Anthony Hope.

The Intrusions of Peggy



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Fricker gave a short dry laugh; the whole episode amused him very much, and Peggy's appearance also gratified his taste. She unfastened the bag, and he heard her fingers crackle the notes, as she sat with her eyes fixed on his; appeal had been banished from Peggy's words, it spoke in her eyes in spite of herself.

'Mrs. Trevalla has perhaps told you something of her relations with me?' asked Fricker, clasping his long spare hands on the table.

'I don't defend her: but you don't fight with women, Mr. Fricker?'

'There are no women in business matters, Miss Ryle.'

'Or with people who are down?'

'Not fight, no. I keep my foot on them.'

He took up a half-smoked cigar and relit it.

'I'm not a Shylock,' he resumed with a smile. 'Shylock was a sentimentalist. I'd have taken that last offer – a high one, if I remember – and given up my pound of flesh. But you expect me to do it for much less than market value. I like my pound of flesh, and I want something above market value for it, Miss Ryle. I've taught Mrs. Trevalla her little lesson. Perhaps there's no need to rub it in any more. You want me to make her think that she can get out of Glowing Stars without further loss?'

'Yes.'

'And you want me to take the risk on myself? The loss may run to three thousand pounds, though, as you say, a lucky chance might enable me to reduce it.' His fertile mind had inklings of a scheme already, though in the vaguest outline.

'Yes,' said Peggy again, not trusting herself to say more.

'Very well; now we understand.' He leant right over towards her. 'I think you're foolish,' he told her, 'you and the other friends. The woman deserves all she's got; she didn't play fair with me. I haven't a spark of sympathy for her. If I followed my feelings, I should show you the door. But I don't follow my feelings when I see a fair profit in the other direction. If Mrs. Trevalla had acted on that rule she wouldn't be where she is.' He thrust his chair back suddenly and rose to his feet. 'I'll do what you wish, and back up the story you mean to tell her, if you'll come again and bring that pretty little bag with you, and take out of it and lay on this table – ' He paused in wilful malice, tormenting Peggy and watching her parted lips and eager eyes. 'And lay on the table,' he ended slowly, 'four thousand pounds.'

'Four – !' gasped Peggy, and could get no further.

'Three to cover risk, one as a solatium for the wound Mrs. Trevalla has dealt to my pride.' His irony was unwontedly savage as he snarled out his gibe.

Peggy's face suddenly grew flushed and her eyes dim. She looked at him, and knew there was no mercy. He did not spare her his gaze, but when she conquered her dismay and sat fronting him with firm lips again he smiled a grim approval. He liked pluck, and when he had hit his hardest he liked best to see the blow taken well. He became his old self-controlled calm self again.

Peggy shut her bag with a click and rose in her turn.

Her first words surprised Mr. Fricker.

'That's a bargain, is it?' she asked.

'A bargain, certainly,' he said.

'Then will you put it in writing, please?' She pointed at the table with a peremptory air.

Infinitely amused again, Fricker sat down and embodied his undertaking in a letter, ceremoniously addressed to Miss Ryle, expressed and signed in the name of his firm; he blotted the letter and gave it to her in an open envelope.

'It's better not to trust to memory, however great confidence we may have in one another, isn't it?' said he.

'Much,' agreed Peggy drily. 'I don't suppose I can get all that money, but I'm going to try,' she announced.

'I daresay there are people who would do a great deal for you,' he suggested in sly banter.

Peggy flushed again. 'I shouldn't ask anyone like that. I couldn't.' She broke off, indignant with herself; she had taken almost a confidential tone. 'It's not your concern where or how I get it.'

'You express the view I've always taken most exactly, Miss Ryle.'

He was openly deriding her, but she hardly hated him now. He was too strange to hate, she was coming to think. She smiled at him as she asked a question: —

'Does money always make people what you are?'

'Money?' Fricker stood with his hands in his pockets, seeming a little puzzled.

'I mean, always bothering with it and thinking a lot of it, you know.'

'Oh, no! If it did, all men of business would be good men of business, and luckily there are plenty of bad.'

'I see,' said Peggy. 'Well, I'll come back if I get the money, Mr. Fricker.'

'I'm glad Connie gave you some tea.'

'We had a very nice talk, thank you.'

'I won't ask you to remember me to Mrs. Trevalla.'

'She's not to know I've seen you. You've put that in the letter?'

'Bless my soul, I'd forgotten! How valuable that written record is! Yes, you'll find it there all right. The transaction is to be absolutely confidential so far as Mrs. Trevalla is concerned.'

He escorted her to the door. As they passed through the hall, Connie's voice came from upstairs: —

'Won't Miss Ryle take a glass of wine before she goes, papa?'

Fricker looked at Peggy with a smile.

'I don't drink wine,' said Peggy, rather severely.

'Of course not – between meals. Connie's so hospitable, though. Well, I hope to see you again.'

'I really don't believe you do,' said Peggy. 'You love money, but – '

'I love a moral lesson more? Possibly, Miss Ryle; but I at least keep my bargains. You can rely on my word if – if you come again, you know.'

Peggy's hansom was at the door, and he helped her in. She got into the corner of it, nodded to him, and then sank her face far into the fluffy recesses of a big white feather boa. All below her nose was hidden; her eyes gleamed out fixed and sad; her hands clutched the little bag very tightly. She had so hoped to bring it back empty; she had so hoped to have a possible though difficult task set her. Now she could hear and think of nothing but those terrible figures set out in Fricker's relentless tones – 'Four thousand pounds!'

Fricker turned back into his house, smiling in ridicule touched with admiration. It was all very absurd, but she was a girl of grit. 'Straight too,' he decided approvingly.

Connie ran downstairs to meet him.

'Oh, what did she want? I've been sitting in the drawing-room just devoured by curiosity! Do tell me about it, papa!'

'Not a word. It's business,' he said curtly, but not unkindly. 'Inquisitiveness is an old failing of yours. Ah!'

His exclamation was called forth by an apparently slight cause. Connie wore a white frock; to the knees of it adhered a long strip of fawn-coloured wool.

'You were sitting in the drawing-room devoured by curiosity?' he asked reflectively.

'Just devoured, papa,' repeated Connie gaily.

Mr. Fricker took hold of her ear lightly and began to walk her towards his study.

'Odd!' he said gently. 'Because the drawing-room's upholstered in red, isn't it?'

'Well, of course.' Connie laughed rather uneasily.

'And, so far as I know, the only fawn-coloured wool mat in the house is just outside my study door.'

'What do you mean, papa?' Connie was startled, and tried to jump away; Mr. Fricker's firm hold on her ear made it plain that she would succeed only at an impossible sacrifice.

'And that's the precise colour of that piece of wool clinging to your frock. Look!' They were on the mat now; the study door was open, and there was ample light for Connie to make the suggested comparison. 'Look!' urged Fricker, smiling and pinching his daughter's ear with increasing force. 'Look, Connie, look!'

'Papa! Oh, you're hurting me!'

'Dear me, I'm sorry,' said Fricker. 'But the thought of people listening outside my door made me forget what I was doing.' It seemed to have the same effect again, for Connie writhed. 'How difficult it is to get straightforward dealing!' reflected Fricker sadly. 'My dear Connie, if you happen to have caught any of the conversation, you will know that Mrs. Trevalla has learnt the advantage of straightforward dealing.'

Connie had nothing to say; she began to cry rather noisily. Fricker involuntarily thought of a girl he had seen that day who would neither have listened nor cried.

'Run away,' he said, releasing her; his tone was kind, but a trifle contemptuous. 'You'd better keep my secrets if I'm to keep yours, you know.'

Connie went off, heaving sobs and rubbing her assaulted ear. She was glad to escape so cheaply, and the sobs stopped when she got round the first corner.

'Connie's a good girl,' said Fricker, addressing the study walls in a thoughtful soliloquy. 'Yes, she's a good girl. But there's a difference. Yes, there is a difference.' He shrugged his shoulders, lit a fresh cigar, and sat down at his writing-table. 'It doesn't matter whether Connie knows or not,' he reflected, 'but we must have moral lessons, you know. That's what pretty Miss Ryle had to understand – and Mrs. Trevalla, and now Connie. It'll do all of 'em good.'

Then he looked up the position of the Glowing Star, and thought that an amalgamation might possibly be worked and things put in a little better trim. But it would be troublesome, and – he preferred the moral lesson after all.

CHAPTER XVII
THE PERJURER

Peggy's appointment had not been a secret in the Fricker household, though its precise object was not known; it had been laughed and joked over in the presence of the family friend, Beaufort Chance. He had joined in the mirth, and made a mental note of the time appointed – just as he had of Trix Trevalla's address in Harriet Street. Hence it was that he caused himself to be driven to the address a little while after Peggy had started on her way to Fricker's. The woman who answered his ring said that Mrs. Trevalla was seeing nobody; her scruples were banished by his confident assurance that he was an old friend, and by five shillings which he slipped into her hand. He did not scrutinise his impulse to see Trix; it was rather blind, but it was overpowering. An idea had taken hold of him which he hid carefully in his heart, hid from the Frickers above all – and tried, perhaps, to hide from himself too; for it was dangerous.

Trix's nerves had not recovered completely; they were not tuned to meet sudden encounters. She gave a startled cry as the door was opened hastily and as hastily closed, and he was left alone with her. She was pale and looked weary about the eyes, but she looked beautiful too, softened by her troubles and endowed with the attraction of a new timidity; he marked it in her as useful to his purposes.

'You? What have you come for?' she cried, not rising nor offering him her hand.

He set down his hat and pulled off his gloves deliberately. He knew they were alone in the lodgings; she was at his mercy. That was the first thing he had aimed at, and it was his.

'Your friends naturally want to see how you are getting on,' he said, with a laugh. 'They've been hearing so much about you.'

Trix tried to compose herself to a quiet contempt, but the nerves were wrong and she was frightened.

'Well, things have turned out funnily, haven't they? Not quite what they looked like being when we met last, at Viola Blixworth's! You were hardly the stuff to fight Fricker, were you? Or me either – though you thought you could manage me comfortably.'

His words were brutal enough; his look surpassed them. Trix shrank back in her chair.

'I don't want to talk to you at all,' she protested helplessly.

'Ah, it's always had to be just what you wanted, hasn't it? Never mind anybody else! But haven't you learnt that that doesn't exactly work? I should have thought it would have dawned on you. Well, I don't want to be unpleasant. What's going to happen now? No Mervyn! No marquisate in the future! No money in the present, I'm afraid! You've made a hash of it, Trix.'

'I've nothing at all to say to you. If I've – if I've made mistakes, I – '

'You've suffered for them? Yes, I fancy so. And you made some pretty big ones. It was rather a mistake to send me to the right-about, wasn't it? You were warned. You chose to go on. Here you are! Don't you sometimes think you'd better have stuck to me?'

'No!' Trix threw the one word at him with a disgusted contempt which roused his anger even while he admired the effort of her courage.

'What, you're not tamed yet?' he sneered. 'Even this palace, and Glowing Stars, and being the laughing-stock of London haven't tamed you?'

He spoke slowly, never taking his eyes from her; her defiance worked on the idea in his heart. He had run a fatal risk once before under her influence; he felt her influence again while he derided her. Enough of what he had been clung about him to make him feel how different she was from Connie Fricker. To conquer her and make her acknowledge the conquest was the desire that came upon him, tempting him to forget at what peril he would break with Connie.

'You only came here to laugh at me,' said Trix. 'Well, go on.'

'One can't help laughing a bit,' he remarked; 'but I don't want to be hard on you. If you'd done to some men what you did to me, they mightn't take it so quietly. But I'm ready to be friends.'

'Whatever I did, you've taken more than your revenge – far more. Yes, if you wanted to see me helpless and ruined, here I am! Isn't it enough? Can't you go now?'

'And how's old Mervyn? At any rate I've taken you away from him, the stuck-up fool!'

'I won't discuss Lord Mervyn.'

'He'd be surprised to see us together here, wouldn't he?' He laughed, enjoying the thought of Mervyn's discomfiture; he might make it still more complete if he yielded to his idea. He came round the table and leant against it, crossing his feet; he was within a yard of her chair, and looked down at her in insolent disdain and more insolent admiration. Now again he marked her fear and played on it.

'Yes, we got the whiphand of you, and I think you know it now. And that's what you want; that's the way to treat you. I should have known how to deal with you. What could a fool like Mervyn do with a woman like you? You're full of devil.'

Poor Trix, feeling at that moment by no means full of 'devil,' glanced at him with a new terror. She had set herself to endure his taunts, but the flavour that crept into them now was too much.

'I don't forget we were friends. You're pretty well stranded now. Well, I'll look after you, if you like. But no more tricks! You must behave yourself.'

'Do you suppose I should ever willingly speak to you again?'

'Yes, I think so. When the last of the money's gone, perhaps? I don't fancy your friends here can help you much. It'll be worth while remembering me then.'

'I'd sooner starve,' said Trix decisively.

'Wait a bit, wait a bit,' he jeered.

'I ask you to go,' she said, pointing to the door. A trivial circumstance interfered with any attempt at more dramatic action; the wire of the bell was broken, as Trix well knew.

'Yes, but you can't always have what you want, can you?' His tone changed to one of bantering intimacy. 'Come, Trix, be a sensible girl. You're beat, and you know it. You'd better drop your airs. By Jove, I wouldn't offer so much to any other woman!'

'What do you want?' she asked curtly and desperately. 'I've got nothing to give you – no more money, no more power, no more influence. I've got nothing.' Her voice shook for a moment as she sketched her worldly position.

A pause followed. Beaufort Chance longed to make the plunge, and yet he feared it. If he told her that she still had what he wanted, he believed that he could bend her to his will; to try at least was the strong impulse in him. But how much would it mean? He was fast in the Fricker net. Yet the very passions which had led him into that entanglement urged him now to break loose, to follow his desire, and to risk everything for it. The tyrannous instinct that Connie had so cleverly played upon would find a far finer satisfaction if the woman he had once wooed when she was exalted, when she gave a favour by listening and could bestow distinction by her consent, should bend before him and come to him in humble submission, owning him her refuge, owing him everything, in abject obedience. That was the picture which wrought upon his mind and appealed to his nature. He saw nothing unlikely in its realisation, if once he resolved to aim at that. What other refuge had she? And had she not liked him once? She would have liked him more, he told himself, and been true to him, if he had taken a proper tone towards her and assumed a proper mastery – as he had with Connie Fricker; in a passing thought he thanked Connie for teaching him the lesson, and took comfort from the thought. Connie would not be really troublesome; he could manage her too.

'No, you've got nothing,' he said at last; 'but supposing I say I don't mind that?'

Trix looked at him again, and suddenly began to laugh hysterically. The idea he hinted was horrible, but to her it was inexpressibly ludicrous too. She saw what he wanted, what he had the madness to suggest. She was terrified, but she laughed; she knew that her mirth would rouse his fury, but it was not to be resisted. She thought that she would go on laughing, even if he struck her on the face – an event which, for the second time in their acquaintance, did not seem to her unlikely.

'Are you – can you actually – ?' she gasped.

'Don't be a fool! There's nothing to laugh at. Hold your tongue and think it over. Remember, I don't bind myself. I'll see how you behave. I'm not going to be fooled by you twice. You ought to know it doesn't pay you to do it too, by now.' He became more jocular. 'You'd have better fun with me than with Mervyn, and I daresay you'll manage to wheedle me into giving you a good deal of your own way after all.'

He was still more outrageous than Trix had thought him before. She was prepared for much, but hardly for this. He had degenerated even from what he had shown himself in their earlier intercourse. Outwardly, among men, in public life, she supposed that he was still presentable, was still reckoned a gentleman. Allowing for the fact that many men were gentlemen in dealing with other men, or appeared such, who failed to preserve even the appearance with women, she remained amazed at the coarse vulgarity of his words and tone. It is possible that his attentions to Connie Fricker had resulted in a deterioration of his style of treating such matters; or the change may merely have been part of the general lowering the man had undergone.

'Well, I'll be off now,' he said, lifting himself from the table leisurely. 'You think about it. I'll come and see you again.' He held out his hand. 'You're looking deuced pretty to-day,' he told her. 'Pale and interesting, and all that, you know. I say, if we do it, old Mervyn'll look pretty blue, eh? The laugh'll be against him then, won't it?'

Trix had not given him her hand. She was afraid of the parting. Her fears were not groundless. He laughed as he stepped up to her chair. She drew back in horror, guessing his purpose. It would seem to him quite natural to kiss her – she divined that. She had no leisure to judge or to condemn his standard; she knew only that she loathed the idea passionately. She covered her face with her hands.

'Guessed it, did you?' he laughed, rather pleased, and, bending over, he took hold of her wrists and tore her hands from in front of her face.

At this moment, however – and the thing could hardly have been worse timed from one point of view, or better from another – Peggy Ryle opened the door. Peggy trod light, the baize door swung quietly, Beaufort's attention had been much preoccupied. His hands were still on Trix's wrists when he turned at the opening of the door. So far as the facts of the situation went, explanation was superfluous; the meaning of the facts was another matter.

Peggy had come in looking grave, wistful, distressed; the shadow of the Fricker interview was still over her. When she saw the position she stood on the threshold, saying nothing, smiling doubtfully. Trix dropped her hands in her lap with a sigh; pure and great relief was her feeling. Beaufort essayed unconsciousness; it was an elaborate and clumsy effort.

'Glad to have a glimpse of you before I go, Miss Ryle. I called to see how Mrs. Trevalla was, but I must run away now.'

'So sorry,' said Peggy. 'Let me show you the way.'

The doubtful smile gave way to a broader and more mirthful one. Trix's eyes had telegraphed past horror and present thanksgiving. Moreover, Beaufort looked a fool – and Peggy had just come from the Frickers'. This last circumstance she seemed to think would interest Beaufort; or did she merely aim at carrying off the situation by a tactful flow of talk?

'I've just been to call on your friends the Frickers,' she said brightly. 'What a nice girl Miss Fricker is! She says she's great friends with you.'

'I go there a lot on business,' he explained stiffly.

'On business?' Peggy laughed. 'I daresay you do, Mr. Chance! She's so friendly and cordial, isn't she? It must be nice riding with her! And what a beautiful bracelet you gave her!'

Beaufort shot a morose glance at her, and from her to Trix. Trix was smiling, though still agitated. Peggy was laughing in an open good-natured fashion.



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