"You forget yourself, ma'am," returned her victim, with unconscious ambiguity, and, closing the door behind her, returned to the parlour to try and think of some means of escaping from the position to which the ingenuity of Captain Nibletts, aided by that of Mrs. Banks, had brought him.
OPPONENTS of medicine have hit upon a means of cleansing the system by abstaining for a time from food, and drinking a quantity of fair water. It is stated to clear the eyes and the skin, and to cause a feeling of lightness and buoyancy undreamt of by those who have never tried it. All people, perhaps, are not affected exactly alike, and Captain Flower, while admitting the lightness, would have disdainfully contested any charge of buoyancy. Against this objection it may be said, that he was not a model patient, and had on several occasions wilfully taken steps to remove the feeling of lightness.
It was over a fortnight since his return to London. The few shillings obtained for his watch had disappeared days before; rent was due and the cupboard was empty. The time seemed so long to him, that Poppy and Seabridge and the Foam might have belonged to another period of existence. At the risk of detection he had hung round the Wheelers night after night for a glimpse of the girl for whom he was enduring all these hardships, but without success. He became a prey to nervousness and, unable to endure the suspense any longer, determined to pay a stealthy visit to Wapping and try and see Fraser.
He chose the night on which in the ordinary state of affairs the schooner should be lying alongside the wharf; and keeping a keen lookout for friends and foes both, made his way to the Minories and down Tower Hill. He had pictured it as teeming with people he knew, and the bare street and closed warehouses, with a chance docker or two slouching slowly along, struck him with an odd sense of disappointment. The place seemed changed. He hurried past the wharf; that too was deserted, and after a loving peep at the spars of his schooner he drifted slowly across the road to the Albion, and, pushing the door a little way open, peeped cautiously in. The faces were all unfamiliar, and letting the door swing quietly back he walked on until he came to the Town of Yarmouth.
The public bar was full. Tired workers were trying to forget the labours of the day in big draughts of beer, while one of them had thrown off his fatigue sufficiently to show a friend a fancy step of which he was somewhat vain. It was a difficult and intricate step for a crowded bar, and panic-stricken men holding their beer aloft called wildly upon him to stop, while the barman, leaning over the counter, strove to make his voice heard above the din. The dancer's feet subsided into a sulky shuffle, and a tall seaman, removing the tankard which had obscured his face, revealed the honest features of Joe. The sight of him and the row of glasses and hunches of bread and cheese behind the bar was irresistible. The skipper caught a departing customer by the coat and held him.
"Do me a favour, old man," he said, heartily.
"Wot d'ye want?" asked the other, suspiciously.
"Tell that tall chap in there that a friend of his is waiting outside," said Flower, pointing to Joe.
He walked off a little way as the man re-entered the bar. A second or two later, the carman came out alone.
"'E ses come inside 'e ses if you want to see 'im."
"I can't," said Flower.
"Why not?" asked the other, as a horrible suspicion dawned upon him. "Strewth, you ain't a teetotaler, are you?"
"No," replied the skipper, "but I can't go in."
"Well 'e won't come out," said the other; "'e seems to be a short-tempered sort o' man."
"I must see him," said the skipper, pondering. Then a happy thought struck him, and he smiled at his cleverness. "Tell him a little flower wants to see him," he said, briskly.
"A little wot?" demanded the carman, blankly.
"A little flower," repeated the other.
"Where is she?" enquired the carman, casting his eyes about him.
"You just say that," said the skipper, hurriedly. "You shall have a pint if you do. He'll understand."
It was unfortunate for the other that the skipper had set too high an estimation on Joe's intelligence, for the information being imparted to him in the audible tones of confidence, he first gave his mug to Mr. William Green to hold, and then knocked the ambassador down. The loud laugh consequent on the delivery of the message ceased abruptly, and in the midst of a terrific hubbub Joe and his victim, together with two or three innocent persons loudly complaining that they hadn't finished their beer, were swept into the street.
"He'll be all right in a minute, mate," said a bystander to Joe, anxiously; "don't run away."
"'Tain't so likely," said Joe, scornfully.
"Wot did you 'it me for?" demanded the victim, turning a deaf ear to two or three strangers who were cuddling him affectionately and pointing out, in alluring whispers, numberless weak points in Joe's fleshly armour.
"I'll 'it you agin if you come into a pub making a fool of me afore people," replied the sensitive seaman, blushing hotly with the recollection of the message.
"He told me to," said the carman, pointing to Flower, who was lurking in the background.
The tall seaman turned fiercely and strode up to him, and then, to the scandal of the bystanders and the dismay of Mr. William Green, gave a loud yell and fled full speed up the road. Flower followed in hot pursuit, and owing, perhaps, to the feeling of lightness before mentioned, ran him down nearly a mile farther on, Mr. Green coming in a good second.
"Keep orf," panted the seaman, backing into a doorway. "Keep—it—orf!"
"Don't be a fool, Joe," said the skipper.
"Keep orf," repeated the trembling seaman.
His fear was so great that Mr. Green, who had regarded him as a tower of strength and courage, and had wormed himself into the tall seaman's good graces by his open admiration of these qualities, stood appalled at his idol's sudden lack of spirit.
"Don't be a fool, Joe," said the skipper, sharply; "can't you see it's me?"
"I thought you was drownded," said the trembling seaman, still regarding him suspiciously. "I thought you was a ghost."
"Feel that," said Flower, and gave him a blow in the ribs which almost made him regret that his first impression was not the correct one.
"I'm satisfied, sir," he said, hastily.
"I was picked up and carried off to Riga: but for certain reasons I needn't go into, I want my being alive kept a dead secret. You mustn't breathe a word to anybody, d'ye understand? Not a word."
"Aye, aye, sir," said Joe; "you hear that, Will-yum?"
"Who the devil's this?" demanded the skipper, who had not bargained for another confidant.
"It's the new 'and, sir," said Joe. "I'll be answerable for 'im."
Flower eyed the pair restlessly, but Mr. Green assured him with a courtly bow that Mr. Smith's assurances might be relied upon. "He hoped he was a gentleman," he said, feelingly.
"Some of us thought—I thought," said Joe, with a glance at the skipper, "that the mate shoved you overboard."
"You always were a fool," commented the skipper.
"Yes, sir," said Joe, dutifully, and as they moved slowly back along the road gave him the latest information about Seabridge and the Foam.
"The Swallow's just come up in the tier," he concluded; "and if you want to see Mr. Fraser, I'll go and see if he's aboard."
The skipper agreed, and after exacting renewed assurances of secrecy from both men, waited impatiently in the private bar of the Waterman's Arms while they put off from the stairs and boarded the steamer.
In twenty minutes, during which time the penniless skipper affected not to notice the restless glances of the landlord, they returned with Fraser, and a hearty meeting took place between the two men. The famished skipper was provided with meat and drink, while the two A. B.'s whetted their thirst in the adjourning bar.
"You've had a rough time," said Fraser, as the skipper concluded a dramatic recital of his adventures.
Flower smiled broadly. "I've come out of it right side uppermost," he said, taking a hearty pull at his tankard; "the worst part was losing my money. Still, it's all in the day's work. Joe tells me that Elizabeth is walking out with Gibson, so you see it has all happened as I bargained for."
"I've heard so," said Fraser.
"It's rather soon after my death," said Flower, thoughtfully; "she's been driven into it by her mother, I expect. How is Poppy?"
Fraser told him.
"I couldn't wish her in better hands, Jack," said the other, heartily, when he had finished; "one of these days when she knows everything—at least, as much as I shall tell her—she'll be as grateful to you as what I am."
"You've come back just in time," said Fraser, slowly; "another week, and you'd have lost her."
"Lost her?" repeated Flower, staring.
"She's going to New Zealand," replied the other; "she's got some relations there. She met an old friend of her father's the other day, Captain Martin, master of the Golden Cloud, and he has offered her a passage. They sail on Saturday from the Albert Dock."
Flower pushed the tankard from him, and regarded him in consternation.
"She mustn't go," he said, decisively.
Fraser shrugged his shoulders. "I tried to persuade her not to, but it was no use. She said there was nothing to stay in England for; she's quite alone, and there is nobody to miss her."
"Poor girl," said Flower, softly, and sat crumbling his bread and gazing reflectively at a soda-water advertisement on the wall. He sat so long in this attitude that his companion also turned and studied it.
"She mustn't go," said Flower, at length. "I'll go down and see her to-morrow night. You go first and break the news to her, and I'll follow on. Do it gently, Jack. It's quite safe; there's nobody she can talk to now; she's left the Wheelers, and I'm simply longing to see her. You don't know what it is to be in love, Jack."
"What am I to tell her?" enquired the other, hastily.
"Tell her I was saved," was the reply. "I'll do the rest. By Jove, I've got it."
He banged the table so hard that his plate jumped and the glasses in the bar rattled in protest.
"Anything wrong with the grub?" enquired the landlord, severely.
Flower, who was all excitement, shook his head.
"Because if there is," continued the landlord, "I'd sooner you spoke of it than smash the table; never mind about hurting my feelings."
He wiped down the counter to show that Flower's heated glances had no effect upon him, withdrawing reluctantly to serve an impatient customer.
"I'll go down to-morrow morning to the Golden Cloud and try and ship before the mast," said Flower, excitably; "get married out in New Zealand, and then come home when things are settled. What do you think of that, my boy? How does that strike you?"
"How will it strike Cap'n Barber?" asked Fraser, as soon as he had recovered sufficiently to speak.
Flower's eyes twinkled. "It's quite easy to get wrecked and picked up once or twice," he said, cheerfully. "I'll have my story pat by the time I get home, even to the names of the craft I was cast away in. And I can say I heard of Elizabeth's marriage from somebody I met in New Zealand. I'll manage all right."
The master of the Swallow gazed at him in help-less fascination.
"They want hands on the Golden Cloud," he said, slowly; "but what about your discharges?"
"I can get those," said Flower, complacently; "a man with money and brains can do anything. Lend me a pound or two before I forget it, will you? And if you'll give me Poppy's address, I'll be outside the house at seven to-morrow. Lord, fancy being on the same ship with her for three months."
He threw down a borrowed sovereign on the counter, and, ordering some more drinks, placed them on the table. Fraser had raised his to his lips when he set it down again, and with a warning finger called the other's attention to the remarkable behaviour of the door communicating with the next bar, which, in open defiance of the fact that it possessed a patent catch of the latest pattern, stood open at least three or four inches.
"Draught?" questioned Flower, staring at the phenomenon.
The other shook his head. "I'd forgotten those two chaps," he said, in a low voice; "they've been listening."
Flower shifted in his seat. "I'd trust Joe anywhere," he said, uneasily, "but I don't know about the other chap. If he starts talking at Seabridge I'm done. I thought Joe was alone when I sent in for him."
Fraser tapped his chin with his fingers. "I'll try and get 'em to ship with me. I want a couple of hands," he said, slowly. "I'll have them under my eye then, and, besides, they're better at Bittlesea than Seabridge in any case."
He rose noisily, and followed by Flower entered the next bar. Twenty minutes afterwards Flower bade them all a hearty good-night, and Mr. Green, walking back to the schooner with Joe, dwelt complacently on the advantages of possessing a style and address which had enabled them to exchange the rudeness of Ben for the appreciative amiability of Captain Fraser.
Flower was punctual to the minute next evening, and shaking hands hastily with Fraser, who had gone down to the door to wait for him, went in alone to see Miss Tyrell. Fraser, smoking his pipe on the doorstep, gave him a quarter of an hour, and then went upstairs, Miss Tyrell making a futile attempt to escape from the captain's encircling arm as he entered the room. Flower had just commenced the recital of his adventures. He broke off as the other entered, but being urged by Miss Tyrell to continue, glanced somewhat sheepishly at his friend before complying.
"When I rose to the surface," he said, slowly "and saw the ship drawing away in the darkness and heard the cries on board, I swam as strongly as I could towards it. I was weighed down by my clothes, and I had also struck my head going overboard, and I felt that every moment was my last, when I suddenly bumped up against the life-belt. I had just strength to put that on and give one faint hail, and then I think for a time I lost my senses."
Miss Tyrell gave an exclamation of pity; Mr. Fraser made a noise which might have been intended for the same thing.
"The rest of it was like a dream," continued Flower, pressing the girl's hand; "sometimes my eyes were open and sometimes not. I heard the men pulling about and hailing me without being able to reply. By-and-by that ceased, the sky got grey and the water brown; all feeling had gone out of me. The sun rose and burnt in the salt on my face; then as I rose and fell like a cork on the waters, your face seemed to come before me, and I determined to live."
"Beautiful," said Fraser, involuntarily.
"I determined to live," repeated Flower, glancing at him defiantly. "I brushed the wet hair from my eyes, and strove to move my chilled limbs. Then I shouted, and anything more dreary than that shout across the waste of water I cannot imagine, but it did me good to hear my own voice, and I shouted again."
He paused for breath, and Fraser, taking advantage of the pause, got up hurriedly and left the room, muttering something about matches.
"He doesn't like to hear of your sufferings," said Poppy.
"I suppose not," said Flower, whose eloquence had received a chill, "but there is little more to tell. I was picked up by a Russian brig bound for Riga, and lay there some time in a state of fever. When I got better I worked my passage home in a timber boat and landed yesterday."
"What a terrible experience," said Poppy, as Fraser entered the room again.
"Shocking," said the latter.
"And now you've got your own ship again," said the girl, "weren't your crew delighted to see you?"
"I've not seen them yet," said Flower, hesitatingly. "I shipped on another craft this morning before the mast."
"Before the mast," repeated the girl, in amazement.
"Full-rigged ship Golden Cloud bound for New Zealand," said Flower, slowly, watching the effect of his words—"we're to be shipmates."
Poppy Tyrell started up with a faint cry, but Flower drew her gently down again.
"We'll be married in New Zealand," he said, softly, "and then we'll come back and I'll have my own again. Jack told me you were going out on her. Another man has got my craft; he lost the one he had before, and I want to give him a chance for a few months, poor chap, to redeem his character. Besides, it'll be a change. We shall see the world. It'll just be a splendid honeymoon."
"You didn't tell Captain Martin?" enquired the girl, as she drew back in her chair and eyed him perplexedly.
"Not likely," said Flower, with a laugh. "I've shipped in the name of Robert Orth. I bought the man's discharges this morning. He's lying in bed, poor chap, waiting for his last now, and hoping it'll be marked 'v. g.'"
Poppy was silent. For a moment her eyes, dark and inscrutable, met Fraser's; then she looked away, and in a low voice addressed Flower.
"I suppose you know best what is to be done," she said, quietly.
"You leave it to me," said Flower, in satisfied tones. "I'm at the wheel."
There was a long silence. Poppy got up and crossed to the window, and, resting her cheek on her hand, sat watching the restless life of the street. The room darkened slowly with the approach of evening. Flower rose and took the seat opposite, and Fraser, who had been feeling in the way for some time, said that he must go.
"You sail to-morrow evening, Jack?" said Flower, with a careless half-turn towards him.
"About six," was the reply.
"We sail Saturday evening at seven," said Flower, and took the girl's hand in his own. "It will be odd to see you on board, Poppy, and not to be able to speak to you; but we shall be able to look at each other, sha'n't we?"
"Captain Martin is a strict disciplinarian," said Poppy.
"Well he can't prevent us looking at each other," said Flower, "and he can't prevent us marrying when we get to the other end. Good-night, Jack. Next time you see us we'll be an old married couple."
"A quick passage and a safe return," said Fraser. "Good-night."
Poppy Tyrell just gave him her small hand, and that was all. Flower, giving him a hearty grip, accompanied him as far as the door of the room.
He looked back as he gained the pavement, and the last he saw of them they were sitting at the open window. Flower leaned out and waved his hand in farewell, but Poppy made no sign.
In the rising seaport of Bittlesea Captain Fraser, walking slowly along the quay on the fateful Saturday, heard the hour of seven strike from the tower of the old church wedged in between the narrow streets at the back of the town. The little harbour with its motley collection of craft vanished; he heard the sharp, hoarse cries of command on the Golden Cloud, and saw the bridge slowly opening to give egress to the tug which had her in tow. He saw her shapely hull and tapering spars glide slowly down the river, while Poppy Tyrell, leaning against the side, took her last look at London. He came back with a sigh to reality: the Swallow had dwindled to microscopical proportions, and looked dirty; Bittlesea itself had the appearance of a village with foolish aspirations to be considered a port, and he noticed, with a strong sense of pity tempered with disdain, the attentions of two young townsmen to a couple of gawky girls in white frocks.
With a feeling that the confinement of the house would be insupportable, he roamed idly about until the day gave place to twilight, and the red eye of the lightship on the horizon peeped suddenly across the water. Bittlesea was dull to aching point; a shirt-sleeved householder or two sat in his fragrant front-garden smoking, and a murmur of voices and shag tobacco floated out from tavern doorways. He paced up and down the quay, until the necessity of putting a stop to the vagaries of his crew furnished him with a little wholesome diversion.
In their quest for good beer Mr. Green and Joe had left themselves in the hands of the other members of the crew, and had gone off with them in a body to the Cap and Bells, where, in a most pointed fashion, Mr. Green, who had been regarding the fireman's complexion for some time with much displeasure, told the boy to go back to the ship and get his face washed.
"He's all right, ain't you, Tommy?" said the cook, coming to the rescue.
"Boys ought to keep their faces clean," said Mr. Green, impressively; "there's nothing more unpleasant than a face what wants washing. You don't want to grow up like that, do you? Look at it, Joe."
"It might be cleaner," said Joe, thus appealed to, slowly; "likewise it might be dirtier."
"It might be much dirtier," said Mr. Green, emphatically; "anybody with eyes in their 'ed can see that."
There was an awkward pause, during which the fireman, with one eye peeping furtively from be-yond the rim of a quart pot, saw both Joe and the cook kick Mr. Green's foot to call his attention to the fact that his words might be misconstrued by another member of the party.
"I 'ate toffs," he said, deliberately, as he placed his mug on the counter.
"They're all right when you know 'em, Charlie," said Joe, who was averse to having the evening spoiled at that early hour.
"A real toff's bad enough," continued the fireman, "but a himitation one—pah!" He buried his face in the pewter again, and laughed discordantly.
"You go aboard and wash you face, Tommy," repeated Mr. Green. "I should think you'd find plenty o' soap in Charlie's bunk."
"Do you know what you want?" demanded the fireman, regarding him fixedly.
"I know what you want," said Mr. Green, with a supercilious smile.
"Oh! Wot?" said the other.
The polite seaman rose to his feet and watched him carefully. "A banjo," he replied.
It was not the reply according to time-honoured formula, and Charlie, who was expecting something quite different, was at no pains to hide his perplexity. "A banjo?" he repeated, slowly, "a banjo—a ban——?"
Light came to him suddenly, and he flew at Mr. Green with his fists whirling. In a second the bar was in an uproar, and the well-meant and self-preservative efforts of Joe and the cook to get the combatants into the street were frustrated by people outside blocking up the doors. They came out at last, and Fraser, who was passing, ran over just in time to save Mr. Green, who was doing his best, from the consequences of a somewhat exaggerated fastidiousness. The incident, however, afforded a welcome distraction, and having seen Mr. Green off in the direction of the steamer, while the fireman returned to the public-house, he bent his steps homewards and played a filial game at cards with his father before retiring.
They sailed for London the following afternoon, Mr. Green taking a jaundiced view of the world from a couple of black eyes, while the fireman openly avowed that only the economical limitations of Nature prevented him from giving him more. Fraser, a prey to gentle melancholy, called them to order once or twice, and then left them to the mate, a man whose talent for ready invective was at once the admiration and envy of his peers.
The first night in London he spent on board, and with pencil and paper sat down to work out the position of the Golden Cloud. He pictured her with snowy pinions outspread, passing down Channel. He pictured Poppy sitting on the poop in a deck-chair and Flower coming as near as his work would allow, exchanging glances with her. Then he went up on deck, and, lighting his pipe, thought of that never-to-be-forgotten night when Poppy had first boarded the Foam.
The next night his mood changed, and unable to endure the confinement of the ship, he went for a lonely tramp round the streets. He hung round the Wheelers, and, after gazing at their young barbarians at play, walked round and looked at Flower's late lodgings. It was a dingy house, with broken railings and an assortment of papers and bottles in the front garden, and by no means calculated to relieve depression. From there he instinctively wandered round to the lodgings recently inhabited by Miss Tyrell.
He passed the house twice, and noted with gloom the already neglected appearance of her front window. The Venetian blind, half drawn up, was five or six inches higher one side than the other, and a vase of faded flowers added to the forlornness of the picture. In his present state of mind the faded blooms seemed particularly appropriate, and suddenly determining to possess them, he walked up the steps and knocked at the door, trembling like a young housebreaker over his first job.
"I think I left my pipe here the other night," he stammered to the small girl who opened it.
"I'll swear you didn't," said the small damsel, readily.
"Can I go up and see?" enquired Fraser, handing her some coppers.
The small girl relented, and even offered to assist him in his search, but he waved her away, and going upstairs sat down and looked drearily round the shabby little room. An execrable ornament of green and pink paper in the fireplace had fallen down, together with a little soot; there was dust on the table, and other signs of neglect. He crossed over to the window and secured two or three of the blooms, and was drying the stalks on his handkerchief when his eye suddenly lighted on a little white ball on the mantel-piece, and, hardly able to believe in his good fortune, he secured a much-darned pair of cotton gloves, which had apparently been forgotten in the hurry of departure. He unrolled them, and pulling out the little shrivelled fingers, regarded them with mournful tenderness. Then he smoothed them out, and folding them with reverent fingers, placed them carefully in his breastpocket. He then became conscious that somebody was regarding his antics with amazement from the doorway.
"Mr. Fraser!" said a surprised voice, which tried to be severe.
Mr. Fraser bounded from his chair, and stood regarding the intruder with a countenance in which every feature was outvying the other in amazement.
"I thought—you—were on the Golden Cloud," he stammered.
Miss Tyrell shook her head and looked down. "I missed the ship," she said, pensively.
"Missed the ship?" shouted the other; "missed the ship? Did Flower miss it too?"
"I'm afraid not," said Miss Tyrell, even more pensively than before.
"Good heavens, I never heard of such a thing," said Fraser; "how ever did you manage to do it?"
"I went to lie down a little while on Saturday afternoon," said Poppy, reflectively; "I'd got my box packed and everything ready; when I got up it was past seven o'clock, and then I knew it was no use. Ships won't wait, you know."
Fraser gazed at her in amaze. In his mind's eye he still saw the deck of the Golden Cloud; but Poppy's deck-chair was empty, and Flower, in place of exchanging glances with her, was walking about in a state equally compounded, of wrath and bewilderment.
"And you had given up your berth in the City?" said Fraser, at length, in concern.
The consciousness of a little colour in her cheek which she could not repress affected Miss Tyrell's temper. "No," she said, sharply.
"Didn't you intend to go, then?" asked the bewildered Fraser.
"I—oh, will you give me my gloves, please, before I forget them?" said Miss Tyrell, coldly.
It was Fraser's turn to colour, and he burnt a rich crimson as he fished them out.
"I was going to take care of them for you," he said, awkwardly. "I came to look after a pipe I thought I'd left here."
"I saw you taking care of them," was the reply.
There was a pause, during which Miss Tyrell took a seat and, folding her hands in her lap, gazed at him with the calm gaze which comes of perfect misdoing and the feminine determination not to own up to it. The room was no longer shabby, and Fraser was conscious of a strange exaltation.
"I understood that you had given notice in the City," he said, slowly; "but I'm very glad that you didn't."
Miss Tyrell shook her head, and stooping down adjusted the fire-stove ornament.
"Didn't you intend to go?" repeated the tactful seaman.
"I'd left it open," said Miss Tyrell, thoughtfully; "I hadn't definitely accepted Captain Martin's invitation. You jump at conclusions so, but of course when I found that Captain Flower had shipped before the mast for my sake, why, I had to go."
"So you had," said Fraser, staring.
"There was no help for it," continued Miss Tyrell.
"Didn't seem like it," said the more accurate Fraser.
His head was in a whirl, and he tried vainly to think of the exact terms in which she had announced her intention to emigrate, and combated the objections which he thought himself justified in advancing. He began to remember in a misty, un-certain fashion that they were somewhat vague and disjointed, and for one brief moment he wondered whether she had ever had any idea of going at all. One glance at the small figure of probity opposite was enough, and he repelled the idea as unworthy.
"I believe that you are sorry I didn't go," said Poppy, suddenly.
"I'm sorry for Flower," said the other.
"He will be back in six or seven months," said Poppy, gently; "that will soon pass away. I shall not be very old to marry even then. Perhaps it is all for the best—I don't like—"
"Don't like?" prompted Fraser.
"Don't like to be hurried," continued Miss Tyrell, looking down.
There was another pause. The girl got up and, walking to the window, gazed out upon the street.
"There is a nice air in the streets now," she said at length, without turning round.
Fraser started. Politeness and inclination fought with conscience. The allies won, but inclination got none of the credit.
"Would you care to go for a walk?" he asked.
Miss Tyrell turned and regarded him with an unmistakable air of surprise.
"No, thank you," she said, in a manner which indicated reproof.
Fraser shifted restlessly. "I thought that was what you meant," he said, indignantly.
"You jump at conclusions, as I said before," remarked Miss Tyrell. "It wouldn't be right."
"I don't see any harm in it," said Fraser, stoutly; "we've been before, and Flower knows of it."
The girl shook her head. "No," she said, firmly.
To her surprise, that ended the matter. The rattle of traffic and the hum of voices came in at the open window; the room seemed unwontedly quiet by contrast. Miss Tyrell sat reaping the empty reward of virtue, and bestowing occasional glances on the fine specimen of marine obtuseness in the armchair.
"I hope that I am not keeping you from a walk," she observed, at length.
"No," said Fraser.
He rose in confusion, wondering whether this was a hint for him to go, and after a supreme mental effort decided that it was, and murmured something about getting back to the ship. Poppy shook hands with him patiently. It is always a sad thing to see a fine young man lacking in intelligence. Some of her pity perhaps showed in her eyes.
"Are you going?" she asked, with a shade of surprise in her voice.
Fraser gazed at her in perplexity. "I suppose so," he murmured.
"Which means that you want a walk, but don't like leaving me here alone, I suppose," said Miss Tyrell, resignedly. "Very well, I will come."
She left him for a moment in search of her hat, and then, putting aside the gloves she was about to don in favour of those he had endeavoured to secrete, led the way downstairs. Her composure was sufficient for two, which was just the quantity required at that moment.
The summer passed quickly. All too quickly for Captain Barber, who said that it was the shortest he ever remembered. But, then, his memory, although greatly improved, was still none of the best, many things which Mrs. Church fondly and frequently referred to having escaped it altogether.
He even forgot that he was to be married in October, and in these circumstances Mrs. Gibson, Miss Banks, and Mrs. Church put their banns up. This acted as a specific, and Captain Barber, putting the best face he could on the matter, went and interviewed the verger on his own behalf.
The wedding-day found him resigned, but dazed, The morning air was crisp and chill, with a faint odour of dead leaves and the aromatic smell of chrysanthemums which decked the front garden. The house was as clean as a new pin, or the deck of the Foam, which, having been thoroughly scrubbed down in honour of the occasion, was now slowly drying in the sun. Down below, the crew, having finished their labours for the day, were anxiously attiring themselves in their Sunday best.
The grizzled head of Ben popped out at the companion and sniffed heartily at the smell of wet deck. His coat was of black, and his new boots creaked deliciously as he slowly paced the deck and affected ignorance of the little cluster of heads at the forecastle hatch. He went below again, and a murmur, gentle but threatening, rose against Tim.
"You wait," said the youth, sharply.
"If you've made me waste eighteenpence, Timmy," said a stout A. B. named Jones, "the Lord ha' mercy on you, 'cos I won't."
The cook, who was clinging to the ladder with his head level with the deck, gave an excited gasp. "Tim's all right," he said; "look there."
The last words were jerked out of him by reason of the weight of his friends, who were now leaning on him, breathing heavily under the stress of strong excitement. Ben was on deck again, and in an obviously unconcerned manner was displaying a silk hat of great height to all who cared to look. The mate's appearance alone, without the flags which dressed the schooner, would have indicated a festival.
Three or four labourers sunning themselves on the quay were much impressed and regarded him stolidy; a fisherman, presuming upon the fact that they both earned their living on the water, ventured to address him.
"Now, then," said Jones, as he took something reverently from an empty bunk, "who's going up fust?"
"I ain't," said Tim.
"Wot about you, cookie?" said Jones.
"Well, wot about me?" demanded the other.
"I thought p'r'aps you'd like to lead the way," said Mr. Jones, mildly.
"You thought wrong, then," said the cook, shortly.
"It was jist a compliment," urged Mr. Jones.
"I don't like flattery," said the cook; "never did."
Mr. Jones sighed and shook his head irresolutely. The other A.B. patted him on the back.
"You look a fair bloomin' treat," he said, heartily. "You go up fust; you look as though you've slep' in one a'most."
"None o' your larks, you know," remarked Mr. Jones, with suspicious sourness; "no backing out of it and leavin' me there by myself."
There was a chorus of virtuous but profane indignation. It was so indignant that Mr. Jones apologised, and stood for some time regarding the article in his hand with the face of a small child eyeing a large powder. Then he clapped it on his head and went on deck.
The mate was just talking to the fisherman about an uncle of his (born since his promotion) who had commanded a brig, when his voice failed him, and he gazed open-mouthed at a stout seaman who had just come up on deck. On the stout seaman's face was the look of one who sees a vision many miles off; on the stout seaman's head was a high hat of antique pattern which had suffered in the brushing. To avoid the mate's eye he folded his arms and, leaning over the side, gazed across the river. Words trembled on the mate's lips, but they died away in a squeak as a little top-hatted procession of three issued coyly from the forecastle and, ranging itself beside Mr. Jones, helped him to look across the river.
"I never did," said the fisherman. "What are we a-coming to?"
The mate did not stay to inform him. He walked hastily to the quartette and, bursting with rage, asked Jones what he meant by it.
"Mean by wot, sir?" asked Jones, in surprise.
"Top-hats," said the mate, choking.
The four turned and regarded him stolidly, keeping as close together as possible for the sake of moral support and the safety of their head-gear.
"For the weddin', sir," said Jones, as though that explained everything.
"You take 'em off," said the mate, sharply. "I won't let you wear 'em."
"I beg your pardin," said Jones, with great politeness, "we got these 'ere 'ats for the weddin', an' we're a-goin' to wear 'em."
He took the offending article off and brushed it tenderly with his coat-sleeve, while the furious mate looked assault and battery at the other three. Tim, whose hat came well down over his eyes, felt comparatively safe; but the cook, conscious that his perched lightly on the top of his head, drew back a pace. Then he uttered an exclamation as Captain Nibletts, who was officiating as best man, came hurriedly down the cliff.
"Hats?" said the little skipper, disengaging himself from the mate's grasp, as he came on board. "Yes, I don't mind."
"Wot about Capt'in Barber?" demanded the mate, impressively.
"If they was pudding-basins 'e wouldn't mind," said Nibletts, testily; "he's that nervous 'e don't know what 'e's doing hardly. He was raving like a madman for five minutes cos 'e couldn't fasten his collar, and then I found he'd forgot to put his shirt on. He don't care."
He hurried down to the cabin and then came bustling up again. His small face was strained with worry, and the crew eyed him respectfully as he came forward and dealt out white satin favours.
"Cap'in Barber'll be all right with you looking arter 'im, sir," said Jones, with strong conviction.
"That he will," said the cook, nodding.
"There's some whisky in a bottle in my locker, cook," said Nibletts, dancing about nervously; "give the hands one drink each, cook. Only one, mind."
The men thanked him, and with kindly eyes watched him go ashore. The cook went down for the whisky, and Tim, diving into the forecastle, brought up four mugs.
"He must ha' meant another bottle," said Jones, as the cook came slowly up again with a bottle containing one dose.
"There ain't another," said the cook; "he's 'alf off 'is 'ed."
There was a pained silence. "We must toss for it," said Jones, at length; "that is, unless you chaps don't want it."
"Toss," said three voices speaking as one.
Jones sighed, and the coins were produced. The prize fell to Tim, and he leaned against the windlass and slowly poured the yellow liquid into his mug.
"There's more than I thought there was," remarked Mr. Jones, in surprise.
"Bottles is deceiving," said the cook.
"It ain't the fust toss as Tim 'as won," said the third man, darkly.
The ordinary seaman made no reply, but, stepping over to the water-cask, added with great care a little water.
"Here's your 'ealth, chaps," he said, good-naturedly, as he drank, "and may you never want a drink."
"You've never drunk all that, Tim?" said Mr. Jones, anxiously.
Tim shook his head. "There's too much to drink all at once," he said, gravely, and sat, with the mug on his knee, gazing ashore. "It's warming me all over," he mused. "I never tasted sich whisky afore. I'm in a gentle glow."
So was the cook; a glow which increased to fever heat as the youth raised the mug to his lips again, and slowly drained it and handed it to him to wash up.
A little later the men went ashore, and strolling aimlessly up and down the road, passed the time in waiting for the ceremony and making sudden dashes after small boys who were throwing at their hats and hitting their heads.
Seabridge itself was quiet, but Mrs. Banks' house was in a state of ferment. Ladies with pins in their mouths wandered about restlessly until, coming into the orbit of one of the brides, they stuck one or two into her and then drew back to behold the effect. Miss Banks, in white satin, moved about stiffly; Mrs. Church, in heliotrope, glanced restlessly up the road every time she got near the window.
"Now you sit down," said one lady, at length, "both of you. All you've got to do now is to wait for the gentlemen."
It was whispered that Mr. Gibson's delay was due to the fact that he had gone up for Captain Barber, and as time passed a certain restlessness became apparent in the assembly, and sympathetic glances were thrown in the direction of Mrs. Church. Places at the window were at a premium, and several guests went as far as the garden gate and looked up the road. Still no Captain Barber.
"It's time they were here," said Mrs. Banks at last, in a stern voice.
There was a flutter at the gate, and a pretty girl heliographed with her eyes that the parties of the other part were in sight. A minute or two later they came into sight of the window. Captain Barber, clad in beautiful raiment, headed the cortege, the rear of which was brought up by the crew of the Foam and a cloud of light skirmishers which hovered on their flanks. As they drew near, it was noticed that Captain Barber's face was very pale, and his hands trembled, but he entered the house with a firm step and required no assistance.
Of his reception there was never for a moment any doubt. Young matrons smiled and shook their heads at him, middle-aged matrons took him by the hand, while old ladies committed themselves to the statement that they had seen matrimony in his eye for years. He received the full measure accorded to a very distinguished convert, and, taking a chair placed against the wall, surveyed the company with the air of a small boy who has strayed into a hostile alley. A little natural curiosity found vent.
"Now, what first put it into your head to get married?" ask one fair enquirer.
"Mrs. Church," said the ex-mariner, simply.
"Yes, of course," said the matron; "but was it love at first sight, or did it grow on you before you knew it?"
Captain Barber blushed. "It growed on me afore I knew it," he replied, fervently.
"I suppose," said a lady of a romantic turn of mind, "that you didn't know what was happening at first?"
"I did not, ma'am," agreed the Captain, in trembling tones. "Nobody was more surprised than wot I was."
"How strange," said two or three voices.
They regarded him tenderly, and the youngest bridesmaid, a terrible child of ten, climbed up on his knee and made audible comparisons between the two bridegrooms, which made Mr. Gibson smile.
"Time we started," said Mrs. Banks, raising her voice above the din. "Cap'in Barber, you and Mr. Gibson and the other gentlemen had better get to the church."
The men got up obediently, and in solemn silence formed up in the little passage, and then started for the church some two hundred yards distant, the crew of the Foam falling in behind unchallenged.
To this day Captain Barber does not know how he got there, and he resolutely declines to accept Captain Niblett's version as the mere offspring of a disordered imagination. He also denies the truth of a statement circulated in the town that night that, instead of replying to a leading question in the manner plainly laid down in the Church Service, he answered, "I suppose so."
He came out of the church with a buzzing in his ears and a mist before his eyes. Something was clinging to his arm, which he tried several times to shake off. Then he discovered that it was Mrs. Barber.
Of the doings of the crew of the Foam that night it were better not to speak. Suffice it to say that when they at length boarded their ship Tim was the only one who still possessed a hat, and in a fit of pride at the circumstance, coupled, perhaps, with other reasons, went to bed in it. He slept but ill, however, and at 4 A. M., the tide being then just on the ebb, the only silk hat in the forecastle went bobbing up and down on its way to the sea.
A FINE October gave way to a damp and dreary November; a month of mists and fogs, in which shipping of all sizes and all nations played blind man's buff at sea, and felt their way, mere voices crying in the wilderness, up and down the river. The Swallow, with a soul too large for its body, cannoned a first-class battleship off the Medway, and with a thoughtfulness too often lacking at sea, stood by and lowered a boat, whereupon the captain, who had been worrying about his paint, invented, in his surprise, a brand-new adjective for the use of senior officers of the British Navy.
Over three months had elapsed since the Golden Cloud set out on her long voyage; three months during which Fraser, despite his better sense, had been a constant visitor of Poppy Tyrell's, and had assisted her in the search for fresh lodgings to avoid the attentions of Mr. Bob Wheeler, who, having discovered her whereabouts, had chosen to renew his suit.
On two or three occasions the girl had accompanied him on board the steamer, and at such times it was Mr. Green's pleasure to wink in a frenzied manner at Mr. Joe Smith and to make divers bets of pints of beer, which made that thirsty soul half crazy to listen to. He also said that any one with half an eye could see what was in the wind.
"And a very nice couple they'll make, too," said Joe, solemnly.
"An' what about Cap'in Flower?" suggested Mr. Green; "she's evident the young lady he was talking about that night, and Tommy's heard 'em speaking about him once or twice, too."
Joe shuffled uneasily. He was beginning to entertain a considerable regard for his new skipper, dating from the time he discovered that his sinister suspicions concerning him were unfounded. He had moreover conceived a dog-like admiration for Poppy Tyrell.
"That's 'is business," he said, shortly; "judging by what you 'eard in that pub, Cap'in Flower knows where to put 'is hand on one or two more if 'e wants 'em."
He walked off in dudgeon, ignoring a question by Mr. Green as to whose foot kep' the door open, and felt dimly the force of the diction that no man can serve two masters; and, with a view to saving himself worry, dismissed the matter from his mind until some weeks afterwards it was forcibly revived by the perusal of a newspaper which the engineer had brought on board. Without giving himself time for due reflection, he ran up on deck and approached the skipper.
"Golden Cloud's in the paper as overdue, sir," he said, respectfully.
"What is?" enquired Fraser, sharply.
"Golden Cloud, sir; boat Cap'in Flower is on," said Joe, slowly.
Fraser regarded him sternly. "What do you know about it?" he asked.
Joe looked round helplessly. At such moments Willyum Green was a tower of strength, but at the present time he was fooling about helping the ship's cat to wash itself.
"What do you know about it?" repeated Fraser.
"Will-yum told me, sir," said Joe, hastily.
Mr. Green being summoned, hastily put down the cat and came aft, while Joe, with a full confidence in his friend's powers, edged a few feet away, and listened expectantly as the skipper interrogated him.
"Yes, sir, I did tell Joe, sir," he answered, with a reproachful glance at that amateur. "I met Cap'in Flower that evening again, late, an' he told me himself. I'm sorry to see by this morning's paper that his ship is overdue."
"That'll do," said Fraser, turning away.
The men moved off slowly, Mr. Green's reproaches being forestalled by the evidently genuine compliments of Joe.
"If I'd got a 'ead like you, Will-yum," he said, enviously, "I'd be a loryer or a serlicitor, or some-think o' the kind."
Days passed and ran into weeks, but the Golden Cloud was still unspoken. Fraser got a paper every day when ashore, but in vain, until at length one morning, at Bittlesea, in the news columns of the Daily Telegraph, the name of the missing ship caught his eye. He folded the paper hurriedly, and breathed hard as he read:—
"Missing ship, Golden Cloud.
"Rio Janeiro, Thursday.
"The barque Foxglove, from Melbourne to Rio Janeiro, has just arrived with five men, sole survivors of the ship Golden Cloud, which they report as sunk in collision with a steamer, name unknown, ten weeks out from London. Their names are Smith, Larsen, Petersen, Collins and Gooch. No others saved."
In a dazed fashion he read the paragraph over and over again, closely scanning the names of the rescued men. Then he went up on deck, and beckoning to Joe, pointed with a trembling finger to the fatal paragraph. Joe read it slowly.
"And Cap'in Flower wasn't one o' them, sir?" he asked, pointing to the names.
Fraser shook his head, and both men stood for some time in silence.
"He's done it this time, and no mistake," said Joe, at last. "Well, 'e was a good sailorman and a kind master."
He handed the paper back, and returned to his work and to confer in a low voice with Green, who had been watching them. Fraser went back to the cabin, and after sitting for some time in a brown study, wrote off to Poppy Tyrell and enclosed the cutting.
He saw her three days later, and was dismayed and surprised to find her taxing herself with being the cause of the adventurous mariner's death.
"He would never have heard of the Golden Cloud if it hadn't been for me," she said, trembling. "His death is at my door."
Fraser tried to comfort her and straining metaphor to the utmost, said that if the finger of Providence had not made her oversleep herself she would undoubtedly have shared the same fate.
The girl shook her head.
"He shipped before the mast for the sake of being on the same ship as I was," she said, with quivering lip; "it is not every man who would have done that, and I—I—"
"Overslept yourself," said Fraser, consolingly.
Miss Tyrell made an impatient gesture, but listened hopefully as her visitor suggested that it was quite possible Flower had got away in another boat.
"I'll watch the paper every day," she said, brightening; "you miss some at sea."
But nothing came of the watching. The Golden Cloud had had its obituary in the paper in large type, and that was all—a notice to certain women and children scattered about Europe to go into mourning and to the owners to get another ship.
By the end of the couple of months Fraser had given up all hope. He was very sorry for his unfortunate friend, but his sorrow was at times almost tempered by envy as he pondered over the unexpected change which had come over his relations with Poppy Tyrell. The old friendly footing had disappeared, and her manner had become distant as though, now that the only link which connected them was broken, there was no need for further intercourse. The stiffness which ensued made his visits more and more difficult. At last he missed calling one night when he was in London, and the next time he called the girl was out. It was a fortnight before he saw her, and the meeting was embarrassing to both.
"I'm sorry I was out last time you came," said Poppy.
"It didn't matter," said Fraser.
Conversation came to a standstill. Miss Tyrell, with her toes on the fender, gazed in a contemplative fashion at the fire. "I didn't know——" began Fraser, who was still standing.
He cleared his voice and began again. "I didn't know whether you would rather I left off coming," he said, slowly.
Her gaze travelled slowly from the fire to his face. "You must please yourself," she said, quietly.
"I would rather please you," he said, steadily.
The girl regarded him gravely. "It is rather inconvenient for you sometimes," she suggested, "and I am afraid that I am not very good company."
Fraser shook his head eagerly. "It is not that at all," he said hastily.
Poppy made no reply, and there was another long silence. Then Fraser advanced and held out his hand.
"Good-bye," he said, quietly.
"Good-bye," said the girl. She smiled brightly, and got up to see him downstairs.
"I wanted to say something before I went," said Fraser, slowly, as he paused at the street-door, "and I will say it."
Miss Tyrell, raising her eyebrows somewhat at his vehemence, waited patiently.
"I have loved you from the moment I saw you," said Fraser, "and I shall go on loving you till I die. Good-bye."
He pressed her hand again, and walked down the little front garden into the street. At the gate he paused and looked round at Poppy still standing in the lighted doorway; he looked round again a few yards down the street, and again farther on. The girl still stood there; in the momentary glimpse he had of her he fancied that her arm moved. He came back hastily, and Miss Tyrell regarded him with unmistakable surprise.
"I thought—you beckoned me," he stammered.
"Thought I beckoned you?" repeated the girl.
"I thought so," murmured Fraser. "I beg your pardon," and turned confusedly to go again.
"So—I—did," said a low voice.
Fraser turned suddenly and faced her; then, as the girl lowered her eyes before his, he re-entered the house, and closing the door led her gently upstairs.
"I didn't like you to go like that," said Miss Tyrell, in explanation, as they entered her room.
Fraser regarded her steadfastly and her eyes smiled at him. He drew her towards him and kissed her, and Miss Tyrell, trembling with something which might have been indignation, hid her face on his shoulder.
For a long time, unless certain foolish ejaculations of Fraser's might count as conversation, they stood silent; then Poppy, extricating herself from his arm, drew back and regarded him seriously.
"It is not right," she said, slowly; "you forget."
"It is quite right," said Fraser; "it is as right as anything can be."
Poppy shook her head. "It has been wrong all along," she said, soberly, "and Captain Flower is dead in consequence. I never intended to go on the Golden Cloud, but I let him go. And now he's dead. He only went to be near me, and while he was drowning I was going out with you. I have been very wicked."
Fraser protested, and, taking her hand, drew her gently towards him again.
"He was very good to my father," said Poppy, struggling faintly. "I don't think I can."
"You must," said Fraser, doggedly; "I'm not going to lose you now. It is no good looking at me like that. It is too late."
He kissed her again, secretly astonished at his own audacity, and the high-handed way in which he was conducting things. Mixed with his joy was a half-pang, as he realised that he had lost his fear of Poppy Tyrell.
"I promised my father," said the girl, presently. "I did not want to get married, but I did not mind so much Until—"
"Until," Fraser reminded her, fondly.
"Until it began to get near," said the girl; "then I knew."
She took her chair by the fire again, and Fraser, placing his beside it, they sat hand in hand discussing the future. It was a comprehensive future, and even included Captain Flower.
"If he should be alive, after all," said Poppy, with unmistakable firmness, "I shall still marry him if he wishes it."
Fraser assented. "If he should ever turn up again," he said, deliberately, "I will tell him all about it. But it was his own desire that I should watch over you if anything happened to him, so he is as much to blame as I am. If he had lived I should never have said a word to you. You know that."
"I know," said Poppy, softly.
Her hand trembled in his, and his grasp tightened as though nothing should loosen it; but some thousands of miles away Captain Flower, from the deck of a whaler, was anxiously scanning the horizon in search of the sail which was to convey him back to England.
Time as it rolled on set at rest any doubts Miss Tyrell might have had concerning the fate of Captain Flower, and under considerable pressure from Fraser, she had consented to marry him in June. The only real reason for choosing that month was, that it was close at hand, though Fraser supplied her with several others to choose from. Their engagement could hardly have been said to have been announced, for with the exception of old Mr. Fraser and the crew of the Swallow, who had gleaned the fact for themselves without any undue strain on their intellects, there was nobody to tell.
The boy was the first to discover it. According to his own indignant account, he went down to the cabin to see whether there was anything he could do, and was promptly provided with three weeks' hard labour by his indignant skipper. A little dissertation in which he indulged in the forecastle on division of labour met with but scant response; Joe said that work was good for boys, and Mr. Green said that he knew a boy who worked eighteen hours a day, and then used to do sums in his sleep to improve his education. The other men set their wits to work then, and proved to have so large an acquaintance with a type of boy that Tommy loathed, that he received a mild chastisement for impertinence to his elders and betters.
It wanted but two days to the wedding. The Swallow was lying in the river, her deck unoccupied except for Mr. Green and the boy, who were smoking in the bows, and the ship's cat, which, with one eye on Mr. Green, was stalking the frying-pan. Fraser had gone ashore on business connected with his wedding-garments, and Poppy Tyrell, with all her earthly belongings in a couple of boxes, sat in the cabin dreaming of her future.
A boat bumped against the side of the steamer, and Mr. Green, looking round, observed the long form of Joe scrambling over the side. His appearance betokened alarm and haste, and Mr. Green, after a brief remark on the extravagance, not to say lordliness, of a waterman's skiff when a hail would have taken the ship's boat to him, demanded to know what was the matter.
"Send that boy below," said Joe, hastily.
"What for?" enquired the gentleman interested, rebelliously.
"You go below," repeated Joe, sternly, "'fore I take you by the scruff o' your little neck and drop you down."
The boy, with a few remarks about the rights of man in general and ships' boys in particular, took his departure, and Joe, taking the startled Mr. Green by the arm, led him farther aft.
"You've got a 'ead on you Will-yum, I know," he said, in a fierce whisper.
"People have said so," remarked the other, modestly. "What's the row?"
For answer, Joe pointed to the cabin, and that with so much expression on his features that Mr. Green, following his gaze, half expected to see something horrible emerge from the companion.
"It's all up," said the tall seaman, poetically. "You can put the wedding-dress away in brown paper, and tell the church bells as there is no call for 'em to ring: Cap'n Flower has turned up ag'in."
"WHAT?" cried the astonished Mr. Green.
"I see 'im," replied Joe. "I was just goin' on the wharf as I passed to speak to old George, when I see 'im talking to 'im. He didn't see me, an' I come off 'ere as fast as my legs could carry me. Now, wot's to be done? You've got the 'ead-piece."
Mr. Green scratched the article in question and smiled feebly.
"On'y two days, and they would ha' been married," said Joe; "bit 'ard, ain't it? I'm glad as I can be as he's safe, but he might ha' waited a day or two longer."
"Did George seem scared?" enquired his friend.
"Wot's that got to do with it?" demanded Joe, violently. "Are you goin' to set that 'ead-piece to work or are you not?"
Mr. Green coughed confusedly, and attempted to think with a brain which was already giddy with responsibility.
"I don't want to do anything that isn't straight and gentlemanly," he remarked.
"Straight?" repeated Joe. "Look 'ere! Cap'n Fraser's our old man, ain't he? Very good, it's our dooty to stand by 'im. But, besides that, it's for the young lady's sake: it's easy to see that she's as fond of him as she can be, and she's that sort o' young lady that if she come up now and told me to jump overboard, I'd do it."
"You could swim ashore easy," asserted Mr. Green.
"They was to be married Thursday morning," continued Joe, "and now here's Cap'n Flower and no 'ead-piece on the ship. Crool, I call it."
"She's a very nice young lady," said the mortified Mr. Green; "always a pleasant smile for everybody."
"He'll come aboard 'ere as safe as heggs is heggs," said Joe, despondently. "Wot's to be done?"
He folded his arms on the side and stood ruefully watching the stairs. He was quite confident that there were head-pieces walking the earth, to which a satisfactory solution of this problem would have afforded no difficulty whatever, and he shook his own sadly, as he thought of its limitations.
"It only wants a little artfulness, Will-yum," he suggested, encouragingly.
"Get hold of him and make him drunk for three days," murmured Mr. Green, in a voice so low that he half hoped Joe would not hear it.
"And then boil 'im," said the indignant seaman, without looking round. "Ah! Here he comes. Now you've got to be astonished, mind; but don't make a noise, in case it fetches the young lady up."
He pointed to the stairs, and his friend, going to his side, saw a passenger just stepping into a boat. The two men then turned away until, at sight of Captain Flower's head appearing above the side, they went off into such silent manifestations of horror and astonishment that he feared for their reason.
"It's 'is voice," said Joe, hastily, as Flower bawled out to them with inconsiderate loudness. "I never thought to see you ag'in, sir; I 'eard you was drowned months and months ago."
He took the captain's proffered hand somewhat awkwardly, and stood closely scanning him. The visitor was bronzed with southern suns, and looked strong and well. His eye was bright and his manner retained all its old easy confidence.
"Ah, I've been through something since I saw you last, my lad," he said, shaking his head. "The great thing is, Joe, to always keep your head above water."
"Yessir," said the seaman, slowly; "but I 'eard as 'ow you went down with the Golden Cloud, sir."
"So I did," said Flower, somewhat boastfully, "and came up again with the nearest land a mile or two under my feet. It was dark, but the sea was calm, and I could see the brute that sunk us keeping on her way. Then I saw a hen-coop bobbing up and down close by, and I got to it just in time, and hung on to it until I could get my breath again and shout. I heard a hail a little way off, and by-and-by I got along-side two of our chaps making themselves comfortable on two or three spars. There were three drowned fowls in my coop, and we finished them on the fourth day just as a whaler hove in sight and took us off. We were on her over four months, and then we sighted the barque California, homeward bound, and she brought us home. I landed at the Albert Docks this morning, and here I am, hard as nails."
Joe, with a troubled eye in the direction of the cabin, murmured that it did him credit, and Mr-Green made a low, hissing noise, intended to signify admiration. Flower, with a cheery smile, looked round the deck.
"Where's Fraser?" he enquired.
"He's ashore, sir," said Joe, hastily. "I don't know when he'll be back."
"Never mind, I'll wait," was the reply. "George was telling me he is to be married on Thursday."
Joe gasped and eyed him closely.
"So I've 'eard, sir."
"And, Captain Barber's married, too, George tells me," said Flower. "I suppose that's right?"
"So I've 'eard, sir," said Joe, again.
Flower turned and paced a little up and down the deck, deep in thought. He had arrived in London three hours before to find that Poppy had left her old lodgings without leaving any clue as to her whereabouts. Then he had gone on to the Wheelers, without any result, so far as he was concerned, although the screams of the unfortunate Mrs. Wheeler were still ringing in his ears.
"I'll go down below and wait," he said, stopping before the men. "Tell Fraser I'm there, or else he'll be startled. I nearly killed poor old George. The man's got no pluck at all."
He moved slowly towards the cabin and Poppy, leaving the men exchanging glances of hopeless consternation. Then, as he turned to descend, the desperate Joe ran up and laid a detaining hand on his sleeve.
"You can't go down there," he whispered, and dragged him forcibly away.
"Why not?" demanded the other, struggling. "Let go, you fool."
He wrenched himself free, and stood gazing angrily at the excited seaman.
"There's a lady down there," said the latter, in explanation.
"Well, I sha'n't eat her," said the indignant Flower. "Don't you put your hands on me again, my lad, or you'll repent it. Who Is it?"
Joe eyed him helplessly and, with a dim idea of putting off the discovery as long as possible, mysteriously beckoned him forward.
"Who is it?" asked the puzzled Flower, advancing a pace or two.
The seaman hesitated. Then a sudden inspiration, born of the memories of last year's proceedings, seized him, and he shook with the brilliancy of it. He looked significantly at Mr. Green, and his voice trembled with excitement.
"The lady who used to come down to the Foam asking for Mr. Robinson," he stammered.
"What?" said the dismayed Flower, coming briskly forward and interposing two masts, the funnel, and the galley between himself and the cabin. "Why on earth didn't you say so before?"
"Well, I didn't know what to do, sir," said Joe, humbly; "it ain't for the likes of me to interfere."
Flower knit his brows, and tapped the deck with his foot.
"What's she doing down there?" he said, irritably; "she's not going to marry Fraser, is she?"
"Yessir," he said, promptly.
"Yessir," said Mr. Green, with an intuitive feeling that a lie of such proportions required backing.
Flower stood in amaze, pondering the situation, and a grin slowly broke the corners of his mouth.
"Don't tell Fraser I've been here," he said, at length.
"No, sir," said Joe, eagerly.
"I'll see him in a day or two," said Flower, "after he's married. You understand me, Joe?"
"Yessir," said Joe, again. "Shall I put you ashore, sir?"
He was almost dancing with impatience lest Fraser or Poppy should spoil his plans by putting in an appearance, but before Flower could reply Mr. Green gave a startled exclamation, and the captain, with a readiness born of his adventures of the last year, promptly vanished down the forecastle as Miss Tyrell appeared on deck. Joe closed the scuttle, and with despair gnawing at his vitals sat on it.
Unconscious of the interest she was exciting, Poppy Tyrell, who had tired of the solitude of the cabin, took a seat on a camp-stool, and, folding her hands in her lap, sat enjoying the peace and calm of the summer evening. Joe saw defeat in the very moment of victory; even while he sat, the garrulous Tommy might be revealing State secrets to the credulous Flower.
"Get her down below," he whispered, fiercely, to Mr. Green. "Quick!"
His friend stared at him aghast, but made no movement. He looked at the unconscious Poppy, and then back at the mouthing figure seated on the scuttle. His brain was numbed. Then a little performance on Charlie's part a week or two before, which had cost that gentleman his berth, occurred to him, and he moved slowly forward.
For a moment the astonished Joe gazed at him in wrathful bewilderment; then his brow cleared, and his old estimate of his friend was revived again. Mr. Green lurched rather than walked, and, getting as far as the galley, steadied himself with one hand, and stood, with a foolish smile, swaying lightly in the breeze. From the galley he got with great care to the side of the ship opposite Poppy, and, clutching the shrouds, beamed on her amiably. The girl gave one rapid glance at him and then, as he tottered to the wheel and hung on by the spokes, turned her head away. What it cost the well-bred Mr. Green to stagger as he came by her again and then roll helplessly at her feet, will never be known, and he groaned in spirit as the girl, with one scornful glance in his direction, rose quietly and went below again.
Satisfied that the coast was clear, he rose to his feet and signalled hurriedly to Joe, then he mounted sentry over the companion, grinning feebly at the success of his manoeuvres as he heard a door closed and locked below.
"You pull me round to the wharf, Joe," said Flower, as he tumbled hurriedly into the boat. "I don't want to run into Fraser, and I just want to give old George the tip to keep quiet for a day or two."
The seaman obeyed readily, and exchanged a triumphant glance with Mr. Green as they shot by the steamer's stern. His invention was somewhat tried by Flower's questions on the way to the wharf, but he answered them satisfactorily, and left him standing on the jetty imparting to George valuable thoughts on the maxim that speech is silver and silence golden.
Joe tried a few of the principal points with Tommy upon his return to the steamer, the necessity for using compliments instead of threats to a ship's boy being very galling to his proud nature.
"You be a good boy like you always 'ave been, Tommy," he said, with a kindly smile, "and don't breathe a word about wot's 'appened this evening, and 'ere's a tanner for you to spend—a whole tanner."
Tommy bit it carefully, and, placing it in his pocket, whistled thoughtfully.
"Fill your pipe out o' that, young 'un," said Mr. Green, proffering his pouch with a flourish.
The boy complied, and putting a few reserve charges in his pocket, looked up at him shrewdly.
"Is it very partikler?" he enquired, softly.
"Partikler!" repeated Joe. "I should think it is. He can't think 'ow partikler it is, can 'e, Will-yum?"
Mr. Green shook his head.
"It's worth more than a tanner then," said Tommy, briskly.
"Look 'ere," said Joe, suppressing his natural instincts by a strong effort. "You keep quiet for three days, and I'll be a friend to you for life. And so will Will-yum, won't you, old man?"
Mr. Green, with a smile of rare condescension, said that he would.
"Look 'ere," said the bargainer, "I'll tell you what I'll do for you: you gimme another tanner each instead, and that's letting you off cheap, 'cos your friendship 'ud be worth pounds and pounds to anybody what wanted it."
He gazed firmly at his speechless, would-be friends and waited patiently until such time as their emotion would permit of a reply. Joe was the first to speak, and Tommy listened unmoved to a description of himself which would have made a jelly-fish blush.
"Tanner each," he said, simply; "I don't want friends who can talk like that to save sixpence."
Mr. Green, with a sarcasm which neither Tommy nor Joe understood, gave him the amount in coppers. His friend followed suit, and the boy, having parted with his reputation at a fair price, went below, whistling.
Fraser came on board soon afterwards, and Mr. Green, with his celebrated drunken scene fresh in his mind, waited nervously for developments. None ensuing, he confided to Joe his firm conviction that Miss Tyrell was a young lady worth dying for, and gloomily wondered whether Fraser was good enough for her. After which, both men, somewhat elated, fell to comparing head-pieces.
Joe was in a state of nervous tension while steam was getting up, and, glued to the side of the steamer, strained his eyes, gazing at the dimly-lit stairs. As they steamed rapidly down the river his spirits rose, and he said vaguely that something inside him seemed to tell him that his trouble would not be in vain.
"There's two days yet," said Mr. Green. "I wish they was well over."
Captain Flower, who had secured a bed at the Three Sisters' Hotel in Aldgate, was for widely different reasons wishing the same thing. His idea was to waylay Fraser immediately after the marriage and obtain Poppy's address, his natural vanity leading him to believe that Miss Tipping would at once insist upon a change of bridegroom, if she heard of his safety before the ceremony was performed. In these circumstances, he had to control his impatience as best he could, and with a view to preventing his safety becoming known too soon, postponed writing to his uncle until the day before the wedding.
He posted his letter in the morning, and after a midday meal took train to Seabridge, and here the reception of which he had dreamed for many weary months, awaited him. The news of his escape had spread round the town like wildfire, and he had hardly stepped out of the train before the station-master was warmly shaking hands with him. The porters followed suit, the only man who displayed any hesitation being the porter from the lamp-room, who patted him on the back several times before venturing. The centre of a little, enthusiastic knot of fellow-townsmen, he could hardly get clear to receive the hearty grip of Captain Barber, or the chaste salute with which Mrs. Barber inaugurated her auntship; but he got free at last, and, taking an arm of each, set off blithely down the road, escorted by neighbours.
As far as the cottage their journey was a veritable triumphal progress, and it was some time before the adventuresome mariner was permitted to go inside; but he got free at last, and Mrs. Barber, with a hazy idea of the best way to treat a shipwrecked fellow-creature, however remote the accident, placed before him a joint of cold beef and a quantity of hot coffee. It was not until he had made a good meal and lit his pipe that Uncle Barber, first quaffing a couple of glasses of ale to nerve himself for harrowing details, requested him to begin at the beginning and go right on.
His nephew complied, the tale which he had told Poppy serving him as far as Riga; after which a slight collision off the Nore at night between the brig which was bringing him home and the Golden Cloud enabled him to climb into the bows of that ill-fated vessel before she swung clear again. There was a slight difficulty here, Captain Barber's views of British seamen making no allowance for such a hasty exchange of ships, but as it appeared that Flower was at the time still suffering from the effects of the fever which had seized him at Riga, he waived the objection, and listened in silence to the end of the story.
"Fancy what he must have suffered," said Mrs-Barber, shivering; "and then to turn up safe and sound a twelvemonth afterwards. He ought to-make a book of it."
"It's all in a sailorman's dooty," said Captain Barber, shaking his head. "It's wot 'e expects."
His wife rose, and talking the while proceeded to clear the table. The old man closed the door after her, and with a glance at his nephew gave a jerk of the head towards the kitchen.
"Wonderful woman, your aunt," he said, impressively; "but I was one too many for 'er."
"How?" he enquired, briefly.
"Married 'er," said the old man, chuckling. "You wouldn't believe wot a lot there was arter her. I got 'er afore she knew where she was a'most. If I was to tell you all that there was arter'er, you'd hardly believe me."
"I daresay," said the other.
"There's good news and bad news," continued Captain Barber, shaking his head and coughing a bit with his pipe. "I've got a bit o' bad for you."
"'Lizabeth's married," said the old man, slowly; "married that stupid young Gibson. She'll be sorry enough now, I know."
His nephew looked down. "I've heard about it," he said, with an attempt at gloom; "old George told me."
The old man, respecting his grief, smoked on for some time in silence, then he got up and patted him on the shoulder.
"I'm on the look-out for you," he said, kindly; "there's a niece o' your aunt's. I ain't seen her yet; but your aunt praises of her, so she's all right. I'll tell your aunt to ask 'er over. Your aunt ses—"
"How many aunts have I got?" demanded Flower, with sudden irritation.
The old man raised his eyebrows and stared at him in offended amazement.
"You're not yourself, Fred," he said, slowly; "your misfortunes 'ave shook you up. You've got one aunt and one uncle what brought you up and did the best for you ever since you was so 'igh."
"So you did," said Flower, heartily. "I didn't mean to speak like that, but I'm tired and worried."
"I see you was," said his uncle, amiably, "but your aunt's a wonderful woman. She's got a business 'ead, and we're doing well. I'm buying another schooner, and you can 'ave her or have the Foam back, which you like."
Flower thanked him warmly, and, Mrs. Barber returning, he noticed with some surprise the evident happiness of the couple for whose marriage he was primarily responsible. He had to go over his adventures again and again, Captain Barber causing much inconvenience and delay at supper-time by using the beer-jug to represent the Golden Cloud and a dish of hot sausages the unknown craft which sank her. Flower was uncertain which to admire most: the tactful way in which Mrs. Barber rescued the sausages or the readiness with which his uncle pushed a plate over a fresh stain on the tablecloth.
Supper finished, he sat silently thinking of Poppy, not quite free from the fear that she might have followed him to New Zealand by another boat. The idea made him nervous, and the suspense became unendurable. He took up his cap and strolled out into the stillness of the evening. Sea-bridge seemed strange to him after his long absence, and, under present conditions, melancholy. There was hardly a soul to be seen, but a murmur of voices came through the open windows of the Thorn, and a clumsy cart jolted and creaked its way up the darkening road.
He stood for some time looking down on the quay, and the shadowy shapes of one or two small craft lying in the river. The Foam was in her old berth, and a patch of light aft showed that the cabin was occupied. He walked down to her, and stepping noiselessly aboard, peered through the open skylight at Ben, as he sat putting a fresh patch in a pair of trousers. It struck him that the old man might know something of the events which had led up to Fraser's surprising marriage, and, his curiosity being somewhat keen on the point, he descended to glean particulars.
Ben's favourite subject was the misdeeds of the crew, and the steps which a kind but firm mate had to take to control them, and he left it unwillingly to discuss Fraser's marriage, of which faint rumours had reached his ears. It was evident that he knew nothing of the particulars, and Flower with some carefulness proceeded to put leading questions.
"Did you ever see anything more of those women who used to come down to the ship after a man named Robinson?" he enquired, carelessly.
"They come down one night soon arter you fell overboard," replied the old man. "Very polite they was, and they asked me to go and see 'em any time I liked. I ain't much of a one for seeing people, but I did go one night 'bout two or three months ago, end o' March, I think it was, to a pub wot they 'ave at Chelsea, to see whether they 'ad heard anything of 'im."
"Ah!" interjected the listener.
"They was very short about it," continued Ben, sourly; "the old party got that excited she could 'ardly keep still, but the young lady she said good riddance to bad rubbish, she ses. She hoped as 'ow he'd be punished."
Flower started, and then smiled softly to himself.
"Perhaps she's found somebody else," he said.
"I shouldn't wonder, she seemed very much took up with a young feller she called Arthur," he said, slowly; "but that was the last I see of 'em; they never even offered me a drink, and though they'd ask me to go down any time I liked, they was barely civil. The young lady didn't seem to me to want Arthur to 'ear about it."
He stitched away resentfully, and his listener, after a fond look round his old quarters, bade him good-night and went ashore again. For a little while he walked up and down the road, pausing once to glance at the bright drawn blind in the Gibsons' window, and then returned home. Captain Barber and his wife were at cribbage, and intent upon the game.
With the morning sun his spirits rose, and after a hurried breakfast he set off for the station and booked to Bittlesea. The little platform was bright with roses, and the air full of the sweetness of an early morning in June. He watched the long line stretching away until it was lost in a bend of the road, and thought out ways and means of obtaining a private interview with the happy bridegroom; a subject which occupied him long after the train had started, as he was benevolently anxious not to mar his friend's happiness by a display of useless grief and temper on the part of the bride.
The wedding party left the house shortly before his arrival at the station, after a morning of excitement and suspense which had tried Messrs. Smith and Green to the utmost, both being debarred by self-imposed etiquette from those alluring liquids by which in other circumstances they would have soothed their nerves. They strolled restlessly about with Tommy, for whom they had suddenly conceived an ardent affection, and who, to do him justice, was taking fullest advantage of the fact.
They felt a little safer when a brougham dashed up to the house and carried off Fraser and his supporter, and safer still when his father appeared with Poppy Tyrell on his arm, blushing sweetly and throwing a glance in their direction, which was like to have led to a quarrel until Tommy created a diversion by stating that it was intended for him.
By the time Flower arrived the road was clear, and the house had lapsed into its accustomed quiet.
An old seafaring man, whose interest in weddings had ceased three days after his own, indicated the house with the stem of his pipe. It was an old house with a broad step and a wide-open door, and on the step a small servant, in a huge cap with her hands clasped together, stood gazing excitedly up the road.
"Cap'n Fraser live here?" enquired Flower, after a cautious glance at the windows.
"Yes, sir," said the small servant; "he's getting married at this very instant."
"You'll be married one of these days if you're a good girl," said Flower, who was in excellent humour.
The small girl forgot her cap and gave her head a toss. Then she regarded him thoughtfully, and after adjusting the cap, smoothed down her apron and said, "she was in no hurry; she never took any notice of them."
Flower looked round and pondered. He was anxious, if possible, to see Fraser and catch the first train back.
"Cap'n Fraser was in good spirits, I suppose?" he said, cautiously.
"Very good spirits," admitted the small servant, "but nervous."
"And Miss Tipping?" suggested Flower.
"Miss who?" enquired the small girl, with a superior smile. "Miss Tyrell you mean, don't you?"