‘Mr. Selwyn,’ said Mrs. Le Roy Jennings in her best manner, ’after you have subjected England to a microscopic examination for a sufficient length of time, you will discover that we are a nation of parasites.’
‘I would rather you said that than I, Mrs. Jennings.’
‘Parasites,’ reiterated the speaker, fixing an eye on some point on the wall directly between Selwyn and the hostess. ’We sprawl over the world—why? To develop resources? No! It is to reap the natural growth of others’ endeavours? Yes! The Englishman never creates. He is the world’s greatest brigand’——
‘Too thoroughly masculine to be really cruel,’ chimed in the irrepressible Smyth.
‘Brigand,’ repeated Mrs. Jennings, not deigning the artist so much as a glance, ’skimming the earth of its surface riches, and rendering every place the poorer for his being there.’
There was an awesome silence, which no one seemed courageous enough to break.
‘Yes,’ said H. Stackton Dunckley finally, ’and in addition England is decadent.’
’But, Mr. Selwyn’—again the American heard the voice of Elise Durwent, that quick intensity of speech that always left a moment of startled silence in its wake—’you have discovered something admirable about England. Won’t you tell us what it is?’
‘Well,’ he said, smiling, ’for one thing, no one can deny the beauty of your women.’
‘All decadent nations,’ said H. Stackton Dunckley, ’produce beautiful women—it is one of the surest signs that they are going to pieces. The Romans did at the last, and Rome and England are parallel cases. As Mrs. Le Roy Jennings says, they are parasitic nations. What did the Romans add to Greek art? The Greeks had this’—he made an elliptical movement of his hands—’the Romans did that to it’—he described a circle, then shrugged his shoulders, convinced that he had said something crushing.
‘So you think English women beautiful, Mr. Selwyn?’ said Lady Durwent, trying to retrieve the conversation from the slough of her inamorato’s ponderosity.
‘Undoubtedly,’ answered the American warmly. ’It is no doubt the out-of-door life they lead, and I suppose the moist climate has something to do with their wonderful complexions, but they are womanly as well, and their voices are lovely.’
‘I smell a rat,’ said Smyth, who had in his mouth an unlit cigarette, which had fastened itself to his lip and bobbed up and down with his speech, like a miniature baton. ’When a man says a woman’s voice is sweet, it means that she has bored him; that what she has to say interests him so little that he turns to contemplation of her voice. This American is a devilish cute fellow.’
A babble of voices took up the charge and demanded immediate explanation.
‘To a certain extent,’ said Selwyn stoutly, ’there is much in what Mr. Smyth says.’
‘List to the pigmy praising the oracle,’ chanted the artist.