CAPTAIN TRIMBLETT was back again in his old quarters, and already so much improved in health that he was able to repel with considerable vigor the many inquirers who were anxious to be put in possession of the real facts concerning his pretended marriage. It was a subject on which the captain was dumb, but in some mysterious fashion it came to be understood that it was a device on the part of a self-sacrificing and chivalrous ship-master to save Miss Hartley from the attentions of a determined admirer she had met in London. It was the version sanctioned—if not invented—by Mr. Robert Vyner.
It was a source of some little protestation of spirit to Miss Jelks that the captain had been brought home by his faithful boatswain. Conduct based on an idea of two years' absence had to be suddenly and entirely altered. She had had a glimpse of them both on the day of their arrival, but the fact that Mr. Walters was with his superior officer, and that she was with Mr. Filer, prevented her from greeting him.
In the wrath of his dismissal Mr. Filer met him more than half-way.
"Somebody 'ad to look arter 'im," said Mr. Walters, referring to the captain, as he sat in Rosa's kitchen the following evening, "and he always 'ad a liking for me. Besides which I wanted to get 'ome and see you."
"You have got it bad," said Rosa with a gratified titter.
"Look arter you, I ought to ha' said," retorted Mr. Walters, glowering at her, "and from wot I hear from Bassett, it's about time I did."
"Ho!" said Miss Jelks, taking a deep breath. "Ho, really!"
"I had it out of 'im this morning," continued Mr. Walters, eying her sternly; "I waited for 'im as he come out of his 'ouse. He didn't want to tell me at first, but when he found as 'ow he'd been late for the office if he didn't, he thought better of it."
Miss Jelks leaned back in her chair with a ladylike sneer upon her expressive features.
"I'll Bassett him," she said slowly.
"And I'll Filer him," said Mr. Walters, not to be outdone in the coining of verbs.
"It's a pity he don't say them things to my face," said Rosa, "I'd soon let him know."
"He's going to," said the boatswain readily. "I said we'd meet him on Sunday arternoon by Kegg's boat-house. Then we'll see wot you've got to say for yourself. Shut that door D'ye want to freeze me!"
"I'll shut it when you're gone," said Rosa calmly. "Make haste, else I shall catch cold. I'll go with you on Sunday afternoon—just so as you can beg my pardon—and after that I don't want anything more to do with you. You'd try the temper of a saint, you would."
Mr. Walters looked round the warm and comfortable kitchen, and his face fell. "I ain't going to judge you till I've heard both sides," he said slowly, and then seeing no signs of relenting in Rosa's face, passed out into the black night.
He walked down to the rendezvous on Sunday afternoon with a well-dressed circle. Miss Jelks only spoke to him once, and that was when he trod on her dress. A nipping wind stirred the surface of the river, and the place was deserted except for the small figure of Bassett sheltering under the lee of the boat-house. He came to meet them and raising a new bowler hat stood regarding Miss Jelks with an expression in which compassion and judicial severity were pretty evenly combined.
"Tell me, afore her, wot you told me the other day," said Mr. Walters, plunging at once into business.
"I would rather not," said Bassett, adjusting his spectacles and looking from one to the other, "but in pursuance of my promise, I have no alternative."
"Fire away," commanded the boatswain.
Bassett coughed, and then in a thin but firm voice complied. The list of Miss Jelks's misdeeds was a long one, and the day was cold, but he did not miss a single item. Miss Jelks, eying him with some concern as he proceeded, began to think he must have eyes at the back of his head. The boatswain, whose colour was deepening as he listened, regarded her with a lurid eye.
"And you believe it all," said Rosa, turning to him with a pitying smile as Bassett concluded his tale. "Why don't he go on; he ain't finished yet."
"Wot!" said Mr. Walters with energy.
"He ain't told you about making love to me yet," said Rosa.
"I didn't," said the youth. "I shouldn't think of doing such a thing. It was all a mistake of yours."
Miss Jelks uttered a cruel laugh. "Ask him whether he followed me like a pet dog," she said turning to the astonished boatswain. "Ask him if he didn't say he loved the ground my feet trod on. Ask him if he wanted to take me to Marsham Fair and cried because I wouldn't go."
"Eh?" gasped the boatswain, staring at the bewildered Bassett
"Ask him if he didn't go down on his knees to me in Pringle's Lane one day—a muddy day—and ask me to be his," continued the unscrupulous Rosa. "Ask him if he didn't say I was throwing myself away on a wooden-headed boatswain with bandy legs."
"Bandy wot?" ejaculated the choking Mr. Walters, as he bestowed an involuntary glower at the limbs in question.
"I can assure you I never said so," said Bassett; earnestly. "I never noticed before that they were bandy. And I never—"
An enormous fist held just beneath his nose stopped him in mad career.
"If you was only three foot taller and six or seven stone 'eavier," said the palpitating boatswain, "I should know wot to do with you.
"I assure you—" began Bassett.
"If you say another word," declared Mr. Walters, in grating accents, "I'll take you by the scruff of your little neck and drop you in the river. And if you tell any more lies about my young woman to a living soul I'll tear you limb from limb, and box your ears arter-wards."
With a warning shake of the head at the gasping Bassett he turned to Miss Jelks, but that injured lady, with her head at an alarming angle, was already moving away. Even when he reached her side she seemed unaware of his existence, and it was not until the afternoon was well advanced that she deigned to take the slightest notice of his abject apologies.
"It's being at sea and away from you that does it," he said humbly.
"And a nasty jealous temper," added Miss Jelks.
"I'm going to try for a shore-berth," said her admirer. "I spoke to Mr. Vyner—the young one—about it yesterday, and he's going to see wot he can do for me. If I get that I shall be a different man."
"He'd do anything for Miss Joan," said the mollified Rosa thoughtfully, "and if you behave yourself and conquer your wicked jealous nature I might put in a word for you with her myself."
Mr. Walters thanked her warmly and with a natural anxiety regarding his future prospects, paid frequent visits to learn what progress she was making. He haunted the kitchen with the persistency of a blackbeetle, and became such a nuisance at last that Miss Hartley espoused his cause almost with enthusiasm.
"He is very much attached to Rosa, but he takes up a lot of her time," she said to Robert Vyner as they were on their way one evening to Tranquil Vale to pay a visit to Captain Trimblett.
"I'll get him something for Rosa's sake," said Robert, softly. "I shall never forget that she invited me to breakfast when her mistress would have let me go empty away. Do you remember?"
"I remember wondering whether you were going to stay all day," said Joan.
"It never occurred to me," said Mr. Vyner in tones of regret. "I'm afraid you must have thought me very neglectful."
They walked on happily through the dark, cold night until the lighted windows of Tranquil Vale showed softly in the blackness. There was a light in the front room of No. 5, and the sound of somebody moving hurriedly about followed immediately upon Mr. Vyner's knock. Then the door opened and Captain Trimblett stood before them.
"Come in," he said heartily. "Come in, I'm all alone this evening."
He closed the door behind them, and, while Mr. Vyner stood gazing moodily at the mound on the table which appeared to have been hastily covered up with a rather soiled towel, placed a couple of easy chairs by the fire. Mr. Vyner, with his eyes still on the table, took his seat slowly, and then transferring his regards to Captain Trimblett, asked him in a stern vein what he was smiling at Joan for.
"She smiled at me first," said the captain.
Mr. Vyner shook his head at both of them, and at an offer of a glass of beer looked so undecided that the captain, after an uneasy glance at the table, which did not escape Mr. Vyner, went to the kitchen to procure some.
"I wonder," said Robert musingly, as he turned to the table, "I wonder if it would be bad manners to—"
"Yes," said Joan, promptly.
Mr. Vyner sighed and tried to peer under a corner of the towel. "I can see a saucer," he announced, excitedly.
Miss Hartley rose and pointing with a rigid fore-finger at her own chair, changed places with him.
"You want to see yourself," declared Mr. Vyner.
Miss Hartley scorned to reply.
"Let's share the guilt," continued the other. "You shut your eyes and raise the corner of the towel, and I'll do the 'peeping'."
The return of the unconscious captain with the beer rendered a reply unnecessary.
"We half thought you would be at number nine," he said as the captain poured him out a glass.
"I'm keeping house this evening," said the captain, "or else I should have been."
"It's nice for you to have your children near you," said Joan, softly.
Captain Trimblett assented. "And it's nice to be able to give up the sea," he said with a grateful glance at Vyner. "I'm getting old, and that last bout of malaria hasn't made me any younger."
"The youngsters seem to get on all right with Mrs. Chinnery," said Robert, eying him closely.
"Splendidly," said the Captain. "I should never have thought that she would have been so good with children. She half worships them."
"Not all of them," said Mr. Vyner.
"All of 'em," said the captain.
"Twins, as well?" said Mr. Vyner, raising his voice.
"She likes them best of all," was the reply.
Mr. Vyner rose slowly from his chair. "She is a woman in a million," he said impressively. "I wonder why—"
"They're very good girls," said the captain hastily. "Old Sellers thinks there is nobody like them."
"I expect you'll be making a home for them soon," said Robert, thoughtfully; "although it will be rather hard on Mrs. Chinnery to part with them. Won't it?"
"We are all in the hands of fate," said the captain gazing suddenly at his tumbler. "Fate rules all things from the cradle to the grave."
He poured himself out a little more beer and lapsing into a reminiscent mood cited various instances in his own career, in confirmation. It was an interesting subject, but time was pressing and Mr. Vyner, after a regretful allusion to that part, announced that they must be going. Joan rose, and Captain Trimblett, rising at the same moment, knocked over his beer and in a moment of forgetfulness snatched the towel from the table to wipe it up. The act revealed an electro-plated salad-bowl of noble proportions, a saucer of whitening and some pieces of rag.