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XVII.

A SLIGHT MISTAKE.

I don't ask you for more than a guinea,' said Mrs. Hilary, with a parade of forbearance.

'It would be the same,' I replied politely, 'if you asked me for a thousand'; with which I handed her half-a-crown. She held it in her open hand, regarding it scornfully.

'Yes,' I continued, taking a seat, 'I feel that pecuniary gifts——'

'Half-a-crown!'

'Are a poor substitute for personal service. May not I accompany you to the ceremony?'

'I daresay you spent as much as this on wine with your lunch!'

'I was in a mad mood to-day,' I answered apologetically. 'What are they taught at the school?'

'Above all, to be good girls,' said Mrs. Hilary earnestly. 'What are you sneering at, Mr. Carter?'

'Nothing,' said I hastily; and I added with a sigh, 'I suppose it's all right.'

'I should like,' said Mrs. Hilary meditatively, 'if I had not other duties, to dedicate my life to the service of girls.'

'I should think twice about that, if I were you,' said I, shaking my head.

'By the way, Mr. Carter, I don't know if I've ever spoken unkindly of Lady Mickleham. I hope not.'

'Hope,' said I, 'is not yet taxed.'

'If I have, I'm very sorry. She's been most kind in undertaking to give away the prizes to-day. There must be some good in her.'

'Oh, don't be hasty!' I implored.

'I always wanted to think well of her.'

'Ah! Now, I never did.'

'And Lord Mickleham is coming, too. He'll be most useful.'

'That settles it,' I exclaimed. 'I may not be an earl, but I have a perfect right to be useful. I'll go too.'

'I wonder if you'll behave properly,' said Mrs. Hilary doubtfully.

I held out a half-sovereign, three half-crowns, and a shilling.

'Oh, well, you may come, since Hilary can't,' said Mrs. Hilary.

'You mean he won't,' I observed.

'He has always been prevented hitherto,' said she with dignity.

So I went, and it proved a most agreeable expedition. There were two hundred girls in blue frocks and white aprons (the girl three from the end of the fifth row was decidedly pretty)—a nice lot of prize books—the Micklehams (Dolly in demure black), ourselves, and the matron. All went well. Dolly gave away the prizes; Mrs. Hilary and Archie made little speeches. Then the matron came to me. I was sitting modestly at the back of the platform, a little distance behind the others.

'Mr. Musgrave,' said the matron to me, 'we're so glad to see you here at last. Won't you say a few words?'

'It would be a privilege,' I responded cordially, 'but unhappily I have a sore throat.'

The matron (who was a most respectable woman) said, 'Dear, dear!' but did not press the point. Evidently, however, she liked me, for when we went to have a cup of tea, she got me in a corner, and began to tell me all about the work. It was extremely interesting. Then the matron observed,—

'And what an angel Mrs. Musgrave is!'

'Well, I should hardly call her that,' said I, with a smile.

'Oh, you mustn't depreciate her—you, of all men!' cried the matron, with a somewhat ponderous archness. 'Really I envy you her constant society.'

'I assure you,' said I, 'I see very little of her.'

'I beg your pardon?'

'I only go to the house about once a fortnight. Oh, it's not my fault. She won't have me there oftener.'

'What do you mean? I beg your pardon. Perhaps I've touched on a painful——'

'Not at all, not at all,' said I suavely. 'It is very natural. I am neither young nor handsome, Mrs. Wiggins. I am not complaining.'

The matron gazed at me.

'Only seeing her here,' I pursued, 'you have no idea of what she is at home. She has chosen to forbid me to come to her house——'

'Her house?'

'It happens to be more hers than mine,' I explained. 'To forbid me, I say, more than once to come to her house. No doubt she had her reasons.'

'Nothing could justify it,' said the matron, directing a wondering glance at Mrs. Hilary.

'Do not let us blame her,' said I. 'It is just an unfortunate accident. She is not as fond of me as I could wish, Mrs. Wiggins; and she is a great deal fonder than I could wish of——'

I broke off. Mrs. Hilary was walking towards us. I think she was pleased to see me getting on so well with the matron, for she was smiling pleasantly. The matron wore a bewildered expression.

'I suppose,' said Mrs. Hilary, 'that you'll drive back with the Micklehams?'

'Unless you want me,' said I, keeping a watchful eye on the matron.

'Oh, I don't want you,' said Mrs. Hilary lightly.

'You won't be alone this evening?' I asked anxiously.

Mrs. Hilary stared a little.

'Oh, no!' she said. 'We shall have our usual party.'

'May I come one day next week?' I asked humbly.

Mrs. Hilary thought for a moment.

'I'm so busy next week—come the week after,' said she, giving me her hand.

'That's very unkind,' said I.

'Nonsense!' said Mrs. Hilary; and she added, 'Mind you let me know when you're coming.'

'I won't surprise you,' I assured her, with a covert glance at the matron.

The excellent woman was quite red in the face, and could gasp out nothing but 'Good-bye,' as Mrs. Hilary affectionately pressed her hand.

At this moment Dolly came up. She was alone.

'Where's Archie?' I asked.

'He's run away; he's got to meet somebody. I knew you'd see me home. Mrs. Hilary didn't want you, of course?'

'Of course not,' said I plaintively.

'Besides, you'd rather come with me, wouldn't you?' pursued Dolly; and she added pleasantly to the matron, 'Mrs. Hilary's so down on him, you know.'

'I'd much rather come with you,' said I.

'We'll have a cosy drive all to ourselves, said Dolly, 'without husbands or wives or anything horrid. Isn't it nice to get rid of one's husband sometimes, Mrs. Wiggins?'

'I have the misfortune to be a widow, Lady Mickleham,' said Mrs. Wiggins.

Dolly's eye rested upon her with an interested expression. I knew that she was about to ask Mrs. Wiggins whether she liked the condition of life, and I interposed hastily, with a sigh,—

'But you can look back on a happy marriage, Mrs. Wiggins?'

'I did my best to make it so,' said she stiffly.

'You're right,' said I. 'Even in the face of unkindness we should strive——'

'My husband's not unkind,' said Dolly.

'I didn't mean your husband,' said I.

'What your poor wife would do if she cared a button for you, I don't know,' observed Dolly.

'If I had a wife who cared for me, I should be a better man,' said I solemnly.

'But you'd probably be very dull,' said Dolly. 'And you wouldn't be allowed to drive with me.'

'Perhaps it's all for the best,' said I, brightening up. 'Good-bye, Mrs. Wiggins.'

Dolly walked on. Mrs. Wiggins held my hand for a moment.

'Young man,' said she sternly, 'are you sure it's not your own fault?'

'I'm not at all sure, Mrs. Wiggins,' said I. 'But don't be distressed about it. It's of no consequence. I don't let it make me unhappy. Good-bye; so many thanks. Charming girls you have here—especially that one in the fifth—I mean, charming, all of them. Good-bye.'

I hastened to the carriage. Mrs. Wiggins stood and watched. I got in and sat down by Dolly.

'Oh, Mrs. Wiggins,' said Dolly, dimpling, 'don't tell Mrs. Hilary that Archie wasn't with us, or we shall get into trouble.' And she added to me, 'Are you all right?'

'Rather!' said I appreciatively; and we drove off, leaving Mrs. Wiggins on the doorstep.

A fortnight later I went to call on Mrs. Hilary. After some conversation she remarked,—

'I'm going to the school again to-morrow.'

'Really!' said I.

'And I'm so delighted—I've persuaded Hilary to come.'

She paused, and then added,—

'You really seemed interested last time.'

'Oh, I was.'

'Would you like to come again to-morrow?'

'No, I think not, thanks,' said I carelessly.

'That's just like you!' she said severely. 'You never do any real good, because you never stick to anything.'

'There are some things one can't stick to,' said I.

'Oh, nonsense!' said Mrs. Hilary.

But there are—and I didn't go.