The Unbearable Bassington
Part 1 out of 3
Transcribed from the 1913 John Lane edition by David Price, email
THE UNBEARABLE BASSINGTON
Francesca Bassington sat in the drawing-room of her house in Blue
Street, W., regaling herself and her estimable brother Henry with
China tea and small cress sandwiches. The meal was of that elegant
proportion which, while ministering sympathetically to the desires
of the moment, is happily reminiscent of a satisfactory luncheon
and blessedly expectant of an elaborate dinner to come.
In her younger days Francesca had been known as the beautiful Miss
Greech; at forty, although much of the original beauty remained,
she was just dear Francesca Bassington. No one would have dreamed
of calling her sweet, but a good many people who scarcely knew her
were punctilious about putting in the "dear."
Her enemies, in their honester moments, would have admitted that
she was svelte and knew how to dress, but they would have agreed
with her friends in asserting that she had no soul. When one's
friends and enemies agree on any particular point they are usually
wrong. Francesca herself, if pressed in an unguarded moment to
describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room.
Not that she would have considered that the one had stamped the
impress of its character on the other, so that close scrutiny might
reveal its outstanding features, and even suggest its hidden
places, but because she might have dimly recognised that her
drawing-room was her soul.
Francesca was one of those women towards whom Fate appears to have
the best intentions and never to carry them into practice. With
the advantages put at her disposal she might have been expected to
command a more than average share of feminine happiness. So many
of the things that make for fretfulness, disappointment and
discouragement in a woman's life were removed from her path that
she might well have been considered the fortunate Miss Greech, or
later, lucky Francesca Bassington. And she was not of the perverse
band of those who make a rock-garden of their souls by dragging
into them all the stoney griefs and unclaimed troubles they can
find lying around them. Francesca loved the smooth ways and
pleasant places of life; she liked not merely to look on the bright
side of things but to live there and stay there. And the fact that
things had, at one time and another, gone badly with her and
cheated her of some of her early illusions made her cling the
closer to such good fortune as remained to her now that she seemed
to have reached a calmer period of her life. To undiscriminating
friends she appeared in the guise of a rather selfish woman, but it
was merely the selfishness of one who had seen the happy and
unhappy sides of life and wished to enjoy to the utmost what was
left to her of the former. The vicissitudes of fortune had not
soured her, but they had perhaps narrowed her in the sense of
making her concentrate much of her sympathies on things that
immediately pleased and amused her, or that recalled and
perpetuated the pleasing and successful incidents of other days.
And it was her drawing-room in particular that enshrined the
memorials or tokens of past and present happiness.
Into that comfortable quaint-shaped room of angles and bays and
alcoves had sailed, as into a harbour, those precious personal
possessions and trophies that had survived the buffetings and
storms of a not very tranquil married life. Wherever her eyes
might turn she saw the embodied results of her successes,
economies, good luck, good management or good taste. The battle
had more than once gone against her, but she had somehow always
contrived to save her baggage train, and her complacent gaze could
roam over object after object that represented the spoils of
victory or the salvage of honourable defeat. The delicious bronze
Fremiet on the mantelpiece had been the outcome of a Grand Prix
sweepstake of many years ago; a group of Dresden figures of some
considerable value had been bequeathed to her by a discreet
admirer, who had added death to his other kindnesses; another group
had been a self-bestowed present, purchased in blessed and unfading
memory of a wonderful nine-days' bridge winnings at a country-house
party. There were old Persian and Bokharan rugs and Worcester tea-
services of glowing colour, and little treasures of antique silver
that each enshrined a history or a memory in addition to its own
intrinsic value. It amused her at times to think of the bygone
craftsmen and artificers who had hammered and wrought and woven in
far distant countries and ages, to produce the wonderful and
beautiful things that had come, one way and another, into her
possession. Workers in the studios of medieval Italian towns and
of later Paris, in the bazaars of Baghdad and of Central Asia, in
old-time English workshops and German factories, in all manner of
queer hidden corners where craft secrets were jealously guarded,
nameless unremembered men and men whose names were world-renowned
And above all her other treasures, dominating in her estimation
every other object that the room contained, was the great Van der
Meulen that had come from her father's home as part of her wedding
dowry. It fitted exactly into the central wall panel above the
narrow buhl cabinet, and filled exactly its right space in the
composition and balance of the room. From wherever you sat it
seemed to confront you as the dominating feature of its
surroundings. There was a pleasing serenity about the great
pompous battle scene with its solemn courtly warriors bestriding
their heavily prancing steeds, grey or skewbald or dun, all gravely
in earnest, and yet somehow conveying the impression that their
campaigns were but vast serious picnics arranged in the grand
manner. Francesca could not imagine the drawing-room without the
crowning complement of the stately well-hung picture, just as she
could not imagine herself in any other setting than this house in
Blue Street with its crowded Pantheon of cherished household gods.
And herein sprouted one of the thorns that obtruded through the
rose-leaf damask of what might otherwise have been Francesca's
peace of mind. One's happiness always lies in the future rather
than in the past. With due deference to an esteemed lyrical
authority one may safely say that a sorrow's crown of sorrow is
anticipating unhappier things. The house in Blue Street had been
left to her by her old friend Sophie Chetrof, but only until such
time as her niece Emmeline Chetrof should marry, when it was to
pass to her as a wedding present. Emmeline was now seventeen and
passably good-looking, and four or five years were all that could
be safely allotted to the span of her continued spinsterhood.
Beyond that period lay chaos, the wrenching asunder of Francesca
from the sheltering habitation that had grown to be her soul. It
is true that in imagination she had built herself a bridge across
the chasm, a bridge of a single span. The bridge in question was
her schoolboy son Comus, now being educated somewhere in the
southern counties, or rather one should say the bridge consisted of
the possibility of his eventual marriage with Emmeline, in which
case Francesca saw herself still reigning, a trifle squeezed and
incommoded perhaps, but still reigning in the house in Blue Street.
The Van der Meulen would still catch its requisite afternoon light
in its place of honour, the Fremiet and the Dresden and Old
Worcester would continue undisturbed in their accustomed niches.
Emmeline could have the Japanese snuggery, where Francesca
sometimes drank her after-dinner coffee, as a separate drawing-
room, where she could put her own things. The details of the
bridge structure had all been carefully thought out. Only--it was
an unfortunate circumstance that Comus should have been the span on
which everything balanced.
Francesca's husband had insisted on giving the boy that strange
Pagan name, and had not lived long enough to judge as to the
appropriateness, or otherwise, of its significance. In seventeen
years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for
forming an opinion concerning her son's characteristics. The
spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly
ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of
which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side. In her
brother Henry, who sat eating small cress sandwiches as solemnly as
though they had been ordained in some immemorial Book of
Observances, fate had been undisguisedly kind to her. He might so
easily have married some pretty helpless little woman, and lived at
Notting Hill Gate, and been the father of a long string of pale,
clever useless children, who would have had birthdays and the sort
of illnesses that one is expected to send grapes to, and who would
have painted fatuous objects in a South Kensington manner as
Christmas offerings to an aunt whose cubic space for lumber was
limited. Instead of committing these unbrotherly actions, which
are so frequent in family life that they might almost be called
brotherly, Henry had married a woman who had both money and a sense
of repose, and their one child had the brilliant virtue of never
saying anything which even its parents could consider worth
repeating. Then he had gone into Parliament, possibly with the
idea of making his home life seem less dull; at any rate it
redeemed his career from insignificance, for no man whose death can
produce the item "another by-election" on the news posters can be
wholly a nonentity. Henry, in short, who might have been an
embarrassment and a handicap, had chosen rather to be a friend and
counsellor, at times even an emergency bank balance; Francesca on
her part, with the partiality which a clever and lazily-inclined
woman often feels for a reliable fool, not only sought his counsel
but frequently followed it. When convenient, moreover, she repaid
Against this good service on the part of Fate in providing her with
Henry for a brother, Francesca could well set the plaguy malice of
the destiny that had given her Comus for a son. The boy was one of
those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe
themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days
with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the
least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh
through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else
concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they
sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that
they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into
their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are
thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day
crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave
school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too
civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them.
And they are very many.
Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and
settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the
fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of
"It is a question that is only being nibbled at, smelt at, one
might say, at the present moment," he observed, "but it is one that
will have to engage our serious attention and consideration before
long. The first thing that we shall have to do is to get out of
the dilettante and academic way of approaching it. We must collect
and assimilate hard facts. It is a subject that ought to appeal to
all thinking minds, and yet, you know, I find it surprisingly
difficult to interest people in it."
Francesca made some monosyllabic response, a sort of sympathetic
grunt which was meant to indicate that she was, to a certain
extent, listening and appreciating. In reality she was reflecting
that Henry possibly found it difficult to interest people in any
topic that he enlarged on. His talents lay so thoroughly in the
direction of being uninteresting, that even as an eye-witness of
the massacre of St. Bartholomew he would probably have infused a
flavour of boredom into his descriptions of the event.
"I was speaking down in Leicestershire the other day on this
subject," continued Henry, "and I pointed out at some length a
thing that few people ever stop to consider--"
Francesca went over immediately but decorously to the majority that
will not stop to consider.
"Did you come across any of the Barnets when you were down there?"
she interrupted; "Eliza Barnet is rather taken up with all those
In the propagandist movements of Sociology, as in other arenas of
life and struggle, the fiercest competition and rivalry is
frequently to be found between closely allied types and species.
Eliza Barnet shared many of Henry Greech's political and social
views, but she also shared his fondness for pointing things out at
some length; there had been occasions when she had extensively
occupied the strictly limited span allotted to the platform oratory
of a group of speakers of whom Henry Greech had been an impatient
unit. He might see eye to eye with her on the leading questions of
the day, but he persistently wore mental blinkers as far as her
estimable qualities were concerned, and the mention of her name was
a skilful lure drawn across the trail of his discourse; if
Francesca had to listen to his eloquence on any subject she much
preferred that it should be a disparagement of Eliza Barnet rather
than the prevention of destitution.
"I've no doubt she means well," said Henry, "but it would be a good
thing if she could be induced to keep her own personality a little
more in the background, and not to imagine that she is the
necessary mouthpiece of all the progressive thought in the
countryside. I fancy Canon Besomley must have had her in his mind
when he said that some people came into the world to shake empires
and others to move amendments."
Francesca laughed with genuine amusement.
"I suppose she is really wonderfully well up in all the subjects
she talks about," was her provocative comment.
Henry grew possibly conscious of the fact that he was being drawn
out on the subject of Eliza Barnet, and he presently turned on to a
more personal topic.
"From the general air of tranquillity about the house I presume
Comus has gone back to Thaleby," he observed.
"Yes," said Francesca, "he went back yesterday. Of course, I'm
very fond of him, but I bear the separation well. When he's here
it's rather like having a live volcano in the house, a volcano that
in its quietest moments asks incessant questions and uses strong
"It is only a temporary respite," said Henry; "in a year or two he
will be leaving school, and then what?"
Francesca closed her eyes with the air of one who seeks to shut out
a distressing vision. She was not fond of looking intimately at
the future in the presence of another person, especially when the
future was draped in doubtfully auspicious colours.
"And then what?" persisted Henry.
"Then I suppose he will be upon my hands."
"Don't sit there looking judicial. I'm quite ready to listen to
suggestions if you've any to make."
"In the case of any ordinary boy," said Henry, "I might make lots
of suggestions as to the finding of suitable employment. From what
we know of Comus it would be rather a waste of time for either of
us to look for jobs which he wouldn't look at when we'd got them
"He must do something," said Francesca.
"I know he must; but he never will. At least, he'll never stick to
anything. The most hopeful thing to do with him will be to marry
him to an heiress. That would solve the financial side of his
problem. If he had unlimited money at his disposal, he might go
into the wilds somewhere and shoot big game. I never know what the
big game have done to deserve it, but they do help to deflect the
destructive energies of some of our social misfits."
Henry, who never killed anything larger or fiercer than a trout,
was scornfully superior on the subject of big game shooting.
Francesca brightened at the matrimonial suggestion. "I don't know
about an heiress," she said reflectively. "There's Emmeline
Chetrof of course. One could hardly call her an heiress, but she's
got a comfortable little income of her own and I suppose something
more will come to her from her grandmother. Then, of course, you
know this house goes to her when she marries."
"That would be very convenient," said Henry, probably following a
line of thought that his sister had trodden many hundreds of times
before him. "Do she and Comus hit it off at all well together?"
"Oh, well enough in boy and girl fashion," said Francesca. "I must
arrange for them to see more of each other in future. By the way,
that little brother of hers that she dotes on, Lancelot, goes to
Thaleby this term. I'll write and tell Comus to be specially kind
to him; that will be a sure way to Emmeline's heart. Comus has
been made a prefect, you know. Heaven knows why."
"It can only be for prominence in games," sniffed Henry; "I think
we may safely leave work and conduct out of the question."
Comus was not a favourite with his uncle.
Francesca had turned to her writing cabinet and was hastily
scribbling a letter to her son in which the delicate health, timid
disposition and other inevitable attributes of the new boy were
brought to his notice, and commanded to his care. When she had
sealed and stamped the envelope Henry uttered a belated caution.
"Perhaps on the whole it would be wiser to say nothing about the
boy to Comus. He doesn't always respond to directions you know."
Francesca did know, and already was more than half of her brother's
opinion; but the woman who can sacrifice a clean unspoiled penny
stamp is probably yet unborn.
Lancelot Chetrof stood at the end of a long bare passage,
restlessly consulting his watch and fervently wishing himself half
an hour older with a certain painful experience already registered
in the past; unfortunately it still belonged to the future, and
what was still more horrible, to the immediate future. Like many
boys new to a school he had cultivated an unhealthy passion for
obeying rules and requirements, and his zeal in this direction had
proved his undoing. In his hurry to be doing two or three
estimable things at once he had omitted to study the notice-board
in more than a perfunctory fashion and had thereby missed a
football practice specially ordained for newly-joined boys. His
fellow juniors of a term's longer standing had graphically
enlightened him as to the inevitable consequences of his lapse; the
dread which attaches to the unknown was, at any rate, deleted from
his approaching doom, though at the moment he felt scarcely
grateful for the knowledge placed at his disposal with such lavish
"You'll get six of the very best, over the back of a chair," said
"They'll draw a chalk line across you, of course you know," said
"A chalk line?"
"Rather. So that every cut can be aimed exactly at the same spot.
It hurts much more that way."
Lancelot tried to nourish a wan hope that there might be an element
of exaggeration in this uncomfortably realistic description.
Meanwhile in the prefects' room at the other end of the passage,
Comus Bassington and a fellow prefect sat also waiting on time, but
in a mood of far more pleasurable expectancy. Comus was one of the
most junior of the prefect caste, but by no means the least well-
known, and outside the masters' common-room he enjoyed a certain
fitful popularity, or at any rate admiration. At football he was
too erratic to be a really brilliant player, but he tackled as if
the act of bringing his man headlong to the ground was in itself a
sensuous pleasure, and his weird swear-words whenever he got hurt
were eagerly treasured by those who were fortunate enough to hear
them. At athletics in general he was a showy performer, and
although new to the functions of a prefect he had already
established a reputation as an effective and artistic caner. In
appearance he exactly fitted his fanciful Pagan name. His large
green-grey eyes seemed for ever asparkle with goblin mischief and
the joy of revelry, and the curved lips might have been those of
some wickedly-laughing faun; one almost expected to see embryo
horns fretting the smoothness of his sleek dark hair. The chin was
firm, but one looked in vain for a redeeming touch of ill-temper in
the handsome, half-mocking, half-petulant face. With a strain of
sourness in him Comus might have been leavened into something
creative and masterful; fate had fashioned him with a certain
whimsical charm, and left him all unequipped for the greater
purposes of life. Perhaps no one would have called him a lovable
character, but in many respects he was adorable; in all respects he
was certainly damned.
Rutley, his companion of the moment, sat watching him and
wondering, from the depths of a very ordinary brain, whether he
liked or hated him; it was easy to do either.
"It's not really your turn to cane," he said.
"I know it's not," said Comus, fingering a very serviceable-looking
cane as lovingly as a pious violinist might handle his Strad. "I
gave Greyson some mint-chocolate to let me toss whether I caned or
him, and I won. He was rather decent over it and let me have half
the chocolate back."
The droll lightheartedness which won Comus Bassington such measure
of popularity as he enjoyed among his fellows did not materially
help to endear him to the succession of masters with whom he came
in contact during the course of his schooldays. He amused and
interested such of them as had the saving grace of humour at their
disposal, but if they sighed when he passed from their immediate
responsibility it was a sigh of relief rather than of regret. The
more enlightened and experienced of them realised that he was
something outside the scope of the things that they were called
upon to deal with. A man who has been trained to cope with storms,
to foresee their coming, and to minimise their consequences, may be
pardoned if he feels a certain reluctance to measure himself
against a tornado.
Men of more limited outlook and with a correspondingly larger
belief in their own powers were ready to tackle the tornado had
"I think I could tame young Bassington if I had your
opportunities," a form-master once remarked to a colleague whose
House had the embarrassing distinction of numbering Comus among its
"Heaven forbid that I should try," replied the housemaster.
"But why?" asked the reformer.
"Because Nature hates any interference with her own arrangements,
and if you start in to tame the obviously untameable you are taking
a fearful responsibility on yourself."
"Nonsense; boys are Nature's raw material."
"Millions of boys are. There are just a few, and Bassington is one
of them, who are Nature's highly finished product when they are in
the schoolboy stage, and we, who are supposed to be moulding raw
material, are quite helpless when we come in contact with them."
"But what happens to them when they grow up?"
"They never do grow up," said the housemaster; "that is their
tragedy. Bassington will certainly never grow out of his present
"Now you are talking in the language of Peter Pan," said the form-
"I am not thinking in the manner of Peter Pan," said the other.
"With all reverence for the author of that masterpiece I should say
he had a wonderful and tender insight into the child mind and knew
nothing whatever about boys. To make only one criticism on that
particular work, can you imagine a lot of British boys, or boys of
any country that one knows of, who would stay contentedly playing
children's games in an underground cave when there were wolves and
pirates and Red Indians to be had for the asking on the other side
of the trap door?"
The form-master laughed. "You evidently think that the 'Boy who
would not grow up' must have been written by a 'grown-up who could
never have been a boy.' Perhaps that is the meaning of the 'Never-
never Land.' I daresay you're right in your criticism, but I don't
agree with you about Bassington. He's a handful to deal with, as
anyone knows who has come in contact with him, but if one's hands
weren't full with a thousand and one other things I hold to my
opinion that he could be tamed."
And he went his way, having maintained a form-master's inalienable
privilege of being in the right.
* * * * *
In the prefects' room, Comus busied himself with the exact position
of a chair planted out in the middle of the floor.
"I think everything's ready," he said.
Rutley glanced at the clock with the air of a Roman elegant in the
Circus, languidly awaiting the introduction of an expected
Christian to an expectant tiger.
"The kid is due in two minutes," he said.
"He'd jolly well better not be late," said Comus.
Comus had gone through the mill of many scorching castigations in
his earlier school days, and was able to appreciate to the last
ounce the panic that must be now possessing his foredoomed victim,
probably at this moment hovering miserably outside the door. After
all, that was part of the fun of the thing, and most things have
their amusing side if one knows where to look for it.
There was a knock at the door, and Lancelot entered in response to
a hearty friendly summons to "come in."
"I've come to be caned," he said breathlessly; adding by way of
identification, "my name's Chetrof."
"That's quite bad enough in itself," said Comus, "but there is
probably worse to follow. You are evidently keeping something back
"I missed a footer practice," said Lancelot
"Six," said Comus briefly, picking up his cane.
"I didn't see the notice on the board," hazarded Lancelot as a
"We are always pleased to listen to excuses, and our charge is two
extra cuts. That will be eight. Get over."
And Comus indicated the chair that stood in sinister isolation in
the middle of the room. Never had an article of furniture seemed
more hateful in Lancelot's eyes. Comus could well remember the
time when a chair stuck in the middle of a room had seemed to him
the most horrible of manufactured things.
"Lend me a piece of chalk," he said to his brother prefect.
Lancelot ruefully recognised the truth of the chalk-line story.
Comus drew the desired line with an anxious exactitude which he
would have scorned to apply to a diagram of Euclid or a map of the
"Bend a little more forward," he said to the victim, "and much
tighter. Don't trouble to look pleasant, because I can't see your
face anyway. It may sound unorthodox to say so, but this is going
to hurt you much more than it will hurt me."
There was a carefully measured pause, and then Lancelot was made
vividly aware of what a good cane can be made to do in really
efficient hands. At the second cut he projected himself hurriedly
off the chair.
"Now I've lost count," said Comus; "we shall have to begin all over
again. Kindly get back into the same position. If you get down
again before I've finished Rutley will hold you over and you'll get
Lancelot got back on to the chair, and was re-arranged to the taste
of his executioner. He stayed there somehow or other while Comus
made eight accurate and agonisingly effective shots at the chalk
"By the way," he said to his gasping and gulping victim when the
infliction was over, "you said Chetrof, didn't you? I believe I've
been asked to be kind to you. As a beginning you can clean out my
study this afternoon. Be awfully careful how you dust the old
china. If you break any don't come and tell me but just go and
drown yourself somewhere; it will save you from a worse fate."
"I don't know where your study is," said Lancelot between his
"You'd better find it or I shall have to beat you, really hard this
time. Here, you'd better keep this chalk in your pocket, it's sure
to come in handy later on. Don't stop to thank me for all I've
done, it only embarrasses me."
As Comus hadn't got a study Lancelot spent a feverish half-hour in
looking for it, incidentally missing another footer practice.
"Everything is very jolly here," wrote Lancelot to his sister
Emmeline. "The prefects can give you an awful hot time if they
like, but most of them are rather decent. Some are Beasts.
Bassington is a prefect though only a junior one. He is the Limit
as Beasts go. At least I think so."
Schoolboy reticence went no further, but Emmeline filled in the
gaps for herself with the lavish splendour of feminine imagination.
Francesca's bridge went crashing into the abyss.
On the evening of a certain November day, two years after the
events heretofore chronicled, Francesca Bassington steered her way
through the crowd that filled the rooms of her friend Serena
Golackly, bestowing nods of vague recognition as she went, but with
eyes that were obviously intent on focussing one particular figure.
Parliament had pulled its energies together for an Autumn Session,
and both political Parties were fairly well represented in the
throng. Serena had a harmless way of inviting a number of more or
less public men and women to her house, and hoping that if you left
them together long enough they would constitute a salon. In
pursuance of the same instinct she planted the flower borders at
her week-end cottage retreat in Surrey with a large mixture of
bulbs, and called the result a Dutch garden. Unfortunately, though
you may bring brilliant talkers into your home, you cannot always
make them talk brilliantly, or even talk at all; what is worse you
cannot restrict the output of those starling-voiced dullards who
seem to have, on all subjects, so much to say that was well worth
leaving unsaid. One group that Francesca passed was discussing a
Spanish painter, who was forty-three, and had painted thousands of
square yards of canvas in his time, but of whom no one in London
had heard till a few months ago; now the starling-voices seemed
determined that one should hear of very little else. Three women
knew how his name was pronounced, another always felt that she must
go into a forest and pray whenever she saw his pictures, another
had noticed that there were always pomegranates in his later
compositions, and a man with an indefensible collar knew what the
pomegranates "meant." "What I think so splendid about him," said a
stout lady in a loud challenging voice, "is the way he defies all
the conventions of art while retaining all that the conventions
stand for." "Ah, but have you noticed--" put in the man with the
atrocious collar, and Francesca pushed desperately on, wondering
dimly as she went, what people found so unsupportable in the
affliction of deafness. Her progress was impeded for a moment by a
couple engaged in earnest and voluble discussion of some
smouldering question of the day; a thin spectacled young man with
the receding forehead that so often denotes advanced opinions, was
talking to a spectacled young woman with a similar type of
forehead, and exceedingly untidy hair. It was her ambition in life
to be taken for a Russian girl-student, and she had spent weeks of
patient research in trying to find out exactly where you put the
tea-leaves in a samovar. She had once been introduced to a young
Jewess from Odessa, who had died of pneumonia the following week;
the experience, slight as it was, constituted the spectacled young
lady an authority on all things Russian in the eyes of her
"Talk is helpful, talk is needful," the young man was saying, "but
what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of
indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical
The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash
in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her
"In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid
the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when
liberating the serfs of the soil."
She paused in her turn for the sake of declamatory effect, but
recovered her breath quickly enough to start afresh on level terms
with the young man, who had jumped into the stride of his next
"They got off to a good start that time," said Francesca to
herself; "I suppose it's the Prevention of Destitution they're
hammering at. What on earth would become of these dear good people
if anyone started a crusade for the prevention of mediocrity?"
Midway through one of the smaller rooms, still questing for an
elusive presence, she caught sight of someone that she knew, and
the shadow of a frown passed across her face. The object of her
faintly signalled displeasure was Courtenay Youghal, a political
spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had
never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal's ambition--or perhaps his
hobby--to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of
the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of
Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were
inherent from the Celtic strain in him. His success was only a
half-measure. The public missed in him that touch of blatancy
which it looks for in its rising public men; the decorative
smoothness of his chestnut-golden hair, and the lively sparkle of
his epigrams were counted to him for good, but the restrained
sumptuousness of his waistcoats and cravats were as wasted efforts.
If he had habitually smoked cigarettes in a pink coral mouthpiece,
or worn spats of Mackenzie tartan, the great heart of the voting-
man, and the gush of the paragraph-makers might have been
unreservedly his. The art of public life consists to a great
extent of knowing exactly where to stop and going a bit further.
It was not Youghal's lack of political sagacity that had brought
the momentary look of disapproval into Francesca's face. The fact
was that Comus, who had left off being a schoolboy and was now a
social problem, had lately enrolled himself among the young
politician's associates and admirers, and as the boy knew and cared
nothing about politics, and merely copied Youghal's waistcoats,
and, less successfully, his conversation, Francesca felt herself
justified in deploring the intimacy. To a woman who dressed well
on comparatively nothing a year it was an anxious experience to
have a son who dressed sumptuously on absolutely nothing.
The cloud that had passed over her face when she caught sight of
the offending Youghal was presently succeeded by a smile of
gratified achievement, as she encountered a bow of recognition and
welcome from a portly middle-aged gentleman, who seemed genuinely
anxious to include her in the rather meagre group that he had
gathered about him.
"We were just talking about my new charge," he observed genially,
including in the "we" his somewhat depressed-looking listeners, who
in all human probability had done none of the talking. "I was just
telling them, and you may be interested to hear this--"
Francesca, with Spartan stoicism, continued to wear an ingratiating
smile, though the character of the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear
and will not hearken, seemed to her at that moment a beautiful one.
Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons
distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity,
and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the
most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely
have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy
bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that
doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West
Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the
baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian
islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to
say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some
importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might
possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the
least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into
the papers. To the public the matter was one of absolute
indifference; "who is he and where is it?" would have correctly
epitomised the sum total of general information on the personal and
geographical aspects of the case.
Francesca, however, from the moment she had heard of the likelihood
of the appointment, had taken a deep and lively interest in Sir
Julian. As a Member of Parliament he had not filled any very
pressing social want in her life, and on the rare occasions when
she took tea on the Terrace of the House she was wont to lapse into
rapt contemplation of St. Thomas's Hospital whenever she saw him
within bowing distance. But as Governor of an island he would, of
course, want a private secretary, and as a friend and colleague of
Henry Greech, to whom he was indebted for many little acts of
political support (they had once jointly drafted an amendment which
had been ruled out of order), what was more natural and proper than
that he should let his choice fall on Henry's nephew Comus? While
privately doubting whether the boy would make the sort of secretary
that any public man would esteem as a treasure, Henry was
thoroughly in agreement with Francesca as to the excellence and
desirability of an arrangement which would transplant that
troublesome' young animal from the too restricted and conspicuous
area that centres in the parish of St. James's to some misty corner
of the British dominion overseas. Brother and sister had conspired
to give an elaborate and at the same time cosy little luncheon to
Sir Julian on the very day that his appointment was officially
announced, and the question of the secretaryship had been mooted
and sedulously fostered as occasion permitted, until all that was
now needed to clinch the matter was a formal interview between His
Excellency and Comus. The boy had from the first shewn very little
gratification at the prospect of his deportation. To live on a
remote shark-girt island, as he expressed it, with the Jull family
as his chief social mainstay, and Sir Julian's conversation as a
daily item of his existence, did not inspire him with the same
degree of enthusiasm as was displayed by his mother and uncle, who,
after all, were not making the experiment. Even the necessity for
an entirely new outfit did not appeal to his imagination with the
force that might have been expected. But, however lukewarm his
adhesion to the project might be, Francesca and her brother were
clearly determined that no lack of deft persistence on their part
should endanger its success. It was for the purpose of reminding
Sir Julian of his promise to meet Comus at lunch on the following
day, and definitely settle the matter of the secretaryship that
Francesca was now enduring the ordeal of a long harangue on the
value of the West Indian group as an Imperial asset. Other
listeners dexterously detached themselves one by one, but
Francesca's patience outlasted even Sir Julian's flow of
commonplaces, and her devotion was duly rewarded by a renewed
acknowledgment of the lunch engagement and its purpose. She pushed
her way back through the throng of starling-voiced chatterers
fortified by a sense of well-earned victory. Dear Serena's absurd
salons served some good purpose after all.
Francesca was not an early riser and her breakfast was only just
beginning to mobilise on the breakfast-table next morning when a
copy of The Times, sent by special messenger from her brother's
house, was brought up to her room. A heavy margin of blue
pencilling drew her attention to a prominently-printed letter which
bore the ironical heading: "Julian Jull, Proconsul." The matter
of the letter was a cruel dis-interment of some fatuous and
forgotten speeches made by Sir Julian to his constituents not many
years ago, in which the value of some of our Colonial possessions,
particularly certain West Indian islands, was decried in a medley
of pomposity, ignorance and amazingly cheap humour. The extracts
given sounded weak and foolish enough, taken by themselves, but the
writer of the letter had interlarded them with comments of his own,
which sparkled with an ironical brilliance that was Cervantes-like
in its polished cruelty. Remembering her ordeal of the previous
evening Francesca permitted herself a certain feeling of amusement
as she read the merciless stabs inflicted on the newly-appointed
Governor; then she came to the signature at the foot of the letter,
and the laughter died out of her eyes. "Comus Bassington" stared
at her from above a thick layer of blue pencil lines marked by
Henry Greech's shaking hand.
Comus could no more have devised such a letter than he could have
written an Episcopal charge to the clergy of any given diocese. It
was obviously the work of Courtenay Youghal, and Comus, for a
palpable purpose of his own, had wheedled him into foregoing for
once the pride of authorship in a clever piece of political
raillery, and letting his young friend stand sponsor instead. It
was a daring stroke, and there could be no question as to its
success; the secretaryship and the distant shark-girt island faded
away into the horizon of impossible things. Francesca, forgetting
the golden rule of strategy which enjoins a careful choosing of
ground and opportunity before entering on hostilities, made
straight for the bathroom door, behind which a lively din of
splashing betokened that Comus had at least begun his toilet.
"You wicked boy, what have you done?" she cried, reproachfully.
"Me washee," came a cheerful shout; "me washee from the neck all
the way down to the merrythought, and now washee down from the
"You have ruined your future. The Times has printed that miserable
letter with your signature."
A loud squeal of joy came from the bath. "Oh, Mummy! Let me see!"
There were sounds as of a sprawling dripping body clambering
hastily out of the bath. Francesca fled. One cannot effectively
scold a moist nineteen-year old boy clad only in a bath-towel and a
cloud of steam.
Another messenger arrived before Francesca's breakfast was over.
This one brought a letter from Sir Julian Jull, excusing himself
from fulfilment of the luncheon engagement.
Francesca prided herself on being able to see things from other
people's points of view, which meant, as it usually does, that she
could see her own point of view from various aspects. As regards
Comus, whose doings and non-doings bulked largely in her thoughts
at the present moment, she had mapped out in her mind so clearly
what his outlook in life ought to be, that she was peculiarly
unfitted to understand the drift of his feelings or the impulses
that governed them. Fate had endowed her with a son; in limiting
the endowment to a solitary offspring Fate had certainly shown a
moderation which Francesca was perfectly willing to acknowledge and
be thankful for; but then, as she pointed out to a certain
complacent friend of hers who cheerfully sustained an endowment of
half-a-dozen male offsprings and a girl or two, her one child was
Comus. Moderation in numbers was more than counterbalanced in his
case by extravagance in characteristics.
Francesca mentally compared her son with hundreds of other young
men whom she saw around her, steadily, and no doubt happily,
engaged in the process of transforming themselves from nice boys
into useful citizens. Most of them had occupations, or were
industriously engaged in qualifying for such; in their leisure
moments they smoked reasonably-priced cigarettes, went to the
cheaper seats at music-halls, watched an occasional cricket match
at Lord's with apparent interest, saw most of the world's
spectacular events through the medium of the cinematograph, and
were wont to exchange at parting seemingly superfluous injunctions
to "be good." The whole of Bond Street and many of the tributary
thoroughfares of Piccadilly might have been swept off the face of
modern London without in any way interfering with the supply of
their daily wants. They were doubtless dull as acquaintances, but
as sons they would have been eminently restful. With a growing
sense of irritation Francesca compared these deserving young men
with her own intractable offspring, and wondered why Fate should
have singled her out to be the parent of such a vexatious variant
from a comfortable and desirable type. As far as remunerative
achievement was concerned, Comus copied the insouciance of the
field lily with a dangerous fidelity. Like his mother he looked
round with wistful irritation at the example afforded by
contemporary youth, but he concentrated his attention exclusively
on the richer circles of his acquaintance, young men who bought
cars and polo ponies as unconcernedly as he might purchase a
carnation for his buttonhole, and went for trips to Cairo or the
Tigris valley with less difficulty and finance-stretching than he
encountered in contriving a week-end at Brighton.
Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the
whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of
holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to
advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience
to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all
times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world
at that, something more was needed than the decorative ABANDON of
the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus
seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was
just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with
Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held
him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate,
Francesca was, in her own way, fonder of Comus than of anyone else
in the world, and if he had been browning his skin somewhere east
of Suez she would probably have kissed his photograph with genuine
fervour every night before going to bed; the appearance of a
cholera scare or rumour of native rising in the columns of her
daily news-sheet would have caused her a flutter of anxiety, and
she would have mentally likened herself to a Spartan mother
sacrificing her best-beloved on the altar of State necessities.
But with the best-beloved installed under her roof, occupying an
unreasonable amount of cubic space, and demanding daily sacrifices
instead of providing the raw material for one, her feelings were
tinged with irritation rather than affection. She might have
forgiven Comus generously for misdeeds of some gravity committed in
another continent, but she could never overlook the fact that out
of a dish of five plovers' eggs he was certain to take three. The
absent may be always wrong, but they are seldom in a position to be
Thus a wall of ice had grown up gradually between mother and son, a
barrier across which they could hold converse, but which gave a
wintry chill even to the sparkle of their lightest words. The boy
had the gift of being irresistibly amusing when he chose to exert
himself in that direction, and after a long series of moody or
jangling meal-sittings he would break forth into a torrential flow
of small talk, scandal and malicious anecdote, true or more
generally invented, to which Francesca listened with a relish and
appreciation, that was all the more flattering from being so
"If you chose your friends from a rather more reputable set you
would be doubtless less amusing, but there would be compensating
Francesca snapped the remark out at lunch one day when she had been
betrayed into a broader smile than she considered the circumstances
of her attitude towards Comus warranted.
"I'm going to move in quite decent society to-night," replied Comus
with a pleased chuckle; "I'm going to meet you and Uncle Henry and
heaps of nice dull God-fearing people at dinner."
Francesca gave a little gasp of surprise and annoyance.
"You don't mean to say Caroline has asked you to dinner to-night?"
she said; "and of course without telling me. How exceedingly like
Lady Caroline Benaresq had reached that age when you can say and do
what you like in defiance of people's most sensitive feelings and
most cherished antipathies. Not that she had waited to attain her
present age before pursuing that line of conduct; she came of a
family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery
to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge
might show in going through a crowded bathing tent. It was a
compensating mercy that they disagreed rather more among themselves
than they did with the outside world; every known variety and shade
of religion and politics had been pressed into the family service
to avoid the possibility of any agreement on the larger essentials
of life, and such unlooked-for happenings as the Home Rule schism,
the Tariff-Reform upheaval and the Suffragette crusade were
thankfully seized on as furnishing occasion for further differences
and sub-divisions. Lady Caroline's favourite scheme of
entertaining was to bring jarring and antagonistic elements into
close contact and play them remorselessly one against the other.
"One gets much better results under those circumstances" she used
to observe, "than by asking people who wish to meet each other.
Few people talk as brilliantly to impress a friend as they do to
depress an enemy."
She admitted that her theory broke down rather badly if you applied
it to Parliamentary debates. At her own dinner table its success
was usually triumphantly vindicated.
"Who else is to be there?" Francesca asked, with some pardonable
"Courtenay Youghal. He'll probably sit next to you, so you'd
better think out a lot of annihilating remarks in readiness. And
Elaine de Frey."
"I don't think I've heard of her. Who is she?"
"Nobody in particular, but rather nice-looking in a solemn sort of
way, and almost indecently rich."
"Marry her" was the advice which sprang to Francesca's lips, but
she choked it back with a salted almond, having a rare perception
of the fact that words are sometimes given to us to defeat our
"Caroline has probably marked her down for Toby or one of the
grand-nephews," she said, carelessly; "a little money would be
rather useful in that quarter, I imagine."
Comus tucked in his underlip with just the shade of pugnacity that
she wanted to see.
An advantageous marriage was so obviously the most sensible course
for him to embark on that she scarcely dared to hope that he would
seriously entertain it; yet there was just a chance that if he got
as far as the flirtation stage with an attractive (and attracted)
girl who was also an heiress, the sheer perversity of his nature
might carry him on to more definite courtship, if only from the
desire to thrust other more genuinely enamoured suitors into the
background. It was a forlorn hope; so forlorn that the idea even
crossed her mind of throwing herself on the mercy of her bete
noire, Courtenay Youghal, and trying to enlist the influence which
he seemed to possess over Comus for the purpose of furthering her
hurriedly conceived project. Anyhow, the dinner promised to be
more interesting than she had originally anticipated.
Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it
was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of
the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day.
She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below
stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be
Individualists. Francesca, who was a keen and intelligent food
critic, harboured no misgivings as to her hostess's kitchen and
cellar departments; some of the human side-dishes at the feast gave
her more ground for uneasiness. Courtenay Youghal, for instance,
would probably be brilliantly silent; her brother Henry would
almost certainly be the reverse.
The dinner party was a large one and Francesca arrived late with
little time to take preliminary stock of the guests; a card with
the name, "Miss de Frey," immediately opposite her own place at the
other side of the table, indicated, however, the whereabouts of the
heiress. It was characteristic of Francesca that she first
carefully read the menu from end to end, and then indulged in an
equally careful though less open scrutiny of the girl who sat
opposite her, the girl who was nobody in particular, but whose
income was everything that could be desired. She was pretty in a
restrained nut-brown fashion, and had a look of grave reflective
calm that probably masked a speculative unsettled temperament. Her
pose, if one wished to be critical, was just a little too
elaborately careless. She wore some excellently set rubies with
that indefinable air of having more at home that is so difficult to
improvise. Francesca was distinctly pleased with her survey.
"You seem interested in your vis-a-vis," said Courtenay Youghal.
"I almost think I've seen her before," said Francesca; "her face
seems familiar to me."
"The narrow gallery at the Louvre; attributed to Leonardo da
Vinci," said Youghal.
"Of course," said Francesca, her feelings divided between
satisfaction at capturing an elusive impression and annoyance that
Youghal should have been her helper. A stronger tinge of annoyance
possessed her when she heard the voice of Henry Greech raised in
painful prominence at Lady Caroline's end of the table.
"I called on the Trudhams yesterday," he announced; "it was their
Silver Wedding, you know, at least the day before was. Such lots
of silver presents, quite a show. Of course there were a great
many duplicates, but still, very nice to have. I think they were
very pleased to get so many."
"We must not grudge them their show of presents after their twenty-
five years of married life," said Lady Caroline, gently; "it is the
silver lining to their cloud."
A third of the guests present were related to the Trudhams.
"Lady Caroline is beginning well," murmured Courtenay Youghal.
"I should hardly call twenty-five years of married life a cloud,"
said Henry Greech, lamely.
"Don't let's talk about married life," said a tall handsome woman,
who looked like some modern painter's conception of the goddess
Bellona; "it's my misfortune to write eternally about husbands and
wives and their variants. My public expects it of me. I do so
envy journalists who can write about plagues and strikes and
Anarchist plots, and other pleasing things, instead of being tied
down to one stale old topic."
"Who is that woman and what has she written?" Francesca asked
Youghal; she dimly remembered having seen her at one of Serena
Golackly's gatherings, surrounded by a little Court of admirers.
"I forget her name; she has a villa at San Remo or Mentone, or
somewhere where one does have villas, and plays an extraordinary
good game of bridge. Also she has the reputation, rather rare in
your sex, of being a wonderfully sound judge of wine."
"But what has she written?"
"Oh, several novels of the thinnish ice order. Her last one, 'The
Woman who wished it was Wednesday,' has been banned at all the
libraries. I expect you've read it."
"I don't see why you should think so," said Francesca, coldly.
"Only because Comus lent me your copy yesterday," said Youghal. He
threw back his handsome head and gave her a sidelong glance of
quizzical amusement. He knew that she hated his intimacy with
Comus, and he was secretly rather proud of his influence over the
boy, shallow and negative though he knew it to be. It had been, on
his part, an unsought intimacy, and it would probably fall to
pieces the moment he tried seriously to take up the role of mentor.
The fact that Comus's mother openly disapproved of the friendship
gave it perhaps its chief interest in the young politician's eyes.
Francesca turned her attention to her brother's end of the table.
Henry Greech had willingly availed himself of the invitation to
leave the subject of married life, and had launched forthwith into
the equally well-worn theme of current politics. He was not a
person who was in much demand for public meetings, and the House
showed no great impatience to hear his views on the topics of the
moment; its impatience, indeed, was manifested rather in the
opposite direction. Hence he was prone to unburden himself of
accumulated political wisdom as occasion presented itself--
sometimes, indeed, to assume an occasion that was hardly visible to
the naked intelligence.
"Our opponents are engaged in a hopelessly uphill struggle, and
they know it," he chirruped, defiantly; "they've become possessed,
like the Gadarene swine, with a whole legion of--"
"Surely the Gadarene swine went downhill," put in Lady Caroline in
a gently enquiring voice.
Henry Greech hastily abandoned simile and fell back on platitude
and the safer kinds of fact.
Francesca did not regard her brother's views on statecraft either
in the light of gospel or revelation; as Comus once remarked, they
more usually suggested exodus. In the present instance she found
distraction in a renewed scrutiny of the girl opposite her, who
seemed to be only moderately interested in the conversational
efforts of the diners on either side of her. Comus who was looking
and talking his best, was sitting at the further end of the table,
and Francesca was quick to notice in which direction the girl's
glances were continually straying. Once or twice the eyes of the
young people met and a swift flush of pleasure and a half-smile
that spoke of good understanding came to the heiress's face. It
did not need the gift of the traditional intuition of her sex to
enable Francesca to guess that the girl with the desirable banking
account was already considerably attracted by the lively young
Pagan who had, when he cared to practise it, such an art of winning
admiration. For the first time for many, many months Francesca saw
her son's prospects in a rose-coloured setting, and she began,
unconsciously, to wonder exactly how much wealth was summed up in
the expressive label "almost indecently rich." A wife with a
really large fortune and a correspondingly big dower of character
and ambition, might, perhaps, succeed in turning Comus's latent
energies into a groove which would provide him, if not with a
career, at least with an occupation, and the young serious face
opposite looked as if its owner lacked neither character or
ambition. Francesca's speculations took a more personal turn. Out
of the well-filled coffers with which her imagination was toying,
an inconsiderable sum might eventually be devoted to the leasing,
or even perhaps the purchase of, the house in Blue Street when the
present convenient arrangement should have come to an end, and
Francesca and the Van der Meulen would not be obliged to seek fresh
A woman's voice, talking in a discreet undertone on the other side
of Courtenay Youghal, broke in on her bridge-building.
"Tons of money and really very presentable. Just the wife for a
rising young politician. Go in and win her before she's snapped up
by some fortune hunter."
Youghal and his instructress in worldly wisdom were looking
straight across the table at the Leonardo da Vinci girl with the
grave reflective eyes and the over-emphasised air of repose.
Francesca felt a quick throb of anger against her match-making
neighbour; why, she asked herself, must some women, with no end or
purpose of their own to serve, except the sheer love of meddling in
the affairs of others, plunge their hands into plots and schemings
of this sort, in which the happiness of more than one person was
concerned? And more clearly than ever she realised how thoroughly
she detested Courtenay Youghal. She had disliked him as an evil
influence, setting before her son an example of showy ambition that
he was not in the least likely to follow, and providing him with a
model of extravagant dandyism that he was only too certain to copy.
In her heart she knew that Comus would have embarked just as surely
on his present course of idle self-indulgence if he had never known
of the existence of Youghal, but she chose to regard that young man
as her son's evil genius, and now he seemed likely to justify more
than ever the character she had fastened on to him. For once in
his life Comus appeared to have an idea of behaving sensibly and
making some use of his opportunities, and almost at the same moment
Courtenay Youghal arrived on the scene as a possible and very
dangerous rival. Against the good looks and fitful powers of
fascination that Comus could bring into the field, the young
politician could match half-a-dozen dazzling qualities which would
go far to recommend him in the eyes of a woman of the world, still
more in those of a young girl in search of an ideal. Good-looking
in his own way, if not on such showy lines as Comus, always well
turned-out, witty, self-confident without being bumptious, with a
conspicuous Parliamentary career alongside him, and heaven knew
what else in front of him, Courtenay Youghal certainly was not a
rival whose chances could be held very lightly. Francesca laughed
bitterly to herself as she remembered that a few hours ago she had
entertained the idea of begging for his good offices in helping on
Comus's wooing. One consolation, at least, she found for herself:
if Youghal really meant to step in and try and cut out his young
friend, the latter at any rate had snatched a useful start. Comus
had mentioned Miss de Frey at luncheon that day, casually and
dispassionately; if the subject of the dinner guests had not come
up he would probably not have mentioned her at all. But they were
obviously already very good friends. It was part and parcel of the
state of domestic tension at Blue Street that Francesca should only
have come to know of this highly interesting heiress by an
accidental sorting of guests at a dinner party.
Lady Caroline's voice broke in on her reflections; it was a gentle
purring voice, that possessed an uncanny quality of being able to
make itself heard down the longest dinner table.
"The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list
of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday,
instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that
entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake."
On a conveniently secluded bench facing the Northern Pheasantry in
the Zoological Society's Gardens, Regent's Park, Courtenay Youghal
sat immersed in mature flirtation with a lady, who, though
certainly young in fact and appearance, was some four or five years
his senior. When he was a schoolboy of sixteen, Molly McQuade had
personally conducted him to the Zoo and stood him dinner afterwards
at Kettner's, and whenever the two of them happened to be in town
on the anniversary of that bygone festivity they religiously
repeated the programme in its entirety. Even the menu of the
dinner was adhered to as nearly as possible; the original selection
of food and wine that schoolboy exuberance, tempered by schoolboy
shyness, had pitched on those many years ago, confronted Youghal on
those occasions, as a drowning man's past life is said to rise up
and parade itself in his last moments of consciousness.
The flirtation which was thus perennially restored to its old-time
footing owed its longevity more to the enterprising solicitude of
Miss McQuade than to any conscious sentimental effort on the part
of Youghal himself. Molly McQuade was known to her neighbours in a
minor hunting shire as a hard-riding conventionally unconventional
type of young woman, who came naturally into the classification, "a
good sort." She was just sufficiently good-looking, sufficiently
reticent about her own illnesses, when she had any, and
sufficiently appreciative of her neighbours' gardens, children and
hunters to be generally popular. Most men liked her, and the
percentage of women who disliked her was not inconveniently high.
One of these days, it was assumed, she would marry a brewer or a
Master of Otter Hounds, and, after a brief interval, be known to
the world as the mother of a boy or two at Malvern or some similar
seat of learning. The romantic side of her nature was altogether
unguessed by the countryside.
Her romances were mostly in serial form and suffered perhaps in
fervour from their disconnected course what they gained in length
of days. Her affectionate interest in the several young men who
figured in her affairs of the heart was perfectly honest, and she
certainly made no attempt either to conceal their separate
existences, or to play them off one against the other. Neither
could it be said that she was a husband hunter; she had made up her
mind what sort of man she was likely to marry, and her forecast did
not differ very widely from that formed by her local acquaintances.
If her married life were eventually to turn out a failure, at least
she looked forward to it with very moderate expectations. Her love
affairs she put on a very different footing and apparently they
were the all-absorbing element in her life. She possessed the
happily constituted temperament which enables a man or woman to be
a "pluralist," and to observe the sage precaution of not putting
all one's eggs into one basket. Her demands were not exacting; she
required of her affinity that he should be young, good-looking, and
at least, moderately amusing; she would have preferred him to be
invariably faithful, but, with her own example before her, she was
prepared for the probability, bordering on certainty, that he would
be nothing of the sort. The philosophy of the "Garden of Kama" was
the compass by which she steered her barque and thus far, if she
had encountered some storms and buffeting, she had at least escaped
being either shipwrecked or becalmed.
Courtenay Youghal had not been designed by Nature to fulfil the
role of an ardent or devoted lover, and he scrupulously respected
the limits which Nature had laid down. For Molly, however, he had
a certain responsive affection. She had always obviously admired
him, and at the same time she never beset him with crude flattery;
the principal reason why the flirtation had stood the test of so
many years was the fact that it only flared into active existence
at convenient intervals. In an age when the telephone has
undermined almost every fastness of human privacy, and the sanctity
of one's seclusion depends often on the ability for tactful
falsehood shown by a club pageboy, Youghal was duly appreciative of
the circumstance that his lady fair spent a large part of the year
pursuing foxes, in lieu of pursuing him. Also the honestly
admitted fact that, in her human hunting, she rode after more than
one quarry, made the inevitable break-up of the affair a matter to
which both could look forward without a sense of coming
embarrassment and recrimination. When the time for gathering ye
rosebuds should be over, neither of them could accuse the other of
having wrecked his or her entire life. At the most they would only
have disorganised a week-end.
On this particular afternoon, when old reminiscences had been gone
through, and the intervening gossip of past months duly recounted,
a lull in the conversation made itself rather obstinately felt.
Molly had already guessed that matters were about to slip into a
new phase; the affair had reached maturity long ago, and a new
phase must be in the nature of a wane.
"You're a clever brute," she said, suddenly, with an air of
affectionate regret; "I always knew you'd get on in the House, but
I hardly expected you to come to the front so soon."
"I'm coming to the front," admitted Youghal, judicially; "the
problem is, shall I be able to stay there. Unless something
happens in the financial line before long, I don't see how I'm to
stay in Parliament at all. Economy is out of the question. It
would open people's eyes, I fancy, if they knew how little I exist
on as it is. And I'm living so far beyond my income that we may
almost be said to be living apart."
"It will have to be a rich wife, I suppose," said Molly, slowly;
"that's the worst of success, it imposes so many conditions. I
rather knew, from something in your manner, that you were drifting
Youghal said nothing in the way of contradiction; he gazed
steadfastly at the aviary in front of him as though exotic
pheasants were for the moment the most absorbing study in the
world. As a matter of fact, his mind was centred on the image of
Elaine de Frey, with her clear untroubled eyes and her Leonardo da
Vinci air. He was wondering whether he was likely to fall into a
frame of mind concerning her which would be in the least like
falling in love.
"I shall mind horribly," continued Molly, after a pause, "but, of
course, I have always known that something of the sort would have
to happen one of these days. When a man goes into politics he
can't call his soul his own, and I suppose his heart becomes an
impersonal possession in the same way."
"Most people who know me would tell you that I haven't got a
heart," said Youghal.
"I've often felt inclined to agree with them," said Molly; "and
then, now and again, I think you have a heart tucked away
"I hope I have," said Youghal, "because I'm trying to break to you
the fact that I think I'm falling in love with somebody."
Molly McQuade turned sharply to look at her companion, who still
fixed his gaze on the pheasant run in front of him.
"Don't tell me you're losing your head over somebody useless,
someone without money," she said; "I don't think I could stand
For the moment she feared that Courtenay's selfishness might have
taken an unexpected turn, in which ambition had given way to the
fancy of the hour; he might be going to sacrifice his Parliamentary
career for a life of stupid lounging in momentarily attractive
company. He quickly undeceived her.
"She's got heaps of money."
Molly gave a grunt of relief. Her affection for Courtenay had
produced the anxiety which underlay her first question; a natural
jealousy prompted the next one.
"Is she young and pretty and all that sort of thing, or is she just
a good sort with a sympathetic manner and nice eyes? As a rule
that's the kind that goes with a lot of money."
"Young and quite good-looking in her way, and a distinct style of
her own. Some people would call her beautiful. As a political
hostess I should think she'd be splendid. I imagine I'm rather in
love with her."
"And is she in love with you?"
Youghal threw back his head with the slight assertive movement that
Molly knew and liked.
"She's a girl who I fancy would let judgment influence her a lot.
And without being stupidly conceited, I think I may say she might
do worse than throw herself away on me. I'm young and quite good-
looking, and I'm making a name for myself in the House; she'll be
able to read all sorts of nice and horrid things about me in the
papers at breakfast-time. I can be brilliantly amusing at times,
and I understand the value of silence; there is no fear that I
shall ever degenerate into that fearsome thing--a cheerful
talkative husband. For a girl with money and social ambitions I
should think I was rather a good thing."
"You are certainly in love, Courtenay," said Molly, "but it's the
old love and not a new one. I'm rather glad. I should have hated
to have you head-over-heels in love with a pretty woman, even for a
short time. You'll be much happier as it is. And I'm going to put
all my feelings in the background, and tell you to go in and win.
You've got to marry a rich woman, and if she's nice and will make a
good hostess, so much the better for everybody. You'll be happier
in your married life than I shall be in mine, when it comes; you'll
have other interests to absorb you. I shall just have the garden
and dairy and nursery and lending library, as like as two peas to
all the gardens and dairies and nurseries for hundreds of miles
round. You won't care for your wife enough to be worried every
time she has a finger-ache, and you'll like her well enough to be
pleased to meet her sometimes at your own house. I shouldn't
wonder if you were quite happy. She will probably be miserable,
but any woman who married you would be."
There was a short pause; they were both staring at the pheasant
cages. Then Molly spoke again, with the swift nervous tone of a
general who is hurriedly altering the disposition of his forces for
a strategic retreat.
"When you are safely married and honey-mooned and all that sort of
thing, and have put your wife through her paces as a political
hostess, some time, when the House isn't sitting, you must come
down by yourself, and do a little hunting with us. Will you? It
won't be quite the same as old times, but it will be something to
look forward to when I'm reading the endless paragraphs about your
fashionable political wedding."
"You're looking forward pretty far," laughed Youghal; "the lady may
take your view as to the probable unhappiness of a future shared
with me, and I may have to content myself with penurious political
bachelorhood. Anyhow, the present is still with us. We dine at
Kettner's to-night, don't we?"
"Rather," said Molly, "though it will be more or less a throat-
lumpy feast as far as I am concerned. We shall have to drink to
the health of the future Mrs. Youghal. By the way, it's rather
characteristic of you that you haven't told me who she is, and of
me that I haven't asked. And now, like a dear boy, trot away and
leave me. I haven't got to say good-bye to you yet, but I'm going
to take a quiet farewell of the Pheasantry. We've had some jolly
good talks, you and I, sitting on this seat, haven't we? And I
know, as well as I know anything, that this is the last of them.
Eight o'clock to-night, as punctually as possible."
She watched his retreating figure with eyes that grew slowly misty;
he had been such a jolly comely boy-friend, and they had had such
good times together. The mist deepened on her lashes as she looked
round at the familiar rendezvous where they had so often kept tryst
since the day when they had first come there together, he a
schoolboy and she but lately out of her teens. For the moment she
felt herself in the thrall of a very real sorrow.
Then, with the admirable energy of one who is only in town for a
fleeting fortnight, she raced away to have tea with a world-faring
naval admirer at his club. Pluralism is a merciful narcotic.
Elaine de Frey sat at ease--at bodily ease--at any rate--in a low
wicker chair placed under the shade of a group of cedars in the
heart of a stately spacious garden that had almost made up its mind
to be a park. The shallow stone basin of an old fountain, on whose
wide ledge a leaden-moulded otter for ever preyed on a leaden
salmon, filled a conspicuous place in the immediate foreground.
Around its rim ran an inscription in Latin, warning mortal man that
time flows as swiftly as water and exhorting him to make the most
of his hours; after which piece of Jacobean moralising it set
itself shamelessly to beguile all who might pass that way into an
abandonment of contemplative repose. On all sides of it a stretch
of smooth turf spread away, broken up here and there by groups of
dwarfish chestnut and mulberry trees, whose leaves and branches
cast a laced pattern of shade beneath them. On one side the lawn
sloped gently down to a small lake, whereon floated a quartette of
swans, their movements suggestive of a certain mournful
listlessness, as though a weary dignity of caste held them back
from the joyous bustling life of the lesser waterfowl. Elaine
liked to imagine that they re-embodied the souls of unhappy boys
who had been forced by family interests to become high
ecclesiastical dignitaries and had grown prematurely Right
Reverend. A low stone balustrade fenced part of the shore of the
lake, making a miniature terrace above its level, and here roses
grew in a rich multitude. Other rose bushes, carefully pruned and
tended, formed little oases of colour and perfume amid the restful
green of the sward, and in the distance the eye caught the
variegated blaze of a many-hued hedge of rhododendron. With these
favoured exceptions flowers were hard to find in this well-ordered
garden; the misguided tyranny of staring geranium beds and
beflowered archways leading to nowhere, so dear to the suburban
gardener, found no expression here. Magnificent Amherst pheasants,
whose plumage challenged and almost shamed the peacock on his own
ground, stepped to and fro over the emerald turf with the assured
self-conscious pride of reigning sultans. It was a garden where
summer seemed a part-proprietor rather than a hurried visitor.
By the side of Elaine's chair under the shadow of the cedars a
wicker table was set out with the paraphernalia of afternoon tea.
On some cushions at her feet reclined Courtenay Youghal, smoothly
preened and youthfully elegant, the personification of decorative
repose; equally decorative, but with the showy restlessness of a
dragonfly, Comus disported his flannelled person over a
considerable span of the available foreground.
The intimacy existing between the two young men had suffered no
immediate dislocation from the circumstance that they were tacitly
paying court to the same lady. It was an intimacy founded not in
the least on friendship or community of tastes and ideas, but owed
its existence to the fact that each was amused and interested by
the other. Youghal found Comus, for the time being at any rate,
just as amusing and interesting as a rival for Elaine's favour as
he had been in the role of scapegrace boy-about-Town; Comus for his
part did not wish to lose touch with Youghal, who among other
attractions possessed the recommendation of being under the ban of
Comus's mother. She disapproved, it is true, of a great many of
her son's friends and associates, but this particular one was a
special and persistent source of irritation to her from the fact
that he figured prominently and more or less successfully in the
public life of the day. There was something peculiarly
exasperating in reading a brilliant and incisive attack on the
Government's rash handling of public expenditure delivered by a
young man who encouraged her son in every imaginable extravagance.
The actual extent of Youghal's influence over the boy was of the
slightest; Comus was quite capable of deriving encouragement to
rash outlay and frivolous conversation from an anchorite or an
East-end parson if he had been thrown into close companionship with
such an individual. Francesca, however, exercised a mother's
privilege in assuming her son's bachelor associates to be
industrious in labouring to achieve his undoing. Therefore the
young politician was a source of unconcealed annoyance to her, and
in the same degree as she expressed her disapproval of him Comus
was careful to maintain and parade the intimacy. Its existence, or
rather its continued existence, was one of the things that faintly
puzzled the young lady whose sought-for favour might have been
expected to furnish an occasion for its rapid dissolution.
With two suitors, one of whom at least she found markedly
attractive, courting her at the same moment, Elaine should have had
reasonable cause for being on good terms with the world, and with
herself in particular. Happiness was not, however, at this
auspicious moment, her dominant mood. The grave calm of her face
masked as usual a certain degree of grave perturbation. A
succession of well-meaning governesses and a plentiful supply of
moralising aunts on both sides of her family, had impressed on her
young mind the theoretical fact that wealth is a great
responsibility. The consciousness of her responsibility set her
continually wondering, not as to her own fitness to discharge her
"stewardship," but as to the motives and merits of people with whom
she came in contact. The knowledge that there was so much in the
world that she could buy, invited speculation as to how much there
was that was worth buying. Gradually she had come to regard her
mind as a sort of appeal court before whose secret sittings were
examined and judged the motives and actions, the motives
especially, of the world in general. In her schoolroom days she
had sat in conscientious judgment on the motives that guided or
misguided Charles and Cromwell and Monck, Wallenstein and
Savonarola. In her present stage she was equally occupied in
examining the political sincerity of the Secretary for Foreign
Affairs, the good-faith of a honey-tongued but possibly loyal-
hearted waiting-maid, and the disinterestedness of a whole circle
of indulgent and flattering acquaintances. Even more absorbing,
and in her eyes, more urgently necessary, was the task of
dissecting and appraising the characters of the two young men who
were favouring her with their attentions. And herein lay cause for
much thinking and some perturbation. Youghal, for example, might
have baffled a more experienced observer of human nature. Elaine
was too clever to confound his dandyism with foppishness or self-
advertisement. He admired his own toilet effect in a mirror from a
genuine sense of pleasure in a thing good to look upon, just as he
would feel a sensuous appreciation of the sight of a well-bred,
well-matched, well-turned-out pair of horses. Behind his careful
political flippancy and cynicism one might also detect a certain
careless sincerity, which would probably in the long run save him
from moderate success, and turn him into one of the brilliant
failures of his day. Beyond this it was difficult to form an exact
appreciation of Courtenay Youghal, and Elaine, who liked to have
her impressions distinctly labelled and pigeon-holed, was
perpetually scrutinising the outer surface of his characteristics
and utterances, like a baffled art critic vainly searching beneath
the varnish and scratches of a doubtfully assigned picture for an
enlightening signature. The young man added to her perplexities by
his deliberate policy of never trying to show himself in a
favourable light even when most anxious to impart a favourable
impression. He preferred that people should hunt for his good
qualities, and merely took very good care that as far as possible
they should never draw blank; even in the matter of selfishness,
which was the anchor-sheet of his existence, he contrived to be
noted, and justly noted, for doing remarkably unselfish things. As
a ruler he would have been reasonably popular; as a husband he
would probably be unendurable.
Comus was to a certain extent as great a mystification as Youghal,
but here Elaine was herself responsible for some of the perplexity
which enshrouded his character in her eyes. She had taken more
than a passing fancy for the boy--for the boy as he might be, that
was to say--and she was desperately unwilling to see him and
appraise him as he really was. Thus the mental court of appeal was
constantly engaged in examining witnesses as to character, most of
whom signally failed to give any testimony which would support the
favourable judgment which the tribunal was so anxious to arrive at.
A woman with wider experience of the world's ways and shortcomings
would probably have contented herself with an endeavour to find out
whether her liking for the boy outweighed her dislike of his
characteristics; Elaine took her judgments too seriously to
approach the matter from such a simple and convenient standpoint.
The fact that she was much more than half in love with Comus made
it dreadfully important that she should discover him to have a
lovable soul, and Comus, it must be confessed, did little to help
forward the discovery.
"At any rate he is honest," she would observe to herself, after
some outspoken admission of unprincipled conduct on his part, and
then she would ruefully recall certain episodes in which he had
figured, from which honesty had been conspicuously absent. What
she tried to label honesty in his candour was probably only a
cynical defiance of the laws of right and wrong.
"You look more than usually thoughtful this afternoon," said Comus
to her, "as if you had invented this summer day and were trying to
think out improvements."
"If I had the power to create improvements anywhere I think I
should begin with you," retorted Elaine.
"I'm sure it's much better to leave me as I am," protested Comus;
"you're like a relative of mine up in Argyllshire, who spends his
time producing improved breeds of sheep and pigs and chickens. So
patronising and irritating to the Almighty I should think, to go
about putting superior finishing touches to Creation."
Elaine frowned, and then laughed, and finally gave a little sigh.
"It's not easy to talk sense to you," she said.
"Whatever else you take in hand," said Youghal, "you must never
improve this garden. It's what our idea of Heaven might be like if
the Jews hadn't invented one for us on totally different lines.
It's dreadful that we should accept them as the impresarios of our
religious dreamland instead of the Greeks."
"You are not very fond of the Jews," said Elaine.
"I've travelled and lived a good deal in Eastern Europe," said
"It seems largely a question of geography," said Elaine; "in
England no one really is anti-Semitic."
Youghal shook his head. "I know a great many Jews who are."
Servants had quietly, almost reverently, placed tea and its
accessories on the wicker table, and quietly receded from the
landscape. Elaine sat like a grave young goddess about to dispense
some mysterious potion to her devotees. Her mind was still sitting
in judgment on the Jewish question.
Comus scrambled to his feet.
"It's too hot for tea," he said; "I shall go and feed the swans."
And he walked off with a little silver basket-dish containing brown
Elaine laughed quietly.
"It's so like Comus," she said, "to go off with our one dish of
Youghal chuckled responsively. It was an undoubted opportunity for
him to put in some disparaging criticism of Comus, and Elaine sat
alert in readiness to judge the critic and reserve judgment on the
"His selfishness is splendid but absolutely futile," said Youghal;
"now my selfishness is commonplace, but always thoroughly practical
and calculated. He will have great difficulty in getting the swans
to accept his offering, and he incurs the odium of reducing us to a
bread-and-butterless condition. Incidentally he will get very
Elaine again had the sense of being thoroughly baffled. If Youghal
had said anything unkind it was about himself.
"If my cousin Suzette had been here," she observed, with the shadow
of a malicious smile on her lips, "I believe she would have gone
into a flood of tears at the loss of her bread-and-butter, and
Comus would have figured ever after in her mind as something black
and destroying and hateful. In fact I don't really know why we
took our loss so unprotestingly."
"For two reasons," said Youghal; "you are rather fond of Comus.
And I--am not very fond of bread-and-butter."
The jesting remark brought a throb of pleasure to Elaine's heart.
She had known full well that she cared for Comus, but now that
Courtenay Youghal had openly proclaimed the fact as something
unchallenged and understood matters seemed placed at once on a more
advanced footing. The warm sunlit garden grew suddenly into a
Heaven that held the secret of eternal happiness. Youth and
comeliness would always walk here, under the low-boughed mulberry
trees, as unchanging as the leaden otter that for ever preyed on
the leaden salmon on the edge of the old fountain, and somehow the
lovers would always wear the aspect of herself and the boy who was
talking to the four white swans by the water steps. Youghal was
right; this was the real Heaven of one's dreams and longings,
immeasurably removed from that Rue de la Paix Paradise about which
one professed utterly insincere hankerings in places of public
worship. Elaine drank her tea in a happy silence; besides being a
brilliant talker Youghal understood the rarer art of being a non-
talker on occasion.
Comus came back across the grass swinging the empty basket-dish in
"Swans were very pleased," he cried, gaily, "and said they hoped I
would keep the bread-and-butter dish as a souvenir of a happy tea-
party. I may really have it, mayn't I?" he continued in an anxious
voice; "it will do to keep studs and things in. You don't want
"It's got the family crest on it," said Elaine. Some of the
happiness had died out of her eyes.
"I'll have that scratched off and my own put on," said Comus.
"It's been in the family for generations," protested Elaine, who
did not share Comus's view that because you were rich your lesser
possessions could have no value in your eyes.
"I want it dreadfully," said Comus, sulkily, "and you've heaps of
other things to put bread-and-butter in."
For the moment he was possessed by an overmastering desire to keep
the dish at all costs; a look of greedy determination dominated his
face, and he had not for an instant relaxed his grip of the coveted
Elaine was genuinely angry by this time, and was busily telling
herself that it was absurd to be put out over such a trifle; at the
same moment a sense of justice was telling her that Comus was
displaying a good deal of rather shabby selfishness. And somehow
her chief anxiety at the moment was to keep Courtenay Youghal from
seeing that she was angry.
"I know you don't really want it, so I'm going to keep it,"
"It's too hot to argue," said Elaine.
"Happy mistress of your destinies," laughed Youghal; "you can suit
your disputations to the desired time and temperature. I have to
go and argue, or what is worse, listen to other people's arguments,
in a hot and doctored atmosphere suitable to an invalid lizard."
"You haven't got to argue about a bread-and-butter dish," said
"Chiefly about bread-and-butter," said Youghal; "our great
preoccupation is other people's bread-and-butter. They earn or
produce the material, but we busy ourselves with making rules how
it shall be cut up, and the size of the slices, and how much butter
shall go on how much bread. That is what is called legislation.
If we could only make rules as to how the bread-and-butter should
be digested we should be quite happy."
Elaine had been brought up to regard Parliaments as something to be
treated with cheerful solemnity, like illness or family re-unions.
Youghal's flippant disparagement of the career in which he was
involved did not, however, jar on her susceptibilities. She knew
him to be not only a lively and effective debater but an
industrious worker on committees. If he made light of his labours,
at least he afforded no one else a loophole for doing so. And
certainly, the Parliamentary atmosphere was not inviting on this
"When must you go?" she asked, sympathetically.
Youghal looked ruefully at his watch. Before he could answer, a
cheerful hoot came through the air, as of an owl joyously
challenging the sunlight with a foreboding of the coming night. He
sprang laughing to his feet.
"Listen! My summons back to my galley," he cried. "The Gods have
given me an hour in this enchanted garden, so I must not complain."
Then in a lower voice he almost whispered, "It's the Persian debate
It was the one hint he had given in the midst of his talking and
laughing that he was really keenly enthralled in the work that lay
before him. It was the one little intimate touch that gave Elaine
the knowledge that he cared for her opinion of his work.
Comus, who had emptied his cigarette-case, became suddenly
clamorous at the prospect of being temporarily stranded without a
smoke. Youghal took the last remaining cigarette from his own case
and gravely bisected it.
"Friendship could go no further," he observed, as he gave one-half
to the doubtfully appeased Comus, and lit the other himself.
"There are heaps more in the hall," said Elaine.
"It was only done for the Saint Martin of Tours effect," said
Youghal; "I hate smoking when I'm rushing through the air. Good-
The departing galley-slave stepped forth into the sunlight, radiant
and confident. A few minutes later Elaine could see glimpses of
his white car as it rushed past the rhododendron bushes. He woos
best who leaves first, particularly if he goes forth to battle or
the semblance of battle.
Somehow Elaine's garden of Eternal Youth had already become clouded
in its imagery. The girl-figure who walked in it was still
distinctly and unchangingly herself, but her companion was more
blurred and undefined, as a picture that has been superimposed on
Youghal sped townward well satisfied with himself. To-morrow, he
reflected, Elaine would read his speech in her morning paper, and
he knew in advance that it was not going to be one of his worst
efforts. He knew almost exactly where the punctuations of laughter
and applause would burst in, he knew that nimble fingers in the
Press Gallery would be taking down each gibe and argument as he
flung it at the impassive Minister confronting him, and that the
fair lady of his desire would be able to judge what manner of young
man this was who spent his afternoon in her garden, lazily chaffing
himself and his world.
And he further reflected, with an amused chuckle, that she would be
vividly reminded of Comus for days to come, when she took her
afternoon tea, and saw the bread-and-butter reposing in an
Towards four o'clock on a hot afternoon Francesca stepped out from
a shop entrance near the Piccadilly end of Bond Street and ran
almost into the arms of Merla Blathlington. The afternoon seemed
to get instantly hotter. Merla was one of those human flies that
buzz; in crowded streets, at bazaars and in warm weather, she
attained to the proportions of a human bluebottle. Lady Caroline
Benaresq had openly predicted that a special fly-paper was being
reserved for her accommodation in another world; others, however,
held the opinion that she would be miraculously multiplied in a
future state, and that four or more Merla Blathlingtons, according
to deserts, would be in perpetual and unremitting attendance on
each lost soul.
"Here we are," she cried, with a glad eager buzz, "popping in and
out of shops like rabbits; not that rabbits do pop in and out of
shops very extensively."
It was evidently one of her bluebottle days.
"Don't you love Bond Street?" she gabbled on. "There's something
so unusual and distinctive about it; no other street anywhere else
is quite like it. Don't you know those ikons and images and things
scattered up and down Europe, that are supposed to have been
painted or carved, as the case may be, by St. Luke or Zaccheus, or
somebody of that sort; I always like to think that some notable
person of those times designed Bond Street. St. Paul, perhaps. He
travelled about a lot."
"Not in Middlesex, though," said Francesca.
"One can't be sure," persisted Merla; "when one wanders about as
much as he did one gets mixed up and forgets where one HAS been. I
can never remember whether I've been to the Tyrol twice and St.
Moritz once, or the other way about; I always have to ask my maid.
And there's something about the name Bond that suggests St. Paul;
didn't he write a lot about the bond and the free?"
"I fancy he wrote in Hebrew or Greek," objected Francesca; "the
word wouldn't have the least resemblance."
"So dreadfully non-committal to go about pamphleteering in those
bizarre languages," complained Merla; "that's what makes all those
people so elusive. As soon as you try to pin them down to a
definite statement about anything you're told that some vitally
important word has fifteen other meanings in the original. I
wonder our Cabinet Ministers and politicians don't adopt a sort of
dog-Latin or Esperanto jargon to deliver their speeches in; what a
lot of subsequent explaining away would be saved. But to go back
to Bond Street--not that we've left it--"
"I'm afraid I must leave it now," said Francesca, preparing to turn
up Grafton Street; "Good-bye."
"Must you be going? Come and have tea somewhere. I know of a cosy
little place where one can talk undisturbed."
Francesca repressed a shudder and pleaded an urgent engagement.
"I know where you're going," said Merla, with the resentful buzz of
a bluebottle that finds itself thwarted by the cold unreasoning
resistance of a windowpane. "You're going to play bridge at Serena
Golackly's. She never asks me to her bridge parties."
Francesca shuddered openly this time; the prospect of having to
play bridge anywhere in the near neighbourhood of Merla's voice was
not one that could be contemplated with ordinary calmness.
"Good-bye," she said again firmly, and passed out of earshot; it
was rather like leaving the machinery section of an exhibition.
Merla's diagnosis of her destination had been a correct one;
Francesca made her way slowly through the hot streets in the
direction of Serena Golackly's house on the far side of Berkeley
Square. To the blessed certainty of finding a game of bridge, she
hopefully added the possibility of hearing some fragments of news
which might prove interesting and enlightening. And of
enlightenment on a particular subject, in which she was acutely and
personally interested, she stood in some need. Comus of late had
been provokingly reticent as to his movements and doings; partly,
perhaps, because it was his nature to be provoking, partly because
the daily bickerings over money matters were gradually choking
other forms of conversation. Francesca had seen him once or twice
in the Park in the desirable company of Elaine de Frey, and from
time to time she heard of the young people as having danced
together at various houses; on the other hand, she had seen and
heard quite as much evidence to connect the heiress's name with
that of Courtenay Youghal. Beyond this meagre and conflicting and
altogether tantalising information, her knowledge of the present
position of affairs did not go. If either of the young men was
seriously "making the running," it was probable that she would hear
some sly hint or open comment about it from one of Serena's gossip-
laden friends, without having to go out of her way to introduce the
subject and unduly disclose her own state of ignorance. And a game
of bridge, played for moderately high points, gave ample excuse for
convenient lapses into reticence; if questions took an
embarrassingly inquisitive turn, one could always find refuge in a
The afternoon was too warm to make bridge a generally popular
diversion, and Serena's party was a comparatively small one. Only
one table was incomplete when Francesca made her appearance on the
scene; at it was seated Serena herself, confronted by Ada
Spelvexit, whom everyone was wont to explain as "one of the
Cheshire Spelvexits," as though any other variety would have been
intolerable. Ada Spelvexit was one of those naturally stagnant
souls who take infinite pleasure in what are called "movements."
"Most of the really great lessons I have learned have been taught
me by the Poor," was one of her favourite statements. The one
great lesson that the Poor in general would have liked to have
taught her, that their kitchens and sickrooms were not unreservedly
at her disposal as private lecture halls, she had never been able
to assimilate. She was ready to give them unlimited advice as to
how they should keep the wolf from their doors, but in return she
claimed and enforced for herself the penetrating powers of an east
wind or a dust storm. Her visits among her wealthier acquaintances
were equally extensive and enterprising, and hardly more welcome;
in country-house parties, while partaking to the fullest extent of
the hospitality offered her, she made a practice of unburdening
herself of homilies on the evils of leisure and luxury, which did
not particularly endear her to her fellow guests. Hostesses
regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which
everyone had to have once.
The third prospective player, Francesca noted without any special
enthusiasm, was Lady Caroline Benaresq. Lady Caroline was far from
being a remarkably good bridge player, but she always managed to
domineer mercilessly over any table that was favoured with her
presence, and generally managed to win. A domineering player
usually inflicts the chief damage and demoralisation on his
partner; Lady Caroline's special achievement was to harass and
demoralise partner and opponents alike.
"Weak and weak," she announced in her gentle voice, as she cut her
hostess for a partner; "I suppose we had better play only five
shillings a hundred."
Francesca wondered at the old woman's moderate assessment of the
stake, knowing her fondness for highish play and her usual good
luck in card holding.
"I don't mind what we play," said Ada Spelvexit, with an incautious
parade of elegant indifference; as a matter of fact she was
inwardly relieved and rejoicing at the reasonable figure proposed
by Lady Caroline, and she would certainly have demurred if a higher
stake had been suggested. She was not as a rule a successful
player, and money lost at cards was always a poignant bereavement
"Then as you don't mind we'll make it ten shillings a hundred,"
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