“Is it too bad for you to take me home, Sam?” inquired Miss Nugent, softly.
The perturbed Mr. Wilks looked from one to the other. As a sportsman his sympathies were with Hardy, but his duty lay with the girl.
“I’ll do my best, miss,” he said; and got up and limped, very well indeed for a first attempt, round the room.
Then Miss Nugent did a thing which was a puzzle to herself for some time afterwards. Having won the victory she deliberately threw away the fruits of it, and declining to allow the steward to run any risks, accepted Hardy’s escort home. Mr. Wilks watched them from the door, and with his head in a whirl caused by the night’s proceedings mixed himself a stiff glass of grog to set it right, and drank to the health of both of them.
[Illustration: “Mr. Wilks drank to the health of both of them.”]
The wind had abated somewhat in violence as they walked home, and, moreover, they had their backs to it. The walk was slower and more enjoyable in many respects than the walk out. In an unusually soft mood she replied to his remarks and stole little critical glances up at him. When they reached the house she stood a little while at the gate gazing at the starry sky and listening to the crash of the sea on the beach.
“It is a fine night,” she said, as she shook hands.
“The best I have ever known,” said Hardy. “Good-bye.”
The weeks passed all too quickly for James Hardy. He saw Kate Nugent at her own home; met her, thanks to the able and hearty assistance of Mr. Wilks, at Fullalove Alley, and on several occasions had the agreeable task of escorting her back home.
He cabled to his father for news of the illustrious stowaway immediately the Conqueror was notified as having reached Port Elizabeth. The reply—“Left ship”—confirmed his worst fears, but he cheerfully accepted Mrs. Kingdom’s view that the captain, in order to relieve the natural anxiety of his family, had secured a passage on the first vessel homeward bound.
Captain Hardy was the first to reach home. In the early hours of a fine April morning the Conqueror steamed slowly into Sunwich Harbour, and in a very short time the town was revelling in a description of Captain Nugent’s first voyage before the mast from lips which were never tired of repeating it. Down by the waterside Mr. Nathan Smith found that he had suddenly attained the rank of a popular hero, and his modesty took alarm at the publicity afforded to his action. It was extremely distasteful to a man who ran a quiet business on old-fashioned lines and disbelieved in advertisement. He lost three lodgers the same day.
[Illustration: “A popular hero.”]
Jem Hardy was one of the few people in Sunwich for whom the joke had no charms, and he betrayed such an utter lack of sympathy with his father’s recital that the latter accused him at last of wanting a sense of humour.