Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 8

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IT really seemed as if the hasty summoning of Miss Caldecott back to Stonorill had not really been needful; as if the unaided eye of the Prime Minister would have been powerful enough to restrain the Lady Noggs from upheaving the peaceful lives around her, so good was she for some time after her brief, meteor-like course through the hearts and home of the royal house of Meiningen-Schwerin.

If she was good, so was Mr. Borrodaile. He did not make any show of his admiration for Miss Caldecott, or, to be exact, he made no more show of it than he had done before she went away.

She was beyond measure relieved by his quietude. Since she found his admiration very pleasant, she persuaded herself with the less difficulty that there was no need to take it seriously, no need ever again to feel any thrill at the sight either of himself or his handwriting. She quite overlooked the interesting psychological fact that thrills are hardly under the direction of the human reason or the human will. Assuredly, it never occurred to her that Mr. Borrodaile, with the machiavelian shrewdness of an accomplished diplomat, might be biding his time, making himself more and more a necessary part of her life until the time came when she should find it hard indeed to do without him. Possibly this course of action was not very clearly defined in his mind. He may have been following it by instinct, only aware that it behooved him to make his approaches slowly and with caution. Be that as it may, after showing herself cold and firmly disposed to fall in with none of his suggestions for a few days, she suffered him to take up again his old, jesting intimacy with her.

It was one of those delightful summer mornings when a light haze blurring the landscape promises a glorious sunny day. The Lady Noggs came upstairs, after breakfasting with her uncle, in a profound self-satisfaction, induced by the fact that she had behaved to him with a nice consideration, and cheered his meal with many profound and judicious observations on the European situation, which she had heard Mr. Borrodaile discussing with a political guest the night before.

She pulled off the decorative frock, so harmonious with her vivid beauty, in which she had breakfasted, and was arraying herself in a more severe and workmanlike garb of dark blue linen, when the summer air wafted in through the window all the scents of the distant wood. She stopped short in her robing, went to the window, looked out and sighed. The air seemed to her to be teeming with invitations to forsake the house for the open country. She looked slowly round the woods and meadows and her eyes shone with a sudden light. She turned and looked at the clock. It wanted seven minutes to ten, the hour at which her lessons began. With hasty fingers she finished fastening her frock, snatched up a straw hat from the bed, and, holding it low down against her frock, walked out of the room and down the stairs with a look of singular and if anything exaggerated innocence in her limpid eyes.

She met no one but Mr. Borrodaile. At the sight of her excessive innocence his eyes grew alert; then he saw the hat in her hand, and a look of understanding filled his face. The innocence and the hat in conjunction meant truancy. He opened his mouth to turn her from her purpose by a timely rebuke, then shut it quickly. The prospect of a pleasant hour or two in the woods with Miss Caldecott, hunting for her vanished charge, opened before his mental vision. He passed the Lady Noggs without a word.

She slipped out of the side door into the shrubberies, and with flying skirts and streaming hair raced for the wood. Once in its cool shelter, she slackened her pace to a saunter, and, fanning herself with her hat, began to enjoy her freedom.

She went slowly and very softly along the paths which led to the wood's heart, stopping many times to watch the doings of its furred and feathered inhabitants,—a dispute between a jay and some finches, the young rabbits playing in the drives, the gambols of families of squirrels in the tree-tops; enjoying the while the scented air, the dull, pervasive hum of insects, and the singing of the birds. She wandered right through the wood, and was passing along the edge of it where it borders on the meadows which stretch between it and Stonorill village, when she heard voices of children on the other side of the hedge. The quality of them struck her at once. They were not the low, drawling voices of the Stonorill children, but high-pitched and twanging; and she knew that she was listening to some of the slum children from London who are sent down every summer by some charitable society, and lodge in the cottages of the Stonorill villagers.

She walked to the hedge, and looked through a hole in it down upon four little girls and two little boys. Five of them were gathered into a group, regarding, with eyes in which hostility and contempt were very evenly blended, the sixth, a little red-haired girl in a ragged frock of a colour impossible to be described, since it had suffered so many blurring vicissitudes. Perhaps it was more of the hue of street mud than of anything else. As the Lady Noggs looked down on them, another little girl, in a thick frock of a hot crimson, very distressing to the eye in the summer heat, was, to all seeming, summing up a discussion.

"Git awye!" she cried in an angry, strident voice. "We don't want the likes of you plying wiv us! A low common kid in a hold dirty rag like that! We don't want yer, and we hain't agoing ter 'ave yer! You tike it strife from me!"

With that, the superior five turned their backs on the red-haired pariah, and went off in a body, muttering fiercely among themselves.

The little red-haired girl looked after them wistfully without a word. She gave her eyes a sharp rub with grimy knuckles, then looked down at the turf with the unrepining resignation of a person inured to Fortune's cruelties. She kicked idly at a tuft of grass with a boot several sizes too large for her and split across the toe.

The Lady Noggs, ignorant of the social hierarchy and of the vast gap between the classes in which the child in the crimson frock and the little red-haired girl respectively moved, was indignant at the unkindly firmness with which the superior five had vindicated their claim to a higher social standing. She leaned through the hedge and said, "Little girl, would you like to come into the wood? It's ever so much nicer than those silly fields."

At the sound of a stranger's voice the little girl jumped back—very like a startled rabbit, the Lady Noggs thought—cast one swift, wary glance behind her to be sure that the coast was clear for flight, then stared at the Lady Noggs with wondering eyes.

"Would you like to come into the wood?" said the Lady Noggs again.

The child shook her head and said: "Mrs. Heldridge said as we weren't to go into no wood—none of us. The keeper would cop us," she said.

"Oh, that's all right," said the Lady Noggs. "This is my uncle's wood, and I can have any one in it I like. Come along. There's a gap in the hedge lower down."

The little girl hesitated, but with a brightening face; then she nodded, and they walked down on either side of the hedge till they reached the gap. The Lady Noggs helped her through it. She stared at the Lady Noggs; then she looked round the wood.

"It's better than the fields, isn't it?" said the Lady Noggs with the air of a proprietor.

The little girl nodded.

"What's your name?" said the Lady Noggs.

"Sue—Sue Gye," said the little girl.

"I shall call you Sue. What would you like to do?" said the Lady Noggs.

"I dunno," said Sue, looking round doubtfully.

"Would you like to go and look for rabbits and squirrels? They always play funnily; and you don't see them in London," said the Lady Noggs.

"Yus," said Sue. "Honly I mustn't git too fur awye from the village. Mrs. Heldridge told me there was dumplings for dinner, with treacle." She dwelt on the words with the hushed awe of a gourmet describing a triumph of cooking.

"All right," said the Lady Noggs. "We can see plenty of rabbits and squirrels without going far at all. Come along quietly."

Sue came along quietly, and she was shown rabbits and squirrels at play; and she gathered flowers. Indeed, she was soon looking quite dazed by the thronging marvels of this strange world into which she had strayed. As she gathered her flowers, the Lady Noggs plied her with questions, and learned that she came from Druggers' Rents, Poplar; that her father followed the profession of docker; that she had two brothers and three sisters, all older than herself; that she had been sent to the country through the instrumentality of a man called the curick. Indeed, she seemed to have as many marvels to tell the Lady Noggs as the Lady Noggs had to show her; but they were of a less agreeable kind. The Lady Noggs was loth indeed to let her go in time to reach the village for the noon dinner; and before they parted they made an appointment to meet at six that evening at the entrance to the wood on the road between Stonorill village and the castle.

After she had gone, the Lady Noggs went straight back to the castle. She found that, purely as a matter of form, for she had learned long ago the hopelessness of the effort, Miss Caldecott was out looking for her; and when soon afterwards she returned, she scolded her severely for her truancy. The Lady Noggs took the scolding meekly, merely observing, in extenuation of her crime, that the day was so fine she could not help it.

Instead of going for a ride in the afternoon, she did the morning's lessons, and came from them to tea on the lawn. At that meal she seemed thoughtful, so that several times Mr. Borrodaile asked her if anything were weighing on her mind.

She only said, with quiet dignity, "I was thinking."

After tea she went up to the nursery, and, finding her well-meaning but malleable nurse, Mrs. Greenwood there, she said: "I want two of my old frocks. I think they'd better be brown Holland ones. And I want a pair of shoes; I suppose they'd better be a pair that are getting old. And I want those stockings which I do not wear, because Miss Caldecott does not like the colour. Please make them into a parcel."

Mrs. Greenwood surveyed her charge with the worried look which nearly always followed any request from her, and said weakly, "What does your ladyship want them for?"

The Lady Noggs did not deign to answer the question. She had long ago learned that a judicious silence was worth all the explanations in the world. She said quietly, "Please make them into a parcel."

Mrs. Greenwood obeyed fussily, grumbling in an undertone. Her proper course, since she was doubtful about the matter, was to consult Miss Caldecott, but she was far too jealous of her to do anything so reasonable,—a fact of which the Lady Noggs was well aware, and of which she made due use. She collected the garments and packed the parcel under the careless supervision of her young mistress. The Lady Noggs took one of her straw hats from its peg, picked up the parcel, and strolled to the window. A quick glance showed her that the coast was clear, since Miss Caldecott was still on the lawn with Mr. Borrodaile, the Prime Minister, and the three or four guests staying in the house. She walked quickly downstairs out into the shrubberies, and struck across the park to the far comer where the high road runs into the wood. She slipped over a set of posts and rails in the fence, and went down the road. She found Sue sitting on the gate which opens into the wide drive of the wood, and, after greeting her, she said, "I've got something for you. Come along into the wood."

They went down the long grassy drive some fifty yards, then turned into the bushes and came to a little clearing.

"I've got some clothes for you," said the Lady Noggs. And she began to unpack the parcel.

Sue's eyes opened wider and wider as the treasures came into view.

The Lady Noggs spread them out and said, "You'd better change here, and stick your old frock and boots among the bushes."

Sue stared at her with unbelieving eyes. "Are they for me?" she said.

"Yes," said the Lady Noggs. "Of course they're for you."

"Strite?" said Sue.

The Lady Noggs understood that it was a question, though she did not recognize the form. "Yes, they are, really," she said. "You change."

"Blimy!" said Sue, and she set about the operation with a bewildered air, dazed by this sudden possession of wealth beyond the dreams of ostentation. She fingered each article with awed respect; turned it this way and that, with trembling hands; then stripped off her old clothes with feverish haste. The frock fitted her very well, though, since her body was mostly skin and bone, it was a little large. The stockings were also a little large, but the shoes were an excellent fit. When she had put on the hat she looked quite another creature; it is not too much to say that she had risen fifteen ranks in the social hierarchy.

The Lady Noggs surveyed her carefully; then she said, with some hesitation, "I—I'm afraid you will have to get your hands cleaner to go with those clothes. My hands get dirty, of course, when I've been playing, but they don't get so black as yours."

Sue looked at her grimy hands and said firmly, "S'welp me, I will."

"That's all right," said the Lady Noggs, with some relief at finding her suggestion so readily received.

They packed up the rest of the garments in the paper. Sue stuffed her old frock and boots and hat under a bush; and then they began to talk, or rather the Lady Noggs began again her intimate and searching questions into the matter of Druggers' Rents and the life of the inhabitants of Poplar.

As they talked, the pride of wealth now and again got the better of Sue's manners. A blank silence would follow a question from the Lady Noggs, and she would find her protégé absorbed in the ecstatic contemplation of a boot, or a stocking, or a portion of her frock. Once she took off her hat and regarded it with an admiration very near reverence.

The Lady Noggs bore with this diversion of her beneficiary's attention, and maintained the persistent flow of her questions, for her curiosity grew and grew. When the time came to bid one another good-night, she had acquired an extensive and exceedingly unpleasant knowledge of life in the thriving suburb of Poplar. The sun was low when they parted, and, after arranging to meet at the same trysting-place on the following afternoon, the Lady Noggs said: "If Mrs. Eldridge or any one else asks you where you got those clothes from, tell her that Lady Felicia Grandison gave them to you."

Sue's eyes opened wide, and she said: "Is thet you? Lydy Felishyer Grendison? Blimy! That's a little bit of orl raight for a naime."

The Lady Noggs walked home with a knitted brow, puzzling over the strange and horrible vista of life Sue had opened before her. She would have liked to believe that Sue was telling her stories, or at least exaggerating; but the matter-of-fact way in which she had set forth her distressing details as matters of no account deprived her of this comfortable thought. However, when she reached home she did not ask any questions about the story she had been told, nor indeed did she mention the fact that she had found a new acquaintance. She had a suspicion that, for one of the absurd reasons which direct the conduct of grown people, this new and interesting intimacy might be closed.

They met the next afternoon at the entrance to the wood. Sue, after greeting her, held out her hands and said, with honest but perhaps excessive pride, "I've scrubbed and scrubbed 'em. They're gittin' cleaner."

It may have been so; but to the eye there was no appreciable decrease in their blackness. However, time would doubtless tell.

They went into the wood, for the Lady Noggs was resolved not to take any risk of interruption of their intimacy. They talked for a while, always about Druggers' Rents, Poplar; and then they played. Sue was a far more intelligent playmate than the Lady Noggs had found the Princess Wilhelmina of Meiningen-Schwerin, though sometimes her English was quite unintelligible. But as a playmate she had the drawback of meticulousness in the matter of her clothes. She would do nothing which exposed them to the dangers of being dirtied or torn, and the Lady Noggs found it somewhat hampering.

The third day, Friday, was their last day together, since Sue's five-shillings' worth of a cleanly life in the country air ended on the Saturday. She was leaving for Poplar at noon on that day. On the Friday night they said good-bye with no little sadness. But as she was walking home a happy idea came to the Lady Noggs; and she at once began to consider how she could compass it "all herself."

The next morning she came to breakfast in her riding habit, and the Prime Minister, supposing that she had been for a ride before breakfast and not found time to change, did not ask her why she was wearing it. As soon as breakfast was over, she hurried off to Mr. Borrodaile, andy having found him in the library, said: "Could I have my pocket-money now, Billy, instead of after lunch? I want it for something very particular."

She made the request with the important air of one whose mind is fixed upon great financial transactions; and Mr. Borrodaile paid over the five shillings with a readiness which showed a proper appreciation of this commercial attitude. She thanked him, and hurried out into the stable-yard, where Villikins awaited her ready-saddled. She galloped him over the turf of the park and trotted quickly down the road to the village. She stopped before the cottage of Mrs. Eldridge; and at the sight of her distinguished visitor the old woman hurried out to her, followed by Sue.

The Lady Noggs bade them good-morning and said, "I want Sue to stop another week, Mrs. Eldridge. I've brought the five shillings;" and she held it out.

Bobbing and curtseying, Mrs. Eldridge took the money and said: "Thank you, your ladyship. It's a good heart you've got, the same as I told Sue when she come home in them clothes you give her. You thank her little ladyship proper."

But Sue's gratitude was, for the moment, swamped by her joy. Her eyes were shining, and she could only murmur to herself in a hushed voice: "Blimy! Hanother week of hit! Hanother week!"

The Lady Noggs smiled at her and said, "This afternoon?"

She nodded with a look of perfect understanding, and the Lady Noggs rode back to the castle.

That afternoon they met and played in the wood as usual; but the Lady Noggs went away early, for there were several guests staying the week-end with her uncle, and she had been instructed to take her tea with them. It had been put to her as a privilege not usually accorded to persons of her age; but she had received it with a certain amount of scorn, merely saying, with the least enthusiastic possible dryness, "All right; if you want me to, I'll come."

She came, and, since there were four strangers among her uncle's guests, she behaved with admirable dignity. But, unfortunately, she had hardly established her reputation for extreme refinement when the Prime Minister said, somewhat fretfully: "I found the door of the pheasant house open just now. You are so forgetful, Felicia, I suppose you left it open."

"S'welp me, I never did!" said the Lady Noggs.

The four strangers straightened themselves in their chairs with a simultaneous gasp, and stared at her in amazed horror.

"Dear, dear!" said the Prime Minister. "This is very tiresome! Wherever did you pick up that dreadful expression?"

"Is it dreadful?" said the Lady Noggs, blushing a little under the earnest gaze of so many eyes. "They—they say it in Poplar."