“It’s my good fortune,” said Hardy, with a slight bow. Then he cocked a malignant eye at the innocent Mr. Wilks, and wondered at what age men discarded the useless habit of blushing. Opposite him sat Miss Nugent, calmly observant, the slightest suggestion of disdain in her expression. Framed in the queer, high-backed old chair which had belonged to Mr. Wilks’s grandfather, she made a picture at which Jem Hardy continued to gaze with respectful ardour. A hopeless sense of self-depreciation possessed him, but the idea that Murchison should aspire to so much goodness and beauty made him almost despair of his sex. His reverie was broken by the voice of Mr. Wilks.
“A quarter to eight?” said that gentleman in-credulously; “it can’t be.”
“I thought it was later than that,” said Hardy, simply.
Mr. Wilks gasped, and with a faint shake of his head at the floor abandoned the thankless task of giving hints to a young man who was too obtuse to see them; and it was not until some time later that Mr. Hardy, sorely against his inclinations, gave his host a hearty handshake and, with a respectful bow to Miss Nugent, took his departure.
“Fine young man he’s growed,” said Mr. Wilks, deferentially, turning to his remaining visitor; “greatly improved, I think.”
Miss Nugent looked him over critically before replying. “He seems to have taken a great fancy to you,” she remarked.
Mr. Wilks smiled a satisfied smile. “He came to ask my advice about business,” he said, softly. “He’s ‘eard two or three speak o’ me as knowing a thing or two, and being young, and just starting, ’e came to talk it over with me. I never see a young man so pleased and ready to take advice as wot he is.”
“He is coming again for more, I suppose?” said Miss Nugent, carelessly.
Mr. Wilks acquiesced. “And he asked me to go over to his ’ouse to smoke a pipe with ’im on Tuesday,” he added, in the casual manner in which men allude to their aristocratic connections. “He’s a bit lonely, all by himself.”
Miss Nugent said, “Indeed,” and then, lapsing into silence, gave little occasional side-glances at Mr. Wilks, as though in search of any hidden charms about him which might hitherto have escaped her.
At the same time Mr. James Hardy, walking slowly home by the edge of the sea, pondered on further ways and means of ensnaring the affection of the ex-steward.
The anticipations of Mr. Wilks were more than realized on the following Tuesday. From the time a trim maid showed him into the smoking-room until late at night, when he left, a feted and honoured guest, with one of his host’s best cigars between his teeth, nothing that could yield him any comfort was left undone. In the easiest of easy chairs he sat in the garden beneath the leafy branches of apple trees, and undiluted wisdom and advice flowed from his lips in a stream as he beamed delightedly upon his entertainer.