Coming into the Square was like being suddenly dead, it was so silent and so still to one so lately jostled by the innumerable crowd and deafened by unceasing shouts. The shouting had continued for so long that it had assumed the appearance of being a solid and unvarying thing: like life. So the silence appeared like Death; and now she had death in her heart. She was going to confront a madman in a stripped house. And the empty house stood in an empty square all of whose houses were so eighteenth-century and silver-grey and rigid and serene that they ought all to be empty too and contain dead, mad men. And was this the errand? For to-day when all the world was mad with joy? To become bear-ward to a man who had got rid of all his furniture and did not know the porter — mad without joy!
It turned out to be worse than she expected. She had expected to turn the handle of a door of a tall empty room; in a space made dim with shutters she would see him, looking suspiciously round over his shoulder, a grey badger or a bear taken at its dim occupations. And in uniform. But she was not given time even to be ready. In the last moment she was to steel herself incredibly. She was to become the cold nurse of a shell-shock case.
But there was not any last moment. He charged upon her. There in the open. More like a lion. He came, grey all over, his grey hair — or the grey patches of his hair — shining, charging down the steps, having slammed the hall door. And lopsided. He was carrying under his arm a diminutive piece of furniture. A cabinet.
It was so quick. It was like having a fit. The houses tottered. He regarded her. He had presumably checked violently in his clumsy stride. She hadn’t seen because of the tottering of the houses. His stone-blue eyes came fishily into place in his wooden countenance — pink and white. Too pink where it was pink and too white where it was white. Too much so for health. He was in grey homespuns. He should not wear homespuns or grey. It increased his bulk. He could be made to look . . . Oh, a fine figure of a man, let us say!
What was he doing? Fumbling in the pocket of his clumsy trousers. He exclaimed — she shook at the sound of his slightly grating, slightly gasping voice:
‘I’m going to sell this thing . . . Stay here.’ He had produced a latchkey. He was panting fiercely beside her. Up the steps. He was beside her. Beside her. Beside her. It was infinitely sad to be beside this madman. It was infinitely glad. Because if he had been sane she would not have been beside him. She could be beside him for long spaces of time if he were mad. Perhaps he did not recognize her! She might be beside him for long spaces of time with him not recognizing her. Like tending your baby!
He was stabbing furiously at the latchhole with his little key. He would: that was normal. He was a stab-the-keyhole sort of clumsy man. She would not want that altered. But she would see about his clothes. She said: ‘I am deliberately preparing to live with him for a long time!’ Think of that! She said to him:
‘Did you send for me?’
He had the door open: he said, panting — his poor lungs!:
‘No.’ Then: ‘Go in!’ and then: ‘I was just going . . .
She was in his house. Like a child . . . He had not sent for her . . . Like a child faltering on the sill of a vast black cave.
It was black. Stone flags. Pompeian red walls scarred pale-pink where fixed hall furniture had been removed. Was it here she was going to live?
He said, panting, from behind her back:
‘Wait here!’ A little more light fell into the hall. That was because he was gone from the doorway.
He was charging down the steps. His boots were immense. He lolloped all over on one side because of the piece of furniture he had under his arm. He was grotesque, really. But joy radiated from his homespuns when you walked beside him. It welled out; it enveloped you . . . Like the warmth from an electric heater, only that did not make you want to cry and say your prayers — the haughty oaf.
No, but he was not haughty. Gauche, then! No, but he was not gauche . . . She would not run after him. He was a bright patch, with his pink ears and silver hair. Gallumphing along the rails in front of the eighteenth-century houses. He was eighteenth-century all right . . . But then the eighteenth century never went mad. The only century that never went mad. Until the French Revolution: and that was either not mad or not eighteenth century.
She stepped irresolutely into the shadows; she returned irresolutely to the light . . . A long hollow sound existed: the sea saying: Ow, Ow, Ow along miles and miles. It was the armistice. It was Armistice Day. She had forgotten it. She was to be cloistered on Armistice Day! Ah, not cloistered! Not cloistered there. My beloved is mine and I am his! But she might as well close the door!
She closed the door as delicately as if she were kissing him on the lips. It was a symbol. It was Armistice Day. She ought to go away; instead she had shut the door on . . . Not on Armistice Day! What was it like to be . . . changed!
No! She ought not to go away! She ought not to go away! She ought not! He had told her to wait. She was not cloistered. This was the most exciting spot on the earth. It was not her fate to live nun-like. She was going to pass her day beside a madman; her night, too . . . Armistice Night! That night would be remembered down unnumbered generations. Whilst one lived that had seen it the question would be asked: What did you do on Armistice Night? My beloved is mine and I am his!
The great stone stairs were carpetless: to mount them would be like taking part in a procession. The hall came in straight from the front door. You had to turn a corner to the right before you came to the entrance of a room. A queer arrangement. Perhaps the eighteenth century was afraid of draughts and did not like the dining-room door near the front entrance . . . My beloved is . . . Why does one go on repeating that ridiculous thing? Besides it’s from the Song of Solomon, isn’t it? The Canticle of Canticles! Then to quote it is blasphemy when one is . . . No, the essence of prayer is volition, so the essence of blasphemy is volition. She did not want to quote the thing. It was jumped out of her by sheer nerves. She was afraid. She was waiting for a madman in an empty house. Noises whispered up the empty stairway!
She was like Fatima. Pushing open the door of the empty room. He might come back to murder her. A madness caused by sex obsessions is not infrequently homicidal . . . What did you do on Armistice Night? ‘I was murdered in an empty house?’ For, no doubt he would let her live till midnight.
But perhaps he had not got sex-obsessions. She had not the shadow of a proof that he had; rather that he hadn’t! Certainly, rather that he hadn’t. Always the gentleman.
They had left the telephone! The windows were duly shuttered but in the dim light from between cracks the nickel gleamed on white marble. The mantel-shelf. Pure Parian marble, the shelf supported by rams’ heads. Singularly chaste. The ceilings and rectilinear mouldings in an intricate symmetry. Chaste, too. Eighteenth century. But the eighteenth century was not chaste . . . He was eighteenth century.
She ought to telephone to her mother to inform that Eminence in untidy black with violet tabs here and there of the grave step that her daughter was . . .
What was her daughter going to do?
She ought to rush out of the empty house. She ought to be trembling with fear at the thought that he was coming home very likely to murder her. But she wasn’t. What was she? Trembling with ecstasy? Probably. At the thought that he was coming. If he murdered her . . . Can’t be helped! She was trembling with ecstasy all the same. She must telephone to her mother. Her mother might want to know where she was. But her mother never did want to know where she was. She had her head too screwed on to get into mischief I . . . Think of that!
Still, on such a day her mother might like to. They ought to exchange gladnesses that her brother was safe for good now. And others, too. Normally her mother was irritated when she rang up. She would be at her work. It was amazing to see her at work. Perhaps she never would again. Such untidiness of papers. In a little room. Quite a little room. She never would work in a big room because a big room tempted her to walk about and she could not afford the time to walk about.
She was writing at two books at once now. A novel . . . Valentine did not know what it was about. Her mother never let them know what her novels were about till they were finished. And a woman’s history of the War. A history by a woman for women. And there she would be sitting at a large table that hardly left room for more than getting round it. Grey, large, generous-featured and tired, she would be poking over one set of papers on one side of the table or just getting up from over the novel, her loose pince-nez falling off, pushing round the table between its edge and the wall to peer at the sheets of the woman’s history that were spread all over that region. She would work for ten minutes or twenty-five or an hour at the one and then an hour and a half or half an hour or three-quarters at the other. What a muddle her dear old head must be in!
With a little trepidation she took the telephone. It had got to be done. She could not live with Christopher Tietjens without first telling her mother. Her mother ought to be given the chance of dissuading. They say you ought to give a lover a chance of a final scene before leaving him or her for good. Still more your mother. That was jannock.
It broke the word of promise to the ear, the telephone! . . . Was it blasphemy to quote Shakespeare when one was going to . . . Perhaps bad taste. Shakespeare, however, was not spotless. So they said . . . Waiting! Waiting! How much of one’s life wasn’t spent waiting, with one’s weight boring one’s heels into the ground . . . But this thing was dead. No roar came from its mouth and when you jabbed the little gadget at the side up and down no bell tinkled . . . It had probably been disconnected. They had perhaps cut him off for not paying. Or he had cut it off so that she might not scream for the police through it whilst he was strangling her. Anyhow they were cut off. They would be cut off from the world on Armistice Night . . . Well, they would probably be cut off for good!
What nonsense. He had not known that she was coming. He had not asked her to come.
So, slowly, slowly she went up the great stone staircase, the noises all a-whispering up before her . . . ‘So, slowly, slowly she went up and slowly looked about her. Henceforth take warning by the fall . . . ’ Well, she did not need to take warning: she was not going to fall in the way Barbara Allen did. Contrariwise!
He had not sent for her. He had not asked Edith Ethel to ring her up. Then presumably she felt humiliated. But she did not feel humiliated! It was in effect fairly natural. He was quite noticeably mad, rushing out, lopsided, with bits of furniture under his arm and no hat on his noticeable hair. Noticeable! That was what he was. He would never pass in a crowd! . . . He had got rid of all his furniture as Edith Ethel had alleged. Very likely he had not recognized the porter, too. She, Valentine Wannop, had seen him going to sell his furniture. Madly! Running to it. You do not run when you are selling furniture if you are sane. Perhaps Edith Ethel had seen him running along with a table on his head. And she was by no means certain that he had recognized her, Valentine Wannop!
So Edith Ethel might have been almost justified in ringing her up. Normally it would have been an offence, considering the terms on which they had parted. Considering that Edith Ethel had accused her of having had a child by this very man! It was pretty strong, even if she had seen him running about the Square with furniture, and even if there had been no one else who could help . . . But she ought to have sent her miserable rat of a husband. There was no excuse!
Still, there had been nothing else for her, Valentine, to do. So there was not call for her to feel humiliated. Even if she had not felt for this man as she did she would have come, and, if he had been very bad, would have stayed.
He had not sent for her! This man who had once proposed love to her and then had gone away without a word and who had never so much as sent her a picture-postcard! Gauche! Haughty! Was there any other word for him? There could not be. Then she ought to feel humiliated. But she did not.
She felt frightened, creeping up the great staircase, and entering a great room. A very great room. All white; again with stains on the walls from which things had been removed. From over the way the houses confronted her, eighteenth-centuryishly. But with a touch of gaiety from their red chimney-pots . . . And now she was spying: with her heart in her mouth. She was terribly frightened. This room was inhabited. As if set down in a field, the room being so large, there camped . . . A camp-bed for the use of officers, G.S. one, as the saying is. And implements of green canvas, supported on crossed white-wood staves: a chair, a bucket with a rope handle, a washing-basin, a table. The bed was covered over with a flea-bag of brown wool. She was terribly frightened. The further she penetrated the house the more she was at his mercy. She ought to have stayed downstairs. She was spying on him.
These things looked terribly sordid and forlorn. Why did he place them in the centre of the room? Why not against a wall? It was usual to stand the head of a bed against a wall when there is no support for the pillows. Then the pillows do not slip off. She would change . . . No, she would not. He had put the bed in the centre of the room because he did not want it to touch walls that had been brushed by the dress of . . . You must not think bad things about that woman!
They did not look sordid and forlorn. They looked frugal. And glorious! She bent down and drawing down the flea bag at the top, kissed the pillows. She would get him linen pillows. You would be able to get linen now. The war was over. All along that immense line men could stand up!
At the head of the room was a dais. A box of square boarding, like the model-throne artists have in studios. Surely she did not receive her guests on a dais: like Royalty. She was capable . . . You must not . . . It was perhaps for a piano. Perhaps she gave concerts. It was used as a library now. A row of calf-bound books stood against the wall on the back edge of the platform. She approached them to see what books he had selected. They must be the books he had read in France. If she could know what books he had read in France she would know what some of his thoughts there had been. She knew he slept between very cheap cotton sheets.
Frugal and glorious. That was he! And he had designed this room to love her in. It was the room she would have asked . . . The furnishing . . . Alcestis never had . . . For she, Valentine Wannop, was of frugal mind, too. And his worshipper, Having reflected glory . . . Damn it, she was getting soppy. But it was curious how their tastes marched together. He had been neither haughty nor gauche. He had paid her the real compliment. He had said: ‘Her mind so marches with mine that she will understand.’
The books were indeed a job lot. Their tops ran along against the wall like an ill-arranged range of hills; one was a great folio in calf, the title indented deep and very dim. The others were French novels and little red military text books. She leaned over the dais to read the title of the tall book. She expected it to be Herbert’s Poems or his Country Parson . . . He ought to be a Country Parson. He never would be now. She was depriving the church of . . . Of a Higher Mathematician, really. The title of the book was Vir Obscur.
Why did she take it that they were going to live together? She had no official knowledge that he wanted to. But they wanted to TALK. You can’t talk unless you live together. Her eye, travelling downwards along the dais, caught words on paper. They threw themselves up at her from among a disorder of half-a-dozen typed pages; they were in big, firm, pencilled letters. They stood out because they were pencilled; they were:
A man could stand up on a bleedin’ ‘ill!
Her heart stopped. She must be out of condition. She could not stand very well, but there was nothing to lean on to. She had — she didn’t know she had — read also the typed words:
‘Mrs Tietjens is leaving the model cabinet by Barker of Bath which she believes you claim . . . ’
She looked desperately away from the letter. She did not want to read the letter. She could not move away. She believed she was dying. Joy never kills . . . But it . . . ’fait peur‘. ‘Makes Afraid.’ Afraid! Afraid! Afraid! There was nothing now between them. It was as if they were already in each other’s arms. For surely the rest of the letter must say that Mrs Tietjens had removed the furniture. And his comment — amazingly echoing the words she had just thought — was that he could stand up. But it wasn’t in the least amazing. My beloved is mine . . . Their thoughts marched together; not in the least amazing. They could now stand on a hill together. Or get into a little hole. For good. And talk. For ever. She must not read the rest of the letter. She must not be certain. If she were certain she would have no hope of preserving her . . . Of remaining . . . Afraid and unable to move. She would be forced to read the letter because she was unable to move. Then she would be lost. She looked beseechingly out of the window at the house-fronts over the way. They were friendly. They would help her. Eighteenth century. Cynical, but not malignant. She sprang right off her feet. She could move then. She hadn’t had a fit. Idiot. It was only the telephone. It went on and on. Drrinn; drinnnn; d.r.R.I.n.n. It came from just under her feet. No, from under the dais. The receiver was on the dais. She hadn’t consciously noticed it because she had believed the telephone was dead. Who notices a dead telephone?
She said — it was as if she were talking into his ear, he so pervaded her — she said:
‘Who are you?’
One ought not to answer all telephone calls, but one does so mechanically. She ought not to have answered this. She was in a compromising position. Her voice might be recognized. Let it be recognized. She desired to be known to be in a compromising position! What did you do on Armistice Day!
A voice, heavy and old, said:
‘You are there, Valentine . . .
She cried out:
‘Oh, poor mother . . . But he’s not here.’ She added, ‘He’s not been here with me. I’m still only waiting.’ She added again: ‘The house is empty!’ She seemed to be stealthy, the house whispering round her. She seemed to be whispering to her mother to save her and not wanting the house to hear her. The house was eighteenth century. Cynical. But not malignant. It wanted her undoing but it knew that women liked being . . . ruined.
Her mother said, after a long time:
‘Have you got to do this thing? . . . My little Valentine . . . My little Valentine!’ She wasn’t sobbing.
‘Yes, I’ve got to do it!’ She sobbed. Suddenly she stopped sobbing.
She said quickly:
‘Listen, mother. I’ve had no conversation with him. I don’t know even whether he’s sane. He appears to be mad.’ She wanted to give her mother hope. Quickly. She had been speaking quickly to get hope to her mother as quickly as possible. But she added: ‘I believe that I shall die if I cannot live with him.’
She said that slowly. She wanted to be like a little child trying to get truth home to its mother.
‘I have waited too long. All these years.’ She did not know that she had such desolate tones in her voice. She could see her mother looking into the distance with every statement that came to her, thinking. Old and grey. And majestic and kind . . . Her mother’s voice came:
‘I have sometimes suspected . . . My poor child . . . It has been for a long time?’ They were both silent. Thinking. Her mother said:
‘There isn’t any practical way out?’ She pondered for a long time. ‘I take it you have thought it all out. I know you have a good head and you are good.’ A rustling sound. ‘But I am not level with these times. I should be glad if there were a way out. I should be glad if you could wait for each other. Or perhaps find a legal . . .
‘Oh, mother, don’t cry!’ . . . ‘Oh, mother, I can’t . . .
‘Oh, I will come . . . Mother, I will come back to you if you order it.’ With each phrase her body was thrown about as if by a wave. She thought they only did that on the stage. Her eyes said to her:
. . . ’Dear Sir,
‘Our client, Mrs Christopher Tietjens of Groby-in-Cleveland . . .
‘After the occurrence at the Base-Camp at . . .
‘Thinks it useless . . .
She was agonized for her mother’s voice. The telephone hummed in E flat. It tried B. Then it went back to E flat. Her eyes said:
‘Proposes when occasion offers to remove to Groby in fat, blue typescript. She cried agonizedly:
‘Mother. Order me to come back or it will be too late . . .
She had looked down, unthinkingly . . . as one does when standing at the telephone. If she looked down again and read to the end of the sentence that contained the words: ‘It is useless,’ it would be too late! She would know that his wife had given him up!
Her mother’s voice came turned by the means of its conveyance into the voice of a machine of Destiny. ‘No, I can’t. I am thinking.’
Valentine placed her foot on the dais at which she stood. When she looked down it covered the letter. She thanked God. Her mother’s voice said:
‘I cannot order you to come back if it would kill you not to be with him.’ Valentine could feel her late-Victorian advanced mind, desperately seeking for the right plea — for any plea that would let her do without seeming to employ maternal authority. She began to talk like a book: an august Victorian book; Morley’s Life of Gladstone. That was reasonable: she wrote books like that.
She said they were both good creatures of good stock. If their consciences let them commit themselves to a certain course of action they were probably in the right. But she begged them, in God’s name to assure themselves that their consciences did urge that course. She had to talk like a book!
‘It is nothing to do with conscience.’ That seemed harsh. Her mind was troubled with a quotation. She could not find it. Quotations ease strain; she said: ‘One is urged by blind destiny!’ A Greek quotation, then! ‘Like a victim upon an altar. I am afraid; but I consent!’ . . . Probably Euripides; the Alkestis very likely! If it had been a Latin author the phrases would have occurred to her in Latin. Being with her mother made her talk like a book. Her mother talked like a book: then she did. They must; if they did not they would scream . . . But they were English ladies. Of scholarly habits of mind. It was horrible. Her mother said:
‘That is probably the same as conscience — race conscience!’ She could not urge on them the folly and disastrousness of the course they appeared to propose. She had, she said, known too many irregular unions that had been worthy of emulation and too many regular ones that were miserable and a cause of demoralization by their examples . . . She was a gallant soul. She could not in conscience go back on the teachings of her whole life. She wanted to. Desperately! Valentine could feel the almost physical strainings of her poor, tired brain. But she could not recant. She was not Crammer! She was not even Joan of Arc. So she went on repeating:
‘I can only beg and pray you to assure yourself that not to live with that man will cause you to die or be seriously mentally injured. If you think you can live without him or wait for him, if you think there is any hope of later union without serious mental injury I beg and pray . . . ’
She could not finish the sentence . . . It was fine to behave with dignity at the crucial moment of your life! It was fitting: it was proper. It justified your former philosophic life. And it was cunning. Cunning!
For now she said:
‘My child! my little child! You have sacrificed all your life to me and my teaching. How can I ask you now to deprive yourself of the benefit of them?’
‘I can’t persuade you to a course that might mean your eternal unhappiness!’ . . . The can’t was like a flame of agony!
Valentine shivered. That was cruel pressure. Her mother was no doubt doing her duty; but it was cruel pressure. It was very cold. November is a cold month. There were footsteps on the stairs. She shook.
‘Oh, he is coming. He is coming!’ she cried out. She wanted to say: ‘Save me!’ She said: ‘Don’t go away! Don’t . . . Don’t go away!’ What do men do to you: men you love? Mad men. He was carrying a sack. The sack was the first she saw as he opened the door. Pushed it open; it was already half-open. A sack was a dreadful thing for a madman to carry. In an empty house. He dumped the sack down on the hearth stone. He had coal dust on his right forehead. It was a heavy sack. Bluebeard would have had in it the corpse of his first wife. Borrow says that the gipsies say: ‘Never trust a young man with grey hair!’ . . . He had only half-grey hair and he was only half young. He was panting. He must be stopped carrying heavy sacks. Panting like a fish. A great, motionless carp, hung in a tank.
‘I suppose you would want to go out. If you don’t we will have a fire. You can’t stop here without a fire.’ At the same moment her mother said:
‘If that is Christopher I will speak to him.’
She said away from the mouthpiece:
‘Yes, let’s go out. Oh, oh, oh. Let’s go out . . . Armistice . . . My mother wants to speak to you.’ She felt herself to be suddenly a little Cockney shop-girl. A midinette in an imitation Girl Guide’s uniform. ‘Afride of the gentleman, my dear.’ Surely one could protect oneself against a great carp! She could throw him over her shoulder. She had enough Ju Jitsu for that. Of course a little person trained to Ju Jitsu can’t overcome an untrained giant if he expects it. But if he doesn’t expect it she can.
His right hand closed over her left wrist. He had swum towards her and had taken the telephone in his left. One of the window panes was so old it was bulging and purplish. There was another. There were several. But the first one was the purplishest. He said:
‘Christopher Tietjens speaking!’ He could not think of anything more recherché to say than that — the great inarticulate fellow! His hand was cool on her wrist. She was calm but streaming with bliss. There was no other word for it. As if you had come out of a bath of warm nectar and bliss streamed off you. His touch had calmed her and covered her with bliss. <<p>He let her wrist go very slowly. To show that the grasp was meant for a caress! It was their first caress!
Before she had surrendered the telephone she had said to her mother:
‘He doesn’t know . . . Oh, realize that he doesn’t know!’ She went to the other end of the room and stood watching him.
He heard the telephone from its black depths say:
‘How are you, my dear boy? My dear, dear boy; you’re safe for good.’ It gave him a disagreeable feeling. This was the mother of the young girl he intended to seduce. He intended to. He said:
‘I’m pretty well. Weakish. I’ve just come out of hospital. Four days ago.’ He was never going back to that bloody show. He had his application for demobilization in his pocket. The voice said:
‘Valentine thinks you are very ill. Very ill, indeed. She came to you because she thinks that.’ She hadn’t come, then, because . . . But, of course, she would not have. But she might have wanted them to spend Armistice Day together! She might have! A sense of disappointment went over him. Discouragement. He was very raw. That old devil, Campion! Still, one ought not to be as raw as that. He was saying, deferentially:
‘Oh, it was mental rather than physical. Though I had pneumonia all right.’ He went on saying that General Campion had put him in command over the escorts of German prisoners all through the Lines of several Armies. That really nearly had driven him mad. He couldn’t bear being a beastly gaoler.
Still — Still! — he saw those grey spectral shapes that had surrounded and interpenetrated all his later days. The image came over him with the mood of repulsion at odd moments — at the very oddest; without suggestion there floated before his eyes the image, the landscape of greyish forms. In thousands, seated on upturned buckets, with tins of fat from which they ate at their sides on the ground, holding up newspapers that were not really newspapers; on grey days. They were all round him. And he was their gaoler. He said: ‘A filthy job!’
Mrs Wannop’s voice said:
‘Still, it’s kept you alive for us!’
‘I sometimes wish it hadn’t!’ He was astonished that he had said it; he was astonished at the bitterness of his voice. He added: ‘I don’t mean that in cold blood of course,’ and he was again astonished at the deference in his voice. He was leaning down, positively, as if over a very distinguished, elderly, seated lady. He straightened himself. It struck him as distasteful hypocrisy to bow before an elderly lady when you entertained designs upon her daughter. Her voice said:
‘My dear boy . . . my dear, almost son . . . ’
Panic overcame him. There was no mistaking those tones. He looked round at Valentine. She had her hands together as if she were wringing them. She said, exploring his face painfully with her eyes:
‘Oh, be kind to her. Be kind to her . . . ’
Then there had been revelation of their . . . you couldn’t call it intimacy!
He never liked her Girl Guides’ uniform. He liked her best in a white sweater and a fawn-coloured short skirt. She had taken off her hat — her cowboyish hat. She had had her hair cut. Her fair hair.
Mrs Wannop said:
‘I’ve got to think that you have saved us . . . To-day I have to think that you have saved us . . . And of all you have suffered.’ Her voice was melancholy, slow, and lofty.
Intense, hollow reverberations filled the house. He said: ‘That’s nothing. That’s over. You don’t have to think of it.
The reverberations apparently reached her ear. She said:
‘I can’t hear you. There seems to be thunder.’
External silence came back. He said:
‘I was telling you not to think of my sufferings.’
‘Can’t you wait? You and she? Is there no . . . The reverberations began again. When he could again hear she was saying:
‘Has had to contemplate such contingencies arising for one’s child. It is useless to contend with the tendency of one’s age. But I had hoped . . . ’
The knocker below gave three isolated raps, but the echoes prolonged them. He said to Valentine:
‘That’s the knocking of a drunken man. But then half the population might well be drunk. If they knock again, go down and send them away.’
‘I’ll go in any case before they can knock again.’
She heard him say as she left the room — she could not help waiting for the end of the sentence: she must gather all that she could as to that agonizing interview between her mother and her lover. Equally, she must go or she would go mad. It was no good saying that her head was screwed on straight. It wasn’t. It was as if it contained two balls of string with two ends. On the one her mother pulled, on the other, he . . . She heard him say:
‘I don’t know. One has desperate need. Of talk. I have not really spoken to a soul for two years!’ Oh, blessed, adorable man! She heard him going on, getting into a stride of talk:
‘It’s that that’s desperate. I’ll tell you. I’ll give you an instance. I was carrying a boy. Under rifle-fire. His eye got knocked out. If I had left him where he was his eye would not have been knocked out. I thought at the time that, he might have been drowned, but I ascertained afterwards that the water never rose high enough. So I am responsible for the loss of his eye. It’s a sort of monomania. You see, I am talking of it now. It recurs. Continuously. And to have to bear it in complete solitude . . . ’
She was not frightened going now down the great stairs. They whispered, but she was like a calm Fatima. He was Sister Anne, and a brother, too. The enemy was fear. She must not fear. He rescued her from few. It is to a woman that you must come for refuge from regrets about a boy’s eyes.
Her physical interior turned within her. He had been under fire! He might never have been there, a grey badger, a tender, tender grey badger leaning down and holding a telephone. Explaining things with tender care. It was lovely how he spoke to her mother; it was lovely that they were all three together. But her mother would keep them apart. She was taking the only way to keep them apart if she was talking to him as she had talked to her.
There was no knowing. She had heard him say:
He was pretty well . . . ‘Thank God!’ . . . Weakish . . . ‘Ah, give me the chance to cherish him!’ . . . He had just come out of hospital. Four days ago. He had had pneumonia all right, but it had been mental rather than physical . . .
Ah, the dreadful thing about the whole war was that it had been — the suffering had been — mental rather than physical. And they had not thought of z . . . He had been under fire. She had pictured him always as being in a Base, thinking. If he had been killed it would not have been so dreadful for him. But now he had cane back with his obsessions and mental troubles . . . And he needed his woman. And her mother was forcing hm to abstain from his woman! That was what was terrible. He had suffered mental torture and now his pity was being worked on to make him abstain from the woman that could atone.
Hitherto, she had thought of the War as physical suffering only: now she saw it only as menta torture. Immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds. That remained. Men might stand up on hill, but the mental torture could not be expelled.
She ran suddenly down the steps that remained to her and was fumbling at the bolts of the front door. She was not skilful at that: she was thinking abort the conversation that dreadfully she felt to be continuing. She must stop the knocking. The knocker had stayed for just long enough for the abstention of an impatient man knocking on a great door. Her mother was too cunning for them. With the cunning that makes the mother wild-duck tumble apparently broken-winged just under your feet to decoy you away from her little things. STORGE, Gilbert White calls it! For, of course, she could never have his lips upon hers when she thought of that crafty, beloved, grey Eminence sitting at home and shuddering . . . But she would!
She found the gadget that opened the door — the third she had tried amongst incomprehensible, painted century-old fixings. The door came open exactly upon a frustrated sound. A man was being propelled towards her by the knocker to which he held . . . She had saved his thoughts. Without the interruption of the knocker he might be able to see that mother’s device was just cunning. They were cunning, the great Victorians . . . Oh, poor mother!
A horrible man in uniform looked at her hatefully, with piercing, hollow, black eyes in a fallen away face. He said:
‘I must see that fellow Tietjens; you’re not Tietjens!’ As if she were defrauding him. ‘It’s urgent,’ he said. ‘About a sonnet. I was dismissed the Army yesterday. His doing. And Campion’s . His wife’s lover!’
She said fiercely:
‘He’s engaged. You can’t see him. If you want to see him you must wait!’ She felt horror that Tietjens should ever have had to do with such a brute beast. He was unshaven; black. And filled with hatred. He raised his voice to say:
‘I’m McKechnie. Captain McKechnie of the ninth. Vice-Chancellor’s Latin Prizeman! One of the Old Pals!’ He added: ‘Tietjens forced himself in on the Old Pals!’
She felt the contempt of the scholar’s daughter for the Prizeman; she felt that Apollo with Admetus was as nothing for sheer disgust compared with Tietjens buried in a band of such beings.
‘It is not necessary to shout. You can come in and wait.’
At all costs Tietjens must finish his conversation with her mother undisturbed. She led this fellow round the corner of the hall. A sort of wireless emanation seemed to connect her with the upper conversation. She was aware of it going on, through the wall above, diagonally; then through the ceiling in perpendicular waves. It seemed to work inside her head, her end of it, likes waves, churning her mind.
She opened the shutters of the empty room round the corner, on the right. She did not wish to be alone in the dark with this hating man. She did not dare to go up and warn Tietjens. At all costs he must not be disturbed. It was not fair to call what her mother was doing, cunning. It was instinct, set in her breast by the Almighty, as the saying is . . . Still, it was early Victorian instinct! Tremendously cunning in itself.
The hateful man was grumbling:
‘He’s been sold up, I see. That’s what comes of selling your wife to Generals. To get promotion. They’re a cunning lot. But he overreached himself. Campion went back on him. But Campion, too, overreached himself . . .!
She was looking out of the window, across the green square. Light was an agreeable thing. You could breathe more deeply when it was light . . . Early Victorian instinct! . . . The Mid-Victorians had had to loosen the bonds. Her mother, to be in the van of Mid-Victorian thought, had had to allow virtue to ‘irregular unions’. As long as they were high-minded. But the high-minded do not consummate irregular unions. So all her books had showed you high-minded creatures contracting irregular unions of the mind or of sympathy; but never carrying them to the necessary conclusion. They would have been ethically at liberty but they didn’t. They ran with the ethical hare, but hunted with the ecclesiastical hounds . . . Still, of course, she could not go back on her premises just because it was her own daughter!
‘I beg your pardon!’ to that fellow. He had been saying:
‘They’re too damn cunning. They overreach themselves!’
Her mind spun. She did not know what he had been talking about. Her mind retained his words, but she did not understand what they meant. She had been sunk in the contemplation of Early Victorian Thought. She remembered the long — call it liaison’— of Edith Ethel Duchemin and little Vincent Macmaster. Edith Ethel, swathed in opaque crepe, creeping widow-like along the very palings she could see across the square, to her high-minded adulteries, amidst the whispered applause of Mid-Victorian England. So circumspect and right! . . . She had her thoughts to keep, all right. Well under control! . . . Well, she had been patient.
The man said agonizedly:
‘My filthy, bloody, swinish uncle, Vincent Macmaster. Sir Vincent Macmaster! And this fellow Tietjens. All in a league against me . . . Campion too . . . But he overreached himself . . . A man got into Tietjens’ wife’s bedroom. At the Base. And Campion sent him to the front. To get him killed. Her other lover, you see?’
She listened. She listened with all her attention straining. She wanted to be able to . . . She did not know what she wanted to be able to do! The man said:
‘Major-General Lord Edward Campion, V.C., K.C.M.G., tantivy turn tum, etcetera. Too cunning. Too b —— y cunning by half. Sent Tietjens to the front too to get him killed. Me too. We all three went up to Division in a boxcar — Tietjens, his wife’s lover, and me. Tietjens confessed that bleedin’ swab. Like a beastly monk. Told him that when you die —in articulo mortis, but you won’t understand what that means! — your faculties are so numbed that you feel neither pain nor fear. He said that death was no more than an anaesthetic. And that trembling, whining pup drank it in . . . I can see them now. In a box-car. In a cutting.’
‘You’ve had shell-shock? You’ve got shell-shock now!’
He said, like a badger snapping:
‘I haven’t. I’ve got a bad wife. Like Tietjens. At least she isn’t a bad wife. She’s a woman with appetites. She satisfies her appetites. That’s why they’re hoofing me out of the Army. But at least, I don’t sell her to Generals. To Major-General Lord Edward Campion, V.C., K.C.M.G., etc. I got divorce leave and didn’t divorce her. Then I got second divorce leave. And didn’t divorce her. It’s against my principles. She lives with a British Museum Palaeontologist and he’d lose his job. I owe that fellow Tietjens a hundred and seventy quid. Over my second divorce leave. I can’t pay him. I didn’t divorce, but I’ve spent the money. Going about with my wife and her friend. On principle!’
He spoke so inexhaustibly and fast, and his topics changed so quickly that she could do no more than let the words go into her ears. She listened to the words and stored them up. One main line of topic held her; otherwise she could not think. She only let her eyes run over the friezes of the opposite houses. She gathered that Tietjens had been unjustly dismissed by Campion, whilst saving two lives under fire. McKechnie grudgingly admitted heroism to Tietjens in order to blacken the General. The General wanted Sylvia Tietjens. So as to get her he had sent Tietjens into the hottest part of the line. But Tietjens had refused to get killed. He had a charmed life. That was Provvy spiting the General. All the same, Providence could not like Tietjens, a cully who comforted his wife’s lover. A dirty thing to do. When Tietjens would not be killed the General came down into the Line and strafed him to Hell. Didn’t she, Valentine, understand why? He wanted Tietjens cashiered so that he, Campion, might be less disgustingly disgraced for taking up with the wife. But he had overreached himself. You can’t be cashiered for not being on the spot to lick a General’s boots when you are saving life under rifle-fire. So the General had to withdraw his words and find Tietjens a dirty scavenger’s job. Made a bleedin’ gaoler of him!
She was standing in the doorway so that this fellow should not run upstairs to where the conversation was going on. The windows consoled her. She only gathered that Tietjens had had great mental trouble. He must have. She knew nothing of either Sylvia Tietjens or the General except for their beautiful looks. But Tietjens must have had great mental trouble. Dreadful!
It was hateful. How could she stand it! But she must, to keep this fellow from Tietjens, who was talking to her mother.
And . . . if his wife was a bad wife, didn’t it . . .
The windows were consoling. A little dark boy of an officer passed the railings of the house, looking up at the windows.
McKechnie had talked himself hoarse. He was coughing. He began to complain that his uncle, Sir Vincent Mac-master, had refused him an introduction to the Foreign Office. He had made a scene at the Macmasters’ already that morning. Lady Macmaster — a haggard wanton, if there ever was one — had refused him access to his uncle, who was suffering from nervous collapse. He said suddenly:
‘Now about this sonnet: I’m at least going to show this fellow . . . ’ Two more officers, one short, the other tall, passed the window. They were laughing and calling out ‘ . . . that I’m a better Latinist than he . . . ’
She sprang into the hall. Thunder again had come from the door.
In the light outside a little officer with his half profile towards her seemed to be listening. Beside him was a thin lady, very tall. At the bottom of the steps were two laughing Officers. The boy, his eye turned towards her, with a shrinking timidity you would have said, exclaimed in a soft voice:
‘We’ve come for Major Tietjens . . . This is Nancy. Of Bailleul, you know!’ He had turned his face still more towards the lady. She was unreasonably thin and tall, the face of her skin drawn. She was much the older. Much. And hostile. She must have put on a good deal of colour. Purplish. Dressed in black. She ducked a little.
‘I’m afraid . . . He’s engaged . . .
The boy said:
‘Oh, but he’ll see us. This is Nancy, you know!’ One of the officers said:
‘We said we’d look old Tietjens up . . . ’ He had only one arm. She was losing her head. The boy had a blue band round his hat. She said:
‘But he’s dreadfully urgently engaged . . . ’
The boy turned his face full on her with a gesture of entreaty.
‘Oh, but . . . ’ he said. She nearly fell, stepping back. His eye-socket contained nothing: a disorderly reddish scar. It made him appear to be peering blindly; the absence of the one eye blotted out the existence of the other. He said in Oriental pleading tones:
‘The Major saved my life; I must see him!’ The sleeveless officer called out:
‘We said we’d look old Tietjens up . . . IT’s armi . . . hick . . . At Rouen in the pub . . . ’ The boy continued:
‘I’m Aranjuez, you know! Aranjuez . . . ’ They had only been married last week. He was going to the Indian Army to-morrow. They must spend Armistice Day with the Major. Nothing would be anything without the Major. They had a table at the Holborn.
The third officer: he was a very dark, silky-voiced, young Major, crept slowly up the steps, leaning on a stick, his dark eyes on her face.
‘It is an engagement, you know!’ he said. He had a voice like silk and bold eyes. ‘We really did make an engagement to come to Tietjens’ house to-day . . . whenever it happened . . . a lot of us. In Rouen. Those who were in Number Two.’
‘The C.O.’s to be there. He’s dying, you know. And it would be nothing without the Major . . . ’
She turned her back on him. She was crying because of the pleading tones of his voice and his small hands. Tietjens was coming down the stairs, mooning slowly.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08