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XIX.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN.

Unfortunately it was Sunday; therefore the gardeners could not be ordered to shift the long row of flower-pots from the side of the terrace next the house, where Dolly had ordered them to be put, to the side remote from the house, where Dolly now wished them to stand. Yet Dolly could not think of living with the pots where they were till Monday. It would kill her, she said. So Archie left the cool shade of the great trees, where Dolly sat doing nothing, and Nelly Phaeton sat splicing the gig whip, and I lay in a deck-chair, with something iced beside me. Outside the sun was broiling hot, and poor Archie mopped his brow at every weary journey across the broad terrace.

'It's a burnin' shame, Dolly,' said Miss Phaeton. 'I wouldn't do it if I were him.'

'Oh, yes, you would, dear,' said Dolly. 'The pots looked atrocious on that side.'

I took a long sip from my glass, and observed in a meditative tone,—

'There, but for the grace of woman, goes Samuel Travers Carter.'

Dolly's lazy lids half lifted. Miss Phaeton mumbled (her mouth was full of twine),—

'What do you mean?'

'Nemo omnibus horis sapit,' said I apologetically.

'I don't know what that means either.'

'Nemo—everybody,' I translated, 'sapit—has been in love—omnibus—once—horis—at least.'

'Oh, and you mean she wouldn't have you?' asked Nellie, with blunt directness.

'Not quite that,' said I. 'They——'

'They?' murmured Dolly, with half-lifted lids.

'They,' I pursued, 'regretfully recognised my impossibility. Hence I am not carrying pots across a broad terrace under a hot sun.'

'Why did they think you impossible?' asked Miss Phaeton, who takes much interest in this sort of question.

'A variety of reasons; for one I was too clever, for another too stupid; for others too good—or too bad; too serious—or too frivolous; too poor or——'

'Well, no one objected to your money, I suppose?' interrupted Nellie.

'Pardon me. I was about to say "or not rich enough."'

'But that's the same thing.'

'The antithesis is certainly imperfect,' I admitted.

'Mr. Gay,' said Nellie, introducing the name with some timidity, 'you know who I mean?—the poet—once said to me that man was essentially imperfect until he was married.'

'It is true,' I agreed. 'And woman until she is dead.'

'I don't think he meant it quite in that sense,' said Nellie, rather puzzled.

'I don't think he meant it in any sense,' murmured Dolly, a little unkindly.

We might have gone on talking in this idle way for ever so long had not Archie at this point dropped a large flower-pot and smashed it to bits. He stood looking at the bits for a moment, and then came towards us and sank into a chair.

'I'm off!' he announced.

'And half are on one side, and half on the other,' said Dolly regretfully.

A sudden impulse seized me. I got up, put on my straw hat, took off my coat, walked out into the sun, and began to move flower-pots across the broad terrace. I heard a laugh from Archie, a little cry from Dolly, and from Nellie Phaeton, 'Goodness, what's he doin' that for?' I was not turned from my purpose. The luncheon bell rang. Miss Phaeton, whip and twine in hand, walked into the house. Archie followed her, saying as he passed that he hoped I shouldn't find it warm. I went on shifting the flower-pots. They were very heavy. I broke two, but I went on. Presently Dolly put up her parasol and came out from the shade to watch me. She stood there for a moment or two. Then she said,—

'Well, do you think you'd like it, Mr. Carter?'

'Wait till I've finished,' said I, waving my hand.

Another ten minutes saw the end of my task.

Panting and hot I sought the shade, and flung myself on to my deck-chair again. I also lit a cigarette.

'I think they looked better on the other side, after all,' said Dolly meditatively.

'Of course you do,' said I urbanely. 'You needn't tell me that.'

'Perhaps you'd like to move them back,' she suggested.

'No,' said I. 'I've done enough to create the impression.'

'And how did you like it?'

'It was,' said I, 'in its way a pleasant enough illusion.' And I shrugged my shoulders, and blew a ring of smoke.

To my very considerable gratification, Dolly's tone manifested some annoyance as she asked,—

'Why did you say "in its way"?'

'Because, in spite of the momentary pleasure I gained from feeling myself a married man, I could not banish the idea that we should not permanently suit one another.'

'Oh, you thought that?' said Dolly, smiling again.

'I must confess it,' said I. 'The fault, I know, would be mine.'

'I'm sure of that,' said Dolly.

'But the fact is that I can't exist in too high altitudes. The rarefaction of the moral atmosphere——'

'Please don't use all those long words.'

'Well, then, to put it plainly,' said I, with a pleasant smile, 'I felt all the time that Mrs. Hilary would be too good for me.'

It is not very often that it falls to my humble lot to startle Lady Mickleham out of her composure. But at this point she sat up quite straight in her chair; her cheek flushed, and her eyelids ceased to droop in indolent insouciance.

'Mrs. Hilary!' she said. 'What has Mrs. Hilary——?'

'I really thought you understood,' said I, 'the object of my experiment.'

Dolly glanced at me. I believe that my expression was absolutely innocent; and I am, of course, sure that hers expressed mere surprise.

'I thought,' she said, after a pause, 'that you were thinking of Nellie Phaeton.'

'Oh, I see, cried I, smiling. 'A natural mistake, to be sure!'

'She thought so too,' pursued Dolly, biting her lip.

'Did she though?'

'And I'm sure she'd be quite annoyed if she thought you were thinking of Mrs. Hilary.'

'As a matter of fact,' I observed, 'she didn't understand what I was doing at all.'

Dolly leant back. The relics of a frown still dwelt on her brow; presently, however, she began to swing her hat on her forefinger, and she threw a look at me. I immediately looked up towards the branches above my head.

'We might as well go in to lunch,' said Dolly.

'By all means,' I acquiesced, with alacrity.

We went out into the sunshine, and came where the pots were. Suddenly Dolty said,—

'Go back and sit down again, Mr. Carter.'

'I want my lunch,' I ventured to observe.

'Do as I tell you,' said Dolly, stamping her foot; whereat, much intimidated, I went back, and stretched myself once more on the deck-chair.

Dolly approached a flower-pot. She stooped down, exerted her strength, lifted it, and carried it, not without effort, across the terrace. Again she did the like. I sat smoking and watching. She lifted a third pot, but dropped it half way. Then, dusting her hands against one another, she came back slowly into the shade and sat down. I made no remark. Dolly glanced at me.

'Well?' she said.

'Woman—woman—woman!' said I sadly.

'Must I carry some more?' asked Dolly, in a humble, yet protesting tone.

'Mrs. Hilary,' I began, 'is an exceedingly attractive——'

Dolly rose with a sigh.

'Where are you going?' I asked.

'More pots,' said Dolly, standing opposite me. 'I must go on, you see.'

'Till when, Lady Mickleham?'

'Till you tell the truth,' said Dolly, and she suddenly burst into a little laugh.

'Woman—woman—woman!' said I again. 'Let's go into lunch.'

'I'm going to carry the pots,' said Dolly. 'It's awfully hot, Mr. Carter—and look at my poor hands!'

She held them out to me.

'Lunch!' said I.

'Pots!' said Dolly, with infinite firmness.

The window of the dining-room opened, and Archie put his head out.

'Come along, you two,' he called. 'Everything's getting cold.'

Dolly turned an appealing glance on me.

'How obstinate you are!' she said. 'You know perfectly well——'

I began to walk towards the house.

'I'm going in to lunch,' said I.

'Ask them to keep some for me,' said Dolly, and she turned up the sleeves of her gown, till her wrists were free.

'It's most unfair,' said I indignantly.

'I don't care if it is,' said Dolly, stooping down to lift a pot.

I watched her strain to lift it. She had chosen the largest and heaviest; she sighed delicately and delicately she panted. She also looked at her hands, and held them up for me to see the lines of brown on the pink. I put my hands in my pockets and said most sulkily, as I turned away towards the house,—

'All right. It wasn't Mrs. Hilary then.'

Dolly rose up, seized me by the arm, and made me run to the house.

'Mr. Carter,' she cried, 'would stop for those wretched pots. He's moved all except two, but he's broken three. Isn't he stupid?'

'You are an old ass, Carter,' said Archie.

'I believe you are right, Archie,' said I.