JOAN HARTLEY'S ideas of London, gathered from books and illustrated papers, were those of a town to which her uncle and aunt were utter strangers. Mr. William Carr knew Cornhill and the adjacent district thoroughly, and thirty or forty years before had made periodical descents upon the West-end. He left home at half-past eight every morning and returned every evening at five minutes to six, except on Saturdays, when he returned at ten minutes past three, and spent his half holiday in the dining-room reading an early edition of the evening paper. Any paragraphs relating to Royalty were read aloud to his wife, who knew not only all the members of the English Royal Family by name, but also those dignitaries abroad who had the happiness to be connected with it in marriage. She could in all probability have given the King himself much useful information as to the ages and fourth and fifth Christian names of some of the later and more remote members of his family.
Her day was as regular and methodical as her husband's. The morning was devoted to assisting and superintending the general servant for the time being; after dinner, at one o'clock, she retired upstairs to dress and went down to the shops to make a few purchases, returning in good time to give her husband tea. The early part of the evening was devoted to waiting for supper; the latter part to waiting for bed.
During the first week of Joan's visit an agreeable thrill was communicated to the household by preparations for an evening, or perhaps an afternoon and evening, in town. The event came off—in the third week of her stay—on a wet Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Carr and Joan got wet walking to the omnibus, and wetter still waiting at one corner of the Bank of England for Mr. Carr, who was getting wet at another.
Mr. Carr, who was in holiday attire, was smoking a large cigar in honour of the occasion, which he extinguished upon entering an omnibus and re-lighted at the Zoological Gardens. By the aid of careful manipulation and the rain it lasted him until evening. They wound up an eventful day at a theatre, and Mr. Carr, being anxious to do the thing well, took them all the way home in a four-wheeler. A little sum in mental arithmetic, which he worked on the way and submitted to the cabman at the end of the journey, was found to be wrong.
The outing was not repeated. Mrs. Carr went about for a day or two with the air of one who had returned from a long and fatiguing expedition; and her husband, when he returned from business the day following and changed into his slippers, paid such a warm tribute to the joys and comforts of home that his niece abandoned all ideas of any further jaunts. Wearied by the dulness and the monotony of the streets, she began to count the days till her return. Her father's letters made no mention of it; but the Salthaven news in them only increased her eagerness.
She returned one day from a solitary ramble on Hampstead Heath to find that Salthaven, or a whiff of it, had come to her. A deep voice, too well known to be mistaken, fell on her ears as she entered the front door, and hastening to the drawing-room she found her aunt entertaining Captain Trimblett to afternoon tea. One large hand balanced a cup and saucer; the other held a plate. His method of putting both articles in one hand while he ate or drank might have excited the envy of a practised juggler. When Joan entered the room she found her aunt, with her eyes riveted on a piece of the captain's buttered toast that was lying face downward on the carpet, carrying on a disjointed conversation.
"I just looked in," said the captain, as Joan almost embraced him. "Mind the tea!"
"Looked in?" echoed Joan.
"One tram, three buses—one of 'em a mistake—and my own legs," said the captain. "I had no idea it was so far."
"People have no idea how far out we really are," said Mrs. Carr, looking round with a satisfied smile. "I've noticed it before. Did you find the air different, Captain Trimblett?"
"Very," said the captain with a sudden gasp, as he caught sight of the piece of toast. "Very fine air. Very fine. Very—quite strong."
He shifted his feet restlessly and the toast disappeared. For a moment Mrs. Carr thought that the floor had opened and swallowed it up. Realizing that the day of useful miracles had passed, she gazed fixedly at his left foot.
"Well," said the captain, turning a relieved face to Joan, "how is the round of gayety? Are you tired of being a butterfly yet? I suppose after this Salt-haven won't be good enough for you?"
"There's nothing like life for young people," said Mrs. Carr. "Give them plenty of life and that's all they want."
Miss Hartley, whose back was toward her aunt, made a grimace.
"It's very natural," said the captain.
Miss Hartley made a further effort—one that she had relinquished at the age of ten—but the captain, intent upon a bite, missed it.
"In my young days all I thought of was gadding about," said Mrs. Carr, smiling. "I wasn't very strong either; it was just my spirits kept me up. But I used to suffer for it afterward."
"We all do," said the captain, politely.
By a feat of absolute legerdemain he took out his handkerchief and brushed some crumbs from his beard. His cup slid to the edge of the saucer and peeped over, but, throwing the spoon overboard, righted itself just in time. Somewhat pleased with himself he replaced the handkerchief and, drinking the remainder of his tea, thankfully handed the crockery to Joan. After which, with a mind relieved, he-sat and spun his marvelling hostess a few tales of the sea.
He left under plea of business, before Mr. Carr's return, and with a reference to the family likeness obtaining between omnibuses, asked Joan to see him safe aboard. He accompanied the request with such a distortion of visage that she rightly concluded that he wished for an opportunity to speak to her alone.
"You're looking better," he said, when they got outside. "A year or two in London will be the making of you."
"A year or two!" echoed the startled Joan. "I've had quite enough of it already, thank you. I've never been so dull."
"You haven't got used to the change yet," said the captain, indulgently. "That's natural; but in another month I expect you'll have quite a different tale to tell."
"I am going home next weak," said Miss Hartley, in a decided voice.
Captain Trimblett coughed.
"Why shouldn't I?" inquired the girl, in reply.
The captain coughed again.
"I should think the Carrs would be glad to have you," he replied, becoming suddenly busy with his handkerchief, "especially as they have got no children. And a year or two with them in town would give you a—a sort of finish."
"You have heard something from my father?" exclaimed Joan, turning on him.
"He—he wrote," said the captain.
"Did he suggest my staying here?"
"No," said the captain, putting his handkerchief away with great care. "No, I can't say he did. But he has had another interview with Mr. John Vyner, and it seems that the old gentleman is quite taking it for granted that you have left Salthaven for good. He was quite genial to your father."
"Did father undeceive him?" inquired the girl.
"He didn't say," rejoined the other. "My idea is he didn't; but it's only my idea, mind."
For some time Miss Hartley walked on in disdainful silence. She broke it at last in favour of Mr. Vyner, senior.
"Talking won't alter facts, though," said the admiring captain, shaking his head.
The girl paid no heed.
"Now, if you only stayed here for a little while," said the captain, persuasively, "say a couple of years, no doubt things would right themselves. Anything might happen in two years. Mind, it's not your father's idea, it's mine. I'd do anything for him; he has done me many a good turn in his time, and I want to pay him back."
Miss Hartley, softening somewhat, thanked him.
"And what is two years at your time of life?" continued the captain, brightly. "Nothing. Why, I'm going away for that time as a matter of course."
"I want to go home," said Joan. "I feel that I can't breathe in this dreary place. You wouldn't like me to die, would you?"
"Certainly not," said the captain, promptly.
"You would sooner die yourself, wouldn't you?" said Joan, with a sly glance at him.
The captain said "Yes," with all the comfortable assurance of a healthy man living in a civilized country. Then he started as Miss Hartley turned suddenly and pinched his arm.
"Eh?" cried the captain, rubbing it.
"I don't want you to die for me," said Joan with a little laugh, "but I was thinking over things the other day, and I got an idea of how you could help me if you would. I gave it up, however. I felt sure you wouldn't do it, but if you say you would die for me—
"When I said 'die'—" began the captain, uneasily.
"I'm not going to ask you to do anything as dreadful as that," continued Joan; "at least, I don't think it is; but the beauty of it is it is something you can do. I am going back to Salthaven, but to make everybody comfortable and happy I thought of going back under a new name. That's the idea."
"New name?" repeated the puzzled captain.
Joan nodded and turned a somewhat flushed face in his direction.
"A new name," she repeated. "My father will be left undisturbed, Mr. John Vyner will be satisfied, and Mr. Robert—"
"Yes?" said the captain, after a pause.
"Nothing," said the girl.
"But I don't understand," said the captain, "What good will changing your name do?"
"Wait till you hear it," retorted the girl, with an amused glance at him.
"I am waiting," said the other, somewhat shortly.
"You'll see at once when I tell you," said Joan; "and I'm sure you won't mind. I am going back to Salthaven under the name of Mrs. Trimblett."
The captain stopped suddenly in his stride, and with a bewildered air strove to rally his disordered faculties. Alarm and consternation choked his utterance.
"Poor dear!" said Joan, with another giggle. "Don't be alarmed. It's the best thing that could happen to you; it will prevent all other attempts on your freedom."
"I can take a joke," said the captain, finding his speech at last; "I can take a joke as well as most men, but this is going a trifle too far."
"But I'm not joking," said the girl. "I'm going back as Mrs. Trimblett; I am, indeed. Don't look so frightened; I'm not going to marry you, really. Only pretend, as the children say."
"You don't know what you're talking about!" exclaimed the astonished captain.
"Putting aside your feelings—and mine," said Joan, "it's a good thing for everybody else, isn't it? We mustn't consider ourselves—that would be selfish."
The captain shook his head in angry amazement.
"I suppose, when you said just now that you would do anything for father, you didn't mean it, then?" said Joan. "And when you said you'd die for me, you—"
"I tell you," interrupted the captain, violently, "it's impossible. I never heard of such a thing."
"It's quite possible," declared the girl. "I shall go back home, and you must get back to Salthaven just in time to sail. Mr. Vyner will be so pleased at the news, he will let you stay away as long as you like, I am sure."
"And what about when I come back?" demanded the captain.
"When you come back," said Joan, slowly—"just before, in fact—I shall tell the truth and give people to understand that I did it to oblige you—to prevent somebody else marrying you against your will."
"Oh!" said the captain, struggling nobly with his feelings. "Oh, you will!"
"To-morrow," continued Joan, "I will buy the wedding-ring. I know that that ought to be your business, but I'll get it, because I know where I can get one cheap. I saw some the other day. Rolled gold they are called. Eighteenpence each."
The captain choked.
"Have you considered," he said, loftily, as soon as he was capable of speech, "that it would be a lie?"
Joan nodded, carelessly.
"A lie!" repeated Captain Trimblett, in a thrilling voice.
"Yes," said Joan. "I remember I heard you tell father once that if you had a sovereign for every lie you had told you would be able to give up the sea. So you had better do it. You can do it better than I can."
Captain Trimblett threw his hands apart with a sudden supreme gesture.
"I won't listen to another word!" he said, hotly. "I should never hear the end of it. Where are those omnibuses?"
"We are not near them yet," was the reply. "We have been walking away from them. When you have listened to reason I will take you to them."
The captain closed his lips obstinately. He would have closed his ears, too, if he could, but, unable to do that, quickened his pace in a forlorn attempt to outdistance her. She plied him with arguments and entreaties, but in vain. He was immovable. Finally, in a trembling voice, she said that it didn't matter, and apologized for troubling him with her concerns.
"I would do anything in reason, my dear," said the mollified captain.
"It doesn't matter," repeated the girl.
"It's quite impossible," said the captain, gently. "It's really an outrageous idea. You'll see it yourself by and by."
Miss Hartley thanked him, and taking out a handkerchief dabbed her eyes gently and made a pathetic attempt to smile.
"Don't say any more about it," she pleaded. "I have no doubt you are right. Only when you said you would do anything for us I—I thought you meant it. I see how uncomfortable it might be for you. I ought to have thought of that before."
The unfortunate captain turned crimson, but, glancing at the spectacle of resignation by his side, managed to keep his temper under restraint.
"I'm not thinking of myself at all," he growled.
"Perhaps you are without knowing it," suggested Miss Hartley, in a voice free from all trace of personal feeling. "I thought that you would have done a little thing like that for me—and father. I'm sorry I was mistaken. However, I shall go back to Salthaven in any case."
She dabbed a perfectly dry eye again, and watched the captain closely with the other.
"I suppose there will be trouble," she continued, meditatively; "still, that will be your fault. I have done all I could do."
She walked on in pained silence and paid no heed to the explanations and arguments by which the captain sought to justify his refusal. He began to get confused and rambling in his defence, and finally, to terminate an embarrassing interview, grunted out something about thinking it over. A moment later a radiant and admiring young woman was flattering him up to the skies.
"Mind, I only said I would think it over," said the captain, regarding her indignantly.
"Of course," said Joan, "I quite understand that; and you will write and break the news to father, won't you?"
"No, I'm hanged if I do," answered the captain.
"Never mind, then; I'll do it," said the girl, hastily. "I shall just write and tell him that I have changed my name to Trimblett. People have a right to change their name if they like. Lots of them do it. Make haste, you'll lose your omnibus. I shall never forget your kindness—never."
"Mind!" panted the captain, as she hurried him along, "it—isn't—settled. I am only going to think it over."
"I don't know what we should have done without you," continued Joan. "There isn't another man in the world would be so kind, I am sure. If you were only thirty or forty years younger I would marry you in reality."
"Mind!" said the captain, grasping the rail of the omnibus and pausing with his foot on the step, "I haven't—promised."
"I'll write and tell you when I've done it," said Joan. "I'll take all the responsibility. Good-by! Good-by!"
The conductor hoisted him aboard and he slowly mounted the stairs. He paused at the top to wave a feeble hand, and then, subsiding heavily into a seat, sat thinking out a long and polite letter of refusal.