The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Eleven - "Sing For Your Dinner"

THAT AMIABLE LITTLE FOWL, THE Piping Bullfinch, has very pretty manners. If he is a well-bred bird, as most Piping Bullfinches are (though they come from Germany), he will, when he sees you approach his cage, put his head on one side, make two or three polite little bows, and whistle to you with very melodious and tuneful flutings. But it is not entirely his love of melody that inspires him, for he is rather greedy also (though he comes from Germany), and perhaps the politeness of his bows and the tunes that he so pleasantly pipes, would be considerably curtailed if he found that he was not generally given, as a reward for his courtesy, something equally pleasant to eat. But if he feels that you are willing to supply him with the morsels in which his rather limited soul delights, he will continue to bow and pipe to you until he is stuffed. And, as soon as ever his appetite begins to assert itself again (and he is a remarkably steady feeder), he will resume his bows and his tunes.

Quite a large class of people, the numerical majority of which consists of youngish men, may be most aptly described as Singers for their{200} Dinner or Piping Bullfinches. Girls and young women are not of so numerous a company, for if unmarried they have generally some sort of home where they are given their dinners, without singing for them, or if married are occupied in their duties as providers to their husbands. But there is a large quantity of young or youngish unmarried men who, living in bachelor chambers or flats, find it both more economical and pleasanter to sing for their dinner than to eat it less sociably at their own expense at their clubs or to entertain others, and they are therefore prepared to make themselves extremely agreeable for the price of their food. The bargain is not really very one-sided; indeed, as bargains go it is a very tolerably fair one; for there are great handfuls of people who, either from a natural dislike of old friends or for lack of them, are constantly delighted to see a Piping Bullfinch or two at their tables. They even go further than this, and take these neat little birds to the theatre or the opera (paying of course for their tickets), and invite them down to week-ends in the country and to shooting-parties. Thus their houses are gay with pleasant conversation, and the Piping Bullfinches have better balances at their banks.

Leonard Bashton is among the most amiable{201} and successful of these birds. He lives in two pleasant little rooms in a discreet and quiet house that lies between Mount Street and Oxford Street, for which he pays an extremely moderate rent. Exteriorly the street has little to recommend it, for it is narrow and shabby, and at the back, Number 5, where his rooms are situated on the first floor, looks out on to mews. These, a few years ago, would not have been agreeable neighbours just outside a bedroom window, but Leonard had the sense to see that with the incoming of motors there would be fewer horses, so that before long the disadvantage of having mews so close to the head of his bed would be sensibly diminished. Thus, being a young man of very acute instincts, he procured a yearly lease of these apartments, with option on his side to renew, at a very small rental. In this he has reaped a perfectly honest reward for his foresightedness, since horses nowadays are practically extinct animals in these mews, and similar sets of rooms on each side of him are let for twice the sum that he pays for his.

He has no profession whatever except that of a piping bullfinch, for on attaining the age of twenty-one he came into a property of £400 a year, and for the next three years lived with his{202} widowed mother in a country town, declining politely but quite firmly (and he is not without considerable force of character on a small scale), to take up any profession whatever. He was in every respect (except that of not working for his living), an excellent son to Mrs. Bashton, but when his two elder brothers, one a soldier, the other in the Foreign Office, came to stop with her, he always made a point of retiring to seaside lodgings for the period of their stay, since he objected to their attitude towards him. But on their departure, he always came swiftly back again, and continued to be a charming inmate of Mrs. Bashton’s house, entertaining her rather dull friends for her with excellent good humour, playing bridge at the county club between tea and dinner, and if the weather was fine and warm, indulging in a round of golf, usually on the ladies’ links, in the afternoon. But all this time he was aware that he was in the chrysalis stage, so to speak, and with a view to becoming a butterfly before very long, made a habit (his only indulgence), of reading a large quantity of those periodicals known as Society papers, which chronicle the movements and marriages of the great world. Without knowing any of these stars by sight, except when he had the opportunity of{203} seeing their pictures in the papers, he thus amassed a great quantity of information about their more trivial doings, and advanced his education. In the same way his assiduity for an hour or two every day at the bridge-tables in the club, enabled him to play a very decent game. He never lost his temper at cards (or indeed at anything else), nor wrangled with his partner, nor did he lose his head and make impossible declarations. These qualities, in this feverish, ill-tempered world caused him to be in general request when a card-party was in prospect, and also kept him in pocket-money. He did not win much, but he averaged, as his note-book of winnings and losings told him, a steady pound a week. And as he did not spend much, for he had no expensive tastes of any sort or kind, he found his cigarettes and his disbursements at the golf-club were paid for by his gentle winnings. Subsequently, on his mother’s death, he came into a further £200 a year, and after careful calculation felt himself able, since now board and lodgings were no longer supplied him gratis, to move to London, and by whistling his tunes, and making his bows, manage to procure for himself a really nice little cage with gilded wires, and plenty of food.{204}

He soon anchored himself in the ‘ampler ether’ of town. He did not take any steps to cultivate his brother in the Foreign Office or his brother’s friends, but at once began to establish a position with such friends of his mother who had town-houses. He was not in any hurry to do this, and after he had been asked to tea twice, but never to any more substantial entertainment by one of these, he refused his third similar invitation, since perpetually going to tea was not a sufficiently substantial reward for his bowings and pipings. On the fourth occasion he was asked to lunch, and being put next a most disagreeable cousin of his hostess’s who had come up to town for the day in order to alter her will, he made himself so perfectly charming to her that his hostess, in a spasm of gratitude, asked him to go to the opera with her the week after. This he very kindly consented to do, and having good eyes and an excellent memory was able to point out to her from the box several of the mighty ones of the earth, whose portraits he had seen in picture-papers. He did not exactly say he knew any of them, but went so far as hinting as much. ‘There is old Lady Birmingham,’ he said, remembering what he had read that morning. ‘Look, she has the big tiara on. She gave{205} a huge party last night with a cotillion. I suppose you were there, weren’t you? No; I couldn’t go. Such a lot on, isn’t there, just now?’

His hostess, Mrs. Theobald, one of those industrious climbers who are for ever mounting the stairs which, like the treadmill, bring them no higher at all, was rather impressed by this. It was also gratifying to find that Leonard supposed that she had been to Lady Birmingham’s party, which she would have given one if not both of her fine eyes to have been invited to. Of course she said that she hadn’t been able to go either, which was perfectly true, since she hadn’t been asked, and enquired who the woman with the amazing emeralds was. There again Leonard was lucky, for in the same paper he had read that Mrs. Cyrus M. Plush had been at Lady Birmingham’s party, wearing her prodigious emeralds, five rows of them and a girdle. It was exceedingly unlikely that anybody else had five rows and a girdle, as this new-comer into the box opposite certainly had, and he replied with great glibness:

‘Oh, Mrs. Cyrus Plush. Just look at her emeralds. How convenient if you were drinking crème de menthe and spilt it. People would only{206} think that it was another emerald. I don’t think she’s really very good-looking, do you?’

Everybody has probably experienced the horror of getting one drop of honey or some other viscous fluid on to the inside of his cuff. Though there is only just one drop of it, its presence spreads until the whole arm seems to be sticky with it. In such quiet mysterious sort Leonard began to spread. Mrs. Theobald, the desire of whose life was to entertain largely, asked him regularly and constantly to her dinner-parties, and her guests extended their invitations to him. He took this set of rooms, of which mention has been made, and with considerable foresight did them up in the violent colours which were only just beginning to come into fashion. It was no part of his plan to indulge his new friends with expensive entertainments, but just now, strawberries being so cheap, he found it an excellent investment to ask two or three ladies to tea, and found that four invitations to tea usually brought him in three invitations to dinner, which was a good dividend. To employ a smart tailor was another necessary outlay, and he affected socks of the same colour as his brilliant tie, and carried a malacca cane with a top of cloudy amber. But soon, always quick to perceive the things that{207} really interested him, he saw that though he was getting on quite nicely with women, their husbands and brothers did not seem to think much of him, and he abandoned the malacca cane, and took up golf again. Before long he hit a very happy kind of mean, and made himself the sort of young man who is not out of place either in town or in the country. He had several invitations to country-houses during the months of August and September, and when he came back to settle in London again in October, he got elected to a club of decent standing, and may be considered launched. His keel no longer grated, so to speak, on the sand: he was afloat in a shallow sea of acquaintances, with no sort or kind of friend among them.

Leonard was in no way a snob, and did not, having been launched, want to voyage the deep seas. He had not the smallest regard for a Marchioness as such, and his regard was entirely limited to those who would make him comfortable. Naturally, if a Marchioness asked him to tea, he went, but he did not go on drinking tea with a Marchioness if that was to be the limit of her hospitalities. All his respect for money, similarly, was founded on the basis of what other people’s money would procure for him, and while he would{208} take a great deal of trouble to secure a footing in a comfortable house, he would not raise a little finger to be put in a poky attic in the mansion of a millionaire. But he remained assiduous in reading paragraphs about those who move in the world which is called smart, because he knew that other people liked to hear about it, and he continued to give the impression that he himself frequented exalted circles. But since he was not himself employed in climbing, he did not drop his early friends, so long as they put plenty of nice things through the bars of his cage.

He has no intention at present of marrying, since even to marry a rich wife would interfere with his career, and he is certainly incapable of falling in love with a poor one. Indeed he neither falls in love nor pretends to with anybody, not being of the type that desires amorous, or even philandering adventure. The motto of his life is ‘Comfort,’ and on his £600 a year, he finds that warm houses, good cooks, the use of motor-cars, all the things in fact which supply the wadding of life and take away its sharp cold angles are well within his reach. He is an excellent handler of money, has no debts at all, and last season even managed to have a stall at the opera two nights a week. This again proved an{209} excellent investment, for he often gave it away in remunerative quarters, and when he occupied it himself, spent all the time between the acts in visiting the boxes of his friends, and pointing them out any celebrity who might happen to be present. Nowadays he knows them all by sight, and so has less cause to read the Society journals. The time that he used to give to that he now spends more healthily in walking swiftly for an hour every morning round the Serpentine, for he is beginning to exhibit slight signs of stoutness. But he hopes with this increase of exercise to keep at bay the threatened increase of weight. When he meets another piping bullfinch, he is dexterous in his cordiality, and by urging him indefinitely to come to his ‘diggings,’ often secures a definite invitation.

Leonard has now been a full-fledged piping bullfinch for eight years and has arrived at the age of thirty-four. Since he is not in the least ashamed of his whole life, there is probably no one in the world who has less to be ashamed of. Neither the ten commandments, nor the grand text in Galatians which entails twenty-nine distinct damnations can catch him tripping. He is uniformly good-natured, he has never set himself to make his way by telling scandalous stories about other people, he pays his debts, he is per{210}fectly honest, almost abstemiously sober, and the more closely you cross-examine him, the more spotlessly free from any sort of vice does he seem to be. Only, if you stand a little way off, so to speak, and take a general view of him, he is somehow horrible to look upon, for it would seem that he has no soul of any kind, either good or bad. And that, when all is said and done, is a grave defect: there is nothing there, and it is just that which is the matter with him. All those delicious dinners feed a non-existent thing; all those nice clothes clothe it; all his amiable conversation reveals it.

His future is depressing to contemplate, for already he is a man governed no longer by impulse or reason, but by habit. Habit has become the dominating influence in his life, and at the age when all men ought to be learning and possibly preaching, he is only practising his terrible little doctrine of the piping bullfinch. If he could fall in love even with a barmaid that would be the best that could happen to his immortal soul, or if, obeying impulse, he could only develop a craving for drink or indeed a craving for anything, there would still be some sign of vitality in the withered kernel of that nut of his spiritual self which was never cracked. It is always better{211} to go to the good than to go to the bad, but quite frankly it is better to go to the bad than to go nowhere at all. But, as it is, it seems as if only the frost and the fat were going to congeal more closely round his atrophied heart. He is a prey to that worst craving known to mankind, the craving for being comfortable. Any disreputable adventure might save him, for it might teach him that there are such things as desire and longing for no matter what. Surely to desire fire is better than merely to expect a hot-water bottle in your bed.

But it is to be feared that even at this early age of thirty-four he is a hopeless case. His engagement book is filled to repletion, and he lunches and dines every day with pleasant acquaintances, and during the slack months of London stays with them in their pleasant houses. He makes ‘rounds’ of visits; all August and September, all January and all April he is in the country, quartered on people whom he does not care about, and who do not care about him. But he is always so pleasant; he always knows everybody, and when the men come out of the dining-room in the evening he always sinks into a chair beside a rather unattractive female, and converses quite amusingly to her till he is sum{212}moned to the bridge table. Then he always says he is being ‘torn away,’ and promises to tell her the rest of it to-morrow morning. And the bereaved lady thinks what a nice man Mr. Bashton is. And so he is.

But as years go on he will get a little lazier and a little stouter. Gradually he will be relegated to the second line, and the young piping bullfinches who succeed him will in the chirpiness of their early songs wonder why that ‘old buffer’ still assumes the airs of youth. He will still appear in the smoking-room with the stories that were once of contemporaneous happenings, and now seem to the young birds tales of ancient history. By degrees his country visits will dwindle, for country-houses are so draughty, and he will sit and snooze in his club, presenting the back of an odious bald head to the passer-by in St. James’s Street, as he waits for the familiar crowd to return to London again after the Christmas holidays. His contemporaries will have tall sons and daughters growing up round them, and he will be familiarly known as Uncle Leonard, and yet all the time he will think he is something of a gay young spark yet, and point out Lady Birmingham’s daughter and Mrs. Cyrus Plush’s son to his neighbour at the opera.{213}

Then some day, if fate is kind, he will have a fit and die without more ado. Not a single person in the world will really miss him, for the very simple reason that there was nobody really there. He will have touched no heart, he will have nothing and have produced nothing but the little songs and bows that young bullfinches perform with so much more verve. Somebody at the club when he no longer takes a sheaf of newspapers under his arm will say, ‘Poor old Bashton: nice old chap! Getting awfully doddery, wasn’t he? Are you going to see the new play to-night? Haymarket, isn’t it?

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