The Touch-me-not made two successful voyages under Zeke’s command, and was home again and discharging beside the Town Quay, when, one summer’s day, as John Penaluna leaned on his pitchfork beside a heap of weeds arranged for burning he glanced up and saw Captain Tangye hobbling painfully towards him across the slope. The old man had on his best blue cut-away coat, and paused now and then to wipe his brow.
“I take this as very friendly,” said John.
Captain Tangye grunted. “P’rhaps ’tis, p’rhaps ‘tisn’. Better wait a bit afore you say it.”
“Stay and have a bit of dinner with me and the missus.”
“Dashed if I do! ’Tis about her I came to tell ’ee.”
“Yes?” John, being puzzled, smiled in a meaningless way.
“Zeke’s home agen.”
“Yes; he was up here two evenin’s ago.”
“He was here yesterday; he’ll be here again to-day. He comes here too often. I’ve got a telescope, John Penaluna, and I sees what’s goin’ on. What’s more, I guess what’ll come of it. So I warn ’ee—as a friend, of course.”
John stared down at the polished steel teeth of his pitchfork, glinting under the noonday sun.
“As a friend, of course,” he echoed vaguely, still with the meaningless smile on his face.
“I b’lieve she means to be a good ‘ooman; but she’s listenin’ to ’en. Now, I’ve got ’en a ship up to Runcorn. He shan’t sail the Touch-me-not no more. ’Tis a catch for ’en—a nice barquentine, five hundred tons. If he decides to take the post (and I reckon he will) he starts to-morrow at latest. Between this an’ then there’s danger, and ’tis for you to settle how to act.”
A long pause followed. The clock across the harbour struck noon, and this seemed to wake John Penaluna up. “Thank ’ee,” he said. “I think I’ll be going in to dinner. I’ll—I’ll consider of it. You’ve took me rather sudden.”
“Well, so long! I mean it friendly, of course.”
“Of course. Better take the lower path; ‘tis shorter, an’ not so many stones in it.”
John stared after him as he picked his way down the hill; then fell to rearranging his heaps of dried rubbish in an aimless manner. He had forgotten the dinner-hour. Something buzzed in his ears. There was no wind on the slope, no sound in the air. The shipwrights had ceased their hammering, and the harbour at his feet lay still as a lake. They were memories, perhaps, that buzzed so swiftly past his ears—trivial recollections by the hundred, all so little, and yet now immensely significant.
It was Hester, standing at the top of the slope and calling him. He stuck his pitchfork in the ground, picked up his coat, and went slowly in to dinner.
Next day, by all usage, he should have travelled in to market: but he announced at breakfast that he was too busy, and would send Robert, the hind in his stead. He watched his wife’s face as he said it. She certainly changed colour, and yet she did not seem disappointed. The look that sprang into those grey eyes of her was more like one of relief, or, if not of relief, of a sudden hope suddenly snatched at; but this was absurd, of course. It would not fit in with the situation at all.