The Unbearable Bassington by Saki - HTML preview
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The Unbearable Bassington
Chapter IV ........................................................................................................19
Chapter V .........................................................................................................26
Chapter VI ........................................................................................................30
Chapter VII .......................................................................................................37
Chapter VIII ......................................................................................................46
Chapter IX ........................................................................................................51
Chapter X .........................................................................................................57
Chapter XI ........................................................................................................63
Chapter XII .......................................................................................................69
Chapter XIII ......................................................................................................76
Francesca Bassington sat in the drawing-room of her house in Blue Street, W., regaling herself and her estimable brother Henry with China tea and small cress sandwiches. The meal was of that elegant proportion which, while ministering sympathetically to the desires of the moment, is happily reminiscent of a satisfactory luncheon and blessedly expectant of an elaborate dinner to come.
In her younger days Francesca had been known as the beautiful Miss Greech; at forty, although much of the original beauty remained, she was just dear Francesca Bassington. No one would have dreamed of calling her sweet, but a good many people who scarcely knew her were punctilious about putting in the “dear.”
Her enemies, in their honester moments, would have admitted that she was svelte and knew how to dress, but they would have agreed with her friends in asserting that she had no soul. When one’s friends and enemies agree on any particular point they are usually wrong. Francesca herself, if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room. Not that she would have considered that the one had stamped the impress of its character on the other, so that close scrutiny might reveal its outstanding features, and even suggest its hidden places, but because she might have dimly recognised that her drawing-room was her soul.
Francesca was one of those women towards whom Fate appears to have the best intentions and never to carry them into practice. With the advantages put at her disposal she might have been expected to command a more than average share of feminine happiness. So many of the things that make for fretfulness, disappointment and discouragement in a woman’s life were removed from her path that she might well have been considered the fortunate Miss Greech, or later, lucky Francesca Bassington. And she was not of the perverse band of those who make a rock-garden of their souls by dragging into them all the stoney griefs and unclaimed troubles they can find lying around them. Francesca loved the smooth ways and pleasant places of life; she liked not merely to look on the bright side of things but to live there and stay there. And the fact that things had, at one time and another, gone badly with her and cheated her of some of her early illusions made her cling the closer to such good fortune as remained to her now that she seemed to have reached a calmer period of her life. To undiscriminating friends she appeared in the guise of a rather selfish woman, but it was merely the selfishness of one who had seen the happy and unhappy sides of life and wished to enjoy to the utmost what was left to her of the former. The vicissitudes of fortune had not soured her, but they had perhaps narrowed her in the sense of making her concentrate much of her sympathies on things that immediately pleased and amused her, or that recalled and perpetuated the pleasing and successful incidents of other days. And it was her drawingroom in particular that enshrined the memorials or tokens of past and present happiness. Into that comfortable quaint-shaped room of angles and bays and alcoves had sailed, as into a harbour, those precious personal possessions and trophies that had survived the buffetings and storms of a not very tranquil married life. Wherever her eyes might turn she saw the embodied results of her successes, economies, good luck, good management or good taste. The battle had more than once gone against her, but she had somehow always contrived to save her baggage train, and her complacent gaze could roam over object after object that represented the spoils of victory or the salvage of honourable defeat. The delicious bronze Fremiet on the mantelpiece had been the outcome of a Grand Prix sweepstake of many years ago; a group of Dresden figures of some considerable value had been bequeathed to her by a discreet admirer, who had added death to his other kindnesses; another group had been a self-bestowed present, purchased in blessed and unfading memory of a wonderful nine-days’ bridge winnings at a countryhouse party. There were old Persian and Bokharan rugs and Worcester tea-services of glowing colour, and little treasures of antique silver that each enshrined a history or a memory in addition to its own intrinsic value. It amused her at times to think of the bygone craftsmen and artificers who had hammered and wrought and woven in far distant countries and ages, to produce the wonderful and beautiful things that had come, one way and another, into her possession. Workers in the studios of medieval Italian towns and of later Paris, in the bazaars of Baghdad and of Central Asia, in old-time English workshops and German factories, in all manner of queer hidden corners where craft secrets were jealously guarded, nameless unremembered men and men whose names were worldrenowned and deathless.
And above all her other treasures, dominating in her estimation every other object that the room contained, was the great Van der Meulen that had come from her father’s home as part of her wedding dowry. It fitted exactly into the central wall panel above the narrow buhl cabinet, and filled exactly its right space in the composition and balance of the room. From wherever you sat it seemed to confront you as the dominating feature of its surroundings. There was a pleasing serenity about the great pompous battle scene with its solemn courtly warriors bestriding their heavily prancing steeds, grey or skewbald or dun, all gravely in earnest, and yet somehow conveying the impression that their campaigns were but vast serious picnics arranged in the grand manner. Francesca could not imagine the drawing-room without the crowning complement of the stately well-hung picture, just as she could not imagine herself in any other setting than this house in Blue Street with its crowded Pantheon of cherished household gods.
And herein sprouted one of the thorns that obtruded through the rose-leaf damask of what might otherwise have been Francesca’s peace of mind. One’s happiness always lies in the future rather than in the past. With due deference to an esteemed lyrical authority one may safely say that a sorrow’s crown of sorrow is anticipating unhappier things. The house in Blue Street had been left to her by her old friend Sophie Chetrof, but only until such time as her niece Emmeline Chetrof should marry, when it was to pass to her as a wedding present. Emmeline was now seventeen and passably good-looking, and four or five years were all that could be safely allotted to the span of her continued spinsterhood. Beyond that period lay chaos, the wrenching asunder of Francesca from the sheltering habitation that had grown to be her soul. It is true that in imagination she had built herself a bridge across the chasm, a bridge of a single span. The bridge in question was her schoolboy son Comus, now being educated somewhere in the southern counties, or rather one should say the bridge consisted of the possibility of his eventual marriage with Emmeline, in which case Francesca saw herself still reigning, a trifle squeezed and incommoded perhaps, but still reigning in the house in Blue Street. The Van der Meulen would still catch its requisite afternoon light in its place of honour, the Fremiet and the Dresden and Old Worcester would continue undisturbed in their accustomed niches. Emmeline could have the Japanese snuggery, where Francesca sometimes drank her after-dinner coffee, as a separate drawing-room, where she could put her own things. The details of the bridge structure had all been carefully thought out. Only - it was an unfortunate circumstance that Comus should have been the span on which everything balanced.
Francesca’s husband had insisted on giving the boy that strange Pagan name, and had not lived long enough to judge as to the appropriateness, or otherwise, of its significance. In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side. In her brother Henry, who sat eating small cress sandwiches as solemnly as though they had been ordained in some immemorial Book of Observances, fate had been undisguisedly kind to her. He might so easily have married some pretty helpless little woman, and lived at Notting Hill Gate, and been the father of a long string of pale, clever useless children, who would have had birthdays and the sort of illnesses that one is expected to send grapes to, and who would have painted fatuous objects in a South Kensington manner as Christmas offerings to an aunt whose cubic space for lumber was limited. Instead of committing these unbrotherly actions, which are so frequent in family life that they might almost be called brotherly, Henry had married a woman who had both money and a sense of repose, and their one child had the brilliant virtue of never saying anything which even its parents could consider worth repeating. Then he had gone into Parliament, possibly with the idea of making his home life seem less dull; at any rate it redeemed his career from insignificance, for no man whose death can produce the item “another by-election” on the news posters can be wholly a nonentity. Henry, in short, who might have been an embarrassment and a handicap, had chosen rather to be a friend and counsellor, at times even an emergency bank balance; Francesca on her part, with the partiality which a clever and lazily-inclined woman often feels for a reliable fool, not only sought his counsel but frequently followed it. When convenient, moreover, she repaid his loans.
Against this good service on the part of Fate in providing her with Henry for a brother, Francesca could well set the plaguy malice of the destiny that had given her Comus for a son. The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by galaday crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.
Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a duststorm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.
“It is a question that is only being nibbled at, smelt at, one might say, at the present moment,” he observed, “but it is one that will have to engage our serious attention and consideration before long. The first thing that we shall have to do is to get out of the dilettante and academic way of approaching it. We must collect and assimilate hard facts. It is a subject that ought to appeal to all thinking minds, and yet, you know, I find it surprisingly difficult to interest people in it.”
Francesca made some monosyllabic response, a sort of sympathetic grunt which was meant to indicate that she was, to a certain extent, listening and appreciating. In reality she was reflecting that Henry possibly found it difficult to interest people in any topic that he enlarged on. His talents lay so thoroughly in the direction of being uninteresting, that even as an eye-witness of the massacre of St. Bartholomew he would probably have infused a flavour of boredom into his descriptions of the event.“I was speaking down in Leicestershire the other day on this subject,” continued Henry, “and I pointed out at some length a thing that few people ever stop to consider - ” Francesca went over immediately but decorously to the majority that will not stop to consider. “Did you come across any of the Barnets when you were down there?” she interrupted; “Eliza Barnet is rather taken up with all those subjects.”
In the propagandist movements of Sociology, as in other arenas of life and struggle, the fiercest competition and rivalry is frequently to be found between closely allied types and species. Eliza Barnet shared many of Henry Greech’s political and social views, but she also shared his fondness for pointing things out at some length; there had been occasions when she had extensively occupied the strictly limited span allotted to the platform oratory of a group of speakers of whom Henry Greech had been an impatient unit. He might see eye to eye with her on the leading questions of the day, but he persistently wore mental blinkers as far as her estimable qualities were concerned, and the mention of her name was a skilful lure drawn across the trail of his discourse; if Francesca had to listen to his eloquence on any subject she much preferred that it should be a disparagement of Eliza Barnet rather than the prevention of destitution.
“I’ve no doubt she means well,” said Henry, “but it would be a good thing if she could be induced to keep her own personality a little more in the background, and not to imagine that she is the necessary mouthpiece of all the progressive thought in the countryside. I fancy Canon Besomley must have had her in his mind when he said that some people came into the world to shake empires and others to move amendments.”
“Yes,” said Francesca, “he went back yesterday. Of course, I’m very fond of him, but I bear the separation well. When he’s here it’s rather like having a live volcano in the house, a volcano that in its quietest moments asks incessant questions and uses strong scent.”“It is only a temporary respite,” said Henry; “in a year or two he will be leaving school, and then what?”
Francesca closed her eyes with the air of one who seeks to shut out a distressing vision. She was not fond of looking intimately at the future in the presence of another person, especially when the future was draped in doubtfully auspicious colours.“And then what?” persisted Henry. “Then I suppose he will be upon my hands.” “Exactly.” “Don’t sit there looking judicial. I’m quite ready to listen to suggestions if you’ve any to make.”
“In the case of any ordinary boy,” said Henry, “I might make lots of suggestions as to the finding of suitable employment. From what we know of Comus it would be rather a waste of time for either of us to look for jobs which he wouldn’t look at when we’d got them for him.”
“He must do something,” said Francesca. “I know he must; but he never will. At least, he’ll never stick to anything. The most hopeful thing to do with him will be to marry him to an heiress. That would solve the financial side of his problem. If he had unlimited money at his disposal, he might go into the wilds somewhere and shoot big game. I never know what the big game have done to deserve it, but they do help to deflect the destructive energies of some of our social misfits.”Henry, who never killed anything larger or fiercer than a trout, was scornfully superior on the subject of big game shooting.
Francesca brightened at the matrimonial suggestion. “I don’t know about an heiress,” she said reflectively. “There’s Emmeline Chetrof of course. One could hardly call her an heiress, but she’s got a comfortable little income of her own and I suppose something more will come to her from her grandmother. Then, of course, you know this house goes to her when she marries.”
“That would be very convenient,” said Henry, probably following a line of thought that his sister had trodden many hundreds of times before him. “Do she and Comus hit it off at all well together?”
“Oh, well enough in boy and girl fashion,” said Francesca. “I must arrange for them to see more of each other in future. By the way, that little brother of hers that she dotes on, Lancelot, goes to Thaleby this term. I’ll write and tell Comus to be specially kind to him; that will be a sure way to Emmeline’s heart. Comus has been made a prefect, you know. Heaven knows why.”“It can only be for prominence in games,” sniffed Henry; “I think we may safely leave work and conduct out of the question.” Comus was not a favourite with his uncle.
Francesca had turned to her writing cabinet and was hastily scribbling a letter to her son in which the delicate health, timid disposition and other inevitable attributes of the new boy were brought to his notice, and commanded to his care. When she had sealed and stamped the envelope Henry uttered a belated caution.“Perhaps on the whole it would be wiser to say nothing about the boy to Comus. He doesn’t always respond to directions you know.” Francesca did know, and already was more than half of her brother’s opinion; but the woman who can sacrifice a clean unspoiled penny stamp is probably yet unborn.
Lancelot Chetrof stood at the end of a long bare passage, restlessly consulting his watch and fervently wishing himself half an hour older with a certain painful experience already registered in the past; unfortunately it still belonged to the future, and what was still more horrible, to the immediate future. Like many boys new to a school he had cultivated an unhealthy passion for obeying rules and requirements, and his zeal in this direction had proved his undoing. In his hurry to be doing two or three estimable things at once he had omitted to study the notice-board in more than a perfunctory fashion and had thereby missed a football practice specially ordained for newly-joined boys. His fellow juniors of a term’s longer standing had graphically enlightened him as to the inevitable consequences of his lapse; the dread which attaches to the unknown was, at any rate, deleted from his approaching doom, though at the moment he felt scarcely grateful for the knowledge placed at his disposal with such lavish solicitude.“You’ll get six of the very best, over the back of a chair,” said one. “They’ll draw a chalk line across you, of course you know,” said another. “A chalk line?” “Rather. So that every cut can be aimed exactly at the same spot. It hurts much more that way.” Lancelot tried to nourish a wan hope that there might be an element of exaggeration in this uncomfortably realistic description.
Meanwhile in the prefects’ room at the other end of the passage, Comus Bassington and a fellow prefect sat also waiting on time, but in a mood of far more pleasurable expectancy. Comus was one of the most junior of the prefect caste, but by no means the least well-known, and outside the masters’ common-room he enjoyed a certain fitful popularity, or at any rate admiration. At football he was too erratic to be a really brilliant player, but he tackled as if the act of bringing his man headlong to the ground was in itself a sensuous pleasure, and his weird swear-words whenever he got hurt were eagerly treasured by those who were fortunate enough to hear them. At athletics in general he was a showy performer, and although new to the functions of a prefect he had already established a reputation as an effective and artistic caner. In appearance he exactly fitted his fanciful Pagan name. His large green-grey eyes seemed for ever asparkle with goblin mischief and the joy of revelry, and the curved lips might have been those of some wickedly-laughing faun; one almost expected to see embryo horns fretting the smoothness of his sleek dark hair. The chin was firm, but one looked in vain for a redeeming touch of ill-temper in the handsome, half-mocking, half-petulant face. With a strain of sourness in him Comus might have been leavened into something creative and masterful; fate had fashioned him with a certain whimsical charm, and left him all unequipped for the greater purposes of life. Perhaps no one would have called him a lovable character, but in many respects he was adorable; in all respects he was certainly damned.Rutley, his companion of the moment, sat watching him and wondering, from the depths of a very ordinary brain, whether he liked or hated him; it was easy to do either. “It’s not really your turn to cane,” he said.
“I know it’s not,” said Comus, fingering a very serviceable-looking cane as lovingly as a pious violinist might handle his Strad. “I gave Greyson some mint-chocolate to let me toss whether I caned or him, and I won. He was rather decent over it and let me have half the chocolate back.”
The droll lightheartedness which won Comus Bassington such measure of popularity as he enjoyed among his fellows did not materially help to endear him to the succession of masters with whom he came in contact during the course of his schooldays. He amused and interested such of them as had the saving grace of humour at their disposal, but if they sighed when he passed from their immediate responsibility it was a sigh of relief rather than of regret. The more enlightened and experienced of them realised that he was something outside the scope of the things that they were called upon to deal with. A man who has been trained to cope with storms, to foresee their coming, and to minimise their consequences, may be pardoned if he feels a certain reluctance to measure himself against a tornado.Men of more limited outlook and with a correspondingly larger belief in their own powers were ready to tackle the tornado had time permitted.
“I think I could tame young Bassington if I had your opportunities,” a form-master once remarked to a colleague whose House had the embarrassing distinction of numbering Comus among its inmates.“Heaven forbid that I should try,” replied the housemaster. “But why?” asked the reformer. “Because Nature hates any interference with her own arrangements, and if you start in to tame the obviously untameable you are taking a fearful responsibility on yourself.” “Nonsense; boys are Nature’s raw material.”
“Millions of boys are. There are just a few, and Bassington is one of them, who are Nature’s highly finished product when they are in the schoolboy stage, and we, who are supposed to be moulding raw material, are quite helpless when we come in contact with them.”
“But what happens to them when they grow up?” “They never do grow up,” said the housemaster; “that is their tragedy. Bassington will certainly never grow out of his present stage.”“Now you are talking in the language of Peter Pan,” said the form-master.
“I am not thinking in the manner of Peter Pan,” said the other. “With all reverence for the author of that masterpiece I should say he had a wonderful and tender insight into the child mind and knew nothing whatever about boys. To make only one criticism on that particular work, can you imagine a lot of British boys, or boys of any country that one knows of, who would stay contentedly playing children’s games in an underground cave when there were wolves and pirates and Red Indians to be had for the asking on the other side of the trap door?”
The form-master laughed. “You evidently think that the ‘Boy who would not grow up’ must have been written by a ‘grown-up who could never have been a boy.’ Perhaps that is the meaning of the ‘Never-never Land.’ I daresay you’re right in your criticism, but I don’t agree with you about Bassington. He’s a handful to deal with, as anyone knows who has come in contact with him, but if one’s hands weren’t full with a thousand and one other things I hold to my opinion that he could be tamed.”And he went his way, having maintained a form-master’s inalienable privilege of being in the right. * * * * * In the prefects’ room, Comus busied himself with the exact position of a chair planted out in the middle of the floor. “I think everything’s ready,” he said. Rutley glanced at the clock with the air of a Roman elegant in the Circus, languidly awaiting the introduction of an expected Christian to an expectant tiger. “The kid is due in two minutes,” he said. “He’d jolly well better not be late,” said Comus.
Comus had gone through the mill of many scorching castigations in his earlier school days, and was able to appreciate to the last ounce the panic that must be now possessing his foredoomed victim, probably at this moment hovering miserably outside the door. After all, that was part of the fun of the thing, and most things have their amusing side if one knows where to look for it.
There was a knock at the door, and Lancelot entered in response to a hearty friendly summons to “come in.”
“I’ve come to be caned,” he said breathlessly; adding by way of identification, “my name’s Chetrof.”
And Comus indicated the chair that stood in sinister isolation in the middle of the room. Never had an article of furniture seemed more hateful in Lancelot’s eyes. Comus could well remember the time when a chair stuck in the middle of a room had seemed to him the most horrible of manufactured things.“Lend me a piece of chalk,” he said to his brother prefect. Lancelot ruefully recognised the truth of the chalk-line story. Comus drew the desired line with an anxious exactitude which he would have scorned to apply to a diagram of Euclid or a map of the Russo-Persian frontier.
“Bend a little more forward,” he said to the victim, “and much tighter. Don’t trouble to look pleasant, because I can’t see your face anyway. It may sound unorthodox to say so, but this is going to hurt you much more than it will hurt me.”
There was a carefully measured pause, and then Lancelot was made vividly aware of what a good cane can be made to do in really efficient hands. At the second cut he projected himself hurriedly off the chair.
“Now I’ve lost count,” said Comus; “we shall have to begin all over again. Kindly get back into the same position. If you get down again before I’ve finished Rutley will hold you over and you’ll get a dozen.”
Lancelot got back on to the chair, and was re-arranged to the taste of his executioner. He stayed there somehow or other while Comus made eight accurate and agonisingly effective shots at the chalk line.
“By the way,” he said to his gasping and gulping victim when the infliction was over, “you said Chetrof, didn’t you? I believe I’ve been asked to be kind to you. As a beginning you can clean out my study this afternoon. Be awfully careful how you dust the old china. If you break any don’t come and tell me but just go and drown yourself somewhere; it will save you from a worse fate.”“I don’t know where your study is,” said Lancelot between his chokes.
“You’d better find it or I shall have to beat you, really hard this time. Here, you’d better keep this chalk in your pocket, it’s sure to come in handy later on. Don’t stop to thank me for all I’ve done, it only embarrasses me.”As Comus hadn’t got a study Lancelot spent a feverish half-hour in looking for it, incidentally missing another footer practice.
“Everything is very jolly here,” wrote Lancelot to his sister Emmeline. “The prefects can give you an awful hot time if they like, but most of them are rather decent. Some are Beasts. Bassington is a prefect though only a junior one. He is the Limit as Beasts go. At least I think so.”
Schoolboy reticence went no further, but Emmeline filled in the gaps for herself with the lavish splendour of feminine imagination. Francesca’s bridge went crashing into the abyss.
On the evening of a certain November day, two years after the events heretofore chronicled, Francesca Bassington steered her way through the crowd that filled the rooms of her friend Serena Golackly, bestowing nods of vague recognition as she went, but with eyes that were obviously intent on focussing one particular figure. Parliament had pulled its energies together for an Autumn Session, and both political Parties were fairly well represented in the throng. Serena had a harmless way of inviting a number of more or less public men and women to her house, and hoping that if you left them together long enough they would constitute a salon. In pursuance of the same instinct she planted the flower borders at her week-end cottage retreat in Surrey with a large mixture of bulbs, and called the result a Dutch garden. Unfortunately, though you may bring brilliant talkers into your home, you cannot always make them talk brilliantly, or even talk at all; what is worse you cannot restrict the output of those starling-voiced dullards who seem to have, on all subjects, so much to say that was well worth leaving unsaid. One group that Francesca passed was discussing a Spanish painter, who was forty-three, and had painted thousands of square yards of canvas in his time, but of whom no one in London had heard till a few months ago; now the starling-voices seemed determined that one should hear of very little else. Three women knew how his name was pronounced, another always felt that she must go into a forest and pray whenever she saw his pictures, another had noticed that there were always pomegranates in his later compositions, and a man with an indefensible collar knew what the pomegranates “meant.” “What I think so splendid about him,” said a stout lady in a loud challenging voice, “is the way he defies all the conventions of art while retaining all that the conventions stand for.” “Ah, but have you noticed - ” put in the man with the atrocious collar, and Francesca pushed desperately on, wondering dimly as she went, what people found so unsupportable in the affliction of deafness. Her progress was impeded for a moment by a couple engaged in earnest and voluble discussion of some smouldering question of the day; a thin spectacled young man with the receding forehead that so often denotes advanced opinions, was talking to a spectacled young woman with a similar type of forehead, and exceedingly untidy hair. It was her ambition in life to be taken for a Russian girl-student, and she had spent weeks of patient research in trying to find out exactly where you put the tea-leaves in a samovar. She had once been introduced to a young Jewess from Odessa, who had died of pneumonia the following week; the experience, slight as it was, constituted the spectacled young lady an authority on all things Russian in the eyes of her immediate set.
“Talk is helpful, talk is needful,” the young man was saying, “but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshingfloor of practical discussion.”The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. “In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which
Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.”
She paused in her turn for the sake of declamatory effect, but recovered her breath quickly enough to start afresh on level terms with the young man, who had jumped into the stride of his next sentence.
“They got off to a good start that time,” said Francesca to herself; “I suppose it’s the Prevention of Destitution they’re hammering at. What on earth would become of these dear good people if anyone started a crusade for the prevention of mediocrity?”
Midway through one of the smaller rooms, still questing for an elusive presence, she caught sight of someone that she knew, and the shadow of a frown passed across her face. The object of her faintly signalled displeasure was Courtenay Youghal, a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition - or perhaps his hobby - to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him. His success was only a half-measure. The public missed in him that touch of blatancy which it looks for in its rising public men; the decorative smoothness of his chestnut-golden hair, and the lively sparkle of his epigrams were counted to him for good, but the restrained sumptuousness of his waistcoats and cravats were as wasted efforts. If he had habitually smoked cigarettes in a pink coral mouthpiece, or worn spats of Mackenzie tartan, the great heart of the voting-man, and the gush of the paragraphmakers might have been unreservedly his. The art of public life consists to a great extent of knowing exactly where to stop and going a bit further.
It was not Youghal’s lack of political sagacity that had brought the momentary look of disapproval into Francesca’s face. The fact was that Comus, who had left off being a schoolboy and was now a social problem, had lately enrolled himself among the young politician’s associates and admirers, and as the boy knew and cared nothing about politics, and merely copied Youghal’s waistcoats, and, less successfully, his conversation, Francesca felt herself justified in deploring the intimacy. To a woman who dressed well on comparatively nothing a year it was an anxious experience to have a son who dressed sumptuously on absolutely nothing.
The cloud that had passed over her face when she caught sight of the offending Youghal was presently succeeded by a smile of gratified achievement, as she encountered a bow of recognition and welcome from a portly middle-aged gentleman, who seemed genuinely anxious to include her in the rather meagre group that he had gathered about him.
“We were just talking about my new charge,” he observed genially, including in the “we” his somewhat depressed-looking listeners, who in all human probability had done none of the talking. “I was just telling them, and you may be interested to hear this - ” Francesca, with Spartan stoicism, continued to wear an ingratiating smile, though the character of the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear and will not hearken, seemed to her at that moment a beautiful one.
Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers. To the public the matter was one of absolute indifference; “who is he and where is it?” would have correctly epitomised the sum total of general information on the personal and geographical aspects of the case.
Francesca, however, from the moment she had heard of the likelihood of the appointment, had taken a deep and lively interest in Sir Julian. As a Member of Parliament he had not filled any very pressing social want in her life, and on the rare occasions when she took tea on the Terrace of the House she was wont to lapse into rapt contemplation of St. Thomas’s Hospital whenever she saw him within bowing distance. But as Governor of an island he would, of course, want a private secretary, and as a friend and colleague of Henry Greech, to whom he was indebted for many little acts of political support (they had once jointly drafted an amendment which had been ruled out of order), what was more natural and proper than that he should let his choice fall on Henry’s nephew Comus? While privately doubting whether the boy would make the sort of secretary that any public man would esteem as a treasure, Henry was thoroughly in agreement with Francesca as to the excellence and desirability of an arrangement which would transplant that troublesome’ young animal from the too restricted and conspicuous area that centres in the parish of St. James’s to some misty corner of the British dominion overseas. Brother and sister had conspired to give an elaborate and at the same time cosy little luncheon to Sir Julian on the very day that his appointment was officially announced, and the question of the secretaryship had been mooted and sedulously fostered as occasion permitted, until all that was now needed to clinch the matter was a formal interview between His Excellency and Comus. The boy had from the first shewn very little gratification at the prospect of his deportation. To live on a remote shark-girt island, as he expressed it, with the Jull family as his chief social mainstay, and Sir Julian’s conversation as a daily item of his existence, did not inspire him with the same degree of enthusiasm as was displayed by his mother and uncle, who, after all, were not making the experiment. Even the necessity for an entirely new outfit did not appeal to his imagination with the force that might have been expected. But, however lukewarm his adhesion to the project might be, Francesca and her brother were clearly determined that no lack of deft persistence on their part should endanger its success. It was for the purpose of reminding Sir Julian of his promise to meet Comus at lunch on the following day, and definitely settle the matter of the secretaryship that Francesca was now enduring the ordeal of a long harangue on the value of the West Indian group as an Imperial asset. Other listeners dexterously detached themselves one by one, but Francesca’s patience outlasted even Sir Julian’s flow of commonplaces, and her devotion was duly rewarded by a renewed acknowledgment of the lunch engagement and its purpose. She pushed her way back through the throng of starling-voiced chatterers fortified by a sense of wellearned victory. Dear Serena’s absurd salons served some good purpose after all.
Francesca was not an early riser and her breakfast was only just beginning to mobilise on the breakfast-table next morning when a copy of The Times, sent by special messenger from her brother’s house, was brought up to her room. A heavy margin of blue pencilling drew her attention to a prominently-printed letter which bore the ironical heading: “Julian Jull, Proconsul.” The matter of the letter was a cruel dis-interment of some fatuous and forgotten speeches made by Sir Julian to his constituents not many years ago, in which the value of some of our Colonial possessions, particularly certain West Indian islands, was decried in a medley of pomposity, ignorance and amazingly cheap humour. The extracts given sounded weak and foolish enough, taken by themselves, but the writer of the letter had interlarded them with comments of his own, which sparkled with an ironical brilliance that was Cervantes-like in its polished cruelty. Remembering her ordeal of the previous evening Francesca permitted herself a certain feeling of amusement as she read the merciless stabs inflicted on the newly-appointed Governor; then she came to the signature at the foot of the letter, and the laughter died out of her eyes. “Comus Bassington” stared at her from above a thick layer of blue pencil lines marked by Henry Greech’s shaking hand.
Comus could no more have devised such a letter than he could have written an Episcopal charge to the clergy of any given diocese. It was obviously the work of Courtenay Youghal, and Comus, for a palpable purpose of his own, had wheedled him into foregoing for once the pride of authorship in a clever piece of political raillery, and letting his young friend stand sponsor instead. It was a daring stroke, and there could be no question as to its success; the secretaryship and the distant shark-girt island faded away into the horizon of impossible things. Francesca, forgetting the golden rule of strategy which enjoins a careful choosing of ground and opportunity before entering on hostilities, made straight for the bathroom door, behind which a lively din of splashing betokened that Comus had at least begun his toilet.“You wicked boy, what have you done?” she cried, reproachfully.
“Me washee,” came a cheerful shout; “me washee from the neck all the way down to the merrythought, and now washee down from the merrythought to - ”
“You have ruined your future. The Times has printed that miserable letter with your signature.”
There were sounds as of a sprawling dripping body clambering hastily out of the bath. Francesca fled. One cannot effectively scold a moist nineteen-year old boy clad only in a bath-towel and a cloud of steam.Another messenger arrived before Francesca’s breakfast was over. This one brought a letter from Sir Julian Jull, excusing himself from fulfilment of the luncheon engagement.
Francesca prided herself on being able to see things from other people’s points of view, which meant, as it usually does, that she could see her own point of view from various aspects. As regards Comus, whose doings and non-doings bulked largely in her thoughts at the present moment, she had mapped out in her mind so clearly what his outlook in life ought to be, that she was peculiarly unfitted to understand the drift of his feelings or the impulses that governed them. Fate had endowed her with a son; in limiting the endowment to a solitary offspring Fate had certainly shown a moderation which Francesca was perfectly willing to acknowledge and be thankful for; but then, as she pointed out to a certain complacent friend of hers who cheerfully sustained an endowment of half-a-dozen male offsprings and a girl or two, her one child was Comus. Moderation in numbers was more than counterbalanced in his case by extravagance in characteristics.
Francesca mentally compared her son with hundreds of other young men whom she saw around her, steadily, and no doubt happily, engaged in the process of transforming themselves from nice boys into useful citizens. Most of them had occupations, or were industriously engaged in qualifying for such; in their leisure moments they smoked reasonably-priced cigarettes, went to the cheaper seats at music-halls, watched an occasional cricket match at Lord’s with apparent interest, saw most of the world’s spectacular events through the medium of the cinematograph, and were wont to exchange at parting seemingly superfluous injunctions to “be good.” The whole of Bond Street and many of the tributary thoroughfares of Piccadilly might have been swept off the face of modern London without in any way interfering with the supply of their daily wants. They were doubtless dull as acquaintances, but as sons they would have been eminently restful. With a growing sense of irritation Francesca compared these deserving young men with her own intractable offspring, and wondered why Fate should have singled her out to be the parent of such a vexatious variant from a comfortable and desirable type. As far as remunerative achievement was concerned, Comus copied the insouciance of the field lily with a dangerous fidelity. Like his mother he looked round with wistful irritation at the example afforded by contemporary youth, but he concentrated his attention exclusively on the richer circles of his acquaintance, young men who bought cars and polo ponies as unconcernedly as he might purchase a carnation for his buttonhole, and went for trips to Cairo or the Tigris valley with less difficulty and finance-stretching than he encountered in contriving a week-end at Brighton.
Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.
Francesca was, in her own way, fonder of Comus than of anyone else in the world, and if he had been browning his skin somewhere east of Suez she would probably have kissed his photograph with genuine fervour every night before going to bed; the appearance of a cholera scare or rumour of native rising in the columns of her daily news-sheet would have caused her a flutter of anxiety, and she would have mentally likened herself to a Spartan mother sacrificing her best-beloved on the altar of State necessities. But with the best-beloved installed under her roof, occupying an unreasonable amount of cubic space, and demanding daily sacrifices instead of providing the raw material for one, her feelings were tinged with irritation rather than affection. She might have forgiven Comus generously for misdeeds of some gravity committed in another continent, but she could never overlook the fact that out of a dish of five plovers’ eggs he was certain to take three. The absent may be always wrong, but they are seldom in a position to be inconsiderate.
Thus a wall of ice had grown up gradually between mother and son, a barrier across which they could hold converse, but which gave a wintry chill even to the sparkle of their lightest words. The boy had the gift of being irresistibly amusing when he chose to exert himself in that direction, and after a long series of moody or jangling meal-sittings he would break forth into a torrential flow of small talk, scandal and malicious anecdote, true or more generally invented, to which Francesca listened with a relish and appreciation, that was all the more flattering from being so unwillingly bestowed.“If you chose your friends from a rather more reputable set you would be doubtless less amusing, but there would be compensating advantages.”
Francesca snapped the remark out at lunch one day when she had been betrayed into a broader smile than she considered the circumstances of her attitude towards Comus warranted.
“I’m going to move in quite decent society to-night,” replied Comus with a pleased chuckle; “I’m going to meet you and Uncle Henry and heaps of nice dull God-fearing people at dinner.”Francesca gave a little gasp of surprise and annoyance. “You don’t mean to say Caroline has asked you to dinner to-night?” she said; “and of course without telling me. How exceedingly like her!”
Lady Caroline Benaresq had reached that age when you can say and do what you like in defiance of people’s most sensitive feelings and most cherished antipathies. Not that she had waited to attain her present age before pursuing that line of conduct; she came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent. It was a compensating mercy that they disagreed rather more among themselves than they did with the outside world; every known variety and shade of religion and politics had been pressed into the family service to avoid the possibility of any agreement on the larger essentials of life, and such unlooked-for happenings as the Home Rule schism, the Tariff-Reform upheaval and the Suffragette crusade were thankfully seized on as furnishing occasion for further differences and sub-divisions. Lady Caroline’s favourite scheme of entertaining was to bring jarring and antagonistic elements into close contact and play them remorselessly one against the other. “One gets much better results under those circumstances” she used to observe, “than by asking people who wish to meet each other. Few people talk as brilliantly to impress a friend as they do to depress an enemy.”She admitted that her theory broke down rather badly if you applied it to Parliamentary debates. At her own dinner table its success was usually triumphantly vindicated. “Who else is to be there?” Francesca asked, with some pardonable misgiving. “Courtenay Youghal. He’ll probably sit next to you, so you’d better think out a lot of annihilating remarks in readiness. And Elaine de Frey.” “I don’t think I’ve heard of her. Who is she?” “Nobody in particular, but rather nice-looking in a solemn sort of way, and almost indecently rich.”
“Marry her” was the advice which sprang to Francesca’s lips, but she choked it back with a salted almond, having a rare perception of the fact that words are sometimes given to us to defeat our purposes.“Caroline has probably marked her down for Toby or one of the grand-nephews,” she said, carelessly; “a little money would be rather useful in that quarter, I imagine.” Comus tucked in his underlip with just the shade of pugnacity that she wanted to see.
An advantageous marriage was so obviously the most sensible course for him to embark on that she scarcely dared to hope that he would seriously entertain it; yet there was just a chance that if he got as far as the flirtation stage with an attractive (and attracted) girl who was also an heiress, the sheer perversity of his nature might carry him on to more definite courtship, if only from the desire to thrust other more genuinely enamoured suitors into the background. It was a forlorn hope; so forlorn that the idea even crossed her mind of throwing herself on the mercy of her bête noire, Courtenay Youghal, and trying to enlist the influence which he seemed to possess over Comus for the purpose of furthering her hurriedly conceived project. Anyhow, the dinner promised to be more interesting than she had originally anticipated.
Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists. Francesca, who was a keen and intelligent food critic, harboured no misgivings as to her hostess’s kitchen and cellar departments; some of the human side-dishes at the feast gave her more ground for uneasiness. Courtenay Youghal, for instance, would probably be brilliantly silent; her brother Henry would almost certainly be the reverse.
The dinner party was a large one and Francesca arrived late with little time to take preliminary stock of the guests; a card with the name, “Miss de Frey,” immediately opposite her own place at the other side of the table, indicated, however, the whereabouts of the heiress. It was characteristic of Francesca that she first carefully read the menu from end to end, and then indulged in an equally careful though less open scrutiny of the girl who sat opposite her, the girl who was nobody in particular, but whose income was everything that could be desired. She was pretty in a restrained nut-brown fashion, and had a look of grave reflective calm that probably masked a speculative unsettled temperament. Her pose, if one wished to be critical, was just a little too elaborately careless. She wore some excellently set rubies with that indefinable air of having more at home that is so difficult to improvise. Francesca was distinctly pleased with her survey.“You seem interested in your vis-à-vis,” said Courtenay Youghal. “I almost think I’ve seen her before,” said Francesca; “her face seems familiar to me.” “The narrow gallery at the Louvre; attributed to Leonardo da Vinci,” said Youghal.
“Of course,” said Francesca, her feelings divided between satisfaction at capturing an elusive impression and annoyance that Youghal should have been her helper. A stronger tinge of annoyance possessed her when she heard the voice of Henry Greech raised in painful prominence at Lady Caroline’s end of the table.
“I called on the Trudhams yesterday,” he announced; “it was their Silver Wedding, you know, at least the day before was. Such lots of silver presents, quite a show. Of course there were a great many duplicates, but still, very nice to have. I think they were very pleased to get so many.”“We must not grudge them their show of presents after their twenty-five years of married life,” said Lady Caroline, gently; “it is the silver lining to their cloud.” A third of the guests present were related to the Trudhams. “Lady Caroline is beginning well,” murmured Courtenay Youghal.
“I should hardly call twenty-five years of married life a cloud,” said Henry Greech, lamely.
“Don’t let’s talk about married life,” said a tall handsome woman, who looked like some modern painter’s conception of the goddess Bellona; “it’s my misfortune to write eternally about husbands and wives and their variants. My public expects it of me. I do so envy journalists who can write about plagues and strikes and Anarchist plots, and other pleasing things, instead of being tied down to one stale old topic.”
“Who is that woman and what has she written?” Francesca asked Youghal; she dimly remembered having seen her at one of Serena Golackly’s gatherings, surrounded by a little Court of admirers.
“I forget her name; she has a villa at San Remo or Mentone, or somewhere where one does have villas, and plays an extraordinary good game of bridge. Also she has the reputation, rather rare in your sex, of being a wonderfully sound judge of wine.”“But what has she written?” “Oh, several novels of the thinnish ice order. Her last one, ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday,’ has been banned at all the libraries. I expect you’ve read it.” “I don’t see why you should think so,” said Francesca, coldly.
“Only because Comus lent me your copy yesterday,” said Youghal. He threw back his handsome head and gave her a sidelong glance of quizzical amusement. He knew that she hated his intimacy with Comus, and he was secretly rather proud of his influence over the boy, shallow and negative though he knew it to be. It had been, on his part, an unsought intimacy, and it would probably fall to pieces the moment he tried seriously to take up the rôle of mentor. The fact that Comus’s mother openly disapproved of the friendship gave it perhaps its chief interest in the young politician’s eyes.
Francesca turned her attention to her brother’s end of the table. Henry Greech had willingly availed himself of the invitation to leave the subject of married life, and had launched forthwith into the equally well-worn theme of current politics. He was not a person who was in much demand for public meetings, and the House showed no great impatience to hear his views on the topics of the moment; its impatience, indeed, was manifested rather in the opposite direction. Hence he was prone to unburden himself of accumulated political wisdom as occasion presented itself - sometimes, indeed, to assume an occasion that was hardly visible to the naked intelligence.
“Our opponents are engaged in a hopelessly uphill struggle, and they know it,” he chirruped, defiantly; “they’ve become possessed, like the Gadarene swine, with a whole legion of - ”
“Surely the Gadarene swine went downhill,” put in Lady Caroline in a gently enquiring voice.
Henry Greech hastily abandoned simile and fell back on platitude and the safer kinds of fact.
Francesca did not regard her brother’s views on statecraft either in the light of gospel or revelation; as Comus once remarked, they more usually suggested exodus. In the present instance she found distraction in a renewed scrutiny of the girl opposite her, who seemed to be only moderately interested in the conversational efforts of the diners on either side of her. Comus who was looking and talking his best, was sitting at the further end of the table, and Francesca was quick to notice in which direction the girl’s glances were continually straying. Once or twice the eyes of the young people met and a swift flush of pleasure and a half-smile that spoke of good understanding came to the heiress’s face. It did not need the gift of the traditional intuition of her sex to enable Francesca to guess that the girl with the desirable banking account was already considerably attracted by the lively young Pagan who had, when he cared to practise it, such an art of winning admiration. For the first time for many, many months Francesca saw her son’s prospects in a rose-coloured setting, and she began, unconsciously, to wonder exactly how much wealth was summed up in the expressive label “almost indecently rich.” A wife with a really large fortune and a correspondingly big dower of character and ambition, might, perhaps, succeed in turning Comus’s latent energies into a groove which would provide him, if not with a career, at least with an occupation, and the young serious face opposite looked as if its owner lacked neither character or ambition. Francesca’s speculations took a more personal turn. Out of the well-filled coffers with which her imagination was toying, an inconsiderable sum might eventually be devoted to the leasing, or even perhaps the purchase of, the house in Blue Street when the present convenient arrangement should have come to an end, and Francesca and the Van der Meulen would not be obliged to seek fresh quarters.A woman’s voice, talking in a discreet undertone on the other side of Courtenay Youghal, broke in on her bridge-building. “Tons of money and really very presentable. Just the wife for a rising young politician. Go in and win her before she’s snapped up by some fortune hunter.”
Youghal and his instructress in worldly wisdom were looking straight across the table at the Leonardo da Vinci girl with the grave reflective eyes and the over-emphasised air of repose. Francesca felt a quick throb of anger against her match-making neighbour; why, she asked herself, must some women, with no end or purpose of their own to serve, except the sheer love of meddling in the affairs of others, plunge their hands into plots and schemings of this sort, in which the happiness of more than one person was concerned? And more clearly than ever she realised how thoroughly she detested Courtenay Youghal. She had disliked him as an evil influence, setting before her son an example of showy ambition that he was not in the least likely to follow, and providing him with a model of extravagant dandyism that he was only too certain to copy. In her heart she knew that Comus would have embarked just as surely on his present course of idle self-indulgence if he had never known of the existence of Youghal, but she chose to regard that young man as her son’s evil genius, and now he seemed likely to justify more than ever the character she had fastened on to him. For once in his life Comus appeared to have an idea of behaving sensibly and making some use of his opportunities, and almost at the same moment Courtenay Youghal arrived on the scene as a possible and very dangerous rival. Against the good looks and fitful powers of fascination that Comus could bring into the field, the young politician could match half-a-dozen dazzling qualities which would go far to recommend him in the eyes of a woman of the world, still more in those of a young girl in search of an ideal. Good-looking in his own way, if not on such showy lines as Comus, always well turned-out, witty, self-confident without being bumptious, with a conspicuous Parliamentary career alongside him, and heaven knew what else in front of him, Courtenay Youghal certainly was not a rival whose chances could be held very lightly. Francesca laughed bitterly to herself as she remembered that a few hours ago she had entertained the idea of begging for his good offices in helping on Comus’s wooing. One consolation, at least, she found for herself: if Youghal really meant to step in and try and cut out his young friend, the latter at any rate had snatched a useful start. Comus had mentioned Miss de Frey at luncheon that day, casually and dispassionately; if the subject of the dinner guests had not come up he would probably not have mentioned her at all. But they were obviously already very good friends. It was part and parcel of the state of domestic tension at Blue Street that Francesca should only have come to know of this highly interesting heiress by an accidental sorting of guests at a dinner party.
Lady Caroline’s voice broke in on her reflections; it was a gentle purring voice, that possessed an uncanny quality of being able to make itself heard down the longest dinner table.
“The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.”
On a conveniently secluded bench facing the Northern Pheasantry in the Zoological Society’s Gardens, Regent’s Park, Courtenay Youghal sat immersed in mature flirtation with a lady, who, though certainly young in fact and appearance, was some four or five years his senior. When he was a schoolboy of sixteen, Molly McQuade had personally conducted him to the Zoo and stood him dinner afterwards at Kettner’s, and whenever the two of them happened to be in town on the anniversary of that bygone festivity they religiously repeated the programme in its entirety. Even the menu of the dinner was adhered to as nearly as possible; the original selection of food and wine that schoolboy exuberance, tempered by schoolboy shyness, had pitched on those many years ago, confronted Youghal on those occasions, as a drowning man’s past life is said to rise up and parade itself in his last moments of consciousness.
The flirtation which was thus perennially restored to its old-time footing owed its longevity more to the enterprising solicitude of Miss McQuade than to any conscious sentimental effort on the part of Youghal himself. Molly McQuade was known to her neighbours in a minor hunting shire as a hard-riding conventionally unconventional type of young woman, who came naturally into the classification, “a good sort.” She was just sufficiently good-looking, sufficiently reticent about her own illnesses, when she had any, and sufficiently appreciative of her neighbours’ gardens, children and hunters to be generally popular. Most men liked her, and the percentage of women who disliked her was not inconveniently high. One of these days, it was assumed, she would marry a brewer or a Master of Otter Hounds, and, after a brief interval, be known to the world as the mother of a boy or two at Malvern or some similar seat of learning. The romantic side of her nature was altogether unguessed by the countryside.
Her romances were mostly in serial form and suffered perhaps in fervour from their disconnected course what they gained in length of days. Her affectionate interest in the several young men who figured in her affairs of the heart was perfectly honest, and she certainly made no attempt either to conceal their separate existences, or to play them off one against the other. Neither could it be said that she was a husband hunter; she had made up her mind what sort of man she was likely to marry, and her forecast did not differ very widely from that formed by her local acquaintances. If her married life were eventually to turn out a failure, at least she looked forward to it with very moderate expectations. Her love affairs she put on a very different footing and apparently they were the all-absorbing element in her life. She possessed the happily constituted temperament which enables a man or woman to be a “pluralist,” and to observe the sage precaution of not putting all one’s eggs into one basket. Her demands were not exacting; she required of her affinity that he should be young, good-looking, and at least, moderately amusing; she would have preferred him to be invariably faithful, but, with her own example before her, she was prepared for the probability, bordering on certainty, that he would be nothing of the sort. The philosophy of the “Garden of Kama” was the compass by which she steered her barque and thus far, if she had encountered some storms and buffeting, she had at least escaped being either shipwrecked or becalmed. Courtenay Youghal had not been designed by Nature to fulfil the rôle of an ardent or devoted lover, and he scrupulously respected the limits which Nature had laid down. For Molly, however, he had a certain responsive affection. She had always obviously admired him, and at the same time she never beset him with crude flattery; the principal reason why the flirtation had stood the test of so many years was the fact that it only flared into active existence at convenient intervals. In an age when the telephone has undermined almost every fastness of human privacy, and the sanctity of one’s seclusion depends often on the ability for tactful falsehood shown by a club pageboy, Youghal was duly appreciative of the circumstance that his lady fair spent a large part of the year pursuing foxes, in lieu of pursuing him. Also the honestly admitted fact that, in her human hunting, she rode after more than one quarry, made the inevitable break-up of the affair a matter to which both could look forward without a sense of coming embarrassment and recrimination. When the time for gathering ye rosebuds should be over, neither of them could accuse the other of having wrecked his or her entire life. At the most they would only have disorganised a week-end.
On this particular afternoon, when old reminiscences had been gone through, and the intervening gossip of past months duly recounted, a lull in the conversation made itself rather obstinately felt. Molly had already guessed that matters were about to slip into a new phase; the affair had reached maturity long ago, and a new phase must be in the nature of a wane.“You’re a clever brute,” she said, suddenly, with an air of affectionate regret; “I always knew you’d get on in the House, but I hardly expected you to come to the front so soon.”
“I’m coming to the front,” admitted Youghal, judicially; “the problem is, shall I be able to stay there. Unless something happens in the financial line before long, I don’t see how I’m to stay in Parliament at all. Economy is out of the question. It would open people’s eyes, I fancy, if they knew how little I exist on as it is. And I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.”
“It will have to be a rich wife, I suppose,” said Molly, slowly; “that’s the worst of success, it imposes so many conditions. I rather knew, from something in your manner, that you were drifting that way.”
Youghal said nothing in the way of contradiction; he gazed steadfastly at the aviary in front of him as though exotic pheasants were for the moment the most absorbing study in the world. As a matter of fact, his mind was centred on the image of Elaine de Frey, with her clear untroubled eyes and her Leonardo da Vinci air. He was wondering whether he was likely to fall into a frame of mind concerning her which would be in the least like falling in love.
“I shall mind horribly,” continued Molly, after a pause, “but, of course, I have always known that something of the sort would have to happen one of these days. When a man goes into politics he can’t call his soul his own, and I suppose his heart becomes an impersonal possession in the same way.”
“Most people who know me would tell you that I haven’t got a heart,” said Youghal.
For the moment she feared that Courtenay’s selfishness might have taken an unexpected turn, in which ambition had given way to the fancy of the hour; he might be going to sacrifice his Parliamentary career for a life of stupid lounging in momentarily attractive company. He quickly undeceived her.“She’s got heaps of money.” Molly gave a grunt of relief. Her affection for Courtenay had produced the anxiety which underlay her first question; a natural jealousy prompted the next one.
“Is she young and pretty and all that sort of thing, or is she just a good sort with a sympathetic manner and nice eyes? As a rule that’s the kind that goes with a lot of money.”
“Young and quite good-looking in her way, and a distinct style of her own. Some people would call her beautiful. As a political hostess I should think she’d be splendid. I imagine I’m rather in love with her.”“And is she in love with you?” Youghal threw back his head with the slight assertive movement that Molly knew and liked.
“She’s a girl who I fancy would let judgment influence her a lot. And without being stupidly conceited, I think I may say she might do worse than throw herself away on me. I’m young and quite good-looking, and I’m making a name for myself in the House; she’ll be able to read all sorts of nice and horrid things about me in the papers at breakfast-time. I can be brilliantly amusing at times, and I understand the value of silence; there is no fear that I shall ever degenerate into that fearsome thing - a cheerful talkative husband. For a girl with money and social ambitions I should think I was rather a good thing.”
“You are certainly in love, Courtenay,” said Molly, “but it’s the old love and not a new one. I’m rather glad. I should have hated to have you head-over-heels in love with a pretty woman, even for a short time. You’ll be much happier as it is. And I’m going to put all my feelings in the background, and tell you to go in and win. You’ve got to marry a rich woman, and if she’s nice and will make a good hostess, so much the better for everybody. You’ll be happier in your married life than I shall be in mine, when it comes; you’ll have other interests to absorb you. I shall just have the garden and dairy and nursery and lending library, as like as two peas to all the gardens and dairies and nurseries for hundreds of miles round. You won’t care for your wife enough to be worried every time she has a finger-ache, and you’ll like her well enough to be pleased to meet her sometimes at your own house. I shouldn’t wonder if you were quite happy. She will probably be miserable, but any woman who married you would be.”
There was a short pause; they were both staring at the pheasant cages. Then Molly spoke again, with the swift nervous tone of a general who is hurriedly altering the disposition of his forces for a strategic retreat.
“When you are safely married and honey-mooned and all that sort of thing, and have put your wife through her paces as a political hostess, some time, when the House isn’t sitting, you must come down by yourself, and do a little hunting with us. Will you? It won’t be quite the same as old times, but it will be something to look forward to when I’m reading the endless paragraphs about your fashionable political wedding.”
“You’re looking forward pretty far,” laughed Youghal; “the lady may take your view as to the probable unhappiness of a future shared with me, and I may have to content myself with penurious political bachelorhood. Anyhow, the present is still with us. We dine at Kettner’s to-night, don’t we?”
“Rather,” said Molly, “though it will be more or less a throat-lumpy feast as far as I am concerned. We shall have to drink to the health of the future Mrs. Youghal. By the way, it’s rather characteristic of you that you haven’t told me who she is, and of me that I haven’t asked. And now, like a dear boy, trot away and leave me. I haven’t got to say good-bye to you yet, but I’m going to take a quiet farewell of the Pheasantry. We’ve had some jolly good talks, you and I, sitting on this seat, haven’t we? And I know, as well as I know anything, that this is the last of them. Eight o’clock to-night, as punctually as possible.”
She watched his retreating figure with eyes that grew slowly misty; he had been such a jolly comely boy-friend, and they had had such good times together. The mist deepened on her lashes as she looked round at the familiar rendezvous where they had so often kept tryst since the day when they had first come there together, he a schoolboy and she but lately out of her teens. For the moment she felt herself in the thrall of a very real sorrow.
Then, with the admirable energy of one who is only in town for a fleeting fortnight, she raced away to have tea with a world-faring naval admirer at his club. Pluralism is a merciful narcotic.
Elaine de Frey sat at ease - at bodily ease - at any rate - in a low wicker chair placed under the shade of a group of cedars in the heart of a stately spacious garden that had almost made up its mind to be a park. The shallow stone basin of an old fountain, on whose wide ledge a leaden-moulded otter for ever preyed on a leaden salmon, filled a conspicuous place in the immediate foreground. Around its rim ran an inscription in Latin, warning mortal man that time flows as swiftly as water and exhorting him to make the most of his hours; after which piece of Jacobean moralising it set itself shamelessly to beguile all who might pass that way into an abandonment of contemplative repose. On all sides of it a stretch of smooth turf spread away, broken up here and there by groups of dwarfish chestnut and mulberry trees, whose leaves and branches cast a laced pattern of shade beneath them. On one side the lawn sloped gently down to a small lake, whereon floated a quartette of swans, their movements suggestive of a certain mournful listlessness, as though a weary dignity of caste held them back from the joyous bustling life of the lesser waterfowl. Elaine liked to imagine that they re-embodied the souls of unhappy boys who had been forced by family interests to become high ecclesiastical dignitaries and had grown prematurely Right Reverend. A low stone balustrade fenced part of the shore of the lake, making a miniature terrace above its level, and here roses grew in a rich multitude. Other rose bushes, carefully pruned and tended, formed little oases of colour and perfume amid the restful green of the sward, and in the distance the eye caught the variegated blaze of a many-hued hedge of rhododendron. With these favoured exceptions flowers were hard to find in this well-ordered garden; the misguided tyranny of staring geranium beds and beflowered archways leading to nowhere, so dear to the suburban gardener, found no expression here. Magnificent Amherst pheasants, whose plumage challenged and almost shamed the peacock on his own ground, stepped to and fro over the emerald turf with the assured self-conscious pride of reigning sultans. It was a garden where summer seemed a part-proprietor rather than a hurried visitor.
By the side of Elaine’s chair under the shadow of the cedars a wicker table was set out with the paraphernalia of afternoon tea. On some cushions at her feet reclined Courtenay Youghal, smoothly preened and youthfully elegant, the personification of decorative repose; equally decorative, but with the showy restlessness of a dragonfly, Comus disported his flannelled person over a considerable span of the available foreground.
The intimacy existing between the two young men had suffered no immediate dislocation from the circumstance that they were tacitly paying court to the same lady. It was an intimacy founded not in the least on friendship or community of tastes and ideas, but owed its existence to the fact that each was amused and interested by the other. Youghal found Comus, for the time being at any rate, just as amusing and interesting as a rival for Elaine’s favour as he had been in the rôle of scapegrace boy-about-Town; Comus for his part did not wish to lose touch with Youghal, who among other attractions possessed the recommendation of being under the ban of Comus’s mother. She disapproved, it is true, of a great many of her son’s friends and associates, but this particular one was a special and persistent source of irritation to her from the fact that he figured prominently and more or less successfully in the public life of the day. There was something peculiarly exasperating in reading a brilliant and incisive attack on the Government’s rash handling of public expenditure delivered by a young man who encouraged her son in every imaginable extravagance. The actual extent of Youghal’s influence over the boy was of the slightest; Comus was quite capable of deriving encouragement to rash outlay and frivolous conversation from an anchorite or an East-end parson if he had been thrown into close companionship with such an individual. Francesca, however, exercised a mother’s privilege in assuming her son’s bachelor associates to be industrious in labouring to achieve his undoing. Therefore the young politician was a source of unconcealed annoyance to her, and in the same degree as she expressed her disapproval of him Comus was careful to maintain and parade the intimacy. Its existence, or rather its continued existence, was one of the things that faintly puzzled the young lady whose sought-for favour might have been expected to furnish an occasion for its rapid dissolution.
With two suitors, one of whom at least she found markedly attractive, courting her at the same moment, Elaine should have had reasonable cause for being on good terms with the world, and with herself in particular. Happiness was not, however, at this auspicious moment, her dominant mood. The grave calm of her face masked as usual a certain degree of grave perturbation. A succession of well-meaning governesses and a plentiful supply of moralising aunts on both sides of her family, had impressed on her young mind the theoretical fact that wealth is a great responsibility. The consciousness of her responsibility set her continually wondering, not as to her own fitness to discharge her “stewardship,” but as to the motives and merits of people with whom she came in contact. The knowledge that there was so much in the world that she could buy, invited speculation as to how much there was that was worth buying. Gradually she had come to regard her mind as a sort of appeal court before whose secret sittings were examined and judged the motives and actions, the motives especially, of the world in general. In her schoolroom days she had sat in conscientious judgment on the motives that guided or misguided Charles and Cromwell and Monck, Wallenstein and Savonarola. In her present stage she was equally occupied in examining the political sincerity of the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, the good-faith of a honey-tongued but possibly loyalhearted waiting-maid, and the disinterestedness of a whole circle of indulgent and flattering acquaintances. Even more absorbing, and in her eyes, more urgently necessary, was the task of dissecting and appraising the characters of the two young men who were favouring her with their attentions. And herein lay cause for much thinking and some perturbation. Youghal, for example, might have baffled a more experienced observer of human nature. Elaine was too clever to confound his dandyism with foppishness or selfadvertisement. He admired his own toilet effect in a mirror from a genuine sense of pleasure in a thing good to look upon, just as he would feel a sensuous appreciation of the sight of a well-bred, well-matched, well-turned-out pair of horses. Behind his careful political flippancy and cynicism one might also detect a certain careless sincerity, which would probably in the long run save him from moderate success, and turn him into one of the brilliant failures of his day. Beyond this it was difficult to form an exact appreciation of Courtenay Youghal, and Elaine, who liked to have her impressions distinctly labelled and pigeon-holed, was perpetually scrutinising the outer surface of his characteristics and utterances, like a baffled art critic vainly searching beneath the varnish and scratches of a doubtfully assigned picture for an enlightening signature. The young man added to her perplexities by his deliberate policy of never trying to show himself in a favourable light even when most anxious to impart a favourable impression. He preferred that people should hunt for his good qualities, and merely took very good care that as far as possible they should never draw blank; even in the matter of selfishness, which was the anchorsheet of his existence, he contrived to be noted, and justly noted, for doing remarkably unselfish things. As a ruler he would have been reasonably popular; as a husband he would probably be unendurable.
Comus was to a certain extent as great a mystification as Youghal, but here Elaine was herself responsible for some of the perplexity which enshrouded his character in her eyes. She had taken more than a passing fancy for the boy - for the boy as he might be, that was to say - and she was desperately unwilling to see him and appraise him as he really was. Thus the mental court of appeal was constantly engaged in examining witnesses as to character, most of whom signally failed to give any testimony which would support the favourable judgment which the tribunal was so anxious to arrive at. A woman with wider experience of the world’s ways and shortcomings would probably have contented herself with an endeavour to find out whether her liking for the boy outweighed her dislike of his characteristics; Elaine took her judgments too seriously to approach the matter from such a simple and convenient standpoint. The fact that she was much more than half in love with Comus made it dreadfully important that she should discover him to have a lovable soul, and Comus, it must be confessed, did little to help forward the discovery.
“At any rate he is honest,” she would observe to herself, after some outspoken admission of unprincipled conduct on his part, and then she would ruefully recall certain episodes in which he had figured, from which honesty had been conspicuously absent. What she tried to label honesty in his candour was probably only a cynical defiance of the laws of right and wrong.“You look more than usually thoughtful this afternoon,” said Comus to her, “as if you had invented this summer day and were trying to think out improvements.” “If I had the power to create improvements anywhere I think I should begin with you,” retorted Elaine.
“I’m sure it’s much better to leave me as I am,” protested Comus; “you’re like a relative of mine up in Argyllshire, who spends his time producing improved breeds of sheep and pigs and chickens. So patronising and irritating to the Almighty I should think, to go about putting superior finishing touches to Creation.”Elaine frowned, and then laughed, and finally gave a little sigh.
“It’s not easy to talk sense to you,” she said. “Whatever else you take in hand,” said Youghal, “you must never improve this garden. It’s what our idea of Heaven might be like if the Jews hadn’t invented one for us on totally different lines. It’s dreadful that we should accept them as the impresarios of our religious dreamland instead of the Greeks.”“You are not very fond of the Jews,” said Elaine. “I’ve travelled and lived a good deal in Eastern Europe,” said Youghal. “It seems largely a question of geography,” said Elaine; “in England no one really is antiSemitic.” Youghal shook his head. “I know a great many Jews who are.”
Servants had quietly, almost reverently, placed tea and its accessories on the wicker table, and quietly receded from the landscape. Elaine sat like a grave young goddess about to dispense some mysterious potion to her devotees. Her mind was still sitting in judgment on the Jewish question.Comus scrambled to his feet. “It’s too hot for tea,” he said; “I shall go and feed the swans.” And he walked off with a little silver basket-dish containing brown bread-and-butter. Elaine laughed quietly. “It’s so like Comus,” she said, “to go off with our one dish of bread-and-butter.”
Youghal chuckled responsively. It was an undoubted opportunity for him to put in some disparaging criticism of Comus, and Elaine sat alert in readiness to judge the critic and reserve judgment on the criticised.
“His selfishness is splendid but absolutely futile,” said Youghal; “now my selfishness is commonplace, but always thoroughly practical and calculated. He will have great difficulty in getting the swans to accept his offering, and he incurs the odium of reducing us to a bread-and-butterless condition. Incidentally he will get very hot.”Elaine again had the sense of being thoroughly baffled. If Youghal had said anything unkind it was about himself.
“If my cousin Suzette had been here,” she observed, with the shadow of a malicious smile on her lips, “I believe she would have gone into a flood of tears at the loss of her bread-and-butter, and Comus would have figured ever after in her mind as something black and destroying and hateful. In fact I don’t really know why we took our loss so unprotestingly.”
“For two reasons,” said Youghal; “you are rather fond of Comus. And I - am not very fond of bread-and-butter.”
The jesting remark brought a throb of pleasure to Elaine’s heart. She had known full well that she cared for Comus, but now that Courtenay Youghal had openly proclaimed the fact as something unchallenged and understood matters seemed placed at once on a more advanced footing. The warm sunlit garden grew suddenly into a Heaven that held the secret of eternal happiness. Youth and comeliness would always walk here, under the low-boughed mulberry trees, as unchanging as the leaden otter that for ever preyed on the leaden salmon on the edge of the old fountain, and somehow the lovers would always wear the aspect of herself and the boy who was talking to the four white swans by the water steps. Youghal was right; this was the real Heaven of one’s dreams and longings, immeasurably removed from that Rue de la Paix Paradise about which one professed utterly insincere hankerings in places of public worship. Elaine drank her tea in a happy silence; besides being a brilliant talker Youghal understood the rarer art of being a nontalker on occasion.Comus came back across the grass swinging the empty basket-dish in his hand.
“Swans were very pleased,” he cried, gaily, “and said they hoped I would keep the breadand-butter dish as a souvenir of a happy tea-party. I may really have it, mayn’t I?” he continued in an anxious voice; “it will do to keep studs and things in. You don’t want it.”“It’s got the family crest on it,” said Elaine. Some of the happiness had died out of her eyes. “I’ll have that scratched off and my own put on,” said Comus.
“It’s been in the family for generations,” protested Elaine, who did not share Comus’s view that because you were rich your lesser possessions could have no value in your eyes.“I want it dreadfully,” said Comus, sulkily, “and you’ve heaps of other things to put bread-and-butter in.”
For the moment he was possessed by an overmastering desire to keep the dish at all costs; a look of greedy determination dominated his face, and he had not for an instant relaxed his grip of the coveted object.
Elaine was genuinely angry by this time, and was busily telling herself that it was absurd to be put out over such a trifle; at the same moment a sense of justice was telling her that Comus was displaying a good deal of rather shabby selfishness. And somehow her chief anxiety at the moment was to keep Courtenay Youghal from seeing that she was angry.“I know you don’t really want it, so I’m going to keep it,” persisted Comus. “It’s too hot to argue,” said Elaine.
“Happy mistress of your destinies,” laughed Youghal; “you can suit your disputations to the desired time and temperature. I have to go and argue, or what is worse, listen to other people’s arguments, in a hot and doctored atmosphere suitable to an invalid lizard.”“You haven’t got to argue about a bread-and-butter dish,” said Elaine.
“Chiefly about bread-and-butter,” said Youghal; “our great preoccupation is other people’s bread-and-butter. They earn or produce the material, but we busy ourselves with making rules how it shall be cut up, and the size of the slices, and how much butter shall go on how much bread. That is what is called legislation. If we could only make rules as to how the bread-and-butter should be digested we should be quite happy.”
Elaine had been brought up to regard Parliaments as something to be treated with cheerful solemnity, like illness or family re-unions. Youghal’s flippant disparagement of the career in which he was involved did not, however, jar on her susceptibilities. She knew him to be not only a lively and effective debater but an industrious worker on committees. If he made light of his labours, at least he afforded no one else a loophole for doing so. And certainly, the Parliamentary atmosphere was not inviting on this hot afternoon.“When must you go?” she asked, sympathetically.
Youghal looked ruefully at his watch. Before he could answer, a cheerful hoot came through the air, as of an owl joyously challenging the sunlight with a foreboding of the coming night. He sprang laughing to his feet.“Listen! My summons back to my galley,” he cried. “The Gods have given me an hour in this enchanted garden, so I must not complain.” Then in a lower voice he almost whispered, “It’s the Persian debate to-night,”
It was the one hint he had given in the midst of his talking and laughing that he was really keenly enthralled in the work that lay before him. It was the one little intimate touch that gave Elaine the knowledge that he cared for her opinion of his work.
Comus, who had emptied his cigarette-case, became suddenly clamorous at the prospect of being temporarily stranded without a smoke. Youghal took the last remaining cigarette from his own case and gravely bisected it.“Friendship could go no further,” he observed, as he gave one-half to the doubtfully appeased Comus, and lit the other himself.
“There are heaps more in the hall,” said Elaine. “It was only done for the Saint Martin of Tours effect,” said Youghal; “I hate smoking when I’m rushing through the air. Good-bye.”
The departing galley-slave stepped forth into the sunlight, radiant and confident. A few minutes later Elaine could see glimpses of his white car as it rushed past the rhododendron bushes. He woos best who leaves first, particularly if he goes forth to battle or the semblance of battle.
Somehow Elaine’s garden of Eternal Youth had already become clouded in its imagery. The girl-figure who walked in it was still distinctly and unchangingly herself, but her companion was more blurred and undefined, as a picture that has been superimposed on another.
Youghal sped townward well satisfied with himself. To-morrow, he reflected, Elaine would read his speech in her morning paper, and he knew in advance that it was not going to be one of his worst efforts. He knew almost exactly where the punctuations of laughter and applause would burst in, he knew that nimble fingers in the Press Gallery would be taking down each gibe and argument as he flung it at the impassive Minister confronting him, and that the fair lady of his desire would be able to judge what manner of young man this was who spent his afternoon in her garden, lazily chaffing himself and his world.
And he further reflected, with an amused chuckle, that she would be vividly reminded of Comus for days to come, when she took her afternoon tea, and saw the bread-and-butter reposing in an unaccustomed dish.
Towards four o’clock on a hot afternoon Francesca stepped out from a shop entrance near the Piccadilly end of Bond Street and ran almost into the arms of Merla Blathlington. The afternoon seemed to get instantly hotter. Merla was one of those human flies that buzz; in crowded streets, at bazaars and in warm weather, she attained to the proportions of a human bluebottle. Lady Caroline Benaresq had openly predicted that a special flypaper was being reserved for her accommodation in another world; others, however, held the opinion that she would be miraculously multiplied in a future state, and that four or more Merla Blathlingtons, according to deserts, would be in perpetual and unremitting attendance on each lost soul.“Here we are,” she cried, with a glad eager buzz, “popping in and out of shops like rabbits; not that rabbits do pop in and out of shops very extensively.” It was evidently one of her bluebottle days.
“Don’t you love Bond Street?” she gabbled on. “There’s something so unusual and distinctive about it; no other street anywhere else is quite like it. Don’t you know those ikons and images and things scattered up and down Europe, that are supposed to have been painted or carved, as the case may be, by St. Luke or Zaccheus, or somebody of that sort; I always like to think that some notable person of those times designed Bond Street. St. Paul, perhaps. He travelled about a lot.”“Not in Middlesex, though,” said Francesca.
“One can’t be sure,” persisted Merla; “when one wanders about as much as he did one gets mixed up and forgets where one has been. I can never remember whether I’ve been to the Tyrol twice and St. Moritz once, or the other way about; I always have to ask my maid. And there’s something about the name Bond that suggests St. Paul; didn’t he write a lot about the bond and the free?”“I fancy he wrote in Hebrew or Greek,” objected Francesca; “the word wouldn’t have the least resemblance.”
“So dreadfully non-committal to go about pamphleteering in those bizarre languages,” complained Merla; “that’s what makes all those people so elusive. As soon as you try to pin them down to a definite statement about anything you’re told that some vitally important word has fifteen other meanings in the original. I wonder our Cabinet Ministers and politicians don’t adopt a sort of dog-Latin or Esperanto jargon to deliver their speeches in; what a lot of subsequent explaining away would be saved. But to go back to Bond Street - not that we’ve left it - ”
“I’m afraid I must leave it now,” said Francesca, preparing to turn up Grafton Street; “Good-bye.”
“Must you be going? Come and have tea somewhere. I know of a cosy little place where one can talk undisturbed.”
“I know where you’re going,” said Merla, with the resentful buzz of a bluebottle that finds itself thwarted by the cold unreasoning resistance of a windowpane. “You’re going to play bridge at Serena Golackly’s. She never asks me to her bridge parties.”
Francesca shuddered openly this time; the prospect of having to play bridge anywhere in the near neighbourhood of Merla’s voice was not one that could be contemplated with ordinary calmness.
“Good-bye,” she said again firmly, and passed out of earshot; it was rather like leaving the machinery section of an exhibition. Merla’s diagnosis of her destination had been a correct one; Francesca made her way slowly through the hot streets in the direction of Serena Golackly’s house on the far side of Berkeley Square. To the blessed certainty of finding a game of bridge, she hopefully added the possibility of hearing some fragments of news which might prove interesting and enlightening. And of enlightenment on a particular subject, in which she was acutely and personally interested, she stood in some need. Comus of late had been provokingly reticent as to his movements and doings; partly, perhaps, because it was his nature to be provoking, partly because the daily bickerings over money matters were gradually choking other forms of conversation. Francesca had seen him once or twice in the Park in the desirable company of Elaine de Frey, and from time to time she heard of the young people as having danced together at various houses; on the other hand, she had seen and heard quite as much evidence to connect the heiress’s name with that of Courtenay Youghal. Beyond this meagre and conflicting and altogether tantalising information, her knowledge of the present position of affairs did not go. If either of the young men was seriously “making the running,” it was probable that she would hear some sly hint or open comment about it from one of Serena’s gossip-laden friends, without having to go out of her way to introduce the subject and unduly disclose her own state of ignorance. And a game of bridge, played for moderately high points, gave ample excuse for convenient lapses into reticence; if questions took an embarrassingly inquisitive turn, one could always find refuge in a defensive spade.
The afternoon was too warm to make bridge a generally popular diversion, and Serena’s party was a comparatively small one. Only one table was incomplete when Francesca made her appearance on the scene; at it was seated Serena herself, confronted by Ada Spelvexit, whom everyone was wont to explain as “one of the Cheshire Spelvexits,” as though any other variety would have been intolerable. Ada Spelvexit was one of those naturally stagnant souls who take infinite pleasure in what are called “movements.” “Most of the really great lessons I have learned have been taught me by the Poor,” was one of her favourite statements. The one great lesson that the Poor in general would have liked to have taught her, that their kitchens and sickrooms were not unreservedly at her disposal as private lecture halls, she had never been able to assimilate. She was ready to give them unlimited advice as to how they should keep the wolf from their doors, but in return she claimed and enforced for herself the penetrating powers of an east wind or a dust storm. Her visits among her wealthier acquaintances were equally extensive and enterprising, and hardly more welcome; in country-house parties, while partaking to the fullest extent of the hospitality offered her, she made a practice of unburdening herself of homilies on the evils of leisure and luxury, which did not particularly endear her to her fellow guests. Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once.
The third prospective player, Francesca noted without any special enthusiasm, was Lady Caroline Benaresq. Lady Caroline was far from being a remarkably good bridge player, but she always managed to domineer mercilessly over any table that was favoured with her presence, and generally managed to win. A domineering player usually inflicts the chief damage and demoralisation on his partner; Lady Caroline’s special achievement was to harass and demoralise partner and opponents alike.“Weak and weak,” she announced in her gentle voice, as she cut her hostess for a partner; “I suppose we had better play only five shillings a hundred.” Francesca wondered at the old woman’s moderate assessment of the stake, knowing her fondness for highish play and her usual good luck in card holding.
“I don’t mind what we play,” said Ada Spelvexit, with an incautious parade of elegant indifference; as a matter of fact she was inwardly relieved and rejoicing at the reasonable figure proposed by Lady Caroline, and she would certainly have demurred if a higher stake had been suggested. She was not as a rule a successful player, and money lost at cards was always a poignant bereavement to her.
“Then as you don’t mind we’ll make it ten shillings a hundred,” said Lady Caroline, with the pleased chuckle of one who has spread a net in the sight of a bird and disproved the vanity of the proceeding.
It proved a tiresome ding-dong rubber, with the strength of the cards slightly on Francesca’s side, and the luck of the table going mostly the other way. She was too keen a player not to feel a certain absorption in the game once it had started, but she was conscious to-day of a distracting interest that competed with the momentary importance of leads and discards and declarations. The little accumulations of talk that were unpent during the dealing of the hands became as noteworthy to her alert attention as the play of the hands themselves.
“Yes, quite a small party this afternoon,” said Serena, in reply to a seemingly casual remark on Francesca’s part; “and two or three non-players, which is unusual on a Wednesday. Canon Besomley was here just before you came; you know, the big preaching man.”
“I’ve been to hear him scold the human race once or twice,” said Francesca. “A strong man with a wonderfully strong message,” said Ada Spelvexit, in an impressive and assertive tone.“The sort of popular pulpiteer who spanks the vices of his age and lunches with them afterwards,” said Lady Caroline.
“Hardly a fair summary of the man and his work,” protested Ada. “I’ve been to hear him many times when I’ve been depressed or discouraged, and I simply can’t tell you the impression his words leave - ”“At least you can tell us what you intend to make trumps,” broke in Lady Caroline, gently. “Diamonds,” pronounced Ada, after a rather flurried survey of her hand. “Doubled,” said Lady Caroline, with increased gentleness, and a few minutes later she was pencilling an addition of twenty-four to her score.
“I stayed with his people down in Herefordshire last May,” said Ada, returning to the unfinished theme of the Canon; “such an exquisite rural retreat, and so restful and healing to the nerves. Real country scenery; apple blossom everywhere.”“Surely only on the apple trees,” said Lady Caroline.
Ada Spelvexit gave up the attempt to reproduce the decorative setting of the Canon’s homelife, and fell back on the small but practical consolation of scoring the odd trick in her opponent’s declaration of hearts.
“If you had led your highest club to start with, instead of the nine, we should have saved the trick,” remarked Lady Caroline to her partner in a tone of coldly, gentle reproof; “it’s no use, my dear,” she continued, as Serena flustered out a halting apology, “no earthly use to attempt to play bridge at one table and try to see and hear what’s going on at two or three other tables.”“I can generally manage to attend to more than one thing at a time,” said Serena, rashly; “I think I must have a sort of double brain.” “Much better to economise and have one really good one,” observed Lady Caroline. “La belle dame sans merci scoring a verbal trick or two as usual,” said a player at another table in a discreet undertone.
“Did I tell you Sir Edward Roan is coming to my next big evening,” said Serena, hurriedly, by way, perhaps, of restoring herself a little in her own esteem. “Poor dear, good Sir Edward. What have you made trumps?” asked Lady Caroline, in one breath.“Clubs,” said Francesca; “and pray, why these adjectives of commiseration?” Francesca was a Ministerialist by family interest and allegiance, and was inclined to take up the cudgels at the suggested disparagement aimed at the Foreign Secretary.
“He amuses me so much,” purred Lady Caroline. Her amusement was usually of the sort that a sporting cat derives from watching the Swedish exercises of a well-spent and carefully thought-out mouse.“Really? He has been rather a brilliant success at the Foreign Office, you know,” said Francesca.
“He reminds one so of a circus elephant - infinitely more intelligent than the people who direct him, but quite content to go on putting his foot down or taking it up as may be required, quite unconcerned whether he steps on a meringue or a hornet’s nest in the process of going where he’s expected to go.”“How can you say such things?” protested Francesca.
“I can’t,” said Lady Caroline; “Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase ‘happy is the country that has no geography.’”
“What an absurdly unjust thing to say,” put in Francesca; “I daresay some of our Party at some time have taken up that attitude, but every one knows that Sir Edward is a sound Imperialist at heart.”“Most politicians are something or other at heart, but no one would be rash enough to insure a politician against heart failure. Particularly when he happens to be in office.” “Anyhow, I don’t see that the Opposition leaders would have acted any differently in the present case,” said Francesca. “One should always speak guardedly of the Opposition leaders,” said Lady Caroline, in her gentlest voice; “one never knows what a turn in the situation may do for them.” “You mean they may one day be at the head of affairs?” asked Serena, briskly.
“I mean they may one day lead the Opposition. One never knows.” Lady Caroline had just remembered that her hostess was on the Opposition side in politics.Francesca and her partner scored four tricks in clubs; the game stood irresolutely at twenty-four all.
“If you had followed the excellent lyrical advice given to the Maid of Athens and returned my heart we should have made two more tricks and gone game,” said Lady Caroline to her partner.
“Mr. Youghal seems pushing himself to the fore of late,” remarked Francesca, as Serena took up the cards to deal. Since the young politician’s name had been introduced into their conversation the opportunity for turning the talk more directly on him and his affairs was too good to be missed.
“I think he’s got a career before him,” said Serena; “the House always fills when he’s speaking, and that’s a good sign. And then he’s young and got rather an attractive personality, which is always something in the political world.”
“His lack of money will handicap him, unless he can find himself a rich wife or persuade someone to die and leave him a fat legacy,” said Francesca; “since M.P.’s have become the recipients of a salary rather more is expected and demanded of them in the expenditure line than before.”“Yes, the House of Commons still remains rather at the opposite pole to the Kingdom of Heaven as regards entrance qualifications,” observed Lady Caroline.
“There ought to be no difficulty about Youghal picking up a girl with money,” said Serena; “with his prospects he would make an excellent husband for any woman with social ambitions.”And she half sighed, as though she almost regretted that a previous matrimonial arrangement precluded her from entering into the competition on her own account. Francesca, under an assumption of languid interest, was watching Lady Caroline narrowly for some hint of suppressed knowledge of Youghal’s courtship of Miss de Frey. “Whom are you marrying and giving in marriage?” The question came from George St. Michael, who had strayed over from a neighbouring table, attracted by the fragments of small-talk that had reached his ears.
St. Michael was one of those dapper bird-like illusorily-active men, who seem to have been in a certain stage of middle-age for as long as human memory can recall them. A close-cut peaked beard lent a certain dignity to his appearance - a loan which the rest of his features and mannerisms were continually and successfully repudiating. His profession, if he had one, was submerged in his hobby, which consisted of being an advance-agent for small happenings or possible happenings that were or seemed imminent in the social world around him; he found a perpetual and unflagging satisfaction in acquiring and retailing any stray items of gossip or information, particularly of a matrimonial nature, that chanced to come his way. Given the bare outline of an officially announced engagement he would immediately fill it in with all manner of details, true or, at any rate, probable, drawn from his own imagination or from some equally exclusive source. The Morning Post might content itself with the mere statement of the arrangement which would shortly take place, but it was St. Michael’s breathless little voice that proclaimed how the contracting parties had originally met over a salmon-fishing incident, why the Guards’ Chapel would not be used, why her Aunt Mary had at first opposed the match, how the question of the children’s religious upbringing had been compromised, etc., etc., to all whom it might interest and to many whom it might not. Beyond his industriously-earned pre-eminence in this special branch of intelligence, he was chiefly noteworthy for having a wife reputed to be the tallest and thinnest woman in the Home Counties. The two were sometimes seen together in Society, where they passed under the collective name of St. Michael and All Angles.“We are trying to find a rich wife for Courtenay Youghal,” said Serena, in answer to St. Michael’s question.
“Ah, there I’m afraid you’re a little late,” he observed, glowing with the importance of pending revelation; “I’m afraid you’re a little late,” he repeated, watching the effect of his words as a gardener might watch the development of a bed of carefully tended asparagus. “I think the young gentleman has been before you and already found himself a rich mate in prospect.”
He lowered his voice as he spoke, not with a view to imparting impressive mystery to his statement, but because there were other table groups within hearing to whom he hoped presently to have the privilege of re-disclosing his revelation.“Do you mean - ?” began Serena.
“Miss de Frey,” broke in St. Michael, hurriedly, fearful lest his revelation should be forestalled, even in guesswork; “quite an ideal choice, the very wife for a man who means to make his mark in politics. Twenty-four thousand a year, with prospects of more to come, and a charming place of her own not too far from town. Quite the type of girl, too, who will make a good political hostess, brains without being brainy, you know. Just the right thing. Of course, it would be premature to make any definite announcement at present - ”
“It would hardly be premature for my partner to announce what she means to make trumps,” interrupted Lady Caroline, in a voice of such sinister gentleness that St. Michael fled headlong back to his own table.
“Oh, is it me? I beg your pardon. I leave it,” said Serena. “Thank you. No trumps,” declared Lady Caroline. The hand was successful, and the rubber ultimately fell to her with a comfortable margin of honours. The same partners cut together again, and this time the cards went distinctly against Francesca and Ada Spelvexit, and a heavily piled-up score confronted them at the close of the rubber. Francesca was conscious that a certain amount of rather erratic play on her part had at least contributed to the result. St. Michael’s incursion into the conversation had proved rather a powerful distraction to her ordinarily sound bridge-craft.Ada Spelvexit emptied her purse of several gold pieces and infused a corresponding degree of superiority into her manner. “I must be going now,” she announced; “I’m dining early. I have to give an address to some charwomen afterwards.” “Why?” asked Lady Caroline, with a disconcerting directness that was one of her most formidable characteristics. “Oh, well, I have some things to say to them that I daresay they will like to hear,” said Ada, with a thin laugh. Her statement was received with a silence that betokened profound unbelief in any such probability. “I go about a good deal among working-class women,” she added. “No one has ever said it,” observed Lady Caroline, “but how painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them.”
Ada Spelvexit hastened her departure; the marred impressiveness of her retreat came as a culminating discomfiture on the top of her ill-fortune at the card-table. Possibly, however, the multiplication of her own annoyances enabled her to survey charwomen’s troubles with increased cheerfulness. None of them, at any rate, had spent an afternoon with Lady Caroline.
Francesca cut in at another table and with better fortune attending on her, succeeded in winning back most of her losses. A sense of satisfaction was distinctly dominant as she took leave of her hostess. St. Michael’s gossip, or rather the manner in which it had been received, had given her a clue to the real state of affairs, which, however slender and conjectural, at least pointed in the desired direction. At first she had been horribly afraid lest she should be listening to a definite announcement which would have been the deathblow to her hopes, but as the recitation went on without any of those assured little minor details which St. Michael so loved to supply, she had come to the conclusion that it was merely a piece of intelligent guesswork. And if Lady Caroline had really believed in the story of Elaine de Frey’s virtual engagement to Courtenay Youghal she would have taken a malicious pleasure in encouraging St. Michael in his confidences, and in watching Francesca’s discomfiture under the recital. The irritated manner in which she had cut short the discussion betrayed the fact, that, as far as the old woman’s information went, it was Comus and not Courtenay Youghal who held the field. And in this particular case Lady Caroline’s information was likely to be nearer the truth than St. Michael’s confident gossip.
Francesca always gave a penny to the first crossing-sweeper or match-seller she chanced across after a successful sitting at bridge. This afternoon she had come out of the fray some fifteen shillings to the bad, but she gave two pennies to a crossing-sweeper at the north-west corner of Berkeley Square as a sort of thank-offering to the Gods.