The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter One - The Compleat Snobs

THERE IS NO MORE JOYOUS COUPLE in all Mayfair than Sir Louis Marigold, Bart., M.P., and Lady Mary Marigold, and whether they are at Marigold Park, Bucks, or at Homburg, or in their spacious residence in Berkeley Square, their lives form one unbroken round of pomp and successful achievement. She was the daughter of an obscure Irish Earl, and when she married her husband was still hard at work building up the business of Marigold & Sons. Those were strenuous days, and the profession of money-getting made it necessary for him to indulge his snobbishness only as a hobby. But she, like the good wife she has always been to him, took care of his hobby, as of a stamp-collection, and constantly enriched it with specimens of her own acquisition, being a snob of purest ray serene herself. She is the undoubted descendant of Arrahmedear, king of Donegal, in which salubrious county her brother, the present Earl, is steadily drinking himself to death in the intervals of farming his fifty-acre estate. When he has succeeded in completely poisoning himself with whisky, she will become Countess of Ballamuck herself, since the title descends, in{14} default of male heirs, in the female line, and there will be what I hope it is not irreverent to call high old times in Berkeley Square and Marigold Park.

When first they married her husband always playfully called her ‘The Princess’ (being the lineal descendant of that remarkable monarch King Arrahmedear), and what began in play soon sobered into a habit. But when she is a real contemporary peeress, it is probable that he will drop the appellation derived from legendary kings, and call her Countess. There will be no hint of badinage about that: Countess she will be, and the papers will be full of little paragraphs about the movements of Sir Louis Marigold, Bart., M.P., and the Countess of Ballamuck.... There is just the faintest suggestion of Ouida-ism and impropriety which gives such announcements a peculiar relish.

Now there is no snob so profound as the well-born snob, especially in the female line. She (in this case Lady Mary Marigold) knows about it from the inside, and is aware of all it means to be the daughter of earls, not to mention kings. Her husband therefore, having been born of an obscure commercial family, was not originally so gifted as his wife, but by industry and study{15} he has now practically caught her up, and they run together in an amicable rose-coloured dead-heat. Like all the finer endowments, as that of poetry, pure snobbishness is born not acquired, and lowly as was his birth, the fairy-godmother who visited his infant cradle brought this golden gift with her, and with the same instinct for what is worth having that has always distinguished him, he did not squander or dissipate her bounty, but hoarded and polished and perfected it. When he was quite a little boy he used to dream about marquises, and, if a feverish cold added a touch of daring to his slumbers, about kings and queens; now with the reward that waits upon childhood’s aspirations, it has all come true. Already his son (the first-born of the future countess) has married the Lady Something Something, daughter of a marquis, and there are great hopes about a widowed Bishop for his daughter.

It might seem that this episcopal anchorage was but a poor fulfilment of the prayers of her papa, but any who think that can form no adequate impression of the completeness of Sir Louis’s snobbishness. For the real snob is he who worships success and distinction whether that success is hall-marked with coronets, wealth,{16} or gaiters. To achieve success in the eyes of the world is to him the greatest of human accomplishments, and to be acquainted, or better still, connected with those who have done so, and best of all to be identified with them, constitutes the joy of life. Sir Louis has a profound admiration for his wife, his son, his son’s wife, but he perhaps reserves his levels of highest complacency for himself, and with all his busy loving glances at the dazzling objects round him, he never really diverts his gaze from his own career. It is for his own success in life that he reserves his most sincere respect.

While his wife and he are thus in every sense perfect snobs, as far as perfection can be attained in this tentative world, they, like all other professors in great branches of knowledge, specialize in one particular department, and theirs is Birth. It is, of course, a great joy to Lady Mary Marigold to see the wife of a Cabinet Minister, of an African explorer, of an ambassador pass out of her dining-room at the conclusion of dinner, while she stands by the door and, shaking an admonitory finger at her husband till her bracelets rattle, says, ‘Now, Sir Baronet, don’t be too long’; it is a joy also to him to move to the other end of the table{17} between the ambassador and the Cabinet Minister and say, ‘My lady won’t grudge your Excellency time to drink another glass of port and have a small cigar’; but most of all they love the hour when these manœuvres are enacted with members of the aristocracy, or, as has happened several times in this last year or two (for they are really among the tree-tops), with those for whom, to the exclusion of themselves and other guests, finger-bowls are provided. On these occasions, that is when Royalty is present, a sort of seizure is liable to come upon them, and for a minute or two one or other sinks back in his chair in a dazed condition consequent upon so much happiness. A foretaste of the bliss of Nirvana is theirs, and Sir Louis’s eyes have been known to fill with happy, happy tears on seeing a Prince show my lady how to eat a cherry backwards, stalk first.

In the early days of their marriage, when, as Mr. Marigold, he came back tired with his day’s work to his modest dwelling in Oakley Street, Birth was his hobby, and instead of relaxing his tired brain over the perusal of trashy novels or the playing of fruitless games of patience, like so many who have no sense of the value of time, he and she would sit tranquilly, one on each side of{18} the fireplace, with a reading-lamp conveniently placed between them, and dive into the sunlit waters of the Peerage. One happy Christmas Day they found that the present of each to the other was a copy of this beautiful book, and after this delicious coincidence, they kept the pleasant custom up, and always presented each other with Peerages at Christmas, so that now they have both of them a complete set for the last twenty-three years. Their son, Oswald Owen Vivian Lancelot, was true to parental tradition and tendency, and rapturous was the day when, at the age of fourteen, after hours of careful work, he gave his mother on her birthday the gift he had been secretly preparing for her, namely the roll of his own ancestry, neatly illuminated. It was somewhat lop-sided, for very few Marigolds had been discoverable, but away, away back went the other line of the descent through Earls and coronets innumerable till it reached the original and unique King Arrahmedear of Donegal, above whose glorious name he had illuminated a royal crown. It was entirely Oswald Owen Vivian Lancelot’s own idea, and when he became engaged to the daughter of a marquis, his mother felt that she had known it would happen for years.{19}

Owing probably to the large number of Jews and journalists and brewers and pawnbrokers who have been ennobled during the long Liberal tenure of office, this particular brand of snobbishness has rather fallen into neglect, and many of the brightest snobs of Mayfair consider the cult of the mere peerage a somewhat Victorian pursuit. But the more earnest practitioners, like Lady Mary and Sir Louis Marigold, remain unaffected by such shallowness. They argue that the conferring of a peerage is still a symbol of success, and, loyalist to the core, consider that those who are good enough for the King are good enough for them. Besides, they have found by experience that they actually do feel greater raptures in the presence of Royalty than in that of subjects of the realm, and among subjects of the realm they like dukes better than marquises, marquises than earls, earls than viscounts. It is not implied that the pleasurableness of their internal sensations would indicate to them the rank of a total stranger whose name they were ignorant of, but knowing his name and his rank, they find that their delight in converse with him increases according to his precedence. Many pleasures are wholly matters of the imagination, and this may be one, but the hal{20}lucination is in this case, as in that of other nervous disorders, quite complete. And when a year or two ago Lady Mary was dangerously ill with appendicitis, her husband sensibly assuaged the deep and genuine anxiety he felt for her, by going through, day after day, the cards of the eminent people who had called to make enquiries. A prince (a very eminent one) was so condescending as to call twice, once on a Monday and once on the following Thursday. To this day Sir Louis cannot but believe that the better news the doctor gave him about my lady on that happy afternoon, was somehow connected with the magic of the repeated visit.

It has been mentioned that Sir Louis is in the habit of calling his wife ‘Princess’; it has also been hinted that she alludes to him as ‘Sir Baronet.’ There is a touch of badinage, of playfulness in both these titles, but below the playfulness is a substratum of seriousness. For she is descended from kings so ancient that nobody knows anything about them, and he is a real Baronet, and since his title in ordinary use is that of a mere knight, she and others of their intimates are accustomed to call him Sir Baronet, in order to mark the difference between him and such people as provincial mayors or eminent{21} actors and musicians. It must be supposed, too, that he is far from discouraging this, since he has printed on his cards, ‘Sir Louis Marigold, Bart., M.P.,’ in full. It may be unusual, but then there are, unfortunately, not many Baronets who take a proper pride in the honours with which their Sovereign has decorated them or their ancestors. Marquises and earls put the degree of their nobility on their cards instead of just calling themselves ‘Lord,’ and surely a Baronet cannot go wrong in following so august an example. But there is another custom of his to which perhaps exception may be taken, for it is his habit when entertaining a luncheon-party at which mere commoners are present (this is not a frequent occurrence) to step jauntily along in his proper precedence to the dining-room, leaving the less exalted persons to follow. He does it in a careless, unconscious manner, and this manner is by no means put on: he walks in front of lowlier commoners instinctively: he does not think about it: his legs just take him. It is perhaps scarcely necessary to add that instinct is not so strong with him as to go in before any lady, even if she were his own washerwoman, for the obligations of chivalry outweigh with him even those of nobility. It has always been so with the{22} true aristocrat, and it is so with him. Perhaps if a Suffragette were present he might go on ahead, for he considers that all women who hold any views but his on that subject have unsexed themselves. In his more indulgent moments he alludes to them as ‘deluded wretches.’

His politics are of course Tory. A Tory Prime Minister honoured himself by recommending the King to honour Sir Louis, and much time and a good deal of money spent in the Tory cause make it quite likely that a further honour will some time he conferred upon him when (and if) his party ever gets back into power. It is significant, anyhow, that he has made several visits lately to the Heralds’ College, where the shape of Viscounts’ coronets seemed to interest him a good deal, for since the motto of his business life, which has proved so successful, was ‘Prepare well in advance,’ it is likely that it will apply in such matters as these as well, and it may safely be assumed that on that happy day his spoons and forks will be found to be already engraved with the honour conferred on him. To be sure, should this happen before Lady Mary’s brother finally succumbs to the insidious bottle, she will find herself a step lower than her previous rank had been, by becoming a Viscountess{23} instead of remaining an Earl’s daughter. But, on the other hand, this will be but a temporary eclipse, for it cannot be so very long before she comes from under her cloud again on the demise of the dipsomaniac, and shines forth as an independent Countess. The whole affair, moreover, has been talked out so constantly by them that they are sure to have come to a wise decision based on the true principles of snobbishness.

Snobbishness is no superficial thing with them, or indeed with anybody; it springs from fountains as deep as those of character or religion. Now that between them they have got the Peerage practically by heart, its study, though they often read over favourite passages together, no longer takes them much time or conscious thought, it merely permeates them like Christianity or the moral qualities. It tinges all they do, and they do a great many very kind and considerate and generous things. Sir Baronet is the most liberal giver; no appeal made for a deserving and charitable object ever came to him in vain, but deep in his heart all the time that he is signing his munificent cheque, the thankful cries of the poor folk he has succoured sound in his ears, as they murmur, ‘Thank you, Sir Baronet!’ ‘Bless you, Sir Baronet!’ Lady{24} Mary is equally open-handed, especially when children and dumb animals are concerned, and she declares she can almost hear the thumping of the dogs’ tails as they strive to say, ‘Thank you, my lady!’ ‘Bless your ladyship’s kind heart.’

Occasionally, out of mere exuberance, Sir Baronet sounds an insincere note. He wrote once to Oswald bidding him bring his wife to dinner in these terms: ‘Bring my lady along to dinner on Tuesday week, my boy. No party, just ourselves, and I think the Princess told me the French Ambassador and the Duchess of Middlesex were to take their cutlets with us.’ ... But all the time his pen was so trembling with gratification that for the moment Oswald thought his father must have a fit of shivering, till the truer explanation dawned on him, and he realized that the usually neat and careful handwriting was blurred with joy. But perhaps this little insincerity is but the mark of the most complete snob of all, who affects to make light of the attainments towards which his holiest and highest aspirations have been ever directed. Anyhow, one would be sorry to think that Sir Baronet was sincere over this, for it would imply that he was getting used to Ambassadors and Dukes, that he was becoming blasé with a surfeit of aris{25}tocracy. That would be too tragic a fate for so thoroughly amiable an ass.

There is nothing more stimulating in this drab world than to look at those who intensely enjoy the prosperity which surrounds them, and to see Sir Baronet stepping along Piccadilly with his springy walk, and his ruddy face ready to be wreathed in smiles as he takes off his hat to some social star, is sufficient to reconcile the cynic and the disappointed, if they have any touch of humanity left in them, to a world where some people have such a wonderfully pleasant time. Perhaps if cynics were a little simpler, a little more alive to the possible joys of existence, they would share some of those raptures themselves. A princely fortune is no necessity to the snob: it is possible to taste his joys on a modest competence. But character and thoroughness are needful: he must read his Peerage till the glamour grows about the pages, and must value aright the little paragraphs in newspapers which record the doings of the mighty. Unless men are born with this gift, it is true they will not enter the highest circle of the Paradiso, but they should at least be able to leave the Inferno far below them. And as a matter of fact, most people have a touch (just a touch) of the snob innate in them,{26} if they will only take the pains to look for it. They may not have the peerage-mind, but probably there is some sort of worldly success before which they are willing to truckle. It is worth a little trouble, in view of the spiritual reward, for the snob always has an aim in life: he never drifts along a purposeless existence.

The chronicler is tempted to linger a little over these happy and prosperous persons, and forecast the further glories that inevitably await them. At present a certain number of the Vere de Veres turn up their patrician noses when Marigolds are mentioned, which is exceedingly foolish of them, considering that it is out of Marigolds that the very best Vere de Veres have been made. The Marigolds will win eminence and renown by their industry, their riches, and their colossal respectability. That was how the Vere de Veres became the cream of the country, and instead of calling the Marigolds ‘those tradesmen,’ they would be wiser to hail them as cousins who will buttress up some of their own tottering lines (if their sons and daughters can only manage to marry into the Marigolds) by reinforcing them with their own vigorous blood, their wealth, and not least, their respectability. In the next generation Oswald Owen Vivian Lancelot will be{27} Earl of Ballamuck and Viscount Marigold, and his children, of whom he has only eleven at present, will be Members of Parliament, and hard-working soldiers and diplomatists, with peeresses for sisters. When a few more years have rolled, the Vere de Veres will have to respect them, for they will be Vere de Veres, good, strong, honest Vere de Veres, the pick of the bunch, for with their healthy bodies, active brains, and, above all, their untarnished respectability, they are precisely the folk on whom honours pour down in spate. And what is the use of affecting to despise a family that in a hundred years will number bishops and ambassadors and generals among its collaterals, and will certainly have a family banner in St. George’s chapel?

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