A Boudoir Boy by Robert Smythe Hichens
It is so impossible to be young, Claude Melville said very
wearily, and with his little air of played-out indifference. He was
smoking a cigarette, as always, and wore a dark red smoking-suit that,
he thought, went excellently with his black eyes and swarthy
His father had been a blue-eyed Saxon giant, his mother a pretty
Kentish woman, with an apple-blossom complexion and sunny hair; yet he
managed to look exquisitely Turkish, and thought himself a clever boy
for so doing. But then he always thought himself clever. He had
cultivated this conception of himself until it had become a confirmed
habit of mind. On his head was a fez with a tassel, and he was sitting
upon the hearthrug with his long legs crossed meditatively. His room
was dimly lit, and had an aspect of divans, Attar of roses scented the
air. A fire was burning, although it was a spring evening and not cold.
London roared faintly in the distance, like a lion at a far-away
It is so impossible to be young, Claude repeated, without
emphasis. I was middle-aged at ten. Now I am twenty-two, and have done
everything I ought not to have done, I feel that life has become
altogether improbable. Even if I live until I am seventythe correct
age for entering into one's dotage, I believeI cannot expect to have
a second childhood. I have never had a first.
He sighed. It seemed so hard to be deprived of one's legal dotage.
His friend, Jimmy Haddon, looked at him and laughed. Jimmy was
puffing at a pipe. His pipe was the only one Claude ever allowed to be
smoked among his divans and his roses.
After thoroughly completing his laugh, Jimmy remarked:
Would you like to take a lesson in the art of being young?
I know somebody who could give you one.
Really, Jimmy! What strange people you always know; curates, and
women who have never written improper novels, and all sorts of beings
who seem merely mythical to the rest of us!
This is not a curate.
Then it must be a woman who has never written an improper novel.
And you mean to tell me seriously that there is such a person? To
see her would be to take what Punch calls a pre-historic peep.
She must be ingeniously old.
She is sixty-four, and she is my aunt.
How beautiful of her. I am an only child, so I can never be an
uncle. It is one of my lasting regrets, although I daresay that
profession is terribly overcrowded like the others. But why is she
sixty-four? It seems a risky thing for a woman to be?
She takes the risk without thinking at all about it.
She must be very daring.
No; she's only completely natural.
Natural. What is that?
Jimmy laughed again. He was fond of Claude, but he and Claude met so
often chiefly because they were extremes. Jimmy was a handsome athlete,
who had been called to the bar, and persistently played cricket or
football whenever the courts were sitting. He was cursed with a large
private income, which he spent royally, and blessed with a good heart.
Once he had appeared for the defence in a divorce case, whichlasting
longer than he had anticipated, owing to the obvious guilt of all
parties concerned in it, and the consequent difficulty of getting an
innocent jury to agree about a verdicthad cost him a cricket match.
Since then he had looked upon the law in the legendary way, as an ass,
and spent most of his time in exercising his muscles. In the intervals
of leisure which he allowed himself from sports and pastimes, he saw a
good deal of Claude, who amused him, and whom he never bored. He called
him a boudoir boy, but had a real liking for him, nevertheless, and
sometimes longed to wake him up, and separate him from the absurd
chiffons with which he occupied his time. Now he laughed at him
openly, and Claude did not mind in the least. They were really friends,
however preposterous such a friendship might seem.
What is that? Wellmy aunt. When you see her you will understand
Does she live in Park Lane or in Clapham?
She lives in the country, in Northamptonshire, is very well off,
and has a place of her own.
And a husband?
No. She is a prosperous spinster, dines the local cricket team once
a year, keeps the church going, knows all the poor people, and all the
rich in the neighbourhood, and has only one fad.
What is that?
She always wears her hair powdered. Come down and stay with her,
and she will teach you to be young.
Wellbut I am afraid she will work me very hard.
Not she. You would like a new experience.
Claude yawned, and blinked his long dark eyes in a carefully Eastern
I am afraid there is no such thing left for me, he said with an
elaborate dreariness. Still, if your aunt will invite me, I will come.
Of course you will accompany me, I must have a chaperon.
Ah! Claude said, as a footman came softly into the room, here is
our absinthe. Now, Jimmy, please do forget your horrible football, and
I will teach you to be decadent.
As my aunt will teach you to be youngyou old boy.
Mr Haddon has left, sir, said the footman, standing by Claude's
bedside in the detached manner of the well-bred domestic. Here is a
note for you, sir; I was to give it you the first thing.
And he handed it on a salver.
Claude stretched out his thin white arm and took it, without
manifesting any of the surprise that he felt. When the footman had
gone, he poured out a cup of tea from the silver teapot that stood on a
small table at his elbow, sipped it, and quietly opened the square
envelope. The Northamptonshire sun was pouring in with a countrified
ardour through the bedroom window. Outside the birds twittered in Miss
Haddon's cherished garden. For Claude had come down at that contented
spinster's invitation to spend a week with her, bringing Jimmy as
chaperon, and this was the very first morning of his visit. Now he
learnt that his chaperon had already left, possibly to be a
half-back, or something equally ridiculous, at a local football match
in a neighbouring village. Claude spread the note out and read it,
while the birds chirped to the very manifest spring.
DEAR BOY,Good-bye, and good luck to you. I know you are
never angry, so it is scarcely worth while to tell you not to
be. I am off. Back in a week. You will learn your lesson
better alone with Aunt Kitty. There is no absinthe in her
cellar, but she knows good champagne from bad. You will be all
right. Study hard.Yours ever,
Claude drank two cups of tea instead of his usual one, and read the
note four times. Then he lay back, wrapping his dressing-gowna fine
specimen of Cairene embroideryclosely round him, shut his eyes, and
seemed to go to sleep. All he said to himself was:
Jimmy writes a very dull letter.
At half-past nine, Miss Haddon's house reverberated in a hollow
manner with the barbarous music of a gong, the dressing-gong. Claude
heard it very unsympathetically, and felt rather inclined merely to
take off his dressing-gown, as an act of mute defiance, and go
deliberately to sleep, instead of getting up and putting things on. But
he remembered his manners wearily, and slid out of bed and into a
carefully-warmed bath that was prepared in the neighbouring
dressing-room. Having completed an intricate toilette, and tied a
marvellously subtle tie, shot with rigorously subdued, but voluptuous
colours, he sauntered downstairs in time to be thoroughly immersed in
the full clamour of the secondor breakfastgong, which he
encountered in the hall.
Why will people wake the dead merely because they are going to eat
a boiled egg and a bit of toast? he asked himself as he entered the
Miss Haddon was standing by the window, reading letters in the
proper English manner. The sun lay on her grey hair, which she wore
dressed high, and void of cap.
You are very punctual, she said with a smile. I was going to send
up to know whether you would prefer to breakfast in your room. My
nephew told me you might like to. I shall be glad to have your company.
Jimmy has run away and left us together, I find.
Yes, Jimmy has run away, Claude answered, beginning slowly to feel
the full force of Jimmy's perfidy. He looked at Miss Haddon's cheerful,
rosy face, and bright brown eyes, and wondered whether she had been in
I hope you will not be bored, Miss Haddon went on, as they sat
down together, the intonation of her melodious elderly voice seeming to
dismiss the supposition, even while she suggested it. But, indeed, I
think it is almost impossible to be bored in the country.
Claude, who was always either in London or Paris, looked frankly
astonished. In handing him his cup of tea, Miss Haddon noticed it.
You don't agree with me? she asked.
I cannot disagree, at least, he said; because, to tell the truth,
I am always in towns.
Probably you are happy there then, she rejoined, with a briskness
that was agreeable, because it was not a hideous assumption, like the
geniality that often prevails, fitfully, at Christmas time.
But Claude could not permit his hostess to remain comfortable in
this utterly erroneous belief.
Oh, please he said, with gentle rebuke, I am not happy
Miss Haddon glanced at him with a gay and whimsical, but decidedly
Perhaps you are too young to be happy, she said; you have not
I have never been young, he answered, eating his devilled kidney
with a silent pathos of perseverancenever.
And I shall never be old, or, at any rate, feel old. It can't be
done. I'm sixty-four, and look it, but I can't cease to revel in
details, take an interest in people, and regard life as my half-opened
oyster. It is a pity one can't go on living till one is two or three
hundred or so. There is so much to see and know. Our existence in the
world is like a day at the Stores. We have to go away before we have
been into a quarter of the different departments.
I don't find life at all like that. I have seen all the departments
till I am sick of them. But perhaps you never come to London?
Every year for three months to see my friends. I stay at an hotel.
It is a most delightful time.
Her tone was warm with pleasant memories. Claude felt himself more
and more surprised.
You enjoy the country, and London? he said.
I enjoy everything, said Miss Haddon. And surely most people do.
None of the people I know seem to enjoy anything very much. They
try everything, of course. That is one's duty.
Then the latest literature really reflects life, I imagine, Miss
Haddon said. If what you say is true, everything includes the sins as
well as the virtues. I have often wondered whether the books that I
have thought utterly and absurdly false could possibly be the outcome
Such as what books?
Oh, I'll name no names. The authors may be your personal friends.
But it is so then? In their search after happiness the people of
to-day, the moderns, give the warm shoulder to vice as well as to
They ignore nothing.
Not even duty?
Our duty is to ourselves, and can never be ignored.
Miss Haddon tapped a boiled egg very sharply on its head with a
spoon. She wondered if the action were a performance of duty to herself
or to the egg.
That, I understand, she remarked briskly, is the doctrine of what
is called in London the young decadent; and in the countryforgive
mesometimes the young devil of the day.
I am decadent, Miss Haddon, Claude said with a gentle pride that
was not wholly ungraceful.
The elderly lady swept him with a bright look of fresh and healthy
How exciting, she exclaimed, after a moment's decisive pause, but
with a completely natural air. You are the first I have seen. For
Jimmy isn't one, is he?
Jimmy! No. He plays football, and eats cold roast beef and cheese
Do tell mehow does one do it?
She seemed intensely interested, and was merrily munching an apple
grown in one of her own orchards.
Claude raised his dark eyebrows.
I beg your pardon?
How does one become a decadent? I have heard so much about you all,
about your cleverness, and your clothes, and the things you write, and
draw, and smoke, and think, andand eat
She seemed suddenly struck by a bright idea.
Oh, Mr Melville! she exclaimed, leaning forward behind the great
silver urn, and darting at him a glance of imploring earnestness, will
you do me a favour? We are left to ourselves for a whole week. Teach
me, teach me to be a decadent.
But I thought you were going to teach me to be yo Claude began,
and stopped just in time. I meaner
He paused, and they gazed at each other. There was meditation in the
boy's eyes. He was wondering seriously whether it would be possible for
an elderly spinster lady, of countrified morals and rural procedure, to
be decadent. She was rather stout, too, and appeared painfully healthy.
Will you? Miss Haddon breathed across the urn and the teapot.
Well, we might try, Claude answered doubtfully.
He was remarking to himself:
Poor, dear Jimmy! He certainly doesn't understand his aunt!
She was murmuring in her mind: I have always heard they have no
sense of humour!
Mr Melville, Mr Melville, cried Miss Haddon's voice towards
evening on the following day, the absinthe has arrived!
Claude came out languidly into the hall.
Has it? he said dreamily.
Yes, and Paul Verlaine's poetry, and the blue booksI mean the
yellow books, and (rummaging in a just-opened parcel) yes, here are
two novels by Catulle Mendez, and a box of those rose-tipped
cigarettes. Now, what ought I to do? Shall we have some absinthe
instead of our tea, or what?
Claude looked at her with a momentary suspicion, but her grey hair
crowned an eager face decorated with an honest expression. The
suspicion was lulled to rest.
We had better have our tea, he answered slowly. I like my
absinthe about an hour or so before dinner.
Very well. Tea, James, and muffins.
The butler retired with fat dignity, but wondering not a little at
the unusual vagaries of his mistress. Miss Haddon and Claude, laden
with books, repaired to the drawing-room and sat down by the fire.
Claude placed himself, cross-legged, upon a cushion on the floor. The
box of rose-tipped cigarettes was in his hand. Miss Haddon regarded him
expectantly from her sofa. Her expression seemed continually
exclaiming, What's to be done now?
The boy felt that this was not right, and endeavoured gently to
Please try to be a littlea
A little more restrained, he said. What we feel about life is
that it should never be crude. All extremes are crude.
Whateven extremes of wickedness?
Well, certainly extremes of goodness, or happiness, or anything of
that kind. When one comes to think of it seriously, happiness is really
absurd, is it not? Just consider how preposterous what is called a
happy face always looks, covered with those dreadful, wrinkled things
named smiles, all the teeth showing, and so on. I know you agree with
me. Happiness drives all thought out of a face, and distorts the
features in a most painful manner. When I go out walking on a Bank
Holiday, a thing I seldom do, I always think a cheerful expression the
most degrading of all expressions. A contented clerk disfigures a whole
Miss Haddon's appearance had gradually grown very sombre during this
speech, and she did not brighten up on the approach of tea and muffins
on a wicker table whimsical with little shelves.
Perhaps you are right, she said. I daresay happiness is
unreasonable. Ought I to sit on the floor too?
Claude deprecated such an act on the part of his hostess. Sitting on
the floor was one of his pet originalities, and he hated rivalry.
Besides, Miss Haddon was distinctly too stout for that sort of thing.
I do it because I feel so Turkish, he explained. Otherwise, it
would be an assumption, and not naïve. People make a great mistake in
fancying the decadent is unnatural. If anything, he is too natural. He
follows his whim. The world only calls us natural when we do everything
we dislike. If Rossetti had played football every Saturday, his poetry
would have been much more read in England than it has been. Yes,
please, I will have another muffin.
But I think I feel Turkish too, Miss Haddon said calmly. Yes, I
am sure I do. I ought not to resist it; ought I? Otherwise I shall be
flying in the face of your beautiful theories. And she squatted down
on the floor at his elbow.
Claude had a wonderful purple moment of acute irritation, during
which he felt strangely natural. Miss Haddon did not appear to notice
it. She went on bombarding him with questions in a cheery manner until
he began to be rather ill, but her face never lost its expression of
grave sadness, a strange, inexplicable melancholy that was not in the
least Bank Holiday. The contrast between her expression and her voice
worried Claude, as an intelligent pantaloon might worry a clown. He
felt that something was wrong. Either face or voice required
alteration. And then questions are like deathextremely irksome.
Besides, he found it difficult to answer many of them, difficult to
define precisely the position of the decadent, his intentions and his
aims. It was no use to tell Miss Haddon that he didn't possess either
the one or the other. Always with the same definitely sad face, the
same definitely cheerful voice, she declined to believe him. He
fidgeted on his cushion, and his Turkish placidity threatened to be
The appearance of the absinthe created a diversion. Claude arranged
a glass of it, much diluted with water, for the benefit of his hostess,
and she began to sip it with an air of determined reverence.
It tastes like the smell of a drag hunt, she said after a while.
Claude's gently-lifted eyebrows proclaimed misapprehension.
When they drag a trail over a course and satisfy the hounds with a
dead rabbit at the end of it, she explained.
My dear lady, he protested plaintively. Really, you do not grasp
the inner meaning of what you are drinking. Presently the most perfect
sensation will steal over you, a curious happy detachment from
everything, as if you were floating in some exquisite element. You will
not care what happens, or what
But must I drink it all before I feel detached? she asked. It's
really so very nasty, quite disgusting to the taste. Surely you think
I drink it for its after-effect.
Is it like a good act that costs us pain at the moment, and gives
us the pleasure of self-satisfaction ultimately?
I don't know, the boy exclaimed abruptly. To compare absinthe to a
good act seemed to him quite intolerable.
He let his rose-tipped cigarette go out, and was glad when the
dressing gong sounded in the hall.
Miss Haddon sprang up from the floor briskly.
I rather admire you for drinking this stuff, she said. I am sure
you do it to mortify the flesh. A Lenten penance out of Lent is most
invigorating to the mind.
As Claude went up to dress, he felt as if he never wished to touch
absinthe again. The glitter of its personality was dulled for him now
that it was looked upon as merely a nasty sort of medicine to be
indulged in as a mortification of the flesh, like wearing a hair shirt,
or rejecting meat on Fridays. He found Miss Haddon painfully prosaic.
It seemed almost silly to be a decadent in her company. To feel Turkish
alone was graceful and quaint, almost intellectual, but to have an old
lady feeling Turkish, too, and squatting on the floor to emphasise the
sensation, was tragic, seemed to bring imbecility very near. Claude
dressed with unusual agitation, and made a distinct failure of his tie.
All through dinner Miss Haddon talked optimistically about her
prospects as a successful decadent, much as if she were discussing her
future on the Stock Exchange, or as the editor of a paper. She
calculated that at her present rate of progress she ought to be almost
on a level with her guest by the end of the week, and spoke hopefully
of ceasing to take any interest in the ordinary facts of life, of
learning a proper contempt for all healthy-minded humanity, and of
appreciating at its proper value what seems to ordinary people,
weak-kneed affection in literature, in art, and, above all, in movement
and in appearance. Her bright eyes flashed upon Claude beneath her
crown of powdered hair, as she talked, and the big room rang with her
The boy began to feel exceedingly confused. Yet he had never been
less bored. Miss Haddon might be stout and sixty-four. Nevertheless,
her net personality was far less wearisome than that of many a
town-bred sylph. Unconsciously Claude ate with a hearty appetite,
indulged immoderately in excellent roast beef, and even swallowed a
beautifully-cooked Spanish onion without thinking of the committal of a
crime. During dessert Miss Haddon gave him a racy description of a
rural cricket match and of the supper and speeches which followed it,
and he found himself laughing heartily and wishing he had been there.
He pulled himself up short with a sudden sensation of horror, and his
hostess rose to go into the drawing-room.
Shall we play Halma or Ek Bahr? she asked; or would they be out
of order? I wish particularly to conform to all your tenets.
Dear lady, please, we have no tenets, he protested. Do remember
that, or you will never become what you wish. But I do not care for any
Then shall we sit down and each read a volume of the 'Yellow
She hastened towards a table to find copies of that work, but
something in her brisk and anxious movement caused Claude to exclaim
Pleaseplease teach me Halma.
That night he went up to bed flushed with triumph.
Miss Haddon had allowed him to win a couple of games. Never before
had he felt so absolutely certain of the unusual acuteness of his
Three days later, Miss Haddon and Claude Melville were feeding
I mean to give it up, of course, the former said. It's a
degrading pursuit; it's almost as bad as the 'things that Jimmy does,'
the things that give him such a marvellous complexion and keep his
figure so magnificent.
She threw a handful of grain to the frenzied denizens of the
enlarged meat-safe before them, and added in a tone of pensive
Why is it, I wonder, that these actions which, as you have taught
me, are unworthy of thinking people, tend to make the body so
beautiful, the eyes so bright and clear, the cheeks rose-tinted, the
limbs straight and supple?
All the time that she was speaking her glance crept musingly over
Claude's tall, but weak-looking and rather flaccid form, seeming to
pause on his thin undeveloped arms, his lanky legs, and his slightly
yellow face. That face began to flush. She sighed.
There must be something radically wrong in the scheme of the
universe, she continued. But, of course, one ought to live for the
mind and for subtle sensations, even though they do make one look an
Her eyes were on the chickens now, who were fighting like feathered
furies, pouncing, clucking, running for safety, grain in beak, or, with
a fiery anxiety, chasing the favoured brethren who had secured a morsel
and were hoping to be permitted to swallow it. Claude glanced at her
furtively out of the corner of his eye, and endeavoured, for the first
time in his life, to stand erect and broaden his rather narrow chest.
Silently he resolved to give instructions to his tailor not to spare
the padding in his future coats. He was glad, too, that knee-breeches,
for which he had occasionally sighed, had not come into fashion again.
After all, modern dress had its little advantages. Miss Haddon was
still scattering grain, rather in the attitude of Millet's Sower, and still talking reflectively.
We must try to convert Jimmy, she said. I have a good deal of
influence over him, Mr Melville. We must try to make him more like you,
more thoughtful, more inactive, more frankly sensual, more fond of
sofas, in the future than he has been in the past. Do you know, I am
ashamed to say it, but I don't believe I have ever seen Jimmy lying on
a sofa. Poor Jimmy! Look at that hen! She is choking. Hens gulp their
food so! And then, he's inclined to be persistently unselfish. That
must be stopped too. I have learnt from you that to be decadent one
must be acutely and untiringly selfish. The blessings of selfishness!
What a volume might be written upon them! Mr Melville, all chickens
must be decadent, for all chickens are entirely selfish. It is strange
to think that the average fowl is more advanced in ethicsis it ethics
I mean?than the average man or woman, is it not? And we ate a
decadent at dinner last night. I feel almost like a cannibal.
She threw away the last grain, and was silent. But suddenly Claude
Miss Haddon, he said, and his voice had never sounded so boyish to
her before, you have been laughing at me for nearly a week. He
paused, then he went on, rather unevenly, in the up-and-down tones
induced by stifled excitement, and I have never found it out until
this moment. I suppose you think me a great fool. I daresay I have been
one. But please don'tI mean, please let us give up acting our farce.
But have we reached the third act? she said.
They were walking through the garden, among the crocuses and violets
I am sure I don't know, he answered, trying to seem easy. Perhaps
it is a farce in one act.
Perhaps it is not a farce at all, my dear boy, she said very
gently and with a sudden old-world gravity that was not without its
They reached the house. She put her basket down on the oak table in
the wide hall, and faced him in the eager way that was natural to her,
and that was so youthful.
Mr MelvilleClaude, she said, as she held out her hand, clad in a
very countrified brown glove, with a fan-like gauntlet, of all Jimmy's
friends I think I shall like you the best. People who have acted
together ought to be good comrades.
He took the hand. That seemed necessary.
But I haven't been acting, he said.
Oh, yes, you have, she answered, and I have only been on the
stage for a week; while youwell, I suppose you have been on it for at
least two or three years. I am taking my farewell of it this morning,
The boy's face was deeply flushed, but he did not look, or feel,
I don't know about myself yet, he said.
Think it all over, the old lady exclaimed. And now let us have
lunch. I am hungry.
* * * * *
Jimmy arrived that evening.
How old are you, Claude? he exclaimed, clapping his friend on the
I am not sure, Claude replied. But I almost begin to wish that I