ASPARAGUS AND CATS

Charles Bevan followed his cousin to the house. His orderly mind could
never have imagined of its own volition a _ménage_ like that of the
Lamberts. He revolted at it, yet felt strangely fascinated. It was like
watching people dancing on a tight rope half cut in two, sailors
feasting and merry-making on a sinking wreck, children plucking flowers
on the crumbling edge of a cliff.

Tea was laid in state in the drawing-room, a lovely old room with
tapestried walls, and windows that opened upon the garden; or at least
that part of it which had been robbed of its roses and converted into a
kitchen-garden during one of George Lambert’s economical fits.

“That is the asparagus bed,” said Fanny proudly.

It was like a badly-ploughed field, and Charles’ eye travelled slowly
over its ridges and hollows.

“Have you a potato bed?” he asked, his mind subconsciously estimating
the size of the Lamberts’ Highgate estate on the basis that their potato
crop was in proportion to their asparagus.

“Oh, we buy our potatoes and cabbages and things,” said Fanny; “they are
cheap.”

“But asparagus takes such a time to grow–four years, I think it is.”

“Oh, surely not so long as that?” said the girl, taking her seat at the
tea-table. “Why, oak trees would grow quicker than that; besides, James
said we would have splendid asparagus next spring, and he was a
professed gardener before his misfortunes overtook him. Do you take
sugar?”

“Yes, please,” said Charles, wearily dropping into a low chair and
wondering vaguely at the angelic beauty of the girl’s face.

“And what, may I ask, were the ‘misfortunes’ that overtook James?”

“His wife, poor thing, took to drink,” said she, with so much
commiseration in her tone that she might have been a disciple of the new
criminology, “and that broke his heart and took all his energy away.”

“Do you believe him?”

“Why not? He is a most devoted creature; and he is going to give up the
business he is in and stay on when father pays Mr Isaacs. I hope we will
never part with James.”

Susannah, in honour of the guest, had produced the best tea service, a
priceless set of old Sèvres. The tray was painted with Cupidons blowing
trumpets as if in honour of the victory of Susannah over mischance, in
that she had conveyed them upstairs by some miracle unsmashed.

There was half a cake by Buszard; the tea, had it been paid for, would
have cost five shillings a pound, but the milk was sky blue.

As Fanny was cutting up the cake in liberal slices as if for a
children’s party, two frightful-looking cats walked into the room with
all the air of bandits. One was jet black and one was brindled; both
looked starved, and each wore its tail with a pump-handle curve after
the fashion of a lion’s when marauding.

Fanny regarded them lovingly, and poured out a saucerful of the blue
milk which she placed on the floor.

“Aren’t they angels?”

“Well, if you ask me,” said Charles Bevan, as if he were giving his
opinion on some object of _vértu_, “I’d say they were more like–the
other things.”

“I know they are not _pretty_,” said Fanny regretfully, “but they are
faithful. They always come to tea just as if they were invited.”

“I wonder your poodle–I mean the dog, lets them in.”

“Boy-Boy?–Oh, he only barks at things at night when they can’t see him;
he would run from a mouse, he’s such a dear old coward. Aren’t they
thirsty?”

“Where did you get them? I should think they would be hard to match.”

“I didn’t get them: they are not ours, they just come in.”

“Do you mean to say you let stray cats in like that?”

“_I_ don’t let them in, they come in through a hole in the scullery
window.”

“Goodness gracious!”

“Sometimes the kitchen is full of cats; they seem to know.”

“That fools live here,” thought Charles.

“And Susannah spends all her time turning them out–all, of course,
except the black ones.”

“Why not the black ones?”

“Because they are lucky; did you not know that? It’s frightfully
unlucky to turn a black cat out.”

“Why not fill up the hole and stop them from getting in?”

“Susannah has stuffed it up with old stockings and things till she’s
weary; they butt it in with their heads.”

“Why not have a new pane put in?”

“Father has talked of that, but I have always changed the conversation,
and then he forgets.”

“You like cats?”

“I love them.”

Charles looked gloomily at the grimalkins.

“Seems to me you must have your food stolen.”

“We used to, but Susannah locks everything up now before she goes to
bed.”

She inverted the milk jug to show the cats that there was no milk left,
and the intelligent creatures comprehending left the room, the black
leading the way.

“Faithful creatures!” sneered Charles.

“Aren’t they! Oh, but, Cousin Charles–I mean Mr—-”

“No; call me Cousin Charles.”

“–I’ve given the cats all the milk!”

“No matter,” said Charles magnanimously. “The poor beggars wanted it
more than I. I never drink more than one cup of tea; it makes me
nervous.”

“How good you are!” she murmured. “You remind me of father.”

Charles moved uneasily in his chair.

From somewhere in the distance came the sound of Susannah singing and
cleaning a window, a song like a fetish song interrupted by the sound of
the window being closed to see if it was clean enough, and flung up
again with a jerk, that spoke of dissatisfaction. These sounds of a
sudden ceased.

They were succeeded by the murmur of voices, a footstep, then a tap at
the door, followed by the voice of Susannah requesting her mistress to
step outside for a moment.

“I know what _that_ always means,” murmured the girl in a resigned
voice, as she rose from the table and left the room.

Charles Bevan rose from his chair and went to the window.

“These people want protecting,” he said to himself frowning at the
asparagus bed. “Irresponsibility when it passes a certain point becomes
absolute lunacy. Fanny and her father ought to be in a lunatic asylum
with their ghosts, and cats, and rubbish, only I don’t believe any
lunatic asylum would take them in; they would infect the other patients
and make them worse. Good Heavens! it makes me shudder. They must be on
the verge of the workhouse, making asparagus beds, and drinking
champagne, and flying off to Paris, and feeding every filthy stray cat
with food they must want for themselves. Poor devils–I mean damned
fools. Anyhow, I must be going.” The recollection of a certain lady
named Pamela Pursehouse arose coldly in his mind now that Miss Lambert
was absent from the room, and the little “still voice,” whatever a still
voice may be, said something about duty.

He determined to flee from temptation directly his hostess returned, but
he reckoned without Fate.

The door opened and Fanny entered with a face full of tragedy.

She closed the door.

“What do you think Susannah has told me?” She spoke in a low voice as
if death were in the house.

“What?”

“James has come in and he has–had too much!”

“You don’t mean to say that he is intoxicated?”

“I do,” said Fanny with her voice filled with tears.

“How _disgraceful_! I will go down and turn him out.” Then he remembered
that he could not very well turn him out considering that he was in
possession.

“For goodness sake don’t even hint that to him, or he may go,” cried
Fanny in alarm, “for, when he gets like this, he always talks of leaving
at once, because his calling is a disgrace to him, and if he went,
Susannah would follow him.”

“But, my dear girl,” cried Charles, “how dare that wretched
Susannah–ahem–why, he’s a married man, you told me so; surely she
knows _that_.”

“Yes, she knows that, but she says she can’t help herself.”

“_I_ never met such people before!” said Charles, addressing a jade
dragon on the mantelpiece–“I mean,” he said, putting his hands in his
trousers’ pockets and addressing his boots, “such a person as Susannah.”

“Her mother ran away with her father,” murmured Fanny in extenuation,
“so I suppose it is in the blood. But I wish we could do something with
James. If he would even go to bed, but he sits by the kitchen fire
crying, and that sets Susannah off. She will be ill for days after this.
He said it was a cigar some one gave him that reminded him of his better
days—-”

“Bother his better days!”

“—-and he went to try and drown the recollection of them. It is so
stupid of him, he _knows_ how drink flies to his head; you would never
imagine if you could see him now that he has only had two glasses of
beer.”

“I will go down to the kitchen and speak to him,” said Charles.

“But, Cousin Charles,” said Fanny, plucking at his coat, “be sure and
speak gently.”

“I will,” said Mr Bevan.

“Then I’ll go with you,” said she.

James, a long ill-weedy looking man, was seated before the kitchen fire
on a chair without a back; Susannah, on hearing their footsteps, darted
into the scullery.

“Now, James, now, James,” said Charles Bevan, speaking in a paternal
voice, “what is the meaning of all this? How did you get yourself into
this condition?”

James turned his head and regarded Charles. He made a vain endeavour to
speak and rise from his chair at one and the same time, then he
collapsed and his tears returned anew.

At the sound, Susannah in the scullery threw her apron over her head and
joined in, whilst Fanny looked out of the window and sniffled.

“_I_ never saw such a lot of people!” cried Charles in desperation.
“James, James, be a man.”

“How can he,” said Fanny, controlling her voice, “when he is in this
terrible state? Cousin Charles, don’t you think you could induce him to
go to bed?”

“I think I could,” said Charles grimly, “if you show me the way to his
room.”