Chapter VII
 

The anticipations of Mr. Wilks were more than realized on the following Tuesday. From the time a trim maid showed him into the smoking-room until late at night, when he left, a feted and honoured guest, with one of his host's best cigars between his teeth, nothing that could yield him any comfort was left undone. In the easiest of easy chairs he sat in the garden beneath the leafy branches of apple trees, and undiluted wisdom and advice flowed from his lips in a stream as he beamed delightedly upon his entertainer.

Their talk was mainly of Sunwich and Sunwich people, and it was an easy step from these to Equator Lodge. On that subject most people would have found the ex-steward somewhat garrulous, but Jem Hardy listened with great content, and even brought him back to it when he showed signs of wandering. Altogether Mr. Wilks spent one of the pleasantest evenings of his life, and, returning home in a slight state of mental exhilaration, severely exercised the tongues of Fullalove Alley by a bearing considered incompatible with his station.

Jem Hardy paid a return call on the following Friday, and had no cause to complain of any lack of warmth in his reception. The ex-steward was delighted to see him, and after showing him various curios picked up during his voyages, took him to the small yard in the rear festooned with scarlet-runner beans, and gave him a chair in full view of the neighbours.

"I'm the only visitor to-night?" said Hardy, after an hour's patient listening and waiting.

Mr. Wilks nodded casually. "Miss Kate came last night," he said. "Friday is her night, but she came yesterday instead."

Mr. Hardy said, "Oh, indeed," and fell straight-way into a dismal reverie from which the most spirited efforts of his host only partially aroused him.

Without giving way to undue egotism it was pretty clear that Miss Nugent had changed her plans on his account, and a long vista of pleasant Friday evenings suddenly vanished. He, too, resolved to vary his visits, and, starting with a basis of two a week, sat trying to solve the mathematical chances of selecting the same as Kate Nugent; calculations which were not facilitated by a long-winded account from Mr. Wilks of certain interesting amours of his youthful prime.

Before he saw Kate Nugent again, however, another old acquaintance turned up safe and sound in Sunwich. Captain Nugent walking into the town saw him first: a tall, well-knit young man in shabby clothing, whose bearing even in the distance was oddly familiar. As he came closer the captain's misgivings were confirmed, and in the sunburnt fellow in tattered clothes who advanced upon him with out-stretched hand he reluctantly recognized his son.

"What have you come home for?" he inquired, ignoring the hand and eyeing him from head to foot.

"Change," said Jack Nugent, laconically, as the smile left his face.

The captain shrugged his shoulders and stood silent. His son looked first up the road and then down.

"All well at home?" he inquired.

"Yes."

Jack Nugent looked up the road again.

"Not much change in the town," he said, at length.

"No," said his father.

"Well, I'm glad to have seen you," said his son. "Good-bye."

"Good-bye," said the captain.

His son nodded and, turning on his heel, walked back towards the town. Despite his forlorn appearance his step was jaunty and he carried his head high. The captain watched him until he was hidden by a bend in the road, and then, ashamed of himself for displaying so much emotion, turned his own steps in the direction of home.

"Well, he didn't whine," he said, slowly. "He's got a bit of pride left."

Meantime the prodigal had reached the town again, and stood ruefully considering his position.

He looked up the street, and then, the well-known shop of Mr. Kybird catching his eye, walked over and inspected the contents of the window. Sheath-knives, belts, tobacco-boxes, and watches were displayed alluringly behind the glass, sheltered from the sun by a row of cheap clothing dangling from short poles over the shop front. All the goods were marked in plain figures in reduced circumstances, Mr. Kybird giving a soaring imagination play in the first marking, and a good business faculty in the second.

At these valuables Jack Nugent, with a view of obtaining some idea of prices, gazed for some time. Then passing between two suits of oilskins which stood as sentinels in the doorway, he entered the shop and smiled affably at Miss Kybird, who was in charge. At his entrance she put down a piece of fancy-work, which Mr. Kybird called his sock, and with a casual glance at his clothes regarded him with a prejudiced eye.

"Beautiful day," said the customer; "makes one feel quite young again."

"What do you want?" inquired Miss Kybird.

Mr. Nugent turned to a broken cane-chair which stood by the counter, and, after applying severe tests, regardless of the lady's feelings, sat down upon it and gave a sigh of relief.

"I've walked from London," he said, in explanation. "I could sit here for hours."

"Look here----" began the indignant Miss Kybird.

"Only people would be sure to couple our names together," continued Mr. Nugent, mournfully.

"When a handsome young man and a good-looking girl----"

"Do you want to buy anything or not?" demanded Miss Kybird, with an impatient toss of her head.

"No," said Jack, "I want to sell."

"You've come to the wrong shop, then," said Miss Kybird; "the warehouse is full of rubbish now."

The other turned in his chair and looked hard at the window. "So it is," he assented. "It's a good job I've brought you something decent to put there."

He felt in his pockets and, producing a silver-mounted briar-pipe, a battered watch, a knife, and a few other small articles, deposited them with reverent care upon the counter.

"No use to us," declared Miss Kybird, anxious to hit back; "we burn coal here."

"These'll burn better than the coal you buy," said the unmoved customer.

"Well, we don't want them," retorted Miss Kybird, raising her voice, "and I don't want any of your impudence. Get up out of our chair."

Her heightened tones penetrated to the small and untidy room behind the shop. The door opened, and Mr. Kybird in his shirt-sleeves appeared at the opening.

"Wot's the row?" he demanded, his little black eyes glancing from one to the other.

"Only a lovers' quarrel," replied Jack. "You go away; we don't want you."

"Look 'ere, we don't want none o' your nonsense," said the shopkeeper, sharply; "and, wot's more, we won't 'ave it. Who put that rubbish on my counter?"

He bustled forward, and taking the articles in his hands examined them closely.

"Three shillings for the lot--cash," he remarked. "Done," said the other.

"Did I say three?" inquired Mr. Kybird, startled at this ready acceptance.

"Five you said," replied Mr. Nugent, "but I'll take three, if you throw in a smile."

Mr. Kybird, much against his inclinations, threw in a faint grin, and opening a drawer produced three shillings and flung them separately on the counter. Miss Kybird thawed somewhat, and glancing from the customer's clothes to his face saw that he had a pleasant eye and a good moustache, together with a general air of recklessness much appreciated by the sex.

"Don't spend it on drink," she remarked, not unkindly.

"I won't," said the other, solemnly; "I'm going to buy house property with it."

"Why, darn my eyes," said Mr. Kybird, who had been regarding him closely; "darn my old eyes, if it ain't young Nugent. Well, well!"

"That's me," said young Nugent, cheerfully; "I should have known you anywhere, Kybird: same old face, same old voice, same old shirt-sleeves."

"'Ere, come now," objected the shopkeeper, shortening his arm and squinting along it.

"I should have known you anywhere," continued the other, mournfully; "and here I've thrown up a splendid berth and come all the way from Australia just for one glimpse of Miss Kybird, and she doesn't know me. When I die, Kybird, you will find the word 'Calais' engraven upon my heart."

Mr. Kybird said, "Oh, indeed." His daughter tossed her head and bade Mr. Nugent take his nonsense to people who might like it.

"Last time I see you," said Mr. Kybird, pursing up his lips and gazing at the counter in an effort of memory; "last time I see you was one fifth o' November when you an' another bright young party was going about in two suits o' oilskins wot I'd been 'unting for 'igh and low all day long."

Jack Nugent sighed. "They were happy times, Kybird."

"Might ha' been for you," retorted the other, his temper rising a little at the remembrance of his wrongs.

"Have you come home for good? inquired Miss Kybird, curiously. Have you seen your father? He passed here a little while ago."

"I saw him," said Jack, with a brevity which was not lost upon the astute Mr. Kybird. "I may stay in Sunwich, and I may not--it all depends."

"You're not going 'ome?" said Mr. Kybird.

"No."

The shopkeeper stood considering. He had a small room to let at the top of his house, and he stood divided between the fear of not getting his rent and the joy to a man fond of simple pleasures, to be obtained by dunning the arrogant Captain Nugent for his son's debts. Before he could arrive at a decision his meditations were interrupted by the entrance of a stout, sandy-haired lady from the back parlour, who, having conquered his scruples against matrimony some thirty years before, had kept a particularly wide-awake eye upon him ever since.

"Your tea's a-gettin' cold," she remarked, severely.

Her husband received the news with calmness. He was by no means an enthusiast where that liquid was concerned, the admiration evoked by its non-inebriating qualities having been always something in the nature of a mystery to him.

"I'm coming," he retorted; "I'm just 'aving a word with Mr. Nugent 'ere."

"Well, I never did," said the stout lady, coming farther into the shop and regarding the visitor. "I shouldn't 'ave knowed 'im. If you'd asked me who 'e was I couldn't ha' told you--I shouldn't 'ave knowed 'im from Adam."

Jack shook his head. "It's hard to be forgotten like this," he said, sadly. "Even Miss Kybird had forgotten me, after all that had passed between us."

"Eh?" said Mr. Kybird.

"Oh, don't take any notice of him," said his daughter. "I'd like to see myself."

Mr. Kybird paid no heed. He was still thinking of the son of Captain Nugent being indebted to him for lodging, and the more he thought of the idea the better he liked it.

"Well, now you're 'ere," he said, with a great assumption of cordiality, "why not come in and 'ave a cup o' tea?"

The other hesitated a moment and then, with a light laugh, accepted the offer. He followed them into the small and untidy back parlour, and being requested by his hostess to squeeze in next to 'Melia at the small round table, complied so literally with the order that that young lady complained bitterly of his encroachments.

"And where do you think of sleeping to-night?" inquired Mr. Kybird after his daughter had, to use her own expressive phrase, shown the guest "his place."

Mr. Nugent shook his head. "I shall get a lodging somewhere," he said, airily.

"There's a room upstairs as you might 'ave if you liked," said Mr. Kybird, slowly. "It's been let to a very respectable, clean young man for half a crown a week. Really it ought to be three shillings, but if you like to 'ave it at the old price, you can."

"Done with you," said the other.

"No doubt you'll soon get something to do," continued Mr. Kybird, more in answer to his wife's inquiring glances than anything else. "Half a crown every Saturday and the room's yours."

Mr. Nugent thanked him, and after making a tea which caused Mr. Kybird to congratulate himself upon the fact that he hadn't offered to board him, sat regaling Mrs. Kybird and daughter with a recital of his adventures in Australia, receiving in return a full and true account of Sunwich and its people up to date.

"There's no pride about 'im, that's what I like," said Mrs. Kybird to her lord and master as they sat alone after closing time over a glass of gin and water. "He's a nice young feller, but bisness is bisness, and s'pose you don't get your rent?"

"I shall get it sooner or later," said Mr. Kybird. "That stuck-up father of 'is 'll be in a fine way at 'im living here. That's wot I'm thinking of."

"I don't see why," said Mrs. Kybird, bridling. "Who's Captain Nugent, I should like to know? We're as good as what 'e is, if not better. And as for the gell, if she'd got 'all Amelia's looks she'd do."

"'Melia's a fine-looking gal," assented Mr. Kybird. "I wonder----"

He laid his pipe down on the table and stared at the mantelpiece. "He seems very struck with 'er," he concluded. "I see that directly."

"Not afore I did," said his wife, sharply.

"See it afore you come into the shop," said Mr. Kybird, triumphantly. "It 'ud be a strange thing to marry into that family, Emma."

"She's keeping company with young Teddy Silk," his wife reminded him, coldly; "and if she wasn't she could do better than a young man without a penny in 'is pocket. Pride's a fine thing, Dan'l, but you can't live on it."

"I know what I'm talking about," said Mr. Kybird, impatiently. "I know she's keeping company with Teddy as well as wot you do. Still, as far as money goes, young Nugent 'll be all right."

"'Ow?" inquired his wife.

Mr. Kybird hesitated and took a sip of his gin and water. Then he regarded the wife of his bosom with a calculating glance which at once excited that lady's easily kindled wrath.

"You know I never tell secrets," she cried.

"Not often," corrected Mr. Kybird, "but then I don't often tell you any. Wot would you say to young Nugent coming into five 'undred pounds 'is mother left 'im when he's twenty-five? He don't know it, but I do."

"Five 'undred," repeated his wife, "sure?"

"No," said the other, "I'm not sure, but I know. I 'ad it from young Roberts when 'e was at Stone and Dartnell's. Five 'undred pounds! I shall get my money all right some time, and, if 'e wants a little bit to go on with, 'e can have it. He's honest enough; I can see that by his manner."

Upstairs in the tiny room under the tiles Mr. Jack Nugent, in blissful ignorance of his landlord's generous sentiments towards him, slept the sound, dreamless sleep of the man free from monetary cares. In the sanctity of her chamber Miss Kybird, gazing approvingly at the reflection of her yellow hair and fine eyes in the little cracked looking-glass, was already comparing him very favourably with the somewhat pessimistic Mr. Silk.