At Sunwich Port by W.W. Jacobs
Time failed to soften the captain's ideas concerning his son's engagement, and all mention of the subject in the house was strictly forbidden. Occasionally he was favoured with a glimpse of his son and Miss Kybird out together, a sight which imparted such a flavour to his temper and ordinary intercourse that Mrs. Kingdom, in unconscious imitation of Mr. James Hardy, began to count the days which must elapse before her niece's return from London. His ill-temper even infected the other members of the household, and Mrs. Kingdom sat brooding in her bedroom all one afternoon, because Bella had called her an "overbearing dish-pot."
The finishing touch to his patience was supplied by a little misunderstanding between Mr. Kybird and the police. For the second time in his career the shopkeeper appeared before the magistrates to explain the circumstances in which he had purchased stolen property, and for the second time he left the court without a stain on his character, but with a significant magisterial caution not to appear there again.
Jack Nugent gave evidence in the case, and some of his replies were deemed worthy of reproduction in the Sunwich Herald, a circumstance which lost the proprietors a subscriber of many years' standing.
One by one various schemes for preventing his son's projected alliance were dismissed as impracticable. A cherished design of confining him in an asylum for the mentally afflicted until such time as he should have regained his senses was spoilt by the refusal of Dr. Murchison to arrange for the necessary certificate; a refusal which was like to have been fraught with serious consequences to that gentleman's hopes of entering the captain's family.
Brooding over his wrongs the captain, a day or two after his daughter's return, strolled slowly down towards the harbour. It was afternoon, and the short winter day was already drawing towards a close. The shipping looked cold and desolate in the greyness, but a bustle of work prevailed on the Conqueror, which was nearly ready for sea again. The captain's gaze wandered from his old craft to the small vessels dotted about the harbour and finally dwelt admiringly on the lines of the whaler Seabird, which had put in a few days before as the result of a slight collision with a fishing-boat. She was high out of the water and beautifully rigged. A dog ran up and down her decks barking, and a couple of squat figures leaned over the bulwarks gazing stolidly ashore.
There was something about the vessel which took his fancy, and he stood for some time on the edge of the quay, looking at her. In a day or two she would sail for a voyage the length of which would depend upon her success; a voyage which would for a long period keep all on board of her out of the mischief which so easily happens ashore. If only Jack----
He started and stared more intently than before. He was not an imaginative man, but he had in his mind's eye a sudden vision of his only son waving farewells from the deck of the whaler as she emerged from the harbour into the open sea, while Amelia Kybird tore her yellow locks ashore. It was a vision to cheer any self-respecting father's heart, and he brought his mind back with some regret to the reality of the anchored ship.
He walked home slowly. At the Kybirds' door the proprietor, smoking a short clay pipe, eyed him with furtive glee as he passed. Farther along the road the Hardys, father and son, stepped briskly together. Altogether a trying walk, and calculated to make him more dissatisfied than ever with the present state of affairs. When his daughter shook her head at him and accused him of going off on a solitary frolic his stock of patience gave out entirely.
A thoughtful night led to a visit to Mr. Wilks the following evening. It required a great deal of deliberation on his part before he could make up his mind to the step, but he needed his old steward's assistance in a little plan he had conceived for his son's benefit, and for the first time in his life he paid him the supreme honour of a call.
The honour was so unexpected that Mr. Wilks, coming into the parlour in response to the tapping of the captain's stick on the floor, stood for a short time eyeing him in dismay. Only two minutes before he had taken Mr. James Hardy into the kitchen to point out the interior beauties of an ancient clock, and the situation simply appalled him. The captain greeted him almost politely and bade him sit down. Mr. Wilks smiled faintly and caught his breath.
"Sit down," repeated the captain.
"I've left something in the kitchen, sir," said Mr. Wilks. "I'll be back in half a minute."
The captain nodded. In the kitchen Mr. Wilks rapidly and incoherently explained the situation to Mr. Hardy.
"I'll sit here," said the latter, drawing up a comfortable oak chair to the stove.
"You see, he don't know that we know each other," explained the apologetic steward, "but I don't like leaving you in the kitchen."
"I'm all right," said Hardy; "don't you trouble about me."
He waved him away, and Mr. Wilks, still pale, closed the door behind him and, rejoining the captain, sat down on the extreme edge of a chair and waited.
"I've come to see you on a little matter of business," said his visitor.
Mr. Wilks smiled; then, feeling that perhaps that was not quite the right thing to do, looked serious again.
"I came to see you about my--my son," continued the captain.
"Yes, sir," said Mr. Wilks. "Master Jack, you mean?"
"I've only got one son," said the other, unpleasantly, "unless you happen to know of any more."
Mr. Wilks almost fell off the edge of the chair in his haste to disclaim any such knowledge. His ideas were in a ferment, and the guilty knowledge of what he had left in the kitchen added to his confusion. And just at that moment the door opened and Miss Nugent came briskly in.
Her surprise at seeing her father ensconced in a chair by the fire led to a rapid volley of questions. The captain, in lieu of answering them, asked another.
"What do you want here?"
"I have come to see Sam," said Miss Nugent. "Fancy seeing you here! How are you, Sam?"
"Pretty well, miss, thank'ee," replied Mr. Wilks, "considering," he added, truthfully, after a moment's reflection.
Miss Nugent dropped into a chair and put her feet on the fender. Her father eyed her restlessly.
"I came here to speak to Sam about a private matter," he said, abruptly.
"Private matter," said his daughter, looking round in surprise. "What about?"
"A private matter," repeated Captain Nugent. "Suppose you come in some other time."
Kate Nugent sighed and took her feet from the fender. "I'll go and wait in the kitchen," she said, crossing to the door.
Both men protested. The captain because it ill-assorted with his dignity for his daughter to sit in the kitchen, and Mr. Wilks because of the visitor already there. The face of the steward, indeed, took on such extraordinary expressions in his endeavour to convey private information to the girl that she gazed at him in silent amazement. Then she turned the handle of the door and, passing through, closed it with a bang which was final.
Mr. Wilks stood spellbound, but nothing happened. There was no cry of surprise; no hasty reappearance of an indignant Kate Nugent. His features working nervously he resumed his seat and gazed dutifully at his superior officer.
"I suppose you've heard that my son is going to get married?" said the latter.
"I couldn't help hearing of it, sir," said the steward in self defence-- "nobody could."
"He's going to marry that yellow-headed Jezebel of Kybird's," said the captain, staring at the fire.
Mr. Wilks murmured that he couldn't understand anybody liking yellow hair, and, more than that, the general opinion of the ladies in Fullalove Alley was that it was dyed.
"I'm going to ship him on the Seabird," continued the captain. "She'll probably be away for a year or two, and, in the meantime, this girl will probably marry somebody else. Especially if she doesn't know what has become of him. He can't get into mischief aboard ship."
"No, sir," said the wondering Mr. Wilks. "Is Master Jack agreeable to going, sir?"
"That's nothing to do with it," said the captain, sharply.
"No, sir," said Mr. Wilks, "o' course not. I was only a sort o' wondering how he was going to be persuaded to go if 'e ain't."
"That's what I came here about," said the other. "I want you to go and fix it up with Nathan Smith."
"Do you want 'im to be crimped, sir?" stammered Mr. Wilks.
"I want him shipped aboard the Seabird," returned the other, "and Smith's the man to do it."
"It's a very hard thing to do in these days, sir," said Mr. Wilks, shaking his head. "What with signing on aboard the day before the ship sails, and before the Board o' Trade officers, I'm sure it's a wonder that anybody goes to sea at all."
"You leave that to Smith," said the captain, impatiently. "The Seabird sails on Friday morning's tide. Tell Smith I'll arrange to meet my son here on Thursday night, and that he must have some liquor for us and a fly waiting on the beach."
Mr. Wilks wriggled: "But what about signing on, sir?" he inquired.
"He won't sign on," said the captain, "he'll be a stowaway. Smith must get him smuggled aboard, and bribe the hands to let him lie hidden in the fo'c's'le. The Seabird won't put back to put him ashore. Here is five pounds; give Smith two or three now, and the remainder when the job is done."
The steward took the money reluctantly and, plucking up his courage, looked his old master in the face.
"It's a 'ard life afore the mast, sir," he said, slowly.
"Rubbish!" was the reply. "It'll make a man of him. Besides, what's it got to do with you?"
"I don't care about the job, sir," said Mr. Wilks, bravely.
"What's that got to do with it?" demanded the other, frowning. "You go and fix it up with Nathan Smith as soon as possible."
Mr. Wilks shuffled his feet and strove to remind himself that he was a gentleman of independent means, and could please himself.
"I've known 'im since he was a baby," he murmured, defiantly.
"I don't want to hear anything more from you, Wilks," said the captain, in a hard voice. "Those are my orders, and you had better see that they are carried out. My son will be one of the first to thank you later on for getting him out of such a mess."
Mr. Wilks's brow cleared somewhat. "I s'pose Miss Kate 'ud be pleased too," he remarked, hope-fully.
"Of course she will," said the captain. "Now I look to you, Wilks, to manage this thing properly. I wouldn't trust anybody else, and you've never disappointed me yet."
The steward gasped and, doubting whether he had heard aright, looked towards his old master, but in vain, for the confirmation of further compliments. In all his long years of service he had never been praised by him before. He leaned forward eagerly and began to discuss ways and means.
In the next room conversation was also proceeding, but fitfully. Miss Nugent's consternation when she closed the door behind her and found herself face to face with Mr. Hardy was difficult of concealment. Too late she understood the facial contortions of Mr. Wilks, and, resigning herself to the inevitable, accepted the chair placed for her by the highly pleased Jem, and sat regarding him calmly from the other side of the fender.
"I am waiting here for my father," she said, in explanation.
"In deference to Wilks's terrors I am waiting here until he has gone," said Hardy, with a half smile.
There was a pause. "I hope that he will not be long," said the girl.
"Thank you," returned Hardy, wilfully misunderstanding, "but I am in no hurry."
He gazed at her with admiration. The cold air had heightened her colour, and the brightness of her eyes shamed the solitary candle which lit up the array of burnished metal on the mantelpiece.
"I hope you enjoyed your visit to London," he said.
Before replying Miss Nugent favoured him with a glance designed to express surprise at least at his knowledge of her movements. "Very much, thank you," she said, at last.
Mr. Hardy, still looking at her with much comfort to himself, felt an insane desire to tell her how much she had been missed by one person at least in Sunwich. Saved from this suicidal folly by the little common sense which had survived the shock of her sudden appearance, he gave the information indirectly.
"Quite a long stay," he murmured; "three months and three days; no, three months and two days."
A sudden wave of colour swept over the girl's face at the ingenuity of this mode of attack. She was used to attention and took compliments as her due, but the significant audacity of this one baffled her. She sat with downcast eyes looking at the fender occasionally glancing from the corner of her eye to see whether he was preparing to renew the assault. He had certainly changed from the Jem Hardy of olden days. She had a faint idea that his taste had improved.
"Wilks keeps his house in good order," said Hardy, looking round.
"Yes," said the girl.
"Wonder why he never married," said Hardy, musingly; "for my part I can't understand a man remaining single all his life; can you?"
"I never think of such things," said Miss Nugent, coldly--and untruthfully.
"If it was only to have somebody to wait on him and keep his house clean," pursued Hardy, with malice.
Miss Nugent grew restless, and the wrongs of her sex stirred within her. "You have very lofty ideas on the subject," she said, scornfully, "but I believe they are not uncommon."
"Still, you have never thought about such things, you know," he reminded her.
"And no doubt you have devoted a great deal of time to the subject."
Hardy admitted it frankly. "But only since I returned to Sunwich," he said.
"Caused by the spectacle of Sam's forlorn condition, I suppose," said Miss Nugent.
"No, it wasn't that," he replied.
Miss Nugent, indignant at having been drawn into such a discussion, lapsed into silence. It was safer and far more dignified, but at the same time she yearned for an opportunity of teaching this presumptuous young man a lesson. So far he had had it all his own way. A way strewn with ambiguities which a modest maiden had to ignore despite herself.
"Of course, Wilks may have had a disappointment," said Hardy, with the air of one willing to make allowances.
"I believe he had about fifty," said the girl, carelessly.
Hardy shook his head in strong disapproval. "No man should have more than one," he said, firmly; "a man of any strength of will wouldn't have that."
"Strength of will?" repeated the astonished Miss Nugent.
Their eyes met; hers sparkling with indignation; his full of cold calculation. If he had had any doubts before, he was quite sure now that he had gone the right way to work to attract her attention; she was almost quivering with excitement.
"Your ideas will probably change with age--and disappointment," she said, sweetly.
"I shall not be disappointed," said Hardy, coolly. "I'll take care of that."
Miss Nugent eyed him wistfully and racked her brains for an appropriate and crushing rejoinder. In all her experience--and it was considerable considering her years--she had never met with such carefully constructed audacity, and she longed, with a great longing, to lure him into the open and destroy him. She was still considering ways and means of doing this when the door opened and revealed the surprised and angry form of her father and behind it the pallid countenance of Mr. Wilks. For a moment anger deprived the captain of utterance.
"Who----" he stammered. "What----"
"What a long time you've been, father," said Miss Nugent, in a reproving voice. "I began to be afraid you were never going."
"You come home with me," said the captain, recovering.
The command was given in his most imperious manner, and his daughter dropped her muff in some resentment as she rose, in order to let him have the pleasure of seeing Mr. Hardy pick it up. It rolled, however, in his direction, and he stooped for it just as Hardy darted forward. Their heads met with a crash, and Miss Nugent forgot her own consternation in the joy of beholding the pitiable exhibition which terror made of Mr. Wilks.
"I'm very sorry," said Hardy, as he reverently dusted the muff on his coat-sleeve before returning it. "I'm afraid it was my fault."
"It was," said the infuriated captain, as he held the door open for his daughter. "Now, Kate."
Miss Nugent passed through, followed by her father, and escorted to the front door by the steward, whose faint "Good-night" was utterly ignored by his injured commander. He stood at the door until they had turned the corner, and, returning to the kitchen, found his remaining guest holding his aching head beneath the tap.
"And now," said the captain, sternly, to his daughter, "how dare you sit and talk to that young cub? Eh? How dare you?"
"He was there when I went in," said his daughter. "Why didn't you come out, then?" demanded her father.
"I was afraid of disturbing you and Sam," said Miss Nugent. "Besides, why shouldn't I speak to him?"
"Why?" shouted the captain. "Why? Because I won't have it."
"I thought you liked him," said Miss Nugent, in affected surprise. "You patted him on the head."
The captain, hardly able to believe his ears, came to an impressive stop in the roadway, but Miss Nugent walked on. She felt instinctively that the joke was thrown away on him, and, in the absence of any other audience, wanted to enjoy it without interruption. Convulsive and half-suppressed sounds, which she ascribed to a slight cold caught while waiting in the kitchen, escaped her at intervals for the remainder of the journey home.