The dinner at the Casserols' was given to those of the bride's friends who had been conspicuous in the day's festivities. Shelton found himself between Miss Casserol and a lady undressed to much the same degree. Opposite sat a man with a single diamond stud, a white waistcoat, black moustache, and hawk-like face. This was, in fact, one of those interesting houses occupied by people of the upper middle class who have imbibed a taste for smart society. Its inhabitants, by nature acquisitive and cautious, economical, tenacious, had learnt to worship the word "smart." The result was a kind of heavy froth, an air of thoroughly domestic vice. In addition to the conventionally fast, Shelton had met there one or two ladies, who, having been divorced, or having yet to be, still maintained their position in "society." Divorced ladies who did not so maintain their place were never to be found, for the Casserols had a great respect for marriage. He had also met there American ladies who were "too amusing"--never, of course, American men, Mesopotamians of the financial or the racing type, and several of those gentlemen who had been, or were about to be, engaged in a transaction which might or again might not, "come off," and in conduct of an order which might, or again might not be spotted. The line he knew, was always drawn at those in any category who were actually found out, for the value of these ladies and these gentlemen was not their claim to pity--nothing so sentimental--but their "smartness," clothes, jokes, racing tips, their "bridge parties," and their motors.
In sum, the house was one whose fundamental domesticity attracted and sheltered those who were too "smart" to keep their heads for long above the water.
His host, a grey, clean-shaven city man, with a long upper lip, was trying to understand a lady the audacity of whose speech came ringing down the table. Shelton himself had given up the effort with his neighbours, and made love to his dinner, which, surviving the incoherence of the atmosphere, emerged as a work of art. It was with surprise that he found Miss Casserol addressing him.
"I always say that the great thing is to be jolly. If you can't find anything to make you laugh, pretend you do; it's so much 'smarter to be amusin'. Now don't you agree?"
The philosophy seemed excellent.
"We can't all be geniuses, but we can all look jolly."
Shelton hastened to look jolly.
"I tell the governor, when he 's glum, that I shall put up the shutters and leave him. What's the good of mopin' and lookin' miserable? Are you going to the Four-in-Hand Meet? We're making a party. Such fun; all the smart people!"
The splendour of her shoulders, her frizzy hair (clearly not two hours out of the barber's hands), might have made him doubtful; but the frank shrewdness in her eyes, and her carefully clipped tone of voice, were guarantees that she was part of the element at the table which was really quite respectable. He had never realised before how "smart" she was, and with an effort abandoned himself to a sort of gaiety that would have killed a Frenchman.
And when she left him, he reflected upon the expression of her eyes when they rested on a lady opposite, who was a true bird-of-prey. "What is it," their envious, inquisitive glance had seemed to say, "that makes you so really 'smart'?" And while still seeking for the reason, he noticed his host pointing out the merits of his port to the hawk-like man, with a deferential air quite pitiful to see, for the hawk-like man was clearly a "bad hat." What in the name of goodness did these staid bourgeois mean by making up to vice? Was it a craving to be thought distinguished, a dread of being dull, or merely an effect of overfeeding? Again he looked at his host, who had not yet enumerated all the virtues of his port, and again felt sorry for him.
"So you're going to marry Antonia Dennant?" said a voice on his right, with that easy coarseness which is a mark of caste. "Pretty girl! They've a nice place, the, Dennants. D' ye know, you're a lucky feller!"
The speaker was an old baronet, with small eyes, a dusky, ruddy face, and peculiar hail-fellow-well-met expression, at once morose and sly. He was always hard up, but being a man of enterprise knew all the best people, as well as all the worst, so that he dined out every night.
"You're a lucky feller," he repeated; "he's got some deuced good shootin', Dennant! They come too high for me, though; never touched a feather last time I shot there. She's a pretty girl. You 're a lucky feller!"
"I know that," said Shelton humbly.
"Wish I were in your shoes. Who was that sittin' on the other side of you? I'm so dashed short-sighted. Mrs. Carruther? Oh, ay!" An expression which, if he had not been a baronet, would have been a leer, came on his lips.
Shelton felt that he was referring to the leaf in his mental pocket-book covered with the anecdotes, figures, and facts about that lady. "The old ogre means," thought he, "that I'm lucky because his leaf is blank about Antonia." But the old baronet had turned, with his smile, and his sardonic, well-bred air, to listen to a bit of scandal on the other side.
The two men to Shelton's left were talking.
"What! You don't collect anything? How's that? Everybody collects something. I should be lost without my pictures."
"No, I don't collect anything. Given it up; I was too awfully had over my Walkers."
Shelton had expected a more lofty reason; he applied himself to the Madeira in his glass. That, had been "collected" by his host, and its price was going up! You couldn't get it every day; worth two guineas a bottle! How precious the idea that other people couldn't get it, made it seem! Liquid delight; the price was going up! Soon there would be none left; immense! Absolutely no one, then, could drink it!
"Wish I had some of this," said the old baronet, "but I have drunk all mine."
"Poor old chap!" thought Shelton; "after all, he's not a bad old boy. I wish I had his pluck. His liver must be splendid."
The drawing-room was full of people playing a game concerned with horses ridden by jockeys with the latest seat. And Shelton was compelled to help in carrying on this sport till early in the morning. At last he left, exhausted by his animation.
He thought of the wedding; he thought over his dinner and the wine that he had drunk. His mood of satisfaction fizzled out. These people were incapable of being real, even the smartest, even the most respectable; they seemed to weigh their pleasures in the scales and to get the most that could be gotten for their money.
Between the dark, safe houses stretching for miles and miles, his thoughts were of Antonia; and as he reached his rooms he was overtaken by the moment when the town is born again. The first new air had stolen down; the sky was living, but not yet alight; the trees were quivering faintly; no living creature stirred, and nothing spoke except his heart. Suddenly the city seemed to breathe, and Shelton saw that he was not alone; an unconsidered trifle with inferior boots was asleep upon his doorstep.
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