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Two Old Fogies by Ada Cambridge

 

CHAPTER I

"Tuesday next being Prince of Wales' birth—being—er—er—the Feast of All Saints, there will be Divine Service in this church at seven o'clock in the evening." Anna Paine was sitting in the choir, nearly fronting her father, when he gave out this notice. She looked at him with steely eyes that transfixed him like daggers. The girls beside her tittered; the men behind her nudged each other, and whispered, and fluttered leaves of music noisily. A smile rippled over the faces in the body of the church. One decorous maiden lady in a front pew hung her head and blushed.

"Certainly," thought Anna Paine, "he is falling into his second childhood. Last Sunday he gave out the wrong hymn, and the Sunday before he put his hood on inside out. Nothing but the infirmities of age can explain this increasing absent-mindedness."

She totted up his sum of years, and saw that he was indeed growing an old man—fifty-five next birthday.

The lady who had blushed and not laughed at the parson's blunder—she also was quite an old woman, forty at the least—emerged upon the footpath after service in company with a youthful niece and nephew. They dawdled as they walked, for the brother of the lady and father of the girl and boy was counting the offertory in the vestry, and it was their habit to wait for him. It had been their habit since the boy came home. The boy, by the way, was a smart, moustached young man, taking a little holiday between his labours at the University, which were over, and the labours of his profession, which were yet to come. But, of course, he was a boy to his aunt, just as she was an old maid to him.

He pounced upon Anna Paine as she was sedately walking towards the parsonage. Her severe young face, full of trouble and responsibility about her aged and erring father, melted into smiles.

"Oh, is it you?" she cried, as if she had not been lingering on purpose to let him catch her up. "Good-morning."

"Good-morning, Miss Paine. Oh, I say, did you hear what your father said when he gave out the notice? Prince of Wales' birthday, by Jove! You should have seen aunt's face. I nearly had a fit. Now, if it had been me—! I've done nothing but think of Prince of Wales' birthday ever since he asked me to come and see the fireworks from the church tower."

"What?" cried Anna.

"Don't you know? He said we shouldn't want to be in the crush of the street, and that we could see everything from the tower beautifully; and he proposed that we should all go up and spend the evening there. I think it's the jolliest idea, don't you? Didn't he tell you he had asked us?"

"Not a word," said Anna. "He is getting dreadfully forgetful. I am really afraid that he is losing his faculties a little—that his memory is going—"

"I daresay. But don't you think it a delightful way of seeing the fireworks? I believe he did ask us to tea; but, of course, he had no business to do that without speaking to you."

"Oh, do come; come to tea, of course—all of you. We shall be delighted."

"Thanks—thanks; it's too good of you. My father never goes out to tea, as you know; but poor old aunt will be charmed, and Eve too."

"I ought to go and speak to your aunt."

"You needn't. She's got Toby."

They glanced back towards the church, and laughed to see aunt staggering in the embraces of the parsonage dog, a mongrel collie, strong and ardent enough to knock the little woman down.

"How can she let him?" exclaimed Anna, who permitted no such liberties herself. "He will tear that lace mantle to rags. I can't understand why he is so fond of her, can you?"

"Cupboard love. She's a soft-hearted old dear, and gives him cakes and bones when he comes to the house."

"Then no wonder he almost lives there."

"Is he too much away? She shall leave off encouraging him. I will tell her."

"You need not; I don't want him. I hate dogs about the place; they are so messy, especially in wet weather."

"I hope to goodness it won't be wet on the ninth."

"I hope not, indeed."

The treasurer came out from the vestry, with the morning's takings in his pocket, and his young daughter claimed him. Mr. Paine hurried to release aunt from Toby's loving persecutions.

"Down, sir! down this minute! How dare you, sir?"

He would have cuffed the collie had not aunt protected him.

"Do not scold him," pleaded she, looking at the tall grey man with the softest woman's eyes. "It is just pure affection, Mr. Paine, and we old folks don't get too much of that."

"I hope you don't call yourself old, Miss Ransome," said the parson earnestly.

"Oh, yes," she rejoined, with a fluttered laugh and blush; "a most ancient person."

"Then what must I be?" he inquired tragically.

She blushed a little more as she tried to make him believe that he was in the golden prime; and the young people—the real young people—came up.

"Well, Miss Ransome," said Mr. Paine, "I hope we are to have the pleasure of seeing you on Prince of Wales' birthday. By the way, what a stupid mistake I made this morning! Yes, my dear"—to Anna—"I know you are going to read me a lecture, but I assure you it was the purest accident. I can't think how I came to do it. So many things just now—Prince of Wales' birthday, Guy Fawkes, and so on—that I suppose I got confused amongst them. I wonder I did not say 'Guy Fawkes' Day,' with all the boys in the town coming to beg subscriptions for their bonfires and crackers."

"One does not," said Anna gravely, "connect things of that sort with the services of the Church. At least, I am glad you did not say, 'Tuesday next being Cup Day'—for it is Cup Day, more's the pity."

"I should hardly have made that mistake," said Mr. Paine, with dignity, "seeing how much I disapprove of racing and gambling—one of the curses of this country."

"Yes," murmured aunt, glancing at her nephew, who had sunk a pound of precious money in Tattersalls' Sweep.

"I should hope you disapprove of Guy Fawkes, too," said Anna. "Anything so absurd as to preserve a custom of that kind as a British institution, in a new country, and at this time of day! No wonder the Catholics are offended."

"But, my dear," said aunt gently, "no one thinks of its origin now. It is only kept up as an excuse for bonfires. Boys do so love bonfires!"

Aunt loved boys, and was kind to their little weaknesses; but Anna was for doing what was right and reasonable, regardless of human whims. "They should be taught better," said she. "It is ridiculous to give them a good education with one hand, and with the other to encourage them in a display of ignorance and bigotry that would disgrace the most uncivilized nation. Don't you think so, Mr. Ransome?"

She spoke to Mr. Ransome junior. Mr. Ransome senior had been dragged into the church tower by his daughter Eve, who desired to assure him that the ladders were safe.

"Certainly," said young Ransome, in his cheerful way. "But since bonfires are to be—it's idiotic, of course—but as they will be lit, in spite of us, wouldn't it be nice to go up the tower to look at them? I know of six at the least. They would look very pretty at night, burning on the hills."

He had, in fact, helped to build one of those six bonfires; he had given his oldest hat and trousers to the straw man who was to crown its apex—instigated by aunt.

"Saturday is your father's busy night," suggested aunt.

"But I could get forward," said Mr. Paine eagerly. "I could spare an hour or two."

"No need for that, sir; I'd look after them," said Alan Ransome, with an exulting look at Anna.

"Then suppose you all come round before it gets dark?"

This plan was agreed to, in addition to the plans for Prince of Wales' birthday; and then the party separated. Old Ransome (he, too, was over fifty), a bank manager of standing in the town, led the way home with his daughter, a bouncing girl of fifteen. Young Ransome followed, escorting his little aunt. He wanted to give her his arm, to aid her feeble steps; but the umbrella skirt of her Sunday gown required a hand to hold it up behind, and the other was occupied with her parasol and Prayer-Book. In the rear of the party Toby trotted stealthily, sniffing the beloved footsteps on the pavement. He always liked to see her safely home, even when his sense of duty to his own family prevented him from staying there with her.

It was the loveliest day, that 30th of October, and promised settled weather for the great events. Both aunt and nephew were thinking of this as they paced the street towards their dinner.

"It isn't often we have a really all-fine Cup Week," said Alan at last, "but I do think we are safe for it this time."

"Yes," said aunt, smiling at the intense blue sky. "I am so glad! I hate to think of poor holiday-makers having their pleasure spoiled."

She did not allude only to the racing folks, on whom the good Church people desire that rain should fall. Cup Day being a public holiday through the length and breadth of Victoria, and all the trains and steamboats running at excursion fares, the Y.M.C.A. and Sunday Schools innumerable disport themselves in pious games, and shopkeepers and postmen, with all representatives of industrious respectability, go a holiday-making in their best clothes as a social duty, and in a more thorough manner than at any other time of the year—even Christmas. And the sun must shine upon just and unjust together. Perhaps, however, aunt was not even alluding to these.

In the parsonage Mr. Paine sat down to his dinner, vis-à-vis with his daughter, who kept house for him so admirably. She was a very pretty girl, and looked charming in her new summer frock of pink zephyr and the neat apron she had put on to preserve it. No one would have guessed, from her appearance, how severe she could be. She caused her father to shake in his shoes at times like the present, when he knew he had failed in his duty as a clergyman and a rural dean. Anna, somehow, never failed in hers.

"What delightful weather!" remarked the parson, with affected light-heartedness, beginning to carve the cold lamb set before him. "The collection was double what we had last Sunday morning."

Anna turned the salad over thoughtfully.

"It is very unfortunate that Cup Day should fall on the first," she said. "I am afraid we shall have no congregation. I think, father, you ought to have said something about it in your sermon. How many will remember All Saints' Day when their heads are full of the winner and their gains and losses?"

"Perhaps I ought. But I will have a choir practice after service. That always brings a few. I will give it out to-night."

"I am afraid even the choir will not come on a Cup Night. But I will go and see some of them, and ask them to set an example. And, by the way, my dear father, do please write down your notices in future, and read them from the paper. Your memory is not as good as it used to be, and a mistake such as you made this morning is too, too dreadful. The whole church was giggling. All the young clergy will hear about it, and make fun of you. I dare say it will come to the bishop's ears."

"I know, my dear. I am extremely sorry. But we are all liable to blunder sometimes. I suppose I was thinking of your young friends coming to see the fireworks from the tower, or something of that sort."

"We might have thought of it," said Anna, "though not in church, I hope. But such things can't interest you."

Mr. Paine attacked his dinner resolutely. He was an old man, grey and bald, with lines in his thin, large-featured face; but his teeth and his appetite for food (amongst other things) were as good as hers. She lectured him throughout his meal, gently, but firmly. Then she made him a nice cup of tea, and sent him forth to his afternoon bush service with a great coat and comforter in the buggy; for she was a devoted child.

"My dear," he protested, "I don't want wraps this summer day."

"That is just where you careless people make a mistake," she replied calmly. "You think that one warm day, like one swallow, makes a summer. It may turn cold at any moment, and will when the sun goes down. It is very well for us young folks to run risks—though I never do it, for I think it is wrong—but not for people of your age. The first heat is worse for giving colds than winter weather."

So he drove off, with his wraps under the seat, accompanied by Toby, who had returned from his visit to aunt to join the expedition; and Miss Paine went to Sunday School. She was a terror at Sunday School. Of course I mean that she was a terror to misbehaving boys and girls. To the school itself she was foundation and coping stone; it never could have got along, not to say excelled in good management as it did, without her.

The first of November came. The first of November is All Saints' Day, and when it falls on a Tuesday it falls naturally on the first Tuesday of the month, and the first Tuesday of the month is Cup Day. The combination, as sadly anticipated, was fatal to the success of Mr. Paine's service. A morning week-day service never had a chance, save on Good Fridays and Christmas Days, but an evening one, especially with a choir practice tacked on to it, did sometimes come off, to flatter the poor parson that the church was still what it used to be in the good old times. On this occasion there was no congregation—only Anna and another; and the verger was furious at having to pull the bell on Cup Night. He rang for ten minutes instead of the regulation quarter of an hour, and then plunged into the street and was lost to sight and use. Mr. Paine waited dejectedly for the girls of the choir; was then commanded by Anna to read the prayers and give a short address, as a duty to the solitary parishioner who had been led to expect them, but who would gladly have let him off; he then put out the lights himself, and locked the western door. Before he left the vestry he wrote down in his sermon book that a service had been held, and had been poorly attended on account of rain. But it was not the rain that killed that service; it was the Cup. The great race had been run two hundred miles away, and the astonishing victory of Glenloth had been known for hours; but still the excitement of the event reverberated through the little town, and so absorbed the thoughts of nearly every man, woman and child in it that they never noticed the lighted windows of the church on the hill. The bell tinkled to deaf ears.

"I did think," said Mr. Paine, "that Miss Ransome would have come, if nobody else."

"Yes," said Anna, who was aggrieved because Alan had not brought his aunt—though, indeed, even she acknowledged that it was too much to expect of any young man who had not a pronouncedly pious bent. "She, at any rate, might have set an example."

Though it was with no idea of setting an example that she did it, aunt had duly prepared for church. To her it was a blessed privilege to sit under Mr. Paine, and the Cup was nothing; she did not even know that Glenloth had been last horse but one in the betting, until Alan told her at tea. But just as she was creeping downstairs in waterproof and goloshes, her niece intercepted her, and loudly forbade her to go out on such a night.

"The idea of your thinking of such a thing, with a cold already!" cried Eve. "You naughty old woman! I will not allow you to risk your precious health, so don't imagine it. Take off your things this minute."

"My dear, I am quite protected from the weather," pleaded aunt; "look at me!" She displayed her rubber-shod feet and the wings of her Russian cloak. "How can I take harm with these?"

Eve called her brother, who had just rushed in to give his father the latest news of sweep winnings, and she put the case to him.

"Look here, Alan! are we to let this old lady go out and catch her death of cold, just for the sake of making up a congregation for Mr. Paine?"

"Certainly not," said Alan. "Most decidedly not. If she doesn't know how to take care of herself better than that, we must teach her. A little woman, under seven stone, as thin as tissue paper, with a chest as delicate as I don't know what—I daresay we are going to let her get cold and catch her death, just to please Mr. Paine!"

"Dear boy," murmured the object of his solicitude with a hand on his arm, "to think so much of his old aunt! But I am well wrapped up, love, and I do so want to go!"

"You are not to go," he declared firmly.

And the end of it was that she took off her waterproof and goloshes, and sat down to listen to his story of the rainy Cup—rainier than in Assyrian's year—and the fortune that would have been his had he drawn Glenloth in Tattersall's. She made a bad listener, which was not often the case. The sound of the church bell, faint and thin in the distance, distracted her.

CHAPTER II

This was the first disappointment. And the sad Cup Day, taking its colour from the general aspect of public affairs, seemed to have set the key for all the November holidays. On the fifth it rained again, and harder than before. There should have been an eclipse of the moon on Friday night, and the astronomers had their turn of frustrated hopes, for no moon could show itself through such density of cloud. All Saturday it poured so continuously as to preclude the possibility of bonfires burning, as it was thought, though boys might be expected to try to light them. Mr. Paine got forward with his sermon, and aunt was all day putting her head out of doors to see how the sky looked; but at seven o'clock it was dripping still, and they had to resign themselves to fate. Aunt knew she would not be allowed to go out in the rain, and was not so foolish as to propose it. Eve, also, was ordered by her father to remain at home. Only Alan, who was a young man and could do as he liked, shook himself into his caped ulster, set a flannel cap on the back of his curly head, and marched off to the parsonage. "I came, sir," said he at the study door, "to say that aunt and Eve are very sorry, but it was too wet for them to come out to-night."

"Yes," said Mr. Paine, "I was afraid so. Well, we must hope for better luck next week. There would be nothing to see, I suppose. Bonfires will never burn after being soaked like this."

"I don't know," said Alan; "I expect they'll pour buckets of kerosene over them. Trust the boys not to be done, when they've set their minds on having them."

"But it's too wet to go out to them. The parents would not allow it."

"It is not as bad as it was. I think it is holding up. More like a Scotch mist than actual rain. You can hear them letting off their crackers. I'm sure, if it doesn't actually pour in sheets, they will have the bonfires somehow. Shall we just take a run up the tower and look?"

This was not the same thing to Mr. Paine as escorting a party which included aunt, and he begged to be excused. "But you go, if you like, my boy," he said hospitably. "You know the way. Anna will give you a lantern."

"And would—would Miss Paine?"

"You can ask her. I don't suppose she would, on such a night; but you can see what she says. You will excuse me now; I am rather occupied. Saturday is my busy night, you know."

He retired within his sanctum, and shut the door. Anna, he knew, would do all that was right in the entertainment of the young man. He never thought of her as needing a chaperon or parental protection of any kind. She never thought of it either, young and pretty as she was.

She was sitting in the dining-room, delicately darning a rent in her father's cassock. He had torn it on a nail last Sunday, and said nothing to her about it until Sunday had nearly come again—for which she had severely reprimanded him. She thought it another proof that the forgetfulness of old age was creeping on. But he had not forgotten; he had merely put off telling her to the last moment because he was afraid of what she would say. When Alan Ransome returned from his mission to the study door, she snipped the silk thread, folded up the garment, tucked all her implements into her neat work-basket, and gave herself up to a girl's enjoyments.

"Well," she said, with a welcoming smile, "you have not persuaded him to do anything so foolish?"

"No," said Alan, sitting down comfortably and spreading his arms on the table. "But he said I might go up, and that you would give me a lantern."

"Certainly. But are you really so set on seeing a bonfire? Not that there will be any to-night—"

"There will," he interposed. "Listen! it has left off raining."

He held up his hand, and they listened, looking into each other's eyes. It did not seem to be raining now, but they could hardly have heard rain, in any case, for the constant popping of Chinese crackers in the street.

"Are you really so keen to see a boy's bonfire that you would toil up those ladders in the dark and wet alone—?"

"Not alone," he again interrupted. "I'll go if you'll go; if not, I shall stop down, of course."

"And do you think I am going to be so silly?"

"I don't see anything silly about it. It is not raining. They are sure to light up. And the effect will be very pretty seen from there."

"I have not your passion for bonfires. I disapprove of them."

"I know. It's just the artistic effect. You can imagine they are the beacons those old Scotch fellows used to burn to summon the clans to war. Do come! You promised that you would on Sunday."

"Yes, if fine. And when I thought we were going to be a party."

"You and I are party enough. Your father told me I might ask you."

The colour rose in her pretty face. She got up and went out to look at the night. Alan promptly followed her.

"It is pitch-dark," she said falteringly.

"All the better," he declared. "They will show up splendidly. Far better than if it were clear."

"It does seem so idiotic," she continued, laughing. But there was indecision in her voice, and he felt his point was gained.

"Go and wrap yourself up and get the lantern," he urged. "If you don't like to climb the tower, we can just have a look from the church gate."

Still protesting, she fetched a cloak and hat, and procured a lantern from the kitchen. The maid-of-all-work was out for the evening, like all bush-town maids on this day of the week, when shops closed at ten instead of at six, and a faint flavour of Continental boulevard made the lighted pavements attractive, even in wet weather; so there was no one to spy and make remarks upon the young lady's proceedings. It is needless to say that she would have indignantly scouted the idea of doing anything, at any time, that the whole world might not see and know of; but we all have our weak moments, and the unacknowledged feeling that she was taking rather an extreme liberty with conscience and the convenances caused Anna Paine to respect her father's judgment and prerogatives a little more than usual. She was glad that he had told Alan to ask her to go with him, and that he saw no harm in her doing so.

Of course they did not stop at the church gate. A glow in the distant darkness showed that one bonfire, at least, had been started successfully, by kerosene or otherwise; and Alan believed it was the one that he had built, and insisted that they must go up the tower to prove it. Anna said, "Oh, well, just for a moment"; and the sudden thumping of her heart seemed to presage the fate that she thereby rashly invited.

The key was in the vestry door—"as usual!" Anna interjected—and they let themselves into the church, the intense silence of which was almost audible. It was, by the way, a superior church for a bush town; large and strong, built of the white granite that formed the hill on which it stood and the wooded ranges that surrounded it. The tall, square, battlemented tower was a particularly rare distinction, of which the parish was very proud. It had three storeys, the middle one being the bell chamber; and on the leaded roof stood a tall flag-staff, from which the royal standard flew on Queen's birthdays and other national occasions. The ascent was made by very long and extremely shaky ladders, which, however, were guaranteed to bear.

At the bottom of the lowest of these, in the porch behind the great west door, Alan halted.

"I will go first and open the trap," he said. "Stay here till I get up. Don't start till I am off the ladder, and can hang down the lantern for you to see by. Are you sure you don't feel nervous?" His tone was very tender.

"Not a bit," she replied; "I have been up too often to feel nervous."

But still her hands trembled as she grasped the rungs, one after another, and slowly hoisted herself after him towards the square hole overhead.

His eager, handsome face overhung the hole, and his arms were outstretched to receive her as soon as her hat was on a level with it. The trial to women's nerves was at these points, because the ladders stood against the wall, and one had to clamber sideways over a little chasm to reach the floor; and he was resolved to take every care of her.

"Don't bother," she cried, hurriedly scrambling to her feet; "I am used to it. I don't want help. It's your poor aunt whom we shall have to look after, if she is really determined to come up on Wednesday."

"She is quite determined," said Alan. "You would think she was a girl looking forward to a ball the way she is counting on it. Poor old thing!"

He lowered the cover over the trap door, and they ascended the second ladder, past the beam that supported the bell, which projected rather dangerously "Mind the beam! Mind the beam!" he kept calling out, until the little figure had passed it, and was near him once more. Then he dashed aside the lantern and was in time to half lift her from the ladder to the floor.

"I told you I wanted no help," she protested shaking out her skirts. But she said it with a friendly laugh, and her face, gleaming for a moment in the little haze of lantern light, was lovely with girlish blushes.

Again he made the trap-door safe, and they ascended the third ladder, which came out upon the roof. This time he set the lantern upon the edge of the opening, and when she came up he seized her in both arms, and dragging her and himself to their feet together, stood on the leads and held her to his breast, and kissed her face and hair under her hat brim.

She uttered a cry of consternation. "Oh! oh was this what you enticed me up for? Oh, Mr. Ransome, don't—you forget yourself—"

"But you don't mind—you do care for me," he murmured, continuing to kiss her with all the ardour of a lover of his years. "I know it—and you are not angry with me really—not really, Anna? I couldn't help it—it had to come some time. Well, I won't tease you, if you'd rather not. Let us look at the bonfires. Yes, there they are—two of them—and that biggest one is mine. At least, I helped some little fellows to build it."

They stood, silent and trembling, in an embrasure of the granite battlements, and looked out upon the world. It was one limitless sea of gloom, save where the street lamps and the torches of the Salvation Army defined the broken outlines of the town below them, and where the bonfires blazed upon the black hills that ringed them round. One of the fires soon went out; the other lasted longer, and made a brave show to the end.

"That's mine," said Alan.

But it was useless to pretend to be interested in trifles of that sort now. They were two young things, as nature made them, and it was all dark night around, and they were absolutely alone in it. Lovers never could have found a place better fitted for love-making than the top of that church tower, with the three trap-doors shut down. Before they knew it they were leaning against each other, like two shocks of corn in a summer field. And Alan asked his companion whether she loved him, and she confessed frankly that she did.

"But, dear," she said solemnly, "I am very sorry that this has happened. I have been hoping—praying—that you might not come to care too much for me."

"Oh, Anna! Why?" Her head was resting on his shoulder, and his moustache upon her lips, so he could not understand it. "Because, Alan, I can never marry you."

"Oh, why?" he cried again. "Not just yet, perhaps, until I have begun to make a living—"

"Never!" she reiterated, in a tragic voice. And she stood away from him, and leaned upon the breast-high parapet of stone, which was wet with unheeded rain.

"That's nonsense," said Alan Ransome.

"No," said she; "it is duty."

How should it be duty, he wanted to know. For his part, he couldn't for the life of him see it.

"I will never leave my father, Alan. He is getting infirm, and he has no one but me to take care of him. While he lives I must not think of making a home for myself."

"But, dearest, other girls do it. Every day they do. It is what fathers expect."

"Other girls may be selfish, but you would not wish me to be so, Alan."

"At any rate, he won't live for ever. He is getting old, as you say."

"People sometimes live to be eighty and ninety, and so may he. We will not count on his death, please, dear."

"No, of course not. Still—well, we need not bother about the future yet—one never knows what may turn up. Let us be happy in the present, darling," drawing her again into his young arms.

"But if I let you be happy in the present," she urged, "I shall be laying up unhappiness for you in the future. No, Alan, I will not drag you into a long engagement, that might last till I am an old maid—as old as your aunt. You shall be free to marry and to live your life. I am not free. I am dedicated to my father for as long as he lives. You must give me up, dear." And here she sobbed a little, and kissed him.

"I won't give you up," said the boy tempestuously.

"You must, darling. You shall not sacrifice yourself for me."

"I tell you I won't," said Alan.

Then the cruel rain came down, and they had to go down too. At every trap-door they stopped to hug and kiss each other, to say that they must part, and to declare they could not. On the bench in the porch, at the foot of the last ladder, they sat down to repeat the process. They did so again in a pew in church, and once more in the vestry. There they did indeed part for the moment, for they could not bear to re-enter the house together, as if nothing had happened.

CHAPTER III

And the old man and the old maid had no luck at all. On Prince of Wales' birthday it simply rained in torrents from morning till night, without stopping once. The flag on the church tower clung like a wet dish-cloth to the staff, from the time it was run up at what should have been sunrise until it was taken down at dusk. And at dusk the town crier went round with his bell, and announced that the display of fireworks was postponed to a future date. It would have been something to have a little tea-party at the parsonage, without the fireworks and the tower. But it was too wet even for that. The old man was depressed and dyspeptic, and the old maid went to bed at nine o'clock and cried herself to sleep, though such very old fogies were certainly old enough to have known better. But at last it all came right. The town was not to be defrauded of its holiday, and Tuesday, the 15th, was appointed, by advertisement in the local papers, as the day when shops would close, sports be celebrated in the public park, fireworks let off and torchlight procession take place, all as they would have done on the 9th had weather been favourable. And Tuesday was just as perfect a day for the purpose as the previous Wednesday had been the reverse.

Mr. Paine sent a note to aunt before he had his breakfast.

DEAR MISS RANSOME,—

"Will you and your young people give us the pleasure of your company to tea to-night? The weather does seem settled at last, and it will be pleasant on the church tower, if you think you can manage the ascent. I am told the fireworks are to be very fine. With our united kindest regards,

"Yours very sincerely,

"WILLIAM PAINE."

Aunt hastened to return an answer by Eve as she went to school.

"DEAR MR. PAINE,—

"Thank you very much for your kind invitation. Tell dear Anna that we shall be delighted to come. We are quite looking forward to our little excursion up the tower, especially in such beautiful weather. I shall be able to get up quite well, I am sure. I have always been fond of fireworks, and it will be so nice to see rockets go up without cricking one's neck.

"Believe me, dear Mr. Paine, most truly yours,

"ELIZABETH RANSOME."

The recipient of this note spread it on the breakfast-table, beside his plate of egg and bacon, and read it again and again, as if it were some choice bit of literature.

"How would it be," he suggested diffidently, "to ask one of Eve's schoolgirl friends? She is so much younger than the rest of us. She might be dull without a companion of her own age to talk to."

"A good idea," said Anna graciously. "I will do so. Then," she thought, "there will be six of us. Father looking after aunt, and Eve having another child to keep her company, Alan and I will have a chance to talk over our affairs. And the table will be balanced properly."

She set the table with her own hands at half-past five. There was a nice cold fowl, and a tongue, and a veal pie, and delicious cakes that she had made herself, and a salad, and a dish of strawberries, with cream. She was a sparing housekeeper, as a rule, so that Mr. Paine, when he came out of his room from dressing, was surprised to see so handsome a repast, and his pleasure equalled his surprise. Aunt had not had a meal in the house for years, and he had been anxious lest Anna should think less of aunt's entertainment than of the keeping qualities of food in warm weather.

It was quite warm weather—full summer—now, and aunt came at six o'clock, in the prettiest new crépon gown, grey, with a puffy vest of white silk, that gave quite a style to her little figure. She had iron-grey hair, which had once been black, and her thin, small face was ivory-white; but her eyes were dark and brilliant still, with something of the expression of Toby's: very sweet and earnest, if you took the trouble to notice them. Her hair was drawn plainly back into a knot of braids behind, as an old woman's hair should be; but she had pinned a red rose into the lace at her neck, which was an anachronism, a false note, to Anna's mind.

"I think, Miss Ransome," said that prudent young lady, "you would have been better advised to put on an old gown to-night. The tower is a dusty, cobwebby place, and you will spoil that pretty new one."

"Oh, no," said aunt carelessly, patting her hair before the glass in the spare bedroom. "It won't hurt."

"You had better let me lend you an old one of mine."

Aunt would not hear of such a thing. She was like poor father, who thought nothing of tearing a good cassock on a nail.

They went into the drawing-room, which was profusely decked with roses, and almost immediately into the dining-room, which was similarly adorned, several vases of them standing about in the interstices of the well-filled table. Alan, with a bud in his button-hole, sat by his hostess, and aunt at Mr. Paine's right hand. The two old folks beamed as they settled themselves in their chairs and opened their napkins, but the four young ones were too occupied with their own interests to notice it. The French windows stood wide to the exquisite light and air, and on the verandah Toby lay at full length on his stomach, with his nose between his paws, keeping an eye cocked upward in the direction of aunt's face. Now and then she threw him a confidential smile, which set his fringed tail thumping vigorously.

"You are not eating," remarked the host, breaking off a little story of a quarrel in the choir—aunt was so sympathetic and understanding about these things—to note the condition of her liver wing.

"Oh, I am getting on beautifully! It is a delicious fowl—I am enjoying it so much," she assured him; and urged him on with his absorbing narrative. But the fact was she had the very least sore throat, which somehow seemed to have taken away her appetite. No one, of course, was allowed to suspect this.

"And so I went to the girl, and told her I was sure Miss Lomax had not intended to insult her, and begged her to take the solo, since there was no one else able to sing it; and I had a talk with Miss Lomax to try and persuade her to explain. But they would neither of them listen to me. Each said she would never come into the choir again while the other belonged to it. So they are both staying away—which means that we have not a reliable soprano at all. The others will not open their mouths without some one to lead them, and Anna cannot do everything."

"It is too bad," said aunt warmly, "that you should be worried with those petty squabbles, when you have so much else, so many more important things to think of. It is a pity I am not a young girl, with a good treble voice."

"Yes—no, no, I don't mean yes. It would be a pity if you were anything but just what you are. Do let me take your plate and give you some pie. Some strawberries, then? Anna, Miss Ransome's cup is empty."

"I beg your pardon, Miss Ransome," said Anna, with a start. She was forgetting her duties for the moment in a semi-private discussion with Alan on the great subject of individual responsibility. The pair of schoolgirls were chattering across the table about the affairs of their school, their approaching examinations, the holidays, the matric., and so on. It was a most successful tea-party.

After tea, it being still broad daylight, the children sat down to a game of tiddledy-winks, to pass the time until it was dark enough for the fireworks. Tiddledy-winks looks a silly game to those who do not play it, but to those who do it becomes strangely fascinating; so that even after the lamps were lighted it was difficult to make those players leave off. Anna took Alan for a stroll round the garden, but before she did so gave proper heed to the question of what was to be done for aunt.

"I think, father," she said, "that Miss Ransome ought not to go up the tower in the dark, for the first time. If you were to take her now, while it is still daylight, and make her go gently and take plenty of time, she would not be nearly so nervous. Al—Mr. Ransome would see after us."

"That is a good idea," cried Mr. Paine. "Come, Miss Ransome, we will lead the expedition. What wraps have you?"

Aunt's little mantle was fetched, and declared to be inadequate. Mr. Paine insisted on an old furred jacket and woollen hood, provided by his daughter.

"It will be chilly up there, though it is so mild now," he said, "and you must be careful of that delicate chest. Put on all the warmth you can carry, Miss Ransome. Be on the safe side."

"Perhaps I had better," she said, submitting meekly to Anna's resolute hands. "I seem to have just a little touch of cold hanging about me from the damp weather."

"If I had known that," said Alan menacingly, "I wouldn't have allowed you to come. I've a great mind to forbid your going up."

"Dear boy, it is nothing," she answered in a panic, and hastened out before he could say more. Alan was going to be a doctor, and was beginning to practise on his aunt. She thought it so sweet of him to take such care of her, and to give her pills and potions when she was not well; but to-night she preferred to be taken care of by Mr. Paine. Luckily, Alan desired her room at that moment, and not her company; so he let her go.

Happiness is not the prerogative of youth, whatever the young may think. Those two old fogies, left to their own devices for three-quarters of an hour, were perhaps as happy as they had ever been in their lives. When they had shut themselves into the vestry, and shut out the dutiful children who loved to keep them in order, they felt young themselves; and, though they treated each other with a delicate respect that is somewhat out of date, the same light was in their eyes, the same glow in their hearts, as had been kindled in those of the girl and boy now walking round the garden.

"This is my new chalice-veil," said the parson eagerly, "that I got out from London last mail. I have been wanting to show it to you. Is not the work perfect? And here's the illustrated catalogue—I want you to tell me which of these altar cloths you like best. I must manage somehow to get a new one before next Easter, and I have such faith in your taste; I am always wishing for you to consult with and to decide for me, Ah, it is too dark to see properly! Put it in your pocket and look at it when you are by yourself at home."

This was the sort of thing they talked about. Trumpery, doubtless, to people who are not old fogies, but heart-satisfying to them.

The dusk was gathering fast when they passed down the church to the front porch and the ladders, and Mr. Paine began to be anxious about aunt's nerves, and she anxious to show him how intrepid (under certain circumstances) she could be. He reproached himself for not having rigged up certain appliances to make the ascent easier, and she skipped up the trembling rungs while he was talking about it, so that his heart came into his mouth. Anna would have been scandalized to see an old lady so conducting herself had she been there.

They reached the top safely, but slowly. The rapid twilight had become night by the time they emerged upon the roof, and when aunt was led to the battlemented parapet to look out upon that view for the first time, she cried, "Oh—h—h!" in rapture.

It was indeed a beautiful picture, well worth the waiting for. There was no rain or mist to spoil it now. The sky was clear of cloud, full of its own deep Australian night colour, and thick with stars. Like waves along the horizon rolled the forest-covered ranges, all distinct in the transparent air; shadows of velvet, with here and there a house-light, like a diamond twinkling out of them. The town beneath lay suffused in Rembrandtish glows from lamps, seen and unseen, and red torches beginning to flare under the new-leaved English trees. The atmosphere was pure and fine to an intoxicating degree, for no factory chimney, no coal smoke, no mud, no dust, no anything that was unclean, defiled it; it was the atmosphere of the hills and of an early summer night washed in plenteous spring rains and perfumed with the wholesome breath of gum-trees and flowers. In short, perfect.

Aunt sighed a long sigh once or twice in silence. When she spoke there were tears in her voice.

"This makes one feel," she said—and stopped, unable to express herself.

"Yes," said her companion softly.

The torches were all lit, and glowed redly down the street like an invisible house burning. Out of the glare the clock-tower of the post-office rose, pallid and unsubstantial, into the upper darkness, like something in a lime-lighted transformation scene. Little foreshortened figures, mere ants upon the ground, were moving hither and thither—members of the fire-brigade, in their smart uniforms, arranging the torchlight procession.

"I must call the children," said Mr. Paine.

He went to the trap-door and listened; then he went to the parapet overlooking his own house and grounds, and signalled with a gentle "cooee" over the tree-tops. Presently the young ones, heralded by the lantern, which was extinguished as soon as possible, came scrambling up, laughing and calling to one another; and as the last one—Eve—put her head out of the hole, whish—sh—sh—the first rocket shot into the sky, burst with a little hollow noise like a bursting pea-pod, and rained down its enchanting stars.

"Those rockets," said Eve to her companion, "cost five shillings apiece."

"I think it a wicked waste of money," said Anna.

"In these bad times, too," said Alan sympathetically.

But aunt whispered, to the grey man beside her, that she simply loved to look at them; and he said, so did he.

The procession was formed, and began its march round the streets, to the stirring music of the town band. They could not see it for a long time, but saw where it was by the illumination of the trees above it as it passed. Every now and then it emitted a spray of little rockets, that died upon the roofs and roads, and, like great chords in a merry tune, another and another of those soaring big ones, which would have beckoned the souls of spectators like aunt to the infinities they seemed to pierce if Eve had not persisted in stating how much they cost. At last it came flaring and clanging into the street beside the church, along by the tree-walled church garden, and round the corner, and past the gate; and just in front of the tower it halted, spread, re-formed, and lit itself up in the most amazing blood-red flame—a wizard light, celestial or infernal, anything but earthly, transfiguring the world, "just as if Biela's comet had run into us," Eve Ransome said. The grey-white granite of the tower wall blushed crimson as a rose, and the faces on the top of it were the faces of angels or ghosts. The church trees glittered, leaf by leaf, like the jewelled trees of fairy-land.

"I would not," said aunt, in a low tone of rapture, "have missed this for anything!"

"I am so glad," said Mr. Paine earnestly, "so devoutly glad that it is a fine night. I did so want you to enjoy it."

Then the red light died out, and the cool, clear, blue darkness came back, with all the quiet hills lying out in it. The procession marched back into the town, with its Liliputian rabble after it, and worked its magic in other streets. Four more great rockets—another pound, as somebody remarked—leaped, hissing, into the empyrean, and dropped each its handful of coloured stars in space. Then all was still, the church tower was left alone, and the night suddenly began to feel cold.

"It's over," said Eve, jumping up from where she lay on the flat of her back along the sloping leads. "Polly, let's go down and have another game of tiddledy-winks."

CHAPTER IV

Next morning aunt awoke with a very sore throat. But a maiden aunt is not privileged to be ill on account of so ordinary a complaint as that, and she got up and dressed and pursued the trivial round and common task as usual.

First she went into her nephew's room, picked his slimy sponge out of his soapy hand-basin, and his towel—very wet—from the floor, where he had flung it, on top of his pyjama trousers. Also she removed his hair-brush, which he had plunged into the ewer before using, from the book—the good, new, medical book—on which he had left it, face downwards, to drain. Though she had brought him up, she had never been able to make him keep his things tidy—nor Eve either. She, too, liked to throw her nightgown on the floor, and anything wet that might be handy upon it, or upon the bed. She would never hang up frock or jacket by its loops, nor upon a knobbed hook if there happened to be a sharp-ended one available. She would never wear her "sets" in rotation, but always took the garment that came first out of the drawer; and she forgot to change her things on the right days, and to put them into the wash when they were changed. Also, she never brushed her teeth when she could help it, nor thought it necessary to do more to her hair than have it superficially smooth for meal-times. Aunt did not blame them, for they had had a slatternly mother. She just did their tidying for them. This, of course, was worrying work at times, and worry tells upon you when you are not well. To-day, somehow, she did not feel as if she could stand too much of it.

Going into her niece's room, before descending to breakfast, she found Eve dressed in the white frock she had taken off last night—by no means a frock to go to morning school in. She was ordered at once to change it.

"It's cool," said Eve mutinously, "and all my others are hot ones. Besides, it's dirtied out, going up that tower."

"It is scarcely soiled at all," said aunt, "and will last some time for afternoons. Take it off, my dear, when I tell you."

Eve pulled it off tempestuously, dashing about the room. She had a writing-table of her own—a birthday present from aunt—and on it stood the travelling ink-bottle which she persisted in using rather than the solid vessel that had been provided for her. The two halves of the travelling ink-bottle were nearly equally heavy, and she mostly left it open. It was open now, and as she ill-temperedly flung herself about she knocked it over, and the ink streamed across the pretty table-cloth. She hastened to mop it up with one of her best cambric pocket-handkerchiefs.

"Oh, Eve! Eve!" wailed aunt. "When shall I teach you sense!"

"I'm awfully sorry—I didn't mean to do it," pleaded Eve. "Don't be cross, there's an old dear. It's all right now. And I'll put my old frock on, though it is such a fearfully hot day."

"I will try to get your new print finished, darling," said aunt, appeased.

Eve took off the too-smart white dress, and stood in the coloured petticoat which had been showing through. On the breast of that petticoat was a large dark patch. Aunt saw it, and touched it; it was sopping wet.

"Well, aunt, there was a slug got upstairs and crawled over my clothes in the night. I only saw the slimy mark where it had been after I had put on my petticoat, and I just took a sponge and cleaned it."

"Child, take it off directly—take everything off. You will catch your death!"

"I can't, aunt dear. I haven't got another petticoat. It's in the soiled clothes-basket. I forgot to put it in the wash. And the other one is slit all down the front."

"Give it to me to mend," said aunt, in a voice of despair.

The troubles of the day came thick and fast, and before noon the little woman broke down under them. Alan, hunting for biscuits to stay his stomach until dinner-time, found her crying in the pantry, where she was trying to fill a glass jug from an empty filter.

"Hullo, old woman, what's the matter?" he cried, affectionately concerned.

"Did you ever see such a minx as Sarah?" moaned aunt bitterly. "You would think she did it on purpose. Empty again—and in this weather! And I have just found the big kettle cracked right across the bottom! She left it to go dry on the fire, and when it was red-hot poured cold water into it."

Aunt dropped her head on her nephew's stalwart arm and sobbed aloud.

He put the arm round her. "Here, you are not going to cry about a rubbishy thing like that, surely! Give me that jug—I'll fill it at the bank filter. Why, you're all of a tremble! And how hot your hand is!" He grasped the little hand, and laid his large, cool fingers on the flurried pulse. "Aunt, you're ill—that's what's the matter with you—not kettles and filters. Come along and sit down and tell me how you feel. It's that beastly tower business, I expect. I just thought you'd catch cold, exposed so long to the night air."

"I had it before, darling. I could not have caught it there, wrapped up as I was—so well taken care of."

He took her to the family sitting-room, and there looked at her tongue, listened to her breathing—which was decidedly heavy—and put a clinical thermometer into her mouth. Temperature, 101°.

"You go straight off to bed, old lady," he said sternly. "That's the place for you."

"I can't, dear boy. I must get Eve's print frock finished. Now that the weather has turned hot, she has nothing to wear."

"Off to bed," he repeated, with the inflexible air of the professional adviser. "If you don't go of your own accord, I shall call the Governor to make you. I shall send for a doctor whom you won't like half as well as you do me."

Aunt went to bed, and Eve put on a poultice—in a great hurry—before going to afternoon school, and Alan administered a dose from a bottle he had procured at the chemist's. Then the patient was ordered to go to sleep, and no one thought anything more about her until tea-time. The boy went to the club tennis-ground, and the girl, on her return from school, practised exercises on the piano. Aunt, propping herself on pillows, and with her work-basket beside her, sewed at the print frock all the afternoon, and finished it.

She was accustomed to a cup of tea at four o'clock, and to-day pined for it desperately, choked with the scorching thirst of a fever now at 103°. She heard the rattle of the tray as Sarah carried it to the sitting-room, and trembled with suspense as Eve strummed on and on, regardless of its arrival. After five minutes' waiting, aunt called aloud; she waited, weeping a little, and called again; but she was too far off for her voice to be heard, and she had no bell. At last, in desperation, she got out of bed and went down the passage in her nightgown—a thing strictly forbidden by her medical man. Eve heard her then, and came flying to scold her for disobeying Alan's orders.

"You bad old woman! What's the use of doctoring you, when you undo it all like this?"

"I want my tea, love; and I want it hot," said poor aunt.

"All right. I thought you were asleep. Go to bed, and I'll bring it to you."

Aunt retreated to her room, and Eve brought the tea. But now it was tepid and nasty, the milk a brown scum upon the top—no comfort at all. However, aunt bore the disappointment, rather than trouble Sarah and Eve to make a fresh cup, since they did not volunteer to do so. She drank the wretched stuff, while her niece eagerly turned about the print frock and urged her to finish it if she could, so that it might be put on in the morning.

When the girl had gone, having been called for to take a walk with a school friend, the little hot hands sewed on desperately until their job was done. Then aunt got out of bed again to put away her work-basket, lest Alan should suspect what she had been doing and scold her; and, returning, lay down in the pensive dusk to realize how solitary she was, and how much more ill she felt than she had done in the morning. "Oh, how happy they are that have their own dear husbands to take care of them!" she thought, with her handkerchief at her fevered eyes.

However, she was not without some one to care for her. In the evening, when the family were making merry with a casual guest over a game of cards, and Sarah was talking to her young man at the yard door, a shrinking, slinking form came gliding through the passages and up the stairs and straight into the darkened room. Toby seemed to have foreboded that aunt was ill, and felt impelled to come and see, the reason of which unusual solicitude on the part of a dog for a person not belonging to his own household being due to his instinctive knowledge that she ought to have belonged to it, and virtually did so. He laid his damp nose on the edge of the mattress and whimpered under his breath, begging her to reassure him. Then, after standing still for a long time, while she embraced his head and let him lick her face as much as he liked, he stealthily climbed upon the bed and stretched himself at full length beside her. He was full of fleas, but she did not mind that now. They lay there together in silent sympathy until Mr. Ransome, learning that his sister was not well, came to ask her how she felt, on his way to bed. Then Toby was kicked downstairs and bundled out into the street.

All next day Mr. Paine kept audibly wondering what on earth was the matter with that dog. Toby left the house, and came back, whining and restless; left it again, and returned in the same perturbed condition, as if vainly looking for something.

"What is it, old dog? What is it, then?" he demanded cheerily, slapping Toby's sides.

Toby yapped, jumped with all his feet at once and made little runs to the door.

"Do you want me to take you for a walk, old fellow? Very well; let us go for a walk." Mr. Paine went to get his hat and stick, and Toby shrieked with eagerness. So the object of his desire seemed understood.

The parson, who was an inveterate gossip, saw and stopped a few parishioners in the street; then he remembered that he had something to say to his treasurer about a Church meeting, and called at Mr. Ransome's bank. The manager was at home, but seemed less interested in Church matters than usual.

"I hope," said Mr. Paine, "that your family are all well."

"Thank you," said Mr. Ransome, "they are, with the exception of my sister, who has managed to pick up a nasty sort of feverish cold."

"I am sorry for that. She is not seriously indisposed, I trust?"

"I trust not," said Mr. Ransome. "For the house all seems to go to pieces when she is laid up."

He said no more, and Mr. Paine, feeling that he was not wanted particularly, got up to go. "Here, Toby! Toby!" he called. "Where is that dog of mine off to?"

"I daresay he is in my sister's room," said the banker, with wonderful toleration, for he had been heard to threaten that he would shoot Toby some day. "You might leave him, if you don't mind. It amuses her to have him."

"Certainly," said Mr. Paine, "if he is not a nuisance. Give her my kind regards, and tell her I hope she will soon be herself again."

That evening, when he was in his study, looking up a subject for Sunday's sermon, Toby came and clawed at the door, and whined more urgently than ever.

"He can't want a walk now," thought the parson, annoyed by the disturbance; "and if he goes on like this, he will have to be punished. Quiet, sir!" he thundered.

Then Toby gave up asking him to come and help poor aunt in her extremity, and went back to do what he could for her by himself. He found the bank shut up, and lay on its street doorstep till morning.

In the morning the town rang with the news that aunt was in a critical state with inflammation of the lungs. The veriest nobody becomes a somebody under these circumstances. Mr. Paine, breakfastless, was rushing off to make inquiries, when a note was put into his hand.

"DEAR MR. PAINE,—

"My poor aunt has had a very bad night, and the doctor seems to consider her case a serious one. Father thinks it would be a comfort to her to see a clergyman, so will you kindly come round to-day, if quite convenient? They are trying to get her to sleep now, so perhaps you had better not call until after dinner.

"Yours sincerely,

"EVE RANSOME."

Mr. Paine called four times, but it was not until late in the afternoon that he was let in, though his daughter had been assistant nurse all day. It was Anna who withheld, and then gave permission to admit him, and who gravely escorted him to aunt's room.

"She is a little better now," said the young clergywoman, in her business-like way, "but it will not last. You had better urge her to take the sacrament while she can. I suggested it for this afternoon, and that we should join, but she seems to wish to see you alone first. I am afraid she does not realize how short her time is likely to be."

The clergyman, leaving behind him his prayer-book for the sick, and all concern for the viaticum, to which Anna attached so much importance, crept into aunt's room. What a change, in three days, from that happy, happy night! She had just rallied from a sort of half-drowned state, out of seas of stupefying pain and narcotic insensibility, and she smiled at him wistfully with her heavy, dark eyes. But death was in her face. He saw it the moment he looked at her, and she knew that he saw it.

He sat down in the chair by the bed—on the far side of her lay Toby, looking from one to the other with solemn satisfaction—and he took her poor hand in his, and wept over it and kissed it. It was the first lover's kiss that aunt had ever had.

"Lock the door," she whispered, panting.

He stumbled across the room, blind with tears, and turned the key in the lock. Going back to her, he dropped on his knees, put one arm under the pillow and the other over her labouring little breast, and kissed her again—on the lips this time. She kissed him back, moaning, with shut eyes, holding him to her as well as she could with hands so fast losing their power to hold anything. Toby gently stretched forward from where he lay beside them, and licked the two grey heads.

"I have chosen the altar-cloth," gasped aunt, when she was able to speak. "Number fifty-two—the Latin cross—with the three stars—on the super-frontal—in silk velvet—the best—"

"Oh, my dear," he groaned, "don't mind those trifles now!"

"Yes. You must get it—for Easter. I want a lawyer—to come and make a codicil. I want to leave—the money to buy it—number fifty-two. Then—when you go—into the church—and see it—you will remember me."

"Oh, my God! As if I shall need anything to remember you by!"

A bursting sob broke from him, hushed down quickly, lest the people in the house should hear. Aunt's face screwed up for a moment, and two tears rolled down. Toby rose to his feet in alarm, and sniffed and whined.

"Don't—darling!" breathed aunt. "Oh, I never knew—I never thought—that you cared—like that!"

"Didn't you? You must have known. But the children, dear—the children—"

"They would never have allowed it," sighed aunt.

"I might have had you all this time to take care of, to nurse—"

"And I could have been such a comfort to you—William—"

"Elizabeth! Oh, what a different life! What a home—"

"But the children—wouldn't let us. They would have said—we were mad. They would never—never have allowed it, William."

"And now—now we have lost the chance!"

"Yes—no, not quite. This has been—our chance. Kiss me, William. Oh, William! I never thought—to call you William—to have you kiss me—William—"

"Oh, Elizabeth! Elizabeth!"

Toby whined again, begging them to command themselves. But they could not.

Anna looked at the clock in the sitting-room about this time. "Father must have finished his prayers and reading by now," she said. "I must take her some nourishment."

She took it, and firmly administered it. Mr. Paine witnessed the operation in mute anguish, hovering between the bed and the door, while the patient did her best to show him that she could swallow still. Then he was ordered to go home and do his sermon. For it was Friday night.

On Sunday night she died, while he was preaching a sermon that was several years old. And, of course, he had not been allowed to nurse her in her last hours, though Toby was privileged to stay by her nearly all the time. Toby would have been turned out often, but whenever he saw a chance of that happening he got under the bed, and so evaded notice. He also learned that he must not open his mouth, though his heart should burst with grief; so he lay and watched in passive patience, or with pricked ears and quivering nose, until his friend ceased to see that he was there, ceased to respond to his surreptitious licks, ceased to be visible to his yearning eyes. Then he did lament most dismally. They overlooked him, lying under the bed, when they left her in a long box with a sheet over it, hidden in a nest of cut paper frills; and the noise he made gave Sarah such a turn that she declared she durs'n't sleep in the house till the corpse was out of it. A corpse that a dog howled over in that fashion was something out of nature, she said.

They tied Toby up with a strong chain all Monday, so that he might not disturb the funeral.

The weather changed on Monday—in that sudden way that is peculiar to Australian weather—from summer to winter, in a night. And the hundreds of mourners that "followed," in cabs and buggies, and on horseback and on foot, after the kindly Australian custom, felt an unusual grey dreariness in the familiar function, and were glad to get it over and get back to the warm precincts of home and the public-house. By four o'clock—twenty hours from the time when she had belonged to the living world—poor aunt was in her grave, with the raw earth heaped above her; and the gates of the cemetery were shut, and not a soul within them.

But one came back. Mr. Paine, having gone through the ordeal of getting his tea, could no longer endure the proximity of his daughter, with her untimely questions and advice. On a pretext of parochial business, he went out while it was still daylight, and took Toby off the chain to go with him. The dog sprang forward, wagging an expectant tail, as if there were still hopes that aunt might be somewhere whence she could be brought back. But when he stood beside her grave, and saw how his master looked at it, he seemed to understand what had been done that day, though he had not been to the funeral. He lifted up his nose and howled on a long note; then he fell upon the new-made mound, and began to rake away the earth with his fore-paws.

"No use, Toby!" said his weeping master. And he stopped the dog's proceedings, replacing the scattered mould with his hands, and patting it smooth. Dogs were not allowed in the cemetery, by order of the trustees, but the print of Toby's body was discernible upon that mound as long as the soil was loose enough to take it. The caretaker laid wait with his gun for the desecrating beast, until the matter was explained to him. Then he and the trustees gave Toby the freedom of the city—that city of the dead.

The Ransomes wanted to buy him, for aunt's sake, and the enticements of pats and bones were offered from many other quarters. But a dog like Toby is not to be bought, though men and women are. He stuck to his fellow-mourner, making more of him than he had ever done, seeing a new need for his devotion—a double need. The parish did not see it, but Toby saw it—the change that the 20th of November had worked in William Paine. The children might call him an old man now, for he was an old man. But he had not been old before.

* * * * * * * * * *

"ONE OF THESE LITTLE ONES"

"I am going," said Mrs. Atcheson to her young friend, Minna Smith, "to have tea on board the Seamew this afternoon, and the captain has asked me to bring you. Will you come?" She looked up, suffused with smiles, from a note she had been reading. This was the note:

"DEAR MRS. ATCHESON,—

"Bring your visitor by all means. I shall have no difficulty in finding some one to help us to entertain her. The children, I fancy, can amuse themselves.

"Yours very faithfully,

"JOHN BRENT."

John Brent was the captain of the Seamew, and the Seamew was not that sort of ship which makes a business of afternoon teas. She did not fly the white ensign, nor even the blue; she was merely an old merchant sailing vessel of about sixteen hundred tons, unloading steel rails and loading wheat at Williamstown. Williamstown, it may be remarked, still felt the stir of commerce in her veins, and the pier over the way did not lie naked as a breakwater for half the week, as it does now.

Miss Smith was delighted. She was a bush girl, to whom ships were a novelty; at the same time she had cultivated a romantic passion for the sea, having sailor blood in her. She thought it was so very kind of Captain Brent to think of asking her.

At three o'clock she put her pretty little sailor hat on her pretty little curly head, and tied a sailor knot in the coquettish necktie that finished off her navy-blue serge gown. Mrs. Atcheson—whose husband was a pilot, cruising outside at this moment in a gale of wind—put on her beady bonnet and a little veil that ended at the tip of her nose, and they set forth on their expedition. The children did not go; they did not even know they had been invited. Mrs. Atcheson preferred the freedom of her own arrangement. She wished to do what was quite proper, but she did not wish to have her tête-à-tête with the captain interfered with.

The Seamew lay near the end of the pier, and a sister ship, called the Penguin, of the same company, chanced to lie beside her at the extreme end. The former had but recently arrived, the latter was ready for departure; her sails were bent, her flying jib-boom run out, her sides glossy with new paint, all spick and span as she could be, a foil to her neighbour, rusty and weather-beaten, whose toilet was still to make. The yards of the Seamew swung bare and lop-sided, her deck was in confusion with the open hatch and swinging cargo and clanking windlass, and her grimy hull was only made grimier by the stripes of gleaming scarlet that men on hanging platforms were beginning to daub upon it. But ships, and captains of ships, must not be judged by these outward appearances.

No sooner were the two ladies in view of their destination than two men cast themselves over the side of the Seamew, disappeared amongst railway trucks, and, emerging, saluted.

"There they are!" cried Mrs. Atcheson joyfully.

"Which is your captain?" inquired Minna Smith.

"Oh, the fair man, the fair man, of course. Such a nice fellow! But I never knew a fair man who wasn't," said Mrs. Atcheson, who was thirty-nine, and had had a vast experience of both sorts.

Minna pointed out that the other gentleman was dark. Having tawny locks of her own, inclining to the fieriness of Captain Brent's beard, she rather preferred dark men. As yet, however, they were only pictures to her mind—not men.

"So he is. And a handsome fellow too! I don't suppose all dark men are bad," the matron allowed, smiling her sweetest smile upon this one, whom she had never seen before.

Cordial greetings ensued, and the stranger was introduced as Captain Spurling of the Penguin. Mrs. Atcheson had not seen him before because his ship had spent her time in port at a Yarra wharf. She had loaded in the river, and was only touching at Williamstown on her way out. Her master was as much smarter than his host as she now was to the Seamew—a fine, tall, full-bearded, straight-nosed, black-eyed fellow, young for a sea captain, but not so young as he looked. Despite his colour, Mrs. Atcheson was strongly tempted to annex him, but she remained faithful to her older friend, who, having made Miss Smith's acquaintance, desired to know why the children had not turned up.

"Dear Captain Brent, it was so good of you to ask them! But Maudie had a little cold, and Jacky was awake half the night with toothache, and the weather was so bad."

They walked on together. Captain Spurling and Minna followed. The latter, being unaccustomed to society and the other sex, wore a modest blush and smile that were very becoming; and the bold eyes of her gallant escort dwelt admiringly upon her. "I am decidedly in luck," he thought. "I don't think I ever saw a prettier young creature." Which was quite true. And her great charm lay in the evident fact that she was not yet quite old enough to know how pretty she was.

He helped her with much tender care up the somewhat rude gangway of the Seamew, steadying her with his arm; and in a very short time they were left to their devices by the chaperon and the host. Mrs. Atcheson cared for captains, one at a time, but not for ships, and when the wind seemed likely to tear her best bonnet to pieces she retired to the saloon, whence she refused to budge until it was time to return to her family; but Minna was eager to see everything that was to be seen, and revelled in the merry blast that brought the dew of the salt sea to her fresh young lips, and the bloom of a carmine rose-petal to her cheeks. Wherefore she stayed outside, and Captain Spurling stayed with her.

From the poop he showed her his own ship first of all, pointing out wherein she was superior to other ships of her kind, and especially to the Seamew; then he directed her gaze to the ships across the water and the St. Kilda and Brighton shores, through a telescope that he held steady for her. He walked her out upon the bridge, merely an open platform between the boats, and explained the working of the compass and the wheel, while the freshening wind blew her up against him, and, but for him, might have blown her off. He showed her the little engine room, with the forge and tools in it, the bo'sun's and the sailmaker's lockers, the cook's galley, and the tiny forehouse shared by these men and the carpenter, one of whom was performing a rough toilet in it; and, further on, he did the honours of the cavernous fo'c's'le, the modesty of whose inmates was protected by its dense gloom. He introduced her to the fowls, hanging in a huge bird-cage under the boat skids aft of the deckhouse, and to the pigs in their sty forward; and he instructed her in the matter of running and standing rigging, and mysteries of that kind. She did not understand the half of it, but was charmed with everything, and above all with him, the most devoted and delightful showman. When the rain came along on the back of the wind, slanting and stinging, and shelter was desirable, neither of them felt drawn cuddy-wards. Captain Spurling's suggestion that a descent into the Seamew's stomach—'tween-decks and the hold—might possibly be an interesting excursion, was considered a most happy one, and unhesitatingly jumped at.

The men were ceasing work, having sent up the last of those dangerous-looking bundles of railway iron, and only a part of the main hatch was left unclosed. She was lowered to him through this and down the perpendicular ladders with great care, and found herself in an awesome place of shades astonishingly vast. Of course she had no fears—with him—but when that black cavern suddenly rang to a blood-curdling yell that she did not know the cause of, she jumped and gasped, and clutched her companion's arm.

"Don't be frightened," he murmured, locking hand and arm together. "It is only a cat. Here, puss! puss! puss!"

A pair of yellow eyes glared out of the gloom forward and disappeared.

"Oh—h—h!" sighed Minna, with her hand upon her heart.

It was certainly a creepy place, to one unaccustomed to it, in that owl's light; and the ship cat was as wild as any Bengal tiger. She was supposed to visit the cook at a certain hour daily, but otherwise lived in solitude, under hatches, waging savage warfare with the rats. Disturbed and startled by the apparition of a lady, she moved about in the mysterious distance with stealthy creepings and scamperings, rending the silence at intervals with that sudden snarling "yowl," which is distressing to the human ear at the best of times, and now echoed through the ship's emptiness in a most dismal manner.

"Shoo!" cried Captain Spurling; and he pressed his left arm to his side. "We might have had a little more light upon the subject. However, I can see, if you can't. You trust to me."

"It is like a witch's cave," she laughed tremblingly, "with that creature mewing. How uncanny it sounds in this great hollow place! I had no idea the Seamew was so enormous."

He led her into the bows, and they stood invisible, looking back to where the light filtered down from above, dim with rain, on so small a portion of the enclosure. The girl's heart was beating fast, as the heart of seventeen is bound to do under such circumstances. The man felt it, like an electric thrill in the air.

"I suppose that is the mast?" she queried breathlessly.

"The foremast—yes; and the main beyond it. You can't see the iron-work under the deck, bracin' it across and across? No, that's not a rat. Don' be alarmed; I will take care of you. By-and-by all this will be filled with bags of wheat, right up to the top—"

He was interrupted by an agonized wail, as of soul in torment, and Minna's hand on his arm contracted for a moment. He laid his own right hand upon it soothingly.

"It is so dark!" she faltered. "Hadn't we better go back to the others?"

He drew her—or rather, she drew him—forward, where the light was better. There the sailmaker, since the lower deck was cleared of cargo, had been at work; his implements and a heap of weather-worn sails were spread upon the spacious floor, a bolt of new canvas near them.

"Sit here," said Captain Spurling, kicking the latter article to a safe distance from the yawning mouth of the hold and the feeble daylight; "sit and rest yourself a little before you go up. It is raining still; wait till it leaves off, so that you don't get wet."

She seated herself on the bundle, and he presently lowered himself into a nest of sail-cloth, whence he could see into her pretty face and watch the play of her innocent emotions as she listened and talked to him—the stirrings of the young womanhood which had come into being so recently that he was the first man to recognise it.

It was a full half-hour before they climbed back into the world, and they were summoned by a hail from Captain Brent.

"It's hard lines," said Captain Spurling—and from this remark the reader will infer the preceding conversation—"it's awfully hard lines that I've got to go, just when I have begun to know you."

"Yes," she sighed, with her foot upon the ladder. "But you will come back again some day?"

"I hope so. One never knows. You will give a thought to me sometimes when I am away upon the sea?"

She looked at him eloquently, too deeply moved for speech, imagining the blissfulness of companionship with such a man in all the perils of his noble work and romantic solitude: the rapture of tropical cyclones and Cape Horn icebergs, which would have no terrors in such a case. Never had she loved the sea and all belonging to it as she loved it now.

They emerged upon the windy deck and entered the little saloon in silence. On a table by the rudder-trunk was spread the captain's equivalent for afternoon tea—port wine, and almonds and raisins, dried figs, and English fancy biscuits—and he sat beside it. Mrs. Atcheson lolled upon a red velvet sofa that curved with the curve of the ship's blunt stern, under a row of portholes, and she was too much absorbed in her companion and conversation to notice, as she ought to have done, the colour and expression of Miss Smith's face.

She lay awake all night, dreaming finer dreams than ever come in sleep; and in the morning her hostess gave her a commission.

"Oh, my dear, I am so frightfully busy!" Mrs. Atcheson explained. "You know that I have asked Captain Brent to come in to-night for a game of whist, and I must have two or three to meet him. That means supper. I have a fowl to dress, and oyster patties to make, and I don't know what else; otherwise I would go myself. But I really don't see how I can spare the time."

"What is it? Let me do it," urged Minna, anxious to be useful.

"Oh, my dear girl, would you? Oh, I should be so much obliged to you! It is just to go to the pier with this parcel for Captain Spurling. The Penguin is still there, I see, and I'm so afraid of being too late with it. He kindly offered to take anything for me to England, and I thought it a good opportunity to send some cast-off clothes for my sister's children."

Minna blushed from top to toe. Even Mrs. Atcheson could not fail to see it.

"Are you too shy?" she laughed. "But of course you need not go on board. And Jacky shall escort you. I would not ask you, Minna, to do anything that was improper, my dear. You have only to hand the parcel to Captain Spurling, and come away directly. I dare not trust Jacky alone with it, or I would not trouble you."

Terrified, but exulting, Miss Smith presently set forth upon this errand, Jacky, aged ten, accompanying her. He gathered a few friends by the way—Saturday-morning schoolboys, loafing about the streets—so that by the time she reached the Penguin she had four cavaliers; none too many for the support she needed. Jacky, who had the cheek of a dozen, shouted, "Skipper, ahoy!" for which she could have boxed his ears, and Captain Spurling responded in person, to her mingled mortification and delight.

"Give him the parcel, Jacky," she implored, in a frantic undertone. "Give it to him, with mother's message, and come away."

But no; this was not how Fate and Captain Spurling meant to deal with such a chance. Off went the skipper's cap, and his handsome face shone transfigured when he recognised the bashful girl, shrinking away from the group of brazen boys. But it was only a looking-glass to reflect the light in hers, which magenta blushes could not hide from him. He was down the gangway in two seconds.

"What, Miss Smith! And you have brought the parcel yourself? How kind of you! How good of you! Come up and have a little rest after your walk."

"Oh, no! oh, no!" she replied, with tragic gravity. "I must not stay, indeed. I should not have come, only there was no one else. We are very busy at home, and Mrs. Atcheson wants me."

"Just for five minutes—just to have a look at my ship before we go. The boys will like to see it—eh, boys? And you have no objection to gingerbread nuts, I suppose?"

Jacky jumped to the bait, and was over the side in a twinkling, his mates at his heels. It appeared to Minna that she could not stand on the pier by herself, nor seem ungracious to and suspicious of a man like this man. And, after all, she had an escort—four escorts—which made it all quite proper. So, with downcast eyes and fluttering heart, she ascended the wobbling plank that served for gangway, steadied by the strong hand; and she stood on the Penguin's deck in the morning sunlight, slim and sweet, with her hair shining, the prettiest young creature that had ever been seen there—to Captain Spurling's mind.

And what became of the four escorts? Unlimited gingerbread was placed at their disposal, and then the bo'sun was called and instructed to show them round. He performed his duty thoroughly. He showed them everything. And they were too much taken up with the mysteries of pantry and store-room, with the medicine chest and the flag-locker, with cutlasses and shark hooks, with harpoons and scientific instruments, to remember that Miss Smith existed. When they went forward, out of sight and sound, she forgot that they did.

The captain entertained her in his smart little cuddy. He showed her the two or three empty cabins available for chance passengers, with his own small suite on one side and the berths of officers and apprentices on the other; and that was all the sight-seeing they did on this occasion. She had not the zest of yesterday, and seemed afraid even to peep through the doors. The only apartment which her modesty permitted her to enter was his little sitting-room astern. He had cut off with a partition his red velvet sofa and private table, preferring the dignity of seclusion where Captain Brent preferred fresh air. Behind that partition, which made the outer cabin seem cramped and stuffy, he had not only his sofa and table and his arm-chair, but a number of fancy trifles—pictures and Japanese storks, and brackets with little ornaments on them—in the boudoir style; and the general effect was one of great elegance, to the taste of the bush girl. There were several photographic portraits—one of a dark-eyed boy that she concluded was Captain Spurling's brother, it was so like him; but he did not tell her whose the faces were, and she thought it would be rude to ask him. The ports were open, and ripples of light played over the low ceiling, reflected from the rippling tide.

"I must not stay," she ejaculated, hurried and breathless, and yet she found herself sitting on the red velvet sofa, with a cushion at her back (Captain Brent would have despised a cushion even more than he would have scorned a paper fan). And presently she found Captain Spurling sitting beside her, with his arm around her waist. Had he been required to defend his conduct, he would have pleaded the irresistible circumstances—for there are men who see a natural validity in this excuse, and a chaperon of thirty-nine has no business to ignore the fact; while as for Minna's conduct, she was a young thing, and knew no better. As young things do, when fine fellows provoke them to it, she had fallen frantically in love; and of course she took this particularly fine fellow for a god in human shape, a king who could do no wrong. If he put his arm round her waist, it was because—oh, bliss unspeakable!—because he loved her too. Such had been her bringing up—strange as it may appear, in a land of precocious girls.

She fluttered in his embrace like a wild bird in a snare, and then yielded to it, dropping her head upon his shoulder.

"Oh," she wailed in tears, "when—when shall I ever see you again?"

At noon the Penguin was towed out. At night Miss Smith's headache was so bad that she could not join the whist party. A few days later she went home to her mother, who thought her very little benefited by her seaside trip. She was pale and absent-minded; she shunned companionship; she confessed to sleeping poorly. When asked what was the matter, or whether anything was the matter, she, of course, said, "Nothing." Mrs. Smith, who had a family of ten, every one of which was cherished as if an only child, knew better, but would not force the confidence that was not freely given. A girl growing up does not realize that her mother is far more accustomed to being young than she is, and shuts her out as one who cannot possibly understand. So Minna's parent, homely and hard-working, erroneously supposed to have no soul above poultry and butter, could only watch her pretty first-born, of whom she was so fond and proud, with an aching heart, and contrive little treats and outings, beaten-up eggs and cups of beef-tea, to cheer her. The instinct that is so rarely at fault in such a case divined a love affair at once, and Mrs. Atcheson, in strict confidence, was written to. Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Atcheson had been at school together.

The reply of the latter was emphatic.

"Certainly not. She met nobody at my house, and even if she had, she is too much of a child to think of such things at present. Do not, my dear Eliza, put ideas of love and marriage into her head; she will grow up and have her woman's troubles quite soon enough. Keep her innocent as long as you can. I daresay she has a little indigestion, or some irregularity of that sort. I should consult a doctor if I were you."

Mrs. Smith did not consult a doctor. She knew a nice young squatter, a good son and an excellent man of business, with an honest eye for a pretty girl; and she asked him to come and see them. He came, nothing loth, and came again, and yet again—until the expected result ensued. And then Minna refused him. As it would have been an excellent match, Mr. Smith reasoned and remonstrated; in fact, he wanted to lock her up on a diet of bread and water until she repented of her contumacy. But Mrs. Smith drew the Jovian lightning upon her own head. She would not have the child worried, she declared, and threw over her candidate without hesitation, though with many inward pangs.

Other young men were beckoned to—good, clean, solid bush fellows—and responded readily; for Mrs. Smith, who was said to be a drudge and a slave to her own family, could think of no better cure for her girl's complaint than the old-fashioned "comfortable home" and contingent babies. Not every young woman, by a long way, has a choice of husbands in this so-called favoured land; a vast number do not get the chance of one; but Minna was so exceptionally sweet and pretty that it would have been an easy matter to "settle" her satisfactorily had she been inclined to settle. But she would not hear of it. She refused her third offer as resolutely as she had done the first. And the third, from a father's point of view, was the best of them all.

"What in the name of fortune do you want?" roared Mr. Smith, justifiably exasperated—nay, fit to dance with rage—at this childish folly and the placid obstinacy of the culprit's face.

"Don't be angry with me, father," she returned, with a pale smile. "I don't wish to be married. And if I did, I don't want a man of that sort."

"Of that sort!" he shouted. "Of that sort! The only fault he has is that he's a thousand times too good for you."

And then the mother interposed.

"Let her alone, Jimmy. She is over-young for husbands yet, and I'm sure we are in no hurry to get rid of her, bless her!" And she paused in her search for a son-in-law, and reproached herself for having, perhaps, "put ideas" into her child's head before it was old enough to receive them.

Meanwhile, Minna's heart was away upon the sea. She thought of the sea all day and dreamed of it all night, and read of it in as many of Clark Russell's novels as the local Mechanics' Institute could supply; and of course she had made up her young mind that only a sailor could satisfy her. Also that her love for the particular sailor responsible for this state of things was "that love which only comes once in a lifetime"—peculiar, as we know, to young people in their teens.

She looked in many newspapers for tidings of the Penguin, but found none. At long intervals she would come upon the name of the Seamew, and of the Albatross, and the Petrel, and other boats of that line in the columns of shipping news, but she never happened to discover the whereabouts of the most precious of all vessels after the sad Saturday when she stood alone on the back beach of Williamstown to watch it fade upon the horizon, homeward bound. She had fits of fever over this matter, alternating with fits of cold despair when she convinced herself that the Penguin had gone down with all hands, leaving none to tell the tale.

At last she saw that the Seamew had returned to Melbourne. Immediately she resolved to repair thither in order to question Captain Brent about his friend. She confessed for the first time that she was out of health, and said that only sea air could restore her.

"Sea air did not do you much good when you tried it before," Mrs. Smith remarked, but allowed the child to have her own way, as usual. Maria Atcheson was written to, and Minna was consigned to her, with an equivalent for her "keep" in the shape of a noble hamper of farm produce.

The chaperon expressed herself as quite shocked by the girl's appearance when they met on the Spencer Street platform.

"Why, how thin you've got!" she exclaimed. "I should hardly have known you. I expect you've just been moped to death up there. How people can stand the bush year in and year out I can't conceive, especially a girl of your age. I know it would kill me in no time. But you'll soon get all right now you are in my hands, Minna. It is not beef-tea that you want, with all due deference to your mother, but a few theatres and parties, and things of that sort."

"Like we had last time," said Minna, with averted face. "Do you remember our afternoon on board the Seamew? By the way, the Seamew is in again, isn't she?"

"I believe so. Is this your portmanteau?"

"Yes; that's all. I suppose you have seen Captain Brent?"

"Not yet."

"Not yet? The ship has been here for more than a week!"

"Oh, I am sick of ships! Come along; let us get home. I am going to take you to a chrysanthemum show this afternoon, and we shall only just have time to lunch and dress."

The fervour of Mrs. Atcheson's friendships was only equalled by their brevity, and, as Minna presently discovered, Captain Brent had had his day.

So it was a little while before she found an opportunity to get sight and speech of him. Three days of passionate anxiety intervened. Then she excused herself from certain calls, caught Jacky on his return from school, bribed him to go for a walk with her, and flattered his pride as escort by asking him to show her the ships at the railway pier.

"Do you remember the gingerbread nuts that Captain Spurling gave you, Jacky?"

"Oh, yes; he wasn't a bad sort, was he?"

"I wonder where he is now? I suppose you don't know?"

"Never heard a word of him from that day to this. But I'll tell you who is here, Miss Smith—old Captain Brent—and he's worth a dozen Spurlings any day."

"Why?" asked Miss Smith, indignant and concerned.

"Oh, he's awfully kind, you know. Since he's been in this time he's given us boys the best tuck-out we ever had in our lives."

Minna laughed, and her step grew brisk.

"Perhaps we might pay him a little call now, Jacky. What do you say?"

Jacky said, in all sincerity, that he was "on."

It was a late call. The distance from the Strand at Williamstown to the railway pier is much longer than it looks, and this was a time of year when the shades of evening fell early—soon after five o'clock, in fact. The ships, when they were reached, loomed vast and vague, infinitely majestic and imposing, in the brooding hush of a sea-foggy night that had quite closed in. All work for the day was over, and the old pier was deserted, the few yellow gleams on its rail metals and the hulls that lined it serving but to deepen its air of solitude and make darkness visible. Nevertheless, Captain Brent was at home—contrary to the custom of captains in port—and he welcomed his visitors cordially. He wanted them to stay and dine with him, and was much disappointed when Miss Smith reluctantly refused, on the ground that Mrs. Atcheson did not know where they were. "We were just having a little walk," she explained, "and being so near we thought we might as well say 'How d'ye do.'" Which, Captain Brent declared, was a most friendly act on their part. And he brought out his port wine, and the bush girl, not to hurt his feelings, sipped a little of it, not at all understanding how good it was.

Over the nauseous glass she found an opportunity to mention Captain Spurling.

"I hope he is quite well," she said, in a casual way. "I have not seen his ship mentioned in the papers. I hope he reached home safely after leaving here?"

"Oh, yes," said Captain Brent. "He got home all right. Found a new baby added to the family circle."

"A baby!" gasped Minna, petrified.

"Three weeks old. And, what was a great deal worse, found that his daughter had run away and got married. Eloped with a music-master."

"His daughter! Do you mean his daughter?"

"The eldest. Nothing but a child, of course. But that's the worst of being a sailor, Miss Smith. You can't take care of the young girls when they want protection most, and they won't mind their mothers these times. Why, she couldn't have been a day older than you are. Not nineteen till May, I think they said. Young hussy! And as for that music-master, I believe Spurling pretty nearly killed him, and serve him right."

"I," said Minna, in a dazed way, as if talking in her sleep—"I shall be nineteen in May."

 
 
 

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