Winifred Holtby affectionately observes the foibles of human nature in this sparkling satire, first published in 1931 Caroline Denton-Smyth is an eccentric, dressed in trailing feathers and jangling beads, peering out from behind her lorgnette. Sitting alone in her West Kensington bedsitter, she dreams of the Christian Cinema Companyher vehicle for reform. For Caroline sees herself as a pioneer, one who must risk everything for the "Cause of the Right." Her board of directors is a motley crew including Basil St. Denis, upper crust but impecunious; Joseph Isenbaum, aspiring to society and Eton for his son; Eleanor de la Roux, Caroline's independent cousin from South Africa; Hugh Macafee, a curt Scottish film technician; young Father Mortimer, scarred from World War I; and Clifton Johnson, a seedy American scenario writer on the make.
Release date: April 1, 1986
Publisher: Penguin Books
Print pages: 272
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Smith, returning home from Caroline’s funeral, had to scramble through luggage, porters and trolleys and run along the platform,
nearly dropping their newly acquired parcels, in order to catch the last train out to Marshington. But their mother was waiting
for them in the dining-room with sandwiches and tea; the fire leapt gaily; their father drifted in from the billiard-room
professing indifference, but really agog for news, and the pleasant atmosphere of home-coming was augmented rather than decreased
by the lateness of the hour and the precariousness of suburban connections.
‘Tea?’ Mr Smith asked himself. ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind a cup as it is here. Now, girls, how’s London? Have you got Caroline
‘We have, we have,’ laughed Betty, helping herself to a ham sandwich. ‘We’ve buried her and, if you ask me, pretty nearly
canonized her. What with a purple pall over the coffin, and the service so High that it nearly fell over itself backwards,
and Uncle Ernest green in the face with trying to find his way among the prayers and things, it was the grandest funeral I ever saw.’
‘And who is paying for all that, I should like to know?’ snorted Mr Smith. ‘As Caroline’s nearest relative I naturally have
some feelings on the subject.’
‘Well, you’ll be relieved to hear that the actual Church service was all done free, so far as I can gather. That Father Mortimer
Caroline was always writing about got his Church to do it.’
‘Yes, and do you know,’ interrupted Betty, ‘he isn’t old at all – he’s quite young – young enough to be Caroline’s son.’
‘Son, anyway, and quite sweet. Not a bit like a curate, and a perfect lamb in his vestments, or whatever you call them.’
‘A perfect scream calling him “Father.”’
‘I’m not surprised now that Caroline was a little dotty about him.’
‘Now, Dorothy, you shouldn’t say such things, really,’ Mrs Smith remonstrated, secretly enjoying every word spoken in Caroline’s
disfavour, but anxious to maintain her pose of broadminded matron.
‘Well, Mums, she was a bit queer, wasn’t she? You ought to have heard the will.’
‘Oh, my goodness, I wish you’d both been there. You’d have died. I never saw such a scream. After the funeral Eleanor insisted on us all going back to Caroline’s room – that awful little room in Lucretia Road. There was Mrs Hales, the landlady – what a dragon! – all hymn singing and vindictiveness; but we let her help herself to Caroline’s old clothes, so perhaps she’s satisfied. And Eleanor, as queer as ever, in the same old tweed coat, not a stitch of mourning, looking about seventeen and very ill, we thought, and a queer old stick called Mr Guerdon and Uncle Ernest and
us. And then Eleanor read the will.’
‘And you never smelled anything like that room, cluttered with fearful old papers and all the clothes we’ve sent Caroline
‘Mr Guerdon looked as though he’d like to drown us all.’
‘He’d come from the Christian Cinema Company – you know – the thing she was always trying to get us to put money into.’
‘But, my dears, the Will. Do you know, she left five hundred pounds each to Betty and me, and eight thousand to her dear young friend and kinswoman,
Eleanor de la Roux, and twenty thousand – yes, twenty thousand, to the Rev. Roger Mortimer, Assistant Priest at St Augustine’s,
in token of all that his help and encouragement had meant to her in her lonely life. Just think of it – she must have been
a little bit potty, wasn’t she, Mums, dying in an infirmary at seventy-two, and making a will like that leaving thousands
of pounds, that she hadn’t got, to people she hardly knew?’
‘Well, of course, I do think that at the end she must have been a little odd. But what I do want to know is, did she really
get that three thousand pounds out of Eleanor?’
‘Well, Mr Guerdon seemed to think that Eleanor had put all her money into the Christian Cinema Company, and of course as it
went bust I suppose the money was lost, but we couldn’t get Eleanor to say anything.’
‘Monstrous, monstrous,’ said Mr Smith. ‘I always blamed de la Roux. No man ought to leave a child of twenty-two in sole charge of her capital, without trustees or anything. Eleanor
came over to England simply asking to be robbed, simply asking for it.’
‘Well, we did warn her against Caroline,’ said Dorothy. ‘We let her see the old girl’s letters. We told her she would cadge,
borrow or steal from anyone in the world that she could get hold of – Eleanor needn’t have gone near her when she went to
‘Oh, catch Miss Eleanor taking advice! Dear me no. More tea, please, Mums. But she certainly seems to have got more than she
bargained for from Caroline. Apparently she used to lend her money when she was alive, looked after her while she was ill,
and finally arranged the funeral and saw the undertakers, and everything.’
‘I always said,’ observed Mr Smith, ‘and I say it again: Caroline should have gone on the Old Age Pension. She used to say
it wasn’t dignified, but it would have been far more dignified than borrowing from her relatives and being in debt to the
‘Oh, you can’t alter people like Caroline. She always thought she knew better than anyone. She was always going to do something
‘Oh, she was extraordinary all right,’ laughed Betty. ‘She was an extraordinary nuisance, anyway.’
‘Well,’ reflected Dorothy, soothed by tea, warmth and sandwiches into toleration. ‘I suppose that making a nuisance of herself
was the only way she had left of making herself important. It can’t have been much of a life, can it? for a woman of over
seventy, living alone in lodgings, in debt to her landlady, wearing our cast-off clothes, trotting round after jobs that never materialized, writing articles that nobody would publish,
and eating bread and margarine for supper. There really was something rather pathetic about that awful room of hers – crowded
with papers full of impossible schemes. I don’t envy Eleanor the job of looking through them all. I don’t suppose there can
ever have been anyone whose life was much less important, or who had less influence on anybody else.’
‘Well, she did get us to London, anyway. I suppose that if she hadn’t died, and we hadn’t gone to the funeral, we should have
had to do our spring shopping in mouldy old Kingsport. Oh, Mums, I must show you my new blue three-piece. It’s perfectly adorable, isn’t it, Dot?’
‘It is rather nice – and my evening frock. Do you know, skirts are getting lower and lower, Mums?’
‘Well, of course, dears,’ said Mrs Smith gently. ‘I don’t like to seem heartless in any way, but it would have been a pity
to waste the expense of going up to London, and it wasn’t as though Caroline were more than your second cousin. I am very
glad that you were able to do something really useful.’
‘Nothing like combining business and pleasure, eh, girls?’ Mr Smith smothered a great yawn. ‘Well, I’m off to bed. Don’t you
women sit gossiping till to-morrow.’ He rose laboriously, and went to the door, but with his hand on the knob he turned. ‘Good
night, all. There is one thing; she’ll never trouble us again this side the golden gates, poor Caroline.’
Mr Smith, rope merchant of Marshington in the East Riding of Yorkshire, went upstairs to bed.
Providence failed to do its duty by Basil Reginald Anthony St Denis. If he had been born heir to Lord Herringdale’s title
and estate, instead of being merely a second cousin on his mother’s side, he would have been an ornament to the peerage. The
stately ritual of the House of Lords would have been decorated by his presence. The bay windows of a certain club overhanging
Piccadilly would have derived distinction from his profile.
But his birth and station were unpropitious to his happiness; for he was the only son of a country rector who inhabited a
Devonshire rectory seven times too large for his stipend or his needs.
His father came of Huguenot stock, and his mother was a descendant of that Countess Herringdale whose melting delicious beauty
languishes from more than one of the canvases of Sir Peter Lely. If life in the Rectory at Trotover was frugal, it was dignified.
Basil’s infant porringer was bent and dented, but it was an heirloom of seventeenth-century silver. He cut his teeth on fine
Georgian plate, and bruised his head against the angle of a Jacobean oak chest. The Rector, his father, dined easily and often
with the County, and carried the ordered ritual of his Services into the conduct of his daily life.
As for Basil, he was a lovely child. His flower-like complexion and sweet fluting voice won the hearts of his papa’s parishioners.
Had the laburnum trees from the Rectory garden scattered golden sovereigns instead of golden blossoms on to his perambulator,
no family in his father’s parish would have grudged the compliment, and Basil himself would have recognized that nature did
no more than her duty by him.
It was not that in adult life he cultivated appetites for great wealth and luxury. Political responsibility fatigued, and
business adventure repelled him. He remarked upon several occasions that true civilization was incompatible with the life
of action, and he disliked nothing more heartily than the untempered energy of pioneers. All that he asked of fortune was
adequate opportunity to exercise fastidious taste.
It must be admitted that, considering the circumstances of his birth, Providence made erratic efforts to assist him. Lord
Herringdale, charmed by the manner and appearance of his young kinsman, offered to bear the expenses of Basil’s education at Eton and at Oxford. At Eton, Basil laid the foundation of a fine sense of social discrimination and achieved
an understanding of the gulf which separates those who have been to the greater English public schools from those who have
not. It took him several years to realize in how considerable a majority are those who have not been there.
Dependence upon charity, however, is accompanied by notable disadvantages. When Basil eventually went to Oxford, his education
in the arts of civilized living involved him in certain trivial expenses. The cultivation of a palate cannot be achieved on
grocer’s port and Australian Harvest Burgundy. The arts of hospitality cannot be mastered without practice. The unerring discipline
of the collector’s taste cannot be achieved without trial and error. Naturally, such education costs money. Naturally, it
was for such education that Basil assumed he had been sent to Oxford.
Lord Herringdale failed to realize his full responsibility. When the bills came in after Basil’s first year, he sent for the
young man and subjected him to the discomfort of an interview which, in Basil’s opinion, transgressed the bonds of civilized
conversation. Lord Herringdale demanded promises; he made conditions; he filled his kinsman with vicarious shame. At that
age Basil blushed to see gentlemen misconduct themselves. For the first and last time he abandoned his own principle of compromise
and resignation. He refused to return to Oxford on Lord Herringdale’s terms.
He went home to the Rectory. He remained there for several weeks contemplating the re-edition of some trifles of eighteenth-century
verse which had appealed to him at Oxford. He applied unsuccessfully for the posts of assistant-curator of Chinese embroideries at the Dulwich Museum, and adviser on Adams Decorations to Messrs. Maring and Staple. But his experience
only confirmed his theory that one essential condition of a civilized existence is a small independent income of – say – three
thousand a year. He was beginning to consider that twelve hundred might be just tolerable.
That was in the summer of 1914. The outbreak of war came just in time to save Basil from the humiliation of his father’s request
to Lord Herringdale that he should overlook all earlier indiscretions and continue to pay his son’s bills at Oxford. Basil
was able to step into the post of private secretary to old Lord Farndale, vacated by a more commonplace and robust young man
who had joined the army. There, until 1916, he remained, but the catastrophes of international war made civilized living impossible,
and the inconvenience of Philistine disapproval outweighed the horror of military discipline. In 1916 Basil responded to the
Call of King and Country.
He looked delightful in uniform. The crudity of army life distressed him, but he was fortunate enough to be sent as a cadet
to Balliol and to find in war-time Oxford several congenial companions. When he was finally gazetted as a second lieutenant,
his fastidious charm, his delicacy, and his taste were uncorrupted. Then he was sent to France.
Nobody ever knew exactly in what degree the war affected Basil. It was presumably a nightmare which on awakening he was unable
to describe. In 1918 he appeared at a hospital in Carlton House Terrace with a shattered elbow. He spent the subsequent two
years in tedious alternations between the operating theatre and convalescent homes. In 1920 he left the army with a stiff
arm, a disillusioned though still charming manner, and the pension proper to second lieutenants suffering from partial disablement.
He returned for a time to the Rectory in Devonshire, and lay on soft but badly tended lawns or on the faded Morris chintzes
of his mother’s sofas. He read; he smoked cigarettes; he composed epigrams which he felt too fatigued to utter. But the boredom
of country life, the inadequacy of the hot-water supply, and the monotony of his mother’s catering drove him back to London.
‘But what are you going to do, my dear boy?’ asked the Rector.
‘Well, mon cher papa.’ Basil smiled his charming melancholy smile. ‘What can a fellow do?’
There were, it appeared, a number of things that a fellow could, and did, do. Basil’s acquaintances enlightened him as to
the possibilities of employment in London. He could sell cars on commission, or trade in first editions, or advise newly created
peeresses about the decoration of their country seats, or write occasional reviews for the Epicurean. But the Epicurean survived only six issues after its first appearance; the cars betrayed inexpert salesmanship, and the peeresses had their
own preposterous notions about interior decoration.
An optimistic young gentleman called Wing Stretton, whom Basil had met in hospital, formed a syndicate at Monte Carlo for
playing roulette according to a co-operative system, which he thought infallible. Once, in an expansive mood, he asked Basil
to come out as secretary to the Syndicate. Basil remembered his offer when, in 1923, he had his final interview with Lord
‘I like you. Damn it, I like you,’ declared that much-tried nobleman. ‘But what with the country going to the dogs and the Government taxing us out of house and home, I can do no more
for you, young man. Why don’t you emigrate? Emigration. That’s the stuff for you younger men. Go abroad. Start afresh. This
old country’s overcrowded. Take my advice.’
Basil took his advice. ‘Emigration,’ he read in a copy of the Spectator which lay on his father’s study table, ‘gives opportunities for the display of that courage, initiative, pluck and common
sense, which have made the English what they are.’
‘Quite,’ said Basil. He emigrated. He joined Wing Stretton at Monte Carlo.
Under the soothing influence of the Casino ritual, so elaborate, so unfaltering, and so meaningless, the memory of the brutal
outrage of the war’s disorder faded from Basil’s mind. Listening to the monotonous whirring of the wheels, the soft melancholy
cries of the croupiers performing the eternal ceremony of their unchanging Mass, he began to forget the harsh, shattering
explosion of the shells. In that enchanted palace, where life is so remote from all other reality, he lost his sense of the
imminent menace of death.
‘It had to be Catholicism or roulette,’ he observed later, ‘and on the whole, I found roulette more satisfying.’
But in spite of the consolations of roulette, he had his troubles. He suffered from recurrent pain in his wounded arm. He
was troubled by a dry, tedious cough. His increasing lassitude arose as much from general ill-health and weariness as from
natural indolence of temperament. He was lonely. Too fastidious to love promiscuously, he was too poor to love expensively,
and in Monte Carlo he had found no third alternative. His colleagues on the syndicate were business acquaintances with whom he had little in common except the desire to make a living.
In spite of his apparent detachment and urbanity, Basil knew hours when he lay on the chaise longue beside his bedroom window, watching the changeful blue and green of the unruffled bay and acknowledging to himself that he
was ill and lonely, that his youth was passing without satisfaction, and that the malignity of providence could not be endured
One evening about ten o’clock, after a dull and disappointing day, Basil stood on one of the small rounded balconies that
lean from the windows of the Salles Privées and overhang the Casino gardens. It was the hottest week in the summer of 1923.
The season was unfashionable, the room half empty. All but two tables in the room behind him wore their draping petticoats,
while in the Kitchen the whirring of wheels, the jangle of voices, and the stifling atmosphere of scent and humanity, had
grown intolerable. The System was doing badly. Basil’s distaste for his colleagues had increased with the rising temperature
of the summer.
He was in debt again; his head ached; neuralgic pains throbbed through his wounded elbow. He laid his arms along the stone
balustrade and stared into the night.
Beyond and below him lay the warm, perfumed darkness of Monte Carlo, the lighted town seeming no more than an inverted mirror
of the star-sprinkled sky. A motor-boat shot like a shooting star across the bay. A shooting star shot like a motor-boat across
the sky. Far down below in the Casino garden a shaft of light from a half-shuttered window struck a pink-flowering oleander.
‘I wonder,’ thought Basil, ‘whether there is any truth in the legend that those who shoot themselves in the Casino gardens
are immediately set upon by swift attendants, who pad their pockets with notes for a thousand francs, so that the distracted
relatives of the victim may not attribute his suicide to a gambler’s losses. I wonder if it is true,’ his weary mind continued,
‘that if one throws oneself down from this balcony, death rushes up straight and sure from the ground and kills one in mid-air.
Indeed, seeing that earth and sky appear so very similar, might a man not fall down to heaven, and even rise to hell?’ He
smiled, thinking how his father would fasten upon a similar fantasy, and elaborate it in a whimsical sermon to puzzle the
yeomanry of Devon.
‘I wouldn’t do it if I were you,’ a strange voice startled him. ‘For one thing, it can’t be done. They grab you before you’ve
got one leg over the balustrade. And to go on with, it doesn’t really work.’
It was a woman’s voice, rich, warm, irregular. Basil turned slowly, and bowed towards the shadows, but he could see no more
than the gleam of one pale arm and the denser blackness of a dark dress against the night. He sighed. Too well he knew the
ritual of encounters on a shadowed balcony. He could play as prettily as any other man the game of flattery and evasion. He
appreciated the ceremonial niceties of flirtation. But tonight he was tired.
‘I am deeply flattered by your solicitude,’ he said, ‘but I assure you that it was misplaced. Had the world held no other
consolation, your unseen presence … ’
She laughed, so merry, surprising and frank a laugh that it completely disconcerted him.
‘Come, come,’ she cried. ‘You hadn’t the least idea that I was sitting here. And you know perfectly well that I didn’t really
think you were going to jump off the balcony. I spoke to you because I was bored. I’ve lost my shirt already today, so I can’t
play any more. I only bring down so much money with me to the rooms, and when that’s gone, I just sit. But to-night it’s too
early to go home to bed, and none of my friends are here. So … ’
To excuse himself from further effort, Basil invited the lady into the bar to have a cocktail. She rose with alacrity and
stepped before him into the lighted room. He knew then that he had often seen her at the tables, for she was unmistakable,
a large magnificently built brunette, with warm brown colouring and mobile eye-brows. Basil, who understood such things, guessed
that she wore her gown low, painted her face, and tinted her finger-nails merely because to do otherwise would have seemed
an affectation. She followed exaggerated fashions because she was natural and sensible. As she went, she turned once and smiled
at Basil over her shoulder, without coquetry, but with experienced and friendly understanding.
They drank cocktails together at the bar. They talked about Cannes, and roulette, and the heat. Basil drove her back to her
hotel, a non-committal place in the Boulevard des Moulins. She told him that her name was Gloria Calmier, that she was the
widow of a French officer, and that she adored bathing. They met the next day at the Casino, and the next, and the next.
Their frequent encounters suggested to the Syndicate that Basil was attracted by Madame Calmier. Wing Stretton told everyone
that St Denis was having an affair with a rich French widow, but when he attempted to tease Basil according to the accepted
convention of their circle, he was surprised by the ferocity of his secretary’s repudiation.
‘That woman?’ cried Basil. ‘Heavens! I can’t escape her. I go to the Casino and she is there. I go to the Hotel de Paris and
she is there. I go down to the beach and she is there, arising from the waves like a slightly over-ripened Aphrodite. If I
take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the earth, she will be there also, dying to tell me a perfectly
screaming limerick about a young lady called Hilda who had an affair with a builder.’
He mimicked with such observant malice Madame Calmier’s deep, laughing voice that Wing Stretton accepted his derision as bona fide evidence of his untroubled heart, and left him alone to avoid his own entanglements.
But Basil did not tell Wing Stretton the other confidences which Madame Calmier had entrusted to him, though they were infinitely
more amusing than the limerick about the young lady called Hilda. For Madame Calmier had no inhibitions. Her candour shocked
almost as much as her egotism astounded him. She took for granted his desire to know all that could be told about her past,
and talked of herself with unaffected enjoyment.
During their second meeting she informed him that her name was not Gloria at all, but Gladys Irene Mabel. Gladys Irene Mabel Wilcox – ‘Well, what could you do with a name like that?’ said she. ‘When I went on the stage I changed it to
Gloria. Gloria Wilcox went quite well, and I kept the Wilcox just to spite Dad because I knew he’d throw fits if they ever
found out in Peterborough that he had a daughter in the chorus.’
Her father had been a solic. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...