by E.F. Benson

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Chapter IV

There was a mad brutality of discordant noise, and the risen curtain disclosed an astrologer. He roared and yelled, and soon a dishevelled female, in an advanced stage of corruption, shrieked back at him. Silvia found herself disliking the Wagner noise, and her attention came closer home; came, in fact, to the quarter-view of Peter’s face, as he sat low in his chair in order to give her a clear view of Klingsor. She was not sure that she liked Peter any better than the hurly-burly that was going on, and though she knew she had been liking him during the interval between the acts, she now seriously set herself to the task of disliking him, and the easiest method of achieving that result was to class him as just one of the crowd which had come that night to occupy, by request, her mother’s two boxes. She perfectly understood the situation: Lady Thirlmere, the woman with the pearls and the blue-black hair, had told a lot of her friends that they could go to see Parsifal for nothing, and reap a quantity of subsequent benefits at the price of knowing Mrs. Wardour, of frequenting her house, and of permitting her to eddy round in the general whirlpool. For some reason, inscrutable to Silvia, her mother wanted that; she and her mother, in fact, were like a pill, which Lady Thirlmere had guaranteed that the world should swallow. The pill was nobly gilded, and there was any amount of jam to assist the swallowing of it.

Without doubt Peter was one of the open mouths.{64}

Klingsor and Kundry continued to rave at each other, and so far from listening, Silvia used that external noise to drive her own thought into seclusion; much as a dull sermon, a tedious lecture, makes for introspection in the audience. And hardly had she classed Peter among the open mouths than she wondered if she had been quite fair in doing so, for the talk they had had was not of the same timbre as the conventional quackings which for the last week had made her mother’s house like a farmyard, with her, like Mrs. Bond of the nursery rhyme, calling “Dilly, dilly ... you shall be stuffed,” and stuffed they were. Silvia could no more enter with sympathy into her mother’s aims than she could enter with sympathy into stamp-collecting; but out of love for the stamp-collector—the dear, weary, steadfast stamp-collector—she was eager to feel the highest possible interest in the collection and collect for her with all her might. But she knew that she despised the spirit of the stamps, which, in return for food and drink and opera-boxes, were so willing to be collected. Next week there was to be a dance “for her,” in that immense mansion which had been re-christened Wardour House, and pages of the stamp-book would on that occasion be filled with adhesive specimens. “Everybody,” so she understood Ella Thirlmere to say, would come, and no doubt it would be tremendous fun....

There were certainly some stamps here now. Lord Charles was one, though why had he been willing to be collected? He sat with his head propped between two long hands, and a queer sort of nose, just protruding, indicated by its downward angle that he was profoundly meditating. Next him was her mother, whose pearls clinked rhythmically to her{65} breathing, and nearest to herself she could see the half-averted profile of the young man whom she was encouraging herself to dislike. He appeared to be looking at the stage; certainly he was paying no attention to her, and she got back to what she actually thought of him, instead of forcing herself into a defensive attitude against him. Somehow they seemed (not that it mattered) to have been talking to each other from odd standpoints. When, ridiculously interested for the moment, she had asked him what men “felt,” he had not given a masculine answer. He had spoken to her as if he had been a girl; he had said that men were as vain as peacocks, and thought of women as an inferior sex, designed for their amusement. Very likely that was quite true; but now in this isolation of darkness and loud noises, which cut her off from him and everyone else in the box, it seemed to her to have required a woman to state that. That was a woman’s view of a man; a man, though he shared it, could scarcely have said it. Instead, he would have told her that women were the angelic sex, meant to be adored....

Some violent concussion had occurred on the stage; there was no longer a gloomy black man with a photographic lens, but some insane sort of flower-bed; and remembering her programme, she recollected that this was the enchanted garden. The enchantment seemed to lie in a quantity of prodigious calico or cardboard flowers. Presently they burst. If they had not burst they must have burst, for mature females, singing loudly, were hatched out of the centre of each. The change had awakened Charlie, and he opened his mouth very wide.

“My dear, what unspeakable wenches!” he said loudly to Mrs. Trentham.{66}

“Silvia, look at the flower-maidens,” said her mother. “They all came out of the flowers. Was not that wonderful? Look at the one from the blue convolvulus! Isn’t she sweet?”

Silvia choked a laugh with an audible effort, swallowing it whole.

“Yes, darling,” she said. “Aren’t they pretty?”

Peter turned to her quickly.

“Oh, that’s just how I talk to my father!” he said, and instantly looked back at the stage again.

She reconsidered her verdict of him as merely belonging to the open mouths which Lady Thirlmere showered on her mother. They, at any rate, did not behave in that unwarranted way. Her neighbour was ill-bred, odious, familiar, and having thrown an impertinence like that over his shoulder, he did not even wait for her rejoinder. What it would have been she did not quite know. But ... was it impertinent of him after all? Was it, perhaps, rather a pleasant indication of intimacy? For intimacy, in the ordinary sense, there had not been time or opportunity; but had he, perhaps, just spoken quite naturally, assuming a corresponding naturalness on her part?

If so, she had failed him....

Silvia was annoyed with herself for such a suggestion. How could she have “failed” a young man whom she had seen for the first time half an hour ago, who was only one specimen out of that flock of rooks which had alighted there in this new field, where worms were to be had for the mere picking of them up....

There was a long interval at the end of this second act, and a reseating of the occupants of the two boxes.{67} Lord Poole, whom Mrs. Wardour’s godmother had chosen as a genial acquaintance, came in with his great towering frame and his immense red face and his unlimited capacity for enjoying himself.

“Lucky dog, Parsifal,” he remarked to Silvia, “to have had all those girls to choose from. He should have taken the one that came out of that great white lily. My word, she did surprise me when she came out of that lily. I wish I knew where I could get some of those lilies. Hallo, Peter! Get out of that chair like a good boy, and let me sit between Miss Silvia and her mother. Haven’t had a word with either of them yet. Go and make love to my wife for ten minutes; you’ll find her next door, and come back and tell me how you’ve been getting on.”

When this great licensed victualler of London appeared on the scene and made some such suggestion, it was usual to go and do as he told you. But now Peter glanced at the girl as if to ask whether she wished him to make way or not. She gave him no sign, however, no hint that he was to stop where he was, and so the best thing, as his cool, quick brain told him, was to answer Lord Poole genially according to his folly.

“You condone it, then,” he said.

“Lord, yes, I condone anything,” he said. “We all condone everything nowadays. Saves a lot of trouble in the courts.”

The frankness of these odious sentiments made it quite impossible not to treat them as a farce. No one in his senses took Lord Poole seriously; he was so jolly and so preposterous, and so successfully sought safety in numbers. Fie instantly spread himself over Peter’s chair and firmly put one arm round Silvia’s waist and the other round her mother’s.{68}

“Nice young fellow that,” he observed as Peter went out of the box. “What a pair he and Miss Silvia make, hey? He’s black and she’s fair, and he’s a clever fellow and won’t have a penny, and I wish I was his age. Do you know his father? He’s a rum ’un.”

These remarkable statements were addressed in a loud, hoarse whisper to Mrs. Wardour, and were, of course, perfectly audible to Silvia. Then he turned to the girl.

“I’ve been asking your mother to elope with me,” he said, “so I hope you didn’t overhear. Now I’m going to talk to you and she mustn’t listen. You’re perfectly delicious, my dear, you and your golden hair, and that little foot that’s kicking me. Let it go on kicking; I like it. Wonder how Peter’s getting on with my missus. Peep round the corner, Miss Silvia, and see if she looks like going off with him. There are several topping girls in that box, but she’s the pick of them, bless her heart. What! Here’s your mother getting up and leaving me. More friends coming in! I never saw such a lot of friends. Why, it’s Ella! I’m in luck to-night. And there’s May Trentham only one chair away. Look at her profile against the light. Did you ever see anything so perfect? Looks rather like the head on a postage-stamp, but don’t say I said so.”

Lord Poole was now satisfactorily engaged in his usual evening occupation of getting as many girls and pretty women round him as possible, while Mrs. Trentham was performing a similar office with regard to every young man who came into the box. Her pansy face was growing sillier than ever as she kept telling them all to go and talk to somebody else. The object of these two middle-aged magnets was{69} precisely similar: one wanted to attract to itself all the men, the other all the women; but there was an infinite divergence in their methods. May Trentham, pretending to be young, kept asserting how old she was; Lord Poole, pretending to be old, could not conceal the fact of how young, he was. He, again, was not thinking one atom about himself, but was entirely absorbed in his collection of sirens; she was thinking exclusively about herself, and was only anxious that every one in the house should turn green with envy at her galaxy of adorers.... Then Ella Thirlmere and a friend or two joined the group, and he returned blatantly, fatuously, delightfully to the opera.

“Well, now, I do feel like Parsifal,” he said. “Here I am in the middle of such flower-maidens, any of whom could give a couple of furlongs in a mile to those on the stage and come romping home in a canter. Look at Ella now: there’s a picture for you! Why, my gracious, here’s Winifred, too! Come and tell us all about it, Winifred; how many hearts, not reckoning mine, have you broken to-ight? Look at that hair of hers! Did anybody ever see hair like that? I never did, and I’ve seen a lot in my time. May Trentham, too! Do you wonder that all the young men go swarming round her? I’m sure I don’t, and I’d join the swarm myself if I wasn’t so blissfully situated just where I am. Haven’t enjoyed an evening so much for years. Wish this interval would last till Doomsday, and then we’d all go up to heaven together! St. Peter would let me in without a question when he saw whom I’d brought along with me.”

Among the people who had drifted in at the end of the act was Philip Beaumont, whom Mrs. Trent{70}ham had instantly rendered adhesive by her voluble commands to go back to Nellie Heaton at once. Nellie, however, had very designedly sent him here, for she had become aware by a glimpse, a sound (an instinct, perhaps even more) that Peter was in the box next door, and her dispatch of her lover there would certainly signify to Peter that she wished him to take the chair now vacant by her and resume the talk in the window that had taken place that afternoon. Somehow that talk had made for itself an anchorage uncomfortable to her consciousness; it had been like a fishbone in her throat. She had taken gulps of her fiancé, so to speak, in order to dislodge it; but she had not succeeded in swallowing it. She had tried to divert her attention from it; had pounced with fixed claws on the opera in front of her; had jotted down in her memory, with the fell example of Lady Poole as an object-lesson, a quantity of ways of behaviour and of the presentation of yourself to others which were undesirable when you were fifty or seventy or whatever Lady Poole happened to be. You must be quiet and calm when you had tottered up to those hoary altitudes; you must leave your hair to turn any colour it chose.... You mustn’t wriggle and snort, for whereas wriggling in the young might exhibit (quite advantageously) a graceful litheness, it suggested in the old that a galvanic battery had been unexpectedly applied to the knees and the elbows and the middle part of the person. But there was something remote about these gleanings of knowledge; they might prove to be nutritious (and possibly palatable) if preserved and remembered for thirty or forty years; at the present moment they were not of sufficiently arresting a quality to divert her mind from this fishbone of her interview with{71} Peter.... There had been a harshness, a crudity in it; there had been, to her mind, a certain hostility in it; there had been also a certain hunger in it, an emptiness that ached. He had clearly pronounced that their relationship—the bond, in fact, of which she had spoken—must be changed by her engagement, and, though she would have combated that with wit and good sense, some internal fibre of her throbbed, vibrated to the truth of it. She wanted to convince Peter (and even more to convince herself) that the old bond, the old relationship, still flowered and had lost no petal of its fragrance.

She had not to wait long for his entry; Philip had barely left the box before Peter appeared in the doorway, and she applauded his quickness in answering the signal she had waved to him in the ejection of the other. He was silhouetted there for a moment as he spoke to someone in the corridor outside, cool and crisp and complete. Peter was always like that; nature had applied to him some extra polish, some exquisite finish, which detached him from all others in the moist or dusty crowd. Adorable though that was, the thought came to the girl that, above all else, she wanted to disturb and disarrange that. Peter excited and dishevelled. Peter enthusiastic. Peter undetached and clinging was perhaps the real Peter.... A clamorous, turbulent Peter....

He looked round as he entered; he clearly saw her, and as clearly disregarded the obvious movement of her hand to the vacant seat which Philip had just quitted. Though that rejection—that “cut” you might call it, considering their friendship—was in no way premeditated, it was, when he saw Nellie beckoning as with proprietorship, or so it struck him, quite deliberate. He had given no thought to{72} it before, and apparently gave no further thought now, for he instantly placed himself next Lady Poole, beside whom there was another empty seat. There was a great green feather nodding a welcome from her violent hair; it matched her green shoes and the large slabs of false emerald with which her dress was hazardously held together. She was quite as absurd as her husband, and had a witty poison under her tongue, which she sprayed profusely over most subjects of discussion. But her poison hurt nobody, since nobody ever believed a word she said. She was, in fact, as harmless as a serpent, and certainly not as wise as a dove.

The serpent aspect showed its innocuous fangs.

“Monster,” she said to Peter. “Sit down and tell me at once what’s going on next door. Whom’s my Christopher flirting with?”

“Everybody,” said Peter. “He sent me away to flirt with you. Let’s begin. Shall I begin? Tell me why you and he should always remain young when all the rest of us are as old as the hills.”

The wisdom of the mature dove peeped out for a moment, but was driven back by a hiss of the serpent, as a loud squeal of laughter sounded from the next box.

“That’s May Trentham,” said Lady Poole unerringly. “My dear, what a woman! Why do all you young men crowd round her like moths round a night-light. Whom has she got?”

“The rest of the males,” said Peter. “Male and female, you know——”

“Stuff and nonsense. There are people who are things! Look at our hostess, whom Christopher is probably embracing at this moment. I assure you she hasn’t got a face; she’s got a slab. What are{73} we coming to? Then there’s her daughter. She’s a boy; a nice, handsome, healthy boy, doing well. I wish my son was like her. Do you know him? He’s like a pincushion.”

Peter was not actively listening to these extraordinary remarks; he was taking in and assimilating just what he had done in not occupying the place indicated to him by Nellie. He came to the conclusion that he had not done so precisely because she intended him to. She was meaning to get on perfectly well without him, and had better begin at once.

“Why pincushion?” he asked.

“Because I put pins into him whenever I see him, which isn’t often, and he just sits there and keeps my pins. He doesn’t mind; he doesn’t bleed. He’s nothing at all, poor wretch. I beg him to steal or bear false witness or break any commandment that comes handy so long as he does something. He eats chocolate and trims hats. I shall have no pins left soon.

“Never mind Eddy! But what a horrible opera; must have been written by an organist in collaboration with a choirboy. I wonder if Christopher is in the next box at all. I expect he’s gone behind to scrape acquaintance with some flower-maiden—probably that voluptuous crone who came out of a large white lily, though how she got into it originally is more than I can say, because she was bigger than anything I ever saw. If only Eddy would do that sort of thing: so much more suitable. Anæmic; that’s what you all are. The women aren’t quite so bad as the men. I know personally five grandmothers who have married again in the last fortnight. But the grandmothers who continue optimistically marrying will die in time, and what’s going to happen to England{74} then? What’s the use of saying ‘emigration,’ when there won’t be anybody to emigrate?”

“I didn’t say ‘emigration,’” said Peter, with his head whirling. This sort of speech was characteristic of Lady Poole. She dashed pictures on to a screen like a magic lantern, and took them off again before you had seen them, leaving darkness and the smell of oil.

“May Trentham, too,” said this amazing lady. “I hear you’ve been dining with her. She would like every boy in the kingdom to remain celibate for her antiquated sake. I will say for Christopher that he doesn’t want that. He would like every woman to do just the opposite.... Good gracious, here’s another act and I thought it was all over and that we were only waiting for our motors. Come and see me to-morrow. Any time, I’m always at home. Where is one to go in these days? Profiteers and Bolshevists and Jews! That’s England; mark my words!”

Peter groped his way out of the box in the sudden eclipse of the lights, sidling by others who were tip-toeing back again, without any response to Nellie’s signal. He knew quite well that there was an unoccupied seat next her, and that it would have been the most natural thing in the world for him to have appropriated it; but he chose to consider that it was more suitable yet that Philip should find his way back to it. She had given him the right to be there, and Peter, with a tinge of insincerity, told himself that he was behaving with extreme correctness in not occupying it; the insincerity lying in the fact that his root-reason for going back to the other box being that he was determined that Nellie should not have everything quite her own way.{75}

Then again—another reason for behaving so properly—she had said herself that afternoon that she meant to fit herself to the conventional mould, and here was he helping to secure a perfect fit. No doubt she was right; she was right also in divining that the nature of the bond between them must now necessarily be changed. It had never been a passionate one; their individual independence, no less than the material obstacles in the way of declared and complete surrender to each other, had always stood between them; but there seemed, now that the bond was slackened, to have been potential passion woven into it. Perhaps the slight collision with Philip in the doorway, and the knowledge that he was groping his way back to the chair by Nellie again, accentuated that perception. For a moment Peter paused; he had yet just time to slide past Philip and occupy the chair; but there seemed to glimmer in the seat of it some label “Reserved,” and he checked his impulse. No doubt he would resume natural relations with Nellie again to-morrow, or probably even to-night in the dance—or two dances, was it?—where they would be sure to meet, and a certain subtle antagonism which had begun to smoke and smoulder within him would be quenched. He left it, for the present, at that.

For three or four hours more that night, after the conclusion of the opera, Sivia found herself in touch with one or other of the guests who had so agreeably and with so little ceremony decorated the fronts of her mother’s boxes. They seemed just as much at home in Lady Thirlmere’s house, taking genial possession of it, dancing to her band, drinking her champagne in the same clubable manner. Lord Poole was greatly in evidence, surrounding himself{76} with the gay moths that positively stuck in the spiced honey of his outrageous compliments and could scarcely disentangle their feet therefrom. He squeezed their hands, he put his arm round their waists, he made the most amazing speeches right and left as to their irresistibility. He was like some mirror into which every woman looked and saw there a fascinating reflection of herself, that presented an image of herself more delicious than, even when trying on a new hat, she had ever supposed herself to be. “What’s to happen to us poor men,” he asked Silvia, “if you’re all of you going on being so tip-top? We shan’t do a stroke more work; we shall spend all our time in looking at you, and then who’s to pay your bills? I’ve lost my heart twenty times already to-night, and that’s enough for an old chap like me, so I shall take myself off to bed. Where’s my wife, I wonder? Can your bright eyes pick out any extra dense crowd of young men? If you can, I shall plunge straight into them, like taking a dive after a pearl-oyster, and I’ll find her right in the very middle of them.”

There seemed to be an unusual congregation at the end of the drawing-room, which opened on to the dancing floor, and Lord Poole accordingly took his dive. Silvia could see, as the waves of black coats and white shirts split up round him, that it was Mrs. Trentham who was the pearl-oyster just there; but the dive must have been satisfactory, for Lord Poole disappeared fathoms deep.

Silvia began to revise her judgment on the nonchalant greed of the mouths that flocked to be fed. Everyone was so gay and pleasant, so intent on laughter and amusement; everyone knew everyone else. She had done no more than set eyes on a young{77} man who had come in with Mrs. Trentham to her mother’s box, but Tommy confidently claimed her as an old friend, and she stalked and slid about the floor with him. At the conclusion of that a girl whom she remembered with even mistier vagueness disentangled herself from another young man (the one who had slept so quietly and cried out so audibly at the appearance of the flower-maiden) and ejected Tommy from the seat next Silvia. She was entrancingly pretty in some wild, dewy manner, and had all the assurance that the knowledge of a delightful appearance gives its possessor.

“I haven’t had a word with you all the evening,” she said, “and I want to tell you how delicious it was of your mother to let me come to her box. I saw you round the edge of the curtain talking to Peter. He raves about you; so, as I wanted to rave too, I—well, here I am. Don’t send me away.”

Silvia was utterly unaccustomed to exercise any critical faculty where friendliness seemed to be offered. There were no outlying forts to her heart, no challenging sentries; if a girl seemed to like her, that was passport enough. Who this was she could not for the moment remember, though doubtless her name was among those which her mother had repeated as being occupant next door. Then the name, Nellie Heaton, found a lodging in her mind and seemed secure. She was not sure that she liked the information that Peter was “raving” about her; but it was surely friendliness, the desire to be pleasant, that had prompted the retailing of it to her.

“You must be Miss Heaton,” she said. “Am I right? There were so many new faces to-night, you know....”

She looked at Nellie with that direct gaze that sought only to appreciate. There was certainly a great deal to appreciate: the girl was dazzlingly pretty.

Nellie laughed.

“Yes; I suppose I am Miss Heaton for the present,” she said.

A little more of her mother’s commentaries came into Silvia’s mind. Had there not been a man in the next box—name missing for the moment—to whom Miss Heaton was engaged? Perhaps her phrase, “for the present,” alluded to that.

“Ah, I’m beginning to remember,” she said. “I remember that you are soon to be married. I hope you’ll be tremendously happy.”

“That’s dear of you,” said Nellie. “But when I said I was Miss Heaton for the present, I didn’t quite mean that.”

Silvia, with all her friendliness, shrank ever so slightly from this. There was a certain reserve about her which did not quite allow the indicated response. But the welcome of her manner was not abated.

“Do be kind and sort out all these nice people for me,” she said. “I have grasped Lord Poole, and isn’t it Mr. Mainwaring who is Peter? He sat next me for an act. All the Christian names are a little puzzling at first. Then there’s Tommy; I haven’t the slightest idea what his surname is, though I shall know him again, because I danced with him just now. And there’s Lord Charles, who went to sleep—I shall know him again——”

“And won’t you know Peter again?” asked Nellie. “That’s one for Peter.”

“Oh, but I shall,” said Silvia. “He’s——”

The two were sitting close to the door into the ballroom, and at that moment Peter passed in front{79} of them talking to a girl. He just glanced at them, I took them both in, and melted into the crowd.

“Yes; that’s Mr. Mainwaring,” said Silvia confidently. “I—I liked him. Don’t you like him?”

Nellie made a little sideways, bird-like movement of her head. Out of her changed relations with Peter she felt that something like antagonism had minutely sprouted. She wanted ... yes, she would give an answer that would seem wholly appreciative of Peter, and that would yet contain something that Silvia possibly (just possibly) would not like.

“Dear Peter!” she said. “Of course, we’re all devoted to Peter. It’s the fashion to be devoted to Peter.”


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