“My dear Comus, you are talking of the West Africa of yesterday. While you have been wasting your time at school, and worse than wasting your time in the West End, other people have been grappling with the study of tropical diseases, and the West African coast country is being rapidly transformed from a lethal chamber into a sanatorium.”
Comus laughed mockingly.
“What a beautiful bit of persuasive prose; it reminds one of the Psalms and even more of a company prospectus. If you were honest you’d confess that you lifted it straight out of a rubber or railway promotion scheme. Seriously, mother, if I must grub about for a living, why can’t I do it in England? I could go into a brewery for instance.”
Francesca shook her head decisively; she could foresee the sort of steady work Comus was likely to accomplish, with the lodestone of Town and the minor attractions of race-meetings and similar festivities always beckoning to him from a conveniently attainable distance, but apart from that aspect of the case there was a financial obstacle in the way of his obtaining any employment at home.
“Breweries and all those sort of things necessitate money to start with; one has to pay premiums or invest capital in the undertaking, and so forth. And as we have no money available, and can scarcely pay our debts as it is, it’s no use thinking about it.”
“Can’t we sell something?” asked Comus.
He made no actual suggestion as to what should be sacrificed, but he was looking straight at the Van der Meulen.
For a moment Francesca felt a stifling sensation of weakness, as though her heart was going to stop beating. Then she sat forward in her chair and spoke with energy, almost fierceness.
“When I am dead my things can be sold and dispersed. As long as I am alive I prefer to keep them by me.”
In her holy place, with all her treasured possessions around her, this dreadful suggestion had been made. Some of her cherished household gods, souvenirs and keepsakes from past days, would, perhaps, not have fetched a very considerable sum in the auction-room, others had a distinct value of their own, but to her they were all precious. And the Van der Meulen, at which Comus had looked with impious appraising eyes, was the most sacred of them all. When Francesca had been away from her Town residence or had been confined to her bedroom through illness, the great picture with its stately solemn representation of a long-ago battle-scene, painted to flatter the flattery-loving soul of a warrior-king who was dignified even in his campaigns—this was the first thing she visited on her return to Town or convalescence. If an alarm of fire had been raised it would have been the first thing for whose safety she would have troubled. And Comus had almost suggested that it should be parted with, as one sold railway shares and other soulless things.