It was Reggie Bruttle's own idea for converting what had threatened
to be an albino elephant into a beast of burden that should help him
along the stony road of his finances. "The Limes," which had come to
him by inheritance without any accompanying provision for its upkeep,
was one of those pretentious, unaccommodating mansions which
none but a man of wealth could afford to live in, and which not one
wealthy man in a hundred would choose on its merits. It might easily
languish in the estate market for years, set round with noticeboards
proclaiming it, in the eyes of a sceptical world, to be an eminently
Reggie's scheme was to turn it into the headquarters of a prolonged
country-house party, in session during the months from October till
the end of March-- a party consisting of young or youngish people of
both sexes, too poor to be able to do much hunting or shooting on a
serious scale, but keen on getting their fill of golf, bridge, dancing,
and occasional theatre-going. No one was to be on the footing of a
paying guest, but every one was to rank as a paying host; a
committee would look after the catering and expenditure, and
an informal sub- committee would make itself useful in helping
forward the amusement side of the scheme.
As it was only an experiment, there was to be a general agreement
on the part of those involved in it to be as lenient and mutually
helpful to one another as possible. Already a promising nucleus,
including one or two young married couples, had been got together,
and the thing seemed to be fairly launched.
"With good management and a little unobtrusive hard work, I think
the thing ought to be a success," said Reggie, and Reggie was
one of those people who are painstaking first and optimistic
"There is one rock on which you will unfailingly come to grief,
manage you never so wisely," said Major Dagberry, cheerfully;
"the women will quarrel. Mind you," continued this prophet of
disaster, "I don't say that some of the men won't quarrel too,
probably they will; but the women are bound to. You can't prevent
it; it's in the nature of the sex. The hand that rocks the cradle
rocks the world, in a volcanic sense. A woman will endure
discomforts, and make sacrifices, and go without things to an
heroic extent, but the one luxury she will not go without is her
quarrels. No matter where she may be, or how transient her
appearance on a scene, she will instal her feminine feuds as
assuredly as a Frenchman would concoct soup in the waste of
the Arctic regions. At the commencement of a sea voyage,
before the male traveller knows half a dozen of his fellow
passengers by sight, the average woman will have started a
couple of enmities, and laid in material for one or two more--
provided, of course, that there are sufficient women aboard
to permit quarrelling in the plural. If there's no one else she
will quarrel with the stewardess. This experiment of yours is
to run for six months; in less than five weeks there will be war
to the knife declaring itself in half a dozen different directions."
"Oh, come, there are only eight women in the party; they won't
pick quarrels quite so soon as that," protested Reggie.
"They won't all originate quarrels, perhaps," conceded the
Major, "but they will all take sides, and just as Christmas is
upon you, with its conventions of peace and good will, you
will find yourself in for a glacial epoch of cold, unforgiving
hostility, with an occasional Etna flare of open warfare. You
can't help it, old boy; but, at any rate, you can't say you
were not warned."
The first five weeks of the venture falsified Major Dagberry's
prediction and justified Reggie's optimism. There were, of course,
occasional small bickerings, and the existence of certain jealousies
might be detected below the surface of everyday intercourse; but,
on the whole, the womenfolk got on remarkably well together.
There was, however, a notable exception. It had not taken five
weeks for Mrs. Pentherby to get herself cordially disliked by the
members of her own sex; five days had been amply sufficient.
Most of the women declared that they had detested her the
moment they set eyes on her; but that was probably an
With the menfolk she got on well enough, without being of the
type of woman who can only bask in male society; neither was
she lacking in the general qualities which make an individual
useful and desirable as a member of a co-operative community.
She did not try to "get the better of" her fellow-hosts by
snatching little advantages or cleverly evading her just
contributions; she was not inclined to be boring or snobbish in
the way of personal reminiscence. She played a fair game of
bridge, and her card-room manners were irreproachable. But
wherever she came in contact with her own sex the light of
battle kindled at once; her talent of arousing animosity seemed
to border on positive genius.
Whether the object of her attentions was thick-skinned or
sensitive, quick- tempered or good-natured, Mrs. Pentherby
managed to achieve the same effect. She exposed little
weaknesses, she prodded sore places, she snubbed enthusiasms,
she was generally right in a matter of argument, or, if wrong,
she somehow contrived to make her adversary appear foolish
and opinionated. She did, and said, horrible things in a
matter-of-fact innocent way, and she did, and said, matter-of-fact
innocent things in a horrible way. In short, the unanimous
feminine verdict on her was that she was objectionable.
There was no question of taking sides, as the Major had
anticipated; in fact, dislike of Mrs. Pentherby was almost a bond
of union between the other women, and more than one
threatening disagreement had been rapidly dissipated by her
obvious and malicious attempts to inflame and extend it; and
the most irritating thing about her was her successful assumption
of unruffled composure at moments when the tempers of her
adversaries were with difficulty kept under control. She made
her most scathing remarks in the tone of a tube conductor
announcing that the next station is Brompton Road-- the
measured, listless tone of one who knows he is right, but is
utterly indifferent to the fact that he proclaims.
On one occasion Mrs. Val Gwepton, who was not blessed with
the most reposeful of temperaments, fairly let herself go, and
gave Mrs. Pentherby a vivid and truthful resume of her opinion
of her. The object of this unpent storm of accumulated animosity
waited patiently for a lull, and then remarked quietly to the
angry little woman--
"And now, my dear Mrs. Gwepton, let me tell you something
that I've been wanting to say for the last two or three minutes,
only you wouldn't give me a chance; you've got a hairpin
dropping out on the left side. You thin-haired women always
find it difficult to keep your hairpins in."
"What can one do with a woman like that?" Mrs. Val demanded
afterwards of a sympathising audience.
Of course, Reggie received numerous hints as to the unpopularity
of this jarring personality. His sister-in-law openly tackled him
on the subject of her many enormities. Reggie listened with the
attenuated regret that one bestows on an earthquake disaster
in Bolivia or a crop failure in Eastern Turkestan, events which
seem so distant that one can almost persuade oneself they
"That woman has got some hold over him," opined his
sister-in-law, darkly; "either she is helping him to finance the
show, and presumes on the fact, or else, which Heaven forbid,
he's got some queer infatuation for her. Men do take the
most extraordinary fancies."
Matters never came exactly to a crisis. Mrs. Pentherby, as
a source of personal offence, spread herself over so wide
an area that no one woman of the party felt impelled to
rise up and declare that she absolutely refused to stay
another week in the same house with her. What is everybody's
tragedy is nobody's tragedy. There was ever a certain
consolation in comparing notes as to specific acts of offence.
Reggie's sister-in-law had the added interest of trying to
discover the secret bond which blunted his condemnation
of Mrs. Pentherby's long catalogue of misdeeds. There was
little to go on from his manner towards her in public, but
he remained obstinately unimpressed by anything that was
said against her in private.
With the one exception of Mrs. Pentherby's unpopularity,
the houseparty scheme was a success on its first trial, and
there was no difficulty about reconstructing it on the same
lines for another winter session. It so happened that most
of the women of the party, and two or three of the men,
would not be available on this occasion, but Reggie had laid
his plans well ahead and booked plenty of "fresh blood" for
the departure. It would be, if anything, rather a larger party
"I'm so sorry I can't join this winter," said Reggie's sister-in-law,
"but we must go to our cousins in Ireland; we've put them
off so often. What a shame! You'll have none of the same
women this time."
"Excepting Mrs. Pentherby," said Reggie, demurely.
"Mrs. Pentherby! surely, Reggie, you're not going to be so
idiotic as to have that woman again! She'll set all the women's
backs up just as she did this time. What is this mysterious hold
she's got over you?"
"She's invaluable," said Reggie; "she's my official quarreller."
"Your-- what did you say?" gasped his sister-in-law.
"I introduced her into the house-party for the express purpose
of concentrating the feuds and quarrelling that would otherwise
have broken out in all directions among the womenkind. I didn't
need the advice and warning of sundry friends to foresee that
we shouldn't get through six months of close companionship
without a certain amount of pecking and sparring, so I thought
the best thing was to localise and sterilise it in one process.
Of course, I made it well worth the lady's while, and as she
didn't know any of you from Adam, and you don't even know
her real name, she didn't mind getting herself disliked in a
"You mean to say she was in the know all the time?"
"Of course she was, and so were one or two of the men, so
she was able to have a good laugh with us behind the scenes
when she'd done anything particularly outrageous. And she
really enjoyed herself. You see, she's in the position of poor
relation in a rather pugnacious family, and her life has been
largely spent in smoothing over other people's quarrels. You
can imagine the welcome relief of being able to go about
saying and doing perfectly exasperating things to a whole
houseful of women-- and all in the cause of peace."
"I think you are the most odious person in the whole world,"
said Reggie's sister-in-law. Which was not strictly true; more
than anybody, more than ever she disliked Mrs. Pentherby.
It was impossible to calculate how many quarrels that
woman had done her out of.