REGINALD AT THE THEATRE

“After all,” said the Duchess vaguely, “there are

certain things you can’t get away from. Right and wrong,

good conduct and moral rectitude, have certain well-defined

limits.”

“So, for the matter of that,” replied Reginald, “has

the Russian Empire. The trouble is that the limits are not

always in the same place.”

Reginald and the Duchess regarded each other with mutual

distrust, tempered by a scientific interest. Reginald

considered that the Duchess had much to learn; in

particular, not to hurry out of the Carlton as though afraid

of losing one’s last ‘bus. A woman, he said, who is

careless of disappearances is capable of leaving town before

Goodwood, and dying at the wrong moment of an unfashionable

disease.

The Duchess thought that Reginald did not exceed the

ethical standard which circumstances demanded.

“Of course,” she resumed combatively, “it’s the

prevailing fashion to believe in perpetual change and

mutability, and all that sort of thing, and to say we are

all merely an improved form of primeval ape—of course you

subscribe to that doctrine?”

“I think it decidedly premature; in most people I know

the process is far from complete.”

“And equally of course you are quite irreligious?”

“Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman

Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get

the mediaeval picturesqueness of the one with the modern

conveniences of the other.”

The Duchess suppressed a sniff. She was one of those

people who regard the Church of England with patronizing

affection, as if it were something that had grown up in

their kitchen garden.

“But there are other things,” she continued, “which I

suppose are to a certain extent sacred even to you.

Patriotism, for instance, and Empire, and Imperial

responsibility, and blood-is-thicker-than-water, and all

that sort of thing.”

Reginald waited for a couple of minutes before replying,

while the Lord of Rimini temporarily monopolized the

acoustic possibilities of the theatre.

“That is the worst of a tragedy,” he observed, “one

can’t always hear oneself talk. Of course I accept the

Imperial idea and the responsibility. After all, I would

just as soon think in Continents as anywhere else. And some

day, when the season is over and we have the time, you shall

explain to me the exact blood-brotherhood and all that sort

of thing that exists between a French Canadian and a mild

Hindoo and a Yorkshireman, for instance.”

“Oh, well, `dominion over palm and pine,’ you know,”

quoted the Duchess hopefully; “of course we mustn’t forget

that we’re all part of the great Anglo-Saxon Empire.”

“Which for its part is rapidly becoming a suburb of

Jerusalem. A very pleasant suburb, I admit, and quite a

charming Jerusalem. But still a suburb.”

“Really, to be told one’s living in a suburb when one is

conscious of spreading the benefits of civilization all over

the world! Philanthropy—I suppose you will say that is

a comfortable delusion; and yet even you must admit that

whenever want or misery or starvation is known to exist,

however distant or difficult of access, we instantly

organize relief on the most generous scale, and distribute

it, if need be, to the uttermost ends of the earth.”

The Duchess paused, with a sense of ultimate triumph. She

had made the same observation at a drawing-room meeting, and

it had been extremely well received.

“I wonder,” said Reginald, “if you have ever walked

down the Embankment on a winter night?”

“Gracious, no, child! Why do you ask?”

“I didn’t; I only wondered. And even your philanthropy,

practised in a world where everything is based on

competition, must have a debit as well as a credit account.

The young ravens cry for food.”

“And are fed.”

“Exactly. Which presupposes that something else is fed

upon.”

“Oh, you’re simply exasperating. You’ve been reading

Nietzsche till you haven’t got any sense of moral proportion

left. May I ask if you are governed by any laws of

conduct whatever?”

“There are certain fixed rules that one observes for

one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude

to any inoffensive, grey-bearded stranger that you may meet

in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It

always turns out to be the King of Sweden.”

“The restraint must be dreadfully irksome to you. When I

was younger, boys of your age used to be nice and

innocent.”

“Now we are only nice. One must specialize in these days. Which

reminds me of the man I read of in some sacred book who was given a

choice of what he most desired. And because he didn’t ask for titles

and honours and dignities, but only for immense wealth, these other

things came to him also.”

“I am sure you didn’t read about him in any sacred

hook.”

“Yes; I fancy you will find him in Debrett.”