NEARLY a week had elapsed since Robert Vyner's failure to give satisfaction as a light porter, and in all that time, despite his utmost efforts, he had failed to set eyes on Joan Hartley. In the hope of a chance encounter he divided his spare time between the narrow, crooked streets of Salthaven and the deck of the Indian Chief, but in vain. In a mysterious and highly unsatisfactory fashion Miss Hartley seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.
In these circumstances he manifested a partiality for the company of Mr. Hartley that was a source of great embarrassment to that gentleman, whose work rapidly accumulated while he sat in his old office discussing a wide range of subjects, on all of which the junior partner seemed equally at home and inclined to air views of the most unorthodox description. He passed from topic to topic with bewildering facility, and one afternoon glided easily and naturally from death duties to insect powder, and from that to maggots in rose-buds, almost before his bewildered listener could take breath. From rose-buds he discoursed on gardening—a hobby to which he professed himself desirous of devoting such few hours as could be spared from his arduous work as a member of the firm.
"I hear that your garden is the talk of Salthaven," he remarked.
Mr. Hartley, justly surprised, protested warmly.
"That's what I heard," said Mr. Vyner, doggedly.
Mr. Hartley admitted that his borders were good. He also gave favourable mention to his roses.
"My favourite flower," said Mr. Vyner, with enthusiasm.
"I'll bring you a bunch to-morrow, if you will let me," said Mr. Hartley, rising and turning toward the door.
The other stopped him with outstretched hand. "No, don't do that," he said, earnestly. "I hate cutting flowers. It seems such a—a—desecration."
Mr. Hartley, quite unprepared for so much feeling on the subject, gazed at him in astonishment.
"I should like to see them, too," said Robert, musingly, "very much."
The chief clerk, with a little deprecatory cough, got close to the door as a dim idea that there might be something after all in Captain Trimblett's warnings occurred to him.
"Yours are mostly standard roses, aren't they?" said the persevering Robert.
"Mostly," was the reply.
Mr. Vyner regarded him thoughtfully. "I suppose you don't care to let people see them for fear they should learn your methods?" he said, at last.
Mr. Hartley, coming away from the door, almost stuttered in his haste to disclaim such ungenerous sentiments. "I am always glad to show them," he said, emphatically, "and to give any information I can."
"I should like to see them some time," murmured Robert.
The other threw caution to the winds. "Any time," he said, heartily.
Mr. Vyner thanked him warmly, and, having got what he wanted, placed no further obstacles in the way of his withdrawal. He bought a book entitled "Roses and How to Grow Them" the same afternoon and the next evening called to compare his knowledge with Mr. Hartley's.
Mr. Hartley was out; Miss Hartley was out; but at Rosa's invitation he went in to await their return. At her further suggestion—due to a habit she had of keeping her ears open and a conversation between her master and Captain Trimblett on the previous evening—he went into the garden to see the flowers.
"The other one's there," said Rosa, simply, as she showed him the way.
Mr. Vyner started, but a glance at Rosa satisfied him that there was all to lose and nothing to gain by demanding an explanation which she would be only too ready to furnish. With an air of cold dignity he strolled down the garden.
A young man squatting in a painful attitude at the edge of a flower-bed paused with his trowel in the air and eyed him with mingled consternation and disapproval. After allowing nearly a week to elapse since his last visit, Mr. Saunders, having mustered up sufficient courage to come round for another lesson in horticulture, had discovered to his dismay that both Mr. Hartley and his daughter had engagements elsewhere. That his evening should not be given over to disappointment entirely, however, the former had set him a long and arduous task before taking his departure.
"Don't let me interrupt you," said Mr. Vyner, politely, as the other rose and straightened himself. "What are you doing—besides decapitating worms?"
"Putting in these plants," said Mr. Saunders, resentfully.
Mr. Vyner eyed them with the eye of a connoisseur, and turning one over with his stick shook his head disparagingly. For some time he amused himself by walking up and down the garden inspecting the roses, and then, lighting a cigarette, threw himself at full length on to a garden bench that stood near Mr. Saunders and watched him at work.
"Fascinating pursuit," he remarked, affably.
Mr. Saunders grunted; Mr. Vyner blew out a thin thread of smoke toward the sky and pondered.
"Fine exercise; I wish I could get fond of it," he remarked.
"Perhaps you could if you tried," said the other, without looking round.
"After all," said Mr. Vyner, thoughtfully; "after all, perhaps it does one just as much good to watch other people at it. My back aches with watching you, and my knees are stiff with cramp. I suppose yours are, too?"
Mr. Saunders made no reply. He went on stolidly with his work until, reaching over too far with the trowel, he lost his balance and pitched forward on to his hands. Somewhat red in the face he righted himself, and knocking the mould off his hands, started once more.
"Try, try, try again," quoted the admiring onlooker.
"Perhaps you'd like to take a turn," said Mr. Saunders, looking round and speaking with forced politeness.
Mr. Vyner shook his head, and, helping himself to another cigarette, proffered the case to the worker, and, on that gentleman calling attention to the grimy condition of his hands, stuck one in his mouth and lit it for him. Considerably mollified by these attentions, the amateur gardener resumed his labours with a lighter heart.
Joan Hartley, returning half an hour later, watched them for some time from an upper window, and then, with a vague desire to compel the sprawling figure on the bench to get up and do a little work, came slowly down the garden.
"You are working too hard, Mr. Saunders," she remarked, after Mr. Vyner had shaken hands and the former had pleaded the condition of his.
"He likes it," said Mr. Vyner.
"At any rate, it has got to be finished," said Mr. Saunders.
Miss Hartley looked at them, and then at the work done and the heap of plants still to go in. She stood tapping the ground thoughtfully with her foot.
"I expect that we are only interrupting him by standing here talking to him," said Robert Vyner, considerately. "No doubt he is wishing us anywhere but here; only he is too polite to say so."
Ignoring Mr. Saunders's fervent protestations, he took a tentative step forward, as though inviting Miss Hartley to join him; but she stood firm.
"Will you give me the trowel, please?" she said, with sudden decision.
Before Mr. Saunders could offer any resistance she took it from him, and stooping gracefully prepared to dig. Mr. Vyner interposed with some haste.
"Allow me," he said.
Miss Hartley placed the trowel in his hands at once, and with her lips curved in a slight smile stood watching his efforts. By almost imperceptible degrees she drew away from him and, attended by the devoted Mr. Saunders, sauntered slowly about the garden. The worker, glaring sideways, watched them as they roamed from flower to flower. The low murmur of their voices floated on the still air, and once or twice he heard Miss Hartley laugh with great distinctness.
Apparently engrossed with his task, Mr. Vyner worked cheerfully for ten minutes. The hand that held the trowel was so far fairly clean, and he was about to use it to take out a cigarette when he paused, and a broad smile spread slowly over his features. He put down the trowel, and, burrowing in the wet earth with both hands, regarded the result with smiling satisfaction. The couple came toward him slowly, and Mr. Saunders smiled in his turn as he saw the state of the other's hands.
"I beg your pardon," said Mr. Vyner, standing up as Miss Hartley came close; "I wish you would do something for me."
"Yes?" said Joan.
"I want a cigarette."
The girl looked puzzled. "Yes?" she said again.
Mr. Vyner, grave as a judge, held up his disgraceful hands. "They are in a case in the inside pocket of my coat," he said, calmly.
Miss Hartley drew back a pace. "Perhaps Mr. Saunders could help you," she said, hastily.
Mr. Vyner shook his head. "His hands are worse than mine," he said, mournfully.
He held up his arm so that his coat opened a little more, and Miss Hartley, after a moment's hesitation, thrust a small hand into his pocket and drew out the case.
"To open it you press the catch," said Mr. Vyner.
Miss Hartley pressed, and the case flew open. She stood holding it before him, and Mr. Vyner, with a helpless gesture, again exhibited his hands.
"If you would complete your kindness by putting one in my mouth," he murmured.
For a few moments she stood in a state of dazed indecision; then, slowly extracting a cigarette from the case, she placed it between his lips with a little jab that made it a failure, as a smoke, from the first. Mr. Saunders, who had been watching events with a brooding eye, hastily struck a match and gave him a light, and Mr. Vyner, with an ill-concealed smile, bent down to his work again. He was pleased to notice that though the conversation between the others still proceeded, after a fitful fashion, Miss Hartley laughed no more.
He worked on steadily, and trampled ground and broken plants bore witness to his industry. He was just beginning to feel that he had done enough gardening for that day, when the return of Mr. Hartley brought welcome relief. The astonishment of the latter at finding this new and unlooked-for assistance was at first almost beyond words. When he could speak he thanked him brokenly for his trouble and, depriving him of his tools, took him indoors to wash.
"He means well," he said, slowly, after Mr. Vyner had at last taken his departure; "he means well, but I am afraid Mr. John wouldn't like it."
Miss Hartley flushed. "We didn't ask him to come," she said, with spirit.
"No," said her father, plucking at his beard, and regarding her with a troubled expression. "No; I'm afraid that he is one of those young men that don't want much asking."