When the tide is up and the sun shining, Sea-bridge has attractions which make the absence of visitors something of a marvel to the inhabitants. A wandering artist or two, locally known as "painter-chaps," certainly visit it, but as they usually select subjects for their canvases of which the progressive party of the town are heartily ashamed, they are regarded as spies rather than visitors, and are tolerated rather than welcomed. To a citizen who has for a score of years regretted the decay of his town, the spectacle of a stranger gloating over its ruins and perpetuating them on canvas is calculated to excite strong doubts as to his mental capacity and his fitness to be at large.
On a summer's evening, when the tide is out and the high ground the other side of the river is assuming undefinable shadows, the little town has other charms to the meditative man. Such life as there is, is confined to the taverns and the two or three narrow little streets which comprise the town. The tree-planted walk by the river is almost deserted, and the last light of the dying day is reflected in the pools and mud left by the tide.
Captain Nibletts, slowly pacing along and smoking his pipe in the serenity of the evening, felt these things dimly. His gaze wandered from a shadowy barge crawling along in mid-channel to the cheery red blind of Boatman's Arms, and then to the road in search of Captain Barber, for whom he had been enquiring since the morning. A stout lady stricken in years sat on a seat overlooking the river, and the mariner, with a courteous salutation, besought her assistance.
"I've been looking for him myself," said Mrs. Banks, breathlessly, "and now my Elizabeth's nowhere to be found. She's been out since two o'clock this afternoon."
Nibletts pointed up the road with his pipe. "I see her only ten minutes ago with young Gibson," he said, slowly.
"Which way was they going?" demanded the old lady, rising.
"I don't know," said Nibletts. "I don't think they knew either an' what's more, I don't think they cared."
The old lady resumed her seat, and, folding her hands in her lap, gazed in a troubled fashion across the river, until the figure of another woman coming along the walk brought her back to every-day affairs.
"Why, it's Mrs. Church," said Nibletts. "He's nowhere to be found," he shouted, before she reached them.
"He?" said the widow, slowly. "Who?"
"Cap'n Barber," replied the mariner.
"Oh, indeed," she said, politely. "Good evening, Mrs. Banks."
Mrs. Banks returned the courtesy. "It looks as though Cap'n Barber has run away," she said, with attempted jocularity.
Mrs. Church smiled a superior smile. "He is not far off," she said, quietly.
"Resting, I suppose," said Mrs. Banks, with intent.
Mrs. Church took higher ground. "Of course this sad affair has upset him terribly," she said, gravely. "His is a faithful nature, and he can't for-get. How is Miss Banks bearing up?"
Mrs. Banks, looking up suspiciously, said, "Wonderful, considering," and relapsed into silence until such time as her foe should give her an opening. Mrs. Church took a seat by her side, and Nibletts, with a feeling of something strained in the atmosphere, for which he could not account, resumed his walk.
He was nearly up to Captain Barber's house when he saw a figure come out of the lane by the side, and after glancing furtively in all directions make silently for the door. The watching Nibletts quickening his pace, reached it at almost the same moment.
"Mrs. Banks is looking for you," he said, as he followed him into the parlour.
Captain Barber turned on him a weary eye, but made no reply.
"And Mrs. Church, too; at least, I think so,' continued the other.
"Cap'n Nibletts," said the old man, slowly, "I 'ope you'll never live long enough to be run arter in the way I'm run arter."
The astonished mariner murmured humbly that he didn't think it was at all likely, and also that Mrs. Nibletts would probably have a word or two to say in the matter.
"From the moment I get up to the moment I get to bed, I'm run arter," continued the hapless Barber. "Mrs. Church won't let me go out of 'er sight if she can help it, and Mrs. Banks is as bad as she is. While they was saying nice things to each other this morning in a nasty way I managed to slip out."
"Well, why not get rid o' Mrs. Church?" said the simple Nibletts.
"Rid o' Mrs. Church!" repeated Captain Barber, aghast; "why don't you get rid o' your face, Nibletts?" he asked, by way of comparison merely.
"Because I don't want to," replied the other, flushing.
"Because you can't" said Captain Barber, emphatically. "And no more can't I get rid of 'er. You see, I 'appened to take a little notice of 'er."
"Oh, well," said the other, and sighed and shook his head discouragingly.
"I took a little notice of 'er," repeated Captain Barber, "and then to spare her feelings I 'ad to sort o' let 'er know that I could never marry for Fred's sake, d'ye see? Then on top of all that poor Fred goes and gets drownded."
"But have you promised to marry her?" asked Nibletts, with a cunning look.
"Of course I've not," rejoined Captain Barber, testily; "but when you know as much about wimmen as I do, you'll know that that's got nothing to do with it. It gets took for granted. Mrs. Church's whole manner to me now is that of a engaged young person. If she was sitting here now she'd put 'er hand on top o' mine."
"Not before me?" said Nibletts, in a shocked voice.
"Before the Prince of Wales and all the Royal Family," replied Captain Barber, with conviction. "You've no idea how silly and awkward it makes me feel."
"Here she comes," said Nibletts, in a low voice, "and Mrs. Banks and her daughter, too."
Captain Barber coughed and, sitting upright, strove to look unconcerned as the three ladies came into the room and expressed their pleasure at seeing him.
"I couldn't think what 'ad happened to you," said Mrs. Banks, as she sank panting into a chair, and, unfastening her bonnet-strings, sat regarding him with her hands on her knees.
"I knew he was all right," said Mrs. Church, folding her hands and regarding him with her head on one side; "if anything happened to him I should know if he was a hundred miles away."
She sat down by Captain Barber, and laying her hand upon his, pressed it affectionately. The captain, a picture of misery, exchanged a significant glance with Nibletts, and emitted an involuntary groan.
"Don't take on so," said Mrs. Banks, compassionately. "Do you know, I've got a feeling that poor Fred has been saved!"
"That's my feeling, too," said Captain Barber, in a firm voice.
"It's very likely," said Captain Nibletts, slowly.
"What's easier than for him to have been picked up by a passing vessel, and carried off goodness knows where?" enquired Mrs. Banks, with a glance evenly distributed between her daughter and the housekeeper.
"I heard of a man once who fell overboard," said Captain Nibletts, softly, "and he turned up safe and sound twenty years arter."
"Married man?" enquired Miss Banks, softly.
"He was," said the captain, with the doggedness of a witness under cross-examination.
Mrs. Church turned her eyes upwards. "Fancy the joyful meeting of husband and wife," she said, sentimentally.
"She died just two days afore he turned up," said Captain Nibletts, simply.
There was a frigid silence during which the three ladies, sinking for a time their differences, eyed him with every sign of strong disapprobation, Mrs. Banks giving vent to a sniff which disparaged the whole race of man.
"As for men who fall overboard and get picked up and turn up months afterwards," continued the faithful Nibletts, "why, every sailorman knows scores of 'em."
"I knowed seven," said Captain Barber, with the exactness of untruth. "They didn't seem to think much of it, didn't seem to think it anything unusual, I mean."
"It ain't," said Nibletts, stoutly.
The room relapsed into silence, and Captain Nibletts, finding Mrs. Church's gaze somewhat trying got up to admire a beautiful oil painting on glass in a black frame which hung over the mantelpiece, and after a few encomiums on his host's taste, bade him good-bye.
"I'm coming with you," said Barber, rising; "I've got some business to talk about."
"What, out again," said Mrs. Church, tenderly, "after being on your poor feet all day?"
Captain Barber murmured something inaudible in reply, and taking his hat from the sideboard went out with Nibletts, For a time they trudged along in silence until the latter, who wanted to go to his own home, ventured to ask where they were going.
"All places are alike to me," replied the old man, dismally. "I only want to get away, that's all. She an' Mrs. Banks are sure to have a turn and try and drag me into it."
He clasped his hands behind his back, and, pausing at a turn of the road, looked down upon the little quay below. Out in the river two or three small craft rode at anchor, while a bauble of cheerful voices from a distant boat only served to emphasise the stillness of the evening.
"Looks quiet," said Captain Nibletts, after watching him for some time.
"I'm thinking of my nevy," said Captain Barber, slowly. "I remember me an' my sister bringing 'im here when he was three year old, and I 'ad to carry him all the way back. He put his arms round my neck, and I can smell peppermint-ball now."
Captain Nibletts, who did not quite follow him, attributed the outrage to a young couple who had just passed.
"I'm all alone now," continued Captain Barber, unheeding, "but I don't want to marry. Why not? 'Cos I'm too old, and because it's like beginning where other people leave off."
"Well, make up your mind and tell her so," said the other.
"It wouldn't do any good," said Barber, dolefully.
"Tell her to-night," said Nibletts, "Come into the Thorn and have a glass, just so as to warm you up to it, and then get it over."
Captain Barber made no reply, but turning round led the way slowly back to the inn, and after acknowledging the respectful salutations of the crew of the schooner who were in the bar by ordering the landlady to fill their pots again, led the way into the parlour and began to charge himself for the interview.
That he did not underestimate the difficulties of the ordeal was evident by the extent of his orders, and Captain Nibletts noted with satisfaction as the evening wore on that the old man's spirits were improving considerably. Twice he sent out instructions to the bar to have the men's mugs replenished, a proceeding which led to Mr. William Green being sent by the grateful crew to express their feelings in a neat little speech.
"A very nice-spoken young fellow," said Captain Barber, approvingly.
He had some more whisky, and at the sounds of a step-dance on the brick floor of the adjoining taproom, took up his glass, and, followed by Nibletts, watched the proceedings from the doorway. Mr. William Green, who worshipped wealth and position, sidled up to him, and with much deference discussed the dancing.
He made such a favourable impression that Cap-tain Barber, who was in a semi-maudlin mood, took him by the arm to the now deserted parlour, and ensconcing him in a corner, told him all his troubles and warned him of the pitfalls which beset the feet of good-looking bachelors. Mr. Green was sympathy itself, and for some time sat silently evolving various schemes for the deliverance of his patron.
Captain Nibletts returning to the parlour a little later found them in close consultation. A ray of hope illuminated the somewhat heavy features of the old man, and, catching sight of the captain, he beckoned him to his side.
"Me an' this young man have thought of something," he said, in a voice rendered husky with excitement.
"He's goin' to call at my place," continued the other, "and tell Mrs. Church that I've been took unwell at the Cauliflower at Mapleden, and want to see her, and he's to bring her there at once. Arter they've started I go in and get to bed, and earthquakes wouldn't wake me, let alone a knock at the door. D'ye see?"
"What good's that goin' to do?" enquired the astonished listener.
"Next day," said Barber, in thrilling tones, as he placed his forefinger on the other's arm, "I refuse to believe her story. Green, here, denies of it too, and sez 'e saw her at the gate and asked her to go for a walk with him."
Captain Nibletts fingered his beard. "It don't seem to be the sort of trick to play on a woman," he expostulated, "an' it's four miles to Mapleden. What's she goin' to do?"
"That's 'er lookout," observed Captain Barber, with much composure, "all I know is she won't wake me. I daresay she'll come on to your place. Wimmen wot sets their caps at men wot don't want 'em set at 'em must put up with the consequences."
"You give me half an hour, sir," said Mr. Green, impressively, "and then you can come on as soon as you like. You'll find the coast clear by then."
He bit off the end of the cigar presented by Captain Barber, and, thanking him effusively as he struck a match for him, quitted the inn. The two captains waited restlessly for the time specified, and then, finishing their drinks, went outside, and, standing in the light which streamed from the windows and doorway of the Thorn, gazed at the dark road beyond.
"It looks all right," said Barber, shaking hands. "Good-night."
"Good luck," said Nibletts.
The other, not without a little trepidation, walked towards his house, and opening the door, after a little difficulty, stood safely inside. The house was quiet and in darkness, except for the lamp which stood on the parlour-table, and after a moment's survey he proceeded to shut up for the night.
As a rule he was careless about such matters, but to-night no gaoler saw to his bolts and bars more carefully than he did. He returned to the parlour, having made all secure, and lighting his pipe for a few final whiffs before retiring, winked at himself solemnly in the glass. Then fearful that the housekeeper might return sooner than was expected, he blew out the lamp and smoked in the dark.
He knocked out his pipe at last, and walked slowly and ponderously upstairs. He grinned again as he passed the door of the housekeeper's room, and then, with a catch in his breath, clutched heavily at the banister as a soft female voice bade him "Good-night."
Captain Barber, surprised beyond all measure, was unable to speak.
"I thought you'd got lost again," said the voice, playfully. "Good-night."
"Good-night," rejoined the other, in hollow tones. "Mrs. Banks stay long?" he enquired, pausing at his door.
"She went just about half an hour before you came in," replied the housekeeper. "Elizabeth went soon after you did, but her mother stopped on. She went very suddenly when she did go, and was very mysterious about it. Not that I want to know her business."
"Mysterious?" faltered the captain.
"Some young man came to the door," continued the innocent woman, "and they were talking in a low voice. I don't know who it was, because Mrs. Banks let me see quite plainly that she didn't want me to know. Then she just called out 'Goodnight,' and went off as fast as you please."
Captain Barber supported himself for a moment by the handle of his door, and then in a dazed way blundered into his room. He was a good-hearted man in a way, and pushing open the little casement he thrust out his head and sighed with genuine feeling as he thought of his poor old friend plodding slowly to Mapleden. Incidentally he felt a little bit sorry for Mr. William Green.
He was awaked next morning after a somewhat restless night by the sounds of an unwonted noise downstairs, and lay in amazement listening to a hum of excited voices below. Knuckles rapped on his door and the voice of Mrs. Church, much agitated, requested him to rise and attire himself.
He was out of bed at that and looking from the window. A small group of children stood in the road outside the house, while Joe and the cook with their arms on the fence were staring hard at his parlour window, occasionally varying the proceedings by a little conversation with the people next door, who were standing in their front garden. In a state of considerable agitation he hurriedly dressed himself and went downstairs.
His sitting-room was full. Mrs. Banks, looking very tired, was sitting in the arm-chair taking smelling-salts at intervals, and staring fiercely at Mr. William Green, who was huddled in a corner smiling sheepishly behind Captain Nibletts and Ben.
"What's all this?" demanded Captain Barber, in a trembling voice, as his eye met Mr. Green's.
Several of Mrs. Banks's relatives began speaking at once, assisted by some of the neighbours. The substance of their remarks was that a man. whose polite tongue hid the falseness of his heart, had lured Mrs. Banks for a four-mile walk to Mapleden late the preceding night under the pretence that Captain Barber, who was evidently hale and hearty, was lying ill at the Cauliflower. They demanded his immediate dismissal from the ship and his exemplary punishment by the law.
"What 'ave you got to say to this?" demanded Captain Barber of the villain, in tones of righteous indignation tempered by fear.
"It isn't true, sir," said Mr. Green, respectfully. "I didn't say anything of the kind."
"Wot did you say, then?" enquired Captain Barber, in a voice which the company thought far too mild for the occasion.
"She was standing at the door as I passed," said Mr. Green, nervously, "and I asked her to go for a walk with me."
"Lawk-a-mussy me!" screamed the horrified Mrs. Banks.
"We went for a nice little stroll," continued the graceless Mr. Green, "and then I s'pose she found it was later than she thought, and she began to make a fuss."
"Me, at my time o' life?" demanded the indignant Mrs. Banks of the audience.
"You did make a fuss," said Mr. Green.
"O' course I made a fuss when I found out how I had been deceived. You were here when he came, Mrs. Church, weren't you?"
"I would rather not say anything about it," said the housekeeper, freezingly.
"I insist upon your speaking," said the old lady, getting very red in the face.
"Well, I don't know much about it," said the housekeeper, looking round appealingly. "I heard you speaking to somebody at the door in a low voice."
"It wasn't a low voice," interrupted Mrs. Banks, sharply.
"Well, I couldn't hear what you were saying, and then when you went outside and I asked you whether you were going home you said 'yes,' didn't you?"
"Are you sure she said she was going home?" said Mrs. Banks's brother-in-law, in an awful voice, as the old lady sank back in her chair.
"Yes," said Mrs. Church, with a fine show of reluctance.
There was a dead silence, during which they all heard the smelling-salts drop.
"If this man said Captain Barber was ill at Mapleden, why didn't you tell me?" continued Mrs. Church, in a mildly aggrieved voice. "I think if anybody ought to have known, it should have been me."
"It's all a fuss about nothing," said Mr. Green, brazenly. "She stayed out a bit too late, and then wanted to put it all on to me."
A good Samaritan picked up the smelling-salts and held them to the victim's nose, while her scandalized relatives discussed the situation in hurried whispers. The brother-in-law eyed her with bewildered disapproval, and in the disjointed accents peculiar to surprise was heard to make use of the words "friskiness" and "gallivanting" and "old enough to know better."
Her relatives' remarks, however, caused Mrs. Banks comparatively little pain. Her attention was fully taken up by the housekeeper, in whose satisfied smile she saw a perfect recognition of the reasons for her action of the previous evening. She got up from her chair, and with a stateliness which her brother-in-law thought somewhat misplaced, took her daughter's arm, and slowly left the room, her departure being the signal for a general breakup. By twos and threes the company drifted slowly up the road in her wake, while Captain Barber, going in the other direction, accompanied Captain Nibletts and party as far as the schooner, in order that he might have the opportunity of saying a few well-chosen words to Mr. Green on the subject of precipitancy.
"If it 'adn't been for me tipping 'im the wink, so as to let him know what line 'e was to go on when I came down, where should I 'ave been?" he demanded of Captain Nibletts.
And that astonished mariner, with a helpless shake of his head, gave it up.