"Fiddle de dee! besides, how is she to know? who's to tell her?" and before there was time to answer, a vigorous pull was given to the bell.
"Confound this fellow; I wish I'd gone straight off to Nina. What a fool I am!" These were the reflections of Captain Dacres as he followed his friend into the presence of Miss Fisher, who received him with easy cordiality.
"Good gracious on me! Captain Dacres," she said, "what a time it is since I've seen you, to be sure; I took it for granted you were dead."
"Dead!" repeated Nick Walcot. "Why he's married; didn't you know?"
"Oh, it's about the same to me," laughed the lady, and then tilting herself back in her chair so that her voice might reach the further room more easily, she called, "Doady I say, come in here—there's a surprise for you."
And in answer to the summons a young lady appeared, who threw herself into a dramatic attitude exclaiming, "What! Captain Dacres? Well I never! Why—who'd a thought of seeing you?"
Certainly it was not Captain Dacres who had anticipated that pleasure, for while responding with the best grace he could command to the chaff and banter which began to be darted at him, he was consigning Miss Fisher, and more especially the effusive Doady, to every depth between this world and the one below.
The announcement of luncheon opened a more cheerful vista. "Here I am, and I must make the best of it," thought Rowley following, in company with Doady, Nick Walcot and Miss Fisher. "But if ever anything of the sort happens again may I be tarred and feathered. To think I ever thought this woman pretty, and to fancy that to this day Nina is jealous of her."
The luncheon, commenced at an unusually late hour, took a long time getting through; the two ladies were excellent company, and notwithstanding the invectives he had indulged in, five o'clock struck very quickly. Then it was discovered that everybody was going the same way, and it ended with two hansoms being called. Miss Fisher and Nick Walcot got into one, Captain Rowley and Doady Donne occupied the other.
"How tiresome the sun is, let me put up your parasol?" said our friend Rowley, with evident anxiety to screen her; but Doady begged he wouldn't trouble.
"I don't mind the sun a bit," she said. "And I'm not in the least afraid of any one seeing me, since you've married you've grown so very respectable."
"Confound her," ejaculated Rowley mentally, and he congratulated himself on the emptiness of London, resolving to keep his head well back and sit a little on one side as they went through Piccadilly. Doady asked a question about some friend in whom she had formerly felt an interest; this led to past reminiscences and the telling of some good story, over which Rowley was still laughing when there came a crash, followed by a bump and a swaying forward and back. "Hang the fellow, he's run into another hansom!"
In an instant Rowley had dexterously jumped out on to the pavement; the occupant of the other hansom, whose wheel was locked into theirs, obeying the same instinct, had done the same.
"Why, if ain't Teddy Vere. Oh my!" ejaculated one feminine voice shrilly, while from under a red parasol, still open, another groaned, "Rowley! it can't be! Oh, what will become of me?"
Self-preservation is the first law of nature; the woman who hesitates is lost. Before another minute had passed Nina was out of one cab and into another close by.
"Drive off as fast as you can—never mind where! I'll tell you when we get further on," and five minutes later she gave the cabman the address of Mrs. Chetwode's house.
Bursting into the room she cried, "Oh, Bella, such a horrible thing has occurred! Do help me." And she told her the whole story, ending by saying, "I left word at home, when I went out, that I was going to see you."
Mrs. Chetwode said something by way of calming her, and then she rang the bell.
"Tell Martin to go to Mrs. Dacres', and say she will not return to dinner, I've prevailed on her to stop with me. Now, my dear, try and keep calm and put on the best face you can, and we must trust to Providence to help us through."
"But suppose he saw me"
"Oh, no, we'll suppose he didn't see you; and I think you may trust to Teddy—he's got his head screwed on the right way."
Nina wiped away the tears which had flowed over. "Nothing can excuse me for being so imprudent," she said with a half sob; "all the time I knew how wrong it was of me; and the worst is, Bella, I didn't care."
"Didn't care! How?"
"I mean I didn't care for Teddy. What could a boy like that possibly be to me? Why, of course I love Rowley dearly—more than I could tell you; and to think I should risk it all in this stupid way. Oh! it's my abominable vanity; that's what it is. Aunt Jane always said it would be my ruin, and so it will be—after this, you see, Rowley will believe anything of me? Oh, Bella, what shall I do? I shall die."
"Well, my dear, it's the best thing that could happen to you if you are going to behave in this absurd manner." Mrs. Chetwode saw that strong measures must be resorted to; she quite intended reading Nina a lecture; but the time to do so was not now. "There's no doubt but that you have been imprudent, very; but if I am to help you it's not by letting you sit there and cry."
"Wh—at do you wish me to do?"
"To dry your eyes and come down with me to dinner and chat away as we always do. If your husband was going home Martin will bring back word that he is there, or else he will come here and fetch you."
"You took the message?" Mrs. Chetwode asked as the two ladies descended to dinner.
"Really, Nina, I ought to have ordered a better dinner for you."
"Oh, I'm not a bit hungry."
"But you ought to be after going about so much as we have to-day. By-the-by, how did you decide about that hat I saw; do you think it will suit you? Describe it to me."
Forced to answer, Nina was trotted by her friend from one subject of toilette to the other, until in the midst of a got-up argument concerning trimmings, there came a thundering knock at the door.
"Dear bless me! What a late visitor! Who can it be? Martin, just go out and look—never mind the door," and Mrs. Chetwode jumped up and stood so that she could hear the inquiry: "Is Mrs. Dacres here?"
"Yes, sir, the ladies are at dinner."
"Captain Dacres, is that you?" Bella had run out to meet him. "Why, what a surprise—Nina, fancy, here's your husband, dear," and she preceded Rowley back into the dining-room.
"Rowley!" For her life Nina couldn't say more—every atom of colour had forsaken her.
"My dear child, have I frightened you? I'm so sorry, but I found after all I had to come to town. Carne has made such an awful mess about the gun he was to get for me, and so I didn't write. I thought I'd surprise you."
Nina laughed out like a boisterous child. "What a silly thing I am," she said, "I was afraid something had happened."
Rowley put his arm round her, for though she was laughing, her voice sounded like crying all the time.
Under other circumstances he might have been more struck with the little embarrassment which she could not perfectly control, but at the moment he was not quite himself either. That impudent Doady Donne had played a shameful hoax on him, had actually had the audacity to declare that she had seen his wife—Nina, Mrs. Dacres—in Teddy Vere's hansom! He hadn't taken what she said very pleasantly, for the bare notion made him furious, and—though telling himself all the while that he didn't believe it—until he had found Nina seated with her friend, it was impossible to feel any security.
"'Pon my life, it's too bad!" he was saying mentally. "I don't know what things are coming to; there ought to be a stop put to it, a line must be drawn somewhere; and such women oughtn't to be permitted to speak of a lady in that chaify way."
While these reflections occupied his mind he was giving scraps of news to Nina, and answering Mrs. Chetwode, who was frankly saying that she hadn't a morsel of dinner to give him.
"But I don't want any, I've only just had a most enormous luncheon."
"Why, my dear, at the station—ham, beef, beer—you know—veal pie—that sort o' thing."
"Rowley! how could you! You'll be awfully ill, you know."
"Not a bit of it, not I. I—" but at this moment rat-tat-a-tat-tat went the knocker.
Oh! agony—there wasn't a doubt this was Teddy!
"I say, what a game—here's another visitor!" remarked Captain Dacres cheerily.
"One who is expected, I shouldn't wonder." Mrs. Chetwode, as usual, rose equal to the emergency. "We may as well let the cat out of the bag, Nina, and tell him.—We've got a young man coming to take us to the play," and turning to Martin she said, "Show him into the boudoir if that's Mr. Vere."
"Mr. Vere! What, Teddy! Here, stop, I'll open the door!" exclaimed Rowley hastily "Don't you go"
"But why?" interposed Mrs. Chetwode amazedly.
"Because it's interrupting you so awfully in your dinner. No, no, we'll go up stairs together—it'll be all right you'll see"
He was already in the hall, had opened the door—their voices, laughing it seemed—sounded together.
"What can it mean?" said Nina anxiously
"Never mind, one thing is certain—he didn't see you"
"Perhaps it's the beer—he seems a little excited, don't you think?"
"I'm not going to leave them together Teddy," called out Mrs. Chetwode, "come in here. Have you brought tickets for the comedy?"
"Oh, it's no use disguising; we've—"
"No, no!" broke in Rowley, "not a bit, I know all about it, old fellow; they've told me what you've come to do—I'll go with you. By Jove, capital idea! Ha, ha."
"Oh, it must be the beer," thought Nina, and watching Bella's eye she tapped her forehead with her finger to indicate that there was no doubt that Rowley's head was slightly affected.
"Mrs. Chetwode, I'm awfully sorry," began Teddy, "but do you know, I've made such a mess about the comedy; they aint playing that piece at all there now. I hope you'll both forgive me."
"How tiresome! What a naughty boy you are!" said Bella. "Now there's nothing for us to do."
"Nothing to do," said Rowley. "Not a bit of it; we ain't going to be stumped for one failure; we'll go somewhere—where shall it be, Nina, eh?"
"Any place you like, dear," so long as I am with you, the big brown eyes seemed to say; and Rowley, looking back again, thought, "And I could doubt her—bless her heart, the darling!" while Nina kept repeating, "This will be a lesson for me as long as I live. Never again, no more flirtation—never, never, never!"
Later in the evening when it was decided that they should all go to the Fisheries, without hesitation as to the other two, Nina and Rowley went off together.
"Are we to follow the turtle doves?" said Teddy with sarcasm.
"As you please," said Bella, "but it doesn't in the least matter—you know I've a scolding in store for you, Teddy?"
"No, not now," and he held up his hands pleadingly.
"Yes, but you've been most imprudent, and it's by the very greatest luck in the world that Rowley didn't see you. If he had, it would have been anything but pleasant for Nina."
"Hm!" and Teddy gave his nose a screw. He was terribly tempted to tell what he looked on as the very best joke in the world—only—well—no—perhaps better not—if you once let a thing slip out it often gets spoken of, nobody knows how; and as Rowley had whispered at the door, "Teddy, I say, not a word about having seen me before," and he had answered "Honour bright, old chap; you may trust me," he'd keep the matter dark; only there was one to score against Miss Doady Donne for telling him last night at dinner that she was going to play propriety to a friend that day. He hated a lie without a reason; and as it seemed to him he'd gone quite far enough in that direction, this would serve as a capital peg to hang a quarrel on.
"Shall we say good-night?" said Bella.
"Do you want to get rid of me?"
"Oh, I see you do," and he held out his hand to her.
"Good-night," she began, trying to hold herself very severely, "and let this little adventure be a lesson to you. All's well that ends well, but remember all doesn't always end so."
"Quite true," he said, feigning to have listened penitently." By-the-way, would you mind repeating that same little sermon to our friend Rowley?—it might be of service to him. What do I mean?—oh nothing—only that one good turn deserves another."