Alicia Pevenly sat on a garden seat in the rose-walk at Chopehanger, enjoying the valedictory mildness of a warm October morning, and experiencing the atmosphere of mental complacency that descends on a woman who has breakfasted well, is picturesquely dressed, and has reached forty-two in pleasant insidious stages. The loss of her husband some ten years ago had woven a thread of tender regret into her life-pattern, but for the most part she looked on the world and its ways with placid acquiescent amiability. The income on which she and her seventeen-year-old daughter lived and kept up appearances was small, almost inconveniently small, perhaps, but with due management and a little forethought it sufficed. Contriving and planning gained a certain amount of zest from the fact that there was only such a slender margin of shillings to be manipulated.
“There is all the difference in the world,” Mrs. Pevenly would say to herself, “between being badly off and merely having to be careful.”
Regarding her own personal affairs with a measured tranquillity, she did not let the larger events of the world disturb her peace of mind. She took a warm, but quite impersonal interest, in the marriage of Prince Arthur of Connaught, thereby establishing her claim to be considered a woman with broad sympathies and intelligently in touch with the age in which she lived. On the other hand, she was not greatly stirred by the question whether Ireland should or should not be given Home Rule, and she was absolutely indifferent as to where the southern frontier of Albania should be drawn or whether it should be drawn at all; if there had ever been a combative strain in her nature it had never been developed.
Mrs. Pevenly had finished her breakfast at about half-past nine, by which time her daughter had not put in an appearance; as the hostess and most of the members of the house-party were equally late, Beryl’s slackness could not be regarded as a social sin, but her mother thought it was a pity to lose so much of the fine October morning. Beryl Pevenly had been described by someone as the “Flapper incarnate”, and the label summed her up accurately. Her mother already recognised that she was disposed to be a law unto herself; what she did not yet realise was that Beryl was extremely likely to be a law-giver to any weaker character with whom she might come into contact.
“She is only a child yet,” Mrs. Pevenly would say to herself, forgetting that seventeen and seventy are about the two most despotic ages of human life.
“Ah, finished breakfast at last!” she called out in mock reproof as her daughter came out to join her in the rose-walk; “if you had gone to bed in good time these last two evenings, as I did, you would not be so tired in the mornings. It has been so fresh and charming out here, while all you silly people have been lying in bed. I hope you weren’t playing bridge for high stakes, my dear!”
There was a tired defiant look in Beryl’s eyes that drew forth the anxious remark.
“Bridge? No, we started with a rubber or two the night before last,” said Beryl, “but we switched off to baccarat. Rather a mistake for some of us.”
“Beryl, you haven’t been losing?” asked Mrs. Pevenly with increased anxiety in her voice.
“I lost quite a lot the first evening,” said Beryl, “and as I couldn’t possibly pay back my losses I simply punted the next evening to try and get them back; I’ve come to the conclusion that baccarat is not my game. I came a bigger cropper on the second evening than on the first.”
“Beryl, this is awful! I’ve very angry with you. Tell me quickly, how much have you lost?”
Beryl looked at a slip of paper that she was twisting and untwisting in her hands.
“Three hundred and ten the first night, seven hundred and sixteen the second,” she announced.
“Three hundred what?”
“Pounds?”, screamed the mother; “Beryl, I don’t believe you. Why, that is a thousand pounds!”
“A thousand and twenty-six, to be exact,” said Beryl.
Mrs. Pevenly was too frightened to cry.
“Where do you suppose,” she asked, “that we could raise a thousand pounds, or anything like a thousand pounds? We are living at the top of our income, we are practising all sorts of economies, we simply couldn’t subtract a thousand pounds from our little capital. It would ruin us.”
“We should be socially ruined if it got about that we played for stakes that we couldn’t or wouldn’t pay; no one would ask us anywhere.”
“How came you to do such a dreadful thing?” wailed the mother.
“Oh, it’s no use asking those sort of questions,” said Beryl; “the thing is done. I suppose I inherit a gambling instinct from some of you.”
“You certainly don’t,” exclaimed Mrs. Pevenly hotly; “your father never touched cards or cared anything about horse-racing, and I don’t know one game of cards from another.”
“These things skip a generation sometimes, and come out all the stronger in the next batch,” said Beryl; “how about that uncle of yours who used to get up a sweepstake every Sunday at school as to which of the Books of the Bible the text of the sermon would be taken from? If he wasn’t a keen gambler I’ve never heard of one.”
“Don’t let’s argue,” faltered the elder woman, “let’s think of what is to be done. How many people do you owe the money to?”
“Luckily it’s all due to one person, Ashcombe Gwent,” said Beryl; “he was doing nearly all the winning on both nights. He’s rather a good sort in his way, but unluckily he isn’t a bit well off, and one couldn’t expect him to overlook the fact that money was owing to him. I fancy he’s just as much of an adventurer as we are.”
“We are not adventurers,” protested Mrs. Pevenly.
“People who come to stay at country houses and play for stakes that they’ve no prospect of paying if they lose, are adventurers,” said Beryl, who seemed determined to include her mother in any moral censure that might be applied to her own conduct.
“Have you said anything to him about the difficulty you are in?”
“I have. That’s what I’ve come to tell you about. We had a talk this morning in the billiard-room after breakfast. It seems there is just one way out of the tangle. He’s inclined to be amorous.”
“Amorous!” exclaimed the mother.
“Matrimonially amorous,” said the daughter; “in fact, without either of us having guessed it, it appears that he’s the victim of an infatuation.”
“He has certainly been polite and attentive,” said Mrs. Pevenly; “he is not a man who says much, but he listens to what one has to say. And do you mean he really wants to marry–?”
“That is exactly what he does want,” said Beryl. “I don’t know that he is the sort of husband that one would rave about, but I gather that he has enough to live on — as much as we’re accustomed to, anyhow, and he’s quite presentable to look at. The alternative is selling out a big chunk of our little capital; I should have to go and be a governess or typewriter or something, and you would have to do needlework. From just making things do, and paying rounds of visits and having a fairly good time, we should sink suddenly to the position of distressed gentlefolk. I don’t know what you think, but I’m inclined to consider that the marriage proposition is the least objectionable.”
Mrs. Pevenly took out her handkerchief.
“How old is he?” she asked.
“Oh, thirty-seven or thirty-eight; a year or two older perhaps.”
“Do you like him?”
“He’s not in the least my style,” she said.
Mrs. Pevenly began to weep.
“What a deplorable situation,” she sobbed; “what a sacrifice for the sake of a miserable sum of money and social considerations! To think that such a tragedy should happen in our family. I’ve often read about such things in books, a girl being forced to marry a man she didn’t care about because of some financial disaster–”
“You shouldn’t read such trashy books,” pronounced Beryl.
“But now it’s really happening!” exclaimed the mother; “my own child’s life to be sacrificed by marriage to a man years older than herself, whom she doesn’t care the least bit about, and because–”
“Look here,” interrupted Beryl. “I don’t seem to have made this clear. It isn’t me that he wants to marry. ‘Flappers’ don’t appeal to him, he told me. Mature womanhood is his particular line, and it’s you that he’s infatuated about.”
For the second time that morning Mrs. Pevenly’s voice rose to a scream.
“Yes, he said you were his ideal, a ripe, sun-warmed peach, delicious and desirable, and a lot of other metaphors that he probably borrowed from Swinburne or Edmund Jones. I told him that under other circumstances I shouldn’t have held out much hope of his getting a favourable response from you, but that as we owed him a thousand and twenty-six pounds you would probably consider a matrimonial alliance the most convenient way of discharging the obligation. He’s coming out to speak to you himself in a few minutes, but I thought I’d better come and prepare you first.”
“But, my dear–”
“Of course, you hardly know the man, but I don’t think that matters. You see, you’ve been married before and a second husband is always something of an anti-climax. Here is Ashcombe. I think I’d better leave you two together. You must have a lot you want to say to each other.”
The wedding took place quietly some eight weeks later. The presents were costly, if not numerous, and consisted chiefly of a cancelled I.O.U., the gift of the bridegroom to the bride’s daughter.
The Bystander, 15th October, 1913