The tall wing-chair with chintz parrots had come out of Madam's bedroom to be smothered with a fringed and golden shawl and heaped with scarlet cushions for the support of the tiny old, old black-clothed bundle within it. After many years here sat Madam to receive in her salon again, with a silver vinaigrette, a fan, and a buhl table beside her to hold her presents. Charlotte had even brought up the harp that Jenny seldom played now, to complete the group which comprised Susan and William, and she stepped back, considering it with the air of a photographer.
"So now I am a full coat of arms with my supporters," said Madam in her thin little voice. "An excellent bonne-à-tout-faire was wasted in you when Mark married you, Lottie…. Let them in, Jenny."
Charlotte felt that she had enough to bear without Grandma comparing her to servants and talking of the company as though they were chickens coming to be fed. But she was consoled by the recollection that she meant to present even her own sons with ceremony to the heroine of the day, and she hoped there would be no awkward contretemps with Brevis, who had just been saying that there were none left like Madam now. "She has ensconced herself beyond immortal ramparts while we of to-day can only dig ditches," said Brevis. And although Charlotte had not the least idea what he meant, she took it as a compliment.
Jenny came up the salon with Oliver the stiff old dandy and Mab the Black Brunswicker who would never be wholly tamed. She led them over the drowned roses, under the canopies of roses, but Charlotte did not intend to allow that. She touched Madam's shoulder. "Grandma! Here is Uncle Noll."
It was twenty years and more since they had met, this tiny tired woman with the ancient eyes and this old man, polished like rare old furniture and—like it—a little shaky in the legs. Madam lifted a heavily ringed hand and a faint flush stained her cheek. Never would she forgive Noll, although she had quite forgotten why. Her voice sounded like far-away little bells: "Since this is ceremonial, you may kiss me, Oliver, unless you have forgotten your manners in all these years."page 382
"What son of yours could ever forget them?" said Oliver, amused. Egad, the old lady was a good hater; and what would she say to Dick the brewer? He touched her withered cheek with dry lips and delivered himself gracefully of an epigram: "I thought it would be necessary to meet in order to realize how long it was since we had met. Now I realize it less than ever."
"I don't," said Madam, grimly. "Go and look in the glass."
"Less than ever," retorted Oliver, departing with a bow. Madam's mouth relaxed. He had power to amuse her still, this méchant Noll. Then she cried:
"Mab! Ah, my dear, my dear! Why did you stay in that wild country so long?" and pulled his face down to hide her own in that black beard and feel his vitality surge through her like a sea. 'Eh, Mabille——"
"Grandma!" Charlotte shook her gently. "They are waiting."
"And why should they not wait? But for my body they might have had to wait for ever."
"Humphrey and Maria," said Charlotte, hurriedly. "Please pass on, Maria. Grandma will be getting tired."
Maria, who had been Humphrey's wife for two years, was very happy on Latterdale and very unhappy to-night. She was suddenly conscious that her hair was coming down and her bustle crooked and that her jabot of cheap lace did not put such a finish to her old drab poplin as she had expected. Bald and stocky Humphrey was her lover still, but Charlotte liked to remind Maria that she had caused Humphrey to miss all his chances and degenerate into a rough farmer who never left Latterdale except for the sheep sales. "Please hurry along, Humphrey. Please hurry, Maria," cried Charlotte, very conscious that this was the dangerous moment. Richard's wife, who somehow made you feel your stays were tight, your face red: Richard's wife, and Richard, a most distinguished pair at whom Grandma would probably raise her lorgnettes, inquiring how many more were coming of the bourgeoisie. But one never could tell with Grandma, whose delicate bones seemed to gather together as though she rose at a fence, whose gracious smile met Richard, Lavinia, and passed them on as the hostess meets the conventional guest in a crush. It was most kind, said Grandma, of these young people to come page 383so far to honour an old woman. And she did not ask if the large bottle of cologne which Lavinia put on the table contained beer.
So that was safely over, thought Charlotte, and now Richard would probably ask Patty to stay with them in Hobart and go yachting. Sigurd, big broad-backed Sigurd, was bewildering the old lady a little, although Charlotte whispered urgently: "No, no. You mustn't ask him about Fanny, Grandma. You never will remember she's been dead for seventeen years."
Sigurd's second wife was not going out just now, so there was no reason for Grandma to remember about her; this old Grandma touching Sigurd's golden-bearded face with trembling hands, saying: "So for you also are there sleepless and sad nights, my dear? But take courage——"
"Yes, yes, Grandma," cried Charlotte, whispering to Sigurd:
"You mustn't mind, Sigurd. She forgets, you know. Grandma … Here is Judge Keyes. Judge of the Supreme Court in Hobart, you know."
Brevis, stooping to kiss Madam's hand, thought that Charlotte probably had put it this way to deceive Madam. But she was not deceived, this old bundle of lace and grey curls which acknowledged him only with a momentary gleam of resentment in sunken eyes that saw the past. He stood back from the murmuring crowd, a little resentful himself. Whose fault was it but Jenny's own if she had preferred being cut and come again to Brevis all her life, instead of marrying elsewhere? And for these twenty years it had been cut only, since he had never been to Clent except with his hosts when staying at Bredon or Tingvalley. His letter to Jenny at the time had said, among other falsehoods, that it was best for her it should be so, and her brief answer had agreed. But he knew, and Jenny would know, that cowardice was at the bottom of that. He could be so plausible, so convincing with others. He was so universally admired by others. But all the time Jenny would have seen through him. The hard crust of complacent years had cracked a little just now under Jenny's eyes, and he felt a curious nervous longing to vindicate himself, explain. Yet how explain? It couldn't be done. He stood still under the roses and watched Policeman Charlotte marshalling the nondescripts of the procession.page 384
A ludicrous business, this, of Harry with an ordinary wife and an ordinary job on the tin-mines of Mount Bischoff; of Phœbe striding ahead of her farmer husband, the bracelets on her arms jangling like cart-chains; of Schoolmistress Mary with her spectacles catching in Madam's lace and being scolded in quite the old manner. A business of the trooping together of young things, sons and daughters of these prolific elders … young things, starry, shy, as though just life-evoked, advancing like summer. Oh, the pageant of youth, thought Brevis, never ceasing to rebel against age. No wonder the Greeks knelt to it.