The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Four - The Poison of Asps

HORACE CAMPBELL HAS AN UNERRING gift of smudging whatever he speaks of. As he speaks most of the time, he manages to smudge a good deal, and in consequence is in great demand at somewhat smudgy houses by reason of his appropriate and amusing conversation. Every decent man would like to kick him, and every nice woman would like to slap his fat white face, and so his habitats are the establishments of those not so foolishly particular. But though he lunches and dines without intermission at other people’s houses, he is in no degree one who sings for his dinner, for he has a quite distinct career of his own, and spends his mornings earning not daily bread only, but truffles and asparagus and all the more expensive foods, by teaching other people to sing. His knowledge of voice-production is quite unrivalled, and he could probably, if he chose, turn a corn-crake into a contralto. The enormous fees that he charges thus enable him to compress into three hours the period of his working day, and during that time he is the father and mother of most of the beautiful noises that next year will be heard rising from human throats at concerts and opera-{72}houses. Then, his business being over and his pocket fat, he puts on his black morning coat, and his cloth-topped shoes, his grey silk tie with the pearl tie-pin, and goes forth to cause himself as well as his pocket to grow fat, and makes a music of his own.

Now his thesis, his working hypothesis, the basis of his conversation, is this. There are always several possible causes which may account for all that happens in the busy little world of London, and in discussing such happenings, he invariably assumes the smudgiest and more scandalous cause. A few instances will make this clear.

Example (1): John Smith is engaged to Eliza Jones.

Possible causes:

(i.) John Smith loves Eliza Jones and Eliza Jones loves John Smith.

(ii.) John Smith is after Eliza Jones’s money.

(iii.) It was high time that John Smith did marry Eliza Jones.

Of these possible causes Horace Campbell leaves cause (i.) out of the question as not worth consideration. Cause (ii.) may account for it, but he invariably prefers cause (iii.).

Or again{73}—

Example (2): Mrs. Snookes went to the opera with Mr. Snookes.

Probable causes:

(i.) Husband and wife went to the opera because they like going to the opera.

(ii.) Mrs. Snookes has an affair with the famous tenor Signor Topnotari.

(iii.) Mr. Snookes is paid £2:2:0 a night to applaud the soprano Signora Beeinalt.

It is idle to point out which cause Horace Campbell proceeds to discuss.

Example (3): An eminent statesman goes into the country for a week-end.

Possible causes:

(i.) The eminent statesman needs rest.

(ii.) ‘Somebody’ goes with him.

Horace Campbell’s law of causation again applies.

Here then is the postulate which lies at the root of his conversation, his standpoint towards life. He does not bear ill-will towards those on whose conduct he habitually places the worst conceivable motive, and he has no political or personal objection to the eminent statesman, whom he would be very glad to know: it is merely that a nasty thing perches on his mind with greater facility than a nice one, and evokes greater sym{74}pathy there. Scandalous innuendoes seem to him more amusing than innocent interpretations, and so too, it appears, do they seem to those at whose tables he makes himself so entertaining. His stories are considered ‘too killing,’ whereas there is nothing very killing about the notion that Mr. and Mrs. Snookes went to the opera because they liked music. Also he has a perfect command of the French language, and often for the sake of guileless butlers and footmen he tells his little histories in French, which produces an impression of intrigue and wit in itself. Love-affairs, the theme round which he revolves, are no doubt of perennial human interest, but he has but little sympathy with a love-affair founded on or culminating in marriage. It must have some taint of the illicit to be worth his busy embroidering needle; the other has a touch of the bourgeois about it. Suggestiveness is more to his mind than statement, hints than assertions. To judge by his conversation you would think that he and the world generally swam in fathomless oceans of vice, but as far as conduct goes, he never swam a stroke. At the utmost he took off his shoes and stockings, and paddled at the extreme edge of that unprofitable sea. He just pruriently paddles there with his fat white feet....{75}

It has been said that every decent man would like to kick him, but in justice to him it must be added that he is not nearly so unkindly disposed towards anybody. Decent men, like such bourgeois emotions as honest straightforward love, only bore him, and he merely yawns in their faces. But though he has no direct malice, no desire to injure anyone by his petites saletés, he has, it must be confessed, a grudge against all those whom he considers collectively as being at the top of the tree. He has enough brains to know that the majority of the class Mr. and Mrs. Not-quite-in-it, who are his intimate circle, have not a quarter of his cleverness, but what he has not brains to see is that the very gifts of belittlement and scandal-scattering that make him such a tremendous success with them, are exactly the gifts which prevent his being welcomed in more desirable circles. It would be altogether beyond the mark to hint that he is in any way under a cloud: at the most he is, like the cuttle-fish, enveloped in an obscurity of his own making. Though perfectly honest himself, he would certainly, if anyone remarked that honesty was the best policy, retort that successful swindling was at least a good second, and it is exactly that habit of mind that causes him to be planté là, as he would say{76} himself, among the Not-quite-in-its. Humour, of which he has plenty, is no doubt the salt of life, but all his humour has gone rancid. It is there all right, but it has gone bad, and gives a healthy digestion aches. But flies settle on it, and are none the worse. Though there is no direct malice in him towards those against whom he so incessantly uses his little toy tar-squirt, there is a distinct trait of jealousy, that one vice that is quite barren of pleasure, for of all the commandments there is none except the tenth the breaking of which does not bring to the transgressor some momentary gratification. That, too, accounts in large measure for the raptures he causes at the tables of the Not-quite-in-its, for they, like him, yearn to be quite in it, and not being able to manage it, applaud this dainty use of the tar-squirt against those who are. They have plenty of money, plenty of brains, plenty of artistic tastes, and they would certainly scream with laughter if they were told that it was just the want of a very bourgeois quality, namely good-nature, that bars the fulfilment of their just desires. Yet such is the case: they are not ‘kind inside.’ They are (ever so slightly) pleased at other people’s checks and set-backs, and herein in the main consists their second-rateness.{77}

Horace Campbell is perhaps the priest of this little nest of asps, and without doubt the priestess is the amazing Mrs. Dealtry, now flaming in the sunset of her witty discontented life. She is tall and corpulent, with wonderful vitality and quantities of auburn hair and carmine lip salve, and mauve scarves, and when she and Horace Campbell get together, as they do two or three times a day, to discuss their friends, those who die, so to speak, and are dismissed by them, are the lucky ones, for the rest they drive with whips through the London streets, without a rag of reputation to cover them. She, like Horace, has plenty of humour, and if the sight of a wrinkled old woman with a painted face, and one high-heeled foot in the grave, dealing out horrible innuendoes like a pack of cards, does not make you feel sick, you will enjoy her conversation very much. Years ago she started the theory that Horace was devotedly attached to her, and for her sake committed celibacy, and though she has changed her friends more often than she changes her dress, she still sticks to the gratifying belief that she has wrecked his life.

‘Horace might have done anything,’ she is accustomed to say, ‘but he would always waste his time on me. Poor Horace! such a dear, isn’t he,{78} but how much aged in this last year or two. And I can’t think why somebody doesn’t tell him to have his teeth attended to.’

Then as Horace entered the room she made a place for him on the sofa.

‘Monster, come here at once,’ she said. ‘Now what is the truth about Lady Genge’s sudden disappearance? I am told he simply turned her out of the house, which any decent man would have done years ago.’

‘He did,’ said Horace, ‘and she always came in again by the back door. This time he has turned her out of the back door. On dit que “Cherchez le valet.”’

Mrs. Dealtry gave a little scream of laughter.

‘Last time it was the girl’s music master,’ she said. ‘She will never take servants with a character.’

‘Character for what?’ asked Horace. ‘Sobriety?’

‘She was at the opera three nights ago, but blind drunk, though you mustn’t repeat that. I’m told she had her tiara upside down with the points over her forehead. Alice Chignonette, as I call her, was with her, a small horse-hair bun glued with seccotine to the back of her head. She{79} hadn’t got any clothes on, but was slightly distempered.’

‘She always is slightly distempered, except when she holds four aces and four queens, and has seen the whole of her opponent’s hand so that she knows whether to finesse or not. And is it true that the Weasel has stopped her allowance?’

‘Yes, he gave her a coat of dyed rabbit-skins with a card pour prendre congé, and a second-class ticket to Milwaukee where he first found her on the sidewalkee. What people get into society now! Large bare shoulders, a perpetual cold in the head and the manners of a Yahoo are a sufficient passport. One can’t go anywhere without running into them. Not a soul would speak to her at Milwaukee so she came to London for whitewash.’

‘And distemper.’

‘She brought that with her. The Weasel carried it in his grip-sack.’

Horace took an enamelled cigarette-case out of his pocket and lit a cigarette that smelt of musk.

‘I saw Lily Broomsgrove to-day,’ he said. ‘She has become slightly broader than she is long.{80}’

‘Her conversation always was. It consists of seven improper adjectives and one expletive. That is why she is so popular. She can be easily understood.’

‘She seemed to have an understanding with Pip Rippington. He was enclosed.’

‘He ought to be. Haven’t you heard? That golf club he started, you know. Apparently golf was a terminological inexactitude. I suppose it will all be common property soon, so I may as well tell you.’

Mrs. Dealtry proceeded to tell them, and all the little asps hissed with pleasure....

Now there was very little truth in all that Mrs. Dealtry had been saying, and perhaps none at all in Horace Campbell’s contribution, yet while each of them really knew the other was a liar, each drank it all in with the utmost avidity. Such malice as there was about them was completely impotent malice: it could not possibly matter to Pip Rippington, for instance, whoever he was, that Mrs. Dealtry and Horace had been inventing stories about him. That he had founded a golf club was perfectly true; that Mrs. Dealtry had not been welcomed as a member of it was true also, though there was a needless suppressio veri about this fact, as everybody present was{81} perfectly aware of it. But it amused them in some rancid manner to vent spleen, just as it perhaps amuses asps to bite. Only, and here was one of Time’s revenges, nobody ever cared what either of them said. To throw mud enough is proverbially supposed to ensure the sticking of some of it, but in the case of them and those like them, the proverb was falsified. They had said that sort of thing too often and too emphatically for anyone to attach the smallest importance to it; it was as if their victims had been inoculated for the poison of asps, and suffered no subsequent inconvenience from the bite. No one thought of bringing the laws about libel into play over them, any more than people think about invoking the protection of those laws against a taxi-driver who compensates himself in compliments for the tip he has not received. If they have any sense they get themselves into their houses and leave the vituperative driver outside. That is just what decent people did with Horace Campbell. He is outside still, biting the paving-stones.

The pity of it all is the appalling waste among asps of brains, inventive faculty, and humour. If only their gifts were used to some laudable or even only innocent purpose, the world in general would gain a great deal of entertainment, and{82} the asps of the popularity and success that they secretly crave for. As it is, some sort of moral ptomaine has infected them, some invasion of microbes that turns their wit into poison. Whatsoever things are loathsome, whatsoever things are of ill report, they think of those things. All their wit, too, goes to waste: nobody cares two straws what they say, and the bitten are pathetically unconscious of having received any injury whatever. That fact, perhaps, if they could thoroughly realise it, might draw their fangs.

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