On this eventful evening, therefore, the dinner-party, stimulated by her art and by potent wines (gazing with long-necked dignity at the autocratic whisky-decanter), rapidly assumed a crescendo and an accelerando—the two things for which a hostess listens.
H. Stackton Dunckley had held the resolutionist in a duel of language—a combat with broadswords—and honours were fairly even. The short-sleeved Johnston Smyth had waged futurist warfare against the modernist Pyford, while the Honourable Miss Durwent sat helplessly between them, with as little chance of asserting her rights as the Dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s tea-party. The American had held his own in badinage with the daughter of Italy on one side and his hostess on the other, the latter, however, being too skilled in entertaining to do more than murmur a few encouragements to the spontaneity that so palpably existed.
‘Let me see,’ said Lady Durwent as the meal came to a close and the butler looked questioningly at her. ’Shall we’—she opened the caverns of her throat, producing a volume that instantly silenced every one—’SHALL WE HAVE COFFEE IN HERE OR IN THE DRAWING-ROOM? I suppose you gentlemen, as usual, want to chat over your port and cigars alone.’
H. Stackton Dunckley protested that absence from the ladies, even for so short a time, would completely spoil his evening—receiving in reward a languorous glance from Lady Durwent. Johnston Smyth, who had done more than ample justice to the wines, offered to ‘pink’ at fifty yards any man who would consider the proposition for a moment. Only Norton Pyford, in a sort of befuddled gallantry, suggested that the ladies might have sentimental confidences to exchange, and leered amorously at Elise Durwent.
‘Well,’ said Lady Durwent, ’I am sure we are all curious to hear what Mr. Selwyn thinks of England, so I think we shall have coffee here. Is it agreeable to every one?’
Unanimous approval greeted the proposal, and, at a sign from the hostess, cigarettes, cigars, and coffee made their appearance, with the corresponding niceties of ‘Just one, please,’ ’Well, perhaps a cigarette might be enjoyable,’ ‘I know men like a cigar,’ ’After you, old man,’ and all those various utterances which tickle the ear, creating in the speaker’s breast the feeling of saying the right thing and doing it rather well.
Throughout the dinner the daughter of the house had sat practically without a remark, and even when chorus effects were achieved by the rest, remained with almost immobile features, merely glancing from one to another, momentarily interested or openly bored. Several times the American had looked furtively at the arresting face, marred by too apparent mental resentment, but the barricade of Johnston Smyth’s angular personality had been too powerful for him to surmount with anything but the most superficial persiflage.
He had watched her take a cigarette, accepting a light from Smyth, who surrounded the action with a ludicrous dignity, when she looked up and met his eyes.