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XI.

THE VERY LATEST THING.

'It's the very latest thing,' said Lady Mickleham, standing by the table in the smoking-room, and holding an album in her hand.

'I wish it had been a little later still,' said I, for I felt embarrassed.

'You promise, on your honour, to be absolutely sincere, you know, and then you write what you think of me. See what a lot of opinions I've got already,' and she held up the thick album.

'It would be extremely interesting to read them,' I observed.

'Oh! but they're quite confidential,' said Dolly. 'That's part of the fun.'

'I don't appreciate that part,' said I.

'Perhaps you will when you've written yours,' suggested Lady Mickleham.

'Meanwhile, mayn't I see the Dowager's?'

'Well, I'll show you a little bit of the Dowager's. Look here,—"Our dear Dorothea is still perhaps just a thought wanting in seriousness, but the sense of her position is having a sobering effect."'

'I hope not,' I exclaimed apprehensively. 'Whose is this?'

'Archie's.'

'May I see a bit?'

'Not a bit,' said Dolly. 'Archie's is—is rather foolish, Mr. Carter.'

'So I suppose,' said I.

'Dear boy!' said Dolly reflectively.

'I hate sentiment,' said I. 'Here's a long one. Who wrote——?'

'Oh, you mustn't look at that—not at that, above all!'

'Why above all?' I asked with some severity.

Dolly smiled; then she observed in a soothing tone,—

'Perhaps it won't be "above all" when you've written yours, Mr. Carter.'

'By the way,' I said carelessly, 'I suppose Archie sees all of them?'

'He has never asked to see them,' answered Lady Mickleham.

The reply seemed satisfactory; of course, Archie had only to ask. I took a clean quill and prepared to write.

'You promise to be sincere, you know,' Dolly reminded me.

I laid down my pen.

'Impossible!' said I firmly.

'Oh, but why, Mr. Carter?'

'There would be an end of our friendship.

'Do you think as badly of me as all that?' asked Dolly with a rueful air.

I leant back in my chair and looked at Dolly. She looked at me. She smiled. I may have smiled.

'Yes,' said I.

'Then you needn't write it quite all down,' said Dolly.

'I am obliged,' said I, taking up my pen.

'You mustn't say what isn't true, but you needn't say everything that is—that might be—true,' exclaimed Dolly.

This, again, seemed satisfactory. I began to write, Dolly sitting opposite me with her elbows on the table, and watching me.

After ten minutes' steady work, which included several pauses for reflection, I threw down the pen, leant back in my chair, and lit a cigarette.

'Now read it,' said Dolly, her chin in her hands and her eyes fixed on me.

'It is, on the whole,' I observed, 'complimentary.'

'No, really?' said Dolly. 'Yet you promised to be sincere.'

'You would not have had me disagreeable?' I asked.

'That's a different thing,' said Dolly. 'Read it, please.'

'"Lady Mickleham,"' I read, '"is usually accounted a person of considerable attractions. She is widely popular, and more than one woman has been known to like her."'

'I don't quite understand that,' interrupted Dolly.

'It is surely simple,' said I; and I read on without delay. '"She is kind even to her husband, and takes the utmost pains to conceal from her mother-in-law anything calculated to distress that lady."'

'I suppose you mean that to be nice?' said Dolly.

'Of course,' I answered; and I proceeded. '"She never gives pain to anyone, except with the object of giving pleasure to somebody else, and her kindness is no less widely diffused than it is hearty and sincere."'

'That really is nice,' said Dolly, smiling.

'Thank you,' said I, smiling also. '"She is very charitable: she takes a pleasure in encouraging the shy and bashful——"'

'How do you know that?' asked Dolly.

'"While,"' I pursued, '"suffering without impatience a considerable amount of self-assurance."'

'You can't know whether I'm patient or not,' remarked Dolly. 'I'm polite.'

'"She thinks,"' I read on, '"no evil of the most attractive of women and has a smile for the most unattractive of men."'

'You put that very nicely,' said Dolly, nodding.

'"The former may constantly be seen in her house—and the latter at least as often as many people would think desirable."' (Here for some reason Dolly laughed.) '"Her intellectual powers are not despicable."'

'Thank you, Mr. Carter.'

'"She can say what she means on the occasions on which she wishes to do so, and she is, at other times, equally capable of meaning much more than she would be likely to say."'

'How do you mean that, Mr. Carter, please?'

'It explains itself,' said I, and I proceeded. '"The fact of her receiving a remark with disapprobation does not necessarily mean that it causes her displeasure, nor must it be assumed that she did not expect a visitor, merely on the ground that she greets him with surprise."'

Here I observed Lady Mickleham looking at me rather suspiciously.

'I don't think that's quite nice of you, Mr. Carter,' she said pathetically.

'"Lady Mickleham is, in short,"' I went on, coming to my peroration, '"equally deserving of esteem and affection——"'

'"Esteem and aftection!" That sounds just right,' said Dolly approvingly.

'"And those who have been admitted to the enjoyment of her friendship are unanimous in discouraging all others from seeking a similar privilege."'

'I beg your pardon,' cried Lady Mickleham.

'"Are unanimous,"' I repeatedly, slowly and distinctly, '"in discouraging all others from seeking a similar privilege."'

Dolly looked at me, with her brow slightly puckered. I leant back, puffing at my cigarette. Presently—for there was quite a long pause—Dolly's lips curved.

'My mental powers are not despicable,' she observed.

'I have said so,' said I.

'I think I see,' she remarked,

'Is there anything wrong?' I asked anxiously.

'N-no,' said Dolly, 'not exactly wrong. In fact, I rather think I like that last bit best. Still, don't you think——?'

She rose, came round the table, took up the pen, and put it back in my hand.

'What's this for?' I asked.

'To correct the mistake,' said Dolly.

'Do you really think so?' said I.

'I'm afraid so,' said Dolly.

I took the pen and made a certain alteration. Dolly took up the album. '"Are unanimous,"' she read, '"in encouraging all others to seek a similar privilege." Yes, you meant that, you know, Mr. Carter.'

'I suppose I must have,' said I, rather sulkily.

'The other was nonsense,' urged Dolly.

'Oh, utter nonsense,' said I.

'And you had to write the truth!'

'Yes, I had to write some of it.'

'And nonsense can't be the truth, can it, Mr. Carter?'

'Of course it can't, Lady Mickleham.'

'Where are you going, Mr. Carter?' she asked; for I rose from my chair.

'To have a quiet smoke,' said I.

'Alone?' asked Dolly.

'Yes, alone,' said I.

I walked towards the door. Dolly stood by the table fingering the album. I had almost reached the door; then I happened to look round.

'Mr. Carter!' said Dolly, as though a new idea had struck her.

'What is it, Lady Mickleham?'

'Well, you know, Mr. Carter, I—I shall try to forget that mistake of yours.'

'You're very kind, Lady Mickleham.'

'But,' said Dolly, with a troubled smile, 'I—I'm quite afraid I shan't succeed, Mr. Carter.'

After all, the smoking-room is meant for smoking.