The Unbearable Bassington HTML version

Chapter XIV
The farewell dinner which Francesca had hurriedly organised in honour of her son’s
departure threatened from the outset to be a doubtfully successful function. In the first
place, as he observed privately, there was very little of Comus and a good deal of
farewell in it. His own particular friends were unrepresented. Courtenay Youghal was
out of the question; and though Francesca would have stretched a point and welcomed
some of his other male associates of whom she scarcely approved, he himself had been
opposed to including any of them in the invitations. On the other hand, as Henry Greech
had provided Comus with this job that he was going out to, and was, moreover, finding
part of the money for the necessary outfit, Francesca had felt it her duty to ask him and
his wife to the dinner; the obtuseness that seems to cling to some people like a garment
throughout their life had caused Mr. Greech to accept the invitation. When Comus heard
of the circumstance he laughed long and boisterously; his spirits, Francesca noted,
seemed to be rising fast as the hour for departure drew near.
The other guests included Serena Golackly and Lady Veula, the latter having been asked
on the inspiration of the moment at the theatrical first-night. In the height of the Season it
was not easy to get together a goodly selection of guests at short notice, and Francesca
had gladly fallen in with Serena’s suggestion of bringing with her Stephen Thorle, who
was alleged, in loose feminine phrasing, to “know all about” tropical Africa. His travels
and experiences in those regions probably did not cover much ground or stretch over any
great length of time, but he was one of those individuals who can describe a continent on
the strength of a few days’ stay in a coast town as intimately and dogmatically as a
paleontologist will reconstruct an extinct mammal from the evidence of a stray shin
bone. He had the loud penetrating voice and the prominent penetrating eyes of a man
who can do no listening in the ordinary way and whose eyes have to perform the function
of listening for him. His vanity did not necessarily make him unbearable, unless one had
to spend much time in his society, and his need for a wide field of audience and
admiration was mercifully calculated to spread his operations over a considerable human
area. Moreover, his craving for attentive listeners forced him to interest himself in a
wonderful variety of subjects on which he was able to discourse fluently and with a
certain semblance of special knowledge. Politics he avoided; the ground was too well
known, and there was a definite no to every definite yes that could be put forward.
Moreover, argument was not congenial to his disposition, which preferred an
unchallenged flow of dissertation modified by occasional helpful questions which formed
the starting point for new offshoots of word-spinning. The promotion of cottage
industries, the prevention of juvenile street trading, the extension of the Borstal prison
system, the furtherance of vague talkative religious movements the fostering of inter-
racial ententes, all found in him a tireless exponent, a fluent and entertaining, though
perhaps not very convincing, advocate. With the real motive power behind these various
causes he was not very closely identified; to the spade-workers who carried on the actual
labours of each particular movement he bore the relation of a trowel-worker, delving
superficially at the surface, but able to devote a proportionately far greater amount of
time to the advertisement of his progress and achievements. Such was Stephen Thorle, a