Captain Flower, learning through the medium of Tim that the coast was clear, came on deck at Limehouse, and took charge of his ship with a stateliness significant of an uneasy conscience. He noticed with growing indignation that the mate's attitude was rather that of an accomplice than a subordinate, and that the crew looked his way far oftener than was necessary or desirable.
"I told her we were going to France," said the mate, in an impressive whisper.
"Her?" said Flower, curtly. "Who?"
"The lady you didn't want to see," said Fraser, restlessly.
"You let your ideas run away with you, Jack," said Flower, yawning. "It wasn't likely I was going to turn out and dress to see any girl you liked to invite aboard."
"Or even to bawl at them through the speaking-trumpet," said Fraser, looking at him steadily.
"What sort o'looking girl was she?" enquired Flower, craning his neck to see what was in front of him.
"Looked like a girl who meant to find the man she wanted, if she spent ten years over it," said the mate grimly. "I'll bet you an even five shillings, cap'n, that she finds this Mr. Robinson before six weeks are out—whatever his other name is."
"Maybe," said Flower, carelessly.
"It's her first visit to the Foam, but not the last, you mark my words," said Fraser, solemnly. "If she wants this rascal Robinson——"
"What?" interrupted Flower, sharply.
"I say if she wants this rascal Robinson," repeated the mate, with relish, "she'll naturally come where she saw the last trace of him."
Captain Flower grunted.
"Women never think," continued Fraser, judicially, "or else she'd be glad to get rid of such a confounded scoundrel."
"What do you know about him?" demanded Flower.
"I know what she told me," said Fraser; "the idea of a man leaving a poor girl in a cake-shop and doing a bolt. He'll be punished for it, I know. He's a thoughtless, inconsiderate fellow, but one of the best-hearted chaps in the world, and I guess I'll do the best I can for him."
Flower grinned safely in the darkness. "And any little help I can give you, Jack, I'll give freely," he said, softly. "We'll talk it over at breakfast."
The mate took the hint, and, moving off, folded his arms on the taffrail, and, looking idly astern, fell into a reverie. Like the Pharisee, he felt thankful that he was not as other men, and dimly pitied the skipper and his prosaic entanglements, as he thought of Poppy. He looked behind at the dark and silent city, and felt a new affection for it, as he reflected that she was sleeping there.
The two men commenced their breakfast in silence, the skipper eating with a zest which caused the mate to allude impatiently to the last break-fasts of condemned men.
"Shut the skylight, Jack," said the skipper, at length, as he poured out his third cup of coffee.
Fraser complied, and resuming his seat gazed at him with almost indecent expectancy. The skipper dropped some sugar into his coffee, and stirring it in a meditative fashion, sighed gently.
"I've been making a fool of myself, Jack," he said, at length. "I was always one to be fond of a little bit of adventure, but this goes a little too far, even for me."
"But what did you get engaged to her for?" enquired Fraser.
Flower shook his head. "She fell violently in love with me," he said, mournfully. "She keeps the Blue Posts up at Chelsea. Her father left it to her. She manages her step-mother and her brother and everybody else. I was just a child in her hands. You know my easy-going nature."
"But you made love to her," expostulated the mate.
"In a way, I suppose I did," admitted the other. "I don't know now whether she could have me up for breach of promise, because when I asked her I did it this way. I said, 'Will you be Mrs. Robinson?' What do you think?"
"I should think it would make it harder for you," said Fraser. "But didn't you remember Miss Banks while all this was going on?"
"In a way," said Flower, "yes—in a way. But after a man's been engaged to a woman nine years, it's very easy to forget, and every year makes it easier. Besides, I was only a boy when I was engaged to her."
"Twenty-eight," said Fraser.
"Anyway, I wasn't old enough to know my own mind," said Flower, "and my uncle and old Mrs. Banks made it up between them. They arranged everything, and I can't afford to offend the old man. If I married Miss Tipping—that's the Blue Posts girl—he'd leave his money away from me; and if I marry Elizabeth, Miss Tipping'll have me up for breach of promise—if she finds me."
"If you're not very careful," said Fraser, impressively, "you'll lose both of 'em."
The skipper leaned over the table, and glanced carefully round. "Just what I want to do," he said, in a low voice. "I'm engaged to another girl."
"What?" cried the mate, raising his voice. "Three?"
"Three," repeated the skipper. "Only three," he added, hastily, as he saw a question trembling on the other's lips.
"I'm ashamed of you," said the latter, severely; "you ought to know better."
"I don't want any of your preaching, Jack," said the skipper, briskly; "and, what's more, I won't have it. I deserve more pity than blame."
"You'll want all you can get," said Fraser, ominously. "And does the other girl know of any of the others?"
"Of either of the others—no," corrected Flower. "Of course, none of them know. You don't think I'm a fool, do you?"
"Who is number three?" enquired the mate suddenly.
"Poppy Tyrell," replied the other.
"Oh," said Fraser, trying to speak unconcernedly; "the girl who came here last evening."
Flower nodded. "She's the one I'm going to marry," he said, colouring. "I'd sooner marry her than command a liner. I'll marry her if I lose every penny I'm going to have, but I'm not going to lose the money if I can help it. I want both."
The mate baled out his cup with a spoon and put the contents into the saucer.
"I'm a sort of guardian to her," said Flower. "Her father, Captain Tyrell, died about a year ago, and I promised him I'd look after her and marry her. It's a sacred promise."
"Besides, you want to," said Fraser, by no means in the mood to allow his superior any credit in the matter, "else you wouldn't do it."
"You don't know me, Jack," said the skipper, more in sorrow than in anger.
"No, I didn't think you were quite so bad," said the mate, slowly. "Is—Miss Tyrell—fond of you?"
"Of course she is," said Flower, indignantly; "they all are, that's the worst of it. You were never much of a favourite with the sex, Jack, were you?"
Fraser shook his head, and, the saucer being full, spooned the contents slowly back into the cup again.
"Captain Tyrell leave any money?" he enquired.
"Other way about," replied Flower. "I lent him, altogether, close on a hundred pounds. He was a man of very good position, but he took to drink and lost his ship and his self-respect, and all he left behind was his debts and his daughter."
"Well, you're in a tight place," said Fraser, "and I don't see how you're going to get out of it. Miss Tipping's got a bit of a clue to you now, and if she once discovers you, you're done. Besides, suppose Miss Tyrell finds anything out?"
"It's all excitement," said Flower, cheerfully. "I've been in worse scrapes than this and always got out of 'em. I don't like a quiet life. I never worry about things, Jack, because I've noticed that the things people worry about never happen."
"Well, if I were you, then," said the other, emphasizing his point with the spoon, "I should just worry as much as I could about it. I'd get up worrying and I'd go to bed worrying. I'd worry about it in my sleep."
"I shall come out of it all right," said Flower. "I rather enjoy it. There's Gibson would marry Elizabeth like a shot if she'd have him; but, of course, she won't look at him while I'm above ground. I have thought of getting somebody to tell Elizabeth a lot of lies about me."
"Why, wouldn't the truth do?" enquired the mate, artlessly.
The skipper turned a deaf ear. "But she wouldn't believe a word against me," he said, with mournful pride, as he rose and went on deck. "She trusts me too much."
From his knitted brows, as he steered, it was evident, despite his confidence, that this amiable weakness on the part of Miss Banks was causing him some anxiety, a condition which was not lessened by the considerate behaviour of the mate, who, when any fresh complication suggested itself to him, dutifully submitted it to his commander.
"I shall be all right," said Flower, confidently, as they entered the river the following afternoon and sailed slowly along the narrow channel which wound its sluggish way through an expanse of mud-banks to Seabridge.
The mate, who was suffering from symptoms hitherto unknown to him, made no reply. His gaze wandered idly from the sloping uplands, stretching away into the dim country on the starboard side, to the little church-crowned town ahead, with its out-lying malt houses and neglected, grass-grown quay, A couple of moribund ship's boats lay rotting in the mud, and the skeleton of a fishing-boat completed the picture. For the first time perhaps in his life, the landscape struck him as dull and dreary.
Two men of soft and restful movements appeared on the quay as they approached, and with the slowness characteristic of the best work, helped to make them fast in front of the red-tiled barn which served as a warehouse. Then Captain Flower, after descending to the cabin to make the brief shore-going toilet necessary for Seabridge society, turned to give a last word to the mate.
"I'm not one to care much what's said about me, Jack," he began, by way of preface.
"That's a good job for you," said Fraser, slowly.
"Same time let the hands know I wish 'em to keep their mouths shut," pursued the skipper; "just tell them it was a girl that you knew, and I don't want it talked about for fear of getting you into trouble. Keep me out of it; that's all I ask."
"If cheek will pull you through," said Fraser, with a slight display of emotion, "you'll do. Perhaps I'd better say that Miss Tyrell came to see me, too. How would you like that?"
"Ah, it would be as well," said Flower, heartily. "I never thought of it."
He stepped ashore, and at an easy pace walked along the steep road which led to the houses above. The afternoon was merging into evening, and a pleasant stillness was in the air. Menfolk working in their cottage gardens saluted him as he passed, and the occasional whiteness of a face at the back of a window indicated an interest in his affairs on the part of the fairer citizens of Seabridge. At the gate of the first of an ancient row of cottages, conveniently situated within hail of The Grapes, The Thorn, and The Swan, he paused, and walking up the trim-kept garden path, knocked at the door.
It was opened by a stranger—a woman of early middle age, dressed in a style to which the inhabitants of the row had long been unaccustomed. The practised eye of the skipper at once classed her as "rather good-looking."
"Captain Barber's in the garden," she said, smiling. "He wasn't expecting you'd be up just yet."
The skipper followed her in silence, and, after shaking hands with the short, red-faced man with the grey beard and shaven lip, who sat with a paper on his knee, stood watching in blank astonishment as the stranger carefully filled the old man's pipe and gave him a light. Their eyes meeting, the uncle winked solemnly at the nephew.
"This is Mrs. Church," he said, slowly; "this is my nevy, Cap'n Fred Flower."
"I should have known him anywhere," declared Mrs. Church; "the likeness is wonderful."
Captain Barber chuckled—loudly enough for them to hear.
"Me and Mrs. Church have been watering the flowers," he said. "Give 'em a good watering, we have."
"I never really knew before what a lot there was in watering," admitted Mrs. Church.
"There's a right way and a wrong in doing everything," said Captain Barber, severely; "most people chooses the wrong. If it wasn't so, those of us who have got on, wouldn't have got on."
"That's very true," said Mrs. Church, shaking her head.
"And them as haven't got on would have got on," said the philosopher, following up his train of thought. "If you would just go out and get them things I spoke to you about, Mrs. Church, we shall be all right."
"Who is it?" enquired the nephew, as soon as she had gone.
Captain Barber looked stealthily round, and, for the second time that evening, winked at his nephew.
"A visitor?" said Flower.
Captain Barber winked again, and then laughed into his pipe until it gurgled.
"It's a little plan o' mine." he said, when he had become a little more composed. "She's my housekeeper."
"Housekeeper?" repeated the astonished Flower.
"Bein' all alone here," said Uncle Barber, "I think a lot. I sit an' think until I get an idea. It comes quite sudden like, and I wonder I never thought of it before."
"But what did you want a housekeeper for?" enquired his nephew. "Where's Lizzie?"
"I got rid of her," said Captain Barber. "I got a housekeeper because I thought it was time you got married. Now do you see?"
"No," said Flower, shortly.
Captain Barber laughed softly and, relighting his pipe which had gone out, leaned back in his chair and again winked at his indignant nephew.
"Mrs. Banks," he said, suggestively.
His nephew gazed at him blankly.
Captain Barber, sighing good-naturedly at his dulness, turned his chair a bit and explained the situation.
"Mrs. Banks won't let you and Elizabeth marry till she's gone," said he.
His nephew nodded.
"I've been at her ever so long," said the other, "but she's firm. Now I'm trying artfulness. I've got a good-looking housekeeper—she's the pick o' seventeen what all come here Wednesday morning—and I'm making love to her."
"Making love to her," shouted his nephew, gazing wildly at the venerable bald head with the smoking-cap resting on one huge ear.
"Making love to her," repeated Captain Barber, with a satisfied air. "What'll happen? Mrs. Banks, to prevent me getting married, as she thinks, will give her consent to you an' Elizabeth getting tied up."
"Haven't you ever heard of breach of promise cases?" asked his nephew, aghast.
"There's no fear o' that," said Captain Barber, confidently. "It's all right with Mrs. Church she's a widder. A widder ain't like a young girl she knows you don't mean anything."
It was useless to argue with such stupendous folly; Captain Flower tried another tack.
"And suppose Mrs. Church gets fond of you," he said, gravely. "It doesn't seem right to trifle with a woman's affections like that."
"I won't go too far," said the lady-killer in the smoking-cap, reassuringly.
"Elizabeth and her mother are still away, I suppose?" said Flower, after a pause.
His uncle nodded.
"So, of course, you needn't do much love-making till they come back," said his nephew; "it's waste of time, isn't it?"
"I'll just keep my hand in," said Captain Barber, thoughtfully. "I can't say as I find it disagreeable. I was always one to take a little notice of the sects."
He got up to go indoors. "Never mind about them," he said, as his nephew was about to follow with the chair and his tobacco-jar; "Mrs. Church likes to do that herself, and she'd be disappointed if anybody else did it."
His nephew followed him to the house in silence, listening later on with a gloomy feeling of alarm to the conversation at the supper-table. The rôle of gooseberry was new to him, and when Mrs. Church got up from the table for the sole purpose of proving her contention that Captain Barber looked better in his black velvet smoking-cap than the one he was wearing he was almost on the point of exceeding his duties.
He took the mate into his confidence the next day, and asked him what he thought of it. Fraser said that it was evidently in the blood, and, being pressed with some heat for an explanation, said that he meant Captain Barber's blood.
"It's bad, any way I look at it," said Flower; "it may bring matters between me and Elizabeth to a head, or it may end in my uncle marrying the woman."
"Very likely both," said Fraser, cheerfully. "Is this Mrs. Church good-looking?"
"I can hardly say," said Flower, pondering.
"Well, good-looking enough for you to feel inclined to take any notice of her?" asked the mate.
"When you can talk seriously," said the skipper, in great wrath, "I'll be pleased to answer you. Just at present I don't feel in the sort of temper to be made fun of."
He walked off in dudgeon, and, until they were on their way to London again, treated the mate with marked coldness. Then the necessity of talking to somebody about his own troubles and his uncle's idiocy put the two men on their old footing. In the quietness of the cabin, over a satisfying pipe, he planned out in a kindly and generous spirit careers for both the ladies he was not going to marry. The only thing that was wanted to complete their happiness, and his, was that they should fall in with the measures proposed.