tßv W. E. Norris.] [Copyright. ] CHAPTER XXXI. BETTY POTS HER FOOT IX IT. Betty, who arrived early in the afternoon, land who congratulated herself upon her good luck in finding her sister-in-law at home, Was, it appeared, in something of a quandary. A party, consisting of various young men and only two ladies, had been made up to dine at Hampton Court and bicycle back to town by moonlight; at the last moment Lady Rusncliffa had telegraphed to say that she was going to bed with a splitting headache, and what Betty hoped was that, if her fclster-in-law had no other engagement, she would bo so very good-natured as to drive or train down to the place of rendezvous and act os chaperone.
But I don’t know how to ride a bicycle ” Observed Marietta. ’
“ Oh, that doesn’t signify,” returned the girl; “ yon can drive home, and I’ll keep alongside of the carriage. Of course, if I had these men’s addresses I might pub them off; but I haven’t, and it would be rather too bad to leave them in the lurch—especially as I believe they really hate cycling, and are Xmly sacrificing themselves to please me.” “ I should have thought,” said Marietta, "that Lady Maria would have been the ■Woper person to take charge of you under 'the circumstances.”
"I am afraid she would be only too proper •Ta person. Granny has a receptive mind, and i have educated her up to a good deal; but, enough, I haven’t beemable to conquer fter prejudice against bicycles, which she looks upCn as plebeian, if not immoral, 8) between ourselves—it wasn’t thought ■advit&ble to furnish her with full particulars uO this little jaunt. All she knows is that a am going to dine quietly with a few friends at Hampton Court, and that she can retire to roost as early as she likes.” Upon hearing this Marietta saw fit to declare that she could bo no party to clandestine schemes, and that her sister-in-law’s engagement would have to be cancelled. It xvas not, perhaps, very kind of her to adopt so uncompromising an altitude; but that she was within her right could not be questioned ; and Betty, after some unavailing entreaties, took her leave, saying, goodhumoredly enough : “ Well, I forgive you ; though I do think you might have found it in your heart to fend a hand to a distressed fellow-creature. 1 tremble to think of w'hat Charlie Jocelyn will do when he discovers that he has been thrown over.”
It was in part because she honestly believed that that spoilt youth would be furious, and in part because she herself was so little accustomed to being thwarted, that Mias Mallet, after leaving Arlington street, made up her mind to take an utterly inadmissible step. Notwithstanding the ■eraanoipa’ion from ordinary restraints •which she had of late paraded, and taken •some pleasure in parading, Betty was in many respects more simple and innocent than other girls. She knew, indeed, that it would be a rather bold measure to drive to the Waterloo station, whither her bicycle had already been despatched, and to take her ticket to Hampton Court; but, upon the whole, she regarded this as the lesser of two evils. Of course, she could not dine with those young men ; but she could meet them and explain what had happened, and then there would be no great harm, she supposed, in their riding back to London together. Had she not, times out of mind, ridden back from hunting with an attendant cavalier ?
For what followed, Lord Charles Jocelyn might have been to blame—and, as a matter of fact, he was blamed to an extent, and after a fashion which, one is glad to know, made a humble and repentant man of him. He, at all events, was neither simple nor innocent; he could not but be fully aware that it was a monstrous thing to persuade Miss Mallet to carry out the original programme without even the dubious protection of Lady Rushcliffe’a presence. But his conscience was probably salted by the plea which has salved many another conscience that it would be great fun, and that nobody but themselves would over known anything about it. He represented that the dinner had been ordered, and could not now be countermanded; that one must dine somewhere ; that from Hampton Court to London is a very lone stretch of road to cover on an empty stomach ; and that, really, a dressed-up bolster would answer any purpose that Lady Rushcliffe could have been expected to serve. Finally, fie answered for the discretion of his companions (which was tolerably audacious of him), and professed himself quite unable to aee what difference there was between ibioyole-riding and satisfying the cravings of .nature in a spirit of sociability. So Betty tended by allowing her scruples to be overruled. She was young enough, self-willed ■enough, and foolish enough to employ that
t gumcnt which has been so frequently used to stifle troublesome misgivings by members of her sext “ So long as I am doing nothing Wrong, what can it matter?” As if anything really mattered, except being found out!
Betty enjoyed that little dinner very much. Her fellow-revellers—of whom there were but a couple, in addition to Lord Charles—were capital company, and took no liberties. Doubtless they realised the nature of the situation, and, whatever they may have thought of Miss Mallet’s prudence, were under no temptation to treat her otherwise than respectfully. The dinner, about which Lord Charles (under Lady Rashcliffo’s instructions) had taken some trouble, was excellent; the champagne was better than might have been expected; and the jokes, if nob strikingly novel or brilliant, amply sufficed to excite the hilarity of four light-hearted young persons. Even Lord Charles did not attempt to make love to Betty having discovered, much to his ; regret, some time before that the charming heiress had nothing but friendship to offer him—and the whole affair was as harmless and as delightful to those who took part in it as an escape which entails the possibility of a subsequent whipping is to a lot of schoolboys. Bub the escapades of young ladies cannot, unluckily, be punished and paid for by methods so summary ; and Betty Mallet was destined to be tkught how dangerous a thing it is to defy the not too strict laws of modern conventionality. She was leaning upon her machine in front of the hotel where the dinner had taken place, while Lord Charles and his friends were regulating the account within, when her enjoyment of the soft night air, and of a prospective spin through Bushy Park, was interrupted by the sudden appearance in the blight moonlight of a gentleman . whom she recognised, and who started visibly on recognising her.
“Oh,” she muttered, under breath, “isn’t this just my luck !” It. really was rather bad luck that St. Quiutin should have a widowed aunt who resided in Hampton Court Palace, and that he should have chosen the particular evening in question to run down from London and dine with her; but everybody must have noticed that coincidences of that vexatious kind only occur when the chances against their occurrence are well-nigh incalculable. Of course, ho had no sooner been informed of what Miss Mallet was doing there than he wanted to know who her companions were ; and when these had been duly stated for his benefit by a young woman who was incapable of telling lies, he rejoined : “ Yes ; but I meau what ladies are with you?”
“ There aren’t any ladies,’’answered Betty, with the calmness of despair. “There was to have been one, but she tclr-graphed to say that if she lifted her aching head from the pillow she would be sick ; so, as I couldn’t get anybody to take her place, I came down without her. Don’t be shocked—or, rather, be as shocked as I know you can’t help being, but don’t betray me.” “Good heavens ! ” exclaimed St. Quintin, aghast, “you have put your foot into it this time. What can have tempted you to get yourself into such a horrible mess ? It’s more serious than you think for—a great deal more serious. Do you really mean to say that you have been dining in a public room with these three fellows ? ”
“ I really mean to say that I have been dining in a public house with them,” replied the girl defiantly. “We had a private room, if that makes any difference.” “ None worth speaking of. Lady Maria will have to be told, you know ; there’s no help for it.”
“ She will not be told, unless you are sneak enough to tell her. Charlie Jocelyn has bound the others down to secrecy.” St, Quintin shook his head despondently. “ They won’t keep their promise,” he said ; “nobody ever keeps promises of that sort. Each of them will tell at least one person in strict confidence, and as the person is sure to be a woman, you may safely multiply her by a dozen, which makes aix-and-thirty. By the time that your grandmother hears the story it will be quite a dozen times worse than it is ; so the sooner she is enlightened as to the actual facts the better.”
“ Very well,” returned Betty ; “go and enlighten her, then. I should be sorry to serve you such an ill turn as you propose to serve me; but I don’t choose to appeal to you for mercy. I quite understand that lam in your power.”
St. Quintin made a forlorn gesture. “Wftat you don’t seem to understand,” he remarked, “ is that you are in the power of that fellow Jocelyn, whose head I should like to break, and his friends. It is easy enough for me to hold my tongue—God knows I have no wish to get you into trouble ! —but the question is: what can be done now to save you from—from calumny ? Believe me, much the best plan will be for you to make a clean breast of it at once to Lady Maria. Then at least she won’t be able to accuse you of having deceived her. If you will give mo your word of
honor to do that, I wdl give you mine to remain mule.”
Betty, after a moment of consideration, saw fit to agree to these terms. Indeed, it was evident, cow that she came to think of it, that she must either tell her grandmother the truth or a falsehood, and she could not but perceive that St. Q .intin’s advice was sound. That, however, did not prevent her from being seriously displeased with him for having turned up at such an inopportune moirwnI', 1 ', and she dismissed him with scant cenpjoay.
" Please go away now,” said she. “ The others will be here presently, and you are so stupid and disagreeable that I believe you would be capable of reading them a lecture.”
St. Quintin felt capable of reading them a lecture with his fists or his walking-stick; but, that being out of the question, the next best thing to do was to take himself off. He withdrew accordingly, leaving behind him a culprit whose enjoyment of the moonlight he had very effectually spoilt. Shortly afterwards Miss Mallet said to her assembled friends :
“ By the way, consider yourselves released from any obligation to keep this thing dark. I hate mysteries, and I don’t see any need for them. For my own part, I mean to tell granny what I have been about as soon as I get home.” “ I say, you know,” began Lord Charles, mapeeuvring his bicycle alongside of that on which Miss Mallet was progressing at a high rate of speed, “ I wouldn’t go and tell the old lady about this, if I were you—l wouldn’t really ! What’s the use of having rows ? And you may depend upon it that we shall none of us split.” He was a young man who was not easily made to feel uncomfortable ; but he had been rendered a little so by Betty’s surprising announcement, and still more by her sudden and unaccountable change of mood. She seemed, for some reason or other, to have become as cross as a bear—which was really rather inconsiderate of her, seeing that they had so many miles of road before them, and that the sole object of this fatiguing nocturnal excursion was the promotion of jollity. And certainly it was no very amiable countenance that Betty turned towards her neighbor. “ \ ou talk as if we had been concerned in a burglary together ! ” she exclaimed. “ I don’t know whether you are aware of it, but it is rather impertinent and rather insulting of you to speak like that. I shouldn’t have dined with you if I had been ashamed of what I was doing.” “ Well, but,” remonstrated the other, “ hang it all ; you know ” “Oh, I know well enough ! ” Betty cut him short by exclaiming in a very snappish tone of voice. “I know it was an idiotic thing to do, and I know I agreed with you that wo had better keep it to ourselves. But I have changed my mind. Upon the whole, I prefer to make everybody’s hair stand ou end by confessing what I have done and taking the consequences—which will bo most unpleasant.” “ Oh, all right !” answered Lord Charles, huffily. “Only you said just now that you were not ashamed of what you had done.” “I am not a bit ashamed,” Betty declared ; “lam slightly disgusted, that’s all. But wo may as well drop the subject; it isn’t a nice one.”
Lord Charles said to himself that that was so like a woman. As jolly as possible one minute, and the next, without rhyme or reason, ready to play the very dickens all round 1 He foresaw that trouble both to herself and (what was more important) to him would come of Betty’s recklessness, and he could only hope that a night’s reflection would cause her to change her mind a second time. He essayed a further mild expostulation when, at the end of their not very joyous moonlit ride, he bestowed Miss Mallet and her bicycle in the four-wheeler which he had called at her request. “ Why go and throw the fat into the fire ? It will be all right if you will only leave well alone.”
But Betty shook her head impatiently. In the first place, she had realised that what had been done had been anything but well done, and that self-respect demanded an avowal; in the second place, she had given her word of honor to adopt the course which Lord Charles deprecated. The nearer she drew towards the necessary adoption of that course the less it smiled upon her ; but whatever she might be she was no coward, so immediately on her arrival in Chesham place she marched into the drawing room, where Lady Maria was placidly nodding over a book, and fired off her statement point-blank.
“Granny,” she began, with a slightly tremulous laugh, “I’m like the fat boy in ‘ Pickwick’; I’m going to make your flesh creep? I didn't tell you before I started that I had had a telegram from Lady Rusholiffe to say that she was seedy and couldn’t go with me to Hampton Court. I tried to get Marietta to come in her place, but she wouldn’t, and so—l went all by myself.” Lady Maria, who was only half awake,
did nob at once take in the full significance of this terrible announcement. She removed her spectacles, which she slowly rubbed, while endeavoring to recall details wh'di had escaped her memory. “Hampton Court?” she replied. “Was it to Hampton Court that you were going ? And you went by yourself, you say ? Well, but you haven’t been by yourself all this time, I suppose,” “ I have not,” answered Betty, gloomily. “I have been dining with Charlie Jocelyn and two other men, and after dinner we rode to London on our bicycles. There now you know the worst.”
Lady Maria’s spectacles slipped out of her bands, which were instinctively thro’wn upwards. “ This can’t be true ! ” she ejaculated.
“It is, though,” said Betty; “k’s the simple, unvarnished truth. If there were any use in my saying that I am sorry, I would say so ; for that would be the truth, too. But I don’t suppose you would believe me. I know I deserve to be scolded; so scold away, and I won’t interrupt.” The old lady, however, did not avail herself of this generous permission. The case was far too grave to be dealt with by mere scolding, and her consternation was too deep to find relief in that way. “I have never heard,” she groaned, “ that there was actual insanity in the family, though many of the Mallets have been rather eccentric ; but this can only be accounted for upon the supposition that vou have ceased to be responsible for your actions. In fact, I don’t see what other excuse we are to make for you! To dine with three young men, and spend half the night in tearing about on wheels in their company !—ob, it is absurd to talk about there being safety in numbers ; that won’t help you ! And concealment is out of the question. Who could hope to hush up a scandal which each ono of those - young men, you may be very sure, will have related in confidence to somebody else before this time to-morrow?”
“I shouldn’t have thought that they would be so mean,” said Betty ; “ but Mr St. Quintin is quite of your opinion. According to him nobody ever keeps secrets of this kind.”
“Mr St. Quintia ? What does he know about it ?”
“ He knows all about it,” answered Betty. “ I was standing alone outside the hotel at Hampton Court, after dinner, when he dropped upon me suddenly out of a clear sky and began asking questions which I had to answer. In fact, it was he who made mo promise to confess my sins to you. He gave me to understand, in fact, that he would tell you if I didn’t.” Lady Maria stooped down and picked up her spectacles, which she placed upon her nose. Probably she was aware that by gazing over them at the offender she could impart some additional terrors to the severity of her aspect.
“ So you did not intend to confess to me,” she remarked sternly, “I am sorry for this, Betty ; I had hitherto been under the impression that however wilful and disobedient you might be you were at least above taking refuge in deceit. But now it seems that I should have been kept entirely in the dark but for the accident of Mr St. Quintin’s having discovered you.” This accusation, which touched Betty in a tender spot, was all the more hard to bear because she was unable to meet it with a direct denial.
“ I shouldn’t have told you a lie, granny,” was all that she could plead for herself; “ but I suppose, as you say, I did intend to keep you in the dark. I thought you would take it for granted that Lady Rushcliffe had been there, and—arid 1 really didn’t mean any harm.”
It was not often that Mias Betty gave way to tears, but her blue eyes were suspiciously clouded now, and the corners of her mouth were quivering piteously. “Is it, after all, such a very dreadful thing to have done ? ” she asked in a small, uncertain voice. “ My dear,” answered her grandmother, whose heart was not hard enough to hold out against these manifestations of repentance, “ it is such a very dreadful thing that I am quite sure you would never have done it, except upon some mad impulse. What step we are to take I can’t imagine ! I must send for your brother the first thing to-morrow morning and consult him. Meanwhile there is no good in crying. We had better go to bed, both of us, and try to sleep.” Lady Maria added a few injunctions with regard to the use of a Manual of Devotion which'she had recently presented to her grandchild, and hinted that absolution might ultimately be obtained from a priest of the church. But in truth the good lady was less disquieted about the religious than about the social aspect of this unfortunate affair ; for she feared that social absolution would not be likely to be accorded upon very easy terms. Nor had Lionel, who arrived in obedience to his grandmother’s summons immediately after breakfast the next morning, muoh comfort to offer her. He was greatly displeased —far more so than Betty had expected him
1o be—and he expressed himself in uncompromising language. Such an escapade, he said, could not possibly be explained away; there was nothing to be done but to admit the whole truth—which might or might not be believed—and to trust that it would be forgotten within a year.
“ As far as the remainder of this season is concerned,” he added, “I should strongly advise you to sacrifice it and go home at once.”
“But won’t that look rather as if I were being packed off in disgrace ?” Betty ventured to ask.
“ Yes, I should say so,” returned her brother pitilessly. “ What else do you deserve, pray ? I wish there'were any chance of that fellow Jocelyn’s getting what he deserves ! However, I shall speak to his father, with whom I hope he will have a rather nasty quarter of an hour.” It may be mentioned here that Lord Charles’s father, who was a terrible old personage, and upon whom the young man was wholly dependent, proved as furious as Lionel could have desired him to be. He at first proposed to order his son to marry the young lady forthwith, but, upon being given to understand that this form of reparation would be scarcely acceptable to her family, he had recourse to pecuniary and other penalties which effectually put a stop to the delinquent’s fun for a good many months. Meanwhile Lionel walked across to the Home Office in search of St. Quintin, whom he drew away from the labors of correspondence for a few minutes to thank and consult.
“It isn’t 100 pleasant,” he remarked, “ that one’s sister should have been caught making a desperate fool of herself; but since she was to be caught I am glad you were the man to catch her. I have advised my grandmother to take her straight back to Chelton. Under the circumstances, that is the only thing to be done—don’t you think so ? ”
St. Quintin supposed it was. He looked a little down in the mouth, for, indeed, he felt it rather hard that he should be the instrument selected by Providence both for banishing and for incurring the displeasure of one whom he would cheerfully have made any sacrifice to serve.
“I am afraid Mias Mallet will never forgive me,” he said ruefully. “Oh, I don’t know,” answered Lionel. “ If she has any sense at all she will recognise that she is deeply indebted to you; but really I begin to think that she has absolutely no sense. One could understand her having behaved in this way better if there were any reason to suppose that she had taken a fancy to that young ass Jocelyn ” “ Are you sure that she hasn’t ? ” interrupted St. Quintin, with subdued eagerness.
“ Wei), yes ; I’m pretty sure. As sure as one can be about anything in which a woman is concerned. But that, as I say, makes her foolhardiness the more inexplicable. Of course everybody will be talking about this stupid business to-morrow. I don’t know that we can do anything, except admit that she has been a very silly girl and that she is being made to smart for it. I’m all for telling the truth, whatever happens.”
So was St. Quintin. He observed that nobody who knew Mias Mallet would be in the least likely to accuse her of anything worse than silliness, and ventured to add that nobody who entertained a regard for the integrity of his features would be wise to accuse her even of that when he was present.
At this Lionel laughed a little. “Do you propose to punch the heads of a score or so of ladies ?” he asked. “I am afraid we must not hope to be able to stop their tongues; all we can trust to is the shortness of their memories. Oh, dear me ! what a much more peaceful and comfortable planet this would be if there were no wqmen on the surface of it! ”
He did not quite mean that; still he was a good deal annoyed, and St. Quintin did not seem to have muoh to offer him in the way of comfort or advice. He therefore resolved to lunch at home and talk matters over with his wife, who, to be sure, labored under tho disadvantage of being a woman, bat who, for that very reason, might be able to suggest some method of coming to terms with others of her troublesome sex.
On reaching Arlington street he encountered his father-in-law, who was just turning away from the door, and whose countenance did not wear its habitual air of beaming good humor. • °
“ Hullo, Colonel I” said Lionel, “where are you off to ? Can’t you stay and lunob with us ’’’
I was asked to lunch,” Colonel Vigne replied ; “butl suppose Marietta must have forgotten that she invited mo, for she is nor expected home, it appears, until late in the afternoon. I wonder where she has gone," he added, with a troubled look. Lionel had not the slightest idea, and did not seem to think that it signified muoh. “Coma in with me, anyhow,” said hs.
“There will be something for us to eat, I suppose, though we weren’t expected.” The Colonel nodded assent. An opportunity was being offered to him which he felt' that he ought not to neglect, and when, after a time, Lionel, who could think of nothing else, told him about Betty’s scrape, he began to se 3 his way. “My dear fellow,” said he, “ women, according to, my experience of them, are always getting into scrapes, more or less serious. It is really their nature to be like that, and, perhaps, if the whole truth were known, they can’t help it. At any rale, before blaming' them we ought to a«k ourselves whether those- whose duty it is to protect them from harm have not overlooked that duty. Your sister, I would stake my life upon it, is as innocent a young lady as there is in England, yet see what trouble she has got into through—if you will excuse my saying so—lack of proper supervision. Has it never struck, yon that our dear Marietta, for instance, is left rather more to her own devices than is quite safe ? ” Lionel stared. Ho liked the old gentleman and was willing to put up with a good deal from him, but he did not like anybody to adopt that tone in speaking of his wife. “No,” ho answered rather curtly, “I cau’t say that it has. Do you mean anything in particular?” Tie poor Colonel meant something in particular ; but, as we know, it was a matter "of some difficulty and danger for him to say precisely what he meant. However, ho had to do the beat he could ; so he sighed, lighted a cigarette (for this conversation took place after the two men had finished their lunchfeon), and embarked upon a very careful and circuitous statement, the upshot of which was that, in his opinion, Mr Strahan was rather too frequently at the house.
“ I am not suggesting,” he concluded, “ that there is any cause for real alarm ; only I am an old man ; I'have seen more of the world than you have—and I do know—l can’t help knowing—how important it often is to check these things in time. It would be so easy for you, without saying anything, to leave London !”
That, however, would not be so very easy, and certainly Lionel was not at all alarmed; He was even rather amused that Strahan, who was anything but a ladies’ man, and in whose favor, as he believed, Marietta was by no means predisposed, should be made the subject of this well-meant warning. But, to humor the old fellow he replied : “ Very well; I’ll give Marietta a hint. Probably she will have no objection at all to being out in future when Strahan calls. As far as that goes, I shouldn’t mind speaking to Strahan himself, if it were necessary, though I suspect he Would be more astonished than flattered at being taken for a Don Juan.”
“ For Heaven’s sake, don’t dream of doing that!” exclaimed the Colonel, aghast. “I —l—the fact is that Mr Strahan and I are not the best of friends, and I wouldn’t for the world have my name mentioned in the matter. Indeed, I don’t see why you need speak to Marietta either. In these cases action is always preferable to words ; don’t you think so ? ” But Lionel, unfortunately, did not think so. “ Oh, lam not going to scold her,” he answered, laughing ; “ 1 shall only, as I say, give her a hint.” So the Colonel left Arlington street, a prey to harassing doubts as to whether, after all, he would not have done better to keep his own counsel. ( To he continued )
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MARIETTA’S MARRIAGE, Evening Star, Issue 10417, 11 September 1897, Supplement