THE WOMAN WITH THE FAN
By Robert Hichens
IN a large and cool drawing-room of London a few people were scattered about, listening to a soprano voice that was singing to the accompaniment of a piano. The sound of the voice came from an inner room, towards which most of these people were looking earnestly. Only one or two seemed indifferent to the fascination of the singer.
A little woman, with oily black hair and enormous dark eyes, leaned back on a sofa, playing with a scarlet fan and glancing sideways at a thin, elderly man, who gazed into the distance from which the voice came. His mouth worked slightly under his stiff white moustache, and his eyes, in colour a faded blue, were fixed and stern. Upon his knees his thin and lemon-coloured hands twitched nervously, as if they longed to grasp something and hold it fast. The little dark woman glanced down at these hands, and then sharply up at the elderly man's face. A faint and malicious smile curved her full lips, which were artificially reddened, and she turned her shoulder to him with deliberation and looked about the room.
On all the faces in it, except one, she perceived intent expressions. A sleek and plump man, with hanging cheeks, a hooked nose, and hair slightly tinged with grey and parted in the middle, was the exception. He sat in a low chair, pouting his lips, playing with his single eyeglass, and looking as sulky as an ill-conditioned school-boy. Once or twice he crossed and uncrossed his short legs with a sort of abrupt violence, laid his fat, white hands on the arms of the chair, lifted them, glanced at his rosy and shining nails, and frowned. Then he shut his little eyes so tightly that the skin round them became wrinkled, and, stretching out his feet, seemed almost angrily endeavouring to fall asleep.
A tall young man, who was sitting alone not far off, cast a glance of contempt at him, and then, as if vexed at having bestowed upon him even this slight attention, leaned forward, listening with eagerness to the soprano voice. The little dark woman observed him carefully above the scarlet feathers of her fan, which she now held quite still. His face was lean and brown. His eyes were long and black, heavy-lidded, and shaded by big lashes which curled upward. His features were good. The nose and chin were short and decided, but the mouth was melancholy, almost weak. On his upper lip grew a short moustache, turned up at the ends. His body was slim and muscular.
After watching him for a little while the dark woman looked again at the elderly man beside her, and then quickly back to the young fellow. She seemed to be comparing the two attentions, of age and of youth. Perhaps she found something horrible in the process for she suddenly lost her expression of sparkling and birdlike sarcasm, and bending her arm, as if overcome with lassitude, she let her fan drop on her knees, and stared moodily at the carpet.
A very tall woman, with snow-white hair and a face in which nobility and weariness were mated, let fall two tears, and a huge man, with short, bronze-coloured hair and a protruding lower jaw, who was sitting opposite to her, noticed them and suddenly looked proud.
The light soprano voice went on singing an Italian song about a summer night in Venice, about stars, dark waters and dark palaces, heat, and the sound of music, and of gondoliers calling over the lagoons to their comrades. It was an exquisite voice; not large, but flexible and very warm. The pianoforte accompaniment was rather uneasy and faltering. Now and then, when it became blurred and wavering, the voice was abruptly hard and decisive, once even piercing and almost shrewish. Then the pianist, as if attacked by fear, played louder and hurried the tempo, the little dark woman smiled mischievously, the white-haired woman put her handkerchief to her eyes, and the young man looked as if he wished to commit murder. But the huge man with the bronze hair went on looking equably proud.
When the voice died away there was distinct, though slight, applause, which partially drowned the accompanist's muddled conclusion. Then a woman walked in from the second drawing-room with an angry expression on her face.
She was tall and slight. Her hair and eyes were light yellow-brown, and the former had a natural wave in it. Her shoulders and bust were superb, and her small head was beautifully set on a lovely, rather long, neck. She had an oval face, with straight, delicate features, now slightly distorted by temper. But the most remarkable thing about her was her complexion. Her skin was exquisite, delicately smooth and white, warmly white like a white rose. She did nothing to add to its natural beauty, though nearly every woman in London declared that she had a special preparation and always slept in a mask coated thickly with it. The Bond Street oracles never received a visit from her. She had been born with an enchanting complexion, a marvellous skin. She was young, just twenty-four. She let herself alone because she knew improvement—in that direction—was not possible. The mask coated with Juliet paste, or Aphrodite ivorine, existed only in the radiant imaginations of her carefully-arranged acquaintances.
In appearance she was a siren. By nature she was a siren too. But she had a temper and sometimes showed it. She showed it now.
As she walked in slowly all the scattered people leaned forward, murmuring their thanks, and the men stood up and gathered round her.
"Beautiful! Beautiful!" muttered the thin, elderly man in a hoarse voice, striking his fingers repeatedly against the palms of his withered hands.
The young man looked at the singer and said nothing; but the anger in her face was reflected in his, and mingled with a flaming of sympathy that made his appearance almost startling. The white-haired woman clasped the singer's hands and said, "Thank you, dearest!" in a thrilling voice, and the little dark woman with the red fan cried out, "Viola, you simply pack up Venice, carry it over the Continent and set it down here in London!"
Lady Holme frowned slightly.
"Thank you, thank you, you good-natured dears," she said with an attempt at lightness. Then, hearing the thin rustle of a dress, she turned sharply and cast an unfriendly glance at a mild young woman with a very pointed nose, on which a pair of eyeglasses sat astride, who came meekly forward, looking self-conscious, and smiling with one side of her mouth. The man with the protruding jaw, who was Lord Holme, said to her, in a loud bass voice:
"Thanks, Miss Filberte, thanks."
"Oh, not at all, Lord Holme," replied the accompanist with a sudden air of rather foolish delight. "I consider it an honour to accompany an amateur who sings like Lady Holme."
She laid a slight emphasis on the word "amateur."
Lady Holme suddenly walked forward to an empty part of the drawing-room. The elderly man, whose name was Sir Donald Ulford, made a movement as if to follow her, then cleared his throat and stood still looking after her. Lord Holme stuck out his under jaw. But Lady Cardington, the white-haired woman spoke to him softly, and he leaned over to her and replied. The sleek man, whose name was Mr. Bry, began to talk about Tschaikowsky to Mrs. Henry Wolfstein, the woman with the red fan. He uttered his remarks authoritatively in a slow and languid voice, looking at the pointed toes of his shoes. Conversation became general.
Robin Pierce, the tall young man, stood alone for a few minutes. Two or three times he glanced towards Lady Holme, who had sat down on a sofa, and was opening and shutting a small silver box which she had picked up from a table near her. Then he walked quietly up the room and sat down beside her.
"Why on earth didn't you accompany yourself?" he asked in a low voice. "You knew what a muddler that girl was, I suppose."
"Yes. She plays like a distracted black beetle—horrid creature!"
"I look ridiculous sitting at the piano."
"Well, I hold them far more when I stand up. They can't get away from me then."
"And you'd rather have your singing ruined than part for a moment with a scrap of your physical influence, of the influence that comes from your beauty, not your talent—your face, not your soul. Viola, you're just the same."
"Lady Holme," she said.
"My little husband's fussy."
"And much you care if he is."
"Oh, yes, I do. He sprawls when he fusses and knocks things over, and then, when I've soothed him, he always goes and does Sandow exercises and gets bigger. And he's big enough as it is. I must keep him quiet."
"But you can't keep the other men quiet. With your face and your voice—"
"Oh, it isn't the voice," she said with contempt.
He looked at her rather sadly.
"Why will you put such an exaggerated value on your appearance? Why will you never allow that three-quarters at least of your attraction comes from something else?"
"Your personality—your self."
"My soul!" she said, suddenly putting on a farcically rapt and yearning expression and speaking in a hollow, hungry voice. "Are we in the prehistoric Eighties?"
"We are in the unchanging world."
"Unchanging! My dear boy!"
"Yes, unchanging," he repeated obstinately.
He pressed his lips together and looked away. Miss Filberte was cackling and smiling on a settee, with a man whose figure presented a succession of curves, and who kept on softly patting his hands together and swaying gently backwards and forwards.
"Well, Mr. Pierce, what's the matter?"
"Mr. Pierce!" he said, almost savagely.
"Yes, of the English Embassy in Rome, rising young diplomat and full of early Eighty yearns—"
"How the deuce can you be as you are and yet sing as you do?" he exclaimed, turning on her. "You say you care for nothing but the outside of things—the husk, the shell, the surface. You think men care for nothing else. Yet when you sing you—you—"
"What do I do?"
"It's as if another woman than you were singing in you—a woman totally unlike you, a woman who believes in, and loves, the real beauty which you care nothing about."
"The real beauty that rules the world is lodged in the epidermis," she said, opening her fan and smiling slowly. "If this"—she touched her face—"were to be changed into—shall we say a Filberte countenance?"
"Oh!" he exclaimed.
"There! You see, directly I put the matter before you, you have to agree with me!"
"No one could sing like you and have a face like a silly sheep."
"Poor Miss Filberte! Well, then, suppose me disfigured and singing better than ever—what man would listen to me?"
"For half a minute. Then you'd say, 'Poor wretch, she's lost her voice!' No, no, it's my face that sings to the world, my face the world loves to listen to, my face that makes me friends and—enemies."
She looked into his eyes with impertinent directness.
"It's my face that's made Mr. Robin Pierce deceive himself into the belief that he only worships women for their souls, their lovely natures, their—"
"Do you know that in a way you are a singularly modest woman?" he suddenly interrupted.
"Am I? How?"
"In thinking that you hold people only by your appearance, that your personality has nothing to say in the matter."
"I am modest, but not so modest as that."
"Personality is a crutch, a pretty good crutch; but so long as men are men they will put crutches second and—something else first. Yes, I know I'm a little bit vulgar, but everybody in London is."
"I wish you lived in Rome."
"I've seen people being vulgar there too. Besides, there may be reasons why it would not be good for me to live in Rome."
She glanced at him again less impertinently, and suddenly her whole body looked softer and kinder.
"You must put up with my face, Robin," she added. "It's no good wishing me to be ugly. It's no use. I can't be."
She laughed. Her ill-humour had entirely vanished.
"If you were—" he said. "If you were—!"
"Do you think no one would stick to you—stick to you for yourself?"
"Quite several old ladies. It's very strange, but old ladies of a certain class—the almost obsolete class that wears caps and connects piety with black brocade—like me. They think me 'a bright young thing.' And so I am."
"I don't know what you are. Sometimes I seem to divine what you are, and then—then your face is like a cloud which obscures you—except when you are singing."
She laughed frankly.
"Poor Robin! It was always your great fault—trying to plumb shallows and to take high dives into water half a foot deep."
He was silent for a minute. At last he said:
"And your husband?"
His forehead contracted.
"Fritz—yes. What does he do? Try to walk in ocean depths?"
"You needn't sneer at Fritz," she said sharply.
"I beg your pardon."
"Fritz doesn't bother about shallows and depths. He loves me absurdly, and that's quite enough for him."
"And for you."
She nodded gravely.
"And what would Fritz do if you were to lose your beauty? Would he be like all the other men? Would he cease to care?"
For the first time Lady Holme looked really thoughtful—almost painfully thoughtful.
"One's husband," she said slowly. "Perhaps he's different. He—he ought to be different."
A faint suggestion of terror came into her large brown eyes.
"There's a strong tie, you know, whatever people may say, a very strong tie in marriage," she murmured, as if she were thinking out something for herself. "Fritz ought to love me, even if—if—"
She broke off and looked about the room. Robin Pierce glanced round too over the chattering guests sitting or standing in easy or lazy postures, smiling vaguely, or looking grave and indifferent. Mrs. Wolfstein was laughing, and yawned suddenly in the midst of her mirth. Lady Cardington said something apparently tragic, to Mr. Bry, who was polishing his eyeglass and pouting out his dewy lips. Sir Donald Ulford, wandering round the walls, was examining the pictures upon them. Lady Manby, a woman with a pyramid of brown hair and an aggressively flat back, was telling a story. Evidently it was a comic history of disaster. Her gestures were full of deliberate exaggeration, and she appeared to be impersonating by turns two or three different people, each of whom had a perfectly ridiculous personality. Lord Holme burst into a roar of laughter. His big bass voice vibrated through the room. Suddenly Lady Holme laughed too.
"Why are you laughing?" Robin Pierce asked rather harshly. "You didn't hear what Lady Manby said."
"No, but Fritz is so infectious. I believe there are laughter microbes. What a noise he makes! It's really a scandal."
And she laughed again joyously.
"You don't know much about women if you think any story of Lady Manby's is necessary, to prompt my mirth. Poor dear old Fritz is quite enough. There he goes again!"
Robin Pierce began to look stiff with constraint, and just then Sir Donald Ulford, in his progress round the walls, reached the sofa where they were sitting.
"You are very fortunate to possess this Cuyp, Lady Holme," he said in a voice from which all resonance had long ago departed.
"Alas, Sir Donald, cows distress me! They call up sad memories. I was chased by one in the park at Grantoun when I was a child. A fly had stung it, so it tried to kill me. This struck me as unreason run riot, and ever since then I have wished the Spaniards would go a step farther and make cow-fights the national pastime. I hate cows frankly."
Sir Donald sat down in an armchair and looked, with his faded blue eyes, into the eyes of his hostess. His drawn yellow face was melancholy, like the face of one who had long been an invalid. People who knew him well, however, said there was nothing the matter with him, and that his appearance had not altered during the last twenty years.
"You can hate nothing beautiful," he said with a sort of hollow assurance.
"I think cows hideous."
"All cows. You've never had one running after you."
She took up her gloves, which she had laid down on the table beside her, and began to pull them gently through her fingers. Both Sir Donald and Robin looked at her hands, which were not only beautiful in shape but extraordinarily intelligent in their movements. Whatever they did they did well, without hesitation or bungling. Nobody had ever seen them tremble.
"Do you consider that anything that can be dangerous for a moment must be hideous for ever?" asked Sir Donald, after a slight pause.
"I'm sure I don't know. But I truly think cows hideous—I truly do."
"Don't put on your gloves," exclaimed Robin at this moment.
Sir Donald glanced at him and said:
"Why not?" said Lady Holme.
It was obvious to both men that there was no need to answer her question. She laid the gloves in her lap, smoothed them with her small fingers, and kept silence. Silence was characteristic of her. When she was in society she sometimes sat quite calmly and composedly without uttering a word. After watching her for a minute or two, Sir Donald said:
"You must know Venice very well and understand it completely."
"Oh, I've been there, of course."
"Not so very long ago. After my marriage Fritz took me all over Europe."
"And you loved Venice."
Sir Donald did not ask a question, he made a statement.
"No. It didn't agree with me. It depressed me. We were there in the mosquito season."
"What has that to do with it?"
"My dear Sir Donald, if you'd ever had a hole in your net you'd know. I made Fritz take me away after two days, and I've never been back. I don't want to have my one beauty ruined."
Sir Donald did not pay the reasonable compliment. He only stretched out his lean hands over his knees, and said:
"Venice is the only ideal city in Europe."
"You forget Paris."
"Paris!" said Sir Donald. "Paris is a suburb of London and New York. Paris is no longer the city of light, but the city of pornography and dressmakers."
"Well, I don't know exactly what pornography is—unless it's some new process for taking snapshots. But I do know what gowns are, and I love Paris. The Venice shops are failures and the Venice mosquitoes are successes, and I hate Venice."
An expression of lemon-coloured amazement appeared upon Sir Donald's face, and he glanced at Robin Pierce as if requesting the answer to a riddle. Robin looked rather as if he were enjoying himself, but the puzzled melancholy grew deeper on Sir Donald's face. With the air of a man determined to reassure his mind upon some matter, however, he spoke again.
"You visited the European capitals?" he said.
"Yes, all of them."
"Terrible place! Dogs, dogs, nothing but dogs."
"Did you like Petersburg?"
"No, I couldn't bear it. I caught cold there."
"And that was why you hated it?"
"Yes. I went out one night with Fritz on the Neva to hear a woman in a boat singing—a peasant girl with high cheek-bones—and I caught a frightful chill."
"Ah!" said Sir Donald. "What was the song? I know a good many of the Northern peasant songs."
Suddenly Lady Holme got up, letting her gloves fall to the ground.
"I'll sing it to you," she said.
Robin Pierce touched her arm.
"For Heaven's sake not to Miss Filberte's accompaniment!"
"Very well. But come and sit where you can see me."
"I won't," he said with brusque obstinacy.
"Madman!" she answered. "Anyhow, you come, Sir Donald."
And she walked lightly away towards the piano, followed by Sir Donald, who walked lightly too, but uncertainly, on his thin, stick-like legs.
"What are you up to, Vi?" said Lord Holme, as she came near to him.
"I'm going to sing something for Sir Donald."
"Capital! Where's Miss Filberte?"
"Here I am!" piped a thin alto voice.
There was a rustle of skirts as the accompanist rose hastily from her chair.
"Sit down, please, Miss Filberte," said Lady Holme in a voice of ice.
Miss Filberte sat down like one who has been knocked on the head with a hammer, and Lady Holme went alone to the piano, turned the button that raised the music-stool, sat down too, holding herself very upright, and played some notes. For a moment, while she played, her face was so determined and pitiless that Mr. Bry, unaware that she was still thinking about Miss Filberte, murmured to Lady Cardington:
"Evidently we are in for a song about Jael with the butter in the lordly dish omitted."
Then an expression of sorrowful youth stole into Lady Holme's eyes, changed her mouth to softness and her cheeks to curving innocence. She leaned a little way from the piano towards her audience and sang, looking up into vacancy as if her world were hidden there. The song had the clear melancholy and the passion of a Northern night. It brought the stars out within that room and set purple distances before the eyes. Water swayed in it, but languidly, as water sways at night in calm weather, when the black spars of ships at anchor in sheltered harbours are motionless as fingers of skeletons pointing towards the moon. Mysterious lights lay round a silent shore. And in the wide air, on the wide waters, one woman was singing to herself of a sorrow that was deep as the grave, and that no one upon the earth knew of save she who sang. The song was very short. It had only two little verses. When it was over, Sir Donald, who had been watching the singer, returned to the sofa, where Robin Pierce was sitting with his eyes shut and, again striking his fingers against the palms of his hands, said: "I have heard that song at night on the Neva, and yet I never heard it before."
People began getting up to go away. It was past eleven o'clock. Sir Donald and Robin Pierce stood together, saying good-bye to Lady Holme. As she held out her hand to the former, she said:
"Oh, Sir Donald, you know Russia, don't you?"
"Then I want you to tell me the name of that stuff they carry down the Neva in boats—the stuff that has such a horrible smell. That song always reminds me of it, and Fritz can't remember the name."
"Nor can I," said Sir Donald, rather abruptly. "Good-night, Lady Holme."
He walked out of the room, followed by Robin.
LORD HOLME'S house was in Cadogan Square. When Sir Donald had put on his coat in the hall he turned to Robin Pierce and said:
"Which way do you go?"
"To Half Moon Street," said Robin.
"We might walk, if you like. I am going the same way.
They set out slowly. It was early in the year. Showers of rain had fallen during the day. The night was warm, and the damp earth in the Square garden steamed as if it were oppressed and were breathing wearily. The sky was dark and cloudy, and the air was impregnated with a scent to which many things had contributed, each yielding a fragment of the odour peculiar to it. Rain, smoke, various trees and plants, the wet paint on a railing, the damp straw laid before the house of an invalid, the hothouse flowers carried by a woman in a passing carriage—these and other things were represented in the heavy atmosphere which was full of the sensation of life. Sir Donald expanded his nostrils.
"London, London!" he said. "I should know it if I were blind."
"Yes. The London smell is not to be confused with the smell of any other place. You have been back a good while, I believe?"
"Three years. I am laid on the London shelf now."
"You have had a long life of work—interesting work."
"Yes. Diplomacy has interesting moments. I have seen many countries. I have been transferred from Copenhagen to Teheran, visited the Sultan of Morocco at Fez, and—" he stopped. After a pause he added: "And now I sit in London clubs and look out of bay windows."
They walked on slowly.
"Have you known our hostess of to-night long?" Sir Donald asked presently.
"A good while—quite a good while. But I'm very much away at Rome now. Since I have been there she has married."
"I have only met her to speak to once before to-night, though I have seen her about very often and heard her sing."
"To me she is an enigma," Sir Donald continued with some hesitation. "I cannot make her out at all."
Robin Pierce smiled in the dark and thrust his hands deep down in the pockets of his overcoat.
"I don't know," Sir Donald resumed, after a slight pause, "I don't know what is your—whether you care much for beauty in its innumerable forms. Many young men don't, I believe."
"I do," said Robin. "My mother is an Italian, you know, and not an Italian Philistine."
"Then you can help me, perhaps. Does Lady Holme care for beauty? But she must. It is impossible that she does not."
"Do you think so? Why?"
"I really cannot reconcile myself to the idea that such performances as hers are matters of chance."
"They are not. Lady Holme is not a woman who chances things before the cruel world in which she, you and I live, Sir Donald."
"Exactly. I felt sure of that. Then we come to calculation of effects, to consideration of that very interesting question—self-consciousness in art."
"Do you feel that Lady Holme is self-conscious when she is singing?"
"No. And that is just the point. She must, I suppose, have studied till she has reached that last stage of accomplishment in which the self-consciousness present is so perfectly concealed that it seems to be eliminated."
"Exactly. She has an absolute command over her means."
"One cannot deny it. No musician could contest it. But the question that interests me lies behind all this. There is more than accomplishment in her performance. There is temperament, there is mind, there is emotion and complete understanding. I am scarcely speaking strongly enough in saying complete—perhaps infinitely subtle would be nearer the mark. What do you say?"
"I don't think if you said that there appears to be an infinitely subtle understanding at work in Lady Holme's singing you would be going at all too far."
"Appears to be?"
Sir Donald stopped for a moment on the pavement under a gas-lamp. As the light fell on him he looked like a weary old ghost longing to fade away into the dark shadows of the London night.
"You say 'appears to be,'" he repeated.
"May I ask why?"
"Well, would you undertake to vouch for Lady Holme's understanding—I mean for the infinite subtlety of it?"
Sir Donald began to walk on once more.
"I cannot find it in her conversation," he said.
"Nor can I, nor can anyone."
"She is full of personal fascination, of course."
"You mean because of her personal beauty?"
"No, it's more than that, I think. It's the woman herself. She is suggestive somehow. She makes one's imagination work. Of course she is beautiful."
"And she thinks that is everything. She would part with her voice, her intelligence—she is very intelligent in the quick, frivolous fashion that is necessary for London—that personal fascination you speak of, everything rather than her white-rose complexion and the wave in her hair."
"Yes. She thinks the outside everything. She believes the world is governed, love is won and held, happiness is gained and kept by the husk of things. She told me only to-night that it is her face which sings to us all, not her voice; that were she to sing as well and be an ugly woman we should not care to listen to her."
"Absurd, isn't it?"
"What will be the approach of old age to her?"
There was a suspicion of bitterness in his voice.
"The coming of the King of Terrors," said Pierce. "But she cannot hear his footsteps yet."
"They are loud enough in some ears. Ah, we, are at your door already?"
"Will you be good-natured and come in for a little while?"
"I'm afraid—isn't it rather late?"
"Only half-past eleven."
"Well, thank you."
They stepped into the little hall. As they did so a valet appeared at the head of the stairs leading to the servants' quarters.
"If you please, sir," he said to Pierce, "this note has just come. I was to ask if you would read it directly you returned."
"Will you excuse me?" said Pierce to Sir Donald, tearing open the envelope.
He glanced at the note.
"Is it to ask you to go somewhere to-night?" Sir Donald said.
"I will go."
"Please don't. It is only from a friend who is just round the corner in Stratton Street. If you will not mind his joining us here I will send him a message."
He said a few words to his man.
"That will be all right. Do come upstairs."
"You are sure I am not in the way?"
"I hope you will not find my friend in the way; that's all. He's an odd fellow at the best of times, and to-night he's got an attack of what he calls the blacks—his form of blues. But he's very talented. Carey is his name—Rupert Carey. You don't happen to know him?"
"No. If I may say so, your room is charming."
They were on the first floor now, in a chamber rather barely furnished and hung with blue-grey linen, against which were fastened several old Italian pictures in black frames. On the floor were some Eastern rugs in which faded and originally pale colours mingled. A log fire was burning on an open hearth, at right angles to which stood an immense sofa with a square back. This sofa was covered with dull blue stuff. Opposite to it was a large and low armchair, also covered in blue. A Steinway grand piano stood out in the middle of the room. It was open and there were no ornaments or photographs upon it. Its shining dark case reflected the flames which sprang up from the logs. Several dwarf bookcases of black wood were filled with volumes, some in exquisite bindings, some paper covered. On the top of the bookcases stood four dragon china vases filled with carnations of various colours. Electric lights burned just under the ceiling, but they were hidden from sight. In an angle of the wall, on a black ebony pedestal, stood an extremely beautiful marble statuette of a nude girl holding a fan. Under this, on a plaque, was written, "Une Danseuse de Tunisie."
Sir Donald went up to it, and stood before it for two or three minutes in silence.
"I see indeed you do care for beauty," he said at length. "But—forgive me—that fan makes that statuette wicked."
"Yes, but a thousand times more charming. Carey said just the same thing when he saw it. I wonder I wonder what Lady Holme would say."
They sat down on the sofa by the wood fire.
"Carey could probably tell us!" Pierce added.
"Oh, then your friend knows Lady Holme?"
"He did once. I believe he isn't allowed to now. Ah, here is Carey!"
A quick step was audible on the stairs, the door was opened, and a broad, middle-sized young man, with red hair, a huge red moustache and fierce red-brown eyes, entered swiftly with an air of ruthless determination.
"I came, but I shall be devilish bad company to-night," he said at once, looking at Sir Donald.
"We'll cheer you up. Let me introduce you to Sir Donald Ulford—Mr. Rupert Carey."
Carey shook Sir Donald by the hand.
"Glad to meet you," he said abruptly. "I've carried your Persian poems round the world with me. They lay in my trunk cheek by jowl with God-forsaken, glorious old Omar."
A dusky red flush appeared in Sir Donald's hollow cheeks.
"Really," he said, with obvious embarrassment, "I—they were a great failure. 'Obviously the poems of a man likely to be successful in dealing with finance,' as The Times said in reviewing them."
"Well, in the course of your career you've done some good things for England financially, haven't you?—not very publicly, perhaps, but as a minister abroad."
"Yes. To come forward as a poet was certainly a mistake."
"Any fool could see the faults in your book. True Persia all the same though. I saw all the faults and read 'em twenty times."
He flung himself down in the big armchair. Sir Donald could see now that there was a shining of misery in his big, rather ugly, eyes.
"Where have you two been?" he continued, with a directness that was almost rude.
"Dining with the Holmes," answered Pierce.
"That ruffian! Did she sing?"
"Wish I'd heard her. Here am I playing Saul without a David. Many people there?"
"Several. Lady Cardington—"
"That white-haired enchantress! There's a Niobe—weeping not for her children, she never had any, but for her youth. She is the religion of half Mayfair, though I don't know whether she's got a religion. Men who wouldn't look at her when she was sixteen, twenty-six, thirty-six, worship her now she's sixty. And she weeps for her youth! Who else?"
"A daughter of Israel; coarse, intelligent, brutal to her reddened finger-tips. I'd trust her to judge a singer, actor, painter, writer. But I wouldn't trust her with my heart or half a crown."
"Humour in petticoats. She's so infernally full of humour that there's no room in her for anything else. I doubt if she's got lungs. I'm sure she hasn't got a heart or a brain."
"But if she is so full of humour," said Sir Donald mildly, "how does she—?"
"How does a great writer fail over an addition sum? How does a man who speaks eight languages talk imbecility in them all? How is it that a bird isn't an angel? I wish to Heaven we knew. Well, Robin?"
"Of course, Mr. Bry."
Carey's violent face expressed disgust in every line.
"One of the most finished of London types," he exclaimed. "No other city supplies quite the same sort of man to take the colour out of things. He's enormously clever, enormously abominable, and should have been strangled at birth merely because of his feet. Why he's not Chinese I can't conceive; why he dines out every night I can. He's a human cruet-stand without the oil. He's so monstrously intelligent that he knows what a beast he is, and doesn't mind. Not a bad set of people to talk with, unless Lady Holme was in a temper and you were next to her, or you were left stranded with Holme when the women went out of the dining-room."
"You think Holme a poor talker?" asked Sir Donald.
"Precious poor. His brain is muscle-bound, I believe. Robin, you know I'm miserable to-night you offer me nothing to drink."
"I beg your pardon. Help yourself. And, Sir Donald, what will you—?"
"Nothing, thank you."
"Try one of those cigars."
Sir Donald took one and lit it quietly, looking at Carey, who seemed to interest him a good deal.
"Why are you miserable, Carey?" said Pierce, as the former buried his moustache in a tall whisky-and-soda.
"Because I'm alive and don't want to be dead. Reason enough."
"Because you're an unmitigated egoist," rejoined Pierce.
"Yes, I am an egoist. Introduce me to a man who is not, will you?"
"And what about women?"
"Many women are not egoists. But you have been dining with one of the most finished egoists in London to-night."
"Lady Holme?" said Sir Donald, shifting into the left-hand corner of the sofa.
"Yes, Viola Holme, once Lady Viola Grantoun; whom I mustn't know any more."
"I'm not sure that you are right, Carey," said Pierce, rather coldly.
"Can a true and perfect egoist be in love?"
"Certainly. Is not even an egoist an animal?"
Pierce's lips tightened for a second, and his right hand strained itself round his knee, on which it was lying.
"And how much can she be in love?"
"Do you mean with her body?"
"Yes, I do; and with the spirit that lives in it. I don't believe there's any life but this. A church is more fantastic to me than the room in which Punch belabours Judy. But I say that there is spirit in lust, in hunger, in everything. When I want a drink my spirit wants it. Viola Holme's spirit—a flame that will be blown out at death—takes part in her love for that great brute Holme. And yet she's one of the most pronounced egoists in London."
"Do you care to tell us any reason you may have for saying so?" said Sir Donald.
As he spoke, his voice, brought into sharp contrast with the changeful and animated voice of Carey, sounded almost preposterously thin and worn out.
"She is always conscious of herself in every situation, in every relation of life. While she loves even she thinks to herself, 'How beautifully I am loving!' And she never forgets for a single moment that she is a fascinating woman. If she were being murdered she would be saying silently, while the knife went in, 'What an attractive creature, what an unreplaceable personage they are putting an end to!'"
"Rupert, you are really too absurd!" exclaimed Pierce, laughing reluctantly.
"I'm not absurd. I see straight. Lady Holme is an egoist—a magnificent, an adorable egoist, fine enough in her brilliant selfishness to stand quite alone."
"And you mean to tell us that any woman can do that?" exclaimed Pierce.
"Who am I that I should pronounce a verdict upon the great mystery? What do I know of women?"
"Far too much, I'm afraid," said Pierce.
"Nothing, I have never been married, and only the married man knows anything of women. The Frenchmen are wrong. It is not the mistress who informs, it is the loving wife. For me the sex remains mysterious, like the heroine of my realm of dreams."
"You are talking great nonsense, Rupert."
"I always do when I am depressed, and I am very specially depressed to-night."
"But why? There must be some very special reason."
"There is. I, too, dined out and met at dinner a young man whose one desire in life appears to be to deprive living creatures of life."
Sir Donald moved slightly.
"You're not a sportsman, then, Mr. Carey?" he said.
"Indeed, I am. I've shot big game, the Lord forgive me, and found big pleasure in doing it. Yet this young man depressed me. He was so robust, so perfectly happy, so supremely self-satisfied, and, according to his own account, so enormously destructive, that he made me feel very sick. He is married. He married a widow who has an ear-trumpet and a big shooting in Scotland. If she could be induced to crawl in underwood, or stand on a cairn against a skyline, I'm sure he'd pot at her for the fun of the thing."
"What is his name?" asked Sir Donald.
"I didn't catch it. My host called him Leo. He has—"
"Ah! He is my only son."
Pierce looked very uncomfortable, but Carey replied calmly:
"Really. I wonder he hasn't shot you long ago."
Sir Donald smiled.
"Doesn't he depress you?" added Carey.
"He does, I'm sorry to say, but scarcely so much as I depress him."
"I think Lady Holme would like him."
For once Sir Donald looked really expressive, of surprise and disgust.
"Oh, I can't think so!" he said.
"Yes, yes, she would. She doesn't care honestly for art-loving men. Her idea of a real man, the sort of man a woman marries, or bolts with, or goes off her head for, is a huge mass of bones and muscles and thews and sinews that knows not beauty. And your son would adore her, Sir Donald. Better not let him, though. Holme's a jealous devil."
"Totally without reason," said Pierce, with a touch of bitterness.
"No doubt. It's part of his Grand Turk nature. He ought to possess a Yildiz. He's out of place in London where marital jealousy is more unfashionable than pegtop trousers."
He buried himself in his glass. Sir Donald rose to go.
"I hope I may see you again," he said rather tentatively at parting. "I am to be found in the Albany."
They both said they would call, and he slipped away gently.
"There's a sensitive man," said Carey when he had gone. "A sort of male Lady Cardington. Both of them are morbidly conscious of their age and carry it about with them as if it were a crime. Yet they're both worth knowing. People with that temperament who don't use hair-dye must have grit. His son's awful."
"And his poems?"
"Very crude, very faulty, very shy, but the real thing. But he'll never publish anything again. It must have been torture to him to reveal as much as he did in that book. He must find others to express him, and such as him, to the world."
"Par exemple. Deuced odd that while the dumb understand the whole show the person who's describing it quite accurately to them often knows nothing about it. Paradox, irony, blasted eternal cussedness of life! Did you ever know Lady Ulford?"
"She was a horse-dealer's daughter."
"On my honour! One of those women who are all shirt and collar and nattiness, with a gold fox for a tie-pin and a hunting-crop under the arm. She was killed schooling a horse in Mexico after making Ulford shy and uncomfortable for fifteen years. Lady Cardington and a Texas cowboy would have been as well suited to one another. Ulford's been like a wistful ghost, they tell me, ever since her death. I should like to see him and his son together."
A hard and almost vicious gleam shone for as instant in his eyes.
"You're as cruel as a Spaniard at a bull-fight."
"My boy, I've been gored by the bull."
Pierce was silent for a minute. He thought of Lady Holme's white-rose complexion and of the cessation of Carey's acquaintance with the Holmes. No one seemed to know exactly why Carey went to the house in Cadogan Square no more.
"For God's sake give me another drink, Robin, and make it a stiff one."
Pierce poured out the whisky and thought:
"Could it have been that?"
Carey emptied the tumbler and heaved a long sigh.
"When d'you go back to Rome?"
"Beginning of July."
"You'll be there in the dead season."
"I like Rome then. The heat doesn't hurt me and I love the peace. Antiquity seems to descend upon the city in August, returning to its own when America is far away."
Carey stared at him hard.
"A rising diplomatist oughtn't to live in the past," he said bluntly.
"I like ruins."
"Unless they're women."
"If I loved a woman I could love her when she became what is called a ruin."
"If you were an old man who had crumbled gradually with her."
"As a young man, too. I was discussing—or rather flitting about, dinner-party fashion—that very subject to-night."
"The deuce! What line did you take?"
"That one loves—if one loves—the kernel, not the shell."
"You know her—the opposite."
"And you, Carey?"
"I! I think if the shell is a beautiful shell and becomes suddenly broken it makes a devil of a lot of difference in what most people think of the kernel."
"It wouldn't to me."
"I think it would."
"You take Viola's side then?"
"And when did I ever do anything else? I'm off."
He got up, nodded good-night, and was gone in a moment. Pierce heard him singing in a deep voice as he went down the stairs, and smiled with a faint contempt.
"How odd it is that nobody will believe a man if he's fool enough to hint at the truth of his true self," he thought. "And Carey—who's so clever about people!"
WHEN the last guest had grimaced at her and left the drawing-room, Lady Holme stood with her hand on the mantelpiece, facing a tall mirror. She was alone for the moment. Her husband had accompanied Mrs. Wolfstein downstairs, and Lady Holme could hear his big, booming voice below, interrupted now and then by her impudent soprano. She spoke English with a slight foreign accent which men generally liked and women loathed. Lady Holme loathed it. But she was not fond of her own sex. She believed that all women were untrustworthy. She often said that she had never met a woman who was not a liar, and when she said it she had no doubt that, for once, a woman was speaking the truth. Now, as she heard Mrs. Wolfstein's curiously improper laugh, she frowned. The face in the mirror changed and looked almost old.
This struck her unpleasantly. She kept the frown in its place and stared from under it, examining her features closely, fancying herself really an old woman, her whimsical fascination dead in its decaying home, her powers faded if not fled for ever. She might do what she liked then. It would all be of no use. Even the voice would be cracked and thin, unresponsive, unwieldy. The will would be phlegmatic. If it were not, the limbs and features would not easily obey its messages. The figure, now beautiful, would perhaps be marred by the ungracious thickness, the piteous fleshiness that Time often adds assiduously to ageing bodies, as if with an ironic pretence of generously giving in one direction while taking away in another. Decay would be setting in, life becoming perpetual loss. The precious years would be gone irrevocably.
She let the frown go and looked again on her beauty and smiled. The momentary bitterness passed. For there were many precious years to come for her, many years of power. She was young. Her health was superb. Her looks were of the kind that lasts. She thought of a famous actress whom she resembled closely. This actress was already forty-three, and was still a lovely woman, still toured about the world winning the hearts of men, was still renowned for her personal charm, worshipped not only for her talent but for her delicious skin, her great romantic eyes, her thick, waving hair.
Lady Holme laughed. In twenty years what Robin Pierce called her "husk" would still be an exquisite thing, and she would be going about without hearing the horrible tap, tap of the crutch in whose sustaining power she really believed so little. She knew men, and she said to herself, as she had said to Robin, that for them beauty lies in the epidermis.
"Hullo, Vi, lookin' in the glass! 'Pon my soul, your vanity's disgustin'. A plain woman like you ought to keep away from such things—leave 'em to the Mrs. Wolfsteins—what?"
Lady Holme turned round in time to see her husband's blunt, brown features twisted in the grimace which invariably preceded his portentous laugh.
"I admire Mrs. Wolfstein," she said.
The laugh burst like a bomb.
"You admire another woman! Why, you're incapable of it. The Lord defend me from hypocrisy, and there's no greater hypocrisy than one woman takin' Heaven to witness that she thinks another a stunnin' beauty."
"You know nothing about it, Fritz. Mrs. Wolfstein's eyes would be lovely if they hadn't that pawnbroking expression."
"Good, good! Now we're goin' to hear the voice of truth. Think it went well, eh?"
He threw himself down on a sofa and began to light a cigarette.
"The evening? No, I don't."
He crossed his long legs and leaned back, resting his head on a cushion, and puffing the smoke towards the ceiling.
"They all seemed cheery—what? Even Lady Cardington only cried when you were squallin'."
It was Lord Holme's habit to speak irreverently of anything he happened to admire.
"She had reason to cry. Miss Filberte's accompaniment was a tragedy. She never comes here again."
"What's the row with her? I thought her fingers got about over the piano awful quick."
"They did—on the wrong notes."
She came and sat down beside him.
"You don't understand music, Fritz, thank goodness."
"I know I don't. But why thank what's-his-name?"
"Because the men that do are usually such anaemic, dolly things, such shaved poodles with their Sunday bows on."
"What about that chap Pierce? He's up to all the scales and thingumies, isn't he?"
"Pierce I said."
"And I said Robin."
Lord Holme frowned and stuck out his under jaw. When he was irritated he always made haste to look like a prize-fighter. His prominent cheek-bones, and the abnormal development of bone in the lower part of his face, helped the illusion whose creation was begun by his expression.
"Look here, Vi," he said gruffly. "If you get up to any nonsense there'll be another Carey business. I give you the tip, and you can just take it in time. Don't you make any mistake. I'm not a Brenford, or a Godley-Halstoun, or a Pennisford, to sit by and—"
"What a pity it is that your body's so big and your intelligence so small!" she interrupted gently. "Why aren't there Sandow exercises for increasing the brain?"
"I've quite enough brain to rub along with very well. If I'd chosen to take it I could have been undersecretary—-"
"You've told me that so many times, old darling, and I really can't believe it. The Premier's very silly. Everybody knows that. But he's still got just a faint idea of the few things the country won't stand. And you are one of them, you truly are. You don't go down even with the Primrose League, and they simply worship at the shrine of the great Ar-rar."
"Fool or not, I'd kick out Pierce as I kicked out Carey if I thought—"
"And suppose I wouldn't let you?"
Her voice had suddenly changed. There was in it the sharp sound which had so overwhelmed Miss Filberte.
Lord Holme sat straight up and looked at his wife.
"Suppose I declined to let you behave ridiculously a second time."
"Ridiculously! I like that! Do you stick out that Carey didn't love you?"
"Half London loves me. I'm one of the most attractive women in it. That's why you married me, blessed boy."
"Carey's a violent ass. Red-headed men always are. There's a chap at White's—"
"I know, I know. You told me about him when you forbade poor Mr. Carey the house. But Robin's hair is black and he's the gentlest creature in diplomacy."
"I wouldn't trust him a yard."
"Believe me, he doesn't wish you to. He's far too clever to desire the impossible."
"Then he can stop desirin' you."
"Don't be insulting, Fritz. Remember that by birth you are a gentleman."
Lord Holme bit through his cigarette.
"Sometimes I wish you were an ugly woman," he muttered.
"And if I were?"
She leaned forward quite eagerly on the sofa and her whimsical, spoilt-child manner dropped away from her.
"Don't be silly. I know I'm not, of course. But if I were to become one?"
"Really, Fritz, there's no sort of continuity in your mental processes. If I were to become an ugly woman, what would you feel about me then?"
"How the deuce could you become ugly?"
"Oh, in a hundred ways. I might have smallpox and be pitted for life, or be scalded in the face as poor people's babies often are, or have vitriol thrown over me as lots of women do in Paris, or any number of things."
"What rot! Who'd throw vitriol over you, I should like to know?"
He lit a fresh cigarette with tender solicitude. Lady Holme began to look irritated.
"Do use your imagination!" she cried.
"Haven't got one, thank God!" he returned philosophically.
"I insist upon your imagining me ugly. Do you hear, I insist upon it."
She laid one soft hand on his knee and squeezed his leg with all her might.
"Now you're to imagine me ugly and just the same as I am now."
"You wouldn't be the same."
"Yes, I should. I should be the same woman, with the same heart and feelings and desires and things as I have now. Only the face would be altered."
"Well, go ahead, but don't pinch so, old girl."
"I pinch you to make you exert your mind. Now tell me truly—truly; would you love me as you do now, would you be jealous of me, would you—"
"I say, wait a bit! Don't drive on at such a rate. How ugly are you?"
"Very ugly; worse than Miss Filberte."
"Miss Filberte's not so bad."
"Yes, she is, Fritz, you know she is. But I mean ever so much worse; with a purple complexion, perhaps, like Mrs. Armington, whose husband insisted on a judicial separation; or a broken nose, or something wrong with my mouth—"
"Oh, dear, anything! What l'homme qui vir had—or a frightful scar across my cheek. Could you love me as you do now? I should be the same woman, remember."
"Then it'd be all the same to me, I s'pose. Let's turn in."
He got up, went over to the hearth, on which a small wood fire was burning, straddled his legs, bent his knees and straightened them several times, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his trousers, which were rather tight and horsey and defined his immense limbs. An expression of profound self-satisfaction illumined his face as he looked at his wife, giving it a slightly leery expression, as of a shrewd rustic. His large blunt features seemed to broaden, his big brown eyes twinkled, and his lips, which were thick and very red and had a cleft down their middle, parted under his short bronze moustache, exposing two level rows of square white teeth.
"It's jolly difficult to imagine you an ugly woman," he said, with a deep chuckle.
"I do wish you'd keep your legs still," said Lady Holme. "What earthly pleasure can it give you to go on like that? Would you love me as you do now?"
"You'd be jolly sick if I didn't, wouldn't you, Vi, eh?"
"I wonder if it ever occurs to you that you're hideously conceited, Fritz?"
She spoke with a touch of real anger, real exasperation.
"No more than any other Englishman that's worth his salt and ever does any good in the world. I ain't a timid molly-coddle, if that's what you mean."
He took one large hand out of his pocket, scratched his cheek and yawned. As he did so he looked as unconcerned, as free from self-consciousness, as much a slave to every impulse born of passing physical sensation as a wild animal in a wood or out on a prairie.
"Otherwise life ain't worth tuppence," he added through his yawn.
Lady Holme sat looking at him for a moment in silence. She was really irritated by his total lack of interest in what she wanted to interest in him, irritated, too, because her curiosity remained unsatisfied. But that abrupt look and action of absolutely unconscious animalism, chasing the leeriness of the contented man's conceit, turned her to softness if not to cheerfulness. She adored Fritz like that. His open-mouthed, gaping yawn moved something in her to tenderness. She would have liked to kiss him while he was yawning and to pass her hands over his short hair, which was like a mat and grew as strongly as the hair which he shaved every morning from his brown cheeks.
"Well, what about bed, old girl?" he said, stretching himself.
Lady Holme did not reply. Some part of him, some joint, creaked as he forced his clasped hands downward and backward. She was listening eagerly for a repetition of the little sound.
"What! Is mum the word?" he said, bending forward to stare into her face.
At this moment the door opened, and a footman came in to extinguish the lights and close the piano. By mistake he let the lid of the latter drop with a bang. Lady Holme, who had just got up to go to bed, started violently. She said nothing but stared at him for an instant with an expression of cold rebuke on her face. The man reddened. Lord Holme was already on the stairs. He yawned again noisily, and turned the sound eventually into a sort of roaring chant up and down the scale as he mounted towards the next floor. Lady Holme came slowly after him. She had a very individual walk, moving from the hips and nearly always taking small, slow steps. Her sapphire-blue gown trailed behind her with a pretty noise over the carpet.
When her French maid had locked up her jewels and helped her to undress, she dismissed her, and called out to Lord Holme, who was in the next room, the door of which was slightly open.
His mighty form, attired in pale blue pyjamas, stood in the doorway. In his hand he grasped a toothbrush, and there were dabs of white tooth-powder on his cheeks and chin.
"Finish your toilet and make haste."
He disappeared. There was a prolonged noise of brushing and the gurgling and splashing of water. Lady Holme sat down on the white couch at the foot of the great bed. She was wrapped in a soft white gown made like a burnous, a veritable Arab garment, with a white silk hood at the back, and now she put up her hands and, with great precision, drew the hood up over her head. The burnous, thus adjusted, made her look very young. She had thrust her bare feet into white slippers without heels, and now she drew up her legs lightly and easily and crossed them under her, assuming an Eastern attitude and the expression of supreme impassivity which suits it. A long mirror was just opposite to her. She swayed to and fro, looking into it.
"Allah-Akbar!" she murmured. "Allah-Akbar! I am a fatalist. Everything is ordained, so why should I bother? I will live for the day. I will live for the night. Allah-Akbar, Allah-Akbar!"
The sound of water gushing from a reversed tumbler into a full basin was followed by the reappearance of Lord Holme, looking very clean and very sleepy.
Lady Holme stopped swaying.
"You look like a kid of twelve years old in that thing, Vi," he observed, surveying her with his hands on his hips.
"I am a woman with a philosophy," she returned with dignity.
"A philosophy! What the deuce is that?"
"You didn't learn much at Eton and Christchurch."
"I learnt to use my fists and to make love to the women."
"You're a brute!" she exclaimed with most unphilosophic vehemence.
"And that's why you worship the ground I tread on," he rejoined equably. "And that's why I've always had a good time with the women ever since I stood six foot in my stockin's when I was sixteen."
Lady Holme looked really indignant. Her face was contorted by a spasm. She was one of those unfortunate women who are capable of retrospective jealousy.
"I won't—how dare you speak to me of those women?" she said bitterly. "You insult me."
"Hang it, there's no one since you, Vi. You know that. And what would you have thought of a great, hulkin' chap like me who'd never—well, all right. I'll dry up. But you know well enough you wouldn't have looked at me."
"I wonder why I ever did."
"No, you don't. I'm just the chap to suit you. You're full of whimsies and need a sledge-hammer fellow to keep you quiet. It you'd married that ass, Carey, or that—"
"Fritz, once for all, I won't have my friends abused. I allowed you to have your own way about Rupert Carey, but I will not have Robin Pierce or anyone else insulted. Please understand that. I married to be more free, not more—"
"You married because you'd fallen jolly well in love with me, that's why you married, and that's why you're a damned lucky woman. Come to bed. You won't, eh?"
He made a stride, snatched Lady Holme up as if she were a bundle, and carried her off to bed.
She was on the point of bursting into angry tears, but when she found herself snatched up, her slippers tumbling off, the hood of the burnous falling over her eyes, her face crushed anyhow against her husband's sinewy chest, she suddenly felt oddly contented, disinclined to protest or to struggle.
Lord Holme did not trouble himself to ask what she was feeling or why she was feeling it.
He thought of himself—the surest way to fasten upon a man the thoughts of others.
ROBIN PIERCE and Carey were old acquaintances, if not exactly old friends. They had been for a time at Harrow together. Pierce had six thousand a year and worked hard for a few hundreds. Carey had a thousand and did nothing. He had never done anything definite, anything to earn a living. Yet his talents were notorious. He played the piano well for an amateur, was an extraordinarily clever mimic, acted better than most people who were not on the stage, and could write very entertaining verse with a pungent, sub-acid flavour. But he had no creative power and no perseverance. As a critic of the performances of others he was cruel but discerning, giving no quarter, but giving credit where it was due. He loathed a bad workman more than a criminal, and would rather have crushed an incompetent human being than a worm. Secretly he despised himself. His own laziness was as disgusting to him as a disease, and was as incurable as are certain diseases. He was now thirty-four and realised that he was never going to do anything with his life. Already he had travelled over the world, seen a hundred, done a hundred things. He had an enormous acquaintance in Society and among artists; writers, actors, painters—all the people who did things and did them well. As a rule they liked him, despite his bizarre bluntness of speech and manner, and they invariably spoke of him as a man of great talent; he said because he was so seldom fool enough to do anything that could reveal incompetence. His mother, who was a widow, lived in the north, in an old family mansion, half house, half castle, near the sea coast of Cumberland. He had one sister, who was married to an American.
Carey always declared that he was that rara avis an atheist, and that he had been born an atheist. He affirmed that even when a child he had never, for a moment, felt that there could be any other life than this earth-life. Few people believed him. There are few people who can believe in a child atheist.
Pierce had a totally different character. He seemed to be more dreamy and was more energetic, talked much less and accomplished much more. It had always been his ambition to be a successful diplomat, and in many respects he was well fitted for a diplomatic career. He had a talent for languages, great ease of manner, self-possession, patience and cunning. He loved foreign life. Directly he set foot in a country which was not his own he felt stimulated. He felt that he woke up, that his mind became more alert, his imagination more lively. He delighted in change, in being brought into contact with a society which required study to be understood. His present fate contented him well enough. He liked Rome and was liked there. As his mother was a Roman he had many Italian connections, and he was far more at ease with Romans than with the average London man. His father and mother lived almost perpetually in large hotels. The former, who was enormously rich, was a malade imaginaire. He invariably spoke of his quite normal health as if it were some deadly disease, and always treated himself, and insisted on being treated, as if he were an exceptionally distinguished invalid. In the course of years his friends had learned to take his view of the matter, and he was at this time almost universally spoken of as "that poor Sir Henry Pierce whose life has been one long martyrdom." Poor Sir Henry was fortunate in the possession of a wife who really was a martyr—to him. Nobody had ever discovered whether Lady Pierce knew, or did not know, that her husband was quite as well as most people. There are many women with such secrets. Robin's parents were at present taking baths and drinking waters in Germany. They were later going for an "after cure" to Switzerland, and then to Italy to "keep warm" during the autumn. As they never lived in London, Robin had no home there except his little house in Half Moon Street. He had one brother, renowned as a polo player, and one sister, who was married to a rising politician, Lord Evelyn Clowes, a young man with a voluble talent, a peculiar power of irritating Chancellors of the Exchequer, and hair so thick that he was adored by the caricaturists.
Robin Pierce and Carey saw little of each other now, being generally separated by a good many leagues of land and sea, but when they met they were still fairly intimate. They had some real regard for each other. Carey felt at ease in giving his violence to the quiet and self-possessed young secretary, who was three years his junior, but who sometimes seemed to him the elder of the two, perhaps because calm is essentially the senior of storm. He had even allowed Robin to guess at the truth of his feeling for Lady Holme, though he had never been explicit, on the subject to him or to anyone. There were moments when Robin wished he had not been permitted to guess, for Lady Holme attracted him far more than any other woman he had seen, and he had proposed to her before she had been carried off by her husband. He admired her beauty, but he did not believe that it was her beauty which had led him into love. He was sure that he loved the woman in her, the hidden woman whom Lord Holme and the world at large—including Carey—knew nothing about. He thought that Lady Holme herself did not understand this hidden woman, did not realise, as he did, that she existed. She spoke to him sometimes in Lady Holme's singing, sometimes in an expression in her eyes when she was serious, sometimes even in a bodily attitude. For Robin, half fantastically, put faith in the eloquence of line as a revealer of character, of soul. But she did not speak to him in Lady Holme's conversation. He really thought this hidden woman was obscured by the lovely window—he conceived it as a window of exquisite stained glass, jewelled but concealing—through which she was condemned to look for ever, through which, too, all men must look at her. He really wished sometimes, as he had said, that Lady Holme were ugly, for he had a fancy that perhaps then, and only then, would the hidden woman arise and be seen as a person may be seen through unstained, clear glass. He really felt that what he loved would be there to love if the face that ruled was ruined; would not only still be there to love, but would become more powerful, more true to itself, more understanding of itself, more reliant, purer, braver. And he had learnt to cherish this fancy till it had become a little monomania. Robin thought that the world misunderstood him, but he knew the world too well to say so. He never risked being laughed at. He felt sure that he was passionate, that he was capable of romantic deeds, of Quixotic self-sacrifice, of a devotion that might well be sung by poets, and that would certainly be worshipped by ardent women. And he said to himself that Lady Holme was the one woman who could set free, if the occasion came, this passionate, unusual and surely admirable captive at present chained within him, doomed to inactivity and the creeping weakness that comes from enforced repose.
Carey's passion for Lady Holme had come into being shortly before her marriage. No one knew much about it, or about the rupture of all relations between him and the Holmes which had eventually taken place. But the fact that Carey had lost his head about Lady Holme was known to half London. For Carey, when carried away, was singularly reckless; singularly careless of consequences and of what people thought. It was difficult to influence him, but when influenced he was almost painfully open in his acknowledgment of the power that had reached him. As a rule, however, despite his apparent definiteness, his decisive violence, there seemed to be something fluid in his character, something that divided and flowed away from anything which sought to grasp and hold it. He had impetus but not balance; swiftness, but a swiftness that was uncontrolled. He resembled a machine without a brake.
It was soon after his rupture with the Holmes that his intimates began to notice that he was becoming inclined to drink too much. When Pierce returned to London from Rome he was immediately conscious of the slight alteration in his friend. Once he remonstrated with Carey about it. Carey was silent for a moment. Then he said abruptly:
"My heart wants to be drowned."
Lord Holme hated Carey. Yet Lady Holme had not loved him; though she had not objected to him more than to other men because he loved her. She had been brought up in a society which is singularly free from prejudices, which has no time to study carefully questions of so-called honour, which has little real religious feeling, and a desire for gaiety which perhaps takes the place of a desire for morals. Intrigues are one of the chief amusements of this society, which oscillates from London to Paris as the pendulum of a clock oscillates from right to left. Lady Holme, however, happened to be protected doubly against the dangers—or joys by the way—to which so many of her companions fell cheerful, and even chattering, victims. She had a husband who though extremely stupid was extremely masterful, and, for the time at any rate, she sincerely loved him. She was a faithful wife and had no desire to be anything else, though she liked to be, and usually was, in the fashion. But though faithful to Lord Holme she had, as has been said, both the appearance and the temperament of a siren. She enjoyed governing men, and those who were governed by her, who submitted obviously to the power of her beauty and the charm of manner that seemed to emanate from it, and to be one with it, were more attractive to her than those who were not. She was inclined to admire a man for loving her, as a serious and solemn-thinking woman, with bandeaux and convictions, admires a clergyman for doing his duty. Carey had done his duty with such fiery ardour that, though she did not prevent her husband from kicking him out of the house, she could not refrain from thinking well of him.
Her thoughts of Robin Pierce were perhaps a little more confused.
She had not accepted him. Carey would have said that he was not "her type." Although strong and active he was not the huge mass of bones and muscles and thews and sinews, ignorant of beauty and devoid of the love of art, which Carey had described as her ideal. There was melancholy and there was subtlety in him. When Lady Holme was a girl this melancholy and subtlety had not appealed to her sufficiently to induce her to become Lady Viola Pierce. Nevertheless, Robin's affection for her, and the peculiar form it took—of idealising her secret nature and wishing her obvious beauty away—had won upon the egoism of her. Although she laughed at his absurdity, as she called it, and honestly held to her Pagan belief that physical beauty was all in all to the world she wished to influence, it pleased her sometimes to fancy that perhaps he was right, that perhaps her greatest loveliness was hidden and dwelt apart. The thought was flattering, and though her knowledge of men rejected the idea that such a loveliness alone could ever command an empire worth the ruling, she could have no real objection to being credited with a double share of charm—the charm of face and manner which everyone, including herself, was aware that she possessed, and that other stranger, more dim and mysterious charm at whose altar Robin burnt an agreeably perfumed incense.
She had a peculiar power of awakening in others that which she usually seemed not to possess herself—imagination, passion, not only physical but ethereal and of the mind; a tenderness for old sorrows, desire for distant, fleeting, misty glories not surely of this earth. She was a brilliant suggestionist, but not in conversation. Her face and her voice, when she sang, were luring to the lovers of beauty. When she sang she often expressed for them the under-thoughts and under-feelings of secretly romantic, secretly wistful men and women, and drew them to her as if by a spell. But her talk and manner in conversation were so unlike her singing, so little accorded with the look that often came into her eyes while she sang, that she was a perpetual puzzle to such elderly men as Sir Donald Ulford, to such young men as Robin Pierce, and even to some women. They came about her like beggars who have heard a chink of gold, and she showed them a purse that seemed to be empty.
Was it the milieu in which she lived, the influence of a vulgar and greedy age, which prevented her from showing her true self except in her art? Or was she that stupefying enigma sometimes met with, an unintelligent genius?
There were some who wondered.
In her singing she seemed to understand, to love, to pity, to enthrone. In her life she often seemed not to understand, not to love, not to pity, not to place high.
She sang of Venice, and those who cannot even think of the city in the sea without a flutter of the heart, a feeling not far from soft pain in its tenderness and gratitude, listened to the magic bells at sunset, and glided in the fairy barques across the liquid plains of gold. She spoke of Venice, and they heard only the famished voice of the mosquito uttering its midnight grace before meat.
Which was the real Venice?
Which was the real woman?
ON the following day, which was warm and damp; Lady Holme drove to Bond Street, bought two new hats, had her hand read by a palmist who called himself "Cupido," looked in at a ladies' club and then went to Mrs. Wolfstein, with whom she was engaged to lunch. She did not wish to lunch with her. She disliked Mrs. Wolfstein as she disliked most women, but she had not been able to get out of it. Mrs. Wolfstein had overheard her saying to Lady Cardington that she had nothing particular to do till four that day, and had immediately "pinned her." Besides disliking Mrs. Wolfstein, Lady Holme was a little afraid of her. Like many clever Jewesses, Mrs. Wolfstein was a ruthless conversationalist, and enjoyed showing off at the expense of others, even when they were her guests. She had sometimes made Lady Holme feel stupid, even feel as if a good talker might occasionally gain, and keep, an advantage over a lovely woman who did not talk so well. The sensation passed, but the fact that it had ever been did not draw Lady Holme any closer to the woman with the "pawnbroking expression" in her eyes.
Mrs. Wolfstein was not in the most exclusive set in London, but she was in the smart set, which is no longer exclusive although it sometimes hopes it is. She knew the racing people, nearly all the most fashionable Jews, and those very numerous English patricians who like to go where money is. She also knew the whole of Upper Bohemia, and was a persona gratissima in that happy land of talent and jealousy. She entertained a great deal, generally at modish restaurants. Many French and Germans were to be met with at her parties; and it was impossible to be with either them or her for many minutes without hearing the most hearty and whole-souled abuse of English aspirations, art, letters and cooking. The respectability, the pictures, the books and the boiled cabbage of Britain all came impartially under the lash.
Mrs. Wolfstein's origin was obscure. That she was a Jewess was known to everybody, but few could say with certainty whether she was a German, a Spanish, a Polish or an Eastern Jewess. She had much of the covert coarseness and open impudence of a Levantine, and occasionally said things which made people wonder whether, before she became Amalia Wolfstein, she had not perhaps been—well really—something very strange somewhere a long way off.
Her husband was shocking to look at: small, mean, bald, Semitic and nervous, with large ears which curved outwards from his head like leaves, and cheeks blue from much shaving. He was said to hide behind his anxious manner an acuteness that was diabolic, and to have earned his ill-health by sly dissipations for which he had paid enormous sums. There were two Wolfstein children, a boy and a girl of eleven and twelve; small, swarthy, frog-like, self-possessed. They already spoke three languages, and their protruding eyes looked almost diseased with intelligence.
The Wolfstein house, which was in Curzon Street, was not pretty, Apparently neither Mrs. Wolfstein nor her husband, who was a financier and company promoter on a very large scale, had good taste in furniture and decoration. The mansion was spacious but dingy. There was a great deal of chocolate and fiery yellow paint. There were many stuffy brown carpets, and tables which were unnecessarily solid. In the hall were pillars which looked as if they were made of brawn, and arches with lozenges of azure paint in which golden stars appeared rather meretriciously. A plaster statue of Hebe, with crinkly hair and staring eyeballs, stood in a corner without improving matters. That part of the staircase which was not concealed by the brown carpet was dirty white. An immense oil painting of a heap of dead pheasants, rabbits and wild duck, lying beside a gun and a pair of leather gaiters, immediately faced the hall door, which was opened by two enormous men with yellow complexions and dissipated eyes. Mrs. Wolfstein was at home, and one of the enormous men lethargically showed Lady Holme upstairs into a drawing-room which suggested a Gordon Hotel. She waited for about five minutes on a brown and yellow sofa near a table on which lay some books and several paper-knives, and then Mrs. Wolfstein appeared. She was dressed very smartly in blue and red, and looked either Oriental or Portuguese, as she came in. Lady Holme was not quite certain which.
"Dear person!" she said, taking Lady Holme's hands in hers, which were covered with unusually large rings. "Now, I've got a confession to make. What a delicious hat!"
Lady Holme felt certain the confession was of something unpleasant, but she only said, in the rather languid manner she generally affected towards women:
"Well? My ear is at the grating."
"My lunch is at the Carlton."
Lady Holme was pleased. At the Carlton one can always look about.
"And—it's a woman's lunch."
Lady Holme's countenance fell quite frankly.
"I knew you'd be horrified. You think us such bores, and so we are. But I couldn't resist being malicious to win such a triumph. You at a hen lunch! It'll be the talk of London. Can you forgive me?"
"And can you stand it?"
Lady Holme looked definitely dubious.
"I'll tell you who'll be there—Lady Cardington, Lady Manby, Mrs. Trent—do you know her? Spanish looking, and's divorced two husbands, and's called the scarlet woman because she always dresses in red—Sally Perceval, Miss Burns and Pimpernel Schley."
"Pimpernel Schley! Who is she?"
"The American actress who plays all the improper modern parts. Directly a piece is produced in Paris that we run over to see—you know the sort! the Grand Duke and foreign Royalty species—she has it adapted for her. Of course it's Bowdlerised as to words, but she manages to get back all that's been taken out in her acting. Young America's crazy about her. She's going to play over here."
Lady Holme's voice was not encouraging, but Mrs. Wolfstein was not sensitive. She chattered gaily all the way to the Haymarket. When they came into the Palm Court they found Lady Cardington already there, seated tragically in an armchair, and looking like a weary empress. The band was playing on the balcony just outside the glass wall which divides the great dining-room from the court, and several people were dotted about waiting for friends, or simply killing time by indulging curiosity. Among them was a large, broad-shouldered young man, with a round face, contemptuous blue eyes and a mouth with chubby, pouting lips. He was well dressed, but there was a touch of horseyness in the cut of his trousers, the arrangement of his tie. He sat close to the band, tipping his green chair backwards and smoking a cigarette.
As Mrs. Wolfstein and Lady Holme went up to greet Lady Cardington, Sally Perceval and Mrs. Trent came in together, followed almost immediately by Lady Manby.
Sally Perceval was a very pretty young married woman, who spent most of her time racing, gambling and going to house parties. She looked excessively fragile and consumptive, but had lived hard and never had a day's illness in her life. She was accomplished, not at all intellectual, clever at games, a fine horsewoman and an excellent swimmer. She had been all over the world with her husband, who was very handsome and almost idiotic, and who could not have told you what the Taj was, whether Thebes was in Egypt or India, or what was the difference, if any, between the Golden Gate and the Golden Horn. Mrs. Trent was large, sultry, well-informed and supercilious; had the lustrous eyes of a Spaniard, and spoke in a warm contralto voice. Her figure was magnificent, and she prided herself on having a masculine intellect. Her enemies said that she had a more than masculine temper.
Lady Manby had been presented by Providence with a face like a teapot, her nose being the spout and her cheeks the bulging sides. She saw everything in caricature. If war were spoken of, her imagination immediately conjured up visions of unwashed majors conspicuously absurd in toeless boots, of fat colonels forced to make merry on dead rats, of field-marshals surprised by the enemy in their nightshirts, and of common soldiers driven to repair their own clothes and preposterously at work on women's tasks. She adored the clergy for their pious humours, the bench for its delicious attempts at dignity, the bar for its grotesque travesties of passionate conviction—lies with their wigs on—the world political for its intrigues dressed up in patriotism. A Lord Chancellor in full state seemed to her the most delightfully ridiculous phenomenon in a delightfully ridiculous universe. And she had once been obliged to make a convulsive exit from an English cathedral, in which one hundred colonial bishops were singing a solemn hymn, entirely devastated by the laughter waked in her by this most sacred spectacle.
Miss Burns, who hurried in breathlessly ten minutes late, was very thin, badly dressed and insignificant-looking, wore her hair short, and could not see you if you were more than four feet away from her. She had been on various lonely and distant travelling excursions, about which she had written books, had consorted merrily with naked savages, sat in the oily huts of Esquimaux, and penetrated into the interior of China dressed as a man. Her lack of affectation hit you in the face on a first meeting, and her sincerity was perpetually embroiling her with the persistent liars who, massed together, formed what is called decent society.
"I know I'm late," she said, pushing her round black hat askew on her shaggy little head. "I know I've kept you all waiting. Pardon!"
"Indeed you haven't," replied Mrs. Wolfstein. "Pimpernel Schley isn't here yet. She lives in the hotel, so of course she'll turn up last."
Mrs. Trent put one hand on her hip and stared insolently at the various groups of people in the court, Lady Cardington sighed, and Lady Holme assumed a vacant look, which suited her mental attitude at the moment. She generally began to feel rather vacant if she were long alone with women.
Another ten minutes passed.
"I'm famishing," said Sally Perceval. "I've been at the Bath Club diving, and I do so want my grub. Let's skip in."
"It really is too bad—oh, here she comes!" said Mrs. Wolfstein.
Many heads in the Palm Court were turned towards the stairs, down which a demure figure was walking with extreme slowness. The big young man with the round face got up from his chair and looked greedy, and the waiters standing by the desk just inside the door glanced round, whispered, and smiled quickly before gliding off to their different little tables.
Pimpernel Schley was alone, but she moved as if she were leading a quiet procession of vestal virgins. She was dressed in white, with a black velvet band round her tiny waist and a large black hat. Her shining, straw-coloured hair was fluffed out with a sort of ostentatious innocence on either side of a broad parting, and she kept her round chin tucked well in as she made what was certainly an effective entrance. Her arms hung down at her sides, and in one hand she carried a black fan. She wore no gloves, and many diamond rings glittered on her small fingers, the rosy nails of which were trimmed into points. As she drew near to Mrs. Wolfstein's party she walked slower and slower, as if she felt that she was arriving at a destination much too soon.
Lady Holme watched her as she approached, examined her with that piercing scrutiny in which the soul of one woman is thrust out, like a spear, towards the soul of another. She noticed at once that Miss Schley resembled her, had something of her charm of fairness. It was a fainter, more virginal charm than hers. The colouring of hair and eyes was lighter. The complexion was a more dead, less warm, white. But there was certainly a resemblance. Miss Schley was almost exactly her height, too, and—
Lady Holme glanced swiftly round the Palm Court. Of all the women gathered there Pimpernel Schley and herself were nearest akin in appearance.
As she recognised this fact Lady Holme felt hostile to Miss Schley.
Not until the latter was almost touching her hostess did she lift her eyes from the ground. Then she stood still, looked up calmly, and said, in a drawling and infantine voice:
"I had to see my trunks unpacked, but I was bound to be on time. I wouldn't have come down to-day for any soul in the world but you. I would not."
It was a pretty speaking voice, clear and youthful, with a choir-boyish sound in it, and remarkably free from nasal twang, but it was not a lady's voice. It sounded like the frontispiece of a summer number become articulate.
Mrs. Wolfstein began to introduce Miss Schley to her guests, none of whom, it seemed, knew her. She bowed to each of them, still with the vestal virgin air, and said, "Glad to know you!" to each in turn without looking at anyone. Then Mrs. Wolfstein led the way into the restaurant.
Everyone looked at the party of women as they came in and ranged themselves round a table in the middle of the big room. Lady Cardington sat on one side of Mrs. Wolfstein and Lady Holme on the other, between her and Mrs. Trent. Miss Schley was exactly opposite. She kept her eyes eternally cast down like a nun at Benediction. All the quite young men who could see her were looking at her with keen interest, and two or three of them—probably up from Sandhurst—had already assumed expressions calculated to alarm modesty. Others looked mournfully fatuous, as if suddenly a prey to lasting and romantic grief. The older men were more impartial in their observation of Mrs. Wolfstein's guests. And all the women, without exception, fixed their eyes upon Lady Holme's hat.
Lady Cardington, who seemed oppressed by grief, said to Mrs. Wolfstein:
"Did you see that article in the Daily Mail this morning?"
"On the suggestion to found a school in which the only thing to be taught would be happiness."
"Who's going to be the teacher?"
"Some man. I forget the name."
"A man!" said Mrs. Trent, in a slow, veiled contralto voice. "Why, men are always furious if they think we have any pleasure which they can't deprive us of at a minute's notice. A man is the last two-legged thing to be a happiness teacher."
"Whom would you have then?" said Lady Cardington.
"Nobody, or a child."
"Of which sex?" said Mrs. Wolfstein.
"The sex of a child," replied Mrs. Trent.
Mrs. Wolfstein laughed rather loudly.
"I think children are the most greedy, unsatisfied individuals in—" she began.
"I was not alluding to Curzon Street children," observed Mrs. Trent, interrupting. "When I speak in general terms of anything I always except London."
"Why?" said Sally Perceval.
"Because it's no more natural, no more central, no more in line with the truth of things than you are, Sally."
"But, my dear, you surely aren't a belated follower of Tolstoi!" cried Mrs. Wolfstein. "You don't want us all to live like day labourers."
"I don't want anybody to do anything, but if happiness is to be taught it must not be by a man or by a Londoner."
"I had no idea you had been caught by the cult of simplicity," said Mrs. Wolfstein. "But you are so clever. You reveal your dislikes but conceal your preferences. Most women think that if they only conceal their dislikes they are quite perfectly subtle."
"Subtle people are delicious," said Lady Manby, putting her mouth on one side. "They remind me of a kleptomaniac I once knew who had a little pocket closed by a flap let into the front of her gown. When she dined out she filled it with scraps. Once she dined with us and I saw her, when she thought no one was watching, peppering her pocket with cayenne, and looking so delightfully sly and thieving. Subtle people are always peppering their little pockets and thinking nobody sees them."
"And lots of people don't," said Mrs. Wolfstein.
"The vices are divinely comic," continued Lady Manby, looking every moment more like a teapot. "I think it's such a mercy. Fancy what a lot of fun we should lose if there were no drunkards, for instance!"
Lady Cardington looked shocked.
"The virtues are often more comic than the vices," said Mrs. Trent, with calm authority. "Dramatists know that. Think of the dozens of good farces whose foundation is supreme respectability in contact with the wicked world."
"I didn't know anyone called respectability a virtue," cried Sally Perceval.
"Oh, all the English do in their hearts," said Mrs. Wolfstein. "Pimpernel, are you Yankees as bad?"
Miss Schley was eating sole a la Colbert with her eyes on her plate. She ate very slowly and took tiny morsels. Now she looked up.
"We're pretty respectable over in America, I suppose," she drawled. "Why not? What harm does it do anyway?"
"Well, it limits the inventive faculties for one thing. If one is strictly respectable life is plain sailing."
"Oh, life is never that," said Mrs. Trent, "for women."
Lady Cardington seemed touched by this remark.
"Never, never," she said in her curious voice—a voice in which tears seemed for ever to be lingering. "We women are always near the rocks."
"Or on them," said Mrs. Trent, thinking doubtless of the two husbands she had divorced.
"I like a good shipwreck," exclaimed Miss Burns in a loud tenor voice. "I was in two before I was thirty, one off Hayti and one off Java, and I enjoyed them both thoroughly. They wake folks up and make them show their mettle."
"It's always dangerous to speak figuratively if she's anywhere about," murmured Mrs. Wolfstein to Lady Holme. "She'll talk about lowering boats and life-preservers now till the end of lunch."
Lady Holme started. She had not been listening to the conversation but had been looking at Miss Schley. She had noticed instantly the effect created in the room by the actress's presence in it. The magic of a name flits, like a migratory bird, across the Atlantic. Numbers of the youthful loungers of London had been waiting impatiently during the last weeks for the arrival of this pale and demure star. Now that she had come their interest in her was keen. Her peculiar reputation for ingeniously tricking Mrs. Bowdler, secretary to Mrs. Grundy, rendered her very piquant, and this piquancy was increased by her ostentatiously vestal appearance.