[Illustration: “A gentleman of middle age was peeping round the door.”]
“How goes it?” said Mr. Carter, forcing a smile and shaking hands.
“He’s grown better-looking than ever,” said the gentleman, subsiding into a chair.
“So have you,” said Mr. Carter. “I should hardly have known you.”
“Well, I’ m glad to see you again,” said the other in a more subdued fashion. “We’re all glad to see you back, and I ’ope that when the wedding cake is sent out there’ll be a bit for old Ben Prout.”
“You’ll be the first, Ben,” said Mr. Carter, quickly.
Mr. Prout got up and shook hands with him again. “It only shows what mistakes a man can make,” he said, resuming his seat. “It only shows how easy it is to misjudge one’s fellow-creeturs. When you went away sudden four years ago, I says to myself, ‘Ben Prout,’ I says, ’make up your mind to it, that two quid has gorn.’”
The smile vanished from Mr. Carter’s face, and a sudden chill descended upon the company.
“Two quid?” he said, stiffly. “What two quid?”
“The two quid I lent you,” said Mr. Prout, in a pained voice.
“When?” said Mr. Carter, struggling.
“When you and I met him that evening on the pier,” said Miss Evans, in a matter-of-fact voice.
Mr. Carter started, and gazed at her uneasily. The smile on her lip and the triumphant gleam in her eye were a revelation to him. He turned to Mr. Evans and in as calm a voice as he could assume, requested him to discharge the debt. Mr. Prout, his fingers twitching, stood waiting “Well, it’s your money,” said Mr. Evans, grudgingly extracting a purse from his trouser-pocket; “and I suppose you ought to pay your debts; still——”
He put down two pounds on the table and broke off in sudden amazement as Mr. Prout, snatching up the money, bolted headlong from the room. His surprise was shared by his son, but the other two made no sign. Mr. Carter was now prepared for the worst, and his voice was quite calm as he gave instructions for the payment of the other three gentlemen who presented claims during the evening endorsed by Miss Evans. As the last departed Mr. Evans, whose temper had been gradually getting beyond his control, crossed over and handed him his watch and chain, a few coppers, and the return half of his railway ticket.
“I think we can do without you, after all,” he said, breathing thickly. “I’ve no doubt you owe money all over England. You’re a cadger, that’s what you are.”
He pointed to the door, and Mr. Carter, after twice opening his lips to speak and failing, blundered towards it. Miss Evans watched him curiously.
“Cheats never prosper,” she said, with gentle severity.
“Good-by,” said Mr. Carter, pausing at the door.
“It’s your own fault,” continued Miss Evans, who was suffering from a slight touch of conscience. “If you hadn’t come here pretending to be Bert Simmons and calling me ‘Nan’ as if you had known me all my life, I wouldn’t have done it.”