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A Boudoir Boy by Robert Smythe Hichens

I

“It is so impossible to be young,” Claude Melville said very wearily, and with his little air of played-out indifference. He was smoking a cigarette, as always, and wore a dark red smoking-suit that, he thought, went excellently with his black eyes and swarthy complexion.

His father had been a blue-eyed Saxon giant, his mother a pretty Kentish woman, with an apple-blossom complexion and sunny hair; yet he managed to look exquisitely Turkish, and thought himself a clever boy for so doing. But then he always thought himself clever. He had cultivated this conception of himself until it had become a confirmed habit of mind. On his head was a fez with a tassel, and he was sitting upon the hearthrug with his long legs crossed meditatively. His room was dimly lit, and had an aspect of divans, Attar of roses scented the air. A fire was burning, although it was a spring evening and not cold. London roared faintly in the distance, like a lion at a far-away evening party.

“It is so impossible to be young,” Claude repeated, without emphasis. “I was middle-aged at ten. Now I am twenty-two, and have done everything I ought not to have done, I feel that life has become altogether improbable. Even if I live until I am seventy—the correct age for entering into one's dotage, I believe—I cannot expect to have a second childhood. I have never had a first.”

He sighed. It seemed so hard to be deprived of one's legal dotage.

His friend, Jimmy Haddon, looked at him and laughed. Jimmy was puffing at a pipe. His pipe was the only one Claude ever allowed to be smoked among his divans and his roses.

After thoroughly completing his laugh, Jimmy remarked:—

“Would you like to take a lesson in the art of being young?”

“Immensely.”

“I know somebody who could give you one.”

“Really, Jimmy! What strange people you always know; curates, and women who have never written improper novels, and all sorts of beings who seem merely mythical to the rest of us!”

“This is not a curate.”

“Then it must be a woman who has never written an improper novel.”

“It is.”

“And you mean to tell me seriously that there is such a person? To see her would be to take what Punch calls a pre-historic peep. She must be ingeniously old.”

“She is sixty-four, and she is my aunt.”

“How beautiful of her. I am an only child, so I can never be an uncle. It is one of my lasting regrets, although I daresay that profession is terribly overcrowded like the others. But why is she sixty-four? It seems a risky thing for a woman to be?”

“She takes the risk without thinking at all about it.”

“She must be very daring.”

“No; she's only completely natural.”

“Natural. What is that?”

Jimmy laughed again. He was fond of Claude, but he and Claude met so often chiefly because they were extremes. Jimmy was a handsome athlete, who had been called to the bar, and persistently played cricket or football whenever the courts were sitting. He was cursed with a large private income, which he spent royally, and blessed with a good heart. Once he had appeared for the defence in a divorce case, which—lasting longer than he had anticipated, owing to the obvious guilt of all parties concerned in it, and the consequent difficulty of getting an innocent jury to agree about a verdict—had cost him a cricket match. Since then he had looked upon the law in the legendary way, as an ass, and spent most of his time in exercising his muscles. In the intervals of leisure which he allowed himself from sports and pastimes, he saw a good deal of Claude, who amused him, and whom he never bored. He called him a boudoir boy, but had a real liking for him, nevertheless, and sometimes longed to wake him up, and separate him from the absurd chiffons with which he occupied his time. Now he laughed at him openly, and Claude did not mind in the least. They were really friends, however preposterous such a friendship might seem.

“What is that? Well—my aunt. When you see her you will understand thoroughly.”

“Does she live in Park Lane or in Clapham?”

“She lives in the country, in Northamptonshire, is very well off, and has a place of her own.”

“And a husband?”

“No. She is a prosperous spinster, dines the local cricket team once a year, keeps the church going, knows all the poor people, and all the rich in the neighbourhood, and has only one fad.”

“What is that?”

“She always wears her hair powdered. Come down and stay with her, and she will teach you to be young.”

“Well—but I am afraid she will work me very hard.”

“Not she. You would like a new experience.”

Claude yawned, and blinked his long dark eyes in a carefully Eastern manner.

“I am afraid there is no such thing left for me,” he said with an elaborate dreariness. “Still, if your aunt will invite me, I will come. Of course you will accompany me, I must have a chaperon.”

“Of course.”

“Ah!” Claude said, as a footman came softly into the room, “here is our absinthe. Now, Jimmy, please do forget your horrible football, and I will teach you to be decadent.”

“As my aunt will teach you to be young—you old boy.”

II

“Mr Haddon has left, sir,” said the footman, standing by Claude's bedside in the detached manner of the well-bred domestic. “Here is a note for you, sir; I was to give it you the first thing.”

And he handed it on a salver.

Claude stretched out his thin white arm and took it, without manifesting any of the surprise that he felt. When the footman had gone, he poured out a cup of tea from the silver teapot that stood on a small table at his elbow, sipped it, and quietly opened the square envelope. The Northamptonshire sun was pouring in with a countrified ardour through the bedroom window. Outside the birds twittered in Miss Haddon's cherished garden. For Claude had come down at that contented spinster's invitation to spend a week with her, bringing Jimmy as chaperon, and this was the very first morning of his visit. Now he learnt that his chaperon had already “left,” possibly to be a “half-back,” or something equally ridiculous, at a local football match in a neighbouring village. Claude spread the note out and read it, while the birds chirped to the very manifest spring.

   “DEAR BOY,—Good-bye, and good luck to you. I know you are
   never angry, so it is scarcely worth while to tell you not to
   be. I am off. Back in a week. You will learn your lesson
   better alone with Aunt Kitty. There is no absinthe in her
   cellar, but she knows good champagne from bad. You will be all
   right. Study hard.—Yours ever,

                     JIM.”

Claude drank two cups of tea instead of his usual one, and read the note four times. Then he lay back, wrapping his dressing-gown—a fine specimen of Cairene embroidery—closely round him, shut his eyes, and seemed to go to sleep. All he said to himself was:—

“Jimmy writes a very dull letter.”

At half-past nine, Miss Haddon's house reverberated in a hollow manner with the barbarous music of a gong, the dressing-gong. Claude heard it very unsympathetically, and felt rather inclined merely to take off his dressing-gown, as an act of mute defiance, and go deliberately to sleep, instead of getting up and putting things on. But he remembered his manners wearily, and slid out of bed and into a carefully-warmed bath that was prepared in the neighbouring dressing-room. Having completed an intricate toilette, and tied a marvellously subtle tie, shot with rigorously subdued, but voluptuous colours, he sauntered downstairs in time to be thoroughly immersed in the full clamour of the second—or breakfast—gong, which he encountered in the hall.

“Why will people wake the dead merely because they are going to eat a boiled egg and a bit of toast?” he asked himself as he entered the breakfast-room.

Miss Haddon was standing by the window, reading letters in the proper English manner. The sun lay on her grey hair, which she wore dressed high, and void of cap.

“You are very punctual,” she said with a smile. “I was going to send up to know whether you would prefer to breakfast in your room. My nephew told me you might like to. I shall be glad to have your company. Jimmy has run away and left us together, I find.”

“Yes, Jimmy has run away,” Claude answered, beginning slowly to feel the full force of Jimmy's perfidy. He looked at Miss Haddon's cheerful, rosy face, and bright brown eyes, and wondered whether she had been in the plot.

“I hope you will not be bored,” Miss Haddon went on, as they sat down together, the intonation of her melodious elderly voice seeming to dismiss the supposition, even while she suggested it. “But, indeed, I think it is almost impossible to be bored in the country.”

Claude, who was always either in London or Paris, looked frankly astonished. In handing him his cup of tea, Miss Haddon noticed it.

“You don't agree with me?” she asked.

“I cannot disagree, at least,” he said; “because, to tell the truth, I am always in towns.”

“Probably you are happy there then,” she rejoined, with a briskness that was agreeable, because it was not a hideous assumption, like the geniality that often prevails, fitfully, at Christmas time.

But Claude could not permit his hostess to remain comfortable in this utterly erroneous belief.

“Oh, please—” he said, with gentle rebuke, “I am not happy anywhere.”

Miss Haddon glanced at him with a gay and whimsical, but decidedly acute, scrutiny.

“Perhaps you are too young to be happy,” she said; “you have not suffered enough.”

“I have never been young,” he answered, eating his devilled kidney with a silent pathos of perseverance—“never.”

“And I shall never be old, or, at any rate, feel old. It can't be done. I'm sixty-four, and look it, but I can't cease to revel in details, take an interest in people, and regard life as my half-opened oyster. It is a pity one can't go on living till one is two or three hundred or so. There is so much to see and know. Our existence in the world is like a day at the Stores. We have to go away before we have been into a quarter of the different departments.”

“I don't find life at all like that. I have seen all the departments till I am sick of them. But perhaps you never come to London?”

“Every year for three months to see my friends. I stay at an hotel. It is a most delightful time.”

Her tone was warm with pleasant memories. Claude felt himself more and more surprised.

“You enjoy the country, and London?” he said.

“I enjoy everything,” said Miss Haddon. “And surely most people do.”

“None of the people I know seem to enjoy anything very much. They try everything, of course. That is one's duty.”

“Then the latest literature really reflects life, I imagine,” Miss Haddon said. “If what you say is true, everything includes the sins as well as the virtues. I have often wondered whether the books that I have thought utterly and absurdly false could possibly be the outcome of facts.”

“Such as what books?”

“Oh, I'll name no names. The authors may be your personal friends. But it is so then? In their search after happiness the people of to-day, the moderns, give the warm shoulder to vice as well as to virtue?”

“They ignore nothing.”

“Not even duty?”

“Our duty is to ourselves, and can never be ignored.”

Miss Haddon tapped a boiled egg very sharply on its head with a spoon. She wondered if the action were a performance of duty to herself or to the egg.

“That, I understand,” she remarked briskly, “is the doctrine of what is called in London the young decadent; and in the country—forgive me—sometimes the young devil of the day.”

“I am decadent, Miss Haddon,” Claude said with a gentle pride that was not wholly ungraceful.

The elderly lady swept him with a bright look of fresh and healthy interest.

“How exciting,” she exclaimed, after a moment's decisive pause, but with a completely natural air. “You are the first I have seen. For Jimmy isn't one, is he?”

“Jimmy! No. He plays football, and eats cold roast beef and cheese for lunch.”

“Do tell me—how does one do it?”

She seemed intensely interested, and was merrily munching an apple grown in one of her own orchards.

Claude raised his dark eyebrows.

“I beg your pardon?”

“How does one become a decadent? I have heard so much about you all, about your cleverness, and your clothes, and the things you write, and draw, and smoke, and think, and—and eat—”

She seemed suddenly struck by a bright idea.

“Oh, Mr Melville!” she exclaimed, leaning forward behind the great silver urn, and darting at him a glance of imploring earnestness, “will you do me a favour? We are left to ourselves for a whole week. Teach me, teach me to be a decadent.”

“But I thought you were going to teach me to be yo—” Claude began, and stopped just in time. “I mean—er—”

He paused, and they gazed at each other. There was meditation in the boy's eyes. He was wondering seriously whether it would be possible for an elderly spinster lady, of countrified morals and rural procedure, to be decadent. She was rather stout, too, and appeared painfully healthy.

“Will you?” Miss Haddon breathed across the urn and the teapot.

“Well, we might try,” Claude answered doubtfully.

He was remarking to himself:—

“Poor, dear Jimmy! He certainly doesn't understand his aunt!”

She was murmuring in her mind: “I have always heard they have no sense of humour!”

III

“Mr Melville, Mr Melville,” cried Miss Haddon's voice towards evening on the following day, “the absinthe has arrived!”

Claude came out languidly into the hall.

“Has it?” he said dreamily.

“Yes, and Paul Verlaine's poetry, and the blue books—I mean the yellow books, and” (rummaging in a just-opened parcel) “yes, here are two novels by Catulle Mendez, and a box of those rose-tipped cigarettes. Now, what ought I to do? Shall we have some absinthe instead of our tea, or what?”

Claude looked at her with a momentary suspicion, but her grey hair crowned an eager face decorated with an honest expression. The suspicion was lulled to rest.

“We had better have our tea,” he answered slowly. “I like my absinthe about an hour or so before dinner.”

“Very well. Tea, James, and muffins.”

The butler retired with fat dignity, but wondering not a little at the unusual vagaries of his mistress. Miss Haddon and Claude, laden with books, repaired to the drawing-room and sat down by the fire. Claude placed himself, cross-legged, upon a cushion on the floor. The box of rose-tipped cigarettes was in his hand. Miss Haddon regarded him expectantly from her sofa. Her expression seemed continually exclaiming, “What's to be done now?”

The boy felt that this was not right, and endeavoured gently to correct it.

“Please try to be a little—a—”

“Yes?”

“A little more restrained,” he said. “What we feel about life is that it should never be crude. All extremes are crude.”

“What—even extremes of wickedness?”

He hesitated.

“Well, certainly extremes of goodness, or happiness, or anything of that kind. When one comes to think of it seriously, happiness is really absurd, is it not? Just consider how preposterous what is called a happy face always looks, covered with those dreadful, wrinkled things named smiles, all the teeth showing, and so on. I know you agree with me. Happiness drives all thought out of a face, and distorts the features in a most painful manner. When I go out walking on a Bank Holiday, a thing I seldom do, I always think a cheerful expression the most degrading of all expressions. A contented clerk disfigures a whole street—really.”

Miss Haddon's appearance had gradually grown very sombre during this speech, and she did not brighten up on the approach of tea and muffins on a wicker table whimsical with little shelves.

“Perhaps you are right,” she said. “I daresay happiness is unreasonable. Ought I to sit on the floor too?”

Claude deprecated such an act on the part of his hostess. Sitting on the floor was one of his pet originalities, and he hated rivalry. Besides, Miss Haddon was distinctly too stout for that sort of thing.

“I do it because I feel so Turkish,” he explained. “Otherwise, it would be an assumption, and not naïve. People make a great mistake in fancying the decadent is unnatural. If anything, he is too natural. He follows his whim. The world only calls us natural when we do everything we dislike. If Rossetti had played football every Saturday, his poetry would have been much more read in England than it has been. Yes, please, I will have another muffin.”

“But I think I feel Turkish too,” Miss Haddon said calmly. “Yes, I am sure I do. I ought not to resist it; ought I? Otherwise I shall be flying in the face of your beautiful theories.” And she squatted down on the floor at his elbow.

Claude had a wonderful purple moment of acute irritation, during which he felt strangely natural. Miss Haddon did not appear to notice it. She went on bombarding him with questions in a cheery manner until he began to be rather ill, but her face never lost its expression of grave sadness, a strange, inexplicable melancholy that was not in the least Bank Holiday. The contrast between her expression and her voice worried Claude, as an intelligent pantaloon might worry a clown. He felt that something was wrong. Either face or voice required alteration. And then questions are like death—extremely irksome. Besides, he found it difficult to answer many of them, difficult to define precisely the position of the decadent, his intentions and his aims. It was no use to tell Miss Haddon that he didn't possess either the one or the other. Always with the same definitely sad face, the same definitely cheerful voice, she declined to believe him. He fidgeted on his cushion, and his Turkish placidity threatened to be seriously disturbed.

The appearance of the absinthe created a diversion. Claude arranged a glass of it, much diluted with water, for the benefit of his hostess, and she began to sip it with an air of determined reverence.

“It tastes like the smell of a drag hunt,” she said after a while.

Claude's gently-lifted eyebrows proclaimed misapprehension.

“When they drag a trail over a course and satisfy the hounds with a dead rabbit at the end of it,” she explained.

“My dear lady,” he protested plaintively. “Really, you do not grasp the inner meaning of what you are drinking. Presently the most perfect sensation will steal over you, a curious happy detachment from everything, as if you were floating in some exquisite element. You will not care what happens, or what—”

“But must I drink it all before I feel detached?” she asked. “It's really so very nasty, quite disgusting to the taste. Surely you think so.”

“I drink it for its after-effect.”

“Is it like a good act that costs us pain at the moment, and gives us the pleasure of self-satisfaction ultimately?”

“I don't know,” the boy exclaimed abruptly. To compare absinthe to a good act seemed to him quite intolerable.

He let his rose-tipped cigarette go out, and was glad when the dressing gong sounded in the hall.

Miss Haddon sprang up from the floor briskly.

“I rather admire you for drinking this stuff,” she said. “I am sure you do it to mortify the flesh. A Lenten penance out of Lent is most invigorating to the mind.”

As Claude went up to dress, he felt as if he never wished to touch absinthe again. The glitter of its personality was dulled for him now that it was looked upon as merely a nasty sort of medicine to be indulged in as a mortification of the flesh, like wearing a hair shirt, or rejecting meat on Fridays. He found Miss Haddon painfully prosaic. It seemed almost silly to be a decadent in her company. To feel Turkish alone was graceful and quaint, almost intellectual, but to have an old lady feeling Turkish, too, and squatting on the floor to emphasise the sensation, was tragic, seemed to bring imbecility very near. Claude dressed with unusual agitation, and made a distinct failure of his tie.

All through dinner Miss Haddon talked optimistically about her prospects as a successful decadent, much as if she were discussing her future on the Stock Exchange, or as the editor of a paper. She calculated that at her present rate of progress she ought to be almost on a level with her guest by the end of the week, and spoke hopefully of ceasing to take any interest in the ordinary facts of life, of learning a proper contempt for all healthy-minded humanity, and of appreciating at its proper value what seems to ordinary people, weak-kneed affection in literature, in art, and, above all, in movement and in appearance. Her bright eyes flashed upon Claude beneath her crown of powdered hair, as she talked, and the big room rang with her jovial voice.

The boy began to feel exceedingly confused. Yet he had never been less bored. Miss Haddon might be stout and sixty-four. Nevertheless, her net personality was far less wearisome than that of many a town-bred sylph. Unconsciously Claude ate with a hearty appetite, indulged immoderately in excellent roast beef, and even swallowed a beautifully-cooked Spanish onion without thinking of the committal of a crime. During dessert Miss Haddon gave him a racy description of a rural cricket match and of the supper and speeches which followed it, and he found himself laughing heartily and wishing he had been there. He pulled himself up short with a sudden sensation of horror, and his hostess rose to go into the drawing-room.

“Shall we play Halma or Ek Bahr?” she asked; “or would they be out of order? I wish particularly to conform to all your tenets.”

“Dear lady, please, we have no tenets,” he protested. “Do remember that, or you will never become what you wish. But I do not care for any games.”

“Then shall we sit down and each read a volume of the 'Yellow Book'?”

She hastened towards a table to find copies of that work, but something in her brisk and anxious movement caused Claude to exclaim hurriedly:

“Please—please teach me Halma.”

That night he went up to bed flushed with triumph.

Miss Haddon had allowed him to win a couple of games. Never before had he felt so absolutely certain of the unusual acuteness of his intellect.

IV

Three days later, Miss Haddon and Claude Melville were feeding chickens—under protest.

“I mean to give it up, of course,” the former said. “It's a degrading pursuit; it's almost as bad as the 'things that Jimmy does,' the things that give him such a marvellous complexion and keep his figure so magnificent.”

She threw a handful of grain to the frenzied denizens of the enlarged meat-safe before them, and added in a tone of pensive reflectiveness:

“Why is it, I wonder, that these actions which, as you have taught me, are unworthy of thinking people, tend to make the body so beautiful, the eyes so bright and clear, the cheeks rose-tinted, the limbs straight and supple?”

All the time that she was speaking her glance crept musingly over Claude's tall, but weak-looking and rather flaccid form, seeming to pause on his thin undeveloped arms, his lanky legs, and his slightly yellow face. That face began to flush. She sighed.

“There must be something radically wrong in the scheme of the universe,” she continued. “But, of course, one ought to live for the mind and for subtle sensations, even though they do make one look an object.”

Her eyes were on the chickens now, who were fighting like feathered furies, pouncing, clucking, running for safety, grain in beak, or, with a fiery anxiety, chasing the favoured brethren who had secured a morsel and were hoping to be permitted to swallow it. Claude glanced at her furtively out of the corner of his eye, and endeavoured, for the first time in his life, to stand erect and broaden his rather narrow chest.

Silently he resolved to give instructions to his tailor not to spare the padding in his future coats. He was glad, too, that knee-breeches, for which he had occasionally sighed, had not come into fashion again. After all, modern dress had its little advantages. Miss Haddon was still scattering grain, rather in the attitude of Millet's “Sower,” and still talking reflectively.

“We must try to convert Jimmy,” she said. “I have a good deal of influence over him, Mr Melville. We must try to make him more like you, more thoughtful, more inactive, more frankly sensual, more fond of sofas, in the future than he has been in the past. Do you know, I am ashamed to say it, but I don't believe I have ever seen Jimmy lying on a sofa. Poor Jimmy! Look at that hen! She is choking. Hens gulp their food so! And then, he's inclined to be persistently unselfish. That must be stopped too. I have learnt from you that to be decadent one must be acutely and untiringly selfish. The blessings of selfishness! What a volume might be written upon them! Mr Melville, all chickens must be decadent, for all chickens are entirely selfish. It is strange to think that the average fowl is more advanced in ethics—is it ethics I mean?—than the average man or woman, is it not? And we ate a decadent at dinner last night. I feel almost like a cannibal.”

She threw away the last grain, and was silent. But suddenly Claude spoke.

“Miss Haddon,” he said, and his voice had never sounded so boyish to her before, “you have been laughing at me for nearly a week.” He paused, then he went on, rather unevenly, in the up-and-down tones induced by stifled excitement, “and I have never found it out until this moment. I suppose you think me a great fool. I daresay I have been one. But please don't—I mean, please let us give up acting our farce.”

“But have we reached the third act?” she said.

They were walking through the garden, among the crocuses and violets now.

“I am sure I don't know,” he answered, trying to seem easy. “Perhaps it is a farce in one act.”

“Perhaps it is not a farce at all, my dear boy,” she said very gently and with a sudden old-world gravity that was not without its grace.

They reached the house. She put her basket down on the oak table in the wide hall, and faced him in the eager way that was natural to her, and that was so youthful.

“Mr Melville—Claude,” she said, as she held out her hand, clad in a very countrified brown glove, with a fan-like gauntlet, “of all Jimmy's friends I think I shall like you the best. People who have acted together ought to be good comrades.”

He took the hand. That seemed necessary.

“But I haven't been acting,” he said.

“Oh, yes, you have,” she answered, “and I have only been on the stage for a week; while you—well, I suppose you have been on it for at least two or three years. I am taking my farewell of it this morning, and you—?”

The boy's face was deeply flushed, but he did not look, or feel, actually angry.

“I don't know about myself yet,” he said.

“Think it all over,” the old lady exclaimed. “And now let us have lunch. I am hungry.”

       * * * * *

Jimmy arrived that evening.

“How old are you, Claude?” he exclaimed, clapping his friend on the back.

“I am not sure,” Claude replied. “But I almost begin to wish that I were sixty-four.”

 
 
 

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