THE news that Mrs. Chinnery had taken a house of her own and was anxious to let rooms, gave Robert Vyner an idea which kept him busy the whole of an evening. First of all he broached it to Hartley, but finding him divided between joy and nervousness he took the matter into his own hands and paid a visit to Tranquil Vale; the result of which he communicated with some pride to Joan Hartley the same afternoon.
"It was my own idea entirely," he said with a feeble attempt to conceal a little natural pride. "Some people would call it an inspiration. Directly I heard that Mrs. Chinnery was anxious to let rooms I thought of your children—I mentioned the idea to your father and escaped an embrace by a hair's breadth. I was prepared to remind him that 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' and to follow it up with 'Distance lends enchantment to the view'; but it was unnecessary. It will be a great thing for Mrs. Chinnery."
Miss Hartley looked thoughtful.
"And you," said Robert reproachfully.
"If father is satisfied—" began Miss Hartley.
"'Satisfied' is a cold and inadequate word," said Robert. "He was delighted. He could not have been more pleased if I had told him that the entire five had succumbed to an attack of croup. I left my work to look after itself to come and give you the news."
"You are very kind," said Joan, after some consideration.
"It is a good thing for all concerned," said Robert. "It is a load off my mind. The last time I was here, I was interrupted at a most critical moment by the entrance of Miss Trimblett."
"And now, instead of coming here to see them, you will have to go to Mrs. Chinnery's," said Joan.
"When I want to," said Mr. Vyner with a forced smile, as the twins came rushing into the room. "Yes."
The exodus took place three days afterward to the entire satisfaction of all concerned. Tranquil Vale alone regarded the advent of the newcomers with a certain amount of uneasiness, the joy of Ted and the twins when they found that there was a river at the bottom of the garden, threatening to pass all bounds. In a state of wild excitement they sat on the fence and waved to passing craft, until in an attempt to do justice to a larger ship than usual, Miss Gertrude Trimblett waved herself off the fence on to the stones of the foreshore below.
Captain Sellers, who had been looking on with much interest, at once descended and rendered first aid. It was the first case he had had since he had left the sea, but, after a careful examination, he was able to assure the sufferer that she had broken her right leg in two places. The discovery was received with howls of lamentation from both girls, until Dolly blinded with tears, happened to fall over the injured limb and received in return such hearty kicks from it that the captain was compelled to reconsider his diagnosis, and after a further examination discovered that it was only bent. In quite a professional manner he used a few technical terms that completely covered his discomfiture.
It was the beginning of a friendship which Tranquil Vale did its best to endure with fortitude, and against which Mrs. Chinnery fought in vain. In the company of Ted and the twins Captain Sellers renewed his youth. Together they discovered the muddiest places on the foreshore, and together they borrowed a neighbour's boat and sailed down the river in quest of adventures. With youth at the prow and dim-sighted age at the helm, they found several. News of their doings made Hartley congratulate himself warmly on their departure.
"Mrs. Chinnery is just the woman to manage them," he said to Joan, "and Truefitt tells me that having children to look after has changed her wonderfully."
Miss Hartley, with a little shiver, said she could quite understand it.
"I mean for the better," said her father, "he said she is getting quite young and jolly again. And he told me that young Saunders is there a great deal." Miss Hartley raised her eyebrows in mute interrogation.
"He pretends that he goes to see George," said her father, dropping his voice, "but Truefitt thinks that it is Jessie. I suppose Trimblett won't mind; he always thought a lot of Saunders. I don't know whether you ought to interfere."
"Certainly not," said Joan flushing. "What has it got to do with me?"
"Well, I just mentioned it," said Hartley, "although I suppose Mrs. Chinnery is mostly responsible while they are with her. I am writing to tell Trimblett that the children are at Tranquil Vale. When he comes back perhaps, he will make other arrangements."
"Very likely," said his daughter abruptly, "or perhaps he will marry Mrs. Chinnery."
Mr. Hartley, who was at supper, put down his knife and fork and sat eying her in very natural amazement. "Marry Mrs. Chinnery?" he gasped, "but how can he?"
"I mean," said Joan with a sudden remembrance of the state of affairs, "I mean if anything should happen to me."
Mr. Hartley finished his supper and drawing his chair up to the fire sat smoking in thoughtful silence.
"And if anything happens to Trimblett perhaps you will marry again," he said at last.
Miss Hartley shook her head. "I am not afraid," she said ambiguously.
Her confidence was put to the test less than a fortnight later by an unexpected visit from Mr. Robert Vyner, who, entering the room in a somewhat breathless condition, accepted a chair and sat gazing at her with an air of mysterious triumph.
"I'm the bearer of important news," he announced. "Dispatches from the front. You'll hear all about it from your father when he comes home, but I wanted to be the first with it."
"What is the matter?" inquired Joan.
Mr. Vyner looked shocked. "All important news, good or bad, should be broken gently," he said reproachfully. "Do you know any Scotch?"
"Scotch!" said the mystified Miss Hartley.
Mr. Vyner nodded. "The best laid schemes o' mice and men gang oft agley," he quoted in a thrilling voice. "Do you understand that?"
"I'll wait till father comes home," announced Miss Hartley, with some decision.
"There are other quotations bearing on the matter in hand," said Mr. Vyner, thoughtfully, "but I have forgotten them. At present I am thinking of you to the utter exclusion of everything else. Not that that is anything unusual. Far from it. To cut a long story short, Captain Trimblett has been left behind at San Francisco with malaria, and the mate has taken the ship on."
Miss Hartley gave a little cry of concern.
"He has had it before," said Mr. Vyner composedly, "but he seems to have got it bad this time, and when he is fit enough, he is coming home. Now what are you going to do?"
"Poor Captain Trimblett," said Joan. "I am so sorry."
"What are you going to do?" repeated Mr. Vyner, impressively. "His children are at Salthaven, and he will live here because my father and I had practically decided to give him the berth of ship's husband after this voyage. He will have it a little sooner, that's all. Appropriate berth for a marrying man like that, isn't it? Sounds much more romantic than marine superintendent."
"I made sure that he would be away for at least two years," said Joan, regarding him helplessly.
"There is nothing certain in this world," said Mr. Vyner, sedately. "You should have thought of that before. The whole thing is bound to come out now. There are only two courses open to you. You might marry Captain Trimblett in reality—"
"What is the other?" inquired Joan, as he paused.
"The other," said Mr. Vyner slowly and lowering his voice, "the other stands before you. All he can urge in his favour is, that he is younger than Trimblett, and, as I have said on another occasion, with——"
"If there is nothing more than that in his favour——" said Joan turning away.
"Nothing," said Robert, humbly, "unless—"
"Unless you know of anything."
Joan Hartley, her gaze still averted, shook her head.
"Still," said Mr. Vyner, with an air of great thoughtfulness, "a paragon would be awful to live with. Awful. Fancy marrying Bassett for instance! Fancy being married to a man you could never find fault with."
"There is a third course open to me," said Joan, turning round. "I could go away."
Mr. Vyner got up slowly and took a step toward her. "Would you—would you sooner go away than stay with me?" he said in a low voice.
"I—I don't want to go away," said Joan after a long pause.
Mr. Vyner took two more steps.
"I'm so fond of Salthaven," added Joan hastily.
"So am I," said Robert. "It seems to me that we have a lot of ideas in common. Don't you think it would simplify matters if you stayed at Salthaven and married me?"
Joan eyed him gravely. "I don't think it would simplify matters with your father," she said, slowly.
Mr. Vyner's fourth and last step took him to her chair.
"Is that your only objection?" he murmured, bending over her.
"I might think of others—in time," said Joan.
Mr. Vyner bent a little lower, but so slowly that Miss Hartley was compelled to notice it. She got up suddenly and confronted him. He took both her hands in his, but so gently that she offered no resistance.
"That is a bargain," he said, trying to steady his voice. "I will soon arrange matters with my father."
Joan smiled faintly and shook her head.
"You'll see," said Robert confidently. "I've been a good son to him, and he knows it. And I always have had my own way. I'm not going to alter now. It wouldn't be good for him."
"You are holding my hands," said Joan.
"I know," said Mr. Vyner. "I like it."
He released them reluctantly and stood looking at her. Miss Hartley after a brave attempt to meet his gaze, lowered her eyes. For a time neither of them spoke.
"I'm as bad as Trimblett," said Robert at last. "I am beginning to believe in fate. It is my firm opinion that we were intended for each other. I can't imagine marrying anybody else, can you?"
Miss Hartley, still looking down, made no reply.