JOAN HARTLEY'S letter to her father was not so easy to write as she had imagined. She tore up draft after draft, and at last, in despair, wrote him a brief and dutiful epistle, informing him that she had changed her name to Tremblett. She added—in a postscript—that she expected he would be surprised; and, having finished her task, sat trying to decide whether to commit it to the post or the flames.
It was a question that occupied her all the evening, and the following morning found her still undecided. It was not until the afternoon, when a letter came from Captain Trimblett, declining in violent terms and at great length to be a party to her scheme, that she made up her mind. The information that he had been recalled to Salthaven on the day following only served to strengthen her resolution, and it was with a feeling of almost pious thankfulness that she realized the advantages of such an arrangement. She went out and posted her letter to her father, and then, with a mind at ease, wrote a nice letter to Captain Trimblett, full of apologies for her precipitancy, and regretting that he had not informed her before of what she called his change of mind. She added that, after mature deliberation, she had decided not to return to Salthaven until after he had sailed.
Captain Trimblett got the letter next morning and, hurrying off to the nearest post-office, filled up a telegraph-form with a few incisive words dashed off at white heat. He destroyed six forms before he had arrived at what he considered a happy mean between strength and propriety, and then at the lady clerk's earnest request altered one of the words of the seventh. A few hours later he was on his way to Salthaven.
It was late when he arrived and the office of Vyner and Son was closed. He went on to Laurel Lodge, and, after knocking and ringing for some time in vain, walked back to the town and went on board his ship. The new crew had not yet been signed on, and Mr. Walters, the only man aboard, was cut short in his expressions of pleasure at the captain's return and sent ashore for provisions.
"Time you went to sea again," said the captain a little later as the boatswain went on his hands and knees to recover the pieces of a plate he had dropped.
"I wish I'd gone a month ago, sir," said Mr. Walters. "Shore's no place for a sailorman."
The captain grunted, and turning suddenly surprised the eye of Mr. Walters fixed upon him with an odd, puzzled expression that he had noticed before that evening. Mr. Walters, caught in the act, ducked from sight, and recovered a crumb that was trying to pass itself off as a piece of china.
"What are you staring at me for?" demanded the captain.
"Me, sir?" said the boatswain. "I wasn't staring."
He rose with his hands full of pieces and retreated to the door. Almost against his will he stole another glance at the captain and blinked hastily at the gaze that met his own.
"If I've got a smut on my nose—" began the captain, ferociously.
"No, sir," said Mr. Walters, disappearing.
"Come here!" roared the other.
The boatswain came back reluctantly.
"If I catch you making those faces at me again," said the captain, whom the events of the last day or two had reduced to a state of chronic ill-temper, "I'll—I'll——"
"Yessir," said Mr. Walters, cheerfully. "I——"
He disappeared again, but his voice came floating down the companion-ladder. "I 'ope—you'll accept—my good—wishes."
Captain Trimblett started as though he had been stung, and his temperature rose to as near boiling point as science and the human mechanism will allow. Twice he opened his mouth to bellow the boatswain back again, and twice his courage failed him. He sat a picture of wrathful consternation until, his gaze falling on a bottle of beer, he emptied it with great rapidity, and pushing his plate away and lighting his pipe sat trying to read a harmless meaning into Mr. Walters's infernal congratulations.
He rose early next morning and set off for Laurel Lodge, a prey to gloom, which the furtive glances of Mr. Walters had done nothing to dissipate. Hartley was still in his bedroom when he arrived, but Rosa showed him into the dining-room, and, having placed a chair, sped lightly upstairs.
"I've told him," she said, returning in a breathless condition and smiling at him.
The captain scowled at her.
"And he says he'll be down in a minute."
"Very good," said the captain, with a nod of dismissal.
Miss Jelks went as far as the sideboard, and, taking out a tablecloth, proceeded to set the breakfast, regarding the captain with unaffected interest as she worked.
"He ain't been very well the last day or two," she said, blandly.
The captain ignored her.
"Seems to have something on his mind," continued Miss Jelks, with a toss of her head, as she placed the sugar-bowl and other articles on the table.
The captain regarded her steadily for a moment, and then, turning, took up a newspaper.
"I should think he never was what you'd call a strong man," murmured Miss Jelks. "He ain't got the look of it."
The captain's temper got the better of him. "Who are you talking about?" he demanded, turning sharply.
Miss Jelks's eyes shone, but there was no hurry, and she smoothed down a corner of the tablecloth before replying.
"Your father-in-law, sir," she said, with a faint air of surprise.
Captain Trimblett turned hastily to his paper again, but despite his utmost efforts a faint wheezing noise escaped him and fell like soft music on the ears of Miss Jelks. In the hope that it might be repeated, or that manifestations more gratifying still might be vouchsafed to her, she lingered over her task and coughed in an aggressive fashion at intervals.
She was still busy when Hartley came downstairs, and, stopping for a moment at the doorway, stood regarding the captain with a look of timid disapproval. The latter rose and, with a significant glance in the direction of Rosa, shook hands and made a remark about the weather.
"When did you return?" inquired Hartley, trying to speak easily.
"Last night," said the other. "I came on here, but you were out."
Hartley nodded, and they sat eying each other uneasily and waiting for the industrious Rosa to go. The captain got tired first, and throwing open the French windows slipped out into the garden and motioned to Hartley to follow.
"Joan wrote to you," he said, abruptly, as soon as they were out of earshot.
"Yes," said the other, stiffly.
"Understand, it wasn't my fault," said the captain, warmly. "I wash my hands of it. I told her not to."
"Indeed!" said Hartley, with a faint attempt at sarcasm. "It was no concern of mine, of course."
The captain turned on him sharply, and for a moment scathing words hung trembling on his lips. He controlled himself by an effort.
"She wrote to you," he said, slowly, "and instead of waiting to see me, or communicating with me, you spread the news all over the place."
"Nothing of the kind," said Hartley. "As a matter of fact, it's not a thing I am anxious to talk about. Up to the present I have only told Rosa."
"Only!" repeated the choking captain. "Only! Only told Rosa! Where was the town-crier? What in the name of common-sense did you want to tell her for?"
"She would have to be told sooner or later," said Hartley, staring at him, "and it seemed to me better to tell her before Joan came home. I thought Joan would prefer it; and if you had heard Rosa's comments I think that you'd agree I was right."
The captain scarcely listened. "Well, it's all over Salthaven by now," he said, resignedly.
He seated himself on the bench with his hands hanging loosely between his knees, and tried to think. In any case he saw himself held up to ridicule, and he had a strong feeling that to tell the truth now would precipitate a crisis between Vyner and his chief clerk. The former would probably make a fairly accurate guess at the circumstances responsible for the rumour, and act accordingly. He glanced at Hartley standing awkwardly before him, and, not without a sense of self-sacrifice, resolved to accept the situation.
"Yes; Rosa had to be told," he said, philosophically. "Fate again; you can't avoid it."
Hartley took a turn or two up and down the path.
"The news came on me like a—like a thunderbolt," he said, pausing in front of the captain. "I hadn't the slightest idea of such a thing, and if I say what I think—"
"Don't!" interrupted the captain, warmly. "What's the good?"
"When were you married?" inquired the other. "Where were you married?"
"Joan made all the arrangements," said the captain, rising hastily. "Ask her."
"But—" said the astonished Hartley.
"Ask her," repeated the captain, walking toward the house and flinging the words over his shoulder. "I'm sick of it."
He led the way into the dining-room and, at the other's invitation, took a seat at the breakfast-table, and sat wondering darkly how he was to get through the two days before he sailed. Hartley, ill at ease, poured him out a cup of coffee and called his attention to the bacon-dish.
"I can't help thinking," he said, as the captain helped himself and then pushed the dish toward him—"I can't help thinking that there is something behind all this; that there is some reason for it that I don't quite understand."
The captain started. "Never mind," he said, with gruff kindness.
"But I do mind," persisted the other. "I have got an idea that it has been done for the benefit—if you can call it that—of a third person."
The captain eyed him with benevolent concern. "Nonsense," he said, uneasily. "Nothing of the kind. We never thought of you."
"I wasn't thinking of myself," said Hartley, staring; "but I know that Joan was uneasy about you, although she pretended to laugh at it. I feel sure in my own mind that she has done this to save you from Mrs. Chinnery. If it hadn't—"
He stopped suddenly as the captain, uttering a strange gasping noise, rose and stood over him. For a second or two the captain stood struggling for speech, then, stepping back with a suddenness that overturned his chair, he grabbed his cap from the sideboard and dashed out of the house. The amazed Mr. Hartley ran to the window and, with some uneasiness, saw his old friend pelting along at the rate of a good five miles an hour.
Breathing somewhat rapidly from his exertions, the captain moderated his pace after the first hundred yards, and went on his way in a state of mind pretty evenly divided between wrath and self-pity. He walked in thought with his eyes fixed on the ground, and glancing up, too late to avoid him, saw the harbour-master approaching.
Captain Trimblett, composing his features to something as near his normal expression as the time at his disposal would allow, gave a brief nod and would have passed on. He found his way, however, blocked by sixteen stone of harbour-master, while a big, red, clean-shaven face smiled at him reproachfully.
"How are you?" said Trimblett, jerkily.
The harbour-master, who was a man of few words, made no reply. He drew back a little and, regarding the captain with smiling interest, rolled his head slowly from side to side.
"Well! Well! Well!" he said at last.
Captain Trimblett drew himself up and regarded him with a glance the austerity of which would have made most men quail. It affected the harbourmaster otherwise.
"C—ck!" he said, waggishly, and drove a forefinger like a petrified sausage into the other's ribs.
The assault was almost painful, and, before the captain could recover, the harbour-master, having exhausted his stock of witticisms, both verbal and physical, passed on highly pleased with himself.
It was only a sample of what the day held in store for the captain, and before it was half over he was reduced to a condition of raging impotence. The staff of Vyner and Son turned on their stools as one man as he entered the room, and regarded him open-eyed for the short time that he remained there. Mr. Vyner, senior, greeted him almost with cordiality, and, for the second time in his experience, extended a big white hand for him to shake.
"I have heard the news, captain," he said, in extenuation.
Captain Trimblett bowed, and in response to an expression of good wishes for his future welfare managed to thank him. He made his escape as soon as possible, and, meeting Robert Vyner on the stairs, got a fleeting glance and a nod which just admitted the fact of his existence.
The most popular man in Salthaven for the time being, he spent the best part of the day on board his ship, heedless of the fact that numerous acquaintances were scouring the town in quest of him. One or two hardy spirits even ventured on board, and, leaving with some haste, bemoaned, as they went, the change wrought by matrimony in a hitherto amiable and civil-spoken mariner.
The one drop of sweetness in his cup was the news that Mrs. Chinnery was away from home for a few days, and after carefully reconnoitring from the bridge of the Indian Chief that evening he set off to visit his lodgings. He reached Tranquil Vale unmolested, and, entering the house with a rather exaggerated air of unconcern, nodded to Mr. Truefitt, who was standing on the hearthrug smoking, and hung up his cap. Mr. Truefitt, after a short pause, shook hands with him.
"She's away," he said, in a deep voice.
"She? Who?" faltered the captain.
"Susanna," replied Mr. Truefitt, in a deeper voice still.
The captain coughed and, selecting a chair with great care, slowly seated himself.
"She left you her best wishes," continued Mr. Truefitt, still standing, and still regarding him with an air of severe disapproval.
"Much obliged," murmured the captain.
"She would do it," added Mr. Truefitt, crossing to the window and staring out at the road with his back to the captain. "And she said something about a silver-plated butter-dish; but in the circumstances I said 'No.' Miss Willett thought so too."
"How is Miss Willett?" inquired the captain, anxious to change the subject.
"All things considered, she's better than might be expected," replied Mr. Truefitt, darkly.
Captain Trimblett said that he was glad to hear it, and, finding the silence becoming oppressive, inquired affectionately concerning the health of Mrs. Willett, and learned to his discomfort that she was in the same enigmatical condition as her daughter.
"And my marriage is as far off as ever," concluded Mr. Truefitt. "Some people seem to be able to get married as often as they please, and others can't get married at all."
"It's all fate," said the captain, slowly; "it's all arranged for us."
Mr. Truefitt turned and his colour rose.
"Your little affair was arranged for you, I suppose?" he said, sharply.
"It was," said the captain, with startling vehemence.
Mr. Truefitt, who was lighting his pipe, looked up at him from lowered brows, and then, crossing to the door, took his pipe down the garden to the summer-house.