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Golden-beak. Chapter 6.

The Summer Serial 2011.

By George Bassett.

6.

IT WAS BLACK MARCH WEATHER when I found myself in England again, and it was not until May that Scarlett came home. A few days after I had heard of his return he wrote to ask me to spend a week with him at his place in Oxfordshire. I had made up my mind to go up to town about the time his letter came, but I am not one of those men who cannot live unless they pass the gates of St. James’s Palace a certain number of times every day for a certain number of weeks in every year, and I love the upper river. Scarlett’s place is about half-way between Oxford and Lechlade, on the river-side, a great rambling old Elizabethan house, without any such architectural pretensions as to hinder his making it thoroughly comfortable. Scarlett himself came to meet me at Oxford, and told me as we drove out that he had prevailed upon several other men to impinge upon the London season, and that he thought we should have a very jolly time of it.

“And how did you leave Mrs. Potwin?” I asked him. “Is she still flying up and down the Bund at Yokohama in her ‘rikisha?”

“I can’t drive tandem and talk about Mrs. Potwin at the same time,” said Scarlett. ” You shall hear all about her this evening.” And then lie talked horse — a subject which always bores me to death — until we turned into the long avenue of Dunkin House, just as the sunset was reddening the lustrous lily-pads in the river.

WHEN I WENT DOWN to the drawing-room at dinner-time, old Lady Scarlett, who used to give me half-crowns, and beg Frank not to thrash me, twenty years ago, told me that she was very glad to see me, and that she wanted to have a little quiet talk with me in -the morning, and show me the new kitchen-garden. I am not a great hand at kitchen-gardening, and I never knew any one yet to promise you a quiet little talk unless there was something unpleasant to say. I thought I knew pretty well what she wanted, and was resigning myself to the prospect of a cross-examination upon Scarlett’s doings in Japan, when George Elphinstone, who had been at school with Scarlett and with me, seized upon me as she released me, and said:

“You will tell me all about it to-night, won’t you, old chap? I never heard such a rum thing in my life.”

“All about what ?” said I.

All about the Japanese lady,” said he, as his wife took charge of him, and left me to wonder how Mrs. Potwin had become a subject of such widespread interest. I could understand that Lady Scarlett might have heard about the trip to Tokio and Nikko, or even that Frank might have written and told her that he contemplated marrying a Mrs. Nobody, of Nowhere. But I couldn’t see how Elphinstone, or Tom or Dick or Harry, could be so well informed. I was not, however, left long in doubt. A dozen or so of people came into the room, most of whom I knew, and then there was the moment’s wait which betokens that somebody has failed to heed the dressingbell.

The door opened, and in walked Ysonde Potwin, gorgeously apparelled in a gown as nearly Japanese as a European gown can be. As soon as she had told Lady Scarlett that she hoped she was not too late, she came up to me and gave me both her hands, over which I fumbled helplessly. I know of nothing more distressing than to have a woman give you both her hands, unless it is to suddenly find that you are expected to kiss her hand.

“You didn’t know I was here, did you?” she said.

“I made Frank promise not to tell you.” And then, dropping her voice a little, she added, “I haven’t made up my mind whether I am going to marry him, but we are supposed to be regularly engaged, and everybody is just lovely to me.”

I was told off to take her to dinner, and I do not mind confessing that I was exceedingly uncomfortable, I knew that every one in the house must think she was mad, and Scarlett more mad to think of marrying her. I felt sure that every one had heard her described as being a friend of mine. To say that in an English country-house Y^onde Pot win was absolutely impossible is putting it very mildly. She chattered like a magpie all through dinner, and it seemed to me that she made a deliberate effort to be as exotic as possible. I saw poor old Lady Scarlett drop her eyes two or three times, but Frank looked as proud and pleased as if he were displaying some marvellous precious stone he had found in the course of his travels, and I knew that if he saw fit to marry Mrs. Potwin, and that remarkable young woman should decide to marry him, no one could gainsay him. Few Englishmen in his position are so absolutely their own masters as he was. His mother was the mildest creature in the world, and he had no sisters. It is a man’s sisters, as a rule, who are most ready to tell him that he is making a fool of himself. There were, no doubt, extenuating circumstances in the present case. Mrs. Potwin was wonderfully pretty — much prettier even than I had thought her in Japan. Against the dark oak walls of the diningroom and against the sombre tone of English table-talk she stood out like a brilliant orchid in a forest. She was aggressive, as, I think, almost all American women are when one meets them in England. She talked about California so much that she seemed to be telling us all that she was not ashamed of being outlandish. And I knew before the dinner was over that Ysonde Potwin in England was a failure, and would be the more of a failure if she became Ysonde Scarlett.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT SECRET it is that the American young ladies have who succeed in England, who not only marry Englishmen able to give them a position in the world, but manage afterwards to hold their own in their new environment. They do it : I am not a man who goes about much, but I know at least half a dozen of them who have done it. They are never quite like English women, but after two or three years they seem to lose all that English people find most distasteful in Americans. They are always foreigners, but only in the sense that a French girl of good family who marries an Englishman remains a foreigner. They cease to impress the beholder with the belief that their fathers were shopkeepers, and that they themselves received their education at a board-school. They always have more manner than English women have. They are never altogether in sympathy with the life about them, and no one of them has ever shaken my belief that an Englishman who is fortunate enough to have the privilege of taking an English gentleman’s daughter for his wife is most ill-advised if he marries an alien. But in the case of Mrs. Potwin there was more than this. I know that the American women who have made a footing in London — and I don’t for a moment mean to say that it isn’t a firm footing — would say, if they were asked, that Mrs. Potwin was not as they were. She was, however, quite pleased with herself. She thought, as she told me after dinner was over, that such a marriage was just the surprising sort of thing that would be likely to happen to her.

“I am so glad,” she said, “to have you to talk to. You see, all these people here think I am regularly engaged to Frank. He didn’t want any one to know that it was only a kind of an understanding ; but it is, just the same. I have come over here to see how I like living in England, just the same as I went to Japan to see how I liked living there. I think Frank is the kindest, most good-natured man I ever saw, and if I didn’t think about anything but what was easy to do and pleasant to do, I’d make up my mind to marry him and have it over with. But if Temehichi is going to be a shogun, I think I ought to marry him, whether I want to or not It’s like having a chance to live in a fairy story. When I used to read about the little girl who married the prince made out of nougaty I used to vow I’d never marry an ordinary human being. And it seems like throwing away my only chance if I don’t marry Temehichi. Most people never get a show to do anything so improbable.”

“Is he making any headway with his revolution?” I asked.

“Oh, I suppose he is working at it all the time,” she said. “I haven’t had a letter from him for ever so long, and the last time he wrote to me he was perfectly furious. He called me Bad Woman and Gold Beak, and called Frank a dog, just the way he used to go on about poor Charley Hart. You see, he had heard all about my going to Nikko at the same time Frank was going there, and besides that, he was in an awful rage because I didn’t go up to Yezo to see some of his relations. I thought if he was in such a fury, I’d just let him walk up and down till he cooled off, and so I came over to England. He said in his letter that he was going to Japan, but I don’t believe it, and if he does he won’t come here. Anyhow, I don’t want to talk about him any more now. While I was in Japan I was all the while thinking about Japanese things, and now I’m in England I want to think about English things. One thing I can’t make out is, why they don’t dance in the evening after dinner. In America, when there are a lot of people together in the evening, they always dance. There are four or five couples here, anyway, and I think it is the most ridiculous thing I ever saw with that splendid wax floor not to make the most of it. But Frank says that somebody who lives over on the other side of the river is going to give a ball in two or three days, and then I am going to dance until I can’t stand. And now you had better go and talk to somebody else. I want to get better acquainted with that girl with the white eyelashes over in the corner there, so I can tell her to put something on them. She makes me so nervous, the way she is now, I don’t know what to do.”

And when Mrs. Potwin left me I saw that the other men had already made their way to the billiard room, where I soon found myself playing pool; and I had no chance to talk with Scarlett that night.

BUT IT WAS EASY ENOUGH to have all the talk I wanted with his mother in the morning. She was very nice about it ; I will say that for her. She didn’t abuse Mrs. Potwin. She was unhappy, and the more unhappy because she didn’t know just how unhappy she ought to be. I think that Frank had perhaps been a little rough about it. He didn’t want to be asked a lot of questions, which he would, indeed, have been at a loss to answer, and, I fancy, he had put his head down, like a bull at a gate, and told his mother he wanted to marry Mrs. Potwin, and would marry her, whether anybody liked it or not. And now the poor good creature had got me to crossquestion. The first thing she wished to know was if Mrs. Potwin had ever been connected with the stage. On this point I was enabled to reassure her. Then she asked if Mrs. Potwin was received by nice people in California, and whether the nice people in California were nice. As I don’t know three people in the whole State of California by name, I felt justified in saying that there were very nice people in California, and that none of the Californians who honored me with their friendship would dream of making a wry face at Mrs. Potwin ; that she was very young, almost childish, indeed, and that it was highly probable that some of her little eccentricities would disappear in the course of a few years’ quiet life in England.

“Ah, if it were only that she is eccentric!” said Lady Scarlett. “One doesn’t mind that in the least. People may be quite mad, for that matter. One of my dearest friends firmly believes that Mary of Modena ought to be on the throne, and shakes her head every Sunday morning when the prayers for the Queen and the royal family are read. One quite understands people being odd in that way; but — I don’t mind speaking to you very openly, you are such an old friend of Frank’s — I think Mrs. Potwin is vulgar. I could accustom myself to her; she isn’t quarrelsome; she isn’t disagreeabl ; but I know that, sooner or later, it will make Frank unhappy to feel that she isn’t like other people. She is so young now, and all the strange things she says are said in such a graceful little way, that she seems like a naughty child. And, I fancy, Frank likes her all the better because she is different from other people. Ten years from now, when she has four or five children, it will be dreadful to hear her talk as she does to-day; and the worst of it is that the children will learn to say the same unheard-of things that she does.”

I tried my best to comfort the poor lady, but she returned to the charge with an evident determination to know the worst and have it over.

“Frank,” she said, “has not seen fit to talk very freely to me, but from something which Mrs. Potwin herself said it seems that it was not Mr, Potwin’s death that took him from her.”

I could not, of course, pronounce the fatal word “divorce” after she had dodged it so gracefully, but I gave her to understand, as delicately as I could, that the courts of the State of California not infrequently put asunder those whose joining together had proved inauspicious. And so Lady Scarlett knew the worst. She didn’t ask why or how Mrs. Potwin’s marriage had been broken. It was enough for her to know that it had been dissolved by process of law, and not by the death of one of the contracting parties. If her son was going to marry a divorced woman, she, at any rate, would try to do her duty by him, and by any one who bore his father’s name. But I knew, as I left the old lady standing there among the bean-poles, that I had dealt her a cruel blow the day I first took her son to Ysonde Potwin’s house in Yokohama.

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