Francesca Bassington is a successful member of London society who is able to make a little money go a long way. Her greatest interest in life is the drawing room in her small, perfect house on Blue Street. Foremost among her treasures is a famous Van der Meulen masterpiece, which hangs in the paneled place of honor in that charming room. She also has a son, Comus, who presents a serious problem to his mother because of his casual attitude toward life. Francesca comes to the conclusion that there is only one solution for her son’s future. He must marry a wealthy young woman. Her first choice is Emmeline Chetrof, who will eventually come into a comfortable fortune and, most important of all, will upon her marriage inherit the house in which Francesca lives.
During the time Comus is at school, Francesca writes her son, asking him to show special kindness to Emmeline’s brother Lancelot. This suggestion causes Comus to treat the child even more cruelly, and her plans for a match between Comus and Emmeline end dismally. Two years later, when Comus is turned loose in his mother’s fashionable world of Mayfair and Ascot, she persuades her brother, Henry Greech, to secure a position for the young man as a secretary to Sir John Jull, the governor of an island in the West Indies. Not wanting to leave England, Comus sends to a newspaper an article criticizing Sir John. This scurrilous attack is written by Courtney Youghal, a young politician whom Comus knows and admires. Printed over Comus’s signature, it has the desired result. Comus loses the position Sir John promised.
At a dinner given by Lady Caroline Benaresq, Francesca first learns that her son is interested in Elaine de Frey, a wealthy young woman who resembles a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. At the same party, Francesca learns that Courtney is also interested in the young heir.
One summer afternoon, Elaine entertains her two suitors, Comus and Courtney, at tea in her garden. Elaine, an earnest and practical young lady, analyzes her suitors carefully; although she realizes that Comus is both frivolous and undependable, she finds herself falling in love with him and making excuses for his shortcomings. Courtney, a rising member of Parliament, also interests her and seems to her practical mind a better risk than Comus. When the tea is served, Comus snatches up a silver basket containing the only bread and butter sandwiches and dashes off to feed the swans. Returning with the basket, an heirloom of the de Frey family, Comus asks permission to keep it as a souvenir of the delightful tea party. Elaine does not wish to part with the piece of silver, but Comus makes such a scene that she finally concedes to his wishes.
One fine June morning, all of London society turns out to ride, to walk, or to sit in the chairs along the Row. Courtney is there discussing the theater with Lady Veula Croot. In a secluded part of the Row, Elaine and Comus rent chairs. The two drifted apart slightly because of small unrepaid loans, which Comus requested, and because of the affair of the silver basket. That morning, Comus again asks Elaine to lend him money—five pounds to pay a gambling debt. She promises to send him two pounds by messenger and curtly asks to be excused. He hurts her pride and alarms her practical sense of caution. As she is leaving the Row, she meets Courtney. Over the luncheon table, they become engaged.
At an exhibition at the Rutland Galleries, Comus learns of Elaine’s engagement. Elaine intends to write Comus a gracious but final note, but instead she goes to visit her cousin Suzette to break the news of her engagement. When Elaine returns home after her call, she finds a letter from Comus awaiting her. In the letter, he thanks her for the loan, returns the money, and promises to return the silver basket in lieu of a wedding gift.
Francesca learns of the engagement, a blow to her elaborate plans, from the inveterate gossip, George St. Michael. She informs Comus that he must take a position in West Africa, for which Henry made arrangements. With his eyes on the Van der Meulen masterpiece, Comus asks his mother if she could not sell something. Francesca is fiercely angry at such a suggestion and scolds him severely.
That night, lonely Comus watches the play from the stalls of the Straw Exchange Theatre. He envies Courtney and Elaine and their circle of friends. Francesca learns from St. Michael, her usual source, that Emmeline is to be married but only after a long engagement. Therefore, her beloved house on Blue Street is safe for a time. Francesca entertains at a dull dinner party in honor of her son’s departure—a party to which none of Comus’s friends is invited.
In the meantime, Courtney and Elaine take their wedding trip on the Continent. During their honeymoon, they soon discover that neither loves the other and that the marriage is not likely to be successful. Comus is exiled to West Africa and is bored and unhappy. Shortly before Christmas, Francesca receives a cablegram saying that Comus is dangerously ill. To calm herself, she walks in the park; for the first time, she realizes how selfish her love for her possessions, especially the Van der Meulen, is. During the time she is walking, her brother brings an eminent critic to inspect the masterpiece. She returns to the house and finds a cablegram announcing the death of Comus. A few minutes later, Henry arrives to inform her that the Van der Meulen masterpiece is not an original but only a good copy. While his voice buzzes on and on, Francesca sits stricken among her prized pieces of silver, bronze, and porcelain—all of them as beautiful and soulless as Francesca herself.
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