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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Modern Chronicle - Book 2 - Chapter 6. Gad And Meni
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A Modern Chronicle - Book 2 - Chapter 6. Gad And Meni Post by :nexus Category :Long Stories Author :Winston Churchill Date :May 2012 Read :1614

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A Modern Chronicle - Book 2 - Chapter 6. Gad And Meni

BOOK II CHAPTER VI. GAD AND MENI

There was an orthodox place of worship at Quicksands, a temple not merely opened up for an hour or so on Sunday mornings to be shut tight during the remainder of the week although it was thronged with devotees on the Sabbath. This temple, of course, was the Quicksands Club. Howard Spence was quite orthodox; and, like some of our Puritan forefathers, did not even come home to the midday meal on the first day of the week. But a certain instinct of protest and of nonconformity which may have been remarked in our heroine sent her to St. Andrews-by-the-Sea--by no means so well attended as the house of Gad and Meni. She walked home in a pleasantly contemplative state of mind through a field of daisies, and had just arrived at the hedge in front of the Brackens when the sound of hoofs behind her caused her to turn. Mr. Trixton Brent, very firmly astride of a restive, flea-bitten polo pony, surveyed her amusedly.

"Where have you been?" said he.

"To church," replied Honora, demurely.

"Such virtue is unheard of in Quicksands."

"It isn't virtue," said Honora.

"I had my doubts about that, too," he declared.

"What is it, then?" she asked laughingly, wondering why he had such a faculty of stirring her excitement and interest.

"Dissatisfaction," was his prompt reply.

"I don't see why you say that," she protested.

"I'm prepared to make my wager definite," said he. "The odds are a thoroughbred horse against a personally knitted worsted waistcoat that you won't stay in Quicksands six months."

"I wish you wouldn't talk nonsense," said Honora, "and besides, I can't knit."

There was a short silence during which he didn't relax his disconcerting stare.

"Won't you come in?" she asked. "I'm sorry Howard isn't home."

"I'm not," he said promptly. "Can't you come over to my box for lunch? I've asked Lula Chandos and Warry Trowbridge."

It was not without appropriateness that Trixton Brent called his house the "Box." It was square, with no pretensions to architecture whatever, with a porch running all the way around it. And it was literally filled with the relics of the man's physical prowess cups for games of all descriptions, heads and skins from the Bitter Roots to Bengal, and masks and brushes from England. To Honora there was an irresistible and mysterious fascination in all these trophies, each suggesting a finished--and some perhaps a cruel--performance of the man himself. The cups were polished until they beat back the light like mirrors, and the glossy bear and tiger skins gave no hint of dying agonies.

Mr. Brent's method with women, Honora observed, more resembled the noble sport of Isaac Walton than that of Nimrod, but she could not deny that this element of cruelty was one of his fascinations. It was very evident to a feminine observer, for instance, that Mrs. Chandos was engaged in a breathless and altogether desperate struggle with the slow but inevitable and appalling Nemesis of a body and character that would not harmonize. If her figure grew stout, what was to become of her charm as an 'enfant gate'? Her host not only perceived, but apparently derived great enjoyment out of the drama of this contest. From self-indulgence to self-denial--even though inspired by terror--is a far cry. And Trixton Brent had evidently prepared his menu with a satanic purpose.

"What! No entree, Lula? I had that sauce especially for you."

"Oh, Trixy, did you really? How sweet of you!" And her liquid eyes regarded, with an almost equal affection, first the master and then the dish. "I'll take a little," she said weakly; "it's so bad for my gout."

"What," asked Trixton Brent, flashing an amused glance at Honora, "are the symptoms of gout, Lula? I hear a great deal about that trouble these days, but it seems to affect every one differently."

Mrs. Chandos grew very red, but Warry Trowbridge saved her.

"It's a swelling," he said innocently.

Brent threw back his head and laughed.

"You haven't got it anyway, Warry," he cried.

Mr. Trowbridge, who resembled a lean and greying Irish terrier, maintained that he had.

"It's a pity you don't ride, Lula. I understand that that's one of the best preventives--for gout. I bought a horse last week that would just suit you--an ideal woman's horse. He's taken a couple of blue ribbons this summer."

"I hope you will show him to us, Mr. Brent," exclaimed Honora, in a spirit of kindness.

"Do you ride?" he demanded.

"I'm devoted to it," she declared.

It was true. For many weeks that spring, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, she had gone up from Rivington to Harvey's Riding Academy, near Central Park. Thus she had acquired the elements of the equestrian art, and incidentally aroused the enthusiasm of a riding-master.

After Mrs. Chandos had smoked three of the cigarettes which her host specially imported from Egypt, she declared, with no superabundance of enthusiasm, that she was ready to go and see what Trixy had in the "stables." In spite of that lady's somewhat obvious impatience, Honora insisted upon admiring everything from the monogram of coloured sands so deftly woven on the white in the coach house, to the hunters and polo ponies in their rows of boxes. At last Vercingetorix, the latest acquisition of which Brent had spoken, was uncovered and trotted around the ring.

"I'm sorry, Trixy, but I've really got to leave," said Mrs. Chandos. "And I'm in such a predicament! I promised Fanny Darlington I'd go over there, and it's eight miles, and both my horses are lame."

Brent turned to his coachman.

"Put a pair in the victoria right away and drive Mrs. Chandos to Mrs. Darlington's," he said.

She looked at him, and her lip quivered.

"You always were the soul of generosity, Trixy, but why the victoria?"

"My dear Lula," he replied, "if there's any other carriage you prefer--?"

Honora did not hear the answer, which at any rate was scarcely audible. She moved away, and her eyes continued to follow Vercingetorix as he trotted about the tan-bark after a groom. And presently she was aware that Trixton Brent was standing beside her.

"What do you think of him?" he asked.

"He's adorable," declared Honora. "Would you like to try him?"

"Oh--might I? Sometime?"

"Why not to-day--now?" he said. "I'll send him over to your house and have your saddle put on him."

Before Honora could protest Mrs. Chandos came forward.

"It's awfully sweet of you, Trixy, to offer to send me to Fanny's, but Warry says he will drive me over. Good-by, my dear," she added, holding out her hand to Honora.

"I hope you enjoy your ride."

Mr. Trowbridge's phaeton was brought up, Brent helped Mrs. Chandos in, and stood for a moment gazing after her. Amusement was still in his eyes as he turned to Honora.

"Poor Lula!" he said. "Most women could have done it better than that--couldn't they?"

"I think you were horrid to her," exclaimed Honora, indignantly. "It wouldn't have hurt you to drive her to Mrs. Darlington's."

It did not occur to her that her rebuke implied a familiarity at which they had swiftly but imperceptibly arrived.

"Oh, yes, it would hurt me," said he. "I'd rather spend a day in jail than drive with Lula in that frame of mind. Tender reproaches, and all that sort of thing, you know although I can't believe you ever indulge in them. Don't," he added.

In spite of the fact that she was up in arms for her sex, Honora smiled.

"Do you know," she said slowly, "I'm beginning to think you are a brute."

"That's encouraging," he replied.

"And fickle."

"Still more encouraging. Most men are fickle. We're predatory animals."

"It's just as well that I am warned," said Honora. She raised her parasol and picked up her skirts and shot him a look. Although he did not resemble in feature the great if unscrupulous Emperor of the French, he reminded her now of a picture she had once seen of Napoleon and a lady; the lady obviously in a little flutter under the Emperor's scrutiny. The picture had suggested a probable future for the lady.

"How long will it take you to dress?" he asked.

"To dress for what?"

"To ride with me."

"I'm not going to ride with you," she said, and experienced a tingle of satisfaction from his surprise.

"Why not?" he demanded.

"In the first place, because I don't want to; and in the second, because I'm expecting Lily Dallam."

"Lily never keeps an engagement," he said.

"That's no reason why I shouldn't," Honora answered.

"I'm beginning to think you're deuced clever," said he.

"How unfortunate for me!" she exclaimed.

He laughed, although it was plain that he was obviously put out. Honora was still smiling.

"Deuced clever," he repeated.

"An experienced moth," suggested Honora; "perhaps one that has been singed a little, once or twice. Good-by--I've enjoyed myself immensely."

She glanced back at him as she walked down the path to the roadway. He was still standing where she had left him, his feet slightly apart, his hands in the pockets of his riding breeches, looking after her.

Her announcement of an engagement with Mrs. Dallam had been, to put it politely, fiction. She spent the rest of the afternoon writing letters home, pausing at periods to look out of the window. Occasionally it appeared that her reflections were amusing. At seven o'clock Howard arrived, flushed and tired after his day of rest.

"By the way, Honora, I saw Trixy Brent at the Club, and he said you wouldn't go riding with him."

"Do you call him Trixy to his face?" she asked.

"What? No--but everyone calls him Trixy. What's the matter with you?"

"Nothing," she replied. "Only--the habit every one has in Quicksands of speaking of people they don't know well by their nicknames seems rather bad taste."

"I thought you liked Quicksands," he retorted. "You weren't happy until you got down here."

"It's infinitely better than Rivington," she said.

"I suppose," he remarked, with a little irritation unusual in him, "that you'll be wanting to go to Newport next."

"Perhaps," said Honora, and resumed her letter. He fidgeted about the room for a while, ordered a cocktail, and lighted a cigarette.

"Look here," he began presently, "I wish you'd be decent to Brent. He's a pretty good fellow, and he's in with James Wing and that crowd of big financiers, and he seems to have taken a shine to me probably because he's heard of that copper deal I put through this spring."

Honora thrust back her writing pad, turned in her chair, and faced him.

"How 'decent' do you wish me to be?" she inquired.

"How decent?" he repeated.

"Yes."

He regarded her uneasily, took the cocktail which the maid offered him, drank it, and laid down the glass.

He had had before, in the presence of his wife, this vague feeling of having passed boundaries invisible to him. In her eyes was a curious smile that lacked mirth, in her voice a dispassionate note that added to his bewilderment.

"What do you mean, Honora?"

"I know it's too much to expect of a man to be as solicitous about his wife as he is about his business," she replied. "Otherwise he would hesitate before he threw her into the arms of Mr. Trixton Brent. I warn you that he is very attractive to women."

"Hang it," said Howard, "I can't see what you're driving at. I'm not throwing you into his arms. I'm merely asking you to be friendly with him. It means a good deal to me--to both of us. And besides, you can take care of yourself. You're not the sort of woman to play the fool."

"One never can tell," said Honora, "what may happen. Suppose I fell in love with him?"

"Don't talk nonsense," he said.

"I'm not so sure," she answered, meditatively, "that it is nonsense. It would be quite easy to fall in love with him. Easier than you imagine. curiously. Would you care?" she added.

"Care!" he cried; "of course I'd care. What kind of rot are you talking?"

"Why would you care?"

"Why? What a darned idiotic question--"

"It's not really so idiotic as you think it is," she said. "Suppose I allowed Mr. Brent to make love to me, as he's very willing to do, would you be sufficiently interested to compete."

"To what?"

"To compete."

"But--but we're married."

She laid her hand upon her knee and glanced down at it.

"It never occurred to me until lately," she said, "how absurd is the belief men still hold in these days that a wedding-ring absolves them forever from any effort on their part to retain their wives' affections. They regard the ring very much as a ball and chain, or a hobble to prevent the women from running away, that they may catch them whenever they may desire--which isn't often. Am I not right?"

He snapped his cigarette case.

"Darn it, Honora, you're getting too deep for me!" he exclaimed. "You never liked those, Browning women down at Rivington, but if this isn't browning I'm hanged if I know what it is. An attack of nerves, perhaps. They tell me that women go all to pieces nowadays over nothing at all."

"That's just it," she agreed, "nothing at all!"

"I thought as much," he replied, eager to seize this opportunity of ending a conversation that had neither head nor tail, and yet was marvellously uncomfortable. "There! be a good girl, and forget it."

He stooped down suddenly to her face to kiss her, but she turned her face in time to receive the caress on the cheek.

"The panacea!" she said.

He laughed a little, boyishly, as he stood looking down at her.

"Sometimes I can't make you out," he said. "You've changed a good deal since I married you."

She was silent. But the thought occurred to her that a complete absorption in commercialism was not developing.

"If you can manage it, Honora," he added with an attempt at lightness, "I wish you'd have a little dinner soon, and ask Brent. Will you?"

"Nothing," she replied, "would give me greater pleasure."

He patted her on the shoulder and left the room whistling. But she sat where she was until the maid came in to pull the curtains and turn on the lights, reminding her that guests were expected.

.....................

Although the circle of Mr. Brent's friends could not be said to include any university or college presidents, it was, however, both catholic and wide. He was hail fellow, indeed, with jockeys and financiers, great ladies and municipal statesmen of good Irish stock. He was a lion who roamed at large over a great variety of hunting grounds, some of which it would be snobbish to mention; for many reasons he preferred Quicksands: a man-eater, a woman-eater, and extraordinarily popular, nevertheless. Many ladies, so it was reported, had tried to tame him: some of them he had cheerfully gobbled up, and others after the briefest of inspections, disdainfully thrust aside with his paw.

This instinct for lion taming, which the most spirited of women possess, is, by the way, almost inexplicable to the great majority of the male sex. Honora had it, as must have been guessed. But however our faith in her may be justified by the ridiculous ease of her previous conquests, we cannot regard without trepidation her entrance into the arena with this particular and widely renowned king of beasts. Innocence pitted against sophistry and wile and might.

Two of the preliminary contests we have already witnessed. Others, more or less similar, followed during a period of two months or more. Nothing inducing the excessive wagging of tongues,--Honora saw to that, although Mrs. Chandos kindly took the trouble to warn our heroine,--a scene for which there is unfortunately no space in this chronicle; an entirely amicable, almost honeyed scene, in Honora's boudoir. Nor can a complete picture of life at Quicksands be undertaken. Multiply Mrs. Dallam's dinner-party by one hundred, Howard Silence's Sundays at the Club by twenty, and one has a very fair idea of it. It was not precisely intellectual. "Happy," says Montesquieu, "the people whose annals are blank in history's book." Let us leave it at that.

Late one afternoon in August Honora was riding homeward along the ocean road. The fragrant marshes that bordered it were a vivid green under the slanting rays of the sun, and she was gazing across them at the breakers crashing on the beach beyond. Trixton Brent was beside her.

"I wish you wouldn't stare at me so," she said, turning to him suddenly; "it is embarrassing."

"How did you know I was looking at you?" he asked.

"I felt it."

He drew his horse a little nearer.

"Sometimes you're positively uncanny," she added.

He laughed.

"I rather like that castles-in-Spain expression you wore," he declared.

"Castles in Spain?"

"Or in some other place where the real estate is more valuable. Certainly not in Quicksands."

"You are uncanny," proclaimed Honora, with conviction.

"I told you you wouldn't like Quicksands," said he.

"I've never said I didn't like it," she replied. "I can't see why you assume that I don't."

"You're ambitious," he said. "Not that I think it a fault, when it's more or less warranted. Your thrown away here, and you know it."

She made him a bow from the saddle.

"I have not been without a reward, at least," she answered, and looked at him.

"I have," said he.

Honora smiled.

"I'm going to be your good angel, and help you get out of it," he continued.

"Get out of what?"

"Quicksands."

"Do you think I'm in danger of sinking?" she asked. "And is it impossible for me to get out alone, if I wished to?"

"It will be easier with my help," he answered. "You're clever enough to realize that--Honora."

She was silent awhile.

"You say the most extraordinary things," she remarked presently. "Sometimes I think they are almost--"

"Indelicate," he supplied.

She coloured.

"Yes, indelicate."

"You can't forgive me for sweeping away your rose-coloured cloud of romance," he declared, laughing. "There are spades in the pack, however much you may wish to ignore 'em. You know very well you don't like these Quicksands people. They grate on your finer sensibilities, and all that sort of thing. Come, now, isn't it so?"

She coloured again, and put her horse to the trot.

"Onwards and upwards," he cried. "Veni, vidi, vici, ascendi."

"It seems to me," she laughed, "that so much education is thrown away on the stock market."

"Whether you will be any happier higher up," he went on, "God knows. Sometimes I think you ought to go back to the Arcadia you came from. Did you pick out Spence for an embryo lord of high finance?"

"My excuse is," replied Honora, "that I was very young, and I hadn't met you."

Whether the lion has judged our heroine with astuteness, or done her a little less than justice, must be left to the reader. Apparently he is accepting her gentle lashings with a meek enjoyment. He assisted her to alight at her own door, sent the horses home, and offered to come in and give her a lesson in a delightful game that was to do its share in the disintegration of the old and tiresome order of things--bridge. The lion, it will be seen, was self-sacrificing even to the extent of double dummy. He had picked up the game with characteristic aptitude abroad--Quicksands had yet to learn it.

Howard Spence entered in the midst of the lesson.

"Hello, Brent," said he, genially, "you may be interested to know I got that little matter through without a hitch to-day."

"I continue to marvel at you," said the lion, and made it no trumps.

Since this is a veracious history, and since we have wandered so far from home and amidst such strange, if brilliant scenes, it must be confessed that Honora, three days earlier, had entered a certain shop in New York and inquired for a book on bridge. Yes, said the clerk, he had such a treatise, it had arrived from England a week before. She kept it looked up in her drawer, and studied it in the mornings with a pack of cards before her.

Given the proper amount of spur, anything in reason can be mastered.

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