Chapter XII
 

For some time Mr. Wilks stood gazing at this unexpected apparition and trying to collect his scattered senses. Its face was pale and flabby, while its glassy eyes, set in rims of red eyelids, were beginning to express unmistakable signs of suspicion and wrath. The shock was so sudden that the steward could not even think coherently. Was the captain upstairs? And if so, what was his condition? Where was Nathan Smith? And where was the five pounds?

A voice, a husky and discordant voice, broke in upon his meditations; Jack Nugent was also curious.

"What does all this mean?" he demanded, angrily. "How did I get here?"

"You--you came downstairs," stammered Mr. Wilks, still racking his brains in the vain effort to discover how matters stood.

Mr. Nugent was about to speak, but, thinking better of it, turned and blundered into the kitchen. Sounds of splashing and puffing ensued, and the steward going to the door saw him with his head under the tap. He followed him in and at the right time handed him a towel. Despite the disordered appearance of his hair the improvement in Mr. Nugent's condition was so manifest that the steward, hoping for similar results, turned the tap on again and followed his example.

"Your head wants cooling, I should think," said the young man, returning him the towel. "What's it all about?"

Mr. Wilks hesitated; a bright thought occurred to him, and murmuring something about a dry towel he sped up the narrow stairs to his bedroom. The captain was not there. He pushed open the small lattice window and peered out into the alley; no sign of either the captain or the ingenious Mr. Nathan Smith. With a heavy heart he descended the stairs again.

"Now," said Mr. Nugent, who was sitting down with his hands in his pockets, "perhaps you'll be good enough to explain what all this means."

"You were 'ere last night," said Mr. Wilks, "you and the cap'n."

"I know that," said Nugent. "How is it I didn't go home? I didn't understand that it was an all-night invitation. Where is my father?"

The steward shook his head helplessly. "He was 'ere when I went out last night," he said, slowly. "When I came back the room was empty and I was told as 'e was upstairs in my bed."

"Told he was in your bed?" repeated the other. "Who told you?"

He pushed open the small lattice window and peered out into the alley.

Mr. Wilks caught his breath. "I mean I told myself 'e was in my bed," he stammered, "because when I came in I see these bed-clothes on the floor, an' I thought as the cap'n 'ad put them there for me and taken my bed 'imself."

Mr. Nugent regarded the litter of bed-clothes as though hoping that they would throw a little light on the affair, and then shot a puzzled glance at Mr. Wilks.

"Why should you think my father wanted your bed?" he inquired.

"I don't know," was the reply. "I thought p'r'aps 'e'd maybe taken a little more than 'e ought to have taken. But it's all a myst'ry to me. I'm more astonished than wot you are."

"Well, I can't make head or tail of it," said Nugent, rising and pacing the room. "I came here to meet my father. So far as I remember I had one drink of whisky--your whisky--and then I woke up in your bedroom with a splitting headache and a tongue like a piece of leather. Can you account for it?"

Mr. Wilks shook his head again. "I wasn't here," he said, plucking up courage. "Why not go an' see your father? Seems to me 'e is the one that would know most about it."

Mr. Nugent stood for a minute considering, and then raising the latch of the door opened it slowly and inhaled the cold morning air. A subtle and delicate aroma of coffee and herrings which had escaped from neighbouring breakfast-tables invaded the room and reminded him of an appetite. He turned to go, but had barely quitted the step before he saw Mrs. Kingdom and his sister enter the alley.

Mr. Wilks saw them too, and, turning if anything a shade paler, supported himself by the door-pest. Kate Nugent quickened her pace as she saw them, and, after a surprised greeting to her brother, breathlessly informed him that the captain was missing.

"Hasn't been home all night," panted Mrs. Kingdom, joining them. "I don't know what to think."

They formed an excited little group round the steward's door, and Mr. Wilks, with an instinctive feeling that the matter was one to be discussed in private, led the way indoors. He began to apologize for the disordered condition of the room, but Jack Nugent, interrupting him brusquely, began to relate his own adventures of the past few hours.

Mrs. Kingdom listened to the narrative with unexpected calmness. She knew the cause of her nephew's discomfiture. It was the glass of whisky acting on a system unaccustomed to alcohol, and she gave a vivid and moving account of the effects of a stiff glass of hot rum which she had once taken for a cold. It was quite clear to her that the captain had put his son to bed; the thing to discover now was where he had put himself.

"Sam knows something about it," said her nephew, darkly; "there's something wrong."

"I know no more than a babe unborn," declared Mr. Wilks. "The last I see of the cap'n 'e was a-sitting at this table opposite you."

"Sam wouldn't hurt a fly," said Miss Nugent, with a kind glance at her favourite.

"Well, where is the governor, then?" inquired her brother. "Why didn't he go home last night? He has never stayed out before."

"Yes, he has," said Mrs. Kingdom, folding her hands in her lap. "When you were children. He came home at half-past eleven next morning, and when I asked him where he'd been he nearly bit my head off. I'd been walking the floor all night, and I shall never forget his remarks when he opened the door to the police, who'd come to say they couldn't find him. Never."

A ghostly grin flitted across the features of Mr. Wilks, but he passed the back of his hand across his mouth and became serious again as he thought of his position. He was almost dancing with anxiety to get away to Mr. Nathan Smith and ask for an explanation of the proceedings of the night before.

"I'll go and have a look round for the cap'n," he said, eagerly; "he can't be far."

"I'll come with you," said Nugent. "I should like to see him too. There are one or two little things that want explaining. You take aunt home, Kate, and I'll follow on as soon as there is any news."

As he spoke the door opened a little way and a head appeared, only to be instantly withdrawn at the sight of so many people. Mr. Wilks stepped forward hastily, and throwing the door wide open revealed the interesting features of Mr. Nathan Smith.

"How do you do, Mr. Wilks?" said that gentleman, softly. "I just walked round to see whether you was in. I've got a message for you. I didn't know you'd got company."

He stepped into the room and, tapping the steward on the chest with a confidential finger, backed him into a corner, and having got him there gave an expressive wink with one eye and gazed into space with the other.

"I thought you'd be alone," he said, looking round, "but p'r'aps it's just as well as it is. They've got to know, so they may as well know now as later on."

"Know what?" inquired Jack Nugent, abruptly. "What are you making that face for, Sam?"

Mr. Wilks mumbled something about a decayed tooth, and to give colour to the statement continued a series of contortions which made his face ache.

"You should take something for that tooth," said the boarding-master, with great solicitude. "Wot do you say to a glass o' whisky?"

He motioned to the fatal bottle, which still stood on the table; the steward caught his breath, and then, rising to the occasion, said that he had already had a couple of glasses, and they had done no good.

"What's your message?" inquired Jack Nugent, impatiently.

"I'm just going to tell you," said Mr. Smith. "I was out early this morning, strolling down by the harbour to get a little appetite for breakfast, when who should I see coming along, looking as though 'e 'ad just come from a funeral, but Cap'n Nugent! I was going to pass 'im, but he stopped me and asked me to take a message from 'im to 'is old and faithful steward, Mr. Wilks."

"Why, has he gone away?" exclaimed Mrs. Kingdom.

"His old and faithful steward," repeated Mr. Smith, motioning her to silence. "'Tell 'im,' he says, 'that I am heartily ashamed of myself for wot took place last night--and him, too. Tell 'im that, after my father's 'art proved too much for me, I walked the streets all night, and now I can't face may injured son and family yet awhile, and I'm off to London till it has blown over.'"

"But what's it all about?" demanded Nugent. Why don't you get to the point?"

"So far as I could make out," replied Mr. Smith, with the studious care of one who desires to give exact information, "Cap'n Nugent and Mr. Wilks 'ad a little plan for giving you a sea blow."

"Me?" interrupted the unfortunate steward. "Now, look 'ere, Nathan Smith----"

"Them was the cap'n's words," said the boarding-master, giving him a glance of great significance; "are you going to take away or add to wot the cap'n says?"

Mr. Wilks collapsed, and avoiding the indignant eyes of the Nugent family tried to think out his position.

"It seems from wot the cap'n told me," continued Mr. Smith, "that there was some objection to your marrying old--Mr. Kybird's gal, so 'e and Mr. Wilks, after putting their 'eads together, decided to get you 'ere and after giving you a little whisky that Mr. Wilks knows the trick of--"

"Me?" interrupted the unfortunate steward, again.

"Them was the cap'n's words," said Mr. Smith, coldly. "After you'd 'ad it they was going to stow you away in the Seabird, which sailed this morning. However, when the cap'n see you overcome, his 'art melted, and instead o' putting you aboard the whaler he took your feet and Mr. Wilks your 'ead, and after a great deal o' trouble got you upstairs and put you to bed."

"You miserable scoundrel," said the astonished Mr. Nugent, addressing the shrinking steward; "you infernal old reprobate--you--you--I didn't think you'd got it in you."

"So far as I could make out," said Mr. Smith, kindly, "Mr. Wilks was only obeying orders. It was the cap'n's plan, and Mr. Wilks was aboard ship with 'im for a very long time. O' course, he oughtn't to ha' done it, but the cap'n's a masterful man, an' I can quite understand Mr. Wilks givin' way; I dessay I should myself if I'd been in 'is place--he's all 'art, is Mr. Wilks--no 'ead."

"It's a good job for you you're an old man, Sam," said Mr. Nugent.

"I can hardly believe it of you, Sam," said Miss Nugent. "I can hardly think you could have been so deceitful. Why, we've trusted you all our lives."

The unfortunate steward quailed beneath the severity of her glance. Even if he gave a full account of the affair it would not make his position better. It was he who had made all the arrangements with Mr. Smith, and after an indignant glance at that gentleman he lowered his gaze and remained silent.

"It is rather odd that my father should take you into his confidence," said Miss Nugent, turning to the boarding-master.

"Just wot I thought, miss," said the complaisant Mr. Smith; "but I s'pose there was nobody else, and he wanted 'is message to go for fear you should get worrying the police about 'im or something. He wants it kep' quiet, and 'is last words to me as 'e left me was, 'If this affair gets known I shall never come back. Tell 'em to keep it quiet.'"

"I don't think anybody will want to go bragging about it," said Jack Nugent, rising, "unless it is Sam Wilks. Come along, Kate."

Miss Nugent followed him obediently, only pausing at the door to give a last glance of mingled surprise and reproach at Mr. Wilks. Then they were outside and the door closed behind them.

"Well, that's all right," said Mr. Smith, easily.

"All right!" vociferated the steward. "Wot did you put it all on to me for? Why didn't you tell 'em your part in it?"

"Wouldn't ha' done any good," said Mr. Smith; "wouldn't ha' done you any good. Besides, I did just wot the cap'n told me."

"When's he coming back?" inquired the steward.

Mr. Smith shook his head. "Couldn't say," he returned. "He couldn't say 'imself. Between you an' me, I expect 'e's gone up to have a reg'lar fair spree."

"Why did you tell me last night he was up-stairs?" inquired the other.

"Cap'n's orders," repeated Mr. Smith, with relish. "Ask 'im, not me. As a matter o' fact, he spent the night at my place and went off this morning."

"An' wot about the five pounds?" inquired Mr. Wilks, spitefully. "You ain't earned it."

"I know I ain't," said Mr. Smith, mournfully. "That's wot's worrying me. It's like a gnawing pain in my side. D'you think it's conscience biting of me? I never felt it before. Or d'ye think it's sorrow to think that I've done the whole job too cheap You think it out and let me know later on. So long."

He waved his hand cheerily to the steward and departed. Mr. Wilks threw himself into a chair and, ignoring the cold and the general air of desolation of his best room, gave way to a fit of melancholy which would have made Mr. Edward Silk green with envy.