[Illustration: “The captain and Mr. Duckett discussed with great earnestness the nature of the secret.”]
It is an article of belief with some old-fashioned people that children should have no secrets from their parents, and, though not a model father in every way, Mr. Vickers felt keenly the fact that his daughter was keeping something from him. On two or three occasions since the date of sailing of the Fair Emily she had relieved her mind by throwing out dark hints of future prosperity, and there was no doubt that, somewhere in the house, she had a hidden store of gold. With his left foot glued to the floor he had helped her look for a sovereign one day which had rolled from her purse, and twice she had taken her mother on expensive journeys to Tollminster.
Brooding over the lack of confidence displayed by Selina, he sat on the side of her bed one afternoon glancing thoughtfully round the room. He was alone in the house, and now, or never, was his opportunity. After an hour’s arduous toil he had earned tenpence-halfpenny, and, rightly considering that the sum was unworthy of the risk, put it back where he had found it, and sat down gloomily to peruse a paper which he had found secreted at the bottom of her box.
Mr. Vickers was but a poor scholar, and the handwriting was deplorable. Undotted “i’s"travelled incognito through the scrawl, and uncrossed “t’s “passed themselves off unblushingly as “l’s.” After half an hour’s steady work, his imagination excited by one or two words which he had managed to decipher, he abandoned the task in despair, and stood moodily looking out of the window. His gaze fell upon Mr. William Russell, standing on the curb nearly opposite, with his hands thrust deep in his trouser-pockets, and, after a slight hesitation, he pushed open the small casement and beckoned him in.
“You’re a bit of a scholar, ain’t you, Bill?” he inquired.
Mr. Russell said modestly that he had got the name for it.
Again Mr. Vickers hesitated, but he had no choice, and his curiosity would brook no delay. With a strong caution as to secrecy, he handed the paper over to his friend.
Mr. Russell, his brow corrugated with thought, began to read slowly to himself. The writing was certainly difficult, but the watching Mr. Vickers saw by the way his friend’s finger moved along the lines that he was conquering it. By the slow but steady dilation of Mr. Russell’s eyes and the gradual opening of his mouth, he also saw that the contents were occasioning him considerable surprise.
“What does it say? “he demanded, anxiously.
Mr. Russell paid no heed. He gave vent to a little gurgle of astonishment and went on. Then he stopped and looked up blankly.
“Well, I’m d—–d!” he said.
“What is it?” cried Mr. Vickers.
Mr. Russell read on, and such exclamations as “Well, I’m jiggered!” “Well, I’m blest!” and others of a more complicated nature continued to issue from his lips.