Adrian brooded over Chelsea as he approached it on Monday evening. It was not what it used to be. Even in late Victorian days he remembered its inhabitants as somewhat troglodytic — persons inclined to duck their heads, with here and there a high light or historian. Charwomen, artists hoping to pay their rent, writers living on four-and-sevenpence a day, ladies prepared to shed their clothes at a shilling an hour, couples maturing for the Divorce Court, people who liked a draught, together with the worshippers of Turner, Carlyle, Rossetti, and Whistler; some publicans, not a few sinners, and the usual sprinkling of those who eat mutton four times a week. Behind a river façade hardening into the palatial, respectability had gradually thickened, till it was now lapping the incurable King’s Road and emerging even there in bastions of Art and Fashion.
Diana’s house was in Oakley Street. He could remember it as having no individuality whatever, and inhabited by a family of strict mutton-eaters; but in the six years of Diana’s residence it had become one of the charming nests of London. He had known all the pretty Montjoy sisters scattered over Society, but of them all Diana was the youngest, the prettiest, most tasteful, and wittiest — one of those women who, without money to speak of or impeachment of virtue, contrive that all about them shall be elegant to the point of exciting jealousy. From her two children and her Collie dog (almost the only one left in London), from her harpsichord, four-poster, Bristol glass, and the stuff on her chairs and floors, taste always seemed to him to radiate and give comfort to the beholder. She, too, gave comfort, with her still perfect figure, dark eyes clear and quick, oval face, ivory complexion, and little crisp trick of speech. All the Montjoy sisters had that trick, it came from their mother, of Highland stock, and had undoubtedly in the course of thirty years made a considerable effect on the accent of Society, converting it from the g-dropping yaw-yaw of the ‘nineties into a rather charming r — and 1-pinching dialect. When he considered why Diana, with her scant income and her husband in a Mental Home, was received everywhere in Society, Adrian was accustomed to take the image of a Bactrian camel. That animal’s two humps were like the two sections of Society (with the big S) joined by a bridge, seldom used after the first crossing. The Montjoys, a very old landed family in Dumfriesshire innumerably allied in the past with the nobility, had something of an hereditary perch on the foremost hump — a somewhat dull position from which there was very little view, because of the camel’s head — and Diana was often invited to great houses where the chief works were hunting, shooting, hospitals, Court functions, and giving debutantes a chance. As Adrian well knew, she seldom went. She was far more constantly seated on the second hump, with its wide and stimulating view over the camel’s tail. Ah! They were a queer collection on that back hump! Many, like Diana herself, crossed from the first hump by the bridge, others came up the camel’s tail, a few were dropped from Heaven, or — as people sometimes called it — America. To qualify for that back hump Adrian, who had never qualified, knew that you needed a certain liveliness on several fronts; either a first-rate memory so that anything you read or listened to could be retailed with ready accuracy; or a natural spring of wit. If you had neither of these you might appear on the hump once, but never again. Personality of course, you must have, though without real eccentricity; but it must not be personality which hid its light under a bushel. Eminence in some branch of activity was desirable, but not a sine quâ non. Breeding again was welcome, but not if it made you dull. Beauty was a passport, but it had to be allied with animation. Money was desirable, but money alone wouldn’t get you a seat. Adrian had noted that knowledge of Art, if vocal, was of greater value than the power to produce it; and directive ability acceptable if it were not too silent or too dry. Then, again, some people seemed to get there out of an aptitude for the ‘coulisses,’ and for having a finger in every pie. But first and last the great thing was to be able to talk. Innumerable strings were pulled from this back hump, but whether they guided the camel’s progress at all he was never sure, however much those who pulled them thought so. Diana, he knew, had so safe a seat among this heterogeneous group, given to constant meals, that she might have fed without expense from Christmas to Christmas, nor need ever have passed a week-end in Oakley Street. And he was the more grateful in that she so constantly sacrificed all that to be with her children and himself. The war had broken out just after her marriage with Ronald Ferse, and Sheila and Ronald had not been born till after his return from it. They were now seven and six, and, as Adrian was always careful to tell her, ‘regular little Montjoys.’ They certainly had her looks and animation. But he alone knew that the shadow on her face in repose was due more to the fear that she ought not to have had them than to anything else in her situation. He, too, alone knew that the strain of living with one unbalanced as Ferse had become had so killed sex impulse in her that she had lived these four years of practical widowhood without any urge towards love. He believed she had for himself a real affection, but he knew that so far it stopped short of passion.
He arrived half an hour before dinner time, and went up to the schoolroom at the top of the house, to see the children. They were receiving bed-time rusks and milk from their French governess, welcomed him with acclamation and clamoured for him to go on with the story he was telling them. The French governess, who knew what to expect, withdrew. Adrian sat down opposite the two small sparkling faces, and began where he had left off: “So the man who had charge of the canoes was a tremendous fellow, brown all over, who had been selected for his strength, because of the white unicorns which infested that coast.’
“Boo! Uncle Adrian — unicorns are imaginative.”
“Not in those days, Sheila.”
“Then what’s become of them?”
“There is only about one left, and he lives where white men cannot go, because of the ‘Bu-bu’ fly.”
“What is the ‘Bu-bu’ fly?”
“The ‘Bu-bu’ fly, Ronald, is remarkable for settling in the calf of the leg and founding a family there.”
“Unicorns — as I said before I was interrupted — which infested that coast. His name was Mattagor, and this was his way with unicorns. After luring them down to the beach with crinibobs —”
“What are crinibobs?”
“They look like strawberries and taste like carrots — crinibobs — he would steal up behind them —”
“If he was in front of them with the crinibobs, how could he steal up behind them?”
“He used to thread the crinibobs through a string made out of fibre, and hang them in a row between two charm trees. As soon as the unicorns were nibbling, he would emerge from the bush where he would be hiding, and, making no noise with his bare feet, tie their tails together two by two.”
“But they would feel their tails being tied!”
“No, Sheila; white unicorns don’t feel with their tails. Then he would retire to the bush, and click his tongue against his teeth, and the unicorns would dash forward in wild confusion.”
“Did their tails ever come out?”
“Never. That was the great thing, because he was very fond of animals.”
“I expect the unicorns never came again?”
“Wrong, Ronny. Their love of crinibobs was too great.”
“Did he ever ride on them?”
“Yes; sometimes he would leap lightly on to two of their backs and ride off into the jungle with one foot on each back, laughing drily to himself. So under his charge, as you may imagine, the canoes were safe. It was not the wet season, so that the landsharks would not be so numerous, and the expedition was about to start when —”
“When what, Uncle Adrian? It’s only Mummy.”
“Go on, Adrian.”
But Adrian remained silent, with his eyes fixed on the advancing vision. Then, averting from it his eyes and fixing them on Sheila, he proceeded:
“I must now pause to tell you why the moon was so important. They could not start the expedition till the half-moon was seen advancing towards them through the charm trees.”
“That is what I am going to tell you. In those days people, and especially this tribe of Phwatabhoys, paid a great deal of attention to what was beautiful — things like Mummy, or Christmas carols, or little new potatoes, had a great effect on them. And before they did anything they had to have an omen.”
“What is an omen?”
“You know what an amen is — it comes at the end: well, an omen comes at the beginning, to bring luck. And the omen had to be beautiful. Now the half-moon was considered to be the most beautiful thing in the dry season, so they had to wait till it came advancing to them through the charm trees, as you saw Mummy just now walking towards us through the door.”
“But the moon hasn’t got feet.”
“No; she floats. And one fine evening she came floating, like nothing else on earth, so lovely and so slim, and with such an expression in her eyes that they all knew their expedition was bound to be successful; and they abased themselves before her, saying: ‘Omen! if thou wilt be with us, then shall we pass over the wilderness of the waters and the sands with thee in our eyes, and be happy in the happiness that comes with thee for ever and ever. Amen!’ And when they had put it like that, they got into the canoes, Phwatabhoy by Phwatabhoy and Phwatanymph by Phwatanymph, till they were all in. And the half-moon stayed there at the edge of the charm trees and blessed them with her eyes. But one man stopped behind. He was an old Phwatabhoy who wished for the half-moon so much that he forgot everything, and started crawling towards her, hoping to touch her feet.”
“But she hadn’t feet!”
“He thought she had, for to him she was like a woman made of silver and ivory. And he crawled in and out of the charm trees, but never could he quite reach her, because she was the half-moon.”
Adrian paused, and there was for a moment no sound; then he said: “To be continued in our next,” and went out. Diana joined him in the hall.
“Adrian, you are corrupting the children. Don’t you know that fables and fairy-tales are no longer to be allowed to interfere with their interest in machines? After you’d gone Ronald said: ‘Does Uncle Adrian really believe you are the half-moon, Mummy?’”
“And you answered?”
“Diplomatically. But they’re as sharp as squirrels.”
“Well! Sing me ‘Waterboy’ before Dinny and her swain come.”
And while she sat and sang, Adrian gazed and worshipped. Her voice was good and she sang well that strange and haunting song. The last ‘Waterboy’ had barely died away when the maid announced:
“Miss Cherrell. Professor Hallorsen.”
Dinny came in with her head held high, and Adrian augured but poorly from the expression of her eyes. He had seen schoolboys look like that when they were going to ‘roast’ a new-comer. After her came Hallorsen, immensely tall in that small drawing-room, his eyes swimming with health. He bowed low when presented to Dinny. “Your daughter, I presume, Mr. Curator?”
“No, my niece; a sister of Captain Hubert Cherrell.”
“Is that so? I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Ma’am.”
Adrian, noting that their eyes, having crossed, seemed to find it difficult to disengage, said:
“How are you liking the Piedmont, Professor?”
“The cooking’s fine, but there are too many of us Americans.”
“Perching just now like the swallows?”
“Ah! In a fortnight we’ll all have flitted.”
Dinny had come brimful of Anglo-femininity, and the contrast between Hallorsen’s overpowering health and Hubert’s haggard looks had at once sharpened the edge of her temper. She sat down beside that embodiment of the conquering male with the full intention of planting every dart she could in his epidermis. He was, however, at once engaged in conversation by Diana, and she had not finished her soup (clear, with a prune in it) before, stealing a look round at him, she revised her plan. After all, he was a stranger and a guest, and she was supposed to be a lady; there were other ways of killing a cat beside hanging it. She would not plant darts, she would ‘charm him with smiles and soap’; that would be more considerate towards Diana and her uncle, and more effective warfare in the long run. With a cunning worthy of her cause, she waited till he was in deep water over British politics, which he seemed to regard as serious manifestations of human activity; then, turning on him the Botticellian eye, she said:
“We should treat American politics just as seriously, Professor. But surely they’re not serious, are they?”
“I believe you are right, Miss Cherrell. There’s just one rule for politicians all over the world: Don’t say in Power what you say in Opposition; if you do, you only have to carry out what the other fellows have found impossible. The only real difference, I judge, between Parties is that one Party sits in the National ‘Bus, and the other Party strap-hangs.”
“In Russia, what’s left of the other Party lies under the seat, doesn’t it?”
“So it does in Italy,” said Diana.
“And what about Spain?” added Adrian.
Hallorsen uttered his infectious laugh. “Dictatorships aren’t politics. They’re jokes.”
“NO jokes, Professor.”
“Bad jokes, Professor.”
“How do you MEAN— jokes, Professor?”
“Bluff. Just one long assumption that human nature’s on the mark the Dictator makes for it. The moment his bluff’s called — Why! Wump!”
“But,” said Diana, “suppose a majority of the people approve of their dictator, isn’t that democracy, or government by consent of the governed?”
“I would say no, Mrs. Ferse, unless he was confirmed by majority every year.”
“Dictators get things done,” said Adrian.
“At a price, Mr. Curator. But look at Diaz in Mexico. For twenty years he made it the Garden of Eden, but see what it’s been ever since he went. You can’t get out of a people for keeps what isn’t yet in them.”
“The fault,” replied Adrian, “in our political system and in yours, Professor, is that a whole lot of reforms latent in the common-sense of the people don’t get a chance of being carried out because our short-term politicians won’t give a lead, for fear of losing the power they haven’t got.”
“Aunt May,” Dinny murmured, “was saying: Why not cure Unemployment by a National Slum Clearance effort, and kill the two birds with one stone?”
“My! But that’s a mighty fine idea!” said Hallorsen, turning on her the full of his brimming face.
“Vested interests,” said Diana, “slum landlordism and the building trades are too strong for that.”
Adrian added: “And there’s the cash required.”
“Why! that’s all easy. Your Parliament could take what powers they need for a big national thing like that; and what’s wrong with a Loan, anyway? — the money would come back; it’s not like a Loan for war, all shot away in powder. What do you pay in doles?”
No one could answer him.
“I judge the saving would pay the interest on a pretty big Loan.”
“It just, in fact,” said Dinny, sweetly, “needs simple faith. That’s where you Americans beat us, Professor Hallorsen.”
A look slid over the American’s face as though he were saying: ‘Cats!’
“Well, we certainly had a pieful of simple faith when we came over to fight in France. But we ate the lot. It’ll be the home fires we keep burning next time.”
“Was your faith so simple even last time?”
“I fear it was, Miss Cherrell. Not one in twenty of us ever believed the Germans could get a cinch on us away over there.”
“I sit rebuked, Professor.”
“Why! Not at all! You judge America by Europe.”
“There was Belgium, Professor,” said Diana; “even we had some simple faith at the start.”
“Pardon me, but did the case of Belgium really move you, Ma’am?”
Adrian was drawing circles with a fork; he looked up.
“Speaking for onself, yes. I don’t suppose it made any difference to the Army people, Navy people, big business people, or even to a large section of Society, political and otherwise. They all knew that if war came we were practically committed to France. But to simple folk like myself and some two-thirds of the population not in the know, to the working classes, in fact, generally, it made all the difference. It was like seeing What’s-his-name — the Man Mountain — advancing on the smallest Flyweight in the ring, who was standing firm and squaring up like a man.”
“Mighty well put, Mr. Curator.”
Dinny flushed. Was there generosity in this man? Then, as if conscious of treachery to Hubert, she said acidly:
“I’ve read that the sight even ruffled Roosevelt.”
“It ruffled quite a few of us, Miss Cherrell; but we’re a long way off over there, and things have to be near before they stir the imagination.”
“Yes, and after all, as you said just now, you did come in at the end.”
Hallorsen looked fixedly at her ingenuous face, bowed and was silent.
Bet when, at the end of that peculiar evening, he was saying good-night, he added:
“I fear you’ve gotten a grouch against me, Miss Cherrell.”
Dinny smiled, without reply.
“All the same, I hope I may meet you again.”
“Oh! But why?”
“Well, I kind of have the feeling that I might change the view you have of me.”
“I am very fond of my brother, Professor Hallorsen.”
“I still think I’ve more against your brother than he has against me.”
“I hope you may be right before long.”
“That sounds like trouble.”
Dinny tilted her head.
She went up to bed, biting her lip with vexation. She had neither charmed nor assailed the enemy; and instead of clean-cut animosity, she had confused feelings about him.
His inches gave him a disconcerting domination. ‘He’s like those creatures in hairy trousers on the films,’ she thought, ‘carrying off the semi-distressed cow-girls — looks at one as if he thought one was on his pillion.’ Primitive Force in swallow-tails and a white waistcoat! A strong but not a silent man.
Her room looked over the street, and from her window she could see the plane trees on the Embankment, the river, and the wide expanse of starry night.
“Perhaps,” she said to herself, aloud, “you won’t leave England so soon as you thought.”
“Can I come in?”
She turned to see Diana in the doorway.
“Well, Dinny, what think you of our friend the enemy?”
“Tom Mix, mixed with the Giant that Jack killed.”
“Adrian likes him.”
“Uncle Adrian lives too much with bones. The sight of red blood goes to his head.”
“Yes; this is the sort of ‘he-man’ women are supposed to fall for. But you behaved well, Dinny, though your eyes looked very green at first.”
“They feel greener now I’ve let him go without a scratch.”
“Never mind! You’ll have other chances. Adrian’s got him asked to Lippinghall tomorrow.”
“You’ve only to embroil him with Saxenden there, and Hubert’s trick is done. Adrian didn’t tell you, for fear your joy might show itself. The Professor wants to sample British ‘hunting.’ The poor man doesn’t in the least realise that he’s walking into a lioness’s den. Your Aunt Em will be delicious with him.”
“Hallorsen!” murmured Dinny: “He must have Scandinavian blood.”
“He says his mother was old New England, but married out of the direct succession. Wyoming’s his State. Delightful word, Wyoming.”
“‘The great open spaces.’ What is there about the expression ‘he-man’ which infuriates me, Diana?”
“Well, it’s like being in a room with a burst of sunflowers. But ‘he-men’ aren’t confined to the great open spaces; you’ll find Saxenden one.”
“Yes. Good-night, my dear. And may no ‘he-men’ come to you in dreams!”
When Dinny had disrobed, she again took out the diary and re-read a passage she had turned down. It ran thus: “Feel very low to-night — as if all my sap had run out. Can only keep my pecker up by thinking of Condaford. Wonder what old Foxham would say if he could see me doctoring the mules! The stuff I’ve invented for their colic would raise hair on a billiard ball, but it stops the thing all right. God was in luck when He planned the inside of a mule. Dreamed last night I was standing at the end of the home spinney with pheasants coming over in a stream, and for the life of me I couldn’t pull my trigger; ghastly sort of paralysis. Keep thinking of old Haddon and his: ‘Go it, Master Bertie. Stick your ‘eels in and take ‘old of ‘is ‘ead!’ Good old Haddon! He was a character. The rain’s stopped. Dry — first time for ten days. And the stars are out.
‘A ship, an isle, a sickle moon,
With few but with how splendid stars.’
If only I could sleep! . . .”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08