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CHAPTER XX
POLLYOOLY AND THE DUKE

The duke's delight with the evident publicity which had attended the presentation of Pollyooly to the county had lessened hardly at all by the next morning. He thought it likely that, if the duchess were anywhere in the United Kingdom, she would learn by some post that very day that he had filled the place of Marion.

Then it occurred to him that these correspondents would not only condole with the duchess on having lost her daughter, but also they would condole with her on having lost such a charming and delightful daughter; and he laughed more heartily than he had laughed for many a long day.

In a natural desire for yet more publicity, that afternoon he took Pollyooly with him and drove over to Overton Grange to introduce her to the Ashcrofts, who had tried to play the part of mediators, with signal ill-success, between him and the duchess. The Ashcrofts had heard that Lady Marion Ricksborough had been present at the garden party at Ilkeston Towers the day before. They were surprised by the news and more than a little hurt that the duchess had not at once informed them that the duke had recovered her. Also they were feeling that the duke had brought Pollyooly to show her off to them as his triumph. Therefore Lord Ashcroft, a strong, silent, bearded man, was a trifle stiff with him, Lady Ashcroft a trifle cold; but they made up for it by giving Pollyooly the warmest welcome possible; their friendliness was almost overwhelming. After tea (to Pollyooly's regret there were no ices) Lady Ashcroft took her up to the nurseries where she found a little girl of eight and a little boy of six, and enjoyed herself thoroughly. They were better than ices.

Lord Ashcroft and the duke smoked their cigarettes in silence for a while after Lady Ashcroft and Pollyooly had left them. Lord Ashcroft looked rather gloomy; the duke looked at peace with the world. Then Lord Ashcroft said gloomily:

"How did you get hold of Marion?"

"Oh, money—just money," said the duke airily but with perfect truthfulness.

Lord Ashcroft frowned; and they were silent again.

The duke, with the same air of content, lighted another cigarette.

Presently Lord Ashcroft said:

"She's very much improved both in looks and intelligence."

The duke sat bolt upright and said quickly and with heat:

"She's nothing of the kind!"

"Oh, yes; she is. You know she is," said Lord Ashcroft firmly. "It's being with her mother."

"It's nothing of the kind!" said the duke, still with heat. It seemed to him absurd to suggest that Pollyooly was superior to his daughter.

"It is; and I shall write and tell Caroline so," said Lord Ashcroft with the same firmness.

"I never knew such an obstinate—wrong-headed—" the duke broke out. He broke off short, paused, began to laugh, and laughed heartily. Then he said: "Oh, well; have it your own way. Write and tell her so."

"I shall," said Lord Ashcroft in the tone of one bent on performing a sacred duty. "I don't see anything to laugh at."

The duke again remained silent; but twice he laughed sudden, short laughs. Lord Ashcroft looked at him suspiciously.

"I don't know quite what's happening to you, Osterley," he said presently in a tone hardly meant to be pleasant. "You're changing."

"Yes: getting brighter," said the duke easily.

"It may be that and again it may not," said Lord Ashcroft coldly; and he tugged at his beard.

After that conversation seemed hard to make; and soon the duke said that he must be going. Lady Ashcroft kept him waiting nearly twenty minutes before she brought Pollyooly down from the nurseries. Then she said that Pollyooly must come to spend the whole day with her children; and Pollyooly said that she would like to come very much. The duke looked a little doubtful: he was not sure that Pollyooly could stand the test of hours of intimacy.

On the way home he talked for a while cheerfully; and since there was no intellectual gulf between them, they could talk to one another with perfect ease and understanding. Then he fell into a sudden panic.

"By Jove!" he cried, clutching at his moustache and missing it. "I'd forgotten all about it! My sister—Lady Salkeld's coming home to-morrow!"

Pollyooly said nothing. She looked at him with enquiring eyes.

"Suppose she goes and recognises that you aren't Marion?"

"I don't see why she should any more than any one else," said Pollyooly in a reassuring tone.

"Oh, but, hang it! She's seen a lot of Marion. She's known her ever since she was a baby," said the duke with a harassed air.

Pollyooly could have set his mind at rest by assuring him that during her last stay at the court Lady Salkeld had not shown the slightest tendency to recognise that she was not Lady Marion Ricksborough; but she did not. She only said:

"I don't suppose that she'll take much notice of me."

"There is that. She pretty well thinks of nothing but her own affairs," said the duke more hopefully.

"Anyhow, it's no use worrying about it. I expect it'll be all right," said Pollyooly in a comforting tone.

The duke was so far reassured by her careless serenity as presently to resume his easy conversation with her. That evening, since he was dining alone, he sent for her to come to him at dessert, and talked to her again. His was a sociable nature; and in view of the presence of her and the Lump he had not invited any friends to relieve the loneliness of his stay at the court.

Lady Salkeld arrived in time for lunch next day; and at lunch Pollyooly and the Lump met her. The duke was on tenterhooks, needlessly, for she bestowed a tepid kiss on Pollyooly, tapped the cheek of the Lump even more tepidly, and addressed herself peaceably to her lunch.

But after a while she began to give her attention to the Lump, looking at him earnestly now and again, and blinking. Then she said:

"That child reminds me of somebody, Osterley. Where did you pick him up?"

"These red Deepings are all alike," said the duke carelessly.

"Oh? He's a red Deeping, is he? Who's his father?" said Lady Salkeld almost briskly.

"It's a secret," said the duke with perfect truthfulness, for he did not know.

Lady Salkeld looked at him, sniffed, and said with some tartness:

"Well, I never expected you to be mysterious, Osterley."

The duke bore the reproach with patient meekness, and said nothing. It suited him very well that his sister should be giving her attention to the Lump. From the Lump nothing was to be learned.

Lady Salkeld's coming made no difference to their lives. Pollyooly went on her early morning rambles with the Lump; from breakfast to noon she did her lessons and then went for a sedate walk with Miss Belthorp. After lunch she played with the Lump till it was time to drive out to tea with the duke. Naturally she met the same people again and again, and was now on very friendly terms with some of them. The duke, regarding her with something of the feeling of an impresario, and finding that she was everywhere welcomed as an authentic angel child, began to take pride in displaying her. Also he began to take greater pleasure in her society. Frequently, when the morning lessons were over, he would come up to the schoolroom and take her out for a walk with him. He liked to stroll about his estate and thrill with the feelings of a landed proprietor.

Pollyooly enjoyed these walks. The duke never tried to improve her mind with botany. But she learned much country lore from him, the names and habits of many birds and small animals. In spite of his exalted station, he was a simple soul; and he had retained his boyish interest in the furred and feathered world of the woods and meadows round the court. Also he enjoyed telling Pollyooly things. Unconsciously, but quite accurately, he regarded her as his intellectual equal; and it pleased him very much to tell her things she did not know. It gave him a sense of passing, but genuine superiority, a feeling his fellow creatures seldom inspired into him.

Sometimes he wondered why he had never thought of making a companion of Marion. He made up his mind that when, presently, he was reconciled with the duchess (he had no doubt ever that presently they would be reconciled) he would make a companion of her. It never entered his mind that there would be any difficulty about doing so.

The Honourable John Ruffin came down for a week-end and was pleased to find the duke and Pollyooly on such excellent terms. So pleased was he that he forebore, by a considerable effort, to tease the duke. At least he did not tease him more than was good for him. Also, to his great surprise, he found himself suffering from a twinge of jealousy now and again at Pollyooly's frank display of friendliness for the duke. He told himself that it was wholly absurd. But there it was: with his money and influence the duke could do so much more for her than he could. He consoled himself with the thought that after all the duke would be only carrying on his work.

On the Saturday afternoon they went, as was their wont, for a stroll through the woods; and the Honourable John Ruffin, who had so carefully gratified his great inborn interest in the human race that now he missed very little, observed that once or twice the duke paused and looked about him as if he missed something.

The next afternoon as they were starting, the duke said in a voice which was not as easy as it tried to be, and with an air that was distinctly shame-faced:

"I say: we may as well take Pollyooly with us."

The Honourable John Ruffin raised his eyebrows a little and said:

"Oh, well—little pitchers have long ears, don't you know."

"Oh, that's all right—that's all right, we needn't talk secrets," said the duke quickly; and he ran lightly up the stairs to fetch her.

It was a pleasant walk; and the Honourable John Ruffin was alive to the fact that the company of Pollyooly greatly improved it. But at times to his astonishment he was no less distinctly conscious of the fact that two were company and three were none; and he was the third.

At dinner that night he said somewhat gloomily:

"I wish Caroline would hurry up and start firmly to come back to you. I miss Pollyooly."

"Give her time—give her time," said the duke quickly. "Besides the country is doing the child a lot of good."

"Oh, it's all very well for you. You've got a chef; but I've got no one to grill my bacon, and that after training Pollyooly to be the finest griller of bacon in England," said the Honourable John Ruffin in a bitterly aggrieved tone.

"Don't you think you're a bit selfish? You ought to think of the good the country's doing the child," said the duke in a somewhat lofty tone.

The Honourable John Ruffin snarled quietly.

The next afternoon, as he was getting into the car to go to the station, he paused and said in his most amiable tone:

"Well, all I can say is: it's a jolly good thing for everybody that Pollyooly isn't six years older."

"Oh, get out!" said the duke.

"Especially for Pollyooly," said the Honourable John Ruffin; and he stepped into the car.