SYLVIA TIETJENS, using the persuasion of her left knee, edged her chestnut nearer to the bay mare of the shining general. She said:
“If I divorce Christopher, will you marry me?”
He exclaimed with the vehemence of a shocked hen:
“Good God, no!”
He shone everywhere except in such parts of his grey tweed suit as would have shown by shining that they had been put on more than once. But his little white moustache, his checks, the bridge but not the tip of his nose, his reins, his Guards’ tie, his boots, martingale, snaffle, curb, fingers, finger-nails — all these gave evidence of interminable rubbings. . . . By himself, by his man, by Lord Fittleworth’s stable-hands, grooms. . . . Interminable rubbings and supervisions at the end of extended arms. Merely to look at him you knew that he was some-thing like Lord Edward Campion, Lieutenant–General retired, M.P., K.C.M.G. (military), V.C., M.C., D.S.O. . . .
So he exclaimed:
“Good God, no!” and using a little-finger touch on his snaffle-rein, made his mare recoil from Sylvia Tietjens’ chestnut.
Annoyed at its mate’s motion, the bad-tempered chestnut with the white forehead showed its teeth at the mare, danced a little and threw out some flakes of foam. Sylvia swayed backwards and for-wards in her saddle and smiled down into her husband’s garden.
“You can’t, you know,” she said, “expect to put an idea out of my head just by flurrying the horses . . . .”
“A man,” the general said between “Come ups” to his mare, “does not marry his . . .”
His mare went backwards a pace or two into the bank and then a pace forwards.
“His what?” Sylvia asked with amiability. “You can’t be going to call me your cast mistress. No doubt most men would have a shot at it. But I never have been even your mistress. . . . I have to think of Michael!”
“I wish,” the general said vindictively, “that you would settle what that boy is to be called. . . . Michael or Mark!” He added: “I was going to say: ‘His godson’s wife.’ . . . A man may not marry his godson’s wife.”
Sylvia leant over to stroke the neck of the chestnut.
“A man,” she said, “cannot marry any other man’s wife. . . . But if you think that I am going to be the second Lady Tietjens after that . . . French prostitute . . .”
“You would prefer,” the general said, “to be India . . .”
Visions of India went through their hostile minds. They looked down from their horses over Tietjens’s in West Sussex, over a house with a high-pitched, tiled roof with deep windows of the grey local stone. He nevertheless saw names like Akbbar Khan, Alexander of Macedon, the son of Philip, Delhi, the Massacre at Cawnpore. . . . His mind, given over from boyhood to the contemplation of the largest jewel in the British Crown, spewed up those romances. He was member for ‘the West Cleveland Division and a thorn in the side of the Government. They must give him India. They knew that if they did not he could publish revelations as to the closing days of the late war. . . . He would naturally never do that. One does not blackmail even a Government.
Still, to all intents, he was India.
Sylvia also was aware that he was to all intents and purposes India. She saw receptions in Government Houses, in which, habited with a tiara, she too would be INDIA. . . . As someone said in Shakespeare:
“I am dying, Egypt, dying! Only
I will importune Death a while until
Of many thousand kisses this poor last
Is laid upon thy lips . . .”
She imagined it would be agreeable, supposing her to betray this old Pantaloon India, to have a lover, gasping at her feet, exclaiming: “I am dying, India, dying . . .” And she with her tiara, very tall. In white, probably. Probably satin!
The general said:
“You know you cannot possibly divorce my god-son. You are a Roman Catholic.”
She said, always with her smile:
“Oh, can’t I? . . . Besides it would be of the greatest advantage to Michael to have for a step-father the Field–Marshal Commanding . . .”
He said with impotent irritation:
“I wish you would settle whether that boy’s name is Michael or Mark!”
“He calls himself Mark. . . . I call him Michael because I hate the name of Mark . . . .”
She regarded Campion with real hatred. She said to herself that upon occasion she would be exemplarily revenged upon him. “Michael” was a Satterthwaite name — her father’s; “Mark,” the name for a Tietjens eldest son. The boy had originally been baptized and registered as Michael Tietjens. At his reception into the Roman Church he had been baptized “Michael Mark.” Then had followed the only real deep humiliation of her life. After his Papist baptism the boy had asked to be called Mark. She had asked him if he really meant that. After a long pause — the dreadful long pauses of children before they render a verdict! — he had said that he intended to call himself Mark from then on. . . . By the name of his father’s brother, of his father’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather. . . . By the name of the irascible apostle of the lion and the sword. . . . The Satterthwaites, his mother’s family, might go by the board.
For herself, she hated the name of Mark. If there was one man in the world whom she hated because he was insensible of her attraction it was Mark Tietjens who lay beneath the thatched roof beneath her eyes. . . . Her boy, however, intended, with a child’s cruelty, to call himself Mark Tietjens. . . .
The general grumbled:
“There is no keeping track with you. . . . You say now you would be humiliated to be Lady Tietjens after that Frenchwoman. . . . But you have always said that that Frenchwoman is only the concubine of Sir Mark. I heard you tell your maid so only yesterday. . . . You say one thing, then you say another. . . . What is one to believe?”
She regarded him with sunny condescension. He grumbled on:
“One thing, then another. . . . You say you cannot divorce my godson because you are a Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, you begin divorce proceedings and throw all the mud you can over the miserable fellow. Then you remember your creed and don’t go on. . . . What sort of game is this?” . . . She regarded him still ironically but with good humour across the neck of her horse.
“There’s really no fathoming you. . . . A little time ago — for months on end, you were dying of of internal cancer, in short . . .”
She commented with the utmost good temper:
“I didn’t want that girl to be Christopher’s mistress. . . . You would think that no man with any imagination at all could . . . I mean with his wife in that condition. . . . But, of course, when she insisted. . . . Well, I wasn’t going to stop in bed, in retreat, all my life . . .”
She laughed good-humouredly at her companion.
“I don’t believe you know anything about women,” she said. “Why should you? Naturally Mark Tietjens married his concubine. Men always do as a sort of death — bed offering. You will eventually marry Mrs. Partridge if I do not choose to go to India. You think you would not, but you would. . . . As for me, I think it would be better for Michael if his mother were Lady Edward Campion — of India — than if she were merely Lady Tietjens the second of Groby, with a dowager who was once a cross-Channel fly-by-night . . . .” She laughed and added: “Anyhow, the sisters at the Blessed Child said that they never saw so many lilies — symbols of purity — as there were at my tea-parties when I was dying. . . . You’ll admit yourself you never saw anything so ravishing as me amongst the lilies and the tea-cups with the great crucifix above my head. . . . You were singularly moved!
You swore you would cut Christopher’s throat yourself on the day the detective told us that he was really living here with that girl . . . .”
The general exclaimed:
“About the Dower House at Groby. . . . It’s really damned awkward. . . . You swore to me that when you let Groby to that American madwoman I could have the Dower House and keep my horses in Groby stables. But now it appears I can’t. . . . It appears . . .”
“It appears,” Sylvia said, “that Mark Tietjens means to leave the Dower House at the disposal of his French concubine. . . . Anyhow, you can afford a house of your own. You’re rich enough!”
The general groaned:
“Rich enough! My God!”
“You have still — trust you! — your younger son’s settlement. You have still your general’s pay. You have the interest on the grant the nation made you at the end of the war. You have four hundred a year as a member of Parliament. You have cadged on me for your keep and your man’s keep and your horses’ and grooms’ at Groby for years and years . . . .”
Immense dejection covered the face of her companion. He said:
“Sylvia. . . . Consider the expenses of my constituency. . . . One would almost say you hated me!”
Her eyes continued to devour the orchard and garden that were spread out below her. A furrow of raw, newly-turned earth ran from almost beneath their horses’ hoofs nearly vertically to the house below. She said:
“I suppose that is where they get their water-supply. From the spring above here. Cramp the carpenter says they are always having trouble with the pipes!”
The general exclaimed:
“Oh, Sylvia. And you told Mrs. de Bray Pape that they had no water-supply so they could not take a bath!”
“If I hadn’t she would never have thought of cutting down Groby Great Tree. . . . Don’t you see that for Mrs. de Bray Pape people who do not take baths are outside the law? So, though she’s not really courageous, she will risk cutting down their old trees . . . .” She added: “Yes, I almost believe I do hate misers, and you are more next door to a miser than anyone else I ever honoured with my acquaintance . . .” She added further: “But I should advise you to calm yourself. If I let you marry me you will have my Satterthwaite pickings. Not to mention the Groby pickings till Michael comes of age, and the — what is it? — ten thousand a year you will get from India. If out of all that you cannot skimp enough to make up for house-room at my expense at Groby you are not half the miser I took you for!”
A number of horses, with Lord Fittleworth‘ and Gunning, came up from the soft track outside the side of the garden and on to the hard road that bordered the garden’s top. Gunning sat one horse without his feet in the stirrups and had the bridles of two others over his elbows. They were the horses of Mrs. de Bray Pape, Mrs. Lowther and Mark Tietjens. The garden with its quince-trees, the old house with its immensely high-pitched roof such as is seen in countries where wood was once plentiful, the thatch of Mark Tietjens’ shelter and the famous four counties, ran from the other side of the hedge out to infinity. An aeroplane droned down towards them, many miles away. Up from the road ran a slope covered with bracken, to many great beech trees, along a wire hedge. That was the summit of Cooper’s Common. In the stillness the hoofs of all those horses made a noise like that of desultorily approaching cavalry. Gunning halted his horses at a little distance; the beast Sylvia rode was too ill-tempered to be approached.
Lord Fittleworth rode up to the general and said:
“God damn it, Campion, ought Helen Lowther to be down there? Her Ladyship will give me no rest for a fortnight!” He shouted at Gunning: “Here you, blast you, you old scoundrel, where’s the gate Speeding complains you have been interfering with?” He added to the general: “This old villain was in my service for thirty years, yet he’s always counter-swinging the gates in your godson’s beastly fields. Of course a man has to look after his master’s interests, but we shall have to come to some arrangement. We can’t go on like this.” He added to Sylvia:
“It isn’t the sort of place Helen ought to go to, is it? All sorts of people living with all sorts . . . If what you say is true!”
The Earl of Fittleworth gave in all places the impression that he wore a scarlet tail-coat, a white stock with a fox — hunting pin, white buckskin breeches, a rather painful eyeglass and a silk top-hat attached to his person by a silken cord. Actually he was wearing a square, high, black, felt hat, pepper-and-salt tweeds and no eyeglass. Still, he screwed up one eye to look at you, and his lucid dark pupils, his contracted swarthy face with its little bristling black-grey moustache, gave him, perched on his immense horse, the air of a querulous but very masterful monkey.
He considered that he was out of earshot of Gunning and so continued to the other two: “Oughtn’t to give away masters before their servants. . . . But it isn’t any place for the niece of the President of a Show that Cammie has most of her money in. Anyhow she will comb my whiskers!” Before marrying the Earl, Lady Fittleworth had been Miss Camden Grimm. “Regular Aga . . . Agapemone, so you say. A queer go for old Mark at his age.”
The general said to Fittleworth:
“Here, I say, she says I am a regular miser. . . . You don’t have any complaints, say, from your keepers that I don’t tip enough? Tell her, will you? That’s the real sign of a miser!”
Fittleworth said to Sylvia:
“You don’t mind my talking like that of your husband’s establishment, do you i” He added that in the old days they would not have talked like that before a lady about her husband. Or perhaps, by Jove, they would have! His grandfather had had a . . .
Sylvia was of opinion that Helen Lowther could look after herself. Her husband was said not to pay her the attentions that a lady had a right to expect of a husband. So if Christopher . . .
She took an appraising sideways glance at Fittleworth. That peer was going slightly purple under his brown skin. He gazed out over the landscape and swallowed in his throat. She felt that her time for making a decision had come. Times changed, the world changed; she felt heavier in the mornings than she had ever used to. She had had a long, ingenious talk with Fittleworth the night before, on a long terrace. She had been ingenious even for her; but she was aware that afterwards Fittleworth had had a long bedroom talk with his Cammie. Over even the greatest houses a certain sense of suspense broods when the Master is talking to the Mistress. The Master and the Mistress — upon a word, usually from the Master — take themselves off, and the house-guests, at any rate in a small party, straggle, are uncertain as to who gives the signal to retire, suppress yawns even. Finally the butler approaches the most intimate guests and says that the Countess will not be coming down again.
That night Sylvia had shot her bolt. On the terrace she had drawn for the Earl a picture of the menage upon whose roof she now looked down. It stretched out below her, that little domain, as if she were a goddess dominating its destinies. But she was not so certain of that. The dusky purple under Fittleworth’s skin showed no diminution. He continued to gaze away over his territory, reading it as if it were in a book — a clump of trees gone here, the red roof of a new villa grown up there in among the trees, a hop-oast with its characteristic cowl gone from a knoll. He was getting ready to say something. She had asked him the night before to root that family out of that slope.
Naturally not in so many words. But she had drawn such a picture of Christopher and Mark as made it, if the peer believed her, almost a necessity for a conscientious nobleman to do the best to rid his countryside of a plague-spot. . . . The point was whether Fittleworth would choose to believe her because she was a beautiful woman with a thrilling voice. He was terribly domestic and attached to his Transatlantic female, as only very wicked dark men late in life can contrive to be, when they come of very wicked, haughty and influential houses. They have, as it were, attended on the caprices of so many opera singers and famous professionals that when, later in life, they take capricious or influential wives, they get the knack of very stiffly but minutely showing every sort of elaborate deference to their life-partners. That is born with them.
So that the fate of that garden and that high-pitched roof was, in fact, in the hands of Cammie Fittleworth — in so far as great peers today have influence over the fates of their neighbours. And it is to be presumed that they have some.
But all men are curious creatures. Fittleworth stiffened at queer places. He had done so last night. He had stood a good deal. It had to be remembered that Mark Tietjens was an old acquaintance of his — not as intimate as he would have been if the Earl had had children, for Mark preferred houses of married people who had children. But the Earl knew Mark very well. . . . Now a man listening to gossip about another man whom he knows very well will go pretty far towards believing what a beautiful woman will tell him. Beauty and truth have a way of appearing to be akin; and it is true that no man knows what another man is doing when he is out of sight.
So that in inventing or hinting at a ruinous, concealed harem, with consequent disease to account for Mark’s physical condition and apparent ruin, she thought she was not going altogether too far. She had, at any rate, been ready to chance it. It is the sort of thing a man will believe . . . about his best friend even. He will say: “Only think. . . . All the while old X . . . was appearing such a quiet codger he was really . . .” And the words rivet conviction.
So that appeared to get through.
Her revelations as to Christopher’s financial habits had not appeared to do so well. The Earl had listened with his head on one side, whilst she had let him gather that Christopher lived on women — on the former Mrs. Duchemin, now Lady Macmaster, for instance. Yes, to that the Earl had listened with deference, and it had seemed a fairly safe allegation to make. Old Duchemin was known to have left a pot of money to his widow. She had a very nice little place not six or seven miles away from where they stood.
And it had seemed natural to bring in Edith Ethel, for, not so long ago, Lady Macmaster had paid Sylvia a visit. It was about the late Macmaster’s debt to Christopher. That was a point about which Lady Macmaster was and always had seemed to be a little cracky. She had actually visited Sylvia in order to see if Sylvia would not use her influence with Christopher. To get him to remit the debt. Even in the old days Lady Macmaster had been used to worry Sylvia about that.
Apparently Christopher had not carried his idiotcy as far as might be expected. He had dragged that wretched girl down into those penurious surroundings, but he was not going to let her and the child she appeared to be going to have suffer actual starvation, or even too great worry. And apparently, to satisfy a rather uneasy vanity, years before Macmaster had given Christopher a charge on his life insurance. Mac-master, as she well knew, had spunged unmercifully on her husband, and Christopher had certainly regarded the money he had advanced as a gift. She herself had many times upbraided him about it; it had appeared to her one of Christopher’s worst unbearablenesses.
But apparently the charge on the life insurance still existed and was now a charge on that miserable fellow’s rather extensive estate. At any rate, the insurance company refused to pay over any money to the widow until the charge was satisfied. . . . And the thought that Christopher was doing for that girl what, she was convinced, he never would have done for herself had added a new impulse to Sylvia’s bitterness. Indeed, her bitterness had by now given way almost entirely to a mere spirit of tormentingness — she wanted to torture that girl out of her mind. That was why she was there now. She imagined Valentine under the high roof suffering tortures because she, Sylvia, was looking down over the hedge.
But the visit of Lady Macmaster had certainly revived her bitterness as it had suggested to her new schemes of making herself a nuisance to the household below her. Lady Macmaster, in widow’s weeds of the most portentous crape, that gave to her at once the elegance and the direness of a funeral horse, had really seemed more than a little out of her mind. She had asked Sylvia’s opinion of all sorts of expedients for making Christopher loosen his grip, and she had continued her supplications even in correspondence. At last she had hit on a singular expedient. . . . Some years before, apparently, Edith Ethel had had an affair of the heart with a distinguished Scottish Littérateur, now deceased. Edith Ethel, as was well known, had acted the Egeria to quite a number of Scottish men of letters. That was natural; the Macmasters’ establishment was Scottish, Mac-master had been a Critic and had had Government funds for the relief of indigent men of letters, and Edith Ethel was passionately cultured. You could see that even in the forms her crape took and in how she arranged it around her when she sat or agitatedly rose to wring her hands.
But the letters of this particular Scot had out-passed the language of ordinary Egerianishness. They spoke of Lady Macmaster’s eyes, arms, shoulders, feminine aura. . . . These letters Lady Macmaster proposed to entrust to Christopher for sale to Transatlantic collectors. She said they ought to fetch £30,000 at least, and with the ten per cent. commission that Christopher might take, he might consider himself as amply repaid for the four thousand odd that Macmaster’s estate owed him.
And this had appeared to Sylvia to be so eccentric an expedient that she had felt the utmost pleasure in suggesting that Edith Ethel should drive up to Tietjens’s with her letters and have an interview — if possible with Valentine Wannop in the absence of Tietjens. This, she calculated, would worry her rival quite a little, and even if it did not do that, she, Sylvia, would trust herself to obtain subsequently from Edith Ethel a great many grotesque details as to the Wannop’s exhausted appearance, shabby clothing, worn hands.
For it is to be remembered that one of the chief torments of the woman who has been abandoned by a man is the sheer thirst of curiosity for material details as to how that man subsequently lives. Sylvia Tietjens, for a great number of years, had tormented her husband. She would have said herself that she had been a thorn in his flesh. That was largely because he had seemed to her never to be inclined to take his own part. If you live with a person who suffers from being put upon a good deal, and if that person will not assert his own rights, you are apt to believe that your standards as gentleman and Christian are below his, and the experience is lastingly disagreeable. But, in any case, Sylvia Tietjens had had reason to believe that for many years, for better or for worse — and mostly for worse — she had been the dominating influence over Christopher Tietjens. Now, except for extraneous annoyances, she was aware that she could no longer influence him either for evil or for good. He was a solid, four-square lump of meal sacks too heavy for her hauling about.
So that the only real pleasure that she had was when, at night, in a circle of cosy friends, she could assert that she was not even yet out of his confidence. Normally she would not — the members of her circle would not have — made confidantes of her ex-husband’s domestics. But she had had to chance whether the details of Christopher’s menage as revealed by the wife of his carpenter would prove to her friends sufficiently amusing to make her friends forget the social trespass she committed in consorting with her husband’s dependents, and she had to chance whether the carpenter’s wife would not see that, by proclaiming her wrongs over the fact that her husband had left her, she was proclaiming her own unattractiveness.
She had hitherto chanced both, but the time, she was aware, was at hand when she would have to ask herself whether she would not be better off if she were what the French call rangée as the wife of the Commander-in-Chief in India than as a free-lance woman owing her popularity entirely to her own exertions. It would be slightly ignominious to owe part of her prestige to a pantaloon like General Lord Edward Campion, K.C.B., but how restful might it not be! To keep your place in a society of Marjies and Beatties — and even of Cammies, like the Countess of Fittleworth — meant constant exertion and watchfulness, even if you were comfortably wealthy and well-born — and it meant still more exertion when your staple capital for entertainment was the domestic misfortunes of a husband that did not like you.
She might well point out to Marjie, Lady Stern, that her husband’s clothes lacked buttons and the wife of his companion all imaginable chic; she might well point out to Beattie, Lady Elsbacher, that according to her husband’s carpenter’s wife, the interior of her husband’s home resembled a cave encumbered with packing cases in dark-coloured wood, whereas in her day . . . Or she might even point out to Cammie, Lady Fittleworth, to Mrs. de Bray Pape and Mrs. Lowther, that, having a defective water-supply, her husband’s woman probably provided him only with difficulty with baths. . . . But every now and then someone — as had been the case once or twice with the three American ladies — would point out, a little tentatively, that her husband was by now Tietjens of Groby to all intents and purposes. And people-and in particular American ladies — would attach particular importance before her to English Country gentlemen who had turned down titles and the like. Her husband had not turned down a title; he had not been able to, for much as Mark had desired to refuse a baronetcy at the last moment he had been given to understand that he couldn’t. But her husband had practically turned down a whole great estate, and the romantic aspect of that feat was beginning to filter through to her friends. For all her assertions that his seeming poverty was due to dissolute living and consequent bankruptcy, her friends would occasionally ask her whether in fact his poverty was not simply a voluntary affair, the result either of a wager or a strain of mysticism. They would point out that the fact that she and her son at least had all the symptoms of considerable wealth looked like a sign rather that Christopher did not desire wealth, or was generous, than that he had no longer money to throw away. . . . ’
There were symptoms of that sort of questioning of the mind rising up in the American ladies whom Cammie Fittleworth liked to have staying with her. Hitherto Sylvia had managed to squash them. After all, the Tietjens household below her feet was a singular affair for those who had not the clue to its mystery. She had the clue herself; she knew both about the silent feud between the two brothers and about their attitude to life. And if it enraged her that Christopher should despise the things that money could buy and that she so valued, it none the less gratified her to know that, in the end, she was to be regarded as responsible for that silent feud and the renunciation that it had caused. It was her tongue that had set going the discreditable stories that Mark had once believed against his brother.
But if she was to retain her power to blast that household with her tongue, she felt she ought to have details. She must have corroborative details. Otherwise she could not so very convincingly put over her picture of abandoned corruption. You might have thought that in her coercing Mrs. de Bray Pape and her son into making that rather outrageous visit, and in awakening Mrs. Lowther’s innocent curiosity as to the contents of the cottage, she had been inspired solely by the desire to torment Valentine Wannop. But she was aware that there was more than that to it. She might get details of all sorts of queernesses that, triumphantly, to other groups of listeners she could retail as proof of her intimacy with that household.
If her listeners showed any signs of saying that it was queer that a man like Christopher, who appeared like a kindly group of sacks, should actually be a triply crossed being, compounded of a Love-lace, Pandarus and a Satyr, she could always answer: “Ah, but what can you expect of people who have hams drying in their drawing-room!” Or if others alleged that it was queer, if Valentine Wannop had Christopher as much under her thumb as she was said to have, even by Sylvia, that she should still allow Christopher to run an Agapemone in what was, after all, her own house, Sylvia would have liked to be able to reply: “Ah, but what can you expect of a woman upon whose stairs you will find, side by side, a hairbrush, a frying-pan and a copy of Sappho!”
That was the sort of detail that Sylvia needed. The one item she had: The Tietjens, she knew from Mrs. Carpenter Cramp, had an immense fireplace in their living-room and, after the time-honoured custom, they smoked their hams in that chimney. But to people who did not know that smoking hams in great chimneys was a time-honoured custom, the assertion that Christopher was the sort of person who dried hams in his drawing-room would bring up images of your finding yourself in a sort of place where hams reclined on the sofa-cushions. Even that was not a proof to the reflective that the perpetrator was a Sadic lunatic — but few people are reflective and at any rate it was queer, and one queerness might be taken as implying another.
But as to Valentine she could not get details enough. You had to prove that she was a bad housekeeper and a blue-stocking in order that it should be apparent that Christopher was miserable — and you had to prove that Christopher was miserable in order to make it apparent that the hold that Valentine Wannop certainly had over him was something unholy. For that it was necessary to have details of misplaced hairbrushes, frying-pans and copies of Sappho.
It had, however, been difficult to get those details. Mrs. Cramp, when appealed to, had made it rather plain that, far from being a bad housekeeper, Valentine Wannop did no housekeeping at all, whereas Marie Léonie — Lady Mark — was a perfect devil of a ménagére. Apparently Mrs. Cramp was allowed no further into the dwelling than the wash-house — because of half-pounds of sugar and dusters that Mrs. Cramp, in the character of charwoman, had believed to be her perquisites. Marie Léonie hadn’t.
The local doctor and the parson, both of whom visited the house, had contributed only palely-coloured portraits of the young woman. Sylvia had gone to call on them, and making use of the Fittleworth aegis — hinting that Lady Cammie wanted details of her humbler neighbours for her own instruction — Sylvia had tried to get behind the professional secrecy that distinguished parsons and doctors. But she had not got much behind. The parson gave her the idea that he thought Valentine rather a jolly girl, very hospitable and with a fine tap of cider at disposal and fond of reading under trees — the classics mostly. Very much interested also in rock — plants as you could see by the bank under Tietjens’s windows. . . . Their house was always called Tietjens’s. Sylvia had never been under those windows, and that enraged her.
From the doctor Sylvia, for a faint flash, gained the impression that Valentine enjoyed rather poor health. But it had been only an impression arising from the fact that the doctor saw her every day — and it was rather discounted by the other fact that the doctor said that his daily visits were for Mark, who might be expected to pop off at any moment. So he needed careful watching. A little excitement and he was done for. . . . Otherwise Valentine seemed to have a sharp eye for old furniture,“as the doctor knew to his cost, for in a small way, he collected himself. And he said that at small cottage sales and for small objects Valentine could drive a bargain that Tietjens himself never achieved.
Otherwise, from both the doctor and the parson, she had an impression of Tietjens’s as a queer house-hold — queer because it was so humdrum and united. She really herself had expected something more exciting! Really. It did not seem possible that Christopher should settle down into tranquil devotion to brother and mistress after the years of emotion she had given him. It was as if a man should have jumped out of a frying-pan into — a duckpond.
So, as she looked at the red flush on Fittleworth’s face, an almost mad moment of impatience had overcome her. This fellow was about the only man who had ever had the guts to stand up to her. . . . A fox-hunting squire: an extinct animal!
The trouble was, you could not tell quite how extinct he was. He might be able to bite as hard as a fox. Otherwise she would be running down, right now, running down that zigzag orange path to that forbidden land.
That she had hitherto never dared. From a social point of view it would have been outrageous, but she was prepared to chance that. She was sure enough of her place in Society, and if people will excuse a man’s leaving his wife, they will excuse the wife’s making at least one or two demonstrations that are a bit thick. But she had simply not dared to meet Christopher: he might cut her.
Perhaps he would not. He was a gentleman and gentlemen do not actually cut women with whom they have slept. . . . But he might. . . . She might go down there, and in a dim, low room be making some sort of stipulation — God knew what, the first that came into her head — to Valentine. You can always make up some sort of reason for approaching the woman who has supplanted you. But he might come in, mooning in, and suddenly stiffen into a great, clumsy — oh, adorable — face of stone.
That was what you would not dare to face. That would be death. She could imagine him going out of the room, rolling his shoulders. Leaving the whole establishment indifferently to her,
— closing only himself in invisible bonds — denied to her by the angel with the flaming sword! . . . That was what he would do. And that before the other woman. He had come once very near it, and she had hardly recovered from it. That pretended illness had not been so much pretended as all that! She had smiled angelically, under the great crucifix, in the convent that had been her nursing home — angelically, amongst lilies, upon the general, the sisters, the many callers that gradually came to her teas. But she had had to think that Christopher was probably in the arms of his girl and he had let her go when she had, certainly physically, needed his help.
But that had not been a calm occasion, in that dark empty house. . . . And he had not, at that date, enjoyed the favours, the domesticity, of that young woman. He hadn’t had a chance of comparison, so the turning down had not counted. He had treated her barbarously — as social counters go it had been helpful to her — but only at the strong urge of a young woman driven to fury: that could be palliated. It hardly indeed affected her now as a reverse. Looked at reasonably: if a man comes home intending to go to bed with a young woman who has bewitched him for a number of years and finds another woman who tells him that she has cancer, and then does a very creditable faint from the top of the stairs and thus — in spite of practice and of being as hard as nails — puts her ankle out of joint, he has got to choose between the one and the other. And the other in this case had been vigorous, determined on her man, even vituperative. Obviously Christopher was not the sort of man who would like seducing a young woman whilst his wife was dying of internal cancer, let alone a sprained ankle. But the young woman had arrived at a stage when she did not care for any delicacies or their dictates.
No. That she had been able to live down. But if new the same thing happened, in dim, quiet daylight, in a tranquil old room . . . that she would not be able to face. It is one thing to acknowledge that your man has gone — there is no irrevocability about going. He may come back when the other woman is insignificant, a blue-stocking, entirely un — chic. . . . But if he took the step — the responsibility — of cutting you, that would be to put between you a barrier that no amount of weariness with your rival could overstep.
Impatience grew upon her. The fellow was away in an aeroplane. Gone North. It was the only time she had ever known of him as having gone away. It was her only chance of running down those orange zigzags. And now — it was all Lombard Street to a China apple that Fittleworth intended to disapprove of her running down. And you could not ignore Fittleworth.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54