The Lenskys were happy people and enjoyed life as it came. He, a slim, blond, exceedingly well-dressed little man, was attached to the Russian Embassy in London, in some more or less permanent quality, having given up his secretaryship after a miserable sojourn in a Continental city that he and his wife both hated.
They had money enough to live comfortably, in the quiet way they both liked, in England, and a year before that November his mother had died, leaving them the richer by a few hundred pounds a year. So they were well-off in the sense that they had plenty of money to spend, and the certainty that their children would one day be in still better circumstances.
One day in January Mrs. de Lensky was sitting on the floor in the brick-floored nursery, building a Moorish palace for her son, aged eighteen months.
She was a thin woman of thirty-six or seven, with large dark eyes, somewhat hollow now, and a brown vivid face on which life had put several deep lines—all of which, though unbeautiful in themselves, were good lines, and made for character.
“And here’s the tower in which the little boy lived,” she said to the baby, who, very fat and peculiarly blond, regarded her rapturously, “and here’s the dungeon where they put him when he was naughty. If Thaddeus bites Elvira again,” she added gravely, “what will happen to him?”
But Thaddeus, who was possessed of the courage incidental to a sound digestion and dormant nerves, only laughed and showed the wicked fangs that had bitten the nurse.
It was a pleasant, bare, sunny room, the rug covered with shabby toys, the walls nearly hidden by pictures from illustrated papers. Through an open door one saw a table at which sat a little girl of six, bending over a book with the unmistakable air of a child learning something uninteresting.
“Yes, mother?” Eliza looked up. She too was blonde, but her eyes were dark.
“Where is Pammy, dear?”
“I don’t know, mother. Perhaps she’s eating plaster again,” suggested Eliza, with the alertness that even charming children sometimes show when face to face with the crime of some contemporary.
Pam did not laugh. Plaster-eating may be funny in other people’s children, but seven-year-old Pammy, her adopted daughter, was too old to persist in the habit, and punishment seemed to have no effect on it. The house was old, and the walls defective in many places, and Pammy’s joy was to dig out bits of ancient plaster and consume it on the sly. It was presumably bad for her stomach and indubitably bad for her character, as the child persisted in it with a quiet effrontery that baulked discipline. So Mrs. de Lensky rose, and bidding Eliza look after the baby, started in search of the wicked one.
January was spring at the Villa Arcadie, and as she went downstairs a strong scent of heliotrope and narcissi was wafted towards her. A boy stood in the hall carrying a basket.