The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Eight - Climbers: I. The Horizontal

p>THE MOST CASUAL OBSERVER OF THE beauties and uglinesses of Nature will have observed that in the anatomy of that very common object, a Tree, there are two widely different classes of branches. The one class grows more or less straight out from the trunk and after a horizontal career droops somewhat at the extremities, the other grows upwards in a persevering and uniform ascent. Such branches when springing high up on the trunk of the tree form the very top of the tree.

But though these facts are patent in vegetable life, and though it is clear that anybody not idiotic and sufficiently active can climb more or less successfully up a tree going higher and higher, and selecting for his ascent the branches that aspire, and not making a precarious way along the other class of branch which at the best is horizontal, and at the worst droops downwards, it seems there must be greater difficulties in the ascension of what is known among climbers as the Tree of Society. For while you may see some of them climbing steadily higher, and ever mounting till their electro-plated forms are lost amid the gold{144} of the topmost foliage, and their joyful monkey-cries mingle and almost are entuned with the song of the native birds who naturally make their nest there, you will see other climbers—the majority in fact—eagerly scrambling for ever along perfectly horizontal boughs that never bring them any higher up at all, and eventually, depressed by their weight, but bend earthwards again. Unlike the happier apes who have a flair for altitude and bird-song, these less fortunate sisters have only a flair for clinging and proceeding.

There are of course specimens of these Trees of Society in every town in England, and specimens of the monkeys who hop about them. But those are but small trees and the climbers small apes, and the climbing of these shrubs appears to present but moderate difficulties. The great specimen, the one glorious and perfect human vegetable which grows in England, flourishes only in the centre of London; its roots draw their nutriment from the soil of Middlesex (not of Surrey), and its top, resonant with birds, soars high into the ample ether of Mayfair. It is a regular monkey-puzzle, and swarms with industrious climbers going in every direction, most of them, unfortunately, proceeding with infinite toil along horizontal branches, while others slowly or{145} swiftly make their way upwards. Occasionally, with shrill screams and impotent clutchings at the trunk, one falls, and the higher the fall, the more completely dead will he (or she, particularly she) be when he reaches the ground. She may lie, faintly twitching for a minute or two, while grimacing faces of friends peer down at her, but even before her twitchings have ceased they have turned to their businesses again, for no climber ever has a moment’s rest, and a few ghouls crawl out from the bushes and bear away the corpse for interment wrapped up in a winding sheet of the less respectable journals of the day.... Let us study the unnatural history of these curious brightly-coloured creatures a little more in detail.

Dismissing the metaphor of the trees, we may say that at one time or another these climbers have come to London, like Dick Whittington. Possibly they may always have lived in London, taking London as a mere geographical expression, but London, considered as a spiritual (or unspiritual) entity, has at one time or other in their lives dawned upon them as a shining and desirable thing, and they have said to themselves, gazing upwards, ‘I want; I want.’ They have probably had more than the proverbial half{146}crown in their pockets, for climbing is an expensive job, with all the provisions and guides and ropes and axes necessary for its accomplishment, and half-a-crown would not go very far. Unlike Dick Whittington, however, they have not brought their cat along with them, but they get their cat, so to speak, when they begin to climb. In other words, without metaphor, they hook on to somebody, a pianist, or a duchess, or a buffoon, or an artist, or a cabinet-minister, or something striking of some kind, and firmly clutch it. Eminence of any sort, whether of birth or of achievement, is naturally a useful aid in ascensions, while on the other hand the climber’s half-crowns, or her flattery, or her dinners, or her country-house, perhaps even the climber herself, holds attractions for the particular piece of eminence she has put the hook into. It is her mascot, her latch-key, her passport—what you will—and she is wise to cling on to it for dear life. The mascot may not like it at first, he may wriggle and struggle, but on no account should she let go. Probably he gets accustomed to it quite soon, and does not mind being her electric light which she turns on when she chooses, and, incidentally, pays for quite honestly. The two begin, in a way, to run each other, in most cases without scandal or{147} any cause for scandal, and, mutually sustained, soar upwards together. By means of her mascot she attracts his friends to her house, so that he knows that whenever he goes there he will find congenial spirits and an excellent dinner, while she, if she is clever (and no climbers, whether horizontals or perpendiculars, are without wits), finds herself gently wafted upwards.

She will probably have begun her climb up the first few feet of the branchless trunk with the aid of ladders, friends and acquaintances (chiefly acquaintances) who have introduced her to one or two desirable folk, her mascot among them, and have enabled her to lay her slim prehensile hand on the lowest branches. At this point, having now a firm hold, so it seems to her, she will often kick her ladders down, perhaps not really intending to kick them, but in her spring upwards doing so almost accidentally. But if she does, she commits a great stupidity, and it is almost safe to bet that she will prove a horizontal. For it may easily prove that she will need those same ladders again a little higher up the trunk where there is a hiatus in branches, and returning for them will find them no longer there. They will not be lying prone on the ground as she probably thought (if she gave another{148} thought to them at all), but they will be somewhere the other side of the tree, out of reach. She has to coax them back, and it is possible they will not come for her coaxing. And while she is pondering she may loose hold of her mascot, who will scramble away. In that case, she had better jump down at once, and begin (slightly soiled) all over again.

To take a concrete instance, after this general introduction (as if, after reading a book about some curious and interesting animal we went to the Zoological Gardens to observe its appearance and habits), Mrs. Howard Britten furnishes a good example of the horizontal variety. Where the ‘Howard’ came from nobody knew or cared; she just took it, and since no one else wanted it, nothing was said. She had married a genial solicitor, who from contact with the dusky secrets of the great, had acquired a liking for their sunlight, and did not in the least object to being put in his wife’s knapsack. He made a very large income in his profession, and found that, though household expenses began to mount even quicker than his wife, the house in Brompton Square became considerably more amusing when the climbing began. He took no active part in it, but merely popped his head out of the knapsack and contentedly admired the enlarged view. Nor was he the least surprised when at the end of this particular season, his Molly persuaded him to move Mayfairwards, and purchase (the fact that it was a great bargain made little persuasion necessary) a house in Brook Street with a ball-room.

Molly Howard-Britten (the hyphen appeared this summer) had chosen for her mascot a Member of Parliament who had lately entered the Ark of the Cabinet, and was uncomfortable at home because his wife had an outrageous stammer and an inordinate passion for wool-work. Mr. Harbinger was of course a Conservative, for to the climber that notorious body, the House of Lords, constitutes a considerable proportion of the top of the tree, and the House of Lords is generally supposed to be of the Tory creed. It was safer, therefore, as she looked forward to a good deal of their society, to have a Conservative mascot. She on her side offered a quick feminine wit to amuse him, a charming face and manner, and really admirable food. Mrs. Harbinger came once or twice, bringing her skeins with her, but since she disliked dinner-parties as much as she adored worsted, it soon became common for her husband to dine with the Howard-Brittens alone. The Howard-Brittens spent a week-end with the{150} Harbingers, and there Molly easily secured three or four of his friends to dine with her on the following Friday week. On this occasion one of them was going on to a very sumptuous tree-top ball afterwards, and during dinner she was rung up by the hostess who, agitated by the extreme inclemency of the night, begged her to bring a guest or two more along with her. This was luck: Molly went, and being a remarkably good dancer spent an evening that proved both agreeable and profitable. By the end of the season she had got well placed among the lower branches of the tree, and, perhaps a shade too soon, since it is not quite so easy to be a hostess as might be supposed, took the Brook Street house with the ball-room.

She spent a rather sleepless August with her husband at Marienbad, and began to make her first mistakes. She gave picnics, and being in too great a hurry to secure a crowd, secured the crowd, but unfortunately it was the wrong one. She asked every one to come and see her when they got back to England, but those who came were not for the most part the singers in the top branches, but climbers like herself. This fact vaguely dawned on her, and she determined to rectify it when, with the assembling of Parlia{151}ment in November, her mascot would be in town again. She did rectify it, and in the rectification made things much worse, for she gently dropped all the people she did not want, and made herself a quantity of enemies, not interesting, splendid enemies, whose attention it was an honour to attract, even though that attention wore a hostile aspect, but tiresome, stupid little enemies. Then a stroke of ill-luck, which was not at all her fault, befell her, for in January there was a general election, the Conservatives were turned out, and worse than that, Mr. Harbinger lost his seat. Her attempt to make her house a rallying-spot for the vanquished party signally failed.

Then she made her second mistake. Politics having proved a broken reed, she adopted the dangerous device of pretending to be extremely intimate with her mascot, alluding to him as ‘Bertie,’ and if the telephone bell rang excusing herself by saying that she must see what Bertie wanted. Had people believed in the intimacy of this relation, one of two things might have happened: she might either have made herself an object of interest, or (here was the danger), she might have had a fall. She had not at present climbed very high, so she would not have hurt herself fatally, but neither of these things hap{152}pened. Nobody cared, any more than they cared about her having added Howard and the hyphen to her name. Thus an unprofitable spring passed, and, as a matter of fact, she was beginning to climb out along a horizontal branch.

With May there came to town the noted Austrian pianist, Herr Grossesnoise. His fame had already preceded him from Vienna, and remembering that she had once seen him at Marienbad, Molly Howard-Britten wrote to him boldly and rather splendidly at the Ritz, reminding him of their meeting (he had stepped on her toe and apologized with a magnificent hat-wave), and begging him to come and dine any day next week except Thursday, which she knew was the evening of his first concert. She wrote—and here her fatal horizontality came in—on paper with a coronet and another address on the top, hoping that she might strike some streak of snobbism. She had come by this paper quite honestly, having stayed in the house and having taken a sheet or two of the paper put on the writing-table of her bedroom, obviously for the use of guests. So now she used it, crossing out the address, and substituting for it 25A Brook Street, Park Lane. A favourable answer came, addressed to the Highly Noble Lady Howard-{153}Britten (for he prided himself on his English), on which the Highly Noble scrawled a couple of dozen notes to musical friends and acquaintances (chiefly acquaintances), asking them to dine on the forthcoming fatal Friday, which was the day after Herr Grossesnoise’s first recital, to meet the illustrious Austrian.

So far all was prosperous and the climbing weather stood at ‘set fair.’ It is true that she had changed horses in mid-stream, for in intention she definitely unharnessed poor Mr. Harbinger, and put the unsuspecting pianist in her shafts. But the fatal thing about changing horses in mid-stream is that the coachman usually puts in a worse horse, which Mrs. Howard-Britten had not done, since Mr. Harbinger could not at the present time be considered a horse at all. Already musical London was interested in the advent of her new mascot, for he had been well advertised, and of her twenty-four invitations, nineteen guests instantly accepted, who with her husband and the Herr would cause ‘covers to be laid,’ as she was determined the fashionable papers should say, for twenty-two. Then she settled to have an evening party afterwards, and though on the couple of hundred invitations which she sent out she did not definitely state that{154} Herr Grossesnoise was going to play, she wrote on the cards ‘To meet Herr Grossesnoise.’ But when you see a pianist’s name on an ‘At Home, 10.30. R.S.V.P.’ it is not unnatural to suppose that he is going to be a pianist in very deed. Among these two hundred she asked a fair sprinkling of people she wanted to know, but at present didn’t, and had a Steinway Grand precariously hoisted through the window into her drawing-room and retuned on arrival. But in these arrangements her potential horizontality came out more glaringly than ever, for she took a middle course which no climber ever should. She was indefinite, she did not actually know whether Herr Grossesnoise would play or not. Either she ought to have engaged him to play at any fee within reason, if she meant (as she did mean), to make a real spring upwards to-night, or she should not have mentioned the fact that he was coming. As it was, every one supposed he would play, and since his recital the day before had roused a furore of enthusiasm in the press, almost all her two hundred evening-party invitations were accepted. A whole section of Brook Street was blocked with motor-cars, and several aspiring Americans who found it impossible to get to their hotel for the present looked in unasked until the{155} road was clear. But as Mrs. Howard-Britten knew no more than a high percentage of her guests by sight, the gratuitous honour thus done her passed undetected.

The evening was a failure of so thorough a description as to be almost pathetic. Herr Grossesnoise played, but not the piano. He came up from the dining-room, slightly rosy with port and altogether inflated with his success, into the drawing-room, set with row upon row of small gilt chairs, and proceeded to do conjuring-tricks in a curious patois of German, French, and English. He insisted on people taking cards from him, and on guessing the cards they had chosen, pressing them continually on his hostess and exclaiming, ‘That is the Funf de piques, Lady Howard-Britten.’ His colossal form and his iron will permeated the room, while he insisted on doing trick after trick and pointedly addressing his hostess as Lady Howard-Britten, till she got almost to hate the sound of that desired prefix, while all the time the Steinway Grand yawned for him. More bitter than that was the fact that he asked Lady Howard-Britten to play a little slow music (‘You play, hein, miladi?’) while he did the most difficult of his tricks, and there the poor lady had to sit, when{156} it was he who should be sitting there, and try to remember ‘White Wings they never grow whiskers,’ or some other waltz of her youth. By degrees the growing fury of her guests generated that force of crowds which no individual can withstand, and in mass they rose and went downstairs, so that by half-past eleven the rooms were empty but for the pianist and his host and hostess. Even then he would not desist, but went on with his ridiculous tricks till she could have cried with fatigue and thwarted ambition.

But no climber sits down over a reverse even as crushing as this, and Mrs. Howard-Britten determined to wipe out her failure with a ball. She got hold of a good cotillion-leader, and gave him practically carte blanche as regards the presents, engaged her band, and issued a thousand invitations. When the dancing was at its height there were precisely ten couples on the floor, and every one went home laden like a Christmas tree with expensive spoils.

All that season she was absolutely indefatigable: she tried charity, and engaged a fifty-guinea supper-table at Middlesex House for the evening party on behalf of Lighthouse keepers. She lent her ball-room for a conference on Roumanian folk-songs given by the idol of the{157} Mayfair drawing-rooms, and standing by the door as the audience arrived shook hands with as many of them as she could. She tried to be original, had a wigwam erected in the same room, and hired a troupe of Red Indians from the White City, who danced and made the most godless noises on outlandish instruments, but somehow the originality of the entertainment was swamped in its extreme tediousness. She tried to be conventional and took a box at the opera, where twice a week she and two or three perfectly unknown young men wondered who everybody was. She hired a yacht for the Cowes week and a depopulated grouse-moor in Sutherlandshire, but for all her exertions she only got a little further out on the horizontal branch of the tree she so longed to climb. Nothing happened: she made no mark and only spent money, which, after all, any one can do, if he is only fortunate enough to have it.

She labours on, faint and rather older, but pursuing. She is always delighted if any one proposes himself to lunch or dinner, because, with the true climber’s instinct, she always thinks it may lead to something. But it is to be feared that all it leads to is that slight drooping of the horizontal bough at the end, and not towards the{158} birds that sing among the topmost branches. She lacked something in her equipment which Nature had not given her, the flair for the people who matter, the knowledge of the precise ingredients in the successful bird-lime.... But her husband never regrets the Brook Street house with the ball-room. He plays Badminton in it by electric light on his return from his office.

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