THE world takes people very willingly at the estimate in which they hold themselves. With a fashionable bias for expression in a foreign tongue it calls modesty mauvaise honte; and the impudent are thought merely to have a proper opinion of their merit. But Ponsonby was really an imposing personage. His movements were measured and noiseless; and he wore the sombre garb of a gentleman’s butler with impressive dignity. He was a large man, flabby and corpulent, with a loose, smooth skin. His face, undisturbed by the rapid play of expression, which he would have thought indecorous, had a look of placid respectability; his eyes, with their puffy lower lids, rested on surrounding objects heavily; and his earnest, obsequious voice gave an impression of such overwhelming piety that your glance, involuntarily, fell to his rotund calves for the gaiters episcopal.
He looked gravely at the table set out for luncheon, while Alfred, the footman, walked round it, placing bread in each napkin.
“Is Tommy Tiddler coming to-day, Mr. Ponsonby?” he asked.
“His lordship is expected,” returned the butler, with a frigid stare.
He emphasised the aspirate to mark his disapproval of the flippancy wherewith his colleague referred to a person who was not only the brother of his master, but a member of the aristocracy.
“Here he is!” said Alfred, unabashed, looking out of the window. “He’s just drove up in a cab.”
Lord Spratte walked up the steps and rang the bell. Though Ponsonby had seen him two or three times a week for ten years, he gave no sign of recognition.
“Am I expected to luncheon to-day, Ponsonby?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Lord Spratte was middle-aged, of fresh complexion notwithstanding his grey hair; and his manner was quick and breezy. He carried his years and the increasing girth which accompanied them, with a graceful light-heartedness; and was apt to flatter himself that with the light behind he might still pass for five-and-thirty. He had neither the wish nor the intention to grow old. But the man of fifty, seeking to make the most of himself, must use many careful adjustments. Not for him are the loose, ill-fitting clothes that become a stripling of eighteen; his tailor needs a world of skill to counteract the slackening of muscle and to minimize the excess of avoirdupois. On his toilet-table are numerous pots and jars and bottles, and each is a device to persuade himself that the troublesome years are not marching on. He takes more care of his hands than a professional beauty. Above all, his hair is a source of anxiety. Lord Spratte by many experiments had learnt exactly how to dress it so that no unbecoming baldness was displayed; but he never seized a brush and comb without thinking, like Achilles stalking melancholy through the fields of death, that he would much sooner be a crossing-sweeper of fifteen than a peer of the realm at fifty.
“Do you insist on leading me upstairs like a ewe-lamb, Ponsonby?” he asked.
The butler’s face outlined the merest shadow of a smile as, silently, he preceded Lord Spratte to the drawing-room. For nothing in the world would he have omitted the customary ceremonies of polite society.
“Lord Spratte,” he announced.
The guest advanced and saw his sister Sophia, his brother Theodore, his nephew and his niece. Lady Sophia, a handsome and self-assured woman of five-and-fifty, the eldest of the family, put aside her book and rose to kiss him. Canon Spratte extended two fingers.
“Good heavens, have you invited me to a family party!”
“Than which, I venture to think, there can be nothing more charming, nothing more beautiful, and nothing more entertaining,” replied the Canon, gaily.
To be continue in this ebook
Praise for Darcy's Voyage
"Refreshing... a tale of romance, intrigue, and adventure...that made me sigh in all the right places and laugh out loud at the most surprising moments." —Austenprose