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CHAPTER XXI
LORD RONALD RICKSBOROUGH COMES TO THE COURT

On the Wednesday morning, in the middle of lessons, a footman came from the duke to ask Pollyooly to go to him at once. She went wondering, and found him in the smoking-room in a panic.

As she entered he waved a telegram at her and said:

"Here's a new mess. Lord Ronald Ricksborough—you know him—he's my heir, you know—always spends his holidays at the court. He's been visiting friends, but his visit's at an end; and he wires to say that he's coming here—arriving this evening."

"Oh, that will be nice!" cried Pollyooly.

"Oh, will it? Suppose he finds out you're not Lady Marion?" cried the duke.

"But he knows I'm not; and he knows I'm here," said Pollyooly.

"The deuce he does!" cried the duke.

"Yes. I wrote and told him so," said Pollyooly.

"You did?" cried the duke; and he clutched at his moustache.

"Yes. We often write to one another—just short letters. You know we're engaged to be married, when we grow up. He gave me this ring," said Pollyooly in a tone of quiet explanation, holding out her hand.

The duke gasped heavily.

"I don't know what the world's coming to! Children of your age!" he cried.

"Oh, it'll be quite all right," said Pollyooly cheerfully. "I'm going on the stage. I've been on it already—dancing with the Esmeralda—not really dancing of course, but just filling in the picture (that's what the Esmeralda called it) in 'Titania's Awakening'—"

"What? You were the child in 'Titania's Awakening'?" said the duke heavily.

"Yes. But when I grow up I'm going on the stage again—in musical comedy—so that it will be quite all right for Ronald to marry me. The heirs of peers generally marry girls in musical comedy. Ronald says they do; and Mr. Ruffin said that he was quite right."

The duke's eyes were larger than usual, and bulging out. He ground his teeth and looked as if he could well have torn out some of his hair.

"I can't think why John Ruffin will talk such silly nonsense!" he growled in a tone of the last exasperation.

"Oh, but it isn't, your Grace," said Pollyooly reproachfully. "Lots of them have done it. Ronald sent me a list of them he made out with two school-fellows. Only it's at the Temple. It'll be quite all right for us to get married."

The duke gnashed his teeth for a change. But he regained some control of himself and said with moderate calmness:

"Well, of course it's only children's nonsense. But you may as well bear in mind that Ronald's going to marry Lady Marion."

"I don't think you'll get him to," said Pollyooly quickly but dispassionately. "He says she's such a little duff—" Her natural politeness stopped the word on her tongue. "They—they don't get on well together."

"They'll have to!" said the duke stormily.

Pollyooly said nothing; but she did not look hopeful.

The duke waited for a word of encouragement. It did not come. He crumpled up the telegram, threw it into the grate, and said:

"But the real question is: will Ronald keep the secret? Will he be able to?"

"Oh, yes: he'll keep it quite easily," said Pollyooly confidently. "He's splendid at keeping secrets."

The duke gazed at her gloomily and said gloomily:

"I can't conceive how on earth you and Ronald got to know one another so well."

Pollyooly's eyes opened wider and grew uncommonly limpid. She said:

"Oh, I've been out to lunch with him and to the Varolium—from the Temple."

"You have, have you?" said the duke bitterly. "I'm hanged if I know what the world's coming to!"

Pollyooly said nothing. She looked at him solemnly as if impressed by his difficulty. He gazed at her gloomily. Then he said firmly:

"Look here: I'm not going to have his coming interfere with our walks; and he's not coming with us to call on people."

Pollyooly knitted her brow and after a thoughtful pause said:

"I shouldn't think he'll want to."

"He won't, if he does," said the duke firmly. "And mind you keep him up to the mark and see that he doesn't let out that you're not Marion."

"Oh, I will," said Pollyooly.

"Well, run away and get your lessons done. I hope to goodness he doesn't let it out!"

That evening, while they were at tea, Lord Ronald Ricksborough arrived, and came straight to the schoolroom. His attitude was admirable. He greeted Pollyooly with the words, "Hullo, Marion!" in the perfectly perfunctory manner of a cousin. She greeted him with a like perfunctoriness and introduced him to Miss Belthorp. He greeted her politely; then he looked at the Lump with a very good air of surprise and said:

"Who's the kid?"

This display of ignorance was unwarranted by the fact that more than once, in moments of chivalry, he had carried the Lump up the stairs of Seventy-five, the King's Bench Walk, after the three of them had been taking their pleasures in London.

"He's a little boy his grace has adopted," said Miss Belthorp, smiling affectionately at the Lump.

"Adopted? Well, that's a rum go," said Ronald; and he sat down at the table.

Over his tea he told them, or, to be exact, he told Pollyooly, for it was to her that he addressed himself, of his doings at school and during the time he had spent on the visit which had just come to an end. After tea he and Pollyooly went out into the gardens together. When they were out of hearing he said:

"This is tophole, having you here, old girl!"

Then as they passed out of sight in a shrubbery, he put his arm, somewhat clumsily for one in most things uncommonly deft, round her neck and kissed her. Pollyooly returned the kiss in a matter-of-fact, almost careless fashion. She was not addicted to kissing, though she kissed the Lump often enough and with fervour; but this kiss was part of the business of being engaged to be married. Since Ronald heaved a sigh of relief at having performed the required feat, it is to be presumed that his feelings in the matter were very like her own. Then they went on briskly through the gardens and into the wood, the best companions in the world.

With Ronald at the court the days grew pleasanter than ever. He begged Pollyooly to demand that she too should have a holiday. But this she would not do. She had seen the world at too close quarters to throw away things idly; and she was learning French. Indeed, the lessons had been reduced to French because Pollyooly had heard the Esmeralda say that she found her knowledge of French a perfect blessing; and agreeing with her, the Honourable John Ruffin had said that to an artist who danced on the continent and in the Americas, French must be worth hundreds a year.

Pollyooly had the firmest intention of dancing herself on the continent and in the Americas, and she applied herself to learning the French tongue with the vigour and tenacity with which she worked at her dancing. Miss Belthorp was astonished at the quickness with which she learnt; and she talked with enthusiasm to the duke of his daughter's gift for languages.

"She has: has she?" said the duke; and he looked at her somewhat queerly.

"It's perfectly wonderful!" said Miss Belthorp.

"Oh, well: it's a very good thing. I dare say it will come in useful one of these days," said the duke.

On their walk that morning he told Pollyooly that Miss Belthorp had said that she was a marvel at languages; and Pollyooly was very pleased to hear it. She told the duke her reason for working so hard at her French.

He frowned for the next hundred yards, or so; then he said irritably:

"I can't see why on earth you want to go in for this dancing and all this stage business at all."

"Oh, but if you can dance—really dance, they pay you ever so well," cried Pollyooly.

"I tell you what it is: you're a jolly sight too keen on money—for a child of your age—it's—it's mercenary—yes: mercenary," said the duke severely.

Pollyooly flushed, and looked at him with her eyes bright either with tears, or a sparkle of anger.

"But I have to get money," she said with some heat. "When Mr. Ruffin's creditors hale him away to the deepest dungeon in Holloway (he's said they will lots of times) you don't suppose I'm going to let the Lump go to the workhouse! And where should I get another place like Mr. Ruffin's? I should only have Mr. Gedge-Tomkins."

"Oh, well—of course—if it's like that," said the duke in a tone of awkward apology.

Pollyooly said nothing for a while; she walked on with knitted brow. Then she said:

"And anyhow when the Lump gets bigger, I shall want a lot of money. There'll be his clothes, and his schooling. I don't want him to go to a board school—not in London. Such children go there—Aunt Hannah said so, and so does Mrs. Brown. But there must be schools where they wouldn't charge very much."

"Oh—ah—of course, you'll want money for that," said the duke heavily.

Pollyooly gave a little skip as of one removing an unpleasant matter from her mind, and said cheerfully:


"And anyhow I should have to go on the stage. Ronald and I couldn't get married if I didn't."

"I keep telling you that he's going to marry Marion," said the duke very firmly indeed.

His insistence on this fact did not seem to impair Pollyooly's cheerful serenity, for after a thoughtful pause she skipped again and said:

"Oh, well: if I'm actually on the stage, I expect it would be all right. There must be other heirs of peers."

The duke looked down on her and said bitterly:

"I'm hanged if I know what the world's coming to!"