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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 3/65 -
as could be observed--either impressed, disturbed or prejudiced. His own experience had been richly varied and practically unlimited in its opportunities for pleasure, sinful or unsinful indulgence, mitigated or unmitigated wickedness, the gathering of strange knowledge, and the possible ignoring of all dull boundaries. This being the case a superhuman charity alone could have forborne to believe that his opportunities had been neglected in the heyday of his youth. Wealth and lady of limitations in themselves would have been quite enough to cause the Nonconformist Victorian mind to regard a young--or middle-aged--male as likely to represent a fearsome moral example, but these three temptations combined with good looks and a certain mental brilliance were so inevitably the concomitants of elegant iniquity that the results might be taken for granted.
That the various worlds in which he lived in various lands accepted him joyfully as an interesting and desirable of more or less abominably sinful personage, the Head of the House of Coombe--even many years before he became its head--regarded with the detachment which he had, even much earlier, begun to learn. Why should it be in the least matter what people thought of one? Why should it in the least matter what one thought of oneself--and therefore--why should one think at all? He had begun at the outset a brilliantly happy young pagan with this simple theory. After the passing of some years he had not been quite so happy but had remained quite as pagan and retained the theory which had lost its first fine careless rapture and gained a secret bitterness. He had not married and innumerable stories were related to explain the reason why. They were most of them quite false and none of them quite true. When he ceased to be a young man his delinquency was much discussed, more especially when his father died and he took his place as the head of his family. He was old enough, rich enough, important enough for marriage to be almost imperative. But he remained unmarried. In addition he seemed to consider his abstinence entirely an affair of his own.
"Are you as wicked as people say you are?" a reckless young woman once asked him. She belonged to the younger set which was that season trying recklessness, in a tentative way, as a new fashion.
"I really don't know. It is so difficult to decide," he answered. "I could tell better if I knew exactly what wickedness is. When I find out I will let you know. So good of you to take an interest."
Thirty years earlier he knew that a young lady who had heard he was wicked would have perished in flames before immodestly mentioning the fact to him, but might have delicately attempted to offer "first aid" to reformation, by approaching with sweetness the subject of going to church.
The reckless young woman looked at him with an attention which he was far from being blind enough not to see was increased by his answer.
"I never know what you mean," she said almost wistfully.
"Neither do I," was his amiable response. "And I am sure it would not be worth while going into. Really, we neither of us know what we mean. Perhaps I am as wicked as I know how to be. And I may have painful limitations--or I may not."
After his father's death he spent rather more time in London and rather less in wandering over the face of the globe. But by the time he was forty he knew familiarly far countries and near and was intimate with most of the peoples thereof. He could have found his way about blind-folded in the most distinctive parts of most of the great cities. He had seen and learned many things. The most absorbing to his mind had been the ambitions and changes of nations, statesmen, rulers and those they ruled or were ruled by. Courts and capitals knew him, and his opportunities were such as gave him all ease as an onlooker. He was outwardly of the type which does not arouse caution in talkers and he heard much which was suggestive even to illumination, from those to whom he remained unsuspected of being a man who remembered things long and was astute in drawing conclusions. The fact remained however that he possessed a remarkable memory and one which was not a rag-bag filled with unassorted and parti-coloured remnants, but a large and orderly space whose contents were catalogued and filed and well enclosed from observation. He was also given to the mental argument which follows a point to its conclusion as a mere habit of mind. He saw and knew well those who sat and pondered with knit brows and cautiously hovering hand at the great chess-board which is formed by the Map of Europe. He found an enormous interest in watching their play. It was his fortune as a result of his position to know persons who wore crowns and a natural incident in whose lives it was to receive the homage expressed by the uncovering of the head and the bending of the knee. At forty he looked back at the time when the incongruousness, the abnormality and the unsteadiness of the foundations on which such personages stood first struck him. The realization had been in its almost sacrilegious novelty and daring, a sort of thunderbolt passing through his mind. He had at the time spoken of it only to one person.
"I have no moral or ethical views to offer," he had said. "I only SEE. The thing--as it is--will disintegrate. I am so at sea as to what will take its place that I feel as if the prospect were rather horrible. One has had the old landmarks and been impressed by the old pomp and picturesqueness so many centuries, that one cannot see the earth without them. There have been kings even in the Cannibal Islands."
As a statesman or a diplomat he would have seen far but he had been too much occupied with Life as an entertainment, too self-indulgent for work of any order. He freely admitted to himself that he was a worthless person but the fact did not disturb him. Having been born with a certain order of brain it observed and worked in spite of him, thereby adding flavour and interest to existence. But that was all.
It cannot be said that as the years passed he quite enjoyed the fact that he knew he was rarely spoken of to a stranger without its being mentioned that he was the most perfectly dressed man in London. He rather detested the idea though he was aware that the truth was unimpeachable. The perfection of his accompaniments had arisen in his youth from a secret feeling for fitness and harmony. Texture and colour gave him almost abnormal pleasure. His expression of this as a masculine creature had its limits which resulted in a concentration on perfection. Even at five-and-twenty however he had never been called a dandy and even at five-and-forty no one had as yet hinted at Beau Brummel though by that time men as well as women frequently described to each other the cut and colour of the garments he wore, and tailors besought him to honour them with crumbs of his patronage in the ambitious hope that they might mention him as a client. And the simple fact that he appeared in a certain colour or cut set it at once on its way to become a fashion to be seized upon, worn and exaggerated until it was dropped suddenly by its originator and lost in the oblivion of cheap imitations and cheap tailor shops. The first exaggeration of the harmony he had created and the original was seen no more.
Feather herself had a marvellous trick in the collecting of her garments. It was a trick which at times barely escaped assuming the proportions of absolute creation. Her passion for self-adornment expressed itself in ingenious combination and quite startling uniqueness of line now and then. Her slim fairness and ash-gold gossamer hair carried airily strange tilts and curves of little or large hats or daring tints other women could not sustain but invariably strove to imitate however disastrous the results. Beneath soft drooping or oddly flopping brims hopelessly unbecoming to most faces hers looked out quaintly lovely as a pictured child's wearing its grandmother's bonnet. Everything draped itself about or clung to her in entrancing folds which however whimsical were never grotesque.
"Things are always becoming to me," she said quite simply. "But often I stick a few pins into a dress to tuck it up here and there, or if I give a hat a poke somewhere to make it crooked, they are much more becoming. People are always asking me how I do it but I don't know how. I bought a hat from Cerise last week and I gave it two little thumps with my fist--one in the crown and one in the brim and they made it wonderful. The maid of the most grand kind of person tried to find out from my maid where I bought it. I wouldn't let her tell of course."
She created fashions and was imitated as was the Head of the House of Coombe but she was enraptured by the fact and the entire power of such gray matter as was held by her small brain cells was concentrated upon her desire to evolve new fantasies and amazements for her world.
Before he had been married for a year there began to creep into the mind of Bob Gareth-Lawless a fearsome doubt remotely hinting that she might end by becoming an awful bore in the course of time--particularly if she also ended by being less pretty. She chattered so incessantly about nothing and was such an empty-headed, extravagant little fool in her insistence on clothes--clothes--clothes--as if they were the breath of life. After watching her for about two hours one morning as she sat before her mirror directing her maid to arrange and re-arrange her hair in different styles--in delicate puffs and curls and straying rings--soft bands and loops--in braids and coils--he broke forth into an uneasy short laugh and expressed himself--though she did not know he was expressing himself and would not have understood him if she had.
"If you have a soul--and I'm not at all certain you have--" he said, "it's divided into a dressmaker's and a hairdresser's and a milliner's shop. It's full of tumbled piles of hats and frocks and diamond combs. It's an awful mess, Feather."
"I hope it's a shoe shop and a jeweller's as well," she laughed quite gaily. "And a lace-maker's. I need every one of them."
"It's a rag shop," he said. "It has nothing but CHIFFONS in it."
"If ever I DO think of souls I think of them as silly gauzy things floating about like little balloons," was her cheerful response.
"That's an idea," he answered with a rather louder laugh. "Yours might be made of pink and blue gauze spangled with those things you call paillettes."
The fancy attracted her.
"If I had one like that"--with a pleased creative air, "it would look rather ducky floating from my shoulder--or even my hat--or my hair in the evenings, just held by a tiny sparkling chain fastened with a diamond pin--and with lovely little pink and blue streamers." With the touch of genius she had at once relegated it to its place in the scheme of her universe. And Robert laughed even louder than before.
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