BIRD OF PARADISE
Grant Richards Ltd. 1914
I EXCUSES 9
II LADY KELLYNCH 25
III NIGEL 38
IV RUPERT AT RUMPELMEYER'S 49
V A HAPPY HOME 63
VI FUTURISM 77
VII RUSSIAN BALLET 90
VIII PERCY 95
IX AN ANONYMOUS LETTER 110
X MASTER CLIFFORD KELLYNCH 120
XI A DISCOVERY 129
XII A LOVE SCENE 142
XIII RECONCILIATION 150
XIV "TANGO" 155
XV CLIFFORD'S HISTORICAL PLAY 163
XVI A SECOND PROPOSAL 167
XVII MORE ABOUT RUPERT 172
XVIII "A SPECIAL FAVOUR" 177
XIX A DEVOTED WIFE 184
XX RUPERT AGAIN 192
XXI THE HILLIERS' ENTERTAINMENT 196
XXII BERTHA AT HOME 202
XXIII NIGEL'S LETTER 205
XXIV LADY KELLYNCH AT HOME 210
XXV MRS. PICKERING 219
XXVI NEWS FROM VENICE 227
XXVII ANOTHER ANONYMOUS LETTER 232
XXVIII AN INTERVIEW 237
XXIX NIGEL AND MARY 245
XXX MISS BELVOIR 256
XXXI MARY'S PLAN 263
XXXII PRIVATE FIREWORKS AT THE PICKERINGS' 267
XXXIII NIGEL ABROAD 284
XXXIV MOONA 289
XXXV TWO WOMEN 300
XXXVI PLAIN SAILING 313
Poor Madeline came into the room a little flustered and hustled, with papers in her muff. She found Bertha looking lovely and serene as usual.
Madeline Irwin was a modern-looking girl of twenty-three; tall, thin, smart and just the right shape; not pretty, but very sympathetic, with thick dark hair and strongly marked eyebrows, a rather long and narrow face, delicately modelled, a clear white complexion, and soft, sincere brown eyes.
Bertha—Mrs. Percy Kellynch—was known as a beauty. She was indeed improbably pretty, small, plump and very fair, with soft golden hair that was silky and yet fluffy, perfectly regular little features, and a kind of infantine sweetness, combined with an almost incredible cleverness that was curious and fascinating. She was of a type remote equally from the fashion-plate and the suffragette, and was so physically attractive that one could hardly be near her without longing to put out a finger and touch her soft, fair face or her soft hair; as one would like to touch a kitten or a pretty child. And yet one felt that it would not be an entirely safe thing to do; like the child or the kitten she might scratch or run away. But it is probable that a large average of her acquaintance had been weak enough—or strong enough—to give way to the temptation and take the risk.
This charming little creature sat in a room furnished in clear, pale colours—that was pink, white and blonde like herself. Madeline sat down without greeting her, saying in a scolding voice, as she rustled a letter:
"He's refused again ... more excuses ... always, always excuses!"
"Well, all the better; excuses are a form of compliment. I'd far rather have a lot of apology and attenuation than utter coolness," said Bertha consolingly. She had a low, even voice, and rarely made a gesture. Her animation was all in her eyes. They were long, bluish-grey, with dark lashes, and very expressive.
"Oh, you'd like a man to write and say that he couldn't come to dinner because it was his mother's birthday, and he always dined with her on that occasion, and besides he was in deep mourning, and had influenza, and was going to the first night at the St. James's, and was expecting some old friends up from the country to stay with him, and would be out of town shooting at the time?"
"Certainly; so much inventive ingenuity is most flattering. Don't you think it's better than to say on the telephone that he wouldn't be able to come that evening as he wouldn't be able to; and then ring off?" said Bertha.
"Rupert would never do that! He's intensely polite; politeness is ingrained in his nature. I'm rather hopeless about it all; and yet when I think how sometimes when I speak to him and he doesn't answer but gives that slight smile ..."
"How well I know that slight, superior smile—discouraging yet spurring you on to further efforts! ... Rupert—Rupert! What a name! How can people be called Rupert? It isn't done, you're not living in a feuilleton, you must change the man's name, dear."
"Indeed I sha'n't! Nonsense; it's a beautiful name! Rupert Denison! It suits him; it suits me. Bertha, you can't deny it's a handsome, noble face, like a Vandyke portrait of Charles I, or one of those people in the National Gallery. And he must take a certain amount of interest in me, because he wants me to learn more, to be more cultured. He's so accomplished! He knows simply everything. The other day he sent me a book about the early Italian masters."
"Did he, though? How jolly!"
"A little volume of Browning, too—that tiny edition, beautifully bound."
Bertha made an inarticulate sound.
"And you know he found out my birthday, and sent me a few dark red roses and Ruskin's Stones of Venice."
"Nothing like being up to date," said Bertha. "Right up to the day after to-morrow! Rupert always is. How did he find out your birthday?"
"How do you suppose?"
"I can't think. By looking in Who's Who?—going to Somerset House or the British Museum?"
"How unkind you are! Of course not. No—I told him."
"Ah, I thought perhaps it was some ingenious plan like that. I should think that's the way he usually finds out things—by being told."
"Bertha, why do you sneer at him?"
"Did I?—I didn't mean to. Why does he behave like a belated schoolmaster?"
"Behave like a—oh, Bertha!"
Madeline was trying to be offended, but she could not succeed. It was nearly impossible to be angry with Bertha, when she was present. There were many reasons for this. Bertha had a small arched mouth, teeth that were tiny and white and marvellously regular, a dimple in her left cheek, long eyelashes that gave a veiled look to the eyes, and a generally very live-wax-dollish appearance which was exceedingly disarming. There was a touch, too, of the china shepherdess about her. But, of course, she was not really like a doll, nor remote from life; she was very real, living and animated; though she had for the connoisseur all the charm of an exquisite bibelot that is not for sale.
* * * * *
Bertha was twenty-eight, but looked younger than her age. Madeline might have been her senior. Under this peachlike appearance, and with the premeditated naivete of her manner, she was always astonishing people by her penetration and general ingenuity; she was at once very quick and very deep—quick especially to perceive and enjoy incongruities, and deep in understanding them; extremely observant, and not in the least superficial. Almost her greatest interest was the study of character; she had an intellectual passion for going below the surface, and finding out the little coins inedits of the soul. She was rather unpractical, but only in execution, and she had the gift of getting the practical side of life well done for her, not letting it be neglected. Her bonbonniere of a drawing-room seemed to be different from ordinary rooms, though one hardly knew in what; partly from the absence of superfluities; and somehow after many a triumph over the bewilderment of a sulky yet dazzled decorator, Bertha had contrived, in baffling him, to make the house look distinguished without being unconventional; dainty without being artificial; she had made it suit her perfectly and, what was more, the atmosphere was reposeful. Her husband always besought her to do anything on earth she wished in her own home, rather in the same way that one would give an intelligent canary carte blanche about the decoration of what was supposed to be its cage.
Percy Kellynch, the husband—he was spoken of as the husband (people said: "Is that the husband?" or "What's the husband like?")—was a rather serious-looking barrister with parliamentary ambitions, two mild hobbies (which took the form of Tschaikowsky at the Queen's Hall and squash rackets at the Bath Club), a fine forehead, behind which there was less doing than one would suppose, polished manners, an amiable disposition and private means.
For Madeline's sake, Bertha was interested in Rupert Denison, and determined to understand him. When she reached bedrock in her friends, it was not unusual for her to grow tired of them. But she was gentle and considerate even to the people who left her cold; and when she really cared for anyone, she was loyal, passionate and extraordinarily tenacious.
* * * * *
"A schoolmaster!" repeated Madeline rather dismally. "Well! perhaps there may be just a touch of that in Rupert. When I'm going to see him I do feel rather nervous and a little as if I was going up for an exam."
"Well, let's say a holiday tutor," conceded Bertha. "He is so educational!"
"At any rate, he bothers about what I ought and oughtn't to know; he pays me some attention!"
"The only modern thing about him is his paying you so little," said Bertha. "And, Madeline, we mustn't forget that young men are very difficult to get hold of nowadays—for girls. Everyone complains of it. Formerly they wouldn't dance, but they'd do everything else. Now, dancing's the only thing they will do. People are always making bitter remarks to me about it. There's not the slightest doubt that, except for dancing, young men just now, somehow or other, are scarce, wild and shy. And the funny thing is that they'll two-step and one-step and double-Boston and Tango the whole evening, but that's practically all. Oh, they're most unsatisfactory! Lots of girls have told me so. And as to proposals! Why, they're the rarest thing! Even when the modern young man is devoted you can't be sure of serious intentions, except, of course, in the Royal Family, or at the Gaiety."
"Well, I don't care! I'm sure I don't want all these silly dancing young men. They bore me to death. Give me culture! and all that sort of thing. Only—only Rupert! ... Very often after he's refused an invitation, like this of mother's, he'll write and ask me to have tea with him at Rumpelmeyer's, or somewhere; and then he'll talk and talk the whole time about ... oh, any general instructive subject."
"Oh ... architecture!"
"But does it all mean anything, Bertha?"
"I almost think it must," she answered dreamily. "No man could take a girl out to eat ices and talk of the cathedral at Rouen, or discuss Pointed Gothic and Norman arches over tea and bread and butter, without some intentions. It wouldn't be human."
"It's quite true he always seems to take a good deal for granted," remarked Madeline.
"But not enough."
"Rupert would make a very good husband—if you could stand him," said Bertha meditatively; "he's one of those thoroughly well-informed people who never know what is going on."
"If I could stand him! Why, Bertha! I'd work my fingers to the bone, and lay down my life for him!"
"He doesn't want your life, and, probably, not bony fingers either, but he'll want incense swung, all the time, remember; and always in front of him only. He won't be half as good-natured and indulgent as Percy."
"Of course, Percy's very sweet, and kind and clever, and devoted to you," said Madeline, "but I always feel that it would have been more your ideal to have married your first love, Nigel; and far more romantic, too. He's so good-looking and amusing, and how delightfully he sings Debussy!"
"Nigel! Oh, nonsense. There's no one more really prosaic. Debussy, indeed! I met him with his wife the other night at the opera and he introduced us. My dear, she's got flat red hair, an aigrette, a turned-up nose, a receding chin and long ear-rings; and she's quite young and very dowdy: the sort of dowdiness that's rather smart. She loathed me—that is to say, we took a mutual dislike, and a determination never to meet again, so strong that it amounted to a kind of friendship; we tacitly agreed to keep out of each other's way. I suppose there's such a thing as a sort of comradeship in aversion," Bertha added thoughtfully.
"Oh, Bertha, fancy anybody disliking you!"
"It's only because Nigel had told her, in camera, that he was in love with me once, and that we were almost engaged."
"Did he say who broke it off?"
"Yes, I should think he told the truth—that he did—but he didn't mention the real reasons, that he was horribly hard up and saw a chance of marrying an heiress. I daresay, too, that he said no other woman would ever be quite the same to him again, for fear Mrs. Nigel should be too pleased. Nigel is nice and amusing and he's sometimes very useful. He thinks he treated me badly, and really has got to appreciate me since, and as he knows I'm utterly indifferent to him now, he's devoted, I mean as a friend—he'll do anything on earth for me. He has absolutely nothing to do, you see; it's a kindness to employ him."
"What do you give him to do?"
"It depends. This time I've told him to get hold of Rupert and ask us all three—I mean you, and me and Rupert—to dine and go to some play. It would be so much less ceremonious than asking Rupert here, with Percy."
"Oh, darling Bertha, you're an angel! I always said Nigel was charming. What about Mrs. Nigel, and Percy?"
"Don't worry; that shall be arranged. Their rights shall not be ignored, nor their interests neglected! Percy's little finger is worth all Nigel. Still, Nigel has his good points; he might help us in this. There are so many things he can do, he's so fin—and adaptable, and diplomatic. That young brother of his, Charlie, is in love with you, Madeline. Now, he's a boy who could marry, and who wants to. If you gave him only a look of encouragement he would propose at once. And he has a good deal of Nigel's charm, though he's not so clever, but he's very much steadier. Really, it's a pity you don't like him. I'm sorry."
"Oh, I couldn't," said Madeline.
"He's quite a nice boy, too; and I know how much he likes you, from Nigel."
"Oh, I couldn't!" Madeline repeated, shaking her head.
Bertha seemed silently to assent.
"And will dear Nigel ask me all the same to meet Rupert, Bertha?"
"Oh yes; we'll arrange it to-day. Nigel's delightfully prompt, and never delays anything."
"And what will happen to Percy? You scarcely ever go out without him."
"Oh, I can persuade Percy, for once, that he wants his mother to go with him to the Queen's Hall. And I'll make Lady Kellynch think it's rather a shame of her to take my place; then she'll enjoy it. We'll arrange it for next week. I'm expecting her this afternoon."
"Oh, are you? I'm always rather afraid she doesn't like me," said Madeline pensively.
"She doesn't dislike you. She doesn't dislike anybody; only, simply, you don't exist for her. My mother-in-law really believes that the whole of humanity consists of her own family; first, her late husband; then Percy, then Clifford, the boy at school, and, in a very slight degree, me too, because I'm married to Percy. I do like Clifford, though he's a spoilt boy, and selfish. But he's great fun. How his mother adores him! I hope she won't stay long to-day—Nigel will be here at six."
Madeline fell into a reverie, a sort of mental swoon. Then she suddenly woke up and said with great animation,—
"No, I suppose I dare not hope it!—I believe I should expire with joy!—but he never will! But if he did propose, how do you suppose he'd do it, Bertha?"
"Heaven knows—quote Browning, I suppose," said Bertha, "I don't often meet that type. I can only guess. Do you care so much, Madeline?"
"Do I care!"
"And you believe it's the real thing?"
"I know it is—on my side; it's incurable."
"Everyone says Rupert's a good fellow, but he seems to me a little—what shall I say?—too elaborate. Too urbane; too ornate. He expresses himself so dreadfully well! I don't believe he ever uses a shorter word than individuality!"
"Oh, I don't care what he is, I want him—I want him!" cried Madeline.
"Well! I suppose you know what you want. It isn't as though you were always in love with somebody or other; as a rule, a girl of your age, if she can't have the person she wants, can be very quickly consoled if you give her someone else instead. Now, you've never had even a fancy before. I may not (I don't) see the charm of Rupert, but it must be there; probably there's something in his temperament that's needed by yours—something that he can supply to you that no one else can. If you really want him, you must have him, darling," said Bertha, with resolution. "You shall!"
"How can you say that; how can you make him care for me if he doesn't?"
"I don't know, but I shall. It's certain; don't worry; and do what I tell you. Mind, I think that there are many other people far more amusing, besides being better matches from the worldly point of view—like Charlie Hillier, for instance—but the great thing is that you care for your Rupert; and I don't believe you'll change."
They were never demonstrative to each other, and Madeline only looked at her with trusting, beaming gratitude. Bertha was indeed convinced that this mania for Rupert was the real thing; it would never fade from fulfilment, nor even die if discouraged; it would always burn unalterably bright.
"Yes; yes, it shall be all right," repeated Bertha.
She spoke in a curious, reassuring tone that Madeline knew, and that always impressed her.
"Really? Yet you say they are so difficult nowadays!"
"Well, the majority of the men in our set certainly don't seem to be exactly pining for hearth and home. Still, in some moods a man will marry anyone who happens to be there."
"Then must I happen to be there? How can I?"
Bertha laughed. There was a confidence without reservation between them, notwithstanding a slight tinge of the histrionic in Madeline, which occasionally irritated Bertha. But the real link was that they both instinctively threw overboard all but the essential; they cared comparatively little for most of the preoccupations and smaller solicitudes of the women in their own leisured class. There was in neither of them anything of the social snob or the narrow outlook of the bourgeoise; they were free from pose, petty ambitions, or trivial affectations.
Madeline looked up to Bertha as a wonderful combination of kindness, cleverness, beauty and knowledge of the world. Bertha felt that Madeline was not quite so well equipped for dealing with life as she herself was; there was a shade of protection in her friendship.
Bertha was far more daring than Madeline, but her occasional recklessness was only pluck and love of adventure; not imprudence; it was always guided by reason and an instinctive sense of self-preservation. She was a little experimental, that was all. Madeline was more timid and sensitive; though not nearly so quick to see things as Bertha she took them to heart more, far more;—was far less lively and ironical.
"Though I find Rupert dull, as I say, I believe he's as good as gold, or I wouldn't try and help you. Now if he were a man like Nigel!—who's very much more fascinating and charming—I wouldn't raise a finger, because I know he's fickle, dangerous and selfish, and wouldn't make you happy. Charlie would, though; I wish you liked Charlie. But one can't account for these things."
"Quite impossible," Madeline said, shaking her head.
"Well! It's quite possible that Rupert would suit you best; and I believe if you once got him he'd be all right. And you shall!" she repeated.
"Thank you!" said Madeline fervently, as if Bertha had promised her a box of chocolates or a present of some kind.
"Lady Kellynch!" announced the servant.
A tall, stately, handsome woman, slow and quiet in movement, dressed in velvet and furs, came deliberately into the room. The magnificent, imposing Lady Kellynch had that quiet dignity and natural ease and distinction sometimes seen in the widow of a knight, but unknown amongst the old aristocracy. It was generally supposed, or, at all events, stated, that the late Sir Percy Kellynch had been knighted by mistake for somebody else; through a muddle owing to somebody's deafness. The result was the same, since his demise left her with a handle to her name, but no one to turn it (to quote the mot of a well-known wit), and she looked, at the very least, like a peeress in her own right. Indeed, she was the incarnation of what the romantic lower middle classes imagine a great lady;—a dressmaker's ideal of a duchess. She had the same high forehead, without much thought behind it, so noticeable in her son Percy, and the same clearly cut features; and it was true, as Bertha had said, that she firmly believed the whole of the world, of the slightest importance, consisted of her late husband, herself, her married son Percy, and her boy Clifford at school; the rest of the universe was merely an audience, or a background, for this unique family.
* * * * *
If anyone spoke of a European crisis that was interesting the general public, she would reply by saying what Percy thought about it; if a more frivolous subject (such as You Shut Up, or some other popular Revue) was mentioned, she would answer, reassuringly, that she knew Clifford had a picture post-card of one of the performers, implying thereby that it must be all right. She loved Bertha mildly, and with reservations, because Percy loved her, and because Bertha wished her to; but she really thought it would have been more suitable if Bertha had been a little more colourless, a little plainer, a little stupider and more ordinary; not that her attractions would ever cause any trouble to Percy, but because it seemed as if a son of hers ought to have a wife to throw him up more. Percy, however, had no idea that Bertha was anything but a good foil to him, intellectually—and, as I have said, he regarded her (or believed he regarded her) a good deal like a pet canary.
"Percy will soon be home, I suppose? To-day is not the day he goes to the Queen's Hall, is it?" asked Lady Kellynch, who thought any hall was highly honoured by Percy's presence, and very lucky to get it. She gave a graceful but rather unrecognising bow to Madeline, whom she never knew by sight. She really knew hardly anyone by sight except her sons; and this was the more odd as she had a particularly large circle of acquaintances, and made a point of accepting and returning every invitation she received, invariably being amongst those present at every possible form of entertainment, and punctiliously calling on people afterwards. She was always mounting staircases, going up in lifts, and driving about leaving cards, and was extremely hospitable and superlatively social. Bertha always wondered at her gregariousness, since one would fancy she could have got very little satisfaction in continual intercourse with a crowd of people whom she forgot the instant they were out of her sight. Lady Kellynch really knew people chiefly by their telephone numbers and their days, when they had any. She would say: "Mrs. So-and-so? Oh yes, six-three-seven-five Gerrard, at home on Sundays," but could rarely recollect anything else about her. She was at once vague and precise, quite amiable, very sentimental and utterly heartless; except to her sons.
"No, Percy won't be home till dinner-time. To-day he's playing squash rackets."
"That's so like his father," said Lady Kellynch admiringly. "He was always so fond of sports, and devoted to music. When I say sports, to be strictly accurate I don't mean that he ever cared for rude, rough games like football or anything cruel like hunting or shooting, but he loved to look on at a game of cricket, and I've often been to Lord's with him." She sighed. "Dominoes! he was wild about dominoes! I assure you (dear Percy would remember), every evening after dinner he must have his game of dominoes, and sometimes even after lunch."
"Dominoes, as you say, isn't exactly a field sport," sympathetically agreed Bertha.
"Quite so, dear. But, however, that was his favourite game. Then, did I say just now he was fond of music? He didn't care for the kind that Percy likes, but he would rarely send a piano-organ away, and he even encouraged the German bands. How fond he was of books too—and reading, and that sort of thing! Percy gets his fondness for books from his father. Clifford too is fond of books."
"He is indeed," said Bertha; "he's devoted to books. Last time I went to see him, when he was at home for the holidays, I found among his books a nice copy of 'The New Arabian Nights.' We hadn't one in the house at the time, and I asked him to lend it to me."
"Did you indeed?"
Lady Kellynch looked a shade surprised, as if it had been rather a liberty.
"Well," said Bertha, laughing, and turning to Madeline, "what do you think he said? 'Bertha, I'm awfully sorry, but I make it a rule never to lend books. I don't approve of it—half the time they don't come back, and in fact—oh, I don't think it's a good plan. I never do it.' I took up the book and found written in it: 'To Bertha, with love from Percy.' I said: 'So you don't approve of lending books. Do you see this is my book?' He looked at it and said solemnly: 'Yes, so it is, but I can't let you have it. I'm in the middle of it. Besides—oh! anyhow, I want it!'"
Madeline and Bertha both laughed, saying that Clifford was really magnificent for twelve years old.
Lady Kellynch seemed astonished at their amusement. She only said: "Oh yes; I know Clifford's most particular about his books."
"And even about my books," said Bertha.
"Quite so, dear. They say in his report that he's getting so orderly. It's a very good report this term—er—at least, very good on the whole."
"Oh, do let me see it."
"No, I don't think I'll show it you. But I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll read you some extracts from it, if you like." She said this as if it were an epic poem, and she was promising them a rare literary treat.
She took something out of her bag. "I know he doesn't work very hard at school, but then the winter term is such a trying one; so cold for them to get up in the morning, poor little darlings!"
"Poor pets!" said Bertha.
Lady Kellynch took it out, while the others looked away discreetly, as she searched for suitable selections.
After a rather long pause she read aloud, a little pompously and with careful elocution:
"'Doing fairly well in dictation, and becoming more accurate; in Latin moderate, scarcely up to the level of the form. ...'"
"Is it in blank verse?" asked Bertha.
"Oh no! ... Of course he's in a very high form for his age." She then went on, after a longer pause: "'Music and dancing: music, rather weak ... dancing, a steady worker.' That's very good, isn't it? ... 'Map-drawing: very slovenly.'" (She read this rather proudly.) "'Conduct: lethargic and unsteady; but a fair speller.' Excellent, isn't it? Of course they're frightfully severe at that school. ... Oh yes, and there's 'Bible good, but deficient in general knowledge. Has a little ability, but rarely uses it. ...' It's dreadfully difficult to please them, really! But I think it's very satisfactory, don't you?"
Realising that Lady Kellynch had only read aloud the very best and most brilliant extracts that she could find in the report—purple patches, as one may say—Bertha gathered that it could hardly have been worse. So she congratulated the mother warmly and cordially, and said how fond she was of Clifford.
"He will be home soon for the Easter holidays. You must let him come and stay with us."
"It's very kind of you, dear. Certainly he shall come, part of the time. I can't bear to part with him—especially at first. Yes—at first I feel I never want him to leave me again! However, he enjoys himself so much here that I like to send him to you towards the end. He looks upon Bertha quite like a playmate," she said to Madeline. Something about Madeline reminded her of someone she had met.
"I was at a dinner-party last night where I met a young man I saw here once, who took you in to dinner. He knows Percy—he was at Balliol with Percy—a Mr. Denison—Mr. Rupert Denison. He seemed inclined to be rather intellectual. He talked to me a great deal about something—I forget what; but I know it was some subject: something that Percy once had to pass an examination in. ... I can't remember what it was. I used to know his mother; Mrs. Denison—a charming woman! I'm afraid though she didn't leave him very well off. I wonder how he manages to make two ends meet?"
"He manages all right; he makes them lap over, I should think. Who did he take to dinner?" Bertha asked this in Madeline's interest.
"Oh, a girl I don't like at all, whom I often see about. She's always everywhere. I daresay you know her, a Miss Chivvey, a Miss Moona Chivvey—a good family, the Chivveys of Warwickshire. But she's rather artistic-looking." (Lady Kellynch lowered her voice as if she were saying something improper:) "She has untidy hair and green beads round her neck. I don't like her—I don't like her style at all."
"I've heard him mention her," said Madeline.
"He talked to her a good deal in the evening, and he gave me the impression that he was giving her some sort of lesson—a lecture on architecture, or something. Well, dear, as Percy won't be in yet, I think I'd better go. I have a round of visits to pay."
"Percy is going to write to you. He wants you to go to a concert with him. He particularly wants you to go."
Lady Kellynch brightened up. "Dear boy, does he? Of course I'll go. Well, good-bye, darling."
She swept from the room with the queenly grace and dignity that always seemed a little out of proportion to the occasion—one expected her to make a court curtsy, and go out backwards.
"My mother-in-law really believes it matters whether she calls on people or not," said Bertha, in her low, even voice. "Isn't it touching?"
Madeline seized her hand.
"Bertha, need I be frightened of Moona Chivvey? She's a dangerous sort of girl; she takes interest in all the things Rupert does: pictures, and poetry and art needlework."
"Does Rupert really do art needlework? What a universal genius he is!"
"Don't be absurd! I mean the things he understands. And she runs after him, rather. Need I be afraid?"
"No, you need not," reassured Bertha. "I don't think she sounds at all violent. There's a ring."
"Then I'll go."
* * * * *
Almost immediately afterwards the servant announced "Mr. Nigel Hillier."
Nigel Hillier came in cheerily and gaily, brimming over with vitality and in the highest spirits. At present he was like sunshine and fresh air. There was a lurking danger that as he grew older he might become breezy. But as yet there was no sign of a draught. He was just delightfully exhilarating. He was not what women call handsome or divine, but he was rather what men call a smart-looking chap: fair, with bright blue eyes, and the most mischievous smile in London. He was unusually rapid in thought, speech and movement, without being restless, and his presence was an excellent cure for slackness, languor, strenuousness or a morbid sense of duty.
"You look as if you had only just got up," remarked Bertha, as she gave him her hand. "Not a bit as though you'd been through the fatigues and worries and the heat and burden of the day."
"Oh, that's too bad!" he answered. "You know perfectly well I always get up in time to see the glorious sunset! Why this reproach? I don't know that I've ever seen you very early in the day; I always regard you less as a daughter of the morning than as a minion of the moon."
"How is Mrs. Hillier?" replied Bertha rather coldly.
"All right—I promise I won't. Mary? Why Mary is well—very well—but just, perhaps, a teeny bit trying—just a shade wearing. No—no, I don't mean that. ... Well, I'm at your service for the play and so on. Shall I write to Rupert Denison and Miss Irwin? And will you all come and dine with me, and where shall we go?"
"Don't you think something thrilling and exciting and emotional—or, perhaps, something light and frivolous?"
"For Rupert I advise certainly the trivial, the flippant. It would have a better effect. Why not go to the new Revue—'That will be Fourpence'—where they have the two young Simultaneous Dancers, the Misses Zanie and Lunie Le Face—one, I fancy, is more simultaneous than the other, I forget which. They are delightful, and will wake Denison up. In fact, I don't know who they wouldn't wake up, they make such a row. They dance and sing, about Dixie and Honey and coons—and that sort of thing. They sing quite well, too—I mean for them."
"But not for us? ... No, I don't want to take him with Madeline to anything that could be called a music-hall—something more correct for a jeune fille would be better. ..."
"To lead to a proposal, you mean. Well, we'd better fall back upon His Majesty's or Granville Barker. Poor Charlie! It's hard lines on that boy, Bertha—he's really keen on Miss Irwin."
"I know; but what can we do? It's Rupert Denison she cares about."
"Likes him, does she?" said Nigel.
"Very much," answered Bertha, who rarely used a strong expression, but whose eyes made the words emphatic.
Nigel whistled. "Oh, well, if it's as bad as that!"
"It is. Quite."
"Fancy! Lucky chap, old Rupert. Well, we must rush it through for them, I suppose. About the play—you want something serious, what price Shakespeare?"
"No price. Let's go to the Russian Ballet."
"Capital!" cried Nigel, moving quickly to the telephone in case she should change her mind; "and we'll dine at the Carlton first. May I use your telephone?"
The relation between Bertha and Nigel Hillier was a rather curious one. He had met her when she was eighteen. The attraction had been sudden, violent and mutual; and she was quite prepared to marry him against all opposition. There had been a good deal in her own family, because Nigel was what is euphemistically called without means, and she was the daughter of a fashionable London vicar who, though distinguished for his eloquence and extremely popular, successful and social, had a comparatively small income and a positively large family. In a short time Nigel—not Bertha—succumbed to the family opposition and the general prudent disapproval of worldly friends. He wrote and told Bertha that he was afraid after all they were right; persuaded to this view by having meanwhile met the only daughter of a millionaire when staying for a week-end at a country house. The girl had fallen in love with him, and was practically independent.
A few months after his gorgeous wedding, described and photographed with the greatest enthusiasm in all the illustrated papers, Bertha married Percy Kellynch, to the great satisfaction of her relations. Nigel was, by then, a lost illusion, a disappointed ideal; she did not long resent his defection and it cured her passion, but she despised him for what she regarded as the baseness of his motive.
She loved and looked up to Percy, but her marriage to him had not been at the time one of romance—to her great regret. She would have liked it to be, for she was one of those ardent souls to whom the glamour of love was everything; she could never worship false gods. But Bertha had a warm, grateful nature, and finding him even better than she expected, her affection threw out roots and tendrils; became deeper and deeper; her experience with Nigel had made her particularly appreciative of Percy's good qualities. She was expansive, affectionate and constant; and she really cared far more about Percy now than she did when she married him. And this, though she was quite aware that he was entirely wanting in several things that she had particularly valued in Nigel (a sense of humour for one), and that he had inherited rather acutely the depressing Kellynch characteristic of taking oneself seriously.
* * * * *
Percy, on the other hand, had been quite carried away by her rosebud charm and prettiness, and he had continued to regard her as a pet and a luxury (for he was pre-eminently one of that large class of people who see only the obvious). But he had never realised her complexities, and was quite unaware of her depth and strength of mind. He was proud of her popularity, and had never known a jealous moment. Since they had never had a shadow of a quarrel, theirs might certainly be described as a happy marriage; although Bertha had always found it from the first rather deficient in the elements of excitement and a little wanting in fun.
* * * * *
Nigel, who had been in a frightful hole when he met the heiress, of course made a point of discovering, as soon as all grinding money troubles had been removed and agonising debts paid, that no material things were capable of making him happy. The gratification to his vanity of his big country house, and charming house in London and so forth, amused him for a very short time. He became horribly bored, and when Bertha married Percy Kellynch, felt pained and particularly surprised and disappointed in her. He had always believed her to be so superior to other girls, so true and loyal! It was quite a disillusion; to think that she could get over him so easily! Women usually took much longer than that. However, he now despised himself even more as a fool than as a coward for having given up Bertha, and not being of the type who trouble to conceal their feelings in domestic life, he openly and frankly showed to the unfortunate Mary that he knew he had made an irrevocable mistake. This was the natural way of regaining his self-respect, since he was under the deepest obligation to her. To add to his annoyance, not long after the marriage he and his brother Charlie came into a legacy from an unexpected and forgotten relative. He knew, then, that if he had waited a little longer, (as she had wished), he could, without sacrifice, have married Bertha; and so he was naturally very angry with Mary.
* * * * *
Now that Bertha was beyond his reach she seemed to him the one desirable thing in the world. For several years they hardly met; then Nigel contrived that they should become friends again. Her feeling for him could never be revived. His was far more vivid than formerly. It was fanned by her coolness, and was in a fair way to become an idee fixe, for he was not material enough to live without some dream, some ideal, and Bertha found him amusing. There always had been a certain mental sympathy between them; in a sense (superficially and humorously), they saw life very much from the same standpoint. With the instinctive tact of the real lover of women he carefully concealed from her the secret that made his home life miserable, instead of merely tedious. It was, simply, that Mary was morbidly, madly jealous of him. He had shown far too soon that he had married her for her money, and if he had convinced her that she had bought him, it was perhaps natural in return that she should wish for her money's worth. The poor woman was passionately in love with Nigel. She suspected him of infidelity, with and without reason, morning, noon, and night; it was almost a monomania. They had two children in the first and second years of the marriage. Nigel was carelessly fond of them, but he regarded them rather as a private luxury and resource of his wife, mistakenly thinking their society could fill up all the gaps made by his rather frequent absences. Nigel knew better than to complain of his wife, or to ask for sympathy from Bertha, for he was certain that if she had the faintest idea of the jealousy, her door would be closed to him.
* * * * *
Bertha was peculiarly kind, peculiarly full of sympathy for her own sex. And yet she was not at all fond of the society of women, with few exceptions; and she was often bored by the liking and admiration she usually inspired in them. Something in her personality disarmed ordinary jealousy, for though she was pretty and attractive, it was easy for other women to see that she was not trying to attract. What the average woman resents in another woman is not her involuntary charm; it is her making use of it.
* * * * *
With the casual indiscretion of the selfish man, Nigel, of course, told his wife at length, early in the honeymoon, all about his romance with Bertha. This Mary had never forgiven. Curiously, she minded more this old innocent affair of ten years ago, which he had broken off for her, than any of his flirtations since. Bertha had rightly guessed that, when they met, Mary had taken a great dislike to her. But she had no idea that Nigel's wife was suspicious, nor that she seriously and bitterly resented his visits. He never admitted them to Mary if he could help it, for he had learnt by now to be so far considerate to her—or to himself—that he would tell her fifty fibs in half-an-hour rather than let out one annoying fact. Nigel saw—he was very quick in these matters—that the only terms on which he could ever see anything of Bertha were those of the intimate old brotherly friend; the slightest look or suggestion of sentiment of any kind made her curl up and look angry. She made it utterly impossible for him to make the slightest allusion to the past. The friendliness had been growing to intimacy, and Nigel believed that perhaps with time he might get back to the old terms, or something like them. It was becoming the chief object of his life. He was a keen sportsman, and the ambition of the hunter was added to the longing of the lover. A born diplomatist, he had, of course, easily made Percy like him immensely. But he hated Percy, and could never forgive him for the unpardonable injury he had done to him, Nigel, in consoling Bertha. Nigel could not bear to own, even to himself, that Bertha was happy in her married life. Sometimes he would swear to himself when he remembered that it was all his own doing, that she might have been his wife. How coolly she had taken it! She had accepted it at the time with calm acquiescence, and met him again with amiable composure. Had she ever really forgiven him?
* * * * *
It had opened her eyes, had been a shock. She saw him now as the shattered dream of her childish fancy, and she was thankful for her escape. Yet deep down in her heart was a slight scar. It did not make her hate Nigel, but apart from the fun and pleasantness of their intercourse her real indifference to him was slightly tinged with acidity: probably she would have been less sorry for him in any trouble than for anybody else.
* * * * *
Bertha's vanity was not a very vivid part of her, and it took only one form. When she cared for anyone she was deeply (though not outwardly) exacting; she wanted that person entirely. To say that the general admiration she received gave her no pleasure would be an absurd exaggeration; if she had suddenly lost it, she would have missed it very much, no doubt. But after all, she valued it chiefly because she thought it was good for Percy. Privately she was not satisfied that Percy valued her enough. Had her many friends and acquaintances been told that the chief wish of the pretty Mrs. Kellynch was the more complete and absolute conquest of her own husband—who seemed much more devoted than most husbands—they would have been surprised, incredulous, perhaps even a little shocked.
Nigel had promised to use all the means at his disposal to help Madeline. Bertha was anxious her friend should have what she had just missed.
* * * * *
"Well! Soon after the dinner I shall go and see Rupert in his rooms. I shall get to know him well, and I shall gradually tell him about Charlie, and how keen he is, and lead up to Miss Irwin, and say what a charming girl she is, and all that sort of thing. Nothing makes so much impression."
"Don't make him jealous of Charlie," said Bertha. "Anything that he regarded as a slight I think would put an end to it. Rupert is not quite a commonplace man."
"Jealous? Oh no, I should merely imply that Miss Madeline won't have anything to say to Charlie, and that I wonder why. But it can't do him any harm to know someone else wants her. My dear girl, a man understands another man. That is where women are such fools. They think they know more about men than men do, and that is why they are always being——" He stopped.
"Oh no. I quite do you justice, Nigel. I am never above consulting you on that sort of subject. I may know just a little bit more about men than some women do, for one reason——"
"And what is that? Because you attract them?"
"No, that doesn't help much. It's because I have brothers, and they have always confided in me without reserve. Oh! there was one more thing I may have to ask you. I don't want to, and I don't like it at all, on account of Mrs. Hillier; but still it might happen to be necessary. It's just possible I may ask you to flirt a little with a girl called Moona Chivvey."
"Oh, I know her." He smiled. "Of course I'd do anything for you, but that would be about the hardest thing you could command."
"She's not uninteresting," said Bertha. "I shall find out how she stands with Rupert, and I don't think there's much danger. But if it should be required—well—you might go further and fare worse."
"I expect I should go further than Rupert," murmured Nigel.
"Nigel, don't think I haven't scruples about things. I have, very much, but I know a good deal about Moona, and I really think that any harmless thing we can do to remove obstacles for poor Madeline should be done. I promised Madeline. I shall be grateful if you'll help, Nigel."
"There's no question about it," said Nigel. "Of course it must be rushed through. And now I suppose you want me to go?"
"Oh no! Please don't! Percy will be here directly."
He got up.
"Good-bye. I'll ring you up to-morrow. It's some little consolation for being an idle man to have leisure to fulfil your commands."
She answered that he was very good and she was very pleased with him, and he went away.
RUPERT AT RUMPELMEYER'S
At a quarter to four precisely, in a heavy shower of rain, Madeline sprang out of a taxicab in St. James's Street, and tripped into Rumpelmeyer's. As it was pouring lavishly and she had no umbrella, she hastily and enthusiastically overpaid the cabman, with a feeling of superstition that it might bring her luck; besides, a few drops of rain, she reflected, would ruin her smart new hat if she waited for change. It was a very small hat, over her eyes, decorated with a very high feather, in the form of a lightning-conductor. She was charmingly dressed in a way that made her look very tall, slim and elegant. Her rather long, sweet face was paler than usual, her sincere brown eyes brighter. She had come to have tea with Rupert.
* * * * *
From the back room, waiting for her, rose the worshipped hero. He was, as she had described him, very much like a Vandyke picture. He had broad shoulders, and a thin waist, a pointed brown beard, regular features, very large deep blue eyes, and an absurdly small mouth with dazzling white teeth. If he was almost too well dressed—so well that one turned round to look at his clothes—his distinguished manners and grand seigneur air carried it off. One saw it was not the over-dressing of the nouveau riche, but the rather old-world dandyism of a past generation. This was the odder as the year was 1913, and he was exactly thirty. He always wore a buttonhole—to-day it was made of violets to match his violet socks—and invariably carried a black ebony stick, with an ivory handle.
With a quiet smile on his small mouth, he greeted and calmed the agitated Madeline.
She dropped her bag on the floor before she sat down, and when Rupert picked it up for her she dropped it again on a plate of cream cakes. He then took it and moved it to his side of the table.
"I thought," he said smoothly, in a rather low, soothing voice, "that you'd like these cakes better than toast."
She eagerly assured him that he was right, though it happened to be quite untrue.
"And China tea, of course?"
"Oh, of course!" She disliked it particularly.
"And now, tell me, how has life been treating you?" he asked, as he looked first at her, and then with more eager interest at his pointed polished finger-nails.
Before she could answer, he went on:
"And that book on architecture that I sent you—tell me, have you read it?"
This was perfectly true; she could have passed an examination in it.
"That's delightful. Then, now that you know something about it, I should like very much to take you to Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's, or to see one of those really beautiful old cathedrals. ... We must plan it out."
"Oh, please do. I revel in old things," she said, thinking the remark would please him.
He arranged his buttonhole of Parma violets, then looked up at her, smiling.
"Do you mean that at your age you really appreciate the past?"
"Indeed, I do."
"But you mustn't live for it, you know—not over-value it. You must never forget that, after all, the great charm of the past is that it is over. One must live for the hour, for the moment. ... You'll remember that, won't you?"
"Oh yes, I do," she said gratefully, taking a bite of cream cake.
"What they call Futurism (I hope you understand) is absolute rubbish and inconsistent nonsense. For this reason. It's impossible to enjoy the present or the future if you eliminate the past entirely, as the so-called Futurists wish to do. Destruction of old associations and treasures would ruin one's sense of proportion; it's worse than living in the prehistoric. Besides, at least we know what has happened, and what is happening, but we can't possibly know what is going to be, what the future holds for us; so what's the point of thinking only of that? Why should we live only for posterity, when, as the old joke says, posterity has done nothing for us!"
"Well, the truth is I always feel nothing matters except now," said Madeline candidly.
He laughed. "And, in a way, you're right; it's all we're quite sure of."
"Yes, I'm afraid it is."
"By the way," he said, dropping his instructive manner, "can you tell me where you get your hats? Do you mind?"
"Oh yes, of course I can; at several places. This one came from——" She hesitated a moment.
"Paquin?" he asked, in a low, mysterious voice.
"Selfridge," she replied.
"Oh, I didn't know you were a Selfridgette! But, please forgive my asking, won't you? Someone who didn't seem to know ... I mean, a friend of mine. ... Oh, well, I know you don't mind telling me."
He looked hard at her hat, could find no fault with it. Evidently its value was not diminished in his eyes. He was rather gratified that it did not come from some impossibly costly place. This pleased her; it was a good sign. Satisfaction at a moderate indication of economy suggested serious intentions.
"It suits you very well," he went on, in his kind, approving way. "Now, will you give me another cup of tea?"
She poured it out rather shakily.
"No sugar, please."
"Oh!" She had already nervously dropped in about three lumps.
"Oh well, never mind. ... Yes, you're looking charming, Madeline—it's absurd calling you Miss Irwin after knowing each other so long, isn't it?"
She was so delighted that she almost thanked him for calling her by her Christian name.
"Do you know, Madeline," he went on, "that, at times, you're almost a beauty."
She opened her mouth with surprise.
"Almost. You were one evening—I forget which evening—you had something gold in your hair, and you were quite Byzantine. And then, again, a few days after I saw you, and—er—oh well, anyhow—you always look nice."
"I suppose you mean," she murmured, feeling shy at talking so much of herself, "that most girls look best in the evening."
"There I venture to differ from you entirely. All girls, all women, look their best in the afternoon. The hat is everything. Evening dress is the most trying and unbecoming thing in the world; only the most perfect beauties, who are also very young and fresh, can stand it. The most becoming thing for a woman is either neglige, or a hat. You, particularly, Madeline, look your best in the afternoon."
"I wish then that I lived in that land where it is always afternoon!" she said, laughing.
He gave his superior little smile. "The Lotus Eaters? Good. I didn't know you cared for Tennyson."
"I don't," she answered hastily, anxious to please.
He raised his eyebrows. "Then you should. Have you a favourite poet, Madeline?"
"Oh yes, of course—Swinburne."
She thought this a perfectly safe thing to say.
"Strong meat for babes," he of course replied, and then began to murmur to himself: "For a day and a night love sang to us, played with us. You think that beautiful, Madeline?"
"Oh yes. How beautifully you say it!"
He laughed. "Quoting poetry at Rumpelmeyer's! Well, perhaps no place is quite prosaic where ..."
She looked up.
He took another tea-cake.
... "Where there's anyone so interested, so intelligent as yourself."
He had returned to the indulgent, encouraging schoolmaster's tone.
"Do you know In the Orchard?" he went on, and murmured: "Ah God, ah God! that day should be so soon! Well! May I smoke a cigarette?"
"Oh, of course."
"Oh ... Madeline!"
"Yes, Mr. Denison?"
"Who is Nigel Hillier?"
"Oh, don't you know him?"
"Of course I know him; we belong to the same club, and that sort of thing, but that doesn't tell me who he is."
She was wondering what Rupert meant exactly by who, but supposed he was speaking socially, so she said hesitatingly:
"Well, Nigel Hillier ... he married that Miss——"
He interrupted her, putting up his hand rather like a policeman in the traffic. "I know all about his marriage, my dear friend. I didn't ask you whom he married. Who is he?"
"Bertha and Percy have known him all their lives—at least all Bertha's life."
"Oh yes. Then he's a friend of Percy Kellynch? But that doesn't tell me what I want to know. WHO is he?"
With a flash of inspiration she said:
"Oh yes! Oh, he's a nephew of Lord Wantage. He has no father and mother, I believe. He and his brother Charlie——"
"Ah yes, yes. It comes back to me now—I remember which Hilliers they are. Well, Hillier has asked me to dine with him and go to the Russian Ballet. Rather nice of him. I'm going, and—do you know why I accepted, Madeline?"
"You like the Russian Ballet."
"I was told that Mrs. Kellynch and you were to be of the party."
"I'm glad you're going," she answered. "Bertha's so awfully kind——" She stopped suddenly, as if she had made a gaffe.
He smiled. "Really? And what has Bertha's kindness to do with it?"
"Oh, nothing. I mean she always takes me out wherever she can; she's so good-natured."
"She strikes me as being a very beautiful and brilliant person," said Rupert coldly. "Very wonderful—very delightful. ... It appears that Mrs. Hillier has influenza."
"Oh yes," said Madeline quickly—too quickly.
"You knew it? No; you thought that she probably would have," said he, laughing, as he struck a match. Then he leant back, smoking, with that slow, subtle smile about nothing in particular that had a peculiar, hypnotic effect upon Madeline.
She adored him more and more every moment. She knew she was never at her best in his company; he made her nervous, shy, and schoolgirlish, and so modest that she seemed to be longing to ooze away, to eliminate herself altogether. Then he said:
"Well, Madeline, it wouldn't be nice if I kept you too long away from your mother—she won't trust me with you again."
She jumped up.
"Have I been too long?"
"Nonsense, child," he said. "But still——" With one look at the clock he rather hurriedly gave her her belongings.
"I'm going to put you into a nice taxi, and send you home. We shall meet at Hillier's dinner, that will be nice, and we shall see the wonderful ballet together."
She murmured that it would be lovely.
"I should like to drive you home," he said rather half-heartedly, as they stood at the door in the rain; "in fact, I should insist upon doing so ..."
... "But I have an appointment with a friend I'm expecting to call for me here. Au revoir, then!"
She went away happy, disturbed, anxious and delighted, as she always was when she had seen him. She ran straight to her dressing-table, took off her hat, put something gold in her hair and tried to look Byzantine.
He returned to the little table. He had it cleared, and ordered fresh tea and cakes. Then he took out his watch.
In about twenty minutes, during which he grew rather nervous and impatient, he rose and went to the door again to greet another guest, who had been invited to tea an hour and a half later than Madeline.
She also was a young girl, good-looking, very dark and rather inclined to fullness in face and figure. When I say that she had handsome regular aquiline features, two thick curtains of black hair drawn over her ears, from which depended long ear-rings of imitation coral, it seems almost unnecessary to add (for this type of girl always dresses in the same way) that she wore a flat violet felt hat, the back of which touched her shoulders, a particularly tight dark blue serge coat and skirt, a very low collar, and lisle thread stockings which showed above low shiny shoes with white spats. In her hands she held a pair of new white gloves, unworn.
She bounced in with a good deal of aplomb, and, without apologising for her lateness, began to chatter a little louder than most of the people present, and with great confidence.
"No, not China tea, thanks. I prefer Indian. Oh, not cream cakes; I hate them. Can't I have hot tea-cakes? Thanks. I've no idea what the time is. I've been to Mimsie's studio. She would insist on doing a drawing of me, and I'm sitting to her"—she turned her face a little on one side—"like this, you know."
"Is it like you, Miss Chivvey?"
"Oh, good gracious, I hope not! At least I hope I'm not like it! I don't want to have a pretty picture, I'm sure. But Mimsie's awfully clever. It's sure to be all right. Do you know her? I must take you to her studio one day."
"Thanks immensely," said Rupert Denison, a little coolly. "But—it may seem odd to you, but I haven't the slightest desire to increase my acquaintance at my age. In fact, do you know, I think I know quite enough people—in every set," he added.
As he poured out some milk, she jumped and gave a little shriek.
"Oh, don't do that. I never take milk. What a bad memory you've got! Funny place this, isn't it?" She was looking round. "I don't think I've ever been here before."
"Don't you like the plan of it?" he said, looking round at the walls and ceiling. "It may not be perfect, but really, for London, it isn't bad. It seems to me that anyone can see that it was designed by a gentleman."
"You mean anyone can see it's not designed by an architect?" she asked, with a laugh so loud that he raised a finger.
He then carefully introduced the subject of hats and advised her to go, for millinery, to Selfridge. They discussed it at length, and it was settled by his offering her a hat as a birthday present. She accepted, of course, with a loud laugh.
Rupert, with his mania for educating and improving young people, had begun, about a fortnight ago, trying to polish Miss Chivvey. But he had his doubts as to its being possible; and he was, all the same, beginning to be a little carried away. She was sometimes (he owned) amusing; and it was unusual for him to be laughed at. How differently Madeline regarded him!
However, he drove Moona home to Camden Hill and promised to meet her and help her to choose a hat.
"But I sha'n't let you interfere too much. What do men know of millinery?" she asked contemptuously.
"I am sure I know what would suit you," he replied. "You see, you're very vivid, and very much alive; you stand out, so you really want, if I may say so, attenuating, subduing, shading."
"Perhaps you would like me to put my head in a bag?"
"No one would regret that more than I should."
"I foresee we're going to quarrel about this hat," she answered. "Now, Mr. Denison, do let me explain to you, I don't want anything smart. I don't want to look like Paris Fashions."
"No? What do you want to look like?"
"Why, artistic, of course! What a blighter you are!"
Rupert winced at this vague accusation. They were nearly at her house and he put his hand on hers in a way that was rather controlling than caressing.
"Let me have one little pleasure. Let me choose your hat myself," he said. He was terrified at the idea of what she might come out in on artistic grounds. Then she would tell all her friends it was a present from him! She had no sort of reticence.
"Well, I suppose you must have your own way. Do you really know anything about it?" she asked doubtfully.
They arrived. She jumped out.
"Well, I'll ring you up and tell you when I can go there and meet you. Good-bye! You are a nut!"
A HAPPY HOME
The first six months after his marriage it used to give Nigel a thrill of gratification and vanity to go home to his house, one of the finest in Grosvenor Street, and splendidly kept up. Then he had suddenly grown horribly sick of it, longed for freedom in a garret, and now he associated it with no thrill of pride or pleasure, but with boredom, depression, quarrels and lack of liberty. Liberty! Ah! That was it; that was what he felt more than anything else. He had married for money chiefly to get liberty. One was a slave, always in debt—but it was much worse now. The master of the house lost all his vitality, gaiety and air of command the moment he came into the hall.
"Where's Mrs. Hillier?"
"Mrs. Hillier is in the boudoir, sir."
The boudoir was a little pink and blue Louis Seize room on the ground floor, opposite the dining-room. From the window Mary could watch for Nigel. That was what she always did. She hardly ever did anything else. Few women were so independent of such aids to idleness as light literature (how heavy it generally is!), newspapers, needlework or a piano. Few people indeed had such a concentrated interest in one subject. She was sitting in an arm-chair, with folded hands, looking out of the window. It was a point of vantage, whence she could see Nigel arrive more quickly than from anywhere else.
As soon as he caught the first glimpse of her at the window it began to get on his nerves. It was maddening to be waited for. ...
"You're five minutes late," she said abruptly, as he came in. She always spoke abruptly, even when she wanted to be most amiable. He was determined not to be bad-tempered, and smiled good-naturedly.
"Am I? So sorry." He was very quick and rapid in every word and movement, but soft and suave—never blunt, as she was.
"Where have you been?"
"I went to look at those pictures in Bond Street," he replied, without a moment's hesitation.
He had come straight from seeing Bertha—on the subject of Madeline and Rupert—but he never thought of telling her that.
"Oh! Why didn't you take me?"
"I really don't know. I didn't think of it, I suppose. We'll go another day."
He sat down opposite her and began to smoke a cigarette, having permission always. She sat staring at him with clasped hands and eager eyes.
Bertha's description of her as having flat red hair, a receding chin and long ear-rings was impressionistically accurate. It was what one noticed most. Mrs. Hillier was plain, and not at all pleasant-looking, though she had a pretty figure, looked young, and might have been made something of if she had had charm. There was something eager, sharp and yet depressed about her, that might well be irritating.
She got up and came and stood next to Nigel; playing with his tie, a little trick which nearly drove him mad, but he was determined to hide it. When he couldn't bear it any longer he said: "That will do, dear."
She moved away.
"How do you mean 'that will do'?"
"Nothing; only don't fidget."
"You're nervous, Nigel. You are always telling me not to fidget."
"Am I? Sorry. Where are the children?"
"Never mind the children for a minute. They're out with Mademoiselle."
"Seen much of them to-day?"
"They came in to lunch. No, I have not, as a matter of fact. Do you expect me to spend my whole time with children of eight and nine?"
He didn't answer, but it was exactly what he really did expect, and would have thought perfectly natural and suitable.
"Some women," continued Mary, "seem to care a great deal more for their children than they do for their husbands. I'm not like that—I don't pretend to be."
Nigel already knew this, to his great regret.
"I care more for you than I do for the children," she repeated.
"What do you mean by 'Yes'?"
"I was assenting: that's all. I meant—that you've told me all this before, my dear. Haven't you?"
"Do you object? Do you mind my caring more for you than for the children?"
"If I object to anything it's only to your repeating yourself. I mean—we've had all this; haven't we?"
"Nigel, are you trying to quarrel with me for loving you better than the children?"
Nigel turned pale with irritation but controlled himself and stood up and looked out of the window.
"Not in the least. It's most flattering. I only don't want to be told it every time I see you. ... I mean that of course I should think it perfectly natural if you were fond of the children too."
"I am fond of them," she answered, "but they are not everything to me. They don't fill up my whole time and all my thoughts. They won't do instead of you."
"No one suggested that, I think. Have you been for a drive to-day?"
"What a funny woman you are, Mary! You might as well not have a motor for all the use you make of it."
"I had nowhere to go."
He looked at some invitation cards on the mantelpiece. "Oh, my dear, that's absolute nonsense. You mean you don't care to go anywhere. It is extraordinary, how you drop people, Mary! When we first came to this house we had a lot of parties and things. Now you never seem to care for them."
"It's quite true," she answered. "We did have parties and things. They made me miserable. I hated them."
"Rather odd; aren't you?"
"I hated them and loathed them," she continued. "For it only meant there were crowds of women who tried to flirt with you."
"That's an idee fixe of yours, my dear. Pure fancy, you know."
"Well; all I know is I hated to see you talking to the women who came here. I tell you, quite frankly, that's the reason why I've given up accepting invitations and giving them. Of course, if you insist, I will. I would do anything you told me."
"Oh, good God, no! Let's cut out the parties, then. Don't have them for me! I thought it would be fun for you. ... What do you do all day, Mary, if I may ask? You never seem to have any shopping—or hobbies—or anything that other women have to do."
"I do the housekeeping in the morning," she said; "I see cook and look after everything to make things as you like."
"And I'm sure you do it very well indeed. But it doesn't take long; and after that——?"
"I sit in that chair looking out of the window for you."
He bit his lip impatiently, trying not to be irritable.
"It's very nice of you, Mary, I'm sure. But I do wish you wouldn't!"
"Why not? Don't you like me to be waiting for you?"
"No—I don't. I should like to think you were enjoying yourself; having a good time."
"Well, I shouldn't do it if you took me out with you always."
"My dear, I'm always delighted to take you with me, but I can't take you everywhere."
"Where can't you take me?"
"Well—to the club!" He smiled, and took up a newspaper.
"I suppose you must go to your club sometimes," she said rather grudgingly. "But tell me, Nigel, would you like us to go in more for society again as we used at first?"
He thought a moment. There were more quarrels when they saw more people—in fact, the fewer people they met the fewer subjects arose for scenes.
"Well," he said, "suppose you give just one party this year. Just to 'keep our circle together,' as they say—then we can stop it again, if you like."
"What sort of party?"
"Any sort. Musical, if you like."
"Oh! that means having horrid singers and players, and performers! I don't like that set, Nigel."
"All right. Let's give a dance. We've got a splendid floor."
"A dance? Oh no. I don't dance; and I couldn't bear to see you dancing with anyone."
"This is all very flattering, my dear, but you know you're really rather absurd. Girls wouldn't be fighting to dance with an old married man like me. Altogether,—the way you regard me,—the way you imagine I'm the marked-down prey of every woman you know,—would be too comical if it wasn't so pathetic."
"Oh, really? So you say! You're thirty-five;—you're better-looking than ever."
"Thanks. It's very kind of you to think so." He laughed rather contemptuously. "What a fatuous idiot I should be if I believed you. But—to go back to what we were talking about—it really is in a way rather a pity you're gradually dropping everybody like that. It seems to me that one should either have a cosy, clever, interesting little set of amusing and really intimate friends; or else, a large circle of acquaintances; or both. I'm not speaking of parties, for me. No man of course cares about all that sort of rot; it's only for you; women like going out as a rule."
"I didn't care much about the sort of society you introduced me to when we first married. I didn't like any of them much."
"What's the matter with them?" he asked. He knew she had always felt morbidly and bitterly out of it because she mistakenly believed that everybody was interested in the fact that her grandfather had made a fortune in treacle, and that her husband was Lord Wantage's nephew. As a matter of fact, no one who came to the house cared in the slightest degree about either of these circumstances (even if they knew them) but merely wished candidly to enjoy themselves in a large, jolly, hospitable house, owned by a very attractive man with a large number of amusing friends and, apparently, a harmless and good-natured little wife. Mary detested and soon put a stop to intimate or Bohemian friends who sat up all night smoking, talking art or literature, or being musical; and she managed rapidly to reduce their circle to a much smaller one at a much greater distance. She had not a single intimate friend. With women she only exchanged cards. "What's wrong with them all?" Nigel repeated, for he was beginning to lose patience.
"Oh! their manners are all right. If you really want to know what I think of the whole set—I mean that sort of half-clever, half-smart set you were in—the barristers and writers, artists, sporting and gambling men, and women mad on music and the theatre—well, it is that the men are silly and frivolous, and the women horrid and—and fast! Some are cold and just as hard as nails, others are positively wicked! I admit most of the men have nice manners and the women are not stupid. They all dress well."
Nigel was silent a moment.
"Well, after all, if you don't like them, why should you see them?" he said, good-naturedly enough. He did not feel inclined to defend all his acquaintances. "But may I ask, do you consider that this set, as you call it, lead a useless life?"
"Yes; of course I do."
"Oh! Good. That's all I wanted to know."
"I see what you mean quite well," she said, walking up and down the room. "You think I lead a useless life—that I'm not accomplished or literary or even domestic, or social. You think I lead an empty life with all my money."
"Well, why shouldn't you, if you like it? But I wish you enjoyed it yourself more, that's the point."
"I can never enjoy myself—if you want to know, Nigel—except when I'm with you; and even then I'm often not happy, because I think you don't care to be with me."
"Oh, Mary! really! How awful you are! What rot all this is! I can't say more than that you can do whatever you like from morning to night, and that I don't wish to interfere with you in any possible way."
"But I should like you to be with me more."
He restrained the obvious retort (that she didn't make herself agreeable).
"Well, I am with you." He humoured her gently.
"Yes—at this moment."
"Aren't we going to dine together?"
"Yes, we are. But about an hour afterwards I know you'll find some sort of excuse either to go out, or to go into the library and read. Why can't you read while I'm looking at you? Why not?"
"Don't be always looking forward, meeting troubles half way," he said jokingly. "Perhaps I sha'n't read." Then, after a moment's pause: "Excuse my saying so, my dear, but if you sometimes read a book, or the papers, or saw more people, you would have more to tell me when we did meet, wouldn't you?"
"It doesn't matter about that. You can tell me what you've been reading or seeing. Who did you see at the picture gallery? Was Mrs. Kellynch there?"
"Look here"—he was looking at the paper—"would you like to go to the opera after dinner? Let's go one of these days soon."
"No; I shouldn't like it at all."
He stared at her in surprise.
"Why not, pray? I thought you enjoyed it the other night?"
"You enjoyed it," she replied.
"I thought you seemed rather pleased with yourself when we went out, with all your furs and tiaras and things. You looked very smart," he said pleasantly.
"Well, I tell you I hated it, Nigel."
Mary was at least candid, and she spoke bluntly.
"Because we met Mrs. Kellynch; and you talked to her and seemed pleased to see her."
"Oh, good heavens! I can hardly cut dead all the women I ever knew before we were married."
"Do you think her pretty?" said Mary.
"Yes, of course I do; and so does everyone. She is pretty. It's a well-known fact. But what does it matter? It's of no interest to me."
"Are you sure it isn't? Didn't you tell me you were almost engaged once?"
"Oh, do let's drop the prehistoric," he entreated, appearing bored. "Never mind about ancient history now. She's married and seems very happy." (He stopped himself in time from saying like us.) "Kellynch is a very good sort."
"Is he? Do you envy him?"
"Mary, really, don't be absurd. Let me tell you that there's not one man in a hundred who could stand ..." and he moved a step farther away.
"Could stand what?" She came nearer to him. "My caring for you so much?"
Half-a-minute passed in something near torture, as she played with his tie again, and he controlled himself and spoke with a determinedly kind smile.
"Go along and dress for dinner," he said.
"What shall I wear?"
"Oh! Your pretty yellow teagown," he answered.
She could not go out in that, he was reflecting, and if he suddenly wanted to go for a walk——
"Very well, Nigel. Oh, dear Nigel! I don't mean to be disagreeable."
"I'm sure you don't," he answered, "let's leave it at that, my dear."
"All right," she said smiling, and went away, with a rather coquettish kiss of the hand to him.
He opened the door and shut it after her, with gallant attention. Then he threw up his arms with a despairing gesture.
"My God! What a woman! Why—why was I such a fool? ... How much longer can I bear it?"
The Hilliers' relatives and intimate friends often said cheerfully about them: "Mary is very fond of Nigel, but she rather gets on his nerves."
* * * * *
No one seemed yet to have discovered that there was a large double tragedy in that simple, commonplace sentence.
It had long been Nigel's dream, since he had practically given up all hope of calm and peaceful happiness at home, to have, at least, a secret sorrow that everyone knew of and sympathised with. And certain people did feel for him, understanding the great worry of his wife's morbid jealousy. But the general public thought him extremely fortunate to have married a woman—or rather a young girl—whose enormous wealth was only equalled by her extraordinary devotion. Yet from the one person who mattered, the look of tacit sympathy was denied him. How it would have soothed him and made him absolutely happy! And Bertha was the only human being who must never be allowed to know of his domestic troubles. She was extremely proud, and it would have caused her great anger and pain to think that after throwing her over (as he really had, for worldly advantages), he should then want to come back, complain ungratefully of the benefactress he had chosen and philander and amuse himself again. So he had never referred to his unhappy life. His plan was deeper than that. It was to appear merely the amusing friend, until by some chance, he should feel his way to be more secure; to be, in fact, a kind of tame cat, a camarade, useful, and intellectually sympathetic, unselfishly devoted—until, perhaps, the time might come when she might find she could not do without him. His calculations happened to be completely wrong, but that, of course, he could not know. Like all collectors, whether of women or of any other works of art or nature, although a connoisseur, he did not quite recognise the exceptional when he met it—his rules of life were too general. And his love for Bertha—what word can one use but the word-of-all-work, love, which means so many variations and shades, and complications of passion, sentiment, vanity and attraction?—his love had greatly increased, was growing stronger: sometimes he wondered whether it was the mere contradictory, defiant obstinacy of the discouraged admirer; and, certainly, there was in his devotion a strong infusion of a longing to score off his tyrannising wife and the fortunate, amiable Percy. Nigel's jealousy of Percy—and not of Percy only, but in a less degree of most men Bertha knew—was not very far behind his wife's jealousy of him. A morbid propensity that causes great suffering in domestic life is often curiously infectious to the very person for whom it creates most suffering. Nigel sometimes found himself positively imitating Mary in many little ways; watching, and listening and asking indirect questions to find things out: if he had dared he would have made Bertha a violent scene every time her husband came into the house! He tried to hide it and had made Percy like him. But Bertha could see perfectly well the tinge of jealousy for every other friend of hers, and an inclination to crab and run down and sit out, especially, any smart young man. This neither amused nor annoyed her. She did not think about it.
Nigel really felt, besides, that most cruel of all remorse—selfish remorse, that he had cheated himself in having thrown over love for money. For his was not, after all, a mere smug, second-rate nature which gold, and what it meant, in however great quantities, could really ever satisfy. Putting aside the fact that his wife irritated him nearly to madness, even if he had been allowed to live alone, and perfectly free,—wealth and its gratifications would never have made him happy. He had mistaken himself in a passing fit of despair and cupidity, aided by the torturing agonies of being deeply in debt all round, and the ghastly fear of a social smash.
He had a longing to feel at ease; he had a love of pleasure, too, of freedom, of idleness; and the sort of talent that consists in brilliantly describing what one could do and what one would like to do: in sketching schemes, verbally—literary, financial, artistic, no matter what—with so much charm, such aplomb that everyone believed in him, and enjoyed to hear his projects, but he had not either the genius that compels its owner to work nor the steadiness, the determination of character that makes a man a successful drudge, who gets there in the end.
Nigel is being rather severely analysed. But let it be understood that with it all, besides having very great charm of look and manner, wit and high spirits, in certain ways he was quite a good fellow: he had no sneers for the more fortunate, no envy, nothing petty: he was warm-hearted, generous even—when it did not cross some desire of his; lavish with money, both on himself and on anyone who aided his pleasure, and quite kind and tender-hearted in that he couldn't bear to see anyone suffer—even Mary, with whom, as a matter of fact, he was very weak.
The saint thinks only of the claims of others: the criminal solely of his own. Between these extremes, there are, obviously, countless shades. Unfortunately, Nigel had this in common with the worst; that when he really wanted anything, everything had to go to the wall: all rights of others, principles and pity were forgotten, everything was thrown over—everyone pushed out of the way. He became unscrupulous. So when he had required money he threw over his first love who, he knew, adored him; now when he found out the mistake and was seriously in love with Bertha, he would have thrown over anything on earth to get her, and admired himself for doing it. He thought himself now noble-spirited and sporting. He would have run away with her at any moment, even if he thought they would have two or three hundred a year to live on, or nothing at all. Not only that, he would have been devoted to her and worshipped her and never reproached her—and been faithful to her too—until he fell in love with someone else, which might, or might not have happened.
Often he wondered why he cared so much more for Bertha now that she was twenty-eight than when she was eighteen. Perhaps she had really increased in charm: certainly she had in magnetism and in knowledge of the world, and she was just as attractive, a sweet little creature whom one wanted to protect and yet whom, in a way, one could lean on and rely on, too. She was so subtle, so strangely wise and sensible—she seemed to know everything while having the naive, unconscious air of a person who knows next to nothing. And all these gifts she used—for what? She made Percy happy, she was charming and kind, clear-sighted, indulgent (if a little cynical), and always amusing; full of dash and spirit, and yet with the most feminine softness, and above all that invaluable instinct, always, for doing and saying the right thing ... and (he knew instinctively) a genius for love. ...
Yes, he thought, she was an extraordinary woman! There was nobody like her: in his opinion she was thrown away on Percy. But she did not think so, and he envied, hated the husband, with an absurd bitterness—envied him for several reasons, but chiefly because Nigel had now developed what had been in abeyance at the time of their youthful engagement—that real sensuous discrimination, which has comparatively little to do with taste for beauty, that power of weighing amorous values, given only to the authentic Sybarite.
* * * * *
On the day arranged for the Russian Ballet party, Nigel made an excuse for seeing Bertha to arrange tactics with regard to Rupert and Madeline. She told him she was expecting the Futurist painter, the Italian, Semolini, but she received him first.
"About Rupert, now," said Nigel. "Isn't it odd?—I always think of Rupert with a rapier concealed somewhere about his person. Ruperts and rapiers are inseparably associated in my mind. Well—shall I, after supper, drive back with Rupert and praise up Miss Irwin—or not?"
"Yes, if you think it is a good thing."
"If I think it's a good thing! Nothing in the world has such a good effect on a man as the admiration of another man for the girl he admires."
"But don't do too much digging in the ribs—don't overdo it. Rupert, though he doesn't carry a rapier, isn't quite a modern cynical man, and with all his affectations I believe he has a very sweet nature. He'll be good to Madeline—I want her to be happy."
"Well, at any rate, if she likes him she may as well have her fling at him," said Nigel carelessly.
Bertha looked annoyed.
"That isn't the point only—silly! If she liked you ever so much and you were free, do you suppose I would take her side—help her?"
"I hope not," said Nigel insinuatingly, suddenly changing his seat to one close to Bertha.
She looked calmly away, as if bored.
He saw it was the wrong tone and stood up, with his back to the mantelpiece, looking at her.
"I like your frock, Bertha."
She looked down at it.
"You have an extraordinary air of not knowing what you have got on. I never saw a woman look so unconscious of her dress. There's a good deal of the art that conceals art about it, I fancy. Your clothes are attractive—in an impressionist way!"
"The only thing I think of about my dresses, is that they should make people admire me—not my dressmaker," said Bertha candidly. "I don't care for much variety, and I leave real smartness to Madeline and the other tall, slim girls. My figure is so wrong! How dare I be short and tiny, and yet not thin, nowadays?"
"You're exquisite—at least in my opinion. I've never been an admirer of the lamp-post as the type of a woman's figure."
She looked bored again. "Oh, please don't! I don't care what you like—so long as you like Mary, who was very graceful and chic, I thought, the other night at the opera."
It was Nigel's turn to look bored.
"Yes. ... What is this chap like, this Semolini man?"
"He's not like anything. He's a nice little thing."
"Signor Semolini," announced the servant.
A very small, very brown young man came in, clean-shaven, with large bright blue eyes, black hair, and a single eyeglass with a black ribbon.
They greeted him cordially, convinced him that he was welcome, made him feel at home, gave him tea. It was his first visit, but no one was ever shy long with Bertha. He soon began chattering very volubly in a sort of English, which, if not exactly broken, was decidedly cracked.
"I like those things of yours—at the gallery, I mean," said Nigel patronisingly. He was always patronising to all artists, even when he didn't know them, as in this case, to be cranks. "I think they're top-hole; simply awfully good, I thought. I didn't quite understand them, though, I admit."
"But you saw ze idea?"
"Why, the simultaneity of the plastic states of mind in the art? That is our intoxicating object, you know."
"Oh, that! Ah, yes—yes, quite so. I thought it was that." Nigel looked knowing, and shook his head wisely.
Under this treatment the young Italian became very animated.
"You were right! You see, it is ze expansion of coloured forms in space, combined with the co-penetration of plastic masses which forms what we call futurism."
"Oh yes, of course," said Nigel. "It would be. I mean to say—well!—almost anyone would guess that, wouldn't they?"
Semolini turned to Bertha, talking more and more quickly, and gesticulating with a little piece of bread and butter in his right hand. "It is ze entire liberation from the laws of logical perspective that makes movement—the Orphic cubism—if you will allow me to say so!"
"Oh, certainly," smiled Bertha. "Do say so!"
"Orphic cubism! I say! Isn't that a bit strong before a lady?" murmured Nigel.
Semolini laughed heartily without understanding a word, and continued to address himself to Bertha, whose eyes looked sympathetic. "It is painting, pure painting—painting new masses with elements borrowed chiefly from the reality of mental vision!" cried the artist.
"Funny! Just what I was going to say!" said Nigel.
Bertha contented herself with encouraging smiles.
The young Italian was due to lecture on his views, and had to leave. At least three appointments were made with him, none of which Nigel had the slightest intention of keeping—to "go into the matter more thoroughly"—then Semolini vanished, charmed with his reception.
"Good heavens! will someone take me away and serve me up on a cold plate?" said Nigel, directly he had gone. "Look here, Bertha, is the chap off his head, a fraud, or serious?"
"Awfully serious. Are you going to see him to look into the matter?"
"I think not," said Nigel, "at least I don't want to see his pictures, face to face, until I've insured my life. I must think of my widow and the children."
Here Nigel's young brother, Charlie, arrived. He was a slimmer, younger, but less good-looking edition of Nigel. He had just come down from Oxford, was pleasant, gentle, and appeared to be trying to repress a natural inclination to be a nut. He called on Bertha in the hope of seeing Madeline.
"I say, the Futurist chap has just been here," said Nigel to Charlie.
"Good! What's he like?"
"A little bit of all right. Frightfully fascinating, as girls say," said Nigel.
"He's not so bad," said Bertha mildly.
"Isn't he? I've seen the pictures. But what is he like? The sort of chap you'd like to be seen with?" asked the young man.
"Well—not acutely," replied Nigel.
"Very dark, is he? quite black?"
There was a pause.
"But is he really an Italian?" asked Charlie.
"Shouldn't think so," said Nigel carelessly.
"What then?" asked Bertha, laughing.
"Very likely, if he's clever. They say all the clever people come from Scotland," Charlie remarked.
"And the cleverer they are, the sooner they come, I suppose," said Bertha. "Fancy the MacFuturist in a kilt!"