- CHAPTER II MERSHIRE HOUSE
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IT was the height of the season, and the Duchess was giving one of her big receptions. Mershire House was en fête, and had assumed its most palatial aspect for the occasion. The decorations were crimson roses to match the crimson carpets of the hall, staircase and corridors; and they were to be found everywhere. Great banks of crimson roses filled up all the fire-places, and every available corner as well:the lower part of the staircase was lined with crimson roses growing in pots; while in the hall, on either side, was a perfect jungle of exotic trees, which overhung the staircase with their drooping branches. All the gold plate was spread out on the buffet in the large drawing-room, and each of the state drawing-rooms was transformed into a bower of roses. It was more like a scene out of a fairy-tale than an event in everyday life; and the countless silk-stockinged footmen, hurrying around with their red-plush breeches and their powdered heads, added to the Cinderella-like appearance of the entertainment.
The celebrated staircase at Mershire House was a professional beauty among staircases—the sort of staircase whose photographs appear in The Connoisseur and similar artistic periodicals. It was very broad, and very shallow, and ascended from the middle of the central hall; but when it had gone half-way to | | 205 the next floor it divided into two tributaries, which turned round respectively to the right hand and to the left, and finally lost themselves in the gallery above, which commanded the doors of the state drawing-rooms.
At the point where the great staircase divided into its two tributaries, the Duchess—backed by a huge mirror and surrounded by banks of crimson roses—stood to receive her guests, looking her very best in a black gown covered with sequins, and enriched by the full blaze of the celebrated Mershire diamonds. Beside her stood the Duke, his usual ponderousness of appearance relieved by a genial smile and the star and ribbon of the Garter. His Grace was an ideal host; and had the happy knack of making all his guests feel that they—in his opinion, at least—were the guests of the evening.
Up the great staircase came a continual stream of the best-dressed and the best-looking people in London; while the excellent band in the hall below discoursed sweet music, and added to the fairy-like effect of the occasion. Some of the guests dispersed themselves through the suite of drawing-rooms leading out of the great gallery; but the larger number remained in the gallery itself to watch the advent of the crowd which continually poured up the grand staircase.
And even among that assembly of beautiful and beautifully-dressed people there was a momentary hush of admiration as Lord Westerham and his bride ascended the stairs to the rose-covered island where the Duke and Duchess stood: for Beryl's loveliness was a thing that seemed almost too perfect to be real. She was all in white, with a superb diamond necklace and tiara; and her beauty, thus seen, was of | | 206 that compelling sort which makes a man hold his breath at the wonder of it.
Even the Duke, who had known her all her life, was momentarily taken aback by the splendour of her loveliness, though he was far too wise a husband to make any remark upon the subject to his Duchess; her Grace—in spite of her habit of putting the telescope to her blind eye when Beryl's good points were concerned—could not help seeing how fair the new Lady Westerham was: while Esther—who was watching from the gallery the arrival of the guests, and looking rather pale and washed-out in grey satin and her mother's pearls—felt a throb of selfless joy in the thought of how her own sacrifice of herself had brought the glory and the pride of life to Wilfred. He looked radiantly proud and happy as he walked up the grand staircase by his exquisite bride and saw the admiration and homage which she commanded at every step; and Esther knew—and was brave enough not to shrink from the knowledge—that all her love and devotion and adoration could never have brought that same look of pride and happiness into his eyes that Beryl's beauty had brought. And recognizing in this look her own handiwork in having given Wilfred and Beryl to each other, Esther saw the work of her hands and thought that it was very good.
But Wilfred's friendship was still hers; that she knew, and rejoiced in the knowledge: and it was not long before he left Beryl surrounded by her numerous throng of admirers, and found his way to Esther's side.
As Esther looked up to him in greeting, she saw that there was still a smile in his deep-set eyes; but it was quite a different smile from the one that Beryl had conjured up, and Esther was quick to note the | | 207 difference. The look of enthralling happiness and of triumphant pride had been replaced by an expression of calm affection and deep content.
"Beryl is looking very lovely to-night," she began; "I never saw her look so well."
"Yes, isn't she? That dress suits her to perfection And I always think that a diamond tiara gives a woman a fairy-princess sort of look; don't you?"
"The modern ones do, but not the old ones. I never think there is anything at all fairy-like about Eleanor in the Mershire diamonds," replied Esther, with a smile.
"Not fairy-like exactly; but—what shall I say?—very great-ladyish and distinguished."
"I always told you that Eleanor could be très grande dame, if she liked.
"And I always agreed with you, but laid special emphasis on the option. Now you and your mother cannot help being très grandes dames, whether you like it or not: it's part of yourselves."
"Eleanor always says that when she puts on the Mershire diamonds she feels the respected shades of her ancestors-in-law closing around her," said Esther, still smiling; "and that with a diamond fender on her head and a diamond poultice on her chest a woman can face anything."
"How like her! And it is quite a good description of the Mershire diamonds, too. They have all the solidity and heavy respectability of the mid-Victorian period."
"I know, and I like them for it. They are a type of that age, just as Beryl's fairy-like jewellery is a type of to-day. Things are more beautiful than they used to be, and much more artistic; but I somehow miss the absolute solid comfort of the past generation."| | 208
Westerham shook his head. "I don't agree with you."
"I knew you wouldn't; but, you see, I was brought up in it, and you weren't, and that makes all the difference."
"I think," said Lord Westerham, "that the past generation made the great mistake of confusing comfort with happiness. They thought the two were the same, while they are really fundamentally different. In true happiness there is always a flavour of adventure, while comfort and adventure are at opposite poles."
"I believe you are right," replied Esther; "now you mention it, the word 'comfort' certainly played a large part in the conversation of our parents and our uncles and our aunts. Mamma even now talks of a 'comfortable settling' when she wishes to describe an ideal marriage."
"She would: all her generation would. Now the present generation appreciates luxury, I admit: but I don't think it cares very much about mere comfort. The spirit of adventure is abroad again—that spirit which hibernated through the mid-Victorian era; and therefore I think great things are about to happen—great, splendid, uncomfortable things, which our parents and grandparents would have disapproved of with all their hearts.
It was characteristic of Westerham that he could talk in this abstract way in the midst of a gay and crowded company; and it was equally characteristic of Esther that she could listen to him. Such a conversation at such a time would have bored Beryl to death, besides seeming to her as rank lunacy; but there was a certain detachment about both Esther and Wilfred—a certain aloofness from their surroundings—which | | 209 was as incomprehensible to Beryl as it was to the Duchess, but which was one of the cords which served to draw Esther and Wilfred together. To both of them, in their different ways, it was easy to be in the world yet not of it: like all other human beings they had their limitations, but worldliness could never be one of them.
Their conversation was interrupted by a stir and bustle as the Duke and Duchess left the landing-stage upon the staircase, and went down through the crowd, which quickly divided to make way for them, to the hall below, and so on to the front door, to welcome—with deep bow and curtsy—their Royal guests. Then there came that sudden hush which always precedes the advent of Royalty; and then the band struck up the National Anthem as the host and hostess, with their Royal guests, ascended the grand staircase and passed through the suite of drawing-rooms, while the crowd which lined it bowed low at their approach, as a wheatfield bends before the breeze. It was a slow procession, as there were many distinguished people present with whom Royalty stopped to speak and shake hands, thereby conferring a pleasure to which even the most blasès are not indifferent, and from which the most democratic are not immune.
After the Royalties had passed, Esther said to Lord Westerham, I know it may seem to you very ridiculous, but I never see Royalty without feeling a lump in my throat, and wanting to cry."
"It doesn't seem ridiculous to me at all," he replied; "as a matter of fact, I have exactly the same sort of thrill myself—a sort of electric bell-ringing all down my spine."
Esther looked at him with grateful appreciation. "How nice of you to feel it too!I am so glad that | | 210 you do. And other things give that feeling, as well as Royalty. Weddings, for instance."
"Yes: and the colours of a regiment, and soldiers on the march, and a fire-engine at full speed. All these things give me what I call the Royal thrill."
"They do," replied Esther; "they all make me want to cry, but it is a happy sort of crying—not at all a sad sort. I wonder what the reason is."
"I think I can tell you," replied Westerham, as they strolled into one of the drawing-rooms and sat down on a settee. Now that the Royalties had arrived, the crowd at the top of the staircase broke up, and filled the drawing-rooms with a blaze of beauty and a babble of conversation, excepting the inner drawing-room at the end of the suite, where the Duke and Duchess entertained their Royal guests and a few other chosen friends; and where there was felt that severe absence of crowding and that subdued tone of conversation which are always a sign of the presence of Royalty, and which mean something infinitely more than the mere good manners of well-bred people in the presence of their Sovereign. These things are outward and visible signs of that spirit of reverence which—in spite of modern efforts to disguise or destroy it—still lies at the root of all forms of government and of all forms of religion, and without which mankind can neither rule themselves nor serve their Maker.
"Now tell me why kings and princes and weddings and fire-engines make you have electric bells down your back and me have tears in my eyes," said Esther.
"They have this effect not because of what they are, but of what they represent," replied Westerham, as usual oblivious of his surroundings, and absorbed in an endeavour to express aright the meditations of his heart, and to receive in return the result of the medita- | | 211 tions of his fellows. "They thrill us because they are the signs and symbols of the greatest things in the world; and in perceiving the sign, our hearts instinctively do homage to the thing it represents. When we feel thrills at the sight of a Sovereign and at the sound of the National Anthem, it is not the King as a man nor the tune as an air that stirs our blood: it is the King as an embodied symbol of Authority, and the tune as an audible sign of Patriotism, that fill us with delicious thrills and tears. For the moment we are face to face with Abstract Authority and ear to ear with Abstract Patriotism, and so deep calleth unto deep; and the deep in our own souls responds to the call."
"And I suppose a wedding stirs in us the same way because it is the outward symbol of Love and Marriage," said Esther.
"Precisely: and as the colours of a regiment are the symbol of Victory, and a fire-engine at full speed is the symbol of Succour and Salvation. It is the spirit which informs all these things that thrills us; not the things themselves."
Esther's face suddenly grew very tender. "Christmas thrills me too," she said; "to me it is the symbol of the spirit of Childhood. A Christmas not spent with children seems to me no Christmas at all. It is not so much the individual child that matters, as the fundamental type underlying the separate unit. At Christmas every child becomes for the time being the embodied spirit of Childhood."
"And more than that," added Westerham softly, "it becomes the symbol of the spirit of Childhood embodied and manifested in the Divine: and so the symbol becomes a sacrament."
That smile on Esther's face was so radiant that for | | 212 the moment she was almost beautiful: and Westerham, as he looked at her, thought with a sigh what an ideal of motherhood had been lost in this withered old maid. She had succeeded in convincing him that her youth was indeed over; but that did not prevent him, in the midst of his own happiness, from mourning over her wasted youth.
He felt very tender towards her at that minute. He had become so used to his wife's exuberant vitality that Esther, by contrast, looked to him older and more I faded than she had ever looked before. But this did I not estrange him from her as it would have estranged most men: it only strengthened her appeal to that feminine part of his character which Beryl, in the very nature of things, had never touched. But if he I was half woman in his sympathy with Esther, he was all man in his way of showing it: he asked her to come downstairs to the supper-room and have something to eat and drink, because she was looking tire
Beryl, in the meantime, was enjoying herself immensely with Lord Tamford. She had made a triumphal procession with him through the suite of crowded rooms, battening her vanity upon the obvious sensation which her beauty created even in an assembly where beauty was by no means rare: and now they were having supper together at a little table for two.
"I'll tell you what, Berry," said the young mentor, as he filled her glass with champagne: "you've done awfully well for yourself in marryin' old Westerham. He's regular top-hole; and the more I see of him the better I like him."
The new Countess nodded her tiara. "Yes, Jocko, he really isn't half bad. He doesn't bore me any- | | 213 thing like as much as I expected, and he is most tremendously kind."
"Bit head-in-the-clouds, don't you know? and all that sort of thing," added the Marquis loftily; "but there are worse places for a man's head than in the clouds—much worse places. As you say, he's rather heavy on the chest at times—when he spreads himself on Art and Religion and intellectual things like that, don't you know?—but he's got a lot of sense hidden underneath all his high-flown palaver."
"Yes, he has plenty of sense," agreed the bride. "I consider him quite a reasonable being, taking him all round."
"Then I say you are a lucky young thing; for most husbands aren't reasonable bein's at all—at least, not the husbands of good-lookin' girls like you. They are jealous and fussy, and get all sorts of rotten ideas into their silly heads, till their wives have no fun at all. But good old Wilfred isn't built on those lines; he lets his wife have a good time; gives the poor beast her head goin' uphill, and never puts the break on, or spoils sport out of sheer cussedness. I call old Wilfred a sportsman, and I consider you've done well for yourself, Berry."
"Yes," replied Beryl, "I'm thoroughly contented."
"And you do buy rippin' clothes now you're married and have good old Wilfred's purse to pull at," continued the appraising cousin. "You always knew low to dress yourself—I will say that for you—when you could let yourself go. But that wasn't often.But now——! Well, the fashion-plates aren't in it: that's all I can say. I'd be seen anywhere with you, Berry—that I would—and feel blood-is-thicker-than-water and hands-across-the-sea and for-the-sake-of-auld-lang-syne, don't you know, all the time!"| | 214
"I'm glad you feel proud of me, Jocko," said Beryl simply. She spoke without a shade of irony: the one aim of the childhood of herself and Lord Archibald had been to earn Tamford's praise; and the habit and ideas of childhood die hard.
"Well, I do; proud and pleased, as they say in speeches. And if I'd had a sister I'd have been jolly well satisfied with her if she'd been cut after the same pattern. I can tell you it is a credit to any fellow to be seen about with a young fashion-plate like you. I'm sure when you see the sort of relations that some fellows have, you wonder that the fellows don't go straight and drown themselves! Awful freaks that look as if they'd served their turns as scarecrows, and then started the business on their own, don't you know?"
Beryl laughed sympathetically. "I know the sort. Aren't they dreadful?"
"Simply terrifyin'! And I'll tell you what, Berry"—here Lord Tamford leaned across the table and became very confidential—"if Aunt Esther don't take care, she'll get involved in the scarecrow business; she's beginnin' to look as if she'd got shares in the concern already. I've noticed it for some time. I hinted it to Mother, but you know she never will hear a word against Aunt Esther, and she nearly bit my, head off. But the thing must be seen into, or else she'll qualify for a Home for Incurables, and be past mendin'."
It may seem strange that while Beryl freely discussed her husband with Tamford, she slightly resented it when he laid critical hands upon her cousin Esther; but this again was only another instance of the longevity of childish habits of mind. As a child, Beryl had adored Esther; and—as far as she was now | | 215 capable of adoring anything except her beautiful self—she adored her now. "I am very fond of Cousin Esther," she said rather stiffly.
"So am I; I'm devoted to the old girl, and have been ever since I was a kid. And that's why I don't like to see her makin' a Guy Fawkes of herself as she's got into the habit of doin'. Couldn't you give her a hint?"
Beryl shook her head. "I'm not sure that I could. Although Cousin Esther is so sweet and gentle, there's something rather stately underneath that you can't take liberties with, if you know what I mean."
Lord Tamford nodded. "Rather! Always got the queen up her sleeve, don't you know?—and may play her at any minute."
Beryl laughed. She understood Tamford's jokes so much better than Westerham's theories. "And then," she added, "you see Cousin Esther is quite old; and I dare say when you get really old you begin not to care so much about dress."
"But Mother is older than Aunt Esther," he argued: "five years older, and you never see her that she isn't dressed up to the nines. If the end of the world came to-morrow, you'd fine her Goodness Graciousness in a suitable toilette for the occasion, you bet! None of your young scarecrow costumes for my mother, if you please: not much!"
"But she's married—and a duchess—and all that, don't you see?" replied Beryl, still vaguely trying to defend her beloved Esther.
"I don't see what that's got to do with it. There's no specially smart livery for duchesses except at Coronations and top-hole shows like that: and as for bein' married, you'd think that a woman who'd got | | 216 a husband well in tow wouldn't be so fussy about her looks as one who was still on the marry."
"But Cousin Esther couldn't be on the marry, Jocko: she's much too old for falling in love, and that sort of thing."
"Of course she is," agreed the Marquis, whose measure of time was the same as Beryl's, being viewed from a similar standpoint; "but that's no reason why she shouldn't make herself fit to be seen. She can wear the young willow if she likes; but for goodness' sake let her have a decent frock under it!"
The new Lady Westerham looked thoughtful. "I know that Cousin Esther and people of that age couldn't fall in love; but I wonder if anybody does—even young people, I mean—as they do in novels and poems. What do you think, Jocko?"
Lord Tamford looked very wise. "Well, if you ask me, I should say that the Johnnies who write poems and novels pile up the agony most frightfully. Of course, there is such a thing as fallin' in love: nobody would be such a silly ass as to deny that; but I always think it's the most tremendously overrated business."
"That's just what I think," said Beryl.
"Of course, I've been in love lots of times: all the fellows of my age have, and I don't deny that it's pretty hot and strong while it lasts. But to pretend that it's all that Romeo-and-Juliet and Darby-and-Joan sort of business—or that it lasts for ever—well, I say that's bally rot!"
"Wilfred thinks that what the poets say is true," said Wilfred's wife.
The Marquis smiled indulgently, as at the imaginations of a child. "Oh! old Wilfred's just the sort to spread himself over a thing like love, and to believe | | 217 all the nursery rhymes that are written about it: but there's nothin' in that to write home about," he remarked in the slang of his day. "There is a good deal of the innocent kid about young Wilfred, and—mind you—I think none the worse of him for it, though a fellow can't help laughin' at him a bit on the sly. But if you take my advice, you'll leave him to his Romeo-and-Juliet and Darby-and-Joan ideas, and not try to laugh him out of them: they'll make things a jolly sight better for you than if he'd grown too big for his nursery rhymes. I can tell you that, Berry."
Beryl, as usual, accepted Jocko's dictum as the last word on any subject, and then the two young people finished their supper and went upstairs together.
When the Duchess's party was over, and Lord and Lady Westerham were on their way home in the electric brougham that they kept for town wear, Wilfred put his arm round his wife and would have kissed her, but she drew her slim shoulders out of his embrace.
"Oh! do be careful, Wilfred; you're messing me dreadfully."
Westerham laughed. "What does that matter now that the party is over?"
"It doesn't matter messing my hair now that we are going home: but it will matter dreadfully if you crush my frock."
"Then let me mess your hair alone, sweetheart: I'll be content with that." And the infatuated husband laid his cheek against the golden curls.
But not for long. " Now you are spoiling my tiara," said Beryl, wriggling away from him.
Westerham drew back slightly chilled, and contented himself with seizing the small gloved hand and | | 218 holding it fast. "The Duchess's party was a great success," he said; "she has the gift of success, as well as the social instinct, and so her entertainments always go off well."
Now that her clothes were no longer in jeopardy, Beryl was quite ready to play the loving wife—within reason. "What a funny boy you are for always finding some high-flown reason for things!" she said pleasantly; "for my part, I don't see where gifts and instincts come in. I think Cousin Eleanor's parties go off well simply because she has heaps of money and crowds of well-trained servants. And then the presence of the Royalties always gives spice to things, and makes everything more exciting and cheerful."
"Esther was talking about that," said Westerham, "and saying how the sight of Royalty always made her want to cry."
"Made her want to cry! What on earth for? I don't call that making things more exciting and cheerful."
"It is the same feeling in essence that you call exciting and cheerful," Westerham explained—or rather endeavoured to explain; "don't you know the kind of thrill which makes you want to cry and to shout for joy at the same time?"
"I haven't an idea what you mean."
"I mean the thrill you feel when you see weddings, or processions, or soldiers, or fire-engines, or any other glorious symbols of things."
"But I never want to cry unless I'm miserable: and then I don't do it for fear of spoiling my eye-lashes. And I can't see why you should cry at soldiers, unless they're friends of yours and going out to India; or at fire-engines, unless your own house | | 219 is on fire and they can't put it out. And people never cry at weddings now: it's most dreadfully old-fashioned, even for the bride's mother; and it's shockingly disfiguring. It's really very queer of Cousin Esther to feel like that."
"I don't think it's queer at all."
"Then do these things make you want to cry too, Wilfred?"
"Not cry exactly, because I'm a man. But they give me thrills down my back and lumps in my throat."
Remembering Tamford's wise counsel, Beryl continued to make herself agreeable to her husband. "I shouldn't like to cry because of my eyelashes, but I think I should rather enjoy the thrill feeling. What else gives it to you?"
"But why Christmas more than Michaelmas or Lady Day?"
"Because Christmas is the symbol of the apotheosis of Childhood, and is the festival of the children."
Beryl shrugged her shoulders. "Then I can understand why it makes people want to cry if it reminds them of children. I hate children."
Westerham winced as if he had been struck. "Oh, no, my darling, you don't mean that!"
"Yes, I do. I hate children, because they are so noisy and tiresome: I've always hated them," replied his wife cheerfully, quite unconscious of the fact that it is by remarks such as this that women lower the ideal of womanhood in the eyes of men. "Tell me some more things that give you this thrill," she continued.
Westerham loyally tried to close his eyes to her obtuseness. "I've felt it out hunting, on one of those | | 220 typical hunting mornings when the air seemed to be full of the spirit of sport, and that particular field the temporary embodiment of that spirit," he replied, endeavouring to come down to his wife's level.
With an equally praiseworthy effort she attempted to rise to his. "Oh, then I know what you mean: it's what I call enjoyment; the ' Merry Widow Waltz ' gives it to me with a really good partner; and I've felt it for a new frock and even for a box of marrons glacés from Fuller's. But how funny that you and Cousin Esther should feel like that over Royalties and soldiers and fire-engines and Christmas!"
Even the infatuated Westerham could not go on with the conversation after this, so he wisely changed the subject. However tightly he tried to close his eyes, some glimpses of his wife's limitations could not fail to intrude themselves upon his vision. "I wonder why you always call Esther 'Cousin Esther,'" he said; "surely now that you are raised to the status of a married woman you might call her ' Esther'?"
But Beryl demurred. "Oh! no, Wilfred, I'm sure Aunt Cecilia would not like it. She is always so particular about showing respect to one's elders, and that sort of thing. I believe she'd be as much shocked if I said ' Eleanor' and ' Esther ' as if I said 'Cecilia.'"
Westerham winced again. Did Esther seem as old to Beryl as that? The cruelty of youth hit him in the face, and it was with a sensation of relief that he found himself at his own front-door and so not called upon to make any reply.| | 221
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