A lame dogs diary, p.11
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       A Lame Dog's Diary, p.11

           S. Macnaughtan
 
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  CHAPTER XI.

  Last night we dined at the Darcey-Jacobs'. Mrs. Darcey-Jacobs isenjoying "one breath of life" at a hotel with the Major, and she hasleft quite a pathetic number of visiting-cards on all her friends, sothat her short London season may be as full of gaiety as possible.Neither of us looked forward to the dinner-party being particularlylively, but we were a good deal amused at the turn the conversationtook during dinner. I have often thought since that a certain dumbnesswhich falls upon some entertainments can be dispersed if the subject ofmatrimony is started, and I will class with it a discussion on food,and personal experience at the hand of the dentist. Any of these threesubjects can be thrown, as it were, into the stagnant deep waters of avoiceless party, and the surface will be instantly rippled with eagerconversation.

  Talk flagged a little in the private sitting-room of the hotel wherethe Darcey-Jacobs gave their dinner-party. Major Jacobs, in hisguileless way, gave us an exhaustive list of the friends whom they hadinvited for that evening, but who had not been able to come; and thishad a curiously depressing effect upon us all, and within ourselves wespeculated unhappily as to whether we had been asked to fill up vacantplaces.

  "Why are men always allowed to blunder?" said Mrs. Darcey-Jacobs,looking over her high nose at the gentleman next her, and tapping himon the arm with her lorgnettes.

  Major Jacobs, from his end of the table, looked penitent but mystified.

  "Happy is the woman," said Mrs. Darcey-Jacobs, "who has no men abouther."

  "I should like to have been born a widow," said a pretty girl withbeseeching blue eyes and a soft, confiding expression, who sat a littlelower down on my side of the table. And then the subject of matrimonywas in full swing.

  "Marriage is just an experience," said a shrill-voiced American widowwho sat opposite. "Every one should try it, but that is no reason whyone should not be thankful when it is over."

  "I am much interested in what you say," said Mrs. Darcey-Jacobs, with acertain profound air suitable to so great a subject. One felt the wantof the Jamiesons sadly during the ensuing discussion, and I almostfound myself, in the words of Mettie, making the suggestion thatmarriage was a great risk.

  "Some one once said," ventured Major Darcey-Jacobs, "that choosing awife was like choosing a profession--it did not matter much what yourchoice was, so long as you stuck to it. It was a mere figure ofspeech, no doubt----"

  "I hope so, indeed," said Mrs. Darcey-Jacobs.

  "Marriage is the worst form of gambling," broke in an elderlygentleman; "it should be suppressed by law. Talk about lotteries!Talk about sweepstakes! Why, the worst you can do, if you put yourmoney into them, is to draw a blank. Now, this is fair play, Iconsider; you either get a prize or you get nothing. But matrimony,sir, is a swindle compared with which the Missing Word Competitionappears like a legal document beside a forged bank-note."

  If the old gentleman had a wife present she was evidently of a callousdisposition, for I saw no wrathful expression on any face.

  Mr. Ellicomb--even in London Ellicomb and Anthony Crawshay are asked tomeet us--gave it as his opinion that a woman's hand was wanted in thehome. The voice was the voice of Ellicomb, the sentiment was thesentiment of Maud, and Palestrina and I very nearly exchanged glances.

  After this, several people began to describe at one and the same time,in quite a breathless way, their own personal experiences of thehappiness of wedded life.

  "Of course," said Major Darcey-Jacobs, "a deal of forbearance must beexercised if married life is to be a success." And Mrs. Darcey-Jacobssaid quickly, "I hope you do not intend to become personal, William."To which William replied that no such intention had been his.

  Anthony said in his cheery voice, "Of course it is give and take, don'tyou know, and then it is all right."

  Every one volunteered ideas on the subject--not once, but severaltimes. And those who applauded the happy state shouted each other downby quoting examples of wedded bliss in such words as: "Look atHawkins!" "Look at Jones!" "Look at the Menteiths!"

  Quite suddenly Mrs. Darcey-Jacobs leaned across the table, smiled ather husband, and remarked, "Look at us, William!"

  I do not think I have ever seen any one look so astonished as MajorJacobs. "That was very pretty of Maria," he said in a low voice; "verypretty of her, by Gad!" And we caught him looking at his wife severaltimes that evening with a puzzled but delighted expression on his face.

  After dinner we played Bridge. "I disapprove of the game myself," saidMrs. Darcey-Jacobs, who certainly was the worst player I have ever met,"but Mrs. Fielden likes it, and she has promised to come in in theevening."

  Mrs. Fielden arrived at the same time as Colonel Jardine, and theyplayed as partners together, with me and the American widow asopponents. Colonel Jardine wore some kind of lead ring on his finger,which he said cured gout, and gathered up his tricks in a stiff sort ofway. He had a pet name for almost every card in the pack, and hebabbled on without once ceasing throughout the rubber. "Now we'll seewhere old Mossy Face is. I think that draws the Curse of Scotland.Kinky takes that," and so on. It was perfectly maddening, but Mrs.Fielden seemed quite pleased. I don't suppose she ever feelsirritated. The American widow, who was my partner, was only justlearning the game. When I said to her, "May I play?" she alwaysreplied, if she had a bad hand, "No, certainly not." And when it waspointed out to her that she had either to say, "If you please," or "Idouble," she replied, "Don't ask me if you may play, if you mean to doit whether I like it or not." She always gave us such items ofinformation as "I know what I should say if it was left to me thistime," and she frequently doubled with nothing at all in her hand,because she said she liked to play a plucky game.

  I have tried to cure Mrs. Fielden of saying "dah-monds" when she means"diamonds," but it is quite useless. She also says (with a radiantsmile) "How tarsome!" when she has lost a rubber, although I havepointed out to her that that is not the phonetic pronunciation of theword. When we are all wrangling over the mistakes and misdeeds of thelast round, Mrs. Fielden looks hopelessly at us and says, "Is it anyone's deal?" And then we laugh and stop arguing. She never keeps thescore, or picks up the cards, or deals for herself, or does anythinguseful.

  The American widow did not stop talking most of the time, and theColonel kept up his running commentary upon the cards he was playing,and then Mrs. Darcey-Jacobs joined us to look on, and she and theAmerican widow plunged into a discussion on clothes, which they kept upvigorously all the time. This necessitated a number of questionsrelating to the game from the American widow, whenever she was recalledto the fact that she was playing Bridge: "May I see that laast trick?What's trumps? Does my hand go down on the table this time?" Mrs.Fielden beamed kindly upon her, even when the widow had debated fiveminutes which card to lead, and Colonel Jardine had begun to play thechromatic scale of impatience up and down the table with his stifffingers.

  "Waal," said the American widow to Mrs. Fielden, "I think you are justlovely, and I would like to play with you always. I believe mostpeople would like to kill me at Bridge. Caan't think why. ColonelJardine, did you play the lost chord?"

  "I know the tune," said the Colonel; "but I don't play at all."

  The American turned bewildered eyes upon Mrs. Fielden, who said,smiling, "Colonel Jardine is practising the chromatic scale. I thinkhe will be a very good player some day."

  "How was I to know," said the Colonel, spluttering over hiswhisky-and-soda when the American widow had left, "that she meant thelast card? That woman would drive me crazy in six weeks."

  "I liked her," said Mrs. Fielden, "and she is very pretty."

  There is a certain large-heartedness about this pretty woman of fashionand of the world which constrains her to say something kind about everyone. With her the absent are always right, and I do not think I haveever heard her say an unkind word about any one. At Stanby, whenpeople who are staying there make a newly-departed guest run thegauntlet of criticism--not always of the kindest sort--Mrs
. Fieldensays, in that royal fashion of hers which makes her approval the finaldecision in all matters, "I liked him." And the departed guest'scharacter and reputation are safe. Her charity is boundless and quiteindiscriminate, save that she sends a trifle more rain and sunshine onthe unjust than on the just.

  "Come to lunch with me some day," she said to me in the off-hand way inwhich she generally gives an invitation. "I am always at home at twoo'clock. Why not come to-morrow? You are leaving town almostimmediately, are you not?"

  Mrs. Darcey-Jacobs is also asked to lunch; every one is asked to lunch.When one goes to the pretty widow's house in South Street one generallyfinds a dozen people lunching with her.

  ... She came into the room--late, of course--and found ten or twelvepeople waiting for lunch. "I am so sorry! Do you all know eachother?" she asked of the rather constrained group of strangers makingfrigid conversation to each other in the flower-filled drawing-room.And then she began to introduce us to each other, and forgot half ournames, and we went downstairs in a buzz of conversation and laughter,and filled with something that is odd and magnetic, which only comeswhen Mrs. Fielden arrives.

  As is always the way at her lunch-parties, her carriage drives up tothe door before any one has finished coffee, and then we all saygood-bye, complaining of the rush of London.

  "I want you to drive with me this afternoon," said Mrs. Fielden, when Iwith the others was saying good-bye. I think she generally singlessomebody out for a drive or a long talk, or to take her to apicture-gallery after lunch, and it is done in a way that makes the onethus singled out feel foolishly elated and flattered.

  "I think we are going to drive down to Richmond and see some trees andgrass, and behave in a rural sort of way this afternoon," she announcedas she seated herself in the carriage.

  "And what about all your engagements for this afternoon?" I asked."And the Red Book, and the visiting-list, and the shopping-list, andthe visiting-cards, which I see with you?"

  "I never keep engagements," said Mrs. Fielden; "and every one knows mymemory is so bad that they always forgive me. Some one gave me alittle notebook the other day, with my initials in silver upon it--Ican't remember who it was--and I put down in it all the tarsome thingsI ought to do, and then I lost the little pocket-book."

  "If I ever find it," I said, "I shall bring it to you, and read out allyour tarsome engagements to you."

  "I didn't say 'tarsome,'" said Mrs. Fielden.

  "I suppose you are whirling through the London season," I saidpresently; "and going everywhere, and having your frocks chronicled inthe magazines, and going to a great many parties?"

  "No," said Mrs. Fielden; "I have been down at Stanby."

  "I wish," I remarked, "that you did not always give one unexpectedreplies. Why have you been down at Stanby? You didn't say anythingabout it when I saw you last night."

  "Do you know old Miss Lydia Blind?" said Mrs. Fielden. "She is ill,and I got rather a pathetic letter from her, so I went down to Stanbyto look after her."

  She fumbled for the pocket of her dress, raising first what seemed tobe a layer of lace, and then a number of layers of chiffon, and then,after rustling amongst some silk to find her artfully-concealed pocket,she produced a letter and handed it to me.

  "Am I to read it?" I said; and Mrs. Fielden nodded.

  "... One so often hears," so the letter ran, "of a case of long illnessin which the one who is strong, and who acts as nurse to the invalid,breaks down before the end comes. To me it has always seemed to showthat the strong one's courage has failed somehow, and that, had zealbeen stronger or faith greater, she might have endured to the end...."And, again, in a postscript: "When I was younger I was very impatient,and I think I could not well have borne it had I known that life was tobe a waiting time. I do not say this in any discontented spirit, dear,and I only write to you because you always understand...." And thenthe letter broke off suddenly, and I handed it back to Mrs. Fielden.

  "So this is you, as Miss Lydia knows you," I said.

  "I want you to go and see her when you go back to Stowel. Will you?"said Mrs. Fielden. "Miss Lydia is an angel, I think; the best womanreally that ever lived. Will you take her some things I am sendingher, and ask how she is when you go back?"

  We drove under the trees of Richmond Park in Mrs. Fielden's big,luxurious carriage. She generally drives in a Victoria, and I askedher why she had the landau out this afternoon.

  "A whim," said Mrs. Fielden. "I am full of whims."

  But of course a landau is the only carriage in which a lame man, whohas to sit with his foot up, can put it comfortably on the oppositeseat.

  We drove onwards, and she stopped the carriage to look at the view fromRichmond Hill, and the soft air blew up to us in a manner very cool andrefreshing; and then we got out and walked about for a time, and Mrs.Fielden gave me her arm.

  "I don't really require an arm," I said, "but I like taking yours."

  "It is a very strong arm," said Mrs. Fielden; and she exclaimedquickly, "I believe I am getting fat! My maid tells me all my dresseswant altering. I wish it was time to think about beginning to huntagain."

  "Do you know," I said, "I always thought, till I got back to England,that my leg had been taken off below the knee, and that I should beable to get astride of a horse again. I never used to see it, ofcourse, when they dressed it; and when I counted up the things I shouldbe able to do, riding was always one of them. I didn't sell my horsestill just the other day."

  Mrs. Fielden did not sympathize, but one of her silences fell betweenus. We did not speak again till she began to tell me an amusing storywhich made us both laugh; but when she was sitting in the carriage, andthe footman was helping me in, and we were still laughing, I could havesworn that her eyes looked larger and softer than I have ever seen them.

 
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