Part 3 out of 3
whoever else might hold the keys of Paradise he, at least,
possessed a private latchkey to that abode.
"Is it not significant of the altered grouping of things," he
observed, "that the Church, as represented by me, sympathises with
the message of Sherard Blaw, while neither the man nor his message
find acceptance with unbelievers like you, Lady Caroline."
Lady Caroline blinked her eyes. "My dear Archdeacon," she said,
"no one can be an unbeliever nowadays. The Christian Apologists
have left one nothing to disbelieve."
The Archdeacon rose with a delighted chuckle. "I must go and tell
that to De la Poulett," he said, indicating a clerical figure
sitting in the third row of the stalls; "he spends his life
explaining from his pulpit that the glory of Christianity consists
in the fact that though it is not true it has been found necessary
to invent it."
The door of the box opened and Courtenay Youghal entered, bringing
with him subtle suggestion of chaminade and an atmosphere of
political tension. The Government had fallen out of the good
graces of a section of its supporters, and those who were not in
the know were busy predicting a serious crisis over a forthcoming
division in the Committee stage of an important Bill. This was
Saturday night, and unless some successful cajolery were effected
between now and Monday afternoon, Ministers would be, seemingly, in
danger of defeat.
"Ah, here is Youghal," said the Archdeacon; "he will be able to
tell us what is going to happen in the next forty-eight hours. I
hear the Prime Minister says it is a matter of conscience, and they
will stand or fall by it."
His hopes and sympathies were notoriously on the Ministerial side.
Youghal greeted Lady Caroline and subsided gracefully into a chair
well in the front of the box. A buzz of recognition rippled slowly
across the house.
"For the Government to fall on a matter of conscience," he said,
"would be like a man cutting himself with a safety razor."
Lady Caroline purred a gentle approval.
"I'm afraid it's true, Archdeacon," she said.
No one can effectively defend a Government when it's been in office
several years. The Archdeacon took refuge in light skirmishing.
"I believe Lady Caroline sees the makings of a great Socialist
statesman in you, Youghal," he observed.
"Great Socialist statesmen aren't made, they're stillborn," replied
"What is the play about to-night?" asked a pale young woman who had
taken no part in the talk.
"I don't know," said Lady Caroline, "but I hope it's dull. If
there is any brilliant conversation in it I shall burst into
In the front row of the upper circle a woman with a restless
starling-voice was discussing the work of a temporarily fashionable
composer, chiefly in relation to her own emotions, which she seemed
to think might prove generally interesting to those around her.
"Whenever I hear his music I feel that I want to go up into a
mountain and pray. Can you understand that feeling?"
The girl to whom she was unburdening herself shook her head.
"You see, I've heard his music chiefly in Switzerland, and we were
up among the mountains all the time, so it wouldn't have made any
"In that case," said the woman, who seemed to have emergency
emotions to suit all geographical conditions, "I should have wanted
to be in a great silent plain by the side of a rushing river."
"What I think is so splendid about his music--" commenced another
starling-voice on the further side of the girl. Like sheep that
feed greedily before the coming of a storm the starling-voices
seemed impelled to extra effort by the knowledge of four imminent
intervals of acting during which they would be hushed into
In the back row of the dress circle a late-comer, after a cursory
glance at the programme, had settled down into a comfortable
narrative, which was evidently the resumed thread of an unfinished
"We all said 'it can't be Captain Parminter, because he's always
been sweet on Joan,' and then Emily said--"
The curtain went up, and Emily's contribution to the discussion had
to be held over till the entr'acte.
The play promised to be a success. The author, avoiding the
pitfall of brilliancy, had aimed at being interesting and as far as
possible, bearing in mind that his play was a comedy, he had
striven to be amusing. Above all he had remembered that in the
laws of stage proportions it is permissible and generally desirable
that the part should be greater than the whole; hence he had been
careful to give the leading lady such a clear and commanding lead
over the other characters of the play that it was impossible for
any of them ever to get on level terms with her. The action of the
piece was now and then delayed thereby, but the duration of its run
would be materially prolonged.
The curtain came down on the first act amid an encouraging
instalment of applause, and the audience turned its back on the
stage and began to take a renewed interest in itself. The
authoress of "The Woman who wished it was Wednesday" had swept like
a convalescent whirlwind, subdued but potentially tempestuous, into
Lady Caroline's box.
"I've just trodden with all my weight on the foot of an eminent
publisher as I was leaving my seat," she cried, with a peal of
delighted laughter. "He was such a dear about it; I said I hoped I
hadn't hurt him, and he said, 'I suppose you think, who drives hard
bargains should himself be hard.' Wasn't it pet-lamb of him?"
"I've never trodden on a pet lamb," said Lady Caroline, "so I've no
idea what its behaviour would be under the circumstances."
"Tell me," said the authoress, coming to the front of the box, the
better to survey the house, and perhaps also with a charitable
desire to make things easy for those who might pardonably wish to
survey her, "tell me, please, where is the girl sitting whom
Courtenay Youghal is engaged to?"
Elaine was pointed out to her, sitting in the fourth row of the
stalls, on the opposite side of the house to where Comus had his
seat. Once during the interval she had turned to give him a
friendly nod of recognition as he stood in one of the side
gangways, but he was absorbed at the moment in looking at himself
in the glass panel. The grave brown eyes and the mocking green-
grey ones had looked their last into each other's depths.
For Comus this first-night performance, with its brilliant
gathering of spectators, its groups and coteries of lively talkers,
even its counterfoil of dull chatterers, its pervading atmosphere
of stage and social movement, and its intruding undercurrent of
political flutter, all this composed a tragedy in which he was the
chief character. It was the life he knew and loved and basked in,
and it was the life he was leaving. It would go on reproducing
itself again and again, with its stage interest and social interest
and intruding outside interests, with the same lively chattering
crowd, the people who had done things being pointed out by people
who recognised them to people who didn't--it would all go on with
unflagging animation and sparkle and enjoyment, and for him it
would have stopped utterly. He would be in some unheard-of sun-
blistered wilderness, where natives and pariah dogs and raucous-
throated crows fringed round mockingly on one's loneliness, where
one rode for sweltering miles for the chance of meeting a collector
or police officer, with whom most likely on closer acquaintance one
had hardly two ideas in common, where female society was
represented at long intervals by some climate-withered woman
missionary or official's wife, where food and sickness and
veterinary lore became at last the three outstanding subjects on
which the mind settled or rather sank. That was the life he
foresaw and dreaded, and that was the life he was going to. For a
boy who went out to it from the dulness of some country rectory,
from a neighbourhood where a flower show and a cricket match formed
the social landmarks of the year, the feeling of exile might not be
very crushing, might indeed be lost in the sense of change and
adventure. But Comus had lived too thoroughly in the centre of
things to regard life in a backwater as anything else than
stagnation, and stagnation while one is young he justly regarded as
an offence against nature and reason, in keeping with the perverted
mockery that sends decrepit invalids touring painfully about the
world and shuts panthers up in narrow cages. He was being put
aside, as a wine is put aside, but to deteriorate instead of
gaining in the process, to lose the best time of his youth and
health and good looks in a world where youth and health and good
looks count for much and where time never returns lost possessions.
And thus, as the curtain swept down on the close of each act, Comus
felt a sense of depression and deprivation sweep down on himself;
bitterly he watched his last evening of social gaiety slipping away
to its end. In less than an hour it would be over; in a few
months' time it would be an unreal memory.
In the third interval, as he gazed round at the chattering house,
someone touched him on the arm. It was Lady Veula Croot.
"I suppose in a week's time you'll be on the high seas," she said.
"I'm coming to your farewell dinner, you know; your mother has just
asked me. I'm not going to talk the usual rot to you about how
much you will like it and so on. I sometimes think that one of the
advantages of Hell will be that no one will have the impertinence
to point out to you that you're really better off than you would be
anywhere else. What do you think of the play? Of course one can
foresee the end; she will come to her husband with the announcement
that their longed-for child is going to be born, and that will
smooth over everything. So conveniently effective, to wind up a
comedy with the commencement of someone else's tragedy. And every
one will go away saying 'I'm glad it had a happy ending.'"
Lady Veula moved back to her seat, with her pleasant smile on her
lips and the look of infinite weariness in her eyes.
The interval, the last interval, was drawing to a close and the
house began to turn with fidgetty attention towards the stage for
the unfolding of the final phase of the play. Francesca sat in
Serena Golackly's box listening to Colonel Springfield's story of
what happened to a pigeon-cote in his compound at Poona. Everyone
who knew the Colonel had to listen to that story a good many times,
but Lady Caroline had mitigated the boredom of the infliction, and
in fact invested it with a certain sporting interest, by offering a
prize to the person who heard it oftenest in the course of the
Season, the competitors being under an honourable understanding not
to lead up to the subject. Ada Spelvexit and a boy in the Foreign
Office were at present at the top of the list with five recitals
each to their score, but the former was suspected of doubtful
adherence to the rules and spirit of the competition.
"And there, dear lady," concluded the Colonel, "were the eleven
dead pigeons. What had become of the bandicoot no one ever knew."
Francesca thanked him for his story, and complacently inscribed the
figure 4 on the margin of her theatre programme. Almost at the
same moment she heard George St. Michael's voice pattering out a
breathless piece of intelligence for the edification of Serena
Golackly and anyone else who might care to listen. Francesca
galvanised into sudden attention.
"Emmeline Chetrof to a fellow in the Indian Forest Department.
He's got nothing but his pay and they can't be married for four or
five years; an absurdly long engagement, don't you think so? All
very well to wait seven years for a wife in patriarchal times, when
you probably had others to go on with, and you lived long enough to
celebrate your own tercentenary, but under modern conditions it
seems a foolish arrangement."
St. Michael spoke almost with a sense of grievance. A marriage
project that tied up all the small pleasant nuptial gossip-items
about bridesmaids and honeymoon and recalcitrant aunts and so
forth, for an indefinite number of years seemed scarcely decent in
his eyes, and there was little satisfaction or importance to be
derived from early and special knowledge of an event which loomed
as far distant as a Presidential Election or a change of Viceroy.
But to Francesca, who had listened with startled apprehension at
the mention of Emmeline Chetrof's name, the news came in a flood of
relief and thankfulness. Short of entering a nunnery and taking
celibate vows, Emmeline could hardly have behaved more conveniently
than in tying herself up to a lover whose circumstances made it
necessary to relegate marriage to the distant future. For four or
five years Francesca was assured of undisturbed possession of the
house in Blue Street, and after that period who knew what might
happen? The engagement might stretch on indefinitely, it might
even come to nothing under the weight of its accumulated years, as
sometimes happened with these protracted affairs. Emmeline might
lose her fancy for her absentee lover, and might never replace him
with another. A golden possibility of perpetual tenancy of her
present home began to float once more through Francesca's mind. As
long as Emmeline had been unbespoken in the marriage market there
had always been the haunting likelihood of seeing the dreaded
announcement, "a marriage has been arranged and will shortly take
place," in connection with her name. And now a marriage had been
arranged and would not shortly take place, might indeed never take
place. St. Michael's information was likely to be correct in this
instance; he would never have invented a piece of matrimonial
intelligence which gave such little scope for supplementary detail
of the kind he loved to supply. As Francesca turned to watch the
fourth act of the play, her mind was singing a paean of
thankfulness and exultation. It was as though some artificer sent
by the Gods had reinforced with a substantial cord the horsehair
thread that held up the sword of Damocles over her head. Her love
for her home, for her treasured household possessions, and her
pleasant social life was able to expand once more in present
security, and feed on future hope. She was still young enough to
count four or five years as a long time, and to-night she was
optimistic enough to prophesy smooth things of the future that lay
beyond that span. Of the fourth act, with its carefully held back
but obviously imminent reconciliation between the leading
characters, she took in but little, except that she vaguely
understood it to have a happy ending. As the lights went up she
looked round on the dispersing audience with a feeling of
friendliness uppermost in her mind; even the sight of Elaine de
Frey and Courtenay Youghal leaving the theatre together did not
inspire her with a tenth part of the annoyance that their entrance
had caused her. Serena's invitation to go on to the Savoy for
supper fitted in exactly with her mood of exhilaration. It would
be a fit and appropriate wind-up to an auspicious evening. The
cold chicken and modest brand of Chablis waiting for her at home
should give way to a banquet of more festive nature.
In the crush of the vestibule, friends and enemies, personal and
political, were jostled and locked together in the general effort
to rejoin temporarily estranged garments and secure the attendance
of elusive vehicles. Lady Caroline found herself at close quarters
with the estimable Henry Greech, and experienced some of the joy
which comes to the homeward wending sportsman when a chance shot
presents itself on which he may expend his remaining cartridges.
"So the Government is going to climb down, after all," she said,
with a provocative assumption of private information on the
"I assure you the Government will do nothing of the kind," replied
the Member of Parliament with befitting dignity; "the Prime
Minister told me last night that under no circumstances--"
"My dear Mr. Greech," said Lady Caroline, "we all know that Prime
Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other wedded couples
they sometimes live apart."
For her, at any rate, the comedy had had a happy ending.
Comus made his way slowly and lingeringly from the stalls, so
slowly that the lights were already being turned down and great
shroud-like dust-cloths were being swaythed over the ornamental
gilt-work. The laughing, chattering, yawning throng had filtered
out of the vestibule, and was melting away in final groups from the
steps of the theatre. An impatient attendant gave him his coat and
locked up the cloak room. Comus stepped out under the portico; he
looked at the posters announcing the play, and in anticipation he
could see other posters announcing its 200th performance. Two
hundred performances; by that time the Straw Exchange Theatre would
be to him something so remote and unreal that it would hardly seem
to exist or to have ever existed except in his fancy. And to the
laughing chattering throng that would pass in under that portico to
the 200th performance, he would be, to those that had known him,
something equally remote and non-existent. "The good-looking
Bassington boy? Oh, dead, or rubber-growing or sheep-farming or
something of that sort."
The farewell dinner which Francesca had hurriedly organised in
honour of her son's departure threatened from the outset to be a
doubtfully successful function. In the first place, as he observed
privately, there was very little of Comus and a good deal of
farewell in it. His own particular friends were unrepresented.
Courtenay Youghal was out of the question; and though Francesca
would have stretched a point and welcomed some of his other male
associates of whom she scarcely approved, he himself had been
opposed to including any of them in the invitations. On the other
hand, as Henry Greech had provided Comus with this job that he was
going out to, and was, moreover, finding part of the money for the
necessary outfit, Francesca had felt it her duty to ask him and his
wife to the dinner; the obtuseness that seems to cling to some
people like a garment throughout their life had caused Mr. Greech
to accept the invitation. When Comus heard of the circumstance he
laughed long and boisterously; his spirits, Francesca noted, seemed
to be rising fast as the hour for departure drew near.
The other guests included Serena Golackly and Lady Veula, the
latter having been asked on the inspiration of the moment at the
theatrical first-night. In the height of the Season it was not
easy to get together a goodly selection of guests at short notice,
and Francesca had gladly fallen in with Serena's suggestion of
bringing with her Stephen Thorle, who was alleged, in loose
feminine phrasing, to "know all about" tropical Africa. His
travels and experiences in those regions probably did not cover
much ground or stretch over any great length of time, but he was
one of those individuals who can describe a continent on the
strength of a few days' stay in a coast town as intimately and
dogmatically as a paleontologist will reconstruct an extinct mammal
from the evidence of a stray shin bone. He had the loud
penetrating voice and the prominent penetrating eyes of a man who
can do no listening in the ordinary way and whose eyes have to
perform the function of listening for him. His vanity did not
necessarily make him unbearable, unless one had to spend much time
in his society, and his need for a wide field of audience and
admiration was mercifully calculated to spread his operations over
a considerable human area. Moreover, his craving for attentive
listeners forced him to interest himself in a wonderful variety of
subjects on which he was able to discourse fluently and with a
certain semblance of special knowledge. Politics he avoided; the
ground was too well known, and there was a definite no to every
definite yes that could be put forward. Moreover, argument was not
congenial to his disposition, which preferred an unchallenged flow
of dissertation modified by occasional helpful questions which
formed the starting point for new offshoots of word-spinning. The
promotion of cottage industries, the prevention of juvenile street
trading, the extension of the Borstal prison system, the
furtherance of vague talkative religious movements the fostering of
inter-racial ententes, all found in him a tireless exponent, a
fluent and entertaining, though perhaps not very convincing,
advocate. With the real motive power behind these various causes
he was not very closely identified; to the spade-workers who
carried on the actual labours of each particular movement he bore
the relation of a trowel-worker, delving superficially at the
surface, but able to devote a proportionately far greater amount of
time to the advertisement of his progress and achievements. Such
was Stephen Thorle, a governess in the nursery of Chelsea-bred
religions, a skilled window-dresser in the emporium of his own
personality, and needless to say, evanescently popular amid a wide
but shifting circle of acquaintances. He improved on the record of
a socially much-travelled individual whose experience has become
classical, and went to most of the best houses--twice.
His inclusion as a guest at this particular dinner-party was not a
very happy inspiration. He was inclined to patronise Comus, as
well as the African continent, and on even slighter acquaintance.
With the exception of Henry Greech, whose feelings towards his
nephew had been soured by many years of overt antagonism, there was
an uncomfortable feeling among those present that the topic of the
black-sheep export trade, as Comus would have himself expressed it,
was being given undue prominence in what should have been a festive
farewell banquet. And Comus, in whose honour the feast was given,
did not contribute much towards its success; though his spirits
seemed strung up to a high pitch his merriment was more the
merriment of a cynical and amused onlooker than of one who responds
to the gaiety of his companions. Sometimes he laughed quietly to
himself at some chance remark of a scarcely mirth-provoking nature,
and Lady Veula, watching him narrowly, came to the conclusion that
an element of fear was blended with his seemingly buoyant spirits.
Once or twice he caught her eye across the table, and a certain
sympathy seemed to grow up between them, as though they were both
consciously watching some lugubrious comedy that was being played
out before them.
An untoward little incident had marked the commencement of the
meal. A small still-life picture that hung over the sideboard had
snapped its cord and slid down with an alarming clatter on to the
crowded board beneath it. The picture itself was scarcely damaged,
but its fall had been accompanied by a tinkle of broken glass, and
it was found that a liqueur glass, one out of a set of seven that
would be impossible to match, had been shivered into fragments.
Francesca's almost motherly love for her possessions made her
peculiarly sensible to a feeling of annoyance and depression at the
accident, but she turned politely to listen to Mrs. Greech's
account of a misfortune in which four soup-plates were involved.
Mrs. Henry was not a brilliant conversationalist, and her flank was
speedily turned by Stephen Thorle, who recounted a slum experience
in which two entire families did all their feeding out of one
"The gratitude of those poor creatures when I presented them with a
set of table crockery apiece, the tears in their eyes and in their
voices when they thanked me, would be impossible to describe."
"Thank you all the same for describing it," said Comus.
The listening eyes went swiftly round the table to gather evidence
as to how this rather disconcerting remark had been received, but
Thorle's voice continued uninterruptedly to retail stories of East-
end gratitude, never failing to mention the particular deeds of
disinterested charity on his part which had evoked and justified
the gratitude. Mrs. Greech had to suppress the interesting sequel
to her broken-crockery narrative, to wit, how she subsequently
matched the shattered soup-plates at Harrod's. Like an imported
plant species that sometimes flourishes exceedingly, and makes
itself at home to the dwarfing and overshadowing of all native
species, Thorle dominated the dinner-party and thrust its original
purport somewhat into the background. Serena began to look
helplessly apologetic. It was altogether rather a relief when the
filling of champagne glasses gave Francesca an excuse for bringing
matters back to their intended footing.
"We must all drink a health," she said; "Comus, my own dear boy, a
safe and happy voyage to you, much prosperity in the life you are
going out to, and in due time a safe and happy return--"
Her hand gave an involuntary jerk in the act of raising the glass,
and the wine went streaming across the tablecloth in a froth of
yellow bubbles. It certainly was not turning out a comfortable or
auspicious dinner party.
"My dear mother," cried Comus, "you must have been drinking healths
all the afternoon to make your hand so unsteady."
He laughed gaily and with apparent carelessness, but again Lady
Veula caught the frightened note in his laughter. Mrs. Henry, with
practical sympathy, was telling Francesca two good ways for getting
wine stains out of tablecloths. The smaller economies of life were
an unnecessary branch of learning for Mrs. Greech, but she studied
them as carefully and conscientiously as a stay-at-home plain-
dwelling English child commits to memory the measurements and
altitudes of the world's principal mountain peaks. Some women of
her temperament and mentality know by heart the favourite colours,
flowers and hymn-tunes of all the members of the Royal Family; Mrs.
Greech would possibly have failed in an examination of that nature,
but she knew what to do with carrots that have been over-long in
Francesca did not renew her speech-making; a chill seemed to have
fallen over all efforts at festivity, and she contented herself
with refilling her glass and simply drinking to her boy's good
health. The others followed her example, and Comus drained his
glass with a brief "thank you all very much." The sense of
constraint which hung over the company was not, however, marked by
any uncomfortable pause in the conversation. Henry Greech was a
fluent thinker, of the kind that prefer to do their thinking aloud;
the silence that descended on him as a mantle in the House of
Commons was an official livery of which he divested himself as
thoroughly as possible in private life. He did not propose to sit
through dinner as a mere listener to Mr. Thorle's personal
narrative of philanthropic movements and experiences, and took the
first opportunity of launching himself into a flow of satirical
observations on current political affairs. Lady Veula was inured
to this sort of thing in her own home circle, and sat listening
with the stoical indifference with which an Esquimau might accept
the occurrence of one snowstorm the more, in the course of an
Arctic winter. Serena Golackly felt a certain relief at the fact
that her imported guest was not, after all, monopolising the
conversation. But the latter was too determined a personality to
allow himself to be thrust aside for many minutes by the talkative
M.P. Henry Greech paused for an instant to chuckle at one of his
own shafts of satire, and immediately Thorle's penetrating voice
swept across the table.
"Oh, you politicians!" he exclaimed, with pleasant superiority;
"you are always fighting about how things should be done, and the
consequence is you are never able to do anything. Would you like
me to tell you what a Unitarian horsedealer said to me at Brindisi
A Unitarian horsedealer at Brindisi had all the allurement of the
unexpected. Henry Greech's witticisms at the expense of the Front
Opposition bench were destined to remain as unfinished as his
wife's history of the broken soup-plates. Thorle was primed with
an ample succession of stories and themes, chiefly concerning
poverty, thriftlessness, reclamation, reformed characters, and so
forth, which carried him in an almost uninterrupted sequence
through the remainder of the dinner.
"What I want to do is to make people think," he said, turning his
prominent eyes on to his hostess; "it's so hard to make people
"At any rate you give them the opportunity," said Comus,
As the ladies rose to leave the table Comus crossed over to pick up
one of Lady Veula's gloves that had fallen to the floor.
"I did not know you kept a dog," said Lady Veula.
"We don't," said Comus, "there isn't one in the house."
"I could have sworn I saw one follow you across the hall this
evening," she said.
"A small black dog, something like a schipperke?" asked Comus in a
"Yes, that was it."
"I saw it myself to-night; it ran from behind my chair just as I
was sitting down. Don't say anything to the others about it; it
would frighten my mother."
"Have you ever seen it before?" Lady Veula asked quickly.
"Once, when I was six years old. It followed my father
Lady Veula said nothing. She knew that Comus had lost his father
at the age of six.
In the drawing-room Serena made nervous excuses for her talkative
"Really, rather an interesting man, you know, and up to the eyes in
all sorts of movements. Just the sort of person to turn loose at a
drawing-room meeting, or to send down to a mission-hall in some
unheard-of neighbourhood. Given a sounding-board and a harmonium,
and a titled woman of some sort in the chair, and he'll be
perfectly happy; I must say I hadn't realised how overpowering he
might be at a small dinner-party."
"I should say he was a very good man," said Mrs. Greech; she had
forgiven the mutilation of her soup-plate story.
The party broke up early as most of the guests had other
engagements to keep. With a belated recognition of the farewell
nature of the occasion they made pleasant little good-bye remarks
to Comus, with the usual predictions of prosperity and
anticipations of an ultimate auspicious return. Even Henry Greech
sank his personal dislike of the boy for the moment, and made
hearty jocular allusions to a home-coming, which, in the elder
man's eyes, seemed possibly pleasantly remote. Lady Veula alone
made no reference to the future; she simply said, "Good-bye,
Comus," but her voice was the kindest of all and he responded with
a look of gratitude. The weariness in her eyes was more marked
than ever as she lay back against the cushions of her carriage.
"What a tragedy life is," she said, aloud to herself.
Serena and Stephen Thorle were the last to leave, and Francesca
stood alone for a moment at the head of the stairway watching Comus
laughing and chatting as he escorted the departing guests to the
door. The ice-wall was melting under the influence of coming
separation, and never had he looked more adorably handsome in her
eyes, never had his merry laugh and mischief-loving gaiety seemed
more infectious than on this night of his farewell banquet. She
was glad enough that he was going away from a life of idleness and
extravagance and temptation, but she began to suspect that she
would miss, for a little while at any rate, the high-spirited boy
who could be so attractive in his better moods. Her impulse, after
the guests had gone, was to call him to her and hold him once more
in her arms, and repeat her wishes for his happiness and good-luck
in the land he was going to, and her promise of his welcome back,
some not too distant day, to the land he was leaving. She wanted
to forget, and to make him forget, the months of irritable jangling
and sharp discussions, the months of cold aloofness and
indifference and to remember only that he was her own dear Comus as
in the days of yore, before he had grown from an unmanageable
pickle into a weariful problem. But she feared lest she should
break down, and she did not wish to cloud his light-hearted gaiety
on the very eve of his departure. She watched him for a moment as
he stood in the hall, settling his tie before a mirror, and then
went quietly back to her drawing-room. It had not been a very
successful dinner party, and the general effect it had left on her
was one of depression.
Comus, with a lively musical-comedy air on his lips, and a look of
wretchedness in his eyes, went out to visit the haunts that he was
leaving so soon.
Elaine Youghal sat at lunch in the Speise Saal of one of Vienna's
costlier hotels. The double-headed eagle, with its "K.u.K."
legend, everywhere met the eye and announced the imperial favour in
which the establishment basked. Some several square yards of
yellow bunting, charged with the image of another double-headed
eagle, floating from the highest flag-staff above the building,
betrayed to the initiated the fact that a Russian Grand Duke was
concealed somewhere on the premises. Unannounced by heraldic
symbolism but unconcealable by reason of nature's own blazonry,
were several citizens and citizenesses of the great republic of the
Western world. One or two Cobdenite members of the British
Parliament engaged in the useful task of proving that the cost of
living in Vienna was on an exorbitant scale, flitted with
restrained importance through a land whose fatness they had come to
spy out; every fancied over-charge in their bills was welcome as
providing another nail in the coffin of their fiscal opponents. It
is the glory of democracies that they may be misled but never
driven. Here and there, like brave deeds in a dust-patterned
world, flashed and glittered the sumptuous uniforms of
representatives of the Austrian military caste. Also in evidence,
at discreet intervals, were stray units of the Semetic tribe that
nineteen centuries of European neglect had been unable to mislay.
Elaine sitting with Courtenay at an elaborately appointed luncheon
table, gay with high goblets of Bohemian glassware, was mistress of
three discoveries. First, to her disappointment, that if you
frequent the more expensive hotels of Europe you must be prepared
to find, in whatever country you may chance to be staying, a
depressing international likeness between them all. Secondly, to
her relief, that one is not expected to be sentimentally amorous
during a modern honeymoon. Thirdly, rather to her dismay, that
Courtenay Youghal did not necessarily expect her to be markedly
affectionate in private. Someone had described him, after their
marriage, as one of Nature's bachelors, and she began to see how
aptly the description fitted him.
"Will those Germans on our left never stop talking?" she asked, as
an undying flow of Teutonic small talk rattled and jangled across
the intervening stretch of carpet. "Not one of those three women
has ceased talking for an instant since we've been sitting here."
"They will presently, if only for a moment," said Courtenay; "when
the dish you have ordered comes in there will be a deathly silence
at the next table. No German can see a plat brought in for someone
else without being possessed with a great fear that it represents a
more toothsome morsel or a better money's worth than what he has
ordered for himself."
The exuberant Teutonic chatter was balanced on the other side of
the room by an even more penetrating conversation unflaggingly
maintained by a party of Americans, who were sitting in judgment on
the cuisine of the country they were passing through, and finding
few extenuating circumstances.
"What Mr. Lonkins wants is a real DEEP cherry pie," announced a
lady in a tone of dramatic and honest conviction.
"Why, yes, that is so," corroborated a gentleman who was apparently
the Mr. Lonkins in question; "a real DEEP cherry pie."
"We had the same trouble way back in Paris," proclaimed another
lady; "little Jerome and the girls don't want to eat any more creme
renversee. I'd give anything if they could get some real cherry
"Real DEEP cherry pie," assented Mr. Lonkins.
"Way down in Ohio we used to have peach pie that was real good,"
said Mrs. Lonkins, turning on a tap of reminiscence that presently
flowed to a cascade. The subject of pies seemed to lend itself to
"Do those people think of nothing but their food?" asked Elaine, as
the virtues of roasted mutton suddenly came to the fore and
received emphatic recognition, even the absent and youthful Jerome
being quoted in its favour.
"On the contrary," said Courtenay, "they are a widely-travelled
set, and the man has had a notably interesting career. It is a
form of home-sickness with them to discuss and lament the cookery
and foods that they've never had the leisure to stay at home and
digest. The Wandering Jew probably babbled unremittingly about
some breakfast dish that took so long to prepare that he had never
time to eat it."
A waiter deposited a dish of Wiener Nierenbraten in front of
Elaine. At the same moment a magic hush fell upon the three German
ladies at the adjoining table, and the flicker of a great fear
passed across their eyes. Then they burst forth again into
tumultuous chatter. Courtenay had proved a reliable prophet.
Almost at the same moment as the luncheon-dish appeared on the
scene, two ladies arrived at a neighbouring table, and bowed with
dignified cordiality to Elaine and Courtenay. They were two of the
more worldly and travelled of Elaine's extensive stock of aunts,
and they happened to be making a short stay at the same hotel as
the young couple. They were far too correct and rationally minded
to intrude themselves on their niece, but it was significant of
Elaine's altered view as to the sanctity of honeymoon life that she
secretly rather welcomed the presence of her two relatives in the
hotel, and had found time and occasion to give them more of her
society than she would have considered necessary or desirable a few
weeks ago. The younger of the two she rather liked, in a
restrained fashion, as one likes an unpretentious watering-place or
a restaurant that does not try to give one a musical education in
addition to one's dinner. One felt instinctively about her that
she would never wear rather more valuable diamonds than any other
woman in the room, and would never be the only person to be saved
in a steamboat disaster or hotel fire. As a child she might have
been perfectly well able to recite "On Linden when the sun was
low," but one felt certain that nothing ever induced her to do so.
The elder aunt, Mrs. Goldbrook, did not share her sister's
character as a human rest-cure; most people found her rather
disturbing, chiefly, perhaps, from her habit of asking unimportant
questions with enormous solemnity. Her manner of enquiring after a
trifling ailment gave one the impression that she was more
concerned with the fortunes of the malady than with oneself, and
when one got rid of a cold one felt that she almost expected to be
given its postal address. Probably her manner was merely the
defensive outwork of an innate shyness, but she was not a woman who
"A telephone call for Courtenay," commented the younger of the two
women as Youghal hurriedly flashed through the room; "the telephone
system seems to enter very largely into that young man's life."
"The telephone has robbed matrimony of most of its sting," said the
elder; "so much more discreet than pen and ink communications which
get read by the wrong people."
Elaine's aunts were conscientiously worldly; they were the natural
outcome of a stock that had been conscientiously straight-laced for
Elaine had progressed to the pancake stage before Courtenay
"Sorry to be away so long," he said, "but I've arranged something
rather nice for to-night. There's rather a jolly masquerade ball
on. I've 'phoned about getting a costume for you and it's alright.
It will suit you beautifully, and I've got my harlequin dress with
me. Madame Kelnicort, excellent soul, is going to chaperone you,
and she'll take you back any time you like; I'm quite unreliable
when I get into fancy dress. I shall probably keep going till some
unearthly hour of the morning."
A masquerade ball in a strange city hardly represented Elaine's
idea of enjoyment. Carefully to disguise one's identity in a
neighbourhood where one was entirely unknown seemed to her rather
meaningless. With Courtenay, of course, it was different; he
seemed to have friends and acquaintances everywhere. However, the
matter had progressed to a point which would have made a refusal to
go seem rather ungracious. Elaine finished her pancake and began
to take a polite interest in her costume.
"What is your character?" asked Madame Kelnicort that evening, as
they uncloaked, preparatory to entering the already crowded ball-
"I believe I'm supposed to represent Marjolaine de Montfort,
whoever she may have been," said Elaine. "Courtenay declares he
only wanted to marry me because I'm his ideal of her."
"But what a mistake to go as a character you know nothing about.
To enjoy a masquerade ball you ought to throw away your own self
and be the character you represent. Now Courtenay has been
Harlequin since half-way through dinner; I could see it dancing in
his eyes. At about six o'clock to-morrow morning he will fall
asleep and wake up a member of the British House of Parliament on
his honeymoon, but to-night he is unrestrainedly Harlequin."
Elaine stood in the ball-room surrounded by a laughing jostling
throng of pierrots, jockeys, Dresden-china shepherdesses, Roumanian
peasant-girls and all the lively make-believe creatures that form
the ingredients of a fancy-dress ball. As she stood watching them
she experienced a growing feeling of annoyance, chiefly with
herself. She was assisting, as the French say, at one of the
gayest scenes of Europe's gayest capital, and she was conscious of
being absolutely unaffected by the gaiety around her. The costumes
were certainly interesting to look at, and the music good to listen
to, and to that extent she was amused, but the ABANDON of the scene
made no appeal to her. It was like watching a game of which you
did not know the rules, and in the issue of which you were not
interested. Elaine began to wonder what was the earliest moment at
which she could drag Madame Kelnicort away from the revel without
being guilty of sheer cruelty. Then Courtenay wriggled out of the
crush and came towards her, a joyous laughing Courtenay, looking
younger and handsomer than she had ever seen him. She could
scarcely recognise in him to-night the rising young debater who
made embarrassing onslaughts on the Government's foreign policy
before a crowded House of Commons. He claimed her for the dance
that was just starting, and steered her dexterously into the heart
of the waltzing crowd.
"You look more like Marjolaine than I should have thought a mortal
woman of these days could look," he declared, "only Marjolaine did
smile sometimes. You have rather the air of wondering if you'd
left out enough tea for the servants' breakfast. Don't mind my
teasing; I love you to look like that, and besides, it makes a
splendid foil to my Harlequin--my selfishness coming to the fore
again, you see. But you really are to go home the moment you're
bored; the excellent Kelnicort gets heaps of dances throughout the
winter, so don't mind sacrificing her."
A little later in the evening Elaine found herself standing out a
dance with a grave young gentleman from the Russian Embassy.
"Monsieur Courtenay enjoys himself, doesn't he?" he observed, as
the youthful-looking harlequin flashed past them, looking like some
restless gorgeous-hued dragonfly; "why is it that the good God has
given your countrymen the boon of eternal youth? Some of your
countrywomen, too, but all of the men."
Elaine could think of many of her countrymen who were not and never
could have been youthful, but as far as Courtenay was concerned she
recognised the fitness of the remark. And the recognition carried
with it a sense of depression. Would he always remain youthful and
keen on gaiety and revelling while she grew staid and retiring?
She had thrust the lively intractable Comus out of her mind, as by
his perverseness he had thrust himself out of her heart, and she
had chosen the brilliant young man of affairs as her husband. He
had honestly let her see the selfish side of his character while he
was courting her, but she had been prepared to make due sacrifices
to the selfishness of a public man who had his career to consider
above all other things. Would she also have to make sacrifices to
the harlequin spirit which was now revealing itself as an
undercurrent in his nature? When one has inured oneself to the
idea of a particular form of victimisation it is disconcerting to
be confronted with another. Many a man who would patiently undergo
martyrdom for religion's sake would be furiously unwilling to be a
martyr to neuralgia.
"I think that is why you English love animals so much," pursued the
young diplomat; "you are such splendid animals yourselves. You are
lively because you want to be lively, not because people are
looking on at you. Monsieur Courtenay is certainly an animal. I
mean it as a high compliment."
"Am I an animal?" asked Elaine.
"I was going to say you are an angel," said the Russian, in some
embarrassment, "but I do not think that would do; angels and
animals would never get on together. To get on with animals you
must have a sense of humour, and I don't suppose angels have any
sense of humour; you see it would be no use to them as they never
hear any jokes."
"Perhaps," said Elaine, with a tinge of bitterness in her voice,
"perhaps I am a vegetable."
"I think you most remind me of a picture," said the Russian.
It was not the first time Elaine had heard the simile.
"I know," she said, "the Narrow Gallery at the Louvre; attributed
to Leonardo da Vinci."
Evidently the impression she made on people was solely one of
Was that how Courtenay regarded her? Was that to be her function
and place in life, a painted background, a decorative setting to
other people's triumphs and tragedies? Somehow to-night she had
the feeling that a general might have who brought imposing forces
into the field and could do nothing with them. She possessed youth
and good looks, considerable wealth, and had just made what would
be thought by most people a very satisfactory marriage. And
already she seemed to be standing aside as an onlooker where she
had expected herself to be taking a leading part.
"Does this sort of thing appeal to you?" she asked the young
Russian, nodding towards the gay scrimmage of masqueraders and
rather prepared to hear an amused negative."
"But yes, of course," he answered; "costume balls, fancy fairs,
cafe chantant, casino, anything that is not real life appeals to us
Russians. Real life with us is the sort of thing that Maxim Gorki
deals in. It interests us immensely, but we like to get away from
Madame Kelnicort came up with another prospective partner, and
Elaine delivered her ukase: one more dance and then back to the
hotel. Without any special regret she made her retreat from the
revel which Courtenay was enjoying under the impression that it was
life and the young Russian under the firm conviction that it was
Elaine breakfasted at her aunts' table the next morning at much her
usual hour. Courtenay was sleeping the sleep of a happy tired
animal. He had given instructions to be called at eleven o'clock,
from which time onward the Neue Freie Presse, the Zeit, and his
toilet would occupy his attention till he appeared at the luncheon
table. There were not many people breakfasting when Elaine arrived
on the scene, but the room seemed to be fuller than it really was
by reason of a penetrating voice that was engaged in recounting how
far the standard of Viennese breakfast fare fell below the
expectations and desires of little Jerome and the girls.
"If ever little Jerome becomes President of the United States,"
said Elaine, "I shall be able to contribute quite an informing
article on his gastronomic likes and dislikes to the papers."
The aunts were discreetly inquisitive as to the previous evening's
"If Elaine would flirt mildly with somebody it would be such a good
thing," said Mrs. Goldbrook; "it would remind Courtenay that he's
not the only attractive young man in the world."
Elaine, however, did not gratify their hopes; she referred to the
ball with the detachment she would have shown in describing a
drawing-room show of cottage industries. It was not difficult to
discern in her description of the affair the confession that she
had been slightly bored. From Courtenay, later in the day, the
aunts received a much livelier impression of the festivities, from
which it was abundantly clear that he at any rate had managed to
amuse himself. Neither did it appear that his good opinion of his
own attractions had suffered any serious shock. He was distinctly
in a very good temper.
"The secret of enjoying a honeymoon," said Mrs. Goldbrook
afterwards to her sister, "is not to attempt too much."
"Courtenay is content to try and keep one person amused and happy,
and he thoroughly succeeds."
"I certainly don't think Elaine is going to be very happy," said
her sister, "but at least Courtenay saved her from making the
greatest mistake she could have made--marrying that young
"He has also," said Mrs. Goldbrook, "helped her to make the next
biggest mistake of her life--marrying Courtenay Youghal.
It was late afternoon by the banks of a swiftly rushing river, a
river that gave back a haze of heat from its waters as though it
were some stagnant steaming lagoon, and yet seemed to be whirling
onward with the determination of a living thing, perpetually eager
and remorseless, leaping savagely at any obstacle that attempted to
stay its course; an unfriendly river, to whose waters you committed
yourself at your peril. Under the hot breathless shade of the
trees on its shore arose that acrid all-pervading smell that seems
to hang everywhere about the tropics, a smell as of some monstrous
musty still-room where herbs and spices have been crushed and
distilled and stored for hundreds of years, and where the windows
have seldom been opened. In the dazzling heat that still held
undisputed sway over the scene, insects and birds seemed
preposterously alive and active, flitting their gay colours through
the sunbeams, and crawling over the baked dust in the full swing
and pursuit of their several businesses; the flies engaged in
Heaven knows what, and the fly-catchers busy with the flies.
Beasts and humans showed no such indifference to the temperature;
the sun would have to slant yet further downward before the earth
would become a fit arena for their revived activities. In the
sheltered basement of a wayside rest-house a gang of native
hammock-bearers slept or chattered drowsily through the last hours
of the long mid-day halt; wide awake, yet almost motionless in the
thrall of a heavy lassitude, their European master sat alone in an
upper chamber, staring out through a narrow window-opening at the
native village, spreading away in thick clusters of huts girt
around with cultivated vegetation. It seemed a vast human ant-
hill, which would presently be astir with its teeming human life,
as though the Sun God in his last departing stride had roused it
with a careless kick. Even as Comus watched he could see the
beginnings of the evening's awakening. Women, squatting in front
of their huts, began to pound away at the rice or maize that would
form the evening meal, girls were collecting their water pots
preparatory to a walk down to the river, and enterprising goats
made tentative forays through gaps in the ill-kept fences of
neighbouring garden plots; their hurried retreats showed that here
at least someone was keeping alert and wakeful vigil. Behind a hut
perched on a steep hillside, just opposite to the rest-house, two
boys were splitting wood with a certain languid industry; further
down the road a group of dogs were leisurely working themselves up
to quarrelling pitch. Here and there, bands of evil-looking pigs
roamed about, busy with foraging excursions that came unpleasantly
athwart the border-line of scavenging. And from the trees that
bounded and intersected the village rose the horrible, tireless,
spiteful-sounding squawking of the iron-throated crows.
Comus sat and watched it all with a sense of growing aching
depression. It was so utterly trivial to his eyes, so devoid of
interest, and yet it was so real, so serious, so implacable in its
continuity. The brain grew tired with the thought of its unceasing
reproduction. It had all gone on, as it was going on now, by the
side of the great rushing swirling river, this tilling and planting
and harvesting, marketing and store-keeping, feast-making and
fetish-worship and love-making, burying and giving in marriage,
child-bearing and child-rearing, all this had been going on, in the
shimmering, blistering heat and the warm nights, while he had been
a youngster at school, dimly recognising Africa as a division of
the earth's surface that it was advisable to have a certain nodding
It had been going on in all its trifling detail, all its serious
intensity, when his father and his grandfather in their day had
been little boys at school, it would go on just as intently as ever
long after Comus and his generation had passed away, just as the
shadows would lengthen and fade under the mulberry trees in that
far away English garden, round the old stone fountain where a
leaden otter for ever preyed on a leaden salmon.
Comus rose impatiently from his seat, and walked wearily across the
hut to another window-opening which commanded a broad view of the
river. There was something which fascinated and then depressed one
in its ceaseless hurrying onward sweep, its tons of water rushing
on for all time, as long as the face of the earth should remain
unchanged. On its further shore could be seen spread out at
intervals other teeming villages, with their cultivated plots and
pasture clearings, their moving dots which meant cattle and goats
and dogs and children. And far up its course, lost in the forest
growth that fringed its banks, were hidden away yet more villages,
human herding-grounds where men dwelt and worked and bartered,
squabbled and worshipped, sickened and perished, while the river
went by with its endless swirl and rush of gleaming waters. One
could well understand primitive early races making propitiatory
sacrifices to the spirit of a great river on whose shores they
dwelt. Time and the river were the two great forces that seemed to
It was almost a relief to turn back to that other outlook and watch
the village life that was now beginning to wake in earnest. The
procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering
line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of
thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the
village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was
playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending
Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round
of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were
doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive
who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and
again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part
from his loneliness.
Staring dumbly out at the toiling sweltering human ant-hill Comus
marvelled how missionary enthusiasts could labour hopefully at the
work of transplanting their religion, with its homegrown accretions
of fatherly parochial benevolence, in this heat-blistered, fever-
scourged wilderness, where men lived like groundbait and died like
flies. Demons one might believe in, if one did not hold one's
imagination in healthy check, but a kindly all-managing God, never.
Somewhere in the west country of England Comus had an uncle who
lived in a rose-smothered rectory and taught a wholesome gentle-
hearted creed that expressed itself in the spirit of "Little lamb,
who made thee?" and faithfully reflected the beautiful homely
Christ-child sentiment of Saxon Europe. What a far away, unreal
fairy story it all seemed here in this West African land, where the
bodies of men were of as little account as the bubbles that floated
on the oily froth of the great flowing river, and where it required
a stretch of wild profitless imagination to credit them with
undying souls. In the life he had come from Comus had been
accustomed to think of individuals as definite masterful
personalities, making their several marks on the circumstances that
revolved around them; they did well or ill, or in most cases
indifferently, and were criticised, praised, blamed, thwarted or
tolerated, or given way to. In any case, humdrum or outstanding,
they had their spheres of importance, little or big. They
dominated a breakfast table or harassed a Government, according to
their capabilities or opportunities, or perhaps they merely had
irritating mannerisms. At any rate it seemed highly probable that
they had souls. Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered
population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll.
Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a
horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense
of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over
him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if
he died another would take his place, his few effects would be
inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish
off any tea or whisky that he left behind--that would be all.
It was nearly time to be starting towards the next halting place
where he would dine or at any rate eat something. But the
lassitude which the fever had bequeathed him made the tedium of
travelling through interminable forest-tracks a weariness to be
deferred as long as possible. The bearers were nothing loth to let
another half-hour or so slip by, and Comus dragged a battered
paper-covered novel from the pocket of his coat. It was a story
dealing with the elaborately tangled love affairs of a surpassingly
uninteresting couple, and even in his almost bookless state Comus
had not been able to plough his way through more than two-thirds of
its dull length; bound up with the cover, however, were some pages
of advertisement, and these the exile scanned with a hungry
intentness that the romance itself could never have commanded. The
name of a shop, of a street, the address of a restaurant, came to
him as a bitter reminder of the world he had lost, a world that ate
and drank and flirted, gambled and made merry, a world that debated
and intrigued and wire-pulled, fought or compromised political
battles--and recked nothing of its outcasts wandering through
forest paths and steamy swamps or lying in the grip of fever.
Comus read and re-read those few lines of advertisement, just as he
treasured a much-crumpled programme of a first-night performance at
the Straw Exchange Theatre; they seemed to make a little more real
the past that was already so shadowy and so utterly remote. For a
moment he could almost capture the sensation of being once again in
those haunts that he loved; then he looked round and pushed the
book wearily from him. The steaming heat, the forest, the rushing
river hemmed him in on all sides.
The two boys who had been splitting wood ceased from their labours
and straightened their backs; suddenly the smaller of the two gave
the other a resounding whack with a split lath that he still held
in his hand, and flew up the hillside with a scream of laughter and
simulated terror, the bigger lad following in hot pursuit. Up and
down the steep bush-grown slope they raced and twisted and dodged,
coming sometimes to close quarters in a hurricane of squeals and
smacks, rolling over and over like fighting kittens, and breaking
away again to start fresh provocation and fresh pursuit. Now and
again they would lie for a time panting in what seemed the last
stage of exhaustion, and then they would be off in another wild
scamper, their dusky bodies flitting through the bushes,
disappearing and reappearing with equal suddenness. Presently two
girls of their own age, who had returned from the water-fetching,
sprang out on them from ambush, and the four joined in one joyous
gambol that lit up the hillside with shrill echoes and glimpses of
flying limbs. Comus sat and watched, at first with an amused
interest, then with a returning flood of depression and heart-ache.
Those wild young human kittens represented the joy of life, he was
the outsider, the lonely alien, watching something in which he
could not join, a happiness in which he had no part or lot. He
would pass presently out of the village and his bearers' feet would
leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most
permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that
other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his
own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out
of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-
meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name,
remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.
He had loved himself very well and never troubled greatly whether
anyone else really loved him, and now he realised what he had made
of his life. And at the same time he knew that if his chance were
to come again he would throw it away just as surely, just as
perversely. Fate played with him with loaded dice; he would lose
One person in the whole world had cared for him, for longer than he
could remember, cared for him perhaps more than he knew, cared for
him perhaps now. But a wall of ice had mounted up between him and
her, and across it there blew that cold-breath that chills or kills
The words of a well-known old song, the wistful cry of a lost
cause, rang with insistent mockery through his brain:
"Better loved you canna be,
Will ye ne'er come back again?"
If it was love that was to bring him back he must be an exile for
ever. His epitaph in the mouths of those that remembered him would
be, Comus Bassington, the boy who never came back.
And in his unutterable loneliness he bowed his head on his arms,
that he might not see the joyous scrambling frolic on yonder
The bleak rawness of a grey December day held sway over St. James's
Park, that sanctuary of lawn and tree and pool, into which the
bourgeois innovator has rushed ambitiously time and again, to find
that he must take the patent leather from off his feet, for the
ground on which he stands is hallowed ground.
In the lonely hour of early afternoon, when the workers had gone
back to their work, and the loiterers were scarcely yet gathered
again, Francesca Bassington made her way restlessly along the
stretches of gravelled walk that bordered the ornamental water.
The overmastering unhappiness that filled her heart and stifled her
thinking powers found answering echo in her surroundings. There is
a sorrow that lingers in old parks and gardens that the busy
streets have no leisure to keep by them; the dead must bury their
dead in Whitehall or the Place de la Concorde, but there are
quieter spots where they may still keep tryst with the living and
intrude the memory of their bygone selves on generations that have
almost forgotten them. Even in tourist-trampled Versailles the
desolation of a tragedy that cannot die haunts the terraces and
fountains like a bloodstain that will not wash out; in the Saxon
Garden at Warsaw there broods the memory of long-dead things,
coeval with the stately trees that shade its walks, and with the
carp that swim to-day in its ponds as they doubtless swam there
when "Lieber Augustin" was a living person and not as yet an
immortal couplet. And St. James's Park, with its lawns and walks
and waterfowl, harbours still its associations with a bygone order
of men and women, whose happiness and sadness are woven into its
history, dim and grey as they were once bright and glowing, like
the faded pattern worked into the fabric of an old tapestry. It
was here that Francesca had made her way when the intolerable
inaction of waiting had driven her forth from her home. She was
waiting for that worst news of all, the news which does not kill
hope, because there has been none to kill, but merely ends
suspense. An early message had said that Comus was ill, which
might have meant much or little; then there had come that morning a
cablegram which only meant one thing; in a few hours she would get
a final message, of which this was the preparatory forerunner. She
already knew as much as that awaited message would tell her. She
knew that she would never see Comus again, and she knew now that
she loved him beyond all things that the world could hold for her.
It was no sudden rush of pity or compunction that clouded her
judgment or gilded her recollection of him; she saw him as he was,
the beautiful, wayward, laughing boy, with his naughtiness, his
exasperating selfishness, his insurmountable folly and
perverseness, his cruelty that spared not even himself, and as he
was, as he always had been, she knew that he was the one thing that
the Fates had willed that she should love. She did not stop to
accuse or excuse herself for having sent him forth to what was to
prove his death. It was, doubtless, right and reasonable that he
should have gone out there, as hundreds of other men went out, in
pursuit of careers; the terrible thing was that he would never come
back. The old cruel hopelessness that had always chequered her
pride and pleasure in his good looks and high spirits and fitfully
charming ways had dealt her a last crushing blow; he was dying
somewhere thousands of miles away without hope of recovery, without
a word of love to comfort him, and without hope or shred of
consolation she was waiting to hear of the end. The end; that last
dreadful piece of news which would write "nevermore" across his
life and hers.
The lively bustle in the streets had been a torture that she could
not bear. It wanted but two days to Christmas and the gaiety of
the season, forced or genuine, rang out everywhere. Christmas
shopping, with its anxious solicitude or self-centred absorption,
overspread the West End and made the pavements scarcely passable at
certain favoured points. Proud parents, parcel-laden and
surrounded by escorts of their young people, compared notes with
one another on the looks and qualities of their offspring and
exchanged loud hurried confidences on the difficulty or success
which each had experienced in getting the right presents for one
and all. Shouted directions where to find this or that article at
its best mingled with salvos of Christmas good wishes. To
Francesca, making her way frantically through the carnival of
happiness with that lonely deathbed in her eyes, it had seemed a
callous mockery of her pain; could not people remember that there
were crucifixions as well as joyous birthdays in the world? Every
mother that she passed happy in the company of a fresh-looking
clean-limbed schoolboy son sent a fresh stab at her heart, and the
very shops had their bitter memories. There was the tea-shop where
he and she had often taken tea together, or, in the days of their
estrangement, sat with their separate friends at separate tables.
There were other shops where extravagantly-incurred bills had
furnished material for those frequently recurring scenes of
recrimination, and the Colonial outfitters, where, as he had
phrased it in whimsical mockery, he had bought grave-clothes for
his burying-alive. The "oubliette!" She remembered the bitter
petulant name he had flung at his destined exile. There at least
he had been harder on himself than the Fates were pleased to will;
never, as long as Francesca lived and had a brain that served her,
would she be able to forget. That narcotic would never be given to
her. Unrelenting, unsparing memory would be with her always to
remind her of those last days of tragedy. Already her mind was
dwelling on the details of that ghastly farewell dinner-party and
recalling one by one the incidents of ill-omen that had marked it;
how they had sat down seven to table and how one liqueur glass in
the set of seven had been shivered into fragments; how her glass
had slipped from her hand as she raised it to her lips to wish
Comus a safe return; and the strange, quiet hopelessness of Lady
Veula's "good-bye"; she remembered now how it had chilled and
frightened her at the moment.
The park was filling again with its floating population of
loiterers, and Francesca's footsteps began to take a homeward
direction. Something seemed to tell her that the message for which
she waited had arrived and was lying there on the hall table. Her
brother, who had announced his intention of visiting her early in
the afternoon would have gone by now; he knew nothing of this
morning's bad news--the instinct of a wounded animal to creep away
by itself had prompted her to keep her sorrow from him as long as
possible. His visit did not necessitate her presence; he was
bringing an Austrian friend, who was compiling a work on the
Franco-Flemish school of painting, to inspect the Van der Meulen,
which Henry Greech hoped might perhaps figure as an illustration in
the book. They were due to arrive shortly after lunch, and
Francesca had left a note of apology, pleading an urgent engagement
elsewhere. As she turned to make her way across the Mall into the
Green Park a gentle voice hailed her from a carriage that was just
drawing up by the sidewalk. Lady Caroline Benaresq had been
favouring the Victoria Memorial with a long unfriendly stare.
"In primitive days," she remarked, "I believe it was the fashion
for great chiefs and rulers to have large numbers of their
relatives and dependents killed and buried with them; in these more
enlightened times we have invented quite another way of making a
great Sovereign universally regretted. My dear Francesca," she
broke off suddenly, catching the misery that had settled in the
other's eyes, "what is the matter? Have you had bad news from out
"I am waiting for very bad news," said Francesca, and Lady Caroline
knew what had happened.
"I wish I could say something; I can't." Lady Caroline spoke in a
harsh, grunting voice that few people had ever heard her use.
Francesca crossed the Mall and the carriage drove on.
"Heaven help that poor woman," said Lady Caroline; which was, for
her, startlingly like a prayer.
As Francesca entered the hall she gave a quick look at the table;
several packages, evidently an early batch of Christmas presents,
were there, and two or three letters. On a salver by itself was
the cablegram for which she had waited. A maid, who had evidently
been on the lookout for her, brought her the salver. The servants
were well aware of the dreadful thing that was happening, and there
was pity on the girl's face and in her voice.
"This came for you ten minutes ago, ma'am, and Mr. Greech has been
here, ma'am, with another gentleman, and was sorry you weren't at
home. Mr. Greech said he would call again in about half-an-hour."
Francesca carried the cablegram unopened into the drawing-room and
sat down for a moment to think. There was no need to read it yet,
for she knew what she would find written there. For a few pitiful
moments Comus would seem less hopelessly lost to her if she put off
the reading of that last terrible message. She rose and crossed
over to the windows and pulled down the blinds, shutting out the
waning December day, and then reseated herself. Perhaps in the
shadowy half-light her boy would come and sit with her again for
awhile and let her look her last upon his loved face; she could
never touch him again or hear his laughing, petulant voice, but
surely she might look on her dead. And her starving eyes saw only
the hateful soulless things of bronze and silver and porcelain that
she had set up and worshipped as gods; look where she would they
were there around her, the cold ruling deities of the home that
held no place for her dead boy. He had moved in and out among
them, the warm, living, breathing thing that had been hers to love,
and she had turned her eyes from that youthful comely figure to
adore a few feet of painted canvas, a musty relic of a long
departed craftsman. And now he was gone from her sight, from her
touch, from her hearing for ever, without even a thought to flash
between them for all the dreary years that she should live, and
these things of canvas and pigment and wrought metal would stay
with her. They were her soul. And what shall it profit a man if
he save his soul and slay his heart in torment?
On a small table by her side was Mervyn Quentock's portrait of her-
-the prophetic symbol of her tragedy; the rich dead harvest of
unreal things that had never known life, and the bleak thrall of
black unending Winter, a Winter in which things died and knew no
Francesca turned to the small envelope lying in her lap; very
slowly she opened it and read the short message. Then she sat numb
and silent for a long, long time, or perhaps only for minutes. The
voice of Henry Greech in the hall, enquiring for her, called her to
herself. Hurriedly she crushed the piece of paper out of sight; he
would have to be told, of course, but just yet her pain seemed too
dreadful to be laid bare. "Comus is dead" was a sentence beyond
her power to speak.
"I have bad news for you, Francesca, I'm sorry to say," Henry
announced. Had he heard, too?
"Henneberg has been here and looked at the picture," he continued,
seating himself by her side, "and though he admired it immensely as
a work of art he gave me a disagreeable surprise by assuring me
that it's not a genuine Van der Meulen. It's a splendid copy, but
still, unfortunately, only a copy."
Henry paused and glanced at his sister to see how she had taken the
unwelcome announcement. Even in the dim light he caught some of
the anguish in her eyes.
"My dear Francesca," he said soothingly, laying his hand
affectionately on her arm, "I know that this must be a great
disappointment to you, you've always set such store by this
picture, but you mustn't take it too much to heart. These
disagreeable discoveries come at times to most picture fanciers and
owners. Why, about twenty per cent. of the alleged Old Masters in
the Louvre are supposed to be wrongly attributed. And there are
heaps of similar cases in this country. Lady Dovecourt was telling
me the other day that they simply daren't have an expert in to
examine the Van Dykes at Columbey for fear of unwelcome
disclosures. And besides, your picture is such an excellent copy
that it's by no means without a value of its own. You must get
over the disappointment you naturally feel, and take a
philosophical view of the matter. . . "
Francesca sat in stricken silence, crushing the folded morsel of
paper tightly in her hand and wondering if the thin, cheerful voice
with its pitiless, ghastly mockery of consolation would never stop.