Ansell stood looking at his breakfast-table, which was laid for four instead of two. His bedmaker, equally peevish, explained how it had happened. Last night, at one in the morning, the porter had been awoke with a note for the kitchens, and in that note Mr. Elliot said that all these things were to be sent to Mr. Ansell's.
"The fools have sent the original order as well. Here's the lemon-sole for two. I can't move for food."
"The note being ambigerous, the Kitchens judged best to send it all." She spoke of the kitchens in a half-respectful, half-pitying way, much as one speaks of Parliament.
"Who's to pay for it?" He peeped into the new dishes. Kidneys entombed in an omelette, hot roast chicken in watery gravy, a glazed but pallid pie.
"And who's to wash it up?" said the bedmaker to her help outside.
Ansell had disputed late last night concerning Schopenhauer, and was a little cross and tired. He bounced over to Tilliard, who kept opposite. Tilliard was eating gooseberry jam.
"Did Elliot ask you to breakfast with me?"
"No," said Tilliard mildly.
"Well, you'd better come, and bring every one you know."
So Tilliard came, bearing himself a little formally, for he was not very intimate with his neighbour. Out of the window they called to Widdrington. But he laid his hand on his stomach, thus indicating it was too late.
"Who's to pay for it?" repeated Ansell, as a man appeared from the Buttery carrying coffee on a bright tin tray.
"College coffee! How nice!" remarked Tilliard, who was cutting the pie. "But before term ends you must come and try my new machine. My sister gave it me. There is a bulb at the top, and as the water boils--"
"He might have counter-ordered the lemon-sole. That's Rickie all over. Violently economical, and then loses his head, and all the things go bad."
"Give them to the bedder while they're hot." This was done. She accepted them dispassionately, with the air of one who lives without nourishment. Tilliard continued to describe his sister's coffee machine.
"What's that?" They could hear panting and rustling on the stairs.
"It sounds like a lady," said Tilliard fearfully. He slipped the piece of pie back. It fell into position like a brick.
"Is it here? Am I right? Is it here?" The door opened and in came Mrs. Lewin. "Oh horrors! I've made a mistake."
"That's all right," said Ansell awkwardly.
"I wanted Mr. Elliot. Where are they?"
"We expect Mr. Elliot every-moment," said Tilliard.
"Don't tell me I'm right," cried Mrs. Lewin, "and that you're the terrifying Mr. Ansell." And, with obvious relief, she wrung Tilliard warmly by the hand.
"I'm Ansell," said Ansell, looking very uncouth and grim.
"How stupid of me not to know it," she gasped, and would have gone on to I know not what, but the door opened again. It was Rickie.
"Here's Miss Pembroke," he said. "I am going to marry her."
There was a profound silence.
"We oughtn't to have done things like this," said Agnes, turning to Mrs. Lewin. "We have no right to take Mr. Ansell by surprise. It is Rickie's fault. He was that obstinate. He would bring us. He ought to be horsewhipped."
"He ought, indeed," said Tilliard pleasantly, and bolted. Not till he gained his room did he realize that he had been less apt than usual. As for Ansell, the first thing he said was, "Why didn't you counter-order the lemon-sole?"
In such a situation Mrs. Lewin was of priceless value. She led the way to the table, observing, "I quite agree with Miss Pembroke. I loathe surprises. Never shall I forget my horror when the knife-boy painted the dove's cage with the dove inside. He did it as a surprise. Poor Parsival nearly died. His feathers were bright green!"
"Well, give me the lemon-soles," said Rickie. "I like them."
"The bedder's got them."
"Well, there you are! What's there to be annoyed about?"
"And while the cage was drying we put him among the bantams. They had been the greatest allies. But I suppose they took him for a parrot or a hawk, or something that bantams hate for while his cage was drying they picked out his feathers, and picked and picked out his feathers, till he was perfectly bald. 'Hugo, look,' said I. 'This is the end of Parsival. Let me have no more surprises.' He burst into tears."
Thus did Mrs. Lewin create an atmosphere. At first it seemed unreal, but gradually they got used to it, and breathed scarcely anything else throughout the meal. In such an atmosphere everything seemed of small and equal value, and the engagement of Rickie and Agnes like the feathers of Parsival, fluttered lightly to the ground. Ansell was generally silent. He was no match for these two quite clever women. Only once was there a hitch.
They had been talking gaily enough about the betrothal when Ansell suddenly interrupted with, "When is the marriage?"
"Mr. Ansell," said Agnes, blushing, "I wish you hadn't asked that. That part's dreadful. Not for years, as far as we can see."
But Rickie had not seen as far. He had not talked to her of this at all. Last night they had spoken only of love. He exclaimed, "Oh, Agnes-don't!" Mrs. Lewin laughed roguishly.
"Why this delay?" asked Ansell.
Agnes looked at Rickie, who replied, "I must get money, worse luck."
"I thought you'd got money."
He hesitated, and then said, "I must get my foot on the ladder, then."
Ansell began with, "On which ladder?" but Mrs. Lewin, using the privilege of her sex, exclaimed, "Not another word. If there's a thing I abominate, it is plans. My head goes whirling at once." What she really abominated was questions, and she saw that Ansell was turning serious. To appease him, she put on her clever manner and asked him about Germany. How had it impressed him? Were we so totally unfitted to repel invasion? Was not German scholarship overestimated? He replied discourteously, but he did reply; and if she could have stopped him thinking, her triumph would have been complete.
When they rose to go, Agnes held Ansell's hand for a moment in her own.
"Good-bye," she said. "It was very unconventional of us to come as we did, but I don't think any of us are conventional people."
He only replied, "Good-bye." The ladies started off. Rickie lingered behind to whisper, "I would have it so. I would have you begin square together. I can't talk yet--I've loved her for years--can't think what she's done it for. I'm going to write short stories. I shall start this afternoon. She declares there may be something in me."
As soon as he had left, Tilliard burst in, white with agitation, and crying, "Did you see my awful faux pas--about the horsewhip? What shall I do? I must call on Elliot. Or had I better write?"
"Miss Pembroke will not mind," said Ansell gravely. "She is unconventional." He knelt in an arm-chair and hid his face in the back.
"It was like a bomb," said Tilliard.
"It was meant to be."
"I do feel a fool. What must she think?"
"Never mind, Tilliard. You've not been as big a fool as myself. At all events, you told her he must be horsewhipped."
Tilliard hummed a little tune. He hated anything nasty, and there was nastiness in Ansell. "What did you tell her?" he asked.
"What do you think of it?"
"I think: Damn those women."
"Ah, yes. One hates one's friends to get engaged. It makes one feel so old: I think that is one of the reasons. The brother just above me has lately married, and my sister was quite sick about it, though the thing was suitable in every way."
"Damn these women, then," said Ansell, bouncing round in the chair. "Damn these particular women."
"They looked and spoke like ladies."
"Exactly. Their diplomacy was ladylike. Their lies were ladylike. They've caught Elliot in a most ladylike way. I saw it all during the one moment we were natural. Generally we were clattering after the married one, whom--like a fool--I took for a fool. But for one moment we were natural, and during that moment Miss Pembroke told a lie, and made Rickie believe it was the truth."
"What did she say?"
"She said `we see' instead of 'I see.'"
Tilliard burst into laughter. This jaundiced young philosopher, with his kinky view of life, was too much for him.
"She said 'we see,'" repeated Ansell, "instead of 'I see,' and she made him believe that it was the truth. She caught him and makes him believe that he caught her. She came to see me and makes him think that it is his idea. That is what I mean when I say that she is a lady."
"You are too subtle for me. My dull eyes could only see two happy people."
"I never said they weren't happy."
"Then, my dear Ansell, why are you so cut up? It's beastly when a friend marries,--and I grant he's rather young,--but I should say it's the best thing for him. A decent woman--and you have proved not one thing against her--a decent woman will keep him up to the mark and stop him getting slack. She'll make him responsible and manly, for much as I like Rickie, I always find him a little effeminate. And, really,"--his voice grew sharper, for he was irritated by Ansell's conceit, "and, really, you talk as if you were mixed up in the affair. They pay a civil visit to your rooms, and you see nothing but dark plots and challenges to war."
"War!" cried Ansell, crashing his fists together. "It's war, then!"
"Oh, what a lot of tommy-rot," said Tilliard. "Can't a man and woman get engaged? My dear boy--excuse me talking like this--what on earth is it to do with us?"
"We're his friends, and I hope we always shall be, but we shan't keep his friendship by fighting. We're bound to fall into the background. Wife first, friends some way after. You may resent the order, but it is ordained by nature."
"The point is, not what's ordained by nature or any other fool, but what's right."
"You are hopelessly unpractical," said Tilliard, turning away. "And let me remind you that you've already given away your case by acknowledging that they're happy."
"She is happy because she has conquered; he is happy because he has at last hung all the world's beauty on to a single peg. He was always trying to do it. He used to call the peg humanity. Will either of these happinesses last? His can't. Hers only for a time. I fight this woman not only because she fights me, but because I foresee the most appalling catastrophe. She wants Rickie, partly to replace another man whom she lost two years ago, partly to make something out of him. He is to write. In time she will get sick of this. He won't get famous. She will only see how thin he is and how lame. She will long for a jollier husband, and I don't blame her. And, having made him thoroughly miserable and degraded, she will bolt--if she can do it like a lady."
Such were the opinions of Stewart Ansell.
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