Ten minutes pass.
Conversation flags. The portly bachelor who lives at his club wonders why he didn’t have a chop before he came. His fellow-diners try to refrain from the topic, but it is as hopeless as trying to talk to an ex-convict without mentioning jails. Finally, in an abandon of desperation, they all turn inquiringly to the hostess, who, affecting an ease of manner, says pleasantly, ’Dear me! What can have detained Mr. So-and-so? I wonder if we had better go in without him?’
And then he arrives—the jackass—and in a sublime good-humour! He tells some cock-and-bull story about his taxi breaking down, and actually seems to think he’s done rather a smart thing in turning up at all. In short, he brings in such an air of geniality and self-appreciation that the guest who arrived first has more than a notion to ‘have him out’ and send him to a region where dinner-parties are popularly supposed to be unknown.
No—the lot of a lady who gives dinners is not a happy one.
On this Friday night of November in the year 1918, Lady Durwent sat by the fire in the drawing-room and discussed music with Norton Pyford. Having sacrificed his watch on the altar of art, he had been compelled to rely on appetite, with the result that he arrived just as eight was striking. Lady Durwent did her best, but as she knew nothing of music, nor he anything of anything else, the situation was becoming difficult, when the entrance of Madame Carlotti brought welcome relief.
That lady was wearing a yellow gown rather too tight for her, so that her somewhat ample flesh slightly overran the confines of the garment, giving the effect that she had grown up in the thing and was unable to shed it. This impression was heightened by a mannerism, repeated frequently during the evening, of grasping her very low bodice with her hands, exhausting her breath, pulling the bodice up, and compressing herself into it. It was an innocent enough performance, but invariably left the feeling that she should retire upstairs to do it.
She wore a yellow flower in her hair; her stockings were a rich yellow with a superimposed pattern like strands of fine gold, and her dainty feet were enclosed in a pair of bronzed shoes. As her lips were heavily carmined and her eyes brilliantly dark, Madame Carlotti’s was a distinctly illuminating presence.
But the sunniness of her entrance was dimmed by the lack of audience. She had not expended her genius to throw it away on a strangely dressed young man whose hair fell straight and black over a large collar that had earned a holiday some days before, and whose velvet jacket was minus two buttons, the threads of which could still be seen, out-stretched, appealing for their owners’ return.
‘Lucia, my dear,’ said Lady Durwent, just like an ordinary hostess, ‘you look’ (sotto voce) ’simply wonderful! I think you have met Mr. Norton Pyford, the Norton Pyford, haven’t you?’