Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 2
THE SPOILED ADVERTISEMENT
MR. BORRODAILE had too wide a knowledge of the diplomatic method not to make the most of the pity his ill-treatment at the hands of the Lady Noggs had inspired into Miss Caldecott. He descended on her soon after lunch, when she had handed over her distinguished pupil to the entirely nominal care of her nurse Mrs. Greenwood, whose impossible function it was to look after her out of school hours, and had settled herself with a novel in a most comfortable chair under the chestnut trees on the lawn.
She was, to all-seeming, too deeply absorbed in her book to hear his approach, but she did not start when he said in the pathetic tone of one suffering from memories of grievous wrongs, "The Canadian canoe is ready. I've put the cushions in it."
Miss Caldecott lowered her book, and surveyed him with gently inquiring eyes: "Are you going on the river?" she said.
"Yes; I'm going on the river—with you," said Mr. Borrodaile firmly.
"With me?" said Miss Caldecott with every show of surprise.
"Yes," said Mr. Borrodaile. "I need not recapitulate my injuries; they must be fresh in your mind. The time has come for the memory of them to be swept away by pleasanter memories."
Miss Caldecott surveyed him with a good deal of carefully hidden pleasure: his slim but well-knit, flannelled figure, his distinguished face, and honest but somewhat masterful eyes made him a very pleasant sight; but she said, "What have I to do with it? I didn't injure you."
"No; but you have a compassionate heart; and when you see any one cruelly treated, you never rest till you have made it up to them."
"Never," said Mr. Borrodaile with supreme conviction. "Besides, you are the only living creature who can sweep away the unhappy memories with pleasant ones."
"A kind of housemaid of the soul," said Miss Caldecott with a whimsical smile.
"Oh, ever so much more than that!" said Mr. Borrodaile with fervour. "The light—the guiding-star—the—"
"The river does sound attractive," said Miss Caldecott hastily. "And if it is in the sacred cause of philanthropy as well." And she rose, and took up her sunshade.
One does not carry a sunshade to read a book on a shady lawn; and Mr. Borrodaile observed the fact with great satisfaction. It seemed to him, however, indiscreet to speak of it. He fell into step beside her, declaring that his poor tortured soul was about to know surcease of sorrow.
At the boat-house, he was helping her into the bow of the canoe so that she faced the stem, when she said somewhat cruelly, "You'd better paddle from the bow, it's easier."
"Impossible," said Mr. Borrodaile. "With my head over my shoulder, for your eyes draw mine like magnets, I should run the canoe against every snag in the river. It wouldn't be safe."
"If you're going to talk nonsense all the time, my philanthropy will be worn out before we've gone a hundred yards, and we shall come straight back."
"I wasn't. But I won't," said Mr. Borrodaile.
He paddled gently out into the middle of the slow stream; and after a short discussion of that inexhaustible theme, the Lady Noggs, they fell to talking of the coming house-party.
"It's a nuisance that that Karskovitch woman is coming," said Mr. Borrodaile.
"Why, I thought the party was for her," said Miss Caldecott.
"It is, worse luck," said Mr. Borrodaile gloomily.
"What's the matter with her?"
"I should think that about everything that could be is the matter with her," said Mr. Borrodaile more gloomily.
"Tell me about her."
"Well, it's really the Russian government. You know that the paternal government of all the Russias doesn't confine the exercise of its paternal instinct to its own country."
"I thought it did. I thought it never cared anything about any other country."
"In a way it doesn't; but whenever it sees a lonely but influential statesman in another country, it has a way of dropping a pretty lady in his path. Of course it may do it out of mere kindness of heart, to cheer him on his lonely way, don't you know? On the other hand, it may do it to get hold of information that doesn't generally go a-begging. It's awfully thirsty for information always is the Russian government.
"I see," said Miss Caldecott thoughtfully.
"It's played this little game—I mean performed this distinguished kindness to English statesmen before, twice. Once it brought it off, once it didn't."
"And I think it has noticed the chief's loneliness, and has dropped a pretty lady in his distinctly primrose path. I'm afraid, too, that he's caught."
"What's she like?" said Miss Caldecott, quickly.
"She's very pretty and fascinating and clever—too clever. She's the kind of woman who appeals at once to the sympathies of every intellectual sentimentalist; and, between ourselves and this most intelligent canoe, the chief's a good deal of a sentimentalist. She's so clever that I think myself that, like most of these government Russian countesses, she contrived to get born in Montmartre. She's always working her loneliness for all that it's worth, too; and it's a quite genuine appeal, for I can't conceive her producing under any stress of circumstances the Russian count who bears her name."
"Then she's entirely an adventuress."
"Entirely. She came into society by the South African entrance, under the golden wing of Sir Isaac Geltheimer, the mining financier, formerly of Hamburg, now of Park Lane. She met the chief at his house—he always dines there once a year: Sir Isaac is a large contributor to the party funds. She set about fascinating him at once; and she's had every chance of continuing the process. As soon as it was discovered that the chief would go to houses where the Karskovitch was, the Karskovitch was there."
"So he's seen a great deal of her?"
"A great deal too much of her," said Mr. Borrodaile with emphasis.
"Well, it's a good thing that he can't marry her," said Miss Caldecott brightening.
"Not marry her? What's to prevent him?" said Mr. Borrodaile in some surprise.
"Why, her husband."
"Oh, that—I'm expecting every day to hear of the death of Count Karskovitch. I've been sure for nearly a month that he's at his last gasp. These unproduceable husbands die at the most convenient moments."
"You're very cynical," said Miss Caldecott with some severity.
"Well, the world of the Karskovitches is an unsavoury place."
"It's a great pity that Lord Errington should have fallen into her clutches," said Miss Caldecott with a sigh.
"It is. But he'll have to be got out of them—somehow," said Mr. Borrodaile; but his tone was not hopeful.
He paddled on for some time in silence, paying much more attention to the face of his companion than to the course of the canoe. Then with a light in his eyes she knew very well, he began, "Talking about marrying—"
"We won't," said Miss Caldecott quickly.
"It's wonderful how some people shun the most interesting topics," said Mr. Borrodaile with an aggrieved air.
"I am not interested," said Miss Caldecott But somehow or other before the canoe reached the boat-house again, they, or rather Mr. Borrodaile, had said a good deal on the subject and on subjects akin to it. Miss Caldecott's efforts being chiefly devoted to keeping the conversation on the lines of the general and impersonal.
The Lady Noggs welcomed the prospect of the house-party with joy. To her, change was always change; and a house full of people afforded many opportunities. She went for her usual afternoon ride on the day of the arrival of her uncle's guests; and they were gathered together at tea when she entered the great hall of Stonorill Castle with a quiet and stately decorum—induced by the fact that she was accompanied by Miss Caldecott—looking more like a child after Sir Joshua Reynolds than ever. Under Miss Caldecott's restraining eye she even greeted her friends by their proper titles, and not by the more familiar nicknames of her own bestowing.
When she came near the Prime Minister, who was talking to the Countess Karskovitch, he called her to him, and said, "Countess, this is my little niece."
In her extravagant foreign fashion, the countess held out both hands, and cried with every appearance of extreme joy, "So this is the wonderful Noggs! Oh, you delightful child! I am so pleased at last to meet you! I have heard tales—oh, of the most incredible—about you! We shall be great friends! oh, great friends! We shall get into mischief together!"
The Lady Noggs looked at the face of the countess with limpid and solemn eyes; she looked at her right hand carefully, and at her left hand with no less care; then she said: "My name is Lady Felicia Grandison. How do you do?" and dropped a deep old-fashioned curtsey.
Two men turned their backs on the group with a simultaneous swift movement; all expression faded from the faces of three women: they stared at nothing with blank eyes.
The countess shut her mouth with a snap; her eyes flashed; and she laughed a laugh which rang quite false. "Truly," she said with a shrug, "you English begin your coldness young."
The Prime Minister frowned upon the Lady Noggs; and then his accurate mind gave him trouble. He could not see which was the right thing, the gushing friendliness of the countess, which showed so plainly a warm and impulsive heart, or the cold dignity of the Lady Noggs. After all the Lady Noggs was the representative of one of the oldest families in England, and she had a right to be coldly dignified if she liked.
"Felicia is not cold as a rule," he said, hardly happily; and then he added quickly, "She is a child of moods,"
The Lady Noggs looked at him with a puzzled air, and moved to the tea-table.
"Ah," said the countess plaintively, "We who are alone in the world are so sensitive to coldness," And she sighed.
The Prime Minister made all haste to comfort her.
The Lady Noggs's first instinctive dislike of the countess did not abate, but rather increased, for her eyes were not too young to perceive her uncle's manifest infatuation for the charming creature; and since she regarded him as her peculiar property, her dislike was quickened by jealousy.
Above all she resented the fact that for the first time he abandoned his custom of breakfasting alone with her, and breakfasted with the rest of his guests. Formerly, no matter what guests were in the house, he had clung to the custom which he considered gave the child more of genuine home life. This charming guest changed that; and the Lady Noggs grew jealous indeed. She received all the overtures of the countess with repellent coldness, much to the relief of that charming creature, who would have been very ill at ease trying to play with a child.
Presently, however, the Lady Noggs began to display an open hostility. Miss Caldecott would not allow her to make disparaging remarks about a guest of her uncle; but Mr. Borrodaile was given no choice in the matter, he had to listen to them: the Lady Noggs considered it one of his most important duties. And he heard them with outward equanimity and inward approval; for though, since his chief's social vagaries would be some months filtering through the penny society papers to the ears of the bulk of his strenuous supporters, he was already looking for symptoms of the harm his infatuation for so manifest an adventuress as the countess would do him among the chief men of his party. Yet he awaited the development of events with no little disquiet, since he knew that, with the Lady Noggs, to dislike was to act; and he was sure that her small but active brain was plotting mischief.
This was true; but she could not find her plan. Her wits did not lack stimulant, indeed; the more her uncle basked in the smiles of the countess, the more jealous she grew, and the faster her brain worked. She dismissed the idea of a booby-trap, of an apple-pie bed, and of a string across the stairs: events of this kind were not in the ordinary course of nature, and would at once be ascribed to her human agency. Yet it must be admitted that the scheme which she finally evolved was not much better. The domestic mouse is not of a disposition so adventurous as to scale a dinner-table and conceal itself in a napkin.
Be that as it may, the Prime Minister's guests had seated themselves at table and were unfolding their napkins, when the countess dropped hers, sprang to her feet with a startling scream, stood holding on to the back of her chair gasping and fluttering, while a mouse detached itself from the dropped napkin and with great activity scurried into the bank of ferns which decorated the table. Since the countess had sprung to her feet and screamed, all the other women sat quite still and set their teeth, though they were quivering with an extravagant nervousness. They did not like the countess and they did not like mice, but they liked the countess least. The Duchess of Huddersfield even contrived to say quietly, by a magnificent effort only possible to a woman with generations of well-bred restraint behind her, "Oh, a little mouse."
The men sprang to their feet with the sportsman's ardour gleaming in their eyes; the Marquis of Hartlepool and the Prime Minister supported the trembling countess; the others poked about with their forks among the maiden-hair. Mr. Borrodaile saved the situation and the dinner table; he made a pounce; extracted the mouse by the tail; bore it to the window; and dropped it into the garden.
Each woman moved slightly in her chair with a carefully repressed sigh of relief; the countess sank into hers saying, "My nerves, oh, my nerves! How brave you Englishwomen are! Stoics, true stoics!" And she set about being interesting, with sudden shudders and starts of alarm, for the rest of the evening.
Every one began to suggest theories of how the mouse came to be in the napkin: at least not every one; those who knew the Lady Noggs put forward no theories, and the Prime Minister was frowning.
The next morning the Lady Noggs was summoned to his study before breakfast, and found him frowning still.
"Good-morning, Felicia," he said sternly. "Did you put that mouse in the Countess Karskovitch's napkin last night?"
The Lady Noggs glared at him defiantly, and said curtly, "Yes."
"Dear, dear, what a naughty child you are!" cried the Prime Minister.
"I don't like her," said the Lady Noggs firmly.
^As if that was any reason for playing detestable tricks of this kind on any one! Especially on a guest staying in your house!" cried the Prime Minister.
"It isn't my house! I wouldn't have her in my house!" the Lady Noggs protested vehemently.
The Prime Minister was taken aback: "But, but why do you dislike her so?" he said.
"She's a cat. That's why I gave her the mouse," said the Lady Noggs.
"Really, I can't have this unreasonable behaviour! I will not have you call your elders names, and play these tricks on them! You will go to the Countess Karskovitch and tell her that you are very sorry you did it."
"I'm not sorry. I won't tell her I'm sorry."
The Prime Minister was at a loss: "I insist upon it," he said feebly.
But the Lady Noggs shook her head, and repeated stubbornly, "I'm not sorry. I won't say I'm sorry."
"Well, then," said the Prime Minister, "I shall have to punish you. You will have all your meals in the nursery till the party breaks up."
The Lady Noggs stalked out of the room with a sullen dignity. But once on the other side of the door, she ran upstairs to the nursery, took a new story-book Mr. Borrodaile had given her, a basket, and the doll Grizell, another gift from Mr. Borrodaile, and also of his christening. He had observed that patience was the virtue chiefly needed by the dolls of the Lady Noggs.
She came quietly down the stairs swinging Grizell by the leg, humming a simple nursery lay, with her eyes wider open than usual to show the extreme innocence of her thoughts, the most careless and unconcerned child in the world. She took advantage of the emptiness of the hall to bolt across it, and reached safely the region of the kitchens. In different parts of that region she was seen by several of the servants for about ten minutes, but they were too busy to give any attention to her, and they were not in the habit of questioning her as to her doings, because it was a dangerous thing for the unauthorized to do. She was able therefore to raid the larders successfully, and presently slipped out into the garden with her basket stocked with chicken, cake, and pastry.
She went quickly through the gardens, by side-paths through the shrubberies, until she came to a broader path which ran alongside a dense thicket. Half way down it she turned into the thicket, squeezing her way between two close-set trees, pushed her way through the brushwood which closed behind her, and came into a little clearing on the edge of a long pool. A fringe of bushes and three or four trees hid the clearing from any one on the further bank. This nook was her own discovery; and she had used it before as a convenient hiding-place in which to brood at leisure on her wrongs.
She threw the doll Grizell face downwards on the grass, and set down her basket with a sigh of relief; then she made herself comfortable under a tree, and ate her breakfast. When that was done, she put the uneaten food into the basket, and set it in the shade; sat for a while reflecting with vengeful satisfaction on the sorrow her uncle would feel on learning that he had driven her away; then got to business.
She set the doll Grizell up against a tree, looking across the pool and said: "Now, idiot, I'm an enchanted princess in her bower, waiting for the prince to come, and you're my lady-in-waiting. And there are lots and lots of wicked enchanters and witches hunting for me. But if we keep quiet, they'll never see us see us, never. You're to keep watch for them and at any rate I shan't see your silly face."
With that she lay down on the moss and began to read her story-book. Now and again she looked up at Grizell to see if she were discharging faithfully her duty, and once she rose and thoughtfully banged that patient creature's head against the tree by way of quickening her sense of responsibility.
After breakfast the Prime Minister sent for Miss Caldecott and informed her of the punishment to which he had condemned her pupil.
"Then she didn't breakfast with you?" said Miss Caldecott with some dismay.
"No; didn't she breakfast with you?" said the Prime Minister.
"I haven't seen her since you sent for her, and I shouldn't wonder if I didn't see her for the rest of the day. She has a hiding-place to which she retires when her dignity is ruffled. She has done it twice this summer, and I cannot find out where it is."
"Dear, dear!" said the Prime Minister. "Why wasn't I told of this?" And he took hold of his beard with both hands, and held it firmly, for comfort.
"If I told you of all Nog—Lady Felicia's pranks, I'm afraid you would have little time to think of anything else," said Miss Caldecott smiling. "But, of course, I punish her for these retreats."
"Yes, yes," said the Prime Minister; "you are quite right. What I hear of her doings gives me trouble enough. A very difficult child."
"Oh, no: not at all," said Miss Caldecott cheerfully. "She is very honest and good- hearted, and obedient, as children go, if I tell her to do or not to do anything. The difficulty is to be quick enough with the bidding or forbidding, to anticipate the workings of her ingenious mind. But I had better go at once and try to find her."
The Prime Miniver let go his beard, and sighed. "It's very tiresome," he said, "very tiresome.
Hie Lady Noggs was not found. She passed a restful day in her capacity of princess in an enchanted bower. She read her story-book, she ate, she slept, and now and again she discussed frankly, apparently with the circumambient air, the doll Grizell's lamentable lack of intelligence. Late in the morning and again in the afternoon she enjoyed the diversion of observing different people, servants and guests, hunting for her. She did not hear them, for as soon as their far-off, indistinguishable crying reached her ears, she thrust her fingers into them that she might be able to say truthfully that she had heard no one call her name. She observed that Miss Caldecott and Mr. Borrodaile hunted together, and regarded Mr. Borrodaile's air of absorbed devotion with infinite scorn.
Now it chanced that a grievance had been rankling in the mind of the Countess Karskovitch. She had been feeling, with a genuine bitterness, that her intimacy with the Prime Minister was by no means duly advertised. Then she had hit upon the happy but hardly original idea of having her jewels stolen. To the surprise of the Lady Noggs, at about six o'clock, just when her enchanted but solitary occupation was beginning to pall, she saw her enemy on the further bank of the pool, alone. She watched at first carelessly, and then with all her eyes. The countess carried a packet, and, to the surprise of the Lady Noggs, after a hasty glance back along the path by which she had come, she knelt down by a willow, lowered the packet into the water by a string, and tied it to one of the roots of the tree. Then she rose, looked sharply round, and went back towards the house.
The curiosity of the Lady Noggs was far too keen for her not to risk discovery, she stole to the end of the thicket, bolted from it to the willow, unfastened the string, hauled up the packet and bolted back with it to her lair. She went right back to her bower before she examined her salvage, and then found it to be a small reticule. She made no bones about opening it, and found to her surprise that it contained a diamond tiara, necklace, star, bracelets, and rings. At least, her inexpert, childish eyes took the stones for diamonds; really, in equipping the countess for its little deed of kindness, the paternal instinct of the Russian government had only run to paste.
The Lady Noggs was no longer bored; she played for a long time with her treasure-trove, decking herself with the ornaments and wishing that she had a mirror to see the effect. So long did she play that the countess, after forcing open her empty jewel-case with a screw-driver, and locking her bedroom door, was coming down to dinner with the other guests, when she reached the castle. She went up to her room by a back staircase, hoping to reach it unobserved, but Miss Caldecott was expecting her, caught her, scolded her severely, and sent her to bed at once without any supper. She took the scolding and the punishment with unusual meekness, and escaped to her own room with the reticule.
Her lack of supper, and the fact that she had slept during the day, kept her awake. It was nearly ten o'clock when she heard a great stir in the house, hurrying footsteps and people talking in high, excited tones. Then she heard Mr. Borrodaile knock at the door of Miss Caldecott's sitting-room, which adjoined her bedroom, enter and say, "Here's a pretty to-do! The countess has been robbed of her jewels!"
"How?" cried Miss Caldecott.
"It seems as if the burglars had set up a ladder, climbed into her bedroom window, and forced open her jewel-case, while we were at dinner."
"What are you going to do?"
"Oh, we're sending word to the police at Warlesden—not that they will be of much use—to send a man over, and wire for a detective from Scotland Yard."
The Lady Noggs waited to hear no more; she saw that the intervention of a capable person was called for; jumped out of bed, put on her dressing-gown and slippers, took the reticule from under the mattress, and hurried out of the room. She was already at the head of the staircase when Miss Caldecott and Mr. Borrodaile came out of the sitting-room to see what was going on, saw her, and hurried after her.
The Lady Noggs ran down to the staircase into the great hall, and, hearing a buzz of talk from the library, made for it. She found her uncle and most of his guests in it; and as she entered, the countess, who sat at the end of the table, was saying plaintively: "They were heirlooms, the family jewels of the Karskovitches. My husband gave them to me in the earlier days of our married life—the happy days."
There was a murmur of sympathy from the men: the Lady Noggs slipped through a commiserating group, said scornfully, "Here are your old jewels!" and threw the sodden reticule on to the table.
There was an outcry from those who stood round; and the face of the countess, set fixed as it was, in the middle of a plaintive smile. In all the world, the reticule was the last object she desired to see at that moment; and she stared at the abhorred object as she might have stared at a striking cobra. But the Duke of Huddersfield, who stood by the table, picked it up, opened it, and poured the glittering trinkets on the table. "Are they all right?" he said, turning them over.
His action gave the countess time; she got her breath, and looked sorrowfully at the Lady Noggs: she said, "Oh, what a cruel child, to give me such a fright!"
"What fright?" said the Lady Noggs, puzzled.
"It's really monstrous that you should play such a trick, Felicia!" cried the Prime Minister angrily.
"Stealing jewels, even for a joke, is a bit thick," said a young admirer of the countess.
"Stealing!" cried the Lady Noggs hotly. "I didn't steal them! They weren't stolen at all! She hid them herself in the White Pool, at the bottom of the garden. I was hiding on the other side of it. I'd been there all day. I saw her let down the reticule by a string tied to a willow-root, and I fished it out."
"Oh, what a wicked child! to play a trick, and then tell a lie about it!" cried the countess, at bay.
"Dear, dear, this is very distressing!" said the Prime Minister.
Suddenly Miss Caldecott stood beside the Lady Noggs, her pretty face flushed and indignant "It's absurd!" she cried in a very clear ringing voice, "Lady Felicia never tells lies!"
"It's nonsense!" said Mr. Borrodaile over Miss Caldecott's shoulder, "Noggs never lies!"
"Besides," said Miss Caldecott, "the countess says the jewels were lost during dinner. Nogg—Lady Felicia was in her bedroom all dinner time. I can answer for it."
"Ah, the amiable governess and secretary! Is it a plot?" said the countess with a faint sneer.
It was a hopelessly false step. Mr. Borrodaile was a relation or connection of half the people in the room. There was a murmur; and the group about the countess drew a little away.
"It's quite true," said the Lady Noggs, still a little bewildered.
"Mon dieu! What a wicked child! Or has she been taught the story?" cried the countess. "What motive, what possible motive could I have for doing such a thing?"
"Advertisement," said Mr. Borrodaile promptly, but curtly.
The magic word cleared the air; there was a smothered laugh or two, and a good deal of coughing.
One look at the Prime Minister's stern face showed the countess that the game was lost, and she rose to the situation. With the air of a tragedy queen she sprang to her feet, and cried, "So this is your English hospitality! You plot the ruin of a defenceless woman! And use a little child as the instrument of your baseness! Let me go! I will have no more to do with you. Curs!"
She swept down the room, and was making an excellent exit, when she spoiled everything by turning on the Lady Noggs as she passed and crying, "Oh, you wicked and abominable child!"
The Lady Noggs had at last grasped in all its fulness the nefarious attempt of the countess, and she was indeed angry. "I'm not!" she cried fiercely. "You're a wicked woman! And one of these days you'll go to prison, and they'll wash your face, and you won't have any complexion!"
The Lady Noggs had the last word.