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IX.

A VERY DULL AFFAIR.

'To hear you talk,' remarked Mrs. Hilary Musgrave—and, if any one is surprised to find me at her house, I can only say that Hilary, when he asked me to take pot-luck, was quite ignorant of any ground of difference between his wife and myself, and that Mrs. Hilary could not very well eject me on my arrival in evening dress at ten minutes to eight—'to hear you talk one would think that there was no such thing as real love.'

She paused. I smiled.

'Now,' she continued, turning a fine but scornful eye upon me, 'I have never cared for any man in the world except my husband.'

I smiled again. Poor Hilary looked very uncomfortable. With an apologetic air he began to stammer something about Parish Councils. I was not to be diverted by any such manœuvre. It was impossible that he could really wish to talk on that subject.

'Would a person who had never eaten anything but beef make a boast of it?' I asked.

Hilary grinned covertly. Mrs. Hilary pulled the lamp nearer, and took up her embroidery.

'Do you always work the same pattern?' said I.

Hilary kicked me gently. Mrs. Hilary made no direct reply, but presently she began to talk.

'I was just about Phyllis's age' (by the way, little Miss Phyllis was there) 'when I first saw Hilary. You remember, Hilary? At Bournemouth?'

'Oh—er—was it Bournemouth?' said Hilary, with much carelessness.

'I was on the pier,' pursued Mrs. Hilary. 'I had a red frock on, I remember, and one of those big hats they wore that year. Hilary wore——'

'Blue serge,' I interpolated, encouragingly.

'Yes, blue serge,' said she fondly. 'He had been yachting, and he was beautifully burnt. I was horribly sunburnt—wasn't I, Hilary?'

Hilary began to pat the dog.

'Then we got to know one another.'

'Stop a minute,' said I. 'How did that happen?'

Mrs. Hilary blushed.

'Well, we were both always on the pier,' she explained. 'And—and somehow Hilary got to know father, and—and father introduced him to me.'

'I'm glad it was no worse,' said I. I was considering Miss Phyllis, who sat listening, open-eyed.

'And then, you know, father wasn't always there; and once or twice we met on the cliff. Do you remember that morning, Hilary?'

'What morning?' asked Hilary, patting the dog with immense assiduity.

'Why, the morning I had my white serge on. I'd been bathing, and my hair was down to dry, and you said I looked like a mermaid.'

'Do mermaids wear white serge?' I asked; but nobody took the least notice of me—quite properly.

'And you told me such a lot about yourself; and then we found we were late for lunch.'

'Yes,' said Hilary, suddenly forgetting the dog, 'and your mother gave me an awful glance.'

'Yes, and then you told me that you were very poor, but that you couldn't help it; and you said you supposed I couldn't possibly——'

'Well, I didn't think——!'

'And I said you were a silly old thing; and then——' Mrs. Hilary stopped abruptly.

'How lovely!' remarked little Miss Phyllis in a wistful voice.

'And do you remember,' pursued Mrs. Hilary, laying down her embroidery and clasping her hands on her knees, 'the morning you went to see father?'

'What a row there was!' said Hilary.

'And what an awful week it was after that! I was never so miserable in all my life. I cried till my eyes were quite red, and then I bathed them for an hour, and then I went to the pier, and you were there—and I mightn't speak to you!'

'I remember,' said Hilary, nodding gently.

'And then, Hilary, father sent for me and told me it was no use; and I said I'd never marry any one else. And father said, "There, there, don't cry. We'll see what mother says."'

'Your mother was a brick,' said Hilary, poking the fire.

'And that night—they never told me anything about it, and I didn't even change my frock, but came down, looking horrible, just as I was, in an old black rag—Now, Hilary, don't say it was pretty!'

Hilary, unconvinced, shook his head.

'And when I walked into the drawing-room there was nobody there but just you; and we neither of us said anything for ever so long. And then father and mother came in and—do you remember after dinner, Hilary?'

'I remember,' said Hilary.

There was a long pause. Mrs. Hilary was looking into the fire; little Miss Phyllis's eyes were fixed, in rapt gaze, on the ceiling; Hilary was looking at his wife—I, thinking it safest, was regarding my own boots.

At last Miss Phyllis broke the silence.

'How perfectly lovely!' she said.

'Yes,' said Mrs. Hilary. 'And we were married three months afterwards.'

'Tenth of June,' said Hilary reflectively.

'And we had the most charming little rooms in the world! Do you remember those first rooms, dear? So tiny!'

'Not bad little rooms,' said Hilary.

'How awfully lovely!' cried little Miss Phyllis.

I felt that it was time to interfere.

'And is that all?' I asked.

'All? How do you mean?' said Mrs. Hilary, with a slight start.

'Well, I mean, did nothing else happen? Weren't there any complications? Weren't there any more troubles, or any more opposition, or any misunderstandings, or anything?'

'No,' said Mrs. Hilary.

'You never quarrelled, or broke it off?'

'No.'

'Nobody came between you?'

'No. It all went just perfectly. Why, of course it did.'

'Hilary's people made themselves nasty, perhaps?' I suggested, with a ray of hope.

'They fell in love with her on the spot,' said Hilary.

Then I rose and stood with my back to the fire.

'I do not know,' I observed, 'what Miss Phyllis thinks about it——'

'I think it was just perfect, Mr. Carter.'

'But for my part, I can only say that I never heard of such a dull affair in all my life.'

'Dull!' gasped Miss Phyllis.

'Dull!' murmured Mrs. Hilary.

'Dull!' chuckled Hilary.

'It was,' said I severely, 'without a spark of interest from beginning to end. Such things happen by thousands. It's commonplaceness itself. I had some hopes when your father assumed a firm attitude, but——'

'Mother was such a dear,' interrupted Mrs. Hilary.

'Just so. She gave away the whole situation. Then I did trust that Hilary would lose his place, or develop an old flame, or do something just a little interesting.'

'It was a perfect time,' said Mrs. Hilary.

'I wonder why in the world you told me about it,' I pursued.

'I don't know why I did,' said Mrs. Hilary dreamily.

'The only possible excuse for an engagement like that,' I observed, 'is to be found in intense post-nuptial unhappiness.'

Hilary rose, and advanced towards his wife.

'Your embroidery's falling on the floor,' said he.

'Not a bit of it,' said I.

'Yes, it is,' he persisted; and he picked it up and gave it to her. Miss Phyllis smiled delightedly. Hilary had squeezed his wife's hand.

'Then we don't excuse it,' said he.

I took out my watch. I was not finding much entertainment.

'Surely it's quite early, old man?' said Hilary.

'It's nearly eleven. We've spent half-an-hour on the thing,' said I peevishly, holding out my hand to my hostess.

'Oh, are you going? Good-night, Mr. Carter.'

I turned to Miss Phyllis.

'I hope you won't think all love-affairs are like that,' I said; but I saw her lips begin to shape into 'lovely,' and I hastily left the room.

Hilary came to help me on with my coat. He looked extremely apologetic, and very much ashamed of himself.

'Awfully sorry, old chap,' said he, 'that we bored you with our reminiscences. I know, of course, that they can't be very interesting to other people. Women are so confoundedly romantic.'

'Don't try that on with me,' said I, much disgusted. 'You were just as bad yourself.'

He laughed, as he leant against the door.

'She did look ripping in that white frock,' he said, 'with her hair——'

'Stop,' said I, firmly. 'She looked just like a lot of other girls.'

'I'm hanged if she did!' said Hilary.

Then he glanced at me with a puzzled sort of expression.

'I say, old man, weren't you ever that way yourself?' he asked.

I hailed a hansom cab.

'Because, if you were, you know, you'd understand how a fellow remembers every——'

'Good-night,' said I. 'At least I suppose you're not coming to the club?'

'Well, I think not,' said Hilary. 'Ta-ta, old fellow. Sorry we bored you. Of course, if a man has never——'

'Never!' I groaned. 'A score of times!'

'Well, then, doesn't it——?'

'No,' said I. 'It's just that that makes stories like yours so infernally——'

'What?' asked Hilary; for I had paused to light a cigarette.

'Uninteresting,' said I, getting into my cab.