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THEY AND I (chapter4)

2006-09-08 21:22

    CHAPTER IV

    Our architect arrived on Friday afternoon, or rather, his assistant.

    I felt from the first I was going to like him. He is shy, and that, of course, makes him appear awkward. But, as I explained to Robina, it is the shy young men who, generally speaking, turn out best: few men could have been more painfully shy up to twenty-five than myself.

    Robina said that was different: in the case of an author it did not matter. Robina's attitude towards the literary profession would not annoy me so much were it not typical. To be a literary man is, in Robina's opinion, to be a licensed idiot. It was only a week or two ago that I overheard from my study window a conversation between Veronica and Robina upon this very point. Veronica's eye had caught something lying on the grass. I could not myself see what it was, in consequence of an intervening laurel bush. Veronica stooped down and examined it with care. The next instant, uttering a piercing whoop, she leapt into the air; then, clapping her hands, began to dance. Her face was radiant with a holy joy. Robina, passing near, stopped and demanded explanation.

    "Pa's tennis racket!" shouted Veronica——Veronica never sees the use of talking in an ordinary tone of voice when shouting will do just as well. She continued clapping her hands and taking little bounds into the air.

    "Well, what are you going on like that for?" asked Robina. "It hasn't bit you, has it?"

    "It's been out all night in the wet," shouted Veronica. "He forgot to bring it in."

    "You wicked child!" said Robina severely. "It's nothing to be pleased about."

    "Yes, it is," explained Veronica. "I thought at first it was mine. Oh, wouldn't there have been a talk about it, if it had been! Oh my! wouldn't there have been a row!" She settled down to a steady rhythmic dance, suggestive of a Greek chorus expressing satisfaction with the gods.

    Robina seized her by the shoulders and shook her back into herself. "If it had been yours," said Robina, "you would deserve to have been sent to bed."

    "Well, then, why don't he go to bed?" argued Veronica.

    Robina took her by the arm and walked her up and down just underneath my window. I listened, because the conversation interested me.

    "Pa, as I am always explaining to you," said Robina, "is a literary man. He cannot help forgetting things."

    "Well, I can't help forgetting things," insisted Veronica.

    "You find it hard," explained Robina kindly; "but if you keep on trying you will succeed. You will get more thoughtful. I used to be forgetful and do foolish things once, when I was a little girl."

    "Good thing for us if we was all literary," suggested Veronica.

    "If we 'were' all literary," Robina corrected her. "But you see we are not. You and I and Dick, we are just ordinary mortals. We must try and think, and be sensible. In the same way, when Pa gets excited and raves-I mean, seems to rave——it's the literary temperament. He can't help it."

    "Can't you help doing anything when you are literary?" asked Veronica.

    "There's a good deal you can't help," answered Robina. "It isn't fair to judge them by the ordinary standard."

    They drifted towards the kitchen garden——it was the time of strawberries——and the remainder of the talk I lost. I noticed that for some days afterwards Veronica displayed a tendency to shutting herself up in the schoolroom with a copybook, and that lead pencils had a way of disappearing from my desk. One in particular that had suited me I determined if possible to recover. A subtle instinct guided me to Veronica's sanctum. I found her thoughtfully sucking it. She explained to me that she was writing a little play.

    "You get things from your father, don't you?" she enquired of me.

    "You do," I admitted; "but you ought not to take them without asking. I am always telling you of it. That pencil is the only one I can write with."

    "I didn't mean the pencil," explained Veronica. "I was wondering if I had got your literary temper." It is puzzling, when you come to think of it, this estimate accorded by the general public to the litterateur. It stands to reason that the man who writes books, explaining everything and putting everybody right, must be himself an exceptionally clever man; else how could he do it! The thing is pure logic. Yet to listen to Robina and her like you might think we had not sense enough to run ourselves, as the saying is——let alone running the universe. If I would let her, Robina would sit and give me information by the hour.

    "The ordinary girl . . . " Robina will begin, with the air of a University Extension Lecturer.

    It is so exasperating. As if I did not know all there is to be known about girls! Why, it is my business. I point this out to Robina.

    "Yes, I know," Robina will answer sweetly. "But I was meaning the real girl."

    It would make not the slightest difference were I even quite a high-class literary man——Robina thinks I am: she is a dear child. Were I Shakespeare himself, and could I in consequence say to her: "Methinks, child, the creator of Ophelia and Juliet, and Rosamund and Beatrice, must surely know something about girls," Robina would still make answer:

    "Of course, Pa dear. Everybody knows how clever you are. But I was thinking for the moment of real girls."

    I wonder to myself sometimes, Is literature to the general reader ever anything more than a fairy-tale? We write with our heart's blood, as we put it. We ask our conscience, Is it right thus to lay bare the secrets of our souls? The general reader does not grasp that we are writing with our heart's blood: to him it is just ink. He does not believe we are laying bare the secrets of our souls: he takes it we are just pretending. "Once upon a time there lived a girl named Angelina who loved a party by the name of Edwin." He imagines——he, the general reader——when we tell him all the wonderful thoughts that were inside Angelina, that it was we who put them there. He does not know, he will not try to understand, that Angelina is in reality more real than is Miss Jones, who rides up every morning in the 'bus with him, and has a pretty knack of rendering conversation about the weather novel and suggestive. As a boy I won some popularity among my schoolmates as a teller of stories. One afternoon, to a small collection with whom I was homing across Regent's Park, I told the story of a beautiful Princess. But she was not the ordinary Princess. She would not behave as a Princess should. I could not help it. The others heard only my voice, but I was listening to the wind. She thought she loved the Prince——until he had wounded the Dragon unto death and had carried her away into the wood. Then, while the Prince lay sleeping, she heard the Dragon calling to her in its pain, and crept back to where it lay bleeding, and put her arms about its scaly neck and kissed it; and that healed it. I was hoping myself that at this point it would turn into a prince itself, but it didn't; it just remained a dragon—— so the wind said. Yet the Princess loved it: it wasn't half a bad dragon, when you knew it. I could not tell them what became of the Prince: the wind didn't seem to care a hang about the Prince.

    Myself, I liked the story, but Hocker, who was a Fifth Form boy, voicing our little public, said it was rot, so far, and that I had got to hurry up and finish things rightly.

    "But that is all," I told them.

    "No, it isn't," said Hocker. "She's got to marry the Prince in the end. He'll have to kill the Dragon again; and mind he does it properly this time. Whoever heard of a Princess leaving a Prince for a Dragon!"

    "But she wasn't the ordinary sort of Princess," I argued.

    "Then she's got to be," criticised Hocker. "Don't you give yourself so many airs. You make her marry the Prince, and be slippy about it. I've got to catch the four-fifteen from Chalk Farm station."

    "But she didn't," I persisted obstinately. "She married the Dragon and lived happy ever afterwards."

    Hocker adopted sterner measures. He seized my arm and twisted it behind me.

    "She married who?" demanded Hocker: grammar was not Hocker's strong point.

    "The Dragon," I growled.

    "She married who?" repeated Hocker.

    "The Dragon," I whined. "She married who?" for the third time urged Hocker.

    Hocker was strong, and the tears were forcing themselves into my eyes in spite of me. So the Princess in return for healing the Dragon made it promise to reform. It went back with her to the Prince, and made itself generally useful to both of them for the rest of the tour. And the Prince took the Princess home with him and married her; and the Dragon died and was buried. The others liked the story better, but I hated it; and the wind sighed and died away.

    The little crowd becomes the reading public, and Hocker grows into an editor; he twists my arm in other ways. Some are brave, so the crowd kicks them and scurries off to catch the four-fifteen. But most of us, I fear, are slaves to Hocker. Then, after awhile, the wind grows sulky and will not tell us stories any more, and we have to make them up out of our own heads. Perhaps it is just as well. What were doors and windows made for but to keep out the wind.

    He is a dangerous fellow, this wandering Wind; he leads me astray. I was talking about our architect.

    He made a bad start, so far as Robina was concerned, by coming in at the back-door. Robina, in a big apron, was washing up. He apologised for having blundered into the kitchen, and offered to go out again and work round to the front. Robina replied, with unnecessary severity as I thought, that an architect, if anyone, might have known the difference between the right side of a house and the wrong; but presumed that youth and inexperience could always be pleaded as excuse for stupidity. I cannot myself see why Robina should have been so much annoyed. Labour, as Robina had been explaining to Veronica only a few hours before, exalts a woman. In olden days, ladies——the highest in the land-were proud, not ashamed, of their ability to perform domestic duties. This, later on, I pointed out to Robina. Her answer was that in olden days you didn't have chits of boys going about, calling themselves architects, and opening back-doors without knocking; or if they did knock, knocking so that nobody on earth could hear them.

    Robina wiped her hands on the towel behind the door, and brought him into the front-room, where she announced him, coldly, as "The young man from the architect's office." He explained——but quite modestly—— that he was not exactly Messrs. Spreight's young man, but an architect himself, a junior member of the firm. To make it clear he produced his card, which was that of Mr. Archibald T. Bute, F.R.I.B.A. Practically speaking, all this was unnecessary. Through the open door I had, of course, heard every word; and old Spreight had told me of his intention to send me one of his most promising assistants, who would be able to devote himself entirely to my work. I put matters right by introducing him formally to Robina. They bowed to one another rather stiffly. Robina said that if he would excuse her she would return to her work; and he answered "Charmed," and also that he didn't mean it. As I have tried to get it into Robina's head, the young fellow was confused. He had meant——it was self-evident——that he was charmed at being introduced to her, not at her desire to return to the kitchen. But Robina appears to have taken a dislike to him.

    I gave him a cigar, and we started for the house. It lies just a mile from this cottage, the other side of the wood. One excellent trait in him I soon discovered——he is intelligent without knowing everything.

    I confess it to my shame, but the young man who knows everything has come to pall upon me. According to Emerson, this is a proof of my own intellectual feebleness. The strong man, intellectually, cultivates the society of his superiors. He wants to get on, he wants to learn things. If I loved knowledge as one should, I would have no one but young men about me. There was a friend of Dick's, a gentleman from Rugby. At one time he had hopes of me; I felt he had. But he was too impatient. He tried to bring me on too quickly. You must take into consideration natural capacity. After listening to him for an hour or two my mind would wander. I could not help it. The careless laughter of uninformed middle-aged gentlemen and ladies would creep to me from the croquet lawn or from the billiard-room. I longed to be among them. Sometimes I would battle with my lower nature. What did they know? What could they tell me? More often I would succumb. There were occasions when I used to get up and go away from him, quite suddenly.

    I talked with young Bute during our walk about domestic architecture in general. He said he should describe the present tendency in domestic architecture as towards corners. The desire of the British public was to go into a corner and live. A lady for whose husband his firm had lately built a house in Surrey had propounded to him a problem in connection with this point. She agreed it was a charming house; no house in Surrey had more corners, and that was saying much. But she could not see how for the future she was going to bring up her children. She was a humanely minded lady. Hitherto she had punished them, when needful, by putting them in the corner; the shame of it had always exercised upon them a salutary effect. But in the new house corners are reckoned the prime parts of every room. It is the honoured guest who is sent into the corner. The father has a corner sacred to himself, with high up above his head a complicated cupboard, wherein with the help of a step-ladder, he may keep his pipes and his tobacco, and thus by slow degrees cure himself of the habit of smoking. The mother likewise has her corner, where stands her spinning-wheel, in case the idea comes to her to weave sheets and underclothing. It also has a book-shelf supporting thirteen volumes, arranged in a sloping position to look natural; the last one maintained at its angle of forty-five degrees by a ginger-jar in old blue Nankin. You are not supposed to touch them, because that would disarrange them. Besides which, fooling about, you might upset the ginger-jar. The consequence of all this is the corner is no longer disgraceful. The parent can no more say to the erring child:

    "You wicked boy! Go into the cosy corner this very minute!"

    In the house of the future the place of punishment will have to be the middle of the room. The angry mother will exclaim:

    "Don't you answer me, you saucy minx! You go straight into the middle of the room, and don't you dare to come out of it till I tell you!"

    The difficulty with the artistic house is finding the right people to put into it. In the picture the artistic room never has anybody in it. There is a strip of art embroidery upon the table, together with a bowl of roses. Upon the ancient high-backed settee lies an item of fancy work, unfinished——just as she left it. In the "study" an open book, face downwards, has been left on a chair. It is the last book he was reading——it has never been disturbed. A pipe of quaint design is cold upon the lintel of the lattice window. No one will ever smoke that pipe again: it must have been difficult to smoke at any time. The sight of the artistic room, as depicted in the furniture catalogue, always brings tears to my eyes. People once inhabited these rooms, read there those old volumes bound in vellum, smoked——or tried to smoke——these impracticable pipes; white hands, that someone maybe had loved to kiss, once fluttered among the folds of these unfinished antimacassars, or Berlin wool-work slippers, and went away, leaving the things about.

    One takes it that the people who once occupied these artistic rooms are now all dead. This was their "Dining-Room." They sat on those artistic chairs. They could hardly have used the dinner service set out upon the Elizabethan dresser, because that would have left the dresser bare: one assumes they had an extra service for use, or else that they took their meals in the kitchen. The "Entrance Hall" is a singularly chaste apartment. There is no necessity for a door-mat: people with muddy boots, it is to be presumed, were sent round to the back. A riding-cloak, the relic apparently of a highwayman, hangs behind the door. It is the sort of cloak you would expect to find there——a decorative cloak. An umbrella or a waterproof cape would be fatal to the whole effect.

    Now and again the illustrator of the artistic room will permit a young girl to come and sit there. But she has to be a very carefully selected girl. To begin with, she has got to look and dress as though she had been born at least three hundred years ago. She has got to have that sort of clothes, and she has got to have her hair done just that way.

    She has got to look sad; a cheerful girl in the artistic room would jar one's artistic sense. One imagines the artist consulting with the proud possessor of the house.

    "You haven't got such a thing as a miserable daughter, have you? Some fairly good-looking girl who has been crossed in love, or is misunderstood. Because if so, you might dress her up in something out of the local museum and send her along. A little thing like that gives verisimilitude to a design."

    She must not touch anything. All she may do is to read a book——not really read it, that would suggest too much life and movement: she sits with the book in her lap and gazes into the fire, if it happens to be the dining-room: or out of the window if it happens to be a morning-room, and the architect wishes to call attention to the window-seat. Nothing of the male species, as far as I have been able to ascertain, has ever entered these rooms. I once thought I had found a man who had been allowed into his own "Smoking-Den," but on closer examination it turned out he was only a portrait.

    Sometimes one is given "Vistas." Doors stand open, and you can see right away through "The Nook" into the garden. There is never a living soul about the place. The whole family has been sent out for a walk or locked up in the cellars. This strikes you as odd until you come to think the matter out. The modern man and woman is not artistic. I am not artistic——not what I call really artistic. I don't go well with Gobelin tapestry and warming-pans. I feel I don't. Robina is not artistic, not in that sense. I tried her once with a harpsichord I picked up cheap in Wardour Street, and a reproduction of a Roman stool. The thing was an utter failure. A cottage piano, with a photo-frame and a fern upon, it is what the soul cries out for in connection with Robina. Dick is not artistic. Dick does not go with peacocks' feathers and guitars. I can see Dick with a single peacock's feather at St. Giles's Fair, when the bulldogs are not looking; but the decorative panel of peacock's feathers is too much for him. I can imagine him with a banjo——but a guitar decorated with pink ribbons! To begin with he is not dressed for it. Unless a family be prepared to make themselves up as troubadours or cavaliers and to talk blank verse, I don't see how they can expect to be happy living in these fifteenth-century houses. The modern family——the old man in baggy trousers and a frock-coat he could not button if he tried to; the mother of figure distinctly Victorian; the boys in flannel suits and collars up to their ears; the girls in motor caps——are as incongruous in these mediaeval dwellings as a party of Cook's tourists drinking bottled beer in the streets of Pompeii.

    The designer of "The Artistic Home" is right in keeping to still life. In the artistic home——to paraphrase Dr. Watts——every prospect pleases and only man is inartistic. In the picture, the artistic bedroom, "in apple green, the bedstead of cherry-wood, with a touch of turkey-red throughout the draperies," is charming. It need hardly be said the bed is empty. Put a man or woman in that cherry-wood bed——I don't care how artistic they may think themselves——the charm would be gone. The really artistic party, one supposes, has a little room behind, where he sleeps and dresses himself. He peeps in at the door of this artistic bedroom, maybe occasionally enters to change the roses.

    Imagine the artistic nursery five minutes after the real child had been let loose in it. I know a lady who once spent hundreds of pounds on an artistic nursery. She showed it to her friends with pride. The children were allowed in there on Sunday afternoons. I did an equally silly thing myself not long ago. Lured by a furniture catalogue, I started Robina in a boudoir. I gave it to her as a birthday-present. We have both regretted it ever since. Robina reckons she could have had a bicycle, a diamond bracelet, and a mandoline, and I should have saved money. I did the thing well. I told the furniture people I wanted it just as it stood in the picture: "Design for bedroom and boudoir combined, suitable for young girl, in teak, with sparrow blue hangings." We had everything: the antique fire arrangements that a vestal virgin might possibly have understood; the candlesticks, that were pictures in themselves, until we tried to put candles in them; the book-case and writing-desk combined, that wasn't big enough to write on, and out of which it was impossible to get a book until you had abandoned the idea of writing and had closed the cover; the enclosed washstand, that shut down and looked like an old bureau, with the inevitable bowl of flowers upon it that had to be taken off and put on the floor whenever you wanted to use the thing as a washstand; the toilet-table, with its cunning little glass, just big enough to see your nose in; the bedstead, hidden away behind the "thinking corner," where the girl couldn't get at it to make it. A prettier room you could not have imagined, till Robina started sleeping in it. I think she tried. Girl friends of hers, to whom she had bragged about it, would drop in and ask to be allowed to see it. Robina would say, "Wait a minute," and would run up and slam the door; and we would hear her for the next half-hour or so rushing round opening and shutting drawers and dragging things about. By the time it was a boudoir again she was exhausted and irritable. She wants now to give it up to Veronica, but Veronica objects to the position, which is between the bathroom and my study. Her idea is a room more removed, where she would be able to shut herself in and do her work, as she explains, without fear of interruption.

    Young Bute told me that a friend of his, a well-to-do young fellow, who lived in Piccadilly, had had the whim to make his flat the reproduction of a Roman villa. There were of course no fires, the rooms were warmed by hot air from the kitchen. They had a cheerless aspect on a November afternoon, and nobody knew exactly where to sit. Light was obtained in the evening from Grecian lamps, which made it easy to understand why the ancient Athenians, as a rule, went to bed early. You dined sprawling on a couch. This was no doubt practicable when you took your plate into your hand and fed yourself with your fingers; but with a knife and fork the meal had all the advantages of a hot picnic. You did not feel luxurious or even wicked: you only felt nervous about your clothes. The thing lacked completeness. He could not expect his friends to come to him in Roman togas, and even his own man declined firmly to wear the costume of a Roman slave. The compromise was unsatisfactory, even from the purely pictorial point of view. You cannot be a Roman patrician of the time of Antoninus when you happen to live in Piccadilly at the opening of the twentieth century. All you can do is to make your friends uncomfortable and spoil their dinner for them. Young Bute said that, so far as he was concerned, he would always rather have spent the evening with his little nephews and nieces, playing at horses; it seemed to him a more sensible game.

    Young Bute said that, speaking as an architect, he of course admired the ancient masterpieces of his art. He admired the Erechtheum at Athens; but Spurgeon's Tabernacle in the Old Kent Road built upon the same model would have irritated him. For a Grecian temple you wanted Grecian skies and Grecian girls. He said that, even as it was, Westminster Abbey in the season was an eyesore to him. The Dean and Choir in their white surplices passed muster, but the congregation in its black frock-coats and Paris hats gave him the same sense of incongruity as would a banquet of barefooted friars in the dining- hall of the Cannon Street Hotel.

    It struck me there was sense in what he said. I decided not to mention my idea of carving  above the front-door.

    He said he could not understand this passion of the modern house-builder for playing at being a Crusader or a Canterbury Pilgrim. A retired Berlin boot-maker of his acquaintance had built himself a miniature Roman Castle near Heidelberg. They played billiards in the dungeon, and let off fireworks on the Kaiser's birthday from the roof of the watchtower.

    Another acquaintance of his, a draper at Holloway, had built himself a moated grange. The moat was supplied from the water-works under special arrangement, and all the electric lights were imitation candles. He had done the thing thoroughly. He had even designed a haunted chamber in blue, and a miniature chapel, which he used as a telephone closet. Young Bute had been invited down there for the shooting in the autumn. He said he could not be sure whether he was doing right or wrong, but his intention was to provide himself with a bow and arrows.

    A change was coming over this young man. We had talked on other subjects and he had been shy and deferential. On this matter of bricks and mortar he spoke as one explaining things.

    I ventured to say a few words in favour of the Tudor house. The Tudor house, he argued, was a fit and proper residence for the Tudor citizen——for the man whose wife rode behind him on a pack-saddle, who conducted his correspondence by the help of a moss-trooper. The Tudor fireplace was designed for folks to whom coal was unknown, and who left their smoking to their chimneys. A house that looked ridiculous with a motor-car before the door, where the electric bell jarred upon one's sense of fitness every time one heard it, was out of date, he maintained.

    "For you, sir," he continued, "a twentieth-century writer, to build yourself a Tudor House would be as absurd as for Ben Jonson to have planned himself a Norman Castle with a torture-chamber underneath the wine-cellar, and the fireplace in the middle of the dining-hall. His fellow cronies of the Mermaid would have thought him stark, staring mad." There was reason in what he was saying. I decided not to mention my idea of altering the chimneys and fixing up imitation gables, especially as young Bute seemed pleased with the house, which by this time we had reached.

    "Now, that is a good house," said young Bute. "That is a house where a man in a frock-coat and trousers can sit down and not feel himself a stranger from another age. It was built for a man who wore a frock-coat and trousers——on weekdays, maybe, gaiters and a shooting- coat. You can enjoy a game of billiards in that house without the feeling that comes to you when playing tennis in the shadow of the Pyramids."

    We entered, and I put before him my notions——such of them as I felt he would approve. We were some time about the business, and when we looked at our watches young Bute's last train to town had gone. There still remained much to talk about, and I suggested he should return with me to the cottage and take his luck. I could sleep with Dick and he could have my room. I told him about the cow, but he said he was a practised sleeper and would be delighted, if I could lend him a night-shirt, and if I thought Miss Robina would not be put out. I assured him that it would be a good thing for Robina; the unexpected guest would be a useful lesson to her in housekeeping. Besides, as I pointed out to him, it didn't really matter even if Robina were put out.

    "Not to you, sir, perhaps," he answered, with a smile. "It is not with you that she will be indignant."

    "That will be all right, my boy," I told him; "I take all responsibility."

    "And I shall get all the blame," he laughed.

    But, as I pointed out to him, it really didn't matter whom Robina blamed. We talked about women generally on our way back. I told him——impressing upon him there was no need for it to go farther——that I personally had come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with women was to treat them all as children. He agreed it might be a good method, but wanted to know what you did when they treated you as a child.

    I know a most delightful couple: they have been married nearly twenty years, and both will assure you that an angry word has never passed between them. He calls her his "Little One," although she must be quite six inches taller than himself, and is never tired of patting her hand or pinching her ear. They asked her once in the drawing-room——so the Little Mother tells me——her recipe for domestic bliss. She said the mistake most women made was taking men too seriously.

    "They are just overgrown children, that's all they are, poor dears," she laughed.

    There are two kinds of love: there is the love that kneels and looks upward, and the love that looks down and pats. For durability I am prepared to back the latter.

    The architect had died out of young Bute; he was again a shy young man during our walk back to the cottage. My hand was on the latch when he stayed me.

    "Isn't this the back-door again, sir?" he enquired.

    It was the back-door; I had not noticed it.

    "Hadn't we better go round to the front, sir, don't you think?" he said.

    "It doesn't matter——" I began.

    But he had disappeared. So I followed him, and we entered by the front. Robina was standing by the table, peeling potatoes.

    "I have brought Mr. Bute back with me," I explained. "He is going to stop the night."

    Robina said: "If ever I go to live in a cottage again it will have one door." She took her potatoes with her and went upstairs.

    "I do hope she isn't put out," said young Bute.

    "Don't worry yourself," I comforted him. "Of course she isn't put out. Besides, I don't care if she is. She's got to get used to being put out; it's part of the lesson of life."

    I took him upstairs, meaning to show him his bedroom and take my own things out of it. The doors of the two bedrooms were opposite one another. I made a mistake and opened the wrong door. Robina, still peeling potatoes, was sitting on the bed.

    I explained we had made a mistake. Robina said it was of no consequence whatever, and, taking the potatoes with her, went downstairs again. Looking out of the window, I saw her making towards the wood. She was taking the potatoes with her.

    "I do wish we hadn't opened the door of the wrong room," groaned young Bute.

    "What a worrying chap you are!" I said to him. "Look at the thing from the humorous point of view. It's funny when you come to think of it. Wherever the poor girl goes, trying to peel her potatoes in peace and quietness, we burst in upon her. What we ought to do now is to take a walk in the wood. It is a pretty wood. We might say we had come to pick wild flowers."

    But I could not persuade him. He said he had letters to write, and, if I would allow him, would remain in his room till dinner was ready.

    Dick and Veronica came in a little later. Dick had been to see Mr. St. Leonard to arrange about lessons in farming. He said he thought I should like the old man, who wasn't a bit like a farmer. He had brought Veronica back in one of her good moods, she having met there and fallen in love with a donkey. Dick confided to me that, without committing himself, he had hinted to Veronica that if she would remain good for quite a long while I might be induced to buy it for her. It was a sturdy little animal, and could be made useful. Anyhow, it would give Veronica an object in life——something to strive for——which was just what she wanted. He is a thoughtful lad at times, is Dick.

    The dinner was more successful than I had hoped for. Robina gave us melon as a hors d'oeuvre, followed by sardines and a fowl, with potatoes and vegetable marrow. Her cooking surprised me. I had warned young Bute that it might be necessary to regard this dinner rather as a joke than as an evening meal, and was prepared myself to extract amusement from it rather than nourishment. My disappointment was agreeable. One can always imagine a comic dinner.

    I dined once with a newly married couple who had just returned from their honeymoon. We ought to have sat down at eight o'clock; we sat down instead at half-past ten. The cook had started drinking in the morning; by seven o'clock she was speechless. The wife, giving up hope at a quarter to eight, had cooked the dinner herself. The other guests were sympathised with, but all I got was congratulation. "He'll write something so funny about this dinner," they said.

    You might have thought the cook had got drunk on purpose to oblige me. I have never been able to write anything funny about that dinner; it depresses me to this day, merely thinking of it.

    We finished up with a cold trifle and some excellent coffee that Robina brewed over a lamp on the table while Dick and Veronica cleared away. It was one of the jolliest little dinners I have ever eaten; and, if Robina's figures are to be trusted, cost exactly six- and-fourpence for the five of us. There being no servants about, we talked freely and enjoyed ourselves. I began once at a dinner to tell a good story about a Scotchman, when my host silenced me with a look. He is a kindly man, and had heard the story before. He explained to me afterwards, over the walnuts, that his parlourmaid was Scotch and rather touchy. The talk fell into the discussion of Home Rule, and again our host silenced us. It seemed his butler was an Irishman and a violent Parnellite. Some people can talk as though servants were mere machines, but to me they are human beings, and their presence hampers me. I know my guests have not heard the story before, and from one's own flesh and blood one expects a certain amount of sacrifice. But I feel so sorry for the housemaid who is waiting; she must have heard it a dozen times. I really cannot inflict it upon her again.

    After dinner we pushed the table into a corner, and Dick extracted a sort of waltz from Robina's mandoline. It is years since I danced; but Veronica said she would rather dance with me any day than with some of the "lumps" you were given to drag round by the dancing-mistress. I have half a mind to take it up again. After all, a man is only as old as he feels.

    Young Bute, it turned out, was a capital dancer, and could even reverse, which in a room fourteen feet square is of advantage. Robina confided to me after he was gone that while he was dancing she could just tolerate him. I cannot myself see rhyme or reason in Robina's objection to him. He is not handsome, but he is good- looking, as boys go, and has a pleasant smile. Robina says it is his smile that maddens her. Dick agrees with me that there is sense in him; and Veronica, not given to loose praise, considers his performance of a Red Indian, both dead and alive, the finest piece of acting she has ever encountered. We wound up the evening with a little singing. The extent of Dick's repertoire surprised me; evidently he has not been so idle at Cambridge as it seemed. Young Bute has a baritone voice of some richness. We remembered at quarter-past eleven that Veronica ought to have gone to bed at eight. We were all of us surprised at the lateness of the hour.

    "Why can't we always live in a cottage and do just as we like? I'm sure it's much jollier," Veronica put it to me as I kissed her good night.

    "Because we are idiots, most of us, Veronica," I answered.

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