THIS time to-morrow night," said Mr. Walters, as he slowly paced a country lane with Miss Jelks clinging to his arm, "I shall be at sea."
Miss Jelks squeezed his arm and gave vent to a gentle sigh. "Two years'll soon slip away," she remarked. "It's wonderful how time flies. How much is twice three hundred and sixty-five?"
"And you mind you behave yourself," said the boatswain, hastily. "Remember your promise, mind."
"Of course I will," said Rosa, carelessly.
"You've promised not to 'ave your evening out till I come back," the boatswain reminded her; "week-days and Sundays both. And it oughtn't to be no 'ardship to you. Gals wot's going to be married don't want to go gadding about."
"Of course they don't," said Rosa. "I shouldn't enjoy being out without you neither. And I can get all the fresh air I want in the garden."
"And cleaning the winders," said the thoughtful boatswain.
Miss Jelks, who held to a firm and convenient belief in the likeness between promises and piecrusts, smiled cheerfully.
"Unless I happen to be sent on an errand I sha'n't put my nose outside the front gate," she declared.
"You've passed your word," said Mr. Walters, slowly, "and that's good enough for me; besides which I've got a certain party wot's promised to keep 'is eye on you and let me know if you don't keep to it."
"Eh?" said the startled Rosa. "Who is it?"
"Never you mind who it is," said Mr. Walters, judicially. "It's better for you not to know, then you can't dodge 'im. He can keep his eye on you, but there's no necessity for you to keep your eye on 'im. I don't mind wot he does."
Miss Jelks maintained her temper with some difficulty; but the absolute necessity of discovering the identity of the person referred to by Mr. Walters, if she was to have any recreation at all during the next two years, helped her.
"He'll have an easy job of it," she said, at last, with a toss of her head.
"That's just wot I told 'im," said the boatswain. "He didn't want to take the job on at first, but I p'inted out that if you behaved yourself and kept your promise he'd 'ave nothing to do; and likewise, if you didn't, it was only right as 'ow I should know. Besides which I gave 'im a couple o' carved peach stones and a war-club that used to belong to a Sandwich Islander, and took me pretty near a week to make."
Miss Jelks looked up at him sideways. "Be a bit of all right if he comes making up to me himself," she said, with a giggle. "I wonder whether he'd tell you that?"
"He won't do that," said the boatswain, with a confident smile. "He's much too well-behaved, 'sides which he ain't old enough."
Miss Jelks tore her arm away. "You've never been and set that old-fashioned little shrimp Bassett on to watch me?" she said, shrilly.
"Never you mind who it is," growled the discomfited boatswain. "It's got nothing to do with you. All you've got to know is this: any time 'e sees you out—this party I'm talking of—he's going to log it. He calls it keeping a dairy, but it comes to the same thing."
"I know what I call it," said the offended maiden, "and if I catch that little horror spying on me he'll remember it."
"He can't spy on you if you ain't out," said the boatswain. "That's wot I told 'im; and when I said as you'd promised he saw as 'ow it would be all right. I'm going to try and bring him 'ome a shark's tooth."
"Goin' to make it?" inquired Rosa, with a sniff.
"And might I ask," she inquired, as the amorous boatswain took her arm again, "might I ask who is going to watch you?"
"Me?" said the boatswain, regarding her with honest amazement. "I don't want no watching. Men don't."
"In—deed!" said Miss Jelks, "and why not?"
"They don't like it," said Mr. Walters, simply.
Miss Jelks released her arm again, and for some time they walked on opposite sides of the lane Her temper rose rapidly, and at last, tearing off her glove, she drew the ring from her finger and handed it to the boatswain.
"There you are!" she exclaimed. "Take it!"
Mr. Walters took it, and, after a vain attempt to place it on his little finger, put it in his waistcoat-pocket and walked on whistling.
"We're not engaged now," explained Rosa.
"Aye, aye," said the boatswain, cheerfully. "Only walking out."
"Nothing of the kind," said Rosa. "I sha'n't have nothing more to do with you. You'd better tell Bassett."
"What for?" demanded the other.
"What for?" repeated Rosa. "Why, there's no use him watching me now."
"Why not?" demanded Mr. Walters.
Miss Jelks caught her breath impatiently. "Because it's got nothing to do with you what I do now," she said, sharply. "I can go out with who I like."
"Ho!" said the glaring Mr. Walters. "Ho! Can you? So that's your little game, is it? Here—"
He fumbled in his pocket and, producing the ring, caught Miss Jelks's hand in a grip that made her wince, and proceeded to push it on her little finger. "Now you behave yourself, else next time I'll take it back for good."
Miss Jelks remonstrated, but in vain. The boatswain passed his left arm about her waist, and when she became too fluent increased the pressure until she gasped for breath. Much impressed by these signs of affection she began to yield, and, leaning her head against his shoulder, voluntarily renewed her vows of seclusion.
She went down to the harbour next day to see him off, and stood watching with much interest the bustle on deck and the prominent share borne by her masterful admirer. To her thinking, Captain Trimblett, stiff and sturdy on the bridge, played but a secondary part. She sent the boatswain little signals of approval and regard, a proceeding which was the cause of much subsequent trouble to a newly joined A.B. who misunderstood their destination. The warps were thrown off, a bell clanged in the engine-room, the screw revolved, and a gradually widening piece of water appeared between the steamer and the quay. Men on board suspended work for a moment for a last gaze ashore, and no fewer than six unfortunates responded ardently to the fluttering of her handkerchief. She stood watching until the steamer had disappeared round a bend in the river, and then, with a sense of desolation and a holiday feeling for which there was no outlet, walked slowly home.
She broke her promise to the boatswain the following evening. For one thing, it was her "evening out," and for another she felt that the sooner the Bassett nuisance was stopped, the better it would be for all concerned. If the youth failed to see her she was the gainer to the extent of an evening in the open air, and if he did not she had an idea that the emergency would not find her unprepared.
She walked down to the town first and spent some time in front of the shop-windows. Tiring of this, she proceeded to the harbour and inspected the shipping, and then with the feeling strong upon her that it would be better to settle with Bassett at her own convenience, she walked slowly to the small street in which he lived, and taking up a position nearly opposite his house paced slowly to and fro with the air of one keeping an appointment. She was pleased to observe, after a time, a slight movement of the curtains opposite, and, satisfied that she had attained her ends, walked off. The sound of a street door closing saved her the necessity of looking round.
At first she strolled slowly through the streets, but presently, increasing her pace, resolved to take the lad for a country walk. At Tranquil Vale she paused to tie up her boot-lace, and, satisfying herself that Bassett was still in pursuit, set off again.
She went on a couple of miles farther, until turning the sharp corner of a lane she took a seat on the trunk of a tree that lay by the side and waited for him to come up. She heard his footsteps coming nearer and nearer, and with a satisfied smile noted that he had quickened his pace. He came round the corner at the rate of over four miles an hour, and, coming suddenly upon her, was unable to repress a slight exclamation of surprise. The check was but momentary, and he was already passing on when the voice of Miss Jelks, uplifted in sorrow, brought him to a standstill.
"Oh, Master Bassett," she cried, "I am surprised! I couldn't have believed it of you."
Bassett, squeezing his hands together, stood eying her nervously.
"And you so quiet, too," continued Rosa; "but there, you quiet ones are always the worst."
The boy, peering at her through his spectacles, made no reply.
"The idea of a boy your age falling in love with me," said Rosa, modestly lowering her gaze.
"What!" squeaked the astonished Bassett, hardly able to believe his ears.
"Falling in love and dogging my footsteps," said Rosa, with relish, "and standing there looking at me as though you could eat me."
"You must be mad," said Bassett, in a trembling voice. "Stark staring mad."
"It's to make you leave off loving me," she explained
"Don't make it worse," said Rosa kindly. "I suppose you can't help it, and ought to be pitied for it really. Now I know why it was you winked at me when you came to the house the other day."
"Winked!" gasped the horrified youth. "Me?"
"I thought it was weakness of sight, at the time," said the girl, "but I see my mistake now. I am sorry for you, but it can never be. I am another's."
Bassett, utterly bereft of speech, stood eying her helplessly.
"Don't stand there making those sheep's eyes at me," said Rosa. "Try and forget me. Was it love at first sight, or did it come on gradual like?"
Bassett, moistening his tongue, shook his head.
"Am I the first girl you ever loved?" inquired Rosa, softly.
"No," said the boy. "I mean—I have never been in—love. I don't know what you are talking about."
"Do you mean to say you are not in love with me?" demanded Rosa, springing up suddenly.
"I do," said Bassett, blushing hotly.
"Then what did you follow me all round the town for, and then down here?"
Bassett, who was under a pledge of secrecy to the boatswain, and, moreover, had his own ideas as to the reception the truth might meet with, preserved an agonized silence.
"It's no good," said Rosa, eying him mournfully. "You can't deceive me. You are head over heels, and the kindest thing I can do is to be cruel to you—for your own sake."
She sprang forward suddenly, and, before the astounded youth could dodge, dealt him a sharp box on the ear. As he reeled under the blow she boxed the other.
"It's to make you leave off loving me," she explained; "and if I ever catch you following me again you'll get some more; besides which I shall tell your mother."
She picked up her parasol from the trunk, and after standing regarding him for a moment with an air of offended maidenhood, walked back to the town. Bassett, after a long interval, returned by another road.