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IV.

THE PERVERSENESS OF IT.

'I tell you what, Mr. Carter,' said Miss Nellie Phaeton, touching up Rhino with her whip, 'love in a cottage is——'

'Lord forgive us, cinders, ashes, dust,' I quoted.

We were spanking round the Park behind Ready and Rhino. Miss Phaeton's horses are very large; her groom is very small, and her courage is indomitable. I am no great hand at driving myself, and I am not always quite comfortable. Moreover, the stricter part of my acquaintance consider, I believe, that Miss Phaeton's attentions to me are somewhat pronounced, and that I ought not to drive with her in the Park.

'You're right,' she went on. 'What a girl wants is a good house and lots of cash, and some ridin' and a little huntin' and——'

'A few "g's";' I cried in shuddering entreaty. 'If you love me, a "g" or two.'

'Well, I suppose so,' said she. 'You can't go ridin' without gees, can you?'

Apparently one could go driving without any, but I did not pursue the subject.

'It's only in stories that people are in love when they marry,' observed Miss Phaeton reflectively.

'Yes, and then it's generally with somebody else,' said I.

'Oh, if you count that!' said she, hitting Ready rather viciously. We bounded forward, and I heard the little groom bumping on the back seat. I am always glad not to be a groom—it's a cup-and-ball sort of life, which must be very wearying.

'Were you ever in love?' she asked, just avoiding a brougham which contained the Duchess of Dexminster. (If, by the way, I have to run into any one, I like it to be a Duchess: you get a much handsomer paragraph.)

'Yes,' said I.

'Often?'

'Oh, not too often, and I always take great care, you know.'

'What of?'

'That it shall be quite out of the question, you know. It's not at all difficult. I only have to avoid persons of moderate means.'

'But aren't you a person of——?'

'Exactly. That's why. So I choose either a pauper—when it's impossible—or an heiress—when it's preposterous. See?'

'But don't you ever want to get——?' began Miss Phaeton.

'Let's talk about something else,' said I.

'I believe you're humbuggin' me,' said Miss Phaeton.

'I am offering a veiled apology,' said I.

'Stuff!' said she. 'You know you told Dolly Foster that I should make an excellent wife for a trainer.'

Oh, these women! A man had better talk to a phonograph.

'Or anybody else,' said I politely.

Miss Phaeton whipped up her horses.

'Look out! There's the mounted policeman,' I cried.

'No, he isn't. Are you afraid?" she retorted.

'I'm not fit to die,' I pleaded.

'I don't care a pin for your opinion, you know,' she continued (I had never supposed that she did); 'but what did you mean by it?'

'I never said it.'

'Oh!'

'All right—I never did.'

'Then Dolly invented it?'

'Of course,' said I steadily.

'On your honour?'

'Oh, come, Miss Phaeton!'

'Would—would other people think so?' she asked, with a highly surprising touch of timidity.

'Nobody would,' I said. 'Only a snarling old wretch would say so, just because he thought it smart.'

There was a long pause. Then Miss Phaeton asked me abruptly,—

'You never met him, did you?'

'No.'

A pause ensued. We passed the Duchess again, and scratched the nose of her poodle, which was looking out of the carriage window. Miss Phaeton flicked Rhino, and the groom behind went plop-plop on the seat.

'He lives in town, you know,' remarked Miss Phaeton.

'They mostly do—and write about the country,' said I.

'Why shouldn't they?' she asked fiercely.

'My dear Miss Phaeton, by all means let them,' said I.

'He's awfully clever, you know,' she continued; 'but he wouldn't always talk. Sometimes he just sat and said nothin', or read a book.'

A sudden intuition discovered Mr. Gay's feelings to me.

'You were talking about the run, or something, I suppose.'

'Yes, or the bag, you know.'

As she spoke she pulled up Ready and Rhino. The little groom jumped down and stood under (not at) their heads. I leant back and surveyed the crowd sitting and walking. Miss Phaeton flicked a fly off Rhino's ear, put her whip in the socket, and leant back also.

'Then I suppose you didn't care much about him?' I asked.

'Oh, I liked him pretty well,' she answered very carelessly.

At this moment, looking along the walk, I saw a man coming towards us. He was a handsome fellow, with just a touch of 'softness' in his face. He was dressed in correct fashion, save that his hair was a trifle longer, his coat a trifle fuller, his hat a trifle larger, his tie a trifle looser than they were worn by most. He caught my attention, and I went on looking at him for a little while, till a slight movement of my companion's made me turn my head.

Miss Phaeton was sitting bolt upright: she fidgeted with the reins; she took her whip out of the socket and put it back again; and, to my amazement, her cheeks were very red.

Presently the man came opposite the carriage. Miss Phaeton bowed. He lifted his hat, smiled, and made as if to pass on. Miss Phaeton held out her hand. I could see a momentary gleam of surprise in his eye, as though he thought her cordiality more than he might have looked for—possibly even more than he cared about. But he stopped and shook hands.

'How are you, Mr. Gay?' she said, not introducing me.

'Still with your inseparables!' he said gaily, with a wave of his hand towards the horses. 'I hope, Miss Phaeton, that in the next world your faithful steeds will be allowed to bear you company, or what will you do?'

'Oh, you think I care for nothin' but horses!' said she petulantly; but she leant towards him, and gave me her shoulder.

'Oh, no,' he laughed. 'Dogs also, and, I'm afraid, one day it was ferrets, wasn't it?'

'Have—have you written any poetry lately?' she asked.

'How conscientious of you to inquire!' he exclaimed, his eyes twinkling. 'Oh, yes, half a hundred things. Have you—killed—anything lately?'

I could swear she flushed again. Her voice trembled as she answered,—

'No, not lately.'

I caught sight of his face behind her back, and I thought I saw a trace of puzzle—nothing more. He held out his hand.

'Well, so glad to have seen you, Miss Phaeton,' said he, 'but I must run on. Good-bye.'

'Good-bye, Mr. Gay,' said she.

And, lifting his hat again, smiling again gaily, he was gone. For a moment or two I said nothing. Then I remarked,—

'So that's your friend Gay, is it? He's not a bad-looking fellow.'

'Yes, that's him,' said she, and, as she spoke, she sank back in her seat for a moment. I did not look at her face. Then she sat up straight again and took the whip.

'Want to stay any longer?' she asked.

'No,' said I.

The little groom sprang away. Rhino and Ready dashed ahead.

'Shall I drop you at the club?' she asked. 'I'm goin' home.'

'I'll get out here,' said I.

We came to a stand again, and I got down.

'Good-bye,' I said.

She nodded at me, but said nothing. A second later the carriage was tearing down the road, and the little groom hanging on for dear life.

Of course it's all nonsense. She's not the least suited to him; she'd make him miserable, and then be miserable herself. But it seems a little perverse, doesn't it? In fact, twice at least between the courses at dinner I caught myself being sorry for her. It is, when you think of it, so remarkably perverse.