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Part II Edith Wharton

Chapter XX

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It was true enough, as Lansing had not failed to note, that the Princess Mother adored prehistoric art, and Russian music, and the paintings of Gauguin and Matisse; but she also, and with a beaming unconsciousness of perspective, adored large pearls and powerful motors, caravan tea and modern plumbing, perfumed cigarettes and society scandals; and her son, while apparently less sensible to these forms of luxury, adored his mother, and was charmed to gratify her inclinations without cost to himself--"Since poor Mamma," as he observed, "is so courageous when we are roughing it in the desert."

The smiling aide-de-camp, who explained these things to Lansing, added with an intenser smile that the Prince and his mother were under obligations, either social or cousinly, to most of the titled persons whom they begged Mrs. Hicks to invite; "and it seems to their Serene Highnesses," he added, "the most flattering return they can make for the hospitality of their friends to give them such an intellectual opportunity."

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The dinner-table at which their Highnesses' friends were seated on the evening in question represented, numerically, one of the greatest intellectual opportunities yet afforded them. Thirty guests were grouped about the flower-wreathed board, from which Eldorada and Mr. Beck had been excluded on the plea that the Princess Mother liked cosy parties and begged her hosts that there should never be more than thirty at table. Such, at least, was the reason given by Mrs. Hicks to her faithful followers; but Lansing had observed that, of late, the same skilled hand which had refashioned the Hickses' social circle usually managed to exclude from it the timid presences of the two secretaries. Their banishment was the more displeasing to Lansing from the fact that, for the last three months, he had filled Mr. Buttles's place, and was himself their salaried companion. But since he had accepted the post, his obvious duty was to fill it in accordance with his employers' requirements; and it was clear even to Eldorada and Mr. Beck that he had, as Eldorada ungrudgingly said, "Something of Mr. Buttles's marvellous social gifts. "

During the cruise his task had not been distasteful to him. He was glad of any definite duties, however trivial, he felt more independent as the Hickses' secretary than as their pampered guest, and the large cheque which Mr. Hicks handed over to him on the first of each month refreshed his languishing sense of self-respect.

He considered himself absurdly over-paid, but that was the Hickses' affair; and he saw nothing humiliating in being in the employ of people he liked and respected. But from the moment of the ill-fated encounter with the wandering Princes, his position had changed as much as that of his employers. He was no longer, to Mr. and Mrs. Hicks, a useful and estimable assistant, on the same level as Eldorada and Mr. Beck; he had become a social asset of unsuspected value, equalling Mr. Buttles in his capacity for dealing with the mysteries of foreign etiquette, and surpassing him in the art of personal attraction. Nick Lansing, the Hickses found, already knew most of the Princess Mother's rich and aristocratic friends. Many of them hailed him with enthusiastic "Old Nicks", and he was almost as familiar as His Highness's own aide-de-camp with all those secret ramifications of love and hate that made dinner-giving so much more of a science in Rome than at Apex City.

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The Glimpses of the Moon
Edith Wharton

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