Damsel in Distress
∙ next chapter
The gift of hiding private emotion and keeping up appearances
before strangers is not, as many suppose, entirely a product of our
modern civilization. Centuries before we were born or thought of
there was a widely press-agented boy in Sparta who even went so far
as to let a fox gnaw his tender young stomach without permitting
the discomfort inseparable from such a proceeding to interfere with
either his facial expression or his flow of small talk. Historians
have handed it down that, even in the later stages of the meal, the
polite lad continued to be the life and soul of the party. But,
while this feat may be said to have established a record never
subsequently lowered, there is no doubt that almost every day in
modem times men and women are performing similar and scarcely less
impressive miracles of self-restraint. Of all the qualities which
belong exclusively to Man and are not shared by the lower animals,
this surely is the one which marks him off most sharply from the
beasts of the field. Animals care nothing about keeping up
appearances. Observe Bertram the Bull when things are not going just
as he could wish. He stamps. He snorts. He paws the ground. He
throws back his head and bellows. He is upset, and he doesn't care
who knows it. Instances could be readily multiplied. Deposit a
charge of shot in some outlying section of Thomas the Tiger, and
note the effect. Irritate Wilfred the Wasp, or stand behind Maud
the Mule and prod her with a pin. There is not an animal on the
list who has even a rudimentary sense of the social amenities; and
it is this more than anything else which should make us proud that
we are human beings on a loftier plane of development.
In the days which followed Lord Marshmoreton's visit to George at
the cottage, not a few of the occupants of Belpher Castle had their
mettle sternly tested in this respect; and it is a pleasure to be
able to record that not one of them failed to come through the
ordeal with success. The general public, as represented by the
uncles, cousins, and aunts who had descended on the place to help
Lord Belpher celebrate his coming-of-age, had not a notion that
turmoil lurked behind the smooth fronts of at least half a dozen of
those whom they met in the course of the daily round.
Lord Belpher, for example, though he limped rather painfully,
showed nothing of the baffled fury which was reducing his weight at
the rate of ounces a day. His uncle Francis, the Bishop, when he
tackled him in the garden on the subject of Intemperance--for Uncle
Francis, like thousands of others, had taken it for granted, on
reading the report of the encounter with the policeman and Percy's
subsequent arrest, that the affair had been the result of a drunken
outburst--had no inkling of the volcanic emotions that seethed in
his nephew's bosom. He came away from the interview, indeed,
feeling that the boy had listened attentively and with a becoming
regret, and that there was hope for him after all, provided that he
fought the impulse. He little knew that, but for the conventions
(which frown on the practice of murdering bishops), Percy would
gladly have strangled him with his bare hands and jumped upon the
Lord Belpher's case, inasmuch as he took himself extremely
seriously and was not one of those who can extract humour even from
their own misfortunes, was perhaps the hardest which comes under
our notice; but his sister Maud was also experiencing mental
disquietude of no mean order. Everything had gone wrong with Maud.
Barely a mile separated her from George, that essential link in her
chain of communication with Geoffrey Raymond; but so thickly did it
bristle with obstacles and dangers that it might have been a mile
of No Man's Land. Twice, since the occasion when the discovery of
Lord Marshmoreton at the cottage had caused her to abandon her
purpose of going in and explaining everything to George, had she
attempted to make the journey; and each time some trifling,
maddening accident had brought about failure. Once, just as she was
starting, her aunt Augusta had insisted on joining her for what she
described as "a nice long walk"; and the second time, when she was
within a bare hundred yards of her objective, some sort of a cousin
popped out from nowhere and forced his loathsome company on her.
Foiled in this fashion, she had fallen back in desperation on her
second line of attack. She had written a note to George, explaining
the whole situation in good, clear phrases and begging him as a man
of proved chivalry to help her. It had taken up much of one
afternoon, this note, for it was not easy to write; and it had
resulted in nothing. She had given it to Albert to deliver and
Albert had returned empty-handed.
"The gentleman said there was no answer, m'lady!"
"No answer! But there must be an answer!"
"No answer, m'lady. Those was his very words," stoutly maintained
the black-souled boy, who had destroyed the letter within two
minutes after it had been handed to him. He had not even bothered
to read it. A deep, dangerous, dastardly stripling this, who fought
to win and only to win. The ticket marked "R. Byng" was in his
pocket, and in his ruthless heart a firm resolve that R. Byng and
no other should have the benefit of his assistance.
Maud could not understand it. That is to say, she resolutely kept
herself from accepting the only explanation of the episode that
seemed possible. In black and white she had asked George to go to
London and see Geoffrey and arrange for the passage--through
himself as a sort of clearing-house--of letters between Geoffrey
and herself. She had felt from the first that such a request should
be made by her in person and not through the medium of writing, but
surely it was incredible that a man like George, who had been
through so much for her and whose only reason for being in the
neighbourhood was to help her, could have coldly refused without
even a word. And yet what else was she to think? Now, more than
ever, she felt alone in a hostile world.
Yet, to her guests she was bright and entertaining. Not one of them
had a suspicion that her life was not one of pure sunshine.
Albert, I am happy to say, was thoroughly miserable. The little
brute was suffering torments. He was showering anonymous Advice to
the Lovelorn on Reggie Byng--excellent stuff, culled from the pages
of weekly papers, of which there was a pile in the housekeeper's
room, the property of a sentimental lady's maid--and nothing seemed
to come of it. Every day, sometimes twice and thrice a day, he
would leave on Reggie's dressing-table significant notes similar in
tone to the one which he had placed there on the night of the ball;
but, for all the effect they appeared to exercise on their
recipient, they might have been blank pages.
The choicest quotations from the works of such established writers
as "Aunt Charlotte" of Forget-Me-Not and "Doctor Cupid", the
heart-expert of Home Chat, expended themselves fruitlessly on
Reggie. As far as Albert could ascertain--and he was one of those
boys who ascertain practically everything within a radius of
miles--Reggie positively avoided Maud's society.
And this after reading "Doctor Cupid's" invaluable tip about
"Seeking her company on all occasions" and the dictum of "Aunt
Charlotte" to the effect that "Many a wooer has won his lady by
being persistent"--Albert spelled it "persistuent" but the effect
is the same--"and rendering himself indispensable by constant
little attentions". So far from rendering himself indispensable to
Maud by constant little attentions, Reggie, to the disgust of his
backer and supporter, seemed to spend most of his time with Alice
Faraday. On three separate occasions had Albert been revolted by
the sight of his protege in close association with the Faraday
girl--once in a boat on the lake and twice in his grey car. It was
enough to break a boy's heart; and it completely spoiled Albert's
appetite--a phenomenon attributed, I am glad to say, in the
Servants' Hall to reaction from recent excesses. The moment when
Keggs, the butler, called him a greedy little pig and hoped it
would be a lesson to him not to stuff himself at all hours with
stolen cakes was a bitter moment for Albert.
It is a relief to turn from the contemplation of these tortured
souls to the pleasanter picture presented by Lord Marshmoreton.
Here, undeniably, we have a man without a secret sorrow, a man at
peace with this best of all possible worlds. Since his visit to
George a second youth seems to have come upon Lord Marshmoreton. He
works in his rose-garden with a new vim, whistling or even singing
to himself stray gay snatches of melodies popular in the 'eighties.
Hear him now as he toils. He has a long garden-implement in his
hand, and he is sending up the death-rate in slug circles with a
And the boom is a death-knell. As it rings softly out on the
pleasant spring air, another stout slug has made the Great Change.
It is peculiar, this gaiety. It gives one to think. Others have
noticed it, his lordship's valet amongst them.
"I give you my honest word, Mr. Keggs," says the valet, awed, "this
very morning I 'eard the old devil a-singing in 'is barth!
Chirruping away like a blooming linnet!"
"Lor!" says Keggs, properly impressed.
"And only last night 'e gave me 'arf a box of cigars and said I was
a good, faithful feller! I tell you, there's somethin' happened to
the old buster--you mark my words!"