Mr. Jernshaw, who was taking the opportunity of a lull in business to weigh out pound packets of sugar, knocked his hands together and stood waiting for the order of the tall bronzed man who had just entered the shop—a well-built man of about forty—who was regarding him with blue eyes set in quizzical wrinkles.
“What, Harry!” exclaimed Mr. Jernshaw, in response to the wrinkles. “Harry Barrett!”
“That’s me,” said the other, extending his hand. “The rolling stone come home covered with moss.”
Mr. Jernshaw, somewhat excited, shook hands, and led the way into the little parlour behind the shop.
“Fifteen years,” said Mr. Barrett, sinking into a chair, “and the old place hasn’t altered a bit.”
“Smithson told me he had let that house in Webb Street to a Barrett,” said the grocer, regarding him, “but I never thought of you. I suppose you’ve done well, then?”
Mr. Barrett nodded. “Can’t grumble,” he said modestly. “I’ve got enough to live on. Melbourne’s all right, but I thought I’d come home for the evening of my life.”
“Evening!” repeated his friend. “Forty-three,” said Mr. Barrett, gravely. “I’m getting on.”
“You haven’t changed much,” said the grocer, passing his hand through his spare grey whiskers. “Wait till you have a wife and seven youngsters. Why, boots alone——”
Mr. Barrett uttered a groan intended for sympathy. “Perhaps you could help me with the furnishing,” he said, slowly. “I’ve never had a place of my own before, and I don’t know much about it.”
“Anything I can do,” said his friend. “Better not get much yet; you might marry, and my taste mightn’t be hers.”
Mr. Barrett laughed. “I’m not marrying,” he said, with conviction.
“Seen anything of Miss Prentice yet?” inquired Mr. Jernshaw.
“No,” said the other, with a slight flush. “Why?”
“She’s still single,” said the grocer.
“What of it?” demanded Mr. Barrett, with warmth. “What of it?”
“Nothing,” said Mr. Jernshaw, slowly. “Nothing; only I——”
“Well?” said the other, as he paused.
“I—there was an idea that you went to Australia to—to better your condition,” murmured the grocer. “That—that you were not in a position to marry—that——”
“Boy and girl nonsense,” said Mr. Barrett, sharply. “Why, it’s fifteen years ago. I don’t suppose I should know her if I saw her. Is her mother alive?”
“Rather!” said Mr. Jernshaw, with emphasis. “Louisa is something like what her mother was when you went away.”
Mr. Barrett shivered.
“But you’ll see for yourself,” continued the other. “You’ll have to go and see them. They’ll wonder you haven’t been before.”
“Let ’em wonder,” said the embarrassed Mr. Barrett. “I shall go and see all my old friends in their turn; casual-like. You might let ’em hear that I’ve been to see you before seeing them, and then, if they’re thinking any nonsense, it’ll be a hint. I’m stopping in town while the house is being decorated; next time I come down I’ll call and see somebody else.”