A Luncheon-Party by Maurice Baring
Mrs. Bergmann was a widow. She was American by birth and marriage, and English by education and habits. She was a fair, beautiful woman, with large eyes and a white complexion. Her weak point was ambition, and ambition with her took the form of luncheon-parties.
It was one summer afternoon that she was seized with the great idea of her life. It consisted in giving a luncheon-party which should be more original and amusing than any other which had ever been given in London. The idea became a mania. It left her no peace. It possessed her like venom or like madness. She could think of nothing else. She racked her brains in imagining how it could be done. But the more she was harassed by this aim the further off its realisation appeared to her to be. At last it began to weigh upon her. She lost her spirits and her appetite; her friends began to remark with anxiety on the change in her behaviour and in her looks. She herself felt that the situation was intolerable, and that success or suicide lay before her.
One evening towards the end of June, as she was sitting in her lovely drawing-room in her house in Mayfair, in front of her tea-table, on which the tea stood untasted, brooding over the question which unceasingly tormented her, she cried out, half aloud:--
"I'd sell my soul to the devil if he would give me what I wish."
At that moment the footman entered the room and said there was a gentleman downstairs who wished to speak with her.
"What is his name?" asked Mrs. Bergmann.
The footman said he had not caught the gentleman's name, and he handed her a card on a tray.
She took the card. On it was written:--
MR. NICHOLAS L. SATAN, I, Pandemonium Terrace, BURNING MARLE, HELL. Telephone, No. I Central.
"Show him up," said Mrs. Bergmann, quite naturally, as though she had been expecting the visitor. She wondered at her own behaviour, and seemed to herself to be acting inevitably, as one does in dreams.
Mr. Satan was shown in. He had a professional air about him, but not of the kind that suggests needy or even learned professionalism. He was dark; his features were sharp and regular, his eyes keen, his complexion pale, his mouth vigorous, and his chin prominent. He was well dressed in a frock coat, black tie, and patent leather boots. He would never have been taken for a conjurer or a shop-walker, but he might have been taken for a slightly depraved Art-photographer who had known better days. He sat down near the tea-table opposite Mrs. Bergmann, holding his top hat, which had a slight mourning band round it, in his hand.
"I understand, madam," he spoke with an even American intonation, "you wish to be supplied with a guest who will make all other luncheon-parties look, so to speak, like thirty cents."
"Yes, that is just what I want," answered Mrs. Bergmann, who continued to be surprised at herself.
"Well, I reckon there's no one living who'd suit," said Mr. Satan, "and I'd better supply you with a celebrity of a former generation." He then took out a small pocket-book from his coat pocket, and quickly turning over its leaves he asked in a monotonous tone: "Would you like a Philosopher? Anaxagoras, Aristotle, Aurelius, M.?"
"Oh! no," answered Mrs. Bergmann with decision, "they would ruin any luncheon."
"A Saint?" suggested Mr. Satan, "Antony, Ditto of Padua, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm?"
"Good heavens, no," said Mrs. Bergmann.
"A Theologian, good arguer?" asked Mr. Satan, "Aquinas, T?"
"No," interrupted Mrs. Bergmann, "for heaven's sake don't always give me the A's, or we shall never get on to anything. You'll be offering me Adam and Abel next."
"I beg your pardon," said Mr. Satan, "Latimer, Laud--Historic Interest, Church and Politics combined," he added quickly.
"I don't want a clergyman," said Mrs. Bergmann.
"Artist?" said Mr. Satan, "Andrea del Sarto, Angelo, M., Apelles?"
"You're going back to the A's," interrupted Mrs. Bergmann.
"Bellini, Benvenuto Cellini, Botticelli?" he continued imperturbably.
"What's the use of them when I can get Sargent every day?" asked Mrs. Bergmann.
"A man of action, perhaps? Alexander, Bonaparte, Caesar, J., Cromwell, O., Hannibal?"
"Too heavy for luncheon," she answered, "they would do for dinner."
"Plain statesman? Bismarck, Count; Chatham, Lord; Franklin, B; Richelieu, Cardinal."
"That would make the members of the Cabinet feel uncomfortable," she said.
"A Monarch? Alfred; beg pardon, he's an A. Richard III., Peter the Great, Louis XI., Nero?"
"No," said Mrs. Bergmann. "I can't have a Royalty. It would make it too stiff."
"I have it," said Mr. Satan, "a highwayman: Dick Turpin; or a housebreaker: Jack Sheppard or Charles Peace?"
"Oh! no," said Mrs. Bergmann, "they might steal the Sevres."
"A musician? Bach or Beethoven?" he suggested.
"He's getting into the B's now," thought Mrs. Bergmann. "No," she added aloud, "we should have to ask him to play, and he can't play Wagner, I suppose, and musicians are so touchy."
"I think I have it," said Mr. Satan, "a wit: Dr. Johnson, Sheridan, Sidney Smith?"
"We should probably find their jokes dull now," said Mrs. Bergmann, thoughtfully.
"Miscellaneous?" inquired Mr. Satan, and turning over several leaves of his notebook, he rattled out the following names: "Alcibiades, kind of statesman; Beau Brummel, fop; Cagliostro, conjurer; Robespierre, politician; Charles Stuart, Pretender; Warwick, King-maker; Borgia, A., Pope; Ditto, C., toxicologist; Wallenstein, mercenary; Bacon, Roger, man of science; Ditto, F., dishonest official; Tell, W., patriot; Jones, Paul, pirate; Lucullus, glutton; Simon Stylites, eccentric; Casanova, loose liver; Casabianca, cabin-boy; Chicot, jester; Sayers, T., prize-fighter; Cook, Captain, tourist; Nebuchadnezzar, food-faddist; Juan, D., lover; Froissart, war correspondent; Julian, apostate?"
"Don't you see," said Mrs. Bergmann, "we must have some one everybody has heard of?"
"David Garrick, actor and wit?" suggested Mr. Satan.
"It's no good having an actor nobody has seen act," said Mrs. Bergmann.
"What about a poet?" asked Mr. Satan, "Homer, Virgil, Dante, Byron, Shakespeare?"
"Shakespeare!" she cried out, "the very thing. Everybody has heard of Shakespeare, more or less, and I expect he'd get on with everybody, and wouldn't feel offended if I asked Alfred Austin or some other poet to meet him. Can you get me Shakespeare?"
"Certainly," said Mr. Satan, "day and date?"
"It must be Thursday fortnight," said Mrs. Bergmann. "And what, ah--er--your terms?"
"The usual terms," he answered. "In return for supernatural service rendered you during your lifetime, your soul reverts to me at your death."
Mrs. Bergmann's brain began to work quickly. She was above all things a practical woman, and she immediately felt she was being defrauded.
"I cannot consent to such terms," she said. "Surely you recognise the fundamental difference between this proposed contract and those which you concluded with others--with Faust, for instance? They sold the full control of their soul after death on condition of your putting yourself at their entire disposal during the whole of their lifetime, whereas you ask me to do the same thing in return for a few hours' service. The proposal is preposterous."
Mr. Satan rose from his chair. "In that case, madam," he said, "I have the honour to wish you a good afternoon."
"Stop a moment," said Mrs. Bergmann, "I don't see why we shouldn't arrive at a compromise. I am perfectly willing that you should have the control over my soul for a limited number of years--I believe there are precedents for such a course--let us say a million years."
"Ten million," said Mr. Satan, quietly but firmly.
"In that case," answered Mrs. Bergmann, "we will take no notice of leap year, and we will count 365 days in every year."
"Certainly," said Mr. Satan, with an expression of somewhat ruffled dignity, "we always allow leap year, but, of course, thirteen years will count as twelve."
"Of course," said Mrs. Bergmann with equal dignity.
"Then perhaps you will not mind signing the contract at once," said Mr. Satan, drawing from his pocket a type-written page.
Mrs. Bergmann walked to the writing-table and took the paper from his hand.
"Over the stamp, please," said Mr. Satan.
"Must I--er--sign it in blood?" asked Mrs. Bergmann, hesitatingly.
"You can if you like," said Mr. Satan, "but I prefer red ink; it is quicker and more convenient."
He handed her a stylograph pen.
"Must it be witnessed?" she asked.
"No," he replied, "these kind of documents don't need a witness."
In a firm, bold handwriting Mrs. Bergmann signed her name in red ink across the sixpenny stamp. She half expected to hear a clap of thunder and to see Mr. Satan disappear, but nothing of the kind occurred. Mr. Satan took the document, folded it, placed it in his pocket-book, took up his hat and gloves, and said:
"Mr. William Shakespeare will call to luncheon on Thursday week. At what hour is the luncheon to be?"
"One-thirty," said Mrs. Bergmann.
"He may be a few minutes late," answered Mr. Satan. "Good afternoon, madam," and he bowed and withdrew.
Mrs. Bergmann chuckled to herself when she was alone. "I have done him," she thought to herself, "because ten million years in eternity is nothing. He might just as well have said one second as ten million years, since anything less than eternity in eternity is nothing. It is curious how stupid the devil is in spite of all his experience. Now I must think about my invitations."
The morning of Mrs. Bergmann's luncheon had arrived. She had asked thirteen men and nine women.
But an hour before luncheon an incident happened which nearly drove Mrs. Bergmann distracted. One of her guests, who was also one of her most intimate friends, Mrs. Lockton, telephoned to her saying she had quite forgotten, but she had asked on that day a man to luncheon whom she did not know, and who had been sent to her by Walford, the famous professor. She ended the message by saying she would bring the stranger with her.
"What is his name?" asked Mrs. Bergmann, not without intense irritation, meaning to put a veto on the suggestion.
"His name is----" and at that moment the telephone communication was interrupted, and in spite of desperate efforts Mrs. Bergmann was unable to get on to Mrs. Lockton again. She reflected that it was quite useless for her to send a message saying that she had no room at her table, because Angela Lockton would probably bring the stranger all the same. Then she further reflected that in the excitement caused by the presence of Shakespeare it would not really much matter whether there was a stranger there or not. A little before half-past one the guests began to arrive. Lord Pantry of Assouan, the famous soldier, was the first comer. He was soon followed by Professor Morgan, an authority on Greek literature; Mr. Peebles, the ex-Prime Minister; Mrs. Hubert Baldwin, the immensely popular novelist; the fascinating Mrs. Rupert Duncan, who was lending her genius to one of Ibsen's heroines at that moment; Miss Medea Tring, one of the latest American beauties; Corporal, the portrait-painter; Richard Giles, critic and man of letters; Hereward Blenheim, a young and rising politician, who before the age of thirty had already risen higher than most men of sixty; Sir Horace Silvester, K.C.M.G., the brilliant financier, with his beautiful wife Lady Irene; Professor Leo Newcastle, the eminent man of science; Lady Hyacinth Gloucester, and Mrs. Milden, who were well known for their beauty and charm; Osmond Hall, the paradoxical playwright; Monsieur Faubourg, the psychological novelist; Count Sciarra, an Italian nobleman, about fifty years old, who had written a history of the Popes, and who was now staying in London; Lady Herman, the beauty of a former generation, still extremely handsome; and Willmott, the successful actor-manager. They were all assembled in the drawing-room upstairs, talking in knots and groups, and pervaded by a feeling of pleasurable excitement and expectation, so much so that conversation was intermittent, and nearly everybody was talking about the weather. The Right Hon. John Lockton, the eminent lawyer, was the last guest to arrive.
"Angela will be here in a moment," he explained; "she asked me to come on first."
Mrs. Bergmann grew restless. It was half-past one, and no Shakespeare. She tried to make her guests talk, with indifferent success. The expectation was too great. Everybody was absorbed by the thought of what was going to happen next. Ten minutes passed thus, and Mrs. Bergmann grew more and more anxious.
At last the bell rang, and soon Mrs. Lockton walked upstairs, leading with her a quite insignificant, ordinary-looking, middle-aged, rather portly man with shiny black hair, bald on the top of his head, and a blank, good-natured expression.
"I'm so sorry to be so late, Louise, dear," she said. "Let me introduce Mr. ---- to you." And whether she had forgotten the name or not, Mrs. Bergmann did not know or care at the time, but it was mumbled in such a manner that it was impossible to catch it. Mrs. Bergmann shook hands with him absent-mindedly, and, looking at the clock, saw that it was ten minutes to two.
"I have been deceived," she thought to herself, and anger rose in her breast like a wave. At the same time she felt the one thing necessary was not to lose her head, or let anything damp the spirits of her guests.
"We'll go down to luncheon directly," she said. "I'm expecting some one else, but he probably won't come till later." She led the way and everybody trooped downstairs to the dining-room, feeling that disappointment was in store for them. Mrs. Bergmann left the place on her right vacant; she did not dare fill it up, because in her heart of hearts she felt certain Shakespeare would arrive, and she looked forward to a coup de theatre, which would be quite spoilt if his place was occupied. On her left sat Count Sciarra; the unknown friend of Angela Lockton sat at the end of the table next to Willmott.
The luncheon started haltingly. Angela Lockton's friend was heard saying in a clear voice that the dust in London was very trying.
"Have you come from the country?" asked M. Faubourg. "I myself am just returned from Oxford, where I once more admired your admirable English lawns--vos pelouses seculaires."
"Yes," said the stranger, "I only came up to town to-day, because it seems indeed a waste and a pity to spend the finest time of the year in London."
Count Sciarra, who had not uttered a word since he had entered the house, turned to his hostess and asked her whom she considered, after herself, to be the most beautiful woman in the room, Lady Irene, Lady Hyacinth, or Mrs. Milden?
"Mrs. Milden," he went on, "has the smile of La Gioconda, and hands and hair for Leonardo to paint. Lady Gloucester," he continued, leaving out the Christian name, "is English, like one of Shakespeare's women, Desdemona or Imogen; and Lady Irene has no nationality, she belongs to the dream worlds of Shelley and D'Annunzio: she is the guardian Lady of Shelley's 'Sensitiva,' the vision of the lily. 'Quale un vaso liturgico d'argento.' And you, madame, you take away all my sense of criticism. 'Vous me troublez trop pour que je definisse votre genre de beaute.'"
Mrs. Milden was soon engaged in a deep tete-a-tete with Mr. Peebles, who was heard every now and then to say, "Quite, quite," Miss Tring was holding forth to Silvester on French sculpture, and Silvester now and again said: "Oh! really!" in the tone of intense interest which his friends knew indicated that he was being acutely bored. Lady Hyacinth was discussing Socialism with Osmond Hall, Lady Herman was discussing the theory of evolution with Professor Newcastle, Mrs. Lockton, the question of the French Church, with Faubourg; and Blenheim was discharging molten fragments of embryo exordiums and perorations on the subject of the stage to Willmott; in fact, there was a general buzz of conversation.
"Have you been to see Antony and Cleopatra?" asked Willmott of the stranger.
"Yes," said the neighbour, "I went last night; many authors have treated the subject, and the version I saw last night was very pretty. I couldn't get a programme so I didn't see who----"
"I think my version," interrupted Willmott, with pride, "is admitted to be the best."
"Ah! it is your version!" said the stranger. "I beg your pardon, I think you treated the subject very well."
"Yes," said Willmott, "it is ungrateful material, but I think I made something fine of it."
"No doubt, no doubt," said the stranger.
"Do tell us," Mrs. Baldwin was heard to ask M. Faubourg across the table, "what the young generation are doing in France? Who are the young novelists?"
"There are no young novelists worth mentioning," answered M. Faubourg.
Miss Tring broke in and said she considered "Le Visage Emerveille," by the Comtesse de Noailles, to be the most beautiful book of the century, with the exception, perhaps, of the "Tagebuch einer Verlorenen."
But from the end of the table Blenheim's utterance was heard preponderating over that of his neighbours. He was making a fine speech on the modern stage, comparing an actor-manager to Napoleon, and commenting on the campaigns of the latter in detail.
Quite heedless of this Mr. Willmott was carrying on an equally impassioned but much slower monologue on his conception of the character of Cyrano de Bergerac, which he said he intended to produce. "Cyrano," he said, "has been maligned by Coquelin. Coquelin is a great artist, but he did not understand Cyrano. Cyrano is a dreamer, a poet; he is a martyr of thought like Tolstoi, a sacrifice to wasted, useless action, like Hamlet; he is a Moliere come too soon, a Bayard come too late, a John the Baptist of the stage, calling out in vain in the wilderness--of bricks and mortar; he is misunderstood;--an enigma, an anachronism, a premature herald, a false dawn."
Count Sciarra was engaged in a third monologue at the head of the table. He was talking at the same time to Mrs. Bergmann, Lady Irene, and Lady Hyacinth about the devil. "Ah que j'aime le diable!" he was saying in low, tender tones. "The devil who creates your beauty to lure us to destruction, the devil who puts honey into the voice of the siren, the dolce sirena--
"Che i marinari in mezzo il mar dismaga"
(and he hummed this line in a sing-song two or three times over)--"the devil who makes us dream and doubt, and who made life interesting by persuading Eve to eat the silver apple--what would life have been if she had not eaten the apple? We should all be in the silly trees of the Garden of Eden, and I should be sitting next to you" (he said to Mrs. Bergmann), "without knowing that you were beautiful; que vous etes belle et que vous etes desirable; que vous etes puissante et caline, que je fais naufrage dans une mer d'amour--e il naufragio m'e dolce in questo mare--en un mot, que je vous aime."
"Life outside the garden of Eden has many drawbacks," said Mrs. Bergmann, who, although she was inwardly pleased by Count Sciarra's remarks, saw by Lady Irene's expression that she thought he was mad.
"Aucun 'drawback,'" answered Sciarra, "n'egalerait celui de comtempler les divins contours feminins sans un frisson. Pensez donc si Madame Bergmann----"
"Count Sciarra," interrupted Mrs. Bergmann, terrified of what was coming next, "do tell me about the book you are writing on Venice."
Mrs. Lockton was at that moment discussing portraiture in novels with M. Faubourg, and during a pause Miss Tring was heard to make the following remark: "And is it true M. Faubourg, that 'Cecile' in 'La Mauvaise Bonte' is a portrait of some one you once loved and who treated you very badly?"
M. Faubourg, a little embarrassed, said that a creative artist made a character out of many originals.
Then, seeing that nobody was saying a word to his neighbour, he turned round and asked him if he had been to the Academy.
"Yes," answered the stranger; "it gets worse every year doesn't it?"
"But Mr. Corporal's pictures are always worth seeing," said Faubourg.
"I think he paints men better than women," said the stranger; "he doesn't flatter people, but of course his pictures are very clever."
At this moment the attention of the whole table was monopolised by Osmond Hall, who began to discuss the scenario of a new play he was writing. "My play," he began, "is going to be called 'The King of the North Pole.' I have never been to the North Pole, and I don't mean to go there. It's not necessary to have first-hand knowledge of technical subjects in order to write a play. People say that Shakespeare must have studied the law, because his allusions to the law are frequent and accurate. That does not prove that he knew law any more than the fact that he put a sea in Bohemia proves that he did not know geography. It proves he was a dramatist. He wanted a sea in Bohemia. He wanted lawyer's 'shop.' I should do just the same thing myself. I wrote a play about doctors, knowing nothing about medicine: I asked a friend to give me the necessary information. Shakespeare, I expect, asked his friends to give him the legal information he required."
Every allusion to Shakespeare was a stab to Mrs. Bergmann.
"Shakespeare's knowledge of the law is very thorough," broke in Lockton.
"Not so thorough as the knowledge of medicine which is revealed in my play," said Hall.
"Shakespeare knew law by intuition," murmured Willmott, "but he did not guess what the modern stage would make of his plays."
"Let us hope not," said Giles.
"Shakespeare," said Faubourg, "was a psychologue; he had the power, I cannot say it in English, de deviner ce qu'il ne savait pas en puisant dans le fond et le trefond de son ame."
"Gammon!" said Hall; "he had the power of asking his friends for the information he required."
"Do you really think," asked Giles, "that before he wrote 'Time delves the parallel on beauty's brow,' he consulted his lawyer as to a legal metaphor suitable for a sonnet?"
"And do you think," asked Mrs. Duncan, "that he asked his female relations what it would feel like to be jealous of Octavia if one happened to be Cleopatra?"
"Shakespeare was a married man," said Hall, "and if his wife found the MSS. of his sonnets lying about he must have known a jealous woman."
"Shakespeare evidently didn't trouble his friends for information on natural history, not for a playwright," said Hall. "I myself should not mind what liberty I took with the cuckoo, the bee, or even the basilisk. I should not trouble you for accurate information on the subject; I should not even mind saying the cuckoo lays eggs in its own nest if it suited the dramatic situation."
The whole of this conversation was torture to Mrs. Bergmann.
"Shakespeare," said Lady Hyacinth, "had a universal nature; one can't help thinking he was almost like God."
"That's what people will say of me a hundred years hence," said Hall; "only it is to be hoped they'll leave out the 'almost.'"
"Shakespeare understood love," said Lady Herman, in a loud voice; "he knew how a man makes love to a woman. If Richard III. had made love to me as Shakespeare describes him doing it, I'm not sure that I could have resisted him. But the finest of all Shakespeare's men is Othello. That's a real man. Desdemona was a fool. It's not wonderful that Othello didn't see through Iago; but Desdemona ought to have seen through him. The stupidest woman can see through a clever man like him; but, of course, Othello was a fool too."
"Yes," broke in Mrs. Lockton, "if Napoleon had married Desdemona he would have made Iago marry one of his sisters."
"I think Desdemona is the most pathetic of Shakespeare's heroines," said Lady Hyacinth; "don't you think so, Mr. Hall?"
"It's easy enough to make a figure pathetic, who is strangled by a nigger," answered Hall. "Now if Desdemona had been a negress Shakespeare would have started fair."
"If only Shakespeare had lived later," sighed Willmott, "and understood the condition of the modern stage, he would have written quite differently."
"If Shakespeare had lived now he would have written novels," said Faubourg.
"Yes," said Mrs. Baldwin, "I feel sure you are right there."
"If Shakespeare had lived now," said Sciarra to Mrs. Bergmann, "we shouldn't notice his existence; he would be just un monsieur comme tout le monde--like that monsieur sitting next to Faubourg," he added in a low voice.
"The problem about Shakespeare," broke in Hall, "is not how he wrote his plays. I could teach a poodle to do that in half an hour. But the problem is--What made him leave off writing just when he was beginning to know how to do it? It is as if I had left off writing plays ten years ago."
"Perhaps," said the stranger, hesitatingly and modestly, "he had made enough money by writing plays to retire on his earnings and live in the country."
Nobody took any notice of this remark.
"If Bacon was really the playwright," said Lockton, "the problem is a very different one."
"If Bacon had written Shakespeare's plays," said Silvester, "they wouldn't have been so bad."
"There seems to me to be only one argument," said Professor Morgan, "in favour of the Bacon theory, and that is that the range of mind displayed in Shakespeare's plays is so great that it would have been child's play for the man who wrote Shakespeare's plays to have written the works of Bacon."
"Yes," said Hall, "but because it would be child's play for the man who wrote my plays to have written your works and those of Professor Newcastle--which it would--it doesn't prove that you wrote my plays."
"Bacon was a philosopher," said Willmott, "and Shakespeare was a poet--a dramatic poet; but Shakespeare was also an actor, an actor-manager, and only an actor-manager could have written the plays."
"What do you think of the Bacon theory?" asked Faubourg of the stranger.
"I think," said the stranger, "that we shall soon have to say eggs and Shakespeare instead of eggs and Bacon."
This remark caused a slight shudder to pass through all the guests, and Mrs. Bergmann felt sorry that she had not taken decisive measures to prevent the stranger's intrusion.
"Shakespeare wrote his own plays," said Sciarra, "and I don't know if he knew law, but he knew le coeur de la femme. Cleopatra bids her slave find out the colour of Octavia's hair; that is just what my wife, my Angelica, would do if I were to marry some one in London while she was at Rome."
"Mr. Gladstone used to say," broke in Lockton, "that Dante was inferior to Shakespeare, because he was too great an optimist."
"Dante was not an optimist," said Sciarra, "about the future life of politicians. But I think they were both of them pessimists about man and both optimists about God."
"Shakespeare," began Blenheim; but he was interrupted by Mrs. Duncan who cried out:--
"I wish he were alive now and would write me a part, a real woman's part. The women have so little to do in Shakespeare's plays. There's Juliet; but one can't play Juliet till one's forty, and then one's too old to look fourteen. There's Lady Macbeth; but she's got nothing to do except walk in her sleep and say, 'Out, damned spot!' There were not actresses in his days, and of course it was no use writing a woman's part for a boy."
"You should have been born in France," said Faubourg, "Racine's women are created for you to play."
"Ah! you've got Sarah," said Mrs. Duncan, "you don't want anyone else."
"I think Racine's boring," said Mrs. Lockton, "he's so artificial."
"Oh! don't say that," said Giles, "Racine is the most exquisite of poets, so sensitive, so acute, and so harmonious."
"I like Rostand better," said Mrs. Lockton.
"Rostand!" exclaimed Miss Tring, in disgust, "he writes such bad verses--du caoutchouc--he's so vulgar."
"It is true," said Willmott, "he's an amateur. He has never written professionally for his bread but only for his pleasure."
"But in that sense," said Giles, "God is an amateur."
"I confess," said Peebles, "that I cannot appreciate French poetry. I can read Rousseau with pleasure, and Bossuet; but I cannot admire Corneille and Racine."
"Everybody writes plays now," said Faubourg, with a sigh.
"I have never written a play," said Lord Pantry.
"Nor I," said Lockton.
"But nearly everyone at this table has," said Faubourg. "Mrs. Baldwin has written 'Matilda,' Mr. Giles has written a tragedy called 'Queen Swaflod,' I wrote a play in my youth, my 'Le Menetrier de Parme'; I'm sure Corporal has written a play. Count Sciarra must have written several; have you ever written a play?" he said, turning to his neighbour, the stranger.
"Yes," answered the stranger, "I once wrote a play called 'Hamlet.'"
"You were courageous with such an original before you," said Faubourg, severely.
"Yes," said the stranger, "the original was very good, but I think," he added modestly, "that I improved upon it."
"Encore un faiseur de paradoxes!" murmured Faubourg to himself in disgust.
In the meantime Willmott was giving Professor Morgan the benefit of his views on Greek art, punctuated with allusions to Tariff Reform and devolution for the benefit of Blenheim.
Luncheon was over and cigarettes were lighted. Mrs. Bergmann had quite made up her mind that she had been cheated, and there was only one thing for which she consoled herself, and that was that she had not waited for luncheon but had gone down immediately, since so far all her guests had kept up a continuous stream of conversation, which had every now and then become general, though they still every now and then glanced at the empty chair and wondered what the coming attraction was going to be. Mrs. Milden had carried on two almost interrupted tete-a-tetes, first with one of her neighbours, then with the other. In fact everybody had talked, except the stranger, who had hardly spoken, and since Faubourg had turned away from him in disgust, nobody had taken any further notice of him.
Mrs. Baldwin, remarking this, good-naturedly leant across the table and asked him if he had come to London for the Wagner cycle.
"No," he answered, "I came for the Horse Show at Olympia."
At this moment Count Sciarra, having finished his third cigarette, turned to his hostess and thanked her for having allowed him to meet the most beautiful women of London in the most beautiful house in London, and in the house of the most beautiful hostess in London.
"J'ai vu chez vous," he said, "le lys argente et la rose blanche, mais vous etes la rose ecarlate, la rose d'amour dont le parfum vivra dans mon coeur comme un poison dore (and here he hummed in a sing-song):--
'Io son, cantava, Io son, dolce sirena' Addio, dolce sirena."
Then he suddenly and abruptly got up, kissed his hostess's hand vehemently three times, and said he was very sorry, but he must hasten to keep a pressing engagement. He then left the room.
Mrs. Bergmann got up and said, "Let us go upstairs." But the men had most of them to go, some to the House of Commons, others to fulfil various engagements.
The stranger thanked Mrs. Bergmann for her kind hospitality and left. And the remaining guests, seeing that it was obvious that no further attraction was to be expected, now took their leave reluctantly and went, feeling that they had been cheated.
Angela Lockton stayed a moment.
"Who were you expecting, Louise, dear?" she asked.
"Only an old friend," said Mrs. Bergmann, "whom you would all have been very glad to see. Only as he doesn't want anybody to know he's in London, I couldn't tell you all who he was."
"But tell me now," said Mrs. Lockton; "you know how discreet I am."
"I promised not to, dearest Angela," she answered; "and, by the way, what was the name of the man you brought with you?"
"Didn't I tell you? How stupid of me!" said Mrs. Lockton. "It's a very easy name to remember: Shakespeare, William Shakespeare."