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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMr. Prohack - Chapter 22. Mr. Prohack's Triumph
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Mr. Prohack - Chapter 22. Mr. Prohack's Triumph Post by :workforprofit Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1797

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Mr. Prohack - Chapter 22. Mr. Prohack's Triumph

CHAPTER XXII. MR. PROHACK'S TRIUMPH

"And where is your charming daughter?" asked Mr. Softly Bishop so gently of Eve, when he had greeted her, and quite incidentally Mr. Prohack, in the entrance hall of the Grand Babylon Hotel. He was alone--no sign of Miss Fancy.

"Sissie?" said Eve calmly. "I haven't the slightest idea."

"But I included her in my invitations--and Mr. Morfey too."

Mr. Prohack was taken aback, foreseeing the most troublesome complications; and he glanced at Eve as if for guidance and support. He was nearly ready to wish that after all Sissie had not gone and got married secretly and prematurely. Eve, however, seemed quite undisturbed, though she offered him neither guidance nor support.

"Surely," said Mr. Prohack hesitatingly, "surely you didn't mention Sissie in your letter to me!"

"Naturally I didn't, my dear fellow," answered Mr. Bishop. "I wrote to her separately, knowing the position taken up by the modern young lady. And she telephoned me yesterday afternoon that she and Morfey would be delighted to come."

"Then if you know so much about the modern young lady," said Eve, with bright and perfect self-possession, "you wouldn't expect my daughter to arrive with her parents, would you?"

Mr. Softly Bishop laughed.

"You're only putting off the evil moment," said Mr. Prohack in the silence of his mind to Eve, and similarly he said to Mr. Softly Bishop:

"I do wish you wouldn't call me 'my dear fellow.' True, I come to your lunch, but I'm not your dear fellow and I never will be."

"I invited your son also, Prohack," continued Mr. Bishop. "Together with Miss Winstock or Warburton--she appears to have two names--to make a pair, to make a pair you understand. But unfortunately he's been suddenly called out of town on the most urgent business." As he uttered these last words Mr. Bishop glanced in a peculiar manner partly at his nose and partly at Mr. Prohack; it was a singular feat of glancing, and Mr. Prohack uncomfortably wondered what it meant, for Charles lay continually on Mr. Prohack's chest, and at the slightest provocation Charles would lie more heavily than usual.

"Am I right in assuming that the necklace affair is satisfactorily settled?" Mr. Softly Bishop enquired, his spectacles gleaming and blinking at the adornment of Eve's neck.

"You are," said Eve. "But it wouldn't be advisable for you to be too curious about details."

Her aplomb, her sangfroid, astounded Mr. Prohack--and relieved him. With an admirable ease she went on to congratulate their host upon his engagement, covering him with petals of flattery and good wishes. Mr. Prohack could scarcely recognise his wife, and he was not sure that he liked her new worldiness quite as much as her old ingenuous and sometimes inarticulate simplicity. At any rate she was a changed woman. He steadied himself, however, by a pertinent reflection: she was always a changed woman.

Then Sissie and Ozzie appeared, looking as though they had been married for years. Mr. Prohack's heart began to beat. Ignoring Mr. Softly Bishop, Sissie embraced her mother with prim affectionateness, and Eve surveyed her daughter with affectionate solicitude. Mr. Prohack felt that he would never know what had passed between these two on the previous day, for they were a pair of sphinxes when they chose, and he was too proud to encourage confidences from Ozzie. Whatever it might have been it was now evidently buried deep, and the common life, after a terrible pause, had resumed.

"How do you do, Miss Prohack," said Mr. Softly Bishop, greeting. "So glad you could come."

Mr. Prohack suspected that his cheeks were turning pale, and was ashamed of himself. Even Sissie, for all her young, hard confidence, wavered.

But Eve stepped in.

"Don't you know, Mr. Bishop?--No, of course you don't. We ought to have told you. My daughter is now Mrs. Morfey. You see in our family we all have such a horror of the conventional wedding and reception and formal honeymoon and so on, that we decided the marriage should be strictly private, with no announcements of any kind. I really think you are the first to know. One thing I've always liked about actresses is that in the afternoon you can read of them getting married that day and then go and see them play the same evening. It seems to me so sensible. And as we were all of the same opinion at our house, especially Sissie and her father, there was no difficulty."

"Upon my word," said Mr. Softly Bishop shaking hands with Ozzie. "I believe I shall follow your example."

Mr. Prohack sank into a chair.

"I feel rather faint," he said. "Bishop, do you think we might have a cocktail or so?"

"My dear fellow, how thoughtless of me! Of course! Waiter! Waiter!" As Mr. Bishop swung round in the direction of waiters Eve turned in alarm to Mr. Prohack. Mr. Prohack with much deliberation winked at her, and she drew back. "Yes," he murmured. "You'll be the death of me one day, and then you'll be sorry."

"I don't think a cocktail is at all a good thing for you, dad," Sissie calmly observed.

The arrival of Miss Fancy provided a distraction more agreeable than Mr. Prohack thought possible; he positively welcomed the slim, angular blonde, for she put an end to a situation which, prolonged another moment, would have resulted in a severe general constraint.

"You're late, my dear," said Mr. Softly Bishop, firmly.

The girl's steely blue-eyed glance shot out at the greeting, but seemed to drop off flatly from Mr. Bishop's adamantine spectacles like a bullet from Bessemer armour.

"Am I?" she replied uncertainly, in her semi-American accent. "Where's the ladies' cloakroom of this place?"

"I'll show you," said Mr. Bishop, with no compromise.

The encounter was of the smallest, but it made Mr. Prohack suspect that perhaps Mr. Bishop was not after all going into the great warfare of matrimony blindly or without munitions.

"I've taken the opportunity to tell Miss Fancy that she will be the only unmarried woman, at my lunch," said Mr. Bishop amusingly, when he returned from piloting his beloved. A neat fellow, beyond question!

Miss Fancy had apparently to re-dress herself, judging from the length of her absence. The cocktails, however, beguiled the suspense.

"Is this for me?" she asked, picking up a full glass when she came back.

"No, my dear," said Mr. Bishop. "It isn't. We will go in to lunch." And they went in to lunch, leaving unconsumed the cocktail which the abstemious and spartan Sissie had declined to drink.

 

II

"I suppose you've been to see the Twelve and Thirteen," said Eve, in her new grand, gracious manner to Miss Fancy, when the party was seated at a round, richly-flowered table specially reserved by Mr. Softly Bishop on the Embankment front of the restaurant, and the hors d'oeuvre had begun to circulate on the white cloth, which was as crowded as the gold room.

"I'm afraid I haven't," muttered Miss Fancy weakly but with due refinement. The expression of fear was the right expression. Eve had put the generally brazen woman in a fright at the first effort. And the worst was that Miss Fancy did not even know what the Twelve and Thirteen was--or were. At the opening of her debut at what she imagined to be the great, yet exclusive, fashionable world, Miss Fancy was failing. Of what use to be perfectly dressed and jewelled, to speak with a sometimes carefully-corrected accent, to sit at the best table in the London restaurant most famous in the United States, to be affianced to the cleverest fellow she had ever struck, if the wonderful and famous hostess, Mrs. Prohack, whose desirable presence was due only to Softly's powerful influence in high circles, could floor her at the very outset of the conversation? It is a fact that Miss Fancy would have given the emerald ring off her left first-finger to be able to answer back. All Miss Fancy could do was to smite Mr. Softly Bishop with a homicidal glance for that he had not in advance put her wise about something called the Twelve and Thirteen. It is also a fact that Miss Fancy would have perished sooner than say to Mrs. Prohack the simple words: "I haven't the slightest idea what the Twelve and Thirteen are." Eve did not disguise her impression that Miss Fancy's lapse was very strange and disturbing.

"I suppose you've seen the new version of the 'Sacre du Prin-temps,' Miss Fancy," said Mrs. Oswald Morfey, that exceedingly modern and self-possessed young married lady.

"Not yet," said Miss Fancy, and foolishly added: "We were thinking of going to-night."

"There won't be any more performances this season," said Ozzie, that prince of authorities on the universe of entertainment.

And in this way the affair continued between the four, while Mr. Softly Bishop, abandoning his beloved to her fate, chatted murmuringly with Mr. Prohack about the Oil Market, as to which of course Mr. Prohack was the prince of authorities. Mrs. Prohack and her daughter and son-in-law ranged at ease over all the arts without exception, save the one art--that of musical comedy--in which Miss Fancy was versed. Mr. Prohack was amazed at the skilled cruelty of his women. He wanted to say to Miss Fancy: "Don't you believe it! My wife is only a rather nice ordinary housekeeping sort of little woman, and as for my daughter, she cooks her husband's meals--and jolly badly, I bet." He ought to have been pleased at the discomfiture of Miss Fancy, whom he detested and despised; but he was not; he yearned to succour her; he even began to like her.

And not Eve and Sissie alone amazed him. Oswald amazed him. Oswald had changed. His black silk stock had gone the way of his ribboned eye-glass; his hair was arranged differently; he closely resembled an average plain man,--he, the unique Ozzie! With all his faults, he had previously been both good-natured and negligent, but his expression was now one of sternness and of resolute endeavour. Sissie had already metamorphosed him. Even now he was obediently following her lead and her mood. Mr. Prohack's women had evidently determined to revenge themselves for being asked to meet Miss Fancy at lunch, and Ozzie had been set on to assist them. Further, Mr. Prohack noticed that Sissie was eyeing her mother's necklace with a reprehending stare. The next instant he found himself the target of the same stare. The girl was accusing him of folly, while questioning Ozzie's definition of the difference between Georgian and neo-Georgian verse. The girl had apparently become the censor of society at large.

Mysterious cross-currents ran over the table in all directions. Mr. Prohack looked around the noisy restaurant packed with tables, and wondered whether cross-currents were running invisibly over all the tables, and what was the secret force of fashionable fleeting convention which enabled women with brains far inferior to his own to use it effectively for the fighting of sanguinary battles.

At last, when Miss Fancy had been beaten into silence and the other three were carrying on a brilliant high-browed conversation over the corpse of her up-to-dateness, Mr. Prohack's nerves reached the point at which he could tolerate the tragic spectacle no more, and he burst out vulgarly, in a man-in-the-street vein, chopping off the brilliant conversation as with a chopper:

"Now, Miss Fancy, tell us something about yourself."

The common-sounding phrase seemed to be a magic formula endowed with the power to break an awful spell. Miss Fancy gathered herself together, forgot that she had been defeated, and inaugurated a new battle. She began to tell the table not something, but almost everything, about herself, and it soon became apparent that she was no ordinary woman. She had never had a set-back; in innumerable conversational duels she had always given the neat and deadly retort, and she had never been worsted, save by base combinations deliberately engineered against her--generally by women, whom as a sex she despised even more than men. Her sincere belief that no biographical detail concerning Miss Fancy was too small to be uninteresting to the public amounted to a religious creed; and her memory for details was miraculous. She recalled the exact total of the takings at any given performance in which she was prominent in any city of the United States, and she could also give long extracts from the favourable criticisms of countless important American newspapers,--by a singular coincidence only unimportant newspapers had ever mingled blame with their praise of her achievements. She regarded herself with detachment as a remarkable phenomenon, and therefore she could impersonally describe her career without any of the ordinary restraints--just as a shopman might clothe or unclothe a model in his window. Thus she could display her heart and its history quite unreservedly,--did they not belong to the public?

The astounded table learnt that Miss Fancy was illustrious in the press of the United States as having been engaged to be married more often than any other actress. Yet she had never got as far as the altar, though once she had reached the church-door--only to be swept away from it by a cyclone which unhappily finished off the bridegroom. (What grey and tedious existences Eve and Sissie had led!) Her penultimate engagement had been to the late Silas Angmering.

"Something told me I should never be his wife," she said vivaciously. "You know the feeling we women have. And I wasn't much surprised to hear of his death. I'd refused Silas eight times; then in the end I promised to marry him by a certain date. He _wouldn't take No, poor dear! Well, _he was a gentleman anyway. Of course it was no more than right that he should put me down in his will, but not every man would have done. In fact it never happened to me before. Wasn't it strange I should have that feeling about never being his wife?"

She glanced eagerly at Mr. Prohack and Mr. Prohack's women, and there was a pause, in which Mr. Softly Bishop said, affectionately regarding his nose:

"Well, my dear, you'll be _my wife, you'll find," and he uttered this observation in a sharp tone of conviction that made a quite disturbing impression on the whole company, and not least on Mr. Prohack, who kept asking himself more and more insistently:

"Why is Softly Bishop marrying Miss Fancy, and why is Miss Fancy marrying Softly Bishop?"

Mr. Prohack was interrupted in his private enquiry into this enigma by a very unconventional nudge from Sissie, who silently directed his attention to Eve, who seemingly wanted it.

"Your friend seems anxious to speak to you," murmured Eve, in a low, rather roguish voice.

'His friend' was Lady Massulam, who was just concluding a solitary lunch at a near table; he had not noticed her, being still sadly remiss in the business of existing fully in a fashionable restaurant. Lady Massulam's eyes confirmed Eve's statement.

"I'm sure Miss Fancy will excuse you for a moment," said Eve.

"Oh! Please!" implored Miss Fancy, grandly.

Mr. Prohack self-consciously carried his lankness and his big head across to Lady Massulam's table. She looked up at him with a composed but romantic smile. That is to say that Mr. Prohack deemed it romantic; and he leaned over the table and over Lady Massulam in a manner romantic to match.

"I'm just going off," said she.

Simple words, from a portly and mature lady--yet for Mr. Prohack they were charged with all sorts of delicious secondary significances.

"What _is the difference between her and Eve?" he asked himself, and then replied to the question in a flash of inspiration: "I am romantic to her, and I am not romantic to Eve." He liked this ingenious explanation.

"I wanted to tell you," said she gravely, with beautiful melancholy, "Charles is _flambe_. He is done in. I cannot help him. He will not let me; but if I see him to-night when he returns to town I shall send him to you. He is very young, very difficult, but I shall insist that he goes to you."

"How kind you are!" said Mr. Prohack, touched.

Lady Massulam rose, shook hands, seemed to blush, and departed. An interview as brief as it had been strange! Mr. Prohack was thrilled, not at all by the announcement of Charlie's danger, perhaps humiliation, but by the attitude of Lady Massulam. He had his plans for Charlie. He had no plans affecting Lady Massulam.

Mr. Softly Bishop's luncheon had developed during the short absence of Mr. Prohack. It's splendour, great from the first, had increased; if tables ever do groan, which is perhaps doubtful, the table was certainly groaning; Mr. Softly Bishop was just dismissing, with bland and negligent approval, the major domo of the restaurant, with whom, like all truly important personages, he appeared to be on intimate terms. But the chief development of the luncheon disclosed itself in the conversation. Mr. Softly Bishop had now taken charge of the talk and was expatiating to a hushed and crushed audience his plans for a starring world-tour for his future wife, who listened to them with genuine admiration on her violet-tinted face.

"Eliza won't be in it with me when I come back," she exclaimed suddenly, with deep conviction, with anticipatory bliss, with a kind of rancorous ferocity.

Mr. Prohack understood. Miss Fancy was uncompromisingly jealous of her half-sister's renown. To outdo that renown was the main object of her life, and Mr. Softly Bishop's claim on her lay in the fact that he had shown her how to accomplish her end and was taking charge of the arrangements. Mr. Softly Bishop was her trainer and her manager; he had dazzled her by the variety and ingenuity of his resourceful schemes; and his power over her was based on a continual implied menace that if she did not strictly obey all his behests she would fail to realise her supreme desire.

And when Mr. Softly Bishop gradually drew Ozzie into a technical tete-a-tete, Mr. Prohack understood further why Ozzie had been invited to the feast. Upon certain branches of Mr. Bishop's theatrical schemes Ozzie was an acknowledged expert, and Mr. Bishop was obtaining, for the price of a luncheon, the fruity knowledge and wisdom acquired by Ozzie during long years of close attention to business.

For Mr. Prohack it was an enthralling scene. The luncheon closed gorgeously upon the finest cigars and cigarettes, the finest coffee, and the finest liqueurs that the unique establishment could provide. Sissie refused every allurement except coffee, and Miss Fancy was permitted nothing but coffee.

"Do not forget your throat, my dear," Mr. Softly Bishop authoritatively interjected into Miss Fancy's circumstantial recital of the expensiveness of the bouquets which had been hurled at her in the New National Theatre at Washington.

"And by the way," (looking at his watch), "do not forget the appointment with the elocutionist."

"But aren't you coming with me?" demanded Miss Fancy alarmed. Already she was learning the habit of helplessness--so attractive to men and so useful to them.

These remarks broke up the luncheon party, which all the guests assured the deprecating host had been perfectly delightful, with the implied addition that it had also constituted the crown and summit of their careers. Eve and Sissie were prodigious in superlatives to such an extent that Mr. Prohack began to fear for Mr. Softly Bishop's capacity to assimilate the cruder forms of flattery. His fear, however, was unnecessary. When the host and his beloved departed Miss Fancy was still recounting tit-bits of her biography.

"But I'll tell you the rest another time," she cried from the moving car.

She had emphatically won the second battle. From the first blow she had never even looked like losing. And she had shown no mercy, quite properly following the maxim that war is war. Eve and Sissie seemed to rise with difficulty to their knees, after the ruthless adversary, tired of standing on their prostrate form, had scornfully walked away.

 

III

"Well!" sighed Mrs. Prohack, with the maximum of expressiveness, glancing at her daughter as one woman of the world at another. They were lingering, as it were convalescent after the severe attack and defeat, in the foyer of the hotel.

"Well!" sighed Sissie, flattered by the glance, and firmly taking her place in the fabric of society. "Well, father, we always knew you had some queer friends, but really these were the limit! And the extravagance of the thing! That luncheon must have cost at least twenty pounds,--and I do believe he had special flowers, too. When I think of the waste of money and time that goes on daily in places like these, I wonder there's any England left. It ought to be stopped by law."

"My child," said Mr. Prohack. "I observe with approbation that you are beginning to sit up and take notice. Centuries already divide you from the innocent creature who used to devote her days and nights to the teaching of dancing to persons who had no conception of the seriousness of life. I agree with your general criticism, but let us remember that all this wickedness does not date from the day before yesterday. It's been flourishing for some thousands of years, and all prophecies about it being over-taken by Nemesis have proved false. Still, I'm glad you've turned over a new leaf."

Sissie discreetly but unmistakably tossed her young head.

"Oswald, dearest," said she. "It's time you were off."

"It is," Ozzie agreed, and off he went, to resume the serious struggle for existence,--he who until quite recently had followed the great theatrical convention that though space may be a reality, time is not.

"I don't mind the extravagance, because after all it's good for trade," said Eve. "What I--"

"Mother darling!" Sissie protested. "Where do you get these extraordinary ideas from about luxury being good for trade? Surely you ought to know--"

"I daresay I ought to know all sorts of things I don't know," said Eve with dignity. "But there's one thing I do know, and that is that the style of those two dreadful people was absolutely the worst I've ever met. The way that woman gabbled--and all about herself; and what an accent, and the way she held her fork!"

"Lady," said Mr. Prohack. "Don't be angry because she beat you."

"Beat me!"

"Yes. Beat you. Both of you. You talked her to a standstill at first; but you couldn't keep it up. Then she began and she talked you to a standstill, and she could keep it up. She left you for all practical purposes dead on the field, my tigresses. And I'm very sorry for her," he added.

"Dad," said Sissie sternly. "Why do you always try to be so clever with us? You know as well as we do that she's a _creature_, and that there's nothing to be said for her at all."

"Nothing to be said for her!" Mr. Prohack smiled tolerantly. "Why she was the star of the universe for Silas Angmering, the founder of our fortunes. She was the finest woman he'd ever met. And Angmering was a clever fellow, let me tell you. You call her a creature. Yes, the creature of destiny, like all of us, except of course you. I beg to inform you that Miss Fancy went out of this hotel a victim, an unconscious victim, but a victim. She is going to be exploited. Mr. Softly Bishop, my co-heir, will run her for all she is worth. He will make a lot of money out of her. He will make her work as she has never worked before. He will put a value on all her talents, for his own ends. And he will deprive her of most of her accustomed pleasures. In fifteen years there'll be nothing left of Miss Fancy except an exhausted wreck with a spurious reputation, but Mr. Softly Bishop will still be in his prime and in the full enjoyment of life, and he will spend on himself the riches that she has made for him and allow her about sixpence a week; and the most tragic and terrible thing of all is that she will think she owes everything to him! No! If I was capable of weeping, I should have wept at the pathos of the spectacle of Miss Fancy as she left us just now unconscious of her fate and revelling in the most absurd illusions. That poor defenceless woman, who has had the misfortune not to please you, is heading straight for a life-long martyrdom." Mr. Prohack ceased impressively.

"And serve her right!" said Eve. "I've met cats in my time, but--" And Eve also ceased.

"And I am not sure," added Mr. Prohack, still impressively. "And I am not sure that the ingenuous and excellent Oswald Morfey is not heading straight in the same direction." And he gazed at his adored daughter, who exhibited a faint flush, and then laughed lightly. "Yes," said Mr. Prohack, "you are very smart, my girl. If you had shown violence you would have made a sad mistake. That you should laugh with such a brilliant imitation of naturalness gives me hopes of you. Let us seek Carthew and the car. Mr. Bishop's luncheon, though I admit it was exceedingly painful, has, I trust, not been without its useful lessons to us, and I do not regret it. For myself I admit it has taught me that even the finest and most agreeable women, such as those with whom I have been careful to sourround myself in my domestic existence, are monsters of cruelty. Not that I care."

"I've arranged with mamma that you shall come to dinner to-night," said Sissie. "No formality, please."

"Mayn't your mother wear her pearls?" asked Mr. Prohack.

"I hope you noticed, Arthur," said Eve with triumphant satisfaction, "how your Miss Fancy was careful to keep off the subject of jewels."

"Mother's pearls," said Sissie primly, "are mother's affair."

Mr. Prohack did not feel at all happy.

"And yet," he asked himself. "What have I done? I am perfectly innocent."

 

IV

"I never in all my life," said Sissie, "saw you eat so much, dad. And I think it's a great compliment to my cooking. In fact I'm bursting with modest pride."

"Well," replied Mr. Prohack, who had undoubtedly eaten rather too much, "take it how you like. I do believe I could do with a bit more of this stuff that imitates an omelette but obviously isn't one."

"Oh! But there isn't any more!" said Sissie, somewhat dashed.

"No more! Good heavens! Then have you got some cheese, or anything of that sort?"

"No. I don't keep cheese in the place. You see, the smell of it in these little flats--"

"Any bread? Anything at all?"

"I'm afraid we've finished up pretty nearly all there was, except Ozzie's egg for breakfast to-morrow morning."

"This is serious," observed Mr. Prohack, tapping enquiringly the superficies of his digestive apparatus.

"Arthur!" cried Eve. "Why are you such a tease to-night? You're only trying to make the child feel awkward. You know you've had quite enough. And I'm sure it was all very cleverly cooked--considering. You'll be ill in the middle of the night if you keep on, and then I shall have to get up and look after you, as usual." Eve had the air of defending her daughter, but something, some reserve in her voice, showed that she was defending, not her daughter, but merely and generally the whole race of house-wives against the whole race of consuming and hypercritical males; she was even defending the Eve who had provided much-criticised meals in the distant past. Such was her skill that she could do this while implying, so subtly yet so effectively, that Sissie, the wicked, shameless, mamma-scorning bride, was by no means forgiven in the secret heart of the mother.

"You are doubtless right, lady," Mr. Prohack agreed. "You always could judge better than I could myself when I had had enough, and what would be the ultimate consequences of my eating. And as for your lessons in manners, what an ill-bred lout I was before I met you, and what an impossible person I should have been had you not taken me in hand night and day for all these years! It isn't that I'm worse than the average husband; it is merely that wives are the sole repositories of the civilising influence. Were it not for them we should still be tearing steaks to pieces with our fingers. I daresay I have eaten enough--anyhow I've had far more than anybody else--and even if I hadn't, it would not be at all nice of me not to pretend that I hadn't. And after all, if the worst comes to the worst, I can always have a slice of cold beef and a glass of beer when I get home, can't I?"

Sissie, though blushing ever so little, maintained an excellent front. She certainly looked dainty and charming,--more specifically so than she had ever looked; indeed, utterly the young bride. She was in morning dress, to comply with her own edict against formality, and also to mark her new, enthusiastic disapproval of the modern craze for luxurious display; but it was a delightful, if inexpensive, dress. She had taken considerable trouble over the family dinner, devising, concocting, cooking, and presiding over it from beginning to end, and being consistently bright, wise, able, and resourceful throughout--an apostle of chafing-dish cookery determined to prove that chafing-dish cookery combined efficiency, toothsomeness and economy to a degree never before known. And she had neatly pointed out more than once that waste was impossible under her system and that, servants being dispensed with, the great originating cause of waste had indeed been radically removed. She had not informed her guests of the precise cost in money of the unprecedentedly cheap and nourishing meal, but she had come near to doing so; and she would surely have indicated that there had been neither too much nor too little, but just amply sufficient, had not her absurd and contrarious father displayed a not uncharacteristic lack of tact at the closing stage of the ingenious collation.

Moreover, she seemed, despite her generous build, to have somehow fitted herself to the small size of the flat. She did not dwarf it, as clumsier women are apt to dwarf their tiny homes in the centre of London. On the contrary she gave to it the illusion of spaciousness; and beyond question she had in a surprisingly short time transformed it from a bachelor's flat into a conjugal nest, cushiony, flowery, knicknacky, and perilously seductive to the eye without being too reassuring to the limbs.

Mr. Prohack was accepting a cigarette, having been told that Ozzie never smoked cigars, when there was a great ring which filled the entire flat as the last trump may be expected to fill the entire earth, and Mr. Prohack dropped the cigarette, muttering:

"I think I'll smoke that afterwards."

"Good gracious!" the flat mistress exclaimed. "I wonder who that can be. Just go and see, Ozzie, darling." And she looked at Ozzie as if to say: "I hope it isn't one of your indiscreet bachelor friends."

Ozzie hastened obediently out.

"It may be Charlie," ventured Eve. "Wouldn't it be nice if he called?"

"Yes, wouldn't it?" Sissie agreed. "I did 'phone him up to try to get him to dinner, but naturally he was away for the day. He's always as invisible as a millionaire nowadays. Besides I feel somehow this place would be too much, too humble, for the mighty Charles. Buckingham Palace would be more in his line. But we can't all be speculators and profiteers."

"Sissie!" protested their mother mildly.

After mysterious and intriguing noises at the front-door had finished, and the front-door had made the whole flat vibrate to its bang, Ozzie puffed into the room with three packages, the two smaller being piled upon the third.

"They're addressed to you," said Ozzie to his father-in-law.

"Did you give the man anything?" Sissie asked quickly.

"No, it was Carthew and the parlourmaid--Machin, is her name?"

"Oh!" said Sissie, apparently relieved.

"Now let us see," said Mr. Prohack, starting at once upon the packages.

"Don't waste that string, dad," Sissie enjoined him anxiously.

"Eh? What do you say?" murmured Mr. Prohack, carefully cutting string on all sides of all packages, and tearing first-rate brown paper into useless strips. He produced from the packages four bottles of champagne of four different brands, a quantity of pate de foie gras, a jar of caviare, and several bunches of grapes that must have been grown under the most unnatural and costly conditions.

"What ever's this?" Sissie demanded, uneasily.

"Arthur!" said Eve. "Whatever's the meaning of this?"

"It has a deep significance," replied Mr. Prohack. "The only fault I have to find with it is that it has arrived rather late--and yet perhaps, like Bluecher, not too late. You can call it a wedding present if you choose, daughter. Or if you choose you can call it simply caviare, pate de foie gras, grapes and champagne. I really have not had the courage to give you a wedding present," he continued, "knowing how particular you are about ostentation. But I thought if I sent something along that we could all join in consuming instantly, I couldn't possibly do any harm."

"We haven't any champagne glasses," said Sissie coldly.

"Champagne glasses, child! You ought never to drink champagne out of champagne glasses. Tumblers are the only thing for champagne. Some tumblers, Ozzie. And a tin-opener. You must have a tin-opener. I feel convinced you have a tin-opener. Upon my soul, Eve, I was right after all. I _am hungry, but my hunger is nothing to my thirst. I'm beginning to suspect that I must be the average sensual man."

"Arthur!" Eve warned him. "If you eat any of that caviare you're bound to be ill."

"Not if I mix it with pate de foi gras, my pet. It is notorious that they are mutual antidotes, especially when followed by the grape cure. Now, ladies and Ozzie, don't exasperate me by being coy. Fall to! Ingurgitate. Ozzie, be a man for a change." Mr. Prohack seemed to intimidate everybody to such an extent that Sissie herself went off to secure tumblers.

"But why are you opening another bottle, father?" she asked in alarm on her return. "This one isn't half empty."

"We shall try all four brands," said Mr. Prohack.

"But what a waste!"

"Know, my child," said Mr. Prohack, with marked and solemn sententiousness. "Know that in an elaborately organised society, waste has its moral uses. Know further that nothing is more contrary to the truth than the proverb that enough is as good as a feast. Know still further that though the habit of wastefulness may have its dangers, it is not nearly so dangerous as the habit of self-righteousness, or as the habit of nearness, both of which contract the soul until it's more like a prune than a plum. Be a plum, my child, and let who will be a prune."

It was at this moment that Eve showed her true greatness.

"Come along, Sissie," said she, after an assaying glance at her husband and another at her daughter. "Let's humour him. It isn't often he's in such good spirits, is it?"

Sissie's face cleared, and with a wisdom really beyond her years she accepted the situation, the insult, the reproof, the lesson. As for Mr. Prohack, he felt happier, more gay, than he had felt all day,--not as the effect of champagne and caviare, but as the effect of the realisation of his prodigious sagacity in having foreseen that Sissie's hospitality would be what it had been. He was glad also that his daughter had displayed commonsense, and he began to admire her again, and in proportion as she perceived that he was admiring her, so she consciously increased her charm; for the fact was, she was very young, very impressionable, very anxious to do the right thing.

"Have another glass, Ozzie," urged Mr. Prohack.

Ozzie looked at his powerful bride for guidance.

"Do have another glass, you darling old silly," said the bride.

"There will be no need to open the other two bottles," said Mr. Prohack. "Indeed, I need only have opened one.... I shall probably call here again soon."

At this point there was another ring at the front-door.

"So you've condescended!" Sissie greeted Charles when Ozzie brought him into the room, and then, catching her father's eye and being anxious to rest secure in the paternal admiration, she added: "Anyway it was very decent of you to come. I know how busy you are."

Charles raised his eyebrows at this astonishing piece of sisterliness. His mother kissed him fondly, having received from Mr. Prohack during the day the delicatest, filmiest hint that perhaps Charlie was not at the moment fabulously prospering.

"Your father is very gay to-night," said she, gazing at Charlie as though she read into the recesses of his soul and could see a martyrdom there, though in fact she could not penetrate any further than the boy's eyeballs.

"I beg you to note," Mr. Prohack remarked. "That as the glasses have only been filled once, and three of them are at least a quarter full, only the equivalent of two and a half champagne glasses has actually been drunk by four people, which will not explain much gaiety. If the old gentleman is gay, and he does not assert that he is not, the true reason lies in either the caviare or the pate de foie gras, or in his crystal conscience. Have a drink, Charles?"

"Finish mine, my pet," said Eve, holding forth her tumbler, and Charlie obeyed.

"A touching sight," observed Mr. Prohack. "Now as Charlie has managed to spare us a few minutes out of his thrilling existence, I want to have a few words with him in private about an affair of state. There's nothing that you oughtn't to hear," he addressed the company, "but a great deal that you probably wouldn't understand--and the last thing we desire is to humiliate you. That's so, isn't it, Carlos?"

"It is," Charles quickly agreed, without a sign of self-consciousness.

"Now then, hostess, can you lend us another room,--boudoir, morning-room, smoking-room, card-room, even ball-room; anything will do for us. Possibly Ozzie's study...."

"Father! Father!" Sissie warned him against an excess of facetiousness. "You can either go into our bedroom or you can sit on the stairs, and talk."

As father and son disappeared together into the bedroom, which constituted a full half of the entire flat, Mr. Prohack noticed on his wife's features an expression of anxiety tempered by an assured confidence in his own wisdom and force. He knew indeed that he had made quite a favourable sensation by his handling of Sissie's tendency to a hard austerity.

Nevertheless, when Charles shut the door of the chamber and they were enclosed together, Mr. Prohack could feel his mighty heart beating in a manner worthy of a schoolgirl entering an examination room. The chamber had apparently been taken bodily out of a doll's house and furnished with furniture manufactured for pigmies. It was very full, presenting the aspect of a room in a warehouse. Everything in it was 'bijou,' in the trade sense, and everything harmonised in a charming Japanese manner with everything else, except an extra truckle-bed, showing crude iron feet under a blazing counterpane borrowed from a Russian ballet, which second bed had evidently just been added for the purposes of conjugal existence. The dressing-table alone was unmistakably symptomatic of a woman. Some of Ozzie's wondrous trousers hung from stretchers behind the door, and the inference was that these had been displaced from the wardrobe in favour of Sissie's frocks. It was all highly curious and somewhat pathetic; and Mr. Prohack, contemplating, became anew a philosopher as he realised that the tiny apartment was the true expression of his daughter's individuality and volition. She had imposed this crowded inconvenience upon her willing spouse,--and there was the grandiose Charles, for whom the best was never good enough, sitting down nonchalantly on the truckle-bed; and it appeared to Mr. Prohack only a few weeks ago that the two children had been playing side by side in the same nursery and giving never a sign that their desires and destinies would be so curious. Mr. Prohack felt absurdly helpless. True, he was the father, but he knew that he had nothing whatever to do, beyond trifling gifts of money and innumerable fairly witty sermons--divided about equally between the pair, with the evolution of those mysterious and fundamentally uncontrollable beings, his son and his daughter. The enigma of life pressed disturbingly upon him, as he took the other bed, facing Charles, and he wondered whether Sissie in her feminine passion for self-sacrifice insisted on sleeping in the truckle-contraption herself, or whether she permitted Ozzie to be uncomfortable.

V

"I just came along," Charlie opened simply, "because Lady M. was so positive that I ought to see you--she said that you very much wanted me to come. It isn't as if I wanted to bother you, or you could do any good."

He spoke in an extremely low tone, almost in a whisper, and Mr. Prohack comprehended that the youth was trying to achieve privacy in a domicile where all conversation and movements were necessarily more or less public to the whole flat. Charles's restraint, however, showed little or no depression, disappointment, or disgust, and no despair.

"But what's it all about? If I'm not being too curious," Mr. Prohack enquired cautiously.

"It's all about my being up the spout, dad. I've had a flutter, and it hasn't come off, and that's all there is to it. I needn't trouble you with the details. But you may believe me when I tell you that I shall bob up again. What's happened to me might have happened to anybody, and has happened to a pretty fair number of City swells."

"You mean bankruptcy?"

"Well, yes, bankruptcy's the word. I'd much better go right through with it. The chit thinks so, and I agree."

"The chit?"

"Mimi."

"Oh! So you call her that, do you?"

"No, I never call her that. But that's how I think of her. I call her Miss Winstock. I'm glad you let me have her. She's been very useful, and she's going to stick by me--not that there's any blooming sentimental nonsense about her! Oh, no! By the way, I know the mater and Sis think she's a bit harum-scarum, and you do, too. Nevertheless she was just as strong as Lady M. that I should stroll up and confess myself. She said it was _due to you. Lady M. didn't put it quite like that."

The truckle-bed creaked as Charlie shifted uneasily. They caught a faint murmur of talk from the other room, and Sissie's laugh.

"Lady Massulam happened to tell me once that you'd been selling something before you knew how much it would cost you to buy it. Of course I don't pretend to understand finance myself--I'm only a civil servant on the shelf--but to my limited intelligence such a process of putting the cart before the horse seemed likely to lead to trouble," said Mr. Prohack, as it were ruminating.

"Oh! She told you that, did she?" Charlie smiled. "Well, the good lady was talking through her hat. _That affair's all right. At least it would be if I could carry it through, but of course I can't now. It'll go into the general mess. If I was free, I wouldn't sell it at all; I'd keep it; there'd be no end of money in it, and I was selling it too cheap. It's a combine, or rather it would have been a combine, of two of the best paper mills in the country, and if I'd got it, and could find time to manage it,--my word, you'd see! No! What's done me in is a pure and simple Stock Exchange gamble, my dear father. Nothing but that! R.R. shares."

"R.R. What's that?"

"Dad! Where have you been living these years? Royal Rubber Corporation, of course. They dropped to eighteen shillings, and they oughtn't to have done. I bought a whole big packet on the understanding that I should have a fortnight to fork out. They were bound to go up again. Hadn't been so low for eleven years. How could I have foreseen that old Sampler would go and commit suicide and make a panic?"

"I never read the financial news, except the quotations of my own little savings, and I've never heard of old Sampler," said Mr. Prohack.

"Considering he was a front-page item for four days!" Charlie exclaimed, raising his voice, and then dropping it again. And he related in a few biting phrases the recent history of the R.R. "I wouldn't have minded so much," he went on. "If your particular friend, Mr. Softly Bishop, wasn't at the bottom of my purchase. His name only appears for some of the shares, but I've got a pretty good idea that it's he who's selling all of them to yours truly. He must have known something, and a rare fine thing he'd have made of the deal if I wasn't going bust, because I'm sure now he was selling to me what he hadn't got."

Mr. Prohack's whole demeanour changed at the mention of Mr. Bishop's name. His ridiculous snobbish pride reared itself up within him. He simply could not bear the idea of Softly Bishop having anything 'against' a member of his family. Sooner would the inconsistent fellow have allowed innocent widows and orphans to be ruined through Charlie's plunging than that Softly Bishop should fail to realise a monstrous profit through the same agency.

"I'll see you through, my lad," said he, briefly, in an ordinary casual tone.

"No thanks. You won't," Charlie replied. "I wouldn't let you, even if you could. But you can't. It's too big."

"Ah! How big is it?" Mr. Prohack challengingly raised his chin.

"Well, if you want to know the truth, it's between a hundred and forty and a hundred and fifty thousand pounds. I mean, that's what I should need to save the situation."

"You?" cried the Terror of the departments in amaze, accustomed though he was to dealing in millions. He had gravely miscalculated his son. Ten thousand he could have understood; even twenty thousand. But a hundred and fifty...! "You must have been mad!"

"Only because I've failed," said Charles. "Yes. It'll be a great affair. It'll really make my name. Everybody will expect me to bob up again, and I shan't disappoint them. Of course some people will say I oughtn't to have been extravagant. Grand Babylon Hotel and so on. What rot! A flea-bite! Why, my expenses haven't been seven hundred a month."

Mr. Prohack sat aghast; but admiration was not absent from his sentiments. The lad was incredible in the scale of his operations; he was unreal, wagging his elegant leg so calmly there in the midst of all that fragile Japanese lacquer--and the family, grotesquely unconscious of the vastness of the issues, chatting domestically only a few feet away. But Mr. Prohack was not going to be outdone by his son, however Napoleonic his son might be. He would maintain his prestige as a father.

"I'll see you through," he repeated, with studied quietness.

"But look here, dad. You only came into a hundred thousand. I can't have you ruining yourself. And even if you did ruin yourself--"

"I have no intention of ruining myself," said Mr. Prohack. "Nor shall I change in the slightest degree my mode of life. You don't know everything, my child. You aren't the only person on earth who can make money. Where do you imagine you get your gifts from? Your mother?"

"But--"

"Be silent. To-morrow morning gilt-edged, immediately saleable securities will be placed at your disposal for a hundred and fifty thousand pounds. I never indulge in wildcat stock myself. And let me tell you there can be no question of _your permitting or not permitting. I'm your father, and please don't forget it. It doesn't happen to suit me that my infant prodigy of a son should make a mess of his career; and I won't have it. If there's any doubt in your mind as to whether you or I are the strongest, rule yourself out of the competition this instant,--it'll save you trouble in the end."

Mr. Prohack had never felt so happy in his life; and yet he had had moments of intense happiness in the past. He could feel the skin of his face burning.

"You'll get it all back, dad," said Charlie later. "No amount of suicides can destroy the assets of the R.R. It's only that the market lost its head and absolutely broke to pieces under me. In three months--"

"My poor boy," Mr. Prohack interrupted him. "Do try not to be an ass." And he had the pleasing illusion that Charles was just home from school. "And, mind, not one word, not one word, to anybody whatever."

VI

The other three were still modestly chatting in the living-room when the two great mysterious men of affairs returned to them, but Sissie had cleared the dining-room table and transformed the place into a drawing-room for the remainder of the evening. They were very feminine; even Ozzie had something of the feminine attitude of fatalistic attending upon events beyond feminine control; he had it, indeed, far more than the vigorous-minded Sissie had it. They were cheerful, with a cheerfulness that made up in tact what it lacked in sincerity. Mr. Prohack compared them to passengers on a ship which is in danger. With a word, with an inflection, he reassured everybody--and yet said naught--and the cheerfulness instantly became genuine.

Mr. Prohack was surprised at the intensity of his own feelings. He was thoroughly thrilled by what he himself had done. Perhaps he had gone too far in telling Charlie that the putting down of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds could be accomplished without necessitating any change in his manner of living; but he did not care what change might be involved. He had the sense of having performed a huge creative act, and of the reality of the power of riches,--for weeks he had not been imaginatively cognisant of the fact that he was rich.

He glanced secretly at the boy Charles, and said to himself: "To that boy I am like a god. He was dead, and I have resurrected him. He may achieve an enormous reputation after all. Anyhow he is an amazing devil of a fellow, and he's my son, and no one comprehends him as I do." And Mr. Prohack became jolly to the point of uproariousness--without touching a glass. He was intoxicated, not by the fermentation of grapes, but by the magnitude and magnificence of his own gesture. He was the monarch of the company, and getting a bit conceited about it.

The sole creature who withstood him in any degree was Sissie. She had firmness. "She has married the right man,-" said Mr. Prohack to himself. "The so-called feminine instinct is for the most part absurd, but occasionally it justifies its reputation. She has chosen her husband with unerring insight into her needs and his. He will be happy; she will have the anxieties of responsible power. But _I am not her husband." And he spoke aloud, masterfully:

"Sissie!"

"Yes, dad? What now?"

"I've satisfactorily transacted affairs with my son. I will now try to do the same with my daughter. A few moments with you in the council-chamber, please. Oswald also, if you like."

Sissie smiled kindly at her awaiting spouse.

"Perhaps I'd better deal with my own father alone, darling."

Ozzie accepted the decision.

"Look here. I think I must be off," Charlie put in. "I've got a lot of work to do."

"I expect you have," Mr. Prohack concurred. "By the way, you might meet me at Smathe and Smathe's at ten fifteen in the morning."

Charlie nodded and slipped away.

"Infant," said Mr. Prohack to the defiantly smiling bride who awaited him in the council chamber. "Has your mother said anything to you about our wedding present?"

"No, dad."

"No, of course she hasn't. And do you know why? Because she daren't! With your infernal independence you've frightened the life out of the poor lady; that's what you've done. Your mother will doubtless have a talk with me to-night. And to-morrow she will tell you what she has decided to give you. Please let there be no nonsense. Whatever the gift is, I shall be obliged if you will accept it--and use it, without troubling us with any of your theories about the proper conduct of life. Wisdom and righteousness existed before you, and there's just a chance that they'll exist after you. Do you take me?"

"Quite, father."

"Good. You may become a great girl yet. We are now going home. Thanks for a very pleasant evening."

In the car, beautifully alone with Eve, who was in a restful mood, Mr. Prohack said:

"I shall be very ill in a few hours. Pate de foi gras is the devil, but caviare is Beelzebub himself."

Eve merely gazed at him in gentle, hopeless reproach. He prophesied truly. He was very ill. And yet through the succeeding crises he kept smiling, sardonically.

"When I think," he murmured once with grimness, "that that fellow Bishop had the impudence to ask us to lunch--and Charlie too! Charlie too!" Eve, attendant, enquired sadly what he was talking about.

"Nothing, nothing," said he. "My mind is wandering. Let it."

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