CLEVER MRS. BLADON.

AN ACCOUNT OF A BIT OF STRATEGY.

By E. Burrowes.

No one ever disputed the fact that Mrs. Bladon was a distinctly clever woman. And it proved to be an equally undisputable fact that when Ted Lumsden managed to outwit her he became the hero of the hour. It happened on this wise:

Colonel and Mrs. Bladon had a daughter—and a pretty daughter.

Ted Lumsden was young, good-looking, sufficiently well possessed of this world's goods to be able to regard matrimony as quite a necessary and probably pleasant experiment. Given two young people with youth, beauty, and power of attraction, and the solution of the problem is quite simple.

Ted Lumsden loved Nancy Bladon, whilst Nancy—well, she just tolerated him. That was what she said to him; what her real feelings on the subject were is quite another question.

 "'I HATE GOING ABROAD. MOTHER, YOU HAVE SOME OTHER REASON.'"

But there was Mrs. Bladon in the matter, and she, like the clever woman she was, said nothing, but thought the more, until one day when for ten minutes she opened her heart to her husband, and for those ten minutes spoke concisely and to the point.

"You understand, Roger," she concluded, "it is not that I object to Lumsden at all; far from it. But what I do object to is the fact that for years—now don't laugh—years, I repeat, this has been going on, and nothing definite has ever come of it. Either he is in no hurry, or else he means nothing, after the fashion of young men of the present day. Enfin, I do not intend Nancy to be kept in a kind of suspense any longer. If she cares for the boy—well, I am sorry; but my mind is quite made up on one point: I shall not encourage Ted to haunt our house any longer. And I shall make it a good excuse to give Nancy three months on the Continent."

"Après cela—le déluge," muttered Colonel Bladon, lazily. "Well, you know best, my dear; only I don't see why Nancy should be exiled."

"Nonsense; it is no exile to travel for a bit and see a little of the world. At any rate, it will simplify matters, and that is everything."

So it came to pass that a decree went forth which, like the laws of the Medes and Persians, altered not. Miss Bladon, chaperoned by Lady Forsyth, would spend the winter abroad.

"A slight delicacy of chest," murmured clever Mrs. Bladon in answer to inquiries. "No, nothing serious; still, we think a winter abroad advisable, under the circumstances."

And the world took its cue very adroitly, and immediately detected a "transparency" about Nancy's pretty face and round, soft cheeks.

The first inkling of the plot reached Ted Lumsden one sunny afternoon in December when he called at the big house in Berkeley Square in his usual casual way.

"Not at home, sir," said the butler, with immovable countenance; and there was nothing for it but to leave cards and depart. But to her intimate friend, Lady Forsyth, Mrs. Bladon was rather more explicit.

"A little affaire du cœur, my dear Frances, for which there is nothing like change of air and scene. And, I beg of you, let Nancy flirt as much as she pleases. I am delighted you are really going by the Orient to Naples; a delightful voyage, and then there are so many facilities for harmless flirtation in mid-ocean."

Lady Forsyth laughed gaily.

"My good Theresa, no one could be better than I to chaperon Nancy on an ocean voyage. Till we pass Gibraltar I shall be visible to no one but my maid and the stewardess, such is the effect Neptune has upon me. And as for flirtation, your pretty daughter may do that as much as she likes. I shall be none the wiser, and you know how vague and dreamy George is."

The subject of all this commotion rebelled somewhat at this summary measure. But Mrs. Bladon quelled the revolt gently.

"Travel, dearest, will do you a world of good, and you will enjoy the complete change of scene. Besides—your health."

Nancy frowned.

"I am not ill. I hate going abroad. Mother, you have some other reason."

Mrs. Bladon laughed.

"Only for your good, darling. By the way, remember we are dining out to-night; wear your pink dress, dear."

There was no more said on either side, though more than once Miss Bladon was much tempted to reopen the argument.

Curiously enough, she did not see Lumsden again. Fate seemed to be against her, and when the day came on which she was to join Lady Forsyth at Paddington en route for Plymouth, from whence they were to sail in the Orotava, it brought to Nancy a very heavy heart.

Five minutes after she had left the house Lumsden arrived at the hall door.

"Just gone, sir. Miss Bladon's going abroad for her 'ealth, sir."

"Going abroad! What station?"

"Paddington, sir."

The man's grim face relaxed into a smile as Lumsden dashed down the square and jumped into a passing hansom.

"Double fare if you reach Paddington in five minutes," he shouted, thoroughly roused out of his normal state of lazy contentment by this unexpected move on the enemy's part.

He understood Mrs. Bladon perhaps better than that astute lady imagined.

At Paddington he espied the party—Sir George and Lady Forsyth, with valet and maid and a mass of baggage; Mrs. Bladon calm and serene, with Nancy lovelier than ever in her dark blue travelling costume with a touch of vivid scarlet at the throat.

She was looking anxiously about her, and as her eyes lighted on Lumsden's dark handsome face and tall lithe figure she smiled—a little, quick, flashing smile, mingled with a tinge of pink colour in her soft cheeks.

He made his way towards her as she was borne towards the Plymouth express in a vortex of people and baggage.

There was only five minutes, and she was going abroad.

Perhaps he had never realised all she was to him till that moment, and in the instant when Mrs. Bladon was saying last words to Lady Forsyth he reached Nancy's side. Their hands met in a long and close clasp.

"I could not believe it—that you were going away," he said, in quick, eager tones; "why did you not tell me?"

"I never saw you," she began, quickly. "You never came, and——"

"Good morning," broke in Mrs. Bladon, not one whit disconcerted at the unwelcome arrival of Lumsden on the scene. "Yes, Nancy is going abroad. Lucky girl, to escape cold, dreary England; and now, remember, dearest, to wrap up on the voyage, and don't stay up on deck after dinner till you get used to the chilly air. Good-bye, Frances; send me a line from Gibraltar. How I envy you! Yes, the Orotava is a fine boat. Bon voyage. Good-bye, darling."

 LUMSDEN COULD ONLY SAY, "WHY DID YOU NOT TELL ME YOU WERE GOING AWAY?" WHEN MRS. BLADON BROKE IN—

The train began to glide out of the station, and only a last sweet smile remained to Lumsden as Mrs. Bladon and he were left standing together on the gloomy platform. Then, when the train had passed out of sight, he swung round and faced Mrs. Bladon with a half-contemptuous smile in his dark, keen eyes.

"Well?" he said, coolly.

She laughed.

"Is it well?" she said, lightly. "You were hardly in time, were you? Nancy will have a delightful time with the Forsyths. Italy, perhaps Algiers; a charming tour away from this fog."

He threw up his head with a sudden characteristic gesture.

"Yes—of course. It was sudden, though. Why was I not told of it?"

They were walking out of the station, and Mrs. Bladon fastened her furs closely round her. It was bitterly cold.

"My dear Mr. Lumsden," she said, airily, as he opened the door of her carriage, "am I answerable to you for my doings? And you know it is best."

"Are you sure of that?" he said, coolly. "Perhaps there are two opinions about it. I am a fatalist, Mrs. Bladon."

"Really? I envy you. Can I give you a lift? No? Then home, James."

Lumsden walked quickly away, his pulses beating fast.

Stay. He had an idea—a brilliant idea. He would not accept defeat so easily. It was early in the day, and he was free for a month. In a month one may do wonders.


The sun was shining with dazzling brilliance as the Orotava dropped her anchor between the lightships in Gibraltar Harbour, in the shadow of the great grey rock; and as Nancy Bladon looked over the side, eagerly scanning the fascinating scene around her, something of the witchery of that sunny Southern air stirred her young blood, and made her pulses beat madly.

The Forsyths were going ashore, and, driving through the narrow streets, Nancy, viewing everything in the light of her own joyous youth, felt enchanted with the picturesque Moors.

As they returned to the ship, and ascended out of the heavy, flat-bottomed boat, another came alongside with several passengers. Lady Forsyth had gone into the saloon, leaving Nancy leaning against the rail in the dancing sunshine. Presently she half turned round, and—found herself face to face with Ted Lumsden!

 "SHE HALF TURNED ROUND AND FOUND HERSELF FACE TO FACE WITH TED LUMSDEN."

He, cool, nonchalant as ever, took her hand, with a quick smile.

"Well, so you see I am also going abroad—for my health."

There was a significance in the words which made the warm blood leap to Nancy's cheeks.

"But how did you come?" she said, in tones of the utmost astonishment.

"Overland—to Algeciras," he returned, coolly. "Caught the Orotava nicely, and had a day to spare in Gibraltar. Now that I am here, you will not send me away?"

"Why should I?"

In that moment she understood her mother's tactics. Why should she run away from Fate in the shape of Lumsden?

Lady Forsyth, returning to her charge as they steamed away into the Mediterranean, found her engaged in what appeared to be a very promising flirtation, such as would surely have delighted the heart of clever Mrs. Bladon.

She was secretly charmed with Lumsden, whom she had not noticed at Paddington, and to her letter to Mrs. Bladon, which she was writing to post at Naples, she added a postscript which filled that lady with unholy joy:

"Be quite easy about Nancy; I think all danger is over. A flirtation is in grand progress, and, between ourselves, the man is charming."

She quite forgot to mention his name, which, perhaps, was quite as well for that lady's peace of mind.

To Nancy and Lumsden there ensued a period of bliss. Steaming down the Mediterranean, with very little motion to disturb the equanimity even of Lady Forsyth, what halcyon days those were when, after dinner, in secluded corners of the deck, under the brilliant Southern moon, they walked up and down—silent very often, with the silence of a perfect understanding—till one fateful evening when Lumsden resolved to know his fate.

"Do you know, Nancy," he began (he had never called her Nancy before), "before you came away I think your mother took a dislike to me?"

"Oh, no—how could she?" said Nancy. "She always said she liked you. Besides——"

She paused abruptly, and Lumsden stole a glance at her half-averted face, which in the moonlight looked strangely sweet.

"Well, I called to see you several times, and you were always 'not at home.'"

Nancy started.

"Then that day at the station—well, I began to see," he continued, "and I resolved to wait no longer. Nancy, I followed you. I never knew till then how much you were to me; and now can you trust me more and love me a little? I have loved you—always—darling."

Then the inevitable question arose—what would Lady Forsyth say? and further, what about Mrs. Bladon?

Nancy suggested, and her suggestion was accepted, that Lady Forsyth should be confided in. So it came to pass that the following morning Lumsden and Lady Forsyth sauntered up and down the deck for some time together, and for ten minutes Lumsden spoke, in cool, level tones, at the end of which time Lady Forsyth laughed and shook her head reprovingly.

"Oh, you men!" she said. "Well, I suppose I can say and do nothing. It only remains for you to have it out with Mrs. Bladon. I have my own opinions."

Lumsden laughed.

Their eyes met with a look of mutual understanding.

"So have I," he said, drily. "Mrs. Bladon is a clever woman. If this sudden voyage had not taken place, who knows but that we might still have been in the throes of uncertainty?"

"Ah!"

It was very clear now to Frances Forsyth that Mrs. Bladon's manœuvre had been well timed.

For a few short happy days they lingered in Naples, revelling in its beauty.

Then it was arranged that Lumsden should return to England alone, and see Mrs. Bladon. He felt he could not spare so long a holiday abroad, and now that his journey had not been in vain he found himself once more in foggy London, light of heart, cheerful, and cool as ever.

The lamps were lit when he was shown into the drawing-room where Mrs. Bladon was busy at her writing-table, and he noticed with some inward mirth that there was a distinct increase of cordiality in Mrs. Bladon's manner.

 "LUMSDEN NOTICED WITH INWARD MIRTH AN INCREASED CORDIALITY IN MRS. BLADON'S MANNER."

"You're quite a stranger, Mr. Lumsden," she began; "surely you've been out of town. Wise man! If I could only leave these terrible fogs and bitter winds!"

"Yes, Italy now is delightful."

Mrs. Bladon smiled unconsciously.

"Delicious, so Nancy says. Dear child, this trip is doing her a world of good. She writes such bright, happy letters; and indeed—you are an old friend of hers, Mr. Lumsden, and there is no harm in telling you—I think, from what Lady Forsyth has told me, that our dear child has found her fate. I know nothing definite, but one can read between the lines."

"Quite so," said Lumsden, with praiseworthy gravity, "Miss Nancy is looking very blooming, I assure you, and we have had a delightful trip. I found that a short holiday was quite necessary for my health, and, oddly enough, I just hit off the Orotava at Gibraltar. That overland service is very useful. So I thought I would come in and let you know how Nancy was."

There was a moment's tense silence, during which they looked at each other steadily, Lumsden with a touch of cold mirth twinkling in his handsome eyes.

"Well?" she said, with a half-mocking smile, while a great triumph swelled within her.

Lumsden laughed.

"Well, shall I tell you how Nancy found her fate—and I mine? But that is a stale story. I found mine long ago, but somehow I never quite realised it till——"

"Yes?"

"That day at Paddington."

"Ah! Well, Ted—I suppose I may call you Ted?—of course you must speak to Colonel Bladon. For myself, Nancy must always please herself, and her choice is mine. Now I can see how delightful the voyage must have been to you both. You are very clever, Ted."

He laughed happily.

"Is all the credit mine, Mrs. Bladon? I fancy not. Perhaps I may see Colonel Bladon and ask you for a cup of tea."

To Colonel Bladon the whole thing seemed inexplicable.

"You sent the child away from the fellow," he said, sleepily, after Lumsden had left, "and now that they have fallen into each other's arms you are delighted. The inconsistencies of woman! Their name is legion."

"How dense you are, Roger! Don't you see that things might have hung fire if it hadn't been for that trip abroad?"

Colonel Bladon sat up and looked at his wife.

"By Jove! You're a clever woman."

And she was.