Happy Pollyooly: The Rich Little Poor Girl/Chapter 9
THE RELUCTANT DUKE
Tears were not at all to Pollyooly's liking. She considered them the sign of a feeble heart and softening brain. The Honourable John Ruffin had thrown quite a new light on them in suggesting that they could be used as a weapon; and she considered this use of them most of the way to Ricksborough House.
She reached it soon after half-past two. She found its gloomy nineteenth-century façade, black with the smuts of ninety years, a little daunting, and mounted its broad steps in some trepidation. But she rang the bell hard and knocked firmly.
Lucas, the butler of the duke, himself opened the door. At the sight of Pollyooly he started back; for the moment he thought that his lost young mistress stood before him.
Pollyooly stepped across the threshold, and said firmly:
"I want to see the Duke of Osterley, please."
The words showed Lucas his mistake; he perceived that before him stood not his mistress, but that young red Deeping who had once made a manifestly genuine offer to bite him; and he hesitated.
"It's very important. Please tell him that Miss Bride wants to see him," said Pollyooly.
"Um—er—come this way, miss. I'll see if his grace will see you," said Lucas in a doubtful voice.
He would have liked to refuse to let her into the house; but he was doubtful about her social standing. Therefore he took her to the nearest drawing-room, said that he would inform his grace, and betook himself to his master in the smoking-room, wearing a perturbed air, for the duke had as complete a vocabulary as any nobleman in England, and he might easily take it ill that this formidable red Deeping had not been refused admission to his house.
"If you please, your Grace, there's a young lady—leastways a little girl of the name of Bride—wants to see your Grace," said Lucas. "It's the little girl you brought home as turned out not to be Lady Marion."
"What the deuce did you let her in for?" said the duke on the instant; and he frowned at him.
"She said it was very important, your Grace," said Lucas in an unhappy tone.
The duke continued to frown, considering: Pollyooly might have brought word of his missing daughter; and he would by no means let slip an opportunity of getting information about her. On the other hand he might be about to be called upon to pay more for his kidnapping exploit. He had, however, just lunched ducally; and he was in a vainglorious mood, ready to face anything female.
At last he said bitterly:
"I seem to have every jackass in London in my service. Bring her here."
Lucas gloomily announced the readiness of the duke to receive her to Pollyooly. She followed him eagerly and came into the smoking-room with a brave air, though she was not feeling as brave as she looked. The duke stood on the hearthrug and glowered at her.
She did not hesitate; she gazed at his unamiable face with limpid eyes and said tranquilly:
"How do you do, your Grace?"
The duke grunted; then grew articulate, and said:
"What do you want?"
Pollyooly sat down deliberately in one of the big easy chairs facing him, and answered:
"If you please, your Grace, I came to see you about an orphan."
"An orphan?" said the duke a little less grumpily. He was somewhat impressed by the angel face of his visitor. During her last, compulsory visit it had been so much more red Deeping than angel. Also her costume so amber and so expensive impressed him.
"Yes: her name is Millicent Saunders; and they wanted to send her to the workhouse because her mother died who used to dance at the Varolium in the second row, but of course I couldn't let them do that, could I?" said Pollyooly in an explanatory tone.
"I don't know. What's it got to do with me?" said the duke quickly.
"Millicent is one of those orphans who wouldn't be much good working for herself, though of course she'd work hard and be very willing," said Pollyooly speaking very clearly in the explanatory tone, and looking at him with very earnest eyes.
"Then she'd better go to the workhouse. She'll have an idle enough time there," said the duke who was staunchly conservative in feeling.
"But she can't go to the workhouse," said Pollyooly in a deeply shocked tone.
"Why not?" said the duke.
Pollyooly looked at him very sternly, and said in a very stern voice:
"Her mother was a very respectable woman; she was in the second row of the Varolium ballet for years and years; and she always kept Millie very respectable. Besides, you can't let people go to the workhouse."
"Why can't you, if it's the proper place for them?" said the duke stubbornly, for he hated to hear the workhouse in any way disparaged, since he regarded it as a bulwark of society.
"How would you like your little girl to go to the workhouse?" said Pollyooly in a deeply reproachful tone.
"It's a prospect we needn't consider," said the duke haughtily.
"We never know what we may come to," said Pollyooly with a happy remembrance of the pious wisdom of her Aunt Hannah. "But Millie isn't going into the workhouse anyhow. I'm not going to let her. But she ought to go to a home and be trained to marry an empire-builder. She's that kind of orphan: Mr. Ruf—a gentleman says that she is. And I came to ask you if you'd give her a nomination so that she could go into the Bellingham Home. They'll do anything you tell them there; and if you said so, they'd take her in at once. And she'd be ever so much obliged to you. She'd never forget it—never. And so should I."
She was leaning forward with clasped hands and shining, imploring eyes. The duke was not insensible to the charm of her beauty, or to the appeal of her pleading voice. He was even more sensible to the tribute she had paid to his power in the matter of the Bellingham Home. But he was in a captious mood; and he did not wish to oblige her. His mind was chiefly full of the fact that he had made himself look foolish by kidnapping her and had had to pay her six pounds compensation. He was still sore about the foolishness and also about the money, for his was a thrifty soul.
But Pollyooly's angel face made a direct refusal difficult. He coughed and said:
"I—er—don't—er—do things in this—er—irregular way. My—er—nominations are—er—only given after I have been approached in the proper way and received testimonials and—er—sifted them out so as to nominate the most deserving orphan among the many applicants for admission."
"There couldn't be a more deserving orphan than Millie," said Pollyooly quickly.
"That remains to be proved. There are often fifty or sixty applicants. And besides, this isn't the time of year when vacancies in the home are filled up," said the duke, hardening himself in his resistance, now that he could throw the odium of it on to the machinery of the home.
Pollyooly's face had fallen, for her instinct told her that he did not intend to grant her petition, and was only making excuses. She said slowly:
"But that wouldn't matter, because if you told them to take in Millie at any time of the year they'd do it."
"But the applications have to be written, setting forth the applicant's claims in the proper way," said the duke, falling yet more firmly back behind the safe barrier of red tape. "The matter has to receive careful consideration."
Pollyooly frowned thoughtfully: "Well, I could write. There are people who would tell me what to write," she said in the sad tone of one confronted with an uncongenial task. "Then you could consider Millie carefully. I'm sure you couldn't find an orphan who's more—more of an orphan than Millie."
"I'm afraid it wouldn't be any use—not at this time of year," said the duke almost cheerfully, as he saw that in an irreproachable fashion he was getting his own disobliging way.
Pollyooly filled with the bitter sense of defeat. She heaved a deep sigh and was on the point of rising to go, when the last adjuration of the Honourable John Ruffin flashed into her mind, and on the instant she grew eager to try the new weapon he had suggested. She looked at the duke with a calculating eye. Nature, thinking probably that if was enough for a man to be a duke, had not been lavish of beauty to him: his somewhat small features were often set in an unamiable expression, and with the faint light of evil satisfaction at baulking Pollyooly now on them, they looked more unamiable than usual. He did not indeed seem to be a man to be easily softened. But the matter was far too important for her to lose the only chance left.
Very deliberately she drew her handkerchief from her pocket, blinked her eyes hard to make them water, hid them under the handkerchief, sniffed once but loudly, and then sobbed.
"It's very—hard—on Millie—she'll be—dreadfully—disappointed!"
A sudden consternation smote the duke. He had looked to make himself completely disagreeable at his ease, certainly without any such assault on his feelings as this. He shuffled his feet and said hurriedly:
"It's no good crying about it. It can't be helped, you know."
Pollyooly's quick ear caught the change in his tone. She sobbed more loudly:
"Oh, yes—it can—you could do it—if you wanted to!"
"These things have to be done in the proper way," protested the duke.
"It isn't that. You—you—don't like Millie!" sobbed Pollyooly, watching the weakening face of the perturbed nobleman with an intent eye over the top of her handkerchief. "You—you—hate her!"
"Why, I've never set eyes on her!" cried the duke.
"Oh, yes: you do—and it's—it's beastly," sobbed Pollyooly.
No duke likes to hear his conduct described as beastly by an angel child—especially when the description happens to be accurate—and the duke ground his teeth.
Pollyooly, watching him, sobbed on—louder.
The duke gazed at her in a dismal discomfort. He shuffled his feet till the shuffle was almost a dance. Then he said in a feebly soothing tone:
Pollyooly's sobs grew yet louder—heartrending.
The duke took a hurried turn up and down the room.
Pollyooly, a huddled figure of desperate woe, sobbed on.
The duke grabbed at his scrubby little moustache and held on to it firmly. It was no real help.
He ground his teeth; he tugged at his moustache; and then in a tone of the last exasperation, he cried:
"Oh, hang it all! Stop that infernal howling; and I'll give you the nomination!"
Pollyooly softened her sobs a little; the duke flung himself down into the chair before the writing-table, at the other end of the room, and seized pen and paper.
"What's the brat's name?" he growled.
"Millicent—Saunders," sobbed Pollyooly.
The duke wrote the nomination, put it in an envelope, addressed it to the secretary of the Bellingham Home, licked the flap of the envelope with wolfish ferocity, and banged it fast.
He came hastily across the room with it to Pollyooly, held it out, and said with even greater ferocity:
"Here you are—and—and—much good may it do her!"
Pollyooly rose quickly and took it. She could hardly believe her shining eyes.
"Oh, thank you, your Grace! Millicent will be so glad!" she cried joyfully.
The duke growled in his throat; but in some way Pollyooly's radiant angel face blunted his ferocity. Also it robbed his surrender of its sting. He rang the bell; then opened the smoking-room door for her and bade her good day quite in the manner and tone of an English gentleman.
On the threshold, like the well-mannered child she was, she paused to thank him again. When she went out he shut the door quite gently; and by the time he had settled down again in his easy chair, he was feeling truly magnanimous.