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III.

RETRIBUTION.

In future I am going to be careful what I do. I am also—and this is by no means less important—going to be very careful what Miss Dolly Foster does. Everybody knows (if I may quote her particular friend Nellie Phaeton) that dear Dolly means no harm, but she is 'just a little harumscarum.' I thanked Miss Phaeton for the expression.

The fact is that 'old Lady M.' (here I quote Miss Dolly) sent for me the other day. I have not the honour of knowing the Countess, and I went in some trepidation. When I was ushered in, Lady Mickleham put up her 'starers.' (You know those abominations! Pince-nez with long torture—I mean tortoise—shell handles.)

'Mr.—er—Carter?' said she.

I bowed. I would have denied it if I could.

'My dears!' said Lady Mickleham.

Upon this five young ladies who had been sitting in five straight-backed chairs, doing five pieces of embroidery, rose, bowed, and filed out of the room. I felt very nervous. A pause followed. Then the Countess observed—and it seemed at first rather irrelevant—

'I've been reading an unpleasant story.'

'In these days of French influence,' I began apologetically (not that I write such stories, or indeed any stories, but Lady Mickleham invites an apologetic attitude), and my eye wandered to the table. I saw nothing worse (or better) than the morning paper there.

'Contained in a friend's letter,' she continued, focussing the 'starers' full on my face.

I did not know what to do, so I bowed again.

'It must have been as painful for her to write as for me to read,' Lady Mickleham went on. 'And that is saying much. Be seated, pray.'

I bowed, and sat down in one of the straight-backed chairs. I also began, in my fright, to play with one of the pieces of embroidery.

'Is Lady Jane's work in your way?' (Lady Jane is named after Jane, the famous Countess, Lady-in-Waiting to Caroline of Anspach.)

I dropped the embroidery, and put my foot on my hat.

'I believe, Mr. Carter, that you are acquainted with Miss Dorothea Foster?'

'I have that pleasure,' said I.

'Who is about to be married to my son, the Earl of Mickleham?'

'That, I believe, is so,' said I. I was beginning to pull myself together.

'My son, Mr. Carter, is of a simple and trusting disposition. Perhaps I had better come to the point. I am informed by this letter that, in conversation with the writer the other day, Archibald mentioned, quite incidentally, some very startling facts. Those concern you, Mr. Carter.'

'May I ask the name of the writer?'

'I do not think that is necessary,' said she. 'She is a lady in whom I have the utmost confidence.'

'That is, of course, enough,' said I.

'It appears, Mr. Carter, and you will excuse me if I speak plainly' (I set my teeth) 'that you have, in the first place, given to my son's bride a wedding present, which I can only describe as——'

'A pearl ornament,' I interposed; 'with a ruby or two, and——'

'A pearl heart,' she corrected; 'er—fractured, and that you explained that this absurd article represented your heart.'

'Mere badinage,' said I.

'In execrably bad taste,' said she.

I bowed.

'In fact, most offensive. But that is not the worst. From my son's further statements it appears that on one occasion, at least, he found you and Miss Foster engaged in what I can only call——'

I raised my hand in protest. The Countess took no notice.

'What I can only call romping.'

She shot this word at me with extraordinary violence, and when it was out she shuddered.

'Romping!' I cried.

'A thing not only atrociously vulgar at all times, but under the circumstances—need I say more? Mr. Carter, you were engaged in chasing my son's future bride round a table!'

'Pardon me, Lady Mickleham. Your son's future bride was engaged in chasing me round a table.'

'It is the same thing,' said Lady Mickleham.

'I should have thought there was a distinction,' said I.

'None at all.'

I fell back on a second line of defence.

'I didn't let her catch me, Lady Mickleham,' I pleaded.

Lady Mickleham grew quite red. This made me feel more at my ease.

'No, sir. If you had——'

'Goodness knows!' I murmured, shaking my head.

'As it happened, however, my son entered in the middle of this disgraceful——'

'It was at the beginning,' said I, with a regretful sigh.

Upon this—and I have really never been so pleased at anything in all my life—the Countess, the violence of her emotions penetrating to her very fingers, gripped the handle of her 'starers' with such force that she broke it in two! She was a woman of the world, and in a moment she looked as if nothing had happened. With me it was different; and that I am not now on Lady Mickleham's visiting list is due to (inter alia et enormia) the fact that I laughed! It was out before I could help it. In a second I was as grave as a mute. The mischief was done. The Countess rose. I imitated her example.

'You are amused?' said she, and her tones banished the last of my mirth. I stumbled on my hat, and it rolled to her feet.

'It is not probable,' she observed, 'that after Miss Foster's marriage you will meet her often. You will move in—er—somewhat different circles.'

'I may catch a glimpse of her in her carriage from the top of my 'bus,' said I.

'Your milieu and my son's——'

'I know his valet, though,' said I.

Lady Mickleham rang the bell. I stooped for my hat. To tell the truth I was rather afraid to expose myself in such a defenceless attitude, but the Countess preserved her self-control. The butler opened the door. I bowed, and left the Countess regarding me through the maimed 'starers.' Then I found the butler smiling. He probably knew the signs of the weather. I wouldn't be Lady Mickleham's butler if you made me a duke.

As I walked home through the Park I met Miss Dolly and Mickleham. They stopped. I walked on. Mickleham seized me by the coat-tails.

'Do you mean to cut us?' he cried.

'Yes,' said I.

'Why, what the deuce——?' he began.

'I've seen your mother,' said I. 'I wish, Mickleham, that when you do happen to intrude as you did the other day, you wouldn't repeat what you see.'

'Lord!' he cried. 'She's not heard of that? I only told Aunt Cynthia.'

I said something about Aunt Cynthia.

'Does—does she know it all?' asked Miss Dolly.

'More than all—much more.'

'Didn't you smooth it over?' said Miss Dolly reproachfully.

'On reflection,' said I, 'I don't know that I did—much.' (I hadn't, you know.)

Suddenly Mickleham burst out laughing.

'What a game!' he exclaimed.

'That's all very well for you,' said Dolly. 'But do you happen to remember that we dine there to-night?'

Archie grew grave.

'I hope you'll enjoy yourselves,' said I. 'I always cling to the belief that the wicked are punished.' And I looked at Miss Dolly.

'Never you mind, little woman,' said Archie, drawing Miss Dolly's arm through his. 'I'll see you through. After all, everybody knows that old Carter's an ass.'

That piece of universal knowledge may help matters, but I do not quite see how. I walked on, for Miss Dolly had quite forgotten me, and was looking up at Archie Mickleham like—well, hang it, in the way they do, you know. So I just walked on.

I believe Miss Dolly has got a husband who is (let us say) good enough for her. And, for one reason and another, I am glad of it. And I also believe that she knows it. And I am—I suppose—glad of that too. Oh, yes, of course I am. Of course.