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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XV
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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XV Post by :Vrindavan Category :Long Stories Author :Saki Date :May 2011 Read :3042

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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XV

Elaine Youghal sat at lunch in the Speise Saal of one of Vienna's
costlier hotels. The double-headed eagle, with its "K.u.K."
legend, everywhere met the eye and announced the imperial favour in
which the establishment basked. Some several square yards of
yellow bunting, charged with the image of another double-headed
eagle, floating from the highest flag-staff above the building,
betrayed to the initiated the fact that a Russian Grand Duke was
concealed somewhere on the premises. Unannounced by heraldic
symbolism but unconcealable by reason of nature's own blazonry,
were several citizens and citizenesses of the great republic of the
Western world. One or two Cobdenite members of the British
Parliament engaged in the useful task of proving that the cost of
living in Vienna was on an exorbitant scale, flitted with
restrained importance through a land whose fatness they had come to
spy out; every fancied over-charge in their bills was welcome as
providing another nail in the coffin of their fiscal opponents. It
is the glory of democracies that they may be misled but never
driven. Here and there, like brave deeds in a dust-patterned
world, flashed and glittered the sumptuous uniforms of
representatives of the Austrian military caste. Also in evidence,
at discreet intervals, were stray units of the Semetic tribe that
nineteen centuries of European neglect had been unable to mislay.

Elaine sitting with Courtenay at an elaborately appointed luncheon
table, gay with high goblets of Bohemian glassware, was mistress of
three discoveries. First, to her disappointment, that if you
frequent the more expensive hotels of Europe you must be prepared
to find, in whatever country you may chance to be staying, a
depressing international likeness between them all. Secondly, to
her relief, that one is not expected to be sentimentally amorous
during a modern honeymoon. Thirdly, rather to her dismay, that
Courtenay Youghal did not necessarily expect her to be markedly
affectionate in private. Someone had described him, after their
marriage, as one of Nature's bachelors, and she began to see how
aptly the description fitted him.

"Will those Germans on our left never stop talking?" she asked, as
an undying flow of Teutonic small talk rattled and jangled across
the intervening stretch of carpet. "Not one of those three women
has ceased talking for an instant since we've been sitting here."

"They will presently, if only for a moment," said Courtenay; "when
the dish you have ordered comes in there will be a deathly silence
at the next table. No German can see a plat brought in for someone
else without being possessed with a great fear that it represents a
more toothsome morsel or a better money's worth than what he has
ordered for himself."

The exuberant Teutonic chatter was balanced on the other side of
the room by an even more penetrating conversation unflaggingly
maintained by a party of Americans, who were sitting in judgment on
the cuisine of the country they were passing through, and finding
few extenuating circumstances.

"What Mr. Lonkins wants is a real DEEP cherry pie," announced a
lady in a tone of dramatic and honest conviction.

"Why, yes, that is so," corroborated a gentleman who was apparently
the Mr. Lonkins in question; "a real DEEP cherry pie."

"We had the same trouble way back in Paris," proclaimed another
lady; "little Jerome and the girls don't want to eat any more creme
renversee. I'd give anything if they could get some real cherry
pie."

"Real DEEP cherry pie," assented Mr. Lonkins.

"Way down in Ohio we used to have peach pie that was real good,"
said Mrs. Lonkins, turning on a tap of reminiscence that presently
flowed to a cascade. The subject of pies seemed to lend itself to
indefinite expansion.

"Do those people think of nothing but their food?" asked Elaine, as
the virtues of roasted mutton suddenly came to the fore and
received emphatic recognition, even the absent and youthful Jerome
being quoted in its favour.

"On the contrary," said Courtenay, "they are a widely-travelled
set, and the man has had a notably interesting career. It is a
form of home-sickness with them to discuss and lament the cookery
and foods that they've never had the leisure to stay at home and
digest. The Wandering Jew probably babbled unremittingly about
some breakfast dish that took so long to prepare that he had never
time to eat it."

A waiter deposited a dish of Wiener Nierenbraten in front of
Elaine. At the same moment a magic hush fell upon the three German
ladies at the adjoining table, and the flicker of a great fear
passed across their eyes. Then they burst forth again into
tumultuous chatter. Courtenay had proved a reliable prophet.

Almost at the same moment as the luncheon-dish appeared on the
scene, two ladies arrived at a neighbouring table, and bowed with
dignified cordiality to Elaine and Courtenay. They were two of the
more worldly and travelled of Elaine's extensive stock of aunts,
and they happened to be making a short stay at the same hotel as
the young couple. They were far too correct and rationally minded
to intrude themselves on their niece, but it was significant of
Elaine's altered view as to the sanctity of honeymoon life that she
secretly rather welcomed the presence of her two relatives in the
hotel, and had found time and occasion to give them more of her
society than she would have considered necessary or desirable a few
weeks ago. The younger of the two she rather liked, in a
restrained fashion, as one likes an unpretentious watering-place or
a restaurant that does not try to give one a musical education in
addition to one's dinner. One felt instinctively about her that
she would never wear rather more valuable diamonds than any other
woman in the room, and would never be the only person to be saved
in a steamboat disaster or hotel fire. As a child she might have
been perfectly well able to recite "On Linden when the sun was
low," but one felt certain that nothing ever induced her to do so.
The elder aunt, Mrs. Goldbrook, did not share her sister's
character as a human rest-cure; most people found her rather
disturbing, chiefly, perhaps, from her habit of asking unimportant
questions with enormous solemnity. Her manner of enquiring after a
trifling ailment gave one the impression that she was more
concerned with the fortunes of the malady than with oneself, and
when one got rid of a cold one felt that she almost expected to be
given its postal address. Probably her manner was merely the
defensive outwork of an innate shyness, but she was not a woman who
commanded confidences.

"A telephone call for Courtenay," commented the younger of the two
women as Youghal hurriedly flashed through the room; "the telephone
system seems to enter very largely into that young man's life."

"The telephone has robbed matrimony of most of its sting," said the
elder; "so much more discreet than pen and ink communications which
get read by the wrong people."

Elaine's aunts were conscientiously worldly; they were the natural
outcome of a stock that had been conscientiously straight-laced for
many generations.

Elaine had progressed to the pancake stage before Courtenay
returned.

"Sorry to be away so long," he said, "but I've arranged something
rather nice for to-night. There's rather a jolly masquerade ball
on. I've 'phoned about getting a costume for you and it's alright.
It will suit you beautifully, and I've got my harlequin dress with
me. Madame Kelnicort, excellent soul, is going to chaperone you,
and she'll take you back any time you like; I'm quite unreliable
when I get into fancy dress. I shall probably keep going till some
unearthly hour of the morning."

A masquerade ball in a strange city hardly represented Elaine's
idea of enjoyment. Carefully to disguise one's identity in a
neighbourhood where one was entirely unknown seemed to her rather
meaningless. With Courtenay, of course, it was different; he
seemed to have friends and acquaintances everywhere. However, the
matter had progressed to a point which would have made a refusal to
go seem rather ungracious. Elaine finished her pancake and began
to take a polite interest in her costume.

"What is your character?" asked Madame Kelnicort that evening, as
they uncloaked, preparatory to entering the already crowded ball-
room.

"I believe I'm supposed to represent Marjolaine de Montfort,
whoever she may have been," said Elaine. "Courtenay declares he
only wanted to marry me because I'm his ideal of her."

"But what a mistake to go as a character you know nothing about.
To enjoy a masquerade ball you ought to throw away your own self
and be the character you represent. Now Courtenay has been
Harlequin since half-way through dinner; I could see it dancing in
his eyes. At about six o'clock to-morrow morning he will fall
asleep and wake up a member of the British House of Parliament on
his honeymoon, but to-night he is unrestrainedly Harlequin."

Elaine stood in the ball-room surrounded by a laughing jostling
throng of pierrots, jockeys, Dresden-china shepherdesses, Roumanian
peasant-girls and all the lively make-believe creatures that form
the ingredients of a fancy-dress ball. As she stood watching them
she experienced a growing feeling of annoyance, chiefly with
herself. She was assisting, as the French say, at one of the
gayest scenes of Europe's gayest capital, and she was conscious of
being absolutely unaffected by the gaiety around her. The costumes
were certainly interesting to look at, and the music good to listen
to, and to that extent she was amused, but the ABANDON of the scene
made no appeal to her. It was like watching a game of which you
did not know the rules, and in the issue of which you were not
interested. Elaine began to wonder what was the earliest moment at
which she could drag Madame Kelnicort away from the revel without
being guilty of sheer cruelty. Then Courtenay wriggled out of the
crush and came towards her, a joyous laughing Courtenay, looking
younger and handsomer than she had ever seen him. She could
scarcely recognise in him to-night the rising young debater who
made embarrassing onslaughts on the Government's foreign policy
before a crowded House of Commons. He claimed her for the dance
that was just starting, and steered her dexterously into the heart
of the waltzing crowd.

"You look more like Marjolaine than I should have thought a mortal
woman of these days could look," he declared, "only Marjolaine did
smile sometimes. You have rather the air of wondering if you'd
left out enough tea for the servants' breakfast. Don't mind my
teasing; I love you to look like that, and besides, it makes a
splendid foil to my Harlequin--my selfishness coming to the fore
again, you see. But you really are to go home the moment you're
bored; the excellent Kelnicort gets heaps of dances throughout the
winter, so don't mind sacrificing her."

A little later in the evening Elaine found herself standing out a
dance with a grave young gentleman from the Russian Embassy.

"Monsieur Courtenay enjoys himself, doesn't he?" he observed, as
the youthful-looking harlequin flashed past them, looking like some
restless gorgeous-hued dragonfly; "why is it that the good God has
given your countrymen the boon of eternal youth? Some of your
countrywomen, too, but all of the men."

Elaine could think of many of her countrymen who were not and never
could have been youthful, but as far as Courtenay was concerned she
recognised the fitness of the remark. And the recognition carried
with it a sense of depression. Would he always remain youthful and
keen on gaiety and revelling while she grew staid and retiring?
She had thrust the lively intractable Comus out of her mind, as by
his perverseness he had thrust himself out of her heart, and she
had chosen the brilliant young man of affairs as her husband. He
had honestly let her see the selfish side of his character while he
was courting her, but she had been prepared to make due sacrifices
to the selfishness of a public man who had his career to consider
above all other things. Would she also have to make sacrifices to
the harlequin spirit which was now revealing itself as an
undercurrent in his nature? When one has inured oneself to the
idea of a particular form of victimisation it is disconcerting to
be confronted with another. Many a man who would patiently undergo
martyrdom for religion's sake would be furiously unwilling to be a
martyr to neuralgia.

"I think that is why you English love animals so much," pursued the
young diplomat; "you are such splendid animals yourselves. You are
lively because you want to be lively, not because people are
looking on at you. Monsieur Courtenay is certainly an animal. I
mean it as a high compliment."

"Am I an animal?" asked Elaine.

"I was going to say you are an angel," said the Russian, in some
embarrassment, "but I do not think that would do; angels and
animals would never get on together. To get on with animals you
must have a sense of humour, and I don't suppose angels have any
sense of humour; you see it would be no use to them as they never
hear any jokes."

"Perhaps," said Elaine, with a tinge of bitterness in her voice,
"perhaps I am a vegetable."

"I think you most remind me of a picture," said the Russian.

It was not the first time Elaine had heard the simile.

"I know," she said, "the Narrow Gallery at the Louvre; attributed
to Leonardo da Vinci."

Evidently the impression she made on people was solely one of
externals.

Was that how Courtenay regarded her? Was that to be her function
and place in life, a painted background, a decorative setting to
other people's triumphs and tragedies? Somehow to-night she had
the feeling that a general might have who brought imposing forces
into the field and could do nothing with them. She possessed youth
and good looks, considerable wealth, and had just made what would
be thought by most people a very satisfactory marriage. And
already she seemed to be standing aside as an onlooker where she
had expected herself to be taking a leading part.

"Does this sort of thing appeal to you?" she asked the young
Russian, nodding towards the gay scrimmage of masqueraders and
rather prepared to hear an amused negative."

"But yes, of course," he answered; "costume balls, fancy fairs,
cafe chantant, casino, anything that is not real life appeals to us
Russians. Real life with us is the sort of thing that Maxim Gorki
deals in. It interests us immensely, but we like to get away from
it sometimes."

Madame Kelnicort came up with another prospective partner, and
Elaine delivered her ukase: one more dance and then back to the
hotel. Without any special regret she made her retreat from the
revel which Courtenay was enjoying under the impression that it was
life and the young Russian under the firm conviction that it was
not.

Elaine breakfasted at her aunts' table the next morning at much her
usual hour. Courtenay was sleeping the sleep of a happy tired
animal. He had given instructions to be called at eleven o'clock,
from which time onward the Neue Freie Presse, the Zeit, and his
toilet would occupy his attention till he appeared at the luncheon
table. There were not many people breakfasting when Elaine arrived
on the scene, but the room seemed to be fuller than it really was
by reason of a penetrating voice that was engaged in recounting how
far the standard of Viennese breakfast fare fell below the
expectations and desires of little Jerome and the girls.

"If ever little Jerome becomes President of the United States,"
said Elaine, "I shall be able to contribute quite an informing
article on his gastronomic likes and dislikes to the papers."

The aunts were discreetly inquisitive as to the previous evening's
entertainment.

"If Elaine would flirt mildly with somebody it would be such a good
thing," said Mrs. Goldbrook; "it would remind Courtenay that he's
not the only attractive young man in the world."

Elaine, however, did not gratify their hopes; she referred to the
ball with the detachment she would have shown in describing a
drawing-room show of cottage industries. It was not difficult to
discern in her description of the affair the confession that she
had been slightly bored. From Courtenay, later in the day, the
aunts received a much livelier impression of the festivities, from
which it was abundantly clear that he at any rate had managed to
amuse himself. Neither did it appear that his good opinion of his
own attractions had suffered any serious shock. He was distinctly
in a very good temper.

"The secret of enjoying a honeymoon," said Mrs. Goldbrook
afterwards to her sister, "is not to attempt too much."

"You mean--?"

"Courtenay is content to try and keep one person amused and happy,
and he thoroughly succeeds."

"I certainly don't think Elaine is going to be very happy," said
her sister, "but at least Courtenay saved her from making the
greatest mistake she could have made--marrying that young
Bassington."

"He has also," said Mrs. Goldbrook, "helped her to make the next
biggest mistake of her life--marrying Courtenay Youghal.

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