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Title: The Magnetic Girl
Author: Marsh, Richard
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Magnetic Girl" ***

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 THE MAGNETIC GIRL

 BY
 RICHARD MARSH
 AUTHOR OF
 “_The Beetle_,” “_Curios: Some Strange Adventures of Two Bachelors_,”
 “_Ada Vernham, Actress_,” “_Mrs Musgrave and Her Husband_,”
 “_The Twickenham Peerage_,” _etc._

 London
 John Long
 13 and 14 Norris Street, Haymarket
 1903



 COPYRIGHT.

 _Copyright by John Long 1903
 All Rights Reserved_



 CONTENTS.

 CHAPTER I. A MAN
 CHAPTER II. WOMEN’S VOICES
 CHAPTER III. THE UNFINISHED SENTENCE
 CHAPTER IV. THE EPISODE OF THE BAKER’S BOY
 CHAPTER V. THE FURTHER EPISODES OF THE SHOP-WALKER AND THE ARTIST IN
   HAIR
 CHAPTER VI. MISS NORAH FEELS ODD
 CHAPTER VII. MISS NORAH RECEIVES TWO GENTLEMEN
 CHAPTER VIII. MEN ARE DECEIVERS EVER
 CHAPTER IX. MORE TREACHERY
 CHAPTER X. THE COMPROMISE
 CHAPTER XI. THE TURNING OF THE WORM
 CHAPTER XII. MISS NORAH’S SOLILOQUY
 CHAPTER XIII. JANE
 CHAPTER XIV. A QUARTER TO SEVEN
 CHAPTER XV. TRAMPLING UPON FIVE
 CHAPTER XVI. THE DINNER WHICH FAILED
 CHAPTER XVII. THE BROWN MAN
 CHAPTER XVIII. BEFORE THE CURTAIN
 CHAPTER XIX. AN UNREHEARSED EFFECT
 CHAPTER XX. THE BROUGHAM
 CHAPTER XXI. THE SINGULAR WOOING
 CHAPTER XXII. I BEHAVE LIKE A GOOSE
 CHAPTER XXIII. “UNTIL?”
 CHAPTER XXIV. THE FINISHED SENTENCE
 CHAPTER XXV. THE BROWN MAN’S APOLOGY
 CHAPTER XXVI. ON THE SINGULAR EFFECTS OF SUNLIGHT



 THE MAGNETIC GIRL



 CHAPTER I.
 A MAN

It was the most extraordinary thing that ever happened to anyone. I
really hardly know how to begin to tell about it. I was doing my hair
before the looking-glass in my bedroom--and I could not help noticing
that it was rather a curious colour, though my eyes were nearly
blinded by tears of rage, and something else. The rage was because
Lilian and Audrey and Eveleen and Doris, and mother too, had been
saying all the nasty things they could to me. The something else was
because Benjamin Morgan had asked me to be his wife.

There--it’s out! My first proposal of marriage--my very, very first!
and that it should have come from him! It made me go hot all over with
shame and disgust and a most singular variety of feelings.

They had been teasing me about him for ever so long; congratulating
me--of course, with the most biting sarcasm--on having made a conquest
at last. I am twenty-three, and nearly twenty-four, and no man ever
paid me the least attention--until Mr Morgan began. And I wished he
had not; because they made the most dreadful fun of him, and teased me
more than they had ever done before--which is saying more than words
can describe--on account of his being a hunchback. At least, he’s not
exactly a hunchback, though they say he is: but I do like to be
accurate, and I don’t care who laughs at me, and I’m quite sure that
it’s only one shoulder which is a little higher than the other.
There’s no denying that he is rather short for a man. His nurse
dropped him when he was a baby. For years they never thought that he
would live. If it were not for that there would be nothing against
him. He has a nice face,--no one can say that there is anything the
matter with that; with big black eyes, and the sweetest smile, and the
pleasantest voice. He was the most thoughtful person I ever met. As
generous as could be. He never said disagreeable things about anyone.
I never saw him impatient, or out of temper. Though he had a way,
sometimes, of making you understand that he was hurt by something
which had been said or done, which made you feel that you were a
perfect wretch.

If he had not been crooked! They never ceased to laugh at me because
of “Crooked Ben,”--as they loved to call him. It got to such a state
that I grew to hate the sight of him. At the mere mention of his name
I would go hot all over;--they were always dragging him in by the head
and ears! Persisting--in season and out of season!--in telling me how
glad they were that I had some sort of an admirer at last, even if it
wasn’t a very straight one. That made me so wild that I would declare
that he was no admirer of mine, though I could not help but suspect
the contrary. Then, of course, they would go on worse than ever,
saying that having a lover like that was almost like having two:
because he had two such different sides to him that no one would
suppose that the one belonged to the other; and that when he was my
husband I might call one side of him by one name, and the other by
another. I have not the very best of tempers, and when they talked
like that I would fly into such rages; vowing and declaring that
nothing on earth would ever induce me to have anything to do with him,
and that nothing was further from his mind than the idea of asking me,
since I had given him no sort of encouragement, but, on the contrary,
had given him clearly to understand that I did not desire even his
acquaintance.

And now, in spite of all my vows and declarations, he had actually
made me a proposal of marriage. If they ever came to hear of it I
might as well go into a lunatic asylum at once; because they would
certainly end by driving me there.

And yet I was not so sure as I should have liked to have been that I
was beside myself with indignation at the mere notion of his audacity.
Though, of course, I was wild. But, I suppose, the fact is, if you
never have had a proposal from anyone, in a kind of a way it is
interesting to have an offer from anyone or anything,--even from, in a
manner of speaking, a monkey on a stick. If only just to know what it
sounds like and how it’s done.

Everything was against Mr Morgan from the very start;--I will own
that. When he met me I was in a red-hot rage. If a king on his throne
had asked me to be his wife I should have felt like scratching him.
Mother had just been telling me that I was getting dowdier and
dowdier, and uglier and uglier every day, and if that sort of remark
makes anyone feel like sugar and spice and all that’s nice, then all I
can say is that it doesn’t me. I had really gone out to get something
in High Street. But the thought of what a dreary waste my life
actually was made me turn away from shops in disgust, and seek the
solitude of Kensington Gardens. I had scarcely gone fifty yards along
the Broad Walk when I all but ran against Mr Morgan. The sight of him
made me madder than ever. He just looked at me. When he was near I
used to have a horrid feeling that he understood me almost as well as
I did myself; and that he more than suspected that I was an ugly
duckling in my way almost as much as he was in his. It made me wild,
the idea of being bracketed, in any sense whatever, with him.

I noticed what a shiny top-hat he had on,--I never saw anyone who wore
more beautiful top-hats; his taste was excellent; he was always
faultlessly dressed. I was filled with a vindictive desire to knock
off his hat with my parasol, and kick it; I did so feel like kicking
someone. There can be no real doubt that I have both a bad temper and
savage instincts. But so far was he from realising what was passing
through my mind that he gave me what was unmistakably a look of
sympathy;--there is nothing I hate so much as being sympathised with.
The thought that he was doing so made me wilder than ever. But before
I had a chance of snubbing him he began--

“I was just thinking of you, Miss Norah.”

“It’s a pity you were not better employed,” I retorted, with a
conspicuous display of both gratitude and good breeding.

“Thank you. Your pity is wasted. I could not be better employed.”

His unruffled air made me disposed to be ruder than ever; and I was
just about to tell him that it was most unfortunate that he had no
better occupation for his time, when off he started,--right in the
middle of the Broad Walk, in front of all the people, without the
slightest prelude.

“I could hardly be better employed than in thinking of the woman I
wish to make my wife. And you are she.--Norah, will you be my wife?”

I was so startled,--genuinely startled, that I was thrown all in a
fluster. That he had had some faint notion at the back of his head I
had feared; I do not mind admitting it. But that it had anything like
come to a head I had never imagined. That I do protest. Still less had
I supposed that, under any circumstances, he would blurt it out in
that public place, and in that extraordinary manner. It was entirely
contrary to my most cherished notions. I could conceive of a
declaration being led up to gradually--of its taking a final form in
some delicate phrase, amidst suitable surroundings, at an appropriate
moment.

But that, five seconds after encountering me in a tearing temper,
amidst crowds of people, anyone should ask me, in a casual sort of
manner, to be his wife, as if he were asking for the next dance--that
I had not conceived of as possible. I felt, for the moment, as if I
was breathless; looking at him as if to make sure whether I could
believe the evidence of my eyes and ears.

“What did you say?”

“I asked you if you will be my wife. Will you, Norah?”

Not a word about love. Not a hint of any admiration he might feel; of
regard which had been gradually growing up within his breast. Not a
sign of perturbation. I had read about the awkward shyness, the
painful self-consciousness, with which some men approached that most
delicate of subjects. There were no symptoms of anything of the kind
about Mr Benjamin Morgan. At least, he did not wear them on his
exterior. His tone and manner could not have been more matter-of-fact,
if he had been asking me whether I thought that it was going to rain.
I was so taken aback, that I hardly knew how to treat him. I tried
dignity.

“Is this a jest?” I inquired. “If so, you must allow me to observe
that I don’t think it is quite in the best of taste.”

“If it were a jest, it would be in the very worst of taste. But it is
not a jest, and you know it.”

Really, he was even more dignified than I was. Had I not known it was
impossible, I might have supposed that he was snubbing me on account
of the suggestion I had made. As if it had not been the most
reasonable one in the world. I said nothing. The truth is, I could
think of nothing to say. The position was such an excessively peculiar
one, that I did not feel myself at once capable of treating him with
the crushing scorn which I was becoming rapidly conscious he deserved.
What he imagined my silence meant, I cannot say; but though it seems
nearly incredible, I am almost drawn to the conclusion that he took it
to imply encouragement. The calm way in which he went on talking
forces me to think it.

“I do not fancy we have had very happy lives, either you or I. I take
it that we have both led Robinson Crusoe sort of existences, on desert
islands of our own. I am a lonely man; you are a lonely girl.”

“I a lonely girl! Are you forgetting that I have four sisters and a
mother?”

“No; I am not forgetting it. But one may have a host of mere
relations, and yet be all alone.”

“Mere relations!” I liked the word. I began to bristle all over. How
dare he speak of my four sisters--not to mention mamma!--as “mere”
relations. His assurance was increasing. I had never supposed him
capable of such audacity.

“I will trouble you to speak of my family with respect, Mr Morgan, and
not as if they were persons of absolutely no account.”

“Nothing was further from my wish than to speak of any member of your
family with disrespect. But I think that even you will admit that,
even in your own home, you are alone.”

It made me furious to hear him say so,--even though it might be true.
It was no business of anybody’s how my own people chose to treat me;
they had no right to even notice. Nothing is more unpleasant than to
have a stranger spying on what happens to you in the bosom of your own
family. And so I longed to tell him.

“You are quite mistaken, Mr Morgan. I am not lonely--not in the very
least--ever! And I cannot conceive what leads you to suppose that I
am.”

“I recognise the chivalry which prompts your answer.”

“Chivalry!--What are you talking about, Mr Morgan?--Have you lost your
senses?”

“No; not yet. As I trust that you will afford me opportunities of
proving to you. I at least am lonely--I believe the very loneliest
creature in the whole world. I want you to take pity on my solitude.”

“I am very sorry for you if you are so much alone.”

“Do you mean it?”

“Of course I mean it. Why do you persist in hinting that I keep on
saying what I don’t mean?”

“If you do mean it--really mean it--then you have made of me the
happiest of men.”

“That’s nonsense. It’s absurd to say that my being sorry for you can
make you happy.”

“It is not absurd; because if you are really sorry--as you say you
are--you will put an end to my loneliness.”

I looked at him, beginning to get red all over. It commenced to dawn
upon me what he meant. I had not supposed that he was a master of such
roundabout ways.

“I quite fail to understand you, Mr Morgan.”

“Is it not plain that, if you are really sorry for me, you will be my
wife? And then I can assure you, from the bottom of my heart, that I
shall be the happiest of men.”

Such insidious methods of arriving at entirely erroneous conclusions I
was unaccustomed to. It was becoming momentarily plain to me that I
had not known Mr Benjamin Morgan so well as I imagined. I had supposed
that he was an artless sort of person; and now it almost began to
appear that he was a regular Jesuit.

“I do wish, Mr Morgan, that you would not talk nonsense. I am not
feeling very well, and I can assure you that I am in anything but a
mood for frivolity.”

“Then our moods are in sympathy. You surely do not suggest that to ask
you to be my wife is to be frivolous. It is to me the most important
question that ever yet was asked. The expression of your sympathy
emboldens me to put it again.--Norah, please say that you will be my
wife.”

He raised his hand, and with the tips of his fingers touched my
arm--out there in the Broad Walk, before all the people. Something
seemed, all at once, to go right through me;--whether it was the
sudden surprise of his touch, or the strangeness of his tone, I could
not say. But for the moment I felt almost inclined to cry--and to do
something much worse. For one dreadful second I was almost on the
verge of making a perfect idiot of myself. It is frightful to think of
such a thing being possible, but I am nearly disposed to believe that
if we had been alone, and there had been nothing to divert my
attention, I might have done. But just at that second I saw Lena
Portch coming towards us with Mr Champneys, and the smile which she
gave made me frantic. She is Lilian’s particular friend, and quite as
fond of chaffing me about “Crooked Ben” as any of them. I could not
but suspect that there might be something a little peculiar about our
attitude, and the way we were behaving to one another. The idea that I
should allow him to make a public spectacle of me, and furnish Lena
with a first-rate tale for Lilian, was unendurable. I became all at
once so angry--so stupidly angry!--that I forgot my manners
altogether, not to speak of any fragments of common decency which I
may suppose myself to possess, and behaved myself like the absolute
little wretch which at heart I am.

“Thank you. I am obliged to you for your offer, Mr Morgan. But I do
not care to marry just at present; and, when I do marry, I intend to
marry a man.”

No one need tell me that it was a perfectly disgraceful thing to say.
No one could have been better aware of it than I was. I could have
bitten my own tongue off for having said it the very moment
afterwards: I never should have said it at all if it had not been for
the horrid smile I saw on Lena’s face, and my instant perception of
the sort of yarn she would make all possible haste to spin. I know
that that is not the least excuse; but it is all the excuse I have to
offer,--I could cry at the mere thought of it even now.

Lena and Mr Champneys passed on. Mr Morgan was still. He just looked
at me once,--a startled, dreadful sort of look; and then he looked
away, walking on by my side in silence. I seemed somehow to have
caught a sudden chill. I was shivering all over,--I could have beaten
myself with pleasure. How long the silence lasted, or how far we
walked before we spoke again, I have not the faintest notion. But I
know that at last he stood still, and turned, and looked at me,--and
there was something in his look which seemed to make my heart go cold
as ice. He said,--there was a quiver in his voice which made me flinch
as if he had struck me with a whip,--

“When you do marry, you intend to marry a man. I had not thought, Miss
Norah, that you would have said that to me. Good-day;--and good-bye.”

He raised his hat, and walked away, and left me speechless, rooted to
the ground, feeling, as I deserved to feel, like an utter fool;--like
a wicked, cruel, thoughtless, idiotic fool,--and worse than that!



 CHAPTER II.
 WOMEN’S VOICES

He never looked round once; though I stood where he had left me,
looking after him till he was lost among the crowd. What people
thought of me I cannot say. And I didn’t care. They must have supposed
that I was a sort of Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar, or something.
But, at that moment, what other people thought of me did not matter in
the least. What I thought of myself was a nightmare. I marched off
home, feeling as if I would have liked to have pinched everyone I met.
I passed Lena Portch, who was still with Mr Champneys,--a most
objectionable person, who _will_ wear shepherd’s-plaid trousers, which
I abominate. Lena was to blame for everything. She stood at the gate
as I was coming out of the Gardens. Directly afterwards I saw that she
was crossing the road. I am sure, if a motor car, which almost made an
end of me, had knocked her down, and run right over her, I would not
have turned a hair. If Mr Champneys does marry her I hope he’ll beat
her. I have a moral conviction that he is just that kind of creature.
What can a man be like who lives in shepherd’s-plaid trousers?

When I reached home I was hot, and dishevelled, and all anyhow. I knew
I should get it directly I set foot inside the door,--that is, unless
I could manage to slip upstairs before anyone caught sight of me. And
I got it--mamma opened the door for me herself. We had had a
difficulty with our servants. It is my belief that when five women
live alone in a house together they always are having difficulties
with their servants. I know we were. The cook and the parlour-maid had
left at a moment’s notice--or, rather, without a moment’s notice.
Lilian and Audrey had complained about the state their things were in,
as if they had been worn. Inquiries had been made, and there was quite
a scene: I should not be surprised if the cook had worn some of
Lilian’s frocks--they had just about the same figure. Anyhow, only the
housemaid remained, and she was in two minds. And as, as yet, we had
been able to get no one in to help her, we were at her mercy.

“Why, mamma,” I exclaimed, when I saw that it was she who had opened
the door, “where is Jane?”

“It’s Jane’s afternoon out; and, of course, I should not dream of
asking her to inconvenience herself to oblige me. It’s the mistresses
who are the servants nowadays. What a state you’re in.”

She spoke in her most acid tones. Mamma is not very tall, and rather
dumpy, and though she always dresses in black silk she never appears
imposing, though she tries her best to think she does.

“Why, what’s the matter with me? I’ve been walking fast, and am rather
hot,--that’s all.”

“All! Haven’t I forbidden you to walk fast? Are you not aware that
nothing accentuates the unfortunate vulgarity of your appearance so
much as heat? Your hat is on one side, your hair is out of curl, your
necktie is under your chin. You look positively blowsy. I am ashamed
to see such a figure entering my house. And where are the things?”

“Things?” I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten all about them. I
had intended to get them as I returned from my stroll in Kensington
Gardens; but what had taken place there had driven them right out of
my head. “I meant to get them as I came back, but--I didn’t.”

“Meant to get them as you came back! What do you mean? Did I not send
you out for them, and for them only?”

“Surely, Norah, you have not come back without my stockings? You know
perfectly well that I can’t wear those shoes without them; nothing I
have will do at all.--And where’s my matching?”

Lilian had appeared out of the dining-room. She had bought a new pair
of brown shoes, which she wanted to wear that evening, and it seemed
that nothing she had in the way of hose was of quite the proper shade.
She had given me a scrap of material which was the shade. It seemed
that I had not only forgotten her stockings, but lost the matching.
She let me have it when she became aware of the fact. Lilian is tall;
and--sometimes--stately; and is considered smart; but she can be
disagreeable, and most abusive. In fact, they can all of them be that.

“Really, Norah, you are the most stupid person I ever met. Some people
might suppose that you could not be so stupid as you look; but, I will
do you the justice to admit that you appear to try your very best to
be.”

That was a pleasant thing to say! While I was searching about for
something nice and stinging to reply, Doris came out of the
morning-room on to the top of the stairs, and she began:

“I suppose, Norah, that you have brought my fringe-nets, because I
simply can’t do my hair until I have them. I’ve just torn my very
last.”

Then she supposed wrong, because I had not; and so I told her. The
bathroom door was opened, and Audrey’s voice was heard. I never knew
anyone for baths like Audrey. She likes to have three or four a day,
with the water about up to boiling-point, and oatmeal in it; and there
she lies and stews. What good she thinks it does her is beyond me. I
am sure it doesn’t make her skin any whiter. It couldn’t. It’s
perfectly white and as smooth as satin already. I only wish mine was
like it.

“Is that Norah? Has she brought that ribbon for my bodice? Because if
she has, I’ll put it in at once.”

There was no ribbon to be got out of me, neither for her bodice, nor
for anything else, as Eveleen, who had followed Lilian out of the
dining-room, proceeded to explain.

“Oh dear no! she’s brought nothing, except herself;--and a pretty self
she looks. Upon my word, Norah, I wonder that you can’t manage to keep
yourself a trifle tidy--say about as tidy as the average charwoman.
Especially as you can’t afford to look as if you had got your clothes
on inside out. Some girls can; but, I assure you, you’re not one of
them.

Eveleen is one of your dainty bandbox sort of girls. She never wears a
pin. All her clothes seem to be part of her. You might live with her
for years and never know that she even used hairpins. How she prevents
their ever peeping out is beyond my understanding. And as for nets,
they are put on so knowingly, and match her hair so exactly, that you
would never guess that anything of that kind could have anything to do
with the exquisite neatness of her hair.

“We can’t all appear like barbers’ blocks, and look as if our hair
were sent home, ready dressed, with the fish every day.”

That was what I observed. We adjourned to the dining-room, and the
discussion began. How many of them we have had of which I have been
the subject! No one ever seems to grow tired of them--except me.

“Norah,” mamma began, “I must ask you not to be rude. Your natural
vulgarity, I suppose, you cannot help; but I will have you keep a
guard upon your tongue when you are speaking to your sisters. I cannot
understand why Providence ever afflicted me with such a child.”

“I thought, mamma, that that was a problem which you had given up some
time ago.”

“Unfortunately, the affliction continues. My other daughters do me
credit”--they were all of them beauties;--that was what made it so
maddening for me. “I myself am not ill-looking.” (Mamma had been very
pretty; and still looked nice, especially at night. Only I wish she
would not wear a transformation--which seems to me to be just the same
thing as a wig. Considering that Lilian is twenty-nine, and everybody
knows it, it is so obvious.) “I therefore cannot understand how it is
that I should have a child who is not only unprepossessing, but who
cannot be induced to pay any attention to even the most elementary
rules of toilet which every gentlewoman observes. A servant would be
ashamed to appear in public in the condition in which you at present
are.”

Eveleen struck in:

“I should think so! No decent servant looks as if she had covered
herself with the contents of the rag-bag. Are you aware, Norah, that
your belt has worked up behind, and that the hooks on your skirt are
showing?”

“And your shoe-lace is untied; and, unless I am mistaken, your
stocking is concertinaed about your ankle;--but she doesn’t mind.”

This was Lilian. Mamma followed:

“But _I_ mind. In spite of every obstacle I have treated you exactly
as I have done your sisters. But the problem becomes more serious
every day. How do you suppose that I am ever going to get you properly
settled in life if you persist in making of yourself a scarecrow?--an
absolute figure of fun?--I am compelled to use such language.”

“Oh, you needn’t trouble about a trifle of that sort. She’s settled
all that for herself. She has her eye on Crooked Ben;--which is only
as it should be, because, then, they’ll be a pair of figures of fun.”

This, again, was Lilian. The things she allows herself to say when she
is in the mood, if they heard them, would startle some of the people
who call her stately. She may consider herself ultra-refined, and I do
not deny that she looks it, but I am persuaded that at heart she is
almost as vulgar as I am. When she said that, it made me mad. I flew
at her like a wild-cat. I was just in the mood for it.

“You talk, with a sneer, of Crooked Ben! You may have had bushels of
proposals”--she has had heaps and heaps,--“but there wasn’t one among
the lot worthy to black his boots. As for Mr Rumford, that
bald-headed, bloated object, with quack written large all over him,
you may like to have him muddling about you, but I wouldn’t touch him
with a pair of tongs.”

Lilian went white. The truth is, she was nearly twenty-nine, and I
suppose thought it about time to have someone for a husband, and as Mr
Rumford was showing a strong inclination to apply for the position, I
rather fancy she was considering whether he would not do. He had made
piles of money out of a patent medicine called “Aunt Jane’s Jalap,”
and was really not such a bad sort in his way: though just then I was
anything but disposed to let her know I thought so. Eveleen took up
the cudgels for Lilian;--they always stand up for each other against
me.

“What a delicate way you have of putting a thing, Norah. You and your
language are so in keeping. If you could only induce someone to
transfer you from the family of which you so entirely disapprove how
much happier you would be--and we also. Couldn’t you put the screw on
Mr Morgan? He seems to be the only chance you are ever likely to have.
Do make the most of him. Let mamma ask him what he means.”

“Look here, Eveleen! You think yourself vastly superior to me----”

“Not at all. Not while your complexion is quite so brilliant--I
couldn’t.”

“Oh yes, you do. But you’re wrong for all that. You’ve spent your
whole life in chasing men----”

“I rather fancied that some of them had chased me. But I daresay it’s
the same thing to you.”

“Is there anything to be proud of in that? You’ve devoted your whole
life to men, anyhow, and I don’t think that’s very womanly.”

“I think it probable that you wouldn’t--for reasons.--My dear Norah,
do use your handkerchief. There’s a drop of perspiration trickling
down your nose. Or is it a tear? It doesn’t seem to combine with
freckles.”

Doris struck in.

“When you people have quite finished, might I ask if I am ever going
to have any fringe-nets? I can’t remain the whole day with my hair in
curlers.”

She had it in curlers then, and very queer she looked. No one would
have known her for the radiant Doris of her admirers. Nothing takes
the gilt off a girl’s appearance so much as curlers. Unless mamma
makes me I never use them. Thank goodness, my hair has got a curl of
its own, if it is not quite in the style of the barbers’
fashion-plates. Mamma--who never thinks of being down on them for
anything which they may say to me--was quick at seconding Doris’
suggestion.

“Norah, be so good as to let me hear no more from you. Both your
language and your appearance smack of the servants’ hall. You will
fetch the things I requested you to bring before. Then I will ask you
for an explanation of how it is that you have failed to bring them
now. Go up to your room, and make yourself look as decent as you
conveniently can, and be quick about it;--and not another word!”

Lilian stood up.

“I suppose I had better find you another matching. You are sure to
bring something impossible if I don’t.”

Eveleen put in her word.

“I should say that she’s sure to bring something impossible in any
case. I would rather be excused from trusting her to get anything of
the least importance for me. I admire your courage.”

“She had better not make any mess about those nets of mine,” cried
Doris; “or things will become exhilarating. Norah, if you tell them at
Morrel’s that they’re for me there will be no mess. I suppose you have
some sense.”

“Doris, what an inexhaustible fund of confidence you have in Norah. It
may be sisterly; but is it wise?”

Just as I was going to snap off Eveleen’s nose, of course mamma must
interfere:

“Now, Norah, not another word. Do as I tell you. Go upstairs, and
endeavour to make yourself look more like a daughter of mine should
do, and then go and fetch those things--and mind there are no
mistakes.”

I went upstairs. As I went I heard Eveleen laugh. I knew she was
laughing at me. She may have a musical laugh--I have been told
hundreds of times she has, so I suppose she must have--but it did not
sound musical to me just then. It put all my nerves on edge.



 CHAPTER III.
 THE UNFINISHED SENTENCE

Was it strange that I was in a pretty state of mind? Was it to be
wondered at that I hardly knew if I was standing on my head or heels?

When I got into my room I slammed the door, and turned the key. I tore
my hat off and threw it on to the bed. I could have cried; but I make
it a rule never to cry--or hardly ever. Besides, I was only too well
aware that if I once started I never should leave off; and then I
should have jumped from the frying-pan into the fire, with a
vengeance. They would tear me to pieces if I did not make haste and
get the rubbish they wanted.

I went to the looking-glass. There was no mistake about it, I did look
hideous. There was some excuse for some of the things they said. It
has always been a conviction of mine that if they would let me dress
as I pleased I might look presentable. But they won’t let me. They all
dress like fashion-plates, and nothing could suit them better; and
they make me dress like the fashion-plates, and nothing could suit me
less. I believe they are afraid of me getting out of the picture; or,
rather, of my being a sort of picture all by myself, and so diverting
attention from them. As it is I am a kind of raree show. So whenever
they take me out with them--which is very seldom; for, in any case,
five sisters are a frightful crowd--I am either a perpetual
wallflower, or an ideal gooseberry, neither of which _rôles_ I care
for in the very least.

I am big--taller than Lilian, and much broader. I have great limbs--I
cannot help it if they are like a man’s, though mamma is always
throwing it in my teeth. I like all sorts of exercise. The only form
of exercise they really like is dancing. They dance exquisitely. My
dancing is like an elephant’s--I am always having to apologise for
getting on my partner’s toes. I should like to spend the whole of my
life in the open air. I sometimes fancy that mamma thinks there is
something improper in being out-of-doors. She is always exclaiming
against what she calls masculine women--by which she means girls who
golf, and row, and ride bicycles, and all that sort of thing. I should
like to go in for everything athletic, but they won’t let me. They
keep me fastened in a tight pair of corsets, which sometimes make me
feel as if I were being held in a vice. I am in a dreadful
condition--soft as putty, instead of hard as nails. I cannot walk a
quarter of a mile, at anything like a decent pace, without perspiring.
Then they laugh at me. If they would let me go in for some real hard
work, like lots of other girls do, I would soon show them. By nature I
am a sort of female Hercules; it is a shame that they insist on making
me a jelly-fish.

I want to have plenty of room inside my clothes. I want my hair to do
itself; it would not look so bad with just a touch or two, even if it
ran a trifle wild. I want my boots and shoes to humour my feet, I do
not want my feet to have to humour them; I am not ashamed of their
being large. I do not want to be screwed into an imitation Paris
costume, which is too tight everywhere, and bursts when I lift my
arms. I know I look a gawk in it, and I always shall. If they would
let me be natural--my own self--I do believe I should pass muster.
Girls of my build are not meant to be made up in imitation of Dresden
china, or Watteau drawings.

The result of such attempts was to be seen there in the mirror. A
great picture hat, with the flowers all anyhow. Flowers never will
look as they ought to on my big hats--flopping about in a lop-sided
fashion, on the crest of a draggly handful of sandy-coloured hair. It
does not look a handful; but that is because they make me wear pads
and frames, and all sorts of horrors, which will show through; and
they call it sandy, though it is my private opinion that it is a sort
of light chestnut. If they would only let me do it up in a simple
twist, and wear it on the top of my head, I am persuaded that it would
not look half bad, though I am aware that the colour is unusual. Under
the floppity hat, a good-sized face, with big grey eyes, a straight
nose, largish mouth--it is a decent shape if it is large, and the lips
are nice ones. The freckles I do not deny; but there are not more than
twelve or thirteen altogether, and they are principally on the left
side of my nose. But the perspiration I was in! It made me disgusted
to see that my skin was positively greasy, and there were beads upon
my forehead. The truth is, I am built for work, or, at any rate, for
plenty of hard out-of-doors exercise; and if I cannot get it, I am
bound to be a nuisance to myself, and an object to others. Mr Morgan,
if one of his shoulders is a little higher than the other, is an
all-round athlete, though he was so weak as a child. It is because he
has gone in for everything that he is now as strong as a horse. If I
went in for everything, I believe that inside twelve months I should
be a different person.

I only wished that I had a chance of trying.

When I saw what a sight I looked in that glass, and how unfitted I was
to fill the fashion-plate _rôle_ for which they insisted on casting
me, I did feel that some people had all the luck, while others had
none. My chances for having a good time were slipping
away--twenty-three is an age. The good marriage I was expected to make
was a dream of the mater’s: as she was beginning bitterly to realise:
unless I married Ben Morgan, which, of course, would be absurd.
Compared with my sisters, I was not in it. Not a man would ever look
at me when they were by, or even near. Considering that it was
supposed to be my mission in life to attract men, it was really tragic
what an awful failure I was. Among the dozens who were proud to call
themselves my sisters’ friends, I doubt if there were many who even
knew my Christian name. I was quite aware how they talked of me.

“You know that youngest O’Brady girl? Sort of understudy for a
grenadier, who looks as if she got her clothes from a dealer in
decayed wardrobes, and put them on inside out.”

“You don’t mean to say that that’s the youngest?”

“She’s the youngest in years and sense; but so far as looks and that
sort of thing is concerned, she might have come out of the ark. Can’t
think what they call the creature.”

“What does it matter what they call a girl like that?”

That was part of a conversation I once overheard at a dance. The first
speaker had been recently entrapped into having a waltz with me, which
I doubt if he had enjoyed. I know I hadn’t--a possible explanation of
his exceeding bitterness. But that his remarks were typical of the
kind of thing which was being said of me on all sides I had every
reason to suppose.

What could people be expected to say of such an object as I saw before
me in that looking-glass?

“Oh,” I cried, “if only for a short time I could have my time! If I
could only make those girls feel what I have felt--the insolence of
masculine imbeciles, the snubs of conceited boys, the contemptuous
impertinence of their uncles and their fathers, even of their
grandsires! If only I could treat some of those men as all of them
have treated me I’d give--well, it’s no use my talking about giving
anything, because I’ve just simply nothing to give; but wouldn’t I
like to have the chance.”

I had my comb in my hand at the moment. I had torn off my hat, and was
trying to do something to my hair, without letting it down, and taking
my bodice off, and all the rest of the fuss which a girl has to go
through if she wants to titivate herself. I brought the comb down bang
whack against the dressing-table to emphasise my concluding
aspiration.

“If only every masculine thing had to fall madly in love with me at
sight! There; now I’ve done it!”

I had--broken the comb into two clear halves. And I had only had it a
week. I cannot think how it is that my things do break so. I should
have to buy a new one that very afternoon; though it would only be a
shilling one, because funds were low, and combs were waste of money.

As I was surveying the broken pieces with a pretty wry face--it was a
tortoise-shell comb; I happened to know that mamma had paid
twelve-and-six for it, to match my toilet-set; she would go on when
she knew what had happened--I became conscious that something very odd
indeed was taking place. On the top of the little drawers which was on
one side of my dressing-table was half a sheet of notepaper. Just an
ordinary half-sheet which I had torn off somebody’s letter and left
there; I have a trick of keeping half-sheets. A second ago that
half-sheet was blank. Now I became aware that someone--or
something--was writing on it. I heard a faint scratching noise.
Turning, I saw that letters were forming upon the paper--how, I cannot
say. They appeared to be written in ink, though there were no signs of
a pen, and certainly none of anybody holding it.

It was the strangest feeling, to stand there and watch words
apparently writing themselves upon that piece of paper. I know it
sounds incredible, and it is incredible; but it’s true, for all that.
It was just simply the most extraordinary thing that ever
happened--and lots of people know that extraordinary things do happen.
When you have lived to my time of life, and have had my experience,
you know that as a solemn fact. Though, I repeat once more, that that
was the most wonderful experience even I ever had.

I cannot describe my sensations as I stood there watching. The two
halves of the comb in my hands, my hair all anyhow, my bodice
positively maddening beneath my arms, and, I was convinced, unhooked
behind, rage in my bosom, perspiration on my brow. It was so
frightfully mysterious; there is nothing I dislike like things I do
not understand, they make you feel yourself so insignificant. Then the
letters went on forming themselves before my eyes, and there I
remained looking on like a stuck pig, until I could endure it no
longer. I snatched up the paper, exclaiming:

“What are you doing?”

Though to whom I addressed the inquiry I have not the faintest notion.
On that half-sheet of paper, staring me in the face, were the words:

“Your wish shall be gratified u----”

The sentence ended with the letter “u,” just that, and nothing more.
It seemed that I had snatched it up before it was finished, so that
what the conclusion would have been was still another mystery. Though,
beside the first and chief mystery of how those words came there at
all, other considerations were but trifles. What did they mean? “Your
wish shall be gratified u----” What wish? I was continually wishing. I
never have anything, and nothing ever happens that I really want, so
it is only natural. To what wish was the reference made? For what
particular thing had I been wishing recently?

Why--not a minute ago--with what wild words had I been easing my mind?
In my temper--my usual temper. I certainly am the worst-tempered girl
I ever met, though I believe that, as a rule, girls are worse tempered
than men--they have more cause to be, poor things. In some things it
is horrid being a girl--what was it I had said? Something about every
masculine creature tumbling head over heels in love with me at sight.
Had I not wished that that fate were mine?

Was that the wish? No; absurd! ridiculous! preposterous! What could
put such nonsensical thoughts into my head? It just showed, when your
head was empty, what stuff could get in. But--still----

My gracious! If that was the wish which was to be gratified, would it
not be--wouldn’t it just be larks.



 CHAPTER IV.
 THE EPISODE OF THE BAKER’S BOY

As I continued wondering, with the paper still in my hand, mamma’s
voice called to me outside the door.

“Norah! there’s the baker at the door; you must go and take in the
bread.”

“Mamma!” I exclaimed.

“You must. Jane said she would come back for tea, but she hasn’t put
in an appearance yet. Somebody must go, and I can’t, and your sisters
are dressing; you ought to be ready by now; you must do those errands.
There, he’s knocking again--go down to him at once!”

I obeyed. Did my hair somehow, crammed my hat on anyhow, and down the
stairs I went. A pretty task to set me! Down the kitchen stairs I
hurried, to the area door, on the glass window of which vigorous
knuckles were beating a sort of tattoo. The moment I opened it I was
greeted in the most surprising way.

“Now then, slowcoach, you seem to take some time a-washing of
yourself! Think I’ve got nothing else to do except keep on a-waiting
here all day?”

I was astonished. I fancy, when he saw me, that the speaker was
astonished too, though he scarcely showed it in a manner which I
thought fitting.

“Hollo! beg pardon! my crikey! Are you the new young lady?”

Evidently this was a person who needed a good deal of freezing. I
wondered that even Jane had not succeeded in snubbing him into better
manners. I assumed my most dignified bearing--which is not saying
much, for dignity is not my strongest point--and was as frigid as the
fact that my actual temperature was somewhere about boiling point
permitted.

“Please give me the bread.”

“That’s all right! I’ll give it you with the very greatest pleasure;
and I’d like to give you something else as well.”

And before I could stop him, this remarkable individual was off at a
gallop on a line which was distinctly his very own.

“My name’s Bob Stevens. I’ve been walking out with the young lady what
was here before you. She left yesterday; cruel hard they treated her;
no young lady couldn’t have stood it what had any spirit. This is a
nice place, this is--five scratch-catting young women, and an old
geeser of a mother. It won’t suit you; you’ll leave at the end of your
month, they all of them do.”

That was an outrageous falsehood. Some of our servants have stopped
with us more than a year. But it was impossible for me to contradict
him.

“But Eliza--that’s the young lady I was a-telling you about--ain’t
quite my fancy. And if so be as you haven’t got a young man just at
present, or if you was a-feeling a bit off colour with the one you
have got, why, I’d be proud and happy to fill the situation. I’m
getting good money--five-and-twenty bob a week without perks”--I
suppose he meant perquisites--“besides money in the bank, and a few
sticks towards a home, including a drawing-room settee in sky-blue
satin what I got from a friend of mine whose wife hooked off with
another bloke. You just tell me your night out, and I’ll be there on
time, you bet your hat--and a beauty it is, regular market-garden I
call it--and if we don’t fix the day before we part, it won’t be no
fault of mine. I mean business, I do, straight.”

Anything like that person’s volubility I never encountered. I could
not stop him. I seldom am ready of speech, and before that baker’s boy
I felt tongue-tied. Not the least amazing part of it was that he
seemed a mere lad of, at the outside, eighteen years, with a fresh
complexion, and, I should have said, a babe for innocence. It shows
how deceptive appearances are. At last I could get a word in edgeways,
and I got it.

“I think you are mistaken.”

But he cut me short.

“Not much, I’m not. I’m not that sort of chap. Never make mistakes, I
don’t--at least, not of that kind. I know when I like a girl as well
as any man; and I tell you, honest, that I never was so gone on a
young lady as I am on you.”

“I still think you are mistaken, because I happen to be one of the
five scratch-catting young women you alluded to. I am Miss Norah
O’Brady.”

Some baker’s boys would have been abashed, but he was not. He retained
his presence of mind in a fashion I could not have equalled. And,
really, for a person in his position, he was not bad-looking.

“Lor’, now, if I didn’t think you was a real lady! You’d have been
took for a real lady by almost anyone. You look it--every inch. A
regular queen you look. You’ll excuse me, miss, for seeming to make so
free; but, however humble a man may be, he’s still a man.”

“Please give me the bread.”

He began cramming loaves and things in paper bags into my arms in a
manner which I found embarrassing, talking all the time.

“If there’s any mortal thing that I can do for you, no matter what it
is, you’ve only got to name it, and you can consider it done. What’s
more, I’m on to get you any blessed thing you want, from the Lord
Mayor’s coach to----”

I did not wait for him to explain to what--I presume his remarks were
tailing off into metaphor--but, withdrawing into the passage, I shut
the door in his face, taking the precaution to turn the key.

It was well I did, because he instantly tried the handle, and, when he
found it would not yield, rapping at the frosted glass panels, he
addressed me from without:

“Excuse me, miss, for one single moment, but would you allow me to
say----”

I should have thought that permission to say anything was the last
thing he would have required. Anyhow, I did not give it.

Depositing the articles he had just given me on the kitchen table, I
marched upstairs. At the top I met mamma.

“Norah, what do you mean by carrying on an animated conversation with
the baker’s man?” I carrying on an animated conversation! My share in
it had been small. “What an extraordinary creature you are. Your
cheeks look as if they were positively burning.”

Hers would have looked the same if she had borne my part in the scene
which had just been enacted. But I said nothing.

“You must go and do those errands at once, your sisters are waiting.
Be as quick as you decently can, and please, if possible, forget
nothing.”

She gave me no time to compose myself, but opening the front door with
her own hands ushered me through it, as if I were some bothering
visitor whom she was in a dreadful hurry to see the last of.

As I might have expected, that baker’s boy was still there. He had
hardly had time to take himself off with his barrow. But that was no
reason why he should plant himself right in the centre of the
pavement, and address me, the moment I appeared, as if I had been an
equal, with mamma looking down at us from the open door.

“Excuse me, miss, if I seem to take a liberty, but might I ask you if
you was fond of chocolate creams?”

I held my head a trifle higher than I might have done if mamma had not
been up there, because I _am_ fond of chocolate creams, though what
business it was of his I cannot think--and I annihilated him finally:

“If you attempt to speak to me again I shall report you to your
master, and you will find yourself without a situation.”

I marched off and left him standing in a preposterous and most
unseemly attitude--his great basket at his side--as if glued to the
paving-stones. And I heard him mutter:

“Cruel as the grave--and cold.”

That ridiculous, insolent boy--he was nothing else--positively heaved
a sigh which followed me like a gust of wind, with mamma still at the
top of the front-door steps.



 CHAPTER V.
 THE FURTHER EPISODES OF THE SHOP-WALKER AND THE ARTIST IN HAIR

As I marched along--remembering mamma’s instructions to be as quick
as I “decently” could, without, however, laying too much stress upon
the “decently”--I became aware of something unusual--people were
staring, especially male people.

Now I have been stared at in the street, but I do not remember that it
was ever in what you could exactly call a flattering way.

There can be no doubt that my person is a striking one, after a
fashion; but it is not precisely in the fashion. I am an extra large
size all over. My legs are prodigious. I stride along in a style which
some persons have said reminds them of the gentleman with the
seven-league boots. Mr Morgan was once rude enough to tell me that it
always seemed to him that it was the chief ambition of my life to
cross Regent Street in a step and a half. When I am walking with the
others I suffer agonies, and I am thankful to think that they are not
altogether comfortable. They take about three steps to the yard--the
kind of shoes they wear won’t permit of anything else. And at such a
pace! I cannot keep up with them; and it is some satisfaction to know
they cannot keep up with me. We jangle and wrangle all the time, until
at last I go off by myself; and then we are happy. At least, I know I
am.

This peculiarity of mine--because, I suppose, it is a peculiarity--has
more than once been commented on by perfect strangers. I once heard
one street boy remark to another, just as I was passing:

“What yer, Bill! ’ere comes the lady grenadier! Can’t she move
’em!--and ain’t she got ’em to move!”

Another time a dreadful creature asked of a companion:

“I wonder if that young lady’s got stilts underneath her clothes? They
can’t be all her own.”

That was the sort of staring I had been used to. But this was
different. Men of all sorts, of all ages, turned and looked at me.
When their eyes reached my face, there was something in them which I
did not altogether like. It gave me a curious sensation. I have seen
men stare at the others with something like that look in their eyes. I
wondered if they liked it. I was not by any means sure I did. Anyhow,
I was not accustomed to that kind of thing. I wondered what they meant
by it.

It was not any better when I reached the draper’s. The shop-walker
opened the door for me--with such a smile. He was one of those pretty
fellows, with moustache turned up at the ends, who really are most
trying. His smile seemed to be a fixture. It kept growing larger and
larger, and, I presume, sweeter. I hate your pretty fellows. I should
like my man to be almost ugly; indeed, I should not mind if he was
quite. I spoke to him in the most snubby fashion I could command,
perceiving that this was another case in which snubbing might be
required. There seemed to be something in the air that afternoon which
made men behave in a most unusual manner.

“I want to see some lady’s hose!”

“For yourself?”

There was something in the way he put the question for which I really
could have hit him. What did it matter to him who they were for? He
led me to a counter behind which there was the usual girl, and on
which there was a box full of silk things--such colours! He began to
spread them out in front of me, with a smile for which I would have
liked to stick a pin into him.

“Now, here is something particularly smart. I am sure it would suit
you--pure silk; guaranteed--were fifteen-and-six, are
eight-and-eleven. Amazing value. But you shall have them for--” he
hesitated--“for one-and-ninepence-halfpenny. Indeed, it would afford
me the greatest pleasure to give them to you.”

When he said that, the girl behind the counter stared; and I stared,
too. Was he mad? Was he seriously proposing to present me--free,
gratis, for nothing--with his master’s silk stockings? The man must
have been drinking. I froze him.

“Thank you. The articles are not required by myself. And, if you don’t
mind, I would rather that this young lady served me.” I turned to the
young lady in question, who was wearing a peculiar look. “I want a
pair of brown silk stockings, that shade”; and I handed her Lilian’s
matching.

While the girl was endeavouring to find what I wanted, that
shop-walker continued to pester me. And not only so, but the
shop-walker from the opposite counter came and joined his attentions
to the other’s, pressing on me the most ridiculous things. When I
severely snubbed them both, they began to smile at one another. We
were the centre of observation, alike to customers and assistants.

I was delighted to get out of the shop with Lilian’s stockings at
last. I made no attempt to get Audrey’s ribbon. And I would have gone
straight off home without Doris’s fringe-nets, had I dared; but I did
not dare. Morrel’s was close at hand; practically on the way, and if I
had returned without them, there would not only have been a tremendous
disturbance, but they would probably have sent me back again.

The worst of it was that I disliked Morrel’s. I loathe hairdressers.
They always seem to regard women as so many dummies, or, at least,
lay-figures, of whom they can make anything they please. I am
convinced that they despise us. What else can you expect? Thousands
and thousands of us owe all our charms to them. They give countless
women their complexions, their eyebrows--indeed, to all intents and
purposes, their entire faces. Hundreds of thousands owe all their hair
to them. Their little flirty curls, on pins, for all sorts of
occasions--Lilian has rows of them, stuck on sheets of cork, like
butterflies--their fringes, coils, switches, transformations, their
entire wigs, not to speak of the foundations on which they build. Then
think of the dyes, restorers, so-called washes, curling fluids, and
all that kind of thing. Oh, dear! The girls spend heaps of money at
Morrel’s. I believe that mamma would just as soon die as do without
such places.

Why I particularly objected to Morrel’s was because there they were
always at me to do as the others did; and I know that, in their
politely insolent way, they jeered at me because I refused. Mr Morrel
himself was a horror--a little, stoutish man, with his scanty,
light-brown hair curled in rows. He reeked of perfume. I would far
sooner have sat in a third-class smoking-carriage, full of
horny-handed sons of toil, all “blowing” shag--I believe that that’s
the proper word--than have occupied a chair next to him. And he, in
his heart, I knew, despised me; first, for belonging to such a
barber’s block family, and then for refusing to allow him to practise
any of his arts to supply the charms which I was quite aware that I so
plentifully lacked.

When I entered the shop, I found that he was alone in it. I was
disgusted. He stood simpering behind his glass cases, twiddling a
frightfully blonde curl, to which he was giving some finishing touches
on its pin. As a rule, there was a young woman in the shop--with such
a head of hair. It was never done twice in the same style; daily
visits in search of packets of hairpins would have been as good as a
course of hairdressing lessons--not to speak of his wife, who always
seemed somewhere about. His special business was to look after the
hairdressing rooms.

As he saw it was I, I believe he was going to ring for his assistant.
It was beneath his dignity to personally attend on me. But, as he
continued to look at me, on a sudden, he changed his mind. I was
persuaded that, as it were, a wave of emotion crept over him; all at
once he altered so completely. His simper assumed the dimensions of a
beam. Putting his fingers to his oily hair, he regarded me in a manner
which, whatever he might think to the contrary, far from became him.

“And what may I do for you, Miss O’Brady?”

“I want half-a-dozen fringe-nets for my sister Doris. She says that
you know the shade.”

“And what do you want for yourself, Miss Norah?”

“Nothing, thank you. Will you please give them me as quickly as you
can. I’m in a hurry.”

He put his head on one side like an owl. It was idiotic.

“Ah, Miss Norah, I am afraid that you despise my art. You are yourself
so beautiful that you do not stand in need of it.”

“Are you aware what you are saying? Kindly give me those fringe-nets.”

“Yet I also am an artist. As many perfect pictures are the work of my
fingers as you will find upon the walls of an Academy.”

“I never said they weren’t.”

“But, Miss Norah, you have towards me an air of aloofness. Yet I am
more essential to a woman than her milliner--than her costumier. What
is the most perfect toilette with an indifferent coiffure. Even beauty
cannot safely scorn me. If you will do me the inestimable honour of
entrusting your lovely head to me for a few brief minutes I do not
think you will regret it when you perceive the result. It is true that
nature has given you hair which is perfect in texture, exquisite in
colour----”

“Mr Morrel, do you know what you are saying?”

Mamma had told me over and over again that Morrel had assured her that
nothing could be done with my hair if I refused to have it
“tinted”--which I always had refused, and always should refuse to
permit. He had as good as hinted that, from his point of view, its
colour was an atrocity, an outrage! Now he had the assurance to tell
me, to my face, that he thought it exquisite. And he was not to be put
down either.

“I, of all men in England, should know what I am saying on a subject
on which I, among all my compeers, am best qualified to speak. As an
artist there is no one living who is worthy to hold a comb with me. It
were false modesty to pretend the contrary. As a lad I was a lightning
shaver; I could remove a stubborn beard with an ease which was a
rapture to its wearer. I was scarcely out of my apprenticeship when,
on two occasions, I won first prizes in the National Competition in
Artistic Hairdressing. I should have undoubtedly won a third, if for
originality alone--the originality of my ideas has always been
admitted--had not a cabal--all leaders of art become, sooner or later,
the victims of a cabal--had not a cabal, I say, actuated by motives on
which I will not enlarge, bestowed my prize upon a mere pretender. The
desert they could not alienate. It was notorious.”

“This is very interesting, Mr Morrel; but would you mind giving me my
sister’s fringe-nets?”

“One moment, Miss Norah, if you please. You continue to regard me with
a scorn which blights. An artist’s is a sensitive soul. I implore you
not to flash the arrows of your disdain in the tender target of my
heart!”

“I shall tell mamma, Mr Morrel, if you talk to me like that. Will you
give me my sister’s fringe-nets?”

“I will; certainly I will. After all, I am a man of business. Let me
not forget it, even at such a moment as this. But, at the same time,
let me prove to you that I am not only commercial. Let me entreat your
personal acceptance of some trifle in evidence. For instance, this
handglass, in its way a gem. Held at the proper angle it will give you
a view of your back hair, the clarity of which will surprise you.”

“Thank you, Mr Morrel; but I don’t want a handglass.”

“Then this manicure set, mounted in gold. Its constant use might
embellish even your hands--if it be possible to paint the lily.”

It made me so cross to hear him, when, all the while, he probably knew
that it is only with anguish that I can cram my hands into
six-and-threequarters.

“I want nothing except my sister’s fringe-nets. Will you, or will you
not, give them to me?”

“Your coldness scorches me, if I may use a seeming paradox. In the
most literal sense I will give them to you. Permit me to present you
with six fringe-nets, for the use of Miss Doris O’Brady.”

“My sister tells me that you charge her a shilling each for them. Here
is half-a-sovereign. Please give me the change.”

“I will not give you the change, nor will I take your half-sovereign.
Do you wish to grind me beneath your heel--to insult me?”

“Insult you!”

“The fringe-nets are a present to you for your sister, since you will
accept nothing for yourself--unless, at the eleventh hour, you will
permit me to add the manicure set and the handglass.”

“I think, Mr Morrel, that you must be suffering from something this
afternoon. Do you suppose, for one single instant, that either my
sister or I wishes you to give us our fringe-nets? I insist upon
paying for them.”

“You cannot. It is impossible. I decline to allow you to pay for
them.”

“What’s that you decline to allow?”

Mrs Morrel’s appearance in the shop I hailed with a sensation of real
relief.

“Mrs Morrel, I want six fringe-nets, and, for some reason or other, Mr
Morrel won’t let me pay for one. They’re six shillings, and I want him
to take for them out of this half-sovereign, and he won’t.”

“Give me the half-sovereign. I’ll soon make that right.”

Her husband interposed, or tried to:

“My dear, I must ask you not to intrude between this young lady and
myself.”

She cut him relentlessly short.

“Here is your change, Miss O’Brady; and here are the fringe-nets.”

“Thank you. Good-afternoon.”

He tried again.

“My dear, I am master in my own shop, and you must permit me to
state----”

I did not wait to hear what it was that he wished to state. I had
heard more than enough of his statements already. Insincere,
smooth-tongued, artificial creature! I had had no idea that he was so
horrid, though I had known that he was horrid enough. I left the shop
with the fringe-nets in one hand and the change in the other; and I
make no doubt that directly my back was turned an animated discussion
commenced as to who was and who was not master there, and how far that
mastery went. Had I been Mrs Morrel I would have made it clear to her
objectionable husband, when it came to presenting the stock to casual
female customers, that his mastery ceased before it reached that
point.



 CHAPTER VI.
 MISS NORAH FEELS ODD

It was more than humiliating to be the cause of dissension between a
hairdresser and his wife, not to speak of that shop-walker’s eccentric
behaviour. And I did feel so strange, so topsy-turveyish. As if
something had got into my veins and set them all of a glow. Ordinarily
I am convinced that I should have slaughtered Mr Morrel, and the
shop-walker, and the baker’s boy. But, somehow, that afternoon,
although I knew that I ought to be shocked, and amazed, and furious, I
could not be either of the three to anything like the extent which I
was well aware I ought to have been. For some extraordinary reason I
seemed almost to feel that it was quite natural that male creatures in
their position of life should behave to me in what, to say the least,
was a peculiar way. It was a dreadful thought, but I appeared to be
possessed by a sort of consciousness that every man I met was drawn
towards me by a sort of magnetic influence which both he and I well
knew was irresistible. It was an extremely novel sensation, and not a
very agreeable one either.

When I reached home I saw mamma watching for me through the
drawing-room window. It was she who opened the door.

“So you have returned at last. And this time I hope you have brought
everything!”

“Except Audrey’s ribbon. She will have to manage with what she has.”

“And why have you not brought that?”

“Because I did not propose to be insulted any further.”

“Insulted! Norah! What do you mean?”

“It’s of no consequence. Audrey will be able to manage very well
without it. I know her. She has probably dozens of yards of ribbon
already of just the kind she wants; only she thinks it’s too much
trouble to look for it.”

Mamma eyed me doubtfully, as if she could not make me out. I should
have been surprised if she could. I was not only beyond her
comprehension, I was beyond my own. After a momentary pause she went
on:

“Lilian has received a telegram from Mr Rumford, to say that he is
calling this afternoon to ask her to come out with him this evening.
Possibly he intends to say something decisive. Jane has returned, but
Lilian is preparing, and you know that she doesn’t like to be hurried,
and I have to change my dress, and as he may come at any moment if we
are not ready you will have to receive him.”

“Mamma! Why can’t one of the others do that? You know I’m not very
fond of Mr Rumford, and I’m sure he doesn’t like me.”

“Don’t talk nonsense! It’s not a question of like or dislike, you will
do as I wish, he doesn’t come to see you. Audrey and Doris rather
expect that Mr Carter and Mr Purchase may drop in to tea, so they are
changing. Eveleen has a slight headache, and is lying down; she thinks
it possible that sometime during the afternoon Mr Hammond may call,
and she wants to be well enough to receive him. So until some of us
are ready you will have to act as hostess.”

“In this attire?”

“You will have no time to change; somebody may come at any second; and
I tell you again that they’re not coming to see you. You know very
well that no one ever looks at you, whatever you have on. But run
upstairs and get your hat off, and some of that unbecoming colour off
your face, and do try to look decent.”

I obeyed her.

As I went upstairs I was conscious of some most singular sensations,
nearly approaching to forebodings. It was absurd, yet at the bottom of
my heart I suspected that if they only could have guessed, none of
them would have asked me to receive those men. If disaster followed,
their feelings would be beyond description, while the fault would
certainly not be mine.

I was just entering my room when mamma called out to me.

“By the way, Norah, if Major Tibbet should come before I am ready keep
him as much amused as possible. You know how impatient he is, and how
easily bored; but I won’t be an instant longer than I can help.”

So Major Tibbet was coming also! There was evidently going to be a
crowd of them as usual; though, as mamma had been careful to observe,
none of them ever came to see me. But, on this occasion, it was
remotely possible that a change might come o’er the spirit of the
scene. Something within me seemed to hint at it.

As for Major Paul Tibbet, he was one of my pet abominations. An
unsoldierly old man, painted, padded, and wigged. I should think that
when he had got all off that he had put on there was nothing left of
him but a mere husk. And so conceited! He talked of nothing else but
women, and his conquests of them. It was nauseous. What mamma could
see in him was beyond my comprehension. Yet it had dawned on me more
and more, and the others had dropped hints, that if he asked her she
might become Mrs Tibbet, and present us with a new papa. What a
prospect! That made-up relic, whom I could have picked up and swung
over my head with one hand, my papa! I remembered my father as a tall,
handsome man, brave to the point of recklessness, who had broken his
neck while hunting. That anyone could dream of substituting that
effigy for him! I gathered that he had a deal of money. I fear that
mamma is not so indifferent to that consideration as she might be.

Once inside my room I gave way to a most odd mixture of despondency
and exultation. What had happened to me? What did this odd something
inside me which seemed as if it would like to start me dancing, mean?
Where did it come from? How? And why? What was the explanation of the
singular behaviour of those men; of all those men? I could have cried,
if I had not felt so disposed to laugh. It was most confusing.

On the dressing-table was the scrap of paper on which those mysterious
words had been so mysteriously written. I had left it there when I
went out. Could they have had anything to do with the eccentricities
of those ridiculous men? My common-sense--I have common-sense, and
plenty of it; it is my strongest point--told me that the mere notion
was nonsense. In some way or other I had been the victim of my own
imagination, though until then I was not aware that I had any to be
the victim of. I am not an imaginative being. I declare I am not.
Quite the other way. Still it stood to reason that I could not have
seen those words coming on the paper in the way I had supposed. They
must have been there before. And I had been a silly. I caught up the
half-sheet, meaning to tear it into pieces for having made me make
such a goose of myself.

But I could not. Something seemed to take me by the wrists and prevent
me. I let the paper drop from between my fingers in a flutter of
amazement. I looked at the glass in front of me. Could this be myself
that I was looking at? Then I certainly was not so ill-looking as I
had supposed. I might be big, but I was striking. My cheeks were aglow
with health. My lips parted in a radiant smile, for which I could have
kissed myself. The whitest of white teeth shone through them. My eyes
laughed back at me in a fashion which set all my pulses beating.
Ill-looking, with eyes like those? What rubbish people would talk!
They were alive with all sorts of things, two of the daintiest, most
mischievous, frankest, tenderest, dancing lures which were ever set in
a woman’s head. Why, the freckles on my nose positively set them off.

Really, as I observed the reflection in that mirror I was not at all
surprised at the conduct of those men. There was some excuse for them,
after all. No woman might see it, but I was sure that other men would
quickly. One woman is slow to see what it is in another woman which
attracts a man. But I knew then. No man, and no boy either who was
even in the neighbourhood of manhood, could meet those eyes
without--well, without feeling some sort of a sensation. I was
perfectly sure that he could not.

I put my hands up to my face, and laughed!--and actually blushed! It
was so very odd. And so amusing! I felt--it is difficult to describe
exactly--but I was twittering from head to foot, as with a
consciousness of suddenly acquired powers which made me--I do not know
precisely what word to use, but I will write it irresponsible. I was
more than half-ashamed. I doubted if it was a proper feeling for a
girl to have. At twenty-three one ought to be discreet.

Suddenly the door opened and Doris put her head in. She was in her
petticoat, and her hair all down.

“Norah! Whatever are you figuring about before the glass for like
that? Mr Purchase and Mr Carter are coming down the street; go to the
drawing-room at once. Audrey and I will race down as fast as ever we
can, but you must go this moment.”

She just said that, and was off again. It was as well she was, the
idea of her catching me like that made me go a peony-red all over. I
am not in the habit of “figuring about” before a looking-glass, and
nobody can say I am.

So Mr Purchase and Mr Carter were coming down the street? I felt,
well, I am afraid that I felt delighted. If Doris had only known I
doubt if she would have been so anxious that I should hurry down. They
were two of the very nicest boys we know, and had behaved quite
decently even to me. They were sometimes apt to treat me in a free and
easy, brotherly sort of fashion which I rather liked. So far as I
could see there was no nonsense about them whatever. They were
inseparable chums, kind of David and Jonathan, and always hunted in
couples.

Jack Purchase was supposed to be a barrister, but so far as I could
see the only thing he really did was to make ardent love to Doris. He
was tolerably well off, but Doris was a desperate flirt and led him a
tremendous dance. I believe that in her heart she more than liked him,
but it seemed as if she was incapable of owning as much to any man. So
many men had been over head and ears in love with her that I suppose
she had come to think that it would be undignified to admit any
feeling of the kind for one of them. Mamma was very anxious to get her
off, and would have liked nothing better than to have had Mr Purchase
as a son-in-law. But Doris did not care a snap of the fingers for what
mamma said, and her partisanship rather damaged him in her eyes, if
anything. She was a contrary little wretch.

Basil Carter was nothing at all, except a young gentleman of means. He
was very keen to be a statesman, or a Member of Parliament, or
whatever it is. He had tried to get in twice and had failed each time,
but declared that the third time he meant to succeed. I hoped he
would; though, for my part, I cannot see why anyone should wish to be
a ridiculous M.P. I have met lots of them. They are most of them
sillies, though some of them think themselves tin gods. I don’t know
why. They only talk, and most of them cannot do that with decency.
Nearly all the few things they do do they do all wrong, and had much
better have left undone.

He has a most lovely yacht. He once took us all a cruise in it. I
enjoyed it immensely, but the others did not. I do not understand how
it is that some people are ill at sea; it seems so unnatural. Mamma
always takes a private cabin, and is down in it before the boat
starts, even when she is only crossing to Calais.

He is passionately in love with Audrey. I know it as a fact, because
once he as good as told me so. But Audrey is a most difficult girl.
She is imaginative if you like. I believe that she spends her time
imagining herself the wife of a clever man, though what is her idea of
cleverness is more than I can say. Several men, who are allowed to be
not only clever in their own estimation, have asked her to marry, but
she has invariably said no. Physically, she is disgracefully lazy, and
loves to languish, but, mentally, she is sharp as a razor. No matter
how clever the man may be who gets her, he will find that she is, at
least, his match, and that he could not have had anyone more certain
to help him in making his mark in the world. And she is so lovely, and
in the very depths of her, deliciously sweet.

All the same, although they knew quite well what those two boys felt
for them, and their own charms had been proved to be nearly
irresistible over and over again, if they could only have guessed what
had happened to me, neither Audrey nor Doris would have been quite
easy in their minds as I descended the stairs with my most stately
air--which was not saying much, for all the while I was longing to
dance right down them--to welcome the approaching callers.

Directly I was in the drawing-room something tickled me again, so that
I burst out laughing, and had to put up my hand to hide my blushes.
What could it be that was about to happen? And at that moment there
came a rat-tat-tat at the hall-door, and, presently, Jane was ushering
in the visitors.



 CHAPTER VII.
 MISS NORAH RECEIVES TWO GENTLEMEN

Mr Purchase came first, with Mr Carter close on his heels. I stood
about the centre of the room, as prim as you please, just wondering.
Each of them had some flowers in his hand, Mr Purchase red roses, and
Mr Carter pink. Somehow those young men scarcely ever came to the
house without bringing roses. No matter what the season, you might be
almost positive that they would have, at any rate, half-a-dozen
rosebuds. In their time Doris and Audrey must have had enough flowers
to make a good-sized haystack. No one ever brings me any.

They came into the room with a sort of look of expectation on their
faces. When they perceived me they gave a look round, and when they
saw I was alone their expression changed entirely. It was comical. A
friendly, free and easy smile took its place.

“Hullo, Norah!” exclaimed Mr Purchase. “Nobody here?”

It was not a very civil way of greeting one; but I knew that it was
not intended to bear quite the construction which might be put on it.
Both boys had a way of addressing me as Norah, especially when I was
alone with them, though they always dignify the others with the prefix
“Miss.” I observed that most men, when they condescended to notice me
at all, were more than a trifle unceremonious in their fashion of
speech. Often I did not altogether like it. It was not pleasant to
hear a man speak to your sister as if she were a duchess, and then to
you as if you were a mixture of a cousin and a housemaid. But somehow
from these two I did not mind it so much as from others. It was,
perhaps, because they always meant to be friendly, and were never
actually rude.

However, I suppose that just then I was feeling a little superior, so
I put my nose up in the air, and was nasty.

“I am sorry that there is no one here--at least, no one of the
slightest consequence.”

I fancy that both my words and my manner took them both aback. I
believe that Mr Purchase nearly started.

“I say, it isn’t fair to trip up a chap like that. I’m sure----”

Of what he was sure I shall probably never know, because when he had
got as far as that, for the first time he really looked at me. When he
did he did not exactly start. But his expression changed quite as
suddenly as it had done before, and in a more surprising manner. I
never saw such a look upon a person’s face. And not the least curious
part of it was that I was conscious that a precisely similar change
had taken place in Mr Carter’s countenance.

They are neither of them bad-looking, only Mr Carter is brown, and Mr
Purchase black; and I am inclined to think that a dark, intellectual
face mirrors its owner’s emotions in an almost uncanny degree,
although, when I began to grasp the details of Mr Carter’s
physiognomy, I was not sure that your brown-haired people are very far
behind. The amazement and delight which had all at once come into Mr
Carter’s blue eyes was positively bewildering. He was a little behind
his friend, and I suspect him of having had no desire to come to the
front while I was the only person there, yet, all in an instant he had
passed him, and planted himself in front of me.

“Miss Norah, here are some flowers.”

He held out the pink roses with an air which set me all of a flutter.

“I see there are. You always bring such pretty roses. Audrey is very
lucky.”

“They are for you.”

“For me?”

Before he could answer, Mr Purchase was at his side, with his flowers
extended.

“May I hope, Miss Norah, that you will do me the honour to accept
mine. They are not so pretty, perhaps, as others, and are far from
being worthy your acceptance, yet I hope that, of your kindness, you
will not refuse.”

I had never had such a speech addressed to me in all my life by
anyone; and now that it should come from Jack Purchase, of all people
in the world. Small wonder that for the moment the only thing I was
fit for was to gasp. I looked from one to the other like a sort of
gaping idiot, and I certainly had abundant excuse for looking nothing
better. There, within six inches of me on one side was Basil Carter,
holding out the pink roses which, I was convinced, he had brought for
Audrey; and within five-and-a-half inches of me on the other side was
Mr Purchase, protruding, in a most suggestive style, the red roses I
was perfectly sure he had brought for Doris.

“It isn’t fair of you to laugh at me,” I managed to get out at last.

“Laugh!” cried Mr Carter, with an air of the most innocent surprise.
“How laugh? I hope you do not think that I am laughing at you? I
should not dare.”

Should not dare! That was awfully good, considering how he had laughed
at me times without number, as he knew as well as I did.

“I don’t know what you call it then, pretending to offer me those
flowers.”

“Pretending! Miss Norah, I beg you will not call it pretence, when it
is my earnest hope that you will receive them from my hands.”

“You know perfectly well that you brought them for Audrey.”

Before he could speak Mr Purchase spoke for him.

“My dear Basil, Miss Norah is quite correct; you yourself confided to
me that they were designed for Miss Audrey. If, however, Miss Norah,
you will deign to accept these red roses they will have reached their
proper destination.”

“It isn’t fair of you, Mr Purchase; as if I didn’t know that they were
meant for Doris.”

This time it was Mr Carter who interposed.

“That certainly is the case, my dear Jack. You are yourself aware that
at your request I this morning ordered some red roses for Miss Doris
O’Brady, and that these are they.”

“A man is at liberty to change his mind.”

“Under certain circumstances.”

“A fact of which I avail myself to beg your acceptance of these roses,
Miss Norah.”

“I would entreat Miss Norah to extend her condescension to these poor
buds of mine.”

“My dear Basil, you are merely imitative.”

“The imitation comes from you. It was I who first besought Miss Norah
to take pity on my poor roses.”

“Really, Basil, you must excuse me, but you force me to point out once
more--as Miss Norah has done already--that you brought those flowers
for Miss Audrey. It’s no use pretending that you didn’t.”

“I pretend nothing; let me advise you also to avoid pretence. Is there
any valid reason why we should not join in requesting Miss Norah’s
acceptance of both our little nosegays?”

“Not a bad idea, if Miss Norah will only so far honour us.”

“Not if I know it; I haven’t quite lost my senses, even if you have.”

They seemed startled, even hurt. Mr Purchase, in particular, shivered
almost as if I had struck him.

“Do you think that I wish to get into trouble by accepting other
people’s property?”

“You scarcely state the case correctly, Miss Norah, if you will
forgive my saying so. Up to the present moment the nosegays are our
property--ours.”

“Then, so far as I am concerned, they will continue to remain your
property--and, in any case, I should decline to accept what was
originally intended for another.”

“Then all that remains for me is to throw my poor flowers out of the
window.”

“The fireplace is good enough for mine.”

Off strode Mr Purchase towards the window and Mr Carter towards the
fireplace. I stopped them.

“How can you be so ridiculous?”

“It is to avoid being made ridiculous that I propose to deposit them
in the gutter. If you will not deign to overlook their too obvious
unworthiness, then let them suffer the extremity of shame, and be the
sharers of my humiliation.”

“I want nothing which you despise, so here go my rosebuds into the
grate.”

Off they strode again; again I stopped them.

“Rather than that you should behave in that foolish and wicked
way--treating those lovely flowers so cruelly--I will take both your
nosegays. Though, mind you, if you don’t understand, I do--my doing so
is the height of absurdity.”

Before I had finished speaking both of them came rushing at me, and
there was I standing with Doris’ red roses in my right hand and
Audrey’s pink in my left. I scarcely knew whether to laugh or cry, the
situation was so surprising. What those two girls would say when they
appeared upon the scene--as I momentarily expected that they would
do--I did not even dare to think. And those two boys allowed me no
chance to collect my thoughts, and try to see my way out of the muddle
into which they were getting me. They kept on chattering, one against
the other, and making the muddle worse with every word they uttered.

Mr Purchase began, speaking with an absurdly cock-a-doodle air, as if
I had done him the greatest possible favour by consenting to hold
Doris’ flowers for a moment or so, for that was really as far as I
intended my acquiescence to go.

“Now, Miss Norah, that you have made me supremely happy by accepting
my now rich roses----”

“And mine,” interposed Mr Carter.

“And yours--really, we are not likely to forget it, my dear Basil.
Would you allow me to speak a few words without interruption? I should
thank you so much if you would. This morning, Miss Norah, I took a box
for this evening’s performance at the Gaiety Theatre----”

Again there came an interruption from Mr Carter.

“When you say that you took a box I presume you mean that you went
through the mechanical operation of having it booked in your name. I
paid for half of it.”

“My dear Basil, once more you are interrupting me. You appear to be
incapable of allowing me to conclude a sentence. If you only would,
you would find that I should explain everything to your most perfect
satisfaction. Miss Norah, as Basil puts it, we took a box, and I shall
be only too delighted if you will share my half of it.”

“I hope, Miss Norah, that you will share mine.”

“Basil, you are really trying. I invite Miss Norah, and before she has
an opportunity of saying Yes or No, you cap my invitation with one of
your own.”

“I presume, my dear fellow, that I am at liberty to invite whom I
please. It was only owing to the accident of your having the glibbest
tongue that my invitation did not come first.”

“Come, Basil, you are behaving like a schoolboy. I tell you what we’ll
do--I’ll purchase your share of the box.”

“I decline to sell.”

“Then I will get another for myself--I imagine that another is to be
had--and that I trust, Miss Norah, you will do me the honour of
sharing with me.”

“I hope, Miss Norah, that you will not be so cruel. I beg that you
will honour mine.”

They were beginning to look at each other in a way which made me
almost apprehensive. The trouble was, that I rather wanted to go to
the Gaiety. I hardly ever get a chance of going to a theatre; the
others are always going. A piece was there just then to which all the
world was crowding, and, for once in a way, I was more than willing to
go with the crowd. That made the invitation rather tempting. But,
under the circumstances, I was hardly goose enough to own it. Instead
I endeavoured to induce them to conduct themselves like reasonable
beings, which, until then, I had always supposed they were.

“Why are you two behaving this afternoon in such an excessively
ridiculous manner? First you ask me to make two shares of myself in
one box, and then to divide myself between two boxes. I don’t quite
see how you can reasonably expect me to do either. I am not a
divisible quantity.”

They both began at me again.

“You entirely misunderstand me, Miss Norah. So far from wishing you to
divide yourself, I am piteously anxious that you should only honour my
box.”

“Since Jack talks of taking another box, so far from dividing
yourself--which the powers forbid!--all you have to do is to share
with me the whole of mine.”

I held up the two nosegays--to calm them, if I could.

“One moment--if you’ll be so very kind. I should like you two to offer
some at least plausible explanation of the extraordinary fashion in
which you are treating me this afternoon. And, in the first place, I
would call your attention to two or three simple questions. Have you
ever hinted at giving me even the shadow of a shade of a flower? You
know very well that no such idea has ever entered your heads. Why,
then, do you all at once insist on thrusting on me the roses which you
brought for Audrey and Doris, for whom you have been in the habit of
bringing bushels of flowers? Have either of you ever even dimly
suggested taking me to a theatre? You are aware that no such notion
has ever entered your wildest dreams. Why, then, are you almost
quarrelling in your apparent endeavours to compel me to occupy a box
which you know as well as I do was intended for my two sisters? I
happen to be cognisant of the fact that you as good as promised to
take them to the Gaiety, and I have little doubt that you have caused
them to anticipate the fulfilment of your promise this very evening.
Can you for one moment suppose that I shall consent to take the places
which they are expecting to fill? I should be sorry to be forced to
think that you are not the sort of persons I had taken you to be. I
have not a lofty opinion of the generality of men, for reasons; but I
had believed you to be a little above the average.”

Instead of showing the least sign of being ashamed of themselves, they
commenced to accuse each other in the most brazen manner. Mr Carter
commenced.

“What you say, Miss Norah, is correct--as it always is. You know,
Jack, that only this morning you told me that you were going to ask
Miss Doris to share your half of the box; it was for that especial
purpose you took it.”

“Did you not give me an assurance that you proposed to ask Miss Audrey
to go with you?”

“My dear Jack, you informed me as far back as yesterday that you had
as good as invited Miss Doris to accompany you, and that she had
practically consented.”

“My memory is not at fault, my good fellow. I perfectly well remember
that three days ago you remarked to me that you had mentioned the
Gaiety Theatre to Miss Audrey; that she had expressed a wish to go
there, and that, to all intents and purposes, you had undertaken to
take her. After that you will yourself admit that, in common decency,
there is nothing more to be said.”

“Come, Jack, I don’t want to chop phrases with you. You know I hate
that kind of thing.”

“Not more than I do.”

“Then, if that’s the case, I’ll make a proposition, the perfect
fairness of which must commend it to you. Let me have five minutes’
private and uninterrupted conversation with Miss Norah--I am
convinced, Miss Norah, that in less time than that I shall succeed in
making clear to you a good deal that at present seems dark!--and after
that you can have ten minutes’ talk all to yourself.”

“I accept your proposition--with one proviso; that you let me have the
first five minutes; then, afterwards, you can have twenty.”

“What kind of a way to treat a friend do you call this, Jack? You
persist in taking the words out of my mouth, and adopting them as your
own.”

“Basil, I must beg of you that you will not talk nonsense.”

“Nonsense! Really, Jack, that’s good, as coming from you! I talk
nonsense! I don’t wish to enter into argument--least of all with you;
but this is too much.”

“Listen to me!”

Considering that Mr Carter’s face was so very close to Mr Purchase’s,
and that he was not speaking in the gentlest tone of voice, one could
hardly see how he could help but listen. Their demeanour was marked by
so much--I will call it, eagerness--that I was seriously beginning to
inquire of myself if the temperature of the room was not getting a
trifle warm. What was the exciting cause I was at a loss to determine;
yet it did seem incredible that such lifelong friends should wrangle
about nothing. If the cause of the heat was me--which seemed more
incredible still--I could only declare that I was conscious of no sane
reason why it should be.

I was almost on the point of inquiring if either of them suffered from
intermittent attacks of softening of the brain, when the door opened,
and in came Audrey and Doris. I sincerely hoped that they had been
long enough in dressing. They might find that they had been just a
trifle too long.



 CHAPTER VIII.
 MEN ARE DECEIVERS EVER

I could not but feel how nice they looked. Not for the first time,
by any means, it was a comfort to think that they were my sisters. It
is all very well to inveigh against the tremendous time a woman takes
in dressing--and I am quite willing to admit that, over and over
again, the girls have as nearly as possible driven me mad!--but if she
wants to look her best, she has to. It is just those little delicate
touches which require care and thought, and cannot be hurried over,
which complete the picture. After one is completely dressed, one can
often advantageously spend another quarter-of-an-hour or twenty
minutes in artistic tittivation; and sometimes the result is worth it.

When I began to take in the details of Audrey and Doris, I realised
that it had been worth it in their case. They were just exquisite; a
delight to the eye, a refreshment to the senses; perfect pictures, of
a kind I never could be. I was laughingly conscious of the absurdity
of my posing as a rival to them. My impulse was to hurry to them,
presenting the two nosegays, explaining that I had been merely acting
as custodian until they came. I fully expected that there would be an
instant end to those two men’s preposterous behaviour, so far as I was
concerned, taking it for granted that they would promptly rush back to
their allegiance, leaving me with the recollection of the lop-sided
joke we three had had together.

However, to my amazement, and almost to my horror, nothing of the kind
took place. Instead, Mr Purchase and Mr Carter continued their
nonsensical, half-quarrelsome argument, totally ignoring Audrey and
Doris, who remained a few paces inside the door, a growing suggestion
of astonishment upon their faces. Presently Audrey spoke.

“I hope that we have not kept you waiting. How are you, Mr Carter?”

Mr Carter turned, nodded, and addressed her from where he stood. Cold
shivers went up and down my back. He had never treated me quite so
free-and-easily as that.

“Oh, thank you, Miss Audrey. I’m going strong, thank you. I hope you
are, too.”

Without another word, he resumed his squabble with his friend.

The two girls looked at each other. Then Doris spoke.

“Good afternoon, Mr Purchase. I hope that you have been pleasantly
engaged, and have not missed me.”

Mr Purchase’s answer must have been distinctly unexpected. He just
nodded, as Basil Carter had done, and observed, in the most offhanded
manner:

“Not at all, Miss Doris--not in the very least. We couldn’t have been
better employed, thank you very much.”

He returned to Mr Carter, placing the forefinger of his right hand on
the palm of his left.

“The point is this, I have now ceded to you my share of the box,
leaving you perfect freedom to carry out your original plan, as of
course you will do.”

“Nothing of the kind. That’s not the point, here is the point in a
nutshell.”

At it they went, in the old delightful way. The two girls had seated
themselves on a settee which was between the windows. They looked
sweet, but a remark which Doris made to me suggested that that was not
exactly how they were feeling.

“What are you doing with those flowers, Norah? You look silly with a
bunch in each hand. Somehow flowers and you never do go well together,
they look incongruous.”

The assault was so gratuitous that it ruffled my plumes. I was just on
the point of handing them the flowers, with a word of explanation to
smooth things out; because those two boys had been abominably rude,
and they were not accustomed to rudeness from men. All experiences of
that kind had come my way. The fact of the sensation being an entirely
novel one scarcely made it more agreeable, especially since they had
every reason to suppose that the pair were head over ears in love with
them. My inclination was towards sympathy--true sisterly
sympathy--because I had been treated badly myself, and I knew what it
felt like. But when Doris spoke to me like that, sympathetic feelings
retreated into the background. I sank down on the ottoman; put first
one nosegay to my nose, and then the other; and smiled a little.

“Mr Carter and Mr Purchase have brought me these lovely roses. So
sweet of them, really!”

I was conscious that the girls cast a curious, and even startled
glance in my direction. Doris’ voice was a little sharp.

“Do you mean to say that those roses were given you by Mr Purchase?”

“And Mr Carter. They would insist upon my not refusing. Wasn’t it nice
of them?”

As I glanced towards Doris, with my very sweetest smile, she looked
what I call scratchy. Audrey addressed Basil Carter.

“So, Mr Carter, you have been giving Norah roses?”

“Yes, yes; poor ones, unworthy the recipient. Had I known the honour
which was in store for them I would have procured better.”

“That is very kind of you. They look very like the roses you have
sometimes given me.”

“They are the same--yes--exactly.”

The implication his words suggested,--that while the roses were not
good enough for me they were for Audrey,--possibly escaped his
attention. I doubt if it did hers. She looked up at him with notes of
interrogation in her eyes, as if she were asking what he meant. He
added, as if by an afterthought:

“By the way, Miss Audrey, there’s a matter on which I should like to
ask your advice. I have a box for the Gaiety to-night.”

“You told me that you meant to get one.”

Her words seemed to take him slightly aback.

“Yes, I have some recollection of the kind. I believe I did.”

“Did you have much difficulty?”

“No, no; none to speak of.”

Doris questioned Mr Purchase.

“And haven’t you a share in Mr Carter’s box, or has he it all to
himself?”

“He has it all to himself. I had half, but I have relinquished it.”

Doris raised her eyebrows.

“You have relinquished it?”

“You see, he proposes to ask Miss Audrey to join him, and you.”

“And me? Mr Carter proposes to ask me?”

Doris’ eyebrows went a little higher. Mr Purchase hurried on, as if he
deemed hurry advisable.

“So I hope to be able to get another box for myself, as I am extremely
anxious to ask Miss Norah to share it with me.”

“You are anxious--to ask Norah to share it with you?”

Doris’ face was a study. I could have laughed out loud, although, even
while I sat, I was shivering in my shoes. His audacity was beyond
anything--at least I thought so, until Mr Carter tried his hand.

“Excuse me, Miss Audrey, but that is not a correct statement of the
case. It is you, Miss Doris, that Jack proposes to ask, in the hope,
Miss Audrey, that you will join them. I, on the other hand, have
already asked Miss Norah to favour my box with the honour of her
presence.”

Mr Purchase burst out almost before Mr Carter had finished.

“Basil, how can you say such things? Really, you are beyond anything.
You are perfectly well aware that the original invitation to Miss
Norah came from me. Now, is that not the fact? Yes or no? Answer me.”

“Don’t be silly, Jack; I invited Miss Norah.”

“After I had done so.”

“Pooh! a question of a moment’s superior glibness.”

Audrey stood up.

“Is this a little comedy which has been arranged between you two.”

“That, Miss Audrey, is precisely the question I have put to Jack. I
certainly have had no hand in it.”

“But it seems to me you have. You will excuse my putting it to you
bluntly, Mr Carter; but did I not understand you to say that if you
succeeded in getting a box for the Gaiety you would offer me a seat in
it?”

Basil Carter seeming momentarily tongue-tied, his friend answered for
him.

“Of course he did, Miss Audrey; he told me so himself. He was full of
his anticipations of enjoyment in your society.”

Doris put her question to Mr Purchase.

“And were you not good enough to hint at my finding room in it with
you? I rather fancied that you made some proposition of the kind, or,
was it only fancy?”

It was Mr Carter’s turn to reply.

“Not at all! not in the least! I assure you, Miss Doris, that there is
not a grain of fancy about it. Jack informed me, with his own lips,
that he had made an arrangement of the kind with you, and expressed
his gratification at having done so; and it was with a view of
carrying out that arrangement that the box was procured. About that
there cannot be the faintest shadow of a doubt.”

There was an instant’s pause. Neither of the men was looking exactly
comfortable. I was wondering what excuse I could find to get outside
the room, feeling incapable of marching out without one. Doris was
lying back in a corner of the settee, picking at the folds in her
dress, and smiling apparently at her own thoughts. While Audrey was
standing close to Mr Carter, regarding him with something like a look
of puzzlement in her beautiful eyes.

“Then are we to understand that the arrangement still holds good?”

Mr Carter shifted from one foot to the other.

“The arrangement, Miss Audrey?”

“As to the box. Am I to be your guest in it, as you promised?”

There was a tone in Audrey’s voice which I had never heard in it
before--almost of appeal. I knew that she was observing his face with
growing surprise, wondering at his obvious constraint. He was
generally the readiest of men; and, with all his passionate devotion
to her, never at a loss to express, in the most graceful terms, his
eagerness to meet her smallest wishes. This blundering creature was
entirely new to her. Something very near to pity came into her face as
she continued to regard him.

“What is the matter with you, Mr Carter? You scarcely seem to be
yourself this afternoon.”

Again a second’s pause. Then he lifted his head and looked at her.

“I am not myself, Miss Audrey, not in the sense that you have known
me.”

He turned and looked towards me. As he did so, he came and stood close
to where I was sitting.

“I must beg you to allow me to withdraw from the arrangement which
existed between us, so far as it referred to me. I believe that Miss
Norah but seldom attends a theatrical performance. She has never
attended one with me. If she will grant me the felicity of
accompanying her to one to-night, she will confer on me an obligation
of which I shall ever continue conscious.”

There was silence after that. I was tingling from head to foot. I
almost felt that I should like to box his ears. I have little doubt
that Audrey would not have been indisposed to box both his and mine. A
look which was akin to terror came into her eyes; she went white, as
if something had frightened her. Doris laughed, not nicely, or
naturally either.

“So, Mr Purchase, since Mr Carter throws us over, and what he says is
quite correct, poor Norah seldom does attend a theatre--so few people
care to attend one with her--Audrey and I will have to depend on you;
you will have to find seats for both of us.”

The moment she had spoken I knew that Mr Purchase was going to make
himself as objectionable as his friend had done, and I believe that
Doris half suspected it too. There is a sting in that tongue of hers
which is always ready to strike at someone the instant she even
imagines that something unpleasant is going to happen to her. He drew
himself up with that superior air which I have noticed that some men
do cultivate when they know that they are about to behave badly.

“I trust, Miss Doris, that an erroneous interpretation will not be
placed upon my words; but you must permit me to point out that I have
already asked Miss Norah to share my box.”

Doris looked up at him with a sweetly acid smile which I should have
thought would almost have made him tremble. No man in this world had
ever thrown her over before, of that I am convinced. In matters of
that sort, hitherto, all the bad conduct had come from her.

“Yet it would be quite easy to place an erroneous interpretation upon
your words and your behaviour too, would it not, Mr Purchase, since
you have already offered a seat in your box to me?”

“Not in set terms, Miss Doris.”

“No? I don’t quite know what you mean by set terms. On certain points
you appear to have ideas of your own. One is thankful to be able to
think that they are your own. Are we to take it that Norah proposes to
divide herself into halves, and to share both your boxes?”

“Certainly not, Miss Doris. At present Mr Purchase hasn’t even got a
box to share.”

This, of course, was Mr Carter.

“But I soon shall have. Miss Norah, I need hardly say, will occupy my
box only.”

“Don’t talk nonsense, Jack. Before you invite a lady to share your
box, I should make sure of having a box to which to invite her. I
doubt if you’ll get one. My impression is that the house is sold right
out.”

“I think not. I fancy that I know where to get a box if I want one
badly. Is it impossible to induce you to see what a peculiar position
you are taking up, Basil? Is it necessary to once more point out to
you that the original invitation to Miss Norah came from me, and that
in that matter you are really merely an interloper?”

“What rubbish that is, Jack.”

Audrey interposed, deftly:

“There does seem to be a good deal of rubbish about, doesn’t there?
Supposing we take its existence for granted. My dear Norah, you must
let me congratulate you on the flattering eagerness with which these
gentlemen desire your presence in their two boxes. It is rather an
unusual experience for you, is it not? And all the pleasanter on that
account. What pretty roses these are; they are just like some which Mr
Carter has occasionally given me.”

Seating herself by my side Audrey took the pink roses from between my
fingers. Mr Purchase struck what I can only describe as an attitude.

“The position which Carter has taken up justifies me in giving you my
personal assurance that those roses were intended for you, Miss
Audrey.”

Mr Carter gave him back as good as he sent; I do not care if that is a
vulgar way of putting it, it is a correct one.

“And were not those red roses bought by you for Miss Doris, Purchase?
You know they were.”

Audrey went sweetly on.

“You are lucky, Norah. You not only get our roses, but our seats in
boxes too. What a popular child you are.”

Doris’ voice came from the couch.

“What I want to know is--since it appears that you do not propose to
divide yourself into two equal halves--which of these extraordinary
persons do you propose to favour with your company? They themselves
don’t seem to know, perhaps you do.”

I was red as a boiled beetroot, and smarting all over, and I expect my
answers showed it.

“I have not said that I would favour anybody yet. I don’t want other
people’s flowers, or other people’s seats in boxes either.”

“Miss Norah, I entreat you----”

“Miss Norah, I beseech you----”

Just as those two men came rushing at me, and began to overwhelm me
with another flood of words, the door was opened again, and in came
Walter Hammond.



 CHAPTER IX.
 MORE TREACHERY

Walter Hammond is a truly remarkable person to associate with
Eveleen. She is rather short, even for a girl, while he is a perfect
lamp-post of a man--one of those long, lean persons who seem all
bones. As he fancies himself horsey, and will persist in dressing the
part, and wearing the tightest clothes, his extreme slimness is still
more conspicuous. He is one of those creatures who, when they are in a
room, seem to be all over the place at once. When he is sitting down
he never seems to know what to do with his legs, they really are
tremendously long; if he stretched them out at full length under an
ordinary dining-table, I should not be surprised if his toes peeped
out the other side; and when he stands up he is equally at a loss what
use to make of his hands and arms. He speaks in a rapid, jerky sort of
way--in fact, he is jerky altogether. When anyone addresses him, he
not only twists his body round with one jerk, and his head with
another, and puts his eyeglass in with one jerk, and out with a
second, but he jerks at his moustache, first with his right hand, and
then with his left, in a fashion which a slightly nervous person, who
is not used to him, must find not a little disconcerting. But I
believe he is harmless, though I don’t think he is as wise as he might
be. He appears to have the whole of the “Turf Guide,” or whatever you
call the thing, at his finger ends; and, if you will let him, will
talk about horses until you begin to pray for the hour when motor-cars
will have made them as extinct as the dodo.

His manner of entering the room was, on that occasion, characteristic.
He was groping about for his eyeglass, which, as usual, eluded search
between the buttons of his waistcoat, and was carrying his hat, and
gloves, and stick, and a good-sized parcel, with an evident want of
certainty as to the hand they ought to be in, which it gave one the
fidgets to observe.

Audrey greeted him with a degree of warmth which suggested that she
regarded his appearance as a welcome interlude. I know I did. I should
have regarded the advent of anyone or anything as a welcome interlude
just then, I believe even mad dogs; though, as I have never
encountered a mad dog, and never wish to, perhaps I had better not be
too sure.

“Oh, Mr Hammond, is that you? How delightful! We want somebody to
amuse us, we are so dull. Eveleen will be charmed; she will be down in
a moment.”

“Needn’t ask how you are, Miss Audrey; you’re always fit. And Miss
Doris too; can’t make out how you manage.”

Doris spoke.

“We don’t manage. We have our sufferings like other folk--sometimes
very unexpected ones they are. What have you in that great parcel? It
does seem to be in your way; won’t you leave it in the hall?”

“Gloves! gloves! couldn’t possibly leave it in the hall. It’s a little
bet I lost to Miss Eveleen over Rocketter. The Brimstone filly was
giving him four pounds, it seemed to me that at the weights it was a
cert--dead snip. Rocketter won the Horndean Plate, the Scratchem Cup,
the Slingsbury Stakes, with the weights against him. Appeared to me
down the Lingfield straight, with such a handicap, there was only one
horse in it. I was wrong. Told Jim Smiff rode a ripping race--hung on
to Rocketter’s tail--caught him at the distance--nosed him at the
post. So Miss Eveleen wins her gloves; sure, it gives me the greatest
pleasure to pay them.”

I am not an expert in racing slang, so, if there is anything wrong in
the way Mr Hammond’s observations are reported I am not to blame. I
only pretend to give a rudimentary impression of the general style of
his conversation. It was an extraordinary thing that when Eveleen bet
with him she nearly always won. Either he was careful to arrange it
so, or else he knew less than he supposed, and she more. Anyhow,
somehow, her horse was nearly always in front of his. A remark which
Doris made seemed to convey a hint which he might or might not have
considered flattering.

“It must be nice to bet with you, Mr Hammond. It ensures one having a
constant gratuitous supply of little necessaries.”

“Awfully good of you to say so, Miss Doris--really. Always delighted
to lose to a lady--especially when I’ve had a good run for my
money--yes. Tremendous rush there seems to be on the Gaiety. Had
deuce’s own business to get two stalls.”

“For to-night?”

“Yes. Miss Eveleen said she’d like to see the show--so been worrying
round--yes--had to worry too; but I got ’em.”

“Eveleen is fortunate. I also should like to see the show.”

“Very kind of you to say so--jolly flattering to the theatre
people--they ought to go up one.”

He had been fumbling, at intervals, for his eyeglass. Now, having
dropped his hat, stick, and gloves, and only retaining his clutch on
his parcel, he at last succeeded in jerking his glass into a
stationary position in front of his eye. He turned towards me. As he
did so he beamed all over, stood up, and advanced towards me with what
he possibly intended for a seraphic smile, but which did not strike me
in that light at all.

“’Pon my word, Miss Norah, fancy you sitting there all the time and my
not noticing you--only fancy. How very strange! How are you? I needn’t
ask; you always are so fit; how do you manage? I never saw you looking
fitter than you are looking just now--does one’s eyesight good to look
at you. Cannot understand how I came to overlook you--so singular.”

The idea of that man talking to me like that--after the way he had
treated me--put me all on end, as I let him see.

“It is not at all singular. On the contrary, you have always treated
me in exactly the same manner. I have sat in the same room with you
for hours and hours, and you have paid no more attention to me than if
I was an unnecessary piece of furniture. I doubt if you have ever
spoken twenty consecutive words to me in your life.”

The wretch was not at all abashed. That afternoon everybody seemed to
be incapable of shame--particularly those who ought to have been most
keenly alive to it. It is a disagreeable world. Talk about
brazen-faced, impudent deceitfulness! I believe that all men are
capable of anything; I am convinced they are.

That Hammond creature went blundering on as calmly and easily as if I
had not said what ought to have made him writhe.

“Can only assure you that if I haven’t spoken twenty consecutive words
to you, I’ll make up for it now--only like to have the chance. Feel I
could talk to you for ever--sure I could. Like gloves? Sure to. All
girls like gloves--get through lots of them. Here’s a box full; find
them rather a decent sort; hope you’ll do me the honour of wearing
them.”

He held out to me the parcel of gloves which he had just been
announcing, in the presence of us all, that he had bought to pay the
debt which he had lost to Eveleen. That did freeze me. I sat up as
straight as a beanpole.

“I don’t understand you, Mr Hammond.”

But I did not succeed in freezing him. He indulged in an affable
smile, which made him seem all teeth and mouth.

“Quite simple. Hope you’ll permit me to have the pleasure of
presenting you with a box of gloves; you’ll find them rippers, got
them from a really decent fellow; makes specially for me--sixes.”

“I take sevens.”

“Do you? Glad to hear it. Like a girl to have a good-sized hand. Hate
your little namby things, better suited to a doll than to the end of a
woman’s arm.” A nice observation to make, considering that both Audrey
and Doris were present, and that they are notorious for their tiny
hands. But Mr Hammond went unconcernedly on. “If you want a more
sensible size you can easily change them, or I will for you. I’ve got
a largish hand myself.”

He had. He held out in front of me, with an air of simpering
satisfaction, the very largest hand I had ever seen. I wondered what
acreage of ground a hand like that might represent. But I did not
quite say so.

“I understood you to say that those gloves were to settle a bet which
you had lost to Eveleen.”

“That’s all right. You take these--I’ll soon get her some
others--don’t you worry about Miss Eveleen.”

“I would rather not take them, thank you.”

“Perhaps you’re right; may as well get a decent size straight away--a
larger box--better quality. Got two stalls for the Gaiety to-night;
hope you’ll do me the pleasure of occupying one.”

“Do I understand that you are offering me Eveleen’s stall?”

“Much rather you came, if it’s all the same to you. Awfully jolly if
you would.”

“I would rather not come, thank you, Mr Hammond.”

Basil Carter came forward. I was really glad of his interference,
though I would rather he had been a little more sensible.

“Miss Norah will certainly not come with you, Hammond. And, in order
that you may not annoy her with your importunities, perhaps it would
be as well that I should tell you at once that to-night, at the Gaiety
Theatre, Miss Norah will share my box.”

At once Mr Purchase contradicted him.

“Do you wish to quarrel with me, Basil? Because, if not, I must ask
you to refrain from persisting in such statements. Already I have
borne them nearly as long as I can. Permit me to inform you, Hammond,
that it is my box which will be honoured by Miss Norah’s presence.”

“You haven’t the faintest ground for such an assertion. To begin with,
you haven’t a box.”

“I shall have one. And I have this ground, Basil, that the original
invitation to Miss Norah came from me.”

“Fiddle-dee-dee!”

Mr Carter snapped his fingers; and they were at it again. Mr Hammond
took advantage of their wrangling to press what he appeared to have
the audacity to regard as his claims.

“As these gentlemen don’t seem to be able to agree as to whose guest
you are going to be, Miss Norah, I vote that you settle the question
by becoming mine. It would be splendid fun! First rate! Good
stalls--bang in the middle of the second row--better than a box--it
would be awfully sporting of you, don’t you know. Say you’ll come!
Yes! Do! Be the jolly good sort you look, Miss Norah.”

Since the moment Mr Hammond had planted himself at my side, and
commenced to conduct himself in such a peculiar manner, both Audrey
and Doris had been speechless. Possibly they felt that the singularity
of the general proceedings went beyond the capacity of words. But when
that Hammond man--who, although a friend of Eveleen’s, was, to all
intents and purposes, a stranger to me--called me “a jolly good sort”
to my very face, Audrey burst out laughing, as though the joke had
gone past bearing.

“What is the matter with you all?” she cried. “Is this a conspiracy
between you three, or have you suddenly gone mad? What is it in Norah
that has made her, all at once, such an irresistible object of
attention?”

While she was still speaking Eveleen came in. She addressed herself to
her.

“So, Eveleen, here you are at last; and it’s quite time you were here.
Perhaps you will be able to supply the key to the riddle. Mr Carter
and Mr Purchase have given Norah our roses and our seats at the
theatre; and now Mr Hammond is endeavouring to induce her to accept
your gloves and your stall. If there is a rational explanation of
these gentlemen’s behaviour, do, dear, lose no time in finding it.”

Eveleen came forward with a smile, and that little alert air which
seems to suggest that there must be quicksilver in her veins.

“What’s the joke? Don’t keep me out of it. How do, Walter?” Their
acquaintance had got to the Christian-name stage. Eveleen is a little
familiar with her young men; though she encourages them to behave only
with the strictest decorum. “You’re looking rather chippy; have you
been having too many skittles since I saw you?”

She can be slangy; particularly when she thinks that sort of thing is
sympathetic. I fancy she endeavours to adapt the style of her
conversation to her company. I am sure that when she has been talking
to a parson her language has seemed to reek of the odour of sanctity.

I think she expected him to spring to his feet at sight of her, and
burst into a fit of jerky enthusiasm. If she did she was disappointed.
He just raised himself an inch or two, and, in an extremely
perfunctory fashion, extended to her the extreme tips of his fingers.

“Feeling as fit as a fiddler. Sorry you don’t think I look it.” He
turned to me. “Don’t you think I’m looking pretty fit, Miss Norah?”

A slight shade of surprise fitted across her features, as it had done
across Doris’ face, and Audrey’s.

“Have you brought me my gloves?”

“Did bring them--rather wanted Miss Norah to have them--seems she
takes a decent size--none of your little dollie flippers; so as
they’ll fit you, you may as well have them. Here you are. Now we’re
straight.”

He thrust the parcel into her hands; she taking it with the expression
of surprise growing on her countenance.

“And have you got the stall you promised me?”

He inserted his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat, and began to
shake himself in the manner which recalled a dog which has just come
out of the water. Only he did it in such a very jerky way that one
almost expected to hear his joints all cracking.

“Got a stall--had dreadful bother to get one--seems as if everyone
wants to go to the place at the same time. If you don’t mind--and it
don’t make any difference to you--’pon my word don’t see why it
should--had rather Miss Norah went with me.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“I say that unless it upsets you in any way--and I don’t see how it
can--sure to find a chap who’ll be only too glad to place a stall at
your disposal--lots of chaps about--I’d rather Miss Norah went with
me--much rather--really; in fact I’ve asked her.”

She looked at him in a way which I should have thought would have made
even such a hardened sinner, as he seemed to be, wince. But he failed
to turn a hair.

“Still, I don’t quite understand. Do you mean, Walter, that you have
offered my stall to Norah--to my sister Norah?”

“Yes--that’s it--exactly what I do mean. It’s clear enough, don’t you
know. Don’t see where the difficulty comes in, ’pon my word. Only I
don’t quite see why you should call it _your_ stall, really! I paid
for it.”

“You paid for it? I see. And did you offer my gloves--these gloves, to
Norah also?”

“That’s all right. I wanted her to have them; but as she has a really
decent sort of hand, they’re miles too small for her, so as I know
they’ll be all right for you, you may as well have them. Don’t you
worry about that a little bit.”

She looked about her with an air of bewilderment as if seeking an
explanation from someone, somewhere. Her face had quite altered during
the few moments she had been in the room. Even her voice had changed,
it seemed to have grown husky. I knew that she was really fond of Mr
Hammond. He had been in the habit of prostrating himself in the dust
at her feet. It must have been a dreadful wrench to have been spoken
to by him like that.

“I suppose that there is a joke somewhere; but I’m so dull that I
don’t see where. Norah, has Mr Hammond really done as he says? What
have you been doing?”

She favoured me with an accusatory glance, as if I had been guilty of
the blackest crimes. Audrey came to my rescue.

“To do her justice, so far as I have seen, Norah has been doing
nothing. Norah has been sitting mumchance; scarcely saying boo! to a
goose, as if she were on prickles. The men appear to have done all the
doing--unless they have been indulging in an elaborate practical joke,
at her expense, and ours, which they have already carried too far to
be in the best of taste. It may be funny, in its way, which is not a
pretty one.”

Eveleen was continuing to glare at me, as if she would have liked her
eyes to have scorched my face.

“Are you going with Mr Hammond?”

Mr Carter took upon himself to answer.

“No, Miss Eveleen; Miss Norah is not going with Mr Hammond. Miss Norah
is going with me.”

Eveleen looked up at him.

“With you?”

Before he could reply, Mr Purchase interposed:

“Again adventuring, Basil, upon forbidden ground, and, in so doing,
conveying a totally wrong impression. Miss Eveleen, Miss Norah will be
my guest.”

“Jack, do you wish to tempt me to lose my temper?”

“My dear Basil, let me beg you to remember.”

Mr Hammond reseated himself at my side.

“Since these two chaps do nothing but call each other names!”--they
had not called each other a single name up to then; it was only that
Mr Hammond has his own way of expressing himself--“supposing we fix it
quietly between ourselves. As they can’t hit it off who you’re to go
with, don’t you go with either of them--you go with me. That’ll suit
me to a T!--down to the ground, Miss Norah! We shan’t quarrel; you can
bet your hat on that, and your boots on top of it. We’ll have the best
time, Miss Norah, if you’ll take my word for it, that anyone ever did
have yet. I’ll do you a treat, on my honour! And if you’ll only say
yes, you’ll come, you’ll make me pretty nearly as happy as if I’d won
the Derby on my very own horse--you can lay your money on it all the
while.”

Mr Carter touched him on the shoulder.

“Surely, Hammond, it cannot be necessary to again ask you to refrain
from troubling Miss Norah, who, this evening, will be my guest!”

“But that’s just the point, my dear chap! Will she? Purchase says
not.”

“I do say not. And that for the sufficient reason that she will be
mine. And that is also a reason, Hammond, why you should not continue
your persecution of Miss Norah.”

“There you are--one says one thing, t’other says t’other. What I want
to know is, who’s who? which is which? what’s what? Straight
tip!--fight it out between yourselves. Leave Miss Norah and I to fix
up things between ourselves! There’s a friendly hint for you!”

“Hammond, is it possible that you intend to be impertinent?”

“My dear boy, there isn’t a grain of impertinence in the whole of my
constitution, honest Injun! All I ask is--talk sense.”

“The sense of the matter is that Miss Norah will be my guest.”

“Jack, that’s utter nonsense!”

“There you are! there you are! Where are you?”

Eveleen spoke, her words coming from her lips like drops of vitriol.

“Don’t you think, Norah, that you had better favour all three of these
gentlemen with your delightful company? It would be so nice--for them,
and for you--and it would save further complications.” She turned to
Audrey and Doris. “Has it not occurred to you two girls that we are
rather in the way?”

Both Audrey and Doris burst out laughing. I do not know what at. There
did not seem to be much merriment in their mirth. While they were
still making those somewhat discordant sounds, Major Paul Tibbet
entered the room.



 CHAPTER X.
 THE COMPROMISE

Everybody that afternoon seemed to be bringing something. We might
have been spreading broadcast an announcement that each caller was
expected to provide himself with an offering as evidence of good
faith. The moment I set eyes on Major Tibbet I perceived that he had
his. It took the shape of a brown-paper parcel of some size, and,
apparently, some weight, since he bore it in front of him, on both
arms, as if it were a baby. As he is not the kind of person one would
expect to see carry a parcel of any kind, the effect was a little
funny.

Audrey’s and Doris’ forced laughter seemed to give him a false
impression of what was going on. He broke into what he probably
intended should be a smile of the extremest affability.

“I come at a fortunate moment, to find you laughing! full of fun!
Nothing so delightful as the merriment of young ladies. I thoroughly
enjoy a joke, myself.” He addressed Audrey. “I have here a trifle
which I trust will not meet with the disapprobation of Mrs O’Brady.”

“It doesn’t look as if it were a trifle.”

“Between ourselves, it’s not--weighs twenty pounds if an
ounce--magnificent bird--pick of the market.” His voice assumed a tone
of great solemnity. “It’s a truffled turkey--prepared by my own chef,
with his own hands, after a recipe of his own. A _chef-d’œuvre_; an
unique, Miss Audrey, an unique!”

The Major makes a god of his belly. The only things he really cares
for--besides the decoration of his ridiculous old person--are things
to eat and drink. He keeps the menus of his dinners. He can give you
the history--with all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed--of meals he
ate thirty years ago; with the names of all the dishes, detailed
accounts of how they were cooked, and realistic descriptions of how
they tasted. It gives me a feeling of having over-eaten myself to hear
him talk.

“I have ventured, also, Miss Audrey, to command a small dinner at the
King’s to-night, which I am hopeful that Mrs O’Brady will do me the
honour of eating with me. I will tell you what I have ordered----”

“Had you not better tell mamma that? She might like to be the first
recipient of so delicious a communication.”

“You may be right. I think you probably are. When one considers the
matter broadly, one perceives that that would only be just to Mrs
O’Brady. I will tell you afterwards, Miss Audrey; only a pleasure
postponed, that’s all. This parcel is a trifle heavy; I think, with
your permission, I should like to----”

As he began to look about for a spot on which to deposit his
twenty-pound turkey, his eyes travelled in my direction. When they
reached me, he started. He came a step nearer, as if, at that
distance, his poor, faded, old eyes were not perfectly sure that it
was I. Having made up his mind upon the point, he quite obviously
started again, coming close up to me with a sort of little canter. At
the same moment I was conscious--though the Major was not--that mamma
had entered the room, and stood just inside the door, listening and
looking on.

“My dear Miss Norah, fancy my not noticing you before--most
extraordinary! Can’t think how it could have happened. I’m sure, I beg
ten thousand pardons. However, better late than never; you know the
old saying, my dear Miss Norah. Allow me to present you with this
truffled turkey--done by my own man. If I were to tell you, in
confidence, what I pay the fellow, you’d stare. I’ve reason to believe
that, before you put your fork into him, this bird will have cost me
five pounds. Yet I dare to assert that, by the time you have done with
him, you will agree with me that he was worth every farthing of it,
Miss Norah, every farthing.”

“Thank you, Major Tibbet, but I do not care for truffled turkey.”

“Not care for truffled turkey! What are you saying, Miss Norah? You
can’t mean it. I suppose it’s a jest of yours--an excellent one, too.
Because, of course, it isn’t possible that anyone shouldn’t care for
truffled turkey.”

“It is not only possible, but, in my case, it’s an actual fact. I do
not care for truffled turkey, Major Tibbet. Nor, in any case, could I
accept a gift which was intended for my mother.”

When I said this, I saw mamma--who, with the aid of her _pince-nez_,
had been taking the liveliest interest in the Major’s remarks--give a
kind of little jump. I knew that she liked truffled turkey, and that,
indeed, on the subject of eating and drinking, generally, she and the
Major were in considerable sympathy. I suppose that, when people grow
old, they are fonder of that kind of thing than when they are young.

That gormandising Major, in complete unconsciousness of who was
standing behind him, threw mamma’s prior claim upon his wretched bird
entirely overboard.

“Ah, your mother, your respected mother. I do like to find young girls
considering their mothers. It’s a sweet trait--yes, it’s a very sweet
trait--in your character, Miss Norah. Still, I’ve no doubt that you
and I, between us, shall be able to manage with your mother,
afterwards--that is, if you will condescend to accept my little
offering.”

“Thank you, Major Tibbet, but I will not.”

“Then, in that case, we’ll say no more about it, and we’ll settle it
in this way. I’ve ordered dinner at the King’s restaurant this
evening. If they carry out my instructions--and, if they don’t,
they’ll hear of it!--I think I can promise you something which shall
be worthy even of--Miss Norah; if Miss Norah will permit me to count
upon her as my guest.”

“I thought, Major Tibbet, that the dinner also was intended for
mamma.”

“Really, Miss Norah, really! you are unduly severe, you really are!
You should never go behind an invitation--never. When I invite you, I
invite you, and venture to anticipate a favourable reply. It would
make me so happy, Miss Norah, it really would.”

Jack Purchase came forward.

“Pardon me, Major Tibbet. Perhaps, Miss Norah, I had better explain.
Major Tibbet, Miss Norah will not be able to dine with you to-night,
as she is sharing my box at the Gaiety Theatre.”

Basil Carter followed.

“Major Tibbet, in a sense, that statement is correct--with the
solitary exception that it is my box which Miss Norah is going to
share.”

“Now, Basil, have I again to remonstrate with you?”

“My dear Jack, the remonstrance would more properly come from me!”

Walter Hammond thrust in his comments, seeming to jerk out his limbs
in all directions as he spoke.

“At it again! Nice boys, aren’t they, Miss Norah? Always in their
little nests agree! Since still they can’t make up their minds who’s
who, and what’s what, and Tibbet’s a little late with his dinner, do
say, Miss Norah, you’ll have that stall of mine. It’ll be so sporting
of you, don’t you know; and you’ll be able to nod now and then at
Purchase and Carter, as they sit glaring at each other in their
boxes.”

Apparently mamma had arrived at the conclusion that it was time to
announce her presence.

“What does this discussion mean? And how is it that Norah has all at
once become the centre of so much attention? Norah, what have you been
doing? How are you, gentlemen? Good-afternoon, Major.”

Major Tibbet advanced to mamma, holding out his brown paper parcel--of
which I rather suspected he had become wearied.

“Here you are, Mrs O’Brady! How are you? Hope you’re well. Here’s a
truffled turkey for you. Miss Norah doesn’t seem to care for it, but
I’m sure you will. Much pleasure in giving it you, I’m sure.”

Whether mamma had equal pleasure in accepting it was not so
obvious--particularly after the remarks which she could not have
helped but hear, and the manner of presentation was, to say the least,
peculiar. Without waiting to see if mamma was ready to relieve him of
his burden, he forced it on her in such a very singular fashion that
it went crashing to the floor. He did not stop to inquire if it had
fallen on her feet, which it might easily have done, and twenty pounds
is twenty pounds when it falls upon your tightly-fitting slippers;
still less did he trouble himself to even offer to pick it up again.
The moment he had got rid of it he came bustling back to me, mumbling
an apology which was fashioned on lines which were distinctly his own.

“Beg pardon--thought you’d got it--really! Better ring the bell, and
tell servant to take it away--thing’s so heavy, nearly broken both my
arms--couldn’t have held it another moment, really! Now, Miss Norah,
about this dinner to-night. I’ve ordered a bisque, which--I give you
my personal assurance--when you have once tasted it you will not
easily forget.”

Again there came an interposition from Mr Purchase.

“Miss Norah will not have an opportunity of forgetting the--article in
question, since it is apparently necessary to repeat to you that, this
evening, she is engaged to me.”

“To me, that is.”

This, of course, was Basil Carter.

“I would recommend you, Major Tibbet, to understand that Purchase
speaks in a general sense only, since, in the letter, as a matter of
plain fact, Miss Norah is engaged to me.”

“Major Tibbet, Basil, is too wise a man to discredit my positive
statement.”

“He will be an exceedingly unwise one if he casts the faintest shadow
of a doubt on mine.”

Then came Mr Hammond.

“I’m the last person in the world to wish to breed dissension where
there’s disputing already, because a pretty quarrel’s too good a thing
to spoil; but I take leave to remark, Mr Carter, and Mr Purchase, and
Major Tibbet, that Miss Norah will relieve you of all your
difficulties by bestowing her society on me.”

“Norah,” observed mamma, in that icy tone which I knew so well, and
which I knew suggested that she was not in the very sweetest temper,
“I think you had better retire to your own room.”

“To her own room!” cried Mr Hammond. “And why, Mrs O’Brady, would you
break our hearts and darken the heavens?”

“I don’t know if you are aware, Mr Hammond, that at least your
language is peculiar. I am afraid that Norah must have been forgetting
herself to be the cause of this--singular scene.”

“Forgetting herself? Not at all! It’s we who have been remembering
her--that’s how it is, Mrs O’Brady. And, between ourselves, I’d be
glad if you’d tell her that you’d like her to occupy a stall I have
to-night at the Gaiety Theatre.”

“Excuse me, Mrs O’Brady,” interposed Basil Carter, “but Mr Hammond
seems disposed to take an unfair advantage of you. It is I who would
ask you to permit Miss Norah to share my box.”

“Mrs O’Brady,” exclaimed Jack Purchase, “before you say one word to
either of them, please allow me to inform you that it was I who first
asked Miss Norah to honour me.”

“And how about my dinner at the King’s!” cried Major Tibbet. “I need
hardly tell you, Mrs O’Brady, that I have the good fortune to be
somewhat the senior of these young gentlemen, and it is therefore with
every confidence that I ask you this evening to entrust Miss Norah to
me.”

Mamma’s manner, as she replied, was anything but genial.

“Whether consciously or not I cannot say, but you gentlemen are
behaving with more than a little singularity. You seem oblivious of
the fact that other ladies are present besides this--child. Must I
again request you, Norah, to oblige me by at once retiring to your own
room?”

Suddenly a voice came from the door, and Mr Rumford advanced at a pace
which was hardly becoming to his decidedly well-developed figure--in
his hand the ubiquitous box. He and Lilian had entered together, and
only a second before, unless I was much mistaken, I had seen him
offering it to her. Now he withdrew it, with what was very like a
snatch, from her approaching fingers.

“Retire to her own room!” he protested, in that loud, ringing voice of
his, which always made me think what an excellent cheap-jack he would
have made. “You couldn’t be so cruel, Mrs O’Brady. It’s not to be
thought of, not for a moment. May I ask you to accept these bonbons,
dear Miss Norah? I am sure you have a sweet tooth--it would be so in
character. And I am so fortunate as to have two stalls to-night for
the Gaiety Theatre. If you would avail yourself of one----”

He was interrupted by Audrey breaking into an apparently irresistible
peal of laughter. Everyone turned to stare at her. That sort of thing
is so unusual in Audrey, who is generally the quietest of persons. I,
for one, had never heard her laugh like that before. She endeavoured
to explain what had caused her merriment.

“It really is so funny; all the world is going to-night to the Gaiety
Theatre. The coincidence is most amusing.”

“And yet the explanation is extremely simple,” commented Eveleen,
speaking in a coldly acid voice, which meant that she was raging hot
within. “We have all been talking about it lately, and I suppose that
we have all dropped hints that we would like to go. These gentlemen,
with that generosity which we know is one of their most charming
characteristics, have acted on those hints--up to a certain point.
They have all, with one accord, provided themselves with seats. Are we
to take it, Norah, that you propose to occupy them all?”

Mr Hammond snapped his fingers, making a noise like the report of a
pop gun.

“You’ve hit it on the head, Miss Eveleen; prevented bloodshed, and
solved the problem. Miss Norah, we’ll act upon your sister’s hint.
Tibbet, we all of us will dine with you.”

The Major looked as if the proposition took him by surprise--which was
not to be wondered at.

“You’ll excuse me, Mr Hammond, but I’m hanged if you will.”

“Then Miss Norah won’t, for to-night we hunt in companies.”

The Major looked at the speaker with a rueful countenance.

“How many are there of you?”

“Four, barring Miss Norah, and she counts for all the world. At what
time do you dine?”

“I, sir, dine at eight.”

“Eight! Why, man, that’s the time the theatre begins. You’ll dine at
seven.”

“You adopt a very peculiar tone, Mr Hammond, in endeavouring to
dictate to me at what hour I take my meals. I entirely decline to
contemplate the possibility of my dining at such an un-Christian hour
as seven.”

“Good! then we’ll dine at seven, and you’ll dine afterwards. When
we’ve dined we’ll go on together in a body to the theatre, and Miss
Norah shall take it turn and turn about to sit with us. What do you
say, gentlemen? Isn’t that a sporting proposition?”

“On condition that Miss Norah sits first of all with me, I, for one,
am not indisposed, for the sake of peace, to waive some portion of my
undoubted rights.”

This was Basil Carter. Mr Purchase came hard upon his heels.

“Now, Basil, you’ve taken the words out of my mouth. If Miss Norah
sits first with me, Hammond, you may count me in.”

“Gentlemen! gentlemen!” cried Mr Rumford. “It appears to me that I
have a voice in the matter; I claim the place of honour.”

Mr Hammond endeavoured to throw oil upon the waters.

“Softly! keep a tight hand upon the reins. Wait till the gate has
gone, then we’ll all be off together. There need be no difficulty
about a little thing like that. For my part, if the running’s fair,
I’m willing that my stall shall be the last Miss Norah sits in;
that’ll suit me all the way. But there are ways and means of settling
that sort of thing pleasantly and quietly between ourselves. The main
point is the principle--we’re to share and share alike. If that’s
conceded, we’ll worry about the details afterwards. You understand,
Miss Norah, that you’re to dine with us at seven. We’ll be here, the
lot of us, to fetch you at a quarter to. For the sake of all the good
horses that ever ran an honest race, be ready--don’t keep us
waiting--we’ll be an anxious crowd. And, until then, Miss Norah, I’ll
be wishing you good-bye.”

“I also, Miss Norah,” said Mr Carter, taking my hand before I knew
that he meant to offer me his. “I am well aware that your near
neighbourhood will bring happiness to me, but, at the same time, I
would have you clearly realise that I only relinquish the rare
privilege of your undivided society throughout the evening for the
sake of that harmony which I know you would desire.”

“Miss Norah,” urged Mr Purchase, “do not for one moment suppose that,
in self-abnegation, Basil is one whit in front of me. What I suffer by
acceding, for the sake of peace, to the compromise which has been
suggested, it is possible that you will one day know.”

“It’s you only I’m thinking of, Miss Norah,” declared Mr Rumford. “I
needn’t tell you which I’m likely to prefer, to have you all to
myself--blissful thought, Miss Norah!--or to--to share you with a
crowd.”

Mr Rumford looked about him in a way which certainly was not
suggestive of the harmony of which they all were speaking. Major
Tibbet joined himself to the chorus, with a simper which ill became
him.

“You will judge what my feelings are, Miss Norah, when I tell you
that, for your sake, I will consent to dine at seven. I have made it
one of the rules of my life never to dine, anywhere, before eight. How
long it is since I dined at the abnormal hour of seven, I am unable to
say positively, without referring. But so far as my memory serves
me--and in matters of such importance I think my memory may be
trusted--I say, that so far as my memory serves me----”

“Yes, we know what you say, Tibbet; and you can say the rest to-night.
Remember, Miss Norah, a quarter to seven--sharp!”

Mr Hammond thrust his arm through the Major’s and bore him away. The
five men all left the room, and I was left alone with the girls and
mamma.



 CHAPTER XI.
 THE TURNING OF THE WORM

No one spoke a word for quite a minute. The girls and mamma were
looking at me--I was conscious of their eyes all over me--and I was
looking at the floor. I felt as if I had been guilty of--to say the
very least--the gravest impropriety, though I had not the faintest
notion how, and was thoroughly well aware that now the storm was about
to burst,--which presently it did. Mamma began--in that tone of voice
in which she addresses observations to the servants which she dares
them to deny. It gives you the impression that she is sitting on the
safety-valve, and that in another half-second there will be a blow-up.
And there generally is.

“Norah, may I ask you to tell me what is the meaning of the scene
which I have just witnessed?”

I smoothed the petals of one of Mr Carter’s roses.

“Really, mamma, you know as well as I do.”

“Please don’t speak to me in that impertinent manner.” Her voice was
raised perhaps half a tone. “I insist upon an explanation. Why have
these men behaved in so disgraceful a fashion, and what encouragement
have you been giving them?”

“Encouragement? I?” I glanced up with what I intended to be my air of
perfect innocence. I do not fancy, from the expression which was on
mamma’s countenance, that she quite liked the look which was on mine.
“Audrey and Doris have been here the whole time. They will be able to
tell you what encouragement I have offered.”

“Do you expect me to believe that these men would have given
you--you!--the presents which were intended for your sisters, unless
you had offered them some extraordinary and disgraceful
encouragement?”

“I do not know why they gave the things to me. I am sure I did not
want them. I could not have told them so more plainly. I shall have
pleasure in handing them over to whoever you think they were
originally intended for.”

Doris spoke. She was still sitting on the couch, her arms raised, her
hands clasped under the back of her head, her face turned towards the
ceiling. Her manner was smilingly acid.

“How nice of you, Norah! And will you really give me Mr Purchase’s red
roses, and Audrey Mr Carter’s pink ones, and Lilian Mr Rumford’s
bonbons? Eveleen already has Mr Hammond’s gloves, and mamma the
Major’s turkey,--at least, she will have, when she picks it up from
the floor, since those you declined to accept. How very sweet you are!
Think of studying our feelings to that extent.”

Lilian came forward. She looked more disagreeable than any of them.
Considering that Mr Rumford’s conduct had been so very unexpected, and
that she had made up her mind that it was time that she should marry
someone, and that Mr Rumford was the most eligible person who seemed
likely to present himself, there was some excuse for her, though I do
not think she need have been quite so vicious as she was.

“At any rate, I will have those bonbons. They certainly were not meant
for you.”

She positively snatched at the box, which was on the ottoman at my
side. I looked up at her with my sweetest smile.

“With the greatest possible pleasure, my dear Lilian. I should not
wish to accept anything from Mr Rumford. You know that he is not the
sort of person to whom I should care to be indebted in the smallest
particular.”

“Then don’t you dare to go to the Gaiety with him to-night!”

“Dare? My dear Lilian, what very odd language you do use. It’s not a
question of daring, I can assure you.” I smiled down at Mr Carter’s
roses, which I had exchanged for Mr Purchase’s. “It’s not my fault if
he prefers to take me instead of you--is it?”

I thought she would have boxed my ears. I feel sure she would have
liked to. Eveleen laughed.

“And I suppose,” she said, “that it’s not your fault if they all of
them prefer to take you instead of us.”

I kept on smiling at the roses.

“I don’t know why they should prefer it. I haven’t an idea.”

“It is a novel experience, isn’t it?”

“I certainly haven’t been to the theatre with so many gentlemen as
you, if that’s what you mean.”

I did not raise my eyes, but I have a suspicion that Eveleen looked at
me a little waspishly.

“I wonder if, after all, you are cleverer than we have given you
credit for. If so, you have managed to hide your light under a bushel
for a good many years. You must excuse my saying so, but you seem this
afternoon to have performed a sort of conjuring trick.”

“A conjuring trick? How?”

“You have captured, at a single stroke, the five hearts which,
separately and individually, we have been laboriously cultivating, and
all the seats which were meant for us; while we--we, alas!--have been
left lamenting. Don’t you think yourself that that’s a sort of
conjuring trick?”

“You know, Eveleen, men are very fickle.”

“I have had some experience of men, as you have hinted, and I am
painfully aware, my dear child, of the truth of that elementary fact
in natural history; but I did not know that they were fickle to quite
the extent which you suggest. I personally have never before seen them
perform a right-about-face quite so rapidly, or quite so impudently
either.”

Audrey came and planted herself on the carpet at my feet.

“Let me look at you, Norah. Every marvel, the wise inform us, is
capable of a natural explanation; so perhaps this is.” I was conscious
that those lovely eyes of hers, which see everything, were subjecting
me to a curious scrutiny. “Do you know that there is something
different about you somehow. It’s a sort of atmosphere. I’m sensible
of it as I look at you. Let me see your eyes.” I did. I saw her
breathe more quickly the moment they were fastened on her face.
“That’s it! Child, what hankey-pankey have you been indulging in?” She
laid her hands upon my knees. “Do you know that there is magic in your
eyes, and that you’re prettier than I am?”

“Audrey! Don’t talk such nonsense! As if I didn’t know!”

“I beat you in regularity of feature--in those formal charms which go
to the composition of a picture; but there’s magic in your eyes. No
man could look at them and remain unmoved. I can’t. They move me quite
funnily. I’d like to kiss them, and I’m not a kissing person as a
rule. Masculine flesh is much more susceptible than mine. Doris, come
here and look at her, and tell me if you don’t see exactly what I
mean.”

“I’m much obliged, but I don’t happen to be interested. I have seen
too many persons apparently moved by them already. What I want to know
is, is Jack Purchase going to be moved by them for ever.”

Audrey had never looked away from my face. Although she might not have
been aware of it, in her voice there came a touch of anxiety.

“Norah, you’re not fond of Mr Carter, are you?”

“Well--in a kind of a way.”

“In a kind of a way? What kind of a way? Remember, child, that what is
sport to you may be--something else to me.”

I was in a mischievous frame of mind. Each moment the mood was growing
on me. What is more, my courage had returned. When I thought of what I
had suffered at the hands of those four girls, and realised that now
an opportunity had come--though goodness only knew whence, or how, or
why!--to pay them back some of their own coin, an imp of malice seemed
to enter into me, so that I did not care what I did or said. Ignoring
Audrey’s evident earnestness I tried to seem as indifferent as I
could.

“I don’t like him as much as I do Jack Purchase.”

“Don’t you, indeed!” retorted Doris, still with her face upturned.
“What an altogether delightful person you seem to have suddenly
become--such a storehouse of all the sisterly virtues. You have my
permission to like Mr Purchase as much as you please; and he is at
liberty to like you--if he is that sort of person.”

“It’s ridiculous!” cried Lilian, in that vicious way of hers. “Norah
is nothing but a great, ungainly, awkward gawk. She always has been,
and always will be. She is as little likely to appeal to a decent man
as one of Barnum’s freaks. The only kind of person to whom she is
likely to commend herself is such a monstrosity as Crooked Ben.”

When she said that, I went hot all over. I made up my mind that I
would show her no mercy, at any rate.

“If that is so isn’t it rather queer that Mr Rumford should prefer my
society to yours?”

“He doesn’t, and you know very well he doesn’t. If you suppose he does
then you must be a little madder even than I thought, and I am not
conscious of ever having rated your intellectual capacity highly.
These men have simply combined to make you the victim of a stupid
practical joke. They know you are dull, and have traded on that
knowledge to a degree for which I readily admit there is no excuse.”

“You think so?”

“Surely you are not going to be such an idiot as to take their
tomfooleries seriously? Use your common-sense--or what stands you in
the place of common-sense. Has any one of them ever treated you with
sufficient civility to enable you to justify to yourself their
ridiculous conduct of this afternoon--the preposterous pose they have
taken up? On the contrary, haven’t they studiously ignored your very
existence--except on those occasions when they have gone out of their
way to laugh at you.”

“That’s true enough. I’m afraid they have not been very nice to me--in
the past.”

“In the past! Do you consider, then, that they have treated you nicely
in the present--this afternoon--just now, for instance?”

“I am of opinion that they have behaved very horridly to us--including
Norah. We should be quite justified in never admitting them into the
house again. Were I Norah I should signify my resentment of their
conduct in a fashion which they would not be likely to forget.
However, tastes differ. It is possible that Norah has her own ideas.”

This was Doris. Then came Eveleen--in almost everything she said there
was a meaning which was not upon the surface. She is just a mistress
of innuendo.

“There are people who would prefer to occupy the peculiar position of
a common butt rather than not be taken notice of at all. Perhaps these
gentlemen have counted on the fact. In some men the sense of humour
takes such an odd direction.”

Audrey showed that she had a clearer insight into the real inwardness
of the matter than all the rest of them put together.

“You are wrong--all of you. This afternoon Norah is a witch--she has
bewitched them.”

Eveleen sneered.

“Really? What a very simple, lucid, and satisfactory explanation of
these gentlemen’s wrong-headedness.”

“Audrey!” cried Lilian. “How can you talk such nonsense? Do you want
to make a greater fool of her than she has been made already.”

“Lilian, your temper is such a short one; do keep hold of it. I’m not
holding a brief for Norah; but if you come here and look at her eyes,
and realise the intangible something which is in the atmosphere which
surrounds her, you’ll catch my meaning--for you’re almost as good a
judge of that sort of thing as I am!”

But Lilian was not to be persuaded.

“Mamma,” she exclaimed, “why do you allow Audrey to back up those
wretched men in their attempts to turn poor Norah’s naturally silly
head? Do you consider that their behaviour this afternoon has been
creditable either to themselves, or to us, or to you? We are your
daughters. Can you not insist on our being treated, at any rate while
we are in your house, with at least the elements of common respect?”

Mamma assumed what she meant to be her most dignified air. Her remarks
were intended to be both judicial and crushing.

“Lilian, you forget yourself, and me. I have hitherto shown myself
capable of watching over my daughters, so far as they have permitted
me to do so. Unfortunately, in some directions, the young women of the
present day are in advance of their parents. Audrey, I must request
you not to make foolish remarks to Norah, who has already been placed
in a sufficiently ridiculous position. Norah, I will not comment at
this moment on the extremely singular manner in which you have deemed
it proper to behave. I find it difficult to credit that I have been
witnessing the conduct of a child of my own. But on that subject I
shall have plenty to say later; of that you may be sure. In the
meantime you will be so good as to understand that I positively forbid
you ever to speak to either of these gentlemen again, or to remain,
under any circumstances, in a room in which they are. Now you will
please to leave this room, and retire to your own.”

She moved on one side, as if she expected me to march right past her
then and there. But I didn’t. I put first Mr Carter’s and then Mr
Purchase’s roses to my nose, and kept on smiling.

“Never speak to them again? Mamma, what do you mean?”

“I mean exactly what I say; and what I say is intelligible even to
you. Now, go.”

“But, mamma, I am going to dine with them, and going to the theatre
with them afterwards.”

Mamma came a step nearer. She looked very angry indeed.

“Be careful, Norah, that you don’t go too far.”

“Too far! Mamma, what do you mean? You heard them ask me, press me
even--especially Major Tibbet--and the arrangements which were made.
They are coming here in a body at a quarter to seven;--and you,
Eveleen, must have noticed how Mr Hammond begged and prayed I wouldn’t
keep them waiting.”

“Norah, let me advise you not to force me to resort to measures which
you will afterwards have serious cause to regret. Don’t defy me! You
have not seemed to be a child of mine from the day that you were born.
You have been a burden to me and your sisters all along. Your conduct
this afternoon is a climax. The limits of my patience are nearly
reached. Do as I tell you--leave this room.”

“I’ll leave this room with pleasure. After what you have said I’m
hardly likely to be tempted to remain. But before I go I mean to have
my say and it’s no use, mamma, your trying to stop me.”

I stood up, a bunch of roses in either hand; and though mamma looked
as if she would have liked to annihilate me then and there, I fancy
there was something in my appearance which persuaded even her that it
might be advisable, just this once, to let me gang my own queer gait.
I was so much larger than she was, in every way, that to attempt
physical coercion would, obviously, be absurd. And it seemed that no
other measures would avail; so I had my say.

“You have it that I have been a burden to you and to the girls. Does
it not occur to you that there may be another side to that position,
and that you and the girls have been a burden to me? I suggest it with
no unfilial intention, or in any spirit of disrespect; but doesn’t it?
So far back as I can remember you have never treated me as if I seemed
to be your child. You have thwarted my every wish, tried to force me
into grooves for which nature has unfitted me, trammelled me wherever
I sought expansion. You have always held my sisters up to me as models
of all the virtues--as I have not the slightest doubt they are--and
you have taught them to regard me as half idiot, half monster. I
readily admit that they have been willing pupils, so that I verily
believe that you and they have come to look upon me as of different
flesh and blood than yourselves--almost as something lower than the
beasts that grovel. My life, so far, has been an arid waste. I do not
think that during the whole of it I have known a week’s real
happiness, which is scant measure when you consider what a good time
the girls have always had. You must concede that my turn to have a
good time is nearly due. If you do or don’t, it’s come. I present, my
dear mamma and sisters, an, I am afraid, unpalatable fact--that my
turn to have a good time has come. As Audrey puts it--I’m a witch.
I’ve become one in the twinkling of an eye--just as it happens in the
fairy tales. You have seen how I bewitched those five men whom you
have all been so assiduously courting. Yes--courting; it’s no good any
of you looking black--it’s the exact word. In your dexterous,
delicate, dainty way you’ve all of you courted every man you’ve ever
met. Now, I never courted any man.”

“For reasons,” murmured Eveleen.

“Yes, Eveleen, for reasons; one of them being that you’ve always done
your best to make it clear how absurd it would be for me to attempt to
court any man who was in the least desirable. Yet now these men have
courted me!--you’ve seen it with your own eyes!--to the ruination of
your tempers! At sight of me they’ve thrown themselves at my head
before your very faces, pressed on me the offerings which were
designed for you, implored my acceptance of the seats which you had
hoped to occupy. And they have left the house, ignoring your
existence--as mine has been wont to be ignored; thinking only of me,
looking forward rapturously to the evening they hope to spend in my
society. And they shall spend it, too. I’ll sit in all those seats,
turn and turn about, one after the other; and I’ll be admired by all
the theatre--or, at least, by all the men in it. You wait and you
shall see; or, if you don’t see, afterwards you shall hear. It will
amuse you hugely, I haven’t the slightest doubt. And I’ll dine with
them. You know, mamma, that Major Tibbet can be trusted to order a
dinner; and though I mayn’t do it such justice as you would, I’ll do
my best. And I should like to see any of you try to stop me. How would
you propose to do it? Physically, I’m a match for all of you together.
In a muscular sense, I’m a splendid animal. Compared to me you’re like
dolls, soft as putty--you pride yourselves on it!--while I’m
comparatively as hard as iron. I could drop you out of the window, one
after the other, or all together, with the greatest ease.”

Audrey touched my arm.

“Norah, don’t talk like that.”

“I am only putting a purely supposititious case, my dearest Audrey.
What is more, if any of you were to seek to stay me with so much as a
word, when those men come I’d make my complaint to them; then you’d
see what it means for a man to be bewitched by a woman. At a word from
me there’s nothing they would not do. I’ve but to raise my finger, and
they’d cast what you call decency to the winds. Then you’d see the
natural man; it would surprise you. They’re just my slaves. And now
that I have made the position clear to you, and my intentions plain, I
shall have much pleasure--in leaving you the room.”

I left it. I fancy I left them in rather a curious frame of mind as
well.



 CHAPTER XII.
 MISS NORAH’S SOLILOQUY

I do not know that I was wholly proud of myself as I went up to my
room--not even so proud as I had led those dear creatures in the
drawing-room to suppose. I imagine I must really be an odd kind of
creature, because I am not at all sure that it is not vulgar to make
man, either in a general or particular sense, the entire end and
object of their existence, as so many women--who think themselves very
far from vulgar--do. To be perfectly frank, I have no opinion whatever
of man. Perhaps that is because he has none of me. Up to the present,
he emphatically does not seem to have. But that only places me in the
position of the onlooker who sees most of the game. I have seen some
games, I give you my word for it. And I have come to the conclusion
that man is useful, in his way; generous, sometimes; of service,
occasionally, as a husband and a father; and that, as a sort of
courier, or Cook’s conductor, looking after the wants, ways, and whims
of women, not altogether to be despised. But he is frightfully earthy,
and has a most amazing conceit of himself. And why so many
women--delightful, charming women--should spend their whole lives in
endeavouring to please him, and swell with pride when they fancy they
have succeeded in doing so--that is beyond my comprehension.

I was not so clear as I should like to have been that there was not a
smack of vulgarity about my passages with those five men. It was
undeniably vulgar to crow, as if I had done something to crow about;
and I was uncomfortably conscious of a tendency towards an attitude of
mind which I should describe as cock-a-doodle. Because, after all,
what had I done? Simply caused those five men to behave with peculiar
and unpardonable rudeness to my mother and sisters, and--well, not too
nicely towards me. For I could not regard it as a compliment that they
should hustle each other, and nearly snap each other’s nose off, in
their eagerness for my society. Or, rather, if it were a compliment,
it was not the kind I cared for. At least, I did not think it was.

Yet--it was amusing. Really funny. When I thought how silly and
awkward those men had looked, and of the nonsense they had talked, and
of each one’s ridiculous anxiety to appropriate me to himself, I put
my hands up to my face and laughed. And then mamma’s and the girls’
faces! their undignified attitudes of disgust, bewilderment, wonder!
Oh, dear me, how I did laugh! If they had heard me downstairs they
must have been convinced that my brain really was unhinged at last.
When I had finished laughing, it did not seem as though I had enjoyed
the joke enough. I jumped up, picked up the hem of my skirt, and
jigged about the room. I am big and clumsy, and I daresay I do not
dance well, but, just then, I danced to please myself. And I pleased
myself immensely. It was as though I had suddenly become inspired by
the conviction that I was the most delightful creature in the world.
It was absurd. I realised at the time it was absurd. But there was the
conviction, all the same. And if a girl cannot think well of herself
when she has bowled over five men, as if they were nine-pins, when can
she? I have known a four foot six woman carry herself as if she were
six foot four, merely because some whippersnapper of a boy has asked
her to dance twice in a single evening.

Besides, I was not certain that my estimate of myself was so very
absurd.

“All the money I have in the world,” I exclaimed aloud, “is
two-and-eightpence-halfpenny. I would like to bet every farthing of
it, that if a man--I don’t care what man, any man--saw me now he’d
fall head over heels in love with me at sight.”

As I looked in the glass I felt convinced that my money would be
perfectly safe. I knew it--was sure of it, in fact. As I observed the
image which was mirrored there, something told me--I don’t pretend to
know what, but something did--that there was not a man breathing who
would not desire--with a pretty strong desire too--to stand well in
my--I will call them on this occasion only--fair eyes. It was a
singular feeling, the more so since it amounted to absolute
conviction. I am not conceited--my worst enemy has never called me
that. For one thing, I have never had anything to be conceited about.
But then I knew, knew! that no man could look at me without desiring
me. And in my time such numbers of men have looked at me only to wish
that I was at Jericho, or that they were.

It did seem so odd. And it was a queer sensation. I felt as if I had
all at once become possessed of some strange, occult, man-compelling
power. And I believe I had. That unfinished sentence was still upon
the dressing-table. I picked it up, and looked at it, and wondered.

Something about it caught my eye. Before, it had read, “You shall have
your wish u--,” and there had stopped. Since I saw it last an “n” had
been added; so that it now read, “You shall have your wish un--.” Was
the sentence still to be completed? If so, what form would it have in
its perfect state?

What had I been wishing? That every man might fall in love with me at
sight? Well! was that the one which was to be granted? The
gratification of such a wish could hardly fail to provide one with
entertainment. And I had had so little entertainment in my time. Was I
the victim of hallucination? or the heroine of an up-to-date fairy
tale? It did not matter, so long as the hallucination was substantial
enough; or the fairy tale as amusing as this one bade fair to be. Let
me see: the baker’s boy, the shop-walker, the hairdresser, and these
five men. Unmistakably these persons had suddenly seen attractions in
me which they had not observed before. To bag eight men during a few
fleeting minutes of a single forenoon was not bad sport. And the
miscellaneous character of the bag was not the least satisfactory part
of it. If matters proceeded as they had begun, there could be no doubt
whatever that I should be provided with sufficient entertainment.

In the meantime I must not forget that I was to dine with these five
gentlemen. It seemed to me to be rather a large order. I never had
dined with a gentleman except in company with members, feminine
members, of my own family. And now to be about to dine alone with
five! And such a five!

“I cannot say, whatever may be their feelings towards me, that I am
the least bit in love with them.” That, to myself, I frankly admitted.
“As for Major Tibbet, he’s a person for whom I have no kind of use,
and never should have. Yet it seems that he is to be my principal
host, at least as far as the dinner is concerned. I should like to
know what he fancies he likes in me, since I dislike everything he
likes, himself included. Let’s hope that he won’t go on to the theatre
with us afterwards. The proceedings at the theatre bid fair to be
peculiar. Let me figure it out. Mr Carter has a box, and Mr Purchase
hopes to have one. I wonder what will happen if he finds that there
isn’t one to be had? Will they come to blows? or will they behave like
sensible beings, and agree to share a box--and me? That would
certainly be the more reasonable course to pursue. Though I quite
understand that when a man has a box all to himself, and a girl alone
in it, there are things which he can say with greater ease. I wonder
where Mr Hammond’s stall is, and Mr Rumford’s. It is devoutly to be
hoped that they are outside stalls, and that each is not the centre of
a different row. In that case it must be distinctly understood that
the transfer of me is to take place at the end of each act, because if
they attempt to haul me from one stall to another in the middle of a
scene, there’ll be a scene. Indeed, I think it’s probable there’ll be
a scene in any case. Because when the people see me being passed from
one man to another, and the four men who haven’t me glaring at the one
who has--and I’m afraid they will glare--they’ll begin to take an
interest in what is going on, so that the traffic of the stage may
suffer. I am convinced that I shall be sufficiently entertained.”

A thought occurred to me, which would have occurred to a sensible girl
at the very first. But I am not a sensible girl, and in particular I
was very far from feeling sensible just then! So that it only came to
me at the tag end, as it were, and then with a sort of a kind of a
shock.

“What shall I wear? There’s the black, and the white, and the blue;
and they none of them suit me, and they’re all of them old; and I
believe that each of them stands in need of repairs. So the outlook’s
promising. Now, if my fairy godmother were to clothe me all over with
sumptuous raiment, as she did Cinderella, in this the hour of my
triumph, that would be something like. I’d dazzle them, that I would.
But as that is not likely to happen, I shall have to consider in which
of the relics I call my evening gowns I look least beastly.”

I spread all three out upon the bed. And I did not like the look of
either. In fact, I objected vigorously to them all. And I always had
done, that was the best of it. But until that moment I had not cared
much; and no one else had cared either; so it had not mattered. I
picked up the black and turned it round and round.

“I believe black tones me down, and I have been told that I need a
deal of toning, so perhaps to put myself inside it would be
discretion. But the thing never has fitted me, the bodice holds my
arms down to my sides like a straight-waistcoat; I’ve torn the skirt
three times away from the gathers; it’s only clinging to them now with
the aid of a row of pins. So if anyone were to put his arms about
me,--which, of course, isn’t for a moment to be thought of--but I have
heard that things do happen! There might be a demand for sticking
plaster, which I could not possibly supply.”

I put down the black, and took up the white.

“The last time I wore this thing a man tore about three yards off the
back and never begged my pardon. It was white; but I think that the
moment has almost arrived to begin to call it cream, or écru, or,
perhaps coffee-coloured would be the more appropriate word. If it were
not that it is all in rags it wouldn’t be so bad. It’s a work of art
getting into it, and when I am in I am never sure how much of me is
out. In a dress of this sort you want to see both back and front.
You’re always haunted by the consciousness that other people can,
although you can’t. I’m afraid it mustn’t be the white; though I’m
almost sure it’s the one I hate the least.”

I proceeded to examine the blue.

“Blue suits nearly everyone, except this particular shade of blue,
which it is impossible to believe suits anyone. I know that when I am
in it I look my very worst, and that is saying such a deal. I believe
that that’s why mamma gave it to me. When there’s any article of
wearing apparel in the house which no one will touch with a pair of
tongs, it’s presented to me with a flourish, and I’m expected to be
grateful. They have such a primitive way of regarding the matter! ‘You
see,’ they say, ‘it’s of no consequence what you wear. You never look
well in anything. So what difference can it possibly make!’ If I were
to talk to them like that there’d be a clatter. To-night, at any rate,
I will not wear the blue.”

I tossed it back upon the bed.

“For the rest, I’ve a gorgeous pair of scarlet silk stockings, which
Lilian gave me once, in a fit of frantic generosity, because they were
miles and miles and miles too big for her. But I haven’t any shoes
which will go with them. I’ve one fairly decent petticoat, so long as
you don’t look at it too close. And I’ve a lovely set of undies, I
bought them myself with my very own money, because they looked so
scrumptious! which I have never dared to wear. I will wear them if for
this night only. I don’t think anything else is wanted, in particular.
Which is just as well. Because I’m sure I haven’t got it if it is. Oh
for that fairy godmother, and the most becoming things in the very
latest fashion! Hollo! I wonder if that is the lady?”

The query was prompted by the fact that just then there was a smart
tapping at the door.

“Who’s there?”

It was not a fairy godmother; it was Jane, as was made clear by her
turning the handle and disclosing herself in the doorway.

“If you please, miss, can I be of any use to you?”

“Any use to me? What do you mean?”

“Well, Miss Norah, I heard that you was going out with them gentlemen;
so I thought that perhaps you might like me to help you to dress.”

I stared. I was unused to the ministrations of a maid, and had
certainly not expected an offer of the kind from Jane, who was not in
good odour with the heads of the family. Indeed, mamma was only
keeping her on, because, under present circumstances, if she did go,
we should be servantless.

“How did you know that I was going out?”

“Well, miss, you was all of you talking so loud, and the drawing-room
door wide open, so that I couldn’t hardly help but hear. If you
wouldn’t mind, I should like helping you, Miss Norah. If you’ll excuse
my saying so, you never do seem to make the best of yourself somehow.
In my last place there was two young ladies, and I used to help them
often.”

Jane had a free and easy way of speaking which suggested that in some
of the places she had been in the servants had been permitted
liberties. But I had a feeling that she was not a bad sort in her way.
And then so few people ever do offer to do anything for me, that when
anyone does I find it nearly impossible to refuse to let them.

“Really, Jane, I don’t see how you can be of use to me. I’ve only a
lot of old things to wear, which I’ve worn dozens and dozens of times
before, and anyone could put them on blindfold.”

“Pardon me, Miss Norah, but that’s just where you’re mistaken, as, if
you’ll allow me, I very soon will show you. There’s a way of putting
on even old things which will almost make people think that you’ve
never had them on before. Your sisters, now, work wonders. They can
make the same thing look as if it was twenty. I’m sure that I’ve often
thought to myself that if they ever was to turn lady’s maids to a lady
as wanted to make a large show on a little money, they’d be worth any
amount, they would. I’ve never know anyone who made one dress to
behave as if it was half-a-dozen, like they can.”

I was not sure that I relished her manner of expressing herself. And
when I recalled the spectacle she had herself presented on certain
occasions when I had witnessed her sallying forth on her Sundays out,
I was inclined to be more than dubious as to her capacity to make the
best of me. Yet she seemed, too, so anxious to be of service, and so
convinced that I should find her assistance of the greatest value,
that I had not the heart to send her packing.

Though I am nearly confident that I should have been wiser if I had.



 CHAPTER XIII.
 JANE

Jane’s remarks, as she turned my wardrobe over and over, commenting
on it critically as she did so, made it almost as clear as possible
that in accepting her assistance I had been guilty of an indiscretion.
Considering the position in which she was supposed to stand towards me
there was a frankness about her which I felt was unbecoming.

“Well, you haven’t got much to wear, and that’s a fact, look at it how
you may; and what you have got I’ve seen you in till I should think
you was sick of the sight; not that they amounted to anything, even
when they was new.”

As I was about to point out, with some severity, that observations of
that kind were not likely to assist me to any material extent, she
branched off at a tangent.

“I was never out with five gentlemen all at once, not myself I wasn’t.
The most I was ever out with was three; and as two of them started
fighting before we’d gone very far you couldn’t hardly call that a
success. They knocked each other about something cruel--at least, so I
was given to understand. So far as I was concerned, I never so much as
spoke to them again. Because I always have held, and always shall
hold, that when two gentlemen start fighting about a lady out in the
open street, right before her very eyes, as it were, they aren’t
gentlemen--no, and never won’t be neither.”

Though open to admit that her sentiments might do her credit, I could
not perceive their application to the subject in hand. As I was about
to drop a hint to that effect, she returned, with a frankness which I
again found slightly embarrassing, to the subject of clothes.

“Now, about underneath. I hold that’s it’s no good having a smart gown
on if there’s nothing but rags inside. When a party lifts a scarlet
satin skirt to show a torn petticoat, and, perhaps, an odd pair of
stockings what’s all holes, she might fancy herself, but I never
should I say if it must be a torn petticoat, put it on outside, and
the satin skirt underneath, it would be less deceiving. Now, miss,
what was you thinking of wearing?”

Jane had not a delicate touch. She framed her inquiries with a
directness which was a little appalling. I explained--to her
satisfaction. She was even pleased to be enthusiastic.

“Now, if you could only wear them outside, and them wretched, shabby
old dresses underneath, that would be something like. It’s a pity,
miss, you can’t. Things like them is not meant to be hidden. About
them scarlet stockings. As it just happens, I’ve got a pair of scarlet
shoes. They was given me by a lady friend for whom they was too large,
and they’re a bit too big for me. But they’re about the shade; and I
should think, with a little management, they might fit you.”

Some persons might resent such a remark as that. It did not sound
complimentary. But I am too well aware that I am, in all respects,
beyond the ordinary size of a woman, to be much affected by allusions
to the fact. What I did not relish was the notion of getting into
shoes which had been transferred from that lady friend to Jane. I
wondered dimly what mamma and the girls would say, if it ever came to
their ears that such a suggestion had been made. But Jane would listen
to nothing. She seemed to have made up her mind to see me through--and
see me through she would. Off she went to get those shoes.

So soon as she was gone I meditated a plan for preventing her return.
I did not want her shoes, and I did not want her assistance either. I
was beginning to be fearful that I should be a bigger fright with her
aid than without it. Had there been a key in the door, it would have
been easy. But there was not. My bedroom lacked a good many things,
one of them being a means of securing it against intruders. It was at
the top of the house, right away from the others, on the same floor as
the servants’; so that Jane had but to slip through my door, and
across to hers.

I did think of putting my foot against the door, and keeping her out
like that; but it would have been a brusque method of proceeding, and
might have hurt her feelings. After all, she meant well; and, as I
have said, so few people ever did mean well towards me, that I found
it exceedingly difficult to thwart them when the mood was on them.

Some minutes elapsed before Jane returned. When she did, I was really
not in a condition of costume to offer effective resistance of any
kind. Time was passing. Mr Hammond had emphasised his request that I
would not keep them waiting, but that I would be ready at a quarter to
seven; so I was beginning to make as much haste as I could. Besides, I
had a sort of feeling that it might be just as well to get through, at
least, the initiatory stages, before Jane appeared; her observations
did lean so strongly towards the side of candour.

When she entered I was conscious of what I believe people call a
qualm, though just what kind of qualm it was, I am not prepared to
positively assert. She had not only in her hands a pair of scarlet
shoes, but her arms were heaped up with what I had an intuitive
perception were assorted specimens of her wardrobe. Did she propose to
array me in her splendours? Was I to sally forth with five gentlemen
to dinner in Jane’s attire? Were her clothes to flit from seat to seat
in the Gaiety Theatre? Did she suppose that any of them would fit me;
I was a head taller than she was? Her figure was what I should have
described as weedy; I daresay she considered it elegant. My chest was
as broad as a grenadier’s--horribly broad! Were not mamma and the
girls intimately acquainted with nearly every article of clothing I
possessed? Would they not instantly detect upon me the presence of an
unaccustomed thing? Would not inquiries be promptly instituted as to
where I got it from? Could I answer--Jane?

That she was totally without suspicion that such questions could be
chasing each other through my bosom, her observations quickly showed.

“I think that, between us, miss, we shall make you look something
like.”

I had no doubt of that whatever; it was that which racked me.

“It isn’t often that you do go out with five gentlemen, all at once,
nor anyone else, for the matter of that; so that when you do go, it’s
just as well that them five gentlemen should know that they’ve got
someone with ’em as everyone was looking at.”

I was not so sure of that, by any means. Momentarily it was becoming
clearer that Jane’s point of view was scarcely mine.

“A gentleman friend of mine, he likes colour--pink especial. He’d like
to see me pink from head to foot, winter and summer, though for winter
it always seems to me to be a trifle cool. I got that hat to suit him.
Now, that’s what I call striking!” She held out the article in front
of her. “If you try it on, you’ll find it’ll stand out on you. You try
it on, Miss Norah.”

I try it on!--Jane’s hat!--That hat! A shiver went all over me, which
was not caused by my being at the moment lightly clad. Fortunately, I
was not compelled to go to quite those limits, there was a loophole
for escape.

“You forget, Jane, that I shall not wear a hat, so I’m afraid it will
be no use for me to try it on, especially as time is getting short.
Though it’s awfully good of you to suggest it; I’m sure that in that
hat I should look striking.”

I was sure. It was a pink silk article, of the picture variety, with a
big brilliant pink bow ornamenting it in front, and a huge pink
feather running round it, and then drooping over the side. If I went
out with that on my head, even the omnibus drivers would make remarks.

Jane seemed to regret my unwillingness to try it on. Possibly, my
disinclination to avail myself of her offer did not synchronise with
her notions of feminine human nature.

“I was forgetting, miss, as how you could not wear a hat. It seems a
pity. I suppose it couldn’t be managed.”

“I am afraid not. You see, I could hardly wear it at dinner; and if I
did, they wouldn’t let me into the theatre with it afterwards.”

She laid that nightmare in bilious pink on one side, with a sigh.

“It do seem a pity, it really do! In that hat you’d be noticeable if
you was with fifty gentlemen, let alone with five.”

I was convinced of it. I told her so.

“It’s tremendously nice of you to wish to eke out my odds and ends
with your lovely things, Jane; but all the same I know I shouldn’t do
justice to them, and I think I’d better stick to what is my own.”

“And that’s where you’re wrong, miss--begging your pardon for saying
so. Now, there’s a tri-coloured sash. I got it when there was them
patriotic goings on, me having a cousin in the militia what got
invalided home owing to his drinking habits. That’s something like a
sash, that is. You wear it over your shoulder like them Oddfellows--I
had a uncle what was one till he got three months for knocking his
wife about. After that he joined the Salvation Army for a change--and
then you tie it round your waist, and let it hang. It’s a foot wide,
and there’s seven yards of it, so there’s plenty for hanging. It would
show off one of them shabby old dresses of yours, that it would.”

I realise the truth of this. Still--it was so very showy. The red hit
you in the eye, the blue was another case of the wrong shade, the
white, one could but hope, had seen whiter days. I could not see my
way to imitating the Oddfellows and letting it hang. I broke it to her
as gently as I was able.

“It is showy. Certainly no one could help noticing me if I did have it
on.”

“I’d defy ’em.”

“So would I. But I’m thinking of wearing my black; and, do you know,
Jane, I’m inclined to believe that the less colour I wear the better.”

“I believe in colour; it lights you up.”

“Yes; it lights you up, but it would make me flare. You see, you have
such a much more delicate figure than I have.”

“I have been told that I’ve a delicate figure, and it’s no use my
denying it. Still, I say this of colour--for everyone--it makes ’em
stand out.”

“It does. You’re quite right. Especially a red, white, and blue sash.
There’s not a doubt of it.”

“And what I say is, a woman wants to stand out, unless she’s a mere
worm, and goodness knows that I’m no worm. The more she stands out the
more she’s noticed--and, if she’s any opinion of herself, as she ought
to have, notice is what she wants. Now here is something tasty--and
full dress. That’s a opera cloak, that is, green silk with yellow
stripes. That’s beaver trimming round the edges--real beaver. It’s a
bit rusty here and there, but nothing to signify. I call it handsome.
It was left to me by an aunt what died. She went about a good deal in
society; her husband being a scene painter, and getting her orders for
the theatre constant. Nights together she’d sit in the middle of the
front row of the stalls in that very cloak, especially when business
was a bit slack and they wanted the theatre to seem crowded as it
were. Because, as I’ve been given to understand, people what pays
won’t go to the theatre unless you can make ’em believe that they
can’t get in. My aunt got to be known by that cloak. ‘The lady with
the green silk opera-cloak with yellow stripes and beaver trimming’
they used to speak of her as. I’ve only worn it myself two or three
times, to dances and such like. Now it would set you off, that would.
It’s a little short, perhaps, for you; but I’m told that they’re
wearing them short just now.”

It would scarcely have covered my shoulders; but there was a good deal
too much of it, for all that.

“Are they? You evidently are better posted in the fashions, Jane, than
I am.”

“I take in two fashion-books myself--leastways, there are fashions in
them--and see seven.”

“Do you? That explains it. It’s a wonderful cloak; but I have a cloak
of my own, though it isn’t much of a one, and I really think I ought
to wear it.”

“There’s no ought about it, if you’ll excuse my saying so. You can
wear my opera cloak, if you like, miss, and welcome.”

“You’re very, very good, Jane. Suppose we wait till I have finished
dressing, and then see how it goes.”

“Very well, miss; as you please. But there’s one thing you’ll have to
wear, and that’s those scarlet shoes. You told me yourself that you’d
a pair of scarlet stockings, but no shoes to match ’em; so, as far as
wearing these goes, it’s a case of have to.”

Apparently it was. The scarlet shoes in question never had been of
first-rate quality, and they were not exactly new. It seemed as if the
“lady friend” had given them a fair trial before handing them on to
Jane. But they were still presentable, and, plainly, in Jane’s
opinion, beyond the possibility of reproach. I had refused her hat,
her sash, her cloak. I had not the heart to add her shoes to the list
of my refusals,--at any rate, without giving them a trial. And it was
soon made clear that Jane’s ideas on the subject of a trial were
thorough. I got into the stockings, but getting into the shoes was
quite a different thing. She pushed, and I pushed; but the scarlet
shoes continued to show reluctance to make the acquaintance of my
feet. As usual, she commented on the fact in her somewhat painfully
plain-spoken fashion.

“Really, Miss Norah, you’ve got a man’s foot--you really have. Reminds
me of a cousin of mine who always used to have his boots made
specially for him, all on account of their saying that it took two
pairs of anybody else’s boots to make him one. Used to work on a farm,
he did, which, I have been told, causes the feet to spread.”

“I don’t believe, Jane, it is that which has extended mine!”

“It’s sure and certain something must have; because never before did I
see so large a foot upon a lady’s leg, except my grandmother, what
went off with dropsy, so that, when she died, her feet was like
pumpkins. But these shoes have got to go on somehow, or else I’ll know
the reason why.”

It was not necessary for her to institute any inquiry into recondite
causes--the shoes went on. With difficulty, it is true, but still they
went. And being on, they proved to be not so tight as they might have
been--that is, considering. When I think of some of the shoes into
which my feet have been compressed, Jane’s might have been regarded as
almost loose. She regarded the fruits of her labours with an air of
triumph.

“No mistake, you do fill them.”

“I do. It has been my unfortunate experience, on several occasions, to
have filled my shoes a little too completely.”

“Can you walk in them?”

I stood up to try. I found that I could, at present. Whether, after
having worn them for an hour or two, locomotion might not become more
difficult, was another story altogether.

“I shouldn’t care to do a ten-mile tramp in them; but I think I can
manage to do all the walking that’s likely to be required.”

If the principal pedestrian exercise which I was likely to have to
undergo consisted in passing from seat to seat at the Gaiety Theatre,
I ought to be equal to that. Having once succeeded in getting me into
her shoes, Jane became positively laudatory.

“They look a fair treat--they do that; what with the stockings and the
shoes together. They’re such a perfect match; you couldn’t have
matched ’em better, not if you’d gone to a shop to do it.” That was
true enough. “And you’re well-shaped, even if you are an extra size.”

That also, from the bottom of my heart, I believed to be true; and, in
my moments of most extreme despondency, I was wont to hug the
conviction to my bosom. My feet might be large, but then I was large
all over; they were not disproportionate; and I am almost convinced
that, as Jane put it, they were well-shaped. Indeed, I will go
further, and express my opinion that generally I am well-shaped. My
limbs are as well moulded as any girl’s need be. I do not see why it
should be such a tremendous drawback because the mould happened to be
a little bit Titanic.

I bent down--I had to bend some distance--and I kissed Jane.

“You’re tremendously good to me, and I thank you awfully for lending
me these very pretty shoes.”

To my amazement, she burst out crying!



 CHAPTER XIV.
 A QUARTER TO SEVEN

At a quarter to seven we were still in what I should describe as the
throes. I daresay that sentence is not perfect English, but it is
exactly what I mean; and, so long as you have that, what does it
matter?

Jane had made such a mess of her crying, and I had found it so
difficult to make out what the ridiculous creature was crying about;
but it seemed that her young man had spoken to her with freezing
coldness that very afternoon, and that, combined with the excitement
of the discovery that, as she phrased it, I had put mamma’s and the
girls’ noses “out of joint,” by walking off with their five young
men--though you could hardly describe Major Tibbet as young--and the
agitation occasioned her by my kissing her all of a sudden, had
brought her to such a stage that she had to do it. So she did it,
although, with all my heart, I wish she hadn’t.

Her tears, and my efforts to understand their why and their wherefore,
confused things dreadfully. Some of my things we got on inside out and
some we did not get on at all. When we came to my hair, it was awful.
We spent about twenty minutes in getting it into a mess, and
half-an-hour in getting it out; Jane’s ideas on the subject of
hairdressing were so original, and, when it came to the point, quite
impracticable. At last, when it seemed to me that it must nearly all
have been torn out by the roots, and my scalp was sore all over, we
were confronted by the fact that we had about two seconds in which to
make a satisfactory job of it.

So then I took it in hand myself. I had had enough of Jane. I just
gave it a twirl and a twist, and jabbed six hairpins into it, and it
had to do. Jane’s opinion of the result was not enthusiastic.

“Well, miss, I can’t say I think much of it--that I can’t. Looks as if
you’d tried to make as little of it as you possibly could. In fact,
you’ve screwed it that tight, it seems as if you hadn’t hardly any
hair at all.”

“When one comes to think of the handfuls you’ve pulled out, Jane--”

“Miss Norah! I have not pulled out handfuls! It’s not fair to talk
like that--that it’s not.”

“Then half-handfuls, if you prefer it, Jane. Just look at that heap of
hair upon my dressing-table; quite recently it was all upon my head.”

“I’m sure, miss, I’m very sorry. I never thought you’d take it like
this. I didn’t mean----”

“That’s all right, Jane. What do a few hairs, more or less, matter?
For goodness’ sake, don’t start crying again. Help me on with my
bodice; and don’t try to induce me to put my right arm into the left
sleeve.”

As I have said, at a quarter to seven, we were still in the throes. It
was a few seconds before that time when there came a loud rat-tat at
the hall door. I quite jumped.

“There they are!” I cried; “and I’m not ready!”

“That you certainly are not, miss; nor nearly.”

“I don’t know about nearly. I only have to be done up this side, and
put something round my neck, and get my gloves on; and then I shall be
ready.”

Jane surveyed me through her tear-dimmed eyes, screwing up her lips in
a way she had.

“Well, miss, there’s ready and there’s ready. If I was going out to
dine with five gentlemen, I shouldn’t think that I was nearly ready;
not by a good deal, I shouldn’t. To me, considering, it don’t seem as
if you had hardly got anything on.”

There came some more hammering at the door; apparently those gentlemen
were impatient.

“It’s no good talking like that now. You must go down and let them in.
I shall have to manage.”

Jane’s manner was a mixture of resignation and acidity.

“Very well, miss; as you please, miss. I’m sure I’ve done my best; I
couldn’t do no more.”

I felt convinced of it as she retired. Indeed, I had rather she had
done less. Scarcely had she disappeared than Audrey entered. I stared,
expecting that she was going to favour me with a few candid
criticisms. But no one could have been nicer.

“Well, child”--considering our relative sizes, the way in which they
will persist in calling me child, is grotesque--“are you dressed for
the great occasion? So Jane has been giving you the benefit of her
assistance.”

There was a smile on her face which made me feel for Jane.

“It’s very good of her. She doesn’t seem to have much idea. She
doesn’t pretend to be a lady’s maid; but she’s done her best.”

In a comprehensive sort of way, Audrey looked me up and down. I felt
as if every one of my weak points was hitting her in the face.

“Candidly, Norah, you are a difficult child to dress. The mode and you
will ever be at variance. You must have a mode of your own. You are
like Michael Angelo’s statues--on the grand lines.”

“I don’t know why you need laugh at me. I can’t help it.”

“I’m not laughing. On the contrary, I’m not sure that if you were
clothed, as you might be, that you wouldn’t be splendid.”

“Audrey!”

“But that is not an ideal dress for you; and you don’t seem as if you
knew how to get into it, if it were. Come down to my room; let me add
a touch or two to Jane’s.”

At that moment Jane returned.

“If you please, miss, them five gentlemen have come for you; and Mr
Hammond’s compliments, and he hopes that you won’t keep them waiting.”

Audrey looked at her quickly.

“Did Mr Hammond send that message?”

“Yes, miss; them was his own words.”

Audrey turned to me, with a laugh that was half in earnest.

“If I were you, Norah, I should return a message to Mr Hammond to the
effect that he need not wait.”

I hesitated, then spoke:

“Thank you, Jane; there is no message.”

When we got into Audrey’s room--she was awfully particular about
keeping it all to herself, scarcely letting me inside it twice a
year--I thought, as I always did, how pretty it was, especially
compared to mine--she said something which took me aback.

“Norah, I want to ask you a favour.” I stared at her askance. “Don’t
suffer these gentlemen to be impertinent.”

“As if I should! Do you think they’d dare?”

“Child, don’t blaze. I don’t know what has got into men’s heads to
make them mad; but I wouldn’t allow them to act as if you took their
madness for granted. That message of Mr Hammond’s was not a very
pretty one.”

“I will make him smart for it.”

“Do. A little smarting does some men much good.”

Her slender fingers, moving about me here and there, worked wonders
with my appearance. She lent me ribbons, laces, those odds and ends
which a girl must have if she wants to be finished properly. And they
were just the proper odds and ends, the delicate trifles which cost
such lots of money. As I saw her handiwork in the looking-glass, I
perceived that she was making me quite presentable.

“I should like to take down your hair and do it all over again; but
I’m afraid there isn’t time.”

“I’m sure there isn’t. I don’t want to keep them waiting.”

“My dear, you’re inexperienced. Don’t allow yourself to be influenced
by any consideration of that kind; especially after the message which
Mr Hammond permitted himself to request Jane to deliver. With some
men, the worse you treat them, the better they treat you. ‘’Tis true,
’tis pity; but pity ’tis, ’tis true.’ By the way, these gentlemen seem
violently drawn towards you; are you equally drawn towards them?”

“Not I.”

“Not towards any one of them?”

“Not towards any one of them. Shall I tell you what I think of them? I
think----”

“Ssh! I don’t think that, perhaps, you had better tell me what you
think. It might be over--candid.” She smiled up at me in a way which
made her look a perfect dream of loveliness. “Besides--they’re not
all--ganders.”

“Basil Carter isn’t--at least, I never should have guessed it.”

“Nor I. It’s rather odd that we should be of the same mind upon that
subject. There, now you look a little better; though, I tell you
again, that you’re a difficult child to dress. Yet it might be worth
one’s while to fashion for you a mode of your own. You are so--very
splendid.”

“Audrey, I do wish that you wouldn’t laugh at me!”

“I repeat that I am not laughing. I don’t know, Norah O’Brady, if you
are aware how excellent an opportunity you are about to have to show
how badly you can behave. One girl--five men, each of them wishing the
others were in Heaven. What a chance you’ll have of trampling on what
they flatter themselves are their tenderest feelings. If you’re a
sister of mine, trample on them, Norah, an you love me.”

“I’ll try.”

“At least, do try. Let me whisper in your ear. Above all,
trample--with your heaviest tramp--on Basil Carter--not only on his
feelings, but, if opportunity offers, on his very self. I’m much
afraid that he’s the biggest gander of them all--and, Norah, I didn’t
think so once.”



 CHAPTER XV.
 TRAMPLING UPON FIVE

I cannot truthfully say that I felt exactly proud of myself as I
marched down to the drawing-room. I met Eveleen coming up as I went
down, and she looked flurried; then I met Lilian, and she looked more
flurried still; and, lastly, at the foot of the stairs, mamma.
Something told me that all three of them had been in the drawing-room
to try to bring those men to a consciousness of shame. There was that
in their bearing which hinted that they had not succeeded. Eveleen
suggested a desire to shake me; Lilian an inclination to bite my nose
off; and as for mamma, she received me in a state of fluster which
spoke volumes.

“You understand, Norah, that I have forbidden you to disgrace me, and
I forbid you again!”

I was just in a mood to melt, and had mamma adopted another tone, or
even appealed to me to leave her Major Tibbet, I am nearly sure I
should have melted. But when she spoke to me like that, of course,
needles came out all over me, and I smiled as sweetly as I knew how.

“Disgrace you, mamma? Why it was not necessary to forbid me to do
that. I am sure you have brought me up too carefully to think it.”

Somehow my soft answer did not seem to turn away mamma’s wrath.

“Don’t be impertinent, miss! I command you to go into that room and
dismiss those men!”

“Certainly, mamma; if you will come with me.”

She wavered, apparently she had just gone through a little passage in
which she had been worsted.

“I will come with you, but no nonsense, mind; without any unnecessary
words you will dismiss them at once and finally.”

I was just about to open the drawing-room door for mamma to enter,
when Audrey came flying down the staircase. It certainly did seem,
judging by the very first words she uttered, that she had been
listening over the banisters.

“Norah, stop! Mamma, don’t be unreasonable. Let her go!”

Mamma stared. “Let her go! Alone! With those five men! After the way
in which they have behaved! Audrey, are you mad?”

“Really, mamma, to hear you talk one would think that none of us had
ever been out with gentlemen alone. What harm will they do her? She’ll
be as safe with them as she would with you. I’m sure they can be
trusted. As the child says, she hasn’t had much fun; let her enjoy the
streak that’s come her way. Now, Norah, in you go, and remember what I
told you, trample on them for all you’re worth! And have a really good
time, my dear! And, mamma, you come upstairs with me.”

She pulled me down to her, and kissed me. We were not a kissing
family--most emphatically not among ourselves! And to be kissed by
Audrey, at such a moment! It had almost the same effect on me which
mine had on Jane; only fortunately I had more sense than she had, and
could exercise some self-control.

Mamma went up the stairs with Audrey, as meek as a lamb--everybody
gives in to Audrey--and I went into the drawing-room, conscious of a
strong, and most unwonted disposition to be peacocky.

They rushed at me the moment I showed my nose inside the door--all
five.

“You have kept us waiting,” began Mr Hammond. “I said at a quarter-to,
sharp!”

“And with dinner ordered punctually at seven,” went on the Major. “And
with fish which will resent an instant’s delay.”

I resolved to put a stop to that sort of thing at once. I waved them
back with Audrey’s fan--she had lent me a beautiful black one, real
lace. I felt equal to five thousand men at least, and quite capable of
acting on the hint which she had dropped.

“Please don’t come so close. I don’t like being crowded.”

Mr Hammond proceeded to push the others back with his huge arms.

“Now, you fellows, you annoy Miss Norah!”

I caught his eye, and held it, in a fashion which, I fancy, caused him
some slight embarrassment.

“Mr Hammond, you sent me a message by the maid.”

“A message? Really? Me? I may have done.”

“You expressed a desire that I should not keep you waiting. I do not
wish to do so. Please don’t wait.”

“Miss Norah!--I--I don’t understand.”

“I say, please don’t wait. Shall I ask Mr Carter to ring for the maid
to open the door?”

“Miss Norah!”

His jaw dropped open. He displayed such unmistakeable signs of
confusion, as well as contrition, that I proceeded to forgive him, in
my own way.

“I am not accustomed to being requested by gentlemen not to keep them
waiting. Those whose acquaintance I care to have are only too glad to
consider my convenience, they never dream of expecting me to consider
theirs.”

It was a dreadful story. And a horrid thing to say as well. But
Audrey’s words were in my ears, I was bent on trampling. I had been
trampled on so long.

“So, if for any reason whatever you feel disposed to ask me to
consider your convenience, pray say so at once, and Mr Carter will
ring for the maid to open the door.”

Never was man more profusely apologetic. To see him cringing--it
really amounted to cringing--was a novel sensation for me. Never had a
man apologised to me before--at least, to the best of my recollection
and belief.

“I am sure, Miss Norah, I beg ten thousand pardons. Nothing further
from my mind than to consider myself, in any way; only too proud and
happy to be allowed to consider you; quite a mistake if anything can
have induced you to suppose the contrary. Fact is, I was thinking of
the Major’s dinner.”

“The Major’s dinner? What about the Major’s dinner?”

“He ordered it at seven.”

“Did he? And how does that interest you?”

“It doesn’t--not at all!--not in the slightest!--not in the very least
degree!--do assure you! Might I--might I venture to hope, Miss Norah,
that you--you--you’ll do me the honour of accepting these few
flowers?”

Thereupon they all came crowding round me again, each with a floral
offering.

“Did I not ask you not to come too close? I do not care to be
conscious of another person’s proximity.” They slunk back, like dogs
before a whip. “I see, Mr Hammond, that you have camellias. I don’t
like camellias. I think they’re vulgar. You might put them on the
table. Nor do I care for stephanotis, I am obliged to you, Major
Tibbet. Thank you, Mr Rumford, I have had some roses given me this
afternoon, already. You might put them with the other flowers on the
table. You are very good, Mr Purchase, but obviously Parma violets do
not go with black. They suggest mourning. You can hardly wish me to go
into mourning at the prospect of spending part of an evening with you.
I am not sure, Mr Carter, that I care for lilies-of-the-valley either.
They are not quite so bad as camellias, but they are a little wooden.
Don’t you think so? Stay! Let me look at them. After all, they do go
with black. Perhaps I will wear them, since there is nothing else to
wear.”

Even in my then mood it did seem incredible that they should endure my
impertinence--worse, my ingratitude--and never show a sign of
resentment. But something seemed to tell me that I might say and do
exactly what I pleased, and they would still crouch at my feet, ready
to endure anything rather than that I should not notice them at all. I
was beginning, already, to understand what it is which makes a woman
love the sense of power, the consciousness of being able to do as she
likes with men. As is the case, I have heard, with some beggars on
horseback, I was disposed to ride my steed for all it was worth, with
cruel and scandalous disregard of the possibility of the poor brute’s
breaking down upon the road.

Pulling Mr Carter’s carefully-arranged little nosegay to pieces I
tossed some of the lilies aside and pinned the rest against my
bodice--the five watching me with a queer sort of speechlessness,
which nearly moved me to laughter.

“Now, let me understand what the programme is for this evening. Aren’t
we to have some dinner?”

Major Tibbet held both hands out in front of him as he replied:

“I have ordered dinner at the King’s Restaurant--a sumptuous dinner,
Miss Norah--at seven--exactly! It is already a quarter past--it will
be spoilt!”

“Will it? Then we will dine elsewhere.”

“Dine elsewhere?”

“Certainly. Where we are not likely to encounter black looks, and
excuses, because we choose to be a little late.”

“But--I shall have to pay in any case.”

“Shall you? Mr Rumford, where do you propose that we shall dine?”

He displayed a feeling for his fellow of which I chose to show myself
incapable.

“Well, Miss Norah, I gathered that the Major had arranged to dine at
the King’s.”

“At seven. But we can’t eat a seven-o’clock dinner at half-past; we
want to have something fit to eat. Have you nothing, Mr Hammond, to
suggest?”

“I suggest, Miss Norah, what you suggest--absolutely. Entirely in your
hands--only too delighted.”

“And you, Mr Purchase, what do you say?”

“I would remind you, Miss Norah, that you accepted Major Tibbet’s
invitation to dine at the King’s.”

“Indeed! When you are a little older, Mr Purchase, you will learn that
women sometimes change their minds.” He was about ten years older than
I was, and had perhaps had ten times as much experience; but those
were trifles light as air. “Are you void of ideas, Mr Carter?”

“You must dine at the King’s Restaurant, Miss Norah.”

“Must? You use rather an odd word. Must?”

“Perhaps I had better have said that you will dine at the King’s
Restaurant, Miss Norah. Having made an engagement, a lady keeps it.”

After the way in which he--indeed, in which they all--had behaved, the
idea of his talking to me like that was good. Taking no notice of him,
whatever, I crossed to Mr Hammond.

“You appear to be the most agreeable and obliging person present. Will
you give me some dinner at Dupont’s? I never have dined at Dupont’s,
but have often thought that I should like to.”

“Too charmed--only too charmed!”

“Thank you so much. These gentlemen can dine with Major Tibbet at the
King’s, where we’ll hope that they’ll enjoy their meal.”

I took the arm which Mr Hammond offered, and the others came rushing
to the front. Mr Carter, in particular, was most eloquent.

“Miss Norah, what have we done that you should desert us? You promised
that you would be our guest--our co-guest.”

I put into my voice and words as much impertinence as I possibly
could.

“I like your manners so little that I really cannot fancy you as one
of my hosts, Mr Carter.”

“I only ventured to remind you that you had accepted----”

“No excuses, or explanations; I dislike both. If I consent to still
suffer you near me, please understand that to-night I am above the
law. My whims are to be paramount; my most transitory wish your chief
desire. I may change my mind a hundred times; each time you’re at once
to change yours too. Nor are you to so much as hint that I was ever in
another mind. It does not follow because I tell Mr Hammond that I’ll
dine with him at Dupont’s that I will--or that I’ll dine at all. In
five minutes I may be in fifty moods. If you desire to question any
one of them, please do not inflict your company on me. It is not the
manner which I care for in a host of mine. Mr Hammond, at the present
moment I am disposed to dine with you at Dupont’s. If these gentlemen
choose, and know how to behave, it may be that they can dine there
too.”

I went out of the room on Mr Hammond’s arm. The others came after us,
with faces which were a little black. It was just possible that Major
Tibbet was thinking of the bill which he would have to pay for the
uneaten dinner at the King’s Restaurant. I have heard that for quite
ordinary repasts their charges were enormous. Under the circumstances
it could not have been pleasant for him to reflect that he had
commanded them to do their very best.



 CHAPTER XVI.
 THE DINNER WHICH FAILED

It was rather a shock to discover that I was expected to travel with
those five men in an omnibus. It was one of the private sort, and
there were two men in livery; but it was an omnibus. I quite started
when I got outside the front-door and saw it there.

“Dear me!” I exclaimed. “Am I supposed to ride in an omnibus? I can’t
bear omnibuses.”

Mr Hammond was inclined to stammer.

“It’s--it’s--it’s a private omnibus.”

“Is it? How interesting. Am I intended to consider that fact
interesting? Was I expected to take it for granted that I should be
required to ride in a public omnibus, among the penny fares?”

Mr Hammond was inclined to stammer still more.

“Fact is, six rather awkward number--never heard of a carriage that
would hold them all.”

“Two might have gone on the box, or even three. Then there is such a
thing as a coach. A coach holds six.”

“Coach and four?”

“Or even a coach and three, if four was considered extravagant.”

“Idea of coaching to dinner in town never struck me. Don’t know why.
Sporting notion--very. Afraid it would take some time to get one now.”

“Since you were so careless as not to have one ready, I cannot
possibly wait while you repair your negligence. I must endeavour to
make the best of your private omnibus.”

It is some distance from Kensington to Dupont’s Restaurant--which is,
of course, in Regent Street--so that it took some time to drive. I do
not know what kind of thing those five men had been looking forward
to, but it was some satisfaction to feel that I was making each one of
them about as uncomfortable as he could be made. I was in a pretty
mood--I really was. It was amazing that they did not get out in a
body, and leave me to occupy that omnibus all by myself. I had heard
of what men will endure from some women. I had an object-lesson then.
I knew, somehow, that it made no difference how I treated them. They
would still be my humble, obedient, devoted slaves. When a girl has
that feeling, for the very first time, it is a little tempting.

I decided that they were not a bad good-looking crowd. No girl need be
ashamed of being seen with them. Mr Carter and Mr Purchase were
distinctly handsome--though they were looking glum. Walter Hammond was
not so bad, though he was lanky. As he would himself have phrased it,
there was a sporting something about him of the right sort. Then his
clothes fitted him as mine never would fit me; and when he had his
eyeglass in his eye he looked quite striking. Mr Rumford was a trifle
puffy, and he suggested trade--though nothing quite so bad as Aunt
Jane’s Jalap. But then he was so plainly redolent of money that he
passed muster. And then Major Tibbet was obviously someone--if only
because he looked such a little horror.

Conversation languished. That was owing to me. When we had gone some
distance Mr Rumford took out his watch.

“I am afraid we shall be late for the theatre. Piece begins at eight.
Half-past seven now.”

“I presume that we have reserved seats. As they will be retained for
us it doesn’t matter what time we occupy them.”

“Quite so--only, it disturbs the audience going in in the middle of
the piece.”

“Really?”

That remark, from me, put a period to that topic. It made it so clear
that to me it was a matter of the most complete indifference whether
the audience was, or was not, disturbed. As a rule, I think it is
horrid for people to come in late--so ill-bred--it upsets everyone.
But I had a point of view for that night only.

I made another observation, when it seemed that you could have cut
with a knife the silence which ensued.

“Is this a funeral party? Has the weight of our feelings made us dumb?
Can’t any of you say something?”

That kind of remark always afflicts people’s tongues with a sort of
paralysis. I was perfectly well aware of it. That was why I made it.
They stumbled through some idiotic efforts to clothe with words ideas
which they did not happen to possess just then. Then I created a
diversion.

“I believe I would rather not dine at Dupont’s. I think I’ve heard
stories about it which show that it is not quite the place for ladies.
It seems strange that Mr Hammond should have made the suggestion.”

“Excuse me, Miss Norah, the suggestion----”

“Yes?”

I knew that he was about to say that it came from me. But I stopped
him in time. Then he stopped himself--rather neatly.

“The suggestion--was--only a suggestion.”

“It is a pity that it got even as far as a suggestion. Can you not
tell us of some place, Mr Rumford, where it’s respectable?”

“They feed you decently at the Imperial.”

“Then by all means let us go where they feed you decently.”

So we descended at the Imperial Hotel. We asked for a private room.
There was an entrance hall, with a good many people in it. As we
passed through we roused rather a sensation. I do not think that the
women admired me--they could not possibly like my dress, nobody could,
and there was nothing else about me to like--but on some of the men I
believe I made an impression, of rather a peculiar kind. Of course I
never looked at any of them. A lady never looks at a strange man. I
hope I never should forget myself to that extent. But I noticed them
all the same; and they all of them looked at me, in some cases in a
somewhat singular way. Some of them had ladies with them; and in those
cases I was convinced that the ladies--who were a thousand times
better dressed than I was, and were so much prettier--did not entirely
relish the manner in which their attendant cavaliers were eyeing me.
And I suspected that my five men did not altogether like it either; so
that it was rather amusing on the whole.

The dinner was not a complete success. I really could not say it was,
especially at the beginning. To commence with, Mr Purchase and Mr
Carter did not put in an appearance in that private room for two or
three minutes after us, and I had a kind of persuasion that they had
remained behind to say a few words to two gentlemen who had regarded
me with marked attention. When they came Mr Purchase looked red and Mr
Carter white. I wondered what had passed, and should have liked to
have made inquiries. But at the moment I did not see how I could do so
with appropriate delicacy.

There seemed to be a spirit of mischief in that private room which was
bent on setting us at cross purposes. They showed a tendency to snap
at each other’s noses, which, remembering that I was the only lady
present, was not nice manners; though, of course, it had its
entertaining side. An imposing personage--a manager, or head waiter,
or something--had followed us into the room, and with a tablet in his
hand, stood prepared to take our orders, which it seemed that nobody
was quite prepared to give. There was a general disinclination to
order the various dishes which together go to make a dinner, which was
slightly embarrassing, and was the cause of some little discussion.
Under the circumstances, I cannot see how the imposing personage was
to blame for taking the matter a good deal out of their hands. Even if
he did it with a certain air of deference to me, I cannot admit that
he ignored them altogether, or that he drew up the plan of a dinner in
which they were not suffered to have a voice. Therefore when, having
completed the order for the meal, he withdrew, I was astonished to
hear the remarks of which he was the subject. Major Tibbet drew
himself to his full height--which, after all, is not much--blew his
nose--which I do not believe required blowing--and flourished his
handkerchief--which was of salmon-coloured silk--in the air.

“Fellow’s too big for his place!”

To my surprise the others followed in a chorus which pointed to their
being, for the first time, in agreement with the Major.

“A good deal too big,” declared Mr Rumford; “and he forgets his
place.”

“Too much mouth,” was Mr Hammond’s cryptic utterance. “Wants riding on
the snaffle.”

Mr Purchase’s comment was easier to understand; and, perhaps, on that
very account, more acidulated.

“Some of the jacks-in-office you meet in places of this sort are
insufferable.”

Mr Carter echoed him, with an addition of his own.

“The amazing part of it is the way in which they are suffered.”

“But,” I observed, with all the innocence at my command, “why are you
finding fault with him? I thought him most attentive.”

“There is such a thing,” returned the Major, seesawing himself on his
toes and heels in a way I hate, “especially in a fellow in his
position, as being too attentive.”

“But I thought that it was the special business of persons in his
position to be attentive, that that was what they were there for, and
that the more attentive they were the better.”

“There are ways _and_ ways of being attentive, Miss Norah.”

This was Mr Carter. He looked really angry. I had not a notion why.

“I rather liked his way,” I said.

I could see that words were trembling on Mr Carter’s lips. The five
exchanged glances, the meaning of which was beyond my comprehension.
The door opened; in came the imposing personage followed by two of his
understrappers. Mr Carter looked him full in the face.

“You needn’t wait.”

The personage seemed surprised, as was not unnatural.

“Pardon me, sir, I am the manager of the private rooms.”

“I say that you need not wait.”

“Very well, sir, as you please; but I am no waiter.”

Yet he acted as if he were a waiter, which did seem a little
impertinent. But he managed with such dexterity, that, without an
actual scene, it would have been difficult to keep him out of the
room.

People in his position nearly always are good-looking, after a fashion
of their own, which is a fashion I detest. As regards looks he was
certainly up to the average of his kind; indeed, I should have said a
good deal above it, only the expression of opinion would not have been
popular just then. He was an enormous man, perhaps six foot three or
four, with tremendous width across the chest, and the most magnificent
moustache. It was the finest moustache I had ever seen, and curled up
at the ends in a way which made you keep on wondering how he did it.
He had fair hair which curled naturally, and was parted in the middle,
and the bluest eyes. Of course he was a German; and when you paused to
think that his compatriots could afford to allow such a man as he was
to go abroad and be a waiter, and never notice his absence, then you
began to understand how it is that Germany bids fair to take her stand
in the highest places.

At the same time, his conduct did make the position seem a trifle
strained, even more strained than it would have been without him,
which was saying something. He might call himself the manager of the
private rooms; but, despite Mr Carter, he succeeded in combining with
his management a good deal of personal attention to me,--and that with
an air which reminded me irresistibly of the shop-walker and the
barber; and which I saw quite plainly brought my own five men nearly
to the boiling point.

For my own part, I do not care what I eat. But when I am eating I do
not like to feel that at any moment plates may be thrown about. I had
the feeling throughout that dinner. A note of discord was in the air,
in fact, several notes. My companions grumbled at all the dishes,
regardless of my presence. They reviled the meal as a whole, and in
its several parts, declining to admit that it had a single redeeming
feature. One is bound to confess that that private room manager’s
demeanour was in striking contrast to that of his guests. They did
nearly everything, short of throwing things at his head. He, on the
other hand, was imperturbability itself; to me, the soul of
politeness. And though he looked as if he could have knocked all their
heads together, he listened to the nasty things they said--and they
said some nasty ones--with a smile which never faltered for a single
second.

The climax came with the bill. Major Tibbet approached the subject in
a style which I had not supposed was customary when a lady was
present.

“I suppose we are going to the theatre; and its certainly no use our
lingering over this travesty of a Christian meal. I must apologise to
you, Miss Norah, for what you have suffered; but I trust you will do
me the justice to admit that the fault is hardly mine.”

“Thank you; I have enjoyed my dinner very much.”

“Dinner? You call it dinner? Really, Miss Norah, you allow your
goodness of heart to carry you too far. I don’t know which was worse,
the food itself, the way in which it was prepared, or the service.”

They followed one after the other.

“The service in particular was bad.”

“Shocking. Never saw worse. Stable boy could have done better.”

“Perhaps we have been unfortunate in our attendants.”

“There is no perhaps in the case. We have been.”

Then came my postscript.

“I thought the service excellent.”

“To have pleased madame is very much.”

That manager of the private rooms favoured me with a bow and a smile,
for which--from the expression of their countenances--I should
scarcely have been surprised if they had attacked him tooth and nail.
The Major spluttered.

“I suppose there is something to pay--though we have had practically
nothing. Waiter,”--with an accent on the “waiter,”--“let us know at
once what there is to pay.”

The personage retired, presently to return with a document which he
placed before the Major. The Major’s face at sight of it was a study.

“What! This! For such a meal! Monstrous, absolutely monstrous! Rank
robbery, nothing else.”

He passed the document round the table. By each it was commented on
with equal freedom, which was nice for me, who had consumed the repast
to the charge for which my hosts objected to with so much vigour. The
imposing personage’s attitude made it even nicer.

“These gentlemen object to the bill?”

“Object? I should think we do object. We object very much to being
robbed.”

“If these gentlemen do not wish to pay the bill they need not. We
shall not try to make them, not at all. We will make them a present of
the food, the wine, the service, everything. Only--they will not be
served in the house again.”

That, as I have said, was the climax. The bill was paid. My hosts did
not propose to allow themselves to be regarded as recipients of
charity. That manager of the private rooms showed, as I quitted the
apartment, that his temper was still unruffled.

“Madame will permit that I offer her a flower.”

He held out a white rose. I placed it among Basil Carter’s
lilies-of-the-valley. I sincerely trusted that Audrey had never seen
such an expression on Mr Carter’s face. To me it looked like murder.



 CHAPTER XVII.
 THE BROWN MAN

I was enjoying myself pretty fairly, taking it altogether. I wished
I was better dressed. It made me wild to see women in such lovely
things. Not that I envied them their clothes. I can safely say that
about a good many of them, that was all there was to envy; and, after
all, clothes are not quite everything. But it was disgusting that I
should be so dowdy. And the consciousness was forcing itself on me
momentarily more and more, that Jane’s shoes were tight, even for
shoes. Still, there were alleviations. It was not so unpleasant as one
might think, to feel that five grown men were hanging on your
skirts--even if they were not in the latest fashion--as if it was
painful to be more than a yard or so away from you. The ill-concealed
fury with which they resented the interest which I roused in the
breasts of other men was not without its amusing side.

There could be no doubt that I did arouse interest, not the very
slightest. As we passed through the hall to the omnibus--that
undignified vehicle!--I accidentally dropped Audrey’s fan--at least,
almost accidentally. I ought not to have dropped it, because it was a
lovely fan, and it was awfully good of Audrey to lend it me, and it
might have been damaged by the fall. But it was not; it fell on the
carpet, and was not hurt a bit. And I could not help but drop it. The
men of the hall looked at me in one kind of queer way, and the women
looked at me in another, so I felt bound to try an experiment; and
down went the fan.

The result was most surprising. In an instant every male creature
there came rushing to pick it up, guests and attendants. It was so
odd; and not the least odd part of it was the faces of the women. I
doubt if some of them had ever been more astonished in their lives
before, or angrier. For every one of them to be deserted, without a
moment’s warning, for a dowdily-dressed girl’s fan--and, oh dear! I
did not need their critical glances to tell me I was dowdy--was a
trifle marked. There was quite a scramble to pick up Audrey’s fan. It
ran more risk of being damaged in the scrimmage than by the fall.

“I am sorry to give you all so much trouble,” I murmured.

But they did not seem to mind in the least. They appeared, if
anything, to like it.

The fan was returned to me by a man who was really better-looking than
that manager of the private rooms--at least, in my opinion. And he had
as fine a moustache, though there was not such an ostentatious
quantity of it, and it stood out straight at either end in the
daintiest way. He was what I should call a brown man, with a pair of
eyes which positively laughed at you. He had on a white waistcoat,
which fitted him like a glove, and was both a dandy and a man.

He stood in front of me, with Audrey’s fan in his hand, and something
in his eyes which sent a thrill all over. I fancy it must have been
because he looked so masterful.

“It is very good of you to take so much trouble. I am very awkward.”

“I am very fortunate.”

That was all he said. I do not think I ever heard a more musical voice
in a man. With a graceful movement of his handsome head he handed me
the fan. But he did not move. And, somehow, I did not seem to mind his
continuing to stand there with his eyes looking into mine. But my
escort did. The Major began to fuss.

“Now, are we going to that theatre or are we not? Because, if we are,
we shall have to make haste if we want to get there before the piece
is over.”

The procession continued towards the door, the men giving way to let
us pass, following me with their eyes in a manner which was
pronounced. I was conscious that the women also were following me with
their eyes, in a manner which was equally pronounced, in an entirely
different sense. I knew they were picking me to pieces, failing to see
anything in me of any sort or kind, and disapproving of me most
heartily. But I was also aware that the brown man was coming after us
towards the door. As we were climbing into the omnibus he stood on the
top of the steps, out in the open street, and watched us. When Mr
Hammond told the coachman to drive to the Gaiety Theatre I felt sure
he heard. He gave a little inclination of his head as we drove off
which as good as said he did.

In the omnibus the atmosphere was not less charged with electricity
than it had been before. Indeed, I should have said that it even more
inclined to give off sparks. As soon as we had started, Mr Carter
observed, with his very sweetest air:

“There seem to be a great many impertinent persons about to-night.”

I knew he had the brown man in his mind’s eye. He had glared at him
throughout.

“One does meet impertinent persons sometimes. Occasionally one even
goes out with them.”

He looked as if he could have said a good deal, but he managed to
refrain. The others, apparently, were warned by his fate; they joined
him in an ominous silence. So I went on, sweetly:

“What a handsome man that head-waiter was, wasn’t he? And wasn’t he
big? I couldn’t see what fault you had to find with him, I thought he
was most attentive; and it was nice of him to give me this rose. One
values small attentions from persons in his position.”

I thought that that most innocent remark would have had the effect of
a lighted match dropped into a barrel of gunpowder. But I was
mistaken. They all, with one accord, persisted in saying nothing at
all. I knew that they thought the more. Still, their dumbness had an
effect which was disconcerting. I was just beginning to wonder if I
was to spend the evening in the society of a company of deaf-mutes,
when a remark from Mr Hammond loosed their tongues in earnest.

“By the way, about sitting in the theatre, you’ll sit with me first,
won’t you, Miss Norah? Now say you will?”

Mr Rumford interposed, before I could reply:

“That sort of thing is contrary to our agreement, Mr Hammond, entirely
contrary. Personal appeals were expressly forbidden. We arranged the
order in which the sitting was to be; and by that arrangement you
undertook to stand.”

“That’s all very well, but according to that arrangement she was to
sit first with you.”

“Precisely. Which makes my astonishment the greater that you should
attempt to upset it.”

“And afterwards with Purchase.”

Then came Mr Purchase’s turn.

“Quite so; after sitting for twenty minutes with Mr Rumford.”

“And then with Carter.”

“Perfectly correct.” This Mr Carter. “Unfortunately, Miss Norah, I
have not been able to get another box. So we have agreed that I shall
remain outside Purchase’s box while he enjoys your company, and that
then he shall go down to Mr Rumford’s stall when my turn comes.”

“There promises to be a good deal of transferring,” I observed.
“Something like not having more than one dance with a single partner.”

“And afterwards,” continued the injured Mr Hammond, “Miss Norah is to
sit with Tibbet.”

“And I shall be only too charmed to have her,” simpered the Major.
“Better late than never. Only unluckily, Miss Norah, I’m in an almost
worse plight than Mr Carter, inasmuch as I have only succeeded in
procuring two seats, in what, I am given to understand, is called the
upper circle--wretched places in the clouds.”

“They’re not seats in which a lady ought to be asked to sit, certain
fact.”

“Then,” suggested Mr Rumford, “when it is the Major’s turn, you might
let him have your two stalls.”

“Capital notion, Mr Rumford, excellent. I am sure that Mr Hammond will
be only too delighted.”

Mr Hammond might be delighted, but he did not show it. He preferred to
air a grievance which evidently lay heavy on his mind.

“What I have to say is this. When we made the arrangement you’re all
so keen about, it was understood that we should be in the theatre by
eight. But it’s now past nine.”

“We are hardly to blame for that.”

“Don’t say you are--don’t say anyone’s to blame,--only stating a fact.
But as things are, it comes to this--that, by the time you’ve all had
your turns, the performance will be over, and then where shall I be?
That’s what I want to know.”

“A bargain is a bargain, Mr Hammond; and when one is signed and sealed
one generally has to adhere to it.”

“It may be a bargain for you, Rumford, but don’t call it a bargain for
me. The entire arrangement was based on the presumption that we should
be in the theatre at eight o’clock, and, as we’re not, then the whole
thing falls to the ground.”

“An astounding proposition, Mr Hammond! A most astounding
proposition!”

Then they all began to talk at once, in tones which did not suggest
that they would quickly arrive at a clear and amicable common
understanding. It struck me that it was about time for me to say a
word. So I said one.

“It seems to me, if I may be allowed to speak--and I really don’t care
to hear people bawling in an omnibus, at least not more than two or
three at once, unless I am first permitted to get out--I say that it
seems to me that you are drawing up the programme of how I am to spend
the evening without the slightest reference to my wishes. So far as I
understand I am to be passed round and round the theatre, as if I were
an old shoe, in a sort of game of hunt-the-slipper.”

“Say, rather, like some priceless jewel, which each desires to
regard--though only for a few fleeting moments--as his own.”

“That may sound prettier, Mr Purchase, but the idea does not appeal to
me, and I’m not fond of trotting in and out of stalls and boxes.”

“But the arrangement was made, Miss Norah.”

“Really, Mr Carter, you seem to have arrangements on the brain. Have I
not already told you that I care nothing for arrangements, whether
made or unmade? You are taking me to the theatre at a ridiculously
late hour. I cannot understand why you went through the farce of
asking me to go if you did not propose to get me there before the
performance was over. I exceedingly dislike arriving after the piece
has commenced. The least you could do was to manage matters so as to
ensure that I didn’t.”

The pause which followed was instinct with the silence of
speechlessness. The audacity of my method of presenting the case took
those five men’s breath away. I looked into each of their faces with a
look which dared them to contradict me. And none of them dared. It was
delicious. The idea that if I chose to say that black was white I
could induce normally reasonable people to refrain from, at any rate
openly, attempting to demonstrate the contrary was a novel one. Yet I
could not but feel that such a power might become dangerous if it were
carried too far. It would not be pleasant for persons to be compelled
to regard chalk as cheese.

I was not, however, disposed to consider that I had carried that power
too far as yet. So I continued my observations in a strain which was
intended to impress them with my conviction that I was the injured
party.

“Since, owing to your curious method of managing affairs, so much of
the evening has been already wasted, all that remains is for you to do
your utmost to enable me to enjoy those portions of the performance
which we may still be in time to see.”

“That is our one desire, Miss Norah; our one desire!”

“If that is the case then you will not consider yourselves at all, you
will only consider me.”

“How are we to do that, Miss Norah?”

“By observing my wishes.”

“What--wh--what are your wishes?”

The question was asked with a faltering intonation which spoke
volumes.

“They are very simple. It is plain that we cannot all sit together. It
is equally plain that you cannot agree as to how the division is to be
effected. I will solve the difficulty by telling you what are my own
wishes in the matter. If you have any regard for me, whatever, you
will observe them. Mr Purchase will sit in the stalls with Mr Hammond;
Mr Carter with Mr Rumford; Major Tibbet will have his two seats in the
upper circle to himself, and I will occupy the box--alone.”

My proposal was not greeted with any greater warmth than I expected. I
never saw five blanker looking faces.

“Miss Norah, you’re not--you’re not--very complimentary to us all.”

“I did not intend to be. I did not know you brought me out to pay you
compliments.”

“You’ve hit the nail in pointing out that you ought to consider the
box as yours, and only yours. That’s right enough. We’re pretty idiots
not to have seen it all along. But mayn’t some of us come up and talk
to you now and then?”

“I’d rather you didn’t. You might spoil my enjoyment of what was
taking place upon the stage.”

“Miss Norah!”

“However, I have no desire to enjoy myself at your expense. So, when
we reach the theatre, you go to your seats--and ask the coachman to
drive me home.”

As it happened, just then we reached the theatre. The door of the
omnibus was opened, and, almost before I knew it, I was being handed
out of it on to the pavement. It was all done so quickly that I really
had no time to remonstrate. Still less to carry the trampling process
to a further stage. Those five men had more ways of obtaining their
own ends than one might suppose. And when a brougham dashed up, and
the brown man sprang out of it, almost within a couple of feet of
where I was standing, in a manner of speaking I lost my head
completely.



 CHAPTER XVIII.
 BEFORE THE CURTAIN

There is more depth in a man than one might imagine. I am not sure
that that is exactly what I mean, but then I do not know how to
describe just what I do mean; it sometimes is so difficult. One thing
is certain, that a man does keep his presence of mind, and that not
always in a manner which he has any reason to consider creditable. I
am not able to state what happened with so much clearness as I should
wish, or, indeed, with any clearness at all. Under the circumstances,
to expect lucidity from me is out of the question. I know that I lost
my presence of mind. I have a vague impression that during the time I
was wholly without it, I was hurried somewhere, by some one, in a
manner which was beyond my comprehension. When I regained it, at least
in part--for I never did altogether during the entire remainder of
that evening; that I do most solemnly assert--I was in a seat, with a
stage in front of me, on which something was going on, and people all
round me, who were apparently in a state of dissatisfaction with
someone, about something. Voices were saying behind me:

“Sit down in front!”

I looked, and there, actually, was Walter Hammond settling himself in
a seat at my side. A gentleman on the other side of him leant forward
and said:

“I don’t know if you’re aware that you’ve trodden on my hat, sir.”

Mr Hammond’s manner did not betray the mental disturbance which his
reply suggested.

“Frightfully sorry! Delighted to provide you with another, sir!”

I was lost in amazement as to how I had come to be where I was; above
all, how he had come to be there too. Where were the four? How was it
that they had calmly acquiesced in my being whipped off from
underneath their very noses? Where was the brown man, and everything?
Some observations from Mr Hammond threw a little light upon the
matter, but not much.

“Very neatly done--the riding did it--bad starters--left them at the
post--romped in before they knew we’d begun to make the running.”

“Where,” I inquired, “are the others? And how is it that, after what I
have just now been saying, I find myself here?”

“Question of jockeyship, Miss Norah. Good seat in the saddle--quick
hands--made up my mind you and I should be snug together.”

“I wish to understand,” I began.

“Will you pardon my pointing out to you, madam, that a lady is singing
on the stage?”

Hardly had I opened my mouth than this remark, or question, or
whatever it was intended for, was addressed to me by a woman who
occupied the seat upon my left. There was not much of her, but she
made up in acidity--or it seemed as if she did--what she lacked in
size. The undressed portion of her--which was disproportionately
large--was covered with jewels. She looked to me to be about fifty,
though, I daresay, she would have given her age as thirty-five. Being
spoken to in such a fashion by a perfect stranger, and such a shrimp
of a thing, precipitated me back into the condition of mental
confusion from which I had just been emerging. When I myself get to a
theatre early, and am enjoying the performance, I hate people to come
in late. And when to that offence they add the capital crime of
talking out loud, or even in an audible whisper--and there is a
certain sort of whisper which is almost more audible than a shout--I
sometimes ask myself why they were not drowned when they were young.
In a mazy sort of mist I was disposed to wonder if other people could
possibly be asking themselves the same question about me. I became
hazily conscious that I was an object of general attention. People
were murmuring among themselves. I even suspected the performers on
the stage of regarding me with a malevolent eye.

It was a painful situation. I could not stand up and explain to the
audience that it was not my fault I had entered in such a whirlwind
fashion, apparently in the very middle of a song. I could not tell
them that if I had had my way I should not have been there at all.
Still less could I rise up, then and there, and march straight out
again. All I could do was sit still, and burn.

On the other hand, Mr Hammond showed not the slightest sign of
discomfiture. I was not only aware that he was smiling in a most
significant manner, but he went so far as to allow himself to touch me
with the point of his elbow, nudged me, in fact, with it in the side.
And he said:

“Gay old kicker.”

I do not pretend to be versed in stable slang, but it was impossible
to suppose that the phrase conveyed a compliment, especially as a
reference from a gentleman to a lady of ripened years--I should not
have been surprised if she had been more than fifty. Unfortunately,
the reference was as obvious as it was audible. I felt my next-door
neighbour draw herself up in a way which made a creepy-crawly feeling
go all over me. I looked at her with what was intended to be an air of
deprecation, and an intimation that I was in no way to be confounded
with that dreadful Walter Hammond. And as I did so I became conscious
that on the other side of her was a man--an old man, a very old man,
and, also, I am afraid, a wicked old man. He was big and bald, with a
red face, a weedy, white moustache, and an expression which I should
describe as a mixture of ferocity, depravity, and--though I am
reluctant to write it--drink. Picture my sensations when--as I turned
to the little woman, who, I fear, poor thing, was his wife; before I
really realised his presence, or how he was staring at me with his
great eyes: and, emphatically, before I had the dimmest suspicion of
what he was about to do--he winked at me--positively winked, not once,
nor twice, but thrice--ostentatiously, without the least attempt at
concealment. The little woman did not catch him in the act; goodness
only knows what would have happened if she had. What he meant by it,
or what he took me for, I have not the faintest notion. I was
beginning to wonder what everyone took me for. Although I know my face
became as red as fire, I went cold all over. Just then the singing on
the stage ceased, people broke into applause. In the midst of their
clapping I became aware that Walter Hammond was addressing me in a
strain which as nearly as possible deprived me of the small remainder
of my breath.

Whether, under any circumstances, a reasonable being would have
supposed that that was a proper place, or a fitting moment, to enter
on a subject of the kind, I cannot say, but, considering that, to all
intents and purposes, we were strangers, and how he had treated me in
the days gone by--not to speak of the way in which he had behaved to
Eveleen--his doing so, then and there, was--well, beyond anything. I
was so bewildered, and the people made such a noise, and he had such a
queer way of expressing himself, that at first I did not understand
what he was after.

“Don’t believe in entering a filly unless you mean running her to
win.” I repeat that I have no pretension whatever to an acquaintance
with the language of the turf; so that if there is anything muddled
about his metaphors as I repeat them, I presume that the fault is
mine. “If I had my way should always penalise entries which weren’t on
the job. Whenever I’m in I’m there to win. That’s me, Miss Norah,
straight. I’m no mole--always do what I do do out in the open--no
burrowing for me. When I go for a mark, I aim for all I’m worth. Same
with a girl. Mayn’t seem like a marrying man--have been told I’m like
a cock, hard to bag. As girls go, small wonder they only bag crocks.
But when I’m in for marriage, I mean getting there--there’s no
stopping me--foul riding couldn’t do it--and there’s no fear of foul
riding from you, because you’re different from any girl I ever met.
Miss Norah, I love you!”

As ill luck would have it the applause died away just as he uttered
those words--and just as I was approaching the dumfounded stage. An
encore had been conceded; the singer was preparing to re-commence,
when Mr Hammond delivered himself of that paralysing piece of
information in a tone of voice which had been designed to reach my
ears in spite of the din, and which rose above the sudden silence in a
sort of roar. In consequence, those fatal words--“Miss Norah, I love
you!”--must have been heard all over the stalls, by nearly everyone in
the pit, and by goodness knows who else besides. It was delightful for
me. I should have liked to have sunk into the ground. A voice came
from somewhere at the back--a vulgar voice.

“You’re quite right, sir; and so say all of us; we all love Norah.”

Giggles came from every side. Regardless of what I felt, that
extraordinary man did not seem to care in the least what anybody
thought of him. Merely dropping his voice a tone or two, he actually
went straight on:

“Never mind those beggars--time’s precious--must make the running
while you can. I say, Miss Norah, that I love you.”

A gentleman in the row of stalls behind us leant forward, thrusting
his head between Mr Hammond’s and mine, and observed--think of it!--

“We have heard you say so once already, sir. Would you mind postponing
the repetition of the statement till after the singer has finished. We
are waiting to hear the song?”

So far from being nonplussed, or disconcerted, or ashamed, or anything
he ought to have been, all that Mr Hammond did do was to adjust his
monocle more securely in his eye, and to look at the stage. Seeing
that the fact was as stated, and that somebody was about to sing, he
apparently appreciated the reasonableness of the stranger’s request,
and held his peace; and the singer sang.

What she sang about--she was one of those lovely ladies whom you do
find at the Gaiety--I have not an idea. All my ideas were gone. I was
more than speechless. There was Walter Hammond, sitting all at once as
if he had been carved out of stone, glaring at the stage as if he took
not the slightest interest in what was taking place on it. The man
behind, when making that unutterably impertinent remark, had slipped a
scrap of paper over my shoulder, unnoticed, I presume, by Mr Hammond,
and, I hope, by everyone else. It had slid down my bare neck, and had
lodged in the top of my bodice. That wicked old person who sat on the
other side of the little woman kept his beetroot-coloured face turned
almost constantly in my direction; when I moved so much as an eyelash
in his, he winked. Short of provoking a scandalous scene, I did not
see what I could do to stop it, even if I had had my senses
sufficiently about me to do anything, which I really had not. For,
endeavouring to avoid his winks, my glances reached a box which was,
so to speak, on the other side of the top of his bald head. In it was
the brown man. He was standing up in the centre of it, well to the
front. Although he shared the box with a lady, he did not allow her
presence to deter him in the least. So soon as he caught my eye, he
inclined his head in my direction in the most noticeable way, as if we
had been quite old friends. The lady, who was young and pretty, and
most beautifully dressed, was sitting down on his right, an
opera-glass before her eyes, pointed straight at me. When he presumed
to bestow on me that movement of recognition, she put down her glass
and smiled, and, unless I was mistaken, nodded at me. I was convinced
that I had never seen her in my life before. What did she mean? and
what did he mean? and what should I do?

Of course, noticing his impertinence was out of the question, though
he did look so distinguished standing up there in his beautiful white
waistcoat, really my ideal of a handsome man. To avoid him, and to
mark my sense of his misconduct, I turned my head right round, so that
my glance lighted on the box which was exactly opposite the one in
which he was.

It was occupied by the four men.

They were standing up, all in a row. At one end, a little back, was Mr
Rumford. He had his hands in his pockets. On his face was an
expression which hardly betokened enjoyment of the actors’ and
actresses’ efforts to amuse. Next to him was Basil Carter, to whom,
from what I had understood, the box belonged. He was apparently not in
the best of tempers. Resting his hands on the edge of the box, he
glared, first at Mr Hammond, then at me, then at the brown man over
the way. I could not honestly assert that he looked pleasantly at
either of us. I had learned a good deal about his temper since leaving
home. I wondered if Audrey had an inkling of what sort of one he
really had. Beside him was Jack Purchase. His arms were crossed upon
his chest in what I imagine that he perhaps supposed was a tragic
attitude. It reminded me of the pictures in the novelettes which I
used to read when I was little--“Lady Lucy’s Lingering Love,” and that
sort of thing. They were rather fond of giving illustrations of
gentlemen with their arms folded across their chests; and there was
something in his face which was a good deal like what used to be on
theirs. He looked alternately at the brown man and Mr Hammond as if he
would have liked to eat them, though, I daresay, that that was not the
impression which the look was intended to convey. With the fingers of
one hand he held the brim of his crush hat. Personally, I should not
have been a bit surprised if it had come spinning down at Mr Hammond
at my side, or if it had gone whirling through the air at the brown
man opposite. If he could have used it as a boomerang, and flung it at
both, it is my private impression that, in spite of the scandal it
would have occasioned, he would have done it. I never saw two men in
worse tempers than he and Mr Carter seemed to be just then.

At the further end of the row, completing the quartette, was little
Major Tibbet. He was really a pitiable figure. What, I suspect, was
his partial consciousness of the fact made it more obvious still. He
kept fidgeting from foot to foot, touching himself furtively here and
there, as if he doubted if everything was right. And it was not. He
seemed to have been in the wars. His wig was on one side, one eyebrow
was not only smudgy, but distinctly higher than the other, and
something dreadful had happened to his complexion. An earthquake, or
some similar cataclysm, seemed to have cracked it, so that on one side
of his face quite a large patch of it was missing.

I could not but feel that mamma would not have liked to have seen him
in his then condition. She is so particular about men’s appearance,
especially those whom she honours with her acquaintance. And if she
has the faintest suspicion that her own transformation is in the very
slightest degree out of the straight, she nearly worries herself into
a fit. What would she have felt if she had seen the singular angle at
which the Major’s wig was poised?



 CHAPTER XIX.
 AN UNREHEARSED EFFECT

I would have given the world to have been able to rise from my seat,
leave the theatre, and go straight home. But the power to do it was
not in me. I knew there was a storm in the air. I felt it about me on
every side. I am sure I am not a nervous person, as a rule. But just
then I was simply a bundle of nerves; on tenterhooks all the time as
to what was going to happen next. And then Jane’s shoes were
inflicting such agonies on my unfortunate feet that I would have
slipped them off had it not been for the conviction that I should
never be able to get into them again if I did; and what would happen
if I had to march out of the theatre in my crimson-stockinged feet? In
such a case, would it be more dignified to carry Jane’s shoes with me
in my hand, or to leave them behind me on the floor?

That pretty lady on the stage finished her encored song, and I had not
caught a word or a note!--and generally I do not allow a single thing
to escape me. Under cover of the clapping, an attendant handed Mr
Hammond a note. I knew in an instant who it was from, if only by the
eagerness with which the four in the box observed the manner of its
reception. Not that I looked at them. I looked at no one, I did not
dare, keeping my eyes fixed as much as possible on vacancy. For,
wherever I looked, there was some presumptuous man who looked back at
me in a manner which was simply indescribable. But one need not look
to see; and I was quite aware that each of those four men was leaning
as far over the edge of the box as was consistent with safety, in
order that they might have the earliest possible information of the
adventures of that missive.

They soon had it. Mr Hammond rent the envelope open; took out a
card--something told me it was Basil Carter’s--read what was written
on the back of it, and tore it into shreds, which he dropped between
his knees.

“No answer,” he said to the attendant, “except that you can tell ’em
to go to blazes.”

Then, as if such language was a matter of no consequence, he turned to
me, continuing his previous most extraordinary remarks, completely
regardless of the performance on the stage, and of the people all
around us, too.

“Frightfully sorry to seem to rush you, Miss Norah. Fact is, when
judge’s box is within a furlong, if you don’t want to get left behind,
you’re bound to bustle. I’ve got it all on this time--every
copper--must bar taking chances--a certainty is what I’m after. A
certainty it is, if you’ll consent. Let’s put our piles together--come
in with me on the same horse--Matrimony, out of True Love, by
Unbounded Admiration. She’s the mare to carry two as if they were one;
and if you ride her with a gentle hand, she keeps on winning all the
time. Miss Norah, say that it’s a go.”

I suppose, looking back, that that extraordinary speech was intended
to be regarded as a proposal of marriage. I do not see, now, what else
it could have been meant for. But I did not see it then. Considering
the circumstances under which it was made, it was not strange.

I do not know if it is customary for proposals to be made in the
stalls of a theatre. I sincerely hope, for the lady’s sake, that it is
not; especially if the subject is treated in the singular manner in
which it was treated then. Not only was the phraseology very peculiar,
but many of the people about us could not help hearing most of what he
said; so that I had a dreadful feeling that they were more amused by
his remarks than by those of the performers on the stage. No woman, I
suppose, likes the declaration of a man’s passion to be made a public
mock of, even when it comes from such a ridiculous creature as Walter
Hammond.

Voices came to us from the pit--as before, vulgar voices.

“Silence! Shut up there in front! Can’t the gentleman in the stalls go
outside if he wants to talk to his young lady?”

In desperation, I endeavoured to induce him to respect their most
reasonable wishes.

“Mr Hammond,” I whispered, “can’t you keep still? You prevent the
people from enjoying the performance.”

“Hang the performance!” was his answer. “And hang the people, too! Say
yes, Miss Norah--only say yes!--and I’ll be silent as the grave.”

He reached out--in the stalls!--for my hand. I had the greatest
difficulty in keeping it from him. If I had allowed him to get it into
his, what he would have tried to do next, I do not dare to think. Had
I had the vaguest conception of what kind of person he really was,
nothing would have induced me to have any connection with him
whatever. I pitied Eveleen, from the bottom of my heart, if she ever
allowed her path in life to become associated with his.

The same attendant who had brought Mr Carter’s card--or, at least,
what I believed to have been Mr Carter’s card--re-appeared. All round
us people were smiling, some of them giggling outright. They were
whispering among themselves. I saw that we were targets for
everybody’s eyes. I had a horrid feeling that we were even attracting
the attention of the actors and actresses on the stage. There was no
doubt as to our being observed by the band. One of the clarionet
players was grinning with such intense enjoyment that it was a miracle
how it was that he managed to blow. The reappearance of that attendant
was a distinct relief. She held out an envelope, which Mr Hammond
snatched at with an air of resentment. She drew it back, saying,
beneath her breath:

“It’s for the lady, sir.”

I took it, with trembling fingers. I managed, after a deal of
ridiculous fumbling, to get it open. Inside were no less than four
visiting cards. There was no need to refer to their fronts to
understand from whom they came; I felt those four men glaring at me
from the box above. On the back of one of them something was written.
I did not look to see whose it was, but I knew it was Basil Carter’s.
It was written so very badly, apparently with a blunt lead pencil, and
I myself was in such a state of fluster, that I had difficulty in
making out what it was.


“My Dear Miss Norah,--I implore you to come up to my box at once! Mr
Hammond undertook to conduct you to it, but, with monstrous perfidy,
he enticed you to his own stall instead. This is not the time, and I
have not the space, to give you my candid opinion of his behaviour,
but I appeal to your sense of justice----”


That was all I could read. Several more words--or what I supposed were
words--were crammed into the corner, which were beyond my powers of
deciphering. But I had deciphered enough. What an awful character Mr
Hammond appeared to be, to have played such a trick upon his
friends--and upon me!--with the seemingly express intention of making
a laughing-stock of me in front of all the theatre. I stood up on the
instant, trembling--at least, partly--with rage. He stood up, too.

“What’s the matter? Miss Norah, where are you going?”

“I am going to Mr Carter’s box.”

He had the assurance to seem surprised.

“Miss Norah! Not before giving me an answer! Say yes! Be a sportsman,
Miss Norah, and put my number up!”

Naturally, the whole place was in commotion.

“Sit down in front!” exclaimed half-a-dozen voices.

One unmannerly creature made himself clearly heard above the others.
One of the many objectionable things about Mr Hammond was that he had
such a strident voice, and that he would speak so loudly.

“Put the gentleman’s number up, if it’s only up the spout, Miss Norah;
and then, perhaps, he will sit down!”

I distinctly heard the acid lady beside me say:

“I cannot understand how it is that they admit such creatures. I
certainly should have thought that they would not have been allowed in
the stalls of a respectable theatre.”

What she meant I did not know, and I could scarcely inquire. Anyhow,
it was not an agreeable thing to have said of one. The man in the row
behind stood up, also, again thrusting his head between Mr Hammond and
me, and actually forcing a scrap of paper into my hand.

“Pardon me once more, sir, but some of us have paid for our seats with
the idea of witnessing the performance, which, I believe, still is
going on.”

The impertinence of the man’s manner, and the absolute insolence of
his behaviour to me, stung me to sudden fury. I can get into a rage if
I like! I held out the piece of paper which he had just insinuated
between my fingers.

“Mr Hammond, this person has just forced this into my hand, and a few
minutes ago he dropped this down my neck.”

I extracted the three-cornered fragment, which still reposed where it
had fallen, inside my bodice, offering it to Mr Hammond with the
other. He took them both, opened one, glanced at it, then said, in a
tone of inquiry:

“This the Johnny?”

“That is the man.”

I do not know what was on that scrap of paper. I have sometimes
wondered; but I never did know, and I never shall. Whatever it was, I
can scarcely conceive that it could have been an, in any way, adequate
excuse for what Mr Hammond immediately did. Yet there was a
workmanlike promptness about the fashion in which it was done which,
in a sense, appealed to me. Though it must not be, for a moment,
supposed that I regarded his action as anything but shocking.

He turned round, and he hit that insolent man in the centre of his
face with such force that he knocked him over the back of his own
stall right into the row behind. Whatever else it was, it was a
magnificent hit.



 CHAPTER XX.
 THE BROUGHAM

I am afraid that, in my nature somewhere, there must be a touch of
the original savage. It is a painful thing to have to admit, but when
one is so full of faults, as I confessedly am, I fancy that one or
two, more or less, can hardly make much difference. I only know that,
when I saw that person go flying over the back of his own stall, I was
obliged to Mr Hammond for having sent him there. More, a good deal
more!--I should not have minded if he had sent a good many of the
people round us after him, especially--in spite of his age--that
barefaced old man on the other side of the vinegary little woman, who,
under cover of the excitement which immediately ensued, came to my
side, and took my hand in his, and began to look at me in a fashion,
and to say things, which made me burn with a desire to throw him into
the middle of the band.

Of course there was a disturbance. All the people in the theatre
jumped to their feet; the band ceased playing; the performance on the
stage stopped also. Shouts and noises came from all parts of the
building. Half-a-dozen men came towards us as quickly as the cramped
space permitted. Mr Hammond confronted them as coolly as you please;
he could keep his presence of mind.

“Only gave the fellow a taste of what he deserves. Chap who behaves
like a blackguard to a woman wants drowning. Sorry, though, to have
had to make a mess with him in a place like this.”

Attendants seemed to be advancing on us from all sides. Suddenly I
found that Basil Carter was standing in front of me. He was white with
anxiety, or agitation, or rage, or something. He began to order me
about as if I were a child.

“Miss Norah, come up to my box, at once. Mr Hammond, I shall call you
to a personal account for this.”

That fired me.

“Account! Why should you call him to account? He has merely marked his
sense of an insult which was offered me. Do you consider that he is to
blame for that?”

“There is a right and wrong way of doing that sort of thing, Miss
Norah, as Mr Hammond knows. Will you be so good as to come up into my
box?”

That ridiculous Mr Hammond turned to me--his tenacity of purpose, in
his own absurd way, was wonderful.

“Miss Norah, you’ll give me an answer before you go!”

“If it had not been for the almost insane manner in which you have
behaved, there might never have been this trouble. That is the answer
I give you, and that is the only one you ever will receive.”

I marched off. In the corridor I found myself in the company of the
four. I was in a towering passion, and they also were in a rage, each
in his own way.

“The man is a scoundrel--perfect scoundrel--ought to be treated as
such!”

This was the Major.

“Who is a scoundrel, Major Tibbet?”

“Man Hammond--regular ruffian!”

“I should recommend you to go back and tell him so. You will find
that, in the proceedings which will follow, he will be disposed to do
his share.”

“He hasn’t behaved well, Miss Norah--really, he hasn’t!” This was Mr
Rumford; his manner I should describe as cattish. There was something
about him which reminded me of an elderly tabby. “Hoodwinked us in a
most ungentlemanly manner. Induced us to entrust him with you, on what
were absolutely false pretences. He really did.”

“If that is so, I am more indebted to him than I imagined. That is all
I can say, Mr Rumford.”

“It isn’t fair of you to say such things, Miss Norah.” Mr Purchase had
the audacity to say that. “You came with us as our common guest----”

“Please don’t speak of me as your common guest, or as your guest at
all, Mr Purchase.”

“You purposely twist my words. You know perfectly well----”

“I know perfectly well that I wish to have nothing to say to you, nor
do I wish you to have anything to say to me--thank you very much
indeed, Mr Purchase. Gentlemen, I need not trouble you to come any
farther--I am going home.”

“Going home!” cried Mr Carter. “You are coming to my box, Miss Norah.”

“I am going to do nothing of the kind.”

“But, Miss Norah, surely you will not punish us because of Hammond’s
misconduct; surely----”

“Do not trouble yourself to say anything more, Mr Carter; and be so
good as to understand me clearly. I am indebted to you, separately and
collectively, for a very unpleasant evening. I will not apportion the
blame among you; I will leave you to do that yourselves. I can only
say that had I known what sort of persons you were I should not have
trespassed on your generosity, in search--in vain search--of an
evening’s entertainment. You have already caused me to be a principal
figure in a most disagreeable scene; you see how, thanks to you, the
people are staring at me now--it’s a wonder the police do not turn me
out! Being fearful lest you may drag me into another, I will say
good-evening to you now--and thank you very much. Please do not come
with me another inch.”

“But, Miss Norah, you will at least allow us to see you home.”

“See me home!--you! I would sooner ride with a cabman on his box.”

“But you have no carriage!”

“I have no omnibus, you mean. It’s a kind of vehicle I never cared
about. If you persist in following me I shall have to appeal to the
attendants for protection. There are cabs. I will get one for myself.”

Someone touched me on the arm. It was the girl who had been in the
brown man’s box. She looked up at me with the most lovely smile,
speaking in the sweetest voice:

“Perhaps you will allow me to relieve you of that difficulty. I have a
carriage at the door. It is at your service to take you home.”

“It is very good of you to make me such an offer, but I could not
think of troubling you--of putting you to so much inconvenience.”

“There will be no inconvenience, and no trouble. I have some friends
here with whom I am going on. If you don’t use it it will go home
empty, so it may as well take you.”

“But--the gentleman who was with you in the box?”

“My brother?” Somehow I was pleased to hear that the brown man was her
brother. “He is looking for my friends; you needn’t worry about him.
Come, I’ll show you which my carriage is.”

She laid her hand lightly on my arm. All at once I found myself
walking at her side, as if we were old acquaintances. The four stood
staring after us. It was quite a comfort to be walking with a woman,
after being the observed of all those men--particularly as she was so
pretty and so beautifully dressed. As we went she talked--always with
that lovely smile.

“You’re a girl of many adventures.”

“To-night I am--too many.”

“Oh, I don’t know. A girl can’t have too many adventures, especially
if they’re amusing ones. Do you think she can? There isn’t a man in
the theatre who has eyes for anyone but you.”

“It’s not my fault. I’d almost rather they hadn’t any eyes at all.”

She laughed, as if something I had said had tickled her.

“It’s not good wishing that; they have--big ones where a women is
concerned. There is my carriage. The commissionaire will open the door
for you; I didn’t bring a footman. Tell them where to drive.
Good-night. No thanks! Delighted it’s of use to you.”

I left her at the top of the steps which led into the street. At the
foot a brougham was standing. As I went down the steps she signalled
to the porter, or commissionaire, or whatever he was, who, I suppose,
was attached to the theatre. He held the brougham door open for me to
enter. I stepped in, waving my hand to her in farewell greeting, and
the door was closed. I gave the commissionaire my address, leaned back
among the cushions--lovely cushions they were, like down to one’s
back!--congratulating myself on having got rid of my late companions,
and of being in the possession of so charming a conveyance. Jane’s
shoes were pinching me cruelly. I was thinking to myself that since,
fortunately, I was alone, I should be able to take them off at
once--even if I had to enter the house barefooted. The brougham moved
off. I took it for granted that we had started, and was already
leaning forward to take off those wretched shoes--the agony they were
occasioning me seemed to have suddenly become more intense than
ever--when, before we could have gone more than three or four yards,
with a little jerk we stopped. The door was opened, someone came
floundering in, the door was shut with a bang; we were off again--this
time at a good round pace, which plainly meant business.

They say that women are fond of italics and notes of exclamation, and
I daresay I am fonder of them than I ought to be--it is so convenient
to put a mark which expresses a great deal without your having to go
to the trouble of explaining just what. But all the italics and notes
of exclamation put together would be incapable of even hinting at what
my feelings were when I realised that the object who had come
blundering in upon my privacy was the bald-headed creature who had
been sitting on the other side of the sour little woman. The discovery
of his identity set my brain--which had been settling down into a
condition of normal quiescence--in a whirl again. Had I been the
victim of a deep-laid plot? What was the meaning of the wretch’s
presence there?

His demeanour, the words with which he addressed me, the
matter-of-fact air with which he uttered them, made the confusion
worse confounded.

“The idea of finding you in here! Best joke I ever had in my life! You
little dear!”

He put out his hand and felt for mine. I fancy that the rapidity with
which I withdrew myself as far as possible from him into the opposite
corner a little startled him.

“How dare you intrude yourself in here?”

He laughed--actually laughed.

“You can carry things off with an air. I thought you could, by the way
you treated that chap who tried to spoon you--in the middle of the
stalls. He had a nerve. It was as good as a play to watch him. Not
that I blame him for wanting to spoon you--there isn’t a man living
who wouldn’t draw a blank cheque for the chance of doing it. You
little sweet!”

I hurled back the hand, which again came out towards me, with a degree
of force which I imagine rather shook his ancient frame.

“Be so good as to stop the carriage, and at once get out!”

“Get out?”

“Certainly, sir--get out!”

“Get out of my own carriage?”

“Your own carriage?” A wild thought rushed through my mind. Was it
possible that that lovely lady could have been playing me a trick? I
had heard of the deceitfulness of women--and seen, alas! too much;
there was a good deal of deceit practised in the bosom of my own
family, but that would be to surpass all bounds. It was incredible.
Such double dealing could not be! “It’s not your carriage. It’s the
brown man’s sister’s!”

“The brown man’s sister’s? And who is the brown man’s sister? For the
matter of that, who’s the brown man?”

“I don’t know her name--I don’t know either of their names--but it’s
hers. I know it’s hers--she told me it was hers!”

“Did she? Then she could tell ’em. Some folks can.” He winked at
me--one of those disgraceful winks of which he was so fond. “I tell
you that this carriage is mine--mine! Or rather, it’s my wife’s. I
presented it to her--with my love. If you want to have any peace at
all you’re obliged to give your wife things--at intervals. What you’ve
got to do is to make the intervals as long as you can. Between
ourselves, my wife is waiting for it now--on the pavement. She’ll be
getting anxious. She soon gets anxious, does Maria. When she finds out
what has become of it--if she ever does find out--the mercury’ll run
up the thermometer at a rate that’ll burst the whole machine. I know.
I’ve had it happen before, and found it most expensive. That’s when
the intervals recur.” The dreadful being winked again. “But this time
I shan’t mind. When I noticed, in the theatre there, the friendly way
in which you received those little movements of my eyelids I had my
hopes, but they never went as far as this. You little pet!”

Out came the hand, and back it went--quicker than it came.

“Will you keep yourself to yourself, sir? Did you dare for one moment
to suggest that I encouraged you in your insolent behaviour?”

“Never know what a woman calls encouragement. But when you find her
waiting for you in your own wife’s brougham, it does--well, it does
look as if something was meant, doesn’t it?”

“Do you venture to insinuate that I got into your wife’s carriage
knowing it was here, and that you were coming into it?”

“Now, my dear, don’t let’s ask each other questions. I’m used to being
put through my catechism; it happens every day of my life. Do let’s be
sociable.”

“Be so good as to stop the carriage--your wife’s carriage--this
instant. If you won’t get out of it, I will.”

“Not if I know it. Now you’re unreasonable. Whatever happens now, I
shall get it hot. I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.”

“It’s a matter of complete indifference to me for what you’re hung, so
long as you are hung. If you won’t stop the carriage, then I shall.”

“No, you don’t.”

He moved towards me with a degree of agility which was incredible to
his multitudinous years.

“Man!” I cried.

Putting my hand upon his shoulder I drove him back against the
cushions with a degree of vigour which nearly sent him through them. I
think it occasioned him surprise. For the moment he seemed to be able
to do nothing else but gasp.

I daresay I should have stopped the carriage, only just at that moment
another brougham came tearing along, which, the moment it passed, was
drawn right across our path. We stopped, perforce, with a jerk, and, I
suspect, with remarks from our driver. The other stopped also,
somebody jumped out, and there, standing in the road, looking in at
us, was the brown man.



 CHAPTER XXI.
 THE SINGULAR WOOING

He looked very nice--it is a principle of mine to tell the truth
always, or, at least, nearly always; so I will go so far as to assert
that he looked positively delicious. Because he did. He wore no
overcoat. As he stood at the open door, with his hat in his hand, and
just that flavour of impertinence about his smile and bearing and
general deportment which does become some men, he struck me--even in
that moment of so many agitations--not only as being extremely
good-looking, which he undoubtedly was, but also as one of those
recklessly, and criminally, delightful persons with whom one could
hardly help having a really first-rate time. His manner, when he
spoke, was suavity itself. He had a pleasant voice, and a
take-it-for-granted air which was in keeping with his mischievous eyes
and his moustache and his white waistcoat.

“I thought it was you.” Did he? How good of him! What business had he
to think about it at all? “There has been a misunderstanding. My
sister directed you to the wrong carriage. This is my sister’s
carriage. May I ask you to take the trouble to transfer yourself to
it.”

I hesitated, or I should have hesitated, had it not been for that
wicked and presumptuous old man.

“Who are you, sir? What do you mean by detaining my carriage, sir? Go
away, sir, and shut the door, and allow my carriage to proceed. This
lady is with me.”

She might be, but not intentionally, and the even dim suggestion that
she was, was sufficient to settle the question on the spot. I paid no
attention to him whatever. I addressed myself solely and entirely to
the brown man.

“So kind of you to take so much trouble, and so sweet of your sister
to let me have her carriage. I expect that the mistake was mine.”
Though, considering the care she had taken to particularise the
vehicle which I was to enter, I did not see how that could be, but
that was by the way. “If I may intrude.”

I proceeded to descend. My ancient companion endeavoured to stop me.

“My dear young lady, don’t leave me--only too delighted--take you
anywhere!” Then he descended to the vernacular, altogether oblivious
of the solemn truth that the fact of his having nearly, if not quite,
attained to the Psalmist’s span should have induced him to pay some
regard to the proprieties. “It’s hard lines your throwing me over like
this--uncommonly hard lines--especially considering the row I’m booked
for anyhow. I don’t call it a ladylike thing to do!”

His notions of what was, and of what was not, a ladylike thing to do
were probably so distinctly his own that they could hardly be expected
to interest me. At any rate, they did not. I just crossed over to the
brown man’s sister’s carriage, and left him to formulate--I believe
that is the proper word, but if not I cannot help it--his views on
ladies and things at his leisure.

It was an odd sensation passing from one brougham to the other.
Broughams with us are represented by vehicles from the livery stables.
People sometimes, indeed often, take mamma and the girls in their
broughams; but no one, since I was the merest child, ever betrayed the
slightest desire to take me--not even to play the part of gooseberry.
This unwonted actual anxiety to place absolutely charming conveyances
at my disposal was most refreshing--to say no more. I had already been
in a private omnibus--which, after all, was not so bad; in that bad
old man’s wife’s carriage--which was a pet; and now I was in the most
scrumptious little vehicle you could possibly imagine--and all in the
course of a single evening. If I progressed at this rate I might find
myself riding in the Lord Mayor’s coach before I went to bed.

Before many moments had elapsed, however, it began to dawn upon me
that, so far as company was concerned, from certainly one point of
view, I might not have made an altogether felicitous exchange. The
brown man moved in seven-league boots. Compared to the rapidity of his
advance, my previous companion had merely stumbled along. But then, of
course, he was very much older.

We had been bowling along in silence, and I was beginning to wonder if
I could possibly be in for a Quaker’s meeting, when my new companion
put an end to any fears I might have had on that point by saying, in
the calmest voice in the world, the sort of voice in which he would
have referred to the possibility of a shower of rain:

“I wonder if we can get married in the morning.”

I jumped, not boisterously, perhaps, but I certainly did jump.

“I beg your pardon?” I observed.

“I say that I was wondering if we can get married in the morning. My
uncle’s the Bishop of Battersea. I believe that you can get special
licences from Bishops and persons of that sort while you wait. I’ve a
suspicion that he turns in early: he’s that kind of character. The
question is, whether I shall assail him at this hour of the night, or
rout him out with the milk in the morning--which would he dislike
least? I don’t want to hurt the poor dear man’s feelings more than I
can help.”

It was as if a drop of ice-cold water had gone trickling down my
spinal column. I had to shiver. Could the brown man be insane? And so
good-looking! I endeavoured--if such were the case--to lead him back
to lines of comparative sanity.

“It’s wonderfully good of your sister to lend me her beautiful
carriage.”

His answer did startle me.

“She didn’t. Don’t suppose it.”

“But--she offered it to me herself.”

“That’s her artfulness. Louisa is artful. When I told her I wanted her
brougham--for you; her brougham gives the thing an air--she said she’d
see me farther first. So, when I went off to nobble it, waylaying you,
she carted you off in someone else’s. Very neat indeed--Louisa’s no
fool.”

This statement of the facts of the case, as they appeared to him, took
my breath away. It might be true.

“Then am I to understand that your sister does not know that I am in
her brougham?”

“She knows. You may bet on Louisa’s knowing.”

“Then am I here contrary to her wish?”

“What’s the use of worrying about trifles? never do. What’s troubling
me is the much more serious question as to whether we can be married
in the morning. The Bishop’s an unmanageable creature. Used to be my
tutor. Short of throwing things at him, you never could get him to
behave with decency. You can’t throw things at a Bishop. It’s not good
form. Do you know anything about that sort of thing?”

“About what sort of thing?”

“Special licences, and so on.”

“Will you have the kindness to ask your coachman to stop the next cab
we come to, and I will get into it.”

“I say! Really! You mustn’t talk like that!”

“It seems to me very much as if I must talk like that. I appear to be
riding in your sister’s carriage against her wish, and you certainly
are talking in a strain which would seem to hint at there being
something the matter with your mental balance. I should be sorry to
seem discourteous, but I prefer a cab.”

He looked at me with his impertinent eyes in a way which made me
thrill all over. It is entirely impossible for a person like me--who
hardly knows one end of a pen from the other, and does not want to--to
give an adequate impression of the perfectly charming way in which he
said the most ridiculous and disgraceful things. I had every intention
and desire to be angry, but I had to smile.

“That’s the unreasonableness of the world. Everybody--including
Louisa, who practically is everybody--has been urging me for ever so
long to marry. But I have felt that I had a vocation. Women have
seemed to me to be good for everything but marrying. Louisa weeps.
Then, to-night, when I see you at the Imperial, I not only fall in
love with you--which is nothing, because I am constantly falling in
love and out again--but I am seized with an instant conviction that
marriage is my vocation. I rush after you to the theatre, where Louisa
has a box. I say to her, ‘Louisa, I am going to do as you wish, I am
about to marry!’ She gives a movement which may or may not signify
satisfaction, and ejaculates, ‘No!’ I retort, ‘Yes! there is the lady
who is to be my wife!’ And I point you out to her in your place in the
stalls. She focusses you with her glass, and exclaims ‘Good heavens!’
Then adds, ‘Who is she?’ ‘I have not the faintest notion who she is,’
I explain, ‘I only know that she is going to be--my wife.’ Louisa
looks up at me and demands, ‘Are you mad?’ There--to return to my
former position--is the unreasonableness of the world. Louisa hints
insanity because I am unable to accede to her wishes; when I am, she
calls me mad. I ask you if there is any reason why you should not be
my wife?”

“Rather! To enter for a moment into your mood--is there any reason why
I should?”

“Manifold obvious reasons. First, I love, which is a bourgeois reason
perhaps. Then, I am rich, which again is a little bourgeois; but still
sound reason. I am young, sound of mind, hale of body, not
ill-looking, of decent reputation, easy temper. Happiness is but a
word, meaning different things in different mouths. Yet it’s but the
simple truth that I can offer you all that the heart of a woman can
desire--when she marries.”

“You seem to have a tolerable opinion of yourself.”

“Why not? Yet I have a higher opinion still of you.”

“I doubt it. I am wondering if you are supposing that I have recently
escaped from a lunatic asylum, or if it is the fact that you have.”

“Don’t say that you see sanity only in the commonplace. That were to
rank yourself too violently with Louisa.”

“And this is Louisa’s carriage, if, as you pretend, that is your
sister’s name. I have already asked you to let me get out of it into a
cab. Where is the man driving? I don’t believe that this is the way to
Kensington.”

“Why should it be the way to Kensington?”

“Why! Because I live there. Didn’t you hear the address I gave you?”

“But my address is in Berkeley Square.”

“_Your_ address! What has _your_ address to do with me?”

“Since it is also to be yours, does not the question seem a trifle
crude?”

“Your address is to be mine? What do you mean?”

“I trust that you are sufficiently old-fashioned to consent to share
your husband’s home.”

“My husband’s home! Have you dared to tell the man to drive me to your
house?”

“The notion’s this: that you will consent to accept the shelter of my
roof while I rout out the Bishop, so that we may be married in the
morning. It may seem to be pressing matters on a trifle hastily, to
ask you to permit yourself to be ‘wooed and married and all’ inside of
half-a-dozen hours. But I’ve a feeling strong upon me that this is a
business which were well done if it were done quickly. If we delay
there’ll be a hundred thousand reasons buzzing about our ears, to
sting us as if they were mosquitoes. While, if we’re married, there’ll
be no sting left in them. They’ll only buzz. And of that they’ll soon
grow tired.”

“I believe that you’re stark mad. You’re worse than that wicked old
man. And I thought you were a gentleman. Will you tell the
coachman--at once!--to drive me straight home.”

“My dear lady, permit me to ask your name. It’s a disadvantage to a
man not to know the name of the lady he’s about to marry.”

“I certainly will not tell you my name. Will you do as I ask you?”

“I am your devoted slave, only do not treat me with too much
harshness. This is a critical moment in my life: my fate hangs in the
balance. Let us approach the consideration of our respective destinies
with dispassionate calmness, with open minds. Let us be careful to
avoid anything which may have the appearance of heat.”

As I caught his eye, I was surer than ever that he was laughing at me.
He might have been an altogether delightful individual--I am offering
no suggestion that he was not; but his barefaced impudence and brazen
audacity were beyond anything I had ever conceived as possible. I saw
that I should find myself in a pretty position if I did not look
out--and quickly too. I had had such a dry-as-dust existence; here was
the promise of adventure, if you liked. And I do not mind owning that
there flashed through my mind a wild idea of seeing the adventure to a
finish, of trusting him, of allowing him to take the arbitrament of my
fate in his two hands, if that avuncular Bishop could only be
persuaded to prove amenable--of permitting him to marry me in the
morning. What a courtship it would have been! and what a wedding! What
a nine days’ wonder! What would the girls have said? and mamma? and
the five--particularly Walter Hammond, when he learnt how somebody
else had taken a leaf out of his very own book, and made the running
with a vengeance? His sister’s face--what sort of an expression would
have been on that when she learnt the use which had been made of her
brougham?--and what kind of an opinion would she have had of me?

He was a very magnetic person--by far the most magnetic I ever had
encountered. As one became more and more conscious of his supremely
attractive personality--as one could not help but do--there was
something fascinating even about his topsy-turvy way of putting
things. If I had surrendered myself to the magic of his influence,
what would have happened? What would have been the issue of the
night’s adventures? If I had! But I did not. I gave myself, as it
were, a mental pinch, and I put my head out of the window, and I
called to the driver.



 CHAPTER XXII.
 I BEHAVE LIKE A GOOSE

“Coachman!” I cried. The driver reined in his horse. “Where are you
taking me?”

“Home, my lady.”

“Home? To whose home? To my home?”

“To His Grace’s, my lady--Chelmsford House.”

He called me “my lady,” and spoke of “His Grace,” and of Chelmsford
House. Then the brown man must be the Duke of Chelmsford? No woman can
suddenly awake to the fact that she has been in the society of a real
live duke--and such a duke--without becoming conscious of a singular
something. I withdrew my head from the window with a sort of spasmodic
rush.

“Are you the Duke of Chelmsford?”

“I am; and hope that you will shortly be the Duchess.”

The Duchess! the Duchess of Chelmsford! the consort of the richest
duke in the world, and, as my own eyes told me--the very handsomest;
the queen of English society--palaces and lands just everywhere--the
world at my feet, ready, willing, eager to do me homage--me! Small
wonder that everything seemed all at once to be going round. Was it
possible that the greatest of life’s prizes--from every sensible
woman’s point of view--was being offered me? that I was actually being
entreated to accept it? This was something like an adventure.

The brown man’s--I mean the Duke’s--voice came to my still startled
ear.

“You’ll find being a Duchess rather a bore. The natural boredom, to
which all flesh is heir, will afflict you in an accentuated form. But
you’ll get used to it. Use is by way of being a universal panacea.
Then you’ll discover that it’s a sort of boredom which you have rather
grown to like. My mother used to say she had.”

I turned the handle of the door, and, without a word, stepped out into
the road. So soon as I stood upright I realised that I was trembling
from head to foot. I wondered, hazily, if I was going to be silly;
dimly aware that it was an absurdly inconvenient place in which to
make a fuss. Instantly the brown man--I mean the Duke--was at my side.

“Why have you got out here? You prefer to walk the remainder of the
distance? It’s fine for walking. My house--our house--is but over the
way.”

“Will you please tell me where is the nearest place at which I can
find a cab?”

I know little of that part of London. Especially is it strange to me
at night. We seemed to be in a great square, with huge houses all
round it, and a fine wide road, which, apparently, we had all to
ourselves.

“We shall not need one, it is but a step.” Then, I suppose, he
perceived that I was looking queer, because all at once his tone
became solicitous. “May I beg you to accept my arm. Has anything
distressed you?”

“I want a cab,” was all that I could murmur.

What he would have said I do not know. Before he could speak another
brougham came bowling along. It stopped just by us, and out of it--of
all persons in the world--walked that wicked old man. He marched
straight up to where we were standing--as if he had the slightest
ground for interference. What he imagined had occurred I, of course,
cannot say; but he addressed us in a truly remarkable strain.

“Just what I expected--knew I should find this sort of thing going on.
If you had asked me, you would have been warned in time. You young
people are never able to judge for yourselves whom you can trust. Now,
my dear young lady, you would have seen how much wiser you would have
been if you had remained with me.”

“Who is this gentleman?” inquired the Duke.

“I don’t know who he is--I don’t want to have anything to do with
him--he’s no acquaintance of mine--I wish he’d go away!”

That old man actually dared to pretend to be hurt by my repudiation of
him.

“There now, listen to that! And, for all I know, my wife’s still
standing on the pavement waiting for her carriage; while, at this hour
of the night, I’ve been following this ungrateful girl in it like
a--like a--like a true friend. And I arrive at the moment when the
protection of a true friend is most needed, and this is the welcome I
receive. There’s nothing so ungrateful as a young girl--especially
when gratitude is owing to a man of my years. But, my dear young lady,
I will forgive you everything; so come back to my carriage and don’t
let us trouble this young gentleman any further.”

His fingers fastened about my arm. I shrunk back.

“Don’t touch me.”

The Duke, placing himself between us, spoke to that horrid old wretch.

“Have the goodness not to allow us to detain you any longer.”

I believe there would have been a scene before we could have got rid
of him, because, so far as I could see, he showed no sign of budging,
and every second I was growing queerer and queerer. Something inside
of me seemed to have escaped from my control, so that I could not pull
myself together and behave like a reasonable being. Just as I was
beginning to be afraid that I should have to sit down in the middle of
the road, or do something else equally insane, up dashed another
vehicle. I believe it was a hansom cab, but as I was seeing everything
through a kind of mist, I could not be sure. Anyhow, out of it jumped
the brown man’s sister. I thought her voice, as it reached my dulling
ears, was the pleasantest I had heard that night. After all, there is
nothing like a woman, when you have had enough of men.

“So I’ve found you, have I? Pray, what’s doing now? Bernard, what
fresh freak are you indulging in?”

“Louisa, will you take this lady to Chelmsford House. I fear she’s
feeling tired. There are a few words which I must say to this
gentleman.”

I felt the brown man’s sister’s arm go round my waist; it was so nice.

“Tired? You poor child! You’ve upset her with your nonsense. Bernard!
quick! help me with her to the carriage. Who are all these people who
are coming?”

“All these people” were the five. They came clattering up
together--the four in the omnibus, Walter Hammond alone in a hansom
cab. I fancy that there was a fine to-do. But it was lost on me. For
the first time in my life I was behaving like a goose--in the Duke of
Chelmsford’s arms.

So I rode home in the brown man’s sister’s brougham.



 CHAPTER XXIII.
 “UNTIL?”

And what a time I did have of it when I did get home, attended by an
entire retinue. Mamma was sitting up for me, and Audrey, and also
Jane. What a sensation my arrival caused, and were there not alarms
and excursions. It must have been a singular procession, especially
when one considers that for our part of the world it was a trifle
late. I with the brown man’s sister in her brougham, the Duke in his
sister’s cab, Walter Hammond in his own hansom, that bad old man in
his wife’s carriage--he insisted on following in that injured female’s
vehicle to my very doorstep,--the four in their omnibus. I daresay
that remarks were made which would have been worth reporting. But I
was beyond the reporting stage.

Was I not glad to find myself alone again in my own shabby little
bedroom, and rid of Jane. It was not an easy task to be rid of Jane.
Had I not got my foot against the door the instant I was through it, I
should hardly have been rid of her at all. As it was, she tapped
unceasingly at the panels, imploring from without to be allowed to
assist me to undress. She had assisted me to dress; that was
sufficient, at any rate, for me. But it was no use telling her so; in
tones which grew more and more lachrymose she continued to entreat for
some time after I had declined to indulge in further parley.

What a relief it was to sit on the edge of the bed and get Jane’s
shoes off--at last! I should have liked to have dropped on to the
counterpane, and gone to sleep just as I was; I was so tired. When one
is accustomed to retire early--I was generally in bed and fast asleep
hours before the others were--and to no excitement, to have so much
excitement crammed into a single night is fatiguing. I know I found it
so. It was only because my conscience would not let me get into bed
with my clothes on that I undressed at all. As I struggled with
refractory tapes and buttons--and they were all refractory then--I
told myself that I was an idiot to allow myself to be a slave to
habit, and call it conscience, when my eyes would not keep open.

Yet when I got into bed, with my clothes honestly off, I could not
sleep. I suppose I was over-tired. I certainly was over-tired. Like a
constantly shifting phantasmagoria, the events of the night passed
backwards and forwards through my brain. It was such an upheaval of
the whole course of nature that I should be courted, a thing to be
desired by men. Since what time? Since, say three o’clock, the whole
world, so far as I was concerned, had been turned upside down; the
order of nature had been changed, a miracle had been worked--I had
become all those things which I had never been before. That it was no
delusion, I, and others, had had assurance enough and to spare. I had
seen it in the way in which men looked at me, in the way in which they
spoke to me, hunted me when they could. In plain English, it seemed as
if I had acquired a sudden capacity to drive men mad. I had always
suspected that not much was required to do that. Now it appeared that
it only needed me. There was proof plain as Holy Writ that the writing
on the paper----

At the thought of the scrap of paper, I was out of bed again in half a
twinkling, nearly wide awake. Where was it? I re-lit the gas, looked
for it, found it still among the litter on the dressing-table. There
was the mystic, magic, incredible sentence, in the small clear
writing, which somehow reminded me of the writing in which they put
one’s name upon one’s visiting-card.

“Your wish shall be gratified until----”

“Until?”

Why, surely, when I saw it last no “until” was there. It certainly was
not when I saw it first. Was the sentence really still being written?
Then the scribe was pretty slow. If such were the case what was to
follow after “until”?

“Until”--satiety ensued, and I had had enough of it? Could I turn off
my power at pleasure, and, having done so, turn it on again? How?
Would the secret of that somewhat delicate operation also be revealed?
“Until”--I was married? I might be married in a few hours, if I chose,
to the Duke of Chelmsford, that deliciously impertinent brown man.
Should I not be able to crow over mamma and the girls if I were? Would
it not be a magnificent instance of Cinderella up-to-date? Though no
one could speak of the girls as “ugly sisters.” “Until”--I was old?
Some people might regard twenty-two as old. I myself sometimes feel as
if bowed down by the weight of years. What was the period in life at
which it was universally agreed that folks were old, even by the folks
themselves? I knew that mamma considered herself quite young. If it
were left to me to fix the age at which I might be reckoned old, I
might say after the expiration of a century, and, even from the little
I had seen of things, I believe that some people esteemed themselves
comparatively juvenile even then. Fancy men of all ranks and ages
making love to a real old lady! Would it not be dreadful? “Until”--I
died? I was not sure that I should like to be regarded as an object of
desire by every male creature I encountered, quite until the end. I
might have had a great deal more than enough of them long ere that.
Especially if they continued to press themselves upon me as eagerly as
they had done that night. Indeed, it was extremely probable, if only
death could put a period to their persecution, that I might welcome
with rapture a suicide’s grave.

I put out the gas again, and, with the scrap of paper between my
fingers, returned to bed, the problem of the unfinished sentence yet
unsolved. And I have a vague idea that I fell fast asleep as soon as I
was between the sheets a second time--the missing words still missing.



 CHAPTER XXIV.
 THE FINISHED SENTENCE

For some moments I could not think what had happened. I had just
been eloping with the Duke of Chelmsford, and because several men had
maintained that he ought to do nothing of the kind, he had put me in
his pocket--which was not anything like large enough--and thrown
Jane’s crimson shoes into his sister’s face, who had thereupon changed
into a horse--with Walter Hammond’s head, on which he had sprung; and,
galloping down the racecourse, had dragged me from his pocket--with
much difficulty!--and married me in the middle of the grand stand. I
felt, even in my sleep, that this was a surprising way for a person to
behave, and that I had a grievance, when all at once I became
conscious of Audrey’s face bent over my bed, and of the fact that she
was shaking me.

“Do you know what time it is?” I did not, and did not care. I fancy I
signified as much. “It’s half-past eleven, and already people have
come to see you.” Still I was indifferent: as yet the statement
conveyed no meaning. “How are you feeling?”

“Cheap.”

Audrey laughed.

“That’s lack of experience, my dear. Though it’s true that the more
expensive a night one has, the more economical one feels in the
morning--especially, I fancy, when it’s a woman in the case. Though
I’ve known men who suffered. But you did have a good time--didn’t
you?”

“Don’t ask me. I suppose I did--but--at present--I’m not quite sure.
It was a little nightmarey.”

Audrey was still. Although my eyes were closed I was oddly conscious
that hers were searching my face with a curious scrutiny. And,
somehow, I seemed to know that what she saw there made her sorry, but
whether for herself or for me I could not tell.

“I fancy that everyone must have been a wee bit mad--yesterday.”

There was an inflection in her voice which caused me to look up.

“Mad? Yes; I think they must have been!”

“Some of Puck’s magic powder must have got into their eyes, so that
they saw things as they did in that wood near Athens. Perhaps they’ll
have got it out to-day.”

“Perhaps.”

Again she looked at me, and, as I was looking at her, this time I saw
that there was trouble in her eyes, trouble which seemed to grow as
she looked. Stooping, she kissed me, saying something which I did not
understand at all.

“Never mind, Norah; we’ve all got our burdens to bear. It’s a pretty
hard world for feminine things. Shall I tell those people you cannot
see them, that you’re not feeling well? You don’t seem quite up to the
mark, you know.”

“Am I looking ill?”

“No--not ill--exactly. You’re like your ordinary self: and--last
night--you hardly were.”

This time something in her words, her tone, her manner, did give me a
hint of what it was she meant. As I began to perceive what it was she
wanted me to understand I became conscious of a tightness about the
region of the heart, as if it had been suddenly weighted with lead.
She saw it was so, because she kissed me again.

“Shall I send them away?”

While I hesitated, because the thought which she had presented to my
mind had left me for the moment speechless, mamma came into the room.
The instant she spoke, it was plain that she had heard what Audrey had
said:

“They won’t go,” she began. “I can’t think what people are coming to
nowadays--never saw such manners in my life--if those men were
crossing-sweepers they could not behave worse!--and I’m not sure that
some of them are much better! One of them has the assurance to call
himself the Duke of Chelmsford. Quite apart from anything else, the
fact of his being so extremely good-looking proclaims him an impostor.
All dukes are notoriously ugly. Norah, I insist upon your telling me
what is the meaning of these proceedings.”

Audrey answered for me.

“My dear mamma, since Norah is scarcely awake I can’t see how you can
expect her to explain what she herself as yet knows nothing about.”

Mamma pretended to be angry with Audrey, which was a most unusual
thing, for no one was ever angry with Audrey long.

“It’s no use your endeavouring to palliate Norah’s conduct, Audrey--I
won’t have it!--I have had too much of it already!--I don’t like the
attitude you have taken up in the matter!--it doesn’t become you!
Norah’s behaviour is beyond my comprehension--look at the scene last
night! And now here are these men--strange men!--at this unseemly hour
of the morning, demanding to see her as if they were presenting a
pistol at my head. I will not keep silent and allow scandal to be
brought upon my house. Tell me at once, Norah, who is this person who
calls himself the Duke of Chelmsford?”

“He is the Duke of Chelmsford, mamma.”

“How do you know? And how did you become acquainted with him, if he
is--you, of all the people in the world?”

“He introduced himself to me last night.”

“Introduced himself to you!--a man in his position!--to you! Where
were those other men that such a thing should have been possible?”

I sighed, at least I made a noise which I suppose may be described as
a sigh, though it has always seemed to me to be rather a poetic word
to apply to the sort of gasping sound one makes when one feels that
other people are just a trifle stupid.

“It would take me a good time to explain, mamma, and then perhaps you
wouldn’t understand.”

“Indeed, though that’s a remark which no girl ought to make to her
mother, I daresay it’s true enough; the whole thing’s beyond my
understanding. Ever since yesterday afternoon I’ve been asking myself
if the whole world’s gone mad. And now that I look at you I ask myself
more than ever. No man has ever seen anything in you except two eyes
and a nose, and now what they think they see in you all of a sudden is
beyond me altogether. What you say about her having changed, Audrey,
is just nonsense, except it’s changed for the worse--unless you wish
to insinuate that my eyesight’s failing me. She’s always been a plain
girl--the only one of my family!--and she’s a plain woman--without
even that kind of plainness which is interesting. And what you wish me
to understand by talking about her having changed sufficiently to
account for the behaviour of those men, as I say, unless I’m going
blind, it’s balderdash you’re talking. She’s a fright, just that, and
nothing more; and it’s a bad day when I, her mother, that never had a
child except her that wasn’t fit for framing--have to say it.”

During the utterance of these very outspoken remarks, I knew--although
I was not looking--that Audrey was making signs to mamma to be a
little careful in her choice of words; signs which, apparently, mamma
preferred to ignore--feeling, possibly, that, under the circumstances,
to spare my feelings was to spoil the child. When mamma had quite
finished then I did turn towards Audrey, and when I caught her eyes
she smiled, there was no mistake about her being a picture well worth
framing!

“Never mind what mamma says,” she whispered.

“I don’t,” I replied, with perfect candour, and equal truth. “I never
do.”

Of course the confession was not lost upon mamma.

“If I’d spoken to my mother like that, in her presence, she’d have
beaten me; but, in those days, daughters used to look upon a mother as
a parent. Now, she might as well be the cattle in the field. And the
consequences of it will be, Norah O’Brady, that you may as well go
clerking, or companion to an old lady, or something equally as
degrading to your father’s child, for all the chances you’ll ever have
of getting decently settled in life--in spite of all the half-witted
men who’re invading my house at this time of the morning. And what it
is that I’m to do with them, I’d like to know.”

Audrey repeated the question which I had left unanswered.

“Shall I send them away?”

I hesitated, searching her face for what was written on it. It was
with a fresh sinking of the heart that I understood, or thought I did.

“No; let them wait. I will be as quick as I can, and come down to
them. It will be better to get it over.”

She stooped down and whispered in my ear, so that, this time, I was
the only one who heard:

“Men are the least dependable of all God’s creatures. You mustn’t
mind.”

It was a cryptic utterance--to those who were without the key, which I
fancied that I had. She took mamma away with her. I was left alone.

The instant they were gone I brought up, from between the sheets, a
scrap of paper--_the_ scrap. I had taken it with me to bed. All night
long, it seemed, I had held it in my hand, clutched between my
fingers. I had thought of it the moment I supposed myself to have an
idea of Audrey’s meaning; and, feeling it there, had realised how
close a neighbour it had been while I had slept. It was all crumpled.
I smoothed it out, and looked. The writing had grown faint; so faint
as to suggest that the writer must have used ink of a very evanescent
quality. Already, here and there, the words could scarcely be
deciphered.

But the sentence was finished!

How, while I had slept, the finish had been arrived at, or by whom, I
could not tell. The result was unmistakable. My doom stared me in the
face; my forebodings were realised; the meaning of what I had seen in
Audrey’s eyes, heard in her voice, was made quite plain.

“Your wish shall be gratified until to-morrow.”

“To-morrow” had been the missing word--that was, to-day. My wish was
to be gratified until to-day, which meant that all the gratification I
was to receive--so far as that particular wish was concerned--I had
already had. What was my wish exactly? I should not have liked to have
had to answer the question on my oath. I had been talking pretty
wildly at the time! But, so far as I could remember, I wished that all
men--every man--might fall in love with me at sight. As, lying there,
in cold blood--metaphorically, in very cold blood, indeed!--I
endeavoured to recall it, as accurately as I could, what a singular
wish it seemed, to say the very least!

And it had been gratified? And now it was done with? Dear! dear! what
a very short span of enjoyment had been allotted me. What a very small
result the boon which had been conferred had ended in. Was that the
meaning of the feeling I was conscious of--that I had returned again
to what I was? It certainly was true that I was oppressed by an
apprehension, which was near akin to fear, that since last night
something had been lost, that something had gone from me, which I had
when I laid down to sleep--gone, never to return. What could it be? It
was not that I was ill, or tired, or--as I had pretended to
Audrey--even cheap. It was nothing half so commonplace.

I got out of bed, and, as I did so, I felt that virtue had gone from
me; life, that ichor of the gods which had been in my veins last night
instead of blood. I had hit it--I was as one of the gods--the writer
of the sentence on that scrap of paper alone knew how--and was again
but mortal. Between sleeping and waking, I had come down the Olympian
hill, slung down, rather, been kicked down, perhaps, amid the jeers
and jesting of the rightful inhabitants; and at the very, very foot
was once more--Norah O’Brady.

I needed not the assurance of the mirror. Had I done so, I had it,
beyond all possibility of controverting. The face I saw in it was the
one I had always seen; not the one that had seemed to blaze at me
yester afternoon. The light had gone from the eyes; the flare, a mere
glimpse of which--as, somehow, I had known--would set the most
sluggish blood in masculine veins flaming as with fire; and, with it,
all had gone. There was but left the plain, uninteresting,
undistinguished, unintellectual face of overgrown Norah O’Brady.

I dressed. How shabby my things did seem, unusually shabby, even for
me. Ill-shaped, ill-fitting, with about them, every one, that
exasperating suggestion of having been intended for someone else.
Always, everything I had, seemed to shout at me, with furious
grievance, that it might have looked presentable if only it had been
worn by a creature different entirely to me. If they had only let me
choose my own things, and, regardless of what was, or was not, the
mode, have permitted me to clothe myself in the garments in which I
looked least awkward; at any rate, my actual deficiencies might not
have been quite so obtrusive. But, in continual parodies of the
fashions of the moment--which went very well with them, but, oh! so
horribly with me--what a fright they made me look.



 CHAPTER XXV.
 THE BROWN MAN’S APOLOGY

As I went down the stairs, dressed--if you could call it dressed--at
last, how hideously conscious I was that I presented a spectacle of
all that was least desirable in womanhood. Long familiarity with the
fact had hardened me. I take it that no feminine thing becomes
completely reconciled to the accident that she is not physically
prepossessing. Women who are plain sometimes do not realise their
plainness. I daresay that is true. Or they may cherish a hope that, in
the eyes of someone, some day, they may not be plain. If, fatherless,
brotherless, they live with five lovely sisters, and a still
good-looking mother--who esteems beauty the only thing which is worth
a woman’s having--both these consolations will be denied them. Long
before they have reached years of maturity, they will have learnt,
with that absolute certainty of conviction which leaves no room
whatever for doubt, that they are ugly ducklings, and that, for such
as they, this world has no good things; that, indeed, it is as sure as
that the sky is above the earth, that none but idiots, or worse, will
ever esteem them for themselves alone. And, though they become
accustomed to this knowledge, and so pachydermatous, in a sense, there
are occasions when the actualities of their position are as pin-pricks
to make them wince as eagerly as if their skins had never been tanned,
by the laying on of innumerable stripes, into hide at all.

The descent of the stairs which divided my bedroom from the
drawing-room was one of those occasions. Worse luck for me. In the
drawing-room were the men who had been the worshippers of the girl who
was--last night; come, at that matutinal hour, to render her the
proofs of their devotion. Going to them was the girl who was to-day;
that grotesque caricature of the being they had known, and of whom
they apparently still dreamed. Clearly, it was doubtful if this was a
case in which they would perceive that it was “better to have loved
and lost, than never to have loved at all.” No man cherishes a
sentimental pang when he discovers that he has been deluded into
loving a female Bottom in an ass’s head. The humour of the situation
would probably appeal to them so much more strongly than to me.

Half-way down I encountered Jane, who, I rather suspect, had been
keeping herself handy in the possible expectation of such an
encounter. At sight of me she gave a jump.

“Lor’! Miss Norah, whatever has come to you! I shouldn’t hardly ever
have known you; you look so different--really, I shouldn’t.”

“Do I look different? How?”

I was curious to learn how the matter appeared to her. Her way of
seeing it might be as a straw to guide me as to the quarter from which
I might expect the wind to blow in the interview to which I was
advancing. Her eyes travelled over my features in stolid, observant
fashion, as if she were searching out the peculiarities of a wooden
figurehead.

“Really, miss, I couldn’t hardly say--I really couldn’t; though such
a difference I never see. It’s more than a difference; you don’t seem
as if you was the same person--that you don’t.”

“But I assure you that I am.”

“Excuse me, Miss Norah, but that you aren’t--you are not, really.
Leastways, not so far as looks is concerned. If you could see yourself
as you looked last night, and as you looks now, you yourself wouldn’t
say you was the same--I don’t believe you would, really.”

It was encouraging to receive such a testimonial from Jane, especially
as on her countenance sincerity was written large, and surprise, and,
I rather fancied--it might have been only fancy, but I doubt
it--disappointment too. If the alteration were so apparent to Jane,
the not inhumanly critical, with what appalling obviousness would they
not strike the keen-sighted gentlemen who awaited me in the
drawing-room, and whose voices I already heard. The same reflection
actually occurred to the handmaid of the crimson slippers--at the
recollection of their splendours they still seemed to pinch me.

“Whatever them there gentlemen will say when they see you looking like
that, Miss Norah, I can’t think; and there is a few of ’em. There’s a
bald-headed old party what give me a sovereign to show him in without
announcing him.”

“A bald-headed old party?”

“‘Never mind my name,’ he says. ‘You show me straight in without
announcing me, and here’s a sovereign for you.’ So I showed him in,
because sovereigns aren’t lying about all over the place, not in this
house they aren’t. Though I should like to know what he thinks he’s
after, with no more hair on his head than a yellow Bramah egg.”

I felt that I also should like to know. Was it possible that that
hoary reprobate had not yet repented of his last night’s misdoings.
Jane went on to say something which nearly caused me to tumble down
the remainder of the stairs.

“But the one that takes my fancy is him with the moustaches. Now, he
is something like a man. If he’d been took clean out of a picture he
couldn’t have been more what he ought to be.”

“With the moustaches?”

My thoughts recurred to the Duke of Chelmsford. Was he, in Jane’s
estimation, something like a man? But it seemed that I was on the
wrong scent.

“Him with the moustaches what turns up at the ends like as if they was
ramrods. If he isn’t a soldier it ain’t for want of looking it.
Splendid, I call him. Then look at the height of him--regular
monument, as you might say. And that straight! Then them there eyes of
his!--ain’t they eyes? I never! When they looked at me they made me go
all over--really they did. And I’ve not got over the feeling now--that
I haven’t. It’s my opinion, and always has been, that some of them
foreign men is better grown than some of our English.”

“Foreign men?”

A premonitory something was beginning to chill me about the centre of
the back.

“He speaks with a foreign accent--lovely accent, I call it--that
musical. And he’s got a way about him which makes you think, for all
his being such a great big giant of a man, that if he was to take you
in his arms he would be tender.”

“Jane! You shouldn’t say such things!”

“Well, miss, I am but human, as the saying is; and if I was going into
the drawing-room to see a man like him, rather than look a fright I’d
put something on my face, or do something to myself somehow, for look
different to what you’re looking now that I would--no matter how I
done it.”

With those last words of cheering advice Jane passed up the stairs,
presumably to pursue her professional avocations. She would never have
dared to say such a thing to one of the girls, but to me it always
seems that everyone says just anything. That splendid person, with the
moustaches turned up at the ends like ramrods, and the eyes, and the
foreign accent--could he be that imposing dignitary of the Imperial
Hotel? Had he had the audacity to trace me to my own home--and call on
me? A waiter! What a cosmopolitan assembly appeared to be gathered
together in the drawing-room.

The voices within seemed raised. Walter Hammond’s and Basil Carter’s
voices were very audible. I fancied I heard also the “lovely” accent
of which Jane had spoken. Mamma was unmistakable. It appeared that an
argument was taking place inside, which was growing warmer by rapid
degrees, with the promise of becoming, at an early moment, absolutely
hot. Just as I reached the door, and was about to turn the handle, it
was opened from within, with something of a flourish. I chose to take
it as having been opened for me, and walked straight in.

My appearance created a sensation, that I needed no one to tell me.
Still less did I need to be told that it was a sensation of a curious
kind. An argument had been taking place which bore a tolerable
imitation to something else. That was plain. It seemed probable that
pressure had been brought to bear upon the dignitary of the Imperial
Hotel to induce him to take himself away, and that that pressure had
been applied in vain. Basil Carter had his hand upon the door-knob,
his air suggesting something more than command, while there was
something in Walter Hammond’s attitude which hinted at measures of a
distinctly vigorous kind. Had I not arrived just then, I am inclined
to think that steps would very shortly have been taken to bring that
dignitary of the Imperial Hotel to a proper sense of his position.
Considering his physique, it is tolerably certain that those who
undertook the task of persuasion might have found that there were
difficulties in the way. So far as I could judge--and I had pretty
good opportunities--he was not the least collected person present.
When I entered, he stood about the centre of the room, his hat and
stick in one hand, a bunch of flowers in the other. Even in height he
towered above Walter Hammond, who was no dwarf, while, so far as girth
went, he would easily have made two of any of the others. He was
smiling on his company, and I am afraid even on mamma, in a manner
which was hardly deferential; but when he saw me he commenced to
salute me with a bow of the deepest deference.

I say commenced, because he actually got no farther than what I should
call the impulse. He began, but in the very act of beginning, as it
were, stopped short, as if something which he saw in me had stricken
him with temporary paralysis--paralysis which was decidedly not the
result of a flattering cause. He was, possibly by profession--for a
waiter must know how to control his countenance--a master of the art
of keeping his feelings out of his face. That he was surprised, I was
uncomfortably convinced--surprised almost to the verge of being
dumfounded. Yet he managed to prevent that fact being betrayed by his
features. His expression, so to speak, was held in suspense. But
presently it became eloquent enough.

I have heard something about the insolence of foreigners. I know a
girl who has lived most of her life abroad, and I have heard her say
that while foreigners are the politest creatures on earth, they are
the most insolent too. I had an example of it then. That sublimated
person of the waiter class had evidently expected to see one kind of a
girl, and actually saw another. For a moment or two he was still,
looking me, all the while, full in the face. Then he smiled, not only
at me, but also at the others, and he said, his slightly foreign
accent emphasising his sneering intention:

“What a difference between the night and the morning!”

Swinging the flowers which he held in his hand, which had certainly
been intended for me, he marched past me, straight out of the room,
without another word, still smiling. As he opened the hall-door to let
himself out, he laughed--such a laugh!

I knew, as well as if I had seen him do it, that as soon as he was
down the steps, he threw the flowers which had been meant for me out
into the street.

Had he struck me across the face with his stick, he could not have
branded me with a more distinctive mark of ignominy--he, a waiter! The
charm of it was, that no one showed the slightest sign of resenting
his behaviour. I was speechless. I had anticipated some difficulty
with my tongue, but in the presence of that sublimity of insult, it
refused to do its office altogether. My confusion was rendered worse
confounded by the horrible embarrassment of the men by whom I found
myself confronted. Their astonishment at the personality which my
entrance had discovered--in such bewildering contrast to the glorious
being of whom they had dreamed--was evidently so great as to be beyond
their capacity of concealment. It not only robbed them of their
senses, but also of their manners. They offered me no sort of
greeting, not acknowledging my presence by a word or movement, but
could only stand and stare and gasp, probably anathematising
themselves internally for the crassness of their folly.

Those well-bred gentlemen!

The continued silence became so hideous that it had to be broken, even
though I had to break it myself. I could not stay there and petrify
before their stony gaze. It cost me a severe muscular spasm to break
loose from the trammels of the sort of tetanus by which I was
afflicted. And when I did the result was ludicrously inadequate. My
intention was to be garrulous, a lava stream of words. All I could say
was this:

“You don’t want me. I needn’t stay.”

It was true, the concentrated essence of truth. But as an illustration
of the resources of the English language, it seemed hardly equal to
the occasion. It was such a stupid, such an uncouth, thing to say--so
utterly in character. The consciousness that this was so--that I was,
by the decree of nature, a stupid, uncouth, gawky idiot--was the last
straw. I turned to make my way out of the room as best I could.

My turning woke, at least, one of the gentlemen to some sense of the
requirements of his position--the brown man. He had shown himself,
last night, to be the owner of considerable stores of presence of
mind; he proved, now, that he possessed some remnants still--even
though they were, as remnants are apt to be, of somewhat dubious
quality. Advancing a half-step towards where I was, he checked me in
my retreat.

“Pardon me, one moment, Miss O’Brady.” I was not Miss O’Brady. I
longed, even then, to tell him so. But, fortunately, I did manage to
refrain. “I am here to offer you my apologies.” I was perfectly sure
that he had come there with no intention of the kind. “I fear that
last night I behaved with scant discretion. I frightened you. I think
I must have been a little off my head. I beg that it is in that light
that you will regard the singularity of my conduct; and can now only
assure you that I am ready to lay at your feet my excuses, my regrets,
my confession of misbehaviour, in any form you may command.”

He did not seem to see that his words, which were more than a little
artificial, were not so much an apology as a fresh offence. He had
made love to me because he was a little off his head, had he? What a
compliment, under the circumstances, the idea conveyed. I should have
liked to have pinched him, or done something more emphatic still, and,
perhaps, something more undignified. Instead of which I merely
replied, with an awkward clumsiness of which I was only too keenly
sensitive:

“Pray, don’t apologise! It doesn’t matter in the least.”

I gave no one else an opportunity to utter a syllable. The sight of
their continued dumbness was more than flesh and blood could endure;
and, above all, what the brown man had the audacity to call his
apology. I strode out into the hall, and I am afraid I banged the door
after me as I went.



 CHAPTER XXVI.
 ON THE SINGULAR EFFECTS OF SUNLIGHT

When I regained my bedroom, which, in spite of its manifold and
ostentatious deficiencies, I had long regarded as a harbour of refuge
in which I might find shelter when the storms of life pressed too
hardly, I took out of my dress pocket--I always insisted on having a
pocket in my dress, whatever the fashion was, it was the one point on
which I would have my way--that scrap of paper. It was blank. That
sentence must have been written on it with vanishing ink, because
already not a trace of it could be seen. That process of fading must
have proceeded with marvellous rapidity. I held in my hand a soiled,
crumpled piece of paper, which was so void of anything in the shape of
written characters, that I was at a loss as to which side of it those
mysterious words had been on.

The brief hour of my triumph had faded too. I was again the plain,
uninteresting Norah O’Brady; the ugly girl with the pretty sisters;
the overgrown gawk, who always looked so ridiculous in the clothes she
wore. As I had once heard myself described--the creature with the
hands and feet. I was that pleasant person again, this time for ever
and a day. I could hardly expect a second miraculous interference with
the ordinance of nature.

And the story of that interposition would be scored up against me, in
the family debtor and creditor account, to be used as another missile,
when the tale of Norah’s clumsiness, bearishness, multitudinous
stupidities, was once more the well-worn domestic theme. How amusing
it would be to recall the day when the five men took her out to dine.
How incredible it seemed, and, indeed, was. One must have dreamed it.
By degrees, quite possibly, a legend would grow up that it was an
elaborate practical joke which those five gentlemen had planned among
themselves. And the Duke who called on her! You wouldn’t think it to
look at her, would you? No one ever does believe it; but he actually
did. And the bald-headed old horror! And that waiter!--a waiter,
actually, my dear!--such a ridiculous fellow! Don’t you remember how
impertinent he was to her? How he treated her as if she were the dirt
beneath his feet! It was the funniest thing you ever saw.

I knew. My prophetic soul saw it all in store for me, being acquainted
with the family methods where anything which would point a gibe
against me was concerned.

Putting on my hat I went out. The atmosphere of the house, even of my
own room, was insupportable. It would not have been surprising if
someone had endeavoured to stay me, for with Jane, assisted only by a
charwoman, I had to play the part of second maid. But no one did. I
was conscious that someone came to the drawing-room window as I went
by. But I did not notice who it was; and as, so far as I know, no
attempt was made to attract my attention, I did not care.

I steered for Kensington Gardens. They were the nearest available
approach to the country for which I was always longing; and there,
sometimes, one could be alone with the grass, and the trees, and the
birds. That was my dominant feeling: the desire to get away from
everyone, from everything. To transplant myself from this world, in
which I had been, and was, and should be, such an utter failure. If I
could only find myself in a different environment, in some place where
people were not principally concerned with each other’s appearance,
where one could dress as one pleased, and do as one chose, and be
comfortable, and yet not be the subject of perpetual comment; where
one could have liberty to be a woman, a girl, in one’s own way, which
would not be such a dreadful way after all, where one could be even
huge and plain and not despised, what a place that would be.

As I tramped through the trees, seeking a spot which was not overrun
with nursemaids, and all kinds of persons, I perceived no prospect of
ever finding such a haven; unless, perhaps, it were by way of the
Round Pond, if it contains water to cover a person of my unseemly
inches. On the other side of it, almost obscured by the trunk of a
great oak, I saw two chairs. Not only were they unoccupied, but there
seemed to be no one in their immediate neighbourhood. So I planted
myself in one. In Kensington Gardens no one ever sits upon the grass.
Not only would it be in the highest degree improper, but it would
spoil one’s clothes, and everyone would stare, and take one for quite
a common person. Such an act would be impossible. If one sits at all,
one sits upon a chair,--as I did then, though I would infinitely have
preferred the ground, and my back against a tree, because the chair
was most uncomfortable. And I prepared to lash myself with pessimistic
and painful reflections on some such cheerful topic as the Vanity of
Human Wishes--please put in the capital letters.

Unfortunately, the sun was shining; and when the sun shines, and I am
out-of-doors, and the air is fresh and sweet, and one feels that the
summer is at hand, and there is no unsympathetic person to stick pins
in you, somehow I never can make as much of my distresses as I ought
to; they seem to melt. To begin with, they are solid; in fact,
immensely solid, and I mean to keep them solid. Indeed, I often set
out with the deliberate intention of considering nothing else but
their immense solidity, and allowing nothing to interfere with my
consideration either. Then, in some way, the sunshine gets into my
eyes, or head, or something, and has a sort of a kind of a dazzling
effect. It must have, because, all of a sudden, they are gone--or seem
gone. I cannot see them anywhere. Of course, it is absurd, and most
illogical; because, all the time, they must be there. But it really is
fatal for me to start thinking of my grievances in fine weather. No
matter how resolved I am to stick to the subject, I never can keep my
mind fixed on them when the sun is shining, and I am
out-of-doors--never.

It was like that, then. I had not been on that chair three minutes
when Ben Morgan came and seated himself on the one just next. I was
too surprised for words, having had no notion that he was anywhere
within miles. His coming in that unexpected and startling fashion
knocked all the ideas clean out of my head, except the consciousness
of my disgraceful conduct to him the day before. But his tact was
marvellous; I always have been struck by it. He never hinted at it by
so much as a syllable. And presently, to my absolute amazement, I
found myself chattering away as if I had come out for that especial
purpose.

We began with what was in the newspaper, which I did not happen to
have seen, though, from what I could gather from him, I had not lost
much. And then--well then, the subject was changed. A white poodle
crossed in front of us, and we began talking about dogs. We were both
of us very fond of dogs, and, indeed, all sorts of animals; so that it
was a topic which was interesting to us both. Then the subject was
changed again. Became personal. Drifted, as it were. I have always
laughed at people who did that sort of thing in Kensington Gardens. I
never thought I should have done it--never. But it became sunnier and
sunnier every moment, until I was looking at everything through a
golden haze.

Well--I said I would. And when I confessed my shame and my contrition
for my behaviour to him yesterday, he said it did not matter--nothing
mattered now. And I was the happiest girl in the world! As for being
sorry because that fatal power of mine had endured for so short a
time, it was the best thing that could have happened. I was delighted.
How awful it would have been if everyone I met had kept on falling in
love with me right off--high and low, married and single, young and
old--when I wanted to be loved by no one else but Ben.

When I told him, in a muddly way, of what had occurred, you should
have seen how deliciously he was amused. Though he did say one
ridiculous thing--that he could see nothing miraculous in people
falling in love with me at sight, since no man worth his salt could
help it. Of course I knew that that was one of love’s sweet perjuries.
I am not sure that truth is always the thing which is most to be
desired.

He is not at all mis-shapen, really; or, if he is, the tiniest scrap:
I love him all the more because of it. To me, he will always be
straighter than I am; and, ever since I was the merest tot, for
straightness, I have been a perfect grenadier.

He would walk home with me; and he told them about it, then and there.
You should have seen mamma and the girls when we walked in together.
We had actually forgotten lunch; it was quite late in the afternoon;
they were beginning to wonder what had become of me. When they learnt,
their faces were a study. But they were positively as nice as possible
to both of us. Mamma kissed me, and was quite sweet to Ben; and
Audrey, in particular, said some lovely things.

... We are going to have that scrap of paper, on which the writing
was, framed, and hung up in--in our bedroom.

 [The End]



 TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES.

Alterations to the text:

Add TOC.

Change several instances of _anyrate_ to _any rate_.

Minor punctuation fixes.

Note: minor spelling and hyphenization inconsistencies have been left
as is.

[Chapter III]

“I am a kind of raree show, So whenever...” change comma to period.

[Chapter V]

“among all my compeers. am best qualified...” change period to comma.

[Chapter IX]

“than to the end of a _women’s_ arm.” to _woman’s_.

“scarcely saying _bo_! to a goose” to _boo_.

[Chapter XVIII]

Change “when they were _yonng_” to _young_.

Change “on the _otber_ side of the top...” to _other_.

[Chapter XX]

“or rage. or something.” change the period after _rage_ to a comma.

Change “But this time I _sha’n’t_ mind.” to _shan’t_.

[Chapter XXV]

Change “A _promonitory_ something was...” to _premonitory_.

 [End of Text]



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