Chapter XXIV
 

The idea in the mind of Mr. James Hardy when he concocted his infamous plot was that Jack Nugent would be summarily dismissed on some pretext by Miss Kybird, and that steps would at once be taken by her family to publish her banns together with those of Mr. Silk. In thinking thus he had made no allowance for the workings and fears of such a capable mind as Nathan Smith's, and as days passed and nothing happened he became a prey to despair.

He watched Mr. Silk keenly, but that gentleman went about his work in his usual quiet and gloomy fashion, and, after a day's leave for the purpose of arranging the affairs of a sick aunt in Camberwell, came back only a little less gloomy than before. It was also clear that Mr. Swann's complaisance was nearly at an end, and a letter, couched in vigorous, not to say regrettable, terms for a moribund man, expressed such a desire for fresh air and exercise that Hardy was prepared to see him at any moment.

It was the more unfortunate as he thought that he had of late detected a slight softening in Captain Nugent's manner towards him. On two occasions the captain, who was out when he called, had made no comment to find upon his return that the visitor was being entertained by his daughter, going so far, indeed, as to permit the conversation to gain vastly in interest by that young person remaining in the room. In face of this improvement he thought with dismay of having to confess failure in a scheme which apart from success was inexcusable.

The captain had also unbent in another direction, and Mr. Wilks, to his great satisfaction, was allowed to renew his visits to Equator Lodge and assist his old master in the garden. Here at least the steward was safe from the designs of Mrs. Silk and the innuendoes of Fullalove Alley.

It was at this time, too, that the widow stood in most need of his advice, the behaviour of Edward Silk being of a nature to cause misgivings in any mother's heart. A strange restlessness possessed him, varied with occasional outbursts of hilarity and good nature. Dark hints emanated from him at these times concerning a surprise in store for her at no distant date, hints which were at once explained away in a most unsatisfactory manner when she became too pressing in her inquiries. He haunted the High Street, and when the suspicious Mrs. Silk spoke of Amelia he only laughed and waxed humorous over such unlikely subjects as broken hearts and broken vows.

It was a week after Mr. Kybird's visit to the alley that he went, as usual, for a stroll up and down the High Street. The evening was deepening, and some of the shops had already lit up, as Mr. Silk, with his face against the window-pane, tried in vain to penetrate the obscurity of Mr. Kybird's shop. He could just make out a dim figure behind the counter, which he believed to be Amelia, when a match was struck and a gas jet threw a sudden light in the shop and revealed Mr. Jack Nugent standing behind the counter with his hand on the lady's shoulder.

One glance was sufficient. The next moment there was a sharp cry from Miss Kybird and a bewildered stare from Nugent as something, only comparable to a human cracker, bounced into the shop and commenced to explode before them.

"Take your 'and off," raved Mr. Silk. "Leave 'er alone. 'Ow dare you? D'ye hear me? 'Melia, I won't 'ave it! I won't 'ave it!"

"Don't be silly, Teddy," remonstrated Mr. Nugent, following up Miss Kybird, as she edged away from him.

"Leave 'er alone, d'ye 'ear?" yelled Mr. Silk, thumping the counter with his small fist. "She's my wife!"

"Teddy's mad," said Mr. Nugent, calmly, "stark, staring, raving mad. Poor Teddy."

He shook his head sadly, and had just begun to recommend a few remedies when the parlour door opened and the figure of Mr. Kybird, with his wife standing close behind him, appeared in the doorway.

"Who's making all this noise?" demanded the former, looking from one to the other.

"I am," said Mr. Silk, fiercely. "It's no use your winking at me; I'm not going to 'ave any more of this nonsense. 'Melia, you go and get your 'at on and come straight off 'ome with me."

Mr. Kybird gave a warning cough. "Go easy, Teddy," he murmured.

"And don't you cough at me," said the irritated Mr. Silk, "because it won't do no good."

Mr. Kybird subsided. He was not going to quarrel with a son-in-law who might at any moment be worth ten thousand pounds.

"Isn't he mad?" inquired the amazed Mr. Nugent.

"Cert'nly not," replied Mr. Kybird, moving aside to let his daughter pass; "no madder than you are. Wot d'ye mean, mad?"

Mr. Nugent looked round in perplexity. "Do you mean to tell me that Teddy and Amelia are married?" he said, in a voice trembling with eagerness.

"I do," said Mr. Kybird. "It seems they've been fond of one another all along, and they went up all unbeknown last Friday and got a license and got married."

"And if I see you putting your 'and on 'er shoulder ag'in" said Mr. Silk, with alarming vagueness.

"But suppose she asks me to?" said the delighted Mr. Nugent, with much gravity.

"Look 'ere, we don't want none o' your non-sense," broke in the irate Mrs. Kybird, pushing her way past her husband and confronting the speaker.

"I've been deceived," said Mr. Nugent in a thrilling voice; "you've all been deceiving me. Kybird, I blush for you (that will save you a lot of trouble). Teddy, I wouldn't have believed it of you. I can't stay here; my heart is broken."

"Well we don't want you to," retorted the aggressive Mrs. Kybird. "You can take yourself off as soon as ever you like. You can't be too quick to please me."

Mr. Nugent bowed and walked past the counter. "And not even a bit of wedding-cake for me," he said, shaking a reproachful head at the heated Mr. Silk. "Why, I'd put you down first on my list."

He paused at the door, and after a brief intimation that he would send for his effects on the following day, provided that his broken heart had not proved fatal in the meantime, waved his hand to the company and departed. Mr. Kybird followed him to the door as though to see him off the premises, and gazing after the receding figure swelled with indignation as he noticed that he favoured a mode of progression which was something between a walk and a hornpipe.

Mr. Nugent had not been in such spirits since his return to Sunwich, and, hardly able to believe in his good fortune, he walked on in a state of growing excitement until he was clear of the town. Then he stopped to consider his next move, and after a little deliberation resolved to pay a visit to Jem Hardy and acquaint him with the joyful tidings.

That gentleman, however, was out, and Mr. Nugent, somewhat irritated at such thoughtlessness, stood in the road wondering where to go next. It was absolutely impossible for him to sleep that night without telling the good news to somebody, and after some thought he selected Mr. Wilks. It was true that relations had been somewhat strained between them since the latter's attempt at crimping him, but he was never one to bear malice, and to-night he was full of the kindliest thoughts to all mankind.

He burst into Mr. Wilks's front room suddenly and then pulled up short. The steward, with a pitiable look of anxiety on his pallid features, was leaning awkwardly against the mantelpiece, and opposite him Mrs. Silk sat in an easy-chair, dissolved in tears.

"Busy, Sam?" inquired Mr. Nugent, who had heard of the steward's difficulties from Hardy.

"No, sir," said Mr. Wilks, hastily; "sit down, sir."

He pushed forward a chair and, almost pulling his visitor into it, stood over him attentively and took his hat.

"Are you quite sure I'm not interrupting you?" inquired the thoughtful Mr. Nugent.

"Certain sure, sir," said Mr. Wilks, eagerly. "I was just 'aving a bit of a chat with my neighbour, Mrs. Silk, 'ere, that's all."

The lady in question removed her handkerchief from her eyes and gazed at him with reproachful tenderness. Mr. Wilks plunged hastily into conversation.

"She came over 'ere to tell me a bit o' news," he said, eyeing the young man doubtfully. "It seems that Teddy----"

Mr. Nugent fetched a mighty sigh and shook his head; Mrs. Silk gazed at him earnestly.

"Life is full of surprises, sir," she remarked.

"And sadness," added Mr. Nugent. "I hope that they will be happy."

"It struck me all of a 'eap," said Mrs. Silk, rolling her handkerchief into a ball and placing it in her lap. "I was doing a bit of ironing when in walks Teddy with Amelia Kybird, and says they was married last Friday. I was that shaken I didn't know what I did or what I said. Then I came over as soon as I could, because I thought Mr. Wilks ought to know about it."

Mr. Wilks cleared his throat and turned an agonized eye on Mr. Nugent. He would have liked to have asked why Mrs. Silk should think it necessary to inform him, but the fear of precipitating a crisis stayed his tongue.

"What I'm to do, I don't know," continued Mrs. Silk, feebly. You can't 'ave two queens in one 'ouse, so to speak."

"But she was walking out with Teddy long ago," urged Mr. Wilks. "It's no worse now than then."

"But I wouldn't be married by license," said Mrs. Silk, deftly ignoring the remark. "If I can't be asked in church in the proper way I won't be married at all."

"Quite right," said Mr. Nugent; "there's something so sudden about a license," he added, with feeling.

"Me and Mr. Wilks was talking about marriage only the other day," pursued Mrs. Silk, with a bashfulness which set every nerve in the steward's body quivering, "and we both agreed that banns was the proper way.

"You was talking about it," corrected Mr. Wilks, in a hoarse voice. "You brought up the subject and I agreed with you--not that it matters to me 'ow people get married. That's their affair. Banns or license, it's all one to me."

"I won't be married by license," said Mrs. Silk, with sudden petulance; "leastways, I'd rather not be," she added, softening.

Mr. Wilks took his handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose violently. Mrs. Silk's methods of attack left him little opportunity for the plain speaking which was necessary to dispel illusions. He turned a watery, appealing eye on to Mr. Nugent, and saw to his surprise that that gentleman was winking at him with great significance and persistence. It would have needed a heart of stone to have been unaffected by such misery, and to-night Mr. Nugent, thankful for his own escape, was in a singularly merciful mood.

"All this sounds as though you are going to be married," he said, turning to Mrs. Silk with a polite smile.

The widow simpered and looked down, thereby affording Mr. Nugent an opportunity of another signal to the perturbed steward, who sat with such a look of anxiety on his face lest he should miss his cue that the young man's composure was tried to the utmost.

"It's been a understood thing for a long time," she said, slowly, "but I couldn't leave my son while 'e was single and nobody to look after 'im. A good mother makes a good wife, so they say. A woman can't always 'ave 'er own way in everything, and if it's not to be by banns, then by license it must be, I suppose."

"Well, he'll be a fortunate man, whoever he is," said Mr. Nugent, with another warning glance at Mr. Wilks; "and I only hope that he'll make a better husband than you do, Sam," he added, in a low but severe voice.

Mrs. Silk gave a violent start. "Better husband than 'e does?" she cried, sharply. "Mr. Wilks ain't married."

Mr. Nugent's baseless charge took the steward all aback. He stiffened in his chair, a picture of consternation, and guilt appeared stamped on every feature; but he had the presence of mind to look to Mr. Nugent's eye for guidance and sufficient strength of character to accept this last bid for liberty.

"That's my business, sir," he quavered, in offended tones.

"But you ain't married?" screamed Mrs. Silk.

"Never mind," said Nugent, pacifically. "Perhaps I ought not to have mentioned it; it's a sore subject with Sam. And I daresay there were faults on both sides. Weren't there, Sam?"

"Yes, sir," said Mr. Wilks, in a voice which he strove hard to make distinct; "especially 'ers."

"You--you never told me you were married," said Mrs. Silk, breathlessly.

"I never said I wasn't," retorted the culprit, defiantly. "If people liked to think I was a single man, I don't care; it's got nothing to do with them. Besides, she lives at Stepney, and I don't 'ear from 'er once in six months; she don't interfere with me and I don't interfere with her."

Mrs. Silk got up from her chair and stood confronting him with her hand grasping the back of it. Her cold eyes gleamed and her face worked with spite as she tried in vain to catch his eye. Of Mr. Nugent and his ingenuous surprise at her behaviour she took no notice at all.

"You're a deceiver," she gasped; "you've been behaving like a single man and everybody thought you was a single man."

"I hope you haven't been paying attentions to anybody, Sam," said Mr. Nugent in a shocked voice.

"A-ah," said Mrs. Silk, shivering with anger. "Ask 'im; the deceiving villain. Ask anybody, and see what they'll tell you. Oh, you wicked man, I wonder you can look me in the face!"

Truth to tell, Mr. Wilks was looking in any direction but hers. His eyes met Nugent's, but there was a look of such stern disdain on that gentleman's face that he was fain to look away again.

"Was it a friend of yours?" inquired the artless Mr. Nugent.

"Never mind," said Mrs. Silk, recovering herself. "Never mind who it was. You wait till I go and tell Teddy," she continued, turning to the trembling Mr. Wilks. "If 'e's got the 'art of a man in 'im you'll see."

With this dire threat, and turning occasionally to bestow another fierce glance upon the steward, she walked to the door and, opening it to its full extent, closed it behind her with a crash and darted across the alley to her own house. The two men gazed at each other without speaking, and then Mr. Wilks, stepping over to the door, turned the key in the lock.

"You're not afraid of Teddy?" said the staring Nugent.

"Teddy!" said Mr. Wilks, snapping his huge fingers. "I'm not afraid o' fifty Teddies; but she might come back with 'im. If it 'adn't ha' been for you, sir, I don't know wot wouldn't 'ave happened."

"Go and draw some beer and get me a clean pipe," said Nugent, dropping into a chair. "We've both been mercifully preserved, Sam, and the best thing we can do is to drink to our noble selves and be more careful for the future."

Mr. Wilks obeyed, and again thanking him warmly for his invaluable services sat down to compile a few facts about his newly acquired wife, warranted to stand the severest cross-examination which might be brought to bear upon them, a task interspersed with malicious reminiscences of Mrs. Silk's attacks on his liberty. He also insisted on giving up his bed to Nugent for the night.

"I suppose," he said later on, as Mr. Nugent, after a faint objection or two, took his candle--"I suppose this yarn about my being married will get about?"

"I suppose so," said Nugent, yawning, as he paused with his foot on the stair. "What about it?"

"Nothing," said Mr. Wilks, in a somewhat dissatisfied voice. "Nothing."

"What about it?" repeated Mr. Nugent, sternly.

"Nothing, sir," said Mr. Wilks, with an insufferable simper. "Nothing, only it'll make things a little hit slow for me, that's all."

Mr. Nugent eyed him for a space in speechless amazement, and then, with a few strong remarks on ingratitude and senile vanity, mounted the winding little stairs and went to bed.