Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 11
MR. BORRODAILE IS FIRM
THE economy of the Lady Noggs in taking third-class single tickets to London was, as she had anticipated, justified by her uncle taking herself and Sue back to Warlesden first-class. Her expedition to investigate the condition of the children of the poor, distressing as it had been, was satisfactory to her in that it had demonstrated the truth of Sue's assertions. It was in no way satisfactory to anybody else, since it had provided her with excellent grounds for urging her uncle, Mr. Borrodaile, and any politician who came to Stonorill, to do something for those children.
The expedition, however, in one way proved unfortunate for her: it brought to the notice of her elders the existence of Sue as her intimate, and also the kind of intimate she was. At first they were for letting the intimacy continue for the two or three days yet to elapse before Sue's return to Druggers' Rents; then they learned that she owed the week she was enjoying in the country, to the bounty of the Lady Noggs; and lastly they learned that the Lady Noggs proposed to make the intimacy a perpetual companionship. At once they began to seek a gentle and decorous method of bringing it to an end.
One morning the Prime Minister came into the breakfast-room to find the Lady Noggs already there. The sight disquieted him, for he had never known her punctual save with a view to compassing some unadvisable end. Consequently during the early part of the meal he was on his guard and maintained a watchful attitude which he found somewhat tiring. It seemed that his suspicions were unfounded. She did not attack him on the burning question of the condition of the children of the poor; she talked on indifferent subjects, of the European situation, and of the relatives she had met at her aunt's on her expedition to London. Her mind seemed so free from any serious matter that he was lulled into a security for which he had no justification.
Suddenly, when he was least expecting it, the attack opened, and the Lady Noggs said, "Uncle, I don't want Sue to go back to Druggers' Rents."
"Sue?" said the Prime Minister. "Ah, yes; the little girl who took you to that slum the other day."
"Yes; I want her to come and live with me."
"To come and live with you?"
"Yes; you've often said that I ought to have a companion as old as myself."
"But she's not at all the kind of little girl to be your companion."
"Why; what's the matter with her? She's very nice," said the Lady Noggs. And her air was resolute indeed.
The Prime Minister looked round somewhat helplessly; then he said, "She—she doesn't speak nicely—and the kind of life she's led—oh, it wouldn't do at all!"
"She speaks just as well as the Princess Wilhelmina—only different," said the Lady Noggs.
"Her manners—" the Prime Minister began.
"They're just as good as the Princess Wilhelmina's," said the Lady Noggs cutting him short. "She eats quite as nicely—nicelier."
The Prime Minister driven into a corner turned to bay: "Dear, dear! This is very tiresome!" he said. "I'm not going to discuss the matter. She cannot come to live with you."
The Lady Noggs saw quite plainly that on this occasion she had failed to bend her uncle to her purpose; but that by no means caused her to abandon her attempt to get her way. She made up her mind to try again later. In the meantime, just to go on with as it were, she fell to a disappointed grumbling. She alleged that when he wanted her to go to that horrid Catford he had said that it would be good for her to have a little girl to play with always; and now that she'd found a little girl he wouldn't let her have one.
The Prime Minister was unhappy since there was just enough of a suspicion of justice in her complaint to worry his scrupulous soul.
However, he kept silence with a wisdom very rare in him, and at last his niece said, "Well, anyhow; I don't want her to go and be knocked about and starved in Druggers' Rents, just because there's nobody to look after poor little children. Could I have her for my maid?"
The Prime Minister could never miss a chance of a compromise. Compromise always brought balm to his scrupulous soul; it was probably dearer to it than German philosophy. He said with real warmth, "Now that is a much more feasible idea. It used to be the custom in English families to take servants into the house as children and let them grow up in it. My grandmother did it, and even my mother."
"Then I may?" said the Lady Noggs, surprised at his readiness.
"Well, well—not at once—not at once," said the Prime Minister. "We shall have to find some institution or school where she can be taught to speak properly first; then we can try it."
"All right," said the Lady Noggs, with no show of gratitude. "I suppose I must make that do."
But though she was but little satisfied with this concession, Sue was overjoyed; and in the fulness of her emotion reverted to the idioms, racy of the slum, which obtain Out-Poplar-Way. She said with a certain shrillness, "S'welp me! But that's a little bit of horl ryght!"
It chanced that Miss Caldecott was reading that evening in the rose garden, when she became aware that Mr. Borrodaile was coming down the path; and when he sat down in the garden chair in front of her, she perceived his uncommonly resolute air with no little disquiet.
She found that his eyes were for the while too masterful for her own to meet; and while she preserved an appearance of unruffled, innocent carelessness, her spirit girded on its womanly armour to meet the crisis.
"Violet," said Mr. Borrodaile quietly.
"Miss Caldecott!" she interrupted quickly.
"Violet," Mr. Borrodaile repeated firmly, "I am going to talk seriously for a change."
"Please don't," said Miss Caldecott.
"It's no use."
"That remains to be seen," said Mr. Borrodaile; and bending suddenly forward he caught her pretty hands in a firm grasp, and paying no heed to her efforts to draw them away, said, "Will you marry me?"
Miss Caldecott blushed and her eyes shone. "Of course not!" she cried.
"Why not?" said Mr. Borrodaile.
"Why—why—the idea is absurd, you know it is."
"No, I don't. Why is it absurd?"
"Of course it is!" cried Miss Caldecott; and she grew somewhat confused. "There is your career—you must marry in accordance with it—somebody rich—everybody says so. Politics are growing more and more a matter of money every day; and you must. Besides, it is all settled, you know it is."
"Settled?" said Mr. Borrodaile in some surprise. "Oh, do you mean Miss Morgan?"
"Yes," said Miss Caldecott, and she tugged harder at her fettered hands.
"Well"—said Mr. Borrodaile coolly without loosening them—"so far other people have done all the settling. For my part, I have decided never to ask Miss Morgan to marry me unless she chances to be the only woman left in the world, so that you are quite right in saying that that's settled."
"It doesn't matter. You've got to marry a rich wife; and you've no business to talk to me like this. Why—why it would spoil your career—absolutely!"
"We'll put my career aside," said Mr. Borrodaile indulgently. "It hasn't got anything to do with the matter."
"Oh, yes, it has! Everything!" Miss Caldecott protested.
"Nothing at all," said Mr. Borrodaile. "There is only one thing that has anything to do with it and that is—Do you care for me enough to marry me?"
Miss Caldecott gasped; then looking almost as determined as Mr. Borrodailei she said in a low but quite firm voice, "No: I don't."
"And I thought you so truthful," said Mr. Borrodaile sadly.
Miss Caldecott's face became of a singularly vivid scarlet: "How dare you?" she cried. "I don't! I don't! I don't!"
"Can you look me in the face and say that?" said Mr. Borrodaile.
Miss Caldecott looked him in the face full and square, and said with heated firmness, "I don't!"
Mr. Borrodaile let go her hands and rose: "Ah, well," he said sorrowfully, "there's nothing more to be said." And he turned and walked slowly out of the rose garden.
Miss Caldecott watched him go. At first her eyes were angry, then they softened; she opened her mouth to call him back, and shut it quickly at the bidding of duty. When he had gone through the gate, she sank back in her chair trembling; but her conscience warmly applauded her action, and she could not see the rose-bush in front of her for the rising tears. Then she began to cry softly: it was one thing to be applauded by her conscience, but quite another to endure the clamouring reproaches of her heart at the renunciation.
Mr. Borrodaile had walked out of the main gate of the rose garden with a singularly dejected air. But once out of sight of Miss Caldecott, he straightened his back, turned to the right, and with noiseless footsteps went up the path along the rose garden wall and re-entered it by a side door. Keeping on the grass border of the path in his noiseless, rubber-soled tennis shoes he came quietly to a point where he could get a view of the cruel fair, and saw her leaning forward with her face in her hands. There came into his eyes a light of triumph; he stole right up to her, dropped quietly on one knee, and slipping an arm round her, said gently, "Never mind, Violet. I knew you didn't mean it." And as she drew her hands sharply away from her face, he kissed her.
"Oh!" she cried; and her face flamed. "How dare you? Oh, what a mean thing to do! Spying—absolutely spying!"
The ferocity of her tone was belied by the thankfulness in her eyes; and Mr. Borrodaile took advantage of her extreme indignation to kiss her again.
She sprang out of the chair with a vigour that upset him, and faced him panting and with flashing eyes, apparently at a loss for the right word, for twice or thrice she opened her mouth to speak and shut it again.
Mr. Borrodaile sat where he had been shoved, to all seeming, in perfect content, and met her infuriated gaze with steady, not to say, brazen eyes: "At any rate, that settles it," he said.
Miss Caldecott stamped her foot and cried in a tone in which the anger and appeal were about evenly blended, "It doesn't!"
Mr. Borrodaile rose with great deliberation and said, "Oh, yes; it does. You must see that the situation is entirely changed."
"It is not!" cried Miss Caldecott.
"Well," said Mr. Borrodaile with something of judicial impartiality in his tone and air, "if you can give me an explanation of the fact that you were crying which does not change the situation, I'll admit I'm wrong."
She was taken aback for the moment; then, swiftly shifting her ground, she cried, "I think you're detestable! Spying like that!"
"Spying? Spying?" said Mr. Borrodaile almost plaintively. "Why I only came back to ask if there was any chance of your changing your mind, and found you had already changed it."
"Oh!" cried Miss Caldecott. "What is one to say to you?" And truly she looked at a loss.
"Well there are lots of nice things you might say, things I have been wanting to hear you say for ever so long, ever since I first saw you. You might say, "William, I will marry you as soon as it can be arranged."
"But I won't!" said Miss Caldecott firmly.
"Well, I don't mind your not saying it as long as you do it," said Mr. Borrodaile with a fine show of generosity.
"But I won't do it! I will not!"
"Oh, yes; you will now—now that you've been crying," said Mr. Borrodaile. "Let us sit down and discuss the matter quietly."
Miss Caldecott with unimpaired vigour refused to do anything of the kind, and Mr. Borrodaile strolled back with her to the house, discussing the matter quietly as he went. She did not take any part in the discussion, but she carried her head very high. On the threshold she turned and said, "I shall not."
Mr. Borrodaile did not say anything; he had said all he wanted to say for the time being.
For the next two or three days Miss Caldecott treated him with extreme coldness, and kept him at the furthest possible distance. He seemed quite contented with this treatment, for he was willing to give her reasonable time to grow used to the situation in which her fortunate tears had placed her. But he wished that he had been firmer with the scruples which had led him to inform the Prime Minister that he was going to ask his niece's governess to marry him; for the ladies of his family, headed by the Duchess of Huddersfield, descended on Stonorill to protest against the spoiling of his political future. He was not indeed, surprised that the Prime Minister had informed them of the matter, for he knew his readiness to avoid any responsibility which his scrupulous conscience did not force upon him; but he was taken aback by the suddenness of the descent.
The ladies did not immediately assail him. First they held conferences among themselves on the matter. These conferences strengthened the strong conviction they already entertained of the impossibility of the marriage. The duchess, whose kindliness of heart is only equalled by her knowledge of the world, summed up the feeling of the members of the conferences when she said, "It will not do. Violet is a dear girl and the daughter of one of my oldest friends; we ought never to have let her take up this absurd governessing; we ought to have taken her and married her to some one nice—a—a banker or an attorney-general, some one pleasant who could have given her the right position. But of course she wouldn't let us. These new stupid ideas of independence—if a girl gets hold of them, there's no doing anything with her, unless you shut her up and feed her on bread and water, as Lady Blyde treated Agnes Blyde, till she's cured. Of course we couldn't do that with Violet, for she's an orphan and there's no one who has the right to do it for her. And it did seem an excellent arrangement that she should look after Felicia and teach her; and now the result is that unless we are very careful and firm, William's career will be spoiled. Of course Beresford Caldecott ought to make her an allowance; he's her uncle and neither of them have any other near relations in the world; certainly he ought to. A couple of thousand a year would be nothing to him. But there, it is no good talking of that. Beresford Caldecott is just the most impossible person in the world. I should have thought a man who had had his early training, though he had the worst temper I ever came across and ran away from home, might have made a million in South America without growing into such a terribly offensive person. But it seems he couldn't; and so we cannot look for any help from him."
The upshot of the conferences was that the duchess was deputed to discuss the matter with Miss Caldecott and offer her nicely, though of course not in so many words, a banker or attorney-general; and she was further deputed to reason with Mr. Borrodaile. She set about these matters at once, and was very pleased to find that Miss Caldecott shared the feelings of the rescuers and was no less resolved than they that Mr. Borrodaile's career must not be sacrificed to a romantic but unsuitable marriage founded on reasons of sentiment rather than sense. But Mr. Borrodaile, whom the duchess left to the last, knowing of old that he was an extremely difficult person to manage, proved himself quite intractable. He showed a painful but steady disinclination to admit that the rational point of view was of chief importance in the matter, an attitude very difficult to deal with by reason of its inherent absurdity; and he was the more disposed to give the kind ladies trouble because their supporting presence added greatly to the resisting power of Miss Caldecott.
At this stage Miss Caldecott's engaging pupil somehow or other became aware of what was in the wind. Members of the rescuing band were apt to discuss the situation out of season, and with little heed to whether they were alone or not. One morning after breakfast therefore the Lady Noggs came upon Mr. Borrodaile, and broke into his gloomy meditations with the sage observation, "I think marrying's silly."
At the moment it was the last sentiment with which Mr. Borrodaile was in sympathy; he had heard from so many people during the last few days that marrying, or rather a particular marriage, was silly. And only the night before Miss Caldecott had shown herself more resolute than ever to be no party to the absurdity. He looked at the Lady Noggs with unkindly eyes, and said nothing.
"I think marrying's silly," said the Lady Noggs again.
"That's it, be feminine, hit a man when he's down. The peerage has no sense of fair play," said Mr. Borrodaile.
"I am not feminine! And it has!" said the Lady Noggs quickly and with heat, showing her usual touchiness in the matter of the peerage, "Besides, you're not down, are you?"
"Do I look up?" said Mr. Borrodaile gloomily.
"You don't look happy," said the Lady Noggs, regarding him with closer attention. "Can I do anything for you?"
Mr. Borrodaile shook his head: "I'm afraid you can't," he said. "But all the same, thanks very much for the offer. You're the only person who has offered to help me. All the rest have been active volunteers in the work of putting spokes in my wheel."
"Perhaps I can do something," said the Lady Noggs, with an air of serious good will.
"I don't think anybody can except Beresford Caldecott, and he is hardly the man to do it," said Mr. Borrodaile thoughtfully.
"I might try," said the Lady Noggs hopefully.
"I'm afraid it's no good," said Mr. Borrodaile. "These delicate matters don't afford much scope for a helper." And he rose to go to the Prime Minister.
The Lady Noggs walked with him into the house, left him at the door of the Prime Minister's study, and went on herself to the school-room.