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
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
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
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
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