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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Unbearable Bassington - Chapter IV
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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter IV Post by :Georgiagirl416 Category :Long Stories Author :Saki Date :May 2011 Read :2029

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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter IV

Francesca prided herself on being able to see things from other
people's points of view, which meant, as it usually does, that she
could see her own point of view from various aspects. As regards
Comus, whose doings and non-doings bulked largely in her thoughts
at the present moment, she had mapped out in her mind so clearly
what his outlook in life ought to be, that she was peculiarly
unfitted to understand the drift of his feelings or the impulses
that governed them. Fate had endowed her with a son; in limiting
the endowment to a solitary offspring Fate had certainly shown a
moderation which Francesca was perfectly willing to acknowledge and
be thankful for; but then, as she pointed out to a certain
complacent friend of hers who cheerfully sustained an endowment of
half-a-dozen male offsprings and a girl or two, her one child was
Comus. Moderation in numbers was more than counterbalanced in his
case by extravagance in characteristics.

Francesca mentally compared her son with hundreds of other young
men whom she saw around her, steadily, and no doubt happily,
engaged in the process of transforming themselves from nice boys
into useful citizens. Most of them had occupations, or were
industriously engaged in qualifying for such; in their leisure
moments they smoked reasonably-priced cigarettes, went to the
cheaper seats at music-halls, watched an occasional cricket match
at Lord's with apparent interest, saw most of the world's
spectacular events through the medium of the cinematograph, and
were wont to exchange at parting seemingly superfluous injunctions
to "be good." The whole of Bond Street and many of the tributary
thoroughfares of Piccadilly might have been swept off the face of
modern London without in any way interfering with the supply of
their daily wants. They were doubtless dull as acquaintances, but
as sons they would have been eminently restful. With a growing
sense of irritation Francesca compared these deserving young men
with her own intractable offspring, and wondered why Fate should
have singled her out to be the parent of such a vexatious variant
from a comfortable and desirable type. As far as remunerative
achievement was concerned, Comus copied the insouciance of the
field lily with a dangerous fidelity. Like his mother he looked
round with wistful irritation at the example afforded by
contemporary youth, but he concentrated his attention exclusively
on the richer circles of his acquaintance, young men who bought
cars and polo ponies as unconcernedly as he might purchase a
carnation for his buttonhole, and went for trips to Cairo or the
Tigris valley with less difficulty and finance-stretching than he
encountered in contriving a week-end at Brighton.

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the
whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of
holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to
advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience
to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all
times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world
at that, something more was needed than the decorative ABANDON of
the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus
seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was
just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with
Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held
him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate,
unimpeded progress.

Francesca was, in her own way, fonder of Comus than of anyone else
in the world, and if he had been browning his skin somewhere east
of Suez she would probably have kissed his photograph with genuine
fervour every night before going to bed; the appearance of a
cholera scare or rumour of native rising in the columns of her
daily news-sheet would have caused her a flutter of anxiety, and
she would have mentally likened herself to a Spartan mother
sacrificing her best-beloved on the altar of State necessities.
But with the best-beloved installed under her roof, occupying an
unreasonable amount of cubic space, and demanding daily sacrifices
instead of providing the raw material for one, her feelings were
tinged with irritation rather than affection. She might have
forgiven Comus generously for misdeeds of some gravity committed in
another continent, but she could never overlook the fact that out
of a dish of five plovers' eggs he was certain to take three. The
absent may be always wrong, but they are seldom in a position to be
inconsiderate.

Thus a wall of ice had grown up gradually between mother and son, a
barrier across which they could hold converse, but which gave a
wintry chill even to the sparkle of their lightest words. The boy
had the gift of being irresistibly amusing when he chose to exert
himself in that direction, and after a long series of moody or
jangling meal-sittings he would break forth into a torrential flow
of small talk, scandal and malicious anecdote, true or more
generally invented, to which Francesca listened with a relish and
appreciation, that was all the more flattering from being so
unwillingly bestowed.

"If you chose your friends from a rather more reputable set you
would be doubtless less amusing, but there would be compensating
advantages."

Francesca snapped the remark out at lunch one day when she had been
betrayed into a broader smile than she considered the circumstances
of her attitude towards Comus warranted.

"I'm going to move in quite decent society to-night," replied Comus
with a pleased chuckle; "I'm going to meet you and Uncle Henry and
heaps of nice dull God-fearing people at dinner."

Francesca gave a little gasp of surprise and annoyance.

"You don't mean to say Caroline has asked you to dinner to-night?"
she said; "and of course without telling me. How exceedingly like
her!"

Lady Caroline Benaresq had reached that age when you can say and do
what you like in defiance of people's most sensitive feelings and
most cherished antipathies. Not that she had waited to attain her
present age before pursuing that line of conduct; she came of a
family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery
to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge
might show in going through a crowded bathing tent. It was a
compensating mercy that they disagreed rather more among themselves
than they did with the outside world; every known variety and shade
of religion and politics had been pressed into the family service
to avoid the possibility of any agreement on the larger essentials
of life, and such unlooked-for happenings as the Home Rule schism,
the Tariff-Reform upheaval and the Suffragette crusade were
thankfully seized on as furnishing occasion for further differences
and sub-divisions. Lady Caroline's favourite scheme of
entertaining was to bring jarring and antagonistic elements into
close contact and play them remorselessly one against the other.
"One gets much better results under those circumstances" she used
to observe, "than by asking people who wish to meet each other.
Few people talk as brilliantly to impress a friend as they do to
depress an enemy."

She admitted that her theory broke down rather badly if you applied
it to Parliamentary debates. At her own dinner table its success
was usually triumphantly vindicated.

"Who else is to be there?" Francesca asked, with some pardonable
misgiving.

"Courtenay Youghal. He'll probably sit next to you, so you'd
better think out a lot of annihilating remarks in readiness. And
Elaine de Frey."

"I don't think I've heard of her. Who is she?"

"Nobody in particular, but rather nice-looking in a solemn sort of
way, and almost indecently rich."

"Marry her" was the advice which sprang to Francesca's lips, but
she choked it back with a salted almond, having a rare perception
of the fact that words are sometimes given to us to defeat our
purposes.

"Caroline has probably marked her down for Toby or one of the
grand-nephews," she said, carelessly; "a little money would be
rather useful in that quarter, I imagine."

Comus tucked in his underlip with just the shade of pugnacity that
she wanted to see.

An advantageous marriage was so obviously the most sensible course
for him to embark on that she scarcely dared to hope that he would
seriously entertain it; yet there was just a chance that if he got
as far as the flirtation stage with an attractive (and attracted)
girl who was also an heiress, the sheer perversity of his nature
might carry him on to more definite courtship, if only from the
desire to thrust other more genuinely enamoured suitors into the
background. It was a forlorn hope; so forlorn that the idea even
crossed her mind of throwing herself on the mercy of her bete
noire, Courtenay Youghal, and trying to enlist the influence which
he seemed to possess over Comus for the purpose of furthering her
hurriedly conceived project. Anyhow, the dinner promised to be
more interesting than she had originally anticipated.

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it
was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of
the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day.
She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below
stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be
Individualists. Francesca, who was a keen and intelligent food
critic, harboured no misgivings as to her hostess's kitchen and
cellar departments; some of the human side-dishes at the feast gave
her more ground for uneasiness. Courtenay Youghal, for instance,
would probably be brilliantly silent; her brother Henry would
almost certainly be the reverse.

The dinner party was a large one and Francesca arrived late with
little time to take preliminary stock of the guests; a card with
the name, "Miss de Frey," immediately opposite her own place at the
other side of the table, indicated, however, the whereabouts of the
heiress. It was characteristic of Francesca that she first
carefully read the menu from end to end, and then indulged in an
equally careful though less open scrutiny of the girl who sat
opposite her, the girl who was nobody in particular, but whose
income was everything that could be desired. She was pretty in a
restrained nut-brown fashion, and had a look of grave reflective
calm that probably masked a speculative unsettled temperament. Her
pose, if one wished to be critical, was just a little too
elaborately careless. She wore some excellently set rubies with
that indefinable air of having more at home that is so difficult to
improvise. Francesca was distinctly pleased with her survey.

"You seem interested in your vis-a-vis," said Courtenay Youghal.

"I almost think I've seen her before," said Francesca; "her face
seems familiar to me."

"The narrow gallery at the Louvre; attributed to Leonardo da
Vinci," said Youghal.

"Of course," said Francesca, her feelings divided between
satisfaction at capturing an elusive impression and annoyance that
Youghal should have been her helper. A stronger tinge of annoyance
possessed her when she heard the voice of Henry Greech raised in
painful prominence at Lady Caroline's end of the table.

"I called on the Trudhams yesterday," he announced; "it was their
Silver Wedding, you know, at least the day before was. Such lots
of silver presents, quite a show. Of course there were a great
many duplicates, but still, very nice to have. I think they were
very pleased to get so many."

"We must not grudge them their show of presents after their twenty-
five years of married life," said Lady Caroline, gently; "it is the
silver lining to their cloud."

A third of the guests present were related to the Trudhams.

"Lady Caroline is beginning well," murmured Courtenay Youghal.

"I should hardly call twenty-five years of married life a cloud,"
said Henry Greech, lamely.

"Don't let's talk about married life," said a tall handsome woman,
who looked like some modern painter's conception of the goddess
Bellona; "it's my misfortune to write eternally about husbands and
wives and their variants. My public expects it of me. I do so
envy journalists who can write about plagues and strikes and
Anarchist plots, and other pleasing things, instead of being tied
down to one stale old topic."

"Who is that woman and what has she written?" Francesca asked
Youghal; she dimly remembered having seen her at one of Serena
Golackly's gatherings, surrounded by a little Court of admirers.

"I forget her name; she has a villa at San Remo or Mentone, or
somewhere where one does have villas, and plays an extraordinary
good game of bridge. Also she has the reputation, rather rare in
your sex, of being a wonderfully sound judge of wine."

"But what has she written?"

"Oh, several novels of the thinnish ice order. Her last one, 'The
Woman who wished it was Wednesday,' has been banned at all the
libraries. I expect you've read it."

"I don't see why you should think so," said Francesca, coldly.

"Only because Comus lent me your copy yesterday," said Youghal. He
threw back his handsome head and gave her a sidelong glance of
quizzical amusement. He knew that she hated his intimacy with
Comus, and he was secretly rather proud of his influence over the
boy, shallow and negative though he knew it to be. It had been, on
his part, an unsought intimacy, and it would probably fall to
pieces the moment he tried seriously to take up the role of mentor.
The fact that Comus's mother openly disapproved of the friendship
gave it perhaps its chief interest in the young politician's eyes.

Francesca turned her attention to her brother's end of the table.
Henry Greech had willingly availed himself of the invitation to
leave the subject of married life, and had launched forthwith into
the equally well-worn theme of current politics. He was not a
person who was in much demand for public meetings, and the House
showed no great impatience to hear his views on the topics of the
moment; its impatience, indeed, was manifested rather in the
opposite direction. Hence he was prone to unburden himself of
accumulated political wisdom as occasion presented itself--
sometimes, indeed, to assume an occasion that was hardly visible to
the naked intelligence.

"Our opponents are engaged in a hopelessly uphill struggle, and
they know it," he chirruped, defiantly; "they've become possessed,
like the Gadarene swine, with a whole legion of--"

"Surely the Gadarene swine went downhill," put in Lady Caroline in
a gently enquiring voice.

Henry Greech hastily abandoned simile and fell back on platitude
and the safer kinds of fact.

Francesca did not regard her brother's views on statecraft either
in the light of gospel or revelation; as Comus once remarked, they
more usually suggested exodus. In the present instance she found
distraction in a renewed scrutiny of the girl opposite her, who
seemed to be only moderately interested in the conversational
efforts of the diners on either side of her. Comus who was looking
and talking his best, was sitting at the further end of the table,
and Francesca was quick to notice in which direction the girl's
glances were continually straying. Once or twice the eyes of the
young people met and a swift flush of pleasure and a half-smile
that spoke of good understanding came to the heiress's face. It
did not need the gift of the traditional intuition of her sex to
enable Francesca to guess that the girl with the desirable banking
account was already considerably attracted by the lively young
Pagan who had, when he cared to practise it, such an art of winning
admiration. For the first time for many, many months Francesca saw
her son's prospects in a rose-coloured setting, and she began,
unconsciously, to wonder exactly how much wealth was summed up in
the expressive label "almost indecently rich." A wife with a
really large fortune and a correspondingly big dower of character
and ambition, might, perhaps, succeed in turning Comus's latent
energies into a groove which would provide him, if not with a
career, at least with an occupation, and the young serious face
opposite looked as if its owner lacked neither character or
ambition. Francesca's speculations took a more personal turn. Out
of the well-filled coffers with which her imagination was toying,
an inconsiderable sum might eventually be devoted to the leasing,
or even perhaps the purchase of, the house in Blue Street when the
present convenient arrangement should have come to an end, and
Francesca and the Van der Meulen would not be obliged to seek fresh
quarters.

A woman's voice, talking in a discreet undertone on the other side
of Courtenay Youghal, broke in on her bridge-building.

"Tons of money and really very presentable. Just the wife for a
rising young politician. Go in and win her before she's snapped up
by some fortune hunter."

Youghal and his instructress in worldly wisdom were looking
straight across the table at the Leonardo da Vinci girl with the
grave reflective eyes and the over-emphasised air of repose.
Francesca felt a quick throb of anger against her match-making
neighbour; why, she asked herself, must some women, with no end or
purpose of their own to serve, except the sheer love of meddling in
the affairs of others, plunge their hands into plots and schemings
of this sort, in which the happiness of more than one person was
concerned? And more clearly than ever she realised how thoroughly
she detested Courtenay Youghal. She had disliked him as an evil
influence, setting before her son an example of showy ambition that
he was not in the least likely to follow, and providing him with a
model of extravagant dandyism that he was only too certain to copy.
In her heart she knew that Comus would have embarked just as surely
on his present course of idle self-indulgence if he had never known
of the existence of Youghal, but she chose to regard that young man
as her son's evil genius, and now he seemed likely to justify more
than ever the character she had fastened on to him. For once in
his life Comus appeared to have an idea of behaving sensibly and
making some use of his opportunities, and almost at the same moment
Courtenay Youghal arrived on the scene as a possible and very
dangerous rival. Against the good looks and fitful powers of
fascination that Comus could bring into the field, the young
politician could match half-a-dozen dazzling qualities which would
go far to recommend him in the eyes of a woman of the world, still
more in those of a young girl in search of an ideal. Good-looking
in his own way, if not on such showy lines as Comus, always well
turned-out, witty, self-confident without being bumptious, with a
conspicuous Parliamentary career alongside him, and heaven knew
what else in front of him, Courtenay Youghal certainly was not a
rival whose chances could be held very lightly. Francesca laughed
bitterly to herself as she remembered that a few hours ago she had
entertained the idea of begging for his good offices in helping on
Comus's wooing. One consolation, at least, she found for herself:
if Youghal really meant to step in and try and cut out his young
friend, the latter at any rate had snatched a useful start. Comus
had mentioned Miss de Frey at luncheon that day, casually and
dispassionately; if the subject of the dinner guests had not come
up he would probably not have mentioned her at all. But they were
obviously already very good friends. It was part and parcel of the
state of domestic tension at Blue Street that Francesca should only
have come to know of this highly interesting heiress by an
accidental sorting of guests at a dinner party.

Lady Caroline's voice broke in on her reflections; it was a gentle
purring voice, that possessed an uncanny quality of being able to
make itself heard down the longest dinner table.

"The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list
of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday,
instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that
entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake."

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On the evening of a certain November day, two years after theevents heretofore chronicled, Francesca Bassington steered her waythrough the crowd that filled the rooms of her friend SerenaGolackly, bestowing nods of vague recognition as she went, but witheyes 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 thethrong. Serena had a harmless way of inviting a number of more orless public men and women to her house, and hoping that if you leftthem together long enough they would constitute a salon.
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