Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 13
AN INFORMAL INTRODUCTION
IT was all pure goodness of heart; and no one was really to blame but the Prime Minister himself. If the Lady Noggs had not heard him bemoaning to Mr. Borrodaile the loss of time and the boredom he was enduring from the needless visit of Lord Grasthwaite, his senile but thick-witted President of the Board of Trade, she would never have cast about how to help him, and hit upon the ingenious device of applying an apple-pie bed to that minister by way of a hint that his stay at Stonorill had lasted long enough. Moreover, she considered an apple-pie bed a thing of little account, a pleasant form of humour easily appreciated and enjoyed by any one.
When, therefore, Lord Grasthwaite prefaced his breakfast by a bitter complaint of the discomfort he had endured from her effort to be helpful to her uncle, she was shocked alike by his tale-bearing and his lack of humour. But when the Prime Minister said in a tone of angry distress: "This is your doing, Felicia! Go to the nursery and stay there for the rest of the day!" Surprise gave way to indignation.
She went out of the room with her head high, and a flush on her face; and, as she passed him, she gave the President of the Board of Trade a look of whole-hearted scorn which pierced even his second but confirmed childishness. Her indignation soon waxed to a righteous anger; injustice she could not endure; and it was grossly unjust that she should be punished for a well-meant effort to relieve her uncle of an incubus, and for the inability of a Cabinet Minister to see a joke.
Her anger grew and grew as the smart of her wounded dignity made the injustice clearer; and since with her to be angry was to act, she resolved on vengeance. She changed quickly into a holland frock, put her purse, containing four shillings into her pocket, and ready for flight, sat down and wrote painfully a hasty note; it ran:
Lady Felicia Grandiion presents her compliments to Lord Grasswaith and I think you are a horrid sneek.
She set this note on the dressing-table in Lord Grasthwaite's bedroom, ran down a flight of back stairs, and slipped out of a side door, just as Miss Caldecott, prevented by the Prime Minister from taking measures earlier, on the ground that paying too much attention to the child spoiled her, hurried into the empty nursery.
The Lady Noggs went out into the world with a high and indignant heart. Her immediate thought was vengeance, vengeance on her uncle for his unfairness; and her vengeance was to take the form of running away. She had been used to protest against injustice by a dignified retirement to a hiding-place on the wooded bank of the long pool at the end of the lawn. But this was too serious a matter, the injustice had been too public for so mild a protest. She said in her vengeful heart: "They will be sorry when I never, never come back!"
She ran down the shrubberies along the sides of the lawns, gained the home wood, and eased her pace to a walk; but it was a brisk walk. Then her vague purpose of running away began to assume more definite shape. The burden of her thought was: "Boys run away when they're ill-treated, why shouldn't girls?" And her small but active brain began to collect from memories of many story-books the methods pursued by the robuster sex in their flights. At the end of a consideration which lasted two miles, it was clear to her that the practice was to become a cabin-boy and be wrecked on a desert island. This course had the sanction of nearly all the authorities.
She was now confronted with the question how to become a cabin-boy; and here the authorities left her, the burden of devising a method fell on her own wits. Her brow grew pucker ed, and insensibly she slackened her pace as she wrestled with the difficulty. She tried to hope that she might become a cabin-girl; but no racking of her memory supplied her with an instance of that responsible post having been filled by a girl. It was plain that she must become a boy. The difficulties in the way of this necessary transformation were her hair and clothes. She resigned herself, not without a pang, to the thought of cropping her hair; but the matter of clothes was far more serious; she even took her purse from her pocket, and gazed thoughtfully at the four shillings in it. She shook her head sadly: it was not enough. She fell to pondering how to get money, and here she was indeed at a loss. At last she was driven to dismiss the matter firmly from her mind: the thing to do was to get to the sea; it would be time enough then to set about procuring clothes. This postponement of the difficulty cheered her greatly; she was sure that at the right moment the clothes of a cabin-boy would come to hand—in her life most of the things she had desired had come to hand—and she went on more briskly.
At the end of the Stonorill woods she had passed into the Beauleigh woods, and was pressing on straight through them. She knew that England was an island, and if you walked straight enough and far enough you must come to the sea. When once she was out of her own neighbourhood, and no longer known, she would ask the nearest way to it. Half-way through the Beauleigh woods she rested, and found that she was exceedingly hungry; the loss of her breakfast was telling, and she wished that she had had time to raid the larder before starting. She was feeling a little faint when she reached the village of Appleton on the edge of the Beauleigh woods, and the meal she made at the village baker's was not only grateful, but restoring.
After it she went through the village, and took a winding lane which leads away from Stonorill. She had not yet asked the nearest way to the sea; she was still too near her own country. She had lost the vengeful feeling inspired into her by the outrage of her dignity; the spirit of adventure filled her to the exclusion of everything else; and since adventures are to the adventurous, she came straight to one. She had gone more than a mile down the lane, when she heard round a bend in front of her the crying of a kitten. She broke into a run, and came round the corner to find two fat, pasty-faced boys on the grass by the roadside, one of them sitting down and holding the protesting kitten, while he directed the operations of the other who was busy with an arrangement of sticks, string, and bobbins.
"What are you doing with that kitten?" said the Lady Noggs, coming to the point with her wonted directness.
The boy who was at work, looked up with a rapt air and said: "We're the Inquisition, and it's a heretic. When I've made this, we're going to put it to the question."
"How? What question?" said the Lady Noggs.
"I'm making a rack to stretch it on till it confesses its heresies." He spoke with enthusiasm.
"I think it's very cruel!" cried the Lady Noggs hotly.
"No one cares what you think," said the other boy. "You get on! We don't want any little girls messing about here. "
"Well, you're not going to, anyhow!" said the Lady Noggs. And on the words she darted forward, with a deft snatch caught up the kitten, and bolted down the road.
The boys were fat, and slow starting; but once started they began to catch her up. They had a long chase before they overtook her; and then she stood at bay with her back to the hedge.
"I'm—going—to give you—a jolly—good licking," panted the first inquisitor.
"We'll—teach you—to interfere," said the other; and they advanced on her with doubled fists.
The Lady Noggs did not double her fists; her fighting tactics were of a more open and feminine kind, and she kept her fingers free. The upshot was that she got some of those free fingers firmly gripped in the bigger boy's hair, and as he staggered about trying to unfasten them, and weakly protesting that the Queensbery rules were the only admissible method of fighting, she kicked the other boy's shins in the most womanly fashion.
This was all very well for a beginning, but the odds were too heavy against her; defeat was only a matter of a few minutes, when heaven declared against the big battalions. A motor-car came buzzing round the corner, stopped in about three times it's own length, and a clear voice cried: "Here! Stop this! What's it all about?"
The combatants stopped fighting, and turned to see a small boy standing in front of them, and regarding them with a judicial sternness. A little girl, a very fair, frail child, sat in the motor-car.
"What are you doing?" said the small boy again, with unabated firmness.
"They wanted to hurt the kitten, and I ran off with it!" cried the Lady Noggs with panting fierceness.
"Quite right," said the small boy.
"Then they said they were going to give me a jolly good licking," said the Lady Noggs.
"Well, you are cowardly cads—two fat boys to one little girl!" said the small boy with infinite scorn.
The epithet "fat," so wounding for its truth, collected the scattered wits of the inquisitors. They observed that this second intruder was younger and slighter than themselves; the delicate features of his seraph's face, and his uncommon cleanliness were plain marks of effeminacy; and with one voice they cried: "Look here, don't you interfere, or you'll get a licking yourself! "
"Shall I?" said the small boy quietly, and his sunny blue eyes turned grey and wary.
"Yes; you will," said the stouter of the inquisitors. "So just you look out!"
"Shall I come and help to lay them out with a spanner, Tinker?" said the gentle voice of the fair, frail child in the car; and she was standing up with a singularly robust specimen of that useful tool in her hand.
"No," said Tinker to her sharply, and then to the Lady Noggs, "Get into the car!"
On his words the Lady Noggs bolted for the car with her usual promptness, and was in it before the inquisitors knew that she had started.
"Right away, Elsie! And wait further on!" cried Tinker; but the fair, frail child, used to the manœuvre, had started the car before he spoke.
The stout inquisitors dashed for it. Tinker tripped one as he rushed past him, turned swiftly, sprang on the other's back, and bore him to the ground. He had caught the moving car, and was tumbling into it, before they were on their feet. In a very natural fury they ran, shouting, to the end of their breath, before they grasped the fact that the car must be a good mile ahead of them, and adding at least three hundred yards a minute to that distance.
The car ran three miles before Elsie slowed down and stopped it. Then its passengers examined one another with the all-absorbing eyes of children which miss so little; and probably for the first time in her life, when Elsie threw aside her dust-cloak, and revealed a charming costume of muslin and lace which matched admirably her frail fairness, the Lady Noggs was afflicted with a slight discomfort at the though of her crumpled frock and dishevelled air. After a brief but searching scrutiny they turned their attention to the kitten. It seemed none the worse for its encounter with the Inquisition. Having assured themselves of its well-being, Tinker turned to the Lady Noggs, and said: "I'm Hildebrand Anne Beauleigh, and this is my sister—my adopted sister, Elsie Brand."
"I'm Lady Felicia Grandison," said the Lady Noggs.
Tinker bowed and said: "I'm charmed to meet you. But aren't you a long way from Stonorill?"
"I'm running away—running away to sea," said the Lady Noggs.
The faces of her new acquaintances brightened with the liveliest interest; but Tinker's tone was a little doubtful as he said: "To sea?"
"Yes," said the Lady Noggs firmly. "Uncle was awfully nasty to me this morning; and he told me before everybody at breakfast to go to the nursery and stay there all day, just because I made an apple-pie bed for Lord Grasthwaite, and he sneaked. And I won't be scolded before everybody. Would you?"
A faint, retrospective smile brightened Tinker's face as he said: "It sometimes happens."
"Well, but it wasn't fair as well," the Lady Noggs protested. "I only made the apple-pie bed for Lord Grasthwaite just to show him that he'd stayed long enough. Uncle doesn't like him to stay at Stonorill; he bores him to extinction. I don't know what extinction is, but I heard him say so; and it must be horrid. That's why I did it; and it isn't fair I should be scolded for it."
"It's very hard to do anything for grown-ups, " said Tinker. "They're scarcely ever thankful. "
"Well, anyhow, it wasn't fair, and I'm going to run away to sea, and dress up and be a cabin-boy," said the Lady Noggs firmly.
There was a short silence, as her companions considered the scheme with the air of experts; then Tinker said: "I'm afraid it won't work. They won't have you for one thing, because they'll find out you're a girl."
"But they can't! I shall cut my hair off," said the Lady Noggs.
"You'll find it very hard not to cut it crooked; and it wouldn't look at all nice," said Elsie.
The Lady Noggs put up her hand to it with a sudden nervous gesture; but she said bravely: "Oh, I don't mind that."
"Yes;" but it isn't only not being found out," said Tinker. "But the sea isn't what it was. I've talked to cabin-boys; and it isn't at all a nice life. And it's so awfully hard to get shipwrecked nowadays—properly that is. There don't seem to be any desert islands left; and if you did get wrecked on one, some ship would come and take you off in about a month."
The Lady Noggs's face fell: "I never heard of that." she said.
"And the sea isn't good enough unless you do get shipwrecked properly on a desert island. It's jolly uncomfortable, and rough, and so dull, the same thing day after day. It's just the same whether you're on a steamer or a sailing-ship. I've talked to lots of cabin-boys—lots. And if you're not going to get a desert island out of it, what's the good of it?" said Tinker.
"Then the books aren't true," said the Lady Noggs in a sorrowful voice.
"I fancy they were true enough, some of them. But they're all about things that happened years and years ago. The sea's getting crowded, I think," said Tinker.
"Well, then, what is one to do, when people behave badly?" said the Lady Noggs with some indignation.
Tinker shrugged his shoulders. "You can't do anything," he said. "You just have to sit tight."
"But that's just what I don't want to do!" cried the Lady Noggs. "It wasn't fair."
"Things often aren't," said Tinker, with the air of a sage. "But the only thing to do is to sit tight, isn't it Elsie?"
"You have to," said Elsie.
"Of course, if you sit tight long enough, the time comes when you can make the other people sit up," said Tinker.
The Lady Noggs's face slowly brightened: "I could always do that, couldn't I?" she said. "I could make Lord Grasthwaite sit up."
"Then you won't run away to sea?" said Tinker.
"Not if there aren't any desert islands," said the Lady Noggs firmly.
"That's all right," said Tinker, with an air of real relief. "You wouldn't have liked it—really."
"But I'm not going straight home all the same—not till ever so late," said the Lady Noggs vengefully. "I'll let them hunt for me."
Tinker was silent. He seemed to be thinking hard. Then, with a bright, seraphic smile he said: "I'll tell you what, Elsie. I'm not a bit keen on going to the Harpendens. Mary Harpenden will be bothering all the afternoon. She'll very likely ask me to kiss her again, and I might feel, being a visitor and all that, that it wouldn't be quite nice to go on making excuses."
"I don't believe you really want to make any excuses. She's a horrid, forward little girl," said Elsie with some tartness.
"Now that is a silly thing to say. You know how I hate kissing people —every one but you, that is!" he added hastily.
"I think kissing's silly," said the Lady Noggs.
"So do I,"said Tinker in warmest agreement.
"It depends who you kiss," said Elsie shortly.
"Now just listen," said Tinker earnestly. "I've thought of a way how Lady Grandison—"
"I'd rather you call me Noggs. Everybody—all the people I like, that is—call me Noggs," interrupted the Lady Noggs.
"—how Noggs can score all round." Tinker went on. "And I think it will be rather a game. I'll be Raisuli; you know—the Morocco brigand. And you shall be my lieutenant; and she shall be Miss Perdicaris. And we've kidnapped her; and we'll keep her in the pavilion on the hill, until her uncle pays her ransom."
"Oh, that will be fun!" said the Lady Noggs. "When I don't come home to-night, uncle will be sorry he wasn't fair!"