MRS. VEILSTURM’S “AT HOME.”

“I hate ‘At Homes,’ they’re simply Inquisitions
To torture human beings into fits;
A mixture of plebeians and patricians,
On whom in judgment Mrs. Grundy sits;
Sonatas played by second-rate musicians,
And milk-and-water jokes by would-be wits;
Such squallings, scandals, crush of men and ladies–
It’s like a family party down in Hades.”

As this was the first victory he had ever obtained over his
egotistical nature, Eustace felt most unjustifiably proud, and viewed
his actions with great self-complacency, therefore the good results of
such victory merely became egotism in another form. His attitude
towards Lady Errington had certainly altered, but not for the better,
as the fantastic adoration he had formerly felt towards a vision of
his own creation had changed to an earthly love for the real woman, in
which there was mingled more of sensuality than platonism. Eustace was
certainly not a coarse man in any sense of the word, but he had
regarded the visionary Lady Errington so long as his own special
property, withheld from him by the accident of her marriage with
Guy, that when he saw the flesh-and-blood woman _riant_ in all her
newly-found vitality, he viewed her as a Sultan might view a fresh
odalisque added to his _serail_. The pale lily had changed into the
rich red rose, and the spiritual being of his fevered imagination had
taken the form of a beautiful woman, full of temptation to an ardent
lover.

Any sensible man would have seen from the short conversation he had
had with Lady Errington that love for the child filled her heart to
the exclusion of all else, but Eustace, with supreme egotism, deemed
that she loved the child simply because her husband was not worthy of
her affection and when he deigned to worship her she would certainly
forget the pale passion of maternal love under the fierce ardour of
his devotion.

With this idea in his mind it was no wonder he felt that he was
exercising great self-denial in trying to bring husband and wife
together, and in renouncing his desire to gain possession of a woman
for whom he felt an unreasoning admiration. However, being determined
to carry out this new mood of asceticism to the end, he took Guy up to
Town with him, and tried to amuse that moody young man to the best of
his power, which was a somewhat unsatisfactory task.

Seeing that he had abandoned his scheme to gain Alizon’s love, he did
not intend to speak to Mrs. Veilsturm, as he had now no desire to
entangle Guy with another woman, but as he was going to an “At Home”
given by Cleopatra, he did not hesitate to take his cousin with him in
the ordinary course of things.

Eustace knew more about Mrs. Veilsturm than she cared he should know,
as he had met her at Lima, in South America, when she was–well, not
Mrs. Veilsturm–and he judged a woman of her harpy-like nature would
not strive to annex anyone but a rich man. Guy was not rich, so
Eustace thought she would leave him alone–a most fatal mistake, as he
had unconsciously placed Cleopatra’s revenge within her grasp. Mrs.
Veilsturm had neither forgiven nor forgotten the deadly insult offered
to her by Lady Errington, but hitherto, owing to Guy’s devotion to his
wife, had been unable to entangle him in any way. Now, however, Fate
was playing into her hands, and when she received a note from Eustace,
asking if he might bring his cousin to the house in Park Lane she felt
a savage delight at such a stroke of unforeseen luck, but, being too
clever a woman to compromise her scheme in any way, wrote a cold reply
to Mr. Gartney, telling him he could bring Sir Guy Errington–if he
liked.

Of course Eustace did like, and as Guy, who had quite forgotten all
about the episode between Mrs. Veilsturm and his wife, listlessly
acquiesced, they both arrived at Cleopatra’s “At Home” somewhere about
five o’clock.

“I seem to remember the name,” said Guy, as they struggled up the
crowded stairs.

“You certainly ought to,” responded Eustace, “seeing that she is about
the best-known person in Town.”

“Ah, but you see I’m a country cousin now,” said Guy with a faint
smile. “Hang it! what a crush there is here.”

“That’s the art of giving an ‘At Home,'” answered Eustace drily, “you
put fifty people who hate one another in a room built to hold twenty,
and when they’re thoroughly uncomfortable you give them bad music,
weak tea, and thin bread-and-butter. After an hour of these delights
they go away in a rollicking humour to another Sardine Party. Oh, it’s
most amusing, I assure you, and–well, here we are, and here is Mrs.
Veilsturm.”

Cleopatra had certainly not lost any of her charms, and looked as
imperious and majestic as ever, standing in the centre of her guests,
arrayed in a startling costume of black and yellow, which gave her a
strange, barbaric appearance. There was no doubt that she wore too
many diamonds, but this was due to her African love for ornaments, and
with every movement of her body the gems flashed out sparkles of light
in the mellow twilight of the room.

A foreign musician, with long hair and pale face, was playing some
weird Eastern dance on the piano as Eustace entered and bowed before
her, and it suddenly flashed across his mind that this sensuously
beautiful woman was quite out of place amid these cold English blondes
and undecided brunettes. She ought to be tossing her slender arms in a
tropical forest, to the shrill music of pipes and muffled throbbing of
serpent-skin drums, whirling in the mystic gyrations of some sacred
dance before the shrine of a veiled goddess. The sickly odour of
pastilles, which she was fond of burning in her drawing-room, assisted
this fancy, and he was only roused from this strange vision by the
mellow voice of his hostess bidding him welcome, as she touched his
hand with her slender fingers.

“I am glad to see you, Mr. Gartney,” she said, with a slow smile; “it
is indeed kind of you to call so soon after your return. And your
friend, whom you were to bring?”

“Is here,” replied Eustace, presenting his cousin, “Sir Guy
Errington.”

Guy bowed, feeling somewhat bewildered at her rich loveliness, and,
with a swift glance from under her heavy eye-lashes, she shook hands
with him.

“Mr. Gartney’s friends are mine also–but you are welcome on your own
account, Sir Guy.”

“You are very kind,” answered Errington mechanically, “I think the
obligation is on my side, however.”

“He’s a fool,” decided Mrs. Veilsturm in her own mind, as she looked
at his fresh, simple face; “I can twist him round my finger, and I
will, if it’s only to spite his wife.”

At this moment Eustace was seized upon by Mr. Dolser, who was on the
look-out for copy, and, much against his will, was dragged to the
other end of the room by the pertinacious little man, leaving his
cousin in conversation with Mrs. Veilsturm.

The room was quite full of all sorts and conditions of men and women.
Cleopatra knew everybody in the literary, artistic, and musical world,
and they all came to her receptions, so that it was quite a treat to
find somebody there who had done nothing. This happened on occasions
when someone who had not done anything was brought to worship someone
who had. There were plenty of lady novelists in all shades, from
blonde to brunette, picking up ideas for their next three-volume
publication; pale young poets, with long hair and undecided legs, who
wrote rondels, triolets, and ballads, hinting, in wonderful rhyme, at
things fantastical; dramatists, young and old, full of three-act plays
and hatred of managers and critics. A haggard young man of the
impressionist school drooped in a corner, discoursing of Art, in the
newest jargon of the studios, to the last fashionable manageress, who
did not understand a word he was saying, but pretended to do so, as
she wanted him to paint her picture. Everyone present had an eye to
business, and each was pursuing his or her aim with vicious
pertinacity.

“Mixed lot, ain’t they?–yes!” said Mr. Dolser superciliously, when
he had got the unhappy Eustace pinned up in a corner; “don’t they
cackle about themselves too–rather See that stout old party in the
corner, in the damaged millinery–new novelist, you know–disease
school–Baudelaire without his genius–wrote ‘The Body Snatcher’
–yes!–read it?”

“No,” responded Eustace, shortly, “and I don’t intend to.”

“It is rather a corker for weak nerves,” said “The Pepper Box”
proprietor, affably; “there’s Gibbles–perfect genius as critic;
always slashes a book without reading it. He’s destroyed more
reputations than any one I know. Yes! Ah! fancy Maniswarkoffi
being here–pianist, you know. English, only they wouldn’t have
him under his real name of Grubs, so he went abroad and dug up
his present jawbreaker. Draws money now, and smashes two pianos a
week–beautiful!”

In this way Mr. Dolser artlessly prattled along, destroying a
reputation every time he opened his mouth, much to the disgust of
Gartney, who wanted to get away.

“Excuse me,” he said, in despair, “but I see a friend over there.”

“Ah! do you really?” replied Dolser, putting up his eyeglass. “Oh,
Macjean, isn’t it? Yes. Just come back from America. Had a row with pa
because he wanted him to marry some Scotch lassie. Yes.”

“You seem to know all about it?”

“Yes, yes; oh, yes. Business, you know–and by Jove! talking about
that, I want an interview with you about your book.”

“Then you won’t get one.”

“That’s all you know,” retorted Mr. Dolser. “What? You won’t tell me
anything? Never mind, I’ll make up a few fairy tales. If they ain’t
true that’s your look-out. Ta, ta! Look in ‘The Pepper Box’ next week.
Jove! there’s Quibbles. ‘Cuse me, I want to ask about Bundy’s
divorce,” and he disappeared into the crowd.

It was no use being angry with the little man, as he was so very
good-natured with all his impudence, so Eustace merely smiled, and
moving across the room to Otterburn, touched him on the shoulder.

“You here?” he said, in a tone of glad surprise. “I _am_ glad! I was
just going away.”

“Not enjoying yourself?” observed Eustace, leaning against the wall.

“Can any one enjoy himself here?” retorted Otterburn in disgust. “I’m
tired of hearing people talk about themselves; and if they talk about
anyone else—-”

“They abuse them thoroughly. My dear boy, it’s the way of the world.
By the way, you got my note about Victoria?”

Otterburn coloured.

“Yes; I’m very much obliged to you,” he replied, in his boyish
fashion. “If it is only true what you think, that she does care for
me—-”

“Of course she cares for you.”

“It seems too good to be true.”

“Do you think so?” said Gartney, drily. “Oh, I beg your pardon. I
forgot you are in love!”

“Cold-blooded cynic,” laughed Otterburn, “go thou and do likewise.”

“With your awful example before me–hardly,” replied Mr. Gartney, with
a kindly look in his eyes. “Did I tell you Errington is here to-day?”

“No. Is he really?–and Lady Errington?”

“Oh, she’s in the country. But Errington seemed as if he wanted waking
up, so I brought him to town with me.”

“By the way, how is Lady Errington?”

“Very much changed–and for the better. My prophecy concerning the
incomplete Madonna has come to pass. She is a mother now, and adores
her child.”

“Indeed! And is she going to adore her child for the rest of her
life?” asked Otterburn, flippantly.

Eustace shrugged his shoulders.

“I suppose so. She certainly can’t adore her husband. Guy is a real
good fellow, as I’ve always maintained, but no woman in the world
would put him on a pedestal.”

“Poor Errington! Is he as fond of his wife as ever?”

“Fonder, if possible.”

“Then I pity him!” said Macjean, emphatically–“I pity any man who
gives his heart to a woman to play with.”

“Yet that is really what you propose to do with yours.”

“Not at all. I am going to ask Miss Sheldon to be my wife once more.
If she accepts me, well and good, as I’ve no doubt we’ll make an
exemplary married couple. But if she refuses–well, I’m not going to
wear my heart on my sleeve by any means. There is always Laxton,
Africa, and good shooting.”

“All of which will console you for the loss of the woman you profess
to adore. What a prosaic idea!”

“A very sensible one, at all events,” retorted Macjean, with a grim
smile. “I’ve no fancy to play shuttlecock to any woman’s battledore.
Oh! there is Errington talking to our fair hostess.”

“Or rather, our fair hostess is talking to Errington.”

“Precisely. You shouldn’t have led this unfortunate fly into the
spider’s parlour, Gartney.”

“Why not?” replied Eustace, superciliously. “I assure you the fly is
all right. It is not rich enough for Mrs. Spider Veilsturm to seize
on. She only cares for opulent flies.”

“I’m afraid I can’t take your view of the situation, seeing what I now
see.”

Gartney, moved by a sudden curiosity, looked sharply at Cleopatra, who
was certainly putting forth all her fascinations towards Guy, and that
gentleman, who had apparently forgotten his wife for the moment, was
talking rapidly to her with a flushed face and considerable
earnestness. Eustace was puzzled at this, and frowned amiably at the
pair.

“Now what the deuce is that for?” he muttered to himself. “I certainly
did not ask her to fascinate him, and she has no reason to do so.
Humph! Perhaps Fate is once more interfering. If so—-Well,
Otterburn?”

But Otterburn had disappeared, and Eustace found that his place was
taken by Dolly Thambits, attended by Mr. Jiddy, both gentlemen
watching Mrs. Veilsturm over Gartney’s shoulder.

“Ah! how do you do, Thambits?” said Gartney, taking no notice of the
Jiddy parasite.

“I’m quite well,” replied Dolly, whose mild face wore anything but a
pleasant expression. “I say, who is he–the chap talking to Mrs.
Veilsturm? He came with you, didn’t he?”

“Yes; that is Sir Guy Errington, my cousin and very good friend.”

“Oh!” returned Mr. Thambits, after a pause. “I thought he was
married?”

“Of course–married Miss Mostyn,” murmured Jiddy, meekly.

“Well, marriage isn’t a crime,” said Eustace, raising his eyebrows.
“What is the meaning of the remark?”

“Eh?” answered Dolly, vacantly, with another scowl at Cleopatra. “Oh,
nothing only–oh, bother! they’ve gone into the next room. Come,
Jiddy!” and the young man vanished into the crowd, accompanied by his
umbra, leaving Eustace in a state of considerable bewilderment.

“Is the boy mad,” said that gentleman to himself, “or only jealous?
The latter, I think. He sees it too. Confound it! What does it mean?
She’s surely not going to fight an enemy unworthy of her spear? Yet, I
don’t know. Women are strange creatures. She must have some reason.
I’ll go and see what Major Griff says about it.”

That redoubtable warrior, looking stiffer, airier, and more military
than ever, was talking in his sharp voice to a ponderous gentleman
somewhat after the Dr. Johnson type, who was listening attentively.

“Yes, sir,” the Major was saying, “I am growing tired of town. I think
I’ll take a run across to New York.”

“And Mrs. Veilsturm?”

“I am not aware what Mrs. Veilsturm’s plans may be,” said Griff, in a
frigid tone, “as she does not honour me with her confidence so far.”

The ponderous gentleman smiled meaningly, as he, in common with the
rest of society, was beginning to doubt the platonic relationship said
to exist between the Major and Cleopatra. Major Griff saw the smile,
and, ever on the alert to defend Mrs. Veilsturm from the slightest
breath of scandal, would have made some sharp remark, but at that
moment Eustace touched him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, Major,” he said courteously, “but could I speak to you for
a few moments?”

“Certainly, certainly,” answered Griff, with great readiness. “Mr.
Waldon, we will resume our conversation on some other occasion.”

He was always willing to oblige Eustace from motives of diplomacy, as
he was well aware Mr. Gartney was to a certain extent behind the
scenes, and judged himself and Cleopatra from a very different
standpoint to that of the world. Eustace indeed knew that both Major
Griff and his fair friend were neither more nor less than a couple of
clever adventurers, but with indolent good nature he never imparted
this opinion to any one, as he saw no reason to topple down the house
of cards they had so laboriously built up. Besides, he hated the
trouble which the exposing of the pair would entail, and, in his
innermost heart deeming them not much worse than the rest of London
society, he permitted them to continue their predatory career
unchecked. The Major knew that Eustace would leave himself and partner
alone, but was always scrupulously polite to him, so that nothing
disagreeable should arise to mar the perfect understanding between
them.

“I’m glad to see you back again, Mr. Gartney,” said the Major,
mendaciously, when they were established in a comfortable corner out
of earshot.

“It’s very kind of you to say so,” responded Gartney, who quite
appreciated and understood the sincerity of the remark, “I thought you
would have been glad to have heard of my death in Arabia.”

“And why?” demanded Griff, warmly–“why, Mr. Gartney?”

“Oh, if you don’t know I’m sure I can’t tell you,” retorted Eustace,
maliciously; “but don’t trouble yourself to pay fictitious
compliments, Major. I think we understand one another.”

“Of course,” assented the Major, with great dignity; “between
gentlemen there is always a sympathetic feeling.”

Gartney would have liked to have argued this point, but having no time
to do so, he merely shrugged his shoulders, and resumed the
conversation.

“I brought my cousin, Sir Guy Errington, here to-day.”

“The devil you did!” ejaculated Griff, considerably astonished.

Struck by the Major’s tone, Eustace fixed his eyes keenly on him.

“If you doubt me,” he said coolly, “you will be convinced by going to
the refreshment room, where, at present, he is in conversation with
Mrs. Veilsturm.”

“Egad! she’s got him at last,” muttered Griff, pulling his grey
moustache with an air of vexation.

“What do you say?” asked Gartney sharply.

Major Griff did not answer, being apparently in deep thought, but when
Gartney addressed him the second time he had evidently made up his
mind what course to pursue, and spoke accordingly.

“It doesn’t suit me,” said the Major deliberately, “and I’m sure it
won’t suit you, nor your cousin, nor your cousin’s wife.”

“It is as I thought,” observed Eustace coolly; “there is something at
the bottom of all this, therefore, if you will be less enigmatic,
Major, I shall understand your meaning all the sooner.”

“I don’t like to show my hand,” remarked Griff, taking an illustration
from his favourite pursuit, “but in this case I’ll treat you as a
partner and do so. I know why you want to speak to me.”

“Do you?” said Eustace imperturbably.

“Yes! She”–referring to Mrs. Veilsturm–“is no doubt making the
running with Sir Guy Errington to an extent which surprises you, and
you want to know the reason.”

“Seeing that my cousin is not rich enough to tempt either Mrs. V. or
yourself, I do,” returned Eustace with brutal candour.

Whereupon, the Major, like the daring old campaigner he was, told
Gartney the whole story of the card episode, to which he listened
attentively, and saw clearly the pit into which he had innocently led
his cousin.

“Well, Mr. Gartney,” said Griff, when the story was finished and
Eustace made no remark, “what do you say?”

Eustace took out his watch and glanced at the time before replying.
Then he replaced it in his pocket and answered the Major.

“At present, I say nothing; later on, I may.”

“Oh, ho!” quoth Griff sharply, “then you have some idea—-”

“I have no idea whatever,” replied Gartney sharply. “Your story was
quite new to me. I brought my cousin here innocently enough, and if
Mrs. Veilsturm thinks him sufficiently handsome to captivate, that’s
her business, not mine.”

He turned on his heel and went off, leaving Griff staring after him in
the most astonished manner.

“What does it mean?” pondered the old campaigner. “Oh! he doesn’t seem
to mind Maraquita playing the devil with his cousin, as she intends
to. Now I shouldn’t wonder,” said the Major grimly, “I shouldn’t
wonder a bit if there was another lady mixed up in this affair.”