‘But, excuse me–’
She had begun to munch her fig, but interrupted him with another nod.
‘Yes, I know what you are going to say. That’s the name they give to another general out in India, don’t they? But Aunt Louisa declares he won’t hold a candle to you–though I don’t know why he should want to do anything of the sort.’
‘It’s uncommonly kind of your Aunt Louisa–’ he began again.
‘Do you know her?’ the child asked, with disconcerting directness.
‘That’s just the trouble with me’ Colonel Baigent confessed.
‘She is my great-aunt, really. She lives in Little Swithun, right at the back of Dean’s Close; and her name is on a brass plate–a very hard name to pronounce, “Miss Lapenotiere, Dancing and Calisthenics”–that’s another hard word, but it means things you do with an elastic band to improve your figure. The plate doesn’t azackly tell the truth, because she has been an invalid for years now, and Aunt Netta–that’s my other aunt–had to carry on the business. But everybody knows about it, so there really is no deceit. Aunt Netta’s name is Wallas, and so is mine. Her mother was sister to Aunt Louisa, and she tells us we come of very good family. She never married. I don’t believe she ever wanted to marry anybody but you, and now it’s too late. But I call it splendid, your turning up like this. And on Christmas Eve, to!’
‘It’s beginning to be splendid,’ owned the colonel, who had partly recovered himself. ‘Unhappily–since you put it so–it is, I fear, a fact that I never met your Aunt Louisa.’
‘Oh! but you did–in the street, and once in the post office, when you were a boy at the college.’
‘Such impressions are fleeting, my dear, as you will live to prove. Your other aunt, Miss Netta–’
‘Oh! she will have been born after your time,’ said the child, with calm, unconscious cruelty. ‘But you will see her presently. She has gone to the bar to pay the bill, and when she has finished disputing it she is bound to call for me.’
As if it had been waiting to confirm the prophecy, a voice called, ‘Charis! Charis!’ almost on the instant.
‘That’s my name,’ said the child, helping herself to another fig, as a middle-aged face, wrinkled, with a complexion of parchment under a mass of tow-coloured hair, peered in at the doorway.
The colonel rose. ‘Your niece, madam,’ he began, ‘has been entertaining me for these ten minutes–’
With that he stopped, perceiving that, after a second glance at him, the eyes of Aunt Netta, too, were growing round in her head.
‘Charis, you naughty child! Sir, I do hope–but she has been troubling you, I am sure–’ stammered Aunt Netta, and came to a full stop.
Charis clapped her hands, with a triumphant little laugh.
‘But I knew him first!’ she exclaimed, ‘Yes, Aunt Netta, it’s him!– it’s him, him, HIM! And isn’t it just perfectly glorious?’
‘You must excuse my niece, sir–that is to say, if you are really Colonel–’
‘Baigent, ma’am. I think you know my name; though how or why that should be, passes my comprehension.’
She bowed to him, timidly, a trifle stiffly. ‘It is an honour to have met you, sir. I have an aunt at home, an invalid, who will be very proud when she hears of this. She has followed your career with great interest–I believe I may say, ever since you were a boy at the college. She has talked about you so often, you must forgive the child for being excited. Come, Charis! Thank Colonel Baigent, and say good-night.’
‘But isn’t he coming with us?’ The child’s face fell, and her voice was full of dismay. ‘Oh! but you must! Aunt Louisa will cry her eyes out if you don’t. And on Christmas Eve, too!’