THE same day that Flower and his friends visited the theatre, Captain Barber gave a small and select tea-party. The astonished Mrs. Banks had returned home with her daughter the day before to find the air full of rumours about Captain Barber and his new housekeeper. They had been watched for hours at a time from upper back windows of houses in the same row, and the professional opinion of the entire female element was that Mrs. Church could land her fish at any time she thought fit.
"Old fools are the worst of fools," said Mrs. Banks, tersely, as she tied her bonnet strings; "the idea of Captain Barber thinking of marrying at his time of life."
"Why shouldn't he?" enquired her daughter.
"Why because he's promised to leave his property to Fred and you, of course," snapped the old lady; "if he marries that hussy it's precious little you and Fred will get."
"I expect it's mostly talk," said her daughter calmly, as she closed the street door behind her indignant parent. "People used to talk about you and old Mr. Wilders, and there was nothing in it. He only used to come for a glass of your ale."
This reference to an admirer who had consumed several barrels of the liquor in question without losing his head, put the finishing touch to the elder lady's wrath, and she walked the rest of the way in ominous silence.
Captain Barber received them in the elaborate velvet smoking-cap with the gold tassel which had evoked such strong encomiums from Mrs. Church, and in a few well-chosen words—carefully rehearsed that afternoon—presented his housekeeper.
"Will you come up to my room and take your things off?" enquired Mrs. Church, returning the old lady's hostile stare with interest.
"I'll take mine off down here, if Captain Barber doesn't mind," said the latter, subsiding into a chair with a gasp. "Him and me's very old friends."
She unfastened the strings of her bonnet, and, taking off that article of attire, placed it in her lap while she unfastened her shawl. She then held both out to Mrs. Church, briefly exhorting her to be careful.
"Oh, what a lovely bonnet," said that lady, in false ecstasy. "What a perfect beauty! I've never seen anything like it before. Never!"
Captain Barber, smiling at the politeness of his housekeeper, was alarmed and perplexed at the generous colour which suddenly filled the old lady's cheeks.
"Mrs. Banks made it herself," he said, "she's very clever at that sort of thing."
"There, do you know I guessed as much," said Mrs. Church, beaming; "directly I saw it, I said to myself: 'That was never made by a milliner. There's too much taste in the way the flowers are arranged.'"
Mrs. Banks looked at her daughter, in a mute appeal for help.
"I'll take yours up, too, shall I?" said the amiable housekeeper, as Mrs. Banks, with an air of defying criticism, drew a cap from a paper-bag and put it on.
"I'll take mine myself, please," said Miss Banks, with coldness.
"Oh, well, you may as well take them all then," said Mrs. Church, putting the mother's bonnet and shawl in her arms. "I'll go and see that the kettle boils," she said, briskly.
She returned a minute or two later with the teapot, and setting chairs, took the head of the table.
"And how's the leg?" enquired Captain Barber, misinterpreting Mrs. Banks' screwed-up face.
"Which one?" asked Mrs. Banks, shortly.
"The bad 'un," said the captain.
"They're both bad," said Mrs. Banks more shortly than before, as she noticed that Mrs. Church had got real lace in her cuffs and was pouring out the tea in full consciousness of the fact.
"Dear, dear," said the Captain sympathetically.
"Swollen?" enquired Mrs. Church, anxiously.
"Swelled right out of shape," exclaimed Captain Barber, impressively; "like pillars almost they are."
"Poor thing," said Mrs. Church, in a voice which made Mrs. Banks itch to slap her. "I knew a lady once just the same, but she was a drinking woman."
Again Mrs. Banks at a loss for words, looked at her daughter for assistance.
"Dear me, how dreadful it must be to know such people," said Mrs. Banks, shivering.
"Yes," sighed the other. "It used to make me feel sorry for her—they were utterly shapeless, you know. Horrid!"
"That's how Mrs. Banks' are," said the Captain, nodding sagely. "You look 'ot, Mrs. Banks. Shall I open the winder a bit?"
"I'll thank you not to talk about me like that, Captain Barber," said Mrs. Banks, the flowers on her hat trembling.
"As you please, ma'am," said Captain Barber, with a stateliness which deserved a better subject. "I was only repeating what Dr. Hodder told me in your presence."
Mrs. Banks made no reply, but created a diversion by passing her cup up for more tea; her feelings, when Mrs. Church took off the lid of the teapot and poured in about a pint of water before helping her, belonging to that kind known as in-describable.
"Water bewitched, and tea begrudged," she said, trying to speak jocularly.
"Well, the fourth cup never is very good, is it," said Mrs. Church, apologetically. "I'll put some more tea in, so that your next cup'll be better."
As a matter of fact it was Mrs. Banks' third cup, and she said so, Mrs. Church receiving the correction with a polite smile, more than tinged with incredulity.
"It's wonderful what a lot of tea is drunk," said Captain Barber, impressively, looking round the table.
"I've heard say it's like spirit drinking," said Mrs. Church; "they say it gets such a hold of people that they can't give it up. They're just slaves to it, and they like it brown and strong like brandy."
Mrs. Banks, who had been making noble efforts, could contain herself no longer. She put down the harmless beverage which had just been handed to her, and pushed her chair back from the table.
"Are you speaking of me, young woman?" she asked, tremulous with indignation.
"Oh, no, certainly not," said Mrs. Church, in great distress. "I never thought of such a thing. I was alluding to the people Captain Barber was talking of—regular tea-drinkers, you know."
"I know what you mean, ma'am," said Mrs. Banks fiercely.
"There, there," said Captain Barber, ill-advisedly.
"Don't you say 'there, there,' to me, Captain Barber, because I won't have it," said the old lady, speaking with great rapidity; "if you think that I'm going to sit here and be insulted by—by that woman, you're mistaken."
"You're quite mistook, Mrs. Banks," said the Captain, slowly. "I've heard everything she said, and, where the insult comes in, I'm sure I don't know. I don't think I'm wanting in common sense, ma'am."
He patted the housekeeper's hand kindly, and, in full view of the indignant Mrs. Banks, she squeezed his in return and gazed at him affectionately. There is nothing humourous to the ordinary person in a teacup, but Mrs. Banks, looking straight into hers, broke into a short, derisive laugh.
"Anything the matter, ma'am?" enquired Cap-tain Barber, regarding her somewhat severely.
Mrs. Banks shook her head. "Only thoughts," she said, mysteriously.
It is difficult for a man to object to his visitors finding amusement in their thoughts, or even to enquire too closely into the nature of them. Mrs. Banks, apparently realising this, laughed again with increased acridity, and finally became so very amused that she shook in her chair.
"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself, ma'am," said Captain Barber, loftily.
With a view, perhaps, of giving his guest further amusement he patted the housekeeper's hand again, whereupon Mrs. Banks' laughter ceased, and she sat regarding Mrs. Church with a petrified stare, met by that lady with a glance of haughty disdain.
"S'pose we go into the garden a bit?" suggested Barber, uneasily. The two ladies had eyed each other for three minutes without blinking, and his own eyes were watering in sympathy.
Mrs. Banks, secretly glad of the interruption, made one or two vague remarks about going home, but after much persuasion, allowed him to lead her into the garden, the solemn Elizabeth bringing up in the rear with a hassock and a couple of cushions.
"It's a new thing for you having a housekeeper," observed Mrs. Banks, after her daughter had returned to the house to assist in washing up.
"Yes, I wonder I never thought of it before," said the artful Barber; "you wouldn't believe how comfortable it is."
"I daresay," said Mrs. Banks, grimly.
"It's nice to have a woman about the house," continued Captain Barber, slowly, "it makes it more homelike. A slip of a servant-gal ain't no good at all."
"How does Fred like it?" enquired Mrs. Banks.
"My ideas are Fred's ideas," said Uncle Barber, somewhat sharply. "What I like he has to like, naturally."
"I was thinking of my darter," said Mrs. Banks, smoothing down her apron majestically. "The arrangement was, I think, that when they were, married they was to live with you?"
Captain Barber nodded acquiescence.
"Elizabeth would never live in a house with that woman, or any other woman, as housekeeper in it," said the mother.
"Well, she won't have to," said the old man; "when they marry and Elizabeth comes here, I sha'n't want a housekeeper—I shall get rid of her."
Mrs. Banks shifted in her chair, and gazed thoughtfully down the garden. "Of course my idea was for them to wait till I was gone," she said at length.
"Just so," replied the other, "and more's the pity."
"But Elizabeth's getting on and I don't seem to go," continued the old lady, as though mildly surprised at Providence for its unaccountable delay; "and there's Fred, he ain't getting younger."
Captain Barber puffed at his pipe. "None of us are," he said profoundly.
"And Fred might get tired of waiting," said Mrs. Banks, ruminating.
"He'd better let me hear him," said the uncle, fiercely; "leastways, o' course, he's tired o' waiting in a sense. He'd like to be married."
"There's young Gibson," said Mrs. Banks in a thrilling whisper.
"What about him?" enquired Barber, surprised at her manner.
"Comes round after Elizabeth," said Mrs. Banks.
"No!" said Captain Barber, blankly.
Mrs. Banks pursed up her lips and nodded darkly.
"Pretends to come and see me," said Mrs. Banks; "always coming in bringing something new for my legs. The worst of it is he ain't always careful what he brings. He brought some new-fangled stuff in a bottle last week, and the agonies I suffered after rubbing it in wouldn't be believed."
"It's like his impudence," said the Captain.
"I've been thinking," said Mrs. Banks, nodding her head with some animation, "of giving Fred a little surprise. What do you think he'd do if I said they might marry this autumn?"
"Jump out of his skin with joy," said Captain Barber, with conviction. "Mrs. Banks, the pleasure you've given me this day is more than I can say."
"And they'll live with you just the same?" said Mrs. Banks.
"Certainly," said the Captain.
"They'll only be a few doors off then," said Mrs. Banks, "and it'll be nice for you to have a woman in the house to look after you."
Captain. Barber nodded softly. "It's what I've been wanting for years," he said, heartily.
"And that huss—husskeeper," said Mrs. Banks, correcting herself—"will go?"
"O' course," said Captain Barber. "I sha'n't want no housekeeper with my nevy's wife in the house. You've told Elizabeth, I s'pose?"
"Not yet," said Mrs. Banks, who as a matter of fact had been influenced by the proceedings of that afternoon to bring to a head a step she had hitherto only vaguely contemplated.
Elizabeth, who came down the garden again, a little later, accompanied by Mrs. Church, received the news stolidly. A feeling of regret, that the attention of the devoted Gibson must now cease, certainly occurred to her, but she never thought of contesting the arrangements made for her, and accepted the situation with a placidity which the more ardent Barber was utterly unable to understand.
"Fred'll stand on his.'ed with joy," the unsophisticated mariner declared, with enthusiasm.
"He'll go singing about the house," declared Mrs. Church.
Mrs. Banks regarded her unfavourably.
"He's never said much," continued Uncle Barber, in an exalted strain; "that ain't Fred's way. He takes arter me; he's one o' the quiet ones, one o' the still deep waters what always feels the most. When I tell 'im his face'll just light up with joy."
"It'll be nice for you, too," said Mrs. Banks, with a side glance at the housekeeper; "you'll have somebody to look after you and take an interest in you, and strangers can't be expected to do that even if they're nice."
"We shall have him standing on his head, too," said Mrs. Church, with a bright smile; "you're turning everything upside down, Mrs. Banks."
"There's things as wants altering," said the old lady, with emphasis. "There's few things as I don't see, ma'am."
"I hope you'll live to see a lot more," said Mrs. Church, piously.
"She'll live to be ninety," said Captain Barber, heartily.
"Oh, easily," said Mrs. Church.
Captain Barber regarding his old friend saw her face suffused with a wrath for which he was utterly unable to account. With a hazy idea that something had passed which he had not heard, he caused a diversion by sending Mrs. Church indoors for a pack of cards, and solemnly celebrated the occasion with a game of whist, at which Mrs. Church, in partnership with Mrs. Banks, either through sheer wilfulness or absence of mind, contrived to lose every game.