During the summer I met Mrs. Strickland not infrequently. I went now and then to pleasant little luncheons at her flat, and to rather more formidable tea-parties. We took a fancy to one another. I was very young, and perhaps she liked the idea of guiding my virgin steps on the hard road of letters; while for me it was pleasant to have someone I could go to with my small troubles, certain of an attentive ear and reasonable counsel. Mrs. Strickland had the gift of sympathy. It is a charming faculty, but one often abused by those who are conscious of its possession: for there is something ghoulish in the avidity with which they will pounce upon the misfortune of their friends so that they may exercise their dexterity. It gushes forth like an oil-well, and the sympathetic pour out their sympathy with an abandon that is sometimes embarrassing to their victims. There are bosoms on which so many tears have been shed that I cannot bedew them with mine. Mrs. Strickland used her advantage with tact. You felt that you obliged her by accepting her sympathy. When, in the enthusiasm of my youth, I remarked on this to Rose Waterford, she said:
“Milk is very nice, especially with a drop of brandy in it, but the domestic cow is only too glad to be rid of it. A swollen udder is very uncomfortable.”
Rose Waterford had a blistering tongue. No one could say such bitter things; on the other hand, no one could do more charming ones.
There was another thing I liked in Mrs. Strickland. She managed her surroundings with elegance. Her flat was always neat and cheerful, gay with flowers, and the chintzes in the drawing-room, notwithstanding their severe design, were bright and pretty. The meals in the artistic little dining-room were pleasant; the table looked nice, the two maids were trim and comely; the food was well cooked. It was impossible not to see that Mrs. Strickland was an excellent housekeeper. And you felt sure that she was an admirable mother. There were photographs in the drawing-room of her son and daughter. The son—his name was Robert—was a boy of sixteen at Rugby; and you saw him in flannels and a cricket cap, and again in a tail-coat and a stand-up collar. He had his mother’s candid brow and fine, reflective eyes. He looked clean, healthy, and normal.
“I don’t know that he’s very clever,” she said one day, when I was looking at the photograph, “but I know he’s good. He has a charming character.”
The daughter was fourteen. Her hair, thick and dark like her mother’s, fell over her shoulders in fine profusion, and she had the same kindly expression and sedate, untroubled eyes.
“They’re both of them the image of you,” I said.
“Yes; I think they are more like me than their father.”
“Why have you never let me meet him?” I asked.
“Would you like to?”
She smiled, her smile was really very sweet, and she blushed a little; it was singular that a woman of that age should flush so readily. Perhaps her naivete was her greatest charm.
“You know, he’s not at all literary,” she said. “He’s a perfect philistine.”
She said this not disparagingly, but affectionately rather, as though, by acknowledging the worst about him, she wished to protect him from the aspersions of her friends.
“He’s on the Stock Exchange, and he’s a typical broker. I think he’d bore you to death.”
“Does he bore you?” I asked.
“You see, I happen to be his wife. I’m very fond of him.”
She smiled to cover her shyness, and I fancied she had a fear that I would make the sort of gibe that such a confession could hardly have failed to elicit from Rose Waterford. She hesitated a little. Her eyes grew tender.
“He doesn’t pretend to be a genius. He doesn’t even make much money on the Stock Exchange. But he’s awfully good and kind.”
“I think I should like him very much.”
“I’ll ask you to dine with us quietly some time, but mind, you come at your own risk; don’t blame me if you have a very dull evening.”