Chapter XV
 

Mr. Adolphus Swann spent a very agreeable afternoon after his interview with Nathan Smith in refusing to satisfy what he termed the idle curiosity of his partner. The secret of Captain Nugent's whereabouts, he declared, was not to be told to everybody, but was to be confided by a man of insinuating address and appearance--here he looked at himself in a hand-glass--to Miss Nugent. To be broken to her by a man with no ulterior motives for his visit; a man in the prime of life, but not too old for a little tender sympathy.

"I had hoped to have gone this afternoon," he said, with a glance at the clock; "but I'm afraid I can't get away. Have you got much to do, Hardy?"

"No," said his partner, briskly. "I've finished."

"Then perhaps you wouldn't mind doing my work for me, so that I can go?" said Mr. Swann, mildly.

Hardy played with his pen. The senior partner had been amusing himself at his expense for some time, and in the hope of a favour at his hands he had endured it with unusual patience.

"Four o'clock," murmured the senior partner; "hadn't you better see about making yourself presentable, Hardy?"

"Thanks," said the other, with alacrity, as he took off his coat and crossed over to the little washstand. In five minutes he had finished his toilet and, giving his partner a little friendly pat on the shoulder, locked up his desk.

"Well?" he said, at last.

"Well?" repeated Mr. Swann, with a little surprise.

"What am I to tell them?" inquired Hardy, struggling to keep his temper.

"Tell them?" repeated the innocent Swann. "Lor' bless my soul, how you do jump at conclusions, Hardy. I only asked you to tidy yourself for my sake. I have an artistic eye. I thought you had done it to please me."

"When you're tired of this nonsense," said the indignant Hardy, "I shall be glad."

Mr. Swann looked him over carefully and, coming to the conclusion that his patience was exhausted, told him the result of his inquiries. His immediate reward was the utter incredulity of Mr. Hardy, together with some pungent criticisms of his veracity. When the young man did realize at last that he was speaking the truth he fell to wondering blankly what was happening aboard the Conqueror.

"Never mind about that," said the older man. "For a few weeks you have got a clear field. It is quite a bond between you: both your fathers on the same ship. But whatever you do, don't remind her of the fate of the Kilkenny cats. Draw a fancy picture of the two fathers sitting with their arms about each other's waists and wondering whether their children----"

Hardy left hurriedly, in fear that his indignation at such frivolity should overcome his gratitude, and he regretted as he walked briskly along that the diffidence peculiar to young men in his circumstances had prevented him from acquainting his father with the state of his feelings towards Kate Nugent.

The idea of taking advantage of the captain's enforced absence had occurred to other people besides Mr. James Hardy. Dr. Murchison, who had found the captain, despite his bias in his favour, a particularly tiresome third, was taking the fullest advantage of it; and Mrs. Kybird had also judged it an admirable opportunity for paying a first call. Mr. Kybird, who had not taken her into his confidence in the affair, protested in vain; the lady was determined, and, moreover, had the warm support of her daughter.

"I know what I'm doing, Dan'l," she said to her husband.

Mr. Kybird doubted it, but held his peace; and the objections of Jack Nugent, who found to his dismay that he was to be of the party, were deemed too trivial to be worthy of serious consideration.

They started shortly after Jem Hardy had left his office, despite the fact that Mrs. Kybird, who was troubled with asthma, was suffering untold agonies in a black satin dress which had been originally made for a much smaller woman, and had come into her husband's hands in the way of business. It got into hers in what the defrauded Mr. Kybird considered an extremely unbusinesslike manner, and it was not without a certain amount of satisfaction that he regarded her discomfiture as the party sallied out.

Mr. Nugent was not happy. Mrs. Kybird in the snug seclusion of the back parlour was one thing; Mrs. Kybird in black satin at its utmost tension and a circular hat set with sable ostrich plumes nodding in the breeze was another. He felt that the public eye was upon them and that it twinkled. His gaze wandered from mother to daughter.

"What are you staring at?" demanded Miss Kybird, pertly.

"I was thinking how well you are looking," was the reply.

Miss Kybird smiled. She had hoisted some daring colours, but she was of a bold type and carried them fairly well.

"If I 'ad the woman what made this dress 'ere," gasped Mrs. Kybird, as she stopped with her hand on her side, "I'd give her a bit o' my mind."

"I never saw you look so well in anything before, ma," said her daughter.

Mrs. Kybird smiled faintly and continued her pilgrimage. Jem Hardy coming up rapidly behind composed his amused features and stepped into the road to pass.

"Halloa, Hardy," said Nugent. "Going home?"

"I am calling on your sister," said Hardy, bowing.

"By Jove, so are we," said Nugent, relieved to find this friend in need. "We'll go together. You know Mrs. Kybird and Miss Kybird? That is Mrs. Kybird."

Mrs. Kybird bade him "Go along, do," and acknowledged the introduction with as stately a bow as the black satin would permit, and before the dazed Jem quite knew how it all happened he was leading the way with Mrs. Kybird, while the young people, as she called them, followed behind.

"We ain't looking at you," she said, playfully, over her shoulder.

"And we're trying to shut our eyes to your goings on," retorted Nugent.

Mrs. Kybird stopped and, with a half-turn, play-fully reached for him with her umbrella. The exertion and the joke combined took the remnant of her breath away, and she stood still, panting.

"You had better take Hardy's arm, I think," said Nugent, with affected solicitude.

"It's my breath," explained Mrs. Kybird, turning to the fuming young man by her side. "I can 'ardly get along for it--I'm much obliged to you, I'm sure."

Mr. Hardy, with a vain attempt to catch Jack Nugent's eye, resigned himself to his fate, and with his fair burden on his arm walked with painful slowness towards Equator Lodge. A ribald voice from the other side of the road, addressing his companion as "Mother Kybird," told her not to hug the man, and a small boy whom they met loudly asseverated his firm intention of going straight off to tell Mr. Kybird.

By the time they reached the house Mr. Hardy entertained views on homicide which would have appeared impossible to him half an hour before. He flushed crimson as he saw the astonished face of Kate Nugent at the window, and, pausing at the gate to wait for the others, discovered that they had disappeared. A rooted dislike to scenes of any kind, together with a keen eye for the ludicrous, had prompted Jack Nugent to suggest a pleasant stroll to Amelia and put in an appearance later on.

"We won't wait for 'im," said Mrs. Kybird, with decision; "if I don't get a sit down soon I shall drop."

Still clinging to the reluctant Hardy she walked up the path; farther back in the darkness of the room the unfortunate young gentleman saw the faces of Dr. Murchison and Mrs. Kingdom.

"And 'ow are you, Bella?" inquired Mrs. Kybird with kindly condescension. "Is Mrs. Kingdom at 'ome?"

She pushed her way past the astonished Bella and, followed by Mr. Hardy, entered the room. Mrs. Kingdom, with a red spot on each cheek, rose to receive them.

"I ought to 'ave come before," said Mrs. Kybird, subsiding thankfully into a chair, "but I'm such a bad walker. I 'ope I see you well."

"We are very well, thank you," said Mrs. Kingdom, stiffly.

"That's right," said her visitor, cordially; "what a blessing 'ealth is. What should we do without it, I wonder?"

She leaned back in her chair and shook her head at the prospect. There was an awkward lull, and in the offended gaze of Miss Nugent Mr. Hardy saw only too plainly that he was held responsible for the appearance of the unwelcome visitor.

"I was coming to see you," he said, leaving his chair and taking one near her, "I met your brother coming along, and he introduced me to Mrs. Kybird and her daughter and suggested we should come together."

Miss Nugent received the information with a civil bow, and renewed her conversation with Dr. Murchison, whose face showed such a keen appreciation of the situation that Hardy had some difficulty in masking his feelings.

"They're a long time a-coming," said Mrs. Kybird, smiling archly; "but there, when young people are keeping company they forget everything and everybody. They didn't trouble about me; if it 'adn't been for Mr. 'Ardy giving me 'is arm I should never 'ave got here."

There was a prolonged silence. Dr. Murchison gave a whimsical glance at Miss Nugent, and meeting no response in that lady's indignant eyes, stroked his moustache and awaited events.

"It looks as though your brother is not coming," said Hardy to Miss Nugent.

"He'll turn up by-and-by," interposed Mrs. Kybird, looking somewhat morosely at the company. "They don't notice 'ow the time flies, that's all."

"Time does go," murmured Mrs. Kingdom, with a glance at the clock.

Mrs. Kybird started. "Ah, and we notice it too, ma'am, at our age," she said, sweetly, as she settled herself in her chair and clasped her hands in her lap "I can't 'elp looking at you, my dear," she continued, looking over at Miss Nugent. "There's such a wonderful likeness between Jack and you. Don't you think so, ma'am?"

Mrs. Kingdom in a freezing voice said that she had not noticed it.

"Of course," said Mrs. Kybird, glancing at her from the corner of her eye, "Jack has 'ad to rough it, pore feller, and that's left its mark on 'im. I'm sure, when we took 'im in, he was quite done up, so to speak. He'd only got what 'e stood up in, and the only pair of socks he'd got to his feet was in such a state of 'oles that they had to be throwed away. I throwed 'em away myself."

"Dear me," said Mrs. Kingdom.

"He don't look like the same feller now," continued the amiable Mrs. Kybird; "good living and good clothes 'ave worked wonders in 'im. I'm sure if he'd been my own son I couldn't 'ave done more for 'im, and, as for Kybird, he's like a father to him."

"Dear me," said Mrs. Kingdom, again.

Mrs. Kybird looked at her. It was on the tip of her tongue to call her a poll parrot. She was a free-spoken woman as a rule, and it was terrible to have to sit still and waste all the good things she could have said to her in favour of unsatisfying pin-pricks. She sat smouldering.

"I s'pose you miss the capt'in very much?" she said, at last.

"Very much," was the reply.

"And I should think 'e misses you," retorted Mrs. Kybird, unable to restrain herself; "'e must miss your conversation and what I might call your liveliness."

Mrs. Kingdom turned and regarded her, and the red stole back to her cheeks again. She smoothed down her dress and her hands trembled. Both ladies were now regarding each other in a fashion which caused serious apprehension to the rest of the company.

"I am not a great talker, but I am very careful whom I converse with," said Mrs. Kingdom, in her most stately manner.

"I knew a lady like that once," said Mrs. Kybird; "leastways, she wasn't a lady," she added, meditatively.

Mrs. Kingdom fidgeted, and looked over piteously at her niece; Mrs. Kybird, with a satisfied sniff, sat bolt upright and meditated further assaults. There were at least a score of things she could have said about her adversary's cap alone: plain, straightforward remarks which would have torn it to shreds. The cap fascinated her, and her fingers itched as she gazed at it. In more congenial surroundings she might have snatched at it, but, being a woman of strong character, she suppressed her natural instincts, and confined herself to more polite methods of attack.

"Your nephew don't seem to be in no hurry," she remarked, at length; "but, there, direckly 'e gets along o' my daughter 'e forgits everything and everybody."

"I really don't think he is coming," said Hardy, moved to speech by the glances of Miss Nugent.

"I shall give him a little longer," said Mrs. Kybird. "I only came 'ere to please 'im, and to get 'ome alone is more than I can do."

Miss Nugent looked at Mr. Hardy, and her eyes were soft and expressive. As plainly as eyes could speak they asked him to take Mrs. Kybird home, lest worse things should happen.

"Would it be far out of your way?" she asked, in a low voice.

"Quite the opposite direction," returned Mr. Hardy, firmly.

"How I got 'ere I don't know," said Mrs. Kybird, addressing the room in general; "it's a wonder to me. Well, once is enough in a lifetime."

"Mr. Hardy," said Kate Nugent, again, in a low voice, "I should be so much obliged if you would take Mrs. Kybird away. She seems bent on quarrelling with my aunt. It is very awkward."

It was difficult to resist the entreaty, but Mr. Hardy had a very fair idea of the duration of Miss Nugent's gratitude; and, besides that, Murchison was only too plainly enjoying his discomfiture.

"She can get home alone all right," he whispered.

Miss Nugent drew herself up disdainfully; Dr. Murchison, looking scandalized at his brusqueness, hastened to the rescue.

"As a medical man," he said, with a considerable appearance of gravity, "I don't think that Mrs. Kybird ought to go home alone."

"Think not?" inquired Hardy, grimly.

"Certain of it," breathed the doctor.

"Well, why don't you take her?" retorted Hardy; "it's all on your way. I have some news for Miss Nugent."

Miss Nugent looked from one to the other, and mischievous lights appeared in her eyes as she gazed at the carefully groomed and fastidious Murchison. From them she looked to the other side of the room, where Mrs. Kybird was stolidly eyeing Mrs. Kingdom, who was trying in vain to appear ignorant of the fact.

"Thank you very much," said Miss Nugent, turning to the doctor.

"I'm sorry," began Murchison, with an indignant glance at his rival.

"Oh, as you please," said the girl, coldly. "Pray forgive me for asking you."

"If you really wish it," said the doctor, rising. Miss Nugent smiled upon him, and Hardy also gave him a smile of kindly encouragement, but this he ignored. He crossed the room and bade Mrs. Kingdom good-bye; and then in a few disjointed words asked Mrs. Kybird whether he could be of any assistance in seeing her home.

"I'm sure I'm much obliged to you," said that lady, as she rose. "It don't seem much use for me waiting for my future son-in-law. I wish you good afternoon, ma'am. I can understand now why Jack didn't come."

With this parting shot she quitted the room and, leaning on the doctor's arm, sailed majestically down the path to the gate, every feather on her hat trembling in response to the excitement below.

"Good-natured of him," said Hardy, glancing from the window, with a triumphant smile.

"Very," said Miss Nugent, coldly, as she took a seat by her aunt. "What is the news to which you referred just now? Is it about my father?"