E. F. (Edward Frederic) Benson.

Thorley Weir online

. (page 1 of 21)
Online LibraryE. F. (Edward Frederic) BensonThorley Weir → online text (page 1 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


E-text prepared by Clare Graham and Marc D'Hooghe
(http://www.freeliterature.org) from page images generously made available
by HathiTrust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org/digital_library)





Author of "The Image in the Sand," "Paul," etc.

Philadelphia & London
J. B. Lippincott Company




The hottest day of all days in the hottest June of all Junes was
beginning to abate its burning, and the inhabitants of close-packed
cities and their perspiring congregations cherished the hope that
before long some semblance of briskness might return into the ardent
streets. Providence, it would appear, justly resentful at the
long-continued complaints that hot summers were altogether a thing of
the past, had determined to show that something could still be done in
that line, but this rejoinder, humorous at first, had long ago ceased
to amuse. From morning till night for the last six weeks an unveiled
sun had shed a terrific ray on to the baked pavements and reverberating
house-walls, but to-day had beaten all previous records, and a solemn
glee pervaded the meteorological offices, the reports of which seemed
to claim a sort of proprietary credit in the readings of their
incredible thermometers.

Under these conditions it was with a sigh of relief that Arthur
Craddock subsided into the corner-seat of a first-class smoking
carriage at Paddington, finding that it was smoking, figuratively
speaking, in less specialized a sense than that intended by the
railway-company, for it had been standing for an hour or two in the
sun outside the station. But he had clear notions about the risk of
chill even on so hot a day, and when the train moved out from the dusky
glass vault, he drew up the window beside which he sat, for it was
impossible for him to take a seat with his back to the direction of
progress, since the sight of receding landscape always made him feel
slightly unwell. But, as he was alone in his carriage, there was no
reason why he should not refresh his clay-coloured face with a mist of
wall-flower scent which he squirted delicately over his forehead and
closed eyes from a bottle in his silver-mounted dressing-case. Then he
pulled down all the blinds in his carriage and sitting quite still in
this restorative gloom indulged in pleasant anticipations.

He was a very large stout person, wearing his hair, which was beginning
to grow thin, though no hint of greyness invaded its sleek blackness,
conspicuously long. Round his ears and the back of his head it was
still thick, but it no longer felt capable of growth on the top of
his high peaked head, and in consequence he brushed it from the
territories on the left side of his head over the top of his bald
skull, and mingled the extremities of these locks with those that
grew on the territories on the right of his head. It might thus be
hoped that short-sighted and unobservant persons would come to the
gratifying conclusion that the thatch was complete. He wore a small
reddish moustache which in the centre of his immense colourless face
might remind a Biblical beholder of the Burning Bush in the desert of
Sin, for he looked vaguely debauched (which he was not) and overfed
(which was probable to the verge of certainty). His hands, of which
he was exceedingly proud, were small and white and plump; they were
carefully manicured and decorated with a couple of rings, each set with
a large cabochon stone. When, as now, they were not otherwise occupied,
he habitually used one of them to caress the side of this desert of
Sin, as if to make sure that no whisker was surreptitiously sprouting
there. In dress, though he was certainly old enough to know better, he
affected the contemporary style of a fashionable young man, and his
brown flannel suit had evidently the benediction of the tailor fresh
upon it. His tie, in which was pinned a remarkably fine pearl, was
slightly more vivid than his suit, but of the same colour as his socks,
a smooth two inches of which appeared below his turned-up trousers, and
his shirt had a stripe of the same colour as his tie. No watch-chain
glittered on the amplitude where it would naturally repose, but on his
left wrist he wore a narrow band of gold braid with a lady's watch set
in it. A white straw hat and brown shoes were the alpha and omega of
his costume.

Though his face was singularly unwrinkled, except for rather heavy bags
of loose skin below his eyes, it was quite evident that Arthur Craddock
had left youth far behind him, but it would have been an imprudent man
who would have wagered as to his ability to guess it within the limits
of four or five years, for his corpulence was of the somewhat gross
sort that may come early to an inactive man, in whose sedentary day
dinner is something of an event. But it would not have required a very
subtle physiognomist to conjecture for him an alert and athletic mind.
His small grey eyes, which were unsurmounted by any hint of eyebrow,
were, though a little red and moist, of a singular intensity in focus,
and as active in poise and dart as a hovering dragon-fly, while even
in repose they wore a notably watchful and observant look. His hands,
too, which afforded him so constant a gratification, were undeniably
the hands of an artist, long-fingered in proportion to the palms, and
taper-nailed. Artist he was, too, to the very tips of those pink and
shining triumphs of the manicurist, and though he neither painted nor
played nor set forth on adventures in romance or poetry, his judgment
and perception in all such achievements on the part of others was a
marvel of unerring instinct, and was solidly based on an unrivalled
knowledge of the arts. Not only, too, could he appreciate and condemn
with faultless acumen, but side by side with that gift, and totally
distinct from it, he had an astonishing _flair_ for perceiving what
the public would appreciate, and just as he was seldom at fault in
true artistic judgment, so also was he an accurate appraiser of the
money-earning value of play or picture. He was, it may be stated, not
unconnected with the artistic columns of the daily press, and the
frequent articles he contributed to three leading papers on pictures,
concerts and plays, were often masterpieces of criticism, while at
other times and for other reasons he plentifully belauded work in
which, though he might artistically despise it, he was financially
interested. His critical powers and the practical use to which he put
them in purchases and in these penetrating paragraphs had proved most
remunerative to him during these last fifteen or twenty years, and he
had already laid by a very comfortable provision for his declining
days, which he sincerely hoped were as yet very far off. He was fond
of money, and, very wisely, had not the least objection to spending it
in works of art which gave him pleasure, especially when his judgment
told him that they would go up in value. Then, if a picture or a bronze
could be sold again at a much higher price than that which he paid
for it, he would part with it without any agony of reluctance. These
transactions were conducted unobtrusively and it occurred to nobody to
call him a dealer. If such a supposition ever occurred to himself, he
put it from him with the utmost promptitude. But every quarter he paid
the rent of Thistleton's Gallery in Bond Street, from which so many of
the English masters set forth on their voyage to the United States.

His immediate anticipations, as has been already remarked, were
pleasurable, for the Thames-side house at Thorley where he was to dine
and sleep would certainly be a refreshing exchange from the baking
airlessness of town. It was true that there would be nothing special in
the way of dinner to look forward to, for his host Philip Wroughton was
a penurious dyspeptic of long but hypochondriacal standing, and Arthur
Craddock, made wise by a previous experience, had directed his valet to
take with him certain palatable and nutritious biscuits in case dinner
proved to be not only plain in quality but deficient in quantity. But
there were two attractions which he was sure of finding there, each of
which more than compensated the certain short-comings of the table.
These were Philip Wroughton's daughter and Philip Wroughton's Reynolds:
briefly, he hoped to possess himself of both.

It was impossible to decide between the rival excellencies of these.
The Reynolds picture was exquisite: it represented his host's
great-grandmother. But Joyce Wroughton his host's daughter might
have sat in person for it, and the artist would have congratulated
himself on having so supremely caught the frank charm and vigour of
her beauty. More than most of the master's portraits it set forth a
breezy and glorious vitality; it was as if Diana and an Amazon had
been ancestresses to the sitter, in so swift and active a poise the
slim white-clad figure paused with head turned and beckoning hand and
smile before it passed up the glade of dark-foliaged trees behind it.
How often had Craddock seen Joyce Wroughton in just such a momentary
attitude as she swung across the lawn from her punting on the river,
and turned to call her collies lest they should enter the tent where
her father sat and disturb him at his employment of doing nothing at
all. Craddock, sluggish of blood and corpulent of limb, found a charm
of wonderful potency in the girl's lithe and athletic youth, and his
own subtle intricate-weaving mind admired hardly less the serenity and
simplicity of hers, which seemed as untroubled and unmorbid as that
which he would conjecture for some white Hellenic marble. It cannot be
truthfully stated that in the common acceptance of the word he was in
love with her, but he immensely admired her, and, being of the age when
a man says to himself that if he intends to marry he must without delay
put out from the harbour of his bachelorhood, he had decided to set his
sails. She, only just twenty years of age, was more than a quarter of
a century his junior, but this seemed to him a perfectly satisfactory
chronology, since for full twenty years more her beauty would but ripen
and develop.

His desire to possess himself of the Reynolds portrait was in a sense
more altruistic, since he did not propose to keep it himself. He was
prepared to offer to the present owner of it what would certainly
appear to one not conversant with salesrooms a very generous price, and
he was also prepared to take a far more generous price for it himself
from an American friend who was victim to a trans-Atlantic ambition to
possess a dozen portraits by this master. He scarcely knew a picture
from a statue, but he wanted pictures, and Craddock in previous
transactions with him had learned not to be shy of asking enormous sums
for them, since Mr. William P. Ward's comment was invariable, laconic
and satisfactory. "I'm sure I'm very much indebted to you," was all he
said, and proceeded to discharge his indebtedness.

Craddock's precautions with regard to the sun that beat on the carriage
windows were quite successful, and he felt cool and presentable when
he was shown into this riverside house and out again onto the lawn that
bordered the Thames where tea was laid under the big plane tree that
shaded a drowsy area of cool green. Joyce, inimitable save for the
foreshadowing Sir Joshua, rose to receive him, forgetting to turn off
the water from the urn which was ministering to the teapot. Upon which
a thin hand came out of an encompassing chair, and a rather fretful
voice said:

"The tea will be drowned, Joyce. Oh, is that Mr. Craddock? Charmed."

Having saved the tea from drowning, Philip Wroughton gave Craddock a
sufficiently cordial welcome. He did not rise from his basket chair,
but extended a welcoming hand. He had a footstool to keep his feet from
any risk of damp from the scorched and arid grass, and a thin plaid
shawl was laid across his knees, as a preventative of miasmic humours
reaching those joints. In person he was a wizen bird-eyed little man,
fleshless and hollow-cheeked, and grey-haired, and by the side of his
daughter he looked like a dried Normandy pippin compared to a fresh
apple, sun-tinted and vivid-skinned. Beside him, chiefly concealed from
view by the scarlet sunshade which cast a red glow on to her face, sat
his mother, old Lady Crowborough, who was by far the most juvenile of
any company in which she found herself. Not being on speaking terms
with her elder son (though she spoke about him a good deal) she stayed
with Philip whenever she found it convenient, and gave him a great deal
of good advice, which he seldom acted upon. She delighted in her age,
which she habitually exaggerated, and had now for several years said
that she was ninety, though as a matter of fact she would not attain
that agreeable age for several years yet. She was remarkable for her
shrewdness, her memory and her health, and wore a rather girlish and
simple costume with a flapping linen sun-bonnet. Time, that inexorable
accountant, seemed to have passed over her page, and her face was still
marvellously soft and unwrinkled, and her sight and hearing were yet
acute and undimmed. Arthur Craddock had not expected to find her here,
and he was not sure that the discovery pleased him, for she always
produced in him a sensation of being detected.

Philip Wroughton continued his low-voiced and languid phrases of

"Charmed to see you," he said. "You know my mother, do you not? It is
good of you to come down and see us in our retreat. I, with my wretched
health, as you know, cannot leave home, and Joyce really prefers the
river and her dogs and perhaps the society of her poor old father to
the distractions of town. Eh, Joyce?"

Joyce might or might not have endorsed the filial sentiments thus
attributed to her, but her opportunity of doing so was snatched from
her by her grandmother who endorsed none of these things.

"It's all stuff and nonsense about your health, Philip," she said. "You
would be as strong as me if you only would put your medicine bottles
into the grate, and eat good nourishing food, instead of the slops
you stuff yourself with. And as for Joyce preferring to spend her time
with you, instead of dancing and flirting with all the agreeable young
fellows in London, you know quite well that it's you who keep her mewed
up here to carry your cushions and pour out your medicines and put up
your umbrella."

Joyce interrupted this recital of menial duties with a laugh.

"Granny, darling," she said, "how many lumps of sugar?"

"Three if they're decent big ones," said Lady Crowborough with
decision. "Tell us what's going on in town, Mr. Craddock."

Arthur Craddock habitually made himself agreeable when it was worth
while, and here he had three persons whom he desired to stand well
with - Philip Wroughton for the sake of the Reynolds, Joyce for her own
sake, and Lady Crowborough for reasons of self-protection.

"A burning fiery furnace is going on in town, my dear lady," he said.
"The heat has been a torture, and I only hope I have been expiating
some crime. The worst of it is that I have searched my memory without
any success for something I have done to deserve these flames. But I
seem to have been almost priggishly virtuous. What do you think I can
have done, Miss Joyce?"

Joyce put the three decent lumps into her grandmother's tea, and
laughed again. She always felt a certain slight physical repulsion for
this stout white man, though she recognised his agreeable qualities.

"Ah, how can I tell?" she said. "You have not made me your confessor."

Mr. Craddock remembered that he would probably not get very much
dinner, and took a large soft bun with sugar on the top of it.

"I instantly offer you the post," he said, "though I can still think
of nothing to confess. You will have a sinecure. And yet after all it
was one's own choice to stop in town, and certainly there have been
pleasant things going on. I suppose, too, that at this moment the
keenness of my pleasure in sitting on this delicious lawn in the shade
and coolness of your beautiful plane tree is enhanced by the contrast
with the furnace I have escaped from. And will you take me out again
in your punt after tea, as you did when I was here last? All the way
down I have had a prospective vision of you looking like a Victory off
some Greek frieze with your punt-pole, and of myself reclining on the
cushions like - like a middle-aged but unintoxicated Silenus."

This speech, since not addressed to Lady Crowborough, was too lengthy
for her taste.

"Nasty uncomfortable things are punts," she observed, "going crawling
along with one person poking and fuddling away among the mud and eels
at the bottom of the river, and dribbling the water from the pole over
the other. Joyce made me go out with her yesterday, and one of her
great dogs sat on my lap, and the other panted and slobbered over my
frock, while the sun frizzled the marrow out of my bones. If I must go
on the river, give me a motor-boat that takes you along instead of
going backwards half the time."

"I think I shall not find it too chilly in the punt to-night, Joyce,"
said her father, "if I take the shawl that is next thickest to the one
I have here. Or perhaps it would be more prudent to take both. Will you
see to that, my dear, when you have finished tea, and tell them also to
put dinner a quarter of an hour later. Then I shall be able to rest for
a little after we get in. Let us start very soon. Bring Mr. Craddock
one of my shawls, too; he will be likely to find it chilly after the
heat of town. A Shetland wool shawl, Mr. Craddock, I find keeps one
warm without any feeling of weight."

Lady Crowborough's impatience at her son's hygienic precautions fizzed
and spurted again at this.

"And bring me my cough-drops, Joyce," she said, "and my goloshes, and
my little fur-cape, and a digestive pill, and my liver-mixture. And
don't forget to take some cotton wool, to put in your ears, and the
eye-lotion. Lord save us, Philip! You and your Shetland shawls!"

"I envy you your robustness, dear mother," said he. "I only wish you
had bequeathed me more of it."

Lady Crowborough had finished tea, and accompanied Joyce on her errand
of Shetland shawls, thus leaving the two men together.

"Joyce will bring the punt around in ten minutes," said her father,
"and in the interval I shall be glad to have a chat with you, Mr.
Craddock. I have been considering the question of selling the
Reynolds, if you remember our talk when you were last here, and I have
come to the conclusion that it is really my duty to do so. I feel that
I ought to spend next winter in some warm and sunny climate, where I
may have a chance of recovering some measure of my ruined health. But
that of course would cost money, and my wretched poverty puts it out
of the question for me, unless I can sell some such possession. Joyce,
too, poor girl, will enjoy a greater stir and gaiety than I can give
her here. There is little enough of it in her life, though I know she
finds compensation from its absence in the sedulous care with which she
insists on looking after me. I dare say there will not be many more
years of invalid-nursing before her. All I can do is to make them as
little tedious as may be. Indeed, it is chiefly for her sake that I
contemplate the sale of this picture."

He paused a moment and lit a curiously-smelling cigarette which
counteracted a tendency to hay-fever. Like many people he was strangely
credulous about his own statements, and came to believe them almost as
soon as they were made. Indeed, on this occasion, before his cigarette
was well alight, he fancied that in part at any rate his plans of
wintering in some warm climate had been made for Joyce's sake.

"I think you mentioned some number of pounds you thought you could get
me for my great-grandmother's picture," he said. "Five thousand? Was
that the amount? I have no head for figures. Yes. And an American, was
it not? I hate the thought of my picture going to America but poor men
like me must not mind being kicked and plundered by the golden West.
Probably it would be hung up in some _abattoir_, where oxen are driven
in at one end, and tinned meat taken out at the other. And for once my
mother agrees with my determination to sell it. She says that I cannot
afford to have such a large cheque hanging framed in my study."

Arthur Craddock did not find much difficulty in sorting the grain from
the husk, in this very characteristic speech. But he wisely treated it
all as grain.

"I know well your solicitude for Miss Joyce's happiness," he said. "And
I need not tell you how much it honours you. But with regard to the
future home of your delightful picture I can assure you that there is
no _abattoir_ awaiting it. Mr. Ward has half a dozen Reynolds already,
and some very notable examples among them. And, as I told you, I think
there is no doubt he would give five thousand for it."

He caressed the side of his face, and finding no disconcerting whisker
there, wondered how much he would actually venture to charge Mr. Ward
for the picture.

"In fact I offer you five thousand for it here and now," he said. "Ah,
here is Miss Joyce in her punt coming for us."

Philip Wroughton dismissed this insignificant interruption.

"Then call to her, Mr. Craddock," he said, "if you will be so good and
tell her we shall be ready in five minutes. I cannot raise my voice
above the ordinary tone of speech without excruciating pain. She will
take a little turn in her punt, and come back for us. You will excuse
me if I shut my ears when you shout; a loud noise tears my nerves to

Arthur Craddock got up.

"I will go and tell her," he said.

"So good of you: I am ashamed to trouble you," said Wroughton, not

He walked down to the edge of the lawn, where was the landing-stage.

"We are talking business, Miss Joyce," he said, "so will you come back
for us in five minutes. You have just stepped off some Greek frieze of
the best period, let me tell you. I long to recline like a teetotal
Silenus of the worst period on those cushions. In five minutes, then?"

Joyce leaned towards him on her punt-pole and spoke low.

"Oh, Mr. Craddock," she said. "Are you talking about the Reynolds?
Father told me he was thinking of selling it. Do persuade him not to. I
am so fond of it."

She gave him a little friendly nod and smile.

"Do try," she said. "Yes, I will come back in five minutes. There's a
swans' nest among the reeds down there, and I will just go to see if
the cygnets are hatched out yet."

Wroughton looked languidly at him on his return.

"Joyce has a ridiculous affection for that portrait," he said, "and I
have a reasonable affection for it. I can't afford to look at it: I am
far more in need of a suitable winter climate than of any work of art.
Yet sometimes I wish that these Pactolus-people had left us alone."

This was not a strictly logical attitude, for it was obviously possible
to refuse the offer, and leave the Pactolus-people alone. Nothing
more than an opportunity had been offered him, of which he was free
to take advantage or not, just as he chose. As for Craddock, he felt
himself advantageously placed, for if he upheld Joyce's wish, he would
ingratiate himself with her, while if the sale took place, he would
reap an extremely handsome profit himself. For the moment the spell of
the riverside Diana was the most potent.

"I can understand Miss Joyce's feeling," he said, "and yours also,
when you wish that the Pactolus-people as you so rightly call them had
left you alone. I respect those feelings, I share and endorse them.
So let us discuss the question no further. I will tell my friend that
I cannot induce you to part with your picture. No doubt he will find
other owners not so sensitive and fine as you and Miss Joyce. Of course
he will be disappointed, but equally of course I gave him to understand
that I could in no way promise success in the enterprise."

Even as he spoke the balance wavered. He could tell Joyce that he had
urged her father not to part with his picture, and her gratitude would
be earned, and he knew that he wanted that more than he wanted to
gratify her by his success. Thus it was satisfactory to find that he
had not disturbed the stability of Wroughton's determination, and his
profit was safe also.

"Ah, that is all very well for you," said Wroughton, "with your robust

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryE. F. (Edward Frederic) BensonThorley Weir → online text (page 1 of 21)