IN THE DARK

Reginald Case, newly promoted to the rank of Captain in the 43rd Native
Cavalry of the Indian Army, was picking his way back to his bungalow by
the light of a somewhat ill-burning lantern from the regimental
mess-room where he had dined. It was early in July, the long-delayed
rains had broken at Haziri, in the Central Provinces, ten days before,
and it was an imprudent man who would venture on a mere field-path like
this at night without some illumination for his steps, lest
inadvertently he might tread on a meditative and deadly kerait, with
murder behind its stale small eyes, or step on the black coils of some
hooded cobra. Only a few days before, Case had found one such in the
bathroom of his bungalow, curled up on the mat within a few inches of
his bare foot, when he went there to bathe before dinner, and he had no
desire to give his nerves any further test of steadiness under such
circumstances.

To-day there had been a break in the prodigious deluge, and all the
afternoon the midsummer sun had blazed from a clear sky, causing all
vegetable things to sprout with magical rapidity. This path, which
yesterday had been a bare track over the fields, was now covered with
springing herbs; the parade-ground, which for the last week had been
but a sea of viscous mud, was clad in a mantle of delicate green blades,
and the tamarisks and neem trees were studded with swelling buds among
the dead and dripping foliage of the spring. A similar animation had
tingled through the insect world, and as Case passed across the couple
of fields that lay between the mess-room and his bungalow, a swarm of
evil flies dashed themselves against the glass of his lantern. Overhead,
since sunset, the clouds had gathered densely again across the vault of
the sky, but to the east an arch of clear and star-lit heavens was
dove-coloured with the approaching moonrise. Against it the shapes of
silhouetted trees stood sharp and black in the windless and stifling
calm.

It was a night of intolerable heat, and his two bulldogs, chained up in
the veranda of his bungalow, with their dinner lying untouched beside
them, could do no more by way of welcome to him than tap languidly with
their tails on the matting in acknowledgment of his return. His bearer,
not expecting him to be back so soon from the mess-room, was out, and he
had to wait on himself, pulling out a long chair and table from his
sitting-room, and groping for whisky and soda in his cupboard. The ice
had run out, and after mixing and drinking a tepid peg, he went back to
his bedroom and changed his hot dinner clothes for pyjamas and slippers.
Cursing inwardly at the absence of his servant, he lit his lamp with a
solitary match that he found on the table, and came out again into the
veranda to think over, with such coolness as was capturable, the whole
intolerable situation.

At first his mind hovered circling round outlying annoyances. He was
dripping at every pore in this dark furnace of a night, the prickly heat
covered his shoulders with a net of unbearable irritation, he had just
lost heavily for the tenth successive evening at auction-bridge, his
liver was utterly upset with the abominable weather, the lamp smelled,
mosquitoes trumpeted shrilly round him. Here, more or less, was the
outer and less essential ring of his discontent; to a happy and healthy
man such inconveniences would have been of little moment, but in his
present position they seemed portentously disagreeable. Then his mind,
still hovering, moved a little inwards round a smaller and more intimate
circle, surveying the calamities of the past six weeks. He had killed
his favourite pony out pig-sticking, he was heavily in debt, and this
morning only he had been talked to faithfully and frankly by his colonel
on the text of slackness in respect of regimental duties. But still his
mind did not settle down on his central misfortune–instinctively it
shrank from it.

Thick and hot and silent the oppression of the night lay round him. Now
and then one of his bulldogs stirred, or an owl hooted as its wings
divided the motionless air, while farther away, in the bazaars of
Haziri, a tom-tom beat as if it was the pulse of this stifling and
feverish night. The clouds had grown thicker overhead, and every now and
then some large drop of hot rain splashed heavily on the dry earth or
hissed among the withered shrubs. Remote lightning winked on the
horizon, followed at long intervals by drowsy thunder, and to the east,
in the arch of sky that still remained unclouded, a tawny half-moon had
risen, shapeless through the damp air, and illuminating the vapours with
dusky crimson. Once more Case splashed the tepid soda-water over a
liberal whisky, still pausing before he let his mind consciously dwell
on that which lay as heavy over it as over the gasping earth this canopy
of cloud.

The veranda where he sat was broad and deep, and two doors opened into
it from the bungalow. One led into his own quarters, the other into
those of his brother officer, Percy Oldham. He was away on leave up in
the hills, but was expected back to-night, and Case knew that, before
either of them slept, there would have to be talk of some kind between
them. A year ago, when they had taken this bungalow together, they had
been inseparable friends, so that the mess had found for them the
nicknames of David and Jonathan; then, by degrees, growing impalpable
friction of various kinds had estranged them, and to-night, when at
length Case thought of Oldham, his mouth went dry with the intensity of
his hate. And at the thought of him, his mind, hovering and circling so
long, dropped like a stooping hawk into the storm-centre of his misery.
He took from the table the letter he had found waiting for him in the
rack at the mess-room that evening, and by the light of the
fly-beleaguered lamp read it through again. It was quite short.

“DEAR CASE,–I shall get back late on Thursday night, and before we
meet I think I had better tell you that I am engaged to Kitty
Metcalf. I suppose we shall have to talk about it, though it might
be better if we did not. For a man who is so happy, I am awfully
sorry; that is all I can say about it. She wished me to tell you,
though, of course, I should have done so in any case.–Yours truly,

“PERCY OLDHAM.”

Case read this through for the sixth or seventh time, then tore it into
fragments, and again replenished his glass. It was barely six months ago
that he had been engaged to this girl himself; then they had quarrelled,
and the match had been broken off. But he found now that he had never
ceased to hope that when he went up himself, later in the summer, to the
hills, it would be renewed again. And at the thought his present
discomfort, his debts, all that had occupied his mind before, were wiped
clean from it. Oldham–they had talked of it fifty times–was to have
been his best man.

Suddenly, out of the black bosom of the windless night, there came a
sigh of hot air rustling the shrubs outside. It came into the veranda
where he sat, like the stir of some corporeal presence, making the light
of his lamp to hang flickering in the chimney for a moment, and then
expire in a wreath of sour-smelling smoke. One of his dogs sat up for a
moment growling, and then all was utterly still again. The arch of clear
sky to the east had dwindled and become overcast, and the red moon
showed but a faint blur of light behind the gathering clouds.

Case had used a solitary match to light his lamp, and did not know
where, in his own bungalow, he might find a box. But he could get one
for certain out of Oldham’s bedroom, for he was a person of extremely
orderly habits, and always kept one on a ledge just inside his bedroom
door. Case got up and in the dark groped his way across the lobby out of
which Oldham’s bedroom opened, and feeling with his hand, immediately
found the box on the ledge at the foot of his bed. Standing there, he
lit a match, and his eye fell on the bed itself. It was covered with a
dark blanket, and on the centre of it, coiled and sleeping, like a round
pool of black water, lay a huge cobra. On the moment the match went
out–it had barely been lit–and, closing the bedroom door, he went out
again on to the veranda.

He did not rekindle his lamp, but sat, laying the forgotten match-box on
his table, and looking out into the blackness of the yawning night. The
wind that had extinguished his light had died away again, and all round
he heard the heavy plump of the rain, which was beginning to fall
heavily. Before five minutes were past, the sluices of the sky were
fully open again, and the downpour had become torrential. The lightning,
that an hour ago had but winked remotely on the horizon, was becoming
more vivid, and the response of the thunder more immediate. At the gleam
of the frequent flashes from the sky, the trees in front of the
bungalow, the road, and the fields that lay beyond it, started into
colour seen through the veil of the rain, that hung like a curtain of
glass beads, firm and perpendicular, and then vanished again into the
impenetrable blackness. He was not conscious of thought; it seemed only
that a vivid picture was spread before his mind–the picture of a
dark-blanketed bed on which, like a round black pool, there lay the
coiled and sleeping cobra. The door of that room was shut, and a man
entering it would no longer find, as he had done, a match-box ready to
his hand, close beside the door.

For another hour he sat there, this mental picture starting from time to
time into brilliant illumination, even as at the lightning flashes the
landscape in front of him leaped into intolerable light and colour. The
roar of the rain and the incessant tumult of the approaching thunder had
roused the dogs, and by the flare of the storm Case could see that Boxer
and his wife were both sitting tense and upright, staring uneasily into
the night. Then simultaneously they both broke into chorus of
deep-throated barking and strained at their chains. By the next flash
Case saw what had roused their vigilance. The figure of a man with
flapping coat was running at full speed from the direction of the
mess-room towards the bungalow. He recognized who it was, and now the
dogs recognized him, too, for their barking was exchanged for whimpers
of welcome and agitated tails.

Oldham leaped the little hedge that separated the road from the fields
and ran dripping into shelter of the veranda. In the gross darkness he
could not see Case, and stood there, as he thought, alone, stripping off
his mackintosh. Then, by the light of a fierce violet streamer in the
clouds, he saw him.

“Hullo, Case,” he said, “is that you?”

Oldham moved towards him as he spoke, and by the next flash Case saw him
close at hand, tall and slim, with handsome, boyish face.

“You got my letter?” asked Oldham.

“Yes, I got your letter.”

Case paused a moment.

“Do you expect me to congratulate you?” he asked.

“No, I can’t say that I do. But I want to say something, and I hope you
won’t find it offensive. Anyhow, it is quite sincere. I am most awfully
sorry for you. And I can’t forget that we used to be the greatest
friends. I hope you can remember that, too.”

He sat down on the step that led into Case’s section of the bungalow,
and in the darkness Case could hear Boxer making affectionate slobbering
noises. That kindled a fresh point of jealous hatred in his mind; both
dogs, who obeyed him as a master, adored Oldham as a friend. Hotly
burned that hate, and he thought again of the closed bedroom door and
the black pool on the blanket. Then he spoke slowly and carefully.

“I quite remember it,” he said, “and it seems to me the most amazing
thing in the world. I can recall it all, all my–my love for you, and
the day when we settled into this bungalow together, and the joy of it.
I recall, too, that you have taken from me everything you could lay
hands on, money, the affection of the dogs even—-”

Oldham interrupted in sudden resentment at this injustice.

“As regards money, I may remind you, since you have chosen to mention
it, that I have not succeeded in taking any away from you,” he remarked.

Case was not roused by this sarcasm; he could afford, knowing what he
knew, to keep calm.

“I am sorry for having kept you waiting so long,” he said. “But you may
remember that you begged me to pay you at my convenience. It will be
quite convenient to-morrow.”

“My dear chap,” broke in Oldham again, “as if I would have mentioned it,
if you hadn’t!”

Case felt himself scarcely responsible for what he said; the tension of
the storm, the infernal tattoo of the rain, the heat, the bellowing
thunder, seemed to take demoniacal possession of him, driving before
them the sanity of his soul.

“Perhaps you wouldn’t mention it,” he said, “until you had sold my debt
to some Jewish money-lender.”

In the darkness he heard Oldham get up.

“There is no use in our talking, if you talk like a madman,” he said.

The sky immediately above them was torn asunder, and a flickering spear
of intolerable light stabbed downwards, striking a tree not a hundred
yards in front of the bungalow, and for the moment the stupendous crack
of the thunder drowned thought and speech alike. Boxer gave a howl of
protest and dismay, and nestled close to Oldham, while Case, starting
involuntarily from his chair, held his hands to his ears until the
appalling explosion was over.

“Rather wicked,” he said, and poured himself out a dram of neat spirits.

That steadied him, and, recovering himself a little, he felt that he was
behaving very foolishly in letting the other see the madness of his rage
and resentment. It was far better that he should lull Oldham into an
unsuspicious frame of mind; otherwise he might suspect, might he not,
that something was prepared for him in his room? Others, subsequently,
if they quarrelled, might guess that he himself had known what lay there
… but it was all dim and fantastic. Then the fancied cunning and
caution of an unbalanced man who is at the same time ready to commit the
most reckless violence took hold of him, and instantly he changed his
tone. He must be quiet and normal; he must let things take their natural
course, without aid or interference from himself.

“The storm has played the deuce with my nerves,” he said, “that and the
news in your letter, and the sight of you coming like a wraith through
the rain. But I won’t be a lunatic any longer. Sit down, Percy, and try
to forgive all the wild things I have been saying. Of course, I don’t
deny that I have had an awful blow. But, as you have reminded me, we
used to be great friends. She and I were great friends, too, and I can’t
afford to lose the two people I really care most about in the world,
just because they have found each other. Let’s make the best of it; help
me, if you can, to make the best of it.”

It was not in Oldham’s genial nature to resist such an appeal, and he
responded warmly.

“I think that is jolly good of you,” he said, “and, frankly, I hate
myself when I think of you. But, somehow, it isn’t a man’s fault when he
falls in love. I couldn’t help myself; it came on me quite suddenly. It
was as if someone had come quickly up behind me and pitched me into the
middle of it. At one moment I did not care for her; at the next I cared
for nothing else.”

Case had himself thoroughly in hand by this time. He even took pleasure
in these reconciliatory speeches, knowing the completeness with which a
revenge prepared without his planning should follow on their heels. Had
a loaded pistol been ready to his hand, and he himself secure from
detection, he would probably not have pulled the trigger on his friend,
but it was a different matter that he should merely acquiesce in his
walking in the dark into the room where death lay curled and ready to
strike. That seemed to him to be the act of God; he was not responsible
for it, he had not put the cobra there.

“I felt sure it must have happened like that,” he said. “Besides, as you
know, Kitty and I had quarrelled and had broken our engagement off. Of
course, I hoped that some day we might come together again–at least, I
know now that I hoped it. But that was nothing to do with you. You fell
in love with her, and she with you. Yes, yes. Really, I don’t wonder.
Indeed–indeed, I do congratulate you–I congratulate you both.”

Oldham gave a great sigh of pleasure and relief.

“It’s ripping of you to take it like that,” he said. “I hardly dared to
hope you would. Thanks ever so much–ever so much! And now, do you know,
I think I shall go to bed. I am dog-tired. I had a six hours’ ride to
the station this morning, and even up there it was hideously hot.”

Case again reminded himself that he must behave naturally–not plan
anything, but not interfere.

“Oh, you must have a drink,” he said, “though I’m afraid there is no
ice. I’ll get you a glass and soda.”

He came out into the veranda again with these requisites. Oldham was
stifling a prodigious yawn.

“I’m half dead with sleep. Probably I shall chuck myself on my bed just
as I am, to save the trouble of undressing.”

Case felt his hand tremble as he put the glass down on the table.

“I know that feeling,” he said. “Sometimes, when one is very sleepy, the
sight of a bed is altogether too much for one. I dare say I shall do the
same. Help yourself to whisky while I open the soda for you.”

Oldham drank his peg and again rose.

“Well, I’m for bed,” he said. “And I can’t tell you what a relief it is
to me to find you like this. By the way, about that bit of money. Pay me
exactly when it’s convenient to you–next year or the year after, if you
like. I should be wretched if I thought you were putting yourself about
over it. So good night, Reggie.”

He turned to go, and it seemed to Case that hours passed and a thousand
impressions were registered on his brain as he walked down the
twenty-five feet of veranda that separated the two doors of entrance
that led into their quarters. Outside, another change had come over the
hot, tumultuous night, and, as if the very moon and stars were concerned
in this pigmy drama, where but a single life out of the innumerable and
infinitesimal little denizens of the world was involved, a queer
triangular rent had opened in the rain-swollen sky, and a dim moon and a
company of watery stars stared silently down, and to Case’s excited
senses they appeared hostilely witnessing. Ten minutes ago the rain had
ceased as suddenly as if a tap had been turned off, and, except for the
tom-tom that still beat monotonously in the town, a silence of death
prevailed. The steam rose thick as sea-mist from the ground; above it a
blurred etching of trees appeared and the roof of the mess-room. The
grey unreal light shone full into the veranda, and he could see that
Boxer was sitting bolt upright on his blanket-bed, looking at Oldham’s
retreating figure. Daisy was industriously scratching her neck with a
hind-leg, and from the table a little pool of spilt soda-water was
dripping on to the ground.

All this Case noticed accurately and intently, and, as yet, Oldham was
not half-way down the veranda. Once he hung on his step and sniffed the
hot, stale air. That was a characteristic trick; he wrinkled his nose up
like a dog, showing his white teeth. Once he shifted his dripping
mackintosh from right hand to left, holding it at arm’s length. Then,
as he turned to pass into the door, he made a little staccato sign of
salutation to Case with his disengaged hand. Boxer appropriated that,
and wagged a cordial tail in response.

Eagerly and expectantly, now that he had vanished from sight, Case
followed his movements, visualizing them. He heard him shuffle his feet
along the floor in the manner of a man feeling his way in the dark, and
knew that he was drawing near to the closed bedroom door and the black
interior. Oldham had said that he was very tired, that he was inclined
just to throw himself on the bed and sleep, and the absence of matches
and the added inconvenience of undressing in the dark would further
predispose him to this. He would throw himself on the bed all in a
piece, after the fashion of a tired man, and awake to fury the awful
bedfellow, with the muscular coils and the swift death that lay crouched
beneath its hood, which lay sleeping there. To-morrow there would be no
debt for Case to pay, no gnawing of unsatisfied hate, and for Oldham no
letter to his lady with the so satisfactory account of the evening’s
meeting.

Then from within came the rattle of a turned door-handle, and Case knew
that the death-chamber stood open. There followed a pause of absolute
stillness, in which Case felt utterly detached from and irresponsible
for whatever might follow. Then came the jar of a closed door….

And that tore him screaming from his murderous dreams, from which,
perhaps, he had awoke too late. He found himself, with no volition of
his own, running down the veranda and calling at the top of his voice:

“Percy, Percy,” he cried, “come out. There is a cobra on your bed!”

He heard the handle rattle and the door bang. Next moment he was on his
knees in the dark lobby, clasping Oldham’s legs in a torrent of
hysterical sobbing.

Mrs. Arthur Bolney Ross, when, three years ago, she set sail, or,
rather, set screw, for England, had no very clear idea of the campaign
she intended to wage there, though a firm determination to win it, and
had mentally arrived at no general plan beyond those preliminary
manœuvres which our charming American invaders usually adopt when they
first effect a landing on the primitive pavements of Piccadilly. She
had, in fact, taken half a dozen rooms at the Ritz Hotel and a box on
the grand tier of the Covent Garden Opera House. But she had also, for
the six months preceding her expedition, secretly received daily lessons
on the pronunciation and idioms of that particular (and, as she thought,
peculiar) dialect of the English language which was in vogue among the
section of the English-speaking race with whom she intended to have
dealings.

Rightly or wrongly, she had decided that the screaming drawl of New
York, which a few years before had so captivated the English upper
classes, and had led to so many charming and successful marriages, was
now out of date, and would enchant no longer. So instead of being
content with her expressive native speech, she learned with almost
passionate assiduity the mumbling English diction, the inaudible
Victorian voice, which she rightly considered would be a novelty to
those who had so largely abandoned it themselves in favour of a more
strident utterance. But she did not, in mastering the Victorian voice
and intonation, suffer her knowledge of her native tongue and its
blatant delivery to wither from misuse; she but became bi-lingual, and
schooled her vocal cords to either register without in the least
confusing the two.

It was in this point that she showed herself a campaigner of no
stereotyped order, but one who might go far, who intended in any case to
go further than anybody else. The idea was brilliant. Others before her
had become more English than the English, and had done well; others had
remained more American than the Americans, and had done even better. But
she, among the immense bales of her luggage, brought with her this
significant little handbag, so to speak: she could sound American or
English at will. She could say without stumbling, “Very pleased to make
your acquaintance,” or “How are you?” just as she pleased. And in this,
so it seems to her historian, lay the germ of her success, and also the
seeds of her final and irretrievable disaster, for in spite of her
modulated voice and acquired idiom, she remained American in thought,
with the regal impulses of a queen in Newport.

In other respects she was not, on her first landing, different in kind
from our ordinary hospitable invaders. She had a real Arthur Bolney Ross
in the background, who was capable of being shown and tested, if, so to
speak, she was “searched,” but who, since his mind had in the course of
years become nothing more nor less than a mint, out of which streams of
bullion perpetually issued, preferred to be left alone for the processes
of production. Amelie was excellent friends with him, when they had time
and inclination to meet, and it always gave her a comfortable feeling to
know that Arthur was in existence. If they had met very often, it is
probable that they would have got on each other’s nerves, and, since she
had an immense fortune of her own, have considered the desirability of a
divorce; but in the meantime Amelie decidedly liked the feeling of
stability which her husband gave her. She did not think about him much,
but she knew he was there.

Husbands, she had ascertained, were going to be fashionable in London
this year, or, if not exactly fashionable, were going to be “worn” in
the manner of some invisible but judicious part of the dress, like a
cholera belt, or, as Amelie would have called it when she spoke
American, a gripe-girdle. Pearls also were worn, though not so invisibly
as husbands, and Amelie had five superb ropes of these, which could be
verified by anybody, and never got on her nerves at all. She had also,
among her general equipment, a very excellent sort of social godmother,
Lady Brackenbury, who, for a remuneration that made no difference to
Amelie, but a good deal to her, was prepared to exert herself to the
utmost pitch of her very valuable capabilities in the matter of bringing
people to see her and in taking her to see people, and in preventing the
wrong sort of people from having any sort of access to her. Amelie was
willing to put herself into Lady Brackenbury’s hands with the complete
confidence in which she would have entrusted her mouth to a reliable
dentist, had her admirable teeth demanded any sort of adjustment. She
could not have made a wiser choice: there was nobody, in fact, among
possible godmothers in London, who would have been a sounder sponsor.

The two had met eighteen months before in New York, and subsequently, in
the summer, Violet Brackenbury had spent a month with her friend at her
cottage at Newport, which exteriorly resembled an immense Swiss chalet,
and inside was like a terminus hotel. There, on ground for ever
afterwards more historic than Marathon, had been fought the famous
sixteen days’ war, in which Amelie had so signally defeated and deposed
the reigning queen of the very smartest set of New York society.

The point to be decided, of course, was which of the two could give the
most ludicrous, extravagant, and delirious parties, and thus be
acclaimed sovereign among hostesses. Amelie, as challenger, had flung
the gauntlet in the shape of a midnight lawn-tennis party, with hundreds
of arc lamps hung above the courts, the nets covered with spangles, and
the lines made of ground glass faintly illuminated by electric lights
beneath, while, by way of contrast with this brilliance, a number of men
dressed like mourners at a funeral, with top-hats and black scarves,
picked up and presented the lawn-tennis balls to her guests in
coffin-shaped trays. Here was a high bid for supremacy, and it was felt
that Mrs. Cicero B. Dace would have to do something great in order to
eclipse the brightness and originality of this entertainment. But bright
and original she was, and when, two nights later, she gave her
marvellous canary ball, it was thought that her throne had not yet
tottered. On this occasion her admiring guests were thrilled to find
that all round the walls of her ballroom had been planted mimosa trees,
among the branches of which three thousand canaries had been let loose,
after being doped with hard-boiled egg soaked in rum and water. These
chirped and sang in a feverish and intoxicated manner. At the end of the
ball the men of the party, dressed as huntsmen and armed with air-guns,
shot these unfortunate songsters and presented the spoils to their
partners in the cotillion.

Amelie had two answers to that–the first an indignant letter, printed
in large type throughout the American press, denouncing this massacre,
and the second another ball. The letter Mrs. Cicero B. Dace did not
object to at all, since it but enhanced her notoriety, but she objected
to the ball very much indeed, since Amelie’s ingenious mind hit on the
simple and exquisite plan of dispensing with the band, and having in its
place a choir of three hundred singers, who, in batches of one hundred
at a time, sang the dance tunes. The effect was contagious, and dancers
joined in also, producing, as the press said, the “most stupendously
lyrical effect since the days of Sappho.”

Then Mrs. Cicero B. Dace sat down and thought again, lighting upon the
famous idea of the auction ball, in which a real English Duke acted as
auctioneer, and before each dance put up the ladies for auction, to be
bid for by the men who wished to be their partners. But Amelie swiftly
sent for Arthur Bolney Ross, and he and a friend of hers, who was
backing her in this struggle for sovereignty, continued to bid for her
for so long that, out of sinister compassion for her hostess, she
stepped down from the rostrum and refused to dance with either, for fear
that there should be no more dancing for anybody. This completely
spoiled the success of the auction ball, and while Mrs. Cicero B. Dace
was still staggering from its failure, Amelie annihilated her altogether
by giving her inimitable glacier ball on the hottest night of the year.
A refrigerating apparatus was rigged up on the walls of her ballroom,
and their entire surface thickly coated with real ice. Glass channels,
fringed with blue gentians, were made round the margin of the floor, to
carry off the melting water, while accomplished members of the band
yodelled at intervals to carry out the Swiss illusion. She and the
auctioneer Duke–whom she had captured from under the nose of Mrs.
Cicero B. Dace–dressed in knickerbockers, with a rope round his
shoulder and an ice-axe in his hand, led the cotillion, and Mrs. Cicero
B. Dace, having in vain tried to point out that the gentians were three
parts artificial flowers, retired at 1 A.M. in floods of tears.

Such were Amelie Ross’s social achievements when, unlike Alexander the
Great, she bethought herself that there were more worlds to conquer, and
decided to extend her dominions over England. Her godmother, of course,
knew her history, having, indeed, assisted at the history she had
already made, and on the night of her arrival at the Ritz Hotel, dined
with her there in her charming room looking over the Green Park, before
going with her to her box at the opera. As regards this first appearance
of her god-daughter, Violet Brackenbury had laid her plans very
carefully, and explained them as they dined.

“I have asked nobody else at all, dear Amelie,” she said, “because I
want everybody to be wild to find out who you are, and nobody will be
able to say. Curiosity is the best sauce of all.”

Amelie became thoroughly American for a moment.

“My!” she said. “Don’t you mean that your folk over here haven’t seen
hundreds and hundreds of pictures of me in the papers?”

“Probably not one, my dear. And I’ve only told one woman that you are
coming. You are going to burst on everybody to-night, you and your
lovely face, and your six feet of height, and your wonderful hair, and
your wonderful pearls, and the most wonderful gown that you’ve got. I
want all London for an hour or two to be wild to know who you are, and I
have told the box-attendant to take your name off the door, and not to
let anybody in between the acts. Afterwards I shall take you to the
dance at Alice Middlesex’s, which, luckily, ever so luckily, is
to-night. She is the one person I have told.”

“The Duchess of Middlesex?” asked Amelie.

“Yes; and she is quite certain to ask you if you know Lady Creighton,
that dreadful countrywoman of yours who is climbing into London like a
monkey and hopping about it like a flea. She tried to patronize Alice,
and Alice won’t get over it either in this world or the next. So tell
her that Lady Creighton is not received in New York–which I believe is
the case, isn’t it?–and look very much surprised at the idea of knowing
her. I can’t tell you how important that is.”

Amelie frowned slightly.

“But Elsie Creighton telephoned to me half an hour ago,” she said,
“asking me to lunch with her to-morrow to meet—-”

“It doesn’t matter whom she asked you to meet. If she asked you to meet
the entire Royal Family, you would be wise to refuse. You don’t want to
climb into London on the top of a hurdy-gurdy.”

“My! What’s a hurdy-gurdy?” asked Amelie, whose English lessons had not
taught her that word.

“Hurdy-gurdy? Street organ. It doesn’t matter. You don’t want to know
people, if you understand; you want to make people want to know you. My
plan is not that you should climb up, but that you should spread down.”

Amelie instantly caught this.

“I see,” she said. “I’m to begin at the top. But Elsie Creighton said
there was a Prince coming to lunch to-morrow. I thought that was a good
beginning.”

“Not so good as the Creighton woman is bad. Did you accept, by the way?”

“Why, yes.”

“Then telephone to-morrow exactly at lunch-time to say you are ill, and
lunch with me very obviously downstairs in the restaurant. In fact, it
couldn’t have happened better. It will mark you off very definitely from
her and her crowd. I don’t mean to say that there are not charming
people among it, but it would never do to enter London under her wing.
Perhaps just at present, darling, you had better ask me before you
accept invitations. It is so important to cut the right people.”

Amelie was completely cordial over this.

“I expect that is what I have got to learn,” she said. “And now for
to-night–will my dress do?”

Lady Brackenbury regarded this admirable costume and shook her head.

“No, I don’t think it will,” she said. “It is lovely, but you want
something more arresting. You, with your wonderful complexion, can stand
anything. Orange, now–haven’t you got a hit-in-the-face of orange? I
want everybody to be forced to look at you, and you’ll do the rest. You
see I have made myself as plain and inconspicuous as possible, to act as
a foil. It is noble of me, but then I am noble. And all the pearls,
please, just all the pearls, with the big diamond fender on your head.
To-morrow, at the French Embassy, you shall wear the simplest gown you
have got, and one moonstone brooch, price three-and-sixpence.”

* * * * *

Such was the opening of Amelie’s amazing campaign, the incidents and
successes of which followed swift and bewildering. Under Violet’s
capable guidance she began, not by collecting round her that brisk and
hungry section of well-born London which is always ready to sing for its
dinner, and by giving huge entertainments to bring together a crowd at
all costs, but by attracting and attaching a small band of the people
who mattered. Lady Brackenbury knew very well that even in the most
democratic town in the world certain people, not necessarily Princes or
Prime Ministers, were large pieces in the great haphazard game of chess;
the crowd meantime, after whom Amelie secretly hankered, would only get
more eager to be admitted. In particular, Lady Creighton starved for her
entry. She asked Amelie to dine any Tuesday in June, when she was giving
her series of musical parties, but Amelie found, to her great regret,
that she was engaged on all those festive occasions. But she gave a
musical party herself–London was prey this year to a disordered
illusion that it liked music–and Melba and Caruso sang
there–informally, so it seemed, just happening to sing–to not more
than fifty people, who sat in armchairs at their ease, instead of
elbowing each other in squashed and upright rows. In vain did Lady
Creighton spread an assiduous report that the artists had sung out of
tune and that the peaches were sour. Everyone knew that she had not been
there, and that she alluded to another sort of fruit. Violet Brackenbury
was successful in persuading Amelie not to send any account of this
brilliant little affair to the papers, and to refuse all scraps to the
writers for the press. But she was careful to provide for a far more
telling publicity.

Gradually, craftily, a reef at a time, Violet allowed her friend to let
out her sails. She left her flat at the Ritz and rurally installed
herself in a spacious house in the middle of Regent’s Park. There was a
big field attached to the house, and, yielding to a severe attack of
Americanism, which she thought it might be dangerous to suppress, Violet
permitted her to give a haymaking party of the Newport type. Hay was
brought in from the country and scattered over the field, and mixed up
with roses and gardenias, while the guests on arrival were presented
with delightful little ebony pitchforks with silver prongs, or
cedar-wood rakes. But this symptom caused her a little uneasiness, for
it was obvious that Amelie thought her haymaking party a much brighter
achievement than the previous concert.

* * * * *

The expansion continued. Amelie and her friend strolled into Christie’s
one morning, and found a tussle going on between two eminent dealers
over the possession of a really marvellous string of pearls. At a
breathless pause, after the first “Going!” that followed a fresh bid,
Amelie said in her most ringing American voice, “I guess I’ll sail in
right now,” and began bidding herself. The crowd of dilettante London,
which delights in seeing other people spend large sums of money, parted
for her, and she moved gloriously up the auction-room and took her stand
just behind one of the Mosaic little gentlemen who wanted the pearls so
badly.

The recognition of her spread through the place like spilled
quicksilver, and the auctioneer, with an amiable bow, caused the pearls
to be handed to her for her inspection. With them still in her hand, as
if it was not worth while returning them to the tray, she sky-rocketed
the price by three exalting bids, the third of which was as a fire-hose
on the ardour of her competitors. Her cheque-book was fetched from her
car outside, and she left the room a moment afterwards, having drawn her
cheque on the spot, pausing only to clasp the pearls round her neck….
And Violet, with a strange sinking of the heart, felt as if her pet
tiger-cub had tasted blood again after the careful and distinguished
diet on which she had been feeding it.

Amelia had a fancy to leave London early in July, and give a few parties
at an immense house she had taken near Maidenhead for the month. She had
had some gondolas sent over from Venice, with their appropriate
gondoliers, and London found it very pleasant to float about after
dinner, while the excellent string band played in an illuminated barge
that accompanied the flotilla. Exciting little surprises constantly
happened, such as the arrival one evening of artists from the Grand
Guignol, who played a couple of thrilling little horrors in the
ballroom, while on another night the great Reynolds picture belonging to
the Duke of Middlesex was found to have put in an appearance on the
walls. Amelie said that it was her birthday present to her husband, and
made no further allusion to it. The frame had gone to be repaired, and
it was draped round in clouds of silvery-grey chiffon that extended half
over the wall. And had Violet Brackenbury known the outrage that her
friend had planned, the frenzy of suppressed Newportism that was ready
to break forth, it is probable that she would gladly have returned the
cheque which she had that morning received from Amelie.

As it was, she felt wholly at ease, and inclined to congratulate herself
on the unique and signal character of Amelie’s success. Never before, so
she thought, had a woman so dominated the season; never, certainly, had
one of her countrywomen so “mattered.” And all this, with the exception,
perhaps, of the haymaking party and the incident of the pearls at
Christie’s, had been gained in quiet, unsensational ways; and, lulled to
content, she did not realize that the spirit that inspired the queen of
hostesses was ready to flare up like an access of malarial fever. Poor
unsuspecting godmother, who fondly believed that those gondolas from
Venice, those Grand Guignol artists from Paris, this gem of Reynolds’s
pictures, were a safety-valve, not guessing that they were but as oil
poured on the flame!

The cotillion that night was to begin at twelve. Amelie was leading it
herself with one of the Princes, and the big ballroom was doubly lined
with seated guests, when on the stroke of twelve she entered, dressed in
exact facsimile of the glorious Reynolds. As she advanced with her
partner into the middle of the room, the band in the gallery struck up,
and simultaneously a tongue of fire shot through the flimsy draperies
round the picture, instantly enveloping it in flames. The canvas
blistered and bubbled, and in ten seconds the finest Reynolds in the
world was a sheet of scorched and blackened rag.

The crowd leaped to its feet, but before the panic had time to mature,
the cause of it was over. There was nothing inflammable within range of
the swiftly-consumed chiffon, and only little fragments of burned-out
ash floated on to the floor. But the fervent and instantaneous heat had
done its work.

Then for a moment there was dead silence, and Amelie’s voice was heard
in its quietest, most English tones.

“Oh, isn’t that a pity!” she said.

Then arose a sudden hubbub of talk, drowning the sound of the band,
which, at a signal from Amelie, had started again.

* * * * *

Violet stood with her friend before the blackened canvas next morning in
the empty room, drawing on her gloves.

“I don’t think you understand yet the effect of what you have done,” she
said. “No one doubts that the fire was intentional, and–and I think
that Lady Creighton will be of more use to you in the future than I can
possibly be.”

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