Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 12
THE IMPOSSIBLE UNCLE
M ISS CALDECOTT found her uncommonly absent-minded at her lessons that morning, as was indeed natural, seeing that her mind was rather busied with a problem of sentimentality rather than with the sprightly elusiveness of the French irregular verbs. She had acquired a very fair knowledge of the reasons of her governess's obduracy, but she did not know how Beresford Caldecott came into the matter. She was not one, however, to allow a lack of directness to stand in the way of a good end, and when lessons were over and the tiresome books had been put away, she turned to Miss Caldecott and said, "Who's Beresford Caldecott?"
"He's my uncle," said Miss Caldecott. "Why?"
"What sort of an uncle is he?" said the Lady Noggs.
Miss Caldecott shrugged her shoulders and said, "Why do you want to know?"
"Ah! I thought he wasn't a nice uncle," said the Lady Noggs.
"What do you mean?" said Miss Caldecott.
"When you ask people about any one who's nice they say so straight away," said the Lady Noggs. "And when he isn't nice, they don't tell you anything."
"I see," said Miss Caldecott. "But why did you want to know?"
The Lady Noggs shook her head. "That's a secret," she said. And Miss Caldecott forebore to press her.
The relations of Mr. Borrodaile and Miss Caldecott were beginning to move in quite the wrong direction, and both of them were on the way to resentment. Mr. Borrodaile was beginning to take her avoidance of him hard; and she was beginning to grow vexed at his obdurate refusal to accept her decision. Matters were very much at a deadlock, and Mr. Borrodaile was beginning to think that he had better go away on a holiday, or if he did not take a holiday, at any rate, remove himself to town and do his work there. Then one evening he had dressed, and was in the great hall waiting for the dinner gong, when the Lady Noggs descended on him, and said with the most businesslike directness, "How can Berresford Caldecott help?"
Mr. Borrodaile looked at her gloomily and was about to evade the question, when he remembered that the Lady Noggs would probably worry him somewhat till she got an answer. "Well, since you insist on knowing," he said, "the idea is, that he should make Violet an allowance."
"And won't he?" said the Lady Noggs.
"He has never been approached on the subject; but there's a general impression among those who have had the pleasure of a slight acquaintance with him, that wild horses would not drag an allowance from him."
"But if nobody's asked, how do they know?" said the Lady Noggs.
"You have hit on the weak point in their position," said Mr. Borrodaile.
"I think they* re silly not to have asked him," said the Lady Noggs. "Good-night."
As she went up-stairs, she was making up her mind that Mr. Beresford Caldecott must be approached, at once, and by letter. But she sighed as she came into the nursery at the thought of the difficult task before her: the writing of such an important letter was not a mere matter of a few easy minutes with a pencil; it meant a painful struggle with pen and ink. She was, indeed, tempted to write in pencil; but she decided that the letter would lose weight, if transacted in such a medium; and she braced herself to the harder effort.
She set the ink, now confined to its little pot, but soon to be spreading all about the room and its occupants, on the table, and hunted out a pen and blotting pad. From it she tore the top sheet, and set it ready to cover the letter should Miss Caldecott enter, discover its purport, and forbid her writing it. Then she sat down and squared her elbows to the task.
Its difficulties began early. It was no easy matter to decide whether to write "Dear Sir" or "Dear Mr. Caldecott." But by dint of nibbling firmly the end of her pen she found the solution: she could write the letter in the third person. Accordingly she set about it, and at the end of a half an hour's patient struggle, she had finished the rough draft. Then with a splendid endurance she copied it. When it was done there was much more ink on the Lady Noggs than on the paper. It ran:—
Lady Felicia Grandison pressents her complements to Mr. Burysford Caldicott and wishes to ask him if you will give Violet an allowance: then she could marry Mr. Borrodaile and everyboddy would be satisfyd. I think you really ought and then she would not look so miserrable no more would Billy.
She looked at the engaging exposition of the facts of the case with no little pride. There was only one blot worth speaking of on it; and none of the smudges really impaired its legibility for any one gifted with unusually keen eyes. She put it in an envelope, and on it she wrote Mr. Burysford Caldicott. Then she remembered that she didn't know where that gentleman lived. She thought, however, that she would have no great difficulty in obtaining it, and left that matter over till the next morning.
After breakfast she sought out Mr. Borrodaile and accosted him somewhat abruptly with the question, "What's Beresford Caldecott's address?"
"The amiable gentleman lives at Gradesleigh Hall, Rugby," said Mr. Borrodaile. "But what do you want to know for?"
"I have written to him," said the Lady Noggs, and with modest pride she drew the rough draft of the letter from her pocket and gave it to him.
Mr. Borrodaile took it with an expression of dismay, and began to struggle with its perusal. Half-way through it he turned away from the Lady Noggs, and she gathered from the shaking of his back that he was a prey to some violent emotion. But when he had read it, he turned to her with a composed face, though there were tears in his eyes, and said, "I'm afraid you were misnamed, Noggs."
'"What do you mean?" said the Lady Noggs.
"You ought to have been called Alexander or Archibald."
"Are you being funny?" said the Lady Noggs with extreme suspicion.
"No, no," said Mr. Borrodaile. "Alexander was the man who cut the Gordian knot; and Archibald was the gentleman who belled the cat."
"I don't know what you mean," said the Lady Noggs. "But I am going to send it anyhow—so there."
"Oh! send it, send it," said Mr. Borrodaile. "It can't do any harm; and I should say that it will probably have a brightening effect upon existence."
"That's what I thought," said the Lady Noggs. "And you won't be able to say you are down any more."
With that she left him, bolted to the school-room and addressed the letter before Miss Caldecott joined her. She posted it that afternoon when she went for her ride.
That afternoon, too, Mr. Borrodaile found Miss Caldecott and the duchess taking tea under the chestnut trees, on the edge of the big lawn, one of the largest stretches of old cultivated turf in England, and joined them. He seemed to have recovered his old habitual lightness of spirit; a recovery which it must be admitted, gave Miss Caldecott no great pleasure.
Presently he said, "Have you heard of the intervention of Noggs?"
"What intervention?" said the duchess.
"She has intervened in the matter at issue between Violet and myself," said Mr. Borrodaile.
"How?" said the duchess.
"Oh," said Mr. Borrodaile, "that's a secret," and he laughed with an exquisite enjoyment of the secret, very tantalizing to the curious.
"I insist upon your telling me, William; for the matter is in my hands," said the duchess.
"And it could not be in better," said Mr. Borrodaile with entirely hypocritical warmth. "But I'm afraid I cannot tell you, because, as I say, the intervention is Noggs's private affair."
There was no weakening his resolve to be silent, though the duchess exhausted command, adjuration, and entreaty in the effort. Her weapons had barely fallen blunted from the armour of his reserve, when the Lady Noggs herself appeared on the scene; but before the duchess could get in a question, the treacherous Mr. Borrodaile said, '"I have just been telling them, Noggs, that you have been trying to help Violet and me, but the way you did it is a secret."
The hint was quite enough for the Lady Noggs; she nodded her head and said gravely, "Yes; it's a secret."
The duchess, dear soul, had not that full acquaintance with the Lady Noggs which the two others enjoyed, and she began to question her. But the Lady Noggs with a little help from Mr. Borrodaile grew vague and mysterious, and she got nothing out of her. In the end the duchess came to the conclusion that, after all, the intervention of the Lady Noggs could not be of any importance, though, merely as a matter of curiosity she would have liked to learn what it had been. She said, "Well, I hope it's all right. But Beresford is and always has been the worst-tempered man in the world." And she let the matter drop.
The Lady Noggs had made up her mind that the answer to her letter would come by post; and when next afternoon, she was walking on the lawn with Miss Caldecott, and a ramshackle, Warlesden cab disgorged a gentleman in a check suit, she did not connect him with her diplomatic missive. She was the more surprised when Miss Caldecott, who was walking with her, cried in a tone of the liveliest dismay, "Oh, dear! There's my uncle!"
"Is that your uncle?" said the Lady Noggs, looking earnestly at the man in the check suit, who was standing on the steps outside.
Then a footman came to the door, and she heard the visitor say, "I want to see Lady Felicia Grandison."
Plainly the footman pointed her out to him, for he strode down the steps and came towards them. The nearer he came the plainer grew the checks, until, when he was close to them, they obscured the man. The Lady Noggs tried hard to keep her eyes on his face, but the checks drew them away from it to themselves, strive as she might. However, she perceived that it was uncommonly red.
When he was quite close to them he put a glass into his eye, and said in a very fierce but jerky voice, "It's Violet! What! The idiot told me that Lady Felicia Grandison was on the lawn. It's her I want. I've come to say a few words about meddling with the affairs of other people to Lady Felicia Grandison—I want to tell her to mind her own business. What! Where is she, Violet? Eh! Where is she?"
"I'm here," said the Lady Noggs. "I'm Lady Felicia Grandison."
Mr. Caldecott turned his eyes quickly upon her, and a sudden blankness filled his face. "Eh, what! You're Lady Felicia Grandison?" and he looked at Violet for confirmation.
Violet nodded and said, "Yes, this is Lady Felicia Grandison."
Mr. Caldecott's red face went a good deal redder, and there poured from his lips a most impressive, continuous, but fortunately unintelligible stream of beautiful, sibilant, Spanish words mixed with such English expressions as "Sold again! All this way for a kid! A blooming kid!" and like phrases. The gist of them was that he had made a mistake. He ended by turning on Violet and crying furiously, "Who put her up to it? Did you?"
"You know I didn't," said Violet coldly.
"Nobody put me up to it," said the Lady Noggs. "I did it all myself, and I shall do it again if I want to; so it's no use you're being noisy."
"Noisy! Noisy!! Noisy!!!" cried Mr. Caldecott with a rising noisiness so that on the last word the cabman stood up anxiously on the box and the footman hurried out on to the steps in time to see the chequered visitor take off his pot-hat, throw it on the ground, and leap upon it with an accurate nimbleness, somewhat rare in a man of his years as there flowed from him once more a stream of beautiful, sibilant, Spanish words. The stream stopped suddenly, he kicked his shapeless hat, the luckless victim of his wrath, as far from him as he could.
Miss Caldecott looked frightened out of her wits, and tried to put the Lady Noggs behind her. The Lady Noggs wriggled out of her grasp, and watched this uncommon specimen of the English gentleman with the smiling appreciation he deserved. His hat and his Spanish seemed to have relieved him a little, for he drew an handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his fevered brow. Then he looked furiously round the lawn and said, "Hats are no use to me! I don't give a damn for hats!" And so saying, he drew from his pocket a neatly folded, grey checked silk cap, and put it on his head.
"You'd better come and have some tea, uncle," said Miss Caldecott with nervous haste.
"Eh, what? Tea! Tea! Tea! Eh, what? Tea!" said her uncle; and he laughed horridly.
"Yes," said Miss Caldecott. "It's at the other end of the lawn."
"Tea!" said her uncle hoarsely. "Well, I want to get to the bottom of this matter! I want to hear all about it! I want a word with that jackanapes, Borrodaile!" and he glared fiercely round the lawn, like a wolf looking for a lamb.
The look of apprehension on Miss Caldecott's face deepened; but she knew her uncle too well to say anything against that purpose; and she led the way towards the tea-table.
The Lady Noggs came round to the other side of Mr. Caldecott. "It must be expensive," she said thoughtfully.
"Eh, what? Expensive!" said Mr. Caldecott.
"Those hats," said the Lady Noggs.
Mr. Beresford Caldecott made a noise in his throat which might have been Aztec, but was certainly not beautiful, sibilant Spanish.
The Lady Noggs slipped her hand into Mr. Caldecott's, and said in a low, confidential voice not meant for the ears of his niece, "I rather like you—I've never seen any one jump on a hat before. I think you're awfully funny."
Mr. Beresford Caldecott stopped short with a gasp. "Funny!" he hissed. "Funny! and they called me Tiger Jake in Arizona!"
The Lady Noggs gave him a little tug which brought him along, and said, "Did they really? Tiger Jake—that's a splendid name. You looked like a tiger when you jumped on your hat."
Mr. Caldecott's eyes rolled painfully, but he found no words.
The duchess and Lady Hartlepool were sitting under a chestnut tree drinking their tea. At the sight of Mr. Caldecott the duchess opened her eyes, round and wide, and with extreme coldness, "Ah! Beresford! How do you do?" and held out her little finger.
Mr. Caldecott looked at it with some ungraciousness, and put both hands in his pockets: "It's all your fault, Elizabeth! What!" he said with aggressive bitterness. "Entirely your fault, and you know it! It was you, who put this nonsensical notion of earning her own living into Violet's head. What!"
"No, no, uncle," said Violet.
Mr. Caldecott was on the instant in another fury: "I tell you she did!" he roared glaring at the duchess. "I knew Elizabeth before you were born! What! She was interfering then, and she's interfering now! And look what comes of it! Here I am dependent on paid help, when I've a niece in the world who ought to be looking after me! What?"
"Have you any paid help?" said the duchess with cold unkindness. "I thought no servant ever stayed three days at Gradesleigh."
Mr. Caldecott grabbed for his hat. It was not there, and its absence seemed to confuse him, for he stood gasping.
The duchess took advantage of the pause to say, "Mr. Beresford Caldecott, the Marquess of Hartlepool."
"His name's not really Beresford, its Tiger Jake; he's just told me," said the Lady Noggs eagerly. "Isn't it a splendid name?"
At the sound of it, Mr. Caldecott drew himself up with an air.
"I don't know about it being splendid, but it certainly suits him," said the duchess unkindly. "Sit down, and have tea, Beresford."
"Tea! Tea!" said Beresford Caldecott with a horrid laugh. "No, thank you! I'm not here to drink tea! What? I want a young jackanapes called Borrodaile!"
"I'll go and tell him," said the Lady Noggs with gracious readiness. She was indeed eager to bring Mr. Borrodaile and this interesting new acquaintance together.
"Sit down, Noggs, and have your tea!" said the duchess and Miss Caldecott and Lady Hartlepool with one voice.
"Wilkins, bring some whisky and soda," said the duchess to one of the footmen who were waiting on them.
"Water! Water!" cried Mr. Caldecott, with fresh fury at the suggestion. "None of your beastly gas for me! What?"
He spent the time till the whisky came, in suppressing all attempts at conversation on the part of every one but the Lady Noggs. She made him nearly as uncomfortable as he made every one else, by asking, and indeed pressing home the question with extreme firmness, how he had earned his splendid name of Tiger Jake.
He did indeed assure her with every appearance of fury that "A little girl should be seen and not heard!" But his enunciation of this aphorism, to her the merest platitude, did not prevent her from inquiring whether he owed that glorious title to his appearance, his nature, his manners, or merely to some extraordinary piece of good fortune.
His yielding to her pertinacity so far as to roar furiously at her, "I was a bad man—a tough! What?" did not bring him relief from her questions, but only started her on an inquiry into the constitution of a "tough."
The coming of the whisky proved something of a diversion. The footman who was pouring it into a tumbler stopped at a liberal measure, but Mr. Caldecott sprang up with a little burst of beautiful, sibilant Spanish, snatched the bottle from him and trebled the quantity. Then, loudly as he had bawled for water, he made the very smallest use of it. He sat down again holding the tumbler in a hand on which there were but three fingers, since it is impossible to acquire such a filling and resounding title as Tiger Jake, and at the same time keep all your fingers; and he used that tumbler of whisky as a shield against the Lady Noggs. Whenever she asked him a question, he put it to his lips and held it there firmly, till the time for answering had gone by.
He had nearly got to the bottom of the tumbler when the duchess started, arose, and walked quickly to meet Mr. Borrodaile, who was coming briskly towards the tea-table.
"Eh! What? Stop!" roared Mr. Caldecott jumping out of his chair. "That's Borrodaile! I know it's Borrodaile! I want to say a few words to Borrodaile!"
The duchess stopped; and Mr. Borrodaile who had heard his name uttered very distinctly by a stranger, came up with an expression of polite enquiry on his face.
"You're Borrodaile! I know you're Borrodaile!" roared Mr. Caldecott.
"You're quite right," said Mr. Borrodaile, with a somewhat bewildered air, "though you do shout."
"Shout! I'm going to shout! What? I want a few words with you!" roared Mr. Caldecott. "My name's Caldecott, Beresford Caldecott! If you've got anything to say, say it at once! This moment! What?"
A light of recognition shone in Mr. Borrodaile's eyes, and he said, "What about?"
"Don't attempt to deny it!" said Mr. Caldecott. "I know the ways of skunks like you! Skunks, I say! You've been trifling with my niece's affections! It's no good your denying it! What?" and his voice rose to drown Mr. Borrodaile's protest. "You've been trifling with her affections! I won't hear a word! You thought she was an orphan and alone in the world! What?"
Mr. Borrodaile had been watching the foaming uncle with very shrewd eyes; suddenly he roared rather louder than Mr. Beresford Caldecott, "Don't you try to bully me, sir! I'm not to be bullied! you're in a land of law and order—not in some South American saloon!"
Mr. Beresford Caldecott's eyes seemed likely to burst out of his head and fly at Mr. Borrodaile; he wrung his hands, and danced a little dance of extreme nervous fury: "A land of law and order! Law and order!" he gasped hoarsely. "A South American saloon! Oh, if I'd got you in one! Oh, lord! What?"
"It would be absurd of Miss Caldecott and me to marry! Absurd!" Mr. Borrodaile shouted at him. "We can't afford it! And we're not going to be bullied into it by any bunco-steering broncho-buster from the wide pampas! No: we're not!" He was rather proud of his sonorous American, though he did not know what the words meant.
Their effect was soothing in a very curious way. They seemed to cool down Beresford Caldecott to a really murderous cold fury. Thrice his hands went round to his hip pocket and jerked back in two curious swift movements before he realized that it held no revolver. Then with a sighing gasp, and with a curious un-English high intonation he said, "Bunco-steering! Bunco-steering? Young feller, yew're goin' t' marry my niece inside of the month, or I'll shoot you up good and full. I'm not taking any of this talk about pauperism. I'm going straight to my lawyer, and he's going to fix it up that Violet gits ten thousand dollars a year right now. And if yew ain't married inside this month, as I says, I'll shoot you up good and full—law and order, or no law an' order." He cinched the proposition with an oath so elaborate and circumstantial that the three women turned pale to hear it; swung round, and walked off to his cab.
They looked after him without a word, till he reached it; then the duchess said with a shiver, "Well, I've never seen any one look like murder before, but I did then—absolute murder."
"He meant it—and he means it. Oh, why did you provoke him?" said Miss Caldecott turning to Mr. Borrodaile; and she wrung her hands, trembling. "What are we to do?—Whatever are we to do?"
"He meant it without a doubt; and I'm quite sure that he will fulfil his promise," said Mr. Borrodaile coolly. "But after all the life-saving process is easy."
"How? What process?" said Violet.
"The process of getting married before the end of the month. I must really call on you to save my life from your bloodthirsty relatives," said Mr. Borrodaile.
Miss Caldecott's paleness decreased with a remarkable swiftness, and she stammered, "Oh, well—of course—there is that way—but before the end of the month—how could I get ready?"
"I'll help you," said Mr. Borrodaile cheerfully.
"And I'll be a bridesmaid," said the Lady Noggs.