Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 1
THE LADY NOGGS APOLOGIZES
I'M afraid you've had a tiring evening, Mr. Borrodaile," said the Prime Minister with gentle commiseration, pausing at his bedroom door. "It was unfortunate that those despatches came so late."
"Not at all, sir; not at all," protested his secretary.
"Well, we have disposed of them, at any rate, which is always something gained," said the Prime Minister, passing his fingers combwise through his beard; and he sighed as if an infinite load of regret for "something accomplished, something done," weighed upon his scrupulous soul. "You must take a holiday to-morrow," he added. "Good-night."
"Thank you, sir; good-night," said his secretary, and went along the corridor to his bedroom.
The Prime Minister sighed again; opened his bedroom door, and switched on the electric light. He stopped to sigh again before shutting the door; and from his secretary's room, at the end of the corridor, there came a clattering crash, a swish of falling water, and a loud swear-word.
The Prime Minister rushed out of his bedroom, down the corridor, to the scene of the crash, and found himself gazing over a broken water-jug at Mr. Borrodaile, who stood in the middle of his room, dripping from head to foot, and rubbing viciously his sopping head, with a very rueful face.
"Whatever has happened?" cried the startled Prime Minister.
"Booby-trap," said his secretary, curtly.
"Dear, dear! this is very distressing!" said the Prime Minister. "I'm afraid it must have been Lady Felicia."
"Little fiend!" muttered the secretary, rubbing still. A water-jug, loaded with its proper element, will raise a bump on the hardest head; and Mr. Borrodaile had the thin skull of a clever man.
"I'm very sorry," said the Prime Minister. "I will speak to her about it. I must really be very severe with her."
His secretary grinned through his ruefulness, as if he pictured the scene, and saw his chief engaged in the heroic effort. "Please don't trouble about it, sir," he said. "It really doesn't matter. But I should like to know," he added thoughtfully, "what I've done to offend her."
"But I shall trouble about it," said the Prime Minister, firmly. " It is in the highest degree unreasonable that a little girl should take offence at the doings of her elders, and play these tricks on them. I shall be very severe with her—very. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"No, thank you; no, thank you. It's really nothing at all. Merely a matter of having my clothes dried to-morrow. Please don't let me keep you up; you are tired out, working at those despatches."
"Well, if you're sure I can do nothing. But, believe me, I regret this occurrence very much. Good-night."
"Good-night, sir. Please don't let it trouble you."
But it did trouble the Prime Minister. It seemed to him hard that the Emperor Fritz and the Lady Felicia Grandison should have seen fit to behave badly on the same evening; though, to his credit be it said, the bad behaviour of the Emperor Fritz, to which he was used, troubled him very much less than the bad behaviour of the Lady Felicia, to which he was also used.
He lay awake sighing and debating, with very much less skill than he was wont to display in Parliament, whether he had really done wisely in taking his dead sister's child to live with him, whether he was quite the man to superintend the up-bringing of a little girl. His theory of the subject was, he knew, excellent; but he found that practice so seldom squared with it.
He fell from his troubled debate into no less troubled dreams, in which he dodged showers of exceedingly vicious water-jugs falling from a serene sky.
He dressed next morning in no little trepidation, for he had bound himself to speak severely to the Lady Felicia, and he was very doubtful how the Lady Felicia would take it. He realized with a sigh how much sooner he would have faced an infuriated House than his unrighteously indignant niece. He knew that she would be indignant, but he did not know what form her indignation would take; and the uncertainty added nothing to his comfort.
He was relieved, therefore, to find that she was not yet in the breakfast-room when he came down; it gave him time to take his seat at the table and compose his features to the proper judicial sternness. Then he began his breakfast. Presently he heard a scurrying of swift feet; the door burst open as though persuaded by a tornado; and the Lady Felicia entered, or rather tumbled into the room, a dazzling vision of violet velvet, flushed cheeks, flying hair, and sparkling eyes—a figure which might have stepped, or, to be exact, tumbled out of a picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
"Good-morning, uncle," she said. "I'm sorry to be late! And I shouldn't be if Miss Caldecott didn't make me change into a picture frock to come to breakfast in. She says that brown holland would ruffle your—your—oh, what is it?—your artistic sensibilities."
And she came to him, and put up her face to be kissed.
"Good-morning, Felicia," said the Prime Minister bending down.
"Noggs," said the Lady Felicia curtly, removing her face out of reach.
"Felicia, I cannot—"
"Noggs! Noggs! Noggs!" cried the child. "If you don't call me Noggs, and call me Felicia again, I shall think you are angry with me and cry." And she blinked her eyes with inconceivable swiftness twenty or thirty times to bring the tears into them.
The Prime Minister hesitated, and was lost; then he said quickly but stiffly, "Noggs."
"That's right," said the Lady Felicia; she kissed him in a perfunctory fashion, and slipped into her chair.
"I'm exceedingly distressed by your conduct," said the Prime Minister with sufficient severity. "Last night you set a—a booby-trap above Mr. Borrodaile's door, and caused him considerable pain and inconvenience."
"Billy's a pig!" cried the Lady Noggs shortly.
The Prime Minister blinked painfully; on the spur of the moment he could not make up his accurate mind whether it was more of a shock to him to hear the sedate Mr. Borrodaile called Billy, or described as an unattractive animal.
"That—that is not the way for a little girl to speak of her elders," he said unhappily.
"If Billy sneaked, then he's a pig!" said the Lady Noggs firmly.
"I can't understand how you could bring yourself to play any one such an unkind trick."
"It served him right," said the Lady Noggs.
"Served him right? How? I'm sure that Mr. Borrodaile did nothing—nothing to deserve such treatment."
"Oh, yes, he did," said the Lady Noggs, quickly. "I never tell tales—never. But he's sneaked about that booby-trap; and I'll tell about him. What do you think he called you?"
"I don't know, and I don't want to hear!" cried the Prime Minister quickly.
"He called you a philosopher," said the Lady Noggs with dreadful gravity. "I heard him tell Sir George that you were a philosopher."
The Prime Minister laughed gently; and then he laughed louder.
The Lady Noggs looked scandalized by his levity. "I think it's a horrid thing to be called," she said severely. "Only last Sunday Mr. Cringle said in his sermon that philosophers were very wicked men."
"I'm sorry that Mr. Cringle takes such a harsh view of them," said the Prime Minister. "But I can't help Mr. Cringle. I am a philosopher; and I don't think I'm a very wicked man."
The Lady Noggs looked horrified; then her face cleared slowly, and she said: "Oh, no; if you're a philosopher, they're not wicked men. Mr. Cringle was wrong."
"I'm glad you look at it like that," said the Prime Minister. "And so you see you had no grievance against Mr. Borrodaile."
"Oh yes, I had," said the Lady Noggs. quickly. "He'd no right to call you a philosopher."
The Prime Minister gazed at her with bewildered eyes; he could not follow her reasoning. "Well, at any rate," he said, "you must apologize to him."
"Apologize to Billy?" cried the Lady with unaffected scorn.
The Prime Minister quivered to the name Billy, but he said firmly: "Yes; I insist upon it."
The Lady Noggs considered her uncle's face carefully; seemed to weigh the matter, and made up her mind that he was in earnest. Then a curious gleam came into her eyes, and she said, "Very well, uncle, I'll apologize to him."
"That's right," said the Prime Minister with great relief; and he fell to his breakfast with an almost cheerful sigh.
The Lady Noggs displayed herself in a most amiable light during the meal. She asked after the country, the continent, the United States of America, and the Emperor Fritz with a flattering interest. Something in her uncle's tone when he spoke of that last personage awakened her suspicion; and she said quickly, "Has Fritz been behaving badly again?"
In the household of the Prime Minister it was the custom to speak of the Emperor of Transylvania as Fritz, in a pained way, half kindly indulgence, half reproach.
"He has been making himself rather disagreeable," said the Prime Minister reluctantly.
"I never heard of such an Emperor," said the Lady Noggs, shaking her head wisely, "nor did Miss Caldecott. She says that among the Roman Emperors there was no one exactly like him. I asked her. And Billy says that Emperors are a bad lot. I believe he's more trouble to you than me."
"Than I," said the Prime Minister.
"Than I," said the Lady Noggs. "And he never makes up for it by being nice to you afterwards, does he?"
"So far," said the Prime Minister, "I have not found in him any disposition to be nice to me afterwards."
"I wonder," said the Lady Noggs knitting her brow, "if I could do any good, supposing I were to write to him and ask him to behave better."
"No: no good at all," said the Prime Minister quickly, with a very lively dread of some of the papers getting hold of the incident. "I'm afraid he doesn't know how to behave."
"If it's like that, I'm afraid it would be no good," said the Lady Noggs sadly. "But why don't you make him sit up?"
"Make him sit up?" said the Prime Minister, sitting up himself.
"Yes; make him sit up just once—really sit up. He'd behave better after that," said the Lady Noggs earnestly. "I always make them sit up when any one behaves badly to me."
The Prime Minister's face relaxed, and he laughed shortly. "Really, Noggs, there's something in what you say," he said. "Out of the mouths of babes—" And he fell into one of his thoughtful moods.
The Lady Noggs respected his brooding. She devoted herself to her breakfast in silence, only breaking it to say, "Uncle, you are eating a cold chop; those in the dish are hotter," or "Uncle, you're drinking cold coffee; you'd better pour it away and take fresh."
The Prime Minister followed her suggestions dreamily. When they had done, and were going out of the room, he awoke and said: "You won't forget to apologize to Mr. Borrodaile?"
"Oh, no; I won't forget. I'm going to do it at once," said the Lady Noggs with a grim smile.
Indeed, she seemed in haste to get it done, for instead of going upstairs and changing her velvet picture gown for the holland frock better adapted to her usual enterprises, which involved no little wear and tear of clothing, she went straight out into the garden.
Mr. Borrodaile was taking his holiday. Smoking his after-breakfast pipe, he was walking up and down a secluded lawn, dreaming. Immersed in his dream, he did not see a violet-clad figure steal up to the entrance of the lawn, and at the sight of him slip into the bushes, and wait in hiding. Presently, as the Lady Noggs, who knew his habits well, expected, he sat down on a seat at the end of the lawn, and continued his reverie drowsily. She worked her way noiselessly round the lawn through the bushes, came out behind him and up to the seat.
The drowsy Mr. Borrodaile felt a soft little hand steal into his hair, and a gentle voice said in his ear, "I apologize about that booby-trap, because uncle told me to, Billy—you sneak!"
And the soft little hand gripped his hair, and gave it a violent tug, which drew from him a yell of anguish.
"I'll teach you to be a sneak," said the Lady Noggs; and she tugged again.
"Drop it, Noggs! Drop it!" roared Mr. Borrodaile.
"Not me," said the Lady Noggs, with little care for her grammar; and she tugged again.
"I'll wring your neck, you little fiend!" roared Mr. Borrodaile; and he had the presence of mind to seize her hand and hold it, so that she could not tug so hard; but more he could not do, for fear of hurting her, and was held a close prisoner.
"Now, you apologize to me for sneaking," said the Lady Noggs, making unavailing efforts to tug.
But at that moment the Prime Minister, attracted by the yells of his secretary, ran into the glade, with a scared face. At first he could not make out what was happening. His secretary lay back in his seat, his face scarlet, groaning, and kicking spasmodically. Behind him stood the Lady Noggs, her eyes shining with righteous triumph.
Both of them were far too deeply absorbed in the business of the moment to perceive his entry upon the scene until he cried: "Whatever is this? What's the matter, Mr. Borrodaile?"
Lady Noggs looked up, let go Mr. Borrodaile's hair, and said: "I—I was apologizing."
Mr. Borrodaile sprang to his feet, and wiped the tears from his eyes. "Oh, what an ornament to the peerage!" he said bitterly.
"You leave the peerage alone!" cried the Lady Noggs hotly. "I did apologize—I did really, uncle," she went on, turning to the Prime Minister. "Then I pulled his hair for sneaking."
"I should like to know what the beginning of it was," said Mr. Borrodaile irritably. "What did you set the booby-trap for, you—you peeress?"
"She heard you call me a philosopher," said the Prime Minister.
"It's only the truth that wounds," muttered Mr. Borrodaile, feeling softly the booby-trap bump on the top of his head.
The Lady Noggs, thinking that he was feeling the roots of his hair, smiled grimly and said:
"You won't sneak again in a hurry."
"I must insist on your not using this slang, Felicia," said the Prime Minister severely. "I will not have it. Besides, Mr. Borrodaile did not sneak—did not tell me of your unkind trick. I heard the noise myself, and inquired into the matter."
"You didn't sneak? Oh, poor Billy!" said the Lady Noggs. Her face fell; she plumped down on the seat, burst into tears, and wailed, "Oh, I'm a beast! I'm a little beast!"
"You are, Noggs; you are—a perfect little beast," said Mr. Borrodaile, with hearty acquiescence.
But the Prime Minister gazed at the weeping Noggs with every appearance of concern, and said: "Dear, dear, this is very distressing!"
Mr. Borrodaile looked at him with humorous appreciation and said: "She'll be all right soon, sir. Perhaps you'd better go away, and leave her to me. "She'll only be worse with you here."
"Do you think she will?" said the Prime Minister hesitating.
"I'm sure of it. You leave her to me; I understand her."
"Perhaps I'd better. I don't understand children, I'm afraid," said the Prime Minister, and he went hastily, sighing.
Mr. Borrodaile looked at the weeping peeress, and said, with some discomfort: "Now, that's enough, Noggs. I'm appeased, quite appeased. Drop it."
"Poor Billy," sobbed the Lady Noggs. "How I must have hurt you!"
"That's all right. I dare say it was good for my hair. Perhaps it will make it grow."
"No, no; you'll go bald. I know you will."
Mr. Borrodaile put his hand hastily to his head to feel if his hair were already thinning.
The Lady Noggs sobbed on; he, and at last said in a tone of disgust: "Don't be so inexpressibly feminine, Noggs. I was hurt, not you."
"I'm not feminine!" cried the Lady Noggs.
"Oh, yes, you are."
"I'm not! I'm not! I'm not!" cried the Lady Noggs.
There was a rustle of skirts, and a very pretty young lady came on to the lawn. Mr. Borrodaile's eyes lighted up at the sight of her, and possibly hers would have lighted up at the sight of Mr. Borrodaile; but they were not allowed.
"Oh, here you are, Noggs," she said in a resigned voice. "I've had the usual hunt for you." Then she saw the child's tear-stained face; turned on Mr. Borrodaile, and said, "What have you been doing to this child, Mr Borrodaile?"
"I like that!" cried Mr. Borrodaile. "What do I ever do to this child? What has this child been doing to me, you mean."
"Doing to you? A child like that!" said Miss Caldecott.
"Oh, well, she's just explained that she's made me bald for life," said Mr. Borrodaile with the air of a cheerful martyr.
"Bald! Good gracious! What has she done?"
"I pulled his hair out—at least, some of it," said the Lady Noggs, looking ruefully at her guilty fingers, to which stuck a black hair or two.
"How could you be so cruel, Noggs?" said Miss Caldecott.
"I thought he'd sneaked; but he hadn't," said the Lady Noggs drying her eyes.
"Poor Mr. Borrodaile," said Miss Caldecott.
"Poor William," said Mr. Borrodaile. "All my friends call me William."
"Nonsense," said Miss Caldecott, blushing.
"It's quite true," said Mr. Borrodaile. "And it's a very pretty name. Try it."
"Nonsense," said Miss Caldecott again.
"Well, if you won't," said Mr. Borrodaile, with a sigh. "But I have been falsely accused, misjudged, and maltreated. My feelings are lacerated. It must be made up to me. I have a holiday to-day. I must be taken on the river—in the Canadian canoe. It holds two."
"Really—some men—" said Miss Caldeooct, and paused.
"Oh, you two spoons!" the Lady Noggs broke in with immense contempt.
Miss Caldecott blushed again, turned to her, and said: "My child—there is a little matter of French irregular verbs. You come with me, and apply your extraordinary powers of observation to them."
The Lady Noggs made a wry face and rose. She came up to Mr. Borrodaile, held out her hand, and said, "Shake hands, Billy. We won't have any ill feeling."
Mr. Borrodaile shook hands gravely. "We won't," he said. "But, oh, Noggs, never, never apologise to me again! I don't really care a bit for apologies." And he watched them go.
At the end of the lawn the Lady Noggs bethought herself, paused, turned her head, and shouted back, "Feminine yourself!"
The Lady Noggs had the last word.