Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 7
THE LADY NOGGS RETURNS
MR. BORRODAILE'S statement, that when the Lady Noggs had departed to Catford Palace the dwellers at Stonorill would know what peace was, proved true enough. But his doubt that they would enjoy that blessing, when they obtained it, proved no less well-founded. Out of the whole of any given day, the Lady Noggs had been with them but a short time, yet that short time had exercised a brightening influence on the rest of the twenty-four hours; the abiding sense that she was at hand and probably active, active in some more or less baleful fashion, had added a spice of exciting uncertainty to their lives, and now that she had gone they turned very dull. In the case of Mr. Borrodaile that dulness was increased a thousandfold by the fact that the absence of the Lady Noggs was accompanied by the absence of Miss Caldecott; and he was awaiting with far greater eagerness than any one else news from Catford. He alone, however, had the very sure expectation that the news would be that the Lady Noggs had proved unsatisfactory.
On the afternoon of the fourth day he sat at tea on the lawn with the Prime Minister, and both of them were finding that meal, ungraced by the presence of the Lady Noggs and Miss Caldecott, a somewhat dispiriting affair. They had been together all the day, working hard most of the time, and they were unconsciously resolved to put their work behind them. Unfortunately, this resolve brought it about that they could find nothing to talk about; and they sat smoking their cigarettes in a dull silence.
The rumble of a carriage broke in upon it, and they turned their eyes with a really interested expectation towards the point at which the shrubberies end, and the drive runs unscreened along the edge of the lawn. Presently the carriage rumbled into sight, and proved to be a ramshackle, lumbering fly of the kind which waits dingily about a country railway station. Its roof was loaded with trunks; and at the sight of them a smile of touching content brightened Mr. Borrodaile's face.
The eyes of the Prime Minister rested on those trunks fully two minutes before he exclaimed, in a tone of startled anguish, "Surely those are Felicia's trunks!"
"They are indeed," said Mr. Borrodaile; and his tone was free from any trace of surprise, which was the less remarkable, seeing that he felt none.
"Dear, dear! This is very tiresome!" said the Prime Minister. "The princess must have sent her back. Whatever can have happened?" And he rose hastily.
"The pretty ways of a happy Christian child have happened, plainly enough," muttered Mr. Borrodaile.
The Prime Minister walked swiftly towards the castle, followed by Mr. Borrodaile, and reached its entrance just as the fly disgorged the Lady Noggs and a large, round lady of a singularly gnarled countenance. The Lady Noggs presented an almost ideal picture of calmness and self-possession as she gazed around the familiar scene with a smiling contentment.
The Prime Minister had only time to observe that the large, round lady was flushed and almost stertorous, so heavily was she breathing, when his niece was embracing him with that extravagant show of affection which is not infrequently the effect of a consciousness of guilt in the womanly heart.
The Prime Minister returned her embrace in a distinctly perfunctory fashion, and said in a tone of anxious disquiet, "Why have you come back? What does this mean?"
The Lady Noggs began, in a voice of plaintive protest, "I didn't ask to come back. The princess sent—"
"I am ze Baroness Pulvermacher," broke in the large, round lady with heated vehemence. "And zees ees what it mean! Zat ees von barbarian child! Von leedle savage! She haf shaved ze poodles of ze brincess of every 'air! Zare ees not von 'air left! No, not von 'air!"
The Prime Minister regarded the large, vociferous lady with utter bewilderment. He did not understand one word of this earnest and heated explanation. But he was dimly aware that his niece had distinguished herself in a fashion to which, with every opportunity of doing so, he had never grown used; and he said, "Dear, dear! This is very tiresome! What has happened? I don't understand!"
The Lady Noggs turned on the baroness with a triumphant air and cried, "There! You see what comes of interfering with people's letters! If you hadn't read my letter dishonourably and torn it up, uncle would have known about the poodles. Now he doesn't!"
"She haf shaved ze poodles—ze poodles of ze brinzess!" cried the Baroness Pulvermacher with yet more heat, making her meaning clearer by rapping the palm of her left hand with the first and middle fingers of the right, and nodding her head with vigour and rapidity.
The Prime Minister looked at her in even greater bewilderment and said, "But you do shave poodles."
"But she haf shaved ze tob-knods and ze ruffs. Zare ees not von 'air! No, not von!"
The Prime Minister gripped his beard firmly, and held on to it.
"And zat ees nod all!" the baroness went on. "She haf flung ze Brinzess Wilhelmina into ze pond! She haf inked her dress!"
"That's a wicked story! Both are wicked stories!" cried the Lady Noggs with a vast and righteous indignation. "The silly little girl did both herself!"
"Vonce more—vonce more," cried th e baroness, in the last accents of horror and despair, "she haf called ze Brinzess Wilhelmina a seely leedle girl!"
"Perhaps, if Lady Felicia would give her version of these interesting occurrences, we should be able to form a more accurate idea of what has happened," said Mr. Borrodaile, taking advantage of the fact that the violence of her emotion had reduced the baroness to a passing silence.
"It was not my fault, except, of course, about the poodles. And really they did not look so foreign," said the Lady Noggs, voluble but hardly lucid. "Princess Wilhelmina was gathering water-lilies, and she fell into the pond quite all herself. Anybody might. And I didn't ink her. She inked herself. She was only making black patterns on the table-cloth. The table-cloth was red."
"An admirable reason," said Mr. Borrodaile. "But am I wrong in supposing that you were present when these misfortunes befell your little playmate?"
"Playmate!" cried the Lady Noggs wih infinite scorn. "You should have seen her play! She didn't know how!"
"But were you present when these misfortunes befell her?" said Mr. Borrodaile, keeping to his point.
"Yes, of course I was there. Where else should I be?" said the Lady Noggs. "But I didn't ink her. She inked herself. And I didn't throw her into the pond. She fell in. It's a wicked story to say I did."
"And about the poodles?" said Mr. Borrodaile, pursuing the inquiry. "What happened to those intelligent creatures?"
The Lady Noggs's face cleared, and she smiled, as one calling to mind an agreeable and entertaining incident. "Well, they did look rather funny," she admitted. "But how was I to know how they'd look? Any one would have thought they'd have looked better without all those frills and things; and so we clipped them. But they didn't, stupid things! They looked very funny." And she smiled again at the agreeable picture in her mind.
"And zay are ze favoureetes of ze brince and brincess. Zere ees not von 'air left!" said the baroness, taking up once more the burden of her lament with a tearful and moving solemnity.
Mr. Borrodaile suddenly saw a picture of the shorn pets, and he laughed gently. The Prime Minister looked from the Baroness Pulvermacher to the Lady Noggs, and from the Lady Noggs to the Baroness Pulvermacher, with the unhappiest air.
"What happened then?" said Mr. Borrodaile.
"Oh, then—then the princess was very angry," said the Lady Noggs. "Just as if it was my fault. How was I to know the poodles would look so funny when they were shaved all over? And she told me to go, and tried to hit me. And I was very angry. And I think I was rather rude. But she'd no business to try to hit me."
"She vas insolent! Oh, insolent!" cried the baroness. And she waved her hands with an air. The Lady Noggs looked at the baroness with utter contempt, and murmured under her breath: "Sneak!"
"You were rude?" said Mr. Borrodaile.
"I only said I was glad to come away, because they were dishonourable people, and eat like pigs. And they are—they read a letter of mine to you, uncle; and then she tore it up. And they do eat like pigs," said the Lady Noggs firmly.
"Dear, dear! This is very tiresome!" said the Prime Minister. "How many times am I to tell you, Felicia, not to call your elders—But there, it is useless talking to you. If you would come with me, Baroness Pulvermacher, we can discuss the matter, and perhaps, uninterrupted, I shall be able to learn something of what has taken place."
With that, he and the baroness went into the castle.
As they disappeared, the Lady Noggs made a bee-line for the tea-table on the lawn, attended by Mr. Borrodaile. His curiosity about the effect of the Lady Noggs on German royalty was by no means sated. The Lady Noggs fell on the thin bread-and-butter with some appearance of voracity; and he said, "You seem hungry."
"I am hungry," said the Lady Noggs. "I could not eat in that palace. You can't eat in a stuffy hole, you know, not even if the food is nice. And it wasn't. I think it must have been German. It never had a clean taste; it was always thick-tasting and greasy."
Mr. Borrodaile plied her with cake and milk and cream; and when she had satisfied her hunger, she sat back in her chair and said: "I am glad to be back. You've no notion how beastly it was, Billy—always one's best behaviour."
"best behaviour?" said Mr. Borrodaile. "Yes; it won't stand any great strain."
The Lady Noggs sat up very straight in her chair, and looked at him with extreme suspicion. "What do you mean?" she said. "My best behaviour is very good behaviour."
"Oh, yes, of course—yes, yes," said Mr. Borrodaile hurriedly. "Excellent! excellent!"
The Lady Noggs sank back into an easier posture, and plunged into a bitterly scornful account of the tradition of etiquette which had come down through the years from Frederick the Great to Catford.
Little by little, by dint of questions, Mr. Borrodaile drew from her an unvarnished and disjointed narrative of the events of her three days' stay in the household of Meiningen-Schwerin. To all seeming, he found the tale an entertaining one, for his face was wreathed with smiles all through it; and he laughed gently several times. At the end of it the Lady Noggs said with some anxiety, "I don't think I did anything particularly bad, do you, Billy? Of course, those poodles looked very funny, but I didn't really hurt them, you know."
"No," said Mr. Borrodaile, with his most judicial air. "I don't think you did do anything very bad. The only thing was, that you were a very large pebble to fall 1nto such a quiet little pool."
The Lady Noggs looked at him seriously, weighing his words; then she said, "It was something like that. What I like about you, Billy, is, you understand things. And, after all, I never wanted to go there." She paused and again reflected; then she said with extreme thoughtfulness: "I think—I think will go and look at the animals. If uncle comes straight from that horrid old baroness, he'll have quite a wrong idea of things, don't you know?"
"I think it would be well," said Mr. Borrodaile; and the Lady Noggs strolled off in the direction of the stables, to look at her pets.
Mr. Borrodaile sat still, and lighted another cigarette. Twice he smiled with extreme content, for he looked for the return of Miss Caldecott within the next twenty-four hours. He had finished the cigarette he was smoking, and was halfway through another, when the carriage came round to the entrance of the castle; the Prime Minister put the Baroness Pulvermacher into it, and, when she had been borne away, came hastily down the lawn towards him. As he drew near, Mr. Borrodaile saw that his usual harried air was more harried than ever. He sank down in a chair and cried, "Felicia has been behaving shockingly—abominably!"
"Not a bit of it," said Mr. Borrodaile quietly.
"How—what? But she has," said the Prime Minister. "She has not only been mischievous, but positively impudent. She threw the Princess Wilhelmina into a pond; she splashed her with ink; and she pulled her hair in the most painful fashion. Besides, she was most insolent, not only to the Baroness Pulvermacher, but to the prince and princess themselves."
"The Baroness Pulvermacher appears to have unburdened her soul," said Mr. Borrodaile.
"Yes, she's been quite frank and open in the matter."
"Well, for my part," said Mr. Borrodaile, "I don't lay much weight on her frank openness. I prefer Lady Felicia's version of what happened. We know that she tells the truth; and we have no reason to believe that telling the truth is a German habit. I have very little doubt, indeed, that the Lady Felicia is responsible for the misfortunes which befell the Princess Wilhelmina; but I am quite sure that she was not the active agent in bringing them upon that child's luckless head. She did not throw her into the pond. She suggested to her to pluck the water-lilies which grew in it. I admit that the result would be practically the same; but there is a great difference between throwing a person into a pond and suggesting plucking the water-lilies. Again, she told me, and I believe her, that she did not throw ink on her little playmate. She only suggested to her that a black pattern would be a vast improvement to a plain red table-cloth. And all the inking that was done, the Princess Wilhelmina did herself. In the matter of the poodles, she pleaded guilty. But, after all, she did not hurt the dogs. And if people will leave children alone with poodles, and clippers, and ponds, and ink, they can only expect such results. They insisted, with untiring pertinacity, on having their Lady Felicia undiluted; and they've only themselves to blame that she proved too strong for them. Had Miss Caldecott gone with her, as you proposed, there would have been none of this trouble."
As Mr. Borrodaile straightened things out, the face of the Prime Minister slowly cleared. "What you tell me does put a very different complexion on the affair," he said. "But I do wish she had not been so insolent to the prince and princess. "
"It hardly seems to have been unprovoked," said Mr. Borrodaile. "Apparently, the princess lost her temper at the sight of the shorn poodles, and tried to box Nog—Lady Felicia's ears."
"Well," said the Prime Minister, "the sooner Miss Caldecott comes back, the better. You have her address? I hope she'll be able to come back at once."
"Since she's staying with that impossible uncle of hers, the South American millionaire, I should think she'd be glad of an excuse to get away.
"Ah, yes; Beresford Caldecott. A terrible person!" said the Prime Minister. "You'd better wire to her at once. Don't let's have any delay. In the meantime, till she comes, I will keep an eye on Lady Felicia myself." He said this in all seriousness, as if he honestly believed the task within the range of his powers.
To divert attention from the smile he could not restrain, Mr. Borrodaile rose hastily and said: "I'll wire at once." And he went off briskly to the house.
The Prime Minister leant back in his chair and sighed. His interview with the infuriated and unintelligible Baroness Pulvermacher had once more set his scrupulous conscience to work to annoy him in the matter of the Lady Noggs. Once more he was pondering the question, whether he was really the kind of man to bring up a little girl, quite unaware of the fact that he had really very little indeed to do with that bringing up.
Presently, accompanied by a guinea-pig, she broke in upon his uneasy meditations. She sat down in a chair facing him, and said: "I'm awfully glad to be back. It was horrid in that stuffy palace. I should think they never opened the windows all the year round; and they tried to stop me having my bedroom window open. They said I should catch cold. Did you ever hear of anything so silly? Aren't you glad I've come back?"
"Yes," said the Prime Minister, with no exaggerated warmth of welcome in his tone. "But I wish you hadn't been insolent to the princess."
"Well, I didn't want to be insolent to her. I never meant to be at all; but when she hit me, I couldn't help it; I couldn't really. And after all it was dishonourable to read my letter, you know. Very dishonourable. And they did eat like pigs. They did, truly."
"Still, I think you'd better write her a nice letter, and explain that you did not mean to be insolent."
"All right," said the Lady Noggs with utter indifference. "I'll write and explain. I have got away from the horrid place anyhow."
In the meanwhile Mr. Borrodaile had written and dispatched the following telegram:—
Noggs has come back. We are helpless. Lord Errington begs you to come to our aid as soon as you possibly can.
He was pleased with the wire, and he felt sure that it was worded strongly enough to give Miss Caldecott the excuse she must be needing so badly to escape at once from her uncle's roof. Beresford Caldecott enjoyed the unchallenged reputation of being the worst-tempered man in Europe; and only a somewhat insistent sense of duty ever brought his niece to his house. As a rule, that sense of duty could not keep her in it for more than a fortnight at a time.
Having dispatched the telegram, Mr. Borrodaile thought it well to strengthen his plea for aid by a letter; and he sat down to write it with extreme pleasure. It is less satisfactory to write than to talk to the object of one's respectful admiration, but it is better than nothing at all. The letter was not easy to write, because, though he had never made any secret of his admiration, Miss Caldecott had always eluded or checked his attempts to express it. Accomplished writer of difficult diplomatic letters as he was, he wrote this one four times before he got it to his liking. At last he finished it, and it ran:—
Dear Miss Caldecott,—
The four weeks of your absence (she had been away exactly four days), and that of your amiable and accomplished pupil, have turned the inhabitants of Stonorill into a dreary, mopey crew. Our spirits are indeed quite broken, and there seems but very little chance of their ever recovering the elasticity which your presence and that of your amiable and accomplished pupil imparts to them. Upon us, in this nerveless and broken condition, there has suddenly descended your pupil, returned, with an unseemly haste, for which I, at any rate, am exceedingly thankful, by the Princess of Meiningen-Schwerin. In our depressed condition we are quite unable to cope with her, the more so as she has returned with a lurid reputation for imponding and inking the young of princes, and of shaving their poodles. We feel that, unless you come to restrain her, our lot will be indeed hapless. Lord Errington therefore begs me to adjure you to come to our help as soon as you can; and, for my own part, I shall count the minutes till your return.
For all that Miss Caldecott was looking for a letter from Mr. Borrodaile, the sight of his handwriting on the envelope sent a thrill through her. The thrill surprised and annoyed her; it even disquieted her. She had come, by degrees, to take pleasure in Mr. Borrodaile's never hidden admiration of her, but she had never regarded it seriously: to do so would have been absurd, for it was well understood among his friends that he was to marry a rich wife, whose money would further his ambitions. A marriage with a penniless girl like herself meant the ruin of a career which promised to be so brilliant.
She had been under the impression that she regarded him merely as the pleasantest and most entertaining of her friends. The thrill came as a most unpleasant warning that her deeper feelings might be very much more concerned in the matter than she supposed. At once she resolved not to return to Stonorill for at least a fortnight; and she began also to consider the resignation of her post of governess to the Lady Noggs.
She did not look forward to staying another fortnight with Beresford Caldecott with any pleasure at all. It was seldom, indeed, that a meal in the gorgeous palace he had built for himself passed without her being jarred by the crash of broken crockery; and the fact that there was a perpetual procession of servants through the house, since not one of them who came into contact in any way with its master stayed more than a week, added nothing to the comfort of existence.
His outbursts of rage did not frighten her any longer, but she still found them annoying; and there was something tiresome about his reiteration of the fact that she never need look for a penny of his.
She did not, however, carry out her intention of spending a fortnight with him. Mr. Borrodaile was resolved to get her back to Stonorill with no delay; and he left no means untried to compass that end. He was somewhat doubtful about the effect of his letter. He suggested, therefore, to the Prime Minister that he also should write to her; and since, when actually confronted with the appalling task of keeping an eye upon the Lady Noggs, his heart had failed him, he accepted the suggestion with eagerness, and wrote at once. His letter reached Miss Caldecott the morning after that on which Mr. Borrodaile's had come. She had a great, liking for the Prime Minister, and she knew that his anxiety about the Lady Noggs was never at rest, and she gathered clearly from the letter that it was at the moment acute. After some debate with herself she gave up her intention of staying away from Stonorill for a fortnight, and wired that she would be there that afternoon.
Her uncle greeted the news of her early departure with an outburst of fury: but since he would have greeted the news that she proposed to stay a fortnight, or any other kind of news, with a like outburst, that was neither here nor there. He did not lose the opportunity of once more assuring her that she would never get a penny from him.
On the journey, in spite of her strenuous efforts to keep it out of her mind, the memory of the thrill she had felt at the sight of Mr. Borrodaile's handwriting was somewhat importunate and troubling, until she found herself looking forward to meeting him with something like nervous trepidation. That trepidation was justified by the fact that the sight of Mr. Borrodaile himself, waiting for her in one of the Stonorill motor-cars, sent an even more violent thrill through her than the sight of his handwriting had done.
After that, it was only natural that her greeting should be of a freezing coldness, and that she should show no pleasure at all at being back at Stonorill. Mr. Borrodaile was by no means blind to her coldness, but he did not show his disappointment; with his natural, happy knack of aggravating, he began at once to talk as if she were overjoyed at having returned.