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Literary Thoughts edition presents Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham ------ "Christmas Holiday" is a novel written in 1939 by W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), just before the outbreak of World War II, and tells the story of Charley Mason, whose father granted him a trip to Paris with all expenses paid, and although it should have been a lark, on his first night Charley meets a woman whose story will forever change his life. The story was later adapted in a movie of the same name. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage www.literarythoughts.com to see our other publications.
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Transscribed and Published by Jacson Keating (editor)
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With a journey before him, Charley Mason’s mother was anxious that he should make a good breakfast, but he was too excited to eat. It was Christmas Eve and he was going to Paris. They had got through the mass of work that quarter-day brought with it, and his father, having no need to go to the office, drove him to Victoria. When they were stopped for several minutes by a traffic block in Grosvenor Gardens, Charley, afraid that he would miss the train, went white with anxiety. His father chuckled.
“You’ve got the best part of half an hour.”
But it was a relief to arrive.
“Well, good-bye, old boy,” his father said, “have a good time and don’t get into more mischief than you can help.”
The steamer backed into the harbour and the sight of the grey, tall, dingy houses of Calais filled him with elation. It was a raw day and the wind blew bitter. He strode along the platform as though he walked on air. The Golden Arrow, powerful, rich and impressive, which stood there waiting for him, was no ordinary train, but a symbol of romance. While the light lasted he looked out of the window and he laughed in his heart as he recognised the pictures he had seen in galleries: sand dunes, with patches of grass grey under the leaden sky, cramped villages of poor persons’ houses with slate roofs, and then a broad, sad landscape of ploughed fields and sparse bare trees; but the day seemed in a hurry to be gone from the cheerless scene and in a short while, when he looked out, he could see only his own reflection and behind it the polished mahogany of the Pullman. He wished he had come by air. That was what he’d wanted to do, but his mother had put her foot down; she’d persuaded his father that in the middle of winter it was a silly risk to take, and his father, usually so reasonable, had made it a condition of his going on the jaunt that he should take the train.
Of course Charley had been to Paris before, half a dozen times at least, but this was the first time that he had ever gone alone. It was a special treat that his father was giving him for a special reason: he had completed a year’s work in his father’s office and had passed the necessary examinations to enable him to follow usefully his chosen calling. For as long as Charley could remember, his father and mother, his sister Patsy and he had spent Christmas at Godalming with their cousins the Terry-Masons; and to explain why Leslie Mason, after talking over the matter with his wife, had one evening, a smile on his kindly face, asked his son whether instead of coming with them as usual he would like to spend a few days in Paris by himself, it is necessary to go back a little. It is necessary indeed to go back to the middle of the nineteenth century, when an industrious and intelligent man called Sibert Mason, who had been head gardener at a grand place in Sussex and had married the cook, bought with his savings and hers a few acres north of London and set up as a market gardener. Though he was then forty and his wife not far from it they had eight children. He prospered, and with the money he made bought little bits of land in what was still open country. The city expanded and his market garden acquired value as a building site; with money borrowed from the bank he put up a row of villas and in a short while let them all on lease. It would be tedious to go into the details of his progress, and it is enough to say that when he died, at the age of eighty-four, the few acres he had bought to grow vegetables for Covent Garden, and the properties he had continued to acquire whenever opportunity presented, were covered with bricks and mortar. Sibert Mason took care that his children should receive the education that had been denied him. They moved up in the social scale. He made the Mason Estate, as he had somewhat grandly named it, into a private company and at his death each child received a certain number of shares as an inheritance. The Mason Estate was well managed and though it could not compare in importance with the Westminster or the Portman Estate, for its situation was modest and it had long ceased to have any value as a residential quarter, shops, warehouses, factories, slums, long rows of dingy houses in two storeys, made it sufficiently profitable to enable its proprietors, through no merit and little exertion of their own, to live like the gentlemen and ladies they were now become. Indeed, the head of the family, the only surviving child of old Sibert’s eldest son, a brother having been killed in the war and a sister by a fall in the hunting-field, was a very rich man. He was a Member of Parliament and at the time of King George the Fifth’s Jubilee had been created a baronet. He had tacked his wife’s name on to his own and was now known as Sir Wilfred Terry-Mason. The family had hopes that his staunch allegiance to the Tory Party and the fact that he had a safe seat would result in his being raised to the peerage.
Leslie Mason, youngest of Sibert’s many grandchildren, had been sent to a public school and to Cambridge. His share in the Estate brought him in two thousand pounds a year, but to this was added another thousand which he received as secretary of the company. Once a year there was a meeting attended by such members of the family as were in England, for of the third generation some were serving their country in distant parts of the Empire and some were gentlemen of leisure who were often abroad, and, with Sir Wilfred in the chair, he presented the highly satisfactory statement which the chartered accountants had prepared.
Leslie Mason was a man of varied interests. At this time he was in the early fifties, tall, with a good figure and, with his blue eyes, fine grey hair worn rather long, and high colour, of an agreeable aspect. He looked more like a soldier or a colonial governor home on leave than a house agent and you would never have guessed that his grandfather was a gardener and his grandmother a cook. He was a good golfer, for which pastime he had ample leisure, and a good shot. But Leslie Mason was more than a sportsman; he was keenly interested in the arts. The rest of the family had no such foibles and they looked upon Leslie’s predilections with an amused tolerance, but when, for some reason or other, one of them wanted to buy a piece of furniture or a picture, his advice was sought and taken. It was natural enough that he should know what he was talking about, for he had married a painter’s daughter. John Peron, his wife’s father, was a member of the Royal Academy and for a long time, between the ’eighties and the end of the century, had made a good income by painting pictures of young women in eighteenth-century costume dallying with young men similarly dight. He painted them in gardens of old-world flowers, in leafy bowers and in parlours furnished correctly with the chairs and tables of the period. But now when his pictures turned up at Christie’s they were sold for thirty shillings or two pounds. Venetia Mason had inherited quite a number when her father died, but they had long stood in a box-room, covered with dust, their faces to the wall; for at this time of day even filial affection could not persuade her that they were anything but dreadful. The Leslie Masons were not in the least ashamed of the fact that his grandmother had been a cook, indeed with their friends they were apt to make a facetious point of it, but it embarrassed them to speak of John Peron. Some of the Mason relations still had on their walls examples of his work; they were a mortification to Venetia.
“I see you’ve still got Father’s picture there,” she said. “Don’t you think it dates rather? Why don’t you put it in one of the spare rooms?”
“My father-in-law was a very charming old man,” said Leslie, “with beautiful manners, but I’m afraid he wasn’t a very good painter.”
“Well, my governor gave a tidy sum for it. It would be absurd to put a picture that cost three hundred pounds in a spare bedroom, but if you feel like that about it, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll sell it you for a hundred and fifty.”
For though in the course of three generations they had become ladies and gentlemen, the Masons had not lost their business acumen.
The Leslie Masons had gone a long way in artistic appreciation since their marriage and on the walls of the handsome new house they now inhabited in Porchester Close were pictures by Wilson Steer and Augustus John, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. There was an Utrillo and a Vuillard, both bought while these masters were of moderate price, and there was a Derain, a Marquet and a Chirico. You could not enter their house, somewhat sparsely furnished, without knowing at once that they were in the movement. They seldom missed a private view and when they went to Paris made a point of going to Rosenberg’s and the dealers in the Rue de Seine to have a look at what there was to be seen; they really liked pictures and if they did not buy any before the cultured opinion of the day had agreed on their merits this was due partly to a modest lack of confidence in their own judgment and partly to a fear that they might be making a bad bargain. After all, John Peron’s pictures had been praised by the best critics and he had sold them for several hundred pounds apiece, and now what did they fetch? Two or three. It made you careful. But it was not only in painting that they were interested. They loved music; they went to Symphony Concerts throughout the winter; they had their favourite conductors and allowed no social engagements to prevent them from attending their performances. They went to hear the Ring once a year. To listen to music was a genuine delight to both of them. They had good taste and discrimination. They were regular first-nighters and they belonged to the societies that produce plays which are supposed to be above the comprehension of plain people. They read promptly the books that were talked about. They did this not only because they liked it, but because they felt it right to keep abreast of the times. They were honestly interested in art and it would be unjust even to hint a sneer because their taste lacked boldness and their appreciation originality. It may be that they were conventional in their judgments, but their conventionality was that of the highest culture of their day. They were incapable of making a discovery, but were quick to appreciate the discoveries of others. Though left to themselves they might never have seen anything very much to admire in Cézanne, no sooner was it borne in upon them that he was a great artist than in all sincerity they recognised the fact for themselves. They took no pride in their taste and there was no trace of snobbishness in their attitude.
“We’re just very ordinary members of the public,” said Venetia.
“Those objects of contempt to the artist, the people who know what they like,” added Leslie.
It was a happy accident that they liked Debussy better than Arthur Sullivan and Virginia Woolf better than John Galsworthy.
This preoccupation with art left them little time for social life; they sought neither the great nor the distinguished, and their friends were very nice people who were well-to-do without being rich, and who took a judicious interest in the things of the mind. They did not much care for dinner parties and neither gave them often nor went to them more than civility required; but they were fond of entertaining their friends to supper on Sunday evenings, when they could drop in dressed any way they liked and eat kedgeree and sausages and mash. There was good music and tolerable bridge. The conversation was intelligent. These parties were as pleasantly unpretentious as the Leslie Masons themselves, and though all the guests had their own cars and few of them less than five thousand a year, they flattered themselves that the atmosphere was quite bohemian.
But Leslie Mason was never happier than when, with no concert or first night to go to, he could spend the evening in the bosom of his family. He was fortunate in it. His wife had been pretty and now, a middle-aged woman, was still comely. She was nearly as tall as he, with blue eyes and soft brown hair only just streaked with grey. She was inclined to be stout, but her height enabled her to carry with dignity a corpulence which a strict attention to diet prevented from becoming uncomfortable. She had a broad brow, an open countenance and a diffident smile. Though she got her clothes in Paris, not from one of the fashionable dressmakers, but from a little woman ‘round the corner’, she never succeeded in looking anything but thoroughly English. She naturalised whatever she wore, and though she occasionally went to the extravagance of getting a hat at Reboux she had no sooner put it on her head than it looked as if it had come from the Army and Navy Stores. She always looked exactly what she was, an honest woman of the middle-class in easy circumstances. She had loved her husband when she married him and she loved him still. With the community of interests that existed between them it was no wonder that they should live in harmony. They had agreed at the beginning of their married life that she knew more about painting than he and that he knew more about music than she, so that in these matters each bowed to the superior judgment of the other. When it came to Picasso’s later work, for instance, Leslie said:
“Well, I don’t mind confessing it took me some time before I learnt to like it, but Venetia never had a moment’s doubt; with her flair she cottoned on to it like a flash of lightning.”
And Mrs. Mason admitted that she’d had to listen to Sibelius’ Second three or four times before she really understood what Leslie meant when he said that in its way it was as good as Beethoven.
“But of course he’s got a real understanding of music. Compared with him I’m almost a low-brow.”
Leslie and Venetia Mason were not only fortunate in one another, but also in their children. They had two, which they thought the perfect number, since an only child might be spoiled, and three or four meant a great expense, so that they couldn’t have lived as comfortably as they liked to, nor provided for them in such a way as to assure their future. They had taken their parental duties seriously. Instead of putting silly, childish pictures on the nursery walls they had decorated them with reproductions of pictures by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Marie Laurencin, so that from their earliest years their children’s taste should be formed, and they had chosen the records for the nursery gramophone with equal care, with the result that before either of them could ride a bicycle they were familiar with Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Wagner. As soon as they were old enough they began to learn to play the piano, with very good teachers, and Charley especially showed great aptitude. Both children were ardent concert-goers. They would scramble in to a Sunday concert, where they followed the music with a score, or wait for hours to get a seat in the gallery at Covent Garden; for their parents, thinking that it proved a real enthusiasm if they had to listen to music in some discomfort, considered it unnecessary to buy expensive seats for them. The Leslie Masons did not very much care for Old Masters and seldom went to the National Gallery except when a new purchase was making a stir in the papers, but it had seemed to them only right to make their children acquainted with the great paintings of the past, and as soon as they were old enough took them regularly to the National Gallery, but they soon realised that if they wanted to give them a treat they must take them to the Tate, and it was with gratification that they found that what really excited them was the most modern.
“It makes one think a bit,” said Leslie to his wife, a smile of pride shining in his kindly eyes, “to see two young things like that taking to Matisse like a duck takes to water.”
She gave him a look that was partly amused and partly rueful.
“They think I’m dreadfully old-fashioned because I still like Monet. They say it’s pure chocolate-box.”
“Well, we trained their taste. We mustn’t grouse if they go ahead and leave us behind.”
Venetia Mason gave a sweet and affectionate laugh.
“Bless their hearts, I don’t grudge it them if they think me hopelessly out of date. I shall go on liking Monet and Manet and Degas whatever they say.”
But it was not only to the artistic education of their offspring that the Leslie Masons had given thought. They were anxious that there should be nothing namby-pamby about them and they saw to it that they should acquire proficiency in games. They both rode well and Charley was not half a bad shot. Patsy, who was just eighteen, was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. She was to come out in May and they were giving a ball for her at Claridge’s. Lady Terry-Mason was to present her at Court. Patsy was so pretty, with her blue eyes and fair hair, with her slim figure, her attractive smile and her gaiety, she would be snapped up all too soon. Leslie wanted her to marry a rising young barrister with political ambitions. For such a one, with the money she’d eventually inherit from the Mason Estate, with her culture, she’d make an admirable wife. But that would be the end of the united, cosy and happy family life which was so enjoyable. There would be no more of those pleasant, domestic evenings when they dined, the four of them, in the well-appointed dining-room with its Steer over the Chippendale sideboard, the table shining with Waterford glass and Georgian silver, waited on by well-trained maids in neat uniforms; simple English food perfectly cooked; and after dinner, with its lively talk about art, literature and the drama, a glass of port, and then a little music in the drawing-room and a game of bridge. Venetia was afraid it was very selfish of her, but she couldn’t help feeling glad that it would be some years at least before Charley could afford to marry too.
Charley was born during the war, he was twenty-three now, and when Leslie had been demobbed and gone down to Godalming to stay with the head of the family, already a Member of Parliament, but then only a knight, Sir Wilfred had suggested that he should be put down for Eton. Leslie would not hear of it. It was not the financial sacrifice he minded, but he had too much good sense to send his boy to a school where he would get extravagant tastes and acquire ideas unfitted to the station in life he would ultimately occupy.
“I went to Rugby myself and I don’t believe I can do better than send him there too.”
“I think you’re making a mistake, Leslie. I’ve sent my boys to Eton. Thank God, I’m not a snob, but I’m not a fool either, and there’s no denying it, it’s a social asset.”
“I dare say it is, but my position is very different from yours. You’re a very rich man, Wilfred, and if things go well you ought to end up in the House of Lords. I think it’s quite right that you should give your sons the sort of start that’ll enable them to take their proper place in society, but though officially I’m secretary of the Mason Estate and that sounds very respectable, when you come down to brass tacks I’m only a house agent, and I don’t want to bring up my son to be a grand gentleman, I want him to be a house agent after me.”
When Leslie spoke thus he was using an innocent diplomacy. By the terms of old Sibert’s will and the accidents that have been already narrated, Sir Wilfred now possessed three-eighths of the Mason Estate, and it brought him in an income which was already large, and which, with leases falling in, the increasing value of the property, and good management, would certainly grow much larger. He was a clever, energetic man, and his position and his wealth gave him an influence with the rest of the family which none of its members questioned, but which it did not displease him to have acknowledged.
“You don’t mean to say you’d be satisfied to let your boy take on your job?”
“It was good enough for me. Why shouldn’t it be good enough for him? One doesn’t know what the world’s coming to and it may be that when he’s grown up he’ll be damned glad to step into a cushy billet at a thousand a year. But of course you’re the boss.”
Sir Wilfred made a gesture that seemed modestly to deprecate this description of himself.
“I’m a shareholder like the rest of you, but as far as I’m concerned, if you want it, he shall have it. Of course it’s a long time ahead and I may be dead by then.”
“We’re a long-lived family and you’ll live as long as old Sibert. Anyhow, there’ll be no harm in letting the rest of them know that it’s an understood thing that my boy should have my job when I’m through with it.”
In order to enlarge their children’s minds the Leslie Masons spent the holidays abroad, in winter at places where they ski and in summer at seaside resorts in the South of France; and once or twice with the same praiseworthy intention they made excursions to Italy and Holland. When Charley left school his father decided that before going to Cambridge he should spend six months at Tours to learn French. But the result of his sojourn in that agreeable town was unexpected and might very well have been disastrous, for when he came back he announced that he did not want to go to Cambridge, but to Paris, and that he wished to be a painter. His parents were dumbfounded. They loved art, they often said it was the most important thing in their lives, indeed Leslie, not averse at times from philosophical reflection, was inclined to think that it was art only that redeemed human existence from meaninglessness, and he had the greatest respect for the persons who produced it; but he had never envisaged the possibility that any member of his family, let alone his own son, should adopt a career that was uncertain, to some extent irregular, and in most cases far from lucrative. Nor could Venetia forget the fate that had befallen her father. It would be unjust to say that the Leslie Masons were put out because their son had taken their preoccupation with art more seriously than they intended; their preoccupation couldn’t have been more serious, but it was from the patron’s point of view; though no two people could have been more bohemian, they did have the Mason Estate behind them, and that, as anyone could see, must make a difference. Their reaction to Charley’s declaration was quite definite, but they were aware that it would be difficult to put it in a way that wouldn’t make their attitude look a trifle insincere.
“I can’t think what put the idea into his head,” said Leslie, talking it over with his wife.
“Heredity, I suppose. After all, my father was an artist.”
“A painter, darling. He was a great gentleman and a wonderful raconteur, but no one in his senses could call him an artist.”
Venetia flushed and Leslie saw that he had hurt her feelings. He hastened to make up for it.
“If he’s inherited a feeling for art it’s much more likely to be from my grandmother. I know old Sibert used to say you didn’t know what tripe and onions were until you tasted hers. When she gave up being a cook to become a wife of a market gardener a great artist was lost to the world.”
Venetia chuckled and forgave him.
They knew one another too well to have need to discuss their quandary. Their children loved them and looked up to them; they were agreed that it would be a thousand pities by a false step to shake Charley’s belief in his parents’ wisdom and integrity. The young are intolerant and when you talk commonsense to them are only too apt to think you an old humbug.
“I don’t think it would be wise to put one’s foot down too decidedly,” said Venetia. “Opposition might only make him obstinate.”
“The situation’s delicate. I don’t deny that for a moment.”
What made it more awkward was that Charley had brought back several canvases from Tours and when he had shown them they had expressed themselves in terms which it was difficult now to withdraw. They had praised as fond parents rather than as connoisseurs.
“You might take Charley up to the box-room one morning and let him have a look at your father’s pictures. Don’t make a point of it, you know, but let it seem accidental; and then when I get an opportunity I’ll have a talk with him.”
The opportunity came. Leslie was in the sitting-room they had arranged for the children so that they might have a place of their own. The reproductions of Gauguin and Van Gogh that had been in their nursery adorned the walls. Charley was painting a bunch of mixed flowers in a green vase.
“I think we’d better have those pictures you brought back from France framed and put up instead of these reproductions. Let’s have another look at them.”
There was one of three apples on a blue-and-white plate.
“I think it’s damned good,” said Leslie. “I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of three apples on a blue-and-white plate and it’s well up to the average.” He chuckled. “Poor old Cézanne, I wonder what he’d say if he knew how many thousands of times people had painted that picture of his.”
There was another still life which represented a bottle of red wine, a packet of French tobacco in a blue wrapper, a pair of white gloves, a folded newspaper and a violin. These objects were resting on a table covered with a cloth in green and white squares.
“Very good. Very promising.”
“D’you really think so, Daddy?”
“I do indeed. It’s not very original, you know, it’s the sort of picture that every dealer has a dozen of in his store-room, but you’ve never had a lesson in your life and it’s a very creditable piece of work. You’ve evidently inherited some of your grandfather’s talent. You have seen his pictures, haven’t you?”
“I hadn’t for years. Mummy wanted to find something in the box-room and she showed them to me. They’re awful.”
“I suppose they are. But they weren’t thought so in his own day. They were highly praised and they were bought. Remember that a lot of stuff that we admire now will be thought just as awful in fifty years’ time. That’s the worst of art; there’s no room for the second-rate.”
“One can’t tell what one’ll be till one tries.”
“Of course not, and if you want to take up painting professionally your mother and I are the last people who’d stand in your way. You know how much art means to us.”
“There’s nothing I want to do in the world more than paint.”
“With the share of the Mason Estate that’ll come to you eventually you’ll always have enough to live on in a modest way, and there’ve been several amateurs who’ve made quite a nice little reputation for themselves.”
“Oh, but I don’t want to be an amateur.”
“It’s not so easy to be anything else with a thousand to fifteen hundred a year behind you. I don’t mind telling you it’ll be a bit of a disappointment to me. I was keeping this job as secretary to the Estate warm for you, but I dare say some of the cousins will jump at it. I should have thought myself it was better to be a competent business man than a mediocre painter, but that’s neither here nor there. The great thing is that you should be happy and we can only hope that you’ll turn out a better artist than your grandfather.”
There was a pause. Leslie looked at his son with kindly eyes.
“There’s only one thing I’m going to ask you to do. My grandfather started life as a gardener and his wife was a cook. I only just remember him, but I have a notion that he was a pretty rough diamond. They say it takes three generations to make a gentleman, and at all events I don’t eat peas with a knife. You’re a member of the fourth. You may think it’s just snobbishness on my part, but I don’t much like the idea of you sinking in the social scale. I’d like you to go to Cambridge and take your degree, and after that if you want to go to Paris and study painting you shall go with my blessing.”
That seemed a very generous offer to Charley and he accepted it with gratitude. He enjoyed himself very much at Cambridge. He did not find much opportunity to paint, but he got into a set interested in the drama and in his first year wrote a couple of one-act plays. They were acted at the A.D.C. and the Leslie Masons went to Cambridge to see them. Then he made the acquaintance of a don who was a distinguished musician. Charley played the piano better than most undergraduates, and he and the don played duets together. He studied harmony and counterpoint. After consideration he decided that he would rather be a musician than a painter. His father with great good-humour consented to this, but when Charley had taken his degree, he carried him off to Norway for a fortnight’s fishing. Two or three days before they were due to return Venetia Mason received a telegram from Leslie containing the one word Eureka. Notwithstanding their culture neither of them knew what it meant, but its significance was perfectly clear to the recipient and that is the primary use of language. She gave a sigh of relief. In September Charley went for four months into the firm of accountants employed by the Mason Estate to learn something of book-keeping and at the New Year joined his father in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was to reward the application he had shown during his first year in business that his father was now sending him, with twenty-five pounds in his pocket, to have a lark in Paris. And a great lark Charley was determined to have.
They were nearly there. The attendants were collecting the luggage and piling it up inside the door so that it could be conveniently handed down to the porters. Women put a last dab of lipstick on their mouths and were helped into their furs. Men struggled into their greatcoats and put on their hats. The propinquity in which these persons had sat for a few hours, the pleasant warmth of the Pullman, had made a corporate unity of them, separated as occupants of a coach with its own number from the occupants of other coaches; but now they fell asunder, and each one, or each group of two or three, regained the discreet individuality which for a while had been merged in that of all the others. In the smoke-laden air, rank with stale tobacco, strong scent, the odour of human bodies and the frowst of steam-heating, they acquired on a sudden an air of mystery. Strangers once more, they looked at one another with preoccupied, unseeing eyes. Each one felt in himself a vague hostility to his neighbour. Some were already queuing up in the passage so that they might get out quickly. The heat of the Pullman had coated the windows with vapour and Charley wiped them a bit clean with his hand to look out. He could see nothing.
The train ran into the station. Charley gave his bag to a porter and with long steps walked up the platform; he was expecting his friend Simon Fenimore to meet him. He was disappointed not to see him at once; but there was a great mob at the barrier and he supposed that he was waiting there. He scanned eagerly the eager faces; he passed through; persons struggled through the crowd to seize a new arrival’s hand; women kissed one another; he could not see his friend. He was so convinced he must be there that he lingered for a little, but he was intimidated by his porter’s obvious impatience and presently followed him out to the courtyard. He felt vaguely let down. The porter got him a taxi and Charley gave the driver the name of the hotel where Simon had taken a room for him. When the Leslie Masons went to Paris they always stayed at an hotel in the Rue St. Honoré. It was exclusively patronised by English and Americans, but after twenty years they still cherished the delusion that it was a discovery of their own, essentially French, and when they saw American luggage on a landing or went up in the lift with persons who could be nothing but English, they never ceased to be surprised.
“I wonder how on earth they happen to be here,” they said.
For their own part they had always been careful never to speak about it to their friends; when they had hit upon a little bit of old France they weren’t going to risk its being spoilt. Though the director and the porter talked English fluently they always spoke to them in their own halting French, convinced that this was the only language they knew. But the mere fact that he had so often been to this hotel with his family was a sufficient reason for Charley not to stay there when he was going to Paris by himself. He was bent on adventure, and a respectable family hotel, where, according to his parents, nobody went but the French provincial nobility, was hardly the right place for the glorious, wild and romantic experiences with which his imagination for the last month had been distracting his mind. So he had written to Simon asking him to get him a room somewhere in the Latin Quarter; he wasn’t particular about sanitary conveniences and didn’t mind how grubby it was so long as it had the right atmosphere; and Simon in due course had written back to tell him that he had engaged a room at a hotel near the Gare Montparnasse. It was in a quiet street just off the Rue de Rennes and conveniently near the Rue Campagne Première, where he himself lived.
Charley quickly got over his disappointment that Simon had not come to meet him—he was sure either to be at the hotel or to have telephoned to say that he would be round immediately—and driving through the crowded streets that lead from the Gare du Nord to the Seine his spirits rose. It was wonderful to arrive in Paris by night. A drizzling rain was falling and it gave the streets an exciting mystery. The shops were brightly lit. The pavements were multitudinous with umbrellas and the water dripping on them glistened dimly under the street lamps. Charley remembered one of Renoir’s pictures. Sometimes a gust of wind made women crouch under their umbrellas and their skirts swirled round their legs. His taxi drove furiously, to his prudent English idea, and he gasped whenever with a screeching of brakes it pulled up suddenly to avoid a collision. The red lights held them up at a crossing and in both directions a great stream of persons surged over like a panic-stricken mob flying before a police charge. To Charley’s excited gaze they seemed quite different from an English crowd, more alert, more eager; when by chance his eyes fell on a girl walking by herself, a sempstress or a typist going home after the day’s work, it delighted him to fancy that she was hurrying to meet her lover; and when he saw a pair walking arm-in-arm under an umbrella, a young man with a beard, in a broad-brimmed hat, and a girl with a fur round her neck, walking as though it were such bliss to be together they did not mind the rain and were unconscious of the jostling throng, he thrilled with a poignant and sympathetic joy. At one corner owing to a block his taxi was side by side with a handsome limousine. There sat in it a woman in a sable coat, with painted cheeks and painted lips and a profile of incredible distinction. She might have been the Duchesse de Guermantes driving back after a tea party to her house in the Boulevard St. Germain. It was wonderful to be twenty-three and in Paris on one’s own.
“By God, what a time I’m going to have!”
The hotel was grander than he had expected. Its façade, with its architectural embellishments, suggested the flamboyant taste of the late Baron Haussmann. He found that a room had been engaged for him, but Simon had left neither letter nor message. He was taken upstairs not as he had anticipated by a slovenly boots in a dirty apron, with a sinister look on his ill-shaven face, but by an affable director who spoke perfect English and wore a morning coat. The room was furnished with hygienic severity, and there were two beds in it, but the director assured him that he would only charge him for the use of one. He showed Charley with pride the communicating bathroom. Left to himself Charley looked about him. He had expected a little room with heavy curtains of dull rep, a wooden bed with a huge eiderdown and an old mahogany wardrobe with a large mirror; he had expected to find used hairpins on the dressing-table and in the drawer of the table de nuit half a lipstick and a broken comb in which a few dyed hairs were still entangled. That was the idea his romantic fancy had formed of a student’s room in the Latin Quarter. A bathroom! That was the last thing he had bargained for. This room might have been a room in one of the cheaper hotels in Switzerland to which he had sometimes been with his parents. It was clean, threadbare and sordid. Not even Charley’s ardent imagination could invest it with mystery. He unpacked his bag disconsolately. He had a bath. He thought it rather casual of Simon, even if he could not be bothered to meet him, not to have left a message. If he made no sign of life he would have to dine by himself. His father and mother and Patsy would have got down to Godalming by now; there was going to be a jolly party, Sir Wilfred’s two sons and their wives and two nieces of Lady Terry-Mason’s. There would be music, games and dancing. He half wished now that he hadn’t jumped at his father’s offer to spend the holiday in Paris. It suddenly occurred to him that Simon had perhaps had to go off somewhere for his paper and in the hurry of an unexpected departure had forgotten to let him know. His heart sank.
Simon Fenimore was Charley’s oldest friend and indeed it was to spend a few days with him that he had been so eager to come to Paris. They had been at a private school together and together at Rugby; they had been at Cambridge together too, but Simon had left without taking a degree, at the end of his second year in fact, because he had come to the conclusion that he was wasting time; and it was Charley’s father who had got him on to the London newspaper for which for the last year he had been one of the Paris correspondents. Simon was alone in the world. His father was in the Indian Forest Department and while Simon was still a young child had divorced his mother for promiscuous adultery. She had left India, and Simon, by order of the court in his father’s custody, was sent to England and put into a clergyman’s family till he was old enough to go to school. His mother vanished into obscurity. He had no notion whether she was alive or dead. His father died of cirrhosis of the liver when Simon was twelve and he had but a vague recollection of a thin, slightly-built man with a sallow, lined face and a tight-lipped mouth. He left only just enough money to educate his son. The Leslie Masons had been touched by the poor boy’s loneliness and had made a point of asking him to spend a good part of his holidays with them. As a boy he was thin and weedy, with a pale face in which his black eyes looked enormous, a great quantity of straight dark hair which was always in need of a brush, and a large, sensual mouth. He was talkative, forward for his age, a great reader, and clever. He had none of the diffidence which was in Charley such an engaging trait. Venetia Mason, though from a sense of duty she tried hard, could not like him. She could not understand why Charley had taken a fancy to someone who was in every way so unlike him. She thought Simon pert and conceited. He was insensible to kindness and took everything that was done for him as a matter of course. She had a suspicion that he had no very high opinion either of her or of Leslie. Sometimes when Leslie was talking with his usual good sense and intelligence about something interesting, Simon would look at him with a glimmer of irony in those great black eyes of his and his sensual lips pursed in a sarcastic pucker. You would have thought Leslie was being prosy and a trifle stupid. Now and then when they were spending one of their pleasant quiet evenings together, chatting of one thing and another, he would go into a brown study; he would sit staring into vacancy, as though his thoughts were miles away, and perhaps, after a while, take up a book and start reading as though he were by himself. It gave you the impression that their conversation wasn’t worth listening to. It wasn’t even polite. But Venetia Mason chid herself.
“Poor lamb, he’s never had a chance to learn manners. I will be nice to him. I will like him.”
Her eyes rested on Charley, so good-looking, with his slim body (“It’s awful the way he grows out of his clothes, the sleeves of his dinner-jacket are too short for him already”), his curling brown hair, his blue eyes, with long lashes, and his clear skin. Though perhaps he hadn’t Simon’s showy brilliance, he was good, and he was artistic to his fingers’ ends. But who could tell what he might have become if she had run away from Leslie and Leslie had taken to drink, and if instead of enjoying a cultured atmosphere and the influence of a nice home he had had, like Simon, to fend for himself? Poor Simon! Next day she went out and bought him half a dozen ties. He seemed pleased.
“I say, that’s jolly decent of you. I’ve never had more than two ties at one time in my life.”
Venetia was so moved by the spontaneous generosity of her pretty gesture that she was seized with a sudden wave of sympathy.
“You poor lonely boy,” she cried, “it’s so dreadful for you to have no parents.”
“Well, as my mother was a whore, and my father a drunk, I dare say I don’t miss much.”
He was seventeen when he said this.
It was no good, Venetia simply couldn’t like him. He was harsh, cynical and unscrupulous. It exasperated her to see how much Charley admired him; Charley thought him brilliant and anticipated a great career for him. Even Leslie was impressed by the extent of his reading and the clearness with which even as a boy he expressed himself. At school he was already an ardent socialist and at Cambridge he became a communist. Leslie listened to his wild theories with good-humoured tolerance. To him it was all talk, and talk, he had an instinctive feeling, was just talk; it didn’t touch the essential business of life.
“And if he does become a well-known journalist or gets into the House, there’ll be no harm in having a friend in the enemy’s camp.”
Leslie’s ideas were liberal, so liberal that he didn’t mind admitting the socialists had several notions that no reasonable man could object to; theoretically he was all in favour of the nationalisation of the coal-mines, and he didn’t see why the state shouldn’t run the public services as well as private companies; but he didn’t think they should go too far. Ground rents, for instance, that was a matter that was really no concern of the state; and slum property: in a great city you had to have slums, in point of fact the lower classes preferred them to model dwelling-houses, not that the Mason Estate hadn’t done what it could in this direction; but you couldn’t expect a landlord to let people live in his houses for nothing, and it was only fair that he should get a decent return on his capital.
Simon Fenimore had decided that he wanted to be a foreign correspondent for some years so that he could gain a knowledge of Continental politics which would enable him when he entered the House of Commons to be an expert on a subject of which most Labour members were necessarily ignorant; but when Leslie took him to see the proprietor of the newspaper who was prepared to give a brilliant young man his chance, he warned him that the proprietor was a very rich man, and that he could not expect to create a favourable impression if he delivered himself of revolutionary sentiments. Simon, however, made a very good impression on the magnate by the modesty of his demeanour, his air of energy and his easy conversation.
“He was as good as gold,” Leslie told his wife afterwards. “He’s got his head screwed on his shoulders all right, that young fellow. It’s what I always told you, talk doesn’t amount to anything really. When it comes down to getting a job with a living wage attached to it, like every sensible man he’s prepared to put his theories in his pocket.”
Venetia agreed with him. It was quite possible, their own experience proved it, to have a real love for beauty and at the same time to realise the importance of material things. Look at Lorenzo de’ Medici; he’d been a successful banker and an artist to his finger-tips. She thought it very good of Leslie to have taken so much trouble to do a service for someone who was incapable of gratitude. Anyhow the job he had got him would take Simon to Vienna and thus remove Charley from an influence which she had always regarded with misgiving. It was that wild talk of his that had put it into the boy’s head that he wanted to be an artist. It was all very well for Simon, he hadn’t a penny in the world and no connections; but Charley had a snug berth to go into. There were enough artists in the world. Her consolation had been that Charley had so much candour of soul and a disposition of such sweetness that no evil communications could corrupt his good manners.
At this moment Charley was dressing himself and wondering, forlorn, how he should spend the evening. When he had got his trousers on he rang up the office of Simon’s newspaper, and it was Simon himself who answered.
“Hulloa, have you turned up? Where are you?”
Simon seemed so casual that Charley was taken aback.
“At the hotel.”
“Oh, are you? Doing anything to-night?”
“We’d better dine together, shall we? I’ll stroll around and fetch you.”
He rang off. Charley was dashed. He had expected Simon to be as eager to see him as he was to see Simon, but from Simon’s words and from his manner you would have thought that they were casual acquaintances and that it was a matter of indifference to him if they met or not. Of course it was two years since they’d seen one another and in that time Simon might have changed out of all recognition. Charley had a sudden fear that his visit to Paris was going to be a failure and he awaited Simon’s arrival with a nervousness that annoyed him. But when at last he walked into the room there was in his appearance at least little alteration. He was now twenty-three and he was still the lanky fellow, though only of average height, that he had always been. He was shabbily dressed in a brown jacket and grey flannel trousers and wore neither hat nor great-coat. His long face was thinner and paler than ever and his black eyes seemed larger. They were never still. Hard, shining, inquisitive, suspicious, they seemed to indicate the quality of the brain behind. His mouth was large and ironical, and he had small irregular teeth that somewhat reminded you of one of the smaller beasts of prey. With his pointed chin and prominent cheek-bones he was not good-looking, but his expression was so high-strung, there was in it so strange a disquiet, that you could hardly have passed him in the street without taking notice of him. At fleeting moments his face had a sort of tortured beauty, not a beauty of feature but the beauty of a restless, striving spirit. A disturbing thing about him was that there was no gaiety in his smile, it was a sardonic grimace, and when he laughed his face was contorted as though he were suffering from an agony of pain. His voice was high-pitched; it did not seem to be quite under his control, and when he grew excited often rose to shrillness.
Charley, restraining his natural impulse to run to the door and wring his hand with the eager friendliness of his happy nature, received him coolly. When there was a knock he called “Come in,” and went on filing his nails. Simon did not offer to shake hands. He nodded as though they had met already in the course of the day.
“Hulloa!” he said. “Room all right?”
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