Secret History Revealed by Lady Peggy O'Malley
By C. N. & A. M. WILLIAMSON
Author of "The Lightning Conductor Discovers America," "A Soldier of the Legion," "Lady Betty Across the Water," Etc.
With Frontispiece in Colors By CLARENCE ROWE
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York Published by arrangements with Doubleday, Page and Company
Copyright, 1915, by C. N. & A. M. Williamson
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
If I didn't tell this, nobody else ever would; certainly not Diana, nor Major Vandyke—still less Eagle himself—I mean Captain Eagleston March; and they and I are the only ones who know, except a few such people as presidents and secretaries of war and generals, who never tell anything even under torture. Besides, there is the unofficial part. Without that, the drama would be like a play in three acts, with the first and third acts chopped off. The presidents and secretaries of war and generals know nothing about the unofficial part.
It's strange how the biggest things of life grow out of the tiniest ones. There is the old simile of the acorn and the oak, for instance. But oaks take a long time to grow, and everybody concerned in oak culture is calmly expecting them to do it. Imagine an acorn exploding to let out an oak huge enough to shadow the world!
If, two years ago, when I was sixteen, I hadn't wanted money to buy a white frock with roses on it, which I saw in Selfridge's window, a secret crisis between the United States and Mexico would have been avoided; and the career of a splendid soldier would not have been broken.
One month before I met the white dress, Diana and Father and I had come from home—that's Ballyconal—to see what good we could do with a season in London; good for Diana, I mean, and I put her before Father because he does so himself. Every one else he puts far, far behind, like the beasts following Noah into the Ark. Not that I'm sure, without looking them up, that they did follow Noah. But if it had been Father, he would have arranged it in that way, to escape seeing their ugly faces or smelling those who were not nice to smell.
I suppose I should have been left at Ballyconal, with nothing to do but study my beloved French and Spanish, my sole accomplishments; only Father had contrived to let the place, through the New York Herald, to an American family who, poor dears, snapped it up by cable from the description in the advertisement of "a wonderful XII Century Castle." Besides, Diana couldn't afford a maid. And that's why I was taken to America afterward. I can do hair beautifully. So, when one thinks back, Fate had begun to weave a web long before the making of that white dress. None of those tremendous things would have happened to change heaven knows how many lives, if I hadn't been born with the knack of a hairdresser, inherited perhaps from some bourgeoise ancestress of mine on Mother's side.
When the American family found out what Ballyconal was really like, and the twelfth-century rats had crept out from the hinterland of the old wainscoting ("rich in ancient oak," the advertisement stated), to scamper over its faces by night, and door knobs had come off in its hands by day, or torn carpets had tripped it up and sprained its ankles, it said bad words about deceitful, stoney-broke Irish earls, and fled at the end of a fortnight, having paid for two months in advance at the rate of thirty-five guineas a week. Father had been sadly sure that the Americans would do that very thing, so he had counted on getting only the advance money and no more. This meant cheap lodgings for us, which spoiled Diana's chances from the start, as she told Father the minute she saw the house. It was in a fairly good neighbourhood, and the address looked fashionable on paper; but man, and especially girl, may not live on neighbourhood and paper alone, even if the latter can be peppered with coronets.
I don't know what curse or mildew collects on poor Irish earls, but it simply goes nowhere to be one in London; and then there was the handicap of Father's two quaint marriages. Diana's mother was a music-hall "artiste" (isn't that the word?) without any money except what she earned, and also—I heard a woman say once, when she thought Little Pitcher's ears were engaged elsewhere—without any "h's" except in the wrong places.
My mother, the poor darling, must have been just as unsuitable in her way. She was a French chocolate heiress, whom Father married to mend the family fortunes, when Diana was five; but some one shortly after sprang on the market a better chocolate than her people made, so she was a failure, too, and not even beautiful like Diana's mother. Luckily for her, she died when I was born; but neither she nor the "artiste" can have helped Father much, with the smart friends of his young days when he was one of the best-looking bachelors in town.
Diana was considered beautiful, but "the image of her mother," by those inconvenient creatures who run around the world remembering other people's pasts; and though she and Father were invited to lots of big crushes, they weren't asked to any of the charming intimate things which Diana says are the right background for a debutante. This went to Di's heart and Father's liver, and made them both dreadfully hard to get on with. Cinderella wasn't in it with me, except that when they were beastly, I was beastly back again; a relief to which Cinderella probably didn't treat herself, being a fairy-story heroine, stuffed with virtues as a sultana cake is stuffed with plums.
The day I asked Father for the white frock with roses on it in Selfridge's window, he was so disagreeable that I went to my room and slammed the door and kicked a chair. It was true that I did not need the dress, because I never went anywhere and was only a flapper (it's almost more unpleasant to be called a flapper than a "mouth to feed"); still, the real pleasure of having a thing is when you don't need it, but just want it. The farther away from me that gown seemed to recede, the more I longed for it; and when Father told me not to nag or be a little idiot, I determined that somehow or other, by hook or crook, the frock should hang on my wall behind the chintz curtain which calls itself a wardrobe.
The morning of the refusal, Father and Di were starting off to be away all that day and night. They were asked to a ridiculous house party given by a rich, suburban Pickle family at Epsom for the Derby, and Di had been grumbling that it was exactly the sort of invitation they would get: for one night and the Derby, instead of Ascot. However, it was the time of the month for a moon, and quite decent young men had been enticed; so Di wasn't so very sorry for herself after all. Her nickname at home in Ireland, "Diana the Huntress," had been already imported, free of duty, to England, by a discarded flirtee; but I don't think she minded, it sounded so dashing, even if it was only grasping. She went off moderately happy; and I was left with twenty-four hours on my hands to decide by what hook, or what crook, I could possibly annex the dress which I felt had been born for me.
At last I thought of a way that might do. My poor little chocolate mother made a will the day before she died, when I was a week old, leaving everything she possessed to me. Of course her money was all gone, because she had been married for two years to Father, and Himself is a very expensive man. But he hadn't spent her jewels yet, nor her wedding veil, nor a few other pieces of lace. Since then he's wheedled most of the jewellery out of me, but the wedding veil I mean to keep always, and a Point d'Alencon scarf and some handkerchiefs he has probably forgotten. I had forgotten them, too, but when I was racking my brain how to get the Selfridge dress, the remembrance tumbled down off its dusty little shelf.
The legacies were at the bottom of my trunk, because it was simpler to bring them away from Ballyconal, than find a stowaway place that the American family wouldn't need for its belongings. The veil nothing would have induced me to part with; but the scarf was so old, I felt sure it must have come to my mother from a succession of chocolate or perhaps soap or sardine grandmammas, and I hadn't much sentiment about it. I had no precise idea what the lace ought to be worth, but I fancied Point d'Alencon must be valuable, and I thought I ought to get more than enough by selling it to buy the white dress, which cost seven guineas.
Taxying through Wardour Street with Di, I had often noticed an antique shop appropriately crusted with the grime of centuries, all but the polished window, where lace and china and bits of old silver were displayed. It seemed to me that a person intelligent enough to combine odds and ends with such fetching effect ought to be the man to appreciate my great—or great great-grandmother's scarf. I didn't run to taxis when alone, and would as soon have got into one of those appalling motor buses as leap on to the back of a mad elephant that had berserkered out of the Zoo. Consequently, I had to walk. It was an untidy, badly dusted day, with a hot wind; and I realized, when I caught sight of myself in a convex mirror in the curiosity-shop window, that I looked rather like a small female edition of Strumpelpeter.
There was a bell on the door which, like a shrill, disparaging leit motif, announced me, and made me suddenly self-conscious. It hadn't occurred to me before that there was anything to be ashamed of or frightened about in my errand. I'd vaguely pictured the shopman as a dear old Dickensy thing who would take a fussy interest in me and my scarf, and who would, with a fatherly manner, press upon me a handful of sovereigns or a banknote. But as the bell jangled, one of the most repulsive men I ever saw looked toward the door. There was another man in the place, talking to the first creature, and he looked up, too. Not even the blindest bat, however, could have mistaken him for a shopkeeper, and his being there put not only a different complexion on the business, but on me. I felt mine turning bright pink, instead of the usual cream that accompanies the chocolate-coloured hair and eyes with which I advertise the industry of my French ancestors.
The shopman stared at me with a sulky look exactly like that of Nebuchadnezzar, our boar pig from Yorkshire, which took a prize for its nose or something. This person might have won a prize for his nose also, if an offer had been going for large ones. The rest of his face, olive green and fat, was in the perspective of this nose, just as the lesser proportions of his body, such as chest and legs, were in the perspective of his—waist. The shop was much smaller than I had expected from the window—a place you might have swung a cat in without giving it concussion of the brain, but not a lion; and the men—the fat proprietor and his long, lean customer, and two suits of deformed-looking armour, seemed almost to fill it. I've heard an actor talk about a theatre being so tiny he was "on the audience"; and these two were on theirs, the audience being me. I was so close to the fat one that I could see the crumbs on the folds of his waistcoat, like food stored on cupboard shelves. I took such a dislike to him that I felt inclined to bounce out as quickly as I had bounced in, but the door had banged mechanically behind me, as if to stop the bell at any cost. The shop smelt of moth powder, old leather, musty paper, and hair oil.
"Well, my little girl, what do you want?" inquired Nebuchadnezzar, with the kind of lisp that turns a rat into a yat.
Little girl, indeed! To be called a "little girl" by a thing like that, and asked what I wanted in that second-hand Hebrew tone, made me boil for half a second. Then, suddenly, I saw that it was funny, and I almost giggled as I imagined myself haughtily explaining that I had reached the age of sixteen, to say nothing of being the daughter of two or three hundred earls. I didn't care a tuppenny anything whether he mistook me for nine or ninety; but I did begin to feel that it wouldn't be pleasant unrolling my tissue-paper parcel and bargaining for money under the eyes and ears of the other man.
They were very nice eyes and ears. Already I'd had time to notice that; for even in these days, when men aren't supposed to be as indispensable to females as they were in Edwardian or Victorian and earlier ages, I don't think it's entirely obsolete for a girl to learn more about a man's looks in three seconds than she picks up about another woman's frock in two.
This man wasn't what most girls of sixteen would call young; but I am different from most girls because I've always had to be a sort of law unto myself, in order not to become a family footstool. I've had to make up my mind about everything or risk my brain degenerating into a bath sponge; and one of the things I made it up about early was that I didn't like boys or nuts. The customer in the curiosity shop, to whom the proprietor was showing perfect ducks of Chelsea lambs plastered against green Chelsea bushes, was, maybe, twenty-eight or thirty, a great age for a woman, but not so bad for a man; and I wished to goodness he would buy or not buy a lamb and go forth about other business. However, I couldn't indefinitely delay answering that question addressed to "little girl."
"I want to show you a point-lace scarf," I snapped. Nebuchadnezzar's understudy squeezed himself out from behind the counter, and lumbered a step or two nearer me, moving not straight ahead, but from side to side, as tables do for spiritualists.
"We don't mend lace here, if that's what you've come for, my child," he patronized me.
"It doesn't need to be mended," said I. "It's beautiful lace. It's to be sold."
"Oa—oh," he exploded with a cockney drawl, and a rude look coming into his eyes which he'd kept out while there was hope that the dusty, blown-about little thing might turn into a customer. "Well! Let's see! But I've got more old lace on hand now than I know what to do with."
As I unrolled layers of tissue paper which seemed to rustle loudly out of sheer spite, I was conscious that the customer had sauntered away as far as possible, and was gazing at some old prints on the wall which gave him an excuse to turn his back to us. I thought this sweetly tactful of him.
Nebuchadnezzar (over the shop he calls himself Franks, the sort of noncommittal name a Jacobs or Wolfstein likes to hide under) almost snatched the lace from my hands as I opened the package, shook out its folds, held it close to his eyes, pawed it, and sniffed. "Humph!" he grunted ungraciously. "Same old thing as usual. If I've got one of 'em, I've got a dozen. What did you expect to ask for it?"
"Ten pounds," I announced, as bold as one of those lions that could not be swung in his shop.
"Ten pounds!" I don't know whether the sound he made was meant for a snort or a laugh. "Ten grandmothers!"
"Yes," said I, flaring up as if he'd struck a match on me. "That's just it! Ten of my grandmothers have worn this scarf since it was made, and I want a pound for each of them."
There was a small funny noise behind me, like a staunched giggle, and I glanced over my shoulder at the customer, but his back looked most calm and inoffensive.
"You'll have to take it out in wanting, I'm afraid, my girl," returned the shopkeeper. "I can offer you thirty bob, no more and no less. That's all the thing's worth to me."
I tried to pull the scarf out of his hands, but he didn't seem ready to give it up. "It's worth a great deal more to me," I said. "I'll carry it away somewhere else, where they know about old lace."
"My word! You're a pert young piece for your size!" remarked the horrible man; and though I could have boxed his ears (which stood out exactly like the handles on an urn), I felt my own tingle, because it was true, what he said: I was a pert young piece. Holding my own at home, and lots of other things in life (for sixteen years of life seem fearfully long if they're all you've got behind you), had made me pert, and I didn't love myself for it, any more than a porcupine can be really fond of his own quills. I couldn't bear, somehow, that the man with the nice eyes should be hearing me called a "pert piece," and thinking me one. Quite a smart repartee came into my head, but a heavy feeling in my heart kept me from putting it into words; and Nebuchadnezzar went grunting on: "I know as much about old lace as any man in this street, if not in town. That's why I don't offer more."
"Give me back my scarf, please," was my only answer, in quite a small voice.
Still he held on to the lace. "Look here, miss," said he in a changed tone, "how did you come to get hold of this bit of property, anyhow? Folks ain't in the habit of sending their children out to dispose o' their valuables. How can I tell that you ain't nicked this off your mother or your aunt, or some other dame who doesn't know you're out? If I was doin' my dooty, I shouldn't wonder if I oughtn't to call in the police!"
"You horrid, horrid person," I flung at him. "You're trying to frighten me—to blackmail me—into selling you my lace for thirty shillings, when maybe it's worth twenty times that. But if any one calls the police, it will be me, to give you in charge for—for intimidation."
Almost before I had time to be proud of the word when I'd contrived to get it out, the customer had detached himself from the prints and intervened.
"I beg your pardon for interfering," he said (to me, not to Nebuchadnezzar), "but I can't help wondering"—and he smiled a perfectly disarming smile—"if you aren't rather young to be a business woman on your own account. Will you let me see the lace?"
Of course the shopkeeper gave it up to him instantly, shamefaced at realizing that his customer, instead of admiring his smart methods, was entering the lists against him.
While my champion (I felt sure somehow that he was my champion at heart) took the scarf in his hands, and began trying to look wise over it, I had about forty-nine seconds in which to look at him. Even at first glance I had thought him nice, but now I decided that he was the nicest man I had ever seen. Not the handsomest; I don't mean that, for our county in Ireland is celebrated for its handsome men, both high and low. Also I'd seen several Dreams since we came to London: but—well, just the nicest.
Because it was the middle of the season and he was in tweeds, I fancied that he didn't go in for being "smart." I'd learned enough already about London ways to understand as much as that. But all the same I thought that he had the air of a soldier. And he had such a contradictory sort of face that it interested me immensely, wondering what the contradictions meant.
He had taken off his hat when I came into the shop (I'd noticed that, and had been pleased), and now I saw that the upper part of his forehead was very white and the rest of his face very tanned, as if his complexion had slipped down. He had almost straw-coloured hair, which seemed lighter than it was because of his sunburned skin; and his eyebrows and the eyelashes (lowered while he gazed at my lace) were two or three shades darker. They were long, arched brows that gave a look of dreamy romance to the upper part of his face, but the lower part was extremely determined, perhaps even obstinate. It jumped into my head that a woman—even a fascinator like Diana—would never be able to make him change his mind about things, or do things he didn't wish to do. That was one of the contradictions, and the nose was another. It was rather a Roman sort of nose, and looked aggressive, as if it would be searching about for forlorn hopes to fight for; anyhow, as if it must fight at all costs. Then, contradicting the nose, was the mouth (for he was clean-shaven as all young men ought to be, and not leave too much to our imagination), a mouth somehow like a boy's, affectionate and kind and gay, though far from being weak. I didn't know what to make of him at all, and, of course, I liked him the better for that.
"I think this is mighty fine lace," he pronounced, when he had studied it long enough to show off as a connoisseur; and all of a sudden I realized that he was an American. Diana had collected two American friends who often invited her to the Savoy, and I'd heard them, and no one else, say "mighty fine." "Are you sure you want to get rid of it?"
I thought he was a dear to put it like that, as if I could have no real need for money, but had such a glut of lace scarves at home that I must rid myself of a few superfluous ones. As he spoke he was looking straight at me with the kind eyes I had noticed first of all—gray and yellow and brown mixed up together into hazel. I suppose it must have been some quality in that look which made me decide instantly to tell him everything. I'd have suffered the torture of the boot (anyhow, for a minute or two) before I would have explained myself to Nebuchadnezzar.
"I'm sure I do want to sell, if I can get as much as ten pounds for the thing," I answered. "Nothing less than seven guineas would be of any use to me. There's something which costs seven guineas—a thing I'm dying to buy. My mother left this scarf to me, as well as some other lace I wouldn't sell for the world. But it's quite mine and I can do as I like with it."
"Let me see! Ten pounds is fifty dollars, isn't it?" the man reflected out aloud.
"I don't know," I caught him up, "anything about American money or America."
He smiled at me again. Perhaps I had hoped he would.
"That's too bad! You ought to come over on our side and learn."
"I'd love to, especially to the parts where I could show off my French and Spanish. But I'm sure I shall never get the chance to cross the sea." I was three thousand miles from dreaming then of all the things that were to come out of this little affair of the scarf and the dress which had tempted me to put my lace on the market.
"Well," he went on, going back from me to my property. "I'll buy this pretty thing for ten pounds if you like to sell it to me; but honestly, I warn you that for all I know it may be worth a lot more."
"I'll be perfectly satisfied with ten pounds," I said. "But I don't wish you to buy just out of kindness, when I'm almost sure you don't really want to."
"But I do," he assured me. "I came into this place to carry out a commission for an aunt of mine in America. She wrote and asked me to find her something in a curiosity shop in England that she could give for a wedding present to a girl who's wild about antiques. An old friend of ours is going to take the parcel back with her when she sails to-morrow; smuggle it, maybe, but that's not my business. I thought of a miniature on ivory, but I haven't taken a big fancy to anything I've seen so far. I like your lace better, and it costs just the money my aunt told me to spend. So there you are."
"And there's the lace," I added, laughing. "It's yours. Thank you very much."
"It's for me to thank you," said he. "I'm awfully afraid I'm getting the best of the bargain, though. Wouldn't you rather go somewhere first and consult an expert?"
"No, indeed," said I. "Maybe the expert would tell us the lace was worth only five pounds, not ten. What I'm in a hurry to do is to dash to Selfridge's, and buy the dress I want before some beast of a girl gets it before me. Oh, horror! Maybe she's there already!"
"The worst of it is," said my new friend—I felt he was that—"I haven't got the ten pounds on me. I meant to have anything I might decide to buy sent home and paid for at my hotel."
"Can't I go with you to your hotel, and you give me the money there?" I wanted to know. "You see, I'm in such a hurry about the dress."
He glanced at me with a funny look in his eyes, and somehow I read what it meant. He hadn't called me a "little girl," and had behaved as respectfully as if I were a hundred; but I could see that he thought me about twelve or thirteen; and now he was saying to himself: "No harm carting a child like that about without a chaperon."
This was the first time I'd ever been glad that I had sacrificed myself for Di, and come to London in my old frocks up to the tops of my boots, and my hair hanging in two tails down to my waist. Of course, if any one were caddish or cattish enough to look her up in the book, it could be found out at a glance that Lady Diana O'Malley was twenty-three; but even if a person is a cad or a cat, he (or she) is often too lazy to go through the dull pages of Debrett or Burke; and besides, there is seldom one of the books handy. Therefore, Di had a sporting chance of being taken for eighteen, the sweet conventional age of a debutante on her presentation. Every one did know, however, that Father had married twice, and that there must be a difference of five or six years between Diana and the chocolate child. Accordingly, if I could be induced to look thirteen at most, it would be useful. As for me, I hadn't cared particularly. I knew I shouldn't get any grown-up fun in London, whether my hair were in a tail or a twist, or whether my dresses were short or long. Sometimes I had been sorry for beginning in that way, but now I saw that virtue was going to be rewarded.
"All right," said my friend. "Maybe it will be the best arrangement." And we left Nebuchadnezzar looking as the dog in the fable must have looked, when he snapped at the reflected bit of meat in the water and lost the bit in his mouth.
A taxi was passing, and stopped at the flourish of a cane. I jumped in before I could be helped. The man followed; and though I was looking forward only to a little fun, my very first adventure in London "on my own," the chauffeur was speeding us along a road that didn't stop at the Waldorf Hotel: it was a road which would carry us both on and on, toward a blazing bonfire of wild passion and romance.
The first thing we did when we were in the taxicab was to introduce ourselves to each other. I told him that I was Marguerite O'Malley, but that, as I wasn't a bit like a marguerite or even a common or garden daisy, I'd degenerated into Peggy. I didn't drag in anything about my family tree; it seemed unnecessary. He told me that he was Eagleston March, but that he had degenerated into "Eagle." I thought this nickname suited his aquiline nose, his brilliant eyes, and that eager, alert look he had of being alive in every nerve and fibre. He told me, too, that he was a captain in the American army, over in England for the first time on leave; but before he got so far, I knew very well who he was, for I'd read about him days ago in Father's Times.
"Why, you're the first American who's looped the loop at Hendon!" I cried out. "You invented some stability thing or other to put on a monoplane."
He laughed. "Some stability thing or other's a neat description. But you're right. I'm the American fellow that the loop has looped."
"Now I know," said I, "why you're not at the Derby to-day. Horses at their fastest must seem slow to a flying man."
"This time you're not right," he corrected me. "I'm not at the Derby because it isn't much fun seeing a race when you don't know anything about the horses, and haven't a pal to go with."
"But you must have lots of pals," I thought out aloud. "Every one adores the airmen."
"Do they? I haven't noticed it."
"Then you can't be conceited. Perhaps American men aren't. I never knew one before, except in business."
"Good heavens! So you really are a business woman, as well as a linguist, apparently. At what age did you begin?"
"What age do you take me for now?" I hedged.
"About twelve or thirteen, I suppose, though I'm no judge of girls' ages, whether they're little or big."
"I'm over twelve," I confessed, and went on hastily to change the dangerous subject. "But I really did have business with an American. It was in letters. My father made me write them, though they were signed with his name. He hates writing letters. I'm so thankful your name isn't Trowbridge. I hope you aren't related to any Trowbridges?"
"Not one. But why?"
"Oh, because, if you were, you might want to throw me to the wolves—I mean under the motor buses. We've done the Trowbridges of Chicago a fearful wrong. We let them our place in Ireland, while we came to London to enjoy ourselves."
He laughed aloud, that very nice, young laugh of his, which made me feel more at home with him than with people I'd known all my life. "You really are a quaint little woman," he said. "Now I come to think of it, I do know some people in Chicago named Trowbridge."
"Oh, well," said I, "if you must throw me out of anything, do it out of your monoplane. It would be so much more distinguished than out of a mere taxi. And at least, I should have flown first! For you would have to take me up before you could dash me down. And so my dream would have come true."
"Is it your dream to fly?" he asked, interested.
"Waking and sleeping," said I. "Ever since I was a tiny child, my very best dream has been that I was flying. Even to dream it asleep is perfectly wonderful and thrilling, worth being born for, just to feel. What must it be when you're actually awake?"
"You are an enthusiast," said Captain March. "You've got it in your blood. What a pity you're not a boy. You could be a 'flying man' yourself."
"Well, it's something to know one," said I. "Why, I'd give my hand—the left one—or anyhow, a finger of it—for just an hour in the air. A toe would be too cheap."
"I'd take you up like a shot, if your people would let you go," said he.
I gasped with joy. "Oh, would you?" I exclaimed. "Really and truly, I didn't mean to hint! But it would be heaven to go!"
"Not in my Golden Eagle," he laughed, "for I'd guarantee to bring you safe and sound back to earth again, this side of heaven. I can take up one passenger, though I haven't yet, since I came out here. I haven't met anybody, till now, I particularly cared to ask, and who would particularly have cared to go."
"And you would care to take me? How kind of you!"
"Kind to myself. I told you I hadn't any pals in England. You seem to be the stuff they're made of. You'd be a 'mascot,' I'm sure. But your people——"
"People? I haven't any. At least, a governess I once had said you couldn't call two, 'people.' They must be spoken of as 'persons.' I have only persons who belong to me—just Father and a grown-up sister—a half-sister. They like each other so much that they haven't room to care about me. If the Golden Eagle tipped me out, and smashed me as flat as a paper doll, they wouldn't shed a tear."
"Poor little child! But maybe you're mistaken. Maybe you are not conceited!"
"Yes, I am! That's why I notice when I'm not loved. Oh, do take me up. Take me up to-day! I'm all alone in the world. My 'persons' have gone to the Derby, and are staying all night at Epsom with a fat, rich family. I'm left to the mercy of the landlady in our lodgings. I'll even give up the dress at Selfridge's to go with you. That's more than sacrificing a toe!"
But he had stopped laughing. Instead he had turned quite grave. "I couldn't possibly do it," he said. "I'm awfully sorry to refuse. If you were older, you'd understand that it wouldn't be the right thing for a strange man and a 'foreigner,' to kidnap a little girl and fly off with her into space. Supposing I had an accident? I'm sure I shouldn't—but just supposing. I should never be able to forgive myself. Don't despair though. If you can manage to introduce me as a respectable sort of chap to your father, and he gives his permission——"
"But how did I get to know you?" I groaned. "I shall have to fib."
"No, you won't," he said quickly. "I refuse to be fibbed about. You must think of some other way."
"I'm afraid," I said dolefully, "you agree with that hateful curiosity man about me!"
"Agree with him? I don't understand."
"That I'm a pert minx or something. That's what he called me—or a pert piece. It's all the same thing. And I am it. I don't mind telling fibs. I've told lots."
"You poor little thing!" exclaimed Captain March in a pitying tone, but with the kind of pity the proudest person wouldn't resent, because it really came from his heart. "You seem to have had to fight your own battles. Maybe your mother died when you were very young?"
"When I was a week young," I said, and suddenly I felt myself choked up.
"That explains the telling of fibs, you see, and saying you don't mind—though I'm sure you do, when you stop to think of it; because the sort of girl who can be a good pal to a man just can't tell fibs, any more than the man can—if he's worth being a pal to."
Two boiling hot tears ran down my face, one on each cheek. I couldn't answer. I only looked up at him, feeling all eyes.
"What a beast I am!" he exclaimed. "I've made you cry!"
"It's I who am the beast," I managed to gasp out, because I saw he was badly distressed about me, and what he had done. "I'm crying because I'm a little beast. But I'd like not to be."
"You're not. You're a little soldier. Will you forgive me? I didn't mean to preach."
"You didn't preach. I expect you'd talk like that to a real soldier—one of those you're captain of. Well, I'll pretend I'm one of those soldiers, and that you're my captain."
As I spoke, the taxi was drawing up in front of his hotel; but I went straight on with my play, and gave him a military salute. "Thank you, Captain," said I, "for taking an interest. I shan't forget. No more fibs! I'll work for my corporal's stripe!"
"Good child!" he beamed on me, looking young and happy again. "I'll get you the stripe. I have it ready for you upstairs. I'll bring it down when I bring the money for the lace scarf. Would you rather wait in the taxi, or will you come into the ladies' parlour in the hotel?"
I thought "parlour" a lovely word, and very French, though I supposed it might be American, too. It was quite an adventure going into an hotel.
My captain (already I'd begun to think of him as that, since he'd called me a soldier) paid the chauffeur and led me to a big drawing-room where several women sat, so prettily dressed and so trim that they made me feel shabby in my brown holland frock and my blown-about hair. I wondered what he had meant by saying he would bring me a "corporal's stripe," and whether he had meant anything at all, except a passing joke. Somehow, I felt that he had had a definite idea, but I didn't dream it would be anything half so fascinating as it turned out.
He was not gone more than five or six minutes, and when he appeared again he drew up a chair in front of me, deliberately turning his back to the other occupants of the room, so that they could not see what was going on. Then he made me hold out my hands (I was ashamed of my untidy gloves) and receive in them ten golden sovereigns, which he counted as they dropped into my open palms.
"I hope you'll never regret bartering away your great-great-grandmother's beautiful lace for this pittance," said he. "And now for the corporal's stripe, if you're going to enlist in my regiment."
"I am," I cried. "I've enlisted in it already."
"Here, then," and he took from his coat pocket a little crumpled-up ball of something black and gold, evidently thrust in with haste. "This is one of the chevrons I wore on my sleeve when I was made corporal of cadets at West Point, eleven years ago this very month. You'll laugh, I guess, when I tell you why I brought the thing with me over here. I kept it, out of a sort of—of sentiment, or sentimentality maybe, because I was so dashed proud when I got it. I thought it marked an epoch in my life; that it was a token of success. Well, when I was coming over to your side of the water, to try out the Golden Eagle among all the English flyers, I was silly enough to think if she did any good, I'd stick this poor old stripe on her somewhere, for auld lang syne. Now I'd rather give it to you, little soldier."
I think it was at that minute I began to worship him. I worshipped him as a child worships, and as a woman worships, too; except that, perhaps, when a woman lets herself go with a flood of love for a man, she unconsciously expects some return. I'm sure I didn't expect anything. That would have been too ridiculous!
I felt rather guilty about depriving the Golden Eagle of her master's trophy, but after all, a girl is more appreciative than a monoplane; and besides, it would have hurt Captain March's feelings in that mood of his, if I'd refused. I had a conviction that a corporal's stripe, given as a reward and an incentive, would be to me a talisman. I decided that I'd keep it in a place where I could rush to look at it whenever I needed encouragement to go on being a soldier. If I wanted to sneak myself out of trouble with a fib, or be snappish to Father or cattish to Di, or say "damn," or bang a door in a rage, it seemed to me that I should only have to think of that little triangle of black cloth and gilt braid to be suddenly as good as gold, all the way through to my heart.
Maybe I showed some of these thoughts in my eyes when I thanked Captain March (Di says my eyes tell all my secrets), for he was nicer than ever, in the chivalrous, almost tender way some men have with girl-children. He said he was just as lonely as I was, or worse, because he hadn't a soul who belonged to him in England, and would it be quite proper and all right for an old soldier like him to invite a little girl like me to lunch?
Of course I said yes—yes, it would be entirely proper and perfectly splendid, though they might have forgotten to put anything of the sort into books of etiquette. By that time it was half-past twelve, only a few minutes left to dash to Selfridge's and rescue the dress (if it wasn't already lost) before luncheon, so Captain March offered to whisk me up to the shop in a taxi. He promised, if the gown were gone, that he'd help me choose another. But it wasn't gone; which showed that, as I'd felt in my bones, it really had been born for me.
"Why, it's a party dress, isn't it?" my captain innocently wanted to know. "And isn't it a bit too old for you?"
"I can have it made shorter," I said. "And if it is a little too old for me it doesn't matter, because I'm never invited to any parties. I shan't be for years, if ever. I shan't come out like my sister Di, I shall just slowly leak out, with nobody noticing. It isn't that I expect to wear this frock. It's the joy of having it which is so important."
"Girls begin to be queer evidently, even when they're children," said he. "But that doesn't make them less interesting. I know of an invitation to a party you could have, though, if you wanted it. The wife of our American ambassador is giving a ball to-morrow night. I know her a little. She'd be awfully pleased to send your people cards for the show, if I asked her. Or perhaps they've had cards already?"
I shook my head. "I'm sure they haven't. Are you going?"
"Yes, I've accepted."
"I know Diana would love it. I'll tell her about you—and about to-day, for she can't be cross with me if it ends in an invitation. And you'd be her first flying man."
Even as I spoke I had a misgiving. It came like a cramp in the heart. Di's nickname seemed to whisper itself in my ear: "Diana the Huntress—Diana the Huntress!" I didn't want her to shoot her arrow through this man's heart, because—well—just because. But they would have to meet if he were not to be lost to me, since he refused to be a partner in fibs. The idea seemed exactly the chance I had been looking for; and if the invitation came through me, provided I were included by the ambassadress, I didn't see how Di and Father could leave me out.
"All right, you shall have the card, I can promise that!" my captain said cheerily.
"But," I haggled, "will the ambassadress ask a—a little girl like me, who isn't out yet?"
"Of course she will. I'll see to that. Why shouldn't a little girl go for once? Here is one partner for her."
To dance in the white dress, with him! The thing must be too good to be true. Yet it really did seem as if it might come true.
He let me select the place for luncheon, and I chose the Zoo. He said I couldn't have chosen better. It wasn't a very grand meal, but it was the happiest I'd ever had. Captain March told me things about America, and aeroplanes, though very little about himself—except that he was stationed at a beautiful place in Arizona, called Fort Alvarado, close to the springs of the same name, where girls came and had "the time of their lives." Afterward we wandered about and made love to the Zoo animals, and at last saw them fed. When the lions and tigers had finished their glorious roaring, which seemed to bring the desert and the jungle near, it was almost five o'clock, so we had tea at the crescent-shaped tea house, in front of the Mappin Terraces. I lingered over my strawberries as long as I decently could, because, though I searched hard for it, there seemed to be no bored look on Captain March's face. When I did reluctantly say, "I suppose I'd better go home?" he actually had the air of being sorry.
"It's been the nicest day I ever lived in," I told him.
"I've enjoyed every minute of it, too," said he. "What a pity we can't polish it off with a dinner and the theatre. Look here, if you'd like it, Miss Peggy, I guess I can get that old lady I told you of, who's sailing to-morrow and will take the lace scarf, to go with us as chaperon. What do you say?"
What could I say? Being a child, it didn't matter showing the wildest delight. There are some advantages in being a child.
He took me home to our lodgings in Chapel Street (which cheaply gave us the address of Mayfair) and then I had to break it to him that I wasn't a Miss.
"Good gracious!" he exclaimed, when I began with those words. "Children don't marry in your country at thirteen, do they?"
I explained that, because my father happened to be an earl, his daughters had a courtesy title; and when he looked a little shocked, as if he were wondering whether he had been indiscreet, I nodded toward the house, as our taxicab stopped before the insignificant green door. "You see by where we live how unimportant we are!" I excused myself in such a pleading voice that he laughed. Then he flashed away to make arrangements for the evening—our evening!
The landlady had a telephone, and presently I got the message which Captain March had told me to expect. Mrs. Jewitt had consented to dine and go to the theatre. Would I like the Savoy, and to see "Milestones" afterward? And was I sure this business wouldn't get me into trouble to-morrow?
If it had sent me into penal servitude for life, I shouldn't have hesitated; but I replied that my sister would forgive me for the sake of the American Embassy ball. I knew Di could be counted on, in the exceptional circumstances, not to tell Father; but I didn't mention that detail to Captain March. I was afraid he might think the corporal's stripe had been ill-bestowed, but one must draw the straight line of truth somewhere!
Next morning when Di came back, I told her what was necessary to tell, and not a bit more. I explained how I had met Captain Eagleston March, and how we had spent the day and the heavenly evening. But first, I let her open the invitation which had just come by hand from the American Embassy (she opens all Father's letters, except those that have a repulsively private look), and when she began, "I wonder how on earth——," I was able to work my story in neatly, as an explanation.
Di listened to the end, without interrupting me once except by opening her eyes very wide, and now and then raising her eyebrows, or giving vent to expressive sighs. I saw that she was thinking hard as I went on, and I knew what she was thinking: about the need of forgiving me because of the new interest in life my naughtiness had brought her.
When I had finished up the tale with our dinner at the Savoy, and seeing "Milestones," and then on top of all, having supper with Mrs. Jewitt and Captain March at a terribly respectable but fascinating night club of which he had been made a member, Diana didn't scold. She said that Captain March being an officer and a flying man made all the difference, but she hoped I would not have put myself into such a position with any other sort of man, whether he mistook me for a child or not. Even as it was, she wouldn't dare tell Father the history of my day: but, as they had made several American acquaintances lately, she could easily account for the Embassy invitation.
"We'll go, of course, won't we?" I catechized her, knowing that her word with Father was pretty well law.
"Yes, we'll go," she answered. "I'll write an acceptance and send it by hand."
I was so enchanted at this that I dashed up to my room and began shortening the new dress. I had mentioned it vaguely to Di, but it was the one part of my story in which she took no interest. I saw how the keenness died out of her beautiful sea-blue eyes, and how her soul retired comfortably behind them, to think of something else, just as you see people walk away from windows through which they've been looking out, leaving them emptily blank. As she didn't care what little Peggy wore, little Peggy decided to give her a surprise at the last moment. Nothing much was said about the Embassy ball by Father or Di before me, on that day or the next, so I, too, kept my own counsel. I was afraid if I gabbled as I longed to do, Father might take it into his head that the child had better stop at home. All I heard was a little talk about the time to start, and whether a taxi should be ordered or a coupe. I thought there would be rather a squash in a coupe with Father, Diana, and me folded together in a sort of living sandwich; but I was so small, I could perhaps manage not to slide off the little flap seat with its back to the horses.
It was a coupe they finally decided on, and it was ordered for a quarter to ten. We had a short and early dinner, and as I did Diana's hair, it seemed to me that I had never seen her look prettier. I wondered whether Captain March would admire her very much, and I hoped for his own sake—I almost believed it was for his own sake!—that he wouldn't fall in love. As I thought this, I looked with a new kind of criticism at Di, to judge whether he were likely to be one of her victims.
Heaps of men had fallen in love with Di since I began to be old enough to notice such things. They had never been the right sort of men, from her point of view, for none of the lot had had a penny to bless himself with, or even a title worth the taking. But all of them had been worth flirting with; and after they had been dropped with more or less of a dull thud, I'm afraid some of them had suffered. I didn't wish Captain March to suffer, yet I couldn't help thinking that if I were a man I might be as silly as the rest and go down before Di.
She was then—and she is now—the most lovable looking thing that can be imagined. She doesn't appear to be cool and calculating, but warm-hearted and gentle and soft, far more so than most of the girls one meets, especially in London, where I think they have the air of being rather hard: ready to sacrifice everything and everybody for the sake of what they want to get or do.
If you were going to paint a picture of Ireland, typified by a beautiful girl, so that you might name your canvas "Dark Rosaleen," you would give the world to get Di for your model. She is tall, as a Diana ought to be, and slender though not thin. She gives the effect of fashionable slimness, yet she is all lovely curves and roundnesses. She has a long white throat with a charming upturned chin that has a deep cleft in the middle. It's no exaggeration to say that her skin is as white as creamy milk; and on each cheek, just beneath the shadow under her eyes, is a faint pink stain, as if it had been tapped hard with a carnation, and a little of the colour had come off. Perhaps, if her face has a fault, the nose is too short and flat, but it gives her a sweetly young and innocent look, added to her eyes being set far apart. And the eyes are really glorious: very big and long, with deep shadows under them only partly cast by her thick black lashes. A man once wrote a Valentine verse to Di, in which he remarked that her eyes were "like sapphires gleaming blue where they had fallen among dark grasses"; and it wasn't a bad comparison. The man died of taking too much veronal a year after. Nobody said he had done it on purpose. But I wondered. He was very unhappy the day he said "Good-bye" to Ballyconal. I've never been able to forget his look.
Di's mouth is large, and a tiny bit greedy, but all the more fascinating for that, because it is so red and curved. Her forehead is rather high, really, but she makes it seem only a white line above her level eyebrows, because of the way she likes best to wear her crinkly dark hair: parted in the middle, pushed forward and down, and banded in place by a rope of hair from the back.
That night for the ball at the American Embassy she had it fastened with big, very green jade hairpins. From her little pink ears hung long loops of emeralds (heirlooms in our family, or they would have been sold long ago), and the gown she chose was the same shade of green: some very thin, soft stuff, with one of those new names dressmakers think of in their dreams. It was simply made, and not very expensive; but in it Di looked like a classic personification of Ireland at its loveliest, and I was sure that not the best-dressed girl in the room would be as exquisite as she. I told her this on an impulse, and she was pleased. Yet she sighed. Of course she couldn't help knowing, said she, that she wasn't bad looking. But Venus or Helen of Troy couldn't make a success, handicapped as she was.
"It might be different in some other country," she went on, more to herself than to me. "A country like America, where titles are more of a novelty, and everybody one meets doesn't remember all about one's poor mother."
"Now I must run and get ready, myself," said I, when I had established connection between Diana's most intricate hooks and eyes.
"Get ready? For what, dear?"
"Why, for the ball, of course!" The first chill of suspicion that I had been cast for the part of Cinderella crept through me, like a caterpillar walking inside my spine.
"But, my child!" Di exclaimed. "You couldn't have thought you were going? Officially you are a little girl. You don't exist, and if you did, you haven't a dress——"
"I have a dress. The one I bought with the money from the lace. I didn't say much, because I thought it would be fun to surprise you."
"Well, I'm awfully sorry, dear, that you've been counting on it. I never dreamed—you ought to have told me——"
"You said you'd accept for 'us.'"
"I meant Father and me. It never crossed my mind that you——Too bad! But anyhow, it's too late now. Father would never consent."
I might have retorted that she was the one person in the world who could make him consent to anything she wanted, but then, the truth was that she didn't want this thing. Diana had—and has—the manners of an angel; and strangers would think she was as easy to melt as sugar in the sun. But I, who have lived with her all the years of my life, know that the sugar is only on the surface. And I have learned what is underneath. Even then, I realized that Di had understood perfectly well from the first that I expected to go to the ball, and she had kept quiet in order to have no more than one short, sharp fuss at the end. While it was being borne in upon me that I was to stop at home, instead of going on arguing and "fishwifing" I shut up like a clam. I suppose it was a kind of obstinate pride, the sort of pride that makes condemned people not scream or throw themselves about on the way to execution. But when Father and Di had gone, I cried—oh, how I cried! There was a kind of wild pleasure in letting the sobs come, and feeling the hot tears spout out of my eyes. In any clash between us, Di always won, because she was "grown up," and I was a "little girl"; but the trick she had played on me this time roused my sense of its injustice, and with all my body and mind and soul I resolved to strengthen my soul against her. "Some day," I said to myself, letting the tears dry on my cheeks as I listened to a spirit of prophecy, "some day there'll be a battle for life or death between our characters, Di's and mine, and I'll save myself up to win then."
It seemed weak, as if I were a whipped child, to creep off to bed, yet I couldn't force myself to read, or do anything to turn my thoughts from the great injustice. At ten minutes to eleven I was making up my mind that, after all, sleep would be the best consolation, when our lodging-house landlady knocked.
We had the "drawing-room floor," up one flight of stairs from the street. Luckily I was still in the draw-dining-room—a fantastic apartment crowded with nouveau-art furniture all out of drawing, like daddy longlegs—when the woman tapped and peeped in. If I had gone upstairs to my own top-floor room, I'm sure, being a prim person, she would have considered it improper to summon me down, and I should have missed a heavenly half hour.
"A gentleman has called, Miss, and could he come up for five minutes? The name is Captain March."
It was true! It was he! And he hadn't even met Diana yet. She had been dancing. But the hostess had introduced him to Father, and Captain March had worked round to the subject of me. When he heard that I was "too young for balls," he just slipped out, took a taxi, and made a dash to Chapel Street to tell me he was sorry. I was so grateful, I could have cried more than ever. It seemed to me one of the very nicest things a man ever did. He was in full-dress uniform, because an American officer is on his native heath when he's at his own Embassy; and I thought that he looked adorable in uniform.
He stayed half an hour instead of five minutes, and then said he must go back, and "do the right thing." The right thing, which he didn't particularly want to do, was to dance with the girls who weren't booked up to the eyes, and—to meet my sister. It was my first triumph to have a man—and such a man—put me in front of Diana. I was thrilled by it, though I ought to have had sense enough to know what would happen.
Eagle March (he told me that night to call him Eagle) did go back to the ball, and did meet Diana. I heard about it next morning when I took in her breakfast: how he had asked Father if he might be introduced, and Di had liked him so much that she found a dance to give him, although everything was engaged by the time he arrived; how an American girl who knew him at home said that he had a rich aunt who might leave him "a whole heap of money" some day (the aunt of the lace, I said to myself); and how Father had consented to take Diana and me to Hendon, to see Captain March's monoplane in its hangar.
"I managed that for you, dear, to make up for your disappointment last night, and because you're really a good, useful little flap of a flapper," Di finished. "Once we're at Hendon, I'm sure Father can be coaxed to let us go up for just a short flight, though he thinks now that nothing could induce him to. Captain March has promised that I shall be his first woman passenger. Never has he taken a woman with him yet."
I only gasped inaudibly, and bit a little piece off my heart. Of course I guessed then what must have happened; and when Eagle came that afternoon, I knew. I was for him a nice child still—a "good, useful little flapper," as Di said, and he was my friend as before; but Diana had lit up the world for him. He could hardly take his eyes off her. When she spoke, even at a distance, he heard every word, and nothing that any one else said.
"Why didn't you tell me your sister was such a wonderful beauty?" he mumbled as he was saying good-bye.
Old people, and even middle-aged people over twenty-five, must have forgotten how it can hurt when you are sixteen to be in love with some one who loves somebody else; for neither in books nor in real life do these worn-out persons ever take such a thing seriously. But I shall never cease to remember how it feels: like having to keep smiling while a bullet is probed for in your heart, not probed for only once, and finished for good, but prodded and poked at every minute of every hour, day after day, week after week, month after month. How can you tell whether or no it's going to be year after year as well, till all the red blood of your youth and hope has slowly been drained away?
Neither Diana nor I had ever been at Hendon. Captain March sent a motor car for us, and I saw Father and Di were both impressed by this. They thought he must have money (as all proper Americans have, according to their idea) apart from his future expectations. What I thought was, that having fallen in love with Di, nothing but a motor car could be good enough for a goddess, and—hang the expense!
Di, who was invited sometimes for a spin in friends' automobiles, had a fetching motor get-up which, eked out with one of those horrific headpieces flying people wear, could be used for a short flight. I had nothing of the sort, but Di offered to lend me her lined coat. After all, she owed the expedition and the airman to me.
It was a hired car, but, in Father's opinion, a dashed decent one. It flashed us out past the Marble Arch, straight along the Edgware Road, to the Flying Ground, which, even two years ago, was the favourite resort of fashion, especially female fashion. I had often wondered what it might be like out there, and was rather disappointed to see only some large flat fields close to the highroad, with a long line of low, uninteresting sheds ranged side by side. It did seem as if airmen, who must be brimming like full cups with wine of romance and imagination, ought to have invented sightlier houses for their beloved machines. But the very thought that the ugly huts were hangars gave a thrill. Captain March was to meet us at Hendon, but we didn't see him at first. As we arrived, an aeroplane went up, and a monoplane was circling the enclosure, giving sudden dips at fearfully steep angles as it took the turns, righting itself like a lazy, long-tailed eagle with far-spread wings as it came again into the straight. Captain March's hired chauffeur, who had been told exactly what to do, ran the car up a short road on the right, and stopped.
"That's the captain's hangar, my lord," said he to Father, pointing to a shed near which we had halted; and his arm hadn't time to drop before the man-made bird, which had been circling round, planed down and glided in at the wide-open door like a homing pigeon into a pigeon house.
It was beautifully managed, and so dramatic that it was like the climax of an act on the stage. Perhaps Captain March had been performing some feat before we came; anyhow, as he brought his monoplane to rest a lot of people standing about applauded him. In a minute he came almost running out of the shed straight toward us, in his leather clothes and leather helmet, with goggles pushed up to the top of his head. Instead of being proud of what he had done, whatever it was, he apologized abjectly for "being late," and I could see that Di was vain of her conquest. Lots of women were there, staring enviously at the pretty girl who knew a real, live airman—evidently, too, one of the popular ones; and Di loves to be envied. I'm afraid we all do, in the secret places of our hearts which we don't like to peer into, under the dust.
One thing about Di, which makes men adore her, is that she contrives to seem exquisitely sympathetic and enthusiastic without ever gushing. It's partly the shape of her eyes and the shortness of her upper lip, which combine together to give a lovely, rapt, brooding expression, that saves her the trouble of thinking up adjectives. With this look on, she appeals to all the love of romance and adventure in their hearts, I'm sure. They would do anything to win it for themselves. I would myself if I were a man, and didn't know her; so when Captain March took us into his hangar, and she turned on the look, I didn't blame him for forgetting the very existence of his small pal. It only made me sad.
"I thought I'd better take the Golden Eagle up for a short run, and test her before you came, to see that she was all right," he was still apologizing. "Then she behaved so well, I got going, and stayed up longer than I meant. But I saw the car stop, so I hurried down."
"I should think you did 'hurry down!'" laughed Diana. "The way you aimed at your hangar from far up in the sky, and shot in, was like a marksman aiming at the bull's-eye on a target, and getting it. What do you call 'testing' your monoplane? What had you been doing to make all those people applaud?"
"Oh, only a little upside-down flying," said Captain March, as he might have said "only a little breathing exercise." "You see, I make stability tests. That's what I'm for. And with my appliances, being upside down's no more to me than it is to a fly when he walks on the ceiling."
Di's eyes said, "You hero! you splendid, modest hero!"—said it so plainly that the hero faintly blushed, though it was hard to trace a blush on his face, burnt red-brown by sun and wind. My eyes said nothing at all, but if they had recited a whole page of Shakespeare's sonnets he would have been none the wiser.
He led us into the hangar, where two fascinatingly smudged mechanics were in attendance on the magic bird; and he remembered to be nice and respectful to Father. Explanations of the mechanism were ostensibly addressed to our parent, but in reality all the eloquence was for Di, whose eyes poured forth appreciative intelligence as stars pour forth rays. Captain March couldn't be expected to know, poor fellow, that Di, if obliged to choose between two deadly dull evils, would rather hear a cook tell how to boil potatoes than listen to any mechanical talk. However, it wasn't really needful to listen, if one's eyes were well trained; and Di was having the "time of her life" in meeting an airman.
Even I could see that this monoplane, fitted with Captain March's inventions, was a different looking creature from the other bird machines which were shooting up into the air, or darting back into their dens, all around us. The Golden Eagle's quiet, graceful wings, instead of being in a straight line with each other, were set at an obtuse angle one from another; and on the end of each were odd little extra triangular tips, hinged to the main wings. I longed to pour out questions, for the "why" of things, especially mechanical things, has interested me ever since I was old enough to pick a doll to pieces, to see what made its eyes open and shut. But Di was asking idiotic questions in the sweetest way, and Captain March was laughing and delighted. It pleased him a great deal more that she should want to know precisely why he had named his monoplane the Golden Eagle than if Father or I had catechized him with the trained intelligence of a scientist.
"I've been unoriginal enough, I'm afraid, to name my big baby after myself," he said, "my nickname being Eagle. The golden eagle, you know, is our national bird."
"So her hangar is 'The Eagle's Nest,'" said Di. "That's awfully nice. But why not name her instead the Winged Victory?"
"Wouldn't it be rather conceited?"
"Not after what she's already done, and shown that she can do. It's conceited of me to suggest it, though, for—for the Winged Victory is a sort of a nickname of mine since a fancy dress ball at the beginning of the season."
"It suits you exactly," said Captain March. "If Lord Ballyconal will let you be my first lady passenger, and if, after she's given you a run, you think her worthy, she shall be renamed the Winged Victory, provided you'll baptize her."
"Oh, Bally, dear, you will let me go, won't you?" Di pleaded, using her pet name for Father, which he likes because it sounds young and unparental. Then catching a bleak gleam in my eyes, she hastily added: "And afterward Peggy, if Captain March will take her up."
Father hesitated, but the newspapers and people at the Embassy ball who knew all about Eagle March had spoken so highly of the machine, that it seemed an insult to a famous airman's skill to refuse. The two mechanics wheeled the monoplane out of the shed, and Captain March explained how easy and safe he could make things for a passenger. Lots of men had been up with him, but he had never asked a woman. "Only a short flight, I'll take her," he almost pleaded. "I can give her a helmet. Perhaps you'd rather go first yourself, though, and see what it's like."
Father may not have had a particularly good time on earth, but anyhow, he preferred it to atmospheric effects. He said that he had no head for heights, but if Di and Peggy wanted to go, and Captain March was kind enough to take them—er—up, a tiny way into the—er—air, he supposed that in these days he ought not to offer any objections.
Captain March had the spare helmet ready (it looked so new and smart, I felt sure he had bought it for the occasion), and nothing stood between Diana the Huntress and her quarry—nothing except her own changing mood. I think it was the look of the helmet which gave her that sinking feeling of irrevocability which seems to sever you, as with a sword, from all the dear little safe things that have made up your life in the past. She glanced from the helmet which the airman held toward her to the monoplane spread-eagling on the ground. I saw her big eyes dilate as they fixed themselves anxiously on the passenger's perch, to which the honoured guest must climb, above the conductor's seat, crawling through the wire stays, or whatever you call them, which were like a spider's web inviting a fly. Diana turned pale. Even her lips were white. The shadows under her eyes darkened as if she were ill.
"You're—you're sure it's safe?" she faltered.
"Safe as a house. Safer than a jerry-built house," Captain March assured her cheeringly. "Look at these!" and he pointed out again all the features of his invention that made the automatic stability of the machine. "But if you——"
"Oh! I'm not afraid," quavered Di, her eyes roving in an agonized way over the crowd collecting to see the lovely girl taken up into the sky by the brave airman. "It isn't that. Only—it won't make me seasick, will it?"
"I've never had a passenger seasick," said Eagle.
"And—you won't turn upside down, will you?"
"Of course not!"
"Well, then, I—I'll go."
On with the condemned cap!—I mean the leather helmet. Diana's paling beauty was blotted out. Wrapped in her fur-lined cloak, she was trembling all over. Her hands, which she held confidingly out for the thick mittens Captain March had got for her, shook like the last leaves on a frozen tree.
"Think you're fit for it, Di?" Father asked anxiously.
"Yes, indeed!" came hissing through the helmet. But I felt it was only the tonic of other women's envy which was keeping her up. I was envying her, too.
Captain March helped Di scramble into her perch. His hand was steady and strong. All his life and skill and manhood were for her. She was tenderly yet firmly strapped into place, and told how she was to hold on, and not to be afraid. There would be some noise, but she mustn't mind; and there was the little apparatus Captain March had invented, by which a passenger could communicate with the conductor. It was something like the bulb you squeeze in a motor car when you want the chauffeur to turn right or left or stop.
"Press once if you're sick of it, and want to come down," said Eagle. "Twice if you want to go higher. There's a whistle close to my ear, so sharp it cuts through the motor noise."
My heart beat almost as fast as if I were in the monoplane myself when Eagle was ready to start, looking like a twentieth-century, leather-masked Apollo starting out to drive his sun chariot up to the zenith and down the other side. The motor purred, and the propeller began to revolve. Diana, tense as a stretched violin string, was hanging on already, like grim death. The two mechanics held the tail of the impatient giant bird, and when Eagle raised one hand, they let go. For perhaps fifty yards the Golden Eagle ran lightly over the turf on her bicycle wheels; then her master tilted the planes, and his namesake soared upward from the ground into the air.
As she went, through the noise she made I heard a shriek from the passenger. Diana's pride, which denied cowardice in the joy of being envied, was forgotten in the primitive emotion of fear. What my sister did I could not see, as the monoplane mounted so quickly; but almost at once I realized that she must have signalled her wish to descend, for the Eagle ceased to soar, dropped, and began gently gliding down. A moment later the great winged form was landing once more close to its own shed.
Father rushed to the rescue of his darling, and Captain March—out of his seat in a second—was unfastening the straps and anxiously extricating Diana from the passenger's perch. I couldn't help feeling ashamed before all the people—scornful or sympathetic, who were looking on—that my sister had shown herself a coward; but I was sorry for her, too. She had quite collapsed, and lay in Father's arms as Captain March unfastened her helmet. I wasn't mean enough to think of rejoicing because, in taking my place away, she had been tried and found wanting. Instead, I found myself really afraid that Captain March might despise the poor girl for the timidity which humiliated him as well as her. But I need not have worried. Pulling off the helmet in that clumsy way a man has with any sort of headgear, the wheel of braided hair Diana wore, wound over each ear in the Eastern fashion that came from "Kismet," was loosened, and a thick plait with an engaging wave at the end fell down on either side of her face. Standing, but supported in Father's arms, her head lay on his shoulder, her eyes closed, long curling lashes resting on marble cheeks. I had never seen her half so beautiful, and Captain March gazed at her as if he would gladly give his life for a reassuring smile.
"Shall I fetch a doctor?" he asked miserably. "There's sure to be one, somewhere around."
Before Father could answer, Di opened her eyes, and Captain March got the smile without paying the price.
"I—I'm all right," she breathed. "So sorry! I wasn't afraid, you know. It was my heart. It seemed to stop."
"Of course you weren't afraid," Eagle encouraged her. "I can never forgive myself for making you suffer."
Diana's smile graciously forgave the brutal fellow for his blundering, and she extricated herself from Father's arms, the colour slowly stealing back to her lips and cheeks. She shook her head a little, and the two braids, stuck full of tiny tortoise-shell hairpins, tumbled over her breast. Captain March nearly ate her up with his eyes, and then, through their windows, his soul might be seen worshipping, and begging the goddess's pardon on its knees.
"She's not strong," Father apologized. "It's my fault for letting her go up; I ought to have remembered her heart."
It's a great asset, a weak heart, for a person who has just made an exhibition of cowardice. Like charity, it covers a multitude of sins. I'd never before heard of Di's heart being weak; and at home, if there were a ball anywhere within twenty miles, she could always dance at it till morning. However, I was glad she'd thought of her heart in time, and saved the situation. It was an accommodating heart, for it came up smiling, when the petting Di got had satisfied her that she wasn't to be blamed for the fiasco.
"I think flying must be a wonderful experience for any one whose heart is quite right," she consoled Captain March. "It's a pity, for the credit of the family, you didn't take Peggy up first."
"I suppose she won't feel like going, after what has happened to you?" said he, remembering my existence.
"Oh, I do feel like it, more than ever," I exclaimed, "that is, if you don't mind risking another of us."
"I don't think we'd better trouble Captain March again," Father cut in. "He wouldn't like a second failure."
"He won't have one," I said. "My heart is as strong as a Gnome motor. Do let me go. It will give Di time to rest."
Whether that argument decided Father, or whether he really did hope I might reestablish the family credit for courage, I don't know; anyway, he made no further objections. The fur-lined cloak, helmet, and mittens were handed over to me. I crawled through the spider's web to the tiny throne vacated by its late queen, and was strapped in as Di had been. Not one qualm did I feel as I looked down over Eagle's leather-clad shoulder at the various instruments fixed on to what in an aeroplane corresponds, I suppose, to the dashboard of an earth-bound automobile: the revolution gauge, which Eagle had explained to us; the watch; the map to roll up on a frame, like a blind; the compass, the height indicator. I felt secure and happy in the thought that my courage would at least make my captain respect me. He had shown us how his invention enabled the monoplane to balance itself in meeting every gust of wind, or falling into an "air pocket," without any effort from the conductor. That assurance hadn't been enough for Di, Winged Victory, Goddess, and Huntress, but it was enough for humble Peggy. Besides, in the mood which had swept over me like a blinding flame of white fire, I didn't care what happened, provided it happened to Eagle March and me together. I should have liked him to aim straight for the sun, and never to come down again.
The last thing I said before we started was, "Go as high, please, as you would if you were alone. If I press the bulb, it will be twice, to fly higher."
Then came the starting of the motor, the wheeled run, and the leap into air. As we took wing, I could have sung for joy. I was so gloriously excited, I was hardly conscious of the noise of the engine. That helmeted head and the firm leather-clad shoulders beneath me seemed the head and shoulders of a god.
We circled over the enclosure. The Golden Eagle hadn't risen very high yet, but I had a queer feeling of being no longer related to any one on earth. I was with my champion, a creature of another sphere. Intoxicated with joy, I pressed the bulb twice. I could not hear the shrill whistle, but the driver evidently heard, for in obedience we shot up—up—up! The height indicator showed that we had reached the height of five hundred feet. I pressed the bulb again twice over. Eagle began to steer the monoplane in immense circles. I felt I could almost see our corkscrew-track in the air, like twisted threads of gold on blue. The hangars in the fields of Hendon were toy sheds on a green-painted tray. Even the aerodrome was no more than a big rat trap. London spread itself out beneath us, a vast dark patch, like a fallen cloud. A shaft of sunlight set a golden dome on fire. It must have been St. Paul's. For the third time I gave the signal to mount. For the third time Eagle obeyed. I wondered if he liked me a little for sharing the confidence he had in his machine.
A few white clouds floated lazily beneath us, like snowy birds of an intolerable brightness and titanic size. Then they joined together in a glittering flock, and lost the semblance of birds. The mass became a sparkling silver sea, with here and there a dark gulf in it like a whirlpool. The air grew biting cold. I felt it press on me through the fur-lined coat Di had lent, like blocks of solid ice. But the strange sensation only exhilarated me the more. "I'm not a coward, I'm not a coward. I'm brave!" The words sang themselves in my head to the accompanying roar of the motor.
It was a glorious, dependable roar, but suddenly, in the midst of a spiral movement, I noticed a change in the sound. A gurgle—a choking stammer. A spray of petrol dashed across my goggles.
"Now—what?" The question asked itself in my soul. But there was no fear with it, only an awed realization that this might be the end of things, as I had known them, in a very little world low down and far away. "What does it matter?" the answer came. But Eagle had turned round in his seat, and was handing me a spanner. Now he was motioning to me. If he spoke, I couldn't hear a word. Yet I understood from the gestures of one mittened hand what he hoped I might be able to do. Somehow, even then, the driving force of thought in my brain was to please him, to show him that he hadn't relied on me in vain, rather than to save us both from threatening danger, though danger I saw there must be. I was determined that the corporal should not fail the captain.
The thing I had to do, as I seized the situation, was to turn the spanner on a loosened nut in the petrol pipe, to which Eagle pointed. Reaching up with my right hand, I steadied myself with the left, and touched something hot, horribly hot. There was an involuntary flinch of the nerves as the heat burned through the thick mittens I wore and scorched my fingers, but I didn't scream, I'm glad to say, or let go the spanner. I screwed and screwed at the union, with the nasty smell of burnt wool, and perhaps flesh, in my nostrils. Then there came the glorious sensation of success as the song of the motor took up its old refrain again. No more choking and spluttering, and it was I who had cured it.
I gave a little sob of thanksgiving, because I hadn't failed; and a voice seemed to whisper far, far down under the renewed song of the engine, "What if this is a prophecy? What if, after Diana has left him in the lurch, it should be given to you to atone—to help or save him in some danger?"
The little voice was so strong, so clear, that I thrilled all over. What it said seemed to become part of an experience which I could never forget.
In the remaining six weeks of his leave, Eagle March made himself very popular in England. He secured a record for altitude, and flew upside down longer than any one else had at that time, two years ago, which is a whole age in the aeroplane world. He did other quaint tricks, too, that nobody had thought of or accomplished then, such as walking on a wing of the monoplane when she was in the air; and all the prettiest and smartest women in London were proud to meet him. He was invited everywhere, and people who pretended to know said that peeresses, married and unmarried, made violent love to Captain March. Naturally a girl like Di was enchanted to lead him about, tied to what would have been her apron strings if she'd been frumpish enough to wear such things. When it began to be said that Eagle March found excuses not to accept invitations unless Lord Ballyconal and Lady Di O'Malley might be expected to turn up, Father and Diana were asked by a great many hostesses who wouldn't have thought of them except as bait. Di realized this, even if Father were too proud or too conceited to do so, and she used Eagle in every way, for all he was worth. She liked him, too, better than she'd ever liked any man, perhaps, except her first love—the handsomest Irish boy you ever saw, whom she couldn't think of marrying because he'd no family and no money. But she was only seventeen then and Jerry Taylor was a mere subaltern. He died in India of enteric when Di was eighteen; and before Captain March came on the scene she had liked and flirted with at least a dozen others.
Besides, Eagle March was a very different "proposition," as they say in his country, from poor Jerry Taylor. There was no reason why she shouldn't think of marrying him if he wanted her, and he did want her desperately. A moderately intelligent bat could have seen that he was dying for my lovely sister. Anyhow, she saw it, and I saw that she saw it, and that she was troubled as to which way to make up her mind. She didn't want to lose her golden eagle, with his brilliant plumage of fame and popularity, and the future fortune from his aunt. On the other hand, through Eagle, Di had met a number of desirable men, some moneyed, some titled; and she was a girl who would rather marry a rich nobody of the country she had known, than fly with a hero to a land she knew not. I used to notice in her soft, thoughtful eyes the "wait and see" policy.
As the time drew near for Eagle to go back to his regiment on the other side of the world, things grew exciting. I felt electricity in the atmosphere, though Diana didn't confide in me, and I had no idea what she meant to do. I couldn't bear to think of Eagle having to suffer, as he must suffer if she threw him over, for already I knew enough of him to know that, quiet as he was, he had very deep and sensitive feelings. I am too young, even now, after all I have lived through in the last year or two, to set myself up as a judge of character; yet I couldn't then help forming my own opinion of all those who came near me. I seemed to see under Eagle March's simple, half-humorous, calmly deliberate manner, flashes of inner fire. I thought his character was not really simple at all, but very complex. I don't mean in a deceitful way, far indeed from that; but I believed there was much in him which he did not yet know himself, about himself. I fancied that the Southern blood he had in his veins from one side of his family had made him high-strung and passionate, as well as daring, quick to think, and quick to act; and that his study was to hold this side of his nature in check. I felt sure that he was generous even to a fault, yet I was certain that, if driven to desperation, there might be a cruel streak which would make him a dangerous enemy unless some tide of love broke down the barrier of hardness in his soul. He was not hard at that time, however, and I didn't want my sister to be the one to make him so.
For this reason, I sometimes wished that she would marry him, and give him as much happiness as she had it in her to give. And yet, apart from my own feelings (they didn't count, for his losing Di would not give him to me), I couldn't believe that having her would really be for his happiness in the end. The two hadn't one idea or taste in common. But all I could do was to hope that, whatever happened, it would be for his best; because, you see, knowing him, and having that chevron of black and gold as a "reward of valour," had made me a nicer, less selfish girl than I had been before we met. Because I loved a soldier, I wanted to be a soldier, too! Hardly anything of the pert minx remained in me, I used to think sometimes, and comparatively little of the pig or cat. This was fortunate, because, when toward the last he confided in me, everything bad that was left in my composition longed to turn and rend Diana.
The way he did this made it all the harder for me not to desert the colours. He told me that ever since the day when I had been "such a little trump in the air, and maybe saved both our lives," I'd been more to him than any other female thing, except, of course, my sister. Something in Diana's weakness had appealed to him as much as my strength; and he loved her with a different love from the affection he gave me. I was his little sister, his brave little friend, and because I was so dear to him, he dared to ask me what chance he had with Diana. Did I think she tried to keep him from telling her what he felt, because she didn't care and wanted to save him pain, or was there just a possibility that she was only shy?
I could have given a bitter laugh to both questions, because the truthful, straight-out answer to one and the other was the same: "No!" Di loved to get proposals, and counted them up as if they were scalps, or those horrid little soft, boneless masks which head hunters collect. The only trouble was, that among the lot, she had never had one scalp worth the wearing, for a real live beauty, who needed only a bit of luck to be at the top of the world. As for her shyness, it was all in the tricks she played with her eyelashes and the way she curved her upper lip.
But I didn't laugh. I merely said I wasn't sure how Diana felt, as she never talked to me about such things. And I got for answer, spoken reflectively: "I suppose not. You're too much of a child."
He knew by this time that I was sixteen, instead of thirteen as he had thought at first; but what you're not much interested in makes little impression on your mind if you're a man and in love. For him I was a child, a nice sympathetic child. And such affection as he gave me, I lived upon, as if it had been the washings from a cup of the elixir of life.
For his sake, I studied Di more closely than ever, after that day, and soon I understood what she was driving at. She wanted to have her cake and eat it, too. And she got it. Any girl can manage this, if she is clever enough; and Di, though she isn't bookish or intellectual, is very, very clever in the way women have been clever since they emerged from cave life.
She succeeded in keeping back a real proposal which she would have had to answer with a "yes" or "no"; but she hinted to Captain March that, if she could have just a little more time to think about it, with the glamour of his presence gone, she would probably realize that she couldn't be happy without him. Of course it would be a blow for poor, dear Bally if she married out of Ireland or England, but still—but still—only give her time to read her heart.
Eagle told me something of the scene between them, and of course, I saw exactly what Di was up to: but I caged all the wild cats in me, and said I was glad, if he were happy. Yes, indeed, I'd take care of Di for him, and write him how she looked and what she did, and use all my influence to make Father escort us both over to America as soon as possible. Di, it seemed, had also agreed to use her influence in bringing this result about. I couldn't tell at the time whether she had thrown the promise as a sop to keep Eagle quiet, or whether she really thought that she would like to go. All I knew was that, if she did use her influence—and Father could get hold of enough money—the thing was as good as done.
Eagle took his departure; and we, and lots of his new friends, went to Euston to see him off for Liverpool, Di, no doubt, secretly thinking that sort of public "good-bye" safer than a private one. As for our going to America, the scheme hung by a thread, as I guessed soon after Eagle's back was turned. A bird in the hand is always worth at least two in the bush, and Di's hand was ready. If the right bird could be palmed before the season's end, it would mean that nothing of Di except her wedding cards would sail across the sea. But as it turned out, home birds were wary, and we crept back to Ireland in time for the horse show with Diana empty handed, and Father with pockets cleaned out. It was then that Di seriously set her thoughts upon the new world—new worlds, it is said, being easier to conquer than old ones.
Father had two or three acquaintances in the diplomatic service at Washington. He hoped to squeeze invitations out of them; for in a country entirely populated by monotonous Misters and Mrs-es, with nothing more decorative than a colonel or a general or a judge, even a poor Irish earl isn't to be sneezed at. Di needn't be handicapped by every one remembering that her mother would have described herself as a "music 'all h'artist"; and several Americans living in New York had asked us to their houses.
At first it wasn't proposed to take me if the family went, and the thought of going through again what I had endured when seeing Di and Eagle March together, kept me from raising my voice in persuasion. It would be heartwearing to be left behind, never to know what was happening except from an occasional letter; but to be on the spot and see for myself would be heartbreaking. I wasn't quite sure which would be worse, so I left the decision to Fate; and as I said before, it was my Frenchified genius for doing hair which settled the matter. Di discussed it with Father frankly before me, and argued that not only was I cleverer than the average maid, but actually cheaper. "Besides," she finished, "Peggy dear would like to go, and she's not a bad little thing. Who knows but she might pick up something over there for herself?"
"A picker up of unconsidered trifles!" the scotched, not killed minx in me couldn't resist quoting, at the suggestion that I was welcome to Di's leavings if I could bag them. But neither Father nor Di was paying the slightest attention.
By superhuman efforts in borrowing, and perhaps begging (I wouldn't "put it past him"), and selling the portrait of our best-looking, worst-behaved ancestor, Father scraped up enough money to take us to America and have a little over for travelling expenses there. Further than that he did not look, for we should be living board free most of the time; and besides, something was almost sure to turn up. In December we sailed on a slow, cheap ship; and once on the other side, lived for six weeks, like the lord and ladies we were, upon friends Di had carefully collected, as if they were rare foreign stamps or postcards, in London during the past season. Most of these she had met through Eagle. She had a gorgeous time, and even I came in for plenty of fun; because it seems that a girl in America ceases to "flap" while she is still quite young. I was strictly reduced by my elders to "just sixteen," although my seventeenth birthday was upon me; but there were men in New York not above talking or tangoing with a girl of sixteen, and my hair, though only looped up flapper fashion, with a ribbon, was actually admired. I saw it in the newspapers—not the hair, but the admiration.
Never were people so hospitable as those kind ones in New York, and never were houses more beautiful or more luxurious than theirs. I had never seen anything quite like them at home: but it wasn't the luxury that stirred in my heart a wondering love for America. I began to feel it from the very moment when our cheap liner brought us into the harbour, and the Statue of Liberty (about which Eagle had told me) was suddenly unveiled to my eyes from behind a curtain of silver mist. The thrill warmed my blood, and I had the sensation of being at home, as if I were coming to stay with kinsfolk; a dim but deep conviction, that I belonged; that there was a place for me.
We were doing something from morning till night—or rather till the next morning; and the air was like a tonic to keep us up to the work of play. Luncheons and dinners and dances were given for Di, and she was written and talked about as the "Beautiful Lady Diana O'Malley"; but, though she had proposals, nothing better offered than Captain March, whose rich aunt, Mrs. Cabot, lived in New York, and proved to be the genuine article. Consequently, we turned our attention to Washington. Washington also turned its attention to us, and made itself agreeable to Father and Diana. Place and people were both fascinating; and we had five weeks more of dinners and dances, without the result we all knew in our secret souls we had come to get. The men who wanted Di, she didn't want, and vice versa. So at length we came to the last item marked on our programme: a visit to the fashionable Alvarado Springs, close to Fort Alvarado, in Arizona, where Captain March was stationed.