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Claude Fisher had a way with women. He was handsome enough to be sure, if you liked the type. Sandy blonde chap, with side-whiskers and a neatly trimmed moustache. He spoke snobbishly, with an upper-class accent and he had the gift of diplomacy. He always knew when to say the right thing at the right time- and he always did so with the ladies. I know, he boasted to me about it discreetly while I smoked my afternoon pipe.
He had the idea that we were chums because I knew him in his school-days. I had disliked him in his school-days too, but he had forgotten that. I hadn't. I remembered it very well. I remembered it still more so when he made a friend of Margaret.
Margaret was a strong- willed, heady thing. More prone to rebellion than common-sense. Gay and happy as a lark in a sunbeam, but with a fiery temper for all her smiling face. She used to argue something fierce and I had to be sure to marshal up my facts before attempting her in a debate.
Yet she had a tender way with her hands. Once I saw her run to cradle a child in her lap when he fell, and smooth away his tears with a touch as delicate as a flower petal. Children had a great love for Margaret, and she for them. They flocked about her like puppies, and I rarely saw her anywhere without a herd of them about.
It was after the incident with the child that I decided to make the scatterbrained young thing my wife. Somebody needed to take care of her. That somebody had to be me. Nobody else had sense enough to do it.
I am a deuced awkward fellow when it comes to matters of the heart. I daresay I made my suit clumsily, for Margaret merely laughed, and instructed me to go back to my books.
"I am not ready for marriage yet, Paul." she gurgled from her chair. "And what would a scholar like yourself want with a society butterfly like me?"
I wanted to tell her that I loved her. But somehow could not make up my mind to do it, and by the time I had, it was too late. Mrs Clarke was walking up the path. And Mrs Clarke was the town's gossip. I would not have my private concerns scattered over the countryside.
Margaret rose to meet her cheerfully, but I remained in my chair, scowling at the neighbour who had so dared to interrupt us. Besides a perfunctory nod, Mrs Clarke did not pay me any attention. No doubt she had not forgotten the telling off I'd given her last spring. I didn't mind. Her disfavour was not of a kind which greatly troubled me.
"Margaret," she gushed, taking the younger girl's hands into her own. "How are you? Oh- no, you needn't rise for me Mr Osbourne-" (this with killing sarcasm) "I do not need a chair as I shan't be staying long-"
"That is as well." I interrupted rudely. "As I do not intend to give you mine."
Mrs Clarke shot me a freezing glance of contempt. I smiled at her gently and lifted my pipe in ironic salute. Thereupon she decided to ignore me utterly.
Margaret's eyes were dancing. The animosity between Mrs Clarke and myself never failed to amuse her. Before she had time to speak however, Mrs Clarke had turned towards her again. I waited patiently for the inevitable torrent of words.
"Oh Margaret! I am so excited. There is going to be a huge party- just think! Mr Halley is throwing one for his nephew's arrival. Have you seen the nephew? So very handsome, and the perfect gentleman! He has manners my dear- befitting a prince!" Mrs Clarke shot me another icy glare. "-unlike a certain other person I could mention. Oh dear, such a party it will be. Everyone will be in their very best finery, and I am all in a dither."
"Surely that is your natural state?" I murmured.
Mrs Clarke pretended not to hear me.
"I am going directly into Summerville tomorrow. I wish to be sure that I am well attired for such a prestigious event. And everybody will be in the latest fashions! It will be perfectly beautiful darling. Oh do you think you will come?! You will be an absolute belle I am sure!"
"I can hardly attend a party without an invitation." Margaret laughed.
Mrs Clarke gushed over this objection with her customary volubility. "But of course you will receive an invitation! Everybody will. And Mr Halley could not neglect you- you are so popular and loved by everyone! Why- it would hardly be a party at all without your attendance. And everybody knows Mr Halley is just all in a fever to show off his nephew. Claude Fisher is the success of the family, you know."
"Claude Fisher-" I interrupted sharply from the chair. "from Beech House?"
Mrs Clarke forgot her animosity. She was a very gracious woman- when she scented fresh gossip. "Do you know Mr Fisher?" She asked eagerly. "He has not spoken much of his house to me, but I hear he is very rich. What do you know about him?"
"Very little, I'm afraid." I replied- much to Mrs Clarke's annoyance. "I believe I might have gone to school with him."
"Well that is hardly very interesting." The lady snapped. "I should think you could give me a little more detail than that. The whole town is in a ferment over his arrival. He is very famous."
"That is interesting." I observed, rising to my feet and knocking out the ashes from my pipe. "For aside from my childhood I haven't heard of him. Nor-" I added emphatically "-do I wish to hear of him. The child Claude Fisher was a bounder and a cad, and I doubt the adult version would have improved very greatly. Good afternoon Margaret, Mrs Clarke."
It was foolish of me to leave them together, for Margaret had maintained a perverse loyalty to Mrs Clarke since her girlhood. I glanced behind me and observed that good lady gesticulating angrily with her hands. Doubtless she was protesting yet again the extreme rudeness and unsocial behaviour of one Paul Osbourne. I shrugged and continued walking. Margaret was not without the rudiments of common sense, and doubtless the two of us would share a good laugh about it all later.