Open main menu


A DOUBLE MISFIT.

By E. F. BENSON.

MAISIE JEDBURGH poked her bedroom fire with the care of a finished voluptuary and drew two low chairs close to it.

"Now we'll have a nice long talk, Millie," she said. "It's only a little after six, and dinner isn't till eight, and as you've brought your maid, you needn't go to dress till half-past seven at the earliest. How funny I shall find it to have a maid! Does she sponge your face and wash your hands? and aren't you dreadfully afraid of her?"

Lady Mildred drew her chair closer to the fire, for the night was cold, and took off her pince-nez. She was expensively but rather shabbily dressed—that is to say, her clothes had once been admirable.

"Yes, dreadfully," she said; "but I always was frightened of servants. It will be quite different with you, Maisie. In ten days you will put your nose in the air—it always is rather in the air, dear—and be quite unconscious of them, as if you had been born and bred to it. I have always said that it was your metier to make other people stand in subordinate positions."

"Oh! that's nonsense!" said Maisie very decidedly. "But do you really think that I shan't be frightened long of major-domos and maximus-domos, and being a bride, and powdered footmen?"

"I'm sure you won't. Oh! how odd the world is! Here am I having always been used to that sort of thing, and never having got used to it or liking it, while you, on the other hand, have always lived so quietly in this dear old Cambridge; whereas, whereas——"

"Whereas what?" asked Maisie.

"Whereas—well, it sounds snobbish of me to say it, but I assure you I am not a a snob—what I mean is this." Lady Mildred paused and looked at the fire with half-shut eyes, in the manner of short-sighted people. "It is just this, Maisie, and it's a good example of the way in which classes mix themselves up, and prove, without any screaming democracy, that there are no such things. Here am I, Agincourta, as you always used to call me, with whole rows of earls and such folk behind me, and really I belong to quite a different class of people. I feel hopelessly out of it at home. Oh, good gracious! how bored I get with the parties we have, and the parties I go to! The men who shoot all day, and the girls who run after the men; and then in the evening cards or dancing, but always flirting! I couldn't flirt, you know, dear. I simply couldn't, so it's lucky nobody wants to flirt with me. But girls of my own age and in our set in the main think about nothing else; they are really like barmaids."

Maisie burst out laughing.

"Oh, Millie! you are getting seriouser and seriouser!" she cried.

"I think I am. But then, when I came up to Girton, I was completely at home and completely happy. I had so many friends there among girls who had to earn their own living, or who really wanted to be educated, and thought about other things than marrying a rich man. There are so many delightful things in the world besides rich men, you know. I couldn't imagine marrying any of the young men whom I see at home, and they equally can't imagine asking me to. They shoot well, or they are athletic or handsome, and have money, but, but——"

Maisie laughed.

"I'm sure from your point of view that describes Percy exactly," she said. "He is all that. Now answer me truly, because you do know him. Don't you think he is just handsome and rich and athletic, and nothing else whatever? Perhaps you don't even think him handsome. You see, I love him so much, I don't care what anybody else thinks, not even what you think, dear Agincourta."

Lady Mildred shuffled her large feet on the fender and brought down a sounding cataract of fire-irons.

"Dear me! I am so sorry," she murmured, dropping them again severally. "Perhaps they would be better lying down. Well, Maisie, I will be quite frank. I am sure Percy is an excellent man, but—I am wrong, no doubt—I could myself no more look forward to spending my life with him than——"

"Than I could with a Cambridge professor," put in Maisie.

Lady Mildred gave this interpolation a moment's consideration. In the lightest conversation even she never assented to anything she did not agree with.

"Yes, just that," she said.

"Dear Agincourta!" cried Maisie, with effusive pity. "I know. We seem inexplicable to each other," she said, "and that is one of the reasons why we get on so well. Let's see. Oh, yes! my class—that is an odious expression, but what is one to say? my class seems to me, as a whole, without interests, and therefore uninteresting."

"You wrong them," said Lady Mildred; "they are charming! You have proved you think so by your engagement to Percy Royston. But I, if I could choose my fate, would choose to have been born like you, in what people call the professional class, because by nature I belong to it. Then it would have been natural that I should come up to Girton; instead, I had a regular battle about it. It really was a great blow to my mother—not so much that I should go, but that I should want to. It would have been natural, too, that I should have taken up education as a profession; perhaps I might even have got a lectureship here. And then perhaps——"

"Then perhaps," put in Maisie, "you would have married a Don. Oh, my! And you would never have spent summers in London, and autumns in your country house, and winters in the counties, and springs on the Riviera, and then London again. I'm going to do all those things, and oh! how I shall love it! I shall hunt and take lunch to the shooters, and play bridge, and dance, and flirt; yes, flirt, darling—dear Agincourta, I only said that to make you look like one of your ancestors—and sing, and laugh, and talk, and never go to sleep because it's such waste of time, and have Percy always with me, and read all the improper novels. There!"

Lady Mildred laughed, showing very white teeth. She had no other passable feature, take them singly, but she was somehow charming to look at. Her hands, it is true, were beautiful, long and finely fingered; but hands do not count. And she seldom laughed.

"Not that I am not fond of Cambridge," continued Maisie; "but then, you see, I am fond of everything. In a way I like these nice dull days and these nice old learned people here; they are like cows in a country landscape. And certainly I enjoyed Girton enormously. Don't think I am entirely frivolous, Agincourta."

"No?" asked Agincourta, with interest, but with no innuendo in her tone.

"No, dear. I went in for Greek art, as you know; I go in for it still. Those people are so extremely well made—oh, Agincourta! I just love making you look shocked—but they are. I spend hours in the Cast Museum, and if I were not talking to you, I should quite possibly be reading Overbeck. Oh, yes! Percy was in the class, too—don't be so sly, dear!—but quite apart from him. And when I go a-revolving in 'upper succles,' I shall continue to take in the Hellenic Journal. And the Professor is a great friend of mine; he's an old darling!"

"Professor who?" asked Mildred.

"Professor Rossington. Why?"

"Nothing. I know him well. He is charming, is he not?"

Maisie looked at her friend a moment with a glance that, developed, might have become what is known as a questioning glance. In her case it did not get so far.

"Yes, and he is always bringing me photographs of new discoveries," she went on, "and we talk over fifth century noses, and sometimes he gets so learned that I don't follow him exactly, but I always say: 'Ah, yes; ah, yes,' with the stress on the 'Ah.' 'Yes, he's an old darling, and I love him."

"Not very old," said Lady Mildred.

"Practically very old," said Maisie. "By the way, he is dining here to-night, and I think he sits on your other side. Anyhow, he must be thirty-five. Percy's only twenty-four, you know."

Lady Mildred looked fixedly at the fire a moment.

"Oh, Maisie! fancy you, with all these people about and living here, wanting to change!" she said. "Yes, Mr. Rossington always seems to me a really cultured man. He has nice manners, too; and then, of course, he is the authority on Greek sculpture. It will be delightful being next him."

"Oh! we're the greatest friends," said Maisie. "Good gracious! it's half-past seven, and I must fly. There are all the cards to put in people's places. When I'm married, I shall always have a man to tell people where they sit, just inside the dining-room door, don't you know? It saves so much trouble. You know your room, dear, next mine; and have you got everything?"

"Scott will have unpacked," said Lady Mildred, and in her voice was a kind of grave disdain.

Dr. Jedburgh, Maisie's father, was Master of one of the smaller Cambridge colleges, and industry and bland imperturbability were by a long way his most leading characteristics. They had, in fact, so far distanced the other qualities which usually go to make up a man that they were quite out of sight of the rest. Rather more than twenty years ago, in a moment of strange recklessness, he had proposed to the daughter of one of the secretaries of the French Embassy in London, and had been accepted. But his wife, who had ever been an enigma to him, died in little more than a year, surviving, however, in Maisie, who was explicable as the daughter of her father only on the ground of her also being the daughter of her mother. Since she had reached efficient years, she had been mistress of her father's house, managing him and the servants alike with the gaiety of her mother's race, combined with the practical powers of the English-born. She had the true French passion for perfection in detail, and an imperative craving to be always in the state of having too much to do; and between the household duties, which included considerable hospitalities, intimacy with more friends than most can number acquaintances, and a fitful thirst for accurate and scholarly information—a heritage from her father—this craving was reasonably satisfied.

But her life had never seemed to her full till her engagement some few weeks ago, and not yet public, to Percy Royston, heir on his grandfather's death to a marquisate and a million. The young man was resplendently English and remarkably amiable, and the courtship had been one of those affairs which seem so truly conventional because they occur seldom in life, but with so unerring a frequency in fiction. The two had become acquainted when Percy was an undergraduate at the college of which Maisie's father was Master, had flirted disgracefully all through the last May week, had met with violent opposition from his relations, who had eventually compromised on seeing Maisie, before the engagement was made public. She accordingly had been to stay with his mother, and the whole and haughty clan of Roystons had looked at her at first with suspicion and dislike, then with thawing reserve, and finally with an approval as warm as their dislike had been icy. For Maisie, in her own manner, was irresistible; charm, lightness of touch, depth of affection, and extreme adaptability were hers, and the clan confessed itself conquered. Hence the engagement was to be immediately made public.

The party that night was of what Maisie called the menagerie order—that is to say, it was a judicious admixture of first authorities on various branches of obscure knowledge, and undergraduates of both sexes. Lady Mildred found herself between Maisie's father and Professor Rossington, and could have wished the dinner to last for ever, so congenial to her were both her neighbours. She was old friends with Mr. Rossington, and their talk circled seriously over matters of academic interest. The French excavations at Delphi greatly engaged them, nor less the charm of that land which both knew. Mr. Rossington was a man of singular but quiet impressiveness, handsome, and aged, except in years, with the dignity which habitual aloofness from the jostle and froth of life gradually confers on those who give their lives to study rather than enjoy or even observe the more human phenomena of existence. His speech was devoid of superfluity either in emotion or epithet, and it was the technicalities of art rather than its æsthetic effect which formed his life-long study. But to-night Lady Mildred noticed more than once in him a certain undefinable relish in matters more immediately mundane which was new to her. She was aware of a certain deficiency in herself in these regards, and when Mr. Rossington lent an almost eager ear to the description of a glowing moment in the afternoon's Rugby football match from one of the undergraduates who was talking eagerly to Maisie, she made a mental note that she must take more interest in unmomentous affairs. Maisie certainly was not devoid of it, for she was listening with a sparkling eye, and her voice broke in—

"It must have been too thrilling!" she said. "So he got in?"

"Rather! right behind; and Kennedy kicked it."

"I wish I had been there. I just love seeing a Rugby match. And I suppose to-day is the last. Oh, dear me! there are so many things I want to do, and I do so many of them."

Mr. Rossington looked up with a smile and caught Maisie's table-long glance.

"That is quite true, Miss Jedburgh," he said. "And even you are not content."

"Content? Never!" said Maisie with conviction. "Why, the moment I was content, I should die of not wanting to do anything."

There was a general laugh, for the speech was bitingly characteristic of her, and Dr. Jedburgh looked up placidly.

"What is Maisie saying?" he asked.

"It was only the cry of an aspiring soul," said she, rising. "Oh! Mr. Rossington, the cigarettes are on the chimney-piece; so if father forgets, which he usually does, help yourselves."

Maisie always insisted on playing some sort of game after dinner, often little adapted to the powers of the more elderly and sober of her guests. These games ranged the whole gamut between the utter but active frivolity of musical chairs, and the head-splitting laboriousness of "words out of words," and it was a constant surprise to her to find how utterly at sea were learned men at them all. Whether nimbleness at capturing the remaining seat, a moderate memory for notable people whose names begin with C, acute cross-questioning in clumps, or imagination in dumb-crambo were required, it was always the most advanced scholars who showed the completest incompetence. And this was not want of effort, for mountains were in labour, and Mr. Rossington lashed his laggard intellect to the verge of insanity without perceiving that "b" turned rain into brain. More than once Maisie had taken him to task for this.

"You don't take it seriously," she said once, with less than her usual insight; "and if you can't take games seriously, you can take nothing seriously."

"But I do take it seriously," replied the agonised archæologist. "I think I may even take it too seriously. I simply can't see these things."

Maisie's natural intuition returned to her. "Then you are wanting in adaptability," she said.

That night after Maisie had left her, Lady Mildred dismissed her maid and sat down to think. She was confronted with a human problem, and she had but little skill in such. Also the problem was rendered more intricate by the presence of a personal factor which was new to her. The attraction which Maisie had for Mr. Rossington was evident, equally evident was Maisie's utter unconsciousness of it. To her he was, as she had said, "an old darling, and she loved him"; and no attitude, as Mildred felt sure, was so remote either from love or from consciousness of exciting it as that; in addition, she was engaged to and wholly occupied with Percy Royston. On the other hand, it required no more penetration to see how completely she filled the Professor's horizon. His eye followed her as a dog its master, and he had sat with a smile as absorbed as a child's to see her whisking round the dangerous corners in musical chairs—more than once he had left his place to be near her, and, when he had attained that, was conspicuous for having nothing to say and nothing apparently to do but twist his fingers into tight, ecstatic knots. He had turned over the leaves of her music when she had sung, upsetting a candle, and—almost more convincing than all—he had gleefully, at her request, engaged in cock-fighting with an undergraduate on the hearthrug. Through all the light comedy of the evening had wailed the low note of tragedy; Maisie, so Mildred felt certain, was dancing on his heart, utterly unconscious of that which lay beneath her heedless feet.

Lady Mildred drew her chair a little closer to the fire and played with the hand-screen which she held between the glow and her face. That was not all—indeed, that was far from all. For a long time she stood on the brink of letting that which was in her mind dip into conscious thought, for there would come to her, with that of a shame she knew to be unmerited, a blame of which she was guiltless, and, worst of all, a longing for and a desire for what she knew was inaccessible. All that she and Maisie had talked of before dinner was rehearsed once and again in her mind, and she slid nearer to conscious thought. At last she stood up.

"And I think only of him," she said softly to the twinkling fire, "and he thinks only of her, and she thinks of him not at all. How can I warn her? How can I?"

Nor was hers the only firelight vigil that night, for Mr. Rossington, having walked across the court to his rooms, sat down as usual to a spell of work. But Greek art was remote and shadow-like that night, and after two ineffectual struggles with his wandering thoughts, he shut up his books and turned for a few minutes to the fire before going to bed. But the minutes became many, and the fire was ash before he went.

The two girls were sitting in the morning-room next day, when the servant came in to say that Professor Rossington was in the drawing-room, and would like to speak to Miss Jedburgh a moment, if she were disengaged. Maisie, who was in the middle of a very long letter, got up a little impatiently, said "Oh, bother!" quite aloud, and left the room.

Mr. Rossington was standing in the centre of the drawing-room with a small roll of photographs in his hand.

"I thought you and Lady Mildred might like to see these," he said. "They are the new Delphi photographs, which I only received this morning."

"How kind of you!" said Maisie. "Mildred is in the other room. Won't you come in, and then we can look at them together?"

Mr. Rossington took them up from the table and put them jerkily down again. "Yes, that would be very pleasant," he said.

"Shall we go, then?" asked Maisie again, and as she spoke she looked at him, and her hands dropped by her side, and she stood there unable to speak, but longing to say anything, unable to move, but pining to be gone from the room, to run away.

"Yes, let us," said Mr. Rossington. "In a moment, in one moment, Maisie——"

Maisie looked up again and met in his eye appeal, hope, and a very patient, humble love.

"Oh, I am so sorry! " she cried. "No, no—don't say it!"

The hope flickered, the love remained.

"It is quite, quite impossible," she said. "And, indeed, I had no idea of—of what you thought of me, till a moment ago."

At that he stood erect a moment.

"Impossible? That is a big word. I would not make myself importunate, but——"

"I am already engaged," said Maisie. "Oh, Mr. Rossington I I am so sorry for this! I will not be stupid and banal, and talk about brothers and sisters, for that does no good. But, indeed, I like you very much."

Mr. Rossington looked very intently at a speck of mud on his sleeve and, as if by an after-thought, brushed it away.

"I will go away, I think," he said. "Ah! the photographs. Please show them to Lady Mildred."

He shook hands, went half way to the door, paused and turned on his heel, then, still with a sort of wandering aimlessness, like a tourist straying through an uninteresting gallery, went out.

Maisie lingered for a few moments, giving him time to get away. Uppermost in her mind and very predominant was frank sympathy and sorrow, below was a touch of impatience and a sense of dramatic interest. Then she hurried back to Agincourta.

"Oh, it is too awful!" she said. "I am so sorry about it all. Mr. Rossington——"

"I know, I know," said Mildred. "You needn't tell me, Maisie."

Maisie stared at her a moment.

"You knew? Oh, Mildred! why didn't you warn me? I had no idea of it."

"I couldn't—no, I couldn't," said Mildred. "Come, let us go out. We shall only get an hour at the Museum, as it is."

And she took off her pince-nez and furtively wiped the glasses on her handkerchief.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.