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gay, in the way she loved, and such is the force of habit, two more novelists and a minor poet fell in love with her without making the vestige of an attempt to conceal it!
But Maud and I, not being great or beloved of the great, saw little of her. We heard from time to time that she was entertaining such and such a great man at dinner, or had dined at such and such a house. She was, we knew, painted by a very celebrated Academician, and was to be hung on the line at Burlington House, but we saw her very seldom.
When the time came, I went to see the picture.
It represented her, dressed in black velvet and ermine-when I had known her well, she had no ermine-coming down a marble staircase that could have found room in no house in London that I ever saw.
But then there are London houses that I have not seen.
She looked six feet tall in the portrait, whereas she was about five feet seven. But that does n't matter, perhaps, when the painting is as fine as no one can deny this to be.
It would, of course, be preposterous to pretend that Lady Grizel Hay presented her at Court because Godfrey Clandon had wanted to marry her, but the one fact certainly had some bearing on the other. She was presented at the second Court that spring, and shortly afterward bought her motor.
It was a small one and painted a very demure dark green, but these modest facts did not appreciably modify the ire raised in some quarters by her purchase. Even nice women may be cats at times.
Where she went in the summer I do not know, but in October, when it all happened, she was back in Queen Anne's Gate. I was, I am, fond of Wilmot Herraday, as I trust I have already proved. But I cannot find it in my heart to regret that I was present at the great scene with Mrs. Pegram.
WE were sitting in her library that afternoon and she had just shown me some books she had picked up in Paris. That she should be picking up books at all was very amusing, but her choice was to me quite delightfully absurd. I was examining them with great gravity when the
maid came to tell her that a person wished to see, nay, insisted on seeing her. "A person, Plover?"
"Yes, Madame," Plover was quite sure that the person was a person.
"Then tell him I am engaged." "It's a-woman, Madame, and she says she must see you. It's something lit'ry, Madame, I think."
Mrs. Herraday at once became subtly, wordlessly, a patron of letters. "Ah, then perhaps you don't mind, March?"
Anticipating more delight and really enjoying my friend's enjoyment of her own situation, I assured her that I minded nothing short of being sent tea-less away, and Plover retired.
The person proved, a minute later, to be a shabby, tired-looking woman of fifty or thereabouts, with hollow, tear-worn eyes, and the remains of a certain kind of good looks.
She reminded me, in a way I cannot quite define, of the ruin of a once beautiful building,—and, also, vaguely, I wished that ivy of some kind had draped the ugliness of her decay.
She wore decent enough black garments; indeed she bore no striking marks of poverty; but there was misery of some kind written all over her.
"Won't you sit down?" asked Wilmot Herraday in her gentle voice. But the woman remained standing, her hands, encased in new black thread gloves, folded on her stomach, which was high.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Madam," she said decently. "I have thought a lot about it—"
"You are not disturbing me if I can be of any use to you," returned Wilmot. "Please sit down, Mrs.-"
"Mrs. Pegram. It was my name when when we first met," answered the other, still with her air of decency; “and I never changed it."
"When you met whom?" asked Wilmot, pleasantly, but glancing at me as if she expected to be amused.
"Him," Mrs. Pegram said, pressing her hands to her lips for a second, as if to steady them, "Clandon."
If she had said Julius Cæsar we could not, for the moment, have thought her more mad.
"Clandon!" I ejaculated, coming a little nearer to Wilmot.
The woman noticed my movement and smiled, a strange, weary, patient little smile.
"You need n't be afraid, sir," she said. "I am not going to do any one any harm. I don't want anything, either. That is to say, I don't want money."
'But what do you want? And what do you mean by talking about Mr. Clandon?" Mrs. Herraday walked, as she spoke, away from me, and toward the strange woman by the door. "I a am not afraid,-only I don't understand."
"That," Mrs. Pegram replied, immovably, "is only to be expected."
Wilmot told me later that her first idea had been that Mrs. Pegram must have at some time served Clandon in some menial capacity. Such a thought did not occur to me. I don't think I definitely thought anything, but I most certainly knew that something amazing was about to happen.
"Sit down, Wilmot," I said, and she obeyed me. "Mrs. Herraday has just recovered from a serious illness," I said, "and is not yet very strong. Now,-what is it?"
"It 's this, then, sir. It's the book. Miss Clandon herself sent it to me. She was always very kind to me-kinder than could have been expected. She 'ad the publisher send it, and then (when she had read it, I suppose) wrote and told me not to read it, that there was a mistake of some kind. Of course," she added in the same voice, "I read it. It's a lovely book and all perfectly true except the one thing."
I saw that Wilmot had changed color, and sat huddled queerly in her chair. "Well, go on," I said, sharply, "and try to be clear."
"I am very clear, sir. Why, I'm that clear-" she broke off, as if in admiration of her own unqualified clarity, but hurried on as I was about to speak again.
"The Fleur Blanche letters, it is," she said. "The gentleman says they were written to 'er, -to Mrs. Herraday. And that is why I've come. You see, sir, it is n't fair to the children."
"To whom? To what children?"
"To his, sir. Clandon's-and mine. Godfrey is twenty now and Grace Powell is eighteen. Little Geraldine is-"
I rose and went close to her. "All this is no business of ours, Mrs. Pegram," I
said, "and you are only distressing Mrs. Herraday. What is it you have come for? Please tell me in as few words as possible."
"Yes, sir," she answered, submissively. "I am sorry to 'ave upset Mrs. Herraday. I know it's all a mistake. But for the children's sake-"
"Yes," I urged her, glancing at Wilmot, who now sat bolt upright in her chair, and was listening eagerly, "you see Mrs. Herraday has no possible interest in the children-"
"Oh, but I have, March," she called out in a queer little high voice, "if I can help them. Can I help them, Mrs. Pegram?"
Mrs. Pegram shook her head with a certain dignity. "No, Madam, thank you. We have plenty of money. It 's-it's the other thing, you see. Clandon was always very good to us, and that fond of the children. dren. Miss Clandon can tell you-but that must n't be taken from us. Oh, ma'am," she hurried on, clasping her hands in their large wrinkled gloves in a very piteous way I shall never forget, "not that!"
"Mrs. Herraday will take nothing from them," I said, gently, "only you must explain. We do not quite understand. What do you fear may be taken from your children?"
The poor creature looked fearfully at me for a minute and then burst out in full spate. "That, sir,-that though 'e never married me, I was a respectable woman, and that he loved me. It's in his letters
in dozens; I 've got them all, every line 'e ever wrote me. That it was me he loved. And he did, sir, he did; though it's hard to believe now; he did, indeed!"
Somehow, as she spoke, it seemed suddenly, to me, not so hard to believe. The bones of her face were well placed, her eyes, even now, large and of a lustrous brown. So he had loved her!
"And when Godfrey read that in the book, he-he said things to me, sir. 'E hurt me. They had always believed it before-but that made it seem-oh, I can't explain it, sir; but it was awful!"
"I think I see," I said, slowly, "but the letters were to Mrs. Herraday, you know."
Mrs. Pegram glanced hurriedly at Wilmot, and then turned once more to me.
"Yes, sir. You may laugh if you like, but it's true. We were going to be married, you see, and then 'e lost his moneythat 's in the book all right, and I 'ad n't a penny. It was while 'e was at Cambridge, that was. It was his guardian's fault. So he 'ad to leave, and go to work, and my father died and I had to work. I came up to London, sir, and was in a shop in Notting 'Ill. Nobody would buy his things at first, and at last he got ill. He was all alone in the world, sir," she pleaded, "of course, I went to nurse 'im—”
"Of course you did," I assented, heartily, "and of course, when he was better, you stayed."
"Yes, sir," she assented, her sunken eyes full of gratitude. "And then quite suddenly, 'Hesleydale' made a big hit, andit was all changed. His cousins turned up that lived in Eaton Place, and he met people and they all spoiled 'im-not that 'e ever was spoiled," she added, loyally. I I liked Mrs. Pegram.
"Then 'e wrote "The Valletorts' and well, of course 'e could n't marry me then. I understood, quite. Godfrey was born a little while afterward, he was very pleased. Oh, he loved me," she added, proudly.
"He should have married you," declared Mrs. Herraday, suddenly, coming to where I stood and passing her hand through my arm.
The other woman looked at her quietly. "Perhaps, Madam," she said, always in her deferential way, "you don't quite understand."
"Never mind that," I interrupted. "Go on with your story, Mrs. Pegram; we are very much interested."
"Yes, sir. Well,-I was pretty thenI brought you my picture to show you,"fumbling under her cloak, she produced a faded morocco case, which she handed to me. She had, indeed, been pretty, poor soul, and better than pretty. I could see her in her youth, the brave sharer of Clan
don's poverty, the heroic retirer from his glories.
"Surely he wished to marry you?" I asked, romantically.
"Yes, sir. After Godfrey came he did his best. But-I thought it best for him to remain free. And it was best. I should n't have been a fit wife for him. But," she added, proudly, "he never loved anybody else. And that 's why I came. The Fleur Blanche letters, my letters, you see
I don't hardly think they ought to be in the book at all, do you, sir? But if they 'ave to be, I think it ought to say they were to just an unknown lady."
The great dignity with which she said this seemed such a rebuke to Mrs. Herraday, that I turned to her half in defense. To my surprise she said, quietly:
"Mrs. Pegram, I quite agree with you. It has all been a mistake, and it shall be corrected. Will you excuse me now? I am extremely tired." As she spoke her weight on my arm suddenly increased, and I caught her, seeing that she had nearly fainted.
We helped her to the sofa, and Mrs. Pegram supported her in her arms, while I rushed to the dining-room for brandy.
When she was better, Mrs. Pegram took her leave.
"Will you just glance at these, sir?" she said, handing me a packet of letters. "Just to prove that I have spoken the truth,- for the children's sake. I would n't 'ave any one else see them, but you must know"
"What are they?" I asked, giving them back to her. "We do not need to read them to know that you have told us the truth."
She pulled one of the letters from its yellowed envelop and handed it to me. I glanced at it, and recognized one of those. which, published in the chapter called "The Fleur Blanche Letters," had created. so much admiring talk.
"I see," I said.
"Yes, sir. No one but me and Godfrey 'as ever seen them, and no one ever shall. It's only for their sakes, sir, that I came at all—”
"We quite understand, Mrs. Pegram, -poor Mrs. Pegram," said Wilmot.
"Good Mrs. Pegram," I added, holding out my hand.
Her eyes filled with tears. "Thank you, sir," she said.
I noticed that from the first she had liked me more than she had liked Mrs. Herraday.
"Then I may tell Godfrey?"
"I will write to you, Mrs. Pegram, if you will leave your address," answered Wilmot, "and explain to you that I will have the the blunder corrected. And I will myself see Mr. Cave-the author of the book-about that chapter. Will you trust me?"
"Oh, yes, Madam. And-I thank you." She gave me her address, said good-by to us, and then, at the door, turned back.
"And would you mind saying in the letter that he did n't ask you to marry him? I know 'e did n't, because he promised me 'e never would ask any one but-just for Godfrey, if you would n't mind—"
And then Wilmot Herraday did that thing for which I shall always love her.
She went to the other woman, took her hand, looked her straight in her poor sunken eyes, and said: "Mrs. Pegram, I will write that in the letter-for Godfrey -but I want to tell you now, on my word of honor as a lady, that Godfrey Clandon not only never asked me to marry him, but never had for me the very slightest feeling beyond that of friendship. It has all been a mistake, and I can't explain any more, but that is the truth. Also-he told me about you, and that he had loved only you all his life. So-there you are!"
Mrs. Pegram went her way with large tears rolling down her cheeks, and Wilmot shut the door.
"Well," she said, "and what do you think of me now?"
Then she told me the whole story.
It was quite true that Clandon had neither loved her nor asked her to marry him. He had told her that he had in all his life loved but once, and that once beneath him. "I think," she added, "that he was sorry he could not love again. Mentally, he was romantic, of course, but his -well, his power of loving seemed to have been exhausted by the one affair of his youth."
I nodded. "And you he liked simply as a friend."
"Yes, March. Anything else never occurred to either of us. Do you remember
you once suggested to me that I might be going to marry him? Well, the idea flattered me. I liked to have you think it possible, but it was n't true, as I told you.” I nodded again. I remembered her denial, but also remembered her hesitancy.
"And you were not in love with him, either?" I ventured, in the great closeness of the moment.
"No, never. He was too-too great for me to think of except with-with reverence."
"Even when he devoured lemon-cakes?" "Yes, even then.”
The sonnet referred to in the letters she had treasured among her papers and she showed it to me.
"He sent it to me, saying I was a little like the princess the sonnet was to. He had written the sonnet years before, when he was at Cambridge."
"To Mrs. Pegram!" "No. To no one. Then, I suppose, when he fell in love with-with Mrs. Pegram, he gave the name to her. It is all quite clear."
But to me it was n't, and I set to work to elicit from her, by means of a series of pointed questions the plain facts of the case. They were these:
He, always the kindest of men, and fond of her in his way, had to her great delight, proposed to her that they should write a little book together. It was to be in the form, considered by him as the simplest for a tyro, of letters. She was then at Margate. His letters she had believed to be original, composed specially for their book, but were, it now appeared, copies of copies his thrifty literary spirit had caused him to keep, of real love letters sent in his youth to Mrs. Pegram. By this time it was all clear to me, as well as to her.
"But your letters to him?" I asked.
"Ah, that is where I failed! Can't you remember, March, the day before Mr. Cave first called on me, your asking me about the letters? I distinctly recall saying to you, 'I was a grotesque failure!' Well, that 's what I meant."
"I see. And I, silly ass, thought you meant-yes, I remember your words and also your saying you 'simply could n't do it'-I thought you meant you could not, well,-live up to him!"
She nodded thoughtfully. We both understood now; how we had talked at cross
purposes; how strange she had thought my manner; how curiously, unexpectedly indelicate her standpoint had seemed to me. And with Cave, for all his eagerness, things had been much the same. He had feared to rouse in her the sense of delicacy that would have been so inimical to his purpose. They, too, had discussed two distinct subjects, believing them to be one, and he had gone away, delighted by her permission, as he believed, to publish Godfrey Clandon's love story, leaving her wondering if her vanity had led her too far in persuading her to allow to be made public the fact that the great man had considered her worthy of literary collaboration with him.
Then, when finally her nurse had allowed her to read the proofs, and she learned the real facts, and had gone to Bedford Street to see and to tell the truth and have the fatal chapter changed, Cave had met her at the door of the publishing house and persuaded her, she hardly knew how, to do nothing.
"It was too late,' he said, and I was too ill to argue much and besides-Oh, March, he seemed to think it so wonderful a thing that those letters should have been written to me! Remember, too, I believed that they had in a sense been written to me! I was very wicked, and very foolish, I know, but-"
For a long time we deliberated. The position, the sternest caviler will admit, was a difficult one. If we made Cave rewrite that chapter and say that the letters were not written to Mrs. Herraday, she could never again show her face. And yet -poor Mrs. Pegram, and Godfrey, whom I vaguely felt to be a tyrannical son to his mother!
Before I left Queen Anne's Gate I was forced to assure Mrs. Herraday, who was now exhausted, that I would find some way out of the difficulty. I hope she slept well. I did not.
All the next day I cudgeled my brains for a solution, and found none. I needed help if ever a man did, and yet, to whom could I apply?
I was standing by my study window looking out at the little back yard into which a chill rain was pelting malignantly when the answer to my question flashed into my mind. To Mrs. Pegram, of course! She, of the whole lot of them, was
the only one who had throughout behaved quite perfectly. It was, therefore, to her I must go in the hope of being helped.
I took a taxi and made my way to Barnes. I was by this time in a state of mental pulp, and more than willing to hand over my burden to another. Mrs. Pegram, I decided, should do it all. I should be a passive instrument in her hands. Finding the house-The Laburnums, was its name-without any difficulty, I made my way up the sloppy gravel path and rang.
The house was a fairly large one and possessed the luxury of a big bow-window, in which grew several arum lilies. A becapped maid opened the door and I was shown, in quite the politest way, into the drawing-room. It was really rather a charming room in that it was well-lighted and obviously the gathering place of a pleasant family. There was a drawingboard at one window, surrounded by brushes and paint-boxes and all the paraphernalia of that innocent sport, watercolor sketching. There was an upright piano with "Mélisande" open on it, and there were, on the large table, many yards of some thin white material, and a halffinished "body" of the same.
On the walls were pictures, evidently, I thought, chosen by Clandon with a view to educating the eyes of his children, and one or two handsome and costly pieces of furniture and ornaments again testified to some higher taste than that of Mrs. Pegram. I was deep in speculation concerning the children of this strange couple, when the door opened and a tall youth in a flowing brown silk tie came in, and stood looking pugnaciously at me.
"My mother will be down in a minute, or rather in," he said. "She is in the kitchen now, cooking."
"Is she, indeed?"
"Yes. We are not grand people," he went on. He hated me, I could see, and he wished to forestall any patronage I might extend to him by a rudeness that he believed would lower my pretensions.
I said nothing, and after a minute, he went on: "Well, have you brought a letter from Mrs. Herraday?" "Yes."
"Where is it?"
"In my pocket. Where it will stay until I can give it to Mrs. Pegram, whom I suppose to be your unfortunate mother."