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CAPTAIN HARRY AND MR. HANMER.
"Guests, has he?--Out of my road, you rascal! Guests? I'll warrant there's none so welcome--"
A good cheery voice--a voice the curtain could not muffle--rang it down the corridor as on the note of a cornet.
The wine was at Ruth's lip, scarcely wetting it. She lowered the glass steadily and turned half-about in her chair at the moment when, as before a whirlwind, the curtain flew wide and a stranger burst in on the run with Manasseh at his heels.
"Oliver!" The stranger drew himself up in the doorway--a well-knit figure of a man, clear of eye, bronzed of hue, clad in blue sea-cloth faced with scarlet, and wearing a short sword at the hip. "Where's my Oliver?" he shouted. "You'll forgive my voice, gentlemen. I'm Harry Vyell, at your service, fresh from shipboard, and not hoarse with anthems like old what-d'ye-call-him." Running his gaze along the table, he sighted the Collector and broke into a view-halloo.
"Oliver! Brother Noll!" Captain Harry made a second run of it, caught his foot on the prostrate toper whom Langton had dragged out of Miss Quiney's way, and fell on his brother's neck. Recovering himself with a "damn," he clapped his left hand on Sir Oliver's shoulder, seized Sir Oliver's right in his grip and started pump-handling--"as though" murmured Langton, "the room were sinking with ten feet of liquor in the hold."
"Harry--is it Harry?" Sir Oliver stammered, and made a weak effort to rise.
"Lord! You're drunk!" Captain Harry crowed the cheerful discovery. "Well, and I'll join you--but in moderation, mind! Newly married man-- if some one will be good enough to pass the decanter? . . . My dear fellow! . . . Cast anchor half an hour ago--got myself rowed ashore hot-foot to shake my Noll by the hand. Lord, brother, you can't think how good it feels to be married! Sally won't be coming ashore to-night; the hour's too late, she says; so I'm allowed an hour's liberty." Here the uxorious fellow paused on a laugh, indicating that he found irony in the word. "But Sally--capital name, Sally, for a sailor's wife; she's Sarah to all her family, Sal to me--Sally is cunning. Sally gives me leave ashore, but on condition I take Hanmer to look after me. He's my first lieutenant--first-rate officer, too--but no ladies' man. Gad!" chuckled Captain Harry, "I believe he'd run a mile from a petticoat. But where is he? Hi, Hanmer! step aft-along here and be introduced!"
A tall grave man, who had entered unnoticed, walked past the line of guests and up to his captain. He too wore a suit of blue with scarlet facings, and carried a short sword or hanger at his belt. He stood stiffly, awaiting command. The candle-light showed, beneath his right cheek bone, the cicatrix of a recent wound.
But Captain Harry, slewing round to him, was for the moment bereft of speech. His gaze had happened, for the first time, on little Miss Quiney.
"Eh?" he stammered, recovering himself. "Your pardon, ma'am. I wasn't aware that a lady--" Here his eyes, travelling to the end of the table, were arrested by the vision of Ruth Josselin. "Wh-e-ew!" he whistled, under his breath.
"Sir Oliver--" Batty Langton stood up.
"Hey?" The name gave Captain Harry yet another shock. He spun about again upon his brother. "'Sir Oliver'? Whats he saying?"
"You've not heard?" said the Collector, gripping his words slowly, one by one. "No, of course you've not. Harry, our uncle is dead."
There was a pause. "Poor old boy!" he muttered. "Used to be kind to us, Noll, after his lights. If it hadn't been for his womenkind."
"They're coming across to visit me, damn 'em!"
"What? Aunt Carrie and Di'? . . . Good Lord!"
"They're on the seas at this moment--may be here within the week."
"Good Lord!" Captain Harry repeated, and his eyes wandered again to Ruth Josselin. "Awkward, hey? . . . But I say, Noll--you really are Sir Oliver! Dear lad, I give you joy, and with all my heart. . . . Gad, here's a piece of news for Sally!"
Again he came to a doubtful halt, and again with his eyes on Ruth Josselin. He was not a quick-witted man, outside of his calling, nor a man apt to think evil; but he had been married a month, and this had been long enough to teach him that women and men judge by different standards.
"Sir Oliver," repeated Langton, "Miss Josselin craves your leave to retire."
"Yes, dear"--Miss Quiney launched an approving nod towards her--"I was about to suggest it, with Sir Oliver's leave. The hour is late, and by the time the sedan-chair returns for me--"
"There is no reason, Tatty, why we should not return together," said Ruth quietly. "The night is fine; and, with Manasseh for escort, I can walk beside your chair."
"Pardon me, ladies," put in Mr. Silk. "Once in the upper town, you may be safe enough; but down here by the quay the sh--sailors--I know 'em-- it's my buishness. 'Low me--join the eshcort."
But here, perceived by few in the room, a somewhat remarkable thing happened. Mr. Hanmer, who had stood hitherto like a statue, put out a hand and laid it on Mr. Silk's shoulder; and there must have been some power in that grip, for Mr. Silk dropped into his seat without another word.
Captain Harry saw it, and broke into a laugh.
"Why, to be sure! Hanmer's the very man! The rest of ye too drunk-- meaning no offence; and, for me,--well, for me, you see there's Sally to be reckoned with." He laughed aloud at this simple jocularity. "Hanmer!"
"If you wish it, sir." The lieutenant bowed stiffly; but it was to be noted that the scar, which had hitherto showed white on a bronzed cheek, now reddened on a pale one.
Miss Quiney hesitated. "The gentleman, as a stranger to Boston--"
"I'll answer for Hanmer, ma'am. You'll get little talk out of him; but, be there lions at large in Boston, Jack Hanmer'll lead you past 'em."
"Like Mr. Greatheart in the parable," spoke up Ruth, whose eyes had been taking stock of the proposed escort, though he stood in the penumbra and at half the room's length away. "Tatty--if my lord permit and Lieutenant Hanmer be willing--"
She stood up, and with a curtsy to Sir Oliver, swept to the door. Miss Quiney pattered after; and Mr. Hanmer, with a bow and hand lifted to the salute, stalked out at their heels.
"I'll warrant Jack Hanmer 'd liefer walk up to a gun," swore Captain Harry as the curtain fell behind them. "He bolts from the sight of Sally. I'll make Sally laugh over this." But here he pulled himself up and added beneath his voice, "I can't tell her, though."
The road as it climbed above the town toward Sabines grew rough and full of pitfalls. Even by the light of the full moon shining between the elms Miss Quiney's chairmen were forced to pick their way warily, so that the couple on the side-walk--which in comparison was well paved-- easily kept abreast of them.
Ruth walked with the free grace of a Dryad. The moonlight shone now and again on her face beneath the arch of her wimple; and once, as she glanced up at the heavens, Mr. Hanmer--interpreting that she lifted her head to a scent of danger, and shooting a sidelong look despite himself--surprised a lustre as of tears in her eyes; whereupon he felt ashamed, as one who had intruded on a secret.
"I have a favour to beg. . . . Is it true, by the way," she asked mischievously, "that to talk with a woman distresses you?"
"My name is Ruth Josselin."
Mr. Hanmer either missed to hear the correction or heard and put it aside. "Been at sea all my life," he explained. "They caught me young."
Ruth looked sideways at him and laughed--a liquid little laugh, much like the bubbling note of a thrush. "You could not have given an answer more pat, sir. I want to speak to you about a child, caught young and about to be taken to sea. You are less shy with children, I hope?"
"Not a bit," confessed Mr. Hanmer. He added, "They take to me, though-- the few I've met.
"Dick will take to you, for certain. Dicky is Sir Oliver's child."
"I didn't know--" Mr. Hanmer came to a full stop.
"No," said Ruth, as though she echoed him. "He is eight years old almost." Her eyes looked straight ahead, but she was aware that his had scanned her face for a moment, and almost she felt his start of reassurance.
"So, the child being a friend of mine, and his father having promised him a cruise in the Venus, you see that I very much want to know what manner of lady is Captain Harry's wife; and that I could not ask you point-blank because you would have set the question down to idle curiosity. . . . It might make all the difference to him," she added, getting no answer.
"A child of eight, and the country at war!" Mr. Hanmer muttered. "His father must know that we cruise ready for action."
"I tell you, sir, what Dicky told me this morning."
"But it's impossible!"
"To that, sir, I might find you half a dozen answers. To begin with, we all know--and Sir Oliver perhaps, from private information, knows better than any of us--that peace is in sight. Here in the northern Colonies it has arrived already; the enemy has no fleet on this side of the world, and on this coast no single ship to give you any concern."
"Guarda-costas? There may be a few left on the prowl, even in these latitudes. I don't believe it for my part; we've accounted for most of 'em. Still--"
"And Captain Harry thinks so much of them that he sails from Carolina to Boston with his bride on board!"
"You are right, Miss Josselin, and you are wrong. . . . Mistress Vyell has come to Boston in the Venus; and by reason that her husband, when he started, had as little acquaintance with fear for others as for himself. But if she return to Carolina it will be by land or when peace is signed. Love has made the Captain think; and thought has made him-- well, with madam on board, I am thankful--" He checked himself.
"You are thankful he did not sight a guarda-costa." She concluded the sentence for him, and walked some way in silence, while he at her side was silent, being angry at having said so much.
"Yet Captain Harry is recklessly brave?" she mused.
"To the last degree, Miss Josselin," Mr. Hanmer agreed eagerly. "To the last degree within the right military rules. Fighting a ship's an art, you see."
It seemed that she did not hear him. "It runs in the blood," she said. She was thinking, fearfully yet exultantly, of this wonderful power of women, for whose sake cowards will behave as heroes and heroes turn to cowards.
They had outstripped the chairmen, and were at the gate of Sabines. He held it open for her. She bethought her that his last two or three sentences had been firmly spoken, that his voice had shaken off its husky stammer, and on the impulse of realised power she took a fancy to hear it tremble again.
"But if madam will not be on board to look after Dicky, the more will he need a friend. Mr. Hanmer, will you be that friend?"
"You are choosing a rough sort of nurse-maid."
"But will you?" She faced him, wonderful in the moonlight.
His eyes dropped. His voice stammered, "I--I will do my best, Miss Josselin."
She held out a hand. He took it perforce in his rope-roughened paw, held it awkwardly for a moment, and released it as one lets a bird escape.
Ruth smiled. "The best of women," ran a saying of Batty Langton's, "if you watch 'em, are always practising; even the youngest, as a kitten plays with a leaf."
They stood in silence, waiting for the chair to overtake them.
"Tatty, you are a heroine!"
Miss Quiney, unwinding a shawl from her head under the hall-lamp, released herself from Ruth's embrace. Her nerve had been strained and needed a recoil.
"Maybe," she answered snappishly. "For my part, I'd take more comfort, just now, to be called a respectable woman."
Ruth laughed, kissed her again, and stood listening to the footsteps as they retreated down the gravelled way. Among them her ear distinguished easily the firm tread of Mr. Hanmer.
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