“Not the Mr. ---, really?”
In her deep brown eyes there lurked pleased surprise, struggling with wonder. She looked from myself to the friend who introduced us with a bewitching smile of incredulity, tempered by hope.
He assured her, adding laughingly, “The only genuine and original,” and left us.
“I’ve always thought of you as a staid, middle-aged man,” she said, with a delicious little laugh, then added in low soft tones, “I’m so very pleased to meet you, really.”
The words were conventional, but her voice crept round one like a warm caress.
“Come and talk to me,” she said, seating herself upon a small settee, and making room for me.
I sat down awkwardly beside her, my head buzzing just a little, as with one glass too many of champagne. I was in my literary childhood. One small book and a few essays and criticisms, scattered through various obscure periodicals had been as yet my only contributions to current literature. The sudden discovery that I was the Mr. Anybody, and that charming women thought of me, and were delighted to meet me, was a brain-disturbing thought.
“And it was really you who wrote that clever book?” she continued, “and all those brilliant things, in the magazines and journals. Oh, it must be delightful to be clever.”
She gave breath to a little sigh of vain regret that went to my heart. To console her I commenced a laboured compliment, but she stopped me with her fan. On after reflection I was glad she had—it would have been one of those things better expressed otherwise.
“I know what you are going to say,” she laughed, “but don’t. Besides, from you I should not know quite how to take it. You can be so satirical.”
I tried to look as though I could be, but in her case would not.
She let her ungloved hand rest for an instant upon mine. Had she left it there for two, I should have gone down on my knees before her, or have stood on my head at her feet—have made a fool of myself in some way or another before the whole room full. She timed it to a nicety.
“I don’t want you to pay me compliments,” she said, “I want us to be friends. Of course, in years, I’m old enough to be your mother.” (By the register I should say she might have been thirty-two, but looked twenty-six. I was twenty-three, and I fear foolish for my age.) “But you know the world, and you’re so different to the other people one meets. Society is so hollow and artificial; don’t you find it so? You don’t know how I long sometimes to get away from it, to know someone to whom I could show my real self, who would understand me. You’ll come and see me sometimes—I’m always at home on Wednesdays—and let me talk to you, won’t you, and you must tell me all your clever thoughts.”
It occurred to me that, maybe, she would like to hear a few of them there and then, but before I had got well started a hollow Society man came up and suggested supper, and she was compelled to leave me. As she disappeared, however, in the throng, she looked back over her shoulder with a glance half pathetic, half comic, that I understood. It said, “Pity me, I’ve got to be bored by this vapid, shallow creature,” and I did.
I sought her through all the rooms before I went. I wished to assure her of my sympathy and support. I learned, however, from the butler that she had left early, in company with the hollow Society man.
A fortnight later I ran against a young literary friend in Regent Street, and we lunched together at the Monico.
“I met such a charming woman last night,” he said, “a Mrs. Clifton Courtenay, a delightful woman.”
“Oh, do you know her?” I exclaimed. “Oh, we’re very old friends. She’s always wanting me to go and see her. I really must.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you knew her,” he answered. Somehow, the fact of my knowing her seemed to lessen her importance in his eyes. But soon he recovered his enthusiasm for her.
“A wonderfully clever woman,” he continued. “I’m afraid I disappointed her a little though.” He said this, however, with a laugh that contradicted his words. “She would not believe I was the Mr. Smith. She imagined from my book that I was quite an old man.”
I could see nothing in my friend’s book myself to suggest that the author was, of necessity, anything over eighteen. The mistake appeared to me to display want of acumen, but it had evidently pleased him greatly.
“I felt quite sorry for her,” he went on, “chained to that bloodless, artificial society in which she lives. ‘You can’t tell,’ she said to me, ‘how I long to meet someone to whom I could show my real self—who would understand me.’ I’m going to see her on Wednesday.”
I went with him. My conversation with her was not as confidential as I had anticipated, owing to there being some eighty other people present in a room intended for the accommodation of eight; but after surging round for an hour in hot and aimless misery—as very young men at such gatherings do, knowing as a rule only the man who has brought them, and being unable to find him—I contrived to get a few words with her.
She greeted me with a smile, in the light of which I at once forgot my past discomfort, and let her fingers rest, with delicious pressure, for a moment upon mine.
“How good of you to keep your promise,” she said. “These people have been tiring me so. Sit here, and tell me all you have been doing.”
She listened for about ten seconds, and then interrupted me with—
“And that clever friend of yours that you came with. I met him at dear Lady Lennon’s last week. Has he written anything?”
I explained to her that he had.
“Tell me about it?” she said. “I get so little time for reading, and then I only care to read the books that help me,” and she gave me a grateful look more eloquent than words.
I described the work to her, and wishing to do my friend justice I even recited a few of the passages upon which, as I knew, he especially prided himself.
One sentence in particular seemed to lay hold of her. “A good woman’s arms round a man’s neck is a lifebelt thrown out to him from heaven.”
“How beautiful!” she murmured. “Say it again.”
I said it again, and she repeated it after me.
Then a noisy old lady swooped down upon her, and I drifted away into a corner, where I tried to look as if I were enjoying myself, and failed.
Later on, feeling it time to go, I sought my friend, and found him talking to her in a corner. I approached and waited. They were discussing the latest east-end murder. A drunken woman had been killed by her husband, a hard-working artizan, who had been maddened by the ruin of his home.
“Ah,” she was saying, “what power a woman has to drag a man down or lift him up. I never read a case in which a woman is concerned without thinking of those beautiful lines of yours: ‘A good woman’s arms round a man’s neck is a lifebelt thrown out to him from heaven.’”
* * * * *
Opinions differed concerning her religion and politics. Said the Low Church parson: “An earnest Christian woman, sir, of that unostentatious type that has always been the bulwark of our Church. I am proud to know that woman, and I am proud to think that poor words of mine have been the humble instrument to wean that true woman’s heart from the frivolities of fashion, and to fix her thoughts upon higher things. A good Churchwoman, sir, a good Churchwoman, in the best sense of the word.”
Said the pale aristocratic-looking young Abbé to the Comtesse, the light of old-world enthusiasm shining from his deep-set eyes: “I have great hopes for our dear friend. She finds it hard to sever the ties of time and love. We are all weak, but her heart turns towards our mother Church as a child, though suckled among strangers, yearns after many years for the bosom that has borne it. We have spoken, and I, even I, may be the voice in the wilderness leading the lost sheep back to the fold.”
Said Sir Harry Bennett, the great Theosophist lecturer, writing to a friend: “A singularly gifted woman, and a woman evidently thirsting for the truth. A woman capable of willing her own life. A woman not afraid of thought and reason, a lover of wisdom. I have talked much with her at one time or another, and I have found her grasp my meaning with a quickness of perception quite unusual in my experience; and the arguments I have let fall, I am convinced, have borne excellent fruit. I look forward to her becoming, at no very distant date, a valued member of our little band. Indeed, without betraying confidence, I may almost say I regard her conversion as an accomplished fact.”
Colonel Maxim always spoke of her as “a fair pillar of the State.”
“With the enemy in our midst,” said the florid old soldier, “it behoves every true man—aye, and every true woman—to rally to the defence of the country; and all honour, say I, to noble ladies such as Mrs. Clifton Courtenay, who, laying aside their natural shrinking from publicity, come forward in such a crisis as the present to combat the forces of disorder and disloyalty now rampant in the land.”
“But,” some listener would suggest, “I gathered from young Jocelyn that Mrs. Clifton Courtenay held somewhat advanced views on social and political questions.”
“Jocelyn,” the Colonel would reply with scorn; “pah! There may have been a short space of time during which the fellow’s long hair and windy rhetoric impressed her. But I flatter myself I’ve put my spoke in Mr. Jocelyn’s wheel. Why, damme, sir, she’s consented to stand for Grand Dame of the Bermondsey Branch of the Primrose League next year. What’s Jocelyn to say to that, the scoundrel!”
What Jocelyn said was:—
“I know the woman is weak. But I do not blame her; I pity her. When the time comes, as soon it will, when woman is no longer a puppet, dancing to the threads held by some brainless man—when a woman is not threatened with social ostracism for daring to follow her own conscience instead of that of her nearest male relative—then will be the time to judge her. It is not for me to betray the confidence reposed in me by a suffering woman, but you can tell that interesting old fossil, Colonel Maxim, that he and the other old women of the Bermondsey Branch of the Primrose League may elect Mrs. Clifton Courtenay for their President, and make the most of it; they have only got the outside of the woman. Her heart is beating time to the tramp of an onward-marching people; her soul’s eyes are straining for the glory of a coming dawn.”
But they all agreed she was a charming woman.