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WILL HE ESCAPE?

BOOK THE SECOND.

(Continued.)

CHAPTER II.

MR. AND MRS. TALBOT REQUEST THE HONOR."

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SCHEN a delicate little note, with a delicate and refined 64 monogram

the Hardmans had a monogram all ablaze with the lettering of a City shop-board,

gold and colours, and a perfect tangle of gorgeous characters—was brought to the owner of “The Towers,” he read it with great complacency. “Very proper! Very suitable !” He was pleased because he saw, from the formal character of the invitation, it was to be none of the dull, domestic affairs which they professed to like, sans cérémonie, and to consider far more pleasant than the great, dull, state dinners. This was a very poor, low view to take; and, for aristocratic people, a most singular one. A state dinner, twenty-four or eighteen strong, was to him the perfection of elegance, civilisation, and refinement. There true happiness and enjoyment was to be found, if you had been “given” some well-born person to take down. He had been afraid that the return compliment would have taken the shape of one of the foolish solemnities which he so dreaded; but he knew now they were certain of a choice culling of two or three flowers of rank, which was what the Talbots affected when they wished to be in state. There was more opportunity here, and he delightedly sent an acceptance, on the monogramed paper, which seemed like a bad imitation of some old MS. illumination, and which he sometimes boasted cost him sixpence a sheet.

The great coach of state had set them down-Mr. and Mrs. Hardman and their son—and they had entered in the usual single file. Mr. Hardman coming last, a little uneasy and hot, into that refined atmosphere, where all was elegant and subdued beside the hot glare of his own decoration, saw that there was a grey, largeheaded gentleman with his wife, a young man with a beard, who was at home, and Old Dick Lumley over again. He felt assured that these were “somebodies,” though the society was scarcely of sufficiently flattering dimensions to suit him. He and his party seemed, indeed, both to themselves and every one else, utterly out of place. They were out of keeping, and did not match. The resplendent Joss, the huge mass of human flesh, stuck over with gold and diamonds, and set upon cushions, was the worst. Mr. Hardman-keeping back –hung uneasily on the outskirts. He wondered at the vast quantity the others had to say. How little they minded him! The roundheaded gentleman proved to be Mr. Rawlinson, one of the Foreign Office secretaries, an important person, who knew every particular most valuable to know. The other was the Lord Robert, Mrs. Talbot's relation, a good-looking, bearded fellow, who was credited with an amount of wisdom vastly beyond his years, and, it must be said, still more vastly beyond what he really possessed, but which he utilized and put out to interest in a manner that was the envy of many. He had that admirable gift, which is the pride and despair of stupid people, of appearing to be full of things to tell, or to comment on, and which from such a person acquires an extra value and importance. He was not afraid of his own voice. Mr. Hardman hovered uneasily on the outskirts, smiling as if he understood, his hands behind him. Even when Old Dick Lumley and the Foreign Office secretary and Mrs. Talbot were all in a tumult of talk and excitement, laughing, clattering, interrupting, he was still outside the enclosure, and every one knew that he was. He knew that they knew this. Mrs. Talbot directed her husband to introduce him, compassionating his situation, and he was relieved at finding himself bowing humbly to a Lord Robert--something that he could not catch. Henceforth through the night it was,

“ You were saying, Lord Robert ”—“ As Lord Robert remarked”—“ Your view, Lord Robert ;” and that young man, strange to say, known to be full of what is called “ chaff,” was strangely deferential to him. But Rob was known to be “ deuced long-headed”—“never to let go a chance”—and a few whispers from his relation that this was a shrewd, vulgar, clever man of business, who had made himself, and could help a man, may be supposed to have much to do with it.

The little dinner was delightful. The sauce about that round table was a never-flagging vivacity and good spirits, worth all the dishes in Francatelli. Old Dick Lumley, at such banquets, drank out of his first glass some of the precious fountain of youthjust enough, at least, to carry him through the dinner. How his ancient jaws moved in both directions ; how the stories and commentaries poured out, and the choice wines poured in. The ruined teeth played on their restored fellows underneath, and the wonderful vital strength which was within that old man of society gave light to his eyes, colour to his cheeks, inflexion to his voice, gesture to his arms. Mr. Rawlinson, without revealing secrets, gave curious little details of his office, which showed that he was intimate with ministers, --little points that could not be found in the newspapers.

“Lord Manley came down himself four times during the day to see that the despatches were ready. I never saw a man so nervous. Of course I knew what the office could do, and guaranteed him that all would be in time; but I give you my honour, at eight o'clock, just as other people were going to their dinner, down he drove again in his brougham. Most remarkable man, that. Must see everything done himself.”

He had no such devoted liste as Mr. Hardman, who bent his thin chest across the table to catch every word. It was impossible to ignore such a listener ; and when Mr. Hardman repeated that it was wonderful, astounding—“What, in his own brougham ?"—that he had never heard anything to approach it in all his life, the narrator was naturally impressed. Old Dick Lumley capped it with another trait.

“Just like him. He came in the other morning to one of Milkton Monsey's breakfasts, and made such a fuss about his egg being boiled properly; I never knew anything like it. It was too hard, too soft, a shade less, a shade more: and this man with a portfolio! Very curious !"

“Lord bless you,” said the Lord Robert, impetuously, and putting them all down together, "there's nothing in that. That's part of the game. One of the best actors going. I know it as a fact that he hates eggs."

Mr. Hard man was outside the whole-kept away by a scrub fence and wall, over which he could only smile adhesion. He knew nothing of Manley, nor of the crowd of people who were made to pass across that dinner-table. Even when some one or something that he did know turned up, he could not get in any

contribution. He was like a log on the neck of the party ; that dead weight of the two seemed to press on all, and eyes of distrust were bent on them. Mr. Hardman was very uncomfortable ; Mrs. Hardman found a refuge in steady eating. At last a soldier's name was mentioned, who was in a regiment out at Gibraltar. Here was a conversational hen-coop flung to him, and the Beauty put in for him.

Oh, you ought to know something about that. Isn't it Labouchere's regiment ?"

“ Yes, my son-in-law," answered the other, with an indescribable pomposity, which he did his best to avoid. “He commands itcommands the regiment."

“Very good fellow, Labouchere," the young Lord Robert said, in a patronising way. “Keeps his men rather stiff, but a good officer."

“You know him, then, Lord Robert?” Mr. Hardman said, with delight and importance mixed.

“Know him! To be sure—all my life. He has his faults, as every man has; but there is a tone of chivalry about him-old fashion, plenty would call it-which I like. That's a thing you can't get in the shops now. So he is married ? !

“Yes, Lord Robert. He holds quite a distinguished position out there, such as we have no idea of here. The governor can do nothing without him."

The young man laughed boisterously.

"What, old Fazakerly? He never could do anything without somebody. Ha, ha ! Yes, Labouchere would shine out there. And near old Lady Fazakerly, Mrs. Labouchere—whom I've not had the honour of knowing as yet-would shine without much exertion. Poor old Tow-Row Faz! She was high comedy, or rather farce.”

The Beauty struck in complacently,

“Oh, Mrs. Labouchere, I can tell you, will come out brilliantly wherever she is. She will have quite a court of her own there. In fact, certain to be queen wherever she is.”

At this praise, uneasiness came in the faces of the company, so marked, that the gay young man looked at them with a little surprise.

But the Beauty, who was in high satisfaction with himself, went on to Mr. Hardman,

Yes, she will be greatly admired, you know; for she has a style about her you don't see in most women.”

Again fresh pain in the two faces; Mrs. Talbot talking away rather nervously to Old Dick Lumley.

“Sir," says Mr. Hardman, as if he was returning thanks at a public dinner, “I am sure Mrs. Labouchere, if she knew of your kind opinion, would feel it very much. Yes, she has a great deal of cleverness, and tact above all things, with a surprising knowledge of the world. You know that, Mrs. Talbot."

Mrs. Talbot's lip curled.

" I believe Mrs. Labouchere to be clever--very clever, from the slight acquaintance I had with her ; but tact is so rare a virtue, and I am sure she has so many others.

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“ To be sure," the young man said ; "you are right there. Not one man in fifty has tact; and, certainly, not one woman in two hundred.”'

Mr. Hardman at once gave up his daughter.

“ Yes, Lord Robert, there is a great deal of truth in what you say." In a lower voice he went on, to Mrs. Talbot, “She is peculiar in some things, my daughter Rose. She takes things into her head, and at times was quite too fond of her own way. Really I was quite sorry to hear, Mrs. Talbot, that one evening, at our house, she had been rather

to you, and “Rather, I know, to me!" repeated Mrs. Talbot. " What sort of behaviour was that, pray ?"

“ I mean " (growing red), “ that she said some things. If I had been there, I assure you

Mrs. Talbot drew herself up.

“I must assure you that you are under some delusion. In the houses that I have been in the habit of going to, no one speaks to me in the way you describe. I scarcely know Mrs. Labouchere."

“No, no; I don't mean that,” he said, in great alarm. “ But she is hasty, you know; and I have great difficulty myself at home.”

Possibly. I never enter into the domestic life ; it would be far too complicated a matter. I must beg you will not be under that strange impression any longer."

Dear, no, Mrs. Talbot. I really never dreamt of it a moment." Then the pleasant medley of general talk set in briskly. Dick Lumley had a choice morsel or so of something which it would be ungenerous to call scandal, but still of so curious and delicate a flavour that a child might almost taste of it. Cooked in this way, and by a cordon bleu who knows his work, nothing is so interesting ; and we can see even the professional devote ex officio, the serious one, raising her demure eyes with interest. Old Dick Lumley was an artist at this work, and the sauce in which he served such morsels

a kind of deep sympathy, conveying that it was with deep pain that he entered on the matter at all.

“Such a sad business, that! Baker, who used to dine there twice a week, told me that the poor, gentle husband used to force money on him.

When he came home from the club it was like that mountebank in the play, Belphegor—wife's lace shawl on the chair. Five children left behind, I'm told. Shocking! What is to become of the poor things ?" " Two, I heard," said Lord Robert.

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Rest were at school. I have it all from Baker.” Even our Livy listened to this story with “tearful sympathy."

6 Yes.

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