by E.F. Benson

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Chapter III

Peter’s dinner at the Ritz was no dinner-party, and there were but three young men, of whom he was one, and their hostess who assembled in the Yawning-place. People always yawned there; they were either waiting for somebody to come, or they were waiting for somebody to go away....

His hostess to-night was the perennial Mrs. Trentham, with whom a party of herself and three young men was a favourite form of entertainment. She always professed a coquettish contrition at not having been able to get some girls to meet her young men—which, indeed, she had been quite wonderfully unable to do, since it never occurred to her to take the preliminary step of asking them, and no nice girl would come to dine with Mrs. Trentham without being asked. So the girls, not being asked, stayed away, and Mrs. Trentham apologized.

She was considerably older than the rest of her youthful assemblage; but she looked almost as young as any of them, and might charitably have been supposed to be a sister, or a wife, or something. She had only one real passion in her excited life, and that was to dine as publicly as possible with several young men, sending her husband, to his great contentment, to amuse himself comfortably at his club. There he talked politics and played Bridge, and the very number of these public entertainments on the part of his wife, and the diversity of the youths who partook of them, were guarantee against any{43} breath of scandal sullying herself or anybody else. With perfect justice, nobody believed anything against her; yet this delightful immunity from gossip rather annoyed her. But, in order to give colour to compromise, she would have been obliged to descend to duets in quiet corners, which would have been no fun at all. The loss of publicity, the loss, too, of the pleasing phenomenon that batch after batch of young men, in groups of two or three, so constantly accompanied her to one of the most strategic tables at the Ritz, would not have been compensated for by the added chance of scandalous talkings. After all, London was not so violently likely to care what she did, especially since she did not care either, and it was far more agreeable to continue doing what she liked rather than gain an entirely spurious loss of reputation by less enjoyable methods. She had a pleasant, prurient mind, and her morals were beyond reproach. She called attention to her age, when she was with the young, in a somewhat excessive manner, and often alluded to her beautiful hair, which had been grey before she was thirty. “Such an old woman as me,” was an ungrammatical phrase which she often affected, and this was a preventive measure against anybody else thinking of such a thing. Her favourite subject of conversation was love.

Mrs. Trentham was not really quite so silly as she sounded, though her immense sprightliness often seemed to plunge her into the nethermost depths of fatuousness. During the war she had taken to dressing in the uniform of a nurse, which she discovered suited her, though, for fear of witnessing distressing sights, she kept well away from hospitals; since then, having realized the decorative value of black and{44} white, she had adopted a garb which seemed to indicate that she was a widow, though not quite recently bereaved. An occasional bright note of colour in her hair or round her charming waist seemed to have forgotten about her widowhood and was extremely becoming.... So garbed, so minded, she awaited Peter, who was the last of her conspicuous party of young men. He was certainly late for her appointed hour, but she did not dislike that as the Yawning-place was full, and, instead of scolding him, she had her usual apologetic greetings volubly ready.

“My dear, you will be furious with me, I know,” she said, “but I simply couldn’t get hold of any girls, so you and Charlie and Tommy will just have to put up with an old woman until we go to the opera, and then you will breathe loud sighs of relief, and I shall see you no more. Why are you so late, Peter? Whom have you been flirting with?”

“My father and my mother,” said Peter. “He has just finished the largest picture in the world.”

“How sweet of him! Ah, they have brought some cocktails at last.”

She waited till the servant was well out of hearing.

“But how stupid the waiter is,” she said. “I am sure I told him to bring three not four. Shall I taste it? Shall I like it, do you think?”

It seemed not too optimistic to hope that she would, for, otherwise, she would long ago have ceased not only tasting the fourth cocktail which she was sure she had not ordered, but consuming it so completely that the strip of lemon-peel overbalanced against the tip of her pretty nose.

“My dear, how strong!” she exclaimed. “I feel perfectly tipsy, and one of you must give me your arm, as if you were a nephew or something if I{45} stagger or reel. Let us go in to dinner at once. I promised Ella we would get to Mrs. Wardour’s box by the beginning of the opera.”

“Who is Mrs. Wardour?” asked Charlie Harman.

“Oh, quite new,” said Mrs. Trentham. “Hardly anyone has seen her yet. Rich, fabulously rich. Her husband was one of the hugest profiteers—not eggs at fourpence, but steamers at a quarter of a million. He bought up everything that floats and sold it to the Government, and most of it got sunk. He died a couple of years ago. Too sad.”

“More about her, please,” said Peter.

“I haven’t seen her yet, my dear, but Ella Thirlmere is being her godmother—sponsor, you know—and she asked me to take people to her box and her dinners and her dances. Her name’s Lucy: it would be. I shall begin by calling her Lucy almost immediately. There’s no time nowadays to get to know people. You have to pretend to know them intimately almost the moment you set eyes on them.”

“And pretend not to know them afterwards, if necessary,” said Peter.

May Trentham gave a hasty glance round the room and, becoming aware that quite a sufficient number of people were looking at her and her party, slapped the back of Peter’s hand with the tips of her fingers, and gave a scream of laughter to show what a tremendously amusing time she was having.

“You naughty boy!” she said. “Is he not cynical about Lucy? I shan’t talk to you any more. Tommy, my dear, tell me what you’ve been doing. You look flushed. I believe you’re in love.”

“No. I’ve been playing squash,” said Tommy.

“What is squash? I believe it’s one of your{46} horrid new words and means flirting. Who is she?”

“She is Charlie. At least, I was playing squash with Charlie,” said Tommy, with laborious precision. “He didn’t like it.”

Charlie fingered two little tails of blond hair that grew directly below his nostrils and formed his moustache. Otherwise his face was completely feminine—plain and pink and plump. He gesticulated a good deal with his hands, flapping and dabbing with them.

“Odious game,” he said, showing a great many teeth between his red lips. “You go on hitting a ball against a putrid wall until you’re too tired to hit it any more, and then Tommy says ‘One love.’ When you’ve done that fifteen times, he says ‘Game,’ and then you begin another one. I hoped I should never hear of it again.”

“You shan’t, my dear; but don’t be such a cross-patch. I know you’re annoyed with me for not getting you some pretty girl to talk to. You must talk to Peter. He’s in disgrace with me. Oh, Peter, is it true about Nellie Heaton’s engagement?”

“Perfectly,” said Peter.

“Then why aren’t you broken-hearted? I don’t believe any of you young men have got hearts nowadays.”

“That accounts for their not being broken,” said Peter.

It was time to laugh loudly again in order to remind the rest of the diners what a brilliant time she was having, and May Trentham did this.

“There he goes again!” she said. “Is he not shocking? My dear, have you had a dreadful scene with her?{47}”

“No. I only had tea with her.”

“Oh, don’t pretend you weren’t desperately in love with her. But never mind. I will find some other girl for you, who will adore you so violently that you will lose your heart to her, though you say you haven’t got one. She shall be rich and lovely, and we shall all be frantically jealous of her. And you shall both call me Aunt May, because I have brought you together.”

“Thank you, Aunt May,” said Peter. “Go on about her, please.”

“No, I’ve talked to you long enough. Tommy is feeling left out. When the opera is over, by the way, I want you all to come on to Ella Thirlmere’s dance. I promised to bring you all. Mrs. Wardour is sure to be coming, and she will certainly have plenty of motor-cars to take us. Oh, there is that marvellous Spanish boxer, is it not, dining alone with Ella. How gentle and kind he looks! Darling Ella! I wonder if she will have six rounds with him in the middle of her dance. I would certainly back her: look at her chest. But how daring of her to dine with him here! They say he marries again after each of his fights and settles all the money he has won on his new wife. But, after all, I suppose it’s just as daring of me to dine with three such attractive young men as for her to dine with just one Solomon like that!”

Tommy puzzled over this for a moment. He was very good-looking, but there was no other reason for him.

“Solomon?” he asked.

“Yes, my dear; think of his wives. I was talking to Anthony Braille to-day, who makes all those wonderful tables about population, and what encourages{48} and hinders it. He said the only chance for England was to close all the music-hall bars and introduce polygamy. Every Englishman, after this dreadful war—you know I was a nurse during the war—must have fifty children a year for two years—or did he say two children a year for fifty years?—in order to bring up the population again to its proper level. It was all most interesting—if he only didn’t stutter so much!”

“He seems to have stuttered out the main facts,” said Peter.

“Oh, I couldn’t tell a young man half the things he said to me. We ought all to be Patagonians and polygamists. The birth-rate among Patagonians is colossal. They behead all women of the age of thirty-five who aren’t married, and all bachelors at the age of forty. It has something to do with eugenics.”

The intoxication of a restaurant now crowded with people had gained complete ascendancy over Peter’s hostess. She never felt quiet and contented unless she was surrounded by a host of friends, acquaintances, and people she knew by sight, and had to shout at the top of her voice in order to be heard above the roar of other conversations and the blare of a band. It was equally necessary for the establishment of this tranquil frame of mind that several young men, and, if possible, no women, should be with her, and that she should constantly be convulsed by shrieks of laughter, and should have both her elbows on the table. A finer nuance in success was that she must appear wholly absorbed in the brilliance of her own table, and quite unconscious of the hubbub round her, though presently, when she got up, she would seem to awake to the fact that she was in a crowded restaurant, and would blow kisses all over the room,{49} and have dozens of little smiles and words for all those whose position between her and the door she had unerringly noted. Just a sentence or two for each, reminding her “my dears” of a meeting to-morrow, or a meeting yesterday with a phrase of flattery and a bit of whispered scandal and the conclusion: “I must fly; those boys will be so cross with me if I keep them waiting. Meet you at dearest Ella’s? Yes? Lovely!”... All this was faithfully performed on her part, and her face, with its pretty little features all bunched together in the middle of it, like the markings in a pansy, had expanded and contracted again sufficient times before she reached the door of the restaurant to enable a weary conclave to express itself as it waited for her.

“Parsifal, too,” said Charlie. “Thank God we’ve missed the first act. Aged stunt—flower-maidens and grails. Can’t we get away, Peter? Come home with me. Say we’re busy at the F.O. German complications. Bolshevists on the Rhine.”

Tommy stood first on one leg scratching a slim calf with the other instep, and then on the other leg scratching in a corresponding manner.

“You simply can’t,” he said. “How am I to deal with her and Lucy? And Parsifal?”

“Polygamy and Patagonians,” said Peter, with a vague remembrance of the preposterous conversation that had garlanded their dinner. “Flirt, Tommy. Can you flirt? Hold hands. Sigh. Beam. Can’t you manage it?”

“No,” said Tommy.

“Then Tommy and I will go away,” said Charlie. “After all, she doesn’t want us, except as a stage crowd. She wants you most, Peter. I say, I like your studs. Who?{50}”

“Nobody. I liked them, too, so I got them. But we’ve all got to go on. After all, we’ve had dinner.”

“All the more reason for not going on,” said Charlie.

“That’s no good. It doesn’t pay. Besides, she’s awfully decent——”

“Don’t be priggish, Peter. I say, is Nellie really going to marry Philip Beaumont? Do you mind?”

This atrocious conversation was interrupted by the sprightly tripping advent of their hostess, who put her fingers in her ears, which she knew were “shell-like,” as she passed through the direct blast of the band, and consoled them for her want of appreciation of their professional functions by distributing more of her little smiles.

“Now I know you are all going to scold me,” she said, “because I’ve kept you waiting. But there were so many dears who insisted on my having a word with them. They nearly tore my frock off. Let’s all cram into one taxi, and I will sit bodkin. And after Ella’s dance we’ll all go on to Margie Clifford’s. She specially told me to bring all of you, and scold you well first for not having talked to her on your way out. I don’t know what everybody will think when I appear at the Ritz and the Opera, and two dances with the same young men. I shall have to tell my darling Bob that the Morning Post hasn’t come, or he’ll storm at me. What a lovely white lie.”

There flashed through Peter’s consciousness at that moment an insane wonder as to what would happen if he said calmly and clearly and genuinely, “My good woman, who cares? As for the compromising young men who accompany you, they are all dying to get away, and only the debt of the{51} excellent dinner you gave us, of which I reminded them, prevents us from doing so.” There was the truth of the matter, and it was all rather mean and miserable. Her guests were spending the evening with her and ministering to her hopeless delight in daring situations simply because she had, on her side, administered the nosebag. They consented, with a grudging sense of honourable engagement, to plough their way in her wake merely because she had fed them. If she had asked them severally or collectively to drop in after dinner, in the way of a friend, for conversation and soda water, none of them would have dreamed of gratifying her. And now, when they had fed deliciously at her expense, they would all have preferred to go back to Charlie’s rooms in Jermyn Street, or to Tommy’s flat (Peter’s house was handicapped by the presence of parents), rather than trail along to Parsifal, and to a dance, and yet another dance. The dances, perhaps, might be amusing, for there would be girls there, and some sitting about on stairs, and some sliding about on slippery floors, and an irresponsible atmosphere, and certainly some more champagne. You had to get through the night somehow, and nowadays you could smoke while you were dancing, and you needn’t dance much. The nuisance—rather a serious one—was that Mrs. Trentham would be there all the time, screaming and dabbing at them to show how amusing and brilliant they all were, keeping them firmly planted round her while she told them that they must go away and dance and make themselves agreeable to others rather than hang round an old woman like her, and continually whistling them back if they attempted to do anything of the sort. She would take up a position{52} where she could most advantageously be seen and heard, and get them all plastered about her, swiftly talking to each in turn, so that he could not possibly go away as long as she so volubly told him to. She had that artless art to perfection; no one had such a gift for making young men adhesive as she, while all the time she was scolding them for wasting their time on an old woman. There was no semblance of sentiment in these proceedings; the entire objective of the manœuvres was to demonstrate to the world that these boys insisted on crowding round her and not leaving her. That was her notion of a successful evening, and since they had signed their bond by eating her dinner, she managed to exact the full pound of flesh.

The curtain went down on the first act of Parsifal precisely as Mrs. Trentham led her shrill way into one of the two boxes that bore the name of Mrs. Wardour. She tripped in, all feather fan and stockings, like some elegant exotic hen, proudly conscious of the brood of most presentable chicks, though not of her rearing, which followed her. The house at that moment started into light again, and black against the oblong of brightness were the backs of two female heads, both of which turned round at the click of the opened door. One of them had a great tiara on, sitting firmly on a desert of pale sandy hair.

May Trentham advanced with both hands held out.

“My dear, how late we are,” she said. “You must scold these boys, for they kept me in such shrieks of laughter at dinner that I had no idea of the time. Dearest Ella has so often talked to me about you; always asking: ‘Haven’t I met Mrs. Wardour yet? Was it possible I had not met her great friend Lucy Wardour?’ Charmed!{53}”

In the hard light of the theatre, Mrs. Wardour’s face appeared to her to be quite flat; the shadows on it looked like dark smudges applied to the surface with a brush, rather than markings derived from projections and depressions. This apparition of a diamond-crowned oval of meaningless flesh was slightly embarrassing, and she turned to the second occupant of the box. There, in the younger face, she saw what Lucy might, perhaps, once have been like, before the years had flattened her out. Obviously this was a daughter, though Ella Thirlmere had altogether omitted to mention such a thing. Then, with her rather short-sighted eyes growing accustomed to the staring light, Mrs. Trentham observed that her first impression of her hostess’s face was an illusion, though founded on fact; just as when the figure of a man resolves itself into a hat and coat hanging on the wall. There was nothing, in fact, abnormal about Mrs. Wardour’s countenance: it was just blankish. She had large cheeks of uniform surface, a nose of small elevation, no eyebrows, and eyes set in very shallow sockets. Then another shadow came on to her face; but this time, without delay, May Trentham saw that it was her mouth opening. When she had opened it, she spoke, but she did not conduct both processes simultaneously.

“Well, I’m pleased to see you,” she said; “but there are so many friends of Lady Thirlmere—Ella, I should say; she told me always to say Ella—there are so many of Ella’s friends visiting me to-night that I don’t quite seem to know your name.”

May Trentham felt that her brain was giving way. Here was a perfectly empty box, except for Mrs. Wardour and her daughter, and yet here was Mrs. Wardour assuring her that so many friends of Ella{54} were here.... Where were the friends? Were they invisible? Was the box in reality crowded with unseen presences?...

“I’m Mrs. Trentham,” she said, clinging firmly to that sure and certain fact. “May Trentham. Ella told me you would expect me.”

Mrs. Wardour appeared to be making an effort of recollection. This, in a few moments, seemed successful.

“That’s correct,” she said. “I remember; and this is my daughter Silvia.”

For a moment her face slipped off its sheath of meaninglessness, and something homely and kindly and simple gleamed in it.

“I’ve got two boxes to-night, Mrs. Trentham,” she said. “This and the next, as Lady Thirlmere—Ella—so kindly sent along such a quantity of her friends. That’s what it is; and so Silvia and I (didn’t we, Silvia?) we left the other box, seeing that it was so full, and came in here, for, naturally, I wanted to put my guests where they could see the play, and Silvia and I, we wanted to see, too. Mrs. Trentham was it? And I’m sure I’m very glad to see you and your young friends. I should like them all to be introduced to me and Silvia.”

Charlie had hung up his hat and coat during this amazing conversation, and now came forward.

“How-de-do?” he said.

“I haven’t caught the name yet,” said Mrs. Wardour. The sheath had gone back over her face again.

“This is Lord Charles Harmer,” said Mrs. Trentham.

“Indeed. The son of the Marquis of Nairn?” asked Mrs. Wardour.

Charlie opened his mouth very wide.{55}

“Brother!” he exclaimed, as if he were saying “Murder!” on the Lyceum stage.

Tommy and Peter were less important; the latter, when the introductions were over, found himself sitting between Silvia and her mother. On the further side of Mrs. Wardour was May Trentham between the other two young men and already absorbed in identifying the occupants of boxes opposite and blowing kisses.

“There! There’s just room for all of us,” said Mrs. Wardour, “without squeezing each other. We were too squeezed in the other box, weren’t we Silvia? There’s six in the other box, and now we’re six here. Let me think; there’s Lord Poole and there’s Lady Poole. There’s Mrs. Heaton, and there’s Miss Heaton, and there’s Mr. Philip Beaumont. That’s five. Miss Heaton is engaged to Mr. Beaumont; isn’t that it, Silvia? I want to get it clear.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Peter.

“Indeed! Do you know Miss Heaton?” asked Mrs. Wardour.

“Yes, very well,” said he.

“That’s what’s so pleasant,” said she. “Just to sit here and know everybody. That’s what we want, Silvia, isn’t it? Just to sit and know everybody. But that only makes five. Who’s the other one? His name began with F, and he was very fat.”

“Perhaps that was his name,” said Peter. He was beginning to enjoy himself; the whole thing was such complete nonsense. What kept up the high level of it was that Mrs. Wardour replied with seriousness:

“No; if his name had been Fat, I should have remembered it,” she said. “It wasn’t Mr. Fat, nor{56} Lord Fat. He seemed to know everybody, too. He just sat there and knew everybody.”

From Peter’s other side, where Silvia sat, there came some little tremor of a laugh, hardly audible, and turning, he saw that her face dimpled with amusement. It was singularly sexless; the curve of her jaw, the lines of her mouth were more like a boy’s than a girl’s; boyish, too, was her sideways cross-legged attitude. If she was laughing at her mother’s remark, her amusement was clearly of the most genial kindliness.

Mrs. Wardour continued in a perfectly even voice that almost intoned the words, so void was it of inflection.

“It’s a pity your party has missed so much of the opera,” she said. “There’s been a lot of pretty music; some of it reminded me of being in church and hymns. It’ll seem quite strange going to a dance afterwards. A lot of knights singing hymns. Parsifal, you know. Some say it’s the best opera Wagner ever wrote.”

This time Silvia certainly laughed, and again her laugh had not the smallest hint of satirical enjoyment; she was just amused. Peter found himself, though he had scarcely yet glanced at her, somehow understanding her. He recognized in her amusement all that he himself failed to feel with regard to his father’s cartoons and his mother’s readings in Bradshaw. He knew intuitively that Silvia had got hold of the right way to regard absurdities; to see comedy without contempt. Whether she knew it or not (it was quite certain that she did not), she had given him a glimpse, a hint, an enlightenment, not only of what she was, but of what he was not. Looking at her now directly for the first time, his{57} handsome face caught some reflection of her boyish brightness.

“And what do you think of Parsifal?” he asked.

She raised her eyebrows.

“How can I tell?” she asked. “I never saw an opera before.”

“I envy you,” said Peter.

“Why? For not having seen one, or because I am at last seeing one?” she asked.

Peter, as usual, found himself wanting to make a good impression. If he had been in a lift with a crossing-sweeper he would certainly have tried to make the crossing-sweeper like him, and have exerted his wits to hit upon something which the crossing-sweeper would think to be admirable, even though on arriving at the next floor he would never see him again. He quickly decided now that the girl would not admire mere drivel.... She happened to want to know what he envied her for.

“For both,” he said. “For getting a new impression. That includes both. You mustn’t have seen an opera before, and you must be seeing one now.”

She looked at him with perfectly unshadowed frankness.

“I believe you meant the first,” she said. “I believe when you said you envied me, that you meant I was lucky in not having spent a quantity of boring evenings.”

“In any case, I don’t mean that now,” said Peter.

“Ah, then you did. Why do you mean it no longer?”

Peter found himself criticizing her. A conversation between the acts of an opera was not meant to degenerate into a catechism. You talked in order{58} to mask the ticking of the minutes. But as he was in for a catechism, it was better to be an agreeable candidate.

“Why?” he asked. “Because I expect that you never spend boring evenings. Probably you are not a person who is bored.”

Clearly, as he suspected, she was not going to commit herself to any statement without consideration, even when so violently trivial a subject was under discussion. Her eyebrows, much darker than the shade of her hair, like Nellie’s, pulled themselves a little downwards and inwards, so that they nearly met.

“Oh, I could easily be bored,” she said. “A lot of bored people would infect me and make me bored.”

She leaned a little forward towards him, again with that boyish appeal.

“Please don’t be bored,” she said. “Be interested and amused. Make yourself into a sort of disinfectant to protect me.”

“Is there an epidemic?” he asked.

“Yes; the place is reeking with it. My mother, for instance, detests music. Isn’t it darling of her?”

“How very odd of her, then——” he began.

He stopped because, in some emphatic, intangible way, the girl retreated from the platform of intimacy on to which she had stepped. She moved her chair an inch or two away from him, hitching it back with her foot, but that was only a symbol of her change of attitude. What to Peter made the significance of that small steering was a certain quenching of light in her face, as if, over it, she had put up some mask of herself that might easily have been mistaken for her, if the beholder had not, for a glimpse or two, seen her unmasked. She shifted from the personal{59} ground on which, for a minute, they had met, and became Miss Silvia Wardour, generalizing in small talk, in the usual imbecile and social manner. She also became much more feminine....

“I wonder how many people in the house, who have come to hear Wagner, really dislike it,” she said. “Probably we all of us like some species of noise, and dislike another species of noise. If you like the Beethoven noise, you probably dislike the Wagner noise. Only nobody will say so. They come to look at each other.”

She had carried back the conversation on to the personal platform again, as if she was sorry to have slipped off it so suddenly. But she carried it on to another part of the platform. Quite clearly she did not intend to discuss her mother’s presence at the opera.

“Tell me,” she said. “What sort of noise do you really like? This or somebody else’s?”

Peter wondered for the moment whether she was to prove to be the earnest sort of girl, who, whatever you said, insisted on discussing your random statements, until you contradicted yourself (which usually happened quite soon), and then, vouchsafing a gleam of daylight, found an explanation for them in order that you might be encouraged to entangle yourself further. The earnest girl, the inquisitorial girl; he did not like that type.... They gave you pencils and pieces of paper after dinner and made you write acrostics; they took letters out of a box and gave you eight of them, from which you had to make a word; they divided the guests up into equal numbers, told them that this was “Clumps,” and that two people were going to leave the room and guess whatever had been thought of. These were their lighter,{60} intellectual motions, and you feverishly played “Clumps” in order to avoid intolerable abstract discussions. Yet Silvia had not the sleuth-hound expression that usually accompanied these hunters after intellect.

“What a searching question,” he said. “But, really, I’m omnivorous about noises. I like the noise I’m listening to. I like it particularly.”

There was not in her face the smallest consciousness that he might conceivably be alluding to the fact that she was talking to him. She let her eyes sweep across the crowded theatre.

“That noise?” she asked. “All those people talking? I love it, too. Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting to be somebody else for a minute, and know what he meant, what he felt like when he said anything?”

Clearly she had used the masculine gender quite unconsciously. Peter’s answer, on the other hand, was deliberate.

“Yes, I should love to know what she feels like, even over the most trivial speech,” he said.

Silvia dropped on to this with a precision that only showed how complete her own unconsciousness had been.

“She?” she asked.

“Certainly ‘she,’” he said. “I know well enough the kind of thing which men feel like.”

She leaned forward again.

“Oh, tell me about that,” she said.

Certainly they were together on the personal platform again. Peter was quite at home there; his passion for making a good impression on new acquaintances, his rather uncanny skill in extracting intimacy from them, gave him a confident gait on{61} these boards. He felt that this queer, attractive girl did not in the least wish to be talked to in the ordinary, nonsensical manner. In the gabble of the ballroom, and in the more intimate duologue on the stairs outside it, girls, the generality of them, liked to be told that men thought exclusively about them, and spent their waking and sleeping moments in the contemplation of their divinity and pricelessness. Nellie, of course, was an exception, for between them there certainly was some peculiar bond of understanding; but the majority of girls, so ran his indolent and incurious creed, just wanted to be told that they were too priceless for anything, and some wanted to be kissed. It was all nonsense; they knew that as well as he did; but such was the inherited instinct, or, if you wished to be precise, the inherited instinct acting on the new conditions. But he knew that Silvia was not like that; there was some eager, friendly quality about her. She was not quite the normal girl of the ballroom; nor again, was she the earnest girl, who wanted to explore your brains and prove that you hadn’t got any. She seemed merely interested in the topic, not because it would lead to a demonstration of her cleverness.

“Men?” he said. “What do men feel? They are as vain as peacocks, and they think entirely about themselves. They think of you as an inferior sex designed to amuse them.”

“Ah, the darlings!” said Silvia, quite unexpectedly.

The great pervading brilliance of the lights went out. A row of veiled illuminations only remained in front of the red confectionery of the curtain, against which the conductor’s head was silhouetted. Silvia, after her surprising exclamation, drew her chair more{62} into the corner in order to enable Peter to pull his up to the front of the box.

“Klingsor’s Castle,” said Mrs. Wardour, with a final desperate glance at her programme. “Who is Klingsor, Silvia?”

Peter wondered whether he could whisper, “Who is Silvia?”; but decided against it.

“A magician, darling,” said Silvia, with the same underlying bubble of amusement.


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