Read CHAPTER I of Her Ladyship's Elephant , free online book, by David Dwight Wells, on


Harold Stanley Malcolm St. Hubart Scarsdale, Esq., of “The Towers,” Sussex, sat uncomfortably on a very comfortable chair. His patent-leather boots were manifestly new, his trousers fresh from the presser, his waistcoat immaculate, while his frock coat with its white gardenia, and his delicate grey suede gloves, completed an admirable toilet. He was, in short, got up for the occasion, a thoroughly healthy, muscular, well-groomed animal; good-natured too, fond in his big-hearted boyish way of most other animals, and enough of a sportsman to find no pleasure in winging tame or driven grouse and pheasants. He was possessed, moreover, of sufficient brains to pass with credit an examination which gave him a post in the War Office, and had recently become, owing to the interposition of Providence and a restive mare, the eldest son.

In spite of all this, he was very much out of his depth as he sat there; for he was face to face with a crisis in his life, and that crisis was embodied in a woman. And such a woman! quite unlike anything his conservative British brain had ever seen or imagined before the present London season: a mixture of Parisian daintiness and coquetry, nicely tempered by Anglo-Saxon breeding and common sense in a word, an American.

He had come to propose to her, or rather she had sent for him, to what end he hardly knew. Of this only was he certain, that she had turned his world topsy-turvy; cast down his conventional gods; admired him for what he considered his fallings-off from the established order of things; laughed at his great coups; cared not a whit for his most valued possessions; and become, in short, the most incomprehensible, bewitching, lovable woman on earth.

He had talked to her about the weather, the opera, the Court Ball, and now now he must speak to her of his love, unless, blessed reprieve! she spoke first which she did.

“Now, Mr. Scarsdale,” she remarked, “I have not sent for you to talk amiable society nonsense: I want an explanation.”

“Yes, Miss Vernon,” he replied, nerving himself for the ordeal.

“Why did you propose to Aunt Eliza at the Andersons’ crush last night?”

“Because” he faltered. “Well, really, you see she is your only relative in England your chaperon and it is customary here to address offers of marriage to the head of the family.”

“I really don’t see why you want to marry her,” continued his tormentor. “She is over sixty. Oh, you needn’t be shocked; Aunt Eliza is not sensitive about her age, and it is well to look these things fairly in the face. You can’t honestly call her handsome, though she is a dear good old soul, but, I fear, too inured to Chicago to assimilate readily with English society. Of course her private means are enormous

“Good heavens! Miss Vernon,” he exclaimed, “there has been some dreadful mistake! I entertain the highest respect for your aunt, Miss Cogbill, but I don’t wish to marry her; I wish to marry somebody else

“Really! Why don’t you propose to Miss Somebody Else in person, then?”

“It is usual” he began, but she cut him short, exclaiming:

“Oh, bother! Excuse me, I didn’t mean to be rude, but really, you know, any girl who was old enough to marry would be quite capable of giving you your answer.” The last word, after a pause for consideration, was accompanied by a bewitching, if ambiguous, smile.

“I I hope you are not offended,” he floundered on, in desperate straits by this time.

“Oh dear, no,” she returned serenely, “I’m only grieved for Aunt Eliza. You shouldn’t have done it, really; it must have upset her dreadfully; she’s too old for that sort of thing. Do tell me what she said to you.”

“She said I must propose on my own account,” he blurted out, “and that she could not pretend to advise me.”

“Clever Aunt Eliza!” murmured Miss Vernon.

“So you see,” continued her lover, determined to have it over and know the worst, “I came to you.”

“For more advice?” she queried, and, receiving no answer, continued demurely: “Of course I haven’t the remotest idea whom you mean to honour, but it does seem to me that the wives of Englishmen allow themselves to be treated shamefully, and I once made out a list of objections which I always said I would present to any Englishman who proposed to me. Of course,” she hastened to add, “you will probably marry an English girl, who won’t mind.”

“I haven’t said so!” he interjected.

“No,” she said meditatively, “you haven’t. I’ll tell you what they are if you wish.”

“Do,” he begged.

“Well, in the first place,” she continued, “I should refuse to be a ‘chattel.’”

“Oh I say” he began. But she went on, unheeding his expostulation:

“Then my husband couldn’t beat me, not even once, though the law allows it.”

“What do you take us for?” he exclaimed.

“Then,” she proceeded, “he would have to love me better than his horses and his dogs.”

“Oh I say! Mabel,” he burst out, teased beyond all limits of endurance, “don’t chaff me; I’m awfully in earnest, you know, and if you will accept what little I have to offer three thousand a year, and ’The Towers,’ now poor Bob’s gone” He paused, but she made no answer, only he noticed that all of a sudden she had become very serious.

“Lady Mary, my mother, you know, would of course leave the place to you at once, but there’s no title; my father was only a knight. I’m sorry

“Oh,” she replied, “I wouldn’t have married you if you had had one; quite enough of my countrywomen have made fools of themselves on that account.”

“Then you will marry me!” he cried, and sprang towards her.

She saw her slip and tried to correct it.

“I haven’t said” she began, but the sentence was never finished; for Harold Stanley Malcolm St. Hubart Scarsdale, of “The Towers,” Sussex, closed the argument and the lips of Miss Mabel Vernon, of Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., at one and the same time.

Robert Allingford, United States Consul at Christchurch, England, and Marion, youngest daughter of Sir Peter and Lady Steele, were seated on the balcony of the Hyde Park Club one hot afternoon. Everybody had gone down to the races at Goodwood, and the season was drawing its last gasp. The “Row,” which they overlooked, was almost deserted, save for an occasional depressed brougham, while the stretches of the Park beyond were given over to nursemaids and their attendant “Tommies” and “Bobbies.”

Mamma was there, of course. One must be conventional in London, even in July; but she was talking to the other man, Jack Carrington, who had been invited especially for that purpose, and was doing his duty nobly.

The afternoon tea had been cleared away, and the balcony was deserted. In another week Marion would go into the country, and he would return to his consulate. He might never have such another chance. Opportunities for a proposal are so rare in London that it does not do to miss them. A ball affords almost the only opening, and when one remembers the offers to which one has been a third party, on the other side of a thin paper screen well, it makes a man cautious.

Robert Allingford had planned and worked up this tea with patience and success. Jack was to be best man, in consideration of his devotion to mamma provided, of course, that the services of a best man should be required. On this point Allingford was doubtful. He was sure that Lady Steele understood; he knew that Sir Peter had smiled on him indulgently for the past fortnight; his friends chaffed him about it openly at dinners and at the club; but Marion he was very far from certain if she comprehended the state of affairs in the slightest degree.

He had given her river-parties, box-parties, dinners, flowers, candy in short, paid her every possible attention; but then she expected Americans to do so; it was “just their way,” and “didn’t mean anything.”

He greatly feared that his proposal would be a shock to her, and English girls, he had been told, did not like shocks. He wondered if it would have been better to ask Lady Steele for her daughter’s hand, but this he felt was beyond him. Proposing was bad enough anyway, but to attempt a declaration in cold blood he simply couldn’t. Moreover he felt that it must be now or never. Jack had been giving him the field for five minutes already, and he had not even made a beginning. He would go in and get it over.

“You are leaving town next week,” he said. “I shall miss you.”

“You have been very good to me,” she replied simply.

“Good to myself, you mean. It is the greatest pleasure I have in life to give you pleasure, Marion.”

“Mr. Allingford!” she said, half rising. He had used her Christian name for the first time.

“Forgive me if I call you Marion,” he went on, noting with relief that her ladyship was talking charity bazaar to Jack, and so assuring him from interruption.

“I mean, give me the right to do so. You see I’m awfully in love with you; I can’t help loving the sweetest girl I know. You must have seen how I cared.”

“Lately, yes I have suspected it,” she answered in a low voice.

“Do you mind? I can’t help it if you do. I’ll love you anyway, but I want you to be my wife, to care for me just a little; I don’t ask more.”

“I think you must speak to mamma.”

“But I don’t wish I mean, can’t you give me something to go on some assurance?”

She blushed and looked down, repeating the phrase, “I think you must speak to mamma.”

“Is that equivalent” he began; then he saw that it was, and added, “My darling!”

Her head sank lower, he had her hand in a moment, and wondered if he might venture to kiss her, screened as they both were by her sunshade, but hesitated to do so because of the ominous silence at the other end of the balcony.

“If you have nothing better to do this evening,” said Lady Steele’s voice to him, “come to us. Sir Peter and I are dining at home, and if you will partake of a family dinner with us we shall be delighted.”

He bowed his acceptance.

“Come, Marion,” her ladyship continued. “We have spent a charming afternoon, Mr. Allingford, thanks to your hospitality. We are at home on Thursdays after September; Mr. Carrington, you must come and hear more about my bazaar.” And they were gone.

Jack stepped to the bell. “Well, Bob,” he said to Allingford, “is it brandy and soda or champagne?”

“Champagne,” replied that gentleman.

“Then,” remarked Carrington, after ordering a bottle of ’80 “Perrier” “then, Bob, my boy, let me congratulate you.”

“I think I deserve it,” he replied, as he wrung his friend’s hand; “for I believe I have won for my wife the most charming girl in London.”

“I am awfully glad for you,” said Carrington, “and I consider her a very lucky young woman.”

“I don’t know about that,” returned Allingford, “and I’m sure I don’t see what she can find to care for in me. Why, we hardly know each other. I’ve only met her in public, and not over a couple of dozen times at that.”

“Oh, you will find it much more fun becoming acquainted after you are engaged. Our English conventions are beautifully Chinese in some respects.”

Allingford laughed, saying: “I don’t know that I’m going to be engaged. I can’t imagine why her family should approve of the match; I haven’t a title and never can have, and I’m only in consular service. Now if I had been a diplomat

“My dear fellow,” said Carrington, “you seem to forget that you have a few dozen copper-mines at your disposal, and a larger income than you can conveniently spend. Her people haven’t forgotten it, however, as I’ll venture to prophesy that you’ll find out before to-morrow morning. As for your being an American and a Consul, that doesn’t count. Just make the settlements sufficiently large, and as long as you don’t eat with your knife or drink out of your finger-bowl they will pardon the rest as amiable eccentricities.”

“You are a cynic, Carrington, and I don’t believe it,” said Allingford, rising to go. “Anyway, what do you know about marriage?”

“Nothing, and I am not likely to,” rejoined his friend, “but I’ve lived in London.”

The dinner that night at Belgrave Square did not serve to put the Consul at his ease. True, he sat by Marion, but no word was spoken of what had passed that afternoon, and he could not help feeling that he was in an anomalous position. He had on his company manners, and was not at his best in consequence. He felt he was being watched and would be criticised in the drawing-room after dinner, which made him nervous. Sir Peter had several married daughters, one of whom was present, and Allingford wondered how their husbands had behaved under similar circumstances. He gave Lady Steele, at whose right he sat, ample opportunity to question him concerning his family history and future plans and prospects a chance of which she was not slow to avail herself.

When the ladies had departed and had left the two gentlemen to their coffee and cigars, Sir Peter lost no time in opening the question, and said, somewhat bluntly:

“So I hear that you wish to marry my daughter.”

The Consul signified that such was the case.

“I’m sure I don’t know why,” resumed her father, with true British candour. “I become so used to my children that I sometimes wonder what other people can see in them. Marion is a good little girl, however, I’ll say that for her a good little girl and not extravagant.”

Sir Peter’s manner was reassuring, and Allingford hastened to say that he was sensible of the great honour Miss Steele had done him in considering his suit, and that he should strive to prove himself worthy of her.

“I don’t doubt it, my dear fellow, I don’t doubt it.” And the baronet paused, smiling so amiably that the Consul was disconcerted, and began to fear an unpleasant surprise.

“I trust,” he returned, “that you are not averse to me as a son-in-law?”

“Personally much the reverse; but I always ask the man who comes to me as you have done one question, and on his answer I base my approval or disapproval of his suit.”

“And that question is?”

“Can you support a wife, Mr. Allingford?”

“As a gentleman I could not have asked her hand if such were not the case.”

“Ah,” replied Sir Peter, “that is quite right.”

“As for my position” continued the young man.

“You hold a public office in the service of your country. I consider that sufficient guarantee of your position, both moral and social.”

Allingford, who knew something of American practical politics, thought this by no means followed, but forbore to say so, and Sir Peter continued:

“Have you any family?”

“No relations in the world except my younger brother, Dick, who manages the property at home, while I play at politics abroad.”

“I see,” said his host. “One question more and I have done. I dislike talking business after dinner it should be left to the lawyers; but, seeing that you are an American and do not understand such things, I thought

The Consul stopped him by a gesture. “You are referring to the settlements, Sir Peter,” he said. “Set your mind at rest on that score. I’ll do the proper thing.”

“Of course, my dear fellow, of course; I don’t doubt that for a moment. But er you won’t think me mercenary if I ask you to be in short more definite. I speak most disinterestedly, purely out of consideration for my daughter’s future.”

Allingford frowned slightly as Carrington’s prophecy came back to him. His prospective father-in-law was quite within his rights in speaking as he did, but why couldn’t he have left it at least till to-morrow?

“Would a copper-mine do?” he said, looking up. “I’d give her a copper-mine.”

“Really, I don’t know what to say,” replied Sir Peter, in some perplexity. “I’m quite ignorant of such matters. Are er copper-mines valuable?”

“The one I’m thinking of has been worth a quarter of a million since it started, and we have only begun to work it,” replied the Consul.

“Bless my soul!” ejaculated his host. “You don’t say so! Do you go in much for that sort of thing?”

“Yes, I’ve quite a number.”

“Dear me!” said Sir Peter dreamily, “a quarter of a million.” Then waking up he added: “But I’m forgetting the time. My dear Allingford er your Christian name escapes me.”

“Robert, Sir Peter.”

“Thanks. I was going to say, my dear Robert, that you must go upstairs and see mamma.”