The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Five - The Sea-Green Incorruptible

CONSTANCE LADY WHITTLEMERE lives in a huge gloomy house in the very centre of Mayfair, has a majestic appearance, and is perfectly ready for the Day of Judgment to come whenever it likes. From the time when she learned French in the school-room (she talks it with a certain sonorous air, as if she was preaching a sermon in a cathedral) and played Diabelli’s celebrated duet in D with the same gifted instructress, she has always done her duty in every state of life. If she sat down to think, she could not hit upon any point in which she has not invariably behaved like a Christian and a lady (particularly a lady). Yet she is not exactly Pharisaical; she never enumerates even in her own mind her manifold excellences, simply because they are so much a matter of course with her. And that is precisely why she is so perfectly hopeless. She expects it of herself to do her duty, and behave as a lady should behave, and she never has the smallest misgiving as to her complete success in living up to this ideal. That being so, she does not give it another thought,{86} knowing quite well that, whoever else may do doubtful or disagreeable things, Constance Whittlemere will move undeviatingly on in her flawless courses, just as the moon, without any diminution of her light and serenity, looks down on slums or battle-fields, strewn with the corpses of the morally or physically slain. And Lady Whittlemere, like the moon, does not even think of saying, ‘Poor things!’ She is much too lunar.

At the age of twenty-two (to trace her distressing history) her mother informed her, at the close of her fourth irreproachable London season, that she was going to marry Lord Whittlemere. She was very glad to hear it, for he was completely congenial to her, though, even if she had been very sorry to hear it, her sense of duty would probably have led her to do as she was told. But having committed that final act of filial obedience, she realized that she had a duty to perform to herself in the person of the new Lady Whittlemere, and climbed up on to a lofty four-square pedestal of her own. Her duty towards herself was as imperative as her duty towards Miss Green had been, when she learned the Diabelli duet in D, and was no doubt derived from the sense of position that she, as her husband’s wife,{87} enjoyed. Yet perhaps she hardly ‘enjoyed’ it, for it was not in her nature to enjoy anything. She had a perfectly clear idea, as always, of what her own sense of fitness entailed on her, and she did it rigidly. ‘The Thing,’ in fact, was her rule in life. Just as it was The Thing to obey her governess, and obey her mother, so, when she blossomed out into wifehood, The Thing was to be a perfect and complete Lady Whittlemere. Success, as always, attended her conscientious realisation of this. Luckily (or unluckily, since her hope of salvation was thereby utterly forfeited) she had married a husband whose general attitude towards life, whose sense of duty and hidebound instincts, equalled her own, and they lived together, after that literal solemnization of holy matrimony in St. Peter’s, Eaton Square, for thirty-four years in unbroken harmony. They both of them had an unassailable sense of their own dignity, never disagreed on any topic under the sun, and saw grow up round them a copious family of plain, solid sons and comely daughters, none of whom caused their parents a single moment’s salutary anxiety. The three daughters, amply dowried, got married into stiff mahogany families at an early age, and the sons continued to prop up the conservative inter{88}ests of the nation by becoming severally (i.) a soldier, (ii.) a clergyman, (iii.) a member of Parliament, (iv.) a diplomatist, and they took into all these liberal walks of life the traditions and proprieties of genuine Whittlemeres. They were all Honourables, and all honourable, and all dull, and all completely conscious of who they were. Nothing could have been nicer.

For these thirty-four years, then, Lady Whittlemere and her husband lived together in harmony and exquisite expensive pomposity. Had Genesis been one of the prophetical books, their existence might be considered as adumbrated by that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Only there was no serpent of any kind, and their great house in shelter of the Wiltshire downs had probably a far pleasanter climate than that of Mesopotamia. Their sons grew up plain but strong, they all got into the cricket Eleven at Eton, and had no queer cranky leanings towards vegetarianism like Abel, or to homicide like Cain, while the daughters until the time of their mahogany marriages grew daily more expert in the knowledge of how to be Whittlemeres. Three months of the year they spent in London, three more in their large property in the Highlands of{89} Scotland, and the remaining six were devoted to Home Life at Whittlemere, where the hunting season and the shooting season with their large solid parties ushered in the Old English Christmas, and were succeeded by the quietness of Lent. Then after Easter the whole household, from major-domo to steward’s-room boy, went second-class to London, while for two days Lord and Lady Whittlemere ‘picnicked’ as they called it at Whittlemere, with only his lordship’s valet and her ladyship’s maid, and the third and fourth footmen, and the first kitchen-maid and the still-room maid and one housemaid to supply their wants, and made their state entry in the train of their establishment to Whittlemere House, Belgrave Square, where they spent May, June, and July.

But while they were in the country no distraction consequent on hunting or shooting parties diverted them from their mission in life, which was to behave like Whittlemeres. About two hundred and thirty years ago, it is true, a certain Lord Whittlemere had had ‘passages,’ so to speak, with a female who was not Lady Whittlemere, but since then the whole efforts of the family had been devoted to wiping out this deplorable lapse. Wet or fine, hunting and shoot{90}ing notwithstanding, Lord Whittlemere gave audience every Thursday to his estate-manager, who laid before him accounts and submitted reports. Nothing diverted him from his duty, any more than it did from distributing the honours of his shooting lunches among the big farmer-tenants of the neighbourhood. There was a regular cycle of these, and duly Lord Whittlemere with his guests lunched (the lunch in its entirety being brought out in hampers from The House) at Farmer Jones’s, and Farmer Smith’s, and Farmer Robertson’s, complimented Mrs. Jones, Smith and Robertson on the neatness of their gardens and the rosy-facedness of their children, and gave them each a pheasant or a hare. Similarly whatever Highnesses and Duchesses were staying at The House, Lady Whittlemere went every Wednesday morning to the Mothers’ Meeting at the Vicarage, and every Thursday afternoon to pay a call in rotation on three of the lodgekeepers’ and tenants’ wives. This did not bore her in the least: nothing in the cold shape of duty ever bored her. Conjointly they went to church on Sunday morning, where Lord Whittlemere stood up before the service began and prayed into his hat, subsequently reading the lessons, and giving a sovereign into the plate,{91} while Lady Whittlemere, after a choir practice on Saturday afternoon, played the organ. It was the custom for the congregation to wait in their pews till they had left the church, exactly as if it was in honour of Lord and Lady Whittlemere that they had assembled here. This impression was borne out by the fact that as The Family walked down the aisle the congregation rose to their feet. Only the footman who was on duty that day preceded their exit, and he held the door of the landau open until Lady Whittlemere and three daughters had got in. Lord Whittlemere and such sons as were present then took off their hats to their wife, mother, sisters and daughters and strode home across the Park.

And as if this was not enough propriety for one day, every Sunday evening the vicar of the parish came to dine with the family, directly after evening service. He was bidden to come straight back from evensong without dressing, and in order to make him quite comfortable Lord Whittlemere never dressed on Sunday evening, and made a point of reading the Guardian and the Church Family Newspaper in the interval between tea and dinner, so as to be able to initiate Sabbatical subjects. This fortunate clergyman was{92} permitted to say grace both before and after meat, and Lord Whittlemere always thanked him for ‘looking in on us.’ To crown all he invariably sent him two pheasants and a hare during the month of November and an immense cinnamon turkey at Christmas.

In this way Constance Whittlemere’s married life was just the flower of her maiden bud. The same sense of duty as had inspired her school-room days presided like some wooden-eyed Juggernaut over her wifehood, and all her freedom from any sort of worry or anxiety for these thirty-four years served but to give her a shell to her soul. She became rounded and water-tight, she got to be embedded in the jelly of comfort and security and curtseying lodge-keepers’ wives, and ‘yes-my-lady’-Sunday-Schools. Such rudiments of humanity as she might possibly have once been possessed of shrivelled like a devitalised nut-kernel, and, when at the end of these thirty-four years her husband died, she was already too proper, too shell-bound to be human any longer. Naturally his death was an extremely satisfactory sort of death, and there was no sudden stroke, nor any catching of vulgar disease. He had a bad cold on Saturday, and, with a rising temperature, insisted on going to church on Sunday.{93} Not content with that, in the pursuance of perfect duty he went to the stables, as usual, on Sunday afternoon, and fed his hunters with lumps of sugar and carrots. It is true that he sent the second footman down to the church about the time of evensong, to say that he was exceedingly unwell, and would have to forgo the pleasure of having Mr. Armine to dinner, but the damage was already done. He developed pneumonia, lingered a decorous week, and then succumbed. All was extremely proper.

It is idle to pretend that his wife felt any sense of desolation, for she was impervious to everything except dignity. But she decided to call herself Constance Lady Whittlemere, rather than adopt the ugly name of Dowager. There was a magnificent funeral, and she was left very well off.

Le Roi est mort: Vive le Roi: Captain Lord Whittlemere took the reins of government into his feudal grasp, and his mother with four rows of pearls for her life, two carriages and a pair of carriage horses and a jointure of £6000 a year entered into the most characteristic phase of her existence. She was fifty-six years old, and since she proposed to live till at least eighty, she bought the lease of a great chocolate-coloured house in{94} Mayfair with thirty years to run, for it would be very tiresome to have to turn out at the age of seventy-nine. As befitted her station, it was very large and gloomy and dignified, and had five best spare bedrooms, which was just five more than she needed, since she never asked anybody to stay with her except her children’s governess, poor Miss Lyall, for whom a dressing-room was far more suitable: Miss Lyall would certainly be more used to a small room than a large one. She came originally to help Lady Whittlemere to keep her promise as set forth in the Morning Post to answer the letters of condolence that had poured in upon her in her bereavement, but before that gigantic task was over, Lady Whittlemere had determined to give her a permanent home here, in other words, to secure for herself someone who was duly conscious of the greatness of Whittlemeres and would read to her or talk to her, drive with her, and fetch and carry for her. She did not propose to give Miss Lyall any remuneration for her services, as is usual in the case of a companion, for it was surely remuneration enough to provide her with a comfortable home and all found, while Miss Lyall’s own property of £100 a year would amply clothe her, and enable her to lay something by. Lady Whittle{95}mere thought that everybody should lay something by, even if, like herself, nothing but the total extinction of the British Empire would deprive her of the certainty of having £6000 a year as long as she lived. But thrift being a duty, she found that £5000 a year enabled her to procure every comfort and luxury that her limited imagination could suggest to her, and instead of spending the remaining £1000 a year on charity or things she did not want, she laid it by. Miss Lyall, in the same way could be neat and tidy on £50 a year, and lay by £50 more.

For a year of mourning Constance Whittlemere lived in the greatest seclusion, and when that year was out she continued to do so. She spent Christmas at her son’s house, where there was always a pompous family gathering, and stayed for a fortnight at Easter in a hotel at Hastings for the sake of sea-breezes. She spent August in Scotland, again with her son, and September at Buxton, where further to fortify her perfect health, she drank waters and went for two walks a day with Miss Lyall, whose hotel bills she, of course, was answerable for. Miss Lyall similarly accompanied her to Hastings, but was left behind in London at Christmas and during August.{96}

A large establishment was of course necessary in order to maintain the Whittlemere tradition. Half-a-dozen times in the season Lady Whittlemere had a dinner-party which assembled at eight, and broke up with the utmost punctuality at half-past ten, but otherwise the two ladies were almost invariably alone at breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner. But a cook, a kitchen-maid, and a scullery-maid were indispensable to prepare those meals, a still-room maid to provide cakes and rolls for tea and breakfast, a butler and two footmen to serve them, a lady’s maid to look after Lady Whittlemere, a steward’s room boy to wait on the cook, the butler, and the lady’s maid, two housemaids to dust and tidy, a coachman to drive Lady Whittlemere, and a groom and a stable-boy to look after the horses and carriages. It was impossible to do with less, and thus fourteen lives were spent in maintaining the Whittlemere dignity downstairs, and Miss Lyall did the same upstairs. With such an establishment Lady Whittlemere felt that she was enabled to do her duty to herself, and keep the flag of tradition flying. But the merest tyro in dignity could see that this could not be done with fewer upholders, and sometimes Lady Whittlemere had grave doubts whether she ought not to have a hall{97}-boy as well. One of the footmen or the butler of course opened the front-door as she went in and out, and the hall-boy with a quantity of buttons would stand up as she passed him with fixed set face, and then presumably sit down again.

The hours of the day were mapped out with a regularity borrowed from the orbits of the stars. At half-past nine precisely Lady Whittlemere entered the dining-room where Miss Lyall was waiting for her, and extended to her companion the tips of four cool fingers. Breakfast was eaten mostly in silence, and if there were any letters for her (there usually were not) Lady Whittlemere read them, and as soon as breakfast was over answered them. After these literary labours were accomplished, Miss Lyall read items from the Morning Post aloud, omitting the leading articles but going conscientiously through the smaller paragraphs. Often Lady Whittlemere would stop her. ‘Lady Cammerham is back in town is she?’ she would say. ‘She was a Miss Pulton, a distant cousin of my husband’s. Yes, Miss Lyall?’

This reading of the paper lasted till eleven, at which hour, if fine, the two ladies walked in the Green Park till half-past. If wet, they looked out{98} of the window to see if it was going to clear. At half-past eleven the landau was announced (shut if wet, open if fine), and they drove round and round and round and round the Park till one. At one they returned and retired till half-past, when the butler and two footmen gave them lunch. At lunch the butler said, ‘Any orders for the carriage, my lady?’ and every day Lady Whittlemere said, ‘The victoria at half-past two. Is there anywhere particular you would like to go, Miss Lyall?’ Miss Lyall always tried to summon up her courage at this, and say that she would like to go to the Zoological Gardens. She had done so once, but that had not been a great success, for Lady Whittlemere had thought the animals very strange and rude. So since then she always replied:

‘No, I think not, thank you, Lady Whittlemere.’

They invariably drove for two hours in the summer and for an hour and a half in the winter, and this change of hours began when Lady Whittlemere came back from Harrogate at the end of September, and from Hastings after Easter. Little was said during the drive, it being enough for Lady Whittlemere to sit very straight up in her seat and look loftily about her, so that any chance passer-by who knew her by sight would be aware that she was behaving as befitted Constance Lady Whittlemere. Opposite her, not by her side, sat poor Miss Lyall, ready with a parasol or a fur boa or a cape or something in case her patroness felt cold, while on the box beside Brendon the coachman sat the other footman, who had not been out round and round and round the Park in the morning, and so in the afternoon went down Piccadilly and up Regent Street and through Portland Place and round and round Regent’s Park, and looked on to the back of the two fat lolloping horses which also had not been out that morning. There they all went, the horses and Brendon and William and Miss Lyall in attendance on Constance Lady Whittlemere, as dreary and pompous and expensive and joyless a carriage-load as could be seen in all London, with the exception, possibly, of Black Maria.

They returned home in time for Miss Lyall to skim through the evening paper aloud, and then had the tea with the cakes and the scones from the still-room. After tea Miss Lyall read for two hours some book from the circulating library, while Lady Whittlemere did wool work. These gloomy tapestries were made into screens{100} and chair-seats and cushions, and annually one (the one begun in the middle of November) was solemnly presented to Miss Lyall on the day that Lady Whittlemere went out of town for Christmas. And annually she said:

“Oh, thank you, Lady Whittlemere; is it really for me?”

It was: and she was permitted to have it mounted as she chose at her own expense.

At 7.15 P.M. a sonorous gong echoed through the house; Miss Lyall finished the sentence she was reading, and Lady Whittlemere put her needle into her work, and said it was time to dress. At dinner, though both were teetotallers, wine was offered them by the butler, and they both refused it, and course after course was presented to them by the two footmen in white stockings and Whittlemere livery and cotton gloves. Port also was put on the table with dessert, this being the bottle which had been opened at the last dinner-party, and when Lady Whittlemere had eaten a gingerbread and drunk half a glass of water they went, not into the morning-room which they had used during the day, but the large drawing-room upstairs with the Louis Seize furniture and the cut-glass chandeliers. Every evening it was all ablaze with lights,{101} and the fire roared up the chimney: the tables were bright with flowers, and rows of chairs were set against the wall. Majestically Lady Whittlemere marches into it, followed by Miss Lyall, and there she plays patience till 10.30 while Miss Lyall looks on with sycophantic congratulations at her success, and murmured sympathy if the cards are unkind. At 10.30 Branksome the butler throws open the door and a footman brings in a tray of lemonade and biscuits. This refreshment is invariably refused by both ladies, and at eleven the house is dark.

Now the foregoing catalogue of events accurately describes Lady Whittlemere’s day, and in it is comprised the sum of the material that makes up her mental life. But it is all enacted in front of the background that she is Lady Whittlemere. The sight of the London streets, with their million comedies and tragedies, arouses in her no sympathetic or human current: all she knows is that Lady Whittlemere is driving down Piccadilly. When the almond blossom comes out in Regent’s Park, and the grass is yellow with the flowering of the spring bulbs, her heart never dances with the daffodils; all that happens is that Lady Whittlemere sees that they are there. She{102} subscribes to no charities, for she is aware that her husband left her this ample jointure for herself, and she spends such part of it as she does not save on herself, on her food and her house and her horses and the fifteen people whose business it is to make her quite comfortable. She has no regrets and no longings, because she has always lived perfectly correctly, and does not want anything. She is totally without friends or enemies, and she is never surprised nor enthusiastic nor vexed. About six times a year, on the day preceding one of her dinners, Miss Lyall does not read aloud after tea, but puts the names of her guests on pieces of cardboard, and makes a map of the table, while the evening she leaves London for Hastings or Scotland she stops playing patience at ten, in order to get a good long night before her journey. She does the same on her arrival in town again so as to get a good long night after her journey. She takes no interest in politics, music, drama, or pictures, but goes to the private view of the Academy as May comes round, because The Thing recommends it. And when she comes to die, the life-long consciousness of The Thing will enable her to meet the King of Terrors with fortitude and composure. He will not frighten her at all.{103}

And what on earth will the Recording Angel find to write in his book about her? He cannot put down all those drives round the Park, and all those games of patience, and really there is nothing else to say....

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