Opis

The heroes of this story belong to the upper class. About them, in fact, is the story. It begins by introducing us to a couple of girls whose conversations are filled with learned ingenuity, so this may impressed some readers. Men, obviously, mean little, except for the chips in the game. A classic tale in the world of the highest middle class in Edwardian Britain.

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

EPILOGUE

CHAPTER I

It has been ordained by the wisdom of Nature that the same fact shall strike the majority of her foolish children almost simultaneously. This phenomenon can hardly have escaped the most casual observer; the majority of swallows, for instance, in any given area will agree, practically in the same week, that our English autumn is no longer tolerable, and with consenting twitterings set their heads southwards; or in the spring, again, one may observe that in any given field daisies and buttercups will determine, only to be nipped by unpunctual frosts, that it is now time to come out, while even man, that most vacillating and least uniform of all created things, has a certain sympathy in his sensations; the sap stirs with moderately equal effervescence in the most dissimilar units; and without further preamble, to take the case in point, London settles without consultation, but with considerable unanimity, when spring may be considered to have stopped and summer to have begun. It is hardly necessary to state that London is, if not always, at any rate very frequently, completely deceived–like the buttercups and daisies–about a point so apparently palpable as even this, and a few biting frosts about mid-May usually send it back to its furs again; but the fact remains that on or about the same day the streets suddenly wear a completely different garb. On all sides the chrysalises burst, and butterflies gay or sober, according to their temperaments, hover and try their wings over a ground strewn, so to speak, with the brown husks of the “winter weeds outworn.” Nor is this bursting of the chrysalis confined to externals: the time has come; the tides of vitality turn and flow through the town, and the reopened houses, newly decked window-boxes, and the flush of colour in the streets, are but symptomatic of the inward conviction of their inhabitants that a fresh season for doing a quantity of things they should not do, and as great an opportunity for leaving undone many things that they should do, has been turned up by the spade of Time, that irresponsible farmer of years.

Though not usually given to prosing, Lady Alston had been making remarks somewhat to this effect as she sat with Mrs. Brereton after lunch in a balconied window of her drawing-room in Park Lane looking over the haze and warmth of the Park. Being for the moment, at any rate, in a pessimistic mood, she accounted for it by a belittling explanation.

“We are so obvious; that is why we all do things simultaneously,” she said; “and a thing that everybody does is not in itself worth doing at all. I don’t suppose there ever was a race so utterly deficient in originality.”

The sun was not very hot, and Mrs. Brereton put down her parasol, and pointed dramatically with it down Park Lane.

“What do you call that?” she asked. “Did you ever see anything so wildly and colossally original? You have travelled, dear Marie, and have seen Aztecs and wigwams and the gorgeous East in fee, whatever that may mean. But have you ever seen anything to approach Park Lane?”

Lady Alston laughed.

“I don’t call nightmares original,” she said.

“I’m sure I don’t know why not. I see nothing in the nature of a nightmare which is incompatible with originality. Just look: there we have a Gothic façade, followed by a very plain English erection which reminds me of beef and beer and Sunday. A little further down you will observe a kind of kiosk, and after that the front of the Erechtheum and something from the slums of Nürnberg. If one could look round the corner, we would see a rustic cottage, a bit of Versailles, a slice of Buckingham Palace as pièce de resistance, and some Pompeian frescoes by way of a savoury. There’s richness for you.”

“Scraps only, scraps from other places. It always reminds me of a dog’s dinner,” said Lady Alston; “and all of us who live here are like scraps for a dog’s dinner, too. Bits of things, remnants, a jumble sale, with everything priced above its proper value.”

Mildred Brereton leaned back in her chair, so that the sun did not catch her hair. The particular Titian shade she affected was so difficult to please in a strong light, and she felt sure that at this moment there was a sort of metallic iridescence on it. She would have to go to the hair-dresser’s again to-day.

“Dear Marie, what possesses you this lovely morning?” she asked. “Why is the world so stupid?”

“Probably only because I had a very short night. I am quite aware that when one is dissatisfied with things in general, it means that one’s vie interieure, shall we say? is dissatisfied with something particular.”

“And what form does the dissatisfaction take?”

Lady Alston threw her hands wide with an admirably graceful gesture.

“I despair of the human race of the day,” she said, “but I have enough grace to include myself. Do you suppose there ever was such a stupid class of people–especially we, Mildred, the women! We have all, literally all, we should want to make ourselves happy in an animal way–good health, sufficient money, and a deep abiding selfishness. But we can’t amuse ourselves; we are not happy; we are like dogs out for a walk, we must continually have sticks thrown for us. We can none of us invent anything ourselves. We can none of us stand solitude, which is in itself a complete confession of our stupidity, our parasitic nature. We go and hear people sing and act, and make music; and go and see horses race; we play cards for hours because we have not got the wit to talk–they say Bridge killed conversation. What nonsense! there was none to kill. Our whole brains, such as they are, are occupied in devising things to do to make the time pass. And we devise very badly: we are always glad when each thing is over. We go to a concert. How long! We live three months in London. How nice it will be to get down to the country again! We play Bridge. Will the rubber never end? We spend the autumn in the country. Will November never be over? On the top of that we do all in our power to make it appear that time has not passed with us. We dye our hair and paint our faces, in order to appear young, but the moment we open our mouths it is obvious we are tired, withered old women! There!”

Mrs. Brereton moved a little into the shadow.

“Don’t mind me, dear,” she said, “I am going to have it done again this afternoon; it won’t do at all.”

Lady Alston laughed; she had noticed the iridescence.

“Now you, Mildred,” she said, “you are an excellent case in point. Tell me why you find it worth while to do that. What object is served by your spending hours at your hair-dresser’s? Can you find nothing better to do?”

“You don’t know my hair-dresser. He is a small Frenchman with a lack-lustre eye, who sighs over the wickedness of the world. I sigh too; and we find sympathy in each other’s eyes. Some day I shall ask him to dinner, and that will be disappointing. Besides, my hair is beginning to be neatly picked out with gray, and when your hair is gray it looks as if you were no longer young. Nor am I. I am thirty-six. But I have still a greedy appetite for pleasure, which is the only real test of youth. Therefore I cut my coat, or rather dye my hair, according to my essential age, and pay no attention to the utterly misleading measure of years.”

“But what is the use of being young if it is only to be young?” asked Lady Alston.

“That is a question which you will not ask when you are thirty-six. Most delightful things are of no use whatever, and useful things are seldom delightful. Go on about the want of originality in the world.”

“There is really nothing to say about it. It is there, a colossal fact. Nobody is serious–seriousness is considered the greatest of social crimes–and we drift along like thistle-down. We are vicious; we are idle. No one has any dignity or any manners, and there is no object under the sun, except perhaps the avoidance of physical pain, for which we would sacrifice our breakfast or dinner.”

“There is no one under the sun,” said Mildred, “for whom many of us would not sacrifice our reputations.”

“But not our dinner. Oh, I know I am only really speaking of–well, of people you and I know best, among whom we choose to pass our time. There again you see our utter want of originality. We are bound hand and foot by conventions of our own making. Supposing I happened to go into the country for a fortnight, instead of grilling here in London, every one would say it was quite unheard of. And I have not got sufficient originality to go, although I do think that it is simply silly and absurd to live in a town in the summer.”

“Every one would say a great deal more than that,” remarked Mrs. Brereton.

“I know they would. They would wonder whom I had gone with, and they would speedily invent several people. I beg the pardon of the people among whom we live. They have one passion, and it is scandal; the more ill-natured the better.”

“No; ill-nature has nothing to do with it,” said Mrs. Brereton. “They have a passion for scandal, it is true. What else is there to talk about? I share it; in fact, I have a particularly large helping, but it is the subject-matter of scandal which really interests people. I don’t see why you shouldn’t call it the study of human nature. It is if you come to think of it.”

Lady Alston shook her head.

“No, the study of the worst side of it,” she said. “So far, what you say is true. All that most men think about is women, and all that women think about is men. That is the coarse, raw truth of the thing; that is the real indictment. Oh, it is inexplicable to me! All that we want in this world is at our command–at any rate all the beautiful and interesting things in existence can be read or heard or seen by us. But we don’t waste two thoughts on them all. We sit in corners and giggle like barmaids with our young men. And, as long as there is no public scandal, no scandal of the wrong sort–you know what I mean–the more people that see us, the better we like it. We put our noses in the air when we see a Harry and a Harriet with their arms round each other’s necks, having changed hats, and say, ‘How those people can!’ But we can! And we do!”

Mrs. Brereton shrieked with laughter.

“Oh, Marie, you are too heavenly!” she said. “And you certainly have a right to say those things, because nobody ever accused you of changing hats with anybody. You don’t draw them in, you know, dear. They call you ‘Snowflake’ and all sorts of things, I am told. And such lots of people offer you their hats. Yet you never take one.”

Lady Alston shifted her position slightly, as if something had suddenly made her uncomfortable.

“It is no use talking about wickedness nowadays,” she said, “because people simply stare, as if they did not know what you meant. But I made Blanche stare in a different kind of manner the other day, when I asked her if she really had no idea how vulgar she was.”

“Surely she did not mind being called vulgar?”

“She did when I explained carefully what I meant by vulgarity. Of course a certain sort of vulgarity is chic now. It is very vulgar not to be vulgar, not to talk at the top of one’s voice, and eat too much, and laugh very loud at things which ought not to be said; but when I told her what sort of a picture she makes when she sits simpering and ogling Dick all across the room, and, so to speak, spreading herself on the floor for him to walk over, she did not think I was so pleasant. But that’s exactly what she does.”

Mrs. Brereton drew on her gloves.

“There is something very successful in your attitude, Marie,” she said. “You go about hurling home-truths at people; you hold up looking-glasses to them, and make them see themselves; you point out what brutes they are, and scold them for it; but they never bear you any ill-will, and always want to see you. You really must not go into the country: we cannot get on without you!”

“Ah, if I only was conceited enough to think that, I should go!”

“That is truly amiable. But what I mean is this: you have got somehow the quality of centrality; our parties–I’m sure I don’t know why–are brilliant if you are there, and sensibly flatter if you are not. I suppose it is because people are always talking about you, and it is so nice in one’s own house to be able to point to the original. At the same time, I always feel about you as if you were the volcano on which we were all dancing.”

“I shan’t explode: I am the least likely person in the world to explode,” said Marie.

“Ah, you never can tell about volcanoes. That is the joy of them. I snatch a fearful joy from you, dear. I wish I was a volcano. How do you manage it? Do you get very angry inside, and determine not to say anything till the pressure is irresistible? By the way, Jim Spencer has just come back. You know him, I suppose? Anyhow, you will meet him at dinner this evening.”

Marie looked up with a sudden vivacity.

“Jim Spencer? Why, of course I do. We were brought up together almost. Then–well, then I married, and I lost sight of him somehow.”

“One does,” observed Mrs. Brereton. “Marriage often produces a sort of moral cataract.”

“Don’t be foolish, Mildred. There is nothing cheaper or easier or falser than that sort of innuendo. Besides, he went abroad; he has been away two years, I should think.”

“They do go abroad,” said Mrs. Brereton.

“Oh, if you want to know, there is no earthly reason why I should not tell you. He proposed to me. But I always liked him very much.”

“I always said so,” remarked Mrs. Brereton.

“Then you had no business to. Dear Jim! I shall be delighted to see him again. He is one of the few really reasonable people I know. He has got some sort of plan of his own; he has always known what he meant to do, though he has not always done it. For instance, he wanted impossible things; he had no money and I had none, so he proposed that we should marry and support ourselves by his writings. He has appeared before now in Christmas numbers.”

“Then, perhaps you acted wisely. But he rolls in wealth now. A South African millionaire, without anything South African about him: no local colour, in fact. He is also remarkably handsome. Wealth, manners, good looks! A fairy-prince combination.”

Lady Alston laughed.

“Dear me! I shall like to see Jim with society at his feet,” she said.

“You make certain it will go there?”

Lady Alston raised her eyebrows.

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