Stiff sort of fella

The paragraph sent by Leah to her pet editor intimated concisely to
the tuft-hunting world of Tom, Dick, and Harriet, that the suddenly
developed pulmonary complaint of Lord James Kaimes necessitated his
wintering in Jamaica. This intelligence surprised the clubs, as Jim’s
hectoring voice and devotion to damp field sport had always suggested
aggressively sound lungs.

“Never knew him to be chippy in his life,” growled one man, who
admired Leah as much as he hated Jim for possessing her. “What’s his
game this time, I wonder?”

“Perhaps he wants to get away from his wife,” hinted a pigeon of Jim’s
plucking. “Bit of a tongue, hasn’t she?”

“Tongue be hanged! She has both wit and beauty.”

The pigeon sniggered, knowing the speaker’s devotion to Delilah. “Oh,
Kaimes appreciates those qualities–in another man’s wife.”

“Scandal! Scandal!” murmured a meek member, blessed with a spouse
whose looks prevented temptation. “Kaimes has dined with us many
times, but I never saw—-”

“No; _you_ wouldn’t,” struck in a sporting baronet, whom Leah snubbed
on every possible occasion. “Jim likes red-haired women.”

“Then why doesn’t he stick to the one he’s legally entitled to?”

“Because she sticks to him. If she’d only syndicate her admirers in
the D. C., Jim ‘ud be after her like an Indian mosquito in search of a
new arrival. I’ll bet there’s some petticoat in this Jamaica
business”; and the sportsman looked round for some one to pander to
his besetting sin–but no one gave him a chance of committing it.

Contradiction and argument arrived with the oldest inhabitant of
Clubland, whose memory was as exasperating as his verbosity. “Wrong!
All wrong,” he purred, like the tame cat he had been for half a
century. “Kaimes is really consumptive. I remember his grandmother
dying of tuberculosis. It’s in the family, along with gout and water
on the brain.”

“Oh, bosh! If Jim was sick, he’d sin more judiciously.”

“I never knew that damnation depended upon health,” was the retort.
“Take a case in point. During the Great Exhibition—-”

Leah’s admirer cut short a much-dreaded anecdote. “She’ll make a
lovely widow.”

“I don’t believe in second-hand brides myself,” said the horsey man,
venturing an epigram. “‘Sides, her tongue–cuts like a knife. Even the
mares shy when she kicks.”

“Wit! wit!” explained the admirer, who misread French memoirs. “She is
Madame de Rambouillet–without a history.”

“Hum! She hasn’t published one yet, but I dare say—-”

“Tut! tut!” interrupted the ancient. “Madame de Rambouillet was, and
Lady James is, entirely respectable.”

“And the horse is the noblest of all animals,” snapped the baronet.

“Maybe, though the beast doesn’t improve your morals,” and the laugh
was with the oldest inhabitant.

“Wonder if Kaimes will die,” pondered the man who saw Leah as a
probable widow and a possible wife.

“Lay you ten to five he won’t.”

“You will lose; you will most assuredly lose,” said the octogenarian.
“Very consumptive family, the Kaimes. And our friend is just the sort
of healthy man to depart suddenly.”

“Where to?” asked the pigeon.

“Hu-s-s-sh!” droned the meek member; “that’s a serious question.”

“To Jim!” finished the racing man, smartly; “but I don’t care. Jim,
dead or alive, is equally useless to me.”

“Oh! He isn’t in your debt, then?”

“Catch me trusting him–not much. But what’s the use of talking
obituary notices? Let’s bridge.”

“If your play is as bad as your grammar, I prefer to stand out,” said
Methuselah, and the symposium broke up, in time to prevent bickering
between crabbed age and irreverent youth.

There were many such talks during the nine minutes’ wonder of Jim’s
unexpected sickness, and it was generally considered that he would
return in spirits of wine to the family vault. Leah did not hear these
encouraging prognostications, so conducive to the entire success of
the plot. She was tolerating life at San Remo, under the hired roof of
a truly great dame, who wished to disentangle her from the golden nets
of ultra-fast society. A grass-widow has to be more careful to keep up
appearances than the genuine crape article, even at the risk of being
bored by highly placed humanity, as dull as stainless. Lady Hengist
and her friends belonged to that seventh heaven where newly rich Peris
and the Mammons who cocker them seek admittance in vain. Social laws
differ from those of nature, inasmuch as the gilded scum does not
invariably rise to the top. Hence the creation of the over-discussed
smart set, which is taken by the suburban reader of back stairs
journalism as representative of the British aristocracy.

Lord Hengist came of an autochthonous family which had been at home
when William the Conqueror raided the ancestral cabin. His wife was
descended from a knight who emigrated from Normandy in 1066, with
apparently several million others, judging by the claims put forward
by those who enter the peerage. This alliance–they were too great to
talk of mere marriage–resulted in two children, not made of ordinary
clay, but compounded of the superlative porcelain sort. Their parents
possessed a genuine mediæval castle, as uncomfortable as the builders
knew how to make it, and which had the rare distinction of possessing
a state-bedroom in which Elizabeth had never slept. The family
archives read like the Book of Numbers, and their ancestors had made
history at opulent wages for the benefit of the Hengist coffers. The
men had sided with the Stewarts and ratted to the Guelphs; the women
bloomed in Lely and Kneller portraits in loosely slipping clothes,
with pastoral accessories; and finally, the present head of the house,
with four seats, two children, a charming wife and a large income,
lived comfortably on the loot of ages. Of all these things Lord and
Lady Hengist were so proud that they had no need to exhibit pride.

Well-born as Leah Kaimes was, the pleasant, if somewhat stately and
stiff, life of these genuine rulers wearied her intensely. Bread
and milk is insipid after a repast of ortolans in aspic, and a
motor-flight is more exhilarating than a donkey-ride. Moreover, it
annoyed her to see how sensibly the Hengists spent their many pounds a
day. They could have had much more fun for the money, had they known
the right shops; but they patronised out-of-date establishments, where
the goods were of an excellent quality, but just five minutes behind
the newest things. Of course, this was Leah’s figurative way of saying
that the Hengists came out of the Ark. They always bought the wrong
things at the wrong shops, and had a middle-class eye to the lasting
quality of the goods they purchased. They were clothed rather than
dressed, and being colour-blind, invariably chose garments which
matched abominably with their complexions. In a word, the Hengists
were so commonplace as to be original. Lady Jim could not understand
why they should have been thrust into positions which they could not
fill. It was like bringing cows into the drawing-room.

“It’s so hard for me to taste the pleasures of self-denial,”
complained Hengist, one day, as they sauntered on the promenade.

“I don’t think it is wise to attempt the extraction of sunbeams from
cucumbers,” said Leah, dryly.

“Dean Swift said that, but he was an egotist,” replied Hengist, in his
serious way, that reminded Lady Jim of Lionel at his worst. “It is
more blessed to give than to receive, you know.”

“Is it, indeed? Who said so?”

“The wisest and most loving of mankind. And it is a true saying. I
assure you, that if I deny myself something I greatly desire, and send
the money which would have purchased the gratification to a charity, I
feel absolutely happy.”

“I don’t think I ever tried that experiment.”

“You will not know true happiness till you do, Lady James.”

“Then I must make a bid for Paradise,” she answered, privately
thinking that the man talked sad nonsense.

“It’s a dreadful thing to be able to have the moon for the asking,”
went on Hengist, reflectively.

“That’s your epigrammatic way of putting it, I suppose; but the moon
won’t drop from her sphere for me, howl as I may. You are very lucky
to command the planet, Lord Hengist.”

“So the world thinks, but it forgets that there is the curse of
satiety.”

“Is there? I never knew it existed. I only wish I could cram the
twelve hours of the day with twenty-four of pleasure.”

“Have you ever had everything you wished for, Lady James?”

“No!” said Leah, promptly. “I’d have the sun as well as the moon, and
the stars thrown in, if I had my way.”

“Only to be bored by the acquisition of the lot.”

“Me bored–oh dear no! I am too stupid. It is only clever people like
yourself who suffer from ennui. I only wish I were a Roman empress,
with provinces for a dowry. Those dear women knew how to live.”

“But in the majestic pages of Gibbon—-”

“Who? Oh, that man who came to think he was the Roman Empire. Now his
work would bore me–I’m not stupid enough to appreciate him.”

“Julia”–this was Lady Hengist–“Julia and I read Gibbon during the
honeymoon, and received much instruction.”

“Oh, Lord!” said Lady Jim; “as though honeymoons were not disagreeable
enough without that!” The idea made her laugh consumedly. In her
mind’s eye she saw this new Paolo and Francesca reading heavy prose in
ten volumes. But Hengist did not even smile–he had absolutely no
sense of humour. Besides, he considered his companion’s chatter
painfully frivolous, and sighed to think that she had such a light
nature. Leah, still laughing, glanced sideways. “I shall begin to
think you are discontented, Lord Hengist.”

“I am, that I cannot do the good I should like to do. Both Julia and I
wish to benefit mankind.”

“The twelve labours of Hercules, with no thanks for their
accomplishment.”

“We don’t want thanks, but results,” said Hengist, austerely; “and we
can commence in a small way. Next summer we intend to invite five
hundred Whitechapel children to the Castle. Will you come and help us
to entertain them, Lady James?”

“Delighted,” yawned Leah, for the man spoke like a copy-book; “but I
hope you’ll wash them first. It will prevent disease, and give some
new soap a philanthropic advertisement.”

Hengist eyed her suspiciously. He was a very, very dull young lord,
large-hearted and unintelligent, who took life so seriously that he
had almost forgotten how to laugh. England clean, England contented,
England happy. He constantly started crusades to bring on a premature
millennium, and earned his reward, after the manner of reformers, by
being abused in halfpenny newspapers as one who attempted to avert
certain revolution, by stuffing the starving with sweets. Lady Jim
thought him a bore and a prig, and too virtuous to be amusing. But
that he and his wife were of use to her, she would not have endured
this presentation of his year-before-last’s Tree-of-Knowledge apples.
He never plucked fresh fruit, and his Eve was quite as blind as he in
discerning up-to-date harvests. Still, Hengist was a sort of
bell-wether, leading a flock of prize sheep towards a closely guarded
fold. Leah liked the fun and money and adulation of the smart set, but
she had no notion of being a shut-out Peri from that dull paradise
that the newly rich longed for. Besides, its very dullness gave a
fillip to her enjoyment of the larky amusements of those who could not
enter the sacred ark.

“I am really very fond of children,” she said, to do away with the
effect of her last remark. “I wish I had some myself,” and she sighed
very prettily. “Hilda Frith is more fortunate than I, with her two
dear babies.”

“Both girls. I fancy Frith would like a son and heir.”

“I’m sure he would, and both Jim and I would be the very first to
congratulate him.”

“Your husband is next in succession?”

“Yes, poor dear! But Frith is strong and healthy, while darling
Jim–oh, I can’t bear to talk about it.”

This was perfectly true. To invent sentimental domestic histories and
bewail a husband she detested was difficult, even to a woman of Leah’s
imagination and tact. But Hengist thought it was very good of her to
talk so generously, and paid her serious compliments till she began to
think that some unpardonable sin had thrown her into the society of
this prosing creature. It was like reading the dictionary, or drinking
Homburg waters, or paying bills. The sight of a friend made her gasp
with relief, after the manner of a pearl-diver rising to take the air.

“Here’s Lady Richardson and Sir Billy,” she said with a frown, for her
companion’s benefit. “So horrid, to interrupt our nice conversation!”

“We can pass them,” replied Hengist, decidedly pleased.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” was Leah’s quick reply. “It would look rude;
and then, Fanny Richardson never passes any one who will listen to her
prattle of chiffons. Besides, Billy is a nice boy–quite a little man.
Don’t you think so?”

“Too much a man for his years,” said her companion, austerely. “I do
not like Chesterfields in their teens. The lad’s manners are too
good–much too good.”

“Can any child be much too good?”

“In the wrong way of over-artificiality, yes. Sir William—-”

“He likes to be called Sir Billy!”

“So flippant. His mother should insist—-”

“She! She never insists on anything, except having the newest dye and
the best-cut frock, and a few dozen male ears to pour her babble into.
Billy can do no wrong in her eyes, nor in mine. He is such an admirer
of women.”

“And at the age of thirteen,” groaned Hengist.

“Come now, even you must have made love to some pretty pastry-cook’s
daughter when you were at Eton. There must be some of the old Adam in
you, Lord Hengist.”

“I was never an entirely modern child,” replied the serious man,
evasively, and with a sad eye on the trim figure of the rapidly
approaching Billy. “To think that he should take dinner pills, and
know the difference between sweet and dry champagne! What will the
next generation be?”

“Boys and girls,” said Leah, flippantly. “Good day, Fanny.”

The vivacious little fairy who warmly greeted Lady Jim and her solemn
escort was as pretty and fragile and dainty as a Dresden china
shepherdess, and quite a credit to the maid who re-created her every
morning. There was nothing natural about her, save her genuine
adoration of Billy, and that arose from a knowledge that royalty had
made it fashionable to exploit the nursery. Blonde and plump, jimp and
graceful, dressed in perfect taste, and coloured in the latest
fashion, she was popular even with her own discriminating sex. Hengist
thought her a respectable doll, with no particular vices, and did not
object to having her at the Castle. But he disapproved of Billy the
precocious, which was decidedly unfair, as Billy could scarcely help
shaping himself to the mould into which he had been slipped by a
mother who required his assistance to play the pretty comedy of the
widow’s only son.

“How are you, Leah darling? So sweet you look, and Lord Hengist too. A
most unexpected meeting, and so delightful,” babbled Lady Richardson,
who talked more and said less than any society gramophone. “Billy and
I are just going to Monte Carlo, to plunge on the red. Reggy Lake is
to meet us at the station; such a nice boy–Lancers, you know–a great
chum of Billy’s. Won’t you come too, Leah, to brighten Billy up? He’s
got the hump, poor boy, as his new nerve-tonic doesn’t suit him, and
such a lovely, lovely day as it is too. Don’t you think so, Lord
Hengist?”

The respectable Hengist’s hair bristled at this incoherent
speech, and did not lie down again at the look in Billy’s eyes.
Dressed in a particularly smart Eton suit, gloved and silk-hatted and
patent-leather-booted with fashionable accuracy, the boy appraised
Lady Jim’s beauty in a calm way, which would have made a captain of
dragoons blush. Behind his graceful, nonchalant, handsome mask of
youth was hidden an old, old man, and in many ways Hengist was his
junior. He certainly blushed when Leah gave him an amused glance, but
this was Billy’s way of mashing the sex. He knew the value of youthful
diffidence, backed by mature knowledge.

“Should not your little boy be at school?” asked Hengist, scandalised
into an implied snub.

Sir William looked at the troubled face of his elder with the serenity
of a cherub. “Goin’ back nex’ week,” said he, carefully dropping his
“g’s.” “Th’ little mother wanted me to look after her for a bit.”

“Billy can’t trust me out of his sight,” giggled Lady Richardson.
“He’s so afraid I’ll give him a second father.”

“Not Reggy Lake, anyhow. He’s a rotter!”

“What’s a rotter, Sir Billy?” asked Lady Jim, enjoying the disgusted
looks of Hengist.

“A fellow who rots.”

“What an admirable definition?”

Billy rapidly dropped his left eyelid, and showed a set of white
teeth. “I don’t carry coals to _your_ Newcastle,” he said
parabolically. “Say, Lady Jim, chuck this chappy, and come to
Charlie’s Mount.”

The wink and the speech were lost on Hengist, for he was being worried
by Lady Richardson. She danced before him, a pretty figure gowned in
burnt-almond red, and would have distracted his heart with daintiness
but that Julia kept that article in the nursery.

“Do join us, Lord Hengist,” she pleaded seductively. “Such fun, when
you know the ropes. Billy can show them to you.”

“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,” quoted Hengist, ironically.
“Quite a new reading, Lady Richardson.”

“Now you are horrid,” said the widow, who did not know in the least
what he meant. “I’ll tell your wife. By the way, how is she, and the
darling, darling twins? Twins are too sweet. I wish Billy was a twin.”

“One of Sir William is quite sufficient.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you are talking about, and it’s very
horrid of you to say so. Billy is adored.”

“Is he ever whipped?”

Lady Richardson gave a scream. “How barbarous! The man who tried to
whip Billy would have to order his coffin beforehand. Billy can handle
his bunches of fives, I can tell you, Lord Hengist.”

“His what?”

“It’s Billy’s way of putting boxing. You should see him give the
postman’s knock! Oh, he _is_ clever! He can drive a motor, too, and
pick out the winner five times out of ten.”

“Does he know the kings of England?”

“No; he hasn’t been to Court yet, and of course, there’s only one. How
funny you are! Well,” Lady Richardson put her head on one side like a
coaxing cock-robin, “are you coming with Billy and me? Do, oh do! We
have afternoon tea with Monsieur Aksakoff and his daughter.”

“What’s that?” asked Leah, overhearing the names; “the Russian man?”

“Stiff sort of fella’!” said young Eton. “Nothin’ birdish about him.
Daughter’s a clipper, though. Say, little mother, we’d best get. Th’
train won’t wait, y’ know.”

Before he had finished speaking Lady Jim had made up her mind. She had
not heard from Demetrius, and it was not impossible that he had
written to Katinka. In spite of his discouraging love-making he kept
in with her, on the chance that she might be able to procure his
pardon, and in any case she was useful in keeping him posted in the
doings of the Third Section. The girl was so infatuated that she never
saw he was making use of her in this way, and constantly wrote to him
about any official gossip she heard. There was something pathetic in
her devotion and heart-whole love for the man who deceived her. But
Leah did not look at the matter in this way. She knew that Katinka, if
any one, would have news of the doctor, and being anxious to learn how
Garth was progressing towards the grave, she turned to Hengist.

“I think I’ll go over,” she said in a low voice. “Jim asked me to see
M. Aksakoff on some business. Would Julia mind?”

“Not at all,” said Hengist, heartily, and quite deceived. “I would
escort you, only I have some letters to write about the distress in
London.”

“Oh, Billy will look after us,” said that young gentleman’s mother.

“I _have_ driven a team before now,” observed Billy, with dignity.

I Hengist gave him a reproving look (which Billy bore very stoically),
and whispered to Leah as they parted, “Don’t encourage that lad.”

“I don’t think he needs much encouragement,” said Lady Jim, laughing,
and the two women walked away with Billy between them. Hengist stood
where he was and frowned.

“Charming woman, Lady James,” he murmured, gazing after Leah’s
amethystine gown; “but that lad–ugh!” He shook his head over young
England up-to-date; then returned to the villa to hear the twins say
the alphabet. Life had its compensations, even for a millionaire peer.