“Are you coming in to watch the dancing, Lady Benedict?”
The first part of the answer was an emphatic shaking of the head, while the second underpinned the distaste of the expression on the somewhat disdainful looking lady so questioned.
“I assuredly am not. More, I thoroughly disapprove of the expedition of which this dance is the inauguration. I consider that even by her contemplation of such a tour into the desert with only her husband and no attendant of her own sex, with only native camel drivers and servants, Helen Middlemass – nee: Templeton, is behaving with a recklessness and impropriety that is calculated to cast a slur not only on her own reputation, but also on the prestige of her country… And as for her husband permitting to such a proposition?… Well, I think my views on the subject of that love-struck fool, and the shocking way he allows her to ride roughshod over him, are plain.”
Lady Benedict’s cheeks were flushed with anger and her listener knew there was more to come.
“I blush to think of it,” she went on sure enough. “We English cannot be too careful of our behaviour abroad. Examples must be set if our continental neighbours are not to cast their envious stones. And especially here, where we are the guests of the French in their own territory.”
She fanned herself rapidly, as if the mere action could blow away these affronts to her set-in-stone sensibilities.
“It is the maddest piece of unprincipled folly I have ever heard of from a woman in her position,” she finished.
“Oh, come, Lady Benedict!” the younger and less intolerant of the two ladies urged. “You exaggerate, surely. In a few months’ time the century will be two decades old. For what did those brave suffragettes sacrifice if not for women to be free to experience the thrill of adventure and discovery as well as men? I agree it is… unconventional… and, probably, not quite the safest of journeys she and her husband undertake. But I also feel we should applaud her boldness… I also take into account, Mrs Middlemass’s unusual upbringing.”
“And you believe I haven’t?” the more judgemental of the two asked. “It has been deplorable – and that is to understate its full horror. But nothing can excuse this scandalous escapade. I knew her mother years ago, and I took it upon myself to expostulate both with Helen and her brother, but Sir Aubrey is hedged around with an egotistical complacency that would defy a pickaxe to penetrate. According to him, a Templeton is beyond criticism, and his sister, though married, remains of the breed. He has his own life to live and her reputation is her own to deal with.”
The dowager allowed herself a derisive snort.
“The girl herself was, unsurprisingly given her breeding, flippant and not a little rude. Well, I washed my hands of the whole affair right there and then and will certainly not countenance to-night’s entertainment celebrating her departure by appearing at it. I have already warned the manager that if the noise is kept up beyond a reasonable hour I shall leave the hotel to-morrow.”
Which was when, position stated and thrilling to her own sense of narrow and righteous indignation, Lady Benedict drew her wrap around her with a little shudder and stalked majestically across the wide veranda of the Dominion Hotel.
The two men left standing by the open French window that led into the hotel ballroom looked first upon her departure and then at each other.
Both were smiling, heads seeming to shake in unison at the ill-informed intolerance their unsuspected presence, courtesy of a rather large decorative fern, had allowed them to overhear.
“No prevarication there, what?” said one, with a marked American accent. “I guess that’s how scandals are made with you English, eh?”
“Rubbish!” answered his companion, though not combatively so. “The presence of a runt shouldn’t lead to a belief that rest of the litter is less than reasonable. Lady Benedict is, I admit, of a peculiarly English origin, but she is not indicative of all its islanders. Certainly, she does not speak for this one.”
A sip of a particularly fine Dow’s later, he went on:
“To my knowledge, there’s never been a breath of scandal attached to Helen Templeton’s name. And I’ve known the child since she was a baby.”
His own statement brought a smile to his lips.
“And a rum little thing she was too… But scandal?”
The English half of the pairing shook his head.
“Confound that interfering old woman who has yet to know a moment’s passion beyond her own social climbing prejudices! If the sainted Mary herself were to land at this party now she would insist she had come fresh from a Limehouse lamp-post.”
The American laughed, knowing enough of the English and that particular area of London to find the joke amusing.
“She would wreck the reputation of the Archangel Gabriel if he came down to earth, let alone that of a mere human girl.”
“Not a very human girl,” said the American, still laughing at the earlier allusion. “Looks to me like she was meant for a boy and had a change of heart the wrong side of the womb.”
It was the Englishman’s turn to laugh now.
“Looks like a boy in petticoats,” continued the colonial cousin. “A damned pretty boy too.”
“And a damned haughty one,” the Englishman added with a chuckle. “I overheard her this morning, in the garden, making mincemeat of a French officer. Handled him as if he were a new-boy in front of his first governess.”
The American laughed again and his fellow guest went on:
“Tried making love to her, I expect – despite her husband being around. A thing she does not tolerate. Apart from with the man she allowed to place a ring on her finger, she’s the coldest little fish in the world – and, from what I hear, she likes to rule the roost with him also.”
“If we’re not careful,” said the colonial with a chuckle, “we’ll soon be sounding like that disapproving social climber of yours who just left for her room with her fine sense of propriety in an outrage.”
The Englishman held up his hands in a gesture of “God forbid!” before finishing his train of thought:
“Perish the thought, my friend… I simply point out that our Mrs Middlemass is a woman who does not take kindly to… being led. What she wants she goes after, and what she wants mostly is the romance of travel and adventures that can go in hand with trips to exotic and, perhaps, dangerous locations. I don’t think she knows the meaning of the word fear.”
“Not exactly conducive to a happy marriage, if you ask me. Why does the husband put up with it? Is he a bought man, or just a weak one?”
“Neither. I happen to know he’s from good stock and has his own money. A successful writer of fiction, or so I’m led to believe. His indulgence of her, I suspect, has its origins in love.”
“Ah,” the American latched onto the word, facial expression indicating he himself had being scorched by its fire himself upon more than one occasion. “The consolation provided to woman by nature for it having denied her equality in physical strength. The ability to inspire devotion and place a ring through the nose of a credulous man… No matter by how great a margin he be her superior.”
His expression became sour and it wasn’t difficult for the Englishman to suspect he was recalling more… personal… memories.
A suspicion soon borne out:
“At least, that is, until a better offer comes along and that same credulous man finds himself shorn of hair and chained to a Philistine pillar.”
Then, almost to himself, as if he had forgotten he was in company:
Expression unreadable now, he seemed to go off-world for a few seconds as his companion regarded his lapse into the vulgar with an almost… forensic… interest.
Then, coming back to the here and now with, neither acknowledgement of, nor apology for, his sudden intensity:
“There’s a bad streak in the family, isn’t there? I heard some fossil in his cups yammering about it the other night. Paterfamilias was mad and blew his brains out, or so the old coot said.”
The Englishman shrugged his shoulders.
“The ‘old coot’, as you so aptly describe the Baronet in question, was right on this occasion. And you may call it ‘mad’, if you like,” he said slowly.
Then, giving the American a long thoughtful look, as if gauging his mettle:
“I live near the Templeton’s’ in England, and happen to know the story.”
He paused, noting the raised interest levels of his fellow guest.
“If you should like to hear it, that is,” he finished.
“The night is clement and our glasses are full,” observed the American, a light in his eyes indicating he’d like nothing more. “What better time to have one’s ears… informed.”
The Englishman indicated a bench on the empty terrace and waited until they were seated before taking a sip of his Port and beginning.
“Sir John Templeton was passionately devoted to his wife,” he began. “After twenty years of married life they were still lovers.
“Then… A girl was born, and the mother died. Two hours afterwards Sir John shot himself, leaving the baby in the sole care of her brother. A brother who was just nineteen, and as lazy and as selfish then as he is now. The description ‘wastrel’ one that might have been coined for him.
“The problem of bringing up a girl child was too much trouble to be solved for one so young himself and in receipt of his own massive character flaws, so he settled the difficulty by treating his baby sister as if she was a boy.
The result is what you see, together with the reactions to her which you hear.”
Gazing over their shoulders at the same time, they could see into the brilliantly lit ballroom, already filled with gaily chattering people.
On a slightly raised platform at one end of the room the host and hostess were receiving their guests.
Brother and sister, that is.
Not, husband and wife.
The brother and sister were singularly unalike. Sir Aubrey Templeton was very tall and thin, the pallor of his face accentuated by the blackness of his smoothly brushed hair and heavy black moustache. His attitude a mixture of well-bred courtesy and languid boredom. He seemed too tired even to keep his drink to hand, and made sure he was next to table that allowed him to relieve himself of such a burden between frequent sips that, as the evening wore on would become gulps.
By contrast the girl at his side appeared vividly alive.
She was only of medium height and though slender with the easy, vigorous carriage of an athletic boy, there was nothing whatsoever boyish about a chest suggestive enough to ensure she had need to take an admiring French officer to task that very day.
Her head was poised proudly and a somewhat scornful mouth and firm chin showed plainly an obstinate determination. Deep blue eyes that met all enquiries with frankness – almost as if in a dare – were unusually clear and steady. The long, curling black lashes shading them and the dark eyebrows above were a foil to the thick crop of loose, red-gold curls that she wore on this occasion piled above her head to reveal ears that were small and well-formed and gave off the misleading impression of a pixy.
“The result’s certainly worth seeing,” said the American admiringly, referring to his companion’s last remark.
A third and younger man came through the French-Windows and joined them without a by-your-leave.
“Hallo, Wilson. You’re late,” greeted the English half of the pairing. “The divinity is ten deep in admirers already.”
A dull red crept into the young man’s face, and he jerked his head angrily.
“I got waylaid by Lady Benedict – poisonous old harridan!”
The older men shared looks of amusement for the immediacy of youth that bypassed their more considered… diplomacy… and simply went with the first description that sprang to mind.
The thoughts of both men describing that description as reserved, given the circumstances and its object.
“She had a great deal to say on the subject of Miss Temp… Mrs Middlemass and her trip. Harridan ought to be gagged. I thought she was going to be talking all night, so I fairly bolted in the end. All the same, I agree with her on one point. Why is her husband allowing her to make such a trip?”
Nobody seemed to be able to give an answer. The band had begun playing, and the floor was covered with laughing, talking couples.
Sir Aubrey Templeton had moved away to talk with the husband in question, and his sister was left standing with several men, who waited, programme in hand and wishing to dance, despite her marital status.
All of whom she waved away with a marked absence of smile and a resolute and impatient shake of her head.
“Things seem to be getting a hustle on,” said the American.
“Are you going to try your luck?” asked the elder of the two Englishmen.
The American bit off the end of a cigar with no small surprise – as well as a rueful little smile.
“I’m surely not. The haughty young lady turned me down as a dancer very early in our acquaintance. Even though I told her – and truly – that my intention was simply to dance with an interesting married lady and not, as her French Officer attempted earlier, with seduction in mind.”
His face grew solemn again and it was easy to see he was deathly serious as he added:
“I’ve had my share of so-called men who put the make on the wives of other men.”
The older and younger Englishmen shared a look at this reveal and the American soon shook himself from what was, no doubt an uncomfortable trip into his memories.
“I don’t blame her,” he added, with a rueful laugh, “I’m a dud as a dancer. But her candour still rankles. She told me quite plainly that she had no use for an American who couldn’t ride or hunt – and wouldn’t have found one even if she wasn’t married.”
“Though I did intimate to her, very gently, that there were a few little openings in the States for men beside cattle-punching and fur trapping.”
The older of the other two laughed at his use of irony:
“I shouldn’t imagine that met with her approval. She’s far too serious to laugh.”
The younger man appeared ready to leap to the defence of his heart’s desire, but a long-suffering look of warning cut him off at the pass.
“You have that right,” the American agreed, smile now a laugh. “She froze me with a look and, I have to say, I faded away under it, despite the difference in our years. No, Sir, the brother may be a ‘wastrel’, as I’ve heard him described a good few times over the past few days, but he does seem to care for his sister. He also plays a companionable game of Bridge and I’ll be limiting my contact with his family to that pursuit for the rest of my stay. He’s actually not so bad a chap underneath and he’s a sportsman. Doesn’t seem care a durn if he wins or loses.”
“It doesn’t matter when you have a banking account the size of his,” said Wilson with a little sourness. “Personally, I find dancing more amusing and less expensive. In fact, I shall go and take my chance with our hostess. If a husband is fool enough to leave her alone the way hers does, then I’m afraid he can have no complaints if he loses her.”
Under the American’s disapproving gaze, his eyes turned rather eagerly towards the end of the room where the girl was standing alone, straight and slim, the light from an electrolier gilding the thick red curls standing atop her haughty little face.
She was staring down at the dancers with an absent expression in her eyes, as if her thoughts were far away from the crowded ballroom.
The American pushed Wilson forward with a little laugh, though his disapproval, in the words the older Englishman felt sure he intended to be light, came through:
“Run along, foolish moth, and get your poor little wings singed. When the temple is about your ears,” he said to the somewhat bemused Wilson, continuing with his earlier biblical metaphor I’ll be along to mop up the remains. If, on the other hand, your temerity meets with the success you hope for it, I’ll try to keep the husband away from any weaponry to be found in the near vicinity.”
Then, linking his arm in that of the more mature of the Englishmen, he drew him away to the card-room.
Ignoring the strangely couched warning, Wilson went through the window and worked slowly round the room, hugging the wall, evading dancers, and threading his way through groups of chattering men and women of all nationalities. He came at last to the raised dais on which Helen Middlemass was still standing and climbed up the few steps to her side.
“This is luck, Mrs Middlemass,” he said, with an assurance that he was far from feeling. “Am I really fortunate enough to find you without a partner?”
She turned to him slowly, with a little crease growing between her arched eyebrows, as if his coming were inopportune and she resented the interruption to her thoughts, and then, to his surprise, she smiled quite frankly.
“I said I would not dance until everybody was started,” she said rather doubtfully, looking over the crowded floor.
“They are all dancing. You’ve done your duty nobly. And this is rather a nice tune,” he urged persuasively.
She hesitated, tapping her programme-pencil against her teeth.
“I refused a lot of men,” she said, with a grimace. Then she laughed suddenly, as if making up her mind. “Come along, then. I am noted for my bad manners. This will only be one extra sin and I’m sure my husband will forgive me.”
At mention of this impediment, Wilson chanced a glance at the man himself and was relieved to see him still in an absorbed conversation with his wife’s brother, before reiterating to himself the thought he had shared on the veranda with the older men along the lines of his having no complaints if his carelessness ensured she was lost to him.
He danced well, but with the girl in his arms he seemed suddenly tongue-tied. They swung round the room several times, then halted beside an open window and – again to his surprise – she guided them out into the garden of the hotel to sit beside each other on a wicker seat under a gaudy Japanese hanging lantern. The band was still playing, and for the moment the garden was empty, lit faintly by coloured lanterns, festooned from the palm trees, and twinkling lights outlining the winding paths.
Wilson leaned forward, his hands clasped between his knees, feeling about as nervous as he had in his young life.
“I think you are the most perfect dancer I have ever met,” he said a little breathlessly.
Mrs Middlemass looked at him seriously, without a trace of self-consciousness; a young woman for whom compliments of such a nature had long lost the power to embarrass.
“It is very easy to dance if you have a musical ear, and if you have been in the habit of making your body do what you want. So few people seem to be trained to make their limbs obey them. Mine have had to do as they were told since I was a small child,” she answered calmly.
Then, with an intent whose meaning was lost upon his young and not fully formed soul; despite his being her senior by a couple of years:
“I like… things… that do as they are told.”
The unexpectedness of the reply – together the mystifying intensity suffixing it – acted as a silencer on young Wilson for a long period, and the girl beside him seemed in no hurry to break the silence.
Then dance was over and the empty garden was thronged for a little time before the dancers drifted back into the hotel as the band started again.
“It’s rather pleasant here in the garden,” Wilson said tentatively, heart pounding with unusual rapidity, the eyes, he kept fixed on his own clasped hands looking… hungry.
“You mean that, you want to sit out this dance with me?” she said with a boyish directness that somewhat nonplussed him.
“Yes,” he stammered rather foolishly.
“Despite what my husband might think?” she asked.
“I… I think if your husband is foolish enough to leave so beautiful a wife alone then… Then he can hardly be surprised if… if company does not find her.”
With a small and teasing laugh, she held her programme up to the light of the lantern.
Then she sighed, as if at the imposition of an onerous duty:
“I promised this one to Arthur Benedict. Though heaven alone knows why he asked. We quarrel every time we meet and I cannot think why he would bother. He disapproves of my lifestyle even more than his mother.”
“She is an interfering old lady and her son a mummy’s boy without a mind of his own,” said Wilson in defence of her.
Her laughter sent chills of pleasure through him for having been its cause.
“Then he will be overjoyed to be let off. And, now I’ve danced with you I am done for the evening.”
Her hand lightly touched his knee before moving away again and he felt something stir below decks.
“I think I shall stay and talk to you, but you must do your best to keep me in a good temper.”
His pleasure knew no bounds at this boon she was bestowing upon him and his voice shook a little as he asked:
“Are you really determined to go through with this tour?”
She stared at him in surprise.
“Of course. Why not? My arrangements have been made some time. Why should I change my mind at the last moment?”
“Why does your brother let you go alone? Why doesn’t he go with you? I know your husband will be with you but…”
“You don’t feel my husband capable of… protecting… me?” she asked, the mocking note in her voice intermingled with something more… fierce.
“I… I… it is just that he is so much older than you and… and…”
“And the desert is a dangerous place,” she finished for him.
He nodded, feeling he might have offended the goddess and worried by the fact.
“How about me being capable of protecting him? Or am I too young as he is too old?”
“I… I did not mean to offend,” he stammered, the effect of her eyes upon his unmanning him. “It is just that he is so many years your senior and…”
“Twenty-two,” she confirmed. “He is forty-seven. Aren’t you men supposed to be in your prime at such an age. The meeting of maturity’s wisdom with a more controlled… physicality.”
He found himself flushing red; the final word of her sentence having a most… galvanising… effect upon him coming from the full and sensuous lips in that almost boyish face.
“That may be so, Mrs Middlemass, but – and excuse me if I speak out of turn – but Mr Middlemass does not seem… does not seem…”
His voice trailed off, at a loss as to how he might phrase a thought in regard of her husband he felt sure she would find offensive.
His rescue came from the object of his desire herself.
“Does not seem a man of action but a man of words? Is that what you were about to say?”
He nodded gratefully, though he knew an exact phrasing of his thoughts would have been a sight less complimentary to the man.
“Arnold is a literary man, it is true,” she confirmed. “And, as is so often the way with men of that kind, tends to live life mostly within the confines of his skull. It is what first attracted him to me. That and the fact he is not so hidebound as most men I meet – you included – who tend to allow the form of their lives to be dictated by what certain men and women such as Lady Benedict, and the son who peeps fearfully and dutifully at the world from the folds of her petticoats, think to be… seemly.”
Wilson was stirred to defend himself.
“I hardly think I qualify for inclusion with a poisonous old bat and her wretch of a son,” he said, the heat of anger joining cheeks already stirred into vivid colour by the reaction of his senses to being so close to this woman for whom he felt such… overpowering… feelings.
She shrugged her shoulders with a little laugh, as if to say:
“Whatever you wish.”