'Oh, Elliott, I can't believe that. I'm sure it's an oversight.'
'I'm not a man that people overlook.'
'Anyhow, you wouldn't have been well enough to go.'
'Of course I should. The best party of the season! If I were on mó deathbed I'd get up for it. I've got the costume of my ancestor, the Count de Lauria, to wear.'
I did not quite know what to say and so remained silent.
'Paul Barton was in to see me just before you came,' Elliott said suddenly.
I cannot expect the reader to remember who this was, since I had to look back myself to see what name I had given him. Paul Barton was the young American whom Elliott had introduced into London society and who had aroused his hatred by dropping him when he no longer had any use for him. He had been somewhat in the public eye of late, first because he had adopted British nationality and then because he had married the daughter of a newspaper magnate who had been raised to the peerage. With this influence behind him and with his own adroitness it was evident that he would go far. Elliott was very bitter.
'Whenever I wake up in the night and hear a mouse scratching away in the wainscoat I say: "That's Paul Barton climbing." Believe me, my dear fellow, he'll end up in the House of Lords. Thank God I shan't be alive to see it.'
'What did he want?' I asked, for I knew as well as Elliott that this young man did nothing for nothing.
'I'll tell you what he wanted,' said Elliott, snarling. 'He wanted to borrow my Count de Lauria costume.'
'Don't you see what it means? It means he knew Edna hadn't asked me and wasn't going to ask me. She put him up to it. The old bitch. She'd never have got anywhere without me. I gave parties for her. I introduced her to everyone she knows. She sleeps with her chauffeur; you knew that of course. Disgusting! He sat there and told me that she's having the whole garden illuminated and there are going to be fireworks. I love fireworks. And he told me that Edna was being pestered by people who were asking for invitations, but she had turned them all down because she wanted the party to be really brilliant. He spoke as though there were no question of my being invited.'
'And are you lending him the costume?'
'I'd see him dead and in hell first. I'm going to be buried in it.' Elliott, sitting up in bed, rocked to and fro like a woman distraught. 'Oh, it's so unkind,' he said. 'I hate them, I hate them all. They were glad enough to make a fuss of me when I could entertain them, but now I'm old and sick they have no use for me. Not ten people have called to inquire since I've been laid up, and all this week only one miserable bunch of flowers. I've done everything for them. They've eaten my food and drunk my wine. I've run their errands for them. I've made their parties for them. I've turned myself inside out to do them favours. And what have I got out of it? Nothing, nothing, nothing. There's not one of them who cares if I live or die. Oh, it's so cruel.' He began to cry. Great heavy tears trickled down his withered cheeks. 'I wish to God I'd never left America.'
It was lamentable to see that old man, with the grave yawning in front of him, weep like a child because he hadn't been asked to a party: shocking and at the same time almost intolerably pathetic.
'Never mind, Elliott,' I said, 'it may rain on the night of the party. That'll bitch it.'
He caught at my words like the drowning man we've all heard about at a straw. He began to giggle through his tears.
'I've never thought of that. I'll pray to God for rain as I've never prayed before. You're quite right; that'll bitch it.'
I managed to divert his frivolous mind into another channel and left him, if not cheerful, at least composed. But I was not willing to let the matter rest, so on getting home I called up Edna Novemali and, saying I had to come to Cannes next day, asked if I could lunch with her. She sent a message that she'd be pleased but there'd be no party. Nevertheless when I arrived I found ten people there besides herself. She was not a bad sort, generous and hospitable, and her only grave fault was her malicious tongue. She could not help saying beastly things about even her intimate friends, but she did this because she was a stupid woman and knew no other way to make herself interesting. Since her slanders were repeated she was often not on speaking terms with the objects of her vemon, but she gave good parties and most of them found it convenient after a while to forgive her. I did not want to expose Elliott to the humiliation of asking her to invite him to her big do, so waited to see how the land lay. She was excited about it and the conversation at luncheon was concerned witffhothing else.
'Elliott will be delighted to have an opportunity to wear his Philip the Second costume,' I said as casually as I could.
'I haven't asked him,' she said.
'Why not?' I replied, with an air of surprise.
'Why should I? He doesn't count socially any more. He's a bore and a snob and a scandalmonger.'
Since these accusations could with equal truth be brought against her, I thought this a bit thick. She was a fool.
'Besides,' she added, 'I want Paul to wear Elliott's costume. He'll look simply divine in it.'
I said nothing more, but determined by hook or by crook to get poor Elliott the invitation he hankered after. After luncheon Edna took her friends out into the garden. That gave me the chance I was looking for. On one occasion I had stayed in the house for a few days and knew its arrangement. I guessed that there would still be a number of invitation cards left over and that they would be in the secretary's room. I whipped along there, meaning to slip one in my pocket, write Elliott's name on it, and post it. I knew he was much too ill to go, but it would mean a great deal to him to receive it. I was taken aback when I opened the door to find Edna's secretary at her desk. I had expected her to be still at lunch. She was a middle-aged Scotch woman, called Miss Keith, with sandy hair, a freckled face, pince-nez, and an air of determined virginity. I collected myself.
'The Princess is taking the crowd around the garden, so I thought I'd come in and smoke a cigarette with you.'
Miss Keith spoke with a Scotch burr and when she indulged in the dry humour which she reserved for her favourites she so broadened it as to make her remarks extremely amusing, but when you were overcome with laughter she looked at you with pained surprise as though she thought you daft to see anything funny in what she said.
'I suppose this party is giving you a hell of a lot of work, Miss Keith,' I said.
'I don't know whether I'm standing on my head or on my heels.'
Knowing I could trust her, I went straight to the point.
'Why hasn't the old girl asked Mr Templeton?'
Miss Keith permitted a smile to cross her grim features.
'You know what she is. She's got a down on him. She crossed his name out on the list herself:
'He's dying, you know. He'll never leave his bed again. He's awfully hurt at being left out.'
'If he wanted to keep in with the Princess he'd have been wiser not to tell everyone that she goes to bed with her chauffeur. And him with a wife and three children.'
'And does she?'
Miss Keith looked at me over her pince-nez.
'I've been a secretary for twenty-one years, my dear sir, and I've made it a rule to believe all my employers as pure as the driven snow. I'll admit that when one of my ladies found herself three months gone in the family way when his lordship had been shooting lions in Africa for six, my faith was sorely tried, but she took a little trip to Paris, a very expensive little trip it was too, and all was well. Her ladyship and I shared a deep sigh of relief.'
'Miss Keith, I didn't come here to smoke a cigarette with you, I came to snitch an invitation card and send it to Mr Templeton myself.'
'That would have been a very unscrupulous thing to do.'
'Granted. Be a good sport, Miss Keith. Give me a card. He won't come and it'll make the poor old man happy. You've got nothing against him, have you?'
'No, he's always been very civil to me. He's a gentleman, I will say that for him, and that's more than you can say for most of the people who come here and fill their fat bellies at the Princess's expense.'
All important persons have about them someone in a subordinate position who has their ear. These dependents are very susceptible to slights, and, when they are not treated as they think they should be, will by well-directed shafts, constantly repeated, poison the minds of their patrons against those who have provoked their animosity. It is well to keep in with them. This Elliott knew better than anybody and he had always a friendly word and a cordial smile for the poor relation, the old maidservant, or the trusted secretary. I was sure he had often exchanged pleasant badinage with Miss Keith and at Christmas had not forgotten to send her a box of chocolates, a vanity case, or a handbag.
'Come on, Miss Keith, have a heart.'
Miss Keith fixed her pince-nez more firmly on her prominent nose.
'I am sure you wish me to do nothing disloyal to my employer, Mr Maugham, besides which the old cow would fire me if she found out I'd disobeyed her. The cards are on the desk in their envelopes. I am going to look out of the window, partly to stretch my legs which are cramped from sitting too long in one position and also to observe the beauty of the prospect. What happens when my back is turned neither God nor man can hold me responsible for.'
When Miss Keith resumed her seat the invitation was in my pocket.
'It's been nice to see you, Miss Keith,' I said, holding out my hand. 'What are you wearing at the fancy-dress party?'
'I am a minister's daughter, my dear sir,' she replied. 'I leave such foolishness to the upper classes. When I have seen that the representatives of the Herald and the Mail get a good supper and a bottle of our second-best champagne, my duties will be terminated and I shall retire to the privacy of my bedchamber with a detective story.'
A couple of days later, when I went to see Elliott, I found him beaming.
'Look,' he said, 'I've had my invitation. It came this morning.' He took the card out from under his pillow and showed it to me.
'It's what I told you,' I said. 'You see, your name begins with a T. The secretary had evidently only just reached you.'
'I haven't answered yet. I'll do it tomorrow.' I had a moment's fright at that.
'Would you like me to answer it for you? I could post it when I leave you.'
'No, why should you? I'm quite capable of answering invitations myself.'
Fortunately, I thought, the envelope would be opened by Miss Keith and she would have the sense to suppress it. Elliott rang the bell.
'I want to show you my costume.'
'You're not thinking of going, Elliott?'
'Of course I am. I haven't worn it since the Beaumont's ball.'
Joseph answered the bell and Elliott told him to bring the costume. It was in a large flat box, wrapped in tissue paper. There were long white silk hose, padded trunks of cloth of gold slashed with white satin, a doublet to match, a cloak, a ruff to wear round the neck, a flat velvet cap, and a long gold chain from which hung the order of the Golden Fleece. I recognized it as a copy of the gorgeous dress worn by Philip the Second in Titian's portrait at the Prado, and when Elliott told me it was exactly the costume the Count de Lauria had worn at the wedding of the King of Spain with the Queen of England I could not but think that he was giving rein to his imagination.
On the following morning while I was having breakfast I was called to the telephone. It was Joseph to tell me that Elliott had had another bad attack during the night and the doctor, hurriedly summoned, doubted whether he would last through the day. I sent for the car and drove over to Antibes. I found Elliott unconscious. He had resolutely refused to have a nurse, but I found one there, sent for by the doctor from the English hospital between Nice and Beaulieu, and was glad to see her. I went out and telegraphed to Isabel. She and Gray were spending the summer with the children at the inexpensive seaside resort of La Baule. It was a long journey and I was afraid they would not get to Antibes in time. Except for her two brothers, whom he had not seen for years, she was Elliott's only living relative.
But the will to live was strong in him, or it may be that the doctor's medicaments were effective, for during the course of the day he rallied. Though shattered, he put on a bold front and amused himself by asking the nurse indecent questions about her sex life. I stayed with him most of the afternoon, and next day, on going to see him again, found him, though very weak, sufficiently cheerful. The nurse would only let me stay with him a short time. I was worried at not having received an answer to my telegram. Not knowing Isabel's address at la Baule I had sent it to Paris and feared that the concierge had delayed to forward it. It was not till two days later that I got a reply to say that they were starting at once. As ill luck would have it, Gray and Isabel were on a motor trip in Brittany and had only just had my wire. I looked up the trains and saw that they could not arrive for at least thirty-six hours.
Early next morning Joseph called me again to tell me that Elliott had had a very bad night and was asking for me. I hurried over. When I arrived Joseph took me aside.
'Monsieur will excuse me if I speak to him on a delicate subject,' he said to me. 'I am of course a freethinker and believe all religion is nothing but a conspiracy of the priests to gain control over the people, but Monsieur knows what women are. My wife and the chambermaid insist that the poor gentleman should receive the last sacraments and evidently the time is growing short.' He looked at me in rather a shamefaced way. 'And the fact remains, one never knows, perhaps it is better, if one's got to die, to regularize one's situation with the Church.'
I understood him perfectly. However freely they mock, most Frenchmen, when the end comes, prefer to make their peace with the faith that is part of their blood and bones.
'Do you want me to suggest it to him?'
'If Monsieur would have the goodness.'
It was not a job I much fancied, but after all Elliott had been for many years a devout Catholic, and it was fitting that he should conform to the obligations of his faith. I went up to his room. He was lying on his back, shrivelled and wan, but perfectly conscious. I asked the nurse to leave us alone.
'I'm afraid you're very ill, Elliott,' I said, 'I was wondering, I was wondering if you wouldn't like to see a priest?'
He looked at me for a minute without answering.
'D'you mean to say I'm going to die?'
'Oh, I hope not. But it's just as well to be on the safe side.'
He was silent. It is a terrible moment when you have to tell someone what I had just told Elliott. I could not look at him. I clenched my teeth because I was afraid I was going to cry. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, facing him, with my arm outstretched for support.
He patted my hand.
'Don't be upset, my dear fellow. Noblesse oblige, you know.'
I laughed hysterically.
'You ridiculous creature, Elliott.'
'That's better. Now call up the bishop and say that I wish to make my confession and receive Extreme Unction. I would be grateful if he'd send the Abbe Charles. He's a friend of mine.'
The Abbe Charles was the bishop's vicar general whom I had occasion to mention before. I went downstairs and telephoned. I spoke to the bishop himself.
'Is it urgent?' he asked.
'I will attend to it at once.'
The doctor arrived and I told him what I had done. He went up with the nurse to see Elliott and I waited on the ground floor in the dining-room. It is only twenty minutes' drive from Nice to Antibes and little more than half an hour later a black sedan drew up at the door. Joseph came to me.
'C'est Monseigneur en personne, Monsieur,' he said in a flurry. 'It's the bishop himself.'
I went out to receive him. He was not as usual accompanied by his vicar general, but, why I did not know, by a young abbe who bore a basket that contained, I supposed, the utensils needed to administer the sacrament. The chauffeur followed with a shabby black valise. The bishop shook hands with me and presented his companion.
'How is our poor friend?'
'I'm afraid he's very ill, Monseigneur.'
'Will yoube so obliging as to show us into a room where we can enrobe?'
'The dining-room is here, Monseigneur, and the drawing-room is on the next floor.'
'The dining-room will do very well.'
I ushered him in. Joseph and I waited in the hall. Presently the door opened and the bishop came out, followed by the abbe holding in both hands the chalice surmounted by a little platter on which lay the consecrated wafer. They were covered by a cambric napkin so fine that it was transparent. I had never seen the bishop but at a dinner or luncheon party, and a very good trencherman he was, who enjoyed his food and a glass of good wine, telling funny and sometimes ribald stories with verve. He had struck me then as a sturdy, thickset man of no more than average height. Now, in surplice and stole, he looked not only tall, but stately. His red face, puckered as a rule with malicious yet kindly laughter, was grave. There was in his appearance nothing left of the cavalry officer he had once been; he looked, what indeed he was, a great dignitary of the Church. I was hardly surprised to see Joseph cross himself. The bishop inclined his head in a slight bow.
'Conduct me to the sick man,' he said.
I made way for him to ascend the stairs before me, but he bade me precede him. We went up in solemn silence. I entered Elliott's room.
'The bishop has come himself, Elliott.'
Elliott struggled to raise himself to a sitting position.
'Monseigneur, this is an honour I did not venture to expect.'
'Do not move, my friend.' The bishop turned to the nurse and me. 'Leave us.' And then to the abbe: 'I will call you when I am ready.'
The abbe glanced around and I guessed that he was looking for a place to set down the chalice. I pushed aside the tortoise-shell-backed brushes on the dressing-table. The nurse went downstairs and I led the abbe into the adjoining room which Elliott used as a study. The windows were open to the blue sky and he went over and stood by one of them. I sat down. A race of Stars was in progress and their sails gleamed dazzling white against the azure. A big schooner with a black hull, her red sails spread, was beating up against the breeze towards the harbour. I recognized her for a lobster boat, bringing a catch from Sardinia to supply the gala dinners at the casinos with a fish course. Through the closed door I could hear the muffled murmur of voices. Elliott was making his confession. I badly wanted a cigarette, but feared the abbe would be shocked if I lit one. He stood motionless, looking out, a slender young man, and his thick waving black hair, his fine dark eyes, his olive skin revealed his Italian origin. There was the quick fire of the South in his aspect and I asked myself what urgent faith, what burning desire had caused him to abandon the joys of life, the pleasures of his age, and the satisfaction of his senses, to devote himself to the service of God.
Suddenly the voices in the next room were still and I looked at the door. It was opened and the bishop appeared.
'Venez,' he said to the priest.
I was left alone. I heard the bishop's voice once more and I knew he was saying the prayers that the Church has ordained should be said for the dying. Then there was another silence and I knew that Elliott was partaking of the body and the blood of Christ. From I know not what feeling, inherited, I suppose, from far-away ancestors, though not a Catholic I can never attend Mass without a sense of tremulous awe when the little tinkle of the servitor's bell informs me of the Elevation of the Host; and now, similarly, I shivered as though a cold wind ran through me, I shivered with fear and wonder. The door was opened once more.
'You may come in,' said the bishop.
I entered. The abbe was spreading the cambric napkin over the cup and the little gilt plate on which the consecrated wafer had lain. Elliott's eyes shone.
'Conduct Monseigneur to his car,' he said.
We descended the stairs. Joseph and the maids were waiting in the hall. The maids were crying. There were three of them and one after the other they came forward and, dropping to their knees, kissed the bishop's ring. He blessed them with two fingers. Joseph's wife nudged him and he advanced, fell to his knees too, and kissed the ring. The bishop smiled faintly.
'You are a freethinker, my son?'
I could see Joseph making an effort over himself.
'Do not let it trouble you. You have been a good and faithful servant to your master. God will overlook the errors of your understanding.'
I went out into the street with him and opened the door of his car. He gave me a bow as he stepped in and smiled indulgently.
'Our poor friend is very low. His defects were of the surface; he was generous of heart and kindly towards his fellow men.'
Thinking that Elliott might want to be alone after the ceremony in which he had taken part, I went up to the drawing-room and began to read, but no sooner had I settled myself than the nurse came in to tell me that he wanted to see me. I climbed the flight of stairs to his room. Whether owing to a shot that the doctor had given him to help him to support the ordeal before him or whether from the excitement of it, he was calmly cheerful and his eyes were bright.
'A great honour, my dear fellow,' he said. 'I shall enter the kingdom of heaven with a letter of introduction from a prince of the Church. I fancy that all doors will be open to me.'
'I'm afraid you'll find the company very mixed,' I smiled.
'Don't you believe it, my dear fellow. We know from Holy Writ that there are class distinctions in heaven just as there are on earth. There are seraphim and cherubim, archangels and angels. I have always moved in the best society in Europe and I have no doubt that I shall move in the best society in heaven. Our Lord has said: The House of my Father hath many mansions. It would be highly unsuitable to lodge the hoi polloi in a way to which they're entirely unaccustomed.'
I suspected that Elliott saw the celestial habitations in the guise of the chateaux of a Baron de Rothschild with eighteenth-century panelling on the walls, Buhl tables, marquetry cabinets, and Louis Quinze suites covered with their original petit-point.
'Believe me, my dear fellow,' he went on after a pause, 'there'll be none of this damned equality in heaven.'
He dropped off quite suddenly into a doze. I sat down with a book. He slept off and on. At one o'clock the nurse came in to tell me that Joseph had luncheon ready for me. Joseph was subdued.
'Fancy Monseigneur the Bishop coming himself. It is a great honour he has done our poor gentleman. You saw me kiss his ring?'
'It's not a thing I would have done of myself! I did it to satisfy my poor wife.'
I spent the afternoon in Elliott's room. In the course of it a telegram came from Isabel to say that she and Gray would arrive by the Blue Train next morning. I could hardly hope they would be in time. The doctor came. He shook his head. Towards sunset Elliott awoke and was able to take a little nourishment. It seemed to give him a momentary strength. He beckoned to me and I went up to the bed. His voice was very weak.
'I haven't answered Edna's invitation.'
'Oh, don't bother about that now, Elliott.'
'Why not? I've always been a man of the world; there's no reason why I should forget my manners as I'm leaving it. Where is the card?'
It was on the chimney piece and I put it in his hand, but I doubt whether he could see it.
'You'll find a pad of writing paper in my study. If you'll get it I'll dictate my answer.'
I went into the next room and came back with writing materials. I sat down by the side of his bed.
'Are you ready?'
His eyes were closed, but there was a mischievous smile on his lips and I wondered what was coming.
'Mr Elliott Templeton regrets that he cannot accept princess Novemali's kind invitation owing to a previous engagement with his Blessed Lord.'
He gave a faint, ghostly chuckle. His face was of a strange blue-white, ghastly to behold, and he exhaled the nauseating stench peculiar to his disease. Poor Elliott who had loved to spray himself with the perfumes of Chanel and Molyneux. He was still holding the purloined invitation card and, thinking it incommoded him, I tried to take it out of his hand, but he tightened his grip on it. I was startled to hear him speak quite loudly.
'The old bitch,' he said.
These were the last words he spoke. He sank into a coma. The nurse had been up with him all the previous night and looked very tired, so I sent her to bed, promising to call her if necessary, and said I would sit up. There was indeed nothing to do. I lit a shaded lamp and read till my eyes ached and then, turning it off, I sat in darkness. The night was warm and the windows wide open. At regular intervals the flash of the lighthouse swept the room with a passing glimmer. The moon, which when full would look upon the vacuous, noisy gaiety of Edna Novemali's fancy-dress party, set, and in the sky, a deep, deep blue, the countless stars shone with their terrifying brilliance. I think I may have dropped off into a light sleep, but my senses were still awake, and I was suddenly startled into intense consciousness by a hurried, angry sound, the most awe-inspiring sound anyone can hear, the death rattle. I went over to the bed and by the gleam of the lighthouse felt Elliott's pulse. He was dead. I lit the lamp by his bedside and looked at him. His jaw had fallen. His eyes were open and before closing them I stared into them for a minute. I was moved and I think a few tears trickled down my cheeks. An old, kind friend. It made me sad to think how silly, useless, and trivial his life had been. It mattered very little now that he had gone to so many parties and had hobnobbed with all those princes, dukes, and counts. They had forgotten him already.
I saw no reason to wake the exhausted nurse, so I returned to my chair by the window. I was asleep when she came in at seven. I left her to do whatever she thought fit and had breakfast, then I went to the station to meet Gray and Isabel. I told them that Elliott was dead, and since there was no room for them at his house asked them to stay with me, but they preferred to go to a hotel. I went back to my own house to have a bath, shave, and change.
In the course of the morning Gray called me to say that Joseph had given them a letter addressed to me that Elliott had entrusted to him. Since it might contain something for my eyes alone I said I would drive over at once, and so less than an hour later I once more entered the house. The letter, marked on the envelope: To be delivered immediately after my death, contained instructions for his obsequies. I knew that he had set his heart on being buried in the church that he had built and I had already told Isabel. He wished to be embalmed and mentioned the name of the firm to which the commission should be given. 'I have made inquiries,' he continued, 'and I am informed that they make a very good job of it. I trust you to see that it is not scamped. I desire to be dressed in the dress of my ancestor the Count de Lauria, with his sword by my side and the order of the Golden Fleece on my breast. I leave the choice of my coffin to you. It should be unpretentious but suitable to my position. In order to give no one unnecessary trouble I desire that Thomas Cook and Son should make all arrangements for the transportation of my remains and that one of their men should accompany the coffin to its final resting-place.'
I remembered that Elliott had said he wanted to be buried in that fancy dress of his, but I had taken it for a passing whim and hadn't thought he meant it seriously. Joseph was insistent that his wishes be carried out and there seemed no reason why they should not be. The body was duly embalmed and then I went with Joseph to dress it in those absurd clothes. It was gruesome business. We slipped his long legs into the white silk hose and pulled the cloth-of-gold over them. It was a job to get his arms through the sleeves of the doublet. We fixed the great starched ruff and draped the satin cape over his shoulders. Finally we placed the flat velvet cap on his head and the collar of the Golden Fleece round his neck. The embalmer had rouged his cheeks and reddened his lips. Elliott, the costume too large now for his emaciated frame, looked like a chorus man in an early opera of Verdi's. The sad Don Quixote of a worthless purpose. When the undertaker's men had put him in the coffin I laid the property sword down the length of his body, between his legs, with his hands on the pommel as I have seen the sword laid on the sculptured tomb of a Crusader.