Part 3 out of 6
less serious. Have a try, Michael. See if you can't be less
Michael slipped despairingly from his seat.
"If only I knew how!" he said. "I believe my nurse never taught me
to play, only to remember that I was a little gentleman. All the
same, when I am with you, or with my cousin Francis, I can manage
it to a certain extent."
Falbe looked at him encouragingly.
"Oh, you're getting on," he said. "You take yourself more for
granted than you used to. I remember you when you used to be
polite on purpose. It's doing things on purpose that makes one
serious. If you ever play the fool on purpose, you instantly cease
playing the fool."
"Is that it?" said Michael.
"Yes, of course. So come on Sunday, and forget all about it,
except coming. And now, do you mind going away? I want to put in
a couple of hours before lunch. You know what to practise till
Tuesday, don't you?"
That was the first Sunday evening that Michael had spent with his
friends; after that, up till this present date in November, he had
not missed a single one of those gatherings. They consisted almost
entirely of men, and of the men there were many types, and many
ages. Actors and artists, musicians and authors were
indiscriminately mingled; it was the strangest conglomeration of
diverse interests. But one interest, so it seemed to Michael,
bound them all together; they were all doing in their different
lives the things they most delighted in doing. There was the key
that unlocked all the locks--namely, the enjoyment that inspired
their work. The freemasonry of art and the freemasonry of the
eager mind that looks out without verdict, but with only
expectation and delight in experiment, passed like an open secret
among them, secret because none spoke of it, open because it was so
transparently obvious. And since this was so, every member of that
heterogeneous community had a respect for his companions; the fact
that they were there together showed that they had all passed this
initiation, and knew what for them life meant.
Very soon after dinner all sitting accommodation, other than the
floor, was occupied; but then the floor held the later comers, and
the smoke from many cigarettes and the babble of many voices made a
constantly-ascending incense before the altar dedicated to the gods
that inspire all enjoyable endeavour. Then Sylvia sang, and both
those who cared to hear exquisite singing and those who did not
were alike silent, for this was a prayer to the gods they all
worshipped; and Falbe played, and there was a quartet of strings.
After that less serious affairs held the rooms; an eminent actor
was pleased to parody another eminent actor who was also present.
This led to a scene in which each caricatured the other, and a
French poet did gymnastic feats on the floor and upset a tray of
soda-water, and a German conductor fluffed out his hair and died
like Marguerite. And when in the earlier hours of the morning part
of the guests had gone away, and part were broiling ham in the
kitchen, Sylvia sang again, quite seriously, and Michael, in
Hermann's absence, volunteered to play her accompaniment for her.
She stood behind him, and by a finger on his shoulder directed him
in the way she would have him go. Michael found himself suddenly
and inexplicably understanding this; her finger, by its pressure or
its light tapping, seemed to him to speak in a language that he
found himself familiar with, and he slowed down stroking the notes,
or quickened with staccato touch, as she wordlessly directed him.
Out of all these things, which were but trivialities, pleasant,
unthinking hours for all else concerned, several points stood out
for Michael, points new and illuminating. The first was the
simplicity of it all, the spontaneousness with which pleasure was
born if only you took off your clothes, so to speak, and left them
on the bank while you jumped in. All his life he had buttoned his
jacket and crammed his hat on to his head. The second was the
sense, indefinable but certain, that Hermann and Sylvia between
them were the high priests of this memorable orgie.
He himself had met, at dreadful, solemn evenings when Lady
Ashbridge and his father stood at the head of the stairs, the two
eminent actors who had romped to-night, and found them exceedingly
stately personages, just as no doubt they had found him an icy and
awkward young man. But they, like him, had taken their note on
those different occasions from their environment. Perhaps if his
father and mother came here . . . but Michael's imagination quailed
before such a supposition.
The third point, which gradually through these weeks began to haunt
him more and more, was the personality of Sylvia. He had never
come across a girl who in the least resembled her, probably because
he had not attempted even to find in a girl, or to display in
himself, the signals, winked across from one to the other, of human
companionship. Always he had found a difficulty in talking to a
girl, because he had, in his self-consciousness, thought about what
he should say. There had been the cabalistic question of sex ever
in front of him, a thing that troubled and deterred him. But
Sylvia, with her hand on his shoulder, absorbed in her singing, and
directing him only as she would have pressed the pedal of the piano
if she had been playing to herself, was no more agitating than if
she had been a man; she was just singing, just using him to help
her singing. And even while Michael registered to himself this
charming annihilation of sex, which allowed her to be to him no
more than her brother was--less, in fact, but on the same plane--
she had come to the end of her song, patted him on the back, as she
would have patted anybody else, with a word of thanks, and, for
him, suddenly leaped into significance. It was not only a singer
who had sung, but an individual one called Sylvia Falbe. She took
her place, at present a most inconspicuous one, on the back-cloth
before which Michael's life was acted, towards which, when no
action, so to speak, was taking place, his eyes naturally turned
themselves. His father and mother were there, Francis also and
Aunt Barbara, and of course, larger than the rest, Hermann. Now
Sylvia was discernible, and, as the days went by and their meetings
multiplied, she became bigger, walked into a nearer perspective.
It did not occur to Michael, rightly, to imagine himself at all in
love with her, for he was not. Only she had asserted herself on
Not yet had she begun to trouble him, and there was no sign, either
external or intimate, in his mind that he was sickening with the
splendid malady. Indeed, the significance she held for him was
rather that, though she was a girl, she presented none of the
embarrassments which that sex had always held for him. She grew in
comradeship; he found himself as much at ease with her as with her
brother, and her charm was just that which had so quickly and
strongly attracted Michael to Hermann. She was vivid in the same
way as he was; she had the same warm, welcoming kindliness--the
same complete absence of pose. You knew where you were with her,
and hitherto, when Michael was with one of the young ladies brought
down to Ashbridge to be looked at, he only wished that wherever he
was he was somewhere else. But with Sylvia he had none of this
self-consciousness; she was bonne camarade for him in exactly the
same way as she was bonne camarade to the rest of the multitude
which thronged the Sunday evenings, perfectly at ease with them, as
they with her, in relationship entirely unsentimental.
But through these weeks, up to this foggy November afternoon,
Michael's most conscious preoccupation was his music. Falbe's
principles in teaching were entirely heretical according to the
traditional school; he gave Michael no scale to play, no dismal
finger-exercise to fill the hours.
"What is the good of them?" he asked. "They can only give you
nimbleness and strength. Well, you shall acquire your nimbleness
and strength by playing what is worth playing. Take good music,
take Chopin or Bach or Beethoven, and practise one particular etude
or fugue or sonata; you may choose anything you like, and learn
your nimbleness and strength that way. Read, too; read for a
couple of hours every day. The written language of music must
become so familiar to you that it is to you precisely what a book
or a newspaper is, so that whether you read it aloud--which is
playing--or sit in your arm-chair with your feet on the fender,
reading it not aloud on the piano, but to yourself, it conveys its
definite meaning to you. At your lessons you will have to read
aloud to me. But when you are reading to yourself, never pass over
a bar that you don't understand. It has got to sound in your head,
just as the words you read in a printed book really sound in your
head if you read carefully and listen for them. You know exactly
what they would be like if you said them aloud. Can you read, by
the way? Have a try."
Falbe got down a volume of Bach and opened it at random.
"There," he said, "begin at the top of the page."
"But I can't," said Michael. "I shall have to spell it out."
"That's just what you mustn't do. Go ahead, and don't pause till
you get to the bottom of the page. Count; start each bar when it
comes to its turn, and play as many notes as you can in it."
This was a dismal experience. Michael hitherto had gone on the
painstaking and thorough plan of spelling out his notes with
laborious care. Now Falbe's inexorable voice counted for him,
until it was lost in inextinguishable laughter.
"Go on, go on!" he shouted. "I thought it was Bach, and it is
clearly Strauss's Don Quixote."
Michael, flushed and determined, with grave, set mouth, ploughed
his way through amazing dissonances, and at the end joined Falbe's
"Oh dear," he said. "Very funny. But don't laugh so at me,
Falbe dried his eyes.
"And what was it?" he said. "I declare it was the fourth fugue.
An entirely different conception of it! A thoroughly original
view! Now, what you've got to do, is to repeat that--not the same
murder I mean, but other murders--for a couple of hours a day. . . .
By degrees--you won't believe it--you will find you are not
murdering any longer, but only mortally wounding. After six months
I dare say you won't even be hurting your victims. All the same,
you can begin with less muscular ones."
In this way Michael's musical horizons were infinitely extended.
Not only did this system of Falbe's of flying at new music, and
going recklessly and regardlessly on, give quickness to his brain
and finger, make his wits alert to pick up the new language he was
learning, but it gloriously extended his vision and his range of
country. He ran joyfully, though with a thousand falls and
tumbles, through these new and wonderful vistas; he worshipped at
the grave, Gothic sanctuaries of Beethoven, he roamed through the
enchanted garden of Chopin, he felt the icy and eternal frosts of
Russia, and saw in the northern sky the great auroras spread
themselves in spear and sword of fire; he listened to the wisdom of
Brahms, and passed through the noble and smiling country of Bach.
All this, so to speak, was holiday travel, and between his journeys
he applied himself with the same eager industry to the learning of
his art, so that he might reproduce for himself and others true
pictures of the scenes through which he scampered. Here Falbe was
not so easily moved to laughter; he was as severe with Michael as
he was with himself, when it was the question of learning some
piece with a view to really playing it. There was no light-hearted
hurrying on through blurred runs and false notes, slurred phrases
and incomplete chords. Among these pieces which had to be properly
learned was the 17th Prelude of Chopin, on hearing which at
Baireuth on the tuneless and catarrhed piano Falbe had agreed to
take Michael as a pupil. But when it was played again on Falbe's
great Steinway, as a professed performance, a very different
standard was required.
Falbe stopped him at the end of the first two lines.
"This won't do, Michael," he said. "You played it before for me to
see whether you could play. You can. But it won't do to sketch
it. Every note has got to be there; Chopin didn't write them by
accident. He knew quite well what he was about. Begin again,
This time Michael got not quite so far, when he was stopped again.
He was playing without notes, and Falbe got up from his chair where
he had the book open, and put it on the piano.
"Do you find difficulty in memorising?" he asked.
This was discouraging; Michael believed that he remembered easily;
he also believed that he had long known this by heart.
"No; I thought I knew it," he said.
This time Falbe stood by him, and suddenly put his finger down into
the middle of Michael's hands, striking a note.
"You left out that F sharp," he said. "Go on. . . . Now you are
leaving out that E natural. Try to get it better by Thursday, and
remember this, that playing, and all that differentiates playing
from strumming, only begins when you can play all the notes that
are put down for you to play without fail. You're beginning at the
wrong end; you have admirable feeling about that prelude, but you
needn't think about feeling till you've got all the notes at your
fingers' ends. Then and not till then, you may begin to remember
that you want to be a pianist. Now, what's the next thing?"
Michael felt somewhat squashed and discouraged. He had thought he
had really worked successfully at the thing he knew so well by
sight. His heavy eyebrows drew together.
"You told me to harmonise that Christmas carol," he remarked,
Falbe put his hand on his shoulder.
"Look here, Michael," he said, "you're vexed with me. Now, there's
nothing to be vexed at. You know quite well you were leaving out
lots of notes from those jolly fat chords, and that you weren't
playing cleanly. Now I'm taking you seriously, and I won't have
from you anything but the best you can do. You're not doing your
best when you don't even play what is written. You can't begin to
work at this till you do that."
Michael had a moment's severe tussle with his temper. He felt
vexed and disappointed that Hermann should have sent him back like
a schoolboy with his exercise torn over. Not immediately did he
confess to himself that he was completely in the wrong.
"I'm doing the best I can," he said. "It's rather discouraging."
He moved his big shoulders slightly, as if to indicate that
Hermann's hand was not wanted there. Hermann kept it there.
"It might be discouraging," he said, "if you were doing your best."
Michael's ill-temper oozed from him.
"I'm wrong," he said, turning round with the smile that made his
ugly face so pleasant. "And I'm sorry both that I have been slack
and that I've been sulky. Will that do?"
"Very well indeed," he said. "Now for 'Good King Wenceslas.'
"Yes; I got awfully interested over it, Hermann. I thought I would
try and work it up into a few variations."
"Let's hear," said Falbe.
This was a vastly different affair. Michael had shown both
ingenuity and a great sense of harmonic beauty in the arrangement
of the very simple little tune that Falbe had made him exercise his
ear over, and the half-dozen variations that followed showed a
wonderfully mature handling. The air which he dealt with haunted
them as a sort of unseen presence. It moved in a tiny gavotte, or
looked on at a minuet measure; it wailed, yet without being
positively heard, in a little dirge of itself; it broadened into a
march, it shouted in a bravura of rapid octaves, and finally
asserted itself, heard once more, over a great scale base of bells.
Falbe, as was his habit when interested, sat absolutely still, but
receptive and alert, instead of jerking and fidgeting as he had
done over Michael's fiasco in the Chopin prelude, and at the end he
jumped up with a certain excitement.
"Do you know what you've done?" he said. "You've done something
that's really good. Faults? Yes, millions; but there's a first-
rate imagination at the bottom of it. How did it happen?"
Michael flushed with pleasure.
"Oh, they sang themselves," he said, "and I learned them. But will
it really do? Is there anything in it?"
"Yes, old boy, there's King Wenceslas in it, and you've dressed him
up well. Play that last one again."
The last one was taxing to the fingers, but Michael's big hands
banged out the octave scale in the bass with wonderful ease, and
Falbe gave a great guffaw of pleasure at the rollicking conclusion.
"Write them all down," he said, "and try if you can hear it singing
half a dozen more. If you can, write them down also, and give me
leave to play the lot at my concert in January."
"You don't mean that?" he said.
"Certainly I do. It's a fine bit of stuff."
It was with these variations, now on the point of completion that
Michael meant to spend his solitary and rapturous evening. The
spirits of the air--whatever those melodious sprites may be--had
for the last month made themselves very audible to him, and the
half-dozen further variations that Hermann had demanded had rung
all day in his head. Now, as they neared completion, he found that
they ceased their singing; their work of dictation was done; he had
to this extent expressed himself, and they haunted him no longer.
At present he had but jotted down the skeleton of bars that could
be filled in afterwards, and it gave him enormous pleasure to see
the roles reversed and himself out of his own brain, setting Falbe
But he felt much more than this. He had done something. Michael,
the dumb, awkward Michael, was somehow revealed on those eight
pages of music. All his twenty-five years he had stood wistfully
inarticulate, unable, so it had seemed to him, to show himself, to
let himself out. And not till now, when he had found this means of
access, did he know how passionately he had desired it, nor how
immensely, in the process of so doing, his desire had grown. He
must find out more ways, other channels of projecting himself. The
need for that, as of a diver throwing himself into the empty air
and the laughing waters below him, suddenly took hold of him.
He took a clean sheet of music paper, into which he placed his
pages, and with a pleasurable sense of pomp wrote in the centre of
VARIATIONS ON AN AIR.
He paused a moment, then took up his pen again.
"Dedicated to Sylvia Falbe," he wrote at the top.
Michael had been so engrossingly employed since his return to
London in the autumn that the existence of other ties and other
people apart from those immediately connected with his work had
worn a very shadow-like aspect. He had, it is true, written with
some regularity to his mother, finding, somewhat to his dismay, how
very slight the common ground between them was for purposes of
correspondence. He could outline the facts that he had been to
several concerts, that he had seen much of his music-master, that
he had been diligent at his work, but he realised that there was
nothing in detail about those things that could possibly interest
her, and that nothing except them really interested him. She on
her side had little to say except to record the welfare of Petsy,
to remark on the beauty of October, and tell him how many shooting
parties they had had.
His correspondence with his father had been less frequent, and
absolutely one-sided, since Lord Ashbridge took no notice at all of
his letters. Michael regretted this, as showing that he was still
outcast, but it cannot be said to have come between him and the
sunshine, for he had begun to manufacture the sunshine within, that
internal happiness which his environment and way of life produced,
which seemed to be independent of all that was not directly
connected with it. But a letter which he received next morning
from his mother stated, in addition to the fact that Petsy had
another of her tiresome bilious attacks (poor lamb), that his
father and she thought it right that he should come down to
Ashbridge for Christmas. It conveyed the sense that at this joyful
season a truce, probably limited in duration, and, even while it
lasted, of the nature of a strongly-armed neutrality, was
proclaimed, but the prospect was not wholly encouraging, for Lady
Ashbridge added that she hoped Michael would not "go on" vexing his
father. What precisely Michael was expected to do in order to
fulfil that wish was not further stated, but he wrote dutifully
enough to say that he would come down at Christmas.
But the letter rekindled his dormant sense of there being other
people in the world beside his immediate circle; also, indefinably,
it gave him the sense that his mother wanted him. That should be
so then, and sequentially he remembered with a pang of self-
reproach that he had not as much as indicated his presence in
London to Aunt Barbara, or set eyes on her since their meeting in
August. He knew she was in London, since he had seen her name in
some paragraph in the papers not long before, and instantly wrote
to ask her to dine with him at a near date. Her answer was
"Of course I'll dine with you, my dear," she wrote; "it will be
delightful. And what has happened to you? Your letter actually
conveyed a sense of cordiality. You never used to be cordial. And
I wish to meet some of your nice friends. Ask one or two, please--
a prima donna of some kind and a pianist, I think. I want them
weird and original--the prima donna with short hair, and the
pianist with long. In Tony's new station in life I never see
anybody except the sort of people whom your father likes. Are you
forgiven yet, by the way?"
Michael found himself on the grin at the thought of Aunt Barbara
suddenly encountering the two magnificent Falbes (prima donna and
pianist exactly as she had desired) as representing the weird sort
of people whom she pictured his living among, and the result quite
came up to his expectations. As usual, Aunt Barbara was late, and
came in talking rapidly about the various causes that had detained
her, which her fruitful imagination had suggested to her as she
dressed. In order, perhaps, to suit herself to the circle in which
she would pass the evening, she had put on (or, rather, it looked
as if her maid had thrown at her) a very awful sort of tea-gown,
brown and prickly-looking, and adapted to Bohemian circles. She,
with the same lively imagination, had pictured Michael in a
velveteen coat and soft shirt, the pianist as very small, with
spectacles and long hair, and the prima donna a full-blown kind of
barmaid with Roman pearls. . . .
"Yes, my dear, I know I am late," she began before she was inside
the door, "but Og had so much to say, and there was a block at Hyde
Park Corner. My dear Michael, how smart you look!"
She came round the corner of the screen and the Falbes burst upon
her, Hermann and Sylvia standing by the fire. For the short,
spectacled pianist there was this very tall, English-looking young
man, upright and soldierly, with his handsome, boyish face and
well-fitting clothes. That was bad enough, but infinitely worse
was she who was to have been the full-blown barmaid. Instead was
this magnificent girl, nearly as tall as her brother, with her
small oval face crowning the column of her neck, her eyes merry,
her mouth laughing at some brotherly retort that Hermann had just
made. Aunt Barbara took her in with one second's survey--her face,
her neck, her beautiful dress, her whole air of ease and good-
breeding, and gave a despairing glance at her own prickly tea-gown.
For the moment, amiably accustomed as she was to laugh at herself,
she did not find it humourous.
"Miss Sylvia Falbe, Aunt Barbara," said Michael with a little
tremor in his voice; "and Mr. Hermann Falbe, Lady Barbara Jerome,"
he added, rather as if he expected nobody to believe it.
Aunt Barbara made the best of it: shook hands in her jolly manner,
and burst into laughter.
"Michael, I could slay you," she said; "but before I do that I must
tell your friends all about it. This horrible nephew of mine, Miss
Falbe, promised me two weird musicians, and I expected--I really
can't tell you what I expected--but there were to be spectacles and
velveteen coats and the general air of an afternoon concert at
Clapham Junction. But it is nice to be made such a fool of. I
feel precisely like an elderly and sour governess who has been
ordered to come down to dinner so that there shan't be thirteen.
Give me your arm, Mr. Falbe, and take me in to dinner at once,
where I may drown my embarrassment in soup. Or does Michael go in
first? Go on, wretch!"
Presently they were seated at dinner, and Aunt Barbara could not
help enlarging a little on her own discomfiture.
"It is all your fault, Michael," she said. "You have been in
London all these weeks without letting me know anything about you
or your friends, or what you were doing; so naturally I supposed
you were leading some obscure kind of existence. Instead of which
I find this sort of thing. My dear, what good soup! I shall see
if I can't induce your cook to leave you. But bachelors always
have the best of everything. Now tell me about your visit to
Germany. Which was the point where we parted--Baireuth, wasn't it?
I would not go to Baireuth with anybody!"
"I went with Mr. Falbe," said Michael.
"Ah, Mr. Falbe has not asked me yet. I may have to revise what I
say," said Aunt Barbara daringly.
"I didn't ask Michael," said Hermann. "I got into his carriage as
the train was moving; and my luggage was left behind."
"I was left behind," said Sylvia, "which was worse. But I sent
"So expeditiously that it arrived the day before we left for
Munich," remarked Hermann.
"And that's all the gratitude I get. But in the interval you lived
upon Lord Comber."
"I do still in the money I earn by giving him music lessons. Mike,
have you finished the Variations yet?"
"Variations--what are Variations?" asked Aunt Barbara.
"Yes, two days ago. Variations are all the things you think about
on the piano, Aunt Barbara, when you are playing a tune made by
"Should I like them? Will Mr. Falbe play them to me?" asked she.
"I daresay he will if he can. But I thought you loathed music."
"It certainly depends on who makes it," said Aunt Barbara. "I
don't like ordinary music, because the person who made it doesn't
matter to me. But if, so to speak, it sounds like somebody I know,
it is a different matter."
Michael turned to Sylvia.
"I want to ask your leave for something I have already done," he
"And if I don't give it you?"
"Then I shan't tell you what it is."
Sylvia looked at him with her candid friendly eyes. Her brother
always told her that she never looked at anybody except her
friends; if she was engaged in conversation with a man she did not
like, she looked at his shirt-stud or at a point slightly above his
"Then, of course, I give in," she said. "I must give you leave if
otherwise I shan't know what you have done. But it's a mean trick.
Tell me at once."
"I've dedicated the Variations to you," he said.
Sylvia flushed with pleasure.
"Oh, but that's absolutely darling of you," she said. "Have you,
really? Do you mean it?"
"If you'll allow me."
"Allow you? Hermann, the Variations are mine. Isn't it too
It was at this moment that Aunt Barbara happened to glance at
Michael, and it suddenly struck her that it was a perfectly new
Michael whom she looked at. She knew and was secretly amused at
the fiasco that always attended the introduction of amiable young
ladies to Ashbridge, and had warned her sister-in-law that Michael,
when he chose the girl he wanted, would certainly do it on his own
initiative. Now she felt sure that Michael, though he might not be
aware of it himself, was, even if he had not chosen, beginning to
choose. There was that in his eyes which none of the importations
to Ashbridge had ever seen there, that eager deferential attention,
which shows that a young man is interested because it is a girl he
is talking to. That, she knew, had never been characteristic of
Michael; indeed, it would not have been far from the truth to say
that the fact that he was talking to a girl was sufficient to make
his countenance wear an expression of polite boredom. Then for a
while, as dinner progressed, she doubted the validity of her
conclusion, for the Michael who was entertaining her to-night was
wholly different from the Michael she had known and liked and
pitied. She felt that she did not know this new one yet, but she
was certain that she liked him, and equally sure that she did not
pity him at all. He had found his place, he had found his work; he
evidently fitted into his life, which, after all, is the surest
ground of happiness, and it might be that it was only general joy,
so to speak, that kindled that pleasant fire in his face. And then
once more she went back to her first conclusion, for talking to
Michael herself she saw, as a woman so infallibly sees, that he
gave her but the most superficial attention--sufficient, indeed, to
allow him to answer intelligently and laugh at the proper places,
but his mind was not in the least occupied with her. If Sylvia
moved his glance flickered across in her direction: it was she who
gave him his alertness. Aunt Barbara felt that she could have told
him truthfully that he was in love with her, and she rather thought
that it would be news to him; probably he did not know it yet
himself. And she wondered what his father would say when he knew it.
"And then Munich," she said, violently recalling Michael's
attention towards her. "Munich I could have borne better than
Baireuth, and when Mr. Falbe asks me there I shall probably go.
Your Uncle Tony was in Germany then, by the way; he went over at
the invitation of the Emperor to the manoeuvres."
"Did he? The Emperor came to Munich for a day during them. He was
at the opera," said Michael.
"You didn't speak to him, I suppose?" she asked.
"Yes; he sent for me, and talked a lot. In fact, he talked too
much, because I didn't hear a note of the second act."
Aunt Barbara became infinitely more interested.
"Tell me all about it, Michael," she said. "What did he talk
"Everything, as far as I can remember, England, Ashbridge, armies,
navies, music. Hermann says he cast pearls before swine--"
"And his tone, his attitude?" she asked.
"Towards us?--towards England? Immensely friendly, and most
inquisitive. I was never asked so many questions in so short a
Aunt Barbara suddenly turned to Falbe.
"And you?" she asked. "Were you with Michael?"
"No, Lady Barbara. I had no pearls."
"And are you naturalised English?" she asked.
"No; I am German."
She slid swiftly off the topic.
"Do you wonder I ask, with your talking English so perfectly?" she
said. "You should hear me talking French when we are entertaining
Ambassadors and that sort of persons. I talk it so fast that
nobody can understand a word I say. That is a defensive measure,
you must observe, because even if I talked it quite slowly they
would understand just as little. But they think it is the pace
that stupefies them, and they leave me in a curious, dazed
condition. And now Miss Falbe and I are going to leave you two.
Be rather a long time, dear Michael, so that Mr. Falbe can tell you
what he thinks of me, and his sister shall tell me what she thinks
of you. Afterwards you and I will tell each other, if it is not
This did not express quite accurately Lady Barbara's intentions,
for she chiefly wanted to find out what she thought of Sylvia.
"And you are great friends, you three?" she said as they settled
themselves for the prolonged absence of the two men.
Sylvia smiled; she smiled, Aunt Barbara noticed, almost entirely
with her eyes, using her mouth only when it came to laughing; but
her eyes smiled quite charmingly.
"That's always rather a rash thing to pronounce on," she said. "I
can tell you for certain that Hermann and I are both very fond of
him, but it is presumptuous for us to say that he is equally
devoted to us."
"My dear, there is no call for modesty about it," said Barbara.
"Between you--for I imagine it is you who have done it--between you
you have made a perfectly different creature of the boy. You've
made him flower."
Sylvia became quite grave.
"Oh, I do hope he likes us," she said. "He is so likable himself."
"And you've had the good sense to find that out," she said. "It's
astonishing how few people knew it. But then, as I said, Michael
hadn't flowered. No one understood him, or was interested. Then
he suddenly made up his mind last summer what he wanted to do and
be, and immediately did and was it."
"I think he told Hermann," said she. "His father didn't approve,
"Approve? My dear, if you knew my brother you would know that the
only things he approves of are those which Michael isn't."
Sylvia spread her fine hands out to the blaze, warming them and
shading her face.
"Michael always seems to us--" she began. "Ah, I called him
Michael by mistake."
"Then do it on purpose next time," remarked Barbara. "What does
"Ah, but don't let him know I called him Michael," said Sylvia in
some horror. "There is nothing so awful as to speak of people
formally to their faces, and intimately behind their backs. But
Hermann is always talking of him as Michael."
"And Michael always seems--"
"Oh, yes; he always seems to me to have been part of us, of Hermann
and me, for years. He's THERE, if you know what I mean, and so few
people are there. They walk about your life, and go in and out, so
to speak, but Michael stops. I suppose it's because he is so
Aunt Barbara had been a diplomatist long before her husband, and
fearful of appearing inquisitive about Sylvia's impression of
Michael, which she really wanted to inquire into, instantly changed
"Ah, everybody who has got definite things to do is natural," she
said. "It is only the idle people who have leisure to look at
themselves in the glass and pose. And I feel sure that you have
definite things to do and plenty of them, my dear. What are they?"
"Oh, I sing a little," said Sylvia.
"That is the first unnatural thing you have said. I somehow feel
that you sing a great deal."
Aunt Barbara suddenly got up.
"My dear, you are not THE Miss Falbe, are you, who drove London
crazy with delight last summer. Don't tell me you are THE Miss
"Do you know, I'm afraid I must be," she said. "Isn't it dreadful
to have to say that after your description?"
Aunt Barbara sat down again, in a sort of calm despair.
"If there are any more shocks coming for me to-night," she said, "I
think I had better go home. I have encountered a perfectly new
nephew Michael. I have dressed myself like a suburban housekeeper
to meet a Poiret, so don't deny it, and having humourously told
Michael I wished to see a prima donna and a pianist, he takes me at
my word and produces THE Miss Falbe. I'm glad I knew that in time;
I should infallibly have asked you to sing, and if you had done so--
you are probably good-natured enough to have done even that--I
should have given the drawing-room gasp at the end, and told your
brother that I thought you sang very prettily."
"But really it wasn't my fault, Lady Barbara," she said. "When we
met I couldn't have said, 'Beware! I am THE Miss Falbe.'"
"No, my dear; but I think you ought, somehow, to have conveyed the
impression that you were a tremendous swell. You didn't. I have
been thinking of you as a charming girl, and nothing more."
"But that's quite good enough for me," said Sylvia.
The two young men joined them after this, and Hermann speedily
became engrossed in reading the finished Variations. Some of these
pleased him mightily; one he altogether demurred to.
"It's just a crib, Mike," he said. "The critics would say I had
forgotten it, and put in instead what I could remember of a
variation out of the Handel theme. That next one's, oh, great fun.
But I wish you would remember that we all haven't got great orang-
outang paws like you."
Aunt Barbara stopped in the middle of her sentence; she knew
Michael's old sensitiveness about these physical disabilities, and
she had a moment's cold horror at the thought of Falbe having said
so miserably tactless a thing to him. But the horror was of
infinitesimal duration, for she heard Michael's laugh as they
leaned over the top of the piano together.
"I wish you had, Hermann," he said. "I know you'll bungle those
Falbe moved to the piano-seat.
"Oh, let's have a shot at it," he said. "If Lady Barbara won't
mind, play that one through to me first, Mike."
"Oh, presently, Hermann," he said. "It makes such an infernal row
that you can't hear anything else afterwards. Do sing, Miss
Sylvia; my aunt won't really mind--will you, Aunt Barbara?"
"Michael, I have just learned that this is THE Miss Falbe," she
said. "I am suffering from shock. Do let me suffer from coals of
Michael gently edged Hermann away from the music-stool. Much as he
enjoyed his master's accompaniment he was perfectly sure that he
preferred, if possible, to play for Sylvia himself than have the
pleasure of listening to anybody else.
"And may I play for you, Miss Sylvia?" he asked.
"Yes, will you? Thanks, Lord Comber."
Hermann moved away.
"And so Mr. Hermann sits down by Lady Barbara while Lord Comber
plays for Miss Sylvia," he observed, with emphasis on the titles.
A sudden amazing boldness seized Michael.
"Sylvia, then," he said.
"All right, Michael," answered the girl, laughing.
She came and stood on the left of the piano, slightly behind him.
"And what are we going to have?" asked Michael.
"It must be something we both know, for I've brought no music,"
Michael began playing the introduction to the Hugo Wolff song which
he had accompanied for her one Sunday night at their house. He
knew it perfectly by heart, but stumbled a little over the
difficult syncopated time. This was not done without purpose, for
the next moment he felt her hand on his shoulder marking it for him.
"Yes, that's right," she said. "Now you've got it." And Michael
smiled sweetly at his own amazing ingenuity.
Hermann put down the Variations, which he still had in his hand,
when Sylvia's voice began. Unaccustomed as she was to her
accompanist, his trained ear told him that she was singing
perfectly at ease, and was completely at home with her player.
Occasionally she gave Michael some little indication, as she had
done before, but for the most part her fingers rested immobile on
his shoulder, and he seemed to understand her perfectly. Somehow
this was a surprise to him; he had not known that Michael possessed
that sort of second-sight that unerringly feels and translates into
the keys the singer's mood. For himself he always had to attend
most closely when he was playing for his sister, but familiar as he
was with her singing, he felt that Michael divined her certainly as
well as himself, and he listened to the piano more than to the voice.
"You extraordinary creature," he said when the song was over.
"Where did you learn to accompany?"
Suddenly Michael felt an access of shyness, as if he had been
surprised when he thought himself private.
"Oh, I've played it before for Miss--I mean for Sylvia," he said.
Then he turned to the girl.
"Thanks, awfully," he said. "And I'm greedy. May we have one
He slid into the opening bars of "Who is Sylvia?" That song, since
he had heard her sing it at her recital in the summer, had grown in
significance to him, even as she had. It had seemed part of her
then, but then she was a stranger. To-night it was even more
intimately part of her, and she was a friend.
Hermann strolled across to the fireplace at the end of this, and
lit a cigarette.
"My sister's a blatant egoist, Lady Barbara," he said. "She loves
singing about herself. And she lays it on pretty thick, too,
doesn't she? Now, Sylvia, if you've finished--quite finished, I
mean--do come and sit down and let me try these Variations--"
"Shall we surrender, Michael?" asked the girl. "Or shall we stick
to the piano, now we've got it? If Hermann once sits down, you
know, we shan't get him away for the rest of the evening. I can't
sing any more, but we might play a duet to keep him out."
Hermann rushed to the piano, took his sister by the shoulders, and
pushed her into a chair.
"You sit there," he said, "and listen to something not about
yourself. Michael, if you don't come away from that piano, I shall
take Sylvia home at once. Now you may all talk as much as you
like; you won't interrupt me one atom--but you'll have to talk loud
in certain parts."
Then a feat of marvellous execution began. Michael had taken an
evil pleasure in giving his master, for whom he slaved with so
unwearied a diligence, something that should tax his powers, and he
gave a great crash of laughter when for a moment Hermann was
brought to a complete standstill in an octave passage of triplets
against quavers, and the performer exultantly joined in it, as he
pushed his hair back from his forehead, and made a second attempt.
"It isn't decent to ask a fellow to read that," he shouted. "It's
a crime; it's a scandal."
"My dear, nobody asked you to read it," said Sylvia.
"Silence, you chit! Mike, come here a minute. Sit down one second
and play that. Promise to get up again, though, immediately. Just
these three bars--yes, I see. An orang-outang apparently can do
it, so why not I? Am I not much better than they? Go away,
please; or, rather, stop there and turn over. Why couldn't you
have finished the page with the last act, and started this one
fresh, instead of making this Godforsaken arrangement? Now!"
A very simple little minuet measure followed this outrageous
passage, and Hermann's exquisite lightness of touch made it sound
strangely remote, as if from a mile away, or a hundred years ago,
some graceful echo was evoked again. Then the little dirge wept
for the memories of something that had never happened, and leaving
out the number he disapproved of, as reminiscent of the Handel
theme, Hermann gathered himself up again for the assertion of the
original tune, with its bars of scale octaves. The contagious
jollity of it all seized the others, and Sylvia, with full voice,
and Aunt Barbara, in a strange hooting, sang to it.
Then Hermann banged out the last chord, and jumped up from his
seat, rolling up the music.
"I go straight home," he said, "and have a peaceful hour with it.
Michael, old boy, how did you do it? You've been studying
seriously for a few months only, and so this must all have been in
you before. And you've come to the age you are without letting any
of it out. I suppose that's why it has come with a rush. You knew
it all along, while you were wasting your time over drilling your
toy soldiers. Come on, Sylvia, or I shall go without you. Good
night, Lady Barbara. Half-past ten to-morrow, Michael."
Protest was clearly useless; and, having seen the two off, Michael
came upstairs again to Aunt Barbara, who had no intention of going
away just yet.
"And so these are the people you have been living with," she said.
"No wonder you had not time to come and see me. Do they always go
that sort of pace--it is quicker than when I talk French."
Michael sank into a chair.
"Oh, yes, that's Hermann all over," he said. "But--but just think
what it means to me! He's going to play my tunes at his concert.
Michael Comber, Op. 1. O Lord! O Lord!"
"And you just met him in the train?" said Aunt Barbara.
"Yes; second class, Victoria Station, with Sylvia on the platform.
I didn't much notice Sylvia then."
This and the inference that naturally followed was as much as could
be expected, and Aunt Barbara did not appear to wait for anything
more on the subject of Sylvia. She had seen sufficient of the
situation to know where Michael was most certainly bound for. Yet
the very fact of Sylvia's outspoken friendliness with him made her
wonder a little as to what his reception would be. She would
hardly have said so plainly that she and her brother were devoted
to him if she had been devoted to him with that secret tenderness
which, in its essentials, is reticent about itself. Her half-
hour's conversation with the girl had given her a certain insight
into her; still more had her attitude when she stood by Michael as
he played for her, and put her hand on his shoulder precisely as
she would have done if it had been another girl who was seated at
the piano. Without doubt Michael had a real existence for her, but
there was no sign whatever that she hailed it, as a girl so
unmistakably does, when she sees it as part of herself.
"More about them," she said. "What are they? Who are they?"
He outlined for her, giving the half-English, half-German
parentage, the shadow-like mother, the Bavarian father, Sylvia's
sudden and comet-like rising in the musical heaven, while her
brother, seven years her senior, had spent his time in earning in
order to give her the chance which she had so brilliantly taken.
Now it was to be his turn, the shackles of his drudgery no longer
impeded him, and he, so Michael radiantly prophesied, was to have
his rocket-like leap to the zenith, also.
"And he's German?" she asked.
"Yes. Wasn't he rude about my being a toy soldier? But that's the
natural German point of view, I suppose."
Michael strolled to the fireplace.
"Hermann's so funny," he said. "For days and weeks together you
would think he was entirely English, and then a word slips from him
like that, which shows he is entirely German. He was like that in
Munich, when the Emperor appeared and sent for me."
Aunt Barbara drew her chair a little nearer the fire, and sat up.
"I want to hear about that," she said.
"But I've told you; he was tremendously friendly in a national
"And that seemed to you real?" she asked.
"I don't know that it did," he said. "It all seemed to me rather
feverish, I think."
"And he asked quantities of questions, I think you said."
"Hundreds. He was just like what he was when he came to Ashbridge.
He reviewed the Yeomanry, and shot pheasants, and spent the
afternoon in a steam launch, apparently studying the deep-water
channel of the river, where it goes underneath my father's place;
and then in the evening there was a concert."
Aunt Barbara did not heed the concert.
"Do you mean the channel up from Harwich," she asked, "of which the
Admiralty have the secret chart?"
"I fancy they have," said Michael. "And then after the concert
there was the torchlight procession, with the bonfire on the top of
"I wasn't there. What else?"
"I think that's all," said Michael. "But what are you driving at,
She was silent a moment.
"I'm driving at this," she said. "The Germans are accumulating a
vast quantity of knowledge about England. Tony, for instance, has
a German valet, and when he went down to Portsmouth the other day
to see the American ship that was there, he took him with him. And
the man took a camera and was found photographing where no
photography is allowed. Did you see anything of a camera when the
Emperor came to Ashbridge?"
"Yes; one of his staff was clicking away all day," he said. "He
sent a lot of them to my mother."
"And, we may presume, kept some copies himself," remarked Aunt
Barbara drily. "Really, for childish simplicity the English are
the biggest fools in creation."
"But do you mean--"
"I mean that the Germans are a very knowledge-seeking people, and
that we gratify their desires in a very simple fashion. Do you
think they are so friendly, Michael? Do you know, for instance,
what is a very common toast in German regimental messes? They do
not drink it when there are foreigners there, but one night during
the manoeuvres an officer in a mess where Tony was dining got
slightly 'on,' as you may say, and suddenly drank to 'Der Tag.'"
"That means 'The Day,'" said Michael confidently.
"It does; and what day? The day when Germany thinks that all is
ripe for a war with us. 'Der Tag' will dawn suddenly from a quiet,
peaceful night, when they think we are all asleep, and when they
have got all the information they think is accessible. War, my
Michael had never in his life seen his aunt so serious, and he was
amazed at her gravity.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of their spies all over England,"
she said, "and hundreds of their agents all over America. Deep,
patient Germany, as Carlyle said. She's as patient as God and as
deep as the sea. They are working, working, while our toy soldiers
play golf. I agree with that adorable pianist; and, what's more, I
believe they think that 'Der Tag' is near to dawn. Tony says that
their manoeuvres this year were like nothing that has ever been
seen before. Germany is a fighting machine without parallel in the
history of the world."
She got up and stood with Michael near the fireplace.
"And they think their opportunity is at hand," she said, "though
not for a moment do they relax their preparations. We are their
real enemy, don't you see? They can fight France with one hand and
Russia with the other; and in a few months' time now they expect we
shall be in the throes of an internal revolution over this Irish
business. They may be right, but there is just the possibility
that they may be astoundingly wrong. The fact of the great foreign
peril--this nightmare, this Armageddon of European war--may be
exactly that which will pull us together. But their diplomatists,
anyhow, are studying the Irish question very closely, and German
gold, without any doubt at all, is helping the Home Rule party. As
a nation we are fast asleep. I wonder what we shall be like when
we wake. Shall we find ourselves already fettered when we wake, or
will there be one moment, just one moment, in which we can spring
up? At any rate, hitherto, the English have always been at their
best, not their worst, in desperate positions. They hate exciting
themselves, and refuse to do it until the crisis is actually on
them. But then they become disconcertingly serious and cool-
"And you think the Emperor--" began Michael.
"I think the Emperor is the hardest worker in all Germany," said
Barbara. "I believe he is trying (and admirably succeeding) to
make us trust his professions of friendship. He has a great eye
for detail, too; it seemed to him worth while to assure you even,
my dear Michael, of his regard and affection for England. He was
always impressing on Tony the same thing, though to him, of course,
he said that if there was any country nearer to his heart than
England it was America. Stuff and nonsense, my dear!"
All this, though struck in a more serious key than was usual with
Aunt Barbara, was quite characteristic of her. She had the quality
of mind which when occupied with one idea is occupied with it to
the exclusion of all others; she worked at full power over anything
she took up. But now she dismissed it altogether.
"You see what a diplomatist I have become," she said. "It is a
fascinating business: one lives in an atmosphere that is charged
with secret affairs, and it infects one like the influenza. You
catch it somehow, and have a feverish cold of your own. And I am
quite useful to him. You see, I am such a chatterbox that people
think I let out things by accident, which I never do. I let out
what I want to let out on purpose, and they think they are pumping
me. I had a long conversation the other day with one of the German
Embassy, all about Irish affairs. They are hugely interested about
Irish affairs, and I just make a note of that; but they can make as
many notes as they please about what I say, and no one will be any
the wiser. In fact, they will be the foolisher. And now I suppose
I had better take myself away."
"Don't do anything of the kind," said Michael.
"But I must. And if when you are down at Ashbridge at Christmas
you find strangers hanging about the deep-water reach, you might
just let me know. It's no use telling your father, because he will
certainly think they have come to get a glimpse of him as he plays
golf. But I expect you'll be too busy thinking about that new
friend of yours, and perhaps his sister. What did she tell me we
had got to do? 'To her garlands let us bring,' was it not? You
and I will both send wreaths, Michael, though not for her funeral.
Now don't be a hermit any more, but come and see me. You shall
take your garland girl into dinner, if she will come, too; and her
brother shall certainly sit next me. I am so glad you have become
yourself at last. Go on being yourself more and more, my dear: it
Some fortnight later, and not long before Michael was leaving town
for his Christmas visit to Ashbridge, Sylvia and her brother were
lingering in the big studio from which the last of their Sunday
evening guests had just departed. The usual joyous chaos
consequent on those entertainments reigned: the top of the piano
was covered with the plates and glasses of those who had made an
alfresco supper (or breakfast) of fried bacon and beer before
leaving; a circle of cushions were ranged on the floor round the
fire, for it was a bitterly cold night, and since, for some reason,
a series of charades had been spontaneously generated, there was
lying about an astonishing collection of pillow-cases, rugs, and
table-cloths, and such articles of domestic and household use as
could be converted into clothes for this purpose. But the event of
the evening had undoubtedly been Hermann's performance of the
"Wenceslas Variations"; these he had now learned, and, as he had
promised Michael, was going to play them at his concert in the
Steinway Hall in January. To-night a good many musician friends
had attended the Sunday evening gathering, and there had been no
two opinions about the success of them.
"I was talking to Arthur Lagden about them," said Falbe, naming a
prominent critic of the day, "and he would hardly believe that they
were an Opus I., or that Michael had not been studying music
technically for years instead of six months. But that's the odd
thing about Mike; he's so mature."
It was not unusual for the brother and sister to sit up like this,
till any hour, after their guests had gone; and Sylvia collected a
bundle of cushions and lay full length on the floor, with her feet
towards the fire. For both of them the week was too busy on six
days for them to indulge that companionship, sometimes full of
talk, sometimes consisting of those dropped words and long
silences, on which intimacy lives; and they both enjoyed, above all
hours in the week, this time that lay between the friendly riot of
Sunday evening and the starting of work again on Monday. There was
between them that bond which can scarcely exist between husband and
wife, since it almost necessarily implies the close consanguinity
of brother and sister, and postulates a certain sort of essential
community of nature, founded not on tastes, nor even on affection,
but on the fact that the same blood beats in the two. Here an
intense affection, too strong to be ever demonstrative, fortified
it, and both brother and sister talked to each other, as if they
were speaking to some physically independent piece of themselves.
Sylvia had nothing apparently to add on the subject of Michael's
maturity. Instead she just raised her head, which was not quite
"Stuff another cushion under my head, Hermann," she said. "Thanks;
now I'm completely comfortable, you will be relieved to hear."
Hermann gazed at the fire in silence.
"That's a weight off my mind," he said. "About Michael now. He's
been suppressed all his life, you know, and instead of being
dwarfed he has just gone on growing inside. Good Lord! I wish
somebody would suppress me for a year or two. What a lot there
would be when I took the cork out again. We dissipate too much,
Sylvia, both you and I."
She gave a little grunt, which, from his knowledge of her
inarticulate expressions, he took to mean dissent.
"I suppose you mean we don't," he remarked.
"Yes. How much one dissipates is determined for one just as is the
shape of your nose or the colour of your eyes. By the way, I fell
madly in love with that cousin of Michael's who came with him to-
night. He's the most attractive creature I ever saw in my life.
Of course, he's too beautiful: no boy ought to be as beautiful as
"You flirted with him," remarked Hermann. "Mike will probably
murder him on the way home."
Sylvia moved her feet a little farther from the blaze.
"Funny?" she asked.
Instantly Falbe knew that her mind was occupied with exactly the
same question as his.
"No, not funny at all," he said. "Quite serious. Do you want to
talk about it or not?"
She gave a little groan.
"No, I don't want to, but I've got to," she said. "Aunt Barbara--
we became Sylvia and Aunt Barbara an hour or two ago, and she's a
dear--Aunt Barbara has been talking to me about it already."
"And what did Aunt Barbara say?"
"Just what you are going to," said Sylvia; "namely, that I had
better make up my mind what I mean to say when Michael says what he
means to say."
She shifted round so as to face her brother as he stood in front of
the fire, and pulled his trouser-leg more neatly over the top of
"But what's to happen if I can't make up my mind?" she said. "I
needn't tell you how much I like Michael; I believe I like him as
much as I possibly can. But I don't know if that is enough.
Hermann, is it enough? You ought to know. There's no use in you
unless you know about me."
She put out her arm, and clasped his two legs in the crook of her
elbow. That expressed their attitude, what they were to each
other, as absolutely as any physical demonstration allowed. Had
there not been the difference of sex which severed them she could
never have got the sense of support that this physical contact gave
her; had there not been her sisterhood to chaperon her, so to
speak, she could never have been so at ease with a man. The two
were lover-like, without the physical apexes and limitations that
physical love must always bring with it. The complement of sex
that brought them so close annihilated the very existence of sex.
They loved as only brother and sister can love, without trouble.
The closer contact of his fire-warmed trousers to the calf of his
leg made Hermann step out of her encircling arm without any
question of hurting her feelings.
"I won't be burned," he said. "Sorry, but I won't be burned. It
seems to me, Sylvia, that you ought to like Michael a little more
and a little less."
"It's no use saying what I ought to do," she said. "The idea of
what I 'ought' doesn't come in. I like him just as much as I like
him, neither more nor less."
He clawed some more cushions together, and sat down on the floor by
her. She raised herself a little and rested her body against his
"What's the trouble, Sylvia?" he said.
"Just what I've been trying to tell you."
"Be more concrete, then. You're definite enough when you sing."
She sighed and gave a little melancholy laugh.
"That's just it," she said. "People like you and me, and Michael,
too, for that matter, are most entirely ourselves when we are at
our music. When Michael plays for me I can sing my soul at him.
While he and I are in music, if you understand--and of course you
do--we belong to each other. Do you know, Hermann, he finds me
when I'm singing, without the slightest effort, and even you, as
you have so often told me, have to search and be on the lookout.
And then the song is over, and, as somebody says, 'When the feast
is finished and the lamps expire,' then--well, the lamps expire,
and he isn't me any longer, but Michael, with the--the ugly face,
and--oh, isn't it horrible of me--the long arms and the little
stumpy legs--if only he was rather different in things that don't
matter, that CAN'T matter! But--but, Hermann, if only Michael was
rather like you, and you like Michael, I should love you exactly as
much as ever, and I should love Michael, too."
She was leaning forward, and with both hands was very carefully
tying and untying one of Hermann's shoelaces.
"Oh, thank goodness there is somebody in the world to whom I can
say just whatever I feel, and know he understands," she said. "And
I know this, too--and follow me here, Hermann--I know that all that
doesn't really matter; I am sure it doesn't. I like Michael far
too well to let it matter. But there are other things which I
don't see my way through, and they are much more real--"
She was silent again, so long that Hermann reached out for a
cigarette, lit it, and threw away the match before she spoke.
"There is Michael's position," she said. "When Michael asks me if
I will have him, as we both know he is going to do, I shall have to
make conditions. I won't give up my career. I must go on working--
in other words, singing--whether I marry him or not. I don't call
it singing, in my sense of the word, to sing 'The Banks of Allan
Water' to Michael and his father and mother at Ashbridge, any more
than it is being a politician to read the morning papers and argue
about the Irish question with you. To have a career in politics
means that you must be a member of Parliament--I daresay the House
of Lords would do--and make speeches and stand the racket. In the
same way, to be a singer doesn't mean to sing after dinner or to go
squawking anyhow in a workhouse, but it means to get up on a
platform before critical people, and if you don't do your very best
be damned by them. If I marry Michael I must go on singing as a
professional singer, and not become an amateur--the Viscountess
Comber, who sings so charmingly. I refuse to sing charmingly; I
will either sing properly or not at all. And I couldn't not sing.
I shall have to continue being Miss Falbe, so to speak."
"You say you insist on it," said Hermann; "but whether you did or
not, there is nothing more certain than that Michael would."
"I am sure he would. But by so doing he would certainly quarrel
irrevocably with his people. Even Aunt Barbara, who, after all, is
very liberally minded, sees that. They can none of them, not even
she, who are born to a certain tradition imagine that there are
other traditions quite as stiff-necked. Michael, it is true, was
born to one tradition, but he has got the other, as he has shown
very clearly by refusing to disobey it. He will certainly, as you
say, insist on my endorsing the resolution he has made for himself.
What it comes to is this, that I can't marry him without his
father's complete consent to all that I have told you. I can't
have my career disregarded, covered up with awkward silences,
alluded to as a painful subject; and, as I say, even Aunt Barbara
seemed to take it for granted that if I became Lady Comber I should
cease to be Miss Falbe. Well, there she's wrong, my dear; I shall
continue to be Miss Falbe whether I'm Lady Comber, or Lady
Ashbridge, or the Duchess of anything you please. And--here the
difficulty really comes in--they must all see how right I am.
Difficulty, did I say? It's more like an impossibility."
Hermann threw the end of his cigarette into the ashes of the dying
"It's clear, then," he said, "you have made up your mind not to
She shook her head.
"Oh, Hermann, you fail me," she said. "If I had made up my mind
not to I shouldn't have kept you up an hour talking about it."
He stretched his hands out towards the embers already coated with
"Then it's like that with you," he said, pointing. "If there is
the fire in you, it is covered up with ashes."
She did not reply for a moment.
"I think you've hit it there," she said. "I believe there is the
fire; when, as I said, he plays for me I know there is. But the
ashes? What are they? And who shall disperse them for me?"
She stood up swiftly, drawing herself to her full height and
stretching her arms out.
"There's something bigger than we know coming," she said. "Whether
it's storm or sunshine I have no idea. But there will be something
that shall utterly sever Michael and me or utterly unite us."
"Do you care which it is?" he asked.
"Yes, I care," said she.
He held out his hands to her, and she pulled him up to his feet.
"What are you going to say, then, when he asks you?" he said.
"Tell him he must wait."
He went round the room putting out the electric lamps and opening
the big skylight in the roof. There was a curtain in front of
this, which he pulled aside, and from the frosty cloudless heavens
the starshine of a thousand constellations filtered down.
"That's a lot to ask of any man," he said. "If you care, you
"And if you were a girl you would know exactly what I mean," she
said. "They may know they care, but, unless they are marrying for
perfectly different reasons, they have to feel to the end of their
fingers that they care before they can say 'Yes.'"
He opened the door for her to pass out, and they walked up the
passage together arm-in-arm.
"Well, perhaps Michael won't ask you," he said, "in which case all
bother will be saved, and we shall have sat up talking till--
Sylvia, did you know it is nearly three--sat up talking for
Sylvia considered this.
"Fiddlesticks!" she said.
And Hermann was inclined to agree with her.
This view of the case found confirmation next day, for Michael,
after his music lesson, lingered so firmly and determinedly when
the three chatted together over the fire that in the end Hermann
found nothing to do but to leave them together. Sylvia had given
him no sign as to whether she wished him to absent himself or not,
and he concluded, since she did not put an end to things by going
away herself, that she intended Michael to have his say.
The latter rose as the door closed behind Hermann, and came and
stood in front of her. And at the moment Sylvia could notice
nothing of him except his heaviness, his plainness, all the things
that she had told herself before did not really matter. Now her
sensation contradicted that; she was conscious that the ash somehow
had vastly accumulated over her fire, that all her affection and
regard for him were suddenly eclipsed. This was a complete
surprise to her; for the moment she found Michael's presence and
his proximity to her simply distasteful.
"I thought Hermann was never going," he said.
For a second or two she did not reply; it was clearly no use to
continue the ordinary banter of conversation, to suggest that as
the room was Hermann's he might conceivably be conceded the right
to stop there if he chose. There was no transition possible
between the affairs of every day and the affair for which Michael
had stopped to speak. She gave up all attempt to make one;
instead, she just helped him.
"What is it, Michael?" she asked.
Then to her, at any rate, Michael's face completely changed. There
burned in it all of a sudden the full glow of that of which she had
only seen glimpses.
"You know," he said.
His shyness, his awkwardness, had all vanished; the time had come
for him to offer to her all that he had to offer, and he did it
with the charm of perfect manliness and simplicity.
"Whether you can accept me or not," he said, "I have just to tell
you that I am entirely yours. Is there any chance for me, Sylvia?"
He stood quite still, making no movement towards her. She, on her
side, found all her distaste of him suddenly vanished in the mere
solemnity of the occasion. His very quietness told her better than
any protestations could have done of the quality of what he
offered, and that quality vastly transcended all that she had known
or guessed of him.
"I don't know, Michael," she said at length.
She came a step forward, and without any sense of embarrassment
found that she, without conscious intention, had put her hands on
his shoulders. The moment that was done she was conscious of the
impulse that made her do it. It expressed what she felt.
"Yes, I feel like that to you," she said. "You're a dear. I
expect you know how fond I am of you, and if you don't I assure you
of it now. But I have got to give you more than that."
Michael looked up at her.
"Yes, Sylvia," he said, "much more than that."
A few minutes ago only she had not liked him at all; now she liked
"But how, Michael?" she asked. "How can I find it?"
"Oh, it's I who have got to find it for you," he said. "That is to
say, if you want it to be found. Do you?"
She looked at him gravely, without the tremor of a smile in her
"What does that mean exactly?" she said.
"It is very simple. Do you want to love me?"
She did not move her hands; they still rested on his shoulders like
things at ease, like things at home.
"Yes, I suppose I want to," she said.
"And is that the most you can do for me at present?" he asked.
That reached her again; all the time the plain words, the plain
face, the quiet of him stabbed her with daggers of which he had no
idea. She was dismayed at the recollection of her talk with her
brother the evening before, of the ease and certitude with which
she had laid down her conditions, of not giving up her career, of
remaining the famous Miss Falbe, of refusing to take a dishonoured
place in the sacred circle of the Combers. Now, when she was face
to face with his love, so ineloquently expressed, so radically a
part of him, she knew that there was nothing in the world, external
to him and her, that could enter into their reckonings; but into
their reckonings there had not entered the one thing essential.
She gave him sympathy, liking, friendliness, but she did not want
him with her blood. And though it was not humanly possible that
she could want him with more than that, it was not possible that
she could take him with less.
"Yes, that is the most I can do for you at present," she said.
Still quite quietly he moved away from her, so that he stood free
of her hands.
"I have been constantly here all these last months," he said. "Now
that you know what I have told you, do you want not to see me?"
That stabbed her again.
"Have I implied that?" she asked.
"Not directly. But I can easily understand its being a bore to
you. I don't want to bore you. That would be a very stupid way of
trying to make you care for me. As I said, that is my job. I
haven't accomplished it as yet. But I mean to. I only ask you for
She understood her own feeling better than he. She understood at
least that she was dealing with things that were necessarily
"I can't give you a hint," she said. "I can't make any plans about
it. If you were a woman perhaps you would understand. Love is, or
it isn't. That is all I know about it."
But Michael persisted.
"I only know what you have taught me," he said. "But you must know
In a flash she became aware that it would be impossible for her to
behave to Michael as she had behaved to him for several months
past. She could not any longer put a hand on his shoulder, beat
time with her fingers on his arm, knowing that the physical contact
meant nothing to her, and all--all to him. The rejection of him as
a lover rendered the sisterly attitude impossible. And not only
must she revise her conduct, but she must revise the mental
attitude of which it was the physical counterpart. Up till this
moment she had looked at the situation from her own side only, had
felt that no plans could be made, that the natural thing was to go
on as before, with the intimacy that she liked and the familiarity
that was the obvious expression of it. But now she began to see
the question from his side; she could not go on doing that which
meant nothing particular to her, if that insouciance meant
something so very particular to him. She realised that if she had
loved him the touch of his hand, the proximity of his face would
have had significance for her, a significance that would have been
intolerable unless there was something mutual and secret between
them. It had seemed so easy, in anticipation, to tell him that he
must wait, so simple for him just--well, just to wait until she
could make up her mind. She believed, as she had told her brother,
that she cared for Michael, or as she had told him that she wanted
to--the two were to the girl's mind identical, though expressed to
each in the only terms that were possible--but until she came face
to face with the picture of the future, that to her wore the same
outline and colour as the past, she had not known the impossibility
of such a presentment. The desire of the lover on Michael's part
rendered unthinkable the sisterly attitude on hers. That her
instinct told her, but her reason revolted against it.
"Can't we go on as we were, Michael?" she said.
He looked at her incredulously.
"Oh, no, of course not that," he said.
She moved a step towards him.
"I can't think of you in any other way," she said, as if making an
He stood absolutely unresponsive. Something within him longed that
she should advance a step more, that he should again have the touch
of her hands on his shoulders, but another instinct stronger than
that made him revoke his desire, and if she had moved again he
would certainly have fallen back before her.
"It may seem ridiculous to you," he said, "since you do not care.
But I can't do that. Does that seem absurd to you I? I am afraid
it does; but that is because you don't understand. By all means
let us be what they call excellent friends. But there are certain
little things which seem nothing to you, and they mean so much to
me. I can't explain; it's just the brotherly relation which I
can't stand. It's no use suggesting that we should be as we were
She understood well enough for his purposes.
"I see," she said.
Michael paused for a moment.
"I think I'll be going now," he said. "I am off to Ashbridge in
two days. Give Hermann my love, and a jolly Christmas to you both.
I'll let you know when I am back in town."
She had no reply to this; she saw its justice, and acquiesced.
"Good-bye, then," said Michael.
He walked home from Chelsea in that utterly blank and unfeeling
consciousness which almost invariably is the sequel of any event
that brings with it a change of attitude towards life generally.
Not for a moment did he tell himself that he had been awakened from
a dream, or abandon his conviction that his dream was to be made
real. The rare, quiet determination that had made him give up his
stereotyped mode of life in the summer and take to music was still
completely his, and, if anything, it had been reinforced by
Sylvia's emphatic statement that "she wanted to care." Only her
imagining that their old relations could go on showed him how far
she was from knowing what "to care" meant. At first without
knowing it, but with a gradually increasing keenness of
consciousness, he had become aware that this sisterly attitude of
hers towards him had meant so infinitely much, because he had taken
it to be the prelude to something more. Now he saw that it was, so
to speak, a piece complete in itself. It bore no relation to what
he had imagined it would lead into. No curtain went up when the
prelude was over; the curtain remained inexorably hanging there,
not acknowledging the prelude at all. Not for a moment did he
accuse her of encouraging him to have thought so; she had but given
him a frankness of comradeship that meant to her exactly what it
expressed. But he had thought otherwise; he had imagined that it
would grow towards a culmination. All that (and here was the
change that made his mind blank and unfeeling) had to be cut away,
and with it all the budding branches that his imagination had
pictured as springing from it. He could not be comrade to her as
he was to her brother--the inexorable demands of sex forbade it.
He went briskly enough through the clean, dry streets. The frost
of last night had held throughout the morning, and the sunlight
sparkled with a rare and seasonable brightness of a traditional
Christmas weather. Hecatombs of turkeys hung in the poulterers'
windows, among sprigs of holly, and shops were bright with
children's toys. The briskness of the day had flushed the colour
into the faces of the passengers in the street, and the festive air
of the imminent holiday was abroad. All this Michael noticed with
a sense of detachment; what had happened had caused a veil to fall
between himself and external things; it was as if he was sealed
into some glass cage, and had no contact with what passed round
him. This lasted throughout his walk, and when he let himself into
his flat it was with the same sense of alienation that he found his
cousin Francis gracefully reclining on the sofa that he had pulled
up in front of the fire.
Francis was inclined to be querulous.
"I was just wondering whether I should give you up," he said. "The
hour that you named for lunch was half-past one. And I have almost
forgotten what your clock sounded like when it struck two."
This also seemed to matter very little.
"Did I ask you to lunch?" he said. "I really quite forgot; I can't
even remember doing it now."
"But there will be lunch?" asked Francis rather anxiously.
"Of course. It'll be ready in ten minutes."
Michael came and stood in front of the fire, and looked with a
sudden spasm of envy on the handsome boy who lay there. If he
himself had been anything like that--
"I was distinctly chippy this morning," remarked Francis, "and so I
didn't so much mind waiting for lunch. I attribute it to too much
beer and bacon last night at your friend's house. I enjoyed it--I
mean the evening, and for that matter the bacon--at the time. It
really was extremely pleasant."
He yawned largely and openly.
"I had no idea you could frolic like that, Mike," he said. "It was
quite a new light on your character. How did you learn to do it?
It's quite a new accomplishment."
Here again the veil was drawn. Was it last night only that Falbe
had played the Variations, and that they had acted charades?
Francis proceeded in bland unconsciousness.
"I didn't know Germans could be so jolly," he continued. "As a
rule I don't like Germans. When they try to be jolly they
generally only succeed in being top-heavy. But, of course, your
friend is half-English. Can't he play, too? And to think of your
having written those ripping tunes. His sister, too--no wonder we
haven't seen much of you, Mike, if that's where you've been
spending your time. She's rather like the new girl at the Gaiety,
but handsomer. I like big girls, don't you? Oh, I forgot, you
don't like girls much, anyhow. But are you learning your mistake,
Mike? You looked last night as if you were getting more sensible."
Michael moved away impatiently.
"Oh, shut it, Francis," he observed.
Francis raised himself on his elbow.
"Why, what's up?" he asked. "Won't she turn a favourable eye?"
Michael wheeled round savagely.
"Please remember you are talking about a lady, and not a Gaiety
lady," he remarked.
This brought Francis to his feet.
"Sorry," he said. "I was only indulging in badinage until lunch
Michael could not make up his mind to tell his cousin what had
happened; but he was aware of having spoken more strongly than the
situation, as Francis knew of it, justified.
"Let's have lunch, then," he said. "We shall be better after
lunch, as one's nurse used to say. And are you coming to
"Yes; I've been talking to Aunt Bar about it this morning. We're
both coming; the family is going to rally round you, Mike, and
defend you from Uncle Robert. There's sure to be some duck
shooting, too, isn't there?"
This was a considerable relief to Michael.
"Oh, that's ripping," he said. "You and Aunt Barbara always make
me feel that there's a good deal of amusement to be extracted from
"To be sure there is. Isn't that what the world is for? Lunch and
amusement, and dinner and amusement. Aunt Bar told me she dined
with you the other night, and had a quantity of amusement as well
as an excellent dinner. She hinted--"
"Oh, Aunt Barbara's always hinting," said Michael.
"I know. After all, everything that isn't hints is obvious, and so
there's nothing to say about it. Tell me more about the Falbes,
Mike. Will they let me go there again, do you think? Was I
popular? Don't tell me if I wasn't."
Michael smiled at this egoism that could not help being charming.
"Would you care if you weren't?" he asked.
"Very much. One naturally wants to please delightful people. And
I think they are both delightful. Especially the girl; but then
she starts with the tremendous advantage of being--of being a girl.
I believe you are in love with her, Mike, just as I am. It's that
which makes you so grumpy. But then you never do fall in love.
It's a pity; you miss a lot of jolly trouble."
Michael felt a sudden overwhelming desire to make Francis stop this
maddening twaddle; also the events of the morning were beginning to
take on an air of reality, and as this grew he felt the need of
sympathy of some kind. Francis might not be able to give him
anything that was of any use, but it would do no harm to see if his
cousin's buoyant unconscious philosophy, which made life so
exciting and pleasant a thing to him, would in any way help.
Besides, he must stop this light banter, which was like drawing
plaster off a sore and unhealed wound.
"You're quite right," he said. "I am in love with her.
Furthermore, I asked her to marry me this morning."
This certainly had an effect.
"Good Lord!" said Francis. "And do you mean to say she refused
"She didn't accept me," said Michael. "We--we adjourned."
"But why on earth didn't she take you?" asked Francis.
All Michael's old sensitiveness, his self-consciousness of his
plainness, his awkwardness, his big hands, his short legs, came
back to him.
"I should think you could see well enough if you look at me," he
said, "without my telling you."
"Oh, that silly old rot," said Francis cheerfully. "I thought you
had forgotten all about it."
"I almost had--in fact I quite had until this morning," said
Michael. "If I had remembered it I shouldn't have asked her."
He corrected himself.
"No, I don't think that's true," he said. "I should have asked
her, anyhow; but I should have been prepared for her not to take
me. As a matter of fact, I wasn't."
Francis turned sideways to the table, throwing one leg over the
"That's nonsense," he said. "It doesn't matter whether a man's
ugly or not."
"It doesn't as long as he is not," remarked Michael grimly.
"It doesn't matter much in any case. We're all ugly compared to
girls; and why ever they should consent to marry any of us awful
hairy things, smelling of smoke and drink, is more than I can make
out; but, as a matter of fact, they do. They don't mind what we
look like; what they care about is whether we want them. Of
course, there are exceptions--"
"You see one," said Michael.
"No, I don't. Good Lord, you've only asked her once. You've got
to make yourself felt. You're not intending to give up, are you?"
"I couldn't give up."
"Well then, just hold on. She likes you, doesn't she?"
"Certainly," said Michael, without hesitation. "But that's a long
way from the other thing."
"It's on the same road."
Michael got up.
"It may be," he said, "but it strikes me it's round the corner.
You can't even see one from the other."
"Possibly not. But you never know how near the corner really is.
Go for her, Mike, full speed ahead."
"Oh, there are hundreds of ways. I'm not sure that one of the best
isn't to keep away for a bit. Even if she doesn't want you just
now, when you are there, she may get to want you when you aren't.
I don't think I should go on the mournful Byronic plan if I were
you; I don't think it would suit your style; you're too heavily
built to stand leaning against the chimney-piece, gazing at her and
dishevelling your hair."
Michael could not help laughing.
"Oh, for God's sake, don't make a joke of it," he said.
"Why not? It isn't a tragedy yet. It won't be a tragedy till she
marries somebody else, or definitely says no. And until a thing is
proved to be tragic, the best way to deal with it is to treat it
like a comedy which is going to end well. It's only the second act
now, you see, when everything gets into a mess. By the merciful
decrees of Providence, you see, girls on the whole want us as much
as we want them. That's what makes it all so jolly."
Michael went down next day to Ashbridge, where Aunt Barbara and
Francis were to follow the day after, and found, after the freedom
and interests of the last six months, that the pompous formal life
was more intolerable than ever. He was clearly in disgrace still,
as was made quite clear to him by his father's icy and awful
politeness when it was necessary to speak to him, and by his utter
unconsciousness of his presence when it was not. This he had
expected. Christmas had ushered in a truce in which no guns were
discharged, but remained sighted and pointed, ready to fire.
But though there was no change in his father, his mother seemed to
Michael to be curiously altered; her mind, which, as has been
already noticed, was usually in a stunned condition, seemed to have
awakened like a child from its sleep, and to have begun vaguely
crying in an inarticulate discomfort. It was true that Petsy was
no more, having succumbed to a bilious attack of unusual severity,
but a second Petsy had already taken her place, and Lady Ashbridge
sat with him--it was a gentleman Petsy this time--in her lap as
before, and occasionally shed a tear or two over Petsy II. in
memory of Petsy I. But this did not seem to account for the
wakening up of her mind and emotions into this state of depression
and anxiety. It was as if all her life she had been quietly dozing
in the sun, and that the place where she sat had passed into the
shade, and she had awoke cold and shivering from a bitter wind.
She had become far more talkative, and though she had by no means
abandoned her habit of upsetting any conversation by the extreme
obviousness of her remarks, she asked many more questions, and, as
Michael noticed, often repeated a question to which she had
received an answer only a few minutes before. During dinner
Michael constantly found her looking at him in a shy and eager
manner, removing her gaze when she found it was observed, and when,
later, after a silent cigarette with his father in the smoking-
room, during which Lord Ashbridge, with some ostentation, studied
an Army List, Michael went to his bedroom, he was utterly
astonished, when he gave a "Come in" to a tapping at his door, to
see his mother enter. Her maid was standing behind her holding the
inevitable Petsy, and she herself hovered hesitatingly in the
"I heard you come up, Michael," she said, "and I wondered if it
would annoy you if I came in to have a little talk with you. But I
won't come in if it would annoy you. I only thought I should like
a little chat with you, quietly, secure from interruptions."
Michael instantly got up from the chair in front of his fire, in
which he had already begun to see images of Sylvia. This intrusion
of his mother's was a thing utterly unprecedented, and somehow he
at once connected its innovation with the strange manner he had
remarked already. But there was complete cordiality in his
welcome, and he wheeled up a chair for her.
"But by all means come in, mother," he said. "I was not going to
Lady Ashbridge looked round for her maid.
"And will Petsy not annoy you if he sits quietly on my knee?" she
"Of course not."
Lady Ashbridge took the dog.
"There, that is nice," she said. "I told them to see you had a
good fire on this cold night. Has it been very cold in London?"
This question had already been asked and answered twice, now for
the third time Michael admitted the severity of the weather.
"I hope you wrap up well," she said. "I should be sorry if you
caught cold, and so, I am sure, your father would be. I wish you
could make up your mind not to vex him any more, but go back into
"I'm afraid that's impossible, mother," he said.
"Well, if it's impossible there is no use in saying anything more
about it. But it vexed him very much. He is still vexed with you.
I wish he was not vexed. It is a sad thing when father and son
fall out. But you do wrap up, I hope, in the cold weather?"
Michael felt a sudden pang of anxiety and alarm. Each separate
thing that his mother said was sensible enough, but in the sum they
"You have been in London since September," she went on. "That is a
long time to be in London. Tell me about your life there. Do you
work hard? Not too hard, I hope?"
"No! hard enough to keep me busy," he said.
"Tell me about it all. I am afraid I have not been a very good
mother to you; I have not entered into your life enough. I want to
do so now. But I don't think you ever wanted to confide in me. It
is sad when sons don't confide in their mothers. But I daresay it
was my fault, and now I know so little about you."
She paused a moment, stroking her dog's ears, which twitched under