BY no means insensible to the difficulties in the way, Joan Hartley had given no encouragement to Mr. Robert Vyner to follow up the advantage afforded him by her admission at the breakfast-table. Her father's uneasiness, coupled with the broad hints which Captain Trimblett mistook for tactfulness, only confirmed her in her resolution; and Mr. Vyner, in his calmer moments, had to admit to himself that she was right—for the present, at any rate. Meantime, they were both young, and, with the confidence of youth, he looked forward to a future in which his father's well-known views on social distinctions and fitting matrimonial alliances should have undergone a complete change. As to his mother, she merely seconded his father's opinions, and, with admiration born of love and her marriage vows, filed them for reference in a memory which had on more than one occasion been a source of great embarrassment to a man who had not lived for over fifty years without changing some of them.
Deeply conscious of his own moderation, it was, therefore, with a sense of annoyance that Mr. Robert Vyner discovered that Captain Trimblett was actually attempting to tackle him upon the subject which he considered least suitable for discussion. They were sitting in his office, and the captain, in pursuance of a promise to Hartley, after two or three references to the weather, and a long account of an uninteresting conversation with a policeman, began to get on to dangerous ground.
"I've been in the firm's service a good many years now," he began.
"I hope you'll be in as many more," said Vyner, regarding him almost affectionately.
"Hartley has been with you a long time, too," continued Trimblett, slowly. "We became chums the first time we met, and we've been friends ever since. Not just fair-weather friends, but close and hearty; else I wouldn't venture to speak to you as I'm going to speak."
Mr. Vyner looked up at him suddenly, his face hard and forbidding. Then, as he saw the embarrassment in the kindly old face before him, his anger vanished and he bent his head to hide a smile.
"Fire away," he said, cordially.
"I'm an old man," began the captain, solemnly.
"Nonsense," interrupted Robert, breezily. "Old man indeed! A man is as old as he feels, and I saw you the other night, outside the Golden Fleece, with Captain Walsh—"
"I couldn't get away from him," said the captain, hastily.
"So far as I could see you were not trying," continued the remorseless Robert. "You were instructing him in the more difficult and subtle movements of a hornpipe, and I must say I thought your elasticity was wonderful—wonderful."
"It was just the result of an argument I had with him," said the captain, looking very confused, "and I ought to have known better. But, as I was saying, I am an old man, and—"
"But you look so young," protested Mr. Vyner.
"Old man," repeated the captain, ignoring the remark. "Old age has its privileges, and one of them is to give a word in season before it is too late."
"'A stitch in time saves nine," quoted Robert, with an encouraging nod.
"And I was speaking to Hartley the other day," continued the captain. "He hasn't been looking very well of late, and, as far as I can make out, he is a little bit worried over the matter I want to speak to you about."
Robert Vyner's face hardened again for a moment. He leaned back in his chair and, playing with his watch-chain, regarded the other intently. Then he smiled maliciously.
"He told me," he said, nodding.
"Told you?" repeated the captain, in astonishment.
Mr. Vyner nodded again, and bending down pretended to glance at some papers on his table.
"Green-fly," he said, gravely. "He told me that he syringes early and late. He will clear a tree, as he thinks, and while he has gone to mix another bucket of the stuff there are several generations born. Bassett informs me that a green-fly is a grandfather before it is half an hour old. So you see it is hopeless. Quite."
Captain Trimblett listened with ill-concealed impatience. "I was thinking of something more important than green-flies," he said, emphatically.
"Yes?" said Vyner, thoughtfully.
It was evident that the old sailor was impervious to hints. Rendered unscrupulous by the other's interference, and at the same time unwilling to hurt his feelings, Mr. Vyner bethought himself of a tale to which he had turned an unbelieving ear only an hour or two before.
"Of course, I quite forgot," he said, apologetically. "How stupid of me! I hope that you'll accept my warmest congratulations and be very, very happy. I can't tell you how pleased I am. But for the life of me I can't see why it should worry Hartley."
"Congratulations?" said the captain, eying him in surprise. "What about?"
"Your marriage," replied Robert. "I only heard of it on my way to the office, and your talking put it out of my head."
"Me?" said Captain Trimblett, going purple with suppressed emotion. "My marriage? I'm not going to be married. Not at all."
"What do you mean by 'not at all?" inquired Mr. Vyner, looking puzzled. "It isn't a thing you can do by halves."
"I'm not going to be married at all," said the captain, raising his voice. "I never thought of such a thing. Who—who told you?"
"A little bird," said Robert, with a simpering air.
Captain Trimblett took out a handkerchief, and after blowing his nose violently and wiping his heated face expressed an overpowering desire to wring the little bird's neck.
"Who was it?" he repeated.
"A little bird of the name of Sellers—Captain Sellers," replied Robert. "I met him on my way here, hopping about in the street, simply brimming over with the news."
"There isn't a word of truth in it," said the agitated captain. "I never thought of such a thing. That old mischief-making mummy must be mad—stark, starin' mad."
"Dear me!" said Robert, regretfully. "He seems such a dear old chap, and I thought it was so nice to see a man of his age so keenly interested in the love-affairs of a younger generation. Anybody might have thought you were his own son from the way he talked of you."
"I'll 'son' him!" said the unhappy captain, vaguely.
"He is very deaf," said Robert, gently, "and perhaps he may have misunderstood somebody. Perhaps somebody told him you were not going to be married. Funny he shouts so, isn't it? Most deaf people speak in a very low voice."
"Did he shout that?" inquired Captain Trimblett, in a quivering voice.
"Bawled it," replied Mr. Vyner, cheerfully; "but as it isn't true, I really think that you ought to go and tell Captain Sellers at once. There is no knowing what hopes he may be raising. He is a fine old man; but perhaps, after all, he is a wee bit talkative."
Captain Trimblett, who had risen, stood waiting impatiently until the other had finished, and then, forgetting all about the errand that had brought him there, departed in haste. Mr. Vyner went to the window, and a broad smile lit up his face as he watched the captain hurrying across the bridge. With a blessing on the head of the most notorious old gossip in Salthaven, he returned to his work.
Possessed by a single idea, Captain Trimblett sped on his way at a pace against which both his age and his figure protested in vain. By the time he reached Tranquil Vale he was breathless, and hardly able to gasp his inquiry for Captain Sellers to the old housekeeper who attended the door.
"He's a-sitting in the garden looking at his flowers," she replied. "Will you go through?"
Captain Trimblett went through. His head was erect and his face and eyes blazing. A little old gentleman, endowed with the far sight peculiar to men who have followed the sea, who was sitting in a deck-chair at the bottom of the garden, glimpsed him and at once collapsed. By the time the captain reached the chair he discovered a weasel-faced, shrunken old figure in a snuff-coloured suit of clothes sunk in a profound slumber. He took him by the arms and shook him roughly.
"Yes? Halloa! What's matter?" inquired Captain Sellers, half waking.
Captain Trimblett arched his hand over his mouth and bent to an ear apparently made of yellow parchment.
"Cap'n Sellers," he said, in a stern, thrilling voice, "I've got a bone to pick with you."
The old man opened his eyes wide and sat blinking at him. "I've been asleep," he said, with a senile chuckle. "How do, Cap'n Trimblett?"
"I've got a bone to pick with you," repeated the other.
"Eh?" said Captain Sellers, putting his hand to his ear.
"A—bone—to—pick—with—you," said the incensed Trimblett, raising his voice. "What do you mean by it?"
"Eh?" said Captain Sellers, freshly.
"What do you mean by saying things about me?" bawled Trimblett. "How dare you go spreading false reports about me? I'll have the law of you."
Captain Sellers smiled vaguely and shook his head.
"I'll prosecute you," bellowed Captain Trimblett. "You're shamming, you old fox. You can hear what I say plain enough. You've been spreading reports that I'm going to—"
He stopped and looked round just in time. Attracted by the volume of his voice, the housekeeper had come to the back door, two faces appeared at the next-door windows, and the back of Mr. Peter Truefitt was just disappearing inside his summer-house.
"I know you are talking," said Captain Sellers, plaintively, "because I can see your lips moving. It's a great affliction—deafness."
He fell back in his chair again, and, with a crafty old eye cocked on the windows next door, fingered a scanty tuft of white hair on his chin and smiled weakly. Captain Trimblett controlled himself by an effort, and, selecting a piece of paper from a bundle of letters in his pocket, made signs for a pencil. Captain Sellers shook his head; then he glanced round uneasily as Trimblett, with an exclamation of satisfaction, found an inch in his waistcoat-pocket and began to write. He nodded sternly at the paper when he had finished, and handed it to Captain Sellers.
The old gentleman received it with a pleasant smile, and, extricating himself from his chair in a remarkable fashion considering his age, began to fumble in his pockets. He went through them twice, and his countenance, now lighted by hope and now darkened by despair, conveyed to Captain Trimblett as accurately as speech could have done the feelings of a man to whom all reading matter, without his spectacles, is mere dross.
"I can't find my glasses," said Captain Sellers, at last, lowering himself into the chair. Then he put his hand to his ear and turned toward his visitor. "Try again," he said, encouragingly.
Captain Trimblett eyed him for a moment in helpless wrath, and then, turning on his heel, marched back through the house, and after standing irresolute for a second or two entered his own. The front room was empty, and from the silence he gathered that Mrs. Chinnery was out. He filled his pipe, and throwing himself into an easy-chair sought to calm his nerves with tobacco, while he tried to think out his position. His meditations were interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Truefitt, and something in the furtive way that gentleman eyed him as he came into the room only served to increase his uneasiness.
"Very warm," said Truefitt.
The captain assented, and with his eyes fixed on the mantelpiece smoked in silence.
"I saw you... talking... to Captain Sellers just now," said Mr. Truefitt, after a long pause.
"Aye," said the captain. "You did."
His eyes came from the mantelpiece and fixed themselves on those of his friend. Mr. Truefitt in a flurried fashion struck a match and applied it to his empty pipe.
"I'll have the law of him," said the captain, fiercely; "he has been spreading false reports about me."
"Reports?" repeated Mr. Truefitt, in a husky voice.
"He has been telling everybody that I am about to be married," thundered the captain.
Mr. Truefitt scratched the little bit of gray whisker that grew by his ear.
"I told him," he said at last.
"You?" exclaimed the amazed captain. "But it isn't true."
Mr. Truefitt turned to him with a smile intended to be arch and reassuring. The result, owing to his nervousness, was so hideous that the captain drew back in dismay.
"It's—it's all right," said Mr. Truefitt at last. "Ah! If it hadn't been for me you might have gone on hoping for years and years, without knowing the true state of her feelings toward you."
"What do you mean?" demanded the captain, gripping the arms of his chair.
"Sellers is a little bit premature," said Mr. Truefitt, coughing. "There is nothing settled yet, of course. I told him so. Perhaps I oughtn't to have mentioned it at all just yet, but I was so pleased to find that it was all right I had to tell somebody."
"What are you—talking about?" gasped the captain.
Mr. Truefitt looked up, and by a strong effort managed to meet the burning gaze before him.
"I told Susanna," he said, with a gulp.
"Told her? Told her what?" roared the captain.
"Told her that you said you were not worthy of her," replied Mr. Truefitt, very slowly and distinctly.
The captain took his pipe out of his mouth, and laying it on the table with extreme care listened mechanically while the clock struck five.
"What did she say?" he inquired, hoarsely, after the clock had finished.
Mr. Truefitt leaned over, and with a trembling hand patted him on the shoulder.
"She said, 'Nonsense'" he replied, softly.
The captain rose and, putting on his cap—mostly over one eye—put out his hands like a blind man for the door, and blundered out into the street.