By Nash A. Rambler
Chapter I: “I tell you, Asta, your blessed Italy can’t beat this. What stuff you did talk yesterday about an English spring!”
At this Marcus Atlas turned around triumphantly upon his wife; as she sat beside him in the royal blue motor with yellow spoked wheels which had met them at Charing Cross Station. As he spoke he pointed vaguely to the gardens of St. James’ Palace and Stafford House, just flushed with the first spring green, to the distant line of Piccadilly glittering under a bright April sun, to the slopes of the Green Park, bestrewn with children and loungers. London lay smiling under that most winning of all created things, a genial April day. A sudden rush of warmth had brought out all the spring flowers under the trees; and the hurrying sunlit streets seemed to be full of people . . . men and women and children . . . in light, fresh clothes, as though one happy, renewing impulse had swept through them all.
“I notice you discreetly turn a blind eye to the Palace!” said his wife, mockingly.
“Never you mind. They’ll wash its face someday. Meanwhile, I don’t care what you say . . . I jolly well prefer it to the Strozzi . . . or the Pitti . . . as a place for humans to live in!”
Jocasta Atlas laughed. She too was excited. She too admired this brilliant sun warmed London. But her thoughts about it were more complex than her husband’s.
“How do you know you won’t regret Italy, Marc?” she asked him presently. “You may. We both may.”
“How do I know . . . I won’t regret Italy?” he repeated in amazement. “Why, in thunder, should I regret it? Oh! I say” . . . he caught himself up hastily . . . “of course I don’t mean that. We’ve had a ripping time . . . the time of our lives . . . you darling! As if I don’t know that. But that wasn’t Italy . . . that was you and me!” Catching her small hand in his big one, he crushed it boisterously. “Shouldn’t we have had a ripping time anywhere, eh?” Their eyes met, and she flushed. He resumed . . . “And of course, I loved the musty-fusty old villa too . . . for your sake . . . for everything’s sake. But I think we’d had enough of it . . . don’t you?”
“Perhaps,” she said, reluctantly. Then . . . with a change of tone. “Yes, certainly, we’d had enough of it. Neither you nor I were born to live in a desert. But, still . . . well, of course, you know, Marc, we’ve come home to a pretty stiff fight, you and me. I don’t mind . . . so long as you play up . . . old boy!” She gave him a look half proud, half laughing, the full mouth set imperiously.
Jocasta Atlas was twenty-eight. Her erect and confident bearing, and her radiant good looks had already attracted the notice of many passers-by, whenever the pace of the motor slackened in the traffic. Her traveling dress of blue serge showed a very slender long limbed body, sloping shoulders, and a bare throat still brown from the Italian sun. The head, in its close fitting black hat, was heavy with rich brown hair, but in itself small and nobly carried; the eyes, of a liquid brown with touches of grey, were of astonishing beauty; the nose, very delicate, with a sharpened point that gave a charming touch of gaiety . . . espièglerie . . . to the face; while the mouth, red and full lipped, was not only lovely in line and color, but of a singular significance and energy.
Her handsome young husband, a year older than herself, made on the spectator a no less vivid impression of restless and overflowing life; and the two together were a striking pair. They were well aware of it; well aware, also, that in circumstances and history, as well as in looks, they were no ordinary persons; and that London would very soon be alive to their coming, if it were not already inconveniently expectant.
The motor turned up Constitution Hill.
“I don’t see a soul I know,” said Atlas, discontentedly. “They can’t all be dead. You won’t mind, Asta, will you if I telephone to a couple of fellows to come and dine?”
Jocasta Atlas raised her eyebrows. “The first evening? You don’t know whether there’ll be anything to eat!”
Then seeing a slight shadow on the face beside her, she added . . . “But of course, dearest do . . . do as you like. You’ll let me go to bed early? . . . I’m rather a rag.”
“Well, it was a beastly crossing. Perhaps I won’t. But I vow Asta, I never saw you look better than you do tonight. You may feel a rag . . . you don’t look it.”
And this time he not only pressed her hand, but would have kissed it, had she not rebuked him.
“Marc . . . really! . . . Just as we are going into the Park! That policeman could have seen you perfectly.”
“Damn him . . . who cares! Any other woman after such a crossing would look disheveled and bilious. But you turn up smiling . . . whatever happens.”
He looked at her with a fondness in which there was a touch of excitement. But his phrase was not apposite; for she was not smiling. He broke out impatiently . . .
“I tell you, darling, people are not half as Puritanical as they used to be! You’ll see. We shall have no need to do anything, but sit tight, turn our backs on the people that give themselves airs, collect the decent ones, give ‘em proper dinners, keep out the bores . . . show everybody we don’t care a two penny damn . . . what they do . . . and in two seasons, Asta, you’ll be the rage!”
She looked at him with a smiling shake of the head.
“Oh I dare say we’ll get along,” she said lightly.
“And anyway, I shan’t go on my knees to anybody. Hullo! Aren’t we nearly there?”
She looked out eagerly.
“Yes, there’s the house! And he pointed to a huge building, behind gates and overshadowed by trees, which appeared imposingly at the end of the Mayfair Street into which they had turned.
“Good heavens, I had forgotten it looked so like a fortress!”
“The gates are rather like those of Gaza!” he admitted, laughingly. “But it’s not so bad when you get in.”
The motor drew up, and the chauffeur rang.
Instantly the ponderous gates rolled smoothly back, and, from the hidden lodge inside, a gentleman in a long livery coat reaching to his heels, and a laced, cocked hat, appeared bowing, to watch them pass.
“Marc! He comes out of the Ark!”
“It’s the old livery. My father always would keep it up. We’ll make short work of it, won’t we, darling!”
His wife laughed . . . a little excitedly; but she had no time to reply, for behind the well-dressed youngish woman standing in the doorway, who announced herself as the “housekeeper,” a young man came forward, lean, bronzed, curly haired, with no features to speak of, and an amiable grin.
Atlas jumped from the motor in delight.
“Hullo! Albe, you here! Well, that is jolly! You don’t know Asta, do you? Asta, this is my cousin, Albemarle Fogg. I say, Albe, you are a brick to come and meet us like this!” And the young man slapped his cousin on the back with hearty good humor.
But Captain Fogg’s attention was fixed upon the lady.
“I don’t know what you’ll think of my bothering you, Mrs. Atlas, when you’ll be wanting to rest,” he said, very pink, and evidently embarrassed. “But Lord Atlas made me. He said I was to come and see everything was ready for you, to come back and report to him, and to tell him that he could come round himself to see you after dinner.”
“That was extremely nice of him,” said the lady addressed, as she entered the house. Her color, too, was high. “I shall be ready for anyone and anything when I’ve had a bath and some food. I say, what a place!”
She stopped to look round her at the marble hall in which they stood, crowded with pillars and statues and at the elaborate double staircase which rose out of it . . . a staircase of pretensions, much quoted among architects, the walls of which were covered alternately with niched statues and family portraits.
“Lots of room, anyway,” said Captain Fogg, twisting his moustache.
“Why on earth won’t Lord Atlas live in it?” She brought her penetrating eyes to bear suddenly on the young man, who shrugged his shoulders.
“Sick to death of it! . . . I believe. Hates big rooms . . . hates staircases like that . . . hates statues . . . everything!”
“It must certainly take a deal of living in,” said Mrs. Atlas thoughtfully, as she slowly ascended the stairs, while her husband, the housekeeper, and various splendid persons in livery stood colloguing below.
“Well, we’ve made one room quite human for you; got you tea and newspapers, and everything jolly. Lord Atlas has sent flowers . . . and . . . and a gramophone.”
“A gramophone!” Mrs. Atlas paused on the first floor landing. Her eyebrows had mounted, and her look was sarcastic. “Does . . . does Lord Atlas think that Marc and I are already tired of each other’s society?”
The youth showed renewed embarrassment.
“He’s gone on gramophones . . . and pianolas. Spent a thousand on a pianola last week. He says music would be all right if it weren’t for the people who make it. Now he can get rid of them he’s enchanted. These are drawing rooms . . . but I don’t expect you want to look at them.”
He threw open a stately mahogany door, and Jocasta Atlas found herself on the threshold of an immense room, shrouded in dust sheets, with other rooms opening out of it to the right and left. Some of the pictures on the walls had apparently just been unveiled, and a “Dancing Girl,” by Romney, one of the finest of the innumerable studies of Lady Hamilton . . . a magnificent full length Reynolds of a red coated man beside his horse, and a great Constable, driving the power and light of its sky through the shadows of the room, met the eyes of their new mistress.
“He said you were to arrange everything as you liked. He left it all to you. But he told the housekeeper to have a few pictures uncovered for you, so that it shouldn’t look too like a tomb.”
“Very nice of him,” said Mrs. Atlas again. Then she walked deliberately through the suite of rooms, looking about her, and seeing a few shutters undone, she pulled them open and studied the garden outside. There, in the heart of Mayfair, it spread before her . . . the famous garden as full of spacious shade and quiet as though London lay a hundred miles away. The flower beds on the green lawn were full of tulips; broad bands of hyacinths massed in splendid reds and blues and whites ran round the shrubberies, already delicately green, following the inlets of grass like a coastline; while the thin plane trees just coming into leaf made a background through which distant walls and roofs were still visible which in midsummer would be completely shut out. At the end of the suite of rooms, Jocasta Atlas paused and faced her companion.
“No use trying to live in this house under fifty thousand a year,” she said with emphasis.
“Oh, you’ll have that! . . . Anything you want,” said Captain Fogg hastily. “Uncle Atlas is as rich as rich.”
Something however in her attitude as she turned a little from him to look at a picture challenged him to a closer examination of her, and sent various comments flying through his brain. “Handsome, by George! And a headpiece of her own! If I’m not mistaken. She’ll want to boss it, in London . . . or wherever she goes. And how can she?”
Aloud he said . . . “You must be dog tired. Come and see the place we’ve got ready for you.”
And opening a side door, he led her out of the series of state drawing rooms into some passages beyond them, finally ushering her into a room of moderate size, at sight of which Mrs. Atlas drew an evident breath of relief.
Two footmen in livery, who had been arranging a tea table bowed nervously as the lady and gentleman appeared. Mrs. Atlas walked up to them, greeted them with a few smiling words, and sent them to tell Mr. Atlas that tea was ready. Then she looked about her, at the Whistler drawings on the dim gray walls . . . at the yellow chintz and Persian carpet.
“Who did this? You or Lord Atlas?”
“Oh, Lord Atlas. I helped. You know, he’s awfully fond of Marc.” Then, realizing that he had scarcely expressed himself with tact, he fell suddenly silent.
Jocasta Atlas stood erect, her hands on one of the low chairs, which were gathered invitingly round a small fire lit for welcome not for warmth, while the windows of either side of it let in the cool spring wind freely.
“I wonder . . . if he’s going to be fond of me!” She looked keenly at Captain Fogg, whose difficulties were evident through his laugh.
“Naturally! If you make Marc happy. But of course . . . you know . . . there’ll be hitches.”
“Hitches?” said Mrs. Atlas, flushing. “Yes, that there will. However, let’s have some tea! I suppose I ought to go and talk to the housekeeper. But I can’t; I’m too tired. How cozy it looks!”
And she gave a glance of approval to the room and its furnishings, which tickled the young man’s nerves agreeably, as though a queen had smiled. And nothing less than queenly indeed was her movement as she walked across the floor, took off her hat and traveling cloak, arranged her hair a little before a mirror, with her long, slender fingers, and finally took possession of the tea table, as though by that familiar womanly act she entered upon a sovereignty which was merely her due.
“She carries if off! My word, she does!” thought Fogg, with half-reluctant admiration.
Meanwhile he took the tea she handed him, and they began a disconnected conversation which had but little to do with the things each was bursting to say . . . which, however, she was too proud, and he, as yet, too shy to say. She inquired after Lord Atlas, and was informed that he was at Claridge’s Hotel, very well . . . “though he looks like a walking corpse, as usual! He won’t see anybody but the two or three booksellers who collect for him . . . and a few of his relations . . . women . . . who don’t mind being snubbed. All his old political friends declare he cuts them in the streets.”
But Lord Atlas, it seemed had no intention of staying in town. He was going back to Foggshire, as soon as he had seen his son and his son’s new wife.
Mrs. Atlas listened in silence. But it was a silence full of energy. The young soldier felt her, as it were, charged to the muzzle; though exactly why and how she should make this impression upon him, he could not have explained. After all, her explosion was over; it was now rather a question of picking up the pieces. Presently, as they talked, he found himself comparing some old recollections of her that haunted the back of his mind with the living woman sitting behind the tea table. He had seen her once or twice at balls in his first youth, though he could not recall that they had ever actually made acquaintance. But he remembered her . . . vividly. In white always; tall, thin, and farouche; and in the charge of an aunt, who kept a strict eye upon her. Her people lived at Oxfordshire, he seemed to recollect, and she used to come up to this aunt for part of the season. She was a quiet sort of girl then, with few friends; handsome of course, but nobody noticed her much. She seemed to have “come on” enormously.
“Mark! Where have you been all this time?” cried Mrs. Atlas. For the door had opened, and Marcus Atlas stood looking at the pair at tea, his sunburnt face aglow with amusement and pleasure.
“Couldn’t help it, darling! I was having a chat with Fable, the old house steward here . . . great pal of mine. And I’ve been telephoning to some fellows . . . “
“Oh, but Marc! Lord Atlas’s coming, after dinner.”
“I know. I didn’t ask them for tonight. We’ll have a few tomorrow, won’t we? Well, Albe, tell me something about my papa?”
And he sat down beside his wife, evidently in top spirits, devouring her with his smiling eyes, while he attacked the tea and hot cake, she handed him with a boy’s appetite.
Captain Fogg repeated the various items of news he had already given Mrs. Atlas, with additions, relating to various members of the Atlas family. This person was married . . . and that one was “broke,” or near it. Lady Labouchere’s twins were having a raging season . . . extraordinarily pretty both of them. The Duchess’s youngest girl was pretty too . . . if she weren’t a little cock-eyed. Gervase Labouchere had been getting into another gambling scrape . . . only just dragged out of it by the skin of his teeth . . . family awfully upset . . . et cetera.
Meanwhile Marcus Atlas sat with his elbows on the tea table, his teacup in both hands, and his laughing eyes staring over it as his cousin. He was absorbed in the gossip offered him, only breaking in upon the stream occasionally with comments of his own, which drew chuckles from the captain.
But all the time Albemarle Fogg’s inner mind was held by the spectacle of the pair before him . . . the handsome silent woman who seemed to be paying very scant attention to his talk with Marc . . . and the young husband. Never had he seen Marc in such splendid form. Clearly he had come home prepared to take up his old rôle of universal favorite, as though he had never laid it down. Not a trace, in his talk, of the chasm which had intervened. He seemed as unconscious, as gaily, confoundedly certain of himself and the world as when he first left Oxford, and began a conquering career in London . . . as guardsman, owner of race horses, member of all the fashionable clubs, and withal heir to one of the oldest peerages, and an immense fortune. Marc had always been a popular creature, happy himself, and diffusing happiness; full of ability and ambition too, with a mind set on politics, according to the traditions of his family, and with every card of the great game in his hand.
And then . . . to do this idiotic thing! Fogg, after a joint explosion of laughter both from himself and Atlas, caused by a comment of Marc’s on a family of Puritanical Scotch relations they owned in common, seemed suddenly to hear in it, as it died, “the cracking of thorns under a pot.”
But it was clear that Atlas had no such feelings. He presently sprang to his feet, and drawing his wife with him, went to the open window.
“I say . . . isn’t London scrumptious? Just you sniff it darling! . . . It’s good. And I declare there’s something to be said, even for this pompous old barrack of a place. I used to hate it as a boy. But you’ll put some life into it, Asta! Look here, Albe” . . . he turned to his cousin . . . “what races are there on this week? I’m simply dying to see an English race again! And I’m dying to take Asta to Ascot. Of course, its weeks off yet . . . but to whom does one write? I’ve forgotten all about these things.”
Fogg’s fair skin flushed inconveniently.
“For the Enclosure, you mean?”
“Well, I suppose it’s the Lord Chamberlain.”
“Let’s see, who is it now? I’ve got so stale about everything. Oh, I know, Lord Aberrant, who married a first cousin of fathers. Of course, I can write to him.”
“You’d better not, Marc!” said Mrs. Atlas quietly.
It was the first time she had spoken. She lifted her beautiful eyes to her husband . . . smiling, but grave.
“What do you mean, Asta?”
“You won’t get them, that’s all.”
“Get them! Why, I’m a member of the Jockey Club! They elected me just three years ago . . . before I went out to Florence. I’d jolly well like to see anybody at Ascot stop me from going where I please!”
“Oh, you can go . . . there’s no doubt about that.”
“And so can you, Asta!” he said in a troubled voice, coming to stand beside her. Fogg was sitting with his head turned away, pretending to look at an evening paper lying on a small table nearby . . . a very red, uncomfortable man.
Mrs. Atlas lifted her face to her husband, with a tender smiling look; and their eyes met.
Captain Fogg rose to go.
“Awfully sorry I can’t dine with you! But you’re tired . . . and I’ve got an engagement. Hope they’ll give you decent food. Lord Atlas engaged the chef himself. So I may tell him he can come about nine?”
Husband and wife were left together. Through the thick walls and closely fitting doors of the house not much could be heard of the bustle that was in truth pervading it . . . the bustle of arrival and unpacking. Yet somehow Jocasta Atlas’s nerves were conscious of it, and of its significance. It was like the vague preparatory noises which a spectator must hear from the stage before the curtain goes up.
My dear Marc, how on earth are we going to live in this huge place?”
Her expression, as she turned to him, was all alert, perhaps defiant intelligence.
He threw his arms round her and kissed her passionately.
“Just as we lived in Italy! I made you happy there, you angel! I’ll make you happy here.”
“We were alone there. We lived our own lives . . . and nobody interfered with us. And here . . . Marc, you know, I wasn’t made for a fighter! I’m dreadfully keen to be liked . . . and . . . and spoken kindly to.” She sighed, turning her lips to kiss the coat against which she was leaning as she spoke.
“So you will be liked . . . adored! . . . You darling. I shouldn’t like to see anybody rude or rough to you! Well . . . of course I know there will be a certain number of stuck up people who won’t have anything to say to us. I dare say there’ll be rubs. But look at all the new spirit there is abroad . . . about marriage and divorce! Reasonable people now look at such things reasonably. It’s jolly different from what it used to be.”
She only answered him indirectly.
“Friends . . . children,” she murmured. “That’s what it wants, this house.”
He folded her close . . . murmuring in answer . . .
“There will be children . . . and friends.”
After a silence she said, her eyes still hidden . . .
“I dreamt of Cressida last night. I must see her, Marc, somehow.”
“You shall, darling, you shall.”
Another silence. Across Atlas’s features, as he stood bending over his wife, a number of different expressions chased each other, all merged in a final exhilaration. The distant sounds of Piccadilly were in his ears; and they were as March music to the soldier on parade. London again . . . good old London! Grimy old London . . . with its movements, its chances, its daily flood of events. Love on the Tuscan hills had been delicious . . . love in Mayfair, with wealth, politics, ambition thrown in, and lots of jolly old friends to chum with, whatever their silly wives might do, should be better still. His pulses raced under the sheer joy of return . . . the Homeric “coming home,” after nearly three years of exile.
“Look here!” he said at last, rousing himself and her; “you’ve got to change and rest, before dinner Mrs. Atlas! Don’t forget we’ve come from Paris today! You’ve got to put on a beautiful frock too! That Worth tea gown I helped you choose in Paris . . . and look your very best, my dear, when you see my papa!”
Mrs. Atlas withdrew herself from his arms.
“I rather dread it, Marc. Why has he given us this house? Why does he make us live here? I can’t begin to understand. I don’t believe you know yourself.”
“We’ll get it out him,” he said, half grave, half laughing.
And with his hands in his pockets, whistling as he went, he left her, turning back at the door to bid her again go and lie down.
But she did not immediately obey him. The spring twilight was falling; and lights were twinkling through the trees. The garden below was all dim and rich with color; the scents from it floated round her. For a moment as she stood there, she was seized with an anguish . . . a woman’s savage longing for the children she has borne. Two! And one was lying on a Tuscan hillside, and the other had been taken from her in punishment for what the world called “sin.” . . . “Sin! . . . What is sin?” She asked herself impatiently.
The sound of a gong far away startled her. She turned, and opening a side door . . . tentatively . . . she went back again through the great series of shrouded drawing rooms. And, tired as she was, her step grew firmer as she moved, her stature rose. It was as though she began already to match herself against the house . . . to take up some challenge brooding within it.
Chapter II: The husband and wife dined in the vast dining room at the back of the pillared hall, which had been hastily got ready for them. The finely carved and paneled walls were hung with family portraits, ranging back to 1600; ladies be-ruffled, Cavaliers in plumed hats, bad Lelys, and good Lelys; a pleasant tapestry of dim reds and blues and golds, crowned by two famous Vandycks which faced each other at either end of the room . . . a King Charles on horseback, and a full length Henrietta Maria. The pictures were broken at intervals by a fine series of French Renaissance cabinets; the mantelpiece had come from a château in the Bourbonnais; and two or three priceless French busts of the dix-huitième . . . among them a Voltaire by Houdon . . . stood in the deeply embayed windows. Altogether a room to stir the nerves of any gentleman with the collector’s mania and an adequate purse.
“My dear Marc, why did you never talk to me about this house and the things in it? I really ought to have been coached.”
The servants had left the room, and Jocasta Atlas, in a tea gown of shimmering white, had moved closer to her husband. The small round table at which they had dined was a mass of pale roses, and Jocasta’s dark head and long white neck took an added beauty from the neighborhood of the flowers. She was dandling a cigarette with her elbows on the table. The lace sleeves of her tea gown as they fell back revealed hands and arms which delighted the eyes of the man beside her. He kissed the arm nearest to him, indeed, before he replied . . . indifferently . . .
“Darling, one doesn’t talk about one’s things! I’m so used to them.”
“Well, I’m not,” said Jocasta firmly. “And I give you warning that if we we’re to live here, I shall want to know everything about everything. I despise people who can’t talk about their own pictures.” And she waved her cigarette towards the family gallery on the walls.
Marc’s expression was first perplexed, then frankly explanatory.
“Of course, I can talk about them, if you like. As a matter of fact, I know a lot about them. I could yarn away no end about most of these fellows. History’s the only thing I’m good at. That’s because it comes into politics.”
“Politics? So you’re still set on politics?”
“Naturally. It’s the first business of civilized man . . . after love making!” His lips touched her brow as she leant against him. “But why do you say, ‘if we’re to live here?’ Of course we’re to live here . . . when we’re in town. Pater’s set his heart on it . . . and if we want to keep friends with him, we’ve got to humor him.”
“And what about the money?” said his wife quietly. “To be poor in this house would be purgatory. I gave your cousin my views . . . which were lordly.”
Marc laughed. “That’s so like you, darling . . . you’re always so practical. You see things in a moment . . . which I never do. But my father . . . for all his oddities, is a practical man too. If he writes . . . ‘I give you up Atlas House . . . and it’s my wish you should make it your London home,’ why, of course he knows what it means, financially. And we shall soon know! He’ll be here directly.”
Jocasta rose and began to wander around the room, looking at the pictures. He stayed where he was, partly to finish his coffee, partly to have the pleasure of looking at her from a distance. Her white moving figure, seen against the darkly rich background of the paneled and pictured wall, possessed an atmosphere and a magic which enchanted him. She moved so easily . . . held her head so nobly . . . his incomparable Asta! What storms he had passed through to get her! But she had steered the ship. And she should go on steering it. His belief in her intelligence . . . her luck . . . was, at that moment, boundless.
“Why is there a picture missing here?” she asked presently. He crossed the room to her side.
“Ah, that’s where my mother’s picture used to be. Pater’s taken it away. But, by Jove, he’s left us Aunt Gwen!”
He pointed to the other side of the fireplace. Jocasta perceived there a portrait of a slight elderly lady, with a shrewd, plain face, and a lace cap. She went to look at it in silence. There was no need to ask questions. She knew, of course, that Lord Atlas had lost his wife when Marcus, his only child, was three years old, and that his sister Gwendolyn had lived with him and kept his house, till her own death, some four or five years before this date. Marc’s mother, to judge from a miniature he possessed, had been a small childish creature, with laughing brown eyes; a Saxelbye to boot, and connected thereby with half the great families in England. As far as Marc knew, she and his father had been happy together; but he evidently knew very little of his mother, and Jocasta had already begun to guess that, in any intimate way, he knew and had always known very little of his father. But Aunt Gwen, spinster and Evangelical, had mothered him well in his childhood, and even his comic recollections of her did her credit.
“She made me read the Bible . . . she hunted me to church in the country. Pater of course never went. And she made him let me be confirmed at Eton. But I was always shocking her, poor dear. Once when I was ill and feverish . . . I must have been a little sprat about six . . . she talked to me about Heaven, and I asked her whether we all went up there when we died, and she said, ‘Yes dear, I hope so.’ And I began to cry, sleepily . . . and said I thought it was very unfair, and the dogs ought at least to have the bones. And then when I was at Eton, and seventeen, about, she was horrified at the novels I read. And there was one, which would have given her a fit if she’d known. So I covered it in brown paper and labeled it, ‘Worsley’s Meditations Among The Tombs,’ and she never found out. Poor old dear! She had a class for the servants every Sunday; and when Pater had gone to Nice, she had two or three missionary meetings in the big hall every winter; and that made her happy for the year. Pater used to laugh at her, but I suspect he missed her when she died. There was a memorial service for her in a Whitechapel church where she used to help. And I went. It was curious. Hundreds of little servant girls . . . and errand boys . . . and mothers with babies. They really seemed cut-up.”
Mrs. Atlas looked at the picture, frowning a little.
“She has a strong Puritanical mouth.”
“Yes, she was a sabbatical old party. But an awfully good sort. She preached at me a great deal when I was a boy. But she gave me chocolates too!”
“And she was mistress here twenty years?” said Mrs. Atlas.
“She was housekeeper here for twenty years. She hated the house. It oppressed her. She and Pater gave two or three magnificent parties in the Season . . . all the opera singers, and that kind of thing . . . but she never appeared at his dinners. It wouldn’t have done. Oh they understood each other! She had no social gifts.”
“Poor house!” . . . Jocasta’s tone was soft and thoughtful as she looked round the splendid room . . . “It seems to want something . . . doesn’t it?”
“It wants a mistress!” . . . he said joyously, throwing his arm around her . . . “and now it’s got one. Asta you look too divine in that dress! And those pearls on your white neck . . . you go to my head! But they’re not good enough! Nothing you have is good enough. I wonder” . . . his voice hesitated . . . “I wonder what’s become of my mother’s jewels.”
She put a finger on his lips.
“Don’t ask. I don’t want them!” she said peremptorily. “Wasn’t that a ring? Yes! . . . There’s someone in the hall. You see him first, Marc. I’ll come back . . . in half an hour. He’ll want to see you alone. It’s awfully important this, old boy!”
“Don’t I know it! Well . . . go away, dearest . . . give me half an hour, and then you come back and finish up . . . “
“Do you mind our having our talk here, Pater? These seem to be the only two habitable rooms . . . at present . . . this and Asta’s sitting room. Jocasta thought you and I had better have some talk without her first . . . she’ll come down later.”
“Any room does for me, my dear boy! . . . Except! . . . Lord Atlas turned his head from side to side, sniffing slightly . . . “except for this very strong smell of pineapple. All strong scents worry me. Kindly ring and have it removed. And put out some of this electric light.”
Marc obeyed. When the footman bearing the pineapple had shut the door behind him, Lord Atlas sank back in the deep armchair of scarlet leather that Marc had placed for him, crossed his very long and thin legs, and accepted a cigarette. Marc stood on the hearth rug, looking down upon his father, suppressing all signs of the agitation . . . or excitement . . . which in truth possessed him. He was very conscious that his father held the keys of his future; and he believed that Lord Atlas had “a plan” of some kind. The question was, “Should he be able to fall in with it?”
The father and son were undoubtedly alike. In the prime of his young good looks, well made and tall, with an open and fearless countenance . . . nose a little too small . . . lips a little too full . . . a good chin . . . eyes a trifle over prominent, under a beautiful brow, the brow and curls indeed of an Adonis . . . Marcus Atlas stood the challenge both of his Cavalier ancestor in hat and plumes, who towered above the mantelpiece behind him; and of his handsome father in the chair beneath him; and stood it well. Lord Atlas had far more regular features than his son, a more adequate and aquiline nose, and a play of mouth subtler and more sensitive than any of which Marc was master. But Marc’s young bloom carried it. None but a trained eye would have preferred the father’s extraordinary distinction to the florid charm of the young man.
One of the chief elements in Lord Atlas’s distinction, perhaps, was that it was impossible to think of “bloom” as having, at any period, belonged to him. There were indeed many of his contemporaries living who could remember . . . at the distance of half a century . . . a young Lord Atlas, as ruddy and of as goodly a countenance as the present heir to the name. But the man who now sat looking up at his son, had been for years blanched to a most singular and ghostly whiteness. His silky hair, though still abundant, was snow white; his features and his hands might have been carved in wax or alabaster. His lips had scarcely more color than his cheeks. It was an aspect which in any other man would have stirred ideas of disease and death. And yet such was the force which breathed from the whole personality, such was the energy of the black eyes in the white face, that the father at seventy-four seemed not a whit less toughly and invincibly alive than his splendid son of twenty-nine. Marc indeed was well aware that his father was still in all respects his match, and as he stood waiting for what Lord Atlas might say, a certain tremor ran through him.
“Well, Marc, so here you are! Quite old married people, eh? Rather more settled in your minds than when you and I last met?”
“Naturally!” said Marc, with a hesitating laugh. “If I remember right, it was the day after the trial.”
“It was. Those things are . . . disagreeable . . . even at the best. Well, that was eighteen months ago. You have been married a year. And I suppose you still think it was worth it?”
Marcus Atlas flushed.
“Asta and I are as much in love as we ever were!” he said, vehemently. “You may take that, Father, for granted.”
“Of course . . . of course. I do take it for granted. Young men of your ability don’t do such things without good reason. My question was an idle one. I hope Jocasta is well?”
“A little tired . . . and a little frightened . . . by the house!”
“The house? But she must have seen it . . . when she was a girl. You told me she used to stay with an aunt in Foster Street.”
“She remembered the gates, of course, and the distant view of the roof that you get from outside. But she have never been inside the gates . . . she had no idea what a place it was.”
“And she feels it will be a big job to live in it?”
“Well, yes, she does, Pater.”
“That alone shows her intelligence and a grasp of the situation,” said Lord Atlas slowly. “It will be a big job to live in it. But if she shirks it, she will not be the woman I think her . . . the woman you have described to me. Now look here, Marc . . . do you mind if I speak plainly?”
Lord Atlas threw back his head and considered a moment, his bright eyes fixed on his son.
“You see, Marc, there is no denying that you have done a thing which . . . morals apart . . . is directly calculated to wreck the whole scheme of life on which you have set your heart from the time you were a small boy. I won’t say anything of my own desires. My principle has been to make you happy. But you made up your mind from the time you got into tails at Eton, that you were going into Parliament, and . . . of course . . . a taste for debating, and then there are the traditions of the family, etc. And those traditions count for something still, even in these more democratic days. An Atlas going into Parliament has a pull over the ordinary Smith or Jones. The Radicals may rage as they please, but it is so, and will be so, for some time to come. Well now, by ill-luck, you yourself have put a considerable spoke in your own career; and the questions is how to get over it.”
Marc’s expression showed a similar impatience to that roused in him by his wife’s forebodings of the afternoon.
“Surely, Pater, you put it a good deal too strongly! Things are very different nowadays from what they were under the Evangelical tyrannies of your young days. We are in sight, too, of a new divorce law, which is going to be much less strict than the old.”
“Nothing it is at all likely to contain would have given any relief to Jocasta . . . and you . . . so far as I can learn.” The tone was deliberate.
“I don’t quite follow you,” said Marc, uncomfortably.
“You see, my dear fellow, there is no doubt that yours was a bad case. Jocasta’s plea is that Sir Hector Foljambe was impossible to live with, and made her miserable. But the misfortune is that he was and is a man of immaculate reputation, that she had no cause of complaint against him that any ordinary mortal could understand, and that the case was in fact undefended. There were also aggravating circumstances, which I find weigh abominably with the women . . . the desertion of the children . . . the death of the little boy . . . “
“What responsibility had Jocasta for that?” Marc broke out hotly.
Lord Atlas waved a deprecating hand. In the now dim lighting of the room his ghostly aspect had grown more spectral, the ethereal whiteness of the head and face more strange.
“No doubt . . . none whatever! But you know what the public is . . . what women are. It is their tongues that do the mischief. At any rate you may take it from me . . . I should of course put these things more gently to Jocasta . . . that public opinion is hostile . . . disagreeably hostile.”
The speaker paused a moment, and Marc, whose aspect was one of increasing irritation, did not reply.
Lord Atlas resumed . . .
“You wrote me from Italy that you wished to find a seat in Parliament as soon as possible, and you asked me to sound the Whips. But I have not done so . . . for various reasons. It is all very well, my dear boy, to talk of the ‘Evangelical tyrannies’ of my youth. I can assure you the ‘Nonconformist conscience’ of the present day runs ‘em pretty close!”
“Canting humbugs!” cried Marc, throwing away his cigarette with a vehement gesture.
“H’m” . . . said Lord Atlas. “Perhaps. I don’t love them any more than you. But the Dissenters are an increasing force in politics just now . . . and unfortunately in our party . . . that’s the point. You and I with our Whig and Gladstonian traditions couldn’t be Tories, if we tried. There we are, on the Whig side of Liberalism, and there I suppose we shall stay. As a family we don’t understand ‘ratting.’ But the Dissenters, with us, are the tail which at present is wagging the dog. They are the ‘purity’ party, par excellence, and, as you know, they have got their backs up rather particularly high just now because of the Conway case on the other side . . . and other things. I am afraid they’ve power enough to make things very hot for you, my dear boy, in any constituency, for a good while to come. So, all things considered, I did not go to the Whips. Those cigarettes of yours are superlative!
And without any change of manner or voice, Lord Atlas held out his hand for another.
“And you suppose I’m going to sit down under this damned Pharisaism!” said Marc, furiously, after a moment.
“Ah there we come to the point! Not at all. But you can only get what you want, my dear Marc, by fighting . . . fighting hard . . . and that’s what I’m here to impress upon you. Hence my discouraging remarks. Recognize your situation . . . locate your enemies . . . and then go for them . . . hammer and tongs. That’s why I’ve given you this house . . . though to be quite honest I was heartily sick of the bother of it long ago. And that’s why I’m ready to supply you with any amount of money . . . in reason . . . to enable you to make use of it. You understand?”
“I suppose I do,” said the other, unwillingly. “We are to bribe Society to forgive us?”
“Damn Society!” said Lord Atlas contemptuously. “As if it were worth buying . . . for itself . . . at any price! No . . . but I gather from your recent letters to me that you want a perfectly definite thing. You want to find yourself in the House of Commons . . . and ultimately in a Government. And unfortunately this social and political world, on which you must depend, is against you . . . will very stubbornly set its chin against you. Ergo, you must propitiate your world, or rather . . . your wife must. It’s she who’ll have to do the greater part of it. Can she?”
Lord Atlas rose, looking keenly at his son.
“Well . . . wait till you see her, Pater!” said Marc proudly.
“I take it on your word.” . . . The tone was courtly. “You and she, then, can make this house one of the most powerful centers in London if you set your minds to it. You can certainly pull the political strings . . . and some of the social ones. After all, the women of our family will stand by you; at least some of them. But don’t worry about the women. Go to the men! They’ll come. Jocasta will capture them; and gradually you’ll find the way open. But for heaven’s sake don’t rush it, and don’t bother for a constituency for months to come. These fellows . . . the present Government . . . are in for another year and more . . . probably two years . . . safe. Now then for practical matters. How much money do you want?”
“I leave it to you, sir! You’ve always been most awfully generous. Anything you say will do for us.”
The young man spoke with the frank effusiveness which had made him so easily popular at school and college. Lord Atlas smiled, and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Well I’m pretty well off just now. My broker did well for me in Kafirs last week . . . uncommonly well . . . I netted a big sum. And those Canadian mines have been doing splendidly. By the way, I sent thirty thousand to your account yesterday.”
Marc opened his eyes wide . . . and laughed.
“Upon my word, Pater, when you do a thing you do it!”
“And now what about Jocasta’s jewels? Is she properly provided?” The voice was short and business like.
“She has a few nice things . . . not very much.”
Marc looked a little askance at his father. The recollection of some of the famous jewels he knew his young mother to have possessed was running in his mind. They must be still in his father’s keeping. But Lord Atlas made no allusion to them.
“Ah, well, I have set aside a considerable sum . . . for this object also. I thought that your wife would probably require it. That’s all right. You and she can choose them at your leisure. Anything else you want, my dear boy . . . let me know. Now, where’s your fair lady? Ah! One word of advice. Tell Jocasta not to be too sensitive! She shall queen it . . . I promise you. But for your sake, she must sometimes know how to take an affront . . . and take it smiling. After all, you and she have broken the whistle . . . you’ll have to pay something for it! Well, now then, go and find her.”
Lord Atlas was pacing the long room with his hands behind him, when the sound of a footstep made him turn . . . and he saw his daughter-in-law standing before him. Marc had left them alone. In a flash the old man’s eyes took in the beauty of the woman Marc had so unlawfully captured. Beauty . . . and . . . what is much more important in a fastidious society, charm, manner, and dignity. She showed no agitation at the sight of her father-in-law, and she put out her slender hands to him, with an air which delighted him.
“It is very good of you to come and see us so soon.”
“But of course I came. Marc, you, and I, are partners . . . aren’t we . . . in this game? Now suppose we sit down.” He pushed an armchair towards her in which she composedly settled herself. “You must be tired?”
“A little. It was a rough crossing.”
“You show no signs of it,” he said pleasantly, his keen look studying her all the time.
A little desultory talk followed, about their journey, their arrival, and the servants Lord Atlas had provided. The chef . . . was he decent?
“Too good!” said Asta, with a laugh. “Marc will put on weight again . . . which will make him miserable.”
“He looks in splendid condition. So you have had a good time at your villa? Where was it exactly?”
“In the Apuan Alps . . . just north of Lucca. We had glorious views over Lucca and Pisa . . . to the sea . . . on fine days.”
“Quite in the wilds?”
“We never saw an English person!”
“And you kept Marc happy?”
Then he saw her look change.
“I believe so,” she said quietly. “Do you think it’s so difficult to make him happy?”
“Not to make him happy,” said Lord Atlas, with slight emphasis. “Sometimes . . . to keep him happy is not so easy.”
“You think him such a changeable creature?” Jocasta’s smile was lightness itself. But her companion thought he perceived some quick attention in the brown eyes.
“Not more so than the average man. But the average man . . . is not the average woman.”
The smile which accompanied the words seemed to Jocasta Atlas as cold as the icy whiteness of the old man’s features. A vague pang struck through her. But she gave no sign of it.
“Of course it was natural that Marc should want to come home and I encouraged it.”
“Perfectly. But . . . now may I speak plainly to you . . . as I have done to Marc?”
Jocasta nodded in silence. Lord Atlas moved his chair a little nearer, and laid a hand on the arms of hers.
“My dear . . . I know Marc perhaps better than you do . . . though I don’t expect you to believe it. Marc is passionate . . . you have touched his passion. But he is also, young as he is, a man of affairs by nature, and tremendously ambitious. If we can’t get him into politics, you and I, and carve out a career for him there, we shall both suffer. It bores me dreadfully to see him unhappy, and it would bore me still more to feel that he had the bad manners and the bad taste to make anybody as pretty as you unhappy also.”
The young woman before him bent forward.
“Oh, but we love each other!” she said impetuously, magnificently, her soul in her face.
Lord Atlas looked at her . . . liked her . . . but was not quite as sure as before of her intelligence.
“I know that.” . . . That tone was dry . . . “But the point is, how can we secure the permanence of that desirable state of things. If Marc is not amused . . . if Marc is not taken out of himself . . . if you can’t make his life dramatic for him in the way he understands . . . life among men and his equals . . . and give him a leading part in it, there will be the deuce to pay . . . for both you and me . . . someday.”
“Was that why you sent me a gramophone?” said Jocasta suddenly, her eyes sparkling.
Lord Atlas laughed.
“I meant it . . . allegorically. Somehow . . . well or ill . . . you must keep Marc entertained. Remember that, when you look at the vile thing. If you take my advice, you will now turn your backs altogether on the solitude à deux. Your business now is to make a life for Marc . . . the kind of life he is fit for. As things are, you may find that a very tough proposition. But if you succeed . . . “
“And if I don’t?”
“But you will succeed. Your situation reminds me oddly . . . you know, of course, the famous story of Hazelmere House? . . . Of the situation of Lord and Lady Hazelmere, a century ago. Lord Hazelmere ran away to Italy with Sir Frederick Cornewell’s wife. Cornewell divorced her, and the Hazelmeres came home to face London. They had money, brains, and Hazelmere House to do it with. So far the cases are alike. But the great difference lies in this. Whatever penalty there was fell . . . heavily at first . . . on Lady Hazelmere . . . not at all on Lord Hazelmere. Lady Hazelmere was boycotted . . . by the women . . . and retaliated by making Hazelmere House the most famous gathering place of men in Europe. Lord Hazelmere paid no penalty at all, either social or political. He was welcome everywhere, and the Whig Governments, when they came along, took him in with open arms. That was before democracy . . . and the Dissenters. You also will be boycotted, by the women, but less severely . . . because of the feminist spirit abroad. But to get Marc into Parliament . . . and then into a Ministry . . . will require a surgical operation. I deliberately think the only person who can do it will be you! . . . Though Marc of course must put his best foot forward. Now this is what I suggest . . . “
Lord Atlas talked for twenty minutes. At the end of it Jocasta Atlas sat erect, her color high, her brows drawn . . . a formidable and striking figure, instinct both with passion and will, in whom the man of mingled character beside her began to feel a very decided interest.
“I see what you mean,” she said, at last, with slow and pregnant emphasis. “I quite understand. And I agree it ought to be tried. Well . . . as far as I am concerned, if it can be done . . . it shall.”
“All right.” Lord Atlas rose. “Our hands upon it. Now a parting word of warning. The women will boycott you . . . but they will run after Marc . . . all the more, because they will be able to leave you out. And Marc is not averse to being flattered. Be on your guard. And keep your temper . . . and your head. As to the women of our family, you will find them in two camps. The Duchess is, or will be your friend. Lady Bayeux is on the warpath. But I shall be two days more in town before I go north. There will be time to talk over details, to show you the lay of the land. London of course is humming with talk about you. That you must expect. Now both you and I must go and rest. Ah, Marc my boy!!” . . . As Marc re-entered the room . . . “Good night. Your wife and I have signed a treaty of London. Send her to bed. Good night.”
Marcus Atlas accompanied his father to the door. On the step Lord Atlas turned . . .
“Tell Jocasta about the jewels. I shall send a man to her with some pretty things . . . tomorrow morning.”
“Aren’t there some things belonging to the family, Pater, that might save your money?”
“Not at all . . . not at all!” said Lord Atlas gaily. “New gauds for new necks! Good night.”
Marc, as he led his wife upstairs, repeated his father’s message as to the jewels . . . adding indiscreetly . . .
“I suggested there might be something in the family treasures . . . but he didn’t see it.”
Jocasta was silent. Hand in hand, they climbed the wide staircase, while a footman beneath them began to put out some of the lights among the pillars of the hall. The impression as the hard glitter of the too white marble sank into shadow, and the heavy gold of the roof disappeared, was one of instant relief . . . as when a glare is shut out.
“Rather like a Ritz hotel, isn’t it?” said Marc looking down. “When this house was built . . . somewhere about 1800, I believe . . . this kind of thing, I suppose, was called ‘princely.’ The architects bagged it from Versailles. Now the hotels can do it better . . . We’re in the left wing, aren’t we? I swear I’ve forgotten how to find my way.”
In the distance of a long corridor, Jocasta saw her maid hovering, as though to guide her through the labyrinthine place. They passed through lines of closed doors, across vistas of regions unexplored; and it was to Jocasta as though the great empty palace watched her, jealously, murmuring to itself.
Her maid threw open a door, and Jocasta entered the luxurious room with which she had already made perfunctory acquaintance. Lord Atlas had furnished the whole suite anew; and the color and decoration of bedroom, dressing room, and bathroom had been designed by a woman decorator, who was the rage of the moment, and had given sleepless nights to the artistic renovation of the west wing.
As she looked round its costly simplicity, its cunning bareness, where every object on the deep piled carpet . . . bed or cabinet or table . . . had belonged to some historic collection, and not one meuble was allowed to hide the exquisite quality of its neighbor. Jocasta Atlas felt a sudden wild longing for her room in the ramshackle Tuscan villa, the vast canopied beds, the curtains of old yellow or blue watered silk, the coarse abundant linen, the old mirrors, tarnished and cracked, the queer eighteenth century pictures, the bare brick floors with their strips of gay though faded carpet beside the beds . . . aye, even the cattiva bestia running up the wall . . . the first scorpion lured out of is hole by the first heat . . . What happiness! Ye gods, what happiness! Mingled always with that recurrent anguish, that vision of a little white bed . . . a pale child’s head on the pillow.
The maid was soon dismissed, and Jocasta in a thirst for air threw the window open to the moonlit garden, and the sudden spring warmth.
She had quite done with her passing fit of homesickness for Italy. Her mood was hardening, her spirit rising. She sat, now, listening for her lover, every nerve alert, and all her senses on the watch. She had forfeited her children, and broken an honest man; she had gone through those agonies which lay shut away in the innermost cells of memory . . . all for Marc. She had lost her place in the world of honorable women . . . for Marc.
And now her conversation with Lord Atlas had brought her face to face with further possibilities which she had already guessed, and must at last reckon with calmly. Marc . . . his mere presence . . . was enough for her; but if she were to make herself and her love enough for Marc, it could only be . . . it seemed . . . by letting in that world again which they had both defied, and helping him to reconquer it.
Beyond the garden, a ball was going on in a large house within a stone’s throw of Piccadilly. The waltz music pulsed through the night, challenging all the youth in Jocasta; all her love of life, all her passion for success. And, meanwhile, her heart thirsted for Marc’s knock at her door . . . for his step beside her . . . in a kind of terror. Some mysterious force seemed to be lying in wait . . . coiled in the recesses of the great house . . . to avenge upon her what she and Marc had done. It was as though Lord Atlas had shown her its dim presence couchant in the darkness of the future . . . The next moment, she was in Marc’s arms, as he knelt beside her; and all doubts had vanished in the arrogance of a renewed and intoxicating joy.
Chapter III: It was an afternoon in May. Frederica, Lady Bayeux had laid aside her outdoor garment, and rung the bell for afternoon tea. She was a tall, thin, gaunt woman verging towards sixty, with a long bluntly featured face, and gray hair worn in window curtain fashion so that it framed her prominent brow and flat cheeks. She had never been handsome, but she possessed a certain stately effectiveness of which she was well aware, and on which she prided herself.
She had just been attending a charitable committee which was organizing the costume ball of the season, and her expression was somewhat irritable and jaded. On her way home she had called at Mudie’s and brought away Lady Bexminister’s Memoirs, which now reposed on a table by the fire. For she was a devourer of memoirs, mainly because, as she said, she could always find something about her relations in them; and her family curiosity was boundless. But her mental indolence matched it. The political and historical passages in these many volumes of biography and “reminiscence,’ she skipped when she could; so that she had only a confused idea of the modern course of things, even of those English Ministries in which her uncles, cousins and brothers had taken more or less conspicuous parts; and she was never quite sure whether it was Dizzy or Mr. Gladstone who had said “Peace with honor.” All the same she was in her way a clever woman, and the sharpness of tongue made her cleverness tell beyond its deserts.
She was just settling down to her tea in her cool and shaded drawing room with a sense of well-earned repose, when she heard the front door bell.
“How stupid! Why didn’t I tell Tyndall to let no one in?”
She sat up to listen in frowning suspense, which soon passed however into a look of relief.
“Oh, well, it’s only Sidney.”
The door opened, and a gray haired, fresh complexioned man, immaculately dressed, stood smiling on the threshold.
“Send me away if you don’t want me. I believe you wish me at Jericho!”
“No,” said Lady Bayeux, with resignation, “I don’t mind you. Come in. Tyndall! . . . No one else . . . unless . . . well, unless it’s Mrs. Rarick.”
“An exception in which I support you,” said Sir Sidney Guelph, shaking hands. “I have come . . . simply and solely . . . for gossip, and Mrs. Rarick understands the art, if anyone does.”
“Connie can do more mischief in ten minutes than anyone else I know,” said Lady Bayeux, sinking back into her chair, after providing her guest with a cup of tea. “It seems so charming . . . her chatter . . . and it is . . . “
“So deadly?” put in her guest, who had now leisurely taken his seat, with the air of one who meant to keep it. “Well, what is the use of a gossip without stings? Should I frequent you as I do, if you hadn’t long ago given up Christian charity and that kind of nonsense?”
“Of course, I know exactly what you’ve come for today.”
“I never contradict you.”
“You want to hear about that woman at Atlas House.”
“The man . . . and the woman. After all Marc counts for something. And there they are . . . lawfully married. Don’t forget that.”
“That won’t help them much,” said Lady Bayeux, with a smooth voice, which seemed to have been dipped in gall. “I regret it, of course, for Lord Atlas’s sake, but the fact is I never knew public opinion so stiff about any case of the kind as it is about this one. There will be a few eccentrics, of course, who will call upon her; but as for the people who count . . . the boycott will be complete . . . simply complete.”
“Poor lady! But perhaps she won’t mind it. She will have Marc to make love to her . . . Atlas House to live in . . . and as much money as she chooses to ask for. One might put up with a good deal of boycotting on those terms. Have you seen Lord Atlas?”
“He walked in this morning . . . talked preposterously, as usual. As to morality . . . upholding established things . . . well you don’t expect that from Atlas!” . . . said Lord Atlas’s sister-in-law, with acerbity. “He’s just amusing himself with the whole business . . . wants to back them against the rest of us . . . and see what’ll happen. He’s given up racing . . . sold his stud. So here’s a new excitement for him. But what can he do? He can’t get Marc into Parliament, or that woman to a Drawing room.”
“You forget. We live in feminist days. There will be a party for Mrs. Atlas. To be frank, I always thought Foljambe a sad stick.”
“Well, if everyone might throw a husband over” . . . cried Lady Bayeux . . . and then paused, applying herself with energy to the cutting of cake. Sir Sidney looked away. He did not believe Lady Bayeux meant anything personal by her outbursts; but still he was glad to remember that it wanted nearly an hour to the time when Lord Bayeux usually returned home from his club, and when Lady Bayeux’s friends generally avoided her drawing room.
“Besides,” resumed his companion angrily . . . “the whole circumstances were so flagrant, so abominable! Both children delicate . . . an untrustworthy governess . . . and the little boy already ill! She has that child’s death on her conscience.”
“I am told she tried to go back to him, and there was a terrible scene between her and Foljambe”
“I daresay. Of course he refused to let her see the child!”
“Hm!” said Guelph, “I don’t know. There is a certain change of feeling about all that sort of thing.”
“Not as far as I know! And then the audacity of her whole behavior at Florence . . . flaunting her conquest in everyone’s face! No attempt at concealment or reserve. A shameless creature! What chance has a modest girl against such women? They are just harpies who take the bread out of her mouth. What’s the good of telling girls it pays to be virtuous, when such goings on . . . “
“End it Atlas House and thirty thousand a year?” put in Sir Sidney, mildly. “Well, I warn you I am going to dine there tomorrow. I came across Marc at Brooks’, and he asked me. But I want to know what Atlas really thinks of her. Did you get it out of him?”
“Well, of course she’s handsome . . . you know that,” said Lady Bayeux grudgingly. “And he says he thinks her clever . . . undeveloped, naturally . . . but with a headpiece. And he seems to be urging her to what I should have thought” . . . the speaker tossed her head . . . ‘the very worst policy imaginable for a woman in her position . . . magnificent entertaining, and so on . . . “
“Well, she seems to be taking his advice. I am beginning to hear of the Atlas House dinners, and Mrs. Atlas’s ‘evenings’ in many quarters. I felt indeed quite shut out till Marc asked me yesterday. And after dinner, tomorrow, I understand they give their first reception. Interesting to see who comes! But, of course, if you spend enough money, you can always fill your rooms.”
“But that, of course, is not the least what Atlas wants. He doesn’t want the rabble . . . nobody does. What use are they? He wants the cream.”
“I daresay. But what’s to be the object of the entertaining? Are the young people already bored with each other?”
Lady Bayeux shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t ask me! I gather they are to make themselves so important and so interesting that all doors are to be opened to them . . . whatever they may have done.”
“Including Parliament and the Cabinet . . . for Marc? Well, you know, it’s not a bad idea . . . though a desperate one. But it depends upon the woman!” he repeated in meditation, his chin propped upon his hands, and those upon his stick. “And you haven’t yet told me anything . . . that enables one to judge. Has she charm?”
“Well, she charmed Marc . . . worse luck!”
“Has she industry?”
“Industry! My dear Sidney, what has industry to do with a salon?”
“Everything! To work a salon properly . . . as some Frenchwomen have worked it . . . as Lady Hazelmere worked it a hundred years ago . . . is a life’s work. A woman must never forget it. It means remembering the habits, the whims, the prejudices of scores of touchy people . . . the important, the more touchy. What they like to eat, and drink . . . their birthdays, and their children’s birthdays . . . their religious opinions, or their lack of them . . . and in the case of politicians, reading all their speeches! Flattering all their vanities! . . . Helping their friends, and slaying their enemies . . . keeping up a vast correspondence . . . in short, never having an hour or an opinion to yourself!”
“Good heavens!” said Lady Bayeux, raising her eyebrows. “How can a woman of twenty-eight make a success of such a business? She hasn’t enough knowledge of the world.”
“Ah, no; . . . you’re wrong there. It wants youth . . . at the beginning. Youth . . . charm . . . money . . . and work.” He checked off the requirements on his fingers. “Well, I shall see her tomorrow, and I’ll come and report. Where’s the little girl?”
Lady Bayeux believed that Cressida, aged nine, the eldest and only surviving child of the Foljambe marriage, was with her paternal grandmother, old Lady Foljambe, in Oxfordshire. Access to her by the mother had been left entirely to the discretion of the father by the Court. As to Sir Hector . . .
“You know he has gone over?”
“Sir Sidney nodded. “And is to be a Jesuit?”
“If a dispensation from his marriage can be got. They say he is now helping a Jesuit mission somewhere.”
“I believe he made her miserable . . . it’s the way of saints,” laughed Guelph. “Well . . . so you don’t mean to call?”
“Certainly not! I don’t intend to run any risk for my girls, thank you!” said Lady Bayeux, with vehemence. “If Marc likes to come here, he may.”
“The Duchess, I hear, intends to take them up?”
“By all means!” But a flush and some signs of agitation accompanied the words.
Sir Sidney smiled to himself. He was well aware that Lady Bayeux had destined one of her plain daughters for Marcus Atlas, and that her moral disapproval was in part genuine, in part firmly on her maternal disappointment.
But at this point the conversation was broken by another arrival. The butler announced “Mrs. Rarick.”
Constance Rarick had taken off her gloves, accepted her tea, and sat with her pretty hands clasped upon her knee, looking from Lady Bayeux to Sir Sidney in a smiling silence. She was a slight woman with a rather sallow complexion, very fair hair, bluish-gray eyes, and small white teeth. The features were delicate, the mouth especially attractive, with its smiling trick, and its alternate childishness and malice. But Mrs. Rarick was no beauty, and an ordinary woman possessing such a physique would have made little of it. Mrs. Rarick made everything of it. She was amazingly run after, and always in request. A young widow, good looking, well-bred, and apparently well provided, who can always be trusted to make herself agreeable, who has the independence of marriage, without the possible drawback of a dull husband, is welcome in any world. Mrs. Rarick had the best of times in London.
She was the daughter of a younger son of a great family; Lord Humphrey Jermyn, himself scion of the Marquess of Landpride; and in her impecunious but well-connected youth; she had learned all the arts of social dependence, earning the luxuries she wanted by simply making herself pleasant to great relations. She helped them to write their notes, and invite their parties; she arranged the flowers, and talked to the bores; and in return, Lady Salcey, for instance, her great aunt, gave a ball for her coming out, and for the two years of her maiden career had paid for most of her gowns, in the hope of thereby floating a penniless girl into a satisfactory marriage. And Constance had justified all the kindness shown her by carrying off . . . two years after her coming out . . . a very substantial country squire, Col. Euseby Poole, with a house in Foggshire, who settled five thousand pounds a year upon his wife, and then died of typhoid fever in Venice, within twelve months of their marriage.
This sad event had been one of the chief elements in Mrs. Rarick’s subsequent success. She came back to London life, haloed by a tragedy, which in her secret mind she knew to have been a release. Everybody pitied her; everybody said and thought that she looked charming and “so touching” in her black. She set up an elderly maiden cousin as housekeeper and companion, and observed all the proprieties. It was not till the proper two years after her husband’s death had elapsed that her position in London life became at all clear to the crowd, although those who knew her well were aware that she had been quietly and irresistibly preparing it, almost from the first moment of her widowhood. She possessed various gifts. She was something of an actress, and something of an artist. She spoke French beautifully; and her dress was perfection. It may be added that her enjoyment of life was both surprising and infectious; so that, as she entered a room, people were apt to think . . . “Here comes an agreeable woman.” And moreover, accomplished Londoner as she was, she was only seven-and-twenty. She had been married at twenty-one, and had now been a widow nearly five years.
Lady Bayeux, while providing her with tea, had been all the while scanning her closely. Constance Rarick’s dress was a source of frequent inspiration to the hard worked maid who kept Lady Bayeux’s daughters respectable during the season, on small allowances. Mrs. Rarick herself was aware of it; but in all such things she was carelessly good natured, and it merely tickled her sense of humor to see a Paris masterpiece transformed into one of the characteristic garments for the young ladies of the house.
“We were talking of the new arrivals,” said Lady Bayeux abruptly, having at last mastered, as she thought the whole cut of the short silk coat which became Mrs. Rarick so well.
“The Atlas’s! Have you called?”
Mrs. Rarick’s bright eyes . . . half mocking . . . studied her hostess over the brim of her cup.
Lady Bayeux repeated stiffly that she had not called. People might think her puritanical and old-fashioned if they pleased.
“On the contrary, you will be quite in the fashion!” laughed Mrs. Rarick, “I don’t know anybody who is going to call . . . the women, I mean . . . except the Duchess.”
“A large ‘except,’ said Sir Sidney. “I shouldn’t wonder if the Duchess routed you all.”
“Oh, no!” Lady Bayeux’s voice was coldly confident. “If Jocasta Atlas were the first . . . but the Duchess has taken up too many of the same sort. She doesn’t count any longer . . . as far as influence goes.”
“I called . . . at once,” said Mrs. Rarick quietly. “I too don’t count.”
Lady Bayeux surveyed her.
“You can do what you like. But you are very young, my dear, and you ought to take care.”
“What are you afraid of . . . for me . . . dear Lady Bayeux? I knew Marcus Atlas before I married . . . and the story . . . well I confess it just thrills me! So few people plunge . . . nowadays.”
“Very few women would desert their dying child for their lover . . . that I grant you,” said Lady Bayeux, grimly.
Constance Rarick clasped her hands . . . pleadingly . . . to her breast.
“Oh, but we really don’t know, do we, Sir Sidney? People are so unkind . . . they love to believe the very worst! I don’t mean you, dear lady! . . . Of course not! You are always so kind! But don’t you think people do like running a woman down . . . especially if she won’t grovel . . . if she defies them? It turns them savage, when the woman refuses to wear a white sheet . . . like Jane Shore.”
“Who was Jane Shore?” said Sir Sidney, deliberately. “Somebody else mentioned the lady to me in connection with Mrs. Atlas. But I have forgotten all my history.”
Mrs. Rarick laughed, a low, gurgling laugh of purest mirth.
“I heard a girl ask an undergraduate that once . . . on the river at Oxford. And the boy looked her full in the face and said . . . quite innocently . . . ‘I don’t exactly know, but I think she was the Maid of Orléans!”
Even Lady Bayeux laughed.
“You do tell such tales, Connie! I am sure you invented that.”
“Wish I had!” said Mrs. Rarick coolly. “Well, Sir Sidney, I hear you dine there tomorrow night. As do I.”
“Oh, you do, do you?” Sir Sidney surveyed her ironically. “Nobody like you, dear Mrs. Rarick, for being always in it . . . whether it’s the start or the finish. Perhaps you know who the other guests are to be?”
“Certainly! . . . Some of them. Marcus Atlas told me. The French Ambassador, and Ambassadress . . . the Swedish Minister, and wife . . . Mr. Liscombe . . . the Duchess . . . two or three M.P.’s . . . the poet who wrote that horrible thing in the Futurist Review last month . . . Denisova . . . Lord Sacquerville . . . Lord Kingsroyale . . . the American naval attaché . . . that Russian traveler people are making such a fuss about. I know no more!”
“Not bad . . . for a beginning,” said Sir Sidney, reflectively. “Mrs. Atlas has been six weeks in London. And . . . Denisova!” He raised his eyebrows.
“Who goes nowhere, as you know, and gives herself abominable airs! But . . . for Mrs. Atlas! . . . She is going to dance . . . after dinner.”
“Like hostess, like guest!” The voice of indignant scorn was Lady Bayeux’s. “Denisova . . . dancing . . . in that house! It’s enough to make Aunt Gwen turn in her grave!”
“Or slip in to see?” suggested Sir Sidney, slyly. “I shall think tenderly of her scandalized little ghost; I was very fond of her. And the reception afterwards?” he turned to Mrs. Rarick.
“Crowds! And I hear the most wonderful reports about the house. They had turned on that decorating woman . . . the American genius whom people rave about . . . and she has done extraordinary things in three weeks. Hangings . . . and carpets . . . and china! They say they have discovered all sorts of treasures hidden away in the house, which Lord Atlas had forgotten all about. He has given carte blanche, and talks of coming up tomorrow, to see ‘Jocasta’s first rout!’”
“The more fool he!” said Lady Bayeux grimly.
“What good, I ask you, will all this silly display do Marcus? . . . Which is really what Atlas cares about. It would have been infinitely better for Marcus’s political chances, supposing he has any left, if they had kept quiet for a time, and shown some proper feeling . . . instead of braving us all.”
Lady Bayeux crossed her arms over her ample breast . . . personifying an outraged society. But the two others were incorrigibly gay. Sir Sidney pointed out that the culprits had been “keeping quiet” for two years, or thereabouts. And as life is short, they probably thought they had done enough in that direction.
“And ‘proper feeling’ would never have done them an ounce of good, socially,” threw in Mrs. Rarick. “Their only hope is . . . well, just brazening it out!”
Lady Bayeux declared hotly that to hear them both talk one might suppose there was no question or morals . . . of right or wrong . . . involved at all. These people had broken the Seventh Commandment . . . and “who breaks, pays.”
“Hm . . . yes” . . . mused Mrs. Rarick, her chin on her hand. “But you know, Lady Bayeux, there really are all sorts of new ideas abroad nowadays . . . aren’t there? . . . On the subject of divorce . . . and unhappy marriages? It isn’t as simple as it used to be. Well . . . anyway . . . Sir Sidney and I are going to see the fun . . . aren’t we?”
Sir Sidney and Mrs. Rarick left the house together. As they turned into St. James’s Street, Sir Sidney remarked that Lady Bayeux seemed really very much upset.
“You see, she had fixed on him for Eleanor!” said Mrs. Rarick, with her confiding childish look. “You do know that, don’t you, dear Sir Sidney? And it was a disappointment.”
“I don’t believe he ever gave either of them any reason whatever . . . “
“Oh no . . . of course not. But that doesn’t matter.”
“So you knew him before the scandal?”
“Oh, well . . . as boy and girl. There was a commemoration at Oxford . . . he was nineteen, and I was seventeen. We danced together night after night, and made people talk, Just a baby flirtation. He behaved absurdly . . . and I was a goose. But then . . . well, I married!”
Sir Sidney smiled indulgently. He seemed to recognize the familiar weakness of a popular woman; the belief, that is, that all her men acquaintances had been or were still in love with her.
“And you’ve seen him since his return?”
“Once. We ran across each other in the Park. He’s just the same dear as he always was. Trust him . . . always . . . for getting what he wants!”
They walked on, and as they passed a famous party Club, Sir Sidney said . . . “I hear . . . vaguely . . . that he’s come home determined to go into politics. And I see his name down, to speak at the Hull election. But you know . . . it’ll be no good!”
“What’ll you bet?” laughed his companion. “I prophesy that Marcus Atlas will be in Parliament before the years out.”
Sir Sidney shook his head with energy.
“You are mistaken.”
“Well, if he isn’t, somebody will smart for it! Ah! Here’s my carriage. Goodbye!”
And Sir Sidney presently caught a last glimpse of Mrs. Rarick’s amused countenance, as her carriage disappeared amid the traffic of Piccadilly.
He had scarcely reached the top of the street, when he was aware of a lady’s voice calling him peremptorily by name. Looking round, she saw a motor standing in front of a silversmith’s and a hand beckoning.
“Why, Duchess, how are you?”
He approached the window of the motor, and shook two fingers which were thrust out to him from within.
“What were you doing with Constance Rarick?” said a masterful voice.
“We have both been having tea with Lady Bayeux.”
The lady inside the motor shrugged her shoulders impatiently. She was stout, with fair hair fading to white thrown back from an imposing forehead, fine features, and the look of a well-intentioned despot.
“Then I am certain you have been hearing ill of your neighbors. Frederica is really impossible, just now.”
Sir Sidney leaned smiling over the window of the motor. “You and she, I understand, are on different sides, in the affair!”
“Of course, we are. I am I hope a reasonable woman, which Frederica never was, and never will be. I accept the fait accompli. Good heavens! . . . If we were all to go ferreting into each other’s pasts.” Two large hands flew up expressively.
“You think it is not going to make much difference to them?”
“To whom . . . the Atlas’s? Of course it’ll make a difference. They’ll be the most interesting people in London for a good while to come. It’ll be a succès d’exécration . . . one of the best there is. They’ll split the rest of us into two camps, and we shall do nothing but talk about them, and quarrel about them. I’m for liberty . . . and I shall stand by them . . . now, that he’s married her . . . bien entendu!”
“I understand he wants to go into politics”
“Oh well, he must take advice. Atlas and I shall find him a seat somehow. But of course he must wait a bit. I’m already asking him to meet people. Sir William Tresham, of course.”
Sir William Tresham, a knighted Midland manufacturer, was at that moment leading the Liberal Opposition in the House of Commons.
“And Lady Tresham?”
“Good heavens, no! But you only asked it ‘to annoy.’ You know that woman as well as I do. A greater Pharisee doesn’t exist. She, a Liberal! She flaunts her morals as other people do their pedigrees. What’s that striking?”
“Half-past six.” Sir Sidney showed his watch.
“Go into that shop” . . . said the Duchess with quiet exasperation . . . “and tell my daughter in there to come out . . . at once!”
“What’s she doing there?”
“Changing some of her hideous wedding presents. But I can’t wait any longer. I’ve read the whole of last night’s debate” . . . the Duchess pointed to the Times beside her . . . “and I must get home to my letters. Fetch her!”
Sir Sidney went smiling. Instantly, a frightened bride emerged, begging her mother for a few more minutes . . . to complete important negotiations. The Duchess declined, the daughter gave way . . . and the two drove off, leaving everything in confusion, and the shop clerk in a rage.
Sir Sidney walked on in meditation. The word “liberty” on the Duchess’s lips always delighted him.
The Esoteric Curiosa