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The Twelfth Hour By Ada Leverson Characters: 10817

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Several hours of the morning had been passed by Woodville in an occupation that, one might think, would easily pall on a spirited young man-addressing envelopes and filling in invitation cards. The cards stated with tedious repetition that Miss Crofton and Sir James Crofton, M.P., would be At Home on the 30th April at ten o'clock. In the left-hand corner were the words, "Herr Yung's White Viennese Orchestra."

Woodville's desk was close to the long French window, which opened on to a charming garden. From this garden came the sound of excited twitterings of birds and other pleasant suggestions of spring. Suddenly a tall and graceful young girl, with hair like sunshine, came up to the open window and smiled at him. She held up to show him some wonderful mauve and blue hyacinths that she carried, and then passed on. Woodville sighed. It was too symbolic. The scent lingered. Like a half-remembered melody, it seemed to have the insidious power of recalling something in the past that was too wonderful ever to have happened, and of suggesting vague hopes of the most improbable joys. Sylvia seemed to the young man the incarnation of April. He put down his pen, and shaded his eyes with his hand. Then the inner door from the hall opened, and a pompous but genial voice exclaimed with heavy briskness-

"Well, Woodville, finished, eh?"

"Not yet, Sir James, but I can go on later, if you want me now."

The secretary spoke with a deference that seemed surprising. He did not look like a man who would be supple to an employer, or obsequious to any one-even a woman.

"No hurry, no hurry," said Sir James, with that air of self-denial that conveys the urgent necessity of intense speed. He was a handsome old man, with thick grey hair, a white military moustache, bushy dark eyebrows, and in his eyes that humorous twinkle that is so often seen in those men of the last generation who are most devoid of a sense of humour. Sir James was liable to the irritable changes of mood that would nowadays be called neurotic or highly strung, but was in his young days merely put down as bad temper. He had a high estimation of his mental powers, and a poor opinion of those who did not share this estimation. He took a special pride in his insight into character, and in that instinctive penetration that is said to enable its fortunate possessor to see as far through a brick wall as most people. (A modest ambition, when all is said and done!) His contemporaries liked him: at least, they smiled when his name was mentioned. He was warm-hearted and generous; he had a curious mania for celebrities; was a hospitable host, a tedious guest, and a loyal friend. His late wife (who was lovely, but weary) had always described him in one word. The word was "trying".

Sir James sat down slowly on a depressed leather uneasy chair, and said, "Presently I want you to take notes of a speech I intend making in the House on Russia-I mean the present situation in Russia," he added instructively.

"Of course," said Woodville, trying to look intelligently sympathetic, and restraining his inclination to say that he had not expected a speech at this time of day on our victories in the Crimea.

"Do let's have the speech while it's fresh in your mind. I can easily return to this afterwards, Sir James."

"Later on, later on; when it's more matured-more matured...." He pondered a few moments about nothing whatever, and then said, "Sent a card to Roy Beaumont, the young inventor? That's right. That boy has a future. Mark my words, he has a future before him."

"Oh! I thought it had begun some time ago, and was still going on. He is quite twenty-three, isn't he?" asked Frank.

"About that-about that. He's a young man with Ideas, Woodville."

"Yes. I heard he had grown tired of button-holes, and is thinking of training a creeper to crawl up the lapel of his coat."

"An original notion," said Sir James judicially. "If practicable. And what else did he invent?"

"Wasn't it he who invented some new way of not posting letters-by electricity?"

"I rather think you're confusing him with Marconi," said Sir James, shaking his head. "But I always detect genius! It's a curious thing, Woodville, but I never make a mistake! By the way, I should like to send a card to the Leader of the Opposition and his wife. Inquire of Sylvia about their address. I don't know them, socially, but I fancy they would be rather surprised if I omitted them."

"It might, indeed, be rather marked," said Woodville, making a note, and remembering that it is as impossible nowadays to ask every one one knows as to know every one one asks.

"Well, I'll leave you to your work, and we'll do the speech later, a little later ... much later," and Sir James meditatively bent his elbows on the arms of the chair, accurately placed all the tips of his fingers together, and slowly blinked his eyes. He did not mean any harm by this. In fact, he meant nothing. His gestures and expression had no significance at all. He simply behaved like any other elderly Anglo-Saxon who believes himself to be political and to resemble the "Younger Pitt."

"I rather wanted to ask Miss Crofton about a change of address," said Woodville, glancing swiftly and hypocritically through the Red Book.

"I'll send her to you-I'll send her. Don't move. Sit still, sit still."

Woodville followed with his eyes the clo

sing of the door; then he put down his pen and gazed at the closed door. Sometimes he thought his life was like a closed door. Yet, perhaps, there might be some one on the other side of the door? (According to Maeterlinck-or is it Owen Seaman?-there is always some one on the other side of a door.)

At a casual glance Woodville seemed the conventional type of a good-looking young Englishman, tall, fair-haired, and well built. He possessed, however, a forehead unnecessarily intellectual; and a sparkle of more than mere animal spirits lurked in the depths of his dark brown eyes. An observer would also have noticed that his mouth and chin had something of the stern and sad look of fatalism that one sees in the pictures of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. He had the unmistakable public-school and University hall-mark, and if he had been fairly liked at Eton, at Oxford, where (as Mr. Max Beerbohm so rightly says) the nonsense knocked out of one at school is carefully and painlessly put back, Woodville was really popular, and considered remarkably clever, capable of enjoying, and even of conceiving, Ideas. Detesting the ready-made cheap romantic, and yet in vague search of the unusual, he often complained bitterly that his history-so far-was like the little piece of explanation of the plot (for those who have missed it) at the beginning of a chapter of a feuilleton in the Daily Mail. It was rather hard to have to admit that he had been left an orphan at three years old and adopted by his bachelor uncle, a baronet called Sir Bryce Woodville, who had brought him up as his acknowledged heir, with the prospect of a big estate.

Frank had gone with careless gaiety through school and college, when his apparently sane and kind relative, growing tired of romantic drama, suddenly behaved like a guardian in an old-fashioned farce. Instead of making his wife his housekeeper, as most men do, he made his housekeeper his wife. She was a depressing woman. In a year he had a son and heir, and within two months after this event, he died, leaving his nephew exactly one hundred pounds a year.

This curiously unpractical joke taught the young man that absurdly improbable things are quite as liable to happen in real life as in weak literature.

The legacy was, of course, abject poverty to a man who, having always had an exceptionally large allowance, had naturally never thought about money, and though Frank believed himself not to be extravagant because he had never made large debts, his ideas of the ordinary necessities of life were not conspicuously moderate, including, as they did, horses, hospitality, travel, Art, and at least the common decency of a jolly little motor of his own. He had often been warned by his uncle to spend the twenty thousand a year to which he was heir freely but not lavishly.

Why Sir Bryce Woodville had shown so sudden and marked an interest in a child he had known but for two months (and who had screamed most of that time), preferring him to a young man of talent and charm for whom he had shown indulgent affection for twenty-two years, was one of those mysteries that seem unsolvable in elderly gentlemen in general and in wicked uncles in particular. Sir Bryce had always been particularly fond of young people, and certainly greater youth and the nearer relationship were obviously the only points in which the son had the advantage over the nephew.

When Woodville found himself really hard up he sought a certain consolation in trying to do without things and in the strenuous hourly endeavour to avoid spending sixpence; no easy task to a man whose head was always in the clouds and his hand always in his pocket. As a novelty even economy may have its pleasures, but they are not, perhaps to all temperaments, either very sound or very lasting.

At the moment when omnibuses, cheap cigarettes, and self-denial were beginning to pall he had accepted the offer of the secretaryship, intending to look about to try to get something more congenial; perhaps to drift into diplomacy. Nothing could be less to his taste than the post of shorthandwriter to a long-winded old gentleman, to writing out speeches that in all probability would never be made, and copying pamphlets that would (most fortunately) never be printed. Often he thought he would rather "break stones on the road," drive a hansom cab, or even go on the stage, than be the superfluous secretary of such a dull, though dear nonentity.

Woodville also went in for painting: he had a little talent and a great deal of taste, sufficient, indeed, to despise his own work though he enjoyed doing it. In his leisure time he even tried to make money by copying old masters, and often sold them for quite amazing prices (amazingly low, I mean) to a few people who honestly preferred them to the originals on the undeniable grounds that they were at once cleaner and less costly. He was ambitious and knew he had brains and energy, besides being rather unusually well-turned-out in the matter of culture. And yet he had remained at Onslow Square for five years! As a career it was nothing. It could lead to nothing. Was there, then, some other attraction, something that outweighed, transcended for him all the petty pangs and penalties of his position?

This arch surmise of the writer will be found by the persevering reader to be perfectly reasonable and founded on fact.

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