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They order, said I, this matter better in France.
“I do not,” said Monsieur Théophile Daumier, “understand the English.”
“Nor does anybody,” replied Mr. Paul Delagardie, “themselves least of all.”
“I see them pass to and fro, I observe them, I talk to them—for I find it is not true that they are silent and unfriendly—but I remain ignorant of their interior life. They are occupied without ceasing, but I do not know the motives for the things they so energetically do. It is not their reserve which defeats me, for often they are surprisingly communicative; it is that I do not know where their communicativeness ends and their reserve begins. They are said to be rigidly conventional, yet they can behave with an insouciance without parallel; and when you question them, they appear to possess no definable theory of life.”
“You are quite right,” said Mr. Delagardie. “The English are averse to theories. Yet we are, for that reason, comparatively easy to live with. Our conventions are external, and easily acquired; but our philosophies are all individual, and we do not concern ourselves to correct those of others. That is why we permit in our public parks the open expression of every variety of seditious opinion—with the sole proviso that nobody shall so far forget himself as to tear up the railings or trample on the flowers.”
“I beg your pardon; I had for the moment forgotten that you also were English. You have so much the outlook, as well as the accent of a Frenchman.”
“Thank you,” replied Mr. Delagardie. “I am actually only one-eighth French by blood. The other seven-eighths is English, and the proof is that I take what you have said as a compliment. Unlike the Jews, the Irish and the Germans, the English are pleased to be thought even more mongrel and exotic than they are. It appeals to the streak of romantic sensibility in the English temperament. Tell an Englishman that he is pure-bred Anglo-Saxon or a hundred per cent Aryan, and he will laugh in your face; tell him that his remote ancestry contains a blend of French, Russian, Chinese or even Arab or Hindu, and he will listen with polite gratification. The remoter, of course, the better; it is more picturesque, and less socially ambiguous.”
“Socially ambiguous? Ah! you admit, then, that the Englishman in fact despises all other races but his own.”
“Until he has had time to assimilate them. What he despises is not other races but other civilisations. He does not wish to be called a dago; but if he is born with dark eyes and an olive complexion, he is pleased to trace those features back to a Spanish hidalgo, cast away upon the English coast in the wreck of the Great Armada. Everything with us is a matter of sentiment and association.”
“A strange people!” said Monsieur Daumier. “And yet, the national type is unmistakable. You see a man—you know at once that he is English, and that is all you ever know about him. Take, for example, the couple at the table opposite. He is, undoubtedly, an Englishman of the leisured and wealthy class. He has a slightly military air and is very much bronzed—but that may be due only to the habit of le sport. One would say, looking at him, that he had no interest in life beyond fox-hunting—except indeed that he is clearly very much enamoured of his extremely beautiful companion. Yet for all I know, he may be a member of parliament, a financier, or a writer of very successful novels. His face tells nothing.”
Mr. Delagardie darted a glance at the diners in question.
“Ah, yes!” he said. “Tell me what you make of him and the woman with him. You are right; she is an exquisite creature. I have always had a faiblesse for the true red-blonde. They have the capacity for passion.”
“It is, I think, passion that is in question at the moment,” replied Monsieur Daumier. “She is, I imagine, mistress and not wife—or rather, for she is married, not his wife. If any generalisation is possible about Englishmen, it is that they take their wives for granted. They do not carefully cultivate the flower of passion with the pruning-scissors. They permit it to seed away into a settled affection, fruitful and natural, but not decorative. Observe them in conversation. Either they do not listen to what their wives say at all, or they attend with the intelligent courtesy one accords to a talkative stranger. Ce monsieur là-bas is inattentive, but for another reason: he is absorbed in the lady’s personal charms and his mind is concentrated on favours to come. He is, as you say, over head and ears—and I have noticed that in an Englishman that condition betrays itself. He does not, like ourselves, display assiduity to every woman in right of her sex. If he exhibits himself in attitudes of devotion, it is for good reason. I hazard the guess that this is an elopement, or at any rate an adventure; one, perhaps, which he cannot well carry on openly in London. Here, in our wicked Paris, he may let himself go without embarrassment.”
“I agree with you,” said Mr. Delagardie, “that that is certainly not the typical English married couple. And it is true that the Englishman on the Continent tends to cast off the English convention of reserve—in fact it is part of his convention to do so. You say nothing of the lady.”
“She also is in love, but she is aware at the same time of the sacrifice she has made. She asks nothing better than to surrender; nevertheless she knows how to make herself courted; after all, it is the one who risks most who confers the obligation. But when she gives herself, it will be with abandonment. The bronzed gentleman is on the whole to be envied.”
“Your observations are of the greatest interest,” said Mr. Delagardie. “The more so that they are to a large extent erroneous, as I happen to know. The English, as you say, are baffling. What, for example, do you think of the very different pair in the opposite corner?”
“The fair-haired diplomat with the eye-glass and the decided-looking brunette in orange taffeta?”
“He is not precisely a diplomat, but that is the man I mean.”
“There,” said Monsieur Daumier, in a more assured tone, “I perceive exactly the English married couple par excellence. They are very well bred, the man especially, and they offer a lesson in table manners to the whole room. He consults her about the menu, is particular that she has what she requires, and orders his own dinner to suit himself. If she drops her napkin, he picks it up. When she speaks, he attends and replies politely, but with imperturbable phlegm and almost without looking at her. He is perfectly courteous, and perfectly indifferent, and to this heart-breaking self-possession she opposes a coldness equal to his own. They are no doubt good friends and even agreeable companions by force of custom, since they converse smoothly and with no pauses. The English, when they dislike one another, seldom shout; they withdraw into taciturnity. These two do not, I feel sure, quarrel either in public or in private. They have been married so long that any passionate feeling they ever had for one another has long since died; but perhaps it was never very much, for she is not exceptionally good-looking and he has the air of a man to whom beauty is of some importance. Possibly she was rich and he married her for her money. At any rate he probably conducts his private affairs as he chooses and she accepts the situation, so long as there is no parade of infidelity, for the sake of the children.”
Mr. Delagardie poured a little more Burgundy into both glasses before replying.
“You called the man a diplomat,” he said at length. “And you have succeeded in proving that at least he does not carry all his private history written in his features. As it happens, I know both couples fairly well, and can set you right on the material facts.
“Take the first pair. The man is Laurence Harwell, and he is the son of a very distinguished and very rich KC who died a few years ago leaving him exceedingly well off. Though brought up in the usual country-house and public-school surroundings, he is not particularly addicted to sport in the English sense of the word. He spends most of his time in town, and dabbles a little in the financing of theatrical ventures. He is bronzed at present because he has just returned from Chamonix; but I think he went there rather to please the lady man himself. She, so far from being his mistress, is actually his own wife, and they have been married just over two years. You are correct in thinking that they are deeply in love with one another, for the match was a highly romantic one. The sacrifices were, however, on his side and not hers; in so far, that is, as there can be any sacrifice in acquiring a supremely beautiful woman. Her father was involved in certain fraudulent transactions which reduced him from considerable wealth to poverty and a short term of imprisonment. Rosamund, his daughter, had been forced to take a post as mannequin in a fashionable dressmaker’s establishment when Harwell arrived to rescue her. They are frequently cited as the most idyllic—some go as far as to say, the only—married lovers in London. It is true that they have as yet no children; and this perhaps accounts for the fact that the passion-flower has not yet lost its bloom. They are never happy out of each other’s sight—and that is just as well, since both, I fancy, are of a jealous temperament. Needless to say, she has many admirers, but they do not get very much satisfaction, since hers is the kind of amorous temperament that is cold to all but one.”
“I repeat,” said Monsieur Daumier, “that Mr. Harwell is to be envied. The story is certainly romantic, and different from what I had supposed.”
“Yet in essentials,” said Mr. Delagardie, “you were not very far wrong. The relation between the two is, to all intents and purposes, that of lover and mistress and not of husband and wife. The other pair are more enigmatical, and perhaps even more romantic.
“The man is certainly well bred, for he is the second son of the late Duke of Denver and, incidentally, my own nephew. He has dabbled a little in diplomacy as in most things, but that is not his profession; if he has any profession at all, it is criminology. He is a lover of beauty in old wine and old books, and has from time to time shown himself a considerable connoisseur of beautiful women. His wife, who is with him now, is a novelist who had hitherto earned her own living; rather over six years ago, she was acquitted, largely by his intervention, of the charge of murdering her lover. My nephew fell in love with her at sight; his pursuit of her was conducted with patience and determination for over five years; they were married last October, and have only just returned from a prolonged honeymoon. I do not precisely know what their present relations are, for it is some weeks since I heard from them; and the honeymoon was complicated by some unfortunate occurrences. A murder was committed in their house and the emotional currents set up while bringing the assassin to justice introduced, I believe, a disturbing factor. My nephew is nervous, fastidious and inhibited; my niece by marriage, obstinate, energetic and independent. They are both possessed of a truly diabolical pride. Mayfair is awaiting with interest the result of this curious matrimonial experiment.”
“Do all Englishmen,” enquired Monsieur Daumier, “present themselves to their brides in the role of Perseus?”
“All of them would like to do so; but all, perhaps fortunately, have not the opportunity. It is a role difficult to sustain without egotism.”
At this moment the man with the monocle got up in response to a summons by the waiter and came down the long hotel dining-room, as though making for the telephone. He signalled a greeting to Mr. Delagardie and passed on, walking very upright, with the swift, light step of a good dancer. As he went, his wife’s dark and rather handsome eyes followed him with a peculiarly concentrated expression—not quite puzzled or anxious or apprehensive, though all three adjectives passed through Monsieur Daumier’s mind, only to be dismissed.
He said, “I was wrong about your nephew’s wife. She is not indifferent. But I think she is not altogether sure of him.”
“That,” replied Mr. Delagardie, “is quite likely. Nobody is ever sure of my nephew Peter. But I imagine that he is not altogether indifferent, either. If he speaks to her without looking at her, it is probably that he has something to conceal—either love or hatred; I have known both the one and the other to be developed at the end of a honeymoon.”
“Evidemment,” acquiesced Monsieur Daumier. “It appears to me, from what you say, that the relations between those two must be of a most delicate nature; the more so as neither of them is in the first youth.”
“My nephew is rising forty-six, and his wife is in her early thirties. Ah! The Harwells have seen us; I think they are coming over. I know them just a little. The old Harwell was a friend of Sir Impey Biggs, who is a family connection of the Wimseys, and I have met the son and his wife from time to time at social functions.”
Monsieur Théophile Daumier was pleased to have the opportunity of viewing Rosamund Harwell more closely. She was a type of which he thoroughly approved. It was not merely the smooth red-gold of the hair, or the liquid amber of the eyes, set a little slanting under the widely springing and delicately pencilled brows; nor was it solely the full red curve of the mouth, or the whiteness of the skin; though all these had a good deal to do with it. The face was heart-shaped; the body, which let itself be rather more than divined beneath the close-fitting gown, suggested to him the unveiled charms of a Botticelli Venus. Such features Monsieur Daumier could appraise at their worth with the controlled appreciation of the connoisseur. What stirred him was the pervasive exhalation of femininity, which went to his head like the ethers of a vintage wine. He was sensitive to such emanations, and was astonished to find them in an Englishwoman; since in the English he was accustomed to encounter either an aggressive sexlessness or a suffocating maternal amiability, almost equally devoid of allurement. The voice, too, in which Mrs. Harwell uttered the commonplace greeting: “How do you do?”—it was warm, vibrant, musical, like a chime of golden bells, a voice with promise in it.
Mr. Delagardie enquired whether the Harwells were making a long stay in Paris.
“We are here for a fortnight,” said Rosamund Harwell, “to do some shopping. And, of course, to amuse ourselves.”
“Did you enjoy the sports at Chamonix?”
“Very much; but the place was horribly crowded.”
Her glance at her husband seemed to pick him out of the crowd and get him alone with her in some kind of isle of enchantment. Monsieur Daumier got the impression that Laurence Harwell was impatient even of this casual exchange of remarks with two gentlemen of mature age in a dining-room. He judged the husband to be about thirty, and the wife at least five years younger. Mr. Delagardie prolonged the conversation with a few more unimportant enquiries—it might have been for the deliberate purpose of allowing his friend to study the romantic English at close quarters. A diversion was caused by the arrival of Mr. Delagardie’s nephew, who had meanwhile returned from telephoning and collected his wife.
“Vous voilà, mes enfants,” said Mr. Delagardie, indulgently. “I hope you have dined well. Peter, I think you know Mr. and Mrs. Harwell?”
“By name only; we seem always to have just missed one another.”
“Then let me introduce you. My nephew, Lord Peter Wimsey, and my niece Harriet. This is my friend, Monsieur Daumier. It is curious that we should all be staying in the same hotel, without connivance, like the characters in a polite comedy.”
“Not so very curious,” said Wimsey, “when you consider that the cooking is, for the moment, the best in Paris. The comedy will, I fear, not extend to three acts; we are leaving for London tomorrow. We only ran over for a day or two—to get a change of scene.”
“Yes,” said his uncle. “I read in the papers that the execution had taken place. It must have been very trying for you both.” His shrewd old eyes shot from one face to the other.
Wimsey said in a colourless tone, “It was most unfortunate.”
He was, thought Monsieur Daumier, colourless altogether: hair, complexion, and light unemphatic voice with its clipped public-school accent.
Wimsey turned to Mrs. Harwell, and said politely, “We shall no doubt have the pleasure of meeting before long in town.”
Mrs. Harwell said, “I hope so.”
Mr. Delagardie addressed his niece: “Then I shall find you, I suppose, in Audley Square when I return.”
Monsieur Daumier awaited the reply with some curiosity. The woman’s face was, he considered, interesting in the light of her history: dark, resolute, too decided in feature and expression to attract his fancy; intelligent, with a suggestion of temper about the mouth and the strong square brows. She had been standing a little aloof, quite silent and, he noticed with approval, without fidgeting. He was anxious to hear her speak, though he disliked in general the strident tones of the educated Englishwoman.
The voice, when it came, surprised him; it was deep and full, with a richness of timbre which made Rosamund Harwell’s golden bells sound like a musical box.
“Yes; we are hoping to settle in now. I have hardly seen the house since they finished decorating. The Duchess has organised it beautifully; we shall enjoy showing you round it.”
“My mother has been in her element,” said Wimsey. “If she had been born a generation later, she would undoubtedly have been a full-fledged professional decorator with an independent career. In which case, I suppose, one would never have existed. These chronological accidents are a check upon one’s natural vanity.”
“We are excited too,” said Mrs. Harwell. “We have just taken a new flat in Hyde House. When we get home we are going to give a party, aren’t we, darling?”
Her smile enveloped her husband, and then passed with a charming friendliness to Mr. Delagardie, who promptly replied, “I hope that is an invitation. Hyde House? That is the big new block in Park Lane, is it not? I am told that its appointments constitute a positive miracle of convenience.”
“It is all absolutely marvellous,” said Mrs. Harwell. “We are thrilled. We have spacious rooms, and no kitchen at all—we can eat in the restaurant on the first floor, or get our meals sent up. We have no difficulty with servants, because the service is all run for us. All the heating is electric. It is just like being in a hotel, except that we can have our own furniture. We have a lot of chrome and glass things, and lovely modern curtains designed by Ben Nicholson, and some Susie Cooper vases. The management even keep the cocktail cabinet fully stocked for us; we don’t have a large one, of course, just a very neat design in walnut with a built-in wireless set and a little shelf for books.”
For the first time Monsieur Daumier saw Wimsey look at his wife; his eyes, when fully opened, turned out to be a clear grey. Though not a muscle in his face moved, the observer was somehow conscious of a jest silently shared.
“And with all the marvels of science at his command,” commented Mr. Delagardie, “my benighted nephew takes his unfortunate wife to live in an out-of-date and, I strongly suspect, rat-haunted Georgian mansion, five storeys high, without so much as a lift. It is pure selfishness, and an uneasy challenge to advancing middle age. My dear Harriet, unless you are acquainted with a great many Alpine climbers nobody will call upon you but exceedingly young and energetic people.”
“Then you will be our most constant visitor, Uncle Paul.”
“Thank you, my dear; but my youth, alas! is only of the heart.”
Laurence Harwell, whose impatience had been visibly increasing, now broke in: “Darling, unless we tear ourselves away we’re going to be late.”
“Yes, of course. I’m so sorry. We’re going to see the new programme at the Grand Guignol. There’s a hair-raising one-act play about a woman who murders her lover.”
Monsieur Daumier felt this announcement to be ill-timed.
Wimsey said smoothly, “We, on the other hand, are improving our minds at the Comédie.”
“And we,” said Mr. Delagardie, rising from the table, “are refreshing our spirits at the Folies-Bergère. You will say that at my age I should know better.”
“Far from it, Uncle Pandarus; you know too much already.”
The Harwells commandeered the first taxi that presented itself, and departed in the direction of the Boulevard de Clichy. As the other four stood waiting a few moments upon the steps of the hotel, Monsieur Daumier heard Lady Peter say to her husband, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody quite so lovely as Mrs. Harwell.”
To which he replied, judicially, “Well, I think I have. But not more than twice.”
An answer, in Monsieur Daumier’s opinion, calculated to excite surmise.
“Of course,” said Peter, with a touch of peevishness, “we would run into Uncle Pandarus.”
“I like him,” said Harriet.
“So do I; but not when I happen to be feeling like a caddis-worm pulled out of its case. His eyes are like needles; I could feel them boring into us all through dinner.”
“They can’t have got far into you; you were looking magnificently petrified.”
“I dare say. But why should a man whose blood is warm within sit his grandsire out in alabaster merely on account of an inquisitive uncle? No matter. With you I breathe freely and can apply the remnants of my mind to rebuilding the caddis-case.”
“No? Harriet, you have no idea how naked it feels to be unshelled…What are you laughing at?”
“The recollection of a strange non-conformist hymn, which says, ‘A timid, weak and trembling worm into Thy breast I fall.’”
“I don’t believe it. But give me your hand…To cherish vipers in the bosom is foolish; to cherish worms, divine. Later on, Cytherea—Zut! I keep on forgetting that I am a married man, taking my wife to the theatre. Well, my dear, and what do you think of Paris?”
“Notre-Dame is magnificent; and the shops very expensive and luxurious, but the taxi drivers go much too fast.”
“I am inclined to agree with you,” said his lordship, as they drew up with unexpected suddenness before the doors of the Comédie-Française.
“Did you enjoy it, darling?”
“I adored it. Didn’t you?”
“I don’t know,” said Harwell uneasily. “Pretty brutal, don’t you think? Of course, gruesomeness is the idea of the thing, but there ought to be limits, That strangling scene…”
“It was terribly exciting.”
“Yes; they know how to get you all worked up. But it’s a cruel kind of excitement.” His mind wandered momentarily to the London manager who was looking to him for backing, if a suitable play could be found. “One would have to modify it a bit for the West End. It’s witty, but it’s cruel.”
“Passion is cruel, Laurence.”
“My God, I ought to know.”
She stirred in the dimness, and his nostrils were filled with the scent of crushed flowers. By the turn of her head, silhouetted against the passing lights of the boulevard, by the movement of her body against him, he was made aware that the damned play had somehow done the trick for him. That was the maddening, the intoxicating, the eternally elusive thing: you never knew what was going to do it. “Rosamund! What did you say, my darling?”
“I said, isn’t it worth it?”
Mr. Paul Delagardie, carefully depositing his dentures in a glass of disinfectant, hummed a little air to himself. Really, there was no ground whatever for saying—like that old fool Maudricourt whom he had met in the foyer—that legs were not what they had been. Legs—and breasts, for that matter—had improved very much since his young days; for one thing you saw a great deal more of them. Maudricourt was getting senile; the natural result of settling down and giving up women in your sixties. That sort of thing led to atrophy of the glands and hardening of the arteries. Mr. Delagardie knotted the cord of his dressing-gown more tightly about his waist, and resolved that he would quite certainly go and look up Joséphine tomorrow. She was a good girl, and, he believed, genuinely attached to him.
He drew back the curtain and gazed out into the garden court of the great hotel. In many windows the lights still shone; others were already extinguished; even as he looked one, two, three, of the glowing rectangles turned black, as in abrupt secrecy the sojourners sought their comforted or uncomforted pillows. Overhead, the January sky flamed with unquenchable cold fires. Mr. Delagardie felt himself so young and sprightly that he opened the window and ventured out upon the balcony, the better to observe Cassiopeia’s Chair, which had for him a sentimental association of a pleasurable sort. Phyllis, was it? Or Suzanne? He was not clear as to the name but he recollected the occasion perfectly. And the constellation—like the legs which old Maudricourt had libelled—had in no way diminished its splendour with the passing years.
From one of the darkened windows just across the corner of the court came a woman’s low laugh. It rippled softly down the scale, and ended in a quick, eager sigh. Mr. Delagardie retreated from the balcony and shut the window in gentlemanly haste. Besides, he had no wish to hear more.
It was a long time since they had laughed in his arms like that. Phyllis, Suzanne: what had become of them? Joséphine, to be sure, was a good girl, and in a dutiful way devoted to him. But a sharp twinge of rheumatism in the joints reminded him that it was unwise for elderly gentlemen to stand admiring the winter sky on balconies. Fortunately, his excellent man was always very particular about his hot-water bottle.
Extract from the diary of Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver:
Went round to Audley Square to take another look at household while Peter and Harriet are in Paris. Poor dears have hardly had time to look at it themselves, although Harriet did thank me very nicely, and said she liked it. Also said, “all very new to me,” which is probably the truth. Realise have very little idea how a doctor’s daughter or those Bohemian people she used to live among would arrange their houses. Foolishly wondered aloud to Helen when she called to take me to cinema to see new film with Greta Garbo. Helen said she should think squalid was the right description, but can’t believe her. Greta Garbo very stylish young woman, and Harriet can change things as she goes along if she wants to. Have promised to visit Delagardie cousins in Dorset for a week on Friday, and so shall miss Helen’s dinner-party to launch Harriet on London. Hope she doesn’t need reinforcements—Harriet that is, Helen needs rather the opposite. Unenforcements? Disenforcements? Must try to improve vocabulary.
THRONES, DOMINATIONS Copyright © 1998 by The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased) and Jill Paton Walsh