Henry Wimbush's long cigar burned aromatically. The "History of
Crome" lay on his knee; slowly he turned over the pages.
"I can't decide what episode to read you to-night," he said
thoughtfully. "Sir Ferdinando's voyages are not without
interest. Then, of course, there's his son, Sir Julius. It was
he who suffered from the delusion that his perspiration
engendered flies; it drove him finally to suicide. Or there's
Sir Cyprian." He turned the pages more rapidly. "Or Sir Henry.
Or Sir George...No, I'm inclined to think I won't read about any
"But you must read something," insisted Mr. Scogan, taking his
pipe out of his mouth.
"I think I shall read about my grandfather," said Henry Wimbush,
"and the events that led up to his marriage with the eldest
daughter of the last Sir Ferdinando."
"Good," said Mr. Scogan. "We are listening."
"Before I begin reading," said Henry Wimbush, looking up from the
book and taking off the pince-nez which he had just fitted to his
nose--"before their begin, I must say a few preliminary words
about Sir Ferdinando, the last of the Lapiths. At the death of
the virtuous and unfortunate Sir Hercules, Ferdinando found
himself in possession of the family fortune, not a little
increased by his father's temperance and thrift; he applied
himself forthwith to the task of spending it, which he did in an
ample and jovial fashion. By the time he was forty he had eaten
and, above all, drunk and loved away about half his capital, and
would infallibly have soon got rid of the rest in the same
manner, if he had not had the good fortune to become so madly
enamoured of the Rector's daughter as to make a proposal of
marriage. The young lady accepted him, and in less than a year
had become the absolute mistress of Crome and her husband. An
extraordinary reformation made itself apparent in Sir
Ferdinando's character. He grew regular and economical in his
habits; he even became temperate, rarely drinking more than a
bottle and a half of port at a sitting. The waning fortune of
the Lapiths began once more to wax, and that in despite of the
hard times (for Sir Ferdinando married in 1809 in the height of
the Napoleonic Wars). A prosperous and dignified old age,
cheered by the spectacle of his children's growth and happiness--
for Lady Lapith had already borne him three daughters, and there
seemed no good reason why she should not bear many more of them,
and sons as well--a patriarchal decline into the family vault,
seemed now to be Sir Ferdinando's enviable destiny. But
Providence willed otherwise. To Napoleon, cause already of such
infinite mischief, was due, though perhaps indirectly, the
untimely and violent death which put a period to this reformed
"Sir Ferdinando, who was above all things a patriot, had adopted,
from the earliest days of the conflict with the French, his own
peculiar method of celebrating our victories. When the happy
news reached London, it was his custom to purchase immediately a
large store of liquor and, taking a place on whichever of the
outgoing coaches he happened to light on first, to drive through
the country proclaiming the good news to all he met on the road
and dispensing it, along with the liquor, at every stopping-place
to all who cared to listen or drink. Thus, after the Nile, he
had driven as far as Edinburgh; and later, when the coaches,
wreathed with laurel for triumph, with cypress for mourning, were
setting out with the news of Nelson's victory and death, he sat
through all a chilly October night on the box of the Norwich
"Meteor" with a nautical keg of rum on his knees and two cases of
old brandy under the seat. This genial custom was one of the
many habits which he abandoned on his marriage. The victories in
the Peninsula, the retreat from Moscow, Leipzig, and the
abdication of the tyrant all went uncelebrated. It so happened,
however, that in the summer of 1815 Sir Ferdinando was staying
for a few weeks in the capital. There had been a succession of
anxious, doubtful days; then came the glorious news of Waterloo.
It was too much for Sir Ferdinando; his joyous youth awoke again
within him. He hurried to his wine merchant and bought a dozen
bottles of 1760 brandy. The Bath coach was on the point of
starting; he bribed his way on to the box and, seated in glory
beside the driver, proclaimed aloud the downfall of the Corsican
bandit and passed about the warm liquid joy. They clattered
through Uxbridge, Slough, Maidenhead. Sleeping Reading was
awakened by the great news. At Didcot one of the ostlers was so
much overcome by patriotic emotions and the 1760 brandy that he
found it impossible to do up the buckles of the harness. The
night began to grow chilly, and Sir Ferdinando found that it was
not enough to take a nip at every stage: to keep up his vital
warmth he was compelled to drink between the stages as well.
They were approaching Swindon. The coach was travelling at a
dizzy speed--six miles in the last half-hour--when, without
having manifested the slightest premonitory symptom of
unsteadiness, Sir Ferdinando suddenly toppled sideways off his
seat and fell, head foremost, into the road. An unpleasant jolt
awakened the slumbering passengers. The coach was brought to a
standstill; the guard ran back with a light. He found Sir
Ferdinando still alive, but unconscious; blood was oozing from
his mouth. The back wheels of the coach had passed over his
body, breaking most of his ribs and both arms. His skull was
fractured in two places. They picked him up, but he was dead
before they reached the next stage. So perished Sir Ferdinando,
a victim to his own patriotism. Lady Lapith did not marry again,
but determined to devote the rest of her life to the well-being
of her three children--Georgiana, now five years old, and
Emmeline and Caroline, twins of two."
Henry Wimbush paused, and once more put on his pince-nez. "So
much by way of introduction," he said. "Now I can begin to read
about my grandfather."
"One moment," said Mr. Scogan, "till I've refilled my pipe."
Mr. Wimbush waited. Seated apart in a corner of the room, Ivor
was showing Mary his sketches of Spirit Life. They spoke
together in whispers.
Mr. Scogan had lighted his pipe again. "Fire away," he said.
Henry Wimbush fired away.
"It was in the spring of 1833 that my grandfather, George
Wimbush, first made the acquaintance of the 'three lovely
Lapiths,' as they were always called. He was then a young man of
twenty-two, with curly yellow hair and a smooth pink face that
was the mirror of his youthful and ingenuous mind. He had been
educated at Harrow and Christ Church, he enjoyed hunting and all
other field sports, and, though his circumstances were
comfortable to the verge of affluence, his pleasures were
temperate and innocent. His father, an East Indian merchant, had
destined him for a political career, and had gone to considerable
expense in acquiring a pleasant little Cornish borough as a
twenty-first birthday gift for his son. He was justly indignant
when, on the very eve of George's majority, the Reform Bill of
1832 swept the borough out of existence. The inauguration of
George's political career had to be postponed. At the time he
got to know the lovely Lapiths he was waiting; he was not at all
"The lovely Lapiths did not fail to impress him. Georgiana, the
eldest, with her black ringlets, her flashing eyes, her noble
aquiline profile, her swan-like neck, and sloping shoulders, was
orientally dazzling; and the twins, with their delicately turned-
up noses, their blue eyes, and chestnut hair, were an identical
pair of ravishingly English charmers.
"Their conversation at this first meeting proved, however, to be
so forbidding that, but for the invincible attraction exercised
by their beauty, George would never have had the courage to
follow up the acquaintance. The twins, looking up their noses at
him with an air of languid superiority, asked him what he thought
of the latest French poetry and whether he liked the "Indiana" of
George Sand. But what was almost worse was the question with
which Georgiana opened her conversation with him. 'In music,'
she asked, leaning forward and fixing him with her large dark
eyes, 'are you a classicist or a transcendentalist?' George did
not lose his presence of mind. He had enough appreciation of
music to know that he hated anything classical, and so, with a
promptitude which did him credit, he replied, 'I am a
transcendentalist.' Georgiana smiled bewitchingly. 'I am glad,'
she said; 'so am I. You went to hear Paganini last week, of
course. "The prayer of Moses"--ah!' She closed her eyes. 'Do
you know anything more transcendental than that?' 'No,' said
George, 'I don't.' He hesitated, was about to go on speaking,
and then decided that after all it would be wiser not to say--
what was in fact true--that he had enjoyed above all Paganini's
Farmyard Imitations. The man had made his fiddle bray like an
ass, cluck like a hen, grunt, squeal, bark, neigh, quack, bellow,
and growl; that last item, in George's estimation, had almost
compensated for the tediousness of the rest of the concert. He
smiled with pleasure at the thought of it. Yes, decidedly, he
was no classicist in music; he was a thoroughgoing
"George followed up this first introduction by paying a call on
the young ladies and their mother, who occupied, during the
season, a small but elegant house in the neighbourhood of
Berkeley Square. Lady Lapith made a few discreet inquiries, and
having found that George's financial position, character, and
family were all passably good, she asked him to dine. She hoped
and expected that her daughters would all marry into the peerage;
but, being a prudent woman, she knew it was advisable to prepare
for all contingencies. George Wimbush, she thought, would make
an excellent second string for one of the twins.
"At this first dinner, George's partner was Emmeline. They
talked of Nature. Emmeline protested that to her high mountains
were a feeling and the hum of human cities torture. George
agreed that the country was very agreeable, but held that London
during the season also had its charms. He noticed with surprise
and a certain solicitous distress that Miss Emmeline's appetite
was poor, that it didn't, in fact, exist. Two spoonfuls of soup,
a morsel of fish, no bird, no meat, and three grapes--that was
her whole dinner. He looked from time to time at her two
sisters; Georgiana and Caroline seemed to be quite as abstemious.
They waved away whatever was offered them with an expression of
delicate disgust, shutting their eyes and averting their faces
from the proffered dish, as though the lemon sole, the duck, the
loin of veal, the trifle, were objects revolting to the sight and
smell. George, who thought the dinner capital, ventured to
comment on the sisters' lack of appetite.
"'Pray, don't talk to me of eating,' said Emmeline, drooping like
a sensitive plant. 'We find it so coarse, so unspiritual, my
sisters and I. One can't think of one's soul while one is
"George agreed; one couldn't. 'But one must live,' he said.
"'Alas!' Emmeline sighed. 'One must. Death is very beautiful,
don't you think?' She broke a corner off a piece of toast and
began to nibble at it languidly. 'But since, as you say, one
must live...' She made a little gesture of resignation.
'Luckily a very little suffices to keep one alive.' She put down
her corner of toast half eaten.
"George regarded her with some surprise. She was pale, but she
looked extraordinarily healthy, he thought; so did her sisters.
Perhaps if you were really spiritual you needed less food. He,
clearly, was not spiritual.
"After this he saw them frequently. They all liked him, from
Lady Lapith downwards. True, he was not very romantic or
poetical; but he was such a pleasant, unpretentious, kind-hearted
young man, that one couldn't help liking him. For his part, he
thought them wonderful, wonderful, especially Georgiana. He
enveloped them all in a warm, protective affection. For they
needed protection; they were altogether too frail, too spiritual
for this world. They never ate, they were always pale, they
often complained of fever, they talked much and lovingly of
death, they frequently swooned. Georgiana was the most ethereal
of all; of the three she ate least, swooned most often, talked
most of death, and was the palest--with a pallor that was so
startling as to appear positively artificial. At any moment, it
seemed, she might loose her precarious hold on this material
world and become all spirit. To George the thought was a
continual agony. If she were to die...
"She contrived, however, to live through the season, and that in
spite of the numerous balls, routs, and other parties of pleasure
which, in company with the rest of the lovely trio, she never
failed to attend. In the middle of July the whole household
moved down to the country. George was invited to spend the month
of August at Crome.
"The house-party was distinguished; in the list of visitors
figured the names of two marriageable young men of title. George
had hoped that country air, repose, and natural surroundings
might have restored to the three sisters their appetites and the
roses of their cheeks. He was mistaken. For dinner, the first
evening, Georgiana ate only an olive, two or three salted
almonds, and half a peach. She was as pale as ever. During the
meal she spoke of love.
"'True love,' she said, 'being infinite and eternal, can only be
consummated in eternity. Indiana and Sir Rodolphe celebrated the
mystic wedding of their souls by jumping into Niagara. Love is
incompatible with life. The wish of two people who truly love
one another is not to live together but to die together.'
"'Come, come, my dear,' said Lady Lapith, stout and practical.
'What would become of the next generation, pray, if all the world
acted on your principles?'
"'Mamma!...' Georgiana protested, and dropped her eyes.
"'In my young days,' Lady Lapith went on, 'I should have been
laughed out of countenance if I'd said a thing like that. But
then in my young days souls weren't as fashionable as they are
now and we didn't think death was at all poetical. It was just
"'Mamma!...' Emmeline and Caroline implored in unison.
"'In my young days--' Lady Lapith was launched into her subject;
nothing, it seemed, could stop her now. 'In my young days, if
you didn't eat, people told you you needed a dose of rhubarb.
"There was a cry; Georgiana had swooned sideways on to Lord
Timpany's shoulder. It was a desperate expedient; but it was
successful. Lady Lapith was stopped.
"The days passed in an uneventful round of pleasures. Of all the
gay party George alone was unhappy. Lord Timpany was paying his
court to Georgiana, and it was clear that he was not unfavourably
received. George looked on, and his soul was a hell of jealousy
and despair. The boisterous company of the young men became
intolerable to him; he shrank from them, seeking gloom and
solitude. One morning, having broken away from them on some
vague pretext, he returned to the house alone. The young men
were bathing in the pool below; their cries and laughter floated
up to him, making the quiet house seem lonelier and more silent.
The lovely sisters and their mamma still kept their chambers;
they did not customarily make their appearance till luncheon, so
that the male guests had the morning to themselves. George sat
down in the hall and abandoned himself to thought.
"At any moment she might die; at any moment she might become Lady
Timpany. It was terrible, terrible. If she died, then he would
die too; he would go to seek her beyond the grave. If she became
Lady Timpany...ah, then! The solution of the problem would not
be so simple. If she became Lady Timpany: it was a horrible
thought. But then suppose she were in love with Timpany--though
it seemed incredible that anyone could be in love with Timpany--
suppose her life depended on Timpany, suppose she couldn't live
without him? He was fumbling his way along this clueless
labyrinth of suppositions when the clock struck twelve. On the
last stroke, like an automaton released by the turning clockwork,
a little maid, holding a large covered tray, popped out of the
door that led from the kitchen regions into the hall. From his
deep arm-chair George watched her (himself, it was evident,
unobserved) with an idle curiosity. She pattered across the room
and came to a halt in front of what seemed a blank expense of
panelling. She reached out her hand and, to George's extreme
astonishment, a little door swung open, revealing the foot of a
winding staircase. Turning sideways in order to get her tray
through the narrow opening, the little maid darted in with a
rapid crab-like motion. The door closed behind her with a click.
A minute later it opened again and the maid, without her tray,
hurried back across the hall and disappeared in the direction of
the kitchen. George tried to recompose his thoughts, but an
invincible curiosity drew his mind towards the hidden door, the
staircase, the little maid. It was in vain he told himself that
the matter was none of his business, that to explore the secrets
of that surprising door, that mysterious staircase within, would
be a piece of unforgivable rudeness and indiscretion. It was in
vain; for five minutes he struggled heroically with his
curiosity, but at the end of that time he found himself standing
in front of the innocent sheet of panelling through which the
little maid had disappeared. A glance sufficed to show him the
position of the secret door--secret, he perceived, only to those
who looked with a careless eye. It was just an ordinary door let
in flush with the panelling. No latch nor handle betrayed its
position, but an unobtrusive catch sunk in the wood invited the
thumb. George was astonished that he had not noticed it before;
now he had seen it, it was so obvious, almost as obvious as the
cupboard door in the library with its lines of imitation shelves
and its dummy books. He pulled back the catch and peeped inside.
The staircase, of which the degrees were made not of stone but of
blocks of ancient oak, wound up and out of sight. A slit-like
window admitted the daylight; he was at the foot of the central
tower, and the little window looked out over the terrace; they
were still shouting and splashing in the pool below.
"George closed the door and went back to his seat. But his
curiosity was not satisfied. Indeed, this partial satisfaction
had but whetted its appetite. Where did the staircase lead?
What was the errand of the little maid? It was no business of
his, he kept repeating--no business of his. He tried to read,
but his attention wandered. A quarter-past twelve sounded on the
harmonious clock. Suddenly determined, George rose, crossed the
room, opened the hidden door, and began to ascend the stairs. He
passed the first window, corkscrewed round, and came to another.
He paused for a moment to look out; his heart beat uncomfortably,
as though he were affronting some unknown danger. What he was
doing, he told himself, was extremely ungentlemanly, horribly
underbred. He tiptoed onward and upward. One turn more, then
half a turn, and a door confronted him. He halted before it,
listened; he could hear no sound. Putting his eye to the
keyhole, he saw nothing but a stretch of white sunlit wall.
Emboldened, he turned the handle and stepped across the
threshold. There he halted, petrified by what he saw, mutely
"In the middle of a pleasantly sunny little room--'it is now
Priscilla's boudoir,' Mr. Wimbush remarked parenthetically--stood
a small circular table of mahogany. Crystal, porcelain, and
silver,--all the shining apparatus of an elegant meal--were
mirrored in its polished depths. The carcase of a cold chicken,
a bowl of fruit, a great ham, deeply gashed to its heart of
tenderest white and pink, the brown cannon ball of a cold plum-
pudding, a slender Hock bottle, and a decanter of claret jostled
one another for a place on this festive board. And round the
table sat the three sisters, the three lovely Lapiths--eating!
"At George's sudden entrance they had all looked towards the
door, and now they sat, petrified by the same astonishment which
kept George fixed and staring. Georgiana, who sat immediately
facing the door, gazed at him with dark, enormous eyes. Between
the thumb and forefinger of her right hand she was holding a
drumstick of the dismembered chicken; her little finger,
elegantly crooked, stood apart from the rest of her hand. Her
mouth was open, but the drumstick had never reached its
destination; it remained, suspended, frozen, in mid-air. The
other two sisters had turned round to look at the intruder.
Caroline still grasped her knife and fork; Emmeline's fingers
were round the stem of her claret glass. For what seemed a very
long time, George and the three sisters stared at one another in
silence. They were a group of statues. Then suddenly there was
movement. Georgiana dropped her chicken bone, Caroline's knife
and fork clattered on her plate. The movement propagated itself,
grew more decisive; Emmeline sprang to her feet, uttering a cry.
The wave of panic reached George; he turned and, mumbling
something unintelligible as he went, rushed out of the room and
down the winding stairs. He came to a standstill in the hall,
and there, all by himself in the quiet house, he began to laugh.
"At luncheon it was noticed that the sisters ate a little more
than usual. Georgiana toyed with some French beans and a
spoonful of calves'-foot jelly. 'I feel a little stronger to-
day,' she said to Lord Timpany, when he congratulated her on this
increase of appetite; 'a little more material,' she added, with a
nervous laugh. Looking up, she caught George's eye; a blush
suffused her cheeks and she looked hastily away.
"In the garden that afternoon they found themselves for a moment
"You won't tell anyone, George? Promise you won't tell anyone,'
she implored. 'It would make us look so ridiculous. And
besides, eating IS unspiritual, isn't it? Say you won't tell
"'I will,' said George brutally. 'I'll tell everyone, unless...'
"'I don't care, said George. 'I'll give you twenty-four hours to
"Lady Lapith was disappointed, of course; she had hoped for
better things--for Timpany and a coronet. But George, after all,
wasn't so bad. They were married at the New Year.
"My poor grandfather!" Mr. Wimbush added, as he closed his book
and put away his pince-nez. "Whenever I read in the papers about
oppressed nationalities, I think of him." He relighted his
cigar. "It was a maternal government, highly centralised, and
there were no representative institutions."
Henry Wimbush ceased speaking. In the silence that ensued Ivor's
whispered commentary on the spirit sketches once more became
audible. Priscilla, who had been dozing, suddenly woke up.
"What?" she said in the startled tones of one newly returned to
Jenny caught the words. She looked up, smiled, nodded
reassuringly. "It's about a ham," she said.
"What's about a ham?"
"What Henry has been reading." She closed the red notebook lying
on her knees and slipped a rubber band round it. "I'm going to
bed," she announced, and got up.
"So am I," said Anne, yawning. But she lacked the energy to rise
from her arm-chair.
The night was hot and oppressive. Round the open windows the
curtains hung unmoving. Ivor, fanning himself with the portrait
of an Astral Being, looked out into the darkness and drew a
"The air's like wool," he declared.
"It will get cooler after midnight," said Henry Wimbush, and
cautiously added, "perhaps."
"I shan't sleep, I know."
Priscilla turned her head in his direction; the monumental
coiffure nodded exorbitantly at her slightest movement. "You
must make an effort," she said. "When I can't sleep, I
concentrate my will: I say, 'I will sleep, I am asleep!' And
pop! off I go. That's the power of thought."
"But does it work on stuffy nights?" Ivor inquired. "I simply
cannot sleep on a stuffy night."
"Nor can I," said Mary, "except out of doors."
"Out of doors! What a wonderful idea!" In the end they decided
to sleep on the towers--Mary on the western tower, Ivor on the
eastern. There was a flat expanse of leads on each of the
towers, and you could get a mattress through the trap doors that
opened on to them. Under the stars, under the gibbous moon,
assuredly they would sleep. The mattresses were hauled up,
sheets and blankets were spread, and an hour later the two
insomniasts, each on his separate tower, were crying their good-
nights across the dividing gulf.
On Mary the sleep-compelling charm of the open air did not work
with its expected magic. Even through the mattress one could not
fail to be aware that the leads were extremely hard. Then there
were noises: the owls screeched tirelessly, and once, roused by
some unknown terror, all the geese of the farmyard burst into a
sudden frenzy of cackling. The stars and the gibbous moon
demanded to be looked at, and when one meteorite had streaked
across the sky, you could not help waiting, open-eyed and alert,
for the next. Time passed; the moon climbed higher and higher in
the sky. Mary felt less sleepy than she had when she first came
out. She sat up and looked over the parapet. Had Ivor been able
to sleep? she wondered. And as though in answer to her mental
question, from behind the chimney-stack at the farther end of the
roof a white form noiselessly emerged--a form that, in the
moonlight, was recognisably Ivor's. Spreading his arms to right
and left, like a tight-rope dancer, he began to walk forward
along the roof-tree of the house. He swayed terrifyingly as he
advanced. Mary looked on speechlessly; perhaps he was walking in
his sleep! Suppose he were to wake up suddenly, now! If she
spoke or moved it might mean his death. She dared look no more,
but sank back on her pillows. She listened intently. For what
seemed an immensely long time there was no sound. Then there was
a patter of feet on the tiles, followed by a scrabbling noise and
a whispered "Damn!" And suddenly Ivor's head and shoulders
appeared above the parapet. One leg followed, then the other.
He was on the leads. Mary pretended to wake up with a start.
"Oh!" she said. "What are you doing here?"
"I couldn't sleep," he explained, "so I came along to see if you
couldn't. One gets bored by oneself on a tower. Don't you find
It was light before five. Long, narrow clouds barred the east,
their edges bright with orange fire. The sky was pale and
watery. With the mournful scream of a soul in pain, a monstrous
peacock, flying heavily up from below, alighted on the parapet of
the tower. Ivor and Mary started broad awake.
"Catch him!" cried Ivor, jumping up. "We'll have a feather."
The frightened peacock ran up and down the parapet in an absurd
distress, curtseying and bobbing and clucking; his long tail
swung ponderously back and forth as he turned and turned again.
Then with a flap and swish he launched himself upon the air and
sailed magnificently earthward, with a recovered dignity. But he
had left a trophy. Ivor had his feather, a long-lashed eye of
purple and green, of blue and gold. He handed it to his
"An angel's feather," he said.
Mary looked at it for a moment, gravely and intently. Her purple
pyjamas clothed her with an ampleness that hid the lines of her
body; she looked like some large, comfortable, unjointed toy, a
sort of Teddy-bear--but a Teddy bear with an angel's head, pink
cheeks, and hair like a bell of gold. An angel's face, the
feather of an angel's wing...Somehow the whole atmosphere of this
sunrise was rather angelic.
"It's extraordinary to think of sexual selection," she said at
last, looking up from her contemplation of the miraculous
"Extraordinary!" Ivor echoed. "I select you, you select me.
He put his arm round her shoulders and they stood looking
eastward. The first sunlight had begun to warm and colour the
pale light of the dawn. Mauve pyjamas and white pyjamas; they
were a young and charming couple. The rising sun touched their
faces. It was all extremely symbolic; but then, if you choose to
think so, nothing in this world is not symbolical. Profound and
"I must be getting back to my tower," said Ivor at last.
"I'm afraid so. The varletry will soon be up and about."
"Ivor..." There was a prolonged and silent farewell.
"And now," said Ivor, "I repeat my tight-rope stunt."
Mary threw her arms round his neck. "You mustn't, Ivor. It's
He had to yield at last to her entreaties. "All right," he said,
"I'll go down through the house and up at the other end."
He vanished through the trap door into the darkness that still
lurked within the shuttered house. A minute later he had
reappeared on the farther tower; he waved his hand, and then sank
down, out of sight, behind the parapet. From below, in the
house, came the thin wasp-like buzzing of an alarum-clock. He
had gone back just in time.
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