He waved his hand cheerily to the steward and departed. Mr. Wilks threw himself into a chair and, ignoring the cold and the general air of desolation of his best room, gave way to a fit of melancholy which would have made Mr. Edward Silk green with envy.
Days passed, but no word came from the missing captain, and only the determined opposition of Kate Nugent kept her aunt from advertising in the “Agony” columns of the London Press. Miss Nugent was quite as desirous of secrecy in the affair as her father, and it was a source of great annoyance to her when, in some mysterious manner, it leaked out. In a very short time the news was common property, and Mr. Wilks, appearing to his neighbours in an entirely new character, was besieged for information.
His own friends were the most tiresome, their open admiration of his lawlessness and their readiness to trace other mysterious disappearances to his agency being particularly galling to a man whose respectability formed his most cherished possession. Other people regarded the affair as a joke, and he sat gazing round-eyed one evening at the Two Schooners at the insensible figures of three men who had each had a modest half-pint at his expense. It was a pretty conceit and well played, but the steward, owing to the frenzied efforts of one of the sleeper whom he had awakened with a quart pot, did not stay to admire it. He finished up the evening at the Chequers, and after getting wet through on the way home fell asleep in his wet clothes before the dying fire.
[Illustration: “He finished up the evening at the Chequers.”]
He awoke with a bad cold and pains in the limbs. A headache was not unexpected, but the other symptoms were. With trembling hands he managed to light a fire and prepare a breakfast, which he left untouched. This last symptom was the most alarming of all, and going to the door he bribed a small boy with a penny to go for Dr. Murchison, and sat cowering over the fire until he came.
“Well, you’ve got a bad cold,” said the doctor, after examining him.” You’d better get to bed for the present. You’ll be safe there.”
“Is it dangerous?” faltered the steward.
“And keep yourself warm,” said the doctor, who was not in the habit of taking his patients into his confidence. “I’ll send round some medicine.”
“I should like Miss Nugent to know I’m bad,” said Mr. Wilks, in a weak voice.
“She knows that,” replied Murchison. “She was telling me about you the other day.”
He put his hand up to his neat black moustache to hide a smile, and met the steward’s indignant gaze without flinching.
“I mean ill,” said the latter, sharply.
“Oh, yes,” said the other. “Well, you get to bed now. Good morning.”
He took up his hat and stick and departed. Mr. Wilks sat for a little while over the fire, and then, rising, hobbled slowly upstairs to bed and forgot his troubles in sleep.