"What have you come home for?" he inquired, ignoring the hand and eyeing him from head to foot.
"Change," said Jack Nugent, laconically, as the smile left his face.
The captain shrugged his shoulders and stood silent. His son looked first up the road and then down.
"All well at home?" he inquired.
Jack Nugent looked up the road again.
"Not much change in the town," he said, at length.
"No," said his father.
"Well, I'm glad to have seen you," said his son. "Good-bye."
"Good-bye," said the captain.
His son nodded and, turning on his heel, walked back towards the town. Despite his forlorn appearance his step was jaunty and he carried his head high. The captain watched him until he was hidden by a bend in the road, and then, ashamed of himself for displaying so much emotion, turned his own steps in the direction of home.
"Well, he didn't whine," he said, slowly. "He's got a bit of pride left."
Meantime the prodigal had reached the town again, and stood ruefully considering his position.
He looked up the street, and then, the well-known shop of Mr. Kybird catching his eye, walked over and inspected the contents of the window. Sheath-knives, belts, tobacco-boxes, and watches were displayed alluringly behind the glass, sheltered from the sun by a row of cheap clothing dangling from short poles over the shop front. All the goods were marked in plain figures in reduced circumstances, Mr. Kybird giving a soaring imagination play in the first marking, and a good business faculty in the second.
At these valuables Jack Nugent, with a view of obtaining some idea of prices, gazed for some time. Then passing between two suits of oilskins which stood as sentinels in the doorway, he entered the shop and smiled affably at Miss Kybird, who was in charge. At his entrance she put down a piece of fancy-work, which Mr. Kybird called his sock, and with a casual glance at his clothes regarded him with a prejudiced eye.
"Beautiful day," said the customer; "makes one feel quite young again."
"What do you want?" inquired Miss Kybird.
Mr. Nugent turned to a broken cane-chair which stood by the counter, and, after applying severe tests, regardless of the lady's feelings, sat down upon it and gave a sigh of relief.
"I've walked from London," he said, in explanation. "I could sit here for hours."
"Look here——" began the indignant Miss Kybird.
"Only people would be sure to couple our names together," continued Mr. Nugent, mournfully.
"When a handsome young man and a good-looking girl——"
"Do you want to buy anything or not?" demanded Miss Kybird, with an impatient toss of her head.
"No," said Jack, "I want to sell."
"You've come to the wrong shop, then," said Miss Kybird; "the warehouse is full of rubbish now."
The other turned in his chair and looked hard at the window. "So it is," he assented. "It's a good job I've brought you something decent to put there."
He felt in his pockets and, producing a silver-mounted briar-pipe, a battered watch, a knife, and a few other small articles, deposited them with reverent care upon the counter.
"No use to us," declared Miss Kybird, anxious to hit back; "we burn coal here."
"These'll burn better than the coal you buy," said the unmoved customer.
"Well, we don't want them," retorted Miss Kybird, raising her voice, "and I don't want any of your impudence. Get up out of our chair."
Her heightened tones penetrated to the small and untidy room behind the shop. The door opened, and Mr. Kybird in his shirt-sleeves appeared at the opening.
"Wot's the row?" he demanded, his little black eyes glancing from one to the other.
"Only a lovers' quarrel," replied Jack. "You go away; we don't want you."
"Look 'ere, we don't want none o' your nonsense," said the shopkeeper, sharply; "and, wot's more, we won't 'ave it. Who put that rubbish on my counter?"
He bustled forward, and taking the articles in his hands examined them closely.
"Three shillings for the lot—cash," he remarked. "Done," said the other.
"Did I say three?" inquired Mr. Kybird, startled at this ready acceptance.
"Five you said," replied Mr. Nugent, "but I'll take three, if you throw in a smile."
Mr. Kybird, much against his inclinations, threw in a faint grin, and opening a drawer produced three shillings and flung them separately on the counter. Miss Kybird thawed somewhat, and glancing from the customer's clothes to his face saw that he had a pleasant eye and a good moustache, together with a general air of recklessness much appreciated by the sex.
"Don't spend it on drink," she remarked, not unkindly.
"I won't," said the other, solemnly; "I'm going to buy house property with it."
"Why, darn my eyes," said Mr. Kybird, who had been regarding him closely; "darn my old eyes, if it ain't young Nugent. Well, well!"
"That's me," said young Nugent, cheerfully; "I should have known you anywhere, Kybird: same old face, same old voice, same old shirt-sleeves."
"'Ere, come now," objected the shopkeeper, shortening his arm and squinting along it.
"I should have known you anywhere," continued the other, mournfully; "and here I've thrown up a splendid berth and come all the way from Australia just for one glimpse of Miss Kybird, and she doesn't know me. When I die, Kybird, you will find the word 'Calais' engraven upon my heart."
Mr. Kybird said, "Oh, indeed." His daughter tossed her head and bade Mr. Nugent take his nonsense to people who might like it.
"Last time I see you," said Mr. Kybird, pursing up his lips and gazing at the counter in an effort of memory; "last time I see you was one fifth o' November when you an' another bright young party was going about in two suits o' oilskins wot I'd been 'unting for 'igh and low all day long."
Jack Nugent sighed. "They were happy times, Kybird."
"Might ha' been for you," retorted the other, his temper rising a little at the remembrance of his wrongs.
"Have you come home for good? inquired Miss Kybird, curiously. Have you seen your father? He passed here a little while ago."
"I saw him," said Jack, with a brevity which was not lost upon the astute Mr. Kybird. "I may stay in Sunwich, and I may not—it all depends."
"You're not going 'ome?" said Mr. Kybird.
The shopkeeper stood considering. He had a small room to let at the top of his house, and he stood divided between the fear of not getting his rent and the joy to a man fond of simple pleasures, to be obtained by dunning the arrogant Captain Nugent for his son's debts. Before he could arrive at a decision his meditations were interrupted by the entrance of a stout, sandy-haired lady from the back parlour, who, having conquered his scruples against matrimony some thirty years before, had kept a particularly wide-awake eye upon him ever since.
"Your tea's a-gettin' cold," she remarked, severely.
Her husband received the news with calmness. He was by no means an enthusiast where that liquid was concerned, the admiration evoked by its non-inebriating qualities having been always something in the nature of a mystery to him.
"I'm coming," he retorted; "I'm just 'aving a word with Mr. Nugent 'ere."
"Well, I never did," said the stout lady, coming farther into the shop and regarding the visitor. "I shouldn't 'ave knowed 'im. If you'd asked me who 'e was I couldn't ha' told you—I shouldn't 'ave knowed 'im from Adam."
Jack shook his head. "It's hard to be forgotten like this," he said, sadly. "Even Miss Kybird had forgotten me, after all that had passed between us."
"Eh?" said Mr. Kybird.
"Oh, don't take any notice of him," said his daughter. "I'd like to see myself."
Mr. Kybird paid no heed. He was still thinking of the son of Captain Nugent being indebted to him for lodging, and the more he thought of the idea the better he liked it.
"Well, now you're 'ere," he said, with a great assumption of cordiality, "why not come in and 'ave a cup o' tea?"
The other hesitated a moment and then, with a light laugh, accepted the offer. He followed them into the small and untidy back parlour, and being requested by his hostess to squeeze in next to 'Melia at the small round table, complied so literally with the order that that young lady complained bitterly of his encroachments.
"And where do you think of sleeping to-night?" inquired Mr. Kybird after his daughter had, to use her own expressive phrase, shown the guest "his place."
Mr. Nugent shook his head. "I shall get a lodging somewhere," he said, airily.
"There's a room upstairs as you might 'ave if you liked," said Mr. Kybird, slowly. "It's been let to a very respectable, clean young man for half a crown a week. Really it ought to be three shillings, but if you like to 'ave it at the old price, you can."
"Done with you," said the other.
"No doubt you'll soon get something to do," continued Mr. Kybird, more in answer to his wife's inquiring glances than anything else. "Half a crown every Saturday and the room's yours."
Mr. Nugent thanked him, and after making a tea which caused Mr. Kybird to congratulate himself upon the fact that he hadn't offered to board him, sat regaling Mrs. Kybird and daughter with a recital of his adventures in Australia, receiving in return a full and true account of Sunwich and its people up to date.
"There's no pride about 'im, that's what I like," said Mrs. Kybird to her lord and master as they sat alone after closing time over a glass of gin and water. "He's a nice young feller, but bisness is bisness, and s'pose you don't get your rent?"
"I shall get it sooner or later," said Mr. Kybird. "That stuck-up father of 'is 'll be in a fine way at 'im living here. That's wot I'm thinking of."
"I don't see why," said Mrs. Kybird, bridling. "Who's Captain Nugent, I should like to know? We're as good as what 'e is, if not better. And as for the gell, if she'd got 'all Amelia's looks she'd do."
"'Melia's a fine-looking gal," assented Mr. Kybird. "I wonder——"
He laid his pipe down on the table and stared at the mantelpiece. "He seems very struck with 'er," he concluded. "I see that directly."
"Not afore I did," said his wife, sharply.
"See it afore you come into the shop," said Mr. Kybird, triumphantly. "It 'ud be a strange thing to marry into that family, Emma."
"She's keeping company with young Teddy Silk," his wife reminded him, coldly; "and if she wasn't she could do better than a young man without a penny in 'is pocket. Pride's a fine thing, Dan'l, but you can't live on it."
"I know what I'm talking about," said Mr. Kybird, impatiently. "I know she's keeping company with Teddy as well as wot you do. Still, as far as money goes, young Nugent 'll be all right."
"'Ow?" inquired his wife.
Mr. Kybird hesitated and took a sip of his gin and water. Then he regarded the wife of his bosom with a calculating glance which at once excited that lady's easily kindled wrath.
"You know I never tell secrets," she cried.
"Not often," corrected Mr. Kybird, "but then I don't often tell you any. Wot would you say to young Nugent coming into five 'undred pounds 'is mother left 'im when he's twenty-five? He don't know it, but I do."
"Five 'undred," repeated his wife, "sure?"
"No," said the other, "I'm not sure, but I know. I 'ad it from young Roberts when 'e was at Stone and Dartnell's. Five 'undred pounds! I shall get my money all right some time, and, if 'e wants a little bit to go on with, 'e can have it. He's honest enough; I can see that by his manner."
Upstairs in the tiny room under the tiles Mr. Jack Nugent, in blissful ignorance of his landlord's generous sentiments towards him, slept the sound, dreamless sleep of the man free from monetary cares. In the sanctity of her chamber Miss Kybird, gazing approvingly at the reflection of her yellow hair and fine eyes in the little cracked looking-glass, was already comparing him very favourably with the somewhat pessimistic Mr. Silk.
Mr. Nugent's return caused a sensation in several quarters, the feeling at Equator Lodge bordering close upon open mutiny. Even Mrs. Kingdom plucked up spirit and read the astonished captain a homily upon the first duties of a parent—a homily which she backed up by reading the story of the Prodigal Son through to the bitter end. At the conclusion she broke down entirely and was led up to bed by Kate and Bella, the sympathy of the latter taking an acute form, and consisting mainly of innuendoes which could only refer to one person in the house.
Kate Nugent, who was not prone to tears, took a different line, but with no better success. The captain declined to discuss the subject, and, after listening to a description of himself in which Nero and other celebrities figured for the purpose of having their characters whitewashed, took up his hat and went out.
Jem Hardy heard of the new arrival from his partner, and, ignoring that gentleman's urgent advice to make hay while the sun shone and take Master Nugent for a walk forthwith sat thoughtfully considering how to turn the affair to the best advantage. A slight outbreak of diphtheria at Fullalove Alley had, for a time, closed that thoroughfare to Miss Nugent, and he was inclined to regard the opportune arrival of her brother as an effort of Providence on his behalf.
For some days, however, he looked for Jack Nugent in vain, that gentleman either being out of doors engaged in an earnest search for work, or snugly seated in the back parlour of the Kybirds, indulging in the somewhat perilous pastime of paying compliments to Amelia Kybird. Remittances which had reached him from his sister and aunt had been promptly returned, and he was indebted to the amiable Mr. Kybird for the bare necessaries of life. In these circumstances a warm feeling of gratitude towards the family closed his eyes to their obvious shortcomings.
He even obtained work down at the harbour through a friend of Mr. Kybird's. It was not of a very exalted nature, and caused more strain upon the back than the intellect, but seven years of roughing it had left him singularly free from caste prejudices, a freedom which he soon discovered was not shared by his old acquaintances at Sunwich. The discovery made him somewhat bitter, and when Hardy stopped him one afternoon as he was on his way home from work he tried to ignore his outstretched hand and continued on his way.
"It is a long time since we met," said Hardy, placing himself in front of him.
"Good heavens," said Jack, regarding him closely, "it's Jemmy Hardy— grown up spick and span like the industrious little boys in the school-books. I heard you were back here."
"I came back just before you did," said Hardy. "Brass band playing you in and all that sort of thing, I suppose," said the other. "Alas, how the wicked prosper—and you were wicked. Do you remember how you used to knock me about?"
"Come round to my place and have a chat," said Hardy.
Jack shook his head. "They're expecting me in to tea," he said, with a nod in the direction of Mr. Kybird's, "and honest waterside labourers who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow—when the foreman is looking —do not frequent the society of the upper classes."
"Don't be a fool," said Hardy, politely.
"Well, I'm not very tidy," retorted Mr. Nugent, glancing at his clothes. "I don't mind it myself; I'm a philosopher, and nothing hurts me so long as I have enough to eat and drink; but I don't inflict myself on my friends, and I must say most of them meet me more than half-way."
"Imagination," said Hardy.
"All except Kate and my aunt," said Jack, firmly. "Poor Kate; I tried to cut her the other day."
"Cut her?" echoed Hardy.
Nugent nodded. "To save her feelings," he replied; "but she wouldn't be cut, bless her, and on the distinct understanding that it wasn't to form a precedent, I let her kiss me behind a waggon. Do you know, I fancy she's grown up rather good-looking, Jem?"
"You are observant," said Mr. Hardy, admiringly.
"Of course, it may be my partiality," said Mr. Nugent, with judicial fairness. "I was always a bit fond of Kate. I don't suppose anybody else would see anything in her. Where are you living now?"
"Fort Road," said Hardy; "come round any evening you can, if you won't come now."
Nugent promised, and, catching sight of Miss Kybird standing in the doorway of the shop, bade him good-bye and crossed the road. It was becoming quite a regular thing for her to wait and have her tea with him now, an arrangement which was provocative of many sly remarks on the part of Mrs. Kybird.
"Thought you were never coming," said Miss Kybird, tartly, as she led the way to the back room and took her seat at the untidy tea-tray.
"And you've been crying your eyes out, I suppose," remarked Mr. Nugent, as he groped in the depths of a tall jar for black-currant jam. "Well, you're not the first, and I don't suppose you'll be the last. How's Teddy?"
"Get your tea," retorted Miss Kybird, "and don't make that scraping noise on the bottom of the jar with your knife. It puts my teeth on edge."
"So it does mine," said Mr. Nugent, "but there's a black currant down there, and I mean to have it. 'Waste not, want not.'"
"Make him put that knife down," said Miss Kybird, as her mother entered the room. Mrs. Kybird shook her head at him. "You two are always quarrelling," she said, archly, "just like a couple of—couple of——"
"Love-birds," suggested Mr. Nugent.
Mrs. Kybird in great glee squeezed round to him and smote him playfully with her large, fat hand, and then, being somewhat out of breath with the exertion, sat down to enjoy the jest in comfort.
"That's how you encourage him," said her daughter; "no wonder he doesn't behave. No wonder he acts as if the whole place belongs to him."
The remark was certainly descriptive of Mr. Nugent's behaviour. His easy assurance and affability had already made him a prime favourite with Mrs. Kybird, and had not been without its effect upon her daughter. The constrained and severe company manners of Mr. Edward Silk showed up but poorly beside those of the paying guest, and Miss Kybird had on several occasions drawn comparisons which would have rendered both gentlemen uneasy if they had known of them.
Mr. Nugent carried the same easy good-fellowship with him the following week when, neatly attired in a second-hand suit from Mr. Kybird's extensive stock, he paid a visit to Jem Hardy to talk over old times and discuss the future.
"You ought to make friends with your father," said the latter; "it only wants a little common sense and mutual forbearance."
"That's all," said Nugent; "sounds easy enough, doesn't it? No, all he wants is for me to clear out of Sunwich, and I'm not going to—until it pleases me, at any rate. It's poison to him for me to be living at the Kybirds' and pushing a trolley down on the quay. Talk about love sweetening toil, that does."
Hardy changed the subject, and Nugent, nothing loath, discoursed on his wanderings and took him on a personally conducted tour through the continent of Australia. "And I've come back to lay my bones in Sunwich Churchyard," he concluded, pathetically; "that is, when I've done with 'em."
"A lot of things'll happen before then," said Hardy.
"I hope so," rejoined Mr. Nugent, piously; "my desire is to be buried by my weeping great-grandchildren. In fact, I've left instructions to that effect in my will—all I have left, by the way."
"You're not going to keep on at this water-side work, I suppose?" said Hardy, making another effort to give the conversation a serious turn.
"The foreman doesn't think so," replied the other, as he helped himself to some whisky; "he has made several remarks to that effect lately."
He leaned back in his chair and smoked thoughtfully, by no means insensible to the comfort of his surroundings. He had not been in such comfortable quarters since he left home seven years before. He thought of the untidy litter of the Kybirds' back parlour, with the forlorn view of the yard in the rear. Something of his reflections he confided to Hardy as he rose to leave.
"But my market value is about a pound a week," he concluded, ruefully, "so I must cut my coat to suit my cloth. Good-night."
He walked home somewhat soberly at first, but the air was cool and fresh and a glorious moon was riding in the sky. He whistled cheerfully, and his spirits rose as various chimerical plans of making money occurred to him. By the time he reached the High Street, the shops of which were all closed for the night, he was earning five hundred a year and spending a thousand. He turned the handle of the door and, walking in, discovered Miss Kybird entertaining company in the person of Mr. Edward Silk.
"Halloa," he said, airily, as he took a seat. "Don't mind me, young people. Go on just as you would if I were not here."
Mr. Edward Silk grumbled something under his breath; Miss Kybird, turning to the intruder with a smile of welcome, remarked that she had just thought of going to sleep.
"Going to sleep?" repeated Mr. Silk, thunder-struck.
"Yes," said Miss Kybird, yawning.
Mr. Silk gazed at her, open-mouthed. "What, with me 'ere?" he inquired, in trembling tones.
"You're not very lively company," said Miss Kybird, bending over her sewing. "I don't think you've spoken a word for the last quarter of an hour, and before that you were talking of death-warnings. Made my flesh creep, you did."
"Shame!" said Mr. Nugent.
"You didn't say anything to me about your flesh creeping," muttered Mr. Silk.
"You ought to have seen it creep," interposed Mr. Nugent, severely.
"I'm not talking to you," said Mr. Silk, turning on him; "when I want the favour of remarks from you I'll let you know."
"Don't you talk to my gentlemen friends like that, Teddy," said Miss Kybird, sharply, "because I won't have it. Why don't you try and be bright and cheerful like Mr. Nugent?"
Mr. Silk turned and regarded that gentleman steadfastly; Mr. Nugent meeting his gaze with a pleasant smile and a low-voiced offer to give him lessons at half a crown an hour.
"I wouldn't be like 'im for worlds," said Mr. Silk, with a scornful laugh. "I'd sooner be like anybody."
"What have you been saying to him?" inquired Nugent.
"Nothing," replied Miss Kybird; "he's often like that. He's got a nasty, miserable, jealous disposition. Not that I mind what he thinks."
Mr. Silk breathed hard and looked from one to the other.
"Perhaps he'll grow out of it," said Nugent, hopefully. "Cheer up, Teddy. You're young yet."
"Might I arsk," said the solemnly enraged Mr. Silk, "might I arsk you not to be so free with my Christian name?"
"He doesn't like his name now," said Nugent, drawing his chair closer to Miss Kybird's, "and I don't wonder at it. What shall we call him? Job? What's that work you're doing? Why don't you get on with that fancy waistcoat you are doing for me?"
Before Miss Kybird could deny all knowledge of the article in question her sorely tried swain created a diversion by rising. To that simple act he imparted an emphasis which commanded the attention of both beholders, and, drawing over to Miss Kybird, he stood over her in an attitude at once terrifying and reproachful.
"Take your choice, Amelia," he said, in a thrilling voice. "Me or 'im— which is it to be?"
"Here, steady, old man," cried the startled Nugent. "Go easy."
"Me or 'im?" repeated Mr. Silk, in stern but broken accents.
Miss Kybird giggled and, avoiding his gaze, looked pensively at the faded hearthrug.
"You're making her blush," said Mr. Nugent, sternly. "Sit down, Teddy; I'm ashamed of you. We're both ashamed of you. You're confusing us dreadfully proposing to us both in this way."
Mr. Silk regarded him with a scornful eye, but Miss Kybird, bidding him not to be foolish, punctuated her remarks with the needle, and a struggle, which Mr. Silk regarded as unseemly in the highest degree, took place between them for its possession.
Mr. Nugent secured it at last, and brandishing it fiercely extorted feminine screams from Miss Kybird by threatening her with it. Nor was her mind relieved until Mr. Nugent, remarking that he would put it back in the pincushion, placed it in the leg of Mr. Edward Silk.
Mr. Kybird and his wife, entering through the shop, were just in time to witness a spirited performance on the part of Mr. Silk, the cherished purpose of which was to deprive them of a lodger. He drew back as they entered and, raising his voice above Miss Kybird's, began to explain his action.
"Teddy, I'm ashamed of you," said Mr. Kybird, shaking his head. "A little joke like that; a little innercent joke."
"If it 'ad been a darning-needle now—" began Mrs. Kybird.
"All right," said the desperate Mr. Silk, "'ave it your own way. Let 'Melia marry 'im—I don't care—-I give 'er up."
"Teddy!" said Mr. Kybird, in a shocked voice. "Teddy!"
Mr. Silk thrust him fiercely to one side and passed raging through the shop. The sound of articles falling in all directions attested to his blind haste, and the force with which he slammed the shop-door was sufficient evidence of his state of mind.
"Well, upon my word," said the staring Mr. Kybird; "of all the outrageyous—"
"Never mind 'im," said his wife, who was sitting in the easy chair, distributing affectionate smiles between her daughter and the startled Mr. Nugent. "Make 'er happy, Jack, that's all I arsk. She's been a good gal, and she'll make a good wife. I've seen how it was between you for some time."
"So 'ave I," said Mr. Kybird. He shook hands warmly with Mr. Nugent, and, patting that perturbed man on the back, surveyed him with eyes glistening with approval.
"It's a bit rough on Teddy, isn't it?" inquired Mr. Nugent, anxiously; "besides—"
"Don't you worry about 'im," said Mr. Kybird, affectionately. "He ain't worth it."
"I wasn't," said Mr. Nugent, truthfully. The situation had developed so rapidly that it had caught him at a disadvantage. He had a dim feeling that, having been the cause of Miss Kybird's losing one young man, the most elementary notions of chivalry demanded that he should furnish her with another. And this idea was clearly uppermost in the minds of her parents. He looked over at Amelia and with characteristic philosophy accepted the position.
"We shall be the handsomest couple in Sunwich," he said, simply.
"Bar none," said Mr. Kybird, emphatically.
The stout lady in the chair gazed ax the couple fondly. "It reminds me of our wedding," she said, softly. "What was it Tom Fletcher said, father? Can you remember?"
"'Arry Smith, you mean," corrected Mr. Kybird.
"Tom Fletcher said something, I'm sure," persisted his wife.
"He did," said Mr. Kybird, grimly, "and I pretty near broke 'is 'ead for it. 'Arry Smith is the one you're thinking of."
Mrs. Kybird after a moment's reflection admitted that he was right, and, the chain of memory being touched, waxed discursive about her own wedding and the somewhat exciting details which accompanied it. After which she produced a bottle labelled "Port wine" from the cupboard, and, filling four glasses, celebrated the occasion in a befitting but sober fashion.
"This," said Mr. Nugent, as he sat on his bed that night to take his boots off, "this is what comes of trying to make everybody happy and comfortable with a little fun. I wonder what the governor'll say."
The news of his only son's engagement took Captain Nugent's breath away, which, all things considered, was perhaps the best thing it could have done. He sat at home in silent rage, only exploding when the well-meaning Mrs. Kingdom sought to minimize his troubles by comparing them with those of Job. Her reminder that to the best of her remembrance he had never had a boil in his life put the finishing touch to his patience, and, despairing of drawing-room synonyms for the words which trembled on his lips, he beat a precipitate retreat to the garden.
His son bore his new honours bravely. To an appealing and indignant letter from his sister he wrote gravely, reminding her of the difference in their years, and also that he had never interfered in her flirtations, however sorely his brotherly heart might have been wrung by them. He urged her to forsake such diversions for the future, and to look for an alliance with some noble, open-handed man with a large banking account and a fondness for his wife's relatives.
To Jem Hardy, who ventured on a delicate re-monstrance one evening, he was less patient, and displayed a newly acquired dignity which was a source of considerable embarrassment to that well-meaning gentleman. He even got up to search for his hat, and was only induced to resume his seat by the physical exertions of his host.
"I didn't mean to be offensive," said the latter. "But you were," said the aggrieved man. Hardy apologized.
"Talk of that kind is a slight to my future wife," said Nugent, firmly. "Besides, what business is it of yours?"
Hardy regarded him thoughtfully. It was some time since he had seen Miss Nugent, and he felt that he was losing valuable time. He had hoped great things from the advent of her brother, and now his intimacy seemed worse than useless. He resolved to take him into his confidence.
"I spoke from selfish motives," he said, at last. "I wanted you to make friends with your father again."
"What for?" inquired the other, staring.
"To pave the way for me," said Hardy, raising his voice as he thought of his wrongs; "and now, owing to your confounded matrimonial business, that's all knocked on the head. I wouldn't care whom you married if it didn't interfere with my affairs so."
"Do you mean," inquired the astonished Mr. Nugent, "that you want to be on friendly terms with my father?"
Mr. Nugent gazed at him round-eyed. "You haven't had a blow on the head or anything of that sort at any time, have you?" he inquired.
Hardy shook his head impatiently. "You don't seem to suffer from an excess of intellect yourself," he retorted. "I don't want to be offensive again, still, I should think it is pretty plain there is only one reason why I should go out of my way to seek the society of your father."
"Say what you like about my intellect," replied the dutiful son, "but I can't think of even one—not even a small one. Not—Good gracious! You don't mean—you can't mean—"
Hardy looked at him.
"Not that," said Mr. Nugent, whose intellect had suddenly become painfully acute—"not her?"
"Why not?" inquired the other.
Mr. Nugent leaned back in his chair and regarded him with an air of kindly interest. "Well, there's no need for you to worry about my father for that," he said; "he would raise no objection."
"Eh?" said Hardy, starting up from his chair.
"He would welcome it," said Mr. Nugent, positively. "There is nothing that he would like better; and I don't mind telling you a secret—she likes you."
Hardy reddened. "How do you know?" he stammered.
"I know it for a fact," said the other, impressively. "I have heard her say so. But you've been very plain-spoken about me, Jem, so that I shall say what I think."
"Do," said his bewildered friend.
"I think you'd be throwing yourself away," said Nugent; "to my mind it's a most unsuitable match in every way. She's got no money, no looks, no style. Nothing but a good kind heart rather the worse for wear. I suppose you know she's been married once?"
"What!" shouted the other. "Married?"
Mr. Nugent nodded. His face was perfectly grave, but the joke was beginning to prey upon his vitals in a manner which brooked no delay.
"I thought everybody knew it," he said. "We have never disguised the fact. Her husband died twenty years ago last——"
"Twenty" said his suddenly enlightened listener. "Who?—What?"
Mr. Nugent, incapable of reply, put his head on the table and beat the air frantically with his hand, while gasping sobs rent his tortured frame.
"Dear—aunt," he choked, "how pleas—pleased she'd be if—she knew. Don't look like that, Hardy. You'll kill me."
"You seem amused," said Hardy, between his teeth.
"And you'll be Kate's uncle," said Mr. Nugent, sitting up and wiping his eyes. "Poor little Kate."
He put his head on the table again. "And mine," he wailed. "Uncle jemmy!—will you tip us half-crowns, nunky?"
Mr. Hardy's expression of lofty scorn only served to retard his recovery, but he sat up at last and, giving his eyes a final wipe, beamed kindly upon his victim.
"Well, I'll do what I can for you," he observed, "but I suppose you know Kate's off for a three months' visit to London to-morrow?"
The other observed that he didn't know it, and, taught by his recent experience, eyed him suspiciously.
"It's quite true," said Nugent; "she's going to stay with some relatives of ours. She used to be very fond of one of the boys—her cousin Herbert—so you mustn't be surprised if she comes back engaged. But I daresay you'll have forgotten all about her in three months. And, anyway, I don't suppose she'd look at you if you were the last man in the world. If you'll walk part of the way home with me I'll regale you with anecdotes of her chilhood which will probably cause you to change your views altogether."
In Fullalove Alley Mr. Edward Silk, his forebodings fulfilled, received the news of Amelia Kybird's faithlessness in a spirit of' quiet despair, and turned a deaf ear to the voluble sympathy of his neighbours. Similar things had happened to young men living there before, but their behaviour had been widely different to Mr. Silk's. Bob Crump, for instance, had been jilted on the very morning he had arranged for his wedding, but instead of going about in a state of gentle melancholy he went round and fought his beloved's father—merely because it was her father—and wound up an exciting day by selling off his household goods to the highest bidders. Henry Jones in similar circumstances relieved his great grief by walking up and down the alley smashing every window within reach of his stick.
But these were men of spirit; Mr. Silk was cast in a different mould, and his fair neighbours sympathized heartily with him in his bereavement, while utterly failing to understand any man breaking his heart over Amelia Kybird.
His mother, a widow of uncertain age, shook her head over him and hinted darkly at consumption, an idea which was very pleasing to her son, and gave him an increased interest in a slight cold from which he was suffering.
"He wants taking out of 'imself," said Mr. Wilks, who had stepped across the alley to discuss the subject with his neighbour; "cheerful society and 'obbies—that's what 'e wants."
"He's got a faithful 'eart," sighed Mrs. Silk. "It's in the family; 'e can't 'elp it."
"But 'e might be lifted out of it," urged Mr. Wilks. "I 'ad several disappointments in my young days. One time I 'ad a fresh gal every v'y'ge a'most."
Mrs. Silk sniffed and looked up the alley, whereat two neighbours who happened to be at their doors glanced up and down casually, and retreated inside to continue their vigil from the windows.
"Silk courted me for fifteen years before I would say 'yes,'" she said, severely.
"Fifteen years!" responded the other. He cast his eyes upwards and his lips twitched. The most casual observer could have seen that he was engaged in calculations of an abstruse and elusive nature.
"I was on'y seven when 'e started," said Mrs. Silk, sharply.
Mr. Wilks brought his eyes to a level again. "Oh, seven," he remarked.
"And we was married two days before my nineteenth birthday," added Mrs. Silk, whose own arithmetic had always been her weak point.
"Just so," said Mr. Wilks. He glanced at the sharp white face and shapeless figure before him. "It's hard to believe you can 'ave a son Teddy's age," he added, gallantly.
"It makes you feel as if you're getting on," said the widow.
The ex-steward agreed, and after standing a minute or two in silence made a preliminary motion of withdrawal.
"Beautiful your plants are looking," said Mrs. Silk, glancing over at his window; "I can't think what you do to 'em."
The gratified Mr. Wilks began to explain. It appeared that plants wanted almost as much looking after as daughters.
"I should like to see 'em close," said Mrs. Silk. "Come in and 'ave a look at 'em," responded her neighbour.
Mrs. Silk hesitated and displayed a maidenly coyness far in excess of the needs of the situation. Then she stepped across, and five seconds later the two matrons, with consternation writ large upon their faces, appeared at their doors again and, exchanging glances across the alley, met in the centre.
They were more surprised an evening or two later to see Mr. Wilks leave his house to pay a return visit, bearing in his hand a small bunch of his cherished blooms. That they were blooms which would have paid the debt of Nature in a few hours at most in no way detracted from the widow's expressions of pleasure at receiving them, and Mr. Wilks, who had been invited over to cheer up Mr. Silk, who was in a particularly black mood, sat and smiled like a detected philanthropist as she placed them in water.
"Good evenin', Teddy," he said, breezily, with a side-glance at his hostess. "What a lovely day we've 'ad."
"So bright," said Mrs. Silk, nodding with spirit.
Mr. Wilks sat down and gave vent to such a cheerful laugh that the ornaments on the mantelpiece shook with it. "It's good to be alive," he declared.
"Ah, you enjoy your life, Mr. Wilks," said the widow.
"Enjoy it!" roared Mr. Wilks; "enjoy it! Why shouldn't I? Why shouldn't everybody enjoy their lives? It was what they was given to us for."
"So they was," affirmed Mrs. Silk; "nobody can deny that; not if they try."
"Nobody wants to deny it, ma'am," retorted Mr. Wilks, in the high voice he kept for cheering-up purposes. "I enjoy every day o' my life."
He filled his pipe, chuckling serenely, and having lit it sat and enjoyed that. Mrs. Silk retired for a space, and returning with a jug of ale poured him out a glass and set it by his elbow.
"Here's your good 'ealth, ma'am," said Mr. Wilks, raising it. "Here's yours, Teddy—a long life and a 'appy one."
Mr. Silk turned listlessly. "I don't want a long life," he remarked.
His mother and her visitor exchanged glances.
"That's 'ow 'e goes on," remarked the former, in an audible whisper. Mr. Wilks nodded, reassuringly.
"I 'ad them ideas once," he said, "but they go off. If you could only live to see Teddy at the age o' ninety-five, 'e wouldn't want to go then. 'E'd say it was crool hard, being cut off in the flower of 'is youth."
Mrs. Silk laughed gaily and Mr. Wilks bellowed a gruff accompaniment. Mr. Edward Silk eyed them pityingly.
"That's the 'ardship of it," he said, slowly, as he looked round from his seat by the fireplace; "that's where the 'ollowness of things comes in. That's where I envy Mr. Wilks."
"Envy me?" said the smiling visitor; "what for?"
"Because you're so near the grave," said Mr. Silk.
Mr. Wilks, who was taking another draught of beer, put the glass down and eyed him fixedly.
"That's why I envy you," continued the other.
"I don't want to live, and you do, and yet I dessay I shall be walking about forty and fifty years after you're dead and forgotten."
"Wot d'ye mean—near the grave?" inquired
Mr. Wilks, somewhat shortly.
"I was referring to your age," replied the other; "it's strange to see 'ow the aged 'ang on to life. You can't 'ave much pleasure at your time o' life. And you're all alone; the last withered branch left."
"Withered branch!" began Mr. Wilks; "'ere, look 'ere, Teddy——"
"All the others 'ave gone," pursued Mr. Silk, "and they're beckoning to you."
"Let 'em beckon," said Mr. Wilks, coldly. "I'm not going yet."
"You're not young," said Mr. Silk, gazing meditatively at the grate, "and I envy you that. It can only be a matter of a year or two at most before you are sleeping your last long sleep."
"Teddy!" protested Mrs. Silk.
"It's true, mother," said the melancholy youth. "Mr. Wilks is old. Why should 'e mind being told of it? If 'e had 'ad the trouble I've 'ad 'e'd be glad to go. But he'll 'ave to go, whether 'e likes it or not. It might be to-night. Who can tell?"
Mr. Wilks, unasked, poured himself out another glass of ale, and drank it off with the air of a man who intended to make sure of that. It seemed a trifle more flat than the last.
"So many men o' your age and thereabouts," continued Mr. Silk, "think that they're going to live on to eighty or ninety, but there's very few of 'em do. It's only a short while, Mr. Wilks, and the little children'll be running about over your grave and picking daisies off of it."
"Ho, will they?" said the irritated Mr. Wilks; "they'd better not let me catch 'em at it, that's all."
"He's always talking like that now," said Mrs. Silk, not without a certain pride in her tones; "that's why I asked you in to cheer 'im up."
"All your troubles'll be over then," continued the warning voice, "and in a month or two even your name'll be forgotten. That's the way of the world. Think 'ow soon the last five years of your life 'ave passed; the next five'll pass ten times as fast even if you live as long, which ain't likely."
"He talks like a clergyman," said Mrs. Silk, in a stage whisper.
Mr. Wilks nodded, and despite his hostess's protests rose to go. He shook hands with her and, after a short but sharp inward struggle, shook hands with her son. It was late in the evening as he left, but the houses had not yet been lit up. Dim figures sat in doorways or stood about the alley, and there was an air of peace and rest strangely and uncomfortably in keeping with the conversation to which he had just been listening. He looked in at his own door; the furniture seemed stiffer than usual and the tick of the clock more deliberate. He closed the door again and, taking a deep breath, set off towards the life and bustle of the Two Schooners.
Time failed to soften the captain's ideas concerning his son's engagement, and all mention of the subject in the house was strictly forbidden. Occasionally he was favoured with a glimpse of his son and Miss Kybird out together, a sight which imparted such a flavour to his temper and ordinary intercourse that Mrs. Kingdom, in unconscious imitation of Mr. James Hardy, began to count the days which must elapse before her niece's return from London. His ill-temper even infected the other members of the household, and Mrs. Kingdom sat brooding in her bedroom all one afternoon, because Bella had called her an "overbearing dish-pot."
The finishing touch to his patience was supplied by a little misunderstanding between Mr. Kybird and the police. For the second time in his career the shopkeeper appeared before the magistrates to explain the circumstances in which he had purchased stolen property, and for the second time he left the court without a stain on his character, but with a significant magisterial caution not to appear there again.
Jack Nugent gave evidence in the case, and some of his replies were deemed worthy of reproduction in the Sunwich Herald, a circumstance which lost the proprietors a subscriber of many years' standing.
One by one various schemes for preventing his son's projected alliance were dismissed as impracticable. A cherished design of confining him in an asylum for the mentally afflicted until such time as he should have regained his senses was spoilt by the refusal of Dr. Murchison to arrange for the necessary certificate; a refusal which was like to have been fraught with serious consequences to that gentleman's hopes of entering the captain's family.
Brooding over his wrongs the captain, a day or two after his daughter's return, strolled slowly down towards the harbour. It was afternoon, and the short winter day was already drawing towards a close. The shipping looked cold and desolate in the greyness, but a bustle of work prevailed on the Conqueror, which was nearly ready for sea again. The captain's gaze wandered from his old craft to the small vessels dotted about the harbour and finally dwelt admiringly on the lines of the whaler Seabird, which had put in a few days before as the result of a slight collision with a fishing-boat. She was high out of the water and beautifully rigged. A dog ran up and down her decks barking, and a couple of squat figures leaned over the bulwarks gazing stolidly ashore.
There was something about the vessel which took his fancy, and he stood for some time on the edge of the quay, looking at her. In a day or two she would sail for a voyage the length of which would depend upon her success; a voyage which would for a long period keep all on board of her out of the mischief which so easily happens ashore. If only Jack——
He started and stared more intently than before. He was not an imaginative man, but he had in his mind's eye a sudden vision of his only son waving farewells from the deck of the whaler as she emerged from the harbour into the open sea, while Amelia Kybird tore her yellow locks ashore. It was a vision to cheer any self-respecting father's heart, and he brought his mind back with some regret to the reality of the anchored ship.
He walked home slowly. At the Kybirds' door the proprietor, smoking a short clay pipe, eyed him with furtive glee as he passed. Farther along the road the Hardys, father and son, stepped briskly together. Altogether a trying walk, and calculated to make him more dissatisfied than ever with the present state of affairs. When his daughter shook her head at him and accused him of going off on a solitary frolic his stock of patience gave out entirely.
A thoughtful night led to a visit to Mr. Wilks the following evening. It required a great deal of deliberation on his part before he could make up his mind to the step, but he needed his old steward's assistance in a little plan he had conceived for his son's benefit, and for the first time in his life he paid him the supreme honour of a call.
The honour was so unexpected that Mr. Wilks, coming into the parlour in response to the tapping of the captain's stick on the floor, stood for a short time eyeing him in dismay. Only two minutes before he had taken Mr. James Hardy into the kitchen to point out the interior beauties of an ancient clock, and the situation simply appalled him. The captain greeted him almost politely and bade him sit down. Mr. Wilks smiled faintly and caught his breath.
"Sit down," repeated the captain.
"I've left something in the kitchen, sir," said Mr. Wilks. "I'll be back in half a minute."
The captain nodded. In the kitchen Mr. Wilks rapidly and incoherently explained the situation to Mr. Hardy.
"I'll sit here," said the latter, drawing up a comfortable oak chair to the stove.
"You see, he don't know that we know each other," explained the apologetic steward, "but I don't like leaving you in the kitchen."
"I'm all right," said Hardy; "don't you trouble about me."
He waved him away, and Mr. Wilks, still pale, closed the door behind him and, rejoining the captain, sat down on the extreme edge of a chair and waited.
"I've come to see you on a little matter of business," said his visitor.
Mr. Wilks smiled; then, feeling that perhaps that was not quite the right thing to do, looked serious again.
"I came to see you about my—my son," continued the captain.
"Yes, sir," said Mr. Wilks. "Master Jack, you mean?"
"I've only got one son," said the other, unpleasantly, "unless you happen to know of any more."
Mr. Wilks almost fell off the edge of the chair in his haste to disclaim any such knowledge. His ideas were in a ferment, and the guilty knowledge of what he had left in the kitchen added to his confusion. And just at that moment the door opened and Miss Nugent came briskly in.
Her surprise at seeing her father ensconced in a chair by the fire led to a rapid volley of questions. The captain, in lieu of answering them, asked another.
"What do you want here?"
"I have come to see Sam," said Miss Nugent. "Fancy seeing you here! How are you, Sam?"
"Pretty well, miss, thank'ee," replied Mr. Wilks, "considering," he added, truthfully, after a moment's reflection.
Miss Nugent dropped into a chair and put her feet on the fender. Her father eyed her restlessly.
"I came here to speak to Sam about a private matter," he said, abruptly.
"Private matter," said his daughter, looking round in surprise. "What about?"
"A private matter," repeated Captain Nugent. "Suppose you come in some other time."
Kate Nugent sighed and took her feet from the fender. "I'll go and wait in the kitchen," she said, crossing to the door.
Both men protested. The captain because it ill-assorted with his dignity for his daughter to sit in the kitchen, and Mr. Wilks because of the visitor already there. The face of the steward, indeed, took on such extraordinary expressions in his endeavour to convey private information to the girl that she gazed at him in silent amazement. Then she turned the handle of the door and, passing through, closed it with a bang which was final.
Mr. Wilks stood spellbound, but nothing happened. There was no cry of surprise; no hasty reappearance of an indignant Kate Nugent. His features working nervously he resumed his seat and gazed dutifully at his superior officer.
"I suppose you've heard that my son is going to get married?" said the latter.
"I couldn't help hearing of it, sir," said the steward in self defence— "nobody could."
"He's going to marry that yellow-headed Jezebel of Kybird's," said the captain, staring at the fire.
Mr. Wilks murmured that he couldn't understand anybody liking yellow hair, and, more than that, the general opinion of the ladies in Fullalove Alley was that it was dyed.
"I'm going to ship him on the Seabird," continued the captain. "She'll probably be away for a year or two, and, in the meantime, this girl will probably marry somebody else. Especially if she doesn't know what has become of him. He can't get into mischief aboard ship."
"No, sir," said the wondering Mr. Wilks. "Is Master Jack agreeable to going, sir?"
"That's nothing to do with it," said the captain, sharply.
"No, sir," said Mr. Wilks, "o' course not. I was only a sort o' wondering how he was going to be persuaded to go if 'e ain't."
"That's what I came here about," said the other. "I want you to go and fix it up with Nathan Smith."
"Do you want 'im to be crimped, sir?" stammered Mr. Wilks.
"I want him shipped aboard the Seabird," returned the other, "and Smith's the man to do it."
"It's a very hard thing to do in these days, sir," said Mr. Wilks, shaking his head. "What with signing on aboard the day before the ship sails, and before the Board o' Trade officers, I'm sure it's a wonder that anybody goes to sea at all."
"You leave that to Smith," said the captain, impatiently. "The Seabird sails on Friday morning's tide. Tell Smith I'll arrange to meet my son here on Thursday night, and that he must have some liquor for us and a fly waiting on the beach."
Mr. Wilks wriggled: "But what about signing on, sir?" he inquired.
"He won't sign on," said the captain, "he'll be a stowaway. Smith must get him smuggled aboard, and bribe the hands to let him lie hidden in the fo'c's'le. The Seabird won't put back to put him ashore. Here is five pounds; give Smith two or three now, and the remainder when the job is done."
The steward took the money reluctantly and, plucking up his courage, looked his old master in the face.
"It's a 'ard life afore the mast, sir," he said, slowly.
"Rubbish!" was the reply. "It'll make a man of him. Besides, what's it got to do with you?"
"I don't care about the job, sir," said Mr. Wilks, bravely.
"What's that got to do with it?" demanded the other, frowning. "You go and fix it up with Nathan Smith as soon as possible."
Mr. Wilks shuffled his feet and strove to remind himself that he was a gentleman of independent means, and could please himself.
"I've known 'im since he was a baby," he murmured, defiantly.
"I don't want to hear anything more from you, Wilks," said the captain, in a hard voice. "Those are my orders, and you had better see that they are carried out. My son will be one of the first to thank you later on for getting him out of such a mess."
Mr. Wilks's brow cleared somewhat. "I s'pose Miss Kate 'ud be pleased too," he remarked, hope-fully.
"Of course she will," said the captain. "Now I look to you, Wilks, to manage this thing properly. I wouldn't trust anybody else, and you've never disappointed me yet."
The steward gasped and, doubting whether he had heard aright, looked towards his old master, but in vain, for the confirmation of further compliments. In all his long years of service he had never been praised by him before. He leaned forward eagerly and began to discuss ways and means.
In the next room conversation was also proceeding, but fitfully. Miss Nugent's consternation when she closed the door behind her and found herself face to face with Mr. Hardy was difficult of concealment. Too late she understood the facial contortions of Mr. Wilks, and, resigning herself to the inevitable, accepted the chair placed for her by the highly pleased Jem, and sat regarding him calmly from the other side of the fender.
"I am waiting here for my father," she said, in explanation.
"In deference to Wilks's terrors I am waiting here until he has gone," said Hardy, with a half smile.
There was a pause. "I hope that he will not be long," said the girl.
"Thank you," returned Hardy, wilfully misunderstanding, "but I am in no hurry."
He gazed at her with admiration. The cold air had heightened her colour, and the brightness of her eyes shamed the solitary candle which lit up the array of burnished metal on the mantelpiece.
"I hope you enjoyed your visit to London," he said.
Before replying Miss Nugent favoured him with a glance designed to express surprise at least at his knowledge of her movements. "Very much, thank you," she said, at last.
Mr. Hardy, still looking at her with much comfort to himself, felt an insane desire to tell her how much she had been missed by one person at least in Sunwich. Saved from this suicidal folly by the little common sense which had survived the shock of her sudden appearance, he gave the information indirectly.
"Quite a long stay," he murmured; "three months and three days; no, three months and two days."
A sudden wave of colour swept over the girl's face at the ingenuity of this mode of attack. She was used to attention and took compliments as her due, but the significant audacity of this one baffled her. She sat with downcast eyes looking at the fender occasionally glancing from the corner of her eye to see whether he was preparing to renew the assault. He had certainly changed from the Jem Hardy of olden days. She had a faint idea that his taste had improved.
"Wilks keeps his house in good order," said Hardy, looking round.
"Yes," said the girl.
"Wonder why he never married," said Hardy, musingly; "for my part I can't understand a man remaining single all his life; can you?"
"I never think of such things," said Miss Nugent, coldly—and untruthfully.
"If it was only to have somebody to wait on him and keep his house clean," pursued Hardy, with malice.
Miss Nugent grew restless, and the wrongs of her sex stirred within her. "You have very lofty ideas on the subject," she said, scornfully, "but I believe they are not uncommon."
"Still, you have never thought about such things, you know," he reminded her.
"And no doubt you have devoted a great deal of time to the subject."
Hardy admitted it frankly. "But only since I returned to Sunwich," he said.
"Caused by the spectacle of Sam's forlorn condition, I suppose," said Miss Nugent.
"No, it wasn't that," he replied.
Miss Nugent, indignant at having been drawn into such a discussion, lapsed into silence. It was safer and far more dignified, but at the same time she yearned for an opportunity of teaching this presumptuous young man a lesson. So far he had had it all his own way. A way strewn with ambiguities which a modest maiden had to ignore despite herself.
"Of course, Wilks may have had a disappointment," said Hardy, with the air of one willing to make allowances.
"I believe he had about fifty," said the girl, carelessly.
Hardy shook his head in strong disapproval. "No man should have more than one," he said, firmly; "a man of any strength of will wouldn't have that."
"Strength of will?" repeated the astonished Miss Nugent.
Their eyes met; hers sparkling with indignation; his full of cold calculation. If he had had any doubts before, he was quite sure now that he had gone the right way to work to attract her attention; she was almost quivering with excitement.
"Your ideas will probably change with age—and disappointment," she said, sweetly.
"I shall not be disappointed," said Hardy, coolly. "I'll take care of that."
Miss Nugent eyed him wistfully and racked her brains for an appropriate and crushing rejoinder. In all her experience—and it was considerable considering her years—she had never met with such carefully constructed audacity, and she longed, with a great longing, to lure him into the open and destroy him. She was still considering ways and means of doing this when the door opened and revealed the surprised and angry form of her father and behind it the pallid countenance of Mr. Wilks. For a moment anger deprived the captain of utterance.
"Who——" he stammered. "What——"
"What a long time you've been, father," said Miss Nugent, in a reproving voice. "I began to be afraid you were never going."
"You come home with me," said the captain, recovering.
The command was given in his most imperious manner, and his daughter dropped her muff in some resentment as she rose, in order to let him have the pleasure of seeing Mr. Hardy pick it up. It rolled, however, in his direction, and he stooped for it just as Hardy darted forward. Their heads met with a crash, and Miss Nugent forgot her own consternation in the joy of beholding the pitiable exhibition which terror made of Mr. Wilks.
"I'm very sorry," said Hardy, as he reverently dusted the muff on his coat-sleeve before returning it. "I'm afraid it was my fault."
"It was," said the infuriated captain, as he held the door open for his daughter. "Now, Kate."
Miss Nugent passed through, followed by her father, and escorted to the front door by the steward, whose faint "Good-night" was utterly ignored by his injured commander. He stood at the door until they had turned the corner, and, returning to the kitchen, found his remaining guest holding his aching head beneath the tap.
"And now," said the captain, sternly, to his daughter, "how dare you sit and talk to that young cub? Eh? How dare you?"
"He was there when I went in," said his daughter. "Why didn't you come out, then?" demanded her father.
"I was afraid of disturbing you and Sam," said Miss Nugent. "Besides, why shouldn't I speak to him?"
"Why?" shouted the captain. "Why? Because I won't have it."
"I thought you liked him," said Miss Nugent, in affected surprise. "You patted him on the head."
The captain, hardly able to believe his ears, came to an impressive stop in the roadway, but Miss Nugent walked on. She felt instinctively that the joke was thrown away on him, and, in the absence of any other audience, wanted to enjoy it without interruption. Convulsive and half-suppressed sounds, which she ascribed to a slight cold caught while waiting in the kitchen, escaped her at intervals for the remainder of the journey home.
Jack Nugent's first idea on seeing a letter from his father asking him to meet him at Samson Wilks's was to send as impolite a refusal as a strong sense of undutifulness and a not inapt pen could arrange, but the united remonstrances of the Kybird family made him waver.
"You go," said Mr. Kybird, solemnly; "take the advice of a man wot's seen life, and go. Who knows but wot he's a thinking of doing something for you?"
"Startin' of you in business or somethin'," said Mrs. Kybird. "But if 'e tries to break it off between you and 'Melia I hope you know what to say."
"He won't do that," said her husband.
"If he wants to see me," said Mr. Nugent, "let him come here."
"I wouldn't 'ave 'im in my house," retorted Mr. Kybird, quickly. "An Englishman's 'ouse is his castle, and I won't 'ave him in mine."
"Why not, Dan'l," asked his wife, "if the two families is to be connected?"
Mr. Kybird shook his head, and, catching her eye, winked at her with much significance.
"'Ave it your own way," said Mrs. Kybird, who was always inclined to make concessions in minor matters. "'Ave it your own way, but don't blame me, that's all I ask."
Urged on by his friends Mr. Nugent at last consented, and, in a reply to his father, agreed to meet him at the house of Mr. Wilks on Thursday evening. He was not free him-self from a slight curiosity as to the reasons which had made the captain unbend in so unusual a fashion.
Mr. Nathan Smith put in an appearance at six o'clock on the fatal evening. He was a short, slight man, with a clean-shaven face mapped with tiny wrinkles, and a pair of colourless eyes the blankness of whose expression defied research. In conversation, especially conversation of a diplomatic nature, Mr. Smith seemed to be looking through his opponent at something beyond, an uncomfortable habit which was a source of much discomfort to his victims.
"Here we are, then, Mr. Wilks," he said, putting his head in the door and smiling at the agitated steward.
"Come in," said Mr. Wilks, shortly.
Mr. Smith obliged. "Nice night outside," he said, taking a chair; "clear over'ead. Wot a morning it 'ud be for a sail if we was only young enough. Is that terbacker in that canister there?"
The other pushed it towards him.
"If I was only young enough—and silly enough," said the boarding-house master, producing a pipe with an unusually large bowl and slowly filling it, "there's nothing I should enjoy more than a three years' cruise. Nothing to do and everything of the best."
"'Ave you made all the arrangements?" inquired Mr. Wilks, in a tone of cold superiority.
Mr. Smith glanced affectionately at a fish-bag of bulky appearance which stood on the floor between his feet. "All ready," he said, cheerfully, "an' if you'd like a v'y'ge yourself I can manage it for you in two twos. You've on'y got to say the word."
"I don't want one," said the steward, fiercely; "don't you try none o' your larks on me, Nathan Smith, cos I won't have it."
"Lord love your 'art," said the boarding-master, "I wouldn't 'urt you. I'm on'y acting under your orders now; yours and the captin's. It ain't in my reg'lar way o' business at all, but I'm so good-natured I can't say 'no.'"
"Can't say 'no' to five pounds, you mean," retorted Mr. Wilks, who by no means relished these remarks.
"If I was getting as much out of it as you are I'd be a 'appy man," sighed Mr. Smith.
"Me!" cried the other; "do you think I'd take money for this—why, I'd sooner starve, I'd sooner. Wot are you a-tapping your nose for?"
"Was I tapping it?" demanded Mr. Smith, in surprise. "Well, I didn't know it. I'm glad you told me."
"You're quite welcome," said the steward, sharply. "Crimping ain't in my line; I'd sooner sweep the roads."
"'Ear, 'ear," exclaimed Mr. Smith, approvingly. "Ah! wot a thing it is to come acrost an honest man. Wot a good thing it is for the eyesight."
He stared stonily somewhere in the direction of Mr. Wilks, and then blinking rapidly shielded his eyes with his hand as though overcome by the sight of so much goodness. The steward's wrath rose at the performance, and he glowered back at him until his eyes watered.
"Twenty past six," said Mr. Smith, suddenly, as he fumbled in his waistcoat-pocket and drew out a small folded paper. "It's time I made a start. I s'pose you've got some salt in the house?"
"Plenty," said Mr. Wilks.
"And beer?" inquired the other.
"Yes, there is some beer," said the steward.
"Bring me a quart of it," said the boarding-master, slowly and impressively. "I want it drawed in a china mug, with a nice foaming 'ead on it."
"Wot do you want it for?" inquired Mr. Wilks, eyeing him very closely.
"Bisness purposes," said Mr. Smith. "If you're very good you shall see 'ow I do it."
Still the steward made no move. "I thought you brought the stuff with you," he remarked.
Mr. Smith looked at him with mild reproach. "Are you managing this affair or am I?" he inquired.
The steward went out reluctantly, and drawing a quart mug of beer set it down on the table and stood watching his visitor.
"And now I want a spoonful o' sugar, a spoonful o' salt, and a spoonful o' vinegar," said Mr. Smith. "Make haste afore the 'ead goes off of it."
Mr. Wilks withdrew grumbling, and came back in a wonderfully short space of time considering, with the articles required.
"Thankee," said the other; "you 'ave been quick. I wish I could move as quick as you do. But you can take 'em back now, I find I can do without 'em."
"Where's the beer?" demanded the incensed Mr. Wilks; "where's the beer, you underhanded swab?"
"I altered my mind," said Mr. Smith, "and not liking waste, and seeing by your manner that you've 'ad more than enough already to-night, I drunk it. There isn't another man in Sunwich I could ha' played that trick on, no, nor a boy neither."
Mr. Wilks was about to speak, but, thinking better of it, threw the three spoons in the kitchen, and resuming his seat by the fire sat with his back half turned to his visitor.
"Bright, cheerful young chap, 'e is," said Mr. Smith; "you've knowed 'im ever since he was a baby, haven't you?"
Mr. Wilks made no reply.
"The Conqueror's sailing to-morrow morning, too," continued his tormentor; "his father's old ship. 'Ow strange it'll seem to 'im following it out aboard a whaler. Life is full o' surprises, Mr. Wilks, and wot a big surprise it would be to you if you could 'ear wot he says about you when he comes to 'is senses."
"I'm obeying orders," growled the other.
"Quite right," said Mr. Smith, approvingly, as he drew a bottle of whisky from his bag and placed it on the table. "Two glasses and there we are. We don't want any salt and vinegar this time."
Mr. Wilks turned a deaf ear. "But 'ow are you going to manage so as to make one silly and not the other?" he inquired.
"It's a trade secret," said the other; "but I don't mind telling you I sent the cap'n something to take afore he comes, and I shall be in your kitchen looking arter things."
"I s'pose you know wot you're about?" said Mr. Wilks, doubtfully.
"I s'pose so," rejoined the other. "Young Nu-gent trusts you, and, of course, he'll take anything from your 'ouse. That's the beauty of 'aving a character, Mr. Wilks; a good character and a face like a baby with grey whiskers."
Mr. Wilks bent down and, taking up a small brush, carefully tidied up the hearth.
"Like as not, if my part in it gets to be known," pursued Mr. Smith, mournfully, "I'll 'ave that gal of Kybird's scratching my eyes out or p'r'aps sticking a hat-pin into me. I had that once; the longest hat-pin that ever was made, I should think."
He shook his head over the perils of his calling, and then, after another glance at the clock, withdrew to the kitchen with his bag, leaving Mr. Wilks waiting in a state of intense nervousness for the arrival of the others.
Captain Nugent was the first to put in an appearance, and by way of setting a good example poured a little of the whisky in his glass and sat there waiting. Then Jack Nugent came in, fresh and glowing, and Mr. Wilks, after standing about helplessly for a few moments, obeyed the captain's significant nod and joined Mr. Smith in the kitchen.
"You'd better go for a walk," said that gentle-man, regarding him kindly; "that's wot the cap'n thought."
Mr. Wilks acquiesced eagerly, and tapping at the door passed through the room again into the street. A glance as he went through showed him that Jack Nugent was drinking, and he set off in a panic to get away from the scene which he had contrived.
He slackened after a time and began to pace the streets at a rate which was less noticeable. As he passed the Kybirds' he shivered, and it was not until he had consumed a pint or two of the strongest brew procurable at the Two Schooners that he began to regain some of his old self-esteem. He felt almost maudlin at the sacrifice of character he was enduring for the sake of his old master, and the fact that he could not narrate it to sympathetic friends was not the least of his troubles.
The shops had closed by the time he got into the street again, and he walked down and watched with much solemnity the reflection of the quay lamps in the dark water of the harbour. The air was keen and the various craft distinct in the starlight. Perfect quiet reigned aboard the Seabird, and after a vain attempt to screw up his courage to see the victim taken aboard he gave it up and walked back along the beach.
By the time he turned his steps homewards it was nearly eleven o'clock. Fullalove Alley was quiet, and after listening for some time at his window he turned the handle of the door and passed in. The nearly empty bottle stood on the table, and an over-turned tumbler accounted for a large, dark patch on the table-cloth. As he entered the room the kitchen door opened and Mr. Nathan Smith, with a broad smile on his face, stepped briskly in.
"All over," he said, rubbing his hands; "he went off like a lamb, no trouble nor fighting. He was a example to all of us."
"Did the cap'n see 'im aboard?" inquired Mr. Wilks.
"Certainly not," said the other. "As a matter o' fact the cap'n took a little more than I told 'im to take, and I 'ad to help 'im up to your bed. Accidents will 'appen, but he'll be all right in the morning if nobody goes near 'im. Leave 'im perfectly quiet, and when 'e comes downstairs give 'im a strong cup o' tea."
"In my bed?" repeated the staring Mr. Wilks.
"He's as right as rain," said the boarding master. "I brought down a pillow and blankets for you and put 'em in the kitchen. And now I'll take the other two pound ten and be getting off 'ome. It ought to be ten pounds really with the trouble I've 'ad."
Mr. Wilks laid the desired amount on the table, and Mr. Nathan Smith placing it in his pocket rose to go.
"Don't disturb 'im till he's 'ad 'is sleep out, mind," he said, pausing at the door, "else I can't answer for the consequences. If 'e should get up in the night and come down raving mad, try and soothe 'im. Good-night and pleasant dreams."
He closed the door after him quietly, and the horrified steward, after fetching the bed-clothes on tiptoe from the kitchen, locked the door which led to the staircase, and after making up a bed on the floor lay down in his clothes and tried to get to sleep.
He dozed off at last, but woke up several times during the night with the cold. The lamp burnt itself out, and in the dark he listened intently for any sounds of life in the room above. Then he fell asleep again, until at about half-past seven in the morning a loud crash overhead awoke him with a start.
In a moment he was sitting up with every faculty on the alert. Footsteps blundered about in the room above, and a large and rapidly widening patch of damp showed on the ceiling. It was evident that the sleeper, in his haste to quench an abnormal thirst, had broken the water jug.
Mr. Wilks, shivering with dread, sprang to his feet and stood irresolute. Judging by the noise, the captain was evidently in a fine temper, and Mr. Smith's remarks about insanity occurred to him with redoubled interest. Then he heard a hoarse shout, the latch of the bedroom door clicked, and the prisoner stumbled heavily downstairs and began to fumble at the handle of the door at the bottom. Trembling with excitement Mr. Wilks dashed forward and turned the key, and then retreating to the street door prepared for instant flight.
He opened the door so suddenly that the man on the other side, with a sudden cry, fell on all fours into the room, and raising his face stared stupidly at the steward. Mr. Wilks's hands dropped to his sides and his tongue refused its office, for in some strange fashion, quite in keeping with the lawless proceedings of the previous night, Captain Nugent had changed into a most excellent likeness of his own son.
For some time Mr. Wilks stood gazing at this unexpected apparition and trying to collect his scattered senses. Its face was pale and flabby, while its glassy eyes, set in rims of red eyelids, were beginning to express unmistakable signs of suspicion and wrath. The shock was so sudden that the steward could not even think coherently. Was the captain upstairs? And if so, what was his condition? Where was Nathan Smith? And where was the five pounds?
A voice, a husky and discordant voice, broke in upon his meditations; Jack Nugent was also curious.
"What does all this mean?" he demanded, angrily. "How did I get here?"
"You—you came downstairs," stammered Mr. Wilks, still racking his brains in the vain effort to discover how matters stood.
Mr. Nugent was about to speak, but, thinking better of it, turned and blundered into the kitchen. Sounds of splashing and puffing ensued, and the steward going to the door saw him with his head under the tap. He followed him in and at the right time handed him a towel. Despite the disordered appearance of his hair the improvement in Mr. Nugent's condition was so manifest that the steward, hoping for similar results, turned the tap on again and followed his example.
"Your head wants cooling, I should think," said the young man, returning him the towel. "What's it all about?"
Mr. Wilks hesitated; a bright thought occurred to him, and murmuring something about a dry towel he sped up the narrow stairs to his bedroom. The captain was not there. He pushed open the small lattice window and peered out into the alley; no sign of either the captain or the ingenious Mr. Nathan Smith. With a heavy heart he descended the stairs again.
"Now," said Mr. Nugent, who was sitting down with his hands in his pockets, "perhaps you'll be good enough to explain what all this means."
"You were 'ere last night," said Mr. Wilks, "you and the cap'n."
"I know that," said Nugent. "How is it I didn't go home? I didn't understand that it was an all-night invitation. Where is my father?"
The steward shook his head helplessly. "He was 'ere when I went out last night," he said, slowly. "When I came back the room was empty and I was told as 'e was upstairs in my bed."
"Told he was in your bed?" repeated the other. "Who told you?"
He pushed open the small lattice window and peered out into the alley.
Mr. Wilks caught his breath. "I mean I told myself 'e was in my bed," he stammered, "because when I came in I see these bed-clothes on the floor, an' I thought as the cap'n 'ad put them there for me and taken my bed 'imself."
Mr. Nugent regarded the litter of bed-clothes as though hoping that they would throw a little light on the affair, and then shot a puzzled glance at Mr. Wilks.
"Why should you think my father wanted your bed?" he inquired.
"I don't know," was the reply. "I thought p'r'aps 'e'd maybe taken a little more than 'e ought to have taken. But it's all a myst'ry to me. I'm more astonished than wot you are."
"Well, I can't make head or tail of it," said Nugent, rising and pacing the room. "I came here to meet my father. So far as I remember I had one drink of whisky—your whisky—and then I woke up in your bedroom with a splitting headache and a tongue like a piece of leather. Can you account for it?"
Mr. Wilks shook his head again. "I wasn't here," he said, plucking up courage. "Why not go an' see your father? Seems to me 'e is the one that would know most about it."
Mr. Nugent stood for a minute considering, and then raising the latch of the door opened it slowly and inhaled the cold morning air. A subtle and delicate aroma of coffee and herrings which had escaped from neighbouring breakfast-tables invaded the room and reminded him of an appetite. He turned to go, but had barely quitted the step before he saw Mrs. Kingdom and his sister enter the alley.
Mr. Wilks saw them too, and, turning if anything a shade paler, supported himself by the door-pest. Kate Nugent quickened her pace as she saw them, and, after a surprised greeting to her brother, breathlessly informed him that the captain was missing.
"Hasn't been home all night," panted Mrs. Kingdom, joining them. "I don't know what to think."
They formed an excited little group round the steward's door, and Mr. Wilks, with an instinctive feeling that the matter was one to be discussed in private, led the way indoors. He began to apologize for the disordered condition of the room, but Jack Nugent, interrupting him brusquely, began to relate his own adventures of the past few hours.
Mrs. Kingdom listened to the narrative with unexpected calmness. She knew the cause of her nephew's discomfiture. It was the glass of whisky acting on a system unaccustomed to alcohol, and she gave a vivid and moving account of the effects of a stiff glass of hot rum which she had once taken for a cold. It was quite clear to her that the captain had put his son to bed; the thing to discover now was where he had put himself.
"Sam knows something about it," said her nephew, darkly; "there's something wrong."
"I know no more than a babe unborn," declared Mr. Wilks. "The last I see of the cap'n 'e was a-sitting at this table opposite you."
"Sam wouldn't hurt a fly," said Miss Nugent, with a kind glance at her favourite.
"Well, where is the governor, then?" inquired her brother. "Why didn't he go home last night? He has never stayed out before."
"Yes, he has," said Mrs. Kingdom, folding her hands in her lap. "When you were children. He came home at half-past eleven next morning, and when I asked him where he'd been he nearly bit my head off. I'd been walking the floor all night, and I shall never forget his remarks when he opened the door to the police, who'd come to say they couldn't find him. Never."
A ghostly grin flitted across the features of Mr. Wilks, but he passed the back of his hand across his mouth and became serious again as he thought of his position. He was almost dancing with anxiety to get away to Mr. Nathan Smith and ask for an explanation of the proceedings of the night before.
"I'll go and have a look round for the cap'n," he said, eagerly; "he can't be far."
"I'll come with you," said Nugent. "I should like to see him too. There are one or two little things that want explaining. You take aunt home, Kate, and I'll follow on as soon as there is any news."
As he spoke the door opened a little way and a head appeared, only to be instantly withdrawn at the sight of so many people. Mr. Wilks stepped forward hastily, and throwing the door wide open revealed the interesting features of Mr. Nathan Smith.
"How do you do, Mr. Wilks?" said that gentleman, softly. "I just walked round to see whether you was in. I've got a message for you. I didn't know you'd got company."
He stepped into the room and, tapping the steward on the chest with a confidential finger, backed him into a corner, and having got him there gave an expressive wink with one eye and gazed into space with the other.
"I thought you'd be alone," he said, looking round, "but p'r'aps it's just as well as it is. They've got to know, so they may as well know now as later on."
"Know what?" inquired Jack Nugent, abruptly. "What are you making that face for, Sam?"
Mr. Wilks mumbled something about a decayed tooth, and to give colour to the statement continued a series of contortions which made his face ache.
"You should take something for that tooth," said the boarding-master, with great solicitude. "Wot do you say to a glass o' whisky?"
He motioned to the fatal bottle, which still stood on the table; the steward caught his breath, and then, rising to the occasion, said that he had already had a couple of glasses, and they had done no good.
"What's your message?" inquired Jack Nugent, impatiently.
"I'm just going to tell you," said Mr. Smith. "I was out early this morning, strolling down by the harbour to get a little appetite for breakfast, when who should I see coming along, looking as though 'e 'ad just come from a funeral, but Cap'n Nugent! I was going to pass 'im, but he stopped me and asked me to take a message from 'im to 'is old and faithful steward, Mr. Wilks."
"Why, has he gone away?" exclaimed Mrs. Kingdom.
"His old and faithful steward," repeated Mr. Smith, motioning her to silence. "'Tell 'im,' he says, 'that I am heartily ashamed of myself for wot took place last night—and him, too. Tell 'im that, after my father's 'art proved too much for me, I walked the streets all night, and now I can't face may injured son and family yet awhile, and I'm off to London till it has blown over.'"
"But what's it all about?" demanded Nugent. "Why don't you get to the point?"
"So far as I could make out," replied Mr. Smith, with the studious care of one who desires to give exact information, "Cap'n Nugent and Mr. Wilks 'ad a little plan for giving you a sea blow."
"Me?" interrupted the unfortunate steward. "Now, look 'ere, Nathan Smith——"
"Them was the cap'n's words," said the boarding-master, giving him a glance of great significance; "are you going to take away or add to wot the cap'n says?"
Mr. Wilks collapsed, and avoiding the indignant eyes of the Nugent family tried to think out his position.
"It seems from wot the cap'n told me," continued Mr. Smith, "that there was some objection to your marrying old—Mr. Kybird's gal, so 'e and Mr. Wilks, after putting their 'eads together, decided to get you 'ere and after giving you a little whisky that Mr. Wilks knows the trick of—"
"Me?" interrupted the unfortunate steward, again.
"Them was the cap'n's words," said Mr. Smith, coldly. "After you'd 'ad it they was going to stow you away in the Seabird, which sailed this morning. However, when the cap'n see you overcome, his 'art melted, and instead o' putting you aboard the whaler he took your feet and Mr. Wilks your 'ead, and after a great deal o' trouble got you upstairs and put you to bed."
"You miserable scoundrel," said the astonished Mr. Nugent, addressing the shrinking steward; "you infernal old reprobate—you—you—I didn't think you'd got it in you."
"So far as I could make out," said Mr. Smith, kindly, "Mr. Wilks was only obeying orders. It was the cap'n's plan, and Mr. Wilks was aboard ship with 'im for a very long time. O' course, he oughtn't to ha' done it, but the cap'n's a masterful man, an' I can quite understand Mr. Wilks givin' way; I dessay I should myself if I'd been in 'is place—he's all 'art, is Mr. Wilks—no 'ead."