IN GORDON SQUARE

It was James Hancock’s rule that a dinner should be served every night
at Gordon Square, to which he could invite any one, even a city
alderman.

On this especial day a dinner, even better than usual, was in prospect.
Miss Hancock had a large circle of acquaintances of her own; she
belonged to several anti-societies. As before hinted, she was not
destitute of a certain kindness of heart, and the counterfoils of her
cheque book disclosed not inconsiderable sums subscribed to the Society
for the Total Abolition of Vivisection and Kindred Bodies.

To-day she expected to dinner a person, a gentleman of the female
persuasion–that is to say, a sort of man. Mr Bulders, the person in
question, a member of the Anti-Tobacco League, was a crank of the
crankiest description. He wrote letters to the paper on every
conceivable subject, and in this way had obtained a dim and unholy sort
of notoriety. Fox hunting was his especial detestation, and his grand
hobby was cremation. “Why Fear the Flames?” by Emanuel Bulders, a
pamphlet of fifteen pages, privately printed, reposed in Miss Hancock’s
private bookcase. But Mr Bulders has no place in this story; he is dead
and–cremated, let us hope. I shadow him forth as the reason why Miss
Hancock was sitting this evening by the drawing-room fireplace, dressed
in the dress she assumed when she expected visitors, and engaged in
crochet-work.

The clock pointed to half-past six, Bulders was due–over-due, like the
Spanish galleon that was destined never to come into port. She had said
in her note, “Come early, I wish to talk over the last report of the
—- Society, and my brother has little sympathy with such subjects.”

Suddenly her trained ear distinguished the sound of her brother’s
latchkey in the door below. Some women are strangely like dogs in so far
as regards the senses of hearing and smell.

Patience Hancock, as she sat by the drawing-room fireplace, could tell
that her brother had not entered the house alone. She made out his
voice, and then the voice of Bridgewater. She supposed that James had
brought his clerk home to dinner to talk business matters over, as he
sometimes did; and she was relapsing from the attitude of strained
attention when a sound struck her, hit her, and caused her to drop her
crochet-work and rise to her feet.

She heard the laughter of a girl.

Almost instantly upon the laughter the door opened, and it seemed to
Miss Hancock that a dozen people entered the room.

“This is my sister Patience–Patience, Miss Lambert. We’ve all come back
to dinner. Sit down, Bridgewater. By the way, Patience, there’s a letter
for you; I took it from the postman at the hall door.” He handed the
letter; it was from Mr Bulders, excusing himself for not coming to dine,
and alleging for reason a sore throat.

Patience extended a frigid hand to Miss Lambert, who just touched it;
all the girl’s light-heartedness and vivacity had vanished for the
moment, Patience Hancock acted upon her like a draught of cold air.

“I think you have heard me mention Miss Lambert’s name, Patience. We
have been to the Zoo, the whole three of us. Immensely amusing place
the Zoo–makes one feel quite a boy again. Hey, Bridgewater!”

“I hope you enjoyed it,” said Miss Hancock in a perfunctory tone,
glancing at Fanny, who was seated in a huge rocking-chair, the only
really comfortable chair in the room, and then at Bridgewater, who had
taken his seat on the ottoman.

“Pretty well, thanks,” said Fanny, speaking in a languid tone. She had
assumed very much the air of a fine lady all of a sudden: she was not
going to be patronised by a solicitor’s daughter, and she had divined in
Patience Hancock an enemy. “The Zoo is very much like the world: there
is much to laugh at and much to endure. Taken as a whole, it is not an
unmixed blessing.”

James Hancock opened his mouth at these sage utterances, and then shut
it again and turned away to smile. Bridgewater had the bad manners to
scratch his head. Miss Hancock said, “Indeed?”

“Don’t you think so?”

“I think the world is exactly what we choose to make it,” said Patience
Hancock, quoting Bulders.

“You think _that_?” said Fanny, suddenly forgetting her fine lady
languors. “Well, I wish some one would show me how to make the world
just as I’d choose to make it. Oh, it would be such a world–no poor
people, and no rain, and no misery, and no debts.”

“You mean no debtors,” said Patience, seizing her opportunity. “It is
the debtors that make debts, just as it is the drunken people who make
drunkenness.”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” said Fanny, suddenly abandoning her
argumentative tone for one of reverie. “It’s the people in the world
that make it so horrid and so nice.”

“That’s exactly it,” said Hancock, who was standing on the hearthrug
listening to these banalities of thought, and contemplating Bridgewater.
“Miss Lambert is a true philosopher. It is the people who make the world
what it is; could we banish the meddlers and spies and traitors”–he
looked fixedly at his sister–“the world would not be an unpleasant
place to live in.”

“I hate spies,” said Fanny, totally unconscious of the delicate ground
she was stepping upon–“people who poke about into other people’s
business, and open letters, and that sort of thing.” Miss Hancock
flushed scarlet, and her brother noted the fact. “James opens letters, I
caught him.”

“Who is James?” asked Miss Hancock.

“He’s our butler,” said Fanny, looking imploringly at Mr Hancock as if
to say “Don’t tell.”

Miss Hancock rose. “May I show you to my room? you would like to remove
your hat.”

The dinner was not a success, intellectually speaking. James Hancock’s
temper half broke down over the soles, the sauce was not to his liking;
the sweet cakes, ices, and other horrors he had consumed during the day
had induced a mild attack of dyspepsia. His nose was red, and he knew
it; and, worst of all, faint twinges of gout made themselves felt. His
right great toe was saying to him, “Wait till you see what you’ll have
to-morrow.” Then Boffins, the old butler, tripped on the cat, broke a
dish, and James Hancock’s temper flew out.

I have described James Hancock badly, if you have not perceived that he
was a man with a temper. The evil demons in the Merangues and ices, the
irritation caused by Bridgewater’s confession, the provoking calmness
of his sister, the uric acid in his blood, and the smash of the broken
dish, all combined of a sudden and were too much for him.

“Damn that cat!” he cried. “Cats, cats, cats! How often have I told
you”–to his sister–“that I will not have my house filled with those
sneaking, prowling beasts? Chase her out; where is she?”

Boffins looked under the table and said “Scat,” but nothing “scatted.”

“She’s gone, Mr James.”

“I won’t have cats in my house,” said Mr James, proceeding with his
dinner and feeling rather ashamed of his outburst. “Dear Lord, Patience,
what do you call this thing?”

“The cook,” said Patience, “calls it, I believe, a _vol-au-vent_. What
is wrong with it?”

“What is right with it, you mean. Don’t touch it, Miss Lambert, unless
you wish to have a nightmare.”

“I think it’s delicious,” said Fanny, “and I don’t mind nightmares.
They’re rather fun–when they are over, and you wake up and find
yourself safe in bed.”

“Well, you’ll have some fun to-night,” grunted James. “The person who
cooked this atrocity ought to be made sleep with the person who eats
it.”

“James, you need not be _vulgar_,” said his sister.

“What’s vulgar?”

“Your remark.”

“Boffins, fill Miss Lambert’s glass–let’s change the subject. This
champagne is abominably iced–give me some Burgundy.”

“James!”

“Well?”

“Burgundy!”

“Well, what about Burgundy?”

“Surely you remember the gout–the frightful attack you had last time
after Burgundy.”

“Gout? I suppose you mean Arthritic Rheumatism? But perhaps you are
right, and Dr Garrod was wrong–let us call it gout. Fill up the glass,
Boffins. Bridgewater, try some Burgundy, and see if it affects your
gout. Boffins, that cat’s in the room, I hear it purring. I hear it, I
tell you, sir! where is the beast?”

The beast, as if in answer, poked its head from under the
table-cloth–it was in Miss Lambert’s lap.

Altogether the dinner was not a success.

“Your father has known my brother some time?” said Miss Hancock, when
the ladies found themselves alone in the drawing-room after dinner.

“Oh yes, some time now,” said Fanny. “They met over some law business.
Father had a dispute with Mr Bevan of Highshot Towers, the place
adjoining ours, you know, down in Buckinghamshire, and Mr Hancock was
very kind–he arbitrated.”

“Indeed? that is funny, for he is Mr Bevan’s solicitor.”

“Is that so? I’m sure I don’t know, I never trouble myself about law
business or money matters. I leave all that to father.”

They talked on various matters, and before Miss Lambert had been packed
into a specially chartered four-wheeler and driven home with Bridgewater
on the box beside the driver as chaperone, Miss Hancock had come to form
ideas about Miss Lambert such as she had never formed about any other
young lady. Ideas the tenor of which you will perceive later on.