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Lady Mickleham is back from her honeymoon. I mean young Lady Mickleham--Dolly Foster (well, of course I do. Fancy the Dowager on a honeymoon!) She signified the fact to me by ordering me to call on her at teatime; she had, she said, something which she wished to consult me about confidentially. I went.
"I didn't know you were back," I observed.
"Oh, we've been back a fortnight, but we went down to The Towers. They were all there, Mr. Carter."
"All Archie's people. The dowager said we must get really to know one another as soon as possible. I'm not sure I like really knowing people. It means that they say whatever they like to you, and don't get up out of your favorite chair when you come in."
"I agree," said I, "that a soupcon of unfamiliarity is not amiss."
"Of course it's nice to be one of the family," she continued.
"The cat is that," said I. "I would not give a fig for it."
"And the Dowager taught me the ways of the house."
"Ah, she taught me the way out of it."
"And showed me how to be most disagreeable to the servants."
"It is the first lesson of a housekeeper."
"And told me what Archie particularly liked, and how bad it was for him, poor boy."
"What should we do without our mothers? I do not, however, see how I can help in all this, Lady Mickleham."
"How funny that sounds!"
"Aren't you accustomed to your dignity yet?"
"I meant from you, Mr. Carter."
I smiled. That is Dolly's way. As Miss Phaeton says, she means no harm, and it is admirably conducive to the pleasure of a tete-a-tete.
"It wasn't that I wanted to ask you about," she continued, after she had indulged in a pensive sigh (with a dutifully bright smile and a glance at Archie's photograph to follow. Her behavior always reminds me of a varied and well assorted menu). "It was about something much more difficult. You won't tell Archie, will you?"
"This becomes interesting," I remarked, putting my hat down.
"You know, Mr. Carter, that before I was married--oh, how long ago it seems!"
"Not at all."
"Don't interrupt. That before I was married I had several--that is to say, several--well, several--"
"Start quite afresh," I suggested encouragingly.
"Well, then, several men were silly enough to think themselves--you know."
"No one better," I assented cheerfully.
"Oh, if you won't be sensible!--Well, you see, many of them are Archie's friends as well as mine; and, of course, they've been to call."
"It is but good manners," said I.
"One of them waited to be sent for, though."
"Leave that fellow out," said I.
"What I want to ask you is this--and I believe you're not silly, really, you know, except when you choose to be."
"Walk in the Row any afternoon," said I, "and you won't find ten wiser men."
"It's this. Ought I to tell Archie?"
"Good gracious! Here's a problem!"
"Of course," pursued Lady Mickleham, opening her fan, "it's in some ways more comfortable that he shouldn't know."
"Yes--and for me. But then it doesn't seem quite fair."
"Yes--and to me. Because if he came to know from anybody else, he might exaggerate the things, you know."
"I--er--mean he knows you too well to do such a thing."
"Oh, I see. Thank you. Yes. What do you think?"
"What does the Dowager say?"
"I haven't mentioned it to the Dowager."
"But surely, on such a point, her experience--"
"She can't have any," said Lady Mickleham decisively. "I believe in her husband, because I must. But nobody else! You're not giving me your opinion."
I reflected for a moment.
"Haven't we left out one point to view?" I ventured to suggest.
"I've thought it all over very carefully," said she; "both as it would affect me and as it would affect Archie."
"Quite so. Now suppose you think how it would affect them?"
"Why, the men."
Lady Mickleham put down her cup of tea. "What a very curious idea!" she exclaimed.
"Give it time to sink in," said I, helping myself to another piece of toast. She sat silent for a few moments--presumably to allow of the permeation I suggested. I finished my tea and leant back comfortably. Then I said:
"Let me take my own case. Shouldn't I feel rather awkward--?"
"Oh, it's no good taking your case," she interrupted.
"Why not mine as well as another?"
"Because I told him about you long ago."
I was not surprised. But I could not permit Lady Mickleham to laugh at me in the unconscionable manner in which she proceeded to laugh. I spread out my hands and observed blandly:
"Why not be guided--as to the others, I mean--by your husband's example?"
"Archie's example? What's that?"
"I don't know; but you do, I suppose."
"What do you mean, Mr. Carter?" she asked, sitting upright.
"Well, has he ever told you about Maggie Adeane?"
"I never heard of her."
"Or Lilly Courtenay?"
"Or Alice Layton?"
"The red-haired Layton?"
"Or Florence Cunliffe?"
"Who was she?"
"Or Millie Trehearne?"
"She squints, Mr. Carter."
"Stop, stop! What do you mean? What should he tell me?"
"Oh, I see he hasn't. Nor, I suppose, about Sylvia Fenton, or that little Delancy girl, or handsome Miss--what was her name?"
"Hold your tongue--and tell me what you mean."
"Lady Mickleham," said I gravely, "if your husband has not thought fit to mention these ladies--and others whom I could name--to you, how could I presume--?"
"Do you mean to tell me that Archie--?"
"He'd only known you three years, you see."
"Then it was before--?"
"Some of them were before," said I.
Lady Mickleham drew a long breath.
"Archie will be in soon," said she.
I took my hat.
"It seems to me," I observed, "that what is sauce--that, I should say, husband and wife ought to stand on an equal footing in these matters. Since he has--no doubt for good reasons--not mentioned to you--"
"Alice Layton was a positive fright."
"She came last," said I. "Just before you, you know. However, as I was saying--"
"And that horrible Sylvia Fenton--"
"Oh, he couldn't have known you long then. As I was saying, I should, if I were you, treat him as he has treated you. In my case it seems to be too late."
"I'm sorry I told him that."
"Oh, pray don't mind, it's of no consequence. As to the others--"
"I should never have thought it of Archie!"
"One never knows," said I, with an apologetic smile. "I don't suppose he thinks it of you."
"I won't tell him a single word. He may find out if he likes. Who was the last girl you mentioned?"
"Is it any use trying to remember all their names?" I asked in a soothing tone. "No doubt he's forgotten them by now--just as you've forgotten the others."
"And the Dowager told me that he had never had an attachment before."
"Oh, if the Dowager said that! Of course, the Dowager would know!"
"Don't be so silly, for goodness sake! Are you going?"
"Certainly I am. It might annoy Archie to find me here when he wants to talk to you."
"Well, I want to talk to him."
"Of course you won't repeat what I've--"
"I shall find out for myself," she said.
"Goodbye. I hope I've removed all your troubles?"
"O, yes, thank you. I know what to do now, Mr. Carter."
"Always send for me if you're in any trouble. I have some exp--"
"Goodbye, Mr. Carter."
"Goodbye, Lady Mickleham. And remember that Archie, like you--"
"Yes, yes; I know. Must you go?"
I'm afraid I must. I've enjoyed our talk so--"
"There's Archie's step."
I left the room. On the stairs I met Archie. I shook hands sympathetically. I was sorry for Archie. But in great causes the individual cannot be considered. I had done my duty to my sex.
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