Copyright
Stephen Hudson.

War-time Silhouettes online

. (page 3 of 7)
Online LibraryStephen HudsonWar-time Silhouettes → online text (page 3 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


* * * * *

Lady Whigham's concert went off with great _éclat_.

It was attended by many ladies, of whom one was a dowager countess, but
there were also a bishop and a midshipman. The last had a bad cold and
kept on blowing his nose during the performance of the soprano, a lady of
strange appearance, said to be a Serbian refugee of noble origin.

Joan did not enjoy the concert as much as the others. She said the
pianoforte playing was very indifferent - she wondered what Captain
Leclerc, who sat in the front row next to Clara Whigham, thought of it.

* * * * *

The 28th was fixed for the concert at Mrs. Dobson's. Joan would have
liked to write to Jack Leclerc and ask him to recommend the artists, but
she wasn't sure how he would take it, and besides, she did not know his
address. Of course she could have asked Clara, but somehow she did not
like to.

As Lady Whigham had specially asked Mrs. Dobson to engage performers she
was interested in, there was no difficulty and the day of the concert
arrived.

* * * * *

Among the first arrivals were Lady and Miss Whigham, attended by Jack
Leclerc.

Mrs. Dobson, wreathed in smiles, with Maud at her right hand, received
the guests. Effie gave them tea and Joan showed them to their places.

There were five "artists." Three young men opened the performance with a
trio for piano, violin, and 'cello. The ladies who had had tea knitted
and conversed. When the performance was over they went into raptures
about it. A middle-aged and melancholy-looking man with a beard followed.
He was the feature of the occasion, having been strongly recommended by
Lady Whigham as a "finished and accomplished vocalist." He sang a series
of very modern French songs.

"It sounds to me as if something was wrong," commented Mrs. Dobson to
Maud, who replied -

"Sh! mamma, they're not supposed to have any tune."

Lady Whigham in the front seat was applauding vigorously, so every one
else, especially Mrs. Dobson, did the same, with the result that the
accomplished vocalist sang them all over again, making exactly the same
faces.

After that an old lady in a yellow wig livened things up with a rendering
of Tosti's "Good-bye" in a cracked contralto. While the audience was
applauding, Joan noticed that Jack Leclerc got up. He was making his way
gently to the door, evidently anxious to escape observation. Her heart
was in her mouth, but she sat on stonily, determined that he should not
know she had seen him.

At the door he encountered Mrs. Dobson.

"So sorry, I must run, Mrs. Dobson," he said, holding out his hand.

"Oh, I am sorry, Mr. - er - Captain Leclerc. Can't you wait till the end?
Joan will be so disappointed not to see you."

"Oh, thank you. The fact is - " Leclerc stopped, looking a little
embarrassed. But Mrs. Dobson did not notice this and ran on -

"And what did you think of the concert, Mr. - er - Captain Leclerc?"

The musician's professional conscience forbade a complimentary reply.

"It was very bad," he said, "except the old Frenchman. That woman had no
business to sing in public, and as for those youths who call themselves
artists - why aren't they in the trenches?" And hastily touching Mrs.
Dobson's hand, he slipped away: the expression in her rubicund face was
pained as she gazed after him.

* * * * *

After the concert had come to an end and the guests had gradually
dispersed, Lady Whigham and Mrs. Dobson counted up the money and
discussed how much each performer should receive. This _tête-à-tête_
with Lady Whigham was what Mrs. Dobson most enjoyed the whole afternoon.
Meanwhile Clara drew Joan aside.

"Congratulate me, dearest," she whispered. "I'm going to marry Captain
Leclerc."




IV. BUSINESS IS BUSINESS

Stephen Ringsmith in his way is a public man, and such he likes to
consider himself.

He is an art dealer in a very big way, and he is also a pillar of one of
the political parties. He could have a baronetcy for the asking, but he
has no children and he prefers to be a power behind the throne rather
than a lackey in front of it.

Ringsmith is what is called a strong man. He knows the value of money,
but he enjoys spending it. He lives in princely style, but he is not
exactly a snob and he prides himself on his independence. His hobby is
what he calls "picking winners" - men, not horses. He likes to "spot" some
young fellow who he thinks has it in him to get on, then he backs him. He
believes that nothing succeeds like success, having tested the truth of
the saying himself. When something disagreeable has to be done, he does
it and damns the consequences but he does not shrink from them.

One afternoon old Peter Knott went to see the famous art dealer. The
latter was sitting in a deep leather chair with his feet near the fender,
a silver tea-service resplendent under a high silver lamp beside him. To
Peter Knott, as he entered, the impression was that of a comfort both
solid and luxurious.

Ringsmith's strong-willed face lit up. He had much regard for Peter, in
spite of the latter's being almost the only man who did not hesitate to
say what he thought to him, whether palatable or not.

"Ha, old bird! I know what you've come for."

Ringsmith has a large mouth, and although he is getting towards sixty his
teeth are strong and sound. His voice is loud and its tone bullying, as
of one accustomed to ordering people about and to having his way. Somehow
this doesn't offend, perhaps because you expect it of a man with his red,
mottled skin, bushy eyebrows, and heavy jaw.

Old Peter finished his bit of buttered toast and quietly sipped his tea.

"Yes?" he said.

"What is it this time, Peter, a box for the Red Cross Matinee or a
subscription to the new fund? Come on, out with it."

Peter screwed his single glass into one of his shrewd grey eyes, and
examining the muffin dish, carefully selected another piece of toast.

"Try again," he remarked.

"It's worse than I thought." The big man looked at his friend out of the
corner of his eye as he put a cigar in his mouth and lighted a match. The
other finished his tea and lay back in his chair.

"Not at all, not at all, Stephen. A friend of mine, Mrs. Stillwell, wants
to sell her pictures."

Peter Knott has a soft, gentle voice, and he spoke slowly, looking into
the fire.

"She is an old friend of mine, Mrs. Stillwell. I was best man to Tom when
he married her. Lord! What a long time ago!"

Ringsmith glanced towards Peter; he said nothing, and there was a
moment's silence before the latter continued -

"Tom didn't leave anything except the property, which goes to the boy;
he's at the Front. There are the two girls to provide for. I advised her
to sell the pictures long ago, but she couldn't bear to part with them.
Now, with new taxation and so on, she feels she must. It's a bad time for
selling, isn't it, Stephen?"

"The worst."

"What do you advise?"

"I never advise; people must make up their minds for themselves." Then,
as though it were an after-thought: "What sort of pictures are they?"

"There are a Corot, a Mauve, and a Daubigny, I believe. The Corot is said
to be a particularly good one."

"Um - what does she want for them?"

"I don't think poor Mary has any idea about the price; she asked me, but
there's one thing I won't do, and that's to be mixed up in an art deal - "

Ringsmith's eyes flashed; he flicked the ash off his cigar angrily.

"Mixed up - art deal! Then why the devil do you come to me?"

Peter Knott smiled at him benignly.

"Oh! Because you and I are old friends, Stephen. I'm sure you'll treat
her better than any one else."

Ringsmith moved uneasily.

"Why don't you tell her to go to some one else first? I like people to
fix their price before they come to me, then I can take it or leave it.
They've got such fantastic ideas about the value of things."

"Oh, very well, if you prefer. I thought you'd be pleased I came to you,
but of course - "

Peter made a slight waving motion with his hand, dismissing the subject,
and began talking of other things.

A quarter of an hour later he rose to go. He said good-bye, and was just
leaving the room when Ringsmith called him back.

"About those pictures - I should like to oblige you, Peter."

"Yes?"

"Where can they be seen?"

Peter Knott took a half-sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it to
Ringsmith without comment. Ringsmith glanced at it and threw it on the
table.

"All right," he said, "leave it to me; I'll see what can be done, but
these aren't times to buy, you know."

"So you said," Peter replied, and went gently out of the room.

The next morning Ringsmith was early at his office. After looking over
his letters he sent for MacTavish. The shrewd Scotsman was said to be the
cleverest picture-buyer in the country. He came in, a tall, thin man,
clean-shaven, with wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Ringsmith
doesn't stand on terms of ceremony with his employees: he comes to the
point at once.

"D'you remember that Corot we sold to Peter Whelan of Philadelphia? When
was it - two or three years ago?"

"Certainly I do, Mr. Ringsmith."

"Can you say off-hand what we made on that deal?"

"No," replied MacTavish cautiously, "but I do remember what we gave for
it, and what we sold it for. There were a lot of expenses on that deal."
There was a cunning look in MacTavish's eyes as he added the last words.

"Um, yes - what were the figures?"

"We gave £4,000, but it included those ormulu vases which Joyce sold for
us at Christie's. You remember we were wrong about those, and it took
some of the gilt off."

Ringsmith's heavy eyebrows met in a scowl.

"Well?" he said irritably.

"Whelan gave £7,500. He's a hard nut, you know."

"That'll do now, MacTavish. I want you to go and call at this place, have
a look at the pictures, and report."

* * * * *

Mr. MacTavish lost no time in calling at Mrs. Stillwell's house. She was
out, but had left a note for the gentleman from Mr. Ringsmith's, asking
him to look at the pictures, and expressing her regret that she could not
show them to him herself. She was quite unable, she said, to decide upon
a price, which she left entirely to Mr. Ringsmith.

* * * * *

A few days later Mrs. Stillwell was writing to her boy at the Front when
Mr. MacTavish was announced. She is a slight, refined, gentle-looking
little lady, and rose from her chair with some embarrassment. She had
never had anything to do with gentlemen like Mr. MacTavish before, and
hardly knew whether she ought to shake hands with him or not; but she did
so with a gracious and slightly deprecating air. She felt she was under
an obligation to him for giving him so much trouble, and she disliked
very much being compelled to talk to him about selling her pictures.

"Won't you have a cup of tea, Mr. MacTavish?" she asked, not knowing
exactly what to say.

The tall Scotsman declined politely, and came straight to business.

"I've talked the matter over with Mr. Ringsmith, Mrs. Stillwell, and if
you're agreeable I am prepared to buy the three pictures for the firm."

Mrs. Stillwell half-rose from her chair.

"Oh, thank you very much, thank you very much!" she said hastily.

"Purely a matter of business, madam. You may not be aware that in these
times buying pictures is a somewhat dangerous operation."

"Oh, indeed! I didn't know."

Mrs. Stillwell blanched at the word "dangerous."

"I mean, we may be compelled to keep them for a considerable time. It's
not easy to find purchasers."

"No, I suppose not, Mr. MacTavish."

"You are still unable to fix a price, Mrs. Stillwell?"

"I really - I - no, I don't think so. I have no idea what the value of the
pictures is."

"Pictures have no value, madam; they are worth just what they can be sold
for, neither more nor less."

"Oh, indeed! Yes."

"Mr. Ringsmith has decided to give you what I think may be considered in
the circumstances a very handsome price for the three pictures. He has
told me that I may offer you £5,000."

"Oh, I'm sure that's very kind indeed of Mr. Ringsmith." Mrs. Stillwell
was quite astonished; she had not expected nearly so much.

MacTavish lost no time; he handed her a cheque, and in a few moments
took his departure.

Some weeks passed. Ringsmith again occupied the deep leather chair, and
Peter Knott was announced.

"Good afternoon, Stephen; thought I'd look in for a moment. No, thanks."
This in answer to Ringsmith's offer of tea.

"Mrs. Stillwell told me about the deal, Stephen."

"Well, were you satisfied?"

Peter Knott didn't answer the question.

"By the way," he remarked softly, "her boy's just come back. Got shot
through one of his lungs. Extraordinary thing - miracle almost. He's made
a marvellous recovery, thanks entirely to a motor ambulance being handy.
They got him to the base hospital, and now he's almost convalescent.
Aren't you glad you subscribed, Stephen?"

"Of course I'm glad. I don't give money unless I want to."

"You are very good about it, Stephen - very. I was wondering
whether" - Peter Knott looked up at Ringsmith - "you'd feel like giving me
another little cheque. You know these ambulances break down dreadfully
fast. Fresh ones are always wanted, and with the new campaign - "

"Really, Peter, you try me pretty high. It's give, give, give. You seem
to think that I've got a bottomless pocket."

"Not exactly bottomless, Stephen."

"But I say you do. I can't go on like this. Every day there's some new
demand. Look at this." He took a type-written letter from the table and
handed it to his friend. Peter Knott stuck his eyeglass into his eye and
slowly read the letter.

"I say, Stephen, this must be the wrong letter. It's from those
wheelworks of yours, telling you they've got so many orders they can't
execute them, and that there's a new contract from the Government.
They want to extend the works."

"Well, damn it! doesn't that mean more money, and the Government takes
pretty nearly all the profit. You seem to forget that money's wanted in
business. I shall have to shut up shop if this goes on. D'you think
giving employment to hundreds of workmen isn't worth something, too? I'm
thinking very seriously of closing Crossways Hall altogether; in fact, I
should, only that it would cost me almost as much as keeping it open.
There's no man in the country who has done more in the public interest
than I have, but there's a limit to everything."

Ringsmith scowled at Peter, who made no attempt at replying.

"By the way, Ringsmith, did you know Whelan is over here? I met him quite
by chance yesterday. Seems he's come over on a large Government contract
for shells. He asked after you. Told me about a Corot you sold him some
years ago. He seemed to think he'd paid a big price."

"Well, he didn't." The tone of Ringsmith's reply was irritable. Peter
Knott stopped putting on his gloves and looked at Ringsmith inquiringly.

"Not a big price? He told me £7,500."

"Oh, he told you that, did he? Have you any idea what kind of expenses
there are in a transaction of that kind?"

"Not the slightest, Stephen."

"You don't seem to realize that there are not many people who have the
antipathy to being mixed up in art deals that you have."

"Ah!" Peter Knott moved to the door.

"Good-bye, Stephen," he murmured, and closed it gently behind him.

* * * * *

By the first post in the morning Peter Knott received the following
letter -


DEAR PETER,

Thinking it over after you left, I have decided to send you the enclosed
for the motor ambulance fund. I never like refusing you, but I should
like you to remember that business is one thing and charity another.

Yours ever,

STEPHEN RINGSMITH.


Within the letter was a cheque for £2,500.

"Not so bad," muttered Peter, "but he's got the Mauve and the Daubigny
for nothing, and there were no expenses on this deal."




V. "BOBBY"

When War came, Julian Froelich, known to his friends as "Bobby," found
himself in a situation which in his wildest dreams he had never
contemplated. This is not surprising, considering that his mental
activities had been exclusively limited to procuring himself what he
called "a good time." In that brief phrase could be summed up Bobby's
entire philosophy, and when he suddenly had to face a state of things
which from one moment to another swept away the groundwork upon which his
life reposed, it is no wonder that he felt himself "knocked out." With
incredible velocity his friends were caught up and whirled in every
direction like cockle-shells in a hurricane. Their haunts knew them no
more, and before he could realize his personal concern with catastrophic
events Bobby became a disconsolate wanderer in search of the flotsam and
jetsam which were all that remained of his demolished world.

For a time Bobby was unnerved. At first singly, then by twos, by threes,
by dozens, those with whom his life had been spent - frequenters of the
restaurant, the racecourse, the tavern, and the theatre - followed one
another in a headlong race to the unknown. His brain reeled under
successive shocks. He was awestruck by the appalling suddenness of death
and destruction. Daring no inquiry, avoiding those whose faces he dreaded
to read, he forsook his former luxurious resorts and almost slunk into
the corners of obscure eating-places and cafés in Soho.

Bobby will not easily forget those first few weeks of the War.

Then gradually he pulled himself together, and unable to escape the
influence by which he was surrounded, he tried to take his little part in
the common effort. But his training was against him. At forty-five years
of age it is no easy task for any man to put the past behind him and
begin afresh; for Bobby to have done so would have needed a strength of
will and character which he never at any time in his life possessed. He
did succeed in getting various jobs, but one after another he threw them
up. In each case he found a suitable excuse for himself and an
explanation for his friends; there was always some insuperable reason why
he was "obliged to chuck it," and he finally resigned himself to a form
of existence which differed from his former one, but only in degree.

In the early months of the War, before restrictions were placed upon
ordinary travellers, Bobby began going to Paris again, for although he
felt if possible even more there than in London the changes brought about
by the War, the old habit was too strong to resist; the journey itself
provided a reaction against the depression which overshadowed him.

Some time after von Kluck had been hurled back from the gates of
Paris - it must have been shortly after the return of the French
Government from Bordeaux - Bobby found himself arriving at the Gare
du Nord. He had engaged his apartment, as usual, at the Hôtel Ritz, and
was about to step into the car which even in such times as these was sent
to meet him, when a lady approached and asked him if he would mind taking
her to her destination, as there was neither cab nor car to be found at
the station. Bobby's experienced eye took in the stranger at a glance;
she was unquestionably attractive, and with something of the old spirit
he placed himself and his car at her disposal. It so happened that there
was no inconvenience attached to the favour, which the lady acknowledged
with becoming grace, for her destination was the same as his, and by the
time Bobby had deposited her and her maid at the hotel they had struck up
a quite promising acquaintance.

Several days passed, and Bobby's chance meeting ripened into an
engrossing adventure.

Many officers in those early days were continually passing through Paris
on their way to the Front or arriving there on short leave. There were
all sorts of other visitors - officials and bearers of dispatches,
diplomatists and cosmopolitan adventurers out for gain, not to speak of
their wives, sisters, and other female attachments. Some of these Bobby
knew, others he met, and not a few of them were well enough pleased to
accept his society, if only to profit by his ciceronage as evening
advanced. But on this occasion Bobby had no eyes for chance encounters.
His time was fully occupied, and he had come to the conclusion that his
new acquaintance was the most tempting and fascinating creature Fate
had ever cast across his path. He had, in fact, constituted himself her
permanent escort.

Her chief occupation seemed to consist in visiting people who lived in
various parts of Paris, where Bobby invariably accompanied her in the car
he had engaged chiefly for her benefit, and he observed that she had a
considerable acquaintance among people whom she came across at the hotel
or in the various restaurants and theatres they frequented. But she
never seemed to do more than bow to them, and though it was evident that
her appearance aroused flattering notice, she discouraged attentions and
was smilingly evasive when approached. Nevertheless, she was full of
engagements. One day she would have an appointment at eleven in the
morning near the Arc de Triomphe, in the afternoon in the Boulevard
Malesherbes; the next day it would be near the Odéon in the morning and
at a turning out of the Place Pigalle in the afternoon. On such occasions
she would sweetly ask him to drop her at a certain place and to fetch her
at a certain time; then she would disappear and Bobby would be left to
spend the interval kicking his heels.

She dressed modestly in a taste that was quiet and restrained. Without
being beautiful, her features were clear-cut, almost strong, and there
was a radiancy about her smile and a gaiety in her brown eyes that Bobby
found perfectly entrancing. She was no longer quite young; she might have
been thirty; indeed, her hair, which was dark brown, was ever so slightly
touched with silver, but this seemed to add to her attractiveness, which
resided perhaps more in her complete naturalness than in any other
quality. Bobby noticed that, unlike nearly all the women he knew, she
used no colour on her lips, and only lightly dusted her face with powder,
but her cheeks seemed always to have a bloom upon them as on grapes from
a hothouse.

He found her a most delightful companion, always ready to talk about the
things that interested him most and to go anywhere he liked, provided
that it did not clash with any of her private engagements.

But never in his experience had Bobby been so puzzled. He simply could
not make out who or what she really was. This mystery, if anything,
deepened her attraction for him. Her name was Madame de Corantin, and in
answer to his inquiry she told him her Christian name was Francine, but
he had not so far dared to call her by it. She had an extraordinary
power of quietly checking any attempt on his part to make tender
advances. He could not himself have explained how it was done, but she
contrived to make him feel that any suggestion of familiarity would put
an end to their intercourse, and for nothing in the world would he have
risked it. Indeed, in his loose-endedness, he looked upon the whole
adventure as a special dispensation of Providence in his favour. Madame
de Corantin was to him like a beacon to a lonely wayfarer who has lost
his way in the night. To act as her escort and protector was, quite apart
from the deeper feeling she inspired, a new object in life for him.
Ever since their first meeting his depression had left him; his existence
had once more regained its savour.

She had frequently asked him to post letters for her, and sometimes to
call at the hotel for them; her correspondence seemed to be large, and
the envelopes bore the stamps of various countries, chiefly Russia. She
spoke English and French equally well, with a slight foreign accent,
which she explained by saying that she was Russian by birth, but had
married a French diplomatist, who died in Brazil; she said, too, that she
had travelled a great deal, and had spent much of her time in South
America, where she had been in the habit of speaking Spanish. Perhaps,
had Bobby's companion been less attractive, he might have been more
interested in these matters, but he was absorbed by her personality and
troubled little about anything else.

Ever bright, vivacious, and in good spirits, she awakened Bobby to a new
interest in life. The philosophy with which she regarded tumultuous
events, the easy cynicism with which she dismissed a discussion which


1 3 5 6 7

Online LibraryStephen HudsonWar-time Silhouettes → online text (page 3 of 7)