The Intrusions of Peggy
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'I certainly hope you won't have to add pecuniary loss to the other disagreeable features of the affair,' said Mervyn; and a few minutes later, apparently as an afterthought, he asked her carelessly how much she would make on the best hypothesis. Trix named a moderate figure but a substantial one.
'And I suppose the rogue'll make twice as much himself!' There was reluctant envy in Mervyn's tone. It gave Trix courage. Could she brandish winnings in their faces, she felt sure that the lecturers would be less severe and she less helpless before them.
Meanwhile, with the impulse to make a friend among her gaolers, with her woman's instinct for the likeliest, she was all dutifulness and affection towards Barmouth. She made way with him. The success helped her a little, but less than it would have because of his reverence for his son.
'How such an affectionate well-mannered young woman could be led so far astray is inexplicable to me – inexplicable,' he observed to Mrs. Bonfill.
Mrs. Bonfill endorsed his bewilderment with a helpless wave of her hand.
'There is good in her,' he announced. 'She will respond to Mortimer's influence.' And the good gentleman began to make things a little easier for Trix within the narrow sphere of his ability. Nobody, of course, had ever told him that the sphere was narrow, and he had not discovered it; his small semi-surreptitious indulgences were bestowed with a princely flourish.
Lady Barmouth was inexorable; she was Mervyn's outraged mother. She had, moreover, the acuteness to discern one of the ideas that lay in Trix's mind and stiffened it to endurance.
'Now is the time to mould her,' she said to Mrs. Bonfill. 'It would not perhaps be so easy presently.'
Mrs. Bonfill knew what 'presently' meant, and thought that her friend was probably right.
'But once we imbue her with our feeling about things, she will keep it. At present she is receptive.'
'I think she is,' agreed Mrs. Bonfill, who had just an occasional pang of pity for Trix's extreme receptivity and the ample advantage taken of it.
Trix had received a brief note from Fricker, saying that he was doing his best to carry out her instructions, and hoped to be able to arrange matters satisfactorily, although he must obviously be hampered in some degree by the peremptory nature of her request. Trix hardly saw why this was obvious, but, if obvious, at any rate it was also quite inevitable. She certainly did not realise what an excellent excuse she had equipped Mr. Fricker with if he sold her shares at a loss. But apparently he had not sold them, at least no news came to that effect; hope that he was waiting to effect a great coup still shot in one encouraging streak across the deadly weariness of being imbued with the Barmouth feeling about things. Not once a day, but once every hour at least, did she recall that unregenerate impulse of Lady Blixworth's, confessed to at this very Barslett, and accord it her heartiest sympathy.
'But I will stick to it,' she said to herself grimly.Her pluck was in arms; her time would come; for the present all hung on Fricker.
It was a beautiful July evening when his letter came. Trix had just escaped from a long talk with Mervyn. He had been rather more affectionate, rather less didactic than usual; something analogous to what the law calls a Statute of Limitations seemed gradually to be coming into his mind as within the sphere of practical domestic politics; not an amnesty, that was going too far, but the possibility of saying no more about it some day. Trix was hopeful as she wandered into the garden, and, sitting down by the fountain, let the gentle breeze blow on her face. It comforted her still to look at the fa?ade and the gardens; she got from the contemplation of them much the same quality of pleasure as Airey Newton drew from the sight of his safe and his red-leather book.
A footman brought her two letters. One was from Peggy Ryle, a rigmarole of friendly gossip, ending with, 'We're all having a splendid time, and we all hope you are too. Everybody sent their love to you last night at supper.' With a wistful smile Trix laid this letter down. What different meanings that word 'splendid' may bear, to be sure!
The other letter – it was from Fricker! Fricker at last! A hasty glance round preceded the opening of it. It was rather long. She read and re-read, passing her hand across her brow; indeed she could hardly understand it, though Fricker was credited by his friends with an unrivalled power of conveying his meaning with precision and nicety. He had tried to obey her instructions. Unfortunately there had been no market. Perforce he had waited. He had been puzzled, had Fricker, and waited to make inquiries. Alas! the explanation had not been long in coming. First, the lode had suddenly narrowed. On the top of this calamity had come a fire in the mine, and much damage to the property. The directors had considered whether it would not be wise to suspend operations altogether, but had in the end resolved to go on. Mr. Fricker doubted their wisdom, but there it was. The decision entailed a call of five shillings per share – of course Mrs. Trevalla would remember that the shares were only five shillings paid. The directors hoped that further calls would not be necessary; here Fricker was sadly sceptical again. Meanwhile, there was no chance of selling; to be plain, Glowing Star shares would not just now be a welcome gift to anyone, let alone an eligible purchase. So, since sale was impossible, payment of the call was inevitable. Then came the end. 'Of course, mines are not Consols; nobody knows that better than yourself. I regret the unlucky issue of this venture. I cannot help thinking that things would have gone better if we had been in closer touch, and I had enjoyed more ready access to you. But I was forced to doubt my welcome, and so was, perhaps, led into not keeping you as thoroughly au fait with what was going on as I should have liked. I cannot blame myself for this, however much I regret it. I gather that you do not intend to undertake any further operations, or I would console yourself and myself by saying "Better luck next time!" As matters stand (I refer, of course, to your last letter to me), I can only again express my regret that Glowing Stars have been subject to such bad luck, and that I find myself, thanks to your own desire, not in a position to help you to recoup your losses.' A postscript added, 'For your convenience I may remind you that your present holding is four thousand shares.'
The last part of the letter was easier to understand than the first. It needed no re-reading. 'You've chosen to drop me. Shift for yourself, and pay your own shot.' That was what Mr. Fricker said when it was translated into the terse brevity of a vulgar directness. The man's cold relentlessness spoke in every word. Not only Beaufort Chance, not only the Barmouths and Mrs. Bonfill, not only Mortimer Mervyn, had lessons to teach and scourges wherewith to enforce them. Fricker had his lesson to give and his scourge to brandish too.
Again Trix Trevalla looked round, this time in sheer panic. She crumpled up Fricker's letter and thrust it into her pocket. She saw Peggy Ryle's in her lap – Peggy who was having a splendid time! Trix got up and fairly ran into the house, choking down her sobs.
Ten minutes later Mervyn strolled out, looking for her. He did not find her, but he came upon an envelope lying on the ground near the fountain – a long-shaped business envelope. It was addressed to Mrs. Trevalla, and at the back it bore an oval impressed stamp 'S. F. & Co.'
'Ah, she's heard from Fricker! That's the end of the whole thing, I hope!' He felt glad of that, so glad that he added in a gentle and pitying tone, 'Poor little Trix, we must keep her out of mischief in future!' He looked at his watch, pocketed the envelope (he was a very orderly man), paced up and down for a few minutes, and then went in to dress for dinner. As he dressed a pleasant little idea came into his head; he would puzzle Trix by his cleverness; he meditated what, coming from a less eminent young man, would have been called 'a score.'
At dinner Trix was bright and animated; Mervyn's manner was affectionate; the other three exchanged gratified glances – Trix was becoming imbued with the Barmouth feeling about things, even (as it seemed) to the extent of sharing the Barmouth ideas as to a merry evening.
'You're brilliant to-night, Trix – brilliant,' Lord Barmouth assured her.
'Oh, she can be!' declared Mrs. Bonfill, with a return to the 'fond mother' style of early days.
Lady Barmouth looked slightly uneasy and changed the subject; after all, brilliancy was hardly Barmouthian.
When the servants had gone and the port came (Mervyn did not drink it, but his father did), Mervyn perceived his moment: the presence of the others was no hindrance; had not Trix's punishment been as public as her sin? If she were forgiven, the ceremony should certainly be in the face of the congregation.
'So you heard from Mr. Fricker to-day?' he said to Trix.
He did not mean to trap her, only, as explained, to raise a cry of admiration by telling how he came to know and producing the envelope. But in an instant Trix suspected a trap and was on the alert; she had the vigilance of the hunted; her brain worked at lightning speed. In a flash of salvation the picture of herself crumpling up the letter rose before her; the letter, yes, but the envelope? In the result Mervyn's 'score' succeeded to a marvel.
'Yes, but how did you know?' she cried, apparently in boundless innocent astonishment.
'Ah!' said he archly. 'Now how did I know?' He produced the envelope and held it up before her eyes. 'You'd never make a diplomatist, Trix!'
'I dropped it in the garden!'
'And, as I was naturally looking for you, I found it!'
He was not disappointed of his sensation. The thing was simple indeed, but neat.
'I notice everything too – everything,' observed Lord Barmouth, with the air of explaining an occurrence otherwise very astonishing.
'It's quite true, Robert does,' Lady Barmouth assured Mrs. Bonfill.
'Wonderful!' ejaculated that lady with friendly heartiness.
Lord Barmouth cleared his throat. 'So far as possible from that quarter, good news, I hope?'
Trix had postponed making up her mind what to say; she did not mean to mention Fricker's letter till the next morning, and hoped that she would see her way a little clearer then. She was denied the respite. They all waited for her answer.
'Oh, don't let's talk business at dinner! I'll tell you about it afterwards,' she said.
Mervyn interposed with a suave but peremptory request.
'My dear, it must be on our minds. Just tell us in a word.'
Her brain, still working at express speed, seeming indeed as though it could never again drop to humdrum pace, pictured the effect of the truth and the Barmouth way of looking at the truth. She had no hope but that the truth – well, most of the truth anyhow – must come some day; but she must tell it to Mervyn alone, at her own time; she would not and could not tell it to them all there and then.
'It's very good,' she said coolly. 'I don't understand quite how good, but quite good.'
'And the whole thing's finished?' asked Mrs. Bonfill.
'Absolutely finished,' assented Trix.
Lord Barmouth sighed and looked round the table; his air was magnanimous in the extreme.
'I think we must say, "All's well that ends well!"' Trix was next him; he patted her hand as it lay on the table.
That was going just a little too far.
'It ends well – and it ends!' amended Mervyn with affectionate authority. Lady Barmouth nodded approval to Mrs. Bonfill.
'Oh, yes, it ends,' said Trix Trevalla.
Her face felt burning hot; she wondered whether its colour tallied with the sensation. Despair was in her heart; she had lied again, and lied for no ultimate good. She rather startled Lady Barmouth by asking for a glass of port. Lord Barmouth, in high good-humour, poured it out gallantly, and then, with obvious tact, shifted the talk to a discussion of his son's public services, pointing out incidentally how the qualities that had rendered these possible had in his own case displayed themselves in a sphere more private, but not, as he hoped, less useful. Mervyn agreed that his father had been quite as useful as himself. Even Mrs. Bonfill stifled a yawn.
The end of dinner came. Trix escaped into the garden, leaving the ladies in the drawing-room, the men still at the table. Her brain was painting scenes with broad rapid strokes of the brush. She saw herself telling Mervyn, she saw his face, his voice, his horrified amazement. Then came she herself waiting while he told the others. Next there was the facing of the family. What would they do? Would they turn her out? That would be a bitter short agony. Or would they not rather keep her in prison and school her again? She would come to them practically a pauper now. Besides all there had been against her before, she would now stand confessed a pauper and a fool. One, too, who had lied about the thing to the very end! In the dark of evening the great house loomed like a very prison. The fountains were silent, the birds at rest; a heavy stillness added to the dungeon-like effect. She walked quickly, furiously, along one path after another, throwing uneasy glances over her shoulder, listening for a footfall, as though she were in literal truth being tracked and hunted from her lair. The heart was out of her: at last her courage was broken. What early hardships, what Vesey Trevalla, what Beaufort Chance himself could not do, that Fricker and the Barmouths had done – Fricker's idea of what was necessary in business relations and the Barmouth way of feeling about things. There was no fight left in Trix Trevalla.
Unless it were for one desperate venture, the height of courage or of cowardice – which she knew not, and it signified nothing. She had ceased to think. She had little but a blind instinct urging her to hide herself.
'This is very fortunate, Mortimer,' observed Barmouth over his port. He did not take coffee; Mervyn did.
'The best possible thing under the circumstances. I don't think I need say much more to her.'
'I think not. She understands now how we feel. Perhaps we could hardly expect her to realise it until she had enjoyed the full opportunities her stay here has given her.' Who now should call him narrow-minded?
'I have very little fear for the future,' said Mervyn.
'You have every reason to hope. I wonder – er – how much she has made?' Mervyn frowned slightly. 'Well, well, it's better to win than lose,' Barmouth added, with a propitiatory smile.
'Of course. But – '
'You don't like the subject? Of course not! No more do I. Shall we join the ladies? A moment, Mortimer. Would you rather speak to her yourself? Or should your mother – ?'
'Oh, no. There's really nothing. Leave it to me.'
Lady Barmouth and Mrs. Bonfill were drinking tea from ancestral china.
'Mortimer is quiet, but he's very firm,' Lady Barmouth was saying. 'I think we need fear no – no outbreaks in the future.'
'A firm hand will do no harm with Trix. But with proper management she'll be a credit to him.'
'I really think we can hope so, Sarah. Where is she, by the way?'
'She's gone to her room. I don't think she'll come down again to-night from what my maid said just now when I met her.' Mrs. Bonfill paused and added, 'She must have been under a strain, you know.'
'She should have been prepared for that. However Mortimer doesn't go to town till the afternoon to-morrow.' There would be plenty of time for morals to be pointed.
Mervyn seemed hardly surprised at not finding Trix. He agreed that the next day would serve, and took himself off to read papers and write letters; by doing the work to-night he would save a post. Lord Barmouth put on a woollen cap, wrapped a Shetland shawl round his shoulders, and said that he would go for a stroll. This form of words was well understood; it was no infrequent way of his to take a look round his domains in the evening; there were sometimes people out at night who ought to be indoors, and, on the other hand, the fireside now and then beguiled a night-watchman from his duties. Such little irregularities, so hard to avoid in large establishments, were kept in check by Lord Barmouth's evening strolls – 'prowls' they were called in other quarters of the house than those occupied by the family itself. The clock struck ten as the worthy nobleman set forth on his mission of law, order, and, it may happily be added, personal enjoyment. He was armed with a spud and a bull's-eye lantern.
The night-watchman was asleep by the fire in the engine-room. Justification number one for the excursion. Her ladyship's own maid was talking to Lord Mervyn's own man in a part of the premises rigorously reserved for the men who lived over the stables. Justification, cumulative justification, number two. Lord Barmouth turned into the shrubbery, just to see whether the little gate leading on to the high road was locked, according to the strict orders given. It was not locked. Justification, triumphant and crowning justification, number three!
'It's scandalous – scandalous,' murmured Lord Barmouth in something very like gratification. Many people would miss their chief pleasure were their neighbours and dependants void of blame.
He turned back at a brisk pace; he had no key to the gate himself, the night-watchman had; the night-watchman did not seem to be in luck's way to-night. Lord Barmouth's step was quick and decisive, his smile sour; leaving that gate unlocked was a capital offence, and he was eager to deal punishment. But suddenly he came to a pause on the narrow path.
Justification number four! A woman came towards him, hurrying along with rapid frightened tread. She was making for the gate. The nefariousness of the scheme thus revealed infuriated Barmouth. He stepped aside behind a tree and waited till she came nearer. She wore a large hat and a thick veil; she turned her head back several times, as though to listen behind her. He flashed his lantern on her and saw a dark skirt with a light silk petticoat showing an inch or two below. He conceived the gravest suspicions of the woman – a thing that perhaps need not be considered unreasonable. He stepped out on the path, and walked towards her, hiding the light of the lantern again.
'Who are you, ma'am? What are you doing here? Where do you come from?' His peremptory questions came like pistol-shots.
She turned her head towards him, starting violently. But after that she stood still and silent.
'I am Lord Barmouth. I suppose you know me? What's your business here?'
She was silent still.
'Nonsense! You have no business here, and you know it. You must give me an account of yourself, ma'am, or I shall find a way to make you.'
She gave an account of herself; with trembling ungloved hands she raised her veil. He turned his lantern on her face and recoiled from her with a clumsy spring.
'You?' he gasped. 'You? Trix? Are you mad? Where are you going?'
Her face was pale and hard-lined; her eyes were bright, and looked scarcely sane in the concentrated glare of the lantern.
'Let me pass,' she said in a low shaken voice.
'Let you pass! Where to? Nonsense! You're – '
'Let me pass,' she commanded again.
'No,' he answered, barring her path with his broad squat form. Decision rang in his tones.
'You must,' she said simply. She put out her arms and thrust at him. He was heavy to move, but he was driven on one side; the nervous fury in her arms sent him staggering back; he dropped his lantern and saved himself with his spud.
'Trix!' he cried in helpless rage and astonishment.
'No, no, no!' she sobbed out as she darted past him, pulling her veil down again and making for the gate. She ran now, sobbing convulsively, and catching up her skirts high over her ankles. The manner of her running scandalised Lord Barmouth hardly less than the fact of it.
'Trix! Trix!' he shouted imperiously, and started in pursuit of her. She did not turn again, nor speak again. She rushed through the gate, slamming it behind her. It swung to in his face as he came up. Snatching it open, he held it with his hand; she was ten or fifteen yards down the road, running with a woman's short, shuffling, flat-footed stride, but making good headway all the same; still he heard her sobs, more convulsive now for shortness of breath.
'Good God!' said Lord Barmouth, helplessly staring after her.
Justifications one, two, and three were driven clean out of his head. Justification number four made matter enough for any brain to hold – and the night-watchman was in luck's way after all.
He stood there till he could neither hear nor see her; then, leaving the gate ajar, he wrapped his shawl closer round him, picked up his lantern, and walked slowly home. An alarm or a pursuit did not occur to him. He was face to face with something that he did not understand, but he understood enough to see that at this moment nothing could be done.
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