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many hairies as I have, and can't tell when a dealer is bluffing? He was piling it on so that when the next Christmas-tree comes along, he may find a soft job waiting for him. I tell you you want a friendly native, like me, when you get into this kind of country. Now ride this one on the curb, and don't let him have his head for a moment.'
Mr. Wingfield had entered, and his manner was very different to that of the secretary. He had great sympathy with the Crosses, and no desire to wash the Company's dirty linen in public. He was, therefore, more anxious than he dared to show to come to some arrangement.
'It is rather irregular for me to see you. I should refer you to our solicitors,' said he.
'Well, we saw you when you came to Woking,' said Maude. 'I believe that we are much more likely to come to an arrangement if we talk it over ourselves.'
'I am sure I earnestly hope so,' Wingfield answered. 'I shall be delighted to listen to anything which you may suggest. Do you, in the first place, admit your liability?'
'To some extent,' said Maude, 'if the Company will admit that they are in the wrong also.'
'Well, we may go so far as to say that we wish the books had been inspected more often, and that we regret our misplaced confidence in our agent. That should satisfy you, Mrs. Crosse. And now that you admit SOME liability, that is a great step in advance. We have no desire to be unreasonable, but as long as no liability was admitted, we had no course open to us but litigation. We now come to the crucial point, which is, how much liability should fall upon you. My own idea is, that each should pay their own costs, and that you should, in addition, pay over to the Company--'
'Forty pounds,' said Jack firmly.
Maude expected Mr. Wingfield to rise up and leave the room. As he did not do so, nor show any signs of violence, she said, 'Yes, forty pounds.'
He shook his head.
'Dear me, Mrs. Crosse, this is a very small sum.'
'Forty pounds is our offer,' said Jack.
'But on what is this offer based?'
'We have worked it out,' said Jack, 'and we find that forty pounds is right.'
Mr. Wingfield rose from his chair.
'Well,' said he, 'of course any offer is better than no offer. I cannot say what view the directors may take of this proposal, but they will hold a board meeting this afternoon, and I will lay it before them.'
'And when shall we know?'
'I could send you round a line by hand to your solicitor.'
'No hurry about it! Quite at your own convenience!' said Jack. When he got outside, in the privacy of their hansom, he was convulsed with the sense of his own achievements.
'Class A, Number 1, and mentioned at the Agricultural Hall,' he cried, hugging himself in his delight. His sister hugged him also, so he was a much-embraced young man. 'Am I not a man of business, Maude? You can't buy 'em--you must breed 'em. One shilling with the basket. I shook him in the first round, and he never rallied after.'
'You are a dear good boy. You did splendidly.'
'That's the way to handle 'em. He saw that I was a real fizzer and full of blood. One business man can tell another at a glance.'
Maude laughed, for Jack, with his cavalry swagger and a white weal all round his sunburned face to show where his chin-strap hung, looked the most unbusiness-like of mortals.
'Why did you offer forty pounds?' she asked.
'Well, you have to begin somewhere.'
'But why forty?'
'Because it is what we offer when we are buying the hairies-- trooper's chargers, you know. It's a great thing to have a fixed rule in business. I never go higher than forty--rule one, section one, and no exceptions in the margin.'
They lunched together at the Holborn, and Jack took Maude afterwards to what he called 'a real instructive show,' which proved to be a horse-sale at Tattersall's. They then drove back to the lawyer's, and there they found a letter waiting addressed to Mrs. Crosse. Maude tore it open.
'Dear Mrs. Crosse,' said this delightful note, 'I am happy to be able to inform you that the directors have decided to stop the legal proceedings, and to accept your offer of forty pounds in full satisfaction of all claims due against your husband.'
Maude, Jack, and the good Owen performed a triumphant pas de trois.
'You have done splendidly, Mrs. Crosse, splendidly!' cried Owen. 'I never heard a better day's work in my life. Now, if you will give me your cheque and wait here, I will go over and settle everything.'
'And please bring the bond back with you,' said Maude.
So it was that Frank, coming down upon the morning of his birthday, perceived a pretty silver cigarette-box laid in front of his plate.
'Is this for me, my darling?'
'Yes, Frank, a wee present from your wife.'
'How sweet of you! I never saw such a lovely case. Why, there's something inside it.'
'Cigarettes, I suppose.
'No, it is a paper of some kind. "Hotspur Insurance Company." Good Lord, I never seem for one instant to be able to shake that infernal thing off! How on earth did it get in there? What's this?--"I hereby guarantee to you--" What's this? Maude, Maude, what have you been doing?'
'Dear old boy,' she cried, as she put her arms round him. 'Dear old boy! Oh, I DO feel so happy!'
CHAPTER XVI--THE BROWNING SOCIETY
It all began by Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, the smart little up-to-date wife of the solicitor, saying to Mrs. Beecher, the young bride of the banker, that in a place like Woking it was very hard to get any mental friction, or to escape from the same eternal grooves of thought and conversation. The same idea, it seemed, had occurred to Mrs. Beecher, fortified by a remark from the Lady's Journal that an internal intellectual life was the surest method by which a woman could preserve her youth. She turned up the article--for the conversation occurred in her drawing-room--and she read extracts from it. 'Shakespeare as a Cosmetic' was the title. Maude was very much struck, and before they separated they had formed themselves into a Literary Society which should meet and discuss classical authors every Wednesday afternoon at each other's houses. That one hour of concentrated thought and lofty impulse should give a dignity and a tone to the whole dull provincial week.
What should they read? It was well that they should decide it before they separated, so as to start fair upon the next Wednesday. Maude suggested Shakespeare, but Mrs. Hunt Mortimer thought that a good deal of it was improper.
'Does it matter?' said Mrs. Beecher. 'We are all married.'
'Still I don't think it would be quite nice,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. She belonged to the extreme right on matters of propriety.
'But surely Mr. Bowdler made Shakespeare quite respectable,' Mrs. Beecher argued.
'He did his work very carelessly. He left in much that might be dispensed with, and he omitted a good deal which was quite innocent.'
'How do you know?'
'Because I once got two copies and read all the omissions.'
'Why did you do that?' asked Maude mischievously.
'Because I wanted to make sure that they HAD been omitted,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer severely.
Mrs. Beecher stooped and picked an invisible hairpin out of the rug. Mrs. Hunt Mortimer continued.
'There is Byron, of course. But he is so very suggestive. There are passages in his works--'
'I could never see any harm in them,' said Mrs. Beecher.
'That is because you did not know where to look,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'If you have a copy in the house, Mrs. Beecher, I will undertake to make it abundantly clear to you that he is to be eschewed by those who wish to keep their thoughts unsullied. Not? I fancy that even quoting from memory I could convince you that it is better to avoid him.'
'Pass Byron,' said Mrs. Beecher, who was a very pretty little kittenish person, with no apparent need of any cosmetics, literary or otherwise. 'How about Shelley?'
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