MR. ROBERT VYNER received the news of Miss Hartley's sudden departure with an air of polite interest. The secrecy of the affair and the fact that she had gone with Captain Trimblett convinced him that it was no casual visit, and he mused bitterly on the strange tendency of seafaring people to meddle with the affairs of others. An attempt to ascertain from Hartley the probable duration of her visit, and other interesting particulars, as they sat together in the young man's office, yielded no satisfaction.
"She made up her mind to go rather suddenly, didn't she?" he inquired.
Hartley said "Yes," and murmured something about taking advantage of the opportunity of going up with Captain Trimblett. "She is very fond of the captain," he added.
"Is she staying near him?" asked Vyner, without looking up from his work.
The chief clerk, who was anxious to get away, said "No," and eyed him uneasily.
"I hope that London will agree with her," continued Robert, politely. "Is she staying in a healthy part?"
"Very," said the other.
Mr. Vyner bent over his work again, and scowled diabolically at an innocent letter which said that his instructions should have immediate attention. "Which do you consider a healthy part?" he said presently.
Mr. Hartley, after some reflection, said there were many districts which merited that description. He mentioned eleven, and was discoursing somewhat learnedly on drainage and soils when he noticed that the young man's attention was wandering. With a muttered reference to his work, he rose and quitted the room.
Day succeeded day in tiresome waiting, and Mr. Robert Vyner, leaning back in his chair, regarded with a hostile eye the pile of work that accumulated on his table as he sat dreaming of Joan Hartley. In a species of waking nightmare he would see her beset by hordes of respectful but persistent admirers. He manifested a craving for Mr. Hartley's society, and, discovering by actual experience that, melancholy as the house was without its mistress, all other places were more melancholy still, contrived, to its owner's great discomfort, to spend a considerable number of his evenings there.
"He's a pattern to all of you," said Rosa to Mr. Walters, who sat in the kitchen one evening, cautiously watching Mr. Vyner through a small hole in the muslin blind.
Mr. Walters grunted.
"I believe he worships the ground she treads on," said Rosa, in exalted tones.
Mr. Walters grunted again, and her colour rose. For nearly a fortnight she had not spoken to any other man—at least, to the boatswain's knowledge—and she fully realized the cloying effect of security upon a man of his temperament.
"Last night I saw him standing for half an hour looking into a shop," she said, softly. "What shop do you think it was?"
Mr. Walters's face took on an obstinate expression. "Butcher's?" he hazarded, at last.
"Butcher's!" repeated Rosa, with scorn. "What should he want to look in a butcher's for? It was Hickman's, the jeweller's."
The boatswain said "Oh!" and devoted himself with renewed interest to his task of watching Mr. Vyner. Miss Jelks's conversation for some time past had circled round engagement-rings, a subject which brought him face to face with the disagreeable side of flirtation.
"More fool him," he said, without looking round.
Rosa gazed fixedly at the back of his head. She was far too sensible not to have noticed the gradual waning of his passion, and she chided herself severely for having dropped her usual tactics. At the same time she realized that she was not alone to blame in the matter, the gilded youth of Salthaven, after one or two encounters with Mr. Walters, having come to the conclusion that a flirtation with her was a temptation to be avoided.
"Most men are fools," she said, calmly. "A young fellow I met the other evening—the night you couldn't come out—went on like a madman just because I wouldn't promise to meet him again."
"Pity I didn't see 'im," said Mr. Walters, grimly.
"Oh!" said Rosa, losing her head. "Why?"
"I'd ha' give 'im something to make a fuss about," said the boatswain, "that's all."
"It's not his fault," said Rosa, softly. "He couldn't help himself. He told me so. Quite the gentleman—quite. You ought to see the way he raises his hat. And his head is covered all over with little short curls."
"Like a nigger," said Mr. Walters, with disappointing calmness.
He removed his eye from the window and, taking out his pipe, began to fill it from a small metal box. Rosa, compressing her lips, watched him with a sardonic smile.
"Got anything to do this evening?" she inquired.
"No," said the other.
"Well, I have," said Rosa, with a bright smile, "so I'll say good-evening."
Mr. Walters rose and, replacing a box of matches in his pocket, stood watching her with his mouth open.
"Don't hurry," she said, at last.
The boatswain sat down again.
"I mean when you get outside," explained the girl.
Mr. Walters gazed at her in slow perplexity, and then, breathing heavily, walked out of the kitchen like a man in a dream. His suspicions were aroused, and with an idea that a little blood-letting would give him relief, he wasted the entire evening lying in wait for a good-looking, gentlemanly young man with curly hair.
Miss Jelks waited for his appearance the following evening in vain. Several evenings passed, but no boatswain, and it became apparent at last that he had realized the perils of his position. Anger at his defection was mingled with admiration for his strength of mind every time she looked in the glass.
She forged her weapons slowly. A new hat was ready, but a skirt and coat still languished at the dressmaker's. She waited until they came home, and then, dressing her hair in a style which owed something to a fashion-paper and something to her lack of skill, sallied out to put matters on a more satisfactory footing.
It was early evening, and the street fairly full, but for some time she wandered about aimlessly. Twice she smiled at young men of her acquaintance, and they smiled back and went on their way. The third she met with a smile so inviting that against his better sense he stopped, and after a nervous glance round made a remark about the weather.
"Beautiful," said Rosa. "Have you been ill, Mr. Filer?"
"Ill?" said the young man, staring. "No. Why?"
"Haven't seen you for such a long time," said Miss Jelks, swinging her parasol. "I've been wondering what had become of you. I was afraid you were ill."
Mr. Filer caressed his moustache. "I haven't seen you about," he retorted.
"I haven't been out lately," said the girl; "it's so lonely walking about by yourself that I'd sooner sit indoors and mope."
Mr. Filer stood blinking thoughtfully. "I s'pose you're going to meet a friend?" he said, at last.
"No," said Rosa. "I s'pose you are?"
Mr. Filer said "No" in his turn.
Two minutes later, in a state of mind pretty evenly divided between trepidation and joy, he found himself walking by her side.
They chose at first the quietest streets, but under Miss Jelks's guidance drifted slowly back to the town.
To her annoyance the boatswain was nowhere to be seen, and the idea of wasting the evening in the society of Mr. Filer annoyed her beyond measure. She became moody, and vague in her replies to his sallies, seated herself on a pile of timber, and motioned the young man to join her and finally, with the forlorn hope that Mr. Walters might be spending the evening aboard ship, strolled on to the quay.
Work was over and they had the place to themselves.
She seated herself on a pile of timber and, motioning the young man to join her, experienced a sudden thrill as she saw the head of Mr. Walters protruding tortoise-like over the side of the Indian Chief, which lay a little way below them. Fearful that Mr. Filer should see it, she directed his attention to two small boys who were disporting themselves in a ship's boat, and, with her head almost on his shoulder, blotted out the steamer with three feathers and a bunch of roses.
It was a beautiful evening, but Mr. Filer failed to understand why she should slap his hand when he said so. He could hardly open his mouth without being requested to behave himself and getting another tiny slap. Greatly encouraged by this treatment he ventured to pass his left arm round her waist, and, in full view of the choking boatswain, imprison both her hands in his.
Miss Jelks endured it for two minutes, and then, breaking away, gave him a playful little prod with her parasol and fled behind a warehouse uttering faint shrieks. Mr. Filer gave chase at once, in happy ignorance that his rival had nearly fallen overboard in a hopeless attempt to see round the corner. Flesh and blood could stand it no longer, and when the couple emerged and began to walk in a more sober fashion toward the town an infuriated boatswain followed a little in the rear.
Mr. Filer saw him first and, with a sudden sinking at his heart, dropped his light banter and began to discourse on more serious subjects. He attempted to widen the distance between them, but in vain. A second glance showed him Mr. Walters close behind, with a face like that of two destroying angels rolled into one. Trembling with fright he quickened his pace and looked round eagerly for means of escape. His glance fell on a confectioner's window, and muttering the word "Ice" he dashed in, followed in a more leisurely fashion by Miss Jelks.
"I was just feeling like an ice," she said, as she took a seat at a little marble-topped table. She put her hat straight in a mirror opposite, and removing her gloves prepared for action.
Mr. Filer ate his ice mechanically, quite unaware of its flavour; then as nothing happened he plucked up courage and began to talk. His voice shook a little at first, but was gradually getting stronger, when he broke off suddenly with his spoon in mid-air and gazed in fascinated horror at a disc of greenish-yellow nose that pressed against the shop-window. The eyes behind it looked as though they might melt the glass.
He put his spoon down on the table and tried to think. Miss Jelks finished her ice and sat smiling at him.
"Could you—could you eat another?" he faltered.
Miss Jelks said that she could try, and remarked, casually, that she had once eaten thirteen, and had shared the usual superstition concerning that number ever since.
"Aren't you going to have one, too?" she inquired, when the fresh ice arrived.
Mr. Filer shook his head, and, trying hard to ignore the face at the window, said that he was not hungry. He sat trembling with agitation, and, desirous of postponing the encounter with the boatswain as long as possible, kept ordering ices for Miss Jelks until that lady, in justice to herself, declined to eat any more.
"I can't finish this," she said. "You'll have to help me."
She took up a generous spoonful, and in full view of the face at the window leaned across the table and put it into Mr. Filer's unwilling mouth. With a violent shudder he saw the boatswain leave the window and take up a position in front of the door. Miss Jelks drew on her gloves and, with another glance in the mirror as she rose, turned to leave. Mr. Filer made no attempt to follow.
"Ain't you ready?" said Miss Jelks, pausing.
"I'm not feeling very well," said the young man, desperately, as he passed his hand across his forehead. "It's the ice, I think—I'm not used to 'em."
"Perhaps the air will do you good," said Rosa.
Mr. Filer shook his head. Whatever good the air might do him would, he felt certain, be counteracted by the treatment of the boatswain.
"Don't wait for me," he said, with a faint sad smile. "I might be here for hours; I've been like it before."
"I can't leave you like this," said Rosa. "Why"—she turned suddenly, and her face lit up with a smile—"here's Mr. Walters! How fortunate! He'll be able to help you home."
"No—don't trouble," gasped Mr. Filer, as the boatswain came into the shop and prepared to render first aid by moistening his palms and rubbing them together. "It's very kind of you, but I shall be all right if I'm left alone. I'd rather be left alone—I would indeed."
"You'd better let the gentleman help you home," urged the shopkeeper. "He looks strong."
Mr. Filer shuddered.
"And you can lean on me," said Rosa, softly.
Mr. Filer shuddered again, and with surprising energy, considering his invalid condition, gripped the iron frame of the table with his legs and clutched the top with his hands.
"I don't like leaving him here," said Rosa, hesitating.
"Neither don't I," growled the boatswain. "'Ow-ever, I s'pose I'll run against 'im sooner or later."
He escorted Rosa to the door and, after a yearning glance at Mr. Filer, followed her out and walked by her side in silence.
"Poor fellow," said Rosa, at last. "How generous he is! I believe he'd give me anything I asked for."
Mr. Walters started and, bending his brows, muttered something about giving Mr. Filer more than he asked for.
"Oh, yes; I dare say," retorted Rosa, turning on him with sudden heat. "I'm not to speak to anybody to please you. You leave my friends alone. What's it got to do with you?"
"I see you," said Mr. Walters, darkly; "I see you from the ship. You little thought as 'ow I was a watching your little games."
Miss Jelks stopped and, drawing herself up, regarded him haughtily.
"I didn't ask you for your company, Mr. Walters," she said, sharply, "so you can take yourself off as soon as you like."
She turned and walked off in the opposite direction, and Mr. Walters, after a moment's hesitation, turned and followed. They walked in this fashion for some distance; then the boatswain, quickening his pace, caught her roughly by the arm.
"I want to show you something," he growled.
Miss Jelks eyed him disdainfully.
"In 'ere," said the other, pointing to the same jeweller's window that had been the cause of so much discomfort to Captain Trimblett.
"Well?" said the girl, her eyes sparkling.
For answer the gentle swain took her by the elbows and propelled her into the shop, and approaching the counter gazed disagreeably at the shopman.
"I want a ring for this young lady," he said, reddening despite himself. "A good 'un—one o' the best."
The man turned to the window and, after a little careful groping, unhooked a velvet card studded with rings. Rosa's eyes shone, but she drew off her glove with a fine show of unwillingness at the boatswain's command.
"Try that on," he said, pointing to a ring.
Miss Jelks placed it on the third finger of her left hand, and holding it up to the light gazed at it entranced.
"'Ow much?" said the boatswain, jerking his head.
"That's a very nice ring," said the assistant.
"Twenty—" he referred to a tiny label on the card, "twenty-five pounds."
The boatswain's jaw dropped, and both listeners made noble efforts to appear unconscious that his breathing was anything out of the ordinary.
"Take it off," he said, as soon as he could speak; "take it off at once."
"It's too large," said Rosa, with a sigh.
She drew it off, and, turning to a case the jeweller placed before her, tried on several more. Suited at last, she held up her hand with the ring on it for Mr. Walters's inspection.
"It fits beautifully," she said, softly, as the boatswain scratched the back of his neck.
"A very nice ring, that," said the assistant. "A queen might wear it."
"Take it off," cried Mr. Walters, hastily.
"Seventeen shillings and sixpence," said the jeweller, almost as quickly.
"I like it better than the other," said Rosa.
"It is better," said the boatswain, in a relieved voice.
He counted out the money and, turning a deaf but blushing ear to the jeweller's glowing description of his wedding-rings, led the way outside. Rosa took his arm and leaned on it heavily.
"Fancy! We are engaged now," she said, squeezing his arm and looking up at him.
Mr. Walters, who seemed to be in a state of considerable perturbation, made no reply.
"Fancy you being in such a hurry!" continued Rosa, with another squeeze.
"It's a failing of mine," said the boatswain, still staring straight before him. "Always was."