The Intrusions of Peggy
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She was standing by the two men, but they had entered into conversation with one another, and for the moment she was idle. Her eyes, travelling round the room, fell on Beaufort Chance. She flushed, gave him a hurried bow, and glanced in rapid apprehension at Mervyn. He and Glentorly were busy agreeing that they were, jointly and severally, quite entitled to be relied on by the country, and Mervyn saw nothing. Trix's bow gave Beaufort Chance his excuse. Without more ado he walked straight and boldly across the room to her. Still the other two men did not see him. Trix edged a pace away from them and waited his coming; she was in as sore fear as when he had snatched her letter from her in her drawing-room. Her breath came fast; she held her head high.
'You must let an old friend congratulate you, Mrs. Trevalla,' said Beaufort. He spoke low and smiled complacently as he held out his hand.
Trix hated to take it; she took it very graciously, with murmured thanks. She shot an appealing glance past him towards where her hostess sat. Lady Blixworth smiled back, but did not move an inch.
'Though your old friends have seen very little of you lately.'
'People in my position must have allowances made for them, Mr. Chance.'
'Oh, yes; I wasn't complaining, only regretting. Seen anything of our friends the Frickers lately?'
The question was a danger-signal to Trix. He was prepared to pose as the Frickers' friend if only he could tar her with the same brush; that boded mischief.
Fricker's name caught Lord Glentorly's ear; he glanced round. Mervyn still noticed nothing.
'I haven't seen them for a long while,' answered Trix in steady tones, her eyes defying him.
He waited a moment, then he went on, raising his voice a little.
'You must have heard from Fricker anyhow, if not from the ladies? He told me he'd written to you.'
Mervyn turned round sharply. Emerging from the enumeration of the strong points of his Chief and himself, he had become conscious that a man was talking to Trix and saying that some other man had written to her. He looked questioningly at Glentorly; that statesman seemed somewhat at a loss.
'Yes,' Chance went on, 'Fricker said he'd been in correspondence with you about that little venture you're in together. I hope it'll turn up trumps, though it's a bit of a risk in my opinion. But it's too bad to remind you of business here.'
Mervyn stepped forward suddenly.
'If you've any business with Mrs. Trevalla, perhaps she'll avail herself of my help,' he said; 'although hardly at the present moment or here.'
Beaufort Chance laughed. 'Dear me, no,' he answered. 'We've no business, have we, Mrs. Trevalla? I was only joking about a little flutter Mrs. Trevalla has on under the auspices of our common friend – Fricker, you know.'
'I have not the pleasure of knowing Mr. Fricker,' said Mervyn coldly.
'He's at a disadvantage compared with us, isn't he, Mrs.Trevalla?'
Mervyn turned from him in a distaste that he took no pains to conceal, and fixed his eyes on Trix's face. Was it possible – really possible – that she could be charged with having 'a flutter' under the auspices of Fricker, and stand dumb before the accusation?
Trix laughed nervously, and at last managed to speak.
'That's all very ancient history, Mr. Chance. You should have your gossip more up to date.'
'Then you've sold your Glowing Stars?' he retorted quickly. He desired the pleasure of making her lie and of knowing the degradation that she felt.
There was just an instant's pause. Then Lord Glentorly struck in.
'I don't know whether all this is your business,' he said to Beaufort, 'but I do know it isn't mine. If Mrs. Trevalla allows, we'll drop the subject.'
'It's very dull anyhow,' stammered Trix.
'I touched on it quite accidentally,' smiled Beaufort. 'Well, all good wishes again, Mrs. Trevalla.'
With a bow of insolent familiarity he turned on his heel and began to walk back towards Lady Blixworth. After a moment's hesitation Mervyn followed him. Trix darted to Glentorly.
'Take me somewhere,' she whispered. 'Take me away somewhere for a minute.'
'Away from that fellow, yes,' he agreed with a disgusted air.
Trix seemed to hear him imperfectly. 'Yes, yes, away from Mortimer,' she whispered.
The swiftest glance betrayed Glentorly's surprise as he obeyed her; she put her arm in his and he led her into the next room, where a sideboard with refreshments stood.
'What does the fellow mean?' he asked scornfully.
'It's nothing. Give me a little champagne,' said Trix.
Beaufort Chance lounged up to Lady Blixworth.
'Well, you saw me making myself pleasant?' His manner was full of a rude coarse exultation.
Lady Blixworth put up her long-handled pince-nez and regarded him through it.
'She hasn't quite cut me, you see,' he went on.
'I beg your pardon, Chance, may I have a word with you?' Mervyn came up and joined them.
Lady Blixworth leant back and looked at the pair. She had never thought Mervyn a genius, and she was very tolerant; yet she had at that moment the fullest possible realisation of the difference between the two: it was between barbarism and civilisation. Both might be stupid, both might on occasion be cruel. But there was the profound difference of method.
'A word with me, Mervyn? Of course.'
'By ourselves, I mean.' His stiffness vigorously refused the approaches of Beaufort's familiarity.
'Oh, all right, by ourselves,' agreed Beaufort with a contemptuous laugh.
Lady Blixworth decided not to indulge her humour any longer; she was distrustful of what might happen.
'You can have your talk any time,' she said, rising. She spoke carelessly, but she knew how to assert her right to social command in her own house. 'Just now I want Mortimer to take me to have something cool. Good-night, Beaufort.' She gave him her hand. He took it, not seeing what else to do. Mervyn had fallen back a step as his bow acknowledged the hostess's command.
'Good-night, Beaufort,' said Lady Blixworth, smiling again.
She left him there, and walked off with Mervyn.
'If you must talk to him, wait,' she advised, laughing. 'Or write to him – that's better. Or let it alone – that's best of all. But at any rate I don't want what the papers call a fracas, and I call a shindy, in my house. With your people here too!' The Barmouths' presence would make a shindy seem like sacrilege.
'You're quite right,' he said gravely.
She glanced at him in pity and in ridicule. 'Heavens, how you take things, Mortimer!' she murmured. 'You might have seen that he only wanted to be nasty.'
'He shall have no more opportunities of obtruding himself on Trix.'
'Poor Trix!' sighed Lady Blixworth. It was not quite clear what especial feature of Trix's position she was commiserating.
'I shall speak plainly to him.'
'That's just why I wouldn't let it occur in my house.'
'Why do you have him here?'
'I believe that in the end it's through a consciousness of my own imperfections.' She felt for and with her companion, but she could not help chaffing him again. 'He's had rather hard lines too, you know.'
'He's not had half what he's deserved. I want to see Trix.'
'Oh, put that off too!' She had sighted Trix and Glentorly, and a dexterous pressure of her arm headed him in the opposite direction. 'You must feed me first, anyhow,' she insisted.
Understanding that he had been in effect dismissed from the house, knowing at least that with his hostess's countenance withdrawn from him he would find little comfort there, Beaufort Chance took his departure. His mood was savage: he had gratified revenge at the cost of lowering himself farther; if he had done his best to ruin Trix, he had done something more for himself in the same direction. Yet he had enjoyed the doing of it. A savage triumph struggled with the soreness in him. He had come back to Lady Blixworth to boast to her; Mervyn had spoilt that scheme. He felt the need of recounting his exploit to somebody who would see the glory of it. Connie Fricker had told him that they were going to the opera, and that she supposed there would be some supper afterwards, if he liked to drop in. Almost unconsciously his steps turned towards the house.
Luck favoured him, or so he thought. Fricker and his wife had been dropped at a party on the way home; Connie had no card for it, and was now waiting for them alone – or, rather, was using her time in consuming chicken and champagne. He joined in her meal, and did full justice to one ingredient of it at least. With his glass in his hand he leant back in his chair and began to tell her how he had served Trix Trevalla. Whatever the reality might have been there was no doubt who came out triumphant in the narrative.
Connie had finished her chicken. She leant her plump bare arms on the table and fixed applauding eyes on him.
'Splendid!' she said with a glint of teeth. 'I should love to have seen that.'
'I gave her a bit more than she reckoned on,' he said, lighting his cigar and then tossing off the last of his glass of wine. 'I gave it her straight.' He looked across at Connie. 'That's the only way with women,' he told her.
Miss Connie mingled admiration and a playful defiance in her smile. 'You ought to have married her, then you'd have had your chance,' she suggested.
'Precious glad I didn't!' said Beaufort. 'Good for her, but poor fun for me, Connie.'
Connie got up and came round the table. 'You're spilling all your ash on the tablecloth.' She gave him an ash-tray from the mantel-piece. 'Use that, silly,' said she, patting his shoulder, and she went on, 'Any woman could manage you all right, you know. Oh, I don't mean a goose like Trix Trevalla, but – '
'A clever girl like yourself, eh?'
'Well, that's the last thing I was thinking about. Still, as far as that goes, I expect I could.'
He slewed his chair half round and looked up at her. Her rollicking defiance, with its skilful hint of contempt, worked on his mood. He forgot his daylight reluctance to commit himself.
'We'd see about that, Miss Connie,' he said.
'Oh, I shouldn't be afraid!' she laughed. She spoke the truth; she was not the least afraid of Beaufort Chance, though she was more than a little afraid of Mrs. Fricker. She was at the same time fully aware that Chance would like to think that she was in her heart rather afraid; she gauged him nicely, and the bravado of her declaration was allowed to be hinted at by a fall and a turning-away of her eyes. With a confident laugh he slipped his arm round her waist; she drew away; he held her strongly.
'Be quiet,' he said imperiously.
She stood still, apparently embarrassed but yet obedient.
'Why did you try to get away?' he asked almost threateningly.
'Well, I'm quiet enough now,' she pleaded with a low laugh.
His self-complacency was restored; the buffets of the evening were forgotten. He remembered how he had served Trix Trevalla; he forgot what that pleasure had entailed on himself. Now he was showing this girl that she was no match for him. He held her in his grasp while he smoked.
'This is rather dull for me,' suggested Connie after a while. 'I hope you like it, Mr. Chance?'
'It'll last just as long as I do like it,' he told her.
A bell sounded; they heard the hall door opened and voices in the hall.
'Listen! Let me go! No, you must. It's papa and mamma.'
'Never mind. Stay where you are.'
'What do you mean? Nonsense! I must – !' In genuine alarm Connie wrenched herself away, ran to the door, listened, gave Beaufort a wise nod, and sat down opposite to him. He laughed at her across the table.
After a pause a footman came in.
'I was to tell you that Mrs. Fricker has gone straight upstairs, miss. She'd like to see you for a minute in her room when you go up, miss.'
'All right. Say I'll be there in five minutes. Where's papa?'
'Mr. Fricker's gone into the study, miss.'
'We're in luck,' said Beaufort, when the door was closed.
'I must go in a minute or two. I expect mamma doesn't like me being here with you. It's not my fault. I didn't know you were coming. I didn't let you in.'
'Of course it's not your fault. We'll tell mamma so.'
'I think you'd better go,' suggested Connie; he treated Mrs. Fricker with too much flippancy.
'Yes, I will. I'll join your father and have a whisky-and-soda. But say good-night first, Connie.'
'Oh, well, be quick then,' said Connie.
Now, as it happened, through an oversight, there was no whisky-and-soda in the study. Mr. Fricker discovered this disconcerting circumstance when he had got into his smoking-jacket and slippers. He swore gently and walked out, his slippers passing noiselessly over the rich carpets of his passages. He opened the door of the dining-room and came in. To his amazement his daughter whirled quickly across his path, almost cannoning into him; and there, whence she came, Beaufort Chance stood, looking foolish and awkward. Connie was flushed and her hair untidy.
'Good evening, Beaufort. I was looking for whisky-and-soda, Connie dear.'
A few more remarks were interchanged, but the talk came chiefly from Beaufort, and consisted of explanations why he had not gone before, and how he was just going now. Then he did go, shaking hands with them both, not looking either of them in the face.
'You can find your own way?' Fricker suggested, as he picked a chicken's leg. 'Give me a little more soda, Connie.'
She obeyed him, and, when they were alone, came and stood on the opposite side of the table. Fricker ate and drank in undisturbed composure. At last he observed: —
'I thought your mother wanted you. Hadn't you better go up to her, Connie?' He glanced round at the clock and smiled at his daughter in his thoughtful way.
'Of course you can tell her; but you'll spoil it all, if you do,' Connie burst out. She seemed ready to cry, being sadly put out by her father's premature discovery, and undisguisedly alarmed as to what view might be taken of the matter.
'Spoil it all?' repeated Fricker meditatively. 'All what? Your fun, my dear?'
Connie had no alternative but to play her trumps.
'It's more than fun,' she said. 'Unless I'm interfered with,' she added resentfully.
'Your mother's ideas are so strict,' smiled Fricker, wiping his mouth and laying aside his napkin. 'If she'd come in when I did – eh, Connie?' He shook his head and delicately picked his teeth.
'It's all right if – if you let me alone.' She came round to him. 'I can take care of myself, and – ' She sat on the arm of his chair. 'It wouldn't be so bad, would it?' she asked.
'Hum. No, perhaps it wouldn't,' admitted Fricker. 'Do you like him, Connie?'
'We should manage very well, I think,' she laughed, feeling easier in her mind. 'But if you tell mamma now – '
'We upset the apple-cart, do we, Connie?' He fell into thought. 'Might do worse, and perhaps shouldn't do much better, eh?'
'I daresay not. And' – an unusual timidity for the moment invaded Miss Connie's bearing – 'and I do rather like him, papa.'
Fricker had the family affections, and to him his daughter seemed well-nigh all that a daughter could be expected to be. She had her faults, of course – a thing not calculated to surprise Fricker – but she was bright, lively, pretty, clever, dutiful, and very well behaved. So long as she was also reasonable, he would stretch a point to please her; he would at least make every consideration on her side of the case weigh as heavily as possible. He thought again, reviewing Beaufort Chance in the new light.
'Well, run it for yourself,' he said at last.
Connie bent down and kissed him. She was blushing and she looked happy.
'Now run off upstairs.'
'You won't tell mamma?'
'Not if you can go on managing it all right.'
Connie kissed him again. Then she, in her turn, looked at the clock.
'May I say that Mr. Chance has been gone ever so long, and that you made me stay with you?'
'Yes,' said Fricker, rather amused.
'Good-night, you darling,' cried Connie, and danced out of the room.
'Rum creatures!' ejaculated Fricker. 'She's got a head on her shoulders, though.'
On the whole he was well pleased. But he had the discernment to wonder how Beaufort Chance would feel about the matter the next morning. He chuckled at this idea at first, but presently his peculiar smile regained its sway – the same smile that he wore when he considered the case of Trix Trevalla and Glowing Stars.
'What Beaufort thinks of it,' he concluded as he went up to bed, 'won't be quite the question.'
He found Mrs. Fricker not at all displeased with Connie.