THE RETICENCE OF LADY ANNE

Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with

the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a

dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either

eventuality. The little domestic quarrel over the

luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and

the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or

forgo hostilities. Her pose in the arm-chair by the

tea-table was rather elaborately rigid; in the gloom of a

December afternoon Egbert’s pince-nez did not materially

help him to discern the expression of her face.

By way of breaking whatever ice might be floating on the

surface he made a remark about a dim religious light. He or

Lady Anne were accustomed to make that remark between 4.30

and 6 on winter and late autumn evenings; it was a part of

their married life. There was no recognized rejoinder to

it, and Lady Anne made none.

Don Tarquinio lay astretch on the Persian rug, basking in

the firelight with superb indifference to the possible

ill-humour of Lady Anne. His pedigree was as flawlessly

Persian as the rug, and his ruff was coming into the glory

of its second winter. The page-boy, who had Renaissance

tendencies, had christened him Don Tarquinio. Left to

themselves, Egbert and Lady Anne would unfailingly have

called him Fluff, but they were not obstinate.

Egbert poured himself out some tea. As the silence gave

no sign of breaking on Lady Anne’s initiative, he braced

himself for another Yermak effort.

“My remark at lunch had a purely academic application,”

he announced; “you seem to put an unnecessarily personal

significance into it.”

Lady Anne maintained her defensive barrier of silence.

The bullfinch lazily filled in the interval with an air from

Iphigenie en Tauride. Egbert recognized it

immediately, because it was the only air the bullfinch

whistled, and he had come to them with the reputation for

whistling it. Both Egbert and Lady Anne would have

preferred something from The Yeoman of the Guard, which

was their favourite opera. In matters artistic they had a

similarity of taste. They leaned toward the honest and

explicit in art, a picture, for instance, that told its own

story, with generous assistance from its title. A riderless

warhorse with harness in obvious disarray, staggering into a

courtyard full of pale swooning women, and marginally noted

“Bad News,” suggested to their minds a distinct

interpretation of some military catastrophe. They could see

what it was meant to convey, and explain it to friends of

duller intelligence.

The silence continued. As a rule Lady Anne’s displeasure

became articulate and markedly voluble after four minutes of

introductory muteness. Egbert seized the milk-jug and

poured some of its contents into Don Tarquinio’s saucer; as

the saucer was already full to the brim an unsightly

overflow was the result. Don Tarquinio looked on with a

surprised interest that evanesced into elaborate

unconsciousness when he was appealed to by Egbert to come

and drink up some of the spilt matter. Don Tarquinio was

prepared to play many roles in life, but a vacuum

carpet-cleaner was not one of them.

“Don’t you think we’re being rather foolish?” said

Egbert cheerfully.

If Lady Anne thought so she didn’t say so.

“I daresay the fault has been partly on my side,”

continued Egbert, with evaporating cheerfulness. “After

all, I’m only human, you know. You seem to forget that I’m

only human.”

He insisted on the point, as if there had been unfounded

suggestions that he was built on Satyr lines, with goat

continuations where the human left off.

The bullfinch recommenced its air from Iphigenie en

Tauride. Egbert began to feel depressed. Lady Anne was

not drinking her tea. Perhaps she was feeling unwell. But

when Lady Anne felt unwell she was not wont to be reticent

on the subject. “No one knows what I suffer from

indigestion” was one of her favourite statements; but the

lack of knowledge can only have been caused by defective

listening; the amount of information available on the

subject would have supplied material for a monograph.

Evidently Lady Anne was not feeling unwell.

Egbert began to think he was being unreasonably dealt

with; naturally he began to make concessions.

“I daresay,” be observed, taking as central a position

on the hearth-rug as Don Tarquinio could be persuaded to

concede him, “I may have been to blame. I am willing, if I

can thereby restore things to a happier standpoint, to

undertake to lead a better life.”

He wondered vaguely how it would be possible. Temptations

came to him, in middle age, tentatively and without

insistence, like a neglected butcher-boy who asks for a

Christmas box in February for no more hopeful reason than

that he didn’t get one in December. He had no more idea of

succumbing to them than he had of purchasing the fish-knives

and fur boas that ladies are impelled to sacrifice through

the medium of advertisement columns during twelve months of

the year. Still, there was something impressive in this

unasked-for renunciation of possibly latent enormities.

Lady Anne showed no sign of being impressed.

Egbert looked at her nervously through his glasses. To

get the worst of an argument with her was no new experience.

To get the worst of a monologue was a humiliating novelty.

“I shall go and dress for dinner,” he announced in a

voice into which he intended some shade of sternness to

creep.

At the door a final access of weakness impelled him to

make a further appeal.

“Aren’t we being very silly?”

“A fool,” was Don Tarquinio’s mental comment as the door

closed on Egbert’s retreat. Then he lifted his velvet

forepaws in the air and leapt lightly on to a bookshelf

immediately under the bullfinch’s cage. It was the first

time he had seemed to notice the bird’s existence, but he

was carrying out a long-formed theory of action with the

precision of mature deliberation. The bullfinch, who had

fancied himself something of a despot, depressed himself of

a sudden into a third of his normal displacement; then he

fell to a helpless wingbeating and shrill cheeping. He had

cost twenty-seven shillings without the cage, but Lady Anne

made no sign of interfering. She had been dead for two

hours.