Benson E. F. Edward Frederic
Dodo's Daughter: A Sequel to Dodo
Nadine Waldenech's bedroom was a large square apartment on the ground floor at her mother's cottage at Meering in North Wales. It was rather a large cottage, for it was capable of holding about eighteen people, but Dodo was quite firm in the subject of its not being a house. In the days when it was built, forty years ago, this room of Nadine's had been the smoking-room, but since everybody now smoked wherever he or she chose, which was mostly everywhere, just as they breathed or talked wherever they chose, Nadine with her admirable commonsense had argued uselessness of a special smoking-room, for she wanted it very much herself, and her mother had been quite convinced. It opened out of the drawing-room, and so was a convenient place for those who wished to drop in for a little more conversation after bed-time had been officially proclaimed. Bed-time, it may be remarked, was only officially proclaimed in order to get rid of bores, who then secluded themselves in their tiresome chambers.
The room at this period was completely black with regard to the color of carpet and floor and walls and ceiling. That was Nadine's last plan and since it was the last, of necessity, a very recent one. She had observed that when it was all white, people looked rather discolored, like mud on snow, whereas against a black background they seemed to be of gem-like brilliance. But since she always looked brilliant herself, the new scheme was prompted by a wholly altruistic motive. She liked her friends to look brilliant too, and she would have felt thus even if she had not been brilliant herself, for out of a strangely compounded nature, anything akin to jealousy had been certainly omitted. There had been a good many friends in her bedroom lately, and there were a certain number here to-night. She expected more. Collectively they constituted that which was known as the clan.
The bed was an enormous four-poster with mahogany columns at the corners of it. At present it was occupied by only three people. She herself lay on the right of it with her head on the pillow. She had already taken off her dinner-dress when her first visitor arrived, and had on a remarkable dressing-gown of Oriental silk, which looked like a family of intoxicated rainbows and, leaving her arms bare, came down to her feet, so that only the tips of her pink satin shoes peeped out. In the middle of the bed was lying Esther Sturgis, and across it at the foot Bertie Arbuthnot the younger, who was twenty-one years old and about the same number of feet in height. In consequence his head dangled over one side like a tired and sunburnt lily, and his feet over the other. He and his hostess were both smoking cigarettes as if against time, the ash of which they flicked upon the floor, relighting fresh ones from a silver box that lay about the center of the bed. They neither of them had the slightest idea what happened to the smoked-out ends. Esther Sturgis on the other hand was occasionally sipping hot camomile tea. What she did not sip she spilt.
"Heredity is such nonsense," said Nadine crisply, speaking with that precision which the English-born never quite attain. "Look at me, for instance, and how nice I am, then look at Mama and Daddy."
Esther spilt a larger quantity of camomile tea than usual.
"You shan't say a word against Aunt Dodo," she said.
"My dear, I am not proposing to. Mama is the biggest duck that ever happened. But I don't inherit. She had such a lot of hearts – it sounds like bridge – but she had, and here am I without one. First of all she married poor step-papa – is it step-papa? – anyhow the Lord Chesterford whom she married before she married Daddy. That is one heart, but I think that was only a little one, a heartlet."
"Rhyme with tartlet," said Bertie, as if announcing a great truth.
"But we are not making rhymes," said Nadine severely. "Then she married Daddy, which is another heart, and when she married him – of course you know she ran away with him at top-speed – she was engaged to the other Lord Chesterford, who succeeded the first."
"Oh, 'Jack the Ripper,'" said Esther.
Bertie raised his head a little.
"Who?" he asked.
"Jack Chesterford, because he is such a ripper," said Nadine. "And he's coming here to-morrow. Isn't it a thrill? Mama hasn't seen him since – since she didn't see him one day when he called, and found she had run away – "
"Did he rip anybody?" asked Bertie, who was famed for going on asking questions, until he completely understood.
"No, donkey. You are thinking of some criminal. Mama was engaged to him, and she thought she couldn't – so she ripped – let her rip, is it not? – and got married to Daddy instead. He was quite mad about darling Mama, but recovered very soon. He made a very bad recovery. Don't interrupt, Berts: I was talking about heredity. Well, there's Mama, and Daddy, well, we all know what Daddy is, and let me tell you he is the best of the family, which is poor. He is a gentleman after all, whatever he has done. And he's done a lot. Indeed he has never had an idle moment, except when he was busy!"
Esther gave a great sigh: she always sighed when she appreciated, and appreciation was the work of her life. She never got over the wonderfulness of Nadine and was in a perpetual state of deep-breathing. She admired Bertie too, and they used often to talk about getting engaged to each other some day, in a mild and sexless fashion. But they were neither of them in any hurry.
"Aren't your other people gentlemen?" he asked. "I thought in Austria you were always all right if you quartered yourself into sixteen parts."
Nadine threw an almost unsmoked cigarette upon the floor with a huge show of impatience.
"Of course one has the ordinary number of great-grandparents, else you wouldn't be here at all," she said, "and you quarter anything you choose. Two quarterings of my great-grandfathers were hung and drawn apart from their quarterings. But really I don't think you understand what I mean by gentlemen. I mean people who have brains, and who have tastes and who have fine perceptions. English people think they know the difference between the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats. How wrong they are! As if living in a castle like poor Esther's parents had anything to do with it! Look at some of your marquises – Esther darling, I don't mean Lord Ayr – what cads! Your dukes? What Aunt Sallys! Always making the float-face, don't you call it, the bêtise, the stupidity. Is that the aristocracy? Great solemn Aunt Sallys and the rest brewers! Show me an idea: show me a brain, show me somebody with the distinction that thoughts and taste bring about. I do not want a mere busy prating monkey thinking it is a man. But I want people: somebody with a man or woman inside it. Ah! give me a grocer. That will do!"
Bertie put down his head again.
"Let us be calm," he said. "I'll find you a grocer to-morrow."
Nadine laughed. She had a curiously unmelodious but wonderfully infectious laugh. People hearing it laughed too: they caught it. But there was no sound of silvery bells. She gave a sort of hiccup and then gurgled.
"I get too excited over such things," she said. "And when I get excited I forget my English and talk execrably. I will be calm again. I do not mean that a man is not a gentleman because he is stupid, but much more I do not mean that quarterings make him one. The whole idea is so obsolete, so Victorian, like the old mahogany sideboards. Who cares about a grandfather? What does a grandfather matter any more? They used to say 'Move with the Times.' Now we move instead with the 'Daily Mail.' I am half foreign and yet I am much more English than you all. The world goes spinning on. If we do not wish to become obsolete we spin too. I hate the common people, but I do not hate them because they have no grandfathers, but just because they are common. I hate quantities of your de Veres for the same reason. Their grandfathers make them no less common. But also I hate your sweet people, with blue eyes, of whom there are far too many. Put them in bottles like lollipops, and let them stick together with their own sugar."
There was a short silence. Bertie broke it.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Going on twenty-two. I am as old as there is any need to be. There is only one person in the house younger than me, and that is darling Mama. She is twenty."
Esther gave another huge sigh. She appreciated Nadine very much, but she was not sure that she did not appreciate Aunt Dodo more. It may be remarked that there was no sort of consanguinity between them: the relationship was one of mere affection. She had a mother and Dodo must be the next nearest relative. Frankly, she would have liked to change the relationship between the two. And yet you could say things to an aunt who wasn't an aunt more freely than to a woman who happened to be your mother. Apart from natural love, Esther did not care for her mother. She would not, that is to say, have cared for her if she had been somebody else's mother, and indeed there was very little reason to do so. She had a Roman nose and talked about the Norman Conquest, which in the view of her family was a very upstart affair. She had not a kind heart, but she had an immense coronet in her own right, and had married another. Indeed she had married another coronet twice: there was a positive triple crown on her head like the Pope. In other respects also she was like a Pope, and was infallible with almost indecent frequency. Nadine loved to refer to her as "Holy Mother." She felt herself perfectly capable of managing everybody's affairs, and instead of being as broad as she was long, was as narrow as she was tall, and resembled an elderly guardsman.
Her degenerate daughter finished her sigh.
"Go on about your horrible family," she said to Nadine. "I think it's so illustrious of you to see them as they are."
The door opened without any premonitory knock, and Tommy Freshfield entered with a large black cigar in his mouth. He was rather short, and had the misfortune to look extremely dissipated, whereas he was hopelessly, almost pathetically, incapable of anything approaching dissipation. He put down his bedroom candle and lay down on the bed next Esther Sturgis.
"Have you been comforting Hughie?" she asked.
"Yes, until he went to play billiards with the Bish-dean. He used to be a bishop but subsequently became a dean. I think Aunt Dodo believes he is a bishop still. Lots of bishops do it now, he told me; it is the same as putting a carriage-horse out to grass: there is no work, but less corn. Hughie's coming up here when he's finished his game."
The appreciative Esther sat up.
"It's too wonderful of him," she said. "Nadine, Hugh is coming up here soon. Do be nice to him."
Nadine sat up also.
"Of course," she said. "Hughie has such tact, and I love him for it. Berts has none: he would sulk if I had just refused to marry him and very likely would not speak to me till next day."
"You haven't had the chance to refuse me yet," remarked Berts.
"That is mere scoring for the sake of scoring, Berts darling," said she. "But Hugh – "
"O Nadine, I wish you would marry him," said Esther. "It would make you so gorgeously complete and golden. Did you refuse him absolutely? Or would you rather not talk about it?"
Nadine turned a little sideways on the bed.
"No, we will not talk of it," she said. "What else were we saying? Ah, my family! Yes, it is a wonder that I am not a horror. Daddy is the pick of the bunch, but such a bunch, mon Dieu, such wild flowers; and poor Daddy always gets a little drunk in the evening now; and to-night he was so more than a little. But he is such an original! Fancy his coming to stay with Mama here only a year after she divorced him. I think it is too sweet of her to let him come, and too sweet of him to suggest it. She is so remembering, too: she ordered him his particular brandy, without which he is never comfortable, and it is most expensive, as well as being strong. Well, that's Daddy: then there are my uncles: such histories. Uncle Josef murdered a groom (there is no doubt whatever about it) who tried to blackmail him. I think he was quite right; and I daresay the groom was quite right, but it is a horrible thing to blackmail; it is a cleaner thing to kill. Then there is Uncle Anthony who ought to have been divorced like Daddy, but he was so mean and careful and sly that they could do nothing with him. There was never anything careful about Daddy."
She was ticking off these agreeable relations on her white fingers.
"Then Grandpapa Waldenech committed suicide," she said, "and Grandpapa Vane fell into a cauldron at his own iron-works and was utterly burnt. So ridiculous; they could not even bury him, there was nothing left, except the thick smoke, and they had to open the windows. Then the aunts. There was Aunt Lispeth who kept nothing but white rats in her house in Vienna, hundreds and hundreds there were, the place crawled with them. Daddy could not go near it: he was afraid of their not being real, whereas I was afraid because they were real. Then there is Aunt Eleanor who stole many of Daddy's gold snuff-boxes and said the Emperor had given them her. Of course it was a long time before she was ever suspected, for she was always going to church when she was not stealing; she made quite a collection. Aunt Julia is more modern: she only cares about the music of Strauss and appendicitis."
Berts gave a sympathetic wriggle.
"I had appendicitis twice," he said, "which was enough, and I went to Electra once which was too much. How often did Aunt Julia have appendicitis?"
"She never had it," said Nadine. "That is why she is so devoted to it, an ideal she never attains. It is about the only thing she has never had, and the rest fatigue her. But she always goes to the opera whenever there is Strauss, because she cannot sleep afterwards, and so lies awake and thinks about appendicitis. I go to the opera too, whenever there is not Strauss, in order to think about Hugh."
"And then you refuse him?"
"Yes, but we will not talk of it. There is nothing to explain. He is like that delicious ginger-beer I drank at dinner in stone bottles. You can't explain! It is ginger-beer. So is Hugh."
"I had a bottle of it too," said Bertie. "More than one, I think. I hate wine. Wine is only fit for old women who want bucking up. There's an old man in the village at home who's ninety-five, and he never touched wine all his life."
"That proves nothing," said Nadine. "If he had drunk wine he might have been a hundred by now. But I like wine: perhaps I shall take after Daddy."
A long ash off Tommy Freshfield's cigar here fell into Esther's camomile tea. It fizzed agreeably as it was quenched, and she looked enquiringly into the glass.
"Oh, that's really dear of you, Tommy," she said. "I can't drink any more. John always insists upon my taking a glass of it to go to bed with."
"Your brother John is a prig, perhaps the biggest," said Nadine.
Esther reached out across Tommy, who did not offer his assistance and put down her glass on the small table at the head of the bed.