Clovis, who gave the same rapt attention to Christmas that he did to all extravagant theatricals, had decided to spend his home leave earnestly indulging in holly-bedizened traditions. Upon being informed of these intentions, his mother had promptly fled to a house-party at Torquay. This had left him free to decamp to London, a marvelous example of the joys awaiting those who allow Christmas into their hearts.
Seated across from Clovis in the dingy first class carriage was a grey and willowy young man who wore civilian clothes and had a persistent cough. Even without his wearing the Silver War Badge, it was simple enough for one familiar with the glutinous mud of Flanders fields to identify a casualty of chlorine gas. Clovis politely ignored the half-stifled noises in favor of the intricate hauntings of Lafcadio Hearn's Chinese ghost stories, a seasonal favorite.
At Clangham Junction, the compartment's passengers were joined by a beefy individual possessing a belligerent tweed suit and a timorous female companion. This companion seemed to exist largely for the purposes of being lectured; her gold band argued she was being recompensed for her labor, but Clovis somehow doubted the pay was sufficient.
"You see how it is, eh?" the beefy fellow inquired of her in a manner that relentlessly involved bystanders. "Too many ruddy laggards wandering about, claiming injury, feigning illness. Infected by Yellow Book effeminacy is what I think. Thank God the war drove that lot of diseased vermin back into the sewers where they belong."
The speaker himself resembled a Munsing Wear model in early middle age and would certainly have qualified for service if he had not already been busy assisting the war effort at home, as was attested to by his "King and Country" lapel badge. He further demonstrated his domestic commitment by glaring at the coughing young man while saying, "Nonetheless, it seems we still need those females who go about handing out white feathers to shirkers."
The young man started to produce a sharp rejoinder, coughed again for an extended period, and shot an apologetic glance at Clovis afterwards. As much as he appreciated this social delicacy, Clovis could not help but feel that a trophy Luger shot at their beefy companion would have cleared the compartment's air more effectively. Since he was constrained by witnesses, Clovis replied to the glance with nothing more than a sympathetic smile. It was the smile he would have used on a theater-goer who politely returned to his seat after the interval in a new play written by a certain charming young man of utopian political views whom Clovis knew all too well.
The beefy fellow snorted disgust and began a one-sided discussion of how the war could be won before spring. From his attitude, his wife seemed to have no acceptable opinions about his strategy, which was largely informed by a mixture of the rougher vintages of John Bull articles and outdated columns from The Times. Once they reached town at last, Clovis took down his case from the overhead rack and exited promptly, leaving the young man enough room to descend at his own, hard-breathing pace.
Clovis was interested to observe that the Baroness, who awaited him on the platform, wore a rather dated outfit. The war was demanding desperate sacrifices of her.
"You look ever so slightly rumpled," she told him, and leaned forward to kiss his cheek.
"Due to our greetings, I fear I must reply in kind," Clovis said. He calmed the disturbance atop her emphatic hat caused by their brief embrace. "As for my part, I dare say you can blame any disorder on the trials of steady employment. This sort of over-activity has led to many a miserable case of wrinkles ripening upon a handsome young brow before their season. I shall give myself over to the calming ministrations of your chef."
"His soup has become less dependable since he branched out into volunteer work, but I suppose one must make allowances."
"Only if his béchamel sauce is not affected," Clovis replied darkly. "For that, there can be no excuse."
"Let the porter take your case..." the Baroness began before trailing off and glancing about with the vaguely offended air of a noble lady to whom angels have not appeared on high.
Clovis also seemed distracted. He allowed a frown to further challenge his brow. "Forgive me. I believe I may have forgotten my book."
Moving purposefully, Clovis walked briskly back to where the beefy fellow had just forced his way past the young man in the railway compartment's doorway, stepped down onto the platform, and then turned to urge his wife to hurry. The sudden change of direction seemed to catch Clovis by surprise. He ran full tilt into the beefy fellow and only kept them both from falling by his firm grasp on the man's overcoat. This resulted in his appeasing the offended party by offering an elaborate apology while brushing off invisible evidence of the collision; Clovis also retrieved and returned the man's checked sporting cap to him before retreating with the elegant haste of a Siamese who has just expressed his aesthetic opinion of a Christmas crèche.
"The _____shires will commission anyone these days," the beefy fellow told his wife, who had at last managed to edge around the now coughing young man amidst a haze of apologies and descend from the compartment. "I do understand there's a war on, but--" Here he abruptly stopped speaking and yanked off the cap he had just jammed back onto his head. Something flew free and landed on the platform near the railway compartment's outer door, but the beefy fellow was too busy frowning at his cap to take notice. Only the repeated murmurs of his wife eventually attracted his attention.
"My dear. My dear." Her voice was both as faint and as dubious as that of a hostess who was offering to pay her bridge accounts.
"I just bought this from Collin's," the beefy fellow told her. "Given what it cost, you'd ruddy well think it would fit properly." Then he frowned. "What? What is it, Veronica?"
"There is a..." her fingers made the slow gesture of a starfish in peril "...thing on your shoulder."
He reached up, his frown deepening into a scowl, to remove the cause of her alarm. It proved to be a feather that had somehow gotten entangled with his overcoat collar, a long, white plume of the kind that had caused innumerable egret martyrdoms within the savage arenas of fashion.
At the sight, colour drained entirely from his face, and his wife was treated to the rare phenomenon of him speechless. This may have been what emboldened her to attempt adding more details. Somehow one knew she was the sort of woman who never understood when to stop tatting doilies. "My dear, there are also any number of feathers in your hair."
Her alarming revelation resulted in the beefy fellow dragging all of his fingers repeatedly across his scalp, dislodging several lesser white feathers and a quantity of down, as well as ruining the efforts of his macassar oil. Now he resembled the model in a full-sheet advertisement of Nutrix for Nerves.
Feathers were even more amusing than mistletoe, Clovis could not help but decide. His brief pause for appreciation, halfway back to the Baroness, was rewarded by reinforcement from the support trenches.
"Excuse me, sir," the young man said in a thin and breathless voice before offering the beefy fellow the object that had flown loose from his sporting cap. Without thinking, the beefy fellow extended a hand to accept what was being proffered; perhaps his putting out his hand with its palm turned up was a habit of sorts. The object proved to be a stuffed snow bunting entangled in white ribbon.
The young man spoke again. An heroic effort raised his words to a volume where they could be shared as generously as the beefy fellow's commentary had earlier been. "Someone seems to have given you the bird. You wouldn't want to lose it. Merry Christmas." After tipping his derby, he walked off slowly, his breathing audible and his visage filled with that special holiday cheer which only comes from doing good deeds.
The recipient seemed to resent his anonymous Christmas present if his flushing complexion was any guide. However, two nearby Tommies who had watched the entire affair with interest gave way to raucous amusement. Clovis would have thought that distracting the working man was a worthwhile goal in these revolutionary days. The beefy fellow did not seem to hew to this philosophical stance and said so, at length. His challenge to the emerging strength of the proletariat did not go unremarked by its nearest representatives.
The Baroness watched the subsequent hostilities with the persistent, remote smile she donned for all significant public disturbances such as Zeppelin raids and royal weddings. When Clovis took her arm, she murmured to him, "At least I now have justification for replacing this antique with a decent toque." After nodding gravely at the sagacity of these words, Clovis condescended to hoist his own case rather than waiting any longer for a porter to appear, and they strolled off towards the taxi queue in amiable accord.
Much as Clovis would later enjoy the twenties, he did mourn the passing of the fashionable pre-war picture hats with their absurd ribbons, excessive feathering, and ridiculous, decorative birds. Excess, he would always maintain, is merely sufficiency awaiting another, higher purpose.