Standing at the telephone Tietjens had recognized at once that this was a mother, pleading with infinite statesmanship for her daughter. There was no doubt about that. How could he continue to . . . to entertain designs on the daughter of this voice? . . . But he did. He couldn’t. He did. He couldn’t. He did . . . You may expel Nature by pleading . . . tamen usque recur . . . She must recline in his arms before midnight. Having cut her hair had made her face look longer. Infinitely attracting. Less downright: with a refinement. Melancholy! One must comfort.
There was nothing to answer to the mother on sentimental lines. He wanted Valentine Wannop enough to take her away. That was the overwhelming answer to Mrs Wannop’s sophistications of the advanced writer of a past generation. It answered her then; still more it answered her now, today, when a man could stand up. Still, he could not overwhelm an elderly, distinguished and inaccurate lady! It is not done.
He took refuge in the recital of facts. Mrs Wannop, weakening her ground, asked:
‘Isn’t there any legal way out? Miss Wanostrocht tells me your wife . . . ’
‘I can’t divorce my wife. She’s the mother of my child. I can’t live with her, but I can’t divorce her.’
Mrs Wannop took it lying down again, resuming her proper line. She said that he knew the circumstances and that if his conscience . . . And so on and so on. She believed, however, in arranging things quietly if it could be done. He was looking down mechanically, listening. He read that our client Mrs Tietjens of Groby-in-Cleveland requests us to inform you that after the late occurrences at a Base Camp in France she thinks it useless that you and she should contemplate a common life for the future . . . He had contemplated that set of facts enough already. Campion during his leave had taken up his quarters at Groby. He did not suppose that Sylvia had become his mistress. It was improbable in the extreme. Unthinkable! He had gone to Groby with Tietjens’ sanction in order to sound his prospects as candidate for the Division. That is to say that, ten months ago, Tietjens had told the General that he might make Groby his headquarters as it had been for years. But, in that communication trench he had not told Tietjens that he had been at Groby. He had said ‘London’. Specifically.
That might be an adulterer’s guilty conscience, but it was more likely that he did not want Tietjens to know that he had been under Sylvia’s influence. He had gone for Tietjens bald-headed, beyond all reason for a Commander-in-Chief speaking to a Battalion Commander. Of course he might have the wind up at being in the trenches and being kept waiting so near the area of a real strafe as he might well have taken that artillery lark to be. He might have let fly just to relieve his nerves. But it was more likely that Sylvia had bewildered his old brains into thinking that he, Tietjens, was such a villain that he ought not to be allowed to defile the face of the earth. Still less a trench under General Campion’s control.
Campion had afterwards taken back his words very handsomely — with a sort of distant and lofty deprecation. He had even said that Tietjens had deserved a decoration, but that there were only a certain number of decorations now to be given and that he imagined that Tietjens would prefer it to be given to a man to whom it would be of more advantage. And he did not like to recommend for decoration an officer so closely connected with himself. He said this before members of his staff . . . Levin and some others. And he went on, rather pompously, that he was going to employ Tietjens on a very responsible and delicate duty. He had been asked by H.M. Government to put the charge over all enemy prisoners between Army H.Q. and the sea in charge of an officer of an exceptionally trustworthy nature, of high social position and weight. In view of the enemy’s complaints to the Hague of ill-treatment of prisoners.
So Tietjens had lost all chance of distinction, command pay, cheerfulness, or even equanimity. And all tangible proof that he had saved life under fire — if the clumsy mud-bath of his incompetence could be called saving life under fire. He could go on being discredited by Sylvia till kingdom come, with nothing to show on the other side but the uncreditable fact that he had been a gaoler. Clever old General! Admirable old godfather-in-law!
Tietjens astonished himself by saying to himself that if he had any proof that Campion had committed adultery with Sylvia he would kill him! Call him out and kill him . . . That of course was absurd. You do not kill a General Officer commanding in chief an Army. And a good General too. His reorganization of that Army had been everything that was ship-shape and soldierly; his handling it in the subsequent fighting had been impeccably admirable. It was in fact the apotheosis of the Regular Soldier. That alone was a benefit to have conferred on the country. He had also contributed by his political action to forcing the single command on the Government. When he had gone to Groby he had let it be quite widely known that he was prepared to fight that Division of Cleveland on the political issue of single command or no single command — and to fight it in his absence in France. Sylvia no doubt would have run the campaign for him!
Well, that, and the arrival of the American troops in large quantities, had no doubt forced the hand of Downing Street. There could no longer have been any question of evacuating the Western Front. Those swine in their corridors were scotched. Campion was a good man. He was good — impeccable! — in his profession he had deserved well of his country. Yet, if Tietjens had had proof that he had committed adultery with his, Tietjens’, wife he would call him out. Quite properly. In the eighteenth-century tradition for soldiers. The old fellow could not refuse. He was of eighteenth-century tradition too.
Mrs Wannop was informing him that she had had the news of Valentine’s having gone to him from a Miss Wanostrocht. She had, she said, at first agreed that it was proper that Valentine should look after him if he were mad and destitute. But this Miss Wanostrocht had gone on to say that she had heard from Lady Macmaster that Tietjens and her daughter had had a liaison lasting for years. And . . . Mrs Wannop’s voice hesitated . . . Valentine seemed to have announced to Miss Wanostrocht that she intended to live with Tietjens. ‘Maritally’, Miss Wanostrocht had expressed it.
It was the last word alone of Mrs Wannop’s talk that came home to him. People would talk. About him. It was his fate. And hers. Their identities interested Mrs Wannop, as novelist. Novelists live on gossip. But it was all one to him.
The word ‘Maritally!’ burst out of the telephone like a blue light! That girl with the refined face, the hair cut longish, but revealing its thinner refinement . . . That girl longed for him as he for her! The longing had refined her face. He must comfort . . .
He was aware that for a long time, from below his feet a voice had been murmuring on and on. Always one voice. Who could Valentine find to talk or to listen to for so long? Old Macmaster was almost the only name that came to his mind. Macmaster would not harm her. He felt her being united to his by a current. He had always felt that her being was united to his by a current. This then was the day!
The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him. There was no other way to look at it. It had made him reach a point at which he would no longer stand unbearable things. At any rate from his equals! He counted Campion as his equal; few other people, of course. And what he wanted he was prepared to take . . . What he had been before, God alone knew. A Younger Son? A Perpetual Second-in-Command? Who knew? But to-day the world changed. Feudalism was finished; its last vestiges were gone. It held no place for him. He was going — he was damn well going! — to make a place in it for . . . A man could now stand up on a hill, so he and she could surely get into some hole together!
‘Oh, I’m not destitute, but I was penniless this morning. So I ran out and sold a cabinet to Sir John Robertson. The old fellow had offered me a hundred and forty pounds for it before the war. He would only pay forty to-day — because of the immorality of my character.’ Sylvia had completely got hold of the old collector. He went on: ‘The Armistice came too suddenly. I was determined to spend it with Valentine. I expected a cheque to-morrow. For some books I’ve sold. And Sir John was going down to the country. I had got into an old suit of mufti and I hadn’t a civilian hat.’ Reverberations came from the front door. He said earnestly:
‘Mrs Wannop . . . If Valentine and I can, we will . . . But to-day’s to-day! . . . If we can’t we can find a hole to get into . . . I’ve heard of an antiquity shop near Bath. No special regularity of life is demanded of old furniture dealers. We should be quite happy! I have also been recommended to apply for a vice-consulate. In Toulon, I believe. I’m quite capable of taking a practical hold of life!’
The Department of Statistics would transfer him. All the Government Departments, staffed of course by non-combatants, were aching to transfer those who had served to any other old Department.
A great many voices came from below stairs. He could not leave Valentine to battle with a great number of voices. He said:
‘I’ve got to go!’ Mrs Wannop’s voice answered: ‘Yes, do. I’m very tired.’
He came mooning slowly down the stairs. He smiled. He exclaimed:
‘Come up, you fellows. There’s some Hooch for you!’ He had a royal aspect. An all-powerfulness. They pushed past her and then past him on the stairs. They all ran up the stairs, even the man with the stick. The armless man shook hands with his left hand as he ran. They exclaimed enthusiasms . . . On all celebrations it is proper for His Majesty’s officers to exclaim and to run upstairs when whisky is mentioned. How much the more so to-day!
They were alone now in the hall, he on a level with her. He looked into her eyes. He smiled. He had never smiled at her before. They had always been such serious people. He said:
‘We shall have to celebrate! But I’m not mad. I’m not destitute!’ He had run out to get money to celebrate with her. He had meant to go and fetch her. To celebrate that day together.
She wanted to say: ‘I am falling at your feet. My arms are embracing your knees!’
Actually she said:
‘I suppose it is proper to celebrate together to-day!’
Her mother had made their union. For they looked at each other for a long time. What had happened to their eyes? It was as if they had been bathed in soothing fluid: they could look the one at the other. It was no longer the one looking and the other averting the eyes, in alternation. Her mother had spoken between them. They might never have spoken of themselves. In one heart-beat apiece whilst she had been speaking they had been made certain that their union had already lasted many years . . . It was warm; their hearts beat quietly. They had already lived side by side for many years. They were quiet in a cavern. The Pompeian red bowed over them; the stairways whispered up and up. They would be alone together now. For ever!
She knew that he desired to say ‘I hold you in my arms. My lips are on your forehead. Your breasts are being hurt by my chest!’
‘Who have you got in the dining-room? It used to be the dining-room!’
Dreadful fear went through her. She said:
‘A man called McKechnie. Don’t go in!’
He went towards danger, mooning along. She would have caught at his sleeve, but Caesar’s wife must be as brave as Caesar. Nevertheless she slipped in first. She had slipped passed him before at a hanging-stile. A Kentish kissing-gate. She said:
‘Captain Tietjens is here!’ She did not know whether he was a Captain or a Major. Some called him one, some another.
McKechnie looked merely grumbling: not homicidal. He grumbled:
‘Look here, my bloody swine of an uncle, your pal, has had me dismissed from the army!’
‘Chuck it. You know you’ve been demobilized to go to Asia Minor for the Government. Come and celebrate.’ McKechnie had a dirty envelope. Tietjens said: ‘Oh, yes. The sonnet. You can translate it under Valentine’s inspection. She’s the best Latinist in England!’ He said: ‘Captain McKechnie: Miss Wannop!’
McKechnie took her hand:
‘It isn’t fair if you’re such a damn good Latinist as that . . . ’ he grumbled.
‘You’ll have to have a shave before you come out with us!’ Tietjens said.
They three went up the stairs together, but they two were alone. They were going on their honeymoon journey . . . The bride’s going away! . . . She ought not to think such things. It was perhaps blasphemy. You go away in a neatly shining coupe with cockaded footmen!
He had re-arranged the room. He had positively rearranged the room. He had removed the toilet-furnishings in green canvas: the camp bed — three officers on it — was against the wall. That was his thoughfulness. He did not want these people to have it suggested that she slept with him there . . . Why not? Aranjuez and the hostile thin lady sat on green canvas pillows on the dais. Bottles leaned against each other on the green canvas table. They all held glasses. There were in all five of H.M. Officers. Where had they come from? There were also three mahogany chairs with green rep, sprung seats. Fat seats. Glasses were on the mantelshelf. The thin, hostile lady held a glass of dark red in an unaccustomed manner.
They all stood up and shouted:
‘McKechnie! Good old McKechnie!’ ‘Hurray McKechnie!’ ‘McKechnie!’ opening their mouths to the full extent and shouting with all their lungs. You could see that!
A swift pang of jealousy went through her.
McKechnie turned his face away. He said:
‘The Pals! The old pals!’ He had tears in his eyes.
A shouting officer sprang from the camp bed — her nuptial couch! Did she like to see three officers bouncing about on her nuptial couch. What an Alcestis! She sipped sweet port! It had been put into her hand by the soft, dark, armless major! The shouting officer slapped Tietjens violently on the back. The officer shouted:
‘I’ve picked up a skirt . . . A proper little bit of fluff, sir!’
Her jealousy was assuaged. Her lids felt cold. They had been wet for an instant or so: the moisture had cooled! It’s salt of course! . . . She belonged to this unit! She was attached to him . . . for rations and discipline. So she was attached to it. Oh, happy day! Happy, happy day! . . . There was a song with words like that. She had never expected to see it. She had never expected . . .
Little Aranjuez came up to her. His eyes were soft, like a deer’s, his voice and hands caressing . . . No, he had only one eye! Oh, dreadful! He said:
‘You are the Major’s dear friend . . . He made a sonnet in two and a half minutes!’ He meant to say that Tietjens had saved his life.
‘Isn’t he wonderful!’ Why?
‘He can do anything! Anything! . . . He ought to have been . . . ’
A gentlemanly officer with an eyeglass wandered in . . . Of course they had left the front door open. He said with an exquisite voice:
‘Hullo, Major! Hullo, Monty . . . Hullo, the Pals!’ and strolled to the mantelpiece to take a glass. They all yelled: ‘Hullo, Duckfoot . . . Hullo, Brassface I’ He took his glass delicately and said: ‘Here’s to hoping! . . . The mess!’
‘Our only V.C . . . ’ Swift jealousy went through her. Aranjuez said:
‘I say . . . that he . . . ’ Good Boy! Dear Boy! Dear little brother! . . . Where was her own brother? Perhaps they were not going to be on terms any more! All around them the world was roaring. They were doing their best to make a little roaring unit there: the tide creeping into silent places!
The thin woman in black on the dais was looking at them. She drew her skirts together. Aranjuez had his little hands up as if he were going to lay them pleadingly on her breast. Why pleadingly? . . . Begging her to forget his hideous eye-socket. He said:
‘Wasn’t it splendid . . . wasn’t it ripping of Nancy to marry me like this? . . . We shall all be such friends.’
The thin woman caught her eye. She seemed more than ever to draw her skirts away though she never moved . . . That was because she, Valentine, was Tietjens’ mistress . . . There’s a picture in the National Gallery called Titian’s Mistress . . . She passed perhaps with them all for having . . . The woman smiled at her: a painfully forced smile. For Armistice . . . She, Valentine, was outside the pale. Except for holidays and days of National rejoicing . . .
She felt . . . nakedish, at her left side. Sure enough Tietjens was gone. He had taken McKechnie to shave. The man with the eyeglass looked critically round the shouting room. He fixed her and bore towards her. He stood over, his legs wide apart. He said:
‘Hullo! Who’d have thought of seeing you here? Met you at the Prinsep’s . Friend of friend Hun’s, aren’t you?’
‘Hullo, Aranjuez Better?’
It was like a whale speaking to a shrimp: but still more like an uncle speaking to a favourite nephew! Aranjuez blushed with sheer pleasure. He faded away as if in awe before tremendous eminences. For him she too was an eminence. His life-hero’s . . . woman!
The V.C. was in the mood to argue about politics. He always was. She had met him twice during evenings at friends’ called Prinsep. She had not known him because of his eyeglasses: he must have put that up along with his ribbon. It took your breath away: like a drop of blood illuminated by a light that never was.
‘They say you’re receiving for Tietjens! Who’d have thought it? you a pro-German, and he such a sound Tory. Squire of Groby and all, eh what?’
‘Know Groby?’ He squinted through his glasses round the room. ‘Looks like a mess this . . . Only needs the Vie Parisienne and the Pink Un . . . Suppose he has moved his stuff to Groby. He’ll be going to live at Groby, now. The war’s over!’
‘But you and old Tory Tietjens in the same room . . . By Jove the war’s over . . . The lion lying down with the lamb’s nothing . . . ’ he exclaimed ‘Oh, damn! Oh, damn, damn, damn . . . I say . . . I didn’t mean it . . . Don’t cry. My dear little girl. My dear Miss Wannop. One of the best I always thought you. You don’t suppose . . . ’
‘I’m crying because of Groby . . . It’s a day to cry on anyhow . . . You’re quite a good sort, really!’
‘Thank you! Thank you! Drink some more port! He’s a good fat old beggar, old Tietjens. A good officer!’ He added: ‘Drink a lot more port!’
He had been the most asinine, creaking, ‘what about your king and country’, shocked, outraged and speechless creature of all the many who for years had objected to her objecting to men being unable to stand up . . . Now he was a rather kind brother!
They were all yelling.
‘Good old Tietjens! Good old Fat Man! Pre-war Hooch! He’d be the one to get it.’ No one like Fat Man Tietjens! He lounged at the door; easy; benevolent. In uniform now. That was better. An officer, yelling like an enraged Redskin, dealt him an immense blow behind the shoulder blades. He staggered, smiling, into the centre of the room. An officer pushed her into the centre of the room. She was against him. Khaki encircled them. They began to yell and to prance, joining hands. Others waved the bottles and smashed underfoot the glasses. Gipsies break glasses at their weddings. The bed was against the wall. She did not like the bed to be against the wall. It had been brushed by . . .
They were going round them: yelling in unison: ‘Over here! Porn Pom! Over here! Porn Porn! That’s the word, that’s the word. Over here . . .
At least they weren’t over there! They were prancing. The whole world round them was yelling and prancing round. They were the centre of unending roaring circles. The man with the eyeglass had stuck a half-crown in his other eye. He was well-meaning. A brother. She had a brother with the V.C. All in the family.
Tietjens was stretching out his two hands from the waist. It was incomprehensible. His right hand was behind her back, his left in her right hand. She was frightened. She was amazed. Did you ever! He was swaying slowly. The elephant! They were dancing! Aranjuez was hanging on to the tall woman like a kid on a telegraph pole. The officer who had said he had picked up a little bit of fluff . . . well, he had! He had run out and fetched it. It wore white cotton gloves and a flowered hat. It said: ‘Ow! Now!’ . . . There was a fellow with a most beautiful voice. He led: better than a gramophone. Better . . .
Les petites marionettes, font! font! font! . . .
On an elephant. A dear, meal-sack elephant. She was setting out on . . .
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08