No appetite

An urchin throws a stone into the horse-pond. Circles; form, not only
in the still water, but in the fluent air, to enring invisibly our
sphere. And who can say to what limit they recede, if limit there be?
So with a carelessly selected, hastily flung word. Had Lady Jim said
_your_ future, Askew, assuming no coupling, would have grumbled
himself back into tame-catism and canine contentment with casual
head-pats. But, _our_ future! The pronoun bulked portentous. Its three
letters encompassed, to the lover’s prolific imagination–divorce,
remarriage, a life-long duet and amorous communings in the highest
paradise attainable by those yet moving in time.

Lady Jim, less philological, gave him to understand, that a single
word could by no means embrace such various interpretations. She again
emphasised her matronhood, called Askew’s attention to the spotless
reputation he wished to smirch, and intimated that poor Jim’s illness
precluded her from thinking of anything save poor Jim’s possible
decease. “In which sad case,” mourned Leah, “we could renew our
conversation without reproach.”

“A widow has no bridesmaids, I believe?” hinted Askew, reflectively.
She hinted back with sweet smiles, “Don’t you prefer a quiet wedding?”
And on this adjustment of the situation he built castles, believing
the foundation to be sound. Strangely enough, in so honest a
gentleman, the heartlessness of utilising possibilities connected with
the Kaimes’ vault never occurred to him. Which proved, without need of
words, the essential selfishness of the feeling he miscalled love.

On this arrangement Lady Jim frolicked gaily through the remaining
weeks of the season, well content that things were as they were. A
Jamaica cablegram, which–it designedly not being in cypher–she could
and did show to the Duke, informed both that a wifely nurse was
needless. The last word of the communication promised a letter, which
duly arrived. This last also was a public document, Demetrius being
too cunning to detail criminality in black and white. Pentland and
Leah read the letter cheek by jowl. Lord James was a trifle better,
said the script, and if able to outlast the voyage, would return to
England, en route for Algiers. Lady James could then nurse him into
health, say, at Biskra.

“Thank heaven,” quavered the Duke, not reading between the lines, as
did his better-informed daughter-in-law. “We’ll make a party and go
there for the autumn. Frith will be delighted.”

“On Jim’s account?” inquired Leah, dryly. “Rather an effort, Duke.”

“On my account,” rebuked the old man. “Frith knows that if Jim is to
leave us”–his voice faltered and fell–“I should like to see him
depart.”

“Why does the prodigal son always banquet on the calf?” mused Lady
Jim, restoring the letter to her pocket.

“My dear, many failings require many excuses.”

“So it seems. Selfish people receive more praise for one creditable
action, than do those kind-hearted fools who spend their lives in
self-denial.”

“We must encourage the good seed to grow, my dear.”

She laughed unpleasantly. “It usually springs up wild oats, with
over-attention!” and she departed to consider the inexplicable growth
of green bay-trees.

Lord Frith had never given his father the slightest trouble; he was a
model son, an admirable husband; his friendships were staunch, and his
life clean–yet Pentland contented himself with perfunctory praise of
these qualities. He expected his eldest son to be a domestic Bayard,
as the unimaginative Marquis had shown no desire to sow the wind. Jim,
on the other hand, left the reaping of his whirlwind to doting
relatives. Devourer of husks with congenial swine, and caring only for
his large, healthy, greedy self, he had never done a kind act or shown
a filial trait. A spendthrift, a rogue in grain, cursed by many men,
blessed by no woman, he–this profligate egotist–was dealt with not
only tenderly, but in a way calculated to assure him that he was a
pearl without price. His notorious failings were covered by the phrase
that “he was his own worst enemy,” and the presumed possession of good
qualities, never manifested, entitled him to paternal pity. Leah, an
easy-going sinner herself, was not hard on those who dwelt in glass
houses. But this gilding of Jim’s base metal made her gorge rise.

“What’s the use of being good?” she moralised, as her brougham sped
towards Curzon Street. “Kindness is looked upon as weakness, and the
more generous one is, the more those who don’t know the meaning of the
word sponge and sneer. If you are really bad, sham philanthropists
reclaim you and cocker you up, and praise you loudly if you say ‘Hang’
instead of ‘Damn!’ A sinner repents, and Heaven is a-flutter; a saint
makes one slip, and the world yells hypocrite. A pied person, neither
white nor black, is left alone, as the majority are of that mottled
complexion. To be really good is to be hated; to be extremely bad
means excuses, help, and trumpetings. Frith gets the kicks without
deserving them, and Jim the half-pence he has never earned. Clever
Jim, who has chosen the world’s better part.”

It will be seen that Leah, being of the world, judged as the world,
and yet with greater discernment. In one way she was right. It is
generally your sinner who gobbles up the cakes and ale. But Lady
Jim–no very ardent Bible student–misread texts, or rather, read her
own material meaning into them. Therefore, although conversant with
green bay-trees–did she not dwell in a grove of such?–her memory did
not recall the axe that might be laid to the roots thereof. The
Seventy-third Psalm might also have assisted her to a better
understanding of undeserved worldly prosperity, had she done other
than gabble it hastily, when it happened to come into the service. But
the fetish which stood to her in place of the Living God did not
encourage spiritual explorations, and Leah saw life as a
comprehensible stretch of time, limited by birth or death. The
hereafter–if any–she could not conceive, knowing only the present as
the real, the actual, and the true. Therefore did she grudge Jim his
undeserved coddlings. Had he lain on a bed of his own making, it would
have been justice–strict justice; but that fools should prepare him a
feather mattress and downy pillow seemed, and really was, intolerable.
Thinking of the Duke’s wasted and misplaced affection, Leah plucked
the fruit of her Tree of Knowledge. “Good people need missionaries,”
said Lady Jim.

However, as Jim and she had occupied separate rooms for many a long
day, his featherbedism troubled her little. Also, Askew had been
brought to heel by the promise of future bones. The plot was being
rounded off in far Jamaica without her aid, and what with Sir Billy’s
winnings and a moderate cheque cajoled out of the Duke, she had enough
to keep the wolf from the Curzon Street door. On the whole, things
could not be improved, and it only remained to exercise patience. But
of this virtue Leah possessed little, and did not care to expend what
she had in twiddling her thumbs at home. Jim was away, so she could
play–and did. A masked ball at Covent Garden amused her immensely;
the plays condemned by Sir Billy found in her a lenient critic; and
now that Pentland had paid off old bills, she ran up new ones with the
zest of a woman who required nothing. Also, she went to Epsom, and
pulled off a decent sum on a tip breathed into her ear by the racing
baronet, whom she had snubbed into slangy admiration. To Hurlingham
and Richmond she raced a split-new motor-car of the latest pattern,
and exhibited her nerve and skill in the Park. Charity bazaars, Savoy
dinners, bridge parties, Sunday river excursions, and such-like
time-killers beheld her in varied and tasteful frocks, and she also
dined with those friends upon whose cook she could rely. Altogether,
she enjoyed the life of a busy idler, and had that remarkably
agreeable time which magnificent health, comparative wealth, and a
conscience of no importance would give to such a woman. But her head
duly governed her frivolities, and she made no plans for the Cowes
week, although she knew a manageable man with a delightful yacht. The
daily expected decease of Jim had to be considered, and thoughtful
Leah had already designed her mourning. Meanwhile, she babbled of
Biskra to Lady Canvey, and rather overdid it.

“Are you and Jim going on a second honeymoon?” inquired that
suspicious old dame.

“We are,” replied Leah, calmly. “How clever of you to guess it!”

“Humph! The poor wretch must be worse than I thought.”

“I see; my affection, to your mind, is too obvious.”

“The non-existent can never manifest itself,” said Lady Canvey, in
scientific English. “Either a miracle has happened to give you a
heart, or Jim is dying, and you are getting ready to dance on his
grave.”

Leah coloured with suppressed anger. This plain speaking annoyed her,
and she disliked people who peeped behind the scenes. “Jim and I are
not angels, godmother,” she said with dignity; “but we’re pals enough
to make me regret his death. My mourning, though you may doubt it,
will be perfectly sincere.”

Lady Canvey gave a dry laugh. “See Carlyle on the ‘Philosophy of
Clothes.’ Well, I shan’t pay your bill at Jay’s.”

“Thanks. I don’t ask you to. The total might involve a larger cheque
than you would care to sign.”

“I’m sure of that, my dear, seeing your mourning is to be perfectly
sincere.”

The impracticable old woman and her god-daughter were alone, else this
snapping might not have occurred. Leah had rather neglected Lady
Canvey of late, because that astute octogenarian had locked up her
cheque-book. But on her way to an “At Home” she had looked in for a
few moments, and sat in the stuffy Victorian room, radiant in a crêpe
ninon frock of Parma violet, elaborately flounced, and with a fichu
and short sleeves. The dress was simple enough, and she wore little
jewellery; but her dazzling neck and shoulders and arms, her glorious
hair and calm strong face, would have made her noticeable even in a
crowd of picked beauties. Lady Canvey, whose ill-humour was mostly
surface-crabbedness, for she preferred losing a friend to withholding
an epigram, could not refrain from grudging compliments. But between
women these rang hollow.

“You look charming to-night, my dear.”

“After the storm, the sunshine,” said Lady Jim, smiling at such novel
civility. “Well, I appreciate the change. Whatever my faults may be,
godmother, you cannot say that I am disagreeable. I always call, in
spite of your–your–what shall we say?”

“Home-truths! And you call when it suits you. Humph! Perhaps I am a
trifle short-tempered.”

“A trifle!”

“Old age has its privileges,” Lady Canvey reminded her; “and you can
be so cleverly nasty when you like, that it amuses me to bring the
worst out of you.”

“What a doubtful compliment! Do you extract amusement from the
Tallentire girl in the same way?”

“She has no bad in her.”

“Quite so, and you never try to bring out the good which does _not_
amuse you. Sunday schools are beneficial rather than entertaining. I
don’t see Miss–what’s her name?” and Lady Jim glanced round the
room.

“Joan Tallentire,” snapped her hostess; “you remember the name well
enough. It’s fashionable to have a short memory, I suppose.”

“For debts,” said Leah, sweetly; “but Miss Tallentire?”

“She is looking after her father’s house, as the mother is ill.”

“Poor woman! I hope Lionel is not preaching at her, to make her
worse.”

“Lionel isn’t always in the pulpit. By the way, Leah, he told me that
he had a serious talk with you at Firmingham.”

“Did he? Yes! I believe he did give me a dull quarter of an hour.
Something about sin, I fancy it was. Parsons have a monomania on that
subject.”

Lady Canvey made an angry noise in her wrinkled throat. “You’re
impossible,” she pronounced tartly. “Lionel wishes to improve you.”

“What about Jim? Charity should commence with his own family.”

“Well, my dear, Lionel admires you, and—-”

“Oh! He _is_ a man, then. I don’t think I ever made running with a
clergyman; it might be rather fun. I suppose Lionel would recite the
Song of Solomon to me–there’s lots of love-talk in it. Not very
proper talk, either, I’m told. Perhaps Solomon wrote it for married
women; he had some experience of them, hadn’t he? He collected
concubines, didn’t he?–just like a stamp-maniac.”

“Leah, you’re insufferable.”

“And impossible!” She rose to go, and arranged the fur-lined Medici
collar of her evening wrap in the dim mirror. “But I’m about to be
punished for my sins. The Duke made me promise to go to this At Home.
Mrs. Saracen, you know–she’s one of the submerged Upper Ten, or she
married one of them; I forget which, though I know she has something
to do with a pickle, or a sauce. Very amusing old thing, too. She
gives you a nutshell biography of every one before she introduces.”

“What on earth for?”

“Oh, so that you may be warned against people’s skeletons. Mrs.
Saracen points out the cupboard and tells you not to open it, and of
course you do.”

Lady Canvey chuckled. “Rather clever. And her friends—-?”

“Male and female, I believe. She collects people who have done
something.”

“In the criminal way?”

“She would, if the law allowed them out of gaol. But at present she
contents herself with freaks. I don’t go to middle-class menageries as
a rule, but at the Duke’s request I patronise this one.”

“Come to-morrow and tell me all about it.”

“If you’ll promise to be nice.”

Her godmother was silent for a moment. “Leah, my dear,” she said at
length, taking the gloved hand, “I am sorry we always quarrel when we
meet. I really have a corner in my heart for you, and if you were only
less–less–” Lady Canvey hunted for the right word–“less
exasperating, we should get on excellently.”

Lady Jim nodded, squeezed the bony hands, and kissed the wrinkled
cheek.

“Let us make a fresh start,” she said gently, for she really felt
sorry. “I’ll come every day while Miss Tallentire is absent and tell
you the news.”

“That’s a good girl. Goodnight. Enjoy yourself, my dear”; and the two
parted better friends than they had been for months.

On her way to Mrs. Saracen, who lived in the wilds of Kensington, Leah
saw herself in the new character of dry-nurse to a spiteful old
harridan, and wondered at her good-nature. Why should she bore herself
with a spent octogenarian, whose sole attraction was the possession of
money, with which she declined to part? Yet Lady Jim had promised
daily visits to this ruin, and what is more, for no reason
discoverable to herself, intended to keep her promise, even though
there was nothing to be gained by such self-denial. The idea that she,
of all people, should do something for nothing, tickled her greatly,
and the street-lamps swinging past the brougham flashed on an amused
face. She was so pleased with discovering virtue in such an unexpected
quarter that she quite forgot to look mournful when her hostess
inquired after Jim’s health.

The waist upon which the Honourable Mrs. Saracen had prided herself
somewhere about the middle of the nineteenth century was now a matter
of guess-work. Her stoutness impressed even the unobservant with the
conviction that she had eaten her way through life, and was at present
engaged in digging a not-far-off grave with her teeth. And, for her
age, she had an astonishingly good set, obtrusively genuine. Her
general appearance was in keeping, for she wore her own white hair in
smooth bands, under a Waterloo turban, fearfully and wonderfully made,
and presented a natural face of winter-apple rosiness, scored with
good-humoured wrinkles. As Nature had made her, and Time had aged her,
so she was, growing old healthily, if not gracefully. In an alarming
dress, many-coloured as Joseph’s coat, she wheezed like a plethoric
poodle, and rolled in a nautical manner by reason of her bulk. Who
would have guessed at a brain hidden in this ponderous mass of
adipose?

Yet she was a self-made woman, who had acquired a large fortune by the
sale of “Saracen’s Sauce.” Therefore did current gossip accuse her of
beginning life as a cook. A perfect invention, this, as she was a
gentlewoman who had, intellectually, married beneath her–that is, she
had bought with the sauce money a scampish aristocrat of the Jim
Kaimes type, only less manly. He had long since drank himself into the
family vault, and had left his wife with one son, who was now in the
army. Every one liked Mrs. Saracen, in spite of her eccentricities,
and love of glaring colours, and many a society pauper had reason to
thank her for timely help. And to cap her good qualities, she
professed open pride in the sauce, which appeared on every
middle-class dinner-table throughout the three kingdoms.

“Dear Lady James,” she wheezed, wagging two fat hands, like a seal its
flappers, “how good of you to come! You will find some interesting
people here”–she looked round with pride at the collection of lions,
old and young, tame and wild, fat and lean, sham and real. “Now, Mr.
Wallace here–let me present him. Charming man–very outspoken–great
traveller–Zambesi–knows cannibals intimately!” Then, behind
a plump hand, whispered a nutshell biography, “Don’t mention his
wife–divorce.”

Thus warned, Leah got on excellently with the lean, brown, keen-eyed
man, who confessed to extensive explorations. “Cannibals?–yes, Lady
James, I know a few and love them.”

“What strange affection, Mr. Wallace! Why?”

“They ate a man I detested. I fear he disagreed with them in death, as
he always disagreed with me in life.”

Lady Jim laughed. “Is there any one here you would like to make a
side-dish of?” she asked, letting her eyes rove.

“No; I am a complete stranger in London. It is the one place I have
not explored. But Mrs. Saracen has told me the past of many here, and
I can give you histories, if you like.”

“Go on, then. Only don’t give me dates, else the women here might
scratch. I don’t know these creatures myself,” she went on, with the
calm insolence of a great lady; “to me they are like your Central
African natives.”

“I agree, Lady James–only less civilised.”

“In what way?”

“Niggers wear no clothes, and, therefore, are more modest.”

“I can quite imagine it. That thin lady over there is evidently of
your opinion”; and Leah glanced at a mature damsel who wore just
sufficient clothing to prevent interference by the police.

“Miss Fastine? She’s a Naturopath, and is trying to revert to
primitive simplicity.”

“With such a figure she might stop short of the Garden of Eden,” said
Lady Jim, dryly. “I never heard of a Naturopath. What is it?”

“An American sect, which needs solitude to carry out its theories. The
members sleep in the open, cover themselves with earth when they feel
sick, and advocate the altogether.”

“You are joking, Mr. Wallace.”

The traveller stifled a laugh. “Upon my word, Lady James, I am in
earnest. The sect really does exist. That stout man talking to Mrs.
Saracen belongs to another queer lot. Calls himself an Osteopath.”

“What on earth is that?”

“One who cures by vitalising the nerves.”

“I am as wise as I was before. Any more freaks?”

“Yonder is a Christian Scientist. And the man on the left advocates
Mahomedanism as the State religion in England.”

“While the dressmakers charge so ruinously, he’ll never induce men to
take four wives. And the woman in the red dress?”

“Lady Tansey–a believer in spirits.”

“So I should imagine,” said Lady Jim, surveying the lady’s nose, which
was long and thin and the hue of her gown.

“No, no! I talk of heavenly spirits. Lady Tansey has a large circle of
departed friends, who rap.”

“What a bore! As if one didn’t get enough of friends in this world,
without worrying them to knock out bad grammar from the next. Really,
Mr. Wallace, I begin to think Mrs. Saracen must keep a lunatic
asylum.”

“Oh dear no,” he answered, chuckling. “It is the sane people that are
usually shut up.”

“Certainly not the disagreeable people,” retorted Lady Jim.

“Oh, if you go to those lengths, there would be no society,” said
Wallace, with a shrug.

The traveller’s cynicism exactly suited Leah’s humour at the moment,
and she made him take her in to supper. Meanwhile, Askew, who had not
seen Lady Jim arrive, was watching the grand entrance with a lowering
face. He had called at Curzon Street, and thence had borne a message
for Leah which he was anxious to deliver. Already he had been bored to
distraction with faddists and their whims, and was seriously thinking
of slipping away, when Mrs. Saracen bore down on him for the fourth
time. Before he could object she had him by the arm, and confronted
him with a severe-looking woman, pensive and solitary.

“Do let me introduce you to Miss Galway,” she wheezed. “You’ll get on
so well with Mr. Askew, dear Miss Galway. He’s navy, you know, or has
been–left it–going to be married. And Mr. Askew, if you can talk of
Ph[oe]nician inscriptions to Miss Galway, she’ll entertain you for
hours. Quite an authority on Solomon, I believe–very clever,
most intellectual!” Then aside, hastily: “Say nothing about her
brother–jail!”

Poor Askew! Miss Galway proved to be a limpet, and held on to him
desperately, not because he was handsome, but for the sake of the two
ears he possessed, into which she could pour her archæological
triumphs.

She prosed in a manly voice about Hiram of Tyre and the building of
Solomon’s Temple, and the probability that its design was copied from
the Shrine of Moloch, and the remains that Zerubbabel must have found
after the Babylonian captivity, until his poor head buzzed like a
saw-mill. In the hope of stopping this endless trickle of nothings he
cajoled her to the supper-room. There, at a small table well-covered,
Lady Jim ate and drank and chatted, light-heartedly, with a
sharp-eyed, sun-dried mummy. She nodded a “How d’y do?” to her sailor,
and smilingly observed his entanglement. Luckily for the preservation
of Askew’s temper, a rival archæologist arrived to discuss Hittite
grammar, and he managed to slip away while the male and female
dryasdusts wrangled over the probable origin of the Perizzites.

“You haven’t been near me all the evening,” complained Leah, when
Wallace received his congé and Askew sat in the seat of the scornful.

“Didn’t see you arrive, worse luck. If you’d been dosed with Hivites
and Jebusites and all that truck, as I’ve been, you’d have a headache,
too.”

“It’s unusual for you to have a headache.”

“And inevitable for me to have a heartache.”

“On account of that alphabet woman, I suppose. Why don’t you feed?”

“No appetite. But if you’ll come along to the Cecil—-”

“Certainly not. We’ve been there much too often of late. People will
talk.”

“Let them! What does it matter?”

“Everything matters, when people have tongues and eyes, and envious
natures. Don’t be silly. I promised the Duke to stop here for half an
hour. And after all, it’s amusing. I never knew such people existed
outside _Punch_. Well–what now?” This because, with sudden
recollection of an oversight, he brought out an envelope.

“This was waiting at Curzon Street,” he explained, handing it across,
“and the butler, thinking it might be important asked me to—- Why,
what’s the matter, Leah?”

It was his turn to inquire, for, reading while he talked, she had
suddenly whitened. “Don’t call me Leah,” she snapped, with the
irritation of a shaken woman, then re-read the cablegram, again and
again.

“What is it?–what is it?”

“My husband is–dead!” She crushed the paper into a ball, rose to go,
and dropped back, overwhelmingly faint. “Oh!” she moaned faintly. For
once in her life of shams and sneering and playing with other-world
fires she was moved to genuine emotion.