cloth, and, breaking a couple of eggs over his bacon, set to eagerly.
"Don't get eggs like these in London," he said to the old woman.
The old woman leaned over and, inspecting the shells, paid a tribute to the hens who were responsible for them, and traced back a genealogy which would have baffled the entire College of Heralds—a genealogy hotly contested by the old man, who claimed a bar sinister through three eggs bought at the village shop some generations before.
"You've got a nice little place here," said Flower, by way of changing the conversation, which was well on the way to becoming personal; "but don't you find it rather dull sometimes?"
"Well, I don't know," said the old woman. "I finds plenty to do, and 'e potters about like. 'E don't do much, but it pleases 'im, and it don't hurt me."
The object of these compliments took them as a matter of course, and after hunting up the stump of last night's cigar, and shredding it with his knife, crammed it into a clay pipe and smoked tranquilly. Flower found a solitary cigar, one of the Blue Posts' best, and with a gaze which wandered idly from the chest of drawers on one side of the room to the old china dogs on the little mantel-shelf on the other, smoked in silence.
The old man brought in news at dinner-time. The village was ringing with the news of yesterday's affair, and a rigourous search, fanned into excitement by an offer of two pounds reward, was taking the place of the more prosaic labours of the country side.
"If it wasn't for me," said the old man, in an excess of self-laudation, "you'd be put in the gaol—where you ought to be; but I wouldn't do it if it wasn't for the five pounds. You'd better keep close in the house. There's some more of 'em in the wood looking for you."
Captain Flower took his advice, and for the next two days became a voluntary prisoner. On the third day the old man reported that public excitement about him was dying out, owing partly to the fact that it thought the villain must have made his escape good, and partly to the fact that the landlord of the Wheatsheaf had been sitting at his front door shooting at snakes on the King's Highway invisible to ordinary folk.
The skipper resolved to make a start on the following evening, walking, the first night so as to get out of the dangerous zone, and then training to London. At the prospect his spirits rose, and in a convivial mood he purchased a bottle of red currant wine from the old woman at supper, and handed it round.
He was still cheerful next morning as he arose and began to dress. Then he paused, and in a somewhat anxious fashion patted his trousers pockets. Minute and painful investigation revealed a bunch of keys and a clasp-knife.
He tried his other pockets, and then, sinking in a dazed fashion into a chair, tried to think what had become of his purse and loose change. His watch, a silver one, was under his pillow, where he had placed it the night before, and his ready cash was represented by the shilling which hung upon the chain.
He completed his dressing slowly while walking about the room, looking into all sorts of likely and unlikely hiding-places for his money, and at length gave up the search in disgust, and sat down to wait until such time as his host should appear. It was a complication for which he had not bargained, and unable to endure the suspense any longer, he put his head up the stairway and bawled to the old man to come down.
"What's the matter now?" demanded the old man as he came downstairs, preceded by his wife. "One would think the place belonged to you, making all that noise."
"I've lost my purse," said Flower, regarding him sternly. "My purse has been taken out of one pocket and some silver out of the other while I was asleep."
The old man raised his eyebrows at his wife and scratched his chin roughly.
"I s'pose you've lost my three pounds along with it?" he said, raspily.
"Where's my purse?" demanded the skipper, roughly; "don't play the fool with me. It won't pay."
"I don't know nothing about your purse," said the other, regarding him closely with his little bloodshot eyes; "you're trying to do me out o'my three pounds—me what's took you in and 'id you."
The incensed skipper made no reply, but, passing upstairs, turned the bed-room topsy-turvy in a wild search for his property. It was unsuccessful, and he came down with a look in his face which made his respected host get close to his wife.
"Are you going to give me my money?" demanded he, striding up to him.
"I've not got your money," snarled the other, "I'm an honest man."
He started back in alarm, and his wife gave a faint scream as Flower caught him by the collar, and, holding him against the wall, went through his pockets.
"Don't hurt him," cried the old woman; "he's only a little old man."
"If you were younger and bigger," said the infuriated skipper, as he gave up the fruitless search, "I'd thrash you till you gave it up."
"I'm an honest man," said the other, recovering himself as he saw that his adversary intended no violence; "if you think I've stole your money, you know what you can do."
"What?" demanded Flower.
"Go to the police," said the old man, his little slit of a mouth twisted into a baleful grin; "if you think I've stole your money, go and tell the police."
"Let 'em come and search the house," said the old woman, plucking up spirit. "I've been married forty-two years and 'ad seven children. Go and fetch the police."
Flower stared at them in wrathful concern. Threats were of no use, and violence was out of the question. He went to the door, and leaning against it, stood there deep in thought until, after a time, the old woman, taking courage from his silence, began to prepare breakfast. Then he turned, and drawing his chair up to the table, ate silently.
He preserved this silence all day despite the occasional suggestion of the old man that he should go for the police, and the aggrieved refrain of the old woman as to the length of her married life and the number of her offspring.
He left at night without a word. The old man smiled almost amiably to see him go; and the old woman, who had been in a state of nervous trepidation all day, glanced at her husband with a look in which wifely devotion and admiration were almost equally blended.
Flower passed slowly through the wood, and after pausing to make sure that he was not followed, struck across the fields, and, with his sailor's knowledge of the stars, steered by them in the direction of London.
He walked all that night unmolested, his foot giving him but little trouble, and passed the following day under a haystack, assuaging his hunger with some bread and cheese he had put in his pocket.
Travelling by night and sleeping in secluded spots by day, he reached the city in three days. Considering that he had no money, and was afraid to go into a town to pawn his watch, he did not suffer so much from hunger as might have been expected—something which he vaguely referred to as Providence, but for which the sufferers found other terms, twice leading his faltering footsteps to labourers' dinners in tin cans and red handkerchiefs.
At Stratford he pawned his watch and chain and sat down to a lengthy meal, and then, with nearly eighteen shillings in his pocket, took train to Liverpool Street. The roar of the city greeted his ears like music, and, investing in a pipe and tobacco, he got on a 'bus bound eastward, and securing cheap apartments in the Mile End Road, sat down to consider his plans. The prompt appearance of the Tipping family after his letter to Fraser had given him a wholesome dread of the post, and until the connection between the two was satisfactorily explained he would not risk another, even in his new name of Thompson. Having come to this decision, he had another supper, and then went upstairs to the unwonted luxury of a bed.
It is one of the first laws of domestic economy that the largest families must inhabit the smallest houses—a state of things which is somewhat awkward when the heads wish to discuss affairs of state. Some preserve a certain amount of secrecy by the use of fragmentary sentences eked out by nods and blinks and by the substitution of capital letters for surnames; a practice likely to lead to much confusion and scandal when the names of several friends begin with the same letter. Others improve the family orthography to an extent they little dream of by spelling certain vital words instead of pronouncing them, some children profiting so much by this form of vicarious instruction that they have been known to close a most interesting conversation by thoughtlessly correcting their parents on a point of spelling.
There were but few secrets in the Wheeler family, the younger members relating each other's misdeeds quite freely, and refuting the charge of tale-bearing by keeping debit and credit accounts with each other in which assets and liabilities could usually be balanced by simple addition. Among the elders, the possession of a present secret merely meant a future conversation.
On this day the juniors were quite certain that secret proceedings of a highly interesting nature were in the air. Miss Tyrell having been out since the morning, Mrs. Wheeler was looking forward anxiously to her return with the view of holding a little private conversation with her, and the entire Wheeler family were no less anxious to act as audience for the occasion. Mr. Bob Wheeler had departed to his work that morning in a condition which his family, who were fond of homely similes, had likened to a bear with a sore head. The sisterly attentions of Emma Wheeler were met with a boorish request to keep her paws off; and a young Wheeler, rash and inexperienced in the way of this weary world, who publicly asked what Bob had "got the hump about," was sternly ordered to finish his breakfast in the washhouse. Consequently there was a full meeting after tea, and when Poppy entered, it was confidently expected that proceedings would at once open with a speech from the sofa.
"Take the children outside a bit, Belinda," said her mother, after the tea things had been removed.
"Got my 'ome lessons to do," said Belinda.
"Do 'em when you come back," said Mrs. Wheeler.
"Sha'n't 'ave time," replied Belinda, taking her books from a shelf; "they'll take me all the evening. We've all got a lot of 'ome lessons to-night."
"Never mind, you take 'em out," persisted Mrs. Wheeler.
"When I want to go out," said Belinda, rebelliously, "you won't let me."
"Do as your mother tells you," commanded Mr. Wheeler, with excellent sternness.
"I want a little quiet," said Mrs. Wheeler; "a little fresh air will do you good, Peter."
"I'll go and smoke my pipe in the washhouse," said Mr. Wheeler, who had his own notions of healthful recreation.
"Take your pipe outside," said Mrs. Wheeler, significantly. "Did you 'ear what I said, Belinda?"
Belinda rose noisily and gathering up her untidy books, thrust them back in a heap on the shelf, and putting on her hat stood at the door commenting undutifully upon her parents, and shrilly demanding of the small Wheelers whether they were coming or whether she was to stay there all night. She also indulged in dreary prognostications concerning her future, and finally driving her small fry before her, closed the street door with a bang which induced Mrs. Wheeler to speak of heredity and Mr. Wheeler's sister Jane's temper.
"Where are you going, Poppy?" she enquired, as the girl rose to follow the dutiful Mr. Wheeler. "I want to speak to you a moment."
The girl resumed her seat, and taking up a small garment intended for the youngest Wheeler but two, or the youngest but one, whichever it happened to fit best, or whichever wanted it first, stitched on in silence. "I want to speak to you about Bob," said Mrs. Wheeler, impressively. "Of course you know he never keeps anything from his mother. He 'as told me about all the gells he has walked out with, and though, of course, he 'as been much run after, he is three-and-twenty and not married yet. He told me that none of 'em seemed to be worthy of him."
She paused for so long that Poppy Tyrell looked up from her work, said "Yes," in an expressionless manner, and waited for her to continue.
"He's been a good son," said the mother, fondly; "never no trouble, always been pertickler, and always quite the gentleman. He always smokes his cigar of a Sunday, and I remember the very first money 'e ever earned 'e spent on a cane with a dog's 'ed to it."
"Yes," said Poppy again.
"The gells he's 'ad after 'im wouldn't be believed," said Mrs. Wheeler, shaking her head with a tender smile at a hole in the carpet. "Before you came here there was a fresh one used to come in every Sunday almost, but 'e couldn't make up his mind. We used to joke him about it."
"He's very young still," said Poppy.
"He's old enough to be married," said Mrs. Wheeler. "He's told me all about you, he never has no secrets from 'is mother. He told me that he asked you to walk out with 'im last night and you said 'No'; but I told 'im that that was only a gell's way, and that you'd give 'im another answer soon."
"That was my final answer," said Poppy Tyrell, the corners of her mouth hardening. "I shall never say anything else."
"All young gells say that at first," said Mrs. Wheeler, making praiseworthy efforts to keep her temper. "Wheeler 'ad to ask me five times."
"I meant what I said," said Poppy, stitching industriously. "I shall never change my mind."
"It's early days to ask you perhaps, so soon after Captain Flower's death," suggested Mrs. Wheeler.
"That has nothing at all to do with it," said the girl. "I shall not marry your son, in any case."
"Not good enough for you, I suppose?" said the other, her eyes snapping. "In my time beggars couldn't be choosers."
"They can't choose much now," said Poppy, in a low voice; "but as you know I'm going to a situation on Monday, I shall soon be able to pay off my debt to you: though, of course, I can't repay you for your kindness in letting me live here when I had nowhere else to go."
"It isn't me you owe it to," said Mrs. Wheeler. "I'm sure I couldn't 'ave afforded to do it whatever Wheeler liked to say if Bob hadn't come forward and paid for you."
"Bob?" cried Poppy, springing to her feet and dropping her work onto the floor.
"Yes, Bob," said the other, melodramatically; "'im what isn't good enough to be your husband."
"I didn't know," said the girl, brokenly; "you should have told me. I would sooner starve. I would sooner beg in the streets. I will go at once."
"I daresay you know where to go, so I sha'n't worry about you," replied Mrs. Wheeler. "You quiet ones are generally the worst."
"I am sorry," murmured Poppy; "I did not mean to be rude, or ungrateful."
"You're very kind," said Mrs. Wheeler. "Is Mr. Fraser up in London?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said the girl, pausing at the door.
"Sure to be, though," said Mrs. Wheeler, significantly; "you won't 'ave to starve, my dear. But, there, you know that—some people's pride is a funny thing."
Miss Tyrell regarded her for a moment in silence and then quitted the room, coming back again from half-way up the stairs to answer a knock at the door. She opened it slowly, and discovered to her horror Mr. Fraser standing upon the doorstep, with a smile which was meant to be propitiatory, but only succeeded in being uneasy.
"Is that Mr. Fraser?" demanded Mrs. Wheeler's voice, shrilly.
"That's me," said Fraser, heartily, as he shook hands with Poppy and entered the room.
"I thought you wouldn't be far off," said Mrs. Wheeler, in an unpleasant voice. "Poppy's been expecting you."
"I didn't know that Mr. Fraser was coming," said Poppy, as the helpless man looked from one to the other. "I suppose he has come to see you. He has not come to see me."
"Yes, I have," said Mr. Fraser, calmly. "I wanted—"
But Miss Tyrell had gone quietly upstairs, leaving him to gaze in a perturbed fashion at the sickly and somewhat malicious face on the sofa.
"What's the matter?" he enquired.
"Nothing," said Mrs. Wheeler.
"Isn't Miss Tyrell well?"
"So far as I'm permitted to know the state of 'er 'ealth, she is," was the reply.
"Mr. Wheeler well?" enquired Fraser, after a long pause.
"Very well, I thank you," said Mrs. Wheeler.
"And Miss Wheeler, and Bob, and the whole pa—— and all of them?" said Fraser.
"All very well," said Mrs. Wheeler.
His stock of conversation being exhausted he sat glancing uncomfortably round the littered room, painfully conscious that Mrs. Wheeler was regarding him with a glance that was at once hostile and impatient. While he was wondering whether Miss Tyrell had gone upstairs for a permanency, he heard her step on the stairs, and directly afterwards she appeared at the door with her hat and jacket on.
"Good-bye, Mrs. Wheeler," she said, gravely.
"Good-bye," said Mrs. Wheeler, in the same way that a free-speaking woman would have said "Good-riddance."
The girl's eyes rested for a moment on Fraser. Then she bade him good-bye, and, opening the door, passed into the street.
Fraser looked at Mrs. Wheeler in perplexity, then, jumping up suddenly as Poppy passed the window, he crossed to the door.
"Good-bye, Mrs. Wheeler," he shouted, and, vaguely conscious that something was wrong somewhere, dashed off in pursuit.
Poppy Tyrell, her face pale and her eyes burning, quickened her pace as she heard hurrying footsteps behind her.
"I just wanted a few words with you, Miss Tyrell," said Fraser, somewhat breathlessly.
"I—I am going on business," said Poppy, in a quiet voice.
"I didn't understand Mrs. Wheeler just now," said Fraser. "I hope you didn't mind my calling?"
"Oh, no," said the girl; "call as often as you like, but this evening I'm busy. Come to-morrow."
This hospitality over-reached itself. "Have you left the Wheelers?" he enquired, suddenly.
"Yes," said Poppy, simply.
"What's the good of telling me to call, then?" enquired Fraser, bluntly.
"They will be pleased to see you, I'm sure," said Miss Tyrell.
"Where are you going?" asked Fraser.
Miss Tyrell made no reply, except to favour him with a glance which warned him not to repeat the question, and he walked beside her for some time in silence.
"Good-bye," she said, suddenly.
"I'm not going," said Fraser, with artless surprise.
"Mr. Fraser," said the girl, reddening with anger, "will you please understand that I wish to be alone?"
"No," said Mr. Fraser, doggedly.
"A gentleman would not have to have half as much said to him," said Poppy, trembling.
"Well, thank God, I'm not a gentleman," said Fraser, calmly.
"If I had a father or a brother you would not behave like this," said the girl.
"If you had a father or a brother they would do it instead," said Fraser, gently; "it's just because you've got nobody else that I'm looking after you."
Miss Tyrell, who had softened slightly, stiffened again with temper.
"You?" she said, hotly. "What right have you to trouble yourself about me?"
"No right at all," said Fraser, cheerfully, "but I'm going to do it. If you've left the Wheelers, where are you going?"
Miss Tyrell, gazing straight in front of her, made no reply.
"Won't you tell me?" persisted the other.
"I'm not going anywhere," said Poppy, stopping suddenly and facing him. "I've got a new berth next Monday, and to-morrow morning I am going to see them to ask them to employ me at once."
"And to-night?" suggested the other.
"I shall go for a walk," said the girl. "Now that you know all about my concerns, will you please go?"
"Walk?" repeated Fraser. "Walk? What, all night? You can't do it—you don't know what it's like. Will you let me lend you some money? You can repay me as soon as you like."
"No, thank you."
"For my sake?" he suggested.
Miss Tyrell raised her eyebrows.
"I'm a bad walker," he explained.
The reply trembling on Miss Tyrell's lips realised that it was utterly inadequate to the occasion, and remained unspoken. She walked on in silence, apparently oblivious of the man by her side, and when he next spoke to her made no reply. He glanced at a clock in a baker's shop as they passed, and saw that it was just seven.
In this sociable fashion they walked along the Commercial Road and on to Aldgate, and then, passing up Fenchurch Street, mingled with the crowd thronging homewards over London Bridge. They went as far as Kennington in this direction, and then the girl turned and walked back to the City. Fraser, glancing at the pale profile beside him, ventured to speak again.
"Will you come down to Wapping and take my cabin for the night?" he asked, anxiously. "The mate's away, and I can turn in fo'ard—you can have it all to yourself."
Miss Tyrell, still looking straight in front of her, made no reply, but with another attempt to shake off this pertinacious young man of the sea quickened her pace again. Fraser fell back.
"If I'm not fit to walk beside you, I'll walk behind," he said, in a low voice; "you won't mind that?"
In this way they walked through the rapidly thinning streets. It was now dark, and most of the shops had closed. The elasticity had departed from Miss Tyrell's step, and she walked aimlessly, noting with a sinking at the heart the slowly passing time. Once or twice she halted from sheer weariness, Fraser halting too, and watching her with a sympathy of which Flower would most certainly have disapproved if he had seen it.
At length, in a quiet street beyond Stratford, she not only stopped, but turned and walked slowly back. Frascr turned too, and his heart beat as he fancied that she intended to overtake him. He quickened his pace in time with the steps behind him until they slackened and faltered; then he looked round and saw her standing in the centre of the pathway with her head bent. He walked back slowly until he stood beside her, and saw that she was crying softly. He placed his hand on her arm.
"Go away," she said, in a low voice.
"I shall not."
"You walked away from me just now."
"I was a brute," said Frascr, vehemently.
The arm beneath his hand trembled, and he drew it unresistingly through his own. In the faint light from the lamp opposite he saw her look at him.
"I'm very tired," she said, and leaned on him trustfully. "Were you really going to leave me just now?"
"You know I was not," said Fraser, simply.
Miss Tyrell, walking very slowly, pondered. "I should never have forgiven you if you had," she said, thoughtfully. "I'm so tired, I can hardly stand. You must take me to your ship."
They walked slowly to the end of the road, but the time seemed very short to Fraser. As far as he was concerned he would willingly have dispensed with the tram which they met at the end and the antique four-wheeler in which they completed their journey to the river. They found a waterman's skiff at the stairs, and sat side by side in the stern, looking contentedly over the dark water, as the waterman pulled in the direction of the Swallow, which was moored in the tier. There was no response to their hail, and Fraser himself, clambering over the side with the painter, assisted Miss Tyrell, who, as the daughter of one sailor and the guest of another, managed to throw off her fatigue sufficiently to admire the lines of the small steamer.
Fraser conducted her to the cabin, and motioning her to a seat on the locker, went forward to see about some supper. He struck a match in the forecastle and scrutinised the sleepers, and coming to the conclusion that something which was lying doubled up in a bunk, with its head buried in the pillow, was the cook, shook it vigourously.
"Did you want the cook, sir?" said a voice from another bunk.
"Yes," said Fraser, sharply, as he punched the figure again and again.
"Pore cookie ain't well, sir," said the seaman, sympathetically; "'e's been very delikit all this evenin'; that's the worst o' them teetotalers."
"All right; that'll do," said the skipper, sharply, as he struck another match, and gave the invalid a final disgusted punch. "Where's the boy?"
A small, dirty face with matted hair protruded from the bunk above the cook and eyed him sleepily.
"Get some supper," said Fraser, "quick."
"Supper, sir?" said the boy with a surprised yawn.
"And be quick about it," said the skipper, "and wash you face first and put a comb through your hair. Come, out you get."
The small sleeper sighed disconsolately, and, first extending one slender leg, clambered out and began to dress, yawning pathetically as he did so.
"And some coffee," said Fraser, as he lit the lamp and turned to depart.
"Bill," said the small boy, indignantly.
"Wot d'ye want?" said the seaman.
"'Elp me to wake that drunken pig up," said the youth, pointing a resentful finger at the cook. "I ain't goin' to do all the work."
"You leave 'im alone," said Bill, ferociously. The cook had been very liberal that evening, and friendship is friendship, after all.
"That's what a chap gets by keeping hisself sober," said the youthful philosopher, as he poured a little cold tea out of the kettle on his handkerchief and washed himself. "Other people's work to do."
He went grumbling up to the galley, and, lighting some sticks, put the kettle on, and then descended to the cabin, starting with genuine surprise as he saw the skipper sitting opposite a pretty girl, who was leaning back in her seat fast asleep.
"Cook'll be sorry 'e missed this," he murmured, as he lighted up and began briskly to set the table. He ran up on deck again to see how his fire was progressing, and thrusting his head down the forecastle communicated the exciting news to Bill.
To Fraser sitting watching his sleeping guest it seemed like a beautiful dream. That Poppy Tyrell should be sitting in his cabin and looking to him as her only friend seemed almost incredible. A sudden remembrance of Flower subdued at once the ardour of his gaze, and he sat wondering vaguely as to the whereabouts of that erratic mariner until his meditations were broken by the entrance of the boy with the steaming coffee, followed by Bill bearing a couple of teaspoons.
"I nearly went to sleep," said Poppy, as Fraser roused her gently.
She took off her hat and jacket, and Fraser, taking them from her, laid them reverently in his bunk. Then Poppy moved farther along the seat, and, taking some coffee pronounced herself much refreshed.
"I've been very rude to you," she said, softly; "but Mrs. Wheeler was very unkind, and said that of course I should go to you. That was why."
"Mrs. Wheeler is—" began Fraser, and stopped suddenly.
"Of course it was quite true," said Poppy, healthfully attacking her plate; "I did have to come to you."
"It was rather an odd way of coming," said Fraser; "my legs ache now."
The girl laughed softly, and continued to laugh. Then her eyes moistened, and her face became troubled. Fraser, as the best thing to do, made an excuse and went up on deck, to the discomfort of Bill and the boy, who were not expecting him.
Poppy was calm again by the time he returned, and thanked him again softly as he showed her her bunk and withdrew for the night. Bill and the boy placed their berths at his disposal, but he declined them in favour of a blanket in the galley, where he sat up, and slept but ill all night, and was a source of great embarrassment to the cook next morning when he wanted to enter to prepare breakfast.
Poppy presided over that meal, and it, and the subsequent walk to discover lodgings, are among Fraser's dearest memories. He trod on air through the squalid roads by her side, and, the apartments having been obtained, sat on the arm of the armchair—the most comfortable part—and listened to her plans.
"And you won't go away without letting me know?" he said, as he rose to depart.
Miss Tyrell shook her head, and her eyes smiled at him. "You know I won't," she said, softly. "I don't want to."
She saw him to the door, and until he had quitted the gate, kept it hospitably open. Fraser, with his head in a whirl, went back to the Swallow.
The prime result of Mrs. Banks' nocturnal ramble with Mr. William Green, was a feeling of great bitterness against her old friend, Captain John Barber. Mr. Green, despite her protests, was still a member of the crew of the Foam, and walked about Seabridge in broad daylight, while she crept forth only after sundown, and saw a hidden meaning in every "Fine evening, Mrs. Banks," which met her. She pointed out to Captain Barber, that his refusal to dismiss Mr. Green was a reflection upon her veracity, and there was a strange light in her eyes and a strange hardening of her mouth, as the old man said that to comply with her request would be to reflect upon the polite seaman's veracity.
Her discomfiture was not lessened by the unbecoming behaviour of her daughter, who in some subtle manner, managed to convey that her acceptance of her mother's version of the incident depended upon the way she treated Mr. Frank Gibson. It was a hard matter to a woman of spirit, and a harder thing still, that those of her neighbours who listened to her account of the affair were firmly persuaded that she was setting her cap at Captain Barber.
To clear her character from this imputation, and at the same time to mark her sense of the captain's treatment of her, Mrs. Banks effected a remarkable change of front, and without giving him the slightest warning, set herself to help along his marriage to Mrs. Church.
She bantered him upon the subject when she met him out, and, disregarding his wrathful embarrassment, accused him in a loud voice of wearing his tie in a love-knot. She also called him a turtledove. The conversation ended here, the turtledove going away crimson with indignation and cooing wickedly.
Humbled by the terrors of his position, the proud shipowner turned more than ever to Captain Nibletts for comfort and sympathy, and it is but due to that little man to say that anything he could have done for his benefactor would have given him the greatest delight. He spent much of his spare time in devising means for his rescue, all of which the old man listened to with impatience and rejected with contumely.
"It's no good, Nibletts," he said, as they sat in the subdued light of the cabin one evening.
"Nothing can be done. If anything could be done, I should have thought of it."
"Yes, that's what struck me," said the little skipper, dutifully.
"I've won that woman's 'art," said Captain Barber, miserably; "in 'er anxiety to keep me, the woman's natur' has changed. There's nothing she wouldn't do to make sure of me."
"It's understandable," said Nibletts.
"It's understandable," agreed Captain Barber, "but it's orkard. Instead o' being a mild, amiable sort o' woman, all smiles, the fear o' losing me has changed 'er into a determined, jealous woman. She told me herself it was love of me as 'ad changed her."
"You ain't written to her, I suppose?" asked Nibletts, twisting his features into an expression of great cunning.
Captain Barber shook his head. "If you'd think afore speaking, Nibletts," he said, severely, "you'd know as people don't write to each other when they're in the same house."
The skipper apologised. "What I mean to say is this," he said, softly. "She hasn't got your promise in writing, and she's done all the talking about it. I'm the only one you've spoken to about it, I s'pose?"
Captain Barber nodded.
"Well, forget all about it," said Nibletts, in an excited whisper.
Captain Barber looked at him pityingly.
"What good'll that do?" he asked.
"Forget the understanding," continued Nibletts, in a stage whisper, "forget everything; forget Captain Flower's death, act as you acted just afore he went. People'll soon see as you're strange in your manner, and I'll put the news about as you've been so affected by that affair that your memory's gone."
"I was thinking of doing that the other day myself," said Captain Barber, slowly and untruthfully.
"I thought you was, from something you said," replied Nibletts.
"I think I spoke of it, or I was going to," said Barber.
"You did say something," said Nibletts.
"I wonder what would be the best way to begin," said Barber, regarding him attentively.
Captain Niblett's nerve failed him at the responsibility.
"It's your plan, Captain Barber," he said, impressively, "and nobody can tell a man like you how it should be done. It wants acting, and you've got to have a good memory to remember that you haven't got a memory."
"Say that agin," said Captain Barber, breathing thickly.
Captain Nibletts repeated it, and Captain Barber, after clearing his brain with a glass of spirits, bade him a solemn good-night, and proceeded slowly to his home. The door was opened by Mrs. Church, and a hum of voices from the front room indicated company. Captain Barber, hanging his hat on a peg, entered the room to discover Mrs. Banks and daughter, attended by Mr. Gibson.
"Where's Fred?" he asked, slowly, as he took a seat.
"Who?" said Miss Banks, with a little scream.
"Lawk-a-mussy, bless the man," said her mother. "I never did."
"Not come in yet?" asked Barber, looking round with a frightful stare. "The Foam's up!"
The company exchanged glances of consternation.
"Why, is he alive?" enquired Mrs. Church, sharply.
"Alive!" repeated Captain Barber. "Why shouldn't he be? He was alive yesterday, wasn't he?"
There was a dead silence, and then Captain Barber from beneath his shaggy eyebrows observed with delight that Gibson, tapping his forehead significantly, gave a warning glance at the others, while all four sitting in a row watched anxiously for the first signs of acute mania.
"I expect he's gone round after you, my dear," said the wily Barber to Miss Banks.
In the circumstances this was certainly cruel, and Gibson coughed confusedly.
"I'll go and see," said Miss Banks, hurriedly; "come along, mother."
The two ladies, followed by Mr. Gibson, shook hands and withdrew hurriedly. Captain Barber, wondering how to greet Mrs. Church after he had let them out, fixed his eyes on the carpet and remained silent.
"Aren't you well?" enquired the lady, tenderly.
"Well, ma'am?" repeated Uncle Barber, with severity.
"Ma'am?" said Mrs. Church, in tones of tender reproach; "two hours ago I was Laura. Have you been to the 'Thorn'?"
"What 'Thorn'?" demanded Captain Barber, who had decided to forget as much as possible, as the only safe way.
"The Thorn Inn," said Mrs. Church, impatiently.
"Where is it?" enquired Captain Barber, ingenuously.
Mrs. Church looked at him with deep consideration. "Why, at the end of the cottages, opposite the 'Swan."
"What 'Swan'?" enquired Captain Barber.
"The Swan Inn," said Mrs. Church, restraining her temper, but with difficulty.
"Where is it?" said Uncle Barber, with breezy freshness.
"Opposite the 'Thorn,' at the end of the row," said Mrs. Church, slowly.
"Well, what about it?" enquired Captain Barber.
"Nothing," said Mrs. Church, sharply, and proceeded to set supper.
Captain Barber, hugging himself over his scheme, watched her eagerly, evincing a little bewilderment as she brought on a small, unappetizing rind of cheese, bread, two glasses, and a jug of water. He checked himself just in time from asking for the cold fowl and bacon left from dinner, and, drawing his chair to the table, eyed the contents closely.
"Only bread and cheese?" he said, somewhat peevishly.
"That's all," said Mrs. Church, smiling; "bread and cheese and kisses."
Captain Barber tapped his forehead. "What did we have for dinner?" he asked, suddenly.
"Sausages," replied Mrs. Church, blandly; "we ate them all."
A piece of Captain Barber's cheese went the wrong way, and he poured himself out some water and drank it hurriedly. "Where's the beer?" he demanded.
"You've got the key of the cask," said the housekeeper.
Captain Barber, whose temper was rising, denied it.
"I gave it to you this morning," said Mrs. Church; "you were going to do something to it, don't you know?"
"I don't remember," said Uncle Barber, surlily.
"Whatever has happened to your memory?" said Mrs. Church, sweetly.
"My memory," said the trickster, slowly, passing his hand over his brow; "why, what's the matter with it?"
"It doesn't seem quite so good as it was," said the lady, affectionately. "Never mind, my memory will have to do for both."
There was enough emphasis on this last sentence to send a little chill through the captain's frame.
He said nothing, but keeping his eye on his plate attacked his frugal meal in silence, and soon after-wards went upstairs to bed to think out his position.
If his own memory was defective, Mrs. Church's was certainly redundant. When he came hurrying in to dinner next day she remembered that he had told her he should not be home to that meal. He was ungallant enough to contemplate a raid upon hers; she, with a rare thoughtfulness, had already eaten it. He went to the "Thorn," and had some cold salt beef, and cursed the ingenious Nibletts, now on his way to London, sky-high.
Mrs. Banks came in the next evening with her daughter, and condoled with the housekeeper on the affliction which had already been noised about Seabridge. Mrs. Church, who had accepted her as an ally, but with mental reservations, softly applied a handkerchief to her eyes.
"How are you feeling?" demanded Mrs. Banks, in the voice of one addressing a deaf invalid.
"I'm all right," said Barber, shortly.
"That's his pride," said Mrs. Church, mournfully; "he won't own to it. He can't remember anything. He pretends he doesn't know me."
"Who are you?" asked the sufferer, promptly.
"He'll get the better of it," said Mrs. Banks, kindly, as her quondam foe wiped her eyes again. "If he don't, you'd better marry before October."
To say that Captain Barber pricked up his ears at this, indicates but feebly his interest in the remark. He held his breath and looked wildly round the room as the two ladies, deftly ignoring him, made their arrangements for his future.
"I don't like to seem to hurry it," said the housekeeper.
"No, of course you don't. If he said October, naturally October it ought to be, in the usual way," remarked the other.
"I never said October," interrupted the trembling mariner.
"There's his memory again," said Mrs. Banks, in a low voice.
"Poor dear," sighed the other.
"We'll look after your interests," said Mrs. Banks, with a benevolent smile. "Don't you remember meeting me by the church the other night and telling me that you were going to marry Mrs. Church in October?"
"No," bawled the affrighted man.
"Clean gone," said Mrs. Church, shaking her head; "it's no use."
"Not a bit," said Mrs. Banks.
"October seems rather early," said Mrs. Church, "especially as he is in mourning for his nephew.
"There's no reason for waiting," said Mrs. Banks, decidedly. "I daresay it's his loneliness that makes him want to hurry it. After all, he ought to know what he wants."
"I never said a word about it," interposed Captain Barber, in a loud voice.
"All right," said Mrs. Banks, indulgently. "What are you going to wear, my dear?" she added, turning to the housekeeper.
Mrs. Church seemed undecided, and Captain Barber, wiping the moisture from his brow, listened as one in a dream to a long discussion on the possibilities of her wardrobe. Thrice he interrupted, and thrice the ladies, suspending their conversation for a moment, eyed him with tender pity before resuming it.
"Me and Frank thought of October," said Elizabeth, speaking for the first time. She looked at Captain Barber, and then at her mother. It was the look of one offering to sell a casting vote.
"October's early," said the old lady, bridling.
Mrs. Church looked up at her, and then modestly looked down again. "Why not a double wedding?" she asked, gently.
Captain Barber's voice was drowned in acclamations. Elizabeth kissed Mrs. Church, and then began to discuss her own wardrobe. The owner of the house, the owner of the very chairs on which they were sitting, endeavoured in vain to stop them on a point of order, and discovered to his mortification that a man without a memory is a man without influence. In twenty minutes it was all settled, and even an approximate date fixed. There was a slight movement on the part of Elizabeth to obtain Captain Barber's opinion upon that, but being reminded by her mother that he would forget all about it in half an hour's time, she settled it without him.
"I'm so sorry about your memory, Captain Barber," said Mrs. Banks, as she prepared to depart. "I can understand what a loss it is. My memory's a very good one. I never forget anything."