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Queen Lucia
by E. F. Benson
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At that moment, even as the crackers were being handed round, the sound of the carol-singers was heard from outside, and Lucia had to wince, as "Good King Wenceslas" looked out. When the Page and the King sang their speeches, the other voices grew piano, so that the effect was of a solo voice accompanied. When the Page sang, Lucia shuddered.

"That's the small red-haired boy who nearly deafens me in church," she whispered to Georgie. "Don't you hope his voice will crack soon?"

She said this very discreetly, so as not to hurt Mrs Rumbold's feelings, for she trained the choir. Everyone knew that the king was Mr Rumbold, and said "Charming" to each other, after he had sung.

"I liked that boy's voice, too," said Mrs Weston. "Tommy Luton used to have a lovely voice, but this one's struck me as better-trained even than Tommy Luton's. Great credit to you, Mrs Rumbold."

The grey hungry mouse suddenly gave a shrill cackle of a laugh, quite inexplicable. Then Georgie guessed.

He got up.

"Now nobody must move," he said, "because we haven't drunk 'absent friends' yet. I'm just going out to see that they have a bit of supper in the kitchen before they go on."

His trembling legs would scarcely carry him to the door, and he ran out. There were half a dozen little choir boys, four men and one tall cloaked woman....

"Divine!" he said to Olga. "Aunt Jane thought your voice very well trained. Come in soon, won't you?"

"Yes: all flourishing?"

"Swimming," said Georgie. "Lucia hoped your voice would crack soon. But it's all being lovely."

He explained about food in the kitchen and hurried back to his guests. There was the riddle of the Quantocks to solve: there were the tableaux vivants imminent: there was the little red-haired boy coming in soon. What a Christmas night!

Soon after Georgie's hall began to fill up with guests, and yet not a word was said about tableaux. It grew so full that nobody could have said for certain whether Lucia and Peppino were there or not. Olga certainly was: there was no mistaking that fact. And then Foljambe opened the drawing-room door and sounded a gong.

The lamp behaved perfectly and an hour later one Brunnhilde was being extremely kind to the other, as they sat together. "If you really want to know my view, dear Miss Bracely," said Lucia, "it's just that. You must be Brunnhilde for the time being. Singing, of course, as you say, helps it out: you can express so much by singing. You are so lucky there. I am bound to say I had qualms when Peppino—or was it Georgie—suggested we should do Brunnhilde-Siegfried. I said it would be so terribly difficult. Slow: it has to be slow, and to keep gestures slow when you cannot make them mere illustrations of what you are singing—well, I am sure, it is very kind of you to be so flattering about it—but it is difficult to do that."

"And you thought them all out for yourself?" said Olga. "Marvellous!"

"Ah, if I had ever seen you do it," said Lucia, "I am sure I should have picked up some hints! And King Cophetua! Won't you give me a little word for our dear King Cophetua? I was so glad after the strain of Brunnhilde to have my back to the audience. Even then there is the difficulty of keeping quite still, but I am sure you know that quite as well as I do, from having played Brunnhilde yourself. Georgie was very much impressed by your performance of it. And Mary Queen of Scots now! The shrinking of the flesh, and the resignation of the spirit! That is what I tried to express. You must come and help me next time I attempt this sort of thing again. That will not be quite soon, I am afraid, for Peppino and I am thinking of going to the Riviera for a little holiday."

"Oh, but how selfish!" said Olga. "You mustn't do that."

Lucia gave the silvery laugh.

"You are all very tiresome about my going to the Riviera," she said. "But I don't promise that I shall give it up yet. We shall see! Gracious! How late it is. We must have sat very late over dinner. Why were you not asked to dinner, I wonder! I shall scold Georgie for not asking you. Ah, there is dear Mrs Weston going away. I must say good-night to her. She would think it very strange if I did not. Colonel Boucher, too! Oh, they are coming this way to save us the trouble of moving."

A general move was certainly taking place, not in the direction of the door, but to where Olga and Lucia were sitting.

"It's snowing," said Piggy excitedly to Olga. "Will you mark my footsteps well, my page?"

"Piggy, you—you Goosie," said Olga hurriedly. "Goosie, weren't the tableaux lovely?"

"And the carols," said Goosie. "I adored the carols. I guessed. Did you guess, Mrs Lucas?"

Olga resorted to the mean trick of treading on Goosie's foot and apologising. That was cowardly because it was sure to come out sometime. And Goosie again trod on dangerous ground by saying that if the Page had trod like that, there was no need for any footsteps to be marked for him.

It was snowing fast, and Mrs Weston's wheels left a deep track, but in spite of that, Daisy and Robert had not gone fifty yards from the door when they came to a full stop.

"Now, what is it?" said Daisy. "Out with it. Why did you talk about the discovery of muslin?"

"I only said that we were fortunate in a medium whom after all you picked up at a vegetarian restaurant," said he. "I suppose I may indulge in general conversation. If it comes to that, why did you talk about exposure in the papers?"

"General conversation," said Mrs Quantock all in one word. "So that's all, is it?"

"Yes," said Robert, "you may know something, and—"

"Now don't put it all on me," said Daisy. "If you want to know what I think, it is that you've got some secret."

"And if you want to know what I think," he retorted, "it is that I know you have."

Daisy hesitated a moment, the snow was white on her shoulder and she shook her cloak.

"I hate concealment," she said. "I found yards and yards of muslin and a pair of Amadeo's eyebrows in that woman's bedroom the very day she went away."

"And she was fined last Thursday for holding a seance at which a detective was present," said Robert. "15 Gerard Street. He seized Amadeo or Cardinal Newman by the throat, and it was that woman."

She looked hastily round.

"When you thought that the chimney was on fire, I was burning muslin," she said.

"When you thought the chimney was on fire, I was burning every copy of 'Todd's News,'" said he. "Also a copy of the 'Daily Mirror,' which contained the case. It belonged to the Colonel. I stole it."

She put her hand through his arm.

"Let's get home," she said. "We must talk it over. No one knows one word except you and me?"

"Not one, my dear," said Robert cordially. "But there are suspicions. Georgie suspects, for instance. He saw me buy all the copies of 'Todd's News,' at least he was hanging about. Tonight he was clearly on the track of something, though he gave us a very tolerable dinner."

They went into Robert's study: it was cold, but neither felt it, for they glowed with excitement and enterprise.

"That was a wonderful stroke of yours, Robert," said she. "It was masterly: it saved the situation. The 'Daily Mirror,' too: how right you were to steal it. A horrid paper I always thought. Yes, Georgie suspects something, but luckily he doesn't know what he suspects."

"That's why we both said we had just heard from that woman," said Robert.

"Of course. You haven't got a copy of 'Todd's News,' have you?"

"No: at least I burned every page of the police reports," said he. "It was safer."

"Quite so. I cannot show you Amadeo's eyebrows for the same reason. Nor the muslin. Lovely muslin, my dear: yards of it. Now what we must do is this: we must continue to be interested in psychical things; we mustn't drop them, or seem to be put off them. I wish now I had taken you into my confidence at the beginning and told you about Amadeo's eyebrows."

"My dear, you acted for the best," said he. "So did I when I didn't tell you about 'Todd's News.' Secrecy even from each other was more prudent, until it became impossible. And I think we should be wise to let it be understood that we hear from the Princess now and then. Perhaps in a few months she might even visit us again. It—it would be humorous to be behind the scenes, so to speak, and observe the credulity of the others."

Daisy broke into a broad grin.

"I will certainly ask dear Lucia to a seance, if we do," she said. "Dear me! How late it is: there was such a long wait between the tableaux. But we must keep our eyes on Georgie, and be careful how we answer his impertinent questions. He is sure to ask some. About getting that woman down again, Robert. It might be fool-hardy, for we've had an escape, and shouldn't put our heads into the same noose again. On the other hand, it would disarm suspicion for ever, if, after a few months, I asked her to spend a few days of holiday here. You said it was a fine only, not imprisonment?"

The week was a busy one: Georgie in particular never had a moment to himself. The Hurst, so lately a desert, suddenly began to rejoice with joy and singing and broke out into all manner of edifying gaieties. Lucia, capricious queen, quite forgot all the vitriolic things she had said to him, and gave him to understand that he was just as high in favour as ever before, and he was as busy with his duties as ever he had been. Whether he would have fallen into his old place so readily if he had been a free agent, was a question that did not arise, for though it was Lucia who employed him, it was Olga who drove him there. But he had his consolation, for Lucia's noble forgiveness of all the disloyalties against her, included Olga's as well, and out of all the dinners and music parties, and recitations from Peppino's new book of prose poems which was already in proof, and was read to select audiences from end to end, there was none to which Olga was not bidden, and none at which she failed to appear. Lucia even overlooked the fact that she had sung in the carols on Christmas night, though she had herself declared that it was the voice of the red-haired boy which was so peculiarly painful to her. Georgie's picture of her (she never knew that Olga had really commissioned it) hung at the side of the piano in the music room, where the print of Beethoven had hung before, and it gave her the acutest gratification. It represented her sitting, with eyes cast down at her piano, and was indeed much on the same scheme as the yet unfinished one of Olga, which had been postponed in its favour, but there was no time for Georgie to think out another position, and his hand was in with regard to the perspective of pianos. So there it hung with its title, "The Moonlight Sonata," painted in gilt letters on its frame, and Lucia, though she continued to say that he had made her far, far too young, could not but consider that he had caught her expression exactly....

So Riseholme flocked back to The Hurst like sheep that have been astray, for it was certain to find Olga there, even as it had turned there, deeply breathing, to the classes of the Guru. It had to sit through the prose-poems of Peppino, it had to listen to the old, old tunes and sigh at the end, but Olga mingled her sighs with theirs, and often after a suitable pause Lucia would say winningly to Olga:

"One little song, Miss Bracely. Just a stanza? Or am I trespassing too much on your good-nature? Where is your accompanist? I declare I am jealous of him: I shall pop into his place some day! Georgino, Miss Bracely is going to sing us something. Is not that a treat? Sh-sh, please, ladies and gentlemen."

And she rustled to her place, and sat with the farthest-away expression ever seen on mortal face, while she trespassed on Miss Bracely's good-nature.

Then Georgie had the other picture to finish, which he hoped to get ready in time to be a New Year's present, since Olga had insisted on Lucia's being done first. He had certainly secured an admirable likeness of her, and there was in it just all that his stippled, fussy representation of Lucia lacked. "Bleak December" and "Yellow Daffodils" and the rest of the series lacked it, too: for once he had done something in the doing of which he had forgotten himself. It was by no means a work of genius, for Georgie was not possessed of one grain of that, and the talent it displayed was by no means of a high order, but it had something of the naturalness of a flower that grew from the earth which nourished it.

On the last day of the year he was putting a few final touches to it, little high reflected lights on the black keys, little blacknesses of shadow in the moulding of the panel behind his hand. He had finished with her altogether, and now she sat in the window-seat, looking out, and playing with the blind-tassel. He had been so much absorbed in his work that he had scarcely noticed that she had been rather unusually silent.

"I've got a piece of news for you," she said at length.

Georgie held his breath, as he drew a very thin line of body-colour along the edge of Ab.

"No! What is it?" he said. "Is it about the Princess?"

Olga seemed to hail this as a diversion.

"Ah, let's talk about that for a minute," she said. "What you ought to have done was to order another copy of 'Todd's News' at once."

"I know I ought, but I couldn't get one when I thought of it afterwards. That was tarsome. But I feel sure there was something about her in it."

"And you can't get anything out of the Quantocks?"

"No, though I've laid plenty of traps for them. There's an understanding between them now. They both know something. When I lay a trap, it isn't any use: they look at the trap, and then they look at each other afterwards."

"What sort of traps?"

"Oh, anything. I say suddenly, 'What a bore it is that there are so many frauds among mediums, especially paid ones.' You see, I don't believe for a moment that these seances were held for nothing, though we didn't pay for going to them. And then Robert says that he would never trust a paid medium, and she looks at him approvingly, and says 'Dear Princess'! The other day—it was a very good trap—I said, 'Is it true that the Princess is coming to stay with Lady Ambermere?' It wasn't a lie: I only asked."

"And then?" said Olga.

"Robert gave an awful twitch, not a jump exactly, but a twitch. But she was on the spot and said, 'Ah, that would be nice. I wonder if it's true. The Princess didn't mention it in her last letter.' And then he looked at her approvingly. There is something there, no one shall convince me otherwise."

Olga suddenly burst out laughing.

"What's the matter?" asked Georgie.

"Oh, it's all so delicious!" she said. "I never knew before how terribly interesting little things were. It's all wildly exciting, and there are fifty things going on just as exciting. Is it all of you who take such a tremendous interest in them that makes them so absorbing, or is it that they are absorbing in themselves, and ordinary dull people, not Riseholmites, don't see how exciting they are? Tommy Luton's measles: the Quantocks' secret: Elizabeth's lover! And to think that I believed I was coming to a backwater."

Georgie held up his picture and half closed his eyes. "I believe it's finished," he said. "I shall have it framed, and put it in my drawing-room."

This was a trap, and Olga fell into it.

"Yes, it will look nice there," she said. "Really, Georgie, it is very clever of you."

He began washing his brushes.

"And what was your news?" he said.

She got up from her seat.

"I forgot all about it, with talking of the Quantocks' secret," she said. "That just shows you: I completely forgot, Georgie. I've just accepted an offer to sing in America, a four months' engagement, at fifty thousand million pounds a night. A penny less, and I wouldn't have gone. But I really can't refuse. It's all been very sudden, but they want to produce Lucretia there before it appears in England. Then I come back, and sing in London all the summer. Oh, me!"

There was dead silence, while Georgie dried his brushes.

"When do you go?" he asked.

"In about a fortnight."

"Oh," said he.

She moved down the room to the piano and shut it without speaking, while he folded the paper round his finished picture.

"Why don't you come, too?" she said at length. "It would do you no end of good, for you would get out of this darling two-penny place which will all go inside a nut-shell. There are big things in the world, Georgie: seas, continents, people, movements, emotions. I told my Georgie I was going to ask you, and he thoroughly approves. We both like you, you know. It would be lovely if you would come. Come for a couple of months, anyhow: of course you'll be our guest, please."

The world, at that moment, had grown absolutely black to him, and it was by that that he knew who, for him, was the light of it. He shook his head.

"Why can't you come?" she said.

He looked at her straight in the face.

"Because I adore you," he said.



Chapter SIXTEEN

The glad word went round Riseholme one March morning that the earliest flower in Perdita's garden was in bloom. The day was one of those glories of the English spring-time, with large white clouds blown across wide spaces of blue sky by the southwest wind, and with swift shadows that bowled across the green below them. Parliament was in full conclave that day, and in the elms the rooks were busy.

An awful flatness had succeeded Olga's departure. Riseholme naturally took a good deal of credit for the tremendous success which had attended the production of Lucretia, since it so rightly considered that the real cradle of the opera was here, where she had tried it over for the first time. Lucia seemed to remember it better than anybody, for she remembered all sorts of things which no one else had the faintest recollection of: how she had discussed music with Signor Cortese, and he had asked her where she had her musical training. Such a treat to talk Italian with a Roman—lingua Toscana in bocca Romana—and what a wonderful evening it was. Poor Mrs Colonel recollected very little of this, but Lucia had long been aware that her memory was going sadly. After producing Lucretia in New York, Olga had appeared in some of her old roles, notably in the part of Brunnhilde, and Lucia was very reminiscent of that charming party of Christmas Day at dear Georgino's, when they had the tableaux. Dear Olga was so simple and unspoiled: she had come to Lucia afterwards, and asked her to tell her how she had worked out her scheme of gestures in the awakening, and Lucia had been very glad, very glad indeed to give her a few hints. In fact, Lucia was quite herself: it was only her subjects whom it had been a little hard to stir up. Georgie in particular had been very listless and dull, and Lucia, for all her ingenuity, was at a complete loss to find a reason for it.

But today the warm inflowing tide of spring seemed to renovate the muddy flats, setting the weeds, that had lain dank and dispirited, a-floating again on the return of the water. No one could quite resist the magic of the season, and Georgie, who had intended out of mere politeness to go to see the earliest of Perdita's stupid flowers (having been warned of its epiphany by telephone from The Hurst) found, when he set foot outside his house on that warm windy morning, that it would be interesting to stroll across the green first, and see if there was any news. All the news he had really cared about for the last two months was news from America, of which he had a small packet done up in a pink riband.

After getting rid of Piggy, he went to the newspaper shop, to get his "Times," which most unaccountably had not arrived, and the sight of "Todd's News" in its yellow cover stirred his drowsy interest. Not one atom of light had ever been thrown on that extraordinary occurrence when Robert bought the whole issue, and though Olga never failed to enquire, he had not been able to give her the slightest additional information. Occasionally he set a languid trap for one of the Quantocks, but they never by any chance fell into it. The whole affair must be classed with problems like the origin of evil, among the insoluble mysteries of life.

It was possible to get letters by the second post an hour earlier than the house-to-house delivery by calling at the office, and as Georgie was waiting for his "Times," Mrs Quantock came hurrying out of the post-office with a small packet in her hands, which she was opening as she walked. She was so much absorbed by this that she did not see Georgie at all, though she passed quite close to him, and soon after shed a registered envelope. At that the "old familiar glamour" began to steal over him again, and he found himself wondering with intensity what it contained.

She was now some hundred yards in front of him, walking in the direction of The Hurst, and there could be no doubt that she, too, was on her way to see Perdita's first flower. He followed her going more briskly than she and began to catch her up. Soon (this time by accident, not in the manner in which, through eagerness she had untidily cast the registered envelope away) she dropped a small paper, and Georgie picked it up, meaning to give it her. It had printed matter on the front of it, and was clearly a small pamphlet. He could not possibly help seeing what that printed matter was, for it was in capital letters:

INCREASE YOUR HEIGHT

Georgie quickened his step, and the old familiar glamour brightened round him. As soon as he got within speaking distance, he called to her, and turning round, "like a guilty thing surprised," a little box flew out of her hand. As it fell the lid came off, and there was scattered on the green grass a multitude of red lozenges. She gave a cry of dismay.

"Oh! Mr Georgie, how you startled me" she said. "Do help me to pick them up. Do you think the damp will have hurt them? Any news? I was so wrapped up in what I was doing that I've spoken to nobody."

Georgie assisted in the recovery of the red lozenges.

"You dropped this as you walked," he said. "I picked it up in order to give it you."

"Ah, that is kind, and did you see what it was?"

"I couldn't help seeing the outside," said Georgie.

She looked at him a moment, wondering what was the most prudent course. If she said nothing more, he would probably tell everybody....

"Well, then I shall let you into the whole secret," she said. "It's the most wonderful invention, and increases your height, whatever your age is, from two to six inches. Fancy! There are some exercises you have to do, rather like those Yoga ones, every morning, and you eat three lozenges a day. Quite harmless they are, and then you soon begin to shoot up. It sounds incredible, doesn't it? but there are so many testimonials that I can't doubt it is genuine. Here's one of a man who grew six inches. I saw it advertised in some paper, and sent for it. Only a guinea! What fun when Robert begins to see that I am taller than he is! But now not a word! Don't tell dear Lucia whatever you do. She is half a head taller than I, and it would be no fun if everybody grew from two to six inches. You may write for them, and I'll give you the address, but you must tell nobody."

"Too wonderful" said Georgie. "I shall watch you. Here we are. Look, there's Perdita's flower. What a beauty!"

It was not necessary to press the mermaid's tail, for Lucia had seen them from the music-room, and they heard her high heels clacking over the polished floor of the hall.

"Listen! No more need of high heels!" said Mrs Quantock. "And I've got something else to tell you. Lucia may hear that. Ah, dear Lucia, what a wonderful Perdita-blossom!"

"Is it not?" said Lucia, blowing kisses to Georgie, and giving them to Daisy. "That shows spring is here. Primavera! And Peppino's piccolo libro comes out today. I should not be a bit surprised if you each of you found a copy of it arrived before evening. Glorious! It's glorious!"

Surely it was no wonder that Georgie's blood began to canter along his arteries again. There had been very pleasant exciting years before now, requiring for their fuel no more than was ready at this moment to keep up the fire. Mrs Quantock was on tip-toe, so to speak, to increase her height, Peppino was just delivered of a second of these vellum volumes with seals and tapes outside, Mrs Weston was going to become Mrs Colonel at the end of the week, and at the same hour and church Elizabeth was going to become Mrs Atkinson. Had these things no savour, because——

"How is 'oo?" said Georgie, with a sudden flush of the spring-time through him. "Me vewy well, sank 'oo and me so want to read Peppino's bookie-bookie."

"'Oo come in," said Lucia. "Evewybody come in. Now, who's got ickle bit news?"

Mrs Quantock had been walking on her toes all across the hall, in anticipation of the happy time when she would be from two to six inches taller. As the animated pamphlet said, the world assumed a totally different aspect when you were even two inches taller. She was quite sorry to sit down.

"Is next week very full with you, dear Lucia?" she asked.

Lucia pressed her finger to her forehead.

"Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," she began. "No, not Tuesday, I am doing nothing on Tuesday. You want to be the death of me between you. Why?"

"I hope that my dear friend, Princess Popoffski, will be staying with me" said Mrs Quantock. "Do get over your prejudice against spiritualism, and give it a chance. Come to a seance on Tuesday. You, too, of course, Georgie: I know better than to invite Lucia without you."

Lucia put on the far-away look which she reserved for the masterpieces of music, and for Georgie's hopeless devotion.

"Lovely! That will be lovely!" she said. "Most interesting! I shall come with a perfectly open mind."

Georgie scarcely lamented the annihilation of a mystery. He must surely have imagined the mystery, for it all collapsed like a card-house, if the Princess was coming back. The seances had been most remarkable, too; and he would have to get out his planchette again.

"And what's going to happen on Wednesday?" he asked Lucia. "All I know is that I've not been asked. Me's offended."

"Ickle surprise," said Lucia. "You're not engaged that evening, are you? Nor you, dear Daisy? That's lovely. Eight o'clock? No, I think a quarter to. That will give us more time. I shan't tell you what it is."

Mrs Quantock, grasping her lozenges, wondered how much taller she would be by then. As Lucia played to them, she drew a lozenge out of the box and put it into her mouth, in order to begin growing at once. It tasted rather bitter, but not unpleasantly so.

THE END

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