SMILING despite herself as she thought over the events of the afternoon, Joan Hartley walked thoughtfully homeward. Indignation at Mr. Vyner's presumption was mingled with regret that a young man of undeniably good looks and somewhat engaging manners should stoop to deceit. The fact that people are considered innocent until proved guilty did not concern her. With scarcely any hesitation she summed up against him, the only thing that troubled her being what sentence to inflict, and how to inflict it. She wondered what excuse he could make for such behaviour, and then blushed hotly as she thought of the one he would probably advance. Confused at her own thoughts, she quickened her pace, in happy ignorance of the fact that fifty yards behind her Captain Trimblett and her father, who had witnessed with great surprise her leave-taking of Mr. Vyner, were regulating their pace by hers.
"She's a fine girl," said the captain, after a silence that had endured long enough to be almost embarrassing. "A fine girl, but—"
He broke off, and completed his sentence by a shake of the head.
"She must have come for me," said Hartley, "and he happened to be standing there and told her I had gone."
"No doubt," said the captain, dryly. "That's why she went scurrying off as though she had got a train to catch, and he stood there all that time looking after her. And, besides, every time he sees me, in some odd fashion your name crops up."
"My name?" said the other, in surprise.
"Your name," repeated the captain, firmly, "Same as Joan's, ain't it? The after-part of it, anyway. That's the attraction. Talk all round you—and I talk all round you, too. Nobody'd dream you'd got a daughter to hear the two of us talk—sometimes. Other times, if I bring her name in, they'd think you'd got nothing else."
Mr. Hartley glanced at him uneasily. "Perhaps—" he began.
"There's no 'perhaps' about it," said the masterful captain. "If you're not very careful there'll be trouble. You know what Mr. John is—he's got big ideas, and the youngster is as obstinate as a mule."
"It's all very well," said Hartley, "but how can I be careful? What can I do? Besides, I dare say you are making mountains of mole-heaps; she probably hurried off thinking to catch me up."
Captain Trimblett gave a little dry cough. "Ask her," he said, impressively.
"I'm not going to put any such ideas into her head," said his friend.
"Sound her, then," said the captain. "This is the way I look at it. We all think he is a very nice fellow, don't we?"
"He is," said Hartley, decidedly.
"And we all think she's a splendid girl, don't we?" continued the other.
"Something of the sort," said Hartley, smiling.
"There you are, then," said the captain, triumphantly. "What is more likely than that they should think the same of each other? Besides, I know what he thinks; I can read him like a book."
"You can't read Joan, though," said the other. "Why, she often puzzles me."
"I can try," said the captain. "I haven't known her all these years for nothing. Now, don't tell her we saw her. You leave her to me—and listen."
"Better leave her alone," said Hartley.
The captain, who was deep in thought, waved the suggestion aside. He walked the remainder of the way in silence, and even after they were in the house was so absorbed in his self-appointed task, and so vague in his replies, that Joan, after offering him the proverbial penny for his thoughts, suggested to her father in a loud whisper that he had got something in mind.
"Thinking of the ships he has lost," she said, in a still louder whisper.
The captain smiled and shook his head at her.
"Couldn't lose a ship if I tried," he said, nudging Hartley to call his attention to what was to follow. "I was saying so to Mr. Robert only yesterday!"
His voice was so deliberate, and his manner so significant, that Miss Hartley looked up in surprise. Then she coloured furiously as she saw both gentlemen eying her with the air of physicians on the lookout for unfavourable symptoms. Anger only deepened her colour, and an unladylike and unfilial yearning to bang their two foolish heads together possessed her. Explanations were impossible, and despite her annoyance she almost smiled as she saw the concern in the eye the captain turned on her father.
"Saying so only yesterday," repeated the former, "to Mr. Robert."
"I saw him this afternoon," said Joan, with forced composure. "I went up to father's room and found him there. Why didn't you tell me you had given up your room, father?"
Mr. Hartley pleaded in excuse that he thought he had told her, and was surprised at the vehemence of her denial. With a slightly offended air he pointed out that it was a very small matter after all.
"There is nothing to be annoyed about," he said.
"You went there to see me, and, not finding me there, came down again."
"Ye-es," said Joan, thoughtfully.
"Just put her head in at the door and fled," explained the captain, still watching her closely.
Miss Hartley appeared not to have heard him.
"Came down three stairs at a time," he continued, with a poor attempt at a chuckle.
"I was there about half an hour waiting for father," said Joan, eying him very steadily. "I thought that he was in the other office. Is there anything else I can tell you?"
The captain collapsed suddenly, and, turning a red face upon Hartley, appealed to him mutely for succour.
"Me?" he spluttered, feebly. "I—I don't want to know anything. Your father thought—"
"I didn't think anything," said Hartley, with some haste.
The captain eyed him reproachfully. "I thought your father thought—" he began, and, drawing out a large handkerchief, blew his nose violently.
"Yes?" said Joan, still very erect.
"That is all," said the captain, with an air of dignity.
He brushed some imaginary atoms from his beard, and, finding the girl's gaze still somewhat embarrassing, sought to relieve the tension.
"I've known you since you were five," he said, with inconsequent pathos.
"I know," said Joan, smiling, and putting her hand on his broad shoulder. "You're a dear old stupid; that is all."
"Always was," said the relieved captain, "from a child."
He began, with a cheerful countenance, to narrate anecdotes of his stupidity until, being interrupted by Hartley with one or two choice examples that he had forgotten, he rose and muttered something about seeing the garden. His progress was stayed by a knock at the front door and an intimation from Rosa that he was wanted.
"My bo'sun," he said, reentering the room with a letter. "Excuse me."
He broke the seal, and turned to Hartley with a short laugh. "Peter Truefitt," he said, "wants me to meet him at nine o'clock and go home together, pretending that he has been here with me. Peter is improving."
"But he can't go on like this forever," said his scandalized friend.
"He's all right," said the captain, with a satisfied wink. "I'm looking after him. I'm stage-manager. I'll see——"
His voice faltered, and then died away as he caught Miss Hartley's eye and noticed the air of artless astonishment with which she was regarding him.
"Always was from a child," she quoted.
The captain ignored her.
"I'll just give Walters a note," he said, turning to Hartley with some dignity. "You don't mind his waiting?"
He turned to a small writing-table, and with an air of preoccupation, assumed for Miss Hartley's benefit, began to try a pen on his thumb-nail. Hartley, going to the door, sent the boatswain off to the kitchen for a glass of ale.
"Or perhaps you prefer tea?" he added, thoughtfully.
"Ale will do, sir," said Mr. Walters, humbly.
He walked to the kitchen, and, pushing the door open softly, went in. Rosa Jelks, who was sitting down reading, put aside her book and smiled welcome.
"Sit down," she said, patronizingly; "sit down."
"I was going to," said Mr. Walters. "I'm to 'ave a glass of ale."
"Say 'please,'" said Rosa, shaking her yellow locks at him, and rising to take a glass from the dresser.
She walked into the scullery humming a tune, and the pleasant sound of beer falling into a glass fell on the boatswain's ears. He stroked his small black moustache and smiled.
"Would you like me to take a sip at the glass first?" inquired Rosa, coming back carefully with a brimming glass, "just to give it a flavour?"
Mr. Walters stared at her in honest amazement. After a moment he remarked gruffly that the flavour of the ale itself was good enough for him. Rosa's eyes sparkled.
"Just a sip," she pleaded.
"Go on, then," said Mr. Walters, grudgingly.
"Chin, chin!" said Rosa.
The boatswain's face relaxed. Then it hardened suddenly and a dazed look crept into his eyes as Rosa, drinking about two-thirds of the ale, handed him the remainder.
"That's for your impudence," she said, sharply. "I don't like beer."
Mr. Walters, still dazed, finished the beer without a word and placed the glass on the table. A faint sigh escaped him, but that was all.
"Bear!" said Rosa, making a face at him.
She looked at his strong, lean face and powerful figure approvingly, but the bereaved boatswain took no notice.
"Bear!" said Rosa again.
She patted her hair into place, and, in adjusting a hair-pin, permitted a long, thick tress to escape to her shoulder. She uttered a little squeal of dismay.
"False, ain't it?" inquired Mr. Walters, regarding her antics with some amazement.
"False!" exclaimed Rosa. "Certainly not. Here! Tug!"
She presented her shoulder to the boatswain, and he, nothing loath, gave a tug, animated by the loss of two-thirds of a glass of beer. The next instant a loud slap rang through the kitchen.
"And I'd do it again for two pins," said the outraged damsel, as she regarded him with watering eyes. "Brute!"
She turned away, and, pink with annoyance, proceeded to arrange her hair in a small cracked glass that hung by the mantel-piece.
"I 'ad a cousin once," said Mr. Walters, thoughtfully, "that used to let her 'air down and sit on it. Tall gal, too, she was."
"So can I," snapped Rosa, rolling the tress up on her finger, holding it in place, and transfixing it with a hair-pin.
"H'm," said the boatswain.
"What d'ye mean by that?" demanded Rosa, sharply. "Do you mean to say I can't?"
"You might if you cut it off first," conceded Mr. Walters.
"Cut it off?" said Rosa, scornfully. "Here! Look here!"
She dragged out her hair-pins and with a toss of her head sent the coarse yellow locks flying. Then, straightening them slightly, she pulled out a chair and confronted him triumphantly. And at that moment the front-room bell rang.
"That's for you," said Mr. Walters, pointedly.
Rosa, who was already back at the glass, working with feverish haste, made no reply. The bell rang again, and a third time, Rosa finally answering it in a coiffure that looked like a hastily constructed bird's nest.
"There's your letter," she said, returning with a face still flushed. "Take it and go."
"Thankee," said the boatswain. "Was they very frightened?"
"Take it and go," repeated Rosa, with cold dignity. "Your young woman might be expecting you; pity to keep her waiting."
"I ain't got a young woman," said Mr. Walters, slowly.
"You surprise me!" said Rosa, with false astonishment.
"I never would 'ave one," said the boatswain, rising, and placing the letter in his breast-pocket. "I've got along all right for thirty years without 'em, and I ain't going to begin now."
"You must have broke a lot of hearts with disappointment," said Rosa.
"I never could see anything in young wimmen," said the boatswain, musingly. "Silly things, most of 'em. Always thinking about their looks; especially them as haven't got none."
He took up the empty glass and toyed with it thoughtfully.
"It's no good waiting," said Rosa; "you won't get no more beer; not if you stay here all night."
"So long!" said the boatswain, still playing with the glass. "So long! I know one or two that'll 'ave a fit pretty near when I tell 'em about you sitting on your 'air."
He put up his left arm instinctively, but Miss Jelks by a supreme effort maintained her calmness. Her eyes and colour were beyond her control, but her voice remained steady.
"So long!" she said, quietly. She took the glass from him and smiled. "If you like to wait a moment, I'll get you a little drop more," she said, graciously.
"Here's luck!" said Mr. Walters, as she returned with the glass. He drank it slowly and then, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, stood regarding her critically.
"Well, so long!" he said again, and, before the astonished maiden could resist, placed a huge arm about her neck and kissed her.
"You do that again, if you dare!" she gasped, indignantly, as she broke loose and confronted him. "The idea!"
"I don't want to do it agin," said the boatswain. "I've 'ad a glass of ale, and you've 'ad a kiss. Now we're quits."
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand again and walked off with the air of a man who has just discharged an obligation. He went out the back way, and Rosa, to whom this sort of man was an absolutely new experience, stood gazing after him dumbly. Recovering herself, she followed him to the gate, and, with a countenance on which amazement still lingered, stood watching his tall figure up the road.