Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 6
A VARIATION IN THE ART OF POODLE-SHAVING
IN spite of the sense of security induced by Mr. Borrodaile's machiavellian counsel, the Lady Noggs took a tearful farewell of Stonorill. But she was far too proud to show herself ill at ease, much less unhappy, when the Princess of Meiningen-Schwerin received her and her uncle at Catford Palace. She met that good, short, stout lady with all the dignity of the head of the Grandisons. The princess talked for a little while with the Prime Minister on subjects which had nothing whatever to do with his errand; and then she dismissed him with eighteenth-century German curtness. He would have liked to see the Princess Wilhelmina and the Baroness Pulvermacher, but the atmosphere of Frederick the Great prevented him from hinting even at his desire. He kissed the Lady Noggs, made his adieu to the princess, and went.
As the door closed behind him, the Lady Noggs made one step towards it, then pulled herself together and said, in a distinct but trembling voice, "This is only a trial, you know."
The little eyes of the princess opened till they were almost of average size: "A drial? Ach, yes," she said. "But it is not ze coostom to ad dress royal persons vurst. Attend me to ze Baroness Pulvermacher; she vill instrooct you, a drial—ach, yes."
She did not know how much of a trial.
The princess led the way to a little room at the back of the palace, entered, said, "Here is the leedle Englanderin," went out, shut the door, and left the Lady Noggs standing inside it, gazing at her new playfellow and her new governess.
They were hardly an attractive pair: Nature had been kind to neither of them. The Princess Wilhelmina was a strikingly square child. Her figure was square and of considerable amplitude: her face also was square and of consider able amplitude, so that her dot of an upturned nose was but little of a relief to the wide expanse, a very small kopje in a very large veldt. Her eyes were small; and her lips were small and thin. These unattractive features would have mattered nothing at all had they been informed with the right expression; but unfortunately her face gained in ill-humour what it lost in intelligence. As for the Baroness Pulvermacher, Nature had plainly intended her for a Pomeranian Grenadier, and changed her mind at the very last moment, when it was too late for anything to be done.
The governess and pupil stared at the Lady Noggs in a somewhat rude and unamiable fashion. The Lady Noggs surveyed them with an unaffected lack of interest; then the Baroness Pulvermacher croaked, "How do you do, leedle Englanderin?"
"How do you do?" said the Lady Noggs coldly; and she walked to an easy-chair and sat down.
"Ach! Vot ees dat you do?" cried the baroness. "You do not seat yourselfs in de brezence of the Brinzess Wilhelmina till she geef you permizion!"
"I have the right to sit in the presence of the king," said the Lady Noggs, asserting her privilege as head of the family of Grandison.
"Vot ees dat do us? Brinzess Wilhelmina is a Sherman brinzess! Get oop! Get oop! Advonce!"
The Lady Noggs sat still and said nothing.
The baroness bounced out of her chair, rushed to her, and dragged her up; the Lady Noggs sank limply to the carpet. The baroness dragged her up again; there was some entanglement of their feet, which the Lady Noggs might have explained, and the baroness sat down on the floor with a violence which shook the room: there was a good deal of her to sit down. The little princess broke into a cackling laughter, for she thought that her governess had hurt herself badly.
The baroness rose with a dazed air, looked at the Lady Noggs, who was sitting once more in the easy-chair, and went thoughtfully back to her seat at the table. From it she gazed at her new charge with dazed eyes.
"I like you," said the Princess Wilhelmina to the Lady Noggs: "You may kizz mine 'and."
"I only kiss the King's hand or the Queen's," said the Lady Noggs ungratefully.
"'I dell mamma eef you don't," said the princess.
"Are you a sneak?" said the Lady Noggs coldly.
"Ach, Gott! Ach, Gott! Vot to uz ees going to 'appen?" panted the baroness. "You veel be vipped, you! You leedle Englanderin!"
"You couldn't do it!" cried the Lady Noggs hotly, flushing. "And if you did, my uncle would take me away at once!"
The baroness glared at her and drummed wildly on the table. The Lady Noggs had found the strong point in her position; the royal house of Meiningen-Schwerin could not lose the Lady Noggs, or rather the allowance; and if her governess were the cause of her going, it was more than likely that the governess would go too.
The Lady Noggs employed the pause in examining the room in which she was for the future to receive instruction; it affected her with no sense of pleasure. The heavy furniture of lustrous mahogany, the heavy curtains, the large but ungainly ornaments, its air of mid-victorian solidity, were in such extravagant contrast to the charming lightness of the decoration of her rooms at Stonorill that they impressed even her child's mind with their insensate heaviness. The baroness still drummed on the table, cudgelling her slow brain for a possible method of dealing with an English peeress, when there came the dull mutter of a distant gong.
It was a welcome diversion. The Princess Wilhelmina slipped heavily out of her chair crying, "Da's loonch! Gome along, Englanderin!"
She came round the table, took the arm of the Lady Noggs, and dragged her out of the room and down the stairs. Half-way down she bethought herself to pinch her arm viciously; and on the instant the Lady Noggs retorted with a tug which loosened half the not innumerable hairs in her head.
"Ow! ow! ow!" squealed Wilhelmina. "The Englanderin has bulled mine 'air! Owl owl ow!"
The princess, the prince, two ladies-in-waiting, an equerry, and four poodles burst pell-mell from the dining-room, and began to console their squealing darling. When the squeals hushed, they turned on the Lady Noggs in furious upbraiding.
"It's all right," the Lady Noggs protested. "She pinched me, and I pulled her hair. It was quite fair."
"Mein Gott!" cried the prince, raising his fat hands to heaven. "Ees eet a leedle teffil ve haf amongsd uz?"
In time quiet was restored, Wilhelmina's tears were dried, and they went into the dining-room. The prince and princess, with Wilhelmina between them, sat on one side of the table; on the other sat the four poodles on high nursery chairs; the ladies-in-waiting, the equerry, the Lady Noggs, and the baroness stood on one side in graceful, silent attendance, while the servants fed the royal family, and the royal family fed the poodles. The Lady Noggs soon grew somewhat weary: she could not follow the slow talk of the prince and princess, for they talked in German; the entertainment afforded by their barbarous and noisy fashion of eating soon palled; and she could find no mischief to busy her idle hands. The poodles alone interested her; and she gathered that they were named, in a singular but doubtless complimentary spirit, after the four leading sovereigns of Europe,—Edward, William, Franz Joseph, and Nicolas. At last she grew tired indeed of the royal meal, for it not only seemed interminable, but, as it went on, the atmosphere grew heavier and heavier with the steamy smell of boiled sausage and stuffed poodle.
When the royal family had finished its meal the prince and the princess retired with stately dignity, though their royal air was somewhat spoiled by the flush of repletion. Then their train took its meal, and the Lady Noggs lunched with it. She did not like the food, which, though doubtless of English origin, had become appallingly German in the process of cooking. The conversation was of no interest to her whatever. The Princess Wilhelmina remained with them, and displayed an interesting quality of humour. She employed her leisure in engaging pranks, of which the unfortunate ladies-in-waiting were the victims. She would thump them on the back as they were in the act of drinking, or she would pinch them. She dropped salt down the back of one, and poured water down the back of the other. The conclusion of each pretty trick was followed by little bursts of her cackling childish laughter. Long before the end of the meal the Lady Noggs understood their wary attitude to their food and drink. Wilhelmina left the Lady Noggs severely alone, remembering doubtless the swift and vigorous pulling of her hair.
After lunch the Baroness Pulvermacher and her two pupils returned to the schoolroom. The baroness sat down in an easy-chair, and was at once fast asleep and snoring. Princess Wilhelmina was for going to sleep, too, but of this the Lady Noggs would not hear. She insisted on an exploration of the palace and gardens, but, remembering Mr. Borrodaile's injunction to let the royal household down lightly, she was as good as gold all that afternoon.
At tea there was the same attendance on the royal family and its poodles; and after tea, since that liquor is not of soporific tendency, the train remained in attendance. The Lady Noggs found standing about and saying nothing exceedingly tedious; and she found the ceremonies which accompanied the performance of any trivial action more tedious still. However, she got through the rest of the day without any further revelation of her strenuous character.
At nine o'clock that night she was dismissed to bed, and never in her life had she gone up to her bedroom with greater pleasure. The royal household had taken no pains to make her comfortable, and she regarded the thick and the thinner feather-beds, between which apparently she was expected to sleep, with some dismay. Her trunks, too, half unpacked, since she had had to get out an evening frock in some haste, added nothing to the tidiness or pleasantness of the room. Her first act was to deal with its stuffiness by opening the window, top and bottom, as wide as it would open; then she set about making her toilet. It was all easy but the brushing of her hair, a thing she had never been used to do herself; and it was indeed a difficult and almost impossible task to deal with it properly. Fortunately, in the middle of it, Fraulein Von Reyersbach, one of the princess's ladies-in-waiting, knocked at her door. Out of kindness of heart, she had come in to see if the little strange child was comfortable; and learning her difficulty, she brushed it for her. She was amazed and considerably alarmed by the open window, and adjured the Lady Noggs to shut it, lest the fresh air on a hot night should irreparably damage her health. The Lady Noggs assured her that she was used to fresh air at all hours of the day and night. But again, after saying good- night, the good-hearted girl begged her not to run this appalling risk.
The Lady Noggs got into bed, and in half a minute threw the thinner, feather-bed which was to cover her, on to the floor; then she composed herself to sleep with some doubt as to the feasibility of slumber in such a remarkably downy nest on such a hot night. She was just dropping off to sleep when the door opened, and the Baroness Pulvermacher blundered in. The sight of the open window drew from her a cry of horror. She saw the golden hope of the house of Meiningen-Schwerin carried off by an attack of pneumonia, and slammed one sash up and the other down with grunts of terror. The Lady Noggs said never a word; but when her door had closed behind the baroness, she locked it. Then she opened the window again.
Fortunately the prince and princess breakfasted in their rooms. Their train, along with the Baroness Pulvermacher and her pupils, breakfasted together. For the first time in her life, the playfulness of the Princess Wilhelmina was checked. She had hit upon the happy idea of jabbing Fraulein Von Reyersbach with her fork. The Lady Noggs said quietly enough, "Don't do that again, Wilhelmina, or I'll smack you."
The Baroness Pulvermacher dropped her knife into her plate with a clatter, flushed with angry horror, and said, "Ees eet dat you give orders to zee Brinzess Wilhelmina, Lady Velicia? Nevare do zo! Nevare!"
Very naturally, on the instant, the Princess Wilhelmina jabbed Fraulein Von Reyersbach again with her fork, and, in the middle of the cackle of laughter with which she followed up this humorous effort, the Lady Noggs smartly slapped her face.
Princess Wilhelmina yelled. The Baroness Pulvermacher rose and then sank gasping back in her chair, overcome with surprise and extreme horror. The two ladies-in-waiting looked at the Lady Noggs with the liveliest consternation; and the prince's equerry looked at her with immense surprise tempered by admiration. The Lady Noggs went on quietly with her breakfast.
When the baroness recovered from the first shock, she burst into an incoherent storm of reproach and abuse. But since, in the depth of her emotion, she spoke in German, the Lady Noggs did not understand a word she was saying, and went on quietly with her breakfast.
The yells of the Princess Wilhelmina and the guttural growls of the baroness came to an end at about the same moment, and the train took up the interrupted thread of its meal. All except Lady Noggs, from the disjointed fashion in which they took their food, seemed to have suffered a severe nervous shock.
After breakfast the children and the baroness went to the schoolroom, and devoted the moming to the acquisition of knowledge. After the interesting and intelligent methods of Miss Caldecott, the Lady Noggs found the teaching of the Baroness Pulvermacher exceedingly inept. Neither the prince or princess of Meiningen-Schwerin was troubled by any new-fangled ideas about the education of young girls; and, in the fine old fashion of the Court of Frederick the Great, Princess Wilhelmina was learning nothing at all. For an hour the Baroness Pulvermacher growled hoarsely of the glories of the house of Meiningen-Schwerin, and of the grovelling respect due to her distinguished pupil from the rest of the world. For another hour she growled with undiminished hoarseness of etiquette. For an hour she growled of the arts of reading and writing, in which branches of polite learning Princess Wilhelmina was about as far advanced as a bricklayer's daughter at the age of seven. The Lady Noggs, in spite of the reproaches of the baroness, yawned and yawned. She was bored to extinction. As the day advanced her boredom grew and grew. Her spirit chafed at the tedious and absurd etiquette which was the savour of life to the prince and princess. It chafed at the needless and intolerable dullness of it all; and it chafed at the appalling stuffiness of the palace. And when, after tea, she was bidden play with the Princess Wilhelmina, she found her the stupidest playmate that ever irritated an intelligent child. When at last the long day came to an end, she made up her mind that she had done all the letting down gently she possibly could, and that on the morrow she would begin to be firm and unsatisfactory.
Accordingly, the troubles of the house of Meiningen-Schwerin began early. The Lady Noggs was up with the sun or thereabouts, and, by dint of considerable firmness and perseverance, she got her royal playmate out of bed and into the garden. When the two children came in to breakfast, at which both the prince and princess were, unfortunately for their peace of mind, present, the Lady Noggs was in a state of spotless cleanliness; but the hapless Princess Wilhelmina had apparently had a difference with a duck-pond. She was wet to the waist, brown with mud, and green with duck-weed. The outcry rose to the skies: the prince and princess, the baroness, and the ladies-in-waiting were all expressing their loud horror and dismay together to an accompaniment of the joyous yelping of the poodles, who foolishly supposed it a new kind of game. The Princess Wilhelmina protested that they had but been gathering water-lilies and she had fallen in; the Lady Noggs cried, with an anguished plaintiveness, "How could I keep her out of the pond? She's such a silly little girl."
"Seely! seely, mine Wilhelmina? A brinzess of ze blood royal seely?" cried the prince. "Ees eet a barbarian child we haf amongsd uz?"
Breakfast waited while the Princess Wilhelmina was cleaned and redressed; then, with its train in attendance and its poodles at table, the royal family began its meal. In the middle of it the Baroness Pulvermacher was observed to be struggling frantically to pluck the Lady Noggs from a chair on which she was firmly seated; and there followed a wrangle about the privilege of the head of the Grandison family, which left the prince and princess crimson with wounded vanity. Later in the meal they were terrified out of their wits by their little daughter's strenuous efforts to choke herself with her coffee, an effort induced, as she explained, by the agreeable but curious face the Lady Noggs made at her while she was drinking. Once more the torrent of royal wrath swept fruitlessly round that sturdy British rock; and the Royal House rose from its breakfast unbecomingly heated.
In the schoolroom the baroness, tired of her yawns, told the Lady Noggs to write a nice letter to her uncle, and was agreeably surprised by the briskness with which she set about it. At the end of her harangue on etiquette she looked up, to see that the Lady Noggs had finished the letter and was closing the envelope. She reached forward quickly, took it from her hand, and began to open it carefully, so as not to waste the envelope.
"You're not going to read my letter!" cried the Lady Noggs, opening her eyes wide in her surprise.
"Ach, and why not?" said the baroness in equal surprise.
"Letters are private."
The baroness smiled disdainfully. "Nod ze ledders of leedle girls."
"It's dishonourable!" said the Lady Noggs curtly.
The baroness scowled and flushed: "Ach, you do von vipping vant!" she said with fervent conviction.
She took the letter gingerly from the envelope and read:—
Darling Uncle,—I miss you very much. These people are pigs, they are really: you should hear them eat. They talk with their mouthsfull, and Vilhellmeena is the silliest little girl you ever saw. I cannot make her play sensibbly, and I could not help her falling into the pond. Give my love to Billy and Japp, there is only poodles here.
Your loving niece
The baroness rose gasping, with a very red face, and hurried off to the princess for instructions. The Lady Noggs scowled after her; then her face cleared, and she said quickly, "I don't like these plain red table-cloths, do you? Let's make patterns on it with the ink."
When the baroness returned with the letter in fragments, the Princess Wilhelmina was immersed in this entrancing occupation; incidentally she had made patterns on her frock, her hands, her face, and her hair. The Lady Noggs, though her fingers itched to take their share in the joyous task, had wisely confined herself to superintending her efforts, and was of an irritating spotlessness.
The baroness fairly yelled at the sight of her piebald charge; and, after she had had her cleaned, she sat for the rest of the morning with her eyes fixed on the Lady Noggs in an unwavering watch, breathing heavily through the nose. Half an hour before lunch, however, her vocation of secretary to the prince interrupted her vigilance: she was summoned to him to write letters.
As the door closed behind her, Princess Wilhelmina cried joyously, "To-day ees ze day of ze shaving of ze poodles. Ze man ees here now. Coom, led uz go and zee eet."
The eyes of the Lady Noggs brightened with equal joy. "Coom on!" she said; and they hurried upstairs to see the process. They watched it for some time with extraordinary pleasure, asking many questions. Then the poodle-shaver was summoned away to his dinner with the servants, and the children were left alone with the incomplete dogs.
The Lady Noggs, very naturally, had a pair of clippers in her hand before the door closed behind the poodle-shaver, and was working the handles with a cold, calculating eye on the frisking pets. "I don't see the use of all those top-knots and ruffs," she said slowly. "I'm sure they'd look much nicer plain—not so foreign, you know."
"Yez; vouldn't zey?" said Princess Wilhelmina.
"We might clip one and see," said the Lady Noggs, working the clippers.
"Oh, led'z!" said Princess Wilhelmina.
"The requests of royalty are commands," said the Lady Noggs with a quaint smile.
There were two pairs of clippers; one dog led to another; and in eight crowded minutes of glorious life the happy children clipped every vestige of wool off their amiable dumb friends; they had them barer than shorn sheep.
They were smiling happily at one another over their completed work, when the gong for lunch sounded, and the poodles ran to the door. The children put back the clippers among the rest of the poodle-shaver's instruments, swept the shorn wool neatly together, opened the door, and ran downstairs on the heels of the poodles.
The intelligent animals trotted into the dining-room in a body. At the sight of them the pleasant smiles of appetite froze on the large, round faces of the prince and princess, and the mouths of their train opened.
With an anguished cry of "Mine anchels! Mine poor anchels!" the princess sank back gasping.
The prince spat half a dozen z's, and clutched at his collar with every symptom of imminent apoplexy.
"We thought they'd look better plain," said the Lady Noggs in pretty, shy apology.
Their ladies and gentlemen sprang to the aid of the prince and princess; smelling-salts were applied to her; his well-rounded neck was freed from the collar.
When the tumult of the helpers died down, the prince sat staring stonily at his bare favourites, but the princess, with a splendid effort, got to her feet, tottered across the room, and boxed feebly at the Lady Noggs's ears. Her hand only struck a very sharp elbow.
None the less, the Lady Noggs flamed to a fury and cried, "How dare you?"
"Begone! begone!" cried the princess, pointing to the door.
"Dake her away! dake her away!" groaned the prince.
The Lady Noggs gave herself a little shake and stood invested with all the Grandison dignity. "I'm going," she said in a clear voice. "And I'm glad to go. I don't want to stay with dishonourable foreigners who read other people's letters and eat like pigs."
The silence of blank horror fell on the little court as she went out of the room, and carefully shut the door.