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   Chapter 10 No.10

Jaffery By William John Locke Characters: 23160

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Never shall I forget that Christmastide. Its shadow has fallen on every Christmas since then. And, in the innocent insolence of our hearts, we had planned such a merry one. It was the first since our marriage that we were spending at Northlands, for like dutiful folk we had hitherto spent the two or three festival days in the solid London house of Barbara's parents. Her father, Sir Edward Kennion, retired Permanent Secretary of a Government Office, was a courtly gentleman with a faultless taste in old china and wine, and Lady Kennion a charming old lady almost worthy of being the mother of Barbara. To speak truly, I had always enjoyed my visits. But when the news came that, for the sake of the dear lady's health, the Kennions were starting for Bermuda, in the middle of December, it did not strike us desolate. On the contrary Barbara clapped her hands in undisguised glee.

"It will do mother no end of good, and we can give Susan a real Christmas of her own."

So we laid deep schemes to fill the house to overflowing and to have a roystering time. First, for Susan's sake, we secured a widowed cousin of mine, Eileen Wetherwood, with her four children; and we sent out invitations to the ban and arrière ban of the county's juvenility, to say nothing of that of London, for a Boxing-day orgy. Having accounted satisfactorily for Susan's entertainment, we thought, I hope in a Christian spirit, of our adult circle. Dear old Jaffery would be with us. Why not ask his sister Euphemia? They had a mouse and lion affection for each other. Then there was Liosha. Both she and Jaffery met in Susan's heart, and it was Susan's Christmas. With Liosha would come Mrs. Considine, admirable and lonely woman. We trusted to luck and to Mrs. Considine's urbane influence for amenable relations between Liosha and Euphemia Chayne. With Jaffery in the house, Adrian and Doria must come. Last Christmas they had spent in the country with old Mrs. Boldero; old Mrs. Boldero was, therefore, summoned to Northlands. In the lightness of our hearts we invited Mr. Jornicroft. After the letter was posted my spirits sank. What in the world would we do with ponderous old man Jornicroft? But in the course of a few posts my gloom was lightened by a refusal. Mr. Jornicroft had been in the habit for many years of spending Christmas at the King's Hotel, Hastings, and had already made his arrangements.

"Who else is there?" asked Barbara.

"My dear," said I. "This is a modest country house, not an International Palace Hotel. Including Eileen's children and their governess and nurse and Doria's maid, we shall have to find accommodation for fifteen people."

"Nonsense!" she said. "We can't do it."

"Count up," said I.

I lit a cigar and went out into the winter-stricken garden, and left her reckoning on her fingers, with knitted brow. When I returned she greeted me with a radiantly superior smile.

"Who said it couldn't be done? I do wish men had some kind of practical sense. It's as easy as anything."

She unfolded her scheme. As far as my dazed wits could grasp it, I understood that I should give up my dressing-room, that the maids should sleep eight in a bed, that Franklin, our excellent butler, should perch in a walnut-tree and that planks should be put up in the bath-rooms for as many more guests as we cared to invite.

"That is excellent," said I, "but do you realise that in this house party there are only three grown men-three ha'porth of grown men" (I couldn't forbear allusiveness) "to this intolerable quantity of women and children?"

"But who is preventing you from asking men, dear? Who are they?"

I mentioned my old friend Vansittart; also poor John Costello's son, who would most likely be at a loose end at Christmas, and one or two others.

"Well have them, dear," said Barbara.

So four unattached men were added to the party. That made nineteen. When I thought of their accommodation my brain reeled. In order to retain my wits I gave up thinking of it, and left the matter to Barbara.

We were going to have a mighty Christmas. The house was filled with preparations. Susan and I went to the village draper's and bought beautifully coloured cotton stockings to hang up at her little cousins' bedposts. We stirred the plum pudding. We planned out everything that we should like to do, while Barbara, without much reference to us, settled what was to be done. In that way we divided the labour. Old Jaffery, back from China, came to us on the twentieth of December, and threw himself heart and soul into our side of the work. He took up our life just as though he had left it the day before yesterday-just the same sun-glazed hairy red giant, noisy, laughter-loving and voracious. Susan went about clapping her hands the day he arrived and shouting that Christmas had already begun.

The first thing he did was to clamour for Adrian, the man of fame. But the three Bolderos were not coming till the twenty-fourth. Adrian was making one last glorious spurt, so Doria said, in order to finish the great book before Christmas. We had not seen much of them during the autumn. Trivial circumstances had prevented it. Susan had had measles. I had been laid up with a wrenched knee. One side happened to be engaged when the other suggested a meeting. A trumpery series of accidents. Besides, Adrian, with his new lease of health and inspiration, had plunged deeper than ever into his work, so that it was almost impossible to get hold of him. On the few occasions when he did emerge from his work-room into the light of friendly smiles, he gave glowing accounts of progress. He was satisfying his poet's dreams. He was writing like an inspired prophet. I saw him at the beginning of December. His face was white and ghastly, the furrow had deepened between his brows, and the strained squint had become permanent in his eyes. He laughed when I repeated my warnings of the spring. Small wonder, said he, that he did not look robust; virtue was going from him into every drop of ink. He could easily get through another month.

"And then"-he clapped me on the shoulder-"my boy-you shall see! It will be worth all the enfantement prodigieux. You thought I was going off my chump, you dear old fuss-box. But you were wrong. So did Doria-for a week or two. Bless her! she's an artist's wife in ten million."

"Have you thought of a title?" I asked.

"'God'," said he. "Yes-'God'-short like that. Isn't it good?"

I cried out that it was in the worst possible taste. It would offend. He would lose his public. The Non-conformists and Evangelicals would be frightened by the very name. He lost his temper and scoffed at my Early Victorianism. "Little Lily and her Pet Rabbit" was the kind of title I admired. He was going to call it "God."

"My dear fellow, call it what you please," said I, anxious to avoid a duel of plates and glasses, for we were lunching on opposite sides of a table at his club.

"I please to call it," said he, "by the only conceivable title that is adequate to such a work." Then he laughed, with a gleam of his old charm, and filled up my wine glass. "Anyhow, Wittekind, who has the commercial end of things in view, thinks it's ripping." He lifted his glass. "Here's to 'God.'"

"Here's to the new book under a different name," said I.

When I told Barbara about this, she rather agreed with Wittekind. It all depended on the matter and quality of the book itself.

"Well, anyhow," said I, abhorrent of dissension, "thank Heaven the wretched composition's nearly finished."

On the morning of the twenty-third came my cousin Eileen and her offspring, and in the afternoon came Liosha and Mrs. Considine. Jaffery met his dynamic widow with frank heartiness, and for the hour before bedtime, there were wild doings in the nursery, in which neither my wife, nor my cousin, nor Mrs. Considine, nor myself were allowed to participate. When nurses sounded the retreat, our two Brobdingnagians appeared in the drawing-room, radiant, and dishevelled, with children sticking to them like flies. It was only when I saw Liosha, by the side of Jaffery, unconsciously challenging him, as it were, physical woman against physical man, with three children-two in her generous arms and one on her back-to his mere pair-that I realised, with the shock that always attends one's discovery of the obvious, the superb Olympian greatness of the creature. She stood nearly six feet to his six feet two. He stooped ever so little, as is the way of burly men. She held herself as erect as a redwood pine. The depth of her bosom, in its calm munificence, defied the vast, thick heave of his shoulders. Her lips were parted in laughter shewing magnificent teeth. In her brown eyes one could read all the mysteries and tenderness of infinite motherhood. Her hair was anyhow: a debauched wreckage of combs and wisps and hairpins. Her barbaric beauty seemed to hold sleekness in contempt. I wanted, just for the picture, half her bodice torn away. For there they stood, male and female of an heroic age, in a travesty of modern garb. Clap a pepperpot helmet on Jaffery, give him a skin-tight suit of chain mail, moulding all his swelling muscles, consider his red sweeping moustache, his red beard, his intense blue eyes staring out of a red face; dress Liosha in flaming maize and purple, leaving a breast free, and twist a gold torque through her hair, dark like the bronze-black shadows under autumn bracken; strip naked-fair the five nesting bits of humanity-it was an unpresented scene from Lohengrin or the G?tterd?mmerung.

I can only speak according to the impression produced by their entrance on an idle, dilettante mind. My cousin Eileen, a smiling lady of plump unimportance, to whom I afterwards told my fancy, could not understand it. Speaking entirely of physical attributes, she saw nothing more in Jaffery than an uncouth red bear, and considered Liosha far too big for a drawing-room.

When the children departed after an orgy of osculation, Jaffery surveyed with a twinkling eye the decorous quartette sitting by the fire. Then in his familiar fashion, he took his companion by the arm.

"They're too grown up for us, Liosha. Let's leave 'em. Come and I'll teach you how to play billiards."

So off they went, to the satisfaction of Barbara and myself. Nothing could be better for our Christmas merriment than such relations of comradeship. We had the cheeriest of dinners that evening. If only, said Jaffery, old Adrian and Doria were with us. Well, they were coming the next day, together with Euphemia and the four unattached men. As I said before, I had given up enquiring into the lodging of this host, but Barbara, doubtless, as is her magic way, had caused bedrooms and beds to smile where all had been blank before. She herself was free from any care, being in her brightest mood; and when Barbara gave herself up to gaiety she was the most delicious thing in the wide world.

In the morning the shadow fell. About eleven o'clock Franklin brought me a telegram into the library where Jaffery and I were sitting. I opened it.

"Terrible calamity. Come at once. Boldero."

I passed it to Jaffery. "My God!" said he, and we stared at each other. Franklin said:

"Any answer, sir?"

"Yes. 'Boldero. Coming at once.' And order the car round immediately-for London. Also ask Mrs. Freeth kindly to come here. Say the matter's important." Franklin withdrew. "It's Adrian," said I, my mind rushing back to my horrible apprehensions of the summer.

"Or Doria. I understood-" He wa

ved a hand.

"Then Barbara must come."

"She would in any case. It may be Adrian, so I'll come too, if you'll let me."

Let the great, capable fellow come? I should think I would. "For Heaven's sake, do," said I.

Barbara entered swinging housewifely keys.

"I'm dreadfully busy, dear. What is it?"

Then she saw our two set faces and stopped short. Her quick eyes fell on the telegram which Jaffery had put down in the arm of a couch, and before we could do or say anything, she had snatched it up and read it. She turned pale and held her little body very erect.

"Have you ordered the car?"

"Yes. Jaffery's coming with us."

"Good, I'll get on my coat. Send Eileen to me. I must tell her about house things."

She went out. Jaffery laid his heavy hand on my shoulder.

"What a wonder of a wife you've got!"

"I don't need you to tell me that," said I.

We went downstairs to put on our coats and then round to the garage to hurry up the car.

"There's some dreadful trouble at Mr. Boldero's," I said to the chauffeur. "You must drive like the devil."

Barbara, veiled and coated, met us at the front door. She has a trick of doing things by lightning. We started; Barbara and Jaffery at the back, I sideways to them on one of the little chair seats. We had the car open, as it was a muggy day. . . . It is astonishing how such trivial matters stick in one's mind. . . . We went, as I had ordained, like the devil.

"Who sent that telegram?" asked Barbara.

"Doria," said I.

"I think it's Adrian," said Jaffery.

"I think," said Barbara, "it's that silly old woman, Adrian's mother. Either of the others would have said something definite. Ah!" she smote her knee with her small hand, "I hate people with spinal marrow and no backbone to hold it!"

We tore through Maidenhead at a terrific pace, the Christmas traffic in the town clearing magically before us. Sometimes a car on an errand of life or death is recognised, given way to, like a fire engine.

"What makes you so dead sure something's happened to Adrian?" Jaffery asked me as we thundered through the railway arch.

Then I remembered. I had told him little or nothing of my fears. Ever since I learned that Adrian was putting the finishing touches to his novel, I had dismissed them from my mind. Such accounts as I had given of Adrian had been in a jocularly satirical vein. I had mentioned his pontifical attitude, the magnification of his office, his bombastic rhetoric over the Higher Life and the Inspiration of the Snows, and, all that being part and parcel of our old Adrian, we had laughed. Six months before I would have told Jaffery quite a different story. But now that Adrian had practically won through, what was the good of reviving the memory of ghastly apprehensions?

"Tell me," said Jaffery. "There's something behind all this."

I told him. It took some time. We sped through Slough and Hounslow, and past the desolate winter fields. The grey air was as heavy as our hearts.

"In plain words," said Jaffery, "it's G.P.-General Paralysis of the Insane."

"That's what I fear," said I.

"And you?" He turned to Barbara.

"I too. Hilary has told you the truth."

"But Doria! Good God! Doria! It will kill her!"

Barbara put her little gloved fingers on Jaffery's great raw hand. Only at weddings or at the North Pole would Jaffery wear gloves.

"We know nothing about it as yet. The more we tear ourselves to pieces now, the less able we'll be to deal with things."

Through the bottle-neck of Brentford, the most disgraceful main entrance in the world into any great city, with bare room for a criminal double line of tramways blocked by heavy, horse-drawn traffic, an officially organised murder-trap for all save the shrinking pedestrian on the mean, narrow, greasy side-walk, we crawled as fast as we were able. Then through Chiswick, over Hammersmith Bridge, into the heart of London. All London to cross. Never had it seemed longer. And the great city was smitten by a blight. It was not a fog, for one could see clearly a hundred yards ahead. But there was no sky and the air was a queer yellow, almost olive green, in which the main buildings stood out in startling meanness, and the distant ones were providentially obscured. Though it was but little past noon, all the great shops blazed with light, but they illuminated singularly little the yellow murk of the roadway. The interiors were sharply clear. We could see swarms of black things, seething with ant-like activity amid a phantasmagoria of colours, draperies, curtains, flashes of white linen, streaks of red and yellow meat gallant with rosettes and garlands, instantaneous, glistening vistas of gold, silver and crystal, warm reflections of mahogany and walnut; on the pavements an agglutinated yet moving mass by the shop fronts, the inner stream a garish pink ribbon of faces, the outer a herd of subfuse brown. And in the roadway, through the translucent olive, the swirling traffic seemed like armies of ghosts mightily and dashingly charioted.

The darkness had deepened when we, at last, drew up at the mansions in St. John's Wood. No lights were lit in the vestibule, and the hall-porter emerged as from a cavern of despair. He opened the car-door and touched his peaked cap. I could see from the man's face that he had been expecting us. He knew us, of course, as constant visitors of the Bolderos.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"Don't you know, sir?"

"No."

He glanced at Barbara, as if afraid to give her the shock of his news, and bent forward and whispered to me:

"Mr. Boldero's dead, sir."

I don't remember clearly what happened then. I have a vague memory of the man accompanying us in the lift and giving some unintelligible account of things. I was stunned. We had interpreted the ambiguous telegram in all other ways than this. Adrian was dead. That was all I could think of. The only coherent remark I heard the man make was that it was a dreadful thing to happen at Christmas. Barbara gripped my hand tight and did not say a word. The next phase I remember only too vividly. When the flat door opened, in a blaze of electric light, it was like a curtain being lifted on a scene of appalling tragedy. As soon as we entered we were sucked into it. A horrible hospital smell of an?sthetics, disinfectants-I know not what-greeted us.

The maid Ellen who had admitted us, red-eyed and scared, flew down the corridor into the kitchen, whence immediately afterwards emerged a professional nurse, who, carrying something, flitted into Doria's room. From the spare room came for a moment an elderly woman whom we did not know. The study door was flung wide open-I noticed that the jamb was splintered. From the drawing-room came sounds of awful moaning. We entered and found Adrian's mother alone, helpless with grief. Barbara sat by her and took her in her arms and spoke to her. But she could tell us nothing. I heard a man's step in the hall and Jaffery and I went out. He was a young man, very much agitated; he looked relieved at seeing us.

"I am a doctor," said he, "I was called in. The usual medical man is apparently away for Christmas. I'm so glad you've come. Is there a Mrs. Freeth here?"

"Yes. My wife," said I.

"Thank goodness-" He drew a breath. "There's no one here capable of doing anything. I had to get in the nurse and the other woman."

Jaffery had summoned Barbara from her vain task.

"Mrs. Boldero is very ill-as ill as she can be. Of course you were aware of her condition-well-the shock has had its not very uncommon effect."

"Life in danger?" Jaffery asked bluntly.

"Life, reason, everything. Tell me. I'm a stranger. I know nothing-I was summoned and found a man lying dead on the floor in that room"-he pointed to the study-"and a woman in a dreadful state. I've only had time to make sure that the poor fellow was dead. Could you tell me something about them?"

So we told him, the three of us together, as people will, who Adrian Boldero was, and how he and his genius were all this world and a bit of the next to his wife. How I managed to talk sensibly I don't know, for beating against the walls of my head was the thought that Adrian lay there in the room where I had seen the strange woman, lifeless and stiff, with the laughing eyes forever closed and the last mockery gone from his lips. Just then the woman appeared again. The young doctor beckoned to her and said a few words. Jaffery and I followed her into the death-chamber, leaving the doctor with Barbara. And then we stood and looked at all that was left of Adrian.

But how did it happen? It was not till long afterwards that I really knew more than the scared maid-servant and the porter of the mansions then told us. But that little more I will set down here.

For the past few days he had been working early and late, scarcely sleeping at all. The night before he had gone to bed at five, had risen sleepless at seven, and having dressed and breakfasted had locked himself in his study. The very last page, he told Doria, was to be written. He was to come down to us for Christmas, with his novel a finished thing. At ten o'clock, in accordance with custom, when he began to work early, the maid came to his door with a cup of chicken-broth. She knocked. There was no reply. She knocked louder. She called her mistress. Doria hammered . . . she shrieked. You know how swiftly terror grips a woman. She sent for the porter. Between them they raised a din to awaken-well-all but the dead. The man forced the door-hence the splinters on the jamb-and there they found Adrian, in the great bare room, hanging horribly over his writing chair, with not a scrap of paper save his blotting-pad in front of him. He must have died almost as soon as he had reached his study, before he had time to take out his manuscript from the jealous safe. That this was so the harassed doctor afterwards affirmed, when he could leave the living to make examination of the dead. Still later than that we heard the cause of death-a clot of blood on the brain. . . .

To go back . . . They found him dead. And then arose an unpicturable scene of horror. It seems that the cook, a stolid woman, on the point of starting for a Christmas visit, took charge of the situation, sent for the doctor, despatched the telegram to us, and with the help of the porter's wife, saw to Adrian. The elder Mrs. Boldero collapsed, a futile mass of sodden hysteria. Much that was fascinating and feminine in Adrian came from this amiable and incapable lady.

We went into the dining-room and helped ourselves to whisky and soda-we needed it-and talked of the catastrophe. As yet, of course, we knew nothing of the clot of blood. Presently Barbara came in and put her hands on my shoulders.

"I must stay here, Hilary, dear. You must get a bed at your club. Jaffery will take the car and bring us what we want from Northlands, and will look after things with Eileen. And put off Euphemia and the others, if you can."

And that was the Christmas to which we had looked forward with such joyous anticipation. Adrian dead; his child stillborn: Doria hovering on the brink of life and death. I did what was possible on a Christmas eve in the way of last arrangements. But to-morrow was Christmas Day. The day after, Boxing Day. The day after that, Sunday. The whole world was dead. And all those awful days the thin yellow fog that was not fog but mere blight of darkness hung over the vast city.

God spare me such another Christmastide.

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