On a west-bound omnibus Claire Fenwick sat and raged silently in the June sunshine. She was furious. What right had Lord Dawlish to look down his nose and murmur 'Noblesse oblige' when she asked him a question, as if she had suggested that he should commit some crime? It was the patronizing way he had said it that infuriated her, as if he were a superior being of some kind, governed by codes which she could not be expected to understand. Everybody nowadays did the sort of things she suggested, so what was the good of looking shocked and saying 'Noblesse oblige'?
The omnibus rolled on towards West Kensington. Claire hated the place with the bitter hate of one who had read society novels, and yearned for Grosvenor Square and butlers and a general atmosphere of soft cushions and pink-shaded lights and maids to do one's hair. She hated the cheap furniture of the little parlour, the penetrating contralto of the cook singing hymns in the kitchen, and the ubiquitousness of her small brother. He was only ten, and small for his age, yet he appeared to have the power of being in two rooms at the same time while making a nerve-racking noise in another.
It was Percy who greeted her to-day as she entered the flat.
'Halloa, Claire! I say, Claire, there's a letter for you. It came by the second post. I say, Claire, it's got an American stamp on it. Can I have it, Claire? I haven't got one in my collection.'
His sister regarded him broodingly. 'For goodness' sake don't bellow like that!' she said. 'Of course, you can have the stamp. I don't want it. Where is the letter?'
Claire took the envelope from him, extracted the letter, and handed back the envelope. Percy vanished into the dining-room with a shattering squeal of pleasure.
A voice spoke from behind a half-opened door--
'Is that you, Claire?'
'Yes, mother; I've come back to pack. They want me to go to Southampton to-night to take up Claudia Winslow's part.'
'What train are you catching?'
'You will have to hurry.'
'I'm going to hurry,' said Claire, clenching her fists as two simultaneous bursts of song, in different keys and varying tempos, proceeded from the dining-room and kitchen. A girl has to be in a sunnier mood than she was to bear up without wincing under the infliction of a duet consisting of the Rock of Ages and Waiting for the Robert E. Lee. Assuredly Claire proposed to hurry. She meant to get her packing done in record time and escape from this place. She went into her bedroom and began to throw things untidily into her trunk. She had put the letter in her pocket against a more favourable time for perusal. A glance had told her that it was from her friend Polly, Countess of Wetherby: that Polly Davis of whom she had spoken to Lord Dawlish. Polly Davis, now married for better or for worse to that curious invertebrate person, Algie Wetherby, was the only real friend Claire had made on the stage. A sort of shivering gentility had kept her aloof from the rest of her fellow-workers, but it took more than a shivering gentility to stave off Polly.
Claire had passed through the various stages of intimacy with her, until on the occasion of Polly's marriage she had acted as her bridesmaid.
It was a long letter, too long to be read until she was at leisure, and written in a straggling hand that made reading difficult. She was mildly surprised that Polly should have written her, for she had been back in America a year or more now, and this was her first letter. Polly had a warm heart and did not forget her friends, but she was not a good correspondent.
The need of getting her things ready at once drove the letter from Claire's mind. She was in the train on her way to Southampton before she remembered its existence.
It was dated from New York.
MY DEAR OLD CLAIRE,--Is this really my first letter to you? Isn't that awful! Gee! A lot's happened since I saw you last. I must tell you first about my hit. Some hit! Claire, old girl, I own New York. I daren't tell you what my salary is. You'd faint.
I'm doing barefoot dancing. You know the sort of stuff. I started it in vaudeville, and went so big that my agent shifted me to the restaurants, and they have to call out the police reserves to handle the crowd. You can't get a table at Reigelheimer's, which is my pitch, unless you tip the head waiter a small fortune and promise to mail him your clothes when you get home. I dance during supper with nothing on my feet and not much anywhere else, and it takes three vans to carry my salary to the bank.
Of course, it's the title that does it: 'Lady Pauline Wetherby!' Algie says it oughtn't to be that, because I'm not the daughter of a duke, but I don't worry about that. It looks good, and that's all that matters. You can't get away from the title. I was born in Carbondale, Illinois, but that doesn't matter--I'm an English countess, doing barefoot dancing to work off the mortgage on the ancestral castle, and they eat me. Take it from me, Claire, I'm a riot.
Well, that's that. What I am really writing about is to tell you that you have got to come over here. I've taken a house at Brookport, on Long Island, for the summer. You can stay with me till the fall, and then I can easily get you a good job in New York. I have some pull these days, believe me. Not that you'll need my help. The managers have only got to see you and they'll all want you. I showed one of them that photograph you gave me, and he went up in the air. They pay twice as big salaries over here, you know, as in England, so come by the next boat.
Claire, darling, you must come. I'm wretched. Algie has got my goat the worst way. If you don't know what that means it means that he's behaving like a perfect pig. I hardly know where to begin. Well, it was this way: directly I made my hit my press agent, a real bright man named Sherriff, got busy, of course. Interviews, you know, and Advice to Young Girls in the evening papers, and How I preserve my beauty, and all that sort of thing. Well, one thing he made me do was to buy a snake and a monkey. Roscoe Sherriff is crazy about animals as aids to advertisement. He says an animal story is the thing he does best. So I bought them.
Algie kicked from the first. I ought to tell you that since we left England he has taken up painting footling little pictures, and has got the artistic temperament badly. All his life he's been starting some new fool thing. When I first met him he prided himself on having the finest collection of photographs of race-horses in England. Then he got a craze for model engines. After that he used to work the piano player till I nearly went crazy. And now it's pictures.
I don't mind his painting. It gives him something to do and keeps him out of mischief. He has a studio down in Washington Square, and is perfectly happy messing about there all day.
Everything would be fine if he didn't think it necessary to tack on the artistic temperament to his painting. He's developed the idea that he has nerves and everything upsets them.
Things came to a head this morning at breakfast. Clarence, my snake, has the cutest way of climbing up the leg of the table and looking at you pleadingly in the hope that you will give him soft-boiled egg, which he adores. He did it this morning, and no sooner had his head appeared above the table than Algie, with a kind of sharp wail, struck him a violent blow on the nose with a teaspoon. Then he turned to me, very pale, and said: 'Pauline, this must end! The time has come to speak up. A nervous, highly-strung man like myself should not, and must not, be called upon to live in a house where he is constantly meeting snakes and monkeys without warning. Choose between me and--'
We had got as far as this when Eustace, the monkey, who I didn't know was in the room at all, suddenly sprang on to his back. He is very fond of Algie.
Would you believe it? Algie walked straight out of the house, still holding the teaspoon, and has not returned. Later in the day he called me up on the phone and said that, though he realized that a man's place was the home, he declined to cross the threshold again until I had got rid of Eustace and Clarence. I tried to reason with him. I told him that he ought to think himself lucky it wasn't anything worse than a monkey and a snake, for the last person Roscoe Sherriff handled, an emotional actress named Devenish, had to keep a young puma. But he wouldn't listen, and the end of it was that he rang off and I have not seen or heard of him since.
I am broken-hearted. I won't give in, but I am having an awful time. So, dearest Claire, do come over and help me. If you could possibly sail by the Atlantic, leaving Southampton on the twenty-fourth of this month, you would meet a friend of mine whom I think you would like. His name is Dudley Pickering, and he made a fortune in automobiles. I expect you have heard of the Pickering automobiles?
Darling Claire, do come, or I know I shall weaken and yield to Algie's outrageous demands, for, though I would like to hit him with a brick, I love him dearly.
Your affectionate POLLY WETHERBY
Claire sank back against the cushioned seat and her eyes filled with tears of disappointment. Of all the things which would have chimed in with her discontented mood at that moment a sudden flight to America was the most alluring. Only one consideration held her back--she had not the money for her fare.
Polly might have thought of that, she reflected, bitterly. She took the letter up again and saw that on the last page there was a postscript--
PS.--I don't know how you are fixed for money, old girl, but if things are the same with you as in the old days you can't be rolling. So I have paid for a passage for you with the liner people this side, and they have cabled their English office, so you can sail whenever you want to. Come right over.
An hour later the manager of the Southampton branch of the White Star Line was dazzled by an apparition, a beautiful girl who burst in upon him with flushed face and shining eyes, demanding a berth on the steamship Atlantic and talking about a Lady Wetherby. Ten minutes later, her passage secured, Claire was walking to the local theatre to inform those in charge of the destinies of The Girl and the Artist number one company that they must look elsewhere for a substitute for Miss Claudia Winslow. Then she went back to her hotel to write a letter home, notifying her mother of her plans.
She looked at her watch. It was six o'clock. Back in West Kensington a rich smell of dinner would be floating through the flat; the cook, watching the boiling cabbage, would be singing A Few More Years Shall Roll; her mother would be sighing; and her little brother Percy would be employed upon some juvenile deviltry, the exact nature of which it was not possible to conjecture, though one could be certain that it would be something involving a deafening noise.
Claire smiled a happy smile.Next