The Intrusions of Peggy
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Peggy had just bought a new frock – and paid for it under some pressure – and a cheque had not come for ever so long; so she ate bread-and-butter steadily and happily, interrupting herself only to pour out more tea. At last Airey pushed away his papers and models, saying, 'That's done, thank heaven!' and got up to light his pipe. Peggy poured out a cup of tea for him, and he came across the room for it. He looked much as when he had met Trix Trevalla in Paris, but his hair was shorter and his beard trimmed close and cut to a point; these improvements were due to Peggy's reiterated entreaties.
'Well?' he asked, standing before her, his eyes twinkling kindly.
'Times are hard, but the heart is light, Airey. I've been immortalised in a sonnet – '
'Dissected in an essay too?' he suggested with ironical admiration.
'I don't recognise myself there. And I've had an offer – '
'Not that sort – an offer of a riding-horse. But I haven't got a habit.'
'Nor a stable perhaps?'
'No, nor a stable. I didn't think of that. And you, Airey?'
'Barring the horse, and the sonnet, and the essay, I'm much as you are, Peggy.'
She threw her head back a little and looked at him; her tone, while curious, was also slightly compassionate.
'I suppose you get some money for your things sometimes?' she asked. 'I mean, when you invent a – a – well, say a corkscrew, they give you something?'
'Of course. I make my living that way. He smiled faintly at the involuntary glance from Peggy's eyes that played round the room. 'Yesterday's again!' he exclaimed suddenly, taking up the loaf. 'I told Mrs. Stryver I wouldn't have a yesterday's!' His tone was indignant; he seemed anxious to vindicate himself.
'It won't be to-morrow's, anyhow,' laughed Peggy, regarding the remaining and much diminished fragment in his hand. 'It wasn't badly stale.'
Airey took his pipe out of his mouth and spoke with the abruptness of a man who has just made up his mind to speak.
'Do you know a Mrs. Trevalla?' he asked.
'Oh, yes; by sight very well.'
'How does she strike you?'
'Well – certainly pretty; probably clever; perhaps – Is she a friend of yours?'
'I've known about her a long while and met her once.'
'Once! Well, then, perhaps unscrupulous.'
'Why do you think she's unscrupulous?'
'Why do you ask me about her?' retorted Peggy.
'She's written to me, proposing to come and see me.'
'Have you asked her? I can't have you having a lot of visitors, you know. I come here for quiet.'
Airey looked a little embarrassed. 'Well, I did give her a sort of general invitation,' he murmured, fingering his beard. 'That is, I told her to come if – if she was in any difficulty.' He turned an appealing glance towards Peggy's amused face. 'Have you heard of her being in any difficulty?'
'No; but I should think it's not at all unlikely.'
'Have you ever had two people in love with you at the same time?'
'Never, on my honour,' said Airey with obvious sincerity.
'If you had, and if you were as pleasant as you could be to both of them, and kept them going by turns, and got all you could out of both of them, and kept on like that for about two months – '
'Oh, that's how the land lies, is it?'
'Don't you think it possible you might be in a difficulty some day?'
'But, good heavens, that's not the sort of thing to bring to me!'
'Apparently Mrs.Trevalla thinks differently,' laughed Peggy. 'At least I can't think of any other difficulty she's likely to be in.'
Airey was obviously disturbed and displeased.
'If what you say is true,' he observed, 'she can't be a good sort of woman.'
'I suppose not.' Peggy's admission sounded rather reluctant.
'Who are the two men?'
'Lord Mervyn and Beaufort Chance.'
'M.P.'s, aren't they?'
'Among other things, Airey. Well, you can't tell her not to come, can you? After that sort of general invitation, you know.' Peggy's tone was satirical; she had rather strong views as to the way in which men made fools of themselves over women – or sometimes said she had.
'I was an old friend of her husband's.'
'Oh, you've nothing to apologise for. When does she want to come?'
'To-morrow. I say, oughtn't I to offer to go and call on her?'
'She'd think that very dull in comparison,' Peggy assured him. 'Let her come and sob out her trouble here.'
'You appear to be taking the matter in a flippant spirit, Peggy.'
'I don't think I'm going to be particularly sorry if Mrs. Trevalla is in a bit of a scrape.'
'You young women are so moral.'
'I don't care,' said Peggy defiantly.
'Women have an extraordinary gift for disliking one another on sight,' mused Airey in an injured voice.
'You seem to have liked Mrs. Trevalla a good deal on sight.'
'She looked so sad, so solitary, a mere girl in her widow's weeds.' His tone grew compassionate, almost tender, as he recalled the forlorn figure which had timidly stolen into the dining-room of the Paris hotel.
'You'll find her a little bit changed perhaps,' Peggy suggested with a suppressed malice that found pleasure in anticipating his feelings.
'Oh, well, she must come anyhow, I suppose.'
'Yes, let her come, Airey. It does these people good to see how the poor live.'
Airey laughed, but not very heartily. However, it was well understood that everybody in their circle was very poor, and Peggy felt no qualms about referring to the fact.
'I shall come the next day and hear all about the interview. Fancy these interesting things happening to you! Because, you know, she's rather famous. Mrs. Bonfill has taken her up, and the Glentorlys are devoted to her, and Lady Blixworth has said some of her best things about her. She'll bring you into touch with fashion.'
'Hang fashion!' said Airey. 'I wonder what her difficulty is.' He seemed quite preoccupied with the idea of Mrs. Trevalla's difficulty.
'I see you're going to be very romantic indeed,' laughed Peggy Ryle.
His eyes dwelt on her for a moment, and a very friendly expression filled them.
'Don't you get into any difficulties?' he said.
'There's never but one with me,' she laughed; 'and that doesn't hurt, Airey.'
There was a loud and cheerful knock on the door.
'Visitors! When people come, how do you account for me?'
'I say nothing. I believe you're taken for my daughter.'
'Not since you trimmed your beard! Well, it doesn't matter, does it? Let him in.'
The visitor proved to be nobody to whom Peggy needed to be accounted for; he was Tommy Trent, the smart, trim young man who had danced with her at Mrs. Bonfill's party.
'You here again!' he exclaimed in tones of grave censure, as he laid down his hat on the top of the red-leather book on the little table. He blew on the book first, to make sure it was not dusty.
Peggy smiled, and Airey relit his pipe. Tommy walked across and looked at the d?bris of the loaf. He shook his head when Peggy offered him tea.
A sudden idea seemed to occur to him.
'I'm awfully glad to find you here,' he remarked to her. 'It saves me going up to your place, as I meant. I've got some people dining to-night, and one of them's failed. I wonder if you'd come? I know it's a bore coming again so soon, but – '
'I haven't been since Saturday.'
'But it would get me out of a hole.' He spoke in humble entreaty.
'I'd come directly, but I'm engaged.'
Tommy looked at her sorrowfully, and, it must be added, sceptically.
'Engaged to dinner and supper,' averred Peggy with emphasis as she pulled her hat straight and put on her gloves.
'You wouldn't even look in between the two and – and have an ice with us?'
'I really can't eat three meals in one evening, Tommy.'
'Oh, chuck one of them. You might, for once!'
'Impossible! I'm dining with my oldest friend,' smiled Peggy. 'I simply can't.' She turned to Airey, giving him her hand with a laugh. 'I like you best, because you just let me – '
Both words and laughter died away; she stopped abruptly, looking from one man to the other. There was something in their faces that arrested her words and her merriment. She could not analyse what it was, but she saw that she had made both of them uncomfortable. They had guessed what she was going to say; it would have been painful to one of them, and the other knew it. But whom had she wounded – Tommy by implying that his hospitality was importunate and his kindness clumsy, or Airey by a renewed reference to his poverty as shown in the absence of pressing invitations from him? She could not tell; but a constraint had fallen on them both. She cut her farewell short and went away, vaguely vexed and penitent for an offence which she perceived but did not understand.
The two men stood listening a moment to her light footfall on the stairs.
'It's all a lie, you know,' said Tommy. 'She isn't engaged to dinner or to supper either. It's beastly, that's what it is.'
'Yours was all a lie too, I suppose?' Airey spoke in a dull hard voice.
'Of course it was, but I could have beaten somebody up in time, or said they'd caught influenza, or been given a box at the opera, or something.'
Airey sat down by the fireplace, his chin sunk on his necktie. He seemed unhappy and rather ashamed. Tommy glanced at him with a puzzled look, shook his head, and then broke into a smile – as though, in the end, the only thing for it was to be amused. Then he drew a long envelope from his pocket.
'I've brought the certificates along,' he said. 'Here they are. Two thousand. Just look at them. It's a good thing; and if you sit on it for a bit, it'll pay for keeping.' He laid the envelope on the small table by Airey's side, took up his hat, put it on, and lit a cigarette as he repeated, 'Just see they're all right, old chap.'
'They're sure to be right.' Airey shifted uncomfortably in his chair and pulled at his empty pipe.
Tommy tilted his hat far back on his head, turned a chair back foremost, and sat down on it, facing his friend.
'I'm your business man,' he remarked. 'I do your business and I hold my tongue about it. Don't I?'
'Like the tomb,' Airey acknowledged.
'And – Well, at any rate let me congratulate you on the bread-and-butter. Only – only, I say, she'd have dined with you, if you'd asked her, Airey.'
His usually composed and unemotional voice shook for an almost imperceptible moment.
'I know,' said Airey Newton. He rose, unlocked the safe, and threw the long envelope in. Then he unlocked the red-leather book, took a pen, made a careful entry in it, re-locked it, and returned to his chair. He said nothing more, but he glanced once at Tommy Trent in a timid way. Tommy smiled back in recovered placidity. Then they began to talk of inventions, patents, processes, companies, stocks, shares, and all manner of things that produce or have to do with money.
'So far, so good,' ended Tommy. 'And if the oxygen process proves commercially practicable – it's all right in theory, I know – I fancy you may look for something big.' He threw away his cigarette and stood up, as if to go. But he lingered a moment, and a touch of embarrassment affected his manner. Airey had quite recovered his confidence and happiness during the talk on money matters.
'She didn't tell you any news, I suppose?' Tommy asked.
'What, Peggy? No, I don't think so. Well, nothing about herself, anyhow.'
'It's uncommonly wearing for me,' Tommy complained with a pathetic look on his clear-cut healthy countenance. 'I know I must play a waiting game; if I said anything to her now I shouldn't have a chance. So I have to stand by and see the other fellows make the running. By Jove, I lie awake at nights – some nights, anyhow – imagining infernally handsome poets – Old Arty Kane isn't handsome, though! I say, Airey, don't you think she's got too much sense to marry a poet? You told me I must touch her imagination. Do I look like touching anybody's imagination? I'm about as likely to do it as – as you are.' His attitude towards the suggested achievement wavered between envy and scorn.
Airey endured this outburst – and its concluding insinuation – with unruffled patience. He was at his pipe again, and puffed out wisdom securely vague.
'You can't tell with a girl. It takes them all at once sometimes. Up to now I think it's all right.'
'Not Arty Kane?'
'Nor Childwick? He's a clever chap, Childwick. Not got a sou, of course; she'd starve just the same.'
'She'd have done it before if it had been going to be Miles Childwick.'
'She'll meet some devilish fascinating chap some day, I know she will.'
'He'll ill-use her perhaps,' Airey suggested hopefully.
'Then I shall nip in, you mean? Have you been treating yourself to Drury Lane?'
Airey laughed openly, and presently Tommy himself joined in, though in a rather rueful fashion.
'Why the deuce can't we just like 'em?' he asked.
'That would be all right on the pessimistic theory of the world.'
'Oh, hang the world! Well, good-bye, old chap. I'm glad you approve of what I've done about the business.'
His reference to the business seemed to renew Airey Newton's discomfort. He looked at his friend, and after a long pause said solemnly:
'Yes, Airey Newton!'
'Would you mind telling me – man to man – how you contrive to be my friend?'
'You're the only man who knows – and you're my only real friend.'
'I regard it as just like drinking,' Tommy explained, after a minute's thought. 'You're the deuce of a good fellow in every other way. I hope you'll be cured some day too. I may live to see you bankrupt yet.'
'I work for it. I work hard and usefully.'
'And even brilliantly,' added Tommy.
'It's mine. I haven't robbed anybody. And nobody has any claim on me.'
'I didn't introduce this discussion.' Tommy was evidently pained. He held out his hand to take leave.
'It's an extraordinary thing, but there it is,' mused Airey. He took Tommy's hand and said, 'On my honour I'll ask her to dinner.'
'Where?' inquired Tommy, in a suspicious tone.
'Magnifique?' said Tommy firmly and relentlessly.
'Yes, the – the Magnifique,' agreed Airey, after another pause.
'Delighted, old man!' He waited a moment longer, but Airey Newton did not fix a date.
Airey was left sorrowful, for he loved Tommy Trent. Though Tommy knew his secret, still he loved him – a fact that may go to the credit of both men. Many a man in Airey's place would have hated Tommy, even while he used and relied on him; for Tommy's knowledge put Airey to shame – a shame he could not stifle any more than he could master the thing that gave it birth.
Certainly Tommy deserved not to be hated, for he was very loyal. He showed that only two days later, and at a cost to himself. He was dining with Peggy Ryle – not she with him; for a cheque had arrived, and they celebrated its coming. Tommy, in noble spirits (the coming of a cheque was as great an event to him as to Peggy herself), told her how he had elicited the offer of a dinner from Airey Newton; he chuckled in pride over it.
How men misjudge things! Peggy sat up straight in her chair and flushed up to the outward curve of her hair.
'How dare you?' she cried. 'As if he hadn't done enough for me already! I must have eaten pounds of butter – of mere butter alone! You know he can't afford to give dinners.'
Besides anger, there was a hint of pride in her emphasis on 'dinners.'
'I believe he can,' said Tommy, with the air of offering a hardy conjecture.
'I know he can't, or of course he would. Do you intend to tell me that Airey – Airey of all men – is mean?'
'Oh, no, I – I don't say – '
'It's you that's mean! I never knew you do such a thing before. You've quite spoilt my pleasure this evening.' She looked at him sternly. 'I don't like you at all to-night. I'm very grievously disappointed in you.'
Temptation raged in Tommy Trent; he held it down manfully.
'Well, I don't suppose he'll give the dinner, anyhow,' he remarked morosely.
'No, because he can't; but you'll have made him feel miserable about it. What time is it? I think I shall go home.'
'Look here, Peggy; you aren't doing me justice.'
'Well, what have you got to say?'
Tommy, smoking for a moment or two, looked across at her and answered, 'Nothing.'
She rose and handed him her purse.
'Pay the bill, please, and mind you give the waiter half-a-crown. And ask him to call me a cab, please.'
'It's only half a mile, and it's quite fine.'
'A rubber-tired hansom, please, with a good horse.'
Tommy put her into the cab and looked as if he would like to get in too. The cabman, generalising from observed cases, held the reins out of the way, that Tommy's tall hat might mount in safety.
'Tell him where to go, please. Good-night,' said Peggy.
Tommy was left on the pavement. He walked slowly along to his club, too upset to think of having a cigar.
'Very well,' he remarked, as he reached his destination. 'I played fair, but old Airey shall give that dinner – I'm hanged if he sha'n't! – and do it as if he liked it too!'
A vicious chuckle surprised the hall-porter as Tommy passed within the precincts.
Peggy drove home, determined to speak plainly to Airey himself; that was the only way to put it right.
'He shall know that I do him justice, anyhow,' said she. Thanks to the cheque, she was feeling as the rich feel, or should feel, towards those who have helped them in early days of struggle; she experienced a generous glow and meditated delicate benevolence. At least the bread-and-butter must be recouped an hundredfold.
So great is the virtue of twenty pounds, if only they happen to be sent to the right address. Most money, however, seems to go astray.