Saki.

When William Came online

. (page 5 of 12)
Online LibrarySakiWhen William Came → online text (page 5 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


imitators nowadays, though, when it came to be a question of sport
against soldiering. I don't know whether anyone has said it, but one
might almost assert that the German victory was won on the golf-links of
Britain."

"I don't see why you should saddle one particular form of sport with a
special responsibility," protested Cicely.

"Of course not," said Yeovil, "except that it absorbed perhaps more of
the energy and attention of the leisured class than other sports did, and
in this country the leisured class was the only bulwark we had against
official indifference. The working classes had a big share of the
apathy, and, indirectly, a greater share of the responsibility, because
the voting power was in their hands. They had not the leisure, however,
to sit down and think clearly what the danger was; their own industrial
warfare was more real to them than anything that was threatening from the
nation that they only knew from samples of German clerks and German
waiters."

"In any case," said Cicely, "as regards the hunting, there is no Civil
War or national war raging just now, and there is no immediate likelihood
of one. A good many hunting seasons will have to come and go before we
can think of a war of independence as even a distant possibility, and in
the meantime hunting and horse-breeding and country sports generally are
the things most likely to keep Englishmen together on the land. That is
why so many men who hate the German occupation are trying to keep field
sports alive, and in the right hands. However, I won't go on arguing.
You and I always think things out for ourselves and decide for ourselves,
which is much the best way in the long run."

Cicely slipped away to her writing-room to make final arrangements over
the telephone for the all-important supper-party, leaving Yeovil to turn
over in his mind the suggestion that she had thrown out. It was an
obvious lure, a lure to draw him away from the fret and fury that
possessed him so inconveniently, but its obvious nature did not detract
from its effectiveness. Yeovil had pleasant recollections of the East
Wessex, a cheery little hunt that afforded good sport in an unpretentious
manner, a joyous thread of life running through a rather sleepy
countryside, like a merry brook careering through a placid valley. For a
man coming slowly and yet eagerly back to the activities of life from the
weariness of a long fever, the prospect of a leisurely season with the
East Wessex was singularly attractive, and side by side with its
attractiveness there was a tempting argument in favour of yielding to its
attractions. Among the small squires and yeoman farmers, doctors,
country tradesmen, auctioneers and so forth who would gather at the
covert-side and at the hunt breakfasts, there might be a local nucleus of
revolt against the enslavement of the land, a discouraged and leaderless
band waiting for some one to mould their resistance into effective shape
and keep their loyalty to the old dynasty and the old national cause
steadily burning. Yeovil could see himself taking up that position,
stimulating the spirit of hostility to the fait accompli, organising
stubborn opposition to every Germanising influence that was brought into
play, schooling the youth of the countryside to look steadily Delhiward.
That was the bait that Yeovil threw out to his conscience, while slowly
considering the other bait that was appealing so strongly to his senses.
The dry warm scent of the stable, the nip of the morning air, the
pleasant squelch-squelch of the saddle leather, the moist earthy
fragrance of the autumn woods and wet fallows, the cold white mists of
winter days, the whimper of hounds and the hot restless pushing of the
pack through ditch and hedgerow and undergrowth, the birds that flew up
and clucked and chattered as you passed, the hearty greeting and pleasant
gossip in farmhouse kitchens and market-day bar-parlours - all these
remembered delights of the chase marshalled themselves in the brain, and
made a cumulative appeal that came with special intensity to a man who
was a little tired of his wanderings, more than a little drawn away from
the jarring centres of life. The hot London sunshine baking the soot-
grimed walls and the ugly incessant hoot and grunt of the motor traffic
gave an added charm to the vision of hill and hollow and copse that
flickered in Yeovil's mind. Slowly, with a sensuous lingering over
detail, his imagination carried him down to a small, sleepy, yet withal
pleasantly bustling market town, and placed him unerringly in a wide
straw-littered yard, half-full of men and quarter-full of horses, with a
bob-tailed sheep-dog or two trying not to get in everybody's way, but
insisting on being in the thick of things. The horses gradually detached
themselves from the crowd of unimportant men and came one by one into
momentary prominence, to be discussed and appraised for their good points
and bad points, and finally to be bid for. And always there was one
horse that detached itself conspicuously from the rest, the ideal hunter,
or at any rate, Yeovil's ideal of the ideal hunter. Mentally it was put
through its paces before him, its pedigree and brief history recounted to
him; mentally he saw a stable lad put it over a jump or two, with credit
to all concerned, and inevitably he saw himself outbidding less
discerning rivals and securing the desired piece of horseflesh, to be the
chief glory and mainstay of his hunting stable, to carry him well and
truly and cleverly through many a joyous long-to-be-remembered run. That
scene had been one of the recurring half-waking dreams of his long days
of weakness in the far-away Finnish nursing-home, a dream sometimes of
tantalising mockery, sometimes of pleasure in the foretaste of a joy to
come. And now it need scarcely be a dream any longer, he had only to go
down at the right moment and take an actual part in his oft-rehearsed
vision. Everything would be there, exactly as his imagination had placed
it, even down to the bob-tailed sheep-dogs; the horse of his imagining
would be there waiting for him, or if not absolutely the ideal animal,
something very like it. He might even go beyond the limits of his dream
and pick up a couple of desirable animals - there would probably be fewer
purchasers for good class hunters in these days than of yore. And with
the coming of this reflection his dream faded suddenly and his mind came
back with a throb of pain to the things he had for the moment forgotten,
the weary, hateful things that were symbolised for him by the standard
that floated yellow and black over the frontage of Buckingham Palace.

Yeovil wandered down to his snuggery, a mood of listless dejection
possessing him. He fidgetted aimlessly with one or two books and papers,
filled a pipe, and half filled a waste-paper basket with torn circulars
and accumulated writing-table litter. Then he lit the pipe and settled
down in his most comfortable armchair with an old note-book in his hand.
It was a sort of disjointed diary, running fitfully through the winter
months of some past years, and recording noteworthy days with the East
Wessex.

And over the telephone Cicely talked and arranged and consulted with men
and women to whom the joys of a good gallop or the love of a stricken
fatherland were as letters in an unknown alphabet.




CHAPTER VIII: THE FIRST-NIGHT


Huge posters outside the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties announced the
first performance of the uniquely interesting Suggestion Dances,
interpreted by the Hon. Gorla Mustelford. An impressionist portrait of a
rather severe-looking young woman gave the public some idea of what the
danseuse might be like in appearance, and the further information was
added that her performance was the greatest dramatic event of the season.
Yet another piece of information was conveyed to the public a few minutes
after the doors had opened, in the shape of large notices bearing the
brief announcement, "house full." For the first-night function most of
the seats had been reserved for specially-invited guests or else bespoken
by those who considered it due to their own importance to be visible on
such an occasion.

Even at the commencement of the ordinary programme of the evening (Gorla
was not due to appear till late in the list) the theatre was crowded with
a throng of chattering, expectant human beings; it seemed as though every
one had come early to see every one else arrive. As a matter of fact it
was the rumour-heralded arrival of one personage in particular that had
drawn people early to their seats and given a double edge to the
expectancy of the moment.

At first sight and first hearing the bulk of the audience seemed to
comprise representatives of the chief European races in well-distributed
proportions, but if one gave it closer consideration it could be seen
that the distribution was geographically rather than ethnographically
diversified. Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow
and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and
countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied
their forefathers with a common cradle-ground. The lack of a fire
burning on a national altar seemed to have drawn them by universal
impulse to the congenial flare of the footlights, whether as artists,
producers, impresarios, critics, agents, go-betweens, or merely as highly
intelligent and fearsomely well-informed spectators. They were prominent
in the chief seats, they were represented, more sparsely but still in
fair numbers, in the cheaper places, and everywhere they were voluble,
emphatic, sanguine or sceptical, prodigal of word and gesture, with eyes
that seemed to miss nothing and acknowledge nothing, and a general
restless dread of not being seen and noticed. Of the theatre-going
London public there was also a fair muster, more particularly centred in
the less expensive parts of the house, while in boxes, stalls and circles
a sprinkling of military uniforms gave an unfamiliar tone to the scene in
the eyes of those who had not previously witnessed a first-night
performance under the new conditions.

Yeovil, while standing aloof from his wife's participation in this social
event, had made private arrangements for being a personal spectator of
the scene; as one of the ticket-buying public he had secured a seat in
the back row of a low-priced gallery, whence he might watch, observant
and unobserved, the much talked-of debut of Gorla Mustelford, and the
writing of a new chapter in the history of the fait accompli. Around him
he noticed an incessant undercurrent of jangling laughter, an unending
give-and-take of meaningless mirthless jest and catchword. He had
noticed the same thing in streets and public places since his arrival in
London, a noisy, empty interchange of chaff and laughter that he had been
at a loss to account for. The Londoner is not well adapted for the
irresponsible noisiness of jesting tongue that bubbles up naturally in a
Southern race, and the effort to be volatile was the more noticeable
because it so obviously was an effort. Turning over the pages of a book
that told the story of Bulgarian social life in the days of Turkish rule,
Yeovil had that morning come across a passage that seemed to throw some
light on the thing that had puzzled him:

"Bondage has this one advantage: it makes a nation merry. Where
far-reaching ambition has no scope for its development the community
squanders its energy on the trivial and personal cares of its daily life,
and seeks relief and recreation in simple and easily obtained material
enjoyment." The writer was a man who had known bondage, so he spoke at
any rate with authority. Of the London of the moment it could not,
however, be said with any truth that it was merry, but merely that its
inhabitants made desperate endeavour not to appear crushed under their
catastrophe. Surrounded as he was now with a babble of tongues and
shrill mechanical repartee, Yeovil's mind went back to the book and its
account of a theatre audience in the Turkish days of Bulgaria, with its
light and laughing crowd of critics and spectators. Bulgaria! The
thought of that determined little nation came to him with a sharp sense
of irony. There was a people who had not thought it beneath the dignity
of their manhood to learn the trade and discipline of arms. They had
their reward; torn and exhausted and debt-encumbered from their
campaigns, they were masters in their own house, the Bulgarian flag flew
over the Bulgarian mountains. And Yeovil stole a glance at the crown of
Charlemagne set over the Royal box.

In a capacious box immediately opposite the one set aside for royalty the
Lady Shalem sat in well-considered prominence, confident that every press
critic and reporter would note her presence, and that one or two of them
would describe, or misdescribe, her toilet. Already quite a considerable
section of the audience knew her by name, and the frequency with which
she graciously nodded towards various quarters of the house suggested the
presence of a great many personal acquaintances. She had attained to
that desirable feminine altitude of purse and position when people who go
about everywhere know you well by sight and have never met your dress
before.

Lady Shalem was a woman of commanding presence, of that type which
suggests a consciousness that the command may not necessarily be obeyed;
she had observant eyes and a well-managed voice. Her successes in life
had been worked for, but they were also to some considerable extent the
result of accident. Her public history went back to the time when, in
the person of her husband, Mr. Conrad Dort, she had contested two
hopeless and very expensive Parliamentary elections on behalf of her
party; on each occasion the declaration of the poll had shown a heavy
though reduced majority on the wrong side, but she might have perpetrated
an apt misquotation of the French monarch's traditional message after the
defeat of Pavia, and assured the world "all is lost save honours." The
forthcoming Honours List had duly proclaimed the fact that Conrad Dort,
Esquire, had entered Parliament by another door as Baron Shalem, of
Wireskiln, in the county of Suffolk. Success had crowned the lady's
efforts as far as the achievement of the title went, but her social
ambitions seemed unlikely to make further headway. The new Baron and his
wife, their title and money notwithstanding, did not "go down" in their
particular segment of county society, and in London there were other
titles and incomes to compete with. People were willing to worship the
Golden Calf, but allowed themselves a choice of altars. No one could
justly say that the Shalems were either oppressively vulgar or
insufferably bumptious; probably the chief reason for their lack of
popularity was their intense and obvious desire to be popular. They kept
open house in such an insistently open manner that they created a social
draught. The people who accepted their invitations for the second or
third time were not the sort of people whose names gave importance to a
dinner party or a house gathering. Failure, in a thinly-disguised form,
attended the assiduous efforts of the Shalems to play a leading role in
the world that they had climbed into. The Baron began to observe to his
acquaintances that "gadding about" and entertaining on a big scale was
not much in his line; a quiet after-dinner pipe and talk with some
brother legislator was his ideal way of spending an evening.

Then came the great catastrophe, involving the old order of society in
the national overthrow. Lady Shalem, after a decent interval of
patriotic mourning, began to look around her and take stock of her
chances and opportunities under the new regime. It was easier to achieve
distinction as a titled oasis in the social desert that London had become
than it had been to obtain recognition as a new growth in a rather
overcrowded field. The observant eyes and agile brain quickly noted this
circumstance, and her ladyship set to work to adapt herself to the
altered conditions that governed her world. Lord Shalem was one of the
few Peers who kissed the hand of the new Sovereign, his wife was one of
the few hostesses who attempted to throw a semblance of gaiety and lavish
elegance over the travesty of a London season following the year of
disaster. The world of tradesmen and purveyors and caterers, and the
thousands who were dependent on them for employment, privately blessed
the example set by Shalem House, whatever their feelings might be towards
the fait accompli, and the august newcomer who had added an old Saxon
kingdom and some of its accretions to the Teutonic realm of Charlemagne
was duly beholden to an acquired subject who was willing to forget the
bitterness of defeat and to help others to forget it also. Among other
acts of Imperial recognition an earldom was being held in readiness for
the Baron who had known how to accept accomplished facts with a good
grace. One of the wits of the Cockatrice Club had asserted that the new
earl would take as supporters for his coat of arms a lion and a unicorn
oublie.

In the box with Lady Shalem was the Grafin von Tolb, a well-dressed woman
of some fifty-six years, comfortable and placid in appearance, yet alert
withal, rather suggesting a thoroughly wide-awake dormouse. Rich,
amiable and intelligent were the adjectives which would best have
described her character and her life-story. In her own rather difficult
social circle at Paderborn she had earned for herself the reputation of
being one of the most tactful and discerning hostesses in Germany, and it
was generally suspected that she had come over and taken up her residence
in London in response to a wish expressed in high quarters; the lavish
hospitality which she dispensed at her house in Berkeley Square was a
considerable reinforcement to the stricken social life of the metropolis.

In a neighbouring box Cicely Yeovil presided over a large and lively
party, which of course included Ronnie Storre, who was for once in a way
in a chattering mood, and also included an American dowager, who had
never been known to be in anything else. A tone of literary distinction
was imparted to the group by the presence of Augusta Smith, better known
under her pen-name of Rhapsodic Pantril, author of a play that had had a
limited but well-advertised success in Sheffield and the United States of
America, author also of a book of reminiscences, entitled "Things I
Cannot Forget." She had beautiful eyes, a knowledge of how to dress, and
a pleasant disposition, cankered just a little by a perpetual dread of
the non-recognition of her genius. As the woman, Augusta Smith, she
probably would have been unreservedly happy; as the super-woman,
Rhapsodic Pantril, she lived within the border-line of discontent. Her
most ordinary remarks were framed with the view of arresting attention;
some one once said of her that she ordered a sack of potatoes with the
air of one who is making enquiry for a love-philtre.

"Do you see what colour the curtain is?" she asked Cicely, throwing a
note of intense meaning into her question.

Cicely turned quickly and looked at the drop-curtain.

"Rather a nice blue," she said.

"Alexandrine blue - my colour - the colour of hope," said Rhapsodie
impressively.

"It goes well with the general colour-scheme," said Cicely, feeling that
she was hardly rising to the occasion.

"Say, is it really true that His Majesty is coming?" asked the lively
American dowager. "I've put on my nooest frock and my best diamonds on
purpose, and I shall be mortified to death if he doesn't see them."

"There!" pouted Ronnie, "I felt certain you'd put them on for me."

"Why no, I should have put on rubies and orange opals for you. People
with our colour of hair always like barbaric display - "

"They don't," said Ronnie, "they have chaste cold tastes. You are
absolutely mistaken."

"Well, I think I ought to know!" protested the dowager; "I've lived
longer in the world than you have, anyway."

"Yes," said Ronnie with devastating truthfulness, "but my hair has been
this colour longer than yours has."

Peace was restored by the opportune arrival of a middle-aged man of blond
North-German type, with an expression of brutality on his rather stupid
face, who sat in the front of the box for a few minutes on a visit of
ceremony to Cicely. His appearance caused a slight buzz of recognition
among the audience, and if Yeovil had cared to make enquiry of his
neighbours he might have learned that this decorated and obviously
important personage was the redoubtable von Kwarl, artificer and shaper
of much of the statecraft for which other men got the public credit.

The orchestra played a selection from the "Gondola Girl," which was the
leading musical-comedy of the moment. Most of the audience, those in the
more expensive seats at any rate, heard the same airs two or three times
daily, at restaurant lunches, teas, dinners and suppers, and occasionally
in the Park; they were justified therefore in treating the music as a
background to slightly louder conversation than they had hitherto
indulged in. The music came to an end, episode number two in the
evening's entertainment was signalled, the curtain of Alexandrine blue
rolled heavily upward, and a troupe of performing wolves was presented to
the public. Yeovil had encountered wolves in North Africa deserts and in
Siberian forest and wold, he had seen them at twilight stealing like dark
shadows across the snow, and heard their long whimpering howl in the
darkness amid the pines; he could well understand how a magic lore had
grown up round them through the ages among the peoples of four
continents, how their name had passed into a hundred strange sayings and
inspired a hundred traditions. And now he saw them ride round the stage
on tricycles, with grotesque ruffles round their necks and clown caps on
their heads, their eyes blinking miserably in the blaze of the
footlights. In response to the applause of the house a stout,
atrociously smiling man in evening dress came forward and bowed; he had
had nothing to do either with the capture or the training of the animals,
having bought them ready for use from a continental emporium where wild
beasts were prepared for the music-hall market, but he continued bowing
and smiling till the curtain fell.

Two American musicians with comic tendencies (denoted by the elaborate
rags and tatters of their costumes) succeeded the wolves. Their musical
performance was not without merit, but their comic "business" seemed to
have been invented long ago by some man who had patented a monopoly of
all music-hall humour and forthwith retired from the trade. Some day,
Yeovil reflected, the rights of the monopoly might expire and new
"business" become available for the knockabout profession.

The audience brightened considerably when item number five of the
programme was signalled. The orchestra struck up a rollicking measure
and Tony Luton made his entrance amid a rousing storm of applause. He
was dressed as an errand-boy of some West End shop, with a livery and box-
tricycle, as spruce and decorative as the most ambitious errand-boy could
see himself in his most ambitious dreams. His song was a lively and very
audacious chronicle of life behind the scenes of a big retail
establishment, and sparkled with allusions which might fitly have been
described as suggestive - at any rate they appeared to suggest meanings to
the audience quite as clearly as Gorla Mustelford's dances were likely to
do, even with the aid, in her case, of long explanations on the
programmes. When the final verse seemed about to reach an unpardonable
climax a stage policeman opportunely appeared and moved the lively
songster on for obstructing the imaginary traffic of an imaginary Bond
Street. The house received the new number with genial enthusiasm, and
mingled its applause with demands for an earlier favourite. The
orchestra struck up the familiar air, and in a few moments the smart
errand-boy, transformed now into a smart jockey, was singing "They quaff
the gay bubbly in Eccleston Square" to an audience that hummed and nodded
its unstinted approval.

The next number but one was the Gorla Mustelford debut, and the house
settled itself down to yawn and fidget and chatter for ten or twelve
minutes while a troupe of talented Japanese jugglers performed some
artistic and quite uninteresting marvels with fans and butterflies and


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibrarySakiWhen William Came → online text (page 5 of 12)