JOAN HARTLEY did not realize the full consequences of her departure from the truth until the actual arrival of the Trimblett family, which, piloted by Mr. Hartley, made a triumphant appearance in a couple of station cabs. The roofs were piled high with luggage, and the leading cabman shared his seat with a brass-bound trunk of huge dimensions and extremely sharp corners.
A short, sturdy girl of seventeen jumped out as soon as the vehicles came to a halt, and, taking her stand on the curb, proceeded to superintend the unloading. A succession of hasty directions to the leading cabman, one of the most docile of men, ended in the performance of a marvellous piece of jugglery with the big trunk, which he first balanced for an infinitesimal period of time on his nose, and then caught with his big toe.
"What did you do that for?" demanded Miss Trimblett, hotly.
There is a limit to the patience of every man, and the cabman was proceeding to tell her when he was checked by Mr. Hartley.
"He ought to be locked up," said Miss Trimblett flushing.
She took up a band-box and joined the laden procession of boys and girls that was proceeding up the path to the house. Still red with indignation she was introduced to Joan, and, putting down the band-box, stood eying her with frank curiosity.
"I thought you were older," she said at last. "I had no idea father was married again until I got the letter. I shall call you Joan."
"You had all better call me that," said Miss Hartley, hastily.
"Never more surprised in my life," continued Miss Trimblett. "However—"
She paused and looked about her.
"This is George," she said, pulling forward a heavy-looking youth of sixteen. "This is Ted; he is fourteen—small for his age—and these are the twins, Dolly and Gertrude; they're eleven. Dolly has got red hair and Gerty has got the sweetest temper."
The family, having been introduced and then summarily dismissed by the arbitrary Jessie, set out on a tour of inspection, while the elders, proceeding upstairs, set themselves to solve a problem in sleeping accommodation that would have daunted the proprietor of a Margate lodging-house. A scheme was at last arranged by which Hartley gave up his bedroom to the three Misses Trimblett and retired to a tiny room under the tiles. Miss Trimblett pointed out that it commanded a fine view.
"It is the only thing to be done," said Joan, softly.
"It isn't very big for three," said Miss Trimblett, referring to her own room, "but the twins won't be separated. I've always been used to a room to myself, but I suppose it can't be helped for the present."
She went downstairs and walked into the garden. The other members of the family were already there, and Hartley, watching them from the dining-room window, raised his brows in anguish as he noticed the partiality of the twins for cut flowers.
It was, as he soon discovered, one of the smallest of the troubles that followed on his sudden increase of family. His taste in easy-chairs met with the warm approval of George Trimblett, and it was clear that the latter regarded the tobacco-jar as common property. The twins' belongings—a joint-stock affair—occupied the most unlikely places in the house; and their quarrels were only exceeded in offensiveness by their noisy and uncouth endearments afterwards. Painstaking but hopeless attempts on the part of Miss Trimblett to "teach Rosa her place" added to the general confusion.
By the end of a month the Trimblett children were in full possession. George Trimblett, owing to the good offices of Mr. Vyner, senior, had obtained a berth in a shipping firm, but the others spent the days at home, the parties most concerned being unanimously of the opinion that it would be absurd to go to school before Christmas. They spoke with great fluency and good feeling of making a fresh start in the New Year.
"Interesting children," said Robert Vyner, who had dropped in one afternoon on the pretext of seeing how they were getting on. "I wish they were mine. I should be so proud of them."
Miss Hartley, who was about to offer him some tea, thought better of it, and, leaning back in her chair, regarded him suspiciously.
"And, after all, what is a garden for?" pursued Mr. Vyner, as a steady succession of thuds sounded outside, and Ted, hotly pursued by the twins, appeared abruptly in the front garden and dribbled a football across the flower-beds.
"They are spoiling the garden," said Joan, flushing. "Father is in despair."
Mr. Vyner shook his head indulgently. "Girls will be girls," he said, glancing through the window at Gertrude, who had thrown herself on the ball and was being dragged round the garden by her heels. "I'm afraid you spoil them, though."
Miss Hartley did not trouble to reply.
"I saw your eldest boy yesterday, at Marling's," continued the industrious Mr. Vyner. "He is getting on pretty well; Marling tells me he is steady and quiet. I should think that he might be a great comfort to you in your old age."
In spite of the utmost efforts to prevent it, Miss Hartley began to laugh. Mr. Vyner regarded her in pained astonishment.
"I didn't intend to be humorous," he said, with some severity. "I am fond of children, and, unfortunately, I—I am childless."
He buried his face in his handkerchief, and, removing it after a decent interval, found that his indignant hostess was preparing to quit the room.
"Don't go," he said, hastily. "I haven't finished yet."
"I haven't got time to stay and talk nonsense," said Joan.
"I'm not going to," said Robert, "but I want to speak to you. I have a confession to make."
Mr. Vyner nodded with sad acquiescence. "I deceived you grossly the other day," he said, "and it has been worrying me ever since."
"It doesn't matter," said Joan, with a lively suspicion of his meaning.
"Pardon me," said Mr. Vyner, with solemn politeness, "if I say that it does. I—I lied to you, and I have been miserable ever since."
Joan waited in indignant silence.
"I told you that I was married," said Mr. Vyner, in thrilling tones. "I am not."
Miss Hartley, who had seated herself, rose suddenly with a fair show of temper. "You said you were not going to talk nonsense!" she exclaimed.
"I am not," said the other, in surprise. "I am owning to a fault, making a clean breast of my sins, not without a faint hope that I am setting an example that will be beautifully and bountifully followed."
"I have really got too much to do to stay here listening to nonsense," said Miss Hartley, vigorously.
"I am a proud man," resumed Mr. Vyner, "and what it has cost me to make this confession tongue cannot tell; but it is made, and I now, in perfect confidence—almost perfect confidence—await yours."
"I don't understand you," said Joan, pausing, with her hand on the door.
"Having repudiated my dear wife," said Mr. Vyner, sternly, "I now ask, nay, demand, that you repudiate Captain Trimblett—and all his works," he added, as ear-splitting screams sounded from outside.
"I wish——" began Joan, in a low voice.
"Yes?" said Robert, tenderly.
"That you would go."
Mr. Vyner started, and half rose to his feet. Then he thought better of it.
"I thought at first that you meant it," he said, with a slight laugh.
"I do mean it," said Joan, breathing quickly.
Robert rose at once. "I am very sorry," he said, with grave concern. "I did not think that you were taking my foolishness seriously."
"I ought to be amused, I know," said Joan, bitterly. "I ought to be humbly grateful to your father for having those children sent here. I ought to be flattered to think that he should remember my existence and make plans for my future."
"He—he believes that you are married to Captain Trimblett," said Robert.
"Fortunately for us," said Joan, dryly.
"Do you mean," said Robert, regarding her fixedly, "that my father arranged that marriage?"
Joan bit her lip. "No," she said at last.
"He had something to do with it," persisted Robert. "What was it?"
Joan shook her head.
"Well, I'll ask him about it," said Mr. Vyner.
"Please don't," said the girl. "It is my business."
"You have said so much," said Robert, "that you had better say more. That's what comes of losing your temper. Sit down and tell me all about it, please."
Joan shook her head again.
"You are not angry with me?" said Mr. Vyner.
"That's all right, then," said Robert, cheerfully. "That encourages me to go to still further lengths. You've got to tell me all about it. I forgot to tell you, but I'm a real partner in the firm now. I've got a hard and fast share in the profits—had it last Wednesday; since when I have already grown two inches. In exchange for this confidence I await yours. You must speak a little louder if you want me to hear."
"I didn't say anything," said the girl.
"You are wasting time, then," said Robert, shaking his head. "And that eldest girl of yours may come in at any moment."
Despite her utmost efforts Miss Hartley failed to repress a smile; greatly encouraged, Mr. Vyner placed a chair for her and took one by her side.
"Tell me everything, and I shall know where we are," he said, in a low voice.
"I would rather—" began Miss Hartley.
"Yes, I know," interrupted Mr. Vyner, with great gravity; "but we were not put into this world to please ourselves. Try again."
Miss Hartley endeavoured to turn the conversation, but in vain. In less than ten minutes, with a little skilful prompting, she had told him all.
"I didn't think that it was quite so bad as that," said Robert, going very red. "I am very sorry—very. I can't think what my father was about, and I suppose, in the first place, that it was my fault."
"Yours?" exclaimed Joan.
"For not displaying more patience," said Robert, slowly. "But I was afraid of—-of being forestalled."
Miss Hartley succeeded in divesting her face of every atom of expression. Robert Vyner gazed at her admiringly.
"I am glad that you understand me," he murmured. "It makes things easier for me. I don't suppose that you have the faintest idea how shy and sensitive I really am."
Miss Hartley, without even troubling to look at him, said that she was quite sure she had not.
"Nobody has," said Robert, shaking his head, "but I am going to make a fight against it. I am going to begin now. In the first place I want you not to think too hardly of my father. He has been a very good father to me. We have never had a really nasty word in our lives."
"I hope you never will have," said Joan, with some significance.
"I hope not," said Robert; "but in any case I want to tell you—"
Miss Hartley snatched away the hand he had taken, and with a hasty glance at the door retreated a pace or two from him.
"What is the matter?" he inquired, in a low voice.
Miss Hartley's eyes sparkled.
"My eldest daughter has just come in," she said, demurely. "I think you had better go."