FOR the first week or two after Joan Hartley's return Mr. Robert Vyner went about in a state of gloomy amazement. Then, the first shock of surprise over, he began to look about him in search of reasons for a marriage so undesirable. A few casual words with Hartley at odd times only served to deepen the mystery, and he learned with growing astonishment of the chief clerk's ignorance of the whole affair. A faint suspicion, which he had at first dismissed as preposterous, persisted in recurring to him, and grew in strength every time the subject was mentioned between them. His spirits improved, and he began to speak of the matter so cheerfully that Hartley became convinced that everybody concerned had made far too much of ordinary attentions paid by an ordinary young man to a pretty girl. Misled by his son's behaviour, Mr. Vyner, senior, began to entertain the same view of the affair.
"Just a boyish admiration," he said to his wife, as they sat alone one evening. "All young men go through it at some time or other. It's a sort of—ha—vaccination, and the sooner they have it and get over it the better."
"He has quite got over it, I think," said Mrs. Vyner, slowly.
Mr. Vyner nodded. "Lack of opposition," he said, with a satisfied air. "Lack of visible opposition, at any rate. These cases require management. Many a marriage has been caused by the efforts made to prevent it."
Mrs. Vyner sighed. Her husband had an irritating habit of taking her a little way into his confidence and then leaving the rest to an imagination which was utterly inadequate to the task.
"There is nothing like management," she said, safely. "And I am sure nobody could have had a better son. He has never caused us a day's anxiety."
"Not real anxiety," said her husband—"no."
Mrs. Vyner averted her eyes. "When," she said, gently—"when are you going to give him a proper interest in the firm?"
Mr. Vyner thrust his hands into his trousers pockets and leaned back in his chair. "I have been thinking about it," he said, slowly. "He would have had it before but for this nonsense. Nothing was arranged at first, because I wanted to see how he was going to do. His work is excellent—excellent."
It was high praise, but it was deserved, and Mr. Robert Vyner would have been the first to admit it. His monstrous suspicion was daily growing less monstrous and more plausible. It became almost a conviction, and he resolved to test it by seeing Joan and surprising her with a few sudden careless remarks of the kind that a rising K.C. might spring upon a particularly difficult witness. For various reasons he chose an afternoon when the senior partner was absent, and, after trying in vain to think out a few embarrassing questions on the way, arrived at the house in a condition of mental bankruptcy.
The obvious agitation of Miss Hartley as she shook hands did not tend to put him at his ease. He stammered something about "congratulations" and the girl stammered something about "thanks," after which they sat still and eyed each other nervously.
"Beautiful day," said Mr. Vyner at last, and comforted himself with the reflection that the most eminent K.C.'s often made inane remarks with the idea of throwing people off their guard.
Miss Hartley said "Yes."
"I hope you had a nice time in town?" he said, suddenly.
"Very nice," said Joan, eying him demurely.
"But of course you did," said Robert, with an air of sudden remembrance. "I suppose Captain Trimblett knows London pretty well?"
"Pretty well," repeated the witness.
Mr. Vyner eyed her thoughtfully. "I hope you won't mind my saying so," he said, slowly, "but I was awfully pleased to hear of your marriage. I think it is always nice to hear of one's friends marrying each other."
"Yes," said the girl.
"And Trimblett is such a good chap," continued Mr. Vyner. "He is so sensible for his age."
He paused expectantly, but nothing happened.
"So bright and cheerful," he explained.
Miss Hartley still remaining silent, he broke off and sat watching her quietly. To his eyes she seemed more charming than ever. There was a defiant look in her eyes, and a half-smile trembled round the corners of her mouth. He changed his seat for one nearer to hers, and leaning forward eyed her gravely. Her colour deepened and she breathed quickly.
"Don't—don't you think Captain Trimblett is lucky?" she inquired, with an attempt at audacity.
Mr. Vyner pondered. "No," he said at last.
Miss Hartley caught her breath.
"How rude!" she said, after a pause, lowering her eyes.
"No, it isn't," said Robert.
"Really!" remonstrated Miss Hartley.
"I think that I am luckier than he is," said Robert, in a low voice. "At least, I hope so. Shall I tell you why?"
"No," said Joan, quickly.
Mr. Vyner moistened his lips.
"Perhaps you know," he said, unsteadily.
Joan made no reply.
"You do know," said Robert.
Miss Hartley looked up with a sudden, careless laugh.
"It sounds like a conundrum," she said, gayly. "But it doesn't matter. I hope you will be lucky."
"I intend to be," said Robert.
"My hus—husband," said Joan, going very red, "would probably use the word 'fate' instead of 'luck.'"
"It is a favourite word of my wife's," said Robert gravely. "Ah, what a couple they would have made!"
"Who?" inquired Joan, eying him in bewilderment.
"My wife and your husband," said Robert. "I believe they were made for each other."
Miss Hartley retreated in good order. "I think you are talking nonsense," she said, with some dignity.
"Yes," said Robert, with a smile. "Ground-bait."
"What?" said Joan, in a startled voice.
Miss Hartley made an appeal to his better feelings. "You are making my head ache," she said, pathetically. "I'm sure I don't know what you are talking about."
Mr. Vyner apologized, remarking that it was a common fault of young husbands to talk too much about their wives, and added, as an interesting fact, that he had only been married that afternoon. Miss Hartley turned a deaf ear.
He spread a little ground-bait—of a different kind—before Hartley during the next few days, and in a short time had arrived at a pretty accurate idea of the state of affairs. It was hazy and lacking in detail, but it was sufficient to make him give Laurel Lodge a wide berth for the time being, and to work still harder for that share in the firm which he had always been given to understand would be his. In the meantime he felt that Joan's marriage de convenance was a comfortable arrangement for all parties concerned.
This was still his view of it as he sat in his office one afternoon about a couple of months after Captain Trimblett's departure. He had met Miss Hartley in the street the day before, and, with all due regard to appearances, he could not help thinking that she had been somewhat unnecessarily demure. In return she had gone away with three crushed fingers and a colour that was only partially due to exercise. He was leaning back in his chair thinking it over when his father entered.
"Busy?" inquired John Vyner.
"Frightfully," said his son, unclasping his hands from the back of his head.
"I have just been speaking to Hartley," said the senior partner, watching him keenly. "I had a letter this morning from the Trimblett family."
"Eh?" said his son, staring.
"From the eldest child—a girl named Jessie," replied the other. "It appears that a distant cousin who has been in charge of them has died suddenly, and she is rather at a loss what to do. She wrote to me about sending the captain's pay to her."
"Yes," said his son, nodding; "but what has Hartley got to do with it?"
"Do with it?" repeated Mr. Vyner in surprised tones. "I take it that he is in a way their grandfather."
"Gran—" began his son, and sat gasping. "Yes, of course," he said, presently, "of course. I hadn't thought of that. Of course."
"From his manner at first Hartley appeared to have forgotten it too," said Mr. Vyner, "but he soon saw with me that the children ought not to be left alone. The eldest is only seventeen."
Robert tried to collect his thoughts. "Yes," he said, slowly.
"He has arranged for them to come and live with him," continued Mr. Vyner.
The upper part of his son's body disappeared with startling suddenness over the arm of his chair and a hand began groping blindly in search of a fallen pen. A dangerous rush of blood to the head was perceptible as he regained the perpendicular.
"Was—was Hartley agreeable to that?" he inquired, steadying his voice.
His father drew himself up in his chair. "Certainly," he said, stiffly; "he fell in with the suggestion at once. It ought to have occurred to him first. Besides the relationship, he and Trimblett are old friends. The captain is an old servant of the firm and his children must be looked after; they couldn't be left alone in London."
"It's a splendid idea," said Robert—"splendid. By far the best thing that you could have done."
"I have told him to write to the girl to-night," said Mr. Vyner. "He is not sure that she knows of her father's second marriage. And I have told him to take a day or two off next week and go up to town and fetch them. It will be a little holiday for him."
"Quite a change for him," agreed Robert. Conscious of his father's scrutiny, his face was absolutely unmoved and his voice easy. "How many children are there?"
"Five," was the reply—"so she says in the letter. The two youngest are twins."
For the fraction of a second something flickered across the face of Robert Vyner and was gone.
"Trimblett's second marriage was rather fortunate for them," he said, in a matter-of-fact voice.
He restrained his feelings until his father had gone, and then, with a gasp of relief, put his head on the table and gave way to them. Convulsive tremours assailed him, and hilarious sobs escaped at intervals from his tortured frame. Ejaculations of "Joan!" and "Poor girl!" showed that he was not entirely bereft of proper feeling.
His head was still between his arms upon the table and his body still shaking, when the door opened and Bassett entered the room and stood gazing at him in a state of mild alarm. He stood for a minute diagnosing the case, and then, putting down a handful of papers, crossed softly to the mantel-piece and filled a tumbler with water. He came back and touched the junior partner respectfully on the elbow.
"Will you try and drink some of this, sir?" he said, soothingly.
The startled Robert threw up his arm. There was a crash of glass, and Bassett, with his legs apart and the water streaming down his face, stood regarding him with owlish consternation. His idea that the junior partner was suffering from a species of fit was confirmed by the latter suddenly snatching his hat from its peg and darting wildly from the room.