The Unbearable Bassington, by Saki

Chapter 15

Elaine Youghal sat at lunch in the Speise Saal of one of Vienna’s costlier hotels. The double-headed eagle, with its “K.u.K.” legend, everywhere met the eye and announced the imperial favour in which the establishment basked. Some several square yards of yellow bunting, charged with the image of another double-headed eagle, floating from the highest flag-staff above the building, betrayed to the initiated the fact that a Russian Grand Duke was concealed somewhere on the premises. Unannounced by heraldic symbolism but unconcealable by reason of nature’s own blazonry, were several citizens and citizenesses of the great republic of the Western world. One or two Cobdenite members of the British Parliament engaged in the useful task of proving that the cost of living in Vienna was on an exorbitant scale, flitted with restrained importance through a land whose fatness they had come to spy out; every fancied over-charge in their bills was welcome as providing another nail in the coffin of their fiscal opponents. It is the glory of democracies that they may be misled but never driven. Here and there, like brave deeds in a dust-patterned world, flashed and glittered the sumptuous uniforms of representatives of the Austrian military caste. Also in evidence, at discreet intervals, were stray units of the Semetic tribe that nineteen centuries of European neglect had been unable to mislay.

Elaine sitting with Courtenay at an elaborately appointed luncheon table, gay with high goblets of Bohemian glassware, was mistress of three discoveries. First, to her disappointment, that if you frequent the more expensive hotels of Europe you must be prepared to find, in whatever country you may chance to be staying, a depressing international likeness between them all. Secondly, to her relief, that one is not expected to be sentimentally amorous during a modern honeymoon. Thirdly, rather to her dismay, that Courtenay Youghal did not necessarily expect her to be markedly affectionate in private. Someone had described him, after their marriage, as one of Nature’s bachelors, and she began to see how aptly the description fitted him.

“Will those Germans on our left never stop talking?” she asked, as an undying flow of Teutonic small talk rattled and jangled across the intervening stretch of carpet. “Not one of those three women has ceased talking for an instant since we’ve been sitting here.”

“They will presently, if only for a moment,” said Courtenay; “when the dish you have ordered comes in there will be a deathly silence at the next table. No German can see a plat brought in for someone else without being possessed with a great fear that it represents a more toothsome morsel or a better money’s worth than what he has ordered for himself.”

The exuberant Teutonic chatter was balanced on the other side of the room by an even more penetrating conversation unflaggingly maintained by a party of Americans, who were sitting in judgment on the cuisine of the country they were passing through, and finding few extenuating circumstances.

“What Mr. Lonkins wants is a real DEEP cherry pie,” announced a lady in a tone of dramatic and honest conviction.

“Why, yes, that is so,” corroborated a gentleman who was apparently the Mr. Lonkins in question; “a real DEEP cherry pie.”

“We had the same trouble way back in Paris,” proclaimed another lady; “little Jerome and the girls don’t want to eat any more creme renversee. I’d give anything if they could get some real cherry pie.”

“Real DEEP cherry pie,” assented Mr. Lonkins.

“Way down in Ohio we used to have peach pie that was real good,” said Mrs. Lonkins, turning on a tap of reminiscence that presently flowed to a cascade. The subject of pies seemed to lend itself to indefinite expansion.

“Do those people think of nothing but their food?” asked Elaine, as the virtues of roasted mutton suddenly came to the fore and received emphatic recognition, even the absent and youthful Jerome being quoted in its favour.

“On the contrary,” said Courtenay, “they are a widely-travelled set, and the man has had a notably interesting career. It is a form of home-sickness with them to discuss and lament the cookery and foods that they’ve never had the leisure to stay at home and digest. The Wandering Jew probably babbled unremittingly about some breakfast dish that took so long to prepare that he had never time to eat it.”

A waiter deposited a dish of Wiener Nierenbraten in front of Elaine. At the same moment a magic hush fell upon the three German ladies at the adjoining table, and the flicker of a great fear passed across their eyes. Then they burst forth again into tumultuous chatter. Courtenay had proved a reliable prophet.

Almost at the same moment as the luncheon-dish appeared on the scene, two ladies arrived at a neighbouring table, and bowed with dignified cordiality to Elaine and Courtenay. They were two of the more worldly and travelled of Elaine’s extensive stock of aunts, and they happened to be making a short stay at the same hotel as the young couple. They were far too correct and rationally minded to intrude themselves on their niece, but it was significant of Elaine’s altered view as to the sanctity of honeymoon life that she secretly rather welcomed the presence of her two relatives in the hotel, and had found time and occasion to give them more of her society than she would have considered necessary or desirable a few weeks ago. The younger of the two she rather liked, in a restrained fashion, as one likes an unpretentious watering-place or a restaurant that does not try to give one a musical education in addition to one’s dinner. One felt instinctively about her that she would never wear rather more valuable diamonds than any other woman in the room, and would never be the only person to be saved in a steamboat disaster or hotel fire. As a child she might have been perfectly well able to recite “On Linden when the sun was low,” but one felt certain that nothing ever induced her to do so. The elder aunt, Mrs. Goldbrook, did not share her sister’s character as a human rest-cure; most people found her rather disturbing, chiefly, perhaps, from her habit of asking unimportant questions with enormous solemnity. Her manner of enquiring after a trifling ailment gave one the impression that she was more concerned with the fortunes of the malady than with oneself, and when one got rid of a cold one felt that she almost expected to be given its postal address. Probably her manner was merely the defensive outwork of an innate shyness, but she was not a woman who commanded confidences.

“A telephone call for Courtenay,” commented the younger of the two women as Youghal hurriedly flashed through the room; “the telephone system seems to enter very largely into that young man’s life.”

“The telephone has robbed matrimony of most of its sting,” said the elder; “so much more discreet than pen and ink communications which get read by the wrong people.”

Elaine’s aunts were conscientiously worldly; they were the natural outcome of a stock that had been conscientiously straight-laced for many generations.

Elaine had progressed to the pancake stage before Courtenay returned.

“Sorry to be away so long,” he said, “but I’ve arranged something rather nice for to-night. There’s rather a jolly masquerade ball on. I’ve ‘phoned about getting a costume for you and it’s alright. It will suit you beautifully, and I’ve got my harlequin dress with me. Madame Kelnicort, excellent soul, is going to chaperone you, and she’ll take you back any time you like; I’m quite unreliable when I get into fancy dress. I shall probably keep going till some unearthly hour of the morning.”

A masquerade ball in a strange city hardly represented Elaine’s idea of enjoyment. Carefully to disguise one’s identity in a neighbourhood where one was entirely unknown seemed to her rather meaningless. With Courtenay, of course, it was different; he seemed to have friends and acquaintances everywhere. However, the matter had progressed to a point which would have made a refusal to go seem rather ungracious. Elaine finished her pancake and began to take a polite interest in her costume.

“What is your character?” asked Madame Kelnicort that evening, as they uncloaked, preparatory to entering the already crowded ball-room.

“I believe I’m supposed to represent Marjolaine de Montfort, whoever she may have been,” said Elaine. “Courtenay declares he only wanted to marry me because I’m his ideal of her.”

“But what a mistake to go as a character you know nothing about. To enjoy a masquerade ball you ought to throw away your own self and be the character you represent. Now Courtenay has been Harlequin since half-way through dinner; I could see it dancing in his eyes. At about six o’clock tomorrow morning he will fall asleep and wake up a member of the British House of Parliament on his honeymoon, but to-night he is unrestrainedly Harlequin.”

Elaine stood in the ball-room surrounded by a laughing jostling throng of pierrots, jockeys, Dresden-china shepherdesses, Roumanian peasant-girls and all the lively make-believe creatures that form the ingredients of a fancy-dress ball. As she stood watching them she experienced a growing feeling of annoyance, chiefly with herself. She was assisting, as the French say, at one of the gayest scenes of Europe’s gayest capital, and she was conscious of being absolutely unaffected by the gaiety around her. The costumes were certainly interesting to look at, and the music good to listen to, and to that extent she was amused, but the ABANDON of the scene made no appeal to her. It was like watching a game of which you did not know the rules, and in the issue of which you were not interested. Elaine began to wonder what was the earliest moment at which she could drag Madame Kelnicort away from the revel without being guilty of sheer cruelty. Then Courtenay wriggled out of the crush and came towards her, a joyous laughing Courtenay, looking younger and handsomer than she had ever seen him. She could scarcely recognise in him to-night the rising young debater who made embarrassing onslaughts on the Government’s foreign policy before a crowded House of Commons. He claimed her for the dance that was just starting, and steered her dexterously into the heart of the waltzing crowd.

“You look more like Marjolaine than I should have thought a mortal woman of these days could look,” he declared, “only Marjolaine did smile sometimes. You have rather the air of wondering if you’d left out enough tea for the servants’ breakfast. Don’t mind my teasing; I love you to look like that, and besides, it makes a splendid foil to my Harlequin — my selfishness coming to the fore again, you see. But you really are to go home the moment you’re bored; the excellent Kelnicort gets heaps of dances throughout the winter, so don’t mind sacrificing her.”

A little later in the evening Elaine found herself standing out a dance with a grave young gentleman from the Russian Embassy.

“Monsieur Courtenay enjoys himself, doesn’t he?” he observed, as the youthful-looking harlequin flashed past them, looking like some restless gorgeous-hued dragonfly; “why is it that the good God has given your countrymen the boon of eternal youth? Some of your countrywomen, too, but all of the men.”

Elaine could think of many of her countrymen who were not and never could have been youthful, but as far as Courtenay was concerned she recognised the fitness of the remark. And the recognition carried with it a sense of depression. Would he always remain youthful and keen on gaiety and revelling while she grew staid and retiring? She had thrust the lively intractable Comus out of her mind, as by his perverseness he had thrust himself out of her heart, and she had chosen the brilliant young man of affairs as her husband. He had honestly let her see the selfish side of his character while he was courting her, but she had been prepared to make due sacrifices to the selfishness of a public man who had his career to consider above all other things. Would she also have to make sacrifices to the harlequin spirit which was now revealing itself as an undercurrent in his nature? When one has inured oneself to the idea of a particular form of victimisation it is disconcerting to be confronted with another. Many a man who would patiently undergo martyrdom for religion’s sake would be furiously unwilling to be a martyr to neuralgia.

“I think that is why you English love animals so much,” pursued the young diplomat; “you are such splendid animals yourselves. You are lively because you want to be lively, not because people are looking on at you. Monsieur Courtenay is certainly an animal. I mean it as a high compliment.”

“Am I an animal?” asked Elaine.

“I was going to say you are an angel,” said the Russian, in some embarrassment, “but I do not think that would do; angels and animals would never get on together. To get on with animals you must have a sense of humour, and I don’t suppose angels have any sense of humour; you see it would be no use to them as they never hear any jokes.”

“Perhaps,” said Elaine, with a tinge of bitterness in her voice, “perhaps I am a vegetable.”

“I think you most remind me of a picture,” said the Russian.

It was not the first time Elaine had heard the simile.

“I know,” she said, “the Narrow Gallery at the Louvre; attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.”

Evidently the impression she made on people was solely one of externals.

Was that how Courtenay regarded her? Was that to be her function and place in life, a painted background, a decorative setting to other people’s triumphs and tragedies? Somehow to-night she had the feeling that a general might have who brought imposing forces into the field and could do nothing with them. She possessed youth and good looks, considerable wealth, and had just made what would be thought by most people a very satisfactory marriage. And already she seemed to be standing aside as an onlooker where she had expected herself to be taking a leading part.

“Does this sort of thing appeal to you?” she asked the young Russian, nodding towards the gay scrimmage of masqueraders and rather prepared to hear an amused negative.”

“But yes, of course,” he answered; “costume balls, fancy fairs, cafe chantant, casino, anything that is not real life appeals to us Russians. Real life with us is the sort of thing that Maxim Gorki deals in. It interests us immensely, but we like to get away from it sometimes.”

Madame Kelnicort came up with another prospective partner, and Elaine delivered her ukase: one more dance and then back to the hotel. Without any special regret she made her retreat from the revel which Courtenay was enjoying under the impression that it was life and the young Russian under the firm conviction that it was not.

Elaine breakfasted at her aunts’ table the next morning at much her usual hour. Courtenay was sleeping the sleep of a happy tired animal. He had given instructions to be called at eleven o’clock, from which time onward the Neue Freie Presse, the Zeit, and his toilet would occupy his attention till he appeared at the luncheon table. There were not many people breakfasting when Elaine arrived on the scene, but the room seemed to be fuller than it really was by reason of a penetrating voice that was engaged in recounting how far the standard of Viennese breakfast fare fell below the expectations and desires of little Jerome and the girls.

“If ever little Jerome becomes President of the United States,” said Elaine, “I shall be able to contribute quite an informing article on his gastronomic likes and dislikes to the papers.”

The aunts were discreetly inquisitive as to the previous evening’s entertainment.

“If Elaine would flirt mildly with somebody it would be such a good thing,” said Mrs. Goldbrook; “it would remind Courtenay that he’s not the only attractive young man in the world.”

Elaine, however, did not gratify their hopes; she referred to the ball with the detachment she would have shown in describing a drawing-room show of cottage industries. It was not difficult to discern in her description of the affair the confession that she had been slightly bored. From Courtenay, later in the day, the aunts received a much livelier impression of the festivities, from which it was abundantly clear that he at any rate had managed to amuse himself. Neither did it appear that his good opinion of his own attractions had suffered any serious shock. He was distinctly in a very good temper.

“The secret of enjoying a honeymoon,” said Mrs. Goldbrook afterwards to her sister, “is not to attempt too much.”

“You mean —?”

“Courtenay is content to try and keep one person amused and happy, and he thoroughly succeeds.”

“I certainly don’t think Elaine is going to be very happy,” said her sister, “but at least Courtenay saved her from making the greatest mistake she could have made — marrying that young Bassington.”

“He has also,” said Mrs. Goldbrook, “helped her to make the next biggest mistake of her life — marrying Courtenay Youghal.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29