When she was nineteen years of age Elise came to live with her mother, and as the fiery beauty of the child had mellowed into a sort of smouldering charm that owed something to the mystic atmosphere of convent life, Lady Durwent felt that an ally of importance had entered the arena.
Thus four years passed, and in 1913 (had peeresses been in the habit of taking inventories) Lady Durwent could have issued a statement somewhat as follows:
1 Husband; a Peer. 1 Son; aged twenty-five; decently popular with his regiment. 1 Daughter; marriageable; aged twenty-three. 1 Town House. 1 Country Estate. The goodwill of numerous unusual people, and the envy of a lot of minor Peeresses.
1 Son; aged twenty; at Cambridge; in perpetual trouble, and would have been rusticated ere now had he not been the son of a lord. 1 Ironmonger.
* * * * * *
‘My dear,’ said Lady Durwent, glancing at her daughter, who was reading a novel, ‘hadn’t you better go and dress?’
‘Is there a dinner-party to-night?’ asked the girl without looking up.
’Of course, Elise. Have you forgotten that Mr. Selwyn of New York will be here?’
‘Is he as tedious as Stackton Dunckley?’
Lady Durwent frowned with vexation. ‘My dear,’ she said, ’you are very trying.’
PROLOGUE TO A DINNER-PARTY.
Even unusual dinner-parties begin like ordinary ones. There is the discomfiture of the guest who arrives first, subjected to his hostess’s reassurances that he is not really early. After what seems an interminable length of time, during which a score of conversational topics are broached, and both hostess and guest are reduced to a state bordering on mutual animosity, the remainder of the party arrive en masse, as if by collusion. The butler (who likes to chew the cud of reflection between the announcements) is openly pained, while the distracted hostess must manage the introductions, and, as friendships are begun or enmities renewed, endeavour to initiate the new-comer into the subject of conversation immediately preceding his or her entrance. As the good woman’s subconscious mind is in the kitchen, and as she is constantly interrupted by the necessity of greeting new arrivals, she usually succeeds in mystifying every one, and creating that atmosphere of ‘nerves’ so familiar to denizens of the best sets.
But we had almost forgotten—there is always one guest who is late.
The fateful hour mentioned in the dinner invitation arrives, strikes, and floats down the mists to the eerie catacombs of the Past. The hostess knows that the cook, with arms akimbo, is breathing rebellion, but tries to blot out the awful vision by an extra spurt of hollow gaiety.