Chapter XXV
 

The day after Mr. Silk's sudden and unexpected assertion of his marital rights Mr. Kybird stood in the doorway of his shop, basking in the sun. The High Street was in a state of post-prandial repose, and there was no likelihood of a customer to interfere with his confidential chat with Mr. Nathan Smith, who was listening with an aspect of great severity to his explanations.

"It ought not to 'ave happened," he said, sharply. "It was Teddy done it," said Mr. Kybird, humbly.

Mr. Smith shrugged his shoulders. "It wouldn't 'ave happened if I'd been there," he observed, arrogantly.

"I don't see 'ow" began Mr. Kybird.

"No, o' course you don't," said his friend. "Still, it's no use making a fuss now. The thing is done. One thing is, I don't suppose it'll make any diff----"

"Difference," suggested Mr. Kybird, after waiting for him to finish.

"Difference," said Mr. Smith, with an obvious effort. His face had lost its scornful expression and given way to one almost sheepish in its mildness. Mr. Kybird, staring at him in some surprise, even thought that he detected a faint shade of pink.

"We ain't all as clever as wot you are, Nat," he said, somewhat taken aback at this phenomenon. "It wouldn't do."

Mr. Smith made a strange noise in his throat and turned on him sharply. Mr. Kybird, still staring in surprise at his unwonted behaviour, drew back a little, and then his lips parted and his eyes grew round as he saw the cause of his friend's concern. An elderly gentleman with a neatly trimmed white beard and a yellow rose in his button-hole was just passing on the other side of the road. His tread was elastic, his figure as upright as a boy's, and he swung a light cane in his hand as he walked. As Mr. Kybird gazed he bestowed a brisk nod upon the bewildered Mr. Smith, and crossed the road with the evident intention of speaking to him.

"How do, Smith?" he said, in a kindly voice.

The boarding-master leaned against the shop-window and regarded him dumbly. There was a twinkle in the shipbroker's eyes which irritated him almost beyond endurance, and in the doorway Mr. Kybird--his face mottled with the intensity of his emotions--stood an unwelcome and frantic witness of his shame.

"You're not well, Smith?" said Mr. Swann, shaking his head at him gently. "You look like a man who has been doing too much brain-work lately. You've been getting the better of some-body, I know."

Mr. Smith gasped and, eyeing him wickedly, strove hard to recover his self-possession.

"I'm all right, sir," he said, in a thin voice. "I'm glad to see you're looking a trifle better, sir."

"Oh, I'm quite right, now," said the other, with a genial smile at the fermenting Mr. Kybird. "I'm as well as ever I was. Illness is a serious thing, Smith, but it is not without its little amusements."

Mr. Smith, scratching his smooth-shaven chin and staring blankly in front of him, said that he was glad to hear it.

"I've had a long bout of it," continued the ship-broker, "longer than I intended at first. By the way, Smith, you've never spoken to anybody of that business, of course?"

"Of course not, sir," said the boarding-master, grinding his teeth.

"One has fancies when one is ill," said Mr. Swann, in low tones, as his eye dwelt with pleasure on the strained features of Mr. Kybird. "I burnt the document five minutes after you had gone."

"Did you, reely?" said Mr. Smith, mechanically.

"I'm glad it was only you and the doctor that saw my foolishness," continued the other, still in a low voice. "Other people might have talked, but I knew that you were a reliable man, Smith. And you won't talk about it in the future, I'm quite certain of that. Good afternoon."

Mr. Smith managed to say, "Good afternoon," and stood watching the receding figure as though it belonged to a species hitherto unknown to him. Then he turned, in obedience to a passionate tug at his coat sleeve from Mr. Kybird.

"Wot 'ave you got to say for yourself?" demanded that injured person, in tones of suppressed passion. "Wot do you mean by it? You've made a pretty mess of it with your cleverness."

"Wonderful old gentleman, ain't he?" said the discomfited Mr. Smith. "Fancy 'im getting the better o' me. Fancy me being 'ad. I took it all in as innercent as you please."

"Ah, you're a clever fellow, you are," said Mr. Kybird, bitterly. "'Ere's Amelia lost young Nugent and 'is five 'undred all through you. It's a got-up thing between old Swann and the Nugent lot, that's wot it is."

"Looks like it," admitted Mr. Smith; "but fancy 'is picking me out for 'is games. That's wot gets over me."

"Wot about all that money I paid for the license?" demanded Mr. Kybird, in a threatening manner. "Wot are you going to do about it?"

"You shall 'ave it," said the boarding-master, with sudden blandness, "and 'Melia shall 'ave 'er five 'undred."

"'Ow?" inquired the other, staring.

"It's as easy as easy," said Mr. Smith, who had been greatly galled by his friend's manner. "I'll leave it in my will. That's the cheapest way o' giving money I know of. And while I'm about it I'll leave you a decent pair o' trousers and a shirt with your own name on it."

While an ancient friendship was thus being dissolved, Mr. Adolphus Swann was on the way to his office. He could never remember such a pleasant air from the water and such a vivid enjoyment in the sight of the workaday world. He gazed with delight at the crowd of miscellaneous shipping in the harbour and the bustling figures on the quay, only pausing occasionally to answer anxious inquiries concerning his health from seafaring men in tarry trousers, who had waylaid him with great pains from a distance.

He reached his office at last, and, having acknowledged the respectful greetings of Mr. Silk, passed into the private room, and celebrated his return to work by at once arranging with his partner for a substantial rise in the wages of that useful individual.

"My conscience is troubling me," he declared, as he hung up his hat and gazed round the room with much relish.

"Silk is happy enough," said Hardy. "It is the best thing that could have happened to him."

"I should like to raise everybody's wages," said the benevolent Mr. Swann, as he seated himself at his desk. "Everything is like a holiday to me after being cooped up in that bedroom; but the rest has done me a lot of good, so Blaikie says. And now what is going to happen to you?"

Hardy shook his head.

"Strike while the iron is hot," said the ship-broker. "Go and see Captain Nugent before he has got used to the situation. And you can give him to understand, if you like (only be careful how you do it), that I have got something in view which may suit his son. If you fail in this affair after all I've done for you, I'll enter the lists myself."

The advice was good, but unnecessary, Mr. Hardy having already fixed on that evening as a suitable opportunity to disclose to the captain the nature of the efforts he had been making on his behalf. The success which had attended them had put him into a highly optimistic mood, and he set off for Equator Lodge with the confident feeling that he had, to say the least of it, improved his footing there.

Captain Nugent, called away from his labours in the garden, greeted his visitor in his customary short manner as he entered the room. "If you've come to tell me about this marriage, I've heard of it," he said, bluntly. "Murchison told me this afternoon."

"He didn't tell you how it was brought about, I suppose?" said Hardy.

The captain shook his head. "I didn't ask him," he said, with affected indifference, and sat gazing out at the window as Hardy began his narration. Two or three times he thought he saw signs of appreciation in his listener's face, but the mouth under the heavy moustache was firm and the eyes steady. Only when he related Swann's interview with Nathan Smith and Kybird did the captain's features relax. He gave a chuckling cough and, feeling for his handkerchief, blew his nose violently. Then, with a strange gleam in his eye, he turned to the young man opposite.

"Very smart," he said, shortly.

"It was successful," said the other, modestly.

"Very," said the captain, as he rose and confronted him. "I am much obliged, of course, for the trouble you have taken in the affairs of my family. And now I will remind you of our agreement."

"Agreement?" repeated the other.

The captain nodded. "Your visits to me were to cease when this marriage happened, if I wished it," he said, slowly.

"That was the arrangement," said the dumb-founded Hardy, "but I had hoped----. Besides, it has all taken place much sooner than I had anticipated."

"That was the bargain," said the captain, stiffly. "And now I'll bid you good-day."

"I am sorry that my presence should be so distasteful to you," said the mortified Hardy.

"Distasteful, sir?" said the captain, sternly. "You have forced yourself on me for twice a week for some time past. You have insisted upon talking on every subject under the sun, whether I liked it or not. You have taken every opportunity of evading my wishes that you should not see my daughter, and you wonder that I object to you. For absolute brazenness you beat anything I have ever encountered."

"I am sorry," said Hardy, again.

"Good evening," said the captain

"Good evening."

Crestfallen and angry Hardy moved to the door, pausing with his hand on it as the captain spoke again.

"One word more," said the older man, gazing at him oddly as he stroked his grey beard; "if ever you try to come bothering me with your talk again I'll forbid you the house."

"Forbid me the house?" repeated the astonished Hardy.

"That's what I said," replied the other; "that's plain English, isn't it?"

Hardy looked at him in bewilderment; then, as the captain's meaning dawned upon him, he stepped forward impulsively and, seizing his hand, began to stammer out incoherent thanks.

"You'd better clear before I alter my mind," said Captain Nugent, roughly. "I've had more than enough of you. Try the garden, if you like."

He took up a paper from the table and resumed his seat, not without a grim smile at the promptitude with which the other obeyed his instructions.

Miss Nugent, reclining in a deck-chair at the bottom of the garden, looked up as she heard Hardy's footstep on the gravel. It was a surprising thing to see him walking down the garden; it was still more surprising to observe the brightness of his eye and the easy confidence of his bearing. It was evident that he was highly pleased with himself, and she was not satisfied until she had ascertained the reason. Then she sat silent, reflecting bitterly on the clumsy frankness of the male sex in general and fathers in particular. A recent conversation with the captain, in which she had put in a casual word or two in Hardy's favour, was suddenly invested with a new significance.

"I shall never be able to repay your father for his kindness," said Hardy, meaningly, as he took a chair near her.

"I expect he was pleased at this marriage," said Miss Nugent, coldly. "How did it happen?"

Mr. Hardy shifted uneasily in his chair. "There isn't much to tell," he said, reluctantly; "and you--you might not approve of the means by which the end was gained."

"Still, I want to hear about it," said Miss Nugent.

For the second time that evening Hardy told his story. It seemed more discreditable each time he told it, and he scanned the girl's face anxiously as he proceeded, but, like her father, she sat still and made no comment until he had finished. Then she expressed a strong feeling of gratitude that the Nugent family had not been mixed up in it.

"Why?" inquired Hardy, bluntly.

"I don't think it was a very nice thing to do," said Miss Nugent, with a superior air.

"It wouldn't have been a very nice thing for you if your brother had married Miss Kybird," said the indignant Jem. "And you said, if you remember, that you didn't mind what I did."

"I don't," said Miss Nugent, noticing with pleasure that the confident air of a few minutes ago had quite disappeared.

"You think I have been behaving badly?" pursued Hardy.

"I would rather not say what I think," replied Miss Nugent, loftily. "I have no doubt you meant well, and I should be sorry to hurt your feelings."

"Thank you," said Hardy, and sat gloomily gazing about him. For some time neither of them spoke.

"Where is Jack now?" inquired the girl, at last. "He is staying with me for a few days," said Hardy. "I sincerely hope that the association will not be injurious to him."

"Are you trying to be rude to me?" inquired Miss Nugent, raising her clear eyes to his.

"I am sorry," said Hardy, hastily. "You are quite right, of course. It was not a nice thing to do, but I would do a thousand times worse to please you."

Miss Nugent thanked him warmly; he seemed to understand her so well, she said.

"I mean," said Hardy, leaning forward and speaking with a vehemence which made the girl instinctively avert her head--"I mean that to please you would be the greatest happiness I could know. I love you."

Miss Nugent sat silent, and a strong sense of the monstrous unfairness of such a sudden attack possessed her. Such a declaration she felt ought to have been led up to by numerous delicate gradations of speech, each a little more daring than the last, but none so daring that they could not have been checked at any time by the exercise of a little firmness.

"If you would do anything to please me," she said at length in a low voice, and without turning her head, "would you promise never to try and see me or speak to me again if I asked you?"

"No," said Hardy, promptly.

Miss Nugent sat silent again. She knew that a good woman should be sorry for a man in such extremity, and should endeavour to spare his feelings by softening her refusal as much as possible, little as he might deserve such consideration. But man is impatient and jumps at conclusions. Before she was half-way through the first sentence he leaned forward and took her hand.

"Oh, good-bye," she said, turning to him, with a pleasant smile.

"I am not going," said Hardy, quietly; "I am never going," he added, as he took her other hand.

Captain Nugent, anxious for his supper, found them there still debating the point some two hours later. Kate Nugent, relieved at the appearance of her natural protector, clung to him with unusual warmth. Then, in a kindly, hospitable fashion, she placed her other arm in that of Hardy, and they walked in grave silence to the house.

THE END