The Relentless City - E.F. Benson - ebook

The Relentless City ebook

E.F. Benson



The Relentless City is a manners novel built around Lord Bertie Keynes, intending to inherit the title and pledged property of a young English widow. These two people decide they want to marry wealth, and that means marrying Americans. Bertie must marry money, and Sybil admires the American spirit. A novel about the American way of life, embodied by the millionaire and workaholic himself, a former railway porter, Lewis Palmer – a man whose whole life is directed, with great concern, to making money.

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Liczba stron: 433

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The big pink and white dining-room at the Carlton was full to suffocation of people, mixed odours of dinner, the blare of the band just outside, and a babel of voices. In the hall theatre-goers were having their coffee and cigarettes after dinner, while others were still waiting, their patience fortified by bitters, for their parties to assemble. The day had been very hot, and, as is the manner of days in London when June is coming to an end, the hours for most people here assembled had been pretty fully occupied, but with a courage worthy of the cause they seemed to behave as if nothing of a fatiguing nature had occurred since breakfast. The band played loud because it would otherwise have been inaudible above the din of conversation, and people talked loud because otherwise nobody could have heard what anybody else said. To-night everybody had a good deal to say, for a case of the kind that always attracts a good deal of attention had just been given that lengthy and head-lined publicity which is always considered in England to be inseparable from the true and indifferent administration of justice, and the vultures of London life found the banquet extremely to their taste. So they ate their dinner with a sense of special gaiety, pecked ravenously at the aforesaid affair, and all talked loudly together. But nobody talked so loud as Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer.

It was said of her, indeed, that, staying for a week-end not long ago with some friend in the country, rain had been expected because one day after lunch a peacock was heard screaming so loud, but investigation showed that it was only Mrs. Palmer, at a considerable distance away on the terrace, laughing. Like the peacock, it is true, she had been making la pluie et le beau temps in London this year, so the mistake was accountable. At present, she was entertaining two young men at an ante-opera dinner. A casual observer might have had the impression that she was clothed lightly but exclusively in diamonds. She talked, not fast, but without pause. She was in fact what may be called a long-distance talker: in an hour she would get through much more than most people.

‘Yes, London is just too lovely,’ she was saying; ‘and how I shall tear myself away on Monday is more than I can imagine. I shall cry my eyes out all the way to Liverpool. Mr. Brancepeth, you naughty man, you were thinking to yourself that you would pick them up and carry them home with you to remind you of me. I should advise you not to say so, or I shall get Lord Keynes to call you out. I always tell everyone that he takes as much care of me as if he were my father. Yes, Lord Keynes, you are what I call faithful. I say to everyone, Lord Keynes is the most faithful friend I ever had. Don’t you think you are faithful, now? Well, as I was saying when Mr. Brancepeth interrupted me with his wicked inquiries, I shall cry my eyes out. Indeed, if it wasn’t that Lord Keynes had faithfully promised to come over in the fall, I think I should get a divorce from Lewis S. and remain here right along.’

‘On what grounds?’ asked Bertie Keynes.

‘Why, on the grounds of his incompatibility of residence. Just now I feel as if the sight of Fifth Avenue would make me feel so homesick for London that I guess I should rupture something. When I am homesick I feel just like that, and Lewis S. he notices it at once, and sends to Tiffany’s for the most expensive diamond they’ve got. That helps some, because a new diamond is one of the solemnest things I know. It just sits there and winks at me, and I just sit there and wink at it. We know a thing or two, a big diamond and I. But I conjecture it will have to be a big one to make me feel better this time, for just now London seems to me the only compatible residence. I guess I’ll make Lewis buy it.’

Mrs. Palmer’s tact had been one of the standing dishes of the season, and it appeared that there was plenty of it still in stock. It was distributed by her with strict impartiality to anyone present, and had a firm flavour.

Bertie Keynes laughed, and drew from his pocket a small printed card.

‘I don’t know if you have seen this,’ he said. ‘“Admit bearer to see the world. Signed, Lewis S. Palmer.”’ And he handed it to her.

Mrs. Palmer opened her mouth very wide, and screamed so loud that for a radius of three tables round all conversation ceased for a moment. The scream began on about the note selected by express trains when they dash at full speed through a station, rose an octave or two with an upward swoop like a steam siren, came slowly down in a chromatic scale, broken off for a moment as she made a hissing intake of her breath, and repeated itself. This year it had been one of the recognised cries of London.’

‘Why, if that isn’t the cutest thing in the world,’ she screamed. ‘I never saw anything so cunning. Why, I never! Admit bearer to see the world! How can I get one for Lewis? It would just tickle him to death.’

‘Pray take this,’ said Bertie. ‘I brought it on purpose for you.’

‘Well, if that isn’t too nice of you! I shall just hand that to Lewis without a word the moment I set eyes on him. I guess that’ll make him want to buy the world in earnest. Why, he’ll go crazy about buying it now that it has been suggested. Well, I’m sure, Lord Keynes, it’s just too nice of you to give me that. I shall laugh myself sick over it. I always tell everyone that you are the kindest man I ever saw. Gracious, it’s half after nine! We must go at once. I’ll be down with you in a moment, but I must give this to my maid to be packed in my jewel-case.’

Mrs. Palmer looked at it again as she rose, gave another shrill scream, and vanished, leaving her two guests alone.

Charlie Brancepeth moved his chair a little sideways to the table as he sat down again, crossed his legs, and took a cigarette from his case.

‘If you had asked her a hundred pounds for it, she would have given it you, Bertie,’ he remarked.

Bertie Keynes raised his eyebrows a shade.

‘A hundred pounds is always welcome, Charlie,’ he said, without a shadow or hint of comment in his voice. In fact, the neutrality of his tone was too marked to be in the least degree natural.

Charlie did not reply for a moment, but blew thoughtfully on the lighted end of his cigarette.

‘Why this sudden–this sudden suppression of the mercantile spirit?’ he asked.

Bertie laughed.

‘Don’t trouble to be more offensive than is necessary to your reasonable comfort,’ he remarked with some finish.

‘I am not; I should have been in considerable pain if I hadn’t said that. But why this suppression?’

Bertie delayed answering long enough to upset the salt with his elbow, and look reproachfully at the waiter for having done so.

‘There isn’t any suppression,’ he said at length. ‘The mercantile spirit is going strong. Stronger than ever. Damn!’

‘Is it the salt you asked a blessing on?’ said Charlie.

‘No; the non-suppression.’

‘Then you really are going to America in the autumn?’ asked he. ‘I beg its pardon, the fall.’

‘Yes. Fall is just as good a word as autumn, by the way.’

‘Oh, quite. Over there they think it better, and they have quite as good a right to judge as we. If they called it the pump-handle it wouldn’t make any difference.’

‘Not the slightest. Yes, I am going.’

Charlie smiled.

‘Oh, I suddenly understand about the mercantile spirit,’ he said. ‘It was stupid of me not to have guessed at once.’

‘It was rather. Charlie, I should like to talk to you about it. The governor has been making some uncommonly sensible remarks to me on the subject.’

‘He would. Your father has an immense quantity of dry common-sense. Yes, come round after the opera, and we’ll talk it out lengthways. Here’s Mrs. Palmer. I hope Pagani will sing extremely loud to-night, otherwise we shan’t hear a note.’

Two electric broughams were waiting at the Pall Mall entrance as Mrs. Palmer rustled out between rows of liveried men, whose sole office appeared to be to look reverential as she passed, as if to have just seen her was the Mecca of their aspirations. Then, after a momentary hesitation between the two young men, Bertie followed her dazzling opera-cloak into the first brougham, and, amid loud and voluble regrets on her part that there was not room for three, and the exaction of a solemn promise that Charlie would not quarrel with his friend for having monopolized her, they started. Charlie gave a little sigh, whether of disappointment or not is debatable, and followed them alone in the second brougham.

The motor went swiftly and noiselessly up Haymarket, and into the roaring whirlpool of the Circus. It was a fine warm evening, and over pavement and roadway the season of the streets, which lasts not for a few months only, after the manner of the enfeebled upper class, but all the year round, was in full swing. Hansom cabs, newsboys shouting the latest details of all the dirty linen which had been washed that week, omnibuses nodding ten feet high above the road, and life-guardsmen nodding six, women plain and coloured, men in dress-clothes hurrying late to the theatres, shabby skulkers in shadow, obscure persons of prey, glittering glass signs about the music-halls, flower-sellers round the fountain, swinging-doors of restaurants swallowing in and vomiting out all sorts and conditions of men, winking sky–signs, policemen controlling the traffic–all contributed their essential but infinitesimal quota to the huge hodge-podge of life, bent as the great majority of life always is on the seizure of the present vivid moment, the only thing which is certainly existent. For the past is already to everyone but of the texture of a dream; the future is a dream also, but lying in impenetrable shadow. But the moment is real.

To Charlie it appeared to-night that the festival of the pavements was certainly gayer than the festival of the Carlton. His own world schemed more, it might be, and substituted innuendo for a bolder and more direct manner of talk, but it really had less capacity for enjoyment. Ten weeks of London broke its wind somewhat, and it retired into the country to graze, to digest, to recoup. But here on the pavements a lustier spirit reigned, the spirit of the people, pressing upwards and upwards like buried bulbs striving towards the light through the good, moist earth, whereas, to continue the metaphor that was in his mind, the folk among whom he moved, whose doings he continually observed with an absorbed but kindly cynicism, were like plants tended in a greenhouse, and potted out when the weather became assured.

And what if the whole of England was becoming every year more like a tended greenhouse plant, compared to the blind thrust of forces from the earth in other countries? For all the old landmarks, as the great wheel of human life whirled down the road of the centuries, seemed to be passing out of sight; the world was racing westwards, where America sat high on the seas, grown like some portentous mushroom in a single night. There, at the present moment, the inexorable, relentless logic of nature was working out its everlasting proposition that the one force in the material world was wealth. England had had her turn, even as Rome had had her turn, and even as the hordes of barbarians had swept over the countries that had been hers till they reached and took the capital itself, even so–well, had he not himself dined with Mrs. Palmer that evening? It was not in his nature to hate anything, so it cannot be said that he hated her screaming, her insensate conversation, her lack of all that is summed up in the words breeding and culture, but he saw these loud defects, and knew of their existence. On the other hand, he saw and knew also of her intense good-nature, her true kindliness of heart, and believed in the integrity of her life; so, if it was fair to consider her presence in London typically as of the nature of a barbarian invasion, it must be confessed that England had fallen into the hands of very kindly foes. They did not even actively resent culture, they were simply not aware of it, and cut it when they met. In any case they were irresistible, for the power that moved them was wealth more gigantic than any which heretofore had furthered the arts of war and peace, and that wealth was grasped by men who only yesterday had toiled with their hands in factories and workshops. Like stars reeling upwards from below the horizon, they swarmed into the sky, and looked down, not cruelly, but merely calmly, into the world which they owned.

Of such was Mrs. Palmer’s husband; he had been a railway porter, now he was railways and steamships and anything else of which he chose to say ‘This is mine.’ Occasionally men like these watered the English greenhouse plants, and an heiress propped up the unstable fortunes of some five-hundred-years-old English name. But such gift of refreshment was but a spoonful out of the great wells; also, in a manner of speaking, having thus watered the plants, they picked them.

His motor got caught in a block at the entrance to Leicester Square, and he arrived at the Opera House some few minutes after the others had got there. A commanding white label with Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer’s name printed on it was on the door of the omnibus box on the grand tier, and he found her, with her resplendent back firmly turned towards the stage, discoursing in shrill whispers to Bertie Keynes, and sighing more than audibly for the end of the act. It was the last representation for the year of ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ and the house was crowded. Royalty was there: a galaxy of tiaras sparkled in the boxes, and a galaxy of stars sang together on the stage. For London had suddenly conceived the almost incredible delusion that it was musical, and flocked to the opera with all the fervour of a newly-born passion. It was not, it never had been, and it never would be musical, but this particular form of the game ‘Let’s pretend’ was in fashion, and the syndicate rejoiced. Soon London would get tired of the game, and the syndicate would be sad again.

But the longest act comes to an end at last, and even as the curtain fell, Mrs. Palmer began screaming again. She screamed when she was amused because she was amused, and she screamed when she was bored in order that it might appear that she was not. Just now she was amusing herself very tolerably, for as soon as the lights were up, the world in general flocked into her box, supplementing the very desirable company already assembled there.

‘Why, of course I am coming back next year,’ she was explaining. ‘And if Lewis doesn’t come with me, and take Seaton House for me, so as to be able to have more than one person to dinner at a time, I guess I’ll have a word or two to say to him which he won’t forget; and if you, Mrs. Massington, don’t come over to us in the fall with Lord Keynes, I shall cry my eyes out; and if that monster, Mr. Brancepeth, is as impudent again as he was at dinner, saying that he would pick them up and take them home to remind him of me, I’ll ask him to leave my box, and call him back the moment afterwards, because I can’t help forgiving him.’

There was a laugh at this brilliant effort of imagination, and Mrs. Massington leaned back in her chair towards Charlie, while Mrs. Palmer continued her voluble remarks.

‘You are getting quite polished, Charlie,’ she said. ‘I should not have suspected you of so much gallantry.’

‘I hope you never suspect me of anything,’ he said.

‘Oh, I do–of lots of things. Chiefly of a disapproving attitude. You are always disapproving. Now, you probably disapprove of my going to America.’

‘You have not gone yet,’ he said.

‘No, but I shall. Mrs. Palmer has asked me to stay with them, and I am going. And Bertie is really going too.’

‘So he told me to-night.’

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