Part 2 out of 3
said Lady Caroline, with the pleased chuckle of one who has spread
a net in the sight of a bird and disproved the vanity of the
It proved a tiresome ding-dong rubber, with the strength of the
cards slightly on Francesca's side, and the luck of the table going
mostly the other way. She was too keen a player not to feel a
certain absorption in the game once it had started, but she was
conscious to-day of a distracting interest that competed with the
momentary importance of leads and discards and declarations. The
little accumulations of talk that were unpent during the dealing of
the hands became as noteworthy to her alert attention as the play
of the hands themselves.
"Yes, quite a small party this afternoon," said Serena, in reply to
a seemingly casual remark on Francesca's part; "and two or three
non-players, which is unusual on a Wednesday. Canon Besomley was
here just before you came; you know, the big preaching man."
"I've been to hear him scold the human race once or twice," said
"A strong man with a wonderfully strong message," said Ada
Spelvexit, in an impressive and assertive tone.
"The sort of popular pulpiteer who spanks the vices of his age and
lunches with them afterwards," said Lady Caroline.
"Hardly a fair summary of the man and his work," protested Ada.
"I've been to hear him many times when I've been depressed or
discouraged, and I simply can't tell you the impression his words
"At least you can tell us what you intend to make trumps," broke in
Lady Caroline, gently.
"Diamonds," pronounced Ada, after a rather flurried survey of her
"Doubled," said Lady Caroline, with increased gentleness, and a few
minutes later she was pencilling an addition of twenty-four to her
"I stayed with his people down in Herefordshire last May," said
Ada, returning to the unfinished theme of the Canon; "such an
exquisite rural retreat, and so restful and healing to the nerves.
Real country scenery; apple blossom everywhere."
"Surely only on the apple trees," said Lady Caroline.
Ada Spelvexit gave up the attempt to reproduce the decorative
setting of the Canon's homelife, and fell back on the small but
practical consolation of scoring the odd trick in her opponent's
declaration of hearts.
"If you had led your highest club to start with, instead of the
nine, we should have saved the trick," remarked Lady Caroline to
her partner in a tone of coldly, gentle reproof; "it's no use, my
dear," she continued, as Serena flustered out a halting apology,
"no earthly use to attempt to play bridge at one table and try to
see and hear what's going on at two or three other tables."
"I can generally manage to attend to more than one thing at a
time," said Serena, rashly; "I think I must have a sort of double
"Much better to economise and have one really good one," observed
"La belle dame sans merci scoring a verbal trick or two as usual,"
said a player at another table in a discreet undertone.
"Did I tell you Sir Edward Roan is coming to my next big evening,"
said Serena, hurriedly, by way, perhaps, of restoring herself a
little in her own esteem.
"Poor dear, good Sir Edward. What have you made trumps?" asked
Lady Caroline, in one breath.
"Clubs," said Francesca; "and pray, why these adjectives of
Francesca was a Ministerialist by family interest and allegiance,
and was inclined to take up the cudgels at the suggested
disparagement aimed at the Foreign Secretary.
"He amuses me so much," purred Lady Caroline. Her amusement was
usually of the sort that a sporting cat derives from watching the
Swedish exercises of a well-spent and carefully thought-out mouse.
"Really? He has been rather a brilliant success at the Foreign
Office, you know," said Francesca.
"He reminds one so of a circus elephant--infinitely more
intelligent than the people who direct him, but quite content to go
on putting his foot down or taking it up as may be required, quite
unconcerned whether he steps on a meringue or a hornet's nest in
the process of going where he's expected to go."
"How can you say such things?" protested Francesca.
"I can't," said Lady Caroline; "Courtenay Youghal said it in the
House last night. Didn't you read the debate? He was really
rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of
course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth
behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance,
his summing up of the Government's attitude towards our
embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase 'happy is the
country that has no geography.'"
"What an absurdly unjust thing to say," put in Francesca; "I
daresay some of our Party at some time have taken up that attitude,
but every one knows that Sir Edward is a sound Imperialist at
"Most politicians are something or other at heart, but no one would
be rash enough to insure a politician against heart failure.
Particularly when he happens to be in office."
"Anyhow, I don't see that the Opposition leaders would have acted
any differently in the present case," said Francesca.
"One should always speak guardedly of the Opposition leaders," said
Lady Caroline, in her gentlest voice; "one never knows what a turn
in the situation may do for them."
"You mean they may one day be at the head of affairs?" asked
"I mean they may one day lead the Opposition. One never knows."
Lady Caroline had just remembered that her hostess was on the
Opposition side in politics.
Francesca and her partner scored four tricks in clubs; the game
stood irresolutely at twenty-four all.
"If you had followed the excellent lyrical advice given to the Maid
of Athens and returned my heart we should have made two more tricks
and gone game," said Lady Caroline to her partner.
"Mr. Youghal seems pushing himself to the fore of late," remarked
Francesca, as Serena took up the cards to deal. Since the young
politician's name had been introduced into their conversation the
opportunity for turning the talk more directly on him and his
affairs was too good to be missed.
"I think he's got a career before him," said Serena; "the House
always fills when he's speaking, and that's a good sign. And then
he's young and got rather an attractive personality, which is
always something in the political world."
"His lack of money will handicap him, unless he can find himself a
rich wife or persuade someone to die and leave him a fat legacy,"
said Francesca; "since M.P.'s have become the recipients of a
salary rather more is expected and demanded of them in the
expenditure line than before."
"Yes, the House of Commons still remains rather at the opposite
pole to the Kingdom of Heaven as regards entrance qualifications,"
observed Lady Caroline.
"There ought to be no difficulty about Youghal picking up a girl
with money," said Serena; "with his prospects he would make an
excellent husband for any woman with social ambitions."
And she half sighed, as though she almost regretted that a previous
matrimonial arrangement precluded her from entering into the
competition on her own account.
Francesca, under an assumption of languid interest, was watching
Lady Caroline narrowly for some hint of suppressed knowledge of
Youghal's courtship of Miss de Frey.
"Whom are you marrying and giving in marriage?"
The question came from George St. Michael, who had strayed over
from a neighbouring table, attracted by the fragments of small-talk
that had reached his ears.
St. Michael was one of those dapper bird-like illusorily-active
men, who seem to have been in a certain stage of middle-age for as
long as human memory can recall them. A close-cut peaked beard
lent a certain dignity to his appearance--a loan which the rest of
his features and mannerisms were continually and successfully
repudiating. His profession, if he had one, was submerged in his
hobby, which consisted of being an advance-agent for small
happenings or possible happenings that were or seemed imminent in
the social world around him; he found a perpetual and unflagging
satisfaction in acquiring and retailing any stray items of gossip
or information, particularly of a matrimonial nature, that chanced
to come his way. Given the bare outline of an officially announced
engagement he would immediately fill it in with all manner of
details, true or, at any rate, probable, drawn from his own
imagination or from some equally exclusive source. The Morning
Post might content itself with the mere statement of the
arrangement which would shortly take place, but it was St.
Michael's breathless little voice that proclaimed how the
contracting parties had originally met over a salmon-fishing
incident, why the Guards' Chapel would not be used, why her Aunt
Mary had at first opposed the match, how the question of the
children's religious upbringing had been compromised, etc., etc.,
to all whom it might interest and to many whom it might not.
Beyond his industriously-earned pre-eminence in this special branch
of intelligence, he was chiefly noteworthy for having a wife
reputed to be the tallest and thinnest woman in the Home Counties.
The two were sometimes seen together in Society, where they passed
under the collective name of St. Michael and All Angles.
"We are trying to find a rich wife for Courtenay Youghal," said
Serena, in answer to St. Michael's question.
"Ah, there I'm afraid you're a little late," he observed, glowing
with the importance of pending revelation; "I'm afraid you're a
little late," he repeated, watching the effect of his words as a
gardener might watch the development of a bed of carefully tended
asparagus. "I think the young gentleman has been before you and
already found himself a rich mate in prospect."
He lowered his voice as he spoke, not with a view to imparting
impressive mystery to his statement, but because there were other
table groups within hearing to whom he hoped presently to have the
privilege of re-disclosing his revelation.
"Do you mean--?" began Serena.
"Miss de Frey," broke in St. Michael, hurriedly, fearful lest his
revelation should be forestalled, even in guesswork; "quite an
ideal choice, the very wife for a man who means to make his mark in
politics. Twenty-four thousand a year, with prospects of more to
come, and a charming place of her own not too far from town. Quite
the type of girl, too, who will make a good political hostess,
brains without being brainy, you know. Just the right thing. Of
course, it would be premature to make any definite announcement at
"It would hardly be premature for my partner to announce what she
means to make trumps," interrupted Lady Caroline, in a voice of
such sinister gentleness that St. Michael fled headlong back to his
"Oh, is it me? I beg your pardon. I leave it," said Serena.
"Thank you. No trumps," declared Lady Caroline. The hand was
successful, and the rubber ultimately fell to her with a
comfortable margin of honours. The same partners cut together
again, and this time the cards went distinctly against Francesca
and Ada Spelvexit, and a heavily piled-up score confronted them at
the close of the rubber. Francesca was conscious that a certain
amount of rather erratic play on her part had at least contributed
to the result. St. Michael's incursion into the conversation had
proved rather a powerful distraction to her ordinarily sound
Ada Spelvexit emptied her purse of several gold pieces and infused
a corresponding degree of superiority into her manner.
"I must be going now," she announced; "I'm dining early. I have to
give an address to some charwomen afterwards."
"Why?" asked Lady Caroline, with a disconcerting directness that
was one of her most formidable characteristics.
"Oh, well, I have some things to say to them that I daresay they
will like to hear," said Ada, with a thin laugh.
Her statement was received with a silence that betokened profound
unbelief in any such probability.
"I go about a good deal among working-class women," she added.
"No one has ever said it," observed Lady Caroline, "but how
painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them."
Ada Spelvexit hastened her departure; the marred impressiveness of
her retreat came as a culminating discomfiture on the top of her
ill-fortune at the card-table. Possibly, however, the
multiplication of her own annoyances enabled her to survey
charwomen's troubles with increased cheerfulness. None of them, at
any rate, had spent an afternoon with Lady Caroline.
Francesca cut in at another table and with better fortune attending
on her, succeeded in winning back most of her losses. A sense of
satisfaction was distinctly dominant as she took leave of her
hostess. St. Michael's gossip, or rather the manner in which it
had been received, had given her a clue to the real state of
affairs, which, however slender and conjectural, at least pointed
in the desired direction. At first she had been horribly afraid
lest she should be listening to a definite announcement which would
have been the death-blow to her hopes, but as the recitation went
on without any of those assured little minor details which St.
Michael so loved to supply, she had come to the conclusion that it
was merely a piece of intelligent guesswork. And if Lady Caroline
had really believed in the story of Elaine de Frey's virtual
engagement to Courtenay Youghal she would have taken a malicious
pleasure in encouraging St. Michael in his confidences, and in
watching Francesca's discomfiture under the recital. The irritated
manner in which she had cut short the discussion betrayed the fact,
that, as far as the old woman's information went, it was Comus and
not Courtenay Youghal who held the field. And in this particular
case Lady Caroline's information was likely to be nearer the truth
than St. Michael's confident gossip.
Francesca always gave a penny to the first crossing-sweeper or
match-seller she chanced across after a successful sitting at
bridge. This afternoon she had come out of the fray some fifteen
shillings to the bad, but she gave two pennies to a crossing-
sweeper at the north-west corner of Berkeley Square as a sort of
thank-offering to the Gods.
It was a fresh rain-repentant afternoon, following a morning that
had been sultry and torrentially wet by turns; the sort of
afternoon that impels people to talk graciously of the rain as
having done a lot of good, its chief merit in their eyes probably
having been its recognition of the art of moderation. Also it was
an afternoon that invited bodily activity after the convalescent
languor of the earlier part of the day. Elaine had instinctively
found her way into her riding-habit and sent an order down to the
stables--a blessed oasis that still smelt sweetly of horse and hay
and cleanliness in a world that reeked of petrol, and now she set
her mare at a smart pace through a succession of long-stretching
country lanes. She was due some time that afternoon at a garden-
party, but she rode with determination in an opposite direction.
In the first place neither Comus or Courtenay would be at the
party, which fact seemed to remove any valid reason that could be
thought of for inviting her attendance thereat; in the second place
about a hundred human beings would be gathered there, and human
gatherings were not her most crying need at the present moment.
Since her last encounter with her wooers, under the cedars in her
own garden, Elaine realised that she was either very happy or
cruelly unhappy, she could not quite determine which. She seemed
to have what she most wanted in the world lying at her feet, and
she was dreadfully uncertain in her more reflective moments whether
she really wanted to stretch out her hand and take it. It was all
very like some situation in an Arabian Nights tale or a story of
Pagan Hellas, and consequently the more puzzling and disconcerting
to a girl brought up on the methodical lines of Victorian
Christianity. Her appeal court was in permanent session these last
few days, but it gave no decisions, at least none that she would
listen to. And the ride on her fast light-stepping little mare,
alone and unattended, through the fresh-smelling leafy lanes into
unexplored country, seemed just what she wanted at the moment. The
mare made some small delicate pretence of being roadshy, not the
staring dolt-like kind of nervousness that shows itself in an
irritating hanging-back as each conspicuous wayside object presents
itself, but the nerve-flutter of an imaginative animal that merely
results in a quick whisk of the head and a swifter bound forward.
She might have paraphrased the mental attitude of the immortalised
Peter Bell into
A basket underneath a tree
A yellow tiger is to me,
If it is nothing more.
The more really alarming episodes of the road, the hoot and whir of
a passing motor-car or the loud vibrating hum of a wayside
threshing-machine, were treated with indifference.
On turning a corner out of a narrow coppice-bordered lane into a
wider road that sloped steadily upward in a long stretch of hill
Elaine saw, coming toward her at no great distance, a string of
yellow-painted vans, drawn for the most part by skewbald or
speckled horses. A certain rakish air about these oncoming road-
craft proclaimed them as belonging to a travelling wild-beast show,
decked out in the rich primitive colouring that one's taste in
childhood would have insisted on before it had been schooled in the
artistic value of dulness. It was an unlooked-for and distinctly
unwelcome encounter. The mare had already commenced a sixfold
scrutiny with nostrils, eyes and daintily-pricked ears; one ear
made hurried little backward movements to hear what Elaine was
saying about the eminent niceness and respectability of the
approaching caravan, but even Elaine felt that she would be unable
satisfactorily to explain the elephants and camels that would
certainly form part of the procession. To turn back would seem
rather craven, and the mare might take fright at the manoeuvre and
try to bolt; a gate standing ajar at the entrance to a farmyard
lane provided a convenient way out of the difficulty.
As Elaine pushed her way through she became aware of a man standing
just inside the lane, who made a movement forward to open the gate
"Thank you. I'm just getting out of the way of a wild-beast show,"
she explained; "my mare is tolerant of motors and traction-engines,
but I expect camels--hullo," she broke off, recognising the man as
an old acquaintance, "I heard you had taken rooms in a farmhouse
somewhere. Fancy meeting you in this way."
In the not very distant days of her little-girlhood, Tom Keriway
had been a man to be looked upon with a certain awe and envy;
indeed the glamour of his roving career would have fired the
imagination, and wistful desire to do likewise, of many young
Englishmen. It seemed to be the grown-up realisation of the games
played in dark rooms in winter fire-lit evenings, and the dreams
dreamed over favourite books of adventure. Making Vienna his
headquarters, almost his home, he had rambled where he listed
through the lands of the Near and Middle East as leisurely and
thoroughly as tamer souls might explore Paris. He had wandered
through Hungarian horse-fairs, hunted shy crafty beasts on lonely
Balkan hillsides, dropped himself pebble-wise into the stagnant
human pool of some Bulgarian monastery, threaded his way through
the strange racial mosaic of Salonika, listened with amused
politeness to the shallow ultra-modern opinions of a voluble editor
or lawyer in some wayside Russian town, or learned wisdom from a
chance tavern companion, one of the atoms of the busy ant-stream of
men and merchandise that moves untiringly round the shores of the
Black Sea. And far and wide as he might roam he always managed to
turn up at frequent intervals, at ball and supper and theatre, in
the gay Hauptstadt of the Habsburgs, haunting his favourite cafes
and wine-vaults, skimming through his favourite news-sheets,
greeting old acquaintances and friends, from ambassadors down to
cobblers in the social scale. He seldom talked of his travels, but
it might be said that his travels talked of him; there was an air
about him that a German diplomat once summed up in a phrase: "a
man that wolves have sniffed at."
And then two things happened, which he had not mapped out in his
route; a severe illness shook half the life and all the energy out
of him, and a heavy money loss brought him almost to the door of
destitution. With something, perhaps, of the impulse which drives
a stricken animal away from its kind, Tom Keriway left the haunts
where he had known so much happiness, and withdrew into the shelter
of a secluded farmhouse lodging; more than ever he became to Elaine
a hearsay personality. And now the chance meeting with the caravan
had flung her across the threshold of his retreat.
"What a charming little nook you've got hold of," she exclaimed
with instinctive politeness, and then looked searchingly round, and
discovered that she had spoken the truth; it really was charming.
The farmhouse had that intensely English look that one seldom sees
out of Normandy. Over the whole scene of rickyard, garden,
outbuildings, horsepond and orchard, brooded that air which seems
rightfully to belong to out-of-the-way farmyards, an air of wakeful
dreaminess which suggests that here, man and beast and bird have
got up so early that the rest of the world has never caught them up
and never will.
Elaine dismounted, and Keriway led the mare round to a little
paddock by the side of a great grey barn. At the end of the lane
they could see the show go past, a string of lumbering vans and
great striding beasts that seemed to link the vast silences of the
desert with the noises and sights and smells, the naphtha-flares
and advertisement hoardings and trampled orange-peel, of an endless
succession of towns.
"You had better let the caravan pass well on its way before you get
on the road again," said Keriway; "the smell of the beasts may make
your mare nervous and restive going home."
Then he called to a boy who was busy with a hoe among some
defiantly prosperous weeds, to fetch the lady a glass of milk and a
piece of currant loaf.
"I don't know when I've seen anything so utterly charming and
peaceful," said Elaine, propping herself on a seat that a pear-tree
had obligingly designed in the fantastic curve of its trunk.
"Charming, certainly," said Keriway, "but too full of the stress of
its own little life struggle to be peaceful. Since I have lived
here I've learnt, what I've always suspected, that a country
farmhouse, set away in a world of its own, is one of the most
wonderful studies of interwoven happenings and tragedies that can
be imagined. It is like the old chronicles of medieval Europe in
the days when there was a sort of ordered anarchy between feudal
lords and overlords, and burg-grafs, and mitred abbots, and prince-
bishops, robber barons and merchant guilds, and Electors and so
forth, all striving and contending and counter-plotting, and
interfering with each other under some vague code of loosely-
applied rules. Here one sees it reproduced under one's eyes, like
a musty page of black-letter come to life. Look at one little
section of it, the poultry-life on the farm. Villa poultry, dull
egg-machines, with records kept of how many ounces of food they
eat, and how many pennyworths of eggs they lay, give you no idea of
the wonder-life of these farm-birds; their feuds and jealousies,
and carefully maintained prerogatives, their unsparing tyrannies
and persecutions, their calculated courage and bravado or
sedulously hidden cowardice, it might all be some human chapter
from the annals of the old Rhineland or medieval Italy. And then,
outside their own bickering wars and hates, the grim enemies that
come up against them from the woodlands; the hawk that dashes among
the coops like a moss-trooper raiding the border, knowing well that
a charge of shot may tear him to bits at any moment. And the
stoat, a creeping slip of brown fur a few inches long, intently and
unstayably out for blood. And the hunger-taught master of craft,
the red fox, who has waited perhaps half the afternoon for his
chance while the fowls were dusting themselves under the hedge, and
just as they were turning supper-ward to the yard one has stopped a
moment to give her feathers a final shake and found death springing
upon her. Do you know," he continued, as Elaine fed herself and
the mare with morsels of currant-loaf, "I don't think any tragedy
in literature that I have ever come across impressed me so much as
the first one, that I spelled out slowly for myself in words of
three letters: the bad fox has got the red hen. There was
something so dramatically complete about it; the badness of the
fox, added to all the traditional guile of his race, seemed to
heighten the horror of the hen's fate, and there was such a
suggestion of masterful malice about the word 'got.' One felt that
a countryside in arms would not get that hen away from the bad fox.
They used to think me a slow dull reader for not getting on with my
lesson, but I used to sit and picture to myself the red hen, with
its wings beating helplessly, screeching in terrified protest, or
perhaps, if he had got it by the neck, with beak wide agape and
silent, and eyes staring, as it left the farmyard for ever. I have
seen blood-spillings and down-crushings and abject defeat here and
there in my time, but the red hen has remained in my mind as the
type of helpless tragedy." He was silent for a moment as if he
were again musing over the three-letter drama that had so dwelt in
his childhood's imagination. "Tell me some of the things you have
seen in your time," was the request that was nearly on Elaine's
lips, but she hastily checked herself and substituted another.
"Tell me more about the farm, please."
And he told her of a whole world, or rather of several intermingled
worlds, set apart in this sleepy hollow in the hills, of beast lore
and wood lore and farm craft, at times touching almost the border
of witchcraft--passing lightly here, not with the probing eagerness
of those who know nothing, but with the averted glance of those who
fear to see too much. He told her of those things that slept and
those that prowled when the dusk fell, of strange hunting cats, of
the yard swine and the stalled cattle, of the farm folk themselves,
as curious and remote in their way, in their ideas and fears and
wants and tragedies, as the brutes and feathered stock that they
tended. It seemed to Elaine as if a musty store of old-world
children's books had been fetched down from some cobwebbed lumber-
room and brought to life. Sitting there in the little paddock,
grown thickly with tall weeds and rank grasses, and shadowed by the
weather-beaten old grey barn, listening to this chronicle of
wonderful things, half fanciful, half very real, she could scarcely
believe that a few miles away there was a garden-party in full
swing, with smart frocks and smart conversation, fashionable
refreshments and fashionable music, and a fevered undercurrent of
social strivings and snubbings. Did Vienna and the Balkan
Mountains and the Black Sea seem as remote and hard to believe in,
she wondered, to the man sitting by her side, who had discovered or
invented this wonderful fairyland? Was it a true and merciful
arrangement of fate and life that the things of the moment thrust
out the after-taste of the things that had been? Here was one who
had held much that was priceless in the hollow of his hand and lost
it all, and he was happy and absorbed and well-content with the
little wayside corner of the world into which he had crept. And
Elaine, who held so many desirable things in the hollow of her
hand, could not make up her mind to be even moderately happy. She
did not even know whether to take this hero of her childhood down
from his pedestal, or to place him on a higher one; on the whole
she was inclined to resent rather than approve the idea that ill-
health and misfortune could so completely subdue and tame an
erstwhile bold and roving spirit.
The mare was showing signs of delicately-hinted impatience; the
paddock, with its teasing insects and very indifferent grazing, had
not thrust out the image of her own comfortable well-foddered
loose-box. Elaine divested her habit of some remaining crumbs of
bun-loaf and jumped lightly on to her saddle. As she rode slowly
down the lane, with Keriway escorting her as far as its gate, she
looked round at what had seemed to her, a short while ago, just a
picturesque old farmstead, a place of bee-hives and hollyhocks and
gabled cart-sheds; now it was in her eyes a magic city, with an
undercurrent of reality beneath its magic.
"You are a person to be envied," she said to Keriway; "you have
created a fairyland, and you are living in it yourself."
He shot the question out with sudden bitterness. She looked down
and saw the wistful misery that had come into his face.
"Once," he said to her, "in a German paper I read a short story
about a tame crippled crane that lived in the park of some small
town. I forget what happened in the story, but there was one line
that I shall always remember: 'it was lame, that is why it was
He had created a fairyland, but assuredly he was not living in it.
In the warmth of a late June morning the long shaded stretch of
raked earth, gravel-walk and rhododendron bush that is known
affectionately as the Row was alive with the monotonous movement
and alert stagnation appropriate to the time and place. The
seekers after health, the seekers after notoriety and recognition,
and the lovers of good exercise were all well represented on the
galloping ground; the gravel-walk and chairs and long seats held a
population whose varied instincts and motives would have baffled a
social catalogue-maker. The children, handled or in perambulators,
might be excused from instinct or motive; they were brought.
Pleasingly conspicuous among a bunch of indifferent riders pacing
along by the rails where the onlookers were thickest was Courtenay
Youghal, on his handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse. That
delicately stepping animal had taken a prize at Islington and
nearly taken the life of a stable-boy of whom he disapproved, but
his strongest claims to distinction were his good looks and his
high opinion of himself. Youghal evidently believed in thorough
accord between horse and rider.
"Please stop and talk to me," said a quiet beckoning voice from the
other side of the rails, and Youghal drew rein and greeted Lady
Veula Croot. Lady Veula had married into a family of commercial
solidity and enterprising political nonentity. She had a devoted
husband, some blonde teachable children, and a look of unutterable
weariness in her eyes. To see her standing at the top of an
expensively horticultured staircase receiving her husband's guests
was rather like watching an animal performing on a music-hall
One always tells oneself that the animal likes it, and one always
knows that it doesn't.
"Lady Veula is an ardent Free Trader, isn't she?" someone once
remarked to Lady Caroline.
"I wonder," said Lady Caroline, in her gently questioning voice; "a
woman whose dresses are made in Paris and whose marriage has been
made in Heaven might be equally biassed for and against free
Lady Veula looked at Youghal and his mount with slow critical
appraisement, and there was a note of blended raillery and
wistfulness in her voice.
"You two dear things, I should love to stroke you both, but I'm not
sure how Joyeuse would take it. So I'll stroke you down verbally
instead. I admired your attack on Sir Edward immensely, though of
course I don't agree with a word of it. Your description of him
building a hedge round the German cuckoo and hoping he was
isolating it was rather sweet. Seriously though, I regard him as
one of the pillars of the Administration."
"So do I," said Youghal; "the misfortune is that he is merely
propping up a canvas roof. It's just his regrettable solidity and
integrity that makes him so expensively dangerous. The average
Briton arrives at the same judgment about Roan's handling of
foreign affairs as Omar does of the Supreme Being in his dealings
with the world: He's a good fellow and 'twill all be well.'"
Lady Veula laughed lightly. "My Party is in power so I may
exercise the privilege of being optimistic. Who is that who bowed
to you?" she continued, as a dark young man with an inclination to
stoutness passed by them on foot; "I've seen him about a good deal
lately. He's been to one or two of my dances."
"Andrei Drakoloff," said Youghal; "he's just produced a play that
has had a big success in Moscow and is certain to be extremely
popular all over Russia. In the first three acts the heroine is
supposed to be dying of consumption; in the last act they find she
is really dying of cancer."
"Are the Russians really such a gloomy people?"
"Gloom-loving but not in the least gloomy. They merely take their
sadness pleasurably, just as we are accused of taking our pleasures
sadly. Have you noticed that dreadful Klopstock youth has been
pounding past us at shortening intervals. He'll come up and talk
if he half catches your eye."
"I only just know him. Isn't he at an agricultural college or
something of the sort?"
"Yes, studying to be a gentleman farmer, he told me. I didn't ask
if both subjects were compulsory."
"You're really rather dreadful," said Lady Veula, trying to look as
if she thought so; "remember, we are all equal in the sight of
For a preacher of wholesome truths her voice rather lacked
"If I and Ernest Klopstock are really equal in the sight of
Heaven," said Youghal, with intense complacency, "I should
recommend Heaven to consult an eye specialist."
There was a heavy spattering of loose earth, and a squelching of
saddle-leather, as the Klopstock youth lumbered up to the rails and
delivered himself of loud, cheerful greetings. Joyeuse laid his
ears well back as the ungainly bay cob and his appropriately
matched rider drew up beside him; his verdict was reflected and
endorsed by the cold stare of Youghal's eyes.
"I've been having a nailing fine time," recounted the newcomer with
clamorous enthusiasm; "I was over in Paris last month and had lots
of strawberries there, then I had a lot more in London, and now
I've been having a late crop of them in Herefordshire, so I've had
quite a lot this year." And he laughed as one who had deserved
well and received well of Fate.
"The charm of that story," said Youghal, "is that it can be told in
any drawing-room." And with a sweep of his wide-brimmed hat to
Lady Veula he turned the impatient Joyeuse into the moving stream
of horse and horsemen.
"That woman reminds me of some verse I've read and liked," thought
Youghal, as Joyeuse sprang into a light showy canter that gave full
recognition to the existence of observant human beings along the
side walk. "Ah, I have it."
And he quoted almost aloud, as one does in the exhilaration of a
"How much I loved that way you had
Of smiling most, when very sad,
A smile which carried tender hints
Of sun and spring,
And yet, more than all other thing,
Of weariness beyond all words."
And having satisfactorily fitted Lady Veula on to a quotation he
dismissed her from his mind. With the constancy of her sex she
thought about him, his good looks and his youth and his railing
tongue, till late in the afternoon.
While Youghal was putting Joyeuse through his paces under the elm
trees of the Row a little drama in which he was directly interested
was being played out not many hundred yards away. Elaine and Comus
were indulging themselves in two pennyworths of Park chair, drawn
aside just a little from the serried rows of sitters who were set
out like bedded plants over an acre or so of turf. Comus was, for
the moment, in a mood of pugnacious gaiety, disbursing a fund of
pointed criticism and unsparing anecdote concerning those of the
promenaders or loungers whom he knew personally or by sight.
Elaine was rather quieter than usual, and the grave serenity of the
Leonardo da Vinci portrait seemed intensified in her face this
morning. In his leisurely courtship Comus had relied almost
exclusively on his physical attraction and the fitful drollery of
his wit and high spirits, and these graces had gone far to make him
seem a very desirable and rather lovable thing in Elaine's eyes.
But he had left out of account the disfavour which he constantly
risked and sometimes incurred from his frank and undisguised
indifference to other people's interests and wishes, including, at
times, Elaine's. And the more that she felt that she liked him the
more she was irritated by his lack of consideration for her.
Without expecting that her every wish should become a law to him
she would at least have liked it to reach the formality of a Second
Reading. Another important factor he had also left out of his
reckoning, namely the presence on the scene of another suitor, who
also had youth and wit to recommend him, and who certainly did not
lack physical attractions. Comus, marching carelessly through
unknown country to effect what seemed already an assured victory,
made the mistake of disregarding the existence of an unbeaten army
on his flank.
To-day Elaine felt that, without having actually quarrelled, she
and Comus had drifted a little bit out of sympathy with one
another. The fault she knew was scarcely hers, in fact from the
most good-natured point of view it could hardly be denied that it
was almost entirely his. The incident of the silver dish had
lacked even the attraction of novelty; it had been one of a series,
all bearing a strong connecting likeness. There had been small
unrepaid loans which Elaine would not have grudged in themselves,
though the application for them brought a certain qualm of
distaste; with the perversity which seemed inseparable from his
doings, Comus had always flung away a portion of his borrowings in
some ostentatious piece of glaring and utterly profitless
extravagance, which outraged all the canons of her upbringing
without bringing him an atom of understandable satisfaction. Under
these repeated discouragements it was not surprising that some
small part of her affection should have slipped away, but she had
come to the Park that morning with an unconfessed expectation of
being gently wooed back to the mood of gracious forgetfulness that
she was only too eager to assume. It was almost worth while being
angry with Comus for the sake of experiencing the pleasure of being
coaxed into friendliness again with the charm which he knew so well
how to exert. It was delicious here under the trees on this
perfect June morning, and Elaine had the blessed assurance that
most of the women within range were envying her the companionship
of the handsome merry-hearted youth who sat by her side. With
special complacence she contemplated her cousin Suzette, who was
self-consciously but not very elatedly basking in the attentions of
her fiance, an earnest-looking young man who was superintendent of
a People's something-or-other on the south side of the river, and
whose clothes Comus had described as having been made in Southwark
rather than in anger.
Most of the pleasures in life must be paid for, and the chair-
ticket vendor in due time made his appearance in quest of pennies.
Comus paid him from out of a varied assortment of coins and then
balanced the remainder in the palm of his hand. Elaine felt a
sudden foreknowledge of something disagreeable about to happen and
a red spot deepened in her cheeks.
"Four shillings and fivepence and a half-penny," said Comus,
reflectively. "It's a ridiculous sum to last me for the next three
days, and I owe a card debt of over two pounds."
"Yes?" commented Elaine dryly and with an apparent lack of interest
in his exchequer statement. Surely, she was thinking hurriedly to
herself, he could not be foolish enough to broach the matter of
"The card debt is rather a nuisance," pursued Comus, with
"You won seven pounds last week, didn't you?" asked Elaine; "don't
you put by any of your winnings to balance losses?"
"The four shillings and the fivepence and the half-penny represent
the rearguard of the seven pounds," said Comus; "the rest have
fallen by the way. If I can pay the two pounds to-day I daresay I
shall win something more to go on with; I'm holding rather good
cards just now. But if I can't pay it of course I shan't show up
at the club. So you see the fix I am in."
Elaine took no notice of this indirect application. The Appeal
Court was assembling in haste to consider new evidence, and this
time there was the rapidity of sudden determination about its
The conversation strayed away from the fateful topic for a few
moments and then Comus brought it deliberately back to the danger
"It would be awfully nice if you would let me have a fiver for a
few days, Elaine," he said quickly; "if you don't I really don't
know what I shall do."
"If you are really bothered about your card debt I will send you
the two pounds by messenger boy early this afternoon." She spoke
quietly and with great decision. "And I shall not be at the
Connor's dance to-night," she continued; "it's too hot for dancing.
I'm going home now; please don't bother to accompany me, I
particularly wish to go alone."
Comus saw that he had overstepped the mark of her good nature.
Wisely he made no immediate attempt to force himself back into her
good graces. He would wait till her indignation had cooled.
His tactics would have been excellent if he had not forgotten that
unbeaten army on his flank.
Elaine de Frey had known very clearly what qualities she had wanted
in Comus, and she had known, against all efforts at self-deception,
that he fell far short of those qualities. She had been willing to
lower her standard of moral requirements in proportion as she was
fond of the boy, but there was a point beyond which she would not
go. He had hurt her pride besides alarming her sense of caution.
Suzette, on whom she felt a thoroughly justified tendency to look
down, had at any rate an attentive and considerate lover. Elaine
walked towards the Park gates feeling that in one essential Suzette
possessed something that had been denied to her, and at the gates
she met Joyeuse and his spruce young rider preparing to turn
"Get rid of Joyeuse and come and take me out to lunch somewhere,"
"How jolly," said Youghal. "Let's go to the Corridor Restaurant.
The head waiter there is an old Viennese friend of mine and looks
after me beautifully. I've never been there with a lady before,
and he's sure to ask me afterwards, in his fatherly way, if we're
The lunch was a success in every way. There was just enough
orchestral effort to immerse the conversation without drowning it,
and Youghal was an attentive and inspired host. Through an open
doorway Elaine could see the cafe reading-room, with its imposing
array of Neue Freie Presse, Berliner Tageblatt, and other exotic
newspapers hanging on the wall. She looked across at the young man
seated opposite her, who gave one the impression of having centred
the most serious efforts of his brain on his toilet and his food,
and recalled some of the flattering remarks that the press had
bestowed on his recent speeches.
"Doesn't it make you conceited, Courtenay," she asked, "to look at
all those foreign newspapers hanging there and know that most of
them have got paragraphs and articles about your Persian speech?"
"There's always a chastening corrective in the thought that some of
them may have printed your portrait. When once you've seen your
features hurriedly reproduced in the Matin, for instance, you feel
you would like to be a veiled Turkish woman for the rest of your
And Youghal gazed long and lovingly at his reflection in the
nearest mirror, as an antidote against possible incitements to
humility in the portrait gallery of fame.
Elaine felt a certain soothed satisfaction in the fact that this
young man, whose knowledge of the Middle East was an embarrassment
to Ministers at question time and in debate, was showing himself
equally well-informed on the subject of her culinary likes and
dislikes. If Suzette could have been forced to attend as a witness
at a neighbouring table she would have felt even happier.
"Did the head waiter ask if we were engaged?" asked Elaine, when
Courtenay had settled the bill, and she had finished collecting her
sunshade and gloves and other impedimenta from the hands of
"Yes," said Youghal, "and he seemed quite crestfallen when I had to
"It would be horrid to disappoint him when he's looked after us so
charmingly," said Elaine; "tell him that we are."
The Rutland Galleries were crowded, especially in the neighbourhood
of the tea-buffet, by a fashionable throng of art-patrons which had
gathered to inspect Mervyn Quentock's collection of Society
portraits. Quentock was a young artist whose abilities were just
receiving due recognition from the critics; that the recognition
was not overdue he owed largely to his perception of the fact that
if one hides one's talent under a bushel one must be careful to
point out to everyone the exact bushel under which it is hidden.
There are two manners of receiving recognition: one is to be
discovered so long after one's death that one's grandchildren have
to write to the papers to establish their relationship; the other
is to be discovered, like the infant Moses, at the very outset of
one's career. Mervyn Quentock had chosen the latter and happier
manner. In an age when many aspiring young men strive to advertise
their wares by imparting to them a freakish imbecility, Quentock
turned out work that was characterised by a pleasing delicate
restraint, but he contrived to herald his output with a certain
fanfare of personal eccentricity, thereby compelling an attention
which might otherwise have strayed past his studio. In appearance
he was the ordinary cleanly young Englishman, except, perhaps, that
his eyes rather suggested a library edition of the Arabian Nights;
his clothes matched his appearance and showed no taint of the
sartorial disorder by which the bourgeois of the garden-city and
the Latin Quarter anxiously seeks to proclaim his kinship with art
and thought. His eccentricity took the form of flying in the face
of some of the prevailing social currents of the day, but as a
reactionary, never as a reformer. He produced a gasp of admiring
astonishment in fashionable circles by refusing to paint actresses-
-except, of course, those who had left the legitimate drama to
appear between the boards of Debrett. He absolutely declined to
execute portraits of Americans unless they hailed from certain
favoured States. His "water-colour-line," as a New York paper
phrased it, earned for him a crop of angry criticisms and a shoal
of Transatlantic commissions, and criticism and commissions were
the things that Quentock most wanted.
"Of course he is perfectly right," said Lady Caroline Benaresq,
calmly rescuing a piled-up plate of caviare sandwiches from the
neighbourhood of a trio of young ladies who had established
themselves hopefully within easy reach of it. "Art," she
continued, addressing herself to the Rev. Poltimore Vardon, "has
always been geographically exclusive. London may be more important
from most points of view than Venice, but the art of portrait
painting, which would never concern itself with a Lord Mayor,
simply grovels at the feet of the Doges. As a Socialist I'm bound
to recognise the right of Ealing to compare itself with Avignon,
but one cannot expect the Muses to put the two on a level."
"Exclusiveness," said the Reverend Poltimore, "has been the
salvation of Art, just as the lack of it is proving the downfall of
religion. My colleagues of the cloth go about zealously
proclaiming the fact that Christianity, in some form or other, is
attracting shoals of converts among all sorts of races and tribes,
that one had scarcely ever heard of, except in reviews of books of
travel that one never read. That sort of thing was all very well
when the world was more sparsely populated, but nowadays, when it
simply teems with human beings, no one is particularly impressed by
the fact that a few million, more or less, of converts, of a low
stage of mental development, have accepted the teachings of some
particular religion. It not only chills one's enthusiasm, it
positively shakes one's convictions when one hears that the things
one has been brought up to believe as true are being very
favourably spoken of by Buriats and Samoyeds and Kanakas."
The Rev. Poltimore Vardon had once seen a resemblance in himself to
Voltaire, and had lived alongside the comparison ever since.
"No modern cult or fashion," he continued, "would be favourably
influenced by considerations based on statistics; fancy adopting a
certain style of hat or cut of coat, because it was being largely
worn in Lancashire and the Midlands; fancy favouring a certain
brand of champagne because it was being extensively patronised in
German summer resorts. No wonder that religion is falling into
disuse in this country under such ill-directed methods."
"You can't prevent the heathen being converted if they choose to
be," said Lady Caroline; "this is an age of toleration."
"You could always deny it," said the Rev. Poltimore, "like the
Belgians do with regrettable occurrences in the Congo. But I would
go further than that. I would stimulate the waning enthusiasm for
Christianity in this country by labelling it as the exclusive
possession of a privileged few. If one could induce the Duchess of
Pelm, for instance, to assert that the Kingdom of Heaven, as far as
the British Isles are concerned, is strictly limited to herself,
two of the under-gardeners at Pelmby, and, possibly, but not
certainly, the Dean of Dunster, there would be an instant reshaping
of the popular attitude towards religious convictions and
observances. Once let the idea get about that the Christian Church
is rather more exclusive than the Lawn at Ascot, and you would have
a quickening of religious life such as this generation has never
witnessed. But as long as the clergy and the religious
organisations advertise their creed on the lines of 'Everybody
ought to believe in us: millions do,' one can expect nothing but
indifference and waning faith."
"Time is just as exclusive in its way as Art," said Lady Caroline.
"In what way?" said the Reverend Poltimore.
"Your pleasantries about religion would have sounded quite clever
and advanced in the early 'nineties. To-day they have a dreadfully
warmed-up flavour. That is the great delusion of you would-be
advanced satirists; you imagine you can sit down comfortably for a
couple of decades saying daring and startling things about the age
you live in, which, whatever other defects it may have, is
certainly not standing still. The whole of the Sherard Blaw school
of discursive drama suggests, to my mind, Early Victorian furniture
in a travelling circus. However, you will always have relays of
people from the suburbs to listen to the Mocking Bird of yesterday,
and sincerely imagine it is the harbinger of something new and
"WOULD you mind passing that plate of sandwiches," asked one of the
trio of young ladies, emboldened by famine.
"With pleasure," said Lady Caroline, deftly passing her a nearly
empty plate of bread-and-butter.
"I meant the place of caviare sandwiches. So sorry to trouble
you," persisted the young lady
Her sorrow was misapplied; Lady Caroline had turned her attention
to a newcomer.
"A very interesting exhibition," Ada Spelvexit was saying;
"faultless technique, as far as I am a judge of technique, and
quite a master-touch in the way of poses. But have you noticed how
very animal his art is? He seems to shut out the soul from his
portraits. I nearly cried when I saw dear Winifred depicted simply
as a good-looking healthy blonde."
"I wish you had," said Lady Caroline; "the spectacle of a strong,
brave woman weeping at a private view in the Rutland Galleries
would have been so sensational. It would certainly have been
reproduced in the next Drury Lane drama. And I'm so unlucky; I
never see these sensational events. I was ill with appendicitis,
you know, when Lulu Braminguard dramatically forgave her husband,
after seventeen years of estrangement, during a State luncheon
party at Windsor. The old queen was furious about it. She said it
was so disrespectful to the cook to be thinking of such a thing at
such a time."
Lady Caroline's recollections of things that hadn't happened at the
Court of Queen Victoria were notoriously vivid; it was the very
widespread fear that she might one day write a book of
reminiscences that made her so universally respected.
"As for his full-length picture of Lady Brickfield," continued Ada,
ignoring Lady Caroline's commentary as far as possible, "all the
expression seems to have been deliberately concentrated in the
feet; beautiful feet, no doubt, but still, hardly the most
distinctive part of a human being."
"To paint the right people at the wrong end may be an eccentricity,
but it is scarcely an indiscretion," pronounced Lady Caroline.
One of the portraits which attracted more than a passing flutter of
attention was a costume study of Francesca Bassington. Francesca
had secured some highly desirable patronage for the young artist,
and in return he had enriched her pantheon of personal possessions
with a clever piece of work into which he had thrown an unusual
amount of imaginative detail. He had painted her in a costume of
the great Louis's brightest period, seated in front of a tapestry
that was so prominent in the composition that it could scarcely be
said to form part of the background. Flowers and fruit, in exotic
profusion, were its dominant note; quinces, pomegranates, passion-
flowers, giant convolvulus, great mauve-pink roses, and grapes that
were already being pressed by gleeful cupids in a riotous Arcadian
vintage, stood out on its woven texture. The same note was struck
in the beflowered satin of the lady's kirtle, and in the
pomegranate pattern of the brocade that draped the couch on which
she was seated. The artist had called his picture "Recolte." And
after one had taken in all the details of fruit and flower and
foliage that earned the composition its name, one noted the
landscape that showed through a broad casement in the left-hand
corner. It was a landscape clutched in the grip of winter, naked,
bleak, black-frozen; a winter in which things died and knew no
rewakening. If the picture typified harvest, it was a harvest of
"It leaves a great deal to the imagination, doesn't it?" said Ada
Spelvexit, who had edged away from the range of Lady Caroline's
"At any rate one can tell who it's meant for," said Serena
"Oh, yes, it's a good likeness of dear Francesca," admitted Ada;
"of course, it flatters her."
"That, too, is a fault on the right side in portrait painting,"
said Serena; "after all, if posterity is going to stare at one for
centuries it's only kind and reasonable to be looking just a little
better than one's best."
"What a curiously unequal style the artist has," continued Ada,
almost as if she felt a personal grievance against him; "I was just
noticing what a lack of soul there was in most of his portraits.
Dear Winifred, you know, who speaks so beautifully and feelingly at
my gatherings for old women, he's made her look just an ordinary
dairy-maidish blonde; and Francesca, who is quite the most soulless
woman I've ever met, well, he's given her quite--"
"Hush," said Serena, "the Bassington boy is just behind you."
Comus stood looking at the portrait of his mother with the feeling
of one who comes suddenly across a once-familiar half-forgotten
acquaintance in unfamiliar surroundings. The likeness was
undoubtedly a good one, but the artist had caught an expression in
Francesca's eyes which few people had ever seen there. It was the
expression of a woman who had forgotten for one short moment to be
absorbed in the small cares and excitements of her life, the money
worries and little social plannings, and had found time to send a
look of half-wistful friendliness to some sympathetic companion.
Comus could recall that look, fitful and fleeting, in his mother's
eyes when she had been a few years younger, before her world had
grown to be such a committee-room of ways and means. Almost as a
re-discovery he remembered that she had once figured in his boyish
mind as a "rather good sort," more ready to see the laughable side
of a piece of mischief than to labour forth a reproof. That the
bygone feeling of good fellowship had been stamped out was, he
knew, probably in great part his own doing, and it was possible
that the old friendliness was still there under the surface of
things, ready to show itself again if he willed it, and friends
were becoming scarcer with him than enemies in these days. Looking
at the picture with its wistful hint of a long ago comradeship,
Comus made up his mind that he very much wanted things to be back
on their earlier footing, and to see again on his mother's face the
look that the artist had caught and perpetuated in its momentary
flitting. If the projected Elaine-marriage came off, and in spite
of recent maladroit behaviour on his part he still counted it an
assured thing, much of the immediate cause for estrangement between
himself and his mother would be removed, or at any rate, easily
removable. With the influence of Elaine's money behind him he
promised himself that he would find some occupation that would
remove from himself the reproach of being a waster and idler.
There were lots of careers, he told himself, that were open to a
man with solid financial backing and good connections. There might
yet be jolly times ahead, in which his mother would have her share
of the good things that were going, and carking thin-lipped Henry
Greech and other of Comus's detractors could take their sour looks
and words out of sight and hearing. Thus, staring at the picture
as though he were studying its every detail, and seeing really only
that wistful friendly smile, Comus made his plans and dispositions
for a battle that was already fought and lost.
The crowd grew thicker in the galleries, cheerfully enduring an
amount of overcrowding that would have been fiercely resented in a
railway carriage. Near the entrance Mervyn Quentock was talking to
a Serene Highness, a lady who led a life of obtrusive usefulness,
largely imposed on her by a good-natured inability to say "No."
"That woman creates a positive draught with the number of bazaars
she opens," a frivolously-spoken ex-Cabinet Minister had once
remarked. At the present moment she was being whimsically
"When I think of the legions of well-meaning young men and women to
whom I've given away prizes for proficiency in art-school
curriculum, I feel that I ought not to show my face inside a
picture gallery. I always imagine that my punishment in another
world will be perpetually sharpening pencils and cleaning palettes
for unending relays of misguided young people whom I deliberately
encouraged in their artistic delusions."
"Do you suppose we shall all get appropriate punishments in another
world for our sins in this?" asked Quentock.
"Not so much for our sins as for our indiscretions; they are the
things which do the most harm and cause the greatest trouble. I
feel certain that Christopher Columbus will undergo the endless
torment of being discovered by parties of American tourists. You
see I am quite old fashioned in my ideas about the terrors and
inconveniences of the next world. And now I must be running away;
I've got to open a Free Library somewhere. You know the sort of
thing that happens--one unveils a bust of Carlyle and makes a
speech about Ruskin, and then people come in their thousands and
read 'Rabid Ralph, or Should he have Bitten Her?' Don't forget,
please, I'm going to have the medallion with the fat cupid sitting
on a sundial. And just one thing more--perhaps I ought not to ask
you, but you have such nice kind eyes, you embolden one to make
daring requests, would you send me the recipe for those lovely
chestnut-and-chicken-liver sandwiches? I know the ingredients of
course, but it's the proportions that make such a difference--just
how much liver to how much chestnut, and what amount of red pepper
and other things. Thank you so much. I really am going now."
Staring round with a vague half-smile at everybody within nodding
distance, Her Serene Highness made one of her characteristic exits,
which Lady Caroline declared always reminded her of a scrambled egg
slipping off a piece of toast. At the entrance she stopped for a
moment to exchange a word or two with a young man who had just
arrived. From a corner where he was momentarily hemmed in by a
group of tea-consuming dowagers, Comus recognised the newcomer as
Courtenay Youghal, and began slowly to labour his way towards him.
Youghal was not at the moment the person whose society he most
craved for in the world, but there was at least the possibility
that he might provide an opportunity for a game of bridge, which
was the dominant desire of the moment. The young politician was
already surrounded by a group of friends and acquaintances, and was
evidently being made the recipient of a salvo of congratulation--
presumably on his recent performances in the Foreign Office debate,
Comus concluded. But Youghal himself seemed to be announcing the
event with which the congratulations were connected. Had some
dramatic catastrophe overtaken the Government, Comus wondered. And
then, as he pressed nearer, a chance word, the coupling of two
names, told him the news.
After the momentous lunch at the Corridor Restaurant Elaine had
returned to Manchester Square (where she was staying with one of
her numerous aunts) in a frame of mind that embraced a tangle of
competing emotions. In the first place she was conscious of a
dominant feeling of relief; in a moment of impetuosity, not wholly
uninfluenced by pique, she had settled the problem which hours of
hard thinking and serious heart-searching had brought no nearer to
solution, and, although she felt just a little inclined to be
scared at the headlong manner of her final decision, she had now
very little doubt in her own mind that the decision had been the
right one. In fact the wonder seemed rather that she should have
been so long in doubt as to which of her wooers really enjoyed her
honest approval. She had been in love, these many weeks past with
an imaginary Comus, but now that she had definitely walked out of
her dreamland she saw that nearly all the qualities that had
appealed to her on his behalf had been absent from, or only
fitfully present in, the character of the real Comus. And now that
she had installed Youghal in the first place of her affections he
had rapidly acquired in her eyes some of the qualities which ranked
highest in her estimation. Like the proverbial buyer she had the
happy feminine tendency of magnifying the worth of her possession
as soon as she had acquired it. And Courtenay Youghal gave Elaine
some justification for her sense of having chosen wisely. Above
all other things, selfish and cynical though he might appear at
times, he was unfailingly courteous and considerate towards her.
That was a circumstance which would always have carried weight with
her in judging any man; in this case its value was enormously
heightened by contrast with the behaviour of her other wooer. And
Youghal had in her eyes the advantage which the glamour of combat,
even the combat of words and wire-pulling, throws over the fighter.
He stood well in the forefront of a battle which however carefully
stage-managed, however honeycombed with personal insincerities and
overlaid with calculated mock-heroics, really meant something,
really counted for good or wrong in the nation's development and
the world's history. Shrewd parliamentary observers might have
warned her that Youghal would never stand much higher in the
political world than he did at present, as a brilliant Opposition
freelance, leading lively and rather meaningless forays against the
dull and rather purposeless foreign policy of a Government that was
scarcely either to be blamed for or congratulated on its handling
of foreign affairs. The young politician had not the strength of
character or convictions that keeps a man naturally in the
forefront of affairs and gives his counsels a sterling value, and
on the other hand his insincerity was not deep enough to allow him
to pose artificially and successfully as a leader of men and shaper
of movements. For the moment, however, his place in public life
was sufficiently marked out to give him a secure footing in that
world where people are counted individually and not in herds. The
woman whom he would make his wife would have the chance, too, if
she had the will and the skill, to become an individual who
There was balm to Elaine in this reflection, yet it did not wholly
suffice to drive out the feeling of pique which Comus had called
into being by his slighting view of her as a convenient cash supply
in moments of emergency. She found a certain satisfaction in
scrupulously observing her promise, made earlier on that eventful
day, and sent off a messenger with the stipulated loan. Then a
reaction of compunction set in, and she reminded herself that in
fairness she ought to write and tell her news in as friendly a
fashion as possible to her dismissed suitor before it burst upon
him from some other quarter. They had parted on more or less
quarrelling terms it was true, but neither of them had foreseen the
finality of the parting nor the permanence of the breach between
them; Comus might even now be thinking himself half-forgiven, and
the awakening would be rather cruel. The letter, however, did not
prove an easy one to write; not only did it present difficulties of
its own but it suffered from the competing urgency of a desire to
be doing something far pleasanter than writing explanatory and
valedictory phrases. Elaine was possessed with an unusual but
quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley.
They met but rarely at each other's houses and very seldom anywhere
else, and Elaine for her part was never conscious of feeling that
their opportunities for intercourse lacked anything in the way of
adequacy. Suzette accorded her just that touch of patronage which
a moderately well-off and immoderately dull girl will usually try
to mete out to an acquaintance who is known to be wealthy and
suspected of possessing brains. In return Elaine armed herself
with that particular brand of mock humility which can be so
terribly disconcerting if properly wielded. No quarrel of any
description stood between them and one could not legitimately have
described them as enemies, but they never disarmed in one another's
presence. A misfortune of any magnitude falling on one of them
would have been sincerely regretted by the other, but any minor
discomfiture would have produced a feeling very much akin to
satisfaction. Human nature knows millions of these inconsequent
little feuds, springing up and flourishing apart from any basis of
racial, political, religious or economic causes, as a hint perhaps
to crass unseeing altruists that enmity has its place and purpose
in the world as well as benevolence.
Elaine had not personally congratulated Suzette since the formal
announcement of her engagement to the young man with the
dissentient tailoring effects. The impulse to go and do so now,
overmastered her sense of what was due to Comus in the way of
explanation. The letter was still in its blank unwritten stage, an
unmarshalled sequence of sentences forming in her brain, when she
ordered her car and made a hurried but well-thought-out change into
her most sumptuously sober afternoon toilette. Suzette, she felt
tolerably sure, would still be in the costume that she had worn in
the Park that morning, a costume that aimed at elaboration of
detail, and was damned with overmuch success.
Suzette's mother welcomed her unexpected visitor with obvious
satisfaction. Her daughter's engagement, she explained, was not so
brilliant from the social point of view as a girl of Suzette's
attractions and advantages might have legitimately aspired to, but
Egbert was a thoroughly commendable and dependable young man, who
would very probably win his way before long to membership of the
"From there, of course, the road would be open to him to higher
"Yes," said Elaine, "he might become an alderman."
"Have you seen their photographs, taken together?" asked Mrs.
Brankley, abandoning the subject of Egbert's prospective career.
"No, do show me," said Elaine, with a flattering show of interest;
"I've never seen that sort of thing before. It used to be the
fashion once for engaged couples to be photographed together,
"It's VERY much the fashion now," said Mrs. Brankley assertively,
but some of the complacency had filtered out of her voice. Suzette
came into the room, wearing the dress that she had worn in the Park
"Of course, you've been hearing all about THE engagement from
mother," she cried, and then set to work conscientiously to cover
the same ground.
"We met at Grindelwald, you know. He always calls me his Ice
Maiden because we first got to know each other on the skating rink.
Quite romantic, wasn't it? Then we asked him to tea one day, and
we got to be quite friendly. Then he proposed."
"He wasn't the only one who was smitten with Suzette," Mrs.
Brankley hastened to put in, fearful lest Elaine might suppose that
Egbert had had things all his own way. "There was an American
millionaire who was quite taken with her, and a Polish count of a
very old family. I assure you I felt quite nervous at some of our
Mrs. Brankley had given Grindelwald a sinister but rather alluring
reputation among a large circle of untravelled friends as a place
where the insolence of birth and wealth was held in precarious
check from breaking forth into scenes of savage violence.
"My marriage with Egbert will, of course, enlarge the sphere of my
life enormously," pursued Suzette.
"Yes," said Elaine; her eyes were rather remorselessly taking in
the details of her cousin's toilette. It is said that nothing is
sadder than victory except defeat. Suzette began to feel that the
tragedy of both was concentrated in the creation which had given
her such unalloyed gratification, till Elaine had come on the
"A woman can be so immensely helpful in the social way to a man who
is making a career for himself. And I'm so glad to find that we've
a great many ideas in common. We each made out a list of our idea
of the hundred best books, and quite a number of them were the
"He looks bookish," said Elaine, with a critical glance at the
"Oh, he's not at all a bookworm," said Suzette quickly, "though
he's tremendously well-read. He's quite the man of action."
"Does he hunt?" asked Elaine.
"No, he doesn't get much time or opportunity for riding."
"What a pity," commented Elaine; "I don't think I could marry a man
who wasn't fond of riding."
"Of course that's a matter of taste," said Suzette, stiffly;
"horsey men are not usually gifted with overmuch brains, are they?"
"There is as much difference between a horseman and a horsey man as
there is between a well-dressed man and a dressy one," said Elaine,
judicially; "and you may have noticed how seldom a dressy woman
really knows how to dress. As an old lady of my acquaintance
observed the other day, some people are born with a sense of how to
clothe themselves, others acquire it, others look as if their
clothes had been thrust upon them."
She gave Lady Caroline her due quotation marks, but the sudden
tactfulness with which she looked away from her cousin's frock was
entirely her own idea.
A young man entering the room at this moment caused a diversion
that was rather welcome to Suzette.
"Here comes Egbert," she announced, with an air of subdued triumph;
it was at least a satisfaction to be able to produce the captive of
her charms, alive and in good condition, on the scene. Elaine
might be as critical as she pleased, but a live lover outweighed
any number of well-dressed straight-riding cavaliers who existed
only as a distant vision of the delectable husband.
Egbert was one of those men who have no small talk, but possess an
inexhaustible supply of the larger variety. In whatever society he
happened to be, and particularly in the immediate neighbourhood of
an afternoon-tea table, with a limited audience of womenfolk, he
gave the impression of someone who was addressing a public meeting,
and would be happy to answer questions afterwards. A suggestion of
gas-lit mission-halls, wet umbrellas, and discreet applause seemed
to accompany him everywhere. He was an exponent, among other
things, of what he called New Thought, which seemed to lend itself
conveniently to the employment of a good deal of rather stale
phraseology. Probably in the course of some thirty odd years of
existence he had never been of any notable use to man, woman, child
or animal, but it was his firmly-announced intention to leave the
world a better, happier, purer place than he had found it; against
the danger of any relapse to earlier conditions after his
disappearance from the scene, he was, of course, powerless to
guard. 'Tis not in mortals to insure succession, and Egbert was
Elaine found him immensely entertaining, and would certainly have
exerted herself to draw him out if such a proceeding had been at
all necessary. She listened to his conversation with the
complacent appreciation that one bestows on a stage tragedy, from
whose calamities one can escape at any moment by the simple process
of leaving one's seat. When at last he checked the flow of his
opinions by a hurried reference to his watch, and declared that he
must be moving on elsewhere, Elaine almost expected a vote of
thanks to be accorded him, or to be asked to signify herself in
favour of some resolution by holding up her hand.
When the young man had bidden the company a rapid business-like
farewell, tempered in Suzette's case by the exact degree of tender
intimacy that it would have been considered improper to omit or
overstep, Elaine turned to her expectant cousin with an air of
"He is exactly the husband I should have chosen for you, Suzette."
For the second time that afternoon Suzette felt a sense of waning
enthusiasm for one of her possessions.
Mrs. Brankley detected the note of ironical congratulation in her
"I suppose she means he's not her idea of a husband, but, he's good
enough for Suzette," she observed to herself, with a snort that
expressed itself somewhere in the nostrils of the brain. Then with
a smiling air of heavy patronage she delivered herself of her one
idea of a damaging counter-stroke.
"And when are we to hear of your engagement, my dear?"
"Now," said Elaine quietly, but with electrical effect; "I came to
announce it to you but I wanted to hear all about Suzette first.
It will be formally announced in the papers in a day or two."
"But who is it? Is it the young man who was with you in the Park
this morning?" asked Suzette.
"Let me see, who was I with in the Park this morning? A very good-
looking dark boy? Oh no, not Comus Bassington. Someone you know
by name, anyway, and I expect you've seen his portrait in the
"A flying-man?" asked Mrs. Brankley.
"Courtenay Youghal," said Elaine.
Mrs. Brankley and Suzette had often rehearsed in the privacy of
their minds the occasion when Elaine should come to pay her
personal congratulations to her engaged cousin. It had never been
in the least like this.
On her return from her enjoyable afternoon visit Elaine found an
express messenger letter waiting for her. It was from Comus,
thanking her for her loan--and returning it.
"I suppose I ought never to have asked you for it," he wrote, "but
you are always so deliciously solemn about money matters that I
couldn't resist. Just heard the news of your engagement to
Courtenay. Congrats. to you both. I'm far too stoney broke to buy
you a wedding present so I'm going to give you back the bread-and-
butter dish. Luckily it still has your crest on it. I shall love
to think of you and Courtenay eating bread-and-butter out of it for
the rest of your lives."
That was all he had to say on the matter about which Elaine had
been preparing to write a long and kindly-expressed letter, closing
a rather momentous chapter in her life and his. There was not a
trace of regret or upbraiding in his note; he had walked out of
their mutual fairyland as abruptly as she had, and to all
appearances far more unconcernedly. Reading the letter again and
again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was
merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the
real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.
And she would never know. If Comus possessed one useless gift to
perfection it was the gift of laughing at Fate even when it had
struck him hardest. One day, perhaps, the laughter and mockery
would be silent on his lips, and Fate would have the advantage of
A door closed and Francesca Bassington sat alone in her well-
beloved drawing-room. The visitor who had been enjoying the
hospitality of her afternoon-tea table had just taken his
departure. The tete-a-tete had not been a pleasant one, at any
rate as far as Francesca was concerned, but at least it had brought
her the information for which she had been seeking. Her role of
looker-on from a tactful distance had necessarily left her much in
the dark concerning the progress of the all-important wooing, but
during the last few hours she had, on slender though significant
evidence, exchanged her complacent expectancy for a conviction that
something had gone wrong. She had spent the previous evening at
her brother's house, and had naturally seen nothing of Comus in
that uncongenial quarter; neither had he put in an appearance at
the breakfast table the following morning. She had met him in the
hall at eleven o'clock, and he had hurried past her, merely
imparting the information that he would not be in till dinner that
evening. He spoke in his sulkiest tone, and his face wore a look
of defeat, thinly masked by an air of defiance; it was not the
defiance of a man who is losing, but of one who has already lost.
Francesca's conviction that things had gone wrong between Comus and
Elaine de Frey grew in strength as the day wore on. She lunched at
a friend's house, but it was not a quarter where special social
information of any importance was likely to come early to hand.
Instead of the news she was hankering for, she had to listen to
trivial gossip and speculation on the flirtations and "cases" and
"affairs" of a string of acquaintances whose matrimonial projects
interested her about as much as the nesting arrangements of the
wildfowl in St. James's Park.
"Of course," said her hostess, with the duly impressive emphasis of
a privileged chronicler, "we've always regarded Claire as the
marrying one of the family, so when Emily came to us and said,
'I've got some news for you,' we all said, 'Claire's engaged!'
'Oh, no,' said Emily, 'it's not Claire this time, it's me.' So
then we had to guess who the lucky man was. 'It can't be Captain
Parminter,' we all said, 'because he's always been sweet on Joan.'
And then Emily said--"
The recording voice reeled off the catalogue of inane remarks with
a comfortable purring complacency that held out no hope of an early
abandoning of the topic. Francesca sat and wondered why the
innocent acceptance of a cutlet and a glass of indifferent claret
should lay one open to such unsparing punishment.
A stroll homeward through the Park after lunch brought no further
enlightenment on the subject that was uppermost in her mind; what
was worse, it brought her, without possibility of escape, within
hailing distance of Merla Blathington, who fastened on to her with
the enthusiasm of a lonely tsetse fly encountering an outpost of
"Just think," she buzzed inconsequently, "my sister in
Cambridgeshire has hatched out thirty-three White Orpington
chickens in her incubator!"
"What eggs did she put in it?" asked Francesca.
"Oh, some very special strain of White Orpington."
"Then I don't see anything remarkable in the result. If she had
put in crocodile's eggs and hatched out White Orpingtons, there
might have been something to write to Country Life about."
"What funny fascinating things these little green park-chairs are,"
said Merla, starting off on a fresh topic; "they always look so
quaint and knowing when they're stuck away in pairs by themselves
under the trees, as if they were having a heart-to-heart talk or
discussing a piece of very private scandal. If they could only
speak, what tragedies and comedies they could tell us of, what
flirtations and proposals."
"Let us be devoutly thankful that they can't," said Francesca, with
a shuddering recollection of the luncheon-table conversation.
"Of course, it would make one very careful what one said before
them--or above them rather," Merla rattled on, and then, to
Francesca's infinite relief, she espied another acquaintance
sitting in unprotected solitude, who promised to supply a more
durable audience than her present rapidly moving companion.
Francesca was free to return to her drawing-room in Blue Street to
await with such patience as she could command the coming of some
visitor who might be able to throw light on the subject that was
puzzling and disquieting her. The arrival of George St. Michael
boded bad news, but at any rate news, and she gave him an almost
"Well, you see I wasn't far wrong about Miss de Frey and Courtenay
Youghal, was I?" he chirruped, almost before he had seated himself.
Francesca was to be spared any further spinning-out of her period
of uncertainty. "Yes, it's officially given out," he went on, "and
it's to appear in the Morning Post to-morrow. I heard it from
Colonel Deel this morning, and he had it direct from Youghal
himself. Yes, please, one lump; I'm not fashionable, you see." He
had made the same remark about the sugar in his tea with unfailing
regularity for at least thirty years. Fashions in sugar are
apparently stationary. "They say," he continued, hurriedly, "that
he proposed to her on the Terrace of the House, and a division bell
rang, and he had to hurry off before she had time to give her
answer, and when he got back she simply said, 'the Ayes have it.'"
St. Michael paused in his narrative to give an appreciative giggle.
"Just the sort of inanity that would go the rounds," remarked
Francesca, with the satisfaction of knowing that she was making the
criticism direct to the author and begetter of the inanity in
question. Now that the blow had fallen and she knew the full
extent of its weight, her feeling towards the bringer of bad news,
who sat complacently nibbling at her tea-cakes and scattering
crumbs of tiresome small-talk at her feet, was one of wholehearted
dislike. She could sympathise with, or at any rate understand, the
tendency of oriental despots to inflict death or ignominious
chastisement on messengers bearing tidings of misfortune and
defeat, and St. Michael, she perfectly well knew, was thoroughly
aware of the fact that her hopes and wishes had been centred on the
possibility of having Elaine for a daughter-in-law; every purring
remark that his mean little soul prompted him to contribute to the
conversation had an easily recognizable undercurrent of malice.
Fortunately for her powers of polite endurance, which had been put
to such searching and repeated tests that day, St. Michael had
planned out for himself a busy little time-table of afternoon
visits, at each of which his self-appointed task of forestalling
and embellishing the newspaper announcements of the Youghal-de Frey
engagement would be hurriedly but thoroughly performed.
"They'll be quite one of the best-looking and most interesting
couples of the Season, won't they?" he cried, by way of farewell.
The door closed and Francesca Bassington sat alone in her drawing-
Before she could give way to the bitter luxury of reflection on the
downfall of her hopes, it was prudent to take precautionary
measures against unwelcome intrusion. Summoning the maid who had
just speeded the departing St. Michael, she gave the order: "I am
not at home this afternoon to Lady Caroline Benaresq." On second
thoughts she extended the taboo to all possible callers, and sent a
telephone message to catch Comus at his club, asking him to come
and see her as soon as he could manage before it was time to dress
for dinner. Then she sat down to think, and her thinking was
beyond the relief of tears.
She had built herself a castle of hopes, and it had not been a
castle in Spain, but a structure well on the probable side of the
Pyrenees. There had been a solid foundation on which to build.
Miss de Frey's fortune was an assured and unhampered one, her
liking for Comus had been an obvious fact; his courtship of her a
serious reality. The young people had been much together in
public, and their names had naturally been coupled in the match-
making gossip of the day. The only serious shadow cast over the
scene had been the persistent presence, in foreground or
background, of Courtenay Youghal. And now the shadow suddenly
stood forth as the reality, and the castle of hopes was a ruin, a
hideous mortification of dust and debris, with the skeleton
outlines of its chambers still standing to make mockery of its
discomfited architect. The daily anxiety about Comus and his
extravagant ways and intractable disposition had been gradually
lulled by the prospect of his making an advantageous marriage,
which would have transformed him from a ne'er-do-well and
adventurer into a wealthy idler. He might even have been moulded,
by the resourceful influence of an ambitious wife, into a man with
some definite purpose in life. The prospect had vanished with
cruel suddenness, and the anxieties were crowding back again, more
insistent than ever. The boy had had his one good chance in the
matrimonial market and missed it; if he were to transfer his
attentions to some other well-dowered girl he would be marked down
at once as a fortune-hunter, and that would constitute a heavy
handicap to the most plausible of wooers. His liking for Elaine
had evidently been genuine in its way, though perhaps it would have
been rash to read any deeper sentiment into it, but even with the
spur of his own inclination to assist him he had failed to win the
prize that had seemed so temptingly within his reach. And in the
dashing of his prospects, Francesca saw the threatening of her own.
The old anxiety as to her precarious tenure of her present quarters
put on again all its familiar terrors. One day, she foresaw, in
the horribly near future, George St. Michael would come pattering
up her stairs with the breathless intelligence that Emmeline
Chetrof was going to marry somebody or other in the Guards or the
Record Office as the case might be, and then there would be an
uprooting of her life from its home and haven in Blue Street and a
wandering forth to some cheap unhappy far-off dwelling, where the
stately Van der Meulen and its companion host of beautiful and
desirable things would be stuffed and stowed away in soulless
surroundings, like courtly emigres fallen on evil days. It was
unthinkable, but the trouble was that it had to be thought about.
And if Comus had played his cards well and transformed himself from
an encumbrance into a son with wealth at his command, the tragedy
which she saw looming in front of her might have been avoided or at
the worst whittled down to easily bearable proportions. With money
behind one, the problem of where to live approaches more nearly to
the simple question of where do you wish to live, and a rich
daughter-in-law would have surely seen to it that she did not have
to leave her square mile of Mecca and go out into the wilderness of
bricks and mortar. If the house in Blue Street could not have been
compounded for there were other desirable residences which would
have been capable of consoling Francesca for her lost Eden. And
now the detested Courtenay Youghal, with his mocking eyes and air
of youthful cynicism, had stepped in and overthrown those golden
hopes and plans whose non-fulfilment would make such a world of
change in her future. Assuredly she had reason to feel bitter
against that young man, and she was not disposed to take a very
lenient view of Comus's own mismanagement of the affair; her
greeting when he at last arrived, was not couched in a sympathetic
"So you have lost your chance with the heiress," she remarked
"Yes," said Comus, coolly; "Courtenay Youghal has added her to his
"And you have added her to your other failures," pursued Francesca,
relentlessly; her temper had been tried that day beyond ordinary
"I thought you seemed getting along so well with her," she
continued, as Comus remained uncommunicative.
"We hit it off rather well together," said Comus, and added with
deliberate bluntness, "I suppose she got rather sick at my
borrowing money from her. She thought it was all I was after."
"You borrowed money from her!" said Francesca; "you were fool
enough to borrow money from a girl who was favourably disposed
towards you, and with Courtenay Youghal in the background waiting
to step in and oust you!"
Francesca's voice trembled with misery and rage. This great stroke
of good luck that had seemed about to fall into their laps had been
thrust aside by an act or series of acts of wanton paltry folly.
The good ship had been lost for the sake of the traditional
ha'porth of tar. Comus had paid some pressing tailor's or
tobacconist's bill with a loan unwillingly put at his disposal by
the girl he was courting, and had flung away his chances of
securing a wealthy and in every way desirable bride. Elaine de
Frey and her fortune might have been the making of Comus, but he
had hurried in as usual to effect his own undoing. Calmness did
not in this case come with reflection; the more Francesca thought
about the matter, the more exasperated she grew. Comus threw
himself down in a low chair and watched her without a trace of
embarrassment or concern at her mortification. He had come to her
feeling rather sorry for himself, and bitterly conscious of his
defeat, and she had met him with a taunt and without the least hint
of sympathy; he determined that she should be tantalised with the
knowledge of how small and stupid a thing had stood between the
realisation and ruin of her hopes for him.
"And to think she should be captured by Courtenay Youghal," said
Francesca, bitterly; "I've always deplored your intimacy with that
"It's hardly my intimacy with him that's made Elaine accept him,"
Francesca realised the futility of further upbraiding. Through the
tears of vexation that stood in her eyes, she looked across at the
handsome boy who sat opposite her, mocking at his own misfortune,
perversely indifferent to his folly, seemingly almost indifferent
to its consequences.
"Comus," she said quietly and wearily, "you are an exact reversal
of the legend of Pandora's Box. You have all the charm and
advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and
behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter
"I think," said Comus, "that is the best description that anyone
has ever given of me."
For the moment there was a flush of sympathy and something like
outspoken affection between mother and son. They seemed very much
alone in the world just now, and in the general overturn of hopes
and plans, there flickered a chance that each might stretch out a
hand to the other, and summon back to their lives an old dead love
that was the best and strongest feeling either of them had known.
But the sting of disappointment was too keen, and the flood of
resentment mounted too high on either side to allow the chance more
than a moment in which to flicker away into nothingness. The old
fatal topic of estrangement came to the fore, the question of
immediate ways and means, and mother and son faced themselves again
as antagonists on a well-disputed field.
"What is done is done," said Francesca, with a movement of tragic
impatience that belied the philosophy of her words; "there is
nothing to be gained by crying over spilt milk. There is the
present and the future to be thought about, though. One can't go
on indefinitely as a tenant-for-life in a fools' paradise." Then
she pulled herself together and proceeded to deliver an ultimatum
which the force of circumstances no longer permitted her to hold in
"It's not much use talking to you about money, as I know from long
experience, but I can only tell you this, that in the middle of the
Season I'm already obliged to be thinking of leaving Town. And
you, I'm afraid, will have to be thinking of leaving England at
equally short notice. Henry told me the other day that he can get
you something out in West Africa. You've had your chance of doing
something better for yourself from the financial point of view, and
you've thrown it away for the sake of borrowing a little ready
money for your luxuries, so now you must take what you can get.
The pay won't be very good at first, but living is not dear out
"West Africa," said Comus, reflectively; "it's a sort of modern
substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository
for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about
the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a
"My dear Comus, you are talking of the West Africa of yesterday.
While you have been wasting your time at school, and worse than
wasting your time in the West End, other people have been grappling
with the study of tropical diseases, and the West African coast
country is being rapidly transformed from a lethal chamber into a
Comus laughed mockingly.
"What a beautiful bit of persuasive prose; it reminds one of the
Psalms and even more of a company prospectus. If you were honest
you'd confess that you lifted it straight out of a rubber or
railway promotion scheme. Seriously, mother, if I must grub about
for a living, why can't I do it in England? I could go into a
brewery for instance."
Francesca shook her head decisively; she could foresee the sort of
steady work Comus was likely to accomplish, with the lodestone of
Town and the minor attractions of race-meetings and similar
festivities always beckoning to him from a conveniently attainable
distance, but apart from that aspect of the case there was a
financial obstacle in the way of his obtaining any employment at
"Breweries and all those sort of things necessitate money to start
with; one has to pay premiums or invest capital in the undertaking,
and so forth. And as we have no money available, and can scarcely
pay our debts as it is, it's no use thinking about it."
"Can't we sell something?" asked Comus.
He made no actual suggestion as to what should be sacrificed, but
he was looking straight at the Van der Meulen.
For a moment Francesca felt a stifling sensation of weakness, as
though her heart was going to stop beating. Then she sat forward
in her chair and spoke with energy, almost fierceness.
"When I am dead my things can be sold and dispersed. As long as I
am alive I prefer to keep them by me."
In her holy place, with all her treasured possessions around her,
this dreadful suggestion had been made. Some of her cherished
household gods, souvenirs and keepsakes from past days, would,
perhaps, not have fetched a very considerable sum in the auction-
room, others had a distinct value of their own, but to her they
were all precious. And the Van der Meulen, at which Comus had
looked with impious appraising eyes, was the most sacred of them
all. When Francesca had been away from her Town residence or had
been confined to her bedroom through illness, the great picture
with its stately solemn representation of a long-ago battle-scene,
painted to flatter the flattery-loving soul of a warrior-king who
was dignified even in his campaigns--this was the first thing she
visited on her return to Town or convalescence. If an alarm of
fire had been raised it would have been the first thing for whose
safety she would have troubled. And Comus had almost suggested
that it should be parted with, as one sold railway shares and other
Scolding, she had long ago realised, was a useless waste of time
and energy where Comus was concerned, but this evening she unloosed
her tongue for the mere relief that it gave to her surcharged
feelings. He sat listening without comment, though she purposely
let fall remarks that she hoped might sting him into self-defence
or protest. It was an unsparing indictment, the more damaging in
that it was so irrefutably true, the more tragic in that it came
from perhaps the one person in the world whose opinion he had ever
cared for. And he sat through it as silent and seemingly unmoved
as though she had been rehearsing a speech for some drawing-room
comedy. When she had had her say his method of retort was not the
soft answer that turneth away wrath but the inconsequent one that
"Let's go and dress for dinner."
The meal, like so many that Francesca and Comus had eaten in each
other's company of late, was a silent one. Now that the full
bearings of the disaster had been discussed in all its aspects
there was nothing more to be said. Any attempt at ignoring the
situation, and passing on to less controversial topics would have
been a mockery and pretence which neither of them would have
troubled to sustain. So the meal went forward with its dragged-out
dreary intimacy of two people who were separated by a gulf of
bitterness, and whose hearts were hard with resentment against one
Francesca felt a sense of relief when she was able to give the maid
the order to serve her coffee upstairs. Comus had a sullen scowl
on his face, but he looked up as she rose to leave the room, and
gave his half-mocking little laugh.
"You needn't look so tragic," he said, "You're going to have your
own way. I'll go out to that West African hole."
Comus found his way to his seat in the stalls of the Straw Exchange
Theatre and turned to watch the stream of distinguished and
distinguishable people who made their appearance as a matter of
course at a First Night in the height of the Season. Pit and
gallery were already packed with a throng, tense, expectant and
alert, that waited for the rise of the curtain with the eager
patience of a terrier watching a dilatory human prepare for outdoor
exercises. Stalls and boxes filled slowly and hesitatingly with a
crowd whose component units seemed for the most part to recognise
the probability that they were quite as interesting as any play
they were likely to see. Those who bore no particular face-value
themselves derived a certain amount of social dignity from the near
neighbourhood of obvious notabilities; if one could not obtain
recognition oneself there was some vague pleasure in being able to
recognise notoriety at intimately close quarters.
"Who is that woman with the auburn hair and a rather effective
belligerent gleam in her eyes?" asked a man sitting just behind
Comus; "she looks as if she might have created the world in six
days and destroyed it on the seventh."
"I forget her name," said his neighbour; "she writes. She's the
author of that book, 'The Woman who wished it was Wednesday,' you
know. It used to be the convention that women writers should be
plain and dowdy; now we have gone to the other extreme and build
them on extravagantly decorative lines."
A buzz of recognition came from the front rows of the pit, together
with a craning of necks on the part of those in less favoured
seats. It heralded the arrival of Sherard Blaw, the dramatist who
had discovered himself, and who had given so ungrudgingly of his
discovery to the world. Lady Caroline, who was already directing
little conversational onslaughts from her box, gazed gently for a
moment at the new arrival, and then turned to the silver-haired
Archdeacon sitting beside her.
"They say the poor man is haunted by the fear that he will die
during a general election, and that his obituary notices will be
seriously curtailed by the space taken up by the election results.
The curse of our party system, from his point of view, is that it
takes up so much room in the press."
The Archdeacon smiled indulgently. As a man he was so exquisitely
worldly that he fully merited the name of the Heavenly Worldling
bestowed on him by an admiring duchess, and withal his texture was
shot with a pattern of such genuine saintliness that one felt that