“I’m in a frightful position,” exclaimed Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh, sinking into an armchair and closing her eyes as though to shut out some distressing vision.
“Really? What has happened?” asked Mrs. Pallitson, preparing herself to hear some kitchen tragedy.
“The more one tries to make one’s house-parties a success, the more one seems to court failure,” was the tragical reply.
“I’m sure it’s been most enjoyable so far,” said the guest politely; “weather, of course, one can’t count on, but otherwise I can’t see anything has gone wrong. I was thinking you were to be congratulated.”
Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh laughed harshly and bitterly.
“It was so nice having the Marchioness here,” she said; “she’s dull and she dresses badly, but people in these parts think no end of her, and, of course, it’s rather a social score to get hold of her. It counts for a good deal to be in her good graces. And now she talks of leaving us at a moment’s notice.”
“Really? That is unfortunate, but I’m sure she’ll be sure to leave such a charming–”
“She’s not leaving in sorrow,” said the hostess; “no — in anger.”
“Bobby Chermbacon called her, to her face, a moth-eaten old hen. That’s not the sort of thing one says to a Marchioness, and I told him so afterwards. He said she was only a Marchioness by marriage, which is absurd, because, of course, no one is born an Marchioness. Anyway, he didn’t apologise, and she says she won’t stay under the same roof with him.”
“Under the circumstances,” said Mrs. Pallitson, promptly, “I think you might help Mr. Chermbacon to choose a nice early train back to Town. There’s one that goes before lunch, and I expect his valet could get the packing act done in something under twenty minutes.”
Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh rose in silence, went to the door, and carefully closed it. Then she spoke slowly and impressively, with the air of a Minister who is asking an economically minded Parliament for an increased Navy Vote.
“Bobbie Chermbacon is rich, quite rich, and one day he will be very much richer. His aunt can buy motor-cars as we might buy theatre-tickets, and he will be her chief heir. I am getting on in years, though I may not look it.”
“You don’t,” Mrs. Pallitson assured her.
“Thank you; still, the fact remains. I’m getting on in years, and though I’ve a reasonable number of children of my own I’ve reached that time of life when a woman begins to feel a great longing for a son-in-law. Bobbie told Margaret last night that she had the eyes of a dreaming Madonna.”
“Extravagance in language seems to be his besetting characteristic,” said Mrs. Pallitson; “of course,” she continued hastily, “I don’t mean to say that Margaret hasn’t the eyes of a dreaming Madonna. I think the simile excellent.”
“There are many different kinds of Madonna,” said Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh.
“Exactly, but it’s rather outspoken language for such short acquaintance. As I say, he seems to be a rather outspoken young man.”
“Ah, but he said more than that; he said she reminded him of Gaby What’s-her-name, you know, the fascinating actress that the King of Spain admires so much.”
“Portugal,” murmured Mrs. Pallitson.
“And he didn’t confine himself to saying pretty things,” continued the mother eagerly; “actions speak stronger than words. He gave her some exquisite orchids to wear at dinner last night. They were from our orchid-house, but, still, he went to the trouble of picking them.”
“That shows a certain amount of devotion,” agreed Mrs. Pallitson.
“And he said he adored chestnut hair,” continued Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh; “Margaret’s hair is a very beautiful shade of chestnut.”
“He’s known her for a very short time,” said Mrs. Pallitson.
“It’s always been chestnut,” exclaimed Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh.
“Oh, I didn’t mean that; I meant that the conquest was sudden, not the colour of the hair. These sudden infatuations are often the most genuine, I believe. A man sees someone for the first time, and knows at once that it is the one person he’s been looking for.”
“Well, you see the frightful position I’m in. Either the Marchioness leaves in a fury, or I’ve got to turn Bobbie adrift just as he and Margaret are getting on so very well. It will nip the whole thing in the bud. I didn’t sleep a wink last night. I ate nothing for breakfast. If I’m found floating in the carp-pond, you, at least, will know the reason why.”
“It’s certainly a dreadful situation,” said Mrs. Pallitson; “how would it be,” she added slowly and reflectively, “if I were to ask Margaret and Bobbie over to our place for the remainder of the Marchioness’s stay? My husband has got a men’s party, but we could easily expand it. Out of all your guests you could subtract three without unduly diminishing your number. We could pretend that it was an old arrangement.”
“Do you mind if I kiss you?” asked Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh; “after this we must call each other by our Christian names. Mine is Elizabeth.”
“There I must object,” said Mrs. Pallitson, who had submitted to the kiss; “there is dignity and charm in the name Elizabeth, but my godparents christened me Celeste. When a woman weighs as much as I do–”
“I’m sure you don’t,” exclaimed her hostess, in defiant disregard of logic.
“And inherits a very uncertain temper,” resumed Mrs. Pallitson, “there is a distinct flavour of incongruity in answering to the name Celeste.”
“You are doing a heavenly thing, and I think the name most appropriate; I shall always call you by it.”
“I’m afraid we haven’t an orchid-house,” said Mrs. Pallitson, “but there are some rather choice tuberoses in the hothouse.”
“Margaret’s favourite flower!” exclaimed Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh.
Mrs. Pallitson repressed a sigh. She was fond of tuberoses herself.
The day after the transplanting of Bobbie and Margaret, Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh was called to the telephone.
“Is that you, Elizabeth?” came the voice of Mrs. Pallitson; “you must have Bobbie back. Don’t say it’s impossible, you must. The Bishop of Sokotra, my husband’s uncle, is staying here. Sokotra, never mind how it’s spelt. Bobbie told him last night what he thought of Christian missions; I’ve often said the same thing myself, but never to a Bishop. Nor have I expressed it in quite such offensive language. The Bishop refuses to stay another night under the same roof as Bobbie. He, the Bishop, is not merely an uncle, but a bachelor uncle, with private means. It’s all very well to say he show a tolerant and charitable spirit; charity begins at home, and this is a Colonial Bishop. Sokotra, I keep telling you; it doesn’t matter where it is, the point is that the Bishop is here, and we can’t allow him to leave us in a temper.”
“How about the Marchioness?” shrilled Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh at her end of the ‘phone, having first carefully glanced around to see that nobody was within hearing distance of her remarks. “She’s just as important to me as the Bishop of Scooter, or wherever it is, is to you. I don’t know why he should take such absurd unreasonable offence because Christian missions were unfavourably criticised; anyone might express an opinion on a subject of that sort, even to a Colonial Bishop. It’s a very different thing being called to your face a moth-eaten old hen. I hear she is going to give a hunt ball at Cloudly this winter, and it’s quite probable that she’ll ask me over there for it. And now you want me to ruin everything and have a most unpleasant contretemps by taking that boy back under my roof. You can’t expect it of me. Besides, we can’t keep shifting Mr. Chermbacon backwards and forwards as though he was the regulator of an erratic clock. What do you say?”
“The Bishop won’t stay another night unless Bobbie goes to-night,” came over the phone in hard relentless tones. “I’ve told Bobbie he must leave first thing after lunch, and I’ve ordered the motor to be ready for him. Margaret can follow to-morrow.”
Then there followed a pitiless silence at the Pallitson end of the telephone. Vainly Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh rang up again and again, and put the fruitless and despairing question “Are you there?” to the cold emptiness of unresponsive space. The Pallitsons had cut themselves off.
“The telephone is the coward’s weapon,” muttered Mrs. Duff-Chubleigh furiously; “these heavy blonde women are always a mass of selfishness.”
Then she sat down to write a telegram, as a last appeal to Celeste’s better feelings.
Am having carp taken out of fish-pond. I can face drowning, but will not be nibbled.–ELIZABETH.”
As a matter of fact Bobbie Chermbacon and the Marchioness travelled up to Town by the same train. He had grasped the fact that his presence was not in request at either of the house-parties, and she was hurriedly summoned to London, where her husband had entered on the illness which, in a few days, made her a widow and a dowager. Bobbie’s enthusiasm for chestnut hair and dreamy Madonna eyes did not lead him to repeat his visit to the Duff-Chubleigh household. He spent the winter in Egypt, and some ten months later he married the widowed Marchioness.
The Bystander, 9th July, 1913