Chapter XIII
 

Days passed, but no word came from the missing captain, and only the determined opposition of Kate Nugent kept her aunt from advertising in the "Agony" columns of the London Press. Miss Nugent was quite as desirous of secrecy in the affair as her father, and it was a source of great annoyance to her when, in some mysterious manner, it leaked out. In a very short time the news was common property, and Mr. Wilks, appearing to his neighbours in an entirely new character, was besieged for information.

His own friends were the most tiresome, their open admiration of his lawlessness and their readiness to trace other mysterious disappearances to his agency being particularly galling to a man whose respectability formed his most cherished possession. Other people regarded the affair as a joke, and he sat gazing round-eyed one evening at the Two Schooners at the insensible figures of three men who had each had a modest half-pint at his expense. It was a pretty conceit and well played, but the steward, owing to the frenzied efforts of one of the sleeper whom he had awakened with a quart pot, did not stay to admire it. He finished up the evening at the Chequers, and after getting wet through on the way home fell asleep in his wet clothes before the dying fire.

He awoke with a bad cold and pains in the limbs. A headache was not unexpected, but the other symptoms were. With trembling hands he managed to light a fire and prepare a breakfast, which he left untouched. This last symptom was the most alarming of all, and going to the door he bribed a small boy with a penny to go for Dr. Murchison, and sat cowering over the fire until he came.

"Well, you've got a bad cold," said the doctor, after examining him." You'd better get to bed for the present. You'll be safe there."

"Is it dangerous?" faltered the steward.

"And keep yourself warm," said the doctor, who was not in the habit of taking his patients into his confidence. "I'll send round some medicine."

"I should like Miss Nugent to know I'm bad," said Mr. Wilks, in a weak voice.

"She knows that," replied Murchison. "She was telling me about you the other day."

He put his hand up to his neat black moustache to hide a smile, and met the steward's indignant gaze without flinching.

"I mean ill," said the latter, sharply.

"Oh, yes," said the other. "Well, you get to bed now. Good morning."

He took up his hat and stick and departed. Mr. Wilks sat for a little while over the fire, and then, rising, hobbled slowly upstairs to bed and forgot his troubles in sleep.

He slept until the afternoon, and then, raising himself in bed, listened to the sounds of stealthy sweeping in the room below. Chairs were being moved about, and the tinkle of ornaments on the mantelpiece announced that dusting operations were in progress. He lay down again with a satisfied smile; it was like a tale in a story-book: the faithful old servant and his master's daughter. He closed his eyes as he heard her coming upstairs.

"Ah, pore dear," said a voice.

Mr. Wilks opened his eyes sharply and beheld the meagre figure of Mrs. Silk. In one hand she held a medicine-bottle and a glass and in the other paper and firewood.

"I only 'eard of it half an hour ago," she said, reproachfully. "I saw the doctor's boy, and I left my work and came over at once. Why didn't you let me know?"

Mr. Wilks muttered that he didn't know, and lay crossly regarding his attentive neighbour as she knelt down and daintily lit the fire. This task finished, she proceeded to make the room tidy, and then set about making beef-tea in a little saucepan.

"You lay still and get well," she remarked, with tender playfulness. "That's all you've got to do. Me and Teddy'll look after you."

"I couldn't think of troubling you," said the steward, earnestly.

"It's no trouble," was the reply. "You don't think I'd leave you here alone helpless, do you?"

"I was going to send for old Mrs. Jackson if I didn't get well to-day," said Mr. Wilks.

Mrs. Silk shook her head at him, and, after punching up his pillow, took an easy chair by the fire and sat there musing. Mr. Edward Silk came in to tea, and, after remarking that Mr. Wilks was very flushed and had got a nasty look about the eyes and a cough which he didn't like, fell to discoursing on death-beds.

"Good nursing is the principal thing," said his mother. "I nursed my pore dear 'usband all through his last illness. He couldn't bear me to be out of the room. I nursed my mother right up to the last, and your pore Aunt Jane went off in my arms."

Mr. Wilks raised himself on his elbow and his eyes shone feverishly in the lamplight. "I think I'll get a 'ospital nurse to-morrow," he said, decidedly.

"Nonsense," said Mrs. Silk. "It's no trouble to me at all. I like nursing; always did."

Mr. Wilks lay back again and, closing his eyes, determined to ask the doctor to provide a duly qualified nurse on the morrow. To his disappointment, however, the doctor failed to come, and although he felt much better Mrs. Silk sternly negatived a desire on his part to get up.

"Not till the doctor's been," she said, firmly. "I couldn't think of it."

"I don't believe there's anything the matter with me now," he declared.

"'Ow odd--'ow very odd that you should say that!" said Mrs. Silk, clasping her hands.

"Odd!" repeated the steward, somewhat crustily. "How do you mean--odd?"

"They was the very last words my Uncle Benjamin ever uttered in this life," said Mrs. Silk, with dramatic impressiveness.

The steward was silent, then, with the ominous precedent of Uncle Benjamin before him, he began to talk until scores of words stood between himself and a similar ending.

"Teddy asked to be remembered to you as 'e went off this morning," said Mrs. Silk, pausing in her labours at the grate.

"I'm much obliged," muttered the invalid.

"He didn't 'ave time to come in," pursued the widow. "You can 'ardly believe what a lot 'e thinks of you, Mr. Wilks. The last words he said to me was, 'Let me know at once if there's any change.'"

Mr. Wilks distinctly felt a cold, clammy sensation down his spine and little quivering thrills ran up and down his legs. He glared indignantly at the back of the industrious Mrs. Silk.

"Teddy's very fond of you," continued the unconscious woman. "I s'pose it's not 'aving a father, but he seems to me to think more of you than any-body else in the wide, wide world. I get quite jealous sometimes. Only the other day I said to 'im, joking like, 'Well, you'd better go and live with 'im if you're so fond of 'im,' I said."

"Ha, ha!" laughed Mr. Wilks, uneasily.

"You'll never guess what 'e said then," said Mrs. Silk dropping her dustpan and brush and gazing at the hearth.

"Said 'e couldn't leave you, I s'pose," guessed the steward, gruffly.

"Well, now," exclaimed Mrs. Silk, clapping her hands, "if you 'aven't nearly guessed it. Well, there! I never did! I wouldn't 'ave told you for anything if you 'adn't said that. The exact words what 'e did say was, 'Not without you, mother.'"

Mr. Wilks closed his eyes with a snap and his heart turned to water. He held his breath and ran-sacked his brain in vain for a reply which should ignore the inner meaning of the fatal words. Something careless and jocular he wanted, combined with a voice which should be perfectly under control. Failing these things, he kept his eyes closed, and, very wide-awake indeed, feigned sleep. He slept straight away from eleven o'clock in the morning until Edward Silk came in at seven o'clock in the evening.

"I feel like a new man," he said, rubbing his eyes and yawning.

"I don't see no change in your appearance," said the comforting youth.

"'E's much better," declared his mother. "That's what comes o' good nursing; some nurses would 'ave woke 'im up to take food, but I just let 'im sleep on. People don't feel hunger while they're asleep."

She busied herself over the preparation of a basin of arrowroot, and the steward, despite his distaste for this dish, devoured it in a twinkling. Beef-tea and a glass of milk in addition failed to take more than the edge off his appetite.

"We shall pull 'im through," said Mrs. Silk, smiling, as she put down the empty glass. "In a fortnight he'll be on 'is feet."

It is a matter of history that Mr. Wilks was on his feet at five o'clock the next morning, and not only on his feet but dressed and ready for a journey after such a breakfast as he had not made for many a day. The discourtesy involved in the disregard of the doctor's instructions did not trouble him, and he smirked with some satisfaction as he noiselessly closed his door behind him and looked at the drawn blinds opposite. The stars were paling as he quitted the alley and made his way to the railway station. A note on his tumbled pillow, after thanking Mrs. Silk for her care of him, informed her that he was quite well and had gone to London in search of the missing captain.

Hardy, who had heard from Edward Silk of the steward's indisposition and had been intending to pay him a visit, learnt of his departure later on in the morning, and, being ignorant of the particulars, discoursed somewhat eloquently to his partner on the old man's devotion.

"H'm, may be," said Swann, taking off his glasses and looking at him. "But you don't think Captain Nugent is in London, do you?"

"Why not?" inquired Hardy, somewhat startled. "If what Wilks told you is true, Nathan Smith knows," said the other. "I'll ask him."

"You don't expect to get the truth out of him, do you?" inquired Hardy, superciliously.

"I do," said his partner, serenely; "and when I've got it I shall go and tell them at Equator Lodge. It will be doing those two poor ladies a service to let them know what has really happened to the captain."

"I'll walk round to Nathan Smith's with you," said Hardy. "I should like to hear what the fellow has to say."

"No, I'll go alone," said his partner; "Smith's a very shy man--painfully shy. I've run across him once or twice before. He's almost as bashful and retiring as you are."

Hardy grunted. "If the captain isn't in London, where is he?" he inquired.

The other shook his head. "I've got an idea," he replied, "but I want to make sure. Kybird and Smith are old friends, as Nugent might have known, only he was always too high and mighty to take any interest in his inferiors. There's something for you to go on."

He bent over his desk again and worked steadily until one o'clock--his hour for lunching. Then he put on his hat and coat, and after a comfortable meal sallied out in search of Mr. Smith.

The boarding-house, an old and dilapidated building, was in a bystreet convenient to the harbour. The front door stood open, and a couple of seamen lounging on the broken steps made way for him civilly as he entered and rapped on the bare boards with his stick. Mr. Smith, clattering down the stairs in response, had some difficulty in concealing his surprise at the visit, but entered genially into a conversation about the weather, a subject in which he was much interested. When the ship-broker began to discuss the object of his visit he led him to a small sitting-room at the back of the house and repeated the information he had given to Mr. Wilks.

"That's all there is to tell," he concluded, artlessly; "the cap'n was that ashamed of hisself, he's laying low for a bit. We all make mistakes sometimes; I do myself."

"I am much obliged to you," said Mr. Swann, gratefully.

"You're quite welcome, sir," said the boarding-master.

"And now," said the visitor, musingly--"now for the police."

"Police!" repeated Mr. Smith, almost hastily. "What for?"

"Why, to find the captain," said Mr. Swann, in a surprised voice.

Mr. Smith shook his head. "You'll offend the cap'n bitter if you go to the police about 'im, sir," he declared. "His last words to me was, 'Smith, 'ave this kept quiet.'"

"It'll be a little job for the police," urged the shipbroker. "They don't have much to do down here; they'll be as pleased as possible."

"They'll worry your life out of you, sir," said the other. "You don't know what they are."

"I like a little excitement," returned Mr. Swann. "I don't suppose they'll trouble me much, but they'll turn your place topsy-turvy, I expect. Still, that can't be helped. You know what fools the police are; they'll think you've murdered the captain and hidden his body under the boards. They'll have all the floors up. Ha, ha, ha!"

"'Aving floors up don't seem to me to be so amusing as wot it does to you," remarked Mr. Smith, coldly.

"They may find all sorts of treasure for you," continued his visitor. "It's a very old house, Smith, and there may be bags of guineas hidden away under the flooring. You may be able to retire."

"You're a gentleman as is fond of his joke, Mr. Swann," returned the boarding-master, lugubriously. "I wish I'd got that 'appy way of looking at things you 'ave."

"I'm not joking, Smith," said the other, quietly.

Mr. Smith pondered and, stealing a side-glance at him, stood scraping his foot along the floor.

"There ain't nothing much to tell," he grumbled, "and, mind, the worst favour you could do to the cap'n would be to put it about how he was done. He's gone for a little trip instead of 'is son, that's all."

"Little trip!" repeated the other; "you call a whaling cruise a little trip?"

"No, no, sir," said Mr. Smith, in a shocked voice, "I ain't so bad as that; I've got some 'art, I hope. He's just gone for a little trip with 'is old pal Hardy on the Conqueror. Kybird's idea it was."

"Don't you know it's punishable?" demanded the shipbroker, recovering.

Mr. Smith shook his head and became serious. "The cap'n fell into 'is own trap," he said, slowly. "There's no lor for 'im! He'd only get laughed at. The idea of trying to get me to put little Amelia Kybird's young man away. Why, I was 'er god-father."

Mr. Swann stared at him, and then with a friendly "good morning" departed. Half-way along the passage he stopped, and retracing his steps produced his cigar-case and offered the astonished boarding-master a cigar.

"I s'pose," said that gentleman as he watched the other's retreating figure and dubiously smelt the cigar; "I s'pose it's all right; but he's a larky sort, and I 'ave heard of 'em exploding. I'll give it to Kybird, in case."

To Mr. Smith's great surprise his visitor sat down suddenly and began to laugh. Tears of honest mirth suffused his eyes and dimmed his glasses. Mr. Smith, regarding him with an air of kindly interest, began to laugh to keep him company.