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The original spelling and punctuation were retained, except for a few issues that were believed to be typographical mistakes. The full list of corrections can be found at the end of this document.
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LONDON CHAPMAN & HALL
Originally published 1911 by Grant Richards Ltd. Reissued 1950 by arrangement with the Richards Press Ltd.
Printed by Brueder Rosenbaum, Vienna, Austria Cat. No. 5085/4
TO ROBERT ROSS
I VALENTIA 11
II HARRY 24
III VAN BUREN 32
IV THE ELDER MRS. WYBURN 37
V ROMER 43
VI HARRY'S ENTERTAINMENT 47
VII DAPHNE 62
VIII IN FANCY DRESS 70
IX A CELEBRITY AT HOME 79
X MISCHIEF 87
XI THE FRIENDS 105
XII A HOME CHAT 115
XIII VALENTIA'S VISIT 123
XIV A SUGGESTION 131
XV MISS WALMER 137
XVI MRS. FOSTER 144
XVII ENGAGED 156
XVIII AT THE CARLTON 163
XIX AT MISS WESTBURY'S 170
XX A PROPOSAL 177
XXI HEREFORD VAUGHAN 183
XXII GILLIE INTERFERES 189
XXIII THE BALD-FACED STAG 196
XXIV THE GREEN GATE 203
XXV A SUNDAY AFTERNOON 211
XXVI IN THE ROSE GARDEN 223
XXVII SEEING THE SUN RISE 230
XXVIII "REPLY PAID" 235
XXIX GLADYS 241
XXX "THE ANGLES" 248
XXXI AT EDGWARE 256
XXXII TENSION 263
XXXIII GOOD-BYE 268
XXXIV ROMER OVERHEARS 274
XXXV THE LIMIT 286
XXXVI RECONCILIATION 291
"Romer, are you listening?"
"Valentia, do I ever do anything else?"
"I've almost decided and absolutely made up my mind that it will look ever so much better if you don't go with me to Harry's dinner after all."
"Yes. We two—you and I—always seem to make such an enormous family party! Of course, I know we have to go about in these huge batches sometimes—to your mother, and that sort of thing, but in this case it will look better not."
Valentia made this rather ungracious suggestion, looking so pretty, so serious, and yet with such a conciliating smile that it would have been almost impossible for even the most touchy person to have been offended.
The tall, significant-looking husband stopped in his stroll across the room.
It was a charming room, with pale grey walls and a pale green carpet, and very little in it except, let in as a panel, a delicate low-toned portrait of the mistress of the house, vaguely appearing through vaporous curtains, holding pale flowers, and painted with a rather mysterious effect by that talented young amateur, her cousin, Harry de Freyne. It had been his sole success in art, and had been exhibited at the Grafton Galleries under the name of The Gilded Lily. No one had ever known or was ever likely to know whether the title referred to the decorative, if botanically impossible, blossom in her hand, or to the golden hair of the seductive sitter.
Romer Wyburn paused a moment—he always paused before speaking—and then said very slowly—
"Oh! Really? You think it will look better if I don't go with you?"
He invariably spoke with the greatest deliberation, and with no expression whatever.
"Oh yes, dear, I'm sure it would," she repeated coaxingly.
"Do you mean if you go without me?"
"What else can I mean?"
"It'll look better, you think; eh? Is that the idea?"
He sat down opposite the portrait, lighted a cigarette, and thought. Then he said with ruminating interest—
"I don't see why. Why will it look so much better for me not to go with you?"
"Oh, Romer dear, really! It's one of those things that are almost impossible to explain. Oh, if you'd only do just what I advise—if you'd only go by me, and not want these long tedious explanations, how much better it would be! You see, Harry is giving this dinner on purpose so that Daphne shall meet Van Buren by accident. You know all about Van Buren, the Van Buren—the millionaire, who turns out to be a dear creature and quite charming! and has taken the greatest fancy to Harry, and clings on to him, and keeps on and on asking him to ask him to meet people. You must own it would be rather jolly for Daphne, because, of course, you can't think how he's run after—I mean Van Buren—and he isn't an ordinary American snob, and it really and truly isn't only his millionairishness, but he's a real person, and good-looking and nice as well; and though, Heaven knows, I'm as romantic as anybody—for myself—I wouldn't be so selfish as to be romantic for her too, and I can't help feeling it's our duty, being in the place of parents to her, to give the angel a sporting chance! Of course, the point is, Van Buren has told Harry he only likes nice English girls very well brought up, and he wants to settle down in England, and he thinks that any relation of Harry's must be perfect; and, naturally, I'm pleased. I feel exactly like a mother to Daphne, although she's only six years younger."
"Well, that's all right. I see all that."
Romer seemed rather bored, as men naturally are at a long catalogue of another man's advantages. "Now, look here. Why would it look better for me not to go?"
There was some excuse for his insistence on this point, for in a superficial way Romer was very effective, fair and good-looking, well-made and distinguished; but the entire absence of all expression from his empty, regular face, and of all animation from his dry, colourless voice and manner, soon counteracted the effectiveness. Valentia often said that Romer should never do more than walk through a room or look in for a few minutes where there were other people—even at a club—and then go away immediately, when he would leave a striking impression. If he stayed longer he became alarming. His personality was so extraordinarily nil that it was quite oppressive. Obviously kind and not in the least pompous, yet his silence made him formidable, especially to most of his wife's friends who, though they could hardly be reproached with want of pluck as a general rule, had one great fear in life—the fear of being bored. It was on this ground that they were all terrified of Romer.
"Don't you think, Romer, if we both go it will look too marked? Almost as if we were vulgarly trying to get Daphne married? A horrid idea! Besides, if you don't turn up Harry can ask some one amusing in your place. You see, he's promised to show Van Buren interesting people.... No, darling, I don't mean it in that way. I'm sure you're interesting enough, but I mean queer people, and celebrities and things. That's what Van Buren wants, and that's what he must have. And that's one reason why he's so delighted with Harry, because Harry can get them all, through being a sort of artist, you see. What a good thing, after all, that he didn't drift into diplomacy! As he's an American you can't expect Van Buren to be really modern, and he has all the old-fashioned ideas about what he calls culture. He wants to go in for being intellectual and artistic and knowing what he calls people with brains who really count. I mean he wants to meet people like Seymour Hicks and Waller, and Thomas Hardy, and so on, and not only celebrities and people who have made their name, but even people with a future, and, in fact, any peculiar, well-educated creatures—anything out of the way."
Romer looked rather dazed.
"Really? Then will Hicks or Hardy be asked in my place?"
Valentia laughed. "Don't be so absurdly literal and hopelessly idiotic, darling! No, of course not. But I dare say Harry will get—well—perhaps Rathbone, the tattooed man, his Oxford friend."
"Really! And will this chap's being tattooed make the party go off better?"
"Oh yes, Romer dear; in a sort of way, because it makes him interesting, although you can't see it. When he was quite young he was always having lifelong passions for people, and being tattooed in their honour. He has blue chain bracelets with initials on his left wrist, and a heart and an anchor with other initials on his right arm, and a flight of swallows—oh, and goodness knows what! In fact, when you come to think of it Mr. Rathbone is really a kind of serial story—with illustrations. I wonder Lord Northcliffe doesn't bring him out in monthly parts!" She laughed again. "Harry might even get Hereford Vaughan, the man who has written all the plays that are going on now. Harry knows him quite well, and Van Buren would be so pleased."
"Does Daphne want to many this American chap?"
"Good gracious, no! The idea! Why, she doesn't even know him!... Yes, of course she does, naturally."
Romer, though he never by any chance smiled at his wife's careless irresponsible chatter, nor laughed at her trivial jests, took the deepest interest in them, and would listen, as if under a charm, by the hour, to subtleties and frivolities that one would never have imagined he would enjoy. Sometimes the faint shadow of a smile would illuminate his face like a cold ray of wintry moonlight, but that was when she had ceased speaking. The smile was the effect of having watched the sparkle of her grey eyes, the expression of her pretty mouth, and her brilliant, sunshiny grace.
"It's very sweet of Harry," she said thoughtfully, "to do all this for me. It's all for me, or rather it's all for Daphne; he's so fond of Daphne."
"Really? Why doesn't he marry her himself?"
She looked surprised and blushed slightly.
"Harry? Why, he never marries!"
"He doesn't as a rule, I know," Romer admitted.
"Then, why should he make an exception for Daphne? He's fond of her—of us—in fact, devoted—just like a brother. Not that I ever saw a devoted brother. Besides, Harry's made to be a bachelor, and he isn't well off enough to marry."
"Really? Hard up? Poor chap! Never saw any sign of it."
"Hard up? No; how like you! Of course, he has plenty of money, for him, but he spends it all, poor boy. Anyhow, of course, he's not really rich like Van Buren. It's on a totally different scale—a different sort of thing altogether. But, of course, Van Buren may not care for Daphne; people have such funny tastes; and not only that, but if he adores and worships the ground she treads on I shan't let her dream of marrying him unless she absolutely returns it—at least, unless she likes him fairly well."
All this seemed to absorb Romer, and after a pause he said—
"I suppose you'll get Daphne a new dress for Harry's beano?"
Valentia smiled pityingly.
"Yes, of course, you would think that. No! Why, that would be l'enfance de l'art! First of all, Daphne looks ever so much better when she's dressed really simply, not the latest fashion; on the very verge of dowdiness! It suits her—shows her off. It would be silly to dress her up like a doll or make her look endimanchee on Thursday, or arranged and got up expensively, on purpose for Van Buren. I wouldn't, for instance, for anything, let her wear her new tulle dress from Armand! He'd see through it. Besides, I want her to contrast with me as if I'd taken any amount of trouble about my own appearance and none about hers. It'll make him pity her a little, and think how well she'd look in the sort of clothes he could give her. Besides, I myself am not going to be very smart—just tidy."
"How clever of you to guess! Well, now I must go and see Harry and hear all about the dinner, and tell him how sorry you are you can't come. And you're going to lunch at the Club, aren't you? And won't you go and dine with your mother on that evening?"
"I may as well."
"Do, Romer dear! I can't bear you to neglect her, although I never think it's safe to let you dine with her without me. She always takes advantage of my absence to be horrid about me, and then you will defend me, although I've implored you not to heaps of times, and then you quarrel. If, this time, she says I'm frivolous and worldly and an utter fool and very deep, you must agree with every word. I'm so fond of her, she's such a dear thing, it's too bad to worry her by contradicting her, and she has such a vile temper! Telephone and invite yourself—a pressing invitation, and give her my very best love."
Romer promised all she asked and then went out to the Club.
Valentia watched him through the window as he went. She thought he looked very well through a window, and ought by rights always to be seen in that way—as it were, under glass. She felt quite proud of him, of his smart appearance. In his way, he was an elaborate dandy, and spent years at his tailor's, slowly choosing the right thing. She remembered she had married him chiefly because of his fine presence and mysterious silence. She had thought at the time there must be so much at the back of it all, so much in him. He was in love with her and seemed difficult to understand. What could be more attractive? And now—well, he was ideally kind and good-natured. And she certainly felt sometimes that she couldn't even yet quite make him out. Then she gave a slight sigh, went to the door and called Daphne.
Daphne came in, trimming a hat. She had lived with the Wyburns ever since their marriage five years ago, and Valentia, having no children and a most passionately tender disposition—far too much natural affection to expend on Romer alone—lavished devotion on her sister. And Daphne was so nice and so pretty, almost as pretty as herself, in a satisfactorily different way. Valentia with her short straight features, grey eyes under dark brows, low forehead almost hidden by wavy fair hair, and a mouth curved and curled into subtle and complicated lines, was the type loved by Rossetti and Burne-Jones. She had a wonderful fair complexion, against which her long eyelashes showed, when she looked down, dark and effective, and though she was rather tall, slim and very modishly dressed, she never looked like a fashion-plate and had no air of being a mere mannequin for clothes, but seemed essentially real, with a suggestion in her personality of a beauty at once pagan and spiritual—the pagan predominating. Her pictorial appearance had no doubt made easier the artist's task, and the pale exquisite portrait had truly been described as a whispering likeness.
Daphne, who was not quite eighteen, was a good deal taller, and more slender. She had dark brown eyes, smooth dark hair, parted in the middle, a rather bright colour and features of the classic type. Her chin was rather long, and she had a brilliant, sudden smile, and all the attractive freshness and slight abruptness of her age, with an occasionally subdued air, caused by the shadow that had fallen on their youth by the death of their beautiful mother. Her gentle grace and touch of premeditated naivete made her charming. Beyond question she would be a great success.
"Romer can't go on Thursday," Valentia said, taking the needle and hat out of her sister's hand and beginning to sew. "I must go and see Harry and tell him to get some one else. Really, Daphne, you go too far! It's all very well to be clever with your needle, but you needn't tear a Lewis hat to pieces and turn it inside out without asking my advice."
"Oh, I wasn't! I was only squashing in the brim and trying to make the hat smaller. It seems to have got larger since I put it away."
"Don't be perfectly absurd, darling. It's because you've been seeing smaller hats lately."
"Oh yes, I see. Who's going instead of Romer?"
"How should I know? We'll see."
"It's just as you like, darling," said Daphne in her level voice; "but in case the American hates me, and I hate him, and Harry's talking to you all the time, and I'm frightened of the celebrities, isn't anything going to be done for me?"
"Of course not. What do you want? That Foster boy again? Don't look down and blush, it makes me sick. All right, perhaps, if there's room. He's a nice, decorative boy, but remember they don't dance at dinner, and that's the only thing he can do."
"Indeed it isn't!" cried Daphne.
"I'm very sorry to hear it. Suppose Foster's engaged, or at Aldershot?"
"He won't be. It's too sweet of Romer not going. Did you marry him because you knew he would do whatever you told him?"
"I don't think it was that so much," said Valentia, thoughtfully, trying on the hat in front of the glass. "I thought he was a strong silent man, a man with an orange up his sleeve, as it were. But I've never seen the orange."
"How funny of you! I should hate a mysterious person. You don't want your husband to be a kind of conjurer."
"Yes, I do, as long as he doesn't wear a conjurer's evening dress. I like being surprised. Now let's go and surprise Harry at his studio; we must be quick, he's expecting us."
Harry de Freyne stood in his usual position, smoking a cigarette, and leaning a little forward, with his back to the mirror as if to resist the temptation of looking into it. The family good looks were acutely accentuated in this young man. He had the smooth, glossy dark hair, white teeth, and speaking dark grey eyes that women like; clearly-cut features, and the rather prominent chin, generally and mistakenly supposed to show strength of character. His pleasant, clean-shaven, slightly sunburnt face bore an expression of animation with a certain humorous anxiety natural in a man who was generally a good deal in debt and always a little in love. Further he had the advantage of a tall, strong yet supple figure, with a natural grace of movement and much personal charm. Harry knew he was good-looking and did not undervalue the fact, but regarded it solely as an asset, not as a private satisfaction. He regarded everything as an asset. He was no fop, although he wore a single eye-glass rather as a concession to some ideal of dandyism than as a help to clear vision. He could see remarkably well, with or without it.
The long Empire mirror was placed above a delightful early English large open fireplace, in which burnt a Parisian-looking wood fire. Harry was the possessor of a fine—indeed, a magnificent studio, full of good old things, chiefly other people's, and bad new things, principally his own. The theory that all bad art is the result of sincere feeling was certainly not exemplified in his case. The portrait of his cousin that had been regarded as so full of promise was, as he always, said, the only decent piece of work he had ever done. He had been educated for diplomacy, and learnt eight languages, some of which he spoke fluently, and in all of which he could look with expression.
The room was no mere exhibition of bric-a-brac, but was a cosy, shadowy, miscellaneous place, not without an ecclesiastical touch here and there. One felt every subject could be gone into there, from stockbroking to love, and that everything could be done there, whether it was praying, eating, singing, or flirting—everything except perhaps painting.
When the servant announced Mrs. Wyburn and Miss de Freyne one might have fancied Harry looked slightly disappointed, but he greeted the pretty creatures with suitable effusion and high spirits.
They both sat down rather carefully in the corner seats by the fire.
"Romer can't come, he's dining with his mother," announced Valentia. "He ought to, you know, now and then."
"I don't like her," said Daphne, "she abuses every one."
"I know she does, but she's really not so bad, dear, all the same; there are many worse. She's rather spiteful, but warmhearted—awfully kind if you break your leg," said Valentia.
"But you don't break your leg," said Harry.
"Oh, sometimes you do. At any rate you might. Don't encourage Daphne to argue, Harry. Who did you say you'd ask instead if we couldn't get Romer?"
"Rathbone's just written to accept in his place," said Harry, taking out a letter. "But—don't you think we could persuade Romer if we tried hard? However, you know best."
He took out a list. "Hereford Vaughan, Van Buren, Rathbone and me—that's four; you two, Lady Walmer, and Miss Luscombe, the actress. I think that'll do."
"Lady Walmer?" repeated Valentia. "Why?"
"And a real actress!" murmured Daphne.
"Not a real actress. She's walked on at all the principal theatres in London, and somebody's always going to take a theatre for her, but there's no danger. I told Van Buren that on the stage they think she's in society, and in society they believe she's on the stage. And he thinks it's real cute, and an extraordinary English type."
"How are you getting on with him?"
"Beautifully,—if he weren't so beastly intelligent and inquisitive. He always wants to know all the news and all the latest gossip. What do you think he asked me last night? Why Big Ben was called Big Ben! How on earth should I know!"
"Not big anybody;—the place, the thing;—the clock. He said no doubt I must think him dreadfully ignorant for not knowing, but he felt he must ask."
Smiling at the recollection, Harry lighted another cigarette.
"What did you say?" Daphne asked.
"If it had been the afternoon I think I'd have taken the risk and told him I didn't know, but as it was the evening—he always gets rather excited in the evening after dinner and so much Perrier water,—walking back to the Ritz in the moonlight, and talking about London, I invented a long story.—No, he won't repeat it, don't be frightened; it was really rather awful; and when Van Buren gives you his word of honour not to tell a thing ..."
"You're all right! That must be a great help," said Valentia sympathetically.
"It shows he has a nice loyal nature," Daphne remarked. "I admire that sort of thing very much."
"A nice loyal nature! I should think he has! He hates spreading scandal, and he wouldn't say a single word now to take away the character of Big Ben—if it was——"
"Oh, if it was ever so! You ought to make Daphne wear one of those thin tulle veils to match her hat. They're jolly—you can get them at that shop close to me."
"Oh, she needn't, she's going to be manicured, and she's coming back here for me in a quarter of an hour."
"Good-bye, darling," said Daphne, standing up, and she made a kind of face, which Valentia understood to mean the word Foster.
"What is the child playing at?" said Harry. "If you two have a code it would be as well to learn it."
"All right," said Valentia to Daphne.
Harry walked with her to the door and she ran out, saying, "I won't be long."
"She wants Foster, the baby Guardsman," explained Valentia.
"Oh, why didn't you say so at first? Of course I suppose they've arranged it. At any rate it's as good as done. Then there must be one more woman. But never mind now."
Harry sat down beside her and said, in a different voice—he had a very good voice, especially when he spoke caressingly—
"How interesting you are! One of your eyebrows is a little thicker than the other."
"How are we all going to get home that evening?"
"What do you think?" she asked.
"Well, it's like this, as you may say. We'll all meet at the Ritz and dine there. Good. Then we drive in separate vehicles to here, and have some music. Then I see you both home, and—well, I think that's all. It's not much."
"I don't quite like the way Lady Walmer looks at you, Harry."
"Oh, Valentia! If it comes to that, how do you fondly imagine I shall like the way Rathbone is sure to look at you?"
"Oh, Harry! Why, he's tattooed!"
"You see," went on Harry seriously, "I really am making a dash for it about Daphne. She'll really be happy with Van Buren, and I shall be ever so much happier,—with Van Buren and everyone else,—because, through Daphne being always with you, I never see you alone for one single second."
"Oh, you exaggerate, Harry!"
"I know I do. I don't see you for half a second."
"Romer has been so nice lately," she answered gently.
"Very amusing, I suppose?"
"But—I often think how very nice he really is."
"Oh, don't say that, even in fun. I'm coming to stay with you in the summer—at the Green Gate—unless you'd rather ask Rathbone instead."
"Or unless you'd rather go yachting with the Walmers," she remarked. "They have a daughter, haven't they?"
"Oh, Valentia, be anything but blasphemous!..."
"Really?... Oh, Harry!"
"Do you mean to say you need my saying it?"
"Then, I will. Valentia, I—"
She got up and opened the door so that Daphne should not have to ring when she returned.
When the two sisters left a few minutes later, Harry sat down again as if in deep thought and lighted a cigarette. His servant came in.
"Please, sir, Mr. Van Buren is at the telephone."
"Oh well, tell him ... Oh no—, all right—I'll go."
"It's extremely kind of you, Harry, to let me come around like this in the morning. I dare say you want to be working sometimes. I'm really afraid of being in the way, but I was rather at a loose end this morning and I wanted to have a talk with you," said Van Buren apologetically.
"Rot. Awfully glad to see you, old chap. Have a cigarette?"
"Thanks, Harry, no. I find I'm very much better if I don't smoke till after tea.... We're intimate friends now, and yet you never call me anything but my surname, or 'old chap'. That reminds me, there's a little request I'd like to make of you, Harry."
"Call me Matthew—no, call me plain Mat. It would give me real pleasure."
Harry smiled rather loudly—
"My dear fellow, I couldn't call you plain Mat. It wouldn't be suitable! You're too good-looking!"
Van Buren smiled and shook his head. In its way it was a handsome head in the fair, clean-shaven American style, with shining blond hair. He had very broad shoulders, and a very thin waist, and that naive worldliness of air so captivating in many of his countrymen.
Except that he wore a buttonhole of Parma violets, he was dressed in every particular exactly like Harry. But no one would have believed it—he looked so much better dressed.
"That's your chaff, Harry. I'm not a Gibson man, and I don't pretend to be."
He looked at his hands, which were small and white, the finger-tips brilliantly polished, and said meditatively—
"I'm very much looking forward to meeting your cousin, Harry. I expect she's the ideal of a young English lady. Dark, did you say?"
"Rather dark, and very pretty."
"It's a curious thing, Harry, that to me a broonette has always more fascination than a blonde. It seems—I may be wrong—as though there's more piquancy, more character."
"I quite agree with you," said Harry. "Now the sister—the married one—is very fair."
"And she's quite what you call a professional beauty, isn't she?" asked Van Buren with great relish.
"My dear fellow, I don't call anyone a professional beauty, and you mustn't either. There's no such thing. I can't think how in America you get hold of these prehistoric phrases! The expression must have been dead long before either of us was born!... Still, she is a beauty all the same."
"Is that so? Mind you, Harry, there's something very attractive about a blonde, too. To me golden hair and blue eyes suggest gentleness and womanliness.... What is Mrs. Wyburn like?"
"Well, she's rather like an angel on a Christmas card, with her hair down—I mean she was, as a little girl," said Harry quickly. "Now she's considered like 'Love among the Roses' by Burne-Jones."
"Do you really mean that, Harry? Why, she must be more beautiful than Miss de Freyne!"
"I wouldn't worry about her, if I were you," Harry said.
"Why not, Harry?"
"Well, you see she's got a husband," said Harry, looking at the ceiling as he puffed his cigarette.
"And a cousin," replied Van Buren with unexpected quickness. He then burst out laughing.
"What do you mean?" asked Harry, not laughing.
"Harry, I do beg of you to forgive my indiscretion. I'm afraid you'll think it shows great want of delicacy on my part. It was only meant for English chaff. Don't be angry, Harry." Van Buren was quite distressed.
"That's all right, old chap."
"You see, I know you painted her portrait, and if you had felt a little sentiment for her, who could blame you? Of course, I'm well aware that you're far too much a man of high principle to come any way between a woman and her husband, or even to let her know if you had a fancy in that direction.... I thoroughly do you justice there, Harry."
"I regard them as sisters," answered Harry.
Van Buren went to the window and stood looking out for a few minutes.
"Well, they are sisters.... What a wonderful place your London is!" he said. "Now there's the sort of thing I never can understand, which has just happened. A lady called a taxicab. Just as it came up a man—at least I suppose he calls himself a man—opened the door. I thought he meant to help her in. No! He got in himself and drove away.—Now, Harry, how do you account for that?"
"I suppose he could walk quicker," said Harry.
"It's the one fault I have to find with you Englishmen, Harry—the single fault. You're not gallant enough to the ladies. Nor is there, in my opinion, quite enough respect shown to them. I am always astonished, I admit, that they don't resent it. Why, in New York——."
"My dear fellow, they complain bitterly that there's too much respect shown to them already," said Harry. "A little more, and they'd do without us altogether!"
Van Buren laughed cheerily, and clapped Harry on the shoulder.
"What a fellow you are for chaff! Now, will you come around and have lunch with me?"
"When? Now? Thanks, old chap."
"That's real good, Harry," said Van Buren, his eyes sparkling with joy, "and we'll walk down Piccadilly together. I must say ..."
"I shan't feel we're real pals till you call me Mat!"
Harry shivered ostentatiously.
They went out, both laughing with great cordiality.
At the corner Van Buren stopped to throw away his buttonhole. He saw they were not being worn.
THE ELDER MRS. WYBURN
Romer's mother usually received him with a sarcastic remark, such as "Oh, so you remember that I'm not dead yet?" or "I wonder you find time to come at all," or something of the same nature, calculated to cast a gloom over any visit.
The widow of a rich brewer, Mrs. Wyburn lived in a bad-tempered looking old house in Curzon Street, with a harassed footman, a domineering maid, a cross cook, and other servants that were continually changing. She was one of those excellent housekeepers who spend most of their time "giving notice" and "taking up" characters. She nearly always wore a hard-looking black silk dress. She had parted black hair, long earrings, and a knot of rare old imitation lace at her throat. Eagerness, impatience, love of teasing and sharp wit were visible in her face to one who could read between the lines. But, notwithstanding this, as she had a soft heart and plenty of hard cash, she was not altogether unpopular. People enjoyed going to hear the nasty things she said about their friends. She had a real succes de scandale on her Wednesdays, notwithstanding the fact that a more highly respectable lady had never existed in the world.
She adored Romer, although his slow speech and long pauses often drove her to the very verge of violence.
"Thought I'd look in," he remarked, rather heavily taking a seat in the dark drawing-room, and he proceeded by slow stages to tell her that he was coming to dinner on Thursday because Valentia was going out.
She gave him a quick look, combined of motherly pride and annoyance.
"Delighted, of course, dear. Who did you say was Valentia's hostess?"
"She's going with Daphne. Harry's dinner. At some restaurant."
"Oh, indeed!... Well, if you approve of these Bohemian arrangements it's not my business. I have my own opinion of Harry de Freyne; I always have had—and I shall keep it."
"Do," said Romer, unconsciously epigrammatic.
She waited a minute and then said—
"I don't wish to worry you, my dear ..."
"... But I, personally, if I were a man ... perhaps I oughtn't to say it—if I saw my wife so much in the society of a person like Harry de Freyne—upon my word, I should begin to ask myself what were their relations!"
"Cousins," said Romer.
He began to tap his foot slowly against the rail of the chair, but remembered Valentia's constant advice, and decided he would not quarrel.
"Well, you know your affairs best, dear. I'm only an interfering disagreeable old woman, who knows very little of modern customs and ways."
He nodded sympathetically, without answering.
"I love and admire Valentia—in many ways. She's so pretty, but not a mere doll! And we women—even the happiest of us—have to go through so much! Does she go through the housekeeping books herself, dear?" Mrs. Wyburn inquired, with dangerous sweetness.
"Shouldn't think so."
"Ah! that seems rather a pity. Still, I'm just to every one, and I will say that she's not extravagant—but has so much cleverness that she could manage very well on half the allowance you give her!"
"Is that new—that china bird?" Romer asked, getting up to look at a strange, shiny, abnormal-looking parrot on a twig that adorned the mantelpiece.
"Do you like it?" she asked.
"It seems all right. Rather jolly."
"Oh! Well, it's funny you haven't noticed it before. Considering it's been there all your life, and you used to play with it when you were four, it's odd it's escaped your notice. You played with it when you were four!" she repeated, growing rather heated.
"Did I though?"
"But things do escape your notice—that's just the point. I sometimes wish I didn't see so much myself."
"So do I," he answered. "May I smoke, mother?"
"Of course you may, dear. You may do anything on earth you like. Have some tea? I never have anything but China tea, so it won't do you any harm."
"I hate China tea," he answered reflectively, after what seemed to his mother about half an hour's deep thought.
... "But what I always have said about Valentia is that though we all admit, dear, that she has charming manners, is bright and amusing and very sweet——"
"Outwardly, is there anything behind it all? Has she any depth?" She quickly answered her own question, "I think she has; a great deal. I believe Valentia is extremely clever in her own way; she turns you round her little finger. But that wouldn't matter so much—anything's better than quarrelling and snapping and finding fault continually—which is a thing I hate. But, really, there's one point I'm quite anxious about—in fact, I often lie awake the whole night—the entire night—and wake up in the morning utterly worn out through thinking about it, Romer dear. There's nothing like a mother's heart—and this does make me anxious, I own."
"Why, that she should ever be talked about! That she should be considered a flirt—and that sort of thing! I couldn't bear the idea of my son's wife having her name coupled with that of any young man—or any nonsense of that sort. It would be most painful to me. I'm sure I ask every one who knows her if anything of that kind is ever said."
Romer threw away the cigarette and stood up.
"What infernal rot!" he said, with a heightened colour.
Her eyes brightened with pleasure. She was delighted to have irritated him at last out of his calmness.
"Well, well, perhaps I'm a little over-anxious. It's all love, all devotion to you, dear. Of course, people do talk. There's no doubt about that; but good gracious! we all know there's nothing in it. Don't we? Don't be cross with your poor old mother, Romer."
"That's all right. I must be off. Eight on Thursday, eh?"
She kissed him affectionately, walked with him to the landing, where she kept him for about ten minutes complaining of the awful worry she had had about the under-housemaid, and of the sickening impossibility of getting a piano-tuner to attend to the instrument properly without making any sound.
"For I'm a mass of nerves, my dear. Give my best love to dear Valentia."
Romer walked back, trying to throw off the irritating effect of his mother's pin-pricks. As was his usual custom when he was a little depressed, he went home and sat down in front of his wife's portrait. He often sat there for an hour when she was out, looking at it. Any one watching him would have thought he was in a state of calm and stupid content. In reality, he was worshipping. His passion for his wife was his one romance, his one interest, his one thought. He had been married five years, and had never yet expressed it in words. He was one of the unfortunate people who are not gifted with the power of expression, either in word or look. He was practically inarticulate.
As he gazed at the picture—he was feeling a little sad—the sadness melted away. The frail figure, bright yet dim, vaguely appearing through vaporous curtains, holding an impossible gold flower, had the effect on him of a beautiful Madonna on a deeply devout Catholic. It produced in him a form of religious ecstasy. He adored her with passion, and with the selfishness and jealousy of passion, but circumstances and his temperament caused it to take the outward form, principally, of care for her happiness. When she was actually present, she still dazzled him so much that he could show his feeling only by listening to and agreeing with every word she said, by doing what she asked him, and by trying to protect her, often without her knowledge, from any kind of pain or trouble. She would have been amazed had she realised the violence of his devotion to her. Apparently cool and matter-of-fact, he was in reality a reticent fanatic. He neither analysed nor showed his sentiment, nor did he himself know its extent. He wondered why certain people, certain subjects gave him pain. He trusted Valentia absolutely, nor could she in his eyes do wrong, and it was only with the subconscious second sight of love that he sometimes felt a curious and melancholy presentiment. He did not know himself that this suffering was jealousy.
What nonsense his mother talked!...
Harry!... Harry was the best fellow in the world—almost like a brother, his greatest friend, though not exactly an intimate friend. Romer was too shy to be intimate with any one. Harry was lively, amusing, a brilliant talker; kind, good-natured, a capital chap. He appreciated Valentia, or he could not have painted that portrait. Romer was very grateful for the portrait; yet it sometimes hurt him to think Harry had painted it. It showed how well Harry understood Valentia.
This thought Romer always suppressed. He thought it was mean, and he could not be mean.
He looked out of the window. It was raining—a chilly spring shower—but there was a stir in the air, a rattle in the town, a sense of something that was going to happen; summer was not far off, and in the summer, at the end of the season, they would go down to the Green Gate, the lovely country house with the dream garden as Valentia called it, all built, planted, and arranged on purpose for her. Valentia was more herself at the Green Gate than anywhere else. Leisure suited her, and roses.
Every year Romer silently counted the weeks until they went back there. It was where he was happiest. Of course, they were not alone. Dear little Daphne was always with them, dear little thing (she was nearly six feet high)—and other people, very often, and Harry—always Harry. Perhaps Daphne would marry soon, but what about Harry?
Romer felt rather wearied when he remembered Valentia had said Harry was made to be a bachelor. Was he tired of Harry? Not a bit! Harry was a capital chap; besides, he didn't see so very much of him in London.
Heaps of people admired Valentia, and that did not annoy Romer at all (though it did not please him particularly), but he knew, again subconsciously, that Valentia cared less than nothing for any admirers, but she certainly was awfully fond of Harry. And no wonder! Harry was the best fellow in the world—lively, amusing, quite a brilliant talker; kind, good natured, and he appreciated Valentia, or he could not have painted that portrait....
Round and round the same thoughts passed through his brain.
It was raining—a chilly spring shower. Had Valentia got her wrap with her?
He got up, went into the hall, and saw her fur cloak hanging on a peg.
She evidently didn't care for it. She was tired of it—perhaps it was out of fashion; if so, she would never wear it. She might catch cold.
He was not a prompt man, but he went at once to the telephone and gave orders to a shop in Bond Street that would result in a collection of fur-lined cloaks being sent for her choice that evening. This would please her; she would smile and try them on. Besides, it would prevent her catching cold.
Van Buren, who was a business man, was an idealist; while Harry de Freyne, the artist—was, emphatically, not.
Van Buren had been brought up on Thackeray and Dickens, above all on old pictures from Punch; Du Maurier's drawings enjoyed at an early age had made him romantic about everything connected with London. As soon as he was able to leave his bank in New York—in fact, the moment he had retired from business—he had realised his dream and come to live in London. And Harry seemed to him the incarnation of everything delightfully, amusingly English. He had a real hero-worship for Harry, who was so astonishingly clever as well. Van Buren was not a snobbish Anglomaniac, at least his snobbishness was not of the common quality nor about the obvious things; he was a little ashamed of his money, but he did not worship rank and titles; it was Intellect—but Intellect that had the stamp of fashion—that held a glamour for him. So did everything that he supposed to be modern, previous, and up-to-date. No one could ever, whether in New York or in London, have been in life less modern than poor Van Buren, though he was eminently contemporary and perhaps even in advance in matters connected with business. For business he had genius, and yet, curiously, no passion; he was unconsciously brilliant on the subject; it was hereditary. But in his innermost heart he believed that it was vulgar to be an American millionaire! And he had a childish horror of vulgarity, and an innocent belief that an Englishman who had been to Eton and Oxford and who was dans le mouvement, smart and good-looking, and had deserted diplomacy for art, must of necessity be refined, superior, cultured, everything that Van Buren wanted to be.
Of course he soon found out that Harry was frightfully hard up, and in the most delicate manner imaginable—a delicacy rather wasted on his friend—implored, as a special favour, to be allowed to be his banker. But Harry had refused, having vague ideas of much more important extent than a mere loan with regard to making Van Buren useful. He had thus gone up in his friend's estimation, at the same time placing him under a great and deeply felt obligation by gratifying his fancy for knowing clever people and celebrities.
At last the friendship had culminated in Harry's suggestion of a marriage between his young cousin, Daphne, and Van Buren. Harry felt that if he could compass this arrangement he would at one stroke give fortune to Daphne, freedom to himself—the child was very much in his way in Valentia's house—and make Van Buren eternally grateful.
Harry really liked Van Buren and respected him; he regarded him as touching, but also, at times, as a menace. A shadow sometimes came over their friendship, the alarming shadow of the future bore. What was now to his cynical mind screamingly funny about the American—his sensitive delicate feelings, his high standard of morals with regard to what he called the ladies, and illusions that one would rarely find in London in a girl of seventeen, might some day develop into priggishness and tediousness, and—especially—would take up too much time. For since Harry had been intimate with Van Buren he had discovered that the tradition of American hustling was, like most traditions, a fiction. Americans always have time; Englishmen never. The leisurely way in which Van Buren talked was an example of this—it was the way he thought; his brain worked slowly. Harry and his like have no time to drawl; they have to keep appointments.
On the evening of the Ritz dinner-party Harry was not in a particularly good temper, and thought to himself he was rather like a Barnum as he introduced his guests one by one to the modest millionaire, who said to them all, "Pleased to meet you", and fixed his admiring glance with a sentimental respect on Daphne, an undisguised admiration on Valentia, and an almost morbid curiosity on Miss Luscombe, the first actress he had ever met.
Miss Luscombe was a conventional, rather untidy-looking creature, very handsome, with loose hair parted and waved over her ears, and with apparently no design or general idea either in her dress or manner. She varied from minute to minute from being what she thought theatrical to appearing what she supposed to be social. She evidently hadn't settled on her pose, always a disastrous moment for a natural woman who wishes to be artificial. Practically she always wore evening dress except in the evening, so while at her own flat in the afternoon she was photographed in a decolletee tea-gown, this evening she was dressed as if for Ascot, except for the hat, with an emaciated feather boa and a tired embroidered crepe de Chine scarf thrown over her shoulders, also a fan, long gloves, and a rose in her hair by way of hedging. To these ornaments she added a cold, of which she complained as soon as she saw the other guests. But no one listened. No one ever listened to Miss Luscombe, no one ever could, and yet in a way she was popular—a kind of pet among a rather large circle of people. Women never disliked her because she created no jealousy and always unconsciously put herself at a disadvantage; men did not mind her prattle and coquettish airs, being well aware that nothing was expected of them. For Miss Luscombe, though vain, was a pessimist, and quite good-natured. She was also a standing joke.
The other guests besides Valentia in yellow and Daphne in pink—both looking as fresh as daisies and as civilised as orchids—consisted of Lady Walmer, a smart, good-looking, commonplace woman, rather fatter than she wished to be, but very straight-fronted, straightforward, and sporting, with dark red hair and splendid jewels; a faded yet powerful beauty who had been admired in the eighties, but had only had real success since she turned forty-six.
With her was her daughter, a girl who at the first glance looked eight feet high, but who really was not very much above the average length. She was a splendid athlete, and her talk was principally of hockey. She wore a very smart white dress and had a dark brown neck, pretty fair hair, and an entirely unaffected bonhomie that quite carried off the harshness of her want of style or charm—in fact it had a charm of its own. Besides, it was well known that her grandmother had left her an estate in the country and L 7000 a year, and that Lady Walmer was anxious to get her married. Hence Miss Walmer never wanted for partners at balls nor for attention anywhere, but—it was always for le bon motif. As Valentia said, she was the sort of girl (poor girl!) that one could only marry.
Hereford Vaughan, who was an object of considerable curiosity to several of the guests on account of his phenomenal success in having eleven plays at the same time being performed in London, New York, Berlin, Paris, and every other European city, was, to those who did not know him before, an agreeable surprise. Heaven knows what exactly people expected of him; perhaps the men feared 'side' and the women that he would be overpowering after so many triumphs, but he was merely a rather pale, dark, and rather handsome young man. He behaved like anybody else, except that perhaps his manner was a little quieter than the average. Unless one was very observant (which one isn't), or unless one listened to what he said, he did not at first appear too alarmingly clever. He had one or two characteristics which must have at times led to misunderstandings. One was that whatever or whoever he looked at, his dark opaque eyes were so full of vivid expression that women often mistook for admiration what was often merely observation. For instance, when he glanced at Lady Walmer she at once became quite confused, and intensely flattered, nearly blushed and asked him to dinner. While, if she had but known, behind that dark glance was merely the thought, "So that's the woman that Royalty ... What extraordinary taste!"
Hereford Vaughan, who was himself thirty-four, did not share in the modern taste for the battered as a charm in itself, though he could forgive it—or, indeed, anything else—if he were amused.
Knowing that Miss Luscombe, hoping for a part, would be painfully nice to Vaughan, Harry had good-naturedly placed them as far apart as possible. Nevertheless she leaned across the table and said—
"How do you think of all these clever things, Mr. Vaughan? I can't think how you do it!"
"Yes, indeed, we'd all like to know that," said Captain Foster, the baby Guardsman, as Valentia called him. He spoke enviously. He was a perfectly beautiful blond, delightfully stupid, and had been longing for enough money to marry somebody ever since he was seventeen.
"I'm sure I'd jolly soon write a play if I only knew how."
"It's perfectly easy, really," said Vaughan; "it's just a knack."
"Is it though?"
"How do you get the things taken?"
"Oh, that's a mere fluke—a bit of luck," said Vaughan.
Every one who heard this sighed with relief to think that was how he regarded it.
Vaughan always used this exaggerated modesty as an armour against envy, for envy, as a rule, is of success rather than of merit. No one would have objected to his talent deserving recognition—only to his getting it.
"Now what do you think of Miss Luscombe?" Valentia asked the dramatist.
"I don't think of her. I never regard people on the stage as real people," Vaughan answered.
"Don't you, really? Well, you ought to know. You have made a sort of corner in 'leading ladies'. What curious clothes she wears!"
"Doesn't she? On the stage she dresses like an actress, and off the stage she doesn't dress like a lady. She's so extraordinarily vague," he said.
"Yes; and yet I've heard that, though she's so dreamy and romantic, she's quite wonderfully practical, really. She never accepts an engagement unless she gets a large salary—and all that sort of thing."
"I see. She lives in the clouds, but she insists on their having a silver lining," said Vaughan. "Who's the pink young man she's confiding in now?"
"It's Mr. Rathbone. He likes theatres—at least he collects programmes and posters, I think. Besides, he's tattooed."
"Oh, yes. That must be a great help in listening to Miss Luscombe. He's been trained to suffer."
Miss Luscombe was talking rather loudly and most confidentially to Rathbone, who had an expression of willing—but agonised—martyrdom on his fair pink, clean-shaven features.
"I told dear George Alexander that I would have been only too pleased to understudy Irene in the new piece—in fact, it would have just suited me, Mr. Rathbone, and left me plenty of time for my social engagements too. Besides, if I once got a chance of a part like that I feel I should have made a hit. Oh, it was a cruel disappointment! After being too charming to me—or, at any rate, I was charming to him at the Cashmores' reception, you know—I remember he was standing in the refreshment-room with Mrs. Cashmore, and I went straight up to him and said, 'Don't you remember me, Mr. Alexander?'—and after all this he only promised me—and that conditionally—a horrid, silly little part in the curtain-raiser in No. 2 B Company on tour. On tour! Of course I refused that—one must keep up one's prestige, Mr. Rathbone. There's a great deal of injustice in the profession. Talent counts for nothing—it's all influence. But I've always had a great ambition ever since I was a little girl." Miss Luscombe put her head on one side and talked as she had to the interviewer of The Perfect Lady. "It was always my dream—do you know?—to marry a great actor—or, at any rate, to be his great friend—like Irving and Ellen Terry—that sort of thing—a great, lifelong friendship! And as a child I was madly in love with the elder George Grossmith, but I don't think he ever knew it. Too bad!"
She pouted childishly, gave her arch musical laugh with its three soprano notes and upward inflection, and then accepted a quail with a heavy sigh.
"When I was a boy," said Rathbone in a low concentrated voice of reminiscence—he spoke rather quickly, for he had been trying in vain during the whole of dinner to get a word in edgeways and feared to lose his chance now—"when I was a boy I was in love, too, with some one on the stage. Between ourselves—you won't mention it, will you, Miss Luscombe?——"
"You can trust me," she said earnestly, with a look of Julia Neilson.
"Good! Well, I was in love, and I've got her initials—C. L.—tattooed on me now!"
"Impossible! How exciting! Who is C. L.?"
He looked round the table and murmured in a low voice, "Cissie Loftus. Isn't it odd? I wrote and told her about it, but I never received an answer to my letter."
"Poor, poor boy! I call that really touching! Will you show me the initials some day?"
"Oh no. Impossible." He was stern, adamantine. She hastily went on. "So you're very keen—interested in the stage, Mr. Rathbone?"
"Well, in the stage door. I collect programmes, and I haven't missed a first night since I was twenty!"
"Fancy! Then I ought to remember your face, at all the theatres!"
"I mean at the Gaiety," he said, "only the Gaiety."
"Oh, the Gaiety!" she turned her shoulder to him.
* * * * *
"Yes, Miss Daphne, if you would come out to New York you'd have a real good time. You'd turn all the young fellow's heads. I'm afraid you'd do a terrible amount of damage there. I should like to show you and Mrs. Wyburn Newport in the season, too. You ladies have it all your own way over the other side of——may I say, the herringpond?"
"Oh, please do; yes, do say the herringpond!"
Daphne leant forward and said to Harry:
"Do you know who is that very distinguished-looking man who has just come in—rather weary and a little grey on the temples? He bowed and kissed the woman's hand so charmingly—at the next table to us. Looks like a great diplomatist."
"Then he must be a stockbroker," said Valentia decidedly. "Every one with the grand manner always is."
"Really! I can't say; I don't know any stockbrokers," said Miss Luscombe.
"How distinguished that sounds!" murmured Vaughan.
"It's very clever of you, Miss Luscombe," said Lady Walmer; "I don't see how you can help it! I know nobody else. I always tell Alec she'll have to marry one, and when she says she doesn't want to, 'My dear child,' I say, 'you can't marry people you don't see!' And almost the only people she ever sees at our house are stockbrokers—except a few soldiers who never have a penny."
Alec was the daughter, named after her distinguished godmother.
"It's quite gone out to be snobbish now," Lady Walmer continued in a lower voice to Harry. "We're all only too glad to take all we can get in exchange for anything we give!"
"And you don't call that snobbish?" said Harry.
"My dear, no!—of course, we give as little as possible. I talk like this and yet I married for love—and you know the result! Walmer's always gambling, always running after—goodness knows what—and leaves me—not quite in the gutter, but certainly on the kerb!"
"Don't you want Alec to marry for love?"
"I'm afraid she'll have to, my dear—she's not very attractive. It's a blessing she's an heiress. But if she's allowed to play hockey, and skate, and fence, and dance, and the husband is fairly kind to her, I'm sure she'll be happy—I mean, I have no idea of her marrying a duke, Harry. I shall be satisfied if he's a charming man, and not too selfish." She lowered her voice still more to add—"You know she likes you, poor child, don't you?"
"You're making fun of me, dear Lady Walmer."
"No, I'm not.... Walmer's taken 'Flying Fish' again, and after Cowes we're going for a long cruise. You must come with us. Her father will be all right. He lets me have my own way about her. Well, aren't you coming?"
"You're too frightfully kind, Lady Walmer, of course. But——"
"My dear boy, of course you're going to the Green Gate, but I wish you'd listen to a woman of the world. That," she gave Valentia a piercing glance, "can't go on for ever! You will find Romer making a row some day, and that will be a bore for you. He's just the sort of man who would."
Valentia, noticing their confidential tone and feeling instinctively that some treachery was in the air, looked once angrily at Harry and then became apparently absorbed in the conversation of Vaughan.
Every one was talking volubly and gaily. Only Daphne and Captain Foster were silent as they sat side by side looking at their plates. But they were the only people who had found the dinner a real success.
Harry, who with all his usage du monde was peculiarly subject to sudden obscure impulses as of the primitive man, became pale with a strange and painful sensation as he looked at Valentia.
She was flirting with Vaughan, or so every one present must be thinking. Of course it was only from pique, and he would soon put a stop to it.
And Vaughan, with his ironical glance and quiet manner, why did he look into her eyes all the time?
What was he saying?
Harry asked them all to come back to the studio for some music, but even as he made the arrangement to drive Valentia, he remembered that, a la fin des fins, he would have to leave her at her husband's house. Would Romer be sitting up? What an ass he was! What rot the whole dinner was! It was all through Van Buren. Van Buren was a fool. Confound Romer!
Harry was jealous.
"More flowers from Van Buren? Let me look at them. A spray of lilies of the valley; how touching! He expects you to wear them at the opera. I think it's such a mistake to wear real flowers on an evening dress. They have a damp, chilly look, like fresh vegetables, at first, and when they begin to fade they make you look faded, too. Never mind, Daphne; I think perhaps you'd better wear them just to-night," said Valentia.
"Yesterday," said Daphne, "he sent me that basket of American Beauty roses. The day before he sent me Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poems."
Valentia smiled. "Poor darling!—I mean Van Buren's a poor darling, not you. You see, he's got the nice sort of Boston idea that a man ought only to send a girl flowers or books, or music. He thinks it's respectful. But, anyway, it's a very good sign."
"A good sign? But I thought there was so much of that sort of thing—I mean fuss and attention, to girls in America. I thought that didn't mean anything. I mean anything particular."
"Daphne, dear, don't blind yourself; don't shut your eyes to obvious facts. It isn't a matter of what you think or what I think, or of speculation at all. I happen to know that Van Buren is going to propose to you. He'll probably do it at Henley or at Sandown, or in the Park. He's certain to want it to be on a typically English background; but you can take it from me, for a dead cert, that it's bound to come."
Daphne sat down and looked serious.
"Valentia, it's no good. Don't let him do it. It will be so frightfully uncomfortable meeting him afterwards."
"Frightfully uncomfortable meeting the man to whom you're engaged? Why?"
"Because I shan't be engaged to him."
"I shall never marry, Valentia."
Valentia stared at her in silence.
"What is your idea, darling? Why, you won't be eighteen till June. You can't be sure you'll never want to marry!"
"Well, I don't care for Van Buren."
"I thought you liked him so much?"
"Well, he seems all right at first. But I simply couldn't stand him always about."
"Couldn't you? Poor pet! But he mightn't be always about."
"Well, I couldn't stand his marked attention. Valentia, I hate marked attention."
"Do you, really? Who'd have thought it?"
"Well—and he'd always be so considerate and so thoughtful and so respectful!"
"That mightn't last when you were married," said Valentia consolingly.
"Perhaps he might not be so bad after we were once married.... But I shouldn't like to risk it. And the engagement! Oh! I couldn't simply stand the engagement! Just think of the ring, and the sentiment, and the fuss, and the letters! Oh, he'd enjoy it all so much! Oh, it would make me simply sick to see how pleased he'd be!"
"I know that feeling," said Valentia sympathetically, nodding her head.
"Oh, and don't you see how he'd think he was engaged to a well-brought-up, nice English girl who was a relation of Harry's, and knew all the right people, and all that sort of thing? And he'd take a big house—he's hinted this to me already—most likely in Park Lane—anyhow, something just like a millionaire in a book. It's all so dull, and cut-and-dried."
"Some of these cut-and-dried obvious things turn out quite jolly afterwards. It's the uncomfortable, romantic things that are more often failures. And you know, Daphne, you do like pretty things and clothes, and going everywhere, and—not only that, he's really such a dear, and a good sort, and so good-looking! And you'd put me into a very awkward position with Harry if you refuse him. But, of course, darling, you must do as you like."
"Well, then, Valentia, don't let me refuse him. I don't want to. Don't let it come to that. I'm sure I should loathe to hear him propose."
"It would make me sick."
"What can I tell Harry really as your reason for not being able to stand Van?"
"I'm sure I don't know!"
"He bores you," announced Valentia. "That's what's the matter. He doesn't amuse you."
"It isn't that, it isn't that!" cried Daphne vehemently. "I don't want to be amused. Do you think I like a man because he's clever, or funny, and always making jokes? That bores me frightfully. Harry's way of being lively and clever bores me to death! I don't want to marry a professional entertainer! No, Valentia, that's more the sort of thing you'd like. You're quite sorry Romer's not like that."
"I don't suggest that it would be ideal to marry Harry Lauder, Daphne dear. But wouldn't you really like someone fairly intelligent?"
"No. Why should I? Do you think I want to marry a man so horribly clever that he wouldn't understand a word I said?"
"Let's have it out, dear. What do you think you want?" Valentia answered herself; "It's Foster, of course! That dull, empty-headed, commonplace, hard-up, handsome boy. You can't marry him. He's just twenty-two, and has only a miserable allowance, and is in an expensive regiment, and you, darling, will only have three hundred a year. I should love to see you happy in your own way and having your wish, but don't you think it's a childish fancy? You're both children. Of course he hasn't suggested marriage, yet, has he? He knows perfectly well it's out of the question."
"Valentia! Darling! Why, he proposed to me the day we were introduced—at Prince's, and he's been doing it ever since."
"Oh, how utterly absurd of him! Well, anyhow, you must wait and see. Even if he could afford it, I don't think it would be a success. Why, there's nothing in the boy! What do you see in him?"
"I like the way he laughs," said Daphne, after a pause.
"Do you mind telling me one thing straight out? I'm being very nice to you about this, dear. I ought to scold you. But, at any rate, you must treat me with complete confidence."
"Of course, of course, dear."
"Tell me, he hasn't ever kissed you, has he?"
"I beg your pardon, darling. I felt sure he hadn't."
"Of course he has."
"How do you mean, where? Oh! at every dance where we've ever met. He always does, whenever he can. Is it so dreadful? He's such a boy!"
"Fancy your liking him enough for that!" said Valentia, stupefied.
"Oh, he's a darling; and the only person I ever could possibly marry."
"It's rather serious," said Valentia; "and poor Van who is so devoted!"
"He isn't, really," said Daphne decidedly.
"Don't you think so? Why?"
"Oh, the whole thing's an idea—the sort of thing he wants to do. It's not genuine."
"I should have thought the feelings of a man of thirty-four who could marry any one he chose would be more real than the fancy of a mere boy! Boys like anybody."
"Van isn't genuine like Cyril," said Daphne.
"Who on earth's Cyril?"
Valentia walked round the room and then said—
"And you really suppose you're going to adore him all your life?"
"I suppose so. I really don't know. I know about now. Oh, Valentia, be a darling and let him come to the fancy ball with us." She kissed her. "And, oh, do tell Harry to explain to Van that it can't go on, that he must put it out of his head. Do, darling Valentia. Any well-brought-up young girl will do for him just as well!"
"And wouldn't any well-brought-up young girl do for Cyril?"
"I don't know. But only Cyril will do for me. Oh! the jolly way he has of saying 'Righto' and 'You're all right,' and calling me 'little girl!' Oh, he is a dear!"
"Oh, well, if he says such brilliant things as that!"
"It isn't what he says——"
"Oh, hush, Daphne, here is Romer. I shan't tell him a word about it. Well, I'll think it over." She called Daphne back and said in a half-hearted way—
"I suppose it wouldn't do just to sort of please Harry by marrying Van, and then seeing that silly boy now and then. You'd so soon get tired of him—but, no! that wouldn't be right. Forget that I said it—I don't mean it."
"I couldn't stand Van at all," said Daphne definitely, "whether I saw Cyril or not."
"Then you shan't be bothered with him. But can't you give up Cyril? I know I'm right about it. It isn't only the hard-upness and the impossibility—of course, I know he's got relations and all that—but, it's he himself. You'll get bored with him, too, in a different way."
"I like him so much now," pleaded Daphne.
Romer came in and Valentia merely told him at great length every word of the foregoing conversation with lavish comments by herself. Secretly Romer was bitterly disappointed when he realised that the possibility of his being left alone with his wife was more remote, but of course he agreed with Valentia, as she changed her mind a dozen times on the subject, and as usual the conversation ended in a telephone message to Harry to come round at once.
IN FANCY DRESS
Van Buren had had many pleasures, many gratifications since he had been in London; his dreams—the dreams inspired by Du Maurier's drawings when he was a little boy—had been very nearly realised. Perhaps the greatest triumph that he had had yet was the evening of the Artists' Fancy Ball.
He had succeeded in making up a party to go in costume. He was always making up parties, and he had for many years been obsessed by a longing to dress up.
Harry, in mockery of his passion for everything English, had advised him to go as an Ancient Briton, with a coat of blue paint. Scorning such ribald chaff, he had ordered a magnificent costume of chain armour. Greatly to his satisfaction he had persuaded Hereford Vaughan to go as Shakespeare, Valentia and Daphne respectively as Portia in scarlet and Rosalind in green.
A large party were to dine at Van Buren's rooms before the ball. Fancy dress has the effect of bringing out odd, unexpected little characteristics in people. For example, Harry, good-looking and a dandy, quite a romantic type, hated dressing up, and cared nothing whatever about his costume; while Romer, the sober and serious, enjoyed it immensely, and appeared to think his appearance of the utmost importance—almost a matter of life and death.
The women were far less self-conscious in costume than the men, and cared far less how they looked, probably because women are always more or less in fancy dress, and it was not so much of a novelty to them.
Valentia had pointed out that Shakespeare, to be quite correct, should wear ear-rings; so Vaughan called at her house on the way to Van Buren's, as she had promised to lend him some.
"He won't know how to put them on," said Daphne, drawing on her long boots. "Probably he hasn't had his ears pierced; you must go and screw them on for him."
Valentia ran down. Just as she was screwing the long coral and pearl ear-rings with rather painful energy on to the unfortunate young man's ears, the servant, with a slight expression of terror that could not be concealed, announced—
The situation was really rather comic. Romer's mother, who was going to a dinner-party in the same street, could not forgo the pleasure of calling unexpectedly on them at half-past seven, vaguely hoping that it might be inconvenient to them, and that she would catch them in something they didn't want her to know—a true mother's instinct. But not in her wildest dreams had she expected what she saw when she entered the drawing-room—her daughter-in-law in her red mortar-board, red cloak and bands, with, apparently, her arms round the neck of a young man in purple silk stockings and jewelled embroidered gloves with rings outside them.
Mrs. Wyburn literally sank into a chair.
Valentia was perfectly equal to the occasion. She thoroughly enjoyed the baffling of Mrs. Wyburn.
"I can't think why Romer didn't tell you," she repeated several times, "that Van Buren is giving a dinner for the fancy ball!" and she rang and gave orders that her husband and sister were to come down immediately.
Romer had been four hours dressing; Daphne about ten minutes.
"I do think you ought to have a little make-up. Will you?" said Valentia to Vaughan.
"I should love to," he answered, to Mrs. Wyburn's disgust and horror, looking in the glass and taking very little notice of the indignant old lady.
"He does need just a touch of lip-salve and a little black under the eyes, don't you think so?" Valentia asked, caressingly, pretending to consult Mrs. Wyburn.
"I can't say, I'm sure. I've no idea what he wants," said Mrs. Wyburn with a snap.
"But don't you think it would improve him, darling?" Valentia went on, holding her head on one side and holding up her hand as if she were looking at a picture.
"Not at all," said Mrs. Wyburn.
"Then do you think his lips are red enough already?" asked Valentia.
Vaughan hastily interrupted the absurd discussion.
"The human lip is never red enough," he said decidedly; "they ought to be bright, light scarlet."
"That's just what I think. I've got some lovely scarlet stuff—the colour of sealing-wax. Shall I fetch it for you?"
"Yes, do," he said.
"But won't it look rather——"
"No; merely decent," said the young man decidedly.
"And what does Romer say to all this?" said Mrs. Wyburn with a forced smile and a voice trembling with uncontrollable rage.
"Oh, he likes it, darling. He loves it. No one's been so keen about their dress as Romer. I'll go and fetch him, and my roll of parchment—I had forgotten my roll of parchment."
She ran upstairs and came down saying—
"Romer won't be a minute, dear; he's awfully anxious for you to see his dress. He's just darkening his eyelashes. That's all. He's Louis XIX or something, you know."
She then deliberately and openly drew Vaughan to the window where there was still bright June daylight and painted his lips a brilliant scarlet to their mutual satisfaction and Mrs. Wyburn's unspeakable horror.
"Mad," murmured Mrs. Wyburn, half to herself, "quite mad! I shall be quite upset for the Trott-Hellyers' dinner-party. It's Dr. Trott-Hellyers' birthday. He only lives three doors from you" (she said this rather reproachfully), "and I dine with him every year on his birthday! And to think I only came in to see my son for a minute or two, because I couldn't bear to pass his door ... his very door...."
"Sweet of you," said Valentia.
... "And then to think I should find——" She screamed suddenly.
Daphne had come in, in her green cloak, doublet and hose, and little green cap, Romer in paint and powder, patches and lace ruffles, sword and snuffbox. There was a lavish amount of rouge on his cheeks and his eyes were blacked almost to the temples.
Hearing that his mother was there he had finished the left eye rather hurriedly, the result being that he looked as if he had been fighting.
While the poor lady was trying to adjust herself to this sight, and explaining for the sixth time why she was there, and making bitter remarks about a young girl going to a ball in what she (Mrs. Wyburn) called trousers, and while Daphne kept on wrapping herself in the folds of her cloak and then undoing them again to show her nice high boots, she was still more distressed at the arrival of her bete noire and mortal enemy, Harry de Freyne.
Van Buren had sent his motor for them, containing Harry.
Had his name not been announced by the servant, Mrs. Wyburn would certainly not have recognised Harry. He was a pierrot in white satin, with a violet tulle ruffle round his neck and a black velvet mask. One would know him solely by his single eye-glass, his pleasant voice, and fluent conversation.
Pretending to be a clown he jumped in, bowed low to Mrs. Wyburn, and kissed first Daphne and then Valentia.
With a last-straw expression Mrs. Wyburn drew herself up to her full height.
"Give me my cloak, Romer. I must go. No, don't come to the carriage with me. Suppose the Trott-Hellyers were to see you—they'd never get over it!"
"Why, it's all right, mother," Romer answered. "I'm all right. I'm a courtier—of the tenth century—you know. I'm all right."
"And you approve of your young sister-in-law going to a public ball dressed up as a man?"
"Rosalind wasn't a man, mother. You forget; you must read the Midsummer Night's Dream again. You've forgotten it."
"I shan't find Rosalind there. But that's not the point. When I came in I found Valentia with that man—the man who writes in purple knickerbockers——"
"No, he doesn't—he never writes in purple knickerbockers."
"Is this meant to be witty?" she asked with a freezing glare.
"What? No, I shouldn't think so."
"I found your wife," she said in a low hissing voice, as they passed through the hall where there was a large looking-glass—Romer's attention wandered—"within an inch of that young man's face, putting ear-rings in his ears!"
"Well, she couldn't put them in a mile off," said Romer absently.
He was now frankly turning his back on his mother, and staring at his face in the glass.
"Hang it all! I don't look so bad, do I?"
"You look a gentleman," she answered coldly; "any son of mine must look a gentleman. Of course, you look ridiculous—and, as far as that goes, you are ridiculous; but that doesn't matter quite so much as long as you look a gentleman."
Romer was trying to move a patch from one corner of his eye to the other.
"But as to Harry de Freyne?... And shall you allow your wife to dance with him in that costume?"
"Of course—why not? And—doesn't Valentia look—jolly?"
"I think the scarlet with her golden hair is rather too—striking," she answered spitefully.
"Oh, she's all right!"
"I think you're all mad!" she answered as she reached the door.
The servant opened it.
"Oh, we're all right. Good night, mother. You'll be late for the Trott-Hellyers."
Drawing her cloak over her narrow shoulders, Mrs. Wyburn stepped angrily into the brougham.
Although it was only three doors from her son's house, she would not for the world have walked.
When she arrived there, still in a very bad temper at all she had seen, she nevertheless boasted to her neighbour about how remarkably distinguished and handsome her son and daughter-in-law had looked in costume, and of their success, charm, perfect domestic happiness, and importance and perfection generally.
She succeeded in depressing the fossils on both sides of her, but they smiled at each other, indulgent to the feminine weakness of so amiable and devoted a mother.
A CELEBRITY AT HOME
Miss Luscombe lived with her mother in a species of tank, or rather in a flat that gave that impression because it was in the basement. It was dark, and such glimpses as they had of people passing on the pavement were extremely odd; it seemed a procession of legs and skirts, like something in a pantomime or a cinematograph.
The Luscombes lived, as it were, beneath the surface; but that did not prevent their being very much dans le mouvement, and coming up with great frequency to the surface to breathe. And when one had once walked down the steps and found one's way into the tank, it was an extremely pleasant one, and quite artistic. It seemed original, too. There was something almost freakish in being answered by the parlourmaid (who was suitably like a fish in manner and profile), "Miss Luscombe is at home, and will you please step downstairs?" when one had rung the bell on the ground floor. And Miss Luscombe's ringing laugh with its three soprano notes and upward cadence always greeted one charmingly and cordially, and one always liked her; one couldn't help it. Her great fault was that she was never alone. She existed in an atmosphere of teaparties and 'afternoons'; like the Lotus-Eaters, she lived in 'that land where it was always afternoon'.
For an obscure person she led a singularly public life. In her existence there seemed no secrets, no shadows, no contrasts, and no domesticity. One could never imagine her except in what she regarded as full dress, nor without, by her side, a perpetual bamboo table with three little shelves in it, in which were distributed small cut pieces of very yellow cake with very black currants, sandwiches, made of rather warm thin bread and butter, pink and white cocoanut biscuits, and constant relays of strong dark tea made in a drab china teapot. On crowded afternoons—in fact, every other Thursday—little coffee cups containing lumpy iced coffee were also handed round. When they had music there were lemonade, mustard and cress sandwiches, and a buffet.
Even when Miss Luscombe was entirely alone she did not seem so. She had got into the habit of talking always as if she were surrounded by crowds, and said so much about the celebrities who ought to have turned up that one felt almost as depressed as if they had really been there. Sometimes they came, for there was no one like Miss Luscombe for firmness. Also, she was never offended and was hospitality itself, and she had a way of greeting one that was a reward for all one's trouble—it seemed much more trouble than it really was, somehow, just to step down into the tank. And she was so charming no one could help being flattered till the next visitor arrived, when she was even more charming.
After the Fancy Ball she had got hold of Valentia, who came to see her on one of those Thursdays that she had pointed out as peculiarly her own—one of my Thursdays. She really believed that for any one else to receive on that day was a kind of infringement of copyright.
Miss Luscombe was wearing on this occasion a drab taffeta silk dress with transparent sleeves and a low neck. She wore a rose in her hair, a necklace, and long gloves, because she said she wouldn't have time to dress again before going out to dinner.
About a dozen people were there—vague shamefaced young men with nothing to say, and confident, satirical, fluent young men with a great deal to laugh at. Most of the older women seemed a shade patronising in tone, and looked as if they had never been there before. On the faces of the young women and the girls could be read the resolution never to go there again.
Mrs. Luscombe, the mother, was so refined that there was scarcely anything of her; her presence was barely perceptible. She had learnt the art of self-effacement to the point of showing no trace of being there at all. To add to the effect of not being noticeable, she wore a dress exactly the same colour as the sofa on which she sat—like those insects who, when hiding from their foes, become the colour of the leaves on which they live. She was practically invisible.
On the other hand, Miss Luscombe herself was very much there—very much en evidence. Smiling, greeting, archly laughing, sweetly pouting; coquetting, eating, playing, singing, acting—almost dancing—an ideal and delightful hostess.
She said to every one as they arrived how sweet it was of them to come so early, or how naughty it was of them to come so late, or how horrid it was of them not to come last time, or how dear it would be of them if they came next. She always introduced people to each other who were not on speaking terms, and had intentionally cut each other for years. She had a real genius for making people accidentally meet who had just broken off their engagement, or had some other awkward reason for not wishing to see each other—and then pushing them together so that they could not get away. At heart she was intensely a peacemaker, but people who had met there rarely made up their quarrels.
When the favourite actor arrived she introduced him to every one till he was ready to drop, and when the great singer telegraphed he couldn't come, she showed the wire to everybody. Most of the guests preferred his not coming. Very few could have endured her triumph had he really arrived. On the other hand, they would themselves have far preferred to receive a telegram of refusal rather than not to hear from him at all.
When these entertainments were over and the mother and daughter were left alone, the daughter became far more thoroughly artificial than she was when surrounded by her friends. There was no throwing off the mask; on the contrary, it was fixed more firmly on, and Miss Luscombe gave free vent to her sham passion for imitation comedy.
On this particular Thursday, as soon as Flora Luscombe had laughed her last visitor archly to the door, she knelt by her mother's side, put her arms round her, and said—
"Dear, dear Mummy, how sweet it is to be alone!"
Mrs. Luscombe shrank back a little. This pet name, only too appropriate, always got a little on her nerves, but she felt bound to play up in an amateurish sort of way to a certain extent.
"Hadn't you better go and take off that beautiful dress?" she said. "You're not really dining out, are you?"
"No, dearest, I managed to get out of it, but alas! I've got to go to the Reception—you know—that horrid Royal Institution of Water Colours—afterwards. It isn't worth while to change again. Oh, how weary one does get of the continual round! And then to-morrow!" She sighed.
"What is it to-morrow?"
"To-morrow! Don't talk of it! There's Mrs. Morris's At Home in Maida Hill, and then right at the other end of London the Hyslop-Dunn's in Victoria Grove. Oh, dear! And yet one feels one must be seen at all these places, darling, or else it's remarked at once."
"You live too much for the world," replied her mother, tidying up some half-finished watercress sandwiches with a sharp knife. She wondered if, thus repaired, they would do for next Thursday.
"You know, Mummy dear, that's the worst of our terrible profession. We must keep before the public, or else we drop out and are forgotten. What a sweet creature Valentia Wyburn is! I thought she was quite, quite dear. And the husband and the cousin are darlings too. Of course they wouldn't come; I couldn't get them to an afternoon."