The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Nine - Climbers: II. The Perpendicular

IF YOU ARE AN OBSERVANT PERSON addicted to washing your hands and face, you can hardly fail to have noticed the legend ‘Whitehand’ imprinted on your basin and soap-dish, and indeed on every sort of crockery. Probably, if you thought about it at all, you imagined that this was a trade-name, alluding to the effect of washing, but it is not really so at all. Mr. Whitehand is the kind American gentleman who supplies so many of us with these articles of toilet, and as a consequence Mr. Whitehand is rich if not beyond the feverish dreams of avarice, at any rate, as rich as avarice can possibly desire to be in its waking moments.

This fortunate gentleman began life as a boy who swept out a public lavatory in New York, and this accounts for his turning his attention to hardware. When he had made this colossal fortune he set about spending it, though he had no chance of spending it as quickly as it came in, and with a view to this bought a large chocolate-coloured house in Fifth Avenue, a cottage at Newport, an immense steam-yacht, a complete train in which to go on his journeys, and ordered a few{162} dozen of Raphael’s pictures and some Gobelin tapestry. He was never quite certain whether Gobelin had painted the pictures and the firm of Raphael the tapestry, but that did not matter, since he had them both. He then expected his wife to get him into the very best New York society, and enter the charmed circle of the Four Hundred. She had been his typewriter, and in a fit of moral weakness, of which he had never repented, since she suited him extremely well, he had married her. But whether it was that the Four Hundred had seen too much of Mr. Whitehand’s name on their slop-basins, or whether he had not bought sufficient Raphaels, they one and all turned their ivory shoulders on him and his wife, and banged the door in their faces. As Mrs. Whitehand had just as keen a desire to shine among the stars of the amazing city as her husband, she was naturally much annoyed at her inability to climb into the firmament, the more so because she was convinced that with practice she could become a first-rate climber. She had the indomitable will and the absolute imperviousness to rebuffs that are the birthright of that agile race, and felt the inward sense of her royalty in this respect, as might some Princess over whom a wizard had cast a spell. But some{163}how, here in New York, she got no practice in climbing, because she could make no beginning whatever. She could only stand on tiptoe, which is a very different matter. And when at the end of her second year of standing on tiptoe, Nittie Vandercrump, the acknowledged queen of Newport, cut her dead for the seventeenth time, and with her famous scream asked her friend, Nancy Costersnatch, who all those strange faces belonged to, Mrs. Whitehand began to think that New York was impregnable by direct assault. But in the manner of Benjamin Disraeli, she vowed that some day she would attract attention in that assembly, and with Nittie Vandercrump’s scream ringing in her ears, sat down to think.

Well, there were other places in the world besides New York, places where there grew social trees of far greater antiquity and magnificence, and she settled to climb the London tree. But she felt that she would get on better there at first without her husband. He was rather too fond of telling people what he paid for his Raphaels and how fast his special train went. When she had climbed right up among the topmost branches, she would send for him, and let a rope down to him, and he might quote as many prices as he chose, but she felt with the unerring instinct of{164} a born climber that he would be in the way at first, even as he had been in New York. She talked it over quite amicably with him that night, while the still air vibrated with the sound of the band next door and the screams of Nittie, and he cordially consented to the experiment. Money ad libitum was to be hers, and it was to be her business to get somewhere where the screams of Nittie would be no more to them than the cries of the milkman in the street. He, meantime, was to amuse himself with the special train and the Gobelin tapestry and the steam-yacht, and make himself as comfortable as he could, while his wife made this broad outflanking movement on New York.

So one May afternoon Sarah Whitehand, with twenty-two trunks and a couple of maids and her own indomitable will, arrived at the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly, and set about her business. She dined alone in the restaurant, read the small paragraphs in the evening paper, and ordered a box at the opera. She was an insignificant little personage in the way of physical advantages, being short, and having a face which owned no particular features. She had, it is true, two eyes, a nose and a mouth, for the absence of any of them would have made her conspicuous, which she was not, but there was nothing to be said about them. They were just there: two of them greenish, one of them slightly turned up, while the other was but a hole in her face. She was not ugly any more than she was pretty; she was merely nothing at all; you did not look twice at her. But if you had, it might have struck you that there was something uncommonly shrewd about the insignificant objects which supplied the place of features. Also, when she was determined to do anything, you would have seen that she had a chin.

But to-night this face of common objects rose out of the most wonderful gown in shades of orange that was ever seen. It was crowned too in a winking splendour of diamonds that shouted and sang in her sandy-coloured hair, and round her neck were half-a-dozen rows of marvellous pearls. While the curtain was up she sat close to the front of her box with her eyes undeviatingly fixed on the stage, and when the curtain fell she stood there a minute more, so that the whole house should get a good view of her. She did not look about her; she merely stood there, seemingly unconscious of the opera-glasses that were turned on her from all quarters of the house. All round, everybody was asking everybody else{166} who the woman with the diamond Crystal Palace was, and nobody knew. Nor did anybody know, not even Mrs. Isaacs, the fashionable clairvoyante, who exposed a considerable portion of her ample form in the stalls, that through the mists of the horizon there faintly shone to-night the star of surpassing magnitude that was to climb to the very zenith, and burn there in unwinking splendour.

For the next week Sarah took no direct step forward, but sat in the Ritz Hotel, or in her box at the opera, or drove about on shopping errands. Among these latter must be included a quantity of visits to house-agents, who had in their hands the letting of furnished houses in such localities as Grosvenor Square and Brook Street, and what seemed to interest her more than the houses themselves was the question of who was wishing to let them. But she was in no hurry: she was perfectly well aware that the first steps were of the utmost importance, and before she stepped at all, she wanted to find the largest and strongest stepping-stone available. The evening usually found her alone in her opera-box, seemingly absorbed in the presentation of Russian ballet, and unconscious of the opera-glasses levelled at her. She gave the opera-glasses something to look at{167} too, for she never appeared twice in the same gown, but in a series of last cries, most stimulating to the observer. One night she wore a sort of bonnet of ospreys on her head, and again everybody asked everybody else who the Cherokee Indian was. But again nobody knew, and so they all supposed that the ospreys were made of celluloid. But they had an uncomfortable idea that they might be genuine. But if so, who’s were they? London began to be genuinely intrigued.

After about a week of this, she suddenly lighted upon exactly what she had been looking for in the books of the house-agents. A certain new big house in Grosvenor Street, which externally recalled a fortress made of stout sand-bags was to be let by Lord Newgate (marquis of), the eldest son of the Duke of Bailey. Sarah had already seen Lady Newgate, a tall, floating dream of blue eyes, golden hair and child-like mouth, at the opera, and knew her and her husband to be among the true white nightingales who sing and play poker at the very top of the tree she was pining to climb. A less Napoleonic climber than she might have thought that to take the Newgates’ house was a passport to London, but she knew that it would only carry its cachet among the people who could not really be of any{168} use to her, namely, that well-dressed esurient gang of Londoners who find it quite sufficient to be fed and amused at other people’s expense. Sensible woman that she was, she fully intended to feed and amuse them, but it was not they that she was out for: at the best they were like the stage army which marches in at one door and out at another, and in and out again. They were not the principals. You were, of course, surrounded by people whom you fed and amused, if you were on the climb, just as you were surrounded by footmen and motor-cars, but she looked much further than this. She argued, again correctly, that if such conspicuously melodious songsters as the Newgates wanted to let their house during the very months when they would naturally be needing it most, they must be in considerable want of money, and would be likely to give some valuable equivalent for it. So, seeing her scheme complete from end to end, as far as the taking of this house was concerned, she told the slightly astonished agent that she was willing to take the house for the next three months or the next six at the price named, but that she wished to make her arrangements with Lady Newgate herself. The agent, seeing that she was just a wild American, politely represented to her that this was not the usual{169} method of doing such business in civilized places, but she remained adamant.

‘If I don’t settle it up with the Marchioness of Newgate,’ she said, ‘I won’t settle it up with anybody else. Kindly give that message over your ’phone, please, to the Marchioness, and say that if she feels disposed to entertain my proposals, I shall be very happy to see her at the Ritz Hotel this afternoon. And if she don’t care to come, why, I don’t care to take her old house. That’s all. You may say that my name is Mrs. Whitehand, and that my husband’s the head of the firm, which she maybe has heard of.’

Now simple as this procedure appeared, it had the simplicity of genius about it, not the simplicity of the fool. As far as houses went, she did not care whether she had Lady Newgate’s house or a house in Newgate. What she was going for was Lady Newgate. It was possible, of course, that on receiving this message, Lady Newgate would simply say, ‘What on earth does she want to see me for? She can settle it through the agent.’ If that was the case, it was not likely that Lady Newgate would be any good to her. But it was quite possible that Lady Newgate might say, ‘Hullo: here is the Mrs. Whitehand going about looking for a house, and probably{170} unchaperoned.’ Anyhow there was a chance of this, and since Sarah Whitehand had nothing to lose, she took it. For there might be something to gain, and these are the best chances to take.

Now the price asked for this fortress of marble and cedar-wood was an extremely high one, and the Newgates would have been perfectly willing to take about half of the sum named, after a little genteel and lofty bargaining. Consequently the prospect of immediately obtaining the full price, not for three months only, but for six, including August and September, when an aged caretaker usually had it for nothing, was irresistibly attractive. Toby Newgate, it is true, momentarily demurred against his wife’s waiting upon the peremptory Yankee at the Ritz, but she had seen much further than him with her forget-me-not coloured eyes. She had seen in fact just as far as Mrs. Whitehand.

‘My dear, it’s flying in the face of Providence to neglect such a chance,’ she said, ‘and if she’d told me to wait at the bottle entrance of the Elephant and Castle I should have gone.’

He shuffled about the room a little.

‘Don’t like your being whistled to by the wife of the manufacturer of hardware, just for six months’ rent,’ he said.{171}

She laughed.

‘My dear Toby, it isn’t only six months’ rent that’s at stake,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to be landlady only, I expect, but godmother.’


‘Yes, dear, and you godfather to Mr. Hardware, if he is here. But you needn’t buy any presents. Good American godchildren give the presents themselves.’

Toby had some vague sense of her position, she only the necessity of his poverty.

‘You mean you’re going to trot them round?’ he asked.

‘Yes, if possible. I think her message means that. Why else should she want to see me, or take the house for August and September? It’s a bribe, a hint, a signal.’

The interview between the two ladies was extremely satisfactory, as is usually the case when there is no nonsense about the conversationalists, and each of them is willing and even eager to give exactly what the other wants. The business of the house was very soon relegated to a firm of solicitors, and the godmotherly aspect began to show through the form of the landlady, as in some cunning transformation scene, faintly at first but with increasing distinctness.{172}

‘Your first visit to London?’ asked Madge Newgate.

‘Yes: I’ve been here but a week, and have done nothing but hunt round for a house and go to the opera.’

Instantly Lady Newgate remembered the solitary and dazzling figure in the box. She, too, had wondered who the woman in orange and diamonds was. Mrs. Whitehand’s face had made no impression whatever on her.

‘Ah, then I am sure I saw you there,’ she said. ‘We were all wondering who you were. You must allow me to put some of my friends out of their suspense by letting them know.’

Mrs. Whitehand laughed.

‘I should be very pleased for your friends not to strain themselves,’ she remarked. ‘And I’m in suspense too, as to who your friends are. I don’t know a soul in London.’

This was rather a relief to Madge Newgate. Sometimes a perfectly impossible tail was attached to these strange Americans, and you had to encounter the riff-raff of the Western world en masse. She laid her hand on the other’s knee.

‘My dear, you must get some friends at once,’ she said. ‘You might dine with us to-night, will you? I have two or three people coming.{173}’

This was quite sufficient. Mrs. Whitehand spoke shortly and to the point.

‘I want to be run,’ she said.

Madge Newgate was a perfectly honest woman, and now that all ambiguity had been cleared away, she explained what she could do and what she would expect to receive. She could give Mrs. Whitehand the opportunity of meeting practically any one she wished, and she could repeat and again repeat that opportunity. She could bring people to Mrs. Whitehand’s house, and within limits get them to invite her to theirs. But more than that, she frankly admitted she could not do.

‘I can’t make them your friends,’ she said. ‘I can only make them your acquaintances. The other depends on you. You must show yourself useful or charming or striking in some way, if you want more than just to go to balls and dinner-parties. Luckily in London we are very hungry, so that you can always feed people, and very poor, so that you can always tip people, and very dull, so that you can always amuse people.’

‘I see: I quite see that,’ said Mrs. Whitehand.

Madge felt that she understood: that it was worth while explaining.

‘I’m sure you will forgive my plain speaking,’ she said, ‘but it is never any use being vague.{174} And there’s a lot of luck about it. Sometimes a very stupid woman “arrives” and a very clever agreeable one doesn’t, and the Lord knows why. I should be quite American do you know, if I were you; Americans are taking well just now. About—well, why should I beat about the bush?—about what I am to receive for my trouble. I imagine you don’t want my house in the least for the three months after July, and I am willing to take a good deal of trouble for your renting it then. And when some more rent is due, I think I had better tell you, hadn’t I? I am not greedy, I am only very poor.’

Now no climber could possibly have made a better beginning than this. Sarah Whitehand could not have chosen a more admirable godmother, and though she was lucky in having hit on precisely the right one, she had shown true perpendicularity in having gone to the right class. She had aimed at the best and hit it, and in the three months that followed she continued to show a discretion that bore out the early promise of her talents. She neither gave herself airs, nor was she grovellingly humble, she merely enjoyed herself enormously, and since of all social gifts that is the most popular, she rapidly mounted. She threw herself, with Lady Newgate’s sanction,{175} into artistic circles, and firmly annexed as her mascot the chief dancer of the Russian ballet. Unlike poor horizontal Mrs. Howard-Britten, with her disappointing Herr Grossesnoise, she made it quite clear that when she asked a party to meet a bevy of Russian dancers that party was surely going to see the bevy dance, which it did quite delightfully under the stimulus of enormous fees. She did not waste her quails and champagne on unremunerative guests, or guests who so far from helping her would only hinder her, but followed Lady Newgate’s directions precisely as to whom she should ask, and very good directions they were.

She had other modes of access as well. She flattered grossly or delicately as the occasion demanded. When she saw that some one liked to be drenched in flattery she had bucketsful of it ready. At other times she confined herself to telling So-and-so’s friends how lovely So-and-so was looking, or how brilliant So-and-so was. This method she chiefly adopted to those of Lady Newgate’s friends who had somewhat unwillingly come to her house, and plentiful applications of these gratifying assurances usually had their effect sooner or later, for Sarah Whitehand knew that nobody is insensible to flattery, if (and here lay{176} the virtue) the proper brand properly administered was supplied. Sometimes the case required study: it was no use conveying to a beautiful woman the flattery of acknowledging her beauty: you had to find out something on which she secretly prided herself, her tact or her want of tact, her charming manners or her absence of manners, her toes or her teeth, and make little hypodermic injections in the right place. Then again there were people who in spite of all allurements would have nothing to do with her. After two or three unsuccessful direct assaults, she would attempt that no more, but, just as she was outflanking New York by laying siege to London, outflank those obdurate folk by laying siege to their friends. She was infinitely patient over these operations, and nibbled her way round them, until they were cut off, and found themselves devoid of all friends save such as were friends of the accomplished Sarah. By patience, by good humour and by her own enjoyment she moved steadily and rapidly upwards on branches that she gilded beforehand. She often thought about Nittie Vandercrump screaming away in New York, and even adopted a modified version of her yells of pleasure. These she gave vent to when dull people, who for some reason mattered,{177} told her long stupid stories, and found that they had achieved, for the first time in their lives, a brilliant and startling success.

Naturally she made quantities of mistakes. Occasionally a man at her table would find in his neighbour a woman with whom he had not been on speaking terms for years, or again, she solemnly introduced Bob Crawley to the wife he had divorced a year before, and immediately afterwards to the woman concerning whom his wife might have divorced him the year before that. Nor could she at first grasp the fact that a Duchess perhaps did not matter at all, and that Mrs. Smith mattered very much, and she had to drop the Duchess and smooth down Mrs. Smith. But these were mere childish stumbles, and having picked herself up she again clung tightly with one hand to her godmother and with the other to her mascot, the Russian dancer.

And all the time while she was so nimbly climbing, she and Petropopoloffski were sitting on a great egg which was to be hatched in the autumn, when London would be full again for the session. Russian ballet this year was the rage to the exclusion of all other rages, and the great egg was no less than a further six-weeks season of it, financed and engineered by Sarah. Not until{178} when late in July the egg was, so to speak, announced, did any one, even her godmother, know that it was she who had laid it, and she who had Petropopoloffski in her pocket, and she who had taken the Duke of Kent’s theatre for it, and she who had arranged to have the dress-circle and pit taken away and rows of boxes substituted, and she, finally, who had taken thirty-seven boxes herself, so that only through her favour could anybody engage them. It was a great, a brilliant stroke, hazardous perhaps, but then everybody wanted to see Russian ballet so much that they would not stick at being indebted to her for their boxes. But it came off: within a couple of days of the subscription list being opened, all boxes not reserved by her had been let, and she began most cordially to allow applicants to have some of hers. Very wisely, she gratified no private slights by refusing them, she only made friends by granting them. She kept just two or three of the best, in case of emergencies.

And so she goes on from height to height. Mr. Whitehand was duly sent for in the succeeding spring, and sat entranced for a month, as in a dream of content, in this Valhalla of the gods. But he found he could not stand much of the rarefied air at a time, and so bought a large place{179} in the country, where in leather gaiters he feels like an English squire, and has revolutionized all the sanitary arrangements of the house. And when Nittie came to London, as she did during the summer, and screamed a welcome to her darling Sally, her darling Sally was very wise about it, and instead of kicking her down, which she might easily have done, she gave her a leg-up by asking her to a particularly dazzling dinner-party and being quite kind to her. She does not see much of her, but always treats her with the respect and pity due to a poor relation. There is no more climbing to be done here, and for a change next autumn she means to go downstairs to New York and see how they are all getting on in the kitchen.

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