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MRS BOSENNA PLAYS A PARLOUR GAME.
"We have runned out simultaneous," announced Mrs Bowldler next morning, as the two friends sat at breakfast in Captain Cai's parlour, each immersed (or pretending to be immersed) in his own newspaper. They had slept but indifferently, and on meeting at table had avoided, as if by tacit consent, allusions to last night's entertainment. Each of the newspapers contained a full-column report of the Regatta, with its festivities, which gave excuse for silence. With a thrill of innocent pleasure Cai saw his own name in print. He harked back to it several times in the course of his perusal, and confessed to himself that it looked very well.
But Mrs Bowldler, too, had slept indifferently, if her eyes--which were red and tear-swollen--might be taken as evidence. Her air, as she brought in the dishes, spoke of sorrow rather than of anger. Finding that it attracted no attention, she sighed many times aloud, and at each separate entrance let fall some gloomy domestic news, dropping it as who should say, "I tell you, not expecting to be believed or even heeded, still less applauded for any vigilant care of your interests, but rather that I may not hereafter reproach myself."
"We have runned out simultaneous," she repeated as Captain Cai glanced up from the newspaper. "Which I refer to coals. Palmerston tells me there's not above two-and-a-half scuttlefuls in either cellar, search them how you will." (The search at any rate could not be extensive, since the cellars measured 8 feet by 4 feet apiece.)
"Which," resumed Mrs Bowldler, after a pause and a sigh, "it may be un-Christian to say so of a man that goes about in a bath-chair with one foot in the grave, but in my belief Mr Rogers sends us short weight."
"I'll order some more this very morning, eh, 'Bias?"
'Bias grunted approval.
"And while we're about it, we may as well order in a quantity,--as much as the sheds will hold. We've pretty well reached the end o' summer, an' prices will be risin' before long. . . . If I were you, Mrs Bowldler," added Cai with a severity beyond his wont, "I shouldn't call people dishonest on mere suspicion."
"If you were me, sir--makin' so bold,--you'd ha' seen more of the world with its Rogerses and Dodgerses. There now!" Mrs Bowldler set down a dish of fried potatoes and stood resigned. "Dismiss me you may, Captain Hocken, and this instant. I ask no less. It was bound to come. As my sister warned me, 'You was always high in the instep, from a child, and,' says she, 'high insteps are out of place in the Reduced.'"
"God bless the woman!" Cai laid down the paper and stared. "Who ever talked of dismissin' you?"
"I have rode in my time in a side-saddle: and that, sir, is not easily forgotten. But if you will overlook it, gentlemen," said Mrs Bowldler tearfully, "I might go on to mention that Palmerston have had a misfortune with a tumbler last night."
Cai continued to stare. "I saw a couple performin' in the street yesterday. How did the boy get mixed up in it?"
"He broke it clearin' up the debree in the summer-house after the visitors had gone," Mrs Bowldler explained. "Which being a new departure, I hope you will allow me to pass it by in his case with a caution."
* * * * * * *
In the course of the forenoon Cai paid a call at Mr Rogers's harbour-side store, where he found Mr Rogers himself superintending, from his invalid-chair, the weighing out of coal. Fancy Tabb was in attendance.
"Hullo!" Mr Rogers greeted him. "Well, the show went very well yesterday, and I see your name in the papers this morning."
Cai confessed that he, too, had seen it.
"And it won't be the last time either, not by a long way. I was wantin' a word with you. Cap'n Hunken,--eh, but that's the sort of friend to have--a man in a thousand--Cap'n Hunken was tellin' me, a few days back, as he'd a mind to see ye in public life."
"Thank'ee," said Cai. "'Bias has been nursin' that notion about me, I know. But I hope I can make up my own mind."
"He said 'twould be a distraction for ye."
"Very likely." Cai was nettled without knowing why. "But supposin' I don't need bein' distracted, not at this present?"
"Not at this present," Mr Rogers agreed. "Your friend allowed that; but he said as, all human life bein' uncertain, he was worried in mind what was goin' to become o' you in the years to come."
"Meanin' after his death?" asked Cai, with a touch of asperity.
"He didn' specify. It might ha' been death he had in mind, or it might ha' been anything you like. What he said was, 'I'd like to see old Cai fixed up wi' summat to while away his latter years.' That's how he said it, in those exact words, an' nothing could have been more kindly put."
"We're the same age, to a hair. I don't see why 'Bias should be in all this hurry, unless between ourselves . . . But you wanted a word with me."
"Yes, on that very question. I'm on the School Board, as it happens, and I'm thinkin'--between you an' me--to send in my resignation, which will create a vacancy."
"Oh?" said Cai, alert; "I didn' know you took an interest in education."
"I don't," Mr Rogers responded frankly. "I hate the damned thing. If it rested with me, I'd have no such freaks in the land. But there's always the rates to be kept down. And likewise there's the coal contract to be considered. Added to which," he wound up, "it gives you a pull in several little ways."
"I see," said Cai after a pause. "But, if that's so, why resign?"
"Because I'm broken in health, an' can't attend the meetings. I'd have resigned six months ago if it hadn't been for Philp."
"Did Mr Philp persuade you to hold on?"
"You bet he didn't!" Mr Rogers grinned. "Philp wants the vacancy, and--well, I don't like Philp. I don't know how he strikes you?"
"To tell the truth," confessed Cai, "I can't say that I like him. He's too--inquisitive, shall we put it?--though I daresay he means it for the best."
"He's suspicious," said Mr Rogers. "You'd scarcely believe it now, but he came down to this very store, one day, and hinted that I gave short weight in coal. 'That's all right,' said I; 'are you come to lay an information?' 'No,' says he; 'I know the cost o' the law, an' I'm here as a friend, to give a fresh order. But,' says he, 'as between friends I'm goin' to see it weighed out.' 'Right again!' says I--'how much?' 'Twelve sacks will meet my requirements for the present,' says he; 'but I'd like 'em full this time, if you don't mind.' I'm givin' you the exact words as they occurred. 'Very well,' says I, 'you shall see 'em weighed an' put into the cart for ye, here an' now.' So I ordered Bill round wi' the cart; an' George, here, I told to pick out twelve o' the best sacks, lay 'em in a row 'long-side o' me, an' start weighin' very careful. When the scales turned the hundred-weight, I said, 'Now put in two great lumps for overplush and sack it up.' So he did, an' Bill took the bag out to the cart. 'Now for the next,' says I. Philp's a greedy fellow: he stuck there lookin' so hard at the weighin'-scoop, wonderin' how much overplush he'd get this go, he didn' see me twitch the tailmost sack out o' the line wi' th' end o' my crutch, nor Bill pick it up casual as he came along an' toss it away into the corner. When George had weighed out the eleven, I says to Philp, 'Well, now, I hope you're satisfied this time?' says I. He turns about, sees that all the sacks have gone, an' says he, 'That's the end, is it?' 'You're a treat, an' no mistake,' says I jokin'. 'We don't sell by the baker's dozen at this store:' for I could see he hadn' counted. 'Well,' says he, 'I must say there's no cause o' complaint this time,' and off drives Bill wi' the load. 'No cause o' complaint'!" Mr Rogers chuckled till the tears gathered in his eyes. He controlled his mirth and resumed, "I believe, though, the poor fool suspected something; for he was back at home before Bill had time to deliver more'n four sacks. But Bill, you see, always carries an empty sack or two to sit upon; so there was no countin' to be done at that end, d'ye see?"
"I see," said Cai gravely. It crossed his mind that he had been over-hasty in rebuking Mrs Bowldler.
"I wonder," put in the child Fancy, "how you can sit there an' tell such a story! That's just the sort o' thing people get put in hell for, as I've warned you again and again. It fairly gives me the creeps to hear you boastin' about it."
"Nothin' o' the sort," said her master cheerfully. He could not resent her free speaking, for she was necessary to him. Besides, it amused him. "You leave old Satan and Johnny Rogers to settle scores between themselves. If he takes me as he finds me I'll do the same by him--an' he knows I'll count the sacks. Cap'n Cai here'll tell you I'd never have put such a trick on Philp if he hadn' shown himself so suspicious. I hate a suspicious man. . . . An' that's one reason, Cap'n, why I want you to decide on takin' my place on the School Board. You see, I can choose my own time for resignin'; the Board itself fills up any vacancy that occurs between Elections: an' I can work the Board for you before Philp or any one else gets wind of it. That is, if I have your consent?"
"It's uncommonly good of you," said Cai. "I'll think it over, an' take advice, maybe."
"You know what advice your friend'll give you, anyway. For, I don't mind tellin' you, when he talked about your enterin' public life I dropped a hint to him."
"'Bias Hunken isn' the only friend I have in the world," answered Cai, with a sudden flush.
"I hope not," said Mr Rogers. "There's me, f'r instance: an' you've heard my opinion. That ought to be good enough for him--eh, child?" he turned to Fancy, who had been watching Cai's face with interest.
"If the Captain wants feminine advice," said Fancy, in a mocking grown-up tone, "we all love public men. It's our well-known weakness."
Cai wished them good-day, and took his leave in some confusion.
* * * * * * *
That mischievous child had divined his intent, almost as soon as he himself had divined it. Nay, now--or, to be accurate, three minutes later--it is odds that she knew it more surely than he: for he walked towards the Railway Station--that is, in the direction of Rilla Farm-- telling himself at first that a stroll was, anyhow, a good recipe for clearing the brain; that Rogers's offer called on him to make, at short notice, an important decision.
He paused twice or thrice on his way, to commune with himself: the first time by the Passage Slip, where 'Bias and he had halted to view the traffic by the jetties. He conned it now again, but with unreceptive eyes. . . . "Rogers talks to me about takin' advice," soliloquised Cai. "It seems to me this is just one of those steps on which a man must make up his own mind. . . ."
He paused again beneath the shadow of the gasometer, possibly through association of ideas, because it suggested thoughts of 'Bias who had so much admired it--"'Bias means well, o' course. But I don't go about, for my part, schemin' how 'Bias is to amuse his latter days. Besides, 'Bias may be mistaken in more ways than one."
He had passed the Railway Station without being aware of it, and arrived in sight of Rilla gate, when he halted the third time. "A man must decide for himself, o' course, when it comes to the point. Still, in certain cases there's others to be considered. . . . If I knew how far she meant it! . . . She must ha' meant something." Yes, he felt the clutch on his biceps again and the small hand trembling under his large enfolding one. "She must ha' meant something. Not, to be sure, that it would seriously influence his decisions! But it seemed hardly fair not to consult her. . . . He would get her opinion, for what it was worth, not betraying himself. In advising him she might go--well, either a little further or a little backward. . . . Yet, once again, she must have meant something; and it wasn't fair, if she meant anything at all, to let old 'Bias go on dwelling in a fool's Paradise. Yes, certainly--for 'Bias's sake--there ought to be some clear understanding, and the sooner the better. . . ."
By the time Cai pressed the hasp of the gate, he had arrived at viewing himself as a man launched by his own strong will on a necessary errand, and carrying it through against inclination, for the sake of a friend.
"I hope it won't be a blow to him, whichever way it turns out," was the thought in Cai's mind as he knocked on the front door.
Dinah answered his knock: and, as she opened, Dinah could not repress a small start, which she hid, almost on the instant, under a demure smile of welcome.
"Captain Hocken? . . . Oh, yes! the mistress was within at this moment and entertaining a visitor. . . . Oh, indeed, no! there was no reason at all"--she turned, quick about, and he found himself following her and found himself, before he could protest, at the parlour door, which she flung open, announcing--
"Captain Hocken to see you, ma'am!"
* * * * * * *
Mrs Bosenna, seated at the head of her polished mahogany table and engaged upon a game of "spillikins"--which is a solitary trial of skill, and consists in lifting, one by one, with a delicate ivory hook a mass of small ivory pieces tangled as intricately as the bones in a kingfisher's nest--showed no more than a pretty surprise at the intrusion. She had, in fact, seen Captain Hocken pass the window some moments before; and it had not caused her to joggle the tiny ivory hook for a moment or to miss a moment's precision. What native quickness did for her, native stolidity did almost as well for Captain Hunken, who sat in an arm-chair by the fireplace smoking and watching her--and had been sitting and watching her for a good half an hour admiringly, without converse. "Spillikins" is a game during which, though it enjoins silence on the looker-on, a real expert can playfully challenge a remark or tolerate one, now and again. Also, you can make astonishing play with it if you happen to possess a pretty wrist and hand.
I throw in this explanation of "spillikins" to fill up a somewhat long and painful pause during which Cai and 'Bias without speech slowly questioned one another. Neither heeded the pretty tactful clatter with which Mrs Bosenna, after sweeping her ivory toys in a heap and starting up with a little cry of pleasure, held out her hand to the intruder. Cai took it as one in a dream. His eyes were fixed on 'Bias, as 'Bias, who had withdrawn the pipe from his mouth and replaced it, withdrew it again, and asked--
"Well, an' what brings you here?"
For a moment Cai seemed to be chewing down a cud in his throat. He ought to have been quicker, he felt. It is always a mistake to let your adversary (Good Lord! had it come to this?) set up an interrogatory.
"I might ask you the same question," he responded.
"But you didn'," said 'Bias solidly, crossing his legs and reaching for a box of matches from the shelf to relight his pipe. "Well?"
"Well, if you must know, I've called to consult Mrs Bosenna on a private matter of business."
This was a neat enough hint; yet strange to say it missed fire. 'Bias sucked at his pipe without budging, and answered--
"Please be seated, Captain Hocken," said Mrs Bosenna, covering inward merriment with the demurest of smiles. "You shall tell me your business later on--that's to say, if there's no pressing hurry about it?"
"There's no pressin hurry," admitted Cai. "It's important, though, in a way--important to me; and any ways more important than smokin' a pipe an' watchin' you play parlour games."
"That," said 'Bias sententiously, withdrawing his pipe from his lips, "isn' business, but pleasure."
"You may not believe it, Captain Hocken," protested Mrs Bosenna, "but 'spillikins' helps me to fix my thoughts. And you ought to feel flattered, really you ought--"
She laughed now, and archly--"Because, as a fact, I was fixing them on you at the very moment Dinah showed you in!" She threw him a look which might mean little or much. Cai took it to mean much.
"Ma'am,--" he began, but she had turned and was appealing to 'Bias.
"Captain Hunken and I were at that moment agreeing that a man of your abilities--a native of Troy, too--and, so to speak, at the height of his powers--ought not to be rusting or allowed to rust in a little place where so much wants to be done. For my part,"--her eyes still interrogated 'Bias,--"I could never live with a man, and look up to him, unless he put his heart into some work, be it farming, or public affairs, or what else you like. I put that as an illustration, of course: just to show you how it appeals to us women; and we do make up half the world, however much you bachelor gentlemen may pretend to despise us."
"That settles poor old 'Bias, anyhow," thought Cai, and at the same moment was conscious of a returning gush of affection for his old friend, and of some self-reproach mingling in the warm flow.
"Why, as for that, ma'am," said he, "though you put it a deal too kindly--'twas about something o' that natur' I came to consult you."
"School Board?" suggested 'Bias.
"That's right. I knew Rogers had dropped a hint to you about it: but o' course, seein' you here, I never guessed--"
Mrs Bosenna clapped her hands together. "And on that hint away comes Captain Hunken to ask my advice: knowing that I should be interested too. Ah, if only we women understood friendship as men do! . . . But you come and consult us, you see. . . . And now you must both stop for dinner and talk it over."
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