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   Chapter 13 No.13

Jaffery By William John Locke Characters: 22227

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


About this time a bolt came from the blue or a bomb fell at our feet-the metaphor doesn't matter so long as it conveys a sense of an unlooked-for phenomenon. True, in relation to cosmic forces, it was but a trumpery bolt or a squib-like bomb; but it startled us all the same. The admirable Mrs. Considine got married. A retired warrior, a recent widower, but a celibate of twenty years standing owing to the fact that his late wife and himself had occupied separate continents (on avait fait continent à part, as the French might say) during that period, a Major-General fresh from India, an old flame and constant correspondent, had suddenly swooped down upon the boarding-house in Queen's Gate and, in swashbuckling fashion, had abducted the admirable and unresisting lady. It was a matter of special license, and off went the tardily happy pair to Margate, before we had finished rubbing our eyes.

It was grossly selfish on the part of Mrs. Considine, said Barbara. She thought her-no; perhaps she didn't think her-God alone knows the convolutions of feminine mental processes-but she proclaimed her anyhow-an unscrupulous woman.

"There's Liosha," she said, "left alone in that boarding-house."

"My dear," said I, "Mrs. Jupp-I admit it's deplorable taste to change a name of such gentility as Considine for that of Jupp, but it isn't unscrupulous-Mrs. Jupp did not happen to be charged with a mission from on High to dry nurse Liosha for the rest of her life."

"That's where you're wrong," Barbara retorted. "She was. She was the one person in the world who could look after Liosha. See what she's done for her. It was her duty to stick to Liosha. As for those two old faggots marrying, they ought to be ashamed of themselves."

Whether they were ashamed of themselves or not didn't matter. Liosha remained alone in the boarding-house. Not all Barbara's indignation could turn Mrs. Jupp into the admirable Mrs. Considine and bring her back to Queen's Gate. What was to be done? We consulted Jaffery, who as Liosha's trustee ought to have consulted us. Jaffery pulled a long face and smiled ruefully. For the first time he realised-in spite of tragic happenings-the comedy aspect of his position as the legal guardian of two young, well-to-do and attractive widows. He was the last man in the world to whom one would have expected such a fate to befall. He too swore lustily at the defaulting duenna.

"I thought it was all fixed up nicely forever," he growled.

"Everything is transitory in this life, my dear fellow," said I. "Everything except a trusteeship. That goes on forever."

"That's the devil of it," he growled.

"You must get used to it," said I. "You'll have lots more to look after before you've done with this existence!"

His look hardened and seemed to say: "If you go and die and saddle me with Barbara, I'll punch your head."

He turned his back on me and, jerking a thumb, addressed Barbara.

"Why do you take him out without a muzzle? Now you've got sense. What shall I do?"

Then Liosha superb and smiling sailed into the room.

I ought to have mentioned that Barbara had convened this meeting at the boarding-house. The room into which Liosha sailed was the elegant "bonbonnière" of a chamber known as the "boudoir." There was a great deal of ribbon and frill and photograph frame and artful feminine touch about it, which Liosha and, doubtless, many other inmates thought mightily refined.

Liosha kissed Barbara and shook hands with Jaffery and me, bade us be seated and put us at our ease with a social grace which could not have been excelled by the admirable Mrs. Considine (now Jupp) herself. That maligned lady had performed her duties during the past two years with characteristic ability. Parenthetically I may remark that Liosha's table-manners and formal demeanour were now irreproachable. Mrs. Considine had also taken up the Western education of the child of twelve at the point at which it had been arrested, and had brought Liosha's information as to history, geography, politics and the world in general to the standard of that of the average schoolgirl of fifteen. Again, she had developed in our fair barbarian a natural taste in dress, curbing, on her emergence from mourning, a fierce desire for apparel in primary colours, and leading her onwards to an appreciation of suaver harmonies. Again she had run her tactful hand over Liosha's stockyard vocabulary, erasing words and expressions that might offend Queen's Gate and substituting others that might charm; and she had done it with a touch of humour not lost on Liosha, who had retained the sense of values in which no child born and bred in Chicago can be deficient.

"I suppose you're all fussed to death about this marriage," she said pleasantly. "Well, I couldn't help it."

"Of course not, dear," said Barbara.

"You might have given us a hint as to what was going on," said Jaffery.

"What good could you have done? In Albania if the General had interfered with your plans, you might have shot him from behind a stone and everyone except Mrs. Considine would have been happy; but I've been taught you don't do things like that in South Kensington."

"Whoever wanted to shoot the chap?"

"I, for one," said Barbara. "What are we to do now?"

"Find another dragon," said Jaffery.

"But supposing I don't want another dragon?"

"That doesn't matter in the least. You've got to have one."

"Say, Jaff Chayne," cried Liosha, "do you think I can't look after myself by this time? What do you take me for?"

I interposed. "Rather a lonely young woman, that's all. Jaffery, in his tactless way, by using the absurd term 'dragon,' has missed the point altogether. You want a companion, if only to go about with, say to restaurants and theatres."

"I guess I can get heaps of those," said Liosha, a smile in her eyes. "Don't you worry!"

"All the more reason for a dragon."

"If you mean somebody who's going to sit on my back every time I talk to a man, I decidedly object. Mrs. Considine was different and you're not going to find another like her in a hurry. Besides-I had sense enough to see that she was going to teach me things. But I don't want to be taught any more. I've learned enough."

"But it's just a woman companion that we want to give you, dear," said Barbara. "Her mere presence about you is a protection against-well, any pretty young woman living alone is liable to chance impertinence and annoyance."

Liosha's dark eyes flashed. "I'd like to see any man try to annoy me. He wouldn't try twice. You ask Mrs. Jardine"-Mrs. Jardine was the keeper of the boarding-house-"she'll tell you a thing or two about my being able to keep men from annoying me."

Barbara did, afterwards, ask Mrs. Jardine, and obtained a few sidelights on Liosha's defensive methods. What they lacked in subtlety they made up in physical effectiveness. There were not many spruce young gentlemen who, after a week's residence in that establishment, did not adopt a peculiarly deferential attitude towards Liosha.

"Still," said Jaffery, "I think you ought to have somebody, you know."

"If you're so keen on a dragon," replied Liosha defiantly, "why not take on the job yourself?"

"I? Good Lord! Ho! ho! ho!"

Jaffery rose to his feet and roared with laughter. It was a fine joke.

"There's a lot in Liosha's suggestion," said Barbara, with an air of seriousness.

"You don't expect me to come and live here?" he cried, waving a hand to the frills and ribbons.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea," said I. "You would get all the advantages and refining influences of a first-class English home."

He pivoted round. "Oh, you be-"

"Hush," said Barbara. "Either you ought to stay here and look after Liosha more than you do-"

He protested. Wasn't he always looking after her? Didn't he write? Didn't he drop in now and then to see how she was getting on?

"Have you ever taken the poor child out to dinner?" Barbara asked sternly.

He stood before her in the confusion of a schoolboy detected in a lapse from grace, stammering explanations. Then Liosha rose, and I noticed just the faintest little twitching of her lip.

"I don't want Jaff Chayne to be made to take me out to dinner against his will."

"But-God bless my soul! I should love to take you out. I never thought of it because I never take anybody out. I'm a barbarian, my dear girl, just like yourself. If you wanted to be taken out, why on earth didn't you say so?"

Liosha regarded him steadily. "I would rather cut my tongue out."

Jaffery returned her gaze for a few seconds, then turned away puzzled. There seemed to be an unnecessary vehemence in Liosha's tone. He turned again and approached her with a smiling face.

"I only meant that I didn't know you cared for that sort of thing, Liosha. You must forgive me. Come and dine with me at the Carlton this evening and do a theatre afterwards."

"No, I wont!" cried Liosha. "You insult me."

Her cheeks paled and she shook in sudden wrath. She looked magnificent. Jaffery frowned.

"I think I'll have to be a bit of a dragon after all."

I recalled a scene of nearly two years before when he had frowned and spoken thus roughly and she had invited him to chastise her with a cleek. She did not repeat the invitation, but a sob rose in her throat and she marched to the door, and at the door, turned splendidly, quivering.

"I'm not going to have you or any one else for a dragon. And"-alas for the superficiality of Mrs. Considine's training-"I'm going to do as I damn well like."

Her voice broke on the last word, as she dashed from the room. I exchanged a glance with Barbara, who followed her. Barbara could convey a complicated set of instructions by her glance. Jaffery pulled out pouch and pipe and shook his head.

"Woman is a remarkable phenomenon," said he.

"A more remarkable phenomenon still," said I, "is the dunderheaded male."

"I did nothing to cause these heroics."

"You asked her to ask you to ask her out to dinner."

"I didn't," he protested.

I proved to him by all the rules of feminine logic that he had done so. Holding the match over the bowl of his pipe, he puffed savagely.

"I wish I were a cannibal in Central Africa, where women are in proper subjection. There's no worry about 'em there."

"Isn't there?" said I. "You just ask the next cannibal you meet. He is confronted with the Great Conundrum, even as we are."

"He can solve it by clubbing his wife on the head."

"Quite so," said I. "But do you think the poor fellow does it for pleasure? No. It worries him dreadfully to have to do it."

"That's specious rot, and platitudinous rubbish such as any soft idiot who's been glued all his life to an armchair can reel off by the mile. I know better. A couple of years ago Liosha would have eaten out of my hand, to say nothing of dining with me at the Canton. It's all this infernal civilisation. It has spoiled her."

"You began this argument," said I, "with the proposition that woman was a remarkable phenomenon-a generalisation which inc

ludes woman in fig-leaves and woman in diamonds."

"Oh, dry up," said Jaffery, "and tell me what I ought to do. I didn't want to hurt the girl's feelings. Why should I? In fact I'm rather fond of her. She appeals to me as something big and primitive. Long ago, if it hadn't been that poor old Prescott-you know what I mean-I gave up thinking of her in that way at once-and now I just want to be friends-we have been friends. She's a jolly good sort, and, if I had thought of it, I would have taken her about a bit. . . . But what I can't stand is these modern neurotics-"

"You called them heroics-"

"All the same thing. It's purely artificial. It's cultivated by every modern woman. Instead of thinking in a straight line they're taught it's correct to think in a corkscrew. You never know where to have 'em."

"That's their artfulness," said I. "Who can blame them?"

Meanwhile Liosha, pursued by Barbara, had rushed to her bedroom, where she burst into a passion of tears. Jaff Chayne, she wailed, had always treated her like dirt. It was true that her father had stuck pigs in the stockyards; but he was of an old Albanian family, quite as good a family as Jaff Chayne's. It had numbered princes and great chieftains, the majority of whom had been most gloriously slain in warfare. She would like to know which of Jaff Chayne's ancestors had died out of their feather beds.

"His grandfather," said Barbara, "was killed in the Indian Mutiny, and his father in the Zulu War."

Liosha didn't care. That only proved an equality. Jaff Chayne had no right to treat her like dirt. He had no right to put a female policeman over her. She was a free woman-she wouldn't go out to dinner with Jaff Chayne for a thousand pounds. Oh, she hated him; at which renewed declaration she burst into fresh weeping and wished she were dead. As a guardian of young and beautiful widows Jaffery did not seem to be a success.

Barbara, in her wise way, said very little, and searched the paraphernalia on the dressing table for eau-de-cologne and such other lotions as would remove the stain of tears. Holding these in front of Liosha, like a stern nurse administering medicine, she waited till the fit had subsided. Then she spoke.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Liosha, going on like a silly schoolgirl instead of a grown-up woman of the world. I wonder you didn't announce your intention of assassinating Jaffery."

"I've a good mind to," replied Liosha, nursing her grievance.

"Well, why don't you do it?" Barbara whipped up a murderous-looking knife that lay on a little table-it was the same weapon that she had lent the Swiss waiter. "Here's a dagger." She threw it on the girl's lap. "I'll ring the bell and send a message for Mr. Chayne to come up. As soon as he enters you can stick it into him. Then you can stick it into me. Then if you like you can go downstairs and stick it into Hilary. And having destroyed everybody who cares for you and is good to you, you'll feel a silly ass-such a silly ass that you'll forget to stick it into yourself."

Liosha threw the knife into a corner. On its way it snicked a neat little chip out of a chair-back.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Clean your face," said Barbara, and presented the materials.

Sitting on the bed and regarding herself in a hand-mirror Liosha obeyed meekly. Barbara brought the powder puff.

"Now your nose. There!" For the first time Barbara smiled. "Now you look better. Oh, my dear girl!" she cried, seating herself beside Liosha and putting an arm round her waist. "That's not the way to deal with men. You must learn. They're only overgrown babies. Listen."

And she poured into unsophisticated but sympathetic ears all the duplicity, all the treachery, all the insidious cunning and all the serpent-like wisdom of her unscrupulous sex. What she said neither I nor any of the sons of men are ever likely to know! but so proud of belonging to that nefarious sisterhood, so overweening in her sex-conceit did she render Liosha, that when they entered the little private sitting-room next door whither, according to the instructions conveyed by Barbara's parting glance downstairs, I had dragged a softly swearing Jaffery, she marched up to him and said serenely:

"If you really do want me to dine with you, I'll come with pleasure. But the next time you ask me, please do it in a decent way."

I saw mischief lurking in my wife's eye and shook my head at her rebukingly. But Jaffery stared at Liosha and gasped. It was all very well for Doria and Barbara to be ever putting him in the wrong: they were daughters of a subtle civilisation; but here was Liosha, who had once asked him to beat her, doing the same-woman was a more curious phenomenon than ever.

"I'm sorry if my manners are not as they should be," said he with a touch of irony. "I'll try to mend 'em. Anyhow, it's awfully good of you to come."

She smiled and bowed; not the deep bow of Albania, but the delicate little inclination of South Kensington. The quarrel was healed, the incident closed. He arranged to call for her in a taxi at a quarter to seven. Barbara looked at the clock and said that we must be going. We rose to take our leave. Maliciously I said:

"But we've settled nothing about a rempla?ante for Mrs. Considine."

"I guess we've settled everything," Liosha replied sweetly. "No one can replace Mrs. Considine."

I quite enjoyed our little silent walk downstairs. Evidently Jaffery's theory of primitive woman had been knocked endways; and, to judge by the faint knitting of her brow, Barbara was uneasily conscious of a mission unfulfilled. Liosha had gained her independence.

* * *

Our friends carried out the evening's programme. Liosha behaved with extreme propriety, modelling her outward demeanour upon that of Mrs. Considine, and her attitude towards Jaffery on a literal interpretation of Barbara's reprehensible precepts. She was so dignified that Jaffery, lest he should offend, was afraid to open his mouth except for the purpose of shovelling in food, which he did, in astounding quantity. From what both of us gathered afterwards-and gleefully we compared notes-they were vastly polite to each other. He might have been entertaining the decorous wife of a Dutch Colonial Governor from whom he desired facilities of travel. The simple Eve travestied in guile took him in completely. Aware that it was her duty to treat him like an overgrown baby and mould him to her fancy and twist him round her finger and lead him whithersoever she willed, making him feel all the time that he was pointing out the road, she did not know how to begin. She sat tongue-tied, racking her brains to loss of appetite; which was a pity, for the ma?tre d'h?tel, given a free hand by her barbarously ignorant host, had composed a royal menu. As dinner proceeded she grew shyer than a chit of sixteen. Over the quails a great silence reigned. Hers she could not touch, but she watched him fork, as it seemed to her, one after the other, whole, down his throat: and she adored him for it. It was her ideal of manly gusto. She nearly wept into her Fraises Diane-vast craggy strawberries (in March) rising from a drift of snow impregnated by all the distillations of all the flowers of all the summers of all the hills-because she would have given her soul to sit beside him on the table with the bowl on her lap and feed him with a tablespoon and, for her share of it, lick the spoon after his every mouthful. But it had been drummed into her that she was a woman of the world, the fashionable and all but incomprehensible world, the English world. She looked around and saw a hundred of her sex practising the well-bred deportment that Mrs. Considine had preached. She reflected that to all of those women gently nurtured in this queer English civilisation, equally remote from Armour's stockyards and from her Albanian fastness, the wisdom that Barbara had imparted to her a few hours before was but their A.B.C. of life in their dealings with their male companions. She also reflected-and for the reflection not Mrs. Considine or Barbara, only her woman's heart was responsible-that to the man whom she yearned to feed with great tablespoonfuls of delight, she counted no more than a pig or a cow-her instinctive similes, you must remember, were pastoral-or that peculiar damfool of a sister of his, Euphemia.

When I think of these two children of nature, sitting opposite to one another in the fashionable restaurant trying to behave like super-civilised dolls, I cannot help smiling. They were both so thoroughly in earnest; and they bored themselves and each other so dreadfully. Conversation patched sporadically great expanses of silence and then they talked of the things that did not interest them in the least. Of course they smiled at each other, the smirk being essential to the polite atmosphere; and of course Jaffery played host in the orthodox manner, and Liosha acknowledged attentions with a courtesy equally orthodox. But how much happier they both would have been on a bleak mountain-side eating stew out of a pot! Even champagne and old brandy failed to exercise mellowing influences. The twain were petrified in their own awful correctitude. Perhaps if they had proceeded to a musical comedy or a farce or a variety entertainment where Jaffery could have expanded his lungs in laughter, their evening as a whole might have been less dismal. But a misapprehension as to the nature of the play had caused Jaffery to book seats for a gloomy drama with an ironical title, which stupefied them with depression.

When they waited for the front door of the house in Queen's Gate to open to their ring, Liosha in her best manner thanked him for a most enjoyable evening.

"Most enjoyable indeed," said Jaffery. "We must have another, if you will do me the honour. What do you say to this day week?"

"I shall be delighted," said Liosha.

So that day week they repeated this extraordinary performance, and the week after that, and so on until it became a grim and terrifying fixture. And while Jaffery, in a fog of theory as to the Eternal Feminine, was trying to do his duty, Liosha struggled hard to smother her own tumultuous feelings and to carry out Barbara's prescription for the treatment of overgrown babies; but the deuce of it was that though in her eyes Jaffery was pleasantly overgrown, she could not for the life of her regard him as a baby. So it came to pass that an unnatural pair continued to meet and mystify and misunderstand each other to the great content of the high gods and of one unimportant human philosopher who looked on.

"I told you all this artificiality was spoiling her," Jaffery growled, one day. "She's as prim as an old maid. I can't get anything out of her."

"That's a pity," said I.

"It is." He reflected for a moment. "And the more so because she looks so stunning in her evening gowns. She wipes the floor with all the other women."

I smiled. You can get a lot of quiet amusement out of your friends if you know how to set to work.

* * *

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