[Book 2 of The Little Ottleys]
by Ada Leverson
TO ROBERT ROSS
A Verbal Invitation
Because Edith had not been feeling very well, that seemed no reason why she should be the centre of interest; and Bruce, with that jealousy of the privileges of the invalid and in that curious spirit of rivalry which his wife had so often observed, had started, with enterprise, an indisposition of his own, as if to divert public attention. While he was at Carlsbad he heard the news. Then he received a letter from Edith, speaking with deference and solicitude of Bruce's rheumatism, entreating him to do the cure thoroughly, and suggesting that they should call the little girl Matilda, after a rich and sainted—though still living—aunt of Edith's. It might be an advantage to the child's future (in every sense) to have a godmother so wealthy and so religious. It appeared from the detailed description that the new daughter had, as a matter of course (and at two days old), long golden hair, far below her waist, sweeping lashes and pencilled brows, a rosebud mouth, an intellectual forehead, chiselled features and a tall, elegant figure. She was a magnificent, regal-looking creature and was a superb beauty of the classic type, and yet with it she was dainty and winsome. She had great talent for music. This, it appeared, was shown by the breadth between the eyes and the timbre of her voice.
Overwhelmed with joy at the advent of such a paragon, and horrified at Edith's choice of a name, Bruce had replied at once by wire, impulsively:
'Certainly not Matilda I would rather she were called Aspasia.'
Edith read this expression of feeling on a colourless telegraph form, and as she was, at Knightsbridge, unable to hear the ironical tone of the message she took it literally.
She criticised the name, but was easily persuaded by her mother-in-law to make no objection. The elder Mrs Ottley pointed out that it might have been very much worse.
'But it's not a pretty name,' objected Edith. 'If it wasn't to be Matilda, I should rather have called her something out of Maeterlinck—Ygraine, or Ysolyn—something like that.'
'Yes, dear, Mygraine's a nice name, too,' said Mrs Ottley, in her humouring way, 'and so is Vaselyn. But what does it really matter? I shouldn't hold out on a point like this. One gets used to a name. Let the poor child be called Asparagus if he wishes it, and let him feel he has got his own way.'
So the young girl was named Aspasia Matilda Ottley. It was characteristic of Edith that she kept to her own point, though not aggressively. When Bruce returned after his after-cure, it was too late to do anything but pretend he had meant it seriously.
Archie called his sister Dilly.
Archie had been rather hurt at the—as it seemed to him—unnecessary excitement about Dilly. Not that he was jealous in any way. It was rather that he was afraid it would spoil her to be made so much of at her age; make her, perhaps, egotistical and vain. But it was not Archie's way to show these fears openly. He did not weep loudly or throw things about as many boys might have done. His methods were more roundabout, more subtle. He gave hints and suggestions of his views that should have been understood by the intelligent. He said one morning with some indirectness:
'I had such a lovely dream last night, Mother.'
'Did you, pet? How sweet of you. What was it?'
'Oh, nothing much. It was all right. Very nice. It was a lovely dream. I dreamt I was in heaven.'
'Really! How delightful. Who was there?'
This is always a woman's first question.
'Oh, you were there, of course. And father. Nurse, too. It was a lovely dream. Such a nice place.'
'Was Dilly there?'
'Dilly? Er—no—no—she wasn't. She was in the night nursery, with Satan.'
Sometimes Edith thought that her daughter's names were decidedly a failure—Aspasia by mistake, Matilda through obstinacy, and Dilly by accident. However the child herself was a success. She was four years old when the incident occurred about the Mitchells. The whole of this story turns eventually on the Mitchells.
The Ottleys lived in a concise white flat at Knightsbridge. Bruce's father had some time ago left him a good income on certain conditions; one was that he was not to leave the Foreign Office before he was fifty. One afternoon Edith was talking to the telephone in a voice of agonised entreaty that would have melted the hardest of hearts, but did not seem to have much effect on the Exchange, which, evidently, was not responsive to pathos that day.
'Oh! Exchange, why are you ringing off? Please try again.... Do I want any number? Yes, I do want any number, of course, or why should I ring up?... I want 6375 Gerrard.'
Here Archie interposed.
'Mother, can I have your long buttonhook?'
'No, Archie, you can't just now, dear.... Go away Archie.... Yes, I said 6375 Gerrard. Only 6375 Gerrard!... Are you there? Oh, don't keep on asking me if I've got them!... No, they haven't answered.... Are you 6375?... Oh—wrong number—sorry.... 6375 Gerrard? Only six—are you there?... Not 6375 Gerrard?... Are you anyone else?... Oh, is it you, Vincy?... I want to tell you—'
'Mother, can I have your long buttonhook?'
Here Bruce came in. Edith rang off. Archie disappeared.
'It's really rather wonderful, Edith, what that Sandow exerciser has done for me! You laughed at me at first, but I've improved marvellously.'
Bruce was walking about doing very mild gymnastics, and occasionally hitting himself on the left arm with the right fist.' Look at my muscle—look at it—and all in such a short time!'
'Wonderful!' said Edith.
'The reason I know what an extraordinary effect these few days have had on me is something I have just done which I couldn't have done before. Of course I'm naturally a very powerful man, and only need a little—'
'What have you done?'
'Why—you know that great ridiculous old wooden chest that your awful Aunt Matilda sent you for your birthday—absurd present I call it—mere lumber.'
'When it came I could barely push it from one side of the room to the other. Now I've lifted it from your room to the box-room. Quite easily. Pretty good, isn't it?'
'Yes, of course it's very good for you to do all these exercises; no doubt it's capital.... Er—you know I've had all the things taken out of the chest since you tried it before, don't you?'
'Things—what things? I didn't know there was anything in it.'
'Only a silver tea-service, and a couple of salvers,' said Edith, in a low voice....
...He calmed down fairly soon and said: 'Edith, I have some news for you. You know the Mitchells?'
'Do I know the Mitchells? Mitchell, your hero in your office, that you're always being offended with—at least I know the Mitchells by name. I ought to.'
'Well, what do you think they've done? They've asked us to dinner.'
'Have they? Fancy!'
'Yes, and what I thought was so particularly jolly of him was that it was a verbal invitation. Mitchell said to me, just like this, 'Ottley, old chap, are you doing anything on Sunday evening?''
Here Archie came to the door and said, 'Mother, can I have your long buttonhook?'
Edith shook her head and frowned.
''Ottley, old chap,'' continued Bruce, ''are you and your wife doing anything on Sunday? If not, I do wish you would waive ceremony and come and dine with us. Would Mrs Ottley excuse a verbal invitation, do you think?' I said, 'Well, Mitchell, as a matter of fact I don't believe we have got anything on. Yes, old boy, we shall be delighted.' I accepted, you see. I accepted straight out. When you're treated in a friendly way, I always say why be unfriendly? And Mrs Mitchell is a charming little woman—I'm sure you'd like her. It seems she's been dying to know you.'
'Fancy! I wonder she's still alive, then, because you and Mitchell have known each other for eight years, and I've never met her yet.'
'Well, you will now. Let bygones be bygones. They live in Hamilton Place.'
'Oh yes....Park Lane?'
'I told you he was doing very well, and his wife has private means.'
'Mother,' Archie began again, like a litany, 'can I have your long buttonhook? I know where it is.'
'No, Archie, certainly not; you can't fasten laced boots with a buttonhook.... Well, that will be fun, Bruce.'
'I believe they're going to have games after dinner,' said Bruce. 'All very jolly—musical crambo—that sort of thing.... What shall you wear, Edith?'
'Mother, do let me have your long buttonhook. I want it. It isn't for my boots.'
'Certainly not. What a nuisance you are! Do go away.... I think I shall wear my salmon-coloured dress with the sort of mayonnaise- coloured sash.... (No, you're not to have it, Archie).'
'But, Mother, I've got it.... I can soon mend it, Mother.'
On Sunday evening Bruce's high spirits seemed to flag; he had one of his sudden reactions. He looked at everything on its dark side.
'What on earth's that thing in your hair, Edith?'
'It's a bandeau.'
'I don't like it. Your hair looks very nice without it. What on earth did you get it for?'
'For about six-and-eleven, I think.'
'Don't be trivial, Edith. We shall be late. Ah! It really does seem rather a pity, the very first time one dines with people like the Mitchells.'
'We sha'n't be late, Bruce. It's eight o'clock, and eight o'clock I suppose means—well, eight. Sure you've got the number right?'
'Really. Edith!... My memory is unerring, dear. I never make a mistake. Haven't you ever noticed it?'
'A—oh yes—I think I have.'
'Well, it's 168 Hamilton Place. Look sharp, dear.'
On their way in the taxi he gave her a good many instructions and advised her to be perfectly at her ease and absolutely natural; there was nothing to make one otherwise, in either Mr or Mrs Mitchell. Also, he said, it didn't matter a bit what she wore, as long as she had put on her best dress. It seemed a pity she had not got a new one, but this couldn't be helped, as there was now no time. Edith agreed that she knew of no really suitable place where she could buy a new evening dress at eight-thirty on Sunday evening. And, anyhow, he said, she looked quite nice, really very smart; besides, Mrs Mitchell was not the sort of person who would think any the less of a pretty woman for being a little dowdy and out of fashion.
When they drove up to what house agents call in their emotional way a superb, desirable, magnificent town mansion, they saw that a large dinner-party was evidently going on. A hall porter and four powdered footmen were in evidence.
'By Jove!' said Bruce, as he got out, 'I'd no idea old Mitchell did himself so well as this.'... The butler had never heard of the Mitchells. The house belonged to Lord Rosenberg.
'Confound it! 'said Bruce, as he flung himself into the taxi. 'Well! I've made a mistake for once in my life. I admit it. Of course, it's really Hamilton Gardens. Sorry. Yet somehow I'm rather glad Mitchell doesn't live in that house.'
'You are perfectly right,' said Edith: 'the bankruptcy of an old friend and colleague could be no satisfaction to any man.'
Hamilton Gardens was a gloomy little place, like a tenement building out of Marylebone Road. Bruce, in trying to ring the bell, unfortunately turned out all the electric light in the house, and was standing alone in despair in the dark when, fortunately the porter, who had been out to post a letter, ran back, and turned up the light again.... 'I shouldn't have thought they could play musical crambo here, 'he called out to Edith while he was waiting. 'And now isn't it odd? I have a funny kind of feeling that the right address is Hamilton House.'
'I suppose you're perfectly certain they don't live at a private idiot asylum?' Edith suggested doubtfully.
On inquiry it appeared the Mitchells did not live at Hamilton Gardens. An idea occurred to Edith, and she asked for a directory.
The Winthrop Mitchells lived at Hamilton Terrace, St John's Wood.
'At last!' said Bruce. 'Now we shall be too disgracefully late for the first time. But be perfectly at your ease, dear. Promise me that. Go in quite naturally.'
'How else can I go in?'
'I mean as if nothing had happened.'
'I think we'd better tell them what has happened,' said Edith; 'it will make them laugh. I hope they will have begun their dinner.'
'Surely they will have finished it.'
'Perhaps we may find them at their games!'
'Now, now, don't be bitter, Edith dear—never be bitter—life has its ups and downs.... Well! I'm rather glad, after all, that Mitchell doesn't live in that horrid little hole.'
'I'm sure you are,' said Edith; 'it could be no possible satisfaction to you to know that a friend and colleague of yours is either distressingly hard up or painfully penurious.'
They arrived at the house, but there were no lights, and no sign of life. The Mitchells lived here all right, but they were out. The parlourmaid explained. The dinner-party had been Saturday, the night before....
'Strange,' said Bruce, as he got in again. 'I had a curious presentiment that something was going wrong about this dinner at the Mitchells'.'
'What dinner at the Mitchells'? There doesn't seem to be any.'
'Do you know,' Bruce continued his train of thought, 'I felt certain somehow that it would be a failure. Wasn't it odd? I often think I'm a pessimist, and yet look how well I'm taking it. I'm more like a fatalist—sometimes I hardly know what I am.'
'I could tell you what you are,' said Edith, 'but I won't, because now you must take me to the Carlton. We shall get there before it's closed.'
Whether to behave with some coolness to Mitchell, and be stand-offish, as though it had been all his fault, or to be lavishly apologetic, was the question. Bruce could not make up his mind which attitude to take. In a way, it was all the Mitchells' fault. They oughtn't to have given him a verbal invitation. It was rude, Bohemian, wanting in good form; it showed an absolute and complete ignorance of the most ordinary and elementary usages of society. It was wanting in common courtesy; really, when one came to think about it, it was an insult. On the other hand, technically, Bruce was in the wrong. Having accepted he ought to have turned up on the right night. It may have served them right (as he said), but the fact of going on the wrong night being a lesson to them seemed a little obscure. Edith found it difficult to see the point.
Then he had a more brilliant idea; to go into the office as cheerily as ever, and say to Mitchell pleasantly, 'We're looking forward to next Saturday, old chap,' pretending to have believed from the first that the invitation had been for the Saturday week; and that the dinner was still to come....
This, Edith said, would have been excellent, provided that the parlourmaid hadn't told them that she and Bruce had arrived about a quarter to ten on Sunday evening and asked if the Mitchells had begun dinner. The chances against the servant having kept this curious incident to herself were almost too great.
After long argument and great indecision the matter was settled by a cordial letter from Mrs Mitchell, asking them to dinner on the following Thursday, and saying she feared there had been some mistake. So that was all right.
Bruce was in good spirits again; he was pleased too, because he was going to the theatre that evening with Edith and Vincy, to see a play that he thought wouldn't be very good. He had almost beforehand settled what he thought of it, and practically what he intended to say.
But when he came in that evening he was overheard to have a strenuous and increasingly violent argument with Archie in the hall.
Edith opened the door and wanted to know what the row was about.
'Will you tell me, Edith, where your son learns such language? He keeps on worrying me to take him to the Zoological Gardens to see the—well—you'll hear what he says. The child's a perfect nuisance. Who put it into his head to want to go and see this animal? I was obliged to speak quite firmly to him about it.'
Edith was not alarmed that Bruce had been severe. She thought it much more likely that Archie had spoken very firmly to him. He was always strict with his father, and when he was good Bruce found fault with him. As soon as he grew really tiresome his father became abjectly apologetic.
Archie was called and came in, dragging his feet, and pouting, in tears that he was making a strenuous effort to encourage.
'You must be firm with him,' continued Bruce. 'Hang it! Good heavens! Am I master in my own house or am I not?'
There was no reply to this rhetorical question.
He turned to Archie and said in a gentle, conciliating voice:
'Archie, old chap, tell your mother what it is you want to see. Don't cry, dear.'
'Want to see the damned chameleon,' said Archie, with his hands in his eyes. 'Want father to take me to the Zoo.'
'You can't go to the Zoo this time of the evening. What do you mean?'
'I want to see the damned chameleon.'
'You hear!' exclaimed Bruce to Edith.
'Who taught you this language?'
'Miss Townsend taught it me.'
'There! It's dreadful, Edith; he's becoming a reckless liar. Fancy her dreaming of teaching him such things! If she did, of course she must be mad, and you must send her away at once. But I'm quite sure she didn't.'
'Come, Archie, you know Miss Townsend never taught you to say that. What have you got into your head?'
'Well, she didn't exactly teach me to say it—she didn't give me lessons in it—but she says it herself. She said the damned chameleon was lovely; and I want to see it. She didn't say I ought to see it. But I want to. I've been wanting to ever since. She said it at lunch today, and I do want to. Lots of other boys go to the Zoo, and why shouldn't I? I want to see it so much.'
'Edith, I must speak to Miss Townsend about this very seriously. In the first place, people have got no right to talk about queer animals to the boy at all—we all know what he is—and in such language! I should have thought a girl like Miss Townsend, who has passed examinations in Germany, and so forth, would have had more sense of her responsibility—more tact. It shows a dreadful want of—I hardly know what to think of it—the daughter of a clergyman, too!'
'It's all right, Bruce,' Edith laughed. 'Miss Townsend told me she had been to see the Dame aux Camelias some time ago. She was enthusiastic about it. Archie dear, I'll take you to the Zoological Gardens and we'll see lots of other animals. And don't use that expression.'
'What! Can't I see the da—'
'Mr Vincy,' announced the servant.
'I must go and dress,' said Bruce.
Vincy Wenham Vincy was always called by everyone simply Vincy. Applied to him it seemed like a pet name. He had arrived at the right moment, as he always did. He was very devoted to both Edith and Bruce, and he was a confidant of both. He sometimes said to Edith that he felt he was just what was wanted in the little home; an intimate stranger coming in occasionally with a fresh atmosphere was often of great value (as, for instance, now) in calming or averting storms.
Had anyone asked Vincy exactly what he was he would probably have said he was an Observer, and really he did very little else, though after he left Oxford he had taken to writing a little, and painting less. He was very fair, the fairest person one could imagine over five years old. He had pale silky hair, a minute fair moustache, very good features, a single eyeglass, and the appearance, always, of having been very recently taken out of a bandbox.
But when people fancied from this look of his that he was an empty-headed fop they soon found themselves immensely mistaken.
He was thirty-eight, but looked a gilded youth of twenty; and was sufficiently gilded (as he said), not perhaps exactly to be comfortable, but to enable him to get about comfortably, and see those who were.
He had a number of relatives in high places, who bored him, and were always trying to get him married. He had taken up various occupations and travelled a good deal. But his greatest pleasure was the study of people. There was nothing cold in his observation, nothing of the cynical analyst. He was impulsive, though very quiet, immensely and ardently sympathetic and almost too impressionable and enthusiastic. It was not surprising that he was immensely popular generally, as well as specially; he was so interested in everyone except himself.
No-one was ever a greater general favourite. There seemed to be no type of person on whom he jarred. People who disagreed on every other subject agreed in liking Vincy.
But he did not care in the least for acquaintances, and spent much ingenuity in trying to avoid them; he only liked intimate friends, and of all he had perhaps the Ottleys were his greatest favourites.
His affection for them dated from a summer they had spent in the same hotel in France. He had become extraordinarily interested in them. He delighted in Bruce, but had with Edith, of course, more mutual understanding and intellectual sympathy, and though they met constantly, his friendship with her had never been misunderstood. Frivolous friends of his who did not know her might amuse themselves by being humorous and flippant about Vincy's little Ottleys, but no-one who had ever seen them together could possibly make a mistake. They were an example of the absurdity of a tradition—'the world's' proneness to calumny. Such friendships, when genuine, are never misconstrued. Perhaps society is more often taken in the other way. But as a matter of fact the truth on this subject, as on most others, is always known in time. No-one had ever even tried to explain away the intimacy, though Bruce had all the air of being unable to do without Vincy's society sometimes cynically attributed to husbands in a different position.
Vincy was pleased with the story of the Mitchells that Edith told him, and she was glad to hear that he knew the Mitchells and had been to the house.
'How like you to know everyone. What did they do?'
'The night I was there they played games,' said Vincy. He spoke in a soft, even voice. 'It was just a little—well—perhaps just a tiny bit ghastly, I thought; but don't tell Bruce. That evening I thought the people weren't quite young enough, and when they played 'Oranges and Lemons, and the Bells of St Clements,' and so on—their bones seemed to—well, sort of rattle, if you know what I mean. But still perhaps it was only my fancy. Mitchell has such very high spirits, you see, and is determined to make everything go. He won't have conventional parties, and insists on plenty of verve; so, of course, one's forced to have it.' He sighed. 'They haven't any children, and they make a kind of hobby of entertaining in an unconventional way.'
'It sounds rather fun. Perhaps you will be asked next Thursday. Try.'
'I'll try. I'll call, and remind her of me. I daresay she'll ask me. She's very good-natured. She believes in spiritualism, too.'
'I wonder who'll be there?'
'Anyone might be there, or anyone else. As they say of marriage, it's a lottery. They might have roulette, or a spiritual seance, or Kubelik, or fancy dress heads.'
'Fancy dress heads!'
'Yes. Or a cotillion, or just bridge. You never know. The house is rather like a country house, and they behave accordingly. Even hide-and-seek, I believe, sometimes. And Mitchell adores unpractical jokes, too.'
'I see. It's rather exciting that I'm going to the Mitchells at last.'
'Yes, perhaps it will be the turning-point of your life,' said Vincy. 'Ah! here's Bruce.'
'I don't think much of that opera glass your mother gave you,' Bruce remarked to his wife, soon after the curtain rose.
'It's the fashion,' said Edith. 'It's jade—the latest thing.'
'I don't care if it is the fashion. It's no use. Here, try it, Vincy.'
He handed it to Vincy, who gave Bruce a quick look, and then tried it.
'Rather quaint and pretty, I think. I like the effect,' he said, handing it back to Bruce.
'It may be quaint and pretty, and it may be the latest thing, and it may be jade,' said Bruce rather sarcastically, 'but I'm not a slave to fashion. I never was. And I don't see any use whatever in an opera glass that makes everything look smaller instead of larger, and at a greater distance instead of nearer. I call it rot. I always say what I think. And you can tell your mother what I said if you like.'
'You're looking through it the wrong side, dear,' said Edith.
The Golden Quoribus
Edith had been very pretty at twenty, but at twenty-eight her prettiness had immensely increased; she had really become a beauty of a particularly troubling type. She had long, deep blue eyes, clearly-cut features, hair of that soft, fine light brown just tinged with red called by the French chatain clair; and a flower-like complexion. She was slim, but not angular, and had a reposeful grace and a decided attraction for both men and women. They generally tried to express this fascination by discovering resemblances in her to various well-known pictures of celebrated artists. She had been compared to almost every type of all the great painters: Botticelli, Sir Peter Lely, Gainsborough, Burne-Jones. Some people said she was like a Sargent, others called her a post-impressionist type; there was no end to the old and new masters of whom she seemed to remind people; and she certainly had the rather insidious charm of somehow recalling the past while suggesting something undiscovered in the future. There was a good deal that was enigmatic about her. It was natural, not assumed as a pose of mysteriousness. She was not all on the surface: not obvious. One wondered. Was she capable of any depth of feeling? Was she always just sweet and tactful and clever, or could there be another side to her character? Had she (for instance) a temperament? This question was considered one of interest,—so Edith had a great many admirers. Some were new and fickle, others were old and faithful. She had never yet shown more than a conversational interest in any of them, but always seemed to be laughing with a soft mockery at her own success.
Edith was not a vain woman, not even much interested in dress, though she had a quick eye and a sure impressionistic gift for it. She was always an immense favourite with women, who felt subconsciously grateful to her for her wonderful forbearance. To have the power and not to use it! To be so pretty, yet never to take anyone away!—not even coldly display her conquests. But this liking she did not, as a rule, return in any decided fashion. She had dreadfully little to say to the average woman, except to a few intimate friends, and frankly preferred the society of the average man, although she had not as yet developed a taste for coquetry, for which she had, however, many natural gifts. She was much taken up by Bruce, by Archie and Dilly, and was fond of losing herself in ideas and in books, and in various artistic movements and fads in which her interest was cultivated and perhaps inspired by Vincy. Vincy was her greatest friend and confidant. He was really a great safety-valve, and she told him nearly every thought.
Still, Archie was, so far, her greatest interest. He was a particularly pretty boy, and she was justified in thinking him rather unusual. At this period he spent a considerable amount of his leisure time not only in longing to see real animals, but in inventing and drawing pictures of non-existent ones—horrible creatures, or quaint creatures, for which he found the strangest names. He told Dilly about them, but Dilly was not his audience—she was rather his confidante and literary adviser; or even sometimes his collaborator. His public consisted principally of his mother. It was a convention that Edith should be frightened, shocked and horrified at the creatures of his imagination, while Dilly privately revelled in their success. Miss Townsend, the governess, was rather coldly ignored in this matter. She had a way of speaking of the animals with a smile, as a nice occupation to keep the children quiet. She did not understand.
'Please, Madam, would you kindly go into the nursery; Master Archie wishes you to come and hear about the golden—something he's just made up like,' said Dilly's nurse with an expression of resignation.
Edith jumped up at once.
'Oh dear! Tell Master Archie I'm coming.'
She ran into the nursery and found Archie and Dilly both looking rather excited; Archie, fairly self-controlled, with a paper in his hand on which was a rough sketch which he would not let her see, and hid behind him.
'Mother,' Archie began in a low, solemn voice, rather slowly, 'the golden quoribus is the most horrible animal, the most awful-looking animal, you ever heard of in your life!'
'Oh-h-h! How awful!' said Edith, beginning to shiver. 'Wait a moment—let me sit down quietly and hear about it.'
She sat down by the fire and clasped her hands, looking at him with a terrified expression which was part of the ritual.
Dilly giggled, and put her thumb in her mouth, watching the effect with widely opened eyes.
'Much more awful than the gazeka, of course, I suppose?' Edith said rather rashly.
'Much,' said Dilly.
'(Be quiet, Dilly!) Mother!' he was reproachful, 'what do you mean? The gazeka? Why—the gazeka's nothing at all—it's a rotten little animal. It doesn't count. Besides, it isn't real—it never was real. Gazeka, indeed!'
'Oh, I beg your pardon,' said Edith repentantly; 'do go on.'
'No... the golden quoribus is far-ar-r-r-r more frightening even than the jilbery. Do you remember how awful that was? And much larger.'
'What! Worse than the jilbery! Oh, good gracious! How dreadful! What's it like?'
'First of all—it's as long as from here to Brighton,' said Archie.
'A little longer,' said Dilly.
'(Shut up, miss!) As long. It's called the golden quoribus because it's bright gold, except the bumps; and the bumps are green.'
'Bright green,' said Dilly.
'(Oh, will you hold your tongue, Dilly?) Green.'
'How terrible!... And what shape is it?'
'All pointed and sharp, and three-cornered.'
'Does it breathe fire?' asked Edith.
Archie smiled contemptuously.
'Breathe fire! Oh, Mother! Do you think it's a silly dragon in a fairy story? Of course it doesn't. How can it breathe fire?'
'Sorry,' said Edith apologetically. 'Go on.'
'But, the peculiar thing about it, besides that it lives entirely on muffins and mutton and the frightening part, I'm coming to now.' He became emphatic, and spoke slowly. 'The golden quoribus has more claws than any... other... animal... in the whole world!'
'Oh-h-h,' she shuddered.
'Yes,' said Archie solemnly. 'It has large claws coming out of its head.'
'Its head! Good gracious!'
'It has claws here and claws there; claws coming out of the eyes; and claws coming out of the ears; and claws coming out of its shoulders; and claws coming out of the forehead!'
Edith shivered with fright and held up her hands in front of her eyes to ward off the picture.
'And claws coming out of the mouth,' said Archie, coming a step nearer to her and raising his voice.
'And claws coming out of the hands, and claws coming out of the feet!'
'Yes,' said Dilly, wildly and recklessly and jumping up and down, 'and claws on the ceiling, and claws on the floor, and claws all over the world!'
With one violent slap she was sent sprawling.
Shrieks, sobs and tears filled the quiet nursery.
'I know,' said Archie, when he had been persuaded to apologise, 'of course I know a gentleman oughtn't to hit a lady, not even—I mean, especially not if she's his little sister. But oh, Mother, ought a lady to interrupt a story?'
When Edith told Vincy he entirely took Archie's side.
Suppose Sargent were painting a beautiful picture, and one of his pupils, snatching the paint-brush from him, insisted on finishing it, and spoiling it—how would he like it? Imagine a poet who had just written a great poem, and been interrupted in reciting it by someone who quickly finished it off all wrong! The author might be forgiven under such circumstances if in his irritation he took a strong line. In Vincy's opinion it served Dilly jolly well right. Young? Of course she was young, but four (he said) was not a day too soon to begin to learn to respect the work of the artist. Edith owned that Archie was not easily exasperated and was as a rule very patient with the child. Bruce took an entirely different view. He was quite gloomy about it and feared that Archie showed every sign of growing up to be an Apache.
The Mitchells were, as Vincy had said, extremely hospitable; they had a perfect mania for receiving; they practically lived for it, and the big house at Hampstead, with its large garden covered in, and a sort of studio built out, was scarcely ever without guests. When they didn't have some sort of party they invariably went out.
Mitchell's great joy was to make his parties different from others by some childish fantasy or other. He especially delighted in a surprise. He often took the trouble (for instance) to have a telegram sent to every one of his guests during the course of the evening. Each of these wires contained some personal chaff or practical joke. At other times he would give everyone little presents, concealed in some way. Christmas didn't come once a year to the Mitchells; it seemed never to go away. One was always surprised not to find a Christmas tree and crackers. These entertainments, always splendidly done materially, and curiously erratic socially, were sometimes extremely amusing; at others, of course, a frost; it was rather a toss-up.
And the guests were, without exception, the most extraordinary mixture in London. They included delightful people, absurd people, average people; people who were smart and people who were dowdy, some who were respectable and nothing else, some who were deplorable, others beautiful, and many merely dull. There was never the slightest attempt at any sort of harmonising, or of suitability; there was a great deal of kindness to the hard-up, and a wild and extravagant delight in any novelty. In fact, the Mitchells were everything except exclusive, and as they were not guided by any sort of rule, they really lived, in St John's Wood, superior to suburban or indeed any other restrictions. They would ask the same guests to dinner time after time, six or seven times in succession. They would invite cordially a person of no attraction whatsoever whom they had only just met, and they would behave with casual coolness to desirable acquaintances or favourite friends whom they had known all their lives. However, there was no doubt that their parties had got the name for being funny, and that was quite enough. London people in every set are so desperate for something out of the ordinary way, for variety and oddness, that the Mitchells were frequently asked for invitations by most distinguished persons who hoped, in their blase fatigue, to meet something new and queer.
For the real Londoner is a good deal of a child, and loves Punch and Judy shows, and conjuring tricks (symbolically speaking)—and is also often dreaming of the chance of meeting some spring novelty, in the way of romance. Although the Mitchells were proud of these successes they were as free from snobbishness as almost anyone could be. On the whole Mrs Mitchell had a slight weakness for celebrities, while Mr Mitchell preferred pretty women, or people who romped. It was merely from carelessness that the Ottleys had never been asked before.
When Edith and Bruce found themselves in the large square country-house-looking hall, with its oak beams and early English fireplace, about twenty people had arrived, and as many more were expected. A lively chatter had already begun; for each woman had been offered on her arrival a basket from which she had to choose a brightly coloured ribbon. These ribbons matched the rosettes presented in an equally haphazard way to every man. As Vincy observed, it gave one the rather ghastly impression that there was going to be a cotillion at once, on sight, before dinner; which was a little frightening. In reality it was merely so that the partners for the meal should be chosen by chance. Mitchell thought this more fun than arranging guests; but there was an element of gambling about it that made wary people nervous. Everyone present would have cheated had it been possible. But it was not.
Mrs Mitchell was a tiny brown-eyed creature, who looked absurdly young; she was kind, sprightly, and rather like a grouse. Mitchell was a jovial-looking man, with a high forehead, almost too much ease of manner, and a twinkling eye.
The chief guests tonight consisted of Lord Rye, a middle-aged suffraget, who was known for his habit of barking before he spoke and for his wonderful ear for music—he could play all Richard, Oscar and Johann Strauss's compositions by ear on the piano, and never mixed them up; Aylmer Ross, the handsome barrister; Myra Mooney, who had been on the stage; and an intelligent foreigner from the embassy, with a decoration, a goat-like beard, and an Armenian accent. Mrs Mitchell said he was the minister from some place with a name like Ruritania. She had a vague memory. There was also a Mr Cricker, a very young man of whom it was said that he could dance like Nijinsky, but never would; and the rest were chiefly Foreign Office clerks (like Mitchell and Bruce), more barristers and their wives, a soldier or two, some undergraduates, a lady photographer, a few pretty girls, and vague people. There were to be forty guests for dinner and a few more in the evening.
Almost immediately on her arrival Edith noticed a tall, clean-shaven man, with smooth fair hair, observant blue eyes, and a rather humorous expression, and she instantly decided that she would try to will him to take her to dinner. (Rather a superfluous effort of magnetism, since it must have been settled already by fate and the ribbons.) It was obvious from one quick glance that he shared the wish. To their absurdly great mutual disappointment (a lot of ground was covered very quickly at the Mitchells), their ribbons didn't match, and she was taken to dinner by Captain Willis, who looked dull. Fortune, however, favoured her. On her other side she found the man who looked amusing. He was introduced to her across the table by Mrs Mitchell, with empressement, as Mr Aylmer Ross.
Edith felt happy tonight; her spirits were raised by what she felt to be an atmosphere tiede, as the French say; full of indulgence, sympathetic, relaxing, in which either cleverness or stupidity could float equally at its ease. The puerility of the silly little arrangements to amuse removed all sense of ceremony. The note is always struck by the hostess, and she was everything that was amiable, without effort or affectation.
No-one was ever afraid of her.
Bruce's neighbour at dinner was the delicate, battered-looking actress, in a Royal fringe and a tight bodice with short sleeves, who had once been a celebrity, though no-one remembered for what. Miss Myra Mooney, formerly a beauty, had known her days of success. She had been the supreme performer of ladylike parts. She had been known as the very quintessence of refinement. It was assumed when she first came out that a duke would go to the devil for her in her youth, and that in her late maturity she would tour the provinces with The Three Musketeers. Neither of these prophecies had, however, been fulfilled. She still occasionally took small middle-aged titled parts in repertoire matinees. She was unable to help referring constantly to the hit she made in Peril at Manchester in 1887; nor could she ever resist speaking of the young man who sent her red carnations every day of his blighted existence for fifteen years; a pure romance, indeed, for, as she owned, he never even wished to be introduced to her. She still called him poor boy, oblivious of the fact that he was now sixty-eight, and, according to the illustrated papers, spent his entire time in giving away a numberless succession of daughters in brilliant marriage at St George's, Hanover Square.
In this way Miss Mooney lived a good deal in the past, but she was not unaware of the present, and was always particularly nice to people generally regarded as bores. So she was never without plenty of invitations. Mitchell had had formerly a slight tendre for her, and in his good nature pretended to think she had not altered a bit. She was still refined comme cela ne se fait plus; it was practically no longer possible to find such a perfect lady, even on the stage. As she also had all the easy good nature of the artist, and made herself extremely agreeable, Bruce was delighted with her, and evidently thought he had drawn a prize.
'I wondered,' Aylmer Ross said, 'whether this could possibly happen. First I half hoped it might; then I gave it up in despair.'
'So did I,' said Edith; 'and yet I generally know. I've a touch of second sight, I think—at dinner-parties.'
'Oh, well, I have second sight too—any amount; only it's always wrong. However!...'
'Aren't the Mitchells dears?' said Edith.
'Oh, quite. Do you know them well?'
'Very well, indeed. But I've never seen them before.'
'Ah, I see. Well, now we've found our way here—broken the ice and that sort of thing—we must often come and dine with them, mustn't we, Mrs Ottley? Can't we come again next week?'
'Very sweet of you to ask us, I'm sure.'
'Not at all; very jolly of us to turn up. The boot is on the other leg, or whatever the phrase is. By the way, I'm sure you know everything, Mrs Ottley, tell me, did people ever wear only one boot at a time, do you think, or how did this expression originate?'
Something in his suave manner of taking everything for granted seemed to make them know each other almost too quickly, and gave her an odd sort of self-consciousness. She turned to Captain Willis on her other side.
'I say,' he said querulously, 'isn't this a bit off? We've got the same coloured ribbons and you haven't said a word to me yet! Rather rot, isn't it, what?'
'Oh, haven't I? I will now.'
Captain Willis lowered his voice to a confidential tone and said: 'Do you know, what I always say is—live and let live and let it go at that; what?'
'That's a dark saying,' said Edith.
'Have a burnt almond,' said Captain Willis inconsequently, as though it would help her to understand. 'Yes, Mrs Ottley, that's what I always say.... But people won't, you know—they won't—and there it is.' He seemed resigned. 'Good chap, Mitchell, isn't he? Musical chairs, I believe—that's what we're to play this evening; or bridge, whichever we like. I shall go in for bridge. I'm not musical.'
'And which shall you do?' asked Aylmer of Edith. He had evidently been listening.
'We'll talk then, shall we? I can't play bridge either.... Mrs Ottley—which is your husband? I didn't notice when you came in.'
'Over there, opposite; the left-hand corner.'
'Good-looking chap with the light moustache—next to Myra Mooney?'
'That's it,' she said. 'He seems to be enjoying himself. I'm glad he's got Miss Mooney. He's lucky.'
'He is indeed,' said Aylmer.
'She's a wonderful-looking woman—like an old photograph, or someone in a book,' said Edith.
'Do you care for books?'
'Oh, yes, rather. I've just been discovering Bourget. Fancy, I didn't know about him! I've just read Mensonges for the first time.'
'Oh yes. Rather a pompous chap, isn't he? But you could do worse than read Mensonges for the first time.'
'I have done worse. I've been reading Rudyard Kipling for the last time.'
'Really! Don't you like him? Why?'
'I feel all the time, somehow, as if he were calling me by my Christian name without an introduction, or as if he wanted me to exchange hats with him,' she said. 'He's so fearfully familiar with his readers.'
'But you think he keeps at a respectful distance from his characters? However—why worry about books at all, Mrs Ottley? Flowers, lilies of the field, and so forth, don't toil or spin; why should they belong to libraries? I don't think you ever ought to read—except perhaps sometimes a little poetry, or romance.... You see, that is what you are, rather, isn't it?'
'Don't you care for books?' she answered, ignoring the compliment. 'I should have thought you loved them, and knew everything about them. I'm not sure that I know.'
'You know quite enough, believe me,' he answered earnestly. 'Oh, don't be cultured—don't talk about Lloyd George! Don't take an intelligent interest in the subjects of the day!'
'All right; I'll try not.'
She turned with a laugh to Captain Willis, who seemed very depressed.
'I say, you know,' he said complainingly, 'this is all very well. It's all very well no doubt. But I only ask one thing—just one. Is this cricket? I merely ask, you know. Just that—is it cricket; what?'
'It isn't meant to be. What's the matter?'
'Why, I'm simply fed up and broken-hearted, you know. Hardly two words have I had with you tonight, Mrs Ottley.... I suppose that chap's awfully amusing, what? I'm not amusing.... I know that.'
'Oh, don't say that. Indeed you are.' she consoled him.
'Am I though?'
'Well, you amuse me!'
'Right!' He laughed cheerily. He always filled up pauses with a laugh.
Certainly Mrs Mitchell on one side and Captain Willis on the other had suffered neglect. But they seemed to become hardened to it towards the end of dinner....
'I have a boy, too,' Aylmer remarked irrelevantly, 'rather a nice chap. Just ten.'
Though only by the merest, slightest movement of an eyelash Edith could not avoid showing her surprise. No-one ever had less the air of a married man. Also, she was quite ridiculously disappointed. One can't say why, but one doesn't talk to a married man quite in the same way or so frankly as to a bachelor—if one is a married woman. She did not ask about his wife, but said:
'Fancy! Boys are rather nice things to have about, aren't they?'
She was looking round the table, trying to divine which was Mrs Aylmer Ross. No, she wasn't there. Edith felt sure of it. It was an unaccountable satisfaction.
'Yes; he's all right. And now give me a detailed description of your children.'
'I can't. I never could talk about them.'
'I see.... I should like to see them.... I saw you speak to Vincy. Dear little fellow, isn't he?'
'He's a great friend of mine.'
'I'm tremendously devoted to him, too. He's what used to be called an exquisite. And he is exquisite; he has an exquisite mind. But, of course, you know what a good sort he is.'
'He seems rather to look at life than to act in it, doesn't he?' continued Aylmer. 'He's a brilliant sort of spectator. Vincy thinks that all the world's a stage, but he's always in the front row of the stalls. I never could be like that ... I always want to be right in the thick of it, on in every scene, and always performing!'
'To an audience?' said Edith.
He smiled and went on.
'What's so jolly about him is that though he's so quiet, yet he's genial; not chilly and reserved. He's frank, I mean—and confiding. Without ever saying much. He expresses himself in his own way.'
'That's quite true.'
'And, after all, it's really only expression that makes things real. 'If you don't talk about a thing, it has never happened.''
'But it doesn't always follow that a thing has happened because you do talk about it,' said Edith. 'Ah, Mrs Mitchell's going !'
She floated away.
He remained in a rather ecstatic state of absence of mind.
* * * * *
Mrs Mitchell gladly told Edith all about Aylmer Ross, how clever he was, how nice, how devoted to his little boy. He had married very young, it seemed, and had lost his wife two years after. This was ten years ago, and according to Mrs Mitchell he had never looked at another woman since. Women love to simplify in this sentimental way.
'However,' she said consolingly, 'he's still quite young, under forty, and he's sure to fall in love and marry again.'
'No doubt,' said Edith, wishing the first wife had remained alive. She disliked the non-existent second one.
* * * * *
Nearly all the men had now joined the ladies in the studio, with the exception of Bruce and of Aylmer Ross. Mrs Mitchell had taken an immense fancy to Edith and showed it by telling her all about a wonderful little tailor who made coats and skirts better than Lucile for next to nothing, and by introducing to her Lord Rye and the embassy man, and Mr Cricker. Edith was sitting in a becoming corner under a shaded light from which she could watch the door, when Vincy came up to talk to her.
'You seemed to get on rather well at dinner,' he said.
'Yes; isn't Captain Willis a dear?'
'Oh, simply sweet. So bright and clever. I was sure you'd like him, Edith.'
Captain Willis here came up and said, a shade more jovially than he had spoken at dinner, with his laugh:
'Well, you know, Mrs Ottley, what I always say is—live and let live and let it go at that; what? But they never do, you know! They won't—and there it is!'
Edith now did a thing she had never done in her life before and which was entirely unlike her. She tried her utmost to retain the group round her, and to hold their attention. For a reason of which she was hardly conscious, she wanted Aylmer Ross to see her surrounded. The minister from the place with a name like Ruritania was so immensely bowled over that he was already murmuring in a low voice (almost a hiss, as they say in melodrama): 'Vous etes chez vous, quand? Dites un mot, un mot seulement, et je me precipiterai a vos pieds_,' while at the same time, in her other ear, Lord Rye was explaining (to her pretended intense interest) how he could play the whole of _Elektra, The Chocolate Soldier_ and _Nightbirds_ by ear without a single mistake. ('Perfectly sound!' grumbled Captain Willis, 'but why do it?') Vincy was listening, enjoying himself. Bruce came in at last, evidently engaged in an absorbed and intimate conversation with Aylmer Ross. They seemed so much interested in their talk that they went to the other end of the room and sat down there together. Aylmer gave her one glance only.
Edith was unreasonably annoyed. What on earth could he and Bruce find to talk about? At length, growing tired of her position, she got up, and walked across the room to look at a picture on the wall, turning her graceful back to the room.
Bruce had now at last left his companion, but still Aylmer Ross did not go and speak to her, though he was sitting alone.
Musical chairs began in the studio. Someone was playing 'Baby, look-a-here,' stopping suddenly in the middle to shouts of laughter and shrieks from the romping players. In the drawing-room some of the people were playing bridge. How dull the rest of the evening was! Just before the party practically broke up, Edith had an opportunity of saying as she passed Aylmer:
'I thought we were going to have a talk instead of playing games?'
'I saw you were occupied,' he answered ceremoniously. 'I didn't like—to interrupt.'
She laughed. 'Is this a jealous scene, Mr Ross?'
'I wonder,' he said, smiling, 'and if so, whose. Well, I hope to see you again soon.'
'What a success your charming wife has had tonight,' said Mrs Mitchell to Bruce, as they took leave. 'Everyone is quite wild about her. How pretty she is! You must be proud of her.'
They were nearly the last. Mr Cricker, who had firmly refused the whole evening, in spite of abject entreaties, to dance like Nijinsky, suddenly relented when everyone had forgotten all about it, and was leaping alone in the studio, while Lord Rye, always a great lingerer, was playing Richard Strauss to himself on the baby Grand, and smoking a huge cigar.
'Edith,' said Bruce solemnly, as they drove away, 'I've made a friend tonight. There was one really charming man there—he took an immense fancy to me.'
'Oh—who was that?'
'Who was that?' he mimicked her, but quite good-naturedly. 'How stupid women are in some things! Why, Aylmer Ross, the chap who sat next to you at dinner! I suppose you didn't appreciate him. Very clever, very interesting. He was anxious to know several things which I was glad to be in a position to tell him. Yes—an awfully good sort. I asked him to dine at my club one day, to go on with our conversation.'
'Oh, did you?'
'Yes. Why shouldn't I? However, it seems from what he said that he thinks the Carlton's nicer for a talk, so I'm going to ask him there instead. You can come too, dear. He won't mind; it won't prevent our talking.'
'Oh, are we going to give a dinner at the Carlton?'
'I wish you wouldn't oppose me, Edith. Once in a way! Of course I shall. Our flat's too small to give a decent dinner. He's one of the nicest chaps I've ever met.'
'Well, do you want me to write tomorrow morning then, dear?'
'Er—no—I have asked him already.'
'Oh, really—which day?'
'Well, I suggested next Thursday—but he thought tomorrow would be better; he's engaged for every other day. Now don't go and say you're engaged tomorrow. If you are, you'll have to chuck it!'
'Oh no; I'm not engaged.'
Mentally rearranging her evening dress, Edith drove home thoughtfully. She was attracted and did not know why, and for the first time hoped she had made an impression. It had been a long evening, and her headache, she said, necessitated solitude and darkness at once.
'All right. I've got a much worse headache—gout, I think, but never mind about me. Don't be anxious, dear! I say, that Miss Mooney is a very charming woman. She took rather a fancy to me, Edith. Er—you might ask her to dinner too, if you like, to make a fourth!'
'But—really! Ought we to snatch all the Mitchells' friends the first time, Bruce?'
'Why, of course, it's only courteous. It's all right. One must return their hospitality.'
The following afternoon Edith was standing by the piano in her condensed white drawing-room, trying over a song, which she was accompanying with one hand, when to her surprise the maid announced 'Mr Aylmer Ross.' It was a warm day, and though there was a fire the windows were open, letting in the scent of the mauve and pink hyacinths in the little window-boxes. She thought as she came forward to meet him that he seemed entirely different from last night. Her first impression was that he was too big for the room, her second that he was very handsome, and also a little agitated.
'I really hardly know how to apologise, Mrs Ottley. I oughtn't to have turned up in this cool way. But your husband has kindly asked me to dine with you tonight, and I wasn't sure of the time. I thought I'd come and ask you.' He waited a minute. 'Of course, if I hadn't been so fortunate as to find you in, I should just have left a note.' He looked round the room.
* * * * *
Obviously it was quite unnecessary for him to have called; he could have sent the note that he had brought with him. She was flattered. She thought that she liked his voice and the flash of his white teeth when he smiled.
'Oh, I'm glad I'm at home,' she said, in a gentle way that put him at his ease, and yet at an immense distance. 'I felt in the mood to stop at home and play the piano today. I'm delighted to see you.' They sat down by the fire. 'It's at eight tonight. Shall we have tea?'
'Oh no, thanks; isn't it too early? I sha'n't keep you a moment. Thanks very much.... You were playing something when I came in. I wish you'd play it to me over again.'
* * * * *
Nine women out of ten would have refused, saying they knew nothing of music, or that they were out of practice, or that they never played except for their own amusement, or something of the kind; especially if they took no pride whatever in that accomplishment. But Edith went back to the piano at once, and went on trying over the song that she didn't know, without making any excuse for the faltering notes.
'That's charming,' he said. 'Thanks. Tosti, of course.'
She came back to the fireplace. 'Of course. We had great fun last night, didn't we?'
'Oh, I enjoyed myself immensely; part of the time at least.'
'But after dinner you were rather horrid, Mr Ross. You wouldn't come and talk to me, would you?'
'Wouldn't I? I was afraid. Tell me, do I seem many years older since last night?' he asked.
'I don't see any difference. Why?'
'Because I've lived months—almost years—since I saw you last. Time doesn't go by hours, does it?... What a charming little room this is. It suits you. There's hardly anything in it, but everything is right.'
'I don't like to have many things in a room,' said Edith, holding out her delicate hands to the fire. 'It makes me nervous. I have gradually accustomed Bruce to my idea by removing one thing at a time —photographs, pictures, horrid old wedding presents, all the little things people have. They suggest too many different trains of thought. They worry me. He's getting used to it now. He says, soon there'll be nothing left but a couple of chairs and a bookcase!'
'And how right! I've had rather the same idea in my house, but I couldn't keep it up. It's different for a man alone; things seem to accumulate; especially pictures. I know such a lot of artists. I'm very unfortunate in that respect.... I really feel I oughtn't to have turned up like this, Mrs Ottley.'
'You're very kind.... Excuse my country manners, but how nice your husband is. He was very kind to me.'
'He liked you very much, too.'
'He seems charming,' he repeated, then said with a change of tone and with his occasional impulsive brusqueness, 'I wonder—does he ever jar on you in any way?'
'Oh no. Never. He couldn't. He amuses me,' Edith replied softly.
'Oh, does he?... If I had the opportunity I wonder if I should amuse you,' he spoke thoughtfully.
'No; I don't think you would at all,' said Edith, looking him straight in the face.
'That's quite fair,' he laughed, and seemed rather pleased. 'You mean I should bore you to death! Do forgive me, Mrs Ottley. Let's go on with our talk of last night.... I feel it's rather like the Palace of Truth here; I don't know why. There must be something in the atmosphere—I seem to find it difficult not to think aloud—Vincy, now—do you see much of Vincy?'
'Oh yes; he comes here most days, or we talk on the telephone.'
'I see; he's your confidant, and you're his. Dear Vincy. By the way, he asked me last night to go to a tea-party at his flat next week. He was going to ask one or two other kindred spirits—as I think they're called. To see something—some collection. Including you, of course?'
'I shall certainly go,' said Edith, 'whether he asks me or not.'
Aylmer seemed to be trying to leave. He nearly got up once or twice and sat down again.
'Well, I shall see you tonight,' he said. 'At eight.'
'What shall you wear, Mrs Ottley?'
'Oh, I thought, perhaps, my mauve chiffon? What do you advise?' she smiled.
'Not what you wore last night?'
'It was very jolly. I liked it. Er—red, wasn't it?'
'Oh no! It was pink!' she answered.
Then there was an extraordinary pause, in which neither of them seemed able to think of anything to say. There was a curious sort of vibration in the air.
'Isn't it getting quite springy?' said Edith, as she glanced at the window. 'It's one of those sort of warm days that seem to have got mixed up by mistake with the winter.'
'Very,' was his reply, which was not very relevant.
Another pause was beginning.
'Mr Vincy,' announced the servant.
He was received with enthusiasm, and Aylmer Ross now recovered his ease and soon went away.
'Edith!' said Vincy, in a reproving tone. 'Really! How very soon!'
'He came to know what time we dine. He was just passing.'
'Oh, yes. He would want to know. He lives in Jermyn Street. I suppose Knightsbridge is on his way to there.'
'From where?' she asked.
'From here,' said Vincy.
'What happened after we left?' said Edith. 'I saw the Cricker man beginning to dance with hardly anyone looking at him.'
'Isn't his imitation of Nijinsky wonderful?' asked Vincy.
'Simply marvellous! I thought he was imitating George Grossmith. Do you know, I love the Mitchells, Vincy. It's really great fun there. Fancy, Bruce seems so delighted with Aylmer Ross and Miss Mooney that he insisted on their both dining with us tonight.'
'He seemed rather carried away, I thought. There's a fascination about Aylmer. There are so many things he's not,' said Vincy.
'Tell me some of them.'
'Well, for one thing, he's not fatuous, though he's so good-looking. He's not a lady-killing sort of person or anything else tedious.'
She was delighted at this especially.
'If he took a fancy to a person—well, it might be rather serious, if you take my meaning,' said Vincy.
'How sweet of him! So unusual. Do you like Myra Mooney?'
'Me? Oh, rather; I'm devoted to her. She's a delightful type. Get her on to the subject of the red carnations. She's splendid about them.... She received them every day at breakfast-time for fifteen years. Another jolly thing about Aylmer is that he has none of that awful old-fashioned modernness, thank goodness!'
'Ah, I noticed that.'
'I suppose he wasn't brilliant today. He was too thrilled. But, do be just a teeny bit careful, Edith dear, because when he is at all he's very much so. Do you see?'
'What a lot you seem to think of one little visit, Vincy! After all, it was only one.'
'There hasn't been time yet for many more, has there, Edith dear? He could hardly call twice the same day, on the first day, too.... Yes, I come over quite queer and you might have knocked me down with a feather, in a manner of speaking, when I clapped eyes on him setting here.'
Edith liked Vincy to talk in his favourite Cockney strain. It contrasted pleasantly with his soft, even voice and raffine appearance.
'Here's Bruce,' she said.
Bruce came in carrying an enormous basket of gilded straw. It was filled with white heather, violets, lilies, jonquils, gardenias and mimosa. The handle was trimmed with mauve ribbon.
'Oh, Bruce! How angelic of you!'
'Don't be in such a hurry, dear. These are not from me. They arrived just at the same time that I did. Brought by a commissionaire. There was hardly room for it in the lift.'
Edith looked quickly at the card. It bore the name of the minister of the place with a name like Ruritania.
'What cheek!' exclaimed Bruce, who was really flattered. 'What infernal impertinence. Upon my word I've more than half a mind to go and tell him what I think of him—straight from the shoulder. What's the address?'
'Well, I don't care. I shall go straight to the embassy,' said Bruce. 'No, I sha'n't. I'll send them back and write him a line—tell him that Englishwomen are not in the habit of accepting presents from undesirable aliens.... I consider it a great liberty. Aren't I right, Vincy?'
'Quite. But perhaps he means no harm, Bruce. I daresay it's the custom in the place with the funny name. You see, you never know, in a place like that.'
'Then you don't think I ought to take it up?'
'I don't want them. It's a very oppressive basket,' Edith said.
'How like you, Edith! I thought you were fond of flowers.'
'So I am, but I like one at a time. This is too miscellaneous and crowded.'
'Some women are never satisfied. It's very rude and ungrateful to the poor old man, who meant to be nice, no doubt, and to show his respect for Englishwomen. I think you ought to write and thank him,' said Bruce. 'And let me see the letter before it goes.'
Coup de Foudre
When Aylmer Ross got back to the little brown house in Jermyn Street he went to his library, and took from a certain drawer an ivory miniature framed in black. He looked at it for some time. It had a sweet, old-fashioned face, with a very high forehead, blue eyes, and dark hair arranged in two festoons of plaits, turned up at the sides. It represented his mother in the early sixties and he thought it was like Edith. He had a great devotion and cult for the memory of his mother. When he was charmed with a woman he always imagined her to be like his mother.
He had never thought this about his wife People had said how extraordinarily Aylmer must have been in love to have married that uninteresting girl, no-one in particular, not pretty and a little second-rate. As a matter of fact the marriage had happened entirely by accident. It had occurred through a misunderstanding during a game of consequences in a country house. She was terribly literal. Having taken some joke of his seriously, she had sent him a touchingly coy letter saying she was overwhelmed at his offer (feeling she was hardly worthy to be his wife) and must think it over. He did not like to hurt her feelings by explaining, and when she relented and accepted him he couldn't bear to tell her the truth. He was absurdly tender-hearted, and he thought that, after all, it didn't matter so very much. The little house left him by his mother needed a mistress; he would probably marry somebody or other, anyhow; and she seemed such a harmless little thing. It would please her so much! When the hurried marriage had come to a pathetic end by her early death everyone was tragic about it except Aylmer. All his friends declared he was heart-broken and lonely and would never marry again. He had indeed been shocked and grieved at her death, but only for her—not at being left alone. That part, was a relief. The poor little late Mrs Aylmer Ross had turned out a terrible mistake. She had said the wrong thing from morning till night, and, combining a prim, refined manner with a vulgar point of view, had been in every way dreadfully impossible. He had really been patience and unselfishness itself to her, but he had suffered. The fact was, he had never even liked her. That was the reason he had not married again.
But he was devoted to his boy in a quiet way. He was the sort of man who is adored by children, animals, servants and women. Tall, strong and handsome, with intelligence beyond the average, yet with nothing alarming about him, good-humoured about trifles, jealous in matters of love—perhaps that is, after all, the type women really like best. It is sheer nonsense to say that women enjoy being tyrannised over. No doubt there are some who would rather be bullied than ignored. But the hectoring man is, with few exceptions, secretly detested. In so far as one can generalise (always a dangerous thing to do) it may be said that women like best a kind, clever man who can be always trusted; and occasionally (if necessary) deceived.
Aylmer hardly ever got angry except in an argument about ideas. Yet his feelings were violent; he was impulsive, and under his suave and easy-going manner emotional. He was certainly good-looking, but had he not been he would have pleased all the same. He seemed to radiate warmth, life, a certain careless good-humour. To be near him was like warming one's hands at a warm fire. Superficially susceptible and inclined to be experimental he had not the instinct of the collector and was devoid of fatuousness. But he could have had more genuine successes than all the Don Juans and Romeos and Fausts who ever climbed rope ladders. Besides his physical attraction he inspired a feeling of reliance. Women felt safe with him; he would never treat anyone badly. He inspired that kind of trust enormously in men also, and his house was constantly filled with people asking his advice and begging him to do things—sometimes not very easy ones. He was always being left guardian to young persons who would never require one, and said himself he had become almost a professional trustee.
As Aylmer was generous and very extravagant in a way of his own (though he cared nothing for show), he really worked hard at the bar to add to his already large income. He always wanted a great deal of money. He required ease, margin and elbow-room. He had no special hobbies, but he needed luxury in general of a kind, and especially the luxury of getting things in a hurry, his theory being that everything comes to the man who won't wait. He was not above detesting little material hardships. He was not the sort of man, for instance, even in his youngest days, who would go by omnibus to the gallery to the opera, to hear a favourite singer or a special performance; not that he had the faintest tinge of snobbishness, but simply because such trifling drawbacks irritated him, and spoilt his pleasure.
Impressionistic as he was in life, on the other hand, curiously, Aylmer's real taste in art and decoration was Pre-Raphaelite; delicate, detailed and meticulous almost to preciousness. He often had delightful things in his house, but never for long. He had no pleasure in property; valuable possessions worried him, and after any amount of trouble to get some object of art he would often give it away the next week. For he really liked money only for freedom and ease. The general look of the house was, consequently, distinguished, sincere and extremely comfortable. It was neither hackneyed nor bizarre, and, while it contained some interesting things, had no superfluities.
Aylmer had been spoilt as a boy and was still wilful and a little impatient. For instance he could never wait even for a boy-messenger, but always sent his notes by taxi to wait for an answer. And now he wanted something in a hurry, and was very much afraid he would never get it.
Aylmer was, as I have said, often a little susceptible. This time he felt completely bowled over. He had only seen her twice. That made no difference.
The truth was—it sounds romantic, but is really scientific, all romance being, perhaps, based on science—that Edith's appearance corresponded in every particular with an ideal that had grown up with him. Whether he had seen some picture as a child that had left a vague and lasting impression, or whatever the reason was, the moment he saw her he felt, with a curious mental sensation, as of something that fell into its place with a click ('Ca y est!'), that she realised some half-forgotten dream. In fact, it was a rare and genuine case of coup de foudre. Had she been a girl he would have proposed to her the next day, and they might quite possibly have married in a month, and lived happily ever after. These things occasionally happen. But she was married already.
Had she been a fool, or a bore, a silly little idiot or a fisher of men, a social sham who prattled of duchesses or a strenuous feminine politician who babbled of votes; a Christian Scientist bent on converting, an adventuress without adventures (the worst kind), a mind-healer or a body-snatcher, a hockey-player or even a lady novelist, it would have been exactly the same; whatever she had been, mentally or morally, he would undoubtedly have fallen in love with her physically, at first sight. But it was very much worse than that. He found her delightful, and clever; he was certain she was an angel. She was married to Ottley. Ottley was all right.... Rather an ass ... rather ridiculous; apparently in every way but one.
* * * * *
So absurdly hard hit was Aylmer that it seemed to him as if to see her again as soon as possible was already the sole object in his life. Did she like him? Intuitively he felt that during his little visit his intense feeling had radiated, and not displeased—perhaps a little impressed—her. He could easily, he knew, form a friendship with them; arrange to see her often. He was going to meet her tonight, through his own arrangement. He would get them to come and dine with him soon—no, the next day.
What was the good?
Well, where was the harm?
Aylmer had about the same code of morals as the best of his numerous friends in Bohemia, in clubland and in social London. He was no more scrupulous on most subjects than the ordinary man of his own class. Still, he had been married himself. That made an immense difference, for he was positively capable of seeing (and with sympathy) from the husband's point of view. Even now, indifferent as he had been to his own wife, and after ten years, it would have caused him pain and fury had he found out that she had ever tried to play him false. Of course, cases varied. He knew that if Edith had been free his one thought would have been to marry her. Had she been different, and differently placed, he would have blindly tried for anything he could get, in any possible way. But, as she was?... He felt convinced he could never succeed in making her care for him; there was not the slightest chance of it. And, supposing even that he could? And here came in the delicacy and scruple of the man who had been married himself. He thought he wouldn't even wish to spoil, by the vulgarity of compromising, or by the shadow of a secret, the serenity of her face, the gay prettiness of that life. No, he wouldn't if he could. And yet how exciting it would be to rouse her from that cool composure. She was rather enigmatic. But he thought she could be roused. And she was so clever. How well she would carry it off! How she would never bore a man! And he suddenly imagined a day with her in the country.... Then he thought that his imagination was flying on far too fast. He decided not to be a hopeless fool, but just to go ahead, and talk to her, and get to know her; not to think too much about her. She needn't even know how he felt. To idolise her from a distance would be quite delightful enough. When a passion is not realised, he thought, it fades away, or becomes ideal worship —Dante—Petrarch—that sort of thing! It could never fade away in this case, he was sure. How pretty she was, how lovely her mouth was when she smiled! She had no prejudices, apparently; no affectations; how she played and sang that song again when he asked her! With what a delightful sense of humour she had dealt with him, and also with Bruce, at the Mitchells. Ottley must be a little difficult sometimes. She had read and thought; she had the same tastes as he. He wondered if she would have liked that thing in The Academy, on Gardens, that he had just read. He began looking for it. He thought he would send it to her, asking her opinion; then he would get an answer, and see her handwriting. You don't know a woman until you have had a letter from her.
But no—what a fool he would look! Besides he was going to see her tonight. It was about time to get ready.... Knowing subconsciously that he had made some slight favourable impression—at any rate that he hadn't repelled or bored her—he dressed with all the anxiety, joy and thrills of excitement of a boy of twenty; and no boy of twenty can ever feel these things as keenly or half as elaborately as a man nearly twice that age, since all the added experiences, disillusions, practice, knowledge and life of the additional years help to form a part of the same emotion, making it infinitely deeper, and all the stronger because so much more averti and conscious of itself.
He seemed so nervous while dressing that Soames, the valet, to whom he was a hero, ventured respectfully to hope there was nothing wrong.
'No. I'm all right,' said Aylmer. 'I'm never ill. I think, Soames, I shall probably die of middle age.'
He went out laughing, leaving the valet smiling coldly out of politeness.
* * * * *
Soames never understood any kind of jest. He took himself and everyone else seriously. But he already knew perfectly well that his master had fallen in love last night, and he disapproved very strongly. He thought all that sort of thing ought to be put a stop to.
'Mrs Ottley,' said Miss Townsend,' do you mind looking at this essay of Archie's? I really don't know what to think of it. I think it shows talent, except the spelling. But it's very naughty of him to have written what is at the end.'
Edith took the paper and read:
'TRAYS OF CHARACTER
trays of character will always show threw how ever much you may polish it up trays of character will always show threw the grane of the wood.
A burd will keep on singing because he wants to and they can't help doing what it wants this is instinkt. and it is the same with trays of charicter. having thus shown my theory that trays of carocter will always show threw in spite of all trubble and in any circemstances whatever I will conclude Archibald Bruce Ottley please t.o.'
On the other side of the paper was written very neatly, still in Archie's writing:
'3 LINDEN MANSIONS, CADOGAN SQUARE, KNIGHTSBRIDGE. Second Floor
1. Mr Bruce Ottley (FO) 2. Mrs Bruce Ottley 3. Master Archibald Bruce Ottley 4. Little beast 5. Mary Johnson housemaid 6. Miss Thrupp Cook 7. Marie maid
8. Dorothy Margaret Miss Townsend governess 9. Ellen Maud Parrot nurse.'
'Do you see?' said Miss Townsend. 'It's his way of slyly calling poor Dilly a beast, because he's angry with her. Isn't it a shame? What shall I do?' Both of them laughed and enjoyed it.
'Archie, what is the meaning of this? Why did you make this census of your home?' Edith asked him gently.
'Why, I didn't make senses of my home; I just wrote down who lived here.'
Edith looked at him reproachfully.
'Well, I didn't call Dilly a beast. I haven't broken Miss Townsend's rules. She made a new rule I wasn't to call her a beast before breakfast—'
'What, you're allowed to call her these awful names after breakfast?'
'No. She made a rule before breakfast I wasn't to call Dilly a beast, and I haven't. How did you know it meant her anyway? It might have meant somebody else.'
'That's prevaricating; it's mean—not like you, Archie.'
'Well, I never called her a beast. No-one can say I did. And besides, anybody would have called her a beast after how she went on.'
'What are you angry with the child for?'
'Oh, she bothers so. The moment I imitate the man with the German accent she begins to cry. She says she doesn't like me to do it. She says she can't bear me to. Then she goes and tells Miss Townsend I slapped her, and Miss Townsend blames me.'
'Then you shouldn't have slapped her; it was horrid of you; you ought to remember she's a little girl and weaker than you.'
'I did remember...'
'Well, I'll make it up if she begs my pardon; not unless she does I sha'n't,' said Archie magnanimously.
'I shall certainly not allow her to do anything of the kind.'
At this moment Dilly came in, with her finger in her tiny mouth, and went up to Archie, drawling with a pout, and in a whining voice:
'I didn't mean to.'
Archie beamed at once.
'That's all right, Dilly,' he said forgivingly.
Then he turned to his mother.
'Mother, have you got that paper?'
'Yes, I have indeed!'
'Well, cross out—that, and put in Aspasia Matilda Ottley. Sorry, Dilly!' He kissed her, and they ran off together hand in hand; looking like cherubs, and laughing musically.
At the Carlton Aylmer had easily persuaded Bruce and Edith to dine with him next day, although they were engaged to the elder Mrs Ottley already. He said he expected two or three friends, and he convinced them they must come too. It is only in London that people meet for the first time at a friend's house, and then, if they take to each other, practically live together for weeks after. No matter what social engagements they may happen to have, these are all thrown aside for the new friend. London people, with all their correctness, are really more unconventional than any other people in the world. For instance, in Paris such a thing could never happen in any kind of monde, unless, perhaps, it were among artists and Bohemians; and even then it would be their great object to prove to one another that they were not wanting in distractions and were very much in demand; the lady, especially, would make the man wait for an opportunity of seeing her again, from calculation, to make herself seem of more value. Such second-rate solicitudes would never even occur to Edith. But she had a scruple about throwing over old Mrs Ottley.
* * * * *
'Won't your mother be disappointed?' Edith asked.
'My dear Edith, you can safely leave that to me. Of course she'll be disappointed, but you can go round and see her, and speak to her nicely and tell her that after all we can't come because we've got another engagement.'
'And am I to tell her it's a subsequent one? Otherwise she'll wonder we didn't mention it before.'
'Don't be in a hurry, dear. Don't rush things; remember... she's my mother. Perhaps to you, Edith, it seems a rather old-fashioned idea, and I daresay you think it's rot, but to me there's something very sacred about the idea of a mother.' He lit a cigarette and looked in the glass.
'Yes, dear. Then, don't you think we really ought to have kept our promise to dine with her? She'll probably be looking forward to it. I daresay she's asked one or two people she thinks we like, to meet us.'
'Circumstances alter cases, Edith. If it comes to that, Aylmer Ross has got two or three people coming to dine with him whom he thinks we might like. He said so himself. That's why he's asked us.'
'Yes, but he can't have asked them on purpose, Bruce, because, you see, we didn't know him on Thursday.'
'Well, why should he have asked them on purpose? How you argue! How you go on! It really seems to me you're getting absurdly exacting and touchy, Edith dear. I believe all those flowers from the embassy have positively turned your head. Why should he have asked them on purpose. You admit yourself that we didn't even know the man last Thursday, and yet you expect—' Bruce stopped. He had got into a slight tangle.
Edith looked away. She had not quite mastered the art of the inward smile.
'Far better, in my opinion,' continued Bruce, walking up and down the room.—'Now, don't interrupt me in your impulsive way, but hear me out—it would be far more kind and sensible in every way for you to sit right down at that little writing-table, take out your stylographic pen and write and tell my mother that I have a bad attack of influenza.... Yes; one should always be considerate to one's parents. I suppose it really is the way I was brought up that makes me feel this so keenly,' he explained.
Edith sat down to the writing-table. 'How bad is your influenza?'
'Oh, not very bad; because it would worry her: a slight attack.—Stop! Not so very slight—we must let her think it's the ordinary kind, and then she'll think it's catching and she won't come here for a few days, and that will avoid our going into the matter in detail, which would be better.'
'If she thinks it's catching, dear, she'll want Archie and Dilly, and Miss Townsend and Nurse to go and stay with her in South Kensington, and that will be quite an affair.'
'Right as usual; very thoughtful of you; you're a clever little woman sometimes, Edith. Wait!'—he put up his hand with a gesture frequent with him, like a policeman stopping the traffic at Hyde Park Corner. 'Wait!—leave out the influenza altogether, and just say I've caught a slight chill.'
'Yes. Then she'll come over at once, and you'll have to go to bed.'
'My dear Edith,' said Bruce, 'you're over-anxious; I shall do nothing of the kind. There's no need that I should be laid up for this. It's not serious.'
He was beginning to believe in his own illness, as usual.
'Air! (I want to go round to the club)—tonic treatment!—that's the thing!—that's often the very best thing for a chill—this sort of chill.... Ah, that will do very nicely. Very neatly written.... Good-bye, dear.'
* * * * *
As soon as Bruce had gone out Edith rang up the elder Mrs Ottley on the telephone, and relieved her anxiety in advance. They were great friends; the sense of humour possessed by her mother-in-law took the sting out of the relationship.
* * * * *
The dinner at Aylmer's house was a great success. Bruce enjoyed himself enormously, for he liked nothing better in the world than to give his opinion. And Aylmer was specially anxious for his view as to the authenticity of a little Old Master he had acquired, and took notes, also, of a word of advice with regard to electric lighting, admitting he was not a very practical man, and Bruce evidently was.
Edith was interested and pleased to go to the house of her new friend and to reconstruct the scene as it must have been when Mrs Aylmer Ross had been there.
Freddy, the boy, was at school, but there was a portrait of him. Evidently he resembled his father. The sketch represented him with the same broad forehead, smooth, dense light hair, pale blue eyes under eyebrows with a slight frown in them, and the charming mouth rather fully curved, expressing an amiable and pleasure-loving nature. The boy was good-looking, but not, Edith thought, as handsome as Aylmer.
The only other woman present was Lady Everard, a plump, talkative, middle-aged woman in black; the smiling widow of Lord Everard, and well known for her lavish musical hospitality and her vague and indiscriminate good nature. She bristled with aigrettes and sparkled with diamonds and determination. She was marvellously garrulous about nothing in particular. She was a woman who never stopped talking for a single moment, but in a way that resembled leaking rather than laying down the law. Tepidly, indifferently and rather amusingly she prattled on without ceasing, on every subject under the sun, and was socially a valuable help because where she was there was never an awkward pause—or any other kind.
Vincy was there and young Cricker, whose occasional depressed silences were alternated with what he called a certain amount of sparkling chaff.
Lady Everard told Edith that she felt quite like a sort of mother to Aylmer.
'Don't you think it's sad, Mrs Ottley,' she said, when they were alone, 'to think that the dear fellow has no wife to look after this dear little house? It always seems to me such a pity, but still, I always say, at any rate Aylmer's married once, and that's more than most of them do nowadays. It's simply horse's work to get them to do it at all. Sometimes I think it's perfectly disgraceful. And yet I can't help seeing how sensible it is of them too; you know, when you think of it, what with one thing and another, what does a man of the present day need a wife for? What with the flats, where everything on earth is done for them, and the kindness of friends—just think how bachelors are spoilt by their married friends!—and their clubs, and the frightful expense of everything, it seems to me, as a general rule, that the average man must be madly unselfish or a perfect idiot to marry at all—that's what it seems to me—don't you? When you think of all the responsibilities they take upon themselves!—and I'm sure there are not many modern wives who expect to do anything on earth but have their bills and bridge debts paid, and their perpetual young men asked to dinner, and one thing and another. Of course, though, there are some exceptions.' She smiled amiably. 'Aylmer tells me you have two children; very sweet of you, I'm sure. What darling pets they must be! Angels!—Angels! Oh, I'm so fond of children! But, particularly—isn't it funny?—when they're not there, because I can't stand their noise. Now my little grandchildren—my daughter Eva's been married ten years—Lady Lindley, you know—hers are perfect pets and heavenly angels, but I can't stand them for more than a few minutes at a time. I have nerves, so much so, do you know (partly because I go in a good deal for music and intellect and so on), so much so, that I very nearly had a rest cure at the end of last season, and I should have had, probably, but that new young French singer came over with a letter of introduction to me, and of course I couldn't desert him, but had to do my very best. Ever heard him sing? Yes, you would, of course. Oh, how wonderful it is!'
Edith waited in vain for a pause to say she didn't know the name of the singer. Lady Everard went on, leaning comfortably back in Aylmer's arm-chair.
'Willie Cricker dances very prettily, too; he came to one of my evenings and had quite a success. Only an amateur, of course; but rather nice. However, like all amateurs he wants to perform only when people would rather he didn't, and when they want him to he won't; he refuses. That's the amateur all over. The professional comes up to the scratch when wanted and stops when the performance is not required. It's all the difference in the world, isn't it, Mrs Ottley? Still, he's a nice boy. Are you fond of music?'
'Very. Really fond of it; but I'm only a listener.'
Lady Everard seemed delighted and brightened up.
'Oh, you don't sing or play?—you must come to one of my Musical Evenings. We have all the stars in the season at times—dear Melba and Caruso—and darling Bemberk and dear Debussy! Oh! don't laugh at my enthusiasm, my dear; but I'm quite music-mad—and then, of course, we have any amount of amateurs, and all the new young professionals that are coming on. In my opinion Paul La France, that's the young man I was telling you about, will be one of the very very best—quite at the top of the tree, and I'm determined he shall. But of course, he needs care and encouragement. I think of his giving a Conference, in which he'll lecture on his own singing. I shall be on the platform to make a sort of introductory speech and Monti, of course, will accompany. He is the only accompanist that counts. But then I suppose he's been accompanying somebody or other ever since he was a little boy, so it's second nature to him. And you must come, and bring your husband. Does he go with you to places? Very nice of him. Nowadays if husbands and wives don't occasionally go to the same parties they have hardly any opportunity of meeting at all; that's what I always say. But then, of course, you're still almost on your honeymoon, aren't you? Charming!'
In the dining-room Cricker was confiding in Aylmer, while Vincy and Bruce discussed the Old Master.
'Awful, you know,' Cricker said, in a low voice—' this girl's mania for me! I get wires and telephones all day long; she hardly gives me time to shave. And she's jolly pretty, so I don't like to chuck it; in fact, I daren't. But her one cry is 'Cold; cold; cold!' She says I'm as cold as a stone. What do you thing of that?'
'You may be a stone, and a rolling one at that, said Aylmer, 'but there are other pebbles on the beach, I daresay.'
'I bet not one of them as stony as I am!' cried Cricker.
Cricker came a little nearer, lowering his voice again.
'It's a very peculiar case,' he said proudly.
'Of course; it always is.'
'You see, she's frightfully pretty, on the stage, and married! One of the most awkward positions a person can be in. Mind you, I'm sorry for her. I thought of consulting you about something if you'll give me a minute or two, old chap.'
He took out a letter-case.
'I don't mean Ill show you this—oh no, I can't show it—it isn't compromising.'
'Of course not. No-one really likes to show a really lukewarm love letter. Besides it would hardly be—'
Cricker put the case back.
My dear chap! I wasn't going to show it to you—I shouldn't dream of such a thing—to anybody; but I was just going to read you out a sentence from which you can form an opinion of my predicament. It's no good mincing matters, old boy, the woman is crazy mad about me—there you've got it straight—in a nutshell.—Crazy!'
'She certainly can't be very sane,' returned Aylmer.
Before the end of the evening Aylmer had arranged to take the Ottleys to see a play that was having a run. After this he dropped in to tea to discuss it and Bruce kept him to dinner.
Day after day went on, and they saw him continually. He had never shown by word or manner any more of his sentiment than on the second occasion when they had met but Edith was growing thoroughly accustomed to this new interest, and it certainly gave a zest to her existence, for she knew, as women do know, or at any rate she believed, that she had an attraction for him, which he didn't intend to give away. The situation was pleasant and notwithstanding Vincy's slight anxiety, she persisted in seeing nothing in it to fear in any way. Aylmer didn't even flirt.
One day, at Vincy's rooms, she thought he seemed different.
Vincy, with all his gentle manner, had in art an extraordinary taste for brutality and violence, and his rooms were covered with pictures by Futurists and Cubists, wild studies by wild men from Tahiti and a curious collection of savage ornaments and weapons.
'I don't quite see Vincy handling that double-edged Chinese sword, do you? said Aylmer, laughing.
'No, nor do I; but I do like to look at it,' Vincy said.
They went into the little dining-room, which was curiously furnished with a green marble dining-table, narrow, as in the pictures of the Last Supper, at which the guests could sit on one side only to be waited on from the other. On it as decoration (it was laid for two, side by side) were some curious straw mats, a few laurel leaves, a little marble statuette of Pan, and three Tangerine oranges.
'Oh, Vincy, do tell me—what are you going to eat tonight?' Edith exclaimed. 'Unless you're with other people I can never imagine you sitting down to a proper meal.'
Eat? Oh a nice orange, I think,' said he. Sometimes when I'm alone I just have a nice egg and a glass of water, I do myself very well. Don't worry about me, Edith.'
When they were alone for a moment Aylmer looked out of the window. It was rather high up, and they looked down on the hustling crowds of people pushing along through the warm air in Victoria Street.
'It's getting decent weather,' he said.
'Yes, quite warm.'
They always suddenly talked commonplaces when they were first left alone.
'I may be going away pretty soon,' he said.
'Going away! Oh, where?'
'I'm not quite sure yet.'
There was a pause.
'Well, you'll come to tea tomorrow, won't you? said Edith. 'Yes, indeed, thank you—thank you so much. I shall look forward to it. At five?' He spoke formally.
'At four,' said Edith.
'I shall be lunching not very far from you tomorrow.'
'At a quarter to four,' said Edith.
'I wonder who this other place is laid for,' said Aylmer, looking at the table.
'How indiscreet of you! So do I. One must find out.'
'How? By asking?'
'Good heavens, no!' cried Edith. 'What an extraordinary idea!'
Shopping Chez Soi
Edith was expecting Aylmer to call that afternoon before he went away. She was surprised to find how perturbed she was at the idea of his going away. He had become almost a part of their daily existence, and seeing him was certainly quite the most amusing and exciting experience she had ever had. And now it was coming to an end. Some obscure clairvoyance told her that his leaving and telling her of it in this vague way had some reference to her; but perhaps (she thought) she was wrong; perhaps it was simply that, after the pleasant intercourse and semi-intimacy of the last few weeks, he was going to something that interested him more? He was a widower; and still a young man. Perhaps he was in love with someone. This idea was far from agreeable, although except the first and second time they met he had never said a word that could be described even as flirtation. He showed admiration for her, and pleasure in her society, but he rarely saw her alone. The few visits and tete-a-tetes had always begun by conventional commonplace phrases and embarrassment, and had ended in a delightful sympathy, in animated conversation, in a flowing confidence and gaiety, and in long discussions on books, and art, and principally people. That was all. In fact he had become, in two or three weeks, in a sense l'ami de la maison; they went everywhere with him and met nearly every day, and Bruce appeared to adore him. It was entirely different from her long and really intimate friendship with Vincy. Vincy was her confidant, her friend. She could tell him everything, and she did, and he confided in her and told her all except one side of his life, of which she was aware, but to which she never referred. This was his secret romance with a certain girl artist of whom he never spoke, although Edith knew that some day he would tell her about that also.