Read CHAPTER III of The Woman With The Fan, free online book, by Robert Hichens, on ReadCentral.com.

When the last guest had grimaced at her and left the drawing-room, Lady Holme stood with her hand on the mantelpiece, facing a tall mirror.  She was alone for the moment.  Her husband had accompanied Mrs. Wolfstein downstairs, and Lady Holme could hear his big, booming voice below, interrupted now and then by her impudent soprano.  She spoke English with a slight foreign accent which men generally liked and women loathed.  Lady Holme loathed it.  But she was not fond of her own sex.  She believed that all women were untrustworthy.  She often said that she had never met a woman who was not a liar, and when she said it she had no doubt that, for once, a woman was speaking the truth.  Now, as she heard Mrs. Wolfstein’s curiously improper laugh, she frowned.  The face in the mirror changed and looked almost old.

This struck her unpleasantly.  She kept the frown in its place and stared from under it, examining her features closely, fancying herself really an old woman, her whimsical fascination dead in its decaying home, her powers faded if not fled for ever.  She might do what she liked then.  It would all be of no use.  Even the voice would be cracked and thin, unresponsive, unwieldy.  The will would be phlegmatic.  If it were not, the limbs and features would not easily obey its messages.  The figure, now beautiful, would perhaps be marred by the ungracious thickness, the piteous fleshiness that Time often adds assiduously to ageing bodies, as if with an ironic pretence of generously giving in one direction while taking away in another.  Decay would be setting in, life becoming perpetual loss.  The precious years would be gone irrevocably.

She let the frown go and looked again on her beauty and smiled.  The momentary bitterness passed.  For there were many precious years to come for her, many years of power.  She was young.  Her health was superb.  Her looks were of the kind that lasts.  She thought of a famous actress whom she resembled closely.  This actress was already forty-three, and was still a lovely woman, still toured about the world winning the hearts of men, was still renowned for her personal charm, worshipped not only for her talent but for her delicious skin, her great romantic eyes, her thick, waving hair.

Lady Holme laughed.  In twenty years what Robin Pierce called her “husk” would still be an exquisite thing, and she would be going about without hearing the horrible tap, tap of the crutch in whose sustaining power she really believed so little.  She knew men, and she said to herself, as she had said to Robin, that for them beauty lies in the epidermis.

“Hullo, Vi, lookin’ in the glass!  ’Pon my soul, your vanity’s disgustin’.  A plain woman like you ought to keep away from such things-leave ’em to the Mrs. Wolfsteins-what?”

Lady Holme turned round in time to see her husband’s blunt, brown features twisted in the grimace which invariably preceded his portentous laugh.

“I admire Mrs. Wolfstein,” she said.

The laugh burst like a bomb.

“You admire another woman!  Why, you’re incapable of it.  The Lord defend me from hypocrisy, and there’s no greater hypocrisy than one woman takin’ Heaven to witness that she thinks another a stunnin’ beauty.”

“You know nothing about it, Fritz.  Mrs. Wolfstein’s eyes would be lovely if they hadn’t that pawnbroking expression.”

“Good, good!  Now we’re goin’ to hear the voice of truth.  Think it went well, eh?”

He threw himself down on a sofa and began to light a cigarette.

“The evening?  No, I don’t.”

“Why not?”

He crossed his long legs and leaned back, resting his head on a cushion, and puffing the smoke towards the ceiling.

“They all seemed cheery-what?  Even Lady Cardington only cried when you were squallin’.”

It was Lord Holme’s habit to speak irreverently of anything he happened to admire.

“She had reason to cry.  Miss Filberte’s accompaniment was a tragedy.  She never comes here again.”

“What’s the row with her?  I thought her fingers got about over the piano awful quick.”

“They did-on the wrong notes.”

She came and sat down beside him.

“You don’t understand music, Fritz, thank goodness.”

“I know I don’t.  But why thank what’s-his-name?”

“Because the men that do are usually such anæmic, dolly things, such shaved poodles with their Sunday bows on.”

“What about that chap Pierce?  He’s up to all the scales and thingumies, isn’t he?”

“Robin-”

“Pierce I said.”

“And I said Robin.”

Lord Holme frowned and stuck out his under jaw.  When he was irritated he always made haste to look like a prize-fighter.  His prominent cheek-bones, and the abnormal development of bone in the lower part of his face, helped the illusion whose creation was begun by his expression.

“Look here, Vi,” he said gruffly.  “If you get up to any nonsense there’ll be another Carey business.  I give you the tip, and you can just take it in time.  Don’t you make any mistake.  I’m not a Brenford, or a Godley-Halstoun, or a Pennisford, to sit by and-”

“What a pity it is that your body’s so big and your intelligence so small!” she interrupted gently.  “Why aren’t there Sandow exercises for increasing the brain?”

“I’ve quite enough brain to rub along with very well.  If I’d chosen to take it I could have been undersecretary –­”

“You’ve told me that so many times, old darling, and I really can’t believe it.  The Premier’s very silly.  Everybody knows that.  But he’s still got just a faint idea of the few things the country won’t stand.  And you are one of them, you truly are.  You don’t go down even with the Primrose League, and they simply worship at the shrine of the great Ar-rar.”

“Fool or not, I’d kick out Pierce as I kicked out Carey if I thought-”

“And suppose I wouldn’t let you?”

Her voice had suddenly changed.  There was in it the sharp sound which had so overwhelmed Miss Filberte.

Lord Holme sat straight up and looked at his wife.

“Suppose-what?”

“Suppose I declined to let you behave ridiculously a second time.”

“Ridiculously!  I like that!  Do you stick out that Carey didn’t love you?”

“Half London loves me.  I’m one of the most attractive women in it.  That’s why you married me, blessed boy.”

“Carey’s a violent ass.  Red-headed men always are.  There’s a chap at White’s-”

“I know, I know.  You told me about him when you forbade poor Mr. Carey the house.  But Robin’s hair is black and he’s the gentlest creature in diplomacy.”

“I wouldn’t trust him a yard.”

“Believe me, he doesn’t wish you to.  He’s far too clever to desire the impossible.”

“Then he can stop desirin’ you.”

“Don’t be insulting, Fritz.  Remember that by birth you are a gentleman.”

Lord Holme bit through his cigarette.

“Sometimes I wish you were an ugly woman,” he muttered.

“And if I were?”

She leaned forward quite eagerly on the sofa and her whimsical, spoilt-child manner dropped away from her.

“You ain’t.”

“Don’t be silly.  I know I’m not, of course.  But if I were to become one?”

“What?”

“Really, Fritz, there’s no sort of continuity in your mental processes.  If I were to become an ugly woman, what would you feel about me then?”

“How the deuce could you become ugly?”

“Oh, in a hundred ways.  I might have smallpox and be pitted for life, or be scalded in the face as poor people’s babies often are, or have vitriol thrown over me as lots of women do in Paris, or any number of things.”

“What rot!  Who’d throw vitriol over you, I should like to know?”

He lit a fresh cigarette with tender solicitude.  Lady Holme began to look irritated.

“Do use your imagination!” she cried.

“Haven’t got one, thank God!” he returned philosophically.

“I insist upon your imagining me ugly.  Do you hear, I insist upon it.”

She laid one soft hand on his knee and squeezed his leg with all her might.

“Now you’re to imagine me ugly and just the same as I am now.”

“You wouldn’t be the same.”

“Yes, I should.  I should be the same woman, with the same heart and feelings and desires and things as I have now.  Only the face would be altered.”

“Well, go ahead, but don’t pinch so, old girl.”

“I pinch you to make you exert your mind.  Now tell me truly-truly; would you love me as you do now, would you be jealous of me, would you-”

“I say, wait a bit!  Don’t drive on at such a rate.  How ugly are you?”

“Very ugly; worse than Miss Filberte.”

“Miss Filberte’s not so bad.”

“Yes, she is, Fritz, you know she is.  But I mean ever so much worse; with a purple complexion, perhaps, like Mrs. Armington, whose husband insisted on a judicial separation; or a broken nose, or something wrong with my mouth-”

“What wrong?”

“Oh, dear, anything!  What l’homme qui vir had-or a frightful scar across my cheek.  Could you love me as you do now?  I should be the same woman, remember.”

“Then it’d be all the same to me, I s’pose.  Let’s turn in.”

He got up, went over to the hearth, on which a small wood fire was burning, straddled his legs, bent his knees and straightened them several times, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his trousers, which were rather tight and horsey and defined his immense limbs.  An expression of profound self-satisfaction illumined his face as he looked at his wife, giving it a slightly leery expression, as of a shrewd rustic.  His large blunt features seemed to broaden, his big brown eyes twinkled, and his lips, which were thick and very red and had a cleft down their middle, parted under his short bronze moustache, exposing two level rows of square white teeth.

“It’s jolly difficult to imagine you an ugly woman,” he said, with a deep chuckle.

“I do wish you’d keep your legs still,” said Lady Holme.  “What earthly pleasure can it give you to go on like that?  Would you love me as you do now?”

“You’d be jolly sick if I didn’t, wouldn’t you, Vi, eh?”

“I wonder if it ever occurs to you that you’re hideously conceited, Fritz?”

She spoke with a touch of real anger, real exasperation.

“No more than any other Englishman that’s worth his salt and ever does any good in the world.  I ain’t a timid molly-coddle, if that’s what you mean.”

He took one large hand out of his pocket, scratched his cheek and yawned.  As he did so he looked as unconcerned, as free from self-consciousness, as much a slave to every impulse born of passing physical sensation as a wild animal in a wood or out on a prairie.

“Otherwise life ain’t worth tuppence,” he added through his yawn.

Lady Holme sat looking at him for a moment in silence.  She was really irritated by his total lack of interest in what she wanted to interest in him, irritated, too, because her curiosity remained unsatisfied.  But that abrupt look and action of absolutely unconscious animalism, chasing the leeriness of the contented man’s conceit, turned her to softness if not to cheerfulness.  She adored Fritz like that.  His open-mouthed, gaping yawn moved something in her to tenderness.  She would have liked to kiss him while he was yawning and to pass her hands over his short hair, which was like a mat and grew as strongly as the hair which he shaved every morning from his brown cheeks.

“Well, what about bed, old girl?” he said, stretching himself.

Lady Holme did not reply.  Some part of him, some joint, creaked as he forced his clasped hands downward and backward.  She was listening eagerly for a repetition of the little sound.

“What!  Is mum the word?” he said, bending forward to stare into her face.

At this moment the door opened, and a footman came in to extinguish the lights and close the piano.  By mistake he let the lid of the latter drop with a bang.  Lady Holme, who had just got up to go to bed, started violently.  She said nothing but stared at him for an instant with an expression of cold rebuke on her face.  The man reddened.  Lord Holme was already on the stairs.  He yawned again noisily, and turned the sound eventually into a sort of roaring chant up and down the scale as he mounted towards the next floor.  Lady Holme came slowly after him.  She had a very individual walk, moving from the hips and nearly always taking small, slow steps.  Her sapphire-blue gown trailed behind her with a pretty noise over the carpet.

When her French maid had locked up her jewels and helped her to undress, she dismissed her, and called out to Lord Holme, who was in the next room, the door of which was slightly open.

“Fritz!”

“Girlie?”

His mighty form, attired in pale blue pyjamas, stood in the doorway.  In his hand he grasped a toothbrush, and there were dabs of white tooth-powder on his cheeks and chin.

“Finish your toilet and make haste.”

He disappeared.  There was a prolonged noise of brushing and the gurgling and splashing of water.  Lady Holme sat down on the white couch at the foot of the great bed.  She was wrapped in a soft white gown made like a burnous, a veritable Arab garment, with a white silk hood at the back, and now she put up her hands and, with great precision, drew the hood up over her head.  The burnous, thus adjusted, made her look very young.  She had thrust her bare feet into white slippers without heels, and now she drew up her legs lightly and easily and crossed them under her, assuming an Eastern attitude and the expression of supreme impassivity which suits it.  A long mirror was just opposite to her.  She swayed to and fro, looking into it.

“Allah-Akbar!” she murmured.  “Allah-Akbar!  I am a fatalist.  Everything is ordained, so why should I bother?  I will live for the day.  I will live for the night.  Allah-Akbar, Allah-Akbar!”

The sound of water gushing from a reversed tumbler into a full basin was followed by the reappearance of Lord Holme, looking very clean and very sleepy.

Lady Holme stopped swaying.

“You look like a kid of twelve years old in that thing, Vi,” he observed, surveying her with his hands on his hips.

“I am a woman with a philosophy,” she returned with dignity.

“A philosophy!  What the deuce is that?”

“You didn’t learn much at Eton and Christchurch.”

“I learnt to use my fists and to make love to the women.”

“You’re a brute!” she exclaimed with most unphilosophic vehemence.

“And that’s why you worship the ground I tread on,” he rejoined equably.  “And that’s why I’ve always had a good time with the women ever since I stood six foot in my stockin’s when I was sixteen.”

Lady Holme looked really indignant.  Her face was contorted by a spasm.  She was one of those unfortunate women who are capable of retrospective jealousy.

“I won’t-how dare you speak to me of those women?” she said bitterly.  “You insult me.”

“Hang it, there’s no one since you, Vi.  You know that.  And what would you have thought of a great, hulkin’ chap like me who’d never-well, all right.  I’ll dry up.  But you know well enough you wouldn’t have looked at me.”

“I wonder why I ever did.”

“No, you don’t.  I’m just the chap to suit you.  You’re full of whimsies and need a sledge-hammer fellow to keep you quiet.  It you’d married that ass, Carey, or that-”

“Fritz, once for all, I won’t have my friends abused.  I allowed you to have your own way about Rupert Carey, but I will not have Robin Pierce or anyone else insulted.  Please understand that.  I married to be more free, not more-”

“You married because you’d fallen jolly well in love with me, that’s why you married, and that’s why you’re a damned lucky woman.  Come to bed.  You won’t, eh?”

He made a stride, snatched Lady Holme up as if she were a bundle, and carried her off to bed.

She was on the point of bursting into angry tears, but when she found herself snatched up, her slippers tumbling off, the hood of the burnous falling over her eyes, her face crushed anyhow against her husband’s sinewy chest, she suddenly felt oddly contented, disinclined to protest or to struggle.

Lord Holme did not trouble himself to ask what she was feeling or why she was feeling it.

He thought of himself-the surest way to fasten upon a man the thoughts of others.