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   Chapter 15 FIFTEEN

Queen Lucia By E. F. Benson Characters: 28325

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Georgie's Christmas party had just taken its seats at his round rosewood table without a cloth, and he hoped that Foljambe would be quick with the champagne, because there had been rather a long wait before dinner, owing to Lucia and Peppino being late, and conversation had been a little jerky. Lucia, as usual, had sailed into the room, without a word of apology, for she was accustomed to come last when she went out to dinner, and on her arrival dinner was always announced immediately. The few seconds that intervened were employed by her in saying just one kind word to everybody. Tonight, however, these gratifying utterances had not been received with the gratified responses to which she was accustomed: there was a different atmosphere abroad, and it was as if she were no more than one-eighth of the entire party…. But it would never do to hurry Foljambe, who was a little upset already by the fact of there being eight to dinner, which was two more than she approved of.

Lucia was on Georgie's right, Mrs Colonel as she had decided to call herself, on his left. Next her was Peppino, then Mrs Quantock, then the Colonel, then Mrs Rumbold (who resembled a grey hungry mouse), and Mr Quantock completed the circle round to Lucia again. Everyone had a small bunch of violets in the napkin, but Lucia had the largest. She had also a footstool.

"Capital good soup," remarked Mr Quantock. "Can't get soup like this at home."

There was dead silence. Why was there never a silence when Olga was there, wondered Georgie. It wasn't because she talked, she somehow caused other people to talk.

"Tommy Luton hasn't got measles," said Mrs Weston. "I always said he hadn't, though there are measles about. He came to work as usual this morning, and is going to sing in the carols tonight."

She suddenly stopped.

Georgie gave an imploring glance at Foljambe, and looked at the champagne glasses. She took no notice. Lucia turned to Georgie, with an elbow on the table between her and Mr Quantock.

"And what news, Georgie?" she said. "Peppino and I have been so busy that we haven't seen a soul all day. What have you been doing? Any planchette?"

She looked brightly at Mrs Quantock.

"Yes, dear Daisy, I needn't ask you what you've been doing. Table-turning, I expect. I know how interested you are in psychical matters. I should be, too, if only I could be certain that I was not dealing with fraudulent people."

Georgie felt inclined to give a hollow groan and sink under the table when this awful polemical rhetoric began. To his unbounded surprise Mrs Quantock answered most cordially.

"You are quite right, dear Lucia," she said. "Would it not be terrible to find that a medium, some dear friend perhaps, whom one implicitly trusted, was exposed as fraudulent? One sees such exposures in the paper sometimes. I should be miserable if I thought I had ever sat with a medium who was not honest. They fine the wretches well, though, if they are caught, and they deserve it."

Georgie observed, and couldn't the least understand, a sudden blank expression cross Robert's face. For the moment he looked as if he were dead but had been beautifully stuffed. But Georgie gave but a cursory thought to that, for the amazing supposition dawned on him that Lucia had not been polemical at all, but was burying instead of chopping with the hatchet. It was instantly confirmed, for Lucia took her elbow off the table, and turned to Robert.

"You and dear Daisy have been very lucky in your spiritualistic experiences," she said. "I hear on all sides what a charming medium you had. Georgie quite lost his heart to her."

"'Pon my word; she was delightful," said Robert.

"Of course she was a dear friend of Daisy's, but one has to be very careful when one hears of the dreadful exposures, as my wife said, that occur sometimes. Fancy finding that a medium whom you believed to be perfectly honest had yards and yards of muslin and a false nose or two concealed about her. It would sicken me of the whole business."

A loud pop announced that Foljambe had allowed them all some champagne at last, but Georgie hardly heard it, for glancing up at Daisy Quantock, he observed that the same dead and stuffed look had come over her face which he had just now noticed on her husband's countenance. Then they both looked up at each other with a glance that to him bristled with significance. An agonised questioning, an imploring petition for silence seemed to inspire it; it was as if each had made unwittingly some hopeless faux pas. Then they instantly looked away from each other again; their necks seemed to crack with the rapidity with which they turned them right and left, and they burst into torrents of speech to the grey hungry mouse and the Colonel respectively.

Georgie was utterly mystified: his Riseholme instinct told him that there was something below all this, but his Riseholme instinct could not supply the faintest clue as to what it was. Both of the Quantocks, it seemed clear, knew something perilous about the Princess, but surely if Daisy had read in the paper that the Princess had been exposed and fined, she would not have touched on so dangerous a subject. Then the curious incident about "Todd's News" inevitably occurred to him, but that would not fit the case, since it was Robert and not Daisy who had bought that inexplicable number of the yellow print. And then Robert had hinted at the discovery of yards and yards of muslin and a false nose. Why had he done that unless he had discovered them, or unless … Georgie's eyes grew round with the excitement of the chase … unless Robert had some other reason to suspect the integrity of the dear friend, and had said this at hap-hazard. In that case what was Robert's reason for suspicion? Had he, not Daisy, read in the paper of some damaging disclosures, and had Daisy (also having reason to suspect the Princess) alluded to the damaging exposures in the paper by pure hap-hazard? Anyhow they had both looked dead and stuffed when the other alluded to mediumistic frauds, and both had said how lucky their own experiences had been. "Oh!"-Georgie almost said it aloud-What if Robert had seen a damaging exposure in "Todd's News," and therefore bought up every copy that was to be had? Then, indeed, he would look dead and stuffed, when Daisy alluded to damaging exposures in the paper. Had a stray copy escaped him, and did Daisy know? What did Robert know? Had they exquisite secrets from each other?

Lucia was being talked to across him by Mrs Weston, who had also pinned down the attention of Peppino on the other side of her. At that precise moment the flood of Mrs Quantock's spate of conversation to the Colonel dried up, and Robert could find nothing more to say to the hungry mouse. Georgie in this backwater of his own thoughts was whirled into the current again. But before he sank he caught Mrs Quantock's eye and put a question that arose from his exciting backwater.

"Have you heard from the Princess lately?" he asked.

Robert's head went round with the same alacrity as he had turned it away.

"Oh, yes," said she. "Two days ago was it, Robert?"

"I heard yesterday," said Robert firmly.

Mrs Quantock looked at her husband with an eager encouraging earnestness.

"So you did!" she said. "I'm getting jealous. Interesting, dear?"

"Yes, dear, haw, haw," said Robert, and again their eyes met.

This time Georgie had no doubts at all. They were playing the same game now: they smiled and smirked at each other. They had not been playing the same game before. Now they recognised that there was a conspiracy between them…. But he was host, his business for the moment was to make his guests comfortable, and not pry into their inmost bosoms. So before Mrs Weston realised that she had the whole table attending to her, he said:

"I shall get it out of Robert after dinner. And I'll tell you, Mrs

Quantock."

"Before Atkinson came to the Colonel," said Mrs Weston, going on precisely where she had left off, "and that was five years before Elizabeth came to me-let me see-was it five or was it four and a half?-four and a half we'll say, he had another servant whose name was Ahab Crowe."

"No!" said Georgie.

"Yes!" said Mrs Weston, hastily finishing her champagne, for she saw Foljambe coming near-"Yes, Ahab Crowe. He married, too, just like Atkinson is going to, and that's an odd coincidence in itself. I tell the Colonel that if Ahab Crowe hadn't married, he would be with him still, and who can say that he'd have fancied Elizabeth? And if he hadn't, I don't believe that the Colonel and I would ever have-well, I'll leave that alone, and spare my blushes. But that's not what I was saying. Whom do you think Ahab Crowe married? You can have ten guesses each, and you would never come right, for it can't be a common name. It was Miss Jackdaw. Crowe: Jackdaw. I never heard anything like that, and if you ask the Colonel about it, he'll confirm every word I've said. Boucher, Weston, why that's quite commonplace in comparison, and I'm sure that's an event enough for me."

Lucia gave her silvery laugh.

"Dear Mrs Weston," she said, "you must really tell me at once when the happy day will be. Peppino and I are thinking of going to the Riviera--"

Georgie broke in.

"You shan't do anything of the kind," he said. "What's to happen to us?

'Oo very selfish, Lucia."

The conversation broke up again into duets and trios, and Lucia could have a private conversation with her host. But half-an-hour ago, so Georgie reflected, they had all been walking round each other like dogs going on tiptoe with their tails very tightly curled, and growling gently to themselves, aware that a hasty snap, or the breach of the smallest observance of etiquette, might lead to a general quarrel. But now they all had the reward of their icy politenesses: there was no more ice, except on their plates, and the politeness was not a matter of etiquette. At present, they might be considered a republic, but no one knew what was going to happen after dinner. Not a word had been said about the tableaux.

Lucia dropped her voice as she spoke to him, and put in a good deal of

Italian for fear she might be overheard.

"Non cognosce anybody?" she asked. "I tablieri, I mean. And are we all to sit in the aula, while the salone is being got ready?"

"Si," said Georgie. "There's a fire. When you go out, keep them there. I domestichi are making salone ready."

"Molto bene. Then Peppino and you and I just steal away. La lampa is acting beautifully. We tried it over several times."

"Everybody's tummin'," said Georgie, varying the cipher.

"Me so nervosa!" said Lucia. "Fancy me doing Brunnhilde before singing Brunnhilde. Me can't bear it."

Georgie knew that Lucia had been thrilled and delighted to know that Olga so much wanted to come in after dinner and see the tableaux, so he found it quite easy to induce Lucia to nerve herself up to an ordeal so passionately desired. Indeed he himself was hardly less excited at the thought of being King Cophetua.

At that moment, even as the crackers were being handed round, the sound of the carol-singers was heard from outside, and Lucia had to wince, as "Good King Wenceslas" looked out. When the Page and the King sang their speeches, the other voices grew piano, so that the effect was of a solo voice accompanied. When the Page sang, Lucia shuddered.

"That's the small red-haired boy who nearly deafens me in church," she whispered to Georgie. "Don't you hope his voice will crack soon?"

She said this very discreetly, so as not to hurt Mrs Rumbold's feelings, for she trained the choir. Everyone knew that the king was Mr Rumbold, and said "Charming" to each other, after he had sung.

"I liked that boy's voice, too," said Mrs Weston. "Tommy Luton used to have a lovely voice, but this one's struck me as better-trained even than Tommy Luton's. Great credit to you, Mrs Rumbold."

The grey hungry mouse suddenly gave a shrill cackle of a laugh, quite inexplicable. Then Georgie guessed.

He got up.

"Now nobody must move," he said, "because we haven't drunk 'absent friends' yet. I'm just going out to see that they have a bit of supper in the kitchen before they go on."

His trembling legs would scarcely carry him to the door, and he ran out. There were half a dozen little choir boys, four men and one tall cloaked woman….

"Divine!" he said to Olga. "Aunt Jane thought your voice very well trained. Come in soon, won't you?"

"Yes: all flourishing?"

"Swimming," said Georgie. "Lucia hoped your voice would crack soon. But it's all being lovely."

He explained about food in the kitchen and hurried back to his guests.

There was the riddle of the Quantocks to solve: there were the tableaux

vivants imminent: there was the little red-haired boy coming in soon.

What a Christmas night!

Soon after Georgie's hall began to fill up with guests, and yet not a word was said about tableaux. It grew so full that nobody could have said for certain whether Lucia and Peppino were there or not. Olga certainly was: there was no mistaking that fact. And then Foljambe opened the drawing-room door and sounded a gong.

The lamp behaved perfectly and an hour later one Brunnhilde was being extremely kind to the other, as they sat together. "If you really want to know my view, dear Miss Bracely," said Lucia, "it's just that. You must be Brunnhilde for the time being. Singing, of course, as you say, helps it out: you can express so much by singing. You are so lucky there. I am bound to say I had qualms when Peppino-or was it Georgie-suggested we should do Brunnhilde-Siegfried. I said it would be so terribly difficult. Slow: it has to be slow, and to keep gestures slow when you cannot make them mere illustrations of what you are singing-well, I am sure, it is very kind of you to be so flattering about it-but it is difficult to do that."

"And you thought them all out for yourself?" said Olga. "Marvellous!"

"Ah, if I had ever seen you do it," said Lucia, "I am sure I should have picked

up some hints! And King Cophetua! Won't you give me a little word for our dear King Cophetua? I was so glad after the strain of Brunnhilde to have my back to the audience. Even then there is the difficulty of keeping quite still, but I am sure you know that quite as well as I do, from having played Brunnhilde yourself. Georgie was very much impressed by your performance of it. And Mary Queen of Scots now! The shrinking of the flesh, and the resignation of the spirit! That is what I tried to express. You must come and help me next time I attempt this sort of thing again. That will not be quite soon, I am afraid, for Peppino and I am thinking of going to the Riviera for a little holiday."

"Oh, but how selfish!" said Olga. "You mustn't do that."

Lucia gave the silvery laugh.

"You are all very tiresome about my going to the Riviera," she said. "But I don't promise that I shall give it up yet. We shall see! Gracious! How late it is. We must have sat very late over dinner. Why were you not asked to dinner, I wonder! I shall scold Georgie for not asking you. Ah, there is dear Mrs Weston going away. I must say good-night to her. She would think it very strange if I did not. Colonel Boucher, too! Oh, they are coming this way to save us the trouble of moving."

A general move was certainly taking place, not in the direction of the door, but to where Olga and Lucia were sitting.

"It's snowing," said Piggy excitedly to Olga. "Will you mark my footsteps well, my page?"

"Piggy, you-you Goosie," said Olga hurriedly. "Goosie, weren't the tableaux lovely?"

"And the carols," said Goosie. "I adored the carols. I guessed. Did you guess, Mrs Lucas?"

Olga resorted to the mean trick of treading on Goosie's foot and apologising. That was cowardly because it was sure to come out sometime. And Goosie again trod on dangerous ground by saying that if the Page had trod like that, there was no need for any footsteps to be marked for him.

It was snowing fast, and Mrs Weston's wheels left a deep track, but in spite of that, Daisy and Robert had not gone fifty yards from the door when they came to a full stop.

"Now, what is it?" said Daisy. "Out with it. Why did you talk about the discovery of muslin?"

"I only said that we were fortunate in a medium whom after all you picked up at a vegetarian restaurant," said he. "I suppose I may indulge in general conversation. If it comes to that, why did you talk about exposure in the papers?"

"General conversation," said Mrs Quantock all in one word. "So that's all, is it?"

"Yes," said Robert, "you may know something, and-"

"Now don't put it all on me," said Daisy. "If you want to know what I think, it is that you've got some secret."

"And if you want to know what I think," he retorted, "it is that I know you have."

Daisy hesitated a moment, the snow was white on her shoulder and she shook her cloak.

"I hate concealment," she said. "I found yards and yards of muslin and a pair of Amadeo's eyebrows in that woman's bedroom the very day she went away."

"And she was fined last Thursday for holding a seance at which a detective was present," said Robert. "15 Gerard Street. He seized Amadeo or Cardinal Newman by the throat, and it was that woman."

She looked hastily round.

"When you thought that the chimney was on fire, I was burning muslin," she said.

"When you thought the chimney was on fire, I was burning every copy of 'Todd's News,'" said he. "Also a copy of the 'Daily Mirror,' which contained the case. It belonged to the Colonel. I stole it."

She put her hand through his arm.

"Let's get home," she said. "We must talk it over. No one knows one word except you and me?"

"Not one, my dear," said Robert cordially. "But there are suspicions.

Georgie suspects, for instance. He saw me buy all the copies of 'Todd's

News,' at least he was hanging about. Tonight he was clearly on the

track of something, though he gave us a very tolerable dinner."

They went into Robert's study: it was cold, but neither felt it, for they glowed with excitement and enterprise.

"That was a wonderful stroke of yours, Robert," said she. "It was masterly: it saved the situation. The 'Daily Mirror,' too: how right you were to steal it. A horrid paper I always thought. Yes, Georgie suspects something, but luckily he doesn't know what he suspects."

"That's why we both said we had just heard from that woman," said

Robert.

"Of course. You haven't got a copy of 'Todd's News,' have you?"

"No: at least I burned every page of the police reports," said he. "It was safer."

"Quite so. I cannot show you Amadeo's eyebrows for the same reason. Nor the muslin. Lovely muslin, my dear: yards of it. Now what we must do is this: we must continue to be interested in psychical things; we mustn't drop them, or seem to be put off them. I wish now I had taken you into my confidence at the beginning and told you about Amadeo's eyebrows."

"My dear, you acted for the best," said he. "So did I when I didn't tell you about 'Todd's News.' Secrecy even from each other was more prudent, until it became impossible. And I think we should be wise to let it be understood that we hear from the Princess now and then. Perhaps in a few months she might even visit us again. It-it would be humorous to be behind the scenes, so to speak, and observe the credulity of the others."

Daisy broke into a broad grin.

"I will certainly ask dear Lucia to a seance, if we do," she said. "Dear me! How late it is: there was such a long wait between the tableaux. But we must keep our eyes on Georgie, and be careful how we answer his impertinent questions. He is sure to ask some. About getting that woman down again, Robert. It might be fool-hardy, for we've had an escape, and shouldn't put our heads into the same noose again. On the other hand, it would disarm suspicion for ever, if, after a few months, I asked her to spend a few days of holiday here. You said it was a fine only, not imprisonment?"

The week was a busy one: Georgie in particular never had a moment to himself. The Hurst, so lately a desert, suddenly began to rejoice with joy and singing and broke out into all manner of edifying gaieties. Lucia, capricious queen, quite forgot all the vitriolic things she had said to him, and gave him to understand that he was just as high in favour as ever before, and he was as busy with his duties as ever he had been. Whether he would have fallen into his old place so readily if he had been a free agent, was a question that did not arise, for though it was Lucia who employed him, it was Olga who drove him there. But he had his consolation, for Lucia's noble forgiveness of all the disloyalties against her, included Olga's as well, and out of all the dinners and music parties, and recitations from Peppino's new book of prose poems which was already in proof, and was read to select audiences from end to end, there was none to which Olga was not bidden, and none at which she failed to appear. Lucia even overlooked the fact that she had sung in the carols on Christmas night, though she had herself declared that it was the voice of the red-haired boy which was so peculiarly painful to her. Georgie's picture of her (she never knew that Olga had really commissioned it) hung at the side of the piano in the music room, where the print of Beethoven had hung before, and it gave her the acutest gratification. It represented her sitting, with eyes cast down at her piano, and was indeed much on the same scheme as the yet unfinished one of Olga, which had been postponed in its favour, but there was no time for Georgie to think out another position, and his hand was in with regard to the perspective of pianos. So there it hung with its title, "The Moonlight Sonata," painted in gilt letters on its frame, and Lucia, though she continued to say that he had made her far, far too young, could not but consider that he had caught her expression exactly….

So Riseholme flocked back to The Hurst like sheep that have been astray, for it was certain to find Olga there, even as it had turned there, deeply breathing, to the classes of the Guru. It had to sit through the prose-poems of Peppino, it had to listen to the old, old tunes and sigh at the end, but Olga mingled her sighs with theirs, and often after a suitable pause Lucia would say winningly to Olga:

"One little song, Miss Bracely. Just a stanza? Or am I trespassing too much on your good-nature? Where is your accompanist? I declare I am jealous of him: I shall pop into his place some day! Georgino, Miss Bracely is going to sing us something. Is not that a treat? Sh-sh, please, ladies and gentlemen."

And she rustled to her place, and sat with the farthest-away expression ever seen on mortal face, while she trespassed on Miss Bracely's good-nature.

Then Georgie had the other picture to finish, which he hoped to get ready in time to be a New Year's present, since Olga had insisted on Lucia's being done first. He had certainly secured an admirable likeness of her, and there was in it just all that his stippled, fussy representation of Lucia lacked. "Bleak December" and "Yellow Daffodils" and the rest of the series lacked it, too: for once he had done something in the doing of which he had forgotten himself. It was by no means a work of genius, for Georgie was not possessed of one grain of that, and the talent it displayed was by no means of a high order, but it had something of the naturalness of a flower that grew from the earth which nourished it.

On the last day of the year he was putting a few final touches to it, little high reflected lights on the black keys, little blacknesses of shadow in the moulding of the panel behind his hand. He had finished with her altogether, and now she sat in the window-seat, looking out, and playing with the blind-tassel. He had been so much absorbed in his work that he had scarcely noticed that she had been rather unusually silent.

"I've got a piece of news for you," she said at length.

Georgie held his breath, as he drew a very thin line of body-colour along the edge of Ab.

"No! What is it?" he said. "Is it about the Princess?"

Olga seemed to hail this as a diversion.

"Ah, let's talk about that for a minute," she said. "What you ought to have done was to order another copy of 'Todd's News' at once."

"I know I ought, but I couldn't get one when I thought of it afterwards. That was tarsome. But I feel sure there was something about her in it."

"And you can't get anything out of the Quantocks?"

"No, though I've laid plenty of traps for them. There's an understanding between them now. They both know something. When I lay a trap, it isn't any use: they look at the trap, and then they look at each other afterwards."

"What sort of traps?"

"Oh, anything. I say suddenly, 'What a bore it is that there are so many frauds among mediums, especially paid ones.' You see, I don't believe for a moment that these seances were held for nothing, though we didn't pay for going to them. And then Robert says that he would never trust a paid medium, and she looks at him approvingly, and says 'Dear Princess'! The other day-it was a very good trap-I said, 'Is it true that the Princess is coming to stay with Lady Ambermere?' It wasn't a lie: I only asked."

"And then?" said Olga.

"Robert gave an awful twitch, not a jump exactly, but a twitch. But she was on the spot and said, 'Ah, that would be nice. I wonder if it's true. The Princess didn't mention it in her last letter.' And then he looked at her approvingly. There is something there, no one shall convince me otherwise."

Olga suddenly burst out laughing.

"What's the matter?" asked Georgie.

"Oh, it's all so delicious!" she said. "I never knew before how terribly interesting little things were. It's all wildly exciting, and there are fifty things going on just as exciting. Is it all of you who take such a tremendous interest in them that makes them so absorbing, or is it that they are absorbing in themselves, and ordinary dull people, not Riseholmites, don't see how exciting they are? Tommy Luton's measles: the Quantocks' secret: Elizabeth's lover! And to think that I believed I was coming to a backwater."

Georgie held up his picture and half closed his eyes. "I believe it's finished," he said. "I shall have it framed, and put it in my drawing-room."

This was a trap, and Olga fell into it.

"Yes, it will look nice there," she said. "Really, Georgie, it is very clever of you."

He began washing his brushes.

"And what was your news?" he said.

She got up from her seat.

"I forgot all about it, with talking of the Quantocks' secret," she said. "That just shows you: I completely forgot, Georgie. I've just accepted an offer to sing in America, a four months' engagement, at fifty thousand million pounds a night. A penny less, and I wouldn't have gone. But I really can't refuse. It's all been very sudden, but they want to produce Lucretia there before it appears in England. Then I come back, and sing in London all the summer. Oh, me!"

There was dead silence, while Georgie dried his brushes.

"When do you go?" he asked.

"In about a fortnight."

"Oh," said he.

She moved down the room to the piano and shut it without speaking, while he folded the paper round his finished picture.

"Why don't you come, too?" she said at length. "It would do you no end of good, for you would get out of this darling two-penny place which will all go inside a nut-shell. There are big things in the world, Georgie: seas, continents, people, movements, emotions. I told my Georgie I was going to ask you, and he thoroughly approves. We both like you, you know. It would be lovely if you would come. Come for a couple of months, anyhow: of course you'll be our guest, please."

The world, at that moment, had grown absolutely black to him, and it was by that that he knew who, for him, was the light of it. He shook his head.

"Why can't you come?" she said.

He looked at her straight in the face.

"Because I adore you," he said.

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