Fortunately for their peace of mind, Mr. Chalk and his friends, safe on board the s.s. Silver Star, bound for home, had no idea that the story of the treasure had become public property. Since their message it had become the principal topic of conversation in the town, and, Miss Vickers being no longer under the necessity of keeping her share in the affair secret, Mr. William Russell was relieved of a reputation for untruthfulness under which he had long laboured.
Various religious and philanthropic bodies began to bestir themselves. Owing to his restlessness and love of change no fewer than three sects claimed Mr. Chalk as their own, and, referring to his donations in the past, looked forward to a golden future. The claim of the Church to Mr. Tredgold was regarded as flawless, but the case of Mr. Stobell bristled with difficulties. Apologists said that he belonged to a sect unrepresented in Binchester, but an offshoot of the Baptists put in a claim on the ground that he had built that place of worship—at a considerable loss on the contract—some fifteen years before.
Dialstone Lane, when it became known that Captain Bowers had waived his claim to a share, was besieged by people seeking the reversion, and even Mint Street was not overlooked. Mr. Vickers repelled all callers with acrimonious impartiality, but Selina, after a long argument with a lady subaltern of the Salvation Army, during which the methods and bonnets of that organization were hotly assailed, so far relented as to present her with twopence on account.
Miss Drewitt looked forward to the return of the adventurers with disdainful interest. To Edward Tredgold she referred with pride to the captain's steadfast determination not to touch a penny of their ill-gotten gains, and with a few subtle strokes drew a comparison between her uncle and his father which he felt to be somewhat highly coloured. In extenuation he urged the rival claims of Chalk and Stobell.
"They were both led away by Chalk's eloquence and thirst for adventure," he said, as he walked by her side down the garden.
Miss Drewitt paid no heed. "And you will benefit by it," she remarked.
Mr. Tredgold drew himself up with an air the nobleness of which was somewhat marred by the expression of his eyes. "I will never touch a penny of it," he declared. "I will be like the captain. I am trying all I can to model myself on his lines."
The girl regarded him with suspicion. "I see no signs of any result at present," she said, coldly.
Mr. Tredgold smiled modestly. "Don't flatter me," he entreated.
"Flatter you!" said the indignant Prudence.
"On my consummate powers of concealment," was the reply. "I am keeping everything dark until I am so like him—in every particular—that you will not know the difference. I have often envied him the possession of such a niece. When the likeness is perfec——"
"Well?" said Miss Drewitt, with impatient scorn.
"You will have two uncles instead of one," rejoined Mr. Tredgold, impressively.
Miss Drewitt, with marked deliberation, came to a pause in the centre of the path.
"Are you going to continue talking nonsense?" she inquired, significantly.
Mr. Tredgold sighed. "I would rather talk sense," he replied, with a sudden change of manner.
"Try," said the girl, encouragingly.
"Only it is so difficult," said Edward, thoughtfully, "to you."
Miss Drewitt stopped again.
"For me," added the other, hastily. His companion said that she supposed it was. She also reminded him that nothing was easy without practice.
"And I ought not to find it difficult," complained Mr. Tredgold. "I have got plenty of sense hidden away somewhere."
Miss Drewitt permitted herself a faint exclamation of surprise. "It was not an empty boast of yours just now, then," she said.
"Boast?" repeated the other, blankly. "What boast?"
"On your wonderful powers of concealment," said Prudence, gently.
"You are reverting of your own accord to the nonsense," said Mr. Tredgold, sternly. "You are returning to the subject of uncles."
"Nothing of the kind," said Prudence, hotly.
"Before we leave it—for ever," said Mr. Tredgold, dramatically, "I should like, if I am permitted, to make just one more remark on the subject. I would not, for all the wealth of this world, be your uncle Where are you going?"
"Indoors," said Miss Drewitt, briefly.
"One moment," implored the other. "I am just going to begin to talk sense."
"I will listen when you have had some practice," said the girl, walking towards the house.
"It's impossible to practise this," said Edward, following. "It is something that can only be confided to yourself. Won't you stay?"
"No," said the girl.
"Not from curiosity?"
Miss Drewitt, gazing steadfastly before her, shook her head.
"Well, perhaps I can say it as well indoors," murmured Edward, resignedly.
"And you'll have a bigger audience," said Prudence, breathing more easily as she reached the house. "Uncle is indoors."
She passed through the kitchen and into the sitting-room so hastily that Captain Bowers, who was sitting by the window reading, put down his paper and looked up in surprise. The look of grim determination on Mr. Tredgold's face did not escape him.
"Mr. Tredgold has come indoors to talk sense," said Prudence, demurely.
"Talk sense?" repeated the astonished captain.
"That's what he says," replied Miss Drewitt, taking a low chair by the captain's side and gazing composedly at the intruder. "I told him that you would like to hear it."
She turned her head for a second to hide her amusement, and in that second Mr. Tredgold favoured the captain with a glance the significance of which was at once returned fourfold. She looked up just in time to see their features relaxing, and moving nearer to the captain instinctively placed her hand upon his knee.
"I hope," said Captain Bowers, after a long and somewhat embarrassing silence—"I hope the conversation isn't going to be above my head?"
"Mr. Tredgold was talking about uncles," said Prudence, maliciously.
"Nothing bad about them, I hope?" said the captain, with pretended anxiety.
Edward shook his head. "I was merely envying Miss Drewitt her possession of you," he said, carelessly, "and I was just about to remark that I wished you were my uncle too, when she came indoors. I suppose she wanted you to hear it."
Miss Drewitt started violently, and her cheek flamed at the meanness of the attack.
"I wish I was, my lad," said the admiring captain.
"It would be the proudest moment of my life," said Edward, deliberately.
"And mine," said the captain, stoutly.
"And the happiest."
The captain bowed. "Same here," he said, graciously.
Miss Drewitt, listening helplessly to this fulsome exchange of compliments, wondered whether they had got to the end. The captain looked at Mr. Tredgold as though to remind him that it was his turn.
"You—you were going to show me a photograph of your first ship," said the latter, after a long pause. "Don't trouble if it's upstairs."
"It's no trouble," said the captain, briskly.
He rose to his feet and the hand of the indignant Prudence, dislodged from his knee, fell listlessly by her side. She sat upright, with her pale, composed face turned towards Mr. Tredgold. Her eyes were scornful and her lips slightly parted. Before these signs his courage flickered out and left him speechless. Even commonplace statements of fact were denied him. At last in sheer desperation he referred to the loudness of the clock's ticking.
"It seems to me to be the same as usual," said the girl, with a slight emphasis on the pronoun.
The clock ticked on undisturbed. Upstairs the amiable captain did his part nobly. Drawers opened and closed noisily; doors shut and lids of boxes slammed. The absurdity of the situation became unbearable, and despite her indignation at the treatment she had received Miss Drewitt felt a strong inclination to laugh. She turned her head swiftly and looked out of window, and the next moment Edward Tredgold crossed and took the captain's empty chair.
"Shall I call him down?" he asked, in a low voice.
"Call him down?" repeated the girl, coldly, but without turning her head. "Yes, if you——"
A loud crash overhead interrupted her sentence. It was evident that in his zeal the captain had pulled out a loaded drawer too far and gone over with it. Slapping sounds, as of a man dusting himself down, followed, and it was obvious that Miss Drewitt was only maintaining her gravity by a tremendous effort. Much emboldened by this fact the young man took her hand.
"Mr. Tredgold!" she said, in a stifled voice.
Undismayed by his accident the indefatigable captain was at it again, and in face of the bustle upstairs Prudence Drewitt was afraid to trust herself to say more. She sat silent with her head resolutely averted, but Edward took comfort in the fact that she had forgotten to withdraw her hand.
"Bless him!" he said, fervently, a little later, as the captain's foot was heard heavily on the stair. "Does he think we are deaf?"