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Chapter 22

THE COUNTRY HOUSE


The luncheon hour at Holm Oaks, was, as in many well-bred country houses--out of the shooting season, be it understood--the soulful hour. The ferment of the daily doings was then at its full height, and the clamour of its conversation on the weather, and the dogs, the horses, neighbours, cricket, golf, was mingled with a literary murmur; for the Dennants were superior, and it was quite usual to hear remarks like these "Have you read that charmin' thing of Poser's?" or, "Yes, I've got the new edition of old Bablington: delightfully bound--so light." And it was in July that Holm Oaks, as a gathering-place of the elect, was at its best. For in July it had become customary to welcome there many of those poor souls from London who arrived exhausted by the season, and than whom no seamstress in a two-pair back could better have earned a holiday. The Dennants themselves never went to London for the season. It was their good pleasure not to. A week or fortnight of it satisfied them. They had a radical weakness for fresh air, and Antonia, even after her presentation two seasons back, had insisted on returning home, stigmatising London balls as "stuffy things."

When Shelton arrived the stream had only just begun, but every day brought fresh, or rather jaded, people to occupy the old, dark, sweet-smelling bedrooms. Individually, he liked his fellow-guests, but he found himself observing them. He knew that, if a man judged people singly, almost all were better than himself; only when judged in bulk were they worthy of the sweeping criticisms he felt inclined to pass on them. He knew this just as he knew that the conventions, having been invented to prevent man following his natural desires, were merely the disapproving sums of innumerable individual approvals.

It was in the bulk; then, that he found himself observing. But with his amiability and dread of notoriety he remained to all appearance a well-bred, docile creature, and he kept his judgments to himself.

In the matter of intellect he made a rough division of the guests--those who accepted things without a murmur, those who accepted them with carping jocularity; in the matter of morals he found they all accepted things without the semblance of a kick. To show sign of private moral judgment was to have lost your soul, and, worse, to be a bit of an outsider. He gathered this by intuition rather than from conversation; for conversation naturally tabooed such questions, and was carried on in the loud and cheerful tones peculiar to people of good breeding. Shelton had never been able to acquire this tone, and he could not help feeling that the inability made him more or less an object of suspicion. The atmosphere struck him as it never had before, causing him to feel a doubt of his gentility. Could a man suffer from passion, heart-searchings, or misgivings, and remain a gentleman? It seemed improbable. One of his fellow-guests, a man called Edgbaston, small-eyed and semi-bald, with a dark moustache and a distinguished air of meanness, disconcerted him one day by remarking of an unknown person, "A half-bred lookin' chap; did n't seem to know his mind." Shelton was harassed by a horrid doubt.

Everything seemed divided into classes, carefully docketed and valued. For instance, a Briton was of more value than a man, and wives than women. Those things or phases of life with which people had no personal acquaintance were regarded with a faint amusement and a certain disapproval. The principles of the upper class, in fact, were strictly followed.

He was in that hypersenstive and nervous state favourable for recording currents foreign to itself. Things he had never before noticed now had profound effect on him, such as the tone in which men spoke of women--not precisely with hostility, nor exactly with contempt best, perhaps, described as cultured jeering; never, of course, when men spoke of their own wives, mothers, sisters, or immediate friends, but merely when they spoke of any other women. He reflected upon this, and came to the conclusion that, among the upper classes, each man's own property was holy, while other women were created to supply him with gossip, jests, and spice. Another thing that struck him was the way in which the war then going on was made into an affair of class. In their view it was a baddish business, because poor hack Blank and Peter Blank-Blank had lost their lives, and poor Teddy Blank had now one arm instead of two. Humanity in general was omitted, but not the upper classes, nor, incidentally, the country which belonged to them. For there they were, all seated in a row, with eyes fixed on the horizon of their lawns.

Late one evening, billiards and music being over and the ladies gone, Shelton returned from changing to his smoking-suit, and dropped into one of the great arm-chairs that even in summer made a semicircle round the fendered hearth. Fresh from his good-night parting with Antonia, he sat perhaps ten minutes before he began to take in all the figures in their parti-coloured smoking jackets, cross-legged, with glasses in their hands, and cigars between their teeth.

The man in the next chair roused him by putting down his tumbler with a tap, and seating himself upon the cushioned fender. Through the mist of smoke, with shoulders hunched, elbows and knees crooked out, cigar protruding, beak-ways, below his nose, and the crimson collar of his smoking jacket buttoned close as plumage on his breast, he looked a little like a gorgeous bird.

"They do you awfully well," he said.

A voice from the chair on Shelton's right replied,

"They do you better at Verado's."

"The Veau d'Or 's the best place; they give you Turkish baths for nothing!" drawled a fat man with a tiny mouth.

The suavity of this pronouncement enfolded all as with a blessing. And at once, as if by magic, in the old, oak-panelled room, the world fell naturally into its three departments: that where they do you well; that where they do you better; and that where they give you Turkish baths for nothing.

"If you want Turkish baths," said a tall youth with clean red face, who had come into the room, and stood, his mouth a little open, and long feet jutting with sweet helplessness in front of him, "you should go, you know, to Buda Pesth; most awfully rippin' there."

Shelton saw an indescribable appreciation rise on every face, as though they had been offered truffles or something equally delicious.

"Oh no, Poodles," said the man perched on the fender. "A Johnny I know tells me they 're nothing to Sofia." His face was transfigured by the subtle gloating of a man enjoying vice by proxy.

"Ah!" drawled the small-mouthed man, "there 's nothing fit to hold a candle to Baghda-ad."

Once again his utterance enfolded all as with a blessing, and once again the world fell into its three departments: that where they do you well; that where they do you better; and--Baghdad.

Shelton thought to himself: "Why don't I know a place that's better than Baghdad?"

He felt so insignificant. It seemed that he knew none of these delightful spots; that he was of no use to any of his fellow-men; though privately he was convinced that all these speakers were as ignorant as himself, and merely found it warming to recall such things as they had heard, with that peculiar gloating look. Alas! his anecdotes would never earn for him that prize of persons in society, the label of a "good chap" and "sportsman."

"Have you ever been in Baghdad?" he feebly asked.

The fat man did not answer; he had begun an anecdote, and in his broad expanse of face his tiny mouth writhed like a caterpillar. The anecdote was humorous.

With the exception of Antonia, Shelton saw but little of the ladies, for, following the well-known custom of the country house, men and women avoided each other as much as might be. They met at meals, and occasionally joined in tennis and in croquet; otherwise it seemed--almost Orientally--agreed that they were better kept apart.

Chancing one day to enter the withdrawing room, while searching for Antonia, he found that he had lighted on a feminine discussion; he would have beaten a retreat, of course, but it seemed too obvious that he was merely looking for his fiancee, so, sitting down, he listened.

The Honourable Charlotte Penguin, still knitting a silk tie--the sixth since that she had been knitting at Hyeres--sat on the low window-seat close to a hydrangea, the petals of whose round flowers almost kissed her sanguine cheek. Her eyes were fixed with languid aspiration on the lady who was speaking. This was a square woman of medium height, with grey hair brushed from her low forehead, the expression of whose face was brisk and rather cross. She was standing with a book, as if delivering a sermon. Had she been a man she might have been described as a bright young man of business; for, though grey, she never could be old, nor ever lose the power of forming quick decisions. Her features and her eyes were prompt and slightly hard, tinged with faith fanatical in the justice of her judgments, and she had that fussy simpleness of dress which indicates the right to meddle. Not red, not white, neither yellow nor quite blue, her complexion was suffused with a certain mixture of these colours, adapted to the climate; and her smile had a strange sour sweetness, like nothing but the flavour of an apple on the turn.

"I don't care what they tell you," she was saying--not offensively, though her voice seemed to imply that she had no time to waste in pleasing--"in all my dealings with them I've found it best to treat them quite like children."

A lady, behind the Times, smiled; her mouth--indeed, her whole hard, handsome face--was reminiscent of dappled rocking-horses found in the Soho Bazaar. She crossed her feet, and some rich and silk stuff rustled. Her whole personality seemed to creak as, without looking, she answered in harsh tones:

"I find the poor are most delightful persons."

Sybil Dennant, seated on the sofa, with a feathery laugh shot a barking terrier dog at Shelton.

"Here's Dick," she said. "Well, Dick, what's your opinion?"

Shelton looked around him, scared. The elder ladies who had spoken had fixed their eyes on him, and in their gaze he read his utter insignificance.

"Oh, that young man!" they seemed to say. "Expect a practical remark from him? Now, come!"

"Opinion," he stammered, "of the poor? I haven't any."

The person on her feet, whose name was Mrs. Mattock, directing her peculiar sweet-sour smile at the distinguished lady with the Times, said:

"Perhaps you 've not had experience of them in London, Lady Bonington?"

Lady Bonington, in answer, rustled.

"Oh, do tell us about the slums, Mrs. Mattock!" cried Sybil.

"Slumming must be splendid! It's so deadly here--nothing but flannel petticoats."

"The poor, my dear," began Mrs. Mattock, "are not the least bit what you think them--"

"Oh, d' you know, I think they're rather nice!" broke in Aunt Charlotte close to the hydrangea.

"You think so?" said Mrs. Mattock sharply. "I find they do nothing but grumble."

"They don't grumble at me: they are delightful persons", and Lady Bonington gave Shelton a grim smile.

He could not help thinking that to grumble in the presence of that rich, despotic personality would require a superhuman courage.

"They're the most ungrateful people in the world," said Mrs. Mattock.

"Why, then," thought Shelton, "do you go amongst them?"

She continued, "One must do them good, one, must do one's duty, but as to getting thanks--"

Lady Bonington sardonically said,

"Poor things! they have a lot to bear."

"The little children!" murmured Aunt Charlotte, with a flushing cheek and shining eyes; "it 's rather pathetic."

"Children indeed!" said Mrs. Mattock. "It puts me out of all patience to see the way that they neglect them. People are so sentimental about the poor."

Lady Bonington creaked again. Her splendid shoulders were wedged into her chair; her fine dark hair, gleaming with silver, sprang back upon her brow; a ruby bracelet glowed on the powerful wrist that held the journal; she rocked her copper-slippered foot. She did not appear to be too sentimental.

"I know they often have a very easy time," said Mrs. Mattock, as if some one had injured her severely. And Shelton saw, not without pity, that Fate had scored her kind and squashed-up face with wrinkles, whose tiny furrows were eloquent of good intentions frustrated by the unpractical and discontented poor. "Do what you will, they are never satisfied; they only resent one's help, or else they take the help and never thank you for it!"

"Oh!" murmured Aunt Charlotte, "that's rather hard."

Shelton had been growing, more uneasy. He said abruptly:

"I should do the same if I were they."

Mrs. Mattock's brown eyes flew at him; Lady Bonington spoke to the Times; her ruby bracelet and a bangle jingled.

"We ought to put ourselves in their places."

Shelton could not help a smile; Lady Bonington in the places of the poor!

"Oh!" exclaimed Mrs. Mattock, "I put myself entirely in their place. I quite understand their feelings. But ingratitude is a repulsive quality."

"They seem unable to put themselves in your place," murmured Shelton; and in a fit of courage he took the room in with a sweeping glance.

Yes, that room was wonderfully consistent, with its air of perfect second-handedness, as if each picture, and each piece of furniture, each book, each lady present, had been made from patterns. They were all widely different, yet all (like works of art seen in some exhibitions) had the look of being after the designs of some original spirit. The whole room was chaste, restrained, derived, practical, and comfortable; neither in virtue nor in work, neither in manner, speech, appearance, nor in theory, could it give itself away.


John Galsworthy

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