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   Chapter 5 ARTHUR MERVYN AT HOME

The Twelfth Hour By Ada Leverson Characters: 18083

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Sometimes Sir James would confide in his secretary, and become after dinner-he drank port-pompously communicative on the subject of the alliances his daughter might contract-if she would. As he became more and more confidential in fact, he would grow more and more distant in manner, so that if they began dinner like old friends, they seemed gradually to cool into acquaintances; and at the end of the evening-such an evening!-Woodville felt as if they had barely been introduced, or had met, accidentally, in a railway train. Yet he courted these tête-à-tête as one perversely courts a certain kind of suffering. At least, Sir James talked on the only interesting subject, and Woodville was anxious to know everything about his rivals; for, though he believed in Sylvia's affection, he was subject to acute, almost morbid, attacks of physical jealousy. To see other men admire her was torture, particularly as he had to efface himself and be treated by her father as a faithful vassal.

And he really disliked deceiving Sir James, whose open liking was evident and who thought him matrimonially as much out of the question as the gardener.

"Hang it all, Woodville's a gentleman!" Sir James would have cried furiously at any suggestion that it was imprudent to leave the young man and Sylvia so much together. Sir James always remembered that Woodville was a gentleman and forgot that he was a man.

Men who indulge in inexpensive cynicism say that women are complex and difficult to understand. This may be true of an ambitious and hard woman, but nothing can be more simple and direct than a woman in love.

Sylvia suffered none of Woodville's complications. She did not see why he should want to run away with her, still less why he should run away from her. Nothing could be wrong in her eyes connected with her love, for it was also her religion. Like most girls who can love at all, her life consisted, in fact, of this emotion only. She might go to the stores, wave her hair, buy new hats, ride in the Park, order dinner for her father (with great care, for he was a gourmet), read innumerable books (generally falling back on Swinburne and Ella Wheeler Wilcox), receive and meet innumerable people, go to the opera, and do many other agreeable, tedious, or trivial things; but her life was her love for Woodville. And she had all the courage and dignity of real self-surrender. Whatever he did was right. Whatever he said was clever. Everything was perfect, so long as he was there. To his scruples, despairs, delights, and doubts she always answered that, after all, they were only privately engaged, like heaps of people. And since Woodville had this peculiar-she secretly thought insane-objection to marrying her because she was an heiress and he was poor, then they must wait. Something would happen, and all was sure to come right. She did not wish to tell her father of the understanding at present, because she feared Woodville would probably have to go away at once. They would tell him when she was twenty-one. Only one year, and everything would be open and delightful.

A strong motive that kept Woodville there was jealousy. Sylvia, discreet as she was-no sparkling, teasing coquette-had yet all the irresistible magnetism of a woman who is obviously made for tenderness. But she showed as much deftness in keeping back her admirers as most girls do in attracting them. She had curious deep delicacies; she disliked nothing so much as to feel or show her power as a woman. Pride or vanity was equally out of the question in her love; it was unselfish and yet it was not exacting, as unselfish love generally is. So far as she knew, no unselfishness was required from him. With the unconscious cruelty of innocence she had kept him in this false position for years, looking happily forward to a rose-coloured future.

Was it consistent that, with all his scruples, Woodville had drifted into this romance?

A lovely girl of twenty and a remarkably good-looking young man of twenty-eight meeting every day, every moment, at every meal-she, romantic; he, the most impressionable of materialists! Surely nothing could be expected but (for once) the obvious!

The Greek banker, Mr. Ridokanaki, said to be one of the richest men in England, had of late begun to pay Sylvia what he considered marked attention. Huge baskets of flowers, sometimes in the form of silver ships, sometimes of wicker wheelbarrows, or of brocaded sedan-chairs, and filled with orchids, lilies, roses, everything that, in the opinion of a middle-aged banker, would be likely to dazzle and delight a nice young girl, were sent periodically to Onslow Square. These floral tributes flattered Sir James and Savile; Woodville said they were hideous; and Sylvia (who neither wrote to thank their sender nor even acknowledged them) always had them conveyed immediately to the housekeeper's room. The Greek's intention of marrying Sylvia was in the air. Woodville, Sylvia, and Savile were perhaps the only people who doubted the event's coming off. Ridokanaki was a small, thin, yet rather noticeable-looking man of fifty, with courteous cosmopolitan manners. He had a triangular face, the details of which were vague though the outline was clear, like a negative that had been left too long in the sun. His slight foreign accent suggested diplomacy rather than the City; he was a man of the world, had travelled everywhere, and had the reputation of knowing absolutely everything. He was firm but kind-the velvet hand beneath the mailed fist-irritatingly tactful, outwardly conventional, raffiné, and rather tedious.

He called occasionally on Thursdays (Sylvia's day). Woodville was usually having jealous palpitations in the library while Ridokanaki talked strong, vague politics with Sir James, and drank weak tea poured out by Sylvia (who always forgot that he never took sugar). After these visits the powerful will of the Greek seemed to have asserted itself without a word. It was his habit to express all his ideas in the most hackneyed phrases except when talking business, so that he seemed surprisingly dull and harmless, considering how much he must know, how much he must have seen and done. He had practically made his immense fortune, and many people said that in his own line he was brilliant. It was also often said of him (with surprise), "all the same Ridokanaki is a very simple creature, when you know him." No one, however, had ever yet really known him quite well enough to prove or justify this description.

In the cumbrous continental fashion he was working up to the point of a proposal, and something seemed to herald his future success. The servants were all looking forward to the wedding. Only Price, the footman, sometimes put in a word for poor Mr. Woodville. To say that the romance was known and discussed with freedom in the servant's hall should be needless. The illusion that domestics are ever in the dark about what we fondly suppose to be our little secrets is still immensely prevalent among persons who are young enough to know better.

"All I can say is, that's the man I'd marry if I were a young lady, whether or no," Price would say, sometimes adding, "With all his flowers and motors, what is the other gent after all but a sort of foreigner? Mr. Woodville is the nephew of an English baronet. Give me an Englishman!"

To this the housemaid would reply-

"Foreigner or no foreigner, Miss Sylvia is no fool; and, mark my words, she would look all right in that house in Grosvenor Square!"

These dark sayings silenced Price, but they did not succeed in chilling his romantic enthusiasm, though the other servants took the more worldly view. Much as they liked Woodville, it could not be forgotten that Ridokanaki had the agreeable habit (at times practised by Jupiter with so much success) of appearing invariably in a shower of gold. Trillionaire though he was, no hard-up nobleman could be more lavish, especially in small things. Nowadays the romance of wealth is more fascinating than the romance of poverty, even in the servants' hall. And Ridokanaki was not, as they remarked, like one of those mere parvenus from South Africa or America. Belonging to an old Greek family of bankers who had been wealthy for generations, he had recently made a personal position that really counted in European politics. It had been rumoured that he might have married into a Royal if not particularly regal family. What he had done for Greece and England was hinted at, not generally known.

Sylvia's impersonal attitude, so obviously genuine, was a refreshing change to a man who had been for years invited with so much assiduity and who knew that he was still regarded in London not without hope as a splendid match. Surely, he would suddenly turn round, settle down, and look for a refined and beautiful wife to be head of his house.

* * *

There was a feeling in the air that Sir James's party, with its White Viennese Band, its celebrities, and general elaborate preparations, was

really intended to be a background for the declaration. Undoubtedly, he would propose that night. All Sylvia thought about was, that she meant to wear the grey chiffon dress that Woodville liked, and he would think she looked pretty. She intended to conceal the little turquoise heart that she had bought herself (from him) in the Brompton Road in her dress, and to tell him about it afterwards.

To Felicity, the party was, like all entertainments, a kind of arena. What is commonly called flirting, and what she called bowling people over, she regarded as a species of field-sport. Her heart might ache a little under the Watteau-ish dress, because it appeared that nothing on earth would induce darling Chetwode to return from Newmarket. When Sylvia said gently she feared wild horses would not persuade him to come back, Felicity answered, with some show of reason, that wild horses were not likely to try. Indeed, little Felicity was rather depressed. What was the fun of bowling people over, like so many ninepins, unless dear Chetwode, her usual admiring audience, were there to see them overthrown? However, no doubt, it would be fun. Felicity's view of life was that it was great fun. As she had never had any real troubles, she had not yet discovered that a sense of humour adds acutely to one's sufferings at the time, though it may help recovery. To see the absurdity of a grief increases it. It entirely prevents that real enjoyment in magnifying one's misfortunes in order to excite sympathy-an attribute so often seen in women, from char-woman to duchess. But Felicity was not destined to misfortune. Ridokanaki sometimes compared her to a ray of sunshine, and her sister to a moonbeam. The comparison, if not startlingly original, was fairly just. Felicity retorted by saying that the Greek was like a wax-candle burnt at both ends and in the middle, while Woodville resembled a carefully shaded electric light. She was anxious to know the words in which Ridokanaki would propose, and had already had several rehearsals of the scene with her sister, inducing Sylvia sometimes to refuse and sometimes to accept, just to see how it went. Felicity said that if he were rejected the marriage would in the end be a certainty, as a little difficulty would gratify and surprise him, and make him "bother about it" more. Everything was generally made so easy for him that he would certainly enjoy a little trouble, and the idea of obtaining a girl rather against her inclination would be sure to appeal to him. Opposition in such matters is always attractive to a spirited second-rate man.

* * *

All the preparations being complete, Woodville, part of whose absurd duties was to make quantities of unnecessary lists and go over the wine, went, the day before the party, to see a friend of his, where the atmosphere was so entirely different from his own that he regarded these visits as a change of air.

"Mr. Mervyn in?"

"Oh yes, sir. There's a rehearsal to-day. So Mr. Mervyn has lunched early."

A deep voice called from the inner room-

"Hallo, Frank! Come in, old chap!"

Arthur Mervyn had been at school and at Balliol with Woodville, and was one of his favourite companions. The only son of a great tragic actor, he possessed much of the genius of his late father, from whom he inherited, also, his finely-cut features, like some old ivory carving, his coal-black hair, and that sweet, humorous, yet sardonic smile that relieved, like a sparkle in dark waters, his somewhat sinister good looks.

Arthur Mervyn lived in a large, luxuriously furnished flat in Bloomsbury. The decorations were miracles of Morris: obviously they dated back about twenty years ago. Mervyn was not, however, a young man who was keen about his surroundings: he was indifferent to them; they had been chosen by his father, to whom background and all visible things had been of the first importance. The faintly outlined involuted plants on the wall-papers, the black oak friezes and old prints gave Arthur neither more nor less pleasure than he would have received from striped silk, white paint, and other whims of Waring. There were no swords, foils, signed photographs of royalties, pet dogs, or babies, invitation cards on the mantelpiece, nor any of the other luxuries usually seen in illustrated papers as characteristic of "Celebrities at Home". A palm, on its last legs, draped in shabby green silk, was dying by the window. The gloom was mitigated by an air of cosiness. There were books, first-rate and second-hand. Books (their outsides) were a hobby with Mervyn. Smoking in this den seemed as natural as breathing, and rather easier, though its owner never touched tobacco. On the Chesterfield sofa there was one jarring note. It was a new, perfectly clean satin cushion, of a brilliant salmon-pink, covered with embroidered muslin. Evidently it was that well-known womanly touch that has such a fatal effect in the rooms of a young man.

Woodville found Mervyn neither studying a part, reading his notices, nor looking in the glass. He had, as usual, the noble air of a student occupied with an Idea, and seemed absorbed.

"I say, Woodville, what do you think I've got?"

"A piece of rope that somebody wasn't hanged with?" asked Woodville. Arthur's curious craze for souvenirs of crime was a standing joke with them both.

"Better than that, old chap!" Mervyn spoke slowly, and always paused between each sentence. "What do you think I did yesterday? You know Jackson-chap who murdered people in a farm? I found out where he went to school in the north of England-and I said to myself-this fellow must have been photographed in a group as a boy."

There was a pause, disproportionately long.

"Sort of thing you would say to yourself," said Woodville a little irritably, as he lit a cigarette.

"Yes!-I took the 2.15-awful train. I went up there and went all over the school, called at the photographers-and actually got the group! And-there you are!"

Mervyn seemed very animated on the subject, and clapped his friend several times on the back with short, delighted laughs.

"By Jove!" said Woodville, looking at the photograph.

"Why do you say 'By Jove!'?" asked Mervyn suspiciously.

"Why? Well! I must say something! You always show me things on which no other comment is possible but an exclamation, or you tell me things so unanswerable that there's nothing to say at all."

"So I do," admitted Mervyn, smiling, as he locked away the souvenir. Then he sat down, and his animation dropped to a calmness bordering on apathy.

"And how are you getting on?"

"Not at all."

"Aren't you, though?" Mervyn pushed the matches sympathetically towards his friend, and seemed to fall into a reverie. Then he suddenly said, brightly: "I say, Woodville, you want cheering up. Come with me and see...."

"My dear chap, I'm not in the mood for theatres."

"Frank!" His friend looked at him with hurt reproach. "As though I'd let you see me in this new thing they're bringing out! No.-But I've got a seat at the Old Bailey for to-morrow morning to see the trial;-I think I could take you."

Woodville smiled.

"I appreciate immensely your methods of cheering people, Arthur, and I know what that offer is from you. But I really don't care about it."

"Don't you?-What do you care about?"

Woodville was silent. Then Mervyn said suddenly, "I say, how's Miss Crofton and her sister? I like little Lady Chetwode awfully. She's a pretty little thing, awfully amusing, and quite clever.-She's very keen on crime, too, you know."

"Oh no, nonsense, Arthur! She only pretends to be, to humour you. It's chaff. She hates it, really."

"Hates it! Does she, though?-Well, anyhow she promised to go with me to the Chamber of Horrors one day. Make up a party, you know. And she says she thinks all the criminals there have the most wonderful faces physiognomically; benevolent foreheads, kindly eyes, and that sort of thing; and then she said, well, perhaps any one would look good with such lovely complexions as they have! She says she would have been taken in! She would have engaged all the Hannahs-she says that murderesses are always called Hannah-as housekeepers, they looked so respectable-except for the glassy eye. Oh, we had a long talk. Yes, and she'll bring her sister. You might come, too, one afternoon."

"Oh, of course I'll come. It would be rather jolly," said Woodville.

"Well, when this new thing is once out we'll fix it up, eh? I shall see Lady Chetwode to-morrow-at your party."

"Oh, are you coming?"

"Oh, yes I'm going. Every one's going."

At this moment they heard outside the house a tremendous uproar, the snorting, panting, puffing, and agonised throbbing that could only proceed from a motor in distress.

"Who's that?" said Woodville, going to look out of the window.

Mervyn closed his eyes and leant back in his chair.

"It's nothing," he said. "It's Bertie-Bertie Wilton, you know."

"Oh! Good. Bertie's always exhilarating."

* * *

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