The Unbearable Bassington by H. H. Munro
Towards four o'clock on a hot afternoon Francesca stepped out from a shop entrance near the Piccadilly end of Bond Street and ran almost into the arms of Merla Blathlington. The afternoon seemed to get instantly hotter. Merla was one of those human flies that buzz; in crowded streets, at bazaars and in warm weather, she attained to the proportions of a human bluebottle. Lady Caroline Benaresq had openly predicted that a special fly-paper was being reserved for her accommodation in another world; others, however, held the opinion that she would be miraculously multiplied in a future state, and that four or more Merla Blathlingtons, according to deserts, would be in perpetual and unremitting attendance on each lost soul.
"Here we are," she cried, with a glad eager buzz, "popping in and out of shops like rabbits; not that rabbits do pop in and out of shops very extensively."
It was evidently one of her bluebottle days.
"Don't you love Bond Street?" she gabbled on. "There's something so unusual and distinctive about it; no other street anywhere else is quite like it. Don't you know those ikons and images and things scattered up and down Europe, that are supposed to have been painted or carved, as the case may be, by St. Luke or Zaccheus, or somebody of that sort; I always like to think that some notable person of those times designed Bond Street. St. Paul, perhaps. He travelled about a lot."
"Not in Middlesex, though," said Francesca.
"One can't be sure," persisted Merla; "when one wanders about as much as he did one gets mixed up and forgets where one has been. I can never remember whether I've been to the Tyrol twice and St. Moritz once, or the other way about; I always have to ask my maid. And there's something about the name Bond that suggests St. Paul; didn't he write a lot about the bond and the free?"
"I fancy he wrote in Hebrew or Greek," objected Francesca; "the word wouldn't have the least resemblance."
"So dreadfully non-committal to go about pamphleteering in those bizarre languages," complained Merla; "that's what makes all those people so elusive. As soon as you try to pin them down to a definite statement about anything you're told that some vitally important word has fifteen other meanings in the original. I wonder our Cabinet Ministers and politicians don't adopt a sort of dog-Latin or Esperanto jargon to deliver their speeches in; what a lot of subsequent explaining away would be saved. But to go back to Bond Street--not that we've left it--"
"I'm afraid I must leave it now," said Francesca, preparing to turn up Grafton Street; "Good-bye."
"Must you be going? Come and have tea somewhere. I know of a cosy little place where one can talk undisturbed."
Francesca repressed a shudder and pleaded an urgent engagement.
"I know where you're going," said Merla, with the resentful buzz of a bluebottle that finds itself thwarted by the cold unreasoning resistance of a windowpane. "You're going to play bridge at Serena Golackly's. She never asks me to her bridge parties."
Francesca shuddered openly this time; the prospect of having to play bridge anywhere in the near neighbourhood of Merla's voice was not one that could be contemplated with ordinary calmness.
"Good-bye," she said again firmly, and passed out of earshot; it was rather like leaving the machinery section of an exhibition. Merla's diagnosis of her destination had been a correct one; Francesca made her way slowly through the hot streets in the direction of Serena Golackly's house on the far side of Berkeley Square. To the blessed certainty of finding a game of bridge, she hopefully added the possibility of hearing some fragments of news which might prove interesting and enlightening. And of enlightenment on a particular subject, in which she was acutely and personally interested, she stood in some need. Comus of late had been provokingly reticent as to his movements and doings; partly, perhaps, because it was his nature to be provoking, partly because the daily bickerings over money matters were gradually choking other forms of conversation. Francesca had seen him once or twice in the Park in the desirable company of Elaine de Frey, and from time to time she heard of the young people as having danced together at various houses; on the other hand, she had seen and heard quite as much evidence to connect the heiress's name with that of Courtenay Youghal. Beyond this meagre and conflicting and altogether tantalising information, her knowledge of the present position of affairs did not go. If either of the young men was seriously "making the running," it was probable that she would hear some sly hint or open comment about it from one of Serena's gossip- laden friends, without having to go out of her way to introduce the subject and unduly disclose her own state of ignorance. And a game of bridge, played for moderately high points, gave ample excuse for convenient lapses into reticence; if questions took an embarrassingly inquisitive turn, one could always find refuge in a defensive spade.
The afternoon was too warm to make bridge a generally popular diversion, and Serena's party was a comparatively small one. Only one table was incomplete when Francesca made her appearance on the scene; at it was seated Serena herself, confronted by Ada Spelvexit, whom everyone was wont to explain as "one of the Cheshire Spelvexits," as though any other variety would have been intolerable. Ada Spelvexit was one of those naturally stagnant souls who take infinite pleasure in what are called "movements." "Most of the really great lessons I have learned have been taught me by the Poor," was one of her favourite statements. The one great lesson that the Poor in general would have liked to have taught her, that their kitchens and sickrooms were not unreservedly at her disposal as private lecture halls, she had never been able to assimilate. She was ready to give them unlimited advice as to how they should keep the wolf from their doors, but in return she claimed and enforced for herself the penetrating powers of an east wind or a dust storm. Her visits among her wealthier acquaintances were equally extensive and enterprising, and hardly more welcome; in country-house parties, while partaking to the fullest extent of the hospitality offered her, she made a practice of unburdening herself of homilies on the evils of leisure and luxury, which did not particularly endear her to her fellow guests. Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once.
The third prospective player, Francesca noted without any special enthusiasm, was Lady Caroline Benaresq. Lady Caroline was far from being a remarkably good bridge player, but she always managed to domineer mercilessly over any table that was favoured with her presence, and generally managed to win. A domineering player usually inflicts the chief damage and demoralisation on his partner; Lady Caroline's special achievement was to harass and demoralise partner and opponents alike.
"Weak and weak," she announced in her gentle voice, as she cut her hostess for a partner; "I suppose we had better play only five shillings a hundred."
Francesca wondered at the old woman's moderate assessment of the stake, knowing her fondness for highish play and her usual good luck in card holding.
"I don't mind what we play," said Ada Spelvexit, with an incautious parade of elegant indifference; as a matter of fact she was inwardly relieved and rejoicing at the reasonable figure proposed by Lady Caroline, and she would certainly have demurred if a higher stake had been suggested. She was not as a rule a successful player, and money lost at cards was always a poignant bereavement to her.
"Then as you don't mind we'll make it ten shillings a hundred," said Lady Caroline, with the pleased chuckle of one who has spread a net in the sight of a bird and disproved the vanity of the proceeding.
It proved a tiresome ding-dong rubber, with the strength of the cards slightly on Francesca's side, and the luck of the table going mostly the other way. She was too keen a player not to feel a certain absorption in the game once it had started, but she was conscious to-day of a distracting interest that competed with the momentary importance of leads and discards and declarations. The little accumulations of talk that were unpent during the dealing of the hands became as noteworthy to her alert attention as the play of the hands themselves.
"Yes, quite a small party this afternoon," said Serena, in reply to a seemingly casual remark on Francesca's part; "and two or three non-players, which is unusual on a Wednesday. Canon Besomley was here just before you came; you know, the big preaching man."
"I've been to hear him scold the human race once or twice," said Francesca.
"A strong man with a wonderfully strong message," said Ada Spelvexit, in an impressive and assertive tone.
"The sort of popular pulpiteer who spanks the vices of his age and lunches with them afterwards," said Lady Caroline.
"Hardly a fair summary of the man and his work," protested Ada. "I've been to hear him many times when I've been depressed or discouraged, and I simply can't tell you the impression his words leave--"
"At least you can tell us what you intend to make trumps," broke in Lady Caroline, gently.
"Diamonds," pronounced Ada, after a rather flurried survey of her hand.
"Doubled," said Lady Caroline, with increased gentleness, and a few minutes later she was pencilling an addition of twenty-four to her score.
"I stayed with his people down in Herefordshire last May," said Ada, returning to the unfinished theme of the Canon; "such an exquisite rural retreat, and so restful and healing to the nerves. Real country scenery; apple blossom everywhere."
"Surely only on the apple trees," said Lady Caroline.
Ada Spelvexit gave up the attempt to reproduce the decorative setting of the Canon's homelife, and fell back on the small but practical consolation of scoring the odd trick in her opponent's declaration of hearts.
"If you had led your highest club to start with, instead of the nine, we should have saved the trick," remarked Lady Caroline to her partner in a tone of coldly, gentle reproof; "it's no use, my dear," she continued, as Serena flustered out a halting apology, "no earthly use to attempt to play bridge at one table and try to see and hear what's going on at two or three other tables."
"I can generally manage to attend to more than one thing at a time," said Serena, rashly; "I think I must have a sort of double brain."
"Much better to economise and have one really good one," observed Lady Caroline.
"La belle dame sans merci scoring a verbal trick or two as usual," said a player at another table in a discreet undertone.
"Did I tell you Sir Edward Roan is coming to my next big evening," said Serena, hurriedly, by way, perhaps, of restoring herself a little in her own esteem.
"Poor dear, good Sir Edward. What have you made trumps?" asked Lady Caroline, in one breath.
"Clubs," said Francesca; "and pray, why these adjectives of commiseration?"
Francesca was a Ministerialist by family interest and allegiance, and was inclined to take up the cudgels at the suggested disparagement aimed at the Foreign Secretary.
"He amuses me so much," purred Lady Caroline. Her amusement was usually of the sort that a sporting cat derives from watching the Swedish exercises of a well-spent and carefully thought-out mouse.
"Really? He has been rather a brilliant success at the Foreign Office, you know," said Francesca.
"He reminds one so of a circus elephant--infinitely more intelligent than the people who direct him, but quite content to go on putting his foot down or taking it up as may be required, quite unconcerned whether he steps on a meringue or a hornet's nest in the process of going where he's expected to go."
"How can you say such things?" protested Francesca.
"I can't," said Lady Caroline; "Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn't you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government's attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase 'happy is the country that has no geography.'"
"What an absurdly unjust thing to say," put in Francesca; "I daresay some of our Party at some time have taken up that attitude, but every one knows that Sir Edward is a sound Imperialist at heart."
"Most politicians are something or other at heart, but no one would be rash enough to insure a politician against heart failure. Particularly when he happens to be in office."
"Anyhow, I don't see that the Opposition leaders would have acted any differently in the present case," said Francesca.
"One should always speak guardedly of the Opposition leaders," said Lady Caroline, in her gentlest voice; "one never knows what a turn in the situation may do for them."
"You mean they may one day be at the head of affairs?" asked Serena, briskly.
"I mean they may one day lead the Opposition. One never knows."
Lady Caroline had just remembered that her hostess was on the Opposition side in politics.
Francesca and her partner scored four tricks in clubs; the game stood irresolutely at twenty-four all.
"If you had followed the excellent lyrical advice given to the Maid of Athens and returned my heart we should have made two more tricks and gone game," said Lady Caroline to her partner.
"Mr. Youghal seems pushing himself to the fore of late," remarked Francesca, as Serena took up the cards to deal. Since the young politician's name had been introduced into their conversation the opportunity for turning the talk more directly on him and his affairs was too good to be missed.
"I think he's got a career before him," said Serena; "the House always fills when he's speaking, and that's a good sign. And then he's young and got rather an attractive personality, which is always something in the political world."
"His lack of money will handicap him, unless he can find himself a rich wife or persuade someone to die and leave him a fat legacy," said Francesca; "since M.P.'s have become the recipients of a salary rather more is expected and demanded of them in the expenditure line than before."
"Yes, the House of Commons still remains rather at the opposite pole to the Kingdom of Heaven as regards entrance qualifications," observed Lady Caroline.
"There ought to be no difficulty about Youghal picking up a girl with money," said Serena; "with his prospects he would make an excellent husband for any woman with social ambitions."
And she half sighed, as though she almost regretted that a previous matrimonial arrangement precluded her from entering into the competition on her own account.
Francesca, under an assumption of languid interest, was watching Lady Caroline narrowly for some hint of suppressed knowledge of Youghal's courtship of Miss de Frey.
"Whom are you marrying and giving in marriage?"
The question came from George St. Michael, who had strayed over from a neighbouring table, attracted by the fragments of small-talk that had reached his ears.
St. Michael was one of those dapper bird-like illusorily-active men, who seem to have been in a certain stage of middle-age for as long as human memory can recall them. A close-cut peaked beard lent a certain dignity to his appearance--a loan which the rest of his features and mannerisms were continually and successfully repudiating. His profession, if he had one, was submerged in his hobby, which consisted of being an advance-agent for small happenings or possible happenings that were or seemed imminent in the social world around him; he found a perpetual and unflagging satisfaction in acquiring and retailing any stray items of gossip or information, particularly of a matrimonial nature, that chanced to come his way. Given the bare outline of an officially announced engagement he would immediately fill it in with all manner of details, true or, at any rate, probable, drawn from his own imagination or from some equally exclusive source. The Morning Post might content itself with the mere statement of the arrangement which would shortly take place, but it was St. Michael's breathless little voice that proclaimed how the contracting parties had originally met over a salmon-fishing incident, why the Guards' Chapel would not be used, why her Aunt Mary had at first opposed the match, how the question of the children's religious upbringing had been compromised, etc., etc., to all whom it might interest and to many whom it might not. Beyond his industriously-earned pre-eminence in this special branch of intelligence, he was chiefly noteworthy for having a wife reputed to be the tallest and thinnest woman in the Home Counties. The two were sometimes seen together in Society, where they passed under the collective name of St. Michael and All Angles.
"We are trying to find a rich wife for Courtenay Youghal," said Serena, in answer to St. Michael's question.
"Ah, there I'm afraid you're a little late," he observed, glowing with the importance of pending revelation; "I'm afraid you're a little late," he repeated, watching the effect of his words as a gardener might watch the development of a bed of carefully tended asparagus. "I think the young gentleman has been before you and already found himself a rich mate in prospect."
He lowered his voice as he spoke, not with a view to imparting impressive mystery to his statement, but because there were other table groups within hearing to whom he hoped presently to have the privilege of re-disclosing his revelation.
"Do you mean--?" began Serena.
"Miss de Frey," broke in St. Michael, hurriedly, fearful lest his revelation should be forestalled, even in guesswork; "quite an ideal choice, the very wife for a man who means to make his mark in politics. Twenty-four thousand a year, with prospects of more to come, and a charming place of her own not too far from town. Quite the type of girl, too, who will make a good political hostess, brains without being brainy, you know. Just the right thing. Of course, it would be premature to make any definite announcement at present--"
"It would hardly be premature for my partner to announce what she means to make trumps," interrupted Lady Caroline, in a voice of such sinister gentleness that St. Michael fled headlong back to his own table.
"Oh, is it me? I beg your pardon. I leave it," said Serena.
"Thank you. No trumps," declared Lady Caroline. The hand was successful, and the rubber ultimately fell to her with a comfortable margin of honours. The same partners cut together again, and this time the cards went distinctly against Francesca and Ada Spelvexit, and a heavily piled-up score confronted them at the close of the rubber. Francesca was conscious that a certain amount of rather erratic play on her part had at least contributed to the result. St. Michael's incursion into the conversation had proved rather a powerful distraction to her ordinarily sound bridge-craft.
Ada Spelvexit emptied her purse of several gold pieces and infused a corresponding degree of superiority into her manner.
"I must be going now," she announced; "I'm dining early. I have to give an address to some charwomen afterwards."
"Why?" asked Lady Caroline, with a disconcerting directness that was one of her most formidable characteristics.
"Oh, well, I have some things to say to them that I daresay they will like to hear," said Ada, with a thin laugh.
Her statement was received with a silence that betokened profound unbelief in any such probability.
"I go about a good deal among working-class women," she added.
"No one has ever said it," observed Lady Caroline, "but how painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them."
Ada Spelvexit hastened her departure; the marred impressiveness of her retreat came as a culminating discomfiture on the top of her ill-fortune at the card-table. Possibly, however, the multiplication of her own annoyances enabled her to survey charwomen's troubles with increased cheerfulness. None of them, at any rate, had spent an afternoon with Lady Caroline.
Francesca cut in at another table and with better fortune attending on her, succeeded in winning back most of her losses. A sense of satisfaction was distinctly dominant as she took leave of her hostess. St. Michael's gossip, or rather the manner in which it had been received, had given her a clue to the real state of affairs, which, however slender and conjectural, at least pointed in the desired direction. At first she had been horribly afraid lest she should be listening to a definite announcement which would have been the death-blow to her hopes, but as the recitation went on without any of those assured little minor details which St. Michael so loved to supply, she had come to the conclusion that it was merely a piece of intelligent guesswork. And if Lady Caroline had really believed in the story of Elaine de Frey's virtual engagement to Courtenay Youghal she would have taken a malicious pleasure in encouraging St. Michael in his confidences, and in watching Francesca's discomfiture under the recital. The irritated manner in which she had cut short the discussion betrayed the fact, that, as far as the old woman's information went, it was Comus and not Courtenay Youghal who held the field. And in this particular case Lady Caroline's information was likely to be nearer the truth than St. Michael's confident gossip.
Francesca always gave a penny to the first crossing-sweeper or match-seller she chanced across after a successful sitting at bridge. This afternoon she had come out of the fray some fifteen shillings to the bad, but she gave two pennies to a crossing- sweeper at the north-west corner of Berkeley Square as a sort of thank-offering to the Gods.