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caviare, and several bunches of grapes that must have been grown under
the most unnatural and costly conditions.

"What ever's this?" Sissie demanded, uneasily.

"Arthur!" said Eve. "Whatever's the meaning of this?"

"It has a deep significance," replied Mr. Prohack. "The only fault I
have to find with it is that it has arrived rather late - and yet
perhaps, like Blücher, not too late. You can call it a wedding present
if you choose, daughter. Or if you choose you can call it simply
caviare, pâté de foie gras, grapes and champagne. I really have not had
the courage to give you a wedding present," he continued, "knowing how
particular you are about ostentation. But I thought if I sent something
along that we could all join in consuming instantly, I couldn't possibly
do any harm."

"We haven't any champagne glasses," said Sissie coldly.

"Champagne glasses, child! You ought never to drink champagne out of
champagne glasses. Tumblers are the only thing for champagne. Some
tumblers, Ozzie. And a tin-opener. You must have a tin-opener. I feel
convinced you have a tin-opener. Upon my soul, Eve, I was right after
all. I _am_ hungry, but my hunger is nothing to my thirst. I'm beginning
to suspect that I must be the average sensual man."

"Arthur!" Eve warned him. "If you eat any of that caviare you're bound
to be ill."

"Not if I mix it with pâté de foi gras, my pet. It is notorious that
they are mutual antidotes, especially when followed by the grape cure.
Now, ladies and Ozzie, don't exasperate me by being coy. Fall to!
Ingurgitate. Ozzie, be a man for a change." Mr. Prohack seemed to
intimidate everybody to such an extent that Sissie herself went off to
secure tumblers.

"But why are you opening another bottle, father?" she asked in alarm on
her return. "This one isn't half empty."

"We shall try all four brands," said Mr. Prohack.

"But what a waste!"

"Know, my child," said Mr. Prohack, with marked and solemn
sententiousness. "Know that in an elaborately organised society, waste
has its moral uses. Know further that nothing is more contrary to the
truth than the proverb that enough is as good as a feast. Know still
further that though the habit of wastefulness may have its dangers, it
is not nearly so dangerous as the habit of self-righteousness, or as the
habit of nearness, both of which contract the soul until it's more like
a prune than a plum. Be a plum, my child, and let who will be a prune."

It was at this moment that Eve showed her true greatness.

"Come along, Sissie," said she, after an assaying glance at her husband
and another at her daughter. "Let's humour him. It isn't often he's in
such good spirits, is it?"

Sissie's face cleared, and with a wisdom really beyond her years she
accepted the situation, the insult, the reproof, the lesson. As for Mr.
Prohack, he felt happier, more gay, than he had felt all day, - not as
the effect of champagne and caviare, but as the effect of the
realisation of his prodigious sagacity in having foreseen that Sissie's
hospitality would be what it had been. He was glad also that his
daughter had displayed commonsense, and he began to admire her again,
and in proportion as she perceived that he was admiring her, so she
consciously increased her charm; for the fact was, she was very young,
very impressionable, very anxious to do the right thing.

"Have another glass, Ozzie," urged Mr. Prohack.

Ozzie looked at his powerful bride for guidance.

"Do have another glass, you darling old silly," said the bride.

"There will be no need to open the other two bottles," said Mr. Prohack.
"Indeed, I need only have opened one.... I shall probably call here
again soon."

At this point there was another ring at the front-door.

"So you've condescended!" Sissie greeted Charles when Ozzie brought him
into the room, and then, catching her father's eye and being anxious to
rest secure in the paternal admiration, she added: "Anyway it was very
decent of you to come. I know how busy you are."

Charles raised his eyebrows at this astonishing piece of sisterliness.
His mother kissed him fondly, having received from Mr. Prohack during
the day the delicatest, filmiest hint that perhaps Charlie was not at
the moment fabulously prospering.

"Your father is very gay to-night," said she, gazing at Charlie as
though she read into the recesses of his soul and could see a martyrdom
there, though in fact she could not penetrate any further than the boy's
eyeballs.

"I beg you to note," Mr. Prohack remarked. "That as the glasses have
only been filled once, and three of them are at least a quarter full,
only the equivalent of two and a half champagne glasses has actually
been drunk by four people, which will not explain much gaiety. If the
old gentleman is gay, and he does not assert that he is not, the true
reason lies in either the caviare or the pâté de foie gras, or in his
crystal conscience. Have a drink, Charles?"

"Finish mine, my pet," said Eve, holding forth her tumbler, and Charlie
obeyed.

"A touching sight," observed Mr. Prohack. "Now as Charlie has managed to
spare us a few minutes out of his thrilling existence, I want to have a
few words with him in private about an affair of state. There's nothing
that you oughtn't to hear," he addressed the company, "but a great deal
that you probably wouldn't understand - and the last thing we desire is
to humiliate you. That's so, isn't it, Carlos?"

"It is," Charles quickly agreed, without a sign of self-consciousness.

"Now then, hostess, can you lend us another room, - boudoir,
morning-room, smoking-room, card-room, even ball-room; anything will do
for us. Possibly Ozzie's study...."

"Father! Father!" Sissie warned him against an excess of facetiousness.
"You can either go into our bedroom or you can sit on the stairs, and
talk."

As father and son disappeared together into the bedroom, which
constituted a full half of the entire flat, Mr. Prohack noticed on his
wife's features an expression of anxiety tempered by an assured
confidence in his own wisdom and force. He knew indeed that he had made
quite a favourable sensation by his handling of Sissie's tendency to a
hard austerity.

Nevertheless, when Charles shut the door of the chamber and they were
enclosed together, Mr. Prohack could feel his mighty heart beating in a
manner worthy of a schoolgirl entering an examination room. The chamber
had apparently been taken bodily out of a doll's house and furnished
with furniture manufactured for pigmies. It was very full, presenting
the aspect of a room in a warehouse. Everything in it was 'bijou,' in
the trade sense, and everything harmonised in a charming Japanese manner
with everything else, except an extra truckle-bed, showing crude iron
feet under a blazing counterpane borrowed from a Russian ballet, which
second bed had evidently just been added for the purposes of conjugal
existence. The dressing-table alone was unmistakably symptomatic of a
woman. Some of Ozzie's wondrous trousers hung from stretchers behind the
door, and the inference was that these had been displaced from the
wardrobe in favour of Sissie's frocks. It was all highly curious and
somewhat pathetic; and Mr. Prohack, contemplating, became anew a
philosopher as he realised that the tiny apartment was the true
expression of his daughter's individuality and volition. She had imposed
this crowded inconvenience upon her willing spouse, - and there was the
grandiose Charles, for whom the best was never good enough, sitting down
nonchalantly on the truckle-bed; and it appeared to Mr. Prohack only a
few weeks ago that the two children had been playing side by side in the
same nursery and giving never a sign that their desires and destinies
would be so curious. Mr. Prohack felt absurdly helpless. True, he was
the father, but he knew that he had nothing whatever to do, beyond
trifling gifts of money and innumerable fairly witty sermons - divided
about equally between the pair, with the evolution of those mysterious
and fundamentally uncontrollable beings, his son and his daughter. The
enigma of life pressed disturbingly upon him, as he took the other bed,
facing Charles, and he wondered whether Sissie in her feminine passion
for self-sacrifice insisted on sleeping in the truckle-contraption
herself, or whether she permitted Ozzie to be uncomfortable.


V


"I just came along," Charlie opened simply, "because Lady M. was so
positive that I ought to see you - she said that you very much wanted me
to come. It isn't as if I wanted to bother you, or you could do any
good."

He spoke in an extremely low tone, almost in a whisper, and Mr. Prohack
comprehended that the youth was trying to achieve privacy in a domicile
where all conversation and movements were necessarily more or less
public to the whole flat. Charles's restraint, however, showed little or
no depression, disappointment, or disgust, and no despair.

"But what's it all about? If I'm not being too curious," Mr. Prohack
enquired cautiously.

"It's all about my being up the spout, dad. I've had a flutter, and it
hasn't come off, and that's all there is to it. I needn't trouble you
with the details. But you may believe me when I tell you that I shall
bob up again. What's happened to me might have happened to anybody, and
has happened to a pretty fair number of City swells."

"You mean bankruptcy?"

"Well, yes, bankruptcy's the word. I'd much better go right through with
it. The chit thinks so, and I agree."

"The chit?"

"Mimi."

"Oh! So you call her that, do you?"

"No, I never call her that. But that's how I think of her. I call her
Miss Winstock. I'm glad you let me have her. She's been very useful, and
she's going to stick by me - not that there's any blooming sentimental
nonsense about her! Oh, no! By the way, I know the mater and Sis think
she's a bit harum-scarum, and you do, too. Nevertheless she was just as
strong as Lady M. that I should stroll up and confess myself. She said
it was _due_ to you. Lady M. didn't put it quite like that."

The truckle-bed creaked as Charlie shifted uneasily. They caught a faint
murmur of talk from the other room, and Sissie's laugh.

"Lady Massulam happened to tell me once that you'd been selling
something before you knew how much it would cost you to buy it. Of
course I don't pretend to understand finance myself - I'm only a civil
servant on the shelf - but to my limited intelligence such a process of
putting the cart before the horse seemed likely to lead to trouble,"
said Mr. Prohack, as it were ruminating.

"Oh! She told you that, did she?" Charlie smiled. "Well, the good lady
was talking through her hat. _That_ affair's all right. At least it
would be if I could carry it through, but of course I can't now. It'll
go into the general mess. If I was free, I wouldn't sell it at all; I'd
keep it; there'd be no end of money in it, and I was selling it too
cheap. It's a combine, or rather it would have been a combine, of two of
the best paper mills in the country, and if I'd got it, and could find
time to manage it, - my word, you'd see! No! What's done me in is a pure
and simple Stock Exchange gamble, my dear father. Nothing but that! R.R.
shares."

"R.R. What's that?"

"Dad! Where have you been living these years? Royal Rubber Corporation,
of course. They dropped to eighteen shillings, and they oughtn't to have
done. I bought a whole big packet on the understanding that I should
have a fortnight to fork out. They were bound to go up again. Hadn't
been so low for eleven years. How could I have foreseen that old Sampler
would go and commit suicide and make a panic?"

"I never read the financial news, except the quotations of my own little
savings, and I've never heard of old Sampler," said Mr. Prohack.

"Considering he was a front-page item for four days!" Charlie exclaimed,
raising his voice, and then dropping it again. And he related in a few
biting phrases the recent history of the R.R. "I wouldn't have minded so
much," he went on. "If your particular friend, Mr. Softly Bishop, wasn't
at the bottom of my purchase. His name only appears for some of the
shares, but I've got a pretty good idea that it's he who's selling all
of them to yours truly. He must have known something, and a rare fine
thing he'd have made of the deal if I wasn't going bust, because I'm
sure now he was selling to me what he hadn't got."

Mr. Prohack's whole demeanour changed at the mention of Mr. Bishop's
name. His ridiculous snobbish pride reared itself up within him. He
simply could not bear the idea of Softly Bishop having anything
'against' a member of his family. Sooner would the inconsistent fellow
have allowed innocent widows and orphans to be ruined through Charlie's
plunging than that Softly Bishop should fail to realise a monstrous
profit through the same agency.

"I'll see you through, my lad," said he, briefly, in an ordinary casual
tone.

"No thanks. You won't," Charlie replied. "I wouldn't let you, even if
you could. But you can't. It's too big."

"Ah! How big is it?" Mr. Prohack challengingly raised his chin.

"Well, if you want to know the truth, it's between a hundred and forty
and a hundred and fifty thousand pounds. I mean, that's what I should
need to save the situation."

"You?" cried the Terror of the departments in amaze, accustomed though
he was to dealing in millions. He had gravely miscalculated his son. Ten
thousand he could have understood; even twenty thousand. But a hundred
and fifty...! "You must have been mad!"

"Only because I've failed," said Charles. "Yes. It'll be a great affair.
It'll really make my name. Everybody will expect me to bob up again, and
I shan't disappoint them. Of course some people will say I oughtn't to
have been extravagant. Grand Babylon Hotel and so on. What rot! A
flea-bite! Why, my expenses haven't been seven hundred a month."

Mr. Prohack sat aghast; but admiration was not absent from his
sentiments. The lad was incredible in the scale of his operations; he
was unreal, wagging his elegant leg so calmly there in the midst of all
that fragile Japanese lacquer - and the family, grotesquely unconscious
of the vastness of the issues, chatting domestically only a few feet
away. But Mr. Prohack was not going to be outdone by his son, however
Napoleonic his son might be. He would maintain his prestige as a father.

"I'll see you through," he repeated, with studied quietness.

"But look here, dad. You only came into a hundred thousand. I can't have
you ruining yourself. And even if you did ruin yourself - "

"I have no intention of ruining myself," said Mr. Prohack. "Nor shall I
change in the slightest degree my mode of life. You don't know
everything, my child. You aren't the only person on earth who can make
money. Where do you imagine you get your gifts from? Your mother?"

"But - "

"Be silent. To-morrow morning gilt-edged, immediately saleable
securities will be placed at your disposal for a hundred and fifty
thousand pounds. I never indulge in wildcat stock myself. And let me
tell you there can be no question of _your_ permitting or not
permitting. I'm your father, and please don't forget it. It doesn't
happen to suit me that my infant prodigy of a son should make a mess of
his career; and I won't have it. If there's any doubt in your mind as to
whether you or I are the strongest, rule yourself out of the competition
this instant, - it'll save you trouble in the end."

Mr. Prohack had never felt so happy in his life; and yet he had had
moments of intense happiness in the past. He could feel the skin of his
face burning.

"You'll get it all back, dad," said Charlie later. "No amount of
suicides can destroy the assets of the R.R. It's only that the market
lost its head and absolutely broke to pieces under me. In three
months - "

"My poor boy," Mr. Prohack interrupted him. "Do try not to be an ass."
And he had the pleasing illusion that Charles was just home from school.
"And, mind, not one word, not one word, to anybody whatever."


VI


The other three were still modestly chatting in the living-room when the
two great mysterious men of affairs returned to them, but Sissie had
cleared the dining-room table and transformed the place into a
drawing-room for the remainder of the evening. They were very feminine;
even Ozzie had something of the feminine attitude of fatalistic
attending upon events beyond feminine control; he had it, indeed, far
more than the vigorous-minded Sissie had it. They were cheerful, with a
cheerfulness that made up in tact what it lacked in sincerity. Mr.
Prohack compared them to passengers on a ship which is in danger. With a
word, with an inflection, he reassured everybody - and yet said
naught - and the cheerfulness instantly became genuine.

Mr. Prohack was surprised at the intensity of his own feelings. He was
thoroughly thrilled by what he himself had done. Perhaps he had gone too
far in telling Charlie that the putting down of a hundred and fifty
thousand pounds could be accomplished without necessitating any change
in his manner of living; but he did not care what change might be
involved. He had the sense of having performed a huge creative act, and
of the reality of the power of riches, - for weeks he had not been
imaginatively cognisant of the fact that he was rich.

He glanced secretly at the boy Charles, and said to himself: "To that
boy I am like a god. He was dead, and I have resurrected him. He may
achieve an enormous reputation after all. Anyhow he is an amazing devil
of a fellow, and he's my son, and no one comprehends him as I do." And
Mr. Prohack became jolly to the point of uproariousness - without
touching a glass. He was intoxicated, not by the fermentation of grapes,
but by the magnitude and magnificence of his own gesture. He was the
monarch of the company, and getting a bit conceited about it.

The sole creature who withstood him in any degree was Sissie. She had
firmness. "She has married the right man,-" said Mr. Prohack to himself.
"The so-called feminine instinct is for the most part absurd, but
occasionally it justifies its reputation. She has chosen her husband
with unerring insight into her needs and his. He will be happy; she
will have the anxieties of responsible power. But _I_ am not her
husband." And he spoke aloud, masterfully:

"Sissie!"

"Yes, dad? What now?"

"I've satisfactorily transacted affairs with my son. I will now try to
do the same with my daughter. A few moments with you in the
council-chamber, please. Oswald also, if you like."

Sissie smiled kindly at her awaiting spouse.

"Perhaps I'd better deal with my own father alone, darling."

Ozzie accepted the decision.

"Look here. I think I must be off," Charlie put in. "I've got a lot of
work to do."

"I expect you have," Mr. Prohack concurred. "By the way, you might meet
me at Smathe and Smathe's at ten fifteen in the morning."

Charlie nodded and slipped away.

"Infant," said Mr. Prohack to the defiantly smiling bride who awaited
him in the council chamber. "Has your mother said anything to you about
our wedding present?"

"No, dad."

"No, of course she hasn't. And do you know why? Because she daren't!
With your infernal independence you've frightened the life out of the
poor lady; that's what you've done. Your mother will doubtless have a
talk with me to-night. And to-morrow she will tell you what she has
decided to give you. Please let there be no nonsense. Whatever the gift
is, I shall be obliged if you will accept it - and use it, without
troubling us with any of your theories about the proper conduct of life.
Wisdom and righteousness existed before you, and there's just a chance
that they'll exist after you. Do you take me?"

"Quite, father."

"Good. You may become a great girl yet. We are now going home. Thanks
for a very pleasant evening."

In the car, beautifully alone with Eve, who was in a restful mood, Mr.
Prohack said:

"I shall be very ill in a few hours. Pâté de foi gras is the devil, but
caviare is Beelzebub himself."

Eve merely gazed at him in gentle, hopeless reproach. He prophesied
truly. He was very ill. And yet through the succeeding crises he kept
smiling, sardonically.

"When I think," he murmured once with grimness, "that that fellow
Bishop had the impudence to ask us to lunch - and Charlie too! Charlie
too!" Eve, attendant, enquired sadly what he was talking about.

"Nothing, nothing," said he. "My mind is wandering. Let it."




CHAPTER XXIII

THE YACHT

I


Mr. Prohack was lounging over his breakfast in the original old house in
the Square behind Hyde Park. He came to be there because that same house
had been his wedding present to Sissie, who now occupied it with her
spouse, and because the noble mansion in Manchester Square was being
re-decorated (under compulsion of some clause in the antique lease) and
Eve had invited him to leave the affair entirely to her. In the few
months since Charlie's great crisis, all things conspired together to
prove once more to Mr. Prohack that calamities expected never arrive.
Even the British Empire had continued to cohere, and revolution seemed
to be further off than ever before. The greatest menace to his peace of
mind, the League of all the Arts, had of course quietly ceased to exist;
but it had established Eve as a hostess. And Eve as a hostess had
gradually given up boring herself and her husband by large and stiff
parties, and they had gone back to entertaining none but
well-established and intimate friends with the maximum of informality as
of old, - to such an extent that occasionally in the vast and gorgeous
dining-room of the noble mansion Eve would have the roast planted on the
table and would carve it herself, also as of old; Brool did not seem to
mind.

Mr. Prohack had bought the lease of the noble mansion, with all the
contents thereof, merely because this appeared to be the easiest thing
to do. He had not been forced to change his manner of life; far from it.
Owing to a happy vicissitude in the story of the R.R. Corporation
Charlie had called upon his father for only a very small portion of the
offered one hundred and fifty thousand pounds, and had even repaid that
within a few weeks. Matters had thereafter come to such a pass with
Charlie that he had reached the pages of _The Daily Picture_, and was
reputed to be arousing the jealousy of youthful millionaires in the
United States; also the figure which he paid weekly for rent of his
offices in the Grand Babylon Hotel was an item of common knowledge in
the best clubs and not to know it was to be behind the times in current
information. No member of his family now ventured to offer advice to
Charlie, who still, however, looked astonishingly like the old Charlie
of motor-bicycle transactions.

The fact is, people do not easily change. Mr. Prohack had seemed to
change for a space, but if indeed any change had occurred in him, he had
changed back. Scientific idleness? Turkish baths? Dandyism? All
vanished, contemned, forgotten. To think of them merely annoyed him. He
did not care what necktie he wore. Even dancing had gone the same way.
The dancing season was over until October, and he knew he would never
begin again. He cared not to dance with the middle-aged, and if he
danced with the young he felt that he was making a fool of himself.

It had been rather a lark to come and stay for a few days in his old
home, - to pass the sacred door of the conjugal bedroom (closed for ever
to him) and mount to Charlie's room, into which Sissie had put the bulk
of the furniture from the Japanese flat - without overcrowding it.
Decidedly amusing to sleep in Charlie's old little room! But the
romantic sensation had given way to the sensation of the hardness of the
bed.

Breakfast achieved, Mr. Prohack wondered what he should do next, for he
had nothing to do; he had no worries, and almost no solicitudes; he had
successfully adapted himself to his environment. Through the half-open
door of the dining-room he heard Sissie and Ozzie. Ozzie was off to the
day's business, and Sissie was seeing him out of the house, as Eve used
to see Mr. Prohack out. Ozzie, by reason of a wedding present of ten
thousand pounds given in defiance of Sissie's theories, and with the
help of his own savings, was an important fellow now in the theatrical
world, having attained a partnership with the Napoleon of the stage.

"You'd no business to send for the doctor without telling me," Sissie
was saying in her harsh tone. "What do I want with a doctor?"

"I thought it would be for the best, dear," came Ozzie's lisping reply.


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Online LibraryArnold BennettMr. Prohack → online text (page 27 of 28)