Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 5
THE LADY NOGGS RECEIVES AN INVITATION
SOON after her rescue of the Cotteril baby there came a great change in the life of the Lady Noggs. One morning the Prime Minister and Mr. Borrodaile were at work in the library: the Prime Minister was reading his letters; and Mr. Borrodaile was hunting through a volume of his chiefs earlier speeches for passages which must not be too flatly contradicted in the speech about to embody the Volte-face of that statesman's educational convictions.
Suddenly the Prime Minister cried: "Dear, dear! this is very tiresome!"
"Another defection?" said Mr. Borrodaile cheerfully.
No," said the Prime Minister frowning. "But the Princess of Meiningen-Schwerin has invited Felicia to live with her little daughter, and be brought up with her."
"Poor, dear princess!" said Mr. Borrodaile, with unaffected commiseration. "She's going to see life at last. If Nog—If Lady Felicia does not give her a fresh and deeper insight into the pretty ways of the happy Christian child, I'll—I'll eat my new mashie."
"But why, I ask you, why should she have hit upon Felicia, of all children?" said the Prime Minister.
"Unconscious attraction of unlikes," said Mr. Borrodaile. "Lady Felicia looks eighteenth century, but she isn't. The Meiningen-Schwerins don't look eighteenth century, but they are. Besides, it is an advantage when one of the richest heiresses in England happens to be one's daughter's friend. And if ever it comes to be a question of a higher pension—" And he stopped abruptly.
The Prime Minister frowned.
Mr. Borrodaile sat thoughtful for a minute, then he said, "I wonder how Lady Felicia will take it. It's a pity these invitations are practically commands, for that makes it so difficult to get out of."
The Prime Minister's frown deepened; and he said with spirit: "At any other time I should have refused outright, and settled the matter once and for all. But I'm very much out of favour already over owing to this education act, and you may be sure that this arrangement has been discussed all over the place. You know how they hang together. I really don't think I can refuse."
"It would be very awkward just now," said Mr. Borrodaile.
"You don't—you don't think Felicia will refuse?" said the Prime Minister, with a note of almost timorous anxiety in his voice.
"I'm sure she will," said Mr. Borrodaile with conviction. "But that is a matter you can leave to Miss Caldecott. She will persuade her. "
The Prime Minister sighed heavily, then he rose, rang the bell, and bade the footman who answered it ask the Lady Noggs to come to him in the library. He awaited her coming on the hearth-rug, pulling his beard with some nervousness; and he awaited it some time, for, owing to an unfortunate accident, the frock which the Lady Noggs was wearing was torn, and she had to put on another. At last she did come, her brilliant beauty the more vivid for the air of something very like defiance which flushed her cheek and brightened her eyes. For she came expecting to hear that some misdeed or other, she did not know which, but it might have been any one of many, had come to light; and she was ready for trouble.
In a somewhat halting and uneasy fashion the Prime Minister said, "I have an invitation for you, Felicia. The Princess of Meiningen-Schwerin has written to ask you to go to live with her little daughter at Catford Palace."
"Me!" cried the Lady Noggs with the liveliest disgust. "Me go and live with a princess! I won't do anything so horrid! I'm sure she's a stuffy old thing!"
"Dear, dear!" said the Prime Minister. "That is not the way to speak of a princess."
The Lady Noggs did not retract the description. She looked at the Prime Minister with watchful eyes, and said nothing at all.
The Prime Minister waited for a minute for the retraction which did not come, his eyes wandering timorously the while up and down the Lady Noggs, but never meeting hers; then he said: "Surely you've been taught that the invitations of royalty are commands."
"I don't care!" said the Lady Noggs stubbornly. "They aren't going to command me! I shan't take any notice of it!"
The Prime Minister tugged at his beard, and looked for help to Mr. Borrodaile, who forthwith plunged his eyes into the volume of speeches he had before him, and turned the leaves industriously.
"Surely you wouldn't like to be disloyal?" said the Prime Minister with trivial artfulness.
"How can I be disloyal?" cried the Lady Noggs in unaffected bewilderment. "This princess isn't the king. Why, she must be German, with a funny name like that. And what's she got to do with me?"
The Prime Minister looked helplessly at Mr. Borrodaile; and Mr. Borrodaile, artful in his turn, said: "But wouldn't you like to live with a little girl of your own age, and have her always to play with?"
"No, I shouldn't! You know I shouldn't. I don't like little girls—little sillies! You know I don't. I like grownups. And I like Stonorill. I'm all right here; and I don't want to go away."
Of a sudden the Prime Minister grew firm and said: "I'm afraid you'll have to go; and, after all, the discipline of the Meiningen-Schwerin household will be good for you."
The Lady Noggs gazed at him for a moment in speechless indignation; then she changed her tactics, burst into tears and wailed: "You want to get rid of me! You want to get rid of me!"
"Dear, dear! This is very distressing, and so unreasonable!" said the Prime Minister, shuffling about on the hearth-rug in his exasperation. "I don't want to get rid of you at all, Felicia."
"Oh, yes, you do!" wailed the Lady Noggs; and she sobbed in a most affecting fashion.
"Now, Noggs, don't humbug," said Mr. Borrodaile quietly: he had learned by long experience to distinguish her more frequent diplomatic tears from her very rare real ones.
"Humbug!" cried the Lady Noggs hotly, turning on him. "All right; I'll pay you out for that, Billy! Anyhow, I won't go!" And she ran out of the room.
The Prime Minister looked at Mr. Borrodaile with the most distressful eyes. Mr. Borrodaile wiped away a smile, and said with an exceedingly serious face, "I think you had better leave it to Miss Caldecott, sir."
The Prime Mnister said dolefully, "Yes, yes; I will speak to her about it. Felicia is a most difficult child."
"The worst thing about Lady Felicia is that she always has such a painfully exact knowledge of what she wants; and the knowledge is always supported by a firm and active resolve to have it," said Mr. Borrodaile.
"I have grave doubts that this arrangement will prove a success," said the Prime Minister.
"It certainly won't prove a success for the princess," said Mr. Borrodaile. "She is sure to hit up against these prime qualities of Lady Felicia and hurt herself. "
They returned to their work, trying with little success to dismiss the matter from their minds: one or the other of them kept reverting to it all the morning. After lunch the Prime Minister sent for Miss Caldecott and said: "I suppose Felicia has told you of the invitation she has received from the Princess of Meiningen-Schwerin?"
"No," said Miss Caldecott, "I have not heard anything about it."
The Prime Minister unfolded the matter to her, and Miss Caldecott's face fell. She had no wish to leave Stonorill, and, though she was careful not to admit to herself that the presence of Mr. Borrodaile had anything to do with this reluctance, and assured herself that it was the natural beauty of the place which made her so loth to go, she was probably wrong. At the same time the prospect of changing the English circle at Stonorill for the German circle at Catford could hardly be alluring to one who knew, as she did, the strenuous etiquette of German court life. However, she assured the Prime Minister that she would bring the Lady Noggs to regard the matter in a reasonable light.
She began by discussing the matter with Mr. Borrodaile, and learned from him exactly how the Prime Minister stood; and that it was advisable that the Lady Noggs should go to the princess. Then she approached her resolute pupil. The line she took—and it was the only line to take, considering the firmness of the Lady Noggs on such questions—was that her refusal to accept the arrangement would injure her uncle. Then she made it yet easier for her to consent by pointing out that there was no harm in making a trial of this new kind of life, that she might after all find it very nice, and, if she were really unhappy with the princess, she would, of course, be allowed to return to Stonorill.
The Lady Noggs heard her out patiently, looking at her with grave and serious eyes and puckered brow. She pondered her words a little while, and then said, with the old-fashioned thoughtfulness she sometimes showed: "Of course, if—it is to help uncle, I've got to do it. But I wish he didn't go in for those nasty politics. Look what a bother they are to him." She sighed, and then went on in a more grudging tone: "But I'm only going to try it. If I can't stand it I shall chuck it—so there!"
Thankful to have prevailed. Miss Caldecott let the idiomatic language pass.
Then began a series of pour-parlers between Stonorill and the house of Meiningen-Schwerin. The Prince and Princess of Meiningen-Schwerin belonged to one of those obscure Anglo-German royal families, so very much more German than Anglo, which have an eternal claim on the gratitude of England for the distinguished services they rendered her by being distantly related to George IV. Some seventy years residence in that grateful country has not impaired the family's eighteenth-century attitude to the rest of the world; and the present heads of it live lapped very comfortably in the traditions of Frederick the Great, and follow his august example in the regulation of their little court.
They were far more highly sensible of the extreme honour they were conferring on the Lady Noggs than any one else concerned, and they held out for their own terms.
There was little difficulty about the matter of the allowance for the Lady Noggs's maintenance, though they fixed the amount in accordance with their high estimation of the privilege she was about to enjoy. But out of the distrust and dislike of everything English, which had remained undiminished in the family since it's immigration into that grateful country, they would not hear of Miss Caldecott coming with the Lady Noggs, nor yet even an English maid. They declared that the Baroness Pulvermacher, the governess of the little Princess Wilhelmina, had their full confidence, and would suffice for the two children.
They had their way in this matter, chiefly owing to the support they received from Mr. Borrodaile. He had been giving the matter his full consideration, and he had come to the conclusion that he wished the Lady Noggs, or, to be exact, Miss Caldecott, to return as quickly as possible to Stonorill; and it seemed to him that the best way to secure this return was to allow the Court of Meiningen-Schwerin to have its Lady Noggs undiluted. If Miss Caldecott were in charge of her, the royal house would be unlikely to realize the full doubtfulness of the blessing it had drawn on itself for some time, since she would restrain her charge from the full expression of her interesting personality.
The house of Meiningen-Schwerin was both surprised and gratified at getting its way in this matter so easily: and there was much simple, heartfelt joy in Catford Palace at the prospect of the further inflow of honest English gold. They reckoned without their guest.
It was not easy to impair the high spirits of the Lady Noggs for any length of time; but now and again she suffered from fits of extreme unhappiness at the thought of leaving Stonorill. A few days before her going, Mr. Borrodaile found her in one of these gloomy crises, and at once, with thoughtful kindliness, set about cheering her up.
"Look here, Noggs," he said, "don't you be so miserable. You needn't be gone for long. Your uncle is not a bit keen on your going; and we shall all miss you—we shall know what peace is, and I dare say we shan't like it. Practically, you know, you're only going to Catford Palace on trial; and it's quite possible that the princess might not find you satisfactory, and then she would send you back."
The Lady Noggs dried her eyes with a handkerchief which had suffered many vicissitudes, mostly black; and her face brightened a little as she said, "If I weren't satisfactory, would she really send me back?"
"She would indeed," said Mr. Borrodaile.
"But uncle?" said the Lady Noggs. "Wouldn't it harm him? I mustn't do that."
"Not a bit," said Mr. Borrodaile cheerfully. "He has accepted the invitation, and sent you. What more can he do? If the princess finds you an unsuitable inhabitant of her quiet suburban palace, and too unlucky in the matter of getting into scrapes to make a good companion for her daughter, that has nothing to do with your uncle. The mistake is the princess's."
The Lady Noggs drew a long-drawn breath, and her eyes shone suddenly with an extraordinary brightness, "I see," she said slowly. "Oh, I'll be so unsatisfactory, I'll see she sends me back all right. "
Mr. Borrodaile grinned with a lively appreciation of the excitements in store for the little court at Catford, but he said gravely: "You'll have to be careful, or they'll think you're doing it on purpose to get sent back; and it won't work. Mind you let them down gently, or you'll spoil it."
The Lady Noggs nodded her head sagely and said: "I'll be careful. I'll let them down gently." And she went her way cheerfully.
Mr. Borrodaile looked after her and said softly, under his breath: "Poor, dear princess. I think she'll learn to leave the Grandison family alone." Then he smiled a slow, machiavellian smile.
That afternoon Miss Caldecott perceived that not only had the Lady Noggs recovered an unbroken serenity, but that Mr. Borrodaile also, who had of late been apt to wear a gloomy and perplexed air, had grown quite cheerful again.
She ought to have been pleased by this improvement in his spirits, but she found herself quite unable to display any sympathetic joy at it. She had no wish in the world that he should perceive this lack of sympathy, but it would seem that he did. For they were strolling in the garden after dinner, when he said: "I see that you're both surprised and disgusted at my being so cheerful when I must so soon be bereft of the light of your presence."
Miss Caldecott was taken aback by the suddenness of the onslaught. She gasped and stammered, "I—I'm nothing of the kind!"
"Well, it's natural; and I'm sure you've every right to be," said Mn Borrodaile with apologetic suavity.
"Natural? I haven't any such right!" cried Miss Caldecott.
"Every right—every right," said Mf. Borrodaile quickly. "When two people are as close to one another as we are, and they are on the verge of what may be a long separation, it is only natural that they should be depressed, and either has a right to resent the other's not being depressed. I saw that you were depressed; and then I saw that you resented my not being—"
"I did not!" cried Miss Caldecott. "I wasn't and I didn't! Oh, you are—I should like—it's impossible—you're always—" And, leaving these cryptic utterances unfinished, she incontinently bolted for the house.
Mr. Borrodaile turned and followed her slowly. He was so cheerful that he could not refrain from a burst of song from light opera, and his singing was execrable.