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VI.

MY LAST CHANCE.

'Now mind,' said Mrs. Hilary Musgrave impressively, 'this is the last time I shall take any trouble about you. She's a very nice girl, quite pretty, and she'll have a lot of money. You can be very pleasant when you like——'

'This unsolicited testimonial——'

'Which isn't often—and if you don't do it this time I wash my hands of you. Why, how old are you?'

'Hush, Mrs. Hilary.'

'You must be nearly——'

'It's false—false—false!'

'Come along,' said Mrs. Hilary, and she added, over her shoulder, 'she has a north-country accent.'

'It might have been Scotch,' said I.

'She plays the piano a good deal.'

'It might have been the fiddle,' said I.

'She's very fond of Browning.'

'It might have been Ibsen,' said I.

Mrs. Hilary, seeing that I was determined to look on the bright side, smiled graciously on me and introduced me to the young lady. She was decidedly good-looking, fresh and sincere of aspect, with large inquiring eyes—eyes which I felt would demand a little too much of me at breakfast—but then a large tea-urn puts that all right.

'Miss Sophia Milton—Mr. Carter,' said Mrs. Hilary, and left us.

Well, we tried the theatres first; but as she had only been to the Lyceum and I had only been to the Gaiety, we soon got to the end of that. Then we tried Art: she asked me what I thought of Degas: I evaded the question by criticising a drawing of a horse in last week's Punch—which she hadn't seen. Upon this she started literature. She said 'Some Qualms and a Shiver' was the book of the season. I put my money on 'The Queen of the Quorn.' Dead stop again! And I saw Mrs. Hilary's eye upon me: there was wrath in her face. Something must be done.

A brilliant idea seized me. I had read that four-fifths of the culture of England were Conservative. I also was a Conservative. It was four to one on! I started politics. I could have whooped for joy when I elicited something particularly incisive about the ignorance of the masses.

'I do hope you agree with me,' said Miss Milton. 'The more one reads and thinks, the more one sees how fatally false a theory it is that the ignorant masses—people such as I have described—can ever rule a great Empire.'

'The Empire wants gentlemen; that's what it wants,' said I, nodding my head, and glancing triumphantly at Mrs. Hilary.

'Men and women,' said she, 'who are acquainted with the best that has been said and thought on all important subjects.'

At the time I believed this observation to be original, but I have since been told that it was borrowed. I was delighted with it.

'Yes,' said I, 'and have got a stake in the country, you know, and know how to behave 'emselves in the House, don't you know?'

'What we have to do,' pursued Miss Milton, 'is to guide the voters. These poor rustics need to be informed——'

'Just so,' I broke in. 'They have to be told——'

'Of the real nature of the questions——'

'And which candidate to support.'

'Or they must infallibly——' she exclaimed.

'Get their marching orders,' I cried, in rapture. It was exactly what I always did on my small property.

'Oh, I didn't quite mean that,' she said reproachfully.

'Oh, well, neither did I—quite,' I responded adroitly. What was wrong with the girl now?

'But with the help of the League——' she went on.

'Do you belong?' I cried, more delighted than ever.

'Oh, yes!' said she. 'I think it's a duty. I worked very hard at the last election. I spent days distributing packages of——'

Then I made, I'm sorry to say, a false step. I observed, interrupting,—

'But it's ticklish work now, eh? Six months' "hard" wouldn't be pleasant, would it?'

'What do you mean, Mr.—er—Carter?' she asked.

I was still blind. I believe I winked, and I'm sure I whispered, 'Tea.'

Miss Milton drew herself up very straight.

'I do not bribe,' she said. 'What I distribute is pamphlets.'

Now, I don't suppose that 'pamphlets' and 'blankets' don't really sound much alike, but I was agitated.

'Quite right,' said I. 'Poor old things! They can't afford proper fuel.'

She rose to her feet.

'I was not joking,' said she with horrible severity.

'Neither was I,' I declared in humble apology. 'Didn't you say "Blankets"?'

'Pamphlets.

'Oh!'

There was a long pause. I glanced at Mrs. Hilary. Things had not fallen out as happily as they might, but I did not mean to give up yet.

'I see you're right,' I said, still humbly. 'To descend to such means as I had in my mind is——'.

'To throw away our true weapons,' said she earnestly. (She sat down again—good sign.)

'What we really need——' I began.

'Is a reform of the upper classes,' said she. 'Let them give an example of duty, of self-denial, of frugality.'

I was not to be caught out again.

'Just what I always say,' I observed impressively.

'Let them put away their horse-racing, their betting, their luxurious living, their——'

'You're right, Miss Milton,' said I.

'Let them set an example of morality.'

'They should,' I assented.

Miss Milton smiled.

'I thought we agreed really,' said she.

'I'm sure we do,' cried I; and I winked with my 'off' eye at Mrs. Hilary as I sat down beside Miss Milton.

'Now I heard of a man the other day,' said she, 'who's nearly forty. He's got an estate in the country. He never goes there, except for a few days' shooting. He lives in town. He spends too much. He passes an absolutely vacant existence in a round of empty gaiety. He has by no means a good reputation. He dangles about, wasting his time and his money. Is that the sort of example——?'

'He's a traitor to his class,' said I warmly.

'If you want him, you must look on a race-course, or at a tailor's, or in some fashionable woman's boudoir. And his estate looks after itself. He's too selfish to marry, too idle to work, too silly to think.'

I began to feel sorry for this man, in spite of his peccadilloes.

'I wonder if I've met him', said I. 'I'm occasionally in town, when I can get time to run up. What's his name?'

'I don't think I heard—or I've forgotten. But he's got the place next to a friend of mine in the country, and she told me all about him. She's exactly the opposite sort of person—or she wouldn't be my friend.'

'I should think not. Miss Milton,' said I admiringly.

'Oh, I should like to meet that man, and tell him what I think of him!' said she. 'Such men as he is do more harm than a dozen agitators. So contemptible, too!'

'It's revolting to think of,' said I.

'I'm so glad you——' began Miss Milton, quite confidentially; I pulled my chair a trifle closer, and cast an apparently careless glance towards Mrs. Hilary. Suddenly I heard a voice behind me.

'Eh, what? Upon my honour it is! Why, Carter, my boy, how are you? Eh, what? Miss Milton, too, I declare! Well, now, what a pity Annie didn't come!'

I disagreed. I hate Annie. But I was very glad to see my friend and neighbour, Robert Dinnerly. He's a sensible man—his wife's a little prig.

'Oh, Mr. Dinnerly,' cried Miss Milton, 'how funny that you should come just now! I was just trying to remember the name of a man Mrs. Dinnerly told me about. I was telling Mr. Carter about him. You know him.'

'Well, Miss Milton, perhaps I do. Describe him.'

'I don't believe Annie ever told me his name, but she was talking about him at our house yesterday.'

'But I wasn't there, Miss Milton.'

'No,' said Miss Milton, 'but he's got the next place to yours in the country.'

I positively leapt from my seat.

'Why, good gracious, Carter himself, you mean!' cried Dinnerly, laughing. 'Well, that is a good 'un—ha-ha-ha!'

She turned a stony glare on me.

'Do you live next to Mr. Dinnerly in the country?' she asked.

I would have denied it if Dinnerly had not been there. As it was I blew my nose.

'I wonder,' said Miss Milton, 'what has become of Aunt Emily.'

'Miss Milton,' said I, 'by a happy chance you have enjoyed a luxury. You have told the man what you think of him.'

'Yes,' said she; 'and I have only to add that he is also a hypocrite.'

Pleasant, wasn't it? Yet Mrs. Hilary says it was my fault! That's a woman all over!