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The Twelfth Hour By Ada Leverson Characters: 20204

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Sir James was in one of those heroic moods that were peculiarly alarming to his valet. He was so abnormally good-tempered, and seemed so exceedingly elated about something, that it was probable he might suddenly, in Price's pathetic phrase, turn off nasty, or fly out.

As a matter of fact, Sir James was dominated by what are called mixed feelings. The letter that he read and re-read as he walked about his library enchanted him. But the appearance of that library was maddening. It had been transformed into a ladies' cloak-room. On his own writing-desk were an oval silver mirror, a large powder-puff, and several packets of hairpins. All trace of politics seemed to have been completely wiped out. Sir James thoroughly enjoyed picturing to himself Mr. Ridokanaki in this room on the following morning, asking for a blessing, on his knees, and to fancy himself saying solemnly, "Take her, my boy, she is yours!" or words to that effect.

Not only had the trillionaire sent Sylvia six feet of flowers in a gun-metal motor-car studded with sapphires, but Sir James, also, had received a respectful request (practically a species of royal command) for consent to his addresses. Ridokanaki stated that he had not as yet, of course, said anything to Sylvia, but proposed, unless her father objected, to try to win her fair hand that very evening. It was a triumph, even for Sylvia. Sir James laughed, as he only laughed when alone. But on looking up from the letter what he saw jarred on him. How he could well imagine the wrap that would be placed carelessly over the bust of Pitt in the corner, and all the cloaks and frivolous chiffons which would lie on that solemn study table! Rage had the upper hand. Sir James broke out, and rang the bell violently.

"Price, where's Miss Crofton? Tell her I want her immediately. This instant! Lose no time. But tell her on no account to hurry. In fact, any time will do as long as she comes at once. Wait a moment, wait a moment. Don't be so precipitate, Price. You leave the room before you hear your orders. I've had to speak to you about this before.... Is Miss Crofton dressed yet?"

"Yes, Sir James. Miss Crofton is quite ready. Lady Chetwode is with her."

"Oh! then tell her it doesn't matter. She needn't trouble."

"Yes, Sir James."

* * *

The sisters were standing in Sylvia's pale blue bedroom in front of the long mirror. Felicity's fair, almost silvery hair, puffed out round her wilful little face, looked as though it were poudré. She wore a striped brocade gown all over rosebuds, and resembled a Dresden china figure. Sylvia's exquisitely modelled face and white shoulders emerged from clouds of grey tulle.

"It's rather a shame, Sylvia; you'll bowl over everybody. Roy Beaumont will say you look mythological. Oh, and poor Mr. Ridokanaki! You'll refuse him to-night, I suppose! What fun it must be to be a pretty girl going about refusing people in conservatories-like a short story in a magazine! I've forgotten how I did it. In a year, darling? Quite. I say, have I overdone the dix-huitième business? Do I look like a fancy ball? Pass me a hairpin, dear. No, don't. I suppose you know that Chetwode has never seen this dress! What do you think of that? One would think we were an old married couple."

"Hardly, dear. Put it on to go and meet him at the station," said Sylvia, rather unpractically. "No, you're not too last-century. I think you look more like the next."

"Well, I hope so," said Felicity, fluttering a tiny Pompadour fan; "and if De Valdez says I look like a Marquise of the olden times, as he once did, I simply won't stand it. Let's go down. But first tell me what you will say when Mr. Rid ... Oh, bother, I can't say all that. Let us call him the man. 'Miss Crofton, might I respectfully venture to presume to propose to hope to ask to have a word with you? You are like a grey rose', or something or other."

"Oh, don't be absurd. Sometimes I think the whole thing is all your fancy, and Savile's."

"My fancy! Then what was that enormous, immense thing in the hall I fell over-a sort of tin jewelled bath, crammed with orchids and carnations? Frank Woodville was helping Price to cart it away, and trying to break some of the flowers by accident."

"Oh, was Mr. Woodville taking it away?" Sylvia smiled.

At that moment a firm knock at the door, and the words, "I say, Sylvia," announced Savile's entrance. He walked in slowly, brushed his sisters aside like flies, and stood looking at himself in the long mirror, which reached nearly from the ceiling to the floor. It was a solemn moment. He was wearing his very first evening-dress suit.

They watched him breathlessly. He carefully kept every trace of expression out of his face. Then he sat down, and said seriously to himself-

"Right as rain. You're all right, girls, too. Rather rot Chetwode not being here. Rather a pose, Felicity not wearing jewels. Why is the Governor in such a state? He's frightfully pleased about something. He flew out at me and said I ought to work for my button-holes, as he did. Really rather rot! I said, 'Well, father, a pink carnation's all right. The King wore one at Newmarket.' He said the King could afford it. Cheek! Sylvia, I say, you are all right! I'm going down."

Suddenly remembering his broken heart, Savile paused at the door, caught Felicity's eye, and sighed with an effort, heavily. Then, with his usual air of polite self-restraint, out of proportion to the occasion, he left the room.

Soon the White Viennese Band was tuning up, and the house, which was built like a large bungalow, decorated all over with crimson rambler rosebuds, looked very gay and charming. Sir James beamed as various names, more or less well known in various worlds, were incorrectly announced. Felicity went into a small room that had been arranged for conversation to see through the window that the garden had been artistically darkened for the occasion.

In the room were several men. Roy Beaumont the young inventor with his calm face and inscrutable air was looking up as he spoke to De Valdez, the famous composer. Roy Beaumont wore minute boot-buttons on his cuffs and shirt front.

De Valdez (more difficult to secure at a party than a Prime Minister) was a very handsome, unaffected, genial man who, though an Englishman, had much of the Spanish grandee in his manner and bearing. He had a great contempt for the smaller amenities of dress, and his thick curling hair made more noticeable his likeness to the portraits of Byron.

Felicity at once said, as if in great anxiety-

"You mustn't call me a Marquise of the olden time! Will you?" She smiled at the composer as Roy Beaumont went upstairs, leaving Felicity to begin the evening by trying the room with De Valdez.

Comparatively early, and quite suddenly, the rooms were crowded on the usual principle that no one will arrive till every one is there. They were filled with that inaudible yet loud chatter and the uncomfortable throng which is the one certain sign that a party is a success. The incorrect labelling of celebrities seemed to be an even more entrancing occupation than flirting to the strains of the Viennese Band. A young girl with red hair and eager eye-glasses, who had never in her life left Kensington, except to go to Earl's Court, entreated a dark animated young man who had just been introduced to her, but whose name she did not catch, to "sit down quietly and tell her all about everybody."

He amiably complied.

"That," he said, "that man with the white beard is Henry Arthur James. He writes all those books that no one can understand-and those clever plays, you know, that every one goes to see."

"Does he really? Fancy! Can you point me out the man who wrote, 'Oh the Little Crimson Pansies' and 'The Garden of Alice'? I love his work. It's so weird. F. J. Rivers, you know."

"My dear Miss Winter, what a dreadful thing! I'm afraid you'll be very disappointed. As a matter of fact, I am F. J. Rivers myself. Isn't it a pity? I'm so sorry. And I'm afraid I am not weird. Do forgive me. I'd be weird in a minute if I could. You know that, I'm sure. Don't you?"

"Fancy! Just fancy!" She blushed crimson. "I was being so natural. I had no idea I was talking to a clever person."

"No wonder!"

"You see, I'm interested in things. I particularly love the intellectual atmosphere of this house, and I read all the serious magazines and things, the Bookman and the Saturday Review and the Sketch; and so on."

"Should you say the atmosphere was really so intellectual here?" said Rivers a little doubtfully.

The Viennese Band was playing Caresses in its most Viennese way; people were gaily coming up from supper or coquettishly going down, or sitting in corners à deux, dreamily. The heavy scent of red rosebuds hung over all. So becoming was the background at this particular moment that nearly every woman looked fair and every man brave....

"I'm afraid-I mean, I suppose-you take what they call an intelligent interest in the subjects of the day, Miss Winter?"

"I should think so, indeed!" she answered.

"Oh dear!" Rivers looked depressed as he tried to remember what he knew about Radium and Russia.

"Somehow I don't feel frightened of you," she said. "Will you take me to have a cup of tea?"

He escorted her downstairs, endeavouring to make up for any disappointment she might feel by pointing out with reckless lavishness Mr. Chamberlain, Beerbohm Tree, Arthur Balfour, Madame Melba, Filsen Young, George Alexander, and Winston Churchill, none of whom, by a curious coincidence, happened to be present.

"Surely I may talk to you a moment," Woodville murmured to Sylvia. "Every one's happy eating, and you needn't bother. Just come out, one second-on the verandah through the little room. After all, I'm a friend of the family!"

"Why, so you are!"

She fluttered out with him through the French window of the little conversation room to a part of the garden that had been boarded and enclosed, forming with its striped awning and Japanese lantern

s a kind of verandah. No one was in sight.

"This is the first second to-night I haven't been utterly wretched," said Woodville firmly.

"Oh, Frank! How kind of you to talk like that!"

"How beautiful of you to look like that!-And this is the sort of thing I have to stand-utterly ignored-I suppose you know I worship you? Do you really belong to me, Sylvia?"

"Oh, Frank! Why, I love you!"

"Do you really?"

"Of course. Look here, don't tell any one-not even yourself-but I'm wearing the little locket after all."

The kiss was short but disturbing. As they came down to earth with a shock, they saw, looking at them steadily through the half-open window, Mr. Ridokanaki. He seemed interested.

At a look from Sylvia Mr. Woodville faded away, feeling as if he were sneaking off. Sylvia went indoors.

"Good evening, Miss Crofton," said the harsh yet sympathetic pleasant voice; "I have been seeking you since this half-hour.... I was coming to ask if I might have the great honour of taking you to supper. Of course, it is an immense privilege-far more than I might expect. Still, may I venture to hope?"

"With pleasure," said Sylvia. She took his arm.

"It is very kind of you, Miss Crofton. What a very interesting face that young man has!"

"Which young man?" Sylvia asked innocently.

"The young man who was in the garden. I am sure he is clever. Your father's-er-secretary, I think? What did you say his name was, again?"

"His name is Mr. Woodville. Yes, I think he is clever. Quite an old friend, you know," Sylvia added rather lamely.

* * *

One could see no difference in the Greek, since he talked on in his usual urbane way, and made no allusion of any sort the whole evening, either to the floral tribute he had sent, to his letter to Sir James, or to the little scene he had interrupted.

In the supper-room all was gaiety and laughter.

"How hollow all this sort of thing is, isn't it?" said De Valdez, presenting Felicity with a plover's egg, as he passed carrying a plate laden with them to some one else.

"They do seem rather hungry, don't they? But why aren't you eating any supper, Mr. Wilton?"

Having done her duty to all her old friends, Felicity was occupying herself very congenially by steadily bowling over a completely new young man. It was Bertie Wilton, whom Mrs. Ogilvie had brought on the grounds that he could have danced if it had been a dance, and that he was the son of Lady Nora Wilton. Felicity was very much pleased with his condition. It seemed most promising, considering she had known him about a quarter of an hour.

"Supper! I should think two hot plates, one strawberry, and a sip of champagne more than enough for a person who is falling every moment more and more-Don't take that plover's egg, Lady Chetwode! It isn't fair! You have given me the sole right to provide for you this evening, and that man has no business to come interfering. Let him attend to his own affairs."

"He only dropped one plover's egg on my plate, as an old friend-out of kindness! He meant no harm," pleaded Felicity.

"Yes, that's all very well, but it was a liberty. It implies that I cannot provide you with all that you require. He must learn better." Mr. Wilton firmly removed the plover's egg and placed it on the next table, at which Rivers and the red-haired girl were still chattering volubly. Rivers immediately brought it back as lost property, courteously presenting it to Felicity on a silver salver.

"This is becoming unbearable! I shall have to write to the Times." Wilton gave the egg to a waiter and a furious glance at Rivers, and then sat down again. He was remarkably good-looking with his sparkling blue eyes and mischievous expression, and Felicity glanced at him with approval. He would do very well-for the evening. He was quite worth powder-and shot. At least, he was, to her, a perfect stranger, and there was a great dearth of spring novelties at the party to-night.

"I've been waiting for you for years," said Bertie Wilton in a soft, low, impressive voice.

"Fancy! How patient of you!-How did you know it was me?"

"Oh, instantaneous-sympathy, I suppose."

"On your side, do you mean? I should call it telepathy, or perhaps-conceit."

"Call it what you like. But how is it you're so wonderful? Tell me that."

"I can't think," she said dreamily.

"I'm certain I met you in a previous existence," continued the young man.

"What a good memory you must have, Mr. Wilton! It's as much as I can do to remember the people I meet in this existence. I believe I saw you in Mrs. Ogilvie's box at Madame Butterfly."

"I know, I saw you from there. I was rooted to the spot-I believe that's the right expression, though it sounds rather agricultural-while at the same time you might have knocked me down with a feather! It's really true, you might. But I know you wouldn't have, you're far too good and kind."

"I don't think I had any feathers with me," said Felicity.

Bertie went on. "But this life is so short.-Do you think it's worth it?-(Do have some mayonnaise.)-I mean the kind of thing one does-waiting, waiting-at last asking, for instance, to call on your day-only meeting in throngs-perhaps not getting a chance, for months, to tell--"

"I suppose life is rather long, isn't it?" Felicity said, as a concession.

"Then I may come and see you the day after to-morrow?" he asked.

"Not till the day after to-morrow!" she exclaimed in surprise. "Why wait so long?"

"At what time?" he persisted, smiling.

"You may call next Monday-at five. Not this week."

"That's impossible. I can't. It's too dreadful. I can't wait till Monday, I can't.... Well, let me come on Tuesday, then?"

"I see. You're particularly engaged on Monday. After all, why trouble? There are so many people for you to call on!"

"If I might call to-morrow, ONCE, I'll never be engaged again! I'll never call on any one else during the whole of my natural life."

"All right," she said absently. "Call to-morrow, ONCE, as you say. Not that I ever heard of any one calling twice the same day, at least not the first day."

"Oh, Lady Chetwode, how kind of you! Did you say five? Can't you make it half-past four?"

"Very well."

"Won't you make it three? I beg your pardon. I'll walk up and down in front of the house strewing flowers from three till half-past four and then come in, may I? And will there be crowds of people there?"

"Well, you haven't given me much time," said Felicity. "I'll try to get up a party by to-morrow, if you wish it."

"How can you be so unkind! Do you think me very pushing-and vulgar?"

"Very. No, only vulgar."

"At any rate, I'm sincere. It's like Tristan and Ysolde; at least, it's like Tristan. You can't look me straight in the eyes and tell me I'm not sincere!"

Felicity looked; and was quite satisfied.... How hard it was that Chetwode was not there for her to tell him all about the conversation going home! This thought vexed her so much that she became absent and lost spirit to keep it up.

Mr. Rivers had promised to send the red-haired girl, who had fallen hopelessly in love with him, his latest book. He had arranged to take her and her mother to a concert at the Queen's Hall the following Sunday afternoon.

Roy Beaumont was the centre of a crowd of interested people, chiefly bearded men, who paid him sportive homage, and pretty women, as he illustrated, by means of a wineglass, two knives, and a saltspoon, his new invention for having one's boots fastened by electricity, which was to do for Marconigrams, expose radium as a foolish fraud, and consign clock-work to limbo. "You don't touch the buttons and the invention does the rest," he pointed out.

Aunt William in her peach gown was taken down to supper by Jasmyn. He was a plump middle-aged young man, a very social person, and quite an arbiter on matters of fashion; known for his kindness and politeness to dear old ladies and shy young men. A romantic affection for a certain widow, whom his friends said he spoke of as "Agatha, Mrs. Wilkinson," to give the effect of a non-existent title, had prevented him, so far, from marrying. He was bland and plaintive, looked distinguished, supremely good-natured, and rather absurd.

"It is too marvellous," said Aunt William, as she ate her foie-gras. "What a collection my dear brother-in-law has assembled to-night. Half the people here I have never heard of in the whole course of my life!"

"And the other half," said Jasmyn, "you have perhaps heard of rather too often. No strawberries, Mrs. Crofton?"

"No thank you. I don't care for fruit, except in its proper season. My dear husband always said strawberries were not eatable till the fourth of June."

"Ah, how right he was!" said Jasmyn absently, eating a very large one. "I suppose he didn't care for primeurs. Personally, I admit that I am absolutely sick of asparagus by April, but I think it best to eat and drink as much as possible because I suffer so terribly from depression."

"Depression! Yes, you would. Having everything on earth you want, and being thoroughly spoilt, like all men of the present day, you would naturally have low spirits."

"Ah, I dare say you don't believe me. But I assure you, Mrs. Crofton, that under all my outward misery I generally have an aching heart.... How lovely Lady Chetwode's looking!"

"Lady Chetwode," said Aunt William loyally, "is a most brilliant woman. Her sister is a beautiful girl, and her brother Savile is doing well at Eton. His last report--"

"Do you know, I'm terribly frightened of Savile," said Jasmyn. "He's such a man of the world that I feel positively crude beside him."

Before the end of the evening, Ridokanaki took an opportunity to ask if Woodville would dine with him.

"I want to have a little talk with you," he said. "I have an idea-it may be perfectly wrong-that what I have to say may interest you."

Woodville accepted; surprised at his rival's cordiality.

"At Willis's, then, at eight, Mr. Woodville?"

"At eight. Thanks very much."

* * *

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