THE tall man who had passed Captain Wragge in the dark proceeded rapidly along the public walk, struck off across a little waste patch of ground, and entered the open door of the Aldborough Hotel. The light in the passage, falling full on his face as he passed it, proved the truth of Captain Wragge's surmise, and showed the stranger to be Mr. Kirke, of the merchant service.
Meeting the landlord in the passage, Mr. Kirke nodded to him with the familiarity of an old customer. "Have you got the paper?" he asked; "I want to look at the visitors' list."
"I have got it in my room, sir," said the landlord, leading the way into a parlor at the back of the house. "Are there any friends of yours staying here, do you think?"
Without replying, the seaman turned to the list as soon as the newspaper was placed in his hand, and ran his finger down it, name by name. The finger suddenly stopped at this line: "Sea-view Cottage; Mr. Noel Vanstone." Kirke of the merchant-service repeated the name to himself, and put down the paper thoughtfully.
"Have you found anybody you know, captain?" asked the landlord.
"I have found a name I know -- a name my father used often to speak of in his time. Is this Mr. Vanstone a family man? Do you know if there is a young lady in the house?"
"I can't say, captain. My wife will be here directly; she is sure to know. It must have been some time ago, if your father knew this Mr. Vanstone?"
"It was some time ago. My father knew a subaltern officer of that name when he was with his regiment in Canada. It would be curious if the person here turned out to be the same man, and if that young lady was his daughter."
"Excuse me, captain -- but the young lady seems to hang a little on your mind," said the landlord, with a pleasant smile.
Mr. Kirke looked as if the form which his host's good-humor had just taken was not quite to his mind. He returned abruptly to the subaltern officer and the regiment in Canada. "That poor fellow's story was as miserable a one as ever I heard," he said, looking back again absently at the visitors' list.
"Would there be any harm in telling it, sir?" asked the landlord. "Miserable or not, a story's a story, when you know it to be true."
Mr. Kirke hesitated. "I hardly think I should be doing right to tell it," he said. "If this man, or any relations of his, are still alive, it is not a story they might like strangers to know. All I can tell you is, that my father was the salvation of that young officer under very dreadful circumstances. They parted in Canada. My father remained with his regiment; the young officer sold out and returned to England, and from that moment they lost sight of each other. It would be curious if this Vanstone here was the same man. It would be curious -"
He suddenly checked himself just as another reference to "the young lady" was on the point of passing his lips. At the same moment the landlord's wife came in, and Mr. Kirke at once transferred his inquiries to the higher authority in the house.
"Do you know anything of this Mr. Vanstone who is down here on the visitors' list?" asked the sailor. "Is he an old man?"
"He's a miserable little creature to look at," replied the landlady; "but he's not old, captain."
"Then he's not the man I mean. Perhaps he is the man's son? Has he got any ladies with him?"
The landlady tossed her head, and pursed up her lips disparagingly.
"He has a housekeeper with him," she said. "A middle-aged person -- not one of my sort. I dare say I'm wrong -- but I don't like a dressy woman in her station of life."
Mr. Kirke began to look puzzled. "I must have made some mistake about the house," he said. "Surely there's a lawn cut octagon-shape at Sea-view Cottage, and a white flag-staff in the middle of the gravel-walk?"
"That's not Sea-view, sir! It's North Shingles you're talking of. Mr. Bygrave's. His wife and his niece came here by the coach to-day. His wife's tall enough to be put in a show, and the worst-dressed woman I ever set eyes on. But Miss Bygrave is worth looking at, if I may venture to say so. She's the finest girl, to my mind, we've had at Aldborough for many a long day. I wonder who they are! Do you know the name, captain?"
"No," said Mr. Kirke, with a shade of disappointment on his dark, weather-beaten face; "I never heard the name before."
After replying in those words, he rose to take his leave. The landlord vainly invited him to drink a parting glass; the landlady vainly pressed him to stay another ten minutes and try a cup of tea. He only replied that his sister expected him, and that he must return to the parsonage immediately.
On leaving the hotel Mr. Kirke set his face westward, and walked inland along the highroad as fast as the darkness would let him.
"Bygrave?" he thought to himself. "Now I know her name, how much am I the wiser for it! If it had been Vanstone, my father's son might have had a chance of making acquaintance with her." He stopped, and looked back in the direction of Aldborough. "What a fool I am!" he burst out suddenly, striking his stick on the ground. "I was forty last birthday." He turned and went on again faster than ever -- his head down; his resolu te black eyes searching the darkness on the land as they had searched it many a time on the sea from the deck of his ship.
After more than an hour's walking he reached a village, with a primitive little church and parsonage nestled together in a hollow. He entered the house by the back way, and found his sister, the clergyman's wife, sitting alone over her work in the parlor.
"Where is your husband, Lizzie?" he asked, taking a chair in a corner.
"William has gone out to see a sick person. He had just time enough before he went," she added, with a smile, "to tell me about the young lady; and he declares he will never trust himself at Aldborough with you again until you are a steady, married man." She stopped, and looked at her brother more attentively than she had looked at him yet. "Robert!" she said, laying aside her work, and suddenly crossing the room to him. "You look anxious, you look distressed. William only laughed about your meeting with the young lady. Is it serious? Tell me; what is she like?"
He turned his head away at the question.
She took a stool at his feet, and persisted in looking up at him. "Is it serious, Robert?" she repeated, softly.
Kirke's weather-beaten face was accustomed to no concealments -- it answered for him before he spoke a word. "Don't tell your husband till I am gone," he said, with a roughness quite new in his sister's experience of him. "I know I only deserve to be laughed at; but it hurts me, for all that."
"Hurts you?" she repeated, in astonishment.
"You can't think me half such a fool, Lizzie, as I think myself," pursued Kirke, bitterly. "A man at my age ought to know better. I didn't set eyes on her for as much as a minute altogether; and there I have been hanging about the place till after nightfall on the chance of seeing her again -- skulking, I should have called it, if I had found one of my men doing what I have been doing myself. I believe I'm bewitched. She's a mere girl, Lizzie -- I doubt if she's out of her teens -- I'm old enough to be her father. It's all one; she stops in my mind in spite of me. I've had her face looking at me, through the pitch darkness, every step of the way to this house; and it's looking at me now -- as plain as I see yours, and plainer."
He rose impatiently, and began to walk backward and forward in the room. His sister looked after him, with surprise as well as sympathy expressed in her face. From his boyhood upward she had always been accustomed to see him master of himself. Years since, in the failing fortunes of the family, he had been their example and their support. She had heard of him in the desperate emergencies of a life at sea, when hundreds of his fellow-creatures had looked to his steady self-possession for rescue from close-threatening death -- and had not looked in vain. Never, in all her life before, had his sister seen the balance of that calm and equal mind lost as she saw it lost now.
"How can you talk so unreasonably about your age and yourself?" she said. "There is not a woman alive, Robert, who is good enough for you. What is her name?"
"Bygrave. Do you know it?"
"No. But I might soon make acquaintance with her. If we only had a little time before us; if I could only get to Aldborough and see her -- but you are going away to-morrow; your ship sails at the end of the week."
"Thank God for that!" said Kirke, fervently.
"Are you glad to be going away?" she asked, more and more amazed at him.
"Right glad, Lizzie, for my own sake. If I ever get to my senses again, I shall find my way back to them on the deck of my ship. This girl has got between me and my thoughts already: she shan't go a step further, and get between me and my duty. I'm determined on that. Fool as I am, I have sense enough left not to trust myself within easy hail of Aldborough to-morrow morning. I'm good for another twenty miles of walking, and I'll begin my journey back tonight."
His sister started up, and caught him fast by the arm. "Robert!" she exclaimed; "you're not serious? You don't mean to leave us on foot, alone in the dark?"
"It's only saying good-by, my dear, the last thing at night instead of the first thing in the morning," he answered, with a smile. "Try and make allowances for me, Lizzie. My life has been passed at sea; and I'm not used to having my mind upset in this way. Men ashore are used to it; men ashore can take it easy. I can't. If I stopped here I shouldn't rest. If I waited till to-morrow, I should only be going back to have another look at her. I don't want to feel more ashamed of myself than I do already. I want to fight my way back to my duty and myself, without stopping to think twice about it. Darkness is nothing to me -I'm used to darkness. I have got the high-road to walk on, and I can't lose my way. Let me go, Lizzie! The only sweetheart I have any business with at my age is my ship. Let me get back to her!"
His sister still kept her hold of his arm, and still pleaded with him to stay till the morning. He listened to her with perfect patience and kindness, but she never shook his determination for an instant.
"What am I to say to William?" she pleaded. "What will he think when he comes back and finds you gone?"
"Tell him I have taken the advice he gave us in his sermon last Sunday. Say I have turned my back on the world, the flesh, and the devil."
"How can you talk so, Robert! And the boys, too -- you promised not to go without bidding the boys good-by."
"That's true. I made my little nephews a promise, and I'll keep it." He kicked off his shoes as he spoke, on the mat outside the door. "Light me upstairs, Lizzie; I'll bid the two boys good-by without waking them."
She saw the uselessness of resisting him any longer; and, taking the candle, went before him upstairs.
The boys -- both young children -- were sleeping together in the same bed. The youngest was his uncle's favorite, and was called by his uncle's name. He lay peacefully asleep, with a rough little toy ship hugged fast in his arms. Kirke's eyes softened as he stole on tiptoe to the child's side, and kissed him with the gentleness of a woman. "Poor little man!" said the sailor, tenderly. "He is as fond of his ship as I was at his age. I'll cut him out a better one when I come back. Will you give me my nephew one of these days, Lizzie, and will you let me make a sailor of him?"
"Oh, Robert, if you were only married and happy, as I am!"
"The time has gone by, my dear. I must make the best of it as I am, with my little nephew there to help me."
He left the room. His sister's tears fell fast as she followed him into the parlor. "There is something so forlorn and dreadful in your leaving us like this," she said. "Shall I go to Aldborough to-morrow, Robert, and try if I can get acquainted with her for your sake?"
"No!" he replied. "Let her be. If it's ordered that I am to see that girl again, I shall see her. Leave it to the future, and you leave it right." He put on his shoes, and took up his hat and stick. "I won't overwalk myself," he said, cheerfully. "If the coach doesn't overtake me on the road, I can wait for it where I stop to breakfast. Dry your eyes, my dear, and give me a kiss."
She was like her brother in features and complexion, and she had a touch of her brother's spirit; she dashed away the tears, and took her leave of him bravely.
"I shall be back in a year's time," said Kirke, falling into his old sailor-like way at the door. "I'll bring you a China shawl, Lizzie, and a chest of tea for your store-room. Don't let the boys forget me, and don't think I'm doing wrong to leave you in this way. I know I am doing right. God bless you and keep you, my dear -- and your husband, and your children! Good-by!"
He stooped and kissed her. She ran to the door to look after him. A puff of air extinguished the candle, and the black night shut him out from her in an instant.
Three days afterward the first-class merchantman Deliverance, Kirke, commander, sailed from London for the China Sea.Next