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VIII.

AN EXPENSIVE PRIVILEGE.

A rather uncomfortable thing happened the other day which threatened a schism in my acquaintance and put me in a decidedly awkward position. It was no other than this: Mrs. Hilary Musgrave had definitely informed me that she did not approve of Lady Mickleham. The attitude is, no doubt, a conceivable one, but I was surprised that a woman of Mrs. Hilary's large sympathies should adopt it. Besides, Mrs. Hilary is quite good-looking herself.

The history of the affair is much as follows. I called on Mrs. Hilary to see whether I could do anything, and she told me all about it. It appears that Mrs. Hilary had a bad cold and a cousin up from the country about the same time (she was justly aggrieved at the double event), and, being unable to go to the Duchess of Dexminster's 'squash,' she asked Dolly Mickleham to chaperon little Miss Phyllis. Little Miss Phyllis, of course, knew no one there, the Duchess least of all (but then very few of us—yes, I was there—knew the Duchess, and the Duchess didn't know any of us; I saw her shake hands with a waiter myself, just to be on the safe side), and an hour after the party began she was discovered wandering about in a most desolate condition. Dolly had told her that she would be in a certain place; and when Miss Phyllis came Dolly was not there. The poor little lady wandered about for another hour, looking so lost that one was inclined to send for a policeman; and then she sat down on a seat by the wall, and, in desperation, asked her next-door neighbour if he knew Lady Mickleham by sight, and had he seen her lately? The next-door neighbour, by way of reply, called out to a quiet elderly gentleman who was sidling unobtrusively about, 'Duke, are there any particularly snug corners in your house?' The Duke stopped, searched his memory, and said that at the end of the Red Corridor there was a passage; and that a few yards down the passage, if you turned very suddenly to the right, you would come on a little nook under the stairs. The little nook just held a settee, and the settee (the Duke thought) might just hold two people. The next-door neighbour thanked the Duke, and observed to Miss Phyllis,—

'It will give me a great pleasure to take you to Lady Mickleham.' So they went, it being then, according to Miss Phyllis's sworn statement, precisely two hours and five minutes since Dolly had disappeared; and pursuing the route indicated by the Duke, they found Lady Mickleham. And Lady Mickleham exclaimed, 'Good gracious, my dear, I'd quite forgotten you! Have you had an ice? Do take her to have an ice, Sir John.' (Sir John Berry was the next-door neighbour.) And with that Lady Mickleham is said to have resumed her conversation.

'Did you ever hear anything more atrocious?' concluded Mrs. Hilary. 'I really cannot think what Lord Mickleham is doing.'

'You surely mean, what Lady Mickleham——?'

'No, I don't,' said Mrs. Hilary, with extraordinary decision. 'Anything might have happened to that poor child.'

'Oh, there were not many of the aristocracy present,' said I soothingly.

'But it's not that so much, as the thing itself. She's the most disgraceful flirt in London.'

'How do you know she was flirting?' I inquired with a smile.

'How do I know?' echoed Mrs. Hilary.

'It is a very hasty conclusion,' I persisted. 'Sometimes I stay talking with you for an hour or more. Are you, therefore, flirting with me?'

'With you!' exclaimed Mrs. Hilary, with a little laugh.

'Absurd as the supposition is,' I remarked, 'it yet serves to point the argument. Lady Mickleham might have been talking with a friend, just in the quiet, rational way in which we are talking now.'

'I don't think that's likely,' said Mrs. Hilary; and—well, I do not like to say that she sniffed—it would convey too strong an idea, but she did make an odd little sound something like a much etherealised sniff.

I smiled again, and more broadly. I was enjoying beforehand the little victory which I was to enjoy over Mrs. Hilary.

'Yet it happens to be true,' said I.

Mrs. Hilary was magnificently contemptuous.

'Lord Mickleham told you so, I suppose?' she asked. 'And I suppose Lady Mickleham told him—poor man!'

'Why do you call him "poor man"?'

'Oh, never mind. Did he tell you?'

'Certainly not. The fact is, Mrs. Hilary—and really, you must excuse me for having kept you in the dark a little—it amused me so much to hear your suspicions.'

Mrs. Hilary rose to her feet.

'Well, what are you going to say?' she asked.

I laughed, as I answered,—

'Why, I was the man with Lady Mickleham when your friend and Berry inter—when they arrived, you know.'

Well, I should have thought—I should still think—that she would have been pleased—relieved, you know, to find her uncharitable opinion erroneous, and pleased to have it altered on the best authority. I'm sure that is how I should have felt. It was not, however, what Mrs. Hilary felt.

'I am deeply pained,' she observed after a long pause; and then she held out her hand.

'I was sure you'd forgive my little deception,' said I, grasping it. I thought still that she meant to bury all unkindness.

'I should never have thought it of you,' she went on.

'I didn't know your friend was there at all,' I pleaded; for by now I was alarmed.

'Oh, please don't shuffle like that,' said Mrs. Hilary.

She continued to stand, and I rose to my feet. Mrs. Hilary held out her hand again.

'Do you mean that I'm to go?' said I.

'I hope we shall see you again some day,' said Mrs. Hilary; the tone suggested that she was looking forward to some future existence, when my earthly sins should have been sufficiently purged. It reminded me for the moment of King Arthur and Queen Guinevère.

'But I protest,' I began, 'that my only object in telling you was to show you how absurd——'

'Is it any good talking about it now?' asked Mrs. Hilary. A discussion might possibly be fruitful in the dim futurity before mentioned—but not now—that was what she seemed to say.

'Lady Mickleham and I, on the occasion in question——' I began with dignity.

'Pray spare me,' quoth Mrs. Hilary, with much greater dignity.

I took my hat.

'Shall you be at home as usual on Thursday?' I asked.

'I have a great many people coming already,' she remarked.

'I can take a hint,' said I.

'I wish you'd take warning,' said Mrs Hilary.

'I will take my leave,' said I—and I did, leaving Mrs. Hilary in a tragic attitude in the middle of the room. Never again shall I go out of my way to lull Mrs. Hilary's suspicions.

A day or two after this very trying interview Lady Mickleham's victoria happened to stop opposite where I was seated in the park. I went to pay my respects.

'Do you mean to leave me nothing in the world?' I asked, just by way of introducing the subject of Mrs. Hilary. 'One of my best friends has turned me out of her house on your account.'

'Oh, do tell me,' said Dolly, dimpling all over her face.

So I told her; I made the story as long as I could for reasons connected with the dimples.

'What fun!' exclaimed Dolly. 'I told you at the time that a young unmarried person like you ought to be more careful.'

'I am just debating,' I observed, 'whether to sacrifice you.'

'To sacrifice me, Mr. Carter?'

'Of course,' I explained; 'if I dropped you Mrs. Hilary would let me come again.'

'How charming that would be!' cried Dolly. 'You would enjoy her nice serious conversation—all about Hilary!'

'She is apt,' I conceded, 'to touch on Hilary. But she is very picturesque.'

'Oh, yes, she's handsome,' said Dolly.

There was a pause. Then Dolly said, 'Well?'

'Well?' said I in return.

'Is it good-bye?' asked Dolly, drawing down the corners of her mouth.

'It comes to this,' I remarked. 'Supposing I forgive you——'

'As if it was my fault!'

'And risk Mrs. Hilary's wrath—did you speak?'

'No; I laughed, Mr. Carter.'

'What shall I get out of it?'

The sun was shining brightly: it shone on Dolly: she had raised her parasol, but she blinked a little beneath it. She was smiling slightly still, and one dimple stuck to its post—like a sentinel, ready to rouse the rest from their brief repose. Dolly lay back in the victoria, nestling luxuriously against the soft cushions. She turned her eyes for a moment on me.

'Why are you looking at me?' she asked.

'Because,' said I, 'there is nothing better to look at.'

'Do you like doing it?' asked Dolly.

'It is a privilege,' said I politely.

'Well, then!' said Dolly.

'But,' I ventured to observe, 'it's rather an expensive one.'

'Then you mustn't have it very often.'

'And it is shared by so many people.'

'Then,' said Dolly, smiling indulgently, 'you must have it—a little oftener. Home, Roberts, please.'

I am not yet allowed at Mrs. Hilary Musgrave's.