The Unbearable Bassington
CHAPTER IXIn the warmth of a late June morning the long shaded stretch of raked earth, gravel-walk and rhododendron bush that is known affectionately as the Row was alive with the monotonous movement and alert stagnation appropriate to the time and place. The seekers after health, the seekers after notoriety and recognition, and the lovers of good exercise were all well represented on the galloping ground; the gravel-walk and chairs and long seats held a population whose varied instincts and motives would have baffled a social catalogue-maker. The children, handled or in perambulators, might be excused from instinct or motive; they were brought.
Pleasingly conspicuous among a bunch of indifferent riders pacing along by the rails where the onlookers were thickest was Courtenay Youghal, on his handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse. That delicately stepping animal had taken a prize at Islington and nearly taken the life of a stable-boy of whom he disapproved, but his strongest claims to distinction were his good looks and his high opinion of himself. Youghal evidently believed in thorough accord between horse and rider.
“Please stop and talk to me,” said a quiet beckoning voice from the other side of the rails, and Youghal drew rein and greeted Lady Veula Croot. Lady Veula had married into a family of commercial solidity and enterprising political nonentity. She had a devoted husband, some blonde teachable children, and a look of unutterable weariness in her eyes. To see her standing at the top of an expensively horticultured staircase receiving her husband’s guests was rather like watching an animal performing on a music-hall stage.
One always tells oneself that the animal likes it, and one always knows that it doesn’t.
“Lady Veula is an ardent Free Trader, isn’t she?” someone once remarked to Lady Caroline.
“I wonder,” said Lady Caroline, in her gently questioning voice; “a woman whose dresses are made in Paris and whose marriage has been made in Heaven might be equally biassed for and against free imports.”
Lady Veula looked at Youghal and his mount with slow critical appraisement, and there was a note of blended raillery and wistfulness in her voice.
“You two dear things, I should love to stroke you both, but I’m not sure how Joyeuse would take it. So I’ll stroke you down verbally instead. I admired your attack on Sir Edward immensely, though of course I don’t agree with a word of it. Your description of him building a hedge round the German cuckoo and hoping he was isolating it was rather sweet. Seriously though, I regard him as one of the pillars of the Administration.”
“So do I,” said Youghal; “the misfortune is that he is merely propping up a canvas roof. It’s just his regrettable solidity and integrity that makes him so expensively dangerous. The average Briton arrives at the same judgment about Roan’s handling of foreign affairs as Omar does of the Supreme Being in his dealings with the world: He’s a good fellow and ‘twill all be well.’”
Lady Veula laughed lightly. “My Party is in power so I may exercise the privilege of being optimistic. Who is that who bowed to you?” she continued, as a dark young man with an inclination to stoutness passed by them on foot; “I’ve seen him about a good deal lately. He’s been to one or two of my dances.”
“Andrei Drakoloff,” said Youghal; “he’s just produced a play that has had a big success in Moscow and is certain to be extremely popular all over Russia. In the first three acts the heroine is supposed to be dying of consumption; in the last act they find she is really dying of cancer.”
“Are the Russians really such a gloomy people?”
“Gloom-loving but not in the least gloomy. They merely take their sadness pleasurably, just as we are accused of taking our pleasures sadly. Have you noticed that dreadful Klopstock youth has been pounding past us at shortening intervals. He’ll come up and talk if he half catches your eye.”
“I only just know him. Isn’t he at an agricultural college or something of the sort?”
“Yes, studying to be a gentleman farmer, he told me. I didn’t ask if both subjects were compulsory.”
“You’re really rather dreadful,” said Lady Veula, trying to look as if she thought so; “remember, we are all equal in the sight of Heaven.”
For a preacher of wholesome truths her voice rather lacked conviction.
“If I and Ernest Klopstock are really equal in the sight of Heaven,” said Youghal, with intense complacency, “I should recommend Heaven to consult an eye specialist.”
There was a heavy spattering of loose earth, and a squelching of saddle-leather, as the Klopstock youth lumbered up to the rails and delivered himself of loud, cheerful greetings. Joyeuse laid his ears well back as the ungainly bay cob and his appropriately matched rider drew up beside him; his verdict was reflected and endorsed by the cold stare of Youghal’s eyes.
“I’ve been having a nailing fine time,” recounted the newcomer with clamorous enthusiasm; “I was over in Paris last month and had lots of strawberries there, then I had a lot more in London, and now I’ve been having a late crop of them in Herefordshire, so I’ve had quite a lot this year.” And he laughed as one who had deserved well and received well of Fate.
“The charm of that story,” said Youghal, “is that it can be told in any drawing-room.” And with a sweep of his wide-brimmed hat to Lady Veula he turned the impatient Joyeuse into the moving stream of horse and horsemen.
“That woman reminds me of some verse I’ve read and liked,” thought Youghal, as Joyeuse sprang into a light showy canter that gave full recognition to the existence of observant human beings along the side walk. “Ah, I have it.”
And he quoted almost aloud, as one does in the exhilaration of a canter:
“How much I loved that way you had
Of smiling most, when very sad,
A smile which carried tender hints
Of sun and spring,
And yet, more than all other thing,
Of weariness beyond all words.”
And having satisfactorily fitted Lady Veula on to a quotation he dismissed her from his mind. With the constancy of her sex she thought about him, his good looks and his youth and his railing tongue, till late in the afternoon.
While Youghal was putting Joyeuse through his paces under the elm trees of the Row a little drama in which he was directly interested was being played out not many hundred yards away. Elaine and Comus were indulging themselves in two pennyworths of Park chair, drawn aside just a little from the serried rows of sitters who were set out like bedded plants over an acre or so of turf. Comus was, for the moment, in a mood of pugnacious gaiety, disbursing a fund of pointed criticism and unsparing anecdote concerning those of the promenaders or loungers whom he knew personally or by sight. Elaine was rather quieter than usual, and the grave serenity of the Leonardo da Vinci portrait seemed intensified in her face this morning. In his leisurely courtship Comus had relied almost exclusively on his physical attraction and the fitful drollery of his wit and high spirits, and these graces had gone far to make him seem a very desirable and rather lovable thing in Elaine’s eyes. But he had left out of account the disfavour which he constantly risked and sometimes incurred from his frank and undisguised indifference to other people’s interests and wishes, including, at times, Elaine’s. And the more that she felt that she liked him the more she was irritated by his lack of consideration for her. Without expecting that her every wish should become a law to him she would at least have liked it to reach the formality of a Second Reading. Another important factor he had also left out of his reckoning, namely the presence on the scene of another suitor, who also had youth and wit to recommend him, and who certainly did not lack physical attractions. Comus, marching carelessly through unknown country to effect what seemed already an assured victory, made the mistake of disregarding the existence of an unbeaten army on his flank.
To-day Elaine felt that, without having actually quarrelled, she and Comus had drifted a little bit out of sympathy with one another. The fault she knew was scarcely hers, in fact from the most good-natured point of view it could hardly be denied that it was almost entirely his. The incident of the silver dish had lacked even the attraction of novelty; it had been one of a series, all bearing a strong connecting likeness. There had been small unrepaid loans which Elaine would not have grudged in themselves, though the application for them brought a certain qualm of distaste; with the perversity which seemed inseparable from his doings, Comus had always flung away a portion of his borrowings in some ostentatious piece of glaring and utterly profitless extravagance, which outraged all the canons of her upbringing without bringing him an atom of understandable satisfaction. Under these repeated discouragements it was not surprising that some small part of her affection should have slipped away, but she had come to the Park that morning with an unconfessed expectation of being gently wooed back to the mood of gracious forgetfulness that she was only too eager to assume. It was almost worth while being angry with Comus for the sake of experiencing the pleasure of being coaxed into friendliness again with the charm which he knew so well how to exert. It was delicious here under the trees on this perfect June morning, and Elaine had the blessed assurance that most of the women within range were envying her the companionship of the handsome merry-hearted youth who sat by her side. With special complacence she contemplated her cousin Suzette, who was self-consciously but not very elatedly basking in the attentions of her fiancé, an earnest-looking young man who was superintendent of a People’s something-or-other on the south side of the river, and whose clothes Comus had described as having been made in Southwark rather than in anger.
Most of the pleasures in life must be paid for, and the chair-ticket vendor in due time made his appearance in quest of pennies.
Comus paid him from out of a varied assortment of coins and then balanced the remainder in the palm of his hand. Elaine felt a sudden foreknowledge of something disagreeable about to happen and a red spot deepened in her cheeks.
“Four shillings and fivepence and a half-penny,” said Comus, reflectively. “It’s a ridiculous sum to last me for the next three days, and I owe a card debt of over two pounds.”
“Yes?” commented Elaine dryly and with an apparent lack of interest in his exchequer statement. Surely, she was thinking hurriedly to herself, he could not be foolish enough to broach the matter of another loan.
“The card debt is rather a nuisance,” pursued Comus, with fatalistic persistency.
“You won seven pounds last week, didn’t you?” asked Elaine; “don’t you put by any of your winnings to balance losses?”
“The four shillings and the fivepence and the half-penny represent the rearguard of the seven pounds,” said Comus; “the rest have fallen by the way. If I can pay the two pounds to-day I daresay I shall win something more to go on with; I’m holding rather good cards just now. But if I can’t pay it of course I shan’t show up at the club. So you see the fix I am in.”
Elaine took no notice of this indirect application. The Appeal Court was assembling in haste to consider new evidence, and this time there was the rapidity of sudden determination about its movement.
The conversation strayed away from the fateful topic for a few moments and then Comus brought it deliberately back to the danger zone.
“It would be awfully nice if you would let me have a fiver for a few days, Elaine,” he said quickly; “if you don’t I really don’t know what I shall do.”
“If you are really bothered about your card debt I will send you the two pounds by messenger boy early this afternoon.” She spoke quietly and with great decision. “And I shall not be at the Connor’s dance to-night,” she continued; “it’s too hot for dancing. I’m going home now; please don’t bother to accompany me, I particularly wish to go alone.”
Comus saw that he had overstepped the mark of her good nature. Wisely he made no immediate attempt to force himself back into her good graces. He would wait till her indignation had cooled.
His tactics would have been excellent if he had not forgotten that unbeaten army on his flank.
Elaine de Frey had known very clearly what qualities she had wanted in Comus, and she had known, against all efforts at self-deception, that he fell far short of those qualities. She had been willing to lower her standard of moral requirements in proportion as she was fond of the boy, but there was a point beyond which she would not go. He had hurt her pride besides alarming her sense of caution.
Suzette, on whom she felt a thoroughly justified tendency to look down, had at any rate an attentive and considerate lover. Elaine walked towards the Park gates feeling that in one essential Suzette possessed something that had been denied to her, and at the gates she met Joyeuse and his spruce young rider preparing to turn homeward.
“Get rid of Joyeuse and come and take me out to lunch somewhere,” demanded Elaine.
“How jolly,” said Youghal. “Let’s go to the Corridor Restaurant. The head waiter there is an old Viennese friend of mine and looks after me beautifully. I’ve never been there with a lady before, and he’s sure to ask me afterwards, in his fatherly way, if we’re engaged.”
The lunch was a success in every way. There was just enough orchestral effort to immerse the conversation without drowning it, and Youghal was an attentive and inspired host. Through an open doorway Elaine could see the café reading-room, with its imposing array of Neue Freie Presse, Berliner Tageblatt, and other exotic newspapers hanging on the wall. She looked across at the young man seated opposite her, who gave one the impression of having centred the most serious efforts of his brain on his toilet and his food, and recalled some of the flattering remarks that the press had bestowed on his recent speeches.
“Doesn’t it make you conceited, Courtenay,” she asked, “to look at all those foreign newspapers hanging there and know that most of them have got paragraphs and articles about your Persian speech?”
“There’s always a chastening corrective in the thought that some of them may have printed your portrait. When once you’ve seen your features hurriedly reproduced in the Matin, for instance, you feel you would like to be a veiled Turkish woman for the rest of your life.”
And Youghal gazed long and lovingly at his reflection in the nearest mirror, as an antidote against possible incitements to humility in the portrait gallery of fame.
Elaine felt a certain soothed satisfaction in the fact that this young man, whose knowledge of the Middle East was an embarrassment to Ministers at question time and in debate, was showing himself equally well-informed on the subject of her culinary likes and dislikes. If Suzette could have been forced to attend as a witness at a neighbouring table she would have felt even happier.
“Did the head waiter ask if we were engaged?” asked Elaine, when Courtenay had settled the bill, and she had finished collecting her sunshade and gloves and other impedimenta from the hands of obsequious attendants.
“Yes,” said Youghal, “and he seemed quite crestfallen when I had to say ‘no.’”
“It would be horrid to disappoint him when he’s looked after us so charmingly,” said Elaine; “tell him that we are.”