At Sunwich Port by W.W. Jacobs
Mr. Nugent's return caused a sensation in several quarters, the feeling at Equator Lodge bordering close upon open mutiny. Even Mrs. Kingdom plucked up spirit and read the astonished captain a homily upon the first duties of a parent--a homily which she backed up by reading the story of the Prodigal Son through to the bitter end. At the conclusion she broke down entirely and was led up to bed by Kate and Bella, the sympathy of the latter taking an acute form, and consisting mainly of innuendoes which could only refer to one person in the house.
Kate Nugent, who was not prone to tears, took a different line, but with no better success. The captain declined to discuss the subject, and, after listening to a description of himself in which Nero and other celebrities figured for the purpose of having their characters whitewashed, took up his hat and went out.
Jem Hardy heard of the new arrival from his partner, and, ignoring that gentleman's urgent advice to make hay while the sun shone and take Master Nugent for a walk forthwith sat thoughtfully considering how to turn the affair to the best advantage. A slight outbreak of diphtheria at Fullalove Alley had, for a time, closed that thoroughfare to Miss Nugent, and he was inclined to regard the opportune arrival of her brother as an effort of Providence on his behalf.
For some days, however, he looked for Jack Nugent in vain, that gentleman either being out of doors engaged in an earnest search for work, or snugly seated in the back parlour of the Kybirds, indulging in the somewhat perilous pastime of paying compliments to Amelia Kybird. Remittances which had reached him from his sister and aunt had been promptly returned, and he was indebted to the amiable Mr. Kybird for the bare necessaries of life. In these circumstances a warm feeling of gratitude towards the family closed his eyes to their obvious shortcomings.
He even obtained work down at the harbour through a friend of Mr. Kybird's. It was not of a very exalted nature, and caused more strain upon the back than the intellect, but seven years of roughing it had left him singularly free from caste prejudices, a freedom which he soon discovered was not shared by his old acquaintances at Sunwich. The discovery made him somewhat bitter, and when Hardy stopped him one afternoon as he was on his way home from work he tried to ignore his outstretched hand and continued on his way.
"It is a long time since we met," said Hardy, placing himself in front of him.
"Good heavens," said Jack, regarding him closely, "it's Jemmy Hardy-- grown up spick and span like the industrious little boys in the school-books. I heard you were back here."
"I came back just before you did," said Hardy. "Brass band playing you in and all that sort of thing, I suppose," said the other. "Alas, how the wicked prosper--and you were wicked. Do you remember how you used to knock me about?"
"Come round to my place and have a chat," said Hardy.
Jack shook his head. "They're expecting me in to tea," he said, with a nod in the direction of Mr. Kybird's, "and honest waterside labourers who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow--when the foreman is looking --do not frequent the society of the upper classes."
"Don't be a fool," said Hardy, politely.
"Well, I'm not very tidy," retorted Mr. Nugent, glancing at his clothes. "I don't mind it myself; I'm a philosopher, and nothing hurts me so long as I have enough to eat and drink; but I don't inflict myself on my friends, and I must say most of them meet me more than half-way."
"Imagination," said Hardy.
"All except Kate and my aunt," said Jack, firmly. "Poor Kate; I tried to cut her the other day."
"Cut her?" echoed Hardy.
Nugent nodded. "To save her feelings," he replied; "but she wouldn't be cut, bless her, and on the distinct understanding that it wasn't to form a precedent, I let her kiss me behind a waggon. Do you know, I fancy she's grown up rather good-looking, Jem?"
"You are observant," said Mr. Hardy, admiringly.
"Of course, it may be my partiality," said Mr. Nugent, with judicial fairness. "I was always a bit fond of Kate. I don't suppose anybody else would see anything in her. Where are you living now?"
"Fort Road," said Hardy; "come round any evening you can, if you won't come now."
Nugent promised, and, catching sight of Miss Kybird standing in the doorway of the shop, bade him good-bye and crossed the road. It was becoming quite a regular thing for her to wait and have her tea with him now, an arrangement which was provocative of many sly remarks on the part of Mrs. Kybird.
"Thought you were never coming," said Miss Kybird, tartly, as she led the way to the back room and took her seat at the untidy tea-tray.
"And you've been crying your eyes out, I suppose," remarked Mr. Nugent, as he groped in the depths of a tall jar for black-currant jam. "Well, you're not the first, and I don't suppose you'll be the last. How's Teddy?"
"Get your tea," retorted Miss Kybird, "and don't make that scraping noise on the bottom of the jar with your knife. It puts my teeth on edge."
"So it does mine," said Mr. Nugent, "but there's a black currant down there, and I mean to have it. 'Waste not, want not.'"
"Make him put that knife down," said Miss Kybird, as her mother entered the room. Mrs. Kybird shook her head at him. "You two are always quarrelling," she said, archly, "just like a couple of--couple of----"
"Love-birds," suggested Mr. Nugent.
Mrs. Kybird in great glee squeezed round to him and smote him playfully with her large, fat hand, and then, being somewhat out of breath with the exertion, sat down to enjoy the jest in comfort.
"That's how you encourage him," said her daughter; "no wonder he doesn't behave. No wonder he acts as if the whole place belongs to him."
The remark was certainly descriptive of Mr. Nugent's behaviour. His easy assurance and affability had already made him a prime favourite with Mrs. Kybird, and had not been without its effect upon her daughter. The constrained and severe company manners of Mr. Edward Silk showed up but poorly beside those of the paying guest, and Miss Kybird had on several occasions drawn comparisons which would have rendered both gentlemen uneasy if they had known of them.
Mr. Nugent carried the same easy good-fellowship with him the following week when, neatly attired in a second-hand suit from Mr. Kybird's extensive stock, he paid a visit to Jem Hardy to talk over old times and discuss the future.
"You ought to make friends with your father," said the latter; "it only wants a little common sense and mutual forbearance."
"That's all," said Nugent; "sounds easy enough, doesn't it? No, all he wants is for me to clear out of Sunwich, and I'm not going to--until it pleases me, at any rate. It's poison to him for me to be living at the Kybirds' and pushing a trolley down on the quay. Talk about love sweetening toil, that does."
Hardy changed the subject, and Nugent, nothing loath, discoursed on his wanderings and took him on a personally conducted tour through the continent of Australia. "And I've come back to lay my bones in Sunwich Churchyard," he concluded, pathetically; "that is, when I've done with 'em."
"A lot of things'll happen before then," said Hardy.
"I hope so," rejoined Mr. Nugent, piously; "my desire is to be buried by my weeping great-grandchildren. In fact, I've left instructions to that effect in my will--all I have left, by the way."
"You're not going to keep on at this water-side work, I suppose?" said Hardy, making another effort to give the conversation a serious turn.
"The foreman doesn't think so," replied the other, as he helped himself to some whisky; "he has made several remarks to that effect lately."
He leaned back in his chair and smoked thoughtfully, by no means insensible to the comfort of his surroundings. He had not been in such comfortable quarters since he left home seven years before. He thought of the untidy litter of the Kybirds' back parlour, with the forlorn view of the yard in the rear. Something of his reflections he confided to Hardy as he rose to leave.
"But my market value is about a pound a week," he concluded, ruefully, "so I must cut my coat to suit my cloth. Good-night."
He walked home somewhat soberly at first, but the air was cool and fresh and a glorious moon was riding in the sky. He whistled cheerfully, and his spirits rose as various chimerical plans of making money occurred to him. By the time he reached the High Street, the shops of which were all closed for the night, he was earning five hundred a year and spending a thousand. He turned the handle of the door and, walking in, discovered Miss Kybird entertaining company in the person of Mr. Edward Silk.
"Halloa," he said, airily, as he took a seat. "Don't mind me, young people. Go on just as you would if I were not here."
Mr. Edward Silk grumbled something under his breath; Miss Kybird, turning to the intruder with a smile of welcome, remarked that she had just thought of going to sleep.
"Going to sleep?" repeated Mr. Silk, thunder-struck.
"Yes," said Miss Kybird, yawning.
Mr. Silk gazed at her, open-mouthed. "What, with me 'ere?" he inquired, in trembling tones.
"You're not very lively company," said Miss Kybird, bending over her sewing. "I don't think you've spoken a word for the last quarter of an hour, and before that you were talking of death-warnings. Made my flesh creep, you did."
"Shame!" said Mr. Nugent.
"You didn't say anything to me about your flesh creeping," muttered Mr. Silk.
"You ought to have seen it creep," interposed Mr. Nugent, severely.
"I'm not talking to you," said Mr. Silk, turning on him; "when I want the favour of remarks from you I'll let you know."
"Don't you talk to my gentlemen friends like that, Teddy," said Miss Kybird, sharply, "because I won't have it. Why don't you try and be bright and cheerful like Mr. Nugent?"
Mr. Silk turned and regarded that gentleman steadfastly; Mr. Nugent meeting his gaze with a pleasant smile and a low-voiced offer to give him lessons at half a crown an hour.
"I wouldn't be like 'im for worlds," said Mr. Silk, with a scornful laugh. "I'd sooner be like anybody."
"What have you been saying to him?" inquired Nugent.
"Nothing," replied Miss Kybird; "he's often like that. He's got a nasty, miserable, jealous disposition. Not that I mind what he thinks."
Mr. Silk breathed hard and looked from one to the other.
"Perhaps he'll grow out of it," said Nugent, hopefully. "Cheer up, Teddy. You're young yet."
"Might I arsk," said the solemnly enraged Mr. Silk, "might I arsk you not to be so free with my Christian name?"
"He doesn't like his name now," said Nugent, drawing his chair closer to Miss Kybird's, "and I don't wonder at it. What shall we call him? Job? What's that work you're doing? Why don't you get on with that fancy waistcoat you are doing for me?"
Before Miss Kybird could deny all knowledge of the article in question her sorely tried swain created a diversion by rising. To that simple act he imparted an emphasis which commanded the attention of both beholders, and, drawing over to Miss Kybird, he stood over her in an attitude at once terrifying and reproachful.
"Take your choice, Amelia," he said, in a thrilling voice. "Me or 'im-- which is it to be?"
"Here, steady, old man," cried the startled Nugent. "Go easy."
"Me or 'im?" repeated Mr. Silk, in stern but broken accents.
Miss Kybird giggled and, avoiding his gaze, looked pensively at the faded hearthrug.
"You're making her blush," said Mr. Nugent, sternly. "Sit down, Teddy; I'm ashamed of you. We're both ashamed of you. You're confusing us dreadfully proposing to us both in this way."
Mr. Silk regarded him with a scornful eye, but Miss Kybird, bidding him not to be foolish, punctuated her remarks with the needle, and a struggle, which Mr. Silk regarded as unseemly in the highest degree, took place between them for its possession.
Mr. Nugent secured it at last, and brandishing it fiercely extorted feminine screams from Miss Kybird by threatening her with it. Nor was her mind relieved until Mr. Nugent, remarking that he would put it back in the pincushion, placed it in the leg of Mr. Edward Silk.
Mr. Kybird and his wife, entering through the shop, were just in time to witness a spirited performance on the part of Mr. Silk, the cherished purpose of which was to deprive them of a lodger. He drew back as they entered and, raising his voice above Miss Kybird's, began to explain his action.
"Teddy, I'm ashamed of you," said Mr. Kybird, shaking his head. "A little joke like that; a little innercent joke."
"If it 'ad been a darning-needle now--" began Mrs. Kybird.
"All right," said the desperate Mr. Silk, "'ave it your own way. Let 'Melia marry 'im--I don't care---I give 'er up."
"Teddy!" said Mr. Kybird, in a shocked voice. "Teddy!"
Mr. Silk thrust him fiercely to one side and passed raging through the shop. The sound of articles falling in all directions attested to his blind haste, and the force with which he slammed the shop-door was sufficient evidence of his state of mind.
"Well, upon my word," said the staring Mr. Kybird; "of all the outrageyous--"
"Never mind 'im," said his wife, who was sitting in the easy chair, distributing affectionate smiles between her daughter and the startled Mr. Nugent. "Make 'er happy, Jack, that's all I arsk. She's been a good gal, and she'll make a good wife. I've seen how it was between you for some time."
"So 'ave I," said Mr. Kybird. He shook hands warmly with Mr. Nugent, and, patting that perturbed man on the back, surveyed him with eyes glistening with approval.
"It's a bit rough on Teddy, isn't it?" inquired Mr. Nugent, anxiously; "besides--"
"Don't you worry about 'im," said Mr. Kybird, affectionately. "He ain't worth it."
"I wasn't," said Mr. Nugent, truthfully. The situation had developed so rapidly that it had caught him at a disadvantage. He had a dim feeling that, having been the cause of Miss Kybird's losing one young man, the most elementary notions of chivalry demanded that he should furnish her with another. And this idea was clearly uppermost in the minds of her parents. He looked over at Amelia and with characteristic philosophy accepted the position.
"We shall be the handsomest couple in Sunwich," he said, simply.
"Bar none," said Mr. Kybird, emphatically.
The stout lady in the chair gazed ax the couple fondly. "It reminds me of our wedding," she said, softly. "What was it Tom Fletcher said, father? Can you remember?"
"'Arry Smith, you mean," corrected Mr. Kybird.
"Tom Fletcher said something, I'm sure," persisted his wife.
"He did," said Mr. Kybird, grimly, "and I pretty near broke 'is 'ead for it. 'Arry Smith is the one you're thinking of."
Mrs. Kybird after a moment's reflection admitted that he was right, and, the chain of memory being touched, waxed discursive about her own wedding and the somewhat exciting details which accompanied it. After which she produced a bottle labelled "Port wine" from the cupboard, and, filling four glasses, celebrated the occasion in a befitting but sober fashion.
"This," said Mr. Nugent, as he sat on his bed that night to take his boots off, "this is what comes of trying to make everybody happy and comfortable with a little fun. I wonder what the governor'll say."