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   Chapter 9 A DINNER AT WILLIS'S

The Twelfth Hour By Ada Leverson Characters: 14987

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"It seems to me," said Sylvia, "the most unnatural, treacherous thing I ever heard of."

She and Woodville were sitting in the library together after breakfast, and he had just told her of Ridokanaki's invitation.

"Besides, I thought you hated him, Frank!"

"If we only dined with people we like, we should practically starve in London."

"But why dine with my enemies?"

"He worships the ground you tread on."

"Then it's all the worse! He wants to spoil our happiness for his own selfish purpose. You know that, and yet you go!"

"Darling, beautiful angel, do let me use my own judgment! I want to hear what he has to say. Don't be angry, Sylvia. I couldn't very well refuse on the ground that he was in love with you, when we-you and I-are not officially-you see, dearest! Of course, it's better I should go."

The door opened slowly and Sir James came in like a procession, and sat down slowly, in his stately, urbane manner.

"Excuse me one moment, Sir James," murmured Woodville, and he collected some papers and vanished. Sylvia waited a few minutes and then rose.

"Don't go, Sylvia," said her father mildly. She stopped. Sylvia was the only person with whom Sir James was never peremptory.

"What has become," he said, a little nervously, though with his usual formality, "of that very sumptuous basket of flowers Mr. Ridokanaki was so kind as to send you?"

"It's in the housekeeper's room, papa." Sylvia's voice to-day was very sweet and high; a sign to those who knew her of some perturbation or cussedness, as Savile used to say.

"Hum! There must be several floral offerings there. To the best of my belief-correct me if I am mistaken-four arrived last week."

"Oh yes, there are heaps, papa! It's a perfect garden of flowers."

"So I suppose.... Will you have them brought up to the drawing-room at once!-or, when convenient, darling?"

"No, papa. Several are rather faded."

Sir James paused, then with an attempt at calm determination said, with finality-

"If any more arrive, will you recollect, my dear, that I wish them to be placed in the drawing-room?"

"Oh, I don't like so many flowers in the drawing-room, papa. But, if you like, I might send them on to one of the hospitals. Perhaps the 'Home of Rest for Chows and Poodles' might--"

"Ridiculous, child! They would not be appreciated there. What do our canine friends care for carnations?" He smiled with satisfaction at the phrase.

In his mind he saw a neat letter to the papers-the sort of thing he dictated to Woodville, and never sent-about "Flowers and Our Four-footed Favourites," signed "Paterfamilias." He was proud of his well-turned phrases, but, though pompous, he was not persistent, and when his secretary had once heard these rigmaroles, and their author had seen them in type-I mean typewriting-Sir James felt for the moment satisfied, and said he had "done a good morning's work."

"I won't have them sent to any hospital, Sylvia. I forbid it."

"Very well, papa. But they're mine; surely I can do what I like with them?" she pouted.

"Since they are, as you justly say, my dear, your own personal property, it seems to me only proper that you should write and acknowledge them, thanking the thoughtful sender in an appropriate note."

"But, papa, the thoughtful sender is so fearfully floral! I should have to spend nearly all my time writing appropriate notes."

"I don't understand your tone, Sylvia. However, we may let that pass." He opened the newspaper with much rustling and crackling, and said, as if to end the discussion-

"If you receive another basket, or other offering of the same description, from our good friend Ridokanaki, you will write and thank him, will you not?"

"I will not," she answered amiably, as if assenting.

"You will not?"

He peered at the modern daughter from behind the Times, and recognised in her grey eyes (with as much gratification as such meetings usually afford us) a lifelong friend. It was his own hereditary obstinacy.

Sylvia went to the door, then turned round and said a shade apologetically-

"You see, darling, it seems such a wicked waste! Surely the money might be better spent! On-on the unemployed, or something. Why, the other day he sent a thing from Gerard's so enormous that it came quite alone in a van; and another came in a four-wheeler. And I wasn't rude, you know-I kept it."

"I don't quite follow you, my dear. You kept what? The cab?"

"No, the flowers. And I must say it is a pleasure to go and give one's orders now! The kitchen is like a fête at the Botanical Gardens."

Sir James frowned absently, pretending to be suddenly absorbed in the paper until she had gone away, and shut the door. Then he put down the Times carefully, and shook with laughter, comfortably to himself, as he only laughed when alone. His daughter's way of receiving homage was very much to his taste.

* * *

At the door of the little restaurant in King Street, waiting for him, Woodville found Ridokanaki.

Slight and thin as he was, with his weary, drooping grey moustache, he looked always rather unusual and distinguished. He had black, wrinkled, heavy-lidded eyes, in which Sylvia had discovered a remarkable resemblance to the eyes of a parrot, though the fire in them was very far from being extinguished. He wore a gay light red carnation, but the flowerless Woodville looked far more festive. Woodville's enjoyment of nearly all experiences which were not absolutely depressing was greater than ever since his life of self-repression. To dine alone with the great Ridokanaki on the brink of some kind of sentimental crisis was to him a kind of intellectual, almost a literary joy, one which Sylvia could never either share or understand.

Ridokanaki received him with his most courteous manner. Ridokanaki, like most people, had two remarkably different manners. In society, he had a certain flowery formality, a conventional empressement, that, though far from being English, was absolutely different from the geniality of the German, from French tact and bonhomie, and from the Italian grace. It is a manner I have noticed chiefly in Scotchmen and in modern Greeks; its origin is, I fancy, a desire to please, of which the root is pride, not mere amiability or vanity, as in the Latin races. As unfortunately, in Ridokanaki's case, it entirely lacked charm, people simply found him tedious; especially women. On the other hand, in business or, indeed, in anything really serious, Ridokanaki was quite royally frank, and natural as a child; considering not at all the feelings of other people and consequently irritating them very little. He had a supreme contempt for petty diplomacy in such matters, regarding it as only worthy of a commercial traveller. His absolute reliability and brutal frankness had made him personally liked in the City, in spite of his phenomenal success-a success that had led to an importance not merely social, but political, and almost historical. Those who saw him in this blunt mood, found him, for the first time, amusing. All really frank people are amusing, and would remain so if they could remember that other people may sometimes want to be frank and amusing too.

"There is a subtle difference," remarked Woodville, looking round, "between Willis's and other restaurants. At all others one feels the meal is a means to an end; somehow, here, it seems to be the end itself. Eating is treated as a sacred rite, and in the pub

lic preparations of sauces by a head waiter there is something of a religious sacrifice. Look at the waiters, like acolytes, standing round the maitre d'hotel, watching him."

"That's quite true," said Ridokanaki. "You mean people don't dine here for amusement?"

It was not until the coffee and cigar stage was reached that Ridokanaki suddenly said in his earlier manner, rather quickly and abruptly: "And why don't you do something better, Mr. Woodville?"

"Could I be doing anything better?" said Woodville, laughing. "I certainly couldn't be dining better."

His host blinked his eyes, waved his hand, and said quickly: "Any one could do what you do for Sir James. It's quite ridiculous, with your brains, that because your uncle didn't leave you a fortune, you should have this absurd career. It isn't a career."

Woodville felt the delightful excitement beginning. To increase it, he reminded himself how Ridokanaki, by a stroke of the pen, could move the fate of nations, and then he turned cold at the thought that Ridokanaki was in love with Sylvia.

"I know," he said, "that I am not doing any good, but I see no prospect of anything better."

Ridokanaki frowned, staring at Woodville rather rudely, and then said: "Of course we're both thinking of the same thing. I mean the same lady."

"Really, Mr. Ridokanaki, I have no idea what you are thinking about. But there is no lady who can possibly concern our conversation."

Ridokanaki looked at the clock. It immediately struck ten, tactfully, in a clear subdued tone.

"But"-he spoke rather impatiently-"with all reverence and the most distant respect in the world, there's no reason why I shouldn't speak of the lady. I'm sorry, as you seem to dislike it, but I'm afraid I have no time for fencing now."

Frank was silent.

"Every day," said Ridokanaki in an undertone, "you see that beautiful girl. You live under the same roof. I see her only occasionally, but I understand your feelings." He laughed harshly. "I have the same-as you know."

"Your sentiments, no doubt, do you the greatest possible honour, Mr. Ridokanaki. Mine are those of old friendship."

"Indeed! Well! mine aren't! Can't you see I'm trying to play the game?" He spoke almost coarsely. Woodville liked him better. There was a pause.

"Perhaps," continued the host, "you think you only want her friendship, but I don't suppose she thinks so. In reality, of course, you want her."

"Really, Mr. Ridokanaki--!"

"Listen, listen! You can't marry her in your present position. I could in mine, but she will never like me while you're there-possibly never. At my best I never had what the French call le don de plaire aux dames. Not that age matters, nor ugliness. I haven't the knack. I never had. I bore women. I always did. In that I've always failed, and know it. And it's the only thing I ever cared about. My failure is my tragedy." He smiled. "You have all the advantages on your side, Mr. Woodville. But you're both young, and for that very reason any fancy that may have sprung up might be forgotten. With me--"

Woodville looked at him. No, it was not possible to be jealous of his host. Whatever truth there was about his past failure, he could never fascinate Sylvia. She appreciated too fully the plastic side of life; she was a romanticist, and therefore she attached immense importance to the material. (Are not all romantic heroes and heroines beautiful to look at, and always either beautifully or picturesquely dressed?) Sylvia cared far more about her own admiration for a man than for his admiration for her. Homage, except from the One, was to her no pleasure, and fortunately she knew exactly what she wanted. Instinctively Woodville knew that she would always love him. Unless, indeed, he should change. But that was impossible. He felt it to be impossible.

So, perhaps, after all, the reports about Ridokanaki's European "successes" were all nonsense. Yes, he had revealed his wound quite openly, and it was a bitter one. He had never been loved "for himself". Woodville pitied him.

"What do you propose?" said Woodville, falling into the Greek's laconic tone.

"Why should a man of your ability go twice a week in an omnibus to a shabby studio, in hopes of making a few pounds a year by copying? Because you're hard up. Why should you be so hard up? I met you once going there, and thought how hard it was. It is dreadful to be hard up.... This is what I propose. I can easily obtain for you a post in connection with my bank. The salary to begin with will be two thousand pounds a year. In Athens."

"Athens!"

"I propose that you try it for a year. During that year I will not see the lady. I will efface myself. If at the end of that time you both still feel the same I shall give up for ever my own wish. You can have a similar post then in London."

"Mr. Ridokanaki, you are too kind. But why, why should you?"

"Because I hate to see you near her. If your attachment for each other is the real thing it will stand this separation. Then I shall sink my own feelings. Of course, you see I mean it."

"Thank you," said Woodville, rather touched, and hesitating.

"Please understand," continued Ridokanaki, "that I don't hope for one moment there is in any case a chance for me. It's chiefly," he said markedly, "to spare me a year's torture. I can't stand your being in the same house with her. It kills me. I'll try, then, when you've given me this chance, to turn into a friend, a godfather!" He poured out some old brandy and drank it. Woodville changed colour. "They speak of me as a Don Juan, I believe, but I'm really much more of a Don Quixote. If you spare me this year I'll do anything to help you both."

He tapped the liqueur-glass on the table nervously, and went on. "I have got this very badly. Very badly. Oh very."

"How can I accept from you--"

"You gain nothing by refusing. The favour is to me-remember that. In a year you'll be in the position you are now, or worse-if you stay. If you go to Athens you will, of course, have a delightful time. You speak French; you will not have much to do. Only the sort of thing you can do easily and well. Don't you want to see different places, different things?... You are the man I have been looking for. There is some very interesting society in Athens. You would be adored there. But I know that's not what you care about."

"No; I have not the 'true Hellenic spirit.' But I want to be independent. I am afraid I couldn't."

"I shall keep this thing open for a month," said Ridokanaki. "Come and see me. All right.-Yes,-I must go.... You had rather write, not come and see me, eh?"

"You see, I must consult--"

"Of course, you want to consult some one. But, listen. Don't go by women! That would be really a pity. They don't know what's good for them." He laughed a little vaguely.

They both stood up.

"Mr. Ridokanaki, you have been more than kind. It is difficult--"

"Well, you'll think it over. Good-bye, Woodville."

Woodville walked away from the restaurant feeling wildly excited. Mr. Ridokanaki made hideous faces in the mirror in his carriage as he drove away and said to himself-

"He thinks I'm the Frog Prince, and he's Prince Charming. Useless! Waste of time! What a fool I am! An evening thrown away! She'll never let him go. He's too good-looking."

* * *

I have not given Mr. Ridokanaki's exact words in his soliloquy. This book is intended for general reading.

* * *

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