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XIII.

A REMINISCENCE.

I know exactly what your mother wants, Phyllis,' observed Mrs. Hilary.

'It's just to teach them the ordinary things,' said little Miss Phyllis.

'What are the ordinary things?' I ventured to ask.

'What all girls are taught, of course, Mr. Carter,' said Mrs. Hilary. 'I'll write about it at once.' And she looked at me as if she thought that I might be about to go.

'It is a comprehensive curriculum,' I remarked, crossing my legs, 'if one may judge from results. How old are your younger sisters. Miss Phyllis?'

'Fourteen and sixteen,' she answered.

'It is a pity,' said I, 'that this didn't happen a little while back. I knew a governess who would have suited the place to a "t."'

Mrs. Hilary smiled scornfully.

'We used to meet,' I continued.

'Who used to meet?' asked Miss Phyllis.

'The governess and myself, to be sure,' said I, 'under the old apple-tree in the garden at the back of the house.'

'What house, Mr. Carter?'

'My father's house, of course, Miss Phyllis. And——'

'Oh, but that must be ages ago!' cried she.

Mrs. Hilary rose, cast one glance at me, and turned to the writing-table. Her pen began to scratch almost immediately.

'And under the apple-tree,' I pursued, 'we had many pleasant conversations.'

'What about?' asked Miss Phyllis.

'One thing and another,' I returned. 'The schoolroom windows looked out that way—a circumstance which made matters more comfortable for everybody.'

'I should have thought——' began Miss Phyllis, smiling slightly, but keeping an apprehensive eye on Mrs. Hilary's back.

'Not at all,' I interrupted. 'My sisters saw us, you see. Well, of course, they entertained an increased respect for me, which was all right, and a decreased respect for the governess, which was also all right. We met in the hour allotted to French lessons—by an undesigned but appropriate coincidence.'

'I shall say about thirty-five, Phyllis,' called Mrs. Hilary from the writing-table.

'Yes, Cousin Mary,' called Miss Phyllis. 'Did you meet often, Mr. Carter?'

'Every evening in the French hour,' said I.

'She'll have got over any nonsense by then,' called Mrs. Hilary. 'They're often full of it.'

'She had remarkably pretty hair,' I continued 'very soft it was. Dear me! I was just twenty.'

'How old was she?' asked Miss Phyllis.

'One's first love,' said I, 'is never any age. Everything went very well. Happiness was impossible. I was heart-broken, and the governess was far from happy. Ah, happy, happy times.'

'But you don't seem to have been happy,' objected Miss Phyllis.

'Then came a terrible evening——'

'She ought to be a person of active habits,' called Mrs. Hilary.

'I think so, yes, Cousin Mary. Oh, what happened, Mr. Carter?'

'And an early riser,' added Mrs. Hilary.

'Yes, Cousin Mary. What did happen, Mr. Carter?'

'My mother came in during the French hour. I don't know whether you have observed, Miss Phyllis, how easy it is to slip into the habit of entering rooms when you had better remain outside. Now, even my friend Arch——However, that's neither here nor there. My mother, as I say, came in.'

'Church of England, of course, Phyllis?' called Mrs. Hilary.

'Oh, of course, Cousin Mary,' cried little Miss Phyllis.

'The sect makes no difference,' I observed. 'Well, my sisters, like good girls, began to repeat the irregular verbs. But it was no use. We were discovered. That night, Miss Phyllis, I nearly drowned myself.'

'You must have been——Oh, how awful, Mr. Carter!'

'That is to say, I thought how effective it would be if I drowned myself. Ah, well, it couldn't last!'

'And the governess?'

'She left next morning.'

There was a pause. Miss Phyllis looked sad and thoughtful: I smiled pensively and beat my cane against my leg.

'Have you ever seen her since?' asked Miss Phyllis.

'No.'

'Shouldn't—shouldn't you like to, Mr. Carter?'

'Heaven forbid!' said I.

Suddenly Mrs. Hilary pushed back her chair, and turned round to us.

'Well, I declare,' said she, 'I must be growing stupid. Here have I been writing to the Agency, when I know of the very thing myself! The Polwheedles' governess is just leaving them; she's been there over fifteen years. Lady Polwheedle told me she was a treasure. I wonder if she'd go!'

'Is she what mamma wants?'

'My dear, you'll be most lucky to get her. I'll write at once and ask her to come to lunch to-morrow. I met her there. She's an admirable person.'

Mrs. Hilary wheeled round again. I shook my head at Miss Phyllis.

'Poor children!' said I. 'Manage a bit of fun for them sometimes.'

Miss Phyllis assumed a staid and virtuous air.

'They must be properly brought up, Mr. Carter,' said she.

'Is there a house opposite?' I asked; and Miss Phyllis blushed. Mrs. Hilary advanced, holding out a letter.

'You may as well post this for me,' said she. 'Oh, and would you like to come to lunch to-morrow?'

'To meet the Paragon?'

'No. She'll be there, of course; but you see it's Saturday, and Hilary will be here; and I thought you might take him off somewhere and leave Phyllis and me to have a quiet talk with her.'

'That won't amuse her much,' I ventured to remark.

'She's not coming to be amused,' said Mrs. Hilary severely.

'All right; I'll come,' said I, taking my hat.

'Here's the note for Miss Bannerman,' said Mrs. Hilary.

That sort of thing never surprises me. I looked at the letter and read 'Miss M. E. Bannerman.' 'M. E.' stood for 'Maud Elizabeth.' I put my hat back on the table.

'What sort of a looking person is this Miss Bannerman?' I asked.

'Oh, a spare, upright woman—hair a little grey, and—I don't know how to describe it—her face looks a little weather-beaten. She wears glasses.'

'Thank you,' said I. 'And what sort of a looking person am I?'

Mrs. Hilary looked scornful. Miss Phyllis opened her eyes.

'How old do I look, Miss Phyllis?' I asked.

Miss Phyllis scanned me from top to toe.

'I don't know,' she said uncomfortably.

'Guess,' said I sternly.

'F-forty-three—oh, or forty-two?' she asked, with a timid upward glance.

'When you've done your nonsense——' began Mrs. Hilary; but I laid a hand on her arm.

'Should you call me fat?' I asked.

'Oh, no, not fat,' said Mrs. Hilary, with a smile, which she strove to render reassuring.

'I am undoubtedly bald,' I observed.

'You're certainly bald,' said Mrs. Hilary, with regretful candour. I took my hat and remarked,—

'A man has a right to think of himself, but I am not thinking mainly of myself. I shall not come to lunch.'

'You said you would,' cried Mrs. Hilary indignantly.

I poised the letter in my hand, reading again, 'Miss M(aud) E(lizabeth) Bannerman.' Miss Phyllis looked at me curiously, Mrs. Hilary impatiently.

'Who knows,' said I, 'that I may not be a Romance—a Vanished Dream—a Green Memory—an Oasis? A person who has the fortune to be an Oasis, Miss Phyllis, should be very careful. I will not come to lunch.'

'Do you mean that you used to know Miss Bannerman?' asked Mrs. Hilary in her pleasant prosaic way.

It was a sin seventeen years old: it would hardly count against the blameless Miss Bannerman now.

'You may tell her when I'm gone,' said I to Miss Phyllis.

Miss Phyllis whispered in Mrs. Hilary's ear.

'Another!' cried Mrs. Hilary, aghast.

'It was the very first,' said I, defending myself.

Mrs. Hilary began to laugh. I smoothed my hat.

'Tell her,' said I, 'that I remembered her very well.'

'I shall do no such thing,' said Mrs. Hilary.

'And tell her,' I continued, 'that I am still handsome.'

'I shan't say a word about you,' said Mrs. Hilary.

'Ah, well, that will be better still,' said I.

'She'll have forgotten your very name,' remarked Mrs. Hilary.

I opened the door, but a thought struck me. I turned round and observed,—

'I daresay her hair's just as soft as ever. Still—I'll lunch some other day.'