Arnold Bennett.

Mr. Prohack online

. (page 26 of 28)
Online LibraryArnold BennettMr. Prohack → online text (page 26 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


restaurant most famous in the United States, to be affianced to the
cleverest fellow she had ever struck, if the wonderful and famous
hostess, Mrs. Prohack, whose desirable presence was due only to Softly's
powerful influence in high circles, could floor her at the very outset
of the conversation? It is a fact that Miss Fancy would have given the
emerald ring off her left first-finger to be able to answer back. All
Miss Fancy could do was to smite Mr. Softly Bishop with a homicidal
glance for that he had not in advance put her wise about something
called the Twelve and Thirteen. It is also a fact that Miss Fancy would
have perished sooner than say to Mrs. Prohack the simple words: "I
haven't the slightest idea what the Twelve and Thirteen are." Eve did
not disguise her impression that Miss Fancy's lapse was very strange and
disturbing.

"I suppose you've seen the new version of the 'Sacre du Prin-temps,'
Miss Fancy," said Mrs. Oswald Morfey, that exceedingly modern and
self-possessed young married lady.

"Not yet," said Miss Fancy, and foolishly added: "We were thinking of
going to-night."

"There won't be any more performances this season," said Ozzie, that
prince of authorities on the universe of entertainment.

And in this way the affair continued between the four, while Mr. Softly
Bishop, abandoning his beloved to her fate, chatted murmuringly with Mr.
Prohack about the Oil Market, as to which of course Mr. Prohack was the
prince of authorities. Mrs. Prohack and her daughter and son-in-law
ranged at ease over all the arts without exception, save the one
art - that of musical comedy - in which Miss Fancy was versed. Mr. Prohack
was amazed at the skilled cruelty of his women. He wanted to say to Miss
Fancy: "Don't you believe it! My wife is only a rather nice ordinary
housekeeping sort of little woman, and as for my daughter, she cooks her
husband's meals - and jolly badly, I bet." He ought to have been pleased
at the discomfiture of Miss Fancy, whom he detested and despised; but he
was not; he yearned to succour her; he even began to like her.

And not Eve and Sissie alone amazed him. Oswald amazed him. Oswald had
changed. His black silk stock had gone the way of his ribboned
eye-glass; his hair was arranged differently; he closely resembled an
average plain man, - he, the unique Ozzie! With all his faults, he had
previously been both good-natured and negligent, but his expression was
now one of sternness and of resolute endeavour. Sissie had already
metamorphosed him. Even now he was obediently following her lead and her
mood. Mr. Prohack's women had evidently determined to revenge themselves
for being asked to meet Miss Fancy at lunch, and Ozzie had been set on
to assist them. Further, Mr. Prohack noticed that Sissie was eyeing her
mother's necklace with a reprehending stare. The next instant he found
himself the target of the same stare. The girl was accusing him of
folly, while questioning Ozzie's definition of the difference between
Georgian and neo-Georgian verse. The girl had apparently become the
censor of society at large.

Mysterious cross-currents ran over the table in all directions. Mr.
Prohack looked around the noisy restaurant packed with tables, and
wondered whether cross-currents were running invisibly over all the
tables, and what was the secret force of fashionable fleeting convention
which enabled women with brains far inferior to his own to use it
effectively for the fighting of sanguinary battles.

At last, when Miss Fancy had been beaten into silence and the other
three were carrying on a brilliant high-browed conversation over the
corpse of her up-to-dateness, Mr. Prohack's nerves reached the point at
which he could tolerate the tragic spectacle no more, and he burst out
vulgarly, in a man-in-the-street vein, chopping off the brilliant
conversation as with a chopper:

"Now, Miss Fancy, tell us something about yourself."

The common-sounding phrase seemed to be a magic formula endowed with the
power to break an awful spell. Miss Fancy gathered herself together,
forgot that she had been defeated, and inaugurated a new battle. She
began to tell the table not something, but almost everything, about
herself, and it soon became apparent that she was no ordinary woman.
She had never had a set-back; in innumerable conversational duels she
had always given the neat and deadly retort, and she had never been
worsted, save by base combinations deliberately engineered against
her - generally by women, whom as a sex she despised even more than men.
Her sincere belief that no biographical detail concerning Miss Fancy was
too small to be uninteresting to the public amounted to a religious
creed; and her memory for details was miraculous. She recalled the exact
total of the takings at any given performance in which she was prominent
in any city of the United States, and she could also give long extracts
from the favourable criticisms of countless important American
newspapers, - by a singular coincidence only unimportant newspapers had
ever mingled blame with their praise of her achievements. She regarded
herself with detachment as a remarkable phenomenon, and therefore she
could impersonally describe her career without any of the ordinary
restraints - just as a shopman might clothe or unclothe a model in his
window. Thus she could display her heart and its history quite
unreservedly, - did they not belong to the public?

The astounded table learnt that Miss Fancy was illustrious in the press
of the United States as having been engaged to be married more often
than any other actress. Yet she had never got as far as the altar,
though once she had reached the church-door - only to be swept away from
it by a cyclone which unhappily finished off the bridegroom. (What grey
and tedious existences Eve and Sissie had led!) Her penultimate
engagement had been to the late Silas Angmering.

"Something told me I should never be his wife," she said vivaciously.
"You know the feeling we women have. And I wasn't much surprised to hear
of his death. I'd refused Silas eight times; then in the end I promised
to marry him by a certain date. He _wouldn't_ take No, poor dear! Well,
_he_ was a gentleman anyway. Of course it was no more than right that he
should put me down in his will, but not every man would have done. In
fact it never happened to me before. Wasn't it strange I should have
that feeling about never being his wife?"

She glanced eagerly at Mr. Prohack and Mr. Prohack's women, and there
was a pause, in which Mr. Softly Bishop said, affectionately regarding
his nose:

"Well, my dear, you'll be _my_ wife, you'll find," and he uttered this
observation in a sharp tone of conviction that made a quite disturbing
impression on the whole company, and not least on Mr. Prohack, who kept
asking himself more and more insistently:

"Why is Softly Bishop marrying Miss Fancy, and why is Miss Fancy
marrying Softly Bishop?"

Mr. Prohack was interrupted in his private enquiry into this enigma by a
very unconventional nudge from Sissie, who silently directed his
attention to Eve, who seemingly wanted it.

"Your friend seems anxious to speak to you," murmured Eve, in a low,
rather roguish voice.

'His friend' was Lady Massulam, who was just concluding a solitary lunch
at a near table; he had not noticed her, being still sadly remiss in the
business of existing fully in a fashionable restaurant. Lady Massulam's
eyes confirmed Eve's statement.

"I'm sure Miss Fancy will excuse you for a moment," said Eve.

"Oh! Please!" implored Miss Fancy, grandly.

Mr. Prohack self-consciously carried his lankness and his big head
across to Lady Massulam's table. She looked up at him with a composed
but romantic smile. That is to say that Mr. Prohack deemed it romantic;
and he leaned over the table and over Lady Massulam in a manner romantic
to match.

"I'm just going off," said she.

Simple words, from a portly and mature lady - yet for Mr. Prohack they
were charged with all sorts of delicious secondary significances.

"What _is_ the difference between her and Eve?" he asked himself, and
then replied to the question in a flash of inspiration: "I am romantic
to her, and I am not romantic to Eve." He liked this ingenious
explanation.

"I wanted to tell you," said she gravely, with beautiful melancholy,
"Charles is _flambé_. He is done in. I cannot help him. He will not let
me; but if I see him to-night when he returns to town I shall send him
to you. He is very young, very difficult, but I shall insist that he
goes to you."

"How kind you are!" said Mr. Prohack, touched.

Lady Massulam rose, shook hands, seemed to blush, and departed. An
interview as brief as it had been strange! Mr. Prohack was thrilled, not
at all by the announcement of Charlie's danger, perhaps humiliation, but
by the attitude of Lady Massulam. He had his plans for Charlie. He had
no plans affecting Lady Massulam.

Mr. Softly Bishop's luncheon had developed during the short absence of
Mr. Prohack. It's splendour, great from the first, had increased; if
tables ever do groan, which is perhaps doubtful, the table was certainly
groaning; Mr. Softly Bishop was just dismissing, with bland and
negligent approval, the major domo of the restaurant, with whom, like
all truly important personages, he appeared to be on intimate terms. But
the chief development of the luncheon disclosed itself in the
conversation. Mr. Softly Bishop had now taken charge of the talk and was
expatiating to a hushed and crushed audience his plans for a starring
world-tour for his future wife, who listened to them with genuine
admiration on her violet-tinted face.

"Eliza won't be in it with me when I come back," she exclaimed suddenly,
with deep conviction, with anticipatory bliss, with a kind of rancorous
ferocity.

Mr. Prohack understood. Miss Fancy was uncompromisingly jealous of her
half-sister's renown. To outdo that renown was the main object of her
life, and Mr. Softly Bishop's claim on her lay in the fact that he had
shown her how to accomplish her end and was taking charge of the
arrangements. Mr. Softly Bishop was her trainer and her manager; he had
dazzled her by the variety and ingenuity of his resourceful schemes; and
his power over her was based on a continual implied menace that if she
did not strictly obey all his behests she would fail to realise her
supreme desire.

And when Mr. Softly Bishop gradually drew Ozzie into a technical
tête-à-tête, Mr. Prohack understood further why Ozzie had been invited
to the feast. Upon certain branches of Mr. Bishop's theatrical schemes
Ozzie was an acknowledged expert, and Mr. Bishop was obtaining, for the
price of a luncheon, the fruity knowledge and wisdom acquired by Ozzie
during long years of close attention to business.

For Mr. Prohack it was an enthralling scene. The luncheon closed
gorgeously upon the finest cigars and cigarettes, the finest coffee, and
the finest liqueurs that the unique establishment could provide. Sissie
refused every allurement except coffee, and Miss Fancy was permitted
nothing but coffee.

"Do not forget your throat, my dear," Mr. Softly Bishop authoritatively
interjected into Miss Fancy's circumstantial recital of the
expensiveness of the bouquets which had been hurled at her in the New
National Theatre at Washington.

"And by the way," (looking at his watch), "do not forget the appointment
with the elocutionist."

"But aren't you coming with me?" demanded Miss Fancy alarmed. Already
she was learning the habit of helplessness - so attractive to men and so
useful to them.

These remarks broke up the luncheon party, which all the guests assured
the deprecating host had been perfectly delightful, with the implied
addition that it had also constituted the crown and summit of their
careers. Eve and Sissie were prodigious in superlatives to such an
extent that Mr. Prohack began to fear for Mr. Softly Bishop's capacity
to assimilate the cruder forms of flattery. His fear, however, was
unnecessary. When the host and his beloved departed Miss Fancy was still
recounting tit-bits of her biography.

"But I'll tell you the rest another time," she cried from the moving
car.

She had emphatically won the second battle. From the first blow she had
never even looked like losing. And she had shown no mercy, quite
properly following the maxim that war is war. Eve and Sissie seemed to
rise with difficulty to their knees, after the ruthless adversary, tired
of standing on their prostrate form, had scornfully walked away.



III


"Well!" sighed Mrs. Prohack, with the maximum of expressiveness,
glancing at her daughter as one woman of the world at another. They were
lingering, as it were convalescent after the severe attack and defeat,
in the foyer of the hotel.

"Well!" sighed Sissie, flattered by the glance, and firmly taking her
place in the fabric of society. "Well, father, we always knew you had
some queer friends, but really these were the limit! And the
extravagance of the thing! That luncheon must have cost at least twenty
pounds, - and I do believe he had special flowers, too. When I think of
the waste of money and time that goes on daily in places like these, I
wonder there's any England left. It ought to be stopped by law."

"My child," said Mr. Prohack. "I observe with approbation that you are
beginning to sit up and take notice. Centuries already divide you from
the innocent creature who used to devote her days and nights to the
teaching of dancing to persons who had no conception of the seriousness
of life. I agree with your general criticism, but let us remember that
all this wickedness does not date from the day before yesterday. It's
been flourishing for some thousands of years, and all prophecies about
it being over-taken by Nemesis have proved false. Still, I'm glad you've
turned over a new leaf."

Sissie discreetly but unmistakably tossed her young head.

"Oswald, dearest," said she. "It's time you were off."

"It is," Ozzie agreed, and off he went, to resume the serious struggle
for existence, - he who until quite recently had followed the great
theatrical convention that though space may be a reality, time is not.

"I don't mind the extravagance, because after all it's good for trade,"
said Eve. "What I - "

"Mother darling!" Sissie protested. "Where do you get these
extraordinary ideas from about luxury being good for trade? Surely you
ought to know - "

"I daresay I ought to know all sorts of things I don't know," said Eve
with dignity. "But there's one thing I do know, and that is that the
style of those two dreadful people was absolutely the worst I've ever
met. The way that woman gabbled - and all about herself; and what an
accent, and the way she held her fork!"

"Lady," said Mr. Prohack. "Don't be angry because she beat you."

"Beat me!"

"Yes. Beat you. Both of you. You talked her to a standstill at first;
but you couldn't keep it up. Then she began and she talked you to a
standstill, and she could keep it up. She left you for all practical
purposes dead on the field, my tigresses. And I'm very sorry for her,"
he added.

"Dad," said Sissie sternly. "Why do you always try to be so clever with
us? You know as well as we do that she's a _creature_, and that there's
nothing to be said for her at all."

"Nothing to be said for her!" Mr. Prohack smiled tolerantly. "Why she
was the star of the universe for Silas Angmering, the founder of our
fortunes. She was the finest woman he'd ever met. And Angmering was a
clever fellow, let me tell you. You call her a creature. Yes, the
creature of destiny, like all of us, except of course you. I beg to
inform you that Miss Fancy went out of this hotel a victim, an
unconscious victim, but a victim. She is going to be exploited. Mr.
Softly Bishop, my co-heir, will run her for all she is worth. He will
make a lot of money out of her. He will make her work as she has never
worked before. He will put a value on all her talents, for his own ends.
And he will deprive her of most of her accustomed pleasures. In fifteen
years there'll be nothing left of Miss Fancy except an exhausted wreck
with a spurious reputation, but Mr. Softly Bishop will still be in his
prime and in the full enjoyment of life, and he will spend on himself
the riches that she has made for him and allow her about sixpence a
week; and the most tragic and terrible thing of all is that she will
think she owes everything to him! No! If I was capable of weeping, I
should have wept at the pathos of the spectacle of Miss Fancy as she
left us just now unconscious of her fate and revelling in the most
absurd illusions. That poor defenceless woman, who has had the
misfortune not to please you, is heading straight for a life-long
martyrdom." Mr. Prohack ceased impressively.

"And serve her right!" said Eve. "I've met cats in my time, but - " And
Eve also ceased.

"And I am not sure," added Mr. Prohack, still impressively. "And I am
not sure that the ingenuous and excellent Oswald Morfey is not heading
straight in the same direction." And he gazed at his adored daughter,
who exhibited a faint flush, and then laughed lightly. "Yes," said Mr.
Prohack, "you are very smart, my girl. If you had shown violence you
would have made a sad mistake. That you should laugh with such a
brilliant imitation of naturalness gives me hopes of you. Let us seek
Carthew and the car. Mr. Bishop's luncheon, though I admit it was
exceedingly painful, has, I trust, not been without its useful lessons
to us, and I do not regret it. For myself I admit it has taught me that
even the finest and most agreeable women, such as those with whom I have
been careful to sourround myself in my domestic existence, are monsters
of cruelty. Not that I care."

"I've arranged with mamma that you shall come to dinner to-night," said
Sissie. "No formality, please."

"Mayn't your mother wear her pearls?" asked Mr. Prohack.

"I hope you noticed, Arthur," said Eve with triumphant satisfaction,
"how your Miss Fancy was careful to keep off the subject of jewels."

"Mother's pearls," said Sissie primly, "are mother's affair."

Mr. Prohack did not feel at all happy.

"And yet," he asked himself. "What have I done? I am perfectly
innocent."



IV


"I never in all my life," said Sissie, "saw you eat so much, dad. And I
think it's a great compliment to my cooking. In fact I'm bursting with
modest pride."

"Well," replied Mr. Prohack, who had undoubtedly eaten rather too much,
"take it how you like. I do believe I could do with a bit more of this
stuff that imitates an omelette but obviously isn't one."

"Oh! But there isn't any more!" said Sissie, somewhat dashed.

"No more! Good heavens! Then have you got some cheese, or anything of
that sort?"

"No. I don't keep cheese in the place. You see, the smell of it in these
little flats - "

"Any bread? Anything at all?"

"I'm afraid we've finished up pretty nearly all there was, except
Ozzie's egg for breakfast to-morrow morning."

"This is serious," observed Mr. Prohack, tapping enquiringly the
superficies of his digestive apparatus.

"Arthur!" cried Eve. "Why are you such a tease to-night? You're only
trying to make the child feel awkward. You know you've had quite enough.
And I'm sure it was all very cleverly cooked - considering. You'll be ill
in the middle of the night if you keep on, and then I shall have to get
up and look after you, as usual." Eve had the air of defending her
daughter, but something, some reserve in her voice, showed that she was
defending, not her daughter, but merely and generally the whole race of
house-wives against the whole race of consuming and hypercritical males;
she was even defending the Eve who had provided much-criticised meals in
the distant past. Such was her skill that she could do this while
implying, so subtly yet so effectively, that Sissie, the wicked,
shameless, mamma-scorning bride, was by no means forgiven in the secret
heart of the mother.

"You are doubtless right, lady," Mr. Prohack agreed. "You always could
judge better than I could myself when I had had enough, and what would
be the ultimate consequences of my eating. And as for your lessons in
manners, what an ill-bred lout I was before I met you, and what an
impossible person I should have been had you not taken me in hand night
and day for all these years! It isn't that I'm worse than the average
husband; it is merely that wives are the sole repositories of the
civilising influence. Were it not for them we should still be tearing
steaks to pieces with our fingers. I daresay I have eaten enough - anyhow
I've had far more than anybody else - and even if I hadn't, it would not
be at all nice of me not to pretend that I hadn't. And after all, if the
worst comes to the worst, I can always have a slice of cold beef and a
glass of beer when I get home, can't I?"

Sissie, though blushing ever so little, maintained an excellent front.
She certainly looked dainty and charming, - more specifically so than she
had ever looked; indeed, utterly the young bride. She was in morning
dress, to comply with her own edict against formality, and also to mark
her new, enthusiastic disapproval of the modern craze for luxurious
display; but it was a delightful, if inexpensive, dress. She had taken
considerable trouble over the family dinner, devising, concocting,
cooking, and presiding over it from beginning to end, and being
consistently bright, wise, able, and resourceful throughout - an apostle
of chafing-dish cookery determined to prove that chafing-dish cookery
combined efficiency, toothsomeness and economy to a degree never before
known. And she had neatly pointed out more than once that waste was
impossible under her system and that, servants being dispensed with, the
great originating cause of waste had indeed been radically removed. She
had not informed her guests of the precise cost in money of the
unprecedentedly cheap and nourishing meal, but she had come near to
doing so; and she would surely have indicated that there had been
neither too much nor too little, but just amply sufficient, had not her
absurd and contrarious father displayed a not uncharacteristic lack of
tact at the closing stage of the ingenious collation.

Moreover, she seemed, despite her generous build, to have somehow fitted
herself to the small size of the flat. She did not dwarf it, as clumsier
women are apt to dwarf their tiny homes in the centre of London. On the
contrary she gave to it the illusion of spaciousness; and beyond
question she had in a surprisingly short time transformed it from a
bachelor's flat into a conjugal nest, cushiony, flowery, knicknacky, and
perilously seductive to the eye without being too reassuring to the
limbs.

Mr. Prohack was accepting a cigarette, having been told that Ozzie never
smoked cigars, when there was a great ring which filled the entire flat
as the last trump may be expected to fill the entire earth, and Mr.
Prohack dropped the cigarette, muttering:

"I think I'll smoke that afterwards."

"Good gracious!" the flat mistress exclaimed. "I wonder who that can be.
Just go and see, Ozzie, darling." And she looked at Ozzie as if to say:
"I hope it isn't one of your indiscreet bachelor friends."

Ozzie hastened obediently out.

"It may be Charlie," ventured Eve. "Wouldn't it be nice if he called?"

"Yes, wouldn't it?" Sissie agreed. "I did 'phone him up to try to get
him to dinner, but naturally he was away for the day. He's always as
invisible as a millionaire nowadays. Besides I feel somehow this place
would be too much, too humble, for the mighty Charles. Buckingham Palace
would be more in his line. But we can't all be speculators and
profiteers."

"Sissie!" protested their mother mildly.

After mysterious and intriguing noises at the front-door had finished,
and the front-door had made the whole flat vibrate to its bang, Ozzie
puffed into the room with three packages, the two smaller being piled
upon the third.

"They're addressed to you," said Ozzie to his father-in-law.

"Did you give the man anything?" Sissie asked quickly.

"No, it was Carthew and the parlourmaid - Machin, is her name?"

"Oh!" said Sissie, apparently relieved.

"Now let us see," said Mr. Prohack, starting at once upon the packages.

"Don't waste that string, dad," Sissie enjoined him anxiously.

"Eh? What do you say?" murmured Mr. Prohack, carefully cutting string on
all sides of all packages, and tearing first-rate brown paper into
useless strips. He produced from the packages four bottles of champagne
of four different brands, a quantity of pâté de foie gras, a jar of


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 26 28

Online LibraryArnold BennettMr. Prohack → online text (page 26 of 28)