THE IDEA OF THE DUCHESS
POLLYOOLY was pleased to have played so full a part in uniting two loving hearts; but she could have wished the process longer so that she could have earned more money as love's messenger. However, she was not ill content; the affair had swelled her bank account.
It was destined to swell it yet further, for at breakfast on the fourth morning after the elopement the Honorable John Ruffin said to her, "I have news from Captain Croome. So far, at any rate, we seem to have no reason to reproach ourselves for having married them. They are still happy. It is a very comforting thought."
"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly gravely.
"Also Captain Croome has sent you a check for ten pounds to buy you a brooch or a bracelet, since you acted as bridesmaid; and it is the duty, or rather the privilege, of a bridegroom to make presents to bridesmaids."
Pollyooly smiled her most angelic smile.
"If he had been in London, he would doubtless have bought it for you himself. But I am strongly against his coming to London yet a while—not, indeed, until his mother-in-law has had time to cool. There is a little matter of false entry, which you would not understand, in his way. And though it is not likely that Lady Tullislaith would go to the lengths of breaking off the marriage, it is better that she should not be given the chance of trying to trouble love's young dream by putting pressure on Captain Croome."
"No, sir," said Pollyooly.
The Honorable John Ruffin regarded her thoughtfully for a minute; then he said, "I'm inclined to think that it's a good thing that Captain Croome isn't in town to give you a bracelet or a brooch. They are not good investments, ten-pound trinkets. I think you'd better add the ten pounds to your bank account. Then later, if you want to buy a ten-pound bracelet, you can always do it."
"Yes, sir; I'd rather," said Pollyooly firmly.
Accordingly the check was paid into Pollyooly's Post-Office Savings Bank account. Then for a while her income was reduced to the eleven shillings a week she received for her work in the Temple, for Hilary Vance no longer required her as a model since he had finished illustrating the set of stories he had been at work on. Pollyooly was not distressed by this shrinking in her income. She had now a reserve fund on which she and the Lump could live for nearly two years, even if during them she did not earn a penny; and that was very unlikely indeed.
But fortune had fallen into the way of enriching Pollyooly; and she could not refrain from the agreeable practice for long at a time.
One afternoon she came back with the Lump from the gardens on the Thames Embankment rather later than usual; and the Honorable John Ruffin called to her from his sitting-room:
"Get tea for two, please, Mrs. Bride; and cut the bread and butter thin."
Pollyooly carried the Lump swiftly up to their attic, gave him his woolly lamb and his unmaned horse, ran down the stairs to the kitchen, and set about getting the tea. She was not long about it, and carried it into the sitting-room.
A lady, a beautiful lady, beautifully dressed, sat in the arm-chair facing the door. But she was talking earnestly to the Honorable John Ruffin; and her eyes did not rest on Pollyooly till she was setting the tea on the table. Then they opened wide in a wild amazement; she sprang to her feet and cried:
"Why—why it's Marion! Whatever is she doing here—in that dress?"
"Oh, no; it isn't Marion. Your partial maternal eyes deceive you. It's Mrs. Bride—my housekeeper. I call her Mrs. Bride, because she is my housekeeper," said the Honorable John Ruffin calmly.
"But—but she's the very image of Marion," said the lady, staring at Pollyooly with eyes still bewildered.
"By Jove! You're right; she is like Marion—extraordinarily like," said the Honorable John Ruffin with more animation. "Pollyooly has always reminded me of some one; and I could never make out who it was. Of course it's Marion."
"But how is it she's so like Marion?" said the lady.
"One of the mysteries of biology," said the Honorable John Ruffin carelessly.
"But Marion belongs—in looks at any rate—to my side of the family. She's a red Deeping," said the lady.
"And that's what Pollyooly is! Of course—I see it now!" cried the Honorable John Ruffin in the triumphant tones of a discoverer. "Her great-aunt was Lady Constantia Deeping's housekeeper at Deeping Hall. Pollyooly came from Muttle-Deeping. It's wonderful how the old strains crop up among the village folk. You're a red Deeping, Pollyooly; that's what you are."
"Yes, sir. Please, sir, what is a red Deeping?" said Pollyooly, knitting her brow.
"The red Deepings have always been renowned for the fieriness of their hair and their tempers—a truculent, cantankerous set. I must beware, I see. I must certainly beware," said the Honorable John Ruffin.
"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly.
"At the same time there are not many people who can boast of having a red Deeping as housekeeper. Indeed I should not wonder if I were unique," he said proudly.
"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly.
She spread a little tea-cloth on the end of the table and set the tea things, the bread and butter and the cake on it.
The lady talked quickly to the Honorable John Ruffin of how Pollyooly came to be such an exact red Deeping; the Honorable John Ruffin showed a certain lack of interest in the matter. It was enough for him that old strains did crop up among the village folk. He protested that he was not a scientific man to make the biological researches necessary to the complete elucidation of the fact.
All the while she talked, the lady's eyes never moved from Pollyooly's face. Then she cut herself short in the middle of a sentence, and cried:
"John, I've got a splendid idea!"
"Good heavens!" said the Honorable John Ruffin.
"Yes, I'm going to get Marion all to myself after all," she said triumphantly.
"No, Caroline, you are not," said the Honorable John Ruffin in a tone of extreme severity and with a very dark frown. "You are not even going to try. The wigging you got from Mr. Justice Buffle last time you carried off Marion has for ever deterred you from a second attempt."
"Has it, though?" said the lady, and her fine blue eyes flashed fiercely.
"Yes, it has," said the Honorable John Ruffin with unabated sternness. "You have made up your mind that a duchess can not give the halfpenny press of her country occasion to blaspheme twice."
"But this is a dead snip," said the duchess confidently. "This time I am going to get Marion out of the country."
"You failed before, and you'll fail again," said the Honorable John Ruffin firmly.
"Oh, no, I shan't—not this time," said the duchess even more confidently. "And what does it matter if I do? If they catch me, I shall only get the same old wigging. They daren't send a duchess to prison. The thingumbobs—the middle classes—wouldn't stand it. They'd scream."
"But you can't get Marion out of the country. The moment she's missing Osterley's agents will wire to the police of every port. I shouldn't wonder if the telegrams are already written out ready for your attempt. They know you so well. You can't do it," the Honorable John Ruffin insisted.
"But the joke is that she'll have been out of the country days and days before she is missed," said the duchess with sparkling eyes; and she laughed joyfully.
"How will you work that?" said the Honorable John Ruffin, interested.
The duchess turned to Pollyooly, who had been too polite to leave the room, since she was the subject under discussion, and said briskly, "Would you like twenty pounds—twenty—gold—sovereigns, Pollyooly?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Pollyooly without the fifth of a second's hesitation.
"Well, if you'll be another little girl for a fortnight, I'll give you twenty gold sovereigns. And you'll live in a beautiful house in the country and have lots of pets; and all you'll have to do will be to pretend that you're another little—my little girl, Lady Marion Ricksborough. You'll have just to keep quiet, and let everybody think that you're her. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Pollyooly, looking at her with shining eyes, before which once more gleamed the vision of Eldorado.
"By Jove! What a game! Oh, woman—woman!" said the Honorable John Ruffin softly; and he laughed.
"Do you think that she'll be able to do it without giving the show away?" said the duchess, looking at him anxiously.
"It's a difficult game, of course. But if there's a child in England who can play it, it's Pollyooly," he said with decision. "After all, Marion has always seemed to me a very quiet child; and all a little girl is expected to do is to lie low and say nothing."
"She looks intelligent enough," answered the duchess.
"A fertile mind—full of resource," said the Honorable John Ruffin.
"But what about the Lump, sir? I can't leave the Lump for a whole fortnight, sir," said Pollyooly; and the brightness began to fade from her face.
"Who is the Lump?" said the duchess quickly."Another red Deeping—her little brother, Roger," said the Honorable John Ruffin. "But couldn't your friend, Mrs. Brown, take charge of him?"
"I'll pay her a pound a week," said the duchess.
"Oh, for a pound a week she'd look after him ever so well," said Pollyooly in a tone of relief.
"And I'll keep an eye on him, too," said the Honorable John Ruffin. "Mrs. Brown can bring him round every morning at breakfast time to be inspected."
"Thank you, sir," said Pollyooly gratefully.
"Then that settles that. You arrange it with Mrs. Brown. Mind you only tell her that you're going into the country. You mustn't tell her why. You mustn't tell anybody why," said the duchess.
"No, ma'am," said Pollyooly.
"And you mustn't mind if they make a fuss at Ricksborough Court when you tell them who you are. They'll only scold. They won't do anything serious," said the duchess.
"Why should she tell them? She has only to slip away from Ricksborough, and they'll start hunting for Marion from the time and place at which Pollyooly disappears," said the Honorable John Ruffin.
"That's a ripping idea," said the duchess with grateful approval. "They'll get on to false scent after false scent."
"But how are you going to change the children? That will be the awkward part of the business," he said.
"Well, to-morrow, that fussy old creature, Mrs. Hutton, brings Marion to spend her weekly afternoon with me," said the duchess. "She takes her back to Ricksborough by the six-fifteen from Waterloo. I'll tell Marion to look out for you at Waterloo. As soon as she sees you she gives Mrs. Hutton the slip, and you bring her here—"
"Me? Me?" interrupted the Honorable John Ruffin in a terrible voice. "Me? After all the years I've kept out of your quarrels with Osterley? Me?" And he hammered with both fists on his chest in the resounding fashion of an excited gorilla.
"Yes, of course you'll help me, John," said the duchess calmly.
"Blast a promising career—ruin my splendid chance of becoming lord chancellor by getting indicted for conspiracy? Never!" he cried; and again he hammered away on his chest.
Pollyooly was much impressed by the action; she had never seen him do it before.
The duchess seemed unaffected by it; for she only said calmly, "Of course you'll help. I'm relying on you. No one will ever know."
The Honorable John Ruffin looked at her smiling, animated face, and smiled himself.
"It will be a great game—a great game, Caroline," he said.
"Won't it?" said the duchess.
"I should like to see Osterley's face if he ever tumbles to it," he said; and he laughed with veritable glee.
"So should I," said the duchess in a vindictive tone.
"Well, well, I've always thought it an infernal shame that you didn't get the custody of Marion. This is a chance of a lifetime to repair a miscarriage of justice. I'm with you, Caroline," he said with a splendid air.
"If you'll stand by me, I'm sure we shall pull it off," said the duchess with joyous conviction.
Over their tea they fell to discussing the details, and had perfected the duchess' plan, when the Honorable John Ruffin clapped his hand to his head and cried in a tone of horror:
"Good heavens! I was forgetting! My bacon!"
"Your what?" said the startled duchess.
"My bacon. Pollyooly is the one person in England—in the world—who can grill bacon properly. I am losing her for a fortnight—a whole fortnight—fourteen breakfasts."
"There are other things besides bacon," said the duchess somewhat coldly.
"There are no other things besides bacon—not for breakfast," said the Honorable John Ruffin bitterly, but with intense conviction. Then by a violent effort he pulled himself together and said with an air of manly fortitude: "But no matter; I am a martyr—a martyr in the cause of justice. Oh, that a barrister should prove so faithless to the Law!"
The duchess smiled indulgently and said, "I'm ever so much obliged to you. I am really. Well, I think that's all that we can do now. Wasn't it lucky I came to see how you were getting on?"
"Oh, it was! Fourteen breakfasts!" said the Honorable John Ruffin bitterly.
The duchess laughed, kissed Pollyooly, and bade her good-by; and the Honorable John Ruffin, with an air of proud gloom, escorted her out of the Temple and put her into a taxicab.
On his return he said to Pollyooly, who was clearing away the tea: "You've taken on a difficult job, Pollyooly. But I believe that you're the one child in England who could carry it through. You don't get flurried."
"Yes, sir. I shall try, sir," said Pollyooly with the smile of a resolute angel.
"And if it were a less serious matter than giving a child back to her mother, I wouldn't let you attempt it," he said gravely.
"No, sir," said Pollyooly.
"Now, the thing for you to do is to sit tight and keep your eyes wide open—very wide open."
"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly; and she opened her eyes very wide, as if to practise.
"You let the other people do the talking."
"Yes, sir; I hope I shan't have to tell a lot of lies," said Pollyooly anxiously, with a sudden remembrance of the oft-repeated teaching of her Aunt Hannah.
"You won't if you let the other people do the talking."
"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly with an air of relief.
The Honorable John Ruffin gazed at her thoughtfully. "It's a wonderful thing how some people fill long-felt wants and others don't," he said gravely.
"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly in polite assent.
"Now, look at me: I was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford; yet I assure you, Pollyooly, that never once has any one asked me to act as changeling for them," he said sadly.
"No, sir," said Pollyooly with grave sympathy.