Menu Close


The Elsingfords

By Robert Shews


IT was a marriage of which everybody augured ill. When a
rumour of the engagement first obtained currency, every-
body scoffed. It was impossible. And even after it had received
official confirmation, people couldn’t shake ofF a sort of dazed
incredulity. It must be some mistake. That any one in his
senses should voluntarily espouse Hennie Bleck was a proposition
which the mind refused to grasp, like a contradiction in terms ;
and of Herbert Elsingford it had always been felt that he was
peculiarly in his senses. He gave you the impression of a man
who, fastidious in all things, would be overwhelmingly so in his
choice of a wife. He was an artist, and he was a man of the
world ; he had travelled, he had knocked about ; he must have
had a varied experience of women, he must have had successes.
With that, and with his humour, his saving touch of cynicism,
one would have thought him the least likely of subjects for a
woman to make a fool of. One would have supposed that he
cultivated an unattainable feminine standard, that he would require
a combination of qualities such as never was on land or sea—the
qualities of a Grecian urn united to those of a rosebud. One


                        102 The Elsingfords

would have imagined that in looking for a wife he would meet
with the fortune of those who look for the absolute—and remain
a bachelor. It was hard to believe that he was going to marry
Hennie Bleck.

The Blecks, mother and daughter, had descended upon London,
out of their native New England, some two years before. They
had taken a furnished house near Portman Square, and proceeded,
to the wonder of all beholders, to wriggle themselves into rather
a decent set. Physically, they resembled each other as closely as
two halfpence, with a difference of twenty years in their dates.
Mamma Bleck was undersized and thin, with a nose like a
scimitar, little staring grey eyes, a high forehead, and scanty grey
hair. Miss Bleck was simply her newer replica. They were
both addicted to odd, weasel-like motions, walked sinuously,
and squirmed a good deal when seated. But their methods
in conversation were antipodal. Mrs. Bleck was humble, dis-
tressingly so ; talked but little, and that little under her breath,
in a weary, low-spirited nasal. She deferred constantly to your
opinion, and called you sir : ” Oh, yes, sir,” ” No, sir,” etc., with
the funniest upward intonation. You would have thought she
was trying, in a hopeless way, to sell you something ; and, from
her timidity of attack, you might have suspected a guilty conscious-
ness that the thing wasn t worth your money, that the goods were
damaged, and a terror lest you should discover it and denounce
her. Then she was prone to long melancholic lapses of silence,
during which, by imperceptible degrees,—by a sort of drifting
process,—she would edge away, abstract herself, till by-and-by you
perceived that she was far from you, silent in a corner. But
through her humility you felt a kind of truculence, of sly fierce-
ness, as if she were lying low, and would presently seize her chance
to give you a dab, and escape before you could make sure who had


                        103 By Robert Shews

done it. In her corner, with her dull little eyes fixed steadfastly
on nothing, she had the air of hatching a conspiracy—laying a
mine. She was possibly only fatigued, and wondering when you
would go. Mrs. Bleck was retiring ; but Miss Bleck was for-
ward enough for two—most affable, most condescending. She
talked in a shrill little voice, and at the top of it, so that you could
follow her observations from the other end of the room. She laid
down the law, and kept twisting her neck like a swan’s. She
patronised everybody : she would have patronised the Duke of
Plaza-Toros, the Bank of England ; and her eyes had a sinister
little glitter, and her thin, straight lips a malicious little smile that
made one really afraid of her.

It was a wonder what had brought them to England (they
assured you that everything was better in America) ; it was a
wonder how well they got on here. They were unattractive, un-
distinguished, unconnected, and they weren’t rich. They lived
pretentiously but shabbily, driving their income very hard forcing
a thousand a year to do the work of two or three. They spread
their gilding out so thin that the plaster showed through. You
were sure they starved their servants—a conviction that was
strengthened by the circumstance that they were perpetually
changing them. The same butler never answered your knock
twice. Then they gave awful dinners, and kept a watch on you
lest you should eat and drink too heartily ; viands were whisked
before your eyes, and you went away with the sense of a lost
opportunity. Their afternoons at home were the painfullest
functions in London. They were lavish with weak tea, but
sparing of the milk and sugar, the bread and butter; and the little
dish of sweetmeats lurking behind the tea-urn was never put into
circulation unless a star arrived, and even then (I don’t know how
they managed it) nobody but the star got any. Everybody dis-


                        104 The Elsingfords

liked them, everybody said nasty things about them, yet everybody
visited and invited them. It was partly, I dare say, mere inertia.
Push, and it shall be opened unto you. They pushed : Mamma
silently,—furtively, as it were ; Hennie aggressively, with an effect
of asperity : both persistently—and people made way .for them.
It was partly mere inertia, it was partly a sort of dim fear. One
dimly feared that if one resisted them they would do something.
One divined in them latent resources, hidden potentialities for
mischief. They could blast one’s reputation by some particularly
insidious slander, or even throw vitriol. So people received them
and visited them, and took it out in saying nasty things—of them
and to them. These they never resented, though it was con-
ceivable that they noted them down.

One of their stars was the Dowager Lady Stoke, whose house
they had rented—always a conspicuous figure on their day, having
journeyed up from remote South Kensington, whither she had
withdrawn into lodgings. It was suggested that her attendance
might be a part of the lease ; but brooms apparently were not, for
on one occasion her ladyship was heard somewhat heatedly expostu-
lating : ” New brooms ! But, my dears, brooms are never
included in a furnished house. If I left my brooms it was through
good nature. If you need new brooms, you’ll have to buy ’em,
or do without. Brooms, indeed ! ” Then there were the Wether-
leighs, the Burtons, the Cavely-Browns. It was by Mrs. Burton
that Hennie was presented ; and at the Wetherleighs’ one scarcely
knew who was the hostess, Hennie was so much and so actively
in the foreground—the first to hail your arrival, the last to speed
your departure. Yet Mrs. Wetherleigh quite frankly detested

It was at the Wetherleighs’ in an evil hour that she made the
acquaintance of Herbert Elsingford, then in the flower of his


                        105 By Robert Shews

sudden short-lived fame—the lion of the moment. He had come
home from the East in February, and in April an exhibition of
his pictures had been opened at a dealer ‘mouths. The critics,
the painters, the connoisseurs, had begun it, and the public carried
it on. The explanation was obvious—he had matter as well as
manner. The connoisseurs admired his manner, which was
original and effective ; his light touch, his avoidance of all but the
salient, his clever brushwork. The public were captivated by the
glimpses he gave them into an exotic civilisation, by his pretty
Japanese ladies, his splendid temples, his bright delicate colours.
He had an instant and extremely unusual success. He sold every-
thing, and got no end of orders. This was well, for in his long
apprenticeship he had eaten up his short patrimony. His father
had been a rural dean in Shropshire. Herbert himself had set out
to read for the Bar, but in his second term he thought better of it,
and went to Paris to study art. We never really heard much of
him again till he burst upon us in his sudden celebrity.

He was run after a good deal, I suppose ; but he spent a
surprising amount of his time at the Wetherleighs’, with whom
he was distantly, loosely, connected. He met Hennie Bleck there
in June or July. One would have predicted that he would go
beyond us all in disliking her. He had humour ; he had experi-
ence ; he had a petit air moqueur ; he was the last man in the
world to be taken in. At the same time, he had sensibilities—old-
fashioned sensibilities. He justified the proverb that every artist
is a bit of a woman. At the vulgar, the meretricious, he couldn’t
smile, he couldn t even shrug his shoulders ; his humour, which
had helped him to detect it, abandoned him when it came to
supporting it ; he shuddered and hurried away. He would be
sure to know pinchbeck from gold, and to hate it. He would be

The Yellow Book—Vol. XI. G


                        106 The Elsingfords

sure to dislike Hennie. In the autumn people began to say they
were engaged. People said it and repudiated it as impossible in
the same breath. After the banns were published, people groped
helplessly for a theory. All sorts of wild surmises were launched.
Could it be hypnotism ? There was something uncanny about
the Blecks. Could it be hypnotism, envoûtement, some nefarious
magic ? One could fancy them, the grey old mother, the tallow-
faced little daughter, brewing a witch’s broth and crooning
murky incantations over it. Or blackmail ? They had been
staying in the same country houses, and Elsingford, perhaps, had
secrets. He had lived so much abroad, and travelled in the East ;
and even those of us who stop at home sometimes have secrets.
If Hennie had been rich—but she wasn’t rich. It passed the
limits of the human understanding. It had to be given up as one
of the ultimate mysteries. Elsingford was eight-and-twenty.
Hennie couldn’t be a day under thirty.

Nobody felt it more keenly than Arthur Harvard, Hennie’s
Londonised compatriot. He had been as nearly as any one the
discoverer of Elsingford. He had written articles about him in
the Reviews, and preached his cult by word of mouth wherever
he could find a listener. Then the two men, for all that there
was a score of years between them, became tremendous friends.
Everybody liked Elsingford : he was gentle, modest and amusing.
Harvard had a genius for friendship ; he put it all into his friend
ship for Elsingford. They were together a great deal, took long
walks together, dined and lunched together, talked together till
late into the night.

Harvard couldn’t believe it, but it troubled him. Mrs. Cavely-
Brown whispered it to him : ” They say, you know, that Herbert
Elsingford is going to marry Hennie Bleck.” He never smiled
again, for at least a fortnight. It couldn’t be true, of course ; and


                        107 By Robert Shews

yet it might be. It is the impossible that usually happens. And
in that case something ought to be done ; he ought to do some
thing. Harvard was a man who took things seriously, and felt his
responsibilities. We used to laugh at him a little and call him
“fussy” ; but I think we should have hit nearer the mark if we
had called him conscientious. For a fortnight he wore a perplexed
frown. At last Elsingford set his doubts at rest. He arrived in
town from Selfield, the Wetherleighs’ place in Derbyshire, and
drove straight to Harvard s chambers.

” I want you to congratulate me,” he said. ” Miss Bleck has
done me the honour to accept my hand.”

Harvard pulled himself up.

“Ah ? Indeed ? Ah, yes, yes. I—I’ve heard something about
this,” he responded : there he paused. He felt his responsibilities
—the responsibilities of friendship. It was, then, true. There-
fore something must be done—something must be said. But the
situation had its delicacies. Whatever he did, whatever he said,
must be well considered. Now, to gain time, he asked : “Er
—have you fixed a date ? ”

” Monday, the sixth of January, at St. George’s, Hanover

In the choice of a tabernacle Harvard felt Hennie’s touch : it
was characteristic.

” You’re the first person I’ve told,” Elsingford went on. ” You
see, we want you to lend a hand. We want you to give the
bride away. Henrietta and her mother are very anxious. Of
course, this is unofficial. Mrs. Bleck will ask you. You re their
fellow-countryman and my especial friend.”

” If I’m to take part in the ceremony, I’d much rather forbid
the banns,” it was on the tip of Harvard s tongue to answer, but
he lacked nerve. ” My dear fellow, it’s—it’s too great a com-


                        108 The Elsingfords

pliment. They ought if they want an American they ought
to have the Ambassador,” was what he did answer.

” They don’t like the Ambassador ; they’re not on terms with
the Embassy.”

” Well, but then—but then—the Consul,” suggested Harvard,
losing his head.

” Oh, the Consul’s impossible. The Consul’s not a ….
Nobody knows the Consul. Besides, anyhow, we want you.
You’re the most distinguished American here. And we’re such

So poor Harvard, who had begun by saying that he must do
something, ended by giving the bride away. For months after
wards he felt as if he had picked a pocket and couldn’t lay a
haunting dread of the consequences.

The whole affair was inexplicable ; and not the least inexplic-
able feature of it was the departure, immediately after the
ceremony, of Elsingford, with his wife and mother-in-law, for
dear old Amurica. We had never understood the Blecks presence
in London ; now we were equally at a loss to understand their
absence. One would have expected Hennie to stop and enjoy
her triumph. She had hooked a lion—the lion of the season.
One would have thought she would wish to parade him up and
down a little before an envious public. But no, she led him
straight away into another hemisphere. Everybody boded ill of
the marriage, and particularly of this hegira. Elsingford, with his
sensibilities, would be sure not to like America. The clash, the
hurry, the hard atmosphere, the raw colouring, the ding of the
dominant dollar would give on his nerves. And how long would
he be able to stand Hennie ? ” We ll have him back some fine
morning when we least expect him,” people said. From time to
time Harvard or Mrs. Wetherleigh received a letter from him.


                        109 By Robert Shews

These became rarer and rarer, and at last stopped altogether.
One ceased to hear of him or from him. If he still painted,
he contrived to conceal his results from his admirers in England.

It was a comfort, though, to be rid of the Blecks. We breathed
freely ; a menace had been removed. Elsingford had been immo-
lated to the public good. It was a high price ; but, after all, the
deliverance was worth it.


Harvard would have found it difficult to explain how he had
come by such a complete impression of the way matters stood, or
why he felt so little doubt of its correctness. He hadn’t been able
to ask many questions. Elsingford hadn’t been able to tell him
very much ; a man can’t complain of his wife. But Harvard had
instincts, intuitions. One can reconstruct a mastodon from a
tooth and a claw. A word here, a look, a gesture there, and
Elsingford s very reticence, had made it all horribly clear.

Elsingford was certainly very ill. It had begun the winter
before, at New York, with an attack of what he and Hennie
called the “grip”—probably the influenza. This had left him
with a cough, which he couldn t succeed in throwing off. In the
spring the doctors had insisted that he must stop work and go
abroad. Change, rest, recreation would set him up. He wanted
to come to England, but Hennie objected. When they had left
England on their honeymoon Elsingford had understood that they
were to return in the autumn : they had really stopped in New
York upwards of four years. Hennie, little by little, had opened
her heart to him. With consternation he had discovered in it a
violent hatred of his country and his country-people. She hated
their very names, she said. England was a sink of iniquity and


                        110 The Elsingfords

stodginess. The English were all that is corrupt, perfidious,
ill-mannered, and dull. He tried to reason with her—to argue the
question. But Hennie was in some respects a woman. It pre-
cipitated quarrels, which ended in her weeping, and his having to
beg her pardon. She entertained her American friends with a
thousand shrill little anecdotes, comparisons, sarcasms, at England’s
expense. She was paying off old scores ; she had possibly not
been ignorant of her unpopularity. Her English husband hovered
in the background, conscious that her auditors, through all their
delight and laughter, were compassionating him for his loss in not
being an American. He always meant to put his foot down ; he
always meant to go home next spring. But when he broached
the subject Hennis would put her foot down literally ; she would
stamp her foot and scold and cry, and he would have to make his
peace and comfort her, and talk of something else. Besides,
from a pecuniary point of view, he was doing very well. The
Americans bought his pictures and paid American prices for

When the doctors ordered him abroad, he thought his chance
had come. But Hennie wouldn’t hear of England. She was
very glad “to go to Europe,” but she wouldn’t hear of England.
They had debates and scenes, tears, truces, and a reconciliation,
the terms of which were that they should avoid England. They
landed at Havre, accordingly, and spent the summer in Germany
and Austria, “doing” the Rhine and the Tyrol. They would
pass the winter, Hennie decided, in Paris. She had never had a
whole winter in Paris ; it was of all things what she most desired.
She had heard of a very good pension, kept by an American lady.
Then he could take a studio, and get to work again. And, if he
liked, he might run over to London for a visit, for ten days or a
fortnight. She couldn t spare him longer than a fortnight ; she


                        111 By Robert Shews

was too dependent upon him ; she would be too miserable without

To the idea of a very good pension, kept by an American
lady, he opposed the idea of a furnished flat. But Hennie said
they would have no “society.” He suggested that in the pension
they might have no solitude. Hennie replied that this was only
his selfishness, and they established themselves in the pension.
But his cough, which had hung on in an obstinate little fashion
all summer, began now to go from bad to worse. The cold
weather that came early in November seemed to irritate it.
Hennie administered hot drinks and applied extra flannels. She
discouraged his seeing a doctor. He had seen doctors enough last
winter, and what good had they done him ? Doctors always
made people worse by alarming them. Herbert had too much
imagination, anyhow ; he thought too much of his health. If he
would pay less attention to it, and take a studio and go to work,
he would be as well as anybody. His real trouble was nervous.
Indeed, she would go so far as to say that all disease was merely
nervousness—a bad state of the mind. ” If people wouldn’t think
themselves sick they wouldn’t be sick.” He complained of general
lassitude, of pains in his chest, of fever at night. He didn’t believe
it was anything serious, but it prevented his working, it prevented
his enjoying life. He was getting frightfully thin ; he could count
his ribs. Then he had a haemorrhage, and Hennie, in spite of her-
self, was obliged to call in a doctor to stop the bleeding. The
doctor stopped the bleeding, and said that Elsingford ought not to
be in Paris ; he ought to go South, He oughtn’t to expose himself
to the rigours, the changes of a Parisian winter ; he ought to go
to the Riviera, to Sicily, to Algiers—it didn’t matter where, if he
could escape the cold and be in the open air. Hennie scouted
this as ” nonsense.” It confirmed her theory that doctors always


                        112 The Elsingfords

exaggerated things and frightened people. The doctor talked of
“indurations” and “pneumonias,” Hennie reiterated her con-
viction that it was all nerves and imagination. As for the
haemorrhage, it came from the throat : Herbert smoked too
much. To pull up stakes and go to the Riviera, after they had
got so comfortably settled down at Mrs. Slipwell’s, would be a
dreadful bother, a hideous expense. Well, the doctor concluded,
if they remained in Paris, Elsingford must stay in the house ; he
mustn’t go out till spring ; that was the only way of ensuring an
even temperature. Hennie derided this régime as ” crazy,” and
was angry with her husband for following it, as he stubbornly
insisted upon doing. “Be a man ! Get up and go out. Don’t
stick at home molly-coddling yourself like an old woman.”
Elsingford was for peace at any price, and two or three times he
tried it. He found that his outings aggravated his cough,
produced shortness of breath, added a couple of degrees to his
evening fever. After that he insisted upon obeying the doctor.
Hennie made his conduct the object of endless little ironies. She
treated it, and indeed his whole illness, as a personal grievance—a
thing perversely fostered to the end of vexing—her a sort of luxury
that he permitted himself. ” You’ll get no sympathy from me.
What can a man expect who keeps stuck up in the house,
enfeebling and enervating his whole system ? ”

Meanwhile he was losing his constitutional cheerfulness. Little
things that formerly would at most have annoyed him, began to
exasperate him. Formerly he had had his work, he had had the
streets to walk in ; now he was a prisoner in Mrs. Slipwell’s pension,
condemned to idleness. He didn’t like the pension ; he didn’t like
the ” society ” which had attracted Hennie. There were twenty-
five American women and one American man. He had to meet
them at table twice a day. Their talk exasperated him, their


                        113 by Robert Shews

strident voices, their queer intonations. After four years of New
York he still winced at certain intonations. They talked a good
deal about England ; they made the most astounding revelations.
If he ventured to protest, to doubt, they were too many for him.
There was a big, young girl with suspicious-looking yellow hair—
a Miss Mackle, from Chicago. She had lived in England, for two
years, at the Hôtel Métropole. Her popper had been ” promot-
ing a Company” in the City. What she didn’t know about
English things and English ways wasn’t worth knowing. She
described the domestic manners of the aristocracy, and her audience
roared. Hennie backed her up. They couldn’t let England
alone ; they had an Englishman always with them. Elsingford’s
humour, as I have intimated, deserted him at a certain point ; and
he had sensibilities ; and now he was feverish and in pain. Some-
times he would retort—he would abuse America ; then there
would be trouble. The ladies felt that he had insulted them ; he
had been ” ungentlemanly.” Hennie would cry, and reproach
him for offending her friends.

The one American man was a journalist—Paris correspondent
for a ” syndicate ” of American newspapers. Elsingford did not
admire the American newspaper press, and this representative of
it, he thought, was highly representative. He was a stout, squat,
shiny little man, and Elsingford, who was coming to see all things
en noir, felt that be looked like a toad. He used to tell awful
stories of his methods, his achievements, how he ferreted out
people’s secrets, beguiled them into giving him their confidence,
bribed servants to listen at keyholes, and thus ” got a beat” on his
rival correspondents. Mr. Hickey might have amused one at a
distance, or from time to time. But Elsingford had him in the
same house, met him at breakfast and dinner. Hennie liked him
immensely, and made all sorts of explanations. Elsingford com-


                        114 The Elsingfords

plained that an explanation wasn’t necessarily an excuse. Hickey’s
idioms were surprising, incredible. He took no interest “into”
certain events ; he couldn’t do this or that as he ” used to could.”
Elsingford was ill ; he couldn’t smile as he used to could.

Sometimes he would revolt. He would declare that he couldn’t
stand it any longer ; they must move. ” Let’s take a flat.”
Hennie would wonder at his selfishness. Wasn’t it bad enough to
have a malade imaginaire for a husband ? to be alone with him in
a foreign land ? How could he propose anything so cruel as to
take her away from a house where she was comparatively happy ;
where she was surrounded by congenial people ? Well, anyhow,
then, he said, he wouldn’t go to table ; he would have his meals
in his room. ” Il ne manquerait plus que ça,” she cried. “Are
you trying to kill yourself? You begin by staying in the house ;
you end by staying in your room. It’s suicidal. I’m fairly
ashamed of you. How a man can be so morbid ! ” Elsingford,
from constantly being told so, had ended by believing that he was
frightfully selfish. He knew that he was perpetually making his
wife cry. He continued to go to table.

Harvard had received a letter from him towards the end of
January. He read the letter a second time, to glean the wisps of
personal information that were scattered through it. These were
few. It was chiefly about his book. All that he had gathered at
the end of his second reading amounted to this, that Elsingford
was in Paris, in a “pension de famille—the queerest place,” and
that he was ill. How ill, in what manner and degree, the writer
did not say. Not ill in bed, at any rate, for he spoke of sitting
before his fire. ” I sat with my heels kicked up on the fender,
and read and read till there was no more to read.” Harvard
would trust that it was nothing serious, nothing constitutional ;
and, meanwhile, he must answer the letter.


                        115 By Robert Shews

This he did with the warmest feeling, in the warmest language.
” My dear, dear fellow ! . . . To hear from you after so many
years—they must run close upon a hundred—has made glad my
heart like wine, has shaken my faith in the vanity of things.
There are real satisfactions. . . . And what you say of my book
—of the pleasure it was fortunate enough to give you—is very
sweet to hear. . . . Why do you tell me so little about yourself?
I will not believe that your illness is more than trifling ; yet I
could have wished for an affirmative reassurance. . . . And your
work ? . . . . However, these and all other questions (not least
among them that of your return to London, which I hope is a
matter of the early future—and you may be sure we shan’t let you
give us the slip again !), all these questions we shall shortly have
an opportunity to settle by the living voice. I shall be in Paris
next week on my way to Egypt. My own health is a little trouble-
some—the throat—a local irritation and a pain that drive me to-
wards the sun. But at my time of life one must expect things.
I was a dashing youth of forty something when we parted, now I
have turned fifty, and begin to consider myself middle-aged. I
shall arrive on Wednesday evening ; I shan’t let the grass grow
under my feet. On Thursday morning we shall be embracing.”
Elsingford had wound up with a statement that his wife joined
him in love. Harvard, softened by a glow of joy and old affec-
tion, was able to think charitably even of Hennie. So the words,
” Pray convey my best regards to Mrs. Elsingford,” did not stick
in his pen.

Elsingford had mentioned that his boarding-house was the
“queerest place.” And from the address at the top of his letter
Harvard learned that it was in the Rue Franfois-Premier. He
found a small hôtel particuller, very new looking, and adorned with
many flourishes in stucco. The hall, into which he was admitted


                        116 The Elsingfords

by a man-servant, rather dazzled him ; he had not prepared him-
self for so much marble and stained glass and wainscoting—for so
much ducal splendour. It was scarcely a relief to discern that the
wainscoting, though simulating the grandeur of carved oak, was
really only papier machè. As the man-servant opened the door of
the salon Harvard was conscious, for an instant, of a flight of female
figures in loose, light-coloured, morning-gowns, escaping in all
directions, which bewildered him a little, and led him to bow
apologetically. But when he looked up he was alone. The
salon smelt of perfumes and upholstery. It was big and stuffy,
and very gorgeous. He got a suffocating sense of red plush, of
heavy carpets, of gilding and embroidery, of crystal gasaliers, and
broken-backed French novels lying open. It was heated by a
spiteful little choubersky, black, with nickel trimmings.

Harvard was a man who took things seriously—felt things
deeply. It was in a serious, even a solemn condition of mind that
he awaited his meeting with his friend. He sat on the edge of a
red plush sofa, and was conscious of a sort of hush within his soul.
A hundred currents of emotion were temporarily halting, ready to
rush out at Elsingford’s appearance. Presently the door opened,
and he found himself grasping Elsingford’s two hands and uttering
broken ejaculations. Elsingford pressed his hands, and laughed :
” Dear old Harvard ! It’s awfully good of you to come.”

They held each other off at arm’s length for a minute, and
smiled communications. But Harvard was shocked at what he
saw. Elsingford had always been tall and thin ; now he looked
attenuated—drawn out. His skin had a bluish tinge ; his eyes
seemed too big and brilliant ; there were dark circles under them.
He had allowed his beard to grow ; it added ten years to his
apparent age. His laughter terminated in a fit of coughing.

Harvard’s smile faded to a look of concern. He drew Elsingford


                        117 By Robert Shews

down upon the sofa and demanded : “But what is this about your
health ? ”

Elsingford assured him that it was nothing. “A nasty little
cough—a cold that I can’t get rid of. I shall be all right in the

Then Hennie came in and shook hands very condescendingly.
She had not cast her patronising manner ; she evidently meant to
put him at his ease. She developed her theory of the case—nerves
and imagination. Her exposition had the tone of an arraignment.
Her husband was determined to be ill. She blamed him, and
pitied herself. ” We had a stupid doctor here a month or two
ago who put it into Herbert’s head that he mustn’t go out of
doors. Of course it weakens him staying in the house, and makes
him morbid. I hope you will be able to get him out to walk
with you.”


In the course of two or three days Harvard had obtained his
view of the situation. He had seen a little, heard a little, and
divined the rest. It struck him that the situation was deplorable.
Elsingford was manifestly unhappy. Harvard believed that he
was gravely ill—much more gravely so than he himself seemed
to suspect. Elsingford called it a cold ; Hennie treated it as
pure perversity and self-indulgence. Harvard feared he did not
like to give his fear a —but his friend’s wasted form, his
pallor, the unnatural brightness of his eyes suggested appalling

It amazed him to learn that he was not receiving regular
medical attendance ; that he had only once seen a doctor. He
perceived that Hennie (he must do her justice) was fond of her


                        118 The Elsingfords

husband—after her fashion ; fond of him as one is fond of a
piece of property. If she could have kept him in a box, to
take out when she wanted him, and put back when she was
tired, all would have been well. As she couldn t quite do
this, she did the next best thing—she bullied him, henpecked
him, reproached him, turned on the waterworks, and was only
amiable when he effaced himself and let her have her way. If
you can t get what you want, nag for it. She was an indefatig-
able nagger. In a letter to Mrs. Wetherleigh, Harvard summed
up his observations thus: “All Hennie asks is to be allowed to call
Elsingford s soul her own.”

A dinner or two at the table d’hôte had shown him a good deal.
It would be unendurable to a man in the vigour of health. How
Elsingford in his illness lived under it passed Harvard’s compre-
hension. The twenty-five women were as disagreeable as twenty-
five vulgar, empty-headed women, with nothing to do, could be.
Harvard’s humour had even narrower limitations than Elsingford’s.
They talked, they gossiped, they cackled ; they talked of fashions,
and ” gentlemen ” (they reserved ” man ” as a term of opprobrium),
and the prices of things ; they all talked at once. With their un-
cultivated voices, their eagerness to be heard, the place sounded
like a stock exchange transposed an octave higher. Then there
were jealousies and internecine feuds. Some of the ladies ” didn’t
speak ; ” and the seat of war was constantly shifting. This couple
would make it up to-day, that couple would fall out to-morrow.
And they all bragged—every blessed one of the twenty-five
bragged of something. Harvard imagined that they spent many
hours of each day stretched on sofas in overheated rooms, reading
trashy novels and munching sweetmeats, to the detriment of their
digestions, their complexions, and their dispositions. They were
all nervous and violent ; they all powdered a lot ; they all


                        119 By Robert Shews

languished and complained of headaches. There was a tendency
to call one another by their Christian names, and “dears” were
promiscuous. The whole house reeked of scents.

The presence of Harvard brought their conversation back to
England. Most of them had heard of him ; some of them had
read his books. Mr. Hickey claimed him as a confrère and offered
to ” show him around ” Paris. But a notion prevailed that he was
an Anglomaniac—that, an American by birth, he did not love his
country. So they began about England ; they assailed the
“English accent.” It was a sheer affectation. Nice English
people (they were few) talked just like Amuricans.

” Now, Mr. Harvard, you can’t deny it ! ”

Hcnnie threw herself into the breach—led the van. She had
moved in the very best English Society ; she named the titled
personages with whom she had been intimate. Well, she had
never known an English-woman who wasn’t—immoral. Oh,
some of them concealed it, put on airs of virtue, but they were
wolves in sheep s clothing. They were all pourries au fond.

Miss Mackle applauded and corroborated. She had lived two
years at the Hotel Metropole ; she ought to know. Her popper
had been organising a Company in the City ; he got an English
lord to sit as chairman and to introduce him to people ; and ” he
paid him money for it ! ” “That’s your English lord for you!”
Then she shook her yellow locks at Elsingford, and cried, “If you
were my husband I’d have you naturalised.”

Harvard, as a man who felt his responsibilities, told himself that
he must do something. He couldn’t go on to Egypt and leave
Elsingford to the tender mercies of Hennie and the twenty-five.
Elsingford well, would have been big enough to take care of
himself; but Elsingford ill, needed a champion. Harvard saw,
however, that he must proceed with circumspection, with tact ;


                        120 The Elsingfords

he mustn’t ” rile ” Hennie. He had already done so once—at their
first meeting, when he had learnt that they weren’t seeing a doctor.

” But, my dear fellow, I think you ought to see a doctor ; I
really think you ought to see a doctor.”

Elsingford had laughed a little constrainedly. Hennie had given
the speaker a look. Afterwards she caught him alone and warned

“For mercy’s sake, Mr. Harvard, whatever you do don’t tell
Herbert that he ought to see a doctor. Don’t encourage him to
think that he’s sick. The doctors have already done him harm
enough. We had three doctors last winter in America. I assure
you I understand the case—I understand my husband. He’s a
hypochondriac. There’s nothing in the world the matter with
him except his idea. If you want to do him good you’ll help me
to persuade him to go out—to go about. It’s his staying in the
house that hurts him.”

Harvard felt his responsibilities. He went back to his hotel
with knitted brows, wondering what to do. ” I’m glad to be able
to record that they’ve left Mamma Bleck in America. But he
ought to have a rest from Hennie. She worries and terrifies him.
If he opposes her, she scolds ; if he resents her scolding, she makes
a noise about his temper. She has confided it to me : Herbert
has a perfectly fiendish temper. I gave her away ; I wish to
goodness I could take her back.” This from his letter to Mrs.

” It’s awfully good to see you ; you don’t know how I’ve longed
for the sound of a Christian tongue. It will be a bore to let you
go,” Elsingford said.

” My dear fellow, come with me. Come with me to Egypt.
The South was recommended to you. We’ll lie in the sun beside
the Pyramids and talk of art.”

                                                “I should

                        121 By Robert Shews

“I should like it immensely; but my wife wants to stop in

” We can leave her here. I ‘ll take charge of you ; I’ll chaperon
you, and hand you back in the spring.”

” Oh, I can’t leave her alone ; that’s impossible.”

Harvard argued the matter. ” A little independence will do
her good. She’s happy here. You mustn’t fancy yourself indis-
pensable.” He painted the pleasures that would await them.
Elsingford looked wistful. “I should like it immensely. I’ll
speak to Hennie,” he said. Harvard hammered while the iron
was hot ; dilated upon Egyptian starlight, the picturesqueness of
the Arabs, the sentiment of the flat, far-reaching landscape.
Elsingford was won. ” It would be delightful ! A tremendous
lark ! I really don’t see why I shouldn’t do it.”

Then Hennie came into the room. ” My dear lady,” Harvard
began, ” I have been urging your husband to come with me to
Egypt. I hope you will send us off with your benediction—
unless you can be moved to come too.”

Hennie looked from Harvard to Elsingford, from Elsingford to

“What do you think of it, my dear ? ” Elsingford inquired.

“Think ? Oh, go, of course. Go, if you wish—of course.”

But she gave it an inflection. The light departed from Elsing-
ford’s face. ” It would be very jolly, but I’m afraid it’s scarcely
practicable,” he said.

The next morning from his haggard mien Harvard knew
that she had made him a scene over night. She had taken
the will for the deed, and made him a scene. ” If I could
foment a rebellion, alienate his affections, induce him to elope
with me,” he thought. He was at his wits ends. He was
eager to defy all danger—to put his fingers between the bark

The Yellow Book—Vol. XI. H


                        122 The Elsingfords

and the tree and abide the consequences but he could not see
his way.

Hennie harped eternally upon her single string : ” Be a man !
Brace up and go out.” It wearied Elsingford. ” Some day I’ll
get to the bottom of my resistance. I’ll take you at your word
and do it, to purchase silence on the subject.”

It was a lovely day, soft and sunny, the 15th of February.
” I’d be ashamed to pass such a day pent up in the house,” had
been her refrain since morning. “Go out and take a walk with
Mr. Harvard.”

” Where’s my overcoat ? Where are my hat and stick ? ” he
demanded suddenly. ” I can’t be bothered any longer.”

He and Harvard, arm in arm, strolled gently along the quays.
The sun was bright, the air was soft, yet it had a treacherous
little edge, like the bitter after-taste of something sweet. The
effects of colour, of light and shade and atmosphere, were delicious.
The Trocadéro melted with the sky in a purple blur ; the
bateaux-mouches puffed busily backwards and forwards, breaking
the yellow water into iridescent foam ; the leafless trees etched
themselves like lace against the luminous blue of the sky. They
prolonged their walk as far as the middle of the Pont de la
Concorde, whence they gazed up and down the river. The citè
pink and grey, divided the current like the prow of some grotesque
gigantic galley ; the towers of Notre Dame loomed darkly over
it. Elsingford was in ecstasies. ” It’s the finest town view in
the world,” he said. ” Hennie was right. My walk has done
me good.” They hadn’t walked more than half a mile. They
took a cab home. That night Elsingford seemed immensely
exhilarated. He talked a great deal, and very cheerfully. ” To-
morrow we’ll try it again. It has done me good.”

But when Harvard arrived the next day Hennie greeted him


                        123 By Robert Shews

with the intelligence that her husband was in bed. ” He thinks
he has caught a cold. He won’t get up.”

Harvard found him flushed and drowsy. He roused himself to
say, ” Hello ! old Harvard,” and then closed his eyes and appeared
to doze.

“Come, come, Herbert; it’s time to get up; it’s nearly twelve
o’clock,” said Hennie.

Harvard begged her to step with him into the next room. ” My
dear lady, we must have a doctor.”

She began to deprecate, but he cut her short. ” You don’t
know what you’re doing. I’m going for a doctor. I’ll bring him
back with me.”

Harvard gave the doctor such data of the case as he possessed.
“If he had fever at night my colleague who advised him to stop
in the house was very wise,” said the doctor. “I don’t like the
fever at night. With that, he ought not to have tried to winter
in Paris : or, if he was bound to stay here, he ought to have
stopped in the house. However, we’ll see, we’ll see.” They
found Elsingford breathing hard. He looked at them with dull
eyes, and did not speak. Harvard went down to the salon to
wait. The doctor joined him there, shaking his head. ” Your
friend’s in a bad way. He ought to have gone South at the
beginning of the winter. Your walk yesterday has finished the
business ; it has fanned a smouldering fire into flame. You’d
better go upstairs and look after his wife. I’ll come back in an

Hennie was seated at the foot of the bed with hands clasped.
She raised a white, agonised face to Harvard as he entered the

“If I had dreamed—if I had dreamed that it was anything
serious ! ” she said.


                        124 The Elsingfords

She was quite prostrated. Harvard attended to everything, and
afterwards accompanied her to Havre and saw her installed in her
cabin aboard the steamer. ” If I had dreamed—if I had dreamed
that it was anything serious ! ” that was almost all she ever said,
except to answer questions.

Harvard hadn’t the heart to go on to Egypt. He came back to
town and buried himself in his work.

MLA citation:

Shews, Robert. “The Elsingfords.” The Yellow Book, vol. 11, October 1896, pp. 101-124. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.