Alick Craven, who was something in the Foreign Office, had been living in London, except for an interval of military service during the war, for several years, and had plenty of interesting friends and acquaintances, when one autumn day, in a club, Francis Braybrooke, who knew everybody, sat down beside him and began, as his way was, talking of people. Braybrooke talked well and was an exceedingly agreeable man, but he seldom discussed ideas. His main interest lay in the doings of the human race, the “human animal,” to use a favorite phrase of his, in what the human race was “up to.” People were his delight. He could not live away from the centre of their activities. He was never tired of meeting new faces, and would go to endless trouble to bring an interesting personality within the circle of his acquaintance. Craven’s comparative indifference about society, his laziness in social matters, was a perpetual cause of surprise to Braybrooke, who nevertheless was always ready to do Craven a good turn, whether he wanted it done to him or not. Indeed, Craven was indebted to his kind old friend for various introductions which had led to pleasant times, and for these he was quite grateful. Braybrooke was much older than most people, though he seldom looked it, and decades older than Craven, and he had a genial way of taking those younger than himself in charge, always with a view to their social advancement. He was a very ancient hand at the social game; he loved to play it; and he wanted as many as possible to join in, provided, of course, that they were “suitable” for such a purpose. Perhaps he slightly resembled “the world’s governess,” as a witty woman had once called him. But he was really a capital fellow and a mine of worldly wisdom.
On the occasion in question, after chatting for about an hour, he happened to mention Lady Sellingworth—“Adela Sellingworth,” as he called her. Craven did not know her, and said so in the simplest way.
“I don’t know Lady Sellingworth.”
Braybrooke sat for a moment in silence looking at Craven over his carefully trimmed grey and brown beard.
“How very strange!” he said at last.
“Why is it strange?”
“All these years in London and not know Adela Sellingworth!”
“I know about her, of course. I know she was a famous beauty when King Edward was Prince of Wales, and was tremendously prominent in society after he came to the throne. But I have never seen her about since I have been settled in London. To tell the honest truth, I thought Lady Sellingworth was what is called a back number.”
“Adela Sellingworth a back number!”
Braybrooke bristled gently and caught his beard-point with his broad-fingered right hand. His small, observant hazel eyes rebuked Craven mildly, and he slightly shook his head, covered with thick, crinkly and carefully brushed hair.
“Well—but,” Craven protested. “But surely she long ago retired from the fray! Isn’t she over sixty?”
“She is about sixty. But that is nothing nowadays.”
“No doubt she had a terrific career.”
“Terrific! What do you mean exactly by terrific?”
“Why, that she was what used to be called a professional beauty, a social ruler, immensely distinguished and smart and all that sort of thing. But I understood that she suddenly gave it all up. I remember someone telling me that she abdicated, and that those who knew her best were most surprised about it.”
“A woman told you that, no doubt.”
“Yes, I think it was a woman.”
“If I remember rightly, she said that Lady Sellingworth was the very last woman one had expected to do such a thing, that she was one of the old guard, whose motto is ‘never give up,’ that she went on expecting, and tacitly demanding, the love and admiration which most men only give with sincerity to young women long after she was no more young and had begun to lose her looks. Perhaps it was all lies.”
“No, no. There is something in it.”
He looked meditative.
“It certainly was a sudden business,” he presently added. “I have often thought so. It came about after her return from Paris some ten years ago—that time when her jewels were stolen.”
“Were they?” said Craven.
Braybrooke’s tone just then really did rather suggest the world’s governess.
“My dear fellow—yes, they were, to the tune of about fifty thousand pounds.”
“What a dreadful business! Did she get them back?”
“No. She never even tried to. But, of course, it came out eventually.”
“It seems to me that everything anyone wishes to hide does come out eventually in London,” said Craven, with perhaps rather youthful cynicism. “But surely Lady Sellingworth must have wanted to get her jewels back. What can have induced her to be silent about such a loss?”
“It’s a mystery. I have wondered why—often,” said Braybrooke, gently stroking his beard.
He even slightly wrinkled his forehead, until he remembered that such an indulgence is apt to lead to permanent lines, whereupon he abruptly became as smooth as a baby, and added:
“She must have had a tremendous reason. But I’m not aware that anyone knows what it is unless—” he paused meditatively. “I have sometimes suspected that perhaps Seymour Portman—”
“Sir Seymour, the general?”
“Yes. He knows her better than anyone else does. He cared for her when she was a girl, through both her marriages, and cares for her just as much still, I believe.”
“How were her jewels stolen?” Craven asked.
Braybrooke had roused his interest. A woman who lost jewels worth fifty thousand pounds, and made no effort to get them back, must surely be an extraordinary creature.
“They were stolen in Paris at the Gare du Nord out of a first-class compartment reserved for Adela Sellingworth. That much came out through her maid.”
“And nothing was done?”
“I believe not. Adela Sellingworth is said to have behaved most fatalistically when the story came out. She said the jewels were gone long ago, and there was an end of it, and that she couldn’t be bothered.”
“Bothered!—about such a loss?”
“And, what’s more, she got rid of the maid.”
“It was. Very odd! Her abdication also was very odd and abrupt. She changed her way of living, gave up society, let her hair go white, allowed her face to do whatever it chose, and, in fact, became very much what she is now—the most charming old woman in London.”
“Oh, is she charming?”
“Is she charming!”
Braybrooke raised his thick eyebrows and looked really pitiful.
“I will see if I can take you there one day,” he continued, after a rebuking pause. “But don’t count on it. She doesn’t see very many people. Still, I think she might like you. You have tastes in common. She is interested in everything that is interesting—except, perhaps, in love affairs. She doesn’t seem to care about love affairs. And yet some young girls are devoted to her.”
“Perhaps that is because she has abdicated.”
Braybrooke looked at Craven with rather sharp inquiry.
“I only mean that I don’t think, as a rule, young girls are very fond of elderly women whose motto is ‘never give up.’” Craven explained.
Braybrooke was silent. Then, lighting a cigarette, he remarked:
“Youth is very charming, but one must say that it is set free from cruelty.”
“I agree with you. But what about the old guard?” Craven asked. “Is that always so very kind?”
Then he suddenly remembered that in London there is an “old guard” of men, and that undoubtedly Braybrooke belonged to it; and, afraid that he was blundering, he changed the conversation.
Categories: English Literature