Chapter XXII
 

Mr. Nathan Smith, usually one of the most matter-of-fact men in the world, came out of Mr. Swann's house in a semi-dazed condition, and for some time after the front door had closed behind him stood gaping on the narrow pavement.

He looked up and down the quiet little street and shook his head sadly. It was a street of staid and substantial old houses; houses which had mellowed and blackened with age, but whose quaint windows and chance-opened doors afforded glimpses of comfort attesting to the prosperity of those within. In the usual way Mr. Nathan Smith was of too philosophical a temperament to experience the pangs of envy, but to-day these things affected him, and he experienced a strange feeling of discontent with his lot in life.

"Some people 'ave all the luck," he muttered, and walked slowly down the road.

He continued his reflections as he walked through the somewhat squalid streets of his own quarter. The afternoon was wet and the houses looked dingier than usual; dirty, inconvenient little places most of them, with a few cheap gimcracks making a brave show as near the window as possible. Mr. Smith observed them with newly opened eyes, and, for perhaps the first time in his life, thought of the draw-backs and struggles of the poor.

In his own untidy little den at the back of the house he sat for some time deep in thought over the events of the afternoon. He had been permitted a peep at wealth; at wealth, too, which was changing hands, but was not coming his way. He lit his pipe and, producing a bottle of rum from a cupboard, helped himself liberally. The potent fluid softened him somewhat, and a half-formed intention to keep the news from Mr. Kybird melted away beneath its benign influence.

"After all, we've been pals for pretty near thirty years," said Mr. Smith to himself.

He took another draught. "Thirty years is a long time," he mused.

He finished the glass. "And if 'e don't give me something out of it I'll do 'im as much 'arm as I can," he continued; and, buttoning up his coat, he rose and set out in the direction of the High Street.

The rain had ceased and the sun was making faint efforts to break through watery clouds. Things seemed brighter, and Mr. Smith's heart beat in response. He was going to play the part of a benefactor to Mr. Kybird; to offer him access, at any rate, to such wealth as he had never dreamed of. He paused at the shop window, and, observing through a gap in the merchandise that Mr. Kybird was be-hind the counter, walked in and saluted him.

"I've got news for you," he said, slowly; "big news."

"Oh," said Mr. Kybird, with indifference.

"Big news," repeated Mr. Smith, sinking thoughtlessly into the broken cane-chair and slowly extricating himself. "Something that'll make your eyes start out of your 'ed."

The small black eyes in question were turned shrewdly in his direction. "I've 'ad news of you afore, Nat," remarked Mr. Kybird, with simple severity.

The philanthropist was chilled; he fixed his eyes in a stony stare on the opposite wall. Mr. Kybird, who had ever a wholesome dread of falling a victim to his friend's cuteness, regarded him with some uncertainty, and reminded him of one or two pieces of information which had seriously depleted his till.

"Banns up yet for the wedding?" inquired Mr. Smith, still gazing in front of him with fathomless eyes.

"They'll be put up next week," said Mr. Kybird.

"Ah!" said his friend, with great emphasis. "Well, well!"

"Wot d'ye mean by 'well, well'?" demanded the other, with some heat.

"I was on'y thinking," replied Mr. Smith, mildly. "P'r'aps it's all for the best, and I'd better 'old my tongue. True love is better than money. After all it ain't my bisness, and I shouldn't get much out of it."

"Out of wot, Nat?" inquired Mr. Kybird, uneasily.

Mr. Smith, still gazing musingly before him, appeared not to hear the question. "Nice after the rain, ain't it?" he said, slowly.

"It's all right," said the other, shortly.

"Everything smells so fresh and sweet," continued his nature-loving friend; "all the little dickey-birds was a-singing as if their little 'arts would break as I come along."

"I don't wonder at it," said the offended Mr. Kybird.

"And the banns go up next week," murmured the boarding-master to himself. "Well, well."

"'Ave you got anything to say agin it?" demanded Mr. Kybird.

"Cert'nly not," replied the other. "On'y don't blame me when it's too late; that's all."

Mr. Kybird, staring at him wrathfully, turned this dark saying over in his mind. "Too late for wot?" he inquired.

"Ah!" said Nathan Smith, slowly. "Nice and fresh after the rain, ain't it? As I come along all the little dickey-birds--"

"Drat the little dickey-birds," interrupted Mr. Kybird, with sudden violence. "If you've got anything to say, why don't you say it like a man?"

The parlour door opened suddenly before the other could reply, and revealed the face of Mrs. Kybird. "Wot are you two a-quarrelling about?" she demanded. "Why don't you come inside and sit down for a bit?"

Mr. Smith accepted the invitation, and following her into the room found Miss Kybird busy stitching in the midst of a bewildering assortment of brown paper patterns and pieces of cloth. Mrs. Kybird gave him a chair, and, having overheard a portion of his conversation with her husband, made one or two casual inquiries.

"I've been spending a hour or two at Mr. Swann's," said Mr. Smith.

"And 'ow is 'e?" inquired his hostess, with an appearance of amiable interest.

The boarding-master shook his head. "'E's slipping 'is cable," he said, slowly. "'E's been making 'is will, and I was one o' the witnesses."

Something in Mr. Smith's manner as he uttered this simple statement made his listeners anxious to hear more. Mr. Kybird, who had just entered the room and was standing with his back to the door holding the handle, regarded him expectantly.

"It's been worrying 'im some time," pursued Mr. Smith. "'E 'asn't got nobody belonging to 'im, and for a long time 'e couldn't think 'ow to leave it. Wot with 'ouse property and other things it's a matter of over ten thousand pounds."

"Good 'eavens!" said Mr. Kybird, who felt that he was expected to say something.

"Dr. Blaikie was the other witness," continued Mr. Smith, disregarding the interruption; "and Mr. Swann made us both promise to keep it a dead secret till 'e's gone, but out o' friendship to you I thought I'd step round and let you know."

The emphasis on the words was unmistakable; Mrs. Kybird dropped her work and sat staring at him, while her husband wriggled with excitement.

"'E ain't left it to me, I s'pose?" he said, with a feeble attempt at jocularity.

"Not a brass farden," replied his friend, cheerfully. "Not to none of you. Why should 'e?

"He ain't left it to Jack, I s'pose?" said Miss Kybird, who had suspended her work to listen.

"No, my dear," replied the boarding-master. "E's made 'is will all ship-shape and proper, and 'e's left everything--all that 'ouse property and other things, amounting to over ten thousand pounds--to a young man becos 'e was jilt--crossed in love a few months ago, and becos 'e's been a good and faithful servant to 'im for years."

"Don't tell me," said Mr. Kybird, desperately; "don't tell me that 'e's been and left all that money to young Teddy Silk."

"Well, I won't if you don't want me to," said the accommodating Mr. Smith, "but, mind, it's a dead secret."

Mr. Kybird wiped his brow, and red patches, due to excitement, lent a little variety to an otherwise commonplace face; Mrs. Kybird's dazed inquiry. "Wot are we a-coming to?" fell on deaf ears; while Miss Kybird, leaning forward with lips parted, fixed her eyes intently on Mr. Smith's face.

"It's a pity 'e didn't leave it to young Nugent," said that gentleman, noting with much pleasure the effect of his announcement, "but 'e can't stand 'in: at no price; 'e told me so 'imself. I s'pose young Teddy'll be quite the gentleman now, and 'e'll be able to marry who 'e likes."

Mr. Kybird thrust his handkerchief into his tail-pocket, and all the father awoke within him. "Ho, will 'e?" he said, with fierce sarcasm. "Ho, indeed! And wot about my daughter? I 'ave 'eard of such things as breach o' promise. Before Mr. Teddy gets married 'e's got to 'ave a few words with me."

"'E's behaved very bad," said Mrs. Kybird, nodding.

"'E come 'ere night after night," said Mr. Kybird, working himself up into a fury; "'e walked out with my gal for months and months, and then 'e takes 'imself off as if we wasn't good enough for'im."

"The suppers 'e's 'ad 'ere you wouldn't believe," said Mrs. Kybird, addressing the visitor.

"Takes 'imself off," repeated her husband; "takes 'imself off as if we was dirt beneath 'is feet, and never been back to give a explanation from that day to this."

"I'm not easy surprised," said Mrs. Kybird, "I never was from a gal, but I must say Teddy's been a surprise to me. If anybody 'ad told me 'e'd ha' behaved like that I wouldn't ha' believed it; I couldn't. I've never said much about it, becos my pride wouldn't let me. We all 'ave our faults, and mine is pride."

"I shall bring a breach o' promise action agin 'im for five thousand pounds," said Mr. Kybird, with decision.

"Talk sense," said Nathan Smith, shortly.

"Sense!" cried Mr. Kybird. "Is my gal to be played fast and loose with like that? Is my gal to be pitched over when 'e likes? Is my gal--"

"Wot's the good o' talking like that to me?" said the indignant Mr. Smith. "The best thing you can do is to get 'er married to Teddy at once, afore 'e knows of 'is luck."

"And when'll that be?" inquired his friend, in a calmer voice.

"Any time," said the boarding-master, shrugging his shoulders. "The old gentleman might go out to-night, or again 'e might live on for a week or more. 'E was so weak 'e couldn't 'ardly sign 'is name."

"I 'ope 'e 'as signed it all right," said Mr. Kybird, starting.

"Safe as 'ouses," said his friend.

"Well, why not wait till Teddy 'as got the money?" suggested Mrs. Kybird, with a knowing shake of her head.

"Becos," said Mr. Smith, in a grating voice, "be-cos for one thing 'e'd be a rich man then and could 'ave 'is pick. Teddy Silk on a pound or thereabouts a week and Teddy Silk with ten thousand pounds 'ud be two different people. Besides that 'e'd think she was marrying 'im for 'is money."

"If 'e thought that," said Mrs. Kybird, firmly, "I'd never forgive 'im."

"My advice to you," said Nathan Smith, shaking his forefinger impressively, "is to get 'em married on the quiet and as soon as possible. Once they're tied up Teddy can't 'elp 'imself."

"Why on the quiet?" demanded Mr. Kybird, sharply.

The boarding-master uttered an impatient exclamation. "Becos if Mr. Swann got to 'ear of it he'd guess I'd been blabbing, for one thing," he said, sharply, "and for another, 'e left it to 'im partly to make up for 'is disappointment--he'd been disappointed 'imself in 'is younger days, so 'e told me."

"Suppose 'e managed to get enough strength to alter 'is will?"

Mr. Kybird shivered. "It takes time to get married, though," he objected.

"Yes," said Mr. Smith, ironically, "it does. Get round young Teddy, and then put the banns up. Take your time about it, and be sure and let Mr. Swann know. D'ye think 'e wouldn't understand wot it meant, and spoil it, to say nothing of Teddy seeing through it?

"Well, wot's to be done, then?" inquired the staring Mr. Kybird.

"Send 'em up to London and 'ave 'em married by special license," said Mr. Smith, speaking rapidly--"to-morrow, if possible; if not, the day after. Go and pitch a tale to Teddy to-night, and make 'im understand it's to be done on the strict q.t."

"Special licenses cost money," said Mr. Kybird. "I 'ave 'eard it's a matter o' thirty pounds or thereabouts."

Mr. Nathan Smith rose, and his eyes were almost expressive. He nodded good-night to the ladies and crossed to the door. Mrs. Kybird suddenly seized him by the coat and held him.

"Don't be in a 'urry, Nat," she pleaded. "We ain't all as clever as you are."

"Talk about looking a gift-'orse in the mouth--" began the indignant Mr. Smith.

"Sit down," urged Mr. Kybird. "You can't expect us to be as quick in seeing things as wot you are."

He pushed his partly mollified friend into his chair again, and taking a seat next him began to view the affair with enthusiasm. "'Melia shall turn young Nugent off to-night," he said, firmly.

"That's right," said the other; "go and do a few more silly things like that and we shall be 'appy. If you'd got a 'ead instead of wot you 'ave got, you wouldn't talk of giving the show away like that. Nobody must know or guess about anything until young Teddy is married to 'Melia and got the money."

"It seems something like deceitfulness," said Miss Kybird, who had been listening to the plans for her future with admirable composure.

"It's for Teddy's own sake," said Nathan Smith. "Everybody knows 'e's half crazy after you."

"I don't know that I don't like 'im best, even without the money," said Miss Kybird, calmly. "Nobody could 'ave been more attentive than 'im. I believe that 'e'd marry me if 'e 'ad a hundred thousand, but it looks better your way."

"Better all round," said Nathan Smith, with at approving nod. "Now, Dan'l, 'op round to Teddy and whistle 'im back, and mind 'e's to keep it a dead secret on account o' trouble with young Nugent. D'ye twig?"

The admiring Mr. Kybird said that he was a wonder, and, in the discussion on ways and means which followed, sat listening with growing respect to the managing abilities both of his friend and his wife. Difficulties were only mentioned for the purpose of being satisfactorily solved, and he noticed with keen appreciation that the prospect of a ten thousand pound son-in-law was already adding to that lady's dignity. She sniffed haughtily as she spoke of "that Nugent lot"; and the manner in which she promised Mr. Smith that he should not lose by his services would have graced a duchess.

"I didn't expect to lose by it," said the boarding-master, pointedly. "Come over and 'ave a glass at the Chequers, Dan, and then you can go along and see Teddy."