The Intrusions of Peggy
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'You're so loyal,' murmured Lady Blixworth in admiration. 'Really Sarah's as blind as a bat sometimes,' she reflected as she got into her carriage.
A world of people at once inquisitive and clear-sighted would render necessary either moral perfection or reckless defiance; indifference and obtuseness preserve a place for that mediocrity of conduct which characterises the majority. Society at large had hitherto found small fault with Trix Trevalla, and what it said, when passed through Lady Blixworth's resourceful intellect, gained greatly both in volume and in point. No doubt she had very many gowns, no doubt she spent money, certainly she flirted, possibly she was, for so young and pretty a woman, a trifle indiscreet. But she gave the impression of being able to take care of herself, and her attractions, combined with Mrs. Bonfill's unwavering patronage, would have sufficed to excuse more errors than she had been found guilty of. It was actually true that, while men admired, women liked her. There was hardly a discordant voice to break in harshly on her triumph.
There is no place like the top – especially when it is narrow, and will not hold many at a time. The natives of it have their peculiar joy, those who have painfully climbed theirs. Trix Trevalla seemed, to herself at least, very near the top; if she were not quite on it, she could put her head up over the last ledge and see it, and feel that with one more hoist she would be able to land herself there. It is unnecessary to recite the houses she went to, and would be (save for the utter lack of authority such a list would have) invidious; it would be tiresome to retail compliments and conquests. But the smallest, choicest gatherings began to know her, and houses which were not fashionable but something much beyond – eternal pillars supporting London society – welcomed her. This was no success of curiosity, of whim, of a season; it was the establishment of a position for life. From the purely social point of view, even a match with Mervyn could do little more. So Trix was tempted to declare in her pride.
But the case had other aspects, of course. It was all something of a struggle, however victorious; it may be supposed that generally it is. Security is hard to believe in, and there is always a craving to make the strong position impregnable. Life alone at twenty-six is – lonely. These things were in her mind, as they might have been in the thoughts of any woman so placed. There was another consideration, more special to herself, which could not be excluded from view: she had begun to realise what her manner of life cost. Behold her sitting before books and bills that revealed the truth beyond possibility of error or of gloss! Lady Blixworth's instinct had not been at fault. Trix's mouth grew rather hard again, and her eyes coldly resolute, as she studied these disagreeable documents.
From such studies she had arisen to go to dinner with Beaufort Chance and to meet the Frickers.She sat next Fricker, and talked to him most of the time, while Beaufort was very attentive to Mrs. Fricker, and the young man who had been procured for Connie Fricker fulfilled his appointed function. Fricker was not a bad-looking man, and was better bred and less aggressive than his wife or daughter. Trix found him not so disagreeable as she had expected; she encouraged him to talk on his own subjects, and began to find him interesting; by the end of dinner she had discovered that he, or at least his conversation, was engrossing. The old theme of making money without working for it, by gaming or betting, by chance or speculation, by black magic or white, is ever attractive to the children of men. Fricker could talk very well about it; he produced the impression that it was exceedingly easy to be rich; it seemed to be anybody's own fault if he were poor. Only at the end did he throw in any qualification of this broad position.
'Of course you must know the ropes, or find somebody who does.'
'There's the rub, Mr. Fricker. Don't people who know them generally keep their knowledge to themselves?'
'They've a bit to spare for their friends sometimes.' His smile was quietly reflective.
Beaufort Chance had hinted that some such benevolent sentiments might be found to animate Mr. Fricker. He had even used the idea as a bait to lure Trix to the dinner. Do what she would, she could not help giving Fricker a glance, half-grateful, half-provocative. Vanity – new-born of her great triumph – made her feel that her presence there was really a thing to be repaid. Her study of those documents tempted her to listen when the suggestion of repayment came. In the drawing-room Trix found herself inviting Mrs. Fricker to call. Youthful experiences made Trix socially tolerant in one direction if she were socially ambitious in another. She had none of Lady Blixworth's shudders, and was ready to be nice to Mrs. Fricker. Still her laugh was conscious, and she blushed a little when Beaufort Chance thanked her for making herself so pleasant.
All through the month there were renewed and continual rumours of what the Tsar meant to do. A speech by Lord Farringham might seem to dispose of them, but there were people who did not trust Lord Farringham – who, in fact, knew better. There were telegrams from abroad, there were mysterious paragraphs claiming an authority too high to be disclosed to the vulgar, there were leaders asking whether it were actually the fact that nothing was going to be done; there was an agitation about the Navy, another final exposure of the methods of the War Office, and philosophic attacks on the system of party government. Churchmen began to say that they were also patriots, and dons to remind the country that they were citizens. And – in the end – what did the Tsar mean to do? That Potentate gave no sign. What of that? Had not generals uttered speeches and worked out professional problems? Lord Glentorly ordered extensive man?uvres, and bade the country rely on him. The country seemed a little doubtful; or, anyhow, the Press told it that it was. 'The atmosphere is electric,' declared Mr. Liffey in an article in 'The Sentinel': thousands read it in railway carriages and looked grave; they had not seen Mr. Liffey's smile.
Things were in this condition, and the broadsheets blazing in big letters, when one afternoon a hansom whisked along Wych Street and set down a lady in a very neat grey frock at the entrance of Danes Inn. Trix trod the pavement of that secluded spot and ascended the stairs of 6A with an amusement and excitement far different from Peggy Ryle's matter-of-fact familiarity. She had known lodging-houses; they were as dirty as this, but there the likeness ended. They had been new, flimsy, confined; this looked old, was very solid and relatively spacious; they had been noisy, it was very quiet; they had swarmed with children, here were none; the whole place seemed to her quasi-monastic; she blushed for herself as she passed through. Her knock on Airey Newton's door was timid.
Airey's amazement at the sight of her was unmistakable. He drew back saying:
'Mrs. Trevalla! Is it really you?'
The picture he had in his mind was so different. Where was the forlorn girl in the widow's weeds? This brilliant creature surely was not the same!
But Trix laughed and chattered, insisting that she was herself.
'I couldn't wear mourning all my life, could I?' she asked. 'You didn't mean me to, when we had our talk in Paris?'
'I'm not blaming, only wondering.' For a moment she almost robbed him of speech; he busied himself with the tea (there was a cake to-day) while she flitted about the room, not omitting to include Airey himself in her rapid scrutiny. She marked the shortness of his hair, the trimness of his beard, and approved Peggy's work, little thinking it was Peggy's.
'It's delightful to be here,' she exclaimed as she sat down to tea.
'I took your coming as a bad omen,' said Airey, smiling; 'but I hope there's nothing very wrong?'
'I'm an impostor. Everything is just splendidly right, and I came to tell you.'
'It was very kind.' He had not quite recovered from his surprise yet.
'I thought you had a right to know. I owe it all to your advice, you see. You told me to come back to life. Well, I've come.'
She was alive enough, certainly; she breathed animation and seemed to diffuse vitality; she was positively eager in her living.
'You told me to have my revenge, to play with life. Don't you remember? Fancy your forgetting, when I've remembered so well! To die of heat rather than of cold – surely you remember, Mr. Newton?'
'Every word, now you say it,' he nodded. 'And you're acting on that?'
'For all I'm worth,' laughed Trix.
He sat down opposite her, looking at her with a grave but still rather bewildered attention.
'And it works well?' he asked after a pause, and, as it seemed, a conscientious examination of her.
'Superb!' She could not resist adding, 'Haven't you heard anything about me?'
'In here?' asked Airey, waving his arm round the room, and smiling.
'No, I suppose you wouldn't,' she laughed; 'but I'm rather famous, you know. That's why I felt bound to come and tell you – to let you see what great things you've done. Yes, it's quite true, you gave me the impulse.' She set down her cup and leant back in her chair, smiling brightly at him. 'Are you afraid of the responsibility?'
'Everything seems so prosperous,' said Airey. 'I forgot, but I have heard one person speak of you. Do you know Peggy Ryle?'
'I know her by sight. Is she a friend of yours?'
'Yes, and she told me of some of your triumphs.'
'Oh, not half so well as I shall tell you myself!' Trix was evidently little interested in Peggy Ryle. To Airey himself Peggy's doubts and criticism seemed now rather absurd; this bright vision threw them into the shade of neglect.
Trix launched out. It was the first chance she had enjoyed of telling to somebody who belonged to the old life the wonderful things about the new. Indeed who else of the old life was left? Graves, material or metaphorical, covered all that had belonged to it. Mrs. Bonfill was always kind, but with her there was not the delicious sense of the contrast that must rise before the eyes of the listener. Airey gave her that; he had heard of the lodging-houses, he knew about the four years with Vesey Trevalla; it was evident he had not forgotten the forlornness and the widow's weeds of Paris. He then could appreciate the change, the great change, that still amazed and dazzled Trix herself. It was not in ostentation, but in the pure joy of victory, that she flung great names at him, would have him know that the highest of them were familiar to her, and that the woman who now sat talking to him, friend to friend, amidst the dinginess of Danes Inn, was a sought-after, valued, honoured guest in all these houses. Peggy Ryle went to some of the houses also, but she had never considered that talk about them would interest Airey Newton. She might be right or wrong – Trix Trevalla was certainly right in guessing that talk about herself in the houses would.
'You seem to be going it, Mrs. Trevalla,' he said at last, unconsciously reaching out for his pipe.
'I am,' said Trix. 'Yes, do smoke. So will I.' She produced her cigarette-case. 'Well, I've arrears to make up, haven't I?' She glanced round. 'And you live here?' she asked.
'Always. I know nothing of all you've been talking about.'
'You wouldn't care about it, anyhow, would you?' Her tones were gentle and consolatory. She accepted the fact that it was all impossible to him, that the door was shut, and comforted him in his exclusion.
'I don't suppose I should, and at all events – ' He shrugged his shoulders. If her impression had needed confirmation, here it was. 'And what's to be the end of it with you?' he asked.
'End? Why should there be an end? It's only just begun,' cried Trix.
'Well, there are ends that are beginnings of other things,' he suggested. What Peggy had told him recurred to his mind, though certainly there was no sign of Mrs. Trevalla being in trouble on that or any other score.
Yet his words brought a shadow to Trix's face, a touch of irritation into her manner.
'Oh, some day, I daresay,' she said. 'Yes, I suppose so. I'm not thinking about that either just now. I'm just thinking about myself. That's what you meant me to do?'
'It seems to me that my responsibility is growing, Mrs. Trevalla.'
'Yes, that's it; it is!' Trix was delighted with the whimsicality of the idea. 'You're responsible for it all, though you sit quietly here and nobody knows anything about you. I shall come and report myself from time to time. I'm obedient up to now?'
'Well, I'm not quite sure. Did I tell you to – ?'
'Yes, yes, to take my revenge, you know. Oh, you remember, and you can't shirk it now.' She began to laugh at the half-humorous gravity of Airey's face, as she insisted on his responsibility. This talk with him, the sort of relations that she was establishing with him, promised to give a new zest to her life, a pleasant diversion for her thoughts. He would make a splendid onlooker, and she would select all the pleasant things for him to see. Of course there was nothing really unpleasant, but there were a few things that it would not interest him to hear. There were things that even Mrs. Bonfill did not hear, although she would have been able to understand them much better than he.
Trix found her host again looking at her with an amused and admiring scrutiny. She was well prepared for it; the most select of parties had elicited no greater care in the choice of her dress than this visit to Danes Inn. Was not the contrast to be made as wonderful and striking as possible?
'Shall I do you credit?' she asked in gay mockery.
'You're really rather marvellous,' laughed Airey. 'And I suppose you'll come out all right.'
A hint of doubt crept into his voice. Trix glanced at him quickly.
'If I don't, you'll have to look after me,' she warned him.
He was grave now, not solemn, but, as it seemed, meditative.
'What if I think only of myself too?' he asked.
Trix laughed at the idea. 'There'd be no sort of excuse for you,' she reminded him.
'I suppose not,' he admitted, rather ruefully.
'But I'm going to come out most splendidly all right, so we won't worry about that.' As she spoke she had been putting on her gloves, and now she rose from her chair. 'I must go; got an early dinner and a theatre.' She looked round the room, and then back to Airey; her lips parted in an appealing confidential smile that drew an answer from him, and made him feel what her power was. 'Do you know, I don't want – I positively don't want – to go, Mr. Newton.'
'The attractions are so numerous, so unrivalled?'
'It's so quiet, so peaceful, so out of it all.'
'That a recommendation to you?' He raised his brows.
'Well, it's all a bit of a rush and a fight, and – and so on. I love it all, but just now and then' – she came to him and laid her hand lightly on his arm – 'just now and then may I come again?' she implored. 'I shall like to think that I've got it to come to.'
'It's always here, Mrs. Trevalla, and, except for me, generally empty.'
'Generally?' Her mocking tone hid a real curiosity; but Airey's manner was matter-of-fact.
'Oh, Peggy Ryle comes, and one or two of her friends, now and then. But I could send them away. Any time's the same to them.'
'Miss Ryle comes? She's beautiful, I think; don't you?'
'Now am I a judge? Well, yes, I think Peggy's attractive.'
'Oh, you're all hypocrites! Well, you must think me attractive too, or I won't come.'
It was a long while since Airey Newton had been flirted with. He recognised the process, however, and did not object to it; it also appeared to him that Trix did it very well.
'If you come, I shall think you most attractive.'
Trix relapsed into sincerity and heartiness. 'I've enjoyed coming awfully,' she said. Airey found the sincerity no less attractive. 'I shall think about you.'
'From the midst of the whirl?'
'Yes, from the midst of the whirl! Good-bye.'
She left behind her a twofold and puzzling impression. There was the woman of the world, with airs and graces a trifle elaborate, perhaps, in their prettiness, the woman steeped in society, engrossed with its triumphs, fired with its ambitions. But there had been visible from time to time, or had seemed to peep out, another woman, the one who had come to see her friend, had felt the need of talking it all over with him, of sharing it and getting sympathy in it, and who had in the end dropped her graces and declared with a frank heartiness that she had enjoyed coming 'awfully.' Airey Newton pulled his beard and smoked a pipe over these two women, as he sat alone. With some regret he came to the conclusion that as a permanent factor, as an influence in guiding and shaping Trix Trevalla's life, the second woman would not have much chance against the first. Everything was adverse to the second woman in the world in which Trix lived.
And he had sent her to that world? So she declared, partly in mockery perhaps, enjoying the incongruity of the idea with his dull life, his dingy room, his shabby coat. Yet he traced in the persistence with which she had recurred to the notion something more than mere chaff. The idea might be fanciful or whimsical, but there it was in her mind, dating from their talk at Paris. Unquestionably it clung to her, and in some vague way she based on it an obligation on his part, and thought it raised a claim on hers, a claim that he should not judge her severely or condemn the way she lived; perhaps, more vaguely still, a claim that he should help her if ever she needed help.