The Hen

‘Dora Bittholz is coming on Thursday,’ said Mrs Sangrail.

‘This next Thursday?’ asked Clovis.

His mother nodded.

‘You’ve rather done it, haven’t you?’ he chuckled. ‘Jane Martlet has only been here five days, and she never stays less than a fortnight, even when she’s asked definitely for a week. You’ll never get her out of the house by Thursday.’

‘Why should I?’ asked Mrs Sangrail. ‘She and Dora are good friends, aren’t they? They used to be, as far as I remember.’

‘They used to be; that’s what makes them all the more bitter now. Each feels that she has nursed a viper in her bosom. Nothing fans the flame of human resentment so much as the discovery that one’s bosom has been utilised as a snake sanatorium.’

‘But what has happened? Has some one been making mischief?’

‘Not exactly,’ said Clovis; ‘a hen came between them.’

‘A hen? What hen?’

‘It was a bronze Leghorn or some such exotic breed, and Dora sold it to Jane at a rather exotic price. They both go in for prize poultry, you know, and Jane thought she was going to get her money back in a large family of pedigree chickens. The bird turned out to be an abstainer from the egg habit, and I’m told that the letters which passed between the two women were a revelation as to how much invective could be got on to a sheet of notepaper.’

‘How ridiculous!’ said Mrs Sangrail. ‘Couldn’t some of their friends compose the quarrel?’

‘People tried,’ said Clovis, ‘but it must have been rather like composing the storm music of the “Fliegende Holländer.” Jane was willing to take back some of her most libellous remarks if Dora would take back the hen, but Dora said that would be owning herself in the wrong, and you know she’d as soon think of owning slum property in Whitechapel as do that.’

‘It’s a most awkward situation,’ said Mrs Sangrail. ‘Do you suppose they won’t speak to one another?’

‘On the contrary, the difficulty will be to get them to leave off. Their remarks on each other’s conduct and character have hitherto been governed by the fact that only four ounces of plain speaking can be sent through the post for a penny.’

‘I can’t put Dora off,’ said Mrs Sangrail. ‘I’ve already postponed her visit once, and nothing short of a miracle would make Jane leave before her self-allotted fortnight is over.’

‘Miracles are rather in my line,’ said Clovis. ‘I don’t pretend to be very hopeful in this case, but I’ll do my best.’

‘As long as you don’t drag me into it—’ stipulated his mother.

‘Servants are a bit of a nuisance,’ muttered Clovis, as he sat in the smoking-room after lunch, talking fitfully to Jane Martlet in the intervals of putting together the materials of a cocktail, which he had irreverently patented under the name of an Ella Wheeler Wilcox. It was partly compounded of old brandy and partly of curaçao; there were other ingredients, but they were never indiscriminately revealed.

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