Providence And Mrs. Urmy

by Armiger Barclay and Oliver Sandys

The Story of an International Marriage

Lady Hartley (née Miss Persis Van Ness) gave a little gasp. In her excitement the paper rustled noisily to her knee.

"O-h! Have you seen this?" She shot the Morning Post across the breakfast table to Mrs. Rufus P. Urmy, with her finger marking a paragraph.

Mrs. Urmy glanced at it. "I guess it ought to corral him right away," she said, with the merest suspicion of embarrassment. "You see, it's Jeannette's last chance. Two seasons in England and never a catch, so I——"

"You did it?" Lady Hartley looked at her friend in round-eyed wonder.

"I—I had to do something," allowed Mrs. Urmy, with a dawning suspicion that perhaps she had, after all, run afoul of British conventions, which she found as difficult of comprehension as her regular morning study of Debrett.

"But Jeannette!"

"That's so. Jeannette'll raise Cain." Mrs. Urmy got up from the table. "It's this a-way, Persis. I reckon I fixed your little affair up with Lord Hartley to home, and you've got to thank me for it. Now, I'm trying to do the same for my girl. She can't, or she won't, play her own hand. Every chance she's had she's let slide, and I allow she's got to marry a title before I go back to the States. Some one's got to hustle when Providence isn't attending to business, and as there's nobody else to do it, I've taken on the contract." She pointed to the paragraph. "I own up I don't see just how, but there wasn't much time, and it was the best I could do."

Lady Hartley slowly reread the incriminating paragraph:

"A marriage has been arranged, and will shortly take place between the Earl of Chilminster, of Sapworth Hall, Wilts, and Miss Jeannette L. Urmy, of Boston, Massachusetts."

"It knocks me out!" she murmured, lapsing into the Western idiom which a whole week spent in the society of her bosom friend was bound to call up. "But why Lord Chilminster?" She pronounced the name Chilster.

"Why won't he do? Isn't he the real thing? I picked him out in my sample book of the aristocracy, and when I fitted the name on to Jeannette—the Countess of Chilminster—it sounded quite elegant."

"Then it wasn't because you knew I knew him?" demanded Mrs. Urmy's hostess with growing amazement.

Mrs. Urmy's face took on a blank expression.

"You've heard me mention the name. That's how it's pronounced," explained Lady Hartley. "His place isn't far from here."

"You don't say! The way these British titles are pronounced is enough to make you doubt your own eyesight. I didn't know. But if he's a friend of yours that'll likely make it all the easier."

"Lord Chilminster!" Lady Hartley spoke in an awed tone.

She felt it would be useless to make Mrs. Urmy understand the enormity of her offence against good taste, and presently her astonishment gave way to amusement.

"Lavinia," she rippled, "as a matchmaker you take the cake! I don't believe——" She paused, listening. "Hush! Here's Jeannette!"

Miss Jeannette Urmy came in through the open French window. She was dressed in a natty little cotton frock, looked fresh and chic, and only pleasantly American. Perhaps she inherited her good looks and refined tastes from "popper" Urmy, deceased, in which case that gentleman must have committed one serious error of taste and judgment when he selected Jeannette's mother for his better half.

"My! You're late, Jeannette!" observed Mrs. Urmy, shooting a quick glance at Lady Hartley.

At the same moment, both ladies, by common consent, sauntered toward the door. They knew Jeannette's temperament. A crisis, such as the announcement in the Morning Post was sure to evoke, was one at which they were not anxious to assist.

"Oh, I'm ahead of time," answered Jeannette. "I've been up since six looking for eggs."

"Eggs?" echoed Lady Hartley.

"Yes; I collect birds' eggs." She picked up the newspaper and let her eye wander along the items in the Court Circular. "But getting up early makes me homesick. The best time of my life was when I was a kid, when I hadn't an idea beyond the woods on the old Massachusetts farm, when popper kept his store, and—Oh!"

She had reached the fatal announcement, and sat with parted lips, rigid as stone, while the world seemed toppling about her ears. There was a long pause. Jeannette's lips gradually tightened, and her firm hand crumpled up the paper.

"Mommer!" she exclaimed. "Here, Mommer!" But Mrs. Urmy and Lady Hartley had beaten a diplomatic retreat. Jeannette jumped to her feet, the color flaming in her face, her eyes snapping with indignation. "Oh!" she cried, impotently. "I'll—I'll—oh! what can I do? It must come out! He must apologize. Who did it? Oh, I don't even know him, the—wretch!"

The "chuff-chuff" of a motor-car coming up the drive interrupted her outburst, and she looked up to see it being driven up and halted before the entrance. Lady Hartley had a perfect fleet of cars. Jeannette at once jumped to the conclusion that this was one of them. She had a sudden inspiration. It was running free—ready to start. There was temptation in the soft purr of its engine. The driver, quietly dressed, but not in livery, she appraised as one of Lady Hartley's motor-men.

"Shall I?" she whispered. "Dare I? I can set things straight at once if I do. Persis will be wild with me for going off without a word, but I'll—I'll chance it!"

She ran into the hall, slipped into her motoring coat, and, throwing discretion to the winds, walked out to the front of the house and quickly up to the car.

"How soon can you drive me to Sapworth Hall?" she asked, getting in and pulling the rug around her.

The barefaced appropriation of his car by an unknown young woman almost took Lord Chilminster's breath away. He had, at much inconvenience to himself, motored all the way to Lady Hartley's to contradict and sift an amazing and annoying report that he had discovered in the Morning Post. He had heard Lady Hartley mention the name of Urmy as that of a friend of hers, and naturally decided that she was the proper person to consult. But before he had time to get out of his car and ring the bell here was a young person, springing from goodness knows where, mistaking him for a motor-man, and ordering him about. For a moment he was speechless. Then, as the humor of the situation began to appeal to him, so did the good looks of the girl.

"Really," he began. "You see I——"

"Don't talk, get under way!" commanded Jeannette. "Quick! Her ladyship has altered her mind about going out. You've got to take me to Sapworth Hall. It's thirty miles. I want to be there by lunch-time. Do you know the way?"

"I—I think so," stammered Chilminster.

Her bewildering eagerness to be off was infectious. The noble owner of the car felt it. But apart from that, he was quite ready for an adventure in such pleasant company. He forgot all about the object of his visit. Without another word he let in the clutch and started.

Jeannette sank back with a sigh of relief. She credited herself with having secured Persis's car very neatly. The man might, perhaps, get into trouble, but she could make that up to him by a generous tip. Her one idea was to contradict and confute the disgraceful announcement at its fountain-head. It was providential that the unknown Lord Chilminster's place was so near; but had it been ten times as far off, Jeannette, boiling with justifiable indignation, and with her mind made up to exact reparation, would have gone there.

"It's awful! It's unheard of! I—I won't have it! Who can have done it?" she kept repeating through white teeth set viciously. "I'll have it contradicted in large print by this time to-morrow, or the American Ambassador shall——"

She was not quite sure what ambassadors did under similar circumstances, and she left the mental threat unfinished. Anyhow, it was a disgrace to herself, and her sex, if not a slight on her country, and it redoubled her determination to "get even" with the perpetrator of it. She leaned forward to make herself heard.

"Set a killing pace," she called. "I'll make it up to you."

Chilminster nodded, hid a smile, and let the car out to the top of its speed. It ate up mile after mile; and as it came to Jeannette that each one brought her nearer and nearer to the hateful person whose name had been so scandalously bracketed with her own, she experienced a feeling of nervousness. The boldness of her escapade began to alarm her. What should she say? How express in words her view of an intolerable situation which no self-respecting girl could even calmly think about?

Lord Chilminster's mind was almost similarly engaged. He was wondering who Miss Jeannette L. Urmy could be, and whether she was aware of the obnoxious paragraph in the paper. He did not do her the injustice to suppose that she had inspired it (he had an open mind on that point), but as he was not responsible for it himself, he had a suspicion that she might be. Chilminster had met very few unmarried American girls, but like most Englishmen, he was aware of their capacity for resolution in most matters. Then, again, it was leap year. Suppose—— For a little while he did a lot of hard thinking.

"I say," he called suddenly, looking over his shoulder. "Isn't there a Miss Urmy staying at the White House?"

Jeannette drew herself up and fixed him with a stony stare.

"I am Miss Urmy," she answered frigidly.

The start that Chilminster gave unconsciously affected the steering-wheel, and the car swerved sharply.

"What are you doing? You're driving disgracefully!" exclaimed Jeannette.

"I—I beg your pardon," faltered Chilminster. "I thought you were her lady's maid."

He felt he owed her that one. A girl who could announce her approaching marriage with a stranger (Chilminster no longer gave her the benefit of the doubt) and follow up that glaring indiscretion by a visit to her victim, was—— The imminence of such a thing alarmed him. Was she coming to propose—to molest him? He got hot thinking of it.

The situation had undergone a complete change since he had started out in a rage, and some trepidation, to confront Miss Urmy herself, if need be. Now trepidation over-balanced all his other emotions. Miss Urmy was behind him, in his own automobile, and he was meekly driving her at a cracking speed to his own house! It was too late to turn back now. The thing had to be seen through. Besides, he could not help feeling a curiosity to know what was in his passenger's mind, and to discover her bewildering plan of action.

Neither spoke for the rest of the journey, and at length the car passed through the lodge gates, swept up the drive, and stopped at the entrance to Sapworth Hall. Jeannette got out.

"You had better go round to the stables and ask for something to eat. I may be some time," was all she volunteered as she rang the bell.

Rather staggered by the order, but foreseeing a bad quarter of an hour ahead of him, Chilminster was glad of the respite. He opened the throttle and slid out of sight as Jeannette was admitted.

His lordship was out, the butler informed her. Then she would wait—wait all day, if necessary, she said decisively, following the man into the library. No, she was in no need of refreshment, but her chauffeur, who had gone round to the stables, might be glad of something in the servants' hall.

With a foot impatiently tapping the polished floor, she sat summoning up all her determination whilst awaiting the ordeal before her. For, by this time had come the inevitable reaction, and the sudden impulse that had made her act as she had seemed, somehow, out of relation to the motive that had inspired it. Not that she regretted having come: her self-respect demanded that sacrifice; but she wished the unpleasant affair over.

An intolerable ten minutes passed. The beautiful seventeenth century room, like a reflection on the spirit of democracy, was getting on Jeannette's nerves. The strain of listening, watching the big mahogany door for the expected entrance of Lord Chilminster, at last reduced her to a state of apathy, and when he did come quietly in she was taken by surprise.

"I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting," he said.

Jeannette stared. Bareheaded, gaiterless, minus his driving coat, very self-contained and eminently aristocratic, the supposed motor-man advanced into the room.

"You see, you told me to take the car round to the stables," he proceeded, with a touch of apology in his tone.

"You—you are the Earl of Chilminster?" she gasped.

"Of Sapworth Hall, Wilts," he augmented, like one who quotes. "And you are Miss Jeannette L. Urmy, of Boston, Massachusetts, I believe."

There was quite a long silence.

"You knew all along," she flushed angrily.

Chilminster raised a hand in protest. "Not until you told me."

"Then why didn't you stop? You ought to have taken me back immediately you knew who I was."

"So I would have if——"

"You mean you didn't believe me. You thought I was a lady's maid!" Jeannette interrupted indignantly.

"That was an error of judgment for which I humbly apologize. We are all liable to make mistakes sometimes. You, Miss Urmy, for instance, took me for a motor-man. You also appropriated my car, and commanded me to bring you here at a murderous—no, a killing pace. And I think you added that you would make it up to me."

Jeannette's face tingled. She had come to accuse, and, instead, found herself patiently listening to a recital of her indiscretions. But if Lord Chilminster was a strategist, Jeannette was a tactician. She appreciated the danger of a passive defense, and conversely, of the value of a vigorous aggression. Without a moment's hesitation she began a counter attack.

"In to-day's Morning Post——" she commenced.

"Ah, the Morning Post!" echoed Chilminster, also changing front.

"There was a disgraceful announcement."

"Half of it certainly was—irksome."

"Which half?" asked Jeannette suspiciously.

"I have no conscientious scruples about matrimony in the abstract," parried Chilminster.

"But I have. I object altogether to the paragraph. I resent it."

"Then you did not insert it?"

"I insert it? I?" flamed Jeannette. She drew herself up as haughtily as a pretty woman can under the disadvantage of being seated in a yielding easy chair. "Do you mean to assert, Lord Chilminster, that I——?"

She was interrupted by the entrance of the butler.

"Luncheon is served, my lord," he announced.

"You will take off your coat?"

Lord Chilminster turned to Miss Urmy, and advanced a step in anticipation. The butler—with a well-trained butler's promptness—was behind her, and before she could frame a word of objection, the fur-lined garment had slipped from her shoulders.

Thus must martyrs have marched to the stake, was one of Jeannette's bewildered reflections as she preceded her host out of the room, and, as in a dream, found herself a few minutes later facing him across the luncheon table. Outwardly, the meal proceeded in well-ordered calm. Lord Chilminster made no further reference to the debatable topic; only talked lightly and pleasantly on a variety of non-committal subjects.

As the lady's host that, of course, was the only attitude he could adopt; but the fact remains that he did so de bonne volonté. Perhaps because, so far, he had scored more points than his opponent in the morning's encounter; perhaps, also, because of her undeniable good looks, his irritation, due to the circumstances that had prompted that encounter, began to lessen with truites en papilotte, was almost forgotten in face of a mousse de volaille, and entirely vanished among asperges vertes mousseline.

Miss Jeannette L. Urmy, with her veil lifted, and relieved of her voluminous coat, was, he had to admit, distractingly pretty; not at all the type he had pictured as the original of the name. Young, pretty, and charming women (he was convinced that au fond she was charming) ought to have no obstinate prejudices against marriage. He even ventured to think that Miss Urmy's mind had become obscured on that point by those—well, indiscreet lines in the Morning Post. They had upset him; then why not her? They were so—premature.

As for Jeannette, in spite of Lord Chilminster's effortless ease, her powers of conversation were frozen. She was reduced to monosyllables, and she ate in proportion. It was a humiliating experience to be accepting the hospitality of the enemy; one, moreover, that made it awkward for her to prolong hostilities. Having broken bread in his tents (a Puritan strain was responsible for the illustration) she felt disarmed. Besides, she was rather ashamed of her maladroitness in mistaking Lord Chilminster for a common motor-man. It argued gaucherie. Perhaps he thought her unconventional call a violation of good taste—considered her forward! He had plainly shown his annoyance about that obnox—that embarrassing paragraph, and that fact spiked most of her batteries. He might, after all, prove to be quite——

"Do you mind if I smoke?"

Lord Chilminster's voice startled her out of her reverie. The servants had noiselessly retired, and they were alone.

"I—I feel ready to sink through the floor," she rejoined inconsequently.

He returned his cigarette case to his pocket, looking quite concerned. "I'm so sorry. I ought not to have——"

"No, no. Please smoke. It isn't that," stammered Jeannette.

"It's the Morning Post?"

Jeannette evaded his eye.

"Yes; it does put us in rather a tight place," mediated Chilminster.

Nothing was said for a moment.

"Engaged!" he murmured.

Jeannette raised her eyes and noted his reflective attitude.

"Who can have put it in?" he went on.

"I can't imagine."

"And why?"

"It does seem strange," admitted Jeannette in a detached tone.

"It's not as if we were——"

"No," she interposed hurriedly.

"Well, what ought we to do about it? Of course, we can contradict it, but——"

"But what?" she asked, filling his pause.

"I hate advertisement—that is, unnecessary advertisement," Chilminster corrected himself. "It would make us—I mean me—look so—so vacillating."

He looked up rather suddenly, and just missed Jeannette's eyes by the thousandth of a second.

What could he mean? she asked herself, while her heart pumped boisterously. Was he magnanimous enough to be thinking of accepting a compromising situation to save her? What he had said sounded very unselfish. Of course, she couldn't allow him to. What a pity he was not an American—or something quite ordinary. Then she might——

"There's nothing for it but to write to the paper, I suppose?" he said ruefully.

"I—I suppose not." The comment was dragged from Jeannette in a tone as unconsciously reluctant as his was rueful.

Chilminster sighed. "It's so rough on you."

Jeannette felt a consuming anxiety to know whether his sympathy was occasioned by the announcement or the suggested denial of it.

"And on you, too," she admitted. "What were you thinking—how did you propose to phrase it?"

"I?" he asked apprehensively. "To be quite frank. I haven't got as far as that. Never wrote to the papers in my life," he added pusillanimously.

"But I can't," argued Jeannette. Her determination of two hours ago had vanished into the Ewigkeit.

Chilminster had an inspiration. "What do you say if we do it together?"

While she digested this expedient he fetched paper and pencil, and then sat gazing at the ceiling for inspiration.

"Well?" she queried at the end of a minute.

"How ought one to begin these things?" asked the desperate man.

Jeannette cogitated deeply. "It's so difficult to say what one wants to a stranger in a letter, isn't it?" she hesitated. "Wouldn't a telegram do?"

"By Jove! Yes; and simply say: 'Miss Urmy wishes to deny——'"

"In my name!" exclaimed Jeannette.

"Well—you are the person aggrieved."

"I really don't think it's fair to put the whole of the responsibility on my shoulders," she demurred.

"No, I suppose not," Chilminster admitted grudgingly. "How would this do: 'Miss Urmy and Lord Chilminster wish to contradict their engagement——'"

"But that implies that there was an engagement!"

Chilminster pondered the deduction. "So it does. I see. People would jump to the conclusion that we were in a desperate hurry to alter our minds!"

"And, of course, we haven't."

"Y-es. I don't know how you feel about it, but if there's one thing I dislike it's tittle-tattle about my private affairs."

"Horrid!" shivered Jeannette. "What are we to do?"

Her tone was so hopeless, so full of tears, that it melted Chilminster. Susceptibilities that had been simmering within him for an hour past came unexpectedly to the boil; and as they did so the difficulty vanished.

"Why need we bother at all about it?" he asked impulsively.

For a world of moments, Jeannette stared at him, revolving the question. Then a faint radiance came into her face, and grew and grew until it burned. Jeannette bit her lip. Jeannette looked down.

"What do you mean?" she asked in confusion.

"Don't—don't you think we had better—take the consequences?" said Chilminster, as he reached across the table and let his hand fall on hers.

Mrs. Urmy stood at the window looking with lack-lustre eyes across the park. She had had six solid hours in which to reflect on that risky communication of hers to the Morning Post, and Jeannette's disappearance since breakfast time provided a gloomy commentary on it. She fidgeted uneasily as she recalled her daughter's scared look when reading the paper, and maternal forebodings discounted her interest in an automobile that showed at intervals between the trees of the drive as it approached the White House.

But two moments later it occurred to her that it was Jeannette who sat on its front seat beside the driver; and, as the car drew up, her experienced eye detected something in the demeanor of the pair that startled but elated her.

"Here's Jeannette!" she called over her shoulder to Lady Hartley. "In an auto with a young man. Say, Persis, who is he?"

Lady Hartley hurried to the window, gave one look, and doubted the evidence of her eyes.

"Lavinia, it's Lord Chilminster!" she cried, with a catch in her voice.

The two women flashed a glance brimful of significance at one another. Lady Hartley's expressed uncertainty; Mrs. Urmy's triumph—sheer, complete, perfect triumph.

"Didn't I say it was a sure thing?" she shrilled excitedly. "It's fixed them up! Come right ahead and introduce me to my future son-in-law!"

As she raced to the door she added half to herself: "I don't want to boast, but, thank the Lord, I've got Jeannette off this season!"