E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE PARTS MEN PLAY
ARTHUR BEVERLEY BAXTER
Author of "The Blower of Bubbles"
With Foreword by Lord Beaverbrook
McClelland & Stewart Publishers ======== Toronto Copyright, Canada, 1920 By McClelland & Stewart, Limited, Toronto
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED
TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER
JAMES BENNETT BAXTER
WHO BELIEVED THOUGHT TO BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THINGS, AND WHO WENT THROUGH THIS WORLD DISPENSING GENIAL PHILOSOPHY AND KINDLY HUMOUR TO ALL WHO CAME WITHIN HIS CIRCLE
Mr. Baxter is my countryman, and, as a Canadian, I commend The Parts Men Play, not only for its literary vitality, but for the freshness of outlook with which the author handles Anglo-American susceptibilities.
A Canadian lives in a kind of half-way house between Britain and the United States. He understands Canada by right of birth; he can sympathise with the American spirit through the closest knowledge born of contiguity; his history makes him understand Britain and the British Empire. He is, therefore, a national interpreter between the two sundered portions of the race.
It is this role of interpreter that Mr. Baxter is destined to fill, a role for which he is peculiarly suited, not only by temperament, but by reason of his experiences gained from his entrance into the world of London journalism and English literature.
I do not know in what order the chapters of The Parts Men Play were written, but it seems to me that as Mr. Baxter gets to grip with the realities of his theme, he begins to lose a certain looseness of touch which marks his opening pages. If so, he is showing the power of development, and to the artist this power is everything. The writer who is without it is a mere static consciousness weaving words round the creatures of his own imagination. The man who has it possesses a future, because he is open to the teaching of experience. And among the men with a future I number Mr. Baxter.
Throughout the book his pictures of life are certainly arresting—taken impartially both in Great Britain and America. What could be better than some of his descriptions?
The speech of the American diplomat at a private dinner is the truest defence and explanation of America's delay in coming into the war that I remember to have read. The scene is set in the high light of excitement, and the rhetorical phrasing of the speech would do credit to a famous orator.
But I fear that I may be giving the impression that The Parts Men Play is merely a piece of propagandist fiction—something from which the natural man shrinks back with suspicion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Mr. Baxter's strength lies in the rapid flow and sweep of his narrative. His characterisation is clear and firm in outline, but it is never pursued into those quicksands of minute analysis which too often impede the stream of good story-telling.
I am glad that a Canadian novelist should have given us a book which supports the promise shown by the author in The Blower of Bubbles, and marks him out for a distinguished future.
If in the course of a novel of action he has something to teach his British readers about the American temperament, and his American public about British mentality, so much the better.
I. LADY DURWENT DECIDES ON A DINNER II. CONCERNING LADY DURWENT'S FAMILY III. ABOUT A TOWN HOUSE IV. PROLOGUE TO A DINNER-PARTY V. THE OLYMPIANS THUNDER VI. A MORNING IN NOVEMBER VII. THE CAFE ROUGE VIII. INTERMEZZO IX. A HOUSE-PARTY AT ROSELAWN X. GATHERING SHADOWS XI. THE RENDING OF THE VEIL XII. THE HONOURABLE MALCOLM DURWENT STARTS ON A JOURNEY XIII. THE MAN OF SOLITUDE XIV. STRANGE CRAFT XV. DICK DURWENT XVI. THE FEMININE TOUCH XVII. MOONLIGHT XVIII. ELISE XIX. EN VOYAGE XX. THE GREAT NEUTRAL XXI. A NIGHT IN JANUARY XXII. THE CHALLENGE XXIII. THE SMUGGLER BREED XXIV. THE SENTENCE XXV. THE FIGHT FOR THE BRIDGE XXVI. THE END OF THE ROAD XXVII. A LIGHT ON THE WATER
THE PARTS MEN PLAY.
LADY DURWENT DECIDES ON A DINNER.
His Majesty's postmen were delivering mail. Through the gray grime of a November morning that left a taste of rust in the throat, the carriers of letters were bearing their cargo to all the corners of that world which is called London.
There were letters from hospitals asking for funds; there were appeals from sick people seeking admission to hospital. There were long, legal letters and little, scented letters lying wonderingly together in the postman's bag. There were notes from tailors to gentlemen begging to remind them; and there were answers from gentlemen to their tailors, in envelopes bearing the crests of Pall Mail clubs, hinting of temporary embarrassment, but mentioning certain prospects that would shortly enable them to . . . .
Fat, bulging envelopes, returning manuscripts with editors' regrets, were on their way to poor devils of scribblers living in the altitude of unrecognised genius and a garret. There were cringing, fawning epistles, written with a smirk and sealed with a scowl; some there were couched in a refinement of cruelty that cut like a knife.
But, as unconcerned as tramps plying contraband between South America and Mexico, His Majesty's postmen were delivering His Majesty's mail, with never a thought of the play of human emotions lying behind the sealed lips of an envelope. If His Majesty's subjects insisted upon writing to one another, it was obvious that their letters, in some mysterious way become the property of His Majesty, had to be delivered.
Thus it happened, on a certain November morning in the year 1913, that six dinner invitations, enclosed in small, square envelopes with a noble crest on the back, and large, unwieldy writing on the front, were being carried through His Majesty's fog to six addresses in the West End of London.
Lady Durwent had decided to give a dinner.
An ordinary hostess merely writes a carelessly formal note stating that she hopes the recipient will be able to dine with her on a certain evening. The form of her invitations varies as little as the conversation at her table. But Lady Durwent was unusual. For years she had endeavoured to impress the fact on London, and by careful attention to detail had at last succeeded in gaining that reputation. She was that rara avis among the women of to-day—the hostess who knows her guests. She never asked any one to dine at her house without some definite purpose in mind—and, for that matter, her guests never dined with her except on the same terms.
Therefore it came about that Lady Durwent's dinners were among the pleasantest things in town, and, true to her character of the unusual, she always worded her invitations with a nice discrimination dictated by the exact motive that prompted the sending.
H. Stackton Dunckley looked up from his pillow as the man-servant who valeted for the gentlemen of the Jermyn Street Chambers drew aside a gray curtain and displayed the gray blanket of the atmosphere outside.
'Good-morning, Watson,' said Mr. Dunckley in a voice which gave the impression that he had smoked too many cigars the previous evening—an impression considerably strengthened by the bilious appearance of his face.
'Good-morning, sir. Will you have the Times or the Morning Post? And here are your letters, sir.'
The recumbent gentleman took the letters and waved them philosophically at the valet. 'Leave me to my thoughts,' he said thickly, but with considerable dignity. 'I am not interested in the squeaky jarring of the world revolving on its rusty axis.'
Being an author, he almost invariably tried out his command of language in the morning, as a tenor essays two or three notes on rising, to make sure that his voice has not left him during his slumber.
Mr. Watson bowed and withdrew. H. Stackton Dunckley lit a cigarette, opened the first letter, and read it.
'8 CHELMSFORD GARDENS.
'MY DEAR STACKY,—Next Friday I am giving a little dinner-party—just a few unusual people—to meet an American author who has recently come to England. Do come; but, you brilliant man, don't be too caustic, will you?
'Isn't it dreadful the way gossip is connecting our names? Supposing Lord Durwent should hear about it!—Until Friday,
'P.S.—How is the play coming on? Dinner will be at 8.30.'
H. Stackton Dunckley put the letter down and sighed. He was an author who had been writing other men's ideas all his life, but without sufficient distinction to achieve either a success or a failure. He had gained some notoriety by his wife suing him for divorce; but when the Court granted her separation on the ground of desertion, it cleared him of the charge of infidelity—and of the chance of advertisement at the same moment. Later, by being a constant attendant on Lady Durwent, he almost succeeded in creating a scandal; but, to the great disappointment of them both, London flatly refused to believe there was anything wrong. For one thing, she was the daughter of a commoner—and the morality of the middle classes is a conviction solidly rooted in English society. And then there were his writings. How could one doubt the character of a man so dull?
Undiscouraged, they still maintained their perfectly innocent friendship, and, like kittens playing with a spool, invested it with all the appearances of an intrigue.
Dismissing his depressing thoughts, H. Stackton Dunckley noticed that his cigarette was out, and closing his eyes, fell asleep once more.
Madame Carlotti, clothed in a kimono of emphatic shade, sat by the fire in her rooms in Knightsbridge and read her mail while sipping coffee. She was the wife of an Italian diplomat, a sort of wandering plenipotentiary who did business in every part of the world but London, and with every Government but that of Britain. It was the signora's somewhat incomprehensible complaint that her husband's duties forced her to live in that fog-bound metropolis, and having thus achieved the pedestal of a martyr, she poured abuse on everything English from climate to customs. Possessed of a certain social dexterity and the ability to make the most ordinary conversation seem to concern a forbidden topic, Madame Carlotti was in great demand as a guest, and abused more English habits and attended more dinner-parties than any other woman in London.
From beneath seven tradesmen's letters she extracted one from Lady Durwent.
'8 CHELMSFORD GARDENS,
'DEAREST LUCIA,—I am counting on you for next Friday. A young American author studying England—I suppose like that Count Something-or-other in Pickwick Papers—is coming to dinner. I understand he drinks very little, so I am relying on you to thaw him.
'Stackton Dunckley insists upon coming, though I tell him that it is dangerous; and of course people are saying dreadful things, I know. He is so persistent. There will be just half-a-dozen unusual people there, my dear, so don't fail me. Dinner will be at 8.30.—So sincerely, SYBIL DERWENT.
'P.S.—Don't you think you could make Stackton interested in you? Your husband is away so much.'
Madame Carlotti smiled with her teeth and drank some very strong coffee.
'It ees deefficult,' she said, with that seductive formation of the lips used by her countrywomen when speaking English, 'for a magnet to attract putty. Still—there ees the American. At least I shall not be altogether bored.'
That noon, in a restaurant of Chelsea, the district of Pensioners and Bohemians, two young gentlemen, considerably in need of renovation by both tailor and barber, met at a table and nodded gloomily. One was Johnston Smyth, an artist, who, finding himself possessed neither of a technique nor of the industry to acquire one, had evolved a super-futurist style that had made him famous in a night. He was spoken of as 'a new force;' it was prophesied that English Art would date from him. Unfortunately his friends neglected to buy his paintings, and as his art was a vivid one, consisting of vast quantities of colour splashed indiscriminately on the canvas, it took more than his available funds to purchase the accessories of his calling. He was tall, with expressive arms that were too long for his sleeves, and a nose that would have done credit to a field-marshal.
The other was Norton Pyford, the modernist composer, who had developed the study of discord to such a point that his very features seemed to lack proportion, and when he smiled his face presented a lop-sided appearance. He had given a recital which set every one who is any one in London talking. There was but one drawback—they talked so much that he could persuade no one to listen, and he carried his discords about with him, like a bad half-crown, unable to rid himself of them. He was short, with a retreating forehead and an overhanging wealth of black, thread-like hair, gamely covering the retreat as best it could.
'Hello, Smyth!' drawled the composer, who affected a manner of speech usually confined to footmen in the best families. 'Hah d' do?'
'Topping, Pyford. How's things?'
'I say, you couldn't'——
'Just what I was going to ask you.'
The composer sighed; the artist echoed the sigh.
'Have you seen Shaw's show?'
'Awful, isn't it?'
'Putrid—but the English don't'——
'Ah! What a race!'
'Just so. I say, are you going to Lady Durwent's on Friday?'
'Look here, old fellow—don't dress, eh?'
'Right. Let's be natural—what? Just Bohemians.'
'The very thing. By-the-by, you don't know a laundry that gives'——
'No, I can't say I do.'
'Well, so long.'
'See you Friday.'
Mrs. Le Roy Jennings looked up from her task of drafting the new Resolution to be presented to Parliament by the League of Equal Sex Rights and Complete Emancipation for Women, as a diminutive, half-starved servant brought in a letter on a tray.
Mrs. Jennings took the missive, and frowning threateningly at the girl, who withdrew to the dark recesses of the servants' quarters, opened it by slitting its throat with a terrific paper-knife.
'8 CHELMSFORD GARDENS.
'DEAR MRS LE ROY JENNINGS,—An American author is coming to dinner next Friday. There will just be a few unusual people, and I have asked them for 8.30. I want him to meet one of England's intellectual women, and I know he will be interested to hear of your ideas on the New Home.
'My daughter joins with me in wishing you every success.—Until Friday, dear,
Mrs. Jennings, who had made a complete failure of her own home, and consequently felt qualified to interfere with all others, scribbled a hasty note of acceptance in a handwriting so forceful that on some words the pen slid off the paper completely.
Then, with a look of profundity, she resumed the Resolution.
And so, by the medium of His Majesty's mail, a little group of actors were warned for a performance at Lady Durwent's house, No. 8 Chelmsford Gardens.
Through the November fog the endless traffic of the streets was cautiously feeling its way along the diverging channels of the Metropolis—a snorting, sliding, impatient fleet of vehicles perpetually on their way, yet never seeming to get there. Taxi-cabs hugged the pavements, trying to penetrate the gloom with their meagre lights; omnibuses fretted and bullied their way, avoiding collision by inches, but struggling on and on as though their very existence depended on their reaching some place immediately or being interned for failure. Hansom-cabs, with ancient, glistening horses driven by ancient, glistening cabbies, felt for elbow-space in the throng of motor-vehicles. And on all sides the badinage of the streets, the eternal wordy conflict of London's mariners of traffic, rose in cheerful, insulting abundance.
On the pavements pedestrians jostled each other—men with hands in their pockets and arms tight to their sides, women with piqued noses and hurrying steps; while sulky lamps offered half-hearted resistance to the conquering fog that settled over palaces, parks, and motley streets until it hugged the very Thames itself in unholy glee.
And through the impenetrable mist of circumstance, the millions of souls that make up the great city pursued their millions of destinies, undeterred by biting cold and grisly fog. For it was a day in the life of England's capital; and every day there is a great human drama that must be played—a drama mingling tragedy and humour with no regard to values or proportion; a drama that does not end with death, but renews its plot with the breaking of every dawn; a drama knowing neither intermezzo nor respite: and the name of it is—LONDON.
CONCERNING LADY DURWENT'S FAMILY.
Lady Durwent was rather a large woman, of middle age, with a high forehead unruffled by thought, and a clear skin unmarred by wrinkles. She had a cheerfulness that obtruded itself, like a creditor, at unpropitious moments; and her voice, though not displeasing, gave the impression that it might become volcanic at any moment. She also possessed a considerable theatrical instinct, with which she would frequently manoeuvre to the centre of the stage, to find, as often as not, that she had neglected the trifling matter of learning any lines.
She was the daughter of an ironmonger in the north of England, whose father had been one of the last and most famous of a long line of smugglers. It was perhaps the inherited love of adventure that prompted the ironmonger, against his wife's violent protest, to invest the savings of a lifetime in an obscure Canadian silver-mine. To the surprise of every one (including its promoters), the mine produced high-grade ore in such abundance that the ironmonger became a man of means. Thereupon, at the instigation of his wife, they moved from their little town into the city of York, where he purchased a large, stuffily furnished house, sat on Boards, became a councillor, wore evening-dress for dinner, and died a death of absolute respectability.
Before the final event he had the satisfaction of seeing his only child Sybil married to Arthur, Lord Durwent. (The evening-clothes for dinner were a direct result.) Lord Durwent was a well-behaved young man of unimpeachable character and family, and he was sincerely attracted by the agreeable expanse of lively femininity found in the fair Sybil. After a wedding that left her mother a triumphant wreck and appreciably hastened her father's demise, she was duly installed as the mistress of Roselawn, the Durwent family seat, and its tributary farms. The tenants gave her an address of welcome; her husband's mother gracefully retired to a villa in Sussex; the rector called and expressed gratification; the county families left their cards and inquired after her father, the ironmonger.
Unfortunately the new Lady Durwent had the temperament neither of a poet nor of a lady of the aristocracy. She failed to hear the tongues in trees, and her dramatic sense was not satisfied with the little stage of curtsying tenantry and of gentlefolk who abhorred the very thought of anything theatrical in life.
On the other hand, her husband was a man who was unhappy except on his estate. He thought along orthodox lines, and read with caution. He loved his lawns, his gardens, his horses, and his habits. He was a pillar of the church, and always read a portion of Scripture from the reading-desk on Sunday mornings. His wife he treated with simple courtesy as the woman who would give him an heir. If his mind had been a little more sensitive, Lord Durwent would have realised that he was asking a hurricane to be satisfied with the task of a zephyr.
They had a son.
The tenants presented him with a silver bowl; Lord Durwent presented them with a garden fete; and the parents presented the boy with the name of Malcolm.
Two years later there came a daughter.
The tenants gave her a silver plate; Lord Durwent gave them a garden fete; and he and his wife gave the girl the name of Elise.
Three years later a second son appeared.
There was a presentation, followed by a garden fete and a christening. The name was Richard.
In course of time the elder son grew to that mental stature when the English parent feels the time is ripe to send him away to school. The ironmonger's daughter had the idea that Malcolm, being her son, was hers to mould.
'My dear,' said Lord Durwent, exerting his authority almost for the first time, 'the boy is eight years of age, and no time must be lost in preparing him for Eton and inculcating into him those qualities which mark'——
'But,' cried his wife with theatrical unrestraint, 'why send him to Eton? Why not wait until you see what he wants to be in the world?'
Lord Durwent's face bore a look of unperturbed calm. 'When he is old enough, he must go to Eton, my dear, and acquire the qualities which will enable him to take over Roselawn at my death'——
At this point Lady Durwent interrupted him with a tirade which, in common with a good many domestic unpleasantries, was born of much that was irrelevant, springing from sources not readily apparent. She abused the public-school system of England, and sneered at the county families which blessed the neighbourhood with their presence. She reviled Lord Durwent's habits, principally because they were habits, and thought it was high time some Durwent grew up who wasn't just a 'sticky, stuffy, starched, and bored porpoise—yes, PORPOISE!' (shaking her head as if to establish the metaphor against the whole of the English aristocracy). In short, it was the spirit of the Ironmonger castigating the Peerage, and at its conclusion Lady Durwent felt much abused, and quite pleased with her own rhetoric.
Lord Durwent glanced for courage at an ancestor who looked magnificently down at him over a ruffle. He adjusted his own cravat and spoke in nicely modulated accents: 'Sybil, nothing can change me on this point. In spite of what you say, it is my intention to keep to the tradition of the Durwents, and that is that the occupant of Roselawn'——
'What! am not I his mother?' cried the good woman, her hysteria having much the same effect on Lord Durwent's smoothly developing monologue as a heavy pail dropped by a stage-hand during Hamlet's soliloquy.
'Sybil,' said Lord Durwent sternly, 'it was arranged at Malcolm's birth that he should go to Eton. I shall take him next Tuesday to a preparatory school, and you must excuse me if I refuse to discuss the matter further.'
Lady Durwent rushed from the room and clasped her eldest child in her arms. That young gentleman, not knowing what had caused his mother's grief, sympathetically opened his throat and bellowed lustily, thereby shedding tears for positively the last time in his life.
When he returned for the holidays a few months later, he was an excellent example of that precocity, the English schoolboy, who cloaks a juvenile mind with the pose of sophistication, and by twelve years of age achieves a code of thought and conduct that usually lasts him for the rest of his life. In vain the mother strove for her place in the sun; the rule of the masculine at Roselawn became adamant.
Life in the Durwent menage developed into a thing of laws and customs dictated by the youthful despot, aided and abetted by his father. The sacred rites of 'what isn't done' were established, and the mother gradually found herself in the position of an outsider—a privileged outsider, it is true, yet little more than the breeder of a thoroughbred, admitted to the paddock to watch his horse run by its new owner.
She vented her feelings in two or three tearful scenes, but she felt that they lacked spontaneity, and didn't really put her heart into them.
During these struggles for her place in a Society that was probably more completely masculine in domination than any in the world (with the possible exception of that of the Turk), Lady Durwent was only dimly aware that her daughter was developing a personality which presented a much greater problem than that of the easily grooved Malcolm.
The girl's hair was like burnished copper, and her cheeks were lit by two bits of scarlet that could be seen at a distance before her features were discernible. Her eyes were of a gray-blue that changed in shade with her swiftly varying moods. Her lower lip was full and red, the upper one firm and repressed with the dull crimson of a fading rose-petal. Her shapely arms and legs were restless, seemingly impatient to break into some quickly moving dance. She was extraordinarily alive. Vitality flashed from her with every gesture, and her mind, a thing of caprice and whim, knew no boundaries but those of imagination itself.
Puzzled and entirely unable to understand anything so instinctive, Lady Durwent engaged a governess who was personally recommended by Lady Chisworth, whose friend the Countess of Oxeter had told her that the three daughters of the Duchess of Dulworth had all been entrusted to her care.
In spite of this almost unexampled set of references, the governess was completely unable to cope with Elise Durwent. She taught her (among other things) decorum and French. Her pupil was openly irreverent about the first; and when the governess, after the time-honoured method, produced an endless vista of exceptions to the rule in French grammar, the girl balked. She was willing to compromise on Avoir, but mutinied outright at the ramifications of Etre.
Seeing that the child was making poor progress, and as it was out of the question to dismiss a governess who had been entrusted with the three daughters of the Duchess of Dulworth, Lady Durwent sent for reinforcement in the person of the organist of their church, and bade him teach Elise the art of the piano. With the dull lack of vision belonging to men of his type, he failed to recognise the spirit of music lying in her breast, merely waiting the call to spring into life. He knew that her home was one where music was unheard, and his method of unfolding to the girl the most spiritual and fundamental of all the arts was to give her SCALES. He was a kindly, well-intentioned fellow, and would not willingly have hurt a sparrow; but he took a nature doomed to suffer for lack of self-expression, and succeeded in walling up the great river of music which might have given her what she lacked. He hid the edifice and offered her scaffolding—then wondered.
Elise was consistent in few things, but her love for Richard, the youngest of the family, was of a depth and a mature tenderness that never varied. Doomed to an insufficient will-power and an easy, plastic nature that lent itself readily to the abbreviation 'Dick,' he quickly succumbed to his fiery-tinted sister, and became a willing dupe in all her escapades.
At her order he turned the hose on the head-gardener; when told to put mucilage on the rector's chair at dinner, he merely asked for the pot. On six different occasions she offered him soap, telling him it was toffy, and each time he bit of it generously and without suspicion. Every one else in the house represented law and order to him—Elise was the spirit of outlawry, and he her slave. She taught him a dance of her own invention entitled 'The Devil and the Maiden' (with a certain inconsistency casting him as the maiden and herself as the Devil), and frequently, when ordered to go to bed, they would descend to the servants' quarters and perform it to the great delight of the family retainers.
A favourite haunt of theirs was the stables, where they would persuade the grooms to place them on their father's chargers; and they were frequent visitors at feeding-time, taking a never-ending delight in the gourmandism of the whinnying beasts, and finding particular joy in acquiring the language and the mannerisms of the stablemen, which they would reserve for, and solemnly use at, the next gathering of the neighbouring gentry.
When Elise was ten and Dick seven, she read him highwaymen's tales until his large blue eyes almost escaped from their sockets. It was at the finish of one of these narratives of derring-do that she whispered temptation into his ear, with the result that they bided their opportunity, and, when the one groom on duty was asleep, repaired to the stables armed with a loaded shot-gun. After herculean efforts they succeeded in harnessing Lord Durwent's famous hunter with the saddle back to front, the curb-bit choking the horse's throat, the brow-band tightly strapped around the poor beast's nostrils, the surcingle trailing in the dust.
With improvised masks over their faces, they mounted the steed and set out for adventure, the horse seeming to comprehend its strange burden and stepping as lightly as its tortures would permit, while the saddle slid cheerfully about its back, threatening any moment to roll the desperados on to the road.
They had just emerged from the estate into the public highway, when a passing butcher's cart stopped their progress. The younger Durwent, who had been mastering the art of retaining his seat while his steed was in motion, was unprepared for its cessation, and promptly overbalanced over the horse's shoulder, reaching the road head first, and discharging a couple of pellets from the shotgun into a fleshy part of the butcher-boy's anatomy.
The groom was dismissed; the butcher-boy received ten pounds; Richard (when it was certain that concussion of the brain was not going to materialise) was soundly whipped; and Elise was banished for forty-eight hours to her room, issuing with a carefully concocted plan to waylay the rector coming from church, steal the collection, and purchase with the ill-gotten gains the sole proprietary interests in the village sweet-shop.
There is little doubt but that the coup would have been attempted had not Lord Durwent decided that the influence of his sister was not good for Dick, and sent him to a preparatory school at Bexhill-on-Sea, there to imbibe sea-air and some little learning, and await his entrance into Eton.
Robbed of her brother's stimulating loyalty, Elise relapsed into a sulky obedience to her governess and her mother. To their puny vision it seemed that her attitude towards them was one of haughty aloofness, and everything possible was done to subdue her spirit. Being unable to see that the child was lonely, and too proud to admit her craving for sympathetic companionship, they tried to tame the thoroughbred as they would a mule.
Only when Dick returned for holidays would her petulant moods vanish, and in his company her old vitality sparkled like the noonday sun upon the ocean's surface. And if her affection for him knew no variation, his was no less true. The friendships and the adventures of school were forgotten in the comradeship of his sister as, over the fields of Roselawn or on the tennis-court, they would renew their childhood's hours. He taught her to throw a fly for trout, and she initiated him into the mysteries of answering the calls of birds in the woods. Mounted on a couple of ponies, they became familiar figures at the tenants' cottages, and though the spirit of outlawry mellowed with advancing years, Lady Durwent never saw them start away from the house without the uneasy feeling that there was more than a chance they would get into some mischief before they returned.
In the meantime the elder son was bringing credit to his ancestors and himself. His accent became a thing of perfection, nicely nuanced, and entirely free of any emphasis or intensity that might rob it of its placid suggestion of good-breeding. His attitude towards the servants was one of pleasant dignity, and the tenantry all spoke of Master Malcolm as a fine young gentleman who would make a worthy ruler of Roselawn.
Between him and Richard there was little love lost. The elder boy disapproved of his hoydenish sister, and sought at all times to shame her tempestuous nature by insistence on decorum in their relations. Richard, who invariably brought home adverse reports from school, could find no fault in his colourful sister, and blindly espoused her cause at all times.
On one occasion, when Malcolm had been more than usually censorious, Dick challenged him to a fight. They adjourned to the seclusion of a small plot of grass by a great oak, where the Etonian knocked Dick down five times in succession, afterwards escorting him to the cook, who placed raw beefsteak on his eyes.
It was characteristic of the worthy Richard that he bore his brother no malice whatever for the punishment. He had proposed the fight, conscious of the fact that he would be soundly beaten, but he was a bit of a Quixote—and a lady's name was involved.
And no nurse ever tended a wounded hero more tenderly than the little copper-haired creature of impulse who bathed the battered face of poor Dick. Wilful and rebellious as she was, there was in Elise a deep well of love for her brother that no other being could fathom. And it was not his loyalty alone that had inspired it. Her solitary life had quickened her perceptive powers, and intuitively she knew that, in the years before him, her weak-willed, buoyant-natured brother would be unable to meet the cross-currents of his destiny and maintain a steady course.
But he thought it was because of his swollen eyes that she cried.
ABOUT A TOWN HOUSE.
It was perhaps not inconsistent with the character of Lady Durwent that, although she had striven to secure the guiding of Malcolm's development, she should find herself totally devoid of any plan for the training of a daughter.
Vaguely—and in this she mirrored thousands of other mothers—there was a hope in her heart that Elise would grow up pretty, virtuous, amiable, and would eventually marry well. It did not concern her that the girl was permeated with individuality, that the temperament of an artist lay behind the changing eyes in that restless, graceful figure. She could not see that her daughter had a delicate, wilful personality, which would rebel increasingly against the monotony of a social regime that planned the careers of its sons before they were born, and offered its daughters a mere incoherency of good intentions.
Full of the swift imaginativeness which makes the feminine contribution to life so much a thing of charm and colour, Elise pursued the paths which Youth has for its own—those wonderful streets of fantasy that end with adolescence in Society's ugly fields of sign-posts.
Lacking the companionship of others of a similar age, she wove her own conception of life, and dreamed of a world actuated by quick and generous emotions. With every pulsing beat of the warm blood coursing through her veins she demanded in her girl's mind that the world in which her many-sided self had been placed should yield the wines to satisfy the subtle shades of thirst produced by her insistent individuality.
And the world offered her sign-posts. This must you do and thus must you talk; hither shall you go and here remain: these are the Arts with which you may enjoy a very slight acquaintance, but do not aspire to genuine accomplishment—leave that to common people; be lady-like, be calm and reserved; behold your brothers, how they swank!—but they are men, and this is England; desire nought but the protected privileges of your class, and in good season some youth of the same social stratum as yourself will marry you, and, lo! in place of being a daughter in a landed gentleman's house, you will be a wife.
Into this little world of a kind-hearted, chivalrous aristocracy (whose greatest fault was their ignorance of the fact that the smallest upheaval in humanitarianism, no matter what distance away, registers on the seismograph of human destiny the world over) Elise Durwent found her path laid. Increasingly resentful, she trod it until she was fourteen years of age, when her mother, who had long been bored with country life, made an important decision—and purchased a town house.
Having done this, Lady Durwent sent her daughter to a convent, a move which enabled her to get rid of the governess discreetly, and left her without family cares at all, as both boys were now at school. Unencumbered, therefore, she said au revoir to Roselawn, and set her compass for No. 8 Chelmsford Gardens, London.
Chelmsford Gardens is a row of dignified houses on Oxford Street—yet not on Oxford Street. A miniature park, some forty feet in depth, acts as a buffer-state between the street itself and the little group of town houses. It is an oasis in the great plains of London's dingy dwelling-places, a spot where the owners are rarely seen unless the season is at its height, when gaily cloaked women and stiff-bosomed men emerge at theatre-hour and are driven to the opera. Throughout the day the Gardens (probably so styled on account of the complete absence of horticultural embellishments) are as silent as the tomb; there is no sign of life except in the mornings, when a solemn butler or a uniformed parlour-maid appears for a moment at the door like some creature of the sea coming up for air, then unobtrusively retires.
No. 8 was exactly like its neighbours, consisting of an exterior boasting a huge oak door, with cold, stone steps leading up to it, and an interior composed of rooms with very high ceilings, an insufficient and uncomfortable supply of furniture, large pictures and small grates, terrific beds and meagre chairs, and a general air of so much marble and bare floor that one could almost imagine that house-cleaning could be accomplished by turning on the hose.
After Lady Durwent had taken possession she sent for her husband, but that gentleman reminded her that he was much happier at Roselawn, though he would be glad if she would keep a room for him when business at the 'House' or with his lawyers necessitated his presence in town. Unhampered, therefore, by a husband, Lady Durwent prepared to invade London Society, only to receive a shock at the very opening of the campaign.
The Ironmonger had preceded her!
It is one of the tragedies of the elite that even peers are not equal. The law of class distinction, that amazing doctrine of timidity, penetrated even the oak door of 8 Chelmsford Gardens. The Ironmonger's daughter found that being the daughter of a man who had made an honest living rendered her socially the unequal of the daughters of men who, acting on a free translation of 'The earth is the Lord's,' had done nothing but inherit unearned substance.
Then there was her cheerfulness, and the menacing voice!
Turning from the aloofness of the exclusive, Lady Durwent thought of taking in famous performing Lions and feeding them. Unfortunately the market was too brisk, and the only Lion she could get was an Italian tenor from Covent Garden, who refused to roar, but left a poignant memory of garlic.
It was then that a brilliant idea entered her brain. Lady Durwent decided to cultivate unusual people.
No longer would she batter at oak doors that refused to open; no more would she dangle morsels of food in front of overfed Lions. She would create a little Kingdom of remarkable people—not those acclaimed great by the mealy mob, but those whose genius was of so rare and subtle a growth that ordinary eyes could not detect it at all. Her only fear was that she might be unable to discover a sufficient number to create a really satisfactory clientele.
But she reckoned without her London.
For every composer in the Metropolis who is trying to translate the music of the spheres, there are a dozen who can only voice the discordant jumble of their minds or ask the world to listen to the hollow echo of their creative vacuum. For every artist striving to catch some beauty of nature that he may revisualise it on canvas, there are a score whose eyes can only cling to the malformation of existence. For every writer toiling in the quiet hours to touch some poor, dumb heart-strings, or to open unseeing eyes to the joy of life, there are many whose gaze is never lifted from the gutter, so that, when they write, it is of the slime and the filth that they have smelt, crying to the world that the blue of the skies and the beauty of a rose are things engendered of sentimental minds unable to see the real, the vital things of life.
To this community of poseurs Lady Durwent jingled her town house and her title—and the response was instantaneous. She became the hostess of a series of dinner-parties which gradually made her the subject of paragraphs in the chatty columns of the press, and of whole chapters in the gossip of London's refined circles.
Her natural cheerfulness expanded like a sunflower, and when her son Malcolm secured a commission in the —th Hussars, her triumph was complete. Even the staggering news that Dick had been taken away from Eton to avoid expulsion for drunkenness proved only a momentary cloud on the broad horizon of her contentment.
When she was nineteen years of age Elise came to live with her mother, and as the fiery beauty of the child had mellowed into a sort of smouldering charm that owed something to the mystic atmosphere of convent life, Lady Durwent felt that an ally of importance had entered the arena.
Thus four years passed, and in 1913 (had peeresses been in the habit of taking inventories) Lady Durwent could have issued a statement somewhat as follows:
1 Husband; a Peer. 1 Son; aged twenty-five; decently popular with his regiment. 1 Daughter; marriageable; aged twenty-three. 1 Town House. 1 Country Estate. The goodwill of numerous unusual people, and the envy of a lot of minor Peeresses.
1 Son; aged twenty; at Cambridge; in perpetual trouble, and would have been rusticated ere now had he not been the son of a lord. 1 Ironmonger.
* * * * * *
'My dear,' said Lady Durwent, glancing at her daughter, who was reading a novel, 'hadn't you better go and dress?'
'Is there a dinner-party to-night?' asked the girl without looking up.
'Of course, Elise. Have you forgotten that Mr. Selwyn of New York will be here?'
'Is he as tedious as Stackton Dunckley?'
Lady Durwent frowned with vexation. 'My dear,' she said, 'you are very trying.'
PROLOGUE TO A DINNER-PARTY.
Even unusual dinner-parties begin like ordinary ones. There is the discomfiture of the guest who arrives first, subjected to his hostess's reassurances that he is not really early. After what seems an interminable length of time, during which a score of conversational topics are broached, and both hostess and guest are reduced to a state bordering on mutual animosity, the remainder of the party arrive en masse, as if by collusion. The butler (who likes to chew the cud of reflection between the announcements) is openly pained, while the distracted hostess must manage the introductions, and, as friendships are begun or enmities renewed, endeavour to initiate the new-comer into the subject of conversation immediately preceding his or her entrance. As the good woman's subconscious mind is in the kitchen, and as she is constantly interrupted by the necessity of greeting new arrivals, she usually succeeds in mystifying every one, and creating that atmosphere of 'nerves' so familiar to denizens of the best sets.
But we had almost forgotten—there is always one guest who is late.
The fateful hour mentioned in the dinner invitation arrives, strikes, and floats down the mists to the eerie catacombs of the Past. The hostess knows that the cook, with arms akimbo, is breathing rebellion, but tries to blot out the awful vision by an extra spurt of hollow gaiety.
Ten minutes pass.
Conversation flags. The portly bachelor who lives at his club wonders why he didn't have a chop before he came. His fellow-diners try to refrain from the topic, but it is as hopeless as trying to talk to an ex-convict without mentioning jails. Finally, in an abandon of desperation, they all turn inquiringly to the hostess, who, affecting an ease of manner, says pleasantly, 'Dear me! What can have detained Mr. So-and-so? I wonder if we had better go in without him?'
And then he arrives—the jackass—and in a sublime good-humour! He tells some cock-and-bull story about his taxi breaking down, and actually seems to think he's done rather a smart thing in turning up at all. In short, he brings in such an air of geniality and self-appreciation that the guest who arrived first has more than a notion to 'have him out' and send him to a region where dinner-parties are popularly supposed to be unknown.
No—the lot of a lady who gives dinners is not a happy one.
On this Friday night of November in the year 1918, Lady Durwent sat by the fire in the drawing-room and discussed music with Norton Pyford. Having sacrificed his watch on the altar of art, he had been compelled to rely on appetite, with the result that he arrived just as eight was striking. Lady Durwent did her best, but as she knew nothing of music, nor he anything of anything else, the situation was becoming difficult, when the entrance of Madame Carlotti brought welcome relief.
That lady was wearing a yellow gown rather too tight for her, so that her somewhat ample flesh slightly overran the confines of the garment, giving the effect that she had grown up in the thing and was unable to shed it. This impression was heightened by a mannerism, repeated frequently during the evening, of grasping her very low bodice with her hands, exhausting her breath, pulling the bodice up, and compressing herself into it. It was an innocent enough performance, but invariably left the feeling that she should retire upstairs to do it.
She wore a yellow flower in her hair; her stockings were a rich yellow with a superimposed pattern like strands of fine gold, and her dainty feet were enclosed in a pair of bronzed shoes. As her lips were heavily carmined and her eyes brilliantly dark, Madame Carlotti's was a distinctly illuminating presence.
But the sunniness of her entrance was dimmed by the lack of audience. She had not expended her genius to throw it away on a strangely dressed young man whose hair fell straight and black over a large collar that had earned a holiday some days before, and whose velvet jacket was minus two buttons, the threads of which could still be seen, out-stretched, appealing for their owners' return.
'Lucia, my dear,' said Lady Durwent, just like an ordinary hostess, 'you look' (sotto voce) 'simply wonderful! I think you have met Mr. Norton Pyford, the Norton Pyford, haven't you?'
'Hah d' ye do?' said the Pyford.
'Chairmed,' minced Madame Carlotti.
'Lucia, take this chair by the fire. You must be frozen.'
'Ah, grazie, Sybil. What a perfectly meeserable climate you have in this London!'
'Just what I tha-a-y,' bleated Mr. Pyford, sinking into his chair in an apparently boneless heap. 'The other night, at a fella's thupper-party, I'——
'MRS. LE ROY JENNINGS.'
The resolutionist swept into the room clothed in black disorder, much as if she had started to dress in a fit of temper and had been overtaken by a gale.
She knew Madame Carlotti.—She did not know Mr. Norton Pyford, the Norton Pyford.—She was glad to know him.
He muttered something inarticulate, and glancing at the ring of women about him, shrank into his clothes until his collar almost hid his lower lip.
'We were discussing,' said Lady Durwent, vaguely relying on the last sounds retained by her ear—'discussing—suppers.'
'Don't believe in 'em,' said Mrs. Jennings sternly; 'three regular meals—tea at eleven and four, and hot milk with a bit of ginger in it before retiring—are sufficient for any one.'
The Italian took in the forceful figure of the New Woman and smiled with her teeth.
'Madame Jennings,' she said, 'perhaps finds sufficient distraction in just ordinary life—and una tazza di te. But we who are not so—comment dirai-je?—so self-complete must rely on frivolous things like una buona cena.'
'Don't believe in 'em,' reiterated the resolutionist; 'three regular'——
'Ah, c'est mauvais,' gesticulated Madame Carlotti, who alternated between Italian and French phrases in London, and kept her best English for the Continent.
'Mr. Pyford,' put in Lady Durwent, descrying a storm on the yellow and black horizon, 'has just written'——
'MR. H. STACKTON DUNCKLEY,' announced the butler, with an appropriate note of mysterioso. Lady Durwent summoned a blush, and rose to meet the ardent author, who was dressed in a characterless evening suit with disconsolate legs, and whose chin was heavily powdered to conceal the stubble of beard grown since morning.
'You have come,' she said softly and dramatically.
'I have,' said the writer, bowing low over her hand.
'I rely on you to be discreet,' she murmured.
'Discreet,' she coquetted. 'People will talk.'
'Let them,' said Mr. Dunckley earnestly.
'Madame Carlotti, I think you know Mr. Dunckley—H. Stackton Dunckley—and you too, Mrs. Le Roy Jennings; you clever people ought to be friends at once.—And I want you to meet Mr. Pyford, the'——
'Hah d'ye do?'
'How are you?'
'We were discussing,' said Lady Durwent—'discussing'——
'MR. AUSTIN SELWYN.'
Every one turned to see the guest of the evening, as the hostess rose to meet him. He was a young man on the right side of thirty, with dark, closely brushed hair that thinned slightly at the temples. He was clean-shaven, and his light-brown eyes lay in a smiling setting of quizzical good-humour. He was of rather more than medium height, with well-poised shoulders; and though a firmness of lips and jaw gave a suggestion of hardness, the engaging youthfulness of his eyes and a hearty smile that crinkled the bridge of his nose left a pleasant impression of frankness, mingled with a certain naivete.
'Mr. Selwyn,' said Lady Durwent, 'I knew you would want to meet some of London's—I should say some of England's—accomplished people.'
'Oime! I am afraid that obleeterates me,' smiled Madame Carlotti, whose social charm was rising fast at the sight of a good-looking stranger.
'No, indeed, Lucia,' effused the hostess. 'To be the personification of Italy in dreary London is more than an accomplishment; it—it'——
'It is a boon,' said Dunckley, coming to the aid of his floundering loved one.
'Exactly,' said Lady Durwent with a sigh of relief. 'Madame Lucia Carlotti—Mr. Selwyn of New York.'
'Buona sera, signora.'
'Buona sera, signore.'
He stooped low and pressed a light kiss on the Neapolitan's hand, thus taking the most direct route obtainable by an Anglo-Saxon to the good graces of a woman of Italy.
'How well you speak Italian!' cooed Madame Carlotti; 'so—like one of us.'
The American bowed. It was rarely he achieved a reputation with so little effort.
The remaining introductions were effected; the clock struck eight-thirty; and there followed an awkward silence, born of an absolute unanimity of thought.
'Of course, you two authors,' said Lady Durwent, forcing a smile, 'knew of each other, anyway. It's like asking H. G. Wells if he ever heard of Mark Twain.'
The smile in the American's eyes widened. 'Lady Durwent flatters me,' he said. 'I am not widely known in my own country, and can hardly expect that you should know of me on this side of the Atlantic.'
'What,' said Mr. Dunckley—'what does New York think of "Precipitate Thoughts"?'
The American considered quickly. He wished that in conversation, as well as in writing, people would use inverted commas.
'Whose precipitate thoughts?' he ventured.
'Mine,' said H. S. D., with ill-concealed importance.
'Oh yes, of course,' said Selwyn, wondering how any one so stationary as the other could project anything precipitate. 'New York was keenly interested.'
'Ah,' said the English author benignly, 'it is satisfactory to hear that. Of course, the great difference between there and here is that in New York one impresses: in London one is impressed.'
An ominous silence followed this epigrammatic wisdom (which Dunckley had just heard from the lips of a poet who had succeeded in writing both an American and an English publishing house into bankruptcy) while the various members of the group pursued their trains of thought along the devious routes of their different mentalities.
'Dear me!' said Lady Durwent anxiously, 'what can have detained'——
'MR. JOHNSTON SMYTH.'
With a jerky action of the knees, the futurist briskly entered the room with all the easy confidence of a famous comedian following on the heels of a chorus announcing his arrival. He looked particularly long and cadaverous in an abrupt, sporting-artistic, blue jacket, with sleeves so short that when he waved his arms (which he did with almost every sentence) he reminded one of a juggler requesting his audience to notice that he has absolutely nothing up his sleeves.
'Lady Durwent,' he exclaimed, striking an attitude and looking over his Cyrano-like nose with his right eye as if he were aligning the sights of a musket, 'don't tell me I'm late. If you do, I shall never speak to the Duke of Earldub again—never!'
As he refused to move an inch until assured that he was not late, and as Lady Durwent was anxious to proceed with the main business of the evening (to say nothing of maintaining the friendship between Smyth and the Duke of Earldub, whose part in his dilatory arrival was rather vague), she granted the necessary pardon, whereupon he straightened his legs and winked long and solemnly at Norton Pyford.
'Good gracious!' cried Lady Durwent just as she was about to suggest an exodus to the dining-room, 'I had forgotten all about Elise!' She hurriedly rang the bell, which was answered by the butler. 'Send word to Miss Elise that'——
'Milady,' said the servitor, addressing an arc-light just over the door, 'she is descending the stairs this very minute.'
There are moments when women appear at their best—fleeting moments that cannot be sustained. Sometimes it is a tremor of timidity that lends a fawn-like gentleness to their movements, and a frightened wistfulness to the eye, too subtle a thing of beauty to bear analysis in words. A sudden triumph, noble or ignoble, the conquering of a rival, the sound of a lover's voice, will flush the cheek and liberate the whole radiancy of a woman's being. Such moments come in every woman's life, when the quick impulse of emotion achieves an unconscious beauty that defies the ordinary standards of critical appreciation. It is that little instant that is the torch to light a lover's worship or a poet's verses—to send strange yearnings into a young man's breast and set an old man's memory philandering with the distant past.
It was such a moment for Elise Durwent as she stood in the doorway, the overhanging arc touching her hair and shoulders with the high lights of some master's painting. Conversation ceased, and in every face there was the universal homage paid to beauty, even though it be tendered grudgingly.
She was dressed in a gown of deep blue, that colour which renders its ageless tribute to the fair women of the world, and from her shoulders there hung a black net that subdued the colour of the gown and left the graceful suggestion of a cape.
'I am so sorry, mother,' she said. 'I was reading, and quite forgot the time.'
Austin Selwyn stroked the back of his head, then thrust both hands into his pockets. There was something in the girl's appearance and the contralto timbre of her voice that left him with the odd sensation that she was out of place in the room—that her real sphere was in the expanse of unbridled nature. He could see her wealth of copper-hued hair blown by the western wind; he could picture her joining in Spring's minuet of swaying rose-bushes.
'My daughter Elise—Mr. Austin Selwyn.'
He bowed as the words penetrated his thoughts; then, glancing up, he felt a sudden contraction of disappointment.
The girl's eyes had narrowed, and were no longer sparkling, but steady—almost to the point of dullness; her lower lip was full, and too scarlet for the upper one, which chided its sister for the wanton admission of slumbering passion; and her voice was abrupt. He almost cried out 'Legato, legato,' to coax back the lilt which had caressed his ear a moment before.
He was dimly conscious that dinner was announced, and that amidst a babel of tongues he was being led by, or was leading, Lady Durwent into the dining-room. He heard the resolutionist and Dunckley both talking at once, and felt the melancholy languor of Pyford floating like incense through the air. He had an obscure recollection of sitting down next to his hostess; that the table, like Arthur's, was a round one; that Johnston Smyth was seated beside Miss Durwent and was ogling one of Lady Durwent's maids. Then he remembered that he had heard some voice in his ear for several minutes past, and, growing curious, took a surreptitious glance, to find that it belonged to Madame Carlotti.
'Meester Selwyn,' she said indignantly, 'you have not been listening to me.'
'That is true, signora,' he said; 'but I have been thinking of you.'
'Yes?' she purred, leaning towards him. 'What did you thought?'
He turned squarely to her in an impassioned counterfeit of frankness. 'Are all Italian women beautiful?' he murmured.
'Hush-sh!' Her hand touched his beneath the table, reprovingly and tenderly.
'Mr. Selwyn,' said Lady Durwent, 'you have not tasted your soup.'
THE OLYMPIANS THUNDER.
Lady Durwent was blessed in the possession of a cook whose artistry was beyond question, if the same could not be said of the guests to whom she so frequently ministered. She was a descendant of the French, that race which makes everything tend towards development of the soul, and consequently looks upon a meal as something of a sacrament. She prepared a dinner with a balance of contrast and climax that a composer might show in writing a tone poem.
On this eventful evening, therefore, the dinner-party, stimulated by her art and by potent wines (gazing with long-necked dignity at the autocratic whisky-decanter), rapidly assumed a crescendo and an accelerando—the two things for which a hostess listens.
H. Stackton Dunckley had held the resolutionist in a duel of language—a combat with broadswords—and honours were fairly even. The short-sleeved Johnston Smyth had waged futurist warfare against the modernist Pyford, while the Honourable Miss Durwent sat helplessly between them, with as little chance of asserting her rights as the Dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea-party. The American had held his own in badinage with the daughter of Italy on one side and his hostess on the other, the latter, however, being too skilled in entertaining to do more than murmur a few encouragements to the spontaneity that so palpably existed.
'Let me see,' said Lady Durwent as the meal came to a close and the butler looked questioningly at her. 'Shall we'—she opened the caverns of her throat, producing a volume that instantly silenced every one—'SHALL WE HAVE COFFEE IN HERE OR IN THE DRAWING-ROOM? I suppose you gentlemen, as usual, want to chat over your port and cigars alone.'
H. Stackton Dunckley protested that absence from the ladies, even for so short a time, would completely spoil his evening—receiving in reward a languorous glance from Lady Durwent. Johnston Smyth, who had done more than ample justice to the wines, offered to 'pink' at fifty yards any man who would consider the proposition for a moment. Only Norton Pyford, in a sort of befuddled gallantry, suggested that the ladies might have sentimental confidences to exchange, and leered amorously at Elise Durwent.
'Well,' said Lady Durwent, 'I am sure we are all curious to hear what Mr. Selwyn thinks of England, so I think we shall have coffee here. Is it agreeable to every one?'
Unanimous approval greeted the proposal, and, at a sign from the hostess, cigarettes, cigars, and coffee made their appearance, with the corresponding niceties of 'Just one, please,' 'Well, perhaps a cigarette might be enjoyable,' 'I know men like a cigar,' 'After you, old man,' and all those various utterances which tickle the ear, creating in the speaker's breast the feeling of saying the right thing and doing it rather well.
Throughout the dinner the daughter of the house had sat practically without a remark, and even when chorus effects were achieved by the rest, remained with almost immobile features, merely glancing from one to another, momentarily interested or openly bored. Several times the American had looked furtively at the arresting face, marred by too apparent mental resentment, but the barricade of Johnston Smyth's angular personality had been too powerful for him to surmount with anything but the most superficial persiflage.
He had watched her take a cigarette, accepting a light from Smyth, who surrounded the action with a ludicrous dignity, when she looked up and met his eyes.
'Mr. Selwyn,' she said, speaking with the same rapidity of phrasing that had both held and exasperated him before, 'we are all waiting for the verdict of the Man from America.'
'Over there,' he smiled, 'it is customary to take evidence before giving a verdict.'
'Good,' boomed the resolutionist; 'very good!'
'Then,' said Lady Durwent, 'we seven shall constitute a jury.'
'Order!' Johnston Smyth rose to his feet and hammered the table with a bottle. 'Oyez, oyez, you hereby swear that you shall well and truly try'——
'Can't,' said Norton Pyford, pulling himself up; 'I'm prejudiced.'
'For or against?'
'Against the culprit.'
'My discordant friend,' said Smyth, producing a second bottle from an unsuspected source and making it disappear mysteriously, 'means that he is prejudiced against England. Am I right, sir?'
'Not exactly,' drawled the composer. 'I don't mind England—but I think the English are awful.'
'That is a nice point,' said Lady Durwent.
'Ah,' broke in Madame Carlotti, 'but, much as I detest the English, I hate England more. Nom de Dieu! I—a daughter of the Mediterranean, where the sun ees so rarely a stranger, and the sky and the water it ees always blue. In Italy one lives because she ees alive—it ees sufficient. Here it ees always gray, gray—always g-r-ray. When the sun comes—sacramento! he sees his mistake and goes queek away. Ah, Signor Selwyn, it ees desolant that I am compelled to live here.'
A roar of unfeeling laughter greeting her familiar plaint, Madame Carlotti took a hitch in her gown and reimprisoned some of her person which had escaped from custody.
'Then,' said Johnston Smyth, 'if we are all of a mind, there is no need to have a trial. You have all seen the accusation in Mr. Selwyn's eye, you have considered the unbiassed evidence of the lovely Carlotti'——
'But jurors can't give evidence,' muttered Mr. Dunckley.
'My dear sir, I know she can't, but she did,' said Smyth triumphantly. 'Oyez, oyez—all in favour'——
'But,' interrupted the American, 'are we not to hear any one for the defence?'
'No,' said Smyth, who was thoroughly happy as a self-constituted master of ceremonies. 'No one would accept the brief.'
'Then,' said Selwyn, 'I apply for the post of counsel for the defence, for in the limited time I have been in your country I have seen much that appeals to me.'
'Of course, it is a well-known fact,' said Dunckley sententiously, 'that American humour relies on exaggeration.'
'No, no,' said Johnston Smyth, hushing the voices with a pianissimo movement of his hands, 'it is not humour on Mr. Selwyn's part, but gratitude. In return for Christopher Columbus discovering America, this gentleman is going to repay the debt of the New World to the Old by discovering England.'
'SHALL WE HAVE SOME PORT?' said Lady Durwent, opening the sluice-gates of her vocal production.
'Speaking of America,' said Mrs. Le Roy Jennings a few minutes later, Johnston Smyth having sat down in order to do justice to the wine of Portugal, 'she is in the very vanguard of progress. Women have achieved an independence there unknown elsewhere in the world.'
'That is true,' said Lady Durwent, who knew nothing whatever about it.
'You are right,' said Madame Carlotti.
'The other day in Paris I heard an American woman whistling. "Have you lost your dog?" I asked. "No," she says; "my husband."'
A chorus of approval greeted this malicious sally, followed by the retailing of various anti-American anecdotes that made up in sting what they lacked in delicacy. These showed no signs of abatement until, slightly nettled, Selwyn put in an oar.
'I had hoped,' he said, 'to find some illuminating points in the conversation to-night. But it seems as if you treat not only your own country in a spirit of caricature, but mine as well. We are a very young race, and we have the faults of youth; but, then, youth always has a future. It was a sort of post-graduate course to come to England and Europe to absorb some of the lore—or isn't it one of your poets who speaks of "The Spoils of Time"? Your past is so rich that naturally we look to you and Europe for the fundamental things of civilisation.'
'And what have you found?' asked Elise Durwent.
'Well,' said the American, 'much to admire—and much to deplore.'
'In other words,' said Johnston Smyth, 'he has been to Edinburgh and to London.'
'That is so,' smiled Selwyn; 'but I don't'——
'All people,' said Smyth serenely, 'admire Edinburgh, but abuse London. Over here a man will jest about his religion or even his grandfather, but never about Edinburgh. On the other hand, as every one damns London, and as an Englishman is never so happy as when he has something on hand to grouse about, London's population has grown to some eight millions.'
'I think, Mr. Smyth,' said Lady Durwent, 'that you are as much a philosopher as a painter.'
'Lady Durwent,' said the futurist, 'all art is philosophy—even old Pyford's here, though his amounts almost to theology.'
For a few minutes the conversation drifted in inconsequential channels until H. Stackton Dunckley becalmed everything with a laborious dissertation on the lack of literary taste in both England and America. Selwyn took the opportunity of studying the elusive beauty of Elise Durwent, which seemed to provoke the eye to admiration, yet fade into imperfection under a prolonged searching. Pyford grew sleepy, and even Smyth appeared a little melancholy, when, on a signal from Lady Durwent, brandy and liqueurs were served, checking Mr. Dunckley's oratory and reviving every one's spirits noticeably.
'Mr. Selwyn,' said Mrs. Le Roy Jennings in her best manner, 'after you have subjected England to a microscopic examination for a sufficient length of time, you will discover that we are a nation of parasites.'
'I would rather you said that than I, Mrs. Jennings.'
'Parasites,' reiterated the speaker, fixing an eye on some point on the wall directly between Selwyn and the hostess. 'We sprawl over the world—why? To develop resources? No! It is to reap the natural growth of others' endeavours? Yes! The Englishman never creates. He is the world's greatest brigand'——
'Too thoroughly masculine to be really cruel,' chimed in the irrepressible Smyth.
'Brigand,' repeated Mrs. Jennings, not deigning the artist so much as a glance, 'skimming the earth of its surface riches, and rendering every place the poorer for his being there.'
There was an awesome silence, which no one seemed courageous enough to break.
'Yes,' said H. Stackton Dunckley finally, 'and in addition England is decadent.'
'But, Mr. Selwyn'—again the American heard the voice of Elise Durwent, that quick intensity of speech that always left a moment of startled silence in its wake—'you have discovered something admirable about England. Won't you tell us what it is?'
'Well,' he said, smiling, 'for one thing, no one can deny the beauty of your women.'
'All decadent nations,' said H. Stackton Dunckley, 'produce beautiful women—it is one of the surest signs that they are going to pieces. The Romans did at the last, and Rome and England are parallel cases. As Mrs. Le Roy Jennings says, they are parasitic nations. What did the Romans add to Greek art? The Greeks had this'—he made an elliptical movement of his hands—'the Romans did that to it'—he described a circle, then shrugged his shoulders, convinced that he had said something crushing.
'So you think English women beautiful, Mr. Selwyn?' said Lady Durwent, trying to retrieve the conversation from the slough of her inamorato's ponderosity.
'Undoubtedly,' answered the American warmly. 'It is no doubt the out-of-door life they lead, and I suppose the moist climate has something to do with their wonderful complexions, but they are womanly as well, and their voices are lovely.'
'I smell a rat,' said Smyth, who had in his mouth an unlit cigarette, which had fastened itself to his lip and bobbed up and down with his speech, like a miniature baton. 'When a man says a woman's voice is sweet, it means that she has bored him; that what she has to say interests him so little that he turns to contemplation of her voice. This American is a devilish cute fellow.'
A babble of voices took up the charge and demanded immediate explanation.
'To a certain extent,' said Selwyn stoutly, 'there is much in what Mr. Smyth says.'
'List to the pigmy praising the oracle,' chanted the artist.
'I do not think,' went on the American, 'that the English girls I have met are as bright or as clever as the cultured young women of the continent of America. In other words, with all her natural charm, the English girl does not edit herself well.'
'In that,' said H. Stackton Dunckley, 'she reflects the breed. The Anglo-Saxon has an instinctive indifference to thought.'
'As soon as an Englishman thinks,' minced Madame Carlotti, 'he leaves England with its cattivo climate and goes to the Colonies. C'est pourquoi the Empire ees so powerful—its brains are in the legs.'
'Come, come,' laughed Selwyn, 'is there no one here but me who can discover any merit in Old England?'
'Yes,' said Pyford gloomily; 'London is only seven hours from Paris.'
'Ah—Parigi!' ejaculated Madame Carlotti with the fervour born of the feeling in all Latin women that Paris is their spiritual capital.
'And yet,' said Selwyn, after a pause to see if Madame Carlotti's exuberance was going to develop any further, 'in literature, which I suppose is the natural art of the Anglo-Saxon temperament, we still look to you for the outstanding figures. With all our ability for writing short stories—and I think we are second only to the French in that—England still produces the foremost novelists. In the sustained effort required in the formation of a novel, England is yet first. Of course, musically, I think England is very near the bottom.'
'And yet,' said Johnston Smyth, 'we are the only people in the world candid enough to have a monument to our lack of taste.'
Every one looked at the artist, who stroked his left arm with the back of his right hand, like a barber sharpening a razor.
'In that part of London known as Kingsway,' he said, 'there is a beautiful building called "The London Opera House"!' He thrust both hands out, palms upwards, as if the building itself rested on them. 'It stands in a commanding position, with statues of the great composers gazing from the roof at the passing proletariat emanating from the Strand. Inside it is luxuriously equipped, as bents the home of Opera.'
'Yes,' said the American, as the speaker paused.
Smyth produced a watch from nowhere in particular. 'It is just past ten,' he said. 'I am not sure whether it is Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford showing on the screen at this hour, at the London Opera House.'
A murmur of applause acknowledged the artist's well-planned climax. He looked about with a satisfied smile, then replaced the watch with the air of pocketing both it and the subject.
'But—you have opera?' said Selwyn wonderingly.
'Of course,' said Smyth; 'and where? In a vegetable-market. In Covent Garden. Yet England has been accused of hypocrisy! What other nation is so candid?'
By one of those unspoken understandings that are the rules of mobs and dinner-parties, it was felt that the topic was ceasing to be exhaustive and becoming exhausting. Lady Durwent glanced, interrogatively about the table; Madame Carlotti took a hitch in her gown; Norton Pyford emptied his glass and sat pensively staring at it as if it had hardly done what he expected, but on the whole he felt inclined to forgive it; Johnston Smyth made a belated attempt to be sentimental with the Honourable Miss Durwent, whose lips, always at war with each other, merely parted in a smile that utterly failed to bring any sympathy from her eyes; Mrs. Le Roy Jennings took a last sip of coffee, and finding it quite cold, put it down with a gesture of finality.
'Lady Durwent,' said Austin Selwyn—and the quality of his voice was lighter and more musical than it had been—'I suppose that a man who deliberately goes to a country to gather impressions lays himself open to the danger of being influenced by external things only. If I were to base my knowledge of England on what her people say of her, I think I should be justified in assuming that the century-old charge of her decadence is terribly true. Yet I claim to have something of an artist's sensitiveness to undercurrents, and it seems to me that there is a strong instinct of race over here—perhaps I express myself clumsily—but I think there is an England which has far more depth to it than your artists and writers realise. For some reason you all seem to want to deny that; and when, as to-night, it is my privilege to meet some of this country's expressionists, it appears that none has any intention of trying to reveal what is fine in your life as a people—you seek only to satirise, caricature, or damn altogether. If I believe my ears, there is nothing but stupidity and insularity in England. If I listen to my senses, to my subconscious mind, I feel that a great crisis would reveal that she is still the bed-rock of civilisation.'
Madame Carlotti raised her glass.
'To America's next ambassador to England!' she cried.
The momentous evening was drawing to a close.
Rain, in fitful gusts, had been besieging the windows, driven by an ill-tempered wind that blustered around the streets, darting up dark alleys, startling the sparks emerging from chimney-pots, roaring across the parks, slamming doors, and venting itself, every now and then, in an ill-natured howl.
Inside the refuge of No. 8 Chelmsford Gardens a fire threw its merry warmth over the large music-room, and did its best to offset the tearful misery of the November night.
Conversation had dwindled in energy with the closing hour of the affair, and seizing an auspicious moment, Norton Pyford had reached the piano, and for twenty minutes demonstrated the close relation of the chord of C Minor to the colour brown. Modernist music, acting on unusual souls as classical music on ordinary souls, stimulated the flagging conversational powers of the guests, and he was soon surrounded by a gesticulating group of dissenting or condoning critics.
Selwyn noticed that Elise Durwent had not left her seat by the fire, and absenting himself from the harmonic debate, he took a chair by hers.
'You are pensive, Miss Durwent,' he said.
She smiled, with a slight suggestion of weariness, though her eyes had a softness he had not seen in them before.
'I am very dull company to-night,' she said, 'but ever since I was a child, rain beating against the windows has always made me dreamy. I suppose I am old-fashioned, but it is sweeter music to me than Mr. Pyford's new harmonies.'
He laughed, and leaning towards the fire, rubbed his hands meditatively. 'You must have found our talk wearisome at dinner,' he said.
'No,' she answered, 'it was not so bad as usual. You introduced a note of sincerity that had all the effect of a novelty.'
Her mannerism of swift and disjointed speech, which broke all her sentences into rapidly uttered phrases, again annoyed him. Though her voice was refined, it seemed to be acting at the behest of a whip-like brain, and she spoke as if desirous rather of provoking a retort than of establishing any sense of compatibility. Yet she was feminine—gloriously, delicately feminine. The finely moulded arms and the gracefulness of body, indicated rather than revealed beneath her blue gown, intrigued the eye and the senses, just as the swiftly spoken words challenged the brain and infused exasperation in the very midst of admiration. The complicated elements of the girl offered a peculiar fascination to the eternal instinct of study possessed by the young American author.
'Miss Durwent,' he said, 'if I was sincere to-night, it was because you encouraged me to be so.'
'But I said nothing.'
'Nevertheless, you were the inspiration.'
'I never knew a girl could accomplish so much by holding her tongue.'
A crash of 'Bravos' broke from the group around the piano; Pyford had just scored a point.
'You know,' resumed Selwyn thoughtfully, 'a man doesn't go to a dinner-party conscious of what he is going to say. It is the people he meets that produce ideas in him, many of which he had never thought of before.'
She tapped the ground with her foot, and looked smilingly at his serious face. 'It is the reverse with me,' she said. 'I go out to dinner full of ideas, and the people I meet inspire a silence in me of unsuspected depth.'
'May I smoke?' asked Selwyn, calling a halt in the verbal duel.
'Certainly; I'll join you. Don't smoke your own cigarettes—there are some right in front of you.'
He reached for a silver box, offered her a cigarette, and struck a match. As he leaned over her she raised her face to the light, and the blood mounted angrily to his head.
Though a man accustomed to dissect rather than obey his passions, he possessed that universal quality of man which demands the weakness of the feminine nature in the woman who interests him. He will satirise that failing; if he be a writer, it will serve as an endless theme for light cynicism. He will deplore that a woman's brains are so submerged by her emotions; but let him meet one reversely constituted, and he steers his course in another direction with all possible speed.
Selwyn had come to her with a comfortable, after-dinner desire for a tete-a-tete. He expected flattering questions about his writings, and would have enjoyed talking about them; instead of which this English girl with the crimson colouring and the maddening eyes had coolly kept him at a distance with her rapier brain. He felt a sudden indignation at her sexlessness, and struck a match for his own cigarette with such energy that it broke in two.
'Miss Durwent,' he said suddenly, lighting another match, 'I want to see you again—soon.' He paused, astonished at his own abruptness, and an awkward smile expanded until it crinkled the very pinnacle of his nose.
'I like you when you look like that,' she said. 'It was just like my brother Dick when he fell off a horse. By the way, do you ride?'
'Yes,' he said, watching the cigarette-smoke curl towards the fireplace, 'though I prefer an amiable beast to a spirited one.'
'Good!' she said, so quickly that it seemed like the thrust of a sword in tierce. 'You have the same taste in horses as in women. Most men have.'
'Miss Durwent'—his face flushed angrily and his jaw stiffened—'I'll ride any horse you choose in England, and'——
'And break the heart of the most vixenish maiden in London! You are a real American, after all. What is it you say over there? "Shake!"'
She slapped her hand into his, and he held it in a strong grip.
'But you will let me see you again soon?'
'Certainly.' She withdrew her hand from his with a firmness that had neither censure nor coquetry in it, and the heightened colour of her cheeks subsided with the sparkle of her eyes.
'When?' he said.
'To-morrow morning, if you like. I shall have horses here at eleven, and we can ride in the Row, providing you will put up with anything so quiet as our cattle.'
'That is bully of you. I shall be here at eleven.'
'I thought all Americans used slang,' she said.
'You are the first English girl I have met,' he answered with extraordinary venom in his voice, 'who has not said "ripping."'
* * * * * *
Twenty minutes later Austin Selwyn, unable to secure a taxi, tramped along Oxford Street towards his hotel. He had just reached the Circus when the malignant wind, hiding in ambush down Regent Street, rushed at him unawares and sent his hat roistering into the doorway of a store. With a frown, Selwyn stopped and stared at the truant.
'Confound the wretched thing!' he said.
A MORNING IN NOVEMBER.
Austin Selwyn rose from his bed and looked at Berners Street glistening in a sunlight that must have warmed the heart of Madame Carlotti herself. With a lazy pleasure in the process, he recalled the picture of Elise Durwent sitting in the dim shadows of the firelit room; he felt again the fragrance of her person as he leaned over her with the lighted match. On the canvas of his brain was thrown the rich colouring of the English girl, with the copper-hued luxury of hair and the eyes that seemed to steal some magic from the fire; and he saw again those warring lips, the crimson upper one chiding the passionate scarlet of its twin.
Idly, while enjoying the unusual dissipation of a pre-breakfast cigarette, he tried to imagine the course of incident and heredity that had produced her strange personality. That there was a bitterness somewhere in her disposition was obvious; but it certainly could not have come from the mother, who was the soul of contentment. He found himself speculating on the peculiar quality of personality, that strange thing which makes an individual something apart from others of his kind, that gift which singles out a girl of ordinary appearance and leaves one of flawless beauty still wagging her pretty head in the front row of the chorus. From that point he began to speculate on the loneliness of personality, which so often robs its owner of the cheery companionship of commonplace people.
On the whole, he regretted that he was going to see her again so soon. Her pertness, which had seemed fairly clever the previous night, would probably descend to triteness in the morning; he could even see her endeavouring to keep up the same exchange of short sentences. Bah! It was like a duel with toothpicks. The stolid respectability of Berners Street lent its aid to the conviction that the morning would hold nothing but anti-climax.
And he was poet enough to prefer an unfinished sonnet to one with an inartistic ending.
Austin Selwyn was twenty-six—an age which has something in common with almost every one of the seven celebrated by Shakespeare. Like most men in their twenties, he had the character of a chameleon, and adapted himself to his surroundings with almost uncanny facility. At college he had been an ardent member of a dozen cliques, even falling under the egotism of the men who dabbled in Spiritualism, but a clarity of thought and a strain of Dutch ancestry kept his feet on the earth when the rest of him showed signs of soaring.
Some moderate wit had said of him at college that he was himself only twice a day—when he got up in the morning and when he went to bed at night. This Stevensonian theory was not quite true, for a chameleon does not cease to be a chameleon because it changes its colour.
It was perhaps his susceptibility to the many vintages of existence that had impelled him to write, authors being more or less a natural result of the economic law of intake and output. As is the habit of most young writers, he wrote on various subjects, put enough material for a two-volume novel into a short story, and generally revelled in the prodigality of literary youth. He was prepared to be a social satirist, a chronicler of the Smart Set, a champion of the down-trodden masses, or a commercial essayist, according to the first public that showed appreciation of his work.
Although he had lived in Boston, that city which claims so close an affinity to ancient Athens (as a matter of fact, has it not been said that Athens is the Boston of Europe?), he was drawn to the great vortex of New York, that mighty capital of modernism which sucks the best brains of an entire continent. For some time he wrote beneath his own standard and with considerable success. Following the example of several successful New York authors, he plunged into a hectic portrayal of 'high' society, a set of people that makes one wonder as to the exact meaning of the adjective. For a short space he came under the influence of the studied Bohemianism of 'Greenwich Village,' and wrote deucedly clever things for the applause of the villagers, then sneered at American taste because people in Arkansas did not like his work. Still retaining his love of Greenwichery, he next succumbed to the money lure of the motion-picture industry, which offered to buy the picture-rights of his stories, provided he would introduce into them the elements which go to make up successful American films.
With the prospect of a bank president's income before him, he succeeded in writing his share of that form of American literature which has a certain love interest, almost obscured by a nasty sexual diagnosis, an element of comedy relief, and, above all, a passionate adherence to the craze of the moment—a work that fades from the mind with the closing of the book, as the memory of the author's name vanishes almost before the last sound of the earth dropped upon his coffin.