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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Unbearable Bassington - Chapter VI
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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter VI Post by :55875 Category :Long Stories Author :Saki Date :May 2011 Read :2330

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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter VI

Elaine de Frey sat at ease--at bodily ease--at any rate--in a low
wicker chair placed under the shade of a group of cedars in the
heart of a stately spacious garden that had almost made up its mind
to be a park. The shallow stone basin of an old fountain, on whose
wide ledge a leaden-moulded otter for ever preyed on a leaden
salmon, filled a conspicuous place in the immediate foreground.
Around its rim ran an inscription in Latin, warning mortal man that
time flows as swiftly as water and exhorting him to make the most
of his hours; after which piece of Jacobean moralising it set
itself shamelessly to beguile all who might pass that way into an
abandonment of contemplative repose. On all sides of it a stretch
of smooth turf spread away, broken up here and there by groups of
dwarfish chestnut and mulberry trees, whose leaves and branches
cast a laced pattern of shade beneath them. On one side the lawn
sloped gently down to a small lake, whereon floated a quartette of
swans, their movements suggestive of a certain mournful
listlessness, as though a weary dignity of caste held them back
from the joyous bustling life of the lesser waterfowl. Elaine
liked to imagine that they re-embodied the souls of unhappy boys
who had been forced by family interests to become high
ecclesiastical dignitaries and had grown prematurely Right
Reverend. A low stone balustrade fenced part of the shore of the
lake, making a miniature terrace above its level, and here roses
grew in a rich multitude. Other rose bushes, carefully pruned and
tended, formed little oases of colour and perfume amid the restful
green of the sward, and in the distance the eye caught the
variegated blaze of a many-hued hedge of rhododendron. With these
favoured exceptions flowers were hard to find in this well-ordered
garden; the misguided tyranny of staring geranium beds and
beflowered archways leading to nowhere, so dear to the suburban
gardener, found no expression here. Magnificent Amherst pheasants,
whose plumage challenged and almost shamed the peacock on his own
ground, stepped to and fro over the emerald turf with the assured
self-conscious pride of reigning sultans. It was a garden where
summer seemed a part-proprietor rather than a hurried visitor.

By the side of Elaine's chair under the shadow of the cedars a
wicker table was set out with the paraphernalia of afternoon tea.
On some cushions at her feet reclined Courtenay Youghal, smoothly
preened and youthfully elegant, the personification of decorative
repose; equally decorative, but with the showy restlessness of a
dragonfly, Comus disported his flannelled person over a
considerable span of the available foreground.

The intimacy existing between the two young men had suffered no
immediate dislocation from the circumstance that they were tacitly
paying court to the same lady. It was an intimacy founded not in
the least on friendship or community of tastes and ideas, but owed
its existence to the fact that each was amused and interested by
the other. Youghal found Comus, for the time being at any rate,
just as amusing and interesting as a rival for Elaine's favour as
he had been in the role of scapegrace boy-about-Town; Comus for his
part did not wish to lose touch with Youghal, who among other
attractions possessed the recommendation of being under the ban of
Comus's mother. She disapproved, it is true, of a great many of
her son's friends and associates, but this particular one was a
special and persistent source of irritation to her from the fact
that he figured prominently and more or less successfully in the
public life of the day. There was something peculiarly
exasperating in reading a brilliant and incisive attack on the
Government's rash handling of public expenditure delivered by a
young man who encouraged her son in every imaginable extravagance.
The actual extent of Youghal's influence over the boy was of the
slightest; Comus was quite capable of deriving encouragement to
rash outlay and frivolous conversation from an anchorite or an
East-end parson if he had been thrown into close companionship with
such an individual. Francesca, however, exercised a mother's
privilege in assuming her son's bachelor associates to be
industrious in labouring to achieve his undoing. Therefore the
young politician was a source of unconcealed annoyance to her, and
in the same degree as she expressed her disapproval of him Comus
was careful to maintain and parade the intimacy. Its existence, or
rather its continued existence, was one of the things that faintly
puzzled the young lady whose sought-for favour might have been
expected to furnish an occasion for its rapid dissolution.

With two suitors, one of whom at least she found markedly
attractive, courting her at the same moment, Elaine should have had
reasonable cause for being on good terms with the world, and with
herself in particular. Happiness was not, however, at this
auspicious moment, her dominant mood. The grave calm of her face
masked as usual a certain degree of grave perturbation. A
succession of well-meaning governesses and a plentiful supply of
moralising aunts on both sides of her family, had impressed on her
young mind the theoretical fact that wealth is a great
responsibility. The consciousness of her responsibility set her
continually wondering, not as to her own fitness to discharge her
"stewardship," but as to the motives and merits of people with whom
she came in contact. The knowledge that there was so much in the
world that she could buy, invited speculation as to how much there
was that was worth buying. Gradually she had come to regard her
mind as a sort of appeal court before whose secret sittings were
examined and judged the motives and actions, the motives
especially, of the world in general. In her schoolroom days she
had sat in conscientious judgment on the motives that guided or
misguided Charles and Cromwell and Monck, Wallenstein and
Savonarola. In her present stage she was equally occupied in
examining the political sincerity of the Secretary for Foreign
Affairs, the good-faith of a honey-tongued but possibly loyal-
hearted waiting-maid, and the disinterestedness of a whole circle
of indulgent and flattering acquaintances. Even more absorbing,
and in her eyes, more urgently necessary, was the task of
dissecting and appraising the characters of the two young men who
were favouring her with their attentions. And herein lay cause for
much thinking and some perturbation. Youghal, for example, might
have baffled a more experienced observer of human nature. Elaine
was too clever to confound his dandyism with foppishness or self-
advertisement. He admired his own toilet effect in a mirror from a
genuine sense of pleasure in a thing good to look upon, just as he
would feel a sensuous appreciation of the sight of a well-bred,
well-matched, well-turned-out pair of horses. Behind his careful
political flippancy and cynicism one might also detect a certain
careless sincerity, which would probably in the long run save him
from moderate success, and turn him into one of the brilliant
failures of his day. Beyond this it was difficult to form an exact
appreciation of Courtenay Youghal, and Elaine, who liked to have
her impressions distinctly labelled and pigeon-holed, was
perpetually scrutinising the outer surface of his characteristics
and utterances, like a baffled art critic vainly searching beneath
the varnish and scratches of a doubtfully assigned picture for an
enlightening signature. The young man added to her perplexities by
his deliberate policy of never trying to show himself in a
favourable light even when most anxious to impart a favourable
impression. He preferred that people should hunt for his good
qualities, and merely took very good care that as far as possible
they should never draw blank; even in the matter of selfishness,
which was the anchor-sheet of his existence, he contrived to be
noted, and justly noted, for doing remarkably unselfish things. As
a ruler he would have been reasonably popular; as a husband he
would probably be unendurable.

Comus was to a certain extent as great a mystification as Youghal,
but here Elaine was herself responsible for some of the perplexity
which enshrouded his character in her eyes. She had taken more
than a passing fancy for the boy--for the boy as he might be, that
was to say--and she was desperately unwilling to see him and
appraise him as he really was. Thus the mental court of appeal was
constantly engaged in examining witnesses as to character, most of
whom signally failed to give any testimony which would support the
favourable judgment which the tribunal was so anxious to arrive at.
A woman with wider experience of the world's ways and shortcomings
would probably have contented herself with an endeavour to find out
whether her liking for the boy outweighed her dislike of his
characteristics; Elaine took her judgments too seriously to
approach the matter from such a simple and convenient standpoint.
The fact that she was much more than half in love with Comus made
it dreadfully important that she should discover him to have a
lovable soul, and Comus, it must be confessed, did little to help
forward the discovery.

"At any rate he is honest," she would observe to herself, after
some outspoken admission of unprincipled conduct on his part, and
then she would ruefully recall certain episodes in which he had
figured, from which honesty had been conspicuously absent. What
she tried to label honesty in his candour was probably only a
cynical defiance of the laws of right and wrong.

"You look more than usually thoughtful this afternoon," said Comus
to her, "as if you had invented this summer day and were trying to
think out improvements."

"If I had the power to create improvements anywhere I think I
should begin with you," retorted Elaine.

"I'm sure it's much better to leave me as I am," protested Comus;
"you're like a relative of mine up in Argyllshire, who spends his
time producing improved breeds of sheep and pigs and chickens. So
patronising and irritating to the Almighty I should think, to go
about putting superior finishing touches to Creation."

Elaine frowned, and then laughed, and finally gave a little sigh.

"It's not easy to talk sense to you," she said.

"Whatever else you take in hand," said Youghal, "you must never
improve this garden. It's what our idea of Heaven might be like if
the Jews hadn't invented one for us on totally different lines.
It's dreadful that we should accept them as the impresarios of our
religious dreamland instead of the Greeks."

"You are not very fond of the Jews," said Elaine.

"I've travelled and lived a good deal in Eastern Europe," said
Youghal.

"It seems largely a question of geography," said Elaine; "in
England no one really is anti-Semitic."

Youghal shook his head. "I know a great many Jews who are."

Servants had quietly, almost reverently, placed tea and its
accessories on the wicker table, and quietly receded from the
landscape. Elaine sat like a grave young goddess about to dispense
some mysterious potion to her devotees. Her mind was still sitting
in judgment on the Jewish question.

Comus scrambled to his feet.

"It's too hot for tea," he said; "I shall go and feed the swans."

And he walked off with a little silver basket-dish containing brown
bread-and-butter.

Elaine laughed quietly.

"It's so like Comus," she said, "to go off with our one dish of
bread-and-butter."

Youghal chuckled responsively. It was an undoubted opportunity for
him to put in some disparaging criticism of Comus, and Elaine sat
alert in readiness to judge the critic and reserve judgment on the
criticised.

"His selfishness is splendid but absolutely futile," said Youghal;
"now my selfishness is commonplace, but always thoroughly practical
and calculated. He will have great difficulty in getting the swans
to accept his offering, and he incurs the odium of reducing us to a
bread-and-butterless condition. Incidentally he will get very
hot."

Elaine again had the sense of being thoroughly baffled. If Youghal
had said anything unkind it was about himself.

"If my cousin Suzette had been here," she observed, with the shadow
of a malicious smile on her lips, "I believe she would have gone
into a flood of tears at the loss of her bread-and-butter, and
Comus would have figured ever after in her mind as something black
and destroying and hateful. In fact I don't really know why we
took our loss so unprotestingly."

"For two reasons," said Youghal; "you are rather fond of Comus.
And I--am not very fond of bread-and-butter."

The jesting remark brought a throb of pleasure to Elaine's heart.
She had known full well that she cared for Comus, but now that
Courtenay Youghal had openly proclaimed the fact as something
unchallenged and understood matters seemed placed at once on a more
advanced footing. The warm sunlit garden grew suddenly into a
Heaven that held the secret of eternal happiness. Youth and
comeliness would always walk here, under the low-boughed mulberry
trees, as unchanging as the leaden otter that for ever preyed on
the leaden salmon on the edge of the old fountain, and somehow the
lovers would always wear the aspect of herself and the boy who was
talking to the four white swans by the water steps. Youghal was
right; this was the real Heaven of one's dreams and longings,
immeasurably removed from that Rue de la Paix Paradise about which
one professed utterly insincere hankerings in places of public
worship. Elaine drank her tea in a happy silence; besides being a
brilliant talker Youghal understood the rarer art of being a non-
talker on occasion.

Comus came back across the grass swinging the empty basket-dish in
his hand.

"Swans were very pleased," he cried, gaily, "and said they hoped I
would keep the bread-and-butter dish as a souvenir of a happy tea-
party. I may really have it, mayn't I?" he continued in an anxious
voice; "it will do to keep studs and things in. You don't want
it."

"It's got the family crest on it," said Elaine. Some of the
happiness had died out of her eyes.

"I'll have that scratched off and my own put on," said Comus.

"It's been in the family for generations," protested Elaine, who
did not share Comus's view that because you were rich your lesser
possessions could have no value in your eyes.

"I want it dreadfully," said Comus, sulkily, "and you've heaps of
other things to put bread-and-butter in."

For the moment he was possessed by an overmastering desire to keep
the dish at all costs; a look of greedy determination dominated his
face, and he had not for an instant relaxed his grip of the coveted
object.

Elaine was genuinely angry by this time, and was busily telling
herself that it was absurd to be put out over such a trifle; at the
same moment a sense of justice was telling her that Comus was
displaying a good deal of rather shabby selfishness. And somehow
her chief anxiety at the moment was to keep Courtenay Youghal from
seeing that she was angry.

"I know you don't really want it, so I'm going to keep it,"
persisted Comus.

"It's too hot to argue," said Elaine.

"Happy mistress of your destinies," laughed Youghal; "you can suit
your disputations to the desired time and temperature. I have to
go and argue, or what is worse, listen to other people's arguments,
in a hot and doctored atmosphere suitable to an invalid lizard."

"You haven't got to argue about a bread-and-butter dish," said
Elaine.

"Chiefly about bread-and-butter," said Youghal; "our great
preoccupation is other people's bread-and-butter. They earn or
produce the material, but we busy ourselves with making rules how
it shall be cut up, and the size of the slices, and how much butter
shall go on how much bread. That is what is called legislation.
If we could only make rules as to how the bread-and-butter should
be digested we should be quite happy."

Elaine had been brought up to regard Parliaments as something to be
treated with cheerful solemnity, like illness or family re-unions.
Youghal's flippant disparagement of the career in which he was
involved did not, however, jar on her susceptibilities. She knew
him to be not only a lively and effective debater but an
industrious worker on committees. If he made light of his labours,
at least he afforded no one else a loophole for doing so. And
certainly, the Parliamentary atmosphere was not inviting on this
hot afternoon.

"When must you go?" she asked, sympathetically.

Youghal looked ruefully at his watch. Before he could answer, a
cheerful hoot came through the air, as of an owl joyously
challenging the sunlight with a foreboding of the coming night. He
sprang laughing to his feet.

"Listen! My summons back to my galley," he cried. "The Gods have
given me an hour in this enchanted garden, so I must not complain."

Then in a lower voice he almost whispered, "It's the Persian debate
to-night,"

It was the one hint he had given in the midst of his talking and
laughing that he was really keenly enthralled in the work that lay
before him. It was the one little intimate touch that gave Elaine
the knowledge that he cared for her opinion of his work.

Comus, who had emptied his cigarette-case, became suddenly
clamorous at the prospect of being temporarily stranded without a
smoke. Youghal took the last remaining cigarette from his own case
and gravely bisected it.

"Friendship could go no further," he observed, as he gave one-half
to the doubtfully appeased Comus, and lit the other himself.

"There are heaps more in the hall," said Elaine.

"It was only done for the Saint Martin of Tours effect," said
Youghal; "I hate smoking when I'm rushing through the air. Good-
bye."

The departing galley-slave stepped forth into the sunlight, radiant
and confident. A few minutes later Elaine could see glimpses of
his white car as it rushed past the rhododendron bushes. He woos
best who leaves first, particularly if he goes forth to battle or
the semblance of battle.

Somehow Elaine's garden of Eternal Youth had already become clouded
in its imagery. The girl-figure who walked in it was still
distinctly and unchangingly herself, but her companion was more
blurred and undefined, as a picture that has been superimposed on
another.

Youghal sped townward well satisfied with himself. To-morrow, he
reflected, Elaine would read his speech in her morning paper, and
he knew in advance that it was not going to be one of his worst
efforts. He knew almost exactly where the punctuations of laughter
and applause would burst in, he knew that nimble fingers in the
Press Gallery would be taking down each gibe and argument as he
flung it at the impassive Minister confronting him, and that the
fair lady of his desire would be able to judge what manner of young
man this was who spent his afternoon in her garden, lazily chaffing
himself and his world.

And he further reflected, with an amused chuckle, that she would be
vividly reminded of Comus for days to come, when she took her
afternoon tea, and saw the bread-and-butter reposing in an
unaccustomed dish.

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