by W. W. Jacobs

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TO the great relief of Mr. Truefitt's imagination, his sister suddenly ceased from all comment upon the irregularity of his hours. Unprepared, by the suddenness of the change, he recited mechanically, for the first day or two, the reasons he had invented for his lateness, but their reception was of so chilling a nature that his voice was scarcely audible at the finish. Indeed, when he came home one evening with a perfectly true story of a seaman stabbed down by the harbour, Mrs. Chinnery yawned three times during the narration, and Captain Trimblett shook his head at him.

"True or not," said the latter, after Mrs. Chinnery had left the room, "it doesn't matter. It isn't worth while explaining when explanations are not asked for."

"Do you think she knows?" inquired Mr. Truefitt, with bated voice.

"She knows something," replied the captain. "I believe she knows all about it, else she wouldn't keep so quiet. Why not tell her straight out? Tell her when she comes in, and get it over. She's got to know some day."

"Poor Susan!" said Mr. Truefitt, with feeling. "I'm afraid she'll feel it. It's not nice to have to leave home to make room for somebody else. And she won't stay in it with another woman, I'm certain."

"Here she comes," said the captain, getting up. "I'll go out for a little stroll, and when I come back I shall expect to find you've made a clean breast of it."

Mr. Truefitt put out a hand as though to detain him, and then, thinking better of it, nodded at him with an air of great resolution, and puffed furiously at his pipe. Under cover of clouds of smoke he prepared for the encounter.

Closing the door gently behind him, the captain, after a moment's indecision, drifted down the road. A shower of rain had brought out sweet odours from the hedgerow opposite, and a touch of salt freshened the breeze that blew up the river. Most of the inhabitants of the Vale were in bed, and the wet road was lonely under the stars. He walked as far as a little bridge spanning a brook that ran into the river, and seating himself on the low parapet smoked thoughtfully. His mind went back to his own marriage many years before, and to his children, whom he had placed, on his wife's death, with a second cousin in London. An unusual feeling of loneliness possessed him. He smoked a second pipe and then, knocking the ashes out on the bridge, walked slowly homeward.

Mr. Truefitt, who was sitting alone, looked up as he entered and smiled vaguely.

"All right?" queried the captain, closing the door and crossing to a chair.

"Right as ninepence," said Mr. Truefitt. "I've been worrying myself all this time for nothing. Judging by her manner, she seemed to think it was the most natural and proper thing in the world."

"So it is," said the captain, warmly.

"She talked about it as calmly as though she had a brother married every week," continued Mr. Truefitt. "I don't suppose she has quite realized it yet."

"I don't know that I have," said the captain. "This has been the only home I've had for the last ten years; and I feel leaving it, what must it be for her?"

Mr. Truefitt shook his head.

"I'm beginning to feel old," said the captain, "old and lonely. Changes like this bring it home to one."

He took out his pouch, and shaking his head solemnly began to fill his pipe again.

"You ought to follow my example," said Mr. Truefitt, eagerly.

"Too old," said the captain.

"Nonsense!" said the other. "And the older you get, the lonelier you'll feel. Mind that!"

"I shall go and live with my boys and girls when I leave the sea," said the captain.

"They'll probably be married themselves by that time," said his comforter.

He rose, and, going to an old corner cupboard, took out a bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses and put them on the table. The captain, helping himself liberally, emptied his glass to Miss Willett.

"She's coming to tea on Friday, with her mother," said Mr. Truefitt.

Captain Trimblett took some more whiskey and solemnly toasted Mrs. Willett. He put his glass down, and lighting his pipe, which had gone out, beamed over at his friend.

"Are there any more in the family?" he inquired.

"There's an uncle," said Mr. Truefitt, slowly, "and——"

"One at a time," said the captain, stopping him with one hand raised, while he helped himself to some more whiskey with the other. "The uncle!"

He drank the third glass slowly, and, sinking back in his chair, turned to his friend with a countenance somewhat flushed and wreathed in smiles.

"Who else?" he inquired.

"No more to-night," said Mr. Truefitt, firmly, as he got up and put the bottle back in the cupboard. He came back slowly, and, resuming his seat, gazed in a meditative fashion at his friend.

"Talking about your loneliness—" he began.

"My loneliness?" repeated the captain, staring at "You were talking about feeling lonely," Mr. Truett reminded him.

He proceeded with almost equal care to assist her mother

"So I was," said the captain. "So I was. You're quite right; but it's all gone now. It's wonderful what a little whiskey will do."

"Wonderful what a lot will do," said Mr. Truefitt, with sudden asperity. "You were talking about your loneliness, and I was advising you to get married."

"So you were," said the captain, nodding at him. "Good-night."

He went off to bed with a suddenness that was almost disconcerting. Thus deserted, Mr. Truefitt finished his whiskey and water and, his head full of plans for the betterment of everybody connected with him, blew out the lamp and went upstairs.

Owing possibly to his efforts in this direction Captain Trimblett and Mrs. Chinnery scarcely saw him until Friday afternoon, when he drove up in a fly, and, after handing out Miss Willett with great tenderness, proceeded with almost equal care to assist her mother. The latter, a fragile little old lady, was at once conducted to a chair and, having been comfortably seated was introduced to Mrs. Chinnery.

"It's a long way," she said, as her daughter divested her of her bonnet and shawl, "but Cissie would insist on my coming, and I suppose, after all, it's only right I should."

"Of course, mother," said Miss Willett, hurriedly.

"Right is right," continued the old lady, "after all is said and done. And I'm sure Mr. Truefitt has been to ours often enough."

Mr. Truefitt coughed, and the captain—a loyal friend—assisted him.

"Night after night," said the old lady, during a brief interval.

Mr. Truefitt, still coughing slightly, began to place chairs at a table on which, as the captain presently-proved to his own dissatisfaction, there was not even; room for a pair of elbows. At the last moment the seating arrangements had to be altered owing to a leg of the table which got in the way of Mrs. Willett's. The captain, in his anxiety to be of service, lowered a leaf of the table too far, and an avalanche of food descended to the floor.

"It don't matter," said Mrs. Chinnery, in a voice that belied her words. "Captain Trimblett is always doing something like that. The last time we had visitors he—"

"Kept on eating the cake after she had shaken her head at me," interrupted the captain, who was busy picking up the provisions.

"Nothing of the kind," cried Mrs. Chinnery, who was in no mood for frivolity. "I shouldn't think of doing such a thing," she added, turning to Mrs. Willett, as the lady allowed herself to be placed in a more convenient position. "It's all Captain Trimblett's nonsense."

Mrs. Willett listened politely, "It is annoying, though," she remarked.

"He might eat all the cake in the house for what I care," said Mrs. Chinnery, turning very red, and raising her voice a little.

"As a matter of fact I don't like cake," said the captain, who was becoming uncomfortable.

"Perhaps it was something else," said the excellent Mrs. Willett, with the air of one assisting to unravel a mystery.

Mrs. Chinnery, who was pouring out tea, glared at her in silence. She also spared a glance for Captain Trimblett, which made that gentleman seriously uneasy. With an idea of turning the conversation into safer and more agreeable channels, he called the old lady's attention to a pencil drawing of a ruined castle which adorned the opposite wall. Mrs. Willett's first remark was that it had no roof.

"It's a ruin," said the captain; "done by Mrs. Chinnery."

The faded blue eyes behind the gold-rimmed spectacles inspected it carefully. "Done when she was a child—of course?" said Mrs. Willett.

"Eighteen," said Mrs. Chinnery, in a deep voice.

"I'm no judge of such things," said the old lady, shaking her head. "I only know what I like; but I dare say it's very clever."

She turned to help herself from a plate that the captain was offering her, and, finding that it contained cake, said that she would prefer bread and butter.

"Not that I don't like cake," she said. "As a rule I am rather partial to it."

"Well, have some now," said the unfortunate captain, trying to avoid Mrs. Chinnery's eye.

"Bread and butter, please," said Mrs. Willett, with quiet decision.

The captain passed it, and after a hopeless glance at Mr. Truefitt and Miss Willett, who were deep in the enjoyment of each other's society, returned to the subject of art.

"If I could draw like that, ma'am," he said, with a jerk of his head toward the ruined castle, "I should give up the sea."

Mrs. Willett inspected it again, even going to the length of taking off her glasses and polishing them, with a view to doing perfect justice to the subject. "Would you really?" she said, when she had finished.

The captain made no reply. He sat appalled at the way in which the old lady was using him to pay off some of the debt that she fancied was due to Mrs. Chinnery.

"You must see some of my daughter's pictures," she said, turning to him. "Fruit and birds mostly, in oil colours. But then, of course, she had good masters. There's one picture—let me see!"

She sat considering, and began to reel off the items on her fingers as she enumerated them. "There's a plate of oranges, with a knife and fork, a glass, a bottle, two and a half walnuts and bits of shell, three-quarters of an apple, a pipe, a cigar, a bunch of grapes, and a green parrot looking at it all with his head on one side."

"And very natural of him, too," murmured Mrs. Chinnery.

"It's coming here," interposed Mr. Truefitt, suddenly. "It belongs to Mrs. Willett, but she has given it to us. I wonder which will be the best place for it?"

The old lady looked round the room. "It will have to hang there," she said, pointing to the "Eruption of Vesuvius," "where that beehive is."

"Bee—!" exclaimed the startled captain. He bent toward her and explained.

"Oh, well, it don't matter," said the old lady. "I thought it was a beehive—it looks like one; and I can't see what's written under it from here. But that's where Cecilia's picture must go."

She made one or two other suggestions with regard to the rearrangement of the pictures, and then, having put her hand to the plough, proceeded to refurnish the room. And for her own private purposes she affected to think that Mr. Truefitt's taste was responsible for the window-curtains.

"Mother has got wonderful taste," said Miss Willett, looking round. "All over Salthaven her taste has become a—a—"

"Byword," suggested Mrs. Chinnery.

"Proverb," said Miss Willett. "Are you feeling too warm, mother?" she asked, eying the old lady with sudden concern.

"A little," said Mrs. Willett. "I suppose it's being used to big rooms. I always was one for plenty of space. It doesn't matter—don't trouble."

"It's no trouble," said Captain Trimblett, who was struggling with the window. "How is that?" he inquired, opening it a little at the top and returning to his seat.

"There is a draught down the back of my neck," said Mrs. Willett; "but don't trouble about me if the others like it. If I get a stiff neck Cecilia can rub it for me when I get home with a little oil of camphor."

"Yes, mother," said Miss Willett.

"I once had a stiff neck for three weeks," said Mrs. Willett.

The captain rose again and, with a compassionate glance at Mr. Truefitt, closed the window.

"One can't have everything in this world," said the old lady; "it ought to be a very cosey room in winter, You can't get too far away from the fire, I mean."

"It has done for us for a good many years now," said Mrs. Chinnery. "I've never heard Peter complain."

"He'd never complain," said Mrs. Willett, with a fond smile at her prospective son-in-law. "Why, he wouldn't know he was uncomfortable unless somebody told him."

Mrs. Chinnery pushed back her chair with a grating noise, strangely in harmony with her feelings, and, after a moment's pause to control her voice, suggested that the gentlemen should take the visitors round the garden while she cleared away—a proposal accepted by all but Mrs. Willett.

"I'll stay here and watch you," she said.

Captain Trimblett accompanied Mr. Truefitt and Miss Willett into the garden, and after pointing out the missing beauties of a figure-head in the next garden but one, and calling attention to the geraniums next door, left the couple to themselves. Side by side in the little arbour they sat gazing on to the river and conversing in low tones of their future happiness.

For some time the captain idled about the garden, keeping as far away from the arbour as possible, and doing his best to suppress a decayed but lively mariner named Captain Sellers, who lived two doors off. Among other infirmities the latter was nearly stone-deaf, and, after giving up as hopeless the attempt to make him understand that Mr. Truefitt and Miss Willett were not, the captain at last sought shelter in the house.

He found the table clear and a bowl of flowers placed in the exact centre. On opposite sides of the room, each with her hands folded in her lap, and both sitting bolt upright, Mrs. Willett and Mrs. Chinnery confronted each other. With a muttered reference to his ship, the captain took up his stick and fled.

He spent the evening in the billiard-room of the Golden Fleece, and did not return until late. A light in the room up-stairs and a shadow on the blind informed him that Mrs. Chinnery had retired. He stepped in quietly, and closed the door behind him. Mr. Truefitt, a picture of woe, was sitting in his usual place at the corner of the stove, and a supper-table, loaded with food, was untouched.

"Gone?" inquired the captain, scenting disaster.

"Some time ago," said Mr. Truefitt. "They wouldn't stay to supper. I wish you had been here to persuade them."

"I wish I had," said the captain, untruthfully.

He gave utterance to a faint sigh in token of sympathy with Mr. Truefitt's evident distress, and drew a chair to the table. He shook his head, and with marvellous accuracy, considering that his gaze was fastened on a piece of cold beef, helped himself to a wedge of steak-pie. He ate with an appetite, and after pouring out and drinking a glass of ale gazed again at the forlorn figure of Mr. Truefitt.

"Words?" he breathed, in a conspirator's whisper.

The other shook his head. "No; they were very polite," he replied, slowly.

The captain nearly emitted a groan. He checked it with two square inches of pie-crust.

"A misunderstanding," said Mr. Truefitt.

The captain said "Ah!" It was all he could say for the moment.

"A misunderstanding," said the other. "I misled Mrs. Willett," he added, in a tense whisper.

"Good heavens!" said the captain.

"She had always understood—from me," continued Mr. Truefitt, "that when I married Susanna would go. I always thought she would. Anybody who knew Susanna would have thought so. You would—wouldn't you?"

"In the ordinary way—yes," said the captain; "but circumstances alter cases."

"It came out—in conversation," said the hapless Mr. Truefitt, "that Susanna wouldn't dream of leaving me. It also came out that Mrs. Willett wouldn't dream of letting Cecilia marry me till she does. What's to be done?"

The captain took a slice of beef to assist thought. "You must have patience," he said, sagely.

"Patience!" said Mr. Truefitt, with unusual heat. "Patience be d—d! I'm fifty-two! And Cecilia's thirty-nine!"

"Time flies!" said the captain, who could think of nothing else to say.

Mr. Truefitt looked at him almost savagely. Then he sank back in his chair.

"It's a pity Susanna doesn't get married again," he said, slowly. "So far as I can see, that's the only way out of it. Cecilia said so to me just as she was leaving."

"Did she?" said the captain. He looked thoughtful, and Mr. Truefitt watched him anxiously. For some time he seemed undecided, and then, with the resolute air of a man throwing appearances to the winds, he drew an uncut tongue toward him and cut off a large slice.

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