A FINE October gave way to a damp and dreary November; a month of mists and fogs, in which shipping of all sizes and all nations played blind man's buff at sea, and felt their way, mere voices crying in the wilderness, up and down the river. The Swallow, with a soul too large for its body, cannoned a first-class battleship off the Medway, and with a thoughtfulness too often lacking at sea, stood by and lowered a boat, whereupon the captain, who had been worrying about his paint, invented, in his surprise, a brand-new adjective for the use of senior officers of the British Navy.
Over three months had elapsed since the Golden Cloud set out on her long voyage; three months during which Fraser, despite his better sense, had been a constant visitor of Poppy Tyrell's, and had assisted her in the search for fresh lodgings to avoid the attentions of Mr. Bob Wheeler, who, having discovered her whereabouts, had chosen to renew his suit.
On two or three occasions the girl had accompanied him on board the steamer, and at such times it was Mr. Green's pleasure to wink in a frenzied manner at Mr. Joe Smith and to make divers bets of pints of beer, which made that thirsty soul half crazy to listen to. He also said that any one with half an eye could see what was in the wind.
"And a very nice couple they'll make, too," said Joe, solemnly.
"An' what about Cap'in Flower?" suggested Mr. Green; "she's evident the young lady he was talking about that night, and Tommy's heard 'em speaking about him once or twice, too."
Joe shuffled uneasily. He was beginning to entertain a considerable regard for his new skipper, dating from the time he discovered that his sinister suspicions concerning him were unfounded. He had moreover conceived a dog-like admiration for Poppy Tyrell.
"That's 'is business," he said, shortly; "judging by what you 'eard in that pub, Cap'in Flower knows where to put 'is hand on one or two more if 'e wants 'em."
He walked off in dudgeon, ignoring a question by Mr. Green as to whose foot kep' the door open, and felt dimly the force of the diction that no man can serve two masters; and, with a view to saving himself worry, dismissed the matter from his mind until some weeks afterwards it was forcibly revived by the perusal of a newspaper which the engineer had brought on board. Without giving himself time for due reflection, he ran up on deck and approached the skipper.
"Golden Cloud's in the paper as overdue, sir," he said, respectfully.
"What is?" enquired Fraser, sharply.
"Golden Cloud, sir; boat Cap'in Flower is on," said Joe, slowly.
Fraser regarded him sternly. "What do you know about it?" he asked.
Joe looked round helplessly. At such moments Willyum Green was a tower of strength, but at the present time he was fooling about helping the ship's cat to wash itself.
"What do you know about it?" repeated Fraser.
"Will-yum told me, sir," said Joe, hastily.
Mr. Green being summoned, hastily put down the cat and came aft, while Joe, with a full confidence in his friend's powers, edged a few feet away, and listened expectantly as the skipper interrogated him.
"Yes, sir, I did tell Joe, sir," he answered, with a reproachful glance at that amateur. "I met Cap'in Flower that evening again, late, an' he told me himself. I'm sorry to see by this morning's paper that his ship is overdue."
"That'll do," said Fraser, turning away.
The men moved off slowly, Mr. Green's reproaches being forestalled by the evidently genuine compliments of Joe.
"If I'd got a 'ead like you, Will-yum," he said, enviously, "I'd be a loryer or a serlicitor, or some-think o' the kind."
Days passed and ran into weeks, but the Golden Cloud was still unspoken. Fraser got a paper every day when ashore, but in vain, until at length one morning, at Bittlesea, in the news columns of the Daily Telegraph, the name of the missing ship caught his eye. He folded the paper hurriedly, and breathed hard as he read:—
"Missing ship, Golden Cloud.
"Rio Janeiro, Thursday.
"The barque Foxglove, from Melbourne to Rio Janeiro, has just arrived with five men, sole survivors of the ship Golden Cloud, which they report as sunk in collision with a steamer, name unknown, ten weeks out from London. Their names are Smith, Larsen, Petersen, Collins and Gooch. No others saved."
In a dazed fashion he read the paragraph over and over again, closely scanning the names of the rescued men. Then he went up on deck, and beckoning to Joe, pointed with a trembling finger to the fatal paragraph. Joe read it slowly.
"And Cap'in Flower wasn't one o' them, sir?" he asked, pointing to the names.
Fraser shook his head, and both men stood for some time in silence.
"He's done it this time, and no mistake," said Joe, at last. "Well, 'e was a good sailorman and a kind master."
He handed the paper back, and returned to his work and to confer in a low voice with Green, who had been watching them. Fraser went back to the cabin, and after sitting for some time in a brown study, wrote off to Poppy Tyrell and enclosed the cutting.
He saw her three days later, and was dismayed and surprised to find her taxing herself with being the cause of the adventurous mariner's death.
"He would never have heard of the Golden Cloud if it hadn't been for me," she said, trembling. "His death is at my door."
Fraser tried to comfort her and straining metaphor to the utmost, said that if the finger of Providence had not made her oversleep herself she would undoubtedly have shared the same fate.
The girl shook her head.
"He shipped before the mast for the sake of being on the same ship as I was," she said, with quivering lip; "it is not every man who would have done that, and I—I—"
"Overslept yourself," said Fraser, consolingly.
Miss Tyrell made an impatient gesture, but listened hopefully as her visitor suggested that it was quite possible Flower had got away in another boat.
"I'll watch the paper every day," she said, brightening; "you miss some at sea."
But nothing came of the watching. The Golden Cloud had had its obituary in the paper in large type, and that was all—a notice to certain women and children scattered about Europe to go into mourning and to the owners to get another ship.
By the end of the couple of months Fraser had given up all hope. He was very sorry for his unfortunate friend, but his sorrow was at times almost tempered by envy as he pondered over the unexpected change which had come over his relations with Poppy Tyrell. The old friendly footing had disappeared, and her manner had become distant as though, now that the only link which connected them was broken, there was no need for further intercourse. The stiffness which ensued made his visits more and more difficult. At last he missed calling one night when he was in London, and the next time he called the girl was out. It was a fortnight before he saw her, and the meeting was embarrassing to both.
"I'm sorry I was out last time you came," said Poppy.
"It didn't matter," said Fraser.
Conversation came to a standstill. Miss Tyrell, with her toes on the fender, gazed in a contemplative fashion at the fire. "I didn't know——" began Fraser, who was still standing.
He cleared his voice and began again. "I didn't know whether you would rather I left off coming," he said, slowly.
Her gaze travelled slowly from the fire to his face. "You must please yourself," she said, quietly.
"I would rather please you," he said, steadily.
The girl regarded him gravely. "It is rather inconvenient for you sometimes," she suggested, "and I am afraid that I am not very good company."
Fraser shook his head eagerly. "It is not that at all," he said hastily.
Poppy made no reply, and there was another long silence. Then Fraser advanced and held out his hand.
"Good-bye," he said, quietly.
"Good-bye," said the girl. She smiled brightly, and got up to see him downstairs.
"I wanted to say something before I went," said Fraser, slowly, as he paused at the street-door, "and I will say it."
Miss Tyrell, raising her eyebrows somewhat at his vehemence, waited patiently.
"I have loved you from the moment I saw you," said Fraser, "and I shall go on loving you till I die. Good-bye."
He pressed her hand again, and walked down the little front garden into the street. At the gate he paused and looked round at Poppy still standing in the lighted doorway; he looked round again a few yards down the street, and again farther on. The girl still stood there; in the momentary glimpse he had of her he fancied that her arm moved. He came back hastily, and Miss Tyrell regarded him with unmistakable surprise.
"I thought—you beckoned me," he stammered.
"Thought I beckoned you?" repeated the girl.
"I thought so," murmured Fraser. "I beg your pardon," and turned confusedly to go again.
"So—I—did," said a low voice.
Fraser turned suddenly and faced her; then, as the girl lowered her eyes before his, he re-entered the house, and closing the door led her gently upstairs.
"I didn't like you to go like that," said Miss Tyrell, in explanation, as they entered her room.
Fraser regarded her steadfastly and her eyes smiled at him. He drew her towards him and kissed her, and Miss Tyrell, trembling with something which might have been indignation, hid her face on his shoulder.
For a long time, unless certain foolish ejaculations of Fraser's might count as conversation, they stood silent; then Poppy, extricating herself from his arm, drew back and regarded him seriously.
"It is not right," she said, slowly; "you forget."
"It is quite right," said Fraser; "it is as right as anything can be."
Poppy shook her head. "It has been wrong all along," she said, soberly, "and Captain Flower is dead in consequence. I never intended to go on the Golden Cloud, but I let him go. And now he's dead. He only went to be near me, and while he was drowning I was going out with you. I have been very wicked."
Fraser protested, and, taking her hand, drew her gently towards him again.
"He was very good to my father," said Poppy, struggling faintly. "I don't think I can."
"You must," said Fraser, doggedly; "I'm not going to lose you now. It is no good looking at me like that. It is too late."
He kissed her again, secretly astonished at his own audacity, and the high-handed way in which he was conducting things. Mixed with his joy was a half-pang, as he realised that he had lost his fear of Poppy Tyrell.
"I promised my father," said the girl, presently. "I did not want to get married, but I did not mind so much Until—"
"Until," Fraser reminded her, fondly.
"Until it began to get near," said the girl; "then I knew."
She took her chair by the fire again, and Fraser, placing his beside it, they sat hand in hand discussing the future. It was a comprehensive future, and even included Captain Flower.
"If he should be alive, after all," said Poppy, with unmistakable firmness, "I shall still marry him if he wishes it."
Fraser assented. "If he should ever turn up again," he said, deliberately, "I will tell him all about it. But it was his own desire that I should watch over you if anything happened to him, so he is as much to blame as I am. If he had lived I should never have said a word to you. You know that."
"I know," said Poppy, softly.
Her hand trembled in his, and his grasp tightened as though nothing should loosen it; but some thousands of miles away Captain Flower, from the deck of a whaler, was anxiously scanning the horizon in search of the sail which was to convey him back to England.