A Guardian of Morality by Anthony Hope

Miss Tabitha Grey had not reached the age of forty-five years without acquiring an extensive and unfavorable knowledge of her sex. Men were wicked; Miss Grey admitted and deplored the fact, but it was so much in the order of nature that she had almost ceased to cavil at it. But that women should be wicked! Here Miss Grey’s toleration gave out. And so many women, especially young women, and more especially pretty young women, were wicked. It was atrocious! Entertaining this general opinion, Miss Grey, as a matter of course, held Maggie Lester in the utmost detestation. The Waterfall Hotel was, in fact, hardly large enough to contain, in any comfort, Miss Grey on the one hand and on the other Maggie Lester, her brother Charles, and their friend and traveling companion. Captain Petrie. It is true that the feeling of discomfort was entirely confined to Miss Grey. The young people were very civil to her when any one of them happened to be next her at table d’hôte, and at other times thought nothing about her; but Miss Grey endured agonies enough for an hotelful of people. She shuddered at Maggie’s striped waistcoat and white sailor’s knot with its golden pin, at her brown boots, at her love of long and hard rides, at her not infrequent slang; above all, at the terms of hearty and familiar camaraderie on which she thought fit to conduct her acquaintance with Captain Petrie. The decorum of literature forbids that Miss Grey’s inmost suspicions should be put in writing; it must suffice to say that they were very dark indeed—so dark that all the other ladies, to whom Miss Grey repeated them, could not but come to the conclusion that there must be some truth in them.

One morning, after breakfast, Miss Grey took her knitting and the Church Times and sat down in the veranda. A moment later, to her disgust, Charlie Lester and Captain Petrie came out of the breakfast room, lit their pipes, and, after a polite “Good-morning,” took their seats a few yards from her. Miss Grey sniffed the tobacco-tainted air, and was about to rise and ostentatiously remove herself from the infected zone, when she heard a scrap of conversation between the two young men which entirely altered her determination. She sat still and listened with all her might.

“I wonder when Maggie will be down,” said Lester; “I want to tell her.”

“Oh, you’re too late,” said Petrie; “I’ve told her.”

“What, have you seen her?”

“Yes. I knew she’d like to know, so I went outside her door five minutes ago and shouted what we’d heard, and she came out directly.”

“Had she anything on?” inquired Lester, in an interested tone.

“No,” responded Captain Petrie; “but that made no difference.”

“It would to me,” said Lester, with a smile.

“And to me,” said the captain; “but it didn’t to her. I reminded her of it, and she said that it made no odds—she wanted to hear all I knew directly. So we stood in the passage, and——”

Miss Grey had been gradually becoming more and more horrified. She had been prepared for a good deal, but this was too much. And the creature’s own brother listened to it! Her knitting fell from her grasp, and the needles jangled on the tiled floor. The captain hastened to pick them up, interrupting his narrative for that purpose; but Miss Grey froze him with an awful look, and strode into the house.

Miss Grey was a woman who never allowed herself to be turned from the path of duty, however painful that path might be to others. She soon made up her mind as to what she must do, and, having come to a resolution, she laid the whole matter before an informal committee of three irreproachable and austere matrons, whom she selected from among her fellow-guests. The immediate result of their conference was, that when Maggie Lester, looking very fresh and blooming after her morning gallop, came in to luncheon and took her place at the table, no fewer than four elderly ladies put down their knives and forks, rose from their chairs, and solemnly stalked out of the room.

“Hullo! what’s up?” said Charlie Lester.

But nobody knew what was up; and, to all appearance, Maggie least of all, for she cheerfully began her lunch, mere remarking to the captain, as though in continuance of a previous conversation:

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d had anything—even the least little bit—on, would it?”

“Ah, you ought to have put your boots on,” said the captain, with a smile.

A fifth lady, sitting by, overheard these remarks, and when, after lunch, Miss Grey informed her of the startling occurrence of the morning, her testimony completed the damning chain of evidence. They made a joke of it! What could the suggestion of boots—only boots—be, except a vulgar, shameless jest? The ladies went in a body to the proprietor, and intimated that either they or the Lester party must forthwith leave the hotel. The proprietor demanded reasons; cogent, irrefragable reasons were supplied by Miss Grey and the fifth lady—reasons clothed, of course, in decorous language, but unmistakably revealing the infamous conduct of Maggie Lester.

“I assure you, ladies,” exclaimed the proprietor, beads of perspiration standing on his brow, “it’s the first time such a thing has ever occurred in my house.”

“It must be the last,” said Miss Grey firmly.

“I will act at once,” declared the proprietor. “This is a respectable house, and such proceedings cannot be tolerated. Good gracious! It would endanger my license!”

“And your soul,” said Miss Grey solemnly.

“I beg your pardon, miss?” said the proprietor.

And your soul,” repeated Miss Grey.

“Oh, yes, to be sure—of course, my soul, miss. As it was, I had a bother about it last year—my license, I mean, miss. I’ll go to Mr. Lester at once.”

The proprietor was a nervous, bashful man, and when he found himself standing before the Lesters and Captain Petrie, as they drank their after-luncheon coffee, he was much embarrassed. At last he managed to indicate that he wished to speak to Mr. Lester alone.

“Oh, nonsense!” said Charlie. “Go on. What’s the matter?”

The proprietor nerved himself for the effort. After all, if these people were not ashamed for themselves, why should he blush for them? Looking sternly at Charlie, he began to formulate his accusation. He had not got far before Maggie gave a little shriek of amazement; and the captain, jumping up, seized him by the collar, and exclaimed:

“What do you mean, you little rascal? What’s this scandalous nonsense you’ve got hold of?” and the captain shook his host severely.

“I am not to be bullied, sir,” said the proprietor stoutly. “I have excellent authority for what I say, and——”

“Whose authority?”

The proprietor vouched Miss Grey and the fifth lady.

“We must look into this,” said the captain.

Maggie, who was blushing severely, but was not without a secret tendency to convulsive laughter, was prevailed upon to accompany them, and the four proceeded to the drawing room, where the Inquisition sat enthroned on the sofa, Miss Grey presiding. Miss Grey rose with a gesture of horror.

“Not gone yet?” she exclaimed.

“No, ma’am,” said the captain; “we want to hear your story first.”

“Have you no shame?” demanded Miss Grey of Maggie.

“Never mind that, ma’am,” said the captain; “let’s have the story first.”

Miss Grey cast an appealing glance at the ceiling, and began: “With my own ears I heard it. Mrs. Britson [Mrs. Britson was the fifth lady] will confirm what I say. With my own ears I heard Captain Petrie relate to Mr. Lester—to this person’s brother—that he had had an interview with this person when this person was entirely——” Miss Grey paused for a moment, gathered her courage, and added in an awestruck whisper, “disrobed.”

A shudder ran through the audience. The culprits’ faces expressed real or simulated astonishment.

“If I must put it plainly,” pursued Miss Grey—and at this several ladies opened their fans and held them before their faces—“Captain Petrie said that Miss Lester—that person—had nothing on, and that when he reminded her of it she stated that the circumstance was immaterial. Subsequently, at luncheon, the young woman herself admitted the fact in the hearing of Mrs. Britson. If that is not enough——”

It apparently was enough, for Charlie Lester threw himself into an armchair with a wild shriek of laughter. Maggie’s slight figure shook convulsively as she hid her face in her handkerchief, and Captain Petrie, after a moment’s blank amazement, cried out:

“By Jove! I’ve got it. Oh! this beats anything!” And he joined in with a loud guffaw.

“Is that the way you treat such a—an abominable——” began Miss Grey austerely.

“Oh, stop! for Heaven’s sake stop!” exclaimed the captain; “you’ll be the death of me, you really will!”

Silence followed for a moment, and the captain, conquering his mirth, went on: “I don’t know if any of you ladies go in for horse-racing. Probably not; I’m sure Miss Grey doesn’t. Well, this morning I heard that a horse of mine which is running in a race to-day had done an exceptionally and quite unexpectedly good trial—I mean, had proved a far faster runner than we had supposed. In fact, there was little doubt that he would win the race. Sometimes, ladies, I am wicked enough to bet. Occasionally Charlie Lester is equally wicked. Now and then Miss Lester yields to that vice. Well, as you know, we are far from a telegraph here; and we were much annoyed, Charlie and I, that we could not take advantage of our fresh information to bet on the horse—to put something on, as we say. Miss Lester regretted also, when I told her the news, that she had nothing on—the horse. Do you begin to understand, ladies?”

The ladies glanced at one another in some confusion. Miss Grey looked angry and suspicious.

“And the boots?” she said.

“To put your boots on a horse,” explained the captain politely, “is a slang expression for betting your entire available fortune on his success. Another expression is to put your shirt——”

“Sir!” said Miss Grey.

But Miss Grey’s sway was ended. Maggie burst into a fresh fit of laughter, and, after a moment’s pause the whole company followed suit. Miss Grey turned and left the room. The next day she left the hotel; she could not face her victorious foes. Captain Petrie insisted on handing her into the omnibus, saying as he did so, “Be easy, my dear madam. In future it shall be my care to see that Miss Lester has something on.”