by E.F. Benson

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Chapter VIII

Silvia was sitting in Mr. Mainwaring’s studio one Saturday afternoon, waiting, without impatience, for the arrival from the Foreign Office of Peter, with whom she was motoring down to Howes, there to spend the Sunday. Silvia was perfectly capable of humour with regard to Howes, for she called it “the family seat.” This indeed it was, since her father had bought the Norman ruin some twenty years ago, and quite unmistakably it belonged to the Wardours. He had made it habitable while Silvia was still a child, and during the war, when he became quite fabulously rich, he made it abominable also. To that period belonged the great picture gallery.

The gathering there for the week-end was, though small, a rather crucial one. It was to introduce to each other the families which would be brought into alliance over her wedding. Henry Wardour, Silvia’s uncle on her father’s side, was to be ponderously there, and his wife elegantly so. Then there was to be Aunt Joanna Darley, Mrs. Wardour’s sister, and her husband. He, Sir Abel Darley, was a round pink profiteer, who in recognition of the considerable fortune he had made for himself by overcharging the Government for millions of yards of khaki, had been made a baronet, presumably in order to stop his mouth if he felt inclined to brag over the gullible Government. Then there was Mr. Mainwaring to represent Peter’s side of the connection, but he was to sustain his part alone, since Mrs. Mainwaring, with an im{151}pregnable quietness of negation, had absolutely refused to take part in this reunion of families.

“You’ll be eight without me, Silvia,” she had said, “and eight’s a very good number. I shall stop quietly in London and think of you all enjoying yourselves.”

Silvia’s sense of humour prevented her from forming any tragic anticipations about this party, though, as she would have been perfectly willing to confess, she did not suppose that the meeting of the clans would lead to any instinctive blood-brotherhood. But Peter would be there, and she would be there, and however outrageous and incompatible the rest of them proved themselves, they would be like the heathen “furiously raging together,” but unable to disturb seriously the foundation fact of that. She trusted to her own sense of humour and to Peter’s, to enable them both to be indifferent to what happened outside their own charmed corner. Uncle Henry and Uncle Abe, and Mr. Mainwaring and Peter would form a very curious company after dinner that night, when she and her mother and Aunt Joanna and Aunt Eleanor had left them to “punish”—as Uncle Henry would undoubtedly say—the 1870 port of which he was so inordinately fond, while the ladies would form an equally inconceivable committee upstairs. But since these things were to be, there was no use in imagining impossible situations. Somehow she conjectured that Mr. Mainwaring would impress himself more strongly on the circle downstairs than either of the uncles; he had more exuberance.

If Silvia had been set down to construct an incongruous party of eight, she could not by any fantastic selection have bettered this gathering. Aunt Joanna, for instance, nourished an ineradicable{152} hatred towards her sister for having married Silvia’s father, and for being so much richer than Sir Abe, and even Sir Abe’s rank and her own were powerless to compensate her for this. Rich, immensely rich, Sir Abe certainly was, but she could not bear that her sister should be so much richer. Aunt Eleanor, on the other hand, Mrs. Wardour’s sister-in-law, had only reverence for Mrs. Wardour’s wealth, but what she thoroughly despised her for was her truckling (so Aunt Eleanor put it) to the smart world. Aunt Eleanor had been present at the great party, where the Russian ballet entertained the guests, and the presence of so many distinguished people made her feel perfectly sick. The true diagnosis of her indisposition, however, was that since she had tried to do for years without a particle of success what Mrs. Wardour had so brilliantly accomplished in a few weeks, it was only reasonable that she should have a violent reaction against that sort of thing. If, instead of marrying Peter, Silvia had been about to wed a peer, or somebody of that kind, Aunt Eleanor would certainly have felt it her duty never to speak to either her or her mother again. Indeed, she would never have accepted Mrs. Wardour’s invitation at all, so she had made quite plain, unless she had felt it her duty to take an interest in her husband’s relations.

Silvia was conscious of a vein of caricature in this flitting survey, but ridiculous people made caricatures of themselves without the collusion of the observer. Mr. Mainwaring was a caricature too: she could not think of him quite seriously. Probably most people, if you regarded them from a strictly individual standpoint, had a touch of caricature about them, for if you rated yourself as a normal person, everybody else must be a little out of drawing. But she looked at the{153} caricatures with the friendliest amusement; she loved them (and here in particular was her mother included) for being so entirely different from her—for being, in fact, precisely what they were. Humorous observation was, with her, less a critical than an appreciative process, and now, as she waited for Peter, she wanted definitely to include Mrs. Mainwaring in her fascinating gallery. But for this last fortnight, since her engagement to Peter, she had found herself increasingly unable to give her this genial amused observation. More and more did Mrs. Mainwaring baffle and elude her. There was, so far as Silvia could notice, nothing humanly ridiculous about her, and, what was even more disconcerting, the girl found herself ever more incapable of attaching herself to her. To attempt to do that resembled, in some uncomfortable manner, the notion of attaching yourself in the dark to a hard smooth surface; you could nowhere get hold of her or find projection or crevice in which to crook or to insert a finger tip. The more closely Silvia looked at her, the more strenuously she attempted to get into any sort of psychical contact with Mrs. Mainwaring, the more directly was she baffled. She could not, for herself, give up as insoluble the mystery of that lady’s mental and spiritual processes; there must be, if you could only lay your hands on it in the dark, some key to her future mother-in-law, something that explained, for instance, her unwearied study of the advertisements of hotels. No one could be as completely tranquil and emotionless all through as Mrs. Mainwaring appeared to be. Twice only had her mind slipped for a definite instant into the open, like a lizard emerging into the sunlight and flicking back again; once when, on the first visit that Silvia and her{154} mother had paid to the house, Mrs. Mainwaring unveiled a glance of malicious hostility in the direction of the great cartoon. Less definite, but like in kind, was the habitual, though veiled, hostility with which Silvia felt that Mrs. Mainwaring regarded herself. It did not flame, but she knew that she was right in conjecturing that it incessantly smouldered. And that enmity, to Silvia’s sense, was of the same quality, though smouldering, as that which had leaped in that swift little tongue of flame towards the cartoon: what puzzled her was the kinship between the two. From the context of that moment in the studio, it seemed to be Mr. Mainwaring’s work which kept him in London (and her therefore with him) that had kindled that odd swift spark. Or was the origin of it a little deeper down than that? Did some shut furnace of impatience at her husband, so floridly symbolized there, some deep-seated core of incompatibility suddenly flame out then? If so, what was the kindred nature of her hostility to the girl? Was it that she was taking Peter away from the home which his presence there just rendered tolerable? But apart from those two “escapes,” so to speak, of genuine feeling, the origin of which, after all, was only a matter of conjecture, Silvia had no clue to Mrs. Mainwaring at all; she was practically featureless and even without outline. She could not sketch her at all, or delineate from her as model, one of those genial caricatures, such as her friends so freely supplied her with material for. Such features and such outline as she could perceive were tinged with bitter suggestions....

Silvia did not find the waiting for Peter in any way tedious; there was plenty in the studio to furnish a larder for thought, though what most occupied her was her alert attention for the sound of his light{155} footstep coming down the passage. But apart from that food for reflection was abundant. To-day the end of the studio where the cartoon had hung was empty, so that if Mrs. Mainwaring’s resentment was inspired purely by that work of art, she might now regain her tranquillity again. Silvia would see it this evening, for her mother, following up the idea with which it had first fired her in connection with the empty walls of the picture gallery at Howes, had a few days ago made a purchase of it.

Mr. Mainwaring had been very glorious on this occasion; at first he had hysterically refused to part with it. It was his chef-d’œuvre, and while he had a couple of pennies in his pocket, he was, though poor, too proud to think of selling it. Then, lest that refusal should be taken too seriously, he almost immediately declared that it should be his wedding present to Silvia. He let himself be hunted out of so untenable a magnificence, and finally he so far humiliated himself as to accept a fancy price for it. As Mrs. Wardour knew (he reminded her, to make certain) that it was the first of a series of six, upon which he was contented to stand or fall in the verdict of posterity, it seemed probable that, at some future time, the walls of the picture gallery at Howes would be far less empty than they were to-day.

On an easel near where Silvia sat was the portrait of herself now approaching completion. To her there was something uncanny and arresting about it, for, by accident or design, the artist had caught some aspect of her which secretly she recognized as a piece of intimate revelation. She herself inclined to an accidental derivation, for certainly in all but one point it was a flamboyant and uninspired performance, a chronicle of a green “jumper” and a scarlet skirt, a{156} haystack of dyed hair, and a rouged, simpering mouth. Her head was turned full to the spectator, looking over the shoulder, in precisely the same pose (a favourite trick of the artist’s) as that in which the German Emperor listened to Satanic counsels. But in the eyes, in the badly drawn outstretched hand, clumsily posed, Silvia saw some unconscious rendering of the “boy’s key.” She acquitted Mr. Mainwaring of all intention and of all inspiration; he had certainly not meant that. He had, through faulty drawing, given a certain brisk violence to her hand, a certain domination to her eyes.

And then she heard the click of the street door, and the quick light footstep for which she had been waiting. She wondered if she could ever get used to the mere fact of Peter’s return from however short an absence.

He kissed her, holding her hand for a moment.

“It’s too bad of me to have kept you waiting,” he said. “I couldn’t help myself. There was a messenger starting for Rome. Haven’t they brought you tea?”

“No; I thought I would wait and have it with you.”

Peter rang the bell.

“And my father’s gone?” he asked.

“Yes; mother called for him and drove him down. I’ve brought my little Cording car for us.”

“Just you and me? That’ll be lovely,” said Peter. “Do I quite trust your driving, though?”

“You may drive yourself, if you like,” said she.

“No, thanks; I trust that far less. I must see if my bag is packed. Tell Burrows we want tea at once.”

“Can’t I help you to pack it, if it isn’t done?{157}” asked Silvia.... Somehow she would have liked to do that, to fold his clothes, to squeeze out his sponge.

“No; it’s so sordid,” said Peter. “Besides, it’s probably done already.”

“If it isn’t, call me,” said she. “No man has any idea of how to pack.”

“And you want to teach me?” asked Peter, lingering on the stairs.

Silvia hesitated only for a moment.

“No, you darling,” she said. “I don’t want to teach you anything. I just want to do it.”

“Why?” asked he.

She came closer, raising her face towards him, as he leaned over the banisters.

“Your things,” she said. “Your sponge, your coat....”

That pleasure was denied her, for Burrows had already bestowed Peter’s requirements in his bag, and he came downstairs again. Silvia had given his father a sitting for the portrait this morning, and he stood frowning in front of it.

“Trash! Rubbish!” he said at length. “And the worst of it is that he has got into it some infernal resemblance to you. It’s a caricature.”

“Oh, we’re all caricatures to each other,” said she, “with just a few exceptions.”

“What a heathenish doctrine. Why am I a caricature, for instance?”

“You aren’t. You’re one of the exceptions. But tell me what your father has caricatured of me in that?”

Peter looked from her to the portrait and back again.

“All of you,” he said. “The reality of you: the rest is quite unlike. You haven’t got mouth and{158} nose and forehead and hair and chin the least like that. But the person inside is horribly like you.”

Silvia put her arm through his.

“Horribly?” she said. “Thanks so much.”

“I didn’t say—just then—that you were horrible,” said he. “I said horribly like you, your parody, your caricature. I wonder how I dared ask such a masterful young woman to marry me.”

“You knew it would be good for you,” said Silvia. “It was far more daring of me to accept you.”

“There’s just time for you to remedy your mistake,” said he. “Positively the last chance.”

This frank kind of chaffing talk, as between friends rather than lovers, had grown to be characteristic of their privacy. Silvia delighted in it: it had the charm of some cipher about it; the blunt commonplace words held for her a secret meaning known to the two utterers of them, which was only to be expressed by these symbols. When she feigned to misunderstand Peter, and thanked him for calling her horrible, there lay below her foolish words a treasure which words were quite powerless to express. Or when he just now wondered that he had dared to ask her to marry him, she felt that he conveyed something which no amount of impassioned speech could have indicated so well. From the hilltops there flashed the signal that no voice could convey. Then sometimes, as now, she had to use another symbol, which again was only a symbol, and with her hands tremblingly, eagerly, shyly clasping him round the neck, she drew his head down towards her, not kissing him, but simply looking close into his eyes.

“Positively the last chance!” she said. “Oh, Peter, what a fool I am about you. Doesn’t it bore you frightfully?{159}”

“Frightfully,” said Peter, keeping to the first code of symbols.

“You bear it beautifully, darling,” she said. “Oh, shall I ever get used to you? I hope so: I mustn’t go on being such a donkey all my days. No; I don’t think I do hope so. Being a donkey is good enough for me. Hee haw! Oh, let go: here’s Burrows coming with the tea. She’ll think it so undignified.”

It was, as a matter of fact, she who had to “let go,” as Burrows entered, followed by Mrs. Mainwaring. Silvia had before now tried to call her “mother,” but the experiment somehow had not succeeded. Mrs. Mainwaring answered to it quite readily, but she received it, so the girl thought, much as she might have received an unsolicited nickname.

“Why, Mrs. Mainwaring!” she said. “I didn’t know you were in.”

Mrs. Mainwaring paused just long enough to let it be inferred that if Silvia had made any inquiries as to that, she would have obtained the information she sought.

“Yes, dear, I have been reading upstairs since lunch time,” she said. “I came to have a cup of tea with you before you started. I hope you will have a pleasant drive.”

Silvia tried to approach.

“Ah, do come too,” she said. “Change your mind, and come with me. Heaps of room.”

“Thank you, dear, I think I will keep to my original plan,” said she. “I like a quiet Sunday sometimes. I shall go to church, and perhaps in the afternoon hear a concert at the Queen’s Hall. The time will pass very pleasantly.{160}”

There was an aura of correct armed neutrality about this, accompanied as it was by that cold sheathed glance, furtive and hostile, that caused some half-comic, half-impatient despair in the girl at her aloofness. Mrs. Mainwaring, so it seemed to her, wanted nobody except herself; she wanted just to be let alone.

“Father went off all right?” asked Peter.

“Yes; Mrs. Wardour kindly called for him after lunch. A beautiful car; so roomy. There was another lady and gentleman there: I think Mrs. Wardour said it was her sister and her husband. Your father insisted on going in the box seat with the driver. He made a great noise with the motor horn, which sounded like a bugle. He was in very high spirits.”

The neutrality exhibited in this speech was almost too correct to be credible. Nobody could have been so neutral. Even Mrs. Mainwaring could not quite keep it up, and something very far from neutral lay, ever so little below the surface, in her announcement of her husband’s high spirits. Her neutrality towards Silvia was not so deadly as that towards her husband....

Peter laughed. There was neutrality there too, but it was more contemptuous than deadly, and quite good humoured in its contempt.

“Oh, they’ll have a noisy drive,” he said. “And if Mrs. Wardour drives him back on Monday, you’ll be aware of their approach, mother, while they’re still a mile or two away.”

Mrs. Mainwaring had one of those fine-lipped mouths (very neat and finished at the outer corners), about which it is impossible to say whether they are smiling or not without consulting the conditions pre{161}vailing round the eyes. But as Peter spoke she very definitely ceased to smile.

“Monday?” she said. “I thought Mrs. Wardour was so kind as to ask him to stop till Tuesday.”

Peter got up: he noticed nothing about his mother, having long ago given up any attempt to comprehend her.

“Tuesday, is it?” he said. “I’m back on Monday, anyhow: otherwise what would happen to our foreign relations? Shall we start, Silvia? I’m ready when you are.”

Mrs. Mainwaring rose too.

“Yes, indeed, you had better be off,” she said. “You won’t have too much time. Then I shall expect you on Monday, Peter. Tell your father——”

She stopped.

“That you don’t expect him till Tuesday?” asked he, without the slightest indication of any mental comment.

“Yes, I think Mrs. Wardour quite took for granted that he was stopping till then.”

Silvia made one further attempt to evoke a touch of cordiality.

“Mother will be delighted,” she said. “But it’s horrid for you being all alone.”

“No, dear, I shall be very happy,” said Mrs. Mainwaring with quiet decision.

Howes stood, of course, in a park of considerable acreage, surrounded by a massive brick wall, and reflected its colossal self in the lake that lay below its terraced garden. This lake had been artificially made by the damming up of the stream that had previously wasted itself unornamentally, and the road that had dipped into the shallow valley now ran along the{162} causeway that formed the farther margin of the lake, and gave the visitor his first complete and stupendous view of the house. The wings and galleries that had been built out rendered the original Norman core comparatively insignificant, and the whole resembled an apotheosis of a station hotel combined with a fortress, for the character of the older part was borne out in the battlemented walls that spread so amply to right and left of it. An avenue of monkey-puzzlers led up to the long façade, and the gardens overlooking the lake were like some glorified arboretum, where you might expect tin labels, asking visitors to keep off the grass and not touch the flowers. At intervals along the edge of its immense lawns were aloes in square green tubs, and below the house was a riband border of geraniums, calceolarias and lobelias. Inside, the expectations aroused by this sumptuous exterior were fully justified, for the high panelled hall was peopled with suits of armour, each with its numbered label, so that a glance at the catalogue would put you into possession of interesting information about it. Armour had long been a hobby of the late Mr. Wardour, and he had, very quaintly, installed electric light in the gauntleted hands. There was a passenger lift in one corner, a groined roof, and the famous malachite table. Heads and antlers of stags hung in the panels.

Silvia had rather dreaded this moment. The whole place with its monkey-puzzlers and malachite, its aloes and its awfulness, had been left by her father to her absolutely, and Peter knew (and she knew he knew) that he was making his first acquaintance with what would be “home” to him. She had not seen it herself since the day of her father’s funeral, two years ago, and it seemed to her—and how would it{163} strike Peter?—that, though it had the traditional quality of home, in that there was no place, as far as she was aware, in the least like it, its unique fulfilment of that definition was its only merit.

With a sideways glance now and again she had observed Peter’s growing awe, from the time they had crossed the causeway (the pride of it!) to their approach through the monkey-puzzlers, and to the final revelation of the malachite table. And there was much more to follow—ever so much more; the Gothic staircase, the blue drawing-room, the pink drawing-room, the picture-gallery, the swimming bath. And it was not inanimate magnificence alone that was to assail him, for there was Uncle Henry and Uncle Abe and Aunts Joanna and Eleanor. She ought to have brought him down quietly and alone for his first sight of Howes....

Peter had been gazing in a fascinated manner at the malachite table, and even while Silvia was wondering how to convey to him her sympathy and encouragement, he, with one of the flashes of intuition which she adored in him, showed that he had comprehended with unerring accuracy what she was feeling about him.

“But you’re going to be here,” he said, just as if she had spoken out all that she was puzzling over.

She took his arm.

“Oh, my dear, I promise you that,” she said. “And I’ve got to get used to it, too. But then you’ll be here! Shall we butter each other’s paws, Peter, until we feel at home? Let’s have some more tea, in fact, and find where the rest of them are.”

The picture-gallery seemed a likely kind of place,{164} and there, indeed, the six representatives of the families proved to be, and when kissing ceremonies were over for herself and the rite of introduction for Peter, Silvia found herself thinking that it was really all for the best that they should have burst on Peter in one comprehensive revelation rather than that he should have been subjected to a series of shocks and surprises. Already staggered by Uncle Henry, Peter might have been quite thrown off his balance—so flashed the alternative comedy through her head—by Uncle Abe; or what if, reeling from Aunt Eleanor, he ran into Aunt Joanna just round the corner? Silvia had not the smallest inclination or intention to be ashamed of her relations, but it would have shown the joylessness of a Puritan not to be amused at the blandness and the blankness on so many faces (Peter’s included) as he was taken to each in turn; it would have shown too an almost dangerous rigidity that her voice should not betray a tremor of suppressed hilariousness.

Aunt Eleanor came first: she looked like a handsome seal with adenoidal breathing. She bowed to Peter with freezing propriety, but when he was moved on to Aunt Joanna her curiosity got the better of her, and she instantly put up her glasses to get a better look at him. Aunt Joanna, large and marvellously bedizened, with flowers in her hat and her bosom and her hand, irresistibly suggested a van going to Covent Garden in the early morning: she, too, had her notions of propriety, and these expressed themselves in a cordiality as warm as Aunt Eleanor’s was cold. Then came Uncle Abe, who was so like a fish that it really seemed dangerous for him to be sitting so near Aunt Eleanor. He held out a hand, and took a cigar out of his mouth, which remained open in the{165} precise shape of the cigar: and finally came Uncle Henry, who was busy with “a drop of brandy,” because tea, as he instantly proceeded to inform Peter, gave him heartburn. Then all four of them stared at Peter to see how he was going to comport himself.

Peter was never more grateful to his father than when at this embarrassing moment Mr. Mainwaring, who had been mysteriously employed at the far end of the picture-gallery with a cord and a sheet and a step-ladder and three bewildered footmen, gave a loud yodel, set to some words like mio figlio, to announce his perception of his son’s arrival, and the accomplishment of that on which he had been so busily engaged. “Ben arrivato” was the concluding stave of his melody, and he came running up the gallery (there was quite enough space to enable him to get a good speed up), and after holding Peter for a moment in a joint embrace with Silvia, he cast himself down for a moment on a white bear skin at Mrs. Wardour’s feet.

“Ecco!” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, when you will distinguish me with the gift of a moment of your leisure, I shall have the honour to show you the first of my completed labours. The picture, the poor suppliant’s picture, is on the wall: masked by a fair linen sheet, which, so I fondly hope, is in control of a cord, just a cord, which, when you are ready, I will, in fact, pull. Unless the mechanism which I have been contriving is sadly at fault, there will then be revealed to you that which the sheet, at the moment, is so discreetly veiling. Valour, perhaps, my valour, is but the worse part of discretion”—Peter had heard this before—“but for the moment I am less discreet than valorous. I will{166} show you, complete and materialized, the vision that since August, 1914, has obsessed and dominated my life. I pray you, gentle sirs and madams, to indulge your humble servant, and to take your places, exactly where I shall have the honour to indicate, opposite the discretionary linen which, when removed, will unbare my valour.”

He rose from his reclining posture, and after a superb obeisance, placed himself at the head of the procession. Already, as Silvia had foreseen, he was in a position of dominance: Uncle Abe and Uncle Henry obeyed his orders; Aunt Joanna and Aunt Eleanor clearly “perked up” at this ingratiating suppliance. For himself he took Mrs. Wardour’s hand, holding it high, as in a minuet, and led the way. He grouped them; he requested them all, with humble apologies, to have the goodness to move a step backwards; he set chairs for them; he put his finger on his lips, and on tiptoe advanced to the dangling end of the cord and pulled it. Up flew the sheet, waving wildly, but eventually festooning itself clear of the cartoon. Then, swiftly retreating, he magnificently posed himself, and gazed at the picture.

For the moment there was dead silence: then vague clickings and murmurs began to grow articulate. The uncles and aunts vied with each other in perception.

“The Emperor,” said Uncle Henry. “Good likeness, eh?”

“August, 1914,” exclaimed Lady Darley. “Terrible! Wonderful!” And she drew in her breath with a hissing sound. The perception of the date was not so clever, as it was largely inscribed on the frame, and Aunt Eleanor smiled indulgently.{167}

“Yes, dear Joanna,” she said, “we all see that. But look at Satan whispering to the Emperor!”

“And the hosts of hell,” said Joanna swiftly.

Uncle Abe turned to Uncle Henry.

“A marvellous thing,” he said. “Tells its own story. I call that a picture.”

Mrs. Wardour merely wore the pleased air of proprietorship. She had seen it all before, and she could see it again as many times as she chose. Mr. Mainwaring, chin in hand, just contemplated while these appreciations were in progress, but now he seemed to wake out of a swoon, and passed his hands over his eyes.

“Was it I who painted that?” he muttered. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know till this moment, when at last I see my work properly displayed, with no discordant note to mar it, what I had done. Does it terrify you, dear ladies and gentlemen? Does it put you in possession of August, 1914? Does it—ah, Dio mio!” He covered his face with his hands and shuddered. Then advancing to the picture again, he violently shook the cord, and the two linen sheets (double bed) rolled back into their original places.

“Enough, enough!” he cried. “We will contemplate it more calmly when we have recovered from the first shock of our bleeding hearts. Let us converse, let us smile and laugh again. Let us remember that the war is over. But it is laid on me by destiny to execute five more such pictures, not less terrible. If I live, they shall be done. Yes, yes; I do not falter! But, for a while, let me forget, let me forget.”

Mrs. Wardour spaced out the wall with a pleased eye.{168}

“They will just fill the length of the gallery,” she said, “if we do not crowd them. Silvia, my dear, you must persuade Mr. Mainwaring.... Well, I’m sure, if that isn’t the dressing bell.”

A vindictive purpose was weaving itself below the embowering flowers of Lady Darley’s hat, and accelerating the heart-beat below the nosegay on her bosom, so that the gardenias were all of a tremble. Lucy might be rich (indeed, it was quite certain that she was horribly rich), but comparative paupers such as herself were not to be altogether trampled upon, and other people beside Lucy had picture-galleries. Apparently the series of these tremendous allegories was not yet painted, was not yet either definitely “bespoken” by her sister, and Joanna, as she waded through the thick Kidderminster rugs that carpeted the Gothic staircase on the way to her room, felt that the only thing in life that was worth living for at this moment was to order a replica of the first, and secure (with an embargo on replicas) the remainder of this series.

Never in her life had she been so artistically overwhelmed as by that prodigious canvas, and if all the rest were going to be “up to sample” she could, as their possessor, scoff at the art treasures of the world. Sir Abe had dabbled in pictures already: he had a Turner sunset which hung in the dining-room, at which he often pointed over his shoulder as a “pooty little thing”; he had a Rembrandt of a very puckered-looking old woman which had aroused the envy of those who were permitted to see it and to be told that it came out of the Marquis of Brentford’s collection. These were desirable possessions, but they were jejune compared to Mr. Mainwaring’s masterpiece{169} and the masterpieces that were to follow. The war! That was something to paint pictures about....

Her envy of her sister rose to the austerity of a passion when she contemplated the equipment of her bedroom, and that of her husband next door. There was a bathroom attached to each, both fitted with the most amazing taps and squirts, and a little sitting-room attached to each, and a lift of which Mrs. Wardour (showing her her room, and hoping she would be comfortable) explained the working. You pressed a button and were wafted.... The same lift served Aunt Eleanor’s rooms, but Lucy and Peter and Silvia used another one.... The lift clinched her resolution, and she conjugally conferred with Sir Abe. He, to her delight, was as much impressed with the passion for “scoring off” Lucy as with the merits of the cartoon, but his business habits had to make hesitations and conditions, not “do a deal” blindly.

“Well, my lady,” he said, “you shall have the pictures if they’re to be obtained reasonably. What shall I offer, now? Most striking that one was, and that and similar are worth paying a pretty penny for. What did your sister give for that one? Then, if reasonable, I don’t mind if I add twenty-five per cent. more, and secure the lot. They’ll be something to point at. Get along and let me have my bath. You try to find out what your sister paid, and then we’ll know where we are, my lady.”

She noted with pleasure that he relapsed into a cockney accent and a slight uncertainty about aspirates as he spoke. That was a good sign: it showed he was in earnest and interested, for in dalliance of light conversation Sir Abe was “as good at his h’s” as anybody.{170}

It was not to be expected that the cartoon and the magnificence of its introduction should have no effect on Aunt Eleanor, or that (her general animosity towards Mrs. Wardour being of the same fine order as Aunt Joanna’s) she should not have been kindled with ambition to bring off some similar vindictive stroke. But for her the acquisition of these immense decorations was out of the question, for her husband would certainly not pay such a price as she felt sure would be necessary to secure them, and even if he did his house did not contain sufficient uninterrupted wall space, so that to hang them at all she would have to cut them up into sections and paper several different rooms with them. But Mr. Mainwaring had said something about the original sketches for them, which had suggested an idea that took her fancy at once. The sketches were, after all, the “originals,” the significant buds from which these over-blown blossoms had developed, and the sketches would be far more manageable, both from point of view of hanging, and from that of purchase. There was a subtlety, a refinement in possessing “originals” that these acreages of paint could not compete with. Her powerful imagination pictured herself exhibiting them to envious friends.

“Yes, my sister-in-law, I believe, has copies, on a large scale,” she would say, “of my series. These, of course, are the originals. Such freshness, such power, all quite lost in the later and larger version.” And she held her seal-like head very high, and snorted through her nostrils as she sailed into the pink drawing-room just before the dinner bell rang. She was the first to come down, and had time to examine with pain and disgust the photograph of a royal personage, with a crown on its frame, that stood very con{171}spicuously alone on the table by the sofa where she seated herself.

Mr. Mainwaring’s star continued to be violently ascendant all evening. His harangues, his humour, his habit of pausing in the middle of one of his interminable stories, until complete silence had been established round the table, dominated dinner, and when the ladies rose to leave the gentlemen to their cigars and wine, Mrs. Wardour addressed him directly and laid upon him not to permit them too long a sitting. This gave him the rank of host, and developed his social horse-power to so high an efficiency that on rejoining the ladies he sang the Toreador’s song out of Carmen. Then after that had been repeated he permitted the uncles and aunts to indulge themselves with bridge, and since wives partnered their own husbands, this gave scope for some pleasant family revilings, in which the ladies came off far the best. Having thus arranged for their pleasure, Mr. Mainwaring grouped himself with his hostess, Silvia and Peter, and grew patriarchal and full of sentiment over the charming family party of parents and children. On Mrs. Wardour’s going to bed, leaving the bridge-party jealously over-calling their hands, he conducted her once more to pay homage to the cartoon, and remained there in meditation.

Silvia and Peter had wandered out on to the dusky terrace. A twilight of stars lit the still night, and she drew long breaths of restoration from the exhaustion of these stupendous hours. Once clear of the house, and leaning over the balustrade above the lake, she gave way to hopeless laughter.

“Peter, darling, are my relations more than you{172} ought to be asked to stand?” she said. “Did you know there were such people as Uncle Abe?”

“Did you know there were such people as my father?” said Peter.

“Oh, but he’s your father,” said Silvia quickly. “You mustn’t bring him in.”

“Why not? After all, it’s he who brings himself in. There’s only one word for him. Bounder. Uncle Abe isn’t a bounder exactly. Uncle Henry isn’t a bounder.”

“No, he’s just a cad,” said Silvia enthusiastically. “I love people being themselves, whatever they happen to be. I should enjoy them much more, though, if you weren’t here.”

“I can go to-morrow morning,” said Peter.

For one moment she thought that he spoke seriously: the next she laughed at herself for having been hoaxed by his assumed sincerity of voice: “assumed” it just had to be.

“Ah, you said that beautifully,” she announced; “and all the evening, do you know, you’ve been saying things beautifully, with your mask on, too, your best and smartest mask. I’ve been listening to you, and never for a moment could I catch a word or a silence on your part to show that you weren’t thoroughly amused and interested by the aunts. You behaved as if they were just the sort of people you were accustomed to meet, but rather more charming. You have been convincing, and you were convincing just now when you suggested going away to-morrow.”

Peter had not, of course, meant to convey that he really could go away to-morrow, but it had been quite easy for him to render his seriousness plausible, since, though impossible, this was a most agreeable project.{173} But what rendered that project so attractive was the escape not from the aunts and uncles, with whom he was quite as willing to be diverted as their niece, but from his father. His father, in this milieu, with his bounce and his bounding, his general “make-up” of the large-souled, childlike artist, now humbly bespeaking the indulgence of his patrons, and immediately afterwards behaving as if he was Michael Angelo, was intolerable. His gaiety, his singing, his family grouping, with himself as aged and contemplative parent, while the moment before he had been twirling his moustaches and bellowing out the song of the toreador, were indecencies for a son’s eye. If only he had been slightly fuzzy and intoxicated with many liqueur brandies like Uncle Henry, that would have been a palliative: as it was he was only intoxicated with himself....

Peter recalled himself from these impious meditations to the needs of or (if not the needs) the appropriateness for the immediate occasion. Silvia and he had contrived a lovers’ interlude under the stars.

“Will you always be as charitable to me as you are to my father?” he asked. “When I am absurd and annoying, will you just be amused?”

The question seemed to him well framed: it led him and her away from all these nonsensicalities into the region where the simple things abided. He expected some pressure on his arm, some little deprecation of his silliness, some whisper to inform him that he was a goose or an idiot. Instead, Silvia’s hand slackened in the crook of his arm and withdrew itself.

“Oh, Peter, what a thing to ask!” she said. “As if I could be ‘charitable’ to you as long as you loved me, or as if I could find you annoying so long as I{174} loved you. You’re pretending not to understand. Don’t pretend like that any more.”

Peter’s quick brain was alert on the scent. He had meant his words to be construed into a lover-like speech, and had completely thought that they could be interpreted thus. But her answer convinced him that to her they were not construable at all, but only gibberish. Before he could emend himself, or even quite follow her, she flashed out her full meaning.

“Anybody else in the world except you can be annoying,” she said, “and I hope I can be charitable to anybody else in the world except you. But how can I be charitable to you? Or how can you be trying to me? Don’t you know that I am you? For a month I’ve ceased to be myself at all. There isn’t any ‘me.’ It isn’t ‘me’ you think you are in love with; it’s—it’s just the completion of your own wonderfulness. And as for their being any ‘you,’ why, you’ve ceased long ago. I’ve absorbed you. I’ve—I’ve drowned you in myself and in my adoration. I’m round you. I crush you and I worship you——”

Silvia broke off suddenly as there appeared at the drawing-room window a black tall silhouette yodelling and crying, “Coo-ee. Children!”

“Oh, damn that man,” said she. “Sorry, Peter, but, well, there it is.”


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