In the admirably appointed, white-enamelled, wicker-worked, bemirrored lounge of the best hotel of that town Sylvia Tietjens sat in a wickerwork chair, not listening rather abstractedly to a staff-major who was lachrymosely and continuously begging her to leave her bedroom door unlocked that night. She said:
‘I don’t know . . . Yes, perhaps . . . I don’t know . . . And looked distantly into a bluish wall-mirror that, like all the rest, was framed with white-painted cork bark. She stiffened a little and said:
The staff-major dropped his hat, his stick and his gloves. His black hair, which was without parting and heavy with some preparation of a glutinous kind, moved agitatedly on his scalp. He had been saying that Sylvia had ruined his life. Didn’t Sylvia know that she had ruined his life? But for her he might have married some pure young thing. Now he exclaimed:
‘But what does he want? . . . Good God! . . . what does he want?’
‘He wants,’ Sylvia said, ‘to play the part of Jesus Christ.’
Major Perowne exclaimed:
‘Jesus Christ! . . . But he’s the most foul-mouthed officer in the general’s command . . .
‘Well,’ Sylvia said, ‘if you had married your pure young thing she’d have . . . What is it? . . . cuckolded you within nine months . . .
Perowne shuddered a little at the word. He mumbled:
‘I don’t see . . . It seems to be the other way . . . ’
‘Oh, no, it isn’t,’ Sylvia said. ‘Think it over . . . Morally, you’re the husband . . . Immorally, I should say . . . Because he’s the man I want . . . He looks ill . . . Do hospital authorities always tell wives what is the matter with their husbands?’
From his angle in the chair from which he had half-emerged Sylvia seemed to him to be looking at a blank wall. ‘I don’t see him,’ Perowne said.
‘I can see him in the glass,’ Sylvia said. ‘Look! From here you can see him.’
Perowne shuddered a little more.
‘I don’t want to see him . . . I have to see him sometimes in the course of duty . . . I don’t like to . . .
‘You,’ in a tone of very deep contempt. ‘You only carry chocolate boxes to flappers . . . How can he come across you in the course of duty? . . . You’re not a soldier!’
‘But what are we going to do? What will he do?’
‘I,’ Sylvia answered, ‘shall tell the page-boy when he comes with his card to say that I’m engaged . . . I don’t know what he’ll do. Hit you, very likely . . . He’s looking at your back now . . .
Perowne became rigid, sunk into his deep chair.
‘But he couldn’t!’ he exclaimed agitatedly. ‘You said that he was playing the part of Jesus Christ. Our Lord wouldn’t hit people in an hotel lounge . . .
‘Our Lord!’ Sylvia said contemptuously. ‘What do you know about our Lord? . . . Our Lord was a gentleman . . . Christopher is playing at being our Lord calling on the woman taken in adultery . . . He’s giving me the social backing that his being my husband seems to him to call for.’
A one-armed, bearded maitre d’hôtel approached them through groups of arm-chairs arranged for tête-à-tête. He said:
‘Pardon.. I did not see madame at first . . . ’ And displayed a card on a salver. Without looking at it, Sylvia said:
‘Dites à ce monsieur . . . that I am occupied.’ The maitre d’hôtel moved austerely away.
‘But he’ll smash me to pieces . . . ’ Perowne exclaimed. ‘What am I to do? . . . What the deuce am I to do?’ There would have been no way of exit for him except across Tietjens’ face.
With her spine very rigid and the expression of a snake that fixes a bird, Sylvia gazed straight in front of her and said nothing until she exclaimed:
‘For God’s sake leave off trembling . . . He would not do anything to a girl like you . . . He’s a man . . . ’ The wickerwork of Perowne’s chair had been crepitating as if it had been in a railway car. The sound ceased with a jerk . . . Suddenly she clenched both her hands and let out a hateful little breath of air between her teeth.
‘By the immortal saints,’ she exclaimed, ‘I swear I’ll make his wooden face wince yet.’
In the bluish looking-glass, a few minutes before, she had seen the agate-blue eyes of her husband, thirty feet away, over arm-chairs and between the fans of palms. He was standing, holding a riding-whip, looking rather clumsy in the uniform that did not suit him. Rather clumsy and worn out, but completely expressionless! He had looked straight into the reflection of her eyes and then looked away. He moved so that his profile was towards her, and continued gazing motionless at an elk’s head that decorated the space of wall above glazed doors giving into the interior of the hotel. The hotel servant approaching him, he had produced a card and had given it to the servant, uttering three words. She saw his lips move in the three words: Mrs Christopher Tietjens. She said, beneath her breath:
‘Damn his chivalry! . . . Oh, God damn his chivalry She knew what was going on in his mind. He had seen her, with Perowne, so he had neither come towards her nor directed the servant to where she sat. For fear of embarrassing her! He would leave it to her to come to him if she wished.
The servant, visible in the mirror, had come and gone deviously back, Tietjens still gazing at the elk’s head. He had taken the card and restored it to his pocket-book and then had spoken to the servant. The servant had shrugged his shoulders with the formal hospitality of his class and, with his shoulders still shrugged and his one hand pointing towards the inner door, had preceded Tietjens into the hotel. Not one line of Tietjens’ face had moved when he had received back his card. It had been then that Sylvia had sworn that she would yet make his wooden face wince . . .
His face was intolerable. Heavy; fixed. Not insolent, but simply gazing over the heads of all things and created beings, into a world too distant for them to enter . . . And yet it seemed to her, since he was so clumsy and worn out, almost not sporting to persecute him. It was like whipping a dying bulldog . . .
She sank back into her chair with a movement almost of discouragement. She said:
‘He’s gone into the hotel . . . ’
Perowne lurched agitatedly forward in his chair. He exclaimed that he was going. Then he sank discouragedly back again:
‘No, I’m not,’ he said, ‘I’m probably much safer here. I might run against him going out.’
‘You’ve realized that my petticoats protect you,’ Sylvia said contemptuously. ‘Of course, Christopher would never hit anyone in my presence.’
Major Perowne was interrupting her by asking:
‘What’s he going to do? What’s he doing in the hotel?’ Mrs Tietjens said:
‘Guess!’ She added: ‘What would you do in similar circumstances?’
‘Go and wreck your bedroom,’ Perowne answered with promptitude. ‘It’s what I did when I found you had left Yssingueux.’
‘Ah, that was what the place was called.’
‘You’re callous,’ he said. ‘There’s no other word for it. Callous. That’s what you are.’
Sylvia asked absently why he called her callous at just that juncture. She was imagining Christopher stumping clumsily along the hotel corridor looking at bedrooms, and then giving the hotel servant a handsome tip to ensure that he should be put on the same floor as herself. She could almost hear his not disagreeable male voice that vibrated a little from the chest and made her vibrate.
Perowne was grumbling on. Sylvia was callous because she had forgotten the name of the Brittany hamlet in which they had spent three blissful weeks together, though she had left it so suddenly that all her outfit remained in the hotel.
‘Well, it wasn’t any kind of a beanfeast for me.’ Sylvia went on, when she again gave him her attention. ‘Good heavens! . . . Do you think it would be any kind of a beanfeast with you, pour tout potage? Why should I remember the name of the hateful place?’
‘Yssingueux-les-Pervenches, such a pretty name,’ reproachfully.
‘It’s no good,’ Sylvia answered, ‘your trying to awaken sentimental memories in me. You will have to make me forget what you were like if you want to carry on with me . . . I’m stopping here and listening to your corncrake of a voice because I want to wait until Christopher goes out of the hotel . . . Then I am going to my room to tidy up for Lady Sachse’s party and you will sit here and wait for me.’
‘I’m not,’ Perowne said, ‘going to Lady Sachse’s . Why, he is going to be one of the principal witnesses to sign the marriage contract. And Old Campion and all the rest of the staff are going to be there . . . You don’t catch me . . . An unexpected prior engagement is my line. No fear.’
‘You’ll come with me, my little man,’ Sylvia said, ‘if you ever want to bask in my smile again . . . I’m not going to Lady Sachse’s alone, looking as if I couldn’t catch a man to escort me, under the eyes of half the French house of peers . . . If they’ve got a house of peers! . . . You don’t catch me . . . No fear!’ she mimicked his creaky voice. ‘You can go away as soon as you’ve shown yourself as my escort . . .
‘But, good God!’ Perowne cried out, ‘that’s just what I mustn’t do. Campion said that if he heard any more of my being seen about with you he would have me sent back to my beastly regiment. And my beastly regiment is in the trenches . . . You don’t see me in the trenches, do you?’
‘I’d rather see you there than in my own room,’ Sylvia said. ‘Any day!’
‘Ah, there you are!’ Perowne exclaimed with animation. ‘What guarantee have I that if I do what you want I shall bask in your smile as you call it? I’ve got myself into a most awful hole, bringing you here without papers. You never told me you hadn’t any papers. General O’Hara, the P.M., has raised a most awful strafe about it . . . And what have I got for it? . . . Not the ghost of a smile . . . And you should see old O’Hara’s purple face! . . . Someone woke him from his afternoon nap to report to him about your heinous case and he hasn’t recovered from the indigestion yet . . . Besides, he hates Tietjens Tietjens is always chipping away at his military police . . . O’Hara’s lambs . . . ’
Sylvia was not listening, but she was smiling a slow smile at an inward thought. It maddened him.
‘What’s your game?’ he exclaimed. ‘Hell and hounds, what’s your game? . . . You can’t have come here to see . . . him. You don’t come here to see me, as far as I can see. Well then . . . ’
Sylvia looked round at him with all her eyes, wide open as if she had just awakened from a deep sleep.
‘I didn’t know I was coming,’ she said. ‘It came into my head to come suddenly. Ten minutes before I started. And I came. I didn’t know papers were wanted. I suppose I could have got them if I had wanted them . . . You never asked me if I had any papers. You just froze on to me and had me into your special carriage . . . I didn’t know you were coming.’
That seemed to Perowne the last insult. He exclaimed:
‘Oh, damn it, Sylvia! you must have known . . . You were at the Quirks’ squash on Wednesday evening. And they knew. My best friends.’
‘Since you ask for it,’ she said, ‘I didn’t know . . . And I would not have come by that train if I had known you would be going by it. You force me to say rude things to you.’ She added: ‘Why can’t you be more conciliatory?’ to keep him quiet for a little. His jaw dropped down.
She was wondering where Christopher had got the money to pay for a bed at the hotel. Only a very short time before she had drawn all the balance of his banking account, except for a shilling. It was the middle of the month and he could not have drawn any more pay . . . That, of course, was a try on her part. He might be forced into remonstrating. In the same way she had tried on the accusation that he had carried off her sheets. It was sheer wilfulness, and when she looked again at his motionless features she knew that she had been rather stupid . . . But she was at the end of her tether: she had before now tried making accusations against her husband, but she had never tried inconveniencing him . . . Now she suddenly realized the full stupidity of which she had been guilty. He would know perfectly well that those petty frightfulnesses of hers were not in the least her note; so he would know, too, that each of them was just a try on. He would say: ‘She is trying to make me squeal. I’m damned if I will!’
She would have to adopt much more formidable methods. She said: ‘He shall . . . he shall . . . he shall come to heel.’
Major Perowne had now closed his jaw. He was reflecting. Once he mumbled: ‘More conciliatory! Holy smoke!’
She was feeling suddenly in spirits: it was the sight of Christopher had done it: the perfect assurance that they were going to live under the same roof again. She would have betted all she possessed and her immortal soul on the chance that he would not take up with the Wannop girl. And it would have been betting on a certainty! . . . But she had had no idea what their relations were to be, after the war. At first she had thought that they had parted for good when she had gone off from their flat at four o’clock in the morning. It had seemed logical. But, gradually, in retreat at Birkenhead, in the still, white, nun’s room, doubt had come upon her. It was one of the disadvantages of living as they did that they seldom spoke their thoughts. But that was also at times an advantage. She had certainly meant their parting to be for good. She had certainly raised her voice in giving the name of her station to the taxi-man with the pretty firm conviction that he would hear her; and she had been pretty well certain that he would take it as a sign that the breath had gone out of their union . . . Pretty certain. But not quite! . . .
She would have died rather than write to him; she would die, now, rather than give any inkling that she wanted them to live under the same roof again . . . She said to herself:
‘Is he writing to that girl?’ And then: ‘No! . . . I’m certain that he isn’t.’ . . . She had had all his letters stopped at the flat, except for a few circulars that she let dribble through to him, so that he might imagine that all his correspondence was coming through. From the letters to him that she did read she was pretty sure that he had given no other address than the flat in Gray’s Inn . . . But there had been no letters from Valentine Wannop . . . Two from Mrs. Wannop, two from his brother Mark, one from Port Scatho, one or two from brother officers and some official chits . . . She said to herself that, if there had been any letters from that girl, she would have let all his letters go through, including the girl’s . . . Now she was not so certain that she would have.
In the glass she saw Christopher marching woodenly out of the hotel, along the path that led from door to door behind her . . . It came to her with extraordinary gladness — the absolute conviction that he was not corresponding with Miss Wannop. The absolute conviction . . . If he had come alive enough to do that he would have looked different. She did not know how he would have looked. But different . . . Alive! Perhaps self-conscious: perhaps . . . satisfied . . .
For some time the major had been grumbling about his wrongs. He said that he followed her about all day, like a lap-dog, and got nothing for it. Now she wanted him to be conciliatory. She said she wanted to have a man on show as escort. Well then, an escort got something . . . At just this moment he was beginning again with:
‘Look here . . . will you let me come to your room to-night or will you not?’
She burst into high, loud laughter. He said:
‘Damn it all, it isn’t any laughing matter! . . . Look here! You don’t know what I risk . . . There are A.P.M.’s and P.M.‘s and deputy sub-acting A.P.M.’s walking about the corridors of all the hotels in this town, all night long . . . It’s as much as my job is worth . . . ’
She put her handkerchief to her lips to hide a smile that she knew would be too cruel for him not to notice. And even when she took it away, he said:
‘Hang it all, what a cruel-looking fiend you are! . . . Why the devil do I hang around you? . . . There’s a picture that my mother’s got, by Burne-Jones . . . A cruel-looking woman with a distant smile . . . Some vampire . . . La Belle Dame sans Merci . . . That’s what you’re like.’
She looked at him suddenly with considerable seriousness . . .
‘See here, Potty . . . ’ she began. He groaned:
‘I believe you’d like me to be sent to the beastly trenches . . . Yet a big, distinguished-looking chap like me wouldn’t have a chance . . . At the first volley the Germans fired, they’d pick me off . . .
‘Oh, Potty,’ she exclaimed, ‘try to be serious for a minute . . . I tell you I’m a woman who’s trying . . . who’s desperately wanting . . . to be reconciled to her husband! . . . I would not tell that to another soul . . . I would not tell it to myself . . . But one owes something . . . a parting scene, if nothing else . . . Well, something . . . to a man one’s been in bed with . . . I didn’t give you a parting scene at . . . ah, Yssingueux-les-Pervenches . . . so I give you this tip instead . . . ’
‘Will you leave your bedroom door unlocked, or won’t you?’
‘If that man would throw his handkerchief to me, I would follow him round the world in my shift! . . . Look here . . . see me shake when I think of it . . . ’ She held out her hand at the end of her long arm: hand and arm trembled together, minutely, then very much . . . ‘Well,’ she finished, ‘if you see that and still want to come to my room . . . your blood be on your own head . . . ’ She paused for a breath or two and then said:
‘You can come . . . I won’t lock my door . . . But I don’t say that you’ll get anything . . . or that you’ll like what you get . . . That’s a fair tip . . . ’ She added suddenly: ‘You sale fat . . . take what you get and be damned to you!’
Major Perowne had suddenly taken to twirling his moustaches; he said:
‘Oh, I’ll chance the A.P.M.’s . . . ’
She suddenly coiled her legs into her chair.
‘I know now what I came here for,’ she said.
Major Wilfrid Fosbrooke Eddicker Perowne of Perowne, the son of his mother, was one of those individuals who have no history, no strong proclivities, nothing. His knowledge seemed to be bounded by the contents of his newspaper for the immediate day; at any rate, his conversation never went any farther. He was not bold, he was not shy; he was neither markedly courageous nor markedly cowardly. His mother was immoderately wealthy, owned an immense castle that hung over crags, above a western sea, much as a bird-cage hangs from a window of a high tenement building, but she received few or no visitors, her cuisine being indifferent and her wine atrocious. She had strong temperance opinions and, immediately after the death of her husband, she had emptied the contents of his cellar, which were almost as historic as his castle, into the sea, a shudder going through county-family England. But even this was not enough to make Perowne himself notorious.
His mother allowed him — after an eyeopener in early youth — the income of a junior royalty, but he did nothing with it. He lived in a great house in Palace Gardens, Kensington, and he lived all alone with rather a large staff of servants who had been selected by his mother, but they did nothing at all, for he ate all his meals, and even took his bath and dressed for dinner at the Bath Club. He was otherwise parsimonious.
He had, after the fashion of his day, passed a year or two in the army when young. He had been first gazetted to His Majesty’s Forty-second Regiment, but on the Black Watch proceeding to India he had exchanged into the Glamorgan-shires, at that time commanded by General Campion and recruiting in and around Lincolnshire. The general had been an old friend of Perowne’s mother, and, on being promoted to brigadier, had taken Perowne on to his staff as his galloper, for, although Perowne rode rather indifferently, he had a certain social knowledge and could be counted on to know how correctly to address a regimental invitation to a dowager countess who had married a viscount’s third son . . . As a military figure otherwise he had a very indifferent word of command, a very poor drill and next to no control of his men, but he was popular with his batmen, and in a rather stiff way was presentable in the old scarlet uniform or the blue mess jacket. He was exactly six-foot, to a hairbreadth, in his stockings, had very dark eyes, and a rather grating voice; the fact that his limbs were a shade too bulky for his trunk, which was not at all corpulent, made him appear a little clumsy. If in a club you asked what sort of a fellow he was your interlocutor would tell you, most probably, that he had or was supposed to have warts on his head, this to account for his hair which all his life he had combed back, unparted from his forehead. But as a matter of fact he had no warts on his head.
He had once started out on an expedition to shoot big game in Portuguese East Africa. But on its arrival his expedition was met with the news that the natives of the interior were in revolt, so Perowne had returned to Kensington Palace Gardens. He had had several mild successes with women, but, owing to his habits of economy and fear of imbroglios, until the age of thirty-four, he had limited the field of his amours to young women of the lower social orders . . .
His affair with Sylvia Tietjens might have been something to boast about, but he was not boastful, and indeed he had been too hard hit when she had left him even to bear to account lyingly for the employment of the time he had spent with her in Brittany. Fortunately no one took sufficient interest in his movements to wait for his answer to their indifferent questions as to where he had spent the summer. When his mind reverted to her desertion of him moisture would come out of his eyes, undemonstratively, as water leaves the surface of a sponge . . .
Sylvia had left him by the simple expedient of stepping without so much as a reticule on to the little French tramway that took you to the main railway line. From there she had written to him in pencil on a closed correspondence card that she had left him because she simply could not bear either his dullness or his craking voice. She said they would probably run up against each other in the course of the autumn season in town and, after purchase of some night things, had made straight for the German spa to which her mother had retreated.
At the later date Sylvia had no difficulty in accounting to herself for her having gone off with such an oaf: she had simply reacted in a violent fit of sexual hatred, from her husband’s mind. And she could not have found a mind more utterly dissimilar than Perowne’s in any decently groomed man to be found in London. She could recall, even in the French hotel lounge, years after, the almost painful emotion of joyful hatred that had visited her when she had first thought of going off with him. It was the self-applause of one who has just hit upon an excruciatingly inspiring intellectual discovery. In her previous transitory infidelities to Christopher she had discovered that, however presentable the man with whom she might have been having an affair, and however short the affair, even if it were only a matter of a week-end . . . Christopher had spoilt her for the other man. It was the most damnable of his qualities that to hear any other man talk of any subject — any, any subject — from stable form to the balance of power, or from the voice of a given opera singer to the recurrence of a comet — to have to pass a week-end with any other man and hear his talk after having spent the inside of the week with Christopher, hate his ideas how you might, was the difference between listening to a grown man and, with an intense boredom, trying to entertain an inarticulate schoolboy. As beside him, other men simply did not seem ever to have grown up . . .
Just before, with an extreme suddenness, consenting to go away with Perowne, the illuminating idea had struck her: If I did go away with him it would be the most humiliating thing I could do to Christopher . . . And just when the idea had struck her, beside her chair in the conservatory at a dance given by the general’s sister, Lady Claudine Sandbach, Perowne, his voice rendered more throaty and less disagreeable than usual by emotion, had been going on and on begging her to elope with him . . . She had suddenly said:
‘Very well . . . let’s . . . ’
His emotion had been so unbridled in its astonishment that she had, even at that, almost been inclined to treat her own speech as a joke and to give up the revenge . . . But the idea of the humiliation that Christopher must feel proved too much for her. For, for your wife to throw you over for an attractive man is naturally humiliating, but that she should leave you publicly for a man of hardly any intelligence at all, you priding yourself on your brains, must be nearly as mortifying a thing as can happen to you.
But she had hardly set out upon her escapade before two very serious defects in her plan occurred to her with extreme force: the one that, however humiliated Christopher might feel, she would not be with him to witness his humiliation; the other that, oaf as she had taken Perowne to be in casual society, in close daily relationship he was such an oaf as to be almost insufferable. She had imagined that he would prove a person out of whom it might be possible to make something by a judicious course of alternated mothering and scorn: she discovered that his mother had already done for him almost all that woman could do. For, when he had been an already rather backward boy at a private school, his mother had kept him so extremely short of pocket-money that he had robbed other boys’ desks of a few shillings here and there — in order to subscribe towards a birthday present for the headmaster’s wife. His mother, to give him a salutary lesson, had given so much publicity to the affair that he had become afflicted with a permanent bent towards shyness that rendered him by turns very mistrustful of himself or very boastful and, although he repressed manifestations of either tendency towards the outside world, the continual repression rendered him almost incapable of any vigorous thought or action . . .
That discovery did not soften Sylvia towards him: it was, as she expressed it, his funeral and, although she would have been ready for any normal job of smartening up a roughish man, she was by no means prepared to readjust other women’s hopeless maternal misfits.
So she had got no farther than Ostend, where they had proposed to spend a week or so at the tables, before she found herself explaining to some acquaintances whom she met that she was in that gay city merely for an hour or two, between trains, on the way to join her mother in a German health resort. The impulse to say that had come upon her by surprise, for, until that moment, being completely indifferent to criticism, she had intended to cast no veil at all over her proceedings. But, quite suddenly, on seeing some well-known English faces in the casino it had come over her to think that, however much she imagined Christopher to be humiliated by her going off with an oaf like Perowne, that humiliation must be as nothing compared with that which she might be expected to feel at having found no one better than an oaf like Perowne to go off with. Moreover . . . she began to miss Christopher.
These feelings did not grow any less intense in the rather stuffy but inconspicuous hotel in the Rue St Roque in Paris to which she immediately transported the bewildered but uncomplaining Perowne, who had imagined that he was to be taken to Wiesbaden for a course of light gaieties. And Paris, when you avoid the more conspicuous resorts, and when you are unprovided with congenial companionship, can prove nearly as overwhelming as is, say, Birmingham on a Sunday.
So that Sylvia waited for only just long enough to convince herself that her husband had no apparent intention of applying for an immediate divorce and had, indeed, no apparent intention of doing anything at all. She sent him, that is to say, a postcard saying that all letters and other communications would reach her at her inconspicuous hotel — and it mortified her not a little to have to reveal the fact that her hotel was so inconspicuous. But, except that her own correspondence was forwarded to her with regularity, no communications at all came from Tietjens.
In an air-resort in the centre of France to which she next removed Perowne, she found herself considering rather seriously what it might be expected that Tietjens would do. Through indirect and unsuspecting allusions in letters from her personal friends she found that if Tietjens did not put up, he certainly did not deny, the story that she had gone to nurse or be with her mother, who was supposed to be seriously ill . . . That is to say, her friends said how rotten it was that her mother, Mrs Satterthwaite, should be so seriously ill; how rotten it must be for her to be shut up in a potty little German kur-ort when the world could be so otherwise amusing; and how well Christopher whom they saw from time to time seemed to be getting on considering how rotten it must be for him to be left all alone . . .
At about this time Perowne began to become, if possible, more irritating than ever. In their air-resort, although the guests were almost entirely French, there was a newly opened golf-course, and at the game of golf Perowne displayed an inefficiency and at the same time a morbid conceit that were surprising in one naturally lymphatic. He would sulk for a whole evening if either Sylvia or any Frenchman beat him in a round, and, though Sylvia was by then completely indifferent to his sulking, what was very much worse was that he became gloomily and loudvoicedly quarrelsome over his games with foreign opponents.
Three events, falling within ten minutes of each other, made her determined to get as far away from that air-resort as was feasible. In the first place she observed at the end of the street some English people called Thurston, whose faces she faintly knew, and the emotion she suddenly felt let her know how extremely anxious she was that she should let it remain feasible for Tietjens to take her back. Then, in the golf club-house, to which she found herself fiercely hurrying in order to pay her bill and get her clubs, she overheard the conversation of two players that left no doubt in her mind that Perowne had been detected in little meannesses of moving his ball at golf or juggling with his score . . . This was almost more than she could stand. And, at the same moment, her mind, as it were, condescended to let her remember Christopher’s voice as it had once uttered the haughty opinion that no man one could speak to would ever think of divorcing any woman. If he could not defend the sanctity of his hearth he must lump it unless the woman wanted to divorce him . . .
At the time when he had said it her mind — she had been just then hating him a good deal — had seemed to take no notice of the utterance. But now that it presented itself forcibly to her again it brought with it the thought: Supposing he wasn’t really only talking through his hat! . . . She dragged the wretched Perowne off his bed where he had been lost in an after-lunch slumber and told him that they must both leave that place at once, and, that as soon as they reached Paris or some larger town where he could find waiters and people to understand his French, she herself was going to leave him for good. They did not, in consequence, get away from the air-resort until the six o’clock train next morning. Perowne’s passion of rage and despair at the news that she wished to leave him took an inconvenient form, for instead of announcing any intention of committing suicide, as might have been expected, he became gloomily and fantastically murderous. He said that unless Sylvia swore on a little relic of St Anthony she carried that she had no intention of leaving him he would incontinently kill her. He said, as he said for the rest of his days, that she had ruined his life and caused great moral deterioration in himself. But for her he might have married some pure young thing. Moreover, influencing him against his mother’s doctrines, she had forced him to drink wine, by an effect of pure scorn. Thus he had done harm, he was convinced, both to his health and to his manly proportions . . . It was indeed for Sylvia one of the most unbearable things about this man — the way he took wine. With every glass he put to his lips he would exclaim with an unbearable titter some such imbecility as: Here is another nail in my coffin. And he had taken to wine, and even to stronger liquor, very well.
Sylvia had refused to swear by St Anthony. She definitely was not going to introduce the saint into her amorous affairs, and she definitely was not going to take on any relic an oath that she meant to break at an early opportunity. There was such a thing as playing it too low down: there are dishonours to which death is preferable. So, getting hold of his revolver at a time when he was wringing his hands, she dropped it into the water-jug and then felt reasonably safe.
Perowne knew no French and next to nothing about France, but he had discovered that the French did nothing to you for killing a woman who intended to leave you. Sylvia, on the other hand, was pretty certain that, without a weapon, he could not do much to her. If she had had no other training at her very expensive school she had had so much drilling in calisthenics as to be singularly mistress of her limbs, and, in the interests of her beauty she had always kept herself very fit . . .
She said at last:
‘Very well. We will go to Yssingueux-les-Pervenches . . . ’
A rather pleasant French couple in the hotel had spoken of this little place in the extreme west of France as a lonely paradise, they having spent their honeymoon there . . . And Sylvia wanted a lonely paradise if there was going to be any scrapping before she got away from Perowne . . .
She had no hesitation as to what she was going to do: the long journey across half France by miserable trains had caused her an agony of home-sickness! Nothing less! . . . It was a humiliating disease from which to suffer. But it was unavoidable, like mumps. You had to put up with it. Besides, she even found herself wanting to see her child, whom she imagined herself to hate, as having been the cause of all her misfortunes . . .
She therefore prepared, after great thought, a letter telling Tietjens that she intended to return to him. She made the letter as nearly as possible like one she would write announcing her return from a country house to which she should have been invited for an indefinite period, and she added some rather hard instructions about her maid, these being intended to remove from the letter any possible trace of emotion. She was certain that, if she showed any emotion at all, Christopher would never take her under his roof again . . . She was pretty certain that no gossip had been caused by her escapade. Major Thurston had been at the railway station when they had left, but they had not spoken — and Thurston was a very decentish, brown-moustached fellow, of the sort that does not gossip.
It had proved a little difficult to get away, for Perowne during several weeks watched her like an attendant in a lunatic asylum. But at last the idea presented itself to him that she would never go without her frocks, and, one day, in a fit of intense somnolence after a lunch, washed down with rather a large quantity of the local and fiery cordial, he let her take a walk alone . . .
She was by that time tired of men . . . or she imagined that she was; for she was not prepared to be certain, considering the muckers she saw women coming all round her over the most unpresentable individuals. Men, at any rate never fulfilled expectations. They might, upon acquaintance, turn out more entertaining than they appeared; but almost always taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it. You had not been for ten minutes in any sort of intimacy with any man before you said: ‘But I’ve read all this before . . . ’ You knew the opening, you were already bored by the middle, and, especially, you knew the end . . .
She remembered, years ago, trying to shock her mother’s spiritual adviser, Father Consett, whom they had lately murdered in Ireland, along with Casement . . . The poor saint had not in the least been shocked. He had gone her one better. For when she had said something like that her idea of a divvy life — they used in those days to say divvy — would be to go off with a different man every week-end, he had told her that after a short time she would be bored already by the time the poor dear fellow was buying the railway ticket . . .
And, by heavens, he had been right . . . For when she came to think of it, from the day that poor saint had said that thing in her mother’s sitting-room in the little German spa — Lobscheid, it must have been called — in the candlelight, his shadow denouncing her from all over the walls, to now when she sat in the palmish brickwork of that hotel that had been new-whitely decorated to celebrate hostilities, never once had she sat in a train with a man who had any right to look upon himself as justified in mauling her about . . . She wondered if, from where he sat in heaven, Father Consett would be satisfied with her as he looked down into that lounge . . . Perhaps it was really he that had pulled off that change in her . . .
Never once till yesterday . . . For perhaps the unfortunate Perowne might just faintly have had the right yesterday to make himself for about two minutes — before she froze him into a choking, pallid snowman with goggle eyes — the perfectly loathsome thing that a man in a railway train becomes . . . Much too bold and yet stupidly awkward with the fear of the guard looking in at the window, the train doing over sixty, without corridors . . . No, never again for me, father, she addressed her voice towards the ceiling . . .
Why in the world couldn’t you get a man to go away with you and be just — oh, light comedy — for a whole, a whole blessed week-end. For a whole blessed life . . . Why not? . . . Think of it . . . A whole blessed life with a good sort and yet didn’t go all gurgly in the voice, and cod-fish-eyed and all-overish — to the extent of not being able to find the tickets when asked for them . . . Father, dear, she said again upwards, if I could find men like that, that would be just heaven . . . where there is no marrying . . . But, of course, she went on almost resignedly, he would not be faithful to you . . . And then: one would have to stand it . . .
She sat up so suddenly in her chair that beside her, too, Major Perowne nearly jumped out of his wicker-work, and asked if he had come back . . . She exclaimed:
‘No, I’d be damned if I would . . . I’d be damned, I’d be damned, I’d be damned if I would . . . Never. Never. By the living God!’
She asked fiercely of the agitated major:
‘Has Christopher got a girl in this town? . . . You’d better tell me the truth!’
The major mumbled:
‘He . . . No . . . He’s too much of a stick . . . He never even goes to Suzette’s . . . Except once to fetch out some miserable little squit of a subaltern who was smashing up Mother Hardelot’s furniture . . . ’
‘But you shouldn’t give a man the jumps like that! . . . Be conciliatory, you said . . . He went on to grumble that her manners had not improved since she had been at Yssingueux-les-Pervenches, . . . and then went on to tell her that in French the words yeux des pervenches meant eyes of periwinkle blue. And that was the only French he knew, because a Frenchman he had met in the train had told him so and he had always thought that if her eyes had been periwinkle blue . . . ‘But you’re not listening . . . Hardly polite, I call it,’ he had mumbled to a conclusion . . .
She was sitting forward in her chair still clenching her hand under her chin at the thought that perhaps Christopher had Valentine Wannop in that town. That was perhaps why he elected to remain there. She asked:
‘Why does Christopher stay on in this God-forsaken hole? . . . The inglorious base, they call it . . . ’
‘Because he’s jolly well got to . . . ’ Major Perowne said. ‘He’s got to do what he’s told . . . ’
She said: ‘Christopher! . . . You mean to say they’d keep a man like Christopher anywhere he didn’t want to be . . . ’
‘They’d jolly well knock spots off him if he went away,’ Major Perowne exclaimed . . . ‘What the deuce do you think your blessed fellow is? . . . The King of England? . . . He added with a sudden sombre ferocity: ‘They’d shoot him like anybody else if he bolted . . . What do you think?’
She said: ‘But all that wouldn’t prevent his having a girl in this town?’
‘Well, he hasn’t got one,’ Perowne said. ‘He sticks up in that blessed old camp of his like a blessed she-chicken sitting on addled eggs . . . That’s what they say of him . . . I don’t know anything about the fellow . . . ’
Listening vindictively and indolently, she thought she caught in his droning tones a touch of the homicidal lunacy that had used to underlie his voice in the bedroom at Yssingueux. The fellow had undoubtedly about him a touch of the dull, mad murderer of the police-courts. With a sudden animation she thought:
‘Suppose he tried to murder Christopher . . . ’ And she imagined her husband breaking the fellow’s back across his knee, the idea going across her mind as fire traverses the opal. Then, with a dry throat, she said to herself:
‘I’ve got to find out whether he has that girl in Rouen . . . ’ Men stuck together. The fellow Perowne might well be protecting Tietjens. It would be unthinkable that any rules of the service could keep Christopher in that place. They could not shut up the upper classes. If Perowne had any sense he would know that to shield Tietjens was the way not to get her . . . But he had no sense . . . Besides, sexual solidarity was a terribly strong thing . . . She knew that she herself would not give a woman’s secrets away in order to get her man. Then . . . how was she to ascertain whether the girl was not in that town? How? . . . She imagined Tietjens going home every night to her . . . But he was going to spend that night with herself . . . She knew that . . . Under that roof . . . Fresh from the other . . .
She imagined him there, now . . . In the parlour of one of the little villas you see from the tram on the top of the town . . . They were undoubtedly, now, discussing her . . . Her whole body writhed, muscle on muscle, in her chair . . . She must discover . . . But how do you discover? Against a universal conspiracy . . . This whole war was an agapemone . . . You went to war when you desired to rape innumerable women . . . It was what war was for . . . All these men, crowded in this narrow space . . . She stood up:
‘I’m going,’ she said, ‘to put on a little powder for Lady Sachse’s feast . . . You needn’t stay if you don’t want to . . . ’ She was going to watch every face she saw until it gave up the secret of where in that town Christopher had the Wannop girl hidden . . . She imagined her freckled, snubnosed faced pressed — squashed was the word — against his cheek . . . She was going to investigate . . .
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54