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room to fetch her fother. Charmian thought he read
the purpose plainly in her face. But as speedily she
hesitated; a look of indecision came over her, and she
considered him uncomfortably.

"Come," said Charmian pleasantly, "my dear young
lady, I know what you are thinking, if you will excuse

162



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

me. You are wondering if I am a beggar, or maybe
a blackmailer. I can reassure you. 1 have no guns to
unmask upon your mother; and I have driven here m
a cab. To some extent these facts, of which I assure
you, clear my character. And now I have changed my
mind, and if you will please sit down, I will tell you all
about it."

She colored shyly, but accepted his invitation.

"I fear my mother is engaged," she murmured for-
mally.

"Yes, precisely," said Charmian, "and I don't blame
her. Who wants to see an anonymous stranger?"
Where she sat, very demure, and a little confounded,
she took a light that set her face in a lovely glow, and
Charmian had no desire to lose the spectacle. "You
will pardon me," he went on, as though under the spur
of a sudden thought: "you are not by any chance a
Yorkshire family?"

Miss Aubyn assured him that they were not.

"Ah," said Charmian, "I have some friends But

of course you are not. But you might be Cornish,"
he said hopefully.

"We are Londoners," replied the girl simply. She
had still the air of waiting, of inviting his attention to
the business on which he had come.

"Indeed!" cried Charmian, as one in great surprise.
"You astonish me. I know most shires of England,
and I could have sworn that only in one or two, and
never in London, was that particular complexion seen."

Miss Aubyn shifted uncomfortably. "Perhaps, Mr.
. . . " she hesitated on his name — "I had better see
if my mother is disengaged."

"Not for worlds," cried Charmian hurriedly, adding,
"I should be loth to disturb her. I can very well ex-
plain my business to you, madam, but as it is somewhat
involved, it takes time."

163



COMEDY

The girl's compressed lips conveyed to him her un-
spoken assent to this proposition.

"It is always well to approach these matters delicate-
ly," went on Charmian deliberately: "a false step,
caused by undue haste now, may involve an infinity of
work and annoyance later. I daresay you will follow
me there, my dear young lady."

"I think, sir," she replied with diffidence, "if you
would kindly tell me what I can do "

"Most certainly," agreed Charmian, amiably as ever,
and surveying her wth admiring eyes. "Then I will
be quite blunt. Do you know a Mr. Brown?"

She considered with an appearance of interest. "I —
I — don't think we do," she said. "At least not — only a
tradesman, I fancy."

"Ah," said Charmian, like one in relief. "That is
good news. Then I may take it that no one named
Brown lives hereabouts?"

She detected nothing insincere in his voice; she was
very grave and simple, and she broke out eagerly, "No,
I am quite sure of that. We have lived here ever
since I was a little girl, and we should have known;
though," she added, and a note of regret entered un-
consciously into her voice, "we are leaving here next
week."

"Leaving here!" echoed Charmian, delighted with
the new opening and breaking through at a gallop.
"Really! Why, to leave this pleasant house and out-
look! To go into the country, I assume?"

"No," said the girl briefly, "the lease is to be sold."

She exhibited some embarrassment in her melan-
choly, and Charmian, who was quick beyond the com-
mon to reach conclusions, decided that the family were
newly impoverished. "You must be attached to the
place?" he suggested.

164



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

"We have no choice," she replied, turning sharply
away.

A vague remembrance of a board, displaying "For
Sale," hanging from the area railings recurred to Char-
mian. He was momentarily divided between the at-
tractions of the girl and a rising sense of shame. It
appeared that he was leaving the fields of humorous
entertainment; and he decided that he had best be quit
of his purse and go.

Miss Aubyn faced near by, mistress of herself. "If I
can give you any help about Mr. Brown . . ." she
began, with an air of dismissal.

"My dear Miss Aubyn," stammered Charmian,
fingering the purse in his pocket, and wondering what
plea he might find, after his pretences. But at this
instant the door creaked open on a sound of voices, and
Charmian beheld the tall, commanding lady in the
doorway with no other than the little red old gentleman
at her heels.

The sight, it must be confessed, took him awkwardly
aback. How the devil did he come there? But upon the
thought instantaneously succeeded the realization of
his position. Here was he once more, so to speak,
taken in the act, and once more the little, spectacled
gentleman was the detective. That uncompromising
enemy of injustice advanced, paused abreast of Mrs.
Aubyn, and stared aghast at him. Then he broke forth
furiously.

"My dear madam, this is the very man," he cried.
"What is he doing here? This is astounding impu-
dence. He must be seized at once. Hold him. He has
your purse."

Charmian straightened himself: for his life he could
not at the moment spy an escape from this dilemma,
and he held his tongue like a wise man.

i6s



COMEDY

"Who is this?" demanded Mrs. Aubyn, in a most
ominous manner, regarding him menacingly.

"This is a gentleman," said the young lady, seeing
that Charmian did not answer, "who has come to see
you on business. He "

"Business! yes, I guess his business," interposed the
old gentleman on her halting words. "I tell you,
madam, this is the thief himself, and I will have him
locked up as sure as my name's Rodgers."

"May I ask, Mr. Rodgers. since that is your name,"
said Charmian smoothly, "what this is all about?"

"You are best answered with a policeman," declared
Mr. Rodgers, barring the door with his umbrella. "I
won't have any impudence from you."

"May I ask what your business is here, sir?" de-
manded Mrs. Aubyn, with stately hauteur.

By this time, however, it had grown clear to Char-
mian that the matter of the purse must be sunk in
oblivion. He had been a quarter of an hour or more in
the young lady's company and had breathed no word of
his proposed restitution; nay, he had even given out
quite another reason for his visit. To be sure, appear-
ances made him look like a housebreaker, seeking for
an opportunity.

"I have already explained my business to your
daughter, madam," he said, with equal dignity, and
bowing in Miss Aubyn's direction.

"Take care, take care: he is a dangerous man," ex-
claimed Mr. Rodgers, mopping himself with a handker-
chief. "If I had not seen you come out of that shop
and thought of asking them if you were known, he
would have been able to carry on his nefarious prac-
tices at his leisure. But, thank God, he is unmasked
now. Have an eye to your daughter, madam. Lock
him up. A most dangerous man! Heaven knows
what he would add to robbery."

l66



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

As it was at that moment, it was Charmian who had
an eye to the daughter, faintly whimsical in expres-
sion, which Mrs. Aubyn observed.

"Come here, Evelyn," cried she sharply, like a hen
gathering her chickens out of danger.

Miss Aubyn crossed the room from where she was
standing by Charmian.

"This gentleman," she continued austerely, "accuses
you of stealing my purse, which I have missed since
yesterday. Have you anything to say?"

"Mother!" cried Evelyn, in tears of distress, and
looking pitifully at Charmian.

"Madam," said he, bowing, "I am dumb before this
gentleman."

"Pray allow me, my dear lady," said Mr. Rodgers,
fussily. "I will fetch in the constable myself.
Keep an eye on him, I beg." And he bustled out
of the room.

Mrs. Aubyn followed, beckoning her daughter with
a gesture. But the girl, moving to the door, closed it,
and stood, her pretty face pale and agitated, looking
toward Charmian.

"You are not . . ." she began in a low. tremulous
voice. She hesitated.

"My dear Miss Evelyn," said Charmian, shrugging
his shoulders, "the pity of it is that it is true, every
word."

She drew a long breath. "Then Mr. Brown "

"Was an invention," he replied.

For a moment there was silence. "If you had not
told me I would not have believed it," she said, "and
because you tell me, I don't believe it."

"It is pleasant to find such innocent faith," said
Charmian, somewhat touched at this. "But how, I
wonder, do you justify your confidence?"

167



COMEDY

"Oh, how can you stand there and jest," she cried,
"when the — the "

"PoHce?" he suggested.

"When you are in such danger," she amended.

Charmian settled himself into a chair, and put down
his hat at his feet. "They will have to drag me forth,"
he said moodily.

At that moment a voice called from the hall beyond,
"Evelyn ! Evelyn !"

The girl opened the door slightly, and answered trem-
ulously, "Yes, mother ; I am keeping my eye on

him." She shut the door again hurriedly, standing with
her back against it, and turned to him with the marks
of growing emotion. "They will be back directly," she
cried. "Oh, what can we do? How can I help you?"

"You had better give me up, my dear young lady,"
said Charmian, observing her with increased interest.

"But you never did it?" she exclaimed, much discon-
certed.

"I shall be the victim of circumstances," he said.
"You see, Mr. Rodgers and the police are not like you."

"But — but," she stammered, "can't you set it right?
You took my mother's purse, you say. I am sure you
did it for some good purpose."

"You are correct," he murmured, with a smile. "I
don't mind telling you that I picked it up with the fool-
ish design of reading her a lesson on the vanity of open
reticules ; but I would tell no one else. The fact is, I
would die rather; and, what is more, they wouldn't be-
lieve me. It is a nasty thing to be mixed up with the
police. I have no doubt I shall do time. Besides, I
deserve to be punished for my presumption in setting
forth to teach Mrs. Aubyn anything."

"But why did you not return the purse?" she asked,
puzzled.

"My friend Mr. Rodgers was unhappily too quick for

i68



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

me. He has a sharp eye behind his glasses ; and, ere
I could explain to the police, your mother was gone —
fortunately for me," he added.

"Oh, that is all right, then," cried ]\Iiss Aubyn eager-
ly. "You came to return it, did you not? I knew I was
right. Of course. And "

"And I haven't, you see," interposed Charmian, mak-
ing a little grimace. She stared, as if not understanding.
"I have been — how long was it? It seems but a moment
or two — in your company without mentioning the
purse."

"Oh !" she cried, drawing a deep breath.

"You see," he went on, "that things are looking very
black."

"But why did you not return it to me?" she asked
despondently.

"To be quite frank," he replied, "I enjoyed my conver-
sation with you too much to desire to terminate it."

"My conversation !" she echoed in astonishment.

"And your pretty presence," added Charmian with a
deferential bow.

"You should not have said that," she cried quickly,
C9loring very suddenly.

"No, I don't think I should have said it," he admitted
after a pause. "But it's true for all that," he added.

This was a way of making his offence worse, while
escaping censure through seeming to repent — a trick of
which Charmian was fond. She glowed as she looked
at him, divided between her embarrassment and her
fears; and then a noise in the hall sent the blood from
her face, and her white arm went out instinctively as
though to bar the door. Charmian swiftly had a vision
of innumerable explanations, uncomfortable detention
in a police-cell, messages, interviews, apologies, and
the odium of private ridicule among his friends ; and
his brows drew sharply together in a frown.

169



COMEDY

"Where is the purse?" whispered the girl from the
door, breaking in upon that interval of silence.

He drew it from his pocket; and gliding with swift,
lissom limbs across the room, she took it from his
hands. "Let me have it. I will "

But she had time for no more, as the door opened
immediately, and there was Mr. Rodgers, beaming from
his glasses, flanked by a great constable, wearing a busi-
ness-like air.

"This is the man," observed Mr. Rodgers, cheerfully.
"You give this man in charge, madam?"

"Certainly," said the lady promptly.

"Stealing a purse," commented the policeman.

Charmian remained seated, and shrugged his shoul-
ders. The affair was a most abominable nuisance. But
rapidly before him there flashed out, with a whirl of
her girlish skirts, Miss Aubyn, dramatically tragic, and
covered with agitation.

"There is a mistake, policeman," she cried breathless-
ly. "The gentleman has not taken my mother's purse.
I have it."

"What !" screamed Mrs. Aubyn, turning on her.

Miss Aubyn held up the purse. "I have had it all
along. My mother mislaid it." She lied freely, fierce-
ly, angrily, as if daring a denial.

The old gentleman stared in bewilderment, and then
his glasses traveled from the purse to the girl, and from
the girl to Charmian, who had risen to his feet. Mrs.
Aubyn was slowly recovering from her astonishment,
and appeared now to be somewhat covered with con-
fu.


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Online LibraryUnknownClassic tales by famous authors (Volume 18) → online text (page 11 of 20)