Produced by David Widger
By W.W. JACOBS
Mr. Jernshaw, who was taking the opportunity of a lull in business to weigh out pound packets of sugar, knocked his hands together and stood waiting for the order of the tall bronzed man who had just entered the shop–a well-built man of about forty–who was regarding him with blue eyes set in quizzical wrinkles.
“What, Harry!” exclaimed Mr. Jernshaw, in response to the wrinkles. “Harry Barrett!”
“That’s me,” said the other, extending his hand. “The rolling stone come home covered with moss.”
Mr. Jernshaw, somewhat excited, shook hands, and led the way into the little parlour behind the shop.
“Fifteen years,” said Mr. Barrett, sinking into a chair, “and the old place hasn’t altered a bit.”
“Smithson told me he had let that house in Webb Street to a Barrett,” said the grocer, regarding him, “but I never thought of you. I suppose you’ve done well, then?”
Mr. Barrett nodded. “Can’t grumble,” he said modestly. “I’ve got enough to live on. Melbourne’s all right, but I thought I’d come home for the evening of my life.”
“Evening!” repeated his friend. “Forty-three,” said Mr. Barrett, gravely. “I’m getting on.”
“You haven’t changed much,” said the grocer, passing his hand through his spare grey whiskers. “Wait till you have a wife and seven youngsters. Why, boots alone—-“
Mr. Barrett uttered a groan intended for sympathy. “Perhaps you could help me with the furnishing,” he said, slowly. “I’ve never had a place of my own before, and I don’t know much about it.”
“Anything I can do,” said his friend. “Better not get much yet; you might marry, and my taste mightn’t be hers.”
Mr. Barrett laughed. “I’m not marrying,” he said, with conviction.
“Seen anything of Miss Prentice yet?” inquired Mr. Jernshaw.
“No,” said the other, with a slight flush. “Why?”
“She’s still single,” said the grocer.
“What of it?” demanded Mr. Barrett, with warmth. “What of it?”
“Nothing,” said Mr. Jernshaw, slowly. “Nothing; only I—-“
“Well?” said the other, as he paused.
“I–there was an idea that you went to Australia to–to better your condition,” murmured the grocer. “That–that you were not in a position to marry–that—-“
“Boy and girl nonsense,” said Mr. Barrett, sharply. “Why, it’s fifteen years ago. I don’t suppose I should know her if I saw her. Is her mother alive?”
“Rather!” said Mr. Jernshaw, with emphasis. “Louisa is something like what her mother was when you went away.”
Mr. Barrett shivered.
“But you’ll see for yourself,” continued the other. “You’ll have to go and see them. They’ll wonder you haven’t been before.”
“Let ’em wonder,” said the embarrassed Mr. Barrett. “I shall go and see all my old friends in their turn; casual-like. You might let ’em hear that I’ve been to see you before seeing them, and then, if they’re thinking any nonsense, it’ll be a hint. I’m stopping in town while the house is being decorated; next time I come down I’ll call and see somebody else.”
“That’ll be another hint,” assented Mr. Jernshaw. “Not that hints are much good to Mrs. Prentice.”
“We’ll see,” said Mr. Barrett.
In accordance with his plan his return to his native town was heralded by a few short visits at respectable intervals. A sort of human butterfly, he streaked rapidly across one or two streets, alighted for half an hour to resume an old friendship, and then disappeared again. Having given at least half-a-dozen hints of this kind, he made a final return to Ramsbury and entered into occupation of his new house.
“It does you credit, Jernshaw,” he said, gratefully. “I should have made a rare mess of it without your help.”
“It looks very nice,” admitted his friend. “Too nice.”
“That’s all nonsense,” said the owner, irritably.
“All right,” said Mr. Jernshaw. “I don’t know the sex, then, that’s all. If you think that you’re going to keep a nice house like this all to yourself, you’re mistaken. It’s a home; and where there’s a home a woman comes in, somehow.”
Mr. Barrett grunted his disbelief.
“I give you four days,” said Mr. Jernshaw.
As a matter of fact, Mrs. Prentice and her daughter came on the fifth. Mr. Barrett, who was in an easy-chair, wooing slumber with a handkerchief over his head, heard their voices at the front door and the cordial invitation of his housekeeper. They entered the room as he sat hastily smoothing his rumpled hair.
“Good afternoon,” he said, shaking hands.
Mrs. Prentice returned the greeting in a level voice, and, accepting a chair, gazed around the room.
“Nice weather,” said Mr. Barrett.
“Very,” said Mrs. Prentice.
“It’s–it’s quite a pleasure to see you again,” said Mr. Barrett.
“We thought we should have seen you before,” said Mrs. Prentice, “but I told Louisa that no doubt you were busy, and wanted to surprise her. I like the carpet; don’t you, Louisa?”
Miss Prentice said she did.
“The room is nice and airy,” said Mrs. Prentice, “but it’s a pity you didn’t come to me before deciding. I could have told you of a better house for the same money.”
“I’m very well satisfied with this,” said Mr. Barrett. “It’s all I want.”
“It’s well enough,” conceded Mrs. Prentice, amiably. “And how have you been all these years?”
Mr. Barrett, with some haste, replied that his health and spirits had been excellent.
“You look well,” said Mrs. Prentice. “Neither of you seem to have changed much,” she added, looking from him to her daughter. “And I think you did quite well not to write. I think it was much the best.”
Mr. Barrett sought for a question: a natural, artless question, that would neutralize the hideous suggestion conveyed by this remark, but it eluded him. He sat and gazed in growing fear at Mrs. Prentice.
“I–I couldn’t write,” he said at last, in desperation; “my wife—-“
“Your what?” exclaimed Mrs. Prentice, loudly.
“Wife,” said Mr. Barrett, suddenly calm now that he had taken the plunge. “She wouldn’t have liked it.”
Mrs. Prentice tried to control her voice. I never heard you were married!” she gasped. “Why isn’t she here?”
“We couldn’t agree,” said the veracious Mr. Barrett. “She was very difficult; so I left the children with her and—-“
“Chil—-” said Mrs. Prentice, and paused, unable to complete the word.
“Five,” said Mr. Barrett, in tones of resignation. “It was rather a wrench, parting with them, especially the baby. He got his first tooth the day I left.”
The information fell on deaf ears. Mrs. Prentice, for once in her life thoroughly at a loss, sat trying to collect her scattered faculties. She had come out prepared for a hard job, but not an impossible one. All things considered, she took her defeat with admirable composure.
“I have no doubt it is much the best thing for the children to remain with their mother,” she said, rising.
“Much the best,” agreed Mr. Barrett. “Whatever she is like,” continued the old lady. “Are you ready, Louisa?”
Mr. Barrett followed them to the door, and then, returning to the room, watched, with glad eyes, their progress up the street.
“Wonder whether she’ll keep it to herself?” he muttered.
His doubts were set at rest next day. All Ramsbury knew by then of his matrimonial complications, and seemed anxious to talk about them; complications which tended to increase until Mr. Barrett wrote out a list of his children’s names and ages and learnt it off by heart.
Relieved of the attentions of the Prentice family, he walked the streets a free man; and it was counted to him for righteousness that he never said a hard word about his wife. She had her faults, he said, but they were many thousand miles away, and he preferred to forget them. And he added, with some truth, that he owed her a good deal.
For a few months he had no reason to alter his opinion. Thanks to his presence of mind, the Prentice family had no terrors for him. Heart- whole and fancy free, he led the easy life of a man of leisure, a condition of things suddenly upset by the arrival of Miss Grace Lindsay to take up a post at the elementary school. Mr. Barrett succumbed almost at once, and, after a few encounters in the street and meetings at mutual friends’, went to unbosom him-self to Mr. Jernshaw.
“What has she got to do with you?” demanded that gentleman.
“I–I’m rather struck with her,” said Mr. Barrett.
“Struck with her?” repeated his friend, sharply. “I’m surprised at you. You’ve no business to think of such things.”
“Why not?” demanded Mr. Barrett, in tones that were sharper still.
“Why not?” repeated the other. “Have you forgotten your wife and children?”
Mr. Barrett, who, to do him justice, had forgotten, fell back in his chair and sat gazing at him, open-mouthed.
“You’re in a false position–in a way,” said Mr. Jernshaw, sternly.
“False is no name for it,” said Mr. Barrett, huskily. “What am I to do?”
“Do?” repeated the other, staring at him. “Nothing! Unless, perhaps, you send for your wife and children. I suppose, in any case, you would have to have the little ones if anything happened to her?”
Mr. Barrett grinned ruefully.
“Think it over,” said Mr. Jernshaw. “I will,” said the other, heartily.
He walked home deep in thought. He was a kindly man, and he spent some time thinking out the easiest death for Mrs. Barrett. He decided at last upon heart-disease, and a fort-night later all Ramsbury knew of the letter from Australia conveying the mournful intelligence. It was generally agreed that the mourning and the general behaviour of the widower left nothing to be desired.
“She’s at peace at last,” he said, solemnly, to Jernshaw.
“I believe you killed her,” said his friend. Mr. Barrett started violently.
“I mean your leaving broke her heart,” explained the other.
Mr. Barrett breathed easily again.
“It’s your duty to look after the children,” said Jernshaw, firmly. “And I’m not the only one that thinks so.”
“They are with their grandfather and grand-mother,” said Mr. Barrett.
Mr. Jernshaw sniffed.
“And four uncles and five aunts,” added Mr. Barrett, triumphantly.
“Think how they would brighten up your house,” said Mr. Jernshaw.
His friend shook his head. “It wouldn’t be fair to their grandmother,” he said, decidedly. “Besides, Australia wants population.”
He found to his annoyance that Mr. Jernshaw’s statement that he was not alone in his views was correct. Public opinion seemed to expect the arrival of the children, and one citizen even went so far as to recommend a girl he knew, as nurse.
Ramsbury understood at last that his decision was final, and, observing his attentions to the new schoolmistress, flattered itself that it had discovered the reason. It is possible that Miss Lindsay shared their views, but if so she made no sign, and on the many occasions on which she met Mr. Barrett on her way to and from school greeted him with frank cordiality. Even when he referred to his loneliness, which he did frequently, she made no comment.
He went into half-mourning at the end of two months, and a month later bore no outward signs of his loss. Added to that his step was springy and his manner youthful. Miss Lindsay was twenty-eight, and he persuaded himself that, sexes considered, there was no disparity worth mentioning.
He was only restrained from proposing by a question of etiquette. Even a shilling book on the science failed to state the interval that should elapse between the death of one wife and the negotiations for another. It preferred instead to give minute instructions with regard to the eating of asparagus. In this dilemma he consulted Jernshaw.
“Don’t know, I’m sure,” said that gentle-man; “besides, it doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter?” repeated Mr. Barrett. “Why not?”
“Because I think Tillett is paying her attentions,” was the reply. “He’s ten years younger than you are, and a bachelor. A girl would naturally prefer him to a middle-aged widower with five children.”
“In Australia,” the other reminded him.
“Man for man, bachelor for bachelor,” said Mr. Jernshaw, regarding him, “she might prefer you; as things are–“
“I shall ask her,” said Mr. Barrett, doggedly. “I was going to wait a bit longer, but if there’s any chance of her wrecking her prospects for life by marrying that tailor’s dummy it’s my duty to risk it–for her sake. I’ve seen him talking to her twice myself, but I never thought he’d dream of such a thing.”
Apprehension and indignation kept him awake half the night, but when he arose next morning it was with the firm resolve to put his fortune to the test that day. At four o’clock he changed his neck-tie for the third time, and at ten past sallied out in the direction of the school. He met Miss Lindsay just coming out, and, after a well-deserved compliment to the weather, turned and walked with her.
“I was hoping to meet you,” he said, slowly.
“Yes?” said the girl.
“I–I have been feeling rather lonely to-day,” he continued.
“You often do,” said Miss Lindsay, guardedly.
“It gets worse and worse,” said Mr. Barrett, sadly.
“I think I know what is the matter with you,” said the girl, in a soft voice; “you have got nothing to do all day, and you live alone, except for your housekeeper.”
Mr. Barrett assented with some eagerness, and stole a hopeful glance at her.
“You–you miss something,” continued Miss. Lindsay, in a faltering voice.
“I do,” said Mr. Barrett, with ardour.
“You miss”–the girl made an effort–“you miss the footsteps and voices of your little children.”
Mr. Barrett stopped suddenly in the street, and then, with a jerk, went blindly on.
“I’ve never spoken of it before because it’s your business, not mine,” continued the girl. I wouldn’t have spoken now, but when you referred to your loneliness I thought perhaps you didn’t realize the cause of it.”
Mr. Barrett walked on in silent misery.
“Poor little motherless things!” said Miss Lindsay, softly. “Motherless and–fatherless.”
“Better for them,” said Mr. Barrett, finding his voice at last.
“It almost looks like it,” said Miss Lindsay, with a sigh.
Mr. Barrett tried to think clearly, but the circumstances were hardly favourable. “Suppose,” he said, speaking very slowly, “suppose I wanted to get married?”
Miss Lindsay started. “What, again?” she said, with an air of surprise.
“How could I ask a girl to come and take over five children?”
“No woman that was worth having would let little children be sacrificed for her sake,” said Miss Lindsay, decidedly.
“Do you think anybody would marry me with five children?” demanded Mr. Barrett.
“She might,” said the girl, edging away from him a little. “It depends on the woman.”
“Would–you, for instance?” said Mr. Barrett, desperately.
Miss Lindsay shrank still farther away. “I don’t know; it would depend upon circumstances,” she murmured.
“I will write and send for them,” said Mr. Barrett, significantly.
Miss Lindsay made no reply. They had arrived at her gate by this time, and, with a hurried handshake, she disappeared indoors.
Mr. Barrett, somewhat troubled in mind, went home to tea.
He resolved, after a little natural hesitation, to drown the children, and reproached himself bitterly for not having disposed of them at the same time as their mother. Now he would have to go through another period of mourning and the consequent delay in pressing his suit. Moreover, he would have to allow a decent interval between his conversation with Miss Lindsay and their untimely end.
The news of the catastrophe arrived two or three days before the return of the girl from her summer holidays. She learnt it in the first half- hour from her landlady, and sat in a dazed condition listening to a description of the grief-stricken father and the sympathy extended to him by his fellow-citizens. It appeared that nothing had passed his lips for two days.
[Illustration: SHE LEARNT THE NEWS IN THE FIRST HALF-HOER FROM HER LANDLADY.]
“Shocking!” said Miss Lindsay, briefly. “Shocking !”
An instinctive feeling that the right and proper thing to do was to nurse his grief in solitude kept Mr. Barrett out of her way for nearly a week. When she did meet him she received a limp handshake and a greeting in a voice from which all hope seemed to have departed.
“I am very sorry,” she said, with a sort of measured gentleness.
Mr. Barrett, in his hushed voice, thanked her.
“I am all alone now,” he said, pathetically. “There is nobody now to care whether I live or die.”
Miss Lindsay did not contradict him.
“How did it happen?” she inquired, after they had gone some distance in silence.
“They were out in a sailing-boat,” said Mr. Barrett; “the boat capsized in a puff of wind, and they were all drowned.”
“Who was in charge of them?” inquired the girl, after a decent interval.
“Boatman,” replied the other.
“How did you hear?”
“I had a letter from one of my sisters-in-law, Charlotte,” said Mr. Barrett. “A most affecting letter. Poor Charlotte was like a second mother to them. She’ll never be the same woman again. Never!”
“I should like to see the letter,” said Miss Lindsay, musingly.
Mr. Barrett suppressed a start. “I should like to show it to you,” he said, “but I’m afraid I have destroyed it. It made me shudder every time I looked at it.”
“It’s a pity,” said the girl, dryly. “I should have liked to see it. I’ve got my own idea about the matter. Are you sure she was very fond of them?”
“She lived only for them,” said Mr. Barrett, in a rapt voice.
“Exactly. I don’t believe they are drowned at all,” said Miss Lindsay, suddenly. “I believe you have had all this terrible anguish for nothing. It’s too cruel.”
Mr. Barrett stared at her in anxious amazement.
“I see it all now,” continued the girl. “Their Aunt Charlotte was devoted to them. She always had the fear that some day you would return and claim them, and to prevent that she invented the story of their death.”
“Charlotte is the most truthful woman that ever breathed,” said the distressed Mr. Barrett.
Miss Lindsay shook her head. “You are like all other honourable, truthful people,” she said, looking at him gravely. “You can’t imagine anybody else telling a falsehood. I don’t believe you could tell one if you tried.”
Mr. Barrett gazed about him with the despairing look of a drowning mariner.
“I’m certain I’m right,” continued the girl. “I can see Charlotte exulting in her wickedness. Why!”
“What’s the matter?” inquired Mr. Barrett, greatly worried.
“I’ve just thought of it,” said Miss Lindsay. “She’s told you that your children are drowned, and she has probably told them you are dead. A woman like that would stick at nothing to gain her ends.”
“You don’t know Charlotte,” said Mr. Barrett, feebly.
“I think I do,” was the reply. “However, we’ll make sure. I suppose you’ve got friends in Melbourne?”
“A few,” said Mr. Barrett, guardedly.
“Come down to the post-office and cable to one of them.”
Mr. Barrett hesitated. “I’ll write,” he said, slowly. “It’s an awkward thing to cable; and there’s no hurry. I’ll write to Jack Adams, I think.”
“It’s no good writing,” said Miss Lindsay, firmly. “You ought to know that.”
“Why not?” demanded the other.
“Because, you foolish man,” said the girl, calmly, “before your letter got there, there would be one from Melbourne saying that he had been choked by a fish-bone, or died of measles, or something of that sort.”
Mr. Barrett, hardly able to believe his ears, stopped short and looked at her. The girl’s eyes were moist with mirth and her lips trembling. He put out his hand and took her wrist in a strong grip.
“That’s all right,” he said, with a great gasp of relief. “_Phew!_ At one time I thought I had lost you.”
“By heart-disease, or drowning?” inquired Miss Lindsay, softly.
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