The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Six - The Eternally Uncompromised

WINIFRED AMES WAS THE YOUNGEST of a family of six girls, none of whom an industrious mother had managed to foist on to incautious husbands. They were all plain and square and strong (like carpets of extra width), and when seated at the family table in Warwick Square with their large firm mother at one end and a mild diminutive father at the other, resembled a Non-Commissioned Officers’ mess. But Winifred was an anomaly, a freak in this array of stalwart maidenhood: there was something pretty about her, and, no less marked a difference between her and her sisters, something distinctly silly about her. Florence and Mary and Diana and Jane and Queenie were all silent and swarthy and sensible, Winifred alone in this barrack of a house represented the lighter side of life. A secret sympathy perhaps existed between her and her father, but they had little opportunity to conspire, for he was packed off to the City immediately after breakfast, and on his return given his dinner, and subsequently a pack of cards to play patience with.

She had a certain faculty of imagination, and{108} her feathery little brains were constantly and secretly occupied in weaving exotic and sentimental romances round herself. If in her walks she received the casual homage of a stare from a passer-by in the street, she flamed with unsubstantial surmises. Positively there was nothing too silly for her; if the passer-by was shabby and disordered she saw in him an eccentric millionaire or a mysterious baronet, casting glances of respectful adoration at her; if he was well-dressed and pleasant to the eye she saw—well, she saw another one. There would be a wild and fevered courtship, at the end of which, in a mist of rice and wedding-bells, she would enter the magnificent Rolls-Royce and drive away, a lady of title, between the lines of the guard of honour furnished by her unfortunate sisters.

She kept these lurid imaginings strictly to herself, aware that neither Florence nor Mary nor Diana nor Jane nor Queenie would extend a sympathetic hearing to them. As far as that went she was sensible enough, for her imagination, lurid as it was, was right in anticipating a very flat and stern reception for them if she confided them to her sisters. But since she never ran the risk of having them dispersed by homely laughter, her day-dreams became more and more real to{109} her, and at the age of twenty-two she was, in a word, silly enough for anything.

Then the amazing thing happened. A real baronet, a concrete, middle-aged, wealthy, delicate baronet who was accustomed to dine at the Non-Commissioned Officers’ mess once or twice in the season, proposed to her, and it appeared that all her imaginings had not been so silly after all. She accepted him without the smallest hesitation, feeling that ‘faith had vanished into sight.’ Besides, her mother was quite firm on the subject.

Sir Gilbert Falcon (such was his prodigious name) was a hypochondriac of perfectly amiable disposition, and his Winny-pinny, as he fatuously called her, was at first extremely contented. He treated her like a toy, when he was well enough to pay any attention to her; and in the manner of a little girl with her doll, he loved dressing her up in silks and jewels, with an admiration that was half child-like, half senile, and completely unmanly. It pleased his vanity that he, a little, withered, greenish man, should have secured so young and pretty a wife, and finding that green suited her, gave her his best jade necklace, the beads of which were perfectly matched, and represented years of patient collecting. He{110} gave her also for her lifelong adornment the famous Falcon pearls, which pleased her much more. She wore the jade by day, and the pearls in the evening, and he would totter after her, when he felt well enough, into the Rolls-Royce (for the Rolls-Royce had come true also) and take her to dine at the Savoy. Afterwards, when he had drunk his tonic, which he had brought with him in a little bottle, he often felt sufficiently robust to go on to a revue, where he took a box. There he would sit, with a shawl wrapped around his knees, and hold her hand, and tell her that none of the little ladies on the stage were half so enchanting as his Winny-pinny.

Of course he could not indulge in such debauches every night, and the evenings were many when they dined at home and he went to bed at half-past nine. Then when he was warmly tucked up with a hot-water bottle, and an eider-down quilt, he would like her to sit with him, and read to him till he got drowsy. Then he would say, ‘I’m getting near Snooze-land, Winny: shall we just talk a little, until you see me dropping off? And then, my dear, if you want to go out to some ball or party, by all means go, and dance away. Such a strong little Winny-pinny to dance all night, and be a little sunbeam all day—’ And{111} his wrinkled eyelids would close, and his mouth fall open, and he would begin to snore. On which his Winny-pinny gently got up, and after shading the light from the bed, left the room.

At first she was vastly contented. Being a quite unreal little creature herself, it seemed delicious that her husband should call her his fairy and his Winny-pinny and his sunbeam, and only require of her little caresses and butterfly-kisses and squeezes. All the secret sentimental imaginings of her girlhood seemed to be translated into actual life; the world was very much on the lines of the day-dreams she had never ventured to tell her sisters. But by degrees fresh horizons opened, and her imagination, reinforced by continuous reading of all the sentimental trash that she could find in circulating libraries, began to frame all sorts of new adventures for herself. Just as, in her girlhood, she had had visions of baronets and millionaires casting glances of hopeless adoration at her in the streets, so now, when she had got her baronet all right, she still clung to the idea of others looking at her with eyes of silent longing. She decided (in a strictly imaginative sense) to have a lover who pined for her.

Now with her pretty meaningless face, pink{112} and white, with her large china-blue eyes, and yellow hair, it was but natural that there were many men who looked with interest and admiration at her, and were very well content to sit and talk to her in secluded corners at the balls to which she so often went alone. After a few days’ indecision she settled that the hopeless and pining swain (for she was determined to be a faithful wife, that being part of the romance) should be Joe Bailey, a pale and willowy young soldier, who spent most of the day at the manicurist and most of the night in London ball-rooms. From the first time she had seen him, so she now told herself, having adopted him as her lover, she had known that there was some secret sympathy between them; a chord (this came out of the circulating library) vibrated between their two souls. His pallor was instantly accounted for, so too was the tenderness with which he held her hand when they danced together: in spite of his noble reticence his soul had betrayed its secret to her.

After a week or two of noble reticence on his part, she came to the conclusion that she must also pine for him, else there would be no nobility in her fixed determination to be faithful to her husband. She flattered herself that she was get{113}ting on nicely with this, when the most dreadful thing happened, for Joe Bailey became engaged to somebody quite different, a real live girl with a great appetite, whose vocabulary was chiefly confined to the word ‘top-hole.’ Winifred herself was ‘top-hole,’ so was Joe Bailey, so were dogs, golfin’ and dancin’. Anything that was not ‘top-hole’ was ‘beastly.’

This was very disconcerting, and seeking safety in numbers Winifred decided to have quantities of lovers, for it was not likely that they should all go and marry somebody else. To ensure greater security she included in her list several married men, who had met her too late. Thus amply provided, she plunged into a new set of adventures.

The situation thus created was truly thrilling, and the thrill was augmented by amorous little sallies on her husband’s part. His nerve tonic suited him, and about this time he used often to go out to dinner with her, and even come on for an hour to a ball, where he sat in a corner, feeding his vitality with the sight of all the youth and energy that whirled in front of him. He liked seeing his Winny-pinny enjoy herself, and gave little squeals of delight when he saw her dancing (her dancing was really admirable) with a series{114} of vigorous young men. Then as they drove away together (for when he went to a ball with her, she had to come away with him) he would squeeze her hand and say:

‘Who was that last young man my Winny-pinny danced with? And who was it in the dance before who looked at her so fondly? And who was it she sat out with all that time? But her old man was watching her: oh, he had his eye on her!’

Here then was the thrill of thrills in the new situation. Gilbert had noticed how many men were in love with her. And before long she added to herself the almost inevitable corollary, ‘Gilbert is so terribly jealous.’

But in spite of Gilbert’s terrible jealousy, and the suffocating crowds of lovers, nothing particular happened. The lovers all remained nobly reticent, and a fresh desire entered her circulating-library soul. She must get talked about: people other than Gilbert must notice the fatal spell that she exercised broadcast over the adoring males of London: she must get compromised, somehow or other she must get compromised.

According to the circulating library there was nothing easier. A note with a few passionate words addressed to her had only to be picked up{115} by somebody else’s wife, or somebody else’s husband had only to be found on his knees at midnight in her boudoir (a word she affected) and the thing was done. But, as always, it was the premier pas qui coûte, and these enchanting situations, she supposed, had to be led up to. A total stranger would not go on his knees at midnight in her boudoir, or leave passionate notes about; she had to rouse in another the emotion on which were built those heavenly summits, and begin, so to speak, in the valleys.

At this point a wonderful piece of luck came her way. The faithless Joe Bailey had his engagement broken off. It was generally supposed that the top-hole girl found him beastly, but Winifred knew better. She felt convinced that he had broken it off on her account, finding that passionate celibacy was the only possible condition for one who had met her too late. Here was an avenue down which compromise might enter, and when in answer to a broad hint of hers, he asked her to play golf with him at Richmond, she eagerly consented.

The plan was that he should lunch with Sir Gilbert and herself, and Sir Gilbert held out hopes that if it was not too hot, he would drive down with them, sit on the verandah, or perhaps{116} walk a hole or two with them, and drive back again at the conclusion of their game. But these hopes were shattered or—should it be said—more exciting hopes were gloriously mended, for an inspection of the thermometer convinced him that it would be more prudent to stay indoors till the heat of the day waned. So she and Joe Bailey drove off together in the Rolls-Royce.

She looked anxiously round as they left the door in Grosvenor Square.

‘I wonder if it was wise of us to come in this car,’ she said, timidly.

Bailey looked critically round.

‘Why not,’ he said rather stupidly. ‘Quite a good car, isn’t it?’

Clearly he was not awake to the danger.

‘Oh, yes,’ she said, ‘but people are so ill-natured. They might think it odd for you and me to be driving about in Gilbert’s car.’

He was still odiously obtuse.

‘Well, they couldn’t expect us to walk all the way to Richmond, could they?’ he said.

To her great delight, Winifred saw at this moment a cousin of her husband’s, and bowed and waved her hand and kissed her fingers. She sat very much back as she did this so that Florrie Falcon, who had a proverbially unkind tongue,{117} could clearly see the young man who sat by her side. That made her feel a little better, for it was even more important that other people should see her in the act of doing compromising things, than that he with whom she compromised herself should be aware of the fact. During their game again they came across several people whom Bailey or she knew, who, it was to be hoped, would mention the fact that they had been seen together.

It was a distinct disappointment to poor Winifred that this daring escapade seemed to have attracted so little notice, but she did not despair. A further glorious opportunity turned up indeed only a day or two later, for her husband was threatened with what he called a bronchial catarrh (more usually known as a cough) and departed post-haste to spend a couple of days at Brighton. Winifred, so it happened, was rather full of engagements, and he readily fell in with her wish to stop in town, and not to accompany him. So, the moment she had ceased kissing her fingertips to him as he drove away in the Rolls-Royce with all the windows hermetically closed, she ran back into the house, and planned a daring scheme. She telephoned to Lady Buckhampton’s, where she was dining and dancing that night, to say her{118} husband had this tiresome bronchial catarrh, and that she was going down to Brighton with him, and, while the words were scarcely spoken, telephoned to Joe Bailey asking him to dine with them. He accepted, suggesting that they should go to the first-night at the Criterion after dinner, and then go on to the Buckhamptons’ dance.

A perfect orgie of compromising situations swam before her, more thrilling even than the famous kneeling scene in her boudoir at midnight. She would go to the Criterion with her unsuspecting lover, where certainly there would be many people who would go on to the Buckhampton dance afterwards. They would all have seen her and Joe Bailey together, and even if they did not, he in the babble of ball-room conversation would doubtless popularise the fact of their having been there together. He might even tell Lady Buckhampton, whose invitation, on the plea of absence at Brighton with her husband, she had excused herself from, about this daring adventure.

The mere material performance of this evening came up to the brilliance of its promise. All sorts of people saw her and her companion, and the play happening by divine fitness to be concerned with a hero who backed out of his engagement{119} at the last moment because he loved somebody else, Winifred could scarcely be expected not to turn blue eyes that swam with sympathy on her poor Joe. But again this hopeless young man did not understand, and whispered to know if she wanted sixpenny-worth of opera-glasses. He saw her home—this she had not contemplated—and sat with her in the barren boudoir, smoking a cigarette. Surely now he would slide on to his knees? But he did not, and went to his ball. There he actually told Lady Buckhampton that he had dined and been to the play with Lady Falcon, and she only laughed and said, ‘Dear little Winny! She told me some nonsense about going to Brighton with her husband. How-de-do? How-de-do? So nice of you to have come.’

Then it is true Winny almost despaired of this particular lover. She made one more frantic effort when she met him next day at lunch, and said, ‘You must talk to your neighbour more. People will notice,’ but this only had the effect of making him talk to his neighbour, which was not what she meant.

She decided to give another lover a chance, and selected Herbert Ashton, a somewhat older man, who no doubt would understand her better.{120} Several encouraging circumstances happened here, for her husband more than once remarked on the frequency with which he came to the house, and she thought one day that Lady Buckhampton cut her in the Park. This joy, it is true, was of short duration, for Lady Buckhampton asked her to spend the week-end with them next day, and she was forced to conclude that the cut had not been an intentional one. But it stimulated her to imagine a very touching scene in which Herbert, when they were alone together in the boudoir, was to say, ‘This is killing me,’ and fold her in his arms. For one moment she would yield to his fervent embrace, the next she would pluck herself from him and say, ‘Herbert, I am a married woman: we met too late!’ On which he would answer, ‘Forgive me, my dearest: I behaved like a cad.’

And then the most dreadful thing of all happened, for part, at any rate, of her imaginings came true. She was with Herbert shortly afterwards in her boudoir, and in ordinary decent response to a quantity of little sighs and glances and glances away and affinity-gabble on her part, he had given her a good sound proper kiss. But it was real; it was as different as possible from all the tawdry tinsel sentimentalities which she{121} had for years indulged in, and it simply terrified her. She gave one little squeal, and instead of yielding for a moment to his fervent embrace, and saying, ‘Herbert, I am a married woman, etc.,’ cried, ‘Oh, Mr. Ashton!’ which was very bald.

He looked at her completely puzzled. He felt certain she meant him to kiss her, and had done so.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I thought you wouldn’t mind.’

A dreadful silence overcharged with pathos followed. Then recovering herself a little, she remembered her part.

‘You must go now,’ she said faintly, with a timid glance that was meant to convey the struggle she was going through. But unfortunately he only said ‘Right oh,’ and went.

Since that day she has always retreated in time to prevent anything real occurring. But she cannot succeed in getting talked about in connection with anybody. The instinct of London generally, often at fault, is here perfectly correct. She can’t be compromised—no one will believe anything against a woman so mild. And all the time, in the clutch of her sentimental temperament, she sees herself the heroine of great ro{122}mances. Lately she has been reading Dante (in a translation) and feels that England lacks someone like the mighty Florentine poet, for his Beatrice is waiting for him....

It is all rather sad for poor Winny-pinny. It is as if she desired the rainbow that hangs athwart the thundercloud. But ever, as faint yet pursuing she attempts to approach, it recedes with equal speed. Indeed, it is receding faster than she pursues now, for her hair is getting to be of dimmer gold, and the skin at the outer corners of those poor eyes, ever looking out for unreal lovers, is beginning faintly to suggest the aspect of a muddy lane, when a flock of sheep have walked over it, leaving it trodden and dinted.

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