Nearly a year had elapsed since the sailing of the Fair Emily, and Binchester, which had listened doubtfully to the tale of the treasure as revealed by Mr. William Russell, was still awaiting news of her fate. Cablegrams to Sydney only elicited the information that she had not been heard of, and the opinion became general that she had added but one more to the many mysteries of the sea.
Captain Bowers, familiar with many cases of ships long overdue which had reached home in safety, still hoped, but it was clear from the way in which Mrs. Chalk spoke of her husband and the saint-like qualities she attributed to him that she never expected to see him again. Mr. Stobell also appeared to his wife through tear-dimmed eyes as a person of great gentleness and infinite self-sacrifice.
"All the years we were married," she said one afternoon to Mrs. Chalk, who had been listening with growing impatience to an account of Mr. Stobell which that gentleman would have been the first to disclaim, "I never gave him a cross word. Nothing was too good for me; I only had to ask to have."
Mrs. Chalk couldn't help herself. "Why don't you ask, then?" she inquired.
Mrs. Stobell started and eyed her indignantly. "So long as I had him I didn't want anything else," she said, stiffly. "We were all in all to each other; he couldn't bear me out of his sight. I remember once, when I had gone to see my poor mother, he sent me three telegrams in thirty-five minutes telling me to come home."
"Thomas was so unselfish," murmured Mrs. Chalk. "I once stayed with my mother for six weeks and he never said a word."
An odd expression, transient but unmistakable, flitted across the face of the listener.
"It nearly broke his heart, though, poor dear," said Mrs. Chalk, glaring at her. "He said he had never had such a time in his life."
"I don't expect he had," said Mrs. Stobell, screwing up her small features.
Mrs. Chalk drew herself up in her chair. "What do you mean by that?" she demanded.
"I meant what he meant," replied Mrs. Stobell, with a little air of surprise.
Mrs. Chalk bit her lip, and her friend, turning her head, gazed long and mournfully at a large photograph of Mr. Stobell painted in oils, which stared stiffly down on them from the wall.
"He never caused me a moment's uneasiness," she said, tenderly. "I could trust him anywhere."
Mrs. Chalk gazed thoughtfully at the portrait. It was not a good likeness, but it was more like Mr. Stobell than anybody else in Binchester, a fact which had been of some use in allaying certain unworthy suspicions of Mr. Stobell the first time he saw it.
"Yes," said Mrs. Chalk, significantly, "I should think you could."
Mrs. Stobell, about to reply, caught the staring eye of the photograph, and, shaking her head sorrowfully, took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes. Mrs. Chalk softened.
"They both had their faults," she said, gently, "but they were great friends. I dare say that it was a comfort to them to be together to the last."
Captain Bowers himself began to lose hope at last, and went about in so moody a fashion that a shadow seemed to have fallen upon the cottage. By tacit consent the treasure had long been a forbidden subject, and even when the news of Selina's promissory note reached Dialstone Lane he had refused to discuss it. It had nothing to do with him, he said, and he washed his hands of it—a conclusion highly satisfactory to Miss Vickers, who had feared that she would have had to have dropped for a time her visits to Mr. Tasker.
A slight change in the household occurring at this time helped to divert the captain's thoughts. Mr. Tasker while chopping wood happened to chop his knee by mistake, and, as he did everything with great thoroughness, injured himself so badly that he had to be removed to his home. He was taken away at ten in the morning, and at a quarter-past eleven Selina Vickers, in a large apron and her sleeves rolled up over her elbows, was blacking the kitchen stove and throwing occasional replies to the objecting captain over her shoulder.
"I promised Joseph," she said, sharply, "and I don't break my promises for nobody. He was worrying about what you'd do all alone, and I told him I'd come."
Captain Bowers looked at her helplessly.
"I can manage very well by myself," he said, at last.
"Chop your leg off, I s'pose?" retorted Miss Vickers, good-temperedly. "Oh, you men!"
"And I'm not at home much while Miss Drewitt is away," added the captain.
"All the better," said Miss Vickers, breathing noisily on the stove and polishing with renewed vigour. "You won't be in my way."
The captain pulled himself together.
"You can finish what you're doing," he said, mildly, "and then—"
"Yes, I know what to do," interrupted Miss Vickers. "You leave it to me. Go in and sit down and make yourself comfortable. You ought not to be in the kitchen at all by rights. Not that I mind what people say—I should have enough to do if I did—but still—"
The captain fled in disorder and at first had serious thoughts of wiring for Miss Drewitt, who was spending a few days with friends in town. Thinking better of this, he walked down to a servants' registry office, and, after being shut up for a quarter of an hour in a small room with a middle-aged lady of Irish extraction, who was sent in to be catechized, resolved to let matters remain as they were.
Miss Vickers swept and dusted, cooked and scrubbed, undisturbed, and so peaceable was his demeanour when he returned from a walk one morning, and found the front room being "turned out," that she departed from her usual custom and explained the necessities of the case at some length.
"I dare say it'll be the better for it," said the captain.
"O' course it will," retorted Selina. "You don't think I'd do it for pleasure, do you? I thought you'd sit out in the garden, and of course it must come on to rain."
The captain said it didn't matter.
"Joseph," said Miss Vickers, as she squeezed a wet cloth into her pail— "Joseph's got a nice leg. It's healing very slow."
The captain, halting by the kitchen door, said he was sorry to hear it.
"Though there's worse things than bad legs," continued Miss Vickers, soaping her scrubbing-brush mechanically; "being lost at sea, for instance."
Captain Bowers made no reply. Adopting the idea that all roads lead to Rome, Miss Vickers had, during her stay at Dialstone Lane, made many indirect attempts to introduce the subject of the treasure-seekers.
"I suppose those gentlemen are drowned?" she said, bending down and scrubbing noisily.
The captain, taking advantage of her back being turned towards him, eyed her severely. The hardihood of the girl was appalling. His gaze wandered from her to the bureau, and, as his eye fell on the key sticking up in the lid, the idea of reading her a much-needed lesson presented itself. He stepped over the pail towards the bureau and, catching the girl's eye as she looked up, turned the key noisily in the lock and placed it ostentatiously in his pocket. A sudden vivid change in Selina's complexion satisfied him that his manoeuvre had been appreciated.
"Are you afraid I shall steal anything?" she demanded, hotly, as he regained the kitchen.
The captain quailed. "No," he said, hastily. "Somebody once took a paper of mine out of there, though," he added. "So I keep it locked up now."
Miss Vickers dropped the brush in the pail, and, rising slowly to her feet, stood wiping her hands on her coarse apron. Her face was red and white in patches, and the captain, regarding her with growing uneasiness, began to take in sail.
"At least, I thought they did," he muttered.
Selina paid no heed. "Get out o' my kitchen," she said, in a husky voice, as she brushed past him.
The captain obeyed hastily, and, stepping inside the dismantled room, stood for some time gazing out of window at the rain. Then he filled his pipe and, removing a small chair which was sitting upside down in a large one, took its place and stared disconsolately at the patch of wet floor and the general disorder.
At the end of an hour he took a furtive peep into the kitchen. Selina Vickers was sitting with her back towards him, brooding over the stove. It seemed clear to him that she was ashamed to meet his eye, and, glad to see such signs of grace in her, he resolved to spare her further confusion by going upstairs. He went up noisly and closed his door with a bang, but although he opened it afterwards and stood listening acutely he heard so sound from below.
By the end of the second hour his uneasiness had increased to consternation. The house was as silent as a tomb, the sitting-room was still in a state of chaos, and a healthy appetite would persist in putting ominous and inconvenient questions as to dinner. Whistling a cheerful air he went downstairs again and put his head in at the kitchen. Selina sat in the same attitude, and when he coughed made no response.
"What about dinner?" he said, at last, in a voice which strove to be unconcerned.
"Go away," said Selina, thickly. "I don't want no dinner."
The captain started. "But I do," he said, feelingly.
"You'd better get it yourself, then," replied Miss Vickers, without turning her head. "I might steal a potato or something."
"Don't talk nonsense," said the other, nervously.
"I'm not a thief," continued Miss Vickers. "I work as hard as anybody in Binchester, and nobody can ever say that I took the value of a farthing from them. If I'm poor I'm honest."
"Everybody knows that," said the captain, with fervour.
"You said you didn't want the paper," said Selina, turning at last and regarding him fiercely. "I heard you with my own ears, else I wouldn't have taken it. And if they had come back you'd have had your share. You didn't want the treasure yourself and you didn't want other people to have it. And it wasn't yours, because I heard you say so."
"Very well, say no more about it," said the captain. "If anybody asks you can say that I knew you had it. Now go and put that back in the bureau."
He tossed the key on to the table, and Miss Vickers, after a moment's hesitation, turned with a gratified smile and took it up. The next hour he spent in his bedroom, the rapid evolutions of Miss Vickers as she passed from the saucepans to the sitting room and from the sitting-room back to the saucepans requiring plenty of sea room.
A week later she was one of the happiest people in Binchester. Edward Tredgold had received a cable from Auckland: "All safe; coming home," and she shared with Mrs. Chalk and Mrs. Stobell in the hearty congratulations of a large circle of friends. Her satisfaction was only marred by the feverish condition of Mr. Tasker immediately on receipt of the news.