Chapter XX
 

Charmed at the ease with which he had demolished the objections of Mr. Adolphus Swann and won that suffering gentleman over to his plans, Hardy began to cast longing glances at Equator Lodge. He reminded himself that the labourer was worthy of his hire, and it seemed moreover an extremely desirable thing that Captain Nugent should know that he was labouring in his vineyard with the full expectation of a bounteous harvest. He resolved to call.

Kate Nugent, who heard the gate swing behind him as he entered the front garden, looked up and stood spellbound at his audacity. As a fairly courageous young person she was naturally an admirer of boldness in others, but this seemed sheer recklessness. Moreover, it was recklessness in which, if she stayed where she was, she would have to bear a part or be guilty of rudeness, of which she felt incapable. She took a third course, and, raising her eyebrows at the unnecessarily loud knocking with which the young man announced his arrival, retreated in good order into the garden, where her father, in a somewhat heated condition, was laboriously planting geraniums. She had barely reached him when Bella, in a state of fearsome glee, came down the garden to tell the captain of his visitor.

"Who?" said the latter, sharply, as he straightened his aching back.

"Young Mr. Hardy," said Bella, impressively. "I showed 'im in; I didn't ask 'im to take a chair, but he took one."

"Young Hardy to see me!" said the captain to his daughter, after Bella had returned to the house. "How dare he come to my house? Infernal impudence! I won't see him."

"Shall I go in and see him for you?" inquired Kate, with affected artlessness.

"You stay where you are, miss," said her father. "I won't have him speak to you; I won't have him look at you. I'll----"

He beat his dirty hands together and strode off towards the house. Jem Hardy rose from his chair as the captain entered the room and, ignoring a look of black inquiry, bade him "Good afternoon."

"What do you want?" asked the captain, gruffly, as he stared him straight in the eye.

"I came to see you about your son's marriage," said the other. "Are you still desirous of preventing it?"

"I'm sorry you've had the trouble," said the captain, in a voice of suppressed anger; "and now may I ask you to get out of my house?"

Hardy bowed. "I am sorry I have troubled you," he said, calmly, "but I have a plan which I think would get your son out of this affair, and, as a business man, I wanted to make something out of it."

The captain eyed him scornfully, but he was glad to see this well-looking, successful son of his old enemy tainted with such sordid views. Instead of turning him out he spoke to him almost fairly.

"How much do you want?" he inquired.

"All things considered, I am asking a good deal," was the reply.

"How much?" repeated the captain, impatiently.

Hardy hesitated. "In exchange for the service I want permission to visit here when I choose," he said, at length; "say twice a week."

Words failed the captain; none with which he was acquainted seemed forcible enough for the occasion. He faced his visitor stuttering with rage, and pointed to the door.

"Get out of my house," he roared.

"I'm sorry to have intruded," said Hardy, as he crossed the room and paused at the door; "it is none of my business, of course. I thought that I saw an opportunity of doing your son a good turn--he is a friend of mine--and at the same time paying off old scores against Kybird and Nathan Smith. I thought that on that account it might suit you. Good afternoon."

He walked out into the hall, and reaching the front door fumbled clumsily with the catch. The captain watching his efforts in grim silence began to experience the twin promptings of curiosity and temptation.

"What is this wonderful plan of yours?" he demanded, with a sneer.

"Just at present that must remain a secret," said the other. He came from the door and, unbidden, followed the captain into the room again.

"What do you want to visit at my house for?" inquired the latter, in a forbidding voice.

"To see your daughter," said Hardy.

The captain had a relapse. He had not expected a truthful answer, and, when it came, in the most matter-of-fact tone, it found him quite unprepared. His first idea was to sacrifice his dignity and forcibly eject his visitor, but more sensible thoughts prevailed.

"You are quite sure, I suppose, that your visits would be agreeable to my daughter?" he said, contemptuously.

Hardy shook his head. "I should come ostensibly to see you," he said, cheerfully; "to smoke a pipe with you."

"Smoke!" stuttered the captain, explosively; "smoke a pipe with me?"

"Why not?" said the other. "I am offering you my services, and anything that is worth having is worth paying for. I suppose we could both smoke pipes under pleasanter conditions. What have you got against me? It isn't my fault that you and my father have quarrelled."

"I don't want anything more to say to you," said the captain, sternly. "I've shown you the door once. Am I to take forcible measures?"

Hardy shrugged his broad shoulders. "I am sorry," he said, moving to the door again.

"So am I," said the other.

"It's a pity," said Hardy, regretfully. "It's the chance of a lifetime. I had set my heart on fooling Kybird and Smith, and now all my trouble is wasted. Nathan Smith would be all the better for a fall."

The captain hesitated. His visitor seemed to be confident, and he would have given a great deal to prevent his son's marriage and a great deal to repay some portion of his debt to the ingenious Mr. Smith. Moreover, there seemed to be an excellent opportunity of punishing the presumption of his visitor by taking him at his word.

"I don't think you'd enjoy your smoking here much," he said, curtly.

"I'll take my chance of that," said the other. "It will only be a matter of a few weeks, and then, if I am unsuccessful, my visits cease."

"And if you're successful, am I to have the pleasure of your company for the rest of my life?" demanded the captain.

"That will be for you to decide," was the reply. "Is it a bargain?"

The captain looked at him and deliberated. "All right. Mondays and Thursdays," he said, laconically.

Hardy saw through the ruse, and countered.

"Now Swann is ill I can't always get away when I wish," he said, easily. "I'll just drop in when I can. Good day."

He opened the door and, fearful lest the other should alter his mind at the last moment, walked briskly down the path to the gate. The captain stood for some time after his departure deep in thought, and then returned to the garden to be skilfully catechized by Miss Nugent.

"And when my young friend comes with his pipe you'll be in another room," he concluded, warningly.

Miss Nugent looked up and patted his cheek tenderly. "What a talent for organization you have," she remarked, softly. "A place for everything and everything in its place. The idea of his taking such a fancy to you!"

The captain coughed and eyed her suspiciously. He had been careful not to tell her Hardy's reasons for coming, but he had a shrewd idea that his caution was wasted.

"Today is Thursday," said Kate, slowly; "he will be here to-morrow and Saturday. What shall I wear?"

The captain resumed his gardening operations by no means perturbed at the prophecy. Much as he disliked the young man he gave him credit for a certain amount of decency, and his indignation was proportionately great the following evening when Bella announced Mr. Hardy. He made a genial remark about Shylock and a pound of flesh, but finding that it was only an excellent conversational opening, the subject of Shakespeare's plays lapsed into silence.

It was an absurd situation, but he was host and Hardy allowed him to see pretty plainly that he was a guest. He answered the latter's remarks with a very ill grace, and took covert stock of him as one of a species he had not encountered before. One result of his stock-taking was that he was spared any feeling of surprise when his visitor came the following evening.

"It's the thin end of the wedge," said Miss Nugent, who came into the room after Hardy had departed; "you don't know him as well as I do."

"Eh?" said her father, sharply.

"I mean that you are not such a judge of character as I am," said Kate; "and besides, I have made a special study of young men. The only thing that puzzles me is why you should have such an extraordinary fascination for him."

"You talk too much, miss," said the captain, drawing the tobacco jar towards him and slowly filling his pipe.

Miss Nugent sighed, and after striking a match for him took a seat on the arm of his chair and placed her hand on his shoulder. "I can quite understand him liking you," she said, slowly.

The captain grunted.

"And if he is like other sensible people," continued Miss Nugent, in a coaxing voice, "the more he sees of you the more he'll like you. I do hope he has not come to take you away from me."

The indignant captain edged her off the side of his chair; Miss Nugent, quite undisturbed, got on again and sat tapping the floor with her foot. Her arm stole round his neck and she laid her cheek against his head and smiled wickedly.

"Nice-looking, isn't he?" she said, in a careless voice.

"I don't know anything about his looks," growled her father.

Miss Nugent gave a little exclamation of surprise. "First thing I noticed," she said, with commendable gravity. "He's very good-looking and very determined. What are you going to give him if he gets poor Jack out of this miserable business?"

"Give him?" said her father, staring.

"I met Jack yesterday," said Kate, "and I can see that he is as wretched as he can be. He wouldn't say so, of course. If Mr. Hardy is successful you ought to recognize it. I should suggest one of your new photos in an eighteenpenny frame."

She slipped off the chair and quitted the room before her father could think of a suitable retort, and he sat smoking silently until the entrance of Mrs. Kingdom a few minutes later gave him an opportunity of working off a little accumulated gall.

While the junior partner was thus trying to obtain a footing at Equator Lodge the gravest rumours of the senior partner's health were prevalent in the town. Nathan Smith, who had been to see him again, ostensibly to thank him for his efforts on his behalf, was of opinion that he was breaking up, and in conversation with Mr. Kybird shook his head over the idea that there would soon be one open-handed gentleman the less in a world which was none too full of them.

"We've all got to go some day," observed Mr. Kybird, philosophically. "'Ow's that cough o' yours getting on, Nat?"

Mr. Smith met the pleasantry coldly; the ailment referred to was one of some standing and had been a continual source of expense in the way of balsams and other remedies.

"He's worried about 'is money," he said, referring to Mr. Swann.

"Ah, we sha'n't 'ave that worry," said Mr. Kybird.

"Nobody to leave it to," continued Mr. Smith. "Seems a bit 'ard, don't it?"

"P'r'aps if 'e 'ad 'ad somebody to leave it to 'e wouldn't 'ave 'ad so much to leave," observed Mr. Kybird, sagely; "it's a rum world."

He shook his head over it and went on with the uncongenial task of marking down wares which had suffered by being exposed outside too long. Mr. Smith, who always took an interest in the welfare of his friends, made suggestions.

"I shouldn't put a ticket marked 'Look at this!' on that coat," he said, severely. "It oughtn't to be looked at."

"It's the best out o' three all 'anging together," said Mr. Kybird, evenly.

"And look 'ere," said Mr. Smith. "Look what an out-o'-the-way place you've put this ticket. Why not put it higher up on the coat?"

"Becos the moth-hole ain't there," said Mr. Kybird.

Mr. Smith apologized and watched his friend without further criticism.

"Gettin' ready for the wedding, I s'pose?" he said, presently.

Mr. Kybird assented, and his brow darkened as he spoke of surreptitious raids on his stores made by Mrs. Kybird and daughter.

"Their idea of a wedding," he said, bitterly, "is to dress up and make a show; my idea is a few real good old pals and plenty of licker."

"You'll 'ave to 'ave both," observed Nathan Smith, whose knowledge of the sex was pretty accurate.

Mr. Kybird nodded gloomily. "'Melia and Jack don't seem to 'ave been 'itting it off partikler well lately," he said, slowly. "He's getting more uppish than wot 'e was when 'e come here first. But I got 'im to promise that he'd settle any money that 'e might ever get left him on 'Melia."

Mr. Smith's inscrutable eyes glistened into something as nearly approaching a twinkle as they were capable. "That'll settle the five 'undred," he said, warmly. "Are you goin' to send Cap'n Nugent an invite for the wedding?"

"They'll 'ave to be asked, o' course," said Mr. Kybird, with an attempt at dignity, rendered necessary by a certain lightness in his friend's manner. "The old woman don't like the Nugent lot, but she'll do the proper thing."

"O' course she will," said Mr. Smith, soothingly. "Come over and 'ave a drink with me, Dan'l it's your turn to stand."