It is one of the first laws of domestic economy that the largest families must inhabit the smallest houses—a state of things which is somewhat awkward when the heads wish to discuss affairs of state. Some preserve a certain amount of secrecy by the use of fragmentary sentences eked out by nods and blinks and by the substitution of capital letters for surnames; a practice likely to lead to much confusion and scandal when the names of several friends begin with the same letter. Others improve the family orthography to an extent they little dream of by spelling certain vital words instead of pronouncing them, some children profiting so much by this form of vicarious instruction that they have been known to close a most interesting conversation by thoughtlessly correcting their parents on a point of spelling.
There were but few secrets in the Wheeler family, the younger members relating each other's misdeeds quite freely, and refuting the charge of tale-bearing by keeping debit and credit accounts with each other in which assets and liabilities could usually be balanced by simple addition. Among the elders, the possession of a present secret merely meant a future conversation.
On this day the juniors were quite certain that secret proceedings of a highly interesting nature were in the air. Miss Tyrell having been out since the morning, Mrs. Wheeler was looking forward anxiously to her return with the view of holding a little private conversation with her, and the entire Wheeler family were no less anxious to act as audience for the occasion. Mr. Bob Wheeler had departed to his work that morning in a condition which his family, who were fond of homely similes, had likened to a bear with a sore head. The sisterly attentions of Emma Wheeler were met with a boorish request to keep her paws off; and a young Wheeler, rash and inexperienced in the way of this weary world, who publicly asked what Bob had "got the hump about," was sternly ordered to finish his breakfast in the washhouse. Consequently there was a full meeting after tea, and when Poppy entered, it was confidently expected that proceedings would at once open with a speech from the sofa.
"Take the children outside a bit, Belinda," said her mother, after the tea things had been removed.
"Got my 'ome lessons to do," said Belinda.
"Do 'em when you come back," said Mrs. Wheeler.
"Sha'n't 'ave time," replied Belinda, taking her books from a shelf; "they'll take me all the evening. We've all got a lot of 'ome lessons to-night."
"Never mind, you take 'em out," persisted Mrs. Wheeler.
"When I want to go out," said Belinda, rebelliously, "you won't let me."
"Do as your mother tells you," commanded Mr. Wheeler, with excellent sternness.
"I want a little quiet," said Mrs. Wheeler; "a little fresh air will do you good, Peter."
"I'll go and smoke my pipe in the washhouse," said Mr. Wheeler, who had his own notions of healthful recreation.
"Take your pipe outside," said Mrs. Wheeler, significantly. "Did you 'ear what I said, Belinda?"
Belinda rose noisily and gathering up her untidy books, thrust them back in a heap on the shelf, and putting on her hat stood at the door commenting undutifully upon her parents, and shrilly demanding of the small Wheelers whether they were coming or whether she was to stay there all night. She also indulged in dreary prognostications concerning her future, and finally driving her small fry before her, closed the street door with a bang which induced Mrs. Wheeler to speak of heredity and Mr. Wheeler's sister Jane's temper.
"Where are you going, Poppy?" she enquired, as the girl rose to follow the dutiful Mr. Wheeler. "I want to speak to you a moment."
The girl resumed her seat, and taking up a small garment intended for the youngest Wheeler but two, or the youngest but one, whichever it happened to fit best, or whichever wanted it first, stitched on in silence. "I want to speak to you about Bob," said Mrs. Wheeler, impressively. "Of course you know he never keeps anything from his mother. He 'as told me about all the gells he has walked out with, and though, of course, he 'as been much run after, he is three-and-twenty and not married yet. He told me that none of 'em seemed to be worthy of him."
She paused for so long that Poppy Tyrell looked up from her work, said "Yes," in an expressionless manner, and waited for her to continue.
"He's been a good son," said the mother, fondly; "never no trouble, always been pertickler, and always quite the gentleman. He always smokes his cigar of a Sunday, and I remember the very first money 'e ever earned 'e spent on a cane with a dog's 'ed to it."
"Yes," said Poppy again.
"The gells he's 'ad after 'im wouldn't be believed," said Mrs. Wheeler, shaking her head with a tender smile at a hole in the carpet. "Before you came here there was a fresh one used to come in every Sunday almost, but 'e couldn't make up his mind. We used to joke him about it."
"He's very young still," said Poppy.
"He's old enough to be married," said Mrs. Wheeler. "He's told me all about you, he never has no secrets from 'is mother. He told me that he asked you to walk out with 'im last night and you said 'No'; but I told 'im that that was only a gell's way, and that you'd give 'im another answer soon."
"That was my final answer," said Poppy Tyrell, the corners of her mouth hardening. "I shall never say anything else."
"All young gells say that at first," said Mrs. Wheeler, making praiseworthy efforts to keep her temper. "Wheeler 'ad to ask me five times."
"I meant what I said," said Poppy, stitching industriously. "I shall never change my mind."
"It's early days to ask you perhaps, so soon after Captain Flower's death," suggested Mrs. Wheeler.
"That has nothing at all to do with it," said the girl. "I shall not marry your son, in any case."
"Not good enough for you, I suppose?" said the other, her eyes snapping. "In my time beggars couldn't be choosers."
"They can't choose much now," said Poppy, in a low voice; "but as you know I'm going to a situation on Monday, I shall soon be able to pay off my debt to you: though, of course, I can't repay you for your kindness in letting me live here when I had nowhere else to go."
"It isn't me you owe it to," said Mrs. Wheeler. "I'm sure I couldn't 'ave afforded to do it whatever Wheeler liked to say if Bob hadn't come forward and paid for you."
"Bob?" cried Poppy, springing to her feet and dropping her work onto the floor.
"Yes, Bob," said the other, melodramatically; "'im what isn't good enough to be your husband."
"I didn't know," said the girl, brokenly; "you should have told me. I would sooner starve. I would sooner beg in the streets. I will go at once."
"I daresay you know where to go, so I sha'n't worry about you," replied Mrs. Wheeler. "You quiet ones are generally the worst."
"I am sorry," murmured Poppy; "I did not mean to be rude, or ungrateful."
"You're very kind," said Mrs. Wheeler. "Is Mr. Fraser up in London?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said the girl, pausing at the door.
"Sure to be, though," said Mrs. Wheeler, significantly; "you won't 'ave to starve, my dear. But, there, you know that—some people's pride is a funny thing."
Miss Tyrell regarded her for a moment in silence and then quitted the room, coming back again from half-way up the stairs to answer a knock at the door. She opened it slowly, and discovered to her horror Mr. Fraser standing upon the doorstep, with a smile which was meant to be propitiatory, but only succeeded in being uneasy.
"Is that Mr. Fraser?" demanded Mrs. Wheeler's voice, shrilly.
"That's me," said Fraser, heartily, as he shook hands with Poppy and entered the room.
"I thought you wouldn't be far off," said Mrs. Wheeler, in an unpleasant voice. "Poppy's been expecting you."
"I didn't know that Mr. Fraser was coming," said Poppy, as the helpless man looked from one to the other. "I suppose he has come to see you. He has not come to see me."
"Yes, I have," said Mr. Fraser, calmly. "I wanted—"
But Miss Tyrell had gone quietly upstairs, leaving him to gaze in a perturbed fashion at the sickly and somewhat malicious face on the sofa.
"What's the matter?" he enquired.
"Nothing," said Mrs. Wheeler.
"Isn't Miss Tyrell well?"
"So far as I'm permitted to know the state of 'er 'ealth, she is," was the reply.
"Mr. Wheeler well?" enquired Fraser, after a long pause.
"Very well, I thank you," said Mrs. Wheeler.
"And Miss Wheeler, and Bob, and the whole pa—— and all of them?" said Fraser.
"All very well," said Mrs. Wheeler.
His stock of conversation being exhausted he sat glancing uncomfortably round the littered room, painfully conscious that Mrs. Wheeler was regarding him with a glance that was at once hostile and impatient. While he was wondering whether Miss Tyrell had gone upstairs for a permanency, he heard her step on the stairs, and directly afterwards she appeared at the door with her hat and jacket on.
"Good-bye, Mrs. Wheeler," she said, gravely.
"Good-bye," said Mrs. Wheeler, in the same way that a free-speaking woman would have said "Good-riddance."
The girl's eyes rested for a moment on Fraser. Then she bade him good-bye, and, opening the door, passed into the street.
Fraser looked at Mrs. Wheeler in perplexity, then, jumping up suddenly as Poppy passed the window, he crossed to the door.
"Good-bye, Mrs. Wheeler," he shouted, and, vaguely conscious that something was wrong somewhere, dashed off in pursuit.
Poppy Tyrell, her face pale and her eyes burning, quickened her pace as she heard hurrying footsteps behind her.
"I just wanted a few words with you, Miss Tyrell," said Fraser, somewhat breathlessly.
"I—I am going on business," said Poppy, in a quiet voice.
"I didn't understand Mrs. Wheeler just now," said Fraser. "I hope you didn't mind my calling?"
"Oh, no," said the girl; "call as often as you like, but this evening I'm busy. Come to-morrow."
This hospitality over-reached itself. "Have you left the Wheelers?" he enquired, suddenly.
"Yes," said Poppy, simply.
"What's the good of telling me to call, then?" enquired Fraser, bluntly.
"They will be pleased to see you, I'm sure," said Miss Tyrell.
"Where are you going?" asked Fraser.
Miss Tyrell made no reply, except to favour him with a glance which warned him not to repeat the question, and he walked beside her for some time in silence.
"Good-bye," she said, suddenly.
"I'm not going," said Fraser, with artless surprise.
"Mr. Fraser," said the girl, reddening with anger, "will you please understand that I wish to be alone?"
"No," said Mr. Fraser, doggedly.
"A gentleman would not have to have half as much said to him," said Poppy, trembling.
"Well, thank God, I'm not a gentleman," said Fraser, calmly.
"If I had a father or a brother you would not behave like this," said the girl.
"If you had a father or a brother they would do it instead," said Fraser, gently; "it's just because you've got nobody else that I'm looking after you."
Miss Tyrell, who had softened slightly, stiffened again with temper.
"You?" she said, hotly. "What right have you to trouble yourself about me?"
"No right at all," said Fraser, cheerfully, "but I'm going to do it. If you've left the Wheelers, where are you going?"
Miss Tyrell, gazing straight in front of her, made no reply.
"Won't you tell me?" persisted the other.
"I'm not going anywhere," said Poppy, stopping suddenly and facing him. "I've got a new berth next Monday, and to-morrow morning I am going to see them to ask them to employ me at once."
"And to-night?" suggested the other.
"I shall go for a walk," said the girl. "Now that you know all about my concerns, will you please go?"
"Walk?" repeated Fraser. "Walk? What, all night? You can't do it—you don't know what it's like. Will you let me lend you some money? You can repay me as soon as you like."
"No, thank you."
"For my sake?" he suggested.
Miss Tyrell raised her eyebrows.
"I'm a bad walker," he explained.
The reply trembling on Miss Tyrell's lips realised that it was utterly inadequate to the occasion, and remained unspoken. She walked on in silence, apparently oblivious of the man by her side, and when he next spoke to her made no reply. He glanced at a clock in a baker's shop as they passed, and saw that it was just seven.
In this sociable fashion they walked along the Commercial Road and on to Aldgate, and then, passing up Fenchurch Street, mingled with the crowd thronging homewards over London Bridge. They went as far as Kennington in this direction, and then the girl turned and walked back to the City. Fraser, glancing at the pale profile beside him, ventured to speak again.
"Will you come down to Wapping and take my cabin for the night?" he asked, anxiously. "The mate's away, and I can turn in fo'ard—you can have it all to yourself."
Miss Tyrell, still looking straight in front of her, made no reply, but with another attempt to shake off this pertinacious young man of the sea quickened her pace again. Fraser fell back.
"If I'm not fit to walk beside you, I'll walk behind," he said, in a low voice; "you won't mind that?"
In this way they walked through the rapidly thinning streets. It was now dark, and most of the shops had closed. The elasticity had departed from Miss Tyrell's step, and she walked aimlessly, noting with a sinking at the heart the slowly passing time. Once or twice she halted from sheer weariness, Fraser halting too, and watching her with a sympathy of which Flower would most certainly have disapproved if he had seen it.
At length, in a quiet street beyond Stratford, she not only stopped, but turned and walked slowly back. Frascr turned too, and his heart beat as he fancied that she intended to overtake him. He quickened his pace in time with the steps behind him until they slackened and faltered; then he looked round and saw her standing in the centre of the pathway with her head bent. He walked back slowly until he stood beside her, and saw that she was crying softly. He placed his hand on her arm.
"Go away," she said, in a low voice.
"I shall not."
"You walked away from me just now."
"I was a brute," said Frascr, vehemently.
The arm beneath his hand trembled, and he drew it unresistingly through his own. In the faint light from the lamp opposite he saw her look at him.
"I'm very tired," she said, and leaned on him trustfully. "Were you really going to leave me just now?"
"You know I was not," said Fraser, simply.
Miss Tyrell, walking very slowly, pondered. "I should never have forgiven you if you had," she said, thoughtfully. "I'm so tired, I can hardly stand. You must take me to your ship."
They walked slowly to the end of the road, but the time seemed very short to Fraser. As far as he was concerned he would willingly have dispensed with the tram which they met at the end and the antique four-wheeler in which they completed their journey to the river. They found a waterman's skiff at the stairs, and sat side by side in the stern, looking contentedly over the dark water, as the waterman pulled in the direction of the Swallow, which was moored in the tier. There was no response to their hail, and Fraser himself, clambering over the side with the painter, assisted Miss Tyrell, who, as the daughter of one sailor and the guest of another, managed to throw off her fatigue sufficiently to admire the lines of the small steamer.
Fraser conducted her to the cabin, and motioning her to a seat on the locker, went forward to see about some supper. He struck a match in the forecastle and scrutinised the sleepers, and coming to the conclusion that something which was lying doubled up in a bunk, with its head buried in the pillow, was the cook, shook it vigourously.
"Did you want the cook, sir?" said a voice from another bunk.
"Yes," said Fraser, sharply, as he punched the figure again and again.
"Pore cookie ain't well, sir," said the seaman, sympathetically; "'e's been very delikit all this evenin'; that's the worst o' them teetotalers."
"All right; that'll do," said the skipper, sharply, as he struck another match, and gave the invalid a final disgusted punch. "Where's the boy?"
A small, dirty face with matted hair protruded from the bunk above the cook and eyed him sleepily.
"Get some supper," said Fraser, "quick."
"Supper, sir?" said the boy with a surprised yawn.
"And be quick about it," said the skipper, "and wash you face first and put a comb through your hair. Come, out you get."
The small sleeper sighed disconsolately, and, first extending one slender leg, clambered out and began to dress, yawning pathetically as he did so.
"And some coffee," said Fraser, as he lit the lamp and turned to depart.
"Bill," said the small boy, indignantly.
"Wot d'ye want?" said the seaman.
"'Elp me to wake that drunken pig up," said the youth, pointing a resentful finger at the cook. "I ain't goin' to do all the work."
"You leave 'im alone," said Bill, ferociously. The cook had been very liberal that evening, and friendship is friendship, after all.
"That's what a chap gets by keeping hisself sober," said the youthful philosopher, as he poured a little cold tea out of the kettle on his handkerchief and washed himself. "Other people's work to do."
He went grumbling up to the galley, and, lighting some sticks, put the kettle on, and then descended to the cabin, starting with genuine surprise as he saw the skipper sitting opposite a pretty girl, who was leaning back in her seat fast asleep.
"Cook'll be sorry 'e missed this," he murmured, as he lighted up and began briskly to set the table. He ran up on deck again to see how his fire was progressing, and thrusting his head down the forecastle communicated the exciting news to Bill.
To Fraser sitting watching his sleeping guest it seemed like a beautiful dream. That Poppy Tyrell should be sitting in his cabin and looking to him as her only friend seemed almost incredible. A sudden remembrance of Flower subdued at once the ardour of his gaze, and he sat wondering vaguely as to the whereabouts of that erratic mariner until his meditations were broken by the entrance of the boy with the steaming coffee, followed by Bill bearing a couple of teaspoons.
"I nearly went to sleep," said Poppy, as Fraser roused her gently.
She took off her hat and jacket, and Fraser, taking them from her, laid them reverently in his bunk. Then Poppy moved farther along the seat, and, taking some coffee pronounced herself much refreshed.
"I've been very rude to you," she said, softly; "but Mrs. Wheeler was very unkind, and said that of course I should go to you. That was why."
"Mrs. Wheeler is—" began Fraser, and stopped suddenly.
"Of course it was quite true," said Poppy, healthfully attacking her plate; "I did have to come to you."
"It was rather an odd way of coming," said Fraser; "my legs ache now."
The girl laughed softly, and continued to laugh. Then her eyes moistened, and her face became troubled. Fraser, as the best thing to do, made an excuse and went up on deck, to the discomfort of Bill and the boy, who were not expecting him.
Poppy was calm again by the time he returned, and thanked him again softly as he showed her her bunk and withdrew for the night. Bill and the boy placed their berths at his disposal, but he declined them in favour of a blanket in the galley, where he sat up, and slept but ill all night, and was a source of great embarrassment to the cook next morning when he wanted to enter to prepare breakfast.
Poppy presided over that meal, and it, and the subsequent walk to discover lodgings, are among Fraser's dearest memories. He trod on air through the squalid roads by her side, and, the apartments having been obtained, sat on the arm of the armchair—the most comfortable part—and listened to her plans.
"And you won't go away without letting me know?" he said, as he rose to depart.
Miss Tyrell shook her head, and her eyes smiled at him. "You know I won't," she said, softly. "I don't want to."
She saw him to the door, and until he had quitted the gate, kept it hospitably open. Fraser, with his head in a whirl, went back to the Swallow.