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It was towards the end of August. He and I appeared to be the only two men left to the Club. He was sitting by an open window, the Times lying on the floor beside him. I drew my chair a little closer and remarked:—“Good morning.”
He suppressed a yawn, and replied “Mornin’”—dropping the “g.” The custom was just coming into fashion; he was always correct.
“Going to be a very hot day, I am afraid,” I continued.
“’Fraid so,” was the response, after which he turned his head away and gently closed his eyes.
I opined that conversation was not to his wish, but this only made me more determined to talk, and to talk to him above all others in London. The desire took hold of me to irritate him—to break down the imperturbable calm within which he moved and had his being; and I gathered myself together, and settled down to the task.
“Interesting paper the Times,” I observed.
“Very,” he replied, taking it from the floor and handing it to me. “Won’t you read it?”
I had been careful to throw into my voice an aggressive cheeriness which I had calculated would vex him, but his manner remained that of a man who is simply bored. I argued with him politely concerning the paper; but he insisted, still with the same weary air, that he had done with it. I thanked him effusively. I judged that he hated effusiveness.
“They say that to read a Times leader,” I persisted, “is a lesson in English composition.”
“So I’ve been told,” he answered tranquilly. “Personally I don’t take them.”
The Times, I could see, was not going to be of much assistance to me. I lit a cigarette, and remarked that he was not shooting. He admitted the fact. Under the circumstances, it would have taxed him to deny it, but the necessity for confession aroused him.
“To myself,” he said, “a tramp through miles of mud, in company with four gloomy men in black velveteen, a couple of depressed-looking dogs, and a heavy gun, the entire cavalcade being organised for the purpose of killing some twelve-and-sixpence worth of poultry, suggests the disproportionate.”
I laughed boisterously, and cried, “Good, good—very good!”
He was the type of man that shudders inwardly at the sound of laughter. I had the will to slap him on the back, but I thought maybe that would send him away altogether.
I asked him if he hunted. He replied that fourteen hours’ talk a day about horses, and only about horses tired him, and that in consequence he had abandoned hunting.
“You fish?” I said.
“I was never sufficiently imaginative,” he answered.
“You travel a good deal,” I suggested.
He had apparently made up his mind to abandon himself to his fate, for he turned towards me with a resigned air. An ancient nurse of mine had always described me as the most “wearing” child she had ever come across. I prefer to speak of myself as persevering.
“I should go about more,” he said, “were I able to see any difference between one place and another.”
“Tried Central Africa?” I inquired.
“Once or twice,” he answered. “It always reminds me of Kew Gardens.”
“China?” I hazarded.
“Cross between a willow-pattern plate and a New York slum,” was his comment.
“The North Pole?” I tried, thinking the third time might be lucky.
“Never got quite up to it,” he returned. “Reached Cape Hakluyt once.”
“How did that impress you?” I asked.
“It didn’t impress me,” he replied.
The talk drifted to women and bogus companies, dogs, literature, and such-like matters. I found him well informed upon and bored by all.
“They used to be amusing,” he said, speaking of the first named, “until they began to take themselves seriously. Now they are merely silly.”
I was forced into closer companionship with “Blasé Billy” that autumn, for by chance a month later he and I found ourselves the guests of the same delightful hostess, and I came to liking him better. He was a useful man to have about one. In matters of fashion one could always feel safe following his lead. One knew that his necktie, his collar, his socks, if not the very newest departure, were always correct; and upon social paths, as guide, philosopher, and friend, he was invaluable. He knew every one, together with his or her previous convictions. He was acquainted with every woman’s past, and shrewdly surmised every man’s future. He could point you out the coal-shed where the Countess of Glenleman had gambolled in her days of innocence, and would take you to breakfast at the coffee-shop off the Mile End Road where “Sam. Smith, Estd. 1820,” own brother to the world-famed society novelist, Smith-Stratford, lived an uncriticised, unparagraphed, unphotographed existence upon the profits of “rashers” at three-ha’pence and “door-steps” at two a penny. He knew at what houses it was inadvisable to introduce soap, and at what tables it would be bad form to denounce political jobbery. He could tell you offhand what trade-mark went with what crest, and remembered the price paid for every baronetcy created during the last twenty-five years.
Regarding himself, he might have made claim with King Charles never to have said a foolish thing, and never to have done a wise one. He despised, or affected to despise, most of his fellow-men, and those of his fellow-men whose opinion was most worth having unaffectedly despised him.
Shortly described, one might have likened him to a Gaiety Johnny with brains. He was capital company after dinner, but in the early morning one avoided him.
So I thought of him until one day he fell in love; or to put it in the words of Teddy Tidmarsh, who brought the news to us, “got mashed on Gerty Lovell.”
“The red-haired one,” Teddy explained, to distinguish her from her sister, who had lately adopted the newer golden shade.
“Gerty Lovell!” exclaimed the captain, “why, I’ve always been told the Lovell girls hadn’t a penny among them.”
“The old man’s stone broke, I know for a certainty,” volunteered Teddy, who picked up a mysterious but, in other respects, satisfactory income in an office near Hatton Garden, and who was candour itself concerning the private affairs of everybody but himself.
“Oh, some rich pork-packing or diamond-sweating uncle has cropped up in Australia, or America, or one of those places,” suggested the captain, “and Billy’s got wind of it in good time. Billy knows his way about.”
We agreed that some such explanation was needed, though in all other respects Gerty Lovell was just the girl that Reason (not always consulted on these occasions) might herself have chosen for “Blasé Billy’s” mate.
The sunlight was not too kind to her, but at evening parties, where the lighting has been well considered, I have seen her look quite girlish. At her best she was not beautiful, but at her worst there was about her an air of breeding and distinction that always saved her from being passed over, and she dressed to perfection. In character she was the typical society woman: always charming, generally insincere. She went to Kensington for her religion and to Mayfair for her morals; accepted her literature from Mudie’s and her art from the Grosvenor Gallery; and could and would gabble philanthropy, philosophy, and politics with equal fluency at every five-o’clock tea-table she visited. Her ideas could always be guaranteed as the very latest, and her opinion as that of the person to whom she was talking. Asked by a famous novelist one afternoon, at the Pioneer Club, to give him some idea of her, little Mrs. Bund, the painter’s wife, had remained for a few moments with her pretty lips pursed, and had then said:
“She is a woman to whom life could bring nothing more fully satisfying than a dinner invitation from a duchess, and whose nature would be incapable of sustaining deeper suffering than that caused by an ill-fitting costume.”
At the time I should have said the epigram was as true as it was cruel, but I suppose we none of us quite know each other.
I congratulated “Blasé Billy,” or to drop his Club nickname and give him the full benefit of his social label, “The Hon. William Cecil Wychwood Stanley Drayton,” on the occasion of our next meeting, which happened upon the steps of the Savoy Restaurant, and I thought—unless a quiver of the electric light deceived me—that he blushed.
“Charming girl,” I said. “You’re a lucky dog, Billy.”
It was the phrase that custom demands upon such occasions, and it came of its own accord to my tongue without costing me the trouble of composition, but he seized upon it as though it had been a gem of friendly sincerity.
“You will like her even more when you know her better,” he said. “She is so different from the usual woman that one meets. Come and see her to-morrow afternoon, she will be so pleased. Go about four, I will tell her to expect you.”
I rang the bell at ten minutes past five. Billy was there. She greeted me with a little tremor of embarrassment, which sat oddly upon her, but which was not altogether unpleasing. She said it was kind of me to come so early. I stayed for about half an hour, but conversation flagged, and some of my cleverest remarks attracted no attention whatever.
When I rose to take my leave, Billy said that he must be off too, and that he would accompany me. Had they been ordinary lovers, I should have been careful to give them an opportunity of making their adieus in secret; but in the case of the Honourable William Drayton and the eldest Miss Lovell I concluded that such tactics were needless, so I waited till he had shaken hands, and went downstairs with him.
But in the hall Billy suddenly ejaculated, “By Jove! Half a minute,” and ran back up the stairs three at a time. Apparently he found what he had gone for on the landing, for I did not hear the opening of the drawing-room door. Then the Honourable Billy redescended with a sober, nonchalent air.
“Left my gloves behind me,” he explained, as he took my arm. “I am always leaving my gloves about.”
I did not mention that I had seen him take them from his hat and slip them into his coat-tail pocket.
We at the Club did not see very much of Billy during the next three months, but the captain, who prided himself upon his playing of the rôle of smoking-room cynic—though he would have been better in the part had he occasionally displayed a little originality—was of opinion that our loss would be more than made up to us after the marriage. Once in the twilight I caught sight of a figure that reminded me of Billy’s, accompanied by a figure that might have been that of the eldest Miss Lovell; but as the spot was Battersea Park, which is not a fashionable evening promenade, and the two figures were holding each other’s hands, the whole picture being suggestive of the closing chapter of a London Journal romance, I concluded I had made an error.
But I did see them in the Adelphi stalls one evening, rapt in a sentimental melodrama. I joined them between the acts, and poked fun at the play, as one does at the Adelphi, but Miss Lovell begged me quite earnestly not to spoil her interest, and Billy wanted to enter upon a serious argument as to whether a man was justified in behaving as Will Terriss had just behaved towards the woman he loved. I left them and returned to my own party, to the satisfaction, I am inclined to think, of all concerned.
They married in due course. We were mistaken on one point. She brought Billy nothing. But they both seemed quite content on his not too extravagant fortune. They took a tiny house not far from Victoria Station, and hired a brougham for the season. They did not entertain very much, but they contrived to be seen everywhere it was right and fashionable they should be seen. The Honourable Mrs. Drayton was a much younger and brighter person than had been the eldest Miss Lovell, and as she continued to dress charmingly, her social position rose rapidly. Billy went everywhere with her, and evidently took a keen pride in her success. It was even said that he designed her dresses for her, and I have myself seen him earnestly studying the costumes in Russell and Allen’s windows.
The captain’s prophecy remained unfulfilled. “Blasé Billy”—if the name could still be applied to him—hardly ever visited the Club after his marriage. But I had grown to like him, and, as he had foretold, to like his wife. I found their calm indifference to the burning questions of the day a positive relief from the strenuous atmosphere of literary and artistic circles. In the drawing-room of their little house in Eaton Row, the comparative merits of George Meredith and George R. Sims were not considered worth discussion. Both were regarded as persons who afforded a certain amount of amusement in return for a certain amount of cash. And on any Wednesday afternoon, Henrick Ibsen and Arthur Roberts would have been equally welcome, as adding piquancy to the small gathering. Had I been compelled to pass my life in such a house, this Philistine attitude might have palled upon me; but, under the circumstances, it refreshed me, and I made use of my welcome, which I believe was genuine, to its full extent.
As months went by, they seemed to me to draw closer to one another, though I am given to understand that such is not the rule in fashionable circles. One evening I arrived a little before my time, and was shown up into the drawing-room by the soft-footed butler. They were sitting in the dusk with their arms round one another. It was impossible to withdraw, so I faced the situation and coughed. A pair of middle-class lovers could not have appeared more awkward or surprised.
But the incident established an understanding between us, and I came to be regarded as a friend before whom there was less necessity to act.
Studying them, I came to the conclusion that the ways and manners of love are very same-like throughout the world, as though the foolish boy, unheedful of human advance, kept but one school for minor poet and East End shop-boy, for Girton girl and little milliner; taught but the one lesson to the end-of-the-nineteenth-century Johnny that he taught to bearded Pict and Hun four thousand years ago.
Thus the summer and the winter passed pleasantly for the Honourable Billy, and then, as luck would have it, he fell ill just in the very middle of the London season, when invitations to balls and dinner parties, luncheons and “At Homes,” were pouring in from every quarter; when the lawns at Hurlingham were at their smoothest, and the paddocks at their smartest.
It was unfortunate, too, that the fashions that season suited the Honourable Mrs. Billy as they had not suited her for years. In the early spring, she and Billy had been hard at work planning costumes calculated to cause a flutter through Mayfair, and the dresses and the bonnets—each one a work of art—were waiting on their stands to do their killing work. But the Honourable Mrs. Billy, for the first time in her life, had lost interest in such things.
Their friends were genuinely sorry, for society was Billy’s element, and in it he was interesting and amusing. But, as Lady Gower said, there was no earthly need for his wife to constitute herself a prisoner. Her shutting herself off from the world could do him no good and it would look odd.
Accordingly the Honourable Mrs. Drayton, to whom oddness was a crime, and the voice of Lady Gower as the voice of duty, sacrificed her inclinations on the social shrine, laced the new costumes tight across her aching heart, and went down into society.
But the Honourable Mrs. Drayton achieved not the success of former seasons. Her small talk grew so very small, that even Park Lane found it unsatisfying. Her famous laugh rang mechanically. She smiled at the wisdom of dukes, and became sad at the funny stories of millionaires. Society voted her a good wife but bad company, and confined its attentions to cards of inquiry. And for this relief the Honourable Mrs. Drayton was grateful, for Billy waned weaker and weaker. In the world of shadows in which she moved, he was the one real thing. She was of very little practical use, but it comforted her to think that she was helping to nurse him.
But Billy himself it troubled.
“I do wish you would go out more,” he would say. “It makes me feel that I’m such a selfish brute, keeping you tied up here in this dismal little house. Besides,” he would add, “people miss you; they will hate me for keeping you away.” For, where his wife was concerned, Billy’s knowledge of the world availed him little. He really thought society craved for the Honourable Mrs. Drayton, and would not be comforted where she was not.
“I would rather stop with you, dear,” would be the answer; “I don’t care to go about by myself. You must get well quickly and take me.”
And so the argument continued, until one evening, as she sat by herself, the nurse entered softly, closed the door behind her, and came over to her.
“I wish you would go out to-night, ma’am,” said the nurse, “just for an hour or two. I think it would please the master; he is worrying himself because he thinks it is his fault that you do not; and just now”—the woman hesitated for a moment—“just now I want to keep him very quiet.”
“Is he weaker, nurse?”
“Well, he is not stronger, ma’am, and I think—I think we must humour him.”
The Honourable Mrs. Drayton rose, and, crossing to the window, stood for a while looking out.
“But where am I to go, nurse?” she said at length, turning with a smile. “I’ve no invitations anywhere.”
“Can’t you make believe to have one?” said the nurse. “It is only seven o’clock. Say you are going to a dinner-party; you can come home early then. Go and dress yourself, and come down and say good-bye to him, and then come in again about eleven, as though you had just returned.”
“You think I must, nurse?”
“I think it would be better, ma’am. I wish you would try it.”
The Honourable Mrs. Drayton went to the door, then paused.
“He has such sharp ears, nurse; he will listen for the opening of the door and the sound of the carriage.”
“I will see to that,” said the nurse. “I will tell them to have the carriage here at ten minutes to eight. Then you can drive to the end of the street, slip out, and walk back. I will let you in myself.”
“And about coming home?” asked the other woman.
“You must slip out for a few minutes before eleven, and the carriage must be waiting for you at the corner again. Leave all that to me.”
In half an hour the Honourable Mrs. Drayton entered the sick-room, radiant in evening dress and jewels. Fortunately the lights were low, or “Blasé-Billy” might have been doubtful as to the effect his wife was likely to produce. For her face was not the face that one takes to dinner-parties.
“Nurse tells me you are going to the Grevilles this evening. I am so glad. I’ve been worrying myself about you, moped up here right through the season.”
He took her hands in his and held her out at arm’s length from him.
“How handsome you look, dear!” he said. “How they must have all been cursing me for keeping you shut up here, like a princess in an ogre’s castle! I shall never dare to face them again.”
She laughed, well pleased at his words.
“I shall not be late,” she said. “I shall be so anxious to get back and see how my boy has behaved. If you have not been good I shan’t go again.”
They kissed and parted, and at eleven she returned to the room. She told him what a delightful evening it had been, and bragged a little of her own success.
The nurse told her that he had been more cheerful that evening than for many nights.
So every day the farce was played for him. One day it was to a luncheon that she went, in a costume by Redfern; the next night to a ball, in a frock direct from Paris; again to an “At Home,” or concert, or dinner-party. Loafers and passers-by would stop to stare at a haggard, red-eyed woman, dressed as for a drawing-room, slipping thief-like in and out of her own door.
I heard them talking of her one afternoon, at a house where I called, and I joined the group to listen.
“I always thought her heartless, but I gave her credit for sense,” a woman was saying. “One doesn’t expect a woman to be fond of her husband, but she needn’t make a parade of ignoring him when he is dying.”
I pleaded absence from town to inquire what was meant, and from all lips I heard the same account. One had noticed her carriage at the door two or three evenings in succession. Another had seen her returning home. A third had seen her coming out, and so on.
I could not fit the fact in with my knowledge of her, so the next evening I called. The door was opened instantly by herself.
“I saw you from the window,” she said. “Come in here; don’t speak.”
I followed her, and she closed the door behind her. She was dressed in a magnificent costume, her hair sparkling with diamonds, and I looked my questions.
She laughed bitterly.
“I am supposed to be at the opera to-night,” she explained. “Sit down, if you have a few minutes to spare.”
I said it was for a talk that I had come; and there, in the dark room, lighted only by the street lamp without, she told me all. And at the end she dropped her head on her bare arms; and I turned away and looked out of the window for a while.
“I feel so ridiculous,” she said, rising and coming towards me. “I sit here all the evening dressed like this. I’m afraid I don’t act my part very well; but, fortunately, dear Billy never was much of a judge of art, and it is good enough for him. I tell him the most awful lies about what everybody has said to me, and what I’ve said to everybody, and how my gowns were admired. What do you think of this one?”
For answer I took the privilege of a friend.
“I’m glad you think well of me,” she said. “Billy has such a high opinion of you. You will hear some funny tales. I’m glad you know.”
I had to leave London again, and Billy died before I returned. I heard that she had to be fetched from a ball, and was only just in time to touch his lips before they were cold. But her friends excused her by saying that the end had come very suddenly.
I called on her a little later, and before I left I hinted to her what people were saying, and asked her if I had not better tell them the truth.
“I would rather you didn’t,” she answered. “It seems like making public the secret side of one’s life.”
“But,” I urged, “they will think—”
She interrupted me.
“Does it matter very much what they think?”
Which struck me as a very remarkable sentiment, coming from the Hon. Mrs. Drayton, née the elder Miss Lovell.