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The Osbornes

The Osbornes
Title: The Osbornes
Release Date: 2019-02-14
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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CHAPTER I., II., III., IV., V., VI., VII., VIII., IX., X., XI., XII.




E.   F.   B E N S O N









FOR the last five hours all the windows along the front of the newestand whitest and most pretentious and preposterous house in Park Lane hadbeen blazing with lights, which were kindled while the last flames ofthe long July day had scarcely died down into the ash-coloured night,and were still shining when morning began to tinge the velvet gray ofthe sky with colour and extinguish the stars. The lights, however, inNo. 92 seemed to be of more durable quality than the heavenlyconstellations and long after morning had come and the early trafficbegun to boom on the roadway, they still burned with undiminishedsplendour. It was literally true, also, that all the windows in the longGothic facade which seemed to have strayed from Nuremberg into the WestEnd of London, had been ablaze; not only was the ground floor lit, andthe first floor, where was the ballroom, out of which, all night, hadfloated endless webs of perpetual melody, but the bedrooms above, thoughsleep then would have been impossible, and, as a matter of fact, theywere yet untenanted, had been equally luminous, while from behind theflamboyant balustrade the top of the house, smaller windows, which{6}might be conjectured to belong to servants’ rooms, had joined in thegeneral illumination. This was strictly in accordance with Mrs.Osborne’s orders, as given to that staid and remarkable person called byher (when she forgot) Willum and (when she remembered) Thoresby, and(also when she remembered) alluded to as “my major domo.” “Willum” hehad been in earlier and far less happy years, first as boot boy, thenwhen the family blossomed into footmen, as third, second, and finallyfirst of his order. Afterward came things more glorious yet and Thoresbywas major domo. At the present time Mrs. Osborne had probably forgottenthat there existed such officers as boot boys, and Willum probably hadforgotten too. The rise of the family had been remarkably rapid, but hehad kept pace with it, and to-night he felt, as did Mrs. Osborne, thatthe eminence attained by them all was of a very exalted order.

Mrs. Osborne had ordered that every window in the front of the house wasto be lit, and this sumptuous edict not without purpose. She said itlooked more joyful and what was a little electric light, and as theevening had been devoted to joy, it was right that the house shouldreflect this quality. For herself, she felt very joyful indeed; the lastmonth or two had, it is true, been arduous, and in all London it isprobable that there had been nobody, man or woman, more incessantlyoccupied. But had there been an eight hours bill introduced and passed,which should limit the hours of energy for hostesses, she would havescorned to take advantage of so pusillanimous a measure. Besides,{7} thenature of her work necessitated continuous effort, for her work was toeffect the siege and secure the capitulation of London. That, with hergreat natural shrewdness, she realized had to be done quickly, or itwould never be done at all. London had, not to be starved, but to bestuffed into surrender. She had to feed it and dance it and ply it withconcerts and plays and entertainments till its power of resistance wassapped. Long quiet sieges, conducted with regularity, however untiring,were, she knew well, perfectly incapable of accomplishing its fall. Theenemy—at times, though she loved it so well, she almost consideredLondon to be her enemy—must be given no quarter and no time to considerits plans. The assault had to be violent as well as untiring; the dearfoe must be battered into submission. To “arrive” at all, you had togallop. And she had galloped, with such success that on this night inJuly, or rather on this cool dewy morning in July, she felt that thecapitulation was signed and handed her. But she felt no chill ofreaction, as is so often the case even in the very moment of victory,when energies not only can be relaxed, but must be relaxed since thereis nothing for them to brace themselves over any more. Her victory wasof different sort: she knew quite well that she would have to go onbeing extremely energetic, else the capitulated garrison would bydegrees rally again. But since the exercise of these energies wasdelightful to her, she was merely charmed that there would be acontinual call for them.

There was no “casement jessamine” on the house,{8} which could “stir tothe dancers dancing in tune” but on the walls of the lowest story,growing apparently from large earthenware pots filled with mould, wereenormous plants of tin ivy which swarmed up the walls of the house. Butit was too strongly and solidly made to stir even to the vibrationproduced by the earthquaking motor-buses which bounced down Park Lane,and thus the dancers dancing in tune had no effect whatever on it. Thisstalwart ivy was indeed a sort of symbol of the solidity of the fortunesof the house, for it was made at the manufactories from which herhusband derived his really American wealth. They covered acres of groundat Sheffield, and from their doors vomited forth all sorts of metallichardware of the most reliable quality. The imitation ivy, of course, wasbut a froth, a chance flotsam on the stream of hardware, and was due tothe inventive genius of Mrs. Osborne’s eldest son Percy, who had a greatdeal of taste. His was no abstruse taste, like an appreciation ofcaviare or Strauss, that required an educated—or, as others mightsay—a vitiated palate or a jaded ear, but it appealed strongly andalmost overwhelmingly, to judge by the order book of the Art Department,to the eye of that general public which goes in for forms of decorationwhich are known as both chaste and “handsome,” and are catholic enoughto include mirrors framed in plush on which are painted bunches offlowers and bead curtains that hang over doors. With shrewd commercialinstinct Percy never attempted to educate the taste of his customersinto what they ought to want, but gave them in “handsome{9}” catalogueslists of the things they did want, and of a quality that they would besure to find satisfactory. Though this ivy, for instance, was from theexcellence of its workmanship and the elaborate nature of its colouringrather expensive, it was practically indestructible till the meltingpoint of the best tin was reached, and it resembled ivy so closely thatyou might perfectly well prick your fingers on it before you found outthe art that so closely imitated nature. Indeed, before now some verypretty jesting had taken place in the windows of the house with regardto it, when Percy, who liked his joke (amid the scarcely suppressedmerriment of the family), asked a stranger to pick a leaf of it andexamine the beauties of nature as illustrated in the manner in which thestalk of the leaf was joined to the parent stem. Also it had noinconvenient habits of growing over places on which you did not wish itto trespass (if you wanted more, you ordered more), it harboured neitherslugs nor any abominable insects and afforded no resting-place forbirds, while it could be washed free from London dust by the simpleapplication of the hand-syringe.

The ivy has been insisted on at some little length because it wastypical of the fortunes and family of its inventor. It was solid,indestructible and new, and in just the same way the Osbornes were verystrong and well, held large quantities of gilt-edged stock, and had nofamily history whatever. In one point only were they unlike the ivy thatclung to the limestone wall of the house in Park Lane, but that was animportant one. The point of the ivy was to deceive—it{10} was oftensuccessful in so doing—while the Osbornes never intended to deceiveanybody. There was, with regard at any rate to Mrs. Osborne, herhusband, and Percy, no possibility of being taken in. You could see atonce what they were like; a glance would save you any subsequentdisappointment or surprises. And no one, it may be added at once, everpricked his fingers over them. They were as kind as they were new. Butsince many strains of blood have gone to the making of each member ofthe human race, one strain prospering and predominating in this specimenwhile in another, though of the same blood, it scarcely shows a trace ofexistence, the divergence of type even in one generation is often verymarked indeed. Thus, though Mr. Osborne felt that he both understood andadmired his eldest son, his admiration for the younger was agreeablytempered with mystification. “Old Claude’s a rum fellow,” he often said,and Mrs. Osborne agreed with him. But, as will be seen, there was stillmuch in common between Claude and them.

The house, like the ivy, was also new and solid and in point of factnone of its inhabitants, again with the curious exception of Claude,were quite used to it yet. This they concealed as far as they were able,but the concealment really went little further than the fact that theydid not openly allude to it. They all agreed that the house was veryhandsome, and Mr. Osborne had a secret gratification not unmingled withoccasional thrills of misgiving as to whether he had wasted his money inthe knowledge of the frightful costliness of it. Outside, as has beensaid, it was{11} of Gothic design; but if a guest thought that he was topass his evening or listen to music in a Gothic interior, he would havebeen rudely undeceived. It had been unkindly said that you went througha Gothic door to find Vandals within, and if Vandalism includes theappropriation of beautiful things, the Vandalism exhibited here was verycomplete. But the destructive side of Vandalism had no counterpart; Mr.Osborne was very careful of his beautiful things and very proud of them.He admired them in proportion to their expensiveness, and having anexcellent head for figures could remember how much all the moreimportant pictures, articles of furniture, and tapestries had “stood himin.” And he ran no risk of forgetting these items, for he kept themgreen in his memory by often speaking of them to his guests.

“Yes,” he would say, “there’s three thousand pounds worth of seatingaccommodation in this very drawing-room, and they tell me ’twas lucky tohave got the suite at that figure. All Louis—Louis—Per, my boy, didthey tell us it was Louis XV. or XVI.? Sixteenth, yes, Louis XVI. Divideit up and you’ll find that it averages two hundred pounds a chair. Seemsfunny to sit on two hundred pounds, hey? Mrs. Osborne, she said a brightthing about that. ‘Sit firm then,’ she said and you’ll keep it safe.’

The furnishing and appointments of the house had in fact been entrustedto a notable firm, which though it had certainly charged Mr. Osborne agreat deal of money for what it supplied, had given him very good forhis cheque, and both he and his wife, after{12} they had got over theunusual feeling of sitting on two hundred pounds, and if you choseputting your feet up on another two hundred, were quite content thatboth the furniture of this Louis XVI. room for instance and the chequefor it, should be what they called a “little stiff.” It was the same inthe Italian room that opened out of it, and matters were no better inthe dining room, which was furnished with Chippendale. Here indeed avery dreadful accident had happened on the first evening that they hadgot into the house, now two

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