It was Reggie Bruttle’s own idea for converting what had threatened to be an albino elephant into a beast of burden that should help him along the stony road of his finances. “The Limes,” which had come to him by inheritance without any accompanying provision for its upkeep, was one of those pretentious, unaccommodating mansions which none but a man of wealth could afford to live in, and which not one wealthy man in a hundred would choose on its merits. It might easily languish in the estate market for years, set round with noticeboards proclaiming it, in the eyes of a sceptical world, to be an eminently desirable residence.
Reggie’s scheme was to turn it into the headquarters of a prolonged country-house party, in session during the months from October till the end of March–a party consisting of young or youngish people of both sexes, too poor to be able to do much hunting or shooting on a serious scale, but keen on getting their fill of golf, bridge, dancing, and occasional theatre-going. No one was to be on the footing of a paying guest, but every one was to rank as a paying host; a committee would look after the catering and expenditure, and an informal sub-committee would make itself useful in helping forward the amusement side of the scheme.
As it was only an experiment, there was to be a general agreement on the part of those involved in it to be as lenient and mutually helpful to one another as possible. Already a promising nucleus, including one or two young married couples, had been got together, and the thing seemed to be fairly launched.
“With good management and a little unobtrusive hard work, I think the thing ought to be a success,” said Reggie, and Reggie was one of those people who are painstaking first and optimistic afterwards.
“There is one rock on which you will unfailingly come to grief, manage you never so wisely,” said Major Dagberry, cheerfully; “the women will quarrel. Mind you,” continued this prophet of disaster, “I don’t say that some of the men won’t quarrel too, probably they will; but the women are bound to. You can’t prevent it; it’s in the nature of the sex. The hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world, in a volcanic sense. A woman will endure discomforts, and make sacrifices, and go without things to an heroic extent, but the one luxury she will not go without is her quarrels. No matter where she may be, or how transient her appearance on a scene, she will instal her feminine feuds as assuredly as a Frenchman would concoct soup in the waste of the Arctic regions. At the commencement of a sea voyage, before the male traveller knows half a dozen of his fellow passengers by sight, the average woman will have started a couple of enmities, and laid in material for one or two more–provided, of course, that there are sufficient women aboard to permit quarrelling in the plural. If there’s no one else she will quarrel with the stewardess. This experiment of yours is to run for six months; in less than five weeks there will be war to the knife declaring itself in half a dozen different directions.”
“Oh, come, there are only eight women in the party; they won’t pick quarrels quite so soon as that,” protested Reggie.
“They won’t all originate quarrels, perhaps,” conceded the Major, “but they will all take sides, and just as Christmas is upon you, with its conventions of peace and good will, you will find yourself in for a glacial epoch of cold, unforgiving hostility, with an occasional Etna flare of open warfare. You can’t help it, old boy; but, at any rate, you can’t say you were not warned.”
The first five weeks of the venture falsified Major Dagberry’s prediction and justified Reggie’s optimism. There were, of course, occasional small bickerings, and the existence of certain jealousies might be detected below the surface of everyday intercourse; but, on the whole, the womenfolk got on remarkably well together. There was, however, a notable exception. It had not taken five weeks for Mrs. Pentherby to get herself cordially disliked by the members of her own sex; five days had been amply sufficient. Most of the women declared that they had detested her the moment they set eyes on her; but that was probably an afterthought.
With the menfolk she got on well enough, without being of the type of woman who can only bask in male society; neither was she lacking in the general qualities which make an individual useful and desirable as a member of a co-operative community. She did not try to “get the better of” her fellow-hosts by snatching little advantages or cleverly evading her just contributions; she was not inclined to be boring or snobbish in the way of personal reminiscence. She played a fair game of bridge, and her card-room manners were irreproachable. But wherever she came in contact with her own sex the light of battle kindled at once; her talent of arousing animosity seemed to border on positive genius.
Whether the object of her attentions was thick-skinned or sensitive, quick-tempered or good-natured, Mrs. Pentherby managed to achieve the same effect. She exposed little weaknesses, she prodded sore places, she snubbed enthusiasms, she was generally right in a matter of argument, or, if wrong, she somehow contrived to make her adversary appear foolish and opinionated. She did, and said, horrible things in a matter-of-fact innocent way, and she did, and said, matter-of-fact innocent things in a horrible way. In short, the unanimous feminine verdict on her was that she was objectionable.
There was no question of taking sides, as the Major had anticipated; in fact, dislike of Mrs. Pentherby was almost a bond of union between the other women, and more than one threatening disagreement had been rapidly dissipated by her obvious and malicious attempts to inflame and extend it; and the most irritating thing about her was her successful assumption of unruffled composure at moments when the tempers of her adversaries were with difficulty kept under control. She made her most scathing remarks in the tone of a tube conductor announcing that the next station is Brompton Road–the measured, listless tone of one who knows he is right, but is utterly indifferent to the fact that he proclaims.
On one occasion Mrs. Val Gwepton, who was not blessed with the most reposeful of temperaments, fairly let herself go, and gave Mrs. Pentherby a vivid and truthful resume of her opinion of her. The object of this unpent storm of accumulated animosity waited patiently for a lull, and then remarked quietly to the angry little woman –
“And now, my dear Mrs. Gwepton, let me tell you something that I’ve been wanting to say for the last two or three minutes, only you wouldn’t given me a chance; you’ve got a hairpin dropping out on the left side. You thin-haired women always find it difficult to keep your hairpins in.”
“What can one do with a woman like that?” Mrs. Val demanded afterwards of a sympathising audience.
Of course, Reggie received numerous hints as to the unpopularity of this jarring personality. His sister-in-law openly tackled him on the subject of her many enormities. Reggie listened with the attenuated regret that one bestows on an earthquake disaster in Bolivia or a crop failure in Eastern Turkestan, events which seem so distant that one can almost persuade oneself they haven’t happened.
“That woman has got some hold over him,” opined his sister-in-law, darkly; “either she is helping him to finance the show, and presumes on the fact, or else, which Heaven forbid, he’s got some queer infatuation for her. Men do take the most extraordinary fancies.”
Matters never came exactly to a crisis. Mrs. Pentherby, as a source of personal offence, spread herself over so wide an area that no one woman of the party felt impelled to rise up and declare that she absolutely refused to stay another week in the same house with her. What is everybody’s tragedy is nobody’s tragedy. There was ever a certain consolation in comparing notes as to specific acts of offence. Reggie’s sister-in-law had the added interest of trying to discover the secret bond which blunted his condemnation of Mrs. Pentherby’s long catalogue of misdeeds. There was little to go on from his manner towards her in public, but he remained obstinately unimpressed by anything that was said against her in private.
With the one exception of Mrs. Pentherby’s unpopularity, the house- party scheme was a success on its first trial, and there was no difficulty about reconstructing it on the same lines for another winter session. It so happened that most of the women of the party, and two or three of the men, would not be available on this occasion, but Reggie had laid his plans well ahead and booked plenty of “fresh blood” for the departure. It would be, if any thing, rather a larger party than before.
“I’m so sorry I can’t join this winter,” said Reggie’s sister-in- law, “but we must go to our cousins in Ireland; we’ve put them off so often. What a shame! You’ll have none of the same women this time.”
“Excepting Mrs. Pentherby,” said Reggie, demurely.
“Mrs. Pentherby! SURELY, Reggie, you’re not going to be so idiotic as to have that woman again! She’ll set all the women’s backs up just as she did this time. What IS this mysterious hold she’s go over you?”
“She’s invaluable,” said Reggie; “she’s my official quarreller.”
“Your–what did you say?” gasped his sister-in-law.
“I introduced her into the house-party for the express purpose of concentrating the feuds and quarrelling that would otherwise have broken out in all directions among the womenkind. I didn’t need the advice and warning of sundry friends to foresee that we shouldn’t get through six months of close companionship without a certain amount of pecking and sparring, so I thought the best thing was to localise and sterilise it in one process. Of course, I made it well worth the lady’s while, and as she didn’t know any of you from Adam, and you don’t even know her real name, she didn’t mind getting herself disliked in a useful cause.”
“You mean to say she was in the know all the time?”
“Of course she was, and so were one or two of the men, so she was able to have a good laugh with us behind the scenes when she’d done anything particularly outrageous. And she really enjoyed herself. You see, she’s in the position of poor relation in a rather pugnacious family, and her life has been largely spent in smoothing over other people’s quarrels. You can imagine the welcome relief of being able to go about saying and doing perfectly exasperating things to a whole houseful of women–and all in the cause of peace.”
“I think you are the most odious person in the whole world,” said Reggie’s sister-in-law. Which was not strictly true; more than anybody, more than ever she disliked Mrs. Pentherby. It was impossible to calculate how many quarrels that woman had done her out of.