THE DANCE ON THE BEEFSTEAK

This Midsummer day, the early hours of which were bathed in so serene a
sunshine, has ended in storm and hurly-burly. Only this morning the
general outlook was as unclouded as is now the velvet blue of the
star-scattered Italian sky, but this evening our very souls are driven
like dead leaves before a shrivelling blast. Nature, unsympathetic,
indifferent, still holds on her great unruffled courses; the stars
wheel, the north wind blows lightly from across the gulf; the little
ripples shed themselves in lines of phosphorescent flame; Naples lies a
necklace of light on the edge of the sea, the loveliness of the Southern
night is undiminished. But Mrs. Mackellar has danced on the beefsteak,
and she has dismissed Seraphina.

To the dweller in cities or other light-minded and populous places this
may appear but the most farcical of tragedies, worthy of no more than
the scoffing laugh of a passer-by. But such do not know Mrs. Mackellar,
nor Seraphina, nor life in Alatri. For in Alatri as a rule nothing
happens–certainly nothing unpleasant–our lives are as smooth as the
halcyon summer seas, and it will, I am afraid, be impossible to give to
any but the most imaginative reader an adequate idea of the devastating
nature of the catastrophe…. It will be necessary in any case to
recount in brief the events of the last twenty-four hours.

Yesterday afternoon we were all _en fête_; Mrs. Mackellar gave a party
for two reasons, either of which was amply justifiable. The first was
that the engagement of Seraphina her cook to Antonio her man-servant was
definitely sanctioned by her, and so made food for public rejoicing; the
second that Seraphina had been with her as cook for an entire year. Now
in Alatri servants do not, as a rule, stop with Mrs. Mackellar more than
a few weeks. Then they leave. There is no dissatisfaction expressed and
no public quarrel. They just lose their nerve and go away. But the days
had added themselves into weeks, and the weeks into months, and before
any of us knew where we were, Seraphina had been a year with Mrs.
Mackellar. Hence the party.

There were in fact two parties, for Seraphina and Antonio entertained
their friends in the kitchen, while Mrs. Mackellar received on the
house-roof. She is an immense Scotchwoman, broad in bosom and in accent,
and feels the heat acutely. Consequently when I received an invitation
for four o’clock on an afternoon in the middle of June, it was clear
that she must have a real desire to celebrate the event.

The Duchess of Alatri–to her more intimate friends, Bianca–came with
me by special invitation. Her Grace is a huge white Campagna sheep-dog,
so tall that she can, when sitting down, put her chin on an ordinary
dining-room table and eat your bread when you are not looking. At rest
she resembles a large rug (and as such is not infrequently trodden on),
and when in motion she resembles nothing that I have ever seen. Her sole
method of progression is a trot; she never walks, and she cannot gallop,
but the trot varies from a pace so surprisingly slow that she appears
only to be marking time, to that of the passage of an express train. The
other day she was investigating interesting smells in the piazza, when
out for a walk with me, and so got left behind. I did not miss her till
I was some half-mile away, and looking round saw a distant white speck
where the road leaves the town. I whistled shrilly on my fingers, and
without appreciable interval she was with me. She belongs not, alas, to
me, but to an American, who has left the enchanted island for the summer
(unless perhaps it is more just to say that he belongs to her), and
committed Her Grace to my care. Her passions are being combed, cheese
and dancing.

This latter I discovered by a happy accident. For the first afternoon
that she was with me she was very sorrowful, and though I ran up the
Stars and Stripes on the flagstaff, instead of the Union Jack, wondering
if this would give her the thrill of home, she remained dispirited. But
shortly before going to bed, hoping in some vague way to cheer her, and
being myself futile, I danced round her, snapping my fingers. The
effect was magical. The rug shuffled swiftly to its feet, and began
gambolling. She jumped in the air, she turned briskly round and round,
she took little leaps with her head down like a bucking pony, she upset
a small table on which was standing an open tin of biscuits, and
scarcely pausing to sweep up the greater part with her tongue she
lurched heavily into an oleander-tub on the veranda, snapping the shrub
off short. And when, about ten minutes later, I sank into a chair
breathless and exhausted, the Duchess was herself again. Only once when
passing her old home did she show any desire to remain there, and even
then I had but to execute two fantastic steps down the path, when she
gave a sort of choking cry, her apology for a bark, and came after me
behaving like a rocking-horse.

So Bianca and I went up the steep path to Mrs. Mackellar’s shortly after
four yesterday afternoon. She lives in a stucco castle with battlements.
There was already a tarantella going on in the kitchen–Seraphina is a
notable dancer–and Bianca brightened up. She said, “This is the place
for me,” and brushing rudely by me trotted down the back-stairs and I
saw her no more. So I went alone to the house-roof.

“All Alatri” was there, perspiring under an Oriental awning, which Mrs.
Mackellar had put up for the shelter of her guests. It seemed calculated
to concentrate the heat of the sun, and to exclude all air. The German
doctor, who has not left the island, even to go to Naples, for nine
years, was talking the native dialect to a Swedish painter; the
mysterious Russian widow who plays picquet every evening with her man
cook was chattering voluble French to a circle of mixed nationality; and
Mrs. Mackellar, resplendent in tartan, was treating bewildered listeners
to the Peebles speech. The ices had transformed themselves into a
delicious fruit-cream, and the sugar was melting like tallow off the
cakes. We indulged in the usual topics, the impossibility of leaving
Alatri that summer, the promise of a fine vintage, the apocryphal shark
three metres long, whose dorsal fin had appeared only a few yards from
the shore of the Bagno, the iniquity of servants in general, and the
conspicuous virtue of Seraphina.

Mrs. Mackellar, in the democratic spirit that helps to make Alatri so
wildly interesting, had added that when the feasting in the kitchen was
over, and when no one wanted to eat more ice-cream on the house-top, the
party from below should join the party up above, so that we all should
be one on this happy occasion.

Accordingly, after a while she leaned over the battlements of her
castle, gave a loud war-cry, and up came Seraphina’s party. She led the
way with her _promesso_, in a state of high hilarity, and all the
servants of all Mrs. Mackellar’s guests brought up the rear. There was
no blushing possible, for everybody was scarlet with heat already, and
we split off into domestic groups. Francesco sat by me, and began to
tell me why nobody went to mass on this name day of St. John the
Baptist. This was interesting, but on the other side of me was Seraphina
discussing _trousseau_ with her mistress, and the loud arresting Italian
of Mrs. Mackellar only permitted me to give half an ear to the story of
San Giovanni. However, Francesco could tell me about it again to-morrow,
in less distracted conditions, and when the discussion about the
_trousseau_ was over (I had gathered several plums, _un tartano di
Edinborgo_ being a fine one) I left.

Next morning I had a crisis of affairs. In Alatri, if one has anything
whatever that must be done, it, like the grasshopper, becomes a burden.
But I had several things that must be done, and I was nearly crushed by
the prospect. In the first place breakfast was ready before I was out of
bed and I therefore had to postpone shaving till afterwards. This alone
would have made a troublesome morning, but this was far from all. On
coming down I found two letters that had to be answered, one (and I was
sorry for my sins) containing an uncorrected proof, and while I was
still prostrate from the blow Francesco came in with household accounts.
These, for the sake of morality, I make it a rule to check (Francesco’s
addition is always right, mine always wrong), and thus it stood to
reason that I should not be able to start down to the sea to bathe till
nearly eleven. However, “no Briton’s to be baulked,” and I marched
manfully across the thirsty desert of affairs.

An hour in the sea and the consciousness of duty done restored
equanimity, and when after lunch Francesco brought me coffee on to the
veranda and seemed disposed to linger, I remembered the half-heard story
of San Giovanni.

“Tell it me again,” I said, and Francesco told it.

“The signor must know,” he said, “that in Italy there are many
unbaptized children, and if San Giovanni came to earth like the other
saints on his name-day, he would be furious at such neglect, and burn up
the earth with fire. God knows this, and, being unwilling that we should
all suffer, he sends San Giovanni to sleep the day before his name-day,
so that he sleeps for eight days. Then when he wakes up he says to God,
‘Is not my name-day yet?’ And God replies, ‘O San Giovanni, you have
been to sleep and your name-day is over while you slept. It will not
come again for another year.’ Thus it is that we do not go to mass on
the day of San Giovanni, for where is the use if he be asleep? But the
priests say–Ah! has not the Signor heard the news?” he broke off
suddenly and excitedly.

“News! I have heard no news.”

“How can I have forgotten? The Signora Mackellar has danced on her
beefsteak, and Seraphina is dismissed. So when will she marry Antonio?”

Now the two things a Southern Italian loves best are telling a story and
causing a sensation. And it was with the most exquisite enjoyment that
Francesco continued, for both were here combined.

“The market boat came in from Naples this morning,” he said, “and on it
was a fine beefsteak for the Signora. Salvatore, the carrier, took it
up, and it so was that both the Signora and Seraphina were on the
house-roof when he came, and the Signora was ordering dinner. And it
seems she was angry, so said Salvatore, at the cost of the ice cream
yesterday. So he was ordered to bring up the beefsteak, and the Signora
smelt it, and said it was not food for dogs. And Salvatore–you know he
is a sharp fellow–he replied ‘Indeed it is not food for dogs,’ meaning
thereby—-”

“Yes, I understand,” I interrupted.

Francesco was getting gesticulative, and he went on with the fire of a
prophet.

“Then gave the Signora the beefsteak to Seraphina,” he cried, “and said
‘Smell it thou also.’ And Seraphina, having smelt it, said, ‘Signora, it
seems to me very good.’ At that the Signora turned on her like one
goaded and cried–‘Thou too art in the plot to cheat me! To-day thou art
no more my cook’; and as for the beefsteak–_ecco_! And she threw it
down, and danced upon it with both feet together, so that the roof
trembled. Also she said many strange words in her own tongue.”

And Francesco, like a true artist, did not linger after making his
point, but turned on his heel, resisting even the temptation to talk it
all over, and went into the house.

Here was a bolt from the blue! The summer had begun, there would be no
fresh visitors to Alatri till the winter, and Seraphina would be out of
place all these months. Antonio’s wages would not keep them both, if
Seraphina was out of place, and had to pay for her board and lodging
with some friend, and who knew whether Mrs. Mackellar’s wrath would not
spread like a devouring flood, and overwhelm Antonio also? Nothing was
more likely, for I remembered how on the dismissal of Mrs. Mackellar’s
last cook, her washing had been withdrawn from its customary
manipulator, simply because she was the cook’s cousin by marriage. How
then should Seraphina’s _promesso_ escape? Already the smell of the
marriage bake-meats was in the air: they were like to eat them with a
sauce of sorrow. To attempt to interfere or to reason with Mrs.
Mackellar was out of the question. Her nose would go in the air, and she
would say “Hoots!” Those who had heard Mrs. Mackellar say “Hoots”
seriously, knew what fear was.

Two days have passed after that terrible dance of death on the
house-roof, two days of paralysed inaction. There was of course no other
subject in the mouth of the folk, and grave groups formed and reformed
in the piazza and at Morgano’s, and looked at the question this way and
that like impotent conspirators wanting a plan of action. I happened to
be sitting at that café before dinner on the second evening, and we were
shaking our heads over it all when Mrs. Mackellar herself came snorting
and stamping round the corner. Like children detected in some forbidden
ecstasy, we all sank into silence. She did not even sit down to enjoy
her vermouth, but sipped it standing, with loud, angry sucking noises,
as if it was the life-blood of Seraphina.

We all froze under the contempt of her blue tremendous eye, and then,
most unfairly, she singled me out, and pointing the finger of scorn,
hissed at me:

“I ken fine what the hale clamjanfry of ye has been talkin’ about,” she
said, or words to that effect, and, without deigning to translate, this
tempestuous lady swept on her course. She stepped so high in her
indignation that the Duchess of Alatri, lying for coolness’ sake on the
pavement outside, thought that Mrs. Mackellar was dancing for her, and
rising to her feet, Her Grace trod a circular Saracenic measure. Hardly
pausing to swing a string-bag containing such comestibles as would be
easily rendered palatable without the aid of a cook, Mrs. Mackellar
turned to me again, and spoke in English in order that I might
understand.

“If I were you,” she said, “I should be ashamed to keep a dog that eats
as much as six Christians, I’ll be bound, be they Presbyterians or Roman
Catholics.”… Even as she spoke, who should come by but Seraphina
herself? Though she had been hounded out of the Casa Mackellar only
yesterday, with every circumstance of ignominy and Highland expressions,
Seraphina, sunny and incapable of rudeness, gave her late employer a
little smile, and a little obeisance, and said, “Buona sera, Signora!”
Without the smallest doubt, Mrs. Mackellar returned that smile.

Now in Alatri, I must have you know, we are all great psychologists and
students of character, and often talk about each other’s actions and the
gloomy traits of character exhibited therein, so that if you didn’t know
the seriousness of our aims, you might think we were gossips. But the
true character of Mrs. Mackellar, who she is inside herself, had always
puzzled everybody. No one could pull her together into any sort of
personage who would pass muster in the wildest work of fiction as being
conceivable. Why, for instance, did she who averted her chaste eye from
the naked foot of a fisher-boy herself wear a tight silk bathing dress
that reached not quite to her knees, and nowhere near her elbows? Was
it, as Mrs. Leonards said, to display the atrocity of her own figure
and thereby strengthen the rickety morality of the world in general?
That could hardly be the case, since on other occasions she laced
herself so tight, and wore such a killing hat, and so many Cairngorms
and garnets, that she could not be found guiltless of making a public
temptation of herself. Why, again, by what possible psychological
consistency, did she revel in a game of poker and reserve the hostility
of her finest colloquialisms for those who took tickets at a lottery?
Why, again–but there is no use in multiplying her contradictions, for
she entirely consists of them.

But the salient point on which every psychologist’s eye was pensive
to-day was why she had dismissed Seraphina after a year’s harmonious
co-operation for agreeing with Salvatore that a particular beefsteak did
not stink. Never had she had such a servant as Seraphina, nor ever
would, and well she knew it. Someone suggested that Mrs. Mackellar had
determined to be an eater of uncooked foods, and others who remembered
her welter of appreciation over an ordinary mutton cutlet, hardly
troubled to reply to so inadmissible a conjecture. As we whittled away
at her, the point of the discussion grew ever sharper, for why had she
so clearly smiled in answer to Seraphina’s greeting just now? The idea
that the smile was purely sardonic had most supporters: one or two who
kindly upheld the view that she was meaning to make it up with Seraphina
were hissed down. The most obdurate alone stuck to it, and had the
hardihood to bet five liras that this was the true explanation of the
smile, and the readiness with which he found takers for that bet, caused
him to experience an access of prudence, and to explain that he only
meant to bet five liras all told, and not fifty. Alas!

No one was walking in my direction, and some half an hour later I went
slowly home. Already I was beginning to regret that I had not taken more
of those bets, for the shrewdest analyst of motive and psychology in
Alatri had been bound to confess that Mrs. Mackellar’s motives, like the
path of the comets that should, according to all calculations,
periodically destroy the earth, were, when all was said and done,
completely unconjecturable. No application of logic, or reason, of the
movements of heavy bodies seemed to apply to them, and for that very
reason I had rejected the sardonic nature of that smile for Seraphina,
and in the spirit of “Credo, quia impossible” had taken it for a smile
of reconciliation. But I stood to win five liras, and who would quarrel
with so enviable a conclusion, especially since it implied the
re-installation of Seraphina? That was not a wholly altruistic
consideration, for Leonard had said in so many words that Mrs. Mackellar
would probably attempt to seduce Francesco away from my service with the
lure of higher wages. That was a horrible thought, and I quickened my
steps as I came near to my villa.

I heard bounding footsteps coming down the outside stairs from the front
door into the garden, which could only be Francesco’s, and I wondered
whether he was prancing towards me in order to communicate his wonderful
good luck in going as cook to Mrs. Mackellar, at twice the wages he at
present received. I believed Mrs. Mackellar, like the prophet Habakkuk,
to be “_capable de tout_,” but I didn’t really believe this infamy of
Francesco. The garden door flew open, and he met me with a face of
mourning.

“The Signora Mackellar,” he cried, “walked up with Seraphina to her
house. Through your telescope, signor, I saw them kissing and kissing on
the roof. _Dio!_ Why does a woman want to kiss a woman? There are many
strange things in the world, signor. St. Peter, he had a wife, and also
his wife had a mother, and one day—-”

“Tell me about it after dinner,” I said. “And bring up the bottle of
English wine, the port wine, which I brought from Rome, I have won five
liras, Francesco.”

“_Sissignor_,” said Francesco. “But the dinner is not yet quite ready,
for I was watching with your telescope. Five liras!… There was once a
man who backed five numbers at the _Lotto_, and behold they all came out
even as he had backed them. He won a hundred thousand liras, and an
estate in Calabria, and—-”

“Dinner,” said I, and Francesco ran to the kitchen.

I walked on air. Alone that evening I had had the courage of my opinion,
and for once had divined Mrs. Mackellar’s mind to the extent of backing
my divination for five liras. That is a lot of money here–for a stall
at the cinema (front row) only costs one.

In spite of the unaccountable absence of a Cabinet Minister who should
have sat between our hostess, Mrs. Withers and Miss Agnes Lockett, I
felt that this luncheon-party must be considered as perhaps the most
epoch-making that had, up to the present date, been enticed beneath that
insatiably hospitable roof. Never had the comet-like orbit of our
entertainer ascended quite so high towards the zenith.

With the negligible exception of myself, for whose presence there I
shall soon amply account, there was not one among us, man, woman or
child (for that prodigy on the fiddle, Dickie Sebastian, in his tight
colossal sailor-suit, was of the company) whose name was not thrillingly
familiar to the great percentage of the readers of those columns in the
daily Press which inform us who was in the park on Sunday chatting with
friends, or at the first night of the new play looking lovely.

Briefly to tell the number and brightness of these stars, there was a
much be-ribanded general from Salonica, a girl just engaged to the heir
of one of our most respectable dukedoms, a repatriated prisoner from
Ruhleben, a medium possessed of devastating insight, a prominent actress
from a révue, a lion hunter (not our amiable hostess, but a swarthy
taciturnity from East Africa), and the adorable Agnes Lockett, lately
created a Dame in the Order of the British Empire in connexion with
Secret Service. She had just been demobilized, and, as she freely
admitted, four years of conundrums and traps had undermined the
frankness of her disposition. Schemes, plans, intrigues had become–for
the moment–a second nature to her, and she was not happy unless she was
laying a trap for somebody else, or suspecting (quite erroneously) that
somebody was laying a trap for her. She had also become a smooth
conversational liar. These things had not, it may be mentioned, affected
her charm and her beauty.

Finally, there was myself, who had no claim to distinction of any kind
beyond such as is inherent in living next door to Mrs. Withers and being
honoured with the friendship of Agnes Lockett.

I had been asked by telephone just at luncheon-time, as I was in the act
of sitting down to a tough and mournful omelette alone, and I naturally
felt quite certain that I had been bidden to take the place of some
guest (not the Cabinet Minister whom she still expected) who had
disappointed Mrs. Withers at the last moment. This was confirmed by the
fact that she told me in her clearest telephone voice that I had
promised to come to-day (which I knew was not the case) and that she was
merely reminding me.

Obviously, then, she was in urgent need of somebody, for it was not her
custom to “remind” all her expected guests at the very moment when they
were due at her house, and my inclusion in this resplendent galaxy was
certainly due to the convenient fact that, as I lived next door, I
should not keep the rest of her party waiting…. It is, I hope,
unnecessary to add that, with the unfortunate exception of myself,
everyone present appeared in the informing pages of “Who’s Who,” so that
his work and recreations were known to the reading public and would
afford a good start to the medium in case we had a _séance_ afterwards.

As the currents of conversation set this way and that, I was
occasionally marooned in a backwater, and could hear what Mrs. Withers
was saying to Agnes Lockett. The latter had been to the new play last
night, and an allusion to it produced from our hostess a flood of
typical monologue delivered in the judicial voice for which she was
famous. She was a big lean woman who radiated a stinging vitality that
paralysed the timid, and as she spoke, her eyes patrolled the
distinguished table with the utmost satisfaction and controlled the
service.

“Yes, Roland Somerville is marvellous in the part,” she said, “and I
told him he had never done a finer piece of work. But I thought Margaret
had not quite grasped his conception of it. I went round, of course, to
see her afterwards, and as she asked me what I thought I told her just
that.”

At this moment the telephone bell rang in the room adjoining, and Mrs.
Withers, though continuing to analyse the play with her accustomed
acumen (it had produced precisely the same effect on her as on the
author of the critique in the _Daily Herald_) was a little _distraite_
in manner till her parlour-maid communicated the message.

“Ah, that accounts for Hugh Chapel’s absence, who was to have sat
between us,” she said to Agnes. “He was sent for to the Palace at a
quarter-past one and is lunching there. And I ordered golden plovers
especially for him. Hugh was at Priscilla’s last night, looking very
tired, I thought. You know him, of course, Miss Lockett?”

Agnes was looking a little dazed.

“Not yet,” she said. “You asked me here to meet him.”

Mrs. Withers made a gesture of impatience at herself. As a matter of
fact she had, in asking Agnes Lockett, told her that Mr. Chapel was
coming, and in asking him, had told him that Miss Lockett was coming,
thus hoping to kill two lions with one lunch.

“Of course! How stupid of me,” she said. “Let us instantly arrange
another day when you can both be here. Ah! do come to a little party I
have on Thursday night. You will find Lord Marrible here too; he only
got back from America ten days ago. Poor Jack! he had a terrible voyage,
and he is such a bad sailor.”

A look of slight astonishment came over Agnes’s face, and remembering
that she and Lord Marrible were old and intimate friends, I wondered
whether she was surprised at this odd allusion to “poor Jack,” for he
was known to his intimate circle as John. Personally, I had had the
felicity of making him and my hostess known to each other only a few
days ago, and I too wondered a little at the speedy ripening of the
acquaintanceship. I did not wonder much, for I knew Mrs. Withers’s
friendly disposition, and her tendency to allude to everybody by his
Christian name. But at the moment a too rash act of swallowing on the
part of Dickie Sebastian, who sat next me, made it my duty towards my
neighbour to thump him on his fat back for fear that we should never
hear his violin again, and my attention was distracted. When the
fish-bone in question had been safely deposited on the edge of his
plate, the telephone had again been ringing, and Mrs. Withers was
retailing the reason for the absence of somebody called Humphrey, whose
place I conjectured that I was now occupying.

During the discussion of the golden plovers provided for the absent Mr.
Chapel, I became aware that Agnes Lockett was being drenched and
bewildered with the flood of celebrated names that was playing on her as
if from some fire-hose. Actors, authors, politicians, social stars,
soldiers and sailors were deluging her, and, without exception, they had
all been here, by their Christian names, last week, or at any rate were
coming next week. Without exception, too, each of them had told Mrs.
Withers in confidence what she repeated now to Agnes, knowing that it
would go no farther. George had assured her of this, Arthur had hinted
that, Jenny had thought this probable, Maudie had scouted the idea
altogether, but however much they had disagreed, it was certain that
they would all be here on Thursday evening, and Agnes could talk to them
herself.

As I listened and looked, I saw that a species of desperation was
seizing Agnes; she was finding the recital absolutely intolerable. Then
an idea seemed to strike her, and looking round to catch a friendly eye,
she caught mine, and spoke to me across the table.

“Have you seen Robert Oriole lately?” she asked in her delicious husky
voice, that was so unlike the canary-tone of Mrs. Withers. But as she
asked me this, she gave me a peremptory affirmative nod of which I could
not miss the significance. I had never heard of Robert Oriole before,
but I was certain that Agnes for some reason of her own insisted that I
did know him, and accordingly I answered in that sense.

“We went to a play together last night,” I said. At that precise moment,
without a pang or a cry, Robert Oriole was born.

* * * * *

The new name, of course, instantly challenged Mrs. Withers’s whole
attention, as Agnes had designed that it should. Devoted as she was to
old and celebrated names, new names that she had never heard of demanded
the keenest of inquiries.

“Robert Oriole?” she said. “Who can it have been who was speaking of
Robert Oriole the other day?”

Agnes’s brilliant smile shot out and sheathed itself again.

“Ah! who isn’t talking about Robert Oriole?” she said.

Much as Mrs. Withers liked appearing to know, she liked really knowing
better, and surrendered.

“Was it Maudie?” she said. “I can’t remember.”

Once against a fresh current of conversation claimed my hearing, but
rather uneasily, I could catch little enthusiastic phrases in what Agnes
was saying to our hostess, and wondered if I should be called upon to
invent anything more about this unknown personage. I could not, a moment
ago, have done otherwise than I had done, for Agnes unmistakably
commanded me to say that I either had or had not seen Robert Oriole
lately. I was bound, at any rate, to convey in my answer that I knew
him, and so it made no particular difference as to whether I had seen
him lately or not, and I had said that we had been to the play together
because I had to say something, and it was clearly much more suitable at
Mrs. Withers’s table to have done that sort of thing.

For all that I knew for certain there might be such a person; but I
strongly suspected that there was something “back of” Robert Oriole, as
our American friends say. What that was I could not conjecture, but I
felt that I was acting under Agnes’s direction in some Secret Service.
My apprehensions increased as I heard his name figuring largely in her
conversation, and were confirmed when, as she passed me on her way out,
she said in a Secret Service undertone, not looking my way as she spoke:

“I shall come back with you almost immediately to your house, where we
must have a serious conversation. For the present just keep your head,
and remember that you know Robert intimately.”

Half an hour later, accordingly, we were seated together in my house.
The wall between mine and Mrs. Withers’s drawing-room was not very
thick, and the bountiful roulades of Dickie Sebastian’s violin were
plainly audible. Agnes, with a flushed face, like a child who had been
triumphiantly mischievous, was sipping barley-water, for she felt
feverish with imagination.

“So that’s that,” she said decisively, after a lurid sketch of what had
happened, “and it’s no use regretting it. We must save all our nervous
force to go through with it.”

“But what made you invent Robert Oriole at all?” I asked. “And then why
have brought me in?”

“I couldn’t help inventing him; it may have been demoniacal possession,
or more likely it was a defensive measure against my going mad, which I
undoubtedly should have done if Mrs. Withers had told me any more at all
of what the great ones of the earth said to her in confidence. I should
either have gone mad, or taken up a handful of those soft chocolates and
rubbed her face with them. So I was obliged to know some glorious
creature whom she didn’t know. Obliged! She knew all the real ones, so I
had to invent one. And does she really call them by their Christian
names?”

“At a distance,” said I.

“Then she ought to do it right. She called John Marrible, Jack, when
nobody else had ever called him anything but John; and she spoke of you
as Frank, whereas nobody had ever called you anything but Francis. In a
week from now she will be calling my darling Robert Oriole, Bob. But he
really is Robbie.”

She put down her empty glass.

“That has calmed me,” she said, “and so now we will get to business. I
must repeat all that I told Mrs. Withers about Robbie. He is thirty-one,
and is the most marvellous airman. He has yellow hair and blue eyes, and
is like the Hermes at Olympia (she thought I meant Earl’s Court). It is
perfectly clear to Mrs. Withers’s ferreting instincts that I am in love
with him; about that you had better say, if she asks you, that we are
merely great friends. He flew over to France about a week ago, piloting
three Cabinet Ministers. They won’t fly with any other pilot—-”

“That won’t do,” said I. “I went to the play with him last night.”

“I am not so stupid as to have forgotten that. He came back yesterday,
and left for Paris again this morning, carrying a new cypher to the
Embassy. He writes the most wonderful poems, which he composes as he is
flying.”

“She will ask for them at Bickers,” said I.

Agnes thought intently for a moment.

“She may ask for them at Bickers,” she said, “but she won’t get them
because they are not published. They are type-written on vellum, and he
lets his friends see them. Perhaps we had better write one or two. What
is vellum?”

My head whirled.

“But what is it all about?” I cried. “I don’t mean his poems, but
himself. Why are you making all this up?”

She looked at me as at a rather stupid child.

“Now, try to understand,” she said. “I invented him originally to save
myself from going mad, and we are making up delicious details about him
to save ourselves from detection. We have both of us said that we know
Robbie Oriole, and so we must know something about him; the more
picturesque the better. We must be able (I have already done so and am
telling you about it) to describe his appearance, his career, his
tastes. If you told somebody you knew me, and couldn’t say anything
definite about me, people would think that you didn’t know me at all.
It’s the same with Robert Oriole: we must be able to tell Mrs. Withers
about him, and say the same thing. You would be quite despicable if,
having said you knew a glorious creature like Robbie, it appeared as if
you didn’t. What a delicious name, too! It came to me in a flash, and I
felt as if I had known him all my life. Fancy poor Mrs. Withers not
knowing Robert Oriole! How bitter for her!”

“Ah, that’s your real reason,” said I. “Now you are serious.”

“Not at all; that is the humorous side of it. It is to save ourselves
that we have got to build up this solid, splendid presentment of our
friend, and that is why I am telling you so carefully all I have said
about him to Mrs. Withers. When it comes to your turn, as it undoubtedly
will, to describe him further, you must always telephone to me at once
what you have said…. Where had we got to? Oh, yes, his poems. Haven’t
you got some joyous little lyrics in your desk which are his? Or better,
some vague morbid little wailings? Yes: that shall be the other side of
Robbie, known only to his most intimate friends. To the world, which
worships him, he is all sunshine and splendour, but to us, his dear
friends, there is another side. His grandmother was a Russian, you must
remember. I think I had better write the poems.”

Somehow, incredibly to myself, the fascination of creating and building
up and furnishing out a wonderful young man like this, who had no
existence whatever, began to gain on me. Also, as Agnes had said, there
was the instinct of self-preservation to spur on the imaginative
faculty. There was also the pleasure of going one better than Mrs.
Withers and of pretending to know intimately somebody whom nobody could
possibly know.

“He is an orphan,” I said. “And may he be an American? That would make
him easier to get rid of than if he was English.”

She shook her head.

“Orphan–yes,” she said. “American–no. I can’t bear American poetry,
and I am sure I couldn’t write it. But his parents lived in India. They
are both dead, and he hasn’t got any relations whatever, which makes him
so romantic and accounts for that salt soul-loneliness in his poems. We
will give him a home–just a little remote house by the sea, in
Cornwall, near St. Ives, and the Atlantic rolls in on the beach in front
of his grey-walled garden. His poems have the beat and rhythm of the
sea—-”

I sprang from my chair.

“Never, never!” I cried. “Mrs. Withers goes to St. Ives every summer.”

“We will give him his home, then, in the Lake District,” said Agnes
thoughtfully. “There is no beat and rhythm of the sea in his poems, but
the eternal melancholy of lakes and mountains. He must have somewhere
pretty far off to go to when he is demobilized, as he will be almost
immediately. His constant presence in London would lead to detection.”

“Then why demobilize him?” I asked. “He can always be in France when it
is convenient to us.”

She was quite firm about this.

“It would never do,” she said. “Mrs. Withers might make inquiries about
him from some General in the Flying Corps. Indeed, I am almost sorry he
was an airman at all, but that can’t be helped now.”

“He can go to India to see his parents’ graves,” said I, “if we want to
get him out of the country for a long period.”

“Yes, but he can’t always be doing that. No one would make constant
visits to India to see graves, however beloved were their occupants.
Besides, it takes so long to go to India and back. He had much better be
in his lovely home in the Lakes, and pay flying visits to London–here
to-day and gone to-morrow–just giving us a new poem on vellum. That
will be much more fun. Oh, a most important point! He must have some
other friends besides us who are worthy of knowing him. John Marrible
will be a nice friend for him; John will appreciate him. I will tell a
few trustworthy people about Robbie, and you must do the same. We will
call ourselves the Oriolists.”

* * * * *

Mrs. Withers, of course, telephoned both to Agnes and to me to bring
Robert Oriole to her party on Thursday evening; but there were so many
new and resplendent friends there that she did not, except for a passing
moment, regret the absence of that poetic airman, who was up in
Westmorland. We had each of us provided him with two or three nice
friends, who were in sympathy with him, but for some days after that he
made no particular developments, and I began to think that, having
served his purpose in protecting Agnes from insanity at Mrs. Withers’s
luncheon party, she was losing interest in her benefactor.

Then suddenly he burst out in renewed glory, for it came to Agnes’s ears
that in allusion to that same luncheon party Mrs. Withers had said to a
mutual friend that dear Aggie had told her the most wonderful things
about the Secret Service which she could not possibly repeat. This was
sufficient to put new life and vigour into Robert Oriole. Agnes–who had
never been called “Aggie” before–dragged me from the music-room at an
evening party, where Dickie Sebastian was playing all that had ever been
written for the violin, and recounted this outrage on the stairs.

“I have seen that woman three times,” she said, “once when I was
introduced to her, once when I lunched with her on the day Robbie was
born, and once when I didn’t bring him to her Thursday evening. And now
I am ‘Aggie,’ and told her all about the Secret Service! I was almost
inclined to let Robbie fade away again, but now she shall see. Heavens!
There she is!”

Dickie Sebastian had ceased for the moment, and a few straggling couples
emerged stealthily from the music-room, the first of whom was Mrs.
Withers and Lord Marrible. Mrs. Withers would have been content, so it
struck me, to kiss her hand to Agnes and pass on, for she had just been
alluding to Aggie again, but since he came to a stop, she was obliged to
wait also. He had already heard that he was “Jack,” and his broad
good-humoured face was a-chink with merriment as he spoke to my
companion.

“Hallo, Aggie!” he said. “Been talking Secret Service on the stairs?”

“Mr. Goodenough and I,” said Agnes carefully, “were waiting for Robbie.
Do go and find him and bring him here by his golden hair.”

“What, is Robbie here?” he asked, thereby conveying to me that he was an
Oriolist. “I didn’t see him. If Robbie is in a room it’s not easy to
miss him. I didn’t even know he was in town.”

“Of course he is,” said Agnes. “Fancy not knowing if Robbie is in town.
You might as well not know—-”

“If the sun is shining,” said I fervently.

“Quite. Lord Marrible, do go back and see if he isn’t there. He and Mr.
Goodenough and I are going back to his flat, and he is going to read to
us. And then he is going to play the piano and then I suppose it will be
time for breakfast before we have talked enough.”

Mrs. Withers rose like a great salmon fresh from the sea, and rushed at
this wonderful lure.

“I never heard anything so improper,” she said. “You and–and Mr.
Goodenough and Robbie Oriole! My dear Miss Lockett, who is chaperoning
you?”

Agnes’s face dimpled into the most delicious smile.

“Ah, we don’t want any chaperon in the sunlight,” she said, as John
shouldered his way back into the music-room.

“Then let me drop you all at his flat,” said Mrs. Withers. “I have my
motor here, and I’m going home now. I am sure it is not out of my way.”

Agnes nudged me with her elbow to indicate that I had to answer this.

“Robbie’s car is here, many thanks,” I said. “It’s waiting for us. I saw
it when I came in.”

“And he plays the piano too?” asked Mrs. Withers.

Agnes laughed.

“Ah, I believe you know him all the time,” she said, “and mean to repeat
to him all the nice things that we say about him. You know him
intimately, I believe, but if you tell me that he has already sent you
those three sonnets he wrote as he flew to Cologne the other day, which
he promised to read us to-night, I don’t think I could bear it. Mr.
Goodenough and I were promised the first hearing of them, and I believe
he has sent them to you already.”

“Indeed he hasn’t,” said Mrs. Withers in a social agony. “I really don’t
know Mr. Oriole, though I am dying to. I hoped you would have brought
him to my little party last Thursday.”

“Thursday, Thursday,” said Agnes. “Yes, I remember: Robbie was up in the
Lakes. Such a pity! He would have loved it, just the sort of party he
adores.”

Mrs. Withers’s brow, that Greek brow with a fillet of crimson velvet
across it, from which depended a splendid pearl, grew slightly
corrugated, and made the pearl tremble. She prided herself on knowing
all her engagements for a week ahead, but the recollection of them was
difficult even to her.

“Sunday at lunch then,” she said. “Will you both come and bring Mr.
Oriole? Tell him how divine it would be if he would read us the Cologne
sonnets.”

“I’ll tell Robbie,” said Agnes, “but as for your chance of finding him
disengaged, I couldn’t promise anything. How his friends grab him when
he appears! Ah, there’s John–I mean Lord Marrible. Well?”

“He simply isn’t here.”

Agnes turned to me.

“Ah, now I remember,” she said. “He told me that if he couldn’t get here
by half-past ten, he wouldn’t come at all, but would just send the car
for us. What time is it now?”

“Eleven,” said I.

“Oh, come quick, then,” said she. “We’ve missed half an hour already.”

Lord Marrible turned to Mrs. Withers.

“Well, you and I must console ourselves with supper,” he said, “as
Robbie hasn’t asked us.”

It was all very well for Agnes to say that we would go quickly, but Mrs.
Withers just clung.

“But wouldn’t he let me come too?” she said. “Mayn’t I drop you at his
door, Miss Lockett, and I would wait while you asked him if I might come
in?”

Agnes’s face dimpled again.

“My dear, if it were possible!” she said. “But with Robbie, however
intimately you know him, you can’t quite do that. You agree with me,
Lord Marrible, I know. But if–if he gives me a copy of the Cologne
sonnets, or lets me make one, you may guess to whom I will show it,
unless he absolutely forbids me to show it to anybody. How tiresome it
is that you don’t know him!”

Mrs. Withers’s pearl trembled again.

“Or if lunch on Sunday won’t suit Mr. Oriole,” she said, “I have got a
few people to dinner on Tuesday and Wednesday, and if you would bring
him then I should be more than charmed.”

She remembered that her hospitable table was crammed on Wednesday, but
there were two or three people who did not matter, and she could easily
tell them that she expected them not that Wednesday but the next….

“Or if he would ring me up and suggest any time,” she added.

Agnes laughed again.

“Too kind of you,” she said, “and how rude of me to laugh! I laughed at
the idea of Robbie telephoning. He can’t bear any modern invention.”

“But he is an airman, isn’t he?” asked Mrs. Withers.

Never have I admired the quickness and felicity of the female mind more
than at that critical moment which would have caused any mere man to
stumble and bungle, and leave an unconvincing impression. There was not
even the “perceptible pause” before Agnes answered.

“Ah, but Robbie says that flying is the effort to recapture bird-life of
a million years ago,” she said. “Birds and angels fly; it is not a
modern discovery, but a celestial and ancient secret now being learned
by us in our clumsy way. Robbie is lyrical about flying. But what bird
or angel ever telephoned? Come, Mr. Goodenough, let us find that car.”

“I forget how he reconciles himself to motoring,” I said. I did not want
to put Agnes in a fix, but only to delight my soul with another instance
of feminine alacrity.

“He doesn’t,” said she brightly. “But then you have got to get to places
quickly, and you can’t fly through the streets of London yet.”

“He sounds too marvellous,” said Mrs. Withers ecstatically. “Sunday,
Tuesday or Wednesday then. Any of them.”

The discerning reader will easily have perceived by this time that both
John Marrible and I were but wax in the inventive hands of Agnes, and
flowed into the shapes that her swift fingers ordained for us.
Occasionally we suggested little curves and decorations of our own,
which she might or might not permit; but we had no independent will in
the matter of Robert Oriole. She was the architect who built this
splendid temple to an imaginary deity in whose honour Mrs. Withers, his
deluded worshipper, swung unregarded censers of asparagus and salmon; at
the most we were the cognisant choir and the organ….

During the next weeks which included the Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday,
on which Mrs. Withers’s hospitality hungered for Robbie, the number of
Oriolists greatly increased, and this secret society became positively
masonic in clandestine fervour and fidelity. I could see at a glance,
without grips of any kind, whether some friend or acquaintance who
inquired after Robbie was a mason or not, for there was a gleeful
solemnity about the initiated Oriolist which the profane crowd lacked.

There were many who now spoke of him, for Mrs. Withers in her frenzied
efforts to capture him and show him at her house, asked everyone she met
if he knew Robbie, and her large circle of uninitiated guests and
acquaintances grew almost as excited about him as she. Those who knew,
the initiates to whom these mysteries had been unveiled, answered
casually enough when they were applied to by Mrs. Withers, but with that
gleeful solemnity which revealed them to each other.

One morning Robbie would have been “stunting” over Richmond, or had
lunched at the Ritz, or had been swimming in the Serpentine before
breakfast, dropping in unexpectedly to entrance Agnes with the
Brahms-Handel variations, or flying back to the Lakes in the afternoon,
and the telephone messages that passed between the houses of the
initiated were cryptic and yet comprehended utterances. Then on an
ever-memorable day two type-written copies of the Cologne sonnets
circulated among the elect, and were secretly read in corners to the
less fortunate.

On another day, Robbie must have called on me when I was out, for I
found his card with his address, “Blaythwaite Fell,” upon it, when I
returned. He was not able to go to Mrs. Withers’s house either on
Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday, but on Friday when she returned from a
concert at which Royalty was present, she found a similar card with
Agnes’s on her table, and all the account her parlour-maid could give
was that Miss Lockett had come to the door with “another gentleman” whom
she had not seen before, for Lord Marrible had not previously come to
the house.

Mrs. Withers, trembling with chagrin (for she had not been presented to
Royalty at the concert, and had missed so much more by not stopping at
home) telephoned to Agnes at once, only to learn that Robbie had that
moment left by air for the Continent.

It is better to describe than to let the reader imagine for himself the
state into which Mrs. Withers was brought during these days, because the
imagination from excess of excited fancy would go wildly astray. For she
did not grow one atom distraught or deranged; she became on the contrary
more concentrated and businesslike than ever. She telephoned daily to
Agnes and me to know whether Robbie–she always spoke of him now as
Robbie–had got back from the Continent, and told us quite firmly that
she would put off any other engagement in order to receive him at her
house, or meet him at any other house.

But pending that consummation she remained as regular and as resonant as
a cuckoo-clock, and struck her social hours with the same fluty
regularity. She did not lose her appetite, or take to cocaine or
opium-smoking or drown herself in the Thames, as imagination might
expect, but kept her head, went up several times in an aeroplane in
order to get used to it in case Robbie on his return suggested an
expedition, and temporarily stole my copy of the Cologne sonnets.

I am not quite sure about this, but I missed them one afternoon when she
had been having tea with me, and found next day that in my absence she
had called and gone into my sitting-room to write a note to me. On my
return I found the note prominently displayed, and the Cologne sonnets
concealed in the blotting-book which I had unsuccessfully searched the
evening before. The case is not proved against her, but certainly after
that she could quote from the Cologne sonnets….

Then one morning, even while I was wondering what made Agnes keep Robbie
so long on the Continent, I was rung up by her maid, and asked to go
round to her at once. In answer to a further inquiry, “It’s about Mr.
Oriole, sir.”

Full of some nameless apprehension, I started instantly on that bright
June morning, feeling sure that at the least Robbie was the victim of
some catastrophe. I was even prepared to learn that Robbie was dead,
though I could not form the slightest conjecture as to what had led to
this sudden demise. Or was Robbie engaged to be married, and had we to
arrange about an elusive female of mysterious charm and antecedents?…

Well, it was not that, but it was even worse, for Agnes was engaged to
John Marrible, who, with the selfishness of his sex, insisted that
Robbie should die. He was with her and put his case. Agnes really seemed
more taken up with Robbie than she was with him, and he demanded her
undivided affection. For her part, she wanted to leave Robbie on the
Continent for future emergencies, and promised not to think about him,
but John objected to that. His head, he told us with a glance at her,
was too full of other things, and he could not trust himself not to give
the whole affair away by some inadvertence of happiness and pride. That
glance settled it; Agnes took a half sheet of paper and wrote on it for
a few minutes in silence.

“I will send it to the principal morning papers,” she said, “and John
shall pay for it. Listen! Will this do?

“_ORIOLE.–On the 17th instant, very suddenly, at Mannheim, Robert,
only son of the late William and Margaret Oriole, of Karachi,
India. Age 31. Deeply lamented. No flowers._

‘_We will grieve not, only find_
_Strength in what remains behind._’”

That appeared next day, and I do not suppose that anybody lamented him
more deeply than Mrs. Withers. She sent Agnes and me charming little
notes of condolence and quoted from one of the Cologne sonnets, and
asked if those touching lines in the notice of his death were by him.

A week or two later, I sat next Mrs. Withers at dinner, and Mr. Chapel
was on her other side.

“Of course, you knew dear Robbie Oriole, Mr. Chapel,” she said. “What a
loss to poetry. Are not those Cologne sonnets the finest in your opinion
since Keats? I was privileged to have a copy of them. You agree with me,
do you not, Mr. Goodenough? Do you remember that marvellous one
beginning, ‘The clouds weep westwards under the scurrilous sky’?”

I hugged myself over not asking who had given her that privilege and
sadly assented. She proceeded to talk to both of us, as her manner was
at the dinner-table, with an intuition wrong in itself, but so
excruciatingly right in general direction that it made me catch my
breath.

“Yes, those sonnets,” she said. “How amazingly feminine they are, both
in their tenderness and bitterness. Or, perhaps, all I mean is that
women will always appreciate them more than men. When I say them over to
myself, as I so often do, I seem to see Robbie reading them to Aggie
Lockett. Certainly, I thought, when she first spoke to me about Robbie,
that she was absolutely devoted to him. Indeed, it gave me a little
shock when I saw to-day that she was to marry Jack Marrible.”

This was almost incredibly wonderful, for Mr. Chapel was one of our most
fervent Oriolists. It was as full of points as a hedgehog; I could not
count them all—-

Then he turned on me the usual look of gleeful solemnity, and I knew we
both wondered who would be the first to tell Aggie.

“Poor Robbie,” he said. “I never knew anybody the least like him. He
will be a sacred memory to us, will he not?”

Mrs. Withers shook her head, regretfully, smiling.

“And the last time he called,” she said, “I was not at home. Of course,
if he had only told me he was coming, I would have thrown over any
engagement to be there, but, as you may not know, he would never use a
telephone. It will always give me a little heartache to think that I was
not there the last time.”

Mr. Chapel let his eyes wander admirably before he caught mine again.

“It is only human to feel that,” he observed in the best style.

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