The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Seven - The Grizzly Kittens

A FOUNT OF PERENNIAL YOUTHFULNESS has been and will be the blessing and curse of certain people’s existence. Up to the age of about thirty-five for a woman and round about forty for a man, it is an admirable thing to feel that the morning of life is still lingering in rosy cloudlets about you, but when these austere ages have been arrived at, it is wiser for those who still behave like imperishable children to recollect, impossible though they will find the realisation of it without exercising patience and determination, that, though their immortal souls are doubtless imperishable, they are no longer boys and girls. Otherwise the dreadful fate of becoming grizzly kittens will soon lay ambushes for them, and to be a grizzly kitten does not produce at all the same impression as being an imperishable child. Like Erin in the song and King David in the psalm, they should remember and consider the days of old, and attempt quietly and constantly to do a little subtraction sum, whereby they will ascertain how far the days of old have receded from them. Their spring-tide has ebbed a long way since then: they are swimming in it no longer, they are not even paddling, but they are standing{126} just a little gaunt and skinny high up on the beach, with wisps of dry sea-weed whistling round their emaciated ankles. Almost invariably those threatened with grizzly kittenhood are spare and thin, for this fact encourages the pathetic delusion that they have youthful figures, and in a dim light, to eyes that are losing their early pitilessness of vision they doubtless seem slim and youthful to themselves, though they rarely present this appearance to each other. But it is very uncommon to find a stout grizzly kitten: amplitude makes it impossible to skip about, and cannot be so readily mistaken by its hopeful possessors for youthful slimness.

Imperishable children, who are threatened with grizzly kittenhood, are, like other children and kittens, male and female. At this stage great indulgence must be extended to them whichever their sex may be, for their error is based upon vitality, which, however misapplied, is in itself the most attractive quality in the world. That they have no sense of time is in comparison a smaller consideration. For they are always cheerful, always optimistic, and if, at the age of forty, they have a slight tendency to say that events of twenty years ago are shrouded in the mists of childhood and the nursery, this is but an amiable failing,{127} and one that is far easier to overlook than many of the more angular virtues. Of the two the female grizzly kitten (in the early stages of the complaint) is entitled to greater kindliness than her grizzly brother, for the obvious reason that in the fair of Mayfair the merry-go-round and the joy-wheel slow down for women sooner than they do for men. Thus the temptation to a woman of behaving as if it was not slowing down, is greater than to a man. It will go on longer for him; he has less excuse—since he has had a longer joy-ride—for pretending that it is still quite at its height of revolving giddiness. She—if she is gifted with the amazing vitality which animates grizzly kittens—can hardly help still screaming and clapping her hands and changing hats, when first the hurdy-gurdy and the whirling begin to slacken, in order to persuade herself that they are doing nothing of the sort. If she is wise, she will of course slip off the joy-wheel and, like Mr. Wordsworth, ‘only find strength in what remains behind.’ But if she did that, the danger of her grizzly kittenhood would be over. Pity her then, when first the slowing-down process begins, but give less pity to the man who will not accept the comparatively kinder burden of his middle-age. Besides, when the early{128} stages of grizzly kittenhood are past, the woman who still clings to her skippings and her rheumatic antics after blind-tassels has so much the harder gymnastics to perform.

Two sad concrete examples of grizzly-kittenhood, both in advanced stages, await our commiseration. Mrs. Begum (née Adeline Armstrong) is the first. From her childhood the world conspired to make a grizzly kitten of her, and in direct contravention of the expressed wishes of her godfather and godmother who said she was to be Adeline, insisted on calling her Baby. Baby Armstrong she accordingly remained until the age of twenty-five, when she became Baby Begum, and she never got further from that odious appellation, at her present age of fifty-two, than being known as Babs, while even now her mother, herself the grizzliest of all existing kittens, calls her Baby still.

Babs appeared in Mayfair at the age of seventeen, and instantly took the town by storm, in virtue of her authentic and audacious vitality. She had the face of a Sir Joshua Reynolds angel, the figure of a Botticelli one, the tongue of a gamin, and the spirits of an everlasting carnival. Her laugh, the very sound of that delicious enjoyment, set the drawing-room in a roar, and her{129} conversation the smoking-room, where she was quite at home—there was never anyone so complete as she, never such an apple of attractiveness, of which all could have a slice. She would ride in the Row of a morning, call the policeman, who wanted to take her name on the score of excessive velocity, ‘Arthur dear,’ and remind him how she had danced in the cause of police old-age pensions at Clerkenwell (which was perfectly true), thus melting his austere heart. Then, as like as not, she would get off her horse at the far end of the ladies’ mile, and put on it an exhausted governess, with orders to the groom to see her safe home to Bayswater. Then she would sit on the rail, ask a passer-by for a cigarette, and hold a little court of adorers, male and female alike, until her horse came back again. She would, in rare intervals of fatigue, go to bed about four o’clock in the morning, when her mother was giving a ball in Prince’s Gate, and stand on the balcony outside her bedroom in her nightgown, and talk to the remaining guests as they left the house, shrieking good wishes, and blowing kisses. Or if the fit so took her, instead of going to bed she would change her ball-dress for a riding-habit, go down to the mews with Charlie or Tommy or Harry, or indeed with Bertha or{130} Florrie or Madge (fitting these latter up with other habits) and start for a ride in the break of the summer morning, returning hungry and dewy to breakfast. Wherever she went the world laughed with her; she enhaloed all she shone upon. Chiefly did she shine upon Charlie Gordon, who, in the measure of a man, was a like comet to herself. He was some five years older than she, and they expected to marry each other when the fun became less fast and furious. In the interval, among other things, they had a swimming-race across the Serpentine one early August morning, and she won by two lengths. An angry Humane Society boat jabbed at them with hooks in order to rescue them. These they evaded.

Those whom Nature threatens with grizzly kittenhood live too much on the surface to be able to spare much energy for such engrossing habits as falling in love, and when, at the age of twenty-five she suddenly determined to marry the small and silent Mr. Begum, nobody was surprised and many applauded. She could not go on swimming the Serpentine with Charlie Gordon, and it seemed equally unimaginable that she should marry a man with only £2000 a year and no prospects of any sort or kind. She did not imperatively want him, any more than he impera{131}tively wanted her, and since that one conclusive reason for matrimony was absent, it did not particularly matter whom she married, so long as he was immensely wealthy, and of an indulgent temper. By nationality, Mr. Begum owed about equal debts to Palestine, Poland, and the Barbados, and since at this epoch, Palestine at any rate was in the ascendant over the roofs of Mayfair it was thought highly suitable that Baby Armstrong should become Baby Begum. She had always called Charlie Gordon, ‘dear,’ or ‘darling,’ or ‘fool,’ and she explained it all to him in the most illuminating manner.

‘Darling, you quite understand, don’t you?’ she said, as she rode beside him one morning in the Park. ‘Jehoshaphat’s a perfect dear, and he suits me. Life isn’t all beer and skittles, otherwise I would buy some beer, and you would save up to get a second-hand skittle alley, and there we should be! My dear, do look at that thing on the chestnut coming down this way. Is it a goat or isn’t it? I think it’s a goat. Oh don’t be a fool, dear, you needn’t be a fool. Of course everybody thought we were going to marry each other, but what can matter less than what everybody thinks? And besides, I know quite well that you haven’t the slightest intention of getting{132} broken-hearted about me, and the only thing you mind about it is that I have shown I have not got a broken heart about you. What really is of importance is what I am to call Jehoshaphat. I can’t call him Jehu, because he doesn’t do anythink furiously, and I can’t call him “Fat,” because he’s thin, and there’s nothing left!’

‘I should call him “darling,” then,’ said Charlie, who was still unconvinced by this flagrant philosophy, ‘same as you call me.’

She looked at him almost regretfully.

‘Oh, do be sensible,’ she said. ‘I know I’m right: I feel I’m right. Get another girl. There are lots of them, you know.’

Charlie had the most admirable temper.

‘I’ll take your advice,’ he said. ‘And, anyhow, I wish you the best of luck. I hope you’ll be rippingly happy. Come on, let’s have a gallop.’

Since then, years, as impatient novelists so often inform us, passed. Babs’s philosophy of life was excellent as far as it went, and the only objection to it was that it did not go far enough. In spite of his vitality, Charlie did not, as a sensible young man should, see about getting another girl; for perhaps he was wounded a little deeper than either he or Babs knew. The tragedy about it all is that they both had the constitution of grizzly kittens. He did not marry any one else, nor did he live into his age as that slowly increased upon him, and Mr. Begum got asthma. This made him very tiresome and wheezy, and the perpetual contact with senility probably prevented Babs from growing into her proper mould of increasing years. Her sense of youth was constantly fed by her husband’s venerable habits; with him she always felt a girl. And the ruthless decades proceeded in their Juggernaut march, without her ever seeing the toppling car that now overhangs her, stiff with the wooden images of age. Wooden, at any rate, they will seem to her when she fully perceives them, and robbed of the graciousness and wisdom that might have clothed and softened them if only she had admitted their advent.

As it is, two pathetic figures confront us. Charlie Gordon, that slim entrancing youth, is just as slim (in fact slimmer in the wrong places) as he ever was. But he is a shade less entrancing, with his mincing entry into the assembling party than he was twenty-five years ago. There was no need for him to mince then, for his eager footsteps carried him, as with Hermes-heels, on the wings of youth. Now he takes little quick steps, and thinks it is the same thing. He is just{134} as light and spry as ever (except when he is troubled with lumbago) but he cannot see that it is not the same thing. He has not noticed that his lean youthful jaw has a queer little fold in the side of it, and if he notices it, he thinks it is a dimple. He brushes his hair very carefully now, not knowing that to the disinterested observer the top of his head looks rather like music-paper, with white gaps in between the lines, and that it is quite obvious that he grows those thinning locks very long on one side of his head (just above the ear) and trains them in the manner of an espaliered pear over the denuded bone where once a plume used jauntily to erect itself. He is careful about them now, but once, not so very long ago, he forgot how delicately trained were those tresses, and went down to bathe with the other boys of the house. They naturally came detached from their proper place, and streamed after him as he swam, like the locks of a Rhine-maiden. It was rather terrible. But such as they are, they are still glossy raven black: there is not the smallest hint of grey anywhere about them.

Again, once in days of old he had quick staccato little movements of his head, like some young wild animal, which suited the swiftness of his mercurial gambollings very well; to this day{135} that particular habit has persisted, but the effect of it somehow is dismally changed; it is galvanic and vaguely suggests St. Vitus’s abominable dance. He still jumps about with joy when he is pleased, but those skippings resemble rather the antics of a marionette than coltish friskings. He feels young, at least he has that quenchless appetite for pleasure that is characteristic of the young, but he isn’t young, and his tragedy, the rôle of the grizzly kitten, stares him in the face. Perhaps he will never perceive it himself, and go on as usual, slightly less agile owing to the increasing stiffness of his venerable joints, until the days of his sojourning here are ended. Or perhaps he will see it, and after a rather depressing week or two turn into a perfectly charming old man with a bald head and spectacles and a jolly laugh.

Mrs. Begum’s fate hangs in the balance also. She has begun to think it rather daring of her to go larking about with a boy who is easily young enough to be her son, whereas in the days when such manœuvres were rather daring she never gave two thoughts to them. She still likes (or pretends to like) sitting up to the end of a ball, not in the least realizing how appalling a spectacle she presents in the light of a June dawn. She{136} can easily be persuaded to tuck up her skirts and dance the tango or the fox-trot or whatever it is that engages the attention of the next generation, and if she wants to sit down, she is as likely as not to flop cross-legged on the floor, or to perch herself on a friend’s knee, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of champagne cup in the other, and tell slightly risky stories, such as amused the partners of her youth. But for all her wavings of her wand, the spell does not work nowadays, and when poor Babs begins to be naughty, it is kinder of her friends to go away. Kitten-like she jumps at the blind-tassel still, but it is weary, heavy work, and she creaks, she creaks....

But the most degrading exhibition of all is when Babs and Charlie get together. Then in order to show, each to each, that time writes no wrinkles on their azure brows, they give a miserable display of mature skittishness. They see which of them can scream loudest, laugh most, eat most, drink most, romp most, and, in a word, be grizzliest. Their manner of speech has not changed in the smallest degree in the lapse of thirty years, and to the young people about it sounds like some strange and outlandish tongue such as was current in the reign of the second{137} George. They are always betraying themselves, too, by whistling ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’ or some ditty belonging to the dark ages, and to correct themselves pretend that their mother taught it them when she came to kiss them good-night in their cribs. They do not deceive anybody else by their jumpings, they do not deceive each other, and perhaps they do not deceive themselves. But it is as if a curse was on them: they have got to be dewy and Maylike: if Charlie wants a book from the far end of the room he runs to get it; when they go into dinner together they probably slide along the parquet floor. He is a little deaf, and pretending to hear all that is said, makes the most idiotic replies; and she is a little blind, and cannot possibly read the papers without spectacles, which she altogether refuses to wear. If only they had married each other thirty years ago they would probably have mellowed a little, or at least could have told each other how ridiculous they were being. As it is, they both have to screw themselves up to the key of the time when they swam the Serpentine together. Poor dear old frauds, why do they try to wrench themselves up to concert pitch still? Such a concert pitch! such strainings and bat-like squeaks! It would be so much better to get a little flat{138} and fluffy, on the grounds of greater comfort to themselves, not to mention motives of humanity to others. For, indeed, they are rather a ghastly sight, dabbing and squawking at each other on the sofa, in memory of days long ago. The young folk only wonder who those ‘funny old buffers’ are, and they wonder even more when the funny old buffers insist on joining in a game of fives on the billiard-table, and the room resounds with bony noises as their hands hit the flying ball. But they scream in earnest then, because it does really hurt them very much. And then Mr. Begum gets wheeled in in his invalid chair with his rugs and his foot-warmers, and insists on talking to Charlie Gordon when the game is over (and his hands feel as if they had been bastinadoed), as if he was really an elderly man, and can remember the Franco-German war, which of course he can. But Charlie, though he stoutly denies the imputation, feels very uncomfortable, and changes the subject at the earliest opportunity. By this time Babs will have organized a game of rounders or something violent in the garden, in order to show that she is young too. She is getting very nut-crackery, and looks tired and haggard, as indeed she is. But she shouts to her husband, who is much{139} deafer than Charlie, ‘Daddy, darling, we’re going to play rounders! Would you like to come out, or do you think it will be rather cold for you? Perhaps you’d be wiser not to. You won’t play, I suppose, Charlie?’

And Charlie, nursing his bruised hands, says, ‘Rounders? Bless me, yes. I’m not quite past rounders yet. Nothing like a good run-about game to keep you fit.’

It keeps him so fit that he is compelled to have a good stiff brandy and soda afterwards, to tone him up for the exertion of having dinner.

Wearily, aching in every limb, they creep into their respective beds. There seems to be a pillow-fight going on somewhere at the end of the passage, with really young voices shrieking, and the swift pad of light feet. Babs thinks of joining it, but her fingers fall from the pillow she had caught up, and she gets into bed instead, thinking she will be up to anything after a good night. And she would be up to anything that could decently be required of her, if only she would not present her grim and dauntless figure at such excursions. Already Charlie is dropping into a sleep of utter prostration: he wants to be in good trim to-morrow. There he lies with his thin Rhine-maiden hair reposing on his pillow. But he{140} wakes easily, though slightly deaf, and at the first rattle of his door-handle when his valet calls him next morning he will instinctively gather it up over his poor bald pate.

And they might both be so comfortable and jolly and suitable. There is a wounding pathos about them both.

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