HotFreeBooks.com
Salthaven
by W. W. Jacobs
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"No, sir," said the perplexed youth.

Mr. Vyner suddenly dropped his bantering air.

"How was it I didn't see you?" he demanded, sternly.

"I don't think you looked my side of the road, sir," said Bassett. "You were watching Mr. Hartley's windows all the time; and, besides, I was behind that hedge."

He pointed to a well-trimmed privet hedge in a front garden opposite.

"Behind the hedge?" repeated the other, sharply. "What were you there for?"

"Watching a snail, sir," replied Bassett.

"A what?" inquired Mr. Vyner, raising his voice.

"A snail, sir," repeated the youth. "I've got a book on natural history, and I've just been reading about them. I saw this one as I was passing, and I went inside to study its habits. They are very interesting little things to watch—very."

Fortified by the approval of a conscience that never found fault, he met the searchlight gaze that the junior partner turned upon him without flinching. Quite calm, although somewhat puzzled by the other's manner, he stood awaiting his pleasure.

"Yes," said Robert Vyner, at last; "very interesting indeed, I should think; but you have forgotten one thing, Bassett. When secreted behind a hedge watching one of these diverting little—er——"

"Gasteropodous molluscs, sir," interjected Bassett, respectfully.

"Exactly," said the other. "Just the word I was trying to think of. When behind a hedge watching them it is always advisable to whistle as loudly and as clearly as you can."

"I never heard that, sir," said Bassett, more and more perplexed. "It's not in my book, but I remember once reading, when I was at school, that spiders are sometimes attracted by the sound of a flute."

"A flute would do," said Mr. Vyner, still watching him closely; "but a cornet would be better still. Good-morning."

He left Bassett gazing after him round-eyed, and, carefully refraining from looking at Hartley's windows, walked on at a smart pace. As he walked he began to wish that he had not talked so much; a vision of Bassett retailing the conversation of the morning to longer heads than his own in the office recurring to him with tiresome persistency. And, on the other hand, he regretted that he had not crossed the road and made sure that there was a snail.

Busy with his thoughts he tramped on mechanically, until, pausing on a piece of high ground to admire the view, he was surprised to see that the town lay so far behind. At the same time sudden urgent promptings from within bore eloquent testimony to the virtues of early rising and exercise as aids to appetite. With ready obedience he began to retrace his steps.

The business of the day was just beginning as he entered the outskirts of the town again. Blinds were drawn aside and maid-servants busy at front doors. By the time he drew near Laurel Lodge—the name was the choice of a former tenant—the work of the day had begun in real earnest. Instinctively slackening his pace, he went by the house with his eyes fastened on the hedge opposite, being so intent on what might, perhaps, be described as a visual alibi for Bassett's benefit, in case the lad still happened to be there, that he almost failed to notice that Hartley was busy in his front garden and that Joan was standing by him. He stopped short and bade them "Good-morning."

Mr. Hartley dropped his tools and hastened to the gate. "Good-morning," he said, nervously; "I hope that there is nothing wrong. I went a little way to try and find you."

"Find me?" echoed Mr. Vyner, reddening, as a suspicion of the truth occurred to him.

"Bassett told me that you had been walking up and down waiting to see me," continued Hartley.

"I dressed as fast as I could, but by that time you were out of sight."

Facial contortions, in sympathy with the epithets he was mentally heaping upon the head of Bassett, disturbed for a moment the serenity of Mr. Vyner's countenance. A rapid glance at Miss Hartley helped him to regain his composure.

"I don't know why the boy should have been so officious," he said, slowly; "I didn't want to see you. I certainly passed the house on my way. Oh, yes, and then I thought of going back—I did go a little way back—then I altered my mind again. I suppose I must have passed three times."

"I was afraid there was something wrong," said Hartley. "I am very glad it is all right. I'll give that lad a talking to. He knocked us all up and said that you had been walking up and down for twenty-three minutes."

The generous colour in Mr. Vyner's cheeks was suddenly reflected in Miss Hartley's. Their eyes met, and, feeling exceedingly foolish, he resolved to put a bold face on the matter.

"Bassett is unendurable," he said, with a faint laugh, "and I suspect his watch. Still, I must admit that I did look out for you, because I thought if you were stirring I should like to come in and see what sort of a mess I made last night. Was it very bad?"

"N-no," said Hartley; "no; it perhaps requires a little attention. Half an hour or so will put it right."

"I should like to see my handiwork by daylight," said Robert.

Hartley opened the garden-gate and admitted him, and all three, passing down the garden, stood gravely inspecting the previous night's performance. It is to be recorded to Mr. Vyner's credit that he coughed disparagingly as he eyed it.

"Father says that they only want taking up and replanting," said Joan, softly, "and the footmarks caked over, and the mould cleared away from the path. Except for that your assistance was invaluable."

"I—I didn't quite say that," said Hartley, mildly.

"You ought to have, then," said Robert, severely. "I had no idea it was so bad. You'll have to give me some lessons and see whether I do better next time. Or perhaps Miss Hartley will; she seems to be all right, so far as the theory of the thing goes."

Hartley smiled uneasily, and to avoid replying, moved off a little way and became busy over a rosebush.

"Will you?" inquired Mr. Vyner, very softly. "I believe that I could learn better from you than from anybody; I should take more interest in the work. One wants sympathy from a teacher."

Miss Hartley shook her head. "You had better try a three months' course at Dale's Nurseries," she said, with a smile. "You would get more sympathy from them than from me."

"I would sooner learn from you," persisted Robert.

"I could teach you all I know in half an hour," said the girl.

Mr. Vyner drew a little nearer to her. "You overestimate my powers," he said, in a low voice. "You have no idea how dull I can be; I am sure it would take at least six months."

"That settles it, then," said Joan. "I shouldn't like a dull pupil."

Mr. Vyner drew a little nearer still. "Perhaps—perhaps 'dull' isn't quite the word," he said, musingly.

"It's not the word I should—" began Joan, and stopped suddenly.

"Thank you," murmured Mr. Vyner. "It's nice to be understood. What word would you use?"

Miss Hartley, apparently interested in her father's movements, made no reply.

"Painstaking?" suggested Mr. Vyner; "assiduous? attentive? devoted?"

Miss Hartley, walking toward the house, affected not to hear. 'A fragrant smell of coffee, delicately blended with odour of grilled bacon, came from the open door and turned his thoughts to more mundane things. Mr. Hartley joined them just as the figure of Rosa appeared at the door. "Breakfast is quite ready, miss," she announced.

She stood looking at them, and Mr. Vyner noticed an odd, strained appearance about her left eye which he attributed to a cast. A closer inspection made him almost certain that she was doing her best to wink.

"I laid for three, miss," she said, with great simplicity. "You didn't say whether the gentleman was going to stop or not; and there's no harm done if he don't."

Mr. Hartley started, and in a confused fashion murmured something that sounded like an invitation; Mr. Vyner, in return murmuring something about "goodness" and "not troubling them," promptly followed Joan through the French windows of the small dining-room.

"It's awfully kind of you," he said, heartily, as he seated himself opposite his host; "as a matter of fact I'm half famished."

He made a breakfast which bore ample witness to the truth of his statement; a meal with long intervals of conversation. To Hartley, who usually breakfasted in a quarter of an hour, and was anxious to start for the office, it became tedious in the extreme, and his eyes repeatedly sought the clock. He almost sighed with relief as the visitor took the last piece of toast in the rack, only to be plunged again into depression as his daughter rang the bell for more. Unable to endure it any longer he rose and, murmuring something about getting ready, quitted the room.

"I'm afraid I'm delaying things," remarked Mr. Vyner, looking after him apologetically.

Miss Hartley said, "Not at all," and, as a mere piece of convention, considering that he had already had four cups, offered him some more coffee. To her surprise he at once passed his cup up. She looked at the coffee-pot and for a moment thought enviously of the widow's cruse.

"Only a little, please," he said. "I want it for a toast."

"A toast?" said the girl.

Mr. Vyner nodded mysteriously. "It is a solemn duty," he said, impressively, "and I want you to drink it with me. Are you ready? 'Bassett, the best of boys!'"



Joan Hartley, looking rather puzzled, laughed, and put the cup to her lips. Robert Vyner put his cup down and regarded her intently.

"Do you know why we drank his health?" he inquired.

"No."

"Because," said Robert, pausing for a moment to steady his voice, "because, if it hadn't been for his officiousness, I should not be sitting here with you."

He leaned toward her. "Do you wish that you had not drunk it?" he asked.

Joan Hartley raised her eyes and looked at him so gravely that the mischief, with which he was trying to disguise his nervousness, died out of his face and left it as serious as her own. For a moment her eyes, clear and truthful, met his.

"No," she said, in a low voice.

And at that moment Rosa burst into the room with two pieces of scorched bread and placed them upon the table. Unasked, she proffered evidence on her own behalf, and with great relish divided the blame between the coal merchant, the baker, and the stove. Mr. Hartley entered the room before she had done herself full justice, and Vyner, obeying a glance from Joan, rose to depart.



CHAPTER X

MR. VYNER spent the remainder of the morning in a state of dreamy exaltation. He leaned back in his chair devising plans for a future in which care and sorrow bore no part, and neglected the pile of work on his table in favour of writing the name "Joan Vyner" on pieces of paper, which he afterward burnt in the grate. At intervals he jumped up and went to the window, in the faint hope that Joan might be passing, and once, in the highest of high spirits, vaulted over his table. Removing ink from his carpet afterward by means of blotting-paper was only an agreeable diversion.

By mid-day his mood had changed to one of extreme tenderness and humility, and he began to entertain unusual misgivings as to his worthiness. He went home to lunch depressed by a sense of his shortcomings; but, on his return, his soaring spirits got the better of him again. Filled with a vast charity, his bosom overflowing with love for all mankind, he looked about to see whom he could benefit; and Bassett entering the room at that moment was sacrificed without delay. Robert Vyner was ashamed to think that he should have left the lad's valuable services unrewarded for so long.

"It's a fine afternoon, Bassett," he said, leaning back and regarding him with a benevolent smile.

"Beautiful, sir," said the youth.

"Too fine to sit in a stuffy office," continued the other. "Put on you hat and go out and enjoy yourself."

"Sir?" said the amazed Bassett.

"Take a half holiday," said Vyner, still smiling.

"Thank you, sir," said Bassett, "but I don't care for holidays; and, besides, I've got a lot of work to do."

"Do it to-morrow," said Vyner. "Go on—out you go!"

"It can't be done to-morrow, sir," said the youth, almost tearfully. "I've got all the letters to copy, and a pile of other work. And besides I shouldn't know what to do with myself if I went."

Mr. Vyner eyed him in astonishment. "I'm sorry to find a tendency to disobedience in you, Bassett," he said, at last. "I've noticed it before. And as to saying that you wouldn't know what to do with yourself, it's a mere idle excuse."

"What time have I got to go, sir?" asked Bassett, resignedly.

"Time?" exclaimed the other. "Now, at once. Avaunt!"

The boy stood for a moment gazing at him in mute appeal, and then, moving with laggard steps to the door, closed it gently behind him. A sudden outbreak of four or five voices, all speaking at once, that filtered through the wall, satisfied Mr. Vyner that his orders were being obeyed.

Horrified at the grave charge of disobedience, Bassett distributed his work and left with what the junior clerk—whom he had constituted residuary legatee—considered unnecessary and indecent haste. The latter gentleman, indeed, to the youth's discomfiture, accompanied him as far as the entrance, and spoke eloquently upon the subject all the way downstairs. His peroration consisted almost entirely of a repetition of the words "lazy fat-head."

With this hostile voice still ringing in his ears Bas-sett strolled aimlessly about the streets of his native town. He spent some time at a stall in front of a second-hand bookshop, and was just deep in an enthralling romance, entitled "Story of a Lump of Coal," when a huge hand was laid upon his shoulder, and he turned to meet the admiring gaze of Mr. Walters.

"More book-larning," said the boatswain, in tones of deep respect. "It's a wonder to me that that head of yours don't bust."

"Heads don't burst," said Bassett. "The brain enlarges with use the same as muscles with exercise. They can't burst."

"I only wish I had arf your laming," said Mr. Walters; "just arf, and I should be a very different man to wot I am now. Well, so long."

"Where are you going?" inquired the youth, replacing the book.

"Seven Trees," replied the other, displaying a small parcel. "I've got to take this over there for the skipper. How far do you make it?"

"Four miles," said Bassett. "I'll come with you, if you like."

"Wot about the office?" inquired the boatswain, in surprise.

Bassett, explained, and a troubled expression appeared on the seaman's face as he listened. He was thinking of the last conversation he had had with the youth, and the hearty way in which he had agreed with him as to the pernicious action of malt and other agreeable liquors on the human frame. He remembered that he had committed himself to the statement that wild horses could not make him drink before six in the evening, and then not more than one half-pint.

"It's a long walk for a 'ot day," he said, slowly. "It might be too much for you."

"Oh, no; I'm a good walker," said Bassett.

"Might be too much for that head of yours," said Mr. Walters, considerately.

"I often walk farther than that," was the reply.

Mr. Walters drew the back of his hand across a mouth which was already dry, and resigned himself to his fate. He had lied quite voluntarily, and pride told him that he must abide by the consequences. And eight miles of dusty road lay between him and relief. He strode along stoutly, and tried to turn an attentive ear to a dissertation on field-mice. At the end of the first mile he saw the sign of the Fox and Hounds peeping through the trees, and almost unconsciously slackened his pace as he remembered that it was the last inn on the road to Seven Trees.

"It's very 'ot," he murmured, mopping his brow with his sleeve, "and I'm as dry as a bone."

"I'm thirsty, too," said Bassett; "but you know the cure for it, don't you?"

"O' course I do," said the boatswain, and nearly smacked his lips.

"Soldiers do it on the march," said Bassett.

"I've seen 'em," said Mr. Walters, grinning.

"A leaden bullet is the best thing," said Bassett, stooping and picking up a pebble, which he polished on his trousers, "but this will do as well. Suck that and you won't be troubled with thirst."

The boatswain took it mechanically, and, after giving it another wipe on his own trousers, placed it with great care in his mouth. Bassett found another pebble and they marched on sucking.

"My thirst has quite disappeared," he said, presently. "How's yours?"

"Worse and worse," said Mr. Walters, gruffly.

"It'll be all right in a minute," said Bassett. "Perhaps I had the best pebble. If it isn't, perhaps we could get a glass of water at a cottage; athough it isn't good to drink when you are heated."

Mr. Walters made no reply, but marched on, marvelling at his lack of moral courage. Bassett, quite refreshed, took out his pebble, and after a grateful tribute to its properties placed it in his waistcoat pocket for future emergencies.

By the time they had reached Seven Trees and delivered the parcel Mr. Walters was desperate. The flattering comments that Bassett had made upon his common-sense and virtue were forgotten. Pleading fatigue he sat down by the roadside and, with his eyes glued to the open door of the Pedlar's Rest, began to hatch schemes of deliverance.

A faint smell of beer and sawdust, perceptible even at that distance, set his nostrils aquiver. Then he saw an old labourer walk from the bar to a table, bearing a mug of foaming ale. Human nature could endure no more, and he was just about to throw away a hard-earned character for truth and sobriety when better thoughts intervened. With his eyes fixed on the small figure by his side, he furtively removed the pebble from his mouth, and then with a wild cry threw out his arms and clutched at his throat.

"What's the matter?" cried Bassett, as the boatswain sprang to his feet.

"The stone," cried Mr. Walters, in a strangulated voice; "it's stuck in my throat."

Bassett thumped him on the back like one possessed. "Cough it up!" he cried. "Put your finger down! Cough!"

The boatswain waved his arms and gurgled. "I'm choking!" he moaned, and dashed blindly into the inn, followed by the alarmed boy.



"Pot—six ale!" he gasped, banging on the little counter.

The landlord eyed him in speechless amazement.

"Six ale!" repeated the boatswain. "Pot! Quick! G-r-r."

"You be off," said the landlord, putting down a glass he was wiping, and eying him wrathfully. "How dare you come into my place like that? What do you mean by it?"

"He has swallowed a pebble!" said Bassett, hastily.

"If he'd swallowed a brick I shouldn't be surprised," said the landlord, "seeing the state he's in. I don't want drunken sailors in my place; and, what's more, I won't have 'em."

"Drunk?" said the unfortunate boatswain, raising his voice. "Me? Why, I ain't—"

"Out you go!" said the landlord, in a peremptory voice, "and be quick about it; I don't want people to say you got it here."

"Got it?" wailed Mr. Walters. "Got it? I tell you I ain't had it. I swallowed a stone."

"If you don't go out," said the landlord, as Mr. Walters, in token of good faith, stood making weird noises in his throat and rolling his eyes, "I'll have you put out. How dare you make them noises in my bar! Will—you—go?"

Mr. Walters looked at him, looked at the polished nickel taps, and the neat row of mugs on the shelves. Then, without a word, he turned and walked out.

"Has it gone down?" inquired Bassett presently, as they walked along.

"Wot?" said the boatswain, thoughtlessly.

"The pebble."

"I s'pose so," said the other, sourly.

"I should think it would be all right, then," said the boy; "foreign bodies, even of considerable size, are often swallowed with impunity. How is your thirst now?"

The boatswain stopped dead in the middle of the road and stood eying him suspiciously, but the mild eyes behind the glasses only betrayed friendly solicitude. He grunted and walked on.

By the time the Fox and Hounds came in sight again he had resolved not to lose a reputation which entailed suffering. He clapped the boy on the back, and after referring to a clasp-knive which he remembered to have left on the grass opposite the Pedlar's Rest, announced his intention of going back for it. He did go back as far as a bend in the road, and, after watching Bassett out of sight, hastened with expectant steps into the inn.

He rested there for an hour, and, much refreshed, walked slowly into Salthaven. It was past seven o'clock, and somewhat at a loss how to spend the evening he was bending his steps toward the Lobster Pot, a small inn by the quay, when in turning a corner he came into violent collision with a fashionably attired lady.

"I beg pardon, ma'am," he stammered. "I'm very sorry. I didn't see where I was—Why! Halloa, yaller wig!"

Miss Jelks drew back and, rubbing, her arm, eyed him haughtily.

"Fancy you in a 'at like that," pursued the astonished boatswain. "No wonder I thought you was a lady. Well, and 'ow are you?"



"My health is very well, I thank you," returned Miss Jelks, stiffly.

"That's right," said the boatswain, heartily.

Conversation came suddenly to a standstill, and they stood eying each other awkwardly.

"It's a fine evening," said Mr. Walters, at last.

"Beautiful," said Rosa.

They eyed each other again, thoughtfully.

"You hurt my arm just now," said Rosa, rubbing it coquettishly. "You're very strong, aren't you?"

"Middling," said the boatswain.

"Very strong, I should say," said Rosa. "You've got such a broad chest and shoulders."

The boatswain inflated himself.

"And arms," continued Miss Jelks, admiringly. "Arms like—like—"

"Blocks o' wood," suggested the modest Mr. Walters, squinting at them complacently.

"Or iron," said Rosa. "Well, good-by; it's my evening out, and I mustn't waste it."

"Where are you going?" inquired the boatswain.

Miss Jelks shook her head. "I don't know," she said, softly.

"You can come with me if you like," said Mr. Walters, weighing his words carefully. "A little way. I ain't got nothing better to do."

Miss Jelks's eyes flashed, then with a demure smile she turned and walked by his side. They walked slowly up the street, and Mr. Walters's brows grew black as a series of troublesome coughs broke out behind. A glance over his shoulder showed him three tavern acquaintances roguishly shaking their heads at him.

"Arf a second," he said, stopping. "I'll give 'em something to cough about."

Rosa clutched his arm. "Not now; not while you are with me," she said, primly.

"Just one smack," urged the boatswain.

He looked round again and clenched his fists, as his friends, with their arms fondly encircling each other's waists, walked mincingly across the road. He shook off the girl's arm and stepped off the pavement as with little squeals, fondly believed to be feminine, they sought sanctuary in the Red Lion.

"They're not worth taking notice of," said Rosa.

She put a detaining hand through his arm again and gave it a little gentle squeeze. A huge feather almost rested on his shoulder, and the scent of eau-de-Cologne assailed his nostrils. He walked on in silent amazement at finding himself in such a position.

"It's nice to be out," said Rosa, ignoring a feeble attempt on his part to release his arm. "You've no idea how fresh the air smells after you've been shut up all day."

"You've got a comfortable berth, though, haven't you?" said Mr. Walters.

"Fairish," said Rosa. "There's plenty of work; but I like work—housework."

The boatswain said "Oh!"

"Some girls can't bear it," said Rosa, "but then, as I often say, what are they going to do when they get married?"

"Ah!" said the boatswain, with an alarmed grunt, and made another attempt to release his arm.

"Oh, I beg your pardon," said Rosa, making a pretence of freeing him. "I'm afraid I'm leaning on you; but I sprained my ankle yesterday, and I thought—"

"All right," said Mr. Walters, gruffly.

"Thank you," said Rosa, and leaned on him heavily. "Housework is the proper thing for girls," she continued, with some severity. "Every girl ought to know how to keep her husband's house clean and cook nicely for him. But there—all they think about is love. What did you say?"

"Nothing," said Mr. Walters, hastily. "I didn't say a word."

"I don't understand it myself," said Rosa, takings an appraising glance at him from under the brim of her hat; "I can't think why people want to get married when they're comfortable."

"Me neither," said the boatswain.

"Being friends is all right," said Rosa, meditatively, "but falling in love and getting married always seemed absurd to me."

"Me too," said Mr. Walters, heartily.

With a mind suddenly at ease he gave himself over to calm enjoyment of the situation. He sniffed approvingly at the eau-de-Cologne, and leaned heavily toward the feather. Apparently without either of them knowing it, his arm began to afford support to Miss Jelks's waist. They walked on for a long time in silence.

"Some men haven't got your sense," said Rosa, at last, with a sigh. "There's a young fellow that brings the milk—nice young fellow I thought he was—and all because I've had a word with him now and again, he tried to make love to me."

"Oh, did he?" said Mr. Walters, grimly. "What's his name?"

"It don't matter," said Rosa. "I don't think he'll try it again."

"Still, I might as well learn 'im a lesson," said the boatswain. "I like a bit of a scrap."

"If you are going to fight everybody that tries to take notice of me you'll have your work cut out," said Miss Jelks, in tones of melancholy resignation, "and I'm sure it's not because I give them any encouragement. And as for the number that ask me to walk out with them—well, there!"

Mr. Walters showed his sympathy with such a state of affairs by a pressure that nearly took her breath away. They sat for an hour and a half on a bench by the river discussing the foolishness of young men.

"If any of them chaps trouble you again," he said, as they shook hands at the gate of Laurel Lodge, "you let me know. Do you have Sunday evening out too?"



CHAPTER XI

"I HAVE been knocking for the last ten minutes," said Hartley, as he stood one evening at the open door of No. 5, Tranquil Vale, and looked up at Captain Trimblett.

"I was in the summer-house," said the captain, standing aside to let him enter.

"Alone?" queried the visitor.

"Alone? Yes, of course," said the captain, sharply. "Why shouldn't I be? Peter's courting—as usual."

"And Mrs. Chinnery?" inquired the other.

"She's away for a day or two," replied the captain; "friends at Marsham."

He stopped in the small kitchen to get some beer and glasses, and, with the bottle gripped under his arm and a glass in each hand, led the way to the summer-house.

"I came to ask your advice," said Hartley, as he slowly filled his pipe from the pouch the captain pushed toward him.



"Joan?" inquired the captain, who was carefully decanting the beer.

Mr. Hartley nodded.

"Robert Vyner?" pursued the captain.

Hartley nodded again.

"What did I tell you?" inquired the other, placing a full tumbler before him. "I warned you from the first. I told you how it would be. I——"

"It's no good talking like that," said Hartley, with feeble irritation. "You're as bad as my poor old grandmother; she always knew everything before it happened—at least, she said so afterward. What I want to know is: how is it to be stopped? He has been round three nights running."

"Your grandmother is dead, I suppose?" said the offended captain, gazing at the river. "Else she might have known what to do."

"I'm sorry," said Hartley, apologetically; "but I am so worried that I hardly know what I'm saying."

"That's all right," said the captain, amiably. He drank some beer and, leaning back on the seat, knitted his brows thoughtfully.

"He admired her from the first," he said, slowly. "I saw that. Does she like him, I wonder?"

"It looks like it," was the reply.

The captain shook his head. "They'd make a fine couple," he said, slowly. "As fine as you'd see anywhere. It's fate again. Perhaps he was meant to admire her; perhaps millions of years ago——"

"Yes, yes, I know," said Hartley, hastily; "but to prevent it."

"Fate can't be prevented," said the captain, who was now on his favourite theme. "Think of the millions of things that had to happen to make it possible for those two young people to meet and cause this trouble. That's what I mean. If only one little thing had been missing, one little circumstance out of millions, Joan wouldn't have been born; you wouldn't have been born."

Mr. Hartley attempted to speak, but the captain, laying down his pipe, extended an admonitory finger.

"To go back only a little way," he said, solemnly, "your father had the measles, hadn't he?"

"I don't know—I believe so," said Hartley.

"Good," said the captain; "and he pulled through 'em, else you wouldn't have been here. Again, he happened to go up North to see a friend who was taken ill while on a journey, and met your mother there, didn't he?"

Hartley groaned.

"If your father's friend hadn't been taken ill," said the captain, with tremendous solemnity, as he laid his forefinger on his friend's knee, "where would you have been?"

"I don't know," said Hartley, restlessly, "and I don't care."

"Nobody knows," said the other, shaking his head. "The thing is, as you are here, it seems to me that things couldn't have been otherwise. They were all arranged. When your father went up North in that light-hearted fashion, I don't suppose he thought for a moment that you'd be sitting here to-day worrying over one of the results of his journey."

"Of course he didn't," exclaimed Hartley, impatiently; "how could he? Look here, Trimblett, when you talk like that I don't know where I am. If my father hadn't married my mother I suppose he would have married somebody else."

"My idea is that he couldn't," said the captain, obstinately. "If a thing has got to be it will be, and there's no good worrying about it. Take a simple example. Some time you are going to die of a certain disease—you can only die once—and you're going to be buried in a certain grave—you can only be buried in one grave. Try and think that in front of you there is that one particular disease told off to kill you at a certain date, and in one particular spot of all this earth there is a grave waiting to be dug for you. At present we don't know the date, or the disease, or the grave, but there they are, all waiting for you. That is fate. What is the matter? Where are you going?"

"Home," said Hartley, bitterly, as he paused at the door. "I came round to you for a little help, and you go on in a way that makes my flesh creep. Good-by."

"Wait a bit," said the captain, detaining him. "Wait a bit; let's see what can be done."

He pulled the other back into his seat again and, fetching another bottle of beer from the house to stimulate invention, sat evolving schemes for his friend's relief, the nature of which reflected more credit upon his ingenuity than his wisdom.

"But, after all," he said, as Hartley made a third attempt to depart, "what is the good? The very steps we take to avoid disaster may be the ones to bring it on. While you are round here getting advice from me, Robert Vyner may be availing himself of the opportunity to propose."

Hartley made no reply. He went out and walked' up and down the garden, inspecting it. The captain, who was no gardener, hoped that the expression of his face was due to his opinion of the flowers.

"You must miss Mrs. Chinnery," said Hartley, at last.

"No," said the captain, almost explosively; "not at all. Why should I?"

"It can't be so homelike without her," said Hartley, stooping to pull up a weed or two.

"Just the same," said the other, emphatically. "We have a woman in to do the work, and it doesn't make the slightest difference to me—not the slightest."

"How is Truefitt?" inquired Hartley.

The captain's face darkened. "Peter's all right," he said, slowly. "He's not treated me—quite well," he added, after a little hesitation.

"It's natural he should neglect you a bit, as things are," said his friend.

"Neglect?" said the captain, bitterly. "I wish he would neglect me. He's turning out a perfect busybody, and he's getting as artful as they make 'em. I never would have believed it of Peter. Never."

Hartley waited.

"I met Cap'n Walsh the other night," said Trimblett; "we hadn't seen each other for years, and we went into the Golden Fleece to have a drink. You know what Walsh is when he's ashore. And he's a man that won't be beaten. He had had four tries to get a 'cocktail' right that he had tasted in New York, and while he was superintending the mixing of the fifth I slipped out. The others were all right as far as I could judge; but that's Walsh all over."

"Well?" said Hartley.

"I came home and found Peter sitting all alone in the dumps," continued the captain. "He has been very down of late, and, what was worse, he had got a bottle of whiskey on the table. That's a fatal thing to begin; and partly to keep him company, but mainly to prevent him drinking more than was good for him, I helped him finish the bottle—there wasn't much in it."

"Well?" said Hartley again, as the captain paused.

"He got talking about his troubles," said the captain, slowly. "You know how things are, and, like a fool, I tried to cheer him up by agreeing with him that Mrs. Chinnery would very likely make things easy for him by marrying again. In fact, so far as I remember, I even helped him to think of the names of one or two likely men. He said she'd make anybody as good a wife as a man could wish."

"So she would," said Hartley, looking at him with sudden interest. "In fact, I have often wondered—"

"He went on talking like that," continued the captain, hastily, "and out of politeness and good feeling I agreed with him. What else could I do? Then—I didn't take much notice of it because, as I said, he was drinking whiskey—he—he sort of wondered why—why—"

"Why you didn't offer to marry her?" interrupted Hartley.

The captain nodded. "It took my breath away," he said, impressively, "and I lost my presence of mind. Instead of speaking out plain I tried to laugh it off—just to spare his feelings—and said I wasn't worthy of her."

"What did he say?" inquired Hartley, curiously, after another long pause.

"Nothing," replied the captain. "Not a single word. He just gave me a strange look, shook my hand hard, and went off to bed. I've been uneasy in my mind ever since. I hardly slept a wink last night; and Peter behaves as though there is some mysterious secret between us. What would you do?"

Mr. Hartley took his friend's arm and paced thoughtfully up and down the garden.

"Why not marry her?" he said, at last.

"Because I don't want to," said the captain, almost violently.

"You'd be safer at sea, then," said the other.

"The ship won't be ready for sea for weeks yet," said Captain Trimblett, dolefully. "She's going on a time-charter, and before she is taken over she has got to be thoroughly overhauled. As fast as they put one thing right something else is found to be wrong."

"Go to London and stay with your children for a bit, then," said Hartley. "Give out that you are only going for a day or two, and then don't turn up till the ship sails."

The captain's face brightened. "I believe Vyner would let me go," he replied. "I could go in a few days' time, at any rate. And, by the way—Joan!"

"Eh?" said Hartley.

"Write to your brother-in-law at Highgate, and send her there for a time," said the captain. "Write and ask him to invite her. Keep her and young Vyner apart before things go too far."

"I'll see how things go for a bit," said Hartley, slowly. "It's awkward to write and ask for an invitation. And where do your ideas of fate come in?". "They come in all the time," said the captain, with great seriousness. "Very likely my difficulty was made on purpose for us to think of a way of getting you out of yours. Or it might be Joan's fate to meet somebody in London at her uncle's and marry him. If she goes we might arrange to go up together, so that I could look after her."

"I'll think it over," said his friend, holding out his hand. "I must be going."

"I'll come a little way with you," said the captain, leading the way into the house. "I don't suppose Peter will be in yet, but he might; and I've had more of him lately than I want."

He took up his hat and, opening the door, followed Hartley out into the road. The evening was warm, and they walked slowly, the captain still discoursing on fate and citing various instances of its working which had come under his own observation. He mentioned, among others, the case of a mate of his who found a wife by losing a leg, the unfortunate seaman falling an easy victim to the nurse who attended him.

"He always put it down to the effects of the chloroform," concluded the captain; "but my opinion is, it was to be."

He paused at Hartley's gate, and was just indulging in the usual argument as to whether he should go indoors for a minute or not, when a man holding a handkerchief to his bleeding face appeared suddenly round the corner of the house and, making a wild dash for the gate, nearly overturned the owner.



"It looks like our milkman!" said Hartley, recovering his balance and gazing in astonishment after the swiftly retreating figure. "I wonder what was the matter with him?"

"He would soon know what was the matter with him if I got hold of him," said the wrathful captain.

Hartley opened the door with his key, and the captain, still muttering under his breath, passed in. Rosa's voice, raised in expostulation, sounded loudly from the kitchen, and a man's voice, also raised, was heard in response.

"Sounds like my bo'sun," said the captain, staring as he passed into the front room. "What's he doing here?"

Hartley shook his head.

"Seems to be making himself at home," said the captain, fidgeting. "He's as noisy as if he was in his own house."

"I don't suppose he knows you are here," said his friend, mildly.

Captain Trimblett still fidgeted. "Well, it's your house," he said at last. "If you don't mind that lanky son of a gun making free, I suppose it's no business of mine. If he made that noise aboard my ship—"

Red of face he marched to the window and stood looking out. Fortified by his presence, Hartley rang the bell.

"Is there anybody in the kitchen?" he inquired, as Rosa answered it. "I fancied I heard a man's voice."

"The milkman was here just now," said Rosa, and, eying him calmly, departed.

The captain swung round in wrathful amazement.

"By—," he spluttered; "I've seen—well—by—b-r-r-r——— Can I ring for that d——d bo'sun o' mine?

"Certainly," said Hartley.

The captain crossed to the fireplace and, seizing the bell-handle, gave a pull that made the kitchen resound with wild music. After a decent interval, apparently devoted to the allaying of masculine fears, Rosa appeared again.

"Did you ring, sir?" she inquired, gazing at her master.

"Send that bo'sun o' mine here at once!" said the captain, gruffly.

Rosa permitted herself a slight expression of surprise. "Bo'sun, sir?" she asked, politely.

"Yes."

The girl affected to think. "Oh, you mean Mr. Walters?" she said, at last.

"Send him here," said the captain.

Rosa retired slowly, and shortly afterward something was heard brushing softly against the wall of the passage. It ceased for a time, and just as the captain's patience was nearly at an end there was a sharp exclamation, and Mr. Walters burst suddenly into the room and looked threateningly over his shoulder at somebody in the passage.

"What are you doing here?" demanded Captain Trimblett, loudly.

Mr. Walters eyed him uneasily, and with his cap firmly gripped in his left hand saluted him with the right. Then he turned his head sideways toward the passage. The captain repeated his question in a voice, if anything, louder than before.

The strained appearance of Mr. Walters's countenance relaxed.

"Come here for my baccy-box, wot I left here the other day," he said, glibly, "when you sent me."

"What were you making that infernal row about, then?" demanded the captain.

Mr. Walters cast an appealing glance toward the passage and listened acutely. "I was—grumbling because—I couldn't—find it," he said, with painstaking precision.

"Grumbling?" repeated the captain. "That ugly voice of yours was enough to bring the ceiling down. What was the matter with that man that burst out of the gate as we came in, eh?"

The boatswain's face took on a wooden expression.

"He—his nose was bleeding," he said, at last.

"I know that," said the captain, grimly; "but what made it bleed?"

For a moment Mr. Walters looked like a man who has been given a riddle too difficult for human solution. Then his face cleared again.

"He—he told me—he was object—subject to it," he stammered. "Been like it since he was a baby."

He shifted his weight to his other foot and shrugged eloquently the shoulder near the passage.

"What did you do to him?" demanded the captain, in a low, stern voice.

"Me, sir?" said Mr. Walters, with clumsy surprise. "Me, sir? I—I—all I done—all I done—was ta put a door-key down his back."

"Door-key?" roared the captain.

"To—to stop the bleeding, sir," said Mr. Walters, looking at the floor and nervously twisting his cap in his hands. "It's a old-fashioned—"

"That'll do," exclaimed the captain, in a choking voice, "that'll do. I don't want any more of your lies. How dare you come to Mr. Hartley's house and knock his milkman about, eh? How dare you? What do you mean by it?"

Mr. Walters fumbled with his cap again. "I was sitting in the kitchen," he said at last, "sitting in the kitchen—hunting 'igh and low for my baccy-box—when this 'ere miserable, insulting chap shoves his head in at the door and calls the young lady names."

"Names?" said the captain, frowning, and waving an interruption from Hartley aside. "What names?"

Mr. Walters hesitated again, and his brow grew almost as black as the captain's.

"'Rosy-lips,'" he said, at last; "and I give 'im such a wipe acrost—"

"Out you go," cried the wrathful captain. "Out you go, and if I hear your pretty little voice in this house again you'll remember it, I can tell you. D'ye hear? Scoot!"

Mr. Walters said "Thank you," and, retiring with an air of great deference, closed the door softly behind him.

"There's another of them," said Captain Trimblett subsiding into a chair. "And from little things I had heard here and there I thought he regarded women as poison. Fate again, I suppose; he was made to regard them as poison all these years for the sake of being caught by that tow-headed wench in your kitchen."



CHAPTER XII

BY no means insensible to the difficulties in the way, Joan Hartley had given no encouragement to Mr. Robert Vyner to follow up the advantage afforded him by her admission at the breakfast-table. Her father's uneasiness, coupled with the broad hints which Captain Trimblett mistook for tactfulness, only confirmed her in her resolution; and Mr. Vyner, in his calmer moments, had to admit to himself that she was right—for the present, at any rate. Meantime, they were both young, and, with the confidence of youth, he looked forward to a future in which his father's well-known views on social distinctions and fitting matrimonial alliances should have undergone a complete change. As to his mother, she merely seconded his father's opinions, and, with admiration born of love and her marriage vows, filed them for reference in a memory which had on more than one occasion been a source of great embarrassment to a man who had not lived for over fifty years without changing some of them.

Deeply conscious of his own moderation, it was, therefore, with a sense of annoyance that Mr. Robert Vyner discovered that Captain Trimblett was actually attempting to tackle him upon the subject which he considered least suitable for discussion. They were sitting in his office, and the captain, in pursuance of a promise to Hartley, after two or three references to the weather, and a long account of an uninteresting conversation with a policeman, began to get on to dangerous ground.

"I've been in the firm's service a good many years now," he began.

"I hope you'll be in as many more," said Vyner, regarding him almost affectionately.

"Hartley has been with you a long time, too," continued Trimblett, slowly. "We became chums the first time we met, and we've been friends ever since. Not just fair-weather friends, but close and hearty; else I wouldn't venture to speak to you as I'm going to speak."

Mr. Vyner looked up at him suddenly, his face hard and forbidding. Then, as he saw the embarrassment in the kindly old face before him, his anger vanished and he bent his head to hide a smile.

"Fire away," he said, cordially.

"I'm an old man," began the captain, solemnly.

"Nonsense," interrupted Robert, breezily. "Old man indeed! A man is as old as he feels, and I saw you the other night, outside the Golden Fleece, with Captain Walsh—"

"I couldn't get away from him," said the captain, hastily.

"So far as I could see you were not trying," continued the remorseless Robert. "You were instructing him in the more difficult and subtle movements of a hornpipe, and I must say I thought your elasticity was wonderful—wonderful."

"It was just the result of an argument I had with him," said the captain, looking very confused, "and I ought to have known better. But, as I was saying, I am an old man, and—"

"But you look so young," protested Mr. Vyner.

"Old man," repeated the captain, ignoring the remark. "Old age has its privileges, and one of them is to give a word in season before it is too late."

"'A stitch in time saves nine," quoted Robert, with an encouraging nod.

"And I was speaking to Hartley the other day," continued the captain. "He hasn't been looking very well of late, and, as far as I can make out, he is a little bit worried over the matter I want to speak to you about."

Robert Vyner's face hardened again for a moment. He leaned back in his chair and, playing with his watch-chain, regarded the other intently. Then he smiled maliciously.

"He told me," he said, nodding.

"Told you?" repeated the captain, in astonishment.

Mr. Vyner nodded again, and bending down pretended to glance at some papers on his table.

"Green-fly," he said, gravely. "He told me that he syringes early and late. He will clear a tree, as he thinks, and while he has gone to mix another bucket of the stuff there are several generations born. Bassett informs me that a green-fly is a grandfather before it is half an hour old. So you see it is hopeless. Quite."

Captain Trimblett listened with ill-concealed impatience. "I was thinking of something more important than green-flies," he said, emphatically.

"Yes?" said Vyner, thoughtfully.

It was evident that the old sailor was impervious to hints. Rendered unscrupulous by the other's interference, and at the same time unwilling to hurt his feelings, Mr. Vyner bethought himself of a tale to which he had turned an unbelieving ear only an hour or two before.

"Of course, I quite forgot," he said, apologetically. "How stupid of me! I hope that you'll accept my warmest congratulations and be very, very happy. I can't tell you how pleased I am. But for the life of me I can't see why it should worry Hartley."

"Congratulations?" said the captain, eying him in surprise. "What about?"

"Your marriage," replied Robert. "I only heard of it on my way to the office, and your talking put it out of my head."

"Me?" said Captain Trimblett, going purple with suppressed emotion. "My marriage? I'm not going to be married. Not at all."

"What do you mean by 'not at all?" inquired Mr. Vyner, looking puzzled. "It isn't a thing you can do by halves."

"I'm not going to be married at all," said the captain, raising his voice. "I never thought of such a thing. Who—who told you?"

"A little bird," said Robert, with a simpering air.

Captain Trimblett took out a handkerchief, and after blowing his nose violently and wiping his heated face expressed an overpowering desire to wring the little bird's neck.

"Who was it?" he repeated.

"A little bird of the name of Sellers—Captain Sellers," replied Robert. "I met him on my way here, hopping about in the street, simply brimming over with the news."

"There isn't a word of truth in it," said the agitated captain. "I never thought of such a thing. That old mischief-making mummy must be mad—stark, starin' mad."

"Dear me!" said Robert, regretfully. "He seems such a dear old chap, and I thought it was so nice to see a man of his age so keenly interested in the love-affairs of a younger generation. Anybody might have thought you were his own son from the way he talked of you."

"I'll 'son' him!" said the unhappy captain, vaguely.

"He is very deaf," said Robert, gently, "and perhaps he may have misunderstood somebody. Perhaps somebody told him you were not going to be married. Funny he shouts so, isn't it? Most deaf people speak in a very low voice."

"Did he shout that?" inquired Captain Trimblett, in a quivering voice.

"Bawled it," replied Mr. Vyner, cheerfully; "but as it isn't true, I really think that you ought to go and tell Captain Sellers at once. There is no knowing what hopes he may be raising. He is a fine old man; but perhaps, after all, he is a wee bit talkative."

Captain Trimblett, who had risen, stood waiting impatiently until the other had finished, and then, forgetting all about the errand that had brought him there, departed in haste. Mr. Vyner went to the window, and a broad smile lit up his face as he watched the captain hurrying across the bridge. With a blessing on the head of the most notorious old gossip in Salthaven, he returned to his work.

Possessed by a single idea, Captain Trimblett sped on his way at a pace against which both his age and his figure protested in vain. By the time he reached Tranquil Vale he was breathless, and hardly able to gasp his inquiry for Captain Sellers to the old housekeeper who attended the door.

"He's a-sitting in the garden looking at his flowers," she replied. "Will you go through?"

Captain Trimblett went through. His head was erect and his face and eyes blazing. A little old gentleman, endowed with the far sight peculiar to men who have followed the sea, who was sitting in a deck-chair at the bottom of the garden, glimpsed him and at once collapsed. By the time the captain reached the chair he discovered a weasel-faced, shrunken old figure in a snuff-coloured suit of clothes sunk in a profound slumber. He took him by the arms and shook him roughly.

"Yes? Halloa! What's matter?" inquired Captain Sellers, half waking.

Captain Trimblett arched his hand over his mouth and bent to an ear apparently made of yellow parchment.

"Cap'n Sellers," he said, in a stern, thrilling voice, "I've got a bone to pick with you."



The old man opened his eyes wide and sat blinking at him. "I've been asleep," he said, with a senile chuckle. "How do, Cap'n Trimblett?"

"I've got a bone to pick with you," repeated the other.

"Eh?" said Captain Sellers, putting his hand to his ear.

"A—bone—to—pick—with—you," said the incensed Trimblett, raising his voice. "What do you mean by it?"

"Eh?" said Captain Sellers, freshly.

"What do you mean by saying things about me?" bawled Trimblett. "How dare you go spreading false reports about me? I'll have the law of you."

Captain Sellers smiled vaguely and shook his head.

"I'll prosecute you," bellowed Captain Trimblett. "You're shamming, you old fox. You can hear what I say plain enough. You've been spreading reports that I'm going to—"

He stopped and looked round just in time. Attracted by the volume of his voice, the housekeeper had come to the back door, two faces appeared at the next-door windows, and the back of Mr. Peter Truefitt was just disappearing inside his summer-house.

"I know you are talking," said Captain Sellers, plaintively, "because I can see your lips moving. It's a great affliction—deafness."

He fell back in his chair again, and, with a crafty old eye cocked on the windows next door, fingered a scanty tuft of white hair on his chin and smiled weakly. Captain Trimblett controlled himself by an effort, and, selecting a piece of paper from a bundle of letters in his pocket, made signs for a pencil. Captain Sellers shook his head; then he glanced round uneasily as Trimblett, with an exclamation of satisfaction, found an inch in his waistcoat-pocket and began to write. He nodded sternly at the paper when he had finished, and handed it to Captain Sellers.

The old gentleman received it with a pleasant smile, and, extricating himself from his chair in a remarkable fashion considering his age, began to fumble in his pockets. He went through them twice, and his countenance, now lighted by hope and now darkened by despair, conveyed to Captain Trimblett as accurately as speech could have done the feelings of a man to whom all reading matter, without his spectacles, is mere dross.

"I can't find my glasses," said Captain Sellers, at last, lowering himself into the chair. Then he put his hand to his ear and turned toward his visitor. "Try again," he said, encouragingly.

Captain Trimblett eyed him for a moment in helpless wrath, and then, turning on his heel, marched back through the house, and after standing irresolute for a second or two entered his own. The front room was empty, and from the silence he gathered that Mrs. Chinnery was out. He filled his pipe, and throwing himself into an easy-chair sought to calm his nerves with tobacco, while he tried to think out his position. His meditations were interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Truefitt, and something in the furtive way that gentleman eyed him as he came into the room only served to increase his uneasiness.

"Very warm," said Truefitt.

The captain assented, and with his eyes fixed on the mantelpiece smoked in silence.

"I saw you... talking... to Captain Sellers just now," said Mr. Truefitt, after a long pause.

"Aye," said the captain. "You did."

His eyes came from the mantelpiece and fixed themselves on those of his friend. Mr. Truefitt in a flurried fashion struck a match and applied it to his empty pipe.

"I'll have the law of him," said the captain, fiercely; "he has been spreading false reports about me."

"Reports?" repeated Mr. Truefitt, in a husky voice.

"He has been telling everybody that I am about to be married," thundered the captain.

Mr. Truefitt scratched the little bit of gray whisker that grew by his ear.

"I told him," he said at last.

"You?" exclaimed the amazed captain. "But it isn't true."

Mr. Truefitt turned to him with a smile intended to be arch and reassuring. The result, owing to his nervousness, was so hideous that the captain drew back in dismay.

"It's—it's all right," said Mr. Truefitt at last. "Ah! If it hadn't been for me you might have gone on hoping for years and years, without knowing the true state of her feelings toward you."

"What do you mean?" demanded the captain, gripping the arms of his chair.

"Sellers is a little bit premature," said Mr. Truefitt, coughing. "There is nothing settled yet, of course. I told him so. Perhaps I oughtn't to have mentioned it at all just yet, but I was so pleased to find that it was all right I had to tell somebody."

"What are you—talking about?" gasped the captain.

Mr. Truefitt looked up, and by a strong effort managed to meet the burning gaze before him.

"I told Susanna," he said, with a gulp.

"Told her? Told her what?" roared the captain.

"Told her that you said you were not worthy of her," replied Mr. Truefitt, very slowly and distinctly.

The captain took his pipe out of his mouth, and laying it on the table with extreme care listened mechanically while the clock struck five.

"What did she say?" he inquired, hoarsely, after the clock had finished.

Mr. Truefitt leaned over, and with a trembling hand patted him on the shoulder.

"She said, 'Nonsense'" he replied, softly.



The captain rose and, putting on his cap—mostly over one eye—put out his hands like a blind man for the door, and blundered out into the street.



CHAPTER XIII

"MR. VYNER wants to see you, sir," said Bassett, as Hartley, coming in from a visit to the harbour, hung his hat on a peg and began to change into the old coat he wore in the office. "Mr. John; he has rung three times."

The chief clerk changed his coat again, and after adjusting his hair in the little piece of unframed glass which he had bought in the street for a penny thirty years before, hastened to the senior partner's room.

Mr. Vyner, who was rinsing his hands in a little office washstand that stood in the corner, looked round at his entrance and, after carefully drying his hands on a soft towel, seated himself at his big writing table, and, leaning back, sat thoughtfully regarding his finger-nails. His large, white, freckled hands were redolent of scented soap, and, together with his too regular teeth, his bald head, and white side-whiskers, gave him an appearance of almost aggressive cleanliness.

"I rang for you several times," he said, looking up with a frown.

"I have just come back from Wilson's," said Hartley; "you told me to see them to-day."

Mr. Vyner said "Yes," and, caressing his shaven chin in his hand, appeared to forget the other's existence.

"How long have you been with us?" he inquired at last.

"Thirty-five years, sir," said Hartley, studying his face with sudden anxiety.

"A long time," said the senior partner, dryly. "A long time."

"A pleasant time, sir," ventured the other, in a low voice.

Mr. Vyner's features relaxed, and took on—after some trouble—an appearance of benevolence.

"I hope so," he said, in patronizing tones. "I hope so. Vyner and Son have the name for being good masters. I have never heard any complaints."

He pushed his chair back and, throwing one leg over the other, looked down at his patent-leather boots. The benevolent expression had disappeared.



"Thirty-five years," he said, slowly. "H'm! I had no idea it was so long. You have—ha—no family, worth mentioning?"

"One daughter," said Hartley, his lips going suddenly dry.

"Just so. Just so," said the senior partner. He looked at his boots again. "And she is old enough to earn her own living. Or she might marry. You are in a fortunate position."

Hartley, still watching him anxiously, bowed.

"In the event, for instance," continued Mr. Vyner, in careless tones— "in the event of your retiring from the service of Vyner and Son, there is nobody that would suffer much. That is a great consideration—a very great consideration."

Hartley, unable to speak, bowed again.

"Change," continued Mr. Vyner, with the air of one uttering a new but indisputable fact—"change is good for us all. So long as you retain your present position there is, of course, a little stagnation in the office; the juniors see their way barred."

He took up a paper-knife and, balancing it between his fingers, tapped lightly with it on the table.

"Is your daughter likely to be married soon?" he inquired, looking up suddenly.

Hartley shook his head. "N-no; I don't think so," he said, thickly.

The senior partner resumed his tapping.

"That is a pity," he said at last, with a frown. "Of course, you understand that Vyner and Son are not anxious to dispense with your services—not at all. In certain circumstances you might remain with us another ten or fifteen years, and then go with a good retiring allowance. At your present age there would be no allowance. Do you understand me?"

The chief clerk tried to summon a little courage, little dignity.

"I am afraid I don't," he said, in a low voice. "It is all so sudden. I—I am rather bewildered." Mr. Vyner looked at him impatiently.

He leaned back in his chair, and watched his chief clerk closely

"I said just now," he continued, in a hard voice, "that Vyner and Son are not anxious to dispense with your services. That is, in a way, a figure of speech. Mr. Robert knows nothing of this, and I may tell you—as an old and trusted servant of the firm—that his share as a partner is at present but nominal, and were he to do anything seriously opposed to my wishes, such as, for instance—such as a—ha—matrimonial alliance of which I could not approve, the results for him would be disastrous. Do you understand?"

In a slow, troubled fashion Hartley intimated that he did. He began to enter into explanations, and was stopped by the senior partner's uplifted hand.

"That will do," said the latter, stiffly. "I have no doubt I know all that you could tell me. It is—ha—only out of consideration for your long and faithful service that I have—ha—permitted you a glimpse into my affairs—our affairs. I hope, now, that I have made myself quite clear."

He leaned back in his chair and, twisting the paper-knife idly between his fingers, watched his chief clerk closely.

"Wouldn't it be advisable—" began Hartley, and stopped abruptly at the expression on the other's face. "I was thinking that if you mentioned this to Mr. Robert—"

"Certainly not!" said Mr. Vyner, with great sharpness. "Certainly not!"

Anger at having to explain affairs to his clerk, and the task of selecting words which should cause the least loss of dignity, almost deprived him of utterance.

"This is a private matter," he said at last, "strictly between ourselves. I am master here, and any alteration in the staff is a matter for myself alone. I do not wish—in fact, I forbid you to mention the matter to him. Unfortunately, we do not always see eye to eye. He is young, and perhaps hardly as worldly wise as I could wish."

He leaned forward to replace the paper-knife on the table, and, after blowing his nose with some emphasis, put the handkerchief back in his pocket and sat listening with a judicial air for anything that his chief clerk might wish to put before him.

"It would be a great blow to me to leave the firm," said Hartley, after two ineffectual attempts to speak. "I have been in it all my life—all my life. At my age I could scarcely hope to get any other employment worth having. I have always tried to do my best. I have never—"

"Yes, yes," said the other, interrupting with a wave of his hand; "that has been recognized. Your remuneration has, I believe, been in accordance with your—ha—services. And I suppose you have made some provision?"

Hartley shook his head. "Very little," he said, slowly. "My wife was ill for years before she died, and I have had other expenses. My life is insured, so that in case of anything happening to me there would be something for my daughter, but that is about all."

"And in case of dismissal," said the senior partner, with some cheerfulness, "the insurance premium would, of course, only be an extra responsibility. It is your business, of course; but if I were—ha—in your place I should—ha—marry my daughter off as soon as possible. If you could come to me in three months and tell me—"

He broke off abruptly and, sitting upright, eyed his clerk steadily.

"That is all, I think," he said at last. "Oh, no mention of this, of course, in the office—I have no desire to raise hopes of promotion in the staff that may not be justified; I may say that I hope will not be justified."

He drew his chair to the table, and with a nod of dismissal took up his pen. Hartley went back to his work with his head in a whirl, and for the first time in twenty years cast a column of figures incorrectly, thereby putting a great strain on the diplomacy of the junior who made the discovery.

He left at his usual hour, and, free from the bustle of the office, tried to realize the full meaning of his interview with Mr. Vyner. He thought of his pleasant house and garden, and the absence of demand in Salthaven for dismissed clerks of over fifty. His thoughts turned to London, but he had grown up with Vyner and Son and had but little to sell in the open market. Walking with bent head he cannoned against a passer-by, and, looking up to apologize, caught sight of Captain Trimblett across the way, standing in front of a jeweller's window.

A tall, sinewy man in a serge suit, whom Hartley recognized as Captain Walsh, was standing by him. His attitude was that of an indulgent policeman with a refractory prisoner, and twice Hartley saw him lay hold of the captain by the coat-sleeve, and call his attention to something in the window. Anxious to discuss his affairs with Trimblett, Hartley crossed the road.

"Ah! here's Hartley," said the tall captain, with an air of relief, as Captain Trimblett turned and revealed a hot face mottled and streaked with red. "Make him listen to reason. He won't do it for me.

"What's the matter?" inquired Hartley, listlessly.

"A friend o' mine," said Captain Walsh, favouring him with a hideous wink, "a great friend o' mine, is going to be married, and I want to give him a wedding present before I go. I sail to-morrow."

"Well, ask him what he'd like," said Trimblett, making another ineffectual attempt to escape. "Don't bother me."

"I can't do that," said Walsh, with another wink; "it's awkward; besides which, his modesty, would probably make him swear that he wasn't going to be married at all. In fact, he has told me that already. I want you to choose for him. Tell me what you'd like, and no doubt it'll please him. What do you say to that cruet-stand?"

"D———m the cruet-stand!" said Trimblett, wiping his hot face.

"All right," said the unmoved Walsh, with his arm firmly linked in that of his friend. "What about a toast-rack? That one!"

"I don't believe in wedding-presents," said Trimblett, thickly. "Never did. I think it's an absurd custom. And if your friend says he isn't going to be married, surely he ought to know."

"Shyness," rejoined Captain Walsh—"pure shyness. He's one of the best. I know his idea. His idea is to be married on the quiet and without any fuss. But it isn't coming off. No, sir. Now, suppose it was you—don't be violent; I only said suppose—how would that pickle-jar strike you?"

"I know nothing about it," said Captain Trimblett, raising his voice. "Besides, I can't take the responsibility of choosing for another man. I told you so before."

Captain Walsh paid no heed. His glance roved over the contents of the window.

"Trimblett's a terror," he said in a serene voice, turning to Hartley. "I don't know what it's like walking down the High Street looking into shop-windows with a fretful porcupine; but I can make a pretty good guess."

"You should leave me alone, then," said Trimblett, wrenching his arm free. "Wedding-presents have no interest for me."

"That's what he keeps saying," said Walsh, turning to Hartley again; "and when I referred just now—in the most delicate manner—to love's young dream, I thought he'd ha' bust his boilers."

As far as Hartley could see, Captain Trimblett was again within measurable distance of such a catastrophe. For a moment he struggled wildly for speech, and then, coming to the conclusion that nothing he could say would do him any good, he swung on his heel and walked off. Hartley, with a nod to Walsh, followed.

"That idiot has been pestering me for the last half-hour," said Captain Trimblett, after walking for some distance in wrathful silence. "I wonder whether it would be brought in murder if I wrung old Sellers's neck? I've had four people this morning come up and talk to me about getting married. At least, they started talking."

"Turn a deaf ear," said Hartley.

"Deaf ear?" repeated the captain. "I wish I could. The last few days I've been wishing that I hadn't got ears. It's all Truefitt's doing. He's hinting now that I'm too bashful to speak up, and that weak-headed Cecilia Willett believes him. If you could only see her fussing round and trying to make things easy for me, as she considers, you'd wonder I don't go crazy."

"We've all got our troubles," said Hartley, shaking his head.

The indignant-captain turned and regarded him fiercely.

"I am likely to leave Vyner and Son," said the other, slowly, "after thirty-five years."

The wrath died out of the captain's face, and he regarded his old friend with looks of affectionate concern. In grim silence he listened to an account of the interview with Mr. Vyner.

"You know what it all means," he said, savagely, as Hartley finished.

"I—I think so," was the reply.

"It means," said the captain, biting his words—"it means that unless Joan is married within three months, so as to be out of Robert Vyner's way, you will be dismissed the firm. It saves the old man's pride a bit putting it that way, and it's safer, too. And if Robert Vyner marries her he will have to earn his own living. With luck he might get thirty shillings a week."

"I know," said the other.

"Get her to town as soon as possible," continued the captain, impressively. He paused a moment, and added with some feeling, "That's what I'm going to do; I spoke to Mr. Vyner about it to-day. We will go up together, and I'll look after her."

"I'll write to-night," said Hartley. "Not that it will make any difference, so far as I can see."

"It's a step in the right direction, at any rate," retorted the captain. "It keeps her out of young Vyner's way, and it shows John Vyner that you are doing your best to meet his views, and it might make him realize that you have got a little pride, too."

Partly to cheer Hartley up, and partly to avoid returning to Tranquil Vale, he spent the evening with him, and, being deterred by the presence of Miss Hartley from expressing his opinion of John Vyner, indulged instead in a violent tirade against the tyranny of wealth. Lured on by the highly interested Joan, he went still further, and in impassioned words committed himself to the statement that all men were equal, and should have equal rights, only hesitating when he discovered that she had been an unwilling listener on an occasion when he had pointed out to an offending seaman certain blemishes in his family tree. He then changed the subject to the baneful practice of eavesdropping.

By the time he reached home it was quite late. There was no moon, but the heavens were bright with stars. He stood outside for a few moments listening to the sound of voices within, and then, moved perhaps by the quiet beauty of the night, strolled down to the river and stood watching the lights of passing craft. Midnight sounded in the distance as he walked back.

The lamp was still burning, but the room was empty. He closed the door softly behind him, and stood eying, with some uneasiness, a large and untidy brown-paper parcel that stood in the centre of the table. From the crumpled appearance of the paper and the clumsily tied knots it had the appearance of having been opened and fastened up again by unskilled hands. The sense of uneasiness deepened as he approached the table and stood, with his head on one side, looking at it.

He turned at the sound of a light shuffling step in the kitchen. The door opened gently and the head of Mr. Truefitt was slowly inserted. Glimpses of a shirt and trousers, and the rumpled condition of the intruder's hair, suggested that he had newly risen from bed.

"I heard you come in," he said, in a stealthy whisper.



"Yes?" said the captain.

"There was no address on it," said Mr. Truefitt, indicating the parcel by a nod; "it was left by somebody while we were out, and on opening it we found it was for you. At least, partly. I thought I ought to tell you."

"It don't matter," said the captain, with an effort.

Mr. Truefitt nodded again. "I only wanted to explain how it was," he said. "Good-night."

He closed the door behind him, and the captain, after eying the parcel for some time, drew a clasp-knife from his pocket and with trembling fingers cut the string and stripped off the paper. The glistening metal of the largest electro-plated salad-bowl he had ever seen met his horrified gaze. In a hypnotized fashion he took out the fork and spoon and balanced them in his fingers. A small card at the bottom of the bowl caught his eye, and he bent over and read it:—

"With Hearty Congratulations and Best Wishes to Captain and Mrs. Trimblett from Captain Michael Walsh."

For a long time he stood motionless; then, crumpling the card up and placing it in his pocket, he took the bowl in his arms and bore it to his bedroom. Wrapped again in its coverings, it was left to languish on the top of the cupboard behind a carefully constructed rampart of old cardboard boxes and worn-out books.



CHAPTER XIV

MR. HARTLEY'S idea, warmly approved by Captain Trimblett, was to divulge the state of affairs to his daughter in much the same circuitous fashion that Mr. Vyner had revealed it to him. He had not taken into account, however, the difference in temper of the listeners, and one or two leading questions from Joan brought the matter to an abrupt conclusion. She sat divided between wrath and dismay.

"You—you must have misunderstood him," she said at last, with a little gasp. "He could not be so mean, and tyrannical, and ridiculous."

Her father shook his head. "There is no room for misunderstanding," he said, quietly. "Still, I have got three months to look about me, and I don't suppose we shall starve."

Miss Hartley expressed the wish—as old as woman—to give the offender a piece of her mind. She also indulged in a few general remarks concerning the obtuseness of people who were unable to see when they were not wanted, by which her father understood her to refer to Vyner junior.

"I was afraid you cared for him," he said, awkwardly.

"I?" exclaimed Joan, in the voice of one unable to believe her ears. "Oh, father, I am surprised at you; I never thought you would say such a thing."

Mr. Hartley eyed her uneasily.

"Why should you think anything so absurd?" continued his daughter, with some severity.

Mr. Hartley, with much concern, began to cite a long list of things responsible for what he freely admitted was an unfortunate mistake on his part. His daughter listened with growing impatience and confusion, and, as he showed no signs of nearing the end, rose in a dignified fashion and quitted the room. She was back, however, in a minute or two, and, putting her arm on his shoulder, bent down and kissed him.

"I had no idea you were so observant," she remarked, softly.

"I don't think I am really," said the conscientious man. "If it hadn't been for Trimblett—"

Miss Hartley, interrupting with spirit, paid a tribute to the captain that ought to have made his ears burn.

"I ought to have been more careful all these years," said her father presently. "If I had, this would not have mattered so much. Prodigality never pays—"

Joan placed her arm about his neck again. "Prodigality!" she said, with a choking laugh. "You don't know the meaning of the word. And you have had to help other people all your life. After all, perhaps you and Captain Trimblett are wrong; Mr. Vyner can't be in earnest, it is too absurd."

"Yes, he is," said Hartley, sitting up, with a sudden air of determination. "But then, so am I. I am not going to be dictated to in this fashion. My private affairs are nothing to do with him. I—I shall have to tell him so."

"Don't do anything yet," said Joan, softly, as she resumed her seat. "By the way—"

"Well?" said her father, after a pause.

"That invitation from Uncle William was your doing," continued Joan, levelling an incriminating finger at him.

"Trimblett's idea," said her father, anxious to give credit where it was due. "His idea was that if you were to go away for a time Robert Vyner would very likely forget all about you."

"I'm not afraid of that," said Joan, with a slight smile. "I mean—I mean—what business has Captain Trimblett to concern himself about my affairs?"

"I know what you mean," said Hartley, in a low voice.

He got up, and crossing to the window stood looking out on his beloved garden. His thoughts went back to the time, over twenty years ago, when he and his young wife had planted it. He remembered that in those far-off days she had looked forward with confidence to the time when he would be offered a share in the firm. For a moment he felt almost glad——

"I suppose that Captain Trimblett is right," said Joan, who had been watching him closely; "and I'll go when you like."

Her father came from the window. "Yes," he said, and stood looking at her.

"I am going out a little way," said Joan, suddenly.

Hartley started, and glanced instinctively at the clock. "Yes," he said again.

His daughter went upstairs to dress, and did her best to work up a little resentment against being turned out of her home to avoid a caller whom she told herself repeatedly she had no wish to see. Her reflections were cut short by remembering that time was passing, and that Mr. Vyner's punctuality, in the matter of these calls, was of a nature to which the office was a stranger.

She put on her hat and, running downstairs, opened the door and went out. At the gate she paused, and, glancing right and left, saw Robert Vyner approaching. He bowed and quickened his pace.

"Father is indoors," she said with a friendly smile, as she shook hands.

"It's a sin to be indoors an evening like this," said Robert, readily. "Are you going for a walk?"

"A little way; I am going to see a friend," said Joan. "Good-by."

"Good-by," said Mr. Vyner, and turned in at the gate, while Joan, a little surprised at his docility, proceeded on her way. She walked slowly, trying, in the interests of truth, to think of some acquaintance to call upon. Then she heard footsteps behind, gradually gaining upon her.



"I really think I'm the most forgetful man in Salt-haven," said Mr. Robert Vyner, in tones of grave annoyance, as he ranged alongside. "I came all this way to show your father a book on dahlias, and now I find I've left it at the office. What's a good thing for a bad memory?"

"Punish yourself by running all the way, I should think," replied Joan. "It might make you less forgetful next time."

Mr. Vyner became thoughtful, not to say grave. "I don't know so much about running," he said, slowly. "I've had an idea for some time past that my heart is a little bit affected."

Joan turned to him swiftly. "I'm so sorry," she faltered. "I had no idea; and the other night you were rolling the grass. Why didn't you speak of it before?"

Her anxiety was so genuine that Mr. Vyner had the grace to feel a little bit ashamed of himself.

"When I say that my heart is affected, I don't mean in the way of—of disease," he murmured.

"Is it weak?" inquired the girl.

Mr. Vyner shook his head.

"Well, what is the matter with it?"

Mr. Vyner sighed. "I don't know," he said, slowly. "It is not of long standing; I only noticed it a little while ago. The first time I had an attack I was sitting in my office—working. Let me see. I think it was the day you came in there to see your father. Yes, I am sure it was."

Miss Hartley walked on, looking straight before her.

"Since then," pursued Mr. Vyner, in the mournful tones suited to the subject, "it has got gradually worse. Sometimes it is in my mouth; sometimes—if I feel that I have offended anybody—it is in my boots."

Miss Hartley paid no heed.

"It is in my boots now," said the invalid, plaintively; "tight boots, too. Do you know what I was thinking just now when you looked at me in that alarmed, compassionate way?"

"Not alarmed," muttered Miss Hartley.

"I was thinking," pursued Mr. Vyner, in a rapt voice, "I was thinking what a fine nurse you would make. Talking of heart troubles put it in my mind, I suppose. Fancy being down for a month or two with a complaint that didn't hurt or take one's appetite away, and having you for a nurse!"

"I think that if you are going to talk nonsense—" began Joan, half stopping.

"I'm not," said the other, in alarm, "I've quite finished; I have, indeed."

He stole a glance at the prim young, figure by his side, and his voice again developed a plaintive note. "If you only knew what it was like," he continued, "to be mewed up in an office all day, with not a soul to speak to, and the sun shining, perhaps you'd make allowances."

"I saw you down by the harbour this morning," said the girl.

"Harbour?" said the other, pretending to reflect—"this morning?"

Joan nodded. "Yes; you were lounging about—in the sunshine—smoking a cigarette. Then you went on to the Indian Chief and stood talking for, oh, quite a long time to Captain Trimblett. Then—"

"Yes?" breathed Mr. Vyner, as she paused in sudden confusion. "What did I do next?"

Miss Hartley shook her head. "I only saw you for a moment," she said.

Mr. Vyner did not press the matter; he talked instead on other subjects, but there was a tenderness in his voice for which Miss Hartley told herself her own thoughtlessness was largely responsible. She trembled and walked a little faster. Then, with a sense of relief, she saw Captain Trimblett approaching them. His head was bent in thought, and his usual smile was missing as he looked up and saw them.

"I wanted to see you," he said to Joan. "I'm off to London to-morrow."

"To-morrow!" repeated the girl, in surprise.

"Twelve-thirty train," said the captain, looking shrewdly from one to the other. "I'm just off home; there are one or two matters I must attend to before I go, and I wanted to talk to you."

"I will come with you," said Joan, quickly. "I haven't seen Mrs. Chinnery for a long time." She nodded to Mr. Vyner and held out her hand. "Good-by."

"Good-by," said that gentleman. He shook hands reluctantly, and his amiable features took on a new expression as he glanced at the captain.

"Try and cheer him up," he said, with an air of false concern. "It's only for a little while, cap'n; you'll soon be back and—you know the old adage?"

"Yes," said the captain, guardedly.

"Although, of course, there are several," said Mr. Vyner, thoughtfully. "I wonder whether we were thinking of the same one?"

"I dare say," said the other, hastily.

"I was thinking of 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder'—of the Indian Chief" said the ingenuous Robert. "Was that the one you were thinking of?"

The captain's reply was inaudible as he turned and bore off Miss Hartley. The young man stood for some time watching them, and, as Joan and her burly companion disappeared round the corner, shook his head and set off home.

"He'll sober down as he gets older," said the captain, after they had proceeded some way in silence. "I'm glad I met you. Your father told me you were going to London, and I was thinking we might go up together. It's odd we should both be going. Quite a coincidence."

"In more ways than one," said Joan. "Father told me you had arranged it together. I quite know why I am going."

The captain coughed.

"I know why you are going, too," said Joan.

The captain coughed again, and muttered something about "children" and "business."

"And if I'm going to-morrow I had better get back and pack," continued the girl.

"Plenty of time in the morning," said the captain. "It'll make the time pass. It's a mistake to stow your things away too soon—a great mistake."

"I would sooner do it, though," said Joan, pausing. 170

"You come along to Tranquil Vale," said Captain Trimblett, with forced joviality. "Never mind about your packing. Stay to supper, and I'll see you home afterward."

Miss Hartley eyed him thoughtfully.

"Why?" she inquired.

"Pleasure of your company," said the captain.

"Why?" said Miss Hartley again.

The captain eyed her thoughtfully in his turn.

"I—I haven't told 'em I'm going yet," he said, slowly. "It'll be a little surprise to them, perhaps. Miss Willett will be there. She's a silly thing. She and Peter might make a duet about it If you are there——"

"I'll take care of you," said Joan, with a benevolent smile. "You'll be safe with me. What a pity you didn't bring your little troubles to me at first!"

The captain turned a lurid eye upon her, and then, realizing that silence was more dignified and certainly safer than speech, said nothing. He walked on with head erect and turned a deaf ear to the faint sounds which Miss Hartley was endeavouring to convert into coughs.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse