- CHAPTER X THE PURSUIT OF MIRTH
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THE PURSUIT OF MIRTH
MISS SAPIO was at home, very much at home, in her little house in Regent's Park.
Her drawing-room was heavy with the mingled odours of coffee, tobacco, scent and flowers. A log fire burned on the blue-tiled hearth, although it was a fairly warm day in mid-September. Miss Sapio's liver-and-white spaniel, getting very, very old, was curled into a quivering, sleek ball in front, with his eyes fixed on the genial glow.
Miss Sapio herself reclined in a low chair, a cigarette between her fingers, with her tawny hair gathered into a great knot at the back of her head, adorned with a turquoise comb.
Her big, but still beautiful figure was shown to advantage in a clinging dress of flame-coloured silk, a very extravagant dress, slightly soiled, just as her showy tea-gowns used to be in the old days in Airy Street. There were several bead necklaces round her neck, gold bangles on both arms, and her fingers were covered with rings.
She was the only woman in the room, but there were five men, all sitting very close together, as the space was so limited, and all accustomed, for Miss Sapio's visitors usually stayed a long time, to the bad air.
Miss Sapio was making a success of her life; she was rich; she was popular; she was acting the leading part in a play which was only in the fourth week of a run which was to prove a record at a West End theatre.
The fortunate author of this play was among her guests.| | 79
He was a quiet, thin young man with shrewd, small features, and a high, bumpy forehead which gave his face a peculiar look of disproportion, as if the top of his head ought to have belonged to somebody else.
Miss Sapio had once said to him, when a slight disagreement about a scene in his play had degenerated into a quarrel, that there was only one head in England more ridiculous than his, and that was Beachy Head. Their quarrels, however, were of the past. They now called each other "Dear," and had become the most sincere friends, for Miss Sapio was capable of true, disinterested friendship, and a singularly keen, discriminating brain was at work behind the playwright's ugly brows.
Yet another of her guests was a fellow-worker of the hostess's. This was a popular actor of boys' parts—stage boys of any age between seventeen and twenty-seven—who looked like a mere youth, being very slight and delicate in build, with well-cut, uninteresting features, and a high, musical voice. As a matter of fact he had to look behind him to catch a glimpse of the thirties, and was a married man with sons who were as big, and nearly as old in appearance, as himself.
Sitting next to the actor was a middle-aged artist, who was making his first call, and was too obviously interested and amused in his surroundings to trouble to talk; nor was he the only silent member of the party, for a much younger man was lying at full length, half asleep, on a sofa which reached from the heavily-curtained little window at one end of the room to the heavily-curtained little door at the other.
Miss Sapio did not resent the lazy familiarity of his pose and manner. He happened to be a very handsome young man, and she admired him whatever he did, or left undone.
The discordant note in the harmony of the afternoon was occasionally struck by an old, retired professional friend of the hostess, who was also drowsy in the heat of | | 80 the room. His stage name was Quizzical Quilter, and he had been particularly successful in the almost extinct branch of dramatic art which was graced by the great Grimaldi.
She tolerated him for the sake of old times, although she had confided to the experienced ears of the actor and the playwright, when he made his appearance, her fear that "Quizzy was a little bit 'on.'' Fortunately he was not a great talker, and his occasional remarks were very cheery, if not appropriate to the conversation.
"The pursuit of mirth! I don't quite know what you mean by pursuing mirth," said the playwright, repeating a phrase used by the actor. "Mustn't one pursue the cause of mirth, for the thing itself is only an effect?"
"I wish you didn't analyse everything I say, Hughie," answered his friend. "I only wanted to point out that mirth, or happiness, or delight, whatever you call it, was far more worth pursuing than wealth, or fame, or even power."
"It's more intangible," said the playwright. "And more easily lost."
"Oh, rot!" exclaimed Miss Sapio. bending forward to flick the ash off her cigarette on to the hearth. "It's just as easy to hang on to jollity and pleasure as to anything else. Where should I be, I should like to know, if I always moped?"
"What's that got to do with it, Florence?" asked the playwright, patiently.
"If my brother Jack were here," continued Miss Sapio, ignoring the question, "he'd make you boys understand the meaning of mirth. When a man's been living in the West Indies, and had yellow fever scores of times, he appreciates the mirth of London. He doesn't talk about being merry—he is merry."
"You're getting more and more inconsequent and emphatic every day, dear," observed the playwright, who was weary at times of his friend's brother Jack.| | 81
Miss Sapio had raised her voice, which aroused the old clown in the corner.
"Quite right, Flo! God bless my soul, yes! Give it 'em, Flo!" he exclaimed, and slept again.
The other men laughed, and the artist put in a word.
"I have been pursuing mirth all my life, but the chase is only amusing when one is unconscious of it. Don't you think so, Walter?"
He turned to the young man on the lounge, who started and pulled himself into a sitting posture, stretching out his long legs across the hearth.
"I beg your pardon!" he said in a yawn. "I'm afraid I've been asleep, but that's no reflection on your interesting conversation. I went to bed so very early yesterday."
"That's a strange reason for being sleepy to-day," said the artist.
"I think you misunderstand me," rejoined the other. "When I said I went to bed so very early yesterday, I really meant at about three o'clock this morning. But you always talk about going to bed yesterday when once you are up, don't you? But that is not my only excuse for being sleepy. I'm generally sleepy."
"You're like the Fat Boy, Walter, but you're not fat," said the playwright.
"Exactly. Why, I remember sleeping all through The Belle of New York some years ago, and I was sitting near to the big drum too. You know how frightfully noisy these American pieces are."
"Even more noisy than our interesting conversation," remarked his friend.
"What were you talking about?" asked the other, stirring up the spaniel with his foot.
The pursuit of mirth!" replied the actor. He liked his phrase.
Mirth!" repeated the lazy young man, with his shoulders drooping and his hands clasped between his | | 82 knees. "Do you know, I think that is one of the prettiest words. It always expresses to me something so much more delicate than gaiety, and so much more refined than pleasure, but it's so evanescent. That's the devil of it. It's like everything else worth having—it doesn't last."
"Good heavens! Mirth means laughter, and who wants to laugh for months at a stretch?" asked the play-wright.
"Three hours is enough, isn't it, Hughie?" said Walter Race, smiling at the man of success.
He stood erect, stretching his arms over his head. Miss Sapio put up her hands.
"Give me a pull up, Wally, there's a dear boy! she said.
Instead of taking her hands he stooped and playfully lifted her on to her feet.
"I say, Flo, you're a woman of weight in the land!" he said, impudently, his arms still round her waist.
Miss Sapio laughed, her face on a level with his, bending forward. He looked at her coolly, no longer impudently, and there was no response to her challenging smile in his moody eyes. She put up a finger and drew it down one side of his face.
"I wish you hadn't lost the mark of the chin-strap, Wally!" she said.
"Thank God, I have!" he exclaimed, thrusting his hands into his pockets. "I want to forget all that muddle in South Africa. It isn't a cheerful recollection. You know, my dear girl, it's over a year since I got home. The mark of the chin-strap was always your imagination. You're thinking of last summer, when I got tanned on the river."
"Oh, Wally! Wally! If I were only eighteen I'd marry you!" exclaimed Miss Sapio.
"Well, if you don't mind about the added seven years, I'm sure I don't!" said Walter.| | 83
"That makes me twenty-five!" cried Miss Sapio, and she gave him a blow in the chest. "You flatterer!"
"When are you going to have me to dinner?" he asked, laughing.
"Any day you like to come, Wally. Why not stop now?" said Miss Sapio.
He puckered his brows.
"So sorry, but I have an engagement to-night, Flo, to meet one of my aunts and half a dozen cousins and take them to a concert."
"Poor old boy!" she exclaimed. "To-morrow?"
"If I possibly can! I'll send you a wire in the morning."
He shook hands very cordially with the other men, including the old comedian in the corner, who wrung his hand with as much affection as if Walter had been a long-lost son.
"God bless you, my dear boy!" he said. "Now, take care of yourself for your poor old mother's sake."
A mental vision of his mother—a particularly frigid, hook-nosed lady in a Valenciennes lace cap—presented itself to Walter's mind. He laughed about it as he went downstairs, accompanied by the artist. They groped their way through the dark, narrow hall, filled with vapours from the kitchen, where Miss Sapio's early dinner was in preparation, and so out into the street.
Walter gave a great sigh of relief as he banged the door behind them.
"Thank God!" he said. "I feel as if I'd been cooked along with Flo's roast mutton."
"Which way are you going?" asked his friend.
Walter looked up and down the street, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Your way—I don't care—suppose we cut across the Park to York Gate? We shall get a little pure air into our lungs.| | 84
"Right!" agreed the artist. "What time do you have to meet your aunt and cousins?"
Walter was puzzled for a second.
"Meet my aunt and cousins?" he repeated; then, with a flash of remembrance and a laugh—"Oh, that was a lie. I didn't want to stop any longer. I'd had enough of Miss Sapio and that nice, inebriated old gentleman."
The artist, who was a big, burly man, slow of speech, gave him a thoughtful, curious side glance.
There was a certain fine severity in Walter Race's face seen in profile. It was a compact, clearly-cut profile, no indecision about it; the eye was wide, the modelling of the jaw delicate, but not without power, the lines of the mouth somewhat hard, the lips being too closely pressed together. It was only when he looked one full in the face and smiled that Walter gave any impression of gentleness, or even warmth of disposition.
His usual expression was not attractive; it was bored, dissatisfied, lacking the quick, responsive charm of youth and high spirits. He was physically fit, after the manner of his class and age, but his fine health and perfect muscular development seemed to be more the result of accident—the mere inheritance of the carefully-nurtured, well-schooled and well-fed from generation to generation—than the outcome of individual effort.
For all his height, his handsome features, his good bearing, there was only the empty sheath of a man—latent possibilities, untouched depths, wasted force.
"I can't understand you, Walter," said the artist. "Why on earth do you go so often to see Miss Sapio? Why do you flirt with her? You don't care a brass farthing about the woman."
No, not a brass farthing! "said Race." But I've got into the habit of lounging round to her place, for I like Hughie and he's usually there. Besides, you must confess that Flo is a good fellow. Most women are so absurdly exacting."| | 85
"How lazy you are!" exclaimed the artist.
"Of course I am. Why shouldn't I be?" asked the other. "What is the use of energy unless you've got your living to earn? You see you're more lucky than I am, Wainwright. You're obliged to bustle about and get your little pictures sold, or the poor little Wainwrights would starve and haunt your dreams like the children of Macduff."
"You don't even go in for sport," said his friend.
"I didn't mind ski-ing in Norway last year," said Race. "And I shouldn't object to motoring, if I could afford a good car, but I've never enjoyed shooting or fishing, though I'm not half a bad shot. There's something sickening about sport. My brothers think I'm an awful ass."
"What a pity you've got so much money," said his friend.
"Now, there I don't agree with you," said Walter, looking at Wainwright with a pleasant smile. "I have just the wrong amount, enough to keep me in idleness, but not enough to satisfy my desires. I am in no better position than I was before my father died. I don't spend any more or any less, and I've lost the stimulus of probable disinheritance."
"You were just as lazy in the old days," said Wainwright, with a laugh. "You were not the oldest son, were you?"
"Oh, no, John is the oldest. I don't think you know my brother John? He is one of the funniest men I've ever seen—unconsciously funny, of course—but they take him very seriously down at our place in Suffolk. He was always fond of playing games, if only all the rest of us would do as we were told, and if we didn't he twisted our arms or thrashed us. Since then he has 'enlarged his sphere of influence'—that's one of John's favourite Phrases—which means that he plays at being Lord of | | 86 the Manor and Justice of the Peace, administering arm-twistings and thrashings on a larger scale."
"You're very severe," observed Wainwright.
"Then there's Leo," continued Race; "I'm afraid I don't like Leo. He's a difficult brute, but since we got him married to an heiress, a little dove of a girl of nineteen, I must confess that he's run pretty straight—for him. Edmund is next to me. Dear old Teddy! He was always considered the fool of the family, so my mother came to the conclusion that he was ' destined for the Church'—John inherits his pompous phrases from my mother—but unfortunately he never managed to pass an exam. Other people would have given it up, but my mother is a clever woman, and luckily the bishop of our diocese is one of her oldest friends. One can never quite explain how these little things are managed, but the fact remains that Edmund has been a pillar of the Church for several years. There's a back door to every edifice, you know."
"Then you are the youngest brother?" said Wainwright.
"No! Crowds of us, aren't there? I come after Edmund, and Frank is the youngest. He is our black sheep. Having made himself the hero of a village scandal before he was twenty, Frank was packed off to the other side of the world, not so much as a punishment, but because he expressed a ridiculous desire to undo the mischief he had done. There was good stuff in Frank. I haven't seen him for four years, but I know he'll turn up some day. An edifying list of brothers, isn't it? But you must remember the strong point in our favour—we're of such good family!"
He laughed. Wainwright was silent for a few minutes, then he suddenly laid his hand on Race's arm.
"I wish I could make you see the world with different eyes, Walter!" he said. "Your outlook is so bitter and one-sided. I'm not speaking as regards your brothers," | | 87 he went on quickly, as Race was about to interrupt, "but of your whole life. How long have I known you—three years?—and I've never seen you really happy, except for the few weeks before you went out to the South African war. Can't you find something to do? Travel—study—go in for politics—reforms—Good God! There's enough work to be done in the world. Why don't you take up a profession? Why don't you get married? Wake up, Walter! You're sick of living on pleasure. No man should only spend while others only toil."
Wainwright's face flushed and his strong fingers gripped on his friend's arm, but the smile with which Walter turned on him, the amused, light contempt in his handsome face, made him suddenly ridiculous in his own eyes. The young man's expression belittled his friend's earnestness, and made him ashamed of the affectionate outburst.
"Here endeth the first lesson!" said Race. "But you misjudge me, Wainwright, for I am not at all sick of living on pleasure. I pursue it all the time—the pursuit of mirth, as Hughie said this afternoon. Something to live for and nothing to do! That's the ideal state of existence for rotters like myself, without any particular training or shining talents. I have nothing to do," he went on, with a change from bitterness to cheerful indifference, "and I hope some day to get something to live for. Then, my dear Wainwright, I shall be more worthy of your friendship."
They turned out of the Park into the main road, leaving the September beauty of burnished leaves and autumn flowers for the dust and traffic of the streets. Race once more gave a sigh of relief. He did not trouble to suppress the recurrent thought that dear old Wainwright was rather boring.
"I think I'll take a hansom, old man," he said. "I'm rather in a hurry to get home."
"Are you afraid your aunt and cousins will be growing impatient, Walter?" said Wainwright, smiling.| | 88
"No, no, really I have an appointment!" protested Race, lifting his finger to a cabman on the lookout for a fare. "Good-bye, old man! My love to Mrs Wain-wright and the kiddies. Look me up soon, won't you?"
When he was alone in the cab Walter Race folded his arms on the doors—it was his usual position in a hansom—while his eyes wandered listlessly over the perpetually forming and perpetually broken puzzle of the busy streets. He had no appointment, as his friend had suspected, and he was debating in his mind whether he would dine at his club or at one of the many houses where he had standing invitations.
He was depressed, partly because it was his habit to be depressed, and partly at the anticipation of a long-delayed visit to his oldest brother, for which he was to leave town in a couple of days.
Race was essentially a London man, but the beginning and end of his London was the West End. The pleasures of the city alone appealed to him; he cared little for the struggle and stress of its daily labour, and, although he was naturally generous, his heart had long been hardened to the sight of poverty.
It is wonderful how the occasional giving of a small silver coin to a beggar will salve the conscience of the man with full pockets.
As the cab crossed Oxford Street on its way to Piccadilly—Walter Race's chambers were in Plantagenet Court, Savoy—there was a sudden block in the traffic. His driver pulled up sharply close to the curb.
Walter, who was observant with all his laziness, looked at a little group of people who were as suddenly checked as he himself in their aimless, or perhaps necessary, hurry.
A girl had stepped back on to the pavement from the road, the wheel of his cab brushing her skirts. She laughed at the narrow shave. Walter heard the laugh— | | 89 not loud, but clear, gurgling, unaffected, prolonged—as expressive as a happy phrase of mirthful music.
He bent forward, his arms still folded on the doors, to look at her. Their eyes met. She was standing between two men, one of whom, a tall, elderly gentleman in gold spectacles, clutched nervously at her arm, while the other, a swarthy, thick-set fellow, who showed a gleam of white teeth between full smiling lips, apparently shared her childish amusement.
The girl looked at Walter, eyes on eyes, and saw that he too shared her mirth. There was the instant response in his quick movement towards her and the change in his expression.
The colour leapt like a flame into her cheeks. She tried, tried with all her might, to be serious. In vain. The rebellious lips, the sparkling eyes were beyond her control. For that one long second she was brilliant, wonderful, quickening his dull pulse with her flash of recognition and innocent delight at his admiration.
It was too exquisite, too absurd to last! He was glad when the hansom jerked forward and left her behind, feeling she would have disappointed him at a second glance; but the lilt of her laughter echoed in his brain. He could not forget it. It made him laugh too—all by himself—in his rooms that night.
That was how they met and parted, for the first time Walter Race and Euphrosyne.
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