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Chapter XV 


STILL OCCUPIED WITH THE PETTICOAT

The door was opened by a comely young woman, with ruddy cheeks and a bright kind eye that promised conversation. But "H'm," said I to myself, as she went to fetch my milk, "evidently not yours, my dear."

"A nice drying day for your washing," I said, as I slowly sipped my milk, with a half-inclination of my head towards the clothes-line.

"Very fine, indeed, sir," she returned, with something of a blush, and a shy deprecating look that seemed to beg me not to notice the peculiarly quaint antics which the wind, evidently a humourist, chose at that moment to execute with the female garments upon the line. However, I was for once cased in triple brass and inexorable.

"And who," I ventured, smiling, "may be the owner of those fine things?"

"Not those," I continued, pointing to an odd garment which the wind was wantonly puffing out in the quaintest way, "but that pretty petticoat and those silk stockings?"

The poor girl had gone scarlet, scarlet as the petticoat which I was sure WAS hers, with probably a fellow at the moment keeping warm her buxom figure.

"You are very bold, sir," she stammered through her blushes, but I could see that she was not ill-pleased that the finery should attract attention.

"But won't you tell me?" I urged; "I have a reason for asking."

And here I had better warn the reader that, as the result of a whim that presently seized me, I must be content to appear mad in his eyes for the next few pages, till I get an opportunity of explanation.

"Well, what if they should be mine?" at length I persuaded her into saying.

I made the obvious gallant reply, but, "All the same," I added, "you know they are not yours. They belong to some lady visitor, who, I'll be bound, isn't half so pretty; now, don't they?"

"Well, they just don't then. They're mine, as I tell you."

"H'm," I continued, a little nonplussed, "but do you really mean there is no lady staying with you?"

"Certainly," she replied, evidently enjoying my bewilderment.

"Well, then, some lady must have stayed here once," I retorted, with a sudden inspiration, "and left them behind--"

"You might be a detective after stolen goods," she interrupted.

"I tell you the things are mine; and what I should like to know does a gentleman want bothering himself about a lady's petticoat!

No wonder you blush," for, in fact, as was easy to foresee, the situation was becoming a little ridiculous for me.

"Now, look here," I said with an affectation of gravity, "if you'll tell me how you came by those things, I'll make it worth your while. They were given to you by a lady who stayed here not so long ago, now, weren't they?"

"Well, then, they were."

"The lady stayed here with a gentleman?"

"Yes, she did."

"H'm! I thought so," I said. "Yes! that lady, it pains me to say, was my wife!"

This unblushing statement was not, I could see, without its effect upon the present owner of the petticoat.

"But she said they were brother and sister," she replied.

"Of course she did," I returned, with a fine assumption of scorn,--"of course she did. They always do."

"Dear young woman," I continued, when I was able to control my emotion, "you are happily remote from the sin and wickedness of the town, and I am sorry to speak of such things in so peaceful a spot--but as a strange chance has led me here, I must speak, must tell you that all wives are not so virtuous and faithful as you, I am sure, are. There are wives who forsake their husbands and--and go off with a handsomer man, as the poet says; and mine, mine, alas! was one of them. It is now some months ago that my wife left me in this way, and since then I have spent every day in searching for her; but never till this moment have I come upon the least trace of her. Strange, is it not? that here, in this peaceful out-of-the- way garden, I should come upon her very petticoat, her very stockings--"

By this my grief had become such that the kind girl put her hand on my arm. "Don't take on so," she said kindly, and then remembering her treasured property, and probably fearing a counterclaim on my part to its possession, "But how can you be sure she was here? There are lots of petticoats like that--"

"What was she like?" I asked through my agitation.

"Middle height, slim and fair, with red goldy hair and big blue eyes; about thirty, I should say."

"The very same," I groaned, "there is no mistake; and now," I continued, "I want you to sell me that petticoat and those stockings," and I took a couple of sovereigns from my purse. "I want to have them to confront her with, when I do find her. Perhaps it will touch her heart to think of the strange way in which I came by them; and you can buy just as pretty ones again with the money," I added, as I noticed the disappointment on her face at the prospect of thus losing her finery.

"Well, it's a funny business, to be sure," she said, as still half reluctantly she unpegged the coveted garments from the line; "but if what you say 's true, I suppose you must have them."

The wanton wind had been so busily kissing them all the morning that they were quite dry, so I was able to find room for them in my knapsack without danger to the other contents; and, with a hasty good-day to their recent possessor, I set off at full speed to find a secure nook where I could throw myself down on the grass, and let loose the absurd laughter that was dangerously bottled up within me; but even before I do that it behoves me if possible to vindicate my sanity to the reader.

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