Saki.

When William Came online

. (page 11 of 12)
Online LibrarySakiWhen William Came → online text (page 11 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


over the brown landscape. And, as if they had timed their arrival to
that exact moment of sunburst, three brown-faced boys appeared under the
straight, bare pole. A cord shivered and flapped, and something ran
swiftly up into the air, and swung out in the breeze that blew across the
hills - a blue flag with red and white crosses. The three boys bared
their heads and the small girl on the verandah steps stood rigidly to
attention. Far away down the hill, a young man, cantering into view
round a corner of the dusty road, removed his hat in loyal salutation.

"That is why we live out here," said the Englishwoman quietly.




CHAPTER XVII: THE EVENT OF THE SEASON


In the first swelter room of the new Osmanli Baths in Cork Street four or
five recumbent individuals, in a state of moist nudity and
self-respecting inertia, were smoking cigarettes or making occasional
pretence of reading damp newspapers. A glass wall with a glass door shut
them off from the yet more torrid regions of the further swelter
chambers; another glass partition disclosed the dimly-lit vault where
other patrons of the establishment had arrived at the stage of being
pounded and kneaded and sluiced by Oriental-looking attendants. The
splashing and trickling of taps, the flip-flap of wet slippers on a wet
floor, and the low murmur of conversation, filtered through glass doors,
made an appropriately drowsy accompaniment to the scene.

A new-comer fluttered into the room, beamed at one of the occupants, and
settled himself with an air of elaborate languor in a long canvas chair.
Cornelian Valpy was a fair young man, with perpetual surprise impinged on
his countenance, and a chin that seemed to have retired from competition
with the rest of his features. The beam of recognition that he had given
to his friend or acquaintance subsided into a subdued but lingering
simper.

"What is the matter?" drawled his neighbour lazily, dropping the end of a
cigarette into a small bowl of water, and helping himself from a silver
case on the table at his side.

"Matter?" said Cornelian, opening wide a pair of eyes in which unhealthy
intelligence seemed to struggle in undetermined battle with utter
vacuity; "why should you suppose that anything is the matter?"

"When you wear a look of idiotic complacency in a Turkish bath," said the
other, "it is the more noticeable from the fact that you are wearing
nothing else."

"Were you at the Shalem House dance last night?" asked Cornelian, by way
of explaining his air of complacent retrospection.

"No," said the other, "but I feel as if I had been; I've been reading
columns about it in the Dawn."

"The last event of the season," said Cornelian, "and quite one of the
most amusing and lively functions that there have been."

"So the Dawn said; but then, as Shalem practically owns and controls that
paper, its favourable opinion might be taken for granted."

"The whole idea of the Revel was quite original," said Cornelian, who was
not going to have his personal narrative of the event forestalled by
anything that a newspaper reporter might have given to the public; "a
certain number of guests went as famous personages in the world's
history, and each one was accompanied by another guest typifying the
prevailing characteristic of that personage. One man went as Julius
Caesar, for instance, and had a girl typifying ambition as his shadow,
another went as Louis the Eleventh, and his companion personified
superstition. Your shadow had to be someone of the opposite sex, you
see, and every alternate dance throughout the evening you danced with
your shadow-partner. Quite a clever idea; young Graf von Schnatelstein
is supposed to have invented it."

"New York will be deeply beholden to him," said the other;
"shadow-dances, with all manner of eccentric variations, will be the rage
there for the next eighteen months."

"Some of the costumes were really sumptuous," continued Cornelian; "the
Duchess of Dreyshire was magnificent as Aholibah, you never saw so many
jewels on one person, only of course she didn't look dark enough for the
character; she had Billy Carnset for her shadow, representing Unspeakable
Depravity."

"How on earth did he manage that?"

"Oh, a blend of Beardsley and Bakst as far as get-up and costume, and of
course his own personality counted for a good deal. Quite one of the
successes of the evening was Leutnant von Gabelroth, as George
Washington, with Joan Mardle as his shadow, typifying Inconvenient
Candour. He put her down officially as Truthfulness, but every one had
heard the other version."

"Good for the Gabelroth, though he does belong to the invading Horde;
it's not often that any one scores off Joan."

"Another blaze of magnificence was the loud-voiced Bessimer woman, as the
Goddess Juno, with peacock tails and opals all over her; she had Ronnie
Storre to represent Green-eyed Jealousy. Talking of Ronnie Storre and of
jealousy, you will naturally wonder whom Mrs. Yeovil went with. I forget
what her costume was, but she'd got that dark-headed youth with her that
she's been trotting round everywhere the last few days."

Cornelian's neighbour kicked him furtively on the shin, and frowned in
the direction of a dark-haired youth reclining in an adjacent chair. The
youth in question rose from his seat and stalked into the further swelter
room.

"So clever of him to go into the furnace room," said the unabashed
Cornelian; "now if he turns scarlet all over we shall never know how much
is embarrassment and how much is due to the process of being boiled. La
Yeovil hasn't done badly by the exchange; he's better looking than
Ronnie."

"I see that Pitherby went as Frederick the Great," said Cornelian's
neighbour, fingering a sheet of the Dawn.

"Isn't that exactly what one would have expected Pitherby to do?" said
Cornelian. "He's so desperately anxious to announce to all whom it may
concern that he has written a life of that hero. He had an uninspiring-
looking woman with him, supposed to represent Military Genius."

"The Spirit of Advertisement would have been more appropriate," said the
other.

"The opening scene of the Revel was rather effective," continued
Cornelian; "all the Shadow people reclined in the dimly-lit centre of the
ballroom in an indistinguishable mass, and the human characters marched
round the illuminated sides of the room to solemn processional music.
Every now and then a shadow would detach itself from the mass, hail its
partner by name, and glide out to join him or her in the procession.
Then, when the last shadows had found their mates and every one was
partnered, the lights were turned up in a blaze, the orchestra crashed
out a whirl of nondescript dance music, and people just let themselves
go. It was Pandemonium. Afterwards every one strutted about for half an
hour or so, showing themselves off, and then the legitimate programme of
dances began. There were some rather amusing incidents throughout the
evening. One set of lancers was danced entirely by the Seven Deadly Sins
and their human exemplars; of course seven couples were not sufficient to
make up the set, so they had to bring in an eighth sin, I forget what it
was."

"The sin of Patriotism would have been rather appropriate, considering
who were giving the dance," said the other.

"Hush!" exclaimed Cornelian nervously. "You don't know who may overhear
you in a place like this. You'll get yourself into trouble."

"Wasn't there some rather daring new dance of the 'bunny-hug' variety?"
asked the indiscreet one.

"The 'Cubby-Cuddle,'" said Cornelian; "three or four adventurous couples
danced it towards the end of the evening."

"The Dawn says that without being strikingly new it was strikingly
modern."

"The best description I can give of it," said Cornelian, "is summed up in
the comment of the Grafin von Tolb when she saw it being danced: 'if they
really love each other I suppose it doesn't matter.' By the way," he
added with apparent indifference, "is there any detailed account of my
costume in the Dawn?"

His companion laughed cynically.

"As if you hadn't read everything that the Dawn and the other morning
papers have to say about the ball hours ago."

"The naked truth should be avoided in a Turkish bath," said Cornelian;
"kindly assume that I've only had time to glance at the weather forecast
and the news from China."

"Oh, very well," said the other; "your costume isn't described; you
simply come amid a host of others as 'Mr. Cornelian Valpy, resplendent as
the Emperor Nero; with him Miss Kate Lerra, typifying Insensate Vanity.'
Many hard things have been said of Nero, but his unkindest critics have
never accused him of resembling you in feature. Until some very clear
evidence is produced I shall refuse to believe it."

Cornelian was proof against these shafts; leaning back gracefully in his
chair he launched forth into that detailed description of his last
night's attire which the Dawn had so unaccountably failed to supply.

"I wore a tunic of white Nepaulese silk, with a collar of pearls, real
pearls. Round my waist I had a girdle of twisted serpents in beaten
gold, studded all over with amethysts. My sandals were of gold, laced
with scarlet thread, and I had seven bracelets of gold on each arm. Round
my head I had a wreath of golden laurel leaves set with scarlet berries,
and hanging over my left shoulder was a silk robe of mulberry purple,
broidered with the signs of the zodiac in gold and scarlet; I had it made
specially for the occasion. At my side I had an ivory-sheathed dagger,
with a green jade handle, hung in a green Cordova leather - "

At this point of the recital his companion rose softly, flung his
cigarette end into the little water-bowl, and passed into the further
swelter room. Cornelian Valpy was left, still clothed in a look of
ineffable complacency, still engaged, in all probability, in reclothing
himself in the finery of the previous evening.




CHAPTER XVIII: THE DEAD WHO DO NOT UNDERSTAND


The pale light of a November afternoon faded rapidly into the dusk of a
November evening. Far over the countryside housewives put up their
cottage shutters, lit their lamps, and made the customary remark that the
days were drawing in. In barn yards and poultry-runs the greediest
pullets made a final tour of inspection, picking up the stray remaining
morsels of the evening meal, and then, with much scrambling and
squawking, sought the places on the roosting-pole that they thought
should belong to them. Labourers working in yard and field began to turn
their thoughts homeward or tavernward as the case might be. And through
the cold squelching slush of a water-logged meadow a weary, bedraggled,
but unbeaten fox stiffly picked his way, climbed a high bramble-grown
bank, and flung himself into the sheltering labyrinth of a stretching
tangle of woods. The pack of fierce-mouthed things that had rattled him
from copse and gorse-cover, along fallow and plough, hedgerow and wooded
lane, for nigh on an hour, and had pressed hard on his life for the last
few minutes, receded suddenly into the background of his experiences. The
cold, wet meadow, the thick mask of woods, and the oncoming dusk had
stayed the chase - and the fox had outstayed it. In a short time he would
fall mechanically to licking off some of the mud that caked on his weary
pads; in a shorter time horsemen and hounds would have drawn off
kennelward and homeward.

Yeovil rode through the deepening twilight, relying chiefly on his horse
to find its way in the network of hedge-bordered lanes that presumably
led to a high road or to some human habitation. He was desperately tired
after his day's hunting, a legacy of weakness that the fever had
bequeathed to him, but even though he could scarcely sit upright in his
saddle his mind dwelt complacently on the day's sport and looked forward
to the snug cheery comfort that awaited him at his hunting box. There
was a charm, too, even for a tired man, in the eerie stillness of the
lone twilight land through which he was passing, a grey shadow-hung land
which seemed to have been emptied of all things that belonged to the
daytime, and filled with a lurking, moving life of which one knew nothing
beyond the sense that it was there. There, and very near. If there had
been wood-gods and wicked-eyed fauns in the sunlit groves and hill sides
of old Hellas, surely there were watchful, living things of kindred mould
in this dusk-hidden wilderness of field and hedge and coppice.

It was Yeovil's third or fourth day with the hounds, without taking into
account a couple of mornings' cub-hunting. Already he felt that he had
been doing nothing different from this all his life. His foreign
travels, his illness, his recent weeks in London, they were part of a
tapestried background that had very slight and distant connection with
his present existence. Of the future he tried to think with greater
energy and determination. For this winter, at any rate, he would hunt
and do a little shooting, entertain a few of his neighbours and make
friends with any congenial fellow-sportsmen who might be within reach.
Next year things would be different; he would have had time to look round
him, to regain something of his aforetime vigour of mind and body. Next
year, when the hunting season was over, he would set about finding out
whether there was any nobler game for him to take a hand in. He would
enter into correspondence with old friends who had gone out into the
tropics and the backwoods - he would do something.

So he told himself, but he knew thoroughly well that he had found his
level. He had ceased to struggle against the fascination of his present
surroundings. The slow, quiet comfort and interest of country life
appealed with enervating force to the man whom death had half conquered.
The pleasures of the chase, well-provided for in every detail, and
dovetailed in with the assured luxury of a well-ordered, well-staffed
establishment, were exactly what he wanted and exactly what his life down
here afforded him. He was experiencing, too, that passionate recurring
devotion to an old loved scene that comes at times to men who have
travelled far and willingly up and down the world. He was very much at
home. The alien standard floating over Buckingham Palace, the Crown of
Charlemagne on public buildings and official documents, the grey ships of
war riding in Plymouth Bay and Southampton Water with a flag at their
stern that older generations of Britons had never looked on, these things
seemed far away and inconsequent amid the hedgerows and woods and fallows
of the East Wessex country. Horse and hound-craft, harvest, game broods,
the planting and felling of timber, the rearing and selling of stock, the
letting of grasslands, the care of fisheries, the up-keep of markets and
fairs, they were the things that immediately mattered. And Yeovil saw
himself, in moments of disgust and self-accusation, settling down into
this life of rustic littleness, concerned over the late nesting of a
partridge or the defective draining of a loose-box, hugely busy over
affairs that a gardener's boy might grapple with, ignoring the struggle-
cry that went up, low and bitter and wistful, from a dethroned
dispossessed race, in whose glories he had gloried, in whose struggle he
lent no hand. In what way, he asked himself in such moments, would his
life be better than the life of that parody of manhood who upholstered
his rooms with art hangings and rosewood furniture and babbled over the
effect?

The lanes seemed interminable and without aim or object except to bisect
one another; gates and gaps disclosed nothing in the way of a landmark,
and the night began to draw down in increasing shades of darkness.
Presently, however, the tired horse quickened its pace, swung round a
sharp corner into a broader roadway, and stopped with an air of thankful
expectancy at the low doorway of a wayside inn. A cheerful glow of light
streamed from the windows and door, and a brighter glare came from the
other side of the road, where a large motorcar was being got ready for an
immediate start. Yeovil tumbled stiffly out of his saddle, and in answer
to the loud rattle of his hunting crop on the open door the innkeeper and
two or three hangers-on hurried out to attend to the wants of man and
beast. Flour and water for the horse and something hot for himself were
Yeovil's first concern, and then he began to clamour for geographical
information. He was rather dismayed to find that the cumulative opinions
of those whom he consulted, and of several others who joined unbidden in
the discussion, placed his destination at nothing nearer than nine miles.
Nine miles of dark and hilly country road for a tired man on a tired
horse assumed enormous, far-stretching proportions, and although he dimly
remembered that he had asked a guest to dinner for that evening he began
to wonder whether the wayside inn possessed anything endurable in the way
of a bedroom. The landlord interrupted his desperate speculations with a
really brilliant effort of suggestion. There was a gentleman in the bar,
he said, who was going in a motorcar in the direction for which Yeovil
was bound, and who would no doubt be willing to drop him at his
destination; the gentleman had also been out with the hounds. Yeovil's
horse could be stabled at the inn and fetched home by a groom the next
morning. A hurried embassy to the bar parlour resulted in the news that
the motorist would be delighted to be of assistance to a
fellow-sportsman. Yeovil gratefully accepted the chance that had so
obligingly come his way, and hastened to superintend the housing of his
horse in its night's quarters. When he had duly seen to the tired
animal's comfort and foddering he returned to the roadway, where a young
man in hunting garb and a livened chauffeur were standing by the side of
the waiting car.

"I am so very pleased to be of some use to you, Mr. Yeovil," said the car-
owner, with a polite bow, and Yeovil recognised the young Leutnant von
Gabelroth, who had been present at the musical afternoon at Berkshire
Street. He had doubtless seen him at the meet that morning, but in his
hunting kit he had escaped his observation.

"I, too, have been out with the hounds," the young man continued; "I have
left my horse at the Crow and Sceptre at Dolford. You are living at
Black Dene, are you not? I can take you right past your door, it is all
on my way."

Yeovil hung back for a moment, overwhelmed with vexation and
embarrassment, but it was too late to cancel the arrangement he had
unwittingly entered into, and he was constrained to put himself under
obligation to the young officer with the best grace he could muster.
After all, he reflected, he had met him under his own roof as his wife's
guest. He paid his reckoning to mine host, tipped the stable lad who had
helped him with his horse, and took his place beside von Gabelroth in the
car.

As they glided along the dark roadway and the young German reeled off a
string of comments on the incidents of the day's sport, Yeovil lay back
amid his comfortable wraps and weighed the measure of his humiliation. It
was Cicely's gospel that one should know what one wanted in life and take
good care that one got what one wanted. Could he apply that test of
achievement to his own life? Was this what he really wanted to be doing,
pursuing his uneventful way as a country squire, sharing even his sports
and pastimes with men of the nation that had conquered and enslaved his
Fatherland?

The car slackened its pace somewhat as they went through a small hamlet,
past a schoolhouse, past a rural police-station with the new monogram
over its notice-board, past a church with a little tree-grown graveyard.
There, in a corner, among wild-rose bushes and tall yews, lay some of
Yeovil's own kinsfolk, who had lived in these parts and hunted and found
life pleasant in the days that were not so very long ago. Whenever he
went past that quiet little gathering-place of the dead Yeovil was wont
to raise his hat in mute affectionate salutation to those who were now
only memories in his family; to-night he somehow omitted the salute and
turned his head the other way. It was as though the dead of his race saw
and wondered.

Three or four months ago the thing he was doing would have seemed an
impossibility, now it was actually happening; he was listening to the
gay, courteous, tactful chatter of his young companion, laughing now and
then at some joking remark, answering some question of interest, learning
something of hunting ways and traditions in von Gabelroth's own country.
And when the car turned in at the gate of the hunting lodge and drew up
at the steps the laws of hospitality demanded that Yeovil should ask his
benefactor of the road to come in for a few minutes and drink something a
little better than the wayside inn had been able to supply. The young
officer spent the best part of a half hour in Yeovil's snuggery,
examining and discussing the trophies of rifle and collecting gun that
covered the walls. He had a good knowledge of woodcraft, and the beasts
and birds of Siberian forests and North African deserts were to him new
pages in a familiar book. Yeovil found himself discoursing eagerly with
his chance guest on the European distribution and local variation of such
and such a species, recounting peculiarities in its habits and incidents
of its pursuit and capture. If the cold observant eyes of Lady Shalem
could have rested on the scene she would have hailed it as another root-
fibre thrown out by the fait accompli.

Yeovil closed the hall door on his departing visitor, and closed his mind
on the crowd of angry and accusing thoughts that were waiting to intrude
themselves. His valet had already got his bath in readiness and in a few
minutes the tired huntsman was forgetting weariness and the consciousness
of outside things in the languorous abandonment that steam and hot water
induce. Brain and limbs seemed to lay themselves down in a contented
waking sleep, the world that was beyond the bathroom walls dropped away
into a far unreal distance; only somewhere through the steam clouds
pierced a hazy consciousness that a dinner, well chosen, was being well
cooked, and would presently be well served - and right well appreciated.
That was the lure to drag the bather away from the Nirvana land of warmth
and steam. The stimulating after-effect of the bath took its due effect,
and Yeovil felt that he was now much less tired and enormously hungry. A
cheery fire burned in his dressing-room and a lively black kitten helped
him to dress, and incidentally helped him to require a new tassel to the
cord of his dressing-gown. As he finished his toilet and the kitten
finished its sixth and most notable attack on the tassel a ring was heard
at the front door, and a moment later a loud, hearty, and unmistakably
hungry voice resounded in the hall. It belonged to the local doctor, who
had also taken part in the day's run and had been bidden to enliven the
evening meal with the entertainment of his inexhaustible store of
sporting and social reminiscences. He knew the countryside and the
countryfolk inside out, and he was a living unwritten chronicle of the
East Wessex hunt. His conversation seemed exactly the right
accompaniment to the meal; his stories brought glimpses of wet hedgerows,
stiff ploughlands, leafy spinneys and muddy brooks in among the rich old
Worcester and Georgian silver of the dinner service, the glow and crackle
of the wood fire, the pleasant succession of well-cooked dishes and
mellow wines. The world narrowed itself down again to a warm, drowsy-
scented dining-room, with a productive hinterland of kitchen and cellar
beyond it, and beyond that an important outer world of loose box and
harness-room and stable-yard; further again a dark hushed region where
pheasants roosted and owls flitted and foxes prowled.

Yeovil sat and listened to story after story of the men and women and
horses of the neighbourhood; even the foxes seemed to have a personality,
some of them, and a personal history. It was a little like Hans
Andersen, he decided, and a little like the Reminiscences of an Irish
R.M., and perhaps just a little like some of the more probable adventures
of Baron Munchausen. The newer stories were evidently true to the
smallest detail, the earlier ones had altered somewhat in repetition, as
plants and animals vary under domestication.

And all the time there was one topic that was never touched on. Of half


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11

Online LibrarySakiWhen William Came → online text (page 11 of 12)