H. Stackton Dunckley put the letter down and sighed. He was an author who had been writing other men’s ideas all his life, but without sufficient distinction to achieve either a success or a failure. He had gained some notoriety by his wife suing him for divorce; but when the Court granted her separation on the ground of desertion, it cleared him of the charge of infidelity—and of the chance of advertisement at the same moment. Later, by being a constant attendant on Lady Durwent, he almost succeeded in creating a scandal; but, to the great disappointment of them both, London flatly refused to believe there was anything wrong. For one thing, she was the daughter of a commoner—and the morality of the middle classes is a conviction solidly rooted in English society. And then there were his writings. How could one doubt the character of a man so dull?
Undiscouraged, they still maintained their perfectly innocent friendship, and, like kittens playing with a spool, invested it with all the appearances of an intrigue.
Dismissing his depressing thoughts, H. Stackton Dunckley noticed that his cigarette was out, and closing his eyes, fell asleep once more.
Madame Carlotti, clothed in a kimono of emphatic shade, sat by the fire in her rooms in Knightsbridge and read her mail while sipping coffee. She was the wife of an Italian diplomat, a sort of wandering plenipotentiary who did business in every part of the world but London, and with every Government but that of Britain. It was the signora’s somewhat incomprehensible complaint that her husband’s duties forced her to live in that fog-bound metropolis, and having thus achieved the pedestal of a martyr, she poured abuse on everything English from climate to customs. Possessed of a certain social dexterity and the ability to make the most ordinary conversation seem to concern a forbidden topic, Madame Carlotti was in great demand as a guest, and abused more English habits and attended more dinner-parties than any other woman in London.
From beneath seven tradesmen’s letters she extracted one from Lady Durwent.
’8 CHELMSFORD GARDENS,
’DEAREST LUCIA,—I am counting on you for next Friday. A young American author studying England—I suppose like that Count Something-or-other in Pickwick Papers—is coming to dinner. I understand he drinks very little, so I am relying on you to thaw him.
’Stackton Dunckley insists upon coming, though I tell him that it is dangerous; and of course people are saying dreadful things, I know. He is so persistent. There will be just half-a-dozen unusual people there, my dear, so don’t fail me. Dinner will be at 8.30.—So sincerely, SYBIL DERWENT.
’P.S.—Don’t you think you could make Stackton interested in you? Your husband is away so much.’
Madame Carlotti smiled with her teeth and drank some very strong coffee.