At Lady Molly's

By Lawrence Collins,2014-11-04 17:36
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At Lady Molly's

    ANTHONY POWELL ? ? AT LADY MOLLY’S ? ? ? A NOVEL ? ? Book 4 A Dance to the Music of Time ? ? ?






    WE had known General Conyers immemorially not because my father had ever served under him butthrough some long-forgotten connexion with my mother’s parents, to one or other of whom he mayeven have been distantly related. In any case, he was on record as having frequented theirhouse in an era so remote and legendary that, if commission was no longer by purchase,regiments of the line were still designated by a number instead of the name of a county. Inspite of belonging to this dim, archaic period, traces of which were sometimes revealed in hisdress and speech—he was, for example, one of the last to my knowledge to speak of theHousehold Cavalry as ‘the Plungers’—his place in family myth was established not only as asoldier with interests beyond his profession, but even as a man of the world always ‘abreastof the times’. This taste for being in the fashion and giving his opinion on every subject washeld against him by some people, notably Uncle Giles, no friend of up-to-date thought, and onprinciple suspicious of worldly success, however mild.

    ‘Aylmer Conyers had a flair for getting on,’ he used to say, ‘No harm in that, I suppose.Somebody has got to give the orders. Personally I never cared for the limelight. Plenty ofothers to push themselves forward. Inclined to think a good deal of himself, Conyers was. Finefigure of a man, people used to say, a bit too fond of dressing himself up to the nines. Notentirely friendless in high places either. Quite the contrary. Peacetime or war, Conyers alwaysknew the right people.’

    I had once inquired about the General’s campaigns.

    ‘Afghanistan, Burma—as a subaltern. I’ve heard him talk big about Zululand. In the Soudanfor a bit when the Khalifa was making trouble there. Went in for jobs abroad. Supposed to havesaved the life of some native ruler in a local rumpus. Armed the palace eunuchs with rookrifles. Fellow gave him a jewelled scimitar—semi-precious stones, of course.’

    ‘I’ve seen the scimitar. I never knew the story.’

    Ignoring interruptions, Uncle Giles began to explain how South Africa, grave of so muchmilitary reputation, had been by Aylmer Conyers turned to good account. Having himself, as aresult of his own indiscretions, retired from the army shortly before outbreak of war in theTransvaal, and possessing in addition those ‘pro-Boer’ sentiments appropriate to ‘a bit of aradical’, my uncle spoke always with severity, no doubt largely justified, of the manner inwhich the operations of the campaign had been conducted.

    ‘After French moved over the Modder River, the whole Cavalry Division was ordered to charge.Unheard of thing. Like a gymkhana.’


    For a minute or two he lost the thread, contemplating the dusty squadrons wheeling from columninto line across the veldt, or more probably assailed by memories of his own, less dramatic, ifmore bitter.

    ‘What happened?’


    ‘What happened when they charged?’

    ‘Cronje made an error of judgment for once. Only sent out detachments. Went through toKimberley, more by luck than looking to.’

    ‘But what about General Conyers?’

    ’Got himself into the charge somehow. Hadn’t any business with the cavalry brigades. Put upsome excuse. Then, day or two later, went back to where he ought to have been in the firstplace. Made himself most officious among the transport wagons. Line of march was like Hyde Parkat the height of the Season, so a fellow who was in the advance told me—carriages end to endin Albert Gate—and Conyers running about cursing and swearing as if he owned the place.’

    ‘Didn’t Lord Roberts say something about his staff work?’



    ‘Who said that, your father?’

    ‘I think so.’

    Uncle Giles shook his head.

    ‘Bobs may have said something. Wouldn’t be the first time a general got hold of the wrong endof the stick. They say Conyers used to chase the women a bit, too. Some people thought he wasgoing to propose to your Great-aunt Harriet.’

    Other memories, on the whole more reliable, gainsay any such surmise regarding this lastmatter. In fact, Conyers remained a bachelor until he was approaching fifty. He was by then abrigadier-general, expected to go much further, when—to the surprise of his friends—hemarried a woman nearly twenty years younger than himself; sending in his papers about eighteenmonths later. Perhaps he was tired of waiting for the war with Germany he had so oftenprophesied, in which, had it come sooner, he would certainly have been offered high command.Possibly his wife did not enjoy following the drum, even as a general’s lady. She is unlikelyto have had much taste for army life. The General, for his own part, may have felt at lasttired of military routine. Like many soldiers of ability he possessed his eccentric side.Although no great performer, he had always loved playing the ’cello, and on retirementoccupied much of his time with music; also experimenting with a favourite theory that poodles,owing to their keen natural intelligence, could profitably be trained as gun dogs. He began tolive rather a social life, too, and was appointed a member of the Body Guard; the role inwhich, from early association of ideas, I always think of him.

    ‘Funny that a fellow should want to be a kind of court flunkey,’ Uncle Giles used to say.‘Can’t imagine myself rigged out in a lot of scarlet and gold, hanging about royal palacesand herding in and out a crowd of young ladies in ostrich feathers. Did it to please his wife,I suppose.’

    Mrs. Conyers, it is true, might have played some indirect part in this appointment. Eldestdaughter of King Edward VII’s friend, Lord Vowchurch, she had passed her thirtieth birthday atthe time of marriage. Endless stories, not always edifying, are—or used to be—told of herfather, one of those men oddly prevalent in Victorian times who sought personal power throughbuffoonery. His most enduring memorial (to be found, with other notabilities of the’seventies, hanging in the damp, deserted billiard-room at Thrubworth) is Spy’s caricature inthe Vanity Fair series, depicting this high-spirited peer in frock-coat and top hat, both grey:the bad temper for which he was as notorious at home as for his sparkle in Society, neatlysuggested under the side whiskers by the lines of the mouth. In later years Lord Vowchurch grewquieter, particularly after a rather serious accident as a pioneer in the early days ofmotoring. This mishap left him with a limp and injuries which seem to have stimulated thathabitual banter, rarely good-natured, for which he had often been in trouble with King Edward,when Prince of Wales; and, equally often, forgiven. His daughters had lived their early life inpermanent disgrace for having, none of them, been born a boy.

    My parents never saw much of the General and his wife. They knew them about as well as theyknew the Walpole-Wilsons; though the Conyers relationship, with its foundations laid in a

distant, fabled past, if never more intimate, was in some way deeper and more satisfying.

    Like all marriages, the Conyers union presented elements of mystery. It was widely assumed thatthe General had remained a bachelor so long through conviction that a career is best madealone. He may have believed (like de Gaulle, whom he lived to see leading the Free French) in acelibate corps of officers dedicated like priests to their military calling. He wrote something

    . This theory rested upon no objection to theof the sort in the United Service Magazine

    opposite sex as such. On the contrary, as a young officer in India and elsewhere he was judged,as Uncle Giles had indicated, to have enjoyed a considerable degree of quiet womanising. Somethought that ambition of rather a different sort—a feeling that he had never fully experiencedsome of the good things of life—had finally persuaded him to marry and retire. A few of theincurably romantic even supposed him simply to have ‘fallen in love’ for the first time onthe brink of fifty.

    General and Mrs. Conyers seemed to ‘get on’ as well, if not better, than many married couplesof a similar sort united at an earlier age. They moved, on the whole, in a circle connected, itmight be said unpretentiously (because nothing could have been less ‘smart’, for example inChips Lovell’s use of the term, than the Conyers ménage) with the Court: families like theBudds and Udneys. In the limited but intense—and at times ornamental—preoccupations of theseprofessional courtiers, the General seems to have found an adequate alternative to a life ofcommand.

    They had an only daughter called Charlotte, a rather colourless girl, who married a lieutenant-commander in the Navy. I used sometimes to have tea with her when we were both children.

    In 1916, towards Christmas, at a time when Mrs. Conyers was assembling ‘comforts’ for troopsoverseas (still at this period in more amateur hands than the organisation that employed UncleGiles after America came into the war) I was taken—passing through London on the way home fromschool—to her flat near Sloane Square. My mother paid the call either to add some knittedcontribution to the pile of socks, scarves and Balaclava helmets lying about on chairs andsofas, or to help in some matter of their distribution. In the corner of the room in which allthese bundles were stacked stood the ’cello in a case. Beside it, I at once noticed a largephotograph of the General, carrying a halberd and wearing the plumed helmet, swallow-tailedcoat and heavy gold epaulettes of a Gentleman-at-Arms. That is why I always think of him as astatuesque figure at leveés and court balls, rather than the man of action he must for thegreater part of his life have been. Retired from the army too long for any re-employment of thefirst importance, he had acquired soon after the outbreak of war some job, far from momentous,though respectably graded in the rank of major-general.

    We had finished tea, and I was being shown the jewelled scimitar to which Uncle Giles hadreferred, which was kept for some reason in the London flat instead of the small house inHampshire where the poodles were trained. This display was made by Mrs. Conyers as some amendsfor the fact that Charlotte was in the country; although no apology was necessary as it seemedto me more amusing without her. I was admiring the velvet-covered scabbard, wondering whetherto draw the steel from its sheath would be permissible, when the maid showed someone into theroom. This new arrival was a young woman wearing V.A.D. uniform, who strode in like agrenadier. She turned out to be Mildred Blaides, youngest sister to Mrs. Conyers.

    Difference of age between the two of them must have been at least that of Mrs. Conyers and herhusband. This Miss Blaides, indeed, represented her parents’ final, unsuccessful effort toachieve an heir, before Lord Vowchurch’s motor accident and total resignation to the titlepassing to a cousin. She was tall, with a long nose, no more handsome than her sister, but inmy eyes infinitely more dashing than Mrs. Conyers. Her face was lively, not unlike the mask ofa fox. Almost immediately she took from her pocket an ornamental cigarette-case made of somelacquer-like substance and lit a cigarette. Such an act, especially in one so young, was stillin those days a sign of conscious female emancipation. I suppose she was then about twenty.

    ‘Mildred is at Dogdene now,’ explained Mrs. Conyers, ‘You know the Sleafords offered theirhouse as an officers’ hospital when the war broke out. They themselves live in the east wing.

There are huts all over the park too.’

    ‘It’s absolute hell having all those blighters in huts,’ said Miss Blaides. ‘Some of thetommies got tight the other night and pushed one of the stone urns off the Italian bridge intothe lake. It was too bad of them. They are a putrid unit anyway. All the officers wear“gorblimeys”.’

    ‘What on earth are those, Mildred?’ asked Mrs. Conyers, nervously.

    I think she feared, after asking the question, that they might be something unsuitable tomention in front of a small boy, because she raised her hand as if to prevent the exposure ofany too fearful revelation.

    ‘Oh, those floppy army caps,’ said Miss Blaides, carelessly. ‘They take the stiffening out,you know. Of course they have to do that when they are up at the Front, to prevent bits of wiregetting blown into their cocoanuts, but they might try and look properly turned out when theyare over here.’

    She puffed away at her cigarette.

    ‘I really must check all these gaspers,’ she said, flicking ash on to the carpet. ‘By nowit’s got up to about thirty a day. It just won’t do. By the way, Molly Sleaford wants to comeand see you, Bertha. Something about the distribution of “comforts”. I told her to look youup on Wednesday, when she is next going to be in London.’

    For some reason this announcement threw Mrs. Conyers into a state of great discomposure.

    ‘But I can’t possibly see Lady Sleaford on Wednesday,’ she said, ‘I’ve got three committeemeetings on that day and Aylmer wants me to have five Serbian officers to tea. Besides, dear,Lady Sleaford is Red Cross, like you—and you remember how I am rather wedded, through LadyBridgnorth, to St. John’s. You see I really hardly know Lady Sleaford, who always keeps verymuch to herself, and I don’t want to seem disloyal to Mary Bridgnorth. I—’

    Her sister cut her short.

    ‘Oh, I say, what a bally nuisance,’ she remarked. ‘I quite forgot about beastly old St.John’s. They are always cropping up, aren’t they? I really think they do more than theGermans to hold up winning the war.’

    After voicing this alarming conjecture, she paced up and down the room, emitting from eachnostril a long eddy of smoke like the trail of a ship briskly cutting the horizon. Throughoutthe room I was increasingly aware of the hardening of disapproval, just perceptible at firsteven on the immediate arrival of Miss Blaides: now not by any means to be denied. In fact asense of positive disquiet swept through the small drawing-room so powerfully that mutecondemnation seemed to rise in a thick cloud above the ‘comforts’, until its disturbing odourreached the ceiling and hung about the whole flat in vexed, compelling waves. This disapprovalwas on the part not only of Mrs. Conyers, but also—I felt sure—of my mother as well, who nowbegan to make preparations to leave.

    ‘A blinking bore,’ said Miss Blaides, casting away her cigarette-end into the grate, where itlay smouldering on the tiles. ‘That’s what it is. So I suppose I shall have to tell Mollyit’s a wash-out. Give me another cup of tea, Bertha. I mustn’t stay too long. I’ve got plansto scramble into some glad rags and beetle off to a show tonight.’

    After that, we said good-bye; on my own part with deep regret. Later, when we were in thetrain, my mother said: ‘I think it a pity for a girl like Miss Blaides to put on such a lot ofmake-up and talk so much slang. I was rather interested to see her, though. I had heard so muchabout her from different people.’

    I did not mention the fact in reply, but, to tell the truth, Miss Blaides had seemed to me afigure of decided romance, combining with her nursing capacity of a young Florence Nightingale,something far more exciting and perhaps also a shade sinister. Nor did I realise at that timethe implications contained in the phrase to ‘hear a lot about’ someone of Miss Blaides’s ageand kind. However, the episode as a whole—the Conyers’ flat, the General’s photograph, the

    jewelled scimitar, the ‘comforts’ stacked round the room, Miss Blaides in her V.A.D.uniform—all made a vivid impression on my mind; although, naturally enough, these thingsbecame soon stored away, apparently forgotten, in the distant background of memory. Onlysubsequent events revived them in strong colours.

    That afternoon was also the first time I ever heard Dogdene mentioned. Later, of course, I knewit as the name of a ‘great house’ about which people talked. It came into volumes of memoirslike those of Lady Amesbury, which I read (with some disappointment) at an early age afterhearing some grown-up person describe the book as ‘scurrilous’. I also knew Constable’spicture in the National Gallery, which shows the mansion itself lying away in the middledistance, a faery place set among giant trees, beyond the misty water-meadows of the foregroundin which the impastoed cattle browse: quite unlike any imaginable military hospital. I knewthis picture well before learning that the house was Dogdene. By then the place was no longerconsciously associated in my mind with Miss Blaides. I was aware only vaguely that the ownerswere called Sleaford.

    Then one day, years and years later, a chance reference to Dogdene made me think again of MissBlaides in her original incarnation as a V.A.D., a status become, as it were, concealed andforgotten, like relics of an early civilisation covered by an ever-increasing pile of laterarchitectural accretion. This was in spite of the fact that the name of Mildred Blaides wouldsometimes crop up in conversation after the occasional meetings between my parents and Generalor Mrs. Conyers. When she figured in such talk I always pictured a person somehow differentfrom the girl chattering war-time slang on that winter afternoon. In fact the original memoryof Miss Blaides returned to me one morning when I was sitting in my cream distempered, strip-lighted, bare, sanitary, glaring, forlorn little cell at the Studio. In that place it waspossible to know deep despondency. Work, sometimes organised at artificially high pressure,would alternate with stretches of time in which a chaotic nothingness reigned: periods when,surrounded by the inanities and misconceptions of the film world, a book conceived in terms ofcomparative reality would to some extent alleviate despair.

    During one of these interims of leisure, reading a volume of his Diary, I found Pepys hadvisited Dogdene. A note explained that his patron, Lord Sandwich, was connected by marriagewith the then Countess of Sleaford: the marquisate dating only from the coronation of WilliamIV.

    ‘So about noon we came to Dogdene, and I was fain to see the house, and that part newlybuilded whereof Dr. Wren did formerly hold converse with me, telling me here was one of thefirst mansion houses of England contrived as a nobleman’s seat rather than a keep moated forwarfare. My Lord Sleaford is yet in town, where ’tis said he doth pay court to my LadyCastlemaine, at which the King is not a little displeased, ’tho ’twas thought she had longsince lost her place. The Housekeeper was mighty civil, and showed us the Great Hall andstately Galleries, and the picture by P. Veronese that my Lord’s grandfather did bring withhim out of Italy, a most rare and noble thing. Then to the Gardens and Green Houses, where Idid marvel to see the quickening of the Sensitive Plant. And so to the Still Room, where agreat black maid offered a brave glass of metheglin, and I did have some merry talk with herbegging her to show me a painted closet whereof the Housekeeper had spoken, yet had we notseen. Thither the bold wench took me readily enough, where I did kiss her twice or thrice andtoyed wantonly with her. I perceive that she would not have denied me que je voudray, yet was I

    afeared and time was lacking. At which afterwards I was troubled, lest she should speak of whatI had done, and her fellows make game of me when we were gone on our road.’

    Everyone knows the manner in which some specific name will recur several times in quicksuccession from different quarters; part of that inexplicable magic throughout life that makesus suddenly think of someone before turning a street corner and meeting him, or her, face toface. In the same way, you may be struck, reading a book, by some obscure passage or lines ofverse, quoted again, quite unexpectedly, twenty-four hours later. It so happens that soon afterI read Pepys’s account of Dogdene, I found myself teamed up as a fellow script-writer withChips Lovell. The question arose of some country house to appear in a scenario.

‘Do you mean a place like Dogdene?’ I asked.

    ‘That sort of thing,’ said Lovell.

    He went on to explain, not without some justifiable satisfaction, that his mother, the currentLord Sleaford’s sister, had been brought up there.

    I was then at the time of life when one has written a couple of novels, and moved from a firmthat published art books to a company that produced second-feature films. To be ‘an author’was, of course, a recognised path of approach to this means of livelihood; so much so, indeed,at that period, that to serve a term as a script-writer was almost a routine stage in literarylife. On the other hand, Lovell’s arrival in the Studio had been more devious. His chief stockin trade, after an excellent personal appearance and plenty of cheek, was expert manipulationof a vast horde of relations. Much more interested in daily journalism than in writingscenarios, he coveted employment on the gossip column of a newspaper. I knew Sheldon slightly,one of the editorial staff of the evening paper at which Lovell aimed, and had promised toarrange, if possible, a meeting between them.

    Lovell delighted in talking about his relations. His parents had eloped on account of familyopposition to their marriage. There had not been enough money. The elder Lovell, who was whatUncle Giles used to call ‘not entirely friendless in high places’, was a painter. Hisinsipid, Barbizonish little landscapes, not wholly devoid of merit, never sold beyond his owncircle of friends. The elopement was in due course forgiven, but the younger Lovell wasdetermined that no such grass should grow under his own feet. He was going to get on in life,he said, and in a few years make a ‘good marriage’. Meanwhile, he was looking round, enjoyinghimself as much as business permitted. Since there were few enough jobs going about for youngmen at that time, his energies, which were considerable, had brought him temporarily into thefilm business; for which every one, including himself, agreed he had no particular vocation.Something better would turn up. The mystery remained how, in the first place, he had beenaccepted into an overcrowded profession. Our colleague, Feingold, hinted that the Americanbosses of the company dreamed of some intoxicating social advantage to be reaped by themselves,personally, through employing an eligible young man of that sort. Feingold may have been right;on the other hand, he was not wholly free from a strain of Jewish romanticism. Certainly itwould have been hard to think of any fantasy too extraordinary for the thoughts of these higherexecutives to indulge.

    One night, not long after we had talked of Dogdene, I had, together with Lovell, Feingold andHegarty, unwillingly remained later than usual at the Studio in an effort to complete one ofthose ‘treatments’ of a film story, the tedium of which is known only to those who haveexperienced their concoction. On that particular evening, Feingold, in his mauve suit andcrimson tie, was suffering from an unaccustomed bout of depression. He had graduated fairlyrecently from the cutting-room, at first full of enthusiasm for this new aspect of his craft.The pink skin of his plump, round face had begun to sag, making pockets around his bluish chin,as he lay back in a chair with an enormous pile of foolscap scribblings in front of him. Helooked like a highly-coloured poster designed to excite compassion for the sufferings of hisrace. Hegarty was also in poor form that day. He had been a script-writer most of his grown-uplife—burdened by then with three, if not four, wives, to all of whom he was payingalimony—and he possessed, when reasonably sober, an extraordinary facility for constructingfilm scenarios. That day, he could not have been described as reasonably sober. Groaning, hehad sat all the afternoon in the corner of the room facing the wall. We were working on a stageplay that had enjoyed a three-weeks West End run twenty or thirty years before, the banality ofwhich had persuaded some director that it would ‘make a picture.’ This was the ninthtreatment we had produced between us. At last, for the third time in an hour, Hegarty broke outin a cold sweat. He began taking aspirins by the handful. It was agreed to abandon work for theday.

    Lovell and I used to alternate in which of us brought a car (both vehicles of modestappearance) to the Studio. That night it was Lovell’s turn to give me a lift. We said goodnight to Feingold, who was moving Hegarty off to the pub at the end of the road. Lovell had

    paid twelve pounds ten for his machine; he started it up, though not without effort. I climbedin beside him. We drove towards London through the mist, blue-grey pockets of cloud drifting upominously from the river.

    ‘Shall we dine together?’

    ‘All right. Let it be somewhere cheap.’

    ‘Of that I am strongly in favour,’ said Lovell. ‘Do you know a place called Foppa’s?’

    ‘Yes—but don’t let’s go there.’

    Although things had been ‘over’ with Jean for some time by then, Foppa’s was still for somereason too reminiscent of her to be altogether comfortable; and I was firmly of the opinionthat even the smallest trace of nostalgia for the immediate past was better avoided. A bracingfuture was required, rather than vain regrets. I congratulated myself on being able to considerthe matter in such brisk terms. Lovell and I settled on some restaurant, and returned to thequestion whether Sheldon would be able to arrange for the job to be offered at just the rightmoment: the moment when Lovell’s contract with the film company terminated, not before, nortoo long after.

    ‘I’m going to look in on an aunt of mine after making a meal,’ Lovell said, tired at last ofdiscussing his own prospects, ‘Why not come too? There are always people there. At worst,it’s a free drink. If some lovely girls are in evidence, we can dance to the gramophone.’

    ‘What makes you think there will be lovely girls?’

    ‘You may find anything at Aunt Molly’s—even lovely girls. Are you coming?’

    ‘I’d like to very much.’

    ‘It’s in South Kensington, I’m afraid.’

    ‘Never mind. Tell me about your aunt.’

    ‘She is called Molly Jeavons. She used to be called Molly Sleaford, you know.”

    ‘I didn’t know.’

    Confident that Lovell would enjoy giving further information, I questioned him. He had thatdeep appreciation of family relationships and their ramifications that is a gift of its own,like being musical, or having an instinct for the value of horses or jewels. In Lovell’s owncase, he made good practical use of this grasp, although such a talent not uncommonly falls toindividuals more than usually free from any desire for personal advancement: while equallyoften lacking in persons rightly regarded by the world as snobbish. Lovell, almost asinterested in everyone else’s family as his own, could describe how the most various peoplewere in fact quite closely related.

    ‘When my first Sleaford uncle died,’ said Lovell, ‘his widow, Molly, married a fellow calledJeavons. Not a bad chap at all, though of rather unglamorous background. He couldn’t bedescribed as particularly bright either, in spite of playing quite a good game of snooker. Nolive wire, in fact. Molly, on the other hand, is full of go.’

    ‘What about her?’

    ‘She was an Ardglass.’

    ‘Any relation of Bijou Ardglass?’

    ‘Sister-in-law, before Jumbo Ardglass divorced Bijou—who was his second wife, of course. Doyou know her—probably slept with her? Most of one’s friends have.’

    ‘I’ve only seen her about the place. No other privileges.’

    ‘Of course, you wouldn’t be rich enough for Bijou,’ said Lovell, not unkindly. ‘But, as Iwas saying, Bijou got through what remained of the Ardglass money, which wasn’t much, and leftJumbo, who’d really had enough himself by that time. Since then, she has been keeping companywith a whole string of people—Prince Theodoric—God knows who. However, I believe she stillcomes to see Molly. Molly is like that. She will put up with anyone.’

‘But why do you call him your “first” Sleaford uncle?’

    ‘Because he died, and I still have an uncle of that name—the present one is Geoffrey—thefirst, John. Uncle Geoffrey was too poor to marry until he succeeded. He could only just rubalong in one of the cheaper cavalry regiments. There were two other brothers between him andthe title. One was killed in the war, and the other knocked down by a bus.’

    ‘They don’t seem much good at staying alive.’

    ‘The thing about the Sleafords,’ said Lovell, ‘is that they’ve always been absolutely madon primogeniture. That’s all very well in a way, but they’ve been so bloody mean to theirwidows and younger children that they are going to die out. They are a splendid example ofupper-class stinginess. Geoffrey got married at once, as people do when they come into apeerage, however dim. Of course, in this case—with Dogdene thrown in—it was something worthhaving. Unfortunately they’ve never managed to knock up an heir.’

    Lovell went on to describe his ‘first Sleaford uncle’, who seems to have been a chilly,serious-minded, competent peer, a great organiser of charitable institutions, who would havedone well for himself in any walk of life. For a time he had been taken up with politics andheld office under Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith.

    ‘He resigned at the time of the Marconi scandal,’ said Lovell. ‘He hadn’t been makinganything on the side himself, but he thought some of his Liberal colleagues had been a bit tooliberal in the ethics of their own financial dealings. He was a selfish old man, but had whatis called an exaggerated sense of honour.’

    ‘I think I’ve seen Isbister’s portrait of him.’

    ‘Wearing the robes of the Garter. He took himself pretty seriously. Molly married him from theballroom. She was only eighteen. Never seen a man before.’

    ‘When did he die?’

    ‘Spanish ’flu in 1919,’ said Lovell. ‘Molly first met Jeavons when Dogdene was a militaryhospital in the war. He was rather badly wounded, you know. The extraordinary thing was theydidn’t start a love affair or anything. If Uncle John hadn’t died, she would still be—in thewords of an Edwardian song my father hums whenever her name is mentioned—“Molly theMarchioness.”’

    ‘Where did she re-meet her second husband?’

    ‘At the Motor Show. Went to Olympia in her widow’s weeds and saw Jeavons again. He was actingas a polisher on one of the stalls. I can’t remember which make, but not a car anyone would beproud to own. That represented just about the height of what he could rise to in civil life.They were married about six months later.’

    ‘How does it go?’

    ‘Very well. Molly never seems to regret the Dogdene days in the least. I can’t think whatthey use for money, because, if I know the Sleafords, she didn’t get much in the way of ajointure—and I doubt if she has a hundred a year of her own. The Ardglass family have beenhopelessly insolvent since the Land Act. However, she manages to support herself—andJeavons—somehow. And also get some fun out of life.’

    ‘Doesn’t Jeavons bring in anything?’

    ‘Not a cent. I think he feels pretty ill most of the time. He often looks like death itself.Besides, he is quite unemployable. As a matter of fact, it isn’t true to say he does nothing.Once in a way he has some appliance he is marketing—an automatic bootjack or new cure for thecommon cold. Something he gets a commission on, or perhaps some firm is paying him a trifle torecommend the thing.’

    The description made an impression on me. The picture of Jeavons took on a more positive shape:not a particularly attractive one. ‘Realism goes with good birth,’ Lovell used to say, and hehimself certainly showed this quality where his own relations were concerned. The statementmight be hard to substantiate universally, but, by recognising laws of behaviour operating

    within the microcosm of a large, consanguineous network of families, however loosely connected,individuals born into such a world often gain an unsentimental grasp of human conduct: a graspsometimes superior to that of apparently more perceptive persons whose minds are unattuned byearly association to the constant give and take of an ancient and tenacious social organism. Ofcourse, it does not always work that way, but Lovell, with his many limitations, was himself agood example of the principle.

    ‘The chief reason I want to visit Aunt Molly,’ he said, ‘is to take another look atPriscilla Tolland, who is quite often there.’

    ‘A sister of Blanche Tolland?’

    ‘Yes. Do you know Blanche?’

    ‘Only by sight, and years ago. She is rather dotty, isn’t she?’

    ‘Quite dotty,’ said Lovell. ‘Lives in a complete world of her own. Fairly happy about itthough, I think.’

    ‘Then there is one called Norah, isn’t there, who set up house with a rather strange girl Iused to know called Eleanor Walpole-Wilson.’

    ‘That’s it. She is rather dotty too, but in a different way. That couple are said to be aménage. Then there is Isobel. She is rather different. Priscilla is the youngest. She isn’treally “out” yet.’

    I was about twenty-eight or twenty-nine at that period, to Lovell’s twenty-three or twenty-four, and through him had become aware for the first time that a younger generation was closeon my heels. I told him I felt much too old and passé to take an interest in such small fry asyoung ladies who were not yet ‘out’.

    ‘Oh, I quite realise that,’ said Lovell indulgently. ‘There will certainly be elder personsthere too for chaps like you who prefer serious conversation. You might like Isobel. I believeshe is a bit of a highbrow when she isn’t going to night clubs.’

    We drove precariously down Gloucester Road, the car emitting a series of frighteningcrepitations and an evil fume, while Lovell artlessly outlined his long-term plans for theseduction of Priscilla Tolland. We turned off somewhere by the Underground station. I liked theidea of going to this unknown place for an hour or so, surroundings where the cheerless Studioatmosphere might be purged away. Lovell stopped in front of a fairly large house of dark redbrick, the architecture of which sounded a distant, not particularly encouraging, echo of theHigh Renaissance. After waiting on the doorstep for some time, the door was opened by a man ofindeterminate age in shirt sleeves and carpet slippers. He might have passed for a butler. Paleand unhealthy looking, he had the air of having lived for months at a time underground inunventilated, overheated rooms. He brought with him odours of beer and cheese. Closerexamination of this unkempt, moody fellow revealed him as older than he had appeared at firstsight.

    ‘Good evening, Smith,’ said Lovell, rather grandly.

    ‘’Evening,’ said Smith, speaking without the smallest suggestion of warmth.

    ‘How are you, Smith?’

    Smith looked Lovell up and down as if he considered the enquiry not merely silly, but downrightinsulting. He did not answer.

    ‘Is her Ladyship upstairs?’

    ‘Where do you think she’d be—in the basement?’

    The tone of Smith’s voice made no concession whatever towards alleviating the asperity of thisanswer. Lovell showed no sign of surprise at being received so caustically, passing off theretort with a hearty laugh. Smith shambled off down the stairs, muttering to himself. He seemedthoroughly fed up, not only with Lovell, but also with his own job.

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