A door closed and Francesca Bassington sat alone in her well- beloved drawing-room. The visitor who had been enjoying the hospitality of her afternoon-tea table had just taken his departure. The tete-a-tete had not been a pleasant one, at any rate as far as Francesca was concerned, but at least it had brought her the information for which she had been seeking. Her role of looker-on from a tactful distance had necessarily left her much in the dark concerning the progress of the all-important wooing, but during the last few hours she had, on slender though significant evidence, exchanged her complacent expectancy for a conviction that something had gone wrong. She had spent the previous evening at her brother’s house, and had naturally seen nothing of Comus in that uncongenial quarter; neither had he put in an appearance at the breakfast table the following morning. She had met him in the hall at eleven o’clock, and he had hurried past her, merely imparting the information that he would not be in till dinner that evening. He spoke in his sulkiest tone, and his face wore a look of defeat, thinly masked by an air of defiance; it was not the defiance of a man who is losing, but of one who has already lost.
Francesca’s conviction that things had gone wrong between Comus and Elaine de Frey grew in strength as the day wore on. She lunched at a friend’s house, but it was not a quarter where special social information of any importance was likely to come early to hand. Instead of the news she was hankering for, she had to listen to trivial gossip and speculation on the flirtations and “cases” and “affairs” of a string of acquaintances whose matrimonial projects interested her about as much as the nesting arrangements of the wildfowl in St. James’s Park.
“Of course,” said her hostess, with the duly impressive emphasis of a privileged chronicler, “we’ve always regarded Claire as the marrying one of the family, so when Emily came to us and said, ‘I’ve got some news for you,’ we all said, ‘Claire’s engaged!’ ‘Oh, no,’ said Emily, ‘it’s not Claire this time, it’s me.’ So then we had to guess who the lucky man was. ‘It can’t be Captain Parminter,’ we all said, ‘because he’s always been sweet on Joan.’ And then Emily said–”
The recording voice reeled off the catalogue of inane remarks with a comfortable purring complacency that held out no hope of an early abandoning of the topic. Francesca sat and wondered why the innocent acceptance of a cutlet and a glass of indifferent claret should lay one open to such unsparing punishment.
A stroll homeward through the Park after lunch brought no further enlightenment on the subject that was uppermost in her mind; what was worse, it brought her, without possibility of escape, within hailing distance of Merla Blathington, who fastened on to her with the enthusiasm of a lonely tsetse fly encountering an outpost of civilisation.
“Just think,” she buzzed inconsequently, “my sister in Cambridgeshire has hatched out thirty-three White Orpington chickens in her incubator!”
“What eggs did she put in it?” asked Francesca.
“Oh, some very special strain of White Orpington.”
“Then I don’t see anything remarkable in the result. If she had put in crocodile’s eggs and hatched out White Orpingtons, there might have been something to write to Country Life about.”
“What funny fascinating things these little green park-chairs are,” said Merla, starting off on a fresh topic; “they always look so quaint and knowing when they’re stuck away in pairs by themselves under the trees, as if they were having a heart-to-heart talk or discussing a piece of very private scandal. If they could only speak, what tragedies and comedies they could tell us of, what flirtations and proposals.”
“Let us be devoutly thankful that they can’t,” said Francesca, with a shuddering recollection of the luncheon-table conversation.
“Of course, it would make one very careful what one said before them–or above them rather,” Merla rattled on, and then, to Francesca’s infinite relief, she espied another acquaintance sitting in unprotected solitude, who promised to supply a more durable audience than her present rapidly moving companion. Francesca was free to return to her drawing-room in Blue Street to await with such patience as she could command the coming of some visitor who might be able to throw light on the subject that was puzzling and disquieting her. The arrival of George St. Michael boded bad news, but at any rate news, and she gave him an almost cordial welcome.
“Well, you see I wasn’t far wrong about Miss de Frey and Courtenay Youghal, was I?” he chirruped, almost before he had seated himself. Francesca was to be spared any further spinning-out of her period of uncertainty. “Yes, it’s officially given out,” he went on, “and it’s to appear in the Morning Post to-morrow. I heard it from Colonel Deel this morning, and he had it direct from Youghal himself. Yes, please, one lump; I’m not fashionable, you see.” He had made the same remark about the sugar in his tea with unfailing regularity for at least thirty years. Fashions in sugar are apparently stationary. “They say,” he continued, hurriedly, “that he proposed to her on the Terrace of the House, and a division bell rang, and he had to hurry off before she had time to give her answer, and when he got back she simply said, ‘the Ayes have it.'” St. Michael paused in his narrative to give an appreciative giggle.
“Just the sort of inanity that would go the rounds,” remarked Francesca, with the satisfaction of knowing that she was making the criticism direct to the author and begetter of the inanity in question. Now that the blow had fallen and she knew the full extent of its weight, her feeling towards the bringer of bad news, who sat complacently nibbling at her tea-cakes and scattering crumbs of tiresome small-talk at her feet, was one of wholehearted dislike. She could sympathise with, or at any rate understand, the tendency of oriental despots to inflict death or ignominious chastisement on messengers bearing tidings of misfortune and defeat, and St. Michael, she perfectly well knew, was thoroughly aware of the fact that her hopes and wishes had been centred on the possibility of having Elaine for a daughter-in-law; every purring remark that his mean little soul prompted him to contribute to the conversation had an easily recognizable undercurrent of malice. Fortunately for her powers of polite endurance, which had been put to such searching and repeated tests that day, St. Michael had planned out for himself a busy little time-table of afternoon visits, at each of which his self-appointed task of forestalling and embellishing the newspaper announcements of the Youghal-de Frey engagement would be hurriedly but thoroughly performed.
“They’ll be quite one of the best-looking and most interesting couples of the Season, won’t they?” he cried, by way of farewell. The door closed and Francesca Bassington sat alone in her drawing- room.
Before she could give way to the bitter luxury of reflection on the downfall of her hopes, it was prudent to take precautionary measures against unwelcome intrusion. Summoning the maid who had just speeded the departing St. Michael, she gave the order: “I am not at home this afternoon to Lady Caroline Benaresq.” On second thoughts she extended the taboo to all possible callers, and sent a telephone message to catch Comus at his club, asking him to come and see her as soon as he could manage before it was time to dress for dinner. Then she sat down to think, and her thinking was beyond the relief of tears.
She had built herself a castle of hopes, and it had not been a castle in Spain, but a structure well on the probable side of the Pyrenees. There had been a solid foundation on which to build. Miss de Frey’s fortune was an assured and unhampered one, her liking for Comus had been an obvious fact; his courtship of her a serious reality. The young people had been much together in public, and their names had naturally been coupled in the match- making gossip of the day. The only serious shadow cast over the scene had been the persistent presence, in foreground or background, of Courtenay Youghal. And now the shadow suddenly stood forth as the reality, and the castle of hopes was a ruin, a hideous mortification of dust and debris, with the skeleton outlines of its chambers still standing to make mockery of its discomfited architect. The daily anxiety about Comus and his extravagant ways and intractable disposition had been gradually lulled by the prospect of his making an advantageous marriage, which would have transformed him from a ne’er-do-well and adventurer into a wealthy idler. He might even have been moulded, by the resourceful influence of an ambitious wife, into a man with some definite purpose in life. The prospect had vanished with cruel suddenness, and the anxieties were crowding back again, more insistent than ever. The boy had had his one good chance in the matrimonial market and missed it; if he were to transfer his attentions to some other well-dowered girl he would be marked down at once as a fortune-hunter, and that would constitute a heavy handicap to the most plausible of wooers. His liking for Elaine had evidently been genuine in its way, though perhaps it would have been rash to read any deeper sentiment into it, but even with the spur of his own inclination to assist him he had failed to win the prize that had seemed so temptingly within his reach. And in the dashing of his prospects, Francesca saw the threatening of her own. The old anxiety as to her precarious tenure of her present quarters put on again all its familiar terrors. One day, she foresaw, in the horribly near future, George St. Michael would come pattering up her stairs with the breathless intelligence that Emmeline Chetrof was going to marry somebody or other in the Guards or the Record Office as the case might be, and then there would be an uprooting of her life from its home and haven in Blue Street and a wandering forth to some cheap unhappy far-off dwelling, where the stately Van der Meulen and its companion host of beautiful and desirable things would be stuffed and stowed away in soulless surroundings, like courtly emigres fallen on evil days. It was unthinkable, but the trouble was that it had to be thought about. And if Comus had played his cards well and transformed himself from an encumbrance into a son with wealth at his command, the tragedy which she saw looming in front of her might have been avoided or at the worst whittled down to easily bearable proportions. With money behind one, the problem of where to live approaches more nearly to the simple question of where do you wish to live, and a rich daughter-in-law would have surely seen to it that she did not have to leave her square mile of Mecca and go out into the wilderness of bricks and mortar. If the house in Blue Street could not have been compounded for there were other desirable residences which would have been capable of consoling Francesca for her lost Eden. And now the detested Courtenay Youghal, with his mocking eyes and air of youthful cynicism, had stepped in and overthrown those golden hopes and plans whose non-fulfilment would make such a world of change in her future. Assuredly she had reason to feel bitter against that young man, and she was not disposed to take a very lenient view of Comus’s own mismanagement of the affair; her greeting when he at last arrived, was not couched in a sympathetic strain.
“So you have lost your chance with the heiress,” she remarked abruptly.
“Yes,” said Comus, coolly; “Courtenay Youghal has added her to his other successes.”
“And you have added her to your other failures,” pursued Francesca, relentlessly; her temper had been tried that day beyond ordinary limits.
“I thought you seemed getting along so well with her,” she continued, as Comus remained uncommunicative.
“We hit it off rather well together,” said Comus, and added with deliberate bluntness, “I suppose she got rather sick at my borrowing money from her. She thought it was all I was after.”
“You borrowed money from her!” said Francesca; “you were fool enough to borrow money from a girl who was favourably disposed towards you, and with Courtenay Youghal in the background waiting to step in and oust you!”
Francesca’s voice trembled with misery and rage. This great stroke of good luck that had seemed about to fall into their laps had been thrust aside by an act or series of acts of wanton paltry folly. The good ship had been lost for the sake of the traditional ha’porth of tar. Comus had paid some pressing tailor’s or tobacconist’s bill with a loan unwillingly put at his disposal by the girl he was courting, and had flung away his chances of securing a wealthy and in every way desirable bride. Elaine de Frey and her fortune might have been the making of Comus, but he had hurried in as usual to effect his own undoing. Calmness did not in this case come with reflection; the more Francesca thought about the matter, the more exasperated she grew. Comus threw himself down in a low chair and watched her without a trace of embarrassment or concern at her mortification. He had come to her feeling rather sorry for himself, and bitterly conscious of his defeat, and she had met him with a taunt and without the least hint of sympathy; he determined that she should be tantalised with the knowledge of how small and stupid a thing had stood between the realisation and ruin of her hopes for him.
“And to think she should be captured by Courtenay Youghal,” said Francesca, bitterly; “I’ve always deplored your intimacy with that young man.”
“It’s hardly my intimacy with him that’s made Elaine accept him,” said Comus.
Francesca realised the futility of further upbraiding. Through the tears of vexation that stood in her eyes, she looked across at the handsome boy who sat opposite her, mocking at his own misfortune, perversely indifferent to his folly, seemingly almost indifferent to its consequences.
“Comus,” she said quietly and wearily, “you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.”
“I think,” said Comus, “that is the best description that anyone has ever given of me.”
For the moment there was a flush of sympathy and something like outspoken affection between mother and son. They seemed very much alone in the world just now, and in the general overturn of hopes and plans, there flickered a chance that each might stretch out a hand to the other, and summon back to their lives an old dead love that was the best and strongest feeling either of them had known. But the sting of disappointment was too keen, and the flood of resentment mounted too high on either side to allow the chance more than a moment in which to flicker away into nothingness. The old fatal topic of estrangement came to the fore, the question of immediate ways and means, and mother and son faced themselves again as antagonists on a well-disputed field.
“What is done is done,” said Francesca, with a movement of tragic impatience that belied the philosophy of her words; “there is nothing to be gained by crying over spilt milk. There is the present and the future to be thought about, though. One can’t go on indefinitely as a tenant-for-life in a fools’ paradise.” Then she pulled herself together and proceeded to deliver an ultimatum which the force of circumstances no longer permitted her to hold in reserve.
“It’s not much use talking to you about money, as I know from long experience, but I can only tell you this, that in the middle of the Season I’m already obliged to be thinking of leaving Town. And you, I’m afraid, will have to be thinking of leaving England at equally short notice. Henry told me the other day that he can get you something out in West Africa. You’ve had your chance of doing something better for yourself from the financial point of view, and you’ve thrown it away for the sake of borrowing a little ready money for your luxuries, so now you must take what you can get. The pay won’t be very good at first, but living is not dear out there.”
“West Africa,” said Comus, reflectively; “it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.”
“My dear Comus, you are talking of the West Africa of yesterday. While you have been wasting your time at school, and worse than wasting your time in the West End, other people have been grappling with the study of tropical diseases, and the West African coast country is being rapidly transformed from a lethal chamber into a sanatorium.”
Comus laughed mockingly.
“What a beautiful bit of persuasive prose; it reminds one of the Psalms and even more of a company prospectus. If you were honest you’d confess that you lifted it straight out of a rubber or railway promotion scheme. Seriously, mother, if I must grub about for a living, why can’t I do it in England? I could go into a brewery for instance.”
Francesca shook her head decisively; she could foresee the sort of steady work Comus was likely to accomplish, with the lodestone of Town and the minor attractions of race-meetings and similar festivities always beckoning to him from a conveniently attainable distance, but apart from that aspect of the case there was a financial obstacle in the way of his obtaining any employment at home.
“Breweries and all those sort of things necessitate money to start with; one has to pay premiums or invest capital in the undertaking, and so forth. And as we have no money available, and can scarcely pay our debts as it is, it’s no use thinking about it.”
“Can’t we sell something?” asked Comus.
He made no actual suggestion as to what should be sacrificed, but he was looking straight at the Van der Meulen.
For a moment Francesca felt a stifling sensation of weakness, as though her heart was going to stop beating. Then she sat forward in her chair and spoke with energy, almost fierceness.
“When I am dead my things can be sold and dispersed. As long as I am alive I prefer to keep them by me.”
In her holy place, with all her treasured possessions around her, this dreadful suggestion had been made. Some of her cherished household gods, souvenirs and keepsakes from past days, would, perhaps, not have fetched a very considerable sum in the auction- room, others had a distinct value of their own, but to her they were all precious. And the Van der Meulen, at which Comus had looked with impious appraising eyes, was the most sacred of them all. When Francesca had been away from her Town residence or had been confined to her bedroom through illness, the great picture with its stately solemn representation of a long-ago battle-scene, painted to flatter the flattery-loving soul of a warrior-king who was dignified even in his campaigns–this was the first thing she visited on her return to Town or convalescence. If an alarm of fire had been raised it would have been the first thing for whose safety she would have troubled. And Comus had almost suggested that it should be parted with, as one sold railway shares and other soulless things.
Scolding, she had long ago realised, was a useless waste of time and energy where Comus was concerned, but this evening she unloosed her tongue for the mere relief that it gave to her surcharged feelings. He sat listening without comment, though she purposely let fall remarks that she hoped might sting him into self-defence or protest. It was an unsparing indictment, the more damaging in that it was so irrefutably true, the more tragic in that it came from perhaps the one person in the world whose opinion he had ever cared for. And he sat through it as silent and seemingly unmoved as though she had been rehearsing a speech for some drawing-room comedy. When she had had her say his method of retort was not the soft answer that turneth away wrath but the inconsequent one that shelves it.
“Let’s go and dress for dinner.”
The meal, like so many that Francesca and Comus had eaten in each other’s company of late, was a silent one. Now that the full bearings of the disaster had been discussed in all its aspects there was nothing more to be said. Any attempt at ignoring the situation, and passing on to less controversial topics would have been a mockery and pretence which neither of them would have troubled to sustain. So the meal went forward with its dragged-out dreary intimacy of two people who were separated by a gulf of bitterness, and whose hearts were hard with resentment against one another.
Francesca felt a sense of relief when she was able to give the maid the order to serve her coffee upstairs. Comus had a sullen scowl on his face, but he looked up as she rose to leave the room, and gave his half-mocking little laugh.
“You needn’t look so tragic,” he said, “You’re going to have your own way. I’ll go out to that West African hole.”