Read CHAPTER I. of The Folly Of Eustace 1896 , free online book, by Robert S. Hichens, on

Some men deliberately don a character in early youth as others don a mask before going to an opera ball. They select it not without some care, being guided in their choice by the opinion they have formed of the world’s mind and manner of proceeding. In the privacy of the dressing-room, the candles being lighted and the mirror adjusted at the best angle for a view of self, they assume their character, and peacock to their reflection, meditating: Does it become me? Will it be generally liked? Will it advance me towards my heart’s desire? Then they catch up their cloak, twist the mirror back to its usual position, puff out the candles, and steal forth into their career, shutting the door gently behind them. And, perhaps till they are laid out in the grave, the last four walls enclosing them, only the dressing-room could tell their secret. And it has no voice to speak. For, if they are wise, they do not keep a valet.

At the age of sixteen Eustace Lane chose his mask, lit the candles, tried it on, and resolved to wear it at the great masquerade. He was an Eton boy at the time. One fourth of June he was out in the playing-fields, paying polite attentions to another fellow’s sister, when he overheard a fragment of a conversation that was taking place between his mother and one of the masters. His mother was a kind Englishwoman, who was very short-sighted, and always did her duty. The master was a fool, but as he was tall, handsome, and extremely good-natured, Eustace Lane and most people considered him to be highly intelligent. Eustace caught the sound of his name pronounced. The fond mother, in the course of discreet conversation, had proceeded from the state of the weather to the state of her boy’s soul, taking, with the ease of the mediocre, the one step between the sublime and the ridiculous. She had told the master the state of the weather-which, for once, was sublime; she wanted him, in return, to tell her the state of her boy’s soul-which was ridiculous.

Eustace forgot the other fellow’s sister, her limpid eyes, her open-worked stockings, her panoply of chiffons and of charms. He had heard his own name. Bang went the door on the rest of the world, shutting out even feminine humanity. Self-consciousness held him listening. His mother said:

“Dear Eustace! What do you think of him, Mr. Bembridge? Is he really clever? His father and I consider him unusually intelligent for his age-so advanced in mind. He judges for himself, you know. He always did, even as a baby. I remember when he was quite a tiny mite I could always trust to his perceptions. In my choice of nurses I was invariably guided by him. If he screamed at them I felt that there was something wrong, and dismissed them-of course with a character. If he smiled at them, I knew I could have confidence in their virtue. How strange these things are! What is it in us that screams at evil and smiles at good?”

“Ah! what, indeed?” replied the master, accepting her conclusion as an established and very beautiful fact. “There is more in the human heart than you and I can fathom, Mrs. Lane.”

“Yes, indeed! But tell me about Eustace. You have observed him?”

“Carefully. He is a strange boy.”


“Whimsical, I mean. How clever he may be I am unable to say. He is so young, and, of course, undeveloped. But he is an original. Even if he never displays great talents the world will talk about him.”

“Why?” asked Mrs. Lane in some alarm.

To be talked about was, she considered, to be the prey of scandalmongers. She did not wish to give her darling to the lions.

“I mean that Eustace has a strain of quaint fun in him-a sort of passion for the burlesque of life. You do not often find this in boys. It is new to my experience. He sees the peculiar side of everything with a curious acuteness. Life presents itself to him in caricature. I------ Well hit! Well hit indeed!”

Someone had scored a four.

The other fellow’s sister insisted on moving to a place whence they could see the cricket better, and Eustace had to yield to her. But from that moment he took no more interest in her artless remarks and her artful open-worked stockings. In the combat between self and her she went to the wall. He stood up before the mirror looking steadfastly at his own image.

And, finding it not quite so interestingly curious as the fool of a master had declared it to be, he lit some more candies, selected a mask, and put it on.

He chose the mask of a buffoon.

From that day Eustace strove consistently to live up to the reputation given to him by a fool, who had been talking at random to please an avid mother. Mr. Bembridge knew that the boy was no good at work, wanted to say something nice about him, and had once noticed him playing some absurd but very ordinary boyish prank. On this supposed hint of character the master spoke. Mrs. Lane listened. Eustace acted. A sudden ambition stirred within him. To be known, talked about, considered, perhaps even wondered at-was not that a glory? Such a glory came to the greatly talented-to the mightily industrious. Men earned it by labour, by intensity, insensibility to fatigue, the “roughing it” of the mind. He did not want to rough it. Nor was he greatly talented. But he was just sharp enough to see, as he believed, a short and perhaps easy way to a thing that his conceit desired and that his egoism felt it could love. Being only a boy, he had never, till this time, deliberately looked on life as anything. Now he set himself, in his, at first, youthful way, to look on it as burlesque-to see it in caricature. How to do that? He studied the cartoons in Vanity Fair, the wondrous noses, the astounding trousers, that delight the cynical world. Were men indeed like these? Did they assume such postures, stare with such eyes, revel in such complexions? These were the celebrities of the time. They all looked with one accord preposterous. Eustace jumped to the conclusion that they were what they looked, and, going a step farther, that they were celebrated because they were preposterous. Gifted with a certain amount of imagination, this idea of the interest, almost the beauty of the preposterous, took a firm hold of his mind. One day he, too, would be in Vanity Fair, displaying terrific boots, amazing thin legs, a fatuous or a frenetic countenance to the great world of the unknown. He would stand out from the multitude if only by virtue of an unusual eyeglass, a particular glove, the fashion of his tie or of his temper. He would balance on the ball of peculiarity, and toe his way up the spiral of fame, while the music-hall audience applauded and the managers consulted as to the increase of his salary. Mr. Bembridge had shown him a weapon with which he might fight his way quickly to the front. He picked it up and resolved to use it. Soon he began to slash out right and left. His blade chanced to encounter the outraged body of an elderly and sardonic master. Eustace was advised that he had better leave Eton. His father came down by train and took him away.

As they journeyed up to town, Mr. Lane lectured and exhorted, and Eustace looked out of the window. Already he felt himself near to being a celebrity. He had astonished Eton. That was a good beginning. Papa might prose, knowing, of course, nothing of the poetry of caricature, of the wild joys and the laurels that crown the whimsical. So while Mr. Lane hunted adjectives, and ran sad-sounding and damnatory substantives to earth, Eustace hugged himself, and secretly chuckled over his pilgrim’s progress towards the pages of Vanity Fair.

“Eustace! Eustace! Are you listening to me?”

“Yes, father.”

“Then what have you to say? What explanation have you to offer for your conduct? You have behaved like a buffoon, sir-d’you hear me?-like a buffoon!”

“Yes, father.”

“What the deuce do you mean by ‘yes,’ sir?”

Eustace considered, while Mr. Lane puffed in the approved paternal fashion What did he mean? A sudden thought struck him. He became confidential. With an earnest gaze, he said:

“I couldn’t help doing what I did. I want to be like the other fellows, but somehow I can’t. Something inside of me won’t let me just go on as they do. I don’t know why it is, but I feel as if I must do original things-things other people never do; it-it seems in me.”

Mr. Lane regarded him suspiciously, but Eustace had clear eyes, and knew, at least, how to look innocent.

“We shall have to knock it out of you,” blustered the father.

“I wish you could, father,” the boy said. “I know I hate it.”

Mr. Lane began to be really puzzled. There was something pathetic in the words, and especially in the way they were spoken. He stared at Eustace meditatively.

“So you hate it, do you?” he said rather limply at last. “Well, that’s a step in the right direction, at any rate. Perhaps things might have been worse.”

Eustace did not assent.

“They were bad enough,” he said, with a simulation of shame. “I know I’ve been a fool.”

“Well, well,” Mr. Lane said, whirling, as paternal weathercocks will, to another point of the compass, “never mind, my boy. Cheer up! You see your fault-that’s the main thing. What’s done can’t be undone.”

“No, thank heaven!” thought the boy, feeling almost great.

How delicious is the irrevocable past-sometimes!

“Be more careful in future. Don’t let your boyish desire for follies carry you away.”

“I shall,” was his son’s mental rejoinder.

“And I dare say you’ll do good work in the world yet.”

The train ran into Paddington Station on this sublime climax of fatherhood, and the further words of wisdom were jerked out of Mr. Lane during their passage to Carlton House Terrace in a four-wheeled cab.

“What an extraordinary person Mr. Eustace Lane is!” said Winifred Ames to her particular friend and happy foil, Jane Fraser. “All London is beginning to talk about him. I suppose he must be clever?”

“Oh, of course, darling, very clever; otherwise, how could he possibly gain so much notice? Just think-why, there are millions of people in London, and I’m sure only about a thousand of them, at most, attract any real attention. I think Mr. Eustace Lane is a genius.”

“Do you really, Jenny?”

“I do indeed.”

Winifred mused for a moment. Then she said:

“It must be very interesting to marry a genius, I suppose?”

“Oh, enthralling, simply. And, then, so few people can do it.”


“And it must be grand to do what hardly anybody can do.”

“In the way of marrying, Jenny?”

“In any way,” responded Miss Fraser, who was an enthusiast, and habitually sentimental. “What would I give to do even one unique thing, or to marry even one unique person!”

“You couldn’t marry two at the same time-in England.”

“England limits itself so terribly; but there is a broader time coming. Those who see it, and act upon what they see, are pioneers; Mr. Lane is a pioneer.”

“But don’t you think him rather extravagant?”

“Oh yes. That is so splendid. I love the extravagance of genius, the barbaric lavishness of moral and intellectual supremacy.”

“I wonder whether the supremacy of Eustace Lane is moral, or intellectual, or-neither?” said Winifred. “There are so many different supremacies, aren’t there? I suppose a man might be supreme merely as a-as a-well, an absurdity, you know.”

Jenny smiled the watery smile of the sentimentalist; a glass of still lemonade washed with limelight might resemble it.

“Eustace Lane likes you, Winnie,” she remarked.

“I know; that is why I am wondering about him. One does wonder, you see, about the man one may possibly be going to marry.”

There had never been such a man for Jane Fraser, so she said nothing, but succeeded in looking confidential.

Presently Winifred allowed her happy foil to lace her up. She was going to a ball given by the Lanes in Carlton House Terrace.

“Perhaps he will propose to you to-night,” whispered Jane in a gush of excitement as the two girls walked down the stairs to the carriage. “If he does, what will you say?”.

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, darling, but surely -”

“Eustace is so odd. I can’t make him out.”

“That is because he is a genius.”

“He is certainly remarkable-in a way. Good-night, dear.”

The carriage drove off, and the happy foil joined her maid, who was waiting to conduct her home. On the way they gossipped, and the maid expressed a belief that Mr. Lane was a fine young gentleman, but full of his goings-on.

Jane knew what she meant. Eustace had once kissed her publicly in Jane’s presence, which deed the latter considered a stroke of genius, and the act of a true and courageous pioneer.

Eustace was now just twenty-two, and he had already partially succeeded in his ambition. His mask had deceived his world, and Mr. Bembridge’s prophecy about him was beginning to be fulfilled. He had done nothing specially intellectual or athletic, was not particularly active either with limbs or brain; but people had begun to notice and to talk about him, to discuss him with a certain interest, even with a certain wonder. The newspapers occasionally mentioned him as a dandy, a fop, a whimsical, irresponsible creature, yet one whose vagaries were not entirely without interest. He had performed some extravagant antic in a cotillon, or worn some extraordinary coat. He had invented a new way of walking one season, and during another season, although in perfect health, he had never left the house, declaring that movement of any kind was ungentlemanly and ridiculous, and that an imitation of harem life was the uttermost bliss obtainable in London. His windows in Carlton House Terrace had been latticed, and when his friends came there to see him they found him lying, supported by cushions, on a prayer-carpet, eating Eastern sweetmeats from a silver box.

But he soon began to tire of this deliberate imprisonment, and to reduce buffoonery to a modern science. His father was a rich man, and he was an only child. Therefore he was able to gratify the supposed whims, which were no whims at all. He could get up surprise parties, which really bored him, carry out elaborate practical jokes, give extraordinary entertainments at will. For his parents acquiesced in his absurdities, were even rather proud of them, thinking that he followed his Will-o’-the-wisp of a fancy because he was not less, but more, than other young men. In fact, they supposed he must be a genius because he was erratic. Many people are of the same opinion, and declare that a goose standing on its head must be a swan. By degrees Eustace Lane’s practical jokes became a common topic of conversation in London, and smart circles were in a perpetual state of mild excitement as to what he would do next. It was said that he had put the latchkey of a Duchess down the back of a Commander-in-Chief; that he had once, in a country house, prepared an apple-pie bed for an Heir-apparent, and that he had declared he would journey to Rome next Easter in order to present a collection of penny toys to the Pope. Society loves folly if it is sufficiently blatant. The folly of Eustace was just blatant enough to be more than tolerated-enjoyed. He had by practice acquired a knack of being silly in unexpected ways, and so a great many people honestly considered him one of the cleverest young men in town.

But, you know, it is the proper thing, if you wear a mask, to have a sad face behind it. Eustace sometimes felt sad, and sometimes fatigued. He had worked a little to make his reputation, but it was often hard labour to live up to it. His profession of a buffoon sometimes exhausted him, but he could no longer dare to be like others. The self-conscious live to gratify the changing expectations of their world, and Eustace had educated himself into a self-consciousness that was almost a disease.

And, then, there was his place in the pages of Vanity Fair to be won. He put that in front of him as his aim in life, and became daily more and more whimsical.

Nevertheless, he did one prosaic thing. He fell in love with Winifred Ames, and could not help showing it. As the malady increased upon him his reputation began to suffer eclipse, for he relapsed into sentiment, and even allowed his eyes to grow large and lover-like. He ceased to worry people, and so began to bore them-a much more dangerous thing. For a moment he even ran the fearful risk of becoming wholly natural, dropping his mask, and showing himself as he really was, a rather dull, quite normal young man, with the usual notions about the usual things, the usual bias towards the usual vices, the usual disinclination to do the usual duties of life.

He ran a risk, but Winifred saved him, and restored him to his fantasies this evening of the ball in Carlton House Terrace.

It was an ordinary ball, and therefore Eustace appeared to receive his guests in fancy dress, wearing a powdered wig and a George IV. Court costume. This absurdity was a mechanical attempt to retrieve his buffoon’s reputation, for he was really very much in love, and very serious in his desire to be married in quite the ordinary way. With a rather lack-lustre eye he noticed the amusement of his friends at his last vagary; but when Winifred Ames entered the ballroom a nervous vivacity shook him, as it has shaken ploughmen under similar conditions, and for just a moment he felt ill at ease in the lonely lunacy of his flowered waistcoat and olive-green knee-breeches. He danced with her, then took her to a scarlet nook, apparently devised to hold only one person, but into which they gently squeezed, not without difficulty.

She gazed at him with her big brown eyes, that were at the same time honest and fanciful. Then she said:

“You have taken an unfair advantage of us all to-night, Mr. Lane.”

“Havel? How?”

“By retreating into the picturesque clothes of another age. All the men here must hate you.”

“No; they only laugh at me.”

She was silent a moment. Then she said:

“What is it in you that makes you enjoy that which the rest of us are afraid of?”

“And that is -”

“Being laughed at. Laughter, you know, is the great world’s cat-o’-nine-tails. We fear it as little boys fear the birch on a winter’s morning at school.”

Eustace smiled uneasily.

“Do you laugh at me?” he asked.

“I have. You surely don’t mind.”

“No,” he said, with an effort. Then: “Are you laughing to-night?”

“No. You have done an absurd thing, of course, but it happens to be becoming. You look-well, pretty-yes, that’s the word-in your wig. Many men are ugly in their own hair. And, after all, what would life be without its absurdities? Probably you are right to enjoy being laughed at.”

Eustace, who had seriously meditated putting off his mask forever that night, began to change his mind. The sentence, “Many men are ugly in their own hair,” dwelt with him, and he felt fortified in his powdered wig. What if he took it off, and henceforth Winifred found him ugly? Does not the safety of many of us lie merely in dressing up? Do we not buy our fate at the costumier’s?

“Just tell me one thing,” Winifred went on. “Are you natural?”

“Natural?” he hesitated.

“Yes; I think you must be. You’ve got a whimsical nature.”

“I suppose so.” He thought of his journey with his father years ago, and added: “I wish I hadn’t.”

“Why? There is a charm in the fantastic, although comparatively few people see it. Life must be a sort of Arabian Nights Entertainment to you.”

“Sometimes. To-night it is different. It seems a sort of Longfellow life.”

“What’s that?”

“Real and earnest.”

And then he proposed to her, with a laugh, to shoot an arrow at the dead poet and his own secret psalm.

And Winifred accepted him, partly because she thought him really strange, partly because he seemed so pretty in his wig, which she chose to believe his own hair.

They were married, and on the wedding-day the bridegroom astonished his guests by making a burlesque speech at the reception.

In anyone else such an exhibition would have been considered the worst taste, but nobody was disgusted, and many were delighted. They had begun to fear that Eustace was getting humdrum. This harlequinade after the pantomime at the church-for what is a modern smart wedding but a second-rate pantomime?-put them into a good humour, and made them feel that, after all, they had got something for their presents. And so the happy pair passed through a dreary rain of rice to the mysteries of that Bluebeard’s Chamber, the honeymoon.