TOO OLD FOR DOLLS
ANTHONY M. LUDOVICI
Author of "Mansel Fellowes," "Catherine Doyle," "A Defence of Aristocracy," Etc.
G. P. Putnam's Sons New York and London The Knickerbocker Press 1921
Copyright, 1921 by G. P. Putnam's Sons
THE ENGLISH FLAPPER
From Nature's anvil hot she hails, The forge still glowing on her cheek. Untamed as yet, Life still prevails Within her breast and fain would speak.
But all the elfs upon the plain, And in the arbour where she lolls, Repeat the impudent refrain; Too young for babes, too old for dolls.
Her fingers deft have guessed the knack Of making each advantage tell: Her hat, her hair still down her back, Her frocks and muff of mighty spell;
Her springtide "tailor-mades" quite plain: In summer-time her parasols; Each eloquent with the refrain: Too young for babes, too old for dolls.
Behold with what grave interest She looks at all, or hind or squire; In truth more keenly than the best Matriculation marks require.
She's told to learn from all she sees; To watch the seasons, how they go, And note the burgeoning of trees, Or bulbs and pansies, how they grow.
"Enough that they are fair!" she cries; "Why should I learn how lilies blow?" And, dropping botany, she sighs For some new flounce or furbelow.
The murmur of the woodland wild, The sound of courting birds that sing, Are sweeter music to this child Than all piano practising.
She reads of love time and again, And writes sad lays and barcarolles, All emphasising the refrain: Too young for babes, too old for dolls.
And, truth to tell, the world's a thing Of wonder for a life that's new, And trembling her passions sing Their praise within her father's pew.
Magnificats or credos sung, Thus oft acquire a deeper note, When they're intoned by voices young, Or issue from a virgin's throat.
For all the world's a wondrous thing, And magic to the life that's new, And heartily her voice-chords ring Beside her father's in his pew.
Who sees her clad in muslin white, With eyes downcast and manner prim, May well be minded by the sight, Of angels pure or cherubim.
Yet, oh, the secret lusts of life! The thrills and throbs but half divined; The future and the great word "Wife," Which ofttimes occupy her mind!
The wicked thoughts that come and go, The dreams that leave her soul aghast, And make her long to hold and know The entertaining truth at last!
But still the elfs upon the plain, And in the arbour where she lolls, With merry gesture cry again: Too young for babes, too old for dolls.
[Footnote 1: First published in THE NEW AGE, December 4th, 1919.]
Too Old for Dolls
On a vast Chesterfield, every unoccupied square inch of which seemed to bulge with indignant pride, Mrs. Delarayne reclined in picturesque repose. Her small feet, looking if possible more dainty than usual in their spruce patent leather shoes, were resting on a rich silk cushion whose glistening gold tassels lay heavily amid all the crushed splendour of the couch. Other cushions, equally purse-proud and brazen, supported the more important portions of the lady's frame, and a deep floorward curve in the line of the Chesterfield conveyed the impression that, however tenderly Mrs. Delarayne might wish to be embraced by her furniture and its wedges of down, she was at all events a creature of substantial proportions and construction.
The picture presented was one of careless and secure opulence.
The contents of the room in which Mrs. Delarayne rested had obviously been designed and produced by human effort of the most conscientious and loving kind. All the objects about her were treasures either of art or antiquity, or both, and stood there as evidence of the power which their present owner, or her ancestors, must have been able to exercise over hundreds of gifted painters, cabinet-makers, needlewomen, potters, braziers, carvers, metal-workers, and craftsmen of all kinds for generations.
It was late in June in the ninth year of King Edward VII's reign—that halcyon period when nobody who was anybody felt particularly happy, because no such person had actually experienced what unhappiness was. Certainly Mrs. Delarayne had not, unless she had shown really exceptional fortitude and self-control over her husband's death.
A sound in the room suddenly made her turn her head, and she dropped her book gently into the folds of her dress.
"My dear child," she exclaimed, addressing her elder daughter, "are you still there? I thought you had gone long ago! I must have been asleep."
"You did sleep, Edith dear," her daughter replied, "because I heard you snoring. You only picked up your book a moment ago."
Mrs. Delarayne examined her own blue-veined knotty hands with the expression of one who is contemplating a phenomenon that is threatening to become a nuisance, and then dropping them quickly out of sight again, she glanced eagerly round the room as if she wished to forget all about them. She did not relish her daughter's allusion to her snoring,—another sign of the same depressing kind as her blue-veined knotty hands,—and her next remark was made with what seemed unnecessary anger.
"Instead of wasting your time here, Cleo," she observed, picking up her book again, "why don't you go upstairs and pull some of those nasty black hairs off your upper lip? You know who's coming to-day, and you also know that young men, in this country at any rate, strongly object to any signs of temperament in a girl. They think it incompatible with their ideal of the angel, or the fairy, or some other nonsense."
Cleopatra rose, jerked her shoulders impatiently, and snorted.
"I should have thought it better to be natural," she blurted out. "If it's natural for me to have dark hairs on my upper lip, then surely I should not remove them."
Again Mrs. Delarayne dropped her book and glanced round very angrily. "Don't be stupid, Cleo!" she cried. "What do you suppose 'natural' means nowadays? Has it any meaning at all? Is it natural for you to blow your nose in a lace handkerchief? Is it natural for you to do your hair up? Is it natural for you to eat marrons glaces as you do at the rate of a pound and a half a week,—yes, a pound and a half a week; I buy them so I ought to know, unless the servants get at them—when you ought to be living in a cave, dressed in bearskins and gnawing at the roots of trees? Don't talk to me about 'natural.' Nothing is natural nowadays, except perhaps the inexhaustible stupidity of people who choke over a little process of beautification and yet swallow the whole complicated artificiality of modern life."
As Mrs. Delarayne turned her refined and still very beautiful face to the light, it became clear that she at any rate did not choke over any "little process of beautification"; for she was at least fifty-five years of age, and at a distance of two or three yards, looked thirty.
Cleopatra moved mutinously towards the door.
"That's right, my dear," said her mother in more conciliatory tones. "I don't mind your upper lip; I like it. But then I understand. Denis does not understand, and I'm convinced that he doesn't like it."
Flushing slightly, Cleopatra turned to face her mother. "Edith dear, how can you talk such nonsense!" she exclaimed. "What do I care whether Denis likes it or not?"
Mrs. Delarayne smiled. "Well, I do, my dear. When you are my age you'll be as anxious as I am to get your daughters married."
The younger woman turned her head. "Married!" she cried. "Oh when shall I hear the end of that litany! I suppose you want me to marry anybody, it doesn't matter whom, so long as I——"
"H'm," grunted the parent. "I don't think the discussion of that particular point would prove profitable."
Cleopatra sailed haughtily out of the room, and there was just the suggestion of an angry slam in the way she closed the door after her.
She was now twenty-five years of age. "Much too old," was the mother's comment. "It must be this year or never." She was a good-looking girl, dark, with large intelligent eyes, a pretty, straight nose, and full well-shaped lips. About five foot six in height, she was also well developed. Certainly her colouring was not quite all that it might have been; but she was naturally a little anaemic, as all decent girls should be who, at twenty-five years of age, are still unmarried. "It seems absurd," thought her mother, "that such a creature should have had to wait so long." And then with an effort she turned her thoughts to less depressing matters.
Mrs. Delarayne was a widow. Her late husband, a wealthy, retired Canadian lawyer, had been dead four years, having left her in her fifty-first year very comfortably off with two attractive daughters. She had inherited everything he possessed, including two handsome establishments, the one in Kensington and the other at Brineweald, Kent,—and in his will there had not been even a small special provision for either of his children. Economically, therefore, Cleopatra and Leonetta Delarayne were bound hand and foot to their mother. But although Mrs. Delarayne was by no means averse to power, she wielded it so delicately in her relations with her offspring, that after their father's death neither of her daughters ever learnt to doubt that what was "Edith's" was theirs also. In regard to one question alone did Mrs. Delarayne ever lay her hands significantly upon her gold bags—and that was marriage. She never concealed from them that she would be liberal to the point of recklessness if they married, but that she would draw in her purse-strings very tightly, indeed, if they remained spinsters. In fact it was understood that when she died each of her daughters, if wed, would inherit half her wealth, but if they remained old maids, the bulk of it would most certainly go to some promising though impecunious young man in her circle.
She professed to loathe the sight, so common alas! in England, of the affluent spinster, "growing pointlessly rotund on rich food at one of the smug hotels or boarding-houses for parasitic nonentities, which are distributed so plentifully all over the land," while thousands of promising young men had to wait too long before they were able to take their bride to the altar. It was her view that this feature of social life in England was truly the white man's burden, and she vowed that no money of hers would ever help to produce so nauseating a spectacle. Behind Mrs. Delarayne's laudable views on this subject, however, there were doubtless other and less patriotic considerations, which may or may not be revealed in the course of this story.
A few minutes later the maid entered the room and announced, "Sir Joseph Bullion."
"Show him in," cried her mistress, throwing her legs smartly off the Chesterfield, adjusting her dress with a few swift touches, and then reclining limply amid the cushions in a manner suggesting extreme feebleness and fatigue.
The maid reappeared and ushered in a very much over-dressed old gentleman.
He stood for some seconds on the threshold, smiling engagingly into the room. It was difficult to refrain from the thought that his affability was largely the outcome of entire self-satisfaction; for as he posed in the full light of the window, there was that about his attitude and expression which seemed to invite and defy the most searching inspection. Nor did his eyes smile with true kindliness, but rather with the conscious triumph of the attractive debutante.
Mrs. Delarayne quietly noticed all these familiar traits in her friend, and responded in the expected manner with one or two idle compliments that afforded him infinite satisfaction.
"No, sit here beside me," she whispered, as if every effort to speak might prove too much for her.
Sir Joseph did as he was bid, lingered tenderly over the handshake, and gazed with strained sympathy into his companion's healthy face.
"Younger than ever!" he exclaimed, "but not very well I fear."
He was accustomed to Mrs. Delarayne's occasional affectation of valetudinarian peevishness, alleged ill-health as a fact. As a rule it was the prelude to the request for a favour on a grand scale, and being a man of very great wealth, and therefore somewhat tight-fisted, he was always rendered unusually solemn by his friend's fits of indisposition.
They chatted idly for a while; Mrs. Delarayne gradually receding from the position of one on the verge of a dangerous malady, to that of a person merely threatened with a serious breakdown if her worries were not immediately made to cease.
It was a strange relationship that united these two people. Although Sir Joseph was not more than five years the lady's senior, she always treated him as if he belonged to a previous geological period; and he, chivalrously shouldering the burden of aeons, had acquired the courteous habit of opening all his anecdotal pronouncements with such words as: "You would not remember old so-and-so," or "You cannot be expected to remember the days when";—a formality which, while it delighted Mrs. Delarayne, convinced her more and more that although Sir Joseph might make an excellent ancestor, it would have been an indignity for a woman of her years to accept him as a lover.
Sir Joseph had already been married once, and it had been the mistake of his life. Before he could have had the shadow of a suspicion that he was even to be an immensely wealthy man, he had, out of sentiment, taken a woman of his own class whom he had found somewhere in the Midlands. With her decease Sir Joseph, who was rapidly becoming a substantial and important member of society, hoped that his lowly past had died also; and when from the window of the first coach he watched the hearse bearing his wife swing round through the gates of the cemetery, he mentally recorded the resolution that on that day all uncertain syntax, all abuse and neglect of aspirates, and all Midland slang should be banished from his house for ever. He had loved his wife, but he frankly acknowledged to his soul that her death had been opportune; and as her coffin was lowered into the grave, he could not help muttering the thought, "Here also lies Bad Grammar. R.I.P."
Now compared with the late Mrs. Bullion, Mrs. Delarayne seemed to Sir Joseph a paragon of brilliance. She had dazzled him from the moment of their first meeting, and she continued to do so without effort, or, it must be admitted, without malicious intent either. Here was a woman who could be an honour to a wealthy man, who could gratify his lust for display, and carry the convincing proofs of his great wealth right under the noses of the very best people, without ever provoking the usual comments of the spiteful and the envious. She was a creature, moreover, with a large circle of influential and distinguished friends, and she possessed that inimitable calmness of bearing in their company, beside which Sir Joseph's mental picture of the first Mrs. Bullion partook of the mobility of a cinematograph or of a Catherine wheel in full action.
Mrs. Delarayne on the other hand had, as we have already seen, tutored herself into regarding Sir Joseph simply as a venerable old relic. In her fifty-fifth year this brave lady held very decided views about youth and age, and was very far from admitting that a man five years her senior was the only possible match for her. Indeed it was only the presence of her daughters that for some time past had prevented her from seriously contemplating and arranging a very different kind of match. Since their father's death she had schooled them into calling her "Edith"; she had also succeeded by means of certain modifications in her appearance, not confined entirely to her raiment and her coiffure, in creating the illusion of thirty; and everything she said and did was calculated to confirm this process of self-deception. She loathed old age. The very breath of an old person in the room in which she sat was enough to oppress and stifle her. It always struck her that the bitter smell of corpses was not far distant from the couch whereon they reclined. She wanted youth. Rightly or wrongly she thought she was entitled to the best, and who will deny that youth is the best? She was devotedly attached to young men. She would have required a good deal of persuasion to believe that a man of thirty was too young for her; and if she had deprived herself of this one luxury, it was, as we have seen, simply out of regard for her daughters. She entertained no rooted objection to disparity in ages as a matter of principle.
In the circumstances, Sir Joseph's senile raptures were simply tiresome, and had he not been enormously rich she would have thought them a little presumptuous. But there were many ways in which Sir Joseph Bullion's friendship proved useful to her. He was not only a wealthy man, he was also highly influential, and again and again she had used him and his power for her own private purposes.
She proposed to use him again on this occasion.
"As a matter of fact," she said, correcting herself for the fourth time, "I am not so much indisposed as angry."
"Not with me, I hope?" exclaimed the baronet.
As he proceeded to chuckle asthmatically over the fantastic improbability of this suggestion, the elderly matron with marked irritation called him sharply to order. "Have you read the papers?" she demanded.
"'Ave I read the papers?" he repeated. "Of course I've read the papers."
Occasionally, very occasionally, particularly after periods of much autogenous mirth, Sir Joseph Bullion dropped an H. But he never noticed it. It was a sort of unconscious reverberation of former days; as if his lowly past, especially that portion of it which had been spent with the first and ungrammatical Mrs. Bullion, insisted on revealing itself to the world, to be acknowledged and congratulated on what it had achieved.
"Well then," pursued the widow firmly, "you know about Lord Henry!"
"Lord Henry?" he cried. "What about Lord Henry?"
Mrs. Delarayne began to examine her rings very studiously, as if she wished to make quite certain that none of the stones had gone astray in the last five minutes. "It's all very well, Joseph," she observed quietly; "but if Lord Henry goes—I go. Now understand that once and for all. I can't endure London without him."
"Not really?" he ejaculated, leaning forward. "Are you serious? D'you mean Lord Henry, the biologist or something?"
Mrs. Delarayne continued the close scrutiny of her rings.
"Of course I mean it," she said in the same quiet but utterly unanswerable way. "You have no idea what Lord Henry means to me. He's literally the only young man in London who does not treat me as if I were a creature of mediaeval antiquity."
Sir Joseph crestfallen sank back again hopelessly into the cushions.
Mrs. Delarayne proceeded to explain that owing to the meddlesomeness of some officious busybody on the Executive Council of the Society for Anthropological Research—an old maid she felt certain—Lord Henry Highbarn had been invited to go to Central China as the Society's plenipotentiary, in order to investigate the reasons of China's practical immunity from lunacy and nervous diseases of all kinds. Lord Henry had accepted the honour and was leaving in three months' time. She then picked up the newspaper, and read aloud the concluding paragraph of the article on the subject:
"His departure from this country will be a severe blow to the hundreds of nervous invalids who annually benefit from his skill at his Sanatorium in Kent, and the world of science will find it difficult to replace him. It appears that Lord Henry has one or two ardent disciples who will be in a position to carry on his great work, but a leading London specialist, Dr. David Melhado, declared to our representative to-day, that without the guidance of Lord Henry's brilliant and original genius, it is doubtful whether any of his pupils will ever dare to treat the more obscure nervous cases on their master's drastic and unprecedented lines."
"There now!" she cried, crumpling up the paper and throwing it away. "You see what that means. It means that women like myself are once more to be condemned to the dangerous misunderstanding to which we were exposed before Lord Henry came on the scene. And we certainly can't survive it."
Sir Joseph surveyed his companion's robust figure and healthy countenance for some seconds, and an incredulous smile gradually spread over his flushed and puffy features. "Surely there can't be very much wrong with you—is there?" he dared to suggest for once.
Mrs. Delarayne's eyes suddenly flashed with fire, and she cowed him by a single glance. "Don't talk of things you understand so little," she snapped. "Lord Henry must at all costs be induced to remain in England,—that's your job. He must not go. And anyhow China is such a ridiculous place to go to. Nobody ever goes to China except missionaries. Of course the Chinese haven't any nerves, because they haven't any daughters—they kill them all. That's a very simple way of keeping your mental balance. I confess that the prospect of going to China is not an inviting one, and yet if Lord Henry goes, I don't see what other alternative we poor sufferers will have."
Sir Joseph again glanced dubiously at the healthy woman beside him, and drummed his knees thoughtfully with his large fingers.
"You know without me telling you," he observed at last, "that I'll do whatever you want. It's happened before and it'll happen again." And he rolled his bloodshot eyes as if to make it quite clear that for this great favour a great reward would be expected.
Mrs. Delarayne examined him covertly and began to wonder with a sudden feeling of despair how such a creature could possibly hope to be a match for Lord Henry.
"And if I do induce Lord Henry to remain in England,—what then?" the baronet demanded.
The widow sighed. "You'll be a public benefactor," she said; "a blessing to your race."
"I don't suppose there's much money, is there, in this trip to China?" he asked pompously. "And Lord Henry can't be a very rich man."
"He's very poor," replied Mrs. Delarayne.
Sir Joseph smiled knowingly and lay back amid the cushions with an air of perfect self-appreciation and confidence.
"There's only one thing that great wealth cannot do, it seems to me," he said, smiling and making every kind of grimace indicative of the immense difficulty he was experiencing in not laughing at what was passing through his mind.
Mrs. Delarayne dreaded the worst, but felt that not to press for enlightenment at this juncture would reveal an indifference which would prove unfavourable to her schemes. "And what is that?" she asked.
"It cannot change a woman's fancy, of course!" Sir Joseph ejaculated, and laughed very violently indeed. "'Ave you caught my meaning?" he added, as his hilarity subsided.
Mrs. Delarayne toyed with her book.
"Come, come, Edith!" he pursued. "If I get Lord Henry to remain in London, as I've no doubt I shall,—what then?" He ogled her roguishly.
Mrs. Delarayne tried, while smiling politely, to introduce as little encouragement as possible into her expression.
"Between you and I," the baronet continued, "it isn't as if we had a whole lifetime before us. You may have,—I haven't. These delays are a little unwise at our time of life."
He caught her hand and for some reason, possibly his great agitation, pressed her finger-nails deep into the convex bulb of his large hot thumb, as if he were intent upon testing their sharpness.
Mrs. Delarayne removed her hand. "Joseph, I had hoped you were not going to refer to this again for some while. I have told you hundreds of times, or more, that a woman cannot marry with decency a second time when she has two strapping daughters who have not yet married once."
Sir Joseph shrugged his shoulders.
"It's all very well," pursued the widow, "but it is difficult enough for Cleo to forgive my having married at all. I could not possibly confront her with a second husband before she, poor girl, had met her first. Oh no!—it would be too great an insult. I'd die of shame. No, before you have me you'll have to get my daughters married. That bargain I strike with you."
He smiled ecstatically. "Promise?"
He bent forward and kissed her very clumsily, and Mrs. Delarayne by blowing her nose was able deftly to wipe her mouth without his noticing the movement.
"What is that young fool, my secretary, doing?" he enquired at last. "Did I not bring him and Cleo together all through the spring at Brineweald Park?"
"Denis is a nincompoop," Mrs. Delarayne declared drily. "I don't believe for a minute that we should any of us be here if he had taken Adam's place in the Garden of Eden. What a fortunate thing it was, by-the-by, that the Almighty did not choose a very modern sort of man to live in sin with Eve!"
Sir Joseph laughed. "Denis a nincompoop? I don't believe it."
Mrs. Delarayne snorted.
"But how are they getting on?"
"Don't ask me," she sighed wearily. "They philander. They are now at the very dangerous and inconclusive stage of being 'practically engaged.' It never signifies anything, because no man who really means business has the patience to be practically engaged."
Sir Joseph looked and felt sympathetic.
"They hold hands, I believe," the widow resumed, "and discuss the philosophers. Probably in a year's time if all goes well they will kiss and discuss the poets."
Sir Joseph uttered an expletive of surprise.
"Yes—I'm disappointed in Denis. I don't trust these very cheerful men, who have a ready laugh and a sense of humour. They laugh to conceal the fact that they cannot crow, and they crack jokes because they cannot break hearts. Give me the broody serious men with fierce looks and slow smiles."
"Isn't Cleo in love with him?"
"Poor soul!" Mrs. Delarayne exclaimed. "She does her best. She would take him, of course, simply because it will soon be an indignity for her to remain single one minute longer. She would probably die of shame too if someone else took Denis from her. But I think you know, that the man who provokes Cleo's love will have to be a little bit different from Denis."
On being dismissed from her mother's presence, Cleopatra did not go as she had been commanded to her mirror in order to remove the little shadow of down that adorned her upper lip. She retired instead to the library, and ensconcing herself in one of the large leather easy chairs, continued her reading of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
Occasionally while she read she would raise her eyes from the printed page to look at her unengaged hand as it rested on the arm of the chair she occupied, and for some moments she would be wrapped in thought.
There had been no lack of competition for that hand since the day when, at her coming-out dance, she had so eagerly extended it to Life for all that Life had to offer. It was not that it had come back empty to her side that made her sad. If occasionally she was moved by a little bitterness about her brief existence, it was rather because the kind of things with which her outstretched hand had been filled were so dismally unsatisfying. She counted the men she had been compelled to refuse. They numbered only two, but there were at least three others whom she had never allowed to get as far as a proposal.
Again for the hundredth time she passed them in review. Had she acted wisely? Were they so utterly impossible? Now, at the age of twenty-five, her worldly wisdom answered, "Nay," but deep down in her breast a less cultivated and more vigorous impulse answered most emphatically "Yea."
From early girlhood onwards Cleopatra had cherished very definite ideas about the man of her taste. In this she was by no means exceptional. But perhaps the circumstances that she had abided more steadfastly than most by the pattern her imagination had originally limned distinguished her from her more fickle sisters. The fault she found with the modern world was that it did not offer you man whole or complete, but only in fragments. To be quite plain, it offered you, from the athlete to the poet, a series of isolated manly characteristics, but it did not give you all the manly characteristics in one being at once, which constituted the all-round man of her dreams.
Whether it was that man had specialised too much of recent years, or what the reason might be, Cleopatra could not tell. But whenever she passed the men of her acquaintance in review, she always arrived at the same conclusion, that each represented only a fragment of what the whole man of her ideal was, and doubtless of what man himself had once been. It was as if she had been deposited among the ruins of a once beautiful cathedral. Fine pieces of screen architecture, exquisite portions of the capitals, delightful gargoyles, lay in profusion all around: but the whole building could be reconstructed in all its majesty, only by an effort of the imagination. This effort of the imagination she had made as a girl of seventeen.
To-day it seemed to her, you might choose the cleanly-bred, healthy, upright, jaunty athlete, and sigh in vain for a companion who could either sob or rejoice with you over the glory of a sonnet, a picture, or a statue; or else you might choose the slightly effete and partly neurotic poet or artist, and languish unconsoled, away from the joys of the fine, clean, stubbornly healthy body. The kind of fire that led to elopements, to wild and clandestine love-making, could now, with too few exceptions, be found only among ne'er-do-wells, foreign adventurers, cut-throats or knaves; while the stability that promised security for the future and for the family, seemed generally to present itself with a sort of tiresome starchiness of body and jejuneness of mind, that thought it childish to abandon itself to any emotion.
She was deep enough, primitively female enough to demand and expect a certain savour of wickedness in him who wooed her. But she was more accustomed to perceive the outward signs of this coveted quality in the waiters at the Carlton, or the Savoy, and among dust-men, coal-heavers and butcher-boys, than in the men of her mother's circle.
Had man been tamed out of all recognition? Or was her instinct wrong, and was it perverse to sigh for fire, wickedness, stability, cultivation, and healthy athleticism—all in the same man? She had read of Alcibiades, of men who were not fragmentary. Could such a man be born nowadays, and if born could he survive? Certainly the men she had refused had not been of this stamp.
It was miserably disappointing, and with it all there was her mother's untiring insistence upon the urgency of getting married. It was more than disappointing: it was a genuine grievance, but a grievance of a kind which most young women nowadays bury unredressed, and the former existence of which in their lives they reveal only by a tired, wasted look in their faces, which leads their husbands to consider them—"delicate."
With all her fastidiousness in regard to the man of her desire, however, Cleopatra was not to be confused with the romantic idealist who craves for that which never has been and never can be possible on earth. To have misunderstood her to this extent would have been a gross injustice. She had built up her picture of her mate, not with the help of feverish and morbid fancy, but guided only by the hints of an exceptionally healthy body. Modest to a degree to which only great reserves of passion can attain, it was to her a dire need that her mate should have fire, because half-consciously she divined that only fire purified and sanctified the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Half-heartedness here, or the lack of a great passionate momentum, that carried everything before it, spelt to her something distinctly discomfiting, not to say indecent. And in this, far from being a romantic idealist, she was entirely right and realistic. This explains why her taste inclined more resolutely to the adventurous idea of love, to the impromptu element, to the wild ardour of first embraces that must perforce flee from the sight of fellow creatures, than to the kind of graduated passion which begins with conversation, proceeds to a public engagement with staring people all about you, and ends with the still more measured tempo of a Church wedding. All the waiting, all the temporising, all the toadlike deliberation that these various slow steps involved, ran counter to her deepest feeling, that her love must be a matter of touch and go, a sudden kindling of two fires, the burning not of green wood but of a volcano.
But where, these days, could she find the partner who was prepared, and above all equipped, to play his part to hers? This was her grievance. And again in justice to her it must be acknowledged that it was a genuine one.
The young man whom her mother was at present "running" for her, was a creature at whom, as a girl of eighteen, she would not have looked a second time. But how much more modest in its demands had her taste not become as she had advanced in years! How much more docile and unassuming! She saw other girls marrying men not unlike Denis Malster; so why couldn't she? She concluded that it must evidently be the fate of modern women to accept the third-rate, the third-best—in fact disillusionment as a law of their beings; and having no one to support her in her soundest instincts, she began rather to doubt the validity of their claim, than to turn resolutely away from marriage altogether.
And now there was to be a complication in her trouble. Leonetta was returning home for good—Leonetta, the child eight years her junior, Leonetta was now as fresh, as attractive, and as blooming, as she herself had been when she was just seventeen, and whom, from habit, she still called "Baby."
Quietly she had waited and waited for the man of her heart, and been able to do this without the additional annoyance of competition to disturb or excite her. Peacefully these seven years she had lain like a watcher on the shore, scanning the horizon with her glass, without even a nudge of the elbow from her younger sister. And now she was no longer to be alone. A distracting, possibly an utterly defeating element was going to be introduced into her peaceful though anxious existence, and she shuddered unmistakably at the thought.
As yet she had harboured no conscious hostility towards her junior, merely a desire to keep her as long as possible at a distance, in order that the one relationship of which she had the deepest dread—that of competitors in the same field—might be warded off indefinitely, or, better still, never experienced between them.
She did not yet fear Baby. The disparity in their ages seemed too great and too obvious for that: but in recollecting certain incidents in their childhood, and one or two things about Baby's appearance and behaviour during the last two years, Cleopatra could not entirely free herself from a perfectly definite feeling of vexation in regard to her sister. Baby had not troubled her at all as an infant. It was as a child of eight, when Cleopatra was just sixteen, that her sister had first revealed disquieting proclivities. She had, for instance, a command of blandishments which to her elder were a closed book. By means of wiles and cajoleries utterly inimitable, she could extract money and presents from adults from whom the haughty Cleopatra would not even have solicited a kiss. In five years Baby had received more boxes of chocolates and more dolls than her sister had received during her whole lifetime. This was not, however, because the younger child was in any respect more beautiful than the elder, but rather owing to the younger's extraordinary gift for securing what she wanted by any means that might come to hand.
For a long while Cleopatra had looked on, wistfully it is true, but not enviously at her sister's astonishingly successful career: for was not Baby only a child after all? And, from the age of eleven to fourteen, Leonetta had been so outrageously gawky and unattractive, no matter how beautifully she happened to be clad, that Cleopatra's feelings of uneasiness about her sister were laid to rest as if for ever during this period.
Then, all of a sudden—and the day was written indelibly on the elder girl's memory—on a certain spring morning, at the time of year when winter frocks are doffed for lighter and brighter confections, Cleopatra beheld a vision, the nature of which was such as in a trice to resuscitate all those anxieties about her junior which, to do her justice, she had long ago relegated to oblivion.
The event occurred in Mrs. Delarayne's bedroom. Cleopatra, then a girl of twenty-two, was discussing with her mother the details of the Easter holiday programme and with her back to the door and her face to the window, was as completely unconscious of the surprise awaiting her as the bedroom furniture itself.
All at once the door opened. At first Cleopatra did not turn round, and it was only when the exceptionally fulsome manner of her mother's outburst of joy awakened her suspicions that at last she looked round and was confronted by the vision.
It was Baby—undoubtedly it was Baby; but certainly not the awkward child of a month, of a week, of a day, or even an hour ago. It was Baby transformed, nay transfigured, as if by magic. Whether the change had been gradual and imperceptible, or as sudden as Cleopatra imagined it to have been, the elder girl did not stop to think; she simply allowed her eyes to dwell almost spellbound upon the startling apparition facing her, and as quickly as a dart, before she was able to arrest it, a pang, a pain, or a convulsion of some sort, was communicated to her heart, the meaning of which she did not dare at first to analyse.
For Leonetta, from a Mohawk, from a sexless savage with tangled hair and blotchy features, from an angular filly devoid of grace and charm, had by a stroke of the wand become metamorphosed into a remarkably attractive young woman. It was startling: but it was also undeniable. It was not the vernal frock, of that Cleopatra was convinced; although Mrs. Delarayne had concentrated chiefly upon this feature in her transports of joy over her younger daughter's dramatic and spontaneous assumption of womanly beauty. Had it been only the frock Cleopatra was intelligent enough to have known that the pang she had felt would have been left unexplained. No, it was more fundamental than that. All the dress had accomplished was to set an acute accent over a development which, though already at its penultimate stage, had so far escaped the notice of Cleopatra and her mother. The picture had been present the day before, but it had not been quite perfectly focussed. The new frock had focussed it sharply.
Cleopatra remembered having asked herself whether Leonetta could be aware of the change that had come over her. But plainly her behaviour had dispelled this suspicion. Leonetta had behaved on that memorable occasion exactly as she had done throughout the previous week. Not even a sign of enhanced self-possession or assurance had betrayed the fact of an inward change, and somehow this unconsciousness of her accession of power only seemed to Cleopatra to make that power more formidable.
Events followed rapidly one upon the other after that. Everybody noticed the change and the improvement. Everybody commented on it. Mrs. Delarayne was doubly rejoiced, because although both her daughters were beautiful, Leonetta's features and style were more her mother's than Cleopatra's were. Cleopatra was a Delarayne, her beauty was if anything more severe and more stately than her mother's. Now the resemblance between Leonetta and her mother had become striking. But strangers were little occupied with this aspect of Leonetta's beauty. And when Cleopatra observed that the attention of men, in and out of doors, had become more marked towards her sister, and that they had begun even to turn round to stare at her in the street, the elder girl knew that her vision on that unforgettable spring morning had not been an hallucination: on the contrary it was a fact, and one to which she must do her best to reconcile herself.
Gradually the consequences of the change were forced upon the consciousness of Leonetta herself and her manner became correspondingly modified. Leonetta knew that she was a beautiful young woman. Leonetta realised that this meant power, and at last she gauged to the smallest fraction the extent of that power.
Then followed a mighty tussle in Cleopatra's heart. The influence the elder daughter had always exercised over the mother's mind now presented itself as a temptation, as a weapon she might use in a threatened struggle. But it must not be supposed that this temptation was yielded to without a furious conflict.
Leonetta did not know French well. French would give the stamp of finish to an education which, in the case of the younger daughter, with her constitutional disinclination for study, was little more than make-believe. Ought not Baby to be sent abroad? Was it not doing her the greatest service to speed her thither? Crudely Cleopatra concluded that she was really acting altruistically in warmly advocating this scheme—self-analysis is frequently as inaccurate as this;—besides, would not she, Cleopatra, in the interval become engaged, married, and an independent person outside her mother's home, and away from Leonetta's "pitch"? The programme was surely all in favour of the younger girl.
The plan was laid before Mrs. Delarayne, calmly, solemnly, with all the elaborate minutiae of earnest concern about a sister's welfare that Cleopatra could summon. And the result was that within six weeks of that terrible Easter, arrangements had been made for Leonetta to spend at least a year in a large and expensive school at Versailles, where she could not only acquire the vernacular, but also become infected with the polish of the native.
Sublimely unsuspecting, Leonetta had embraced her sister passionately on the platform of Charing Cross station, and Cleopatra had even shed a tear of pious sorrow.
Her mother had pointed out to Cleopatra at the time that she herself had enjoyed none of the advantages which she urged with so much generous fervour on behalf of her sister. Cleopatra had replied that she had had other advantages, a University education, a classical training, the kind of cultivation for which Leonetta was unsuited and in the acquisition of which she would have been unhappy.
But worse was to come. At the end of the year Leonetta had returned; and, if it is possible to imagine the superlative surpassed, certainly Leonetta's appearance on her return, her increased vivacity, her perfect command of French, her new tricks with her hair and clothes, utterly eclipsed the Leonetta who had left her Kensington home a year previously.
Nothing had happened to Cleopatra in the meantime, and the elder girl, after having rapidly adopted subtly modified imitations of her sister's style of coiffure, was once again thrust hopelessly into the very position against which her nobler instincts most heartily rebelled. She refused to remain in a relation of tacit, covert, and ill-concealed rivalry to one whom the whole world, including her mother, expected her to love. It was ignominious; it was intolerable. It poisoned her to the very marrow. It made her ache at night when she ought to have been sleeping. Had she been less like Leonetta than she was, had she possessed less passion, less beauty, and less desire than her sister, she could have endured it. As it was the position entailed a perpetual upheaval of her peace of mind.
She was at her wits' end. To face her mother with another scheme for Leonetta's welfare was out of the question. What could she do?
Fortunately for Cleopatra, Leonetta herself brought about the unravelment in a manner sufficiently satisfactory to her sister.
Charming and, in many ways, irresistible as she was, Leonetta had brought back a will of her own from Versailles, and a tongue, too, by means of which she secured that will's highest purposes. During her absence from London, however, her mother had acquired certain habits and tastes, the pursuit of which now frequently clashed with her own plans and ran distinctly counter to her notion of what a mother should be and should do. For Cleopatra had made singularly few claims upon her mother's time all this while, and had never questioned her absolute right to seek her enjoyment when and where she chose.
After a year of this novel experience, during which Mrs. Delarayne had discovered new haunts and new households in which she could behave, even if she were not accepted, as a person who was not of "mediaeval antiquity," her taste for this kind of life had developed. Enamoured as this sprightly quinquagenarian had always been of the other sex, and resolute as she was to show that an old war-horse could prance as bravely as a colt to the stirring trumpet call of youth, she had entered heart and soul into an existence which her late husband would have deprecated as strongly as he had once admired the spirit which led her to do it.
Now the sudden intrusion of a full-grown, wilful and extraordinarily vigorous girl of fifteen and a half years upon these newly acquired habits, proved a source of some vexation to the widow; and, love Leonetta as she might, she very quickly discovered that the peace of mind and freedom of action that Cleopatra had allowed her unstintingly were to be despotically withheld by her younger and more exacting offspring.
Cleopatra watched and understood all this. It seemed that Mrs. Delarayne and Leonetta were inevitably heading towards a catastrophe; nor did the elder girl take any steps, either by word or deed, to guide either of them to a peaceable adjustment of their differences.
Gradually Leonetta grew to be deliberately rude with her parent, would refuse to fetch and carry for her, was quickly bored over any little personal service performed for her, and did her best in every way to cramp the widow's ever freshly sprouting affection.
At last Cleopatra felt she must put in a word. Her mother was very highly strung, in any case too much so to be exposed constantly to irritation and sorrow. Could she help? Could she speak to Baby?
It was then that Mrs. Delarayne had opened her heart to Cleopatra. No, she had made up her mind. Reluctantly she had been forced to the conclusion that Leonetta must go away,—to a school of domesticity, or of gardening or something,—where she could acquire not only information, but also the discipline which would save her from growing up an impossible woman.
Cleopatra had given vent to a sigh of relief, and with decent slowness and hesitation had ultimately agreed.
A somewhat acrimonious quarrel between Mrs. Delarayne and Leonetta, a day or two after this conversation had taken place, proved to be the determining factor. In her passion Leonetta had declared that she would be as glad as anything to go, if only for company, as it seemed to her that her mother was eternally "gadding about"; and it was only when she was alone in a first-class carriage travelling northward that she regretted this hasty and ill-considered speech.
Another year had passed in this way; Leonetta had by now become, according to the domesticity school reports, an accomplished housekeeper, and, as a girl of seventeen, was on her way home. Coming home!—Cleopatra had dwelt on this homecoming every wakeful hour of the last thirty days, and again she felt that pang, or pain, or strange convulsion of the heart, which she loathed because it humiliated her, and which she combated because it threatened to master her.
Thus did Cleopatra meditate over her lot as she examined her fine, strong, disengaged hand, as she sat in the study on that afternoon in June; and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility had little to offer her either in comfort or enlightenment.
It was a fine hand she looked at. The fingers were well-shaped, long and even, without any of those thicknesses at the joints which so often mar the beauty of hands even in men. The finger-nails were not too long, and there was a sort of "well-upholstered" fulness of the fingers and palm which spoke of health and latent efficiency. It was not a small hand, or in any case, not too small a hand, and on the inside it possessed those soft corrugations that denote artistic sensibilities.
The central offices of Bullion and Bullion Ltd. were in Lombard Street. They occupied a large building constructed of ferroconcrete, on each floor of which, except the first, there was accommodation for hundreds of clerks.
The room occupied by Sir Joseph Bullion, on the first floor, was one of those apartments with very tall mantelpieces and enormous windows, which seem to have been designed for a race of giants. Certainly Sir Joseph himself, unless he had climbed on a chair, could never have rested his elbow against the mantelpiece, nor could he have deposited his cigar thereon without an unusually strenuous effort. The remaining appointments of the room, except for two or three exquisite Stuart cabinets and some priceless old masters on the walls, were designed on the same scale. Sir Joseph's own table, for instance, though of normal height, looked as if it might have been purchased by the acre, while the carpet, a huge Turkey, presented an enormously long pile, as soft as moss, to the feet. Even the chair on which the head of the firm sat was exceptionally large, and seemed to offer its occupant the constant alternative of definitely selecting either one or the other side of the extensive surface which lay between its arms.
Opposite him at a smaller table sat his chief private secretary, Denis Malster, a pale, clean-shaven, intelligent-looking young man, with mouse-coloured hair, grey eyes, and somewhat thin lips. Certainly Mrs. Delarayne must have been right about his sense of humour, for a pleasant twinkle played about his eyes, even while he was at work, which gave him the air of one amused by what he was doing.
Sir Joseph did not pretend to understand the people who served him; but having been hard driven himself in his day, he had a pretty shrewd notion of the power he could safely exercise over them, and of the duties, supplementary to the office routine, which he could reasonably induce them to fulfil. To make fourths at tennis or at bridge, to fill a gap at a Cinderella dance or at a dinner, or to help at a charity bazaar—these were some of the duties which Sir Joseph's highest personnel knew that they might be called upon to perform at any moment for one of Sir Joseph's numerous lady friends.
Thus a few days after his visit to Mrs. Delarayne, which has already been described, the Chairman of Bullion and Bullion Ltd., occupying the centre of his thronelike chair, was engaged on two tasks, either one of which would have been sufficient to occupy the wits of any ordinary man. He had before him the figures showing the business of his firm for the half year, and in the intervals of his study of these data, he was covertly watching his chief private secretary, with a view to estimating his chances of success in regard to a certain secret scheme in which this young man was to play a leading part.
Suddenly his dual activities were interrupted by the chief messenger, who, entering in his usual pompous fashion, presented a card to his chief, bearing the name Aubrey St. Maur. "The gentleman wishes to see you urgently, Sir Joseph," said the man.
Sir Joseph passed the card to his assistant, and waited for enlightenment.
Denis Malster examined it, rose, and returned it to Sir Joseph. "Lives in Upper Brook Street, Mayfair," he said; "he's evidently somebody, but I've never heard of him."
"The point is," Sir Joseph exclaimed sharply, "have I an appointment with him?"
"No, sir, you have no appointment with him," said Denis firmly, without referring to the notes on his table.
Sir Joseph was too well aware of his secretary's efficiency to doubt this assurance, and bade him go to see what Mr. Aubrey St. Maur wanted.
In a moment Denis returned. "He's from Lord Henry Highbarn," he informed his chief. "He wishes to deliver a message to you."
Sir Joseph glanced out of the huge window at his side, and appeared to take counsel of the tangle of chimney pots and telegraph wires that formed the only prospect from that side of the building. He repeated the name once or twice in a mystified manner, at length remembered the difficult task Mrs. Delarayne had asked him to perform in persuading Lord Henry to abandon his mission to China, and bade his secretary show St. Maur in.
The young man who followed Denis back into the room was a person of refined and handsome appearance, who, as he advanced towards Sir Joseph, introduced himself and explained his business with a degree of grace and composure at which even the seasoned old Stuart furniture seemed to stare in amazement.
St. Maur took a chair beside Sir Joseph's vast table, and Malster returned to his place.
"You are doubtless aware," said the stranger, "that Lord Henry was due here at this very moment."
Sir Joseph looked furtively towards his secretary and nodded.
St. Maur then proceeded to explain that owing to urgent Party duties at Westminster Lord Henry could not possibly reach Lombard Street before six o'clock that evening, and begged Sir Joseph to say whether he could see him at that hour. He was to return to Westminster at once and convey Sir Joseph's reply to Lord Henry.
The baronet fixed the appointment with Lord Henry for that hour, and St. Maur rose to go.
"Half a minute!" exclaimed Sir Joseph. "Please remain seated a moment longer, Mr. St. Maur, and tell me something about Lord Henry. I am a busy man and have not much time to keep myself informed of all these matters. Lord Henry must be a younger son of the Marquis of Firle, is he not?"
"He's the third and youngest son," replied St. Maur.
"And may I ask for details about the title;—you must think me dreadfully ignorant!"
"Not at all, sir," St. Maur answered. "It is a Charles I. creation. They are a Sussex family. As you probably know, Charles I. did not create peers indiscriminately. The Stuart creations are, on the whole, a credit to the monarchs who were responsible for them, particularly those of Charles I."
Sir Joseph nodded politely, but looked as if this information did not quite harmonise with his own conception of that prince.
"The fourth Earl of Chesterfield perhaps disgraced himself a little over Dr. Johnson," St. Maur added, "but as a rule the families who owe their rank to the Royal Martyr have upheld their great traditions with singular success. And possibly against the case of the fourth Earl of Chesterfield we may set that of the sixth Lord Byron, who gave us Childe Harold and Manfred."
Sir Joseph was genuinely interested. "Lord Henry is, I believe, a very wonderful personality," he remarked.
"You are right, sir," replied St. Maur, "very wonderful."
The young man rose again. He was a little above medium height, with dark crisp hair and a sallow complexion. His figure and features gave the impression of metallic virility: they were at once hard, supple, clean-cut, and finely moulded. His mouth was a little full, and his jaw perhaps a trifle heavy, but the deep thoughtful eyes gave a balance to his face which saved it from appearing unduly sensual.
"That is a pleasant young man," Sir Joseph declared, when St. Maur had gone.
"Yes," Denis replied half-heartedly. He, too, had been impressed by St. Maur, but not favourably. For Denis Malster, cultivated, sleek, and refined though he was, just lacked that exuberance and vitality which he had observed in St. Maur, and which made the latter so conspicuously his superior. Denis had nothing to compensate him for his tame, careful, Kensington breeding. St. Maur, on the other hand, had that fire and warmth of blood, without which even the highest breeding is little more than the extirpation of the animal at the expense of the man. Denis was an easy winner with the women of his class, precisely because of the parade which, in his face, nature made of his gentle antecedents; but he had sufficient intelligence to realise that when women are confronted by a man possessing all he possessed, besides that something more that was noticeable in St. Maur the best of them do not hesitate a second in selecting the St. Maur type.
"I wonder if that is all true about Charles I.?" Sir Joseph demanded with a little irritation.
Denis leant back in his chair and his eyes twinkled. "I doubt whether it is true of Charles I.," he said; "but it certainly isn't true of his son and heir, for Charles II. used the peerage more or less as a sort of foundling hospital for his various illegitimate offspring."
Sir Joseph smiled, as he frequently did, at his secretary's odd way of summing up a case, and then quickly resuming his gravity, glanced searchingly at Denis as if pondering whether the word of such a man could confidently be taken against that of an Aubrey St. Maur. For some minutes he paced the rug in front of the fire-place, his hands behind his back, and his head bowed. At last he raised his eyes and looked more affably than usual at his assistant.
"You know, Malster," he began, "I've been thinking for some time that although you appear to take to this work less quickly than some men I have had, you are on the whole trying your hardest—are you not?"
Denis, a little startled by the palpable injustice of this remark, rose, and resting the points of his fingers lightly on the table, leant forward. "Ye—yes, sir," he stammered.
"'Ow old are you?" Sir Joseph continued.
Sir Joseph repeated the words. "How much are you getting?"
"Eight hundred, sir," Denis replied.
Sir Joseph turned sharply on his heel and slightly accelerated his pace across the rug.
"H'm! Well, I propose to make it a thousand," he said thoughtfully.
Denis Malster smiled nervously. "Thank you, Sir Joseph."
"I propose to do this," continued the baronet, "because I think you must be wanting to marry, and because I think it wrong that a man of your age should be prevented from marrying owing to lack of means. D'you understand? Only that!"
"I think it most considerate of you," Denis faltered again.
"Well, that's settled," said Sir Joseph drily. "But," he added, always on tenterhooks of anxiety lest one of his staff should begin to think too much of himself, "I should like you to be quite clear about my reasons for the change. I don't want you to run away with the notion that I am giving you a rise because I am entirely satisfied with your work."
As he said this Sir Joseph resumed his seat, and pulled in his heavy chair as smartly as he was able, with the air of a man who had neatly achieved his object without abandoning the usual safe-guards.
It was a minute to six when the messenger announced Lord Henry Highbarn, and the moment the announcement was made, Denis, reaching for his hat and stick, took leave of his chief. He strode out into the street with a sprightly gait, humming as he went:
"I don't adore the girl in blue For all her family's after you."
* * * * *
There is probably in most men a sense of quality, a power of divination in regard to value which, on occasions when they are confronted by a stranger whose worth they do not know, informs them immediately of the comparative rarity or commonness of his type. This sense may at first be baffled by the delusive disguises in which men sometimes present themselves, but as a rule a chance word, an artless gesture, or even a glance, quickly corrects the initial error of the eye, and in a moment the original estimate is adjusted to the unmistakable evidence of a definite quality.
When this peculiar apprehensiveness in regard to worth becomes aware of any marked superiority in a fellow creature,—an experience which in unhappy lives very seldom occurs,—a feeling of certainty usually accompanies it, which is as mysterious as the evidence upon which it is based is intangible and elusive. A man knows that he has met his superior, he knows too how far the superiority he recognises extends, and he is conscious of experiencing something exceptional, something exquisitely precious.
That such encounters are becoming every day more rare, probably explains the increasing growth, in modern times, of that kind of disbelief and heresy which, far from being wanton, arises from a total inability to envisage greatness, whether in kings, ideals, or gods. For we arrive at our most exalted images, not by solitary flights of imagination unassisted, but by actual progressive steps in the world of concrete things; so that the spring-board from which we take our final leap into the highest concepts of what a god might be, is always the highest man we happen to have met. We can have no other starting-point. Hence in an age when greatness among men is too rare to be felt as a universal fact, a disbelief in all gods is bound sooner or later to supervene.
When Lord Henry Highbarn presented himself before Sir Joseph, it was plain from the meek droop of the baronet's eyelids and the subdued hesitating tone of his voice, that something in the young nobleman's appearance had like a flash intimated to the experienced financial magnate that here was someone of a quality as unfamiliar as it was rare. Moreover, the difference which the older man felt distinguished him from his visitor was of a kind too fundamental and insuperable to challenge even that friendly rivalry so instinctive between two natures each conscious of their own particular efficiency and excellence.
Indeed, it needed all the elaborate complications of our modern civilisation to account even for the meeting of these two people under the same roof, not to speak of the fact that they met on an equal footing.
The one, a plain but not unpretentious man of business, still a little perplexed by his stupendous success, and not yet certain of his precise social level, revealed in his unshapely but kindly features the modest rung on which Nature herself would probably have placed him, if the peculiar economic conditions of his Age had not intervened to bring about a different result; while two characteristics alone led one to suspect his latent power,—his large energetic hands with their powerful spatulate fingers, and his masterful and meditative dark eyes.
The other,—a tall, muscular, youthful-looking aristocrat, with deep-set thoughtful blue eyes, a straight finely-chiselled nose, and a full eloquent mouth (the whole overshadowed by an unusually lofty brow, from which, particularly over the temples, the hair had noticeably receded)—possessed that unconscious ease of manner and unassertive masterfulness of bearing, which derive on the one hand from breeding, and on the other from a constant habit of preoccupation with external problems, that is unfavourable to any self-concern. As his alert vision took in the details of his surroundings, including the person of Sir Joseph himself, on whom he appeared to cast only the most casual sidelong glances, it was clear that his mind, far from being occupied with internal questionings, was measuring even then the probable extent to which this visit might serve some ultimate important purpose upon which the whole gravity and earnestness of his being seemed to be concentrated; and if his solemn features occasionally relaxed into a smile, it was precisely the habitual gravity of his mien that lent his passing levity such extraordinarily persuasive merriness.
It was chiefly Lord Henry's air of preoccupation that set Sir Joseph so quickly at his ease. For although the baronet was familiar enough with the sons of peers and peers themselves,—for had he not a number of them on his various boards?—there was, as we have seen, something more than mere rank in his youthful visitor to disturb him.
While the first courteous platitudes were being exchanged, Sir Joseph quietly took stock of his companion, and was for a brief moment a little perturbed by the latter's unconventional attire.
We have noticed that though he was young, Lord Henry's hair receded a little from his brow, and made it appear even loftier than it actually was. Between the high bald temples, however, a wisp of stiff fair hair still remained over the centre of the young man's forehead, somewhat resembling that seen in the portraits of Napoleon, and with this tuft his long well-shaped and sensitive fingers would play continuously while he spoke, with the result that he constantly bowed his head.
Occasionally, therefore, when his customary gravity gave way for a space and his face was irradiated with a smile or a laugh, an expression of such irresistible and almost wicked mirth suffused his features, owing to the upward glance he was constrained to give you from the bowed angle of his head, that willy-nilly you were compelled to laugh with him.
Sir Joseph felt this; he was also aware of the peculiar charm of it; but what struck him even more forcibly were Lord Henry's loose-fitting and apparently badly cut clothes. Anyone else so clad would have looked hopelessly dowdy, while the carelessly knotted green tie that bulged all askew from beneath the young man's ample collar, seemed for a moment almost offensive.
It was strange how the displeasure provoked by these shortcomings in his attire gradually vanished beneath the steady persuasiveness of the wearer's fascinating personality; and very soon not only had Sir Joseph ceased from feeling their aggressiveness, but had actually begun to associate them inseparably with the strange charm of the creature before him.
"Mrs. Delarayne," said Lord Henry, "would give me no peace until I came to see you, Sir Joseph, so you must forgive me for forcing myself upon you in this way, and relying for your forbearance simply upon the strength of the friendship you bear her."
He laughed, and Sir Joseph perforce laughed with him.
"'Ave you seen her lately?" the baronet enquired.
"She's always seeing me," Lord Henry replied, smiling in a manner that was at once childishly winsome and wise. He was still startlingly boyish, despite his thirty-three years, and though his slight baldness added a few years to his face, he did not look a month older than five-and-twenty.
"She is very fond of you," Sir Joseph proceeded earnestly, beginning to feel, for the first time, not only that Mrs. Delarayne's infatuation was clearly justified, but also that young St. Maur had probably been right in his remarks concerning Charles I.'s creations. It was strange to recognise the evidences of unusual wisdom in such a childish face; it reminded him vaguely of what he had heard or dreamt of Chinese mandarins,—evidently such phenomena were possible.
"She's an amazingly captivating woman," muttered Lord Henry, still pulling at the tuft of hair over his brow. "Her blank refusal to accept the fact of her advancing years is the most wonderful and at the same time the most pathetic thing about her."
Sir Joseph, with an expression of deep curiosity, leant heavily over the right arm of his chair, and stared expectantly at his visitor.
"She has not had her second decisive love affair, you see," Lord Henry continued. "And every day she arrays herself to experience it,—that second and decisive love affair which alone reconciles the best women to old age and to snow-white locks."
Sir Joseph fidgeted. He did not understand, but thought he did. "Her second and decisive love affair," he repeated,—"yes."
"We are apt to forget," continued Lord Henry, "that all deep, decently constituted women have two definite relationships to man, one alone of which is insufficient to satisfy them. The first is their relationship of wife to the man more or less of their own generation whom they have loved; the second is the relationship of mother to the man of their children's generation, whom under favourable circumstances they worship."
Sir Joseph shifted in his chair, raised his hand to his chin and looked fixedly at the speaker.
"This last and most precious relationship is the only one that reconciles a woman to her wrinkles and makes her happy in her grey hairs. Without it she takes to peroxide, smooths out her wrinkles with cream, and what is even more tragic, developes a tendency to pursue the young men of her children's generation. People call it ridiculous, lunatic,—so it would be, if it were not so nobly, so terribly pathetic."
"But I have known women with grown-up sons behave exactly as Mrs. Delarayne behaves," Sir Joseph objected with as much breath as he could summon in his surprise at what Lord Henry had said.
"Not sons with whom they are in love," Lord Henry corrected. "Most mothers have sons, but of these not all experience that great love for one of their male offspring which is perhaps the most beautiful, the most passionate, and the most permanent of earthly relationships. Mrs. Delarayne is obviously a woman who would have been capable of such a relationship had she only had a son."
"Is it only one particular son?" Sir Joseph enquired with an unconscious note of profound humility in his voice.
Lord Henry, still tugging at his wisp of hair, now turned to Sir Joseph, and blinking very quickly, as was his wont when deeply absorbed in a subject, contemplated the baronet for a moment in silence.
"Doesn't that clear up the problem of Mrs. Delarayne a little for you?" he asked at last. "Believe me, few women care to admit that they are thirty-five unless they have a husband whom they love, and still fewer women resign themselves to their fiftieth year unless they are wrapped up in a beloved son."
Sir Joseph, to whom Mrs. Delarayne, except for her repeated refusals of his hand, had never been precisely a problem, demurred a little. "It certainly sheds some light,—yes," he said slowly. "But don't you think that a second great love with a man more or less of her own generation is equally satisfying to a woman like that?"
"How can it be when it is simply a repetition of a former and thoroughly explored experience?" Lord Henry replied. "I do not mean, mind you, that great-hearted women who have not enjoyed that exquisite relationship to a beloved son, are conscious that it is this circumstance which has been lacking in their lives. Because precious little whatever is conscious in the best women. But in their loathing and repudiation of advancing years, and in their repeated attachments to men of my generation, such women reveal to the psychologist the constant ache they feel from the vast empty chamber in their hearts."
For some moments Sir Joseph played idly with an ivory paper-knife on his desk. He had completely forgotten the object of Lord Henry's visit. It was as if he had always known the man, and that they were just having one of their usual pleasant chats after their work was done. Such was the power that Lord Henry possessed of immersing his listeners in the thoughts that occupied his mind.
"And this," continued the younger man, after a while, "is the only consideration which makes me feel I ought to marry. I mean that it almost amounts to wanton vandalism not to give a wife of one's choice and a son of one's own begetting at least the chance of beautifying the world by this most wonderful of all relationships."
"You are a poet," said Sir Joseph with that spontaneous penetration of which the uncultivated are sometimes capable.
"If to understand Mrs. Delarayne a man must be a poet, then I am one," Lord Henry replied, smiling in his irresistible way.
Sir Joseph perforce smiled too, and the return to earth which this faint levity signified, reminded him of the real object of the young nobleman's visit. The thought did not reassure him, however; for after all the intelligence he had been able to glean regarding his visitor's character, he realised that if Lord Henry had resolved to undertake this mission to China, it would obviously serve no purpose to exhort him to change his mind. It was clear that Mrs. Delarayne could not have understood the man she was dealing with; or, if she had, she must have urged this step as a last hope.
As a forlorn hope it certainly appeared to Sir Joseph, and it was only half-heartedly that he opened the attack.
"And now tell me about China," he said. "Have you quite made up your mind?"
Lord Henry rose, thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets, and paced the hearth-rug.
"I think so," he replied, musing deeply as he glanced from one to the other of Sir Joseph's art treasures.
"But you are doing good here," the baronet protested feebly. "What good will you do in China?"
"I'm not convinced that I am doing good here," Lord Henry rejoined sharply. "That's precisely the point."
"But everybody says you are."
Sir Joseph turned to his ivory paper-knife. He did not understand.
"If it's doing good," Lord Henry added, "to salve the nervous wreckage that our unspeakable Western civilisation produces with every generation; if it's doing good to render the disastrous mess which we have made of human life possible for a few years longer, by bringing relief to the principal victims of it; then, indeed, I am a desirable member of society. But I question the whole thing. I question very much whether it can be doing good to help this hopeless condition of things to last one moment longer than it need."
Sir Joseph glanced up a little anxiously. "Are you serious?" he enquired.
Lord Henry sat down again.
"Am I serious?" he scoffed. "Can you be serious, can you be sane, and expect me to think otherwise? But you have been a great success by means of the very system which is rotten and iniquitous to the core. How could you sympathise?"
Sir Joseph stammered hopelessly that he was trying to sympathise.
"You are no doubt convinced," Lord Henry continued, "that all you are witnessing to-day is what you would call Progress. And the further we recede from a true understanding of human life and its most vital needs, and the more we complicate the world and increase its machinery, the more persuaded you become of the reality of your illusion. How could it be otherwise?"
Sir Joseph expostulated ineffectually, and Lord Henry continued:
"Still, I am not a reformer," he said. "I do not wish to reform, even if I could. It is not only too late, things are also too desperate. What I chiefly want is to take refuge somewhere where humanity and its deepest needs are the subject of greater mastery, greater understanding; so that I can cease from being distracted by the immensity of modern error. No great intellect, no great creative power can exist in this country; because the moment it becomes conscious it is so obsessed by the shams and the shamelessness that surround it, that instead of devoting itself to the joys and enrichment of life, it feels impelled by the horrors on every side to take up the social system and attempt to put it right. This sterile pitfall is now the temptation of the greatest minds. Your Shelley, your Coleridge, even your Byron,—what did they do? Menaced by this same vortex of negative effort, sentenced to intellectual annihilation if they attempted to straighten out the muddle of modernity, they fled, or drowned themselves in water or opium."
He had ceased playing with his tuft of hair. His face was distraught with indignation and with the bitterness of a thwarted love of mankind; it was also illuminated by the distant dream of a world as he would have it, so that though he brought down his fist on the corner of Sir Joseph's table with some weight, the baronet was too much moved to notice the gesture.
"Things are so bad," he pursued, lightly lowering his voice, "that to have any genuine insight to-day, any special human feeling to-day, means perforce to devote these gifts to the social problem, instead of to art and to beauty. That is the curse of being born into this Age. The gigantic ghastliness of modern Western civilisation successfully engulfs every superior brain that comes to being in its midst."
Sir Joseph fell back limply in his chair. He acknowledged the game was lost before the struggle had actually begun. How could he presume to strike a bargain with such a man? He remembered Mrs. Delarayne, however, and braced himself once more.
"There are times," Lord Henry began again, glancing kindly at Sir Joseph, "when I feel that perhaps I ought at least to risk even my life in order to do something here, in this country. But what is one man's life in the face of this sea of blunders? What is even a giant's effort, against the Lilliputian swarm of modern men who are determined to gain the precipice?"
"I was hoping," said Sir Joseph quietly, "that I might make you an offer which would induce you to abandon this mission to the Far East. I was hoping, in fact, that I might help you."
Lord Henry glanced thoughtfully at the baronet and then shook his head.
Sir Joseph, more and more convinced that he was embarking on a hopeless enterprise, persisted notwithstanding.
"I am prepared to put a considerable sum of money at your disposal," he said. "I believe your sanatorium for nervous disorders in Kent is a veritable public boon. I feel that I could not find a nobler public object for my wealth than to support you in your work."
Lord Henry rapped his fingers on his knees impatiently.
"Could I not assist you in enlarging this establishment? Could I not give it a permanent foundation or effect what alterations in it you may suggest for its improvement and greater utility? If by the same token I succeeded in retaining you in England, I feel I should in addition be doing a personal service to someone, to a lady, for whom you and I have a very deep respect."
Lord Henry blinked rapidly as he turned to face the old gentleman at his side, and his smile was kind and courteous.
"If, Sir Joseph, my only motive in going abroad were indeed to transact the business of the Society for Anthropological Research, I might perhaps be induced to yield to the temptation you so generously put in my way. But seeing that possibly my principal object is to give my endowments a fair chance away from this whirlpool of confusion, which makes social reform a morbid idee fixe, I cannot persuade myself that it would be worth while."
"But supposing," Sir Joseph persisted lamely, "I gave you carte-blanche to extend your work as you liked?"
"And with what object?"
"I have told you the object," the baronet replied mildly.
"No!" exclaimed the younger man with emphasis. "The object would be to add to the organisations which are springing up everywhere for the purpose of making our impossible civilisation possible for at least a little while longer. That would be the ultimate object."
"How much would you require?" Sir Joseph suggested in his most melting tones, still clinging desperately to his belief in the only bait he possessed.
Lord Henry laughed despondently. "Only enough to purchase sufficient dynamite to blow my present sanatorium skywards," he said. Then resuming his gravity and rising, he extended a hand to the baronet.
"No," he added, "I'm afraid my mind is made up. I must leave this country, Mrs. Delarayne or no Mrs. Delarayne. Thank you very much indeed, all the same. I have seen you and enjoyed our talk. Mrs. Delarayne's behest has at least been strictly obeyed."
"When will you be leaving?" Sir Joseph enquired, gracefully throwing down his cards.
"In about three months' time, I expect."
"I am sorry, very sorry," ejaculated the baronet.
The two men walked gravely to the door.
On the threshold Lord Henry stopped, and looking methodically round the room, pointed at last to one of the most beautiful of Sir Joseph's Stuart cabinets.
"You also unconsciously acknowledge that there is something revolting and intolerable about this Age, Sir Joseph," he said smiling mischievously; "otherwise why do you use your wealth to surround yourself both here, and as I understand at Brineweald too, with all the treasures of art that were produced by our ancestors."
Lord Henry laughed again; his deep thoughtful eyes filled with the tears of mirth, and he vanished from the room leaving Sir Joseph contemplating his costly old furniture with feelings of utter bewilderment.
Despite Sir Joseph's very careful reservations in regard to the increase, which unsolicited he had thought fit to make in his chief secretary's salary, Denis, who was perfectly well aware of his own efficiency, was inclined rather to discount every feature of his master's generous behaviour, except the covert tribute which he believed it was intended to make to his invaluable services. He knew the business man's instinctive reluctance to reveal his full appreciation of a subordinate's worth, and felt he must allow for this. But, on the other hand, in view of Sir Joseph's intimate relations with the Delarayne household, he was unable altogether to dispel a certain lurking anxiety concerning the baronet's very precise allusions to the question of marriage, which it was hard to believe could have been altogether gratuitous. This thought was disquieting.
Denis Malster, without being exactly an incurable philanderer, was nevertheless insufficiently commonplace to contemplate marriage, in the Pauline sense, as a necessity. He was much more disposed, at least for the present, to regard it merely as a piquant possibility, towards which his very attitude of indecision lent him an extra weapon of power in his relations with the other sex.
His life, hitherto, had been enjoyable, he thought, simply because it had been an uninterrupted preparation for marriage without the dull certainty of a definite conclusion. To excite interest in the other sex and envy in his own had, ever since he had been a boy of eighteen, constituted the breath of his nostrils, the one spring from which he drew his love of life and his desire to live. Immaculate in his dress, adequately cultivated and intellectual in his speech, and carefully punctilious in the adoption of such amateur pursuits as would be likely to give him the stamp of artistic connoisseurship, he had until now employed his ample income principally in furnishing his extensive wardrobe, in collecting old books and prints, and in giving his chambers that appearance of outre refinement, which was calculated to force his friends to certain inevitable conclusions concerning both his means and the extent of his aesthetic development.
In the circumstances, therefore, it was difficult for him to regard the addition to his income, which Sir Joseph had suddenly thought fit to make, as anything more than a fresh means of indulging his various whims to an even greater degree than he had indulged them heretofore,—those whims which had by now become almost driving passions to the exclusion of all else;—and he was certainly not in the least disposed to take Sir Joseph at his word, and to embark upon that undertaking which he knew would put an abrupt end to all the careless dalliance in which his clothes, his fastidious speech, and his parade of artistic discrimination played so effective a part.
Such were the thoughts that occupied his mind as he made his way from Lombard Street to his rooms in Essex Court; and by the time he had dressed for dinner and was waiting for a cab in the Strand, a look of fixed determination had settled on his face which was indicative of the firm resolve he had made.
In any case Sir Joseph could not expect him to marry immediately. For a while yet, therefore, he would continue to enjoy the life so full of secret triumphs which he had succeeded in leading ever since he had entered the house of Bullion & Bullion, and from this day with the additional pleasures that his increased income would allow. Had he not been told by Mrs. Delarayne herself that a man should not marry until flappers had ceased to turn round to get a second look at him in the street? And was there not something profoundly wise in this advice, although it had been pronounced in one of the old lady's most flippant moods? A smile of complacent well-being spread slowly over his features as he recalled this remark, and the last endorsement was mentally affixed to his private plans.
What would Cleopatra Delarayne do? Charitably, almost chivalrously, he imagined, he gave her a thought. Had he led her to hope? Undoubtedly he had. But then he had not resolved never to marry; he had merely determined to postpone the step sine die. Perhaps in a year or two he would come to a definite understanding with Cleopatra. After all, she was only twenty-five. She was an attractive girl, and she would be wealthy. He felt that marriage with her would not be an uninviting conclusion to another year or two of his present delightful existence. Thus he satisfied his conscience and gratified his deepest wishes into the bargain.
He dined alone at the Cafe Royal. It was a sultry evening, and London was still stifling after a sweltering day. One had the feeling that the roofs and masonry of the buildings all about were still burning, as probably they were, with the heat of the sun that had been pouring down upon them all day; and the big city seemed to breathe its hot dust into the face of its inhabitants.
Having nothing better to do, he thought how pleasant it would be to finish the day in Mrs. Delarayne's cool garden in Kensington, and thither he betook himself after his meal, devoutly hoping that they would be at home.
Cleopatra had evidently been half expecting him, for she appeared in the drawing-room on the heels of the maid who had ushered him in, and gave him a friendly welcome. Mrs. Delarayne had ensconced herself upstairs and did not wish to be disturbed, and at that moment her penetrating voice could be heard conducting what appeared to be a most lively and acrimonious debate with someone unknown across the telephone. So on Denis's suggestion they went into the garden and installed themselves there in Cleopatra's favourite bower.
"Rather late for the Warrior to be upbraiding a tradesman," Denis observed. "I wonder what she can be doing."
He had nicknamed Mrs. Delarayne "the Warrior" himself. He was sensitive enough to apprehend the strong strain of courage in her character; he had on several occasions been impressed by the tenacious boldness of her claims to youth and by the energy she displayed in keeping up the difficult part,—frequently entailing exertions out of all proportion to her bodily vigour;—so he had nicknamed her "the Warrior." But this sobriquet was used only when he and Cleopatra were alone together.
"The poor Warrior is peevish anyhow, you see," Cleopatra explained. "Baby comes home to-morrow, and if there's anything that annoys mother to exasperation, it is to have to cluck and fuss round her chick like an old hen. She loathes it, and Baby always makes her feel she must do it."
Denis pretended to be interested only in a casual way. "What sort of a girl is—Baby?" he asked. "Is she like you?"
"I suppose she is like me to the same extent that I am like the Warrior," the girl replied. "But she's most like the Warrior herself. Imagine my mother at the age of seventeen and you know my sister. Surely you have seen that old photograph of the Warrior as a girl in the drawing-room? It is simply Baby over again,—or rather vice versa."
"I must look at it," said Denis thoughtfully.
"In fact they are so much alike," Cleopatra proceeded, "that they know each other inside out, and annoy each other accordingly."
"They don't get on well then?" he enquired.
"Oh, yes, but Baby's a little trying at times. You see, she will forget for instance that we call mother Edith, and have done ever since father died; and she will suddenly shout Mother! out loud on crowded railway platforms, or at the Academy, or worse still at garden parties, which always gives the Warrior one of those nervous attacks for which she has to go to Lord Henry."
Denis started almost imperceptibly at the mention of Lord Henry's name, and turned an interested face towards the girl. "Do you know Lord Henry?" he asked.
"No, I don't. There are some men the Warrior knows whom she never introduces to me. I feel as if I knew Lord Henry very well indeed, but I have never met him."
"You haven't lost much," Denis snapped.
"I beg your pardon?" Cleopatra exclaimed, smiling kindly but deprecatingly, and arching her neck a little, as she scented the injustice behind his remark.
"He dresses abominably," Denis pursued, "and from what I can gather is benighted enough to believe in our beheaded sovereign Charles I."
"He must be very able though," the girl objected. "It isn't often, is it, that our aristocracy distinguish themselves? And d'you know that he is a Fellow of the Royal Society entirely on the strength of his original research into the subject of modern nervous disorders?"
Denis pouted and smiled with an ostentatious show of incredulity. "He's the son of the Marquis of Firle, remember!"
"Oh, but I don't believe that's got anything to do with it—honestly!" she retorted.
Cleopatra knew her mother as well as any daughter has ever known her parent; she could have compiled a catalogue of Mrs. Delarayne's foibles more exhaustive and elaborate than any that Mrs. Delarayne's worst enemies could have produced; but, on the other hand, she had so often found her mother a safe guide where her fellow creatures were concerned, and had thus acquired so deep a faith in her mother's judgment, that it was hard for her to believe that in the matter of Lord Henry the Warrior could be mistaken.
She regarded her companion for some moments in silence. He was cutting a cigar, and failed to notice that she was observing him.
Certainly he was very sleek and smart, and showed that perfect efficiency in all he did which betokens general ability. What was it then that gave her a little pang of doubt whenever she was moved by an impulse to look up to him? His voice, it is true, was thin and a trifle high-pitched,—always a bad sign in a man,—but she would have overlooked all his shortcomings if only her craving to revere where she loved had been sufficiently gratified. He was beyond all question the best type of man who had hitherto paid her attention. Others, perhaps, might have been more manly; but then they had been clumsy, heavy, and puerile, and had, above all, lacked that air of complete efficiency which was perhaps Denis's greatest asset.
She thought herself foolish for expecting too much from life, and without any effort turned a kindly smiling face to her visitor.
"The Warrior!" he ejaculated suddenly, blowing sharp strong puffs from his cigar; and he was either annoyed or made a good pretence of it.
Yes, there, indeed, was Mrs. Delarayne, stalking majestically up the garden, and from the way she glanced rapidly from side to side, and grabbed at her frock, it was plain that she was in none too pleasant a mood.
Denis rose when she was about four yards from them.
She glanced quickly at Cleopatra, seemed to notice the perfect serenity of both young people with marked dissatisfaction, rapidly recorded the fact that her daughter's hair was utterly undisturbed, and smiled grimly. "Evidently things have taken their usual course," she mused. "He had not even attempted to kiss her!"
"Don't you think you two people are rather silly to sit out here doing nothing?" she demanded irascibly.
"It's so delightfully cool," Denis protested.
"Yes, too cool!" snapped the old lady with a deliberate glance at her daughter, which was intended to convey the full meaning of her words.
Cleopatra moved impatiently. Her mother always made her feel so miserably defective, and this was hard to forgive.
Mrs. Delarayne settled herself elegantly in a wicker chair, took a cigarette from a case, and snapped the case to with a decisive click. She looked hot and a little tired, and as Denis proffered her a light he noticed the beads of perspiration amid the powder round her eyes.
"I've had the most tiresome evening imaginable," she croaked.
"I thought so," said her daughter. "We heard you."
"Really men are most ridiculous cowards," she cried, frowning hard at Denis. "There's Sir Joseph, for instance. He's failed ignominiously with Lord Henry; has been unable to induce him to give up his absurd mission to China, and instead of coming here to tell me all about it, he keeps me thirty-five minutes brawling at him over the 'phone in this heat, simply because he daren't face me!"
Denis stretched out his legs before him and clasped his hands at the back of his head. This was a signal, well known to the women, that a long analytical speech was to follow, and Mrs. Delarayne looked wearily away, as if to imply before the start that she was not in the least interested.
"It's all organisation nowadays," Denis began. "If you can organise your machinery with the help of good subordinates, the trick is done. And since Sir Joseph simply exudes lubricants, everything works smoothly and successfully. He——"
"Don't talk of exuding lubricants in this weather, please!" Mrs. Delarayne interrupted. "I suffer from the heat almost as badly as butter."
It was becoming clear to Cleopatra that her mother was for some reason intent on chastising their visitor, and she watched the interesting woman before her with her filial feeling in almost complete abeyance. The children of remarkable parents frequently do this after they have turned a certain age. It is not disrespect, but merely absent-mindedness.
It was almost dark now, and Denis noticed Mrs. Delarayne's fine profile outlined against the lighted rooms of the house. There was a sadness delineated on her handsome, aristocratic face, which, as he had observed before, was to be seen only when her features were quite still. Could this apparently gay widow still be mourning her husband? Denis was sufficiently romantic and ill-informed to imagine this just possible.
"So the interview between Sir Joseph and Lord Henry was a failure?" he enquired trying to be sympathetic.
"Yes, of course," Mrs. Delarayne rejoined, flinging her cigarette into the bushes at her side. "And I do so hate the idea of going out to China."
Cleopatra laughed. "But, Edith, surely you don't really mean that you'll go to China if Lord Henry goes?"
Denis glanced quickly at Cleopatra and in his eyes she read the supercilious message: "People of our generation could not be so foolish."
"You don't flatter yourself, Cleo, I hope," Mrs. Delarayne retorted icily, "that I say these things to amuse you and Denis, do you?"
Cleopatra signified by a glance directed at Denis that she did not like the message in his eyes, and regretting the laugh with which she had opened her last remark, she turned conciliatingly to her mother.
"I'd go with you, Edith dear, if you wanted me to," she said.
For the first time since he had made their acquaintance Denis began to have the shadow of an understanding of the depth of these two women's attachment to each other, and he bowed his head.
"Thank you, Cleo," Mrs. Delarayne replied after satisfying herself that there was not a trace of insincerity either in the voice or features of her daughter. "We'll see."
She rose, smoothed down the front of her frock with a few rapid gestures, and turned to the younger people.
"Come on!" she said. "You and I cannot afford to lose our beauty sleep, Cleo. Two hours before midnight,—you know the time, and it's now half-past nine."
Evidently Mrs. Delarayne intended to be rude to Denis. Sir Joseph had told her something across the telephone, and she had expected a result which had not occurred.
* * * * *
The following morning after breakfast Mrs. Delarayne as usual retired to the bureau in the library where every day she devoted at least thirty minutes to her housekeeping duties.
Silently on this occasion Cleopatra followed in her wake, and pretending to be in search of a book, lingered in her mother's company longer than was her wont after the morning meal. Book after book was taken down from the shelves, perfunctorily examined and returned to its place. Once or twice the girl looked towards her mother, possibly in the hope that the elder woman would provide the opening to the subject that was uppermost in both their minds. At last Cleopatra spoke.
"Baby comes home to-day," she said, in a voice strained to appear cheerful.
Mrs. Delarayne looked up from a tradesman's book. "Yes," she sighed wearily. "One of Sir Joseph's cars is coming to fetch us at half-past two. The train reaches King's Cross at three. Will you come?"
"Of course,—rather!" Cleopatra exclaimed, taking down another book and examining it cursorily.
There was silence again, and Cleopatra could be heard running quickly through the pages of the volume she held.
"What is Baby going to do?" she asked after a while.
"Don't ask me!" exclaimed the mother.
"Haven't you any plans?" the daughter enquired with studied indifference, her eyes wandering vacantly over the letter-press before them.
"Plans—what plans?" ejaculated the old lady. "I suppose the poor child will have to put up with us now. You don't suppose we can send her gadding about the Continent again?"
"I didn't dream of any such thing!" Cleopatra protested a little guiltily.
"No, I promised her that she should come home for good after the School of Domesticity, and she expects it. You saw what she said in her last letter."
"Naturally," Cleopatra added, closing her book and replacing it hurriedly on the shelves.
"We'll have to put up with it—that's all, my dear. I hope she won't be too trying. But you must really help me a little by taking her off my hands, particularly on my Bridge and 'Inner Light' days."
Cleopatra cast a glance full of meaning at her mother, and quietly left the room. She had heard all she wanted to hear.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, the subject of this conversation, ensconced comfortably in the corner of a first-class carriage, was speeding rapidly towards London.