Minor punctuation errors have been changed without notice. Printer errors have been changed and are listed at the end. All other inconsistencies are as in the original.
THE TWELFTH HOUR
London Chapman & Hall
Originally published 1907 by Grant Richards Ltd. Reissued 1951 by arrangement with the Richards Press Ltd.
Printed by Brueder Rosenbaum, Vienna, Austria Cat. No. 5090/4
I FELICITY 7
II THE TRIALS OF WOODVILLE 23
III A LOVE SCENE 32
IV "AUNT WILLIAM" 40
V ARTHUR MERVYN AT HOME 55
VI AN AGREEABLE RATTLE 70
VII THE NIGHT OF THE PARTY 82
VIII FELICITY AND HER CLIENTS 100
IX A DINNER AT WILLIS'S 112
X THE THIN END OF THE WEDGE 125
XI SAVILE AND SYLVIA 138
XII AT THE STUDIO 148
XIII AT MRS. OGILVIE'S 155
XIV LORD CHETWODE 166
XV MADAME TUSSAUD'S 175
XVI A GOLDEN DAY 189
XVII SAVILE TAKES A LINE 195
XVIII FELICITY'S ENGAGEMENTS 202
XIX THE VELVET CASE 216
XX ZERO, THE SOOTHSAYER 232
XXI "THE OTHER GIRL" 246
XXII SAVILE AND JASMYN 255
XXIII SAVILE AND BERTIE 261
XXIV THE EXPLANATION 267
XXV THE QUARREL 274
XXVI VERA'S ADVENTURE 282
XXVII AUNT WILLIAM'S DAY 292
XXVIII THE TWELFTH HOUR 302
"Hallo, Greenstock! Lady Chetwode in?"
"Her ladyship is not at home, sir. But she is sure to see you, Master Savile," said the butler, with a sudden and depressing change of manner, from correct impassibility to the conventional familiarity of a patronising old retainer.
"Dressing, eh? You look all right Greenstock."
"Well, I am well, and I am not well, Master Savile, if you can understand that, sir. My harsthma" (so he pronounced it), "'as been exceedingly troublesome lately."
"Ah, that's capital!" Not listening, the boy—he was sixteen, dark, and very handsome, with a determined expression, and generally with an air of more self-control than seemed required for the occasion—walked up deliberately, three steps at a time, knocked, with emphasis, at his sister's dressing-room door, and said—
"I say, Felicity, can I come in?"
"Who's there? Don't come in!"
Upon which invitation he entered the room with a firm step.
"Oh, it's you, Savile darling. I am glad to see you! Dear pet! Come and tell me all about everything—papa and the party—and, look out, dear, don't tread on my dresses! Give Mr. Crofton a chair, Everett. Even you mustn't sit down on a perfectly new hat!"
Felicity was a lovely little blonde creature about twenty-five years old, dressed in a floating Watteau-like garment of vaporous blue, painted with faded pink roses. She was seated in a large carved and gilded chair, opposite an excessively Louis-Quinze mirror, while her pale golden hair was being brushed out by a brown, inanimate-looking maid. Her little oval face, with its soft cloudy hair growing low on the forehead, long blue eyes, and rosebud mouth, had something of the romantic improbability of an eighteenth-century miniature. From the age of two Felicity had been an acknowledged beauty. She profited by her grasp of this fact merely by being more frank than most charming people, and more natural than most disagreeable ones. With little self-consciousness, she took a cool sportsmanlike pleasure in the effect she produced, and perhaps enjoyed the envy and admiration she had excited in her perambulator in Kensington Gardens almost as much as her most showy successes in later life.
The most effective of these (so far) had been her marriage. Hopelessly bowled over, as he called it, by her detailed loveliness, and not even frightened by her general brilliance, Lord Chetwode had insisted on her making the match of the previous season. He was a good-looking, amiable, and wealthy young man, who was as lavish as if he had not had a penny, and who showed his extravagantly long descent chiefly by being (for a racing man) rather eccentrically interested in the subject of decoration.
He was an owner of racehorses and a collector of curiosities, and these tastes gave him certain interests apart from his wife. He was, however, very much in love with her, and showed it chiefly by writing her nearly every day long, elaborate, and conspicuously illegible love-letters. She was not an expert in handwriting, nor had she time or patience to decipher them. So she merely treasured them (unread) in a green and white striped silk box. For under all her outward sentimentality, Felicity was full of tenderness, especially for her husband. This was not surprising, for he was a most agreeable companion, a great friend, quite devoted to her, to his pretty home in London, and his picturesque old house in the country, from all of which, however, he was as a rule markedly absent. If one asked after Chetwode, the answer was nearly always that he was away.
He had chosen every detail of the house in Park Street with a patience worthy of his passion. In the bedroom, especially, not a concession was made, not a point stretched. All was purest Louis-Quinze. But in spite of this, and amidst all her tapestry and old French furniture, Felicity had a very contemporary air. About everything was the recent look characteristic of the home of a lately married couple. The room looked as if it had been decorated the day before for a twentieth-century Madame de Pompadour. But, if the background was almost archaeological, the atmosphere was absolutely modern. In this incongruity was a certain fascination.
Though the bridal freshness still lingered, a more wilful element was also observable. Invitation-cards, race-cards, the Daily Mail, magazines, English and French novels, and cigarettes were freely scattered about, and an expert would have seen at a glance that the dresses lying in every direction could not have formed part of any trousseau. They had obviously been chosen with (or against) the advice of Lord Chetwode.
Savile sat down on a pink curved sofa, and said definitely—
"Look here, Felicity, I want to speak to you."
"Does Chetwode know what's going to win the Cambridgeshire?"
"How can he know, darling? Would it be fair? Of course he has some vague idea. Candid Friend he said was the favourite. He says it's a certainty. But his certainties! (Everett, look out. You've been overdoing the waving lately. Remember how careful I have to be not to look like a wax-doll in a hair-dresser's shop ... with my complexion)! Go on, Savile,—what's the party going to be like?"
"Like nothing on earth, my dear, as usual. One of the governor's baffling entertainments."
"Well, I don't care what people say, Savile! I think papa's parties are the greatest fun one can get anywhere. It's a wonderful mixture,—a sort of Russian salad. How exciting it is, for instance, never being quite sure whether one is going to be taken to dinner by—Lord Rosebery, or—Little Tich!"
"As it happens, my dear, they've both refused," said Savile ironically.
"Oh, Savile, don't be funny when I've no time to laugh. Do you deny papa's peculiar talent for celebrities? Is De Valdez coming?"
"The Spanish composer? Oh, rather! He's coming over about his new opera. He's all right. At least, I bear him rather, but girls like him."
"And who will be the great card this time, Savile?"
"Of course, Roy Beaumont, the inventor."
"What on earth's he invented?"
"Himself, I should think. He's only about twenty-one. Roy's a capital chap, really. The only thing is, he wears hats that he thinks suit him. Otherwise he dresses rather well, for a dandy."
"Why on earth shouldn't his hats suit him?" said Lady Chetwode in surprise.
"Oh, never mind! I can't go into all that. Why, because you ought to wear things, because they're right, not because——Oh, girls don't understand dress! Don't let's fatigue ourselves discussing it. Any one can see you've never been to Eton."
"Well, I should rather hope they could," murmured Felicity, looking in the glass.
"F. J. Rivers and Arthur Mervyn, the actor, are coming, and—oh, a lot more."
"I see, it's a clever party. Isn't it fun, Savile, being the only stupid person in a crowd of clever people? They make such a fuss about one. Aren't any real people coming?"
"A few. Some heavy M.P.'s and their wives, and Aunt William, and of course old Ridokanaki."
"Oh, the Greek millionaire,—the banker?"
"Don't call him the banker; it reminds me of The Hunting of the Snark."
"Yes; Mr. Ridokanaki is rather like a sort of Snark, and you and papa are hunting him for Sylvia. Will it come off?"
"Shouldn't think so," said Savile thoughtfully. "He's rather a bore, but he's a good sort. Of course, Sylvia ought to marry him. All the pretty girls are marrying these Anglo-Aliens. He's very keen. But about my affairs—I say, Everett, do take away these fluffy rustling things."
Everett having completed her task, with a stiff smile, and a rainbow of chiffons over her arm, faded away.
Felicity, completely dressed, turned her chair round and put up her absurd little high-heeled shoes.
"Now then, fire away, old boy."
Savile, taking this command literally, stretched out his hand for the cigarettes. Felicity snatched them away.
"How dare you! You won't grow any more! Here, have a chocolate!"
Savile looked at her with a pitying smile and said slowly—
"What rot! Grow! As if I wanted to grow! As if I had the time! I've got more serious things than that to do I can tell you. I have two rather awful troubles. Look here. Things are a bit off at home just now. The Governor is furious about Chetwode not coming to the party."
Lady Chetwode's colour deepened.
"Well, what about me, Savile? Do you think I'm pleased? Is it my fault the Cambridgeshire's run on Wednesday? Do be just to me! Do I make the racing engagements? You can't pretend that I can alter the rules of Newmarket because papa chooses to give a lot of absurd parties!"
"I know, old girl—but can't you make him give it up?"
"Who ever yet made Chetwode give up anything he wants to do? Besides, it's not like a dinner-party, or his wedding, or anything like that, Savile, you know. After all, he isn't bound to be there!"
"All right; only it's the first thing we've given since your marriage and——"
"I know, dear. I'm very angry about it. Very. Besides, I'm sure I don't care if the darling prefers racing! Don't you know by this time that whenever Chetwode is particularly wanted he is sure to be either at Kempton or at Christie's?"
"Spending at Christie's what he's lost at Kempton, I suppose."
"Naturally, Savile. And if he prefers his horses, and his jockeys, and his bookmakers, and even his old furniture, to taking his own wife to her own father's party——"
"Hallo, old girl, don't tell me you haven't everything under the sun you want! Because that would be a bit too thick," said Savile, sitting up.
"Who says I haven't?"
"No one, if you don't."
"I should hope not!"
Then Felicity murmured relentingly—
"Dear Chetwode! He's so heavenly in some ways. No, I won't worry and oppose him, it's a fatal mistake. We'll make it up to you later—stay with you on the river in August or something. What price you, dear? What's your trouble?"
Savile fumbled a good deal with a tassel, laughed mirthlessly, frowned gloomily, and then said with a jerk: "What price me? No price. It's her. You know."
Felicity replied patiently.
"You always say that, and you never get any further,—never."
"Well, my dear, don't you see—there's two things."
"What ought a chap to do who,—I've consulted men of the world, and yet I think you know best. You're so celebrated as a confidante."
"Well?" said his sister.
"What ought a chap to do—who ... oh, well ... if a chap—say a chap has—well—a girl, say, frightfully keen on him (for the sake of the argument), and she's a decent sort of girl, and at the same time the poor chap is frightfully keen on another girl, who is frightfully keen on another chap—who is a very decent chap too, mind you ... what ought he to do?"
"Which chap, Savile?"
"Oh, don't be so muddle-headed, Felicity! Pull yourself together, can't you? Me, of course!"
"You mean Dolly Clive is in love with you" (Savile winced at the feminine explicitness), "and you are in love with some one else, and it's quite hopeless."
"I don't quite say that. But there are tremendous difficulties."
"Is she married? Oh, I do believe she's married. Oh, Savile! How extraordinary and horrid of you!"
"Oh, it's all right, Felicity," said Savile, with a reassuring nod, at which she laughed.
"I'm sure it is, dear. But who on earth is it?"
Savile took a photograph out of his pocket, and blushingly showed it to his sister, with his head turned away.
As she looked at it her face expressed the most unfeigned bewilderment.
"Aunt William? But this is very sudden.... Oh, it's some mistake, surely! You can't be in love with Aunt William!"
With a howl of fury Savile snatched the portrait from her.
It was a quaint, faded photograph of an elderly aunt of his taken in the early seventies. It represented a woman with an amiable expression and a pointed face; parted hair, with a roll on the top, and what was in those days known as an Alexandra curl on the left shoulder. She was leaning her head on her hand, and her elbow on a vague shelf or balcony. The photograph was oval in shape, and looked as if the lady were looking out of a window. At the base of the window was a kind of board, on which was written in her own handwriting, magnified (in white letters, relieved on black), the beautiful words, "Yours truly, Mary Crofton."
"You are an idiot, Felicity!" said Savile angrily. "You make fun of everything! I gave it you by mistake. I took it from Aunt William's album for a joke. Give it me."
"Don't snatch! I want another prehistoric peep—and now tell me the real person, dear," said Felicity, trying not to laugh.
"Oh no, you don't! I just shan't now."
"Mayn't I see the real one?"
Savile, after a glance at Aunt William, gave a short laugh, and said, putting it away—
"Look here, and try to listen. This is how I stand. Last holidays, at Christmas, I proposed to Dolly Clive in the square. She accepted me. Very well. This holidays, I saw some one else; what is a fellow to do? And then I went completely off my head about her, as any chap with a grain of sense would do, and Doll's no more to me now than——"
"Aunt William," said Lady Chetwode.
"As a gentleman, I'm bound to Dolly; though, don't forget I always told her that if when she came out she met a chap she liked better, she was quite free; (not but what I jolly well intended to punch the chap's head). Still, there it was! Then this happens! And this time I fell really in love."
"Never mind where. At a concert."
"But what concert, Savile?"
"Whose concert? You've only been to one in your life. I know——the Albert Hall!"
"You've hit in once, my dear."
"Yes. Adelina Patti."
Savile got up and looked out of the window.
Felicity looked serious. Then she said gaily—
"Poor old boy! I think, dear, you should try and forget it."
"I can't, Felicity! She haunts me! Oh, the way she sings 'Comin through the Rye!' She's simply—well, ripping's the only word!"
"It's hereditary. You're just like papa. He was madly in love with her once."
"Only once!" Savile was contemptuous.
"Well, Savile dear, anyhow I advise you to break it off definitely with Dolly. She's only just fourteen now, and it would interfere with her lessons. Besides, I know her mother wants her to go in for Physical Culture during the holidays. What are those exercises—Swedenborgian or something—anyhow, it takes up time. Besides, I somehow feel that that (the affair with Dolly) was more a sort of boy-and-girl fancy. Don't you think so? This, of course, is the great romance of your life. It will probably last for ever. Of course I know it's only a kind of distant worship and adoration, but still——"
"How well you know, by Jove! Felicity, I tell you what—I'm not going to think about it any more. I know there's no hope. Is she likely to sing again this season?"
"Oh, Felicity, let me come with you!... No, I won't. I'd rather go alone in the balcony."
"We'll see, dear. Now, what's the other trouble?"
"Well, I'm rather worried about Sylvia."
"Oh, my dear boy, that's a mania of yours! You're always harping on about her marrying Mr. Ridokanaki."
"Why shouldn't she?"
"Why should she, Savile? It wouldn't amuse her. And Sylvia is very happy at home; the head of papa's house, perfect liberty, and only twenty——"
"I know; but do you know I sometimes suspect ... look here. Do you think Woodville—don't you think Sylvia ... likes him?"
Felicity sat up with a jerk.
"Frank Woodville! That highly-principled, highly-strung, highly-cultivated, intellectual young man? Oh no! Oh no! Why he, as papa's secretary, would no more try to——"
"Who says he would? She might like him all right, I suppose. Besides, if he is highly cultivated, as you call it, and all that, it's not his fault, is it? He's a good-looking chap all the same. Face facts, I say! and if the truth were known, and every one had their rights, he may be human! You never know!"
Felicity laughed, and then said—
"I do hope he's not. It would be so impossible! Rather romantic too, a puritanical secretary with a figure and a profile in love with the pretty daughter of a pompous politician. He teaches her Latin too. Sort of Abelard and Francesca—or something—But oh! I don't believe it."
"Abelard! Oh, what rot! Do shut up! Well, remember I've given you a hint, and I don't ask you not to tell—I treat you as an officer and a gentleman."
"Don't worry about me," said Felicity, smiling, "I talk so much that I never have time to repeat a single thing about anybody—to the wrong person."
"I know. Will you dine with us to-morrow, as Chetwode's out of town?"
"No, Savile darling, I can't. I'm dining with Mrs. Ogilvie. You needn't mention it."
Savile arranged his tie in the mirror, and said in his slow, impressive way—
"I don't mention things. But the Governor doesn't care for that go-ahead set. And he's not wrong, either."
"We're only going to dine at Ranelagh,—to try her new motor, dear," said Felicity coaxingly.
"Does Chetwode know?"
"I thought you knew he was at Newmarket."
"Well! Take it as you like, and think me an interfering ass if you choose, but if I were you I'd somehow get Chetwode back from Newmarket,—and not go about so much with Mrs. Ogilvie."
"Why not, Savile?"
"Well, I shouldn't begin that drifting apart business, just yet. It's really rather rot, quite so soon. You're too young, and so on—been married a year, and I'm hanged if he's not fond of you still! Why do it? That's what I say——"
"A person may be very devoted, and a perfect husband, and sweet in every way, and not dream of drifting apart for ages and ages, and yet want to see Tobacco Trust run, darling!"
"I know,—and I've put my last shilling on Penultimate!"
"Naughty boy! I hope it was really your last shilling,—not your last sovereign!"
He laughed, kissed her, and walked downstairs, softly humming to himself, "Gin a body meet a body...."
When he had gone, Felicity looked quite sensible for a little while as she pondered indulgently on the weaknesses of her husband, cheerfully on the troubles of her brother, and with some real sisterly anxiety concerning the alarming attractions of Frank Woodville.
THE TRIALS OF WOODVILLE
Several hours of the morning had been passed by Woodville in an occupation that, one might think, would easily pall on a spirited young man—addressing envelopes and filling in invitation cards. The cards stated with tedious repetition that Miss Crofton and Sir James Crofton, M.P., would be At Home on the 30th April at ten o'clock. In the left-hand corner were the words, "Herr Yung's White Viennese Orchestra."
Woodville's desk was close to the long French window, which opened on to a charming garden. From this garden came the sound of excited twitterings of birds and other pleasant suggestions of spring. Suddenly a tall and graceful young girl, with hair like sunshine, came up to the open window and smiled at him. She held up to show him some wonderful mauve and blue hyacinths that she carried, and then passed on. Woodville sighed. It was too symbolic. The scent lingered. Like a half-remembered melody, it seemed to have the insidious power of recalling something in the past that was too wonderful ever to have happened, and of suggesting vague hopes of the most improbable joys. Sylvia seemed to the young man the incarnation of April. He put down his pen, and shaded his eyes with his hand. Then the inner door from the hall opened, and a pompous but genial voice exclaimed with heavy briskness—
"Well, Woodville, finished, eh?"
"Not yet, Sir James, but I can go on later, if you want me now."
The secretary spoke with a deference that seemed surprising. He did not look like a man who would be supple to an employer, or obsequious to any one—even a woman.
"No hurry, no hurry," said Sir James, with that air of self-denial that conveys the urgent necessity of intense speed. He was a handsome old man, with thick grey hair, a white military moustache, bushy dark eyebrows, and in his eyes that humorous twinkle that is so often seen in those men of the last generation who are most devoid of a sense of humour. Sir James was liable to the irritable changes of mood that would nowadays be called neurotic or highly strung, but was in his young days merely put down as bad temper. He had a high estimation of his mental powers, and a poor opinion of those who did not share this estimation. He took a special pride in his insight into character, and in that instinctive penetration that is said to enable its fortunate possessor to see as far through a brick wall as most people. (A modest ambition, when all is said and done!) His contemporaries liked him: at least, they smiled when his name was mentioned. He was warm-hearted and generous; he had a curious mania for celebrities; was a hospitable host, a tedious guest, and a loyal friend. His late wife (who was lovely, but weary) had always described him in one word. The word was "trying".
Sir James sat down slowly on a depressed leather uneasy chair, and said, "Presently I want you to take notes of a speech I intend making in the House on Russia—I mean the present situation in Russia," he added instructively.
"Of course," said Woodville, trying to look intelligently sympathetic, and restraining his inclination to say that he had not expected a speech at this time of day on our victories in the Crimea.
"Do let's have the speech while it's fresh in your mind. I can easily return to this afterwards, Sir James."
"Later on, later on; when it's more matured—more matured...." He pondered a few moments about nothing whatever, and then said, "Sent a card to Roy Beaumont, the young inventor? That's right. That boy has a future. Mark my words, he has a future before him."
"Oh! I thought it had begun some time ago, and was still going on. He is quite twenty-three, isn't he?" asked Frank.
"About that—about that. He's a young man with Ideas, Woodville."
"Yes. I heard he had grown tired of button-holes, and is thinking of training a creeper to crawl up the lapel of his coat."
"An original notion," said Sir James judicially. "If practicable. And what else did he invent?"
"Wasn't it he who invented some new way of not posting letters—by electricity?"
"I rather think you're confusing him with Marconi," said Sir James, shaking his head. "But I always detect genius! It's a curious thing, Woodville, but I never make a mistake! By the way, I should like to send a card to the Leader of the Opposition and his wife. Inquire of Sylvia about their address. I don't know them, socially, but I fancy they would be rather surprised if I omitted them."
"It might, indeed, be rather marked," said Woodville, making a note, and remembering that it is as impossible nowadays to ask every one one knows as to know every one one asks.
"Well, I'll leave you to your work, and we'll do the speech later, a little later ... much later," and Sir James meditatively bent his elbows on the arms of the chair, accurately placed all the tips of his fingers together, and slowly blinked his eyes. He did not mean any harm by this. In fact, he meant nothing. His gestures and expression had no significance at all. He simply behaved like any other elderly Anglo-Saxon who believes himself to be political and to resemble the "Younger Pitt."
"I rather wanted to ask Miss Crofton about a change of address," said Woodville, glancing swiftly and hypocritically through the Red Book.
"I'll send her to you—I'll send her. Don't move. Sit still, sit still."
Woodville followed with his eyes the closing of the door; then he put down his pen and gazed at the closed door. Sometimes he thought his life was like a closed door. Yet, perhaps, there might be some one on the other side of the door? (According to Maeterlinck—or is it Owen Seaman?—there is always some one on the other side of a door.)
At a casual glance Woodville seemed the conventional type of a good-looking young Englishman, tall, fair-haired, and well built. He possessed, however, a forehead unnecessarily intellectual; and a sparkle of more than mere animal spirits lurked in the depths of his dark brown eyes. An observer would also have noticed that his mouth and chin had something of the stern and sad look of fatalism that one sees in the pictures of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. He had the unmistakable public-school and University hall-mark, and if he had been fairly liked at Eton, at Oxford, where (as Mr. Max Beerbohm so rightly says) the nonsense knocked out of one at school is carefully and painlessly put back, Woodville was really popular, and considered remarkably clever, capable of enjoying, and even of conceiving, Ideas. Detesting the ready-made cheap romantic, and yet in vague search of the unusual, he often complained bitterly that his history—so far—was like the little piece of explanation of the plot (for those who have missed it) at the beginning of a chapter of a feuilleton in the Daily Mail. It was rather hard to have to admit that he had been left an orphan at three years old and adopted by his bachelor uncle, a baronet called Sir Bryce Woodville, who had brought him up as his acknowledged heir, with the prospect of a big estate.
Frank had gone with careless gaiety through school and college, when his apparently sane and kind relative, growing tired of romantic drama, suddenly behaved like a guardian in an old-fashioned farce. Instead of making his wife his housekeeper, as most men do, he made his housekeeper his wife. She was a depressing woman. In a year he had a son and heir, and within two months after this event, he died, leaving his nephew exactly one hundred pounds a year.
This curiously unpractical joke taught the young man that absurdly improbable things are quite as liable to happen in real life as in weak literature.
The legacy was, of course, abject poverty to a man who, having always had an exceptionally large allowance, had naturally never thought about money, and though Frank believed himself not to be extravagant because he had never made large debts, his ideas of the ordinary necessities of life were not conspicuously moderate, including, as they did, horses, hospitality, travel, Art, and at least the common decency of a jolly little motor of his own. He had often been warned by his uncle to spend the twenty thousand a year to which he was heir freely but not lavishly.
Why Sir Bryce Woodville had shown so sudden and marked an interest in a child he had known but for two months (and who had screamed most of that time), preferring him to a young man of talent and charm for whom he had shown indulgent affection for twenty-two years, was one of those mysteries that seem unsolvable in elderly gentlemen in general and in wicked uncles in particular. Sir Bryce had always been particularly fond of young people, and certainly greater youth and the nearer relationship were obviously the only points in which the son had the advantage over the nephew.
When Woodville found himself really hard up he sought a certain consolation in trying to do without things and in the strenuous hourly endeavour to avoid spending sixpence; no easy task to a man whose head was always in the clouds and his hand always in his pocket. As a novelty even economy may have its pleasures, but they are not, perhaps to all temperaments, either very sound or very lasting.
At the moment when omnibuses, cheap cigarettes, and self-denial were beginning to pall he had accepted the offer of the secretaryship, intending to look about to try to get something more congenial; perhaps to drift into diplomacy. Nothing could be less to his taste than the post of shorthandwriter to a long-winded old gentleman, to writing out speeches that in all probability would never be made, and copying pamphlets that would (most fortunately) never be printed. Often he thought he would rather "break stones on the road," drive a hansom cab, or even go on the stage, than be the superfluous secretary of such a dull, though dear nonentity.
Woodville also went in for painting: he had a little talent and a great deal of taste, sufficient, indeed, to despise his own work though he enjoyed doing it. In his leisure time he even tried to make money by copying old masters, and often sold them for quite amazing prices (amazingly low, I mean) to a few people who honestly preferred them to the originals on the undeniable grounds that they were at once cleaner and less costly. He was ambitious and knew he had brains and energy, besides being rather unusually well-turned-out in the matter of culture. And yet he had remained at Onslow Square for five years! As a career it was nothing. It could lead to nothing. Was there, then, some other attraction, something that outweighed, transcended for him all the petty pangs and penalties of his position?
This arch surmise of the writer will be found by the persevering reader to be perfectly reasonable and founded on fact.
A LOVE SCENE
There was a knock at the door. Woodville looked up. It was Sylvia.
Sylvia had that curious gift, abstract beauty, the sort of beauty that recalls vaguely some ideal or antique memory. Hence, at various times various people had remarked on her striking resemblance to Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Dante's Beatrice, the Venus of the Luxembourg, one of Botticelli's angels, and La Giaconda!
Her head was purely Greek, her hair, fine in texture, and in colour golden-brown, grew very low in thick ripples on a broad forehead. The illusion of the remote or mythical was intensified by the symmetry of her slim figure, by her spiritual eyes, and beautiful, Pagan mouth. Tall and slender, her rounded arms and fine hands with their short pointed fingers seemed to terminate naturally in anything she held, such as a fan or flower, or fell in graceful curves in her lap. Sylvia had not the chiffonnee restless charm of the contemporary pretty woman; she did not, like Felicity, arouse with stimulating intensity one's sense of the modern.
Goddess, heroine, or angel she might be (her height, indeed, suggested heaven rather than hockey). Her beauty was of other days, not of the Summer Number. She was not, however, to do her justice, intentionally picturesque. She did not "go in for the artistic style"; that is to say, she did not part her hair and draw it over her ears, wear oddly-shaped blouses and bead necklaces, and look absent. The iron had obviously entered into her hair (or into every seventh wave, at least, of her hair), and her dresses fitted her as a flower its sheath. She was natural, but not in the least wild; no primrose by a river's brim, nor an artificial bloom, but rather a hothouse flower just plucked and very carefully wired. Hence she was at once the despair of the portrait painters, who had never as yet been able to help making her look on canvas like a bad Leighton in a Doucet dress, and the joy of the photographers, who in her honour set aside their pillars and their baskets of flowers, their curtains and their picture hats, being certain that she would pose herself exquisitely, and that her lines were so right that not even a photographer could improve on them.
Sylvia was so truly artistic in temperament and so extremely unpractical that it was not surprising she made an admirable housekeeper, having fortunately that inborn gift for organisation, and for seeing things on the whole, that is so much more important in home life than any small fussing about the unimportant details. And she would receive excuses from servants with a smile so sweet yet so incredulous that it disarmed deceit and made incompetence hide its head (or give notice).
She came round to the writing-table, bent her head over his shoulder, and said in a low voice of emotion, as though it were a secret—
"How are you getting on? Did you want me to find anything—an address, or anything?"
He put his hand on hers and looked up at her. Then he looked away.
"Don't, Sylvia. I wish you would go away. Or go to the other side of the room ... I can't stand it."
"Oh, Frank! How rude and unkind!" But she was apparently not offended, as she blushed and smiled while she moved a little away. Then she said, looking at the cards—
"Will the party be awful, do you think?"
"No, it won't be bad. Except for me, of course. To see you talking to other people. Not that I really care, because I know you have to. And besides, you won't, will you?"
"I promise I won't! I'll just be a hostess, and talk to old ladies, or stray girls, or perhaps just a few dull old married men."
"I approve of that programme. But—of course I have no right to advise, and I may be entirely wrong—supposing you were to leave out the old married men? You will have to talk to all the clever young men, I am afraid. Don't go to supper with F. G. Rivers. That's all I ask. I couldn't bear it."
"F. G. Rivers! Of course not! Felicity will do all that sort of thing. She has a talent for celebrities—like papa. But why on earth mustn't I go to supper with just F. G. Rivers?"
"Oh, I don't know. You can if you like. I don't care," said Woodville jealously.
"I thought he was a wonderfully clever novelist, tremendously successful and celebrated!"
"Yes, I know. That's what I meant," Woodville said.
"Aren't his books rather weird and uncanny ... and romantic,—all about local colour, and awfully cynical?"
"How well you know what to say about things! Weird! Delightful! I dare say that's what Rivers would expect a nice girl to say of his books. He spends half his time being afraid people should think his work is lurid, and the rest in being simply terrified that people should think it's not. He's very clever really, and a delightful companion."
"Is he cynical?" she asked.
"He's so sceptical, that he believes in everything, but especially hard work, like table-turning, crystal-gazing, and Sandow's exercises.... I was at Oxford with him, you know," Frank added explanatorily.
"I see, it's an old affection. Anybody else I'm not to speak to?"
"Nonsense, Sylvia; I want you to be charming to every one, of course. I believe in that sort of thing. It's the right atmosphere for a party. Don't think about me."
"How can I help it?"
Her grey eyes were reproachful.
Woodville looked into them, then abruptly looked away.
"What are you going to wear, Sylvia?"
"My white satin, I think. Do you like it? Or don't you?"
"No; it makes you look too much like a Gainsborough—or no, more like a Sargent—which is worse. I mean worse for me, of course."
"Oh, dear! why am I always like something? Well, what am I to wear, Frank? I've just ordered a sort of fluffy grey chiffon—like a cloud."
"Wear that. You're always in the clouds, and I'm always looking up at them.... I hope it has a silver lining?"
"Perhaps it has. I don't know yet, it hasn't come home. Felicity's going to wear a sort of Watteau-ish dress, pink and white and blue, you know. Of course, she won't wear any jewels—she never will. You see, Chetwode has such a lot of old ones in his family. She says she's afraid, if she did, the Perfect Lady or Home Chirps might say 'Lady Chetwode as usual appeared in the "Chetwode emeralds"'—or something idiotic of that sort."
"How like her! Then just wear your string of pearls."
"Mayn't I wear the little turquoise heart that you—didn't give me, the one I bought in the Brompton Road and gave it to myself from you, so that I could honestly say you hadn't?"
"Better not, Sylvia. It looks as if it came out of a cracker. And we don't need any symbols and things, do we?"
"Very well.... I'm afraid, Frank ... I shall have to go now."
Woodville looked hurt.
"What? Already! Then why did you waste the precious minutes alone in making epigrams about F. G. Rivers? He's such a good fellow too, I always got on with him at Oxford."
"Did I make epigrams? How funny! I didn't know I could."
She came a little nearer. Woodville said in a low voice, rather quickly—
"You looked really divine just now through the window, with the hyacinths in your hands—like the goddess of something or other—spring, I suppose.... When I look at you, I understand all the old poetry. To Amaryllis and Herrick—and—you know."
"Dear Frank!... Am I to find an address?"
"You can't, dearest. There is no address. Besides, they've moved. And I found it myself ever so long ago."
Woodville put his hand out and took hers.
"Oh, don't go just yet!" he said imploringly.
"Why, you told me to go away just now—or to the other side of the room!"
"Ah, but that was ages ago! Why, you haven't been here two minutes! You can't be in such a hurry.... Anyhow, come here a second."
She obeyed, and leant over his shoulder.... Then he said abruptly—
"Yes, you had better go."
Blushing, she glided away at once, without another word.
Woodville remained at the desk, looking a little pale, and frowning. He had a theory that he was a very scrupulous man, with a high sense of honour. It was a worrying theory.
With a sigh he returned to the invitation cards.
Mrs. William Crofton, the widow of Sir James's brother, was, in her own way, quite a personage in London; at least, in the London that she knew. We have already seen her in the photograph in Savile's possession taken some forty years ago (by Mayall and Son, at Brighton). She was now an elderly lady, and still occupied the large ugly house in South Audley Street, where the children remembered their Uncle Mary. Felicity, Sylvia, and Savile had chosen to reverse the order in which they were told to speak of their uncle and aunt. Felicity had pointed out that not only was Aunt William more like an uncle, but that by this ingenious device they dodged a kind of history lesson. The great object always was to counteract carefully any information conveyed to them during the time of their education. All historians and teachers alike were regarded as natural enemies from Pinnock to Plato. On the same principle, Savile would never eat Reading biscuits, because he feared that some form of condensed study was being insidiously introduced into the system. Boys had to be on their guard against any treachery of that kind.
If there were a certain charm in the exterior of this old house—solid and aggressively respectable—its interior gave most visitors at first a nervous shock. Aunt William still firmly believed aestheticism to be fashionable, and a fad that should be discouraged. Through every varying whim of the mode she had stuck, with a praiseworthy persistence, to the wax flowers under glass, Indian chessmen, circular tables in the centre of the room, surrounded by large books, and the rep curtains (crimson, with green borders) of pre-artistic days. Often she held forth to wondering young people, for whom the 1880 fashions were but an echo of ancient history, on the sad sinfulness of sunflowers and the fearful folly of Japanese fans. Had the poor lady been but a decade or two more old-fashioned she would have been considered quaint and up-to-date. (A narrow escape, had she only known it!)
She was a small, pointed person, with a depressing effect of having (perhaps) been a beauty once, and she regarded Sylvia and Felicity with that mingled affection, pride, and annoyance compounded of a wish to serve them, a desire to boast of them, and a longing to bully them that is often characteristic of elderly relatives. The only special fault she found was that they were too young, especially Sylvia. Mrs. Crofton did not explain for what the girls were too young, but did her best to make Sylvia at least older by boring her to death about etiquette, religion, politics, cooking recipes, and kindred subjects. Aunt William was one of those rare women of theory rather than practice who prefer a menu to a dinner, and a recipe to either. Indeed, recipes were a hobby of hers, and one of her pleasures was to send to a young housekeeper some such manuscript as the following:—
"TO MAKE ELDERBERRY WINE REQUIRED—
Half a peck of ripe elderberries. One and a half gallons of boiling water.
TO EACH GALLON OF JUICE
Three pounds of loaf sugar, Four cloves, Six allspice.
Stalk the berries, put them into a large vessel with the boiling water, cover it closely, and leave for twenty-four hours," and so on.
To one person she was quite devoted—her nephew Savile.
One morning Aunt William woke up at half-past seven, and complained to her maid that she had had insomnia for twenty minutes. Having glanced at the enlarged and coloured photograph of the late William that decorated every room, she ordered a luncheon of roast mutton and rice pudding, rhubarb tart and cream, almonds and raisins, and oranges, thinking that this menu would be at once suitable and attractive to a boy of sixteen. In a more indulgent moment she then sent out for a large packet of milk-chocolate, and prepared to receive Savile at lunch.
When Savile arrived in his father's motor, Mrs. Crofton, who had been looking out for him at the window, ran up to her room (she could run when alone) and allowed him to be shown into the drawing-room by himself. Aunt William resented automobiles as much as she disliked picture postcards, week-ends, musical comedies, and bridge.
Savile walked up and down the enormous room, lost in thought, and scarcely observing his surroundings. He smiled slightly as he contemplated the portrait of Uncle Mary, who was represented as leaning rather weakly for support against a pedestal that looked by no means secure, with a heavy curtain and a lowering sky in the background.
"Jove! what short frock-coats those chaps wore!" thought Savile. "What rotters they must have been!"
* * * * *
"And so Lord Chetwode is out of town again?" Aunt William said, as they sat over dessert.
"Gone to Newmarket."
"I see in the Morning Post that your sister Sylvia was at Lady Gaskaine's last night. I suppose she was the belle of the ball." She offered him some preserved ginger.
"No, she wasn't. There's no such thing as a belle of the ball now, Aunt William. She danced with Heath and Broughton, of course, and Caldrey, and those chaps. Broughton took her to supper."
Aunt William seemed gratified.
"Curious! I recollect Lord Broughton in kilts when he was a little toddling pet of seven! His father was considered one of the most fascinating men of his day, my dear. What a beautiful place Broughton Hall is!" She pressed another orange on him.
"Oh, Sylvia's all right," said Savile, impartially declining the fruit and producing an aluminium cigarette-case. Aunt William, pretending not to see it, passed him the matches as if in a fit of absence of mind. As a matter of fact, Savile was really more at home with Aunt William than with any one, even his sisters.
"And now, my dear boy, tell me about yourself."
Savile took out of his pocket the envelope containing her photograph.
"I say, I took this out of the album last time I came," he said apologetically.
Aunt William almost blushed. She was genuinely flattered.
"But what's that—that green book I see in your pocket? I suppose it's Euclid, or Greek, or something you're learning."
"No, it's not; it's poetry. A ripping poem I've just found out. I know you like that sort of rot, so I brought it for you."
Her face softened. Savile was the only person who knew her romantic side.
"A poem!" she said in a lowered voice. "Oh, what is it about?"
"Oh, about irises, and how 'In the Spring a Young Man's Fancy,' that sort of thing—Tennyson, you know."
"Tennyson!" exclaimed Aunt William. "Do you know Eliza Cook? I think 'The Old Armchair' one of the loveliest poems in the language."
"Never heard of it."
"Savile," said Aunt William, when they were sitting by the fire in the drawing-room, "I'm glad you're fond of poetry. Have you ever written any at all? You needn't be ashamed of it, my dear boy, if you have. I admire sentiment, but only up to a certain point, of course."
"Well, it's odd you should say that. I wrote something yesterday. I say, you won't go and give it away, Aunt William?"
"Most certainly not!"
She grew animated.
"Show it to me, if you have it with you. A taste for literature is in the family. Once a second cousin of ours—you never knew him—wrote me a sonnet!"
"Did he, though? Well, I dare say it was all right. Here's my stuff. I rather thought I'd consult you. I want to send it to some one."
Concealing his nervousness under a stern, even harsh demeanour, Savile took out a folded sheet of paper from a brown pigskin letter-case.
Aunt William clasped her hands and leaned forward.
Savile read aloud in an aggressive, matter-of-fact manner the following words:——
"My singing bird, my singing bird, Oh sing, oh sing, oh sing, oh sing to me, Nothing like it has ever been heard,"
(Here he dropped the letter-case, and picked it up, blushing at the contents that had fallen out.)
"And I do love to hear thee sing."
His aunt looked a little faint. She leant back and fanned herself, taking out her smelling-salts.
"That's not all," said Savile. Warming to his work, he went on more gruffly:—
"What should I do if you should stop? Oh wilt thou sing for me alone? For I will fly to hear your notes: Your tune would melt a heart of stone."
"My gracious, my dear, it's a poem!" said Aunt William.
"Who said it wasn't? But you can't judge till you've heard the whole thing."
She turned away her head and struggled with a smile, while he read the last verse defiantly and quickly, growing rather red:—
"I haven't got a stony heart Or whatever it is, it belongs to you: I vow myself thy slave, And always I shall e'er be true!"
There was an embarrassed pause.
"Well, I really think that last line is rather pretty," said Aunt William, who had regained her self-control. "But do you think it is quite—"
"Is it all right to send to Her?" he said. "That's the point!"
"Well, I can hardly say. Would your father——"
"I say! You're not going to tell the Governor?"
"No, never, Savile dear. It shall be our secret," said Aunt William, reassuringly.
"Of course, I know this sort of thing is great rot," he said apologetically, "but women like it."
"Oh, do they really?" said Aunt William. "Well! what I always say is, if you're born with a gift, you should cultivate it!"
Savile (thinking this encouragement rather meagre) replaced the poem and said: "I shall have to be going now, Aunt William. Got an appointment."
"With whom, my dear?"
"Yes," said Savile dryly. He did not approve of this direct method of ascertaining what one wants to know. He would confide, but never answered questions. She accepted the hint, but would not acknowledge it.
"Ah, I see!" she said knowingly (wishing she did). "Well, if you must go, you must!"
"Yes, Aunt William."
"But before you go, about that party ... I'm coming, of course. In fact, I'm having my peach brocade done up. Tell dear Sylvia that if there's anything I can do—I mean in the way of helping her with regard to the supper——"
"We've telephoned to Benoist's. It's all fixed up. Thanks very much."
"Oh! But still I think I'll send my recipe for salmon mayonnaise. Don't you think I might?"
"It can't do any harm, when you come to think of it," he answered, getting up.
Before he left, Aunt William pressed a sovereign into his hand guiltily, as if it were conscience money. He, on his side, took it as though it were a doctor's fee, and both ignored the transaction.
"Tell your father I'm sure I shall enjoy his entertainment, though why on earth he still lives in Onslow Square, when he ought to be in London, I can't and never shall, understand. However, I believe there's quite a sort of society in Kensington, and no doubt some of the right people will be there. Are any of the Primrose League coming, do you know, Savile?"
"Sure to be. There's Jasmyn Vere for one."
"Oh, Lord Dorking's son. He's a Knight Harbinger."
"Is he, though? He looks like a night porter," said Savile. "Good-bye." He then turned back to murmur. "I say, Aunt William. Thanks most awfully." She went back smiling.
* * * * *
A few minutes later Savile was looking over the railings into Berkeley Square.
In a kind of summer-house among the trees sat a little girl of fourteen dressed in grey. She wore a large straw hat on her head and a blue bow in her hair, and had evidently provided herself with materials of amusement for the afternoon, for she had a "picture-postcard album" by her side, and seemed absorbed in a thick volume of history.
Dolly Clive resembled in expression and the shape of her face one of Sir Joshua's angel's heads (if one could imagine them brunettes). She had large brown eyes and a long black plait, and was a graceful example of what was formerly called "the awkward age." It needed no connoisseur to see that she was going to be a very pretty woman. When she saw Savile, she rushed to the gate and let him in with a key.
"I say, Savile, wasn't King Charles the Second an angel? I've just been reading all about him, and you can't think what fun they used to have!"
He seemed surprised at this greeting, walked slowly with her to the arbour, and said rather suspiciously——
"Who had fun?"
"Why Lady Castlemaine, and Nell Gwynne, and the Duchess of Portsmouth,—and all those people. It says so here, if you don't believe it! I wish I'd lived at that time."
"I don't. There's fun now, too."
"Ah, but you don't know anything about it, Savile. I bet you anything you like you can't tell me those clever lines about the poor darling King's death!"
"Of course I can. Everybody knows them." Savile made an effort and then said, "You mean Fain would I climb but that ..."
"Oh no, no, no! Oh, good gracious, no! One more try, now."
"Had I but served my God as faithfully as I have served my king ..."
"Wrong again. That's Sir Philip Sidney," she said, shutting up the book with a bang. "It's
Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King Whose word no man relies on ..."
"I say, old girl, I didn't come here to talk history, if you don't mind."
"Well, what do you want to talk about? Shall I show you my new one of Zena Dare?" said Dolly, opening the postcard album.
"Certainly not. I can't worry about Zena Dare. No, I've got something to tell you—something rather serious. Zena Dare, indeed! What next?"
"Oh dear, are you in a bad temper?"
"How like a woman! No, I'm not in a bad temper. Talking sense doesn't show that one's in a bad temper. But it's a beastly thing to have to do."
Dorothy sat on both the books, came nearer to Savile, and looked rather pale, tactfully waiting, in silence.
Then suddenly he said in a different tone, quite cheerily——
"That's rather jolly, the way that blue bow is stuck in your hair, Dolly."
"I thought you wanted to talk sense, Savile. What is it? Have you found out—anything?"
"What do you mean? Yes, I've jolly well found out that I can't be engaged to you any more. I've no right to be."
She did not seem overwhelmed by the news.
"Fancy! Just fancy! Oh—I see. Is there some one else? Who is it, Savile?"
He smiled in his most superior way.
"My dear child, people don't go about mentioning women's names. Now look here, Dolly, I meant to be straight, so I told you right out."
"I wonder what sort of girl she is! Well, it can't be Gladys: she's much too hideous. That's one comfort!"
"You're right, it can't. Besides, it's not."
"Well, Savile, you're a dear good boy to come and tell me about it. And, the fact is, I was just wanting to tell you myself that perhaps we had better not be engaged any more. Just be pals instead, you know."
"Who's the man?" He spoke sternly.
She began to talk very volubly.
"You know those people whom we met at Dinard last summer, the de Saules? They're French, you know. Well, Madame de Saules,—you can't think how pretty she is,—and dear little Therese, and Robert have just come over here for the season. Therese is such a darling. You would love her. Only a kid, of course, you know, but...."
"And what price this beastly French boy? Now, listen to me. Foreigners are all rotters. I can tell you that if you're engaged to him you'll live to regret it. I speak as a friend, Dolly."
"Oh dear no! We're not engaged! You don't understand! Private engagements are not the proper thing in France. It isn't done. Oh no! Why, his mother would write to my mother and then he would send a bouquet, or something, and then——"
"A bouquet! By Jove! Why, you're more prehistoric than Aunt William! Well, look here, if this little blighter keeps his place I shan't interfere. But, mind you, if I see the smallest sign of——"
He rose to his feet.
"Of what?" said Dolly, rising and looking angry. "He's a nice, handsome, polite, dear boy. So there!"
"I should only wring his neck, that's all. Good-bye, old girl."
They walked to the gate together.
"It's only for your good, you know, Dolly. I don't mean to be a brute."
"Oh, it's all right, Savile."
"I'm awfully fond of you, really."
"Of course, I know, dear boy. Come again when you can, won't you?"
"Won't I?" said Savile.
ARTHUR MERVYN AT HOME
Sometimes Sir James would confide in his secretary, and become after dinner—he drank port—pompously communicative on the subject of the alliances his daughter might contract—if she would. As he became more and more confidential in fact, he would grow more and more distant in manner, so that if they began dinner like old friends, they seemed gradually to cool into acquaintances; and at the end of the evening—such an evening!—Woodville felt as if they had barely been introduced, or had met, accidentally, in a railway train. Yet he courted these tete-a-tete as one perversely courts a certain kind of suffering. At least, Sir James talked on the only interesting subject, and Woodville was anxious to know everything about his rivals; for, though he believed in Sylvia's affection, he was subject to acute, almost morbid, attacks of physical jealousy. To see other men admire her was torture, particularly as he had to efface himself and be treated by her father as a faithful vassal.
And he really disliked deceiving Sir James, whose open liking was evident and who thought him matrimonially as much out of the question as the gardener.
"Hang it all, Woodville's a gentleman!" Sir James would have cried furiously at any suggestion that it was imprudent to leave the young man and Sylvia so much together. Sir James always remembered that Woodville was a gentleman and forgot that he was a man.
Men who indulge in inexpensive cynicism say that women are complex and difficult to understand. This may be true of an ambitious and hard woman, but nothing can be more simple and direct than a woman in love.
Sylvia suffered none of Woodville's complications. She did not see why he should want to run away with her, still less why he should run away from her. Nothing could be wrong in her eyes connected with her love, for it was also her religion. Like most girls who can love at all, her life consisted, in fact, of this emotion only. She might go to the stores, wave her hair, buy new hats, ride in the Park, order dinner for her father (with great care, for he was a gourmet), read innumerable books (generally falling back on Swinburne and Ella Wheeler Wilcox), receive and meet innumerable people, go to the opera, and do many other agreeable, tedious, or trivial things; but her life was her love for Woodville. And she had all the courage and dignity of real self-surrender. Whatever he did was right. Whatever he said was clever. Everything was perfect, so long as he was there. To his scruples, despairs, delights, and doubts she always answered that, after all, they were only privately engaged, like heaps of people. And since Woodville had this peculiar—she secretly thought insane—objection to marrying her because she was an heiress and he was poor, then they must wait. Something would happen, and all was sure to come right. She did not wish to tell her father of the understanding at present, because she feared Woodville would probably have to go away at once. They would tell him when she was twenty-one. Only one year, and everything would be open and delightful.
A strong motive that kept Woodville there was jealousy. Sylvia, discreet as she was—no sparkling, teasing coquette—had yet all the irresistible magnetism of a woman who is obviously made for tenderness. But she showed as much deftness in keeping back her admirers as most girls do in attracting them. She had curious deep delicacies; she disliked nothing so much as to feel or show her power as a woman. Pride or vanity was equally out of the question in her love; it was unselfish and yet it was not exacting, as unselfish love generally is. So far as she knew, no unselfishness was required from him. With the unconscious cruelty of innocence she had kept him in this false position for years, looking happily forward to a rose-coloured future.
Was it consistent that, with all his scruples, Woodville had drifted into this romance?
A lovely girl of twenty and a remarkably good-looking young man of twenty-eight meeting every day, every moment, at every meal—she, romantic; he, the most impressionable of materialists! Surely nothing could be expected but (for once) the obvious!
The Greek banker, Mr. Ridokanaki, said to be one of the richest men in England, had of late begun to pay Sylvia what he considered marked attention. Huge baskets of flowers, sometimes in the form of silver ships, sometimes of wicker wheelbarrows, or of brocaded sedan-chairs, and filled with orchids, lilies, roses, everything that, in the opinion of a middle-aged banker, would be likely to dazzle and delight a nice young girl, were sent periodically to Onslow Square. These floral tributes flattered Sir James and Savile; Woodville said they were hideous; and Sylvia (who neither wrote to thank their sender nor even acknowledged them) always had them conveyed immediately to the housekeeper's room. The Greek's intention of marrying Sylvia was in the air. Woodville, Sylvia, and Savile were perhaps the only people who doubted the event's coming off. Ridokanaki was a small, thin, yet rather noticeable-looking man of fifty, with courteous cosmopolitan manners. He had a triangular face, the details of which were vague though the outline was clear, like a negative that had been left too long in the sun. His slight foreign accent suggested diplomacy rather than the City; he was a man of the world, had travelled everywhere, and had the reputation of knowing absolutely everything. He was firm but kind—the velvet hand beneath the mailed fist—irritatingly tactful, outwardly conventional, raffine, and rather tedious.
He called occasionally on Thursdays (Sylvia's day). Woodville was usually having jealous palpitations in the library while Ridokanaki talked strong, vague politics with Sir James, and drank weak tea poured out by Sylvia (who always forgot that he never took sugar). After these visits the powerful will of the Greek seemed to have asserted itself without a word. It was his habit to express all his ideas in the most hackneyed phrases except when talking business, so that he seemed surprisingly dull and harmless, considering how much he must know, how much he must have seen and done. He had practically made his immense fortune, and many people said that in his own line he was brilliant. It was also often said of him (with surprise), "all the same Ridokanaki is a very simple creature, when you know him." No one, however, had ever yet really known him quite well enough to prove or justify this description.
In the cumbrous continental fashion he was working up to the point of a proposal, and something seemed to herald his future success. The servants were all looking forward to the wedding. Only Price, the footman, sometimes put in a word for poor Mr. Woodville. To say that the romance was known and discussed with freedom in the servant's hall should be needless. The illusion that domestics are ever in the dark about what we fondly suppose to be our little secrets is still immensely prevalent among persons who are young enough to know better.
"All I can say is, that's the man I'd marry if I were a young lady, whether or no," Price would say, sometimes adding, "With all his flowers and motors, what is the other gent after all but a sort of foreigner? Mr. Woodville is the nephew of an English baronet. Give me an Englishman!"
To this the housemaid would reply—
"Foreigner or no foreigner, Miss Sylvia is no fool; and, mark my words, she would look all right in that house in Grosvenor Square!"
These dark sayings silenced Price, but they did not succeed in chilling his romantic enthusiasm, though the other servants took the more worldly view. Much as they liked Woodville, it could not be forgotten that Ridokanaki had the agreeable habit (at times practised by Jupiter with so much success) of appearing invariably in a shower of gold. Trillionaire though he was, no hard-up nobleman could be more lavish, especially in small things. Nowadays the romance of wealth is more fascinating than the romance of poverty, even in the servants' hall. And Ridokanaki was not, as they remarked, like one of those mere parvenus from South Africa or America. Belonging to an old Greek family of bankers who had been wealthy for generations, he had recently made a personal position that really counted in European politics. It had been rumoured that he might have married into a Royal if not particularly regal family. What he had done for Greece and England was hinted at, not generally known.
Sylvia's impersonal attitude, so obviously genuine, was a refreshing change to a man who had been for years invited with so much assiduity and who knew that he was still regarded in London not without hope as a splendid match. Surely, he would suddenly turn round, settle down, and look for a refined and beautiful wife to be head of his house.
* * * * *
There was a feeling in the air that Sir James's party, with its White Viennese Band, its celebrities, and general elaborate preparations, was really intended to be a background for the declaration. Undoubtedly, he would propose that night. All Sylvia thought about was, that she meant to wear the grey chiffon dress that Woodville liked, and he would think she looked pretty. She intended to conceal the little turquoise heart that she had bought herself (from him) in the Brompton Road in her dress, and to tell him about it afterwards.
To Felicity, the party was, like all entertainments, a kind of arena. What is commonly called flirting, and what she called bowling people over, she regarded as a species of field-sport. Her heart might ache a little under the Watteau-ish dress, because it appeared that nothing on earth would induce darling Chetwode to return from Newmarket. When Sylvia said gently she feared wild horses would not persuade him to come back, Felicity answered, with some show of reason, that wild horses were not likely to try. Indeed, little Felicity was rather depressed. What was the fun of bowling people over, like so many ninepins, unless dear Chetwode, her usual admiring audience, were there to see them overthrown? However, no doubt, it would be fun. Felicity's view of life was that it was great fun. As she had never had any real troubles, she had not yet discovered that a sense of humour adds acutely to one's sufferings at the time, though it may help recovery. To see the absurdity of a grief increases it. It entirely prevents that real enjoyment in magnifying one's misfortunes in order to excite sympathy—an attribute so often seen in women, from char-woman to duchess. But Felicity was not destined to misfortune. Ridokanaki sometimes compared her to a ray of sunshine, and her sister to a moonbeam. The comparison, if not startlingly original, was fairly just. Felicity retorted by saying that the Greek was like a wax-candle burnt at both ends and in the middle, while Woodville resembled a carefully shaded electric light. She was anxious to know the words in which Ridokanaki would propose, and had already had several rehearsals of the scene with her sister, inducing Sylvia sometimes to refuse and sometimes to accept, just to see how it went. Felicity said that if he were rejected the marriage would in the end be a certainty, as a little difficulty would gratify and surprise him, and make him "bother about it" more. Everything was generally made so easy for him that he would certainly enjoy a little trouble, and the idea of obtaining a girl rather against her inclination would be sure to appeal to him. Opposition in such matters is always attractive to a spirited second-rate man.
* * * * *
All the preparations being complete, Woodville, part of whose absurd duties was to make quantities of unnecessary lists and go over the wine, went, the day before the party, to see a friend of his, where the atmosphere was so entirely different from his own that he regarded these visits as a change of air.
"Mr. Mervyn in?"
"Oh yes, sir. There's a rehearsal to-day. So Mr. Mervyn has lunched early."
A deep voice called from the inner room—
"Hallo, Frank! Come in, old chap!"
Arthur Mervyn had been at school and at Balliol with Woodville, and was one of his favourite companions. The only son of a great tragic actor, he possessed much of the genius of his late father, from whom he inherited, also, his finely-cut features, like some old ivory carving, his coal-black hair, and that sweet, humorous, yet sardonic smile that relieved, like a sparkle in dark waters, his somewhat sinister good looks.
Arthur Mervyn lived in a large, luxuriously furnished flat in Bloomsbury. The decorations were miracles of Morris: obviously they dated back about twenty years ago. Mervyn was not, however, a young man who was keen about his surroundings: he was indifferent to them; they had been chosen by his father, to whom background and all visible things had been of the first importance. The faintly outlined involuted plants on the wall-papers, the black oak friezes and old prints gave Arthur neither more nor less pleasure than he would have received from striped silk, white paint, and other whims of Waring. There were no swords, foils, signed photographs of royalties, pet dogs, or babies, invitation cards on the mantelpiece, nor any of the other luxuries usually seen in illustrated papers as characteristic of "Celebrities at Home". A palm, on its last legs, draped in shabby green silk, was dying by the window. The gloom was mitigated by an air of cosiness. There were books, first-rate and second-hand. Books (their outsides) were a hobby with Mervyn. Smoking in this den seemed as natural as breathing, and rather easier, though its owner never touched tobacco. On the Chesterfield sofa there was one jarring note. It was a new, perfectly clean satin cushion, of a brilliant salmon-pink, covered with embroidered muslin. Evidently it was that well-known womanly touch that has such a fatal effect in the rooms of a young man.
Woodville found Mervyn neither studying a part, reading his notices, nor looking in the glass. He had, as usual, the noble air of a student occupied with an Idea, and seemed absorbed.
"I say, Woodville, what do you think I've got?"
"A piece of rope that somebody wasn't hanged with?" asked Woodville. Arthur's curious craze for souvenirs of crime was a standing joke with them both.
"Better than that, old chap!" Mervyn spoke slowly, and always paused between each sentence. "What do you think I did yesterday? You know Jackson—chap who murdered people in a farm? I found out where he went to school in the north of England—and I said to myself—this fellow must have been photographed in a group as a boy."
There was a pause, disproportionately long.
"Sort of thing you would say to yourself," said Woodville a little irritably, as he lit a cigarette.
"Yes!—I took the 2.15—awful train. I went up there and went all over the school, called at the photographers—and actually got the group! And—there you are!"
Mervyn seemed very animated on the subject, and clapped his friend several times on the back with short, delighted laughs.
"By Jove!" said Woodville, looking at the photograph.
"Why do you say 'By Jove!'?" asked Mervyn suspiciously.
"Why? Well! I must say something! You always show me things on which no other comment is possible but an exclamation, or you tell me things so unanswerable that there's nothing to say at all."
"So I do," admitted Mervyn, smiling, as he locked away the souvenir. Then he sat down, and his animation dropped to a calmness bordering on apathy.
"And how are you getting on?"
"Not at all."
"Aren't you, though?" Mervyn pushed the matches sympathetically towards his friend, and seemed to fall into a reverie. Then he suddenly said, brightly: "I say, Woodville, you want cheering up. Come with me and see...."
"My dear chap, I'm not in the mood for theatres."
"Frank!" His friend looked at him with hurt reproach. "As though I'd let you see me in this new thing they're bringing out! No.—But I've got a seat at the Old Bailey for to-morrow morning to see the trial;—I think I could take you."
"I appreciate immensely your methods of cheering people, Arthur, and I know what that offer is from you. But I really don't care about it."
"Don't you?—What do you care about?"
Woodville was silent. Then Mervyn said suddenly, "I say, how's Miss Crofton and her sister? I like little Lady Chetwode awfully. She's a pretty little thing, awfully amusing, and quite clever.—She's very keen on crime, too, you know."
"Oh no, nonsense, Arthur! She only pretends to be, to humour you. It's chaff. She hates it, really."
"Hates it! Does she, though?—Well, anyhow she promised to go with me to the Chamber of Horrors one day. Make up a party, you know. And she says she thinks all the criminals there have the most wonderful faces physiognomically; benevolent foreheads, kindly eyes, and that sort of thing; and then she said, well, perhaps any one would look good with such lovely complexions as they have! She says she would have been taken in! She would have engaged all the Hannahs—she says that murderesses are always called Hannah—as housekeepers, they looked so respectable—except for the glassy eye. Oh, we had a long talk. Yes, and she'll bring her sister. You might come, too, one afternoon."
"Oh, of course I'll come. It would be rather jolly," said Woodville.
"Well, when this new thing is once out we'll fix it up, eh? I shall see Lady Chetwode to-morrow—at your party."
"Oh, are you coming?"
"Oh, yes I'm going. Every one's going."
At this moment they heard outside the house a tremendous uproar, the snorting, panting, puffing, and agonised throbbing that could only proceed from a motor in distress.
"Who's that?" said Woodville, going to look out of the window.
Mervyn closed his eyes and leant back in his chair.
"It's nothing," he said. "It's Bertie—Bertie Wilton, you know."
"Oh! Good. Bertie's always exhilarating."
AN AGREEABLE RATTLE
A moment later there entered the room a slim, good-looking young man of about twenty-five years old, whose eyes were very bright and whose clothes were very smart, and who gave the impression of being at once in the highest spirits and at least a year in advance of the very latest expression of the mode. He was very fair, clean shaven, with smooth blond hair, white teeth, and the most mischievous smile in London.
Bertie Wilton had the reputation of being the wittiest of all the dandies, but his one great weakness was a mania for being dans le mouvement, and a certain contempt for any ideas, however valuable, that had been suggested earlier than, say, yesterday afternoon. Extremely good-natured, lively, and voluble, he was immensely popular, being considered, as indeed he was, one of the last of the conversationalists. He might be frivolous, but he was always interesting. He could talk about anything—and he did.
"I didn't know you'd got a motor, Bertie," said Woodville.
Wilton looked at it lovingly out of the window, arranged the gardenia in his button-hole, and said—
"Oh yes! I'm mad on motors. I've had three! This is my new toy. It's a ripper, the only right kind. It can go, I'll say that for it. I've been fined twice for exceeding the speed limit already."
"But you've never done anything else," said Woodville.
"Ah! no; perhaps not. Well, anyway, I simply love it. I haven't even come here this morning merely to see you, Mervyn, or on the off-chance of meeting old Woodville, but simply to try the new Daimler before lunching in it—at least, not exactly lunching in it, but with it,—no, no, not with it, you know what I mean—with the dearest old gentleman who lives in the wilds of West Kensington. He's simply devoted to me. Why, I can't think. But he's got a sort of idea that I saved his life on a hill near Hastings. What really happened was, that his idiot of a chauffeur had utterly smashed up the car, and he and the old gentleman were sitting on the Downs with every probability of remaining there for the rest of their natural lives!"
"And this, I suppose, is where you came in," said Woodville.
"Rather! I was spinning along from Brighton, and I saw those poor creatures in their pitiable position. To hop out of the motor, have an explanation with the old gentleman (who was stone deaf, by the way), to persuade him to come with me, to drive him to his intensely comfortable and charming country house in the heart of Hastings, and to send for a surgeon to attend to the internal injuries of the car, was, for me, the work of a moment! I made up quite a romance about the old gentleman. You're a reading man, Woodville, and so you know, from books, that the slightest politeness to an eccentric millionaire sets you up in gilded luxury for life, don't you? I expected, of course, that he would cut off his family with a shilling, and would leave me at the very least L20,000 a year. Isn't it funny, my being wrong? It turned out that he neither could nor would do anything of the sort. He was neither eccentric nor a millionaire—though he was very well off and very clever. But, perhaps you ask yourself, had he a lovely daughter, whose hand he would offer me in marriage? Not he! He has only a hideous married son and daughter-in-law who live in Manchester, and all I've got out of the adventure, so far, is lunching with him, and talking to him, and heaps of practice in shouting; he's so deaf. Besides, he's a dear."
"What a wonderful chap you are! The last time I saw you, weren't you secretary to a foreign Duke, with a brilliant diplomatic future before you, or something?" said Woodville, while Mervyn appeared to be lost in thought.
"I know, but that was last season! Lots of people are just as keen as I am, you know. Broughton, for instance, has actually invented a car of his own. I once permitted myself to speak rather disrespectfully of Broughton's quite ridiculous car, and, of course, some kind friend told him practically every word I said; and he was quite hurt. We had a regular sort of scene about it."
"What did you say against the car?" said Mervyn judicially, waking up.
"Well, I may be wrong, but it seems to me that it isn't an ideally convenient arrangement (particularly for ladies) to have to climb into a motor, by means of a ladder, over the back! I understood that though Broughton's design had all sorts of capital new arrangements with regard to cushions and clocks and looking-glasses, and mud-guards, he had, most unfortunately, quite forgotten the door.
"Well, we met at the Bellairs' Fancy Ball (I went as Louis the Nineteenth) last week, you know, and had an explanation, and sort of made it up, but I'm afraid, like that uncomfortable old king, though he smiled at the jest, he never forgave the satire.
"I say, I must fly now. I have to lunch with the old gentleman. Can I drop you anywhere, Woodville?"
"I've got to be at the theatre at one, to rehearse," said Mervyn suddenly.
"Then you must be quick, old boy. It's a quarter to two now," said Bertie.
They took their leave.
After many tender inquiries after its health from the chauffeur, Bertie sprang into the motor with Woodville, and they started off.
"I say, Woodville," began Bertie, as they spun along, "I want to talk about Lady Chetwode. I'm awfully in love with her."
"Didn't know you knew her."
"I don't. That's nothing to do with it. You can be awfully in love with a person you don't know. In fact, I believe I can be far more seriously devoted to a perfect stranger than to a woman I know personally. But I've often seen her at the Opera. And I'm going to know her. I'm going to be brought to your party to-morrow night by Mrs. Ogilvie. Didn't you know? Tell me, why isn't Chetwode ever there?"
"Don't be an ass! They're devoted to each other. Turtle-doves aren't in it."
Bertie's eyes sparkled.
"I know! I suppose he stays away for fear of her getting tired of him. Quaint idea. Never been done before quite like that. Well, it may be very clever, but I shouldn't do it! Frankly, I should always be there or thereabouts, at all risks! You don't seem to understand (knowing them so intimately, of course you wouldn't) what Lady Chetwode is going to be. Why, she's simply the person already. I hear of her everywhere, and the sister, Miss Crofton; I saw her too the other night. She's quite beautiful. I don't believe they know what to do with her."
"What on earth do you mean?" said Woodville.
"My dear boy, I have my faults, but I have one little gift, and that is a flair for success. It will be all very well for Miss Sylvia to marry the Greek man to begin with——"
"Do you propose she should marry any one else to go on with then?"
"Don't be absurd. I mean, of course, that would start her, and so on. He's a friend of exalted personages and that sort of thing, and it would certainly bring her forward. Although I think she could do better. But she ought to come out in tableaux or something and be really seen, quite soon; while she's a novelty."
"I really think there's something wrong with your tonneau," said Woodville.
Bertie smiled cheerfully. "Don't worry, my chauffeur's one of the best drivers in London. But, about tableaux; next month at Worcester House——"
"Miss Crofton doesn't care about that sort of thing," said Woodville.
"No? I heard she had rather a line of her own. What is her pose? She ought to settle on it. You know there is nothing so uncomfortable as not having settled on one's pose. Oh!" Bertie gave a start. "I beg your pardon. I see the whole thing! But of course! You're in love with her. What a fool I am!"
"You are indeed. I see very little of Miss Crofton. You're generally positive, and always wrong."
"Oh, is it as bad as that? My dear Woodville, I'm so sorry! What a tactless idiot I am! But Lady Chetwode, now. Her great friend, Vera Ogilvie, I know very well indeed. I met her last Tuesday, so she's quite an old friend. Mrs. Ogilvie's the pretty woman who thinks she has a Byzantine profile. She's all over strange jewels and scarabs, and uncut turquoises and things. She has a box on the second tier, and it was there that it all happened."
"That what happened?"
"Why, my falling in love at first sight; I mean, with Lady Chetwode, of course; and what makes me so bad is that I hear of her everywhere. Nothing worse than that! Her frocks and her mots,—it seems she's very clever, I hear, and says the most delightful things. And there's another thing, if I don't make a dash for it this season, I shan't have a chance next. I see that."
"Didn't I tell you she's simply wrapped up in her husband?"
"Of course. That's just the point. I don't know Chetwode, but he's the fellow who has the wonderful collection. First Empire things, and china, and all that. Besides, he goes racing. They say his horse has a chance of winning the Derby. Oh, you don't know what a distinguished family they are! Well, anyhow, you see he's busy, and if they do have honeymoons every now and then—as no doubt they do—I really hardly see what that matters to me."
"Frankly, nor do I," said Woodville.
"No, indeed; I like it better, because I don't mind telling you I've got heaps of things on just now."
"You look as if you had," said Woodville dryly.
"Is this meant for an attack on my tie? You'll be wearing one like it yourself in a fortnight! Mrs. Ogilvie's great fun. Yesterday she took me with her and a sort of country girl, a clergyman's daughter from Earl's Court, to buy a hat at Lewis's; (for the girl I mean). It was extraordinary! The girl isn't at all bad-looking, but naturally wears her hair perfectly flat, with a kind of knob at the back, the wrong kind. On the top of this the milliners stuck, first, the most enormous hat, eccentric beyond the dreams of the Rue de la Paix, all feathers, and said, Oh, quel joli mouvement, Madame! The poor girl, frightened to death, thinking the birds were alive, tore it off. So then they tried on those absurd, tiny, high, little things that require at least twenty-five imitation curls to keep them up, and show them off, and in which poor Miss Winter looked like an escaped lunatic. We tried everything in the shop, and at last Mrs. Ogilvie said, 'Perhaps we had better come again, later in the season, when the hats would be smaller, or not so large.'—Do you know Miss Winter? She has rather pretty red hair, and a dazed intellectual expression. She's the sort of girl who can only wear a sailor hat (I never saw a sailor in a straw), as they call them, or perhaps something considered picturesque in the suburbs; you know, with skyblue crepe de chine strings under the chin. If she'd only been an athletic girl we could have gone straight to Scott's, and then we should have known where we were—but she's artistic, poor thing." Bertie smiled mischievously.
"Your valuable advice doesn't seem to have been much use, then?"
"Rather not! Especially as Mrs. Ogilvie has this craze about thinking she's Oriental (I wonder who put it into her head), and would order absurd beaded things, like Roman helmets, when of course she'd look delightful in a dark claret-coloured velvet sort of Gainsborough, with dull brown feathers. But women are so perverse. Look how they won't wear black when nothing suits them so well!"
"Won't they? I wonder you don't go into the millinery business. I think you'd do very well."
"Don't talk rot. I'm only interested as an amateur; it's art for art's sake. But I do understand frocks. I will say that I think women's dress is the only thing worth being really extravagant on. Don't you?"
"No, I don't."
They were now proceeding down Bond Street at a pace that the crowd compelled to be rather leisurely.
"There's Aunt William in her old-fashioned barouche with the grey horses. It's such a comfort to me, always, to see Mrs. Crofton; it makes one feel at least there is something stationary in this changeable world. Who's that boy looking at?—at you? Isn't it the Crofton boy?"
"Yes. Let's stop a minute; I want to speak to him."
Savile, seeing them, crossed the road, and said, before Bertie could begin—
"Extraordinary weather for the time of—year!"
"Come off the roof!" said Woodville, smiling. "What are you doing in Bond Street?"
"Oh, only going to Chappell's, the music shop, to get a song. One of those Sylvia doesn't sing," said Savile, looking straight at him.
"Oh, I know what it is," said Bertie; "it's Pale Hands that Burn, or Tosti's Good-bye!"
"No, it just isn't."
"Then it's something out of The Telephone Girl or something. Do tell us what it is. I hate these musical mysteries."
"It's not a mystery at all. It's Home sweet Home," said Savile.
They tried to persuade him to join them, but he walked off.
"Delightful boy," said Bertie, after a moment. "So correct. I'm sure he's the person at home, and spoilt, and does what he likes with them all, doesn't he? Of course, he's the person to be friends with if you want anything fixed up! Well, here we are at Onslow Square. It was jolly seeing you again. You must come for another longer spin soon. Isn't Mervyn a good chap? He's so really distinguished that it wouldn't ever matter what he wore, or where he went, or when. And you'd never dream he was an actor, would you?"
"Not unless you saw him act," said Woodville, getting out.
THE NIGHT OF THE PARTY
Sir James was in one of those heroic moods that were peculiarly alarming to his valet. He was so abnormally good-tempered, and seemed so exceedingly elated about something, that it was probable he might suddenly, in Price's pathetic phrase, turn off nasty, or fly out.
As a matter of fact, Sir James was dominated by what are called mixed feelings. The letter that he read and re-read as he walked about his library enchanted him. But the appearance of that library was maddening. It had been transformed into a ladies' cloak-room. On his own writing-desk were an oval silver mirror, a large powder-puff, and several packets of hairpins. All trace of politics seemed to have been completely wiped out. Sir James thoroughly enjoyed picturing to himself Mr. Ridokanaki in this room on the following morning, asking for a blessing, on his knees, and to fancy himself saying solemnly, "Take her, my boy, she is yours!" or words to that effect.
Not only had the trillionaire sent Sylvia six feet of flowers in a gun-metal motor-car studded with sapphires, but Sir James, also, had received a respectful request (practically a species of royal command) for consent to his addresses. Ridokanaki stated that he had not as yet, of course, said anything to Sylvia, but proposed, unless her father objected, to try to win her fair hand that very evening. It was a triumph, even for Sylvia. Sir James laughed, as he only laughed when alone. But on looking up from the letter what he saw jarred on him. How he could well imagine the wrap that would be placed carelessly over the bust of Pitt in the corner, and all the cloaks and frivolous chiffons which would lie on that solemn study table! Rage had the upper hand. Sir James broke out, and rang the bell violently.
"Price, where's Miss Crofton? Tell her I want her immediately. This instant! Lose no time. But tell her on no account to hurry. In fact, any time will do as long as she comes at once. Wait a moment, wait a moment. Don't be so precipitate, Price. You leave the room before you hear your orders. I've had to speak to you about this before.... Is Miss Crofton dressed yet?"
"Yes, Sir James. Miss Crofton is quite ready. Lady Chetwode is with her."
"Oh! then tell her it doesn't matter. She needn't trouble."
"Yes, Sir James."
* * * * *
The sisters were standing in Sylvia's pale blue bedroom in front of the long mirror. Felicity's fair, almost silvery hair, puffed out round her wilful little face, looked as though it were poudre. She wore a striped brocade gown all over rosebuds, and resembled a Dresden china figure. Sylvia's exquisitely modelled face and white shoulders emerged from clouds of grey tulle.
"It's rather a shame, Sylvia; you'll bowl over everybody. Roy Beaumont will say you look mythological. Oh, and poor Mr. Ridokanaki! You'll refuse him to-night, I suppose! What fun it must be to be a pretty girl going about refusing people in conservatories—like a short story in a magazine! I've forgotten how I did it. In a year, darling? Quite. I say, have I overdone the dix-huitieme business? Do I look like a fancy ball? Pass me a hairpin, dear. No, don't. I suppose you know that Chetwode has never seen this dress! What do you think of that? One would think we were an old married couple."
"Hardly, dear. Put it on to go and meet him at the station," said Sylvia, rather unpractically. "No, you're not too last-century. I think you look more like the next."
"Well, I hope so," said Felicity, fluttering a tiny Pompadour fan; "and if De Valdez says I look like a Marquise of the olden times, as he once did, I simply won't stand it. Let's go down. But first tell me what you will say when Mr. Rid ... Oh, bother, I can't say all that. Let us call him the man. 'Miss Crofton, might I respectfully venture to presume to propose to hope to ask to have a word with you? You are like a grey rose', or something or other."
"Oh, don't be absurd. Sometimes I think the whole thing is all your fancy, and Savile's."
"My fancy! Then what was that enormous, immense thing in the hall I fell over—a sort of tin jewelled bath, crammed with orchids and carnations? Frank Woodville was helping Price to cart it away, and trying to break some of the flowers by accident."
"Oh, was Mr. Woodville taking it away?" Sylvia smiled.
At that moment a firm knock at the door, and the words, "I say, Sylvia," announced Savile's entrance. He walked in slowly, brushed his sisters aside like flies, and stood looking at himself in the long mirror, which reached nearly from the ceiling to the floor. It was a solemn moment. He was wearing his very first evening-dress suit.
They watched him breathlessly. He carefully kept every trace of expression out of his face. Then he sat down, and said seriously to himself—