Aristocrats, when they are presented solely through a novelist’s sense of beauty, do not satisfy us. They may be as beautiful as all that, but, for fear of thinking ourselves snobbish, we won’t believe it. We do believe it, however, and revel in it, when the novelist saves his face and ours by a pervading irony in the treatment of what he loves. The irony must, mark you, be pervading and obvious. Disraeli’s great ladies and lords won’t do, for his irony was but latent in his homage, and thus the reader feels himself called on to worship and in duty bound to scoff. All’s well, though, when the homage is latent in the irony. Thackeray, inviting us to laugh and frown over the follies of Mayfair, enables us to reel with him in a secret orgy of veneration for those fools.
Maltby, too, in his measure, enabled us to reel thus. That is mainly why, before the end of April, his publisher was in a position to state that `the Seventh Large Impression of “Ariel in Mayfair” is almost exhausted.’ Let it be put to our credit, however, that at the same moment Braxton’s publisher had `the honour to inform the public that an Eighth Large Impression of “A Faun on the Cotswolds” is in instant preparation.’
Indeed, it seemed impossible for either author to outvie the other in success and glory. Week in, week out, you saw cancelled either’s every momentary advantage. A neck-and-neck race. As thus:–Maltby appears as a Celebrity At Home in the World (Tuesday). Ha! No, Vanity Fair (Wednesday) has a perfect presentment of Braxton by `Spy.’ Neck-and-neck! No, Vanity Fair says `the subject of next week’s cartoon will be Mr. Hilary Maltby.’ Maltby wins! No, next week Braxton’s in the World.
Throughout May I kept, as it were, my eyes glued to my field-glasses. On the first Monday in June I saw that which drew from me a hoarse ejaculation.
Let me explain that always on Monday mornings at this time of year, when I opened my daily paper, I looked with respectful interest to see what bevy of the great world had been entertained since Saturday at Keeb Hall. The list was always august and inspiring. Statecraft and Diplomacy were well threaded there with mere Lineage and mere Beauty, with Royalty sometimes, with mere Wealth never, with privileged Genius now and then. A noble composition always. It was said that the Duke of Hertfordshire cared for nothing but his collection of birds’ eggs, and that the collections of guests at Keeb were formed entirely by his young Duchess. It was said that he had climbed trees in every corner of every continent. The Duchess’ hobby was easier. She sat aloft and beckoned desirable specimens up.
The list published on that first Monday in June began ordinarily enough, began with the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador and the Portuguese Minister. Then came the Duke and Duchess of Mull, followed by four lesser Peers (two of them Proconsuls, however) with their Peeresses, three Peers without their Peeresses, four Peeresses without their Peers, and a dozen bearers of courtesy-titles with or without their wives or husbands. The rear was brought up by `Mr. A. J. Balfour, Mr. Henry Chaplin, and Mr. Hilary Maltby.’
Youth tends to look at the darker side of things. I confess that my first thought was for Braxton.
I forgave and forgot his faults of manner. Youth is generous. It does not criticise a strong man stricken.
And anon, so habituated was I to the parity of those two strivers, I conceived that there might be some mistake. Daily newspapers are printed in a hurry. Might not `Henry Chaplin’ be a typographical error for `Stephen Braxton’? I went out and bought another newspaper. But Mr. Chaplin’s name was in that too.
`Patience!’ I said to myself. `Braxton crouches only to spring. He will be at Keeb Hall on Saturday next.’
My mind was free now to dwell with pleasure on Maltby’s great achievement. I thought of writing to congratulate him, but feared this might be in bad taste. I did, however, write asking him to lunch with me. He did not answer my letter. I was, therefore, all the more sorry, next Monday, at not finding `and Mr. Stephen Braxton’ in Keeb’s week-end catalogue.