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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XII
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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XII Post by :memphis Category :Long Stories Author :Saki Date :May 2011 Read :1542

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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XII

A door closed and Francesca Bassington sat alone in her well-
beloved drawing-room. The visitor who had been enjoying the
hospitality of her afternoon-tea table had just taken his
departure. The tete-a-tete had not been a pleasant one, at any
rate as far as Francesca was concerned, but at least it had brought
her the information for which she had been seeking. Her role of
looker-on from a tactful distance had necessarily left her much in
the dark concerning the progress of the all-important wooing, but
during the last few hours she had, on slender though significant
evidence, exchanged her complacent expectancy for a conviction that
something had gone wrong. She had spent the previous evening at
her brother's house, and had naturally seen nothing of Comus in
that uncongenial quarter; neither had he put in an appearance at
the breakfast table the following morning. She had met him in the
hall at eleven o'clock, and he had hurried past her, merely
imparting the information that he would not be in till dinner that
evening. He spoke in his sulkiest tone, and his face wore a look
of defeat, thinly masked by an air of defiance; it was not the
defiance of a man who is losing, but of one who has already lost.

Francesca's conviction that things had gone wrong between Comus and
Elaine de Frey grew in strength as the day wore on. She lunched at
a friend's house, but it was not a quarter where special social
information of any importance was likely to come early to hand.
Instead of the news she was hankering for, she had to listen to
trivial gossip and speculation on the flirtations and "cases" and
"affairs" of a string of acquaintances whose matrimonial projects
interested her about as much as the nesting arrangements of the
wildfowl in St. James's Park.

"Of course," said her hostess, with the duly impressive emphasis of
a privileged chronicler, "we've always regarded Claire as the
marrying one of the family, so when Emily came to us and said,
'I've got some news for you,' we all said, 'Claire's engaged!'
'Oh, no,' said Emily, 'it's not Claire this time, it's me.' So
then we had to guess who the lucky man was. 'It can't be Captain
Parminter,' we all said, 'because he's always been sweet on Joan.'
And then Emily said--"

The recording voice reeled off the catalogue of inane remarks with
a comfortable purring complacency that held out no hope of an early
abandoning of the topic. Francesca sat and wondered why the
innocent acceptance of a cutlet and a glass of indifferent claret
should lay one open to such unsparing punishment.

A stroll homeward through the Park after lunch brought no further
enlightenment on the subject that was uppermost in her mind; what
was worse, it brought her, without possibility of escape, within
hailing distance of Merla Blathington, who fastened on to her with
the enthusiasm of a lonely tsetse fly encountering an outpost of
civilisation.

"Just think," she buzzed inconsequently, "my sister in
Cambridgeshire has hatched out thirty-three White Orpington
chickens in her incubator!"

"What eggs did she put in it?" asked Francesca.

"Oh, some very special strain of White Orpington."

"Then I don't see anything remarkable in the result. If she had
put in crocodile's eggs and hatched out White Orpingtons, there
might have been something to write to Country Life about."

"What funny fascinating things these little green park-chairs are,"
said Merla, starting off on a fresh topic; "they always look so
quaint and knowing when they're stuck away in pairs by themselves
under the trees, as if they were having a heart-to-heart talk or
discussing a piece of very private scandal. If they could only
speak, what tragedies and comedies they could tell us of, what
flirtations and proposals."

"Let us be devoutly thankful that they can't," said Francesca, with
a shuddering recollection of the luncheon-table conversation.

"Of course, it would make one very careful what one said before
them--or above them rather," Merla rattled on, and then, to
Francesca's infinite relief, she espied another acquaintance
sitting in unprotected solitude, who promised to supply a more
durable audience than her present rapidly moving companion.
Francesca was free to return to her drawing-room in Blue Street to
await with such patience as she could command the coming of some
visitor who might be able to throw light on the subject that was
puzzling and disquieting her. The arrival of George St. Michael
boded bad news, but at any rate news, and she gave him an almost
cordial welcome.

"Well, you see I wasn't far wrong about Miss de Frey and Courtenay
Youghal, was I?" he chirruped, almost before he had seated himself.
Francesca was to be spared any further spinning-out of her period
of uncertainty. "Yes, it's officially given out," he went on, "and
it's to appear in the Morning Post to-morrow. I heard it from
Colonel Deel this morning, and he had it direct from Youghal
himself. Yes, please, one lump; I'm not fashionable, you see." He
had made the same remark about the sugar in his tea with unfailing
regularity for at least thirty years. Fashions in sugar are
apparently stationary. "They say," he continued, hurriedly, "that
he proposed to her on the Terrace of the House, and a division bell
rang, and he had to hurry off before she had time to give her
answer, and when he got back she simply said, 'the Ayes have it.'"
St. Michael paused in his narrative to give an appreciative giggle.

"Just the sort of inanity that would go the rounds," remarked
Francesca, with the satisfaction of knowing that she was making the
criticism direct to the author and begetter of the inanity in
question. Now that the blow had fallen and she knew the full
extent of its weight, her feeling towards the bringer of bad news,
who sat complacently nibbling at her tea-cakes and scattering
crumbs of tiresome small-talk at her feet, was one of wholehearted
dislike. She could sympathise with, or at any rate understand, the
tendency of oriental despots to inflict death or ignominious
chastisement on messengers bearing tidings of misfortune and
defeat, and St. Michael, she perfectly well knew, was thoroughly
aware of the fact that her hopes and wishes had been centred on the
possibility of having Elaine for a daughter-in-law; every purring
remark that his mean little soul prompted him to contribute to the
conversation had an easily recognizable undercurrent of malice.
Fortunately for her powers of polite endurance, which had been put
to such searching and repeated tests that day, St. Michael had
planned out for himself a busy little time-table of afternoon
visits, at each of which his self-appointed task of forestalling
and embellishing the newspaper announcements of the Youghal-de Frey
engagement would be hurriedly but thoroughly performed.

"They'll be quite one of the best-looking and most interesting
couples of the Season, won't they?" he cried, by way of farewell.
The door closed and Francesca Bassington sat alone in her drawing-
room.

Before she could give way to the bitter luxury of reflection on the
downfall of her hopes, it was prudent to take precautionary
measures against unwelcome intrusion. Summoning the maid who had
just speeded the departing St. Michael, she gave the order: "I am
not at home this afternoon to Lady Caroline Benaresq." On second
thoughts she extended the taboo to all possible callers, and sent a
telephone message to catch Comus at his club, asking him to come
and see her as soon as he could manage before it was time to dress
for dinner. Then she sat down to think, and her thinking was
beyond the relief of tears.

She had built herself a castle of hopes, and it had not been a
castle in Spain, but a structure well on the probable side of the
Pyrenees. There had been a solid foundation on which to build.
Miss de Frey's fortune was an assured and unhampered one, her
liking for Comus had been an obvious fact; his courtship of her a
serious reality. The young people had been much together in
public, and their names had naturally been coupled in the match-
making gossip of the day. The only serious shadow cast over the
scene had been the persistent presence, in foreground or
background, of Courtenay Youghal. And now the shadow suddenly
stood forth as the reality, and the castle of hopes was a ruin, a
hideous mortification of dust and debris, with the skeleton
outlines of its chambers still standing to make mockery of its
discomfited architect. The daily anxiety about Comus and his
extravagant ways and intractable disposition had been gradually
lulled by the prospect of his making an advantageous marriage,
which would have transformed him from a ne'er-do-well and
adventurer into a wealthy idler. He might even have been moulded,
by the resourceful influence of an ambitious wife, into a man with
some definite purpose in life. The prospect had vanished with
cruel suddenness, and the anxieties were crowding back again, more
insistent than ever. The boy had had his one good chance in the
matrimonial market and missed it; if he were to transfer his
attentions to some other well-dowered girl he would be marked down
at once as a fortune-hunter, and that would constitute a heavy
handicap to the most plausible of wooers. His liking for Elaine
had evidently been genuine in its way, though perhaps it would have
been rash to read any deeper sentiment into it, but even with the
spur of his own inclination to assist him he had failed to win the
prize that had seemed so temptingly within his reach. And in the
dashing of his prospects, Francesca saw the threatening of her own.
The old anxiety as to her precarious tenure of her present quarters
put on again all its familiar terrors. One day, she foresaw, in
the horribly near future, George St. Michael would come pattering
up her stairs with the breathless intelligence that Emmeline
Chetrof was going to marry somebody or other in the Guards or the
Record Office as the case might be, and then there would be an
uprooting of her life from its home and haven in Blue Street and a
wandering forth to some cheap unhappy far-off dwelling, where the
stately Van der Meulen and its companion host of beautiful and
desirable things would be stuffed and stowed away in soulless
surroundings, like courtly emigres fallen on evil days. It was
unthinkable, but the trouble was that it had to be thought about.
And if Comus had played his cards well and transformed himself from
an encumbrance into a son with wealth at his command, the tragedy
which she saw looming in front of her might have been avoided or at
the worst whittled down to easily bearable proportions. With money
behind one, the problem of where to live approaches more nearly to
the simple question of where do you wish to live, and a rich
daughter-in-law would have surely seen to it that she did not have
to leave her square mile of Mecca and go out into the wilderness of
bricks and mortar. If the house in Blue Street could not have been
compounded for there were other desirable residences which would
have been capable of consoling Francesca for her lost Eden. And
now the detested Courtenay Youghal, with his mocking eyes and air
of youthful cynicism, had stepped in and overthrown those golden
hopes and plans whose non-fulfilment would make such a world of
change in her future. Assuredly she had reason to feel bitter
against that young man, and she was not disposed to take a very
lenient view of Comus's own mismanagement of the affair; her
greeting when he at last arrived, was not couched in a sympathetic
strain.

"So you have lost your chance with the heiress," she remarked
abruptly.

"Yes," said Comus, coolly; "Courtenay Youghal has added her to his
other successes."

"And you have added her to your other failures," pursued Francesca,
relentlessly; her temper had been tried that day beyond ordinary
limits.

"I thought you seemed getting along so well with her," she
continued, as Comus remained uncommunicative.

"We hit it off rather well together," said Comus, and added with
deliberate bluntness, "I suppose she got rather sick at my
borrowing money from her. She thought it was all I was after."

"You borrowed money from her!" said Francesca; "you were fool
enough to borrow money from a girl who was favourably disposed
towards you, and with Courtenay Youghal in the background waiting
to step in and oust you!"

Francesca's voice trembled with misery and rage. This great stroke
of good luck that had seemed about to fall into their laps had been
thrust aside by an act or series of acts of wanton paltry folly.
The good ship had been lost for the sake of the traditional
ha'porth of tar. Comus had paid some pressing tailor's or
tobacconist's bill with a loan unwillingly put at his disposal by
the girl he was courting, and had flung away his chances of
securing a wealthy and in every way desirable bride. Elaine de
Frey and her fortune might have been the making of Comus, but he
had hurried in as usual to effect his own undoing. Calmness did
not in this case come with reflection; the more Francesca thought
about the matter, the more exasperated she grew. Comus threw
himself down in a low chair and watched her without a trace of
embarrassment or concern at her mortification. He had come to her
feeling rather sorry for himself, and bitterly conscious of his
defeat, and she had met him with a taunt and without the least hint
of sympathy; he determined that she should be tantalised with the
knowledge of how small and stupid a thing had stood between the
realisation and ruin of her hopes for him.

"And to think she should be captured by Courtenay Youghal," said
Francesca, bitterly; "I've always deplored your intimacy with that
young man."

"It's hardly my intimacy with him that's made Elaine accept him,"
said Comus.

Francesca realised the futility of further upbraiding. Through the
tears of vexation that stood in her eyes, she looked across at the
handsome boy who sat opposite her, mocking at his own misfortune,
perversely indifferent to his folly, seemingly almost indifferent
to its consequences.

"Comus," she said quietly and wearily, "you are an exact reversal
of the legend of Pandora's Box. You have all the charm and
advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and
behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter
hopelessness."

"I think," said Comus, "that is the best description that anyone
has ever given of me."

For the moment there was a flush of sympathy and something like
outspoken affection between mother and son. They seemed very much
alone in the world just now, and in the general overturn of hopes
and plans, there flickered a chance that each might stretch out a
hand to the other, and summon back to their lives an old dead love
that was the best and strongest feeling either of them had known.
But the sting of disappointment was too keen, and the flood of
resentment mounted too high on either side to allow the chance more
than a moment in which to flicker away into nothingness. The old
fatal topic of estrangement came to the fore, the question of
immediate ways and means, and mother and son faced themselves again
as antagonists on a well-disputed field.

"What is done is done," said Francesca, with a movement of tragic
impatience that belied the philosophy of her words; "there is
nothing to be gained by crying over spilt milk. There is the
present and the future to be thought about, though. One can't go
on indefinitely as a tenant-for-life in a fools' paradise." Then
she pulled herself together and proceeded to deliver an ultimatum
which the force of circumstances no longer permitted her to hold in
reserve.

"It's not much use talking to you about money, as I know from long
experience, but I can only tell you this, that in the middle of the
Season I'm already obliged to be thinking of leaving Town. And
you, I'm afraid, will have to be thinking of leaving England at
equally short notice. Henry told me the other day that he can get
you something out in West Africa. You've had your chance of doing
something better for yourself from the financial point of view, and
you've thrown it away for the sake of borrowing a little ready
money for your luxuries, so now you must take what you can get.
The pay won't be very good at first, but living is not dear out
there."

"West Africa," said Comus, reflectively; "it's a sort of modern
substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository
for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about
the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a
refuse consumer."

"My dear Comus, you are talking of the West Africa of yesterday.
While you have been wasting your time at school, and worse than
wasting your time in the West End, other people have been grappling
with the study of tropical diseases, and the West African coast
country is being rapidly transformed from a lethal chamber into a
sanatorium."

Comus laughed mockingly.

"What a beautiful bit of persuasive prose; it reminds one of the
Psalms and even more of a company prospectus. If you were honest
you'd confess that you lifted it straight out of a rubber or
railway promotion scheme. Seriously, mother, if I must grub about
for a living, why can't I do it in England? I could go into a
brewery for instance."

Francesca shook her head decisively; she could foresee the sort of
steady work Comus was likely to accomplish, with the lodestone of
Town and the minor attractions of race-meetings and similar
festivities always beckoning to him from a conveniently attainable
distance, but apart from that aspect of the case there was a
financial obstacle in the way of his obtaining any employment at
home.

"Breweries and all those sort of things necessitate money to start
with; one has to pay premiums or invest capital in the undertaking,
and so forth. And as we have no money available, and can scarcely
pay our debts as it is, it's no use thinking about it."

"Can't we sell something?" asked Comus.

He made no actual suggestion as to what should be sacrificed, but
he was looking straight at the Van der Meulen.

For a moment Francesca felt a stifling sensation of weakness, as
though her heart was going to stop beating. Then she sat forward
in her chair and spoke with energy, almost fierceness.

"When I am dead my things can be sold and dispersed. As long as I
am alive I prefer to keep them by me."

In her holy place, with all her treasured possessions around her,
this dreadful suggestion had been made. Some of her cherished
household gods, souvenirs and keepsakes from past days, would,
perhaps, not have fetched a very considerable sum in the auction-
room, others had a distinct value of their own, but to her they
were all precious. And the Van der Meulen, at which Comus had
looked with impious appraising eyes, was the most sacred of them
all. When Francesca had been away from her Town residence or had
been confined to her bedroom through illness, the great picture
with its stately solemn representation of a long-ago battle-scene,
painted to flatter the flattery-loving soul of a warrior-king who
was dignified even in his campaigns--this was the first thing she
visited on her return to Town or convalescence. If an alarm of
fire had been raised it would have been the first thing for whose
safety she would have troubled. And Comus had almost suggested
that it should be parted with, as one sold railway shares and other
soulless things.

Scolding, she had long ago realised, was a useless waste of time
and energy where Comus was concerned, but this evening she unloosed
her tongue for the mere relief that it gave to her surcharged
feelings. He sat listening without comment, though she purposely
let fall remarks that she hoped might sting him into self-defence
or protest. It was an unsparing indictment, the more damaging in
that it was so irrefutably true, the more tragic in that it came
from perhaps the one person in the world whose opinion he had ever
cared for. And he sat through it as silent and seemingly unmoved
as though she had been rehearsing a speech for some drawing-room
comedy. When she had had her say his method of retort was not the
soft answer that turneth away wrath but the inconsequent one that
shelves it.

"Let's go and dress for dinner."

The meal, like so many that Francesca and Comus had eaten in each
other's company of late, was a silent one. Now that the full
bearings of the disaster had been discussed in all its aspects
there was nothing more to be said. Any attempt at ignoring the
situation, and passing on to less controversial topics would have
been a mockery and pretence which neither of them would have
troubled to sustain. So the meal went forward with its dragged-out
dreary intimacy of two people who were separated by a gulf of
bitterness, and whose hearts were hard with resentment against one
another.

Francesca felt a sense of relief when she was able to give the maid
the order to serve her coffee upstairs. Comus had a sullen scowl
on his face, but he looked up as she rose to leave the room, and
gave his half-mocking little laugh.

"You needn't look so tragic," he said, "You're going to have your
own way. I'll go out to that West African hole."

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