The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 23.

Across the Walnuts and the Wine.

Moore, sweetest of bards, sings —

“Oh, there’s nothing half so sweet in life As love’s young dream.”

But he made this assertion in his callow days, before he had learned the value of a good digestion. To a young and fervid youth, love’s young dream is, no doubt, very charming, lovers, as a rule, having a small appetite; but to a man who has seen the world, and drunk deeply of the wine of life, there is nothing half so sweet in the whole of his existence as a good dinner. “A hard heart and a good digestion will make any man happy.” So said Talleyrand, a cynic if you like, but a man who knew the temper of his day and generation. Ovid wrote about the art of love — Brillat Savarin, of the art of dining; yet, I warrant you, the gastronomical treatise of the brilliant Frenchman is more widely read than the passionate songs of the Roman poet. Who does not value as the sweetest in the whole twenty-four the hour when, seated at an artistically-laid table, with delicately-cooked viands, good wines, and pleasant company, all the cares and worries of the day give place to a delightful sense of absolute enjoyment? Dinner with the English people is generally a very dreary affair, and there is a heaviness about the whole thing which communicates itself to the guests, who eat and drink with a solemn persistence, as though they were occupied in fulfilling some sacred rite. But there are men — alas! few and far between — who possess the rare art of giving good dinners — good in the sense of sociality as well as in that of cookery.

Mark Frettlby was one of these rare individuals — he had an innate genius for getting pleasant people together — people, who, so to speak, dovetailed into one another. He had an excellent cook, and his wines were irreproachable, so that Brian, in spite of his worries, was glad that he had accepted the invitation. The bright gleam of the silver, the glitter of glass, and the perfume of flowers, all collected under the subdued crimson glow of a pink-shaded lamp, which hung from the ceiling, could not but give him a pleasurable sensation.

On one side of the dining-room were the French windows opening on to the verandah, and beyond appeared the vivid green of the trees, and the dazzling colours of the flowers, somewhat tempered by the soft hazy glow of the twilight.

Brian had made himself as respectable as possible under the odd circumstances of dining in his riding-dress, and sat next to Madge, contentedly sipping his wine, and listening to the pleasant chatter which was going on around him.

Felix Rolleston was in great spirits, the more so as Mrs Rolleston was at the further end of the table, hidden from his view.

Julia Featherweight sat near Mr. Frettlby, and chatted to him so persistently that he wished she would become possessed of a dumb devil.

Dr. Chinston and Peterson were seated on the other side of the table, and the old colonist, whose name was Valpy, had the post of honour, on Mr. Frettlby’s right hand.

The conversation had turned on to the subject, ever green and fascinating, of politics, and Mr. Rolleston thought it a good opportunity to air his views as to the Government of the Colony, and to show his wife that he really meant to obey her wish, and become a power in the political world.

“By Jove, you know,” he said, with a wave of his hand, as though he were addressing the House; “the country is going to the dogs, and all that sort of thing. What we want is a man like Beaconsfield.”

“Ah! but you can’t pick up a man like that every day,” said Frettlby, who was listening with an amused smile to Rolleston’s disquisitions.

“Rather a good thing, too,” observed Dr. Chinston, dryly.

“Genius would become too common.”

“Well, when I am elected,” said Felix, who had his own views, which modesty forbade him to publish, on the subject of the coming colonial Disraeli, “I probably shall form a party.”

“To advocate what?” asked Peterson, curiously.

“Oh, well, you see,” hesitated Felix, “I haven’t drawn up a programme yet, so can’t say at present.”

“Yes, you can hardly give a performance without a programme,” said the doctor, taking a sip of wine, and then everybody laughed.

“And on what are your political opinions founded?” asked Mr. Frettlby, absently, without looking at Felix.

“Oh, you see, I’ve read the Parliamentary reports and Constitutional history, and — and Vivian Grey,” said Felix, who began to feel himself somewhat at sea.

“The last of which is what the author called it, a lusus naturae,” observed Chinston. “Don’t erect your political schemes on such bubble foundations as are in that novel, for you won’t find a Marquis Carabas out here.”

“Unfortunately, no!” observed Felix, mournfully; “but we may find a Vivian Grey.”

Every one smothered a smile, the allusion was so patent.

“Well, he didn’t succeed in the end,” cried Peterson.

“Of course he didn’t,” retorted Felix, disdainfully; “he made an enemy of a woman, and a man who is such a fool as to do that deserves to fall.”

“You have an excellent opinion of our sex, Mr. Rolleston,” said Madge, with a wicked glance at the wife of that gentleman, who was listening complacently to her husband’s aimless chatter.

“No better than they deserve,” replied Rolleston, gallantly.

“But you have never gone in for politics, Mr. Frettlby?”

“Who? — I— no,” said the host, rousing himself out of the brown study into which he had fallen. “I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently patriotic, and my business did not permit me.”

“And now?”

“Now,” echoed Mr. Frettlby, glancing at his daughter, “I intend to travel.”

“The jolliest thing out,” said Peterson, eagerly. “One never gets tired of seeing the queer things that are in the world.”

“I’ve seen queer enough things in Melbourne in the early days,” said the old colonist, with a wicked twinkle in his eyes.

“Oh!” cried Julia, putting her hands up to her ears, “don’t tell me them, for I’m sure they’re naughty.”

“We weren’t saints then,” said old Valpy, with a senile chuckle.

“Ah, then, we haven’t changed much in that respect,” retorted Frettlby, drily.

“You talk of your theatres now,” went on Valpy, with the garrulousness of old age; “why, you haven’t got a dancer like Rosanna.”

Brian started on hearing this name again, and he felt Madge’s cold hand touch his.

“And who was Rosanna?” asked Felix, curiously, looking up.

“A dancer and burlesque actress,” replied Valpy, vivaciously, nodding his old head. “Such a beauty; we were all mad about her — such hair and eyes. You remember her, Frettlby?”

“Yes,” answered the host, in a curiously dry voice.

But before Mr. Valpy had the opportunity to wax more eloquent, Madge rose from the table, and the other ladies followed. The ever polite Felix held the door open for them, and received a bright smile from his wife for, what she considered, his brilliant talk at the dinner table.

Brian sat still, and wondered why Frettlby changed colour on hearing the name — he supposed that the millionaire had been mixed up with the actress, and did not care about being reminded of his early indiscretions — and, after all, who does?

“She was as light as a fairy,” continued Valpy, with wicked chuckle.

“What became of her?” asked Brian, abruptly.

Mark Frettlby looked up suddenly, as Fitzgerald asked this question.

“She went to England in 1858,” said the aged one. “I’m not quite sure if it was July or August, but it was in 1858.”

“You will excuse me, Valpy, but I hardly think that these reminiscences of a ballet-dancer are amusing,” said Frettlby, curtly, pouring himself out a glass of wine. “Let us change the subject.”

Notwithstanding the plainly-expressed wish of his host Brian felt strongly inclined to pursue the conversation. Politeness, however, forbade such a thing, and he consoled himself with the reflection that, after dinner, he would ask old Valpy about the ballet-dancer whose name caused Mark Frettlby to exhibit such strong emotion. But, to his annoyance, when the gentlemen went into the drawing-room, Frettlby took the old colonist off to his study, where he sat with him the whole evening talking over old times.

Fitzgerald found Madge seated at the piano in the drawing-room playing one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words.

“What a dismal thing that is you are playing, Madge,” he said lightly, as he sank into a seat beside her. “It is more like a funeral march than anything else.”

“Gad, so it is,” said Felix, who came up at this moment. “I don’t care myself about ‘Op. 84’ and all that classical humbug. Give me something light — ‘Belle Helene,’ with Emelie Melville, and all that sort of thing.”

“Felix!” said his wife, in a stern tone.

“My dear,” he answered recklessly, rendered bold by the champagne he had taken, “you observed — ”

“Nothing particular,” answered Mrs. Rolleston, glancing at him with a stony eye, “except that I consider Offenbach low.”

“I don’t,” said Felix, sitting down to the piano, from which Madge had just risen, “and to prove he ain’t, here goes.”

He ran his fingers lightly over the keys, and dashed into a brilliant Offenbach galop, which had the effect of waking up the people in the drawing-room, who felt sleepy after dinner, and sent the blood tingling through their veins. When they were thoroughly roused, Felix, now that he had an appreciative audience, for he was by no means an individual who believed in wasting his sweetness on the desert air, prepared to amuse them.

“You haven’t heard the last new song by Frosti, have you?” he asked, after he had brought his galop to a conclusion.

“Is that the composer of ‘Inasmuch’ and ‘How so?’” asked Julia, clasping her hands. “I do love his music, and the words are so sweetly pretty.”

“Infernally stupid, she means,” whispered Peterson to Brian. “They’ve no more meaning in them than the titles.”

“Sing us the new song, Felix,” commanded his wife, and her obedient husband obeyed her.

It was entitled, “Somewhere,” words by Vashti, music by Paola Frosti, and was one of those extraordinary compositions which may mean anything — that is, if the meaning can be discovered. Felix had a pleasant voice, though it was not very strong, and the music was pretty, while the words were mystical. The first verse was as follows:—

“A flying cloud, a breaking wave, A faint light in a moonless sky: A voice that from the silent grave Sounds sad in one long bitter cry. I know not, sweet, where you may stand, With shining eyes and golden hair, Yet I know, I will touch your hand And kiss your lips somewhere — Somewhere! Somewhere! — When the summer sun is fair, Waiting me, on land or sea, Somewhere, love, somewhere!”

The second verse was very similar to the first, and when Felix finished a murmur of applause broke from every one of the ladies.

“How sweetly pretty,” sighed Julia. “Such a lot in it.”

“But what is its meaning?” asked Brian, rather bewildered.

“It hasn’t got one,” replied Felix, complacently. “Surely you don’t want every song to have a moral, like a book of Aesop’s Fables?”

Brian shrugged his shoulders, and turned away with Madge.

“I must say I agree with Fitzgerald,” said the doctor, quickly. “I like as song with some meaning in it. The poetry of the one you sang is as mystical as Browning, without any of his genius to redeem it.”

“Philistine,” murmured Felix, under his breath, and then vacated his seat at the piano in favour of Julia, who was about to sing a ballad called, “Going Down the Hill,” which had been the rage in Melbourne musical circles during the last two months.

Meanwhile Madge and Brian were walking up and down in the moonlight. It was an exquisite night, with a cloudless blue sky glittering with the stars, and a great yellow moon in the west. Madge seated herself on the side of the marble ledge which girdled the still pool of water in front of the house, and dipped her hand into the cool water. Brian leaned against the trunk of a great magnolia tree, whose glossy green leaves and great creamy blossoms looked fantastic in the moonlight. In front of them was the house, with the ruddy lamplight streaming through the wide windows, and they could see the guests within, excited by the music, waltzing to Rolleston’s playing, and their dark figures kept passing and re-passing the windows while the charming music of the waltz mingled with their merry laughter.

“Looks like a haunted house,” said Brian, thinking of Poe’s weird poem; “but such a thing is impossible out here.”

“I don’t know so much about that,” said Madge, gravely, lifting up some water in the palm of her hand, and letting it stream back like diamonds in the moonlight. “I knew a house in St. Kilda which was haunted.”

“By what?” asked Brian, sceptically.

“Noises!” she answered, solemnly.

Brian burst out laughing and startled a bat, which flew round and round in the silver moonlight, and whirred away into the shelter of a witch elm.

“Rats and mice are more common here than ghosts,” he said, lightly. “I’m afraid the inhabitants of your haunted house were fanciful.”

“So you don’t believe in ghosts?”

“There’s a Banshee in our family,” said Brian, with a gay smile, “who is supposed to cheer our death beds with her howlings; but as I’ve never seen the lady myself, I’m afraid she’s a Mrs. Harris.”

“It’s aristocratic to have a ghost in a family, I believe,” said Madge; “that is the reason we colonials have none.”

“Ah, but you will have,” he answered with a careless laugh. “There are, no doubt, democratic as well as aristocratic ghosts; but, pshaw!” he went on, impatiently, “what nonsense I talk. There are no ghosts, except of a man’s own raising. The ghosts of a dead youth — the ghosts of past follies — the ghosts of what might have been — these are the spectres which are more to be feared than those of the churchyard.”

Madge looked at him in silence, for she understood the meaning of that passionate outburst — the secret which the dead woman had told him, and which hung like a shadow over his life. She arose quietly and took his arm. The light touch roused him, and a faint wind sent an eerie rustle through the still leaves of the magnolia, as they walked back in silence to the house.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42