Part 3 out of 8
paper. He might have left his post and obtained another; but to be
forced by fate to be editor of a financial weekly was F.F.'s chief
grievance in life, and he loved a good grievance beyond everything.
"But, my dear fellow," said F.F. with his melancholy ardent glance, when
Mr. Prohack had replied suitably to his opening question. "I'd no idea
you'd been unwell. I hope it isn't what's called a breakdown."
"Oh, no!" Mr. Prohack laughed nervously. "But you know what doctors are.
A little rest has been prescribed."
F.F. gazed at him softly compassionate, as if to indicate that nothing
but trouble could be expected under the present political regime. They
examined the tape together.
"Things can't go on much longer like this," observed F.F.
comprehensively, in front of the morning's messages from the capitals of
"Still," said Mr. Prohack, "we've won the war, haven't we?"
"I suppose we have," said F.F. and sighed.
Mr. Prohack felt that he had no more time for preliminaries, and in
order to cut them short started some ingenious but quite inexcusable
"You didn't chance to see old Paul Spinner going out as you came in?"
"No," answered F.F. "Why?"
"Nothing. Only a man in the morning-room was wanting to know if he was
still in the Club, and I told him I'd see."
"I hear," said F.F. after a moment, and in a lower voice, "I hear he's
getting up some big new oil scheme."
"Ah!" murmured Mr. Prohack, delighted at so favourable a coincidence,
with a wonderful imitation of casualness. "And what may that be?"
"Nobody knows. Some people would give a good deal to know. But if I'm
any judge of my Spinner they won't know till he's licked off all the
cream. It's marvellous to me how Spinner and his sort can keep on
devoting themselves to the old ambitions while the world's breaking up.
"Money, you mean?"
"Well," answered Mr. Prohack, with a judicial, detached air. "I've
always found Spinner a very decent agreeable chap."
"Oh, yes! Agreed! Agreed! They're all too confoundedly agreeable for
anything, all that lot are."
"But surely he's honest?"
"Quite. As straight a man as ever breathed, especially according to his
own lights. All his enterprises are absolutely what is known as 'sound.'
They all make rich people richer, and in particular they make _him_
richer, though I bet even he's been feeling the pinch lately. They all
"Still, I expect old Spinner desires the welfare of the country just as
much as any one else. It's not all money with him."
"No. But did you ever know Spinner touch anything that didn't mean money
in the first place? I never did. What he and his lot mean by the welfare
of the country is the stability of the country _as it is_. They see the
necessity for development, improvement in the social scheme. Oh, yes!
They see it and admit it. Then they go to church, or they commune with
heaven on the golf-course, and their prayer is: 'Give us needed change,
O Lord, but not just yet.'"
The pair moved to the morning-room.
"Look here," said Mr. Prohack, lightly, ignoring the earnestness in
F.F.'s tone. "Supposing you had a bit of money, say eighty thousand
pounds, and the chance to put it into one of old who-is-it's schemes,
what would you do?"
"I should be ashamed to have eighty thousand pounds," F.F. replied with
dark whispering passion. "And in any case nothing would induce me to
have any dealings with the gang."
"Are they all bad?"
"They're all bad, all! They are all anti-social. All! They are all a
curse to the country and to all mankind." F.F. had already rung the
bell, and he now beckoned coldly to the waitress who entered the room.
"Everybody who supports the present Government is guilty of a crime
against human progress. Bring me a glass of that brown sherry I had
yesterday--you know the one--and three small pieces of cheese."
Mr. Prohack went away to the telephone, and got Paul Spinner at Smathe's
"I only wanted to tell you that I've decided to come into your show, if
Smathe can arrange for the money. I've thought it all over carefully,
and I'm yours, old boy."
He hung up the receiver immediately.
* * * * *
The excursion to the club had taken longer than Mr. Prohack had
anticipated, and when he got back home it was nearly lunch-time. No sign
of an Eagle car or any other car in front of the house! Mr. Prohack let
himself in. The sounds of a table being set came from the dining-room.
He opened the door there. Machin met him at the door. Each withdrew from
the other, avoiding a collision.
"Your mistress returned?"
"Yes, sir." Machin seemed to hesitate, her mind disturbed.
"Where is she?"
"I was just coming to tell you, sir. She told me to say that she was
Disdaining further to interrogate the servant, he hurried upstairs. He
had to excuse himself to Eve, and he had also to justify to her the
placing of eighty thousand pounds in a scheme which she could not
possibly understand and for which there was nothing whatever to show.
She would approve, of course; she would say that she had complete
confidence in his sagacity, but all the inflections of her voice, all
her gestures and glances, would indicate to him that in her opinion he
was a singularly ingenuous creature, the natural prey of sharpers, and
that the chances of their not being ruined by his incurable simplicity
were exceedingly small. His immense reputation in the Treasury, his
sinister fame as the Terror of the departments, would not weigh an atom
in her general judgment of the concrete case affecting the fortunes of
the Prohack family. Then she would be brave; she would be bravely
resigned to the worst. She would kiss his innocence. She would quite
unconvincingly assure him, in her own vocabulary, that he was a devil of
a fellow and the smartest man in the world.
Further, she would draw in the horns of her secret schemes of
expenditure. She would say that she had intended to do so-and-so and to
buy so-and-so, but that perhaps it would be better, in view of the
uncertainties of destiny, neither to do nor to buy so-and-so. In short,
she would succeed in conveying to him the idea that to live with him was
like being in an open boat with him adrift in the middle of the stormy
Atlantic. She loved to live with him, the compensations were exquisite,
and moreover what would be his fate if he were alone? Still, it was like
being in an open boat with him adrift in the middle of the stormy
Atlantic. And she would cling closer to him and point to the red sun
setting among black clouds of tempest. And this would continue until he
could throw say about a hundred and sixty thousand pounds into her lap,
whereupon she would calmly assert that in her opinion he and she had
really been safe all the while on the glassy lake of the Serpentine in a
"I ought to have thought of all that before," he said to himself. "And
if I had I should have bought houses, something for her to look at and
touch. And even then she would have suggested that if I hadn't been a
coward I could have done better than houses. She would have found in
_The Times_ every day instances of companies paying twenty and thirty
per cent ... No! It would have been impossible for me to invest the
money without losing her esteem for me as a man of business. I wish to
heaven I hadn't got any money. So here goes!"
And he burst with assumed confidence into the bedroom. And
simultaneously, to intensify his unease, the notion that profiteering
was profiteering, whether in war or in peace, and the notion that F.F.
was a man of lofty altruistic ideals, surged through his distracted
Eve was lying on the bed. She looked very small on the bed, smaller than
usual. At the sound of the door opening she said, without moving her
head--he could not see her face from the door:
"Is that you, Arthur?"
"Yes, what's the matter?"
"Just put my cloak over my feet, will you?"
He came forward and took the cloak off a chair.
"What's the matter?" he repeated, arranging the cloak.
"I'm not hurt, dearest, I assure you I'm not--not at all." She was
speaking in a faint, weak voice, like a little child's.
"Then you've had an accident?"
She glanced up at him sideways, timidly, compassionately, and nodded.
"You mustn't be upset. I told Machin to go on with her work and not to
say anything to you about it. I preferred to tell you myself. I know how
sensitive you are where I'm concerned."
Mr. Prohack had to adjust his thoughts, somewhat violently, to the new
situation, and he made no reply; but he was very angry about the mere
existence of motor-cars. He felt that he had always had a prejudice
against motor-cars, and that the prejudice was not a prejudice because
it was well-founded.
"Darling, don't look so stern. It wasn't Carthew's fault. Another car
ran into us. I told Carthew to drive in the Park, and we went right
round the Park in about five minutes. So as I felt sure you'd be a long
time with that fat man, I had the idea of running down to Putney--to see
Sissie." Eve laughed nervously. "I thought I might possibly bring her
home with me.... After the accident Carthew put me into a taxi and I
came back. Of course he had to stay to look after the car. And then you
weren't here when I arrived! Where are you going, dearest?"
"I'm going to telephone for the doctor, of course," said Mr. Prohack
quietly, but very irritably.
"Oh, darling! I've sent for the doctor. He wasn't in, they said, but
they said he'd be back quite soon and then he'd come at once. I don't
really need the doctor. I only sent for him because I knew you'd be so
frightfully angry if I didn't."
Mr. Prohack had returned to the bed. He took his wife's hand.
"Feel my pulse. It's all right, isn't it?"
"I can't feel it at all."
"Oh, Arthur, you never could! I can feel your hand trembling, that's
what I can feel. Now please don't be upset, Arthur."
"I suppose the car's smashed?"
"It's a bit broken."
"Where was it?"
"It was just on the other side of Putney Bridge, on the tramlines
"Carthew wasn't hurt?"
"Oh, no! Carthew was simply splendid."
"How did it happen, exactly?"
"Oh, Arthur, you with your 'exactlys'! Don't ask me. I'm too tired.
Besides, I didn't see it. My eyes were shut" She closed her eyes.
Suddenly she sat up and put her hand on his shoulder, in a sort of
appeal, vaguely smiling. He tried to smile, but could not. Then her hand
dropped. A totally bewildered expression veiled the anxious kindness in
her eyes. The blood left her face until her cheeks were nearly as white
as the embroidered cloth on the night-tabla. Her eyes closed. She fell
back. She had fainted. She was just as if dead. Her hand was as cold as
the hand of a corpse.
Such was Mr. Prohack's vast experience of life that he had not the least
idea what to do in this crisis. But he tremendously regretted that
Angmering, Bishop, and the inventor of the motor-car had ever been born.
He rushed out on to the landing and loudly shouted: "Machin! Machin!
Ring up that d----d doctor again, and if he can't come ring up Dr. Plott
"Yes, sir. Yes, sir."
He rushed back into the bedroom, discovered Eve's smelling-salts, and
held them to her nose. Already the blood was mounting again.
"Well, she's not dead, anyway!" he said to himself grimly.
He could see the blood gently mounting, mounting. It was a wonderful, a
mysterious and a reassuring sight.
"I don't care so long as she isn't injured internally," he said to
Eve opened her eyes in a dazed look. Then she grinned as if
apologetically. Then she cried copiously.
Mr. Prohack heard a car outside. It was Dr. Veiga's. The mere sound of
Dr. Veiga's car soothed Mr. Prohack, accused him of losing his head, and
made a man of him.
Dr. Veiga entered the bedroom in exactly the same style as on his first
visit to Mr. Prohack himself. He had heard the nature of the case from
Machin on his way upstairs. He listened to Mr. Prohack, who spoke, in
the most deceitful way, as if he had been through scores of such
"Exactly," said Dr. Veiga, examining Eve summarily. "She sat up. The
blood naturally left her head, and she fainted. Fainting is nothing but
a withdrawing of blood from the head. Will you ring for that servant of
"I'm positive I'm quite all right, Doctor," Eve murmured.
"Will you kindly not talk," said he. "If you're so positive you're all
right, why did you send for me? Did you walk upstairs? Then your legs
aren't broken, at least not seriously." He laughed softly.
But shortly afterwards, when Mr. Prohack, admirably dissembling his
purposes, crept with dignity out of the room, Dr. Veiga followed him,
and shut the door, leaving Machin busy within.
"I don't think that there is any internal lesion," said Dr. Veiga, with
seriousness. "But I will not yet state absolutely. She has had a very
severe shock and her nerves are considerably jarred."
"But it's nothing physical?"
"My dear sir, of course it's physical. Do you conceive the nerves are
not purely physical organs? I can't conceive them as anything but
physical organs. Can you?"
Mr. Prohack felt schoolboyish.
"It's you that she's upset about, though. Did you notice she motioned me
to give you some of the brandy she was taking? Very sweet of her, was it
not?... What are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to fetch my daughter."
"Excellent. But have something before you go. You may not know it, but
you have been using up nervous tissue, which has to be replaced."
As he was driving down to Putney in a taxi, Mr. Prohack certainly did
feel very tired. But he was not so tired as not to insist on helping the
engine of the taxi. He pushed the taxi forward with all his might all
the way to Putney. He pushed it till his arms ached, though his hands
were in his pockets. The distance to Putney had incomprehensibly
stretched to nine hundred and ninety-nine miles.
He found Sissie in the studio giving a private lesson to a middle-aged
gentleman who ought, Mr. Prohack considered, to have been thinking of
his latter end rather than of dancing. He broke up the lesson very
"Your mother has had a motor accident. You must come at once."
"Then it must have been about here," said she, as the taxi approached
Putney Bridge on the return journey.
So it must. He certainly had not thought of the _locus_ of the accident.
He had merely pictured it, in his own mind, according to his own
frightened fancy. Yes, it must have been just about there. And yet there
was no sign of it in the roadway. Carthew must have had the wounded
Eagle removed. Mr. Prohack sat stern and silent. A wondrous woman, his
wife! Absurd, possibly, about such matters as investments; but an
angel! Her self-forgetfulness, her absorption in _him_,--staggering! The
accident was but one more proof of it. He was greatly alarmed about her,
for the doctor had answered for nothing. He seemed to have a thousand
worries. He had been worried all his life, but the worries that had
formed themselves in a trail to the inheritance were worse worries than
the old simple ones. No longer did the thought of the inheritance
brighten his mind. He somehow desired to go back to former days.
Glancing askance at Sissie, he saw that she too was stern. He resumed
the hard pushing of the taxi. It was not quite so hard as before,
because he knew that Sissie also was pushing her full share.
THE THEORY OF IDLENESS
Within the next seven days Mr. Prohack had reason to lose confidence in
himself as an expert in human nature. "After all," he reflected, "I must
have been a very simple-minded man to have thought that I thoroughly
understood another human being. Every human being is infinite, and will
beat your understanding in the end."
The reference of course was to his wife. Since the automobile accident
she had become another person and a more complex person. The climax, or
what seemed to be the climax, came one cold morning when she and Mr.
Prohack and Sissie and Dr. Veiga were sitting together in the little
boudoir beyond the bedroom. They were packed in there because Eve
(otherwise Marian) had taken a fancy to the sofa.
Eve was relating to the admired and trusted doctor all her peculiar
mental and moral symptoms. She was saying that she could no longer
manage the house, could not concentrate her mind on anything, could not
refrain from strange caprices, could not remain calm, could not keep her
temper, and was the worst conceivable wife for such a paragon as Arthur
Prohack. Her daughter alone had saved the household organism from a
catastrophe; her daughter Sissie--
"Come here, Sissie!"
Sissie obeyed the call and was suddenly embraced by her mother with deep
tenderness. This in front of the doctor! Still more curious was the fact
that Sissie, of late her mother's frigid critic, came forward and
responded to the embrace almost effusively. The spectacle was really
touching. It touched Mr. Prohack, who yet felt as if the floor had
yielded under his feet and he was falling into the Tube railway
underground. Indeed Mr. Prohack had never had such sensations as drew
and quartered him then.
"Well," said Dr. Veiga to Mrs. Prohack in his philosophical-realistic
manner, "I've been marking time for a week. I shall now proceed to put
you right. You can't sleep. You will sleep to-night--I shall send you
something. I suppose it isn't your fault that you've been taking the
digestive tonic I sent you last thing at night under the impression that
it was a sedative, in spite of the label. But it is regrettable. As for
your headaches, I will provide a pleasing potion. As for this sad lack
of application, don't attempt application. As for your strange caprices,
indulge them. One thing is essential. You must go away to the sea. You
must go to Frinton-on-Sea. It is an easy journey. There is a Pullman car
on the morning train, and the air is unrivalled for your--shall I
"Yes, darling mother," said Sissie. "You must go away, and father and I
will take you."
"Of course!" confirmed Mr. Prohack, with an imitation of pettishness, as
though he had been steadily advocating a change of scene for days past;
but he had done nothing of the kind.
"Oh!" Eve cried piteously, "that's the one thing I can't do!"
Dr. Veiga laughed. "Afraid of the expense, I suppose?"
"No," Eve answered with seriousness. "My husband has just made a very
fortunate investment, which means a profit of at least a hundred
thousand pounds--like that!" She snapped her fingers and laughed
Here was another point to puzzle an expert in human nature. Instead of
being extremely incredulous and apprehensive about the vast speculation
with Sir Paul, Eve had in truth accepted it for a gold-mine. She did not
assume satisfaction; she really was satisfied. Her satisfaction was
absurd, and nothing that Mr. Prohack could say would diminish it. She
had already begun to spend the financial results of the speculation with
enormous verve. For instance, she had hired another Eagle to take the
place of the wounded Eagle, without uttering a word to her husband of
what she had done. Mr. Prohack could see the dregs of his bank-balance;
and in a dream he had had glimpses of a sinister edifice at the bottom
of a steep slope, the building being the Bankruptcy Court.
"Is it a railway strike you're afraid of?" demanded Dr. Veiga cruelly.
And Eve replied with sweetness:
"I can't leave London until my son Charlie comes back from Glasgow, and
he's written me to say he'll be here next week."
A first-rate example, this, of her new secretiveness! She had said
absolutely nothing to Mr. Prohack about a letter from Charlie.
"When did you hear that?" Mr. Prohack might well have asked; but he was
too loyal to her to betray her secretiveness by such a question. He did
not wish the Portuguese quack to know that he, the husband, was kept in
the dark about anything whatever. He had his ridiculous dignity, had
Mr. Prohack, and all his motives were mixed motives. Not a perfectly
pure motive in the whole of his volitional existence!
However, Sissie put the question in her young blundering way. "Oh,
mother dear! You never told us!"
"I received the letter the day before yesterday," Eve continued gravely.
"And Charlie is certainly not coming home to find me away."
For two entire days she had had the important letter and had concealed
it. Mr. Prohack was disturbed.
"Very well," Dr. Veiga concurred. "It doesn't really matter whether you
go to Frinton now or next month, or even next year but one. You're a
powerful woman and you'll last a long time yet, especially if you don't
worry. I won't call for about a week, and if you'd like to consult
another doctor, do." He smiled on her in an avuncular manner, and rose.
Whereupon Mr. Prohack also jumped up.
"I'm not worrying," she protested, with a sweet, pathetic answering
smile. "Yes, I am. Yes, I am. I'm worrying because I know I'm worrying
my poor husband." She went quickly to her poor husband and kissed him
lavishly. Eve was an artist in kissing, and never a greater artist than
at that moment. And now Mr. Prohack, though still to the physical eye a
single individual, became two Mr. Prohacks. There was the Mr. Prohack
who strongly deprecated this departure from the emotional reserve which
is one of the leading and sublimest characteristics of the British
governing-class. And there was the Mr. Prohack, all nerves and heart and
humanity, who profoundly enjoyed the demonstration of a woman's
affection, disordered and against the rules though the demonstration
might be. The first Mr. Prohack blushed and hated himself for blushing.
The second was quite simply enraptured and didn't care who knew it.
"Dr. Veiga," Eve appealed, clinging to Mr. Prohack's coat. "It is my
husband who needs looking after. He is not making any progress, and it
is my fault. And let me tell you that you've been neglecting him for
She was a dramatic figure of altruism, of the everlasting sacrificial
feminine. She was quite possibly absurd, but beyond doubt she was
magnificent. Mr. Prohack felt ashamed of himself, and the more ashamed
because he considered that he was in quite tolerable health.
"Mother," murmured Sissie, with a sweetness of which Mr. Prohack had
imagined her to be utterly incapable. "Come and sit down."
And Eve, guided by her daughter, the callous, home-deserting
dancing-mistress, came and sat down.
* * * * *
"My dear sir," said Dr. Veiga. "There is nothing at all to cause alarm.
She will gradually recover. Believe me."
He and Mr. Prohack and Sissie were conspiring together in the
dining-room, the drawing-room being at that hour and on that day under
the dominion of servants with brushes.
"But what's the matter with her? What is it?"
"Merely neurasthenia--traumatic neurasthenia."
"But what's that?" Mr. Prohack spoke low, just as though his wife could
overhear from the boudoir above and was listening to them under the
impression that they were plotting against her life.
"It's a morbid condition due to a violent shock."
"But how? You told me the other day that it was purely physical."
"Well," said Dr. Veiga. "It is, because it must be. But I assure you
that if a post-mortem were to be held on Mrs. Prohack--"
"Oh, doctor, please!" Sissie stopped him resentfully.
The doctor paused and then continued: "There would be no trace of any
morbid condition in any of the organs."
"Then how do you explain it?"
"We don't explain it," cried Dr. Veiga, suddenly throwing the onus on
the whole medical profession. "We can't. We don't know."
"It's very, very unsatisfactory, all this ignorance."
"It certainly is. But did you suppose that medical science, alone among
all sciences, had achieved finality and omniscience? We've reached the
state of knowing that we don't know, and that's something. I hope I'm
not flattering you by talking like this. I only do it to people whom I
suspect to be intelligent. But of course if you'd prefer the omniscient
bedside manner you can have it without extra charge."
Mr. Prohack thought, frightened: "I shall be making a friend of this
quack soon, if I'm not careful."
"And by the way, about _your_ health," Dr. Veiga proceeded, after
having given further assurances as to his other patient. "Mrs. Prohack
was perfectly correct. You're not making progress. The fact is, you're
bored. You haven't organised your existence, and the lack of
organisation is reacting on your health."
"Something is reacting on his health," Sissie put in. "I'm not at all
pleased." She was now not Mr. Prohack's daughter but his aunt.
"How can I organise my existence?" Mr. Prohack burst out crossly. "I
haven't got any existence to organise. I haven't got anything to do. I
thought I had too much to do, the other day. Illusion. Of course I'm
bored. I feel all right, but bored I am. And it's your fault."
"It is," the doctor admitted. "It is my fault. I took you for a person
of commonsense, and so I didn't tell you that two and two make four and
a lot more important things of the same sort. I ought to have told you.
You've taken on the new profession of being idle--it's essential for
you--but you aren't treating it seriously. You have to be a
_professionally_ idle man. Which means that you haven't got a moment to
spare. When I advised you to try idleness, I didn't mean you to be idle
idly. That's worse than useless. You've got to be idle busily. You
aren't doing half enough. Do you ever have a Turkish bath?"
"No. Never could bear the idea of them."
"Well, you will kindly take two Turkish baths a week. You can be
massaged at the same time. A Turkish bath is as good as a day's hunting,
as far as exercise goes, but you must have more exercise. Do you dance?
I see you don't. You had better begin dancing. There is no finer
exercise. I absolutely prescribe it."
At this juncture Mr. Prohack was rather relieved that the sound of an
unaccustomed voice in the hall drew his daughter out of the dining-room.
When she had gone Dr. Veiga went on, in a more confidential tone:
"There's another point. An idle man who really knows his business will
visit his tailor's, his hosier's, his bootmaker's, his barber's much
oftener and much more conscientiously than you do. You've got a mind
above clothes--of course. So have I. I take a wicked pleasure in being
picturesquely untidy. But I'm not a patient. My life is a great lark.
Yours isn't. Yours is serious. You have now a serious profession,
idleness. Bring your mind down to clothes. I say this, partly because to
be consistently well-dressed means much daily expenditure of time, and
partly because really good clothes have a distinctly curative effect on
the patient who wears them. Then again--"
Mr. Prohack was conscious of a sudden joyous uplifting of the spirit.
"Here!" said he, interrupting Dr. Veiga with a grand gesture. "Have a
"I cannot, my friend." Dr. Veiga looked at his watch.
"You must. Have a corona." Mr. Prohack moved to the cigar cabinet which
he had recently purchased.
"No. My next patient is awaiting me in Hyde Park Gardens at this
"Let him die!" exclaimed Mr. Prohack ruthlessly. "You've got to have a
cigar with me. Look. I'll compromise. I'll make it a half-corona. You
can charge me as if for another consultation."
The doctor's foreign eyes twinkled as he sat down and struck a match.
"You thought I was a quack," he said maliciously, and maliciously he
seemed to intensify his foreign accent.
"I did," admitted Mr. Prohack with candour.
"So I am," said Dr. Veiga. "But I'm a fully qualified quack, and all
really good doctors are quacks. They have to be. They wouldn't be worth
anything if they weren't. Medicine owes a great deal to quacks."
"Tell me something about some of your cases," said Mr. Prohack
imperatively. "You're one of the most interesting men I've ever met. So
now you know. We want some of your blood transfused, into the English
character. You've got a soul above medicine as well as clothes."
"All good doctors have," said Dr. Veiga. "My life is a romance."
"And so shall mine be," said Mr. Prohack.
* * * * *
When at length Mr. Prohack escorted Dr. Veiga out into the hall he saw
Sissie kissing Eliza Brating with much affection on the front-door step.
They made an elegant group for a moment and then Eliza Brating departed
hurriedly, disappearing across the street behind Dr. Veiga's attendant
"Now I'll just repeat once more to both of you," resumed Dr. Veiga,
embracing father and daughter in one shrewd glance. "You've nothing to
worry about upstairs." He indicated the boudoir by a movement of his
somewhat tousled head. "But you've got just a little to worry about
here." And he indicated Mr. Prohack.
"I know," said Sissie with assurance. "But I shall look after him,
doctor. You can rely on me. I understand--both cases."
"Well, there's one good thing," said Sissie, following her father into
the dining-room after the doctor had gone. "I've done with that foolish
Eliza. I knew it couldn't last and it hasn't. Unless I'm there all the
time to keep my eye on everything--of course it all goes to pieces. That
girl is the biggest noodle...!"
"But haven't I just seen you and her joined in the deepest affection?"
"Naturally I had to kiss her. But I've finished with her. And what's
more, she knows what I think of her. She never liked me."
"Sissie," said Mr. Prohack, "you shock me." And indeed he was genuinely
shocked, for he had always thought that Sissie was different from other
girls; that she had all the feminine qualities without any of the
feminine defects. Yes, he had thought that she might develop into a
creature more perfect even than Marian. And here she was talking and
behaving exactly as men at the club would relate of their own
Sissie gazed firmly at her father, as it were half in pity and half in
disdain. Did the innocent fellow not then understand the nature of
women? Or was he too sentimental to admit it, too romantic to be a
"Would you believe," said Sissie, "that although I was there last night
and told her exactly what to do, she's had a quarrel this morning with
the landlord of the studio? Well, she has. You know the A.R.A. on the
first floor has been making a lot of silly complaints about the
noise--music and so on--every night. And some other people have
complained. _I_ could have talked the landlord round in ten minutes!
Eliza doesn't merely not talk him round,--she quarrels with him! Of
course it's all up. And as if that wasn't enough, a County Council
inspector has been round asking about a music and dancing licence. We
shall either have to give up business altogether or else move somewhere
else. Eliza says she knows of another studio. Well, I shall write her
to-night and tell her she can have my share of the fittings and
furniture and go where she likes, but I shan't go with her. And if she
never liked me I can honestly say I never liked her. And I don't want to
run a dancing studio any more, either. Why should I, after all? We
_were_ the new poor. Now we're the new rich. Well, we may as well _be_
the new rich."
Mr. Prohack was now still more shocked. Nay, he was almost frightened.
And yet he wasn't either shocked or frightened, in the centre of his
soul. He was rather triumphant,--not about his daughter with the feet of
clay, but about himself.
"But I shan't give up teaching dancing entirely," said Sissie.
"No?" He wondered what would come next.
"No! I shall teach you."
"Indeed you won't!" He instinctively recoiled.
"Yes, I shall. I promised the doctor he could rely on me. You'll buy a
gramophone, and we'll have the carpet up in the drawing-room. Oh! You
startled deer, do you want to run back into the depths of the forest?...
Father, you are the funniest father that ever was." She marched to him
and put her hand on his shoulder and just twitched his beard. "I can
look after you quite as well as mother can. We're pals, aren't we?"
"Yes. Like the tiger and the lamb. You've got hold of my silky fleece
Mr. Prohack sat in the dining-room alone. The room was now heated by an
electric radiator which Eve had just bought for the sake of economy. But
her economy was the economy of the rich, for the amount of expensive
current consumed by that radiator was prodigious, while the saving it
effected in labour, cleanliness and atmospheric purity could certainly
not have been measured without a scientific instrument adapted to the
infinitely little. (Still, Machin admired and loved it.) Mr. Prohack
perceived that all four bars of it were brightly incandescent, whereas
three bars would have been ample to keep the room warm. He ought to get
up and turn a bar off.... He had a hundred preoccupations. His daughter
had classed him with the new rich. He resented the description, but
could he honestly reject it? All his recent troubles sprang from the new
riches. If he had not inherited from a profiteer he would assuredly have
been at his office in the Treasury, earning an honest living, at that
very moment. For only sick persons of plenteous independent means are
ever prescribed for as he had been prescribed for; the others either go
on working and making the best of such health as is left to them, or
they die. If he had not inherited from a profiteer he would not have had
a car and the car would not have had an accident and he would not have
been faced with the prospect (as he was faced with it) of a legal
dispute, to be fought by him on behalf of the insurance company, with
the owner of the colliding car. (The owner of the colliding car was a
young woman as to whose veracity Carthew had had some exceedingly hard
things to say.) Mr. Prohack would have settled the matter, but neither
Eve nor the insurance company would let him settle it. And if the car
had not had an accident Eve would not have had traumatic neurasthenia,
with all its disconcerting reactions on family life. And if he had not
inherited from a profiteer, Charlie would not have gone off to
Glasgow,--he had heard odds and ends of strange tales as to Charlie's
doings in Glasgow,--not in the least reassuring! And if he had not
inherited from a profiteer Sissie would not have taken a share in a
dancing studio and might never have dangerously danced with that worm
Oswald Morfey. And if he had not inherited from a profiteer he would not
have been speculating, with a rich chance of more profiteering, in
Roumanian oil with Paul Spinner. In brief--well, he ought to get up and
turn off a bar of that wasteful radiator.
Yet he was uplifted, happy. Not because of his wealthy ease. No! A week
or two ago he had only to think of his fortune to feel uplifted and
happy. But now!
No! He was uplifted and happy now for the simple reason that he had
caught the romance of the doctor's idea of taking idleness seriously and
practising it as a profession. If circumstances forced him to be idle,
he would be idle in the grand manner. He would do everything that the
doctor had suggested, and more. (The doctor saw life like a poet. He
might be a cross between a comedian and a mountebank, but he was a great
fellow.) Every species of idleness should have its appointed hour. In
the pursuit of idleness he would become the busiest man in London. A
definite programme would be necessary. Strict routine would be
necessary. No more loafing about! He hankered after routine as the
drunkard after alcohol. Routine was what he had been missing. The
absence of routine, and naught else, was retarding his recovery. (Yes,
he knew in his heart that what they all said was true,--he was not
getting better.) His own daughter had taught him wisdom. Inevitably,
unavoidably, he was the new rich. Well, he would be the new rich
thoroughly. No other aim was logical.... Let the radiator burn!
Three days later Mr. Prohack came home late with his daughter in the
substituted car. He had accompanied Sissie to Putney for the final
disposition of the affairs of the dance-studio, and had witnessed her
blighting politeness to Eliza Brating and Eliza Brating's blighting
politeness to her. The last kiss between these two young women would
have desolated the heart of any man whose faith in human nature was less
strong than Mr. Prohack's. "I trust that the excellent Eliza is not
disfigured for life," he had observed calmly in the automobile. "What
are you talking about, father?" Sissie had exclaimed, suspicious. "I was
afraid her lips might be scorched. You feel no pain yourself, my child,
I hope?" He made the sound of a kiss. After this there was no more
conversation in the car during the journey. Arrived home, Sissie said
nonchalantly that she was going to bed.
"Burn my lips first," Mr. Prohack implored.
"Father!" said she, having kissed him. "You are simply terrible."
"I am a child," he replied. "And you are my grandmother."
"You wait till I give you your next dancing-lesson," Sissie retorted,
turning and threatening him from the stairs. "It won't be as mild as
He smiled, giving an imitation of the sphinx. He was happy enough as
mortals go. His wife was perhaps a little better. And he was gradually
launching himself into an industrious career of idleness. Also, he had
broken the ice,--the ice, that is to say, of tuition in dancing. Not a
word had been spoken abroad in the house about the first dancing-lesson.
He had had it while Mrs. Prohack was, in theory at least, paying calls;
at any rate she had set forth in the car. Mr. Prohack and Sissie had
rolled up the drawing-room carpet and moved the furniture themselves.
Mr. Prohack had unpacked the gramophone in person. They had locked the
drawing-room door. At the end of the lesson they had relaid the carpet
and replaced the furniture and enclosed the gramophone and unlocked the
door, and Mr. Prohack had issued from the drawing-room like a criminal.
The thought in his mind had been that he was no end of a dog and of a
brave dog at that. Then he sneered at himself for thinking such a
foolish thought. After all, what was there in learning to dance? But the
sneer was misplaced. His original notion that he had done something
courageous and wonderful was just a notion.
The lesson had favoured the new nascent intimacy with his daughter.
Evidently she was a born teacher as well as a born dancer. He perceived
in two minutes how marvellous her feet were. She guided him with
pressures light as a feather. She allowed herself to be guided with an
intuitive responsiveness that had to be felt to be believed. Her
exhortations were delicious, her reprimands exquisite, her patience was
infinite. Further, she said that he had what she called "natural
rhythm," and would learn easily and satisfactorily. Best of all, he had
been immediately aware of the physical benefit of the exercise. The
household was supposed to know naught of the affair, but the kitchen
knew a good deal about it somehow; the kitchen was pleasantly and rather
condescendingly excited, and a little censorious, for the reason that
nobody in the kitchen had ever before lived in a house the master of
which being a parent of adult children took surreptitious lessons in
dancing; the thing was unprecedented, and therefore of course
intrinsically reprehensible. Mr. Prohack guessed the attitude of the
kitchen, and had met Machin's respectful glance with a self-conscious
He now bolted the front-door and went upstairs extinguishing the lights
after him. Eve had told her husband and child that she should go to bed
early. He meant to have a frolicsome, teasing chat with her, for the
doctor had laid it down that light conversation would assist the cure of
traumatic neurasthenia. She would not be asleep, and even if she were
asleep she would be glad to awaken, because she admired his style of
gossip when both of them were in the vein for it. He would describe for
her the evening at the studio humorously, in such a fashion as to
confirm her in her righteous belief that the misguided Sissie had seen
the maternal wisdom and quitted dance-studios for ever.
The lamps were out in the bedroom. She slept. He switched on a light,
but her bed was empty; it had not been occupied!
"Marian!" he called in a low voice, thinking that she might be in the
And if she was in the boudoir she must be reclining in the dark there.
He ascertained that she was not in the boudoir. Then he visited both
the drawing-room and the dining-room. No Marian anywhere! He stood a
moment in the hall and was in a mind to ring for Machin--he could see
from a vague illumination at the entrance to the basement steps that the
kitchen was still inhabited--but just then all the servants came upwards
on the way to the attics, and at the strange spectacle of their dancing
master in the hall they all grew constrained and either coughed or
hurried as though they ought not to be caught in the act of retiring to
Mr. Prohack, as it were, threw a lasso over Machin, who was the last of
"Where is your mistress, Machin?" He tried to be matter-of-fact, but
something unusual in his tone apparently started her.
"She's gone to bed, sir. She told me to put her hot-water bag in the bed
"Oh! Thanks! Good-night."
He could not persuade himself to call an alarm. He could not even inform
Machin that she was mistaken, for to do so would have been equivalent to
calling an alarm. Hesitating and inactive he allowed the black-and-white
damsels and the blue cook to disappear. Nor would he disturb
Sissie--yet. He had first to get used to the singular idea that his wife
had vanished from home. Could this vanishing be one of the effects of
traumatic neurasthenia? He hurried about and searched all the rooms
again, looking with absurd carefulness, as if his wife were an
insignificant object that might have dropped unperceived under a chair
or behind a couch.
Then he telephoned to her sister, enquiring in a voice of studied
casualness. Eve was not at her sister's. He had known all the while that
she would not be at her sister's. Being unable to recall the number, he
had had to consult the telephone book. His instinct now was to fetch
Sissie, whose commonsense had of late impressed him more and more; but
he repressed the instinct, holding that he ought to be able to manage
the affair alone. He could scarcely say to his daughter: "Your mother
has vanished. What am I to do?" Moreover, feeling himself to be the
guardian of Marian's reputation for perfect sanity, he desired not to
divulge her disappearance, unless obliged to do so. She might return at
any moment. She must return very soon. It was inconceivable that
anything should have "happened" in the Prohack family....
Almost against his will he looked up "Police Stations" in the
telephone-book. There were scores of police stations. The nearest seemed
to be that of Mayfair. He demanded the number. To demand the number of
the police station was like jumping into bottomless cold water. In a
detestable dream he gave his name and address and asked if the police
had any news of a street accident. Yes, several. He described his wife.
He said, reflecting wildly, that she was not very tall and rather plump;
dark hair. Dress? Dark blue. Hat and mantle? He could not say. Age? A
queer impulse here. He knew that she hated the mention of her real age,
and so he said thirty-nine. No! The police had no news of such a person.
But the polite firm voice on the wire said that it would telephone to
other stations and would let Mr. Prohack hear immediately if there was
anything to communicate. Wonderful organisation, the London police
As he hung up the receiver he realised what had occurred and what he had
done. Marian had mysteriously disappeared and he had informed the
police,--he, Arthur Prohack, C.B. What an awful event!
His mind ran on the consequences of traumatic neurasthenia. He put on
his hat and overcoat and unbolted the front-door as silently as he
could--for he still did not want anybody in the house to know the
secret--and went out into the street. What to do? A ridiculous move! Did
he expect to find her lying in the gutter? He walked to the end of the
dark street and peered into the cross-street, and returned. He had left
the front-door open. As he re-entered the house he descried in a corner
of the hall, a screwed-up telegraph-envelope. Why had he not noticed it
before? He snatched at it. It was addressed to "Mrs. Prohack."
Mr. Prohack's soul was instantaneously bathed in heavenly solace.
Traumatic neurasthenia had nothing to do with Eve's disappearance! His
bliss was intensified by the fact that he had said not a word to the
servants and had not called Sissie. And it was somewhat impaired by the
other fact that he had been ass enough to tell the police. He was just
puzzling his head to think what misfortune could have called his wife
away--not that the prospect of any misfortune much troubled him now that
Eve's vanishing was explained--when through the doorway he saw a taxi
drive up. Eve emerged from the taxi.
He might have gone out and paid the fare for her, but he stayed where he
was, in the doorway, thinking with beatific relief that after all
nothing had "happened" in the family.
"Ah!" he said, in the most ordinary, complacent, quite undisturbed
tone, "I was just beginning to wonder where you'd got to. We've been
back about five minutes, Sissie and I, and Sissie's gone to bed. I
really don't believe she knows you were out."
Mrs. Prohack came urgently towards him, pushing the door to behind her
with a careless loud bang. The bang might waken the entire household,
but Mrs. Prohack did not care. Mrs. Prohack kissed him without a word.
He possessed in his heart a barometric scale of her kisses, and this was
a set-fair kiss, a kiss with a somewhat violent beginning and a
reluctant close. Then she held her cheek for him to kiss. Both cheek and
lips were freshly cold from the night air. Mr. Prohack was aware of an
immense, romantic felicity. And he immediately became flippant, not
aloud, but secretly, to hide himself from himself.
"It's a positive fact that I've been kissing this girl of a woman for a
quarter of a century, and she's fat."
But beneath his flippancy and beneath his felicity there was a
lancinating qualm, which, if he had expressed it he would have expressed
"If anything _did_ happen to her, it would be the absolute ruin of me."
The truth was that his felicity frightened him. Never before had he been
seriously concerned for her well-being. The reaction from grave alarm
lighted up the interior of his mysterious soul with a revealing flash of
"What are all these lights burning for?" she murmured. Lights were
indeed burning everywhere. He had been in a mood to turn on but not to
"Oh!" he said, "I was just wandering about."
"I'll go straight upstairs," she said, trying to be as matter-of-fact as
her Arthur appeared to be.
When he had leisurely set the whole of the ground-floor to rights, he
followed her. She was waiting for him in the boudoir. She had removed
her hat and mantle, and lighted one of the new radiators, and was
sitting on the sofa.
"There came a telegram from Charlie," she began. "I was crossing the
hall just as the boy reached the door. So I opened the door myself. It
was from Charlie to say that he would be at the Grand Babylon Hotel
"Charlie! The Grand Babylon!... Not Buckingham Palace." Eve ignored his
"It seems I ought to have received it early in the afternoon. I was so
puzzled I didn't know what to do--I just put my things on and went off
to the hotel at once. It wasn't till after I was in the taxi that I
remembered I ought to have told the servants where I was going. That's
why I hurried back. I wanted to get back before you did. Charlie
suggested telephoning from the hotel, but I wouldn't let him on any
"Well, I thought you might be upset and wonder what on earth was going
"What was going on?" Mr. Prohack repeated, gazing at her childlike
maternal serious face, whose wistfulness affected him in an
extraordinary way. "What on earth are you insinuating?"
No! It was inconceivable that this pulsating girl perched on the sofa
should be the mother of the mature and independent Charles.
"Charlie's _staying_ at the Grand Babylon Hotel," said Eve, as though
she were saying that Charlie had forged a cheque or blown up the
Even the imperturbable man of the world in front of her momentarily
blenched at the news.
"More fool him!" observed Mr. Prohack.
"Yes, and he's got a bedroom and a private sitting-room and a bathroom,
and a room for a secretary--"
"Hence a secretary," Mr. Prohack put in.
"Yes, and a secretary. And he dictates things to the secretary all the
time, and the telephone's always going,--yes, even at this time of
night. He must be spending enormous sums. So of course I hurried back to
"You did quite right, my pet," said Mr. Prohack. "A good wife should
share these tit-bits with her husband at the earliest possible moment."
He was really very like what in his more conventional moments he would
have said a woman was like. If Eve had taken the affair lightly he would
without doubt have remonstrated, explaining that such an affair ought by
no means to be taken lightly. But seeing that she took it very
seriously, his instinct was to laugh at it, though in fact he was
himself extremely perturbed by this piece of news, which confirmed, a
hundredfold and in the most startling manner, certain sinister
impressions of his own concerning Charlie's deeds in Glasgow. And he
assumed the gay attitude, not from a desire to reassure his wife, but
from mere contrariness. Positively the strangest husband that ever
lived, and entirely different from normal husbands!
Then he saw tears hanging in Eve's eyes,--tears not of resentment
against his lack of sympathy, tears of bewilderment and perplexity. She
simply did not understand his attitude. And he sat down close by her on
the sofa and solaced her with three kisses. She was singularly
attractive in her alternations of sagacity and helplessness.
"But it's awful," she whimpered. "The boy must be throwing money away at
the rate of twenty or twenty-five pounds a day."
"Very probably," Mr. Prohack agreed.
"Where's he getting it from?" she demanded. "He must be getting it from
"I expect he's made it. He's rather clever, you know."
"But he can't have made money like that."
"People do, sometimes."
"Not honestly,--you know what I mean, Arthur!" This was an earthquaking
phrase to come from a mother's lips.
"And yet," said Mr. Prohack, "everything Charlie did used to be right
"But he's carrying on just like an adventurer! I've read in reports of
trials about people carrying on just like that. A fortnight ago he
hadn't got fifty pounds cash in the world, and now he's living like a
millionaire at the Grand Babylon Hotel! Arthur, what are you going to do
about it? Couldn't you go and see him; to-night?"
"Now listen to me," Mr. Prohack began in a new tone, taking her hands.
"Supposing I did go and see him to-night, what could I say to him?"
"Well, you're his father."
"And you're his mother. What did _you_ say to him?"
"Oh! I didn't say anything. I only said I should have been very glad if
he could have arranged to sleep at home as usual, and he said he was
sorry he couldn't because he was so busy."
"You didn't tell him he was carrying on like an adventurer?"
"Arthur! How could I?"
"But you'd like _me_ to tell him something of the sort. All that I can
say, you could say--and that is, enquire in a friendly way what he has
done, is doing, and hopes to do."
"Yes, my innocent creature. You may well pause." He caressed her, and
she tried to continue in unhappiness, but could not. "You pause because
there is nothing to say."
"You're his father at any rate," she burst out triumphantly.
"That's not his fault. You ought to have thought of all this over twenty
years ago, before Charlie was born, before we were married, before you
met me. To become a parent is to accept terrible risks. I'm Charlie's
father. What then? Am I to give him orders as to what he must do and
what he mustn't? This isn't China and it isn't the eighteenth century.
He owes nothing whatever to me, or to you. If we were starving and he
had plenty, he would probably consider it his duty to look after us; but
that's the limit of what he owes us. Whereas nothing can put an end to
our responsibility towards him. You see, we brought him here. We thought
it would be so nice to have children, and so Charlie arrived. He didn't
choose his time, and he didn't choose his character, nor his education,
nor his chance. If he had his choice you may depend he'd have chosen
differently. Do you want me, on the top of all that, to tell him that he
must obediently accept something else from us--our code of conduct? It
would be mere cheek, and with all my shortcomings I'm incapable of
impudence, especially to the young. He was our slave for nearly twenty
years. We did what we liked with him; and if Charlie fails now it simply
means that we've failed. Besides, how can you be sure that he's carrying
on like an adventurer? He may be carrying on like a financial genius.
Perhaps we have brought a giant to earth. We can't believe it of course,
because we haven't got enough faith in ourselves, but later on we may be
compelled to believe it. Naturally if Charlie crashes after a showy
flight, then he won't be a financial genius,--he'll only be an
adventurer, and there may he some slight trouble in the law
courts,--there usually is. That is where we shall have to come forward
and pay for the nice feeling of having children. And, remember, we
shan't be in a position to upbraid Charlie. He could silence us with one
question, to which we could find no answer: 'Why did you get married,
you two?' However, my pet, let us hope for the best. It's not yet a
crime to live at great price at the Grand Babylon Hotel. Quite possibly
your son has not yet committed any crime, whatever. If he succeeds in
making a huge fortune and in keeping it, he will not commit any crime.
Rich men never do. They can't. They never even commit murder. There is
no reason why they should. Whatever they do, it is no worse than an
idiosyncrasy. Now tell me what our son talked about."
"Well, he didn't talk much. He--he wasn't expecting me."
"Did he ask after me?"
"I told him about you. He asked about the car."
"He didn't ask after me, but he asked after the car. Nothing very
original there, is there? Any son would behave like that. He must do
better than that if he doesn't mean to end as an adventurer. I must go
and see him, and offer him, very respectfully, some advice."
"Arthur, I insist that he shall come here. It is not proper that you
should go running after _him_."
"Pooh, my dear! I'm rich enough myself to run after him without being
accused of snobbishness or lion-hunting or anything of that kind."
"Oh! Arthur!" sobbed Eve. "Don't you think you're been funny quite long
enough?" She then openly wept.
The singular Mr. Prohack was apparently not in the least moved by his
wife's tears. He and she alone in the house were out of bed; there was
no chance of their being disturbed. He did not worry about his
adventurous son. He did not worry about the possibility of Oswald Morfey
having a design to convert his daughter into Mrs. Oswald Morfey. He did
not worry about the fate of the speculation in which he had joined Sir
Paul Spinner. Nor did he worry about the malady called traumatic
neurasthenia. As for himself he fancied that he had not for years felt
better than he felt at that moment. He was aware of the most delicious
sensation of sharing a perfect nocturnal solitude with his wife. He drew
her towards him until her acquiescent head lay against his waistcoat. He
held her body in his arms, and came deliberately to the conclusion that
to be alive was excellent.
Eve's body was as yielding as that of a young girl. To Mr. Prohack, who
of course was the dupe of an illusion, it had an absolutely enchanting
girlishness. She sobbed and she sobbed, and Mr. Prohack let her sob. He
loosed the grip of his arms a little, so that her face, free of his
waistcoat, was turned upwards in the direction of the ceiling; and then
he very caressingly wiped her eyes with his own handkerchief. He gave an
elaborate care to the wiping of her eyes. For some minutes it was a
Sisyphean labour, for what he did she immediately undid; but after a
time the sobs grew less frequent, and at length they ceased; only her
lips trembled at intervals.
Mr. Prohack said ingratiatingly:
"And whose fault is it if I'm funny? Answer, you witch."
"I don't know," Eve murmured tremblingly and not quite articulately.
"It's your fault. Do you know that you gave me the fright of my life
to-night, going out without saying where you were going to? Do you know
that you put me into such a state that I've been telephoning to
police-stations to find out whether there'd been any street accidents
happening to a woman of your description? I was so upset that I daren't
even go upstairs and call Sissie."
"You said you'd only been back five minutes when I came," Eve observed
in a somewhat firmer voice.
"I did," said Mr. Prohack. "But that was neither more nor less than a
downright lie. You see I was in such a state that I had to pretend, to
both you and myself, that things aren't what they are.... And then,
without the slightest warning, you suddenly arrive without a scratch on
you. You aren't hurt. You aren't even dead. It's a scandalous shame that
a woman should be able, by merely arriving in a taxi, to put a sensible
man into such a paroxysm of satisfaction as you put me into a while ago.
It's not right. It's not fair. Then you try to depress me with bluggy
stories of your son's horrible opulence, and when you discover you can't
depress me you burst into tears and accuse me of being funny. What did
you expect me to be? Did you expect me to groan because you aren't lying
dead in a mortuary? If I'm funny, you are at liberty to attribute it to
hysteria, the hysteria of joy. But I wish you to understand that these
extreme revulsions of feeling which you impose on me are very dangerous
for a plain man who is undergoing a rest-cure."
Eve raised her arms about Mr. Prohack's neck, lifted herself up by them,
and silently kissed him. Then she sank back to her former position.
"I've been a great trial to you lately, haven't I?" she breathed.
"Not more so than usual," he answered. "You know you always abuse your
"But I _have_ been queer?"
"Well," judicially, "perhaps you have. Perhaps five per cent or so above
your average of queerness."
"Didn't the doctor say what I'd got was traumatic neurasthenia?"
"That or something equally absurd."
"Well, I haven't got it any more. I'm cured. You'll see."
Just then the dining-room clock entered upon its lengthy business of
chiming the hour of midnight. And as it faintly chimed Mr. Prohack,
supporting his wife, had a surpassing conviction of the beauty of
existence and in particular of his own good fortune--though the matter
of his inheritance never once entered his mind. He gazed down at Eve's
ingenuous features, and saw in them the fastidious fineness which had
caused her to recoil so sensitively from her son's display at the Grand
Babylon. Yes, women had a spiritual beauty to which men could not
"Arthur," said she, "I never told you that you'd forgotten to wind up
that clock on Sunday night. It stopped this evening while you were out,
and I had to wind it and I only guessed what the time was."
THE PRACTICE OF IDLENESS
At ten minutes to eleven the next morning Mr. Prohack rushed across the
pavement, and sprang head-first into the original Eagle (now duly
repaired) with the velocity and agility of a man long accustomed to the
fact that seconds are more precious than six-pences and minutes than
banknotes. And Carthew slammed the door on him like a conjuror
performing the final act of a trick before an audience of three thousand
Mr. Prohack was late. He was late on this the first full day of his
career as a consciously and scientifically idle man. Carthew knew that
his employer was late; and certainly the people in his house knew that
he was late. Mr. Prohack's breakfast in bed had been late, which meant
that his digestive and reposeful hour of newspaper reading was thrown
forward. And then he had actually been kept out of his own bathroom,
through the joint fault of Sissie and her mother, who had apparently
determined to celebrate Sissie's definite release from the dance-studio,
and Mrs. Prohack's astonishing recovery from traumatic neurasthenia, by
a thorough visitation and reorganisation of the house and household.
Those two, re-established in each other's affection, had been holding an
inquisition in the bathroom, of all rooms, at the very moment when Mr.
Prohack needed the same, with the consequence that he found the bath
empty instead of full, and the geyser not even lighted. Yet they well
knew that he had a highly important appointment at the tailor's at ten
forty-five, followed by other just as highly important appointments! The
worst of it was that he could not take their crime seriously because he
was on such intimate and conspiratorial terms with each of them
separately. On the previous evening he had exchanged wonderful and
rather dangerous confidences with his daughter, and, further on in the
night he and her mother had decided that the latter's fantastic
excursion to the Grand Babylon Hotel should remain a secret. And Sissie,
as much as her mother, had taken advantage of his helplessness in the
usual unscrupulous feminine manner. They went so far as to smile
quasi-maternally at his boyish busy-ness.
Now no sooner had Carthew slammed the door of the Eagle and got into the
driving-seat than a young woman, a perfect stranger to Mr. Prohack,
appeared, and through the open window asked in a piteous childlike voice
if Mr. Prohack was indeed Mr. Prohack, and, having been informed that
this was so, expressed the desire to speak with him. Mr. Prohack was
beside himself with annoyance and thwarted energy. Was the entire
universe uniting against the execution of his programme?
"I have a most important appointment," said he, raising his hat and
achieving politeness by an enormous effort, "and if your business is
urgent you'd better get into the car. I'm going to Conduit Street."
She slipped into the car like a snake, and Carthew, beautifully unaware
that he had two passengers, simultaneously drove off.
If a snake, she was a very slim, blushing and confused snake,--short,
too, for a python. And she had a turned-up nose, and was quite young.
Her scales were stylish. And, although certainly abashed, apprehensive
and timorous, she yet had, about her delicate mouth, the signs of
terrible determination, of ruthlessness, of an ambition that nothing
could thwart. Mr. Prohack might have been alarmed, but fortunately he
was getting used to driving in closed cars with young women, and so
could keep his nerve. Moreover, he enjoyed these experiences, being a
man of simple tastes and not too analytical of good fortune when it came
"It's very good of you to see me like this," said the girl, in the voice
of a rapid brook with a pebbly bed. "My name is Winstock, and I've
called about the car."
"The car? What car?"
"The motor-car accident at Putney, you know."
"Just so. Just so. You are the owner-driver of the other car."
"I think you ought to have seen my wife. It is really she who is the
owner of this car. As you are aware, I wasn't in the accident myself,
and I don't know anything about it. Besides, it's entirely in the hands
of the insurance company and the solicitors. You are employing a
solicitor, aren't you?"
"Then I suppose it's by his advice that you've come to see me."
"Well, I'm afraid it isn't."
"What!" cried Mr. Prohack. "If it isn't by his advice you may well be
afraid. Do you know you've done a most improper thing? Most improper. I
can't possibly listen to you. _You_ may go behind your lawyer's back.
But I can't. And also there's the insurance company." Mr. Prohack lifted
the rug which had fallen away from her short skirts.
"I think solicitors and companies and things are so silly," said Miss
Winstock, whose eyes had not moved from the floor-mat. "Thank you." The
'thank you' was in respect to the rug.
"So they are," Mr. Prohack agreed.
"That was why I thought it would be better to come straight to you." For
the first time she glanced at him; a baffling glance, a glance that
somehow had the effect of transferring some of the apprehension in her
own breast to that of Mr. Prohack.
"Well," said he, in a departmental tone recalling Whitehall. "Will you
kindly say what you have to say?"
"Can I speak confidentially?"
Mr. Prohack raised his hands and laughed in what he hoped was a sardonic
"I give you young women up," he murmured. "Yes, I give you up. You're my
enemy. We're at law. And you want to talk confidentially! How can I tell
whether I can let you talk confidentially until I've heard what you're
going to say?"
"Oh! I was only going to say that I'm not really the owner-driver of the
car. I'm personal secretary to Mr. Carrel Quire, and it's really his
car. You see he has three cars, but as there's been such a fuss about
waste lately and he's so prominent in the anti-squandermania campaign,
he prefers to keep only one car in his own name."
"You don't mean to sit there and tell me you're talking about the
Secretary for Foreign Affairs!"
"Yes, of course. Who else? You know he's on the continent at present. He
wouldn't take me with him because he wanted to create an effect of
austerity in Paris--that's what he said; and I must get this accident
affair settled up before he comes back, or he _may_ dismiss me. I don't
think he will, because I'm a cousin of the late Lady Queenie
Paulle--that's how I got the place--but he may. And then where should I
be? I was told you were so kind and nice--that's why I came."
"I am not kind and I am not nice," remarked Mr. Prohack, in an acid
tone, but laughing to himself because the celebrated young statesman,
Mr. Carrel Quire (bald at thirty-five) was precisely one of the
ministers who, during the war, had defied and trampled upon the
Treasury. He now almost demoniacally contemplated the ruin of Mr. Carrel
"You have made a serious mistake in coming to me. Unfortunately you
cannot undo it. Be good enough to understand that you have not been
Miss Winstock ought to have been intimidated and paralysed by the
menacing manner of the former Terror of the Departments. But she was
"Please, please, Mr. Prohack," she said calmly, "don't talk in that
strain. I distinctly told you I was talking confidentially, and I'm sure
I can rely on you--unless all that I've heard about you is untrue; which
it can't be. I only want matters to be settled quietly, and when Mr.
Quire returns he will pay anything that has to be paid--if it isn't too
"My chauffeur asserts that you have told a most naughty untruth about
the accident. You say that he ran into you, whereas the fact is that he
was nearly standing still while you were going too fast and you skidded
badly into him off the tramlines. And he's found witnesses to prove what
"I may have been a little mistaken," Miss Winstock admitted with light
sadness. "I won't say I wasn't. You know how you are in an accident."
"I've never been in an accident in my life," Mr. Prohack objected.
"If you had, you'd sympathise with me."
At this moment the Eagle drew up at the desired destination in Conduit
Street. Mr. Prohack looked at his watch.
"I'm sorry to seem inhospitable," he said, "but my appointment is
extremely important. I cannot wait."
"Can _I_ wait?" Miss Winstock suggested. "I'm quite used to waiting for
Mr. Carrel Quire. If I might wait in the car till you came out.... You
see I want to come to an understanding."
"I don't know how long I shall be."
"That doesn't matter, truly. I haven't got anything else in the world to
do, as Mr. Carrel Quire is away."
Mr. Prohack left Miss Winstock in the car.
The establishment into which Mr. Prohack disappeared was that of his
son's tailors. He slipped into it with awe, not wholly because the
tailors were his son's tailors, but in part because they were tailors to
various august or once-august personages throughout Europe. Till that
day Mr. Prohack had bought his clothes from an insignificant though
traditional tailor in Maddox Street, to whom he had been taken as a boy
by his own father. And he had ordered his clothes hastily, negligently,
anyhow, in intervals snatched from meal-hours or on the way from one
more important appointment to another more important appointment. Indeed
he had thought no more of ordering a suit than of ordering a whiskey and
soda. Nay, he had on one occasion fallen incredibly low, and his memory
held the horrid secret for ever,--on one occasion he had actually bought
a ready-made suit. It had fitted him, for he was slimmish and of a good
stock size, but he had told nobody, not even his wife, of this shocking
defection from the code of true British gentlemanliness,--and he had
never repeated the crime; the secret would die with him. And now he was
devoting the top of the morning to the commandment of a suit. The affair
was his chief business, and he had come to it in a great car whose six
cylinders were working harmoniously for nothing else, and with the aid
of an intelligent and experienced and expert human being whose sole
object in life that morning was to preside over Mr. Prohack's locomotion
to and from the tailors'!
Mr. Prohack perceived that he was only beginning to comprehend the
wonder of existence. The adepts at the tailors', however, seemed to see
nothing wonderful in the matter. They showed no surprise that he had
written to make an appointment with a particular adept named
Melchizidek, who had been casually mentioned weeks earlier by Charles as
the one man in London who really comprehended waistcoats. They took it
as a matter of course that Mr. Prohack had naught else to do with the
top of the morning but order clothes, and that while he did so he should
keep a mature man and a vast and elaborate machine waiting for him in
the street outside. And Mr. Melchizidek's manner alone convinced Mr.
Prohack that what he had told his family, and that what he had told Miss
Winstock in the car, was strictly true and not the invention of his
fancy--namely that the appointment was genuinely of high importance.
Mr. Melchizidek possessed the strange gift of condescending majestically
to Mr. Prohack while licking his boots. He listened to Mr. Prohack as to
an autocrat while giving Mr. Prohack to understand that Mr. Prohack knew
not the first elements of sartorial elegance. At intervals he gazed
abstractedly at the gold framed and crowned portraits that hung on the
walls and at the inscriptions similarly framed and crowned and hung, and
it was home in upon Mr. Prohack that the inscriptions in actual practice
referred to Mr. Melchizidek, and that this same Melchizidek, fawning
and masterful, had seen monarchs in their shirt sleeves and spoken to
princes with pins in his mouth, and made marks in white chalk between
the shoulder-blades of grand-dukes; and that revolutions and cataclysms
were nothing to Mr. Melchizidek.
When Mr. Melchizidek had decided by hypnotic suggestion and magic power
what Mr. Prohack desired in the way of stuffs and patterns, he led Mr.
Prohack mysteriously to a small chamber, and a scribe followed them
carrying pencil and paper, and Mr. Prohack removed, with assistance, his
shabby coat and his waistcoat, and Mr. Melchizidek measured him in
unexampled detail and precision, and the scribe, writing, intoned aloud
all Mr. Prohack's dimensions. And all the time Mr. Prohack was asking in
his heart: "How much will these clothes cost?" And he, once the Terror
of the departments, who would have held up the war to satisfy his
official inquisitiveness on a question of price,--he dared not ask how
much the clothes would cost. He felt that in that unique establishment
money was simply not mentioned,--it could never be more than the subject
of formal and stately correspondence.
During the latter part of the operation Mr. Prohack heard, outside in
the shop, the sharp sounds of an imperial and decisive voice, and he was
thereby well-nigh thunderstruck. And even Mr. Melchizidek seemed to be
similarly affected by the voice,--so much so that the intimate of
sovereigns unaffectedly hastened the business of enduing Mr. Prohack
into the shameful waistcoat and coat, and then, with a gesture of
apology, passed out of the cubicle, leaving Mr. Prohack with the
Mr. Prohack, pricked by a fearful curiosity, followed Mr. Melchizidek;
and the voice was saying:
"Oh! You're there, Melchizidek. Just come and look at this crease."
Mr. Melchizidek, pained, moved forward. Three acolytes were already
standing in shocked silence round about a young man who stretched forth
one leg so that all might see.
"I ask you," the young man proceeded, "is it an inch out or isn't it?
And how many times have I tried these things on? I'm a busy man, and
here I have to waste my time coming here again and again to get a thing
right that ought to have been right the first time. And you call
yourselves the first tailors in Europe.... Correct me if I'm inaccurate
in any of my statements."
Mr. Melchizidek, who unlike an Englishman knew when he was beaten, said
in a solemn bass:
"When can I send for them, sir?"
"You can send for them this afternoon at the Grand Babylon, and be sure
that I have them back to-morrow night."
"Certainly, sir. It's only fair to ourselves, sir, to state that we have
a great deal of trouble with our workmen in these days."
"No doubt. And I have a great deal of trouble to find cash in these
days, but I don't pay your bills with bad money, I think."
A discreet sycophantic smile from the group at this devastating
Mr. Prohack cautiously approached; the moment had awkwardness, but Mr.
Prohack owed it to himself to behave with all presence of mind.
"Hullo, Charlie!" said he casually.
"Hello, dad! How are you?" And Charlie, wearing the very suit in which
he had left home for Glasgow, shook hands boyishly.
Looking into his firm, confident eyes, Mr. Prohack realised, perhaps for
the first time, that the fruit of his loins was no common boy. The mere
fact that as an out-of-work ex-officer, precariously making a bit in
motor-bicycle deals, he had dared to go to Melchizidek's firm for
clothes, and that he was now daring to affront Melchizidek,--this sole
fact separated him from the ruck of sons.
"I warn you, dad, that if you're ordering clothes here you're ordering
Mr. Melchizidek's interjected remarks fitted to the occasion. The group
dissipated. The males of the Prohack family could say nothing
interesting to each other in such a situation. They could only pretend
that their relations were purely normal; which they did quite well.
"I say, dad, I'm awfully busy this morning. I can't stop now. I've
telephoned the mater and she's coming to the Grand Babylon for
lunch--one thirty. Sis too, I think. Do come. You haven't got anything
else to do." The boy murmured all this.
"Oh! Haven't I! I'm just as busy as you are, and more."
However, Mr. Prohack accepted the invitation. Charlie went off in haste.
Mr. Prohack arrived on the pavement in time to see him departing in an
open semi-racing car driven by a mature, handsome and elegant woman,
with a chauffeur sitting behind. Mr. Prohack's mind was one immense
interrogation concerning his son. He had seen him, spoken with him,
and--owing to the peculiar circumstances--learnt nothing whatever.
Indeed, the mystery of Charlie was deepened. Had Charles hurried away in
order to hide the mature handsome lady from his father?... Mr. Prohack
might have moralised, but he suddenly remembered that he had a lady in
his own car, and that the disparity between their ages was no less than
the disparity between the ages of the occupants of the car in which
Charles had fled.
Turning to his own car, he observed with a momentary astonishment that
Carthew, the chauffeur, leaning a little nonchalantly through the open
off-window of the vehicle, was engaged in conversation with Miss
Winstock. The astonishment passed when he reflected that as these two
had been in the enforced intimacy of an accident together they were
necessarily on some kind of speaking terms. Before Carthew had noticed
Mr. Prohack, Mr. Prohack noticed that Carthew's attitude to Miss
Winstock showed a certain tolerant condescension, while Miss Winstock's
girlish gestures were of a subtly appealing nature. Then in an instant
Carthew, the easy male tolerator of inaccurate but charming young women,
disappeared from the window--disappeared indeed, entirely from the face
of the earth--and a perfectly non-human, impassive automaton emerged
from behind the back of the car and stood attentive at the door, holding
the handle thereof. Mr. Prohack, with a gift of dissimulation equal to
Carthew's own, gave him an address in Bond Street.
"I have another very urgent appointment," said Mr. Prohack to Miss
Winstock as he sat down beside her. And he took his diary from his
pocket and gazed at it intently, frowning, though there was nothing
whatever on its page except the printed information that the previous
Sunday was the twenty-fourth after Trinity, and a warning: "If you have
omitted to order your new diary it would be well to do so NOW to prevent
"It's awfully good of you to have me here," said Miss Winstock.
"It is," Mr. Prohack admitted. "And so far as I can see you've done
nothing to deserve it. You were very wrong to get chatting with my
chauffeur, for example."
"I felt that all the time. But he has such a powerful individuality."
"He may have. But what I pay him for is to drive my car, not to put his
passengers into a semi-hypnotic state. Do you know why I am taking you
about like this?"
"I hope it's because you are kind-hearted."
"Not at all. Do you think I should do it if you were fifty, fat and a
fright? Of course I shouldn't. And no one knows that better than you.
I'm doing it because you're young and charming and slim and attractive
and smart. Though forty-six, I am still a man. The chief difference
between me and most other men is that I know and openly admit my
motives. That's what makes me so dangerous. You should beware of me.
Take note that I haven't asked you what you're been saying to Carthew.
Nor shall I ask him. Now what exactly do you want me to do?"
"Only not to let the law case about the accident go any further."
"And are you in a position to pay the insurance company for the damage
to my car?"
"Oh! Mr. Carrel Quire will pay."
"Are you sure? Are you quite sure that Mr. Carrel Quire is not spending
twice as much as his ministerial salary, that salary being the whole of
his financial resources except loans from millionaires who will accept
influence instead of interest? I won't enquire whether Mr. Carrel Quire
pays your salary regularly. If he does, it furnishes the only instance
of regularity in the whole of his gorgeous career. If our little affair
becomes public it might ruin Mr. Carrel Quire as a politician--at the
least it would set him back for ten years. And I am particularly anxious
to ruin Mr. Carrel Quire. In doing so I shall accomplish a patriotic
"Oh, Mr. Prohack!"
"Yes. Mr. Carrel Quire may be--probably is--a delightful fellow, but he
is too full of brains, and he constitutes the gravest danger that has
threatened the British Empire for a hundred years. Hence it is my duty
to ruin him if I get the chance; and I've got the chance. I don't see
how he could survive the exposure of the simple fact that while
preaching anti-waste he is keeping motor-cars in the names of young
The car had stopped in front of a shop over whose door a pair of gilded
animals like nothing in zoology were leaping amiably at each other. Miss
Winstock began to search neurotically in a bag for a handkerchief.
"This is the scene of my next appointment," Mr. Prohack continued.
"Would you prefer to leave me at once or will you wait again?"
Miss Winstock hesitated.
"You had better wait," Mr. Prohack decided. "You'll be crying in fifteen
seconds and your handkerchief is sadly inadequate to the crisis. Try a
little self-control, and don't let Carthew hypnotise you. I shan't be
surprised if you're gone when I come back."
A commissionaire was now holding open the door of the car.
"Carthew," said Mr. Prohack privily, after he had got out. "Oblige me
by imagining that during my absence the car is empty."
Carthew quivered for a fraction of eternity, but was exceedingly quick
The shop was all waxed parquetry, silks, satins, pure linen and pure
wool, diversified by a few walking-sticks and a cuff link or so. Faced
by a judge-like middle-aged authority in a frock-coat, Mr. Prohack
suddenly lost the magisterial demeanour which he had exhibited to a
defenceless girl in the car. He comprehended in a flash that suits of
clothes were a detail in the existence of an idle man and that neckties
and similar supremacies alone mattered.
"I want a necktie," he began gently.
"Certainly, sir," said the judge. But the judge's eyes, fixed on Mr.
Prohack's neck, said: "I should just think you did."
Life was enlarged to a bewildering, a maddening maze of neckties. Mr.
Prohack considered in his heart that one of the needs of the day was an
encyclopaedia of neckties. As he bought neckties he felt as foolish as a
woman buying cigars. Any idiot could buy a suit, but neckties baffled
the intelligence of the Terror of the departments, though he had worn
something in the nature of a necktie for forty years. The neckties which
he bought inspired him with fear--the fear lest he might lack the
courage to wear them. In a nightmare he saw himself putting them on in
his bedroom and proceeding downstairs to breakfast, and then,
panic-stricken, rushing back to the bedroom to change into one of his
And when he had bought neckties he apprehended that neckties without
shirts were like butter without bread, and he bought shirts. And then he
surmised that shirts without collars would be indecent. And when he had
bought collars a still small voice told him that the logical foundation
of all things was socks, and that really he had been trying to build a
house from the fourth story downwards. Fortunately he had less
hesitation about the socks, for he could comfort himself with the
thought that socks did not jump to the eye as neckties did, and that by
constant care their violence might even be forever concealed from the
gaze of his household. He sighed with relief at the end of the sock
episode. But he had forgotten braces, as to which he surrendered
unconditionally to the frock-coated judge. He brooked the most
astounding braces, for none but Eve would see them, and he could
"Shall we make you a quarter of a dozen pairs to measure, sir?"
This extraordinary question miraculously restored all Mr. Prohack's
vanished aplomb. That at the end of the greatest war in the history of
the earth, amid decapitated empires and cities of starvation, braces
should be made to measure,--this was too much for Mr. Prohack, who had
not dreamed that braces ever had been made to measure. It shocked him
back into sense.
"_No!_" he said coldly, and soon afterwards left the shop.
Miss Winstock, in the car, sat for the statue of wistful melancholy.
"Heavens!" breathed Mr. Prohack to himself. "The little thing is taking
me seriously. With all her experience of the queer world, and all her
initiative and courage, she is taking me seriously!" He was touched; his
irony became sympathetic, and he thought: "How young the young are!"
Her smile as he rejoined her had pathos in it. The totality of her was
"You cannot be all bad, Miss Winstock," said he to her, after
instructing the chauffeur, "because nobody is. You are undisciplined.
You do wild and rash things--you have already accomplished several this
morning. But you have righteous instincts, though not often enough. Of
course, with one word to the insurance company I could save you. The
difficulty is that I could not save you without saving Mr. Carrel Quire
also. And it would be very wrong of me to save Mr. Carrel Quire, for to
save him would be to jeopardise the future of the British Empire,
because unless he is scotched, that man's frantic egotism and ruthless
ambition will achieve political disaster for four hundred million human
beings. I should like to save you. But can I weigh you in the balance
against an Empire? Can I, I say?"
"No," answered Miss Winstock weakly but sincerely.
"That's just where you're wrong," said Mr. Prohack. "I can. And you are
shamefully ignorant of history. Never yet when empire, any empire, has
been weighed in the balance against a young and attractive woman has the
young woman failed to win! That is a dreadful fact, but men are thus
constituted. Had you been a hag, I should not have hesitated to do my
duty to my country. But as you are what you are, and sitting so
agreeably in my car, I will save you and let my country go."
"Oh! Mr. Prohack, you are very kind--but every one told me you were."
"No! I am a knave. Also there is a condition."
"I will agree to anything."
"You must leave Mr. Carrel Quire's service. That man is dangerous not
only to empires. The entire environment is the very worst decently
possible for a girl like you. Get away from it. If you don't undertake
to give him notice at once, and withdraw entirely from his set, then I
will ruin both you and him."
"But I shall starve," cried Miss Winstock. "I shall never find another
place without influence, and I have no more influence."
"Have the Winstocks no money?"
"Not a penny."
"And have the Paulles no money?"
"None for me."
"You are the ideal programme-girl in a theatre," said Mr. Prohack. "You
will never starve. Excuse me for a few minutes. I have another very
important appointment," he added, as the car stopped in Piccadilly.
After a quarter of an hour spent in learning that suits were naught,
neckties were naught, shirts, collars, socks and even braces were
naught, but that hats alone made a man of fashion and idleness, Mr.
Prohack returned to Miss Winstock and announced:
"I will engage you as my private secretary. I need one very badly
indeed. In fact I cannot understand how, with all my engagements, I have
been able to manage without one so long. Your chief duties will be to
keep on good terms with my wife and daughter, and not to fall in love
with my son. If you were not too deeply preoccupied with my chauffeur,
you may have noticed a young man who came out of the tailors' just
before I did. That was my son."
"Oh!" exclaimed Miss Winstock, "the boy who drove off in Lady Massulam's
"Was that Lady Massulam?" asked Mr. Prohack before he had had time to
recover from the immense effect of hearing the startling, almost
legendary name of Lady Massulam in connection with his son.
"Of course," said Miss Winstock. "Didn't you know?"
Mr. Prohack ignored her pertness.
"Well," he proceeded, having now successfully concealed his emotion,
"after having dealt as I suggest with my wife and children, you will
deal with my affairs. You shall have the same salary as Mr. Carrel Quire
paid--or forgot to pay. Do you agree or not?"
"I should love it," replied Miss Winstock with enthusiasm.
"What is your Christian name?"
"So it is. I remember now. Well, it won't do at all. Never mention it
When he had accompanied Mimi to a neighbouring post office and sent off
a suitable telegram of farewell to Mr. Carrel Quire in her name, Mr.
Prohack abandoned her till the morrow, and drove off quickly to pick up
his wife for the Grand Babylon lunch.
"I am a perfect lunatic," said he to himself. "It must be the effect of
riches. However, I don't care."
He meant that he didn't care about the conceivable consequences of
engaging Mimi Winstock as secretary. But what he did care about was the
conjuncture of Lady Massulam and Charlie.
Strange, inconceivable as it may appear to people of the great world and
readers of newspapers, Mr. Prohack, C.B., had never in his life before
been inside the Grand Babylon Hotel. Such may be the narrow and mean
existence forced by circumstances upon secretly powerful servants of the
Crown. He arrived late, owing to the intricate preparations of his wife
and daughter for Charlie's luncheon. These two were unsuccessfully
pretending not to be nervous, and their nervousness reacted upon Mr.
Prohack, who perceived with disgust that his gay and mischievous mood of
the morning was slipping away from him despite his efforts to retain it.
He knew now definitely that his health had taken the right turn, and yet
he could not prod the youthful Sissie as he had prodded the youthful
Mimi Winstock. Moreover Mimi was a secret which would have to be
divulged, and this secret not only weighed heavy within him, but seemed
disturbingly to counterbalance the secrets that Charlie was withholding.
On the present occasion he saw little of the Grand Babylon, for as soon
as he mentioned his son's name to the nonchalant official behind the
enquiry counter the official changed like lightning into an obsequious
courtier, and Charles's family was put in charge of a hovering attendant
boy, who escorted it in a lift and along a mile of corridors, and
Charlie's family was kept waiting at a door until the voice of Charlie
permitted the boy to open the door. A rather large parlour set with a
table for five; a magnificent view from the window of a huge
white-bricked wall and scores of chimney pots and electric wires, and a
moving grey sky above! Charlie, too, was unsuccessfully pretending not
to be nervous.
"Hullo, kid!" he greeted his sister.
"Hullo yourself," responded Sissie.
They shook hands. (They very rarely kissed. However, Charlie kissed his
mother. Even he would not have dared not to kiss her.)
"Mater," said he, "let me introduce you to Lady Massulam."
Lady Massulam had been standing in the window. She came forward with a
pleasant, restrained smile and made the acquaintance of Charlie's
family; but she was not talkative. Her presence, coming as a terrific
surprise to the ladies of the Prohack family, and as a fairly powerful
surprise to Mr. Prohack, completed the general constraint. Mrs. Prohack
indeed was somewhat intimidated by it. Mrs. Prohack's knowledge of Lady
Massulam was derived exclusively from _The Daily Picture_, where her
portrait was constantly appearing, on all sorts of pretexts, and where
she was described as a leader of London society. Mr. Prohack knew of her
as a woman credited with great feats of war-work, and also with a
certain real talent for organisation; further, he had heard that she had
a gift for high finance, and exercised it not without profit. As she
happened to be French by birth, no steady English person was seriously
upset by the fact that her matrimonial career was obscure, and as she
happened to be very rich everybody raised sceptical eyebrows at the
assertion that her husband (a knight) was dead; for _The Daily Picture_
implanted daily in the minds of millions of readers the grand truth that
to the very rich nothing can happen simply. The whole _Daily Picture_
world was aware that of late she had lived at the Grand Babylon Hotel in
permanence. That world would not have recognised her from her published
portraits, which were more historical than actual. Although
conspicuously anti-Victorian she had a Victorian beauty of the
impressive kind; she had it still. Her hair was of a dark lustrous brown
and showed no grey. In figure she was tall, and rather more than plump
and rather less than fat. Her perfect and perfectly worn clothes proved
that she knew just how to deal with herself. She would look forty in a
theatre, fifty in a garden, and sixty to her maid at dawn.
This important person spoke, when she did speak, with a scarcely
perceptible French accent in a fine clear voice. But she spoke little
and said practically nothing: which was a shock to Marian Prohack, who
had imagined that in the circles graced by Lady Massulam conversation
varied from badinage to profundity and never halted. It was not that
Lady Massulam was tongue-tied, nor that she was impolite; it was merely
that with excellent calmness she did not talk. If anybody handed her a
subject, she just dropped it; the floor around her was strewn with
The lunch was dreadful, socially. It might have been better if Charlie's
family had not been tormented by the tremendous question: what had
Charlie to do with Lady Massulam? Already Charlie's situation was
sufficient of a mystery, without this arch-mystery being spread all over
it. And inexperienced Charlie was a poor host; as a host he was
positively pathetic, rivalling Lady Massulam in taciturnity.
Sissie took to chaffing her brother, and after a time Charlie said
suddenly, with curtness:
"Have you dropped that silly dance-scheme of yours, kid?"
Sissie was obliged to admit that she had.
"Then I tell you what you might do. You might come and live here with me
for a bit. I want a hostess, you know."
"I will," said Sissie, straight. No consultation of parents!
This brief episode overset Mrs. Prohack. The lunch worsened, to such a