ROBERT VYNER walked home slowly, trying as he went to evolve a scheme which should in the first place enable him to have his own way, and, in the second to cause as little trouble as possible to everybody. As a result of his deliberations he sought his father, whom he found enjoying a solitary cup of tea, and told him that he had been to Hartley's with the news of Captain Trimblett's illness. He added casually that Mrs. Trimblett was looking remarkably well. And he spoke feelingly of the pleasure afforded to all right-minded people at being able to carry a little sympathy and consolation into the homes of the afflicted.
Mr. Vyner senior sipped his tea. "She has got her father and the children if she wants sympathy," he said gruffly.
Robert shook his head. "It's not quite the same thing," he said gravely.
"The children ought to be with her," said his father. "I never understood why they should have gone to Mrs. Chinnery; still that's not my affair."
"It was to assist Mrs. Chinnery for one thing," said Robert. "And besides they were awfully in the way."
He heard his father put his tea-cup down and felt, rather than saw, that he was gazing at him with some intentness. With a pre-occupied air he rose and left the room.
Satisfied with the impression he had made, he paid another visit to Hartley's on the day following and then, despite Joan's protests, became an almost daily visitor. His assurance that they were duty visits paid only with a view to their future happiness only served to mystify her. The fact that Hartley twice plucked up courage to throw out hints as to the frequency of his visits, and the odd glances with which his father favoured him, satisfied him that he was in the right path.
For a fortnight he went his way unchecked, and, apparently blind to the growing stiffness, of his father every time the subject was mentioned, spoke freely of Mrs. Trimblett and the beautiful resignation with which she endured her husband's misfortunes. His father listened for the most part in silence, until coming at last to the conclusion, that there was nothing to be gained by that policy he waited until his wife had left the dining-room one evening and ventured a solemn protest.
"She is a very nice girl," said the delighted Robert.
"Just so," said his father, leaning toward a candle and lighting his cigar, "although perhaps that is hardly the way to speak of a married woman."
"And we have been friends for a long time," said Robert.
Mr. Vyner coughed dryly.
"Just so," he said again.
"Why shouldn't I go and see her when I like?" said Robert, after a pause.
"She is another man's wife," said his father, "and it is a censorious world."
Robert Vyner looked down at the cloth. "If she were not, I suppose there would be some other objection?" he said gloomily.
Mr. Vyner laid his cigar on the side of a plate and drew himself up. "My boy," he said impressively, "I don't think I deserve that. Both your mother and myself would—ha—always put your happiness before our own private inclinations."
He picked up his cigar again and placing it in his mouth looked the personification of injured fatherhood.
"Do you mean," said Robert, slowly, "do you mean that if she were single you would be willing for me to marry her?"
"It is no good discussing that," said Mr. Vyner with an air of great consideration.
"But would you?" persisted his son.
Mr. Vyner was a very truthful man as a rule, but there had been instances—he added another.
"Yes," he said with a slight gasp.
Robert sprang up with a haste that overturned his coffee, and seizing his father's hand shook it with enthusiasm. Mr. Vyner somewhat affected, responded heartily.
"Anything possible for you, Bob," he said, fervently, "but this is impossible."
His son looked at him. "I have never known you to go back on your word," he said emphatically.
"I never have," said Mr. Vyner.
"Your word is your bond," said Robert smiling at him. "And now I want to tell you something."
"Well," said the other, regarding him with a little uneasiness.
"She is not married," said Robert, calmly.
Mr. Vyner started up and his cigar fell unheeded to the floor.
"What!" he said, loudly.
"She is not married," repeated his son.
Mr. Vyner sank back in his chair again and looking round mechanically for his cigar, found it tracing a design on the carpet.
"D———n," he said fervently, as he stooped to remove it. He tossed it in his plate and leaning back glared at his son.
"Do you mean that she didn't marry Trimblett?" he inquired in a trembling voice.
Mr. Vyner drew the cigar-box toward him and selecting a cigar with great care, nipped off the end and, having lighted it, sat smoking in silence.
"This is very extraordinary," he said at last watching his son's eyes.
"I suppose she had a reason," said Robert in a matter-of-fact voice.
Mr. Vyner winced. He began to realize the state of affairs and sat trembling in impotent. Then he rose and paced up and down. He thought of his veiled threats to Hartley, the idea that his son should know of them added his anger.
"You are of full age," he said bitterly, "and have your own income—now."
Robert flushed and then turned pale.
"I will give that up if you wish, provided you'll retain Hartley," he said, quietly.
Mr. Vyner continued his perambulation smoked furiously and muttered something "forcing conditions upon him."
"I can't leave Hartley in the lurch," said he quietly. "It's not his fault. I can look to myself."
Mr. Vyner stopped and regarded him. "Don't be a fool," he said, shortly. "If it wasn't for mother—"
His son repressed a smile by an effort and feel more at ease. One of Mrs. Vyner's privileges was to serve as an excuse for any display of weakness of which her husband might be guilty.
"This pretended marriage will be a further scandal," said Mr. Vyner, frowning. "What are you going to tell people?"
"Nothing," said Robert.
"Do you think it is conducive to discipline to marry the daughter of my chief clerk?" continued his father.
Robert shook his head.
"No," he said, decidedly. "I have been thinking of that. It would be better to give him a small interest in the firm—equal to his salary, say."
Well aware of the uses of physical exercise at moments of mental stress, Mr. Vyner started on his walk again. He began to wonder whether, after all, he ought to consider his wife's feelings in the matter.
"She is a very nice girl," said Robert, after watching him for some time. "I wish you knew her."
Mr. Vyner waved the remark away with a large impatient hand.
"She declines to marry me against your wishes," continued his son, "but now that you have given your consent—"
The room suddenly became too small for Mr. Vyner. He passed out into the hall and a few seconds later his son heard the library door close with an eloquent bang. He shrugged his shoulders and lighting a cigarette sat down to wait. He was half-way through his third cigarette when the door opened and his father came into the room again.
"I have been talking to your mother," said Mr. Vyner, in a stately fashion. "She is very much upset, of course. Very. She is not strong, and I—ha—we came to the conclusion that you must do as you please."
He stepped to the table and with a trembling hand helped himself to a whiskey and soda. Robert took up a glass with a little claret in it.
"Success to the young couple," he said cheerfully.
Mr. Vyner paused with the glass at his lips and eyed him indignantly. Then with a wooden expression of face—intended possibly to suggest that he had not heard—took a refreshing drink. He placed the glass on the table and turned to see his son's outstretched hand.