MR. JOHN VYNER, ship-owner, pushed his chair back from his writing-table and gazed with kindly condescension at the chief clerk as he stood before it with a handful of papers.
"We shall be able to relieve you of some of your work soon, Hartley," he said, slowly. "Mr. Robert will come into the firm next week." The chief clerk bowed.
"Three years at Cambridge," resumed Mr. Vyner, meditatively, "and two years spent up and down the world studying the business methods of other nations ought to render him invaluable to us."
"No doubt, sir," said Hartley. "It is an excellent training."
"For a time," said the ship-owner, leaning back and placing the tips of his fingers together, "for a time I am afraid that he will have to have your room. Later on—ha—if a room should—ha—fall vacant in the building, we might consider taking it."
"Yes, sir," said the other.
"And, of course," resumed Mr. Vyner, "there is one great advantage in your being in the general office which must not be overlooked; you can keep an eye on the juniors better."
"It is cheerful, too, sir," suggested the chief clerk; "the only thing—"
"Yes?" said Mr. Vyner, somewhat loudly.
Mr. Hartley shrank a little. "I was going to say that it is rather a small room for Mr. Robert," he said, quickly.
"It will do for a time," said the other.
"And—and I think I told you, sir, that there is an unpleasant sm—odour."
Mr. Vyner knitted his brows. "I offered to have that seen to, but you said that you didn't mind it," he remarked.
"Just so, sir," said Hartley; "but I was thinking of Mr. Robert. He might not like it; it's very strong at times—very strong indeed."
"You ought to have had it attended to before," said Mr. Vyner, with some severity. "You had better call at Gillows' on your way home and ask them to send a man up first thing to-morrow morning."
He drew his chair to the table again, and Hartley, after lingering a moment, withdrew to his own room.
Ten out of his thirty-five years of service had been passed there, and he stifled a sigh as he looked at the neat array of drawers and pigeon-holes, the window overlooking the bridge and harbour, and the stationer's almanac which hung over the fireplace. The japanned letter-rack and the gum-bottle on the small mantelpiece were old friends.
The day's work completed, he walked home in sober thought. It was a pleasant afternoon in May, but he was too preoccupied to pay any heed to the weather, and, after informing a man who stopped him to tell him that he had lost a wife, six children, and a right leg, that it was just five minutes past six, resumed his way with a hazy idea of having been useful to a fellow-creature.
He brightened a little as he left the bustle of the town behind, and from sheer force of habit glanced at the trim front-gardens as he passed. The cloud lifted still more as he reached his own garden and mentally compared his flowers with those he had just passed.
His daughter was out, and tea for one was laid in the front room. He drew his chair to the table, and taking up the tea-pot, which the maid had just brought in, poured himself out a cup of tea.
He looked round the comfortable room with pleasure. After all, nobody could take that from him. He stirred his tea and had just raised the cup to his lips when he set it down untasted and sat staring blankly before him. A low rumble of voices from the kitchen fell unpleasantly on his ear; and his daughter Joan had left instructions too specific to be misunderstood as to his behaviour in the event of Rosa entertaining male company during her absence. He coughed twice, loudly, and was glad to note the disappearance of the rumble. Pleased with his success he coughed a third time, a sonorous cough charged with importance. A whispered rumble, possibly a suggestion of withdrawal, came from the kitchen.
"Only his tea gone the wrong way," he heard, reassuringly, from Rosa.
The rumble, thus encouraged, deepened again. It became confident and was heard to laugh. Mr. Hartley rose and, standing on the hearthrug with legs apart, resolved to play the man. He leaned over and rang the bell. The voices stopped. Then he heard Rosa say, "Not him! you stay where you are."
She came slowly in response to the bell, and thrusting a yellow head in at the door gazed at him inquiringly.
"I—I want a little more hot water," said her master, mildly.
"More?" repeated Rosa. "Why, I brought you over a pint."
"I want some more," said Mr. Hartley. Then a bright thought struck him. "I am expecting Miss Joan home every minute," he added, significantly.
Rosa tossed her head. "She ain't coming home till nine," she remarked, "so if it's only for her you want the hot water, you won't want it."
"I—I thought I heard a man's voice," he said at last.
"Very good," said her master, with an attempt at dignity; "you can go."
Rosa went, whistling. Mr. Hartley, feeling that he had done all that could be expected of a man, sat down and resumed his tea. The rumbling from the kitchen, as though in an endeavour to make up for lost time, became continuous. It also became louder and more hilarious. Pale and determined Mr. Hartley rose a second time and, seizing the bell-pull, rang violently.
"Does anybody want to see me?" he inquired, as Rosa's head appeared.
"You? No," was the reply.
"I thought," said her master, gazing steadily at the window, "I thought somebody was inquiring for me."
"Well, there hasn't been," said Rosa.
Mr. Hartley, with a magisterial knitting of the brows, which had occasionally been found effective with junior clerks, affected to ponder.
"I—I thought I heard a man's voice," he said at last.
"Nobody's been inquiring for you," said Rosa calmly. "If they did I should come in and let you know. Nobody's been for you that I've heard of, and I don't see how they could come without me knowing it."
"Just so," said Mr. Hartley. "Just so."
He turned to the mantelpiece for his tobacco-jar, and Rosa, after standing for some time at the "ready" with a hostile stare, cleared her throat noisily and withdrew. The voices in the kitchen broke out with renewed vehemence; Mr. Hartley coughed again—a cough lacking in spirit—and, going out at the front door, passed through the side-entrance to the garden and tended his plants with his back to the kitchen window.
Hard at work at the healthful pastime of weeding, his troubles slipped from him. The path became littered with little tufts of grass, and he Was just considering the possibility of outflanking the birch-broom, which had taken up an advantageous position by the kitchen window, when a young man came down the side-entrance and greeted him with respectful enthusiasm.
"I brought you these," he said, opening a brown leather bag and extracting a few dried roots. "I saw an advertisement. I forget the name of them, but they have beautiful trumpet-shaped flowers. They are free growers, and grow yards and yards the first year."
"And miles and miles the second," said Mr. Hartley, regarding them with extraordinary ferocity. "Bindweed is the name, and once get it in your garden and you'll never get rid of it."
"That wasn't the name in the advertisement," said the other, dubiously.
"I don't suppose it was," said Hartley. "You've got a lot to learn in gardening yet, Saunders."
"Yes, sir," said the other; "I've got a good teacher, though."
Mr. Hartley almost blushed. "And how is your garden getting on?" he inquired.
"It's—it's getting on," said Mr. Saunders, vaguely.
"I must come and have a look at it," said Hartley.
"Not yet," said the young man, hastily. "Not yet. I shouldn't like you to see it just yet. Is Miss Hartley well?"
Mr. Hartley said she was, and, in an abstracted fashion, led the way down the garden to where an enormous patch of land—or so it seemed to Mr. Saunders—awaited digging. The latter removed his coat and, hanging it with great care on an apple tree, turned back his cuffs and seized the fork.
"It's grand exercise," said Mr. Hartley, after watching him for some time.
"Grand," said Mr. Saunders, briefly.
"As a young man I couldn't dig enough," continued the other, "but nowadays it gives me a crick in the back."
"Always?" inquired Mr. Saunders, with a slight huskiness.
"Always," said Mr. Hartley. "But I never do it now; Joan won't let me."
Mr. Saunders sighed at the name and resumed his digging. "Miss Hartley out?" he asked presently, in a casual voice.
"Yes; she won't be home till late," said the other. "We can have a fine evening's work free of interruptions. I'll go and get on with my weeding."
He moved off and resumed his task; Mr. Saunders, with a suppressed groan, went on with his digging. The ground got harder and harder and his back seemed almost at breaking-point. At intervals he had what gardeners term a "straight-up," and with his face turned toward the house listened intently for any sounds that might indicate the return of its mistress.
"Half-past eight," said Hartley at last; "time to knock off. I've put a few small plants in your bag for you; better put them in in the morning before you start off."
Mr. Saunders thanked him, and reaching down his coat put it on and followed Mr. Hartley to the house. The latter, steering him round by the side-entrance, accompanied him to the front gate.
"If you would like to borrow my roller or lawn-mower at any time," he said, cordially, "I should be very pleased to lend them to you. It isn't very far."
Mr. Saunders, who would sooner have died than have been seen dragging a roller through the streets, thanked him warmly. With an idea of prolonging his stay, he suggested looking at them.
"They're locked up now," said Mr. Hartley. "See them another time. Good-night."
"Good-night," said Mr. Saunders. "I'll look in to-morrow evening, if I may."
"No use to-morrow," Mr. Hartley called after him; "there will be nobody at home but Joan."