The Intrusions of Peggy
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'I envied it awfully,' she confessed. 'Diamonds and pearls, Trix – just beauties!'
Mr. Beaufort Chance said good-bye.
'I hope to see you again,' he added to Trix from the doorway.
'Do tell Miss Fricker how much I like her,' Peggy implored, following him to the baize door.
He went downstairs, silently, or not quite silently, cursing Peggy, yet on the whole not ill-pleased with his visit. He seemed to have made some progress in the task of subduing Trix Trevalla. She had been frightened – that was something. He walked off buttoning his frock-coat, looking like a prosperous, orderly, and most respectable gentleman. Fortunately emotions primitively barbarous are not indicated by external labels, or walks in the street would be fraught with strange discoveries.
It did not take long to put Peggy abreast of events; Trix's eyes could have done it almost without words.
'Men are astonishing,' opined Peggy, embracing Beaufort Chance and Fricker in a liberal generalisation.
'They say we're astonishing,' Trix reminded her.
'Oh, that's just because they're stupid.' She grew grave. 'Anyhow they're very annoying,' she concluded.
'He said he'd come again, Peggy. What a worm I am now! I'm horribly afraid.'
'So he did,' Peggy reflected, and sat silent with a queer little smile on her lips.
Trix Trevalla fell into a new fit of despair, or a fresh outpouring of the bitterness that was always in her now.
'I might as well,' she said. 'I might just as well. What else is there left for me? I've made shipwreck of it all, and Beaufort Chance isn't far wrong about me. He's just about the sort of fate I deserve. Why do the things you deserve make you sick to think of them? He wouldn't actually beat me if I behaved properly and did as I was told, I suppose, and that's about as much as I can expect. Oh, I've been such a fool!'
'Having been a fool doesn't matter, if you're sensible now,' said Peggy.
'Sensible! Yes, he told me to be sensible too! I suppose the sensible thing would be to tell him to come again, to lie down before him, and thank him very much if he didn't stamp too hard on me.'
Peggy remembered how Mr. Fricker had hinted that Trix was very much in the position in which her own fancy was now depicting her. Could that be helped? It seemed not – without four thousand pounds anyhow.
Trix came and leant over the back of her chair. 'I laughed at him, Peggy – I laughed, but I might yield. He might frighten me into it. And I've nowhere else to turn. Supposing I went to him with my hundred a year? That's about what I've left myself, I suppose, after everything's paid.'
'Well, that's a lot of money,' said Peggy.
'You child!' cried Trix, half-laughing, half-crying. 'But you're a wonderful child. Can't you save me, Peggy?'
'Oh, I suppose, in the end, from myself. I'm reckless. I'm drifting. Will he come again, Peggy?'
Peggy had no radical remedy, but her immediate prescription was not lacking in wisdom as a temporary expedient.She sent Trix to bed, and was obeyed with a docility which would have satisfied any of those who had set themselves to teach Trix moral lessons. Then Peggy herself sat down and engaged in the task of thinking. It had not been at all a prosperous day. Fricker was a source of despair, Chance of a new apprehension; Trix herself was a perplexity most baffling of all. The ruin of self-respect, bringing in its train an abandonment of hope for self, was a strange and bewildering spectacle; she did not see how to effect its repair. Trix's horror of yielding to the man, combined with her fear that she might yield, was a state of mind beyond Peggy's power of diagnosis; she knew only that it clamoured for instant and strong treatment.
Beaufort Chance would come again! Suddenly Peggy determined that he should – on a day she would fix! She would charge herself with that. She smiled again as a hope came into her mind. She had been considerably impressed with Connie Fricker.
The greater puzzle remained behind, the wider, more forlorn hope on which everything turned. 'How much do men love women?' asked Peggy Ryle.
Then the thought of her pledged word flashed across her mind. She might not tell Airey that Trix was ruined; she might not tell Airey that she herself knew his secret. She had hoped to get something from Airey without those disclosures; it was hopeless without them to ask for four thousand pounds – or three thousand five hundred either.
Having been sent to bed, Trix seemed inclined to stay there. She lay there all next day, very quiet, but open-eyed, not resting but fretting and fearing, unequal to her evil fortune, prostrated by the vision of her own folly, bereft of power to resist or will to recover from the blow. Peggy watched her for hours, and then, late in the afternoon, slipped out. Her eyes were resolute under the low brow with its encroaching waves of sunny hair.
Airey Newton let her in. The door of the safe was ajar; he pushed it to with his foot. The red-leather book lay open on the table, displaying its neatly ruled, neatly inscribed pages. He saw her glance at it, and she noticed an odd little shrug of his shoulders as he walked across the room and put the tea into the pot. She had her small bag with her, and laid it down by the bread-and-butter plate. Airey knew it by sight; he had seen her stow away in it the money which he delivered to her from the custody of the safe.
'I can't fill that again for you,' he said warningly, as he gave her tea.
'It's not empty. The money's all there.'
'And you want me to take care of it again?' His tone spoke approval.
'I don't know. I may want it, and I mayn't.'
'You're sure to want it,' he declared in smiling despair.
'I mean, I don't know whether I want it now – all in a lump – or not.'
Her bright carelessness of spirit had evidently deserted her to-day; she was full of something. Airey gulped down a cup of tea, lit his pipe, and waited. He had been engrossed in calculations when she arrived – calculations he loved – and had been forced to conceal some impatience at the interruption. He forgot that now.
'There's something on your mind, Peggy,' he said at last. 'Come, out with it!'
'She's broken – broken, Airey. She can't bear to think of it all. She can't bear to think of herself. She seems to have no life left, no will.'
'You mean Mrs. Trevalla?'
'Yes. They've broken her spirit between them. They've made her feel a child, a fool.'
'Who have? Do you mean Mervyn? Do you mean – ?'
'I mean Mr. Beaufort Chance – and, above all, Mr. Fricker. She hasn't told you about them?'
'No. I've heard something about Chance. I know nothing about Fricker.'
'She didn't treat them fairly – she knows that. Knows it – I should think so! Poor Trix! And in return – ' Peggy stopped. One of the secrets trembled on her lips.
'In return, what?' asked Airey Newton. He had stopped smoking, and was standing opposite to her now.
'They've tricked her and made a fool of her, and – ' There was no turning back now – 'and stripped her of nearly all she had.'
An almost imperceptible start ran through Airey; his forehead wrinkled in deep lines.
'They bought shares for her, and told her they would be valuable. They've turned out worth nothing, and somehow – you'll understand – she's liable to pay a lot of money on them.'
'Hum! Not fully paid, I suppose?'
'That's it. And she's in debt besides. But it's the shares that are killing her. That's where the bitterness is, Airey.'
'Does she know you're telling me this?'
'I gave her my word that I'd never tell.'
Airey moved restlessly about the room. 'Well?' he said from the other end of it.
'She could get over everything but that. So I went to Mr. Fricker – '
'You went to Fricker?' He came to a stand in amazement.
'Yes, I went to Mr. Fricker to see if he would consent to tell her that she wasn't liable, that the shares had turned out better, and that she needn't pay. I wanted him to take the shares from her, and let her think that he did it as a matter of business.'
Airey Newton pointed to the little bag. Peggy nodded her head in assent.
'But it's not nearly enough. She'd have to pay three thousand anyhow; he won't do what I wish for less than four. He doesn't want to do it at all; he wants to have her on her knees, to go on knowing she's suffering. And she will go on suffering unless we make her believe what I want her to. He thought I couldn't get anything like the money he asked, so he consented to take it if I did. He told me to come back when I had got it, Airey.'
'Has she got the money?'
'Yes – and perhaps enough more to pay her debts, and just to live. But it's not so much the money; it's the humiliation and the shame. Oh, don't you understand? Mr. Fricker will spare her that if – if he's bribed with a thousand pounds.'
He looked at her eager eyes and flushed cheeks; she pushed back her hair from her brow.
'He asks four thousand pounds,' she said, and added, pointing to the little bag, 'There's five hundred there.'
As she spoke she turned her eyes away from him towards the window. It did not seem to her fair to look at him; and her gaze would tell too much perhaps. She had given him the facts now; what would he make of them? She had broken her word to Trix Trevalla. Her pledge to Tommy Trent was still inviolate. Tommy had trusted her implicitly when she had surprised from him his friend's secret that his carelessness let slip. He had taken her word as he would have accepted the promise of an honourable man, a man honourable in business, or a friend of years. Her knowledge had counted as ignorance for him because she had engaged to be silent. The engagement was not broken yet. She waited fearfully. Airey could save her still. What would he do?
The seconds wore on, seeming very long. They told her of his struggle. She understood it with a rare sympathy, the sympathy we have for the single scar or stain on the heart of one we love; towards such a thing she could not be bitter. But she hoped passionately that he himself would conquer, would spare both himself and her. If he did, it would be the finest thing in the world, she thought.
She heard him move across to the safe and lock it. She heard him shut the red-leather book with a bang. Would he never speak? She would not look till he did, but she could have cried to him for a single word.
'And that was what you wanted your five hundred for?' he asked at last.
'My five hundred's no good alone.'
'It's all you've got in the world – well, except your pittance.'
She did not resent the word; he spoke it in compassion. She turned to him now and found his eyes on her.
'Oh, it's nothing to me. I never pay any attention to money, you know.' She managed a smile, trying to plead with him to think any such sacrifice a small matter, whether in another or in himself.
'Well, I see your plan, and it's very kind. A little Quixotic perhaps, Peggy – '
'Quixotic! If it saves her pain?' Peggy flashed out in real indignation.
'Anyhow what's the use of talking about it? Five hundred isn't four thousand, and Fricker won't come down, you know.'
It was pathetic to her to listen to the studied carelessness of his voice, to hear the easy reasonable words come from the twitching lips, to see the forced smile under the troubled brow. His agony was revealed to her; he was asked to throw all his dearest overboard. She stretched out her hands towards him.
'I might get help from friends, Airey.'
'Three thousand five hundred pounds?'
With sad bitterness she heard him. He was almost lying now; his manner and tone were a very lie.
'Friends who – who love her, Airey.'
He was silent for long again, moodily looking at her.
'Who would think anything well done, anything well spent, if they could save her pain!'
With an abrupt movement he turned away from her and threw himself into a chair. He could no longer bear the appeal of her eyes. At last it seemed strange as well as moving to him. But he could have no suspicion; he trusted Tommy Trent and conceived his secret to be all his own. His old great shame that Peggy should know joined forces with the hidden passion which was its parent; both fought to keep him silent, both enticed him to delude her still. Yet when she spoke of friends who loved Trix Trevalla, whom could she touch, whom could she move, as she touched and moved him? The appeal went to his heart, trying to storm it against the enemies entrenched there.
Suddenly Peggy hid her face in her hands, and gave one short sob. He looked up startled, clutching the arm of his chair with a fierce grip. He sat like that, his eyes set on her. But when he spoke, it was lamely and almost coldly.
'Of course we should all like to save her pain; we would all do what we could. But think of the money wanted! It's out of the question.'
She sprang to her feet and faced him. For the moment she forgot her tenderness for him; her understanding of his struggle was swept away in indignation.
'You love her!' she cried in defiant challenge. 'You of all people should help her. You of all people should throw all you have at her feet. You love her!'
He made no denial; he rose slowly from his chair and faced her.
'Oh, what is love if it's not that?' she demanded. 'Why, even friendship ought to be that. And love – !' Again her hands were outstretched to him in a last appeal. For still there was time – time to save his honour and her own, time to spare him and her the last shame. 'It would be riches to you, riches for ever,' she said. 'Yes, just because it's so hard, Airey!'
'What?' The word shot from his lips full of startled fear. Why did she call it hard? The word was strange. She should have said 'impossible.' Had he not put it before her as impossible? But she said 'hard,' and looked in his eyes as she spoke the word.
'Love can't make money where it isn't,' he went on in a dull, dogged, obstinate voice.
'No, but it can give it where it is!' She was carried away. 'And it's here!' she cried in accusing tones.
'Here?' He seemed almost to spring at her with the word.
'Yes, here, in this room – in that safe – everywhere!'
They stood facing one another for a moment.
'You love her – and she's ruined!'
She challenged denial. Airey Newton had no word to say. She raised her hand in the air and seemed to denounce him.
'You love her, she's ruined, and – you're rich! Oh, the shame of it – you're rich, you're rich!'
He sank back into his chair and hid his face from her.
She stood for a moment, looking at him, breathing fast and hard. Then she moved quickly to him, bent on her knee, and kissed his hand passionately. He made no movement, and she slipped quietly and swiftly from the room.