Lady Alison Charwell, born Heathfield, daughter of the first Earl of Campden, and wife to Lionel Charwell, K.C., Michael’s somewhat young uncle, was a delightful Englishwoman brought up in a set accepted as the soul of society. Full of brains, energy, taste, money, and tinctured in its politico-legal ancestry by blue blood, this set was linked to, but apart from ‘Snooks’ and the duller haunts of birth and privilege. It was gay, charming, free-and-easy, and, according to Michael, “Snobbish, old thing, aesthetically and intellectually, but they’ll never see it. They think they’re the top notch — quick, healthy, up-to-date, well-bred, intelligent; they simply can’t imagine their equals. But you see their imagination is deficient. Their really creative energy would go into a pint pot. Look at their books — they’re always ON something — philosophy, spiritualism, poetry, fishing, themselves; why, even their sonnets dry up before they’re twenty-five. They know everything — except mankind outside their own set. Oh! they work — they run the show — they have to; there’s no one else with their brains, and energy, and taste. But they run it round and round in their own blooming circle. It’s the world to them — and it might be worse. They’ve patented their own golden age; but it’s a trifle flyblown since the war.”
Alison Charwell — in and of this world, so spryly soulful, debonnaire, free, and cosy — lived within a stone’s throw of Fleur, in a house pleasant, architecturally, as any in London. Forty years old, she had three children and considerable beauty, wearing a little fine from mental and bodily activity. Something of an enthusiast, she was fond of Michael, in spite of his strange criticisms, so that his matrimonial venture had piqued her from the start. Fleur was dainty, had quick natural intelligence — this new niece was worth cultivation. But, though adaptable and assimilative, Fleur had remained curiously unassimilated; she continued to whet the curiosity of Lady Alison, accustomed to the close borough of choice spirits, and finding a certain poignancy in contact with the New Age on Fleur’s copper floor. She met with an irreverence there, which, not taken too seriously, flipped her mind. On that floor she almost felt a back number. It was stimulating.
Receiving Fleur’s telephonic enquiry about Gurdon Minho, she had rung up the novelist. She knew him, if not well. Nobody seemed to know him well; amiable, polite, silent, rather dull and austere; but with a disconcerting smile, sometimes ironical, sometimes friendly. His books were now caustic, now sentimental. On both counts it was rather the fashion to run him down, though he still seemed to exist.
She rang him up. Would he come to a dinner tomorrow at her young nephew, Michael Mont’s, and meet the younger generation? His answer came, rather high-pitched:
“Rather! Full fig, or dinner jacket?”
“How awfully nice of you! they’ll be ever so pleased. Full fig, I believe. It’s the second anniversary of their wedding.” She hung up the receiver with the thought: ‘He must be writing a book about them!’
Conscious of responsibility, she arrived early.
It was a grand night at her husband’s Inn, so that she brought nothing with her but the feeling of adventure, pleasant after a day spent in fluttering over the decision at ‘Snooks’. She was received only by Ting-a-ling, who had his back to the fire, and took no notice beyond a stare. Sitting down on the jade green settee, she said:
“Well, you funny little creature, don’t you know me after all this time?”
Ting-a-ling’s black shiny gaze seemed saying: “You recur here, I know; most things recur. There is nothing new about the future.”
Lady Alison fell into a train of thought: The new generation! Did she want her own girls to be of it! She would like to talk to Mr. Minho about that — they had had a very nice talk down at Beechgroves before the war. Nine years ago — Sybil only six, Joan only four then! Time went, things changed! A new generation! And what was the difference? “I think we had more tradition!” she said to herself softly.
A slight sound drew her eyes up from contemplation of her feet. Ting-a-ling was moving his tail from side to side on the hearthrug, as if applauding. Fleur’s voice, behind her, said:
“Well, darling, I’m awfully late. It WAS good of you to get me Mr. Minho. I do hope they’ll all behave. He’ll be between you and me, anyway; I’m sticking him at the top, and Michael at the bottom, between Pauline Upshire and Amabel Nazing. You’ll have Sibley on your left, and I’ll have Aubrey on my right, then Nesta Gorse and Walter Nazing; opposite them Linda Frewe and Charles Upshire. Twelve. You know them all. Oh! and you mustn’t mind if the Nazings and Nesta smoke between the courses. Amabel will do it. She comes from Virginia — it’s the reaction. I do hope she’ll have some clothes on; Michael always says it’s a mistake when she has; but having Mr. Minho makes one a little nervous. Did you see Nesta’s skit in ‘The Bouquet’? Oh, too frightfully amusing — clearly meant for L.S.D.! Ting, my Ting, are you going to stay and see all these people? Well, then, get up here or you’ll be trodden on. Isn’t he Chinese? He does so round off the room.”
Ting-a-ling laid his nose on his paws, in the centre of a jade green cushion.
“Mr. Gurding Minner!”
The well-known novelist looked pale and composed. Shaking the two extended hands, he gazed at Ting-a-ling, and said:
“How nice! How are YOU, my little man?”
Ting-a-ling did not stir. “You take me for a common English dog, sir!” his silence seemed to say.
“Mr. and Mrs. Walter Nazon, Miss Lenda Frow.”
Amabel Nazing came first, clear alabaster from her fair hair down to the six inches of gleaming back above her waist-line, shrouded alabaster from four inches below the knee to the gleaming toes of her shoes; the eminent novelist mechanically ceased to commune with Ting-a-ling. Walter Nazing, who followed a long way up above his wife, had a tiny line of collar emergent from swathes of black, and a face, cut a hundred years ago, that slightly resembled Shelley’s. His literary productions were sometimes felt to be like the poetry of that bard, and sometimes like the prose of Marcel Proust. “What oh!” as Michael said.
Linda Frewe, whom Fleur at once introduced to Gurdon Minho, was one about whose work no two people in her drawing-room ever agreed. Her works ‘Trifles’ and ‘The Furious Don’ had quite divided all opinion. Genius according to some, drivel according to others, those books always roused an interesting debate whether a slight madness enhanced or diminished the value of art. She herself paid little attention to criticism — she produced.
“THE Mr. Minho? How interesting! I’ve never read anything of yours.”
Fleur gave a little gasp.
“What — don’t you know Mr. Minho’s cats? But they’re wonderful. Mr. Minho, I do want Mrs. Walter Nazing to know you. Amabel — Mr. Gurdon Minho.”
“Oh! Mr. Minho — how perfectly lovely! I’ve wanted to know you ever since my cradle.”
Fleur heard the novelist say quietly:
“I could wish it had been longer;” and passed on in doubt to greet Nesta Gorse and Sibley Swan, who came in, as if they lived together, quarrelling over L.S.D., Nesta upholding him because of his ‘panache’, Sibley maintaining that wit had died with the Restoration; this fellow was alive!
Michael followed with the Upshires and Aubrey Greene, whom he had encountered in the hall. The party was complete.
Fleur loved perfection, and that evening was something of a nightmare. Was it a success? Minho was so clearly the least brilliant person there; even Alison talked better. And yet he had such a fine skull. She did hope he would not go away early. Some one would be almost sure to say ‘Dug up!’ or ‘Thick and bald!’ before the door closed behind him. He was pathetically agreeable, as if trying to be liked, or, at least, not despised too much. And there must, of course, be more in him than met the sense of hearing. After the crab souffle he did seem to be talking to Alison, and all about youth. Fleur listened with one ear.
“Youth feels . . . main stream of life . . . not giving it what it wants. Past and future getting haloes . . . Quite! Contemporary life no earthly just now . . . No . . . Only comfort for us — we’ll be antiquated, some day, like Congreve, Sterne, Defoe . . . have our chance again . . . WHY? What IS driving them out of the main current? Oh! Probably surfeit . . . newspapers . . . photographs. Don’t see life itself, only reports . . . reproductions of it; all seems shoddy, lurid, commercial . . . Youth says ‘Away with it, let’s have the past or the future!’”
He took some salted almonds, and Fleur saw his eyes stray to the upper part of Amabel Nazing. Down there the conversation was like Association football — no one kept the ball for more than one kick. It shot from head to head. And after every set of passes some one would reach out and take a cigarette, and blow a blue cloud across the unclothed refectory table. Fleur enjoyed the glow of her Spanish room — its tiled floor, richly coloured fruits in porcelain, its tooled leather, copper articles, and Soames’ Goya above a Moorish divan. She headed the ball promptly when it came her way, but initiated nothing. Her gift was to be aware of everything at once. “Mrs. Michael Mont presented” the brilliant irrelevancies of Linda Frewe, the pricks and stimulations of Nesta Gorse, the moonlit sliding innuendoes of Aubrey Greene, the upturning strokes of Sibley Swan, Amabel Nazing’s little cool American audacities, Charles Upshire’s curious bits of lore, Walter Nazing’s subversive contradictions, the critical intricacies of Pauline Upshire; Michael’s happy-go-lucky slings and arrows, even Alison’s knowledgeable quickness, and Gurdon Minho’s silences — she presented them all, showed them off, keeping her eyes and ears on the ball of talk lest it should touch earth and rest. Brilliant evening; but — a success?
On the jade green settee, when the last of them had gone and Michael was seeing Alison home, she thought of Minho’s ‘Youth — not getting what it wants.’ No! Things didn’t fit. “They don’t fit, do they, Ting!” But Ting-a-ling was tired, only the tip of one ear quivered. Fleur leaned back and sighed. Ting-a-ling uncurled himself, and putting his forepaws on her thigh, looked up in her face. “Look at me,” he seemed to say, “I’m all right. I get what I want, and I want what I get. At present I want to go to bed.”
“But I don’t,” said Fleur, without moving.
“Just take me up!” said Ting-a-ling.
“Well,” said Fleur, “I suppose — It’s a nice person, but not the right person, Ting.”
Ting-a-ling settled himself on her bare arms.
“It’s all right,” he seemed to say. “There’s a great deal too much sentiment and all that, out of China. Come on!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54