Once Aboard the Lugger Part 18

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II.

Descending to the dining-room upon this evening, her normal shrinking from the meal was considerably augmented. On the previous night--the first upon which Mr. Bob Chater's legs had partnered hers beneath the table--his eyes (like some bold gallant popping out on modesty whenever it dared peep from the doorway) had captured her glance each time she ventured look up from her plate. The episode of the nursery was equivalent to having slapped the gallant's face, and the re- encounter was proportionately uncomfortable.

Taking her place she was by sheer nervousness impelled to meet his gaze--so heavily freighted it was as to raise a sudden flush to her cheek. Her eyes fled round to Mrs. Chater, received a look that questioned the blush, drove it duskier; through an uncomfortable half- hour she kept her face towards her plate.

It was illuminative of the relations between husband and wife that Mrs. Chater carved; her husband dealt the sweets. The carving knife is the domestic sceptre of authority: when it is wielded by the woman, the man, you will find, is consort rather than king.

III.

Upon the previous evening Mr. Bob Chater had led the conversation. To- night he was indisposed for the position--would not take it despite his mother's desperate attempts to board the train of his ideas and by it be carried to scenes of her son's adventures. A dozen times she presented her ticket; as often Bob turned her back at the barrier.

It was a rare event this refusal of his to carry pa.s.sengers. So loudly did he whistle as a rule as to attract all in the vicinity, convinced that there was an important train by which it would be agreeable to travel.

For Mr. Bob Chater was a loud young man, emanating a swaggering air that the term "side" well fitted. To have some conceit of oneself is an excellent affair. The possession is a keel that gives to the craft a dignified balance upon the stream of life--prevents it from being sailed too close to mud; helps maintain stability in sudden gale.

Other craft are keelless--they are canoes; bobbing, unsteady, likely to capsize in sudden emergency; p.r.o.ne to drift into muddy waters; liable to be swept anywhither by any current. Others, again--and Mr.

Bob Chater was of these--are over-freighted upon one quarter or another: they sail with a list. Amongst well-trimmed boats these learn in time not to adventure, since here they are greeted with ridicule or with contempt; yet among the keelless fleets they have a position of some authority; holding it on the same principle as that by which among beggars he who has a coin--even though base--is accounted king.

Bob Chater's list was ego-wards. His mighty "I"--I am, I do, I say, I know, I think--bulged from him, hanging from his voice, his glance, his gesture, his walk. In it Mrs. Chater bathed; to be carried along in the train of his mighty "I" was delectable to her. But to-night she could not effect the pa.s.sage.

A final effort she made to get aboard. "And in St. Petersburg!" she tempted. "I wonder if you ever saw the _Tsar_ when you were in St.

Petersburg?"

Bob drove her back: "St. Petersburg's a loathsome place."

Mrs. Chater tried to squeeze through. "So _gay_, they say."

Bob slammed the gate. "I wish you'd _tell_ me something instead of expecting _me_ to do all the talking. I want to hear all that's been going on here while I've been away, but I'm hanged if I can find out."

A little mortified, Mrs. Chater said: "I've hardly seen you, dear, except at meals"--then threw the onus for her son's lack of local gossip upon her husband. Addressing him, "You've been with Bob all the morning," she told him. "I wonder you haven't given him all the news.

But, there! I suppose you've done nothing but question him about what business he's done!"

Mr. Chater, startled at the novelty of being drawn into table conversation while his son and his wife were present, dropped his spoon with a splash into his soup, wiped his coat, frowned at the parlour-maid, cleared his throat, and, to gain time to determine whether he had courage to say that which was burning within him, threw out an "Eh?" for his pursuing wife to Worry.

Mrs. Chater pounced upon it; shook it. "What I said was that I suppose you've been doing nothing but question poor Bob about what he has done for the firm while he's been away,"

Mr. Chater nerved himself to declare his mind. "There wasn't very much to question him about," he said.

His words--outcome of views forcibly expressed by his partners in Mincing Lane that morning--were the foolhardy action of one who pokes a tigress with a stick.

The tigress shook herself. "Now, I wonder what you mean by _that_?"

she challenged.

Mr. Chater dropped the stick; precipitantly fled. "Of course it was all new to Bob," he granted, throwing a bone.

Very much to his alarm the tigress ignored the bone; rushed after him.

"All you seem to think about," cried she, "is making the boy slave.

He's never had a proper holiday since he left school, and yet the very first time he goes off to see the world you must be fidgeting yourself to death all the time that he's not pus.h.i.+ng the firm sufficiently; and immediately he comes back you must start cross-examining just as if he was an office-boy--not a word about his health or his pleasure. Oh, no! of course not!"

Squirming in misery, Mr. Chater remarked that he had his partners to consider. "I'm only too glad that Bob should enjoy himself--only too glad. But you must remember, my dear, that part of his expenses for this trip was paid for by the firm--the _firm_. He was to call on foreign houses--"

The tigress opened her mouth for fresh a.s.sault. Mr. Chater hurriedly thrust in a bone. "I don't say he hasn't done a great deal for us--not at all; I'd be the last to say that. What I say is that in duty to my partners I must take the first opportunity to ask him a few questions about it. Bob sees that himself; don't you, Bob?"

"Oh, do let's keep shop off the table," Bob snarled. "Fair sickens me this never getting away from the office."

"There you are!" Mrs. Chater cried. "There you are! Always business, business, business--that's what _I_ complain of."

With astounding recklessness Mr. Chater mildly said: "My dear, you started it."

Mrs. Chater quivered: "Ah, put it on me! Put it on me! Somehow you always manage to do that. Miss Humfray, when you've _quite_ finished your soup _then_ perhaps Clarence can take the plates."

Mary's thoughts, to the neglect of her duty, had crept away beneath cover of these exchanges. Now she endured the disaster of amid silence clearing her plate with four pairs of eyes fixed upon her. Clarence removed the course; Mr. Chater, leaping as far as possible from the scene of his ordeal, broke a new topic.

He enticed tentatively: "I saw a funny bit in the paper this morning."

The tigress paused in the projection of another spring; sniffed suspiciously. "Oh!"

"About that young Lord Comeragh," Mr. Chater hurried on, delighted with his success. "He was up at Marlborough Street police-court this morning--at least his butler was; of course his lords.h.i.+p wouldn't go himself--charged with furiously driving his motorcar; and who do you think was in the car with him at the time? Ah!"

Mrs. Chater, naming a young lady who nightly advertised a pretty leg from the chorus of a musical comedy, announced that she would not be surprised if that was the person. Being told that it was none other, and that Mr. Chater had heard in the City that morning that Lady Comeragh was taking proceedings and had named the nicely-legged young lady the cause of infidelity, became highly astonished and supremely diverted.

Conversation of a most delectable nature was by this means supplied. A pot of savoury gossip, flavoured with scandal, was upon the table; and Mary, lost to sight behind the cloud of steam that uprose as the three leaped about it, finished her dinner undisturbed.

A nod bade her leave before dessert. As she pa.s.sed out the signaller spoke. "I want to see you," Mrs. Chater said. "Wait for me in the drawing-room."

The command was unusual, and Mary, waiting as bid, worried herself with surmises upon it. She prayed it did not mean she was to soothe Mr. Bob Chater's digestion with lullabies upon the piano; that it boded an unpleasant affair she was a.s.sured.

She did not err. Mrs. Chater came to her, dyspeptic-flushed, sternly browed.

"Miss Humfray, I have one thing to say to you, no more. No explanations, no excuses, please. I hear you have been trying to entertain my son in the nursery this evening. If that, or anything like it, occurs again--You understand?"

"Mrs. Chater--"

A ma.s.sive hand signalled Stop. "I said 'not a word.' That is all. Good night."

And Mary, crimson, to her room.

BOOK III.

Of Glimpses at a Period of this History: of Love and of War.

Once Aboard the Lugger Part 18

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Once Aboard the Lugger Part 18 summary

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