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   Chapter 10 TEN

Queen Lucia By E. F. Benson Characters: 27079

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03

One morning about the middle of October, Lucia was seated at breakfast and frowning over a note she had just received. It began without any formality and was written in pencil.

"Do look in about half-past nine on Saturday and be silly for an hour or two. We'll play games and dance, shall we? Bring your husband of course, and don't bother to reply.


"An invitation," she said icily, as she passed it to her husband.

"Rather short notice."

"We're not doing anything, are we?" he asked.

Peppino was a little imperceptive sometimes.

"No, it wasn't that I meant," she said. "But there's a little more informality about it than one would expect."

"Probably it's an informal party," said he.

"It certainly seems most informal. I am not accustomed to be asked quite like that."

Peppino began to be aware of the true nature of the situation.

"I see what you mean, cara," he said. "So don't let us go. Then she will take the hint perhaps."

Lucia thought this over for a moment and found that she rather wanted to go. But a certain resentment that had been slowly accumulating in her mind for some days past began to leak out first, before she consented to overlook Olga's informality.

"It is a fortnight since I called on her," she said, "and she has not even returned the call. I daresay they behave like that in London in certain circles, but I don't know that London is any better for it."

"She has been away twice since she came," said Peppino. "She has hardly been here for a couple of days together yet."

"I may be wrong," said Lucia. "No doubt I am wrong. But I should have thought that she might have spared half-an-hour out of these days by returning my call. However, she thought not."

Peppino suddenly recollected a thrilling piece of news which most unaccountably he had forgotten to tell Lucia.

"Dear me, something slipped my memory," he said. "I met Mrs Weston yesterday afternoon, who told me that half an hour ago Miss Bracely had seen her in her bath-chair and had taken the handles from Tommy Luton, and pushed her twice round the green, positively running."

"That does not seem to me of very prime importance," said Lucia, though she was thrilled to the marrow. "I do not wonder it slipped your memory, caro."

"Carissima, wait a minute. That is not all. She told Mrs Weston that she would have returned her call, but that she hadn't got any calling cards."

"Impossible!" cried Lucia. "They could have printed them at 'Ye olde

Booke Shop' in an afternoon."

"That may be so, indeed, if you say so, it is," said Peppino. "Anyhow she said she hadn't got any calling cards, and I don't see why she should lie about it."

"No, it is not the confession one would be likely to make," said she, "unless it was true. Or even if it was," she added.

"Anyhow it explains why she has not been here," said Peppino. "She would naturally like to do everything in order, when she called on you, carissima. It would have been embarrassing if you were out, and she could not hand in her card."

"And about Mr Shuttleworth?" asked she in an absent voice, as if she had no real interest in her question.

"He has not been seen yet at all, as far as I can gather."

"Then shall we have no host, if we drop in tomorrow night?"

"Let us go and see, cara," said he gaily.

Apart from this matter of her call not being returned, Lucia had not as yet had any reason to suspect Olga of revolutionary designs on the throne. She had done odd things, pushing Mrs Weston's chair round the green was one of them, smoking a cigarette as she came back from church on Sunday was another, but these she set down to the Bohemianism and want of polish which might be expected from her upbringing, if you could call an orphan school at Brixton an upbringing at all. This terrific fact Georgie had let slip in his stern determination to know twice as much about Olga as anybody else, and Lucia had treasured it. She had in the last fortnight labelled Olga as "rather common," retaining, however, a certain respect for her professional career, given that that professional career was to be thrown down as a carpet for her own feet. But, after all, if Olga was a bit Bohemian in her way of life, as exhibited by the absence of calling cards, Lucia was perfectly ready to overlook that (confident in the refining influence of Riseholme), and to go to the informal party next day, if she felt so disposed, for no direct answer was asked for.

There was a considerable illumination in the windows of Old Place when she and Peppino set out after dinner next night to go to the "silly" party, kindly overlooking the informality and the absence of a return visit to her call. It had been a sloppy day of rain, and, as was natural, Lucia carried some very smart indoor shoes in a paper-parcel and Peppino had his Russian goloshes on. These were immense snow-boots, in which his evening shoes were completely encased, but Lucia preferred not to disfigure her feet to that extent, and was clad in neat walking-boots which she could exchange for her smart satin footwear in the cloak-room. The resumption of walking-boots when the evening was over was rather a feature among the ladies and was called "The cobbler's at-home." The two started rather late, for it was fitting that Lucia should be the last to arrive.

They had come to the door of the Old Place, and Peppino was fumbling in the dark for the bell, when Lucia gave a little cry of agony and put her hands over her ears, just as if she had been seized with a double-earache of peculiar intensity.

"Gramophone," she said faintly.

There could be no doubt about that. From the window close at hand came out the excruciating strains of a very lusty instrument, and the record was that of a vulgar "catchy" waltz-tune, taken down from a brass-band. All Riseholme knew what her opinion about gramophones was; to the lover of Beethoven they were like indecent and profane language loudly used in a public place. Only one, so far as was known, had ever come to Riseholme, and that was introduced by the misguided Robert Quantock. Once he had turned it on in her presence, but the look of agony which crossed her face was such that he had to stop it immediately. Then the door was opened, and the abominable noise poured out in increased volume.

Lucia paused for a moment in indecision. Would it be the great, the magnificent thing to go home without coming in, trusting to Peppino to let it be widely known what had turned her back from the door? There was a good deal to be said for that, for it would be living up to her own high and immutable standards. On the other hand she particularly wanted to see what standard of entertaining Olga was initiating. The "silly evening" was quite a new type of party, for since she had directed and controlled the social side of things there had been no "silly evenings" of any kind in Riseholme, and it might be a good thing to ensure the failure of this (in case she did not like it) by setting the example of a bored and frosty face. But if she went in, the gramophone must be stopped. She would sit and wince, and Peppino must explain her feeling about gramophones. That would be a suitable exhibition of authority. Or she might tell Olga.

Lucia put on her satin shoes, leaving her boots till the hour of the cobbler's at-home came, and composing her face to a suitable wince was led by a footman on tiptoe to the door of the big music room which Georgie had spoken of.

"If you'll please to step in very quietly, ma'am," he said.

The room was full of people; all Riseholme was there, and since there were not nearly enough chairs (Lucia saw that at once) a large number were sitting on the floor on cushions. At the far end of the room was a slightly-raised dais, to the corner of which the grand piano had been pushed, on the top of which, with its braying trumpet pointing straight at Lucia was an immense gramophone. On the dais was Olga dancing. She was dressed in some white soft fabric shimmering with silver, which left her beautiful arms bare to the shoulder. It was cut squarely and simply about the neck, and hung in straight folds down to just above her ankles. She held in her hands some long shimmering scarf of brilliant red, that floated and undulated as she moved, as if inspired by some life of its own that it drew out of her slim superb vitality. From the cloud of shifting crimson, with the slow billows of silver moving rhythmically round her body, that beautiful face looked out deliciously smiling and brimming with life….

Lucia had hardly entered when with a final bray the gramophone came to the end of its record, and Olga swept a great curtsey, threw down her scarf, and stepped off the dais. Georgie was sitting on the floor close to it, and jumped up, leading the applause. For a moment, though several heads had been turned at Lucia's entrance, nobody took the slightest notice of her, indeed, the first apparently to recognize her presence was her hostess, who just kissed her hand to her, and then continued talking to Georgie. Then Olga threaded her way through the besprinkled floor, and came up to her.

"How wise you were to miss that very poor performance," she said. "But

Mr Georgie insisted that I should make a fool of myself."

"Indeed, I am sorry not to have been here for it," said Lucia in her most stately manner. "It seemed to me very far from being a poor performance, very far indeed. Caro mio, you remember Miss Bracely."

"Si, si molto bene," said Peppino, shaking hands.

"Ah, and you talk Italian," said Olga. "Che bella lingua! I wish

I knew it."

"You have a very good pronunciation," said Lucia.

"Tante grazie. You know everyone here of course. Now, what shall we do next? Clumps or charades or what? Ah, there are some cigarettes. Won't you have one?"

Lucia gave a little scream of dismay.

"A cigarette for me? That would be a very odd thing," she said. Then relenting, as she remembered that Olga must be excused for her ignorance, she added: "You see I never smoke. Never."

"Oh, you should learn," said Olga. "Now let's play clumps. Does everyone know clumps? If they don't they will find out. Or shall we dance? There's the gramophone to dance to."

Lucia put up her hands in playful petition.

"Oh please, no gramophone!" she said.

"Oh, don't you like it?" said Olga. "It's so horrible that I adore it, as I adore dreadful creatures in an aquarium. But I think we won't dance till after supper. We'll have supper extremely soon, partly because I am dying of famine, and partly because people are sillier afterwards. But just one game of clumps first. Let's see; there are but enough for four clumps. Please make four clumps everybody, and-and will you and two more go out with Mr Georgie, Mrs Lucas? We will be as quick as we can, and we won't think of anything that will make Mr Georgie blush. Oh, there he is! He heard!"

Olga's intense enjoyment of her own party was rapidly galvanizing everybody into a much keener gaiety than was at all usual in Riseholme, where as a rule, the hostess was somewhat anxious and watchful, fearing that her guests were not amusing themselves, and that the sandwiches would give out. There was a sit-down supper when the clumps were over (Mrs Quantock had been the first to guess Beethoven's little toe on his right foot, which made Lucia wince) and there were not enough men and maids to wait, and so people foraged for themselves, and Olga paraded up and down the room with a bottle of champagne in one hand, and a dish of lobster-salad in the other. She sat for a minute or two first at one table and then at another, and asked silly riddles, and sent to the kitchen for a ham, and put out all the electric light by mistake, when she meant to turn on some more. Then when supper was over they all took their seats back into the music-room and played musical chairs, at the end of which Mrs Quantock was left in with Olga, and it was believed that she said "Damn," when Mrs Quantock won. Georgie was in charge of the gramophone which supplied deadly music, quite forgetting that this was agony to Lucia, and not even being aware when she made a sign to Peppino, and went away having a cobbler's at-home all to herself. Nobody noticed when Saturday ended and Sunday began, for Georgie and Colonel Boucher were cock-fighting on the floor, Georgie screaming out "How tarsome" when he was upset, and Colonel Boucher very red in the face saying "Haw, hum. Never thought I should romp again like this. By Jove, most amusing!" Georgie was the last to leave and did not notice till he was half-way home that he had a ham-frill adorning his shirt front. He hoped that it had been Olga who put it there, when he had to walk blind-fold across the floor and try to keep in a straight line.

Riseholme got up rather late next morning, and had to hurry over its breakfast in order to be in time for church. There was a slight feeling of reaction abroad, and a sense of having been young and amused, and of waking now to the fact of church-bells and middle-age. Colonel Boucher singing the bass of "A few more years shall roll," felt his mind instinctively wandering to the cock-fight the evening before, and depressedly recollecting that a considerable number of years had rolled already. Mrs Weston, with her bath-chair in the aisle and Tommy Luton to hand her hymn-book and prayer-book as she required, looked sideways at Mrs Quantock, and thought ho

w strange it was that Daisy, so few hours ago, had been racing round a solitary chair with Georgie's finger on the gramophone, while Georgie, singing tenor by Colonel Boucher's ample side, saw with keen annoyance that there was a stain of tarnished silver on his forefinger, accounted for by the fact that after breakfast he had been cleaning the frame which held the photograph of Olga Bracely and had been astonished to hear the church-bells beginning. Another conducement to depression on his part was the fact that he was lunching with Lucia, and he could not imagine what Lucia's attitude would be towards the party last night. She had come to church rather late, having no use for the General Confession, and sang with stony fervour. She wore her usual church-face, from which nothing whatever could be gathered. A great many stealthy glances right and left from everybody failed to reveal the presence of their hostess of last night. Georgie, in particular, was sorry for this; he would have liked her to show that capacity for respectable seriousness which her presence at church that morning would have implied; while Lucia, in particular, was glad of this, for it confirmed her view that Miss Bracely was not, nor could ever be, a true Riseholmite. She had thought as much last night, and had said so to Peppino. She proposed to say the same to Georgie today.

Then came a stupefying surprise as Mr Rumbold walked from his stall to the pulpit for the sermon. Generally he gave out the number of the short anthem which accompanied this manoeuvre, but today he made no such announcement. A discreet curtain hid the organist from the congregation, and veiled his gymnastics with the stops and his antic dancing on the pedals, and now when Mr Rumbold moved from his stall, there came from the organ the short introduction to Bach's "Mein Glaubige Herz," which even Lucia had allowed to be nearly "equal" to Beethoven. And then came the voice….

The reaction after the romp last night went out like a snuffed candle at this divine singing, which was charged with the joyfulness of some heavenly child. It grew low and soft, it rang out again, it lingered and tarried, it quickened into the ultimate triumph. No singing could have been simpler, but that simplicity could only have sprung from the highest art. But now the art was wholly unconscious; it was part of the singer who but praised God as the thrushes do. She who had made gaiety last night, made worship this morning.

As they sat down for the discourse, Colonel Boucher discreetly whispered to Georgie "By Jove." And Georgie rather more audibly answered "Adorable." Mrs Weston drew a half-a-crown from her purse instead of her usual shilling, to be ready for the offertory, and Mrs Quantock wondered if she was too old to learn to sing.

Georgie found Lucia very full of talk that day at luncheon, and was markedly more Italian than usual. Indeed she put down an Italian grammar when he entered the drawing-room, and covered it up with the essays of Antonio Caporelli. This possibly had some connection with the fact that she had encouraged Olga last night with regard to her pronunciation.

"Ben arrivato, Georgio," she said. "Ho finito il libro di Antonio Caporelli quanta memento. E magnifico!"

Georgie thought she had finished it long ago, but perhaps he was mistaken. The sentence flew off Lucia's tongue as if it was perched there all quite ready.

"Sono un poco fatigata dopo il-dear me how rusty I am getting in Italian for I can't remember the word," she went on. "Anyhow I am a little tired after last night. A delightful little party, was it not? It was clever of Miss Bracely to get so many people together at so short a notice. Once in a while that sort of romp is very well."

"I enjoyed it quite enormously," said Georgie.

"I saw you did, cattivo ragazzo," said she. "You quite forgot about your poor Lucia and her horror of that dreadful gramophone. I had to exert all the calmness that Yoga has given me not to scream. But you were naughty with the gramophone over those musical chairs-unmusical chairs, as I said to Peppino, didn't I, caro?-taking it off and putting it on again so suddenly. Each time I thought it was the end. E pronta la colazione. Andiamo."

Presently they were seated; the menu, an unusual thing in itself at luncheon, was written in Italian, the scribe being clearly Lucia.

"I shall want a lot of Georgino's tempo this week," she said, "for Peppino and I have quite settled we must give a little after dinner party next Saturday, and I want you to help me to arrange some impromptu tableaux. Everything impromptu must just be sketched out first, and I daresay Miss Bracely worked a great deal at her dance last night and I wish I had seen more of it. She was a little awkward in the management of her draperies I thought, but I daresay she does not know much about dancing. Still it was very graceful and effective for an amateur, and she carried it off very well."

"Oh, but she is not quite an amateur," said Georgie. "She has played in


Lucia pursed her lips.

"Indeed, I am sorry she played in that," she said. "With her undoubtedly great gifts I should have thought she might have found a worthier object. Naturally I have not heard it. I should be very much ashamed to be seen there. But about our tableaux now. Peppino thought we might open with the Execution of Mary Queen of Scots. It is a dreadful thing that I have lost my pearls. He would be the executioner and you the priest. Then I should like to have the awakening of Brunnhilde."

"That would be lovely," said Georgie. "Have you asked Miss Olga if she will?"

"Georgino mio, you don't quite understand," said Lucia. "This party is to be for Miss Bracely. I was her guest last night in spite of the gramophone, and indeed I hope she will find nothing in my house that jars on her as much as her gramophone jarred on me. I had a dreadful nightmare last night-didn't I, Peppino?-in consequence. About the Brunnhilde tableaux, I thought Peppino would be Siegfried-and perhaps you could learn just fifteen or twenty bars of the music and play it while the curtain was up. You can play the same over again if it is encored. Then how about King Cophetua and the beggar-maid. I should be with my back to the audience, and should not turn round at all; it would be quite your tableaux. We will just sketch them out, as I said, and have a grouping or two to make sure we don't get in each other's way, and I will see that there are some dresses of some kind which we can just throw on. The tableaux with a little music, serious music, would be quite sufficient to keep everybody interested."

By this time Georgie had got a tolerable inkling of the import of all this. It was not at present to be war; it was to be magnificent rivalry, a throwing down perhaps of a gauntlet, which none would venture to pick up. To confirm this view, Lucia went on with gathering animation.

"I do not propose to have games, romps shall I call them?" she said, "for as far as I know Riseholme, and perhaps I know it a little better than dear Miss Bracely, Riseholme does not care for that sort of thing. It is not quite in our line; we may be right or wrong, I am sure I do not know, but as a matter of fact, we don't care for that sort of thing. Dear Miss Bracely did her very best last night; I am sure she was prompted only by the most hospitable motives, but how should she know? The supper too. Peppino counted nineteen empty champagne bottles."

"Eighteen, carissima," said Peppino.

"I think you told me nineteen, caro, but it makes very little difference. Eighteen empty champagne bottles standing on the sideboard, and no end to the caviare sandwiches which were left over. It was all too much, though there were not nearly enough chairs, and indeed I never got one at all except just at supper."

Lucia leaned forward over the table, with her hands clasped.

"There was display about it, Georgino, and you know how I hate display," she said. "Shakespeare was content with the most modest scenery for his masterpieces, and it would be a great mistake if we allowed ourselves to be carried away by mere wasteful opulence. In all the years I have lived here, and contributed in my humble way to the life of the place, I have heard no complaints about my suppers or teas, nor about the quality of entertainment which I offer my guests when they are so good as to say 'Si,' to le mie invitazione. Art is not advanced by romping, and we are able to enjoy ourselves without two hundred caviare sandwiches being left over. And such wasteful cutting of the ham; I had to slice the chunk she gave me over and over again before I could eat it."

Georgie felt he could not quite let this pass.

"Well, I had an excellent supper," he said, "and I enjoyed it very much. Besides, I saw Peppino tucking in like anything. Ask him what he thought of it."

Lucia gave her silvery laugh.

"Georgino, you are a boy," she said artfully, "and 'tuck in' as you so vulgarly call it without thinking, I'm saying nothing against the supper, but I'm sure that Peppino and Colonel Boucher would have felt better this morning if they had been wiser last night. But that's not the real point. I want to show Miss Bracely, and I'm sure she will be grateful for it, the sort of entertainment that has contented us at Riseholme for so long. I will frame it on her lines; I will ask all and sundry to drop in with just a few hours' notice, as she did. Everything shall be good, and there shall be about it all something that I seemed to miss last night. There was a little bit-how shall I say it?-a little bit of the footlights about it all. And the footlights didn't seem to me to have been extinguished at church-time this morning. The singing of that very fine aria was theatrical, I can't call it less than theatrical."

She fixed Georgie with her black beady eye, and smoothed her undulated hair.

"Theatrical," she said again. "Now let us have our coffee in the music-room. Shall Lucia play a little bit of Beethoven to take out any nasty taste of gramophone? Me no likey gramophone at all. Nebber!"

Georgie now began to feel himself able to sympathise with that surfeited swain who thought how happy he could be with either, were t'other dear charmer away. Certainly he had been very happy with Lucia all these years, before t'other dear charmer alighted in Riseholme, and now he felt that should Lucia decide, as she had often so nearly decided, to spend the winter on the Riviera, Riseholme would still be a very pleasant place of residence. He never was quite sure how seriously she had contemplated a winter on the Riviera, for the mere mention of it had always been enough to make him protest that Riseholme could not possibly exist without her, but today, as he sat and heard (rather than listened to) a series of slow movements, with a brief and hazardous attempt at the scherzo of the "Moonlight," he felt that if any talk of the Riviera came up, he would not be quite so insistent as to the impossibility of Riseholme continuing to exist without her. He could, for instance, have existed perfectly well this Sunday afternoon if Lucia had been even at Timbuctoo or the Antipodes, for as he went away last night, Olga had thrown a casual intimation to him that she would be at home, if he had nothing better to do, and cared to drop in. Certainly he had nothing better to do but he had something worse to do….

Peppino was sitting in the window-seat, with eyes closed, because he listened to music better so, and with head that nodded occasionally, presumably for the same reason. But the cessation of the slow movement naturally made him cease to listen, and he stirred and gave the sigh with which Riseholme always acknowledged the end of a slow movement. Georgie sighed too, and Lucia sighed; they all sighed, and then Lucia began again. So Peppino closed his eyes again, and Georgie continued his mental analysis of the situation.

At present, so he concluded, Lucia did not mean war. She meant, as by some great armed demonstration, to exhibit the Riseholme spirit in its full panoply, and then crush into dazzled submission any potential rivalry. She meant also to exert an educational influence, for she allowed that Olga had great gifts, and she meant to train and refine those gifts so that they might, when exercised under benign but autocratic supervision, conduce to the strength and splendour of Riseholme. Naturally she must be loyally and ably assisted, and Georgie realized that the tableau of King Cophetua (his tableau as she had said) partook of the nature of a bribe, and, if that word was invidious, of a raising of his pay. It was equally certain that this prolonged recital of slow movements was intended to produce in his mind a vivid consciousness of the contrast between the romp last night and the present tranquil hour, and it did not fail in this respect.

Lucia shut the piano-lid, and almost before they had given their sighs, spoke.

"I think I will have a little dinner-party first," she said. "I will ask Lady Ambermere. That will make us four, with you Georgie, and Miss Bracely and Mr Shuttleworth will make six. The rest I shall ask to come in at nine, for I know Lady Ambermere does not like late hours. And now shall we talk over our tableaux?"

So even Lucia's mind had not been wholly absorbed in Beethoven, though

Georgie, as usual, told her she had never played so divinely.

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