That Chairman was nowhere in sight. Such disappointments seldom occur in novels, but are always happening in real life.
She was obliged to make a new plan. She sent him a note, and asked him to call in the evening—which he did.
She received the Hon. Mr. Buckstone with a sunny smile, and said:
"I don't know how I ever dared to send you a note, Mr. Buckstone, for you have the reputation of not being very partial to our sex."
"Why I am sure my, reputation does me wrong, then, Miss Hawkins. I have been married once—is that nothing in my favor?"
"Oh, yes—that is, it may be and it may not be. If you have known what perfection is in woman, it is fair to argue that inferiority cannot interest you now."
"Even if that were the case it could not affect you, Miss Hawkins," said the chairman gallantly. "Fame does not place you in the list of ladies who rank below perfection." This happy speech delighted Mr. Buckstone as much as it seemed to delight Laura. But it did not confuse him as much as it apparently did her.
"I wish in all sincerity that I could be worthy of such a felicitous compliment as that. But I am a woman, and so I am gratified for it just as it is, and would not have it altered."
"But it is not merely a compliment—that is, an empty complement—it is the truth. All men will endorse that."
Laura looked pleased, and said:
"It is very kind of you to say it. It is a distinction indeed, for a country-bred girl like me to be so spoken of by people of brains and culture. You are so kind that I know you will pardon my putting you to the trouble to come this evening."
"Indeed it was no trouble. It was a pleasure. I am alone in the world since I lost my wife, and I often long for the society of your sex, Miss Hawkins, notwithstanding what people may say to the contrary."
"It is pleasant to hear you say that. I am sure it must be so. If I feel lonely at times, because of my exile from old friends, although surrounded by new ones who are already very dear to me, how much more lonely must you feel, bereft as you are, and with no wholesome relief from the cares of state that weigh you down. For your own sake, as well as for the sake of others, you ought to go into society oftener. I seldom see you at a reception, and when I do you do not usually give me very, much of your attention"
"I never imagined that you wished it or I would have been very glad to make myself happy in that way.—But one seldom gets an opportunity to say more than a sentence to you in a place like that. You are always the centre of a group—a fact which you may have noticed yourself. But if one might come here—"
"Indeed you would always find a hearty welcome, Mr. Buckstone. I have often wished you would come and tell me more about Cairo and the Pyramids, as you once promised me you would."
"Why, do you remember that yet, Miss Hawkins? I thought ladies' memories were more fickle than that."
"Oh, they are not so fickle as gentlemen's promises. And besides, if I had been inclined to forget, I—did you not give me something by way of a remembrancer?"
"It does seem to me that I did; but I have forgotten what it was now."
"Never, never call a lady's memory fickle again! Do you recognize this?"
"A little spray of box! I am beaten—I surrender. But have you kept that all this time?"
Laura's confusion was very, pretty. She tried to hide it, but the more she tried the more manifest it became and withal the more captivating to look upon. Presently she threw the spray of box from her with an annoyed air, and said:
"I forgot myself. I have been very foolish. I beg that you will forget this absurd thing."
Mr. Buckstone picked up the spray, and sitting down by Laura's side on the sofa, said:
"Please let me keep it, Miss Hawkins. I set a very high value upon it now."
"Give it to me, Mr. Buckstone, and do not speak so. I have been sufficiently punished for my thoughtlessness. You cannot take pleasure in adding to my distress. Please give it to me."
"Indeed I do not wish to distress you. But do not consider the matter so gravely; you have done yourself no wrong. You probably forgot that you had it; but if you had given it to me I would have kept it—and not forgotten it."
"Do not talk so, Mr. Buckstone. Give it to me, please, and forget the matter."
"It would not be kind to refuse, since it troubles you so, and so I restore it. But if you would give me part of it and keep the rest—"
"So that you might have something to remind you of me when you wished to laugh at my foolishness?"
"Oh, by no means, no! Simply that I might remember that I had once assisted to discomfort you, and be reminded to do so no more."
Laura looked up, and scanned his face a moment. She was about to break the twig, but she hesitated and said:
"If I were sure that you—" She threw the spray away, and continued: "This is silly! We will change the subject. No, do not insist—I must have my way in this."
Then Mr. Buckstone drew off his forces and proceeded to make a wily advance upon the fortress under cover of carefully—contrived artifices and stratagems of war. But he contended with an alert and suspicious enemy; and so at the end of two hours it was manifest to him that he had made but little progress. Still, he had made some; he was sure of that.
Laura sat alone and communed with herself;
"He is fairly hooked, poor thing. I can play him at my leisure and land him when I choose. He was all ready to be caught, days and days ago—I saw that, very well. He will vote for our bill—no fear about that; and moreover he will work for it, too, before I am done with him. If he had a woman's eyes he would have noticed that the spray of box had grown three inches since he first gave it to me, but a man never sees anything and never suspects. If I had shown him a whole bush he would have thought it was the same. Well, it is a good night's work: the committee is safe. But this is a desperate game I am playing in these days—a wearing, sordid, heartless game. If I lose, I lose everything—even myself. And if I win the game, will it be worth its cost after all? I do not know. Sometimes I doubt. Sometimes I half wish I had not begun. But no matter; I have begun, and I will never turn back; never while I live."
Mr. Buckstone indulged in a reverie as he walked homeward:
"She is shrewd and deep, and plays her cards with considerable discretion—but she will lose, for all that....