He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take. All was
quiet; Denis wandered from room to empty room, looking with
pleasure at the familiar pictures and furniture, at all the little
untidy signs of life that lay scattered here and there. He was
rather glad that they were all out; it was amusing to wander
through the house as though one were exploring a dead, deserted
Pompeii. What sort of life would the excavator reconstruct from
these remains; how would he people these empty chambers? There was
the long gallery, with its rows of respectable and (though, of
course, one couldn't publicly admit it) rather boring Italian
primitives, its Chinese sculptures, its unobtrusive, dateless
furniture. There was the panelled drawing-room, where the huge
chintz-covered arm-chairs stood, oases of comfort among the austere
flesh-mortifying antiques. There was the morning-room, with its
pale lemon walls, its painted Venetian chairs and rococo tables,
its mirrors, its modern pictures. There was the library, cool,
spacious, and dark, book-lined from floor to ceiling, rich in
portentous folios. There was the dining-room, solidly, portwinily
English, with its great mahogany table, its eighteenth-century
chairs and sideboard, its eighteenth-century pictures—family
portraits, meticulous animal paintings. What could one reconstruct
from such data? There was much of Henry Wimbush in the long gallery
and the library, something of Anne, perhaps, in the morning-room.
That was all. Among the accumulations of ten generations the living
had left but few traces.
Lying on the table in the morning-room he saw his own book of
poems. What tact! He picked it up and opened it. It was what the
reviewers call "a slim volume." He read at hazard:
"… But silence and the topless dark Vault in the lights of Luna
Park; And Blackpool from the nightly gloom Hollows a bright
He put it down again, shook his head, and sighed. "What genius I
had then!" he reflected, echoing the aged Swift. It was nearly six
months since the book had been published; he was glad to think he
would never write anything of the same sort again. Who could have
been reading it, he wondered? Anne, perhaps; he liked to think so.
Perhaps, too, she had at last recognised herself in the Hamadryad
of the poplar sapling; the slim Hamadryad whose movements were like
the swaying of a young tree in the wind. "The Woman who was a Tree"
was what he had called the poem. He had given her the book when it
came out, hoping that the poem would tell her what he hadn't dared
to say. She had never referred to it.
He shut his eyes and saw a vision of her in a red velvet cloak,
swaying into the little restaurant where they sometimes dined
together in London—three quarters of an hour late, and he at his
table, haggard with anxiety, irritation, hunger. Oh, she was
It occurred to him that perhaps his hostess might be in her
boudoir. It was a possibility; he would go and see. Mrs. Wimbush's
boudoir was in the central tower on the garden front. A little
staircase cork-screwed up to it from the hall. Denis mounted,
tapped at the door. "Come in." Ah, she was there; he had rather
hoped she wouldn't be. He opened the door.
Priscilla Wimbush was lying on the sofa. A blotting-pad rested
on her knees and she was thoughtfully sucking the end of a silver
"Hullo," she said, looking up. "I'd forgotten you were
"Well, here I am, I'm afraid," said Denis deprecatingly. "I'm
Mrs. Wimbush laughed. Her voice, her laughter, were deep and
masculine. Everything about her was manly. She had a large, square,
middle-aged face, with a massive projecting nose and little
greenish eyes, the whole surmounted by a lofty and elaborate
coiffure of a curiously improbable shade of orange. Looking at her,
Denis always thought of Wilkie Bard as the cantatrice.
"That's why I'm going to Sing in op'ra, sing in op'ra, Sing in
Today she was wearing a purple silk dress with a high collar and
a row of pearls. The costume, so richly dowagerish, so suggestive
of the Royal Family, made her look more than ever like something on
"What have you been doing all this time?" she asked.
"Well," said Denis, and he hesitated, almost voluptuously. He
had a tremendously amusing account of London and its doings all
ripe and ready in his mind. It would be a pleasure to give it
utterance. "To begin with," he said…
But he was too late. Mrs. Wimbush's question had been what the
grammarians call rhetorical; it asked for no answer. It was a
little conversational flourish, a gambit in the polite game.
"You find me busy at my horoscopes," she said, without even
being aware that she had interrupted him.
A little pained, Denis decided to reserve his story for more
receptive ears. He contented himself, by way of revenge, with
saying "Oh?" rather icily.
"Did I tell you how I won four hundred on the Grand National
"Yes," he replied, still frigid and mono-syllabic. She must have
told him at least six times.
"Wonderful, isn't it? Everything is in the Stars. In the Old
Days, before I had the Stars to help me, I used to lose thousands.
Now"—she paused an instant—"well, look at that four hundred on the
Grand National. That's the Stars."
Denis would have liked to hear more about the Old Days. But he
was too discreet and, still more, too shy to ask. There had been
something of a bust up; that was all he knew. Old Priscilla—not so
old then, of course, and sprightlier—had lost a great deal of
money, dropped it in handfuls and hatfuls on every race-course in
the country. She had gambled too. The number of thousands varied in
the different legends, but all put it high. Henry Wimbush was
forced to sell some of his Primitives—a Taddeo da Poggibonsi, an
Amico di Taddeo, and four or five nameless Sienese—to the
Americans. There was a crisis. For the first time in his life Henry
asserted himself, and with good effect, it seemed.
Priscilla's gay and gadding existence had come to an abrupt end.
Nowadays she spent almost all her time at Crome, cultivating a
rather ill-defined malady. For consolation she dallied with New
Thought and the Occult. Her passion for racing still possessed her,
and Henry, who was a kind-hearted fellow at bottom, allowed her
forty pounds a month betting money. Most of Priscilla's days were
spent in casting the horoscopes of horses, and she invested her
money scientifically, as the stars dictated. She betted on football
too, and had a large notebook in which she registered the
horoscopes of all the players in all the teams of the League. The
process of balancing the horoscopes of two elevens one against the
other was a very delicate and difficult one. A match between the
Spurs and the Villa entailed a conflict in the heavens so vast and
so complicated that it was not to be wondered at if she sometimes
made a mistake about the outcome.
"Such a pity you don't believe in these things, Denis, such a
pity," said Mrs. Wimbush in her deep, distinct voice.
"I can't say I feel it so."
"Ah, that's because you don't know what it's like to have faith.
You've no idea how amusing and exciting life becomes when you do
believe. All that happens means something; nothing you do is ever
insignificant. It makes life so jolly, you know. Here am I at
Crome. Dull as ditchwater, you'd think; but no, I don't find it so.
I don't regret the Old Days a bit. I have the Stars… " She picked
up the sheet of paper that was lying on the blotting-pad. "Inman's
horoscope," she explained. "(I thought I'd like to have a little
fling on the billiards championship this autumn.) I have the
Infinite to keep in tune with," she waved her hand. "And then
there's the next world and all the spirits, and one's Aura, and
Mrs. Eddy and saying you're not ill, and the Christian Mysteries
and Mrs. Besant. It's all splendid. One's never dull for a moment.
I can't think how I used to get on before—in the Old Days.
Pleasure—running about, that's all it was; just running about.
Lunch, tea, dinner, theatre, supper every day. It was fun, of
course, while it lasted. But there wasn't much left of it
afterwards. There's rather a good thing about that in
Barbecue-Smith's new book. Where is it?"
She sat up and reached for a book that was lying on the little
table by the head of the sofa.
"Do you know him, by the way?" she asked.
Denis knew of him vaguely. Barbecue-Smith was a name in the
Sunday papers. He wrote about the Conduct of Life. He might even be
the author of "What a Young Girl Ought to Know".
"No, not personally," he said.
"I've invited him for next week-end." She turned over the pages
of the book. "Here's the passage I was thinking of. I marked it. I
always mark the things I like."
Holding the book almost at arm's length, for she was somewhat
long-sighted, and making suitable gestures with her free hand, she
began to read, slowly, dramatically.
"'What are thousand pound fur coats, what are quarter million
incomes?'" She looked up from the page with a histrionic movement
of the head; her orange coiffure nodded portentously. Denis looked
at it, fascinated. Was it the Real Thing and henna, he wondered, or
was it one of those Complete Transformations one sees in the
"'What are Thrones and Sceptres?'"
The orange Transformation—yes, it must be a
Transformation—bobbed up again.
"'What are the gaieties of the Rich, the splendours of the
Powerful, what is the pride of the Great, what are the gaudy
pleasures of High Society?'"
The voice, which had risen in tone, questioningly, from sentence
to sentence, dropped suddenly and boomed reply.
"'They are nothing. Vanity, fluff, dandelion seed in the wind,
thin vapours of fever. The things that matter happen in the heart.
Seen things are sweet, but those unseen are a thousand times more
significant. It is the unseen that counts in Life.'"
Mrs. Wimbush lowered the book. "Beautiful, isn't it?" she
Denis preferred not to hazard an opinion, but uttered a
"Ah, it's a fine book this, a beautiful book," said Priscilla,
as she let the pages flick back, one by one, from under her thumb.
"And here's the passage about the Lotus Pool. He compares the Soul
to a Lotus Pool, you know." She held up the book again and read.
"'A Friend of mine has a Lotus Pool in his garden. It lies in a
little dell embowered with wild roses and eglantine, among which
the nightingale pours forth its amorous descant all the summer
long. Within the pool the Lotuses blossom, and the birds of the air
come to drink and bathe themselves in its crystal waters… ' Ah, and
that reminds me," Priscilla exclaimed, shutting the book with a
clap and uttering her big profound laugh—"that reminds me of the
things that have been going on in our bathing-pool since you were
here last. We gave the village people leave to come and bathe here
in the evenings. You've no idea of the things that happened."
She leaned forward, speaking in a confidential whisper; every
now and then she uttered a deep gurgle of laughter. "… mixed
bathing… saw them out of my window… sent for a pair of
field-glasses to make sure… no doubt of it… " The laughter broke
out again. Denis laughed too. Barbecue-Smith was tossed on the
"It's time we went to see if tea's ready," said Priscilla. She
hoisted herself up from the sofa and went swishing off across the
room, striding beneath the trailing silk. Denis followed her,
faintly humming to himself:
"That's why I'm going to Sing in op'ra, sing in op'ra,
Sing in op-pop-pop-pop-popera."
And then the little twiddly bit of accompaniment at the end: