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Chapter XIV 


THE MYSTERIOUS PETTICOAT

The sad thoughts with which this incident naturally left me were at length and suddenly dispersed, as sad thoughts not infrequently are, by a petticoat. When I say petticoat, I use the word in its literal sense, not colloquially as a metaphor for its usual wearer, meaning thereby a dainty feminine undergarment seen only by men on rainy days, and one might add washing-days. It was indeed to the fortunate accident of its being washing-day at the pretty cottage near which in the course of my morning wanderings I had set me down to rest, that I owed the sight of the petticoat in question.

But first allow me to describe a little more fully my surroundings at the moment. Not indeed that I can hope to put into words the charm of those embowered cottages, like nests in the armpits of great trees, tucked snugly in the hollows of those narrow, winding, almost subterranean lanes which burrow their way beneath the warm-hearted Surrey woodlands.

Nothing can be straighter and smoother than a Surrey road--when it is on the king's business; then it is a high-road and behaves accordingly: but a Surrey bye-road is the most whimsical companion in the world. It is like a sheep-dog, always running backwards and forwards, poking into the most out-of-the-way corners, now climbing at a run some steep hummock of the down, and now leisurely going miles about to escape an ant-hill; and all the time (here, by the way, ends the sheep-dog) it is stopping to gossip with rillets vagabond as itself, or loitering to bedeck itself with flowers. It seems as innocent of a destination as a boy on an errand; but, after taking at least six times as long as any other road in the kingdom for its amount of work, you usually find it dip down of a sudden into some lovely natural cul-de-sac, a meadow-bottom surrounded by trees, with a stream spreading itself in fantastic silver shallows through its midst, and a cottage half hidden at the end. Had the lane been going to some great house, it would have made more haste, we may be sure.

The lane I had been following had finally dropped me down at something of a run upon just such a scene. The cottage, built substantially of grey stone, stood upon the side of the slope, and a broad strip of garden, half cultivated and half wild, began near the house with cabbages, and ended in a jungle of giant bulrushes as it touched the stream. Golden patches of ragwort blazed here and there among a tangled mass of no doubt worthier herbage,--such even in nature is the power of gold,--and there were the usual birds.

However, my business is with the week's washing, which in various shades of white, with occasional patches of scarlet, fluttered fantastically across a space of the garden, thereby giving unmistakable witness to human inhabitants, male and female.

As I lounged upon the green bank, I lazily watched these parodies of humanity as they were tossed hither and thither with humourous indignity by the breeze, remarking to myself on the quaint shamelessness with which we thus expose to the public view garments which at other times we are at such bashful pains to conceal. And thus philosophising, like a much greater philosopher, upon clothes, I found myself involuntarily deducing the cottage family from the family washing. I soon decided that there must be at least one woman say of the age of fifty, one young woman, one little child, sex doubtful, and one man probably young. Further than this it was impossible to conjecture. Thus I made the rough guess that a young man and his wife, a child, and a mother-in-law were among the inhabitants of this idyllic cottage.

But the clothes-line presented charming evidence of still another occupant; and here, though so far easy to read, came in something of a puzzle. Who in this humble out-of-the-way cottage could afford to wear that exquisite cambric petticoat edged with a fine and very expensive lace? And surely it was on no country legs that those delicately clocked and open-worked silk stockings walked invisible through the world.

Nor was the lace any ordinary expensive English lace, such as any good shop can supply. Indeed, I recognised it as being of a Parisian design as yet little known in England; while on the tops of the stockings I laughingly suspected a border designed by a certain eccentric artist, who devotes his strange gifts to decorating with fascinating miniatures the under-world of woman. I have seen corsets thus made beautiful by him valued at five hundred pounds, and he never paints a pair of garters for less than a hundred. His name is not yet a famous one, as, for obvious reasons, his works are not exhibited at public galleries, though they are occasionally to be seen at private views.

I am far from despising an honest red-flannel country petticoat. There is no warmer kinder-looking garment in the world. It suggests country laps and country breasts, with sturdy country babes greedy for the warm white milk, and it seems dyed in country blushes. Yet, for all that, one could not be insensible to the exotic race and distinction of that frivolous town petticoat, daintily disporting itself there among its country cousins, like a queen among milkmaids.

What numberless suggestions of romance it awoke! What strange perfumes seemed to waft across from it, perfumes laden with associations of a world so different from the green world where it now was, a charming world of gay intrigue and wanton pleasure. No wonder the wind chose it so often for its partner as it danced through the garden, scorning to notice the heavy homespun things about it. It was not every day that that washing-day wind met so fine a lady, and it was charming to see how gently he played about her stockings. "Ah, wind," I said, "evidently you are a gallant born; but tell us the name of the lady. It is somewhere on that pretty petticoat, I'll be bound."

Is she some little danseuse with the whim to be romantically rustic for a week? or is she somebody else's pretty wife run away with somebody else's man? or is she some naughty little grisette with an extravagant lover? or is she just the usual lady landscape artist, with a more than usual taste in lingerie?

At all events, it was fairly obvious that, for one reason or another, the wearer of the petticoat and stockings which have now occupied us for perhaps a sufficient number of pages, was a visitor at the cottage.

The next thing was to get a look at her. So, remembering how fond I was of milk from the cow, I pushed open the gate and advanced to the cottage door.

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