I HAVE been knocking for the last ten minutes," said Hartley, as he stood one evening at the open door of No. 5, Tranquil Vale, and looked up at Captain Trimblett.
"I was in the summer-house," said the captain, standing aside to let him enter.
"Alone?" queried the visitor.
"Alone? Yes, of course," said the captain, sharply. "Why shouldn't I be? Peter's courting—as usual."
"And Mrs. Chinnery?" inquired the other.
"She's away for a day or two," replied the captain; "friends at Marsham."
He stopped in the small kitchen to get some beer and glasses, and, with the bottle gripped under his arm and a glass in each hand, led the way to the summer-house.
"I came to ask your advice," said Hartley, as he slowly filled his pipe from the pouch the captain pushed toward him.
"Joan?" inquired the captain, who was carefully decanting the beer.
Mr. Hartley nodded.
"Robert Vyner?" pursued the captain.
Hartley nodded again.
"What did I tell you?" inquired the other, placing a full tumbler before him. "I warned you from the first. I told you how it would be. I——"
"It's no good talking like that," said Hartley, with feeble irritation. "You're as bad as my poor old grandmother; she always knew everything before it happened—at least, she said so afterward. What I want to know is: how is it to be stopped? He has been round three nights running."
"Your grandmother is dead, I suppose?" said the offended captain, gazing at the river. "Else she might have known what to do."
"I'm sorry," said Hartley, apologetically; "but I am so worried that I hardly know what I'm saying."
"That's all right," said the captain, amiably. He drank some beer and, leaning back on the seat, knitted his brows thoughtfully.
"He admired her from the first," he said, slowly. "I saw that. Does she like him, I wonder?"
"It looks like it," was the reply.
The captain shook his head. "They'd make a fine couple," he said, slowly. "As fine as you'd see anywhere. It's fate again. Perhaps he was meant to admire her; perhaps millions of years ago——"
"Yes, yes, I know," said Hartley, hastily; "but to prevent it."
"Fate can't be prevented," said the captain, who was now on his favourite theme. "Think of the millions of things that had to happen to make it possible for those two young people to meet and cause this trouble. That's what I mean. If only one little thing had been missing, one little circumstance out of millions, Joan wouldn't have been born; you wouldn't have been born."
Mr. Hartley attempted to speak, but the captain, laying down his pipe, extended an admonitory finger.
"To go back only a little way," he said, solemnly, "your father had the measles, hadn't he?"
"I don't know—I believe so," said Hartley.
"Good," said the captain; "and he pulled through 'em, else you wouldn't have been here. Again, he happened to go up North to see a friend who was taken ill while on a journey, and met your mother there, didn't he?"
"If your father's friend hadn't been taken ill," said the captain, with tremendous solemnity, as he laid his forefinger on his friend's knee, "where would you have been?"
"I don't know," said Hartley, restlessly, "and I don't care."
"Nobody knows," said the other, shaking his head. "The thing is, as you are here, it seems to me that things couldn't have been otherwise. They were all arranged. When your father went up North in that light-hearted fashion, I don't suppose he thought for a moment that you'd be sitting here to-day worrying over one of the results of his journey."
"Of course he didn't," exclaimed Hartley, impatiently; "how could he? Look here, Trimblett, when you talk like that I don't know where I am. If my father hadn't married my mother I suppose he would have married somebody else."
"My idea is that he couldn't," said the captain, obstinately. "If a thing has got to be it will be, and there's no good worrying about it. Take a simple example. Some time you are going to die of a certain disease—you can only die once—and you're going to be buried in a certain grave—you can only be buried in one grave. Try and think that in front of you there is that one particular disease told off to kill you at a certain date, and in one particular spot of all this earth there is a grave waiting to be dug for you. At present we don't know the date, or the disease, or the grave, but there they are, all waiting for you. That is fate. What is the matter? Where are you going?"
"Home," said Hartley, bitterly, as he paused at the door. "I came round to you for a little help, and you go on in a way that makes my flesh creep. Good-by."
"Wait a bit," said the captain, detaining him. "Wait a bit; let's see what can be done."
He pulled the other back into his seat again and, fetching another bottle of beer from the house to stimulate invention, sat evolving schemes for his friend's relief, the nature of which reflected more credit upon his ingenuity than his wisdom.
"But, after all," he said, as Hartley made a third attempt to depart, "what is the good? The very steps we take to avoid disaster may be the ones to bring it on. While you are round here getting advice from me, Robert Vyner may be availing himself of the opportunity to propose."
Hartley made no reply. He went out and walked' up and down the garden, inspecting it. The captain, who was no gardener, hoped that the expression of his face was due to his opinion of the flowers.
"You must miss Mrs. Chinnery," said Hartley, at last.
"No," said the captain, almost explosively; "not at all. Why should I?"
"It can't be so homelike without her," said Hartley, stooping to pull up a weed or two.
"Just the same," said the other, emphatically. "We have a woman in to do the work, and it doesn't make the slightest difference to me—not the slightest."
"How is Truefitt?" inquired Hartley.
The captain's face darkened. "Peter's all right," he said, slowly. "He's not treated me—quite well," he added, after a little hesitation.
"It's natural he should neglect you a bit, as things are," said his friend.
"Neglect?" said the captain, bitterly. "I wish he would neglect me. He's turning out a perfect busybody, and he's getting as artful as they make 'em. I never would have believed it of Peter. Never."
"I met Cap'n Walsh the other night," said Trimblett; "we hadn't seen each other for years, and we went into the Golden Fleece to have a drink. You know what Walsh is when he's ashore. And he's a man that won't be beaten. He had had four tries to get a 'cocktail' right that he had tasted in New York, and while he was superintending the mixing of the fifth I slipped out. The others were all right as far as I could judge; but that's Walsh all over."
"Well?" said Hartley.
"I came home and found Peter sitting all alone in the dumps," continued the captain. "He has been very down of late, and, what was worse, he had got a bottle of whiskey on the table. That's a fatal thing to begin; and partly to keep him company, but mainly to prevent him drinking more than was good for him, I helped him finish the bottle—there wasn't much in it."
"Well?" said Hartley again, as the captain paused.
"He got talking about his troubles," said the captain, slowly. "You know how things are, and, like a fool, I tried to cheer him up by agreeing with him that Mrs. Chinnery would very likely make things easy for him by marrying again. In fact, so far as I remember, I even helped him to think of the names of one or two likely men. He said she'd make anybody as good a wife as a man could wish."
"So she would," said Hartley, looking at him with sudden interest. "In fact, I have often wondered—"
"He went on talking like that," continued the captain, hastily, "and out of politeness and good feeling I agreed with him. What else could I do? Then—I didn't take much notice of it because, as I said, he was drinking whiskey—he—he sort of wondered why—why—"
"Why you didn't offer to marry her?" interrupted Hartley.
The captain nodded. "It took my breath away," he said, impressively, "and I lost my presence of mind. Instead of speaking out plain I tried to laugh it off—just to spare his feelings—and said I wasn't worthy of her."
"What did he say?" inquired Hartley, curiously, after another long pause.
"Nothing," replied the captain. "Not a single word. He just gave me a strange look, shook my hand hard, and went off to bed. I've been uneasy in my mind ever since. I hardly slept a wink last night; and Peter behaves as though there is some mysterious secret between us. What would you do?"
Mr. Hartley took his friend's arm and paced thoughtfully up and down the garden.
"Why not marry her?" he said, at last.
"Because I don't want to," said the captain, almost violently.
"You'd be safer at sea, then," said the other.
"The ship won't be ready for sea for weeks yet," said Captain Trimblett, dolefully. "She's going on a time-charter, and before she is taken over she has got to be thoroughly overhauled. As fast as they put one thing right something else is found to be wrong."
"Go to London and stay with your children for a bit, then," said Hartley. "Give out that you are only going for a day or two, and then don't turn up till the ship sails."
The captain's face brightened. "I believe Vyner would let me go," he replied. "I could go in a few days' time, at any rate. And, by the way—Joan!"
"Eh?" said Hartley.
"Write to your brother-in-law at Highgate, and send her there for a time," said the captain. "Write and ask him to invite her. Keep her and young Vyner apart before things go too far."
"I'll see how things go for a bit," said Hartley, slowly. "It's awkward to write and ask for an invitation. And where do your ideas of fate come in?". "They come in all the time," said the captain, with great seriousness. "Very likely my difficulty was made on purpose for us to think of a way of getting you out of yours. Or it might be Joan's fate to meet somebody in London at her uncle's and marry him. If she goes we might arrange to go up together, so that I could look after her."
"I'll think it over," said his friend, holding out his hand. "I must be going."
"I'll come a little way with you," said the captain, leading the way into the house. "I don't suppose Peter will be in yet, but he might; and I've had more of him lately than I want."
He took up his hat and, opening the door, followed Hartley out into the road. The evening was warm, and they walked slowly, the captain still discoursing on fate and citing various instances of its working which had come under his own observation. He mentioned, among others, the case of a mate of his who found a wife by losing a leg, the unfortunate seaman falling an easy victim to the nurse who attended him.
"He always put it down to the effects of the chloroform," concluded the captain; "but my opinion is, it was to be."
He paused at Hartley's gate, and was just indulging in the usual argument as to whether he should go indoors for a minute or not, when a man holding a handkerchief to his bleeding face appeared suddenly round the corner of the house and, making a wild dash for the gate, nearly overturned the owner.
"It looks like our milkman!" said Hartley, recovering his balance and gazing in astonishment after the swiftly retreating figure. "I wonder what was the matter with him?"
"He would soon know what was the matter with him if I got hold of him," said the wrathful captain.
Hartley opened the door with his key, and the captain, still muttering under his breath, passed in. Rosa's voice, raised in expostulation, sounded loudly from the kitchen, and a man's voice, also raised, was heard in response.
"Sounds like my bo'sun," said the captain, staring as he passed into the front room. "What's he doing here?"
Hartley shook his head.
"Seems to be making himself at home," said the captain, fidgeting. "He's as noisy as if he was in his own house."
"I don't suppose he knows you are here," said his friend, mildly.
Captain Trimblett still fidgeted. "Well, it's your house," he said at last. "If you don't mind that lanky son of a gun making free, I suppose it's no business of mine. If he made that noise aboard my ship—"
Red of face he marched to the window and stood looking out. Fortified by his presence, Hartley rang the bell.
"Is there anybody in the kitchen?" he inquired, as Rosa answered it. "I fancied I heard a man's voice."
"The milkman was here just now," said Rosa, and, eying him calmly, departed.
The captain swung round in wrathful amazement.
"By—," he spluttered; "I've seen—well—by—b-r-r-r——— Can I ring for that d——d bo'sun o' mine?
"Certainly," said Hartley.
The captain crossed to the fireplace and, seizing the bell-handle, gave a pull that made the kitchen resound with wild music. After a decent interval, apparently devoted to the allaying of masculine fears, Rosa appeared again.
"Did you ring, sir?" she inquired, gazing at her master.
"Send that bo'sun o' mine here at once!" said the captain, gruffly.
Rosa permitted herself a slight expression of surprise. "Bo'sun, sir?" she asked, politely.
The girl affected to think. "Oh, you mean Mr. Walters?" she said, at last.
"Send him here," said the captain.
Rosa retired slowly, and shortly afterward something was heard brushing softly against the wall of the passage. It ceased for a time, and just as the captain's patience was nearly at an end there was a sharp exclamation, and Mr. Walters burst suddenly into the room and looked threateningly over his shoulder at somebody in the passage.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Captain Trimblett, loudly.
Mr. Walters eyed him uneasily, and with his cap firmly gripped in his left hand saluted him with the right. Then he turned his head sideways toward the passage. The captain repeated his question in a voice, if anything, louder than before.
The strained appearance of Mr. Walters's countenance relaxed.
"Come here for my baccy-box, wot I left here the other day," he said, glibly, "when you sent me."
"What were you making that infernal row about, then?" demanded the captain.
Mr. Walters cast an appealing glance toward the passage and listened acutely. "I was—grumbling because—I couldn't—find it," he said, with painstaking precision.
"Grumbling?" repeated the captain. "That ugly voice of yours was enough to bring the ceiling down. What was the matter with that man that burst out of the gate as we came in, eh?"
The boatswain's face took on a wooden expression.
"He—his nose was bleeding," he said, at last.
"I know that," said the captain, grimly; "but what made it bleed?"
For a moment Mr. Walters looked like a man who has been given a riddle too difficult for human solution. Then his face cleared again.
"He—he told me—he was object—subject to it," he stammered. "Been like it since he was a baby."
He shifted his weight to his other foot and shrugged eloquently the shoulder near the passage.
"What did you do to him?" demanded the captain, in a low, stern voice.
"Me, sir?" said Mr. Walters, with clumsy surprise. "Me, sir? I—I—all I done—all I done—was ta put a door-key down his back."
"Door-key?" roared the captain.
"To—to stop the bleeding, sir," said Mr. Walters, looking at the floor and nervously twisting his cap in his hands. "It's a old-fashioned—"
"That'll do," exclaimed the captain, in a choking voice, "that'll do. I don't want any more of your lies. How dare you come to Mr. Hartley's house and knock his milkman about, eh? How dare you? What do you mean by it?"
Mr. Walters fumbled with his cap again. "I was sitting in the kitchen," he said at last, "sitting in the kitchen—hunting 'igh and low for my baccy-box—when this 'ere miserable, insulting chap shoves his head in at the door and calls the young lady names."
"Names?" said the captain, frowning, and waving an interruption from Hartley aside. "What names?"
Mr. Walters hesitated again, and his brow grew almost as black as the captain's.
"'Rosy-lips,'" he said, at last; "and I give 'im such a wipe acrost—"
"Out you go," cried the wrathful captain. "Out you go, and if I hear your pretty little voice in this house again you'll remember it, I can tell you. D'ye hear? Scoot!"
Mr. Walters said "Thank you," and, retiring with an air of great deference, closed the door softly behind him.
"There's another of them," said Captain Trimblett subsiding into a chair. "And from little things I had heard here and there I thought he regarded women as poison. Fate again, I suppose; he was made to regard them as poison all these years for the sake of being caught by that tow-headed wench in your kitchen."