Chapter IX
 

The news of his only son's engagement took Captain Nugent's breath away, which, all things considered, was perhaps the best thing it could have done. He sat at home in silent rage, only exploding when the well-meaning Mrs. Kingdom sought to minimize his troubles by comparing them with those of Job. Her reminder that to the best of her remembrance he had never had a boil in his life put the finishing touch to his patience, and, despairing of drawing-room synonyms for the words which trembled on his lips, he beat a precipitate retreat to the garden.

His son bore his new honours bravely. To an appealing and indignant letter from his sister he wrote gravely, reminding her of the difference in their years, and also that he had never interfered in her flirtations, however sorely his brotherly heart might have been wrung by them. He urged her to forsake such diversions for the future, and to look for an alliance with some noble, open-handed man with a large banking account and a fondness for his wife's relatives.

To Jem Hardy, who ventured on a delicate re-monstrance one evening, he was less patient, and displayed a newly acquired dignity which was a source of considerable embarrassment to that well-meaning gentleman. He even got up to search for his hat, and was only induced to resume his seat by the physical exertions of his host.

"I didn't mean to be offensive," said the latter. "But you were," said the aggrieved man. Hardy apologized.

"Talk of that kind is a slight to my future wife," said Nugent, firmly. "Besides, what business is it of yours?"

Hardy regarded him thoughtfully. It was some time since he had seen Miss Nugent, and he felt that he was losing valuable time. He had hoped great things from the advent of her brother, and now his intimacy seemed worse than useless. He resolved to take him into his confidence.

"I spoke from selfish motives," he said, at last. I wanted you to make friends with your father again."

"What for?" inquired the other, staring.

"To pave the way for me," said Hardy, raising his voice as he thought of his wrongs; "and now, owing to your confounded matrimonial business, that's all knocked on the head. I wouldn't care whom you married if it didn't interfere with my affairs so."

"Do you mean," inquired the astonished Mr. Nugent, "that you want to be on friendly terms with my father?"

"Yes."

Mr. Nugent gazed at him round-eyed. "You haven't had a blow on the head or anything of that sort at any time, have you?" he inquired.

Hardy shook his head impatiently. "You don't seem to suffer from an excess of intellect yourself," he retorted. "I don't want to be offensive again, still, I should think it is pretty plain there is only one reason why I should go out of my way to seek the society of your father."

"Say what you like about my intellect," replied the dutiful son, "but I can't think of even one--not even a small one. Not--Good gracious! You don't mean--you can't mean--"

Hardy looked at him.

"Not that," said Mr. Nugent, whose intellect had suddenly become painfully acute--"not her?"

"Why not?" inquired the other.

Mr. Nugent leaned back in his chair and regarded him with an air of kindly interest. "Well, there's no need for you to worry about my father for that," he said; "he would raise no objection."

"Eh?" said Hardy, starting up from his chair.

"He would welcome it," said Mr. Nugent, positively. "There is nothing that he would like better; and I don't mind telling you a secret--she likes you."

Hardy reddened. "How do you know?" he stammered.

"I know it for a fact," said the other, impressively. "I have heard her say so. But you've been very plain-spoken about me, Jem, so that I shall say what I think."

"Do," said his bewildered friend.

"I think you'd be throwing yourself away," said Nugent; "to my mind it's a most unsuitable match in every way. She's got no money, no looks, no style. Nothing but a good kind heart rather the worse for wear. I suppose you know she's been married once?"

"What!" shouted the other. "Married?"

Mr. Nugent nodded. His face was perfectly grave, but the joke was beginning to prey upon his vitals in a manner which brooked no delay.

"I thought everybody knew it," he said. "We have never disguised the fact. Her husband died twenty years ago last----"

"Twenty" said his suddenly enlightened listener. "Who?--What?"

Mr. Nugent, incapable of reply, put his head on the table and beat the air frantically with his hand, while gasping sobs rent his tortured frame.

"Dear--aunt," he choked, "how pleas--pleased she'd be if--she knew. Don't look like that, Hardy. You'll kill me."

"You seem amused," said Hardy, between his teeth.

"And you'll be Kate's uncle," said Mr. Nugent, sitting up and wiping his eyes. "Poor little Kate."

He put his head on the table again. "And mine," he wailed. "Uncle jemmy!--will you tip us half-crowns, nunky?"

Mr. Hardy's expression of lofty scorn only served to retard his recovery, but he sat up at last and, giving his eyes a final wipe, beamed kindly upon his victim.

"Well, I'll do what I can for you," he observed, "but I suppose you know Kate's off for a three months' visit to London to-morrow?"

The other observed that he didn't know it, and, taught by his recent experience, eyed him suspiciously.

"It's quite true," said Nugent; "she's going to stay with some relatives of ours. She used to be very fond of one of the boys--her cousin Herbert--so you mustn't be surprised if she comes back engaged. But I daresay you'll have forgotten all about her in three months. And, anyway, I don't suppose she'd look at you if you were the last man in the world. If you'll walk part of the way home with me I'll regale you with anecdotes of her chilhood which will probably cause you to change your views altogether."

In Fullalove Alley Mr. Edward Silk, his forebodings fulfilled, received the news of Amelia Kybird's faithlessness in a spirit of' quiet despair, and turned a deaf ear to the voluble sympathy of his neighbours. Similar things had happened to young men living there before, but their behaviour had been widely different to Mr. Silk's. Bob Crump, for instance, had been jilted on the very morning he had arranged for his wedding, but instead of going about in a state of gentle melancholy he went round and fought his beloved's father--merely because it was her father--and wound up an exciting day by selling off his household goods to the highest bidders. Henry Jones in similar circumstances relieved his great grief by walking up and down the alley smashing every window within reach of his stick.

But these were men of spirit; Mr. Silk was cast in a different mould, and his fair neighbours sympathized heartily with him in his bereavement, while utterly failing to understand any man breaking his heart over Amelia Kybird.

His mother, a widow of uncertain age, shook her head over him and hinted darkly at consumption, an idea which was very pleasing to her son, and gave him an increased interest in a slight cold from which he was suffering.

"He wants taking out of 'imself," said Mr. Wilks, who had stepped across the alley to discuss the subject with his neighbour; "cheerful society and 'obbies--that's what 'e wants."

"He's got a faithful 'eart," sighed Mrs. Silk. "It's in the family; 'e can't 'elp it."

"But 'e might be lifted out of it," urged Mr. Wilks. "I 'ad several disappointments in my young days. One time I 'ad a fresh gal every v'y'ge a'most."

Mrs. Silk sniffed and looked up the alley, whereat two neighbours who happened to be at their doors glanced up and down casually, and retreated inside to continue their vigil from the windows.

"Silk courted me for fifteen years before I would say 'yes,'" she said, severely.

"Fifteen years!" responded the other. He cast his eyes upwards and his lips twitched. The most casual observer could have seen that he was engaged in calculations of an abstruse and elusive nature.

"I was on'y seven when 'e started," said Mrs. Silk, sharply.

Mr. Wilks brought his eyes to a level again. "Oh, seven," he remarked.

"And we was married two days before my nineteenth birthday," added Mrs. Silk, whose own arithmetic had always been her weak point.

"Just so," said Mr. Wilks. He glanced at the sharp white face and shapeless figure before him. "It's hard to believe you can 'ave a son Teddy's age," he added, gallantly.

"It makes you feel as if you're getting on," said the widow.

The ex-steward agreed, and after standing a minute or two in silence made a preliminary motion of withdrawal.

"Beautiful your plants are looking," said Mrs. Silk, glancing over at his window; "I can't think what you do to 'em."

The gratified Mr. Wilks began to explain. It appeared that plants wanted almost as much looking after as daughters.

"I should like to see 'em close," said Mrs. Silk. "Come in and 'ave a look at 'em," responded her neighbour.

Mrs. Silk hesitated and displayed a maidenly coyness far in excess of the needs of the situation. Then she stepped across, and five seconds later the two matrons, with consternation writ large upon their faces, appeared at their doors again and, exchanging glances across the alley, met in the centre.

They were more surprised an evening or two later to see Mr. Wilks leave his house to pay a return visit, bearing in his hand a small bunch of his cherished blooms. That they were blooms which would have paid the debt of Nature in a few hours at most in no way detracted from the widow's expressions of pleasure at receiving them, and Mr. Wilks, who had been invited over to cheer up Mr. Silk, who was in a particularly black mood, sat and smiled like a detected philanthropist as she placed them in water.

"Good evenin', Teddy," he said, breezily, with a side-glance at his hostess. "What a lovely day we've 'ad."

"So bright," said Mrs. Silk, nodding with spirit.

Mr. Wilks sat down and gave vent to such a cheerful laugh that the ornaments on the mantelpiece shook with it. "It's good to be alive," he declared.

"Ah, you enjoy your life, Mr. Wilks," said the widow.

"Enjoy it!" roared Mr. Wilks; "enjoy it! Why shouldn't I? Why shouldn't everybody enjoy their lives? It was what they was given to us for."

"So they was," affirmed Mrs. Silk; "nobody can deny that; not if they try."

"Nobody wants to deny it, ma'am," retorted Mr. Wilks, in the high voice he kept for cheering-up purposes. "I enjoy every day o' my life."

He filled his pipe, chuckling serenely, and having lit it sat and enjoyed that. Mrs. Silk retired for a space, and returning with a jug of ale poured him out a glass and set it by his elbow.

"Here's your good 'ealth, ma'am," said Mr. Wilks, raising it. "Here's yours, Teddy--a long life and a 'appy one."

Mr. Silk turned listlessly. "I don't want a long life," he remarked.

His mother and her visitor exchanged glances.

"That's 'ow 'e goes on," remarked the former, in an audible whisper. Mr. Wilks nodded, reassuringly.

"I 'ad them ideas once," he said, "but they go off. If you could only live to see Teddy at the age o' ninety-five, 'e wouldn't want to go then. 'E'd say it was crool hard, being cut off in the flower of 'is youth."

Mrs. Silk laughed gaily and Mr. Wilks bellowed a gruff accompaniment. Mr. Edward Silk eyed them pityingly.

"That's the 'ardship of it," he said, slowly, as he looked round from his seat by the fireplace; "that's where the 'ollowness of things comes in. That's where I envy Mr. Wilks."

"Envy me?" said the smiling visitor; "what for?"

"Because you're so near the grave," said Mr. Silk.

Mr. Wilks, who was taking another draught of beer, put the glass down and eyed him fixedly.

"That's why I envy you," continued the other.

"I don't want to live, and you do, and yet I dessay I shall be walking about forty and fifty years after you're dead and forgotten."

"Wot d'ye mean--near the grave?" inquired

Mr. Wilks, somewhat shortly.

"I was referring to your age," replied the other; "it's strange to see 'ow the aged 'ang on to life. You can't 'ave much pleasure at your time o' life. And you're all alone; the last withered branch left."

"Withered branch!" began Mr. Wilks; "'ere, look 'ere, Teddy----"

"All the others 'ave gone," pursued Mr. Silk, and they're beckoning to you."

"Let 'em beckon," said Mr. Wilks, coldly. "I'm not going yet."

"You're not young," said Mr. Silk, gazing meditatively at the grate, "and I envy you that. It can only be a matter of a year or two at most before you are sleeping your last long sleep."

"Teddy!" protested Mrs. Silk.

"It's true, mother," said the melancholy youth. "Mr. Wilks is old. Why should 'e mind being told of it? If 'e had 'ad the trouble I've 'ad 'e'd be glad to go. But he'll 'ave to go, whether 'e likes it or not. It might be to-night. Who can tell?"

Mr. Wilks, unasked, poured himself out another glass of ale, and drank it off with the air of a man who intended to make sure of that. It seemed a trifle more flat than the last.

"So many men o' your age and thereabouts," continued Mr. Silk, "think that they're going to live on to eighty or ninety, but there's very few of 'em do. It's only a short while, Mr. Wilks, and the little children'll be running about over your grave and picking daisies off of it."

"Ho, will they?" said the irritated Mr. Wilks; "they'd better not let me catch 'em at it, that's all."

"He's always talking like that now," said Mrs. Silk, not without a certain pride in her tones; "that's why I asked you in to cheer 'im up."

"All your troubles'll be over then," continued the warning voice, "and in a month or two even your name'll be forgotten. That's the way of the world. Think 'ow soon the last five years of your life 'ave passed; the next five'll pass ten times as fast even if you live as long, which ain't likely."

"He talks like a clergyman," said Mrs. Silk, in a stage whisper.

Mr. Wilks nodded, and despite his hostess's protests rose to go. He shook hands with her and, after a short but sharp inward struggle, shook hands with her son. It was late in the evening as he left, but the houses had not yet been lit up. Dim figures sat in doorways or stood about the alley, and there was an air of peace and rest strangely and uncomfortably in keeping with the conversation to which he had just been listening. He looked in at his own door; the furniture seemed stiffer than usual and the tick of the clock more deliberate. He closed the door again and, taking a deep breath, set off towards the life and bustle of the Two Schooners.