The Intrusions of Peggy
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Airey seemed to surrender himself into her hands; he climbed into the cab docilely. She had run down first and given the man a direction. Airey did not ask where they were going. She opened the little bag, took out its contents, and thrust them into his hands; he pocketed them without a word. They drove westward. She glanced at him covertly once or twice; his face was puzzled, but not pained. He wore an air of sedate meditation; it was so out of keeping with the character of the expedition that Peggy smiled again.
She darted another quick look at him as they drew up at their first destination. He raised his brows a little, but followed her in silence. Peggy gave a gasp of relief as they passed within the doors.
The shopman was not tall and prim, like the bank clerk; he was short, stout, and inclined to roguishness; his eyes twinkled over Peggy, but he was fairly at his wits' end for an explanation. They could not be an engaged pair; Airey's manner gave no hint of it – and the shopman was an experienced judge. Was it an intrigue? Really, in the shopman's opinion, Airey's coat forbade the supposition. He inclined to the theory of a doting uncle or a prodigal godfather. He tumbled out his wares in the profusion such a chance demanded.
At first Airey was very indifferent, but presently he warmed up. He became critical as to the setting of a ring, as to the stones in a bracelet. He even suggested once or twice that the colour of the stones was not suitable, and Peggy was eager to agree. The shopman groped in deeper darkness, since he had taken Peggy's complexion as his guiding star. However the bargains were made – that was the thing; three or four little boxes lay on the counter neatly packed.
'I will bring them round myself, madame, if you will favour me with the address.'
'We'll take them with us, please,' said Peggy.
There was a moment's pause; a polite but embarrassed smile appeared on the shopman's face; an altogether different explanation had for the moment suggested itself.
'We'll pay now and take them with us,' said Peggy.
'Oh, certainly, if you prefer, madame,' murmured the shopman gratefully. He engaged upon figures. Peggy jumped down from her chair and ranged about the shop, inspecting tiaras at impossible prices. She did not come back for three or four minutes. Airey was waiting for her, the small boxes in his hand.
She darted out of the shop and gave the cabman another direction. Airey followed her with a slowness that seemed deliberate. She said nothing till they stopped again; then she observed, just as she got out of the cab, 'This is the best place for pearls.'
Airey was a connoisseur of pearls, or so it seemed. He awoke to an extraordinary interest in them; Peggy and he actually quarrelled over the relative merits of a couple of strings. The shopman arbitrated in favour of the more highly priced; it had been Airey's choice, and he was ungracefully exultant.
'I don't like shopping with you,' declared Peggy pettishly.
'Anything for a quiet life!' sighed Airey.'We'll have them both.'
A quick suspicion shot into her eyes.
'No, no, no,' she whispered imperatively.
'It would just spoil it all. Don't spoil it, Airey!'
He yielded. Here again the shopman had several theories, but no conviction as to the situation.
'Now we might lunch,' Peggy suggested. 'It's very tiring work, isn't it?'
At lunch Airey was positively cantankerous. Nothing in the table d'h?te meal satisfied him; the place had to be ransacked for recondite dainties. As for wine, he tried three brands before he would drink, and then did not pretend to be satisfied. The cigar he lit afterwards was an ostentatious gold-wrapped monster. 'We procure them especially for the Baron von Plutopluter,' the waiter informed him significantly.
'I'll put half a dozen in my pocket,' said Airey.
Peggy eyed the cigar apprehensively.
'Will that take very long?' she asked. 'We've lots more to do, you know.'
'What more is there to do?' he inquired amiably.
'Well, there's a good deal left still, you know,' she murmured in a rather embarrassed way.
'By Jove, so there is,' he agreed. 'But I don't quite see – '
Certainly Peggy was a little troubled; her confidence seemed to fail her rather; she appeared to contemplate a new and difficult enterprise.
'There isn't a bit too much if – if we do the proper thing,' she said. She looked at him – it might be said she looked over him – with a significant gaze. He glanced down at his coat:
'Oh, nonsense! There's no fun in that,' he objected.
'It's quite half the whole thing,' she insisted.
There were signs of rebellion about him; he fussed and fidgeted, hardly doing justice to the Baron von Plutopluter's taste in cigars.
'I shall look such an ass,' he grumbled at last.
'You shall be quite moderate,' she pleaded speciously, but insincerely. She was relieved at the form of his objection; she had feared worse. His brow, too, cleared a little.
'Is there really any philosophy in it, Peggy?' he asked in a humorous puzzle.
'You liked it. You know you enjoyed it this morning.'
'That was for – well, I hope for somebody else.'
'Do try it – just this once,' she implored.
He abandoned himself to her persuasion; had not that been his bargain for the day? The hansom was called into service again. First to Panting's – where Airey's coat gave a shock such as the establishment had not experienced for many a day – then to other high-class shops. Into some of these Peggy did not accompany him. She would point to a note and say, 'Not more than half the change out of that,' or 'No change at all out of that.' When Airey came out she watched eagerly to see how profound would be the shopman's bow, how urgent his entreaty that he might be honoured by further favours. It is said that the rumour of a new millionaire ran through the London of trade that day.
'Are you liking it, Airey?' She was nearly at an end of her invention when she put the question.
He would give her no answer. 'Have you anywhere else you want to go?'
She thought hard. He turned to her smiling:
'Positively I will not become the owner of a grand piano.'
A brilliant idea flashed on her – obvious as soon as discovered, like all brilliant ideas:
'Why, you'll have nothing decent to carry them in when you go visiting!'
A sudden sense of ludicrousness overcame Airey; he lay back in the cab and laughed. Was the idea of visiting so ludicrous? Or was it the whole thing? And Peggy's anxious seriousness alternating with fits of triumphant vivacity? All through the visit to the trunk-maker's Airey laughed.
'I can't think of anything else – though there's a note left,' she said with an air of vexed perplexity.
'You're absolutely gravelled, are you?' he asked. 'No, no, not the piano!'
'I'm finished,' she acknowledged sorrowfully. She turned to him with an outburst of gleefulness. 'Hasn't it been a wonderful day? Haven't we squandered, Airey?'
'We've certainly done ourselves very well,' said he.
The cabman begged directions through the roof.
'I don't know,' murmured Peggy in smiling despair. 'Yes, yes,' she called, 'back to Danes Inn! Tea and bread-and-butter, Airey!'
He took the key of his chambers from his pocket. 'You go and make tea. I'll be after you directly.'
'Have you thought of anything else?' she cried with a merry smile.
'I want to walk home and think about it,' said Airey. 'I sha'n't be long. Good-bye.' He recollected a trifle. 'Here's some money for the cab.'
'All that?' asked Peggy.
'He's sure we're mad already. Don't let's disturb his convictions,' Airey argued.
She gave no order to the man for a moment; she sat and watched Airey stroll off down Regent Street, his hands in his pockets (he never would carry a stick) and his head bent a little forward, as his custom was. 'What is he thinking?' she asked herself. What would he think when he realised the freak into which she had led him? He might turn very bitter – not with her, but with himself. The enjoyment into which he had been betrayed might now, in a reaction of feeling, seem the merest folly. How should she argue that it had not been? What would any sober judgment on it say? Peggy drove back to Danes Inn in an anxious and depressed state. Yet ever and again the humours of the expedition broke in on her memory, and she smiled again. She chinked the two sovereigns he had given her in her hand. What was the upshot of the day? When she paid the cabman she exchanged smiles with him; that gave her some little comfort.
Danes Inn was comforting too. She hastened to make tea; everything was to be as in old days; to add to the illusion, she herself, having been too excited to eat lunch, was now genuinely hungry. She began to cut bread-and-butter. The loaf was stale! Why, that was like old days too; she used to grumble at that, and Airey always seemed distressed; he used to pledge himself to have new loaves, but they did not always come. Now she saw why. She cut the bread with a liberal and energetic hand; but as she cut – nothing could be more absurd or incongruous – tears came into her eyes. 'He never grudged me enough, anyhow,' she murmured, buttering busily.
Surely, surely, what she had done should turn to good? Must it stand only as a fit of madness, to be looked back on with shame or spoken of with bitter ridicule? It was open enough to all this. Her heart still declared that it was open to something else too. The sun shot a ray in at the big dingy window, and lit up her face and hair. Her task was finished; she threw herself into her usual chair and waited. When he came she would know. He would have thought it over. His step was on the stair; she had left the door unlatched for him; she sat and waited, shutting her eyes before the brightness of that intruding ray.
An apprehension seized her – the fear of a task which she delayed. The step might not be Airey's; it might be Tommy Trent's. She might never be ready with her apology to Tommy, but at any rate she was not ready yet. No, surely it could not be Tommy! Why should he happen to come now? It was much more likely to be Airey.
The expected happened; after all, it sometimes does. Airey it was; the idea that it was Tommy had served only to increase Peggy's sense of the generally critical character of the situation. She had taken such risks with everybody – perhaps she must say such liberties.
'Tea's ready,' she called to Airey the moment he appeared.
He took no sort of notice of that. His face, grave, as a rule, and strong, heretofore careworn too, had put on a strange boyish gaiety. He came up behind her chair. She tried to rise. He pressed her down, his hands on her shoulders.
'Sit still,' he commanded. 'Lean your head forward. You've got a plaguey lot of hair, Peggy!'
'What are you doing?' she demanded fiercely.
'You've ordered me about all day. Sit still.'
She felt his fingers on her neck; then she felt too, the touch of things smooth and cold. A little clasp clicked home. Airey Newton sprang back. Peggy was on her feet in a moment.
'You've done that, after all?' she cried indignantly.
'You were at the end of your ideas. That's mine – and it balanced the thing out to the last farthing!'
'I told you it would spoil it all!' Her reproach was bitter, as she touched the string of pearls.
'No, Peggy,' he said. 'It only spoils it if it was a prank, an experiment, a test of your ingenuity, young woman. But it doesn't spoil it if it was something else.'
'What else?' she asked softly, sinking back again into her chair and fingering his present with a touch so gentle as to seem almost reverent. 'What else, Airey dear?'
'It came on me as I walked away from the shop – not while I was going there. I was rather unhappy till I got there. But as I walked home – with that thing – it seemed to come on me.' He was standing before her with the happy look of a man to whom happiness is something strange and new. '"That's it," I thought to myself, "though how the deuce that chit found it out – !" It would be bad, Peggy, if a man who had worshipped an idol kicked it every day after he was converted. It would be vicious and unbecoming. But he should kick it once in token of emancipation. If a man had loved an unworthy woman (supposing there are any), he should be most courteous to her always, shouldn't he?'
'As a rule,' smiled Peggy.
'As a rule, yes,' he caught up eagerly. 'But shouldn't she have the truth once? She'd have been a superstition too, and for once the truth should be told. Well, all that came to me. And that's the philosophy of it. Though how you found it out – ! Well, no matter. So it's not a mere freak. Was it a mere test of your ingenuity, young friend?'
'I just had to try it,' said Peggy Ryle, bewildered, delighted, bordering on tears.
'So will you wear the pearls?' He paused, then laughed. 'Yes, and eat your bread-and-butter.' He came up to her, holding out his hands. 'The chains are loose, Peggy; the chains are loose.' He seized his pipe and began to fill it, motioning her again towards the tea-table. To humour him she went to it and took up a slice of bread-and-butter.
'A stale loaf, Airey!' she whispered – and seemed to choke before she tasted it in an anticipated struggle with its obstinate substance.
He smiled in understanding. 'How men go wrong – and women! Look at me, look at Fricker, yes, look at – her! We none of us knew the way. Fricker won't learn. She has – perhaps! I have, I think.' He moved towards her. 'And you've done it, Peggy.'
'No, no,' she cried. 'Oh, how can you be so wrong as that?'
'What?' He stood still in surprise. 'Didn't you suggest it all? Didn't you take me? Wasn't it for you that I did it?'
'Oh, you're so blind!' she cried scornfully. 'Perhaps I suggested it, perhaps I went with you! What does that matter?'
'Well, Peggy?' he said in his old indulgent, pleasant way.
'Oh, I'm glad only one thing's changed in you!' she burst out.
'Well, Peggy?' he persisted.
'Were you thinking of me?' she demanded contemptuously. 'Were you kicking your idol for me? Were you buying for me? What made it harder to buy after lunch than before? Was that the difference between buying for yourself and for me?' Her scorn grew with every question. 'What have I done that you should give me this?' She plucked fretfully at the offending string of pearls.
'Never mind that. It was only to use up the change – if you like. What do you mean by the rest of it?'
'What do I mean?' cried Peggy. 'I mean that if you've done her a service, she's done you more. If you've given her back her self-respect, what hasn't she done for you? Are you going to her as her saviour? Oh, I know you won't talk about it! But is that in your mind? Go to her as yours too! Be honest, Airey! Whose face was in your mind through the drive to-day? If you ever thought of telling it all, whom were you going to tell it to? If you wanted to be free, for whom did you want your freedom? I! What had I to do with it? If I could seem to speak with her voice, it was all I could do. And you've been thinking that she's done nothing for you. Oh, the injustice of it!' She put up her hand and laid it on his, which now rested on the back of her chair. 'Don't you see, Airey; don't you see?'
He smoked his pipe steadily, but as yet he gave her no assent.
'It's cost me nothing – or not much,' Peggy went on. 'I broke two promises – '
'Two?' he interrupted quickly.
'Yes, one you know – to Tommy.' He nodded. 'The other to her – I promised to tell no one she was ruined. But that's not much. It seems to me as if all that she's gone through, all she's lost, all she's suffered – yes, if you like, all the wrong things she's done – had somehow all been for you. She was the only woman who could have made the change in you. Nobody else could have driven out the idol, Airey. You talk of me. You've known me for years. Did I ever drive it out? No, she had to do it. And before she could, she had to be ruined, she had to be in the dust – perhaps she had to be cruel or unjust to others. I can't work out the philosophy of it, but that's how it's happened.' She paused, only to break out vehemently again: 'You spoil it with your talk of me; you spoil it with the necklace!' With a sudden movement she raised her hands, unclasped the pearls from about her neck, and threw them on the table. 'Everything for her, Airey,' she begged, 'everything for her!'
His eyes followed the pearls, and he smiled. 'But what about all the things for me?'
'Aren't they for her too? Aren't you for her? Wouldn't you go to her as fine as you could?'
'What a woman – what a very woman you are!' he chuckled softly.
'No, that's all right,' she insisted eagerly. 'Would she be happy if you lavished things on her and were still wretched if you had anything for yourself?' She was full of her subject; she sprang up and faced him. 'Not this time to the poor, because they can't repay! Not this time to the fire, because it would give you no profit! You must love this – it's a great investment!'
He sat down in the chair she had left empty and played with the pearls that lay on the table.
'Yes, you're right,' he said at last. 'She was the beginning of it. It was she who – but shall I tell that to her?'
'Yes, tell it to her, to her only,' urged Peggy Ryle.
'Give me your hands, Peggy. I want to tell something to you.'
'No, no, there's nothing to tell me – nothing!'
'If the philosophy is great and true, is there to be no credit for the teacher?'
'Did I?' murmured Peggy, 'did I?' She went on in a hurried whisper: 'If that's at all true, perhaps Tommy Trent will forgive me for breaking my word.'
'If Fricker fell, and I have fallen, who is Tommy Trent?'
She moved away with a laugh, hunted for a cigarette – the box was hidden by papers – found it, and lit it. She saw Airey take up the pearls, go to the safe, open it, and lock them in.
'Never!' she cried in gay but determined protest.
'Yes, some day,' said he quietly, as he went back to his seat.
They sat together in silence till Peggy had finished her cigarette and thrown it away.
'If all goes well,' he said softly, more as though he spoke to himself than to her, 'I shall have something to work for now. I can fancy work will be very pleasant now, if things go well, Peggy.'
She rose and crossed over to him.
'I must run away,' she said softly. She leant down towards him. 'Is it a great change?' she asked.
'Tremendous – as tremendous as its philosophy.' He was serious under the banter. She was encouraged to her last venture, which he might have laughed back into retreat.
'It isn't really any change to me,' she told him in a voice that trembled a little. 'You've always been all right to me. This has always been a refuge and a hospitable home to me. If it had all failed, I should have loved you still, Airey, my friend.'
Airey was silent again for an instant.
'Thank God, I think I can believe you in that,' he said at last.
She waited a moment longer, caressing his hand gently.
'And you'll go soon?' she whispered. 'You'll go to her soon?'
'This very night, my dear,' said Airey Newton.
Peggy stood upright. Again the sun's rays caught her eyes and hair, and flashed on her hands as she stretched them out in an ample luxury of joy.
'Oh, what a world it is, if you treat it properly, Airey!' she cried.
But she also had made her discovery. It was with plain amusement and a little laugh, still half-incredulous, that she added: 'And after all there may be some good in saving money too!'