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CHAPTER NINE
AN UNHAPPY CONFERENCE

MISS CALDECOTT, Mr. Borrodaile, and the Prime Minister, directly they had her to themselves, displayed an equally lively curiosity as to the manner in which the Lady Noggs had acquired her knowledge of the idioms of Poplar. That curiosity, however, met with no encouragement from her. She was gratifying no such idle desires, for she had no intention in the world of being deprived of the interesting and profitable companionship of Sue. At the same time she had not forgotten the horror and surprise of her uncle's guests when that happy phrase "S'welp me, I never did," fell from her lips. At her next meeting with Sue, therefore, she touched lightly on the matter of the Poplar dialect. Sue gave her occasion to introduce the subject by prefacing a mere casual remark with the emphatic word "blimy!"

"I don't think we ought to use the word 'blimy' or 's'welp me,'" said the Lady Noggs in a somewhat apologetic tone. "They told me on Saturday that those words weren't quite nice."

"S'welp me, I won't if you don't like," said Sue, with ready acquiescence.

"Well, then, I don't think we will," said the Lady Noggs, "because, if Miss Caldecott says anything isn't quite nice, you may be sure it isn't."

Accordingly, during that day and the days which followed, the Lady Noggs set herself sedulously to weed out the flowers of Poplar diction from Sue's speech. They cropped up with all the persistence of hardy weeds, but the Lady Noggs did not flag in her efforts; nor did she lose hope, since she reminded herself frequently that Sue's hands had, by scrubbing, been reduced from black to dull grey, and after this great achievement there could be no reason why her speech in its turn should not be cleared of blemishes.

The great obstacle in the way of this clearance seemed to be emotion. Along the general level of conversation Sue would go for a long while without a single "blimy" or "s'welp me"; but the moment the conversation rose above that level, and she grew really excited or angry or joyful, her speech was bejewelled with them. This uncertainty, whether they might not be pouring from her lips in a moment, added greatly, at any rate for the Lady Noggs, to the charm of her talk.

Though her main effort was directed to clearing away the idioms of Poplar, the Lady Noggs also contrived to pursue her enquiries into the lives of the inhabitants of that thriving suburb; and the knowledge she gathered made her go about the world very thoughtful. Her meditative attitude did not escape the watchful eyes of either Miss Caldecott or Mr. Borrodaile; and, since thoughtfulness in the Lady Noggs was a sure precursor of trouble, they observed it with no little disquiet. Several times they compared forebodings. It was on him that the first blow fell.

The Lady Noggs chanced on him in the garden one afternoon as he sat in an easy-chair smoking a cigar after lunch. She stopped before him and said, with a very serious air, "I've been talking to Sue."

"Who is Sue?" said Mr. Borrodaile warily.

"She's one of those little girls from London staying in the village."

"Does she belong to Poplar?" said Mr. Borrodaile with a sudden air of enlightenment.

The Lady Noggs ignored the question, and said gravely: "She's been telling me dreadful things—about poor children. She says they're always being knocked about, and always hungry. And they haven't any warm clothes in winter; and they're cold even in bed because they haven't blankets, only sacks. Now, you're a politician, Billy—"

"I'm not! I'm nothing of the kind!" cried Mr. Borrodaile in hasty defence. "I live among politicians, and my work is political, but I'm not a Member of Parliament, so it's no good your trying to saddle me with responsibility!"

The eyes of the Lady Noggs became exceedingly piercing, and she said, "I believe you're frightened. "

"I am, and I'm going to stay frightened till I know exactly what you're driving at," said Mr. Borrodaile firmly.

"If I was a man I wouldn't be frightened," said the Lady Noggs with ineffable contempt. "But if you're not a politician yourself, you can make them do things all the same. You can make uncle. Will you make them see after these poor children? I tell you some of them that get knocked about and starved are quite babies."

"No, I'm afraid I can't make them," said Mr. Borrodaile slowly. "At present they have their hands full with protecting people,—bishops, publicans, speculators, to say nothing of manufactures and industries. Hundreds of people and hundreds of things."

"But the children ought to come first!" said the Lady Noggs. "Grown-ups can look after themselves, can't they? Nobody beats grown-ups. Nobody beats bishops, or starves them, do they?"

"Well, no, not exactly," said Mr. Borrodaile, in some discomfort.

"Then what do they want protecting for?" said the Lady Noggs.

Once more Mr. Borrodaile realized that, in dealing with the Lady Noggs, it was safest to make a clean breast of it, and he said: "Well, the fact is, these people are what is called represented in Parliament. Bishops belong to the House of Lords, and publicans send members to both houses. The poor children do not send members to either house; so there is no one whose business it is exactly to speak for them; and so it is hard to do things for them."

"It's a beastly shame!" said the Lady Noggs.

"But, all the same, there are laws to prevent their being ill-treated; and what's more, there is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, just as there is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals," said Mr. Borrodaile.

"Sue never heard of them," said the Lady Noggs, shaking her head. "Besides, laws don't feed people, do they?"

Mr. Borrodaile fidgeted in his chair, and then shifted his ground, saying: "Another thing, too, your facts are probably all wrong. This little girl Sue has told you of exceptional cases. She exaggerates."

"Exceptional cases?" said the Lady Noggs, puzzled.

"I mean that only very few children are treated like that," said Mr. Borrodaile; and he felt his manner growing more and more deprecatory.

"But Sue knows of lots! "cried the Lady Noggs.

"Probably she's not very intelligent, and she thinks there are more ill-treated than there really are."

The Lady Noggs considered this new point of view carefully for a little while; then she said: "I think I shall have to go and see for myself. Anyhow, I see you're no good, Billy." And she left him with every appearance of utter scorn.

In his discontent with himself for having assumed a political attitude in the face of her generous sentiments, Mr. Borrodaile missed her most important statement that she would have to go and see for herself.

Mr. Borrodaile having thus failed her, the Lady Noggs cast about for some one else to fill his place of helper of the children of the poor. But, mindful of his aspersions on the statements of Sue, when she went to meet her that afternoon she took with her a pencil and paper. They spent a somewhat painful hour getting down a list of the names of the ill-treated children of Sue's acquaintance, and a few facts of their ill-treatment. It was an interesting product of the human intelligence when it was finished; but if the spelling was bad the facts were worse. The Lady Noggs, with Mr. Borrodaile's suggestion of exaggeration still in her mind, cross-questioned Sue again and again about them. She did not shake one of them. Having this documentary evidence, she made up her mind that her uncle should take Mr. Borrodaile's place as defender of the children of the poor. But before she could assail him, she got wind of the fact that on the following afternoon there was to be a conference at Stonorill between her uncle, the Secretary for War, and the Home Secretary. On the instant she saw how much more advantageous it would be to assail three ministers rather than one. By the next afternoon, therefore, she had thought out her plan of action; and with a view to the most effective appearance, she insisted on putting on one of her most picturesque frocks immediately after lunch, whereas in the ordinary course of things she would have put it on, if she had been caught in time, before tea, when she would meet the ministers. Thus prepared for action she watched from the top of the great staircase their arrival, and saw them ushered into the library, where the Prime Minister and Mr. Borrodaile awaited them. She did not, however, go to them at once, but restrained her impatience, because she thought it better to allow them to get on with the business which had brought them down to Stonorill before she laid hers before them.

The conference was soon absorbed in close and arduous discussion. It had before it a very serious and difficult question of practical politics, the question whether there should be three pockets or four on the new army tunic. It would not seem to be a question upon which the counsel of the Home Secretary would have been of great value; but he had been invited to give his opinion, since he had been Secretary for War in a previous administration.

They had talked for an hour, and were almost about to approach the actual matter they had met to discuss, when the door opened and the Lady Noggs entered the room. She actually entered it; she did not rush in, or burst in, or tumble in; she entered the room with a sedate dignity befitting the head of the family of Grandison. A simultaneous smile wreathed the faces of the Home Secretary and the Secretary for War at the sight of this charming vision; but the Prime Minister after one short gasp of dismay, said sharply: "We are very busy, Felicia! Go away, at once!"

The Lady Noggs nodded with gracious politeness to the two ministers, both of whom were acquaintances; then she said with gentle firmness, "But, uncle, I've come to talk about ever such an important thing that ought to be seen to at once; and it will only take a minute or two."

"Dear, dear! This is very tiresome! What is it?" said the Prime Minister.

His two colleagues lounged back In their chairs smiling; and an expression of extreme wariness gathered on Mr. Borrodaile's face.

"It's about poor children," said the Lady Noggs.

The Prime Minister's £ace fell in an extreme discomfiture; and the smiles of his colleagues faded. They looked at the Lady Noggs with an air of something very like guilty defiance.

"Well, what about poor children?" said the Prime Minister in a tone of the last resignation.

"I've learned—at least Sue's told me—that lots of little children belonging to poor people are always being beaten and knocked about. She's seen little children, down to quite babies, awfully hurt!" said the Lady Noggs with growing vehemence. "And they often don't have enough to eat; and cry for hours because they're so hungry. And they're always cold in winter because their clothes are too thin and ragged. They're cold even in bed, because they haven't any blankets, only sacks. It ought to be stopped at once. And as you didn't know anything about it, I thought I'd better come and tell you, and then you'd stop it."

The three ministers had begun to fidget in their chairs; and when she stopped they looked at one another glumly. Then the Prime Minister said unhappily: "Dear, dear! This is very tiresome! We're very busy! We can't talk about that now!"

"Oh, I don't want to waste your time!" said the Lady Noggs readily. "I only want you to promise to stop it at once. "

The three ministers looked glummer than ever. Mr. Borrodaile put his elbow on the table, and rested his face in his hand that he might be able to wipe away the more easily the irresistible smiles.

The Prime Minister looked from one to the other of his colleagues for help or for inspiration. He looked in vain. Then he said with a groan: "These things are very much exaggerated."

"Oh, no; they aren't!" cried the Lady Noggs with the same vehemence. "Sue's not heard about them from any one. She's seen them all herself. And here's a list of some of the children, and what was done to them. And she handed the list to the Prime Minister. He puzzled over it; then passed it to the Secretary of War; he looked over it with a growing air of bewilderment, and passed it to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary glanced over it, and said desperately: "Legislation cannot touch these things."

"Why?" The Lady Noggs was puzzled in her turn.

The Home Secretary looked round the room with an hunted air; then he said: "They're—they're—ah—the result of economic conditions."

The happy phrase, so far above her understanding, took the Lady Noggs aback. She looked yet more puzzled, and said: "But you do make laws. I'm always hearing about your making laws. Why can't you make a law to have poor children properly looked after and fed?"

"More bills!" cried the Prime Minister. "Why, we've more legislation before us now than we shall get through in three years!"

"More taxes!" said the Home Secretary.

"But the children ought to come first," said the Lady Noggs doggedly.

The three ministers looked at one another helplessly. Then suddenly, with a great air of relief the Home Secretary said: "The country is not ripe for any more legislation on this matter at present."

The sound of these balmy and reassuring words spread smiles of relief over the faces of his colleagues, and they said with one voice: "True—very true."

"But the poor children are being knocked about and starved now, every day!" said the Lady Noggs.

The Home Secretary made a bolt to the last refuge of a politician: "Your facts," he said, "your facts are wrong. They are exaggerated. There are a few of these cases of course, but they are very few."

"Yes, yes; of course!" chimed in the Prime Minister. "There are very few cases of cruelty to children; and offenders are always brought to book."

The Lady Noggs's face fell, and she said: "Then you won't stop it?"

"There's nothing to stop, or, at any rate, very little," said the Home Secretary, with a virtuous air.

"Some one has been exaggerating things to you—enormously," said the Secretary for War.

The Lady Noggs looked at them in bitter disappointment. Then she said: "Well, I shall have to make sure." And with that she left them to their discussion.

She went away very gloomy; she did not honour the ministers with the light of her presence at tea. She was in the wood with Sue, discussing the route to Druggers' Rents, and the financial aspect of a visit to them.

During the next five days Stonorill Castle heard more of the condition of the children of the poor than it had heard during the last five centuries. In season and out of season the Lady Noggs talked of nothing else. She had never before been blessed with such an admirable, righteous grievance; and Nature had lavished on her an eminent fitness to make the most of it. She so harried the unfortunate Prime Minister that at last he began to perceive dimly through a mist of practical politics that the condition of the children of the poor was a matter for the attention of legislators. He perceived far more clearly that, if he wished to enjoy peace in his own house, it would have to be dealt with soon. But always when the Lady Noggs pressed him too hard he fell back on the assertion that her facts were wrong.

These continual aspersions on Sue's narration of her experience strengthened the Lady Noggs in her purpose of going to see for herself. Her discussions in Stonorill Castle on the condition of the children of the poor alternated with discussions with Sue in the wood, discussions of ways and means of going to observe that condition for herself. Before the five days had elapsed she had made her simple plan; and she obtained sinews of action by a rigorous collection of donations to the children of the poor from her uncle's guests.

On the sixth day she did not breakfast with the Prime Minister; and he ate that meal in an unwonted, grateful peace. He was going to his work with an unusually even mind, when the news came that the Lady Noggs, Villikins, and the governess-cart were missing. Had it been only the Lady Noggs and Villikins that were missing, no one should have taken any notice of the matter; but the absence of the governess-cart awoke suspicion.

Miss Caldecott set inquiries afoot; and a groom sent out to gather information came back with the news that the Lady Noggs and a slum child of the name of Gay had been seen driving on the road to Warlesden. Miss Caldecott informed the Prime Minister at once of this news, and he despatched a mounted groom to Warlesden. The groom returned with the information that the Lady Noggs had left Villikins and the governess-cart at the Crown Inn, and left for London by the 7.15 train, with another little girl. He had also learned that she had asked for tickets to Poplar. By a great expenditure of motor car tires, the Prime Minister, Mr. Borrodaile, and Miss Caldecott caught the 10.15.

The Lady Noggs had formed her plan with great judgment. At six o'clock that morning she had harnessed Villikins to the governess-cart, unseen and unheard by the slothful stableman who still slept. She picked up Sue on the further side of Stonorill village, and they reached Warlesden in plenty of time to hand over the pony and trap to the incurious ostler of the Crown Inn, and catch the 7.15 to London. The Lady Noggs took third-class single tickets, for as she justly observed, her relatives would pay their return fares; and she wanted as much money as possible to spend on the poor children when she found them.