When William Came

by H.H. Munro (SAKI)

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Chapter IX: An Evening "To Be Remembered"

To the uninitiated or unappreciative the dancing of Gorla Mustelford did not seem widely different from much that had been exhibited aforetime by exponents of the posturing school. She was not naturally graceful of movement, she had not undergone years of arduous tutelage, she had not the instinct for sheer joyous energy of action that is stored in some natures; out of these unpromising negative qualities she had produced a style of dancing that might best be labelled a conscientious departure from accepted methods. The highly imaginative titles that she had bestowed on her dances, the “Life of a fern,” the “Soul-dream of a topaz,” and so forth, at least gave her audience and her critics something to talk about. In themselves they meant absolutely nothing, but they induced discussion, and that to Gorla meant a great deal. It was a season of dearth and emptiness in the footlights and box-office world, and her performance received a welcome that would scarcely have befallen it in a more crowded and prosperous day. Her success, indeed, had been waiting for her, ready-made, as far as the managerial profession was concerned, and nothing had been left undone in the way of advertisement to secure for it the appearance, at any rate, of popular favour. And loud above the interested applause of those who had personal or business motives for acclaiming a success swelled the exaggerated enthusiasm of the fairly numerous art-satellites who are unstinted in their praise of anything that they are certain they cannot understand. Whatever might be the subsequent verdict of the theatre-filling public the majority of the favoured first-night audience was determined to set the seal of its approval on the suggestion dances, and a steady roll of applause greeted the conclusion of each item. The dancer gravely bowed her thanks; in marked contradistinction to the gentleman who had “presented” the performing wolves she did not permit herself the luxury of a smile. “It teaches us a great deal,” said Rhapsodic Pantril vaguely, but impressively, after the Fern dance had been given and applauded. “At any rate we know now that a fern takes life very seriously,” broke in Joan Mardle, who had somehow wriggled herself into Cicely’s box. As Yeovil, from the back of his gallery, watched Gorla running and ricochetting about the stage, looking rather like a wagtail in energetic pursuit of invisible gnats and midges, he wondered how many of the middle-aged women who were eagerly applauding her would have taken the least notice of similar gymnastics on the part of their offspring in nursery or garden, beyond perhaps asking them not to make so much noise. And a bitterer tinge came to his thoughts as he saw the bouquets being handed up, thoughts of the brave old dowager down at Torywood, the woman who had worked and wrought so hard and so unsparingly in her day for the well-being of the State—the State that had fallen helpless into alien hands before her tired eyes. Her eldest son lived invalid-wise in the South of France, her second son lay fathoms deep in the North Sea, with the hulk of a broken battleship for a burial-vault; and now the grand-daughter was standing here in the limelight, bowing her thanks for the patronage and favour meted out to her by this cosmopolitan company, with its lavish sprinkling of the uniforms of an alien army. Prominent among the flowers at her feet was one large golden-petalled bouquet of gorgeous blooms, tied with a broad streamer of golden riband, the tribute rendered by Cæsar to the things that were Cæsar’s. The new chapter of the fait accompli had been written that night and written well. The audience poured slowly out with the triumphant music of Jancovius’s Kaiser Wilhelm march, played by the orchestra as a happy inspiration, pealing in its ears. “It has been a great evening, a most successful evening,” said Lady Shalem to Herr von Kwarl, whom she was conveying in her electric brougham to Cicely Yeovil’s supper party; “an important evening,” she added, choosing her adjectives with deliberation. “It should give pleasure in high quarters, should it not?” And she turned her observant eyes on the impassive face of her companion. “Gracious lady,” he replied with deliberation and meaning, “it has given pleasure. It is an evening to be remembered.” The gracious lady suppressed a sigh of satisfaction. Memory in high places was a thing fruitful and precious beyond computation. Cicely’s party at the Porphyry Restaurant had grown to imposing dimensions. Every one whom she had asked had come, and so had Joan Mardle. Lady Shalem had suggested several names at the last moment, and there was quite a strong infusion of the Teutonic military and official world. It was just as well, Cicely reflected, that the supper was being given at a restaurant and not in Berkshire Street. “Quite like ole times,” purred the beaming proprietor in Cicely’s ear, as the staircase and cloak-rooms filled up with a jostling, laughing throng. The guests settled themselves at four tables, taking their places where chance or fancy led them, late comers having to fit in wherever they could find room. A babel of tongues in various languages reigned round the tables, amid which the rattle of knives and forks and plates and the popping of corks made a subdued hubbub. Gorla Mustelford, the motive for all this sound and movement, this chatter of guests and scurrying of waiters, sat motionless in the fatigued self-conscious silence of a great artist who has delivered a great message. “Do sit at Lady Peach’s table, like a dear boy,” Cicely begged of Tony Luton, who had come in late; “she and Gerald Drowly have got together, in spite of all my efforts, and they are both so dull. Try and liven things up a bit.” A loud barking sound, as of fur-seals calling across Arctic ice, came from another table, where Mrs. Mentieth-Mendlesohnn (one of the Mendlesohnns of Invergordon, as she was wont to describe herself) was proclaiming the glories and subtleties of Gorla’s achievement. “It was a revelation,” she shouted; “I sat there and saw a whole new scheme of thought unfold itself before my eyes. One could not define it, it was thought translated into action—the best art cannot be defined. One just sat there and knew that one was seeing something one had never seen before, and yet one felt that one had seen it, in one’s brain, all one’s life. That was what was so wonderful—yes, please,” she broke off sharply as a fat quail in aspic was presented to her by a questioning waiter. The voice of Mr. Mauleverer Morle came across the table, like another seal barking at a greater distance. “Rostand,” he observed with studied emphasis, “has been called le Prince de l’adjectif Inopinè; Miss Mustelford deserves to be described as the Queen of Unexpected Movement.” “Oh, I say, do you hear that?” exclaimed Mrs. Mentieth-Mendlesohnn to as wide an audience as she could achieve; “Rostand has been called—tell them what you said, Mr. Morle,” she broke off, suddenly mistrusting her ability to handle a French sentence at the top of her voice. Mr. Morle repeated his remark. “Pass it on to the next table,” commanded Mrs. Mentieth-Mendlesohnn. “It’s too good to be lost.” At the next table however, a grave impressive voice was dwelling at length on a topic remote from the event of the evening. Lady Peach considered that all social gatherings, of whatever nature, were intended for the recital of minor domestic tragedies. She lost no time in regaling the company around her with the detailed history of an interrupted week-end in a Norfolk cottage. “The most charming and delightful old-world spot that you could imagine, clean and quite comfortable, just a nice distance from the sea and within an easy walk of the Broads. The very place for the children. We’d brought everything for a four days’ stay and meant to have a really delightful time. And then on Sunday morning we found that some one had left the springhead, where our only supply of drinking water came from, uncovered, and a dead bird was floating in it; it had fallen in somehow and got drowned. Of course we couldn’t use the water that a dead body had been floating in, and there was no other supply for miles round, so we had to come away then and there. Now what do you say to that?” “‘Ah, that a linnet should die in the Spring,’” quoted Tony Luton with intense feeling. There was an immediate outburst of hilarity where Lady Peach had confidently looked for expressions of concern and sympathy. “Isn’t Tony just perfectly cute? Isn’t he?” exclaimed a young American woman, with an enthusiasm to which Lady Peach entirely failed to respond. She had intended following up her story with the account of another tragedy of a similar nature that had befallen her three years ago in Argyllshire, and now the opportunity had gone. She turned morosely to the consolations of a tongue salad. At the centre table the excellent von Tolb led a chorus of congratulation and compliment, to which Gorla listened with an air of polite detachment, much as the Sheikh Ul Islam might receive the homage of a Wesleyan Conference. To a close observer it would have seemed probable that her attitude of fatigued indifference to the flattering remarks that were showered on her had been as carefully studied and rehearsed as any of her postures on the stage. “It is something that one will appreciate more and more fully every time one sees it . . . One cannot see it too often . . . I could have sat and watched it for hours . . . Do you know, I am just looking forward to to-morrow evening, when I can see it again. . . . I knew it was going to be good, but I had no idea—” so chimed the chorus, between mouthfuls of quail and bites of asparagus. “Weren’t the performing wolves wonderful?” exclaimed Joan in her fresh joyous voice, that rang round the room like laughter of the woodpecker. If there is one thing that disturbs the complacency of a great artist of the Halls it is the consciousness of sharing his or her triumphs with performing birds and animals, but of course Joan was not to be expected to know that. She pursued her subject with the assurance of one who has hit on a particularly acceptable topic. “It must have taken them years of training and concentration to master those tricycles,” she continued in high-pitched soliloquy. “The nice thing about them is that they don’t realise a bit how clever and educational they are. It would be dreadful to have them putting on airs, wouldn’t it? And yet I suppose the knowledge of being able to jump through a hoop better than any other wolf would justify a certain amount of ‘side.’” Fortunately at this moment a young Italian journalist at another table rose from his seat and delivered a two-minute oration in praise of the heroine of the evening. He spoke in rapid nervous French, with a North Italian accent, but much of what he said could be understood by the majority of those present, and the applause was unanimous. At any rate he had been brief and it was permissible to suppose that he had been witty. It was the opening for which Mr. Gerald Drowly had been watching and waiting. The moment that the Italian enthusiast had dropped back into his seat amid a rattle of hand-clapping and rapping of forks and knives on the tables, Drowly sprang to his feet, pushed his chair well away, as for a long separation, and begged to endorse what had been so very aptly and gracefully, and, might he add, truly said by the previous speaker. This was only the prelude to the real burden of his message; with the dexterity that comes of practice he managed, in a couple of hurried sentences, to divert the course of his remarks to his own personality and career, and to inform his listeners that he was an actor of some note and experience, and had had the honour of acting under—and here followed a string of names of eminent actor managers of the day. He thought he might be pardoned for mentioning the fact that his performance of “Peterkin” in the “Broken Nutshell,” had won the unstinted approval of the dramatic critics of the Provincial press. Towards the end of what was a long speech, and which seemed even longer to its hearers, he reverted to the subject of Gorla’s dancing and bestowed on it such laudatory remarks as he had left over. Drawing his chair once again into his immediate neighbourhood he sat down, aglow with the satisfied consciousness of a good work worthily performed. “I once acted a small part in some theatricals got up for a charity,” announced Joan in a ringing, confidential voice; “the Clapham Courier said that all the minor parts were very creditably sustained. Those were its very words. I felt I must tell you that, and also say how much I enjoyed Miss Mustelford’s dancing.” Tony Luton cheered wildly. “That’s the cleverest speech so far,” he proclaimed. He had been asked to liven things up at his table and was doing his best to achieve that result, but Mr. Gerald Drowly joined Lady Peach in the unfavourable opinion she had formed of that irrepressible youth. Ronnie, on whom Cicely kept a solicitous eye, showed no sign of any intention of falling in love with Gorla. He was more profitably engaged in paying court to the Gräfin von Tolb, whose hospitable mansion in Belgrave Square invested her with a special interest in his eyes. As a professional Prince Charming he had every inducement to encourage the cult of Fairy Godmother. “Yes, yes, agreed, I will come and hear you play, that is a promise,” said the Gräfin, “and you must come and dine with me one night and play to me afterwards, that is a promise, also, yes? That is very nice of you, to come and see a tiresome old woman. I am passionately fond of music; if I were honest I would tell you also that I am very fond of good-looking boys, but this is not the age of honesty, so I must leave you to guess that. Come on Thursday in next week, you can? That is nice. I have a reigning Prince dining with me that night. Poor man, he wants cheering up; the art of being a reigning Prince is not a very pleasing one nowadays. He has made it a boast all his life that he is Liberal and his subjects Conservative; now that is all changed—no, not all; he is still Liberal, but his subjects unfortunately are become Socialists. You must play your best for him.” “Are there many Socialists over there, in Germany I mean?” asked Ronnie, who was rather out of his depth where politics were concerned. “Ueberall,” said the Gräfin with emphasis; “everywhere, I don’t know what it comes from; better education and worse digestions I suppose. I am sure digestion has a good deal to do with it. In my husband’s family for example, his generation had excellent digestions, and there wasn’t a case of Socialism or suicide among them; the younger generation have no digestions worth speaking of, and there have been two suicides and three Socialists within the last six years. And now I must really be going. I am not a Berliner and late hours don’t suit my way of life.” Ronnie bent low over the Gräfin’s hand and kissed it, partly because she was the kind of woman who naturally invoked such homage, but chiefly because he knew that the gesture showed off his smooth burnished head to advantage. The observant eyes of Lady Shalem had noted the animated conversation between the Gräfin and Ronnie, and she had overheard fragments of the invitation that had been accorded to the latter. “Take us the little foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines,” she quoted to herself; “not that that music-boy would do much in the destructive line, but the principle is good.”


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