Chapter XXIII
 

The summer evening was well advanced when Mr. Kybird and his old friend parted. The former gentleman was in almost a sentimental mood, and the boarding-master, satisfied that his pupil was in a particularly appropriate frame of mind for the object of his visit, renewed his instructions about binding Mr. Silk to secrecy, and departed on business of his own.

Mr. Kybird walked slowly towards Fullalove Alley with his head sunk in meditation. He was anxious to find Mr. Silk alone, as otherwise the difficulty of his errand would be considerably increased, Mrs. Silk's intelligence being by no means obscured by any ungovernable affection for the Kybird family. If she was at home she would have to invent some pretext for luring Teddy into the privacy of the open air.

The lamp was lit in the front room by the time he reached the house, and the shadows of geraniums which had won through several winters formed a straggling pattern on the holland blind. Mr. Kybird, first making an unsuccessful attempt to peep round the edges of this decoration, tapped gently on the door, and in response to a command to "Come in," turned the handle and looked into the room. To his relief, he saw that Mr. Silk was alone.

"Good evening, Teddy," he said, with a genial smile, as he entered slowly and closed the door behind him. "I 'ope I see you well?"

"I'm quite well," returned Mr. Silk, gazing at him with unconcealed surprise.

"I'm glad to 'ear it," said Mr. Kybird, in a somewhat reproachful voice, "for your sake; for every-body's sake, though, p'r'aps, I did expect to find you looking a little bit down. Ah! it's the wimmen that 'ave the 'arts after all."

Mr. Silk coughed. "What d'ye mean?" he inquired, somewhat puzzled.

"I came to see you, Teddy, on a very delikit business," said Mr. Kybird, taking a seat and gazing diffidently at his hat as he swung it between his hands; "though, as man to man, I'm on'y doing of my dooty. But if you don't want to 'ear wot I've got to say, say so, and Dan'l Kybird'll darken your door no more."

"How can I know whether I want to 'ear it or not when I don't know wot it is?" said Mr. Silk, judiciously.

Mr. Kybird sat biting his thumb-nail, then he looked up suddenly. "'Melia," he said, with an outburst of desperate frankness, "'Melia is crying 'er eyes out."

Mr. Silk, with a smothered exclamation, started up from his chair and regarded him eagerly.

"If she knew I'd been 'ere," pursued Mr. Kybird, "she'd I don't know wot she wouldn't do. That's 'er pride; but I've got my pride too; the pride of a father's 'art."

"What--what's she crying about?" inquired Mr. Silk, in an unsteady voice.

"She's been looking poorly for some time," continued the veracious Mr. Kybird, "and crying. When I tell you that part o' the wedding-dress wot she was making 'ad to be taken away from 'er because o' the tears she dropped on it, you may 'ave some idea of wot things are like. She's never forgot you, Teddy, and it was on'y your quick temper that day that made 'er take on with young Nugent. She's got a temper, too, but she give 'er love once, and, being my daughter, she couldn't give it agin."

He stole a glance at his listener. Mr. Silk, very pale and upright, was standing on the hearthrug, shaking all over with nervous excitement. Twice he tried to speak and failed.

"That's 'ow it is, Teddy," sighed Mr. Kybird, rising as though to depart. "I've done my dooty. It was a 'ard thing to do, but I've done it."

"Do you mean," said Mr. Silk, recovering his voice at last, "do you mean that Amelia would marry me after all?"

"Do I mean?" repeated Mr. Kybird, naturally indignant that his very plain speaking should be deemed capable of any misconstruction. "Am I speaking to a stock or a stone, Teddy?"

Mr. Silk took a deep breath, and buttoned up his coat, as though preparing to meet Mr. Nugent there and then in deadly encounter for the person of Miss Kybird. The colour was back in his cheeks by this time, and his eyes were unusually bright. He took a step towards Mr. Kybird and, pressing his hand warmly, pushed him back into his seat again.

"There's 'er pride to consider, Teddy," said the latter gentleman, with the whisper of a conspirator.

"She can't stand being talked about all over the town and pointed at."

"Let me see anybody a-pointing at 'er," said the truculent Mr. Silk; "let me see 'em, that's all."

"That's the way to talk, Teddy," said Mr. Kybird, gazing at him with admiration.

"Talk!" said the heroic Mr. Silk. "I'll do more than talk." He clenched his fists and paced boldly up and down the hearthrug.

"You leave things to me," said Mr. Kybird, with a confidential wink. "I'll see that it's all right. All I ask of you is to keep it a dead secret; even your mother mustn't know."

"I'll be as secret as the grave," said the overjoyed Mr. Silk.

"There's lots o' things to be taken into consideration," said Mr. Kybird, truthfully; "it might be as well for you to be married immediate."

"Immediate?" said the astonished Mr. Silk.

"She 'asn't got the nerve to send young Nugent about 'is business," explained Mr. Kybird; "she feels sorry for 'im, pore fellow; but 'e's got a loving and affectionate 'art, and she can't bear 'im making love to 'er. You can understand what it is, can't you?"

"I can imagine it," said Mr. Silk, gloomily, and he flushed crimson as the possibilities suggested by the remark occurred to him.

"I've been thinking it over for some time," resumed Mr. Kybird; "twisting it and turning it all ways, and the only thing I can see for it is for you to be married on the strict q.t. Of course, if you don't like--"

"Like!" repeated the transported Mr. Silk.

"I'll go and be married now, if you like."

Mr. Kybird shook his head at such haste, and then softening a little observed that it did him credit. He proceeded to improve the occasion by anecdotes of his own courting some thirty years before, and was in the middle of a thrilling account of the manner in which he had bearded the whose of his future wife's family, when a quick step outside, which paused at the door, brought him to a sudden halt.

"Mother," announced Mr. Silk, in a whisper.

Mr. Kybird nodded, and the heroic appearance of visage which had accompanied his tale gave way to an expression of some uneasiness. He coughed behind his hand, and sat gazing before him as Mrs. Silk entered the room and gave vent to an exclamation of astonishment as she saw the visitor. She gazed sharply from him to her son. Mr. Kybird's expression was now normal, but despite his utmost efforts Mr. Silk could not entirely banish the smile which trembled on his lips.

"Me and Teddy," said Mr. Kybird, turning to her with a little bob, which served him for a bow, "'ave just been having a little talk about old times."

"He was just passing," said Mr. Silk.

"Just passing, and thought I'd look in," said Mr. Kybird, with a careless little laugh; "the door was open a bit."

"Wide open," corroborated Mr. Silk.

"So I just came in to say ''Ow d'ye do?'" said Mr. Kybird.

Mrs. Silk's sharp, white face turned from one to the other. "Ave you said it?" she inquired, blandly.

"I 'ave," said Mr. Kybird, restraining Mr. Silk's evident intention of hot speech by a warning glance; "and now I'll just toddle off 'ome."

"I'll go a bit o' the way with you," said Edward Silk. "I feel as if a bit of a walk would do me good."

Left alone, the astonished Mrs. Silk took the visitor's vacated chair and, with wrinkled brow, sat putting two and two together until the sum got beyond her powers of calculation. Mr. Kybird's affability and Teddy's cheerfulness were alike incomprehensible. She mended a hole in her pocket and darned a pair of socks, and at last, anxious for advice, or at least a confidant, resolved to see Mr. Wilks.

She opened the door and looked across the alley, and saw with some satisfaction that his blind was illuminated. She closed the door behind her sharply, and then stood gasping on the doorstep. So simultaneous were the two happenings that it actually appeared as though the closing of the door had blown Mr. Wilks's lamp out. It was a night of surprises, but after a moment's hesitation she stepped over and tried his door. It was fast, and there was no answer to her knuckling. She knocked louder and listened. A door slammed violently at the back of the house, a distant clatter of what sounded like saucepans came from beyond, and above it all a tremulous but harsh voice bellowed industriously through an interminable chant. By the time the third verse was reached Mr. Wilks's neighbours on both sides were beating madly upon their walls and blood-curdling threats strained through the plaster.

She stayed no longer, but regaining her own door sat down again to await the return of her son. Mr. Silk was long in coming, and she tried in vain to occupy herself with various small jobs as she speculated in vain on the meaning of the events of the night. She got up and stood by the open door, and as she waited the clock in the church-tower, which rose over the roofs hard by, slowly boomed out the hour of eleven. As the echoes of the last stroke died away the figure of Mr. Silk turned into the alley.

"You must 'ave 'ad quite a nice walk," said his mother, as she drew back into the room and noted the brightness of his eye.

"Yes," was the reply.

"I s'pose 'e's been and asked you to the wedding?" said the sarcastic Mrs. Silk.

Her son started and, turning his back on her, wound up the clock. "Yes, 'e has," he said, with a, sly grin.

Mrs. Silk's eyes snapped. "Well, of all the impudence," she said, breathlessly.

"Well, 'e has," said her son, hugging himself over the joke. "And, what's more, I'm going."

He composed his face sufficiently to bid her "good-night," and, turning a deaf ear to her remonstrances and inquiries, took up a candle and were off whistling.