When William Came/Chapter XIV

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When William Came by Saki
Chapter XIV

CHAPTER XIV: “A PERFECTLY GLORIOUS AFTERNOON”[edit]

It was one of the last days of July, cooled and freshened by a touch of rain and dropping back again to a languorous warmth. London looked at its summer best, rain-washed and sun-lit, with the maximum of coming and going in its more fashionable streets.

Cicely Yeovil sat in a screened alcove of the Anchorage Restaurant, a feeding-ground which had lately sprung into favour. Opposite her sat Ronnie, confronting the ruins of what had been a dish of prawns in aspic. Cool and clean and fresh-coloured, he was good to look on in the eyes of his companion, and yet, perhaps, there was a ruffle in her soul that called for some answering disturbance on the part of that superbly tranquil young man, and certainly called in vain. Cicely had set up for herself a fetish of onyx with eyes of jade, and doubtless hungered at times with an unreasonable but perfectly natural hunger for something of flesh and blood. It was the religion of her life to know exactly what she wanted and to see that she got it, but there was no possible guarantee against her occasionally experiencing a desire for something else. It is the golden rule of all religions that no one should really live up to their precepts; when a man observes the principles of his religion too exactly he is in immediate danger of founding a new sect.

“To-day is going to be your day of triumph,” said Cicely to the young man, who was wondering at the moment whether he would care to embark on an artichoke; “I believe I’m more nervous than you are,” she added, “and yet I rather hate the idea of you scoring a great success.”

“Why?” asked Ronnie, diverting his mind for a moment from the artichoke question and its ramifications of sauce hollandaise or vinaigre.

“I like you as you are,” said Cicely, “just a nice-looking boy to flatter and spoil and pretend to be fond of. You’ve got a charming young body and you’ve no soul, and that’s such a fascinating combination. If you had a soul you would either dislike or worship me, and I’d much rather have things as they are. And now you are going to go a step beyond that, and other people will applaud you and say that you are wonderful, and invite you to eat with them and motor with them and yacht with them. As soon as that begins to happen, Ronnie, a lot of other things will come to an end. Of course I’ve always known that you don’t really care for me, but as soon as the world knows it you are irrevocably damaged as a plaything. That is the great secret that binds us together, the knowledge that we have no real affection for one another. And this afternoon every one will know that you are a great artist, and no great artist was ever a great lover.”

“I shan’t be difficult to replace, anyway,” said Ronnie, with what he imagined was a becoming modesty; “there are lots of boys standing round ready to be fed and flattered and put on an imaginary pedestal, most of them more or less good-looking and well turned out and amusing to talk to.”

“Oh, I dare say I could find a successor for your vacated niche,” said Cicely lightly; “one thing I’m determined on though, he shan’t be a musician. It’s so unsatisfactory to have to share a grand passion with a grand piano. He shall be a delightful young barbarian who would think Saint Saëns was a Derby winner or a claret.”

“Don’t be in too much of a hurry to replace me,” said Ronnie, who did not care to have his successor too seriously discussed. “I may not score the success you expect this afternoon.”

“My dear boy, a minor crowned head from across the sea is coming to hear you play, and that alone will count as a success with most of your listeners. Also, I’ve secured a real Duchess for you, which is rather an achievement in the London of to-day.”

“An English Duchess?” asked Ronnie, who had early in life learned to apply the Merchandise Marks Act to ducal titles.

“English, oh certainly, at least as far as the title goes; she was born under the constellation of the Star-spangled Banner. I don’t suppose the Duke approves of her being here, lending her countenance to the fait accompli, but when you’ve got republican blood in your veins a Kaiser is quite as attractive a lodestar as a King, rather more so. And Canon Mousepace is coming,” continued Cicely, referring to a closely-written list of guests; “the excellent von Tolb has been attending his church lately, and the Canon is longing to meet her. She is just the sort of person he adores. I fancy he sincerely realises how difficult it will be for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and he tries to make up for it by being as nice as possible to them in this world.”

Ronnie held out his hand for the list.

“I think you know most of the others,” said Cicely, passing it to him.

“Leutnant von Gabelroth?” read out Ronnie; “who is he?”

“In one of the hussar regiments quartered here; a friend of the Gräfin’s. Ugly but amiable, and I’m told a good cross-country rider. I suppose Murrey will be disgusted at meeting the ‘outward and visible sign’ under his roof, but these encounters are inevitable as long as he is in London.”

“I didn’t know Murrey was coming,” said Ronnie.

“I believe he’s going to look in on us,” said Cicely; “it’s just as well, you know, otherwise we should have Joan asking in her loudest voice when he was going to be back in England again. I haven’t asked her, but she overheard the Gräfin arranging to come and hear you play, and I fancy that will be quite enough.”

“How about some Turkish coffee?” said Ronnie, who had decided against the artichoke.

“Turkish coffee, certainly, and a cigarette, and a moment’s peace before the serious business of the afternoon claims us. Talking about peace, do you know, Ronnie, it has just occurred to me that we have left out one of the most important things in our affaire; we have never had a quarrel.”

“I hate quarrels,” said Ronnie, “they are so domesticated.”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you talk about your home,” said Cicely.

“I fancy it would apply to most homes,” said Ronnie.

“The last boy-friend I had used to quarrel furiously with me at least once a week,” said Cicely reflectively; “but then he had dark slumberous eyes that lit up magnificently when he was angry, so it would have been a sheer waste of God’s good gifts not to have sent him into a passion now and then.”

“With your excursions into the past and the future you are making me feel dreadfully like an instalment of a serial novel,” protested Ronnie; “we have now got to ‘synopsis of earlier chapters.’”

“It shan’t be teased,” said Cicely; “we will live in the present and go no further into the future than to make arrangements for Tuesday’s dinner-party. I’ve asked the Duchess; she would never have forgiven me if she’d found out that I had a crowned head dining with me and hadn’t asked her to meet him.”

  • * * * *

A sudden hush descended on the company gathered in the great drawing-room at Berkshire Street as Ronnie took his seat at the piano; the voice of Canon Mousepace outlasted the others for a moment or so, and then subsided into a regretful but gracious silence. For the next nine or ten minutes Ronnie held possession of the crowded room, a tense slender figure, with cold green eyes aflame in a sudden fire, and smooth burnished head bent low over the keyboard that yielded a disciplined riot of melody under his strong deft fingers. The world-weary Landgraf forgot for the moment the regrettable trend of his subjects towards Parliamentary Socialism, the excellent Gräfin von Tolb forgot all that the Canon had been saying to her for the last ten minutes, forgot the depressing certainty that he would have a great deal more that he wanted to say in the immediate future, over and above the thirty-five minutes or so of discourse that she would contract to listen to next Sunday. And Cicely listened with the wistful equivocal triumph of one whose goose has turned out to be a swan and who realises with secret concern that she has only planned the rôle of goosegirl for herself.

The last chords died away, the fire faded out of the jade-coloured eyes, and Ronnie became once more a well-groomed youth in a drawing-room full of well-dressed people. But around him rose an explosive clamour of applause and congratulation, the sincere tribute of appreciation and the equally hearty expression of imitative homage.

“It is a great gift, a great gift,” chanted Canon Mousepace, “You must put it to a great use. A talent is vouchsafed to us for a purpose; you must fulfil the purpose. Talent such as yours is a responsibility; you must meet that responsibility.”

The dictionary of the English language was an inexhaustible quarry, from which the Canon had hewn and fashioned for himself a great reputation.

“You must gom and blay to me at Schlachsenberg,” said the kindly-faced Landgraf, whom the world adored and thwarted in about equal proportions. “At Christmas, yes, that will be a good time. We still keep the Christ-Fest at Schlachsenberg, though the ‘Sozi’ keep telling our schoolchildren that it is only a Christ myth. Never mind, I will have the Vice-President of our Landtag to listen to you; he is ‘Sozi’ but we are good friends outside the Parliament House; you shall blay to him, my young friendt, and gonfince him that there is a Got in Heaven. You will gom? Yes?”

“It was beautiful,” said the Gräfin simply; “it made me cry. Go back to the piano again, please, at once.”

Perhaps the near neighbourhood of the Canon inspired this command, but the Gräfin had been genuinely charmed. She adored good music and she was unaffectedly fond of good-looking boys.

Ronnie went back to the piano and tasted the matured pleasure of a repeated success. Any measure of nervousness that he may have felt at first had completely passed away. He was sure of his audience and he played as though they did not exist. A renewed clamour of excited approval attended the conclusion of his performance.

“It is a triumph, a perfectly glorious triumph,” exclaimed the Duchess of Dreyshire, turning to Yeovil, who sat silent among his wife’s guests; “isn’t it just glorious?” she demanded, with a heavy insistent intonation of the word.

“Is it?” said Yeovil.

“Well, isn’t it?” she cried, with a rising inflection, “isn’t it just perfectly glorious?”

“I don’t know,” confessed Yeovil; “you see glory hasn’t come very much my way lately.” Then, before he exactly realised what he was doing, he raised his voice and quoted loudly for the benefit of half the room:

   “‘Other Romans shall arise,
   Heedless of a soldier’s name,
   Sounds, not deeds, shall win the prize,
   Harmony the path to fame.’”

There was a sort of shiver of surprised silence at Yeovil’s end of the room.

“Hell!”

The word rang out in a strong young voice.

“Hell! And it’s true, that’s the worst of it. It’s damned true!”

Yeovil turned, with some dozen others, to see who was responsible for this vigorously expressed statement.

Tony Luton confronted him, an angry scowl on his face, a blaze in his heavy-lidded eyes. The boy was without a conscience, almost without a soul, as priests and parsons reckon souls, but there was a slumbering devil-god within him, and Yeovil’s taunting words had broken the slumber. Life had been for Tony a hard school, in which right and wrong, high endeavour and good resolve, were untaught subjects; but there was a sterling something in him, just that something that helped poor street-scavenged men to die brave-fronted deaths in the trenches of Salamanca, that fired a handful of apprentice boys to shut the gates of Derry and stare unflinchingly at grim leaguer and starvation. It was just that nameless something that was lacking in the young musician, who stood at the further end of the room, bathed in a flood of compliment and congratulation, enjoying the honey-drops of his triumph.

Luton pushed his way through the crowd and left the room, without troubling to take leave of his hostess.

“What a strange young man,” exclaimed the Duchess; “now do take me into the next room,” she went on almost in the same breath, “I’m just dying for some iced coffee.”

Yeovil escorted her through the throng of Ronnie-worshippers to the desired haven of refreshment.

“Marvellous!” Mrs. Menteith-Mendlesohnn was exclaiming in ringing trumpet tones; “of course I always knew he could play, but this is not mere piano playing, it is tone-mastery, it is sound magic. Mrs. Yeovil has introduced us to a new star in the musical firmament. Do you know, I feel this afternoon just like Cortez, in the poem, gazing at the newly discovered sea.”

“‘Silent upon a peak in Darien,’” quoted a penetrating voice that could only belong to Joan Mardle; “I say, can any one picture Mrs. Menteith-Mendlesohnn silent on any peak or under any circumstances?”

If any one had that measure of imagination, no one acknowledged the fact.

“A great gift and a great responsibility,” Canon Mousepace was assuring the Gräfin; “the power of evoking sublime melody is akin to the power of awakening thought; a musician can appeal to dormant consciousness as the preacher can appeal to dormant conscience. It is a responsibility, an instrument for good or evil. Our young friend here, we may be sure, will use it as an instrument for good. He has, I feel certain, a sense of his responsibility.”

“He is a nice boy,” said the Gräfin simply; “he has such pretty hair.”

In one of the window recesses Rhapsodie Pantril was talking vaguely but beautifully to a small audience on the subject of chromatic chords; she had the advantage of knowing what she was talking about, an advantage that her listeners did not in the least share. “All through his playing there ran a tone-note of malachite green,” she declared recklessly, feeling safe from immediate contradiction; “malachite green, my colour—the colour of striving.”

Having satisfied the ruling passion that demanded gentle and dextrous self-advertisement, she realised that the Augusta Smith in her craved refreshment, and moved with one of her over-awed admirers towards the haven where peaches and iced coffee might be considered a certainty.

The refreshment alcove, which was really a good-sized room, a sort of chapel-of-ease to the larger drawing-room, was already packed with a crowd who felt that they could best discuss Ronnie’s triumph between mouthfuls of fruit salad and iced draughts of hock-cup. So brief is human glory that two or three independent souls had even now drifted from the theme of the moment on to other more personally interesting topics.

“Iced mulberry salad, my dear, it’s a spécialité de la maison, so to speak; they say the roving husband brought the recipe from Astrakhan, or Seville, or some such outlandish place.”

“I wish my husband would roam about a bit and bring back strange palatable dishes. No such luck, he’s got asthma and has to keep on a gravel soil with a south aspect and all sorts of other restrictions.”

“I don’t think you’re to be pitied in the least; a husband with asthma is like a captive golf-ball, you can always put your hand on him when you want him.”

“All the hangings, violette de Parme, all the furniture, rosewood. Nothing is to be played in it except Mozart. Mozart only. Some of my friends wanted me to have a replica of the Mozart statue at Vienna put up in a corner of the room, with flowers always around it, but I really couldn’t. I couldn’t. One is so tired of it, one sees it everywhere. I couldn’t do it. I’m like that, you know.”

“Yes, I’ve secured the hero of the hour, Ronnie Storre, oh yes, rather. He’s going to join our yachting trip, third week of August. We’re going as far afield as Fiume, in the Adriatic—or is it the Ægean? Won’t it be jolly. Oh no, we’re not asking Mrs. Yeovil; it’s quite a small yacht you know—at least, it’s a small party.”

The excellent von Tolb took her departure, bearing off with her the Landgraf, who had already settled the date and duration of Ronnie’s Christmas visit.

“It will be dull, you know,” he warned the prospective guest; “our Landtag will not be sitting, and what is a bear-garden without the bears? However, we haf some wildt schwein in our woods, we can show you some sport in that way.”

Ronnie instantly saw himself in a well-fitting shooting costume, with a Tyrolese hat placed at a very careful angle on his head, but he confessed that the other details of boar-hunting were rather beyond him.

With the departure of the von Tolb party Canon Mousepace gravitated decently but persistently towards a corner where the Duchess, still at concert pitch, was alternatively praising Ronnie’s performance and the mulberry salad. Joan Mardle, who formed one of the group, was not openly praising any one, but she was paying a silent tribute to the salad.

“We were just talking about Ronnie Storre’s music, Canon,” said the Duchess; “I consider it just perfectly glorious.”

“It’s a great talent, isn’t it, Canon,” put in Joan briskly, “and of course it’s a responsibility as well, don’t you think? Music can be such an influence, just as eloquence can; don’t you agree with me?”

The quarry of the English language was of course a public property, but it was disconcerting to have one’s own particular barrow-load of sentence-building material carried off before one’s eyes. The Canon’s impressive homily on Ronnie’s gift and its possibilities had to be hastily whittled down to a weakly acquiescent, “Quite so, quite so.”

“Have you tasted this iced mulberry salad, Canon?” asked the Duchess; “it’s perfectly luscious. Just hurry along and get some before it’s all gone.”

And her Grace hurried along in an opposite direction, to thank Cicely for past favours and to express lively gratitude for the Tuesday to come.

The guests departed, with a rather irritating slowness, for which perhaps the excellence of Cicely’s buffet arrangements was partly responsible. The great drawing-room seemed to grow larger and more oppressive as the human wave receded, and the hostess fled at last with some relief to the narrower limits of her writing-room and the sedative influences of a cigarette. She was inclined to be sorry for herself; the triumph of the afternoon had turned out much as she had predicted at lunch time. Her idol of onyx had not been swept from its pedestal, but the pedestal itself had an air of being packed up ready for transport to some other temple. Ronnie would be flattered and spoiled by half a hundred people, just because he could conjure sounds out of a keyboard, and Cicely felt no great incentive to go on flattering and spoiling him herself. And Ronnie would acquiesce in his dismissal with the good grace born of indifference—the surest guarantor of perfect manners. Already he had social engagements for the coming months in which she had no share; the drifting apart would be mutual. He had been an intelligent and amusing companion, and he had played the game as she had wished it to be played, without the fatigue of keeping up pretences which neither of them could have believed in. “Let us have a wonderfully good time together” had been the single stipulation in their unwritten treaty of comradeship, and they had had the good time. Their whole-hearted pursuit of material happiness would go on as keenly as before, but they would hunt in different company, that was all. Yes, that was all. . . .

Cicely found the effect of her cigarette less sedative than she was disposed to exact. It might be necessary to change the brand. Some ten or eleven days later Yeovil read an announcement in the papers that, in spite of handsome offers of increased salary, Mr. Tony Luton, the original singer of the popular ditty “Eccleston Square,” had terminated his engagement with Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt of the Caravansery Theatre, and signed on as a deck hand in the Canadian Marine.

Perhaps after all there had been some shred of glory amid the trumpet triumph of that July afternoon.