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A QUESTION OF EXTERNALS
It was a grey November afternoon two days later. A faint, filmy suggestion of fog hung about the streets, just enough to remind the Londoner of November possibilities, but in the western sky hung a golden sun, and underfoot there was the blessing of dry pavements.
Penelope stood at one of the windows of the flat in Edenhall Mansions, and looked down at the busy thoroughfare below. Hither and thither men and women hurried about their business; there seemed few indeed nowadays of the leisured loiterers through life. A tube strike had only recently been brought to a conclusion, and Londoners of all classes were endeavouring to make good the time lost during those days of enforced stagnation. Unfortunately, time that is lost can never be recovered. Even Eternity itself can't give us back the hours which have been flung away.
Rather bitterly Penelope reflected that, in spite of all our vaunted civilisation and education, men still resorted, as did their ancestors of old, to brute force in order to obtain their wishes. For, after all, a strike, however much you may gloss over the fact, is neither more nor less than a modern substitute for the old-time revolt of men armed with pikes and staves. That is to say, in either instance you insist on what you want by a process of making other people thoroughly uncomfortable till you get your way--unless they happen to be stronger than you! And incidentally a good many innocent folk who have nothing to do with the matter get badly hurt in the fray.
All the miseries which inevitably beset the steadfast worker when a strike occurs had fallen to Penelope's lot. She had scrambled hopelessly for a seat on a motor-'bus, or, driven by extremity into a fit of wild extravagance, had vainly hailed a taxi. Sometimes she had been compelled to tramp the whole way home, through drenching rain, from some house at which she had been giving a lesson, in each case enduring the very kind of physical stress which plays such havoc with a singer's only capital--her voice. She wondered if the strikers ever realised the extra strain they inflicted on people so much less able to contend with the hardships of a worker's life than they themselves.
The whirr and snort of a taxi broke the thread of her thoughts. With a grinding of brakes the cab came to a standstill at the entrance to the block of flats, and after a few minutes Emily, the unhurried maid-of-all-work, whom Nan's sense of fitness had re-christened "our Adagio," jerked the door open, announcing briefly:
Penelope turned quickly, and a look of pleasure flashed into her face.
"Kitty! Back in town at last! Oh, it's good to see you again!"
She kissed the new-comer warmly and began to help off her enveloping furs. When these--coat, stole, and a muff of gigantic proportions--were at last shed, Mrs. Barry Seymour revealed herself as a small, plump, fashionable little person with auburn hair--the very newest shade--brown eyes that owed their shadowed lids to kohl, a glorious skin (which she had had the sense to leave to nature), and, a chic little face at once so kind and humorous and entirely delightful, that all censure was disarmed.
Her dress was Paquin, her jewellery extravagant, but her heart was as big as her banking account, and there was not a member of her household, from her adoring husband down to the kitchen-maid who evicted the grubs from the cabbages, who did not more or less worship the ground she walked on. Even her most intimate women friends kept their claws sheathed--and that, despite the undeniable becomingness of the dyed hair.
"We only got back to town last night," she said, returning Penelope's salute with fervour. "So I flew round this morning to see how you two were getting on. I can't think how you've managed without the advantage of my counsels for three whole months!"
"I don't think we have managed too well," admitted Penelope drily.
"There! What did I say?"--with manifest delight. "I told Barry, when he would go up to Scotland just for the pleasure of killing small birds, that I was sure something would happen in my absence. What is it? Nothing very serious, of course. By the way, where's Nan this morning?"
"Playing at a concert in Exeter. At least, the concert took place last night. I'm expecting her back this afternoon."
"Well, that's good news, not bad. How did you induce her to do it? She's been slacking abominably lately."
Penelope nodded sombrely.
"I know. I've been pitching into her for it. The Peace has upset her."
"She's like every other girl. She can't settle down after four years of perpetual thrills and excitement. But if she'd had a husband fighting"--Kitty's gay little face softened incredibly--"she'd be thanking God on her knees that the war is over--however beastly," she added characteristically, "the peace may be."
"She worked splendidly during the war," interposed Penelope, her sense of justice impelling the remark.
"Yes"--quickly. "But she's done precious little work of any kind since. What's she been doing lately? Has she written anything new?"
Penelope laughed grimly.
"Oh, a song or two. And she's composed one gruesome thing which makes your blood run cold. It's really for orchestra, and I believe it's meant to represent the murder of a soul. . . . It does!"
"She's rather inclined to err on the side of tragedy," observed Kitty.
"Especially just now," added Penelope pointedly.
Kitty glanced sharply across at her.
"What do you mean? Is anything wrong with Nan?"
"Yes, there's something very wrong. I'm worried about her."
"Well, what is it?"--impatiently.
"It's all the fault of that wretched artist man we met at your house."
"Do you mean Maryon Rooke?"
"Yes"--briefly. "He's rather smashed Nan up."
"He? Nan?" Kitty's voice rose in a crescendo of incredulity. "But he was crazy about her! Has been, all through the war. Why, I thought there was practically an understanding between them!"
"Yes. So did most people," replied Penelope shortly.
"For goodness' sake be more explicit, Penny! Surely she hasn't turned him down?"
"He hasn't given her the chance."
"You mean--you can't mean that he's chucked her?"
"That's practically what it amounts to. And I don't understand it. Nan is so essentially attractive from a man's point of view."
"How do you know?" queried Kitty whimsically. "You're only a woman."
"Why, because I've used my eyes, my dear! . . . But in this case it seems we were all mistaken. If ever a man deliberately set himself to make a woman care, Maryon Rooke was the man. And when he'd succeeded--he went away."
Kitty produced a small gold cigarette case from the depths of an elaborate bead bag and extracted a cigarette. She lit it and began smoking reflectively.
"And I suppose all this, coming on top of the staleness of things in general after the war, has flattened her out?"
"It's given her a bad knock."
"Did she tell you anything about it?"
"A little. He came here to say good-bye to her before going to France--"
"I know," interpolated Kitty. "He's going there to paint Princess Somebody-or-other while she's staying in Paris."
"Well, I came in when he'd left and found Nan sitting like a stone statue, gazing blankly in front of her. She wouldn't say much, but bit by bit I dragged it out of her. Since then she has never referred to the matter again. She is quite gay at times in a sort of artificial way, but she doesn't do any work, though she spends odd moments fooling about at the piano. She goes out morning, noon, and night, and comes back dead-beat, apparently not having enjoyed herself at all. Can you imagine Nan like that?"
"Not very easily."
"I believe he's taken the savour out of things for her," said Penelope, adding slowly, in a voice that was quite unlike her usual practical tones: "Brushed the bloom off the world for her."
"Poor old Nan! She must be hard hit. . . . She's never been hurt badly before."
"Never--before she met that man. I can't forgive him, Kitty. I'm horribly afraid what sort of effect this miserable affair is going to have on a girl of Nan's queer temperament."
Kitty turned the matter over in her mind in silence. Then with a small, sage nod of her red head, she advanced a suggestion.
"Bring her over to dinner to-morrow--no, not to-morrow, I'm booked. Say Thursday, and I'll have a nice man to meet her. She needs someone to play around with. There's nothing like another man to knock the first one out of a woman's head. It's cure by homeopathy."
Penelope smiled dubiously.
"It's a bit of bad luck on the second man, isn't it--if he's nice? You know, Nan is rather fatal to the peace of the male mind."
"Oh, the man I'm thinking of has himself well in hand. He's a novelist--and finds safety in numbers. His mother was French."
"And Nan's great-grandmother. Kitty, is it wise?"
"Extreme measures are sometimes necessary. He and she will hit it off together at once, I know."
As Kitty finished speaking there came a trill at the front-door bell, followed a minute later by a masculine knock on the door.
"Come in," cried Penelope.
The door opened to admit a tall, fair man who somehow reminded one of a big, genial Newfoundland.
"I've called for my wife," he said, shaking hands with. Penelope, and smiling down at her with a pair of lazily humorous blue eyes. "Can I have her?"
"In a minute, Barry"--Kitty nodded at him cheerfully. "We're just settling plans about Nan."
"Nan? I should have imagined that young woman was very capable of making her own plans," returned Barry Seymour, letting his long length down into a chair. "In fact, I was under the impression she'd already made 'em," he added with a grin.
"No, they're unsettled at present," returned Kitty. "She's not very keen about Maryon Rooke now." Kitty was of the opinion that you should never tell even the best of husbands more than he need know. "So we think she requires distraction," she pursued firmly.
"And who's the poor devil you've fixed on as a burnt-offering?" enquired Seymour, tugging reflectively at his big, fair moustache.
"It certainly is a man," conceded Kitty.
"Naturally," agreed her husband amicably.
"But I'm not going to tell you who it is or I know you'd let the cat out of the bag, and then Nan will be put off at the beginning. Men"--superbly--"never can keep a secret."
"But they can use their native observation, my dear," retorted Barry calmly. "And I bet you five to one in gloves that I tell you the name of the man inside a week."
"In a week it won't matter," pronounced Kitty oracularly. "Give me a week--and you can have all the time that's left."
"Well, we'd better occupy what's left of this afternoon in getting back home, old thing," returned her husband. "Or you'll never be dressed in time for the Granleys' dinner to-night."
Kitty looked at the clock and jumped up quickly.
"Good heavens! I'd forgotten all about them! Penelope, I must fly! Thursday, then--don't forget. Dinner at eight."
She caught up her furs. There was a faint rustle of feminine garments, a fleeting whiff of violets in the air, and Kitty had taken her departure, followed by her husband.
A short time afterwards a taxi pulled up at Edenhall Mansions and Nan stepped out of it. Penelope sprang up to welcome her as she entered the sitting-room. She was darning stockings, foolish, pretty, silken things--Nan's, be it said.
"Well, how did it go?" she asked eagerly.
"The concert? Oh, quite well. I had a very good reception, and this morning's notices in the newspapers were positively calculated to make me blush."
There was an odd note of indifference in her voice; the concert did not appear to interest her much. Penelope pursued her interrogation.
"Did you enjoy yourself?"
A curious look of reminiscence came into Nan's eyes.
"Oh, yes. I enjoyed myself. Very much."
"I'm so glad. I thought the Chattertons would look after you well."
She omitted to add that someone else had looked after her even better--someone distinctly more interesting than dear old Lady Chatterton, kindest soul alive though she might be. For some reason or other Nan felt reluctant to share with Penelope--or with anyone else just at present--the fact of her meeting with Peter Mallory.
"You caught your train all right at Paddington?" went on Penelope.
Nan's mouth tilted in a faint smile.
"Quite all right," she responded placidly.
Finding that the question and answer process was not getting them very far, Penelope resumed her darning and announced her own small item of news.
"Kit's been here this afternoon," she said.
Nan shrugged her shoulders.
"Just my luck to miss her," she muttered irritably.
"No, it isn't 'just your luck,' my dear. It's anyone's luck. You make such a grievance of trifles."
In an instant Nan's charming smile flashed out.
"I am a beast," she said in a tone of acquiescence. "What on earth should I do without you, Penny, to bully me and generally lick me into shape?" She dropped a light kiss on the top of Penelope's bent head. "But, truly, I hate to miss Kit Seymour. She's as good as a tonic--and just now I feel like a bottle of champagne that's been uncorked for a week."
"You're overtired," replied Penelope prosaically. "You're so--so excessive in all you do."
"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," she acknowledged. "Well, what's the Kitten's news? What colour is her hair this season?"
"Red. It suits her remarkably well."
Nan rippled with mirth.
"I never knew a painted Jezebel so perfectly delightful as Kitty. Even Aunt Eliza can't resist her."
Mrs. McBain, generally known to her intimates as "Aunt Eliza," was a connection of Nan's on the paternal side. She was a lady of Scottish antecedents and Early Victorian tendencies, to whom the modern woman and her methods were altogether anathema. She regarded her niece as walking--or, more truly, pirouetting aggressively--along the road which leads to destruction.
Penelope folded a pair of renovated stockings and tossed them into her work-basket.
"The Seymours want us to dine there on Thursday. I suppose you can?" she asked.
"With all the pleasure in life. Their chef is a dream," murmured Nan reminiscently.
"As though you cared!" scoffed Penelope.
Nan lit a cigarette and seated herself on the humpty-dumpty cushion by the fire.
"But I do care--extremely." she averred. "It isn't my little inside which cares. It's a purely external feeling which likes to have everything just right. If it's going to be a dinner, I want it perfect from soup to savoury."
Penelope regarded her with a glint of amusement.
"You're such a demanding person."
"I know I am--about the way things are done. What pleasure is there in anything which offends your sense of fitness?"
"You bestow far too much importance on the outside of the cup and platter."
Nan shook her head.
"Mon verre n'est pas grand, mais--Je bois dans mon verre." she quoted, frivolously obstinate.
"Bah!" Penelope grunted, "The critical faculty is over-developed in you, my child."
"Not a bit! Would you like to drink champagne out of a kitchen tea-cup? Of course not. I merely apply the same principle to other things. For instance, if the man I married ate peas with a knife and made loud juicy noises when he drank his soup, not all the sterling qualities he might possess would compensate. Whereas if he had perfect manners, I believe I could forgive him half the sins in the Decalogue."
"Manners are merely an external," protested Penelope, although privately she acknowledged to a sneaking agreement with Nan's point of view.
"Well," retorted Nan. "We've got to live with externals, haven't we? It's only on rare occasions that people admit each other on to their souls' doorsteps. Besides"--argumentatively--"decent manners aren't an external. They're the 'outward and visible sign.' Why"--waxing enthusiastic--"if a man just opens a door or puts some coal on the fire for you, it involves a whole history of the homage and protective instinct of man for woman."
"The theory may be correct," admitted Penelope, "though a trifle idealistic for the twentieth century. Most men," she added drily, "Regard coaling up the fire as a damned nuisance rather than a 'history of homage.'"
"It oughtn't to be idealistic." There was a faint note of wistfulness in Nan's voice. "Why should everything that is beautiful be invariably termed 'idealistic'? Oh, there are ten thousand things I'd like altered in this world of ours!"
"Of course there are. You wouldn't be you otherwise! You want a specially constructed world and a peculiarly adapted human nature. In fact--you want the moon!"
Nan stared into the fire reflectively.
"I wonder," she said slowly, "if I shall get it?"
Penelope glanced at her sharply.
"It's highly improbable," she said. "But a little philosophy would be quite as useful--and a far more likely acquisition."
As she finished speaking a bell pealed through the flat--pealed with an irritable suggestion that it had been rung unavailingly before. Followed the abigail's footstep as she pursued her unhurried way to answer its imperative demand, and presently a visitor was shown into the room. He was a man of over seventy, erect and well-preserved, with white hair and clipped moustache. There was an indefinable courtliness of manner about him which recalled the days of lace ruffles and knee-breeches. The two girls rose to greet him with unfeigned delight.
"Uncle!" cried Nan. "How dear of you to come just when our spirits were at their lowest ebb!"
"My dears!" He kissed his niece and shook hands with Penelope. Nan pushed an armchair towards the fire and tendered her cigarette case.
"You needn't be afraid of them, Uncle David," she informed him reassuringly. "They're not gaspers."
"Sybarite! With the same confidence as if they were my own." And Lord St. John helped himself smilingly.
"And why," he continued, "has the barometer fallen?"
"You can't expect it to be always 'set fair'!"
"I'd like it to be," returned St. John simply.
A fugitive thought flashed through Nan's mind that he and Peter Mallory were merely young and old representatives of a similar type of man. She could imagine Mallory growing into the same gracious old manhood as her uncle.
"A propos," pursued Lord St. John, with a twinkle, "your handmaiden appears to me a quite just cause and impediment."
"Oh, our 'Adagio'?" exclaimed Nan. "We've long since ceased to expect much from her. Did she keep you waiting on the doorstep long?"
"Only about ten minutes," murmured St. John mildly. "But seriously, why don't you--er--give her warning?"
"My dear innocent uncle!" protested Nan amusedly. "Don't you know that that sort of thing isn't done nowadays--not in the best circles?"
"Besides," added Penelope practically, "we should probably be only out of the frying pan into the fire. The jewels in the domestic line are few and far between and certainly not to be purchased within our financial limits. And frankly, there are very few jewels left at any price. Most of the nice ones got married during the war--the servants you loved and regarded as part of the family--and nine-tenths of those that are left have no sense of even giving good work in return for their wages--let alone civility! The tradition of good service has gone."
"Have you been having much bother, then?" asked St. John concernedly. "You never used to have trouble with maids."
"No. But everyone has now. You wouldn't believe what they're like! I don't think it's in the least surprising so many women have nervous break-downs through nothing more nor less than domestic worry. Why, the home-life of women these days is more like a daily battlefield than anything else!"
Penelope spoke strongly. She had suffered considerably at the hands of various inefficient maids and this, added to the strain of her own professional work, had brought her at one time to the verge of a break-down in health.
"I'd no idea you were so strong on domestic matters, Penelope," chaffed St. John, smiling across at her.
"I'm not. But I've got common sense, and I can see that if the small wheels of the machine refuse to turn, the big wheels are bound to stick."
"If only servants knew how much one liked and respected a really good maid!" murmured Nan with a recrudescence of idealism.
"Do wages make any difference?" ventured St. John somewhat timidly. Penelope was rather forcible when the spirit moved her, and he was becoming conscious of the fact that he was a mere ignorant man.
"Of course they do--to a certain extent," she replied.
"Money makes a difference to most things, doesn't it?"
"There are one or two things it can't taint," he answered quietly, but now you've really brought me to the very object of my visit."
"I thought it was a desire to enquire after the health of your favourite niece," hazarded Nan impertinently.
"So it was. And as finance plays a most important part in that affair, the matter dovetails exactly!"
He smoked in silence for a moment. Then he resumed:
"I should like, Nan, with your permission, to double your allowance and make it six hundred a year."
"You see," he pursued, "though I'm only a mere man, I know the cost of living has soared sky-high, including"--with a sly glance at Penelope--"the cost of menservants and maidservants."
"Well, but really, Uncle, I could manage with less than that," protested Nan. "Four or five hundred, with what we earn, would be quite sufficient--quite."
St. John regarded her reflectively.
"It might be--for some people. But not for you, my child. I know your temperament too well! You've the Davenant love of beauty and the instinct to surround yourself with all that's worth having, and I hate to think of its being thwarted just for lack of money. After all, money is only of value for what it can procure--what it does for you. Well, being a Davenant, you want a lot of the things that money can procure--things which wouldn't mean anything at all to many people. They wouldn't even notice whether they were there or not. So six hundred a year it will be, my dear. On the same understanding as before--that you renounce the income should you marry."
Nan gripped his hand hard.
"Uncle," she began. "I can't thank you--"
"Don't, my dear. I merely want to give you a little freedom. You mayn't have it always. You won't if you marry"--with a twinkle. "Now, may I have my usual cup of coffee--not from the hands of your Hebe!"
She nodded and slipped out of the room to make the coffee, while Penelope turned towards the visitor with an expression of dismay on her face.
"Do forgive me, Lord St. John," she said. "But is it wise? Aren't you taking from her all incentive to work?"
"I don't believe in pot-boiling," he replied promptly. "The best work of a talent like Nan's is not the work that's done to buy the dinner."
He lit another cigarette before he spoke again. Then he went on rather wistfully:
"I may be wrong, Penelope. But remember, my wife was a Davenant, nearer than Nan by one generation to Angèle de Varincourt. And she was never happy! Though I loved her, I couldn't make her happy."
"I should have thought you would have made her happy if any man could," said Penelope gently.
"My dear, it's given to very few men to make a woman of temperament happy. And Nan is so like my dear, dead Annabel that, if for no other reason, I should always wish to give her what happiness I can." He paused, then went on thoughtfully: "Unfortunately money won't buy happiness. I can't do very much for her--only give her what money can buy. But even the harmony of material environment means a great deal to Nan--the difference between a pert, indifferent maid and a civil and experienced one; flowers in your rooms; a taxi instead of a scramble for a motor-'bus. Just small things in such a big thing as life, but they make an enormous difference."
"You of all men surely understand a temperamental woman!" exclaimed Penelope, surprised at his keen perception of the details which can fret a woman so sorely in proportion to their apparent unimportance.
St. John hardly seemed to hear her, for he continued:
"And I want to give her freedom--freedom from marriage if she wishes it. That's why I stipulate that the income ceases If she marries. I'm trying to weight the balance against her marrying."
Penelope looked at him questioningly.
"But why? Surely love is the best thing of all?"
"Love and marriage, my dear, are two very different things," commented St. John, with an unwonted touch of cynicism. After a moment he went on: "Annabel and I--we loved. But I couldn't make her happy. Our temperaments were unsuited, we looked out on life from different windows. I'm not at all sure"--reflectively--"that the union of sympathetic temperaments, even where less love is, does not result in a much larger degree of happiness than the union of opposites, where there is great love. The jar and fret is there, despite the attraction, and love starves in an atmosphere of discord. For the race, probably the mysterious attraction of opposites will produce the best results. But for individual happiness the sympathetic temperament is the first necessity."
There was a silence, Penelope feeling that Lord St. John had crystallised in words, thoughts and theories that she sensed as being the foundation of her own opinions, hitherto unrecognised and nebulous.
Presently he spoke again.
"And I don't really think men are at all suited to have the care and guardianship of women."
"Unfortunately they're all that Providence has seen fit to provide," replied Penelope, with her usual bluntly philosophical acceptance of facts.
"And yet--we men don't understand women. We're constantly hurting them with our clumsy misconceptions--with our failure to respond to their complexities."
Penelope's eyes grew kind.
"I don't think you would," she said.
"Ah, my dear, I'm an old man now and perhaps I understand. But there was a time when I understood no better than the average youngster who gaily asks some nice woman to trust her future in his hands--without a second thought as to whether he's fit for such a trust. And that was just the time when a little understanding would have given happiness to the woman I loved best on earth."
He spoke rather wearily, but contrived a smile as Nan entered, carrying a cup of coffee in her hand.
"My compliments, Nan. Your coffee equals that of any Frenchwoman."
"A reversion to type. Don't forget that Angèle de Varincourt is always at the back of me."
St. John laughed and drank his coffee appreciatively, and after a little further desultory conversation took his departure, leaving the two girls alone together.
"Isn't he a perfect old dear?" said Nan.
"Yes," agreed Penelope. "He is. And he absolutely spoils you."
Nan gave a little grin.
"I really think he does--a bit. Imagine it, Penny, after our strenuous economies! Six hundred a year in addition to our hard-earned pence! Within limits it really does mean pretty frocks, and theatres, and taxis when we want them."
Penelope smiled at her riotous satisfaction. Nan lived tremendously in the present--her capacity for enjoyment and for suffering was so intense that every little pleasure magnified itself and each small fret and jar became a minor tragedy.
But Penelope was acutely conscious that beneath all the surface tears and laughter there lay a hurt which had not healed, the ultimate effect and consequence of which she was afraid to contemplate.
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