Much Ado About Peter/Chapter 7

 

GEORGE WASHINGTON'S UNDERSTUDY

 

 

VII
GEORGE WASHINGTON'S UNDERSTUDY

WAIT a moment, Peter," Miss Ethel called from the veranda, as he was starting for the village with the daily marketing list. "I want you to drive around by Red Towers on your way home and leave this note for Mrs. Booth-Higby."

"Very well, Miss Ethel." Peter reined in Trixy and received the note with a polite pull at his hat brim.

"And, Peter, you might use a little discretion. That is—I don't want her to know——"

"You trust me, Miss Ethel; I'll fix it."

Her eyes met his for a second and she laughed. Peter's face also relaxed its official gravity as he pocketed the note and started off. He understood well the inner feelings with which she had penned its polite phrases. A battle had been waging in the Carter family on the subject of Mrs. Booth-Higby, and the presence of the invitation in Peter's pocket proved that Miss Ethel was vanquished.

The invitation concerned a garden party to be given at Willowbrook on the evening of the fifteenth, with the Daughters of the Revolution as guests of honour, and amateur theatricals as entertainment. Peter knew all about it, having arduously assisted the village carpenter in the construction of rocks, boats, wigwams, log-cabins and primæval forests. He knew, also, that the chief attraction of the evening would not be the theatricals, but rather the presence of a young Irish earl who was visiting Mr. Harry Jasper. Miss Ethel was also entertaining guests, and the two households formed an exclusive party among themselves. The entire neighbourhood was agog at the idea of a live lord in their midst, but so far no one had seen him, except from a distance, as he was whirled past in Mr. Harry's motor, or trailed across the golf links in Miss Ethel's wake. She was planning to exhibit him publicly on the night of the garden party.

The question of invitations had been difficult, particularly in the case of Mrs. Booth-Higby. In regard to this lady society was divided into two camps, comprising those who received her and those who did not. Miss Ethel was firm in her adherence to those who did not, but her father and mother had tacitly slipped over to the other camp—Mr. Carter being a corporation lawyer, and Mr. Booth-Higby a rising financier. Peter likewise knew all about this, Mrs. Carter and her daughter having discussed the matter through the length of a seven-mile drive, while he sedulously kept his eyes on the horses' ears, that the smile which would not be suppressed might at least be unobserved.

Mrs. Carter had maintained that, since Mrs. Booth-Higby was a member of the Society, not to invite her would be too open a slight. Miss Ethel had replied that the party was purely a social affair—she could invite whom she pleased—and she had added some pointed details. The woman's maiden name, as everyone knew, was Maggie McGarrah, and her father, previous to his political career, had kept a saloon; she was odious, pushing, nouveau riche; she dyed her hair and pencilled her eyebrows, she didn't have a thought in the world beyond clothes, and she flirted outrageously with every man who came near. Peter's smile had broadened at this last item. It was, he shrewdly suspected, the keynote of the trouble. Miss Ethel had caught Mr. Harry Jasper paying too assiduous attention to Mrs. Booth-Higby's commands on the occasion of a recent polo game.

Peter felt that when Mrs. Carter and her daughter matched wills, the result was pretty even betting, and his sporting instincts were aroused. He had been interested, upon delivering the invitations, to see that there was none for the Booth-Higbys; and now his interest was doubly keen at receiving it three days late. Miss Ethel had succumbed to the weight of superior argument.

He turned in between the ornate gates of Red Towers—the two posts surmounted by lions upholding a mythical coat of arms—and drew up in the shadow of an imposing porte-cochère. A gay group of ladies and gentlemen were gathered in lounging chairs on the veranda, engaged with frosted glasses of mint julep; while Mrs. Booth-Higby herself, coifed and gowned as for an evening reception, was standing in the glass doors of the drawing-room. As her gaze fell upon Peter she strolled toward him with a voluminous rustle of draperies.

"Whose man are you?" she inquired, with an air of languid condescension.

Peter's face reddened slightly. The entire group had ceased their conversation to stare.

"Mr. Jerome Carter's," he replied, fumbling for the note.

"Ah!" said Mrs. Booth-Higby, with a lifting of the eyebrows.

"It should have come three days ago," Peter glibly lied. "Miss Carter give me a lot o' them to deliver; this one must have slipped down the crack between the cushions an' got overlooked. We come across it this mornin' when we was washin' the buckboard, so I drove over with it on me way home from the marketin'. I hope that it ain't important, and that ye won't feel called upon to tell Miss Carter? It would get me into trouble, ma'am."

Her face had cleared slightly during this recital; it was evident that she knew about the garden party, and had entertained emotions over the absence of her own invitation. She saw fit now to work off her stored-up anger upon the delinquent. Peter knew his place, and respectfully swallowed the scolding, but he did it with a cordial assent to Miss Ethel's description of the lady's character. She ended by bidding him wait for an answer. He heard her say, as she swept down the veranda:

"Excuse me a moment while I answer this note. It's from Ethel Carter, Jerome Carter's daughter, you know"—evidently this was a name to conjure with—"an invitation to meet Lord Kiscadden. It should have come three days ago, but their man stupidly forgot to deliver it. He is begging me not to report him, though I feel that such carelessness really ought to be punished." She rustled on into the house, and Peter sat for twenty minutes flicking the flies from Trixy's legs.

"An' she's a daughter o' Tim McGarrah!" he repeated to himself. There had been nothing snobbish about Tim; he was hail-fellow-well-met with every voter east of Broadway. "She's ashamed of him now," Peter reflected, "and won't let on she ever heard the name; but the old man was ten times more a gentleman than his daughter is a lady, for all his saloon!"

His cogitations came to an end as Mrs. Booth-Higby rustled back, a delicately tinted envelope in her hand and a more indulgent smile upon her lips.

"There are to be theatricals?" she inquired, in a note of forgiveness.

"I believe so, ma'am."

"Is Lord Kiscadden to take part?"

"Can't say, ma'am."

Peter, as scene-shifter, had had ample opportunity to study Lord Kiscadden's interpretation of the character of George Washington—his lordship, with a fine sense of humour, had himself selected the rôle—but at mention of the name, Peter's face was blank.

"Is he to remain much longer at Jasper Place?" she persisted.

"Have n't heard him say, ma'am."

She abandoned her pursuit of news, handed him the note, and graciously added ten cents.

Peter touched his hat gravely, murmured, "Thank ye, ma'am," and drove away. At the foot of the lawn the Booth-Higby peacock—supposedly a decoration for the Italian garden, but given to wandering out of bounds—trailed its plumage across his path. Peter shied his ten cents at the bird's head, with the muttered wish that the coin had been large enough really to accomplish damage.

The day of the garden party showed a clear sky above, and Peter was up with the dawn and at work. Miss Ethel had appointed him her right-hand man, and though he had the entire stable and house force to help him, he found the responsibility wearing. He was feeling what it was to be a Captain of Industry. He superintended the raising of a supper tent on the lawn, strung coloured electric bulbs among the branches of the trees, saw the furniture moved out of the drawing-room and a hundred camp chairs moved in. He spent the afternoon shifting scenery for the dress rehearsal; but finally, close upon six, he shoved Plymouth Rock back into place for the first tableau, and, with a sigh of relief, turned toward the kitchen. He felt that he had earned a fifteen-minutes' chat with Annie.

But fresh trouble awaited him. He found Mrs. Carter and Nora in anxious consultation. The ice-cream had not come; and the expressman, who had already met three trains, said that he could not deliver it now until morning.

Mrs. Carter pounced upon Peter.

"Is Miss Ethel through with you? Then drive to the station immediately and meet the six-twenty train. If it is n't on that, stop at Gunther's and tell them they will have to make me seven gallons of ice-cream before ten o'clock to-night. It's disgraceful! I shall never engage Perry to cater again. And tell the expressman that I consider him very disobliging," she threw after him.

An hour and a half later he dumped three kegs of ice and brine on the back veranda, and was turning away, cheered by the near hope of his long-postponed supper when Annie hailed him from the kitchen window.

"Hey, Pete! Wait a minute. Miss Ethel said, as soon as you got back, for me to send you to the library."

"What are they wantin' now?" he growled. "I 'll be glad when that bloomin' young lord takes himself home to Ireland where he b'longs. Between picnics an' ridin' parties an' clambakes an' theatricals, I ain't had a chance to sit down since he come."

Annie shoved a chair toward him.

"Then now's your chance, for he's gone. A telegram came calling him away, an' Mr. Harry's just back from motoring him to the station."

"Praise be to the saints!" said Peter, and he turned toward the library door.

He found Miss Ethel, the two young ladies who were visiting her, and Mr. Harry Jasper gathered in a pensive group before the gauze screen that stretched across the front of the stage.

"Here he is!" cried Miss Ethel, with an assumption of energy. "Put on this hat and wig, Peter, and stand behind the screen. I want to see what you look like."

Peter apathetically complied. He had received so many extraordinary commands during the past few days that nothing stirred his curiosity.

"Bully!" said Mr. Harry. "Never'd know him in the world."

"We 'll lower the lights," said Miss Ethel. "Fortunately the gauze is thick."

"Peter," Mr. Harry faced him with an air of tragic portent, "a grave calamity has befallen the state. The rightful heir has been spirited away, and it's imperative that we find a substitute. I 've often remarked, Peter, upon the striking resemblance between you and Lord Kiscadden. In that lies our only hope. It's a Prisoner of Zenda situation. Often occurs in novels. Do you think it might be carried out in real life?"

"Can't say, sir," Peter blinked dazedly.

"Be sensible, Harry!" Miss Ethel silenced him. "Peter, Lord Kiscadden has been suddenly called away, and it spoils our tableaux for this evening. Fortunately, he did n't have a speaking part. You 've watched him rehearse—do you think you could take his place?"

"Don't believe I could, ma'am." Peter's face did not betray enthusiasm.

"You 'll have to do it!" said Miss Ethel. "It's too late now to find anyone else."

"You 're George Washington," Mr. Harry cut in. "Father of his country. Only man on earth who never told a lie—no one will recognize you in that part, Peter."

"Here are the clothes." Miss Ethel bundled them into his arms. "You saw Lord Kiscadden this afternoon, so you know how they go. Be sure you get your wig on straight, and powder your face thick! It's half-past seven; you will have to dress immediately."

"I ain't had no supper," Peter stolidly observed.

"Annie will give you something to eat in the kitchen. We won't tell anybody except the few who are with you in the tableaux. The operetta cast have never seen Lord Kiscadden, and won't know the difference. The minute the tableaux are over you can disappear, and we will explain that you have been suddenly called away."

A slow grin spread over Peter's face.

"Are ye wantin' me to talk like him?" he inquired. His lordship's idiom had been the subject of much covert amusement among the servants; Peter could mimic it to perfection.

"I don't quite ask that," Miss Ethel laughed, "but at least keep still. Don't talk at all except to us. You can pretend you are shy."

"What did she want, Pete?" Annie inquired, with eager curiosity as he reappeared.

Peter exhibited his clothes.

"Don't speak to me so familiar! I'm Lord Kiscadden o' County Cark. Me family is straight descinded from the kings of Ireland, and I'm masqueradin' as George Washington who never told a lie."

An hour later, Peter, in knee breeches and lace ruffles, with hat comfortably cocked toward his left ear, was sitting at ease on a corner of the kitchen table, dangling two buckled shoes into space, while a cigarette emerged at an acute angle from the corner of his mouth. His appearance suggested a very rakish caricature of the immortal first President. The maids were gathered in a giggling group about the young man, when Miss Ethel and Mr. Harry, also in costume, appeared in the kitchen door. The effect on George Washington was electrical; he removed his cigarette, slid to the floor, straightened his spinal column, and awaited orders.

Mr. Harry carried a make-up box under his arm. He covered the groom's face with a layer of powder, redirected the curve of his eyebrows, added a touch of rouge, and stepped back to view the effect.

"Perfect!" cried Miss Ethel. "No one on earth would recognize him."

"Peter," Mr. Harry gravely schooled him, "these are your lines for the evening; say them after me: 'By Jove! Ripping! Oh, I say! Fancy, now!'"

Peter unsmilingly repeated his lesson.

"And no matter what anybody says to you, you are not to go beyond that. Understand?"

"Yes, sir. I 'll do me best, sir." There was an anxious gleam in Peter's eye; he was suddenly being assailed by stage fright.

"Your first appearance is in the fourth tableau, where you say good-bye to your family before taking command of the army," Miss Ethel explained. "The moment it's over slip out to change your costume, and stay out until after the Declaration of Independence has been signed. Don't stand around the wings where people can talk to you. Now go and wait in the butler's pantry until you are called."

Washington took an affecting leave of his family amid an interested rustling of programmes on the part of the audience; no one was unaware of the exalted identity of the hero. The applause was enthusiastic, and the curtain was twice raised. As it fell for the last time a group of historical personages from the operetta cast hovered about him with congratulatory whispers. One or two were in the secret, but the rest were not. Mr. Harry, as stage manager, waved them off.

"Clear the boards for the next scene," he whispered hoarsely. "Here, Kiscadden, you 'll have to hurry and dress. You cross the Delaware in ten minutes." With a hand on George Washington's shoulder he marched him off. "That was splendid, Peter," Mr. Harry whispered, as he shunted him into the butler's pantry. "Not a soul suspected. You stay here until you are wanted."

The Delaware was crossed without mishap, also the night watch kept at Valley Forge. Washington and Lafayette crouched over their camp fire amidst driving snow, while the audience shivered in sympathy. But unluckily, these tableaux were followed by no change of costume, and several others intervened before Peter's next appearance. As he was anxiously trying to obliterate himself in the shadow of Plymouth Rock, he heard some one behind him whisper:

"Let's cut out and have a smoke. It's deucedly hot in here."

He turned to find Miles Standish of the operetta cast, with an insistent hand on his elbow. Miles Standish, in private life, was a young man whose horse Peter had held many a time, and whose tips were always generous.

There seemed to be no polite means of escape, and Peter, with a suppressed grin, followed his companion to the veranda. It was lighted by a subdued glow from coloured lanterns, but there was an occasional patch of dimness. He picked out a comfortable chair and shoved it well into the shadow of a convenient palm. Standish produced cigars—twenty-five-cent Havanas, Peter noted appreciatively—and the two fell into conversation. Fortunately the young man aspired to the reputation of a raconteur, and he willingly bore most of the burden. Peter kept his own speeches as short as possible, manfully overcoming a tendency to end his sentences with "sir." An occasional interpolation of "By Jove!" or "I say!" in imitation of Lord Kiscadden's lazy drawl, was as far as he was required to go.

He came out of the encounter with colours still flying; but a perilous ten minutes followed. As the two strolled back to the stage entrance, they were intercepted by a gay group of Pilgrim maids. Peter had coped successfully with one young man, but he realized that half a dozen young ladies were quite beyond his powers of repartee. One of them threw him a laughing compliment on his acting, and he felt himself growing pink as he murmured with a spasmodic gulp:

"Yes, ma'am. Thank ye, ma'am—I say!"

The orchestra saved the situation by striking into a rollicking quickstep that made talking difficult. The music in the end went to Peter's heels; and grasping a blue and buff coat tail in either hand, he favoured the company with an Irish jig. This served better than conversation; the laughter and applause were uproarious, bringing down upon them the wrath of the stage manager.

"Here you people, taisez-vous! You 're making such a racket they can hear you inside. Ah, Kiscadden! You 're wanted on the stage; it's time for Cornwallis to surrender." Peter was marched out of danger's way.

The surrender was followed by the operetta in which Miss Ethel was heroine. Her own affairs claimed her, but she paused long enough to whisper in George Washington's ear:

"You may go now, Peter. You 've done very nicely. Slip out through the butler's pantry where no one will see you. Change into your own clothes and help them in the kitchen about serving supper—but don't on any account step into the front part of the house again to-night."

"Yes, ma'am," said Peter, meekly.

He found the entrance to the butler's pantry blocked, and he dived into the empty conservatory, intending to pass thence to the veranda, and so get around to the kitchen the outside way. But as he reached the veranda door he ran face to face into Mrs. Booth-Higby. Peter quickly backed into a fern-hung nook to let her pass. The light was dim, but his costume was distinctive; after a moment of hesitating scrutiny she bore down upon him.

"Oh, it's George Washington!—Lord Kiscadden, I should say. I see by the programme that your part is finished. It was so frightfully warm inside that I slipped out to get a breath of air. May I introduce myself? I am Mrs. Booth-Higby, of Red Towers. I trust that you will drop in often while you are in the neighbourhood. I have so wanted to have a chance to talk to you because you come from Ireland—dear old Ireland! I am Irish myself on the side that is n't Colonial, and I have a warm spot in my heart for everything green."

Peter manfully bit back the only observation that occurred to him while the lady rattled on:

"My Irish connection is three generations back—a younger son, you know, who came to make his way in a new land, and, having married into one of the old Colonial families, settled for good. But once Irish, always Irish, I say. My heart warms to the little ragamuffins in the street if they have a bit of the brogue. It's the call of the blood, I suppose. Shall we sit here? Or perhaps you have an engagement—don't let me keep you——"

He summoned what breath was left and confusedly murmured: "Oh, I say! Ripping!"

They settled themselves on a rustic bench, and Peter, possessing himself of her fan, slowly waved it to and fro in the nonchalant manner of Mr. Harry. Mrs. Booth-Higby, fortunately, was no less garrulous than Miles Standish had been, and she rattled on gaily, barely pausing for her companion's English interpolations.

Peter's feelings were divided. He had the amused consciousness that he was being flirted with by the lady who, three days before, had so condescendingly given him ten cents. And he also had a chilly apprehension of the storm that would rise if by any mischance she discovered the hoax. But his fighting blood was up, and he was excited by past success. He abandoned his interjections and, venturing out for himself, recounted an anecdote of a fellow countryman in an excellent imitation of Irish brogue. The effort was received with flattering applause. After all, he reassured himself, this was not his funeral, Miss Ethel and Mr. Harry must bear all blame; with which care-free shifting of responsibility he settled himself to extract what amusement there might be in the situation.

The curtain finally fell on the last act of the play, and a shuffling of feet and moving of chairs betokened that a general exodus would follow. Peter came back with a start to a realization of his predicament. While confidence in his powers of simulation had been rising steadily during the past half-hour, he still doubted his ability to deal with the audience en masse.

But fortunately, the first two to appear in the conservatory were Miss Ethel and Mr. Harry, engaged entirely with their own affairs, all thought of the pseudo Kiscadden put from their minds. As they became aware of the couple in the fernery, they stopped short with a gasp of surprise.

"Why, Pet——" Miss Ethel caught herself, and summoning a cordial tone added quickly: "Lord Kiscadden! A telegram came a long time ago—I thought you had received it? I'm afraid they stopped the boy in the kitchen."

"Oh, I say, by Jove! Fancy now!" George Washington jumped hastily to his feet. "Pleased to know ye, ma'am," he added with a farewell duck of his head; and without waiting for further words, he vaulted the veranda railing and disappeared around the corner of the house. He lingered a moment in the shrubbery to hear her say:

"Lord Kiscadden and I have been having such an interesting evening! What a delicious accent he has! You must bring him to Red Towers, Mr. Jasper. I feel that he really belongs to me more than to you; we have discovered that we are distant connections. It seems that his grandmother, the third Lady Kiscadden, was a McGarrah before she married. My own family name was McGarrah, and——"

Peter put his hand over his mouth to stifle his feelings, and reeled toward the kitchen porch.

An hour later, when supper was finished, Miss Ethel and Mr. Harry Jasper slipped away from the guests and turned toward the kitchen. They paused for a moment in the butler's pantry, arrested by the sound of Peter's voice as he discoursed in his richest brogue to an appreciative group of maids. His theme was the Daughters of the Revolution—he had evidently kept his ears open during his brief introduction to society.

"Me father was a Malone, an' me mother was a Haggerty. The family settled in America in 1620 b. c., all me ancistors on both sides bein' first-cabin passengers on the Mayflower. We 're straight discinded from Gov'nor Bradford, an' me fifth great-grandfather was the first man hung in the United States. Malone's a Scotch name—it used to be Douglas, but it got changed in the pronouncin'—an' Haggerty is Frinch. I'm eligible on both sides, an' me mother was a charter member. Yes, 'tis a great society; the object of it is to keep the country dimocratic."

They pushed open the door and entered. Peter, restored to his own clothes, was seated before the kitchen table engaged, between sentences, with a soup plate full of ice-cream. He shuffled hastily to his feet as the two appeared, and with a somewhat guilty air studied their faces. He was trying to remember what he had said last.

"Peter," Miss Ethel's voice was meant to be severe, "what have you been telling Mrs. Booth-Higby?"

Peter shifted his weight anxiously from one foot to the other.

"Nothin', ma'am."

"Nothing—nonsense! She is going about telling everybody that she is Lord Kiscadden's cousin. She never made up any such impossible story as that without help."

Miss Ethel's manner was sternly reproving, but Peter caught a gleam of malicious amusement in her eye. It occurred to him that she was not averse to an exhibition of Mrs. Booth-Higby's folly before Mr. Harry Jasper.

"I was n't to blame, Miss Ethel. I could n't get out by the butler's pantry like ye told me because the Hartridge family was blockin' the way, and I knew they'd recognize me if I come within ten feet. So I thinks to meself, I 'll go through the conservatory; but just as I reaches the door I runs plumb into Mrs. Booth-Higby.

"'Oh, me dear Lord Kiscadden,' she says, 'you was the b'y I was wantin' to see! I must tell ye,' she says, 'how I've enjoyed yer actin'; 'twas great,' she says, 'ye was the best person in the whole show.' An' wid that she puts a hand on me arm an' never lets go for an hour and a quarter—ye know, Mr. Harry, how graspin' she is."

Peter appealed to him as one man to another.

"She begun with askin' about me estate in dear old Ireland. Bein' only eighteen months old when I left it, I could n't remember many details, but I used me imagination an' done the best I could. I told her there was two lions sittin' on the gate-posts holdin' me coat-of-arms in their paws; I told her there was two towers to the castle, and a peacock strollin' on the lawn; an' then f'r fear she'd be gettin' suspicious, I thought to change the subject. 'Yes, 'tis a beautiful house,' I says, 'but it ain't so grand as some. The biggest place in the neighbourhood,' I says, 'is Castle McGarrah'—the name just popped into me head, Miss Ethel.

"'McGarrah!' she says, 'that is me own name.'

"'The divvil!' thinks I. 'I 've put me foot in it now.' But 'twas too late to go back. 'Possibly the same family,' says I, politely. 'The present owner, Sir Timothy McGarrah——'

"'Timothy!' she says, 'that was me father's name, an' me grandfather's before him.'

"'There's always one son in ivery gineration that carries it,' says I.

"'Can it be possible?' she murmurs to herself.

"'Me own grandmother was a daughter to the second Sir Timothy,' I says, 'him as quarrelled with his youngest son an' drove him from home. Some says he went to Australia, an' some that he come to America. 'Twas fifty years ago, an' all trace is lost o' the lad.'

"An' with that she says solemn like, 'The b'y was me grandfather! I see it all—he was a silent man an' he niver talked of his people; but I always felt there was a secret a preyin' on his mind. An' by that token we 're cousins,' she says. 'I must insist that ye make Red Towers yer home while ye stay in America. Me husband,' she says, 'will enjoy yer acquaintance.'

"An' while I was tryin' to tell her polite like that 'twould be a pleasure, but unfortunately me engagements would require me presence in another place, you an' Mr. Harry come walkin' into the conservatory, and I made me escape."

"What ever possessed you to tell such outrageous lies?" Miss Ethel gasped.

"’Twas the clothes that done it, ma'am; bein' dressed as George Washington, I could n't think o' nothin' true that was fit to say."

Miss Ethel dropped limply into a chair, and leaning her head on the back, laughed until she cried.

"Peter," she said, wiping the tears from her eyes, "I don't see but what I shall have to discharge you. I should never dare let you drive past Mrs. Booth-Higby's again."

"There's nothin' to fear," said Peter, tranquilly. "She won't recognize me, ma'am. Mrs. Booth-Higby's eyes ain't focussed to see a groom."