A COUNCIL OF THREE

“Now, let’s all be happy,” said Miss Lambert; they had finished tea and
Belinda was removing the things, “for I must be going in a minute, and I
have such a lot of things to say–oh dear me, that reminds me,” her
under-lip fell slightly.

“What?” asked Leavesley.

“That I’m perfectly miserable.”

“Oh, don’t say that—-”

“My dear young lady—-”

“I mean I _ought_ to be perfectly miserable,” said Miss Lambert with a
charming smile, “but somehow I’m not. Do you know, I never am what I
ought to be. When I ought to be happy I’m miserable, and when I ought to
be miserable I’m happy. Father says I was addled at birth, and that I
ought to have been put out of doors on a red-hot shovel as they used to
do long ago in Ireland with the omadlunns, or was it the changelings–no
matter. I wanted to talk to you about father–no, please don’t go,” to
Verneede, who had made a little movement as if to say “Am I _de trop_?”
“You are both so clever I’m sure you will be able to give me good
advice. He’s worrying so.”

“Ah!” said Mr Verneede, with the air of a physician at a consultation.
He was in his element, he saw a prospect of unburthening himself of some
of his superfluous advice.

“It’s this Action,” resumed Fanny, as if she were speaking of a tumour
or carbuncle, “that makes him so bad; I’m getting quite frightened about
him.”

“Was that the action he spoke to me about?” asked Leavesley.

“Which?” asked Fanny.

“The one against a bookseller?”

“Oh no, I think that’s settled; it’s the one against our cousin, Mr
Bevan.”

“Ah!”

“It’s about the right-of-way–I mean the right of fishing in a stream
down in Buckinghamshire. They’ve spent ever so much money over it, it’s
worrying father to death, but he _won’t_ give it up. I thought perhaps
if _you_ spoke to him you might have some influence with him.”

“I’d be delighted to do anything,” said Leavesley. “What is this man
Bevan like?”

“Frightfully rich, and a beast.”

“That’s comprehensive anyhow,” said Leavesley.

“Most, most–most clear and comprehensive,” concurred Mr Verneede.

“I hate him!” said Fanny, her eyes flashing, “and I wish he and his old
fish stream were–boiled.”

“That would certainly solve the difficulty,” said Leavesley, scratching
the side of his hand meditatively.

“And his beastly old solicitor too,” continued the girl, tenderly
lifting a lady-bird, that had somehow got into the studio and on to her
knee, on the point of her finger. “Isn’t he beautiful?”

“Most,” assented Leavesley, gazing with an artist’s delight at the white
tapering finger on which the painted and polished insect was balancing
preparatory to flight.

“Who is his solicitor, by the way?”

“Mr Hancock of Southampton Row.”

“Mr Who?”

“Hancock.”

“Why, he’s my uncle.”

“Oh!” cried Fanny, “I _am_ sorry.”

“That he’s my uncle?”

“No–that I said that—-”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter. I’ve often wished him boiled. It’s awfully
funny, though, that he should be this man Bevan’s solicitor–very.”

“I have an idea,” said Verneede, leaning forward in his chair and
pressing the points of his fingers together.

“My dear young lady, may I make a suggestion?”

“Yes,” said Fanny.

“Two suggestions, I should have said.”

“Fire away,” cut in Leavesley.

“Well, my dear young lady, if my advice were asked I would first of all
say ‘dam the stream.'”

“Verneede!” cried Leavesley. “What are you saying?”

“Father’s always damning it,” replied Miss Lambert with a laugh, “but it
doesn’t seem to do much good.”

“My other suggestion,” said Verneede, taken aback at the supposed
beaver-like attributes of Mr Lambert, “is this, go in your own person to
the friend of my friend Leavesley. I mean the uncle of my friend. Go to
Mr Hancock, go to him frankly, fearlessly, tell him the tale you have
told us; tell it to him with your own lips, in your own manner, with
your own charm; say to him ‘You are killing my father–cease.’ Speak to
him in your own way, smile at him—-”

“_That’s_ not a bad idea,” said Miss Lambert, turning to Leavesley, who
was seated mouth open, aghast at this lunatic proposition.

“That’s a _splendid_ idea, and I’ll _do_ it.”

“Say to him ‘Cease!'” continued Verneede, speaking in an inspired voice.
“Say to him—-”

“Oh, shut up!” cried Leavesley, shaken out of politeness. “Do you know
what you’re talking about? Hancock is Bevan’s solicitor.”

“That’s just why I’m going to him,” said Miss Lambert.

“But it’s against all the rules of everything. I’m not sure that it
wouldn’t be considered tampering with–um–Justice.”

“It’s not a question of justice, it’s a question of common-sense,” said
Miss Lambert.

“Exactly,” said Verneede, “common-sense; if this Mr–er–the uncle of my
friend Leavesley, is endowed with common-sense and a sense of
justice–yes, justice and a feeling for beauty—-”

“Oh, do stop!” said Leavesley, the prosaic vision of James Hancock
rising before him.

“What on earth do lawyers know of justice or beauty or—-”

“If they don’t,” replied Fanny, “it’s quite time they were taught.”

“Quite,” concurred Verneede.

When certain chemicals are brought into juxtaposition certain results
result. So it is with brains. Mr Leavesley for a moment sat
contemplating the crazy plan propounded by Mr Verneede. Then he broke
into a laugh. His imagination pictured the interview between Miss
Lambert and his uncle.

“Well, go ahead,” he said. “Perhaps you’re right; I don’t know much
about the law, but, anyhow, it’s not a hanging matter. When are you
going?”

“Now,” said Miss Lambert, putting on her gloves.

Leavesley looked at his watch.

“You’ll scarcely catch him at the office unless you take a cab.”

“I’ll take a cab. Will you come with me?”

“Yes, rather!”

“Only as far as the door,” said Miss Lambert.

“It’s like going to the dentist; I always take father with me to the
dentist’s as far as the door, for fear I’d run away. Once I’m in I don’t
care a bit; it’s the going in is the dreadful part.”

“I know,” said Leavesley, reaching for his hat. “It’s like facing the
music, the overture is the worst part.”

“I don’t think you’d call it music,” said Miss Lambert, “if you heard me
at the dentist’s when he’s working that drill thing–ugh! Come.”

They left the studio.

The prospect of having Miss Lambert all alone to himself in a cab made
the heart of Mr Leavesley palpitate, mixed emotions filled his soul.
Blue funk was the basis of these emotions. He was going to propose, so
he told himself, immediately, the instant they were in the cab and the
horse had started. That was all very well as a statement made to
himself: it did not conceal the fact that Miss Lambert was a terribly
difficult girl to propose to. One of those jolly girls who treat one as
a brother are generally the most difficult to deal with when one
approaches them as a lover. But Miss Lambert, besides the fact of her
jollity and her treatment of Mr Leavesley as a brother, had a
personality all her own. She seemed to him a combination of the
practical and the unpractical in about equal proportions, one could
never tell how she would take things.

They walked down the King’s Road looking for a cab, Miss Lambert and
Verneede engaged in vivacious conversation, Leavesley silent, engaged in
troubled attempts to think.

I give a few links from the chain of his thoughts just as a specimen.

“Fanny, I love you–no, I can’t say that, it’s too bald and brutal. Miss
Lambert, I have long wanted to–oh, rubbish! How would it do to take her
hand–I _daren’t_–bother!–does she care a button about me? Perhaps it
would be better to put it off till the next time–I’m not going to funk
it–may I call you Fanny?–or Fanny–may I call you Fanny? or Miss
Lambert may I call you Fanny? How would it be to write? No, I’ll _do_
it.”

They stopped, Mr Verneede had hailed a cab, and Leavesley came out of
his reverie to find a four-wheeler drawing up at the pavement.

“Hullo,” he said to Verneede, “what did you call that thing for?”

“To drive in,” replied Fanny, whilst Verneede opened the door. “Get in,
I’m in a horrible fright.”

“But,” said Leavesley, “a four-wheeler–why not a hansom?”

“No, no,” said Miss Lambert, getting into the vehicle, “I hate hansoms,
I was thrown out of one once. Besides, this is more _respectable_. Do
get in quick, and tell the man to drive fast; I want to get the agony
over.”

“Corner of Southampton Row,” cried Leavesley to the driver. He got in,
Verneede shut the door and stood on the pavement, bowing and smiling in
an antiquated way as they drove off.

It was a four-wheeler with pretensions in the form of maroon velveteen
cushions and rubber tyres, a would-be imitation brougham, but the old
growler blood came out in its voice, every window rattled. Driving in
it, one could hear oneself speak, but conversation with a companion to
be intelligible had to be conducted in a mild shout.

“I don’t in the least know what I’m going to say to him,” cried Miss
Lambert, leaning forward towards her companion–he was seated opposite
to her on the front seat. “I’m so nervous, I can’t think.”

“Don’t go to him.”

“I must, now we’ve taken the cab.”

“Let’s go somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere–Madame Tussaud’s.”

“No, no, I’m _going_. Don’t let’s talk of it, let’s talk of something
pleasant.” She opened her purse, turned its meagre contents into her
lap, and examined some bills that were stuffed into a side compartment.

“What’s two-and-six, and three shillings, and eighteen pence?”

“Eight shillings, I think,” answered Leavesley after a moment’s thought.

“Then I’ve lost a shilling,” pouted Miss Lambert, counting her money,
replacing it, and closing the purse with a snap. “No matter, let’s think
of something pleasant. Isn’t old Mr Verneede sweet?”

“Fanny,” said Leavesley, ignoring the saccharine possibilities of Mr
Verneede–“may I call you Fanny?”

“Of course, every one does. I say, is this cabman taking us right?”

“Yes, quite. What I was going to say,” weakly and suddenly, “Fanny,
let’s go somewhere some day, and have a really good time.”

“Where?”

“Up the river–anywhere.”

“I’d love to,” said Miss Lambert. “I haven’t been up the river for ages;
let’s have a picnic.”

“Yes, let’s; what day could you come?”

“Any day–at least some day. Some day next week–only father is going
away next week, and a picnic would be nothing without _him_.”

“Suppose you and I and Verneede went for a picnic next week?”

“That would be fun,” said the girl; “we can make tea–oh, don’t let us
talk of picnics, I feel miserable. Will he _eat_ me, do you think?”

“Who?”

“Mr Hancock.”

“Not he–unless he has the gout, he’s perfectly savage when he has the
gout–I say?”

“What?”

“You’d better not tell him you know me.”

“Why?”

“Oh, because I’ve been fighting with him lately. I quarrel with him
once in three months or so. If he thought you and I were friends, it
might put his back up.”

“I’ll be mum,” said Miss Lambert.

“I’ll wait for you at the corner till you come out,” said Leavesley,
“and tell me, Fanny.”

“What?”

“You _will_ come for a picnic, won’t you?”

“Rather, if I’m alive. I feel like the young lady of Niger–wasn’t
it?–who went for a ride on a tiger, just before she saddled it—-”

The cab rattled and rumbled them at last into Oxford Street. At the
corner of Southampton Row it stopped. They got out, and Leavesley paid
and dismissed the driver.

“That’s the house down there,” said he, “No. –. I’ll wait for you here;
_don’t_ be long.”

“I won’t be a minute, at least I’ll be as short as I can. Now I’m
_going_.”

She tripped off, and Leavesley watched her flitting by the grim,
business-like houses. She turned for a second, glanced back, and then
No. — engulfed her.

Leavesley waited, trying to picture to himself the interview that was
in progress. Trying to fancy what Miss Lambert was saying to Mr James
Hancock, and what Mr James Hancock was saying to Miss Lambert.

Surely no one in London could have suggested such a proceeding except
Verneede, a proceeding so hopelessly insane from a business point of
view.

To call on your adversary’s solicitor, and tell him to cease because he
was worrying your father to death!

Besides, Lambert was the man who ought to cease, because it was Lambert
who was the plaintiff.

Punching a man’s head, and then telling him to cease!

Mr Leavesley burst into a laugh that caused a passing old lady to hurry
on her way.

He waited. Five minutes passed, ten, fifteen; _what_ was happening?

It was nearly closing time at the office. Twenty minutes passed. Could
James Hancock really have devoured Fanny in a fit of gout and
irritation?

He saw Bridgewater, the old chief clerk, come out and make off down
Southampton Row with a bag in his hand.

Three-quarters of an hour had gone, and Leavesley had taken his watch
out for the twentieth time, when from the doorway of No. — Fanny
appeared, a glimmer of blue like a butterfly just broken from its
chrysalis.

Leavesley made two steps towards her, then he paused. Immediately after
Fanny came James Hancock, umbrella in hand, and hat on the back of his
head.

He was accompanying her.

Fanny glanced in Leavesley’s direction, and then she and her companion
walked away down Southampton Row, Hancock walking with his long stride;
Fanny trotting beside him, neither, apparently, speaking one to the
other.

Leavesley followed full of amazement.

He could tell from his uncle’s manner of walking, and from the way he
wore his hat, that he was either irritated or perplexed. He walked
hurriedly, and, viewed from behind, he had the appearance of a physician
who was going to an urgent case.

Much marvelling, the artist followed. He saw Hancock hail a passing
four-wheeler, and open the door. Fanny got in, her companion gave some
directions to the driver, got in after the girl, closed the door, and
the cab drove off.

“Now, what on earth can this mean?” asked Mr Leavesley, taking off his
hat and drawing his hand across his brow.

Disgust at being robbed of Fanny struggled in his mind with a feeling of
pure, unadulterated wonder.