“Haven’t you telephoned to them?” asked the Major.
“The telephone unfortunately is in the east wing,” said the hostess; “so is the telephone-book. Both are being devoured by the flames at this moment. It makes one feel dreadfully isolated. Now if the fire had only broken out in the west wing instead, we could have used the telephone and had the fire-engines here by now.”
“On the other hand,” objected Lucien, “Canon Clore and Major Boventry and myself would probably have met with the fate that has overtaken the telephone-book. I think I prefer the present arrangement.”
“The butler and most of the other servants are in the dining-room, trying to save the Raeburns and the alleged Van Dyke,” continued Mrs Gramplain, “and in that little room on the first landing, cut off from us by the cruel flames, is my poor darling Eva. Eva of the golden hair. Will none of you save her?”
“Who is Eva of the golden hair?” asked Lucien.
“My daughter,” said Mrs Gramplain.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” said Lucien, “and really I don’t think I can risk my life to save some one I’ve never met or even heard about. You see, my life is not only wonderful and beautiful to myself, but if my life goes, nothing else really matters ? to me. I don’t suppose you can realise that, to me, the whole world as it exists to-day, the Ulster problem, the Albanian tangle, the Kikuyu controversy, the wide field of social reform and Antarctic exploration, the realms of finance, and research and international armaments, all this varied and crowded and complex world, all comes to a complete and absolute end the moment my life is finished. Eva might be snatched from the flames and live to be the grandmother of brilliant and charming men and women; but, as far as I should be concerned, she and they would no more exist than a vanished puff of cigarette smoke or a dissolved soda-water bubble. And if, in losing my life, I am to lose her life and theirs, as far as I personally am concerned with them, why on earth should I, personally, risk my life to save hers and theirs?”
“Major Boventry,” exclaimed Mrs Gramplain, “you are not clever, but you are a man with honest human feelings. I have only known you for a few hours, but I am sure you are the man I take you for. You will not let my Eva perish.”
“Lady,” said the Major stumblingly, “I would gladly give my life to rescue your Eva, or anybody’s Eva for the matter of that, but my life is not mine to give. I am engaged to the sweetest little woman in the world. I am everything to her. What would my poor little Mildred say if they brought her news that I had cast away my life in an endeavour, perhaps fruitless, to save some unknown girl in a burning country house?”
“You are like all the rest of them,” said Mrs Gramplain bitterly; “I thought that you, at least, were stupid. It shows how rash it is to judge a man by his bridge-play. It has been like this all my life,” she continued in dull, level tones; “I was married, when little more than a child, to my husband, and there has never been any real bond of affection between us. We have been polite and considerate to one another, nothing more. I sometimes think that if we had had a child things might have been different.”
“But, your daughter Eva?” queried the Canon, and the two other men echoed his question.
“I have never had a daughter,” said the woman quietly, yet, amid the roar and crackle of the flames, her voice carried, so that not a syllable was lost. “Eva is the outcome of my imagination. I so much wanted a little girl, and at last I came to believe that she really existed. She grew up, year by year, in my mind, and when she was eighteen I painted her portrait, a beautiful young girl with masses of golden hair. Since that moment the portrait has been Eva. I have altered it a little with the changing years ? she is twenty-one now ? and I have repainted her dress with every incoming fashion. On her last birthday I painted her a pair of beautiful diamond earrings. Every day I have sat with her for an hour or so, telling her my thoughts, or reading to her. And now she is there, alone with the flames and the smoke, unable to stir, waiting for the deliverance that does not come.”
“It is beautiful,” said Lucien; “it is the most beautiful thing I ever heard.”
“Where are you going?” asked his hostess, as the young man moved towards the blazing staircase of the east wing.
“I am going to try and save her,” he answered; “as she has never existed, my death cannot compromise her future existence. I shall go into nothingness, and she, as far as I am concerned, will go into nothingness too; but then she has never been anything else.”
“But your life, your beautiful life?”
“Death in this case is more beautiful.”
The Major started forward.
“I am going too,” he said simply.
“To save Eva?” cried the woman.
“Yes,” he said; “my little Mildred will not grudge me to a woman who has never existed.”
“How well he reads our sex,” murmured Mrs Gramplain, “and yet how badly he plays bridge!”
The two men went side by side up the blazing staircase, the slender young figure in the well-fitting dinner-jacket and the thick-set military man in striped pyjamas of an obvious Swan & Edgar pattern. Down in the hall below them stood the woman in her pale wrapper, and the Canon in his wonderful-hued Albanian-work dressing-gown, looking like the arch-priests of some strange religion presiding at a human sacrifice.
As the rescue-party disappeared into the roaring cavern of smoke and flames, the butler came into the hall, bearing with him one of the Raeburns.
“I think I hear the clanging of the fire-engines, ma’am,” he announced.
Mrs Gramplain continued staring at the spot where the two men had disappeared.
“How stupid of me!” she said presently to the Canon. “I’ve just remembered I sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned. Those two men have lost their lives for nothing.”
“They have certainly lost their lives,” said the Canon.
“The irony of it all,” said Mrs Gramplain, “the tragic irony of it all!”
Saki (H H Munro), 1870-1916. The East Wing, 1914