English Literature

Lady Penelope by Morley Roberts

Lady Penelope by Morley Roberts

CHAPTER I.

All the absurd birthday celebrations were over, and Penelope was twenty-one.

She declared that her whole life was to be devoted to reform. She meant to reform society, to make it good and useful and straightforward, and simple and utterly delightful.

She let it be understood that men were in great need of her particular attention. They were too selfish and self-centred, too extravagant, too critical of each other, too vain. They acknowledged it humbly when she mentioned it, for Lady Penelope Brading’s beauty was something to see and to talk of; major and minor poets agreed about it; artists desired to paint her and failed, as they always do when true loveliness shines on them. She had the colour of a Titian; the contours of a Correggio; the witchery of a Reynolds, and under wonderful raiment the muscles of a young Greek athlete. She wiped out any society in which she moved. When sweet Eclipse showed herself, the rest were nowhere. The other girls did not exist; she even made married beauties quake; as for the men, they endured everything she said, and worshipped her all the more. She was strange and new and a tonic. She had no sense of humour whatsoever; she could not understand a joke even if it was explained by an expert on the staff of Punch. This made her utterly delightful. Her beautiful seriousness was as refreshing as logic in a sermon. She believed in clergymen, in politicians, in the Deceased Wife’s Sister, in all eminent physicians, in the London County Council, in the City of Westminster, in the British Constitution, in herself, and hygiene. She read the Times, the Athenæum, the Encyclopædia Britannica, Herbert Spencer, Mr. Kidd, and the late Mr. Drummond. She used Sandow’s exercises and cold water. She was opposed to war; she admired the leader of the opposition and the lord mayor; she subscribed to a society for establishing a national theatre to play Mr. Bernard Shaw’s tragedies, and to the nearest hospital. She was the most delightful person in England, and was against vaccination. She had money and lands and houses and ideas.

“We ought all to do something; to be something,” said Lady Penelope Brading.

It was an amazing statement, a shocking statement, and clean against all class tradition when she interpreted it to the alarmed. Was it not to be something if one was rich, let us say? Was it not to do something if one spent one’s money on horses and sport and dress and bridge? Heaven defend us all if anything more is asked of man or woman than killing time and killing beasts! Hands went up to heaven when Penelope preached.

Not that she preached at length. Her sermons lasted five seconds by any clock, save at the times when she warmed her ankles by the fire with some pet friend of hers, and took into consideration how she was to use her power for the regeneration of the world which was hers. Now she was with Ethel Mytton, a remote relative of the celebrated Mytton who drank eight bottles of port a day, and was a sportsman of the character which makes all Englishmen prouder of sport than of their history. Ten thousand on a football field would put him higher than Sir Richard Grenville. Sidney was a fool to him. Her father was a cabinet minister.

But Ethel was meek and mild, and followed Penelope at a humble distance, modelling herself on that sweet mould of revolution. So might a penny candle imitate an arc-light; so a glowworm worship the big moon.

“But you’ll get married, dear,” said Ethel, “of course you’ll get married.”

Penelope was pensive.

“There are other things than marriage,” said Penelope.

“Oh, are there?” sighed Ethel. She did not think so, for she was in love. Penelope loved theories best.

“Which of them will you marry?” asked Ethel.

“Which what?”

“Silly, them,” said Ethel. “What the duchess calls your ‘horde.'”

“I don’t know,” replied Penelope. “I’m like Diogenes, and I’m looking for an honest man.”

“Oh, honesty,—yes, of course, I know what you mean. But there are plenty of them, Pen dear.

“Boo!” said Pen; “so the other Greeks said to the man in the tub.”

Ethel sighed.

“What Greeks and what man in what tub?” she inquired, plaintively.

And Penelope did not enlighten her darkness, for in came the Duchess of Goring, her aunt, whose Christian name was Titania. She weighed sixteen stone in glittering bead armour, and had a voice exactly like Rose Le Clerc’s in “The Duchess of Bayswater.” She rarely stopped talking, and was ridiculously moral and conventional, and, except for her voice, she might have been a shopkeeper’s wife in any suburb.

“My dear Penelope,” said Titania, “I’m glad to see you again. You look positively sweet, my darling, after all these parties and carryings-on, and what not, and now at last you are quite grown up and yourself and your own and twenty-one. I wish I was. I was nine stone then exactly,—not a pound more. Oh, and it’s you, Ethel. I hope your dear papa is not overworking himself, now he’s a cabinet minister. Cabinet ministers will overwork themselves. I’ve known them die of it. Tell him what I say, will you? But of course he will pay no attention, and in time will die like the rest. It’s no use advising men to be sensible. I’ve given it up. Ah, here at last is Lord Bradstock.”

Titania flowed on wonderfully; she flowed exactly like the twisting piece of glass in a mechanical clock which mimics a jet of water. She turned round and never advanced. But Augustin, Lord Bradstock, was as calm as a mill-pond, as a mere in the mountains. He was tall and thin and ruddy and white-haired at fifty. He had been twice a widower.

“Why at last, Titania?” he yawned, as he stood with Penelope’s hand in his. He was still her guardian in his heart, though she was out of tutelage.

“I say at last, Augustin, because you were not here before me,” cried Titania. “And I expected you to be here before me from what you said this morning. I told you I meant to come in and speak quietly and seriously to Penelope, and you said you would come, too.”

Penelope’s eyes thanked her guardian, and they smiled at him half-secretly, saying as plain as any words: “What a dear you are to come in and dilute aunty for me!”

“Yes,” said Bradstock, “I think I said I would prepare her.”

“I’ve not had a single chance lately to say a word for her good,” cried Titania, “what with this person and that person and the horde. I think it is time now, Penelope, that you reorganized your amazing circle of acquaintances, mostly men, by the way. While Augustin was responsible for you, of course you were obstinate, but now you are in a position of greater freedom you will see the advisability of being guided by your aunt. I’m sure, I’m positive of it.”

Now the real sore point with the duchess was this matter of the “horde.” It was the only picturesque phrase she ever invented in her life, and without any doubt it did characterize in some measure the remarkable collection of men who were pretenders to Penelope’s hand and fortune.

“Out of the entire, the entire—”

“Caboodle,” said Bradstock, suggestively.

The duchess shook her head like a horse in fly-time.

“No, Augustin, not caboodle; pray, what is caboodle? Out of the entire—lot, Penelope, there are hardly three who belong to your class. I entreat you to go through them and dismiss those of whom we can’t approve, I and Lord Bradstock.”

“Don’t drag me in,” said Bradstock. “They are all very good fellows; I approve of them all.”

“Tut, tut,” said Titania, “is this the way you help, Augustin? You are a hindrance. I believe it is entirely owing to you that Penelope has these strange and alarming ideas. Yes, my dear, I’m afraid it is. He is not the kind of man who should have been your guardian. I ought to have been consulted. I knew a bishop who would have been admirable, most admirable. He’s dead, dear man, and the present one is a scandal to the Protestant Church, what with incense and processions and candles and confession-boxes. But, as I was saying, I do hope you will dismiss some of these men. And I hope you will be sensible and not say shocking things. No one should say shocking things till they are married, and even then with discretion. Socialism and reform and marriage! Dear me, you really must not talk about marriage, but you must get married to a suitable person. I’m sure, Augustin, we should have no insuperable objection to, let us say, young Bramber. He’ll be an earl by and by. And you mustn’t talk about reforming society, my dear love. It is quite impossible to reform society without abolishing it, my pet. Ethel darling, many cabinet ministers have owned as much to me with much alarm, almost with tears. It’s no use trying. Tell your dear father so, Ethel. I forgot to mention it the other day when we discussed the London County Council and its terrible extravagance compared with the economy of the government. We talked, too, about the War Office, and I told him that it couldn’t be reformed without abolishing it, which was not to be thought of for an instant. What should we do without a War Office, as we are always fighting? He sighed deeply, poor man. Dr. Lumsden Griff says sighing is cardiac in its origin, and I wish your father would see him, Ethel. He’s the first doctor in London for the ventricles of the heart. So every one says. But about your ideas, Penelope—”

“Good heavens, aunty, I haven’t any left,” said Penelope. This was not in the least surprising, for Titania reduced any ordinary gathering to idiocy at the shortest notice.

“Oh, but you have,” said Titania, “and society cannot endure ideas, my love. Anything but ideas, darling.”

“Well, well,” sighed Bradstock, “what is the use of talking to her, Titania? Pen is Pen, and there’s an end of it.”

“I wish there was,” cried the duchess. “But she rails against marriage. And she’s only twenty-one. Dear, dear me!”

“She pays too much attention to you married women,” said Bradstock. “How’s the duke, by the way?”

As the duke was engaged in running two theatres at the same time, not wholly in the interests of art or finance, Bradstock might have asked after his health at some other juncture. Titania ignored him.

“She rails against marriage,” lamented Titania.

“I don’t,” said Penelope.

“You do,” said her aunt.

“It’s only the horrible publicity,” said Penelope, “and the way things are done, and the ghastly presents and the bishops and the newspaper men and the horrible crowd outside and the worse crowd inside, and all the horrid fluff and flummery of it. If I’m ever married, I’ll get it done in a registrar’s office.”

“Oh, Penelope,” wailed Ethel.

But Titania became terrible.

“You shall not be, Penelope,” she cried. “I could not stand it. As your aunt, my dear— Oh, my love, I knew some one who was married in that way, and it was a most shocking affair, and of course it turned out that he had been married before and was a bigamist. The scandal was hushed up, and the first wife, who was the sweetest girl, and died of consumption shortly afterward at her father’s vicarage in Kent or Yorkshire, near Pevensey or Pontefract; at any rate it began with a P, and the man, though a villain, was a gentleman, for he married the second one all over again in a foreign place, with a chaplain officiating; much better than a registrar, who can marry you, I’m told, in pajamas if he likes, though not like a bishop, which one might have expected in his case. You all knew him slightly, at any rate. Never, my dear, get married at a registrar’s.”

“It’s better than the open shame of a cathedral and a bishop,” said Penelope. “Being married is one’s private business, and it’s nothing but horrid savagery to have crowds there!”

“Bravo!” said Bradstock, and Titania turned on him.

“Did I not say all this was your fault, Augustin? You were no more fit to be her guardian than you are to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Am I a savage, Penelope? and did I not get married in a cathedral, a most beautiful cathedral, all Gothic and newly restored at a vast expense? My dear, I am amazed and horrified and shocked to think that you should not perceive the quite exquisite fitness of being married in a piece of lovely Gothic architecture, to the very loveliest music, breathing over Eden, and so on, while all your dearest friends shed tears of purest joy—”

“To see her got rid of,” said Bradstock.

And even Ethel Mytton laughed.

“Augustin! Ethel Mytton! How can you say such things and laugh? It’s wicked; it’s indecent!”

“Yes,” said Penelope, “that’s what I say. There’s nothing to choose between your way and the American way the millionaire women have over there, when they hold a flower-show in a gilded room, and get married under a bell of roses at the cost of a hundred thousand dollars. I’d rather be knocked down by a nice savage, or run away with by a viking, or caught by a pirate. I won’t be breathed over in Eden by a stuffy crowd. If—if—”

“Oh, if what?” gasped Titania.

“If I ever do get married,” said Penelope, “I’ll never tell any of you beforehand!”

“Good heavens!” said the duchess, “you won’t tell us?”

“I won’t.”

“You’ll let us find out! Shall I know nothing of the marriage of my brother’s child till I read it in the Times? It shall not be! Augustin, does she mean it?”

Augustin lighted a cigarette and walked to the window, which looked down on the traffic of Piccadilly.

“I give it up,” said Augustin. “When could I answer riddles? Do you mean it, Pen?”

And Penelope, rising up, stood on the hearthrug and, looking like the descendant of a viking and some fair Venetian, declared that she did mean it. And she further went on to say, in great haste and with a most remarkable flow of words, that it shouldn’t be in the Times or any other paper. And she said that if Titania, Duchess of Goring, was her aunt, it couldn’t be helped, and that her principles were more to her than any one’s approval. Though she loved her aunt and her dear sweet guardian, these same principles were even dearer than they were. And she said that they had no principles (“not even Guardy dear”), and that they only thought of a demon thing called Society, which was at once a fetich and a phantom. And she became so excited that she talked like a real woman orator upon a platform, and expressed her intention of using her influence to bring about reform, especially in such matters and with regard to young men who did nothing, and seemed to think they had been created for that very purpose. And, as she talked, there wasn’t a man in the world who would not have yearned to take his coat off and ask for a pick and shovel at the least, for she was as beautiful as any young goddess fresh from Grecian foam or from high Olympus. Even Bradstock sighed to think that he had never done anything for the human race, which required so much help, but sit in the Upper House, a speechless phantom. And Ethel Mytton cried with an imparted enthusiasm, while the duchess wept with horror.

“And more than that,” said Penelope, who broke down in her eloquence and resorted to the tone of conversation, “more than that, I’ll never, never let you know whom I marry! I mean it! That—that’s flat!”

And after this damp but awful peroration, she sat down with heaving bosom, and poor, bewildered Titania shook her head till it looked as if it would come off. She found no flow of words to oppose Penelope with. The biggest river is nothing when it flows into the sea, and, if Titania was the Amazon, Pen was the South Atlantic.

“Not who he is?” said the duchess, as feebly as if she were no more than a brook in a meadow.

“I will not,” said Penelope, like a sea in a cyclone.

“Not— Oh, I must go home,” piped Titania. “Augustin, she’s capable of marrying a chauffeur, because he can drive at sixty miles an hour,—or—or a groom!”

“I’d rather marry either or both,” said Pen, furiously, “than be mobbed and musicked into matrimony with a grinning crowd of idiots looking on.”

“This is immoral,” said Titania, “it’s very immoral; you couldn’t marry both. I’ll go home, Bradstock.”

And Bradstock took her there.

“You’ve done it, Titania,” he said, as they drove. “She’s as obstinate and as violent as a passive resister. You’ve put her bristles up, and Pen never goes back from what she says.”

“You are very like a man, Augustin,” sobbed the duchess.

“She’s more like a woman than I’m like a man,” growled Bradstock.

He had never risen to eminence, and only once to his feet in the Upper House, and sometimes this rankled.

“Yes, I mean it, I mean it,” said Penelope.

“And I wanted to be your bridesmaid,” sobbed Ethel.

“You never will be, and you can tell every one what I say.”

“I won’t,” said Ethel, “I won’t.”

And she went away and told them.

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