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VII.

THE LITTLE WRETCH!

Seeing that little Johnny Tompkins was safely out of the country, under injunctions to make a new man of himself, and to keep that new man, when made, at the Antipodes, I could not see anything indiscreet in touching on the matter in the course of conversation with Mrs. Hilary Musgrave. In point of fact, I was curious to find out what she knew, and supposing she knew, what she thought. So I mentioned little Johnny Tompkins.

'Oh, the little wretch!' cried Mrs. Hilary. 'You know he came here two or three times? Anybody can impose on Hilary.'

'Happy woman! I—I mean unhappy man, Mrs. Hilary.'

'And how much was it he stole?'

'Hard on a thousand,' said I. 'For a time, you know, he was quite a man of fashion.'

'Oh, I know. He came here in his own hansom, perfectly dressed, and——'

'Behaved all right, didn't he?'

'Yes. Of course there was a something.'

'Or you wouldn't have been deceived!' said I with a smile.

'I wasn't deceived,' said Mrs. Hilary, an admirable flush appearing on her cheeks.

'That is to say, Hilary wouldn't.'

'Oh, Hilary! Why didn't his employers prosecute him, Mr. Carter?'

'In the first place, he had that inestimable advantage in a career of dishonesty—respectable relations.'

'Well, but still——'

'His widowed mother was a trump, you know.'

'Do you mean a good woman?'

'Doubtless she was; but I meant a good card. However, there was another reason.'

'I can't see any,' declared Mrs. Hilary.

'I'm going to surprise you,' said I. 'Hilary interceded for him.'

'Hilary?'

'You didn't know it? I thought not. Well, he did.'

'Why, he always pretended to want him to be convicted.'

'Cunning Hilary!' said I.

'He used to speak most strongly against him.'

'That was his guile,' said I.

'Oh, but why in the world——?' she began; then she paused, and went on again: 'It was nothing to do with Hilary.'

'Hilary went with me to see him, you know, while they had him under lock and key at the firm's offices.'

'Did he? I never heard that.'

'And he was much impressed with his bearing.'

'Well, I suppose, Mr. Carter, that if he was really penitent——'

'Never saw a man less penitent,' I interrupted. 'He gloried in his crime; if I remember his exact expression, it was that the jam was jolly well worth the powder, and if they liked to send him to chokee they could and be—— and suffer accordingly, you know.'

'And after that, Hilary——!'

'Oh, anybody can impose on Hilary, you know. Hilary only asked what the "jam" was.'

'It's a horrid expression, but I suppose it meant acting the part of a gentleman, didn't it?'

'Not entirely. According to what he told Hilary, Johnny was in love.'

'Oh, and he stole for some wretched——'

'Now, do be careful. What do you know about the lady?'

'The lady! I can imagine Johnny Tompkins's ideal!'

'So can I, if you come to that.'

'And she must have known his money wasn't his own.'

'Why must she?' I asked. 'According to what he told Hilary, she didn't.'

'I don't believe it,' said Mrs. Hilary, with decision.

'Hilary believed it!'

'Oh, Hilary!'

'But then, Hilary knew the girl.'

'Hilary knew——! You mean to say Hilary knew——?'

'No one better,' said I composedly.

Mrs. Hilary rose to her feet.

'Who was the creature?' she asked sharply.

'Come,' I expostulated, 'how would you like it, if your young man had taken to theft, and——'

'Oh, nonsense. Tell me her name, please, Mr. Carter.'

'Johnny told Hilary that just to see her and talk to her and sit by her was "worth all the money"—but, then, to be sure, it was somebody else's money—and that he'd do it again to get what he had got over again. Then, I'm sorry to say, he swore.'

'And Hilary believed that stuff?'

'Hilary agreed with him,' said I. 'Hilary, you see, knows the lady.'

'What's her name, Mr. Carter?'

'Didn't you notice his attentions to any one?'

'I notice! You don't mean that I've ever seen her!'

'Certainly you have.'

'Was she ever here?'

'Yes, Mrs. Hilary. Hilary takes care of that.'

'I shall be angry in a minute, Mr. Carter. Oh, I'll have this out of Hilary!'

'I should.'

'Who was she?'

'According to what he told Hilary, she was the most fascinating woman in the world. Hilary thought so, too.'

Mrs. Hilary began to walk up and down.

'Oh, so Hilary helped to let him go, because they both——?'

'Precisely,' said I.

'And you dare to come and tell me?'

'Well, I thought you ought to know,' said I. 'Hilary's just as mad about her as Johnny—in fact, he said he'd be hanged if he wouldn't have done the same himself.'

I have once seen Madame Ristori play Lady Macbeth. Her performance was recalled to me by the tones in which Mrs. Hilary asked,—

'Who is this woman, if you please, Mr. Carter?'

'So Hilary got him off—gave him fifty pounds too.'

'Glad to get him away, perhaps,' she burst out in angry scorn.

'Who knows?' says I. 'Perhaps.'

'Her name?' demanded Lady Macbeth—I mean Mrs. Hilary—again.

'I shan't tell you, unless you promise to say nothing to Hilary.'

'To say nothing! Well, really——'

'Oh, all right!' and I took up my hat.

'But I can watch them, can't I?'

'As much as you like.'

'Won't you tell me?'

'If you promise.'

'Well, then, I promise.'

'Look in the glass.'

'What for?'

'To see your face, to be sure.'

She started, blushed red, and moved a step towards me.

'You don't mean——?' she cried.

'Thou art the woman,' said I.

'Oh, but he never said a word——'

'Johnny had his code,' said I. 'And in some ways it was better than some people's—in some, alas! worse.'

'And Hilary?'

'Really you know better than I do whether I've told the truth about Hilary.'

A pause ensued. Then Mrs. Hilary made three short remarks, which I give in their order:

(1) 'The little wretch!'
(2) 'Dear old Hilary!'
(3) 'Poor little man!'

I took my hat. I knew that Hilary was due from the City in a few minutes. Mrs. Hilary sat down by the fire.

'How dare you torment me so?' she asked but not in the least like Lady Macbeth.

'I must have my little amusements,' said I.

'What an audacious little creature!' said Mrs. Hilary. 'Fancy his daring!—— Aren't you astounded?'

'Oh, yes, I am. But, Hilary, you see——'

'It's nearly his time,' said Mrs. Hilary.

I buttoned my left glove and held out my right hand.

'I've a good mind not to shake hands with you,' said she. 'Wasn't it absurd of Hilary?'

'Horribly.'

'He ought to have been all the more angry.'

'Of course he ought.'

'The presumption of it!' and Mrs. Hilary smiled. I also smiled.

'That poor old mother of his,' reflected Mrs. Hilary. 'Where did you say she lived?'

'Hilary knows the address,' said I.

'Silly little wretch!' mused Mrs. Hilary, still smiling.

'Good-bye,' said I.

'Good-bye,' said Mrs. Hilary.

I turned towards the door and had laid my hand on the knob, when Mrs. Hilary called softly,—

'Mr. Carter.'

'Yes,' said I, turning.

'Do you know where the little wretch has gone?'

'Oh, yes,' said I.

'I—I suppose you don't ever write to him?'

'Dear me, no,' said I.

'But you—could?' suggested Mrs. Hilary.

'Of course,' said I.

She jumped up and ran towards me. Her purse was in one hand, and a bit of paper fluttered in the other.

'Send him that—don't tell him,' she whispered, and her voice had a little catch in it. 'Poor little wretch!' said she.

As for me, I smiled cynically—quite cynically, you know; for it was very absurd.

'Please go,' said Mrs. Hilary.

And I went.

Supposing it had been another woman! Well, I wonder!