Read CHAPTER XLI - CHESS of Nobody , free online book, by Susan Warner, on

There entered upon the scene, that is, a little lady of very gay and airy manner; whose airiness, however, was thoroughly well bred.  She was accompanied by a tall, pleasant-looking man, of somewhat dreamy aspect; and they were named to Lois and Madge as Mrs. and Mr. Burrage.  To Mr. Dillwyn they were not named; and the greet ing in that quarter was familiar; the lady giving him a nod, and the gentleman an easy “Good evening.”  The lady’s attention came round to him again as soon as she was seated.

“Why, Philip, I did not expect to find you.  What are you doing here?”

“I was making toast a little while ago.”

“I did not know that was one of your accomplishments.”

“They said I did it well.  I have picked up a good deal of cooking in the course of my travels.”

“In what part of the world did you learn to make toast?” asked the lady, while a pair of lively eyes seemed to take note rapidly of all that was in the room; rapidly but carefully, Lois thought.  She was glad she herself was hidden in the shadowy sofa corner.

“I believe that is always learned in a cold country, where people have fire,” Mr. Dillwyn answered the question.

“These people who travel all over get to be insufferable!” the little lady went on, turning to Mrs. Wishart; “they think they know everything; and they are not a bit wiser than the rest of us.  You were not at the De Large’s luncheon, ­what a pity!  I know; your cold shut you up.  You must take care of that cold.  Well, you lost something.  This is the seventh entertainment that has been given to that English party; and every one of them has exceeded the others.  There is nothing left for the eighth.  Nobody will dare give an eighth.  One is fairly tired with the struggle of magnificence.  It’s the battle of the giants over again, with a difference.”

“It is not a battle with attempt to destroy,” said her husband.

“Yes, it is ­to destroy competition.  I have been at every one of the seven but one ­and I am absolutely tired with splendour.  But there is really nothing left for any one else to do.  I don’t see how one is to go any further ­without the lamp of Aladdin.”

“A return to simplicity would be grateful,” remarked Mrs. Wishart.  “And as new as anything else could be.”

“Simplicity!  O, my dear Mrs. Wishart! ­don’t talk of simplicity.  We don’t want simplicity.  We have got past that.  Simplicity is the dream of children and country folks; and it means, eating your meat with your fingers.”

“It’s the sweetest way of all,” said Dillwyn.

“Where did you discover that?  It must have been among savages.  Children ­country folks ­and savages, I ought to have said.”

“Orientals are not savages.  On the contrary, very far exceeding in politeness any western nation I know of.”

“You would set a table, then, with napkins and fingers!  Or are the napkins not essential?”

C’est selon,” said Dillwyn.  “In a strawberry bed, or under a cherry tree, I should vote them a nuisance.  At an Asiatic grandee’s table you would have them embroidered and perfumed; and one for your lap and another for your lips.”

“Evidently they are long past the stage of simplicity.  Talking of napkins we had them embroidered ­and exquisitely ­Japanese work; at the De Larges’.  Mine had a peacock in one corner; or I don’t know if it was a peacock; it was a gay-feathered bird ­”

“A peacock has a tail,” suggested Mr. Dillwyn.

“Well, I don’t know whether it had a tail, but it was most exquisite; in blue and red and gold; I never saw anything prettier.  And at every plate were such exquisite gifts! really elegant, you know.  Flowers are all very well; but when it comes to jewellery, I think it is a little beyond good taste.  Everybody can’t do it, you know; and it is rather embarrassing to nous autres.”

“Simplicity has its advantages,” observed Mr. Dillwyn.

“Nonsense, Philip!  You are as artificial a man as any one I know.”

“In what sense?” asked Mr. Dillwyn calmly.  “You are bound to explain, for the sake of my character, that I do not wear false heels to my boots.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!  You have no need to wear false heels. Art need not be false, need it?”

“True art never is,” said Mr. Dillwyn, amid some laughter.

“Well, artifice, then?”

“Artifice, I am afraid, is of another family, and not allied to truth.”

“Well, everybody that knows you knows you are true; but they know, too, that if ever there was a fastidious man, it is you; and a man that wants everything at its last pitch of refinement.”

“Which desirable stage I should say the luncheon you were describing had not reached.”

“You don’t know.  I had not told you the half.  Fancy! ­the ice floated in our glasses in the form of pond lilies; as pretty as possible, with broad leaves and buds.”

“How did they get it in such shapes?” asked Madge, with her eyes a trifle wider open than was usual with them.

“O, froze it in moulds, of course.  But you might have fancied the fairies had carved it.  Then, Mrs. Wishart, there was an arrangement of glasses over the gas burners, which produced the most silver sounds of music you ever heard; no chime, you know, of course; but a most peculiar, sweet, mysterious succession of musical breathings.  Add to that, by means of some invisible vaporizers, the whole air was filled with sweetness; now it was orange flowers, and now it was roses, and then again it would be heliotrope or violets; I never saw anything so refined and so exquisite in my life.  Waves of sweetness, rising and falling, coming and going, and changing; it was perfect.”

The little lady delivered herself of this description with much animation, accompanying the latter part of it with a soft waving of her hand; which altogether overcame Philip’s gravity, and he burst into a laugh, in which Mr. Burrage presently joined him; and Lois and Madge found it impossible not to follow.

“What’s the matter, Philip?” the lady asked.

“I am reminded of an old gentleman I once saw at Gratz; he was copying the Madonna della Seggia in a mosaic made with the different-coloured wax heads of matches.”

“He must have been out of his head.”

“That was the conclusion I came to.”

“Pray what brought him to your remembrance just then?”

“I was thinking of the different ways people take in the search after happiness.”

“And one worth as much as another, I suppose you mean?  That is a matter of taste.  Mrs. Wishart, I see your happiness is cared for, in having such charming friends with you.  O, by the way! ­talking of seeing, ­have you seen Dulles & Grant’s new Persian rugs and carpets?”

“I have been hardly anywhere.  I wanted to take Madge to see Brett’s Collection of Paintings; but I have been unequal to any exertion.”

“Well, the first time you go anywhere, go to Dulles & Grant’s.  Take her to see those.  Pictures are common; but these Turkish rugs and things are not.  They are the most exquisite, the most odd, the most delicious things you ever saw.  I have been wanting to ruin myself with them ever since I saw them.  It’s high art, really.  Those Orientals are wonderful people!  There is one rug ­it is as large as this floor, nearly, ­well, it is covered with medallions in old gold, set in a wild, irregular design of all sorts of Cashmere shawl colours ­thrown about anyhow; and yet the effect is rich beyond description; simple, too.  Another, ­O, that is very rare; it is a rare Keelum carpet; let me see if I can describe it.  The ground is a full bright red.  Over this run palm leaves and little bits of ruby and maroon and gold mosaic; and between the palm leaves come great ovals of olive mixed with black, blue, and yellow; shading off into them.  I never saw anything I wanted so much.”

“What price?”

“O, they are all prices.  The Keelum carpet is only fifteen hundred ­but my husband says it is too much.  Then another Persian carpet has a centre of red and white.  Round this a border of palm leaves.  Round these another border of deliciously mixed up warm colours; warm and rich.  Then another border of palms; and then the rest of the carpet is in blended shades of dark dull red and pink, with olive flowers thrown over it.  O, I can’t tell you the half.  You must go and see.  They have immensely wide borders, all of them; and great thick, soft piles.”

“Have you been to Brett’s Collection?”


“What is there?”

“The usual thing.  O, but I haven’t told you what I have come here for to-night.”

“I thought it was, to see me.”

“Yes, but not for pleasure, this time,” said the lively lady, laughing.  “I had business ­I really do have business sometimes.  I came this evening, because I wanted to see you when I could have a chance to explain myself.  Mrs. Wishart, I want you to take my place.  They have made me first directress of the Forlorn Children’s Home.”

“Does the epithet apply to the place? or to the children?” Mr. Dillwyn asked.

“Now I cannot undertake the office,” Mrs. Burrage went on without heeding him.  “My hands are as full as they can hold, and my head fuller.  You must take it, Mrs. Wishart.  You are just the person.”

“I?” said Mrs. Wishart, with no delighted expression.  “What are the duties?”

“O, just oversight, you know; keeping things straight.  Everybody needs to be kept up to the mark.  I cannot, for our Reading Club meets just at the time when I ought to be up at the Home.”

The ladies went into a closer discussion of the subject in its various bearings; and Mr. Dillwyn and Madge returned to their chess play.  Lois lay watching and thinking.  Mr. Burrage looked on at the chess-board, and made remarks on the game languidly.  By and by the talk of the two ladies ceased, and the head of Mrs. Burrage came round, and she also studied the chess-players.  Her face was observant and critical, Lois thought; oddly observant and thoughtful.

“Where did you get such charming friends to stay with you, Mrs. Wishart?  You are to be envied.”

Mrs. Wishart explained, how Lois had been ill, and had come to get well under her care.

“You must bring them to see me.  Will you?  Are they fond of music?  Bring them to my next musical evening.”

And then she rose; but before taking leave she tripped across to Lois’s couch and came and stood quite close to her, looking at her for a moment in what seemed to the girl rather an odd silence.

“You aren’t equal to playing chess yet?” was her equally odd abrupt question.  Lois’s smile showed some amusement.

“My brother is such an idle fellow, he has got nothing better to do than to amuse sick people.  It’s charity to employ him.  And when you are able to come out, if you’ll come to me, you shall hear some good music.  Good-bye!”

Her brother! thought Lois as she went off.  Mr. Dillwyn, her brother!  I don’t believe she likes Madge and me to know him.

Meanwhile Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey Burrage drove away in silence for a few minutes; then the lady broke out.

“There’s mischief there, Chauncey!”

“What mischief?” the gentleman asked innocently.

“Those girls.”

“Very handsome girls.  At least the one that was visible.”

“The other’s worse. I saw her.  The one you saw is handsome; but the other is peculiar.  She is rare.  Maybe not just so handsome, but more refined; and peculiar.  I don’t know just what it is in her; but she fascinated me.  Masses of auburn hair ­not just auburn ­more of a golden tint than brown ­with a gold reflet, you know, that is so lovely; and a face ­”

“Well, what sort of a face?” asked Mr. Burrage, as his spouse paused.

“Something between a baby and an angel, and yet with a sort of sybil look of wisdom.  I believe she put one of Domenichino’s sybils into my head; there’s that kind of complexion ­”

“My dear,” said the gentleman, laughing, “you could not tell what complexion she was of.  She was in a shady corner.”

“I was quite near her.  Now that sort of thing might just catch Philip.”

“Well,” said the gentleman, “you cannot help that.”

“I don’t know if I can or no!”

“Why should you want to help it, after all?”

“Why?  I don’t want Philip to make a mis-match.”

“Why should it be a mis-match?”

“Philip has got too much money to marry a girl with nothing.”

Mr. Burrage laughed.  His wife demanded to know what he was laughing at? and he said “the logic of her arithmetic.”

“You men have no more logic in action, than we women have in speculation.  I am logical the other way.”

“That is too involved for me to follow.  But it occurs to me to ask, Why should there be any match in the case here?”

“That’s so like a man!  Why shouldn’t there?  Take a man like my brother, who don’t know what to do with himself; a man whose eye and ear are refined till he judges everything according to a standard of beauty; ­and give him a girl like that to look at!  I said she reminded me of one of Domenichino’s sybils ­but it isn’t that.  I’ll tell you what it is.  She is like one of Fra Angelico’s angels.  Fancy Philip set down opposite to one of Fra Angelico’s angels in flesh and blood!”

“Can a man do better than marry an angel?”

“Yes! so long as he is not an angel himself, and don’t live in Paradise.”

“They do not marry in Paradise,” said Mr. Burrage dryly.  “But why a fellow may not get as near a paradisaical condition as he can, with the drawback of marriage, and in this mundane sphere, ­I do not see.”

“Men never see anything till afterwards.  I don’t know anything about this girl, Chauncey, except her face.  But it is just the way with men, to fall in love with a face.  I do not know what she is, only she is nobody; and Philip ought to marry somebody.  I know where they are from.  She has no money, and she has no family; she has of course no breeding; she has probably no education, to fit her for being his wife.  Philip ought to have the very reverse of all that.  Or else he ought not to marry at all, and let his money come to little Phil Chauncey.”

“What are you going to do about it?” asked the gentleman, seeming amused.

But Mrs. Burrage made no answer, and the rest of the drive, long as it was, was rather stupid.