The one thing that stood out sharply in Tietjens’ mind when at last, with a stiff glass of rum punch, his, officer’s pocket-book complete with pencil because he had to draft before eleven a report as to the desirability of giving his unit special lectures on the causes of the war, and a cheap French novel on a camp chair beside him, he sat in his fleabag with six army blankets over him — the one thing that stood out as sharply as Staff tabs was that that ass Levin was rather pathetic. His unnailed bootsoles very much cramping his action on the frozen hillside, he had alternately hobbled a step or two, and, reduced to inaction, had grabbed at Tietjens’ elbow, while he brought out breathlessly puzzled sentences . . .
There resulted a singular mosaic of extraordinary, bright-coloured and melodramatic statements, for Levin, who first hobbled down the hill with Tietjens and then hobbled back up, clinging to his arm, brought out monstrosities of news about Sylvia’s activities, without any sequence, and indeed without any apparent aim except for the great affection he had for Tietjens himself . . . All sorts or singular things seemed to have been going on round him in the vague zone, outside all this engrossed and dust-coloured world — in the vague zone that held . . . Oh, the civilian population, tea-parties short of butter! . . .
And as Tietjens, seated on his hams, his knees up, pulled the soft woolliness of his flea-bag under his chin and damned the paraffin heater for letting out a new and singular stink, it seemed to him that this affair was like coming back after two months and trying to get the hang of battalion orders . . . You come back to the familiar, slightly battered mess ante-room. You tell the mess orderly to bring you the last two months’ orders, for it is as much as your life is worth not to know what is or is not in them . . . There might be an A.C.I. ordering you to wear your helmet back to the front, or a battalion order that Mills bombs must always be worn in the left breast pocket. Or there might be the detail for putting on a new gas helmet! . . . The orderly hands you a dishevelled mass of faintly typewritten matter, thumbed out of all chance of legibility, with the orders for November 26 fastened inextricably into the middle of those for the 1st of December, and those for the 10th, 25th and 29th missing altogether . . . And all that you gather is that headquarters has some exceedingly insulting things to say about A Company; that a fellow called Hartopp, whom you don’t know, has been deprived of his commission; that at a court of inquiry held to ascertain deficiencies in C Company Captain Wells — poor Wells I— has been assessed at £27 11 4d., which he is requested to pay forthwith to the adjutant . . .
So, on that black hillside, going and returning, what stuck out for Tietjens was that Levin had been taught by the general to consider that he, Tietjens, was an extraordinarily violent chap who would certainly knock Levin down when he told him that his wife was at the camp gates; that Levin considered himself to be the descendant of an ancient Quaker family . . . (Tietjens had said Good God! at that); that the mysterious ‘rows’ to which in his fear Levin had been continually referring had been successive letters from Sylvia to the harried general . . . and that Sylvia had accused him, Tietjens, of stealing two pairs of her best sheets . . . There was a great deal more. But having faced what he considered to be the worst of the situation, Tietjens set himself coolly to recapitulate every aspect of his separation from his wife. He had meant to face every aspect, not that merely social one upon which, hitherto, he had automatically imagined their disunion to rest. For, as he saw it, English people of good position consider that the basis of all marital unions or disunions is the maxim: No scenes. Obviously for the sake of the servants — who are the same thing as the public. No scenes, then, for the sake of the public. And indeed, with him, the instinct for privacy — as to his relationships, his passions, or even as to his most unimportant motives — was as strong as the instinct of life itself. He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book.
And, until that afternoon, he had imagined that his wife, too, would rather be dead than have her affairs canvassed by the other ranks . . . But that assumption had to be gone over. Revised . . . Of course he might say she had gone mad. But, if he said she had gone mad he would have to revise a great deal of their relationships, so it would be as broad as it was long . . .
The doctor’s batman, from the other end of the hut, said:
Poor — 0 Nine Morgan . . . ’ in a sing-song, mocking voice . . .
For though, hours before, Tietjens had appointed this moment of physical ease that usually followed on his splurging heavily down on to his creaking camp-bed in the doctor’s lent hut, for the cool consideration of his relations with his wife, it was not turning out a very easy matter. The hut was unreasonably warm: he had invited Mackenzie — whose real name turned out to be McKechnie, James Grant McKechnie — to occupy the other end of it. The other end of it was divided from him by a partition of canvas and a striped Indian curtain. And McKechnie, who was unable to sleep, had elected to carry on a long — an interminable — conversation with the doctor’s batman.
The doctor’s batman also could not sleep and, like McKechnie, was more than a little barmy on the crumpet — an almost non-English-speaking Welshman from God knows what up-country valley. He had shaggy hair like a Caribbean savage and two dark, resentful wall-eyes; being a miner he sat on his heels more comfortably than on a chair and his almost incomprehensible voice went on in a low sort of ululation, with an occasionally and startlingly comprehensible phrase sticking out now and then.
It was troublesome, but orthodox enough. The batman had been blown literally out of most of his senses and the VIth Battalion of the Glamorganshire Regiment by some German high explosive or other, more than a year ago. But before then, it appeared, he had been in McKechnie’s own company in that battalion. It was perfectly in order that an officer should gossip with a private formerly of his own platoon or company, especially on first meeting him after long separation caused by a casualty to one or the other. And McKechnie had first re-met this scoundrel Jonce, or Evanns, at eleven that night — two and a half hours before. So there, in the light of a single candle stuck in a stout bottle they were tranquilly at it: the batman sitting on his heels by the officer’s head; the officer, in his pyjamas, sprawling half out of bed over his pillows, stretching his arms abroad, occasionally yawning, occasionally asking: ‘What became of Company-Sergeant-Major Hoyt?’ . . . They might talk till half-past three.
But that was troublesome to a gentleman seeking to recapture what exactly were his relations with his wife.
Before the doctor’s batman had interrupted him by speaking startlingly of 0 Nine Morgan, Tietjens had got as far as what follows with his recapitulation: The lady, Mrs Tietjens, was certainly without mitigation a whore; he himself equally certainly and without qualification had been physically faithful to the lady and their marriage tie. In law, then, he was absolutely in the right of it. But that fact had less weight than a cobweb. For after the last of her high-handed divagations from fidelity he had accorded to the lady the shelter of his roof and of his name. She had lived for years beside him, apparently on terms of hatred and miscomprehension. But certainly in conditions of chastity. Then, during the tenuous and lugubrious small hours, before his coming out there again to France, she had given evidence of a madly vindictive passion for his person. A physical passion at any rate.
Well, those were times of mad, fugitive emotions. But even in the calmest times a man could not expect to have a woman live with him as the mistress of his house and mother of his heir without establishing some sort of claim upon him. They hadn’t slept together. But was it not possible that a constant measuring together of your minds was as proper to give you a proprietary right as the measuring together of the limb? It was perfectly possible. Well then . . .
What, in the eyes of God, severed a union? . . . Certainly he had imagined — until that very afternoon — that their union had been cut, as the tendon of Achilles is cut in a hamstringing, by Sylvia’s clear voice, outside his house, saying in the dawn to a cabman, ‘Paddington!’ . . . He tried to go with extreme care through every detail of their last interview in his still nearly dark drawing-room at the other end of which she had seemed a mere white phosphorescence . . .
They had, then, parted for good on that day. He was going out to France; she into retreat in a convent near Birkenhead — to which place you go from Paddington. Well then, that was one parting. That, surely, set him free for the girl!
He took a sip from the glass of rum and water on the canvas chair beside him. It was tepid and therefore beastly. He had ordered the batman to bring it him hot, strong and sweet, because he had been certain of an incipient cold. He had refrained from drinking it because he had remembered that he was to think cold-bloodedly of Sylvia, and he made a practice of never touching alcohol when about to engage in protracted reflection. That had always been his theory: it had been immensely and empirically strengthened by his warlike experience. On the Somme, in the summer, when stand-to had been at four in the morning, you would come out of your dug-out and survey, with a complete outfit of pessimistic thoughts, a dim, grey, repulsive landscape over a dull and much too thin parapet. There would be repellent posts, altogether too fragile entanglements of barbed wire, broken wheels, detritus, coils of mist over the positions of revolting Germans. Grey stillness; grey horrors, in front, and behind amongst the civilian populations! And clear, hard outlines to every thought . . . Then your batman brought you a cup of tea with a little — quite a little — rum in it. In three of four minutes the whole world changed beneath your eyes. The wire aprons became jolly efficient protections that your skill had devised and for which you might thank God; the broken wheels were convenient landmarks for raiding at night in No Man’s Land. You had to confess that, when you had re-erected that parapet, after it had last been jammed in, your company had made a pretty good job of it. And, even as far as the Germans were concerned, you were there to kill the swine; but you didn’t feel that the thought of them would make you sick beforehand . . . You were, in fact, a changed man. With a mind of a different specific gravity. You could not even tell that the roseate touches of dawn on the mists were not really the effects of rum . . .
Therefore he had determined not to touch his grog. But his throat had gone completely dry; so, mechanically, he had reached out for something to drink, checking himself when he had realized what he was doing. But why should his throat be dry? He hadn’t been on the drink. He had not even had any dinner. And why was he in this extraordinary state? . . . For he was in an extraordinary state. It was because the idea had suddenly occurred to him that his parting from his wife had set him free for his girl . . . The idea had till then never entered his head.
He said to himself: We must go methodically into this! Methodically into the history of his last day on earth . . .
Because he swore that when he had come out to France this time he had imagined that he was cutting loose from this earth. And during the months that he had been there he had seemed to have no connection with any earthly things. He had imagined Sylvia in her convent and done with; Miss Wannop he had not been able to imagine at all. But she had seemed to be done with.
It was difficult to get his mind back to that night. You cannot force your mind to a deliberate, consecutive recollection unless you are in the mood; then it will do whether you want it to or not . . . He had had then, three months or so ago, a very painful morning with his wife, the pain coming from a suddenly growing conviction that his wife was forcing herself into an attitude of caring for him. Only an attitude probably, because, in the end, Sylvia was a lady and would not allow herself really to care for the person in the world for whom it would be least decent of her to care . . . But she would be perfectly capable of forcing herself to take that attitude if she thought that it would enormously inconvenience himself . . .
But that wasn’t the way, wasn’t the way, wasn’t the way, his excited mind said to himself. He was excited because it was possible that Miss Wannop, too, might not have meant their parting to be a permanency. That opened up an immense perspective. Nevertheless, the contemplation of that immense perspective was not the way to set about a calm analysis of his relations with his wife. The facts of the story must be stated before the moral. He said to himself that he must put, in exact language, as if he were making a report for the use of garrison headquarters, the history of himself in his relationship to his wife . . . And to Miss Wannop, of course. ‘Better put it into writing,’ he said.
Well then. He clutched at his pocket-book and wrote in large pencilled characters:
‘When I married Miss Satterthwaite,’— he was attempting exactly to imitate a report to General Headquarters —‘unknown to myself, she imagined herself to be with child by a fellow called Drake. I think she was not. The matter is debatable. I am passionately attached to the child who is my heir and the heir of a family of considerable position. The lady was subsequently, on several occasions, though I do not know how many, unfaithful to me. She left me with a fellow called Perowne, whom she had met constantly at the house of my godfather, General Lord Edward Campion, on whose staff Perowne was. That was long before the war. This intimacy was, of course, certainly unsuspected by the general. Perowne is again on the staff of General Campion, who has the quality of attachment to his old subordinates, but as Perowne is an inefficient officer, he is used only for more decorative jobs. Otherwise, obviously, as he is an old regular, his seniority should make him a general, and he is only a major. I make this diversion about Perowne because his presence in this garrison causes me natural personal annoyance.
‘My wife, after an absence of several months with Perowne, wrote and told me that she wished to be taken back into my household. I allowed this. My principles prevent me from divorcing any woman, in particular any woman who is the mother of a child. As I had taken no steps to ensure publicity for the escapade of Mrs Tietjens, no one, as far as I know, was aware of her absence. Mrs Tietjens, being a Roman Catholic, is prevented from divorcing me.
‘During this absence of Mrs Tietjens with the man Perowne, I made the acquaintance of a young woman, Miss Wannop, the daughter of my father’s oldest friend, who was also an old friend of General Campion’s. Our station in Society naturally forms rather a close ring. I was immediately aware that I had formed a sympathetic but not violent attachment for Miss Wannop, and fairly confident that my feeling was returned. Neither Miss Wannop nor myself being persons to talk about the state of our feelings, we exchanged no confidences . . . A disadvantage of being English of a certain station.
‘The position continued thus for several years. Six or seven. After her return from her excursion with Perowne, Mrs Tietjens remained, I believe, perfectly chaste. I saw Miss Wannop sometimes frequently, for a period, in her mother’s house or on social occasions, sometimes not for long intervals. No expression of affection on the part of either of us ever passed. Not one. Ever.
‘On the day before my second going out to France I had a very painful scene with my wife, during which, for the first time, we went into the question of the parentage of my child and other matters. In the afternoon I met Miss Wannop by appointment outside the War Office. The appointment had been made by my wife, not by me. I knew nothing about it. My wife must have been more aware of my feelings for Miss Wannop than I was myself.
‘In St James’s Park I invited Miss Wannop to become my mistress that evening. She consented and made an assignation. It is to be presumed that that was evidence of her affection for me. We have never exchanged words of affection. Presumably a young lady does not consent to go to bed with a married man without feeling affection for him. But I have no proof. It was, of course, only a few hours before my going out to France. Those are emotional sorts of moments for young women. No doubt they consent more easily.
‘But we didn’t. We were together at one-thirty in the morning, leaning over her suburban garden gate. And nothing happened. We agreed that we were the sort of persons who didn’t. I do not know how we agreed. We never finished a sentence. Yet it was a passionate scene. So I touched the brim of my cap and said: So long! . . . Or she . . . I don’t remember. I remember the thoughts I thought and the thoughts I gave her credit for thinking. But perhaps she did not think them. There is no knowing. It is no good going into them . . . except that I gave her credit for thinking that we were parting for good. Perhaps she did not mean that. Perhaps I could write letters to her. And live . . . ’
‘God, what a sweat I am in! . . . ’
The sweat, indeed, was pouring down his temples. He became instinct with a sort of passion to let his thoughts wander into epithets and go about where they would. But he stuck at it. He was determined to get it expressed. He wrote on again:
‘I got home towards two in the morning and went into the dining-room in the dark. I did not need a light. I sat thinking for a long time. Then Sylvia spoke from the other end of the room. There was thus an abominable situation. I have never been spoken to with such hatred. She went, perhaps, mad. She had apparently been banking on the idea that if I had physical contact with Miss Wannop I might satisfy my affection for the girl . . . And feel physical desires for her . . . But she knew, without my speaking, that I had not had physical contact with the girl. She threatened to ruin me; to ruin me in the Army; to drag my name through the mud . . . I never spoke. I am damn good at not speaking. She struck me in the face. And went away. Afterwards she threw into the room, through the half-open doorway, a gold medallion of St. Michael, the R.C. patron of soldiers in action that she had worn between her breasts. I took it to mean the final act of parting. As if by no longer wearing it she abandoned all prayer for my safety . . . It might just as well mean that she wished me to wear it myself for my personal protection . . . I heard her go down the stairs with her maid. The dawn was just showing through the chimney-pots opposite. I heard her say: Paddington. Clear, high syllables! And a motor drove off.
‘I got my things together and went to Waterloo. Mrs Satterthwaite, her mother, was waiting to see me off. She was very distressed that her daughter had not come, too. She was of opinion that it meant we had parted for good. I was astonished to find that Sylvia had told her mother about Miss Wannop because Sylvia had always been extremely reticent, even to her mother . . . Mrs Satterthwaite, who was very distressed — she likes me! — expressed the most gloomy forebodings as to what Sylvia might not be up to. I laughed at her. She began to tell me a long anecdote about what a Father Consett, Sylvia’s confessor, had said about Sylvia years before. He had said that if I ever came to care for another woman Sylvia would tear the world to pieces to get at me . . . Meaning, to disturb my equanimity! . . . It was difficult to follow Mrs Satterthwaite. The side of an officer’s train, going off, is not a good place for confidences. So the interview ended rather untidily.’
At this point Tietjens groaned so audibly that McKechnie, from the other end of the hut, asked if he had not said anything. Tietjens saved himself with:
‘That candle looks from here to be too near the side of the hut. Perhaps it isn’t. These buildings are very inflammable.’
It was no good going on writing. He was no writer, and this writing gave no sort of psychological pointers. He wasn’t himself ever much the man for psychology, but one ought to be as efficient at it as at anything else . . . Well then . . . What was at the bottom of all the madness and cruelty that had distinguished both himself and Sylvia on his last day and night in his native country? . . . For, mark! It was Sylvia who had made, unknown to him, the appointment through which the girl had met him. Sylvia had wanted to force him and Miss Wannop into each other’s arms. Quite definitely. She had said as much. But she had only said that afterwards. When the game had not come off. She had had too much knowledge of amatory manoeuvres to show her hand before . . .
Why then had she done it? Partly, undoubtedly, out of pity for him. She had given him a rotten time; she had undoubtedly, at one moment, wanted to give him the consolation of his girl’s arms . . . Why, damn it, she, Sylvia, and no one else, had forced out of him the invitation to the girl to become his mistress. Nothing but the infernal cruelty of their interview of the morning could have forced him to the pitch of sexual excitement that would make him make a proposal of illicit intercourse to a young lady to whom hitherto he had spoken not even one word of affection. It was an effect of a Sadic kind. That was the only way to look at it scientifically. And without doubt Sylvia had known what she was doing. The whole morning; at intervals, like a person directing the whiplash to a cruel spot of pain, reiteratedly, she had gone on and on. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress . . . With maddening reiteration, like that. They had disposed of an estate; they had settled up a number of business matters; they had decided that his heir was to be brought up as a Papist — the mother’s religion! They had gone, agonizedly enough, into their own relationships and past history. Into the very paternity of his child . . . But always, at moments when his mind was like a blind octopus, squirming in an agony of knife-cuts, she would drop in that accusation. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress . . .
He swore by the living God.. He had never realized that he had a passion for the girl till that morning; that he had a passion deep and boundless like the sea, shaking like a tremor of the whole world, an unquenchable thirst, a thing the thought of which made your bowels turn over . . . But he had not been the sort of fellow who goes into his emotions . . . Why, damn it, even at that moment when he thought of the girl, there, in that beastly camp, in that Rembrandt beshadowed hut, when he thought of the girl he named her to himself Miss Wannop.
It wasn’t in that way that a man thought of a young woman whom he was aware of passionately loving. He wasn’t aware. He hadn’t been aware. Until that morning . . .
Then . . . that let him out . . . Undoubtedly that let him out . . . A woman cannot throw her man, her official husband, into the arms of the first girl that comes along and consider herself as having any further claims upon him. Especially if, on the same day, you part with him, he going out to France! Did it let him out? Obviously it did.
He caught with such rapidity at his glass of rum and water that a little of it ran over on to his thumb. He swallowed the lot, being instantly warmed..
What in the world was he doing? Now? With all this introspection? . . . Hang it all, he was not justifying himself . . . He had acted perfectly correctly as far as Sylvia was concerned. Not perhaps to Miss Wannop . . . Why, if he, Christopher Tietjens of Groby, had the need to justify himself, what did it stand for to be Christopher Tietjens of Groby? That was the unthinkable thought.
Obviously he was not immune from the seven deadly sins. In the way of a man. One might lie, yet not bear false witness against a neighbour; one might kill, yet not without fitting provocation or for self-interest; one might conceive of theft as receiving cattle from the false Scots which was the Yorkshireman’s duty; one might fornicate, obviously, as long as you did not fuss about it unhealthily. That was the right of the Seigneur in a world of Other Ranks. He hadn’t personally committed any of these sins to any great extent. One reserved the right so to do and to take the consequences . . .
But what in the world had gone wrong with Sylvia? She was giving away her own game, and that he had never known her do. But she could not have made more certain, if she had wanted to, of returning him to his allegiance to Miss Wannop than by forcing herself there into his private life, and doing it with such blatant vulgarity. For what she had done had been to make scenes before the servants! All the while he had been in France she had been working up to it. Now she had done it. Before the Tommies of his own unit. But Sylvia did not make mistakes like that. It was a game. What game? He didn’t even attempt to conjecture! She could not expect that he would in the future even extend to her the shelter of his roof . . . What then was the game? He could not believe that she could be capable of vulgarity except with a purpose . . .
She was a thoroughbred. He had always credited her with being that. And now she was behaving as if she had every mean vice that a mare could have. Or it looked like it. Was that, then, because she had been in his stable? But how in the world otherwise could he have run their lives? She had been unfaithful to him. She had never been anything but unfaithful to him, before or after marriage. In a high-handed way so that he could not condemn her, though it was disagreeable enough to himself. He took her back into his house after she had been off with the fellow Perowne. What more could she ask? . . . He could find no answer. And it was not his business!
But even if he did not bother about the motives of the poor beast of a woman, she was the mother of his heir. And now she was running about the world declaiming about her wrongs. What sort of a thing was that for a boy to have happen to him? A mother who made scenes before the servants! That was enough to ruin any boy’s life . . .
There was no getting away from it that that was what Sylvia had been doing. She had deluged the general with letters for the last two months or so, at first merely contenting herself with asking where he, Tietjens, was and in what state of health, conditions of danger, and the like. Very decently, for some time, the old fellow had said nothing about the matter to him. He had probably taken the letters to be the naturally anxious inquiries of a wife with a husband at the front; he had considered that Tietjens’ letters to her must have been insufficiently communicative, or concealed what she imagined to be wounds or a position of desperate danger. That would not have been very pleasant in any case; women should not worry superior officers about the vicissitudes of their menfolk. It was not done. Still, Sylvia was very intimate with Campion and his family — more intimate than he himself was, though Campion was his godfather. But quite obviously her letters had got worse and worse.
It was difficult for Tietjens to make out exactly what she had said. His channel of information had been Levin, who was too gentlemanly ever to say anything direct at all. Too gentlemanly, too implicitly trustful of Tietjens’ honour . . . and too bewildered by the charms of Sylvia, who had obviously laid herself out to bewilder the poor Staff-wallah . . . But she had gone pretty far, either in her letters or in her conversation since she had been in that city, to which — it was characteristic — she had come without any sort of passports or papers, just walking past gentlemen in their wooden boxes at pierheads and the like, in conversation with — of all people in the world! — with Perowne, who had been returning from leave with King’s dispatches, or something glorified of the Staff sort! In a special train very likely. That was Sylvia all over.
Levin said that Campion had given Perowne the most frightful dressing down he had ever heard mortal man receive. And it really was damn hard on the poor general, who, after happenings to one of his predecessors, had been perfectly rabid to keep skirts out of his headquarters. Indeed it was one of the crosses of Levin’s worried life that the general had absolutely refused him, Levin, leave to marry Miss de Bailly if he would not undertake that that young woman should leave France by the first boat after the ceremony. Levin, of course, was to go with her, but the young woman was not to return to France for the duration of hostilities. And a fine row all her noble relatives had raised over that. It had cost Levin another hundred and fifty thousand francs in the marriage settlements. The married wives of officers in any case were not allowed in France, though you could not keep out their unmarried ones . . .
Campion, anyhow, had dispatched his furious note to Tietjens after receiving, firstly, in the early morning, a letter from Sylvia in which she said that her ducal second-cousin, the lugubrious Rugeley, highly disapproved of the fact that Tietjens was in France at all, and after later receiving, towards four in the afternoon, a telegram, dispatched by Sylvia herself from Havre, to say that she would be arriving by a noon train. The general had been almost as much upset at the thought that his car would not be there to meet Sylvia as by the thought that she was coming at all. But a strike of French railway civilians had delayed Sylvia’s arrival. Campion had dispatched, within five minutes, his snorter to Tietjens, who he was convinced knew all about Sylvia’s coming, and his car to Rouen Station with Levin in it.
The general, in fact, was in a fine confusion. He was convinced that Tietjens, as Man of Intellect, had treated Sylvia badly, even to the extent of stealing two pair of her best sheets, and he was also convinced that Tietjens was in close collusion with Sylvia. As Man of Intellect, Campion was convinced, Tietjens was dissatisfied with his lowly job of draft-forwarding officer, and wanted a place of an extravagantly cushy kind in the general’s own entourage . . . And Levin had said that it made it all the worse that Campion in his bothered heart thought that Tietjens really ought to have more exalted employment. He had said to Levin:
‘Damn it all, the fellow ought to be in command of my Intelligence instead of you. But he’s unsound. That’s what he is: unsound. He’s too brilliant . . . And he’d talk both the hind legs off Sweedlepumpkins.’ Sweedlepumpkins was the general’s favourite charger. The general was afraid of talk. He practically never talked with anyone except about his job — certainly never to Tietjens — without being proved to be in the wrong, and that undermined his belief in himself.
So that altogether he was in a fine fume. And confusion. He was almost ready to believe that Tietjens was at the bottom of every trouble that occurred in his immense command.
But, when all that was gathered, Tietjens was not much farther forward in knowing what his wife’s errand in France was.
‘She complains,’ Levin had bleated painfully at some point on the slippery coastguard path, ‘about your taking her sheets. And about a Miss . . . a Miss Wanostrocht, is it? . . . The general is not inclined to attach much importance to the sheets . . . ’
It appeared that a sort of conference on Tietjens’ case had taken place in the immense tapestried salon in which Campion lived with the more intimate members of his headquarters, and which was, for the moment, presided over by Sylvia, who had exposed various wrongs to the general and Levin. Major Perowne had excused himself on the ground that he was hardly competent to express an opinion. Really, Levin said, he was sulking, because Campion had accused him of running the risk of getting himself and Mrs Tietjens ‘talked about’. Levin thought it was a bit thick of the general. Were none of the members of his staff ever to escort a lady anywhere? As if they were sixth-form schoolboys . . .
‘But you . . . you . . . you . . . ’ he stuttered and shivered together, ‘certainly do seem to have been remiss in not writing to Mrs Tietjens. The poor lady — excuse me! — really appears to have been out of her mind with anxiety . . . ’ That was why she had been waiting in the general’s car at the bottom of the hill. To get a glimpse of Tietjens’ living body. For they had been utterly unable, up at H.Q., to convince her that Tietjens was even alive, much less in that town.
She hadn’t in fact waited even so long. Having apparently convinced herself by conversation with the sentries outside the guard-room that Tietjens actually still existed, she had told the chauffeur-orderly to drive her back to the Hotel de la Poste, leaving the wretched Levin to make his way back into the town by tram, or as best he might. They had seen the lights of the car below them, turning, with its gaily lit interior, and disappearing among the trees along the road farther down . . . The sentry, rather monosyllabically and gruffly — you can tell all right when a Tommie has something at the back of his mind! — informed them that the sergeant had turned out the guard so that all his men together could assure the lady that the captain was alive and well. The obliging sergeant said that he had adopted that manoeuvre which generally should attend only the visits of general officers and, once a day, for the C.O., because the lady had seemed so distressed at having received no letters from the captain. The guardroom itself, which was unprovided with cells, was decorated by the presence of two drunks who, having taken it into their heads to destroy their clothing, were in a state of complete nudity. The sergeant hoped, therefore, that he had done no wrong. Rightly the Garrison Military Police ought to take drunks picked up outside camp to the A.P.M.’s guard-room, but seeing the state of undress and the violent behaviour of these two, the sergeant had thought right to oblige the Red Caps. The voices of the drunks, singing the martial anthem of the ‘Men of Harlech’, could be heard corroborating the sergeant’s opinion as to their states. He added that he would not have turned out the guard if it had not been for its being the captain’s lady.
‘A damn smart fellow, that sergeant,’ Colonel Levin had said. ‘There couldn’t have been any better way of convincing Mrs Tietjens.’
Tietjens had said — and even whilst he was saying it he tremendously wished he hadn’t:
‘Oh, a damned smart fellow,’ for the bitter irony of his tone had given Levin the chance to remonstrate with him as to his attitude towards Sylvia. Not at all as to his actions — for Levin conscientiously stuck to his thesis that Tietjens was the soul of honour — but just as to his tone of voice in talking of the sergeant who had been kind to Sylvia, and, just precisely, because Tietjens’ not writing to his wife had given rise to the incident. Tietjens had thought of saying that, considering the terms on which they had parted, he would have considered himself as molesting the lady if he had addressed to her any letter at all. But he said nothing and, for a quarter of an hour, the incident resolved itself into soliloquy on the slippery hillside, delivered by Levin on the subject of matrimony. It was a matter which, naturally, at that moment very much occupied his thoughts. He considered that a man should so live with his wife that she should be able to open all his letters. That was his idea of the idyllic. And when Tietjens remarked with irony that he had never in his life either written or received a letter that his wife might not have read, Levin exclaimed with such enthusiasm as almost to lose his balance in the mist:
‘I was sure of it, old fellow. But it enormously cheers me up to hear you say so.’ He added that he desired as far as possible to model his ideas of life and his behaviour on those of this his friend. For, naturally, about as he was to unite his fortunes with those of Miss de Bailly, that could be considered a turning point of his career.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54