The Intrusions of Peggy
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'I'm sorry she's so seedy.' He hesitated; he longed to see Trix, even if it were no more than to see her and to give her a parting blow. 'Perhaps you'll let me send a note in, to say what my business is? It's pressing, and she might make an effort to see me for – '
'I'm afraid I must go,' Connie interrupted. 'I promised to be home.'
'Must you really? I suppose the cab's waiting.'
'You mustn't bother poor Mrs. Trevalla with business now, must he, Miss Ryle? It must wait for another day. You were coming to Cadogan Square, weren't you? I'll take you with me.'
He looked from one to the other. Never was man in a more hopeless corner. Nothing would have pleased him so much as to knock their heads together. Connie was imitating Peggy's external unconsciousness of anything remarkable in the situation as well as she could.
'We mustn't stay. Mrs. Trevalla must want you,' pursued Connie.
'Oh, I can leave her for just a few minutes,' Peggy assured her, with an anxious look at the clock.
'Good-bye, Miss Ryle,' said Connie, giving Peggy's hand a hearty squeeze. She passed on towards the door and opened it. Holding it ajar, she looked round and waited for Beaufort Chance. For an instant he stood where he was. The idea of rebellion was still in him. But his spirit failed. He came up to Peggy and sullenly bade her farewell.
'Good-bye,' said Peggy in a low voice. Its tone struck him as odd; when he looked in her eyes he saw a touch of compassion. It flashed across him that she understood what he was feeling, that she saw how his acts had brought him lower than his nature need have been brought – or at least that she was sorry that this fate, and nothing less than this, must be held to be justice.
'Good-bye, Miss Ryle. My regrets to Mrs. Trevalla. I hope for another opportunity. Now I'm ready, Miss Fricker, and most delighted to have the chance.'
At all times let the proprieties be sacred!
That is, let them be observed in the presence of third parties – especially if those parties have brought us to humiliation. They are not so exacting in a vehicle that holds only two.
'Your turn to-day; mine some other day, Connie,' said Beaufort Chance, as he sullenly settled himself in the cab.
'Oh, don't talk bosh, and don't sulk. You've found out that I'm not a fool. Is there any harm in that?' She turned to him briskly. 'There are just two ways of taking this,' she told him. 'One is to be bullied into it by papa. The other is to do it pleasantly. Since there's no way not to do it, which of those two do you think best?'
'Did you mean it all the time?' he asked, sullen still, but curious.
'As soon as I began to be really gone on you,' she answered him. The phrase is not classical, but she used it, and used it with a very clear purpose. 'You don't suppose I like being – being disagreeable, and seeming to have – to have to force you to what you'd always let me understand you wanted? A girl has some self-respect, Beaufort.'
'Some girls have got a deuced good set of brains, anyhow,' he said, feeling for her some of the admiration that her father's clear purposes and resolute pursuit of them always claimed for him.
'Do you suppose' (Connie's face looked out of the other side of the cab) 'that if I hadn't been awfully fond of you – ?'
He believed her, which was not strange; what she said was near enough to the truth to be rather strange.Yet it was not incongruous in her. And she seized a good moment for confessing it. If he would choose the pleasant way of accepting the inevitable, it should be made very pleasant to him. Nor was she indifferent as to which way he chose. She had her father in reserve, and would invoke his help if need be; but she hated to think of his smile while he gave it. Suddenly, under the board of the cab, she put her hand into Beaufort Chance's and gave his a squeeze.
He surrendered; but he kept up a little bit of pretence to the last. Connie let him keep it up, and humoured him in it.
'All right. But I'll tell you what I think of your little game when we're alone together!'
'Oh, I say, you frighten me!' cried Connie tactfully. 'You won't be cruel, will you, Beaufort dear?'
She would have made an excellent Mayor of the Palace to a blustering but easily managed king.
He had chosen the pleasant way, and verily all things were made pleasant to him. Mrs. Fricker was archly maternal. A mother's greeting for him, an indulgent mother's forgiveness for Connie's secrecy. No more than a ponderously playful 'Naughty child!' redeemed in an instant by 'But we could always trust her!' Not thus always Mrs. Fricker towards Connie and her diversions, as Connie's anxiety in the past well testified. But there, an engagement in the end does make a difference – if it is a desirable one. It would seem dangerous to divorce morality and prudence, since the apostles of each have ever been supremely anxious to prove that it coincided with, if it did not even include, the other; let us hope that they seek rather to excuse their opponents than to fortify themselves.
Fricker too was benevolent; he hinted at millions; he gave Beaufort to understand that while a partner or associate was one thing, a member of the family would be quite another; crumbs from the rich man's table compared with 'All that I have is thine' was about the difference. It is true that Fricker smiled here and there, and just at first had seemed to telegraph something to his daughter's wide-awake eyes, and to receive a reply that increased his cordiality. What of that? Who cares for a whip if it be left hanging on the peg? It is at worst a hint which any wise and well-bred slave will notice, but ignore. Not a reminder of it came from Fricker, unless in a certain far-away reflectiveness of smile. He had spent an hour that day in the task of finding out how entirely he held Beaufort in the hollow of his hand. The time was not wasted – besides, it was a recreation. But he did not wish to have to shut his fist and squeeze; he preferred at all times that things should go pleasantly, and his favourite moral lessons be inculcated by the mild uses of persuasion. 'Now you're one of us,' he told Beaufort, grasping his hand. Well, possibly he glanced at the whip out of the corner of his eye when he was saying that.
And Connie herself? She was the finest diplomatist of the three, for her heart was in the work. So much falsehood comes from no cause as from labelling human folk with a single ticket; a bundle of them might have been adequate to Connie. The time came which Beaufort had threatened – when they were alone as an affianced pair. The thing was done; she had spared no roughness in doing it. Now she set herself to make him content; nor did she force him to retract his threats. Her own mind was divided as to their relations When it came to the point of a clash of wills (to use a phrase consecrated by criticism), she found always that she wished her's to prevail; in lighter questions she was primitive enough to cherish the ideal of herself as a willing slave. If Beaufort had not been able to raise that illusion in her from time to time, she would not have liked him so much, nor gone to such lengths to prove her own ultimate mastery. Almost persuading herself, she almost persuaded him; and in this effort she became pleasant to him again. Thus she compromised between her woman's temperament and her masculine will. If he would accept the compromise as a permanent basis, their union promised to go very smoothly.
'If you'd been like this,' he told her, 'there wouldn't have been any trouble this afternoon.'
She endorsed the monstrous falsehood readily.
'No, it was all my fault. But I was – so terrified of losing you.'
'You tried to threaten me into it!'
He could not be so deluded as to doubt what she had done. But he wanted the forlorn comfort of a brave face over a beaten heart.
'You threatened me too,' whispered Connie.
She broke away from him and took up her old jaunty attitude – arm on the mantel-piece, foot on the fender – again: there was challenge in the eyes that met his boldly.
'You did want some persuading,' she reminded him.
He laughed. 'Well, Trix Trevalla's a devilish pretty woman – and a bit easier to hold than you.'
'I'm easy enough, if your hand's light. As for her, she'd have worried you to death. She'd have hated you, Beaufort.'
He did not like that, and showed it.
'And I – don't!' Connie went on with a dazzling smile. 'Well, you're staring at me. How do I look?'
So she played her fish, with just enough hint of her power, with just enough submission to the legitimate sway she invited him to exercise. It was all very dexterous; there was probably no other road to her end. If it seems in some ways not attractive – well, we must use the weapons we have or be content to go to the wall. When she bade him good-night – still Mrs. Fricker was strong on reputable hours, and Connie herself assumed a new touch of scrupulousness (she was a free lance no more) – his embrace did not lack ardour. She disengaged herself from his arms with a victorious laugh.
Her mother waited for her, vigilant but approving – just a little anxious too.
'Well, Connie, is he very happy?'
'It's all right, mamma.' Her assurance was jovially impudent. 'I can do just what I like with him!'
'You'll have a job sometimes,' opined Mrs. Fricker.
'That's half the fun.' She thought a moment, and then spoke with a startling candour – with an unceremoniousness which Mrs. Fricker would have reproved twenty-four hours earlier. 'I'm very fond of him,' she said, 'but Beaufort's a funk in the end, you know.' She swung herself off to bed, singing a song. Her title to triumph is not to be denied. Peggy Ryle had furnished the opportunity, but the use of it had been all her own. A natural exultation may excuse the exclamation with which she jumped into bed:
'I knew Mrs. Trevalla wouldn't be in it if I got a fair show!'
Beaufort Chance stayed a while alone in the drawing-room before he went down to join Fricker over a cigar. He had enjoyed Connie's company that night; the truth stood out undeniable. She had made him forget what her company meant and would cost – nay, more, what it would bring him in worldly gain. She had made him forget, or cease to wish for, Trix Trevalla. She had banished the thought of what he had been and once had hoped to be. If she could do that for him, would he be unhappy? For a moment he almost prayed to be always unhappy in the thing which he was now set to do. For after an hour of blindness there came, as often, an hour of illumination almost unnatural. In the light of it he saw one of the worst things that a man can see. Enough of his old self and of his old traditions remained to make his eyes capable of the vision. He knew that the worst in him had been pleased; he saw that to please the worst in him threatened now to become enough. His record was not very good, but had he deserved this? It is useless to impugn the way of things. The knowledge came to him that, as he had more and more sought the low and not the high, so more and more the low had become sufficient to him. The knowledge was very bitter; but with a startled horror he anticipated the time when he would lose it. He had lost so much – public honour, private scruples, delicacy of taste. He had set out with at least a respect for these things and with that share in them which the manner of his life and the standard of his associates imparted to him. They were all gone. He was degraded. He knew that now, and he feared that even the consciousness of it would soon die.
There was no help for it. In such cases there is none, unless a man will forsake all and go naked into the wilderness. To such a violent remedy he was unequal. It did not need Fricker's smooth assumption that all was settled to tell him that all was settled indeed. It did not need Fricker's welcome to the bosom of the family to tell him that of that family he would now be. Fricker's eulogy of his daughter was unnecessary, since soon to Beaufort too she would seem a meet subject for unstinted praise.
Yet Fricker did not lack some insight into his thoughts.
'I daresay, old fellow,' he remarked, warming his back before the fire – which he liked at nights, whatever the season of the year – 'that this isn't quite what you expected when you began life, but, depend upon it, it's very good business. After all, we very few of us get what we think we shall when we set up in the thing. Here am I – and, by Jove, I started life secretary to a Diocesan Benevolent Fund, and wanting to marry the Archdeacon's daughter! Here are you – well, we know all about you, Beaufort, my boy! Old Mervyn hasn't quite done the course he set out to do. Where's our friend Mrs. Trevalla? What's going to happen to pretty Peggy Ryle?' He dropped his coat-tails and shrugged his shoulders. 'Between you and me, and not for the ladies, we take what we can get and try to be thankful. It's a queer business, but you haven't drawn such a bad ticket after all.'
Beaufort Chance took a long pull of whisky-and-soda. The last idea of violent rebellion was gone. Under the easy tones, the comfortably pessimistic doctrine (there is much and peculiar comfort in doctrine of that colour), proceeding from the suave and well-warmed preacher on the hearthrug, there lay a polite intimation of the inevitable. If Fate and the Frickers seemed to mingle and become indistinct in conception, why, so they did in fact. Whose was the whip on the peg – Fate's or Fricker's? And who gives either Fate or Frickers power? Whatever the answer to these questions, Beaufort Chance had no mind that the whip should be taken down.
'I've nothing to complain of,' said he, and drank again.
Fricker watched the gulps with a fatherly smile.