MR. HARTLEY'S idea, warmly approved by Captain Trimblett, was to divulge the state of affairs to his daughter in much the same circuitous fashion that Mr. Vyner had revealed it to him. He had not taken into account, however, the difference in temper of the listeners, and one or two leading questions from Joan brought the matter to an abrupt conclusion. She sat divided between wrath and dismay.
"You—you must have misunderstood him," she said at last, with a little gasp. "He could not be so mean, and tyrannical, and ridiculous."
Her father shook his head. "There is no room for misunderstanding," he said, quietly. "Still, I have got three months to look about me, and I don't suppose we shall starve."
Miss Hartley expressed the wish—as old as woman—to give the offender a piece of her mind. She also indulged in a few general remarks concerning the obtuseness of people who were unable to see when they were not wanted, by which her father understood her to refer to Vyner junior.
"I was afraid you cared for him," he said, awkwardly.
"I?" exclaimed Joan, in the voice of one unable to believe her ears. "Oh, father, I am surprised at you; I never thought you would say such a thing."
Mr. Hartley eyed her uneasily.
"Why should you think anything so absurd?" continued his daughter, with some severity.
Mr. Hartley, with much concern, began to cite a long list of things responsible for what he freely admitted was an unfortunate mistake on his part. His daughter listened with growing impatience and confusion, and, as he showed no signs of nearing the end, rose in a dignified fashion and quitted the room. She was back, however, in a minute or two, and, putting her arm on his shoulder, bent down and kissed him.
"I had no idea you were so observant," she remarked, softly.
"I don't think I am really," said the conscientious man. "If it hadn't been for Trimblett—"
Miss Hartley, interrupting with spirit, paid a tribute to the captain that ought to have made his ears burn.
"I ought to have been more careful all these years," said her father presently. "If I had, this would not have mattered so much. Prodigality never pays—"
Joan placed her arm about his neck again. "Prodigality!" she said, with a choking laugh. "You don't know the meaning of the word. And you have had to help other people all your life. After all, perhaps you and Captain Trimblett are wrong; Mr. Vyner can't be in earnest, it is too absurd."
"Yes, he is," said Hartley, sitting up, with a sudden air of determination. "But then, so am I. I am not going to be dictated to in this fashion. My private affairs are nothing to do with him. I—I shall have to tell him so."
"Don't do anything yet," said Joan, softly, as she resumed her seat. "By the way—"
"Well?" said her father, after a pause.
"That invitation from Uncle William was your doing," continued Joan, levelling an incriminating finger at him.
"Trimblett's idea," said her father, anxious to give credit where it was due. "His idea was that if you were to go away for a time Robert Vyner would very likely forget all about you."
"I'm not afraid of that," said Joan, with a slight smile. "I mean—I mean—what business has Captain Trimblett to concern himself about my affairs?"
"I know what you mean," said Hartley, in a low voice.
He got up, and crossing to the window stood looking out on his beloved garden. His thoughts went back to the time, over twenty years ago, when he and his young wife had planted it. He remembered that in those far-off days she had looked forward with confidence to the time when he would be offered a share in the firm. For a moment he felt almost glad——
"I suppose that Captain Trimblett is right," said Joan, who had been watching him closely; "and I'll go when you like."
Her father came from the window. "Yes," he said, and stood looking at her.
"I am going out a little way," said Joan, suddenly.
Hartley started, and glanced instinctively at the clock. "Yes," he said again.
His daughter went upstairs to dress, and did her best to work up a little resentment against being turned out of her home to avoid a caller whom she told herself repeatedly she had no wish to see. Her reflections were cut short by remembering that time was passing, and that Mr. Vyner's punctuality, in the matter of these calls, was of a nature to which the office was a stranger.
She put on her hat and, running downstairs, opened the door and went out. At the gate she paused, and, glancing right and left, saw Robert Vyner approaching. He bowed and quickened his pace.
"Father is indoors," she said with a friendly smile, as she shook hands.
"It's a sin to be indoors an evening like this," said Robert, readily. "Are you going for a walk?"
"A little way; I am going to see a friend," said Joan. "Good-by."
"Good-by," said Mr. Vyner, and turned in at the gate, while Joan, a little surprised at his docility, proceeded on her way. She walked slowly, trying, in the interests of truth, to think of some acquaintance to call upon. Then she heard footsteps behind, gradually gaining upon her.
"I really think I'm the most forgetful man in Salt-haven," said Mr. Robert Vyner, in tones of grave annoyance, as he ranged alongside. "I came all this way to show your father a book on dahlias, and now I find I've left it at the office. What's a good thing for a bad memory?"
"Punish yourself by running all the way, I should think," replied Joan. "It might make you less forgetful next time."
Mr. Vyner became thoughtful, not to say grave. "I don't know so much about running," he said, slowly. "I've had an idea for some time past that my heart is a little bit affected."
Joan turned to him swiftly. "I'm so sorry," she faltered. "I had no idea; and the other night you were rolling the grass. Why didn't you speak of it before?"
Her anxiety was so genuine that Mr. Vyner had the grace to feel a little bit ashamed of himself.
"When I say that my heart is affected, I don't mean in the way of—of disease," he murmured.
"Is it weak?" inquired the girl.
Mr. Vyner shook his head.
"Well, what is the matter with it?"
Mr. Vyner sighed. "I don't know," he said, slowly. "It is not of long standing; I only noticed it a little while ago. The first time I had an attack I was sitting in my office—working. Let me see. I think it was the day you came in there to see your father. Yes, I am sure it was."
Miss Hartley walked on, looking straight before her.
"Since then," pursued Mr. Vyner, in the mournful tones suited to the subject, "it has got gradually worse. Sometimes it is in my mouth; sometimes—if I feel that I have offended anybody—it is in my boots."
Miss Hartley paid no heed.
"It is in my boots now," said the invalid, plaintively; "tight boots, too. Do you know what I was thinking just now when you looked at me in that alarmed, compassionate way?"
"Not alarmed," muttered Miss Hartley.
"I was thinking," pursued Mr. Vyner, in a rapt voice, "I was thinking what a fine nurse you would make. Talking of heart troubles put it in my mind, I suppose. Fancy being down for a month or two with a complaint that didn't hurt or take one's appetite away, and having you for a nurse!"
"I think that if you are going to talk nonsense—" began Joan, half stopping.
"I'm not," said the other, in alarm, "I've quite finished; I have, indeed."
He stole a glance at the prim young, figure by his side, and his voice again developed a plaintive note. "If you only knew what it was like," he continued, "to be mewed up in an office all day, with not a soul to speak to, and the sun shining, perhaps you'd make allowances."
"I saw you down by the harbour this morning," said the girl.
"Harbour?" said the other, pretending to reflect—"this morning?"
Joan nodded. "Yes; you were lounging about—in the sunshine—smoking a cigarette. Then you went on to the Indian Chief and stood talking for, oh, quite a long time to Captain Trimblett. Then—"
"Yes?" breathed Mr. Vyner, as she paused in sudden confusion. "What did I do next?"
Miss Hartley shook her head. "I only saw you for a moment," she said.
Mr. Vyner did not press the matter; he talked instead on other subjects, but there was a tenderness in his voice for which Miss Hartley told herself her own thoughtlessness was largely responsible. She trembled and walked a little faster. Then, with a sense of relief, she saw Captain Trimblett approaching them. His head was bent in thought, and his usual smile was missing as he looked up and saw them.
"I wanted to see you," he said to Joan. "I'm off to London to-morrow."
"To-morrow!" repeated the girl, in surprise.
"Twelve-thirty train," said the captain, looking shrewdly from one to the other. "I'm just off home; there are one or two matters I must attend to before I go, and I wanted to talk to you."
"I will come with you," said Joan, quickly. "I haven't seen Mrs. Chinnery for a long time." She nodded to Mr. Vyner and held out her hand. "Good-by."
"Good-by," said that gentleman. He shook hands reluctantly, and his amiable features took on a new expression as he glanced at the captain.
"Try and cheer him up," he said, with an air of false concern. "It's only for a little while, cap'n; you'll soon be back and—you know the old adage?"
"Yes," said the captain, guardedly.
"Although, of course, there are several," said Mr. Vyner, thoughtfully. "I wonder whether we were thinking of the same one?"
"I dare say," said the other, hastily.
"I was thinking of 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder'—of the Indian Chief" said the ingenuous Robert. "Was that the one you were thinking of?"
The captain's reply was inaudible as he turned and bore off Miss Hartley. The young man stood for some time watching them, and, as Joan and her burly companion disappeared round the corner, shook his head and set off home.
"He'll sober down as he gets older," said the captain, after they had proceeded some way in silence. "I'm glad I met you. Your father told me you were going to London, and I was thinking we might go up together. It's odd we should both be going. Quite a coincidence."
"In more ways than one," said Joan. "Father told me you had arranged it together. I quite know why I am going."
The captain coughed.
"I know why you are going, too," said Joan.
The captain coughed again, and muttered something about "children" and "business."
"And if I'm going to-morrow I had better get back and pack," continued the girl.
"Plenty of time in the morning," said the captain. "It'll make the time pass. It's a mistake to stow your things away too soon—a great mistake."
"I would sooner do it, though," said Joan, pausing. 170
"You come along to Tranquil Vale," said Captain Trimblett, with forced joviality. "Never mind about your packing. Stay to supper, and I'll see you home afterward."
Miss Hartley eyed him thoughtfully.
"Why?" she inquired.
"Pleasure of your company," said the captain.
"Why?" said Miss Hartley again.
The captain eyed her thoughtfully in his turn.
"I—I haven't told 'em I'm going yet," he said, slowly. "It'll be a little surprise to them, perhaps. Miss Willett will be there. She's a silly thing. She and Peter might make a duet about it If you are there——"
"I'll take care of you," said Joan, with a benevolent smile. "You'll be safe with me. What a pity you didn't bring your little troubles to me at first!"
The captain turned a lurid eye upon her, and then, realizing that silence was more dignified and certainly safer than speech, said nothing. He walked on with head erect and turned a deaf ear to the faint sounds which Miss Hartley was endeavouring to convert into coughs.
Mrs. Chinnery, who was sitting alone in the front room, rose and greeted her with some warmth as she entered, and, the usual reproachful question put and answered as to the length of time since her last visit, took her hat from her and went upstairs with it. An arch smile from Miss Hartley during her absence was met by the ungrateful captain with a stony stare.
"I came to bid you good-by," said Joan, as Mrs. Chinnery returned. "I am off to London to-morrow."
"London!" said Mrs. Chinnery.
"I am going to stay with an uncle," replied Joan.
"Quite a coincidence, isn't it?" said the captain, averting his gaze from the smiling face of Miss Hartley, and trying to keep his voice level.
"Coincidence!" said Mrs. Chinnery, staring at him.
"I've got to go, too," said the captain, with what he fondly imagined was a casual smile. "Got to run up and see my boys and girls. Just a flying visit there and back. So we are going together."
"You!" said the astonished Mrs. Chinnery. "Why didn't you tell me? Why, I've got nothing ready. Serves me right for putting things off."
The captain began to murmur something about an urgent letter, but Mrs. Chinnery, who had opened the cupboard and brought out a work-basket containing several pairs of the thick woollen socks that formed the captain's usual wear, was almost too busy to listen. She threaded a needle, and, drawing a sock over her left hand, set to work on a gaping wound that most women would have regarded as mortal.
Mr. Truefitt and Mrs. Willett entered from the garden just as the Captain was explaining for the third time.
"Children are not ill, I hope," said Mr. Truefitt with ill concealed anxiety.
"No," said the Captain.
Mrs. Willett had seated herself by the side of Mrs. Chinnery, ventured to pat that lady's busy hand.
"He will soon be back," she murmured.
"He will look after that," said Mr. Truefitt, with a boisterous laugh. "Won't you, cap'n?"
Miss Willett sat regarding Captain Trimblett with a pensive air. She was beginning to regard his diffidence and shyness as something abnormal. Hints of the most helpful nature only seemed to add to his discomfort, and she began to doubt whether he would ever muster up sufficient resolution to put an end to a situation that was fast becoming embarrassing to all concerned.
"Of course," she said, suddenly, "it is only right that you should run up and see your children first. I hadn't thought of that."
"First?" repeated the captain, his face flooding with colour as he realized the inward meaning of the remark. "What do you mean by first?"
His voice was so loud that Miss Willett sat up with a start and looked round nervously.
"Miss Willett means before you sail," said Joan, gently, before that lady could speak. "How pleased they will be to see you!"
"Aye, aye," said the captain, regaining his composure by an effort.
"What a lot of things he will have to tell them!" murmured the persevering Miss Willett. "Have you ever seen them?" she inquired, turning to Mrs. Chinnery.
"No," was the reply.
"How strange!" said Miss Willett, with a reproachful glance at the captain. "I expect you'll like them very much when you do."
"Sure to," chimed in Mr. Truefitt. "Susanna was always partial to children."
"I'm sure she is," said Miss Willett, regarding the industrious Mrs. Chinnery affectionately. "How fortunate!"
She rose as she spoke, and, screwing her face up at Joan with great significance, asked her whether she wouldn't care to see the garden.
"Very much," said Joan. "Come along," she added, turning to the captain. "Now come and show me that rose-bush you have been talking about so much."
Captain Trimblett rose with an alacrity that mystified Miss Willett more than ever, and, having gained the garden, found so many things to show Miss Hartley, and so much to talk about, that supper was on the table before he had finished. Fearful of being left alone with Miss Willett, he stuck to his young protector so closely that in going in at the door he trod on her heel. Miss Hartley entered the room limping, and, having gained her seat, sat eying him with an expression in which pain and reproachful mirth struggled for the mastery.
"What a delightful evening!" she said, in an affected voice, as the captain walked home with her about an hour later; "I have enjoyed myself tremendously."
The captain uttered an impatient exclamation.
"It reminded me of the old fable of the lion and the mouse," continued Joan.
The captain grunted again, and, in a voice that he vainly endeavoured to render polite, said that he did not know what she was talking about.