By E. F. BENSON
IMMEDIATELY on the declaration of war last August, Lady Yorkshire flung herself with all her youthful and vigorous energy into the whirlpool of charitable work. She had always been a brilliant interpreter and example of the activities of life, a great hostess both in London and in the country, and was possessed of a power of enjoyment that was quite unique. All these qualities, with as much money to further these schemes as she could, by wheedling and shameless begging, extract from her very wealthy husband, she devoted to her new duties. She turned their country place into a hospital; she packed off all her men-servants to the War; she cut down household expenses to the verge of parsimony; she even at times regretted that her husband was too old and her sons too young to serve in the fighting-line. Willingly, had it been possible, she would have seen them go, and it is quite certain that all the anxiety and aching heart that their departure entailed she would have kept completely to herself, and presented a brave and shining front to the world. But, as this was impossible, her regrets were assuredly mingled with an immense thankfulness that it was so.
She was too busy, too strenuously occupied, to devote much time or thought to regrets; but one thing vaguely and persistently haunted her, namely, the sense that with all she did, involving the expenditure of time, money, and energy, she could not get to feel the sense of personal sacrifice for the sake of those who were giving themselves wholly, life and limb alike, to the service of the country. It was with no consciousness of self-sacrifice that she remained here in London all the autumn, while the Leicestershire house was full of the wounded, for she knew well that to spend the days there, with a succession of big parties—which was her normal mode of life in October and November—would have been a thing physically and morally impossible to her. She could no more have borne to see herself employed in anything that did not directly bear on the War than she could have seen herself waited on by large and serviceable young men. Here was her grievance: it was no more a deprivation to be without her house-parties and her hunting, while the enemy streamed east and west out of Central Europe, than it was to be without her footmen and her motor-cars, all of which were better employed than in administering to her needs. She had cut down all personal expenses to a minimum, and yet she could not feel she was doing anything worthy of the occasion, anything that expressed at all the desire of her soul. And, worse than that, she knew that her sister, Sybil Smarden, was under the strangely erroneous impression that they were both of them models of busy patriotism. Queenie Yorkshire longed with a sort of humorous irritation to tear this slightly priggish armour off her sister, to convince her that gifts which you did not miss had nothing of the true spirit of giving about them. To give away was not the same thing as to give. She immensely desired to bring. home to the mind of Sybil the enormous difference between them by some practical demonstration.
One of Lady Yorkshire's most cherished charities was the C.B.R., or Comforts for Belgian Refugees, and its headquarters were the entire first floor of her immense house in Belgrave Square. Here were daily received, sorted, and dispatched masses of wildly miscellaneous material, sent in answer to her appeals. The bales were unpacked and sorted in the ballroom, from which they were carried, when classified, into the two drawing-rooms opening out of it, where a posse of packers dealt with them. On the other side of the ballroom was her own sitting-room, now converted into an office, where the clerical work connected with the charity was conducted, and leaflets appealing for aid were sent off in their thousands. The Red Book of London addresses had already been gone through from beginning to end, and now that London was filling up again, Lady Yorkshire proposed to go through it again. The postage of this stream of appeals had been, at her own request, her husband's birthday present to her, and it quite distinctly pleased her to think that he had never given her a more expensive one.
Queenie herself, with her strong love for the actual and tangible—even though the objects touched consisted so largely of dismal and discarded wearing apparel—worked in company with her sister, sitting on the floor of the ballroom. Between them, like a rather musty haycock, was a pile of garments, which they sorted out and conveyed to the packers, and in a treble row all down the room were other similar heaps, similarly treated, and renewed, as exhausted, by two elderly gentlemen between fifty and sixty years of age, who now represented footmen in Lady Yorkshire's distinctly overworked household. She felt occasionally a sense of guilt at the fact that her diminished staff had so much more to do than they were accustomed to, but consoled herself by the knowledge that she was far harder worked than any of them, and felt all the better for it.
Just now, in the course of her investigations into the haycock of garments which she and Sybil were employed on, she had found that some inspired contributor had stuffed the pockets of an almost prehistoric dress-coat with a variety of bewildering objects. There were a pipe, a box of matches, a phial of patent medicine, and two socks, the socks, as common objects in a ballroom devoted to charity, had a recognised depository, so, too, the pipes and the matches. But she knew of no depot for the medicine, and surreptitiously put the bottle down on her secretary's table.
"Charity covers such multitudes of indiscriminate objects," she remarked to Sybil "but it shows a certain imagination to fill the pockets of a dress-coat like that. Or is it that the donor did not particularly want those things?"
"I don't think you should have sorted them out, Queenie," she said. "Imagine that coat having been given to a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who had plenty of tobacco, but no pipe and no socks. It would have been a fairy gift."
"But it might have been given to one of iron constitution, who never smoked, and had more socks than he could possibly wear. It would then have been an ironical gift, not kind. By the way, I saw in the paper this morning that you had joined the Non-Alcoholic League."
Sybil nodded. There invaded her prim, pretty face a look of fixed determination to take no credit for this.
"Why, naturally," she said. "I suppose you will, too. I think it is our duty, at whatever inconvenience, to do what we can, and set an example."
The ghost of a smile trembled on Queenie's face.
"You are a teetotaler yourself, darling, anyhow, aren't you?" she asked.
"Yes, but that is not the point. It is a very different thing if one banishes alcohol from the house altogether. Indeed, it has been very inconvenient already, for my butler got dreadfully drunk last night, and, of course, I had to dismiss him. It was really terrible, Queenie, for I had given orders that no alcohol was to be consumed in the house from to-day."
Queenie gave a suppressed giggle. There was a gravity about this "really terrible" that to her mind, which was hopelessly irreverent towards any kind of assumed solemnity, was quite irresistible.
"Poor Blake!" she said. "I suppose he mistakenly regarded last night as a kind of carnival. Probably the stimulus of the self-denial that was in prospect was too strong for him."
Sybil tightened her mouth a little. Sometimes Queenie seemed to her to have no idea of the responsibilities of life.
"I don't quite understand you," she said.
"Surely it is easy enough. Self-denial is stimulating; it is rather fun. It stimulates you and me now to sit on the floor, instead of dancing on it, and sort out dreadful clothes that one wouldn't generally dream of touching. What we are doing may happen to be useful, but, as a matter of fact, we enjoy doing it. We couldn't, for our own peace of mind, amuse ourselves in ordinary ways."
Sybil was anxiously employed in disentangling what was probably, in days gone by, a cardigan waistcoat. It now seemed to consist of holes and frayed edges. She was glad that this gave her some excuse not to reply directly, for she was aware that Queenie was getting on to the subject on which they so profoundly disagreed. They were both of them devoting an enormous quantity of time and energy to good works, and Queenie's notion that they were neither of them really touching the fringe of self-sacrifice was a topic she did not want to embark on. So she burrowed eagerly in the haycock of garments, and drew forth this dispiriting article of attire.
"My dear, I think I'll give this to be burned," she said, holding it up. "Really, it looks as if people sent things here in order not to trouble the dustman. I should not be surprised to find an old tooth-brush soon."
"Isn't it fun?" said Queenie. "But about the Non-Alcoholic League, now?"
Sybil determined to carry the war into the enemy's country.
"I think it's your duty to join it," she said. "I wonder you don't feel with me about it. One is bound to set an example——"
"And put it in the papers," remarked Queenie.
Sybil remained quite grave.
"Naturally," she said. "What's the good of setting an example unless you let people know you've set it? Bob, I am sorry to say, disagreed with me. He said he objected to my advertising myself as having cut off all alcohol. I hate doing what Bob doesn't like, but I can't sacrifice principle for anybody."
One of the aged footmen tottered in with a fresh pile of clothing, and Sybil gave him the awful cardigan to burn. Then, since Queenie did not reply, she returned to the charge, thinking that she was convincing her.
"I think it is scandalous that the House of Commons has settled not to do as I have done," she said. "They don't seem to realise what a curse drink is, or how much more efficient the country would be without it. I am afraid that what you call the stimulus of self-denial doesn't appeal to them."
Queenie did not reply for a moment. Then she laughed loudly and suddenly.
"Darling, what a prig you are!" she said affectionately. "You are so keen to improve other people. How can it affect matters if a perfectly sober Member of Parliament has a whisky and soda in the evening? You never had a whisky and soda; you don't know anything about a whisky and soda. No doubt, in excess, whisky is bad. So is tea. I charge you, then, not to have a cup of tea in the morning, when you are called. You couldn't bear that, you know. You would hate it. You won't give it up. You won't really deny yourself anything you want."
"But what good would it do anybody if I did?" asked Sybil.
"It might do you good, dear," said Queenie. "You might get to feel what I want to feel. No, it doesn't matter; I can't make you understand. Gracious me, I believe this heap of dreadful garments grows larger and larger, the more we take out of it! It's—it's like eating an artichoke! When you begin, the artichoke is quite small; but when you've eaten it, your plate is a pyramid."
The two sisters worked on in silence for some time, Queenie hopeless of convincing Sybil about the root-difference between giving up what you wanted and giving up what you didn't care about, Sybil slightly complacent in mind at the thought of all the horrid things she was touching for the sake of other people. All down the ballroom, in triple line, were other pairs of women occupied with the same pursuit, and, like Queenie and her sister, sitting on the floor where so often they had danced. All those workers were girls and women of wealth and leisure; many of them were accustomed to lead modern and useless and artificial lives, and were quite unused to devote themselves to anything that did not directly minister to their own amusement. Now, in this stress of need and destitution, they had become simple and simply feminine again, and yet Queenie missed in them all, even as she missed in her sister and herself, the note of personal self-sacrifice. They helped others now, instead of amusing themselves, because their natures revolted from the idea of amusing themselves. They did not want to; they would not have been amused. Many of them, no doubt, went on the tops of 'buses nowadays, instead of rolling about in motors, but where was the hardship of sitting on those lofty and delightful vehicles? There was no real self-sacrifice about it; they did not want to amuse themselves now that brothers and husbands and sons were thick in the hellish smoke and mud of the trenches. She herself, so she felt, was not one whit better than they; she was industrious, like them, but she knew that her industry, her incessant occupations were the greatest possible boon to herself for purely selfish reasons, that idleness or want of useful occupation would have been to her the nethermost inferno, but she knew the inadequacy for her internal needs of these employments, whereas Sybil was so profoundly satisfied with them. And yet, even as for herself she could find nothing that would appease her yearning, she could suggest nothing to her sister that should convey to her the sense that all she was doing weighed not a feather in the true scale of personal service. She longed to shatter this complacent armour, to find a joint in it, at least, where she might plant an arrow. Yet what joint was there in the armour of one who sincerely thought that she was doing good, in the personal and intimate sense, by publicly forswearing a beverage that she never dreamed of indulging in?
The morning wore on, fresh heaps of wearing apparel and miscellaneous objects were brought in, and from the room next door came the insistent clack of the typewriter acknowledging gifts and soliciting more. This afternoon Queenie would spend the hours there, signing letters, adding little personal words of thanks, and then the autumn day would decline, and, too tired to do more than have a game of some kind with her children, she would dine and go to sleep in her comfortable bed, and still know, in her inmost self, that she gave up nothing for the sake of those who fought and died. And Sybil—here was the bitter and comical thing—would feel that she had been a shining example all day long, and would certainly be another shining example to-morrow.
Then, unexpectedly, but with marvellous fitness, appeared the deus ex machina, in the shape of one of the hoary-headed footmen, who handed her a note. In his other hand he carried, by means of a small brass ring, a square parcel enclosed in an old green baize cover. Queenie read the note and passed it across to Sybil.
"That's what I mean," she said.
Sybil read it; it ran thus—
"I want to send you something for your poor refugees; but I am very poor myself, and can think of nothing to give them but my bull-finch, who pipes very prettily. He might make it all seem more home like to some of the Belgians, and is accustomed to a little green food as well as his seed.
"I am, My Lady,
"P.S. If you say 'Bully!' to him, he gives a little bow and pipes to you."
Queenie got up.
"Who brought it?" she said to the man.
"An old woman, my lady."
"Where is she? Is she downstairs?"
"No, my lady. She just left it at the door, and said there was no answer, but that I was to give you the note and the parcel."
"Just send out for a bit of groundsel," she said.
Sybil passed the note back to her sister without a word, and they worked on together in silence. After a while she looked up.
"Oh, Queenie," she said, "I—I do see what you mean!"