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Ere the innkeeper could recover himself in time to fol-



IQ2



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

low (as he would naturally have done) to assist him
into his carriage, Charmian had pulled open the door
of the brougham that stood before the inn, had clapped
it to again, and was rattling next moment along the
High street in the direction of the little river which
marks the confines of Lunn.

The grey, cold day had broken into a savage evening,
and the lamps twinkled through a drizzle of snow. The
light had gone out unexpectedly, and it was impossible
to see beyond a yard or so. But presently after, and
when the carriage had crossed the small bridge, turned
into the lane that branched from the highway, and was
fully launched upon its voyage into the country, there
fell a perfect hurricane of snow. The peaceful tenor of
the wind changed ; it shook the windows of the brough-
am; and a stream of flakes rained thickly upon the
road and open fields. Charmian looked out across the
flat, inhospitable meadows from which the storm was
driving. The gusts rustled about the carriage, and he
turned complacently to settle himself into his corner.
He put out an arm for a rug which he had left upon the
seat, and to his astonishment his hand came in contact
with something warm and soft.

"What the mischief is this?" thought Lord Francis.
Instantaneously with the thought he struck a match,
and the light flared and rested on the face and figure of
a woman.

She was young and handsome; she lay back with her
eyes closed, her body nestled in the cushions, and (as
Charmian conceived) his rug disposed about her. The
light went out, and but for the fear of waking her he
would have whistled. As it was, he sank into his own
seat and reflected on the position with pleasant amuse-
ment. It was plain that the lady must have mistaken
the carriage; and, now he considered, there returned to
him the conversation of old Cotton, and the tale of an

193



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CO.MEDY

unfortunate lady who was waiting on a merry-making
husband. This must be she ; and she, poor creature, had
succumbed to the weariness of those long hours, and
was delicately enjoying a comfortable slumber in his
carriage, and some two miles upon the road to the
Castle. The idea tickled him.

"It would be a shame to wake her," he thought.
"Heaven be my witness, I am not brute enough for that.
The world shall see that I can be kind to women."
With which he folded his arms, cuddled close in his
corner, and shut his eyes.

The rage and blackness of the night increased. The
horses were brought down to walking pace ; the snow
encumbered the ground thickly, and the timid animals
slipped and stumbled on the treacherous surface.
Finally one of them came down on his knees with a
jerk, and the brougham lurched and shivered. The lady
woke with a cry, and starting up, brushed against Char-
mian.

"What is it, Fred?" she asked. "It is an accident?
I must have fallen asleep. "Where are we?"

"My dear madam," answered Charmian, smoothly,
"it is not Fred, but me ; and it is not an accident. And
if you will promise not to scream, I will light a match,
which will enable you to gain a better notion of where
you are than I can give you."

The lady made no answer, beyond a formless ejacula-
tion ; and Charmian struck a second match. He held
it before him, and the eyes of the two met in the light
above it.

"Who are you, sir?" inquired the lady in a low voice,
but not without spirit.

"The circumstances," said he gently, "in which I find
myself are, I assure you, not contrived by me. It may
seem difficult to believe that — but, my dear madam, con-
sider this. I enter my carriage ; I do not perceive you,

194



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

owing to the dark, and when I make the discovery we
are already miles away from our starting-point, and I
can see no other course than to let you have your sleep
out, and to carry you to some place from which you
can return in comfort and safety whither you will, when
the fury of the storm is dropped."

As he spoke the match burned his fingers, and he let
it drop hastily, plunging the carriage into darkness.

"But what — what does all this mean?" cried the lady
in bewilderment. "We must go back. The carriage
must turn back."

"My dear lady," said Charmian, soothingly, "it is not
a night for a dog to be out in; and though my coach-
man is only my coachman " He felt she had sat

bolt upright.

"Sir, I demand that you have the horses turned
round," she commanded, with an imperious note in her
voice.

"Madam, my carriage is at your service," said Char-
mian, in his finest Spanish manner, "but "

He got no further. "Your carriage!" she cried in-
dignantly. "It is my carriage."

"Pardon me, madam — mine," he asserted firmly.

"Oh, this is monstrous," declared the lady. "Either I
or you are mad. You will have it that I am your wife
next !" she added sarcastically.

"That, madam, is not true," remarked Charmian,
severely; "and to quiet all your doubts I will light an-
other match."

He struck it on the words, and the two pairs of eyes
wandered about the brougham. The lady's danced with
anger and triumph, and Charmian's stared with amaze-
ment. The brougham was upholstered in green, and
it was certainly not his. His gaze returned to hers,
which was flushed and excited.

"A thousand pardons," he begged humbly ; "though I

I9S



COMEDY

have not been lunching a party of friends, it is inexcus-
able. The darkness — the storm misled me."

"And now, perhaps, sir," said the lady with dignity,
"you will be good enough to have the horses turned
round."

"Certainly," replied Charmian, with the same humil-
ity. "The coachman is yours, madam." He hesitated
with his hand on the door. "But the question is, where
are we? You see, if this is not my carriage, you are
probably safely on your road to your destination."

"True," said she, as if struck by this fact for the first
time. "I h i forgotten."

"Then may I ask," said Charmian, with some little
indignation, "where the devil — I beg your pardon —
where that may be?"

"We live at Sackring," said she, now quite civilly.

Charmian groaned. "A good dozen miles from my
journey's end," he murmured. He braced himself. "If
you will allow me to rap on the glass, perhaps I may
best attract the coachman's attention that way."

She hesitated; and then, showing her hesitation in her
words, "It is a terrible night," said she. "It would
hardly be fair "

"Oh, what's fair for him is fair for me," said Char-
mian, cheerfully. "Besides, I have deserved it."

"If I might venture to suggest," observed the lady
more coldly, "you had better come on to Sackring.
There is a good inn there."

"But your husband?" he asked suddenly.

She paused, stammered, and Charmian would have
wagered in the darkness that she blushed. Mr.
Fletcher," said she, with great dignity, "will follow, no
doubt."

But just at that moment, and ere Charmian had time
to answer the invitation thus amicably offered, the car-
riage came to a stop abruptly, and each looked out of

196



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

a window. Upon either side the white waste of a great
moor stretched and rolled into the night. The coach-
man had come down from his box, and appeared before
the door by Charmian, a spectacle of gleaming snow.
He turned the handle, and peered in, putting a finger
mechanically to the snow that was his hat.

"Beg pardon, sir, but I've lost my way," says he.

Mrs. Fletcher made an exclamation. "Good heavens !
James, you can't mean that?" she cried. "Where are
we?"

"Can't exactly make out, ma'am," said James in per-
plexity. "I know we're on the moor, but the roads have
gone, and from the way the horses are plunging I fancy
we're on a side track."

"You must find the road at once," commanded the lady
in consternation.

"Beg pardon, but perhaps master . . . ." began James,
and stared apologetically into the corner of the car-
riage in which he supposed Charmian to be.

"Oh — of course — yes," stammered Mrs. Fletcher.
"Well, your master will think it over and let you know
presently." And then, upon the withdrawal of the man,
to Charmian, "What are we to do? Whatever are we to
do? He thinks you are Mr. Fletcher."

"Let him think so," said Charmian promptly.

"But — but . . . ." She hesitated.

"My dear lady, the first part (and it is of prime im-
portance) is that we should get somewhere. The night
is wild: if I am a judge of the sky, it is beating up for
worse; and to lie here twittering about points of eti-
quette in the drift would expose us to death of cold,
hunger, or suffocation. James must drive on."

The decision was communicated to the coachman, and
the carriage painfully resumed its jolting journey. The
lady had grown submissively meek and silent. She be-
gan to be alarmed; and only by a start or an exclama-

197



COMEDY

tion of anxiety at each deeper plunge or rougher jolt
did she break the stillness of the interior. Charmian sat
back; he was very cold, and he was very tired, and he
saw no prospect of dining. He was out of patience with
the lady. In this neutrality of silence more than half
an hour elapsed, upon the end of which the carriage
drew up once more, and James appeared at the door.

"We've got somewhere, sir," said he, respectfully, but
triumphantly.

Charmian looked out, and through the streaming
flakes beheld the feeble light of a wayside inn. His
heart warmed wiiliin Iiim.

"James mustn't see you," whispered the lady in his
ears, in an agitated voice.

Charmian had forgotten. "Not he," he said cheer-
fully, and opening the further door, hopped lightly into
the night. The lady descended with more leisure, and
Charmian dodged into the inn. He met the landlord
bustling to the doorway.

"A — a lady and I — that is — we have been caught in
the storm," he explained. "Can you give us food?"

The landlord gave a phlegmatic assent, his eyes ob-
serving the lady where she stood, her garments flecked
with white, and her face warm from the thrashing winds.
She hung back, but Charmian took her arm and bowed
her with stiff courtesy into the coffee-room.

The door once shut, Mrs. Fletcher turned quickly
round. "Understand this," she said, showing a hotter
face; "I cannot dine with you."

"But, my dear lady," exclaimed Charmian, "we must
have food, and we came together ; it's plain we cannot
dine apart, or we shall raise suspicions."

"I will not dine at all," she said firmly.

Charmian shrugged his shoulders in despair, while
he observed her more nearly. She was tall and young —
some five-and-twenty, as he guessed — she owned a pair

198






THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

of fine eyes, and her complexion was delicately pink. A
spirit flashed in her handsome face, which changed
swiftly with the vicissitudes of her emotions. She con-
fronted him now with anger and resolution alike con-
joined in her features and sparkling in her eye.

"My dear Mrs. Fletcher," he said gently, "of one thing
I am certain : that you shall dine, if I have to walk all
the way back to Lunn."

She was silent a moment, and then, — "But you could
never do that," she murmured in another tone. "I don't
want to drive you away. You see my position," she
added, appcalingly; "I don't even know your name."

"My dear lady, that has nothing to do with your din-
ner," he protested.

"I don't agree with you," she cried sharply.

"Oh, well," replied Charmian, "if it will make any
difference, call me Smith."

"Is that your real name?" she asked, suspiciously.

"Madam," he returned, meeting her look gravely, "in
the circumstances perhaps it is all that you need know.
After this unfortunate incident is over, I am sure you
would wish to forget the humiliating position in which
I have unwillingly placed you, and with it the very
name and existence of such a person."

She dropped her eyes and fell into a chair ; but as
quickly started up again. "But we shall have to stay
here all night !" she exclaimed in agitation.

"It looks like it," confessed Charmian, ruefully.

"But we can't — we can't !" she protested. She wrung
her hands.

"Hush ! hush ! here's some one coming," interposed
Charmian hastily ; and rapidly composing themselves,
and endeavoring to assume an expectant air, the two
drew up to the table.

The landlord entered the room.



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i»iWfl(»*y«*V(Wf'»A*, »



COMEDY

"Beg pardon, sir," said he, "but would the lady . . ."
he seemed to pause, and she interposed eagerly.

"Mrs. Fletcher," she cried.

Charmian coughed. "No, no, it's all right," he said
reassuringly : "hurry up, hurry up !" and dismissed the
fellow with his importunity.

Charmian turned to the lady. "What did you give
your name for?" he asked aghast.

"I am not ashamed of my name," she retorted petu-
lantly.

"Heavens ! but I have given mine as Smith," he ex-
claimed.

She turned red. "Well, I could not have said I was
Mrs. Smith, could I?"

"No, of course not," stammered Charmian ; "that did
not occur to me. But you see, he will think we have
run away together."

Mrs. Fletcher jumped from her seat. Her cheeks
were crimson, and became her dark eyes. "Oh !" she
cried, and hid her face in confusion.

"Pray do not take it so hardly," pleaded Charmian,
soothingly. "I will undertake to get you out of this."

"Indeed," cried the lady, suddenly raising her head
and looking at him with angry eyes, "indeed, as you
have got me into it, you can do no less."

Charmian was abashed, but he went on with spirit.

"Well, now let us consider the position. It is not so
outrageously serious. We shall have a few minutes be-
fore the dinner is fetched. The question is, what are we
to be? We must make up a good lie while we're about
it."

Mrs. Fletcher was almost in tears. "I can't think of
anything," she said, with a tiny sob.

"Well, how would brother and sister do?" inquired
Charmian.

"I never thought of that," she said, brightening: yes,

200



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

that would do beautifully. We could be that, couldn't
we?"

"Why, of course; and we will," said Charmian de-
cisively, as the door was thrown open and the landlord
appeared with the dinner.

The meal went on pleasantly. Mrs. Fletcher found
her spirits rising, and from the unexplored recesses of
the cellar a tolerable wine was produced. Presently a
little silence of embarrassment fell upon her.

"I don't know if I am doing right," she said, haltingly.

"My dear," said Charmian lightly, "it is a mistake to
moralize, and to interrogate facts is the part of a
sceptic."

"You have no right to say that to me," she said in-
dignantly, and reddening prettily.

"What?" asked Charmian in amazement.

"What you said," she replied, in come confusion.

"I will not misunderstand you," he said : "you refer to
the address. But consider the relation in which we
stand. It is a fraternal form of speech."

Mrs. Fletcher dropped her glass and pushed back her
chair; but just on the instant when Charmian had made
tip his mind that he was destined to a little outbreak,
the door rattled under a knock.

"It is James," she whispered, all her hauteur gone:
"I know his step. Oh, what shall we do?"

Ch.irmian rose, hesitated, and slipped behind the
chimney-nook. The coachman entered.

"Excuse me. ma'am," said he, "but I wanted a word
with master. I can't find him anywhere."

"I will — I will send him to vou presently," said Mrs.
Fletcher hurriedly. "Good-night. James."

When the danger was over Charmian returned, and
looked ruefully at his companion. She was extremely
discomposed.

"I don't know what we shall do," she cried in dis-



■ iM W i lik'—JIM II



COMEDY

tress. "They are sure to find out, and they will think
we have . . . ."

"What?" Said Charmian.

"Run away," she murmured, shamefacedly.

Charmian sighed. "If that is so," said he desperately,
"we had better make the best of it, and confess we
have."

"Sir !" cried Mrs. Fletcher rising, all aflame.

"For Heaven's sake," he said quickly, "don't let us
quarrel. Here's some one else !" And sure enough, upon
the words a second knock sounded and the door was
gently opened. The intruder, an elderly but vigorous
man, advanced with an apology.

"I am sorry to disturb you, but I am staying in the
inn, and I left my . . ." He broke off suddenly, and
in another voice saluted Charmian. "My dear fellow, I
had no idea it was you, or that you were in the neigh-
borhood," and he came forward holding out his hand.

Charmian now recognized him for an old squire living
in the neighborhood of the Castle, and, heartily cursing
his fortune, rose to meet the proffered hand.

"Oh, yes, I'm here, you see," he stuttered.

"I was told that a Mr. Smith had arrived," said the
old gentleman, "and . . ." His puzzled glance fluttered
to Mrs. Fletcher.

"Oh, yes, of course. Stupid of them," said Charmian.
"Pray allow me to introduce you, Coleman, to "

He made a momentary pause ; the truth was that he
had forgotten the name.

"Oh, yes, I understand," said old Coleman, exhibit-
ing some confusion. "To Mrs. Smith, isn't it?"

"No," cried the lady, eagerly interposing in equal con-
fusion — "his sister."

"My — my sister," feebly echoed Charmian.

"Quite so — sister. I beg your pardon," said the old
gentleman hastily, "A nice evening, madam ;" and then



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

to Charmian, "May I have a word with you after your
dinner?"

"Have it now," said Charmian desperately, and fol-
lowed Coleman to the door.

Outside the old gentleman came to a pause, turned the
handle deliberately, and faced the young man.

"Look here, Charmian," he said gravely, "you have
no sister, you know. This won't do. I can make al-
lowances, you understand, but when it comes to being
on your own estate, my dear fellow . . . You won't
misunderstand me? I am thinking of your interests."

"Oh, please leave me out," sighed Charmian. "I have
no interests just now, except to get out of a most un-
pleasant situation."

"If it is that." said the old gentleman promptly, "pray
command me. I knew it was an entanglement."

"No, no ; you don't understand," said Charmian. "It
is all an accident. The lady dislikes it a good deal more
than myself."

"Quite so," said old Coleman formally — "quite so.
Well, I fancy I must be going now, as I have some
business to attend to."

He hastened away, leaving Charmian with the clear
intelligence that he was disbelieved. He sighed deeply,
and returned to the room, where Mrs. Fletcher was
awaiting him in a state of suspense.

"He knows you?" she asked.

Charmian assented.

She threw up her hands. "Then our case is worse
than ever. Whom does he think I am?" she inquired,
after a pause.

"My — my sister," stammered Charmian.

"Oh!" she sighed, in a certain relief; and immediately
upon that, and as a new thought, "But have you a
sister?"

"Well, no," began Charmian ; "but I can manage "



COMEDY

"Does that man know you have no sister?" she went
on, in tones of growing alarm.

"I think he does," said he feebly.

"Oh!" she cried in dismay, "how could you? You
have ruined me," and hid her face.

"My dear lady," said Charmian, moodily, "I suggested
just now that there was only one honest course before
us."

"No !" she exclaimed, and suddenly raised herself
and assumed a face of much determination. "I will see
this to an end. I will not yield weakly."

"You encourage me," said Lord Francis heartily. "I
feel a new man. If that is your disposition, we shall
yet be able to confront the world."

He stopped hastily, feeling that Mrs. Fletcher was
regarding him with suspicion. But it was his nature to
be flippant. Outside the door rose the sound of an al-
tercation, and James's voice mingled with the inn-
keeper's.

"I tell you," said the latter, "that there's no Mr.
Fletcher in there," and the voices fell to be inaudible.

Charmian and the lady exchanged glances of con-
cern, and then James's voice sounded louder. "I'll take
my oath I never drove no Mr. Smith here."

The door-handle rattled, Mrs. Fletcher gave a little
shriek, and the landlord, red and confused, was before
them.

"May I ask," said he in his flurry, "which of you is
Mr. Fletcher?"

"I am." said Charmian promptly: "that is to say," he
corrected precipitately, "neither of us is; he isn't here."

The innkeeper scratched his head. "Ah!" he said
in a bewildered manner, but withdrew with a show of
satisfaction.

"I can stand this no longer," cried the lady, dis-
playing considerable agitation; and she moved swiftly



204



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

to the farther door, which opened into the interior of
the hostelry.

"What would you do?" asked Charmian in surprise.

"I am going away," she said firmly, but brokenly;
and ere he could stop her she was out of the door and
was gone.

Charmian made a little grimace, and walked to the
window. He threw it open and looked forth. The
snow had ceased, and the sky was clearing; but it was
not on these facts he reflected, for no sooner was the
blind up and his head out than the light from the lamp
fell full upon the face of Jacob, his own man, standing
by his own carriage before the door.

"Now, how the devil," he wondered, "did Jacob get
here?" and called him eagerly.

Jacob advanced, saluting like a machine.

"Glad to catch you, my lord," he said, even with a
trace of emotion.

"How did you get here?" asked Charmian in amaze-
ment.

"Well, my lord, it was like this: gentleman seized me
and made me drive him. Of course, if I'd known that
your lordship had — was — what your lordship was do-
ing .... But your lordship didn't let me know."

There was no censure implied in this statement: it
was merely a statement.

Charmian lowered his voice. "What gentleman?" he
asked.

Jacob glanced about him, and also lowered his voice.
"Don't know his name, my lord — has a red moustache
— and is angry, very angry, my lord — very angry in-
deed, my lord. He's in the bar now, my lord."

"Drunk?" inquired Lord Francis anxiously.

"Not so very, my lord," said Jacob dispassionately;
"not what your lordship would call drunk."



205



wMBBMMMMM



COMEDY '



"Ah, Jacob," said Charmian reflectively: "good
Jacob! Refresh yourself at once, and be in readiness."

He withdrew his head. As he did so Mrs. Fletcher
came into the room, veiled, cloaked with her furs, and
prepared for a journey. She was buttoning a glove
nervously.

"My carriage is ready," she said resolutely.

"So is mine," said Charmian cheerfully.

"Yours!" she cried.

"Why, yes: Mr. Fletcher has been good enough to
bring it. I must tell you that he is here, and "

He hesitated.

"I understand," she said bitterly, and for a moment
there was silence. "He had no right to follow me like
that," she broke out, and the tears of mortification, of
injured pride, of humiliation, started to her eyes.

"No man has a right to follow his wife," remarked
Charmian.

She eyed him with a flush of anger, looking very
beautiful.

"I don't know who you are, sir," she said with dig-
nity, "but this I do know, that you have been the cause
to me to-day of bitter humiliation and of grave discom-
fort."

Charmian bowed low. "I have been tragically aware
of it," he said gently. "But I have systematically tried
to make the situation less serious."

A gleam of amusement shot into her eyes, and a little
laugh which was partly of embarrassment rang out.

"And now, if you will allow me," pursued Charmian
pleasantly, "I think we can terminate the inconveni-
ence."

"You have a plan?" she asked quickly.

"It is simplicity itself, he said. She interrogated him
with her eyes. "Let us embark, each of us, in our re-
spective carriages "

206



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

He paused. Her eyes kindled. "Leaving . . . ."
she breathed.

"Precisely," said Charmian. Their eyes exchanged
meanings. The shadow of a smile crept over her
mouth, but Charmian's face was grave.

"I certainly think it is time we were home," he
murmured.

"And the snow will muffle the sound of the wheels,"
said Mrs. Fletcher.

A noise was audible outside, as if of some one in the
passage. They looked to one another.

"Let us go. I will pay the reckoning," he whispered,
and went forth to seek the landlord.

Outside the inn he found her before her carriage.
"Good-bye," she said, holding out her hand. "James
must not see you." She laughed a little.

"Well, he knows whom he brought to the inn, that's
one thing," said Charmian gaily. He set her in the
brougham, and himself hung in the shadows.

Her laughter tinkled pleasantly. "Have you a long


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