The Dancing Floor - John Buchan - ebook
Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1926

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About
Part 1
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

About Buchan:

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG, GCVO, CH, PC , was a Scottish novelist, best known for his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada. Source: Wikipedia

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Chapter 1

 

This story was told me by Leithen, as we were returning rather late in the season from a shooting holiday in North Ontario. There were few passengers, the weather was a succession of snow blizzards and gales, and as we had the smoking-room for the most part to ourselves, we stoked up the fire and fell into a mood of yarns and reminiscences. Leithen, being a lawyer, has a liking for careful detail, and his tale took long in the telling; indeed, snatches of it filled the whole of that rough October passage. The version I have written out is amplified from his narrative, but I think it is accurate, for he took the trouble to revise it.

 

Romance (he said) is a word I am shy of using. It has been so staled and pawed by fools that the bloom is gone from it, and to most people it stands for a sugary world as flat as an eighteenth-century Arcadia. But, dry stick as I am, I hanker after my own notion of romance. I suppose it is the lawyer in me, but I define it as something in life which happens with an exquisite aptness and a splendid finality, as if Fate had suddenly turned artist—something which catches the breath because it is so wholly right. Also for me it must happen to youth. I do not complain of growing old, but I like to keep my faith that at one stage in our mortal existence nothing is impossible. It is part of my belief that the universe is on the whole friendly to man, and that the ordering of the world is in the main benevolent… . So I go about expecting things, waiting like an old pagan for the descent of the goddess. And once—only once—I caught the authentic shimmer of her wings.


Chapter 2

 

1.

I have a preposterous weakness for youth, and I fancy there is something in me which makes it accept me as a coaval. It may be my profession. If you are a busy lawyer without any outside ambitions you spend your days using one bit of your mind, and the rest remains comparatively young and unstaled. I had no wife and few near relations, and while I was daily growing narrower in my outlook on the present and the future I cherished a wealth of sentiment about the past. I welcomed anything which helped me to recapture the freshness of boyhood, and Vernon was like a spring wind in my arid life. Presently we forgot that I was nearly twice his age, and slipped into the manner of contemporaries. He was far more at his ease with me than with the men of his own year. I came to think that I was the only person in the world who knew him, for though he had an infinity of acquaintances and a good many people who ranked as friends, I suppose I was his only comrade. For I alone knew the story of his dreams.

My flat in Down Street became his headquarters in London, and I never knew when he would stick his head into my Temple chambers and insist on our dining or lunching together. In the following winter I went to Oxford occasionally, nominally to visit Charles; but my nephew led a much occupied life, and it generally ended by my spending my time with Vernon. I kept a horse with the Bicester that season and we hunted occasionally together, and we had sometimes a walk which filled the short winter day, and dined thereafter and talked far into the night. I was anxious to learn how his contemporaries regarded him, and I soon found that he had a prodigious reputation, which was by no means explained by his athletic record. He at once impressed and puzzled his little world. I think it was the sense of brooding power about him which attracted people and also kept them at a respectful distance. His ridiculous good looks and his gentle courtesy seemed to mark him out for universal popularity, but there was too much austerity for a really popular man. He had odd ascetic traits. He never touched wine now, he detested loose talk, and he was a little intolerant of youthful follies. Not that there was anything of the prig in him—only that his character seemed curiously formed and mature. For all his urbanity he had a plain, almost rugged, sagacity in ordinary affairs, a tough core like steel harness under a silk coat. That, I suppose, was the Calvinism in his blood. Had he been a less brilliant figure, he would probably have been set down as "pi."

Charles never professed to understand him, and contented himself with prophesying that "old Vernon would be the devil of a swell some day." On inquiry I found that none of his friends forecast any special career for him; it would have seemed to them almost disrespectful to condescend upon such details. It was not what Vernon would do that fired their sluggish imaginations, but what they dimly conceived that he already was.

There was the same fastidiousness about all his ways. I have never known a better brain more narrowly limited in its range. He was a first-class "pure" scholar, and had got a Craven and been proxime for the Hertford. But he was quite incapable of spreading himself, and his prospects looked bad for "Greats" since he seemed unable to acquire the smattering of loose philosophy demanded by that school. He was strictly circumscribed in his general reading; I set it down at first to insensitiveness, but came soon to think it fastidiousness. If he could not have exactitude and perfection in his knowledge, he preferred to remain ignorant. I saw in him the makings of a lawyer. Law was just the subject for a finical, exact, and scrupulous mind like his. Charles had once in his haste said that he was not a man of the world, and Charles had been right. He was a man of his own world, not the ordinary one. So with his intellectual interests. He would make his own culture, quite regardless of other people. I fancy that he felt that his overmastering private problem made it necessary to husband the energies of his mind.

During that year I think he was quite happy and at peace about the dream. He had now stopped hoping or fearing; the thing had simply become part of him, like his vigorous young body, his slow kindliness, his patient courage. He rarely wanted to talk of it, but it was so much in my thoughts that I conducted certain researches of my own. I began by trying the psychological line, and plagued those of my acquaintances who had any knowledge of that dismal science. I cannot say I got much assistance. You see I had to state a hypothetical case, and was always met by a demand to produce the patient for cross-examination—a reasonable enough request, which of course I could not comply with. One man, who was full of the new Vienna doctrine, talked about "complexes" and "repressions" and suggested that the dream came from a child having been shut up by accident in a dark room. "If you can dig the memory of it out of his subconsciousness, you will lay that ghost," he said. I tried one evening to awake Vernon's earliest recollections, but nothing emerged. The dream itself was the furthest-back point in his recollection. In any case I didn't see how such an explanation would account for the steady development of the thing and its periodicity. I thought I might do better with family history, and I gave up a good deal of my leisure to the Douglas-Ernotts. There was nothing to be made of the Ernotts—gross utilitarian Whigs every one of them. The Douglas strain had more mystery in it, but the records of his branch of the great Scottish house were scanty, and sadly impersonal. Douglases many had endured imprisonment and gone to the scaffold, but history showed them as mere sounding names, linked to forays and battles and strange soubriquets, but as vague as the heroes of Homer. As for the Milburnes, I got an ancient aunt who had known Vernon's father to give me her recollections, and a friend on the Northern Circuit collected for me the Lancashire records. The first of them had been a small farmer somewhere on the Ribble; the second had become a mill-owner; and the third, in the early nineteenth century, had made a great fortune, had been a friend of William Wilberforce and later of Richard Cobden, and had sat in the first Reform parliament. As I looked at the portrait of that whiskered reformer, bland and venerable in his stiff linen and broadcloth, or at the early Millais of his son, the bearded Evangelical, I wondered what in them had gone to the making of Vernon. It was like seeking for the ancestry of a falcon among barnyard fowls.


Chapter 3

 

The immediate consequence of peace was to keep Vernon and myself apart. You see, we neither of us got better very quickly. When his wounds were healed a kind of neuritis remained; he was tortured with headaches, didn't sleep well and couldn't recover his lost weight. He was very patient and cheerful about it, and did obediently what he was told, for his one object seemed to be to get fit again. We returned to England together, but presently the doctors packed him off abroad with instructions to bask in the sun and idle at a Riviera villa which had been dedicated to such cases. So I spent a lonely Christmas in London.

Heaven knows I had nothing to complain of compared with most fellows, but I count the six months after the Armistice the most beastly in my life. I had never been seriously ill before, all the four years of war I had been brimming over with energy, and it was a new experience for me to feel slack and under-engined. The gas had left a sort of poison in my blood which made every movement an effort. I was always sleepy, and yet couldn't sleep, and to my horror I found myself getting jumpy and neurotic. The creak of a cart in the street worried me so that I wanted to cry; London noise was a nightmare, and when I tried the country I had a like horror of its silence. The thing was purely physical, for I found I could think quite clearly and sanely. I seemed to be two persons, one self-possessed enough watching the antics of the other with disgust and yet powerless to stop them.

Acton Croke was reassuring. "You're a sick man, and you've got to behave as such," he told me. "No attempt to get back into harness. Behave as if you were recovering from a severe operation—regular life, no overstrain physical or mental, simply lie fallow and let nature do its work. You have a superb constitution which, given a chance, will pick up its balance. But don't forget that you're passing through a crisis. If you play the fool you may have indifferent health for the rest of your days."

I was determined that at all events that mustn't happen, so I was as docile as a good child. As I say, I had mighty little to complain of, when you consider the number of good men who, far seedier than I, came back to struggle for their daily bread. I had made a bit of money, so I had a solid hump to live off. There was a dearth at the time of leaders at the Bar, and I could have stepped at once into a bigger practice than I had ever dreamed of. Also, I had a chance, if I wished, of becoming one of the law officers of the Crown. I was still a member of Parliament, and at the December election, though I had never gone near the place, my old constituency had returned me with a majority of more than ten thousand. A pretty gilded position for a demobbed soldier! But for the present I had to put all that aside and think only of getting well.

There has been a good deal of nonsense talked about the horror of war memories and the passionate desire to bury them. The vocal people were apt to be damaged sensitives, who were scarcely typical of the average man. There were horrors enough, God knows, but in most people's recollections these were overlaid by the fierce interest and excitement, even by the comedy of it. At any rate that was the case with most of my friends, and it was certainly the case with me. I found a positive pleasure in recalling the incidents of the past four years. The war had made me younger. You see—apart from regular officers—I had met few of my own year and standing. I had consorted chiefly with youth, and had recovered the standpoint of twenty years ago. That was what made my feeble body so offensive. I could not regard myself as a man in middle age, but as a sick undergraduate whose malady was likely to keep him out of the Boat or the Eleven.

You would have laughed if you could have seen the way I spent my time. I was so angry with my ill-health that I liked to keep on reminding myself of the days when I had been at the top of my form. I remember I made out a complete record of my mountaineering exploits, working them out with diagrams from maps and old diaries, and telling myself furiously that what I had once done I could do again… . I got out my old Oxford texts and used to construe bits of the classics, trying to recapture the mood when those things meant a lot to me… . I read again all the books which used to be favourites, but which I hadn't opened for a score of years. I turned up the cram books for the Bar exams, and the notes I had taken in my early days in chambers, and the reports of my first cases. It wasn't sentiment, but a deliberate attempt to put back the clock, and, by recalling the feelings of twenty-five, to convince myself that I had once been a strong man… . I even made risky experiments. I went up to Oxford in vacation and managed to get put up in my old diggings in the High. That would have been intolerable if they had recalled war tragedies, but they didn't. The men who had shared them with me were all alive—one a Colonial bishop, one a stockbroker, another high up in the Indian Civil Service. It did me good to see the big shabby sitting-room where, in my day, a barrel of beer had adorned one corner. In March, too, I spent three nights at a moorland inn on the Borders which had once been the headquarters of a famous reading-party. That was not quite so successful, for the weather and the food were vile, and I was driven to reflect on the difference of outlook between twenty and forty-three.

Still my childishness did me good, and I began slowly to gain ground. The spring helped me, which was early that year, you remember, so that the blossom had begun on the fruit trees in the first days of April. I found that it was the time just before the war that it comforted me most to recall, for then I had been healthy enough and a creature more near my present state than the undergraduate of twenty. I think, too, it was because those years were associated with Vernon. He was never much out of my mind, and the reports from him were cheering. The headaches had gone, he had recovered his power of sleep, and was slowly putting on weight. He had taken to sailing a small boat again, had bought a racing cutter, and had come in third in one of the events at the Cannes Regatta.

I had this last news in a letter which reached me while I was staying at Minster Carteron, and it turned my mind back to the yachting trip I had made with Vernon in 1914 in the Agean. It revived the picture I had almost forgotten—the green island flushed with spring, the twilight haunted with wild music, the great white house hanging like a cliff over the sea. I had felt the place sinister—I remembered the two men with scared faces and their charm against the evil eye—and even after five years a faint aura of distaste lingered about the memory. That was sufficient to awake my interest, and one afternoon I rummaged in the library. Plakos had been the island's name, and I searched for it in gazetteers.

It was the day of the famous April snowstorm which wrought such havoc among English orchards. The windows of the great room were blurred with falling snow, and the fires on the two hearths were hissing and spluttering while I pursued my researches. Folliot, I remember, was dozing beside one of them in an arm-chair. You know old Folliot, with his mild cattish ways and his neat little Louis Napoleon beard. He wants to be the Horace Walpole of our time, and publishes every few years a book of reminiscences, from which it would appear that he has been the confidant of every great man in Europe for the last half-century. He has not much of a mind, but he has a good memory, and after all there is a faint interest about anybody who has dined out in good company for fifty years.

I woke the old fellow when I dropped by misadventure a big atlas on the floor, and he asked testily what I was after.

"I'm trying to find a beastly Greek islet," I said. "You haven't by any chance in your travels visited a place called Plakos?"

The name roused him. "No," he said, "but of course I have often heard of it. It belonged to Shelley Arabin."

"Now, who on earth was Shelley Arabin?"

"You young men!" old Folliot sighed. "Your memories are so short and your ignorance so vast. Shelley Arabin died last year, and had half a column in the Times, but he will have a chapter in my memoirs. He was one of the most remarkable men of his day. Shelley Arabin—to think you never heard of him! Why, I knew his father."

I drew up an arm-chair to the hearth opposite him. "It's a foul afternoon," I said, "and there's nothing to do. I want to hear about Shelley Arabin. I take it from his name that he was a Levantine."

Folliot was flattered by my interest. He had begun to bore people, for the war had created a mood unfavourable to his antique gossip. He still stayed a good deal in country houses, but spent most of his time in the libraries and got rather snubbed when he started on his reminiscences.

"Bless you, no! A most ancient English house—the Arabins of Irtling in Essex. Gone out for good now, I fear. As a boy I remember old Tom Arabin—a shabby old bandit, who came to London once in five years and insulted everybody and then went back again. He used to dine with my family, and I remember watching him arrive, for I had a boyish romance about the man who had been a friend of Byron. Yes, he was with Byron when he died at Missolonghi, and he was an intimate of all the poets of that time—Byron, Shelley—he called his son after Shelley—Keats too, I think—there's a mention of him in the Letters I'm almost sure—and he lived with Landor in Italy till they quarrelled. A most picturesque figure, but too farouche, for comfort. With him a word was a blow, you understand. He married—now, who did he marry?—one of the Manorwaters, I fancy. Anyhow, he led her the devil of a life. He bought or stole or acquired somehow the island of Plakos, and used it as a base from which to descend periodically upon the civilized world. Not a pleasant old gentleman, but amazingly decorative. You may have seen his translation of Pindar. I have heard Jebb say that it was a marvellous piece of scholarship, but that his English style was the exact opposite of everything that Pindar stood for. Dear me! How short the world's memory is!"

"I want to hear about his son," I said.

"You shall—you shall! Poor Shelley, I fear he had not the kind of upbringing which is commonly recommended for youth. Tom disliked his son, and left him to the care of the family priest—they were Catholics of course. All his boyhood he spent in that island among the peasants and the kind of raffish company that his father invited to the house. What kind of company? Well, I should say all the varieties of humbug that Europe produces—soldiers of fortune, and bad poets, and the gentry who have made their native countries too hot for them. Plakos was the refuge of every brand of outlaw, social and political. Ultimately the boy was packed off to Cambridge, where he arrived speaking English a generation out of date, and with the tastes of a Turkish pasha, but with the most beautiful manners. Tom, when he wasn't in a passion, had the graciousness of a king, and Shelley was a young prince in air and feature. He was terribly good-looking in a way no man has a right to be, and that prejudiced him in the eyes of his young contemporaries. Also there were other things against him."

"How long did Cambridge put up with him?" I asked.

"One year. There was a scandal—rather a bad one, I fancy—and he left under the blackest kind of cloud. Tom would not have him at home, but he gave him a good allowance, and the boy set up in London. Not in the best society, you understand, but he had a huge success in the half-world. Women raved about him, and even when his reputation was at its worst, he would be seen at a few good houses… . I suppose a lawyer does not concern himself with poetry, but I can assure you that Shelley Arabin made quite a name for himself in the late eighties. I believe bibliophiles still collect his first editions. There was his epic on the Fall of Jerusalem—a very remarkable performance as a travesty of history. And there were his love sonnets, beautiful languid things, quite phosphorescent with decay. He carried Swinburne and Beaudelaire a stage further. Well, that mood has gone from the world, and Shelley Arabin's reputation with it, but at one time sober critics felt obliged to praise him even when they detested him. He was a red-hot revolutionary, too, and used to write pamphlets blackguarding British policy… . I saw quite a lot of him in those days, and I confess that I found him fascinating. Partly it was his beauty and his air, partly that he was like nobody I had ever met. He could talk wonderfully in his bitter, high-coloured way. But I never liked him. Oh no, I never liked him. There was always a subtle cruelty about him. Old Tom had been a blackguard, but he had had a heart—Shelley, behind all his brilliance, was ice and stone. I think most people came to feel this, and he had certainly outstayed his welcome before he left London."

"What made him leave?"

"His father's death. Tom went out suddenly from old age just before the war between Greece and Turkey. Shelley left England with a great gasconade of Greek patriotism—he was going to be a second Byron and smite the infidel. By all accounts he did very little. I doubt if he had old Tom's swashbuckling courage: indeed I have heard ugly stories of the white feather… . Anyhow England knew him no more. He married a girl he met in Rome—Scotch—a Miss Hamilton, I think, but I never knew of what Hamiltons. He treated her shamefully after the Arabin tradition. She did not live long, and there were no children, I believe, and now Shelley is dead and the Arabins are extinct. Not a pleasant family, you will say, and small loss to the world. But there was a certain quality, too, which under happier circumstances might have made them great. And assuredly they had looks. There was something almost unholy about Shelley's beauty in his early days. It made men instinctively dislike him. If I had had a son I should have liked him to be snub-nosed and bullet-headed, for ugliness in the male is a security for virtue and a passport to popularity."

This was probably a sentence from one of Folliot's silly books of reminiscences. My curiosity about Plakos was not exhausted, and I asked what kind of life had been lived there. "The house is a tremendous affair," I said, "with room for a regiment."

"I know," said Folliot, "and it was often full. I had always a great curiosity to go there, though I daresay I should have found the atmosphere too tropical for my taste. Shelley never invited me, but if I had arrived he could scarcely have turned me away. I entertained the notion at one time, but I kept putting it off till my taste for that kind of adventure declined… . No, I have never been nearer Plakos than Athens, where I once spent a fortnight when Fanshawe was our Minister there. I asked about Shelley, of course, and Fanshawe gave me an ugly report. Plakos, you must know, is a remote and not over-civilized island where the writ of the Greek Government scarcely runs, so it was very much a patriarchal despotism. I gathered that Shelley was not a popular landlord. There had been many complaints, and one or two really horrid stories of his treatment of the peasantry. It seemed that he saw a good deal of company, and had made his house a resort for the rascality of Europe. The rascality—not merely the folly, as in his father's time. The place fairly stank in Fanshawe's nostrils. 'The swine still calls himself an Englishman,' he told me, 'still keeps his English domicile, so we get the blame of his beastliness. And all the while, too, he is sluicing out venom about England. He is clever enough to keep just inside the tinpot Greek law. I'd give a thousand pounds to see him clapped in gaol.'"

I had heard all I wanted to know, and picked up a book, while Folliot busied himself with the newspaper. A little later he interrupted me.

"I have just remembered something else. You knew Wintergreen, the archaologist? He was at the British school in Athens, and then excavated Hittite remains in Asia Minor. Poor fellow, he died of dysentery as an intelligence officer in Mesopotamia. Well, Wintergreen once spoke to me of Plakos. I suppose he had been there, for he had been everywhere. We were talking, I remember, one night in the club about Gilles de Rais—the French Bluebeard, you know, the friend of Joan of Arc—and I asked if anything approaching that kind of miscreant still existed on the globe. Somebody said that the type was fairly common in the East, and mentioned some Indian potentate. Wintergreen broke in. 'You don't need to go to the East,' he said. 'You can find it in Europe,' and he started to speak of Shelley Arabin. I don't recollect what exactly he said, but it was pretty bad, and of course strictly libellous. By his account Shelley had become a connoisseur and high priest of the uttermost evil, and the cup of his iniquities was nearly full. It seemed that Wintergreen had been in the island excavating some ancient remains and living among the peasants, and had heard tales that sickened him. He thought that some day soon the great house would go flaming to heaven, set alight by an outraged people.

"Well, it hasn't happened." Folliot returned to his Times. "Shelley has died in his bed, which is perhaps more than he deserved. Not agreeable people, I fear. It is a good thing that he left no posterity."

That evening I thought a good deal about Plakos. I was glad to have discovered the reason for the aversion which I had felt on our visit, and was inclined to believe that I must be a more sensitive person than my friends would admit. After that the subject passed from my mind.

 

By the end of April I was so much recovered that I went back to my practice at the Bar, and was almost snowed under by the briefs which descended on my shoulders as soon as there was a rumour of my return. It would have been a difficult job to select, and I daresay I should have slipped into overwork, had I not been made a Law Officer. That, so to speak, canalized my duties, and since my task was largely novel and, at the moment, of extraordinary interest, the change completed my convalescence. In May I was my normal self, and when Vernon returned to England in June he found me eating, sleeping, and working as in the old days—a fitter man, indeed, than in 1914, for the war seemed to have drawn off the grosser humours of middle life.

Vernon, too, was fit again. If a young man starts with a fine constitution and a strong character, and applies all the powers of his mind to the task of getting well, he is almost certain to succeed. He came back to London a lean, sunburnt creature, with an extraordinarily rarified look about him. He had lost nothing of his youth, indeed he scarcely looked his twenty-five years; but he had been fined down and tautened and tested, so that his face had a new spirituality in it as if there was a light shining behind. I have noticed the same thing in other cases of head wounds. You remember how Jim Barraclough, who used to be a heavy red-haired fellow, came out of hospital looking like a saint in an Italian primitive.

Vernon was changed in other ways. You see, he belonged to a generation which was nearly cleaned out by the war, and he had scarcely a friend of his own year left except my nephew Charles. That should not have meant so much to him as to other people, for he had never depended greatly on friends, but I think the thought of all the boys who had been at school and college with him lying under the sod gave him a feeling of desperate loneliness, and flung him back more than ever on himself. I could see that even I meant less to him than before, though I still meant a good deal.

I was partly to blame for that, perhaps. The war had altered everybody's sense of values, and unconsciously I had come to take his dream less seriously. I had got into a mood of accepting things as they came and living with short horizons, and the long perspective which dominated his thoughts seemed to me a little out of the picture. I was conscious of this change in myself, and strove not to show it, but he must have felt it, and the blinds came down ever so little between us. For it was clear that the dream meant more than ever to him. He was in the last lap now, had rounded the turn and was coming up the straight, and every nerve and sinew were on the stretch. I couldn't quite live up to this ardour, though I tried hard, and with that lightning instinct of his he was aware of it, and was sparing of his confidences. The thing made me miserable, for it increased his loneliness, and I longed for the next year to be over and the apocalyptic to be driven out of his life. The mere fact that I took for granted that nothing would happen showed that I had lost my serious interest in his dream. Vernon had to outgrow a childish fancy, as one outgrows a liability to chicken-pox—that was all.

He had become harder too, as a consequence of loneliness. You remember that curious summer of 1919 when everybody was feverishly trying to forget the war. They were crazy days, when nobody was quite himself. Politicians talked and writers wrote clotted nonsense, statesmen chased their tails, the working man wanted to double his wages and halve his working hours at a time when the world was bankrupt, youth tried to make up for the four years of natural pleasure of which it had been cheated, and there was a general loosening of screws and a rise in temperature. It was what I had looked for, and I sympathized with a good deal of it, but, Lord bless me! Vernon was like an Israelitish prophet at a feast of Baal. I recalled what Charles had said about him in the war, and I wondered if Charles had not been right. Vernon seemed destitute of common humour.

I took him to dine at the Thursday Club, which had just been started. There he behaved well enough, for he found people who could talk his own language. But I noticed how complete was his apathy when politics were the subject of conversation. He was as uninterested in the setting to rights of the world as a hermit in a cell. He was oddly uncompanionable, too. Burminster's rollicking chaff got nothing out of him but a Monna Lisa smile. "What has happened to the boy?" that worthy asked me afterwards. "Shell-shock or what? Has he left a bit of his mind out in France? He's the most buttoned-up thing I ever struck."

He was worse with the ordinary young man. I gave a dinner or two for him, and, as we had one club in common, we occasionally found ourselves together in smoking-room gatherings. I had an immense pity for youth struggling to adjust its poise, and often I could have found it in my heart to be annoyed with Vernon's uncanny balance, which was not far from egotism. These poor lads were splashing about in life, trying to find their feet, and for their innocent efforts he had only a calm contempt. He sat like a skeleton at the feast, when they chattered about their sporting and amorous ventures, and discussed with abysmal ignorance how money was to be made in a highly expensive world. I have a vivid recollection of his courteous, insulting aloofness.

"What rot to say that the war has done any good," he remarked to me once as we walked back to the flat. "It has killed off the men, and left only the half-wits."

Charles, now endeavouring without much success to earn a living in the City, was vehement on the subject, and he had a characteristic explanation. "Vernon has become a wonderful old fossil," he said. "Not gone to seed, like some of the rest, but a fossil—dried up—mummified. It isn't healthy, and I'm pretty certain about the cause. He's got something on his mind, and I shouldn't be surprised if he was preparing to come an everlasting cropper. I think it's a girl."

It certainly was not a girl. I often wished it had been, for to a fellow as lonely as Vernon the best cure, as I saw it, would have been to fall in love. People had taken furiously to dancing, and that summer, though there were no big balls, every dinner-party seemed to end in a dance, and every restaurant was full of rag-time music and ugly transatlantic shuffling. For youth it was a good way of working off restlessness, and foolish middle age followed the guiding of youth. I had no fault to find with the fashion. The poor girls, starved for four years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. One could forgive a good deal of shrillness and bad form in such a case. My one regret was that they made such guys of themselves. Well-born young women seemed to have taken for their models the cretinous little oddities of the film world.

One night Vernon and I had been dining at the house of a cousin of mine and had stayed long enough to see the beginning of the dance that followed. As I looked on, I had a sharp impression of the change which five years had brought. This was not, like a pre-war ball, part of the ceremonial of an assured and orderly world. These people were dancing as savages danced—to get rid of or to engender excitement. Apollo had been ousted by Dionysos. The nigger in the band, who came forward now and then and sang some gibberish, was the true master of ceremonies. I said as much to Vernon, and he nodded. He was watching with a curious intensity the faces that passed us.

"Everybody is leaner," I said, "and lighter on their feet. That's why they want to dance. But the women have lost their looks."

"The women!" he murmured. "Look at that, I beseech you!"

It was a tall girl, who was dancing with a handsome young Jew, and dancing, as I thought, with a notable grace. She was very slim, and clearly very young, and I daresay would have been pretty, if she had let herself alone. I caught a glimpse of fine eyes, and her head was set on her neck like a flower on its stalk. But some imp had inspired her to desecrate the gifts of the Almighty. Her hair was bobbed, she had too much paint and powder on her face, she had some kind of barbaric jewels in her ears which put her head out of drawing, and she wore a preposterous white gown. Don't ask me to describe it, for I am not an expert on dress; but it seemed to me wrong by every canon of decency and art. It had been made, no doubt, with the intention of being provocative, and its audacious lines certainly revealed a great deal of its wearer's body. But the impression was rather of an outrage perpetrated on something beautiful, a foolish ill-bred joke. There was an absurd innocence about the raddled and half-clad girl—like a child who for an escapade has slipped down to the drawing-room in her nightgown.

Vernon did not feel as I felt. His eyes followed her for a little, and then he turned to me with a face like stone.

"So much for our righteous war," he said grimly. "It's to produce that that so many good fellows died."