Lady Betty's Indiscretion
"Horry! I am sick to death of it!"
There was a servant in the room gathering the tea-cups; but Lady
Betty Stafford, having been brought up in the purple, was not to be
deterred from speaking her mind by a servant. Her cousin was
either more prudent or less vivacious; he did not answer on the
instant, but stood looking through one of the windows at the
leafless trees and slow-dropping rain in the Mall, and only turned
when Lady Betty pettishly repeated her statement.
"Had a bad time?" he then vouchsafed, dropping into a chair near
her, and looking first at her, in a good-natured way, and then at
his boots, which he seemed to approve.
"Horrid!" she replied.
"Many people here?"
"Hordes of them! Whole tribes!" she exclaimed. She was a little
lady, plump and pretty, with a pale, clear complexion, and bright
eyes. "I am bored beyond belief. And—and I have not seen
Stafford since morning," she added.
"Yes!" she answered viciously. "A cabinet council, and a privy
council, and a board of trade, and a board of green cloth, and all
the other boards! Horry, I am sick to death of it! What is the
use of it all?"
"Country go to the dogs!" he said oracularly, still admiring his
"Let it!" she retorted, not relenting a whit. " I wish it would; I
wish the dogs joy of it!"
He made an extraordinary effort at diffuseness. "I thought," he
said, "that you were becoming political, Betty. Going to write
something, and all that."
"Rubbish! But here is Mr. Atley. Mr. Atley, will you have a cup
of tea," she continued, speaking to the newcomer. "There will be
some here presently. Where is Mr. Stafford?"
"Mr. Stafford will take a cup of tea in the library, Lady Betty,"
replied the secretary. "He asked me to bring it to him. He is
copying an important paper."
Sir Horace forsook his boots, and in a fit of momentary interest
asked, "They have come to terms?"
The secretary nodded. Lady Betty said "Pshaw!" A man brought in
the fresh teapot. The next moment Mr. Stafford himself came
quickly into the room, an open telegram in his hand.
He nodded pleasantly to his wife and her cousin. But his thin,
dark face wore—it generally did—a preoccupied look. Country
people to whom he was pointed out in the streets called him,
according to their political leanings, either insignificant, or a
prig, or a "dry sort;" or sometimes said, "How young he is!" But
those whose fate it was to face the Minister in the House knew that
there was something in him more to be feared even than his
imperturability, his honesty, or his precision—and that was a
certain sudden warmth, which was apt to carry away the House at
unexpected times. On one of these occasions, it was rumored, Lady
Betty Champion had seen him, and fallen in love with him. Why he
had thrown the handkerchief to her—well that was another matter;
and whether the apparently incongruous match would answer—that,
too, remained to be seen.
"More telegrams?" she cried now. "It rains telegrams! how I hate
"Why?" he said. "Why should you?" He really wondered.
She made a face at him. "Here is your tea," she said abruptly.
"Thank you; you are very good," he replied. He took the cup and
set it down absently. "Atley," he continued, speaking to the
secretary, "you have not corrected the report of my speech at the
Club, have you? No, I know you have had no time. Will you run
your eye over it presently, and see if it is all right, and send it
to the Times—I do not think I need see it—by eleven o'clock at
latest. The editor," he added, tapping the pink paper in his hand,
"seemed to doubt us. I have to go to Fitzgerald's now, so you must
copy Lord Pilgrimstone's terms, too, please. I had meant to do it
myself, but I shall be with you before you have finished."
"What are the terms?" Lady Betty asked. "Lord Pilgrimstone has not
"To permit me to communicate them?" he replied, with a grave smile.
"No. So you must pardon me, my dear, I have passed my word for
absolute secrecy. And, indeed, it is as important to me as to
Pilgrimstone that they should not be divulged."
"They are sure to leak out," she retorted. "They always do."
"Well, it will not be through me, I hope."
She stamped her foot on the carpet. "I should like to get them,
and send them to the Times!" she exclaimed, her eyes flashing—he
was so provoking! "And let all the world know them! I should!"
He looked his astonishment, while the other two laughed softly,
partly to avoid embarrassment, perhaps. My Lady often said these
things, and no one took them seriously.
"You had better play the secretary for once, Lady Betty," said
Atley, who was related to his chief. "You will then be able to
satisfy your curiosity. Shall I resign pro tem?"
She looked eagerly at her husband for the third part of a second—
looked for assent, perhaps. But she read no playfulness in his
face, and her own fell. He was thinking about other things. "No,"
she said, almost sullenly, dropping her eyes to the carpet; "I
should not spell well enough."
Soon after that they dispersed, this being Wednesday, Mr.
Stafford's day for dining out. Everyone knows that Ministers dine
only twice a week in session—on Wednesday and Sunday; and Sunday
is often sacred to the children where there are any, lest they
should grow up and not know their father by sight. Lady Betty came
into the library at a quarter to eight, and found her husband still
at his desk, a pile of papers before him waiting for his signature.
As a fact, he had only just sat down, displacing his secretary, who
had gone upstairs to dress.
"Stafford!" she said.
She did not seem quite at her ease, but his mind was troubled, and
he failed to notice this. "Yes, my dear," he answered politely,
shuffling the papers before him into a heap. He knew he was late,
and he could see that she was dressed. "Yes, I am going upstairs
this minute. I have not forgotten."
"It is not that," she said, leaning with one hand on the table; "I
only want to ask you—"
"My dear, you really must tell it to me in the carriage." He was
on his feet already, making some hasty preparations. "Where are we
to dine? At the Duke's? Then we shall have nearly a mile to
drive. Will not that do for you?" He was working hard while he
spoke. There was a great oak post-box within reach, and another
box for letters which were to be delivered by hand, and he was
thrusting a handful of notes into each of these. Other packets he
swept into different drawers of the table. Still standing, he
stooped and signed his name to half a dozen letters, which he left
open on the blotting-pad. "Atley will see to these when he is
dressed," he murmured. "Would you oblige me by locking the
drawers, my dear—it will save me a minute—and giving me the keys
when I come down?"
He was off then, two or three papers in his hand, and almost ran
upstairs. Lady Betty stood a moment on the spot on which he had
left her, looking in an odd way, just as if it were new to her,
round the grave, spacious room, with its somber Spanish-leather-
covered furniture, its ponderous writing-tables and shelves of
books, its three lofty curtained windows. When her eyes at last
came back to the lamp, and dwelt on it, they were very bright, and
her face was flushed. Her foot could be heard tapping on the
carpet. Presently she remembered herself and fell to work,
vehemently slamming such drawers as were open, and locking them.
The private secretary found her doing this when he came in. She
muttered something—still stooping with her face over the drawers—
and almost immediately went out. He looked after her, partly
because there was something odd in her manner—she kept her face
averted; and partly because she was wearing a new and striking
gown, and he admired her; and he noticed, as she passed through the
doorway, that she had some papers held down by her side. But, of
course, he thought nothing of this.
He was hopelessly late for his own dinner-party, and only stayed a
moment to slip the letters just signed into envelopes prepared for
them. Then he made hastily for the door, opened it, and came into
abrupt collision with Sir Horace, who was strolling in.
"Beg pardon!" said that gentleman, with irritating placidity.
"Late for dinner?"
"Rather!" cried the secretary, trying to get round him.
"Well," drawled the other, "which is the hand-box, old fellow?"
"It has just been cleared. Here, give it me. The messengers is in
the hall now."
And Atley snatched the letter from his companion, the two going out
into the hall together. Marcus, the butler, a couple of tall
footmen, and the messenger were sorting letters at the table.
"Here, Marcus," said the secretary, pitching his letter on the
slab, "let that go with the others. And is my hansom here?"
In another minute he was speeding one way, and the Staffords in
their brougham another, while Sir Horace walked at his leisure down
to his club. The Minister and his wife drove along in silence, for
he forgot to ask her what she wanted; and, strange to say, Lady
Betty forgot to tell him. At the party she made quite a sensation;
never had she seemed more recklessly gay, more piquant, more
audaciously witty, than she showed herself this evening. There
were illustrious personages present, but they paled beside her.
The Duke, with whom she was a great favorite, laughed at her
sallies until he could laugh no more; and even her husband, her
very husband, forgot for a time the country and the crisis, and
listened, half-proud and half-afraid. But she was not aware of
this; she could not see his face where she was sitting. To all
seeming, she never looked that way. She was quite a model society
Mr. Stafford himself was an early riser. It was his habit to be up
by six; to make his own coffee over a spirit lamp, and then not
only to get through much work in his dressing-room, but to take his
daily ride also before breakfast. On the morning after the Duke's
party, however, he lay later than usual; and as there was more
business to be done—owing to the crisis—the canter in the Park
had to be omitted. He was still among his papers—though
momentarily awaiting the breakfast-gong, when a hansom cab driven
at full speed stopped at the door. He glanced up wearily as he
heard the doors of the cab flung open with a crash. There had been
a time when the stir and bustle of such arrivals had been sweet to
him—not so sweet as to some, for he had never been deeply in love
with the parade of office—but sweeter than to-day, when they were
no more to him than the creaking of the mill to the camel that
turns it blindfold and in darkness.
Naturally he was thinking of Lord Pilgrimstone this morning, and
guessed, before he opened the note which the servant brought in to
him, who was its writer. But its contents had, nevertheless, an
electrical effect upon him. His brow reddened. With a quite
unusual display of emotion he sprang to his feet, crushing the
fragment of paper in his fingers. "Who brought this?" he asked
sharply. "Who brought it?" he repeated, before the servant could
The man had never seen him so moved. "Mr. Scratchley, sir," he
"Ha! Then, show him into the library," was the quick reply. And
while the servant went to do his bidding, the Minister hastily
changed his dressing-gown for a coat, and ran down a private
staircase, reaching the room he had mentioned by one door as Mr.
Scratchley, Lord Pilgrim-stone's secretary, entered in through
By that time he had regained his composure, and looked much as
usual. Still, when he held up the crumpled note, there was a
brusqueness in the gesture which would have surprised his ordinary
acquaintances, and did remind Mr. Scratchley of certain "warm
nights" in the House. "You know the contents of this, Mr.
Scratchley?" he said without prelude, and in a tone which matched
The visitor bowed. He was a grave middle-aged man, who seemed
oppressed and burdened by the load of cares and responsibilities
which his smiling chief carried so jauntily. People said that he
was the proper complement of Lord Pilgrimstone, as the more
volatile Atley was of his leader.
"And you are aware," continued Mr. Stafford, still more harshly,
"that Lord Pilgrimstone gives yesterday's agreement to the winds?"
"I have never seen his lordship so deeply moved," replied the
"He says: 'Our former negotiation was ruined by premature talk, but
this last disclosure can only be referred to treachery or gross
carelessness.' What does this mean? I know of no disclosure, Mr.
Scratchley. I must have an explanation, and you, I presume, are
here to give me one."
For a moment the other seemed taken aback. "You have not seen the
Times?" he murmured.
"This morning's? No. But it is here."
He snatched it, as he spoke, from a table at his elbow, and
unfolded it. The secretary approached and pointed to the head of a
column—the most conspicuous, the column most readily to be found
in the paper. "They are crying it at every street corner I
passed," he added apologetically. "There is nothing to be heard in
St. James's Street and Pall Mall but 'Detailed Programme of the
Coalition.' The other dailies are striking off second editions to
Mr. Stafford's eyes were riveted to the paper, and there was a long
pause, a pause on his part of dismay and consternation. He could
scarcely—to repeat a common phrase—believe his eyes. "It seems,"
he muttered at length, "it seems fairly accurate—a tolerably
precise account, indeed."
"It is a verbatim copy," said the secretary drily. "The question
is, who furnished it. Lord Pilgrimstone, I am authorized to say,
has not permitted his note of the agreement to pass out of his
possession—even up to the present moment."
"And so he concludes," the Minister said thoughtfully—"it is a
fair inference enough, perhaps—that the Times must have procured
its information from my note?"
"No!" the secretary objected sharply and forcibly. "It is not a
matter of inference, Mr. Stafford. I am directed to say that. I
have inquired, early as it is, at the Times office, and learned
that the copy printed came directly from the hands of your
"Of my messenger!" Mr. Stafford cried, thunderstruck. "You are
sure of that?"
"I am sure that the sub-editor says so."
And again there was silence. "This must be looked into," said Mr.
Stafford at length, controlling himself by an effort. "For the
present, I agree with Lord Pilgrimstone, that it alters the
position—and perhaps finally."
"Lord Pilgrimstone will be damaged in the eyes of a large section
of his supporters—seriously damaged," said Mr. Scratchley, shaking
his head, and frowning.
"Possibly. From every point of view the thing is to be deplored.
But I will call on Lord Pilgrimstone," continued the Minister,
"after lunch. Will you tell him so?"
A curious embarrassment showed itself in the secretary's manner.
He twisted his hat in his hands, and looked suddenly sick and sad—
as if he were about to join in the groan at a prayer-meeting.
"Lord Pilgrimstone," he said, in a voice he vainly strove to render
commonplace, "is going to Sandown Spring Meeting to-day."
The tone was really so lugubrious—to say nothing of a shake of the
head with which he could not help accompanying the statement—that
a faint smile played on Mr. Stafford's lip. "Then I must take the
next possible opportunity. I will see him to-morrow."
Mr. Scratchley assented to that, and bowed himself out, after
another word or two, looking more gloomy and careworn than usual.
The interview had not been altogether to his mind. He wished now
that he had spoken more roundly to Mr. Stafford; perhaps even asked
for a categorical denial of the charge. But the Minister's manner
had overawed him. He had found it impossible to put the question.
And then the pitiful degrading confession he had had to make for
Lord Pilgrimstone! That had put the coping-stone to his
"Oh!" sighed Mr. Scratchley, as he stepped into his cab. "Oh, that
men so great should stoop to things so little!"
It did not occur to him that there is a condition of things even
more sad: when little men meddle with great things.
Meanwhile Mr. Stafford, left alone, stood at the window deep in
unpleasant thoughts, from which the entrance of the butler sent to
summon him to breakfast first aroused him. "Stay a moment,
Marcus!" he said, turning with a sigh, as the man was leaving the
room after doing his errand. "I want to ask you a question. Did
you make up the messenger's bag last evening?"
"Did you notice a letter addressed to the Times office?"
The servant had prepared himself to cogitate. But he found it
unnecessary. "Yes, sir," he replied smartly, "Two."
"Two?" repeated Mr. Stafford, dismay in his tone, though this was
just what he had reason to expect.
"Yes, sir. There was one I took from the band-box, and one Mr.
Atley gave me in the hall at the last moment," explained the
"Ha! Thank you, Marcus. Then ask Mr. Atley if he will kindly come
to me. No doubt he will be able to tell me what I want to know."
The words were commonplace, but the speaker's anxiety was so
evident that Marcus when he delivered the message—which he did
with all haste—added a word or two of warning. "It is about a
letter to the Times, sir, I think. Mr. Stafford seemed a good deal
put out," he said, confidentially.
"Indeed?" Atley replied. "I will go down." And he started at
once. But before he reached the library he met someone. Lady
Betty looked out of the breakfast-room, and saw him descending the
stairs with the butler behind him.
"Where is Mr. Stafford, Marcus?" she asked impatiently, as she
stood with her hand on the door. "Good morning, Mr. Atley," she
added, her eyes descending to him. "Where is my husband? The
coffee is getting quite cold."
"He has just sent to ask me to come to him," Atley answered.
"Marcus tells me there is something in the Times which has annoyed
him, Lady Betty; I will send him up as quickly as I can."
But Lady Betty had not stayed to receive this last assurance. She
had drawn back and shut the door smartly; yet not so quickly but
that the private secretary had seen her change color. "Umph!" he
ejaculated to himself—the lady was not much given to blushing as a
rule—"I wonder what is wrong with HER this morning. She is not
generally rude to me."
It was not long before he got some light on the matter. "Come
here, Atley," said his employer, the moment he entered the library.
"Look at this!"
The secretary took the Times, folded back at the important column,
and read the letter. Meanwhile the Minister read the secretary.
He saw surprise and consternation on his face, but no trace of
guilt. Then he told him what Marcus said about the two letters
which had gone the previous evening from the house addressed to the
Times office. "One," he said, "contained the notes of my speech.
"The other—" replied the secretary, thinking while he spoke, "was
given to me at the last moment by Sir Horace. I threw it to Marcus
in the hall."
"Ah!" said his chief, trying very hard to express nothing by the
exclamation, but not quite succeeding. "Did you see that that
letter was addressed to the editor of the Times?"
The secretary reddened, and betrayed sudden confusion. "I did," he
said hurriedly. "I saw so much of the address as I threw the
letter on the slab—though I thought nothing of it at the time."
Mr. Stafford looked at him fixedly. "Come," he said, "this is a
grave matter, Atley. You noticed, I can see, the handwriting. Was
it Sir Horace's?"
"No," replied the secretary.
"Whose was it?"
"I think—I think, Mr. Stafford—that it was Lady Betty's. But I
should be sorry, having seen it only for a moment—so say for
Mr. Stafford repeated the exclamation three times, in pure
surprise, in anger, a third time in trembling. In this last stage
he walked away to the window, and turning his back on his companion
looked out. He recalled at once his wife's petulant exclamation of
yesterday, the foolish desire expressed, as he had supposed in
jest. Had she really been in earnest? And had she carried out her
threat? Had she—his wife—done this thing so compromising to his
honor, so mischievous to the country, so mad, reckless, wicked?
Impossible. It was impossible. And yet—and yet Atley was a man
to be trusted, a gentleman, his own relation! And Atley's eye was
not likely to be deceived in a matter of handwriting. That Atley
had made up his mind he could see.
The statesman turned from the window, and walked to and fro, his
agitation betrayed by his step. The third time he passed in front
of his secretary—who had riveted his eyes to the Times and
appeared to be reading the money article—he stopped. "If this be
true—mind I say if, Atley—" he cried, jerkily, "what was my
wife's motive? I am in the dark, blindfolded! Help me! Tell me
what has been passing round me that I have not seen. You would not
have my wife—a spy?"
"No! no! no!" cried the other, as he dropped the paper, his
vehemence and his working features showing that he felt the pathos
of the appeal. "It is not that. Lady Betty is jealous, if I may
venture to judge, of your devotion to politics. She sees little of
you. You are wrapped up in public affairs and matters of state.
She feels herself neglected and set aside. And she has been
married no more than a year."
"But she has her society," objected the Minister, compelling
himself to speak calmly, "and her cousin, and—and many other
"For which she does not care," returned the secretary.
It was a simple answer, but something in it touched a tender place.
Mr. Stafford winced and cast a queer startled look at the speaker.
Before he could reply, however—if he intended to reply—a knock
came at the door and Marcus put in his head. "My lady is waiting
breakfast, sir," he suggested timidly. What could a poor butler do
between an impatient mistress and an obdurate master?
"I will come," said Mr. Stafford hastily. "I will come at once.
For this matter, Atley," he continued when the door was closed
again, "let it rest for the present where it is. I am aware I can
depend upon your—" he paused, seeking a word—"your discretion.
One thing is certain, however. There is an end of the arrangement
made yesterday. Probably the Queen will send for Templeton. I
shall see Lord Pilgrimstone tomorrow, but probably that will be the
end of it."
Atley went away marveling at his coolness, trying to retrace the
short steps of their conversation, and so to discern how far the
Minister had gone with him, and where he had turned off upon a
resolution of his own. He failed to see the clue, however, and
marveled still more as the day went on and others succeeded it,
days of political crisis. Out of doors the world, or that little
jot of it which has its center at Westminster, was in confusion.
The newspapers, morning or evening, found ready sale, and had no
need of recourse to murder-panics, or prurient discussions. The
Coalition scandal, the resignation of Ministers, the sending for
Lord This and Mr. That, the certainty of a dissolution, provided
matter enough. In all this Atley found nothing to wonder at. He
had seen it all before. That which did cause him surprise was the
calm—the unnatural calm as it seemed to him—which prevailed in
the house in Carlton Terrace. For a day or two, indeed, there was
much going to and fro, much closeting and button-holing; for rather
longer the secretary read anxiety and apprehension in one
countenance—Lady Betty's. But things settled down. The knocker
presently found peace, such comparative peace as falls to knockers
in Carlton Terrace. Lady Betty's brow grew clear as her eye found
no reflection of its anxiety in Mr. Stafford's face. In a word the
secretary failed to discern the faintest sign of domestic trouble.
The late Minister, indeed, was taking things with wonderful
coolness. Lord Pilgrimstone had failed to taunt him, and the
triumph of old foes had failed to goad him into a last effort.
Apparently it had occurred to him that the country might for a time
exist without him. He was standing aside with a shade on his face,
and there were rumors that he would take a long holiday.
A week saw all these things happen. And then, one day as Atley sat
writing in the library—Mr. Stafford being out—Lady Betty came
into the room for something. Rising to find her what she wanted,
he was holding the door open for her to pass out, when she paused.
"Shut the door, Mr. Atley," she said, pointing to it. "I want to
ask you a question."
"Pray do, Lady Betty," he answered.
"It is this," she said, meeting his eyes boldly—and a brighter, a
more dainty little creature than she looked then had seldom tempted
man. "Mr. Stafford's resignation—had it anything, Mr. Atley, to
do with—" her face colored a very little—"something that was in
the Times this day week?"
His own cheek colored violently enough. "If ever," he was saying
to himself, "I meddle or mar between husband and wife again, may
I—" But aloud he answered quietly, "Something perhaps." The
question was sudden. Her eyes were on his face. He found it
impossible to prevaricate.
"My husband has never spoken to me about it," she replied,
He bowed, having no words adapted to the situation. But he
repeated his resolution (as above) more furiously.
"He has never appeared even aware of it," she persisted. "Are you
sure that he saw it?"
He wondered at her innocence or her audacity. That such a baby
should do so much mischief. The thought irritated him. "It was
impossible that he should not see it, Lady Betty," he said, with a
touch of asperity. "Quite impossible!"
"Ah," she replied with a faint sigh. "Well, he has never spoken to
me about it. And you think it had really something to do with his
resignation, Mr. Atley?"
"Most certainly," he said. He was not inclined to spare her this
She nodded thoughtfully, and then with a quiet "Thank you," went
"Well," muttered the secretary to himself when the door was fairly
shut behind her, "she is—upon my word she is a fool! And he"—
appealing to the inkstand—"he has never said a word to her about
it. He is a new Don Quixote! a second Job, new Sir Isaac Newton!
I do not know what to call him."
It was Sir Horace, however, who precipitated the catastrophe. He
happened to come in about tea-time that afternoon, before, in fact,
my lady had had an opportunity of seeing her husband. He found her
alone and in a brown study, a thing most unusual with her and
portending something. He watched her for a time in silence, seemed
to draw courage from a still longer inspection of his boots, and
then said, "So the cart is clean over, Betty?"
"Driver much hurt?"
"Do you mean, does Stafford mind it?" she replied impatiently.
"Well, I do not know. It is hard to say."
"Think so?" he persisted.
"Good gracious, Horry!" my lady retorted, losing patience. "I say
I do not know, and you say 'Think so!' If you want to learn so
particularly, ask him yourself. Here he is!"
Mr. Stafford had just entered the room. Perhaps she really wished
to satisfy herself as to the state of his feelings. Perhaps she
only desired in her irritation to put her cousin in a corner. At
any rate she coolly turned to her husband and said, "Here is Horace
wishing to know if you mind being turned out much?"
Mr. Stafford's face flushed a little at the home-thrust which no
one else would have dared to deal him. But he showed no
displeasure. "Well, not so much as I should have thought," he
answered frankly, pausing to weigh a lump of sugar, and, as it
seemed, his feelings. "There are compensations, you know."
"Pity all the same those terms came out," grunted Sir Horace.
"Stafford!" Lady Betty struck in on a sudden, speaking fast and
eagerly, "is it true, I want to ask you, it is true that that led
you to resign?"