MR. ROBERT VYNER entered upon his new duties with enthusiasm. The second day he was at the office half an hour before anybody else; on the third day the staff competed among themselves for the honour of arriving first, and greeted him as respectfully as their feelings would permit when he strolled in at a quarter to eleven. The arrival of the senior partner on the day following at a phenomenally early hour, for the sake of setting an example to the junior, filled them with despair. Their spirits did not revive until Mr. John had given up the task as inconvenient and useless.
A slight fillip was given to Robert's waning enthusiasm by the arrival of new furniture for his room. A large mahogany writing-table, full of drawers and pigeon-holes, gave him a pleasant sense of importance, and the revolving chair which went with it afforded a welcome relief to a young and ardent nature. Twice the office-boy had caught the junior partner, with his legs tucked up to avoid collisions, whirling wildly around, and had waited respectfully at the door for the conclusion of the performance.
"It goes a bit stiff, Bassett," said the junior partner.
"Yessir," said Bassett.
"I'm trying to ease it a bit," explained Mr. Robert.
"Yessir," said Bassett again.
Mr. Robert regarded him closely. An undersized boy in spectacles, with a large head and an air of gravity and old age on his young features, which the junior thought somewhat ill-placed for such an occasion.
"I suppose you never twizzle round on your chair, Bassett?" he said, slowly.
Bassett shivered at the idea. "No, sir," he said, solemnly; "I've got my work to do."
Mr. Robert sought for other explanations. "And, of course, you have a stool," he remarked; "you couldn't swing round on that."
"Not even if I wanted to, sir," said the unbending Bassett.
Mr. Robert nodded, and taking some papers from his table held them before his face and surveyed the youth over the top. Bassett stood patiently to attention.
"That's all right," said the other; "thank you."
"Thank you, sir," said Bassett, turning to the door.
"By the way," said Mr. Robert, eying him curiously as he turned the handle, "what exercise do you take?"
"Exercise, sir?" said Bassett.
Mr. Robert nodded. "What do you do of an evening for amusement after the arduous toils of the day are past? Marbles?"
"No, sir," said the outraged one. "If I have any time to spare I amuse myself with a little shorthand."
"Amuse!" exclaimed the other. He threw himself back in his chair and, sternly checking its inclination to twirl again, sought for a flaw in the armour of this paragon. "And what else do you do in the way of recreation?"
"I've got a vivarium, sir."
Mr. Robert hesitated, but curiosity got the better of his dignity. "What's that?" he inquired.
"A thing I keep frogs and toads in, sir," was the reply.
Mr. Robert, staring hard at him, did his honest best to check the next question, but it came despite himself. "Are you—are you married, Bassett?" he inquired.
Bassett regarded him calmly. "No, sir," he said, with perfect gravity. "I live at home with my mother."
The junior partner gave him a nod of dismissal, and for some time sat gazing round the somewhat severely furnished office, wondering with some uneasiness what effect such surroundings might have on a noble but impressionable temperament. He brought round a few sketches the next day to brighten the walls, and replated the gum-bottle and other useful ornaments by some German beer-mugs.
Even with these aids to industry he found the confinement of office somewhat irksome, and, taking a broad view of his duties, gradually relieved Bassett of his errands to the docks. It was necessary, he told himself, to get a thorough grasp of the whole business of ship-owning. In the stokeholds of Vyner and Son's' steamships he talked learnedly on coal with the firemen, and, quite unaided, hit on several schemes for the saving of coal—all admirable except for the fact: that several knots per hour would be lost.
"The thing is to take an all-round view," he said to Captain. Trimblett, of the SS. Indian Chief, as he strolled back with that elderly mariner from the ship to the office one day.
"That's it, sir," said the captain.
"Don't waste, and, at the same time, don't pinch," continued Mr. Robert, oracularly.
"That's business in a nutshell," commented the captain. "Don't spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar, and, on the other hand, don't get leaving the tar about for other people to sit on."
"But you got it off," said Robert, flushing. "You told me you had."
"As far as tar ever can be got off," asserted the captain, gloomily. "Yes. Why I put my best trousers on this morning," he continued, in a tone of vague wonder, "I'm sure I don't know. It was meant to be, I suppose; it's all for some wise purpose: that we don't know of."
"Wise fiddlesticks!" exclaimed Robert, shortly—"Your particular brand of fatalism is the most extraordinary nonsense I ever heard of. What it means: is that thousands of years ago, or millions, perhaps, was decided that I should be born on purpose to tar your blessed trousers."
"That and other things," said the immovable captain. "It's all laid down for us, everything we do, and we can't help doing it. When I put on those trousers this morning—"
"Oh, hang your trousers," said Robert. "You said it didn't matter, and you've been talking about nothing else ever since."
"I won't say another word about it," said the captain. "I remember the last pair I had done; a pair o' white ducks. My steward it was; one o' those silly, fat-headed, staring-eyed, garping—"
"Go on," said the other, grimly.
"Nice, bright young fellows," concluded the captain, hastily; "he got on very well, I believe."
"After he left you, I suppose?" said Mr. Vyner, smoothly.
"Yes," said the innocent captain. He caught a glance of the other's face and ruminated. "After I had broken him of his silly habits," he added.
He walked along smiling, and, raising his cap with a flourish, beamed in a fatherly manner on a girl who was just passing. Robert replaced his hat and glanced over his left shoulder.
"Who is that?" he inquired. "I saw her the other day; her face seems familiar to me."
"Joan Hartley," replied the captain. "Nathaniel Hartley's daughter. To my mind, the best and prettiest girl in Salthaven."
"Eh?" said the other, staring. "Hartley's daughter? Why, I should have thought—"
The best and prettiest girl in Salthaven
"Yes, sir?" said Captain Trimblett, after a pause.
"Nothing," concluded Robert, lamely. "She doesn't look like it; that's all."
"She's got his nose," maintained the captain, with the obstinate air of a man prepared to go to the stake for his opinions. "Like as two peas their noses are; you'd know them for father and daughter anywhere by that alone."
Mr. Vyner assented absently. He was wondering where the daughter of the chief clerk got her high looks from.
"Very clever girl," continued the captain. "She got a scholarship and went to college, and then, when her poor mother died, Hartley was so lonely that she gave it all up and came home to keep house for him."
"Quite a blue-stocking," suggested Robert.
"There's nothing of the blue-stocking about her," said the captain, warmly. "In fact, I shouldn't be surprised if she became engaged soon."
Mr. Vyner became interested. "Oh!" he said, with an instinctive glance over his left shoulder.
Captain Trimblett nodded sagely. "Young fellow of the name of Saunders," he said slowly.
"Oh!" said the other again.
"You might have seen him at Wilson's, the ship-broker's," pursued the captain. "Bert Saunders his name is. Rather a dressy youngster, perhaps. Generally wears a pink shirt and a very high stand-up collar—one o' those collars that you have to get used to."
Mr. Vyner nodded.
"He's not good enough for her," said the captain, shaking his head. "But then, nobody is. Looked at that way it's all right."
"You seem to take a great interest in it," said Robert.
"He came to me with his troubles," said Captain Trimblett, bunching up his gray beard in his hand reflectively. "Leastways, he made a remark or two which I took up. Acting under my advice he is taking up gardening."
Mr. Vyner glanced at him in mystification.
"Hartley is a great gardener," explained the other with a satisfied smile. "What is the result? He can go there when he likes, so to speak. No awkwardness or anything of that sort. He can turn up there bold as brass to borrow a trowel, and take three or four hours doing it."
"You're a danger to society," said Robert, shaking his head.
"People ought to marry while they're young," said the captain. "If they don't, like as not they're crazy to marry in their old age. There's my landlord here at Tranquil Vale, fifty-two next birthday, and over his ears in love. He has got it about as bad as a man can have it."
"And the lady?" inquired Robert.
"She's all right," said the captain. He lowered his voice confidentially. "It's Peter's sister, that's the trouble. He's afraid to let her know. All we can do is to drop a little hint here and a little hint there, so as to prepare her for the news when it's broken to her."
"Is she married?" inquired Robert, pausing as they reached the office.
"No," said Captain Trimblett; "widow."
Mr. Vyner gave a low whistle. "When do you sail, cap'n?" he inquired, in a voice oily with solicitude.
"Soon as my engine-room repairs are finished, I suppose," said the other, staring.
"And you—you are giving her hints about courtship and marriage?" inquired Mr. Vyner, in tones of carefully-modulated surprise.
"She's a sensible woman," said the captain, reddening, "and she's no more likely to marry again than I am."
"Just what I was thinking," said Mr. Vyner.
He shook his head, and, apparently deep in thought, turned and walked slowly up the stairs. He was pleased to notice as he reached the first landing that the captain was still standing where he had left him, staring up the stairs.