In his delightful Collected Tales and Fantasies, the legendary eccentric English writer and composer Lord Berners (1883-1950) maintains a quiet grace, razor-sharp wit and unique sense of the absurd that is entirely sui generis. Berners offers an unforgettable cast of characters in these gem-like works of short fiction collected here. In "Far from the Madding War," set in Oxford during wartime, the heroine, Emmeline Pocock, looks "like a nymph in one of the less licentious pictures of Fragonard, " while in "Count Omega" we read of composer Emanuel Smith (based on William Walton), who becomes infatuated with a young giantess named Madame Gloria, who is guarded by a jealous millionaire's eunuch, and whose virtuosity on trombone seems to offer the perfect climax to the symphony Smith is composing. In "The Camel," a baroque Victorian tale with utterly macabre undertones, a humped quadruped takes a Fancy for a vicar's wife, while in "The Romance of the Nose," Cleopatra herself appears. And these are only some of the fanciful creations that populate these literary treasures!
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Mrs. Pontefract's house parties were considered by many people not to be a wholly unmixed pleasure.
Some indeed found them so lacking in pleasurable aspects that, after one visit, they never returned. Such recusants, however, were rare, and Mrs. Pontefract never had any difficulty in filling her house whenever she wished to do so. In the first decade of the twentieth century her week-end parties had come to be almost a national institution.
Mrs. Pontefract was rich, fashionable and eccentric. Her eccentricity consisted in a passion for economy. Meanness is not generally looked upon as a particularly amiable trait, yet it was precisely this that, in spite of all they had to suffer from it, endeared her to her friends.
There was nothing mean about her meanness. As grandiose as it was diverting, it gave people a great deal to talk and laugh about. It had become the subject of innumerable anecdotes and amusing stories, and placed her among the ranks of famous and eccentric great ladies of social history.
She inherited her economical disposition from her father, Lord Saxifrage, a miser in the ordinary sense of the word, who had gained no credit in the eyes of the world. His position was that of the "father of the Great Mozart," and his daughter had invested a mere talent with genius.
She had contracted what was considered in those days a misalliance with a wealthy Birmingham manufacturer whom she had completely dominated. She had forced him to go in forpolitics, for which he had no very marked capacity. However, having spent a great deal of money in the course of his political career, he was on the point of being ennobled, when unfortunately he died.
Mrs. Pontefract was now in control of a gigantic fortune which she was employing in the paradoxical combination of entertainment and economy. In some ways, however, she was generous enough. She was helpful to the poor. She was always ready to subscribe to public charities, but she never allowed her name to appear on a subscription list for fear of encouraging expectations in other quarters.
It was only with regard to herself and her friends that she exercised a rigid and painful parsimony. Her household presented a strange combination of Spartan frugality and Edwardian grandeur. So did her mode of life.
Attired in the costliest of furs, wearing jewels that were worth a king's or at least a crown prince's ransom, she invariably travelled third class, and if there had been a fourth class she would have travelled in that. She sat in cold rooms to economize fuel. She starved herself, and when she entertained, the food was barely sufficient to go round. People who took too liberal a helping were shouted at by their hostess, and if her eagle eye failed to observe, those who were served last went hungry. Although she was fond of animals, she allowed no pets in the house. A cat was kept solely for the purpose of putting down mice and the cat itself was the subject of innumerable economical ingenuities. Picking up a dead bird in the park, she would race home to tell the butler to countermand the cat's meat, and once, when a member of the royal family was visiting her and had asked for a glass of milk, she had said to the footman "Bring the cat's milk. The cat can have water."
For Mrs. Pontefract economy seemed to be something in the nature of an exciting game. Picking up a penny stamp on the floor, getting someone to pay her cab fare, she felt she had scored a point. She was quite frank about her stinginess, even boastful of it. In fact she was so cheerful, so jolly about it, that one was completely disarmed. She had a hearty, slap-back amiability and, in her rather arrogant manner, was at times very amusing. She was completely devoid of affectation or fantasy; hers was a humour that everyone could understand, and she was extremely popular.
It was in her country house, Pontefract Hall, built by her late husband at the end of the nineteenth century, that the incidence of her Spartan régime was felt to the full.
The bedrooms were, for the most part, small and uncomfortable and the beds gave the impression that they had been designed primarily as instruments of torture. The bathrooms were situated in a distant wing, and the bath water was apt to be tepid. One had to get out of one's bed to turn out the light and stumble back again in the dark, and the light itself was switched off at the main at midnight, so that, reading your novel or undressing, you were suddenly plunged in darkness. Even in the coldest weather there was never a fire in a bedroom. Such minor amenities as would be available in the humblest homes were absent at Pontefract Hall.
Notwithstanding the hardships they had to endure, people accustomed to every form of comfort and luxury, flocked to Mrs. Pontefract's house parties. Not impecunious or snobbish folk, who might under any conditions have accepted an invitation from a rich and fashionable hostess, but the élite of the aristocracy, ambassadors, rising politicians, American millionaires, smart society women, and persons famous in the world of art or literature.
What was the lure that attracted such people time after time in the face of fearful odds to this Gehenna of discomfort? Was it the personality of the hostess? The certainty that you would meet interesting people? Or the feeling that penance was sometimes necessary, a latent masochism that lurks unexpectedly in the background of the proudest spirits?
My first impulse, on receiving an invitation from Mrs. Pontefract, was to refuse. But the final sentence of her letter "Percy Wallingford and his wife are corning" decided me to change my mind.
It would seem as if the powers who guide our destiny were sometimes bent on giving us friends we should not of our own free will have selected, and it is certain that if these capricious powers had not thrust Percy Wallingford upon me at an early age, I should never have presumed to aim so high, for, in so far as human perfection on this earth can go, he was as near to it as mortal man can be, and to one riddled with doubts and indecisions his presence was a constant reproach.
The first time Percy Wallingford entered majestically into my life was at my private school. He had been deputed by his parents, who were friends of my father, to look after me. Otherwise I do not imagine that, dim and uninteresting small boy as I was, he would ever have deigned to notice me.
I can still recall my emotion when, on the day of my arrival at school, timid and bewildered, I was accosted by one of the heroes of my childish reading. But it was not from the pages of Dean Farrer, Hughes or Henty that this glamorous being sprang. Not from Eric, Tom Brown or The Knight of the White Cross, but from Kingsley's Heroes, from the Tanglewood Tales, from Lemprière; a mythological figure of classical beauty, radiant and semi-divine. At the same time he had a more homely amiability than one might expect to find in such characters as Perseus, Jason or Theseus, and it was a proof of the inherent kindliness of his nature, a quality as rare among schoolboys as among Greek heroes, that he should have taken so much trouble about me. He helped me through many a difficulty, allayed many a terror, throughout a period full of difficulties and terrors. Naturally I idolized him and it was perhaps my blind idolatry, as well as his sense of obligation to parental instructions, that kept alive his patience with one who must have seemed to him a very unsatisfactory protégé. For this I felt that I owed him eternal gratitude. Yet later I was sometimes tempted ungratefully to wonder whether perhaps it would not have been better for my character if I had been left to fend for myself.
Percy was a favourite both with the masters and the boys. Even with the Headmaster, that horrible old demon who appeared to be animated with so violent a hatred for small boys that one often wondered why he had not adopted some other profession.
Percy was nearly always top of his class, and in cricket and football he excelled. His superiority both in work and games was effortless. One never caught him working out of hours, and for games he seemed to have an aptitude that required no practice.
During my school days his perfection, as it came to do in later years, never jarred on me. I just marvelled at it and accepted it as a glorious example I could never hope to follow. It may have perhaps aroused apprehensions in others. I remember once overhearing an assistant master saying to another, "Young Wallingford is the type of boy who, I fear, is apt to die young. One doubts if he will be able to keep it up."
Often during the term Percy was visited by his parents, and on one occasion I had the privilege of being introduced to them. His father was a general. My ideas of what a general should be, based on one or two military gentlemen who used to call on my mother, had up till then been very different. I had always believed that in order to be a general it was essential to be elderly, apoplectic, impressively foolish, with a stock of anecdotes about the old Duke of Cambridge. General Wallingford was of youthful appearance, tall and distinguished-looking, with an almost intellectual expression. It was from him that Percy had inherited his good looks, while from his mother he inherited his charming manners. Lady Wallingford had a sweet face and it looked as if her slightly prominent teeth had been inserted into it as an afterthought. Her charm was a little overwhelming and luckily it had been transmitted to her son in a diluted form.
At Eton I saw far less of Percy. He had preceded me by a year and by the time I arrived he had already become so important, so much of a public character, that the sense of my inferiority deterred me from deliberately seeking him out. We were in different houses and the segregation of age and hierarchy was more rigorous than it. had been at the private school. However, when I did chance to meet him, he was as agreeable and friendly as ever, and the manner in which he conveyed to me that we were now in different social strata was so admirable that it left unwounded any susceptibilities I might have had.
Percy was going into the diplomatic service. It was my knowledge of this, more than anything else, that decided me to choose the same vocation.
It was customary in those days for aspirant diplomatists, instead of going to the University, to spend a year or two abroad in the study of foreign languages. There were a number of establishments on the continent reserved for the purpose. Monsieur Lansade's family pension in the Touraine was one of these.
When I went to Monsieur Lansade's on leaving Eton I knew that I should find Percy there. He was employing the last few weeks before going up for the diplomatic examination in polishing up his French.
The family consisted of an elderly couple and a middle-aged daughter. I never succeeded in discovering what exactly had been the nature of Monsieur Lansade's profession. You were given to understand that it had been something very important and was connected with diplomacy. Ignorant of the social nuances of a foreign country I thought it might have been anything, from a consul-general to the hall porter of an Embassy. Madame Lansade apparently belonged to an aristocratic family ruined by the Revolution. They both seemed bent on creating an impression of fallen grandeur and each of them hinted, in moments of confidence, that they had married beneath their station. The daughter, whose name was Jacqueline, was angular and plain. Her mind was also angular and plain and she was inclined to speak a little scornfully both to and about her parents. It was she who taught us French.
I was not long in discovering that she adored Percy with all the enthusiasm of her spinsterish nature. Her parents adored him too. He had made a complete conquest of the family.
There was another Englishman in the house, Mark Heneage by name. He was of the same age as Percy, a year older than myself. He was rather a cynical young man. He seemed to have made a special study of Percy's character and it was in some measure due to his influence that my admiration for my hero became infected with an insidious critical sense. I was also growing out of the hero-worshipping phase and I began to see his perfection in a less romantic light.
Mark Heneage said to me one day, "I have found out what is wrong with Percy. There is nothing wrong with him." The comment made me realize for the first time what it was in my erstwhile idol that was beginning vaguely to irritate me. It was precisely that his perfection was unassailable.
Approach to manhood had improved his looks. With his wavy golden hair and his pink and white complexion he might easily have given an impression of effeminacy or flashiness. But nobody could have accused him of either of these defects. He was a perfect specimen of clean, athletic youth. His appearance seemed to me to have become a little less ethereal. The Greek God had descended from Olympus but had lost nothing in his transition to earth.
His clothes were always exactly right. Yet one would never think of commenting on them. One took them as a matter of course. He achieved the aim of all successful tailoring; that people should notice that they didn't notice how well dressed you were.
His self-assurance was amazing. He wore it as unconsciously as he wore his clothes; as unconsciously as, when consummate technique has been acquired in some art or sport, you are no longer conscious of the movements that have been so laboriously, so painstakingly learnt. With Percy, however, one felt there had been no learning. It had just come to him naturally, instinctively.
He was very sure of his mental attitude to all the problems of life. He would never enter into an argument and, if you attempted to do so, he would withdraw from it saying, "Well, you know what I think," leaving you high and dry with your own side of the question. And if it happened to be a matter that could be proved and you were proved wrong, he would never triumph. He would never say anything so vulgar as "I told you so" or "I knew I was right." His lofty complacence was often hard to bear.
It was no use trying to pretend to yourself that he wasn't always right. He had an extraordinary instinct for the right thing. He would hit upon it with the talent of a water diviner both in matters of the flesh and of the spirit. His instinct was almost uncanny. In a bookshop or a library he would, without previous information, choose the best book on any subject in which he was interested. When we went for expeditions on our bicycles and stopped for luncheon in some town or villagein those days the helpful indications of the Michelin Guide were not yet availablehe would, among several restaurants whose exteriors were identical, invariably select the best. He never thrust the superiority of his judgment upon you. You always gave in to him because it always proved reliable.
Mark Heneage described him as a crypto-egoist, and it was true that his egoism was so concealed that by most people it was not noticed, and such was his inherent good fortune that, if ever he saw fit to indulge in some altruistic action, it inevitably turned out to his own advantage. On the pretext that you would be better without them, he would often slyly deprive you of things in order to enjoy them himself. He managed, without undue emphasis, to give the impression that everything he did was done with the highest ends in view.
Percy had nothing of the arrogance of the superman. His manner was polite and disarming. Over his solid ethical foundation, as over the marble slabs of a paved waterway, there flowed a gentle current of charm that bore you along with it, floating pleasantly on its surface, a buoyant stream that prevented you bruising your feet on the hard surface below.
In proof of the infallibility of Percy's judgment there was the matter of his French accent. Although he had a thorough grammatical and idiomatic grasp of the language, he spoke it with a markedly English accent. I thought that, as everything seemed to come so easily to him, he would have had little difficulty, had he wished it, in acquiring a more perfect pronunciation. When one day, I took the liberty of chaffing him about it he said, "An Englishman should not speak French too well." Later on I came to appreciate the truth of his observation. Except for purposes of secret service, a too perfect French accent is inadvisable and is apt to disconcert the English and the French alike. It was obvious that the Lansade family preferred Percy's way of speaking their language to that of Mark Heneage which was far more like the real thing.
This period marks the decline and fall of Percy's empire over me. Instead of being grateful to him for providing me with an ideal, an example to be followed, my admiration and my affection gave place to a feeling of annoyance that at times almost amounted to dislike. With the advent of psychoanalysis I am enabled to recognize the workings of the "Diable de nos jours," the inferiority complex, and the effects of envy and discouragement such as an unsuccessful creative artist might feel in the presence of a perfect work of art.
After a couple of months Percy and Mark returned to England for the diplomatic examination. Percy passed triumphantly. Mark, who had just scraped through, wrote to me that, after the oral examination in French, the examiner had said to Percy, "Monsieur, je vous felicite." "This was only natural," Mark added, "as it is Percy's rô1e in life to be congratulated." I was reminded of the accent question and thought that if Percy's pronunciation had been more perfect, the examiner might not have been so impressed by the excellence of his syntax. I decided to follow his example and thenceforward took no more trouble with my accent. With me, however, it was less successful and, when the time came, I failed in French.
Before taking up a post abroad, Percy, as was the rule, spent a year in London at the Foreign Office. There I heard it was just as it had been at school. Everyone from the humblest clerk to the head of his department adored him. In the fashionable world it was the same. He was invited everywhere and mothers of marriageable daughters had their eyes on him. His father had recently died and he was now very well off. In London society he seemed to be having the same kind of glamorous success as one of the heroes of Lord Beaconsfield's novels.
I saw him once or twice when I went to London and, although it would have given me a malicious satisfaction to find him a little spoilt by his success, to find that he had grown fatuous, snobbish or arrogant, I had to admit that he was unaltered. The same superiority was still sugared by the same charm; the proportions were unchanged. The only difference that I noticed was in his appearance, and to a slight extent also, in his manner. The golden sparkle of his hair was a little dulled, the pink and white of his complexion had resolved itself into a more uniform tint and his deportment was moving towards a more official dignity.
After a year in London he was appointed to the Embassy in Paris. In the country of Balzac he was as popular and as successful as he had been in that of Disraeli. He merely exchanged the rô1e of Endymion for that of Rastignac or Henri de Marsay, except that he had, of course, nothing in him of the arriviste.
After Paris he went to Vienna and after Vienna to St. Petersburg. Deaths and retirements came to accelerate promotion and, in an unusually short time, he was appointed as first secretary to Constantinople. Discussing his meteoric progress with Mark Heneage, we wondered how long it would be before he became an ambassador, and decided that this would most certainly not be the end of his career. He would not be the kind of ambassador who retired. "He will finally be made Viceroy of India," Mark suggested, "or Foreign Minister. After which, one presumes, he will be translated to heaven."
Having failed twice in the diplomatic examination, I applied for an honorary attachéship as the next best thing, and was sent to the embassy in Rome. It was here that I heard the news that Percy was to be married.
The name if his fiancée, Vera Mansfield, conveyed nothing to me, and on making injuries. I learnt that she was an orphan, about twenty-five years of age, and that she was a protégée of Mrs. Pontefract. Miss Mansfield has been living somewhere abroad with an aunt. Mrs. Pontefract had made her acquaintance at some foreign watering place. The aunt had been died suddenly and Mrs. Pontefract had befriended the girl and brought her back to England with her, where for some time she employed her as secretary and companion. Poor girl, I thought. What a time she must have had contending with or abetting Mrs. Pontefract's economies. Percy had met her at once of Mrs. Pontefract's house parties and became engaged to her.
Percy never indulged very much in confidence and he never revealed his intimate thoughts. Possibly because he had none. For although he had a solid, matter of fact intelligence, he never gave me the impression that he thought very much. He never dreamt of confronting an abstract problem and would have considered it a waste of time.
Only on one occasionbecause of its uniqueness it remains fixed in my memoryafter it good luncheon in a restaurant at Amboise, he became came a little more expansive than usual and disclosed his views on love and marriage. In his mind the two things, were inseparable.
"I don't believe," he said, "that I shall ever fall violently in love. But if I do I'm determined not to lose my head."
He went on to speak of the kind of woman he intended to marry. "She needn't be rich, because, you see, when my father dies I shall have lots of money. And she needn't be very beautiful either, not the society beauty kind, thought of course I should never think of marrying a fright or a frump. A rather ordinary sort of gift would suit me best, the sort of girl who would fit in with my way of living whatever it is going to be."
I understood that by this he meant the type of woman who would make a good diplomat's wife, a good ambassadress, but who would be at the same time completely under his thumb.
Percy always got everything he wanted and it was to be foreseen that such a type would float automatically into his arms. If Miss Vera Mansfield had proved an efficient secretary and companion to Mrs. Pontefract she would probably have been well broken in and would be an equally suitable wife for Percy. Although my affection and my esteem for him had diminished I was still very interested in him as a specimen and I was curious to see to what extent this young woman corresponded to his ideal. I might, of course, have become acquainted with her under more favourable circumstances than at Mrs. Pontefract's house party and it was probable that I should have done so. But my curiosity led me to seize the first opportunity.