When William Came

by H.H. Munro (SAKI)

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Chapter XVII: The Event of the Season

In the first swelter room of the new Osmanli Baths in Cork Street four or five recumbent individuals, in a state of moist nudity and self-respecting inertia, were smoking cigarettes or making occasional pretence of reading damp newspapers. A glass wall with a glass door shut them off from the yet more torrid regions of the further swelter chambers; another glass partition disclosed the dimly-lit vault where other patrons of the establishment had arrived at the stage of being pounded and kneaded and sluiced by Oriental-looking attendants. The splashing and trickling of taps, the flip-flap of wet slippers on a wet floor, and the low murmur of conversation, filtered through glass doors, made an appropriately drowsy accompaniment to the scene.

A new-comer fluttered into the room, beamed at one of the occupants, and settled himself with an air of elaborate languor in a long canvas chair. Cornelian Valpy was a fair young man, with perpetual surprise impinged on his countenance, and a chin that seemed to have retired from competition with the rest of his features. The beam of recognition that he had given to his friend or acquaintance subsided into a subdued but lingering simper.

“What is the matter?” drawled his neighbour lazily, dropping the end of a cigarette into a small bowl of water, and helping himself from a silver case on the table at his side.

“Matter?” said Cornelian, opening wide a pair of eyes in which unhealthy intelligence seemed to struggle in undetermined battle with utter vacuity; “why should you suppose that anything is the matter?”

“When you wear a look of idiotic complacency in a Turkish bath,” said the other, “it is the more noticeable from the fact that you are wearing nothing else.”

“Were you at the Shalem House dance last night?” asked Cornelian, by way of explaining his air of complacent retrospection.

“No,” said the other, “but I feel as if I had been; I’ve been reading columns about it in the Dawn.”

“The last event of the season,” said Cornelian, “and quite one of the most amusing and lively functions that there have been.”

“So the Dawn said; but then, as Shalem practically owns and controls that paper, its favourable opinion might be taken for granted.”

“The whole idea of the Revel was quite original,” said Cornelian, who was not going to have his personal narrative of the event forestalled by anything that a newspaper reporter might have given to the public; “a certain number of guests went as famous personages in the world’s history, and each one was accompanied by another guest typifying the prevailing characteristic of that personage. One man went as Julius Cæsar, for instance, and had a girl typifying ambition as his shadow, another went as Louis the Eleventh, and his companion personified superstition. Your shadow had to be someone of the opposite sex, you see, and every alternate dance throughout the evening you danced with your shadow-partner. Quite a clever idea; young Graf von Schnatelstein is supposed to have invented it.”

“New York will be deeply beholden to him,” said the other; “shadow-dances, with all manner of eccentric variations, will be the rage there for the next eighteen months.”

“Some of the costumes were really sumptuous,” continued Cornelian; “the Duchess of Dreyshire was magnificent as Aholibah, you never saw so many jewels on one person, only of course she didn’t look dark enough for the character; she had Billy Carnset for her shadow, representing Unspeakable Depravity.”

“How on earth did he manage that?”

“Oh, a blend of Beardsley and Bakst as far as get-up and costume, and of course his own personality counted for a good deal. Quite one of the successes of the evening was Leutnant von Gabelroth, as George Washington, with Joan Mardle as his shadow, typifying Inconvenient Candour. He put her down officially as Truthfulness, but every one had heard the other version.”

“Good for the Gabelroth, though he does belong to the invading Horde; it’s not often that any one scores off Joan.”

“Another blaze of magnificence was the loud-voiced Bessimer woman, as the Goddess Juno, with peacock tails and opals all over her; she had Ronnie Storre to represent Green-eyed Jealousy. Talking of Ronnie Storre and of jealousy, you will naturally wonder whom Mrs. Yeovil went with. I forget what her costume was, but she’d got that dark-headed youth with her that she’s been trotting round everywhere the last few days.”

Cornelian’s neighbour kicked him furtively on the shin, and frowned in the direction of a dark-haired youth reclining in an adjacent chair. The youth in question rose from his seat and stalked into the further swelter room.

“So clever of him to go into the furnace room,” said the unabashed Cornelian; “now if he turns scarlet all over we shall never know how much is embarrassment and how much is due to the process of being boiled. La Yeovil hasn’t done badly by the exchange; he’s better looking than Ronnie.”

“I see that Pitherby went as Frederick the Great,” said Cornelian’s neighbour, fingering a sheet of the Dawn.

“Isn’t that exactly what one would have expected Pitherby to do?” said Cornelian. “He’s so desperately anxious to announce to all whom it may concern that he has written a life of that hero. He had an uninspiring-looking woman with him, supposed to represent Military Genius.”

“The Spirit of Advertisement would have been more appropriate,” said the other.

“The opening scene of the Revel was rather effective,” continued Cornelian; “all the Shadow people reclined in the dimly-lit centre of the ballroom in an indistinguishable mass, and the human characters marched round the illuminated sides of the room to solemn processional music. Every now and then a shadow would detach itself from the mass, hail its partner by name, and glide out to join him or her in the procession. Then, when the last shadows had found their mates and every one was partnered, the lights were turned up in a blaze, the orchestra crashed out a whirl of nondescript dance music, and people just let themselves go. It was Pandemonium. Afterwards every one strutted about for half an hour or so, showing themselves off, and then the legitimate programme of dances began. There were some rather amusing incidents throughout the evening. One set of lancers was danced entirely by the Seven Deadly Sins and their human exemplars; of course seven couples were not sufficient to make up the set, so they had to bring in an eighth sin, I forget what it was.”

“The sin of Patriotism would have been rather appropriate, considering who were giving the dance,” said the other.

“Hush!” exclaimed Cornelian nervously. “You don’t know who may overhear you in a place like this. You’ll get yourself into trouble.”

“Wasn’t there some rather daring new dance of the ‘bunny-hug’ variety?” asked the indiscreet one.

“The ‘Cubby-Cuddle,’” said Cornelian; “three or four adventurous couples danced it towards the end of the evening.”

“The Dawn says that without being strikingly new it was strikingly modern.”

“The best description I can give of it,” said Cornelian, “is summed up in the comment of the Gräfin von Tolb when she saw it being danced: ‘if they really love each other I suppose it doesn’t matter.’ By the way,” he added with apparent indifference, “is there any detailed account of my costume in the Dawn?”

His companion laughed cynically.

“As if you hadn’t read everything that the Dawn and the other morning papers have to say about the ball hours ago.”

“The naked truth should be avoided in a Turkish bath,” said Cornelian; “kindly assume that I’ve only had time to glance at the weather forecast and the news from China.”

“Oh, very well,” said the other; “your costume isn’t described; you simply come amid a host of others as ‘Mr. Cornelian Valpy, resplendent as the Emperor Nero; with him Miss Kate Lerra, typifying Insensate Vanity.’ Many hard things have been said of Nero, but his unkindest critics have never accused him of resembling you in feature. Until some very clear evidence is produced I shall refuse to believe it.”

Cornelian was proof against these shafts; leaning back gracefully in his chair he launched forth into that detailed description of his last night’s attire which the Dawn had so unaccountably failed to supply.

“I wore a tunic of white Nepaulese silk, with a collar of pearls, real pearls. Round my waist I had a girdle of twisted serpents in beaten gold, studded all over with amethysts. My sandals were of gold, laced with scarlet thread, and I had seven bracelets of gold on each arm. Round my head I had a wreath of golden laurel leaves set with scarlet berries, and hanging over my left shoulder was a silk robe of mulberry purple, broidered with the signs of the zodiac in gold and scarlet; I had it made specially for the occasion. At my side I had an ivory-sheathed dagger, with a green jade handle, hung in a green Cordova leather—”

At this point of the recital his companion rose softly, flung his cigarette end into the little water-bowl, and passed into the further swelter room. Cornelian Valpy was left, still clothed in a look of ineffable complacency, still engaged, in all probability, in reclothing himself in the finery of the previous evening.


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