Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 4
THE LADY NOGGS FLAGS THE NORTHERN STAR
THE LADY NOGGS did not rest content with the rescue of William Cotteril from the greedy grip of the law. His wife's grief on the occasion of his arrest had brought home, even to her childish understanding, the wretched circumstances of the family. Her pity was soon reinforced by the fact that she began to take great pleasure in playing the part of Lady Bountiful; and she gave all her energies to improving their condition. She thought at first of enlisting the sympathies of her uncle and Mr. Borrodaile on their behalf; but her fondness for doing things "all herself" prevented her. Besides, experience had shown her that, with busy men like her uncle and Mr. Borrodaile, action was slow. In the political sphere it might be quicker, for anything she knew; but she wanted the Cotterils relieved at once; and she was sure that there would be a long delay before her uncle was of practical help.
After long and anxious consideration, she thought it best to make her appeal to old Mr. Harringay, the doyen of her uncle's tenants; for, since his farm was just beyond the zone of her wanderings, she had never had occasion to ruffle his agricultural or sporting sensibilities. Accordingly, one afternoon she rode up to the Hill Farm where he lived, and found him and his wife taking their tea in the garden. They were very pleased to see her, and she had tea with them. She did not broach the subject of her errand till it was over; it seemed to her that that would not be polite. She talked to them sedately of the affairs of the neighbourhood. Then, when the maid had carried away the tray, she said, "I came to ask you to do something for me, Mr. Harringay."
"I shall be happy to do anything to oblige your ladyship," he said.
The Lady Noggs's face fell, and she said, somewhat ruefully, "It's funny that everybody always says that when I ask them to do something for me; but when they hear what it is, they generally don't do it."
"Well, let's hope it isn't going to be like that this time," said Mr. Harringay with a twinkling eye. "What is it you want me to do?"
"I wanted to ask you to give William Cotteril work—not a job—regular work."
Mr. Harringay's eyes lost their twinkle, and he said, "Oh, Cotteril—ah, yes—you want me to give him work—regular work. He's a bit of a ne'er-do-weel, isn't he?"
"Oh, no, he isn't!" said the Lady Noggs quickly. "It's only Morton says he is. And he's only trying to pay him out for marrying Liza. He's set every one against William."
"What's that?" said Mrs. Harringay. "I didn't know that Morton had ever been a sweetheart of Liza."
"Oh, he wasn't!" said the Lady Noggs. "He only wanted to be; but Liza wouldn't let him." And she plunged into the story of Morton's attempt to be revenged, and how she had baulked him. They listened to her with the liveliest interest; and when she had told the story, Mrs. Harringay said, "I never did like that Morton. He was always a sulky brute."
"I never liked him either," said Mr. Harringay. "But then I've had several rows with him. He's too domineering. But he seems to have got the worst of it this time, thanks to your ladyship."
"And you will give William work?" said the Lady Noggs.
"Yes, certainly, I will give William work, and if I find him satisfactory I shall say a word to McNaghten, and tell him that Morton's been slandering him."
"Oh, thank you!" said the Lady Noggs. "And may I tell him to come and see you?"
"You may tell him to come this very evening if you like," said Mr. Harringay.
"I will," said the Lady Noggs.
She was eager to be off with her good news to the Cotterils; but at the dictates of politeness she went round the garden with Mrs. Harringay and admired her roses. Then she thanked Mr. Harringay again, and rode off. She called at the cottage of the Cotterils, and told them that William was to go up to see Mr. Harringay, who would give him work; and she escaped as quickly as she could from the expression of the gratitude.
Mr. Harringay was as good as his word. He gave William regular work at once; and it seemed as though Fortune had satisfied her spite against the Cotterils, and that now they were going to enjoy peace after their troubles.
She had not. A few days later the Lady Noggs, who had gone for a ride before lunch, was trotting through the village, when she was dismayed by the sight of the doctor coming out of the Cotterils's cottage door. She trotted on to the gate and cried, "What's the matter, Doctor Hamerton? Who's ill?"
"Mrs. Cotteril's baby. He's swallowed a pin, and it's stuck in his throat," said the doctor; and his cheery face was overcast and gloomy.
"Is he very ill?"
"I'm afraid there's no hope for him. I could get it out if I had the instruments; but I haven't, and I know of none nearer than London. There every hospital has them."
"Then he must go to London!" cried the Lady Noggs.
"It can't be done. I've just worked it out. The pin must be extracted inside of four hours to save him. If we could have caught the Northern Star at Micklefield we could have got him to a hospital in plenty of time. But it's due at Micklefield in twenty minutes; and it's fifteen miles away. No: there's no hope for the poor little soul."
"Oh, what a pity!" said the Lady Noggs with a sob.
"It is a pity; and that confounded express runs through Chandler's Bury—only a mile and a half away!" And with a hopeless gesture the doctor raised his hat, and went on into the village.
The Lady Noggs slipped off Villikins, threw the reins over the gate-post, and went softly in through the open door of the cottage. Mrs. Cotteril sat beside the fire, staring down with dazed eyes at the suffering mite on her lap; William, summoned from the fields, sat just in front of her, all the ruddiness faded out of his face.
"I'm so sorry, Liza," said the Lady Noggs, coming to her and touching her hand; and she looked at the child, which was shaken by a choking little cough, and then moaned.
Mrs. Cotteril's lips moved, but no sound came from them, and her eyes never moved from the little drawn face; but William said thickly, "It's crool 'ard, your ladyship, crool 'ard."
They were silent for a minute or two; and the big tears ran down the cheeks of the Lady Noggs. Then there came again the little choking cough and the moan. The Lady Noggs turned her eyes away from the baby; she could not bear the sight. They wandered round the room, and rested on the red handkerchief knotted round William's throat. In moments of painful emotion the mind will seize on some trivial object and busy itself with it to get away from the pain. So the mind of the Lady Noggs seized on the red handkerchief, started a relieving train of thought and jumped by a natural association, seeing that she had just been talking of the express, to the red flag of the railway signal man.
Then came an idea so dazzling that she shut her eyes for twenty seconds to grapple with it, opened them, and cried, "I'll stop the Northern Star!"
The Cotterils stared at her bewildered: the sharpness of the cry had roused even Mrs. Cotteril from her stupor; and William said dully, "You'll stop the Northern Star, your ladyship?"
"Yes; I'll stop it in Chandler's Bury! How many of those red handkerchiefs have you?" said the Lady Noggs.
"Three," said William, yet more bewildered.
"Get them quick! We'll make a red flag, and wave it in front of the train and stop it. Then Liza can get into it, and take the baby to a London hospital!"
A dull gleam of understanding shone in William's eyes, and he rose.
"Be quick!" cried the Lady Noggs imperiously. "And—and—take that broomstick to tie them to! Put on your hat, Liza! Be quick!"
Her vehemence carried them away. William stumbled to the chest of drawers, and took out two handkerchiefs. Mrs. Cotteril, a faint flush of hope on her cheeks, got on her hat somehow, and wrapped the baby in a shawl. She was half out of the door when William said, "But what about the money for the tickets?"
"I never thought of that!" said the Lady Noggs, and her face fell. "We can't tell any one, or they'll stop us!"
She stood still, her quick little brain working swiftly; then she cried, "I know! I can get it! You go on to the Bury, and I'll bring it!"
She ran down the path, mounted Villikins, and galloped off towards the castle. The Cotterils stared after her; then William said, "Come on, lass! It's the little un's only chance! Carry 'im soft!" and they set off at a run down the road.
Villikins galloped for all he was worth to the castle stables. The Lady Noggs jumped off him, cried to a groom to hold him, and raced up to the nursery. She took down from the mantel-piece the missionary-box which a misguided aunt had given her in the hope ofher niece and the heathen at one stroke, and looked round the room for something with which to break it open. The poker was too light; the coal-scuttle was empty. Her eyes fell on the soapstone image of Buddha which occupied, inappropriately enough, the place of honour on the mantel-piece beside the missionary-box. She dragged up a chair; mounted on it; lifted down the Buddha; set the missionary-box on the hearth-rug; and banged him down, stern foremost, on to the top of it. There was a crunch and a jingle; she pulled the Buddha off the ruin, dropped on her knees, and with deft fingers sorted out the gold and silver subscribed by her uncle's guests from the copper offerings of humbler friends. She thrust the money into her pocket, bolted down the stairs, and in less than a minute was on the back of Villikins, and galloping for Chandler's Bury.
A quarter of a mile from it she overtook the hurrying Cotterils, and they pressed on together. At the top of the cutting the Lady Noggs dismounted, gave Villikins a cut which sent him galloping home, and they went down to the railway line. The baby seemed no worse for the hasty journey: the little choking cough and moan came no oftener. They sat down a few feet from the line, panting; and William began to knot the handkerchiefs together for the flag. Mrs. Cotteril snatched them out of his tremblingy clumsy fingers, and made it herself very quickly. Then, shading her eyes, they started down the line for the train. The minutes dragged.
Presently the Lady Noggs said, "I think I'd better go to London with Liza and the baby, William. I know all about cabs, and I can see they don't lose time."
"Yes, your ladyship,*' said William; and then, his face working with a new terror, he added, "But suppose they won't let none of you get into the train, stopping it like this?"
"I never thought of that!" cried the Lady Noggs dismayed.
"It's as like as not," said William hoarsely.
The Lady Noggs was silent with knitted brow, striving to find a way to prevent this misfortune. The Cotterils looked at her, open-mouthed, with beseeching eyes, as to an oracle. At last she said, "I was going to wave the flag and stop the train myself, because they wouldn't send me to prison, at least not to an ordinary one. I'm a peeress, you know. But if you stopped the train, William, we might get in on the other side, while the guard and engineer were asking you what's the matter. But they're nearly sure to send you to prison."
"I don't care! I'm game, your ladyship! I'd go to prison for ten year for the little 'un!" said William; his heavy face was transfigured by devotion.
"You might run away when the guard is a good way from his van: the train will have to wait till he gets back to it."
"Never you mind about me, if only you gets the missus an' the little 'un into the train," said William feverishly.
"I will," said the Lady Noggs firmly.
She and Mrs. Cotteril crossed the line, and settled themselves beside a clump of furze which screened them a little. William doggedly pulled off his boots, stood up, and looked down the line. Presently he cried, "There's the smoke!" and began to wave the red flag furiously, though the express was a mile away.
In a minute the Lady Noggs could see the body of the train, and hear its roar; then she distinguished its two engines. The rattling roar grew and grew as it came tearing along; and it seemed as if it must rush past them. But of a sudden there rose a grating squeal from the tortured metals as the brakes locked the wheels, which rose louder and louder and then died down as the train came to a standstill in front of them. It was the work of a moment for the active child to clamber on to the foot-board, and open the door of a first-class compartment. She helped Mrs. Cotteril up and in, and shut the door. The bang made a tall man, who was head and shoulders out of the opposite window, pull himself in. "Sakes alive!" he said.
"Hush! hush!" cried the Lady Noggs, clasping her hands. "Please, don't say anything! The baby's swallowed a pin; and I stopped the train to take it to a London hospital!"
"Jee-rusalem!" said the stranger, dropping into a seat.
The Lady Noggs slipped past him, thrust her head out of the window, cried, "Run, William! Run!" and drew it in again.
William gave a hoarse shout, wrenched the handkerchiefs off the broomstick, flung it from him, and bolted up the steep bank. The guard, who was within thirty yards of him, bolted up after him, but the bootless William gained at every step, and was over the hedge and on level ground with a fifty yards start. The Lady Noggs and the stranger watched the guard gallantly breast the ascent and come to the top. There he stopped suddenly short, and put up his hand to shade his eyes. His head turned this way and that; he shook his fist at the landscape, turned, and came running back. Plainly William had disappeared. The guard reached the bottom just beneath their window; the stranger put his head out of it, and cried, "Hello, conductor, what's the matter?"
"Some—yokel playing a joke!" said the guard, very red with rage and exercise.
"Curious notion of humour yew Britishers hev," drawled the stranger.
"The company'll humour him, when it gets the detective down here," snorted the guard; and he ran along to his van.
"I reckon we've shook him" said the stranger, smiling at the Lady Noggs.
"Thank you very much," she said; and her grateful eyes shone on him.
"Say now," said the stranger feasting his eyes on her, "yew flagged an express—a British express?"
"Flagged it?" said the Lady Noggs in some doubt. "Oh, yes; I made William stop it with a flag. I had to. The doctor said it was the only chance of getting the pin out of the baby's throat to take him to a London hospital.
"Sand"—said the stranger, with evident enjoyment—"sand up to the brim. And they told me this decayed old country was played out. Who air yew, young lady?"
"I'm Lady Felicia Grandison."
"Lady Felicia Grandison?" said the stranger, and his eyes opened wider. "This beats the Dutch!—a scion of a corrupt and effete aristocracy. Wal, travellin' teaches. I'm John P. Cooper, of New York City."
The train started with a little jerk; then the tension suddenly relaxed; and the Lady Noggs threw up her hands over her face, and burst into a fit of tearless sobbing. John Cooper let her sob for three minutes, then he said sharply, "Take a pull. Lady Grandison! Take a pull! Yew've got to look after the youngster!"
The Lady Noggs choked down her sobs, though her mouth went on twitching, and turned to the baby. The stranger moved down to the seat opposite him, and took a careful look at him: "He's powerful sick," he said, "and I've had a sick child of my own, a very sick child. It's my notion that brandy is what he wants. It'll keep him going."
With that he took from his grip-sack a flask of brandy-and-water, poured some on to his little finger, and let a single drop trickle from it into the baby's mouth. He did this at intervals of about two minutes till the baby had had ten drops.
"Seventy-five minutes more," he said, looking at his watch. "He'll do for another hour." And truly the baby's face looked a little less drawn, though the little choking cough and the moan came at the same interval.
They sat watching him in a strained silence, only broken by an occasional question from John Cooper, and the oft-reiterated cry of the Lady Noggs, "Oh, I do wish the train would go quicker!"
In about an hour John Cooper began to give him some more brandy, and the train was running through the suburbs as he finished. "Now," he said, "what about the tickets? I guess we've no time to waste. Micklefield was the last stop before you flagged this excited bathing-machine; and we'll have the money ready."
He took a time-table from his grip-sack, looked up the list of fares, and said, "Sixteen and eightpence." Then he pulled a handful of money from his pocket, and looked at it ruefully: "I don't seem to get ahead with this money of yours," he said.
"Oh, I must pay!" said the Lady Noggs. "William is my uncle's tenant."
John Cooper looked at her earnestly for a minute; then he said, "I reckon that's the feudal spirit, and it's got to be humoured. Have yew got the money?"
"Yes," said the Lady Noggs, pulling it out of her pocket. "I—I broke open my missionary-box."
John Cooper slapped down his hand on his thigh and held it out, saying, "Yew robbed the heathen to play this game? Shake!"
The Lady Noggs shook hands and said, "I had to."
"You bet yew had," said John Cooper.
After some arithmetic the Lady Noggs gave him a sovereign and two half-crowns, the price of a ticket and a half. The train ran into the terminus, and he said cheerfully, "Now it's up to John P. Cooper."
It was: he had them through the crowd, past the ticket-barrier, and into a hansom in eighty seconds; and they were off to the Charing Cross hospital as fast as the horse could get through the traffic. He had them out of the hansom and into the hospital hall before they realized that they had reached it, and was saying to the receiving nurse, "This is Lady Felicia Grandison. She's brought up a tenant's baby with a pin in its throat. If yew're going to put it through, it's got to be done straight!"
His briskness seemed catching, for a smart young house-surgeon and another nurse were on the spot in a moment; he examined the baby, said sharply, "Bring it along quick! Number three!" and hurried on ahead.
The nurse took the baby from Mrs. Cotteril, and then followed her along the corridor to the door of number three. She said, "Wait here, please," went in with the baby and shut the door.
John Cooper made them sit down on a bench in the corridor; and there they waited, the Lady Noggs holding Mrs. Cotteril's hand. Now and again the poor woman said feverishly, "Oh, I hope they won't 'urt 'im! I hope they won't 'urt 'im!" Always John Cooper said cheerily, "Yew bet they won't—no, madam. Not on your life!"
The minutes dragged: it was worse than waiting for the Northern Star. But at last the nurse came out with the baby in her arms.
"It's all right," she said triumphantly. "It's out. Seven minutes: almost a record. I'm taking him up to the children's ward. Come back in an hour. We shall know then how he's stood it."
"God bless your little ladyship!" cried Mrs. Cotteril, and burst out crying and sobbing.
When they had soothed her, she would by no means leave the hospital till she had heard that the baby was out of danger. They left her in the hall; and John Cooper arranged with a nurse that she should have some tea.
Outside the hospital he said, "Yew look as if yew wanted tea, too. Lady Grandison, a square meal."
"Well, I missed my dinner of course," said the Lady Noggs, who was looking a little pale after the strain. "But I mustn't spend much of this missionary money."
"This is my shout," said John Cooper firmly.
They wired to William Cotteril, drove to the Carlton, and over the meal improved their acquaintance at a great rate. By the time they had done, indeed, the Lady Noggs reckoned John Cooper one of her intimate and most amusing friends. When they went back to the hospital, they learned that the baby was doing well after the operation; and the Lady Noggs was taken to see him sleeping in his cot. When she came down she learned that he was to be kept at least three days in the hospital, and that Mrs. Cotteril wanted to stay in London, and a nurse had offered to find her a room near the hospital. At once the Lady Noggs gave her the rest of the missionary money. They bade her good-bye, and left the hospital.
Outside John Cooper said, "Hev you left yourself any money to get home with, Lady Grandison?"
The Lady Noggs thrust her hands into her pocket, drew it out empty, and said with an air of dismay, "Oh dear, I forgot all about that!" Then her face cleared. "But you'll lend it me, won't you?"
"I'm taking you home," said John Cooper. "I'm going to see you to the end of this."
They drove to the station, and there he had time to see to his neglected luggage before they caught the train down to Warlesden. There they were lucky enough to find a fly to drive them to Stonorill. About a mile from the gates of the park they met a group of searchers. In the ordinary course, no notice would have been taken of the absence of the Lady Noggs before eight or nine o'clock at night; but the return of Villikins without a rider had very naturally filled them with the fear that she had met with an accident, and the country had been up, as it was well used to be, hunting for her all the afternoon. William Cotteril, who could have thrown a reassuring light on her disappearance, had returned quietly to his work at the Hill Farm, having recovered his boots from the railway embankment after the Northern Star had continued its interrupted journey; and he had preserved a discreet reticence in the matter of the events which had bereft Stonorill of its young mistress.
The group of searchers having learned that she was safe, dispersed very much in the temper of the shepherds to whom the ingenious but foolish shepherd boy of the fable was in the habit of crying, "Wolf! wolf!" to inform other bands of searchers that their efforts had been misplaced.
The Lady Noggs and Mr. John Cooper drove on and reached the castle before the news of her safety; and, dragging him with her, she rushed into the hall to find the Prime Minister in the middle of an anxious group of his guests concerting measures for a more thorough search.
"Oh, uncle," she cried, "I'm so glad you're not at work! This is Mr. John P. Cooper, of New York City; and he's awfully interested in our old nobility—that's what he calls us. And he'll be so pleased to see you, because you must be a—a—a chief old noble. This is my uncle, Lord Errington, Mr. Cooper; he's Prime Minister."
"Oh, Felicia," groaned the Prime Minister. "What have you been doing? We have been so anxious about you; we thought—"
"Now what's the good of being anxious about me? I always come home some time!" cried the Lady Noggs in a bitterly aggrieved tone. "Some body's always worrying. How was I to know that Liza's baby would get a pin in its throat, and I should have to flag the Northern Star and take him to London? I hadn't time to tell any one—I hadn't, really."
At this engaging though hardly coherent explanation a chorus of questions rose on the air, and after some confusion she told her tale at length. Some of the Prime Minister's guests applauded her resource and the vigour with which she carried out her plan; others were very properly shocked at the invasion of the sacred rights of the inviolable express, and went on to express a lively apprehension of the action the railway company might take in the matter. The Lady Noggs was entirely defiant; thoughtfully dropping William Cotteril out of the affair, she took the whole responsibility on herself and cried again and again, with greater heat at each repetition, "I had to stop the beastly old train! And I don't care what the silly old railway company does!"
There were some who took the point of view that the railway company is bound to stop the train in a matter of life and death; but, since considerable doubt was expressed as to whether this was really such a case, it was resolved in the end that Mr. Borrodaile should go up to London on the morrow and confer with the officials; and he said sadly: "This time, Noggs, it's a touch and go whether they send you to prison or not. They're rather besotted; and I've told you many times about the pitcher which went to the well too often."
"I don't care!" cried the Lady Noggs joyfully, "I shall go to the Tower—they'll have to send me there, because I'm a peeress—and I shall escape, Billy, you see if I don't!"
"We know you will—we know you will, Noggs," said Mr. Borrodaile. "But the Tower will be anxious, not we."
The Prime Minister had now the leisure to thank John Cooper for the aid he had afforded to his enterprising niece, and would not hear of his returning to town that night. Evening dress was found for him, and he dined and slept at the castle.
In the morning he was up early, and with great enjoyment explored the grounds under the intelligent guidance of the Lady Noggs. After breakfast, under the same intelligent guidance, he explored the castle itself from battlement to basement, showing no less interest in the cost of its up-keep, and the management of the staff of servants, than in the bric-a-brac, the pictures, old furniture, tapestries, and masterpieces of the other arts which adorned it. About noon a wire came from Mrs. Cotteril to tell them that the baby was well again; and it set their minds at rest. After lunch the Ladv Noggs drove him to the station in her pony-cart, and, having arranged to meet soon in London, they parted with every expression of mutual regard.
On her way back the Lady Noggs saw in front of her the Rev. Beverley Cringle, the rector of Stonorill, and her face fell, for she foresaw unpleasantness. However, she drove on, resolved to have it over, stopped the pony beside him, and said, "Oh, Mr. Cringle, I've broken open my missionary-box and spent all the money."
The Rev. Beverley Cringle was, not to put too fine a point upon it, a pompous ass. His idle life gave him full leisure to cultivate the petty vanities, and he was very vain of the fact that the missionary-box of the Lady Noggs made Stonorill's contribution to the C.M.S. far greater than those of the neighbouring villages. At this intelligence he pursed up his lips, puffed out his cheeks, and said: "What does this mean? You shock me, Lady Felicia! You shock me!"
"Well, I couldn't help it," said the Lady Noggs. "Mrs. Cotteril's baby had got a pin in its throat; and I had to have money to take it to London at once, or it would have died."
"What?" puffed Mn Cringle, grown suddenly very like an angry turkey-cock. "Am I to understand that you have wasted the money collected for the heathen on the baby of a common labourer?"
"I didn't waste it. It saved his life," said the Lady Noggs hotly.
"This is shocking—shocking!"
"Well, I knew the baby, and I don't know any heathen."
"That has nothing to do with it—the baby of a ne'er-do-well like William Cotteril! The money must be replaced!"
"Then it just shan't be!" said the Lady Noggs, filled with wrath at the unjust aspersion on her protege. "I collected the money and I'll spend it how I like—on charity! And I won't collect any more for the heathen! I'll get a box for sick children!"
"This is worse and worse!" stuttered Mr. Cringle. "Our—our first duty is to the heathen."
The Lady Noggs gave Villikins a cut, and, as he dashed off, she cried: "It can't be! The heathen haven't got pins in their throat—so there!"
The Lady Noggs had the last word.