Page 18 of 33

The Dreyfuses lived in Portland Place.

‘Too big for them,’ murmured Hartmann, as the footman took them upstairs. ‘Walter’s riding for a fall. He never was one of the big men, but he likes to live well. All show, of course.’

Their host came across the drawing-room to meet them, a little bearded man, soft-voiced, with exquisite manners.

‘Dear Rupert, so good of you to turn up; we’re just ourselves, you know, no formality, and we haven’t asked anyone to meet you. This is Julius Lévy, of course. I’ve heard a lot about you. You’re a very brilliant fellow and the envy of many of us. Let me introduce my wife, my sons Andrew and Walter, and my daughter Rachel.’

Julius bowed and shook hands with Mrs Dreyfus, tall and handsome, a regular Jewess, the two boys both replicas of their father, and finally turned to the daughter, whom he immediately recognised with intense amusement and to her evident discomposure as the young lady of the Oratory.

‘I think we have met before,’ he said gravely; and ‘I think not,’ she answered with perfect courtesy, but turning her back as soon as good breeding made it permissible.

‘This is going to be fun,’ thought Julius, and at once began talking high finance with Walter Dreyfus; nor did he turn to the daughter again until they were half through dinner, when he pretended to become suddenly aware of her existence as his neighbour, and allowing for the noise of the general conversation at the table, he said to her:

‘Do you make a point of putting out your tongue at strangers?’

‘Only when they show themselves to be as absolutely rude as you,’ she replied, flushed, still angry, and evidently believing that he was still making fun of her.

Julius was amused at her quick answer. He had half expected her to deny knowledge of the whole affair. Anger was different; he could deal with anger.

‘I suppose I behaved rather badly,’ he said to her thoughtfully, ‘but you see I know nothing about manners. I’ve lived in the South a good deal, and in that part of the world to stare at a very pretty woman is considered a compliment. That was the reason I stared at you, and you didn’t understand. You seem to be looking about you rather vaguely; can I pass you something?’

‘I beg your pardon,’ she said, ‘I was trying to catch what Mr Hartmann was telling my father - something about a picture. What were you saying, Mr Lévy?’

Oh! then, she wasn’t by any means a fool, thought Julius. She had heard what he said to her, of course. This he supposed was a form of flirtation indulged in by young women of her class. Thrust for thrust, sword-play in words. He reflected that carefully sheltered daughters were probably brought up to believe in detachment and reserve, her mother would tell her that ‘a woman should always keep something back, show herself to be mysterious.’

‘I was talking nonsense,’ he said, ‘and incidentally apologising for causing you any annoyance that day. The fact of the matter is, I don’t care whether you were annoyed or not. I never bother about other people’s feelings.’

‘How lucky,’ she said, ‘that we can agree about that. Neither do I bother. In that way we can both of us be perfectly happy sitting silently through dinner, and you will not be offended if I listen to Mr Hartmann, whose conversation is always so brilliant.’

‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘that this is rather a special occasion for you. You don’t, perhaps, dine downstairs every evening. Do you go to school, or do you have classes at home?’

‘Now that is really charming,’ she said. ‘How delightful that you consider me still in the schoolroom. Unfortunately I was twenty-four last birthday.’

‘I was going by your manner,’ he told her. ‘Judging age by appearance is impossible nowadays. Women in England get old very quickly; they let themselves go to pieces.’

She was silent at this. He had obviously overstepped the mark. He wondered what exactly were the limits to sword-play in polite conversation. He supposed that in her set this sort of thing was continued indefinitely - artificial banter between two people - and the man must play his woman like a fish until she made up her mind to be caught.

‘I haven’t time for this nonsense,’ he thought, and he said to her aloud: ‘Tell me what you do with yourself all day, Miss Dreyfus. What are your interests in life?’ And she told him: ‘Inferior things like music and painting and books, Mr Lévy, quite incomprehensible to a business man like yourself’; and he became suddenly bored with this armed attitude of hers, this light barrage supposedly witty that according to her standard must be treated with respect, and though he answered at once: ‘Women have so many long lovely hours of indolence,’ he was thinking that in his world Jean Blançard would have put her on her back by now.

He glanced down at her hands.They were long, slim and well cared for. Hands in women are perhaps more important than anything, he thought, and he glanced sideways at the line of throat, the white shoulders, and the shape of her breasts beneath the low bodice. What he could see of her then was definitely attractive, and it was comparatively easy to imagine the rest. She would be big-boned, perhaps, and wider round the hips without her stiff corset, but she would be well covered, running perhaps to a surplus of flesh in later years. ‘I adore Wagner,’ she was saying.‘It’s useless to talk to me about Italian opera. I don’t know, Mr Lévy, if you know the duet in Tristan - those opening bars, that swell of mystery and enchantment . . .’ He let her go on with it, murmuring ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ as seemed to be expected; but he was considering with some hostility that the virgin daughter of a man like Walter Dreyfus could only be approached through marriage. He pushed the annoyance of this aside for a while, and soon the table was silent save for himself and his host, South Africa, diamonds, market value, England’s attitude to her colonies, and then inevitably London, property, ground rent, population, the middle classes and the wealth of the future, Julius showing his brilliance and his understanding in a parry of words with Walter Dreyfus that he had not attempted with the daughter.

Rachel Dreyfus had never met anyone quite like Julius Lévy before. At first she had disliked him thoroughly; he was arrogant, scornful and deliberately rude, but before the end of dinner she had to admit to herself that he was clever, possibly a genius in his own way, and that there was a certain fascination in his way of talking and perhaps in his personal appearance that made her slightly excited and rather uncomfortable.

She was watching him now. He was leaning across the table to her father, one hand outspread in a gesture of explanation, his finger crooked, intent on what he was saying, and she noticed the almost unhealthy pallor of his face, the sleek black hair, the thin lips, and suddenly he glanced up and caught her gaze fixed upon him and he smiled - almost insultingly, she thought - boldly, distastefully. It was as though he could see right into her and was aware of all sorts of things. She went on cutting little slices of pineapple, but though she kept her eyes to her plate, she was certain that he was laughing at her embarrassment, for all his continued conversation to her father. She was sure that he could see inside her, and he knew that she knew he could see.

‘This is very unpleasant,’ she thought, her cheeks flaming; and she wondered why he should affect her in this way, because very often men had admired her and paid her compliments, and even when her cousin Eddie Solomon had tried to kiss her that time, he had not looked at her like this.

She was glad when her mother rose, and they were able to leave the dining-room, but as they went from the room she could feel his eyes on her back, mocking, penetrating, rather - well - suggestive, as if he were saying: ‘I know a lot about you that you don’t know yourself.’

Later, when the men joined them in the drawing-room, she sat a little apart, pretending to turn over the leaves of a book, and she half expected him to come over to where she was sitting and attempt some familiarity, odious, of course, and distressing, which would have to be snubbed, but he never once looked in her direction, taking a seat beside her mother and admiring a piece of tapestry work. She could not hear their su

bject of conversation, but her mother laughed a great deal and seemed to be well entertained. Her brothers, Walter and Andrew, joined them too, and were evidently delighted with Julius Lévy; so she imagined he could make himself agreeable when he chose, and had only shown the insulting manner to her.

In due course Rachel was asked to sing. She went to the piano apparently well accustomed to this ordeal, and she was glad that no one should know that her heart was beating nervously lest she should not be in voice, and that the palms of her hands were wet. She did herself justice, however, and there was the usual ‘Well done, Rachel!’ from her father, and a thunder of applause from the boys. Rupert Hartmann professed himself delighted, and she overheard her mother telling the well-worn story: ‘You know, we thought at one time of having Rachel’s voice trained - seriously, I mean. People have told us she has a great gift. But I don’t know - to become a professional singer, rather dreadful, don’t you think?’ And for the first time in her life Rachel felt irritated at this little sentence of her mother’s. After all, she only sang moderately well, and it sounded as if her family were making too much of it. Julius Lévy said nothing; he continued talking to one of the boys as though this business of singing at the piano had been a momentary and rather tiresome interruption. Rachel was certain that he was doing this to fluster her, that he hoped in some wretched, discourteous way to break down her barrier of dignity, so she went across and sat down beside her mother and Rupert Hartmann, beginning an animated discussion on the rival merits of two tenors at Covent Garden, showing off her knowledge of voice production and speaking louder than usual so that the other group should hear.

And Julius, who was really intensely interested in young Andrew Dreyfus’s account of Johannesburg and the illicit traffic in false diamonds, and would have preferred to move off to the smoking-room to question him in peace, was contemptuously aware of this pantomime of the sister, and was thinking: ‘What self-conscious creatures women are at all times. She imagines that I am looking at her.’

Then Hartmann broke in upon him, clapping him on the shoulder genially and saying: ‘Julius shall tell us what he thinks; I’ve been taking him to the opera lately.’ And Rachel looked up at him, her eyes bright, still on the defensive.

‘Yes, Mr Lévy, I’m sure your reaction to Parsifal must be extremely interesting, you must have been astonished at such serious romanticism.’

‘You are rather lovely in your way,’ thought Julius, ‘but it would do you a world of good to be put to bed.’ And aloud he said coldly, speaking more to Hartmann than to her: ‘I only understand two kinds of music. One, the songs without words or melody that my father used to play on his flute - he was a wretched fellow who couldn’t sell a kilo of cheese without muddling the change, but he played like a god - and the other is the music thumped on drums in the native quarter of Algiers and danced to by little naked prostitutes of twelve years old.’

There was an uncomfortable silence. Even Hartmann looked embarrassed, and fumbled with his watch, the boys glanced at each other with raised eyebrows, and Mrs Dreyfus collected her manners and murmured something about ‘everybody having their own taste,’ though she was evidently shocked.

The girl was gazing at the floor, her head low, playing with a corner of her handkerchief. Julius could imagine the revulsion of loathing, confusion, appalled virginity and interest - yes, interest - in her heart, and he was glad. For perhaps the hundredth time he was mildly surprised at the facility with which things desirable came to him. Life is really too easy a thing, he mused; I never seem to have a fight.

And then the servants came in with coffee and cake and the tension was relaxed, Walter Dreyfus, who had not heard the passing indiscretion, making an appearance at the same time with a portfolio of old prints to show his guests.

Hartmann shared a cab with Julius to the latter’s rooms in Adelphi Terrace, and on the way he suggested, as delicately as he could, that his friend had overstepped the breach of good manners. ‘The point is, that you must accept these people’s standards, ’ he said. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do. It is permissible to use certain words in front of married women - Mrs Dreyfus is an excellent creature, and very large-minded - but not before a girl. It is, amongst men and women of birth and breeding, quite unforgivable. They’ll forgive you because you’re a foreigner, and that will be the only reason.’

Julius took not the slightest offence at this scolding; he considered the matter childish and beneath contempt. He was only aware of considerable amusement.

‘My dear Hartmann,’ he said, yawning, ‘Rachel Dreyfus is nearly twenty-five. Has she never heard of prostitutes?’

‘That is hardly the question,’ frowned the other. ‘Never mind if she passes them in the street every day of her life.These things are not mentioned. It isn’t done.’

‘Extraordinary,’ murmured Julius, ‘the hypocrisy that goes on amongst these people. Girls like Rachel Dreyfus marry and do exactly what the little girls in the Kasbah do - the only thing is that they don’t do it so well. I don’t understand all this secrecy and shame. When I was a child I slept in the same bed as my father and mother and watched them as a matter of course. I found it rather boring.’

‘Oh! you,’ said Hartmann. ‘I can believe any nauseating story about your childhood. But this is different, and I mean it seriously. English girls are brought up very strictly. Their parents believe in sheltering them from the rather coarser aspect of life.’ He laughed, amused in spite of his disapproval at Julius’s social blunder. ‘Wait till you have daughters of your own,’ he said. This struck a new line of thought in the mind of Julius Lévy.

‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘that a girl like Rachel Dreyfus - what is she? twenty-four, she told me - would never allow herself to be seduced?’

‘Good heavens above!’ Hartmann moved in the cab, seriously startled this time. ‘What the devil do you mean?’

‘I spoke plainly enough, didn’t I? By seduction I mean making love, lying with a woman - whatever you like to call it.’

‘For God’s sake don’t talk such utter nonsense,’ said Hartmann. ‘Don’t you realise that I’ve been trying to force into your obstinate unwilling brain the fact that girls of the Dreyfus class are different - one doesn’t make love to that sort of women; one marries ’em. Poor old Walter, he’d thank me for introducing you to his house. Don’t be a fool, Julius.’

‘That would be very unlikely. What a nuisance it all is. Makes things so much more complicated.’

‘Were you attracted by Walter’s girl?’ asked Hartmann, tapping on the ceiling as they drew up to the kerb. ‘Here you are - I won’t come in, it’s too late. Tell me, though - it seemed to me you scarcely took any notice of her; you were, if anything, abominably rude. She’s a nice-looking girl, intelligent too.’

Julius considered the fact a moment, the brim of his hat pulled down to his nose, his hands stuck in the pockets of his overcoat.

‘Didn’t worry over her intelligence,’ he said, putting one leg out of the cab. ‘She’s like any woman. Pretty enough, as you say - probably run to fat later on like her mother. Can’t take a joke at the moment, but she’ll have to learn. I’m going to marry her.’

Rupert Hartmann dropped his jaw in astonishment and fixed his eyeglass more firmly in his eye. Then he settled himself comfortably in the cab and folded his arms. ‘Good heavens!’ he said, and repeated it again: ‘Good heavens! Well,’ he added a second or so later, ‘all I can say is that you have made up your mind rather quickly. My congratulations. When is the wedding to be?’

‘September, I thought. That will give me time to fix up the Kensington deal.’

‘I see. Four months’ engagement. Rather short, perhaps, but quite correct. I am delighted to think of you settling down. Is she very much in love with you?’

He thought that all this was an absurd joke. He was chuck-ling to himself, but when he looked up and saw Julius standing on the steps of his house he could see by the smile on his face that he wa

s serious.

‘Do you honestly mean it?’ he said. ‘My dear fellow, I doubt if she’ll have you.’

Julius laughed, feeling for his latch-key, the lamplight showing his face yellow and lined. He looked like a sinister and rather graceless fawn.

‘I haven’t asked her yet,’ he said, ‘but she’ll come to me, of course.’ And he waved his hand and went into the house.

The episode of wooing Rachel Dreyfus counted in the life of Julius Lévy as something of a relaxation. The fact that he had met her but once and that in all probability she actually disliked him was no deterrent to his scheme; it was a little matter easily overcome and perhaps on the strength of it rather amusing. Apparently she was not to be taken casually; according to Hartmann this was impossible, because of her birth and upbringing; so if he wanted her he must sacrifice to a certain extent his freedom and personal comfort and be prepared to marry her.

Well, he was thirty-three and he had no ties, not even a mistress at the moment, love having been for the past few years neither very necessary nor very pressing. He supposed that by marrying Rachel Dreyfus she need not interfere largely with his life, but would make an effective background. It would mean a household, of course, and certain obligations, children probably, responsibilities that would have to be shouldered indefinitely. Rachel would want to be taken about; they would have to entertain. She would naturally be good at that, he imagined. She would fit in as hostess; she wore her clothes well too, and had that indefinable thing known as breeding which he considered important in a wife. Oh! yes, if he were going to do the thing, he believed in doing it well. No half measures in marriage. He would have her dress exquisitely and live in surroundings reflecting her taste; if luxury were demanded she must have it, anything in that nature she required, in fact. They would have to live a little more splendidly than other people in every way; their rooms must be larger; their food better cooked - when he came to think of it, this business of marriage made a big pattern in life.