MARK TIETJENS had lain considering the satisfaction of a great night he had lately passed. Or perhaps not lately: at some time. Lying out there in the black nights, the sky seemed enormous. You could understand how somewhere heaven could be concealed in it. And tranquil at times. Then you felt the earth wheeling through infinity.
Night birds cried overhead: herons, duck, swans even: the owls kept closer to the ground, beating along the hedgegrows. Beasts became busy in the long grass. They rustled busily; then paused for long. No doubt a rabbit ran till it found an attractive plantain. Then it nibbled for a long time without audible movement. Now and then cattle lowed, or many lambs — frightened by a fox maybe. . . .
But there would be nevertheless long silences. . . . A stoat would get onto the track of the rabbit. They would run, run, run brushing through the long grass, then out into the short meadow and round and round, the rabbit squealing. Loudly at first.
In the dim illumination of his night-light, dormice would climb up the posts of his shelter. They would remain regarding him with beads of eyes. When the rabbits squealed they would hunch themselves together and shiver. They knew it meant S-t-o-a-t = stoat! Their turn soon!
He despised himself a little for attending to these minutiae — as if one were talking down to a child. . . . On his great night the whole cattle of the county had been struck with panic; you heard them crashing down through the hedges and miles down into the silent valleys.
No! He had never been one to waste his time and mind on small mammals and small birds. . . . The Flora and Fauna of Blankshire! . . . Not for him. It was big movements interested him: “wherein manifesteth itself the voice of God!” . . . Very likely that was true. Transport. Panic in cattle over whole counties. In people over whole continents.
Once, years — oh, years and years — ago, when he had been aged twelve and on a visit to Grandfather, he had taken a gun to Redcar sands from Groby, over the moors, and with one shot he had brought down two terns, a sandpiper and a herring gull. Grandfather had been so delighted with his prowess — though naturally the shot had been a fluke — that he had the things stuffed, and there they were in Groby Nursery to this day. The herring gull stiff on a mossy rock; the sandpiper doing obeisance before it, the terns flying, one on each side.
Probably that was the only memorial to him, Mark Tietjens, at Groby. The younger children had been wont to refer with awe to “Mark’s bag” for long years afterwards. The painted background had shewn Bamborough Castle with lashings of foam and blue sky. It was a far cry from Redcar to Bamborough — but that was the only background the bird-stuffing chap in Middlesbrough could paint for sea-birds. For larks and the like he had a cornfield in the Vale of York; for nightingales, poplar trees. . . . Never heard that nightingales were particularly partial to poplars! . . . Nightingales disturbed the majesty of great nights. For two months out of the year, more or less, according to the nature of the season. He wasn’t decrying the beauty of their voices. Hearing them you felt like seeing a good horse win the St. Leger. No other things in the world could do it justice — there was no place in the world like Newmarket Heath on a breezy day. . . . But they limited the night. It was true that nightingales deep down in the spinney near where Gunning’s hut must be — say a quarter of a mile away — could make you think of great distance, echoing up through the deep woods. Woods dripping with dew beneath the moon. . . . And air-raids not so long ago! The moon brought air-raids and its shining was discouraged. . . . Yes, nightingales made you think of distance, just as the night-jar for ever crepitating from twilight to dawn seemed to measure a fragment of eternity. . . . But only fragments! The great night was itself eternity and the In-finite. . . . The spirit of God walking on the firmament. . . .
Cruel beggars, nightingales: they abused one another with distended throats all through the nights. Between the gusts of gales you could hear them shouting on — telling their sitting hens that they — each one — were the devils of fellows, the other chap, down the hill by Gunning’s hut, being a bedraggled, louse-eaten braggart. . . . Sex ferocity.
Gunning lived in a bottom, in a squatter’s cottage, they said. With a thatch like Robinson Crusoe’s bonnet. A wise-woman’s cottage. He lived with the wise-woman, a chalk-white faced slattern. . . . And a granddaughter of the wise-woman whom, because she had a cleft palate and only half a brain, the parish, half out of commiseration, half for economy, had nominated mistress in the school up the hill. No one knew whether Gunning slept with the wise-woman or the granddaughter; for one or the other he had left his missus and Fittleworth had tanned his hide and taken his cottage from him. He thrashed them both impartially with a hunting thong every Saturday night — to learn them, and to remind them that for them he had lost his cottage and the ten bob a week Fittleworth allowed such hinds as had been in his service thirty years. . . . Sex ferocity again!
“And how shall I thy true love know from another one?
Oh, by his cockled hat and staff and by his sandalled shoon!”
An undoubted pilgrim had suggested irresistibly the lines to him»! . . . It was naturally that bitch Sylvia. Wet eyes she had! . . . Then some psychological crisis was going on inside her. Good for her.
Good for Val and Chris, possibly. There was no real knowing. . . . Oh, but there was. Hear to that: the bitch-pack giving tongue! Heard ye ever the like to that, sirs? She had had Groby Great Tree torn down. . . . But, as God was her maker, she would not tear another woman’s child within her. . . .
He felt himself begin to perspire. . . . Well, if Sylvia had come to that, his, Mark’s, occupation was gone. He would no longer have to go on willing against her; she would drop into the sea in the wake of their family vessel and be lost to view. . . . But, damn it, she must have suffered to be brought to that pitch. . . . Poor bitch! Poor bitch! The riding had done it. . . . She ran away, a handkerchief to her eyes.
He felt satisfaction and impatience. There was some place to which he desired to get back. But there were also things to be done: to be thought out. . . . If God was beginning to temper the wind to these flayed lambs . . . Then . . . He could not remember what he wanted to think about. . . . It was — no, not exasperating. Numb! He felt himself responsible for their happiness. He wanted them to go rubbing along, smooth with the rough, for many long, unmarked years. . . . He wanted Marie Léonie to stay with Valentine until after her deliverance and then to go to the Dower House at Groby. She was Lady Tietjens. She knew she was Lady Tietjens, and she would like it. Besides, she would be a thorn in the flesh of Mrs. . . . He could not remember the name. . . .
He wished that Christopher would get rid of his Jewish partner so as to addle a little brass. It was their failing as Tietjenses that they liked toadies. . . . He himself had bitched all their lives by having that fellow Ruggles sharing his rooms. Because he could not have borne to share with an equal, and Ruggles was half Jew, half Scotchman. Christopher had had, for toadies, firstly Macmaster, a Scot, and then this American Jew. Otherwise he, Mark, was reconciled with things. Christopher, no doubt, was wise in his choice. He had achieved a position in which he might — with just a little more to it-anticipate jogging away to the end of time, leaving descendants to carry on the country without swank.
Ah. . . . It came to his mind to remember, almost with pain. He had accepted nephew Mark as nephew Mark: a strong slip. A good boy. But there was the point . . . the point! . . . The boy had the right sort of breeches. . . . But if there were incest. . . .
Crawling through a hedge after a rabbit was thinkable. Father had been in the churchyard to shoot rabbits to oblige the vicar. There was no doubt of that. He did not want rabbits. . . . But supposing he had mishit a bunny and the little beast had been throwing gymnastics on the other side of the quickset? Father would have crawled through then, rather than go all the way to the lychgate and round. Decent men put their mishits out of their agony as soon as possible. Then there was motive. And as for not putting his gun out of action before crawling through the quickset. . . . Many good, plucked men had died like that. . . . And father had grown absent-minded.’ . . . There had been farmer Lowther had so died; and Pease of Lobhall; and Pease of Cullercoats. All good plucked farmers. . . . Crawling through hedges rather than go round, and with their guns at full cock! And not absent-minded men. . . . But he remembered that, just now, he had remembered that father had grown absent — minded. He would put a paper in one of his waistcoat pockets and fumble for it in all his other pockets a moment after: he would push his spectacles up onto his forehead and search all the room for them; he would place his knife and fork in his plate and, whilst talking, take another knife and fork from beside it and begin again to eat. . . . Mark remembered that his father had done that twice during the last meal they had eaten together — whilst he, Mark, had been presenting the fellow Ruggles’s account of Christopher’s misdeeds. . . .
Then it would not be incumbent on him, Mark, to go up to his father in Heaven and say: Hullo, sir. I understand you had a daughter by the wife of your best friend, she being now with child by your son. . . . Rather ghostly so to introduce yourself to the awful ghost of your father. . . . Of course you would be a ghost yourself. Still, with your billycock hat, umbrella and racing-glasses, not an awful ghost! . . . And to say to your father: “I understand that you committed suicide!”
Against the rules of the Club. . . . For I consider it no grief to be going there where so many great men have preceded me. Sophocles that, wasn’t it? So, on his authority, it was a damn good club. . . .
But he did not have to anticipate that mauvai: quart d’beun! Dad quite obviously did not commit suicide. He wasn’t the man to do so. So Valentine was not his daughter and there was no incest. It is all very well to say that you care little about incest. The Greeks made a hell of a tragic row about it. . . . Certainly it was a weight off the chest if you could think there had been none. He had always been able to look Christopher in the eyes — but he would be able to do it better than ever now. Comfortably! It is uncomfortable to look a man in the eyes and think: You sleep between incestuous sheets. . . .
That then was over. The worst of it rolled up together. No suicide. No incest. No by — blow at Groby. . . . A Papist there. . . . Though how you could be a Papist and a Marxian Communist passed his, Mark’s, comprehension. . . . A Papist at Groby and Groby Great Tree down. . . . The curse was perhaps off the family!
That was a superstitious way to look at it — but you must have a pattern to interpret things by. You can’t really get your mind to Work Without it. The blacksmith said: By hammer and hand all art doth stand! . . . He, Mark Tietjens, for many years interpreted all life in terms of Transport. . . . Transport, be thou my God. . . . A damn good God. . . . And in the end, after a hell of a lot of thought and of work, the epitaph of him, Mark Tietjens, ought by rights to be: “Here lit: one when name war writ in sea-birds.’” . . . As good an epitaph as another.
He must get it through to Christopher that Marie Léonie should have that case, with Bamborough and all, in her bedroom at Groby Dower House. It was the last permanent record of her man. . . . But Christopher would know that. . . .
It was coming back. A lot of things were coming back. . . . He could see Redcar Sands running up towards Sunderland, grey, grey. Not so many factory chimneys then, working for him, Mark Tietjens! Not so many! And the sand-pipers running in the thin of the tide, bowing as they ran; and the shovellers turning over stones and the terns floating above the viscous sea. . . . ‘
But it was great nights to which he would now turn his attention. Great black nights above the purple moors. . . . Great black nights above the Edgware Road, where Marie Léonie lived . . . because, above the blaze of lights of the old Apollo’s front, you had a sense of immense black spaces. . . .
Who said he was perspiring a great deal? Well, he was perspiring!
Marie Léonie, young, was bending over him. . . . Young, young, as he had first seen her on the stage of Covent Garden . . . In white! . . . Doing agreeable things to his face with a perfume like that of Heaven itself! . . . And laughing sideways as Marie Léonie had laughed when first he presented himself before her in his billycock hat and umbrella! . . . The fine, fair hair! The soft voice!
But this was silly. . . . That was nephew Mark with his cherry-red face and staring eyes. . . . And this was his light of love! . . . Naturally. Like uncle, like nephew. He would pick up with the same type of woman as his uncle. That made it certain that he was no by-blow! Pretty piece against the apple-boughs!
He wanted great nights, then — Young Mark, though, should not pick up with a woman older than himself. Christopher had done that, and look!
Still: things were taking oop! . . . Do you remember the Yorkshireman who stood with his chin just out of the water on Ararat Top as Noah approached. And: “It’s boon to tak oop!” said the Yorkshireman. . . . It’s bound to clear up!
A great night, with room enough for Heaven to be hidden there from our not too perspicacious eyes. . . . It was said that an earthquake shock imperceptible to our senses set those cattle and sheep and horses and pigs crashing through all the hedges of the county. And it was queer: before they had so started lowing and moving Mark was now ready to swear that he had heard a rushing sound. He probably had not! One could so easily self-deceive oneself! The cattle had been panicked because they had been sensible of the presence of the Almighty walking upon the firmament. . . .
Damn it all: there were a lot of things coming back. He could have sworn he heard the voice of Ruggles say: “After all, he is virtually Tietjens of Groby!” . . . By no fault of yours, old cock! But now you will be cadging up to him. . . . Now there speaks Edith Ethel Macmaster! A lot of voices passing behind his head. Damn it all, could they all be ghosts drifting before the wind! . . . Or, damn it all, was he himself dead! . . . No, you were probably not profane when you were dead.
He would have given the world to sit up and turn his head round and see. Of course he could, but that would give the show away! He credited himself with being too cunning an old fox for that! To have thrown dust in their eyes for all these years! He could have chuckled!
Fittleworth seemed to have come down into the garden and to be remonstrating with these people. What the devil could Fittleworth want? It was like a pantomime. Fittleworth, in effect, was looking at him. He said:
“Hello, old bean . . . .” Marie Léonie was looking beside his elbow. He said: “I’ve driven all these goats out of your hen-roost.” . . . Good-looking fellow Fittleworth. His Lola Vivaria had been a garden-peach. Died in child-birth. No doubt that was why he had troubled to come. Fittleworth said: Cammie said to give Mark her love for old tirne’s sake. Her dear love! And as soon as he was well to bring her ladyship down. . . .,
Damn this sweat. With its beastly tickling he would grimace and give the show away. But he would like Marie Léonie to go to the Fittleworth’s. Marie Léonie said something to Fittleworth.
“Yes, yes, me lady!” says Fittleworth. Damn it, he did look like a monkey as some people said. . . . But if the monkeys we were descended from were as good — looking . . . Probably he had good-looking legs. . . . How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that bring good tidings to Zion. . . . Fittleworth added earnestly and distinctly that Sylvia — Sylvia Tietjens —begged Mark to understand that she had not sent that flock of idiots down here. Sylvia also said that she was going to divorce his, Mark’s, brother and dissolve her marriage with the sanction of Rome. . . . So they would all be a happy family down there, soon. . . . Anything Cammie could do. . . . Because of Mark’s unforgettable services to the nation. . . .
Name was written in . . . Lettest thou thy servant . . . divorce in peace!
Marie Léonie begged Fittleworth to go away now. Fittleworth said he would, but joy never kills! So long, old . . . old friend!
The clubs they had been in together. . . . But one went to a far better Club than . . . His breathing was a little troublesome. . . . It was darkish, then light again.
Christopher was at the foot of his bed. Holding a bicycle and a lump of wood. Aromatic wood: a chunk sawn from a tree. His face was white: his eyes stuck out. Blue pebbles. He gazed at his brother and said:
“Half Groby wall is down. Your bedroom’s wrecked. I found your case of sea-birds thrown on a rubble heap.”
It was as well that one’s services were unforgettable!
Valentine was there, panting as if she had been running. She exclaimed to Christopher:
“You left the prints for Lady Robinson in a jar you gave to Hudnut the dealer. How could you? Oh, how could you? How are we going to feed and clothe a child if you do such things?”
He lifted his bicycle wearily round. You could see he was dreadfully weary, the poor devil. Mark almost said:
“Let him off?: the poor devil’s worn out!”
Heavily, like a dejected bull-dog, Christopher made for the gate. As he went up the green path beyond the hedge, Valentine began to sob.
“How are we to live? How are we ever to live?”
“Now I must speak,” Mark said.
“Did ye ever hear tell o’ t’ Yorkshireman . . . On Mount Ara . . . Ara . . .”
He had not spoken for so long. His tongue appeared to fill his mouth; his mouth to be twisted to one side. It was growing dark. He said:
“Put your ear close to my mouth . . . .” She cried out. He whispered:
“‘’Twas the mid o’ the night and the barnies grat
And the mither beneath the mauld heard that . . . .’
An old song. My nurse sang it. . . . Never thou let thy child weep for thy sharp tongue to thy good man. . . . A good man! Groby Great Tree is down . . .” He said: “Hold my hand!”
She inserted her hand beneath the sheet and his hand closed on hers. Then it relaxed.
She nearly cried out for Marie Léonie.
The tall, sandy, much-liked doctor came through the gate.
“He spoke just now. . . . It has been a torturing afternoon. . . . Now I’m afraid . . . I’m afraid he’s . . . ”
The doctor reached his hand beneath the sheet, leaning sideways. He said:
“Go get you to bed. . . . I will come and examine you. . . .
“Perhaps it would be best not to tell Lady Tietjens that he spoke. . . . She would like to have had his last words. . . . But she did not need them as much as I.”
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54