THE CITY OF MASKS
LADY JANE THORNE COMES TO DINNER
THE Marchioness carefully draped the dust-cloth over the head of an andiron and, before putting the question to the parlour-maid, consulted, with the intensity of a near-sighted person, the ornate French clock in the centre of the mantelpiece. Then she brushed her fingers on the voluminous apron that almost completely enveloped her slight person.
"Well, who is it, Julia?"
"It's Lord Temple, ma'am, and he wants to know if you're too busy to come to the 'phone. If you are, I'm to ask you something."
The Marchioness hesitated. "How do you know it is Lord Eric? Did he mention his name?"
"He did, ma'am. He said 'this is Tom Trotter speaking, Julia, and is your mistress disengaged?' And so I knew it couldn't be any one else but his Lordship."
"And what are you to ask me?"
"He wants to know if he may bring a friend around tonight, ma'am. A gentleman from Constantinople, ma'am."
"A Turk? He knows I do not like Turks," said the Marchioness, more to herself than to Julia.
"He didn't say, ma'am. Just Constantinople."
The Marchioness removed her apron and handed it to Julia. You would have thought she expected to confront Lord Temple in person, or at least that she would be fully visible to him despite the distance and the intervening buildings that lay between. Tucking a few stray locks of her snow-white hair into place, she approached the telephone in the hall. She had never quite gotten over the impression that one could be seen through as well as heard over the telephone. She always smiled or frowned or gesticulated, as occasion demanded; she was never languid, never bored, never listless. A chat was a chat, at long range or short; it didn't matter.
"Are you there? Good evening, Mr. Trotter. So charmed to hear your voice." She had seated herself at the little old Italian table.
Mr. Trotter devoted a full two minutes to explanations.
"Do bring him with you," cried she. "Your word is sufficient. He must be delightful. Of course, I shuddered a little when you mentioned Constantinople. I always do. One can't help thinking of the Armenians. Eh? Oh, yes,—and the harems."
Mr. Trotter: "By the way, are you expecting Lady Jane tonight?"
The Marchioness: "She rarely fails us, Mr. Trotter."
Mr. Trotter: "Right-o! Well, good-bye,—and thank you. I'm sure you will like the baron. He is a trifle seedy, as I said before,—sailing vessel, you know, and all that sort of thing. By way of Cape Town,—pretty well up against it for the past year or two besides,—but a regular fellow, as they say over here."
The Marchioness: "Where did you say he is stopping?"
Mr. Trotter: "Can't for the life of me remember whether it's the 'Sailors' Loft' or the 'Sailors' Bunk.' He told me too. On the water-front somewhere. I knew him in Hong Kong. He says he has cut it all out, however."
The Marchioness: "Cut it all out, Mr. Trotter?"
Mr. Trotter, laughing: "Drink, and all that sort of thing, you know. Jolly good thing too. I give you my personal guarantee that he—"
The Marchioness: "Say no more about it, Mr. Trotter. I am sure we shall all be happy to receive any friend of yours. By the way, where are you now—where are you telephoning from?"
Mr. Trotter: "Drug store just around the corner."
The Marchioness: "A booth, I suppose?"
Mr. Trotter: "Oh, yes. Tight as a sardine box."
The Marchioness: "Good-bye."
Mr. Trotter: "Oh—hello? I beg your pardon—are you there? Ah, I—er—neglected to mention that the baron may not appear at his best tonight. You see, the poor chap is a shade large for my clothes. Naturally, being a sailor-man, he hasn't—er—a very extensive wardrobe. I am fixing him out in a—er—rather abandoned evening suit of my own. That is to say, I abandoned it a couple of seasons ago. Rather nobby thing for a waiter, but not—er—what you might call—"
The Marchioness, chuckling: "Quite good enough for a sailor, eh? Please assure him that no matter what he wears, or how he looks, he will not be conspicuous."
After this somewhat ambiguous remark, the Marchioness hung up the receiver and returned to the drawing-room; a prolonged search revealing the dust-cloth on the "nub" of the andiron, just where she had left it, she fell to work once more on the velvety surface of a rare old Spanish cabinet that stood in the corner of the room.
"Don't you want your apron, ma'am?" inquired Julia, sitting back on her heels and surveying with considerable pride the leg of an enormous throne seat she had been rubbing with all the strength of her stout arms.
Her mistress ignored the question. She dabbed into a tiny recess and wriggled her finger vigorously.
"I can't imagine where all the dust comes from, Julia," she said.
"Some of it comes from Italy, and some of it from Spain, and some from France," said Julia promptly. "You could rub for a hundred years, ma'am, and there'd still be dust that you couldn't find, not to save your soul. And why not? I'd bet my last penny there's dust on that cabinet this very minute that settled before Napoleon was born, whenever that was."
"I daresay," said the Marchioness absently.
More often than otherwise she failed to hear all that Julia said to her, or in her presence rather, for Julia, wise in association, had come to consider these lapses of inattention as openings for prolonged and rarely coherent soliloquies on topics of the moment. Julia, by virtue of long service and a most satisfying avoidance of matrimony, was a privileged servant between the hours of eight in the morning and eight in the evening. After eight, or more strictly speaking, the moment dinner was announced, Julia became a perfect servant. She would no more have thought of addressing the Marchioness as "ma'am" than she would have called the King of England "mister." She had crossed the Atlantic with her mistress eighteen years before; in mid-ocean she celebrated her thirty-fifth birthday, and, as she had been in the family for ten years prior to that event, even a child may solve the problem that here presents a momentary and totally unnecessary break in the continuity of this narrative. Julia was English. She spoke no other language. Beginning with the soup, or the hors d'œuvres on occasion, French was spoken in the house of the Marchioness. Physically unable to speak French and psychologically unwilling to betray her ignorance, Julia became a model servant. She lapsed into perfect silence.
The Marchioness seldom if ever dined alone. She always dined in state. Her guests,—English, Italian, Russian, Belgian, French, Spanish, Hungarian, Austrian, German,—conversed solely in French. It was a very agreeable way of symphonizing Babel.
The room in which she and the temporarily imperfect though treasured servant were employed in the dusk of this stormy day in March was at the top of an old-fashioned building in the busiest section of the city, a building that had, so far, escaped the fate of its immediate neighbours and remained, a squat and insignificant pygmy,