He posted his letter in the morning, and after a midday meal took train to Seabridge, and here the reception of which he had dreamed for many weary months, awaited him. The news of his escape had spread round the town like wildfire, and he had hardly stepped out of the train before the station-master was warmly shaking hands with him. The porters followed suit, the only man who displayed any hesitation being the porter from the lamp-room, who patted him on the back several times before venturing. The centre of a little, enthusiastic knot of fellow-townsmen, he could hardly get clear to receive the hearty grip of Captain Barber, or the chaste salute with which Mrs. Barber inaugurated her auntship; but he got free at last, and, taking an arm of each, set off blithely down the road, escorted by neighbours.
As far as the cottage their journey was a veritable triumphal progress, and it was some time before the adventuresome mariner was permitted to go inside; but he got free at last, and Mrs. Barber, with a hazy idea of the best way to treat a shipwrecked fellow-creature, however remote the accident, placed before him a joint of cold beef and a quantity of hot coffee. It was not until he had made a good meal and lit his pipe that Uncle Barber, first quaffing a couple of glasses of ale to nerve himself for harrowing details, requested him to begin at the beginning and go right on.
His nephew complied, the tale which he had told Poppy serving him as far as Riga; after which a slight collision off the Nore at night between the brig which was bringing him home and the Golden Cloud enabled him to climb into the bows of that ill-fated vessel before she swung clear again. There was a slight difficulty here, Captain Barber's views of British seamen making no allowance for such a hasty exchange of ships, but as it appeared that Flower was at the time still suffering from the effects of the fever which had seized him at Riga, he waived the objection, and listened in silence to the end of the story.
"Fancy what he must have suffered," said Mrs-Barber, shivering; "and then to turn up safe and sound a twelvemonth afterwards. He ought to-make a book of it."
"It's all in a sailorman's dooty," said Captain Barber, shaking his head. "It's wot 'e expects."
His wife rose, and talking the while proceeded to clear the table. The old man closed the door after her, and with a glance at his nephew gave a jerk of the head towards the kitchen.
"Wonderful woman, your aunt," he said, impressively; "but I was one too many for 'er."
"How?" he enquired, briefly.
"Married 'er," said the old man, chuckling. "You wouldn't believe wot a lot there was arter her. I got 'er afore she knew where she was a'most. If I was to tell you all that there was arter'er, you'd hardly believe me."
"I daresay," said the other.
"There's good news and bad news," continued Captain Barber, shaking his head and coughing a bit with his pipe. "I've got a bit o' bad for you."
"'Lizabeth's married," said the old man, slowly; "married that stupid young Gibson. She'll be sorry enough now, I know."
His nephew looked down. "I've heard about it," he said, with an attempt at gloom; "old George told me."
The old man, respecting his grief, smoked on for some time in silence, then he got up and patted him on the shoulder.
"I'm on the look-out for you," he said, kindly; "there's a niece o' your aunt's. I ain't seen her yet; but your aunt praises of her, so she's all right. I'll tell your aunt to ask 'er over. Your aunt ses—"
"How many aunts have I got?" demanded Flower, with sudden irritation.
The old man raised his eyebrows and stared at him in offended amazement.
"You're not yourself, Fred," he said, slowly; "your misfortunes 'ave shook you up. You've got one aunt and one uncle what brought you up and did the best for you ever since you was so 'igh."
"So you did," said Flower, heartily. "I didn't mean to speak like that, but I'm tired and worried."
"I see you was," said his uncle, amiably, "but your aunt's a wonderful woman. She's got a business 'ead, and we're doing well. I'm buying another schooner, and you can 'ave her or have the Foam back, which you like."
Flower thanked him warmly, and, Mrs. Barber returning, he noticed with some surprise the evident happiness of the couple for whose marriage he was primarily responsible. He had to go over his adventures again and again, Captain Barber causing much inconvenience and delay at supper-time by using the beer-jug to represent the Golden Cloud and a dish of hot sausages the unknown craft which sank her. Flower was uncertain which to admire most: the tactful way in which Mrs. Barber rescued the sausages or the readiness with which his uncle pushed a plate over a fresh stain on the tablecloth.
Supper finished, he sat silently thinking of Poppy, not quite free from the fear that she might have followed him to New Zealand by another boat. The idea made him nervous, and the suspense became unendurable. He took up his cap and strolled out into the stillness of the evening. Sea-bridge seemed strange to him after his long absence, and, under present conditions, melancholy. There was hardly a soul to be seen, but a murmur of voices came through the open windows of the Thorn, and a clumsy cart jolted and creaked its way up the darkening road.
He stood for some time looking down on the quay, and the shadowy shapes of one or two small craft lying in the river. The Foam was in her old berth, and a patch of light aft showed that the cabin was occupied. He walked down to her, and stepping noiselessly aboard, peered through the open skylight at Ben, as he sat putting a fresh patch in a pair of trousers. It struck him that the old man might know something of the events which had led up to Fraser's surprising marriage, and, his curiosity being somewhat keen on the point, he descended to glean particulars.
Ben's favourite subject was the misdeeds of the crew, and the steps which a kind but firm mate had to take to control them, and he left it unwillingly to discuss Fraser's marriage, of which faint rumours had reached his ears. It was evident that he knew nothing of the particulars, and Flower with some carefulness proceeded to put leading questions.
"Did you ever see anything more of those women who used to come down to the ship after a man named Robinson?" he enquired, carelessly.
"They come down one night soon arter you fell overboard," replied the old man. "Very polite they was, and they asked me to go and see 'em any time I liked. I ain't much of a one for seeing people, but I did go one night 'bout two or three months ago, end o' March, I think it was, to a pub wot they 'ave at Chelsea, to see whether they 'ad heard anything of 'im."
"Ah!" interjected the listener.
"They was very short about it," continued Ben, sourly; "the old party got that excited she could 'ardly keep still, but the young lady she said good riddance to bad rubbish, she ses. She hoped as 'ow he'd be punished."
Flower started, and then smiled softly to himself.
"Perhaps she's found somebody else," he said.
"I shouldn't wonder, she seemed very much took up with a young feller she called Arthur," he said, slowly; "but that was the last I see of 'em; they never even offered me a drink, and though they'd ask me to go down any time I liked, they was barely civil. The young lady didn't seem to me to want Arthur to 'ear about it."
He stitched away resentfully, and his listener, after a fond look round his old quarters, bade him good-night and went ashore again. For a little while he walked up and down the road, pausing once to glance at the bright drawn blind in the Gibsons' window, and then returned home. Captain Barber and his wife were at cribbage, and intent upon the game.
With the morning sun his spirits rose, and after a hurried breakfast he set off for the station and booked to Bittlesea. The little platform was bright with roses, and the air full of the sweetness of an early morning in June. He watched the long line stretching away until it was lost in a bend of the road, and thought out ways and means of obtaining a private interview with the happy bridegroom; a subject which occupied him long after the train had started, as he was benevolently anxious not to mar his friend's happiness by a display of useless grief and temper on the part of the bride.
The wedding party left the house shortly before his arrival at the station, after a morning of excitement and suspense which had tried Messrs. Smith and Green to the utmost, both being debarred by self-imposed etiquette from those alluring liquids by which in other circumstances they would have soothed their nerves. They strolled restlessly about with Tommy, for whom they had suddenly conceived an ardent affection, and who, to do him justice, was taking fullest advantage of the fact.
They felt a little safer when a brougham dashed up to the house and carried off Fraser and his supporter, and safer still when his father appeared with Poppy Tyrell on his arm, blushing sweetly and throwing a glance in their direction, which was like to have led to a quarrel until Tommy created a diversion by stating that it was intended for him.
By the time Flower arrived the road was clear, and the house had lapsed into its accustomed quiet.
An old seafaring man, whose interest in weddings had ceased three days after his own, indicated the house with the stem of his pipe. It was an old house with a broad step and a wide-open door, and on the step a small servant, in a huge cap with her hands clasped together, stood gazing excitedly up the road.
"Cap'n Fraser live here?" enquired Flower, after a cautious glance at the windows.
"Yes, sir," said the small servant; "he's getting married at this very instant."
"You'll be married one of these days if you're a good girl," said Flower, who was in excellent humour.
The small girl forgot her cap and gave her head a toss. Then she regarded him thoughtfully, and after adjusting the cap, smoothed down her apron and said, "she was in no hurry; she never took any notice of them."
Flower looked round and pondered. He was anxious, if possible, to see Fraser and catch the first train back.
"Cap'n Fraser was in good spirits, I suppose?" he said, cautiously.
"Very good spirits," admitted the small servant, "but nervous."
"And Miss Tipping?" suggested Flower.
"Miss who?" enquired the small girl, with a superior smile. "Miss Tyrell you mean, don't you?"
Flower stared at her in astonishment. "No, Miss Tipping," he said, sharply, "the bride. Is Miss Tyrell here too?"
The small girl was astonished in her turn. "Miss Tyrell is the bride," she said, dwelling fondly on the last word. "Who's Miss Tipping?"
"What's the bride's Christian name?" demanded Flower, catching her fiercely by the hand'.
He was certain of the reply before the now thoroughly frightened small girl could find breath enough to utter it, and at the word "Poppy," he turned without a word and ran up the road. Then he stopped, and coming back hastily, called out to her for the whereabouts of the church.
"Straight up there and second turning on the left," cried the small girl, her fear giving place to curiosity, "What's the matter?"
But Flower was running doggedly up the road, thinking in a confused fashion as he ran. At first he thought that Joe had blundered; then, as he remembered his manner and his apparent haste to get rid of him, amazement and anger jostled each other in his mind. Out of breath, his pace slackened to a walk, and then broke into a run again as he turned the corner, and the church came into view.
There was a small cluster of people in the porch, which was at once reduced by two, and a couple of carriages drawn up against the curb. He arrived breathless and peered in. A few spectators were in the seats, but the chancel was empty.
"They're gone into the vestry," whispered an aged but frivolous woman, who was grimly waiting with a huge bag of rice.
Flower turned white. No efforts of his could avail now, and he smiled bitterly as he thought of his hardships of the past year. There was a lump in his throat, and a sense of unreality about the proceedings which was almost dream-like. He looked up the sunny road with its sleepy, old-time houses, and then at the group standing in the porch, wondering dimly that a deformed girl on crutches should be smiling as gaily as though the wedding were her own, and that yellow, wrinkled old women should wilfully come to remind themselves of their long-dead youth. His whole world seemed suddenly desolate and unreal, and it was only borne in upon him slowly that there was no need now for his journey to London in search of Poppy, and that henceforth her movements could possess no interest for him. He ranged himself quietly with the bystanders and, not without a certain dignity, waited.
It seemed a long time. The horses champed and rattled their harness. The bystanders got restless. Then there was a movement.
He looked in the church again and saw them coming down the aisle: Fraser, smiling and erect, with Poppy's little hand upon his arm. She looked down at first, smiling shyly, but as they drew near the door gave her husband a glance such as Flower had never seen before. He caught his breath then, and stood up erect as the bridegroom himself, and as they reached the door they both saw him at the same instant. Poppy, with a startled cry of joy and surprise, half drew her arm from her husband's; Fraser gazed at him as on one risen from the dead.
For a space they regarded each other without a word, then Fraser, with his wife on his arm, took a step towards him. Flower still regarding them steadily, drew back a little, and moved by a sudden impulse, and that new sense of dignity, snatched a handful of rice from the old woman's bag and threw it over them.
Then he turned quickly, and with rapid strides made his way back to the station.
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