IN a somewhat ruffled state of mind Captain Trimblett pursued his way toward Tranquil Vale, a. row of neat cottages situated about a mile and a half from the town, and inhabited principally by retired mariners. The gardens, which ran down to the river, boasted a particularly fine strain of flag-staffs; battered figure-heads in swan-like attitudes lent a pleasing touch of colour, and old boats sawn in halves made convenient arbours in which to sit and watch the passing pageant of the sea.
At No. 5 the captain paused to pass a perfectly dry boot over a scraper of huge dimensions which guarded the entrance, and, opening the door, finished off on the mat. Mrs. Susanna Chinnery, who was setting tea, looked up at his entrance, and then looked at the clock.
"Kettle's just on the boil," she remarked.
"Your kettle always is," said the captain, taking a chair—"when it's time for it to be, I mean," he added, hastily, as Mrs. Chinnery showed signs of correcting him.
"It's as easy to be punctual as otherwise," said Mrs. Chinnery; "easier, if people did but know it."
"So it is," murmured the captain, and sat gazing, with a sudden wooden expression, at a picture opposite of the eruption of Vesuvius.
"Peter's late again," said Mrs. Chinnery, in tones of hopeless resignation.
"Business, perhaps," suggested Captain Trimblett, still intent on Vesuvius.
"For years and years you could have set the clock by him," continued Mrs. Chinnery, bustling out to the kitchen and bustling back again with the kettle; "now I never know when to expect him. He was late yesterday."
Captain Trimblett cleared his throat. "He saw a man nearly run over," he reminded her.
"Yes; but how long would that take him?" retorted Mrs. Chinnery. "If the man had been run over I could have understood it."
The captain murmured something about shock.
"On Friday he was thirty-three minutes late," continued the other.
"Friday," said the faithful captain. "Friday he stopped to listen to a man playing the bagpipes—a Scotchman."
"That was Thursday," said Mrs. Chinnery.
The captain affected to ponder. "So it was," he said, heartily. "What a memory you have got! Of course, Friday he walked back to the office for his pipe."
"Well, we won't wait for him," said Mrs. Chinnery, taking the head of the table and making the tea. "If he can't come in to time he must put up with his tea being cold. That's the way we were brought up."
"A very good way, too," said the captain. He put a radish into his mouth and, munching slowly, fell to gazing at Vesuvius again. It was not until he had passed his cup up for the second time that a short, red-faced man came quickly into the room and, taking a chair from its place against the wall, brought it to the table and took a seat opposite the captain.
"Late again, Peter," said his sister.
"Been listening to a man playing the cornet," said Mr. Truefitt, briefly.
Captain Trimblett, taking the largest radish he could find, pushed it into his mouth and sat gazing at him in consternation. He had used up two musical instruments in less than a week.
"You're getting fond of music in your old age," said Mrs. Chinnery, tartly. "But you always are late nowadays. When it isn't music it's something else. What's come over you lately I can't think."
Mr. Truefitt cleared his throat for speech, and then, thinking better of it, helped himself to some bread and butter and went on with his meal. His eyes met those of Captain Trimblett and then wandered away to the window. The captain sprang into the breach.
"He wants a wife to keep him in order," he said, with a boldness that took Mr. Truefitt's breath away.
"Wife!" exclaimed Mrs. Chinnery. "Peter!"
She put down her cup and laughed—a laugh so free from disquietude that Mr. Truefitt groaned in spirit.
"He'll go off one of these days." said the captain with affected joviality. "You see if he don't."
Mrs. Chinnery laughed again. "He's a born bachelor," she declared. "Why, he'd sooner walk a mile out of his way any day than meet a woman. He's been like it ever since he was a boy. When I was a girl and brought friends of mine home to tea, Peter would sit like a stuffed dummy and never say a word."
"I've known older bachelors than him to get married," said the captain. "I've known 'em down with it as sudden as heart disease. In a way, it is heart disease, I suppose."
"Peter's heart's all right," said Mrs. Chinnery.
"He might drop down any moment," declared the captain.
Mr. Truefitt, painfully conscious of their regards, passed his cup up for some more tea and made a noble effort to appear amused, as the captain cited instance after instance of confirmed bachelors being led to the altar.
"I broke the ice for you to-day," he said, as they sat after tea in the little summer-house at the bottom of the garden, smoking.
Mr. Truefitt's gaze wandered across the river. "Yes," he said, slowly, "yes."
"I was surprised at myself," said the captain.
"I was surprised at you," said Mr. Truefitt, with some energy. "So far as I can see, you made it worse."
The captain started. "I did it for the best, my lad," he said, reproachfully. "She has got to know some day. You can't be made late by cornets and bagpipes every day."
Mr. Truefitt rumpled his short gray hair. "You see, I promised her," he said, suddenly.
"I know," said the captain, nodding. "And now you've promised Miss Willett."
"When they brought him home dead," said Mr. Truefitt, blowing out a cloud of smoke, "she was just twenty-five. Pretty she was then, cap'n, as pretty a maid as you'd wish to see. As long as I live, Susanna, and have a home, you shall share it'; that's what I said to her."
The captain nodded again.
"And she's kept house for me for twenty-five years," continued Mr. Truefitt; "and the surprising thing to me is the way the years have gone. I didn't realize it until I found an old photograph of hers the other day taken when she was twenty. Men don't change much."
The captain looked at him—at the close-clipped gray whiskers, the bluish lips, and the wrinkles round the eyes. "No," he said, stoutly. "But she could live with you just the same."
The other shook his head. "Susanna would never stand another woman in the house," he said, slowly. "She would go out and earn her own living; that's her pride. And she wouldn't take anything from me. It's turning her out of house and home."
"She'd be turning herself out," said the captain.
"Of course, there is the chance she might marry again," said the other, slowly. "She's had several chances, but she refused 'em all."
"From what she said one day," said the captain, "I got the idea that she has kept from marrying all these years for your sake."
Mr. Truefitt put his pipe down on the table and stared blankly before him. "That's the worst of it," he said, forlornly; "but something will have to be done. I've been engaged three weeks now, and every time I spend a few minutes with Cecilia—Miss Willett—I have to tell a lie about it."
"You do it very well," said his friend. "Very well indeed."
"And Susanna regards me as the most truthful man that ever breathed," continued Mr. Truefitt.
"You've got a truthful look about you," said the captain. "If I didn't know you so well I should have thought the same."
Unconscious of Mr. Truefitt's regards he rose and, leaning his arm on the fence at the bottom of the garden, watched the river.
"Miss Willett thinks she might marry again," said Mr. Truefitt, picking up his pipe and joining him. "She'd make an excellent wife for anybody—anybody."
The captain assented with a nod.
"Nobody could have a better wife," said Mr. Truefitt.
The captain, who was watching an outward-bound barque, nodded again, absently.
"She's affectionate," pursued Mr. Truefitt, "a wonderful housekeeper, a good conversationalist, a good cook, always punctual, always at home, always—"
The captain, surprised at a fluency so unusual, turned and eyed him in surprise. Mr. Truefitt broke off abruptly, and, somewhat red in the face, expressed his fear that the barque would take the mud if she were not careful. Captain Trimblett agreed and, to his friend's relief, turned his back on him to watch her more closely. It was a comfortable position, with his arms on the fence, and he retained it until Mr. Truefitt had returned to the summer-house.