Monday, November 5, 2007


The Unbearable Bassington by H. H. Munro (Saki)

The Unbearable Bassington by H. H. Munro (Saki)
The Unbearable Bassington
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 drawing-room 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 country-house
party. There were old Persian and Bokharan rugs and Worcester teaservices
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 world-renowned
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 drawingroom,
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 gala-day
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 dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the
fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of
"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
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."
Francesca laughed with genuine amusement.
"I suppose she is really wonderfully well up in all the subjects
she talks about," was her provocative comment.
Henry grew possibly conscious of the fact that he was being drawn
out on the subject of Eliza Barnet, and he presently turned on to a
more personal topic.
"From the general air of tranquillity about the house I presume
Comus has gone back to Thaleby," he observed.
"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
"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."
"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
"You'll get six of the very best, over the back of a chair," said
"They'll draw a chalk line across you, of course you know," said
"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 wellknown,
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
"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
"Now you are talking in the language of Peter Pan," said the formmaster.
"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 'Nevernever
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."
"That's quite bad enough in itself," said Comus, "but there is
probably worse to follow. You are evidently keeping something back
from us."
"I missed a footer practice," said Lancelot
"Six," said Comus briefly, picking up his cane.
"I didn't see the notice on the board," hazarded Lancelot as a
forlorn hope.
"We are always pleased to listen to excuses, and our charge is two
extra cuts. That will be eight. Get over."
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
"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
"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 threshing-floor of practical
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
"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
"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 votingman,
and the gush of the paragraph-makers 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 well-earned 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."
A loud squeal of joy came from the bath. "Oh, Mummy! Let me see!"
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
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
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
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
"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
"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 BETE
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-A-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 twentyfive
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 ROLE 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
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 country-side.
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
ROLE 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.
"I've often felt inclined to agree with them," said Molly; "and
then, now and again, I think you have a heart tucked away
"I hope I have," said Youghal, "because I'm trying to break to you
the fact that I think I'm falling in love with somebody."
Molly McQuade turned sharply to look at her companion, who still
fixed his gaze on the pheasant run in front of him.
"Don't tell me you're losing your head over somebody useless,
someone without money," she said; "I don't think I could stand
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 goodlooking,
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 throatlumpy
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 ROLE 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 anchor-sheet 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 out-weighed 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
"It seems largely a question of geography," said Elaine; "in
England no one really is anti-Semitic."
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
Elaine laughed quietly.
"It's so like Comus," she said, "to go off with our one dish of
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
"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
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 bread-and-butter dish as a souvenir of a happy teaparty.
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'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
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
"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
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. Goodbye."
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
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 fly-paper 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."
Francesca repressed a shudder and pleaded an urgent engagement.
"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 gossipladen
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
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
"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
"Doubled," said Lady Caroline, with increased gentleness, and a few
minutes later she was pencilling an addition of twenty-four to her
"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
"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
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
"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
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 death-blow 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 crossingsweeper
at the north-west corner of Berkeley Square as a sort of
thank-offering to the Gods.
IT was a fresh rain-repentant afternoon, following a morning that
had been sultry and torrentially wet by turns; the sort of
afternoon that impels people to talk graciously of the rain as
having done a lot of good, its chief merit in their eyes probably
having been its recognition of the art of moderation. Also it was
an afternoon that invited bodily activity after the convalescent
languor of the earlier part of the day. Elaine had instinctively
found her way into her riding-habit and sent an order down to the
stables - a blessed oasis that still smelt sweetly of horse and hay
and cleanliness in a world that reeked of petrol, and now she set
her mare at a smart pace through a succession of long-stretching
country lanes. She was due some time that afternoon at a gardenparty,
but she rode with determination in an opposite direction.
In the first place neither Comus or Courtenay would be at the
party, which fact seemed to remove any valid reason that could be
thought of for inviting her attendance thereat; in the second place
about a hundred human beings would be gathered there, and human
gatherings were not her most crying need at the present moment.
Since her last encounter with her wooers, under the cedars in her
own garden, Elaine realised that she was either very happy or
cruelly unhappy, she could not quite determine which. She seemed
to have what she most wanted in the world lying at her feet, and
she was dreadfully uncertain in her more reflective moments whether
she really wanted to stretch out her hand and take it. It was all
very like some situation in an Arabian Nights tale or a story of
Pagan Hellas, and consequently the more puzzling and disconcerting
to a girl brought up on the methodical lines of Victorian
Christianity. Her appeal court was in permanent session these last
few days, but it gave no decisions, at least none that she would
listen to. And the ride on her fast light-stepping little mare,
alone and unattended, through the fresh-smelling leafy lanes into
unexplored country, seemed just what she wanted at the moment. The
mare made some small delicate pretence of being roadshy, not the
staring dolt-like kind of nervousness that shows itself in an
irritating hanging-back as each conspicuous wayside object presents
itself, but the nerve-flutter of an imaginative animal that merely
results in a quick whisk of the head and a swifter bound forward.
She might have paraphrased the mental attitude of the immortalised
Peter Bell into
A basket underneath a tree
A yellow tiger is to me,
If it is nothing more.
The more really alarming episodes of the road, the hoot and whir of
a passing motor-car or the loud vibrating hum of a wayside
threshing-machine, were treated with indifference.
On turning a corner out of a narrow coppice-bordered lane into a
wider road that sloped steadily upward in a long stretch of hill
Elaine saw, coming toward her at no great distance, a string of
yellow-painted vans, drawn for the most part by skewbald or
speckled horses. A certain rakish air about these oncoming roadcraft
proclaimed them as belonging to a travelling wild-beast show,
decked out in the rich primitive colouring that one's taste in
childhood would have insisted on before it had been schooled in the
artistic value of dulness. It was an unlooked-for and distinctly
unwelcome encounter. The mare had already commenced a sixfold
scrutiny with nostrils, eyes and daintily-pricked ears; one ear
made hurried little backward movements to hear what Elaine was
saying about the eminent niceness and respectability of the
approaching caravan, but even Elaine felt that she would be unable
satisfactorily to explain the elephants and camels that would
certainly form part of the procession. To turn back would seem
rather craven, and the mare might take fright at the manoeuvre and
try to bolt; a gate standing ajar at the entrance to a farmyard
lane provided a convenient way out of the difficulty.
As Elaine pushed her way through she became aware of a man standing
just inside the lane, who made a movement forward to open the gate
for her.
"Thank you. I'm just getting out of the way of a wild-beast show,"
she explained; "my mare is tolerant of motors and traction-engines,
but I expect camels - hullo," she broke off, recognising the man as
an old acquaintance, "I heard you had taken rooms in a farmhouse
somewhere. Fancy meeting you in this way."
In the not very distant days of her little-girlhood, Tom Keriway
had been a man to be looked upon with a certain awe and envy;
indeed the glamour of his roving career would have fired the
imagination, and wistful desire to do likewise, of many young
Englishmen. It seemed to be the grown-up realisation of the games
played in dark rooms in winter fire-lit evenings, and the dreams
dreamed over favourite books of adventure. Making Vienna his
headquarters, almost his home, he had rambled where he listed
through the lands of the Near and Middle East as leisurely and
thoroughly as tamer souls might explore Paris. He had wandered
through Hungarian horse-fairs, hunted shy crafty beasts on lonely
Balkan hillsides, dropped himself pebble-wise into the stagnant
human pool of some Bulgarian monastery, threaded his way through
the strange racial mosaic of Salonika, listened with amused
politeness to the shallow ultra-modern opinions of a voluble editor
or lawyer in some wayside Russian town, or learned wisdom from a
chance tavern companion, one of the atoms of the busy ant-stream of
men and merchandise that moves untiringly round the shores of the
Black Sea. And far and wide as he might roam he always managed to
turn up at frequent intervals, at ball and supper and theatre, in
the gay Hauptstadt of the Habsburgs, haunting his favourite cafes
and wine-vaults, skimming through his favourite news-sheets,
greeting old acquaintances and friends, from ambassadors down to
cobblers in the social scale. He seldom talked of his travels, but
it might be said that his travels talked of him; there was an air
about him that a German diplomat once summed up in a phrase: "a man
that wolves have sniffed at."
And then two things happened, which he had not mapped out in his
route; a severe illness shook half the life and all the energy out
of him, and a heavy money loss brought him almost to the door of
destitution. With something, perhaps, of the impulse which drives
a stricken animal away from its kind, Tom Keriway left the haunts
where he had known so much happiness, and withdrew into the shelter
of a secluded farmhouse lodging; more than ever he became to Elaine
a hearsay personality. And now the chance meeting with the caravan
had flung her across the threshold of his retreat.
"What a charming little nook you've got hold of," she exclaimed
with instinctive politeness, and then looked searchingly round, and
discovered that she had spoken the truth; it really was charming.
The farmhouse had that intensely English look that one seldom sees
out of Normandy. Over the whole scene of rickyard, garden,
outbuildings, horsepond and orchard, brooded that air which seems
rightfully to belong to out-of-the-way farmyards, an air of wakeful
dreaminess which suggests that here, man and beast and bird have
got up so early that the rest of the world has never caught them up
and never will.
Elaine dismounted, and Keriway led the mare round to a little
paddock by the side of a great grey barn. At the end of the lane
they could see the show go past, a string of lumbering vans and
great striding beasts that seemed to link the vast silences of the
desert with the noises and sights and smells, the naphtha-flares
and advertisement hoardings and trampled orange-peel, of an endless
succession of towns.
"You had better let the caravan pass well on its way before you get
on the road again," said Keriway; "the smell of the beasts may make
your mare nervous and restive going home."
Then he called to a boy who was busy with a hoe among some
defiantly prosperous weeds, to fetch the lady a glass of milk and a
piece of currant loaf.
"I don't know when I've seen anything so utterly charming and
peaceful," said Elaine, propping herself on a seat that a pear-tree
had obligingly designed in the fantastic curve of its trunk.
"Charming, certainly," said Keriway, "but too full of the stress of
its own little life struggle to be peaceful. Since I have lived
here I've learnt, what I've always suspected, that a country
farmhouse, set away in a world of its own, is one of the most
wonderful studies of interwoven happenings and tragedies that can
be imagined. It is like the old chronicles of medieval Europe in
the days when there was a sort of ordered anarchy between feudal
lords and overlords, and burg-grafs, and mitred abbots, and princebishops,
robber barons and merchant guilds, and Electors and so
forth, all striving and contending and counter-plotting, and
interfering with each other under some vague code of looselyapplied
rules. Here one sees it reproduced under one's eyes, like
a musty page of black-letter come to life. Look at one little
section of it, the poultry-life on the farm. Villa poultry, dull
egg-machines, with records kept of how many ounces of food they
eat, and how many pennyworths of eggs they lay, give you no idea of
the wonder-life of these farm-birds; their feuds and jealousies,
and carefully maintained prerogatives, their unsparing tyrannies
and persecutions, their calculated courage and bravado or
sedulously hidden cowardice, it might all be some human chapter
from the annals of the old Rhineland or medieval Italy. And then,
outside their own bickering wars and hates, the grim enemies that
come up against them from the woodlands; the hawk that dashes among
the coops like a moss-trooper raiding the border, knowing well that
a charge of shot may tear him to bits at any moment. And the
stoat, a creeping slip of brown fur a few inches long, intently and
unstayably out for blood. And the hunger-taught master of craft,
the red fox, who has waited perhaps half the afternoon for his
chance while the fowls were dusting themselves under the hedge, and
just as they were turning supper-ward to the yard one has stopped a
moment to give her feathers a final shake and found death springing
upon her. Do you know," he continued, as Elaine fed herself and
the mare with morsels of currant-loaf, "I don't think any tragedy
in literature that I have ever come across impressed me so much as
the first one, that I spelled out slowly for myself in words of
three letters: the bad fox has got the red hen. There was
something so dramatically complete about it; the badness of the
fox, added to all the traditional guile of his race, seemed to
heighten the horror of the hen's fate, and there was such a
suggestion of masterful malice about the word 'got.' One felt that
a countryside in arms would not get that hen away from the bad fox.
They used to think me a slow dull reader for not getting on with my
lesson, but I used to sit and picture to myself the red hen, with
its wings beating helplessly, screeching in terrified protest, or
perhaps, if he had got it by the neck, with beak wide agape and
silent, and eyes staring, as it left the farm-yard for ever. I
have seen blood-spillings and down-crushings and abject defeat here
and there in my time, but the red hen has remained in my mind as
the type of helpless tragedy." He was silent for a moment as if he
were again musing over the three-letter drama that had so dwelt in
his childhood's imagination. "Tell me some of the things you have
seen in your time," was the request that was nearly on Elaine's
lips, but she hastily checked herself and substituted another.
"Tell me more about the farm, please."
And he told her of a whole world, or rather of several intermingled
worlds, set apart in this sleepy hollow in the hills, of beast lore
and wood lore and farm craft, at times touching almost the border
of witchcraft - passing lightly here, not with the probing
eagerness of those who know nothing, but with the averted glance of
those who fear to see too much. He told her of those things that
slept and those that prowled when the dusk fell, of strange hunting
cats, of the yard swine and the stalled cattle, of the farm folk
themselves, as curious and remote in their way, in their ideas and
fears and wants and tragedies, as the brutes and feathered stock
that they tended. It seemed to Elaine as if a musty store of oldworld
children's books had been fetched down from some cobwebbed
lumber-room and brought to life. Sitting there in the little
paddock, grown thickly with tall weeds and rank grasses, and
shadowed by the weather-beaten old grey barn, listening to this
chronicle of wonderful things, half fanciful, half very real, she
could scarcely believe that a few miles away there was a gardenparty
in full swing, with smart frocks and smart conversation,
fashionable refreshments and fashionable music, and a fevered
undercurrent of social strivings and snubbings. Did Vienna and the
Balkan Mountains and the Black Sea seem as remote and hard to
believe in, she wondered, to the man sitting by her side, who had
discovered or invented this wonderful fairyland? Was it a true and
merciful arrangement of fate and life that the things of the moment
thrust out the after-taste of the things that had been? Here was
one who had held much that was priceless in the hollow of his hand
and lost it all, and he was happy and absorbed and well-content
with the little wayside corner of the world into which he had
crept. And Elaine, who held so many desirable things in the hollow
of her hand, could not make up her mind to be even moderately
happy. She did not even know whether to take this hero of her
childhood down from his pedestal, or to place him on a higher one;
on the whole she was inclined to resent rather than approve the
idea that ill-health and misfortune could so completely subdue and
tame an erstwhile bold and roving spirit.
The mare was showing signs of delicately-hinted impatience; the
paddock, with its teasing insects and very indifferent grazing, had
not thrust out the image of her own comfortable well-foddered
loose-box. Elaine divested her habit of some remaining crumbs of
bun-loaf and jumped lightly on to her saddle. As she rode slowly
down the lane, with Keriway escorting her as far as its gate, she
looked round at what had seemed to her, a short while ago, just a
picturesque old farmstead, a place of bee-hives and hollyhocks and
gabled cart-sheds; now it was in her eyes a magic city, with an
under-current of reality beneath its magic.
"You are a person to be envied," she said to Keriway; "you have
created a fairyland, and you are living in it yourself."
He shot the question out with sudden bitterness. She looked down
and saw the wistful misery that had come into his face.
"Once," he said to her, "in a German paper I read a short story
about a tame crippled crane that lived in the park of some small
town. I forget what happened in the story, but there was one line
that I shall always remember: 'it was lame, that is why it was
He had created a fairyland, but assuredly he was not living in it.
IN the warmth of a late June morning the long shaded stretch of
raked earth, gravel-walk and rhododendron bush that is known
affectionately as the Row was alive with the monotonous movement
and alert stagnation appropriate to the time and place. The
seekers after health, the seekers after notoriety and recognition,
and the lovers of good exercise were all well represented on the
galloping ground; the gravel-walk and chairs and long seats held a
population whose varied instincts and motives would have baffled a
social catalogue-maker. The children, handled or in perambulators,
might be excused from instinct or motive; they were brought.
Pleasingly conspicuous among a bunch of indifferent riders pacing
along by the rails where the onlookers were thickest was Courtenay
Youghal, on his handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse. That
delicately stepping animal had taken a prize at Islington and
nearly taken the life of a stable-boy of whom he disapproved, but
his strongest claims to distinction were his good looks and his
high opinion of himself. Youghal evidently believed in thorough
accord between horse and rider.
"Please stop and talk to me," said a quiet beckoning voice from the
other side of the rails, and Youghal drew rein and greeted Lady
Veula Croot. Lady Veula had married into a family of commercial
solidity and enterprising political nonentity. She had a devoted
husband, some blonde teachable children, and a look of unutterable
weariness in her eyes. To see her standing at the top of an
expensively horticultured staircase receiving her husband's guests
was rather like watching an animal performing on a music-hall
One always tells oneself that the animal likes it, and one always
knows that it doesn't.
"Lady Veula is an ardent Free Trader, isn't she?" someone once
remarked to Lady Caroline.
"I wonder," said Lady Caroline, in her gently questioning voice; "a
woman whose dresses are made in Paris and whose marriage has been
made in Heaven might be equally biassed for and against free
Lady Veula looked at Youghal and his mount with slow critical
appraisement, and there was a note of blended raillery and
wistfulness in her voice.
"You two dear things, I should love to stroke you both, but I'm not
sure how Joyeuse would take it. So I'll stroke you down verbally
instead. I admired your attack on Sir Edward immensely, though of
course I don't agree with a word of it. Your description of him
building a hedge round the German cuckoo and hoping he was
isolating it was rather sweet. Seriously though, I regard him as
one of the pillars of the Administration."
"So do I," said Youghal; "the misfortune is that he is merely
propping up a canvas roof. It's just his regrettable solidity and
integrity that makes him so expensively dangerous. The average
Briton arrives at the same judgment about Roan's handling of
foreign affairs as Omar does of the Supreme Being in his dealings
with the world: He's a good fellow and 'twill all be well.'"
Lady Veula laughed lightly. "My Party is in power so I may
exercise the privilege of being optimistic. Who is that who bowed
to you?" she continued, as a dark young man with an inclination to
stoutness passed by them on foot; "I've seen him about a good deal
lately. He's been to one or two of my dances."
"Andrei Drakoloff," said Youghal; "he's just produced a play that
has had a big success in Moscow and is certain to be extremely
popular all over Russia. In the first three acts the heroine is
supposed to be dying of consumption; in the last act they find she
is really dying of cancer."
"Are the Russians really such a gloomy people?"
"Gloom-loving but not in the least gloomy. They merely take their
sadness pleasurably, just as we are accused of taking our pleasures
sadly. Have you noticed that dreadful Klopstock youth has been
pounding past us at shortening intervals. He'll come up and talk
if he half catches your eye."
"I only just know him. Isn't he at an agricultural college or
something of the sort?"
"Yes, studying to be a gentleman farmer, he told me. I didn't ask
if both subjects were compulsory."
"You're really rather dreadful," said Lady Veula, trying to look as
if she thought so; "remember, we are all equal in the sight of
For a preacher of wholesome truths her voice rather lacked
"If I and Ernest Klopstock are really equal in the sight of
Heaven," said Youghal, with intense complacency, "I should
recommend Heaven to consult an eye specialist."
There was a heavy spattering of loose earth, and a squelching of
saddle-leather, as the Klopstock youth lumbered up to the rails and
delivered himself of loud, cheerful greetings. Joyeuse laid his
ears well back as the ungainly bay cob and his appropriately
matched rider drew up beside him; his verdict was reflected and
endorsed by the cold stare of Youghal's eyes.
"I've been having a nailing fine time," recounted the newcomer with
clamorous enthusiasm; "I was over in Paris last month and had lots
of strawberries there, then I had a lot more in London, and now
I've been having a late crop of them in Herefordshire, so I've had
quite a lot this year." And he laughed as one who had deserved
well and received well of Fate.
"The charm of that story," said Youghal, "is that it can be told in
any drawing-room." And with a sweep of his wide-brimmed hat to
Lady Veula he turned the impatient Joyeuse into the moving stream
of horse and horsemen.
"That woman reminds me of some verse I've read and liked," thought
Youghal, as Joyeuse sprang into a light showy canter that gave full
recognition to the existence of observant human beings along the
side walk. "Ah, I have it."
And he quoted almost aloud, as one does in the exhilaration of a
"How much I loved that way you had
Of smiling most, when very sad,
A smile which carried tender hints
Of sun and spring,
And yet, more than all other thing,
Of weariness beyond all words."
And having satisfactorily fitted Lady Veula on to a quotation he
dismissed her from his mind. With the constancy of her sex she
thought about him, his good looks and his youth and his railing
tongue, till late in the afternoon.
While Youghal was putting Joyeuse through his paces under the elm
trees of the Row a little drama in which he was directly interested
was being played out not many hundred yards away. Elaine and Comus
were indulging themselves in two pennyworths of Park chair, drawn
aside just a little from the serried rows of sitters who were set
out like bedded plants over an acre or so of turf. Comus was, for
the moment, in a mood of pugnacious gaiety, disbursing a fund of
pointed criticism and unsparing anecdote concerning those of the
promenaders or loungers whom he knew personally or by sight.
Elaine was rather quieter than usual, and the grave serenity of the
Leonardo da Vinci portrait seemed intensified in her face this
morning. In his leisurely courtship Comus had relied almost
exclusively on his physical attraction and the fitful drollery of
his wit and high spirits, and these graces had gone far to make him
seem a very desirable and rather lovable thing in Elaine's eyes.
But he had left out of account the disfavour which he constantly
risked and sometimes incurred from his frank and undisguised
indifference to other people's interests and wishes, including, at
times, Elaine's. And the more that she felt that she liked him the
more she was irritated by his lack of consideration for her.
Without expecting that her every wish should become a law to him
she would at least have liked it to reach the formality of a Second
Reading. Another important factor he had also left out of his
reckoning, namely the presence on the scene of another suitor, who
also had youth and wit to recommend him, and who certainly did not
lack physical attractions. Comus, marching carelessly through
unknown country to effect what seemed already an assured victory,
made the mistake of disregarding the existence of an unbeaten army
on his flank.
To-day Elaine felt that, without having actually quarrelled, she
and Comus had drifted a little bit out of sympathy with one
another. The fault she knew was scarcely hers, in fact from the
most good-natured point of view it could hardly be denied that it
was almost entirely his. The incident of the silver dish had
lacked even the attraction of novelty; it had been one of a series,
all bearing a strong connecting likeness. There had been small
unrepaid loans which Elaine would not have grudged in themselves,
though the application for them brought a certain qualm of
distaste; with the perversity which seemed inseparable from his
doings, Comus had always flung away a portion of his borrowings in
some ostentatious piece of glaring and utterly profitless
extravagance, which outraged all the canons of her upbringing
without bringing him an atom of understandable satisfaction. Under
these repeated discouragements it was not surprising that some
small part of her affection should have slipped away, but she had
come to the Park that morning with an unconfessed expectation of
being gently wooed back to the mood of gracious forgetfulness that
she was only too eager to assume. It was almost worth while being
angry with Comus for the sake of experiencing the pleasure of being
coaxed into friendliness again with the charm which he knew so well
how to exert. It was delicious here under the trees on this
perfect June morning, and Elaine had the blessed assurance that
most of the women within range were envying her the companionship
of the handsome merry-hearted youth who sat by her side. With
special complacence she contemplated her cousin Suzette, who was
self-consciously but not very elatedly basking in the attentions of
her fiance, an earnest-looking young man who was superintendent of
a People's something-or-other on the south side of the river, and
whose clothes Comus had described as having been made in Southwark
rather than in anger.
Most of the pleasures in life must be paid for, and the chairticket
vendor in due time made his appearance in quest of pennies.
Comus paid him from out of a varied assortment of coins and then
balanced the remainder in the palm of his hand. Elaine felt a
sudden foreknowledge of something disagreeable about to happen and
a red spot deepened in her cheeks.
"Four shillings and fivepence and a half-penny," said Comus,
reflectively. "It's a ridiculous sum to last me for the next three
days, and I owe a card debt of over two pounds."
"Yes?" commented Elaine dryly and with an apparent lack of interest
in his exchequer statement. Surely, she was thinking hurriedly to
herself, he could not be foolish enough to broach the matter of
another loan.
"The card debt is rather a nuisance," pursued Comus, with
fatalistic persistency.
"You won seven pounds last week, didn't you?" asked Elaine; "don't
you put by any of your winnings to balance losses?"
"The four shillings and the fivepence and the halfpenny represent
the rearguard of the seven pounds," said Comus; "the rest have
fallen by the way. If I can pay the two pounds to-day I daresay I
shall win something more to go on with; I'm holding rather good
cards just now. But if I can't pay it of course I shan't show up
at the club. So you see the fix I am in."
Elaine took no notice of this indirect application. The Appeal
Court was assembling in haste to consider new evidence, and this
time there was the rapidity of sudden determination about its
The conversation strayed away from the fateful topic for a few
moments and then Comus brought it deliberately back to the danger
"It would be awfully nice if you would let me have a fiver for a
few days, Elaine," he said quickly; "if you don't I really don't
know what I shall do."
"If you are really bothered about your card debt I will send you
the two pounds by messenger boy early this afternoon." She spoke
quietly and with great decision. "And I shall not be at the
Connor's dance to-night," she continued; "it's too hot for dancing.
I'm going home now; please don't bother to accompany me, I
particularly wish to go alone."
Comus saw that he had overstepped the mark of her good nature.
Wisely he made no immediate attempt to force himself back into her
good graces. He would wait till her indignation had cooled.
His tactics would have been excellent if he had not forgotten that
unbeaten army on his flank.
Elaine de Frey had known very clearly what qualities she had wanted
in Comus, and she had known, against all efforts at self-deception,
that he fell far short of those qualities. She had been willing to
lower her standard of moral requirements in proportion as she was
fond of the boy, but there was a point beyond which she would not
go. He had hurt her pride besides alarming her sense of caution.
Suzette, on whom she felt a thoroughly justified tendency to look
down, had at any rate an attentive and considerate lover. Elaine
walked towards the Park gates feeling that in one essential Suzette
possessed something that had been denied to her, and at the gates
she met Joyeuse and his spruce young rider preparing to turn
"Get rid of Joyeuse and come and take me out to lunch somewhere,"
demanded Elaine.
"How jolly," said Youghal. "Let's go to the Corridor Restaurant.
The head waiter there is an old Viennese friend of mine and looks
after me beautifully. I've never been there with a lady before,
and he's sure to ask me afterwards, in his fatherly way, if we're
The lunch was a success in every way. There was just enough
orchestral effort to immerse the conversation without drowning it,
and Youghal was an attentive and inspired host. Through an open
doorway Elaine could see the cafe reading-room, with its imposing
array of NEUE FREIE PRESSE, BERLINER TAGEBLATT, and other exotic
newspapers hanging on the wall. She looked across at the young man
seated opposite her, who gave one the impression of having centred
the most serious efforts of his brain on his toilet and his food,
and recalled some of the flattering remarks that the press had
bestowed on his recent speeches.
"Doesn't it make you conceited, Courtenay," she asked, "to look at
all those foreign newspapers hanging there and know that most of
them have got paragraphs and articles about your Persian speech?"
Youghal laughed.
"There's always a chastening corrective in the thought that some of
them may have printed your portrait. When once you've seen your
features hurriedly reproduced in the MATIN, for instance, you feel
you would like to be a veiled Turkish woman for the rest of your
And Youghal gazed long and lovingly at his reflection in the
nearest mirror, as an antidote against possible incitements to
humility in the portrait gallery of fame.
Elaine felt a certain soothed satisfaction in the fact that this
young man, whose knowledge of the Middle East was an embarrassment
to Ministers at question time and in debate, was showing himself
equally well-informed on the subject of her culinary likes and
dislikes. If Suzette could have been forced to attend as a witness
at a neighbouring table she would have felt even happier.
"Did the head waiter ask if we were engaged?" asked Elaine, when
Courtenay had settled the bill, and she had finished collecting her
sunshade and gloves and other impedimenta from the hands of
obsequious attendants.
"Yes," said Youghal, "and he seemed quite crestfallen when I had to
say 'no.'"
"It would be horrid to disappoint him when he's looked after us so
charmingly," said Elaine; "tell him that we are."
THE Rutland Galleries were crowded, especially in the neighbourhood
of the tea-buffet, by a fashionable throng of art-patrons which had
gathered to inspect Mervyn Quentock's collection of Society
portraits. Quentock was a young artist whose abilities were just
receiving due recognition from the critics; that the recognition
was not overdue he owed largely to his perception of the fact that
if one hides one's talent under a bushel one must be careful to
point out to everyone the exact bushel under which it is hidden.
There are two manners of receiving recognition: one is to be
discovered so long after one's death that one's grandchildren have
to write to the papers to establish their relationship; the other
is to be discovered, like the infant Moses, at the very outset of
one's career. Mervyn Quentock had chosen the latter and happier
manner. In an age when many aspiring young men strive to advertise
their wares by imparting to them a freakish imbecility, Quentock
turned out work that was characterised by a pleasing delicate
restraint, but he contrived to herald his output with a certain
fanfare of personal eccentricity, thereby compelling an attention
which might otherwise have strayed past his studio. In appearance
he was the ordinary cleanly young Englishman, except, perhaps, that
his eyes rather suggested a library edition of the Arabian Nights;
his clothes matched his appearance and showed no taint of the
sartorial disorder by which the bourgeois of the garden-city and
the Latin Quarter anxiously seeks to proclaim his kinship with art
and thought. His eccentricity took the form of flying in the face
of some of the prevailing social currents of the day, but as a
reactionary, never as a reformer. He produced a gasp of admiring
astonishment in fashionable circles by refusing to paint actresses
- except, of course, those who had left the legitimate drama to
appear between the boards of Debrett. He absolutely declined to
execute portraits of Americans unless they hailed from certain
favoured States. His "water-colour-line," as a New York paper
phrased it, earned for him a crop of angry criticisms and a shoal
of Transatlantic commissions, and criticism and commissions were
the things that Quentock most wanted.
"Of course he is perfectly right," said Lady Caroline Benaresq,
calmly rescuing a piled-up plate of caviare sandwiches from the
neighbourhood of a trio of young ladies who had established
themselves hopefully within easy reach of it. "Art," she
continued, addressing herself to the Rev. Poltimore Vardon, "has
always been geographically exclusive. London may be more important
from most points of view than Venice, but the art of portrait
painting, which would never concern itself with a Lord Mayor,
simply grovels at the feet of the Doges. As a Socialist I'm bound
to recognise the right of Ealing to compare itself with Avignon,
but one cannot expect the Muses to put the two on a level."
"Exclusiveness," said the Reverend Poltimore, "has been the
salvation of Art, just as the lack of it is proving the downfall of
religion. My colleagues of the cloth go about zealously
proclaiming the fact that Christianity, in some form or other, is
attracting shoals of converts among all sorts of races and tribes,
that one had scarcely ever heard of, except in reviews of books of
travel that one never read. That sort of thing was all very well
when the world was more sparsely populated, but nowadays, when it
simply teems with human beings, no one is particularly impressed by
the fact that a few million, more or less, of converts, of a low
stage of mental development, have accepted the teachings of some
particular religion. It not only chills one's enthusiasm, it
positively shakes one's convictions when one hears that the things
one has been brought up to believe as true are being very
favourably spoken of by Buriats and Samoyeds and Kanakas."
The Rev. Poltimore Vardon had once seen a resemblance in himself to
Voltaire, and had lived alongside the comparison ever since.
"No modern cult or fashion," he continued, "would be favourably
influenced by considerations based on statistics; fancy adopting a
certain style of hat or cut of coat, because it was being largely
worn in Lancashire and the Midlands; fancy favouring a certain
brand of champagne because it was being extensively patronised in
German summer resorts. No wonder that religion is falling into
disuse in this country under such ill-directed methods."
"You can't prevent the heathen being converted if they choose to
be," said Lady Caroline; "this is an age of toleration."
"You could always deny it," said the Rev. Poltimore, "like the
Belgians do with regrettable occurrences in the Congo. But I would
go further than that. I would stimulate the waning enthusiasm for
Christianity in this country by labelling it as the exclusive
possession of a privileged few. If one could induce the Duchess of
Pelm, for instance, to assert that the Kingdom of Heaven, as far as
the British Isles are concerned, is strictly limited to herself,
two of the under-gardeners at Pelmby, and, possibly, but not
certainly, the Dean of Dunster, there would be an instant reshaping
of the popular attitude towards religious convictions and
observances. Once let the idea get about that the Christian Church
is rather more exclusive than the Lawn at Ascot, and you would have
a quickening of religious life such as this generation has never
witnessed. But as long as the clergy and the religious
organisations advertise their creed on the lines of 'Everybody
ought to believe in us: millions do,' one can expect nothing but
indifference and waning faith."
"Time is just as exclusive in its way as Art," said Lady Caroline.
"In what way?" said the Reverend Poltimore.
"Your pleasantries about religion would have sounded quite clever
and advanced in the early 'nineties. To-day they have a dreadfully
warmed-up flavour. That is the great delusion of you would-be
advanced satirists; you imagine you can sit down comfortably for a
couple of decades saying daring and startling things about the age
you live in, which, whatever other defects it may have, is
certainly not standing still. The whole of the Sherard Blaw school
of discursive drama suggests, to my mind, Early Victorian furniture
in a travelling circus. However, you will always have relays of
people from the suburbs to listen to the Mocking Bird of yesterday,
and sincerely imagine it is the harbinger of something new and
"WOULD you mind passing that plate of sandwiches," asked one of the
trio of young ladies, emboldened by famine.
"With pleasure," said Lady Caroline, deftly passing her a nearly
empty plate of bread-and-butter.
"I meant the place of caviare sandwiches. So sorry to trouble
you," persisted the young lady
Her sorrow was misapplied; Lady Caroline had turned her attention
to a newcomer.
"A very interesting exhibition," Ada Spelvexit was saying;
"faultless technique, as far as I am a judge of technique, and
quite a master-touch in the way of poses. But have you noticed how
very animal his art is? He seems to shut out the soul from his
portraits. I nearly cried when I saw dear Winifred depicted simply
as a good-looking healthy blonde."
"I wish you had," said Lady Caroline; "the spectacle of a strong,
brave woman weeping at a private view in the Rutland Galleries
would have been so sensational. It would certainly have been
reproduced in the next Drury Lane drama. And I'm so unlucky; I
never see these sensational events. I was ill with appendicitis,
you know, when Lulu Braminguard dramatically forgave her husband,
after seventeen years of estrangement, during a State luncheon
party at Windsor. The old queen was furious about it. She said it
was so disrespectful to the cook to be thinking of such a thing at
such a time."
Lady Caroline's recollections of things that hadn't happened at the
Court of Queen Victoria were notoriously vivid; it was the very
widespread fear that she might one day write a book of
reminiscences that made her so universally respected.
"As for his full-length picture of Lady Brickfield," continued Ada,
ignoring Lady Caroline's commentary as far as possible, "all the
expression seems to have been deliberately concentrated in the
feet; beautiful feet, no doubt, but still, hardly the most
distinctive part of a human being."
"To paint the right people at the wrong end may be an eccentricity,
but it is scarcely an indiscretion," pronounced Lady Caroline.
One of the portraits which attracted more than a passing flutter of
attention was a costume study of Francesca Bassington. Francesca
had secured some highly desirable patronage for the young artist,
and in return he had enriched her pantheon of personal possessions
with a clever piece of work into which he had thrown an unusual
amount of imaginative detail. He had painted her in a costume of
the great Louis's brightest period, seated in front of a tapestry
that was so prominent in the composition that it could scarcely be
said to form part of the background. Flowers and fruit, in exotic
profusion, were its dominant note; quinces, pomegranates, passionflowers,
giant convolvulus, great mauve-pink roses, and grapes that
were already being pressed by gleeful cupids in a riotous Arcadian
vintage, stood out on its woven texture. The same note was struck
in the beflowered satin of the lady's kirtle, and in the
pomegranate pattern of the brocade that draped the couch on which
she was seated. The artist had called his picture "Recolte." And
after one had taken in all the details of fruit and flower and
foliage that earned the composition its name, one noted the
landscape that showed through a broad casement in the left-hand
corner. It was a landscape clutched in the grip of winter, naked,
bleak, black-frozen; a winter in which things died and knew no
rewakening. If the picture typified harvest, it was a harvest of
artificial growth.
"It leaves a great deal to the imagination, doesn't it?" said Ada
Spelvexit, who had edged away from the range of Lady Caroline's
"At any rate one can tell who it's meant for," said Serena
"Oh, yes, it's a good likeness of dear Francesca," admitted Ada;
"of course, it flatters her."
"That, too, is a fault on the right side in portrait painting,"
said Serena; "after all, if posterity is going to stare at one for
centuries it's only kind and reasonable to be looking just a little
better than one's best."
"What a curiously unequal style the artist has," continued Ada,
almost as if she felt a personal grievance against him; "I was just
noticing what a lack of soul there was in most of his portraits.
Dear Winifred, you know, who speaks so beautifully and feelingly at
my gatherings for old women, he's made her look just an ordinary
dairy-maidish blonde; and Francesca, who is quite the most soulless
woman I've ever met, well, he's given her quite - "
"Hush," said Serena, "the Bassington boy is just behind you."
Comus stood looking at the portrait of his mother with the feeling
of one who comes suddenly across a once-familiar half-forgotten
acquaintance in unfamiliar surroundings. The likeness was
undoubtedly a good one, but the artist had caught an expression in
Francesca's eyes which few people had ever seen there. It was the
expression of a woman who had forgotten for one short moment to be
absorbed in the small cares and excitements of her life, the money
worries and little social plannings, and had found time to send a
look of half-wistful friendliness to some sympathetic companion.
Comus could recall that look, fitful and fleeting, in his mother's
eyes when she had been a few years younger, before her world had
grown to be such a committee-room of ways and means. Almost as a
re-discovery he remembered that she had once figured in his boyish
mind as a "rather good sort," more ready to see the laughable side
of a piece of mischief than to labour forth a reproof. That the
bygone feeling of good fellowship had been stamped out was, he
knew, probably in great part his own doing, and it was possible
that the old friendliness was still there under the surface of
things, ready to show itself again if he willed it, and friends
were becoming scarcer with him than enemies in these days. Looking
at the picture with its wistful hint of a long ago comradeship,
Comus made up his mind that he very much wanted things to be back
on their earlier footing, and to see again on his mother's face the
look that the artist had caught and perpetuated in its momentary
flitting. If the projected Elaine-marriage came off, and in spite
of recent maladroit behaviour on his part he still counted it an
assured thing, much of the immediate cause for estrangement between
himself and his mother would be removed, or at any rate, easily
removable. With the influence of Elaine's money behind him he
promised himself that he would find some occupation that would
remove from himself the reproach of being a waster and idler.
There were lots of careers, he told himself, that were open to a
man with solid financial backing and good connections. There might
yet be jolly times ahead, in which his mother would have her share
of the good things that were going, and carking thin-lipped Henry
Greech and other of Comus's detractors could take their sour looks
and words out of sight and hearing. Thus, staring at the picture
as though he were studying its every detail, and seeing really only
that wistful friendly smile, Comus made his plans and dispositions
for a battle that was already fought and lost.
The crowd grew thicker in the galleries, cheerfully enduring an
amount of overcrowding that would have been fiercely resented in a
railway carriage. Near the entrance Mervyn Quentock was talking to
a Serene Highness, a lady who led a life of obtrusive usefulness,
largely imposed on her by a good-natured inability to say "No."
"That woman creates a positive draught with the number of bazaars
she opens," a frivolously-spoken ex-Cabinet Minister had once
remarked. At the present moment she was being whimsically
"When I think of the legions of well-meaning young men and women to
whom I've given away prizes for proficiency in art-school
curriculum, I feel that I ought not to show my face inside a
picture gallery. I always imagine that my punishment in another
world will be perpetually sharpening pencils and cleaning palettes
for unending relays of misguided young people whom I deliberately
encouraged in their artistic delusions."
"Do you suppose we shall all get appropriate punishments in another
world for our sins in this?" asked Quentock.
"Not so much for our sins as for our indiscretions; they are the
things which do the most harm and cause the greatest trouble. I
feel certain that Christopher Columbus will undergo the endless
torment of being discovered by parties of American tourists. You
see I am quite old fashioned in my ideas about the terrors and
inconveniences of the next world. And now I must be running away;
I've got to open a Free Library somewhere. You know the sort of
thing that happens - one unveils a bust of Carlyle and makes a
speech about Ruskin, and then people come in their thousands and
read 'Rabid Ralph, or Should he have Bitten Her?' Don't forget,
please, I'm going to have the medallion with the fat cupid sitting
on a sundial. And just one thing more - perhaps I ought not to ask
you, but you have such nice kind eyes, you embolden one to make
daring requests, would you send me the recipe for those lovely
chestnut-and-chicken-liver sandwiches? I know the ingredients of
course, but it's the proportions that make such a difference - just
how much liver to how much chestnut, and what amount of red pepper
and other things. Thank you so much. I really am going now."
Staring round with a vague half-smile at everybody within nodding
distance, Her Serene Highness made one of her characteristic exits,
which Lady Caroline declared always reminded her of a scrambled egg
slipping off a piece of toast. At the entrance she stopped for a
moment to exchange a word or two with a young man who had just
arrived. From a corner where he was momentarily hemmed in by a
group of tea-consuming dowagers, Comus recognised the newcomer as
Courtenay Youghal, and began slowly to labour his way towards him.
Youghal was not at the moment the person whose society he most
craved for in the world, but there was at least the possibility
that he might provide an opportunity for a game of bridge, which
was the dominant desire of the moment. The young politician was
already surrounded by a group of friends and acquaintances, and was
evidently being made the recipient of a salvo of congratulation -
presumably on his recent performances in the Foreign Office debate,
Comus concluded. But Youghal himself seemed to be announcing the
event with which the congratulations were connected. Had some
dramatic catastrophe overtaken the Government, Comus wondered. And
then, as he pressed nearer, a chance word, the coupling of two
names, told him the news.
AFTER the momentous lunch at the Corridor Restaurant Elaine had
returned to Manchester Square (where she was staying with one of
her numerous aunts) in a frame of mind that embraced a tangle of
competing emotions. In the first place she was conscious of a
dominant feeling of relief; in a moment of impetuosity, not wholly
uninfluenced by pique, she had settled the problem which hours of
hard thinking and serious heart-searching had brought no nearer to
solution, and, although she felt just a little inclined to be
scared at the headlong manner of her final decision, she had now
very little doubt in her own mind that the decision had been the
right one. In fact the wonder seemed rather that she should have
been so long in doubt as to which of her wooers really enjoyed her
honest approval. She had been in love, these many weeks past with
an imaginary Comus, but now that she had definitely walked out of
her dreamland she saw that nearly all the qualities that had
appealed to her on his behalf had been absent from, or only
fitfully present in, the character of the real Comus. And now that
she had installed Youghal in the first place of her affections he
had rapidly acquired in her eyes some of the qualities which ranked
highest in her estimation. Like the proverbial buyer she had the
happy feminine tendency of magnifying the worth of her possession
as soon as she had acquired it. And Courtenay Youghal gave Elaine
some justification for her sense of having chosen wisely. Above
all other things, selfish and cynical though he might appear at
times, he was unfailingly courteous and considerate towards her.
That was a circumstance which would always have carried weight with
her in judging any man; in this case its value was enormously
heightened by contrast with the behaviour of her other wooer. And
Youghal had in her eyes the advantage which the glamour of combat,
even the combat of words and wire-pulling, throws over the fighter.
He stood well in the forefront of a battle which however carefully
stage-managed, however honeycombed with personal insincerities and
overlaid with calculated mock-heroics, really meant something,
really counted for good or wrong in the nation's development and
the world's history. Shrewd parliamentary observers might have
warned her that Youghal would never stand much higher in the
political world than he did at present, as a brilliant Opposition
freelance, leading lively and rather meaningless forays against the
dull and rather purposeless foreign policy of a Government that was
scarcely either to be blamed for or congratulated on its handling
of foreign affairs. The young politician had not the strength of
character or convictions that keeps a man naturally in the
forefront of affairs and gives his counsels a sterling value, and
on the other hand his insincerity was not deep enough to allow him
to pose artificially and successfully as a leader of men and shaper
of movements. For the moment, however, his place in public life
was sufficiently marked out to give him a secure footing in that
world where people are counted individually and not in herds. The
woman whom he would make his wife would have the chance, too, if
she had the will and the skill, to become an individual who
There was balm to Elaine in this reflection, yet it did not wholly
suffice to drive out the feeling of pique which Comus had called
into being by his slighting view of her as a convenient cash supply
in moments of emergency. She found a certain satisfaction in
scrupulously observing her promise, made earlier on that eventful
day, and sent off a messenger with the stipulated loan. Then a
reaction of compunction set in, and she reminded herself that in
fairness she ought to write and tell her news in as friendly a
fashion as possible to her dismissed suitor before it burst upon
him from some other quarter. They had parted on more or less
quarrelling terms it was true, but neither of them had foreseen the
finality of the parting nor the permanence of the breach between
them; Comus might even now be thinking himself half-forgiven, and
the awakening would be rather cruel. The letter, however, did not
prove an easy one to write; not only did it present difficulties of
its own but it suffered from the competing urgency of a desire to
be doing something far pleasanter than writing explanatory and
valedictory phrases. Elaine was possessed with an unusual but
quite over-mastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette
Brankley. They met but rarely at each other's houses and very
seldom anywhere else, and Elaine for her part was never conscious
of feeling that their opportunities for intercourse lacked anything
in the way of adequacy. Suzette accorded her just that touch of
patronage which a moderately well-off and immoderately dull girl
will usually try to mete out to an acquaintance who is known to be
wealthy and suspected of possessing brains. In return Elaine armed
herself with that particular brand of mock humility which can be so
terribly disconcerting if properly wielded. No quarrel of any
description stood between them and one could not legitimately have
described them as enemies, but they never disarmed in one another's
presence. A misfortune of any magnitude falling on one of them
would have been sincerely regretted by the other, but any minor
discomfiture would have produced a feeling very much akin to
satisfaction. Human nature knows millions of these inconsequent
little feuds, springing up and flourishing apart from any basis of
racial, political, religious or economic causes, as a hint perhaps
to crass unseeing altruists that enmity has its place and purpose
in the world as well as benevolence.
Elaine had not personally congratulated Suzette since the formal
announcement of her engagement to the young man with the
dissentient tailoring effects. The impulse to go and do so now,
overmastered her sense of what was due to Comus in the way of
explanation. The letter was still in its blank unwritten stage, an
unmarshalled sequence of sentences forming in her brain, when she
ordered her car and made a hurried but well-thought-out change into
her most sumptuously sober afternoon toilette. Suzette, she felt
tolerably sure, would still be in the costume that she had worn in
the Park that morning, a costume that aimed at elaboration of
detail, and was damned with overmuch success.
Suzette's mother welcomed her unexpected visitor with obvious
satisfaction. Her daughter's engagement, she explained, was not so
brilliant from the social point of view as a girl of Suzette's
attractions and advantages might have legitimately aspired to, but
Egbert was a thoroughly commendable and dependable young man, who
would very probably win his way before long to membership of the
County Council.
"From there, of course, the road would be open to him to higher
"Yes," said Elaine, "he might become an alderman."
"Have you seen their photographs, taken together?" asked Mrs.
Brankley, abandoning the subject of Egbert's prospective career.
"No, do show me," said Elaine, with a flattering show of interest;
"I've never seen that sort of thing before. It used to be the
fashion once for engaged couples to be photographed together,
didn't it?"
"It's VERY much the fashion now," said Mrs. Brankley assertively,
but some of the complacency had filtered out of her voice. Suzette
came into the room, wearing the dress that she had worn in the Park
that morning.
"Of course, you've been hearing all about THE engagement from
mother," she cried, and then set to work conscientiously to cover
the same ground.
"We met at Grindelwald, you know. He always calls me his Ice
Maiden because we first got to know each other on the skating rink.
Quite romantic, wasn't it? Then we asked him to tea one day, and
we got to be quite friendly. Then he proposed."
"He wasn't the only one who was smitten with Suzette," Mrs.
Brankley hastened to put in, fearful lest Elaine might suppose that
Egbert had had things all his own way. "There was an American
millionaire who was quite taken with her, and a Polish count of a
very old family. I assure you I felt quite nervous at some of our
Mrs. Brankley had given Grindelwald a sinister but rather alluring
reputation among a large circle of untravelled friends as a place
where the insolence of birth and wealth was held in precarious
check from breaking forth into scenes of savage violence.
"My marriage with Egbert will, of course, enlarge the sphere of my
life enormously," pursued Suzette.
"Yes," said Elaine; her eyes were rather remorselessly taking in
the details of her cousin's toilette. It is said that nothing is
sadder than victory except defeat. Suzette began to feel that the
tragedy of both was concentrated in the creation which had given
her such unalloyed gratification, till Elaine had come on the
"A woman can be so immensely helpful in the social way to a man who
is making a career for himself. And I'm so glad to find that we've
a great many ideas in common. We each made out a list of our idea
of the hundred best books, and quite a number of them were the
"He looks bookish," said Elaine, with a critical glance at the
"Oh, he's not at all a bookworm," said Suzette quickly, "though
he's tremendously well-read. He's quite the man of action."
"Does he hunt?" asked Elaine.
"No, he doesn't get much time or opportunity for riding."
"What a pity," commented Elaine; "I don't think I could marry a man
who wasn't fond of riding."
"Of course that's a matter of taste," said Suzette, stiffly;
"horsey men are not usually gifted with overmuch brains, are they?"
"There is as much difference between a horseman and a horsey man as
there is between a well-dressed man and a dressy one," said Elaine,
judicially; "and you may have noticed how seldom a dressy woman
really knows how to dress. As an old lady of my acquaintance
observed the other day, some people are born with a sense of how to
clothe themselves, others acquire it, others look as if their
clothes had been thrust upon them."
She gave Lady Caroline her due quotation marks, but the sudden
tactfulness with which she looked away from her cousin's frock was
entirely her own idea.
A young man entering the room at this moment caused a diversion
that was rather welcome to Suzette.
"Here comes Egbert," she announced, with an air of subdued triumph;
it was at least a satisfaction to be able to produce the captive of
her charms, alive and in good condition, on the scene. Elaine
might be as critical as she pleased, but a live lover outweighed
any number of well-dressed straight-riding cavaliers who existed
only as a distant vision of the delectable husband.
Egbert was one of those men who have no small talk, but possess an
inexhaustible supply of the larger variety. In whatever society he
happened to be, and particularly in the immediate neighbourhood of
an afternoon-tea table, with a limited audience of womenfolk, he
gave the impression of someone who was addressing a public meeting,
and would be happy to answer questions afterwards. A suggestion of
gas-lit mission-halls, wet umbrellas, and discreet applause seemed
to accompany him everywhere. He was an exponent, among other
things, of what he called New Thought, which seemed to lend itself
conveniently to the employment of a good deal of rather stale
phraseology. Probably in the course of some thirty odd years of
existence he had never been of any notable use to man, woman, child
or animal, but it was his firmly-announced intention to leave the
world a better, happier, purer place than he had found it; against
the danger of any relapse to earlier conditions after his
disappearance from the scene, he was, of course, powerless to
guard. 'Tis not in mortals to insure succession, and Egbert was
admittedly mortal.
Elaine found him immensely entertaining, and would certainly have
exerted herself to draw him out if such a proceeding had been at
all necessary. She listened to his conversation with the
complacent appreciation that one bestows on a stage tragedy, from
whose calamities one can escape at any moment by the simple process
of leaving one's seat. When at last he checked the flow of his
opinions by a hurried reference to his watch, and declared that he
must be moving on elsewhere, Elaine almost expected a vote of
thanks to be accorded him, or to be asked to signify herself in
favour of some resolution by holding up her hand.
When the young man had bidden the company a rapid business-like
farewell, tempered in Suzette's case by the exact degree of tender
intimacy that it would have been considered improper to omit or
overstep, Elaine turned to her expectant cousin with an air of
cordial congratulation.
"He is exactly the husband I should have chosen for you, Suzette."
For the second time that afternoon Suzette felt a sense of waning
enthusiasm for one of her possessions.
Mrs. Brankley detected the note of ironical congratulation in her
visitor's verdict.
"I suppose she means he's not her idea of a husband, but, he's good
enough for Suzette," she observed to herself, with a snort that
expressed itself somewhere in the nostrils of the brain. Then with
a smiling air of heavy patronage she delivered herself of her one
idea of a damaging counter-stroke.
"And when are we to hear of your engagement, my dear?"
"Now," said Elaine quietly, but with electrical effect; "I came to
announce it to you but I wanted to hear all about Suzette first.
It will be formally announced in the papers in a day or two."
"But who is it? Is it the young man who was with you in the Park
this morning?" asked Suzette.
"Let me see, who was I with in the Park this morning? A very goodlooking
dark boy? Oh no, not Comus Bassington. Someone you know
by name, anyway, and I expect you've seen his portrait in the
"A flying-man?" asked Mrs. Brankley.
"Courtenay Youghal," said Elaine.
Mrs. Brankley and Suzette had often rehearsed in the privacy of
their minds the occasion when Elaine should come to pay her
personal congratulations to her engaged cousin. It had never been
in the least like this.
On her return from her enjoyable afternoon visit Elaine found an
express messenger letter waiting for her. It was from Comus,
thanking her for her loan - and returning it.
"I suppose I ought never to have asked you for it," he wrote, "but
you are always so deliciously solemn about money matters that I
couldn't resist. Just heard the news of your engagement to
Courtenay. Congrats. to you both. I'm far too stoney broke to buy
you a wedding present so I'm going to give you back the bread-andbutter
dish. Luckily it still has your crest on it. I shall love
to think of you and Courtenay eating bread-and-butter out of it for
the rest of your lives."
That was all he had to say on the matter about which Elaine had
been preparing to write a long and kindly-expressed letter, closing
a rather momentous chapter in her life and his. There was not a
trace of regret or upbraiding in his note; he had walked out of
their mutual fairyland as abruptly as she had, and to all
appearances far more unconcernedly. Reading the letter again and
again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was
merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the
real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.
And she would never know. If Comus possessed one useless gift to
perfection it was the gift of laughing at Fate even when it had
struck him hardest. One day, perhaps, the laughter and mockery
would be silent on his lips, and Fate would have the advantage of
laughing last.
A DOOR closed and Francesca Bassington sat alone in her wellbeloved
drawing-room. The visitor who had been enjoying the
hospitality of her afternoon-tea table had just taken his
departure. The tete-a-tete had not been a pleasant one, at any
rate as far as Francesca was concerned, but at least it had brought
her the information for which she had been seeking. Her role of
looker-on from a tactful distance had necessarily left her much in
the dark concerning the progress of the all-important wooing, but
during the last few hours she had, on slender though significant
evidence, exchanged her complacent expectancy for a conviction that
something had gone wrong. She had spent the previous evening at
her brother's house, and had naturally seen nothing of Comus in
that uncongenial quarter; neither had he put in an appearance at
the breakfast table the following morning. She had met him in the
hall at eleven o'clock, and he had hurried past her, merely
imparting the information that he would not be in till dinner that
evening. He spoke in his sulkiest tone, and his face wore a look
of defeat, thinly masked by an air of defiance; it was not the
defiance of a man who is losing, but of one who has already lost.
Francesca's conviction that things had gone wrong between Comus and
Elaine de Frey grew in strength as the day wore on. She lunched at
a friend's house, but it was not a quarter where special social
information of any importance was likely to come early to hand.
Instead of the news she was hankering for, she had to listen to
trivial gossip and speculation on the flirtations and "cases" and
"affairs" of a string of acquaintances whose matrimonial projects
interested her about as much as the nesting arrangements of the
wildfowl in St. James's Park.
"Of course," said her hostess, with the duly impressive emphasis of
a privileged chronicler, "we've always regarded Claire as the
marrying one of the family, so when Emily came to us and said,
'I've got some news for you,' we all said, 'Claire's engaged!'
'Oh, no,' said Emily, 'it's not Claire this time, it's me.' So
then we had to guess who the lucky man was. 'It can't be Captain
Parminter,' we all said, 'because he's always been sweet on Joan.'
And then Emily said - "
The recording voice reeled off the catalogue of inane remarks with
a comfortable purring complacency that held out no hope of an early
abandoning of the topic. Francesca sat and wondered why the
innocent acceptance of a cutlet and a glass of indifferent claret
should lay one open to such unsparing punishment.
A stroll homeward through the Park after lunch brought no further
enlightenment on the subject that was uppermost in her mind; what
was worse, it brought her, without possibility of escape, within
hailing distance of Merla Blathington, who fastened on to her with
the enthusiasm of a lonely tsetse fly encountering an outpost of
"Just think," she buzzed inconsequently, "my sister in
Cambridgeshire has hatched out thirty-three White Orpington
chickens in her incubator!"
"What eggs did she put in it?" asked Francesca.
"Oh, some very special strain of White Orpington."
"Then I don't see anything remarkable in the result. If she had
put in crocodile's eggs and hatched out White Orpingtons, there
might have been something to write to COUNTRY LIFE about."
"What funny fascinating things these little green park-chairs are,"
said Merla, starting off on a fresh topic; "they always look so
quaint and knowing when they're stuck away in pairs by themselves
under the trees, as if they were having a heart-to-heart talk or
discussing a piece of very private scandal. If they could only
speak, what tragedies and comedies they could tell us of, what
flirtations and proposals."
"Let us be devoutly thankful that they can't," said Francesca, with
a shuddering recollection of the luncheon-table conversation.
"Of course, it would make one very careful what one said before
them - or above them rather," Merla rattled on, and then, to
Francesca's infinite relief, she espied another acquaintance
sitting in unprotected solitude, who promised to supply a more
durable audience than her present rapidly moving companion.
Francesca was free to return to her drawing-room in Blue Street to
await with such patience as she could command the coming of some
visitor who might be able to throw light on the subject that was
puzzling and disquieting her. The arrival of George St. Michael
boded bad news, but at any rate news, and she gave him an almost
cordial welcome.
"Well, you see I wasn't far wrong about Miss de Frey and Courtenay
Youghal, was I?" he chirruped, almost before he had seated himself.
Francesca was to be spared any further spinning-out of her period
of uncertainty. "Yes, it's officially given out," he went on, "and
it's to appear in the MORNING POST to-morrow. I heard it from
Colonel Deel this morning, and he had it direct from Youghal
himself. Yes, please, one lump; I'm not fashionable, you see." He
had made the same remark about the sugar in his tea with unfailing
regularity for at least thirty years. Fashions in sugar are
apparently stationary. "They say," he continued, hurriedly, "that
he proposed to her on the Terrace of the House, and a division bell
rang, and he had to hurry off before she had time to give her
answer, and when he got back she simply said, 'the Ayes have it.'"
St. Michael paused in his narrative to give an appreciative giggle.
"Just the sort of inanity that would go the rounds," remarked
Francesca, with the satisfaction of knowing that she was making the
criticism direct to the author and begetter of the inanity in
question. Now that the blow had fallen and she knew the full
extent of its weight, her feeling towards the bringer of bad news,
who sat complacently nibbling at her tea-cakes and scattering
crumbs of tiresome small-talk at her feet, was one of wholehearted
dislike. She could sympathise with, or at any rate understand, the
tendency of oriental despots to inflict death or ignominious
chastisement on messengers bearing tidings of misfortune and
defeat, and St. Michael, she perfectly well knew, was thoroughly
aware of the fact that her hopes and wishes had been centred on the
possibility of having Elaine for a daughter-in-law; every purring
remark that his mean little soul prompted him to contribute to the
conversation had an easily recognizable undercurrent of malice.
Fortunately for her powers of polite endurance, which had been put
to such searching and repeated tests that day, St. Michael had
planned out for himself a busy little time-table of afternoon
visits, at each of which his self-appointed task of forestalling
and embellishing the newspaper announcements of the Youghal-de Frey
engagement would be hurriedly but thoroughly performed.
"They'll be quite one of the best-looking and most interesting
couples of the Season, won't they?" he cried, by way of farewell.
The door closed and Francesca Bassington sat alone in her drawingroom.
Before she could give way to the bitter luxury of reflection on the
downfall of her hopes, it was prudent to take precautionary
measures against unwelcome intrusion. Summoning the maid who had
just speeded the departing St. Michael, she gave the order: "I am
not at home this afternoon to Lady Caroline Benaresq." On second
thoughts she extended the taboo to all possible callers, and sent a
telephone message to catch Comus at his club, asking him to come
and see her as soon as he could manage before it was time to dress
for dinner. Then she sat down to think, and her thinking was
beyond the relief of tears.
She had built herself a castle of hopes, and it had not been a
castle in Spain, but a structure well on the probable side of the
Pyrenees. There had been a solid foundation on which to build.
Miss de Frey's fortune was an assured and unhampered one, her
liking for Comus had been an obvious fact; his courtship of her a
serious reality. The young people had been much together in
public, and their names had naturally been coupled in the matchmaking
gossip of the day. The only serious shadow cast over the
scene had been the persistent presence, in foreground or
background, of Courtenay Youghal. And now the shadow suddenly
stood forth as the reality, and the castle of hopes was a ruin, a
hideous mortification of dust and debris, with the skeleton
outlines of its chambers still standing to make mockery of its
discomfited architect. The daily anxiety about Comus and his
extravagant ways and intractable disposition had been gradually
lulled by the prospect of his making an advantageous marriage,
which would have transformed him from a ne'er-do-well and
adventurer into a wealthy idler. He might even have been moulded,
by the resourceful influence of an ambitious wife, into a man with
some definite purpose in life. The prospect had vanished with
cruel suddenness, and the anxieties were crowding back again, more
insistent than ever. The boy had had his one good chance in the
matrimonial market and missed it; if he were to transfer his
attentions to some other well-dowered girl he would be marked down
at once as a fortune-hunter, and that would constitute a heavy
handicap to the most plausible of wooers. His liking for Elaine
had evidently been genuine in its way, though perhaps it would have
been rash to read any deeper sentiment into it, but even with the
spur of his own inclination to assist him he had failed to win the
prize that had seemed so temptingly within his reach. And in the
dashing of his prospects, Francesca saw the threatening of her own.
The old anxiety as to her precarious tenure of her present quarters
put on again all its familiar terrors. One day, she foresaw, in
the horribly near future, George St. Michael would come pattering
up her stairs with the breathless intelligence that Emmeline
Chetrof was going to marry somebody or other in the Guards or the
Record Office as the case might be, and then there would be an
uprooting of her life from its home and haven in Blue Street and a
wandering forth to some cheap unhappy far-off dwelling, where the
stately Van der Meulen and its companion host of beautiful and
desirable things would be stuffed and stowed away in soulless
surroundings, like courtly emigres fallen on evil days. It was
unthinkable, but the trouble was that it had to be thought about.
And if Comus had played his cards well and transformed himself from
an encumbrance into a son with wealth at his command, the tragedy
which she saw looming in front of her might have been avoided or at
the worst whittled down to easily bearable proportions. With money
behind one, the problem of where to live approaches more nearly to
the simple question of where do you wish to live, and a rich
daughter-in-law would have surely seen to it that she did not have
to leave her square mile of Mecca and go out into the wilderness of
bricks and mortar. If the house in Blue Street could not have been
compounded for there were other desirable residences which would
have been capable of consoling Francesca for her lost Eden. And
now the detested Courtenay Youghal, with his mocking eyes and air
of youthful cynicism, had stepped in and overthrown those golden
hopes and plans whose non-fulfilment would make such a world of
change in her future. Assuredly she had reason to feel bitter
against that young man, and she was not disposed to take a very
lenient view of Comus's own mismanagement of the affair; her
greeting when he at last arrived, was not couched in a sympathetic
"So you have lost your chance with the heiress," she remarked
"Yes," said Comus, coolly; "Courtenay Youghal has added her to his
other successes."
"And you have added her to your other failures," pursued Francesca,
relentlessly; her temper had been tried that day beyond ordinary
"I thought you seemed getting along so well with her," she
continued, as Comus remained uncommunicative.
"We hit it off rather well together," said Comus, and added with
deliberate bluntness, "I suppose she got rather sick at my
borrowing money from her. She thought it was all I was after."
"You borrowed money from her!" said Francesca; "you were fool
enough to borrow money from a girl who was favourably disposed
towards you, and with Courtenay Youghal in the background waiting
to step in and oust you!"
Francesca's voice trembled with misery and rage. This great stroke
of good luck that had seemed about to fall into their laps had been
thrust aside by an act or series of acts of wanton paltry folly.
The good ship had been lost for the sake of the traditional
ha'porth of tar. Comus had paid some pressing tailor's or
tobacconist's bill with a loan unwillingly put at his disposal by
the girl he was courting, and had flung away his chances of
securing a wealthy and in every way desirable bride. Elaine de
Frey and her fortune might have been the making of Comus, but he
had hurried in as usual to effect his own undoing. Calmness did
not in this case come with reflection; the more Francesca thought
about the matter, the more exasperated she grew. Comus threw
himself down in a low chair and watched her without a trace of
embarrassment or concern at her mortification. He had come to her
feeling rather sorry for himself, and bitterly conscious of his
defeat, and she had met him with a taunt and without the least hint
of sympathy; he determined that she should be tantalised with the
knowledge of how small and stupid a thing had stood between the
realisation and ruin of her hopes for him.
"And to think she should be captured by Courtenay Youghal," said
Francesca, bitterly; "I've always deplored your intimacy with that
young man."
"It's hardly my intimacy with him that's made Elaine accept him,"
said Comus.
Francesca realised the futility of further upbraiding. Through the
tears of vexation that stood in her eyes, she looked across at the
handsome boy who sat opposite her, mocking at his own misfortune,
perversely indifferent to his folly, seemingly almost indifferent
to its consequences.
"Comus," she said quietly and wearily, "you are an exact reversal
of the legend of Pandora's Box. You have all the charm and
advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and
behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter
"I think," said Comus, "that is the best description that anyone
has ever given of me."
For the moment there was a flush of sympathy and something like
outspoken affection between mother and son. They seemed very much
alone in the world just now, and in the general overturn of hopes
and plans, there flickered a chance that each might stretch out a
hand to the other, and summon back to their lives an old dead love
that was the best and strongest feeling either of them had known.
But the sting of disappointment was too keen, and the flood of
resentment mounted too high on either side to allow the chance more
than a moment in which to flicker away into nothingness. The old
fatal topic of estrangement came to the fore, the question of
immediate ways and means, and mother and son faced themselves again
as antagonists on a well-disputed field.
"What is done is done," said Francesca, with a movement of tragic
impatience that belied the philosophy of her words; "there is
nothing to be gained by crying over spilt milk. There is the
present and the future to be thought about, though. One can't go
on indefinitely as a tenant-for-life in a fools' paradise." Then
she pulled herself together and proceeded to deliver an ultimatum
which the force of circumstances no longer permitted her to hold in
"It's not much use talking to you about money, as I know from long
experience, but I can only tell you this, that in the middle of the
Season I'm already obliged to be thinking of leaving Town. And
you, I'm afraid, will have to be thinking of leaving England at
equally short notice. Henry told me the other day that he can get
you something out in West Africa. You've had your chance of doing
something better for yourself from the financial point of view, and
you've thrown it away for the sake of borrowing a little ready
money for your luxuries, so now you must take what you can get.
The pay won't be very good at first, but living is not dear out
"West Africa," said Comus, reflectively; "it's a sort of modern
substitute for the old-fashioned OUBLIETTE, a convenient depository
for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about
the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a
refuse consumer."
"My dear Comus, you are talking of the West Africa of yesterday.
While you have been wasting your time at school, and worse than
wasting your time in the West End, other people have been grappling
with the study of tropical diseases, and the West African coast
country is being rapidly transformed from a lethal chamber into a
Comus laughed mockingly.
"What a beautiful bit of persuasive prose; it reminds one of the
Psalms and even more of a company prospectus. If you were honest
you'd confess that you lifted it straight out of a rubber or
railway promotion scheme. Seriously, mother, if I must grub about
for a living, why can't I do it in England? I could go into a
brewery for instance."
Francesca shook her head decisively; she could foresee the sort of
steady work Comus was likely to accomplish, with the lodestone of
Town and the minor attractions of race-meetings and similar
festivities always beckoning to him from a conveniently attainable
distance, but apart from that aspect of the case there was a
financial obstacle in the way of his obtaining any employment at
"Breweries and all those sort of things necessitate money to start
with; one has to pay premiums or invest capital in the undertaking,
and so forth. And as we have no money available, and can scarcely
pay our debts as it is, it's no use thinking about it."
"Can't we sell something?" asked Comus.
He made no actual suggestion as to what should be sacrificed, but
he was looking straight at the Van der Meulen.
For a moment Francesca felt a stifling sensation of weakness, as
though her heart was going to stop beating. Then she sat forward
in her chair and spoke with energy, almost fierceness.
"When I am dead my things can be sold and dispersed. As long as I
am alive I prefer to keep them by me."
In her holy place, with all her treasured possessions around her,
this dreadful suggestion had been made. Some of her cherished
household gods, souvenirs and keepsakes from past days, would,
perhaps, not have fetched a very considerable sum in the auctionroom,
others had a distinct value of their own, but to her they
were all precious. And the Van der Meulen, at which Comus had
looked with impious appraising eyes, was the most sacred of them
all. When Francesca had been away from her Town residence or had
been confined to her bedroom through illness, the great picture
with its stately solemn representation of a long-ago battle-scene,
painted to flatter the flattery-loving soul of a warrior-king who
was dignified even in his campaigns - this was the first thing she
visited on her return to Town or convalescence. If an alarm of
fire had been raised it would have been the first thing for whose
safety she would have troubled. And Comus had almost suggested
that it should be parted with, as one sold railway shares and other
soulless things.
Scolding, she had long ago realised, was a useless waste of time
and energy where Comus was concerned, but this evening she unloosed
her tongue for the mere relief that it gave to her surcharged
feelings. He sat listening without comment, though she purposely
let fall remarks that she hoped might sting him into self-defence
or protest. It was an unsparing indictment, the more damaging in
that it was so irrefutably true, the more tragic in that it came
from perhaps the one person in the world whose opinion he had ever
cared for. And he sat through it as silent and seemingly unmoved
as though she had been rehearsing a speech for some drawing-room
comedy. When she had had her say his method of retort was not the
soft answer that turneth away wrath but the inconsequent one that
shelves it.
"Let's go and dress for dinner."
The meal, like so many that Francesca and Comus had eaten in each
other's company of late, was a silent one. Now that the full
bearings of the disaster had been discussed in all its aspects
there was nothing more to be said. Any attempt at ignoring the
situation, and passing on to less controversial topics would have
been a mockery and pretence which neither of them would have
troubled to sustain. So the meal went forward with its dragged-out
dreary intimacy of two people who were separated by a gulf of
bitterness, and whose hearts were hard with resentment against one
Francesca felt a sense of relief when she was able to give the maid
the order to serve her coffee upstairs. Comus had a sullen scowl
on his face, but he looked up as she rose to leave the room, and
gave his half-mocking little laugh.
"You needn't look so tragic," he said, "You're going to have your
own way. I'll go out to that West African hole."
COMUS found his way to his seat in the stalls of the Straw Exchange
Theatre and turned to watch the stream of distinguished and
distinguishable people who made their appearance as a matter of
course at a First Night in the height of the Season. Pit and
gallery were already packed with a throng, tense, expectant and
alert, that waited for the rise of the curtain with the eager
patience of a terrier watching a dilatory human prepare for outdoor
exercises. Stalls and boxes filled slowly and hesitatingly with a
crowd whose component units seemed for the most part to recognise
the probability that they were quite as interesting as any play
they were likely to see. Those who bore no particular face-value
themselves derived a certain amount of social dignity from the near
neighbourhood of obvious notabilities; if one could not obtain
recognition oneself there was some vague pleasure in being able to
recognise notoriety at intimately close quarters.
"Who is that woman with the auburn hair and a rather effective
belligerent gleam in her eyes?" asked a man sitting just behind
Comus; "she looks as if she might have created the world in six
days and destroyed it on the seventh."
"I forget her name," said his neighbour; "she writes. She's the
author of that book, 'The Woman who wished it was Wednesday,' you
know. It used to be the convention that women writers should be
plain and dowdy; now we have gone to the other extreme and build
them on extravagantly decorative lines."
A buzz of recognition came from the front rows of the pit, together
with a craning of necks on the part of those in less favoured
seats. It heralded the arrival of Sherard Blaw, the dramatist who
had discovered himself, and who had given so ungrudgingly of his
discovery to the world. Lady Caroline, who was already directing
little conversational onslaughts from her box, gazed gently for a
moment at the new arrival, and then turned to the silver-haired
Archdeacon sitting beside her.
"They say the poor man is haunted by the fear that he will die
during a general election, and that his obituary notices will be
seriously curtailed by the space taken up by the election results.
The curse of our party system, from his point of view, is that it
takes up so much room in the press."
The Archdeacon smiled indulgently. As a man he was so exquisitely
worldly that he fully merited the name of the Heavenly Worldling
bestowed on him by an admiring duchess, and withal his texture was
shot with a pattern of such genuine saintliness that one felt that
whoever else might hold the keys of Paradise he, at least,
possessed a private latchkey to that abode.
"Is it not significant of the altered grouping of things," he
observed, "that the Church, as represented by me, sympathises with
the message of Sherard Blaw, while neither the man nor his message
find acceptance with unbelievers like you, Lady Caroline."
Lady Caroline blinked her eyes. "My dear Archdeacon," she said,
"no one can be an unbeliever nowadays. The Christian Apologists
have left one nothing to disbelieve."
The Archdeacon rose with a delighted chuckle. "I must go and tell
that to De la Poulett," he said, indicating a clerical figure
sitting in the third row of the stalls; "he spends his life
explaining from his pulpit that the glory of Christianity consists
in the fact that though it is not true it has been found necessary
to invent it."
The door of the box opened and Courtenay Youghal entered, bringing
with him subtle suggestion of chaminade and an atmosphere of
political tension. The Government had fallen out of the good
graces of a section of its supporters, and those who were not in
the know were busy predicting a serious crisis over a forthcoming
division in the Committee stage of an important Bill. This was
Saturday night, and unless some successful cajolery were effected
between now and Monday afternoon, Ministers would be, seemingly, in
danger of defeat.
"Ah, here is Youghal," said the Archdeacon; "he will be able to
tell us what is going to happen in the next forty-eight hours. I
hear the Prime Minister says it is a matter of conscience, and they
will stand or fall by it."
His hopes and sympathies were notoriously on the Ministerial side.
Youghal greeted Lady Caroline and subsided gracefully into a chair
well in the front of the box. A buzz of recognition rippled slowly
across the house.
"For the Government to fall on a matter of conscience," he said,
"would be like a man cutting himself with a safety razor."
Lady Caroline purred a gentle approval.
"I'm afraid it's true, Archdeacon," she said.
No one can effectively defend a Government when it's been in office
several years. The Archdeacon took refuge in light skirmishing.
"I believe Lady Caroline sees the makings of a great Socialist
statesman in you, Youghal," he observed.
"Great Socialist statesmen aren't made, they're stillborn," replied
"What is the play about to-night?" asked a pale young woman who had
taken no part in the talk.
"I don't know," said Lady Caroline, "but I hope it's dull. If
there is any brilliant conversation in it I shall burst into
In the front row of the upper circle a woman with a restless
starling-voice was discussing the work of a temporarily fashionable
composer, chiefly in relation to her own emotions, which she seemed
to think might prove generally interesting to those around her.
"Whenever I hear his music I feel that I want to go up into a
mountain and pray. Can you understand that feeling?"
The girl to whom she was unburdening herself shook her head.
"You see, I've heard his music chiefly in Switzerland, and we were
up among the mountains all the time, so it wouldn't have made any
"In that case," said the woman, who seemed to have emergency
emotions to suit all geographical conditions, "I should have wanted
to be in a great silent plain by the side of a rushing river."
"What I think is so splendid about his music - " commenced another
starling-voice on the further side of the girl. Like sheep that
feed greedily before the coming of a storm the starling-voices
seemed impelled to extra effort by the knowledge of four imminent
intervals of acting during which they would be hushed into
constrained silence.
In the back row of the dress circle a late-comer, after a cursory
glance at the programme, had settled down into a comfortable
narrative, which was evidently the resumed thread of an unfinished
taxi-drive monologue.
"We all said 'it can't be Captain Parminter, because he's always
been sweet on Joan,' and then Emily said - "
The curtain went up, and Emily's contribution to the discussion had
to be held over till the entr'acte.
The play promised to be a success. The author, avoiding the
pitfall of brilliancy, had aimed at being interesting and as far as
possible, bearing in mind that his play was a comedy, he had
striven to be amusing. Above all he had remembered that in the
laws of stage proportions it is permissible and generally desirable
that the part should be greater than the whole; hence he had been
careful to give the leading lady such a clear and commanding lead
over the other characters of the play that it was impossible for
any of them ever to get on level terms with her. The action of the
piece was now and then delayed thereby, but the duration of its run
would be materially prolonged.
The curtain came down on the first act amid an encouraging
instalment of applause, and the audience turned its back on the
stage and began to take a renewed interest in itself. The
authoress of "The Woman who wished it was Wednesday" had swept like
a convalescent whirlwind, subdued but potentially tempestuous, into
Lady Caroline's box.
"I've just trodden with all my weight on the foot of an eminent
publisher as I was leaving my seat," she cried, with a peal of
delighted laughter. "He was such a dear about it; I said I hoped I
hadn't hurt him, and he said, 'I suppose you think, who drives hard
bargains should himself be hard.' Wasn't it pet-lamb of him?"
"I've never trodden on a pet lamb," said Lady Caroline, "so I've no
idea what its behaviour would be under the circumstances."
"Tell me," said the authoress, coming to the front of the box, the
better to survey the house, and perhaps also with a charitable
desire to make things easy for those who might pardonably wish to
survey her, "tell me, please, where is the girl sitting whom
Courtenay Youghal is engaged to?"
Elaine was pointed out to her, sitting in the fourth row of the
stalls, on the opposite side of the house to where Comus had his
seat. Once during the interval she had turned to give him a
friendly nod of recognition as he stood in one of the side
gangways, but he was absorbed at the moment in looking at himself
in the glass panel. The grave brown eyes and the mocking greengrey
ones had looked their last into each other's depths.
For Comus this first-night performance, with its brilliant
gathering of spectators, its groups and coteries of lively talkers,
even its counterfoil of dull chatterers, its pervading atmosphere
of stage and social movement, and its intruding undercurrent of
political flutter, all this composed a tragedy in which he was the
chief character. It was the life he knew and loved and basked in,
and it was the life he was leaving. It would go on reproducing
itself again and again, with its stage interest and social interest
and intruding outside interests, with the same lively chattering
crowd, the people who had done things being pointed out by people
who recognised them to people who didn't - it would all go on with
unflagging animation and sparkle and enjoyment, and for him it
would have stopped utterly. He would be in some unheard-of sunblistered
wilderness, where natives and pariah dogs and raucousthroated
crows fringed round mockingly on one's loneliness, where
one rode for sweltering miles for the chance of meeting a collector
or police officer, with whom most likely on closer acquaintance one
had hardly two ideas in common, where female society was
represented at long intervals by some climate-withered woman
missionary or official's wife, where food and sickness and
veterinary lore became at last the three outstanding subjects on
which the mind settled or rather sank. That was the life he
foresaw and dreaded, and that was the life he was going to. For a
boy who went out to it from the dulness of some country rectory,
from a neighbourhood where a flower show and a cricket match formed
the social landmarks of the year, the feeling of exile might not be
very crushing, might indeed be lost in the sense of change and
adventure. But Comus had lived too thoroughly in the centre of
things to regard life in a backwater as anything else than
stagnation, and stagnation while one is young he justly regarded as
an offence against nature and reason, in keeping with the perverted
mockery that sends decrepit invalids touring painfully about the
world and shuts panthers up in narrow cages. He was being put
aside, as a wine is put aside, but to deteriorate instead of
gaining in the process, to lose the best time of his youth and
health and good looks in a world where youth and health and good
looks count for much and where time never returns lost possessions.
And thus, as the curtain swept down on the close of each act, Comus
felt a sense of depression and deprivation sweep down on himself;
bitterly he watched his last evening of social gaiety slipping away
to its end. In less than an hour it would be over; in a few
months' time it would be an unreal memory.
In the third interval, as he gazed round at the chattering house,
someone touched him on the arm. It was Lady Veula Croot.
"I suppose in a week's time you'll be on the high seas," she said.
"I'm coming to your farewell dinner, you know; your mother has just
asked me. I'm not going to talk the usual rot to you about how
much you will like it and so on. I sometimes think that one of the
advantages of Hell will be that no one will have the impertinence
to point out to you that you're really better off than you would be
anywhere else. What do you think of the play? Of course one can
foresee the end; she will come to her husband with the announcement
that their longed-for child is going to be born, and that will
smooth over everything. So conveniently effective, to wind up a
comedy with the commencement of someone else's tragedy. And every
one will go away saying 'I'm glad it had a happy ending.'"
Lady Veula moved back to her seat, with her pleasant smile on her
lips and the look of infinite weariness in her eyes.
The interval, the last interval, was drawing to a close and the
house began to turn with fidgetty attention towards the stage for
the unfolding of the final phase of the play. Francesca sat in
Serena Golackly's box listening to Colonel Springfield's story of
what happened to a pigeon-cote in his compound at Poona. Everyone
who knew the Colonel had to listen to that story a good many times,
but Lady Caroline had mitigated the boredom of the infliction, and
in fact invested it with a certain sporting interest, by offering a
prize to the person who heard it oftenest in the course of the
Season, the competitors being under an honourable understanding not
to lead up to the subject. Ada Spelvexit and a boy in the Foreign
Office were at present at the top of the list with five recitals
each to their score, but the former was suspected of doubtful
adherence to the rules and spirit of the competition.
"And there, dear lady," concluded the Colonel, "were the eleven
dead pigeons. What had become of the bandicoot no one ever knew."
Francesca thanked him for his story, and complacently inscribed the
figure 4 on the margin of her theatre programme. Almost at the
same moment she heard George St. Michael's voice pattering out a
breathless piece of intelligence for the edification of Serena
Golackly and anyone else who might care to listen. Francesca
galvanised into sudden attention.
"Emmeline Chetrof to a fellow in the Indian Forest Department.
He's got nothing but his pay and they can't be married for four or
five years; an absurdly long engagement, don't you think so? All
very well to wait seven years for a wife in patriarchal times, when
you probably had others to go on with, and you lived long enough to
celebrate your own tercentenary, but under modern conditions it
seems a foolish arrangement."
St. Michael spoke almost with a sense of grievance. A marriage
project that tied up all the small pleasant nuptial gossip-items
about bridesmaids and honeymoon and recalcitrant aunts and so
forth, for an indefinite number of years seemed scarcely decent in
his eyes, and there was little satisfaction or importance to be
derived from early and special knowledge of an event which loomed
as far distant as a Presidential Election or a change of Viceroy.
But to Francesca, who had listened with startled apprehension at
the mention of Emmeline Chetrof's name, the news came in a flood of
relief and thankfulness. Short of entering a nunnery and taking
celibate vows, Emmeline could hardly have behaved more conveniently
than in tying herself up to a lover whose circumstances made it
necessary to relegate marriage to the distant future. For four or
five years Francesca was assured of undisturbed possession of the
house in Blue Street, and after that period who knew what might
happen? The engagement might stretch on indefinitely, it might
even come to nothing under the weight of its accumulated years, as
sometimes happened with these protracted affairs. Emmeline might
lose her fancy for her absentee lover, and might never replace him
with another. A golden possibility of perpetual tenancy of her
present home began to float once more through Francesca's mind. As
long as Emmeline had been unbespoken in the marriage market there
had always been the haunting likelihood of seeing the dreaded
announcement, "a marriage has been arranged and will shortly take
place," in connection with her name. And now a marriage had been
arranged and would not shortly take place, might indeed never take
place. St. Michael's information was likely to be correct in this
instance; he would never have invented a piece of matrimonial
intelligence which gave such little scope for supplementary detail
of the kind he loved to supply. As Francesca turned to watch the
fourth act of the play, her mind was singing a paean of
thankfulness and exultation. It was as though some artificer sent
by the Gods had reinforced with a substantial cord the horsehair
thread that held up the sword of Damocles over her head. Her love
for her home, for her treasured household possessions, and her
pleasant social life was able to expand once more in present
security, and feed on future hope. She was still young enough to
count four or five years as a long time, and to-night she was
optimistic enough to prophesy smooth things of the future that lay
beyond that span. Of the fourth act, with its carefully held back
but obviously imminent reconciliation between the leading
characters, she took in but little, except that she vaguely
understood it to have a happy ending. As the lights went up she
looked round on the dispersing audience with a feeling of
friendliness uppermost in her mind; even the sight of Elaine de
Frey and Courtenay Youghal leaving the theatre together did not
inspire her with a tenth part of the annoyance that their entrance
had caused her. Serena's invitation to go on to the Savoy for
supper fitted in exactly with her mood of exhilaration. It would
be a fit and appropriate wind-up to an auspicious evening. The
cold chicken and modest brand of Chablis waiting for her at home
should give way to a banquet of more festive nature.
In the crush of the vestibule, friends and enemies, personal and
political, were jostled and locked together in the general effort
to rejoin temporarily estranged garments and secure the attendance
of elusive vehicles. Lady Caroline found herself at close quarters
with the estimable Henry Greech, and experienced some of the joy
which comes to the homeward wending sportsman when a chance shot
presents itself on which he may expend his remaining cartridges.
"So the Government is going to climb down, after all," she said,
with a provocative assumption of private information on the
"I assure you the Government will do nothing of the kind," replied
the Member of Parliament with befitting dignity; "the Prime
Minister told me last night that under no circumstances - "
"My dear Mr. Greech," said Lady Caroline, "we all know that Prime
Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other wedded couples
they sometimes live apart."
For her, at any rate, the comedy had had a happy ending.
Comus made his way slowly and lingeringly from the stalls, so
slowly that the lights were already being turned down and great
shroud-like dust-cloths were being swaythed over the ornamental
gilt-work. The laughing, chattering, yawning throng had filtered
out of the vestibule, and was melting away in final groups from the
steps of the theatre. An impatient attendant gave him his coat and
locked up the cloak room. Comus stepped out under the portico; he
looked at the posters announcing the play, and in anticipation he
could see other posters announcing its 200th performance. Two
hundred performances; by that time the Straw Exchange Theatre would
be to him something so remote and unreal that it would hardly seem
to exist or to have ever existed except in his fancy. And to the
laughing chattering throng that would pass in under that portico to
the 200th performance, he would be, to those that had known him,
something equally remote and non-existent. "The good-looking
Bassington boy? Oh, dead, or rubber-growing or sheep-farming or
something of that sort."
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 governess in the nursery of Chelsea-bred
religions, a skilled window-dresser in the emporium of his own
personality, and needless to say, evanescently popular amid a wide
but shifting circle of acquaintances. He improved on the record of
a socially much-travelled individual whose experience has become
classical, and went to most of the best houses - twice.
His inclusion as a guest at this particular dinner-party was not a
very happy inspiration. He was inclined to patronise Comus, as
well as the African continent, and on even slighter acquaintance.
With the exception of Henry Greech, whose feelings towards his
nephew had been soured by many years of overt antagonism, there was
an uncomfortable feeling among those present that the topic of the
black-sheep export trade, as Comus would have himself expressed it,
was being given undue prominence in what should have been a festive
farewell banquet. And Comus, in whose honour the feast was given,
did not contribute much towards its success; though his spirits
seemed strung up to a high pitch his merriment was more the
merriment of a cynical and amused onlooker than of one who responds
to the gaiety of his companions. Sometimes he laughed quietly to
himself at some chance remark of a scarcely mirth-provoking nature,
and Lady Veula, watching him narrowly, came to the conclusion that
an element of fear was blended with his seemingly buoyant spirits.
Once or twice he caught her eye across the table, and a certain
sympathy seemed to grow up between them, as though they were both
consciously watching some lugubrious comedy that was being played
out before them.
An untoward little incident had marked the commencement of the
meal. A small still-life picture that hung over the sideboard had
snapped its cord and slid down with an alarming clatter on to the
crowded board beneath it. The picture itself was scarcely damaged,
but its fall had been accompanied by a tinkle of broken glass, and
it was found that a liqueur glass, one out of a set of seven that
would be impossible to match, had been shivered into fragments.
Francesca's almost motherly love for her possessions made her
peculiarly sensible to a feeling of annoyance and depression at the
accident, but she turned politely to listen to Mrs. Greech's
account of a misfortune in which four soup-plates were involved.
Mrs. Henry was not a brilliant conversationalist, and her flank was
speedily turned by Stephen Thorle, who recounted a slum experience
in which two entire families did all their feeding out of one
damaged soup-plate.
"The gratitude of those poor creatures when I presented them with a
set of table crockery apiece, the tears in their eyes and in their
voices when they thanked me, would be impossible to describe."
"Thank you all the same for describing it," said Comus.
The listening eyes went swiftly round the table to gather evidence
as to how this rather disconcerting remark had been received, but
Thorle's voice continued uninterruptedly to retail stories of Eastend
gratitude, never failing to mention the particular deeds of
disinterested charity on his part which had evoked and justified
the gratitude. Mrs. Greech had to suppress the interesting sequel
to her broken-crockery narrative, to wit, how she subsequently
matched the shattered soup-plates at Harrod's. Like an imported
plant species that sometimes flourishes exceedingly, and makes
itself at home to the dwarfing and overshadowing of all native
species, Thorle dominated the dinner-party and thrust its original
purport somewhat into the background. Serena began to look
helplessly apologetic. It was altogether rather a relief when the
filling of champagne glasses gave Francesca an excuse for bringing
matters back to their intended footing.
"We must all drink a health," she said; "Comus, my own dear boy, a
safe and happy voyage to you, much prosperity in the life you are
going out to, and in due time a safe and happy return - "
Her hand gave an involuntary jerk in the act of raising the glass,
and the wine went streaming across the tablecloth in a froth of
yellow bubbles. It certainly was not turning out a comfortable or
auspicious dinner party.
"My dear mother," cried Comus, "you must have been drinking healths
all the afternoon to make your hand so unsteady."
He laughed gaily and with apparent carelessness, but again Lady
Veula caught the frightened note in his laughter. Mrs. Henry, with
practical sympathy, was telling Francesca two good ways for getting
wine stains out of tablecloths. The smaller economies of life were
an unnecessary branch of learning for Mrs. Greech, but she studied
them as carefully and conscientiously as a stay-at-home plaindwelling
English child commits to memory the measurements and
altitudes of the world's principal mountain peaks. Some women of
her temperament and mentality know by heart the favourite colours,
flowers and hymn-tunes of all the members of the Royal Family; Mrs.
Greech would possibly have failed in an examination of that nature,
but she knew what to do with carrots that have been over-long in
Francesca did not renew her speech-making; a chill seemed to have
fallen over all efforts at festivity, and she contented herself
with refilling her glass and simply drinking to her boy's good
health. The others followed her example, and Comus drained his
glass with a brief "thank you all very much." The sense of
constraint which hung over the company was not, however, marked by
any uncomfortable pause in the conversation. Henry Greech was a
fluent thinker, of the kind that prefer to do their thinking aloud;
the silence that descended on him as a mantle in the House of
Commons was an official livery of which he divested himself as
thoroughly as possible in private life. He did not propose to sit
through dinner as a mere listener to Mr. Thorle's personal
narrative of philanthropic movements and experiences, and took the
first opportunity of launching himself into a flow of satirical
observations on current political affairs. Lady Veula was inured
to this sort of thing in her own home circle, and sat listening
with the stoical indifference with which an Esquimau might accept
the occurrence of one snowstorm the more, in the course of an
Arctic winter. Serena Golackly felt a certain relief at the fact
that her imported guest was not, after all, monopolising the
conversation. But the latter was too determined a personality to
allow himself to be thrust aside for many minutes by the talkative
M.P. Henry Greech paused for an instant to chuckle at one of his
own shafts of satire, and immediately Thorle's penetrating voice
swept across the table.
"Oh, you politicians!" he exclaimed, with pleasant superiority;
"you are always fighting about how things should be done, and the
consequence is you are never able to do anything. Would you like
me to tell you what a Unitarian horsedealer said to me at Brindisi
about politicians?"
A Unitarian horsedealer at Brindisi had all the allurement of the
unexpected. Henry Greech's witticisms at the expense of the Front
Opposition bench were destined to remain as unfinished as his
wife's history of the broken soup-plates. Thorle was primed with
an ample succession of stories and themes, chiefly concerning
poverty, thriftlessness, reclamation, reformed characters, and so
forth, which carried him in an almost uninterrupted sequence
through the remainder of the dinner.
"What I want to do is to make people think," he said, turning his
prominent eyes on to his hostess; "it's so hard to make people
"At any rate you give them the opportunity," said Comus,
As the ladies rose to leave the table Comus crossed over to pick up
one of Lady Veula's gloves that had fallen to the floor.
"I did not know you kept a dog," said Lady Veula.
"We don't," said Comus, "there isn't one in the house."
"I could have sworn I saw one follow you across the hall this
evening," she said.
"A small black dog, something like a schipperke?" asked Comus in a
low voice.
"Yes, that was it."
"I saw it myself to-night; it ran from behind my chair just as I
was sitting down. Don't say anything to the others about it; it
would frighten my mother."
"Have you ever seen it before?" Lady Veula asked quickly.
"Once, when I was six years old. It followed my father
Lady Veula said nothing. She knew that Comus had lost his father
at the age of six.
In the drawing-room Serena made nervous excuses for her talkative
"Really, rather an interesting man, you know, and up to the eyes in
all sorts of movements. Just the sort of person to turn loose at a
drawing-room meeting, or to send down to a mission-hall in some
unheard-of neighbourhood. Given a sounding-board and a harmonium,
and a titled woman of some sort in the chair, and he'll be
perfectly happy; I must say I hadn't realised how overpowering he
might be at a small dinner-party."
"I should say he was a very good man," said Mrs. Greech; she had
forgiven the mutilation of her soup-plate story.
The party broke up early as most of the guests had other
engagements to keep. With a belated recognition of the farewell
nature of the occasion they made pleasant little good-bye remarks
to Comus, with the usual predictions of prosperity and
anticipations of an ultimate auspicious return. Even Henry Greech
sank his personal dislike of the boy for the moment, and made
hearty jocular allusions to a home-coming, which, in the elder
man's eyes, seemed possibly pleasantly remote. Lady Veula alone
made no reference to the future; she simply said, "Good-bye,
Comus," but her voice was the kindest of all and he responded with
a look of gratitude. The weariness in her eyes was more marked
than ever as she lay back against the cushions of her carriage.
"What a tragedy life is," she said, aloud to herself.
Serena and Stephen Thorle were the last to leave, and Francesca
stood alone for a moment at the head of the stairway watching Comus
laughing and chatting as he escorted the departing guests to the
door. The ice-wall was melting under the influence of coming
separation, and never had he looked more adorably handsome in her
eyes, never had his merry laugh and mischief-loving gaiety seemed
more infectious than on this night of his farewell banquet. She
was glad enough that he was going away from a life of idleness and
extravagance and temptation, but she began to suspect that she
would miss, for a little while at any rate, the high-spirited boy
who could be so attractive in his better moods. Her impulse, after
the guests had gone, was to call him to her and hold him once more
in her arms, and repeat her wishes for his happiness and good-luck
in the land he was going to, and her promise of his welcome back,
some not too distant day, to the land he was leaving. She wanted
to forget, and to make him forget, the months of irritable jangling
and sharp discussions, the months of cold aloofness and
indifference and to remember only that he was her own dear Comus as
in the days of yore, before he had grown from an unmanageable
pickle into a weariful problem. But she feared lest she should
break down, and she did not wish to cloud his light-hearted gaiety
on the very eve of his departure. She watched him for a moment as
he stood in the hall, settling his tie before a mirror, and then
went quietly back to her drawing-room. It had not been a very
successful dinner party, and the general effect it had left on her
was one of depression.
Comus, with a lively musical-comedy air on his lips, and a look of
wretchedness in his eyes, went out to visit the haunts that he was
leaving so soon.
ELAINE YOUGHAL sat at lunch in the Speise Saal of one of Vienna's
costlier hotels. The double-headed eagle, with its "K.u.K."
legend, everywhere met the eye and announced the imperial favour in
which the establishment basked. Some several square yards of
yellow bunting, charged with the image of another double-headed
eagle, floating from the highest flag-staff above the building,
betrayed to the initiated the fact that a Russian Grand Duke was
concealed somewhere on the premises. Unannounced by heraldic
symbolism but unconcealable by reason of nature's own blazonry,
were several citizens and citizenesses of the great republic of the
Western world. One or two Cobdenite members of the British
Parliament engaged in the useful task of proving that the cost of
living in Vienna was on an exorbitant scale, flitted with
restrained importance through a land whose fatness they had come to
spy out; every fancied over-charge in their bills was welcome as
providing another nail in the coffin of their fiscal opponents. It
is the glory of democracies that they may be misled but never
driven. Here and there, like brave deeds in a dust-patterned
world, flashed and glittered the sumptuous uniforms of
representatives of the Austrian military caste. Also in evidence,
at discreet intervals, were stray units of the Semetic tribe that
nineteen centuries of European neglect had been unable to mislay.
Elaine sitting with Courtenay at an elaborately appointed luncheon
table, gay with high goblets of Bohemian glassware, was mistress of
three discoveries. First, to her disappointment, that if you
frequent the more expensive hotels of Europe you must be prepared
to find, in whatever country you may chance to be staying, a
depressing international likeness between them all. Secondly, to
her relief, that one is not expected to be sentimentally amorous
during a modern honeymoon. Thirdly, rather to her dismay, that
Courtenay Youghal did not necessarily expect her to be markedly
affectionate in private. Someone had described him, after their
marriage, as one of Nature's bachelors, and she began to see how
aptly the description fitted him.
"Will those Germans on our left never stop talking?" she asked, as
an undying flow of Teutonic small talk rattled and jangled across
the intervening stretch of carpet. "Not one of those three women
has ceased talking for an instant since we've been sitting here."
"They will presently, if only for a moment," said Courtenay; "when
the dish you have ordered comes in there will be a deathly silence
at the next table. No German can see a PLAT brought in for someone
else without being possessed with a great fear that it represents a
more toothsome morsel or a better money's worth than what he has
ordered for himself."
The exuberant Teutonic chatter was balanced on the other side of
the room by an even more penetrating conversation unflaggingly
maintained by a party of Americans, who were sitting in judgment on
the cuisine of the country they were passing through, and finding
few extenuating circumstances.
"What Mr. Lonkins wants is a real DEEP cherry pie," announced a
lady in a tone of dramatic and honest conviction.
"Why, yes, that is so," corroborated a gentleman who was apparently
the Mr. Lonkins in question; "a real DEEP cherry pie."
"We had the same trouble way back in Paris," proclaimed another
lady; "little Jerome and the girls don't want to eat any more CREME
RENVERSEE. I'd give anything if they could get some real cherry
"Real DEEP cherry pie," assented Mr. Lonkins.
"Way down in Ohio we used to have peach pie that was real good,"
said Mrs. Lonkins, turning on a tap of reminiscence that presently
flowed to a cascade. The subject of pies seemed to lend itself to
indefinite expansion.
"Do those people think of nothing but their food?" asked Elaine, as
the virtues of roasted mutton suddenly came to the fore and
received emphatic recognition, even the absent and youthful Jerome
being quoted in its favour.
"On the contrary," said Courtenay, "they are a widely-travelled
set, and the man has had a notably interesting career. It is a
form of home-sickness with them to discuss and lament the cookery
and foods that they've never had the leisure to stay at home and
digest. The Wandering Jew probably babbled unremittingly about
some breakfast dish that took so long to prepare that he had never
time to eat it."
A waiter deposited a dish of Wiener Nierenbraten in front of
Elaine. At the same moment a magic hush fell upon the three German
ladies at the adjoining table, and the flicker of a great fear
passed across their eyes. Then they burst forth again into
tumultuous chatter. Courtenay had proved a reliable prophet.
Almost at the same moment as the luncheon-dish appeared on the
scene, two ladies arrived at a neighbouring table, and bowed with
dignified cordiality to Elaine and Courtenay. They were two of the
more worldly and travelled of Elaine's extensive stock of aunts,
and they happened to be making a short stay at the same hotel as
the young couple. They were far too correct and rationally minded
to intrude themselves on their niece, but it was significant of
Elaine's altered view as to the sanctity of honeymoon life that she
secretly rather welcomed the presence of her two relatives in the
hotel, and had found time and occasion to give them more of her
society than she would have considered necessary or desirable a few
weeks ago. The younger of the two she rather liked, in a
restrained fashion, as one likes an unpretentious watering-place or
a restaurant that does not try to give one a musical education in
addition to one's dinner. One felt instinctively about her that
she would never wear rather more valuable diamonds than any other
woman in the room, and would never be the only person to be saved
in a steamboat disaster or hotel fire. As a child she might have
been perfectly well able to recite "On Linden when the sun was
low," but one felt certain that nothing ever induced her to do so.
The elder aunt, Mrs. Goldbrook, did not share her sister's
character as a human rest-cure; most people found her rather
disturbing, chiefly, perhaps, from her habit of asking unimportant
questions with enormous solemnity. Her manner of enquiring after a
trifling ailment gave one the impression that she was more
concerned with the fortunes of the malady than with oneself, and
when one got rid of a cold one felt that she almost expected to be
given its postal address. Probably her manner was merely the
defensive outwork of an innate shyness, but she was not a woman who
commanded confidences.
"A telephone call for Courtenay," commented the younger of the two
women as Youghal hurriedly flashed through the room; "the telephone
system seems to enter very largely into that young man's life."
"The telephone has robbed matrimony of most of its sting," said the
elder; "so much more discreet than pen and ink communications which
get read by the wrong people."
Elaine's aunts were conscientiously worldly; they were the natural
outcome of a stock that had been conscientiously straight-laced for
many generations.
Elaine had progressed to the pancake stage before Courtenay
"Sorry to be away so long," he said, "but I've arranged something
rather nice for to-night. There's rather a jolly masquerade ball
on. I've 'phoned about getting a costume for you and it's alright.
It will suit you beautifully, and I've got my harlequin dress with
me. Madame Kelnicort, excellent soul, is going to chaperone you,
and she'll take you back any time you like; I'm quite unreliable
when I get into fancy dress. I shall probably keep going till some
unearthly hour of the morning."
A masquerade ball in a strange city hardly represented Elaine's
idea of enjoyment. Carefully to disguise one's identity in a
neighbourhood where one was entirely unknown seemed to her rather
meaningless. With Courtenay, of course, it was different; he
seemed to have friends and acquaintances everywhere. However, the
matter had progressed to a point which would have made a refusal to
go seem rather ungracious. Elaine finished her pancake and began
to take a polite interest in her costume.
"What is your character?" asked Madame Kelnicort that evening, as
they uncloaked, preparatory to entering the already crowded ballroom.
"I believe I'm supposed to represent Marjolaine de Montfort,
whoever she may have been," said Elaine. "Courtenay declares he
only wanted to marry me because I'm his ideal of her."
"But what a mistake to go as a character you know nothing about.
To enjoy a masquerade ball you ought to throw away your own self
and be the character you represent. Now Courtenay has been
Harlequin since half-way through dinner; I could see it dancing in
his eyes. At about six o'clock to-morrow morning he will fall
asleep and wake up a member of the British House of Parliament on
his honeymoon, but to-night he is unrestrainedly Harlequin."
Elaine stood in the ball-room surrounded by a laughing jostling
throng of pierrots, jockeys, Dresden-china shepherdesses, Roumanian
peasant-girls and all the lively make-believe creatures that form
the ingredients of a fancy-dress ball. As she stood watching them
she experienced a growing feeling of annoyance, chiefly with
herself. She was assisting, as the French say, at one of the
gayest scenes of Europe's gayest capital, and she was conscious of
being absolutely unaffected by the gaiety around her. The costumes
were certainly interesting to look at, and the music good to listen
to, and to that extent she was amused, but the ABANDON of the scene
made no appeal to her. It was like watching a game of which you
did not know the rules, and in the issue of which you were not
interested. Elaine began to wonder what was the earliest moment at
which she could drag Madame Kelnicort away from the revel without
being guilty of sheer cruelty. Then Courtenay wriggled out of the
crush and came towards her, a joyous laughing Courtenay, looking
younger and handsomer than she had ever seen him. She could
scarcely recognise in him to-night the rising young debater who
made embarrassing onslaughts on the Government's foreign policy
before a crowded House of Commons. He claimed her for the dance
that was just starting, and steered her dexterously into the heart
of the waltzing crowd.
"You look more like Marjolaine than I should have thought a mortal
woman of these days could look," he declared, "only Marjolaine did
smile sometimes. You have rather the air of wondering if you'd
left out enough tea for the servants' breakfast. Don't mind my
teasing; I love you to look like that, and besides, it makes a
splendid foil to my Harlequin - my selfishness coming to the fore
again, you see. But you really are to go home the moment you're
bored; the excellent Kelnicort gets heaps of dances throughout the
winter, so don't mind sacrificing her."
A little later in the evening Elaine found herself standing out a
dance with a grave young gentleman from the Russian Embassy.
"Monsieur Courtenay enjoys himself, doesn't he?" he observed, as
the youthful-looking harlequin flashed past them, looking like some
restless gorgeous-hued dragonfly; "why is it that the good God has
given your countrymen the boon of eternal youth? Some of your
countrywomen, too, but all of the men."
Elaine could think of many of her countrymen who were not and never
could have been youthful, but as far as Courtenay was concerned she
recognised the fitness of the remark. And the recognition carried
with it a sense of depression. Would he always remain youthful and
keen on gaiety and revelling while she grew staid and retiring?
She had thrust the lively intractable Comus out of her mind, as by
his perverseness he had thrust himself out of her heart, and she
had chosen the brilliant young man of affairs as her husband. He
had honestly let her see the selfish side of his character while he
was courting her, but she had been prepared to make due sacrifices
to the selfishness of a public man who had his career to consider
above all other things. Would she also have to make sacrifices to
the harlequin spirit which was now revealing itself as an
undercurrent in his nature? When one has inured oneself to the
idea of a particular form of victimisation it is disconcerting to
be confronted with another. Many a man who would patiently undergo
martyrdom for religion's sake would be furiously unwilling to be a
martyr to neuralgia.
"I think that is why you English love animals so much," pursued the
young diplomat; "you are such splendid animals yourselves. You are
lively because you want to be lively, not because people are
looking on at you. Monsieur Courtenay is certainly an animal. I
mean it as a high compliment."
"Am I an animal?" asked Elaine.
"I was going to say you are an angel," said the Russian, in some
embarrassment, "but I do not think that would do; angels and
animals would never get on together. To get on with animals you
must have a sense of humour, and I don't suppose angels have any
sense of humour; you see it would be no use to them as they never
hear any jokes."
"Perhaps," said Elaine, with a tinge of bitterness in her voice,
"perhaps I am a vegetable."
"I think you most remind me of a picture," said the Russian.
It was not the first time Elaine had heard the simile.
"I know," she said, "the Narrow Gallery at the Louvre; attributed
to Leonardo da Vinci."
Evidently the impression she made on people was solely one of
Was that how Courtenay regarded her? Was that to be her function
and place in life, a painted background, a decorative setting to
other people's triumphs and tragedies? Somehow to-night she had
the feeling that a general might have who brought imposing forces
into the field and could do nothing with them. She possessed youth
and good looks, considerable wealth, and had just made what would
be thought by most people a very satisfactory marriage. And
already she seemed to be standing aside as an onlooker where she
had expected herself to be taking a leading part.
"Does this sort of thing appeal to you?" she asked the young
Russian, nodding towards the gay scrimmage of masqueraders and
rather prepared to hear an amused negative."
"But yes, of course," he answered; "costume balls, fancy fairs,
cafe chantant, casino, anything that is not real life appeals to us
Russians. Real life with us is the sort of thing that Maxim Gorki
deals in. It interests us immensely, but we like to get away from
it sometimes."
Madame Kelnicort came up with another prospective partner, and
Elaine delivered her ukase: one more dance and then back to the
hotel. Without any special regret she made her retreat from the
revel which Courtenay was enjoying under the impression that it was
life and the young Russian under the firm conviction that it was
Elaine breakfasted at her aunts' table the next morning at much her
usual hour. Courtenay was sleeping the sleep of a happy tired
animal. He had given instructions to be called at eleven o'clock,
from which time onward the NEUE FREIE PRESSE, the ZEIT, and his
toilet would occupy his attention till he appeared at the luncheon
table. There were not many people breakfasting when Elaine arrived
on the scene, but the room seemed to be fuller than it really was
by reason of a penetrating voice that was engaged in recounting how
far the standard of Viennese breakfast fare fell below the
expectations and desires of little Jerome and the girls.
"If ever little Jerome becomes President of the United States,"
said Elaine, "I shall be able to contribute quite an informing
article on his gastronomic likes and dislikes to the papers."
The aunts were discreetly inquisitive as to the previous evening's
"If Elaine would flirt mildly with somebody it would be such a good
thing," said Mrs. Goldbrook; "it would remind Courtenay that he's
not the only attractive young man in the world."
Elaine, however, did not gratify their hopes; she referred to the
ball with the detachment she would have shown in describing a
drawing-room show of cottage industries. It was not difficult to
discern in her description of the affair the confession that she
had been slightly bored. From Courtenay, later in the day, the
aunts received a much livelier impression of the festivities, from
which it was abundantly clear that he at any rate had managed to
amuse himself. Neither did it appear that his good opinion of his
own attractions had suffered any serious shock. He was distinctly
in a very good temper.
"The secret of enjoying a honeymoon," said Mrs. Goldbrook
afterwards to her sister, "is not to attempt too much."
"You mean - ?"
"Courtenay is content to try and keep one person amused and happy,
and he thoroughly succeeds."
"I certainly don't think Elaine is going to be very happy," said
her sister, "but at least Courtenay saved her from making the
greatest mistake she could have made - marrying that young
"He has also," said Mrs. Goldbrook, "helped her to make the next
biggest mistake of her life - marrying Courtenay Youghal.
IT was late afternoon by the banks of a swiftly rushing river, a
river that gave back a haze of heat from its waters as though it
were some stagnant steaming lagoon, and yet seemed to be whirling
onward with the determination of a living thing, perpetually eager
and remorseless, leaping savagely at any obstacle that attempted to
stay its course; an unfriendly river, to whose waters you committed
yourself at your peril. Under the hot breathless shade of the
trees on its shore arose that acrid all-pervading smell that seems
to hang everywhere about the tropics, a smell as of some monstrous
musty still-room where herbs and spices have been crushed and
distilled and stored for hundreds of years, and where the windows
have seldom been opened. In the dazzling heat that still held
undisputed sway over the scene, insects and birds seemed
preposterously alive and active, flitting their gay colours through
the sunbeams, and crawling over the baked dust in the full swing
and pursuit of their several businesses; the flies engaged in
Heaven knows what, and the fly-catchers busy with the flies.
Beasts and humans showed no such indifference to the temperature;
the sun would have to slant yet further downward before the earth
would become a fit arena for their revived activities. In the
sheltered basement of a wayside rest-house a gang of native
hammock-bearers slept or chattered drowsily through the last hours
of the long mid-day halt; wide awake, yet almost motionless in the
thrall of a heavy lassitude, their European master sat alone in an
upper chamber, staring out through a narrow window-opening at the
native village, spreading away in thick clusters of huts girt
around with cultivated vegetation. It seemed a vast human anthill,
which would presently be astir with its teeming human life,
as though the Sun God in his last departing stride had roused it
with a careless kick. Even as Comus watched he could see the
beginnings of the evening's awakening. Women, squatting in front
of their huts, began to pound away at the rice or maize that would
form the evening meal, girls were collecting their water pots
preparatory to a walk down to the river, and enterprising goats
made tentative forays through gaps in the ill-kept fences of
neighbouring garden plots; their hurried retreats showed that here
at least someone was keeping alert and wakeful vigil. Behind a hut
perched on a steep hill-side, just opposite to the rest-house, two
boys were splitting wood with a certain languid industry; further
down the road a group of dogs were leisurely working themselves up
to quarrelling pitch. Here and there, bands of evil-looking pigs
roamed about, busy with foraging excursions that came unpleasantly
athwart the border-line of scavenging. And from the trees that
bounded and intersected the village rose the horrible, tireless,
spiteful-sounding squawking of the iron-throated crows.
Comus sat and watched it all with a sense of growing aching
depression. It was so utterly trivial to his eyes, so devoid of
interest, and yet it was so real, so serious, so implacable in its
continuity. The brain grew tired with the thought of its unceasing
reproduction. It had all gone on, as it was going on now, by the
side of the great rushing swirling river, this tilling and planting
and harvesting, marketing and store-keeping, feast-making and
fetish-worship and love-making, burying and giving in marriage,
child-bearing and child-rearing, all this had been going on, in the
shimmering, blistering heat and the warm nights, while he had been
a youngster at school, dimly recognising Africa as a division of
the earth's surface that it was advisable to have a certain nodding
acquaintance with.
It had been going on in all its trifling detail, all its serious
intensity, when his father and his grandfather in their day had
been little boys at school, it would go on just as intently as ever
long after Comus and his generation had passed away, just as the
shadows would lengthen and fade under the mulberry trees in that
far away English garden, round the old stone fountain where a
leaden otter for ever preyed on a leaden salmon.
Comus rose impatiently from his seat, and walked wearily across the
hut to another window-opening which commanded a broad view of the
river. There was something which fascinated and then depressed one
in its ceaseless hurrying onward sweep, its tons of water rushing
on for all time, as long as the face of the earth should remain
unchanged. On its further shore could be seen spread out at
intervals other teeming villages, with their cultivated plots and
pasture clearings, their moving dots which meant cattle and goats
and dogs and children. And far up its course, lost in the forest
growth that fringed its banks, were hidden away yet more villages,
human herding-grounds where men dwelt and worked and bartered,
squabbled and worshipped, sickened and perished, while the river
went by with its endless swirl and rush of gleaming waters. One
could well understand primitive early races making propitiatory
sacrifices to the spirit of a great river on whose shores they
dwelt. Time and the river were the two great forces that seemed to
matter here.
It was almost a relief to turn back to that other outlook and watch
the village life that was now beginning to wake in earnest. The
procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering
line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of
thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the
village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was
playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending
Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round
of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were
doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive
who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and
again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part
from his loneliness.
Staring dumbly out at the toiling sweltering human ant-hill Comus
marvelled how missionary enthusiasts could labour hopefully at the
work of transplanting their religion, with its homegrown accretions
of fatherly parochial benevolence, in this heat-blistered, feverscourged
wilderness, where men lived like groundbait and died like
flies. Demons one might believe in, if one did not hold one's
imagination in healthy check, but a kindly all-managing God, never.
Somewhere in the west country of England Comus had an uncle who
lived in a rose-smothered rectory and taught a wholesome gentlehearted
creed that expressed itself in the spirit of "Little lamb,
who made thee?" and faithfully reflected the beautiful homely
Christ-child sentiment of Saxon Europe. What a far away, unreal
fairy story it all seemed here in this West African land, where the
bodies of men were of as little account as the bubbles that floated
on the oily froth of the great flowing river, and where it required
a stretch of wild profitless imagination to credit them with
undying souls. In the life he had come from Comus had been
accustomed to think of individuals as definite masterful
personalities, making their several marks on the circumstances that
revolved around them; they did well or ill, or in most cases
indifferently, and were criticised, praised, blamed, thwarted or
tolerated, or given way to. In any case, humdrum or outstanding,
they had their spheres of importance, little or big. They
dominated a breakfast table or harassed a Government, according to
their capabilities or opportunities, or perhaps they merely had
irritating mannerisms. At any rate it seemed highly probable that
they had souls. Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered
population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll.
Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a
horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense
of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over
him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if
he died another would take his place, his few effects would be
inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish
off any tea or whisky that he left behind - that would be all.
It was nearly time to be starting towards the next halting place
where he would dine or at any rate eat something. But the
lassitude which the fever had bequeathed him made the tedium of
travelling through interminable forest-tracks a weariness to be
deferred as long as possible. The bearers were nothing loth to let
another half-hour or so slip by, and Comus dragged a battered
paper-covered novel from the pocket of his coat. It was a story
dealing with the elaborately tangled love affairs of a surpassingly
uninteresting couple, and even in his almost bookless state Comus
had not been able to plough his way through more than two-thirds of
its dull length; bound up with the cover, however, were some pages
of advertisement, and these the exile scanned with a hungry
intentness that the romance itself could never have commanded. The
name of a shop, of a street, the address of a restaurant, came to
him as a bitter reminder of the world he had lost, a world that ate
and drank and flirted, gambled and made merry, a world that debated
and intrigued and wire-pulled, fought or compromised political
battles - and recked nothing of its outcasts wandering through
forest paths and steamy swamps or lying in the grip of fever.
Comus read and re-read those few lines of advertisement, just as he
treasured a much-crumpled programme of a first-night performance at
the Straw Exchange Theatre; they seemed to make a little more real
the past that was already so shadowy and so utterly remote. For a
moment he could almost capture the sensation of being once again in
those haunts that he loved; then he looked round and pushed the
book wearily from him. The steaming heat, the forest, the rushing
river hemmed him in on all sides.
The two boys who had been splitting wood ceased from their labours
and straightened their backs; suddenly the smaller of the two gave
the other a resounding whack with a split lath that he still held
in his hand, and flew up the hillside with a scream of laughter and
simulated terror, the bigger lad following in hot pursuit. Up and
down the steep bush-grown slope they raced and twisted and dodged,
coming sometimes to close quarters in a hurricane of squeals and
smacks, rolling over and over like fighting kittens, and breaking
away again to start fresh provocation and fresh pursuit. Now and
again they would lie for a time panting in what seemed the last
stage of exhaustion, and then they would be off in another wild
scamper, their dusky bodies flitting through the bushes,
disappearing and reappearing with equal suddenness. Presently two
girls of their own age, who had returned from the water-fetching,
sprang out on them from ambush, and the four joined in one joyous
gambol that lit up the hillside with shrill echoes and glimpses of
flying limbs. Comus sat and watched, at first with an amused
interest, then with a returning flood of depression and heart-ache.
Those wild young human kittens represented the joy of life, he was
the outsider, the lonely alien, watching something in which he
could not join, a happiness in which he had no part or lot. He
would pass presently out of the village and his bearers' feet would
leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most
permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that
other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his
own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out
of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and racemeetings
and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name,
remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.
He had loved himself very well and never troubled greatly whether
anyone else really loved him, and now he realised what he had made
of his life. And at the same time he knew that if his chance were
to come again he would throw it away just as surely, just as
perversely. Fate played with him with loaded dice; he would lose
One person in the whole world had cared for him, for longer than he
could remember, cared for him perhaps more than he knew, cared for
him perhaps now. But a wall of ice had mounted up between him and
her, and across it there blew that cold-breath that chills or kills
The words of a well-known old song, the wistful cry of a lost
cause, rang with insistent mockery through his brain:
"Better loved you canna be,
Will ye ne'er come back again?"
If it was love that was to bring him back he must be an exile for
ever. His epitaph in the mouths of those that remembered him would
be, Comus Bassington, the boy who never came back.
And in his unutterable loneliness he bowed his head on his arms,
that he might not see the joyous scrambling frolic on yonder
THE bleak rawness of a grey December day held sway over St. James's
Park, that sanctuary of lawn and tree and pool, into which the
bourgeois innovator has rushed ambitiously time and again, to find
that he must take the patent leather from off his feet, for the
ground on which he stands is hallowed ground.
In the lonely hour of early afternoon, when the workers had gone
back to their work, and the loiterers were scarcely yet gathered
again, Francesca Bassington made her way restlessly along the
stretches of gravelled walk that bordered the ornamental water.
The overmastering unhappiness that filled her heart and stifled her
thinking powers found answering echo in her surroundings. There is
a sorrow that lingers in old parks and gardens that the busy
streets have no leisure to keep by them; the dead must bury their
dead in Whitehall or the Place de la Concorde, but there are
quieter spots where they may still keep tryst with the living and
intrude the memory of their bygone selves on generations that have
almost forgotten them. Even in tourist-trampled Versailles the
desolation of a tragedy that cannot die haunts the terraces and
fountains like a bloodstain that will not wash out; in the Saxon
Garden at Warsaw there broods the memory of long-dead things,
coeval with the stately trees that shade its walks, and with the
carp that swim to-day in its ponds as they doubtless swam there
when "Lieber Augustin" was a living person and not as yet an
immortal couplet. And St. James's Park, with its lawns and walks
and waterfowl, harbours still its associations with a bygone order
of men and women, whose happiness and sadness are woven into its
history, dim and grey as they were once bright and glowing, like
the faded pattern worked into the fabric of an old tapestry. It
was here that Francesca had made her way when the intolerable
inaction of waiting had driven her forth from her home. She was
waiting for that worst news of all, the news which does not kill
hope, because there has been none to kill, but merely ends
suspense. An early message had said that Comus was ill, which
might have meant much or little; then there had come that morning a
cablegram which only meant one thing; in a few hours she would get
a final message, of which this was the preparatory forerunner. She
already knew as much as that awaited message would tell her. She
knew that she would never see Comus again, and she knew now that
she loved him beyond all things that the world could hold for her.
It was no sudden rush of pity or compunction that clouded her
judgment or gilded her recollection of him; she saw him as he was,
the beautiful, wayward, laughing boy, with his naughtiness, his
exasperating selfishness, his insurmountable folly and
perverseness, his cruelty that spared not even himself, and as he
was, as he always had been, she knew that he was the one thing that
the Fates had willed that she should love. She did not stop to
accuse or excuse herself for having sent him forth to what was to
prove his death. It was, doubtless, right and reasonable that he
should have gone out there, as hundreds of other men went out, in
pursuit of careers; the terrible thing was that he would never come
back. The old cruel hopelessness that had always chequered her
pride and pleasure in his good looks and high spirits and fitfully
charming ways had dealt her a last crushing blow; he was dying
somewhere thousands of miles away without hope of recovery, without
a word of love to comfort him, and without hope or shred of
consolation she was waiting to hear of the end. The end; that last
dreadful piece of news which would write "nevermore" across his
life and hers.
The lively bustle in the streets had been a torture that she could
not bear. It wanted but two days to Christmas and the gaiety of
the season, forced or genuine, rang out everywhere. Christmas
shopping, with its anxious solicitude or self-centred absorption,
overspread the West End and made the pavements scarcely passable at
certain favoured points. Proud parents, parcel-laden and
surrounded by escorts of their young people, compared notes with
one another on the looks and qualities of their offspring and
exchanged loud hurried confidences on the difficulty or success
which each had experienced in getting the right presents for one
and all. Shouted directions where to find this or that article at
its best mingled with salvos of Christmas good wishes. To
Francesca, making her way frantically through the carnival of
happiness with that lonely deathbed in her eyes, it had seemed a
callous mockery of her pain; could not people remember that there
were crucifixions as well as joyous birthdays in the world? Every
mother that she passed happy in the company of a fresh-looking
clean-limbed schoolboy son sent a fresh stab at her heart, and the
very shops had their bitter memories. There was the tea-shop where
he and she had often taken tea together, or, in the days of their
estrangement, sat with their separate friends at separate tables.
There were other shops where extravagantly-incurred bills had
furnished material for those frequently recurring scenes of
recrimination, and the Colonial outfitters, where, as he had
phrased it in whimsical mockery, he had bought grave-clothes for
his burying-alive. The "oubliette!" She remembered the bitter
petulant name he had flung at his destined exile. There at least
he had been harder on himself than the Fates were pleased to will;
never, as long as Francesca lived and had a brain that served her,
would she be able to forget. That narcotic would never be given to
her. Unrelenting, unsparing memory would be with her always to
remind her of those last days of tragedy. Already her mind was
dwelling on the details of that ghastly farewell dinner-party and
recalling one by one the incidents of ill-omen that had marked it;
how they had sat down seven to table and how one liqueur glass in
the set of seven had been shivered into fragments; how her glass
had slipped from her hand as she raised it to her lips to wish
Comus a safe return; and the strange, quiet hopelessness of Lady
Veula's "good-bye"; she remembered now how it had chilled and
frightened her at the moment.
The park was filling again with its floating population of
loiterers, and Francesca's footsteps began to take a homeward
direction. Something seemed to tell her that the message for which
she waited had arrived and was lying there on the hall table. Her
brother, who had announced his intention of visiting her early in
the afternoon would have gone by now; he knew nothing of this
morning's bad news - the instinct of a wounded animal to creep away
by itself had prompted her to keep her sorrow from him as long as
possible. His visit did not necessitate her presence; he was
bringing an Austrian friend, who was compiling a work on the
Franco-Flemish school of painting, to inspect the Van der Meulen,
which Henry Greech hoped might perhaps figure as an illustration in
the book. They were due to arrive shortly after lunch, and
Francesca had left a note of apology, pleading an urgent engagement
elsewhere. As she turned to make her way across the Mall into the
Green Park a gentle voice hailed her from a carriage that was just
drawing up by the sidewalk. Lady Caroline Benaresq had been
favouring the Victoria Memorial with a long unfriendly stare.
"In primitive days," she remarked, "I believe it was the fashion
for great chiefs and rulers to have large numbers of their
relatives and dependents killed and buried with them; in these more
enlightened times we have invented quite another way of making a
great Sovereign universally regretted. My dear Francesca," she
broke off suddenly, catching the misery that had settled in the
other's eyes, "what is the matter? Have you had bad news from out
"I am waiting for very bad news," said Francesca, and Lady Caroline
knew what had happened.
"I wish I could say something; I can't." Lady Caroline spoke in a
harsh, grunting voice that few people had ever heard her use.
Francesca crossed the Mall and the carriage drove on.
"Heaven help that poor woman," said Lady Caroline; which was, for
her, startlingly like a prayer.
As Francesca entered the hall she gave a quick look at the table;
several packages, evidently an early batch of Christmas presents,
were there, and two or three letters. On a salver by itself was
the cablegram for which she had waited. A maid, who had evidently
been on the lookout for her, brought her the salver. The servants
were well aware of the dreadful thing that was happening, and there
was pity on the girl's face and in her voice.
"This came for you ten minutes ago, ma'am, and Mr. Greech has been
here, ma'am, with another gentleman, and was sorry you weren't at
home. Mr. Greech said he would call again in about half-an-hour."
Francesca carried the cablegram unopened into the drawing-room and
sat down for a moment to think. There was no need to read it yet,
for she knew what she would find written there. For a few pitiful
moments Comus would seem less hopelessly lost to her if she put off
the reading of that last terrible message. She rose and crossed
over to the windows and pulled down the blinds, shutting out the
waning December day, and then reseated herself. Perhaps in the
shadowy half-light her boy would come and sit with her again for
awhile and let her look her last upon his loved face; she could
never touch him again or hear his laughing, petulant voice, but
surely she might look on her dead. And her starving eyes saw only
the hateful soulless things of bronze and silver and porcelain that
she had set up and worshipped as gods; look where she would they
were there around her, the cold ruling deities of the home that
held no place for her dead boy. He had moved in and out among
them, the warm, living, breathing thing that had been hers to love,
and she had turned her eyes from that youthful comely figure to
adore a few feet of painted canvas, a musty relic of a long
departed craftsman. And now he was gone from her sight, from her
touch, from her hearing for ever, without even a thought to flash
between them for all the dreary years that she should live, and
these things of canvas and pigment and wrought metal would stay
with her. They were her soul. And what shall it profit a man if
he save his soul and slay his heart in torment?
On a small table by her side was Mervyn Quentock's portrait of her
- the prophetic symbol of her tragedy; the rich dead harvest of
unreal things that had never known life, and the bleak thrall of
black unending Winter, a Winter in which things died and knew no
Francesca turned to the small envelope lying in her lap; very
slowly she opened it and read the short message. Then she sat numb
and silent for a long, long time, or perhaps only for minutes. The
voice of Henry Greech in the hall, enquiring for her, called her to
herself. Hurriedly she crushed the piece of paper out of sight; he
would have to be told, of course, but just yet her pain seemed too
dreadful to be laid bare. "Comus is dead" was a sentence beyond
her power to speak.
"I have bad news for you, Francesca, I'm sorry to say," Henry
announced. Had he heard, too?
"Henneberg has been here and looked at the picture," he continued,
seating himself by her side, "and though he admired it immensely as
a work of art he gave me a disagreeable surprise by assuring me
that it's not a genuine Van der Meulen. It's a splendid copy, but
still, unfortunately, only a copy."
Henry paused and glanced at his sister to see how she had taken the
unwelcome announcement. Even in the dim light he caught some of
the anguish in her eyes.
"My dear Francesca," he said soothingly, laying his hand
affectionately on her arm, "I know that this must be a great
disappointment to you, you've always set such store by this
picture, but you mustn't take it too much to heart. These
disagreeable discoveries come at times to most picture fanciers and
owners. Why, about twenty per cent. of the alleged Old Masters in
the Louvre are supposed to be wrongly attributed. And there are
heaps of similar cases in this country. Lady Dovecourt was telling
me the other day that they simply daren't have an expert in to
examine the Van Dykes at Columbey for fear of unwelcome
disclosures. And besides, your picture is such an excellent copy
that it's by no means without a value of its own. You must get
over the disappointment you naturally feel, and take a
philosophical view of the matter. . . "
Francesca sat in stricken silence, crushing the folded morsel of
paper tightly in her hand and wondering if the thin, cheerful voice
with its pitiless, ghastly mockery of consolation would never stop.

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