A Little Joke by Anthony Hope

A day or two before Easter, I was sitting in my office, finishing up some scraps of work, and ever and anon casting happy glances at my portmanteau, which stood in the corner. I was just off to spend a fortnight with my old friend Colonel Gunton, in Norfolk, and I was looking forward to seeing him again with great pleasure. We had not met for ten years, and I had never been to his place or seen any of his family. It would be delightful.

The telephone bell rang.

“Oh, confound it! I hope that’s nothing to keep me!” I exclaimed; and I rose to see to it.

“Mr. Miller? Are you there?”

“Yes.”

“All right. I’ll come round.”

A few minutes passed, and then my clerk announced, “A lady to see you, sir.”

A remarkably pretty girl of about eighteen was ushered in. She stood still some way from me till the door was closed. Then she suddenly rushed toward me, fell at my feet, and exclaimed, “You will protect me, won’t you?”

“My dear young lady, what in the world——”

“You’re the famous Mr. Miller, aren’t you? Mr. Joseph Miller, the philanthropist?”

“My name is Joseph Miller certainly.”

“Ah! Then I am safe;” and she sat down in an armchair, and smiled confidingly at me.

“Madam,” said I sternly, “will you have the goodness to explain to what I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“They told me to come to you.”

“Who?”

“Why, the people at the police station.”

“The police station?”

“Yes, when they let me go—because it was a first offense, you know. They said you always took up cases like mine, and that if I stuck to you I should be well looked after.”

It was quite true that I have taken an interest in rescuing young persons from becoming habitual criminals; but I was hardly prepared for this.

“What have you been doing?”

“Oh, nothing this time—only a bracelet.”

“This time?”

“They didn’t know me up here,” she explained smilingly. “I’ve always practiced in the country. Wasn’t it lucky? But really, Mr. Miller, I’m tired of it; I am indeed. The life is too exciting: the doctors say so; so I’ve come to you.”

The case was a strange one, but I had no time to investigate it now. It wanted only half an hour to the time my train left Liverpool Street.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Sarah Jones.”

“Well, I will have your case looked into. Come and see me again; or, if you are in distress, you may write to me—at Colonel Gunton’s, Beech Hill, Norfolk. I shall be staying there——”

“Going now?”

“I start in a few minutes.”

“Oh, I’ll come with you.”

“Madam,” I answered, with emphasis, “I will see you—out of the office first.”

“But what am I to do? Oh, it’s nonsense! I shall come. I shall say I belong to you.”

I rang the bell. “Show this lady out, Thomas, at once.”

She laughed, bowed, and went. Evidently a most impudent hussy. I finished my business, drove to Liverpool Street, and established myself in a first-class smoking carriage. I was alone, and settled myself for a comfortable cigar. I was rudely interrupted. Just as the train was starting, the door opened—and that odious young woman jumped in.

“There! I nearly missed you!” she said.

“I can hold no communication with you,” said I severely; “you are a disgrace to your—er—sex.”

“It’s all right. I’ve wired to the colonel.”

“You’ve wired to my friend Colonel Gunton?”

“Yes, I didn’t want to surprise them. I said you would bring a friend with you. It’s all right, Mr. Miller.”

“I don’t know who you are or what you are; but the Guntons are respectable people, and I am a respectable man, and——”

“That’s no reason why you should promenade up and down, Mr. Miller. It’s very uncomfortable for me.”

“What is the meaning of this insolent behavior?”

“Why not be friendly? We’re off now, and I must go on.”

“I shall give you in charge at the next station.”

“What for?”

On reflection, I supposed she had committed no criminal offense; and with a dignified air I opened my paper.

“I don’t mind you smoking,” she said, and took out a box of chocolates.

I was at my wits’ end. Either this girl was mad or she was a dangerous and unscrupulous person. She was quite capable of making a most unpleasant and discreditable commotion on the platform at Beach Hill Station. What in the world was I to do?

“Shall we stay long at the Guntons’?” she asked.

“You, madam, will never go there.”

“Oh, yes, I shall.”

“Indeed you won’t. I’ll take care of that. The police will see to that.”

“I don’t care a fig for the police. I shall go and stay as long as you do. They told me to stick to you.”

I became angry. Any man would have. But nothing was to be gained by losing my temper. I took out a sovereign.

“If you’ll get out at the next station, I’ll give you this.”

She laughed merrily. “I thought you went in for personal supervision, not mere pecuniary doles,” she said; “I read that in your speech at the Charity Organization meeting. No; I’m not to be bribed. I’m going to the Guntons’.”

“It’s absurd. It’s preposterous. What will—what will Mrs. Gunton say?”

“Oh, she won’t mind,” answered my companion, with a confident nod. “She’s used to girls like me.”

“You surprise me,” I retorted sarcastically; but she only laughed again. I returned to my paper.

An hour passed in silence. The train began to slacken speed as we neared the station next before Beech Hill. She looked up and said:

“Would you really rather I didn’t come with you?”

I had passed a wretched hour. This girl was evidently bent on blasting my character.

“Madam,” I said, “if you’ll get out at this station, I’ll give you a five-pound note.”

“What? I heard you never gave away a farthing! They said no one could get a penny out of you.”

“It is true that I disapprove of indiscriminate charity; but, under the circumstances, I——”

“Think I am a deserving object? Well, I’ll take it.”

With a sigh of relief, I took a note from my pocket-book, and gave it her.

“I’ll pay it back soon,” she said.

“Never let me see your face again.”

“Apologize for me to the Guntons. Good-by.”

She jumped out lightly, and I sank back, murmuring, “Thank Heaven!”

After I got rid of her my journey was peaceful and happy, and I forgot my troubles in the warm greeting my old friend Bob Gunton and his wife gave me. The girl must have lied about the telegram; at least, Bob made no reference to it. He had a fine family of boys and girls, and presented them to me with natural pride.

“That’s my lot—except Addie. She’s gone to see some friends; but we expect her back every minute. They keep me alive, I can tell you, Miller.”

After tea, my host and hostess insisted on taking me for a stroll on the terrace. It was a beautiful evening, and I did not mind the cold. As we were talking together, I heard the rumble of wheels. An omnibus stopped at the gate.

“Ah, the ’bus,” said Gunton; “it runs between here and our market-town.”

I hardly heard him; for, to my horror, I saw, descending from the ’bus and opening the gate, that girl!

“Send her away!” I cried; “send her away! On my honor, Bob, as a gentleman, I know nothing about her.”

“Why, what’s the matter?”

“I solemnly assure Mrs. Gunton and yourself that——”

“What’s the matter with the man? What’s he talking about?”

“Why, Bob, that girl—that barefaced girl!”

“That girl! Why, that’s my daughter Addie!”

“Your daughter?”

The little minx walked up to me with a smile, dropped a little courtesy, and said: “I knew, Mr. Miller, that it wasn’t true that you would refuse to help a really deserving case. The others said you would; but I thought better of you.”

And she had the effrontery, then and there, to tell her parents all about it!

I think parents are the most infatuated class of persons in the community. They laughed, and Mrs. Gunton said, “How clever of you, Addie! You must forgive her, Mr. Miller. My dear girls are so playful!”

Playful! And she never returned the five-pound note!