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tents for some moments. Then she raised her glance
sharply, and spoke to the detectives.

"There has been enough of this jest, sirs. The joke
is none too agreeable, and I must apologize for being
any party to it. The fact is, this house is Mr.
Crowther's, these are his daughters, and this gentleman
has nothing to do with Mr. Akehurst."

The detectives opened their eyes and smiled broadly.

"Quite so, ma'am," said the principal. "Who is this
gentleman, then?"



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

"Would you deny your own husband, Cissy?" mur-
mured Charmian reproachfully.

Mrs. Akehurst hesitated and colored, and Charmian
gazed at her whimsically. "I — I . . . He is a friend,"
she said.

"I suppose you wouldn't take my word, officer," said
Lord Francis, casually.

The man grinned. "I think we'd best be getting on,
sir."

"But stop," cried Cissy vehemently. "Don't I say that
this is not Mr. Akehurst? I ought to know."

"There's no denying that. Cissy," said Charmian, air-

ily-

But she paid him no heed. "If you need proof, there
it is," she exclaimed, thrusting in the detective's hands
the open telegram. He read it with surprise, and handed
it to his companion.

"This is rum," said he. "The real man seems to have
got off to China. Then who the dickens are you, sir?"

Charmian took him aside. "Did you ever hear of a
practical joke, ofhcer?" he asked, and he whispered in
his ear. Within two minutes the detectives were out of
the house, with apologies, and Charmian was left, the
centre of a staring circle. He grew aware soon of a
sense of discomfort, and one of the girls (Hilda, he
thought) said helplessly, — "But you haven't told us who
you are?"

"Oh, I'm a friend — a — a friend of — Cissy's," said
Charmian, fluttering lightly over the difficulty. Perhaps
she wouldn't refuse him. But she did.

"Indeed you're nothing of the kind," said Mrs. Ake-
hurst, coldly. "I never set eyes on you before to-day."

He looked hopelessly about the circle, and his eye fell
on Aurelia.

"A — a friend of Aur " he was beginning, when a

vivid blush sprang into her face, and upon that,

Vol. 18—15 223



COMEDY

"Oh," cried Hilda, "and you kissed us all — Aurelia,
too!"

"Not Cissy," he protested, by way of mitigating the
charge.

"I think, sir," said the old gentleman, solemnly, "that
you owe us some explanation of this extraordinary af-
fair. If you have really committed forgery "

But at this point Mrs. Akehurst interposed rather
brusquely,

"He owes us nothing," she said decisively, "and I
think it is time we said good-bye."

"I really have said it already," said Charmian, polite-
ly, and with a glance at Aurelia. She colored again.
"But if you insist " he held out his hand to Cissy.

For a moment she hesitated, and then put forth her
arm. "I am glad he escaped," murmured Charmian,
softly.

She shrugged her shoulders. Charmian turned to
Aurelia, who stood watching him with serious shyness.

"Is it all true?" she asked him. "Are you not Frank?"

"I am one kind of Frank, my dear young lady," said
he. "But not your Frank. I wish I was, barring the
— barring Cissy, I mean."

"Oh, we like you much better than the real Frank,"
said Hilda (or was it Hetty?) impulsively.

He became aware at this moment that Aurelia was
holding out a gold pencil, and he frowned at it ab-
stractedly.

"This is yours," she stammered; "I can't — you mustn't
go without it."

"My dear Aurelia, I mean, of course. Miss — er — Miss
Crowther," said Charmian fluently, "you must not think
anything of that. The fact is, I travel in pencils, and
I "

He was interrupted by the opening of a door, and a
voice sounding from behind him, —

224



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

"Beg pardon, my lord, but you'll miss your train "
Lord Francis turned sharply. "Damn it. it's Jacob '"
he exclaimed, much discomposed. "How the deuce
Get outside, Jacob,"-and to the amazed family he
apologized. "You see, even my own man doesn't know
who I am. We're so mixed up," and he backed with
ceremonious bows to the door. Once in the hall he ran
for his life, and outside, from the carriage which the
faithful Jacob had provided, he cast a look backwards.
The door was closed as against a confessed impostor
but Aureha's eyes were shining from the window, and '
so he thought Hilda's (or Hetty's) too.



225



CHAPTER VI



A CONSPIRACY



Lord Francis Charmian had fully made up his mind
that he would be dull at Button, where he had agreed
to spend a week before the opening of the season. Yet
he had not been there two days ere he was very pleas-
antly occupied. Lady Chatfield, one of the house party,
was the author of this change. Lady Chatfield — who in
herself he had found admirably amusing. She was
brown of face, stout of body, and excellently comfort-
able to look on; and grey hair prematurely marked her
five-and-forty years. Her voice was very slow, and
rich; and her ideas were often elaborately singular.
She was amazingly tolerant, she cared for no one, and
she could not be thrown out of patience. She had also
a mild sense of the ridiculous. For these reasons, and
for her even and imperturbable talk, Charmian was en-
tertained by her, and sought her company. And it was
upon the second day of his visit that she broached a sug-
gestion which was not only highly characteristic of her,
but also took him hugely.

"I have been greatly concerned about Imogen," said
she, dropping upon the personal in a lull of the conver-
sation.

"Imogen!" said Charmian, wondering who she might
be.

"Perhaps you have noticed her. Lord Francis," said
the lady, with a manner which indicated that it was not
of much consequence if he hadn't.

"Naturally; of course, — how could you suppose not?"

226



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

murmured Charmian in his most courteous way. Imo-
gen must be somewhere in the house, he decided.

"It is really of no interest to you," said Lady Chat-
field, heaving a comfortable sigh, "but I like to talk.
What do you think? Do you think Imogen is looking
well?"

"Well," hesitated Charmian, — "perhaps not."

Lady Chatfield turned on him a face which was by
no means anxious.

"In what way?" she asked: "tell me frankly."

"Oh, well," hesitated Charmian, "I thought she had
a worn, far-away look, so to speak."

Lady Chatfield nodded. "Just so," she said, without
perturbation : "that is it precisely. She has got en-
tangled."

"With a man ?" suggested Charmian, to show his sym-
pathy.

"A most undesirable person, my dear Lord Francis,"
she went on. "Not only has he not a penny, but (what
I consider far worse) he is a rake — which I consider
far worse," she repeated amiably.

"So do I," said Charmian promptly. "We all of us do."

Perhaps if Lady Chatfield had not been so deeply en-
gaged in her own thoughts her eyes might have
twinkled; but she continued impassively.

"I have argued with her, but she is as obstinate as a
mule. Her father has done the same. It is hopeless.
We are obliged to submit." She paused. "There is only
one chance."

"What is that?" asked Charmian, politely, supposing
that he was intended to do so.

"That she should fall in love with some one else,"
said Lady Chatfield.

"A man?" suggested Charmian again.

"That is what set me thinking of you," said Lady
Chatfield, without paying him any attention.

227



COMEDY

Lord Francis started. "Me !" said he in amazement.

"Why not?" asked his companion cheerfully. "You
are young, and handsome, and have a name. Moreover,
I am told you have a reputation in these afifairs."

"My dear lady!" pleaded Charmian.

"Won't you help me?" inquired Lady Chatfield in-
dififerently. "Wean her from this disgraceful attach-
ment. It is monstrous to throw away a girl's life like
that."

"You want me to marry Imogen?" said Charmian in
dismay.

"No, my dear young man," said Lady Chatfield, af-
fectionately, "but I don't want Imogen to marry some
one else."

Charmian considered, and suddenly a light danced
into his eyes. His glance met Lady Chatfield's, and
both broke forth into soft laughter.

"You will do it?" she asked.

"It all depends on Miss Imogen," said he, smilingly.

"My dear Lord Francis, try," said the lady, resting
a hand on his arm. "Try, and save the jade."

Charmian was not sure if he could save her, but he
had certainly made up his mind to try, and the first duty
that lay upon him was to discover which was Imogen.
The house-party was large, and he had only vaguely sup-
posed that Lady Chatfield owned a daughter. But evi-
dently she was Imogen, and Imogen was there. He put
hints together and discovered her that evening, discover-
ing also at the same time that he knew her already.
Her name was Langley. He approached her smiling.

"How in the name of all that's honest and respectable
and just and fair you have found it in your conscience
to ignore me these two days, Miss Langley, is more
than I can understand, and far more than I can bear,"
said he.

228



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

Miss Langley looked at him coolly, and, now that he
observed her closely, he saw her to be quite hand-
some.

"Oh, have you been here?" she said abruptly, "I
didn't know. When did you come?"

"It seems years," said he reproachfully. "But now I
have forgotten that dreary time. I have stared you out
of face, I thought, and with no result. My eyes have
taken on a permanent squint through watching you."

She smiled a little at this whimsical extravagance,
and considered him with more interest.

"Well, you see, I've only just come to-day; so I must
apologize for my rudeness. I didn't come with my
mother."

Charmian made a little grimace, but he was not at all
discomposed. "Ah, that's a bad plan — a bad plan," said
he, shaking his head with grave impudence : "I always
think young girls should stick to their mothers. One
never knows what temptations, you know . . ."

His air of deprecation, together with the boldness
with which he wholly ignored his dilemma, stirred Miss
Langley to laughter. He took a seat by her and when
she ceased smiling she found his eyes fixed earnestly
upon her. He dropped them at once, and fidgeted. She
was certainly a pretty woman.

Miss Langley offered him a remark, which he an-
swered with hot zeal; he pressed closer to her on the
sofa.

"You don't mind my sitting here," he asked anxiously.

"Why, no — of course," said Miss Langley, wondering.

"That's right," he nodded, "then we can be quite com-
fortable. At least, as long as you are I am. I don't
want to move. I have no objection to be rooted here."

Miss Langley laughed again. "You are absurd," she
said.



229



COMEDY

"Absurd!" he repeated, shrugging his shoulders and
turning away.

Miss Langley also turned away, and when her glance
came back from a chattering group in the room, Char-
mian's soft eyes were again resting upon her face, as
though they would inhabit there. Miss Langley colored
ever so slightly, and Charmian dropped his gaze once
more with a show of confusion.

"Come into the garden," said he abruptly, and rising.
Miss Langley hesitated. "I — I . . ." she began.
"It's quite warm ! I'll fetch you a wrap," said he.
Miss Langley stood up. She was tall, slim, straight
and pliant as a wand, with a gentle bosom, ripe brown
hair, and a look of quick decision in her grey eyes. Yet
she now appeared to wonder. They passed out by the
long window that soft spring night, and were presently
among the lilacs and the scent of the sweet narcissus.

"I want you to understand," said he firmly, but in a
low agitated voice — "I want you to understand how
much this means for me."

"How much !" she echoed, with some awkwardness.
"Yes, it's sweet here, isn't it?"

"I tell you this," cried Charmian, vehemently : "you
shall not misunderstand me. It shall not be for lack
of plain speaking if you do. I know girls," he continued
in a tone of angry scorn, "that they feign and pretend
and make as if they knew nothing. But I tell you — well,
never mind — the time has not come," he concluded more
softly.

"I think. Lord Francis, that we had better go in," said
Miss Langley firmly.

"Ah, you're frightened," he said, with an unkind sneer.
"Indeed, I am not," exclaimed Miss Langley, indig-
nantly ; "I only was wondering if the air had got into
your head."

230



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

"And you can say that !" he murmured, seizing her
hand and looking intently into her face.

Miss Langley quickly pulled her hand away, but she
made no reply; no reply seemed to be ready. Perhaps
she had been somewhat cruel. She made no movement
to go in, and they lingered together among the breaking
rhododendrons. The sky was jeweled brightly, and
Lord Francis stood with his head back looking into that
vault of stars, apparently at peace. Miss Langley noted
that he wore a wistful expression,

"Night," said he presently, "is my avatar." He
quoted a line of verse, and sighed.

"I really thing it is getting a little chilly," remarked
Miss Langley, amiably.

Charmian paid no heed for a moment. She caught
him staring at her yet again; and she stirred uncomfort-
ably.

"I beg your pardon," said he suddenly, "I am very
remiss, but you . . . Yes, we will go in. I would not
have you take cold for a fortune," and with a little
gracious air of familiarity which she suffered, he pulled
the wrap tenderly about her, and led her back to the
house.

Charmian felt that he was heavily handicapped, and
though he was thoroughly enjoying himself, he despaired
of success.

"You see," as he observed to Lady Chatfield next
morning, "Imogen is very diMcilc. Also I have only a
few days, and I am forced to make the running. I must
go too rapid a pace. I don't think she keeps time with
me. It's not fair on me. You are asking me too much."

"Don't lose heart," said Lady Chatfield, encouraging-
ly, "I've no doubt you did very well. You have probably
sown the seed. And there is a well-worn old serviceable
trick — I shall make a point of abusing you persistently,"
she said.



231



COMEDY

"Thank you very much," said Charmian. "That might
help me on a little. But I'm afraid that Miss Langley
has a way of forming her own judgments and opinions."

"Don't let her," said her mother, composedly; "form
them for her."

Thus stimulated and given fresh license by Lady Chat-
field, Charmian pressed forward with perfervid enthu-
siasm. It was a new game, and had all the excitement
of flirtation with added perils. He plunged through
the breaches when they showed, and scaled high bat-
tlements. He used a score of wiles, in the most dazzling
succession.

"Miss Langley," said he, dragging her into the con-
servatory after dinner, "let us get away from those ter-
rible people. They make me shudder, with their shoot-
ing and their hunting and their tame sports."

"So do they me," agreed Miss Langley, eagerly. "But,
but — where are we . . . Oh, I don't think we'll go
there."

He pleaded with her and he coaxed her : it was not for
nothing he had a reputation ; and she obeyed. Some-
thing in her instincts responded to this masterful cajol-
ing. It was as though he threatened and petted her to-
gether. They took seats in a dark corner.

"I could sit here," said Charmian presently, with a
sigh, "forever."

"How foolish !" said Miss Langley, elevating her eye-
brows, but smiling.

"Oh, no, it isn't foolish." said he quickly; "it is all
very serious. I doubt if women know what powers they
really have."

Miss Langley stirred in her seat, but it is possible
that she did not dislike it ; at any rate she said nothing.
Charmian resolved to go further. There was no time
to be lost.

"The stars," said he bitterly, "go round, and the sun

232



TIi:: SKIRTS OF CHANCE

moves.. I suppose the universe is very prettily con-
structed?"

"What an original remark !" commented the lady.

"There are things which touch us nearly — such as
death, birth, love," suggested Charmian, with his eyes
on the glow of the brooch below her white neck.

"If that is all you wanted to say, Lord Francis "

she began, rising; but he stopped her hastily.

"No, no ; sit down, please. I have heaps to say to you,
but it won't all come at once."

"Perhaps it had better not come at all," suggested
Miss Langlcy.

"Is that your opinion? Do you really think that?"
he inquired earnestly.

She laughed uncomfortably. "Oh, how can I tell? I
don't know what you are going to say."

"Let me draw a picture for you," said he softly. "It
is that of some one I love."

"I had rather you didn't," interposed Miss Langley
hurriedly.

"Tell me," he asked abruptly, seizing her hand, "how
would you like a home?"

"I have one, thank you," she said demurely.

"Ah, but a home of your own, to be happy in," he said
anxiously; "and a — a husband and— a— a— children ?"

"Lord Francis !" said Miss Langley, coloring very
swiftly, and rising again.

"I don't mean your children, but my children," he
hastened to explain, in some confusion.

"I think, if you won't mind, I will go back to the
drawing-room," said she freezingly, for all her warm
face.

"Ah, I see how it is," broke in Charmian, and gritting
his teeth in the best style, and assuming a savage voice.
"It is that damned fellow, Mountesk."
"Lord Francis!" cried the girl indignantly.

233



COMEDY

"Well, you know you let him follow you about," he
declared, feeling that he was now upon the proper
track. "What is he to you? I demand to know. Why,
only this morning I saw his face quite close to yours
when "

"It is false," said Miss Langley angrily. "I — how can
you say such things!" She hesitated. "And I think
I ought to tell you," she went on, with some embarrass-
ment, "that I am — I didn't want to say anything about
it, as it is a secret — but I think you ought to know
that "

Charmian felt sure he knew what was coming, and it
would spoil everything. "Yes, I do know," he inter-
rupted quickly. "But I don't care if I am a brute. I
have reason for being one. There, I am frank with
you."

"No, but what I wanted to say," began Miss Langley
again seriously, "is that I am "

"I don't care what you are," he broke in desperately.
"I only know that I "

"I wish you would listen to me," she said tremulously.
"Because it is essential that you should know. The
fact is I "

But here Charmian started to his feet. "Hush!" he
whispered, "here is some one. We can resume this con-
versation later." And with elaborate, but hasty cere-
mony, he escorted her out of the conservatory.

He was in despair in his talk with Lady Chatfield next
morning. "Here have I been two days at it, and I've
got no farther," he said gloomily.

"I abused you a good deal yesterday," said Lady
Chatfield.

"You are very good," said he, "but it hasn't been of
much use. The fact is, I am an amateur. I say the
wrong things."

"You certainly said the wrong things last night.

234



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

Imogen tells me you frightened her. She asked me if
you were quite right."

"There you are," said Charmian, shrugging his
shoulders. "I can only feel my way. Girls have such
odd ideas.

"I don't think much of her being frightened," said
lady Chatfield placidly. "Lord Chatfield frightened
me."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," said Charmian; "you
see what we want to do is to make her see that there is
some one else as good as — what's his name, by the
way?"

"The man's name is Pearse," said Lady Chatfield
thoughtfully.

"As good as Pearse, then. We want to loosen the
bonds, so to speak," said Lord Francis airily.

"Of course, she mustn't transfer her affections to
you," said Lady Chatfield, looking at him gravely.

"Oh, dear, no. My dear lady, how can you think of
it? To break the habit — that's what we're aiming at —
to dull rather than besmirch a girlish ideal; so that
Pearse shall shine forth no more than I or Mountesk
or any one else. To call him names would be to gild
him brighter."

"I shall be astonished if you don't succeed," said
Lady Chatfield with animation, "and if you do you will
earn my deepest gratitude, and Lord Chatfield's."

"Well, I've only got three days, you know," said
Charmian hurriedly, "and it's now half-past ten. You
will excuse me if I leave you." And he opened the
windows of the breakfast room, and went out upon the
lawns with renewed zeal.

But Miss Langley could not be found just then; and
it was not until after lunch that they met. She ap-
proached him frankly, as though to make a communi-
cation, but what she said was not what he anticipated,

235



COMEDY

"Lord Francis," said he, "I am very sorry for being
so rude last night — I mean so impatient. I — I was up-
set; will you forgive me?"

He forgave her readily, congratulating himself that
she had not begun to renew her confidence. He was
delighted.

"My dear Miss — Imogen — may I call you that?" he
asked, in his softest voice.

"Better not," murmured Miss Langley, plucking at
the wall-flowers.

"Imogen — there is nothing to forgive," said he, ignor-
ing this.

"Lord Francis, I would rather you didn't" she said,
averting her pink face with fresh signals of embar-
rassment.

But Charmian was not generous; he pressed his ad-
vantage. At the same time he wondered vaguely with-
in himself how far he might safely go, at what point it
would be right and politic to leave of?. In the result
he allowed circumstances to determine this. Besides,
he could not be sure of her. She grew cold very read-
ily, and broke out in impulsive heat as quickly. He
was fingering very sensible machinery, which he did
not understand. Yet there was no question that Miss
Langley liked his company, and yielded to his persist-
ence.

There was a dispute that evening over some question,
which sent Charmian impetuously to the library, where
he wandered helplessly among the ancient volumes.
Presently he was aware of some one by him, and was
startled to perceive Miss Langley.

"I came in with Sir William," she cried, with a little
gasp of dismay, "and now he has gone: some one
called him."

Charmian thought her very sweet to the eyes. He

2.^6



THE SKIRTS OF CHANCE

got off the ladder on which he was sitting with a great
book on his knee.

"May I offer you this seat?" he said gently. "I can't
find that abominable passage."

"Can't you?" she asked, with a little laugh, in which
he seemed to read self-consciousness.

"Perhaps you could," he suggested, offering her the
volume so that their hands met.

"I — I don't think I could," stammered Miss Langley.

Charmian's heart smote him; also it gave a jump and
thrilled.

Miss Langley turned over some pages nervously.
"No, I'm sure I couldn't," she said. "I think I'll go and
get Sir William.

Charmian put out a hand as though to stay her, but
she made no movement.

"This — this light's very bad," said Miss Langley pres-
ently, as she still made a pretence of examining the
pages.

For answer, Charmian stepped forward and turned it
— lower.

"Oh!" she cried in dismay.

"I beg your pardon," said Charmian: "my clumsi-
ness — I . . . ." But he did not repair his error.

"I really think I ought to bolt," he murmured to
himself, but he didn't. Instead he took Miss Langley's
hand.

"Imogen," he said, "I . . . ." Then somehow he
had kissed her.

Her face rested ashamedly upon his shoulder, where
it had fallen, and he could only take in the fragrance
of her hair.

But even under these wonderful influences he realized
that the situation had gone wrong. Miss Langley
pulled herself away with some force, and he could not

237



COMEDY

see her very clearly in the twilight. But next he heard
her voice, which sounded broken.

"I didn't know you really cared."

"Imogen — Miss Langley ..." stammered Charmian,
and he got no farther. But it was impossible not to
do something, and he had a dim sense that what he did
was not wise. But Imogen suddenly withdrew herself,
hiding her face.

"People will miss us," she said in a low voice of
shame. "We had better go back. Let me go first,
please."

Charmian stammered: "Wait, one second, Imogen —
dear, that is," he said. "What about — I am anxious to
know, of course, what about Mr. — Mr. Pearse?"

"Pearse!" she exclaimed, looking at him — "Pearse!
what can you mean? Oh, I see. You have heard
something of that old ... I am rather ashamed of it,
Lord Francis, but it was only pretence and make-believe.
There was nothing serious in it, and it is long over.
I'm so glad you spoke of it."

She looked at him intensely, and for a second his eyes
dropped, and he was silent. Then he looked up. "You
have taken a load ofif my mind," said he bravely, and he


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