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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Unbearable Bassington - Chapter III
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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter III Post by :homenetsmartz Category :Long Stories Author :Saki Date :May 2011 Read :1206

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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter III

On the evening of a certain November day, two years after the
events heretofore chronicled, Francesca Bassington steered her way
through the crowd that filled the rooms of her friend Serena
Golackly, bestowing nods of vague recognition as she went, but with
eyes that were obviously intent on focussing one particular figure.
Parliament had pulled its energies together for an Autumn Session,
and both political Parties were fairly well represented in the
throng. Serena had a harmless way of inviting a number of more or
less public men and women to her house, and hoping that if you left
them together long enough they would constitute a salon. In
pursuance of the same instinct she planted the flower borders at
her week-end cottage retreat in Surrey with a large mixture of
bulbs, and called the result a Dutch garden. Unfortunately, though
you may bring brilliant talkers into your home, you cannot always
make them talk brilliantly, or even talk at all; what is worse you
cannot restrict the output of those starling-voiced dullards who
seem to have, on all subjects, so much to say that was well worth
leaving unsaid. One group that Francesca passed was discussing a
Spanish painter, who was forty-three, and had painted thousands of
square yards of canvas in his time, but of whom no one in London
had heard till a few months ago; now the starling-voices seemed
determined that one should hear of very little else. Three women
knew how his name was pronounced, another always felt that she must
go into a forest and pray whenever she saw his pictures, another
had noticed that there were always pomegranates in his later
compositions, and a man with an indefensible collar knew what the
pomegranates "meant." "What I think so splendid about him," said a
stout lady in a loud challenging voice, "is the way he defies all
the conventions of art while retaining all that the conventions
stand for." "Ah, but have you noticed--" put in the man with the
atrocious collar, and Francesca pushed desperately on, wondering
dimly as she went, what people found so unsupportable in the
affliction of deafness. Her progress was impeded for a moment by a
couple engaged in earnest and voluble discussion of some
smouldering question of the day; a thin spectacled young man with
the receding forehead that so often denotes advanced opinions, was
talking to a spectacled young woman with a similar type of
forehead, and exceedingly untidy hair. It was her ambition in life
to be taken for a Russian girl-student, and she had spent weeks of
patient research in trying to find out exactly where you put the
tea-leaves in a samovar. She had once been introduced to a young
Jewess from Odessa, who had died of pneumonia the following week;
the experience, slight as it was, constituted the spectacled young
lady an authority on all things Russian in the eyes of her
immediate set.

"Talk is helpful, talk is needful," the young man was saying, "but
what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of
indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical
discussion."

The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash
in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her
tongue.

"In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid
the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when
liberating the serfs of the soil."

She paused in her turn for the sake of declamatory effect, but
recovered her breath quickly enough to start afresh on level terms
with the young man, who had jumped into the stride of his next
sentence.

"They got off to a good start that time," said Francesca to
herself; "I suppose it's the Prevention of Destitution they're
hammering at. What on earth would become of these dear good people
if anyone started a crusade for the prevention of mediocrity?"

Midway through one of the smaller rooms, still questing for an
elusive presence, she caught sight of someone that she knew, and
the shadow of a frown passed across her face. The object of her
faintly signalled displeasure was Courtenay Youghal, a political
spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had
never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal's ambition--or perhaps his
hobby--to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of
the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of
Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were
inherent from the Celtic strain in him. His success was only a
half-measure. The public missed in him that touch of blatancy
which it looks for in its rising public men; the decorative
smoothness of his chestnut-golden hair, and the lively sparkle of
his epigrams were counted to him for good, but the restrained
sumptuousness of his waistcoats and cravats were as wasted efforts.
If he had habitually smoked cigarettes in a pink coral mouthpiece,
or worn spats of Mackenzie tartan, the great heart of the voting-
man, and the gush of the paragraph-makers might have been
unreservedly his. The art of public life consists to a great
extent of knowing exactly where to stop and going a bit further.

It was not Youghal's lack of political sagacity that had brought
the momentary look of disapproval into Francesca's face. The fact
was that Comus, who had left off being a schoolboy and was now a
social problem, had lately enrolled himself among the young
politician's associates and admirers, and as the boy knew and cared
nothing about politics, and merely copied Youghal's waistcoats,
and, less successfully, his conversation, Francesca felt herself
justified in deploring the intimacy. To a woman who dressed well
on comparatively nothing a year it was an anxious experience to
have a son who dressed sumptuously on absolutely nothing.

The cloud that had passed over her face when she caught sight of
the offending Youghal was presently succeeded by a smile of
gratified achievement, as she encountered a bow of recognition and
welcome from a portly middle-aged gentleman, who seemed genuinely
anxious to include her in the rather meagre group that he had
gathered about him.

"We were just talking about my new charge," he observed genially,
including in the "we" his somewhat depressed-looking listeners, who
in all human probability had done none of the talking. "I was just
telling them, and you may be interested to hear this--"

Francesca, with Spartan stoicism, continued to wear an ingratiating
smile, though the character of the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear
and will not hearken, seemed to her at that moment a beautiful one.

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons
distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity,
and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the
most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely
have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy
bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that
doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West
Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the
baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian
islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to
say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some
importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might
possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the
least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into
the papers. To the public the matter was one of absolute
indifference; "who is he and where is it?" would have correctly
epitomised the sum total of general information on the personal and
geographical aspects of the case.

Francesca, however, from the moment she had heard of the likelihood
of the appointment, had taken a deep and lively interest in Sir
Julian. As a Member of Parliament he had not filled any very
pressing social want in her life, and on the rare occasions when
she took tea on the Terrace of the House she was wont to lapse into
rapt contemplation of St. Thomas's Hospital whenever she saw him
within bowing distance. But as Governor of an island he would, of
course, want a private secretary, and as a friend and colleague of
Henry Greech, to whom he was indebted for many little acts of
political support (they had once jointly drafted an amendment which
had been ruled out of order), what was more natural and proper than
that he should let his choice fall on Henry's nephew Comus? While
privately doubting whether the boy would make the sort of secretary
that any public man would esteem as a treasure, Henry was
thoroughly in agreement with Francesca as to the excellence and
desirability of an arrangement which would transplant that
troublesome' young animal from the too restricted and conspicuous
area that centres in the parish of St. James's to some misty corner
of the British dominion overseas. Brother and sister had conspired
to give an elaborate and at the same time cosy little luncheon to
Sir Julian on the very day that his appointment was officially
announced, and the question of the secretaryship had been mooted
and sedulously fostered as occasion permitted, until all that was
now needed to clinch the matter was a formal interview between His
Excellency and Comus. The boy had from the first shewn very little
gratification at the prospect of his deportation. To live on a
remote shark-girt island, as he expressed it, with the Jull family
as his chief social mainstay, and Sir Julian's conversation as a
daily item of his existence, did not inspire him with the same
degree of enthusiasm as was displayed by his mother and uncle, who,
after all, were not making the experiment. Even the necessity for
an entirely new outfit did not appeal to his imagination with the
force that might have been expected. But, however lukewarm his
adhesion to the project might be, Francesca and her brother were
clearly determined that no lack of deft persistence on their part
should endanger its success. It was for the purpose of reminding
Sir Julian of his promise to meet Comus at lunch on the following
day, and definitely settle the matter of the secretaryship that
Francesca was now enduring the ordeal of a long harangue on the
value of the West Indian group as an Imperial asset. Other
listeners dexterously detached themselves one by one, but
Francesca's patience outlasted even Sir Julian's flow of
commonplaces, and her devotion was duly rewarded by a renewed
acknowledgment of the lunch engagement and its purpose. She pushed
her way back through the throng of starling-voiced chatterers
fortified by a sense of well-earned victory. Dear Serena's absurd
salons served some good purpose after all.

Francesca was not an early riser and her breakfast was only just
beginning to mobilise on the breakfast-table next morning when a
copy of The Times, sent by special messenger from her brother's
house, was brought up to her room. A heavy margin of blue
pencilling drew her attention to a prominently-printed letter which
bore the ironical heading: "Julian Jull, Proconsul." The matter
of the letter was a cruel dis-interment of some fatuous and
forgotten speeches made by Sir Julian to his constituents not many
years ago, in which the value of some of our Colonial possessions,
particularly certain West Indian islands, was decried in a medley
of pomposity, ignorance and amazingly cheap humour. The extracts
given sounded weak and foolish enough, taken by themselves, but the
writer of the letter had interlarded them with comments of his own,
which sparkled with an ironical brilliance that was Cervantes-like
in its polished cruelty. Remembering her ordeal of the previous
evening Francesca permitted herself a certain feeling of amusement
as she read the merciless stabs inflicted on the newly-appointed
Governor; then she came to the signature at the foot of the letter,
and the laughter died out of her eyes. "Comus Bassington" stared
at her from above a thick layer of blue pencil lines marked by
Henry Greech's shaking hand.

Comus could no more have devised such a letter than he could have
written an Episcopal charge to the clergy of any given diocese. It
was obviously the work of Courtenay Youghal, and Comus, for a
palpable purpose of his own, had wheedled him into foregoing for
once the pride of authorship in a clever piece of political
raillery, and letting his young friend stand sponsor instead. It
was a daring stroke, and there could be no question as to its
success; the secretaryship and the distant shark-girt island faded
away into the horizon of impossible things. Francesca, forgetting
the golden rule of strategy which enjoins a careful choosing of
ground and opportunity before entering on hostilities, made
straight for the bathroom door, behind which a lively din of
splashing betokened that Comus had at least begun his toilet.

"You wicked boy, what have you done?" she cried, reproachfully.

"Me washee," came a cheerful shout; "me washee from the neck all
the way down to the merrythought, and now washee down from the
merrythought to--"

"You have ruined your future. The Times has printed that miserable
letter with your signature."

A loud squeal of joy came from the bath. "Oh, Mummy! Let me see!"

There were sounds as of a sprawling dripping body clambering
hastily out of the bath. Francesca fled. One cannot effectively
scold a moist nineteen-year old boy clad only in a bath-towel and a
cloud of steam.

Another messenger arrived before Francesca's breakfast was over.
This one brought a letter from Sir Julian Jull, excusing himself
from fulfilment of the luncheon engagement.

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