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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XVII
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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XVII Post by :roger7340 Category :Long Stories Author :Saki Date :May 2011 Read :3098

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The Unbearable Bassington - Chapter XVII

The bleak rawness of a grey December day held sway over St. James's
Park, that sanctuary of lawn and tree and pool, into which the
bourgeois innovator has rushed ambitiously time and again, to find
that he must take the patent leather from off his feet, for the
ground on which he stands is hallowed ground.

In the lonely hour of early afternoon, when the workers had gone
back to their work, and the loiterers were scarcely yet gathered
again, Francesca Bassington made her way restlessly along the
stretches of gravelled walk that bordered the ornamental water.
The overmastering unhappiness that filled her heart and stifled her
thinking powers found answering echo in her surroundings. There is
a sorrow that lingers in old parks and gardens that the busy
streets have no leisure to keep by them; the dead must bury their
dead in Whitehall or the Place de la Concorde, but there are
quieter spots where they may still keep tryst with the living and
intrude the memory of their bygone selves on generations that have
almost forgotten them. Even in tourist-trampled Versailles the
desolation of a tragedy that cannot die haunts the terraces and
fountains like a bloodstain that will not wash out; in the Saxon
Garden at Warsaw there broods the memory of long-dead things,
coeval with the stately trees that shade its walks, and with the
carp that swim to-day in its ponds as they doubtless swam there
when "Lieber Augustin" was a living person and not as yet an
immortal couplet. And St. James's Park, with its lawns and walks
and waterfowl, harbours still its associations with a bygone order
of men and women, whose happiness and sadness are woven into its
history, dim and grey as they were once bright and glowing, like
the faded pattern worked into the fabric of an old tapestry. It
was here that Francesca had made her way when the intolerable
inaction of waiting had driven her forth from her home. She was
waiting for that worst news of all, the news which does not kill
hope, because there has been none to kill, but merely ends
suspense. An early message had said that Comus was ill, which
might have meant much or little; then there had come that morning a
cablegram which only meant one thing; in a few hours she would get
a final message, of which this was the preparatory forerunner. She
already knew as much as that awaited message would tell her. She
knew that she would never see Comus again, and she knew now that
she loved him beyond all things that the world could hold for her.
It was no sudden rush of pity or compunction that clouded her
judgment or gilded her recollection of him; she saw him as he was,
the beautiful, wayward, laughing boy, with his naughtiness, his
exasperating selfishness, his insurmountable folly and
perverseness, his cruelty that spared not even himself, and as he
was, as he always had been, she knew that he was the one thing that
the Fates had willed that she should love. She did not stop to
accuse or excuse herself for having sent him forth to what was to
prove his death. It was, doubtless, right and reasonable that he
should have gone out there, as hundreds of other men went out, in
pursuit of careers; the terrible thing was that he would never come
back. The old cruel hopelessness that had always chequered her
pride and pleasure in his good looks and high spirits and fitfully
charming ways had dealt her a last crushing blow; he was dying
somewhere thousands of miles away without hope of recovery, without
a word of love to comfort him, and without hope or shred of
consolation she was waiting to hear of the end. The end; that last
dreadful piece of news which would write "nevermore" across his
life and hers.

The lively bustle in the streets had been a torture that she could
not bear. It wanted but two days to Christmas and the gaiety of
the season, forced or genuine, rang out everywhere. Christmas
shopping, with its anxious solicitude or self-centred absorption,
overspread the West End and made the pavements scarcely passable at
certain favoured points. Proud parents, parcel-laden and
surrounded by escorts of their young people, compared notes with
one another on the looks and qualities of their offspring and
exchanged loud hurried confidences on the difficulty or success
which each had experienced in getting the right presents for one
and all. Shouted directions where to find this or that article at
its best mingled with salvos of Christmas good wishes. To
Francesca, making her way frantically through the carnival of
happiness with that lonely deathbed in her eyes, it had seemed a
callous mockery of her pain; could not people remember that there
were crucifixions as well as joyous birthdays in the world? Every
mother that she passed happy in the company of a fresh-looking
clean-limbed schoolboy son sent a fresh stab at her heart, and the
very shops had their bitter memories. There was the tea-shop where
he and she had often taken tea together, or, in the days of their
estrangement, sat with their separate friends at separate tables.
There were other shops where extravagantly-incurred bills had
furnished material for those frequently recurring scenes of
recrimination, and the Colonial outfitters, where, as he had
phrased it in whimsical mockery, he had bought grave-clothes for
his burying-alive. The "oubliette!" She remembered the bitter
petulant name he had flung at his destined exile. There at least
he had been harder on himself than the Fates were pleased to will;
never, as long as Francesca lived and had a brain that served her,
would she be able to forget. That narcotic would never be given to
her. Unrelenting, unsparing memory would be with her always to
remind her of those last days of tragedy. Already her mind was
dwelling on the details of that ghastly farewell dinner-party and
recalling one by one the incidents of ill-omen that had marked it;
how they had sat down seven to table and how one liqueur glass in
the set of seven had been shivered into fragments; how her glass
had slipped from her hand as she raised it to her lips to wish
Comus a safe return; and the strange, quiet hopelessness of Lady
Veula's "good-bye"; she remembered now how it had chilled and
frightened her at the moment.

The park was filling again with its floating population of
loiterers, and Francesca's footsteps began to take a homeward
direction. Something seemed to tell her that the message for which
she waited had arrived and was lying there on the hall table. Her
brother, who had announced his intention of visiting her early in
the afternoon would have gone by now; he knew nothing of this
morning's bad news--the instinct of a wounded animal to creep away
by itself had prompted her to keep her sorrow from him as long as
possible. His visit did not necessitate her presence; he was
bringing an Austrian friend, who was compiling a work on the
Franco-Flemish school of painting, to inspect the Van der Meulen,
which Henry Greech hoped might perhaps figure as an illustration in
the book. They were due to arrive shortly after lunch, and
Francesca had left a note of apology, pleading an urgent engagement
elsewhere. As she turned to make her way across the Mall into the
Green Park a gentle voice hailed her from a carriage that was just
drawing up by the sidewalk. Lady Caroline Benaresq had been
favouring the Victoria Memorial with a long unfriendly stare.

"In primitive days," she remarked, "I believe it was the fashion
for great chiefs and rulers to have large numbers of their
relatives and dependents killed and buried with them; in these more
enlightened times we have invented quite another way of making a
great Sovereign universally regretted. My dear Francesca," she
broke off suddenly, catching the misery that had settled in the
other's eyes, "what is the matter? Have you had bad news from out
there?"

"I am waiting for very bad news," said Francesca, and Lady Caroline
knew what had happened.

"I wish I could say something; I can't." Lady Caroline spoke in a
harsh, grunting voice that few people had ever heard her use.

Francesca crossed the Mall and the carriage drove on.

"Heaven help that poor woman," said Lady Caroline; which was, for
her, startlingly like a prayer.

As Francesca entered the hall she gave a quick look at the table;
several packages, evidently an early batch of Christmas presents,
were there, and two or three letters. On a salver by itself was
the cablegram for which she had waited. A maid, who had evidently
been on the lookout for her, brought her the salver. The servants
were well aware of the dreadful thing that was happening, and there
was pity on the girl's face and in her voice.

"This came for you ten minutes ago, ma'am, and Mr. Greech has been
here, ma'am, with another gentleman, and was sorry you weren't at
home. Mr. Greech said he would call again in about half-an-hour."

Francesca carried the cablegram unopened into the drawing-room and
sat down for a moment to think. There was no need to read it yet,
for she knew what she would find written there. For a few pitiful
moments Comus would seem less hopelessly lost to her if she put off
the reading of that last terrible message. She rose and crossed
over to the windows and pulled down the blinds, shutting out the
waning December day, and then reseated herself. Perhaps in the
shadowy half-light her boy would come and sit with her again for
awhile and let her look her last upon his loved face; she could
never touch him again or hear his laughing, petulant voice, but
surely she might look on her dead. And her starving eyes saw only
the hateful soulless things of bronze and silver and porcelain that
she had set up and worshipped as gods; look where she would they
were there around her, the cold ruling deities of the home that
held no place for her dead boy. He had moved in and out among
them, the warm, living, breathing thing that had been hers to love,
and she had turned her eyes from that youthful comely figure to
adore a few feet of painted canvas, a musty relic of a long
departed craftsman. And now he was gone from her sight, from her
touch, from her hearing for ever, without even a thought to flash
between them for all the dreary years that she should live, and
these things of canvas and pigment and wrought metal would stay
with her. They were her soul. And what shall it profit a man if
he save his soul and slay his heart in torment?

On a small table by her side was Mervyn Quentock's portrait of her-
-the prophetic symbol of her tragedy; the rich dead harvest of
unreal things that had never known life, and the bleak thrall of
black unending Winter, a Winter in which things died and knew no
re-awakening.

Francesca turned to the small envelope lying in her lap; very
slowly she opened it and read the short message. Then she sat numb
and silent for a long, long time, or perhaps only for minutes. The
voice of Henry Greech in the hall, enquiring for her, called her to
herself. Hurriedly she crushed the piece of paper out of sight; he
would have to be told, of course, but just yet her pain seemed too
dreadful to be laid bare. "Comus is dead" was a sentence beyond
her power to speak.

"I have bad news for you, Francesca, I'm sorry to say," Henry
announced. Had he heard, too?

"Henneberg has been here and looked at the picture," he continued,
seating himself by her side, "and though he admired it immensely as
a work of art he gave me a disagreeable surprise by assuring me
that it's not a genuine Van der Meulen. It's a splendid copy, but
still, unfortunately, only a copy."

Henry paused and glanced at his sister to see how she had taken the
unwelcome announcement. Even in the dim light he caught some of
the anguish in her eyes.

"My dear Francesca," he said soothingly, laying his hand
affectionately on her arm, "I know that this must be a great
disappointment to you, you've always set such store by this
picture, but you mustn't take it too much to heart. These
disagreeable discoveries come at times to most picture fanciers and
owners. Why, about twenty per cent. of the alleged Old Masters in
the Louvre are supposed to be wrongly attributed. And there are
heaps of similar cases in this country. Lady Dovecourt was telling
me the other day that they simply daren't have an expert in to
examine the Van Dykes at Columbey for fear of unwelcome
disclosures. And besides, your picture is such an excellent copy
that it's by no means without a value of its own. You must get
over the disappointment you naturally feel, and take a
philosophical view of the matter. . . "

Francesca sat in stricken silence, crushing the folded morsel of
paper tightly in her hand and wondering if the thin, cheerful voice
with its pitiless, ghastly mockery of consolation would never stop.


The End
The Unbearable Bassington, by Saki

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