MR. VYNER spent the remainder of the morning in a state of dreamy exaltation. He leaned back in his chair devising plans for a future in which care and sorrow bore no part, and neglected the pile of work on his table in favour of writing the name "Joan Vyner" on pieces of paper, which he afterward burnt in the grate. At intervals he jumped up and went to the window, in the faint hope that Joan might be passing, and once, in the highest of high spirits, vaulted over his table. Removing ink from his carpet afterward by means of blotting-paper was only an agreeable diversion.
By mid-day his mood had changed to one of extreme tenderness and humility, and he began to entertain unusual misgivings as to his worthiness. He went home to lunch depressed by a sense of his shortcomings; but, on his return, his soaring spirits got the better of him again. Filled with a vast charity, his bosom overflowing with love for all mankind, he looked about to see whom he could benefit; and Bassett entering the room at that moment was sacrificed without delay. Robert Vyner was ashamed to think that he should have left the lad's valuable services unrewarded for so long.
"It's a fine afternoon, Bassett," he said, leaning back and regarding him with a benevolent smile.
"Beautiful, sir," said the youth.
"Too fine to sit in a stuffy office," continued the other. "Put on you hat and go out and enjoy yourself."
"Sir?" said the amazed Bassett.
"Take a half holiday," said Vyner, still smiling.
"Thank you, sir," said Bassett, "but I don't care for holidays; and, besides, I've got a lot of work to do."
"Do it to-morrow," said Vyner. "Go on—out you go!"
"It can't be done to-morrow, sir," said the youth, almost tearfully. "I've got all the letters to copy, and a pile of other work. And besides I shouldn't know what to do with myself if I went."
Mr. Vyner eyed him in astonishment. "I'm sorry to find a tendency to disobedience in you, Bassett," he said, at last. "I've noticed it before. And as to saying that you wouldn't know what to do with yourself, it's a mere idle excuse."
"What time have I got to go, sir?" asked Bassett, resignedly.
"Time?" exclaimed the other. "Now, at once. Avaunt!"
The boy stood for a moment gazing at him in mute appeal, and then, moving with laggard steps to the door, closed it gently behind him. A sudden outbreak of four or five voices, all speaking at once, that filtered through the wall, satisfied Mr. Vyner that his orders were being obeyed.
Horrified at the grave charge of disobedience, Bassett distributed his work and left with what the junior clerk—whom he had constituted residuary legatee—considered unnecessary and indecent haste. The latter gentleman, indeed, to the youth's discomfiture, accompanied him as far as the entrance, and spoke eloquently upon the subject all the way downstairs. His peroration consisted almost entirely of a repetition of the words "lazy fat-head."
With this hostile voice still ringing in his ears Bas-sett strolled aimlessly about the streets of his native town. He spent some time at a stall in front of a second-hand bookshop, and was just deep in an enthralling romance, entitled "Story of a Lump of Coal," when a huge hand was laid upon his shoulder, and he turned to meet the admiring gaze of Mr. Walters.
"More book-larning," said the boatswain, in tones of deep respect. "It's a wonder to me that that head of yours don't bust."
"Heads don't burst," said Bassett. "The brain enlarges with use the same as muscles with exercise. They can't burst."
"I only wish I had arf your laming," said Mr. Walters; "just arf, and I should be a very different man to wot I am now. Well, so long."
"Where are you going?" inquired the youth, replacing the book.
"Seven Trees," replied the other, displaying a small parcel. "I've got to take this over there for the skipper. How far do you make it?"
"Four miles," said Bassett. "I'll come with you, if you like."
"Wot about the office?" inquired the boatswain, in surprise.
Bassett, explained, and a troubled expression appeared on the seaman's face as he listened. He was thinking of the last conversation he had had with the youth, and the hearty way in which he had agreed with him as to the pernicious action of malt and other agreeable liquors on the human frame. He remembered that he had committed himself to the statement that wild horses could not make him drink before six in the evening, and then not more than one half-pint.
"It's a long walk for a 'ot day," he said, slowly. "It might be too much for you."
"Oh, no; I'm a good walker," said Bassett.
"Might be too much for that head of yours," said Mr. Walters, considerately.
"I often walk farther than that," was the reply.
Mr. Walters drew the back of his hand across a mouth which was already dry, and resigned himself to his fate. He had lied quite voluntarily, and pride told him that he must abide by the consequences. And eight miles of dusty road lay between him and relief. He strode along stoutly, and tried to turn an attentive ear to a dissertation on field-mice. At the end of the first mile he saw the sign of the Fox and Hounds peeping through the trees, and almost unconsciously slackened his pace as he remembered that it was the last inn on the road to Seven Trees.
"It's very 'ot," he murmured, mopping his brow with his sleeve, "and I'm as dry as a bone."
"I'm thirsty, too," said Bassett; "but you know the cure for it, don't you?"
"O' course I do," said the boatswain, and nearly smacked his lips.
"Soldiers do it on the march," said Bassett.
"I've seen 'em," said Mr. Walters, grinning.
"A leaden bullet is the best thing," said Bassett, stooping and picking up a pebble, which he polished on his trousers, "but this will do as well. Suck that and you won't be troubled with thirst."
The boatswain took it mechanically, and, after giving it another wipe on his own trousers, placed it with great care in his mouth. Bassett found another pebble and they marched on sucking.
"My thirst has quite disappeared," he said, presently. "How's yours?"
"Worse and worse," said Mr. Walters, gruffly.
"It'll be all right in a minute," said Bassett. "Perhaps I had the best pebble. If it isn't, perhaps we could get a glass of water at a cottage; athough it isn't good to drink when you are heated."
Mr. Walters made no reply, but marched on, marvelling at his lack of moral courage. Bassett, quite refreshed, took out his pebble, and after a grateful tribute to its properties placed it in his waistcoat pocket for future emergencies.
By the time they had reached Seven Trees and delivered the parcel Mr. Walters was desperate. The flattering comments that Bassett had made upon his common-sense and virtue were forgotten. Pleading fatigue he sat down by the roadside and, with his eyes glued to the open door of the Pedlar's Rest, began to hatch schemes of deliverance.
A faint smell of beer and sawdust, perceptible even at that distance, set his nostrils aquiver. Then he saw an old labourer walk from the bar to a table, bearing a mug of foaming ale. Human nature could endure no more, and he was just about to throw away a hard-earned character for truth and sobriety when better thoughts intervened. With his eyes fixed on the small figure by his side, he furtively removed the pebble from his mouth, and then with a wild cry threw out his arms and clutched at his throat.
"What's the matter?" cried Bassett, as the boatswain sprang to his feet.
"The stone," cried Mr. Walters, in a strangulated voice; "it's stuck in my throat."
Bassett thumped him on the back like one possessed. "Cough it up!" he cried. "Put your finger down! Cough!"
The boatswain waved his arms and gurgled. "I'm choking!" he moaned, and dashed blindly into the inn, followed by the alarmed boy.
"Pot—six ale!" he gasped, banging on the little counter.
The landlord eyed him in speechless amazement.
"Six ale!" repeated the boatswain. "Pot! Quick! G-r-r."
"You be off," said the landlord, putting down a glass he was wiping, and eying him wrathfully. "How dare you come into my place like that? What do you mean by it?"
"He has swallowed a pebble!" said Bassett, hastily.
"If he'd swallowed a brick I shouldn't be surprised," said the landlord, "seeing the state he's in. I don't want drunken sailors in my place; and, what's more, I won't have 'em."
"Drunk?" said the unfortunate boatswain, raising his voice. "Me? Why, I ain't—"
"Out you go!" said the landlord, in a peremptory voice, "and be quick about it; I don't want people to say you got it here."
"Got it?" wailed Mr. Walters. "Got it? I tell you I ain't had it. I swallowed a stone."
"If you don't go out," said the landlord, as Mr. Walters, in token of good faith, stood making weird noises in his throat and rolling his eyes, "I'll have you put out. How dare you make them noises in my bar! Will—you—go?"
Mr. Walters looked at him, looked at the polished nickel taps, and the neat row of mugs on the shelves. Then, without a word, he turned and walked out.
"Has it gone down?" inquired Bassett presently, as they walked along.
"Wot?" said the boatswain, thoughtlessly.
"I s'pose so," said the other, sourly.
"I should think it would be all right, then," said the boy; "foreign bodies, even of considerable size, are often swallowed with impunity. How is your thirst now?"
The boatswain stopped dead in the middle of the road and stood eying him suspiciously, but the mild eyes behind the glasses only betrayed friendly solicitude. He grunted and walked on.
By the time the Fox and Hounds came in sight again he had resolved not to lose a reputation which entailed suffering. He clapped the boy on the back, and after referring to a clasp-knive which he remembered to have left on the grass opposite the Pedlar's Rest, announced his intention of going back for it. He did go back as far as a bend in the road, and, after watching Bassett out of sight, hastened with expectant steps into the inn.
He rested there for an hour, and, much refreshed, walked slowly into Salthaven. It was past seven o'clock, and somewhat at a loss how to spend the evening he was bending his steps toward the Lobster Pot, a small inn by the quay, when in turning a corner he came into violent collision with a fashionably attired lady.
"I beg pardon, ma'am," he stammered. "I'm very sorry. I didn't see where I was—Why! Halloa, yaller wig!"
Miss Jelks drew back and, rubbing, her arm, eyed him haughtily.
"Fancy you in a 'at like that," pursued the astonished boatswain. "No wonder I thought you was a lady. Well, and 'ow are you?"
"My health is very well, I thank you," returned Miss Jelks, stiffly.
"That's right," said the boatswain, heartily.
Conversation came suddenly to a standstill, and they stood eying each other awkwardly.
"It's a fine evening," said Mr. Walters, at last.
"Beautiful," said Rosa.
They eyed each other again, thoughtfully.
"You hurt my arm just now," said Rosa, rubbing it coquettishly. "You're very strong, aren't you?"
"Middling," said the boatswain.
"Very strong, I should say," said Rosa. "You've got such a broad chest and shoulders."
The boatswain inflated himself.
"And arms," continued Miss Jelks, admiringly. "Arms like—like—"
"Blocks o' wood," suggested the modest Mr. Walters, squinting at them complacently.
"Or iron," said Rosa. "Well, good-by; it's my evening out, and I mustn't waste it."
"Where are you going?" inquired the boatswain.
Miss Jelks shook her head. "I don't know," she said, softly.
"You can come with me if you like," said Mr. Walters, weighing his words carefully. "A little way. I ain't got nothing better to do."
Miss Jelks's eyes flashed, then with a demure smile she turned and walked by his side. They walked slowly up the street, and Mr. Walters's brows grew black as a series of troublesome coughs broke out behind. A glance over his shoulder showed him three tavern acquaintances roguishly shaking their heads at him.
"Arf a second," he said, stopping. "I'll give 'em something to cough about."
Rosa clutched his arm. "Not now; not while you are with me," she said, primly.
"Just one smack," urged the boatswain.
He looked round again and clenched his fists, as his friends, with their arms fondly encircling each other's waists, walked mincingly across the road. He shook off the girl's arm and stepped off the pavement as with little squeals, fondly believed to be feminine, they sought sanctuary in the Red Lion.
"They're not worth taking notice of," said Rosa.
She put a detaining hand through his arm again and gave it a little gentle squeeze. A huge feather almost rested on his shoulder, and the scent of eau-de-Cologne assailed his nostrils. He walked on in silent amazement at finding himself in such a position.
"It's nice to be out," said Rosa, ignoring a feeble attempt on his part to release his arm. "You've no idea how fresh the air smells after you've been shut up all day."
"You've got a comfortable berth, though, haven't you?" said Mr. Walters.
"Fairish," said Rosa. "There's plenty of work; but I like work—housework."
The boatswain said "Oh!"
"Some girls can't bear it," said Rosa, "but then, as I often say, what are they going to do when they get married?"
"Ah!" said the boatswain, with an alarmed grunt, and made another attempt to release his arm.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said Rosa, making a pretence of freeing him. "I'm afraid I'm leaning on you; but I sprained my ankle yesterday, and I thought—"
"All right," said Mr. Walters, gruffly.
"Thank you," said Rosa, and leaned on him heavily. "Housework is the proper thing for girls," she continued, with some severity. "Every girl ought to know how to keep her husband's house clean and cook nicely for him. But there—all they think about is love. What did you say?"
"Nothing," said Mr. Walters, hastily. "I didn't say a word."
"I don't understand it myself," said Rosa, takings an appraising glance at him from under the brim of her hat; "I can't think why people want to get married when they're comfortable."
"Me neither," said the boatswain.
"Being friends is all right," said Rosa, meditatively, "but falling in love and getting married always seemed absurd to me."
"Me too," said Mr. Walters, heartily.
With a mind suddenly at ease he gave himself over to calm enjoyment of the situation. He sniffed approvingly at the eau-de-Cologne, and leaned heavily toward the feather. Apparently without either of them knowing it, his arm began to afford support to Miss Jelks's waist. They walked on for a long time in silence.
"Some men haven't got your sense," said Rosa, at last, with a sigh. "There's a young fellow that brings the milk—nice young fellow I thought he was—and all because I've had a word with him now and again, he tried to make love to me."
"Oh, did he?" said Mr. Walters, grimly. "What's his name?"
"It don't matter," said Rosa. "I don't think he'll try it again."
"Still, I might as well learn 'im a lesson," said the boatswain. "I like a bit of a scrap."
"If you are going to fight everybody that tries to take notice of me you'll have your work cut out," said Miss Jelks, in tones of melancholy resignation, "and I'm sure it's not because I give them any encouragement. And as for the number that ask me to walk out with them—well, there!"
Mr. Walters showed his sympathy with such a state of affairs by a pressure that nearly took her breath away. They sat for an hour and a half on a bench by the river discussing the foolishness of young men.
"If any of them chaps trouble you again," he said, as they shook hands at the gate of Laurel Lodge, "you let me know. Do you have Sunday evening out too?"