OWING possibly to the unaccustomed exercise, but probably to more sentimental reasons, Robert Vyner slept but poorly the night after his labours. He had explained his absence at the dinner-table by an airy reference to a long walk and a disquisition on the charms of the river by evening, an explanation which both Mr. Vyner and his wife had received with the silence it merited. It was evident that his absence had been the subject of some comment, but his father made no reference to it as they smoked a cigar together before retiring.
He awoke early in the morning and, after a vain attempt to get to sleep again, rose and dressed. Nobody else was stirring, and going quietly downstairs he took up a cap and went out.
Except for a labouring man or two tramping stolidly to work, the streets were deserted. The craft anchored in the river seemed asleep, and he stood for some time on the bridge idly watching the incoming tide. He lit his pipe and then, with a feeble endeavour to feel a little surprise at the fact, discovered that he was walking in the direction of Mr. Hartley's house.
His pace slackened as he neared it, and he went by gazing furtively at the drawn blinds of the front windows. A feeling of regret that Joan Hartley should be missing such a delightful morning would not be denied; in imagination he saw himself strolling by her side and pointing out to her the beauties of the most unfrequented portions of the river bank. A sudden superstitious trust in fate—caught possibly from Captain Trimblett—made him turn and walk slowly past the house again. With an idea of giving fate another chance he repeated the performance. In all he passed eight times, and was about to enter upon the ninth, when he happened to look across the road and saw, to his annoyance, the small figure of Bassett speeding toward him.
"He is not down yet, sir," said Bassett, respectfully.
Mr. Vyner suppressed his choler by an effort.
"Oh!" he said, stiffly. "Well?"
Bassett drew back in confusion. "I—I saw you walk up and down several times looking at the house, sir, and I thought it my duty to come and tell you," he replied.
Mr. Vyner regarded him steadfastly. "Thank you," he said, at last. "And how is it that you are out at such an early hour, prowling about like a raging lion looking for its breakfast?"
"I wasn't, sir," said Bassett; "I shall have my breakfast when I get home, at eight o'clock. I always get up at six; then I make sure of two hours in the fresh air."
"And what time do you close your eyes on the world and its vanities?" inquired Mr. Vyner, with an appearance of great interest.
"I always go to bed as the clock strikes ten, sir," said the youth.
"And suppose—suppose the clock should be wrong one day?" suggested the other, "would you apprehend any lasting injury to your constitution?"
"It couldn't be, sir," said Bassett; "I wind it myself."
Mr. Vyner regarded him more thoughtfully than before. "I can foresee," he said, slowly, "that you will grow up a great and good and wise man, unless—"
"Yes, sir," said Bassett, anxiously.
"Unless somebody kills you in the meantime," concluded Mr. Vyner. "It is not fair to tempt people beyond their strength, Bassett. Even a verdict of 'Justifiable homicide' might not quite ease the slayer's conscience."
"No, sir," said the perplexed youth.
Mr. Vyner suddenly dropped his bantering air.
"How was it I didn't see you?" he demanded, sternly.
"I don't think you looked my side of the road, sir," said Bassett. "You were watching Mr. Hartley's windows all the time; and, besides, I was behind that hedge."
He pointed to a well-trimmed privet hedge in a front garden opposite.
"Behind the hedge?" repeated the other, sharply. "What were you there for?"
"Watching a snail, sir," replied Bassett.
"A what?" inquired Mr. Vyner, raising his voice.
"A snail, sir," repeated the youth. "I've got a book on natural history, and I've just been reading about them. I saw this one as I was passing, and I went inside to study its habits. They are very interesting little things to watch—very."
Fortified by the approval of a conscience that never found fault, he met the searchlight gaze that the junior partner turned upon him without flinching. Quite calm, although somewhat puzzled by the other's manner, he stood awaiting his pleasure.
"Yes," said Robert Vyner, at last; "very interesting indeed, I should think; but you have forgotten one thing, Bassett. When secreted behind a hedge watching one of these diverting little—er——"
"Gasteropodous molluscs, sir," interjected Bassett, respectfully.
"Exactly," said the other. "Just the word I was trying to think of. When behind a hedge watching them it is always advisable to whistle as loudly and as clearly as you can."
"I never heard that, sir," said Bassett, more and more perplexed. "It's not in my book, but I remember once reading, when I was at school, that spiders are sometimes attracted by the sound of a flute."
"A flute would do," said Mr. Vyner, still watching him closely; "but a cornet would be better still. Good-morning."
He left Bassett gazing after him round-eyed, and, carefully refraining from looking at Hartley's windows, walked on at a smart pace. As he walked he began to wish that he had not talked so much; a vision of Bassett retailing the conversation of the morning to longer heads than his own in the office recurring to him with tiresome persistency. And, on the other hand, he regretted that he had not crossed the road and made sure that there was a snail.
Busy with his thoughts he tramped on mechanically, until, pausing on a piece of high ground to admire the view, he was surprised to see that the town lay so far behind. At the same time sudden urgent promptings from within bore eloquent testimony to the virtues of early rising and exercise as aids to appetite. With ready obedience he began to retrace his steps.
The business of the day was just beginning as he entered the outskirts of the town again. Blinds were drawn aside and maid-servants busy at front doors. By the time he drew near Laurel Lodge—the name was the choice of a former tenant—the work of the day had begun in real earnest. Instinctively slackening his pace, he went by the house with his eyes fastened on the hedge opposite, being so intent on what might, perhaps, be described as a visual alibi for Bassett's benefit, in case the lad still happened to be there, that he almost failed to notice that Hartley was busy in his front garden and that Joan was standing by him. He stopped short and bade them "Good-morning."
Mr. Hartley dropped his tools and hastened to the gate. "Good-morning," he said, nervously; "I hope that there is nothing wrong. I went a little way to try and find you."
"Find me?" echoed Mr. Vyner, reddening, as a suspicion of the truth occurred to him.
"Bassett told me that you had been walking up and down waiting to see me," continued Hartley.
"I dressed as fast as I could, but by that time you were out of sight."
Facial contortions, in sympathy with the epithets he was mentally heaping upon the head of Bassett, disturbed for a moment the serenity of Mr. Vyner's countenance. A rapid glance at Miss Hartley helped him to regain his composure.
"I don't know why the boy should have been so officious," he said, slowly; "I didn't want to see you. I certainly passed the house on my way. Oh, yes, and then I thought of going back—I did go a little way back—then I altered my mind again. I suppose I must have passed three times."
"I was afraid there was something wrong," said Hartley. "I am very glad it is all right. I'll give that lad a talking to. He knocked us all up and said that you had been walking up and down for twenty-three minutes."
The generous colour in Mr. Vyner's cheeks was suddenly reflected in Miss Hartley's. Their eyes met, and, feeling exceedingly foolish, he resolved to put a bold face on the matter.
"Bassett is unendurable," he said, with a faint laugh, "and I suspect his watch. Still, I must admit that I did look out for you, because I thought if you were stirring I should like to come in and see what sort of a mess I made last night. Was it very bad?"
"N-no," said Hartley; "no; it perhaps requires a little attention. Half an hour or so will put it right."
"I should like to see my handiwork by daylight," said Robert.
Hartley opened the garden-gate and admitted him, and all three, passing down the garden, stood gravely inspecting the previous night's performance. It is to be recorded to Mr. Vyner's credit that he coughed disparagingly as he eyed it.
"Father says that they only want taking up and replanting," said Joan, softly, "and the footmarks caked over, and the mould cleared away from the path. Except for that your assistance was invaluable."
"I—I didn't quite say that," said Hartley, mildly.
"You ought to have, then," said Robert, severely. "I had no idea it was so bad. You'll have to give me some lessons and see whether I do better next time. Or perhaps Miss Hartley will; she seems to be all right, so far as the theory of the thing goes."
Hartley smiled uneasily, and to avoid replying, moved off a little way and became busy over a rosebush.
"Will you?" inquired Mr. Vyner, very softly. "I believe that I could learn better from you than from anybody; I should take more interest in the work. One wants sympathy from a teacher."
Miss Hartley shook her head. "You had better try a three months' course at Dale's Nurseries," she said, with a smile. "You would get more sympathy from them than from me."
"I would sooner learn from you," persisted Robert.
"I could teach you all I know in half an hour," said the girl.
Mr. Vyner drew a little nearer to her. "You overestimate my powers," he said, in a low voice. "You have no idea how dull I can be; I am sure it would take at least six months."
"That settles it, then," said Joan. "I shouldn't like a dull pupil."
Mr. Vyner drew a little nearer still. "Perhaps—perhaps 'dull' isn't quite the word," he said, musingly.
"It's not the word I should—" began Joan, and stopped suddenly.
"Thank you," murmured Mr. Vyner. "It's nice to be understood. What word would you use?"
Miss Hartley, apparently interested in her father's movements, made no reply.
"Painstaking?" suggested Mr. Vyner; "assiduous? attentive? devoted?"
Miss Hartley, walking toward the house, affected not to hear. 'A fragrant smell of coffee, delicately blended with odour of grilled bacon, came from the open door and turned his thoughts to more mundane things. Mr. Hartley joined them just as the figure of Rosa appeared at the door. "Breakfast is quite ready, miss," she announced.
She stood looking at them, and Mr. Vyner noticed an odd, strained appearance about her left eye which he attributed to a cast. A closer inspection made him almost certain that she was doing her best to wink.
"I laid for three, miss," she said, with great simplicity. "You didn't say whether the gentleman was going to stop or not; and there's no harm done if he don't."
Mr. Hartley started, and in a confused fashion murmured something that sounded like an invitation; Mr. Vyner, in return murmuring something about "goodness" and "not troubling them," promptly followed Joan through the French windows of the small dining-room.
"It's awfully kind of you," he said, heartily, as he seated himself opposite his host; "as a matter of fact I'm half famished."
He made a breakfast which bore ample witness to the truth of his statement; a meal with long intervals of conversation. To Hartley, who usually breakfasted in a quarter of an hour, and was anxious to start for the office, it became tedious in the extreme, and his eyes repeatedly sought the clock. He almost sighed with relief as the visitor took the last piece of toast in the rack, only to be plunged again into depression as his daughter rang the bell for more. Unable to endure it any longer he rose and, murmuring something about getting ready, quitted the room.
"I'm afraid I'm delaying things," remarked Mr. Vyner, looking after him apologetically.
Miss Hartley said, "Not at all," and, as a mere piece of convention, considering that he had already had four cups, offered him some more coffee. To her surprise he at once passed his cup up. She looked at the coffee-pot and for a moment thought enviously of the widow's cruse.
"Only a little, please," he said. "I want it for a toast."
"A toast?" said the girl.
Mr. Vyner nodded mysteriously. "It is a solemn duty," he said, impressively, "and I want you to drink it with me. Are you ready? 'Bassett, the best of boys!'"
Joan Hartley, looking rather puzzled, laughed, and put the cup to her lips. Robert Vyner put his cup down and regarded her intently.
"Do you know why we drank his health?" he inquired.
"Because," said Robert, pausing for a moment to steady his voice, "because, if it hadn't been for his officiousness, I should not be sitting here with you."
He leaned toward her. "Do you wish that you had not drunk it?" he asked.
Joan Hartley raised her eyes and looked at him so gravely that the mischief, with which he was trying to disguise his nervousness, died out of his face and left it as serious as her own. For a moment her eyes, clear and truthful, met his.
"No," she said, in a low voice.
And at that moment Rosa burst into the room with two pieces of scorched bread and placed them upon the table. Unasked, she proffered evidence on her own behalf, and with great relish divided the blame between the coal merchant, the baker, and the stove. Mr. Hartley entered the room before she had done herself full justice, and Vyner, obeying a glance from Joan, rose to depart.