She found an early opportunity to carry on her investigations. For, at dinner that night, she found herself, Tietjens having gone to the telephone with a lance-corporal, opposite what she took to be a small tradesman, with fresh-coloured cheeks, and a great, grey, forward-sprouting moustache, in a uniform so creased that the creases resembled the veins of a leaf . . . A very trustworthy small tradesman: the grocer from round the corner whom, sometimes, you allow to supply you with paraffin . . . He was saying to her:
‘If, ma’am, you multiply two-thousand nine hundred and something by ten you arrive at twenty-nine thousand odd . . .
And she had exclaimed:
‘You really mean that my husband, Captain Tietjens, spent yesterday afternoon in examining twenty-nine thousand toe-nails . . . And two thousand nine hundred toothbrushes . . .
‘I told him,’ her interlocutor answered with deep seriousness, ‘that these being Colonial troops it was not so necessary to examine their toothbrushes . . . Imperial troops will use the brush they clean their buttons with for their teeth so as to have a clean toothbrush to show the medical officer . . .
‘It sounds,’ she said with a little shudder, ‘as if you were all schoolboys playing a game . . . And you say my husband really occupies his mind with such things . . . ’
Second-Lieutenant Cowley, dreadfully conscious that the shoulder-strap of his Sam Browne belt, purchased that afternoon at the Ordnance, and therefore brand-new, did not match the abdominal part of the belt that he had had for nearly ten years — a splendid bit of leather, that! — answered nevertheless stoutly:
‘Madam! If the brains of an army aren’t, the life of an army is . . . in its feet . . . And nowadays, the medical officers say, in its teeth . . . Your husband, ma’am, is an admirable officer . . . He says that no draft he turns out shall . . .
‘He spent three hours in . . . You say, foot and kit inspection . . . ’
Second-Lieutenant Cowley said:
‘Of course he had other officers to help him with the kit . . . but he looked at every foot himself . . . ’
‘That took him from two till five . . . Then he had tea, I suppose . . . And went to . . . What is it? . . . The papers of the draft . . . ’
Second-Lieutenant Cowley said, muffled through his moustache:
‘If the captain is a little remiss in writing letters . . . I have heard . . . You might, madam . . . I’m a married man myself . . . with a daughter . . . And the army is not very good at writing letters . . . You might say, in that respect, that thank God we have got a navy, ma’am . . . ’
She let him stagger on for a sentence or two, imagining that, in his confusion, she might come upon traces of Miss Wannop in Rouen. Then she said handsomely:
‘Of course you have explained everything, Mr. Cowley, and I am very much obliged . . . Of course my husband would not have time to write very full letters . . . He is not like the giddy young subalterns who run after . . .
He exclaimed in a great roar of laughter:
‘The captain run after skirts . . . Why, I can number on my hands the times he’s been out of my sight since he’s had the battalion!’
A deep wave of depression went over Sylvia.
‘Why,’ Lieutenant Cowley laughed on, ‘if we had a laugh against him it was that he mothered the lot of us as if he was a hen sitting on addled eggs . . . For it’s only a ragtime army, as the saying is, when you’ve said the best for it that you can . . . And look at the other commanding officers we’ve had before we had him . . . There was Major Brooks . . . Never up before noon, if then, and out of camp by two-thirty. Get your returns ready for signing before then or never get ’em signed . . . And Colonel Potter . . . Bless my soul . . . ‘e wouldn’t sign any blessed papers at all . . . He lived down here in this hotel, and we never saw him up at the camp at all . . . But the captain . . . We always say that . . . if ‘e was a Chelsea adjutant getting off a draft of the Second Coldstreams . . . ’
With her indolent and gracious beauty — Sylvia knew that she was displaying indolent and gracious beauty — Sylvia leaned over the tablecloth listening for items in the terrible indictment that, presently, she was going to bring against Tietjens . . . For the morality of these matters is this: . . . If you have an incomparably beautiful woman on your hands you must occupy yourself solely with her . . . Nature exacts that of you . . . until you are unfaithful to her with a snubnosed girl with freckles: that, of course, being a reaction, is still in a way occupying yourself with your woman! . . . But to betray her with a battalion . . . That is against decency, against Nature . . . And for him, Christopher Tietjens, to come down to the level of the men you met here! . . .
Tietjens, mooning down the room between tables, had more than his usually aloof air since he had just come out of a telephone box. He slipped, a weary mass, into the polished chair between her and the lieutenant. He said:
‘I’ve got the washing arranged for . . . ’ and Sylvia gave to herself a little hiss between the teeth, of vindictive pleasure! This was indeed betrayal to a battalion. He added: ‘I shall have to be up in camp before four-thirty to-morrow morning . . .
Sylvia could not resist saying:
‘Isn’t there a poem . . . Ah me, the dawn, the dawn, it comes too soon! . . . said of course by lovers in bed? . . . Who was the poet?’
Cowley went visibly red to the roots of his hair and evidently beyond. Tietjens finished his speech to Cowley, who had remonstrated against his going up to the camp so early by saying that he had not been able to get hold of an officer to march the draft. He then said in his leisurely way:
‘There were a great many poems with that refrain in the Middle Ages . . . You are probably thinking of an albade by Arnaut Daniel, which someone translated lately . . . An albade was a song to be sung at dawn when, presumably, no one but lovers would be likely to sing . . . ’
‘Will there,’ Sylvia asked, ‘be anyone but you singing up in your camp to-morrow at four?’
She could not help it . . . She knew that Tietjens had adopted his slow pomposity in order to give the grotesque object at the table with them time to recover from his confusion. She hated him for it. What right had he to make himself appear a pompous ass in order to shield the confusion of anybody?
The second-lieutenant came out of his confusion to exclaim, actually slapping his thigh:
‘There you are, madam . . . Trust the captain to know everything! . . . I don’t believe there’s a question under the sun you could ask him that he couldn’t answer . . . They say up at the camp . . . ’ He went on with long stories of all the questions Tietjens had answered up at the camp . . .
Emotion was going all over Sylvia . . . at the proximity of Tietjens. She said to herself: ‘Is this to go on for ever?’ Her hands were ice-cold. She touched the back of her left hand with the fingers of her right. It was ice-cold. She looked at her hands. They were bloodless . . . She said to herself: ‘It’s pure sexual passion . . . it’s pure sexual passion . . . God! Can’t I get over this?’ She said: ‘Father! . . . You used to be fond of Christopher . . . Get our Lady to get me over this . . . It’s the ruin of him and the ruin of me. But, oh damn, don’t! . . . For it’s all I have to live for . . . ’ She said: ‘When he came mooning back from the telephone I thought it was all right . . . I thought what a heavy wooden-horse he looked . . . For two minutes . . . Then it’s all over me again . . . I want to swallow my saliva and I can’t. My throat won’t work . . .
She leaned one of her white bare arms on the tablecloth towards the walrus-moustache that was still snuffling gloriously:
‘They used to call him Old Sol at school.’ she said. ‘But there’s one question of Solomon’s he could not answer . . . The one about the way of a man with . . . Oh, a maid! . . . Ask him what happened before the dawn ninety-six — no, ninety-eight days ago . . . ’
She said to herself: ‘I can’t help it . . . Oh, I can’t help it . . . ’
The ex-sergeant-major was exclaiming happily:
‘Oh, no one ever said the captain was one of these thought-readers . . . It’s real solid knowledge of men and things he has . . . Wonderful how he knows the men considering he was not born in the service . . . But there, your born gentleman mixes with men all his days and knows them. Down to the ground and inside their puttees . . . ’
Tietjens was looking straight in front of him, his face perfectly expressionless.
‘But I bet I got him . . . ’ she said to herself and then to the sergeant-major:
‘I suppose now an army officer — one of your born gentlemen — when a back-from-leave train goes out from any of the great stations — Paddington, say — to the front . . . He knows how all the men are feeling . . . But not what the married women think . . . or the . . . the girl . . . ’
She said to herself: ‘Damn it, how clumsy I am getting! . . . I used to be able to take his hide off with a word. Now I take sentences at a time . . . ’
She went on with her uninterrupted sentence to Cowley: ‘Of course he may never be going to see his only son again, so it makes him sensitive . . . The officer at Paddington, I mean . . . ’
She said to herself: ‘By God, if that beast does not give in to me to-night he never shall see Michael again . . . Ah, but I got him . . . Tietjens had his eyes closed, round each of his high-coloured nostrils a crescent of whiteness was beginning. And increasing . . . She felt a sudden alarm and held the edge of the table with her extended arm to steady herself . . . Men went white at the nose like that when they were going to faint . . . She did not want him to faint . . . But he had noticed the word Paddington . . . Ninety-eight days before . . . She had counted every day since . . . She had got that much information . . . She had said Paddington outside the house at dawn and he had taken it as a farewell. He had . . . He had imagined himself free to do what he liked with the girl . . . Well, he wasn’t . . . That was why he was white about the gills . . .
Cowley exclaimed loudly:
‘Paddington! . . . It isn’t from there that back-from-leave trains go. Not for the front: the B.E.F . . . Not from Paddington . . . The Glamorganshires go from there to the depot . . . And the Liverpools . . . They’ve got a depot at Birkenhead . . . Or is that the Cheshires? . . . ’ He asked of Tietjens: ‘Is it the Liverpools or the Cheshires that have a depot at Birkenhead, sir? . . . You remember we recruited a draft from there when we were at Penhally . . . At any rate, you go to Birkenhead from Paddington . . . I was never there myself . . . They say it’s a nice place . . . ’
Sylvia said — she did not want to say it:
‘It’s quite a nice place . . . but I should not think of staying there for ever . . . ’
‘The Cheshires have a training camp — not a depot — near Birkenhead. And of course there are R.G.A.’s there . . . ’ She had been looking away from him . . . Cowley exclaimed:
‘You were nearly off, sir,’ hilariously. ‘You had your peepers shut . . . ’ Lifting a champagne glass, he inclined himself towards her. ‘You must excuse the captain, ma’am,’ he said. ‘He had no sleep last night . . . Largely owing to my fault . . . Which is what makes it so kind of him . . . I tell you, ma’am, there are few things I would not do for the captain . . . ’ He drank his champagne and began an explanation: ‘You may not know, ma’am, this is a great day for me . . . And you and the captain are making it the greatest day of my life . . . ’ Why, at four this morning there hadn’t been a wretcheder man in Ruin town . . . And now . . . He must tell her that he suffered from an unfortunate — a miserable — complaint . . . One that makes one have to be careful of celebrations . . . And to-day was a day that he had to celebrate . . . But he dare not have done it where Sergeant-Major Ledoux is along with a lot of their old mates . . . ‘I dare not . . . I dussn’t!’ he finished . . . ‘So I might have been sitting, now, at this very moment, up in the cold camp . . . But for you and the captain . . . Up in the cold camp . . . You’ll excuse me, ma’am . . . ’
Sylvia felt that her lids were suddenly wavering:
‘I might have been myself,’ she said, ‘in a cold camp, too . . . if I hadn’t thrown myself on the captain’s mercy! . . . At Birkenhead, you know . . . I happened to be there till three weeks ago . . . It’s strange that you mentioned it . . . There are things like signs . . . but you’re not a Catholic! They could hardly be coincidences . . . ’
She was trembling . . . She looked, fumblingly opening it, into the little mirror of her powder-box — of chased, very thin gold with a small blue stone, like a forget-me-not in the centre of the concentric engravings . . . Drake — the possible father of Michael — had given it to her . . . The first thing he had ever given her. She had brought it down to-night out of defiance. She imagined that Tietjens disliked it . . . She said breathlessly to herself: perhaps the damn thing is an ill omen . . . Drake had been the first man who had ever . . . A hot-breathed brute! . . . In the little glass her features were chalk-white . . . She looked like . . . she looked like . . . She had a dress of golden tissue . . . The breath was short between her white set teeth . . . Her face was as white as her teeth . . . And . . . Yes! Nearly! Her lips . . . What was her face like? . . . In the chapel of the convent of Birkenhead there was a tomb all of alabaster . . . She said to herself:
‘He was near fainting . . . I’m near fainting . . . What’s this beastly thing that’s between us? . . . If I let myself faint . . . But it would not make that beast’s face any less wooden! . . . ’
She leaned across the table and patted the ex-sergeantmajor’s black-haired hand:
‘I’m sure,’ she said, ‘you’re a very good man . . . ’ She did not try to keep the tears out of her eyes, remembering his words: ‘Up in the cold camp.’ . . . ‘I’m glad the captain, as you call him, did not leave you in the cold camp . . . You’re devoted to him, aren’t you? . . . There are others he does leave . . . up in . . . the cold camp . . . For punishment, you know . . . ’
The ex-sergeant-major, the tears in his eyes too, said: ‘Well, there is men you ‘as to give the C.B. to . . . C.B. means confined to barracks . . . ’
‘Oh, there are!’ she exclaimed. ‘There are! . . . And women, too . . . Surely there are women, too? . . . ’
The sergeant-major said:
Wacks, per’aps . . . I don’t know . . . They say women’s discipline is like ours . . . Founded on hours!’
‘Do you know what they used to say of the captain? . . . ’ She said to herself: ‘I pray to God the stiff, fatuous beast likes sitting here listening to this stuff . . . Blessed Virgin, mother of God, make him take me . . . Before midnight. Before eleven . . . As soon as we get rid of this . . . No, he’s a decent little man . . . Blessed Virgin!’ . . . ‘Do you know what they used to say of the captain? . . . I heard the warmest banker in England say it of him . . . ’
The sergeant-major, his eyes enormously opened, said: ‘Did you know the warmest banker in England? . . . ’ But there, we always knew the captain was well connected . . . ’ She went on:
‘They said of him . . . He was always helping people.’ . . . ‘Holy Mary, mother of God! . . . He’s my husband . . . It’s not a sin . . . Before midnight . . . Oh, give me a sign . . . Or before . . . the termination of hostilities . . . If you give me a sign I could wait.’ . . . ‘He helped virtuous Scotch students, and broken-down gentry . . . And women taken in adultery . . . All of them . . . Like . . . You know Who . . . That is his model . . . ’ She said to herself: ‘Curse him! . . . I hope he likes it . . . You’d think the only thing he thinks about is the beastly duck he’s wolfing down.’ . . . And then aloud: ‘They used to say: “He saved others; himself he could not save . . . "’
The ex-sergeant-major looked at her gravely:
‘Ma’am,’ he said, we couldn’t say exactly that of the captain . . . For I fancy it was said of our Redeemer . . . But we ‘ave said that if ever there was a poor bloke the captain could ‘elp, ‘elp ’im ‘e would . . . Yet the unit was always getting ‘ellish strafe from headquarters . . . ’
Suddenly Sylvia began to laugh . . . As she began to laugh she had remembered . . . The alabaster image in the nun’s chapel at Birkenhead the vision of which had just presented itself to her, had been the recumbent tomb of an honourable Mrs Tremayne-Warlock . . . She was said to have sinned in her youth . . . And her husband had never forgiven her . . . That was what the nuns said . . . She said aloud:
‘A sign . . . ’ Then to herself: ‘Blessed Mary! . . . You’ve given it me in the neck . . . Yet you could not name a father for your child, and I can name two . . . I’m going mad . . . Both I and he are going to go mad . . . ’
She thought of dashing an enormous patch of red upon either cheek. Then she thought it would be rather melodramatic . . .
She made in the smoking-room, whilst she was waiting for both Tietjens and Cowley to come back from the telephone, another pact . . . This time with Father Consett in heaven! She was fairly sure that Father Consett — and quite possibly other of the heavenly powers — wanted Christopher not to be worried, so that he could get on with the war — or because he was a good sort of dullish man such as the heavenly authorities are apt to like . . . Something like that . . .
She was by that time fairly calm again. You cannot keep up fits of emotion by the hour: at any rate, with her, the fits of emotion were periodical and unexpected, though her colder passion remained always the same . . . Thus, when Christopher had come into Lady Sachse’s that afternoon, she had been perfectly calm. He had mooned through a number of officers, both French and English, in a great octagonal, bluish salon where Lady Sachse gave her teas, and had come to her side with just a nod — the merest inflexion of the head! . . . Perowne had melted away somewhere behind the disagreeable duchess. The general, very splendid and white-headed and scarlet-tipped and gilt, had also borne down upon her at that . . . At the sight of Perowne with her he had been sniffing and snorting whilst he talked to the young nobleman — a dark fellow in blue with a new belt who seemed just a shade too theatrical, he being chauffeur to a marshal of France and first cousin and nearest relative, except for parents and grandparents, of the prospective bride . . .
The general had told her that he was running the show pretty strong on purpose because he thought it might do something to cement the Entente Cordiale. But it did not seem to be doing it. The French — officers, soldiers and women — kept pretty well all on the one side of the room — the English on the other. The French were as a rule more gloomy than men and women are expected to be. A marquis of sorts — she understood that these were all Bonapartist nobility — having been introduced to her had distinguished himself no more than by saying that, for his part, he thought the duchess was right, and by saying that to Perowne who, knowing no French, had choked exactly as if his tongue had suddenly got too big for his mouth . . .
She had not heard what the duchess — a very disagreeable duchess who sat on a sofa and appeared savagely careworn — had been saying, so that she had inclined herself, in the courtly manner that at school she had been taught to reserve for the French legitimist nobility, but that she thought she might expend upon a rather state function even for the Bonapartists, and had replied that without the least doubt the duchess had the right of the matter . . . The marquis had given her from dark eyes one long glance, and she had returned it with a long cold glance that certainly told him she was meat for his masters. It extinguished him . . .
Tietjens had staged his meeting with herself remarkably well. It was the sort of lymphatic thing he could do, so that, for the fifth of a minute, she wondered if he had any feelings or emotions at all. But she knew that he had . . . The general, at any rate, bearing down upon them with satisfaction, had remarked:
‘Ah, I see you’ve seen each other before to-day . . . I thought perhaps you wouldn’t have found time before, Tietjens . . . Your draft must be a great nuisance . . . ’
Tietjens said without expression:
‘Yes, we have seen each other before . . . I made time to call at Sylvia’s hotel, sir.’
It was at Tietjens’ terrifying expressionlessness, at that completely being up to a situation, that the first wave of emotion had come over her . . . For, till that very moment, she had been merely sardonically making the constatation that there was not a single presentable man in the room . . . There was not even one that you could call a gentleman . . . for you cannot size up the French . . . ever! . . . But, suddenly, she was despairing! . . . How, she said to herself, could she ever move, put emotion into, this lump! It was like trying to move an immense mattress filled with feathers. You pulled at one end, but the whole mass sagged down and remained immobile until you seemed to have no strength at all . . . Until virtue went out from you . . .
It was as if he had the evil eye; or some special protector. He was so appallingly competent, so appallingly always in the centre of his own picture.
The general said, rather joyfully:
‘Then you can spare a minute, Tietjens, to talk to the duchess! About coal! . . . For goodness’ sake, man, save the situation! I’m worn out . . . ’
Sylvia bit the inside of her lower lip — she never bit her lip itself! — to keep herself from exclaiming aloud. It was just exactly what should not happen to Tietjens at that juncture . . . She heard the general explaining to her, in his courtly manner, that the duchess was holding up the whole ceremony because of the price of coal. The general loved her desperately. Her, Sylvia! In quite a proper manner for an elderly general . . . But he would go to no small extremes in her interests! So would his sister!
She looked hard at the room to get her senses into order again. She said:
‘It’s like a Hogarth picture . . . ’
The undissolvable air of the eighteenth century that the French contrive to retain in all their effects kept the scene singularly together. On a sofa sat the duchess, relatives leaning over her. She was a duchess with one of those impossible names: Beauchain-Radigutz or something like it. The bluish room was octagonal and vaulted, up to a rosette in the centre of the ceiling. English officers and V.A.D.’s of some evident presence opened out to the left, French military and very black-clothed women of all ages, but all apparently widows, opened out to the right, as if the duchess shone down a sea at sunset. Beside her on the sofa you did not see Lady Sachse: leaning over her you did not see the prospective bride. This stoutish, unpresentable, coldly venomous woman, in black clothes so shabby that they might have been grey tweed, extinguished other personalities as the sun conceals planets. A fattish, brilliantined personality, in mufti, with a scarlet rosette, stood sideways to the duchess’s right, his hands extended forward as if in an invitation to a dance; an extremely squat lady, also apparently a widow, extended, on the left of the duchess, both her black-gloved hands, as if she too were giving an invitation to the dance . . .
The general, with Sylvia beside him, stood glorious in the centre of the clearing that led to the open doorway of a much smaller room. Through the doorway you could see a table with a white damask cloth; a silver-gilt inkpot, fretted, like a porcupine with pens, a fat, flat leather case for the transportation of documents and two notaries: one in black, fat, and bald-headed; one in blue uniform, with a shining monocle, and a brown moustache that he continued to twirl . . .
Looking round that scene Sylvia’s humour calmed her and she heard the general say:
‘She’s supposed to walk on my arm to that table and sign the settlement . . . We’re supposed to be the first to sign it together . . . But she won’t. Because of the price of coal. It appears that she has hothouses in miles. And she thinks the English have put up the price of coal as if . . . damn it you’d think we did it just to keep her hothouse stoves out.’
The duchess had delivered, apparently, a vindictive, cold, calm, and uninterruptible oration on the wickedness of her country’s allies as people who should have allowed France to be devastated and the flower of her youth slain in order that they might put up the price of a comestible that was absolutely needed in her life. There was no arguing with her. There was no British soul there who both knew anything about economics and spoke French. And there she sat, apparently immovable. She did not refuse to sign the marriage contract. She just made no motion to go to it and, apparently, the resulting marriage would be illegal if that document were brought to her!
The general said:
Now, what the deuce will Christopher find to say to her? He’ll find something because he could talk the hind legs off anything. But what the deuce will it be? . . . ’
It almost broke Sylvia’s heart to see how exactly Christopher did the right thing. He walked up that path to the sun and made in front of the duchess a little awkward nick with his head and shoulders that was rather more like a curtsy than a bow. It appeared that he knew the duchess quite well . . . as he knew everybody in the world quite well. He smiled at her and then became just suitably grave. Then he began to speak an admirable, very old-fashioned French with an atrocious English accent. Sylvia had no idea that he knew a word of the language — that she herself knew very well indeed. She said to herself that upon her word it was like hearing Chateaubriand talk — if Chateaubriand had been brought up in an English hunting country . . . Of course Christopher would cultivate an English accent: to show that he was an English country gentleman. And he would speak correctly — to show that an English Tory can do anything in the world if he wants to . . .
The British faces in the room looked blank: the French faces turned electrically upon him. Sylvia said:
‘Who would have thought . . .?’ The duchess jumped to her feet and took Christopher’s arm. She sailed with him imperiously past the general and past Sylvia. She was saying that that was just what she would have expected of a milor Anglais . . . Avec un spleen tel que vous l’avez!
Christopher, in short, had told the duchess that as his family owned almost the largest stretch of hot-house coal-burning land in England and her family the largest stretch of hothouses in the sister-country of France, what could they do better than make an alliance? He would instruct his brother’s manager to see that the duchess was supplied for the duration of hostilities and as long after as she pleased with all the coal needed for her glass at the pithead prices of the Middlesbrough-Cleveland district as the prices were on the 3rd of August, nineteen fourteen . . . He repeated: ‘The pit-head price . . . livrable au prix de l’houillemaigre dans l’enceinte des puits de ma campagne.’ . . . Much to the satisfaction of the duchess, who knew all about prices . . . A triumph for Christopher was at that moment so exactly what Sylvia thought she did not want that she decided to tell the general that Christopher was a Socialist. That might well take him down a peg or two in the general’s esteem . . . for the general’s arm-patting admiration for Tietjens, the man who did not argue but acted over the price of coal, was as much as she could bear . . . But, thinking it over in the smoking-room after dinner, by which time she was a good deal more aware of what she did want, she was not so certain that she had done what she wanted . . . Indeed, even in the octagonal room during the economical festivities that followed the signatures, she had been far from certain that she had not done almost exactly what she did not want . . .
It had begun with the general’s exclaiming to her:
‘You know your man’s the most unaccountable fellow . . . He wears the damn-shabbiest uniform of any officer I ever have to talk to. He’s said to be unholily hard up . . . I even heard he had a cheque sent back to the club . . . Then he goes and makes a princely gift like that — just to get Levin out of ten minutes’ awkwardness . . . I wish to goodness I could understand the fellow . . . He’s got a positive genius for getting all sorts of things out of the most beastly muddles . . . Why, he’s even been useful to me . . . And then he’s got a positive genius for getting into the most disgusting messes . . . You’re too young to have heard of Dreyfus . . . But I always say that Christopher is a regular Dreyfus . . . I shouldn’t be astonished if he didn’t end by being drummed out of the army . . . which heaven forfend!’
It had been then that Sylvia had said:
‘Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that Christopher was a Socialist?’
For the first time in her life Sylvia saw her husband’s godfather look grotesque . . . His jaw dropped down, his white hair became disarrayed, and he dropped his pretty cap with all the gold oakleaves and the scarlet. When he rose from picking it up his thin old face was purple and distorted. She wished she hadn’t said it: she wished she hadn’t said it. He exclaimed:
‘Christopher! . . . A So . . . ’ He gasped as if he could not pronounce the word. He said: ‘Damn it all! . . . I’ve loved that boy . . . He’s my only godson . . . His father was my best friend . . . I’ve watched over him . . . I’d have married his mother if she would have had me . . . Damn it all, he’s down in my will as residuary legatee after a few small things left to my sister and my collection of horns to the regiment I commanded . . . ’
Sylvia — they were sitting on the sofa the duchess had left — patted him on the forearm and said:
‘But general . . . godfather . . . ’
‘It explains everything,’ he said with a mortification that was painful. His white moustache drooped and trembled. ‘And what makes it all the worse — he’s never had the courage to tell me his opinions.’ He stopped, snorted and exclaimed: ‘By God, I will have him drummed out of the service . . . By God, I will. I can do that much . . . ’
His grief so shut him in on himself that she could say nothing to him . . .
‘You tell me he seduced the little Wannop girl . . . The last person in the world he should have seduced . . . Ain’t there millions of other women? . . . He got you sold up, didn’t he? . . . Along with keeping a girl in a tobacco-shop . . . By jove, I almost lent him . . . offered to lend him money on that occasion . . . You can forgive a young man for going wrong with women . . . We all do . . . We’ve all set up girls in tobacco-shops in our time . . . But, damn it all, if the fellow’s a Socialist it puts a different complexion . . . I could forgive him even for the little Wannop girl, if he wasn’t . . . But . . . Good God, isn’t it just the thing that a dirty-minded Socialist would do? . . . To seduce the daughter of his father’s oldest friend, next to me . . . Or perhaps Wannop was an older friend than me . . . ’
He had calmed himself a little — and he was not such a fool. He looked at her now with a certain keenness in his blue eyes that showed no sign of age. He said:
‘See here, Sylvia . . . You aren’t on terms with Christopher for all the good game you put up here this afternoon . . . I shall have to go into this. It’s a serious charge to bring against one of His Majesty’s officers . . . Women do say things against their husbands when they are not on good terms with them . . . ’ He went on to say that he did not say she wasn’t justified. If Christopher had seduced the little Wannop girl it was enough to make her wish to harm him. Had always found her the soul of honour, straight as a die, straight as she rode to hounds. And if she wished to nag against her husband, even if in little things it wasn’t quite the truth, she was perhaps within her rights as a woman. She had said, for instance, that Tietjens had taken two pairs of her best sheets. Well, his own sister, her friend, raised Cain if he took anything out of the house they lived in. She had made an atrocious row because he had taken his own shaving-glass out of his own bedroom at Mounts-by. Women liked to have sets of things. Perhaps she, Sylvia, had sets of pairs of sheets. His sister had linen sheets with the date of the battle of Waterloo on them . . . Naturally you would not want a set spoiled . . . But this was another matter. He ended up very seriously:
‘I have not got time to go into this now . . . I ought not to be another minute away from my office. These are very serious days . . . ’ He broke off to utter against the Prime Minister and the Cabinet at home a series of violent imprecations. He went on:
‘But this will have to be gone into . . . It’s heart-breaking that my time should be taken up by matters like this in my own family . . . But these fellows aim at sapping the heart of the army . . . They say they distribute thousands of pamphlets recommending the rank and file to shoot their officers and go over to the Germans . . . Do you seriously mean that Christopher belongs to an organization? What is it you are going on? What evidence have you? . . . ’
‘Only that he is heir to one of the biggest fortunes in England, for a commoner, and he refuses to touch a penny . . . His brother Mark tells me Christopher could have . . . Oh, a fabulous sum a year . . . But he has made over Groby to me . . . ’
The general nodded his head as if he were ticking off ideas.
‘Of course, refusing property is a sign of being one of these fellows. By jove, I must go . . . But as for his not going to live at Groby: if he is setting up house with Miss Wannop . . . Well, he could not flaunt her in the face of the country . . . And, of course, those sheets! . . . As you put it it looked as if he’d beggared himself with his dissipations . . . But of course, if he is refusing money from Mark, it’s another matter . . . Mark would make up a couple of hundred dozen pairs of sheets without turning a hair . . . Of course there are the extraordinary things Christopher says . . . I’ve often heard you complain of the immoral way he looks at the serious affairs of life . . . You said he once talked of lethal-chambering unfit children.’
‘I must go. There’s Thurston looking at me . . . But what then is it that Christopher has said? . . . Hang it all: what is at the bottom of that fellow’s mind? . . . ’
‘He desires,’ Sylvia said, and she had no idea when she said it, ‘to model himself upon our Lord . . . ’
The general leant back in the sofa. He said almost indulgently:
‘Who’s that . . . our Lord?‘
‘Upon our Lord Jesus Christ . . . ’
He sprang to his feet as if she had stabbed him with a hatpin.
‘Our . . . ’ he exclaimed. ‘Good God! . . . I always knew he had a screw loose . . . But . . . ’ He said briskly: ‘Give all his goods to the poor! . . . But He wasn’t a . . . Not a Socialist! What was it He said: Render unto Caesar . . . It wouldn’t be necessary to drum Him out of the Army . . . ’ He said: ‘Good Lord! . . . Good Lord! . . . Of course his poor dear mother was a little . . . But, hang it! . . . The Wannop girl! . . . ’ Extreme discomfort overcame him . . . Tietjens was half-way across from the inner room, coming towards them.
‘Major Thurston is looking for you, sir. Very urgently . . . ’ The general regarded him as if he had been the unicorn of the royal arms, come alive. He exclaimed:
‘Major Thurston! . . . Yes! Yes! . . . ’ and, Tietjens saying to him:
‘I wanted to ask you, sir . . . ’ he pushed Tietjens away as if he dreaded an assault and went off with short, agitated steps.
So sitting there, in the smoking-lounge of the hotel which was cram-jam full of officers, and no doubt perfectly respectable, but over-giggling women — the sort of place and environment which she had certainly never expected to be called upon to sit in; and waiting for the return of Tietjens and the ex-sergeant-major — who again was certainly not the sort of person that she had ever expected to be asked to wait for, though for long years she had put up with Tietjens’ protégé, the odious Sir Vincent Macmaster, at all sorts of meals and all sorts of places . . . but of course that was only Christopher’s rights . . . to have in his own house, which, in the circumstances, wasn’t morally hers, any snuffling, nervous, walrus-moustached or orientally obsequious protégé that he chose to patronize . . . And she quite believed that Tietjens, when he had invited the sergeant-major to celebrate his commission with himself at dinner, hadn’t expected to dine with her . . . It was the sort of obtuseness of which he was disconcertingly capable, though at other times he was much more disconcertingly capable of reading your thoughts to the last hairsbreadth . . . And, as a matter of fact, she objected much less to dining with the absolute lower classes than with merely snuffly little official critics like Macmaster, and the sergeant-major had served her turn very well when it had come to flaying the hide off Christopher . . . So, sitting there, she made a new pact, this time with Father Consett in heaven . . .
Father Consett was very much in her mind, for she was very much in the midst of the British military authorities who had hanged him . . . She had never seemed before to be so in the midst of these negligible, odious, unpresentable, horse-laughing schoolboys. It antagonized her, and it was a weight upon her, for hitherto she had completely ignored them: in this place they seemed to have a coherence, a mass . . . almost a life . . . They rushed in and out of rooms occupied, as incomprehensibly, as unpresentably, with things like boots, washing, vaccination certificates . . . Even with old tins! . . . A man with prematurely white hair and a pasty face, with a tunic that bulged both above and below his belt, would walk into the drawing-room of a lady who superintended all the acid-drop and cigarette stalls of that city and remark to a thin-haired, deaf man with an amazingly red nose — a nose that had a perfectly definite purple and scarlet diagonal demarcation running from the bridge to the upper side of the nostrils — that he had got his old tins off his hands at last. He would have to repeat it in a shout because the red-nosed man, his head hanging down, would have heard nothing at all. The deaf man would say Humph! Humph! Snuffle. The woman giving the tea — a Mrs Hemmerdine, of Tarbolton, whom you might have met at home, would be saying that at last she had got twelve reams of notepaper with forget-me-nots in the top corners when the deaf-faced man would begin, gruffly and uninterruptedly, a monologue on his urgent need for twenty thousand tons of sawdust for the new slow-burning stoves in the men’s huts . . .
It was undeniably like something moving . . . All these things going in one direction . . . A disagreeable force set in motion by gawky schoolboys — but schoolboys of the Sixth Form, sinister, hobbledehoy, waiting in the corners of playgrounds to torture someone, weak and unfortunate . . . In one or other corner of their world-wide playground they had come upon Father Consett and hanged him. No doubt they tortured him first. And, if he made an offering of his sufferings, then and there to Heaven, no doubt he was already in paradise . . . Or, if he was not yet in heaven, certain of these souls in purgatory were yet listened to in the midst of their torments . . .
So she said:
‘Blessed and martyred father, I know that you loved Christopher and wish to save him from trouble. I will make this pact with you. Since I have been in this room I have kept my eyes in the boat — almost in my lap. I will agree to leave off torturing Christopher and I will go into retreat in a convent of Ursuline Dames Nobles — for I can’t stand the nuns of that other convent — for the rest of my life . . . And I know that will please you, too, for you were always anxious for the good of my soul . . . ’ She was going to do that if when she raised her eyes and really looked round the room she saw in it one man that looked presentable. She did not ask that he should more than look presentable, for she wanted nothing to do with the creature. He was to be a sign: not a prey!
She explained to the dead priest that she could not go all the world over to see if it contained a presentable man, but she could not bear to be in a convent for ever, and have the thought that there wasn’t, for other women, one presentable man in the world . . . For Christopher would be no good to them. He would be mooning for ever over the Wannop girl. Or her memory. That was all one . . . He was content with LOVE . . . If he knew that the Wannop girl was loving him in Bedford Park, and he in the Khyber States with the Himalayas between them, he would be quite content . . . That would be correct in its way, but not very helpful for other women . . . Besides, if he were the only presentable man in the world, half the women would be in love with him . . . And that would be disastrous, because he was no more responsive than a bullock in a fatting pen.
‘So, father,’ she said, ‘work a miracle . . . It’s not very much of a little miracle . . . Even if a presentable man doesn’t exist you could put him there . . . I’ll give you ten minutes before I look . . . ’
She thought it was pretty sporting of her, for, she said to herself, she was perfectly in earnest. If in that long, dim, green-lamp-shaded, and of course be-palm-leaved, badly-proportioned, glazed, ignoble public room, there appeared one decentish man, as decentish men went before this beanfeast began, she would go into retreat for the rest of her life . . .
She fell into a sort of dim trance after she had looked at her watch. Often she went into these dim trances . . . ever since she had been a girl at school with Father Consett for her spiritual adviser! . . . She seemed to be aware of the father moving about the room, lifting up a book and putting it down . . . Her ghostly friend! . . . Goodness, he was unpresentable enough, with his broad, open face that always looked dirtyish, his great dark eyes, and his great mouth . . . But a saint and a martyr . . . She felt him there . . . What had they murdered him for? Hanged at the word of a half-mad, half-drunk subaltern, because he had heard the confession of some of the rebels the night before they were taken . . . He was over in the far corner of the room . . . She heard him say: they had not understood, the men that had hanged him. That is what you would say, father . . . Have mercy on them, for they know not what they do . . .
Then have mercy on me, for half the time I don’t know what I’m doing! . . . It was like a spell you put on me. At Lobscheid. Where my mother was, when I came back from that place without my clothes . . . You said, didn’t you, to mother, but she told me afterwards: The real hell for that poor boy, meaning Christopher, will come when he falls in love with some young girl — as, mark me, he will . . . For she, meaning me, will tear the world down to get at him . . . And when mother said she was certain I would never do anything vulgar you obstinately did not agree . . . You knew me . . .
She tried to rouse herself and said: He knew me . . . Damn it he knew me! . . . What’s vulgarity to me, Sylvia Tietjens, born Satterthwaite? I do what I want and that’s good enough for anyone. Except a priest. Vulgarity! I wonder mother could be so obtuse. If I am vulgar I’m vulgar with a purpose. Then it’s not vulgarity. It may be vice. Or viciousness . . . But if you commit a mortal sin with your eyes open it’s not vulgarity . . . You chance hell fire for ever . . . Good enough!
The weariness sank over her again and the sense of the father’s presence . . . She was back again in Lobscheid, thirty-six hours free of Perowne with the father and her mother in the dim sitting-room, all antlers, candle-lit, with the father’s shadow waving over the pitchpine walls and ceilings . . . It was a bewitched place, in the deep forest of Germany. The father himself said it was the last place in Europe to be Christianized. Or perhaps it was never Christianized . . . That was perhaps why those people, the Germans, coming from those deep, devil-infested woods, did all these wickednesses. Or maybe they were not wicked . . . One would never know properly . . . But maybe the father had put a spell on her . . . His words had never been out of her mind, much . . . At the back of her brain, as the saying was . . .
Some man drifted near her and said:
‘How do you do, Mrs Tietjens? Who would have thought of seeing you here?’
‘I have to look after Christopher now and then.’ He remained hanging over her with a schoolboy grin for a minute, then he drifted away as an object sinks into deep water . . . Father Consett again hovered near her. She exclaimed:
‘But the real point is, father . . . Is it sporting? . . . Sporting or whatever it is?’ And Father Consett breathed: ‘Ah! . . . ’ with his terrible power of arousing doubts . . . She said:
‘When I saw Christopher . . . Last night? . . . Yes, it was last night . . . Turning back to go up that hill . . . And I had been talking about him to a lot of grinning private soldiers . . . To madden him . . . You mustn’t make scenes before the servants . . . A heavy man, tired . . . come down the hill and lumbering up again . . . There was a searchlight turned on him just as he turned . . . I remembered the white bulldog I thrashed on the night before it died . . . A tired, silent beast . . . with a fat white behind . . . Tired out . . . You couldn’t see its tail because it was turned down, the stump . . . A great, silent beast . . . The vet said it had been poisoned with red lead by burglars . . . It’s beastly to die of red lead . . . It eats up the liver . . . And you think you’re getting better for a fortnight. And you’re always cold . . . freezing in the blood-vessels . . . And the poor beast had left its kennel to try and be let in to the fire . . . And I found it at the door when I came in from a dance without Christopher . . . And got the rhinoceros whip and lashed into it . . . There’s a pleasure in lashing into a naked white beast . . . Obese and silent . . . Like Christopher . . . I thought Christopher might . . . That night . . . It went through my head . . . It hung down its head . . . A great head, room for a whole British encyclopaedia of mis-information, as Christopher used to put it . . . It said: “What a hope!” . . . As I hope to be saved, though I never shall be, the dog said: “What a hope!” . . . Snow-white in quite black bushes . . . And it went under a bush . . . They found it dead there in the morning . . . You can’t imagine what it looked like, with its head over its shoulder, as it looked back and said: What a hope to me . . . Under a dark bush. An eu . . . eu . . . euonymus, isn’t it? . . . In thirty degrees of frost with all the blood-vessels exposed on the naked surface of the skin . . . It’s the seventh circle of hell, isn’t it? the frozen one . . . The last stud-white bulldog of that breed . . . As Christopher is the last stud-white hope of the Groby Tory breed . . . Modelling himself on our Lord . . . But our Lord was never married. He never touched on topics of sex. Good for Him . . .
She said: ‘The ten minutes is up, father . . . ’ and looked at the round, starred surface between the diamonds of her wrist watch. She said: ‘Good God! . . . Only one minute . . . I’ve thought all that in only one minute . . . I understand how hell can be an eternity . . . ’
Christopher, very weary, and ex-Sergeant-Major Cowley, very talkative by now, loomed down between palms. Cowley was saying: ‘It’s infamous! . . . It’s past bearing . . . To re-order the draft at eleven . . . ’ They sank into chairs . . . Sylvia extended towards Tietjens a small packet of letters. She said: ‘You had better look at these . . . I had your letters sent to me from the flat as there was so much uncertainty about your movements . . . ’ She found that she did not dare, under Father Consett’s eyes, to look at Tietjens as she said that. She said to Cowley: ‘We might be quiet for a minute or two while the captain reads his letters . . . Have another liqueur? . . . ’
She then observed that Tietjens just bent open the top of the letters from Mrs Wannop and then opened that from his brother Mark.
‘Curse it,’ she said, ‘I’ve given him what he wants! . . . He knows . . . He’s seen the address . . . that they’re still in Bedford Park . . . He can think of the Wannop girl as there . . . He has not been able to know, till now, where she is . . . He’ll be imagining himself in bed with her there . . . ’
Father Consett, his broad, unmodelled dark face full of intelligence and with the blissful unction of the saint and martyr, was leaning over Tietjens’ shoulder . . . He must be breathing down Christopher’s back as, her mother said, he always did when she held a hand at auction and he could not play because it was between midnight and his celebrating the holy mass . . .
‘No, I am not going mad . . . This is an effect of fatigue on the optic nerves . . . Christopher has explained that to me . . . He says that when his eyes have been very tired with making one of his senior wrangler’s calculations he has often seen a woman in an eighteenth-century dress looking into a drawer in his bureau . . . Thank God, I’ve had Christopher to explain things to me . . . I’ll never let him go . . . Never, never, let him go . . . ’
It was not, however, until several hours later that the significance of the father’s apparition came to her and those intervening hours were extraordinarily occupied — with emotions, and even with action. To begin with, before he had read the fewest possible words of his brother’s letter, Tietjens looked up over it and said:
‘Of course you will occupy Groby . . . With Michael . . . Naturally the proper business arrangements will be made . . . ’ He went on reading the letter, sunk in his chair under the green shade of a lamp . . .
The letter, Sylvia knew, began with the words: ‘Your —— of a wife has been to see me with the idea of getting any allowance I might be minded to make you transferred to herself. Of course she can have Groby, for I shan’t let it, and could not be bothered with it myself. On the other hand, you may want to live at Groby with that girl and chance the racket. I should if I were you. You would probably find the place worth the . . . what is it? ostracism, if there was any . . . But I’m forgetting that the girl is not your mistress unless anything has happened since I saw you . . . And you probably would want Michael to be brought up at Groby, in which case you couldn’t keep the girl there, even if you camouflaged her as governess. At least I think that kind of arrangement always turns out badly: there’s bound to be a stink, though Crosby of Ulick did it and nobody much minded . . . But it was mucky for the Crosby children. Of course if you want your wife to have Groby she must have enough to run it with credit, and expenses are rising damnably. Still, our incomings rise not a little, too, which is not the case with some. The only thing I insist on is that you make plain to that baggage that whatever I allow her, even if it’s no end of a hot income, not one penny of it comes out of what I wish you would allow me to allow you. I mean I want you to make plain to that rouged piece — or perhaps it’s really natural, my eyes are not what they were — that what you have is absolutely independent of what she sucks up as the mother of our father’s heir and to keep our father’s heir in the state of life that is his due . . . I hope you feel satisfied that the boy is your son, for it’s more than I should be, looking at the party . . . But even if he is not he is our father’s heir all right and must be so treated . . .
‘But be plain about that, for the trollop came to me, if you please, with the proposal that I should dock you of any income I might propose to allow you — and to which of course you are absolutely entitled under our father’s will, though it is no good reminding you of that! — as a token from me that I disapproved of your behaviour when, damn it, there is not an action of yours that I would not be proud to have to my credit. At any rate in this affair, for I cannot help thinking that you could be of more service to the country if you were anywhere else but where you are. But you know what your conscience demands of you better than I, and I dare say these hell-cats have so mauled you that you are glad to be able to get away into any hole. But don’t let yourself die in your hole. Groby will have to be looked after, and even if you do not live there you can keep a strong hand on Sanders, or whoever you elect to have as manager. That monstrosity you honour with your name — which is also mine, thank you! — suggested that if I consented to let her live at Groby she would have her mother to live with her, in which case her mother would be good to look after the estate. I dare say she would, though she has had to let her own place. But then almost everyone else has. She seems anyhow a notable woman, with her head screwed on the right way. I did not tell the discreditable daughter that she — her mother — had come to see me at breakfast immediately after seeing you off, she was so upset. And she keawert ho down i’ th’ ingle and had a gradely pow. You remember how Gobbles the gardener used to say that. A good chap, though he came from Lancasheere! . . . The mother has no illusions about the daughter and is heart and soul for you. She was dreadfully upset at your going, the more so as she believes that it’s her offspring has driven you out of the country and that you purpose . . . isn’t stopping one the phrase? Don’t do that.
‘I saw your girl yesterday . . . She looked peaky. But of course I have seen her several times, and she always looks peaky. I do not understand why you do not write to them. The mother is clamorous because you have not answered several letters and have not sent her military information she wants for some article she is writing for a Swiss magazine . . . ’
Sylvia knew the letter almost by heart as far as that because in the unbearable white room of the convent near Birkenhead she had twice begun to copy it out, with the idea of keeping the copies for use in some sort of publicity. But, at that point, she had twice been overcome by the idea that it was not a very sporting thing to do, if you really think about it. Besides, the letter after that — she had glanced through it — occupied itself almost entirely with the affairs of Mrs Wannop. Mark, in his nave way, was concerned that the old lady, although now enjoying the income from the legacy left her by their father, had not immediately settled down to write a deathless novel; although, as he added, he knew nothing about novels . . .
Christopher was reading away at his letters beneath the green-shaded lamp; the ex-quartermaster had begun several sentences and dropped into demonstrative silence at the reminder that Tietjens was reading. Christopher’s face was completely without expression; he might have been reading a return from the office of statistics in the old days at breakfast. She wondered, vaguely, if he would see fit to apologize for the epithets that his brother had applied to her. Probably he would not. He would consider that she having opened the letter must take the responsibility of the contents. Something like that. Thumps and rumbles began to exist in the relative silence. Cowley said: ‘They’re coming again then!’ Several couples passed them on the way out of the room. Amongst them there was certainly no presentable man; they were all either too old or too hobbledehoy, with disproportionate noses and vacant, half-opened mouths.
Accompanying Christopher’s mind, as it were, whilst he read his letter had induced in her a rather different mood. The pictures in her own mind were rather of Mark’s dingy breakfast-room in which she had had her interview with him — and of the outside of the dingy house in which the Wannops lived, at Bedford Park . . . But she was still conscious of her pact with the father and, looking at her wrist watch, saw that by now six minutes had passed . . . It was astonishing that Mark, who was a millionaire at least, and probably a good deal more, should live in such a dingy apartment — it had for its chief decoration the hoofs of several deceased race-winners, mounted as ink-stands, as pen-racks, as paper-weights — and afford himself only such a lugubrious breakfast of fat slabs of ham over which bled pallid eggs . . . For she too, like her mother, had looked in on Mark at breakfast-time — her mother because she had just seen Christopher off to France, and she because, after a sleepless night — the third of a series — she had been walking about St. James’s Park and, passing under Mark’s windows, it had occurred to her that she might do Christopher some damage by putting his brother wise about the entanglement with Miss Wannop. So, on the spur of the moment, she had invented a desire to live at Groby with the accompanying necessity for additional means. For, although she was a pretty wealthy woman, she was not wealthy enough to live at Groby and keep it up. The immense old place was not so immense because of its room-space, though, as far as she could remember, there must be anything between forty and sixty rooms, but because of the vast old grounds, the warren of stabling, wells, rose-walks and fencing . . . A man’s place, really, the furniture very grim and the corridors on the ground floor all slabbed with great stones. So she had looked in on Mark, reading his correspondence with his copy of The Times airing on a chair-back before the fire — for he was just the man to retain the eighteen-forty idea that you catch cold by reading a damp newspaper. His grim, tight, brown-wooden features that might have been carved out of an old chair, had expressed no emotion at all during the interview. He had offered to have up some more ham and eggs for her and had asked one or two questions as to how she meant to live at Groby if she went there. Otherwise he had said nothing about the information she had given him as to the Wannop girl having had a baby by Christopher — for purposes of conversation she had adhered to that old story, at any rate till that interview. He had said nothing at all. Not one word . . . At the end of the interview, when he had risen and produced from an adjoining room a bowler hat and an umbrella, saying that he must now go to his office, he had put to her without any expression pretty well what stood in the letter, as far as business was concerned. He said that she could have Groby, but she must understand that, his father being now dead and he a public official, without children and occupied in London with work that suited him, Groby was practically Christopher’s property to do what he liked with as long as — which he certainly would — he kept it in proper style. So that, if she wished to live there, she must produce Christopher’s authorization to that effect. And he added, with an equableness so masking the proposition that it was not until she was well out of the house and down the street that its true amazingness took her breath away:
‘Of course, Christopher, if what you say is true, might want to live at Groby with Miss Wannop. In that case he would have to.’ And he had offered her an expressionless hand and shepherded her, rather fussily, through his dingy and awkward front passages that were lit only from ground-glass windows giving apparently on to his bathroom . . .
It wasn’t until that moment, really, that, at once with exhilaration and also with a sinking at the heart, she realized what she was up against in the way of a combination. For, when she had gone to Mark’s, she had been more than half-maddened by the news that Christopher at Rouen was in hospital and, although the hospital authorities had assured her, at first by telegram and then by letter, that it was nothing more than his chest, she had not had any knowledge of to what extent Red Cross authorities did or did not mislead the relatives of casualties.
So it had seemed natural that she should want to inflict on him all the injuries that she could at the moment, the thought that he was probably in pain making her wish to add all she could to that pain . . . Otherwise, of course, she would not have gone to Mark’s . . . For it was a mistake in strategy. But then she said to herself: ‘Confound it! . . . What strategy was it a mistake in? What do I care about strategy? What am I out for? . . . ’ She did what she wanted to, on the spur of the moment! . . .
Now she certainly realized. How Christopher had got round Mark she did not know or much care, but there Christopher certainly was, although his father had certainly died of a broken heart at the rumours that were going round about his son — rumours she, almost as efficiently as the man called Ruggles and more irresponsible gossips, had set going about Christopher. They had been meant to smash Christopher: they had smashed his father instead . . .
But Christopher had got round Mark, whom he had not seen for ten years . . . Well, he probably would. Christopher was perfectly immaculate, that was a fact, and Mark, though he appeared half-witted in a North Country way, was no fool. He could not be a fool. He was a really august public official. And, although as a rule Sylvia gave nothing at all for any public official, if a man like Mark had the position by birth amongst presentable men that he certainly ought to have and was also the head of a department and reputed absolutely indispensable — you could not ignore him . . . He said, indeed, in the later, more gossipy parts of his letter that he had been offered a baronetcy, but he wanted Christopher to agree with his refusing it. Christopher would not want the beastly title after his death, and for himself he would be rather struck with the pip than let that harlot — meaning herself — become Lady T. by any means of his. He had added, with his queer solicitude, ‘Of course if you thought of divorcing — which I wish to God you would, though I agree that you are right not to — and the title would go to the girl after my decease I’d take it gladly, for a title is a bit of a help after a divorce. But as it is I propose to refuse it and ask for a knighthood, if it won’t too sicken you to have me a Sir . . . For I hold no man ought to refuse an honour in times like these, as has been done by certain sickening intellectuals, because it is like slapping the sovereign in the face and bound to hearten the other side, which no doubt was what was meant by those fellows.’
There was no doubt that Mark — with the possible addition of the Wannops — made a very strong backing for Christopher if she decided to make a public scandal about him . . . As for the Wannops . . . the girl was negligible. Or possibly not, if she turned nasty and twisted Christopher round her fingers. But the old mother was a formidable figure — with a bad tongue, and viewed with a certain respect in places where people talked . . . both on account of her late husband’s position and of the solid sort of articles she wrote . . . She, Sylvia, had gone to take a look at the place where these people lived . . . a dreary street in an outer suburb, the houses — she knew enough about estates to know — what is called tile-healed, the upper parts of tile, the lower flimsy brick and the tiles in bad condition. Oldish houses really, in spite of their sham artistic aspect, and very much shadowed by old trees that must have been left to add to the picturesqueness . . . The rooms poky, and they must be very dark . . . The residence of extreme indigence, or of absolute poverty . . . She understood that the old lady’s income had so fallen off during the war that they had nothing to live on but what the girl made as a schoolteacher, or a teacher of athletics in a girls’ school . . . She had walked two or three times up and down the street with the idea that the girl might come out: then it had struck her that that was rather an ignoble proceeding, really . . . It was, for the matter of that, ignoble that she should have a rival who starved in an ashbin . . . But that was what men were like: she might think herself lucky that the girl did not inhabit a sweetshop . . . And the man, Mac-master, said that the girl had a good head and talked well, though the woman Macmaster said that she was a shallow ignoramus . . . That last was probably not true; at any rate the girl had been the Macmaster woman’s most intimate friend for many years — as long as they were sponging on Christopher and until, lower middle-class snobs as they were, they began to think that they could get into Society by carneying to herself . . . Still, the girl probably was a good talker and, if little, yet physically uncommonly fit . . . A good homespun article . . . She wished her no ill!
What was incredible was that Christopher should let her go on starving in such a poverty-stricken place when he had something like the wealth of the Indies at his disposal . . . But the Tietjens were hard people! You could see that in Mark’s rooms . . . and Christopher would lie on the floor as lief as in a goose-feather bed. And probably the girl would not take his money. She was quite right. That was the way to keep him . . . She herself had no want of comprehension of the stimulation to be got out of parsimonious living . . . In retreat at her convent she lay as hard and as cold as any anchorite, and rose to the nuns’ matins at four.
It was not, in fact, their fittings or food that she objected to — it was that the lay-sisters, and some of the nuns, were altogether too much of the lower classes for her to like to have always about her . . . That was why it was to the Dames Nobles that she would go, if she had to go into retreat for the rest of her life, according to contract . . .
A gun manned by exhilarated anti-aircraft fellows, and so close that it must have been in the hotel garden, shook her physically at almost the same moment as an immense maroon popped off on the quay at the bottom of the street in which the hotel was. She was filled with annoyance at these schoolboy exercises. A tall, purple-faced, white-moustached general of the more odious type, appeared in the doorway and said that all the lights but two must be extinguished and, if they took his advice, they would go somewhere else. There were good cellars in the hotel. He loafed about the room extinguishing the lights, couples and groups passing him on the way to the door . . . Tietjens looked up from his letter — he was now reading one of Mrs Wannop’s — but seeing that Sylvia made no motion he remained sunk in his chair . . .
The old general said:
‘Don’t get up, Tietjens . . . Sit down, lieutenant . . . Mrs Tietjens, I presume . . . But of course I know you are Mrs Tietjens . . . There’s a portrait of you in this week’s . . . I forget the name . . . ’ He sat down on the arm of a great leather chair and told her of all the trouble her escapade to that city had caused him . . . He had been awakened immediately after a good lunch by some young officer on his staff who was scared to death by her having arrived without papers. His digestion had been deranged ever since . . . Sylvia said she was very sorry. He should drink hot water and no alcohol with lunch. She had had very important business to discuss with Tietjens, and she had really not understood that they wanted papers of grown-up people. The general began to expatiate on the importance of his office and the number of enemy agents his perspicacity caused to be arrested every day in that city and the lines of communication . . .
Sylvia was overwhelmed at the ingenuity of Father Consett. She looked at her watch. The ten minutes were up, but there did not appear to be a soul in the dim place . . . The father had — and no doubt as a Sign that there could be no mistaking! — completely emptied that room. It was like his humour!
To make certain, she stood up. At the far end of the room, in the dimness of the one other reading lamp that the general had not extinguished, two figures were rather indistinguishable. She walked towards them, the general at her side extending civilities all over her. He said that she need not be under any apprehension there. He adopted that device of clearing the room in order to get rid of the beastly young subalterns who would use the place to spoon in when the lights were turned down. She said she was only going to get a timetable from the far end of the room . . .
The stab of hope that she had that one of the two figures would turn out to be the presentable man died . . . They were a young mournful subaltern, with an incipient moustache and practically tears in his eyes, and an elderly, violently indignant baldheaded man in evening civilian clothes that must have been made by a country tailor. He was smacking his hands together to emphasize what, with great agitation, he was saying.
The general said that it was one of the young cubs on his own staff getting a dressing down from his dad for spending too much money. The young devils would get amongst the girls — and the old ones too. There was no stopping it. The place was a hotbed of . . . He left the sentence unfinished. She would not believe the trouble it gave him . . . That hotel itself . . . The scandals . . .
He said she would excuse him if he took a little nap in one of the arm-chairs too far away to interfere with their business talk. He would have to be up half the night. He seemed to Sylvia a blazingly contemptible personage — too contemptible really for Father Consett to employ as an agent, in clearing the room . . . But the omen was given. She had to consider her position. It meant — or did it? — that she had to be at war with the heavenly powers! . . . She clenched her hands . . .
In passing by Tietjens in his chair the general boomed out the words:
‘I got your chit of this morning, Tietjens I must say . . . ’
Tietjens lumbered out of his chair and stood at attention, his leg-of-mutton hands stiffly on the seams of his breeches.
‘It’s pretty strong,’ the general said, ‘marking a charge-sheet sent down from my department: Case explained. We don’t lay charges without due thought. And Lance-Corporal Berry is a particularly reliable N.C.O. I have difficulty enough to get them. Particularly after the late riots. It takes courage, I can tell you.’
‘If,’ Tietjens said, ‘you would see fit, sir, to instruct the G.M.P. not to call Colonial troops damned conscripts, the trouble would be over . . . We’re instructed to use special discretion, as officers, in dealing with troops from the Dominions. They are said to be very susceptible of insult . . . ’
The general suddenly became a boiling pot from which fragments of sentences came away: damned insolence; court of inquiry; damned conscripts they were too. He calmed enough to say:
‘They are conscripts, your men, aren’t they? They give me more trouble . . . I should have thought that you would have wanted . . . ’
‘No, sir. I have not a man in my unit, as far as it’s Canadian or British Columbian, that is not voluntarily enlisted . . . ’
The general exploded to the effect that he was bringing the whole matter before the G.O.C.I.C.’s department. Campion could deal with it how he wished: it was beyond himself. He began to bluster away from them; stopped; directed a frigid bow to Sylvia who was not looking at him; shrugged his shoulders and stormed off.
It was difficult for Sylvia to get hold again of her thoughts in the smoking-room, for the evening was entirely pervaded with military effects that seemed to her the pranks of schoolboys. Indeed, after Cowley, who had by now quite a good skinful of liquor, had said to Tietjens:
‘By Jove, I would not like to be you and a little bit on if old Blazes caught sight of you to-night,’ she said to Tietjens with real wonder:
‘You don’t mean to say that a gaga old fool like that could have any possible influence over you . . . You!‘
‘Well, it’s a troublesome business, all this . . . ’
She said that it so appeared to be, for before he could finish his sentence an orderly was at his elbow extending, along with a pencil, a number of dilapidated papers. Tietjens looked rapidly through them, signing one after the other and saying intermittently:
‘It’s a trying time.’ ‘We’re massing troops up the line as fast as we can go.’ ‘And with an endlessly changing personnel . . . ’ He gave a snort of exasperation and said to Cowley: ‘That horrible little Pitkins has got a job as bombing instructor. He can’t march the draft . . . Who the deuce am I to detail? Who the deuce is there? . . . You know all the little . . . ’ He stopped because the orderly could hear. A smart boy. Almost the only smart boy left him.
Cowley barged out of his seat and said he would telephone the mess to see who was there . . . Tietjens said to the boy:
‘Sergeant-Major Morgan made out these returns of religions in the draft?’
The boy answered: ‘No, sir, I did. They’re all right.’ He pulled a slip of paper out of his tunic pocket and said shyly:
‘If you would not mind signing this, sir . . . I can get a lift on an A.S.C. trolley that’s going to Boulogne to-morrow at six . . . ’
‘No, you can’t have leave. I can’t spare you. What’s it for?’
The boy said almost inaudibly that he wanted to get married.
Tietjens, still signing, said: ‘Don’t . . . Ask your married pals what it’s like!’
The boy, scarlet in his khaki, rubbed the sole of one foot on the instep of the other. He said that saving madam’s presence it was urgent. It was expected any day now. She was a real good gel. Tietjens signed the boy’s slip and handed it to him without looking up. The boy stood with his eyes on the ground. A diversion came from the telephone, which was at the far end of the room. Cowley had not been able to get on to the camp because an urgent message with regard to German espionage was coming through to the sleeping general.
Cowley began to shout: Tor goodness’ sake hold the line . . . For goodness’ sake hold the line . . . I’m not the general . . . I’m not the general . . . ’ Tietjens told the orderly to awaken the sleeping warrior. A violent scene at the mouth of the quiescent instrument took place. The general roared to know who was the officer speaking . . . Captain Bubbleyjocks . . . Captain Cuddlestocks . . . what in hell’s name! And who was he speaking for? . . . Who? Himself? . . . Urgent was it? . . . Didn’t he know the proper procedure was by writing? . . . Urgent damnation! . . . Did he not know where he was? . . . In the First Army by the Cassell Canal . . . Well then . . . But the spy was in L. of C. territory, across the canal . . . The French civilian authorities were very concerned . . . They were, damn them! . . . And damn the officer. And damn the French maire. And damn the horse the supposed spy rode upon . . . And when the officer was damned let him write to First Army Headquarters about it and attach the horse and the bandoliers as an exhibit . . .
There was a great deal more of it. Tietjens, reading his papers still, intermittently explained the story as it came in fragments over the telephone in the general’s repetitions . . . Apparently the French civilian authorities of a place called Warendonck had been alarmed by a solitary horseman in English uniform who had been wandering desultorily about their neighbourhood for several days, seeming to want to cross the canal bridges, but finding them guarded . . . There was an immense artillery dump in the neighbourhood, said to be the largest in the world, and the Germans dropped bombs as thick as peas all over those parts in the hopes of hitting it . . . Apparently the officer speaking was in charge of the canal bridgehead guards; but, as he was in First Army country, it was obviously an act of the utmost impropriety to awaken a general in charge of the spy-catching apparatus on the other side of the canal . . . The general, returning past them to an arm-chair farther from the telephone, emphasized this point of view with great vigour.
The orderly had returned; Cowley went once more to the telephone, having consumed another liqueur brandy. Tietjens finished his papers and went through them rapidly again. He said to the boy: ‘Got anything saved up?’ The boy said: ‘A fiver and a few bob.’ Tietjens said: ‘How many bob?’ The boy: ‘Seven, sir.’ Tietjens, fumbling clumsily in an inner pocket and a little pocket beneath his belt, held out one leg-of-mutton fist and said: ‘There! That will double it. Ten pounds fourteen! But it’s very improvident of you. See that you save up a deuced lot more against the next one. Accouchements are confoundedly expensive things, as you’ll learn, and ring money doesn’t stretch for ever! . . . ’ He called out to the retreating boy: ‘Here, orderly, come back . . . ’ He added: ‘Don’t let it get all over camp . . . I can’t afford to subsidize all the seven-months children in the battalion . . . I’ll recommend you for paid lance-corporal when you return from leave if you go on as well as you have done.’ He called the boy back again to ask him why Captain McKechnie had not signed the papers. The boy stuttered and stammered that Captain McKechnie was . . . He was . . .
Tietjens muttered: ‘Good God!’ beneath his breath. He said:
‘The captain has had another nervous breakdown . . . The orderly accepted the phrase with gratitude. That was it. A nervous breakdown. They say he had been very queer at mess. About divorce. Or the captain’s uncle. A barrow-night! Tietjens said: ‘Yes, yes.’ He half rose in his chair and looked at Sylvia. She exclaimed painfully:
‘You can’t go. I insist that you can’t go.’ He sank down again and muttered wearily that it was very worrying. He had been put in charge of this officer by General Campion. He ought not to have left the camp at all perhaps. But McKechnie had seemed better. A great deal of the calmness of her insolence had left her. She had expected to have the whole night in which luxuriously to torment the lump opposite her. To torment and to allure him. She said:
‘You have settlements to come to now and here that will affect your whole life. Our whole lives! You propose to abandon them because a miserable little nephew of your miserable little friend . . . ’ She added in French: ‘Even as it is you cannot pay attention to these serious matters, because of these childish pre-occupations of yours. That is to be intolerably insulting to me!’ She was breathless.
Tietjens asked the orderly where Captain McKechnie was now. The orderly said he had left the camp. The colonel of the depot had sent a couple of officers as a search-party. Tietjens told the orderly to go and find a taxi. He could have a ride himself up to camp. The orderly said taxis would not be running on account of the air-raid. Could he order the G.M.P. to requisition one on urgent military service? The exhilarated air-gun pooped off thereupon three times from the garden. For the next hour it sent off every two or three minutes. Tietjens said: ‘Yes! Yes!’ to the orderly. The noises of the air raid became more formidable. A blue express letter of French civilian make was handed to Tietjens. It was from the duchess to inform him that coal for the use of greenhouses was forbidden by the French Government. She did not need to say that she relied on his honour to ensure her receiving her coal through the British military authorities, and she asked for an immediate reply. Tietjens expressed real annoyance while he read this. Distracted by the noise, Sylvia cried out that the letter must be from Valentine Wannop in Rouen. Did not the girl intend to let him have an hour in which to settle the whole business of his life? Tietjens moved to the chair next to hers. He handed her the duchess’s letter.
He began a long, slow, serious explanation with a long, slow, serious apology. He said he regretted very much that when she should have taken the trouble to come so far in order to do him the honour to consult him about a matter which she would have been perfectly at liberty to settle for herself, the extremely serious military position should render him so liable to interruption. As far as he was concerned Groby was entirely at her disposal with all that it contained. And of course a sufficient income for the upkeep.
She exclaimed in an access of sudden and complete despair:
‘That means that you do not intend to live there.’ He said that that must settle itself later. The war would no doubt last a good deal longer. While it lasted there could be no question of his coming back. She said that that meant that he intended to get killed. She warned him that, if he got killed, she would cut down the great cedar at the south-west corner of Groby. It kept all the light out of the principal drawing-room and the bedrooms above it . . . He winced: he certainly winced at that. She regretted that she had said it. It was along other lines that she desired to make him wince.
He said that, apart from his having no intention of getting himself killed, the matter was absolutely out of his hands. He had to go where he was ordered to go and do what he was told to do.
‘You! You! Isn’t it ignoble. That you should be at the beck and call of these ignoramuses. You!’
He went on explaining seriously that he was in no great danger — in no danger at all unless he was sent back to his battalion. And he was not likely to be sent back to his battalion unless he disgraced himself or showed himself negligent where he was. That was unlikely. Besides his category was so low that he was not eligible for his battalion, which, of course, was in the line. She ought to understand that everyone that she saw employed there was physically unfit for the line. She said:
‘That’s why they’re such an awful lot . . . It is not to this place that one should come to look for a presentable man . . . Diogenes with his lantern was nothing to it.’
‘There’s that way of looking at it . . . It is quite true that most of . . . let’s say your friends . . . were killed off during the early days, or if they’re still going they’re in more active employments.’ What she called presentableness was very largely a matter of physical fitness . . . The horse, for instance, that he rode was rather a crock . . . But though it was German and not thoroughbred it contrived to be up to his weight . . . Her friends, more or less, of before the war were professional soldiers or of the type. Well, they were gone: dead or snowed under. But on the other hand, this vast town full of crocks did keep the thing going, if it could be made to go. It was not they that hindered the show: if it was hindered, that was done by her much less presentable friends, the ministry who, if they were professionals at all, were professional boodlers.
She exclaimed with bitterness:
‘Then why didn’t you stay at home to check them, if they are boodlers?’ She added that the only people at home who kept social matters going at all with any life were precisely the more successful political professionals. When you were with them you would not know there was any war. And wasn’t that what was wanted? Was the whole of life to be given up to ignoble horseplay? . . . She spoke with increased rancour because of the increasing thump and rumble of the air-raid . . . Of course the politicians were ignoble beings that, before the war, you would not have thought of having in your house . . . But whose fault was that, if not that of the better classes, who had gone away leaving England a dreary wilderness of fellows without consciences or traditions or manners? And she added some details of the habits at a country house of a member of the Government whom she disliked. ‘And,’ she finished up, ‘it’s your fault. Why aren’t you Lord Chancellor, or Chancellor of the Exchequer, instead of whoever is, for I am sure I don’t know? You could have been, with your abilities and your interests. Then things would have been efficiently and honestly conducted. If your brother Mark, with not a tithe of your abilities, can be a permanent head of a department, what could you not have risen to with your gifts, and your influence . . . and your integrity?’ And she ended up: ‘Oh, Christopher!’ on almost a sob.
Ex-Sergeant-Major Cowley, who had come back from the telephone, and during an interval in the thunderings, had heard some of Sylvia’s light cast on the habits of members of the home Government, so that his jaw had really hung down, now, in another interval, exclaimed:
‘Hear, hear! Madam! . . . There is nothing the captain might not have risen to . . . He is doing the work of a brigadier now on the pay of an acting captain . . . And the treatment he gets is scandalous . . . Well, the treatment we all get is scandalous, tricked and defrauded as we are all at every turn . . . And look at this new start with the draft . . . ’ They had ordered the draft to be ready and countermanded it, and ordered it to be ready and countermanded it, until no one knew whether he stood on is ‘ed or is ‘eels . . . It was to have gone off last night: when they’d ‘ad it marched down to the station they ‘ad it marched back and told them all it would not be wanted for six weeks . . . Now it was to be got ready to go before daylight to-morrow morning in motor-lorries to the rail Ondekoeter way, the rail here ‘aving been sabotaged! . . . Before daylight so that the enemy aeroplanes should not see it on the road . . . Wasn’t that a thing to break the ‘arts of men and horderly rooms? It was outrageous. Did they suppose the ‘Uns did things like that?
He broke off to say with husky enthusiasm of affection to Tietjens: ‘Look ’ere, old . . . I mean, sir . . . There’s no way of getting hold of an officer to march the draft. Them as are eligible gets to ‘ear of what drafts is going and they’ve all bolted into their burries. Not a man of ’em will be back in camp before five to-morrow morning. Not when they ‘ears there’s a draft to go at four of mornings like this . . . Now . . . ’ His voice became husky with emotion as he offered to take the draft hisself to oblige Captain Tietjens. And the captain knew he could get a draft off pretty near as good as himself: or very near. As for the draft-conducting major he lived in that hotel and he, Cowley, ‘ad seen ’im. No four in the morning for ’im. He was going to motor to Ondekoeter Station about seven. So there was no sense in getting the draft off before five, and it was still dark then: too dark for the ‘Un planes to see what was moving. He’d be glad if the captain would be up at the camp by five to take a final look and to sign any papers that only the commanding officer could sign. But he knew the captain had had no sleep the night before because of his, Cowley’s, infirmity, mostly, so he couldn’t do less than give up a day and a half of his leave to taking the draft. Besides, he was going home for the duration and he would not mind getting a look at the old places they’d seen in ‘fourteen, for the last time as a Cook’s tourist . . .
Tietjens, who was looking noticeably white, said:
‘Do you remember 0 Nine Morgan at Noircourt?’
‘No . . . Was ‘e there? In your company, I suppose? . . . The man you mean that was killed yesterday. Died in your arms owing to my oversight. I ought to have been there.’ He said to Sylvia with the gloating idea N.C.O.’s had that wives liked to hear of their husband’s near escapes: ‘Killed within a foot of the captain, ‘e was. An ‘orrible shock it must ‘ave been for the captain.’ A horrible mess . . . The captain held him in his arms while he died . . . As if he’d been a baby. Wonderful tender, the captain was! Well, you’re apt to be when it’s one of your own men . . . No rank then!‘Do you know the only time the King must salute a private soldier and the private takes no notice? . . . When ‘e’s dead . . . ’
Both Sylvia and Tietjens were silent — and silvery white in the greenish light from the lamp. Tietjens indeed had shut his eyes. The old N.C.O. went on rejoicing to have the floor to himself. He had got on his feet preparatory to going up to camp, and he swayed a little . . .
‘No,’ he said and he waved his cigar gloriously. ‘I don’t remember 0 Nine Morgan at Noircourt . . . But I remember . . . ’
Tietjens, with his eyes still shut, said:
‘I only thought he might have been a man . . . ’
‘No,’ the old fellow went on imperiously, ‘I don’t remember ’im . . . But, Lord, I remember what happened to you!‘ He looked down gloriously upon Sylvia: ‘The captain caught ‘is foot in . . . You’d never believe what ‘e caught ‘is foot in! Never! . . . A pretty quiet affair it was, with a bit of moonlight . . . Nothing much in the way of artillery . . . Perhaps we surprised the ‘Uns proper, perhaps they were wanting to give up their front-line trenches for a purpose . . . There was next to no one in ’em . . . I know it made me nervous . . . My heart was fair in my boots, because there was so little doing! . . . It was when there was little doing that the ‘Uns could be expected to do their worst . . . Of course there was some machine-gunning . . . There was one in particular away to the right of us . . . And the moon, it was shining in the early morning. Wonderful peaceful. And a little mist . . . And frozen hard . . . Hard as you wouldn’t believe . . . Enough to make the shells dangerous.’
‘It’s not always mud, then?’ and Tietjens, to her: ‘He’ll stop if you don’t like it.’ She said monotonously: ‘No . . . I want to hear.’
Cowley drew himself up for his considerable effect:
‘Mud!’ he said. ‘Not then . . . Not by half . . . I tell you, ma’am, we trod on the frozen faces of dead Germans as we doubled . . . A terrible lot of Germans we’d killed a day or so before . . . That was no doubt the reason they give up the trenches so easy: difficult to attack from, they was . . . Anyhow, they left the dead for us to bury, knowing probably they were going, with a better ’eart! . . . But it fair put the wind up me anyhow to think of what their counter-attack was going to be . . . The counter-attack is always ten times as bad as the preliminary resistance. They ‘as you with the rear of their trenches — the parados, we call it — as your front to boot. So I was precious glad when the moppers-up and supports come and went through us . . . Laughing, they was . . . Wiltshires . . . My missus comes from that country . . . Mrs Cowley, I mean . . . So I’d seen the captain go down earlier on and I’d said: “There’s another of the best stopped one . . . "’ He dropped his voice a little: he was one of the noted yarners of the regiment: ‘Caught ‘is foot, ‘e ‘ad, between two ‘ands . . . Sticking up out of the frozen ground . . . As it might be in prayer . . . Like this!’ He elevated his two hands, the cigar between the fingers, the wrists close together and the fingers slightly curled inwards: ‘Sticking up in the moonlight . . . Poor devil!’
‘I thought perhaps it was 0 Nine Morgan I saw that night . . . Naturally I looked dead . . . I hadn’t a breath in my body . . . And I saw a Tommy put his rifle to his pal’s upper arm and fire . . . As I lay on the ground . . . ’
‘Ah, you saw that . . . I heard the men talking of it . . . But they naturally did not say who and where!’
Tietjens said with a negligence that did not ring true:
‘The wounded man’s name was Stilicho . . . A queer name . . . I suppose it’s Cornish . . . It was B Company in front of us.’
‘You didn’t bring ’em to a court martial?’ Cowley asked. Tietjens said: No. He could not be quite certain. Though he was certain. But he had been worrying about a private matter. He had been worrying about it while he lay on the ground and that rather obscured his sense of what he saw. Besides, he said faintly, an officer must use his judgement. He had judged it better in this case not to have seen the . . . His voice had nearly faded away: it was clear to Sylvia that he was coming to a climax of some mental torture. Suddenly he exclaimed to Cowley:
‘Supposing I let him off one life to get him killed two years after. My God! That would be too beastly!’
Cowley snuffled in Tietjens’ ear something that Sylvia did not catch — consolatory and affectionate. That intimacy was more than she could bear. She adopted her most negligent tone to ask:
‘I suppose the one man had been trifling with the other’s girl. Or wife!’
Cowley exploded: ‘God bless you, no! They’d agreed upon it between them. To get one of them sent ‘ome and the other, at any rate, out of that ‘ell, leading him back to the dressing-station.’ She said:
‘You mean to say that a man would do that, to get out of it? . . . ’
‘God bless you, ma’am, with the ‘ell the Tommies ‘as of it . . . For it’s in the line that the differences between the Other Ranks’ life and the officers’ comes in . . . I tell you, ma’am, old soldier as I am, and I’ve been in seven wars one with another . . . there were times in this war when I could have shrieked, holding my right hand down . . . ’
He paused and said: ‘It was my idea . . . And it’s been a good many others’, that if I ‘eld my ‘and up over the parapet with perhaps my hat on it, in two minutes there would be a German sharpshooter’s bullet through it. And then me for Blighty, as the soldiers say . . . And if that could happen to me, a regimental sergeant-major, with twenty-three years in the service . . .
The bright orderly came in, said he had found a taxi, and melted into the dimness.
‘A man,’ the sergeant-major said, ‘would take the risk of being shot for wounding his pal . . . They get to love their pals, passing the love of women . . . ’ Sylvia exclaimed: ‘Oh!’ as if at a pang of toothache. ‘They do, ma’am,’ he said, ‘it’s downright touching . . . ’
He was by now very unsteady as he stood, but his voice was quite clear. That was the way it took him. He said to Tietjens:
‘It’s queer, what you say about home worries taking up your mind . . . I remember in the Afghan campaign, when we were in the devil of a hot corner, I got a letter from my wife, Mrs Cowley, to say that our Winnie had the measles . . . And there was only one difference between me and Mrs Cowley: I said that a child must have flannel next its skin, and she said flannelette was good enough. Wiltshire doesn’t hold by wool as Lincolnshire does. Long fleeces the Lincolnshire sheep have . . . And . . . dodging the Afghan bullets all day among the boulders as we was, all I could think of . . . For you know, ma’am, being a mother yourself, that the great thing with measles is to keep a child warm . . . I kep’ saying to myself —‘arf crying I was —“If she only keeps wool next Winnie’s skin! If she only keeps wool next Winnie’s skin!” . . . But you know that, being a mother yourself. I’ve seen your son’s photo on the captain’s dressing-table. Michael, ‘is name is . . . So you see, the captain doesn’t forget you and ’im.’
Sylvia said in a clear voice:
‘Perhaps you would not go on!’
Distracted as she was by the anti-air-gun in the garden, though it was on the other side of the hotel and permitted you to get in a sentence or two before splitting your head with a couple of irregular explosions, she was still more distracted by a sudden vision — a remembrance of Christopher’s face when their boy had had a temperature of 105° with the measles, up at his sister’s house in Yorkshire. He had taken the responsibility, which the village doctor would not face, of himself placing the child in a bath full of split ice . . . She saw him bending, expressionless in the strong lamp-light, with the child in his clumsy arms over the glittering, rubbled surface of the bath . . . He was just as expressionless then as now . . . He reminded her now of how he had been then: some strain in the lines of the face perhaps that she could not analyse . . . Rather as if he had a cold in the head — a little suffocating, with suppressing his emotions, of course: his eyes looking at nothing. You would not have said that he even saw the child — heir to Groby and all that! . . . Something had said to her, just in between two crashes of the gun: ‘It’s his own child. He went as you might say down to hell to bring it back to life . . . ’ She knew it was Father Consett saying that. She knew it was true: Christopher had been down to hell to bring the child back . . . Fancy facing its pain in that dreadful bath! . . . The thermometer had dropped, running down under their eyes . . . Christopher had said: ‘A good heart, he’s got! A good plucked one!’ and then held his breath, watching the thin filament of bright mercury drop to normal . . . She said now, between her teeth: ‘The child is his property as much as the damned estate . . . Well, I’ve got them both . . . ’
But it wasn’t at this juncture that she wanted him tortured over that. So, when the second gun had done its crash, she had said to the bibulous old man:
‘I wish you would not go on!’ And Christopher had been prompt to the rescue of the convenances with:
‘Mrs Tietjens does not see eye to eye with us in some matters!’
She said to herself: ‘Eye to eye! My God! . . . ’ The whole of this affair, the more she saw of it, overwhelmed her with a sense of hatred . . . And of depression! . . . She saw Christopher buried in this welter of fools, playing a schoolboy’s game of make-believe. But of a make-believe that was infinitely formidable and infinitely sinister . . . The crashing of the gun and of all the instruments for making noise seemed to her so atrocious and odious because they were, for her, the silly pomp of a schoolboy-man’s game . . . Campion, or some similar schoolboy, said: ‘Hullo! Some German airplanes about . . . That lets us out on the air-gun! Let’s have some pops!’ . . . As they fire guns in the park on the King’s birthday. It was sheer insolence to have a gun in the garden of an hotel where people of quality might be sleeping or wishing to converse!
At home she had been able to sustain the conviction that it was such a game . . . Anywhere: at the house of a minister of the Crown, at dinner, she had only to say: ‘Do let us leave off talking of these odious things . . . ’ And immediately there would be ten or a dozen voices, the minister’s included, to agree with Mrs Tietjens of Groby that they had altogether too much of it . . .
But here! . . . She seemed to be in the very belly of the ugly affair . . . It moved and moved, under your eyes dissolving, yet always there. As if you should try to follow one diamond of pattern in the coil of an immense snake that was in irrevocable motion . . . It gave her a sense of despair: the engrossment of Tietjens, in common with the engrossment of this disreputable toper. She had never seen Tietjens put his head together with any soul before: he was the lonely buffalo . . . Now 1 Anyone: any fatuous staff-officer, whom at home he would never so much as have spoken to: any trustworthy beer-sodden sergeant, any street urchin dressed up as orderly . . . They had only to appear and all his mind went into a close-headed conference over some ignoble point in the child’s game: the laundry, the chiropody, the religions, the bastards . . . of millions of the indistinguishable . . . Or their deaths as well! But, in heaven’s name what hypocrisy, or what inconceivable chicken-heartedness was this? They promoted this beanfeast of carnage for their own ends: they caused the deaths of men in inconceivable holocausts of pain and terror. Then they had crises of agony over the death of one single man. For it was plain to her that Tietjens was in the middle of a full nervous breakdown. Over one man’s death! She had never seen him so suffer; she had never seen him so appeal for sympathy: him, a cold fiend of reticence! Yet he was now in an agony! Now! . . . And she began to have a sense of the infinitely spreading welter of pain, going away to an eternal horizon of night . . . ‘Ell for the Other Ranks! Apparently it was hell for the officers as well.
The real compassion in the voice of that snuffling, half-drunken old man had given her a sense of that enormous wickedness . . . These horrors, these infinities of pain, this atrocious condition of the world had been brought about in order that men should indulge themselves in orgies of promiscuity . . . That in the end was at the bottom of male honour, of male virtue, observance of treaties, upholding of the flag . . . An immense warlock’s carnival of appetites, lusts, ebrieties . . . And once set in motion there was no stopping it . . . This state of things would never cease . . . Because once they had tasted of the joy — the blood — of this game, who would let it end? . . . These men talked of these things that occupied them there with the lust of men telling dirty stories in smoking-rooms . . . That was the only parallel!
There was no stopping it, any more than there was any stopping the by now all but intoxicated ex-sergeant major. He was off! With, as might be expected, advice to a young couple with differences of opinion! The wine had made him bold!
In the depth of her pictures of these horrors, snatches of his wisdom penetrated to her intelligence . . . Queer snatches . . . She was getting it certainly in the neck! . . . Someone, to add to the noise, had started some mechanical musical instrument in an adjacent hall.
‘Corn an’ lasses
Served by Ras’us!’
a throaty voice proclaimed,
‘I’d be tickled to death to know that I could go
And stay right there . . .
The ex-sergeant-major was adding to her knowledge the odd detail that when he, Sergeant-Major Cowley, went to the wars — seven of them — his missus, Mrs Cowley, spent the first three days and nights unpicking and re-hemstitching every sheet and pillow-slip in the ’ouse. To keep ‘erself f’m thinking . . . This was apparently meant as a reproof or an exhortation to her, Sylvia Tietjens . . . Well, he was all right! Of the same class as Father Consett, and with the same sort of wisdom.
The gramophone bowled: a new note of rumbling added itself to the exterior tumult and continued through six mitigated thumps of the gun in the garden . . . In the next interval, Cowley was in the midst of a valedictory address to her. He was asking her to remember that the captain had had a sleepless night the night before.
There occurred to her irreverent mind a sentence of one of the Duchess of Marlborough’s letters to Queen Anne. The duchess had visited the general during one of his campaigns in Flanders. ‘My Lord,’ she wrote, ‘did me the honour three times in his boots!’ . . . The sort of thing she would remember . . . She would — she would — have tried it on the sergeant-major, just to see Tietjens’ face, for the sergeant-major would not have understood . . . And who cared if he did! . . . He was bibulously skirting round the same idea . . .
But the tumult increased to an incredible volume: even the thrillings of the near-by gramophone of two hundred horse-power, or whatever it was, became mere shimmerings of a gold thread in a drab fabric of sound. She screamed blasphemies that she was hardly aware of knowing. She had to scream against the noise: she was no more responsible for the blasphemy than if she had lost her identity under an anaesthetic. She had lost her identity . . . She was one of this crowd!
The general woke in his chair and gazed malevolently at their group as if they alone were responsible for the noise. It dropped. Dead! You only knew it, because you caught the tail end of a belated woman’s scream from the hall and the general shouting: Tor God’s sake don’t start that damned gramophone again!’ In the blessed silence, after preliminary wheezes and guitar noises, an astonishing voice burst out:
‘Less than the dust . . .
Before thy char . . . ’
And then, stopping after a murmur of voices, began:
‘Pale hands I loved . . . ’
The general sprang from his chair and rushed to the hall . . . He came back crestfallenly.
‘It’s some damned civilian big-wig . . . A novelist, they say . . . I can’t stop him . . . ’ He added with disgust: ‘The hall’s full of young beasts and harlots . . . Dancing!‘ . . . The melody had indeed, after a buzz, changed to a languorous and interrupted variation of a waltz. ‘Dancing in the dark!’ the general said with enhanced disgust . . . ‘And the Germans may be here at any moment . . . If they knew what I know! . . . ’
Sylvia called across to him:
‘Wouldn’t it be fun to see the blue uniform with the silver buttons again and some decently set-up men? . . . ’
The general shouted:
‘I’d be glad to see them . . . I’m sick to death of these . . . ’
Tietjens took up something he had been saying to Cowley: what it was Sylvia did not hear, but Cowley answered, still droning on with an idea Sylvia thought they had got past:
‘I remember when I was sergeant in Quetta, I detailed a man — called Herring — for watering the company horses, after he begged off it because he had a fear of horses . . . A horse got him down in the river and drowned ’im . . . Fell with him and put its foot on his face . . . A fair sight he was . . . It wasn’t any good my saying anything about military exigencies . . . Fair put me off my feed, it did . . . Cost me a fortune in Epsom salts . . . ’
Sylvia was about to scream out that if Tietjens did not like men being killed it ought to sober him in his war-lust, but Cowley continued meditatively:
‘Epsom salts they say is the cure for it . . . For seeing your dead . . . And of course you should keep off women for a fortnight . . . I know I did. Kept seeing Herring’s face with the hoof-mark. And . . . there was a piece: a decent bit of goods in what we called the Government Compound . . .
He suddenly exclaimed:
‘Saving your . . . Ma’am, I’m . . . ’ He stuck the stump of the cigar into his teeth and began assuring Tietjens that he could be trusted with the draft next morning, if only Tietjens would put him into the taxi.
He went away, leaning on Tietjens’ arm, his legs at an angle of sixty degrees with the carpet . . .
‘He can’t . . . ’ Sylvia said to herself, ‘he can’t, not . . . If he’s a gentleman . . . After all that old fellow’s hints . . . He’d be a damn coward if he kept off . . . For a fortnight . . . And who else is there not a public . . . ’ She said: ‘0 God! . . . ’
The old general, lying in his chair, turned his face aside to say:
‘I wouldn’t, madam, not if I were you, talk about the blue uniform with silver buttons here . . . We, of course, understand . . .
She said: ‘You see . . . even that extinct volcano . . . He’s undressing me with his eyes full of blood veins . . . Then why can’t he? . . . ’
She said aloud:
‘Oh, but even you, general, said you were sick of your companions!’
She said to herself:
‘Hang it! . . . I will have the courage of my convictions . . . No man shall say I am a coward . . . ’
‘Isn’t it saying the same thing as you, general, to say that I’d rather be made love to by a well-set-up man in blue and silver — or anything else! — than by most of the people one sees here! . . . ’
The general said:
‘Of course, if you put it that way, madam . . . ’ She said:
‘What other way should a woman put it?’ . . . She reached to the table and filled herself a lot of brandy. The old general was leering towards her:
‘Bless me,’ he said, ‘a lady who takes liquor like that . . . ’
‘You’re a Papist, aren’t you? With the name of O’Hara and the touch of the brogue you have . . . And the devil you no doubt are with . . . You know what . . . Well, then . . . It’s with a special intention! . . . As you say your Hail Marks . . . ’
With the liquor burning inside her she saw Tietjens loom in the dim light.
The general, to her bitter amusement, said to him: ‘Your friend was more than a bit on . . . Not the society surely for madam!’
‘I never expected to have the pleasure of dining with Mrs Tietjens to-night . . . That officer was celebrating his commission and I could not put him off . . . ’ The general said: ‘Oh, ah! Of course not . . . I dare say . . . ’ and settled himself again in his chair . . .
Tietjens was overwhelming her with his great bulk. She had still lost her breath . . . He stooped over and said: it was the luck of the half-drunk; he said:
‘They’re dancing in the lounge . . . ’
She coiled herself passionately into her wickerwork. It had dull blue cushions. She said:
‘Not with anyone else . . . I don’t want any introductions . . . ’ Fiercely! . . . He said:
‘There’s no one there that I could introduce you to . . . ’
‘Not if it’s a charity!’
‘I thought it might be rather dull . . . It’s six months since I danced . . . ’ She felt beauty flowing over all her limbs. She had a gown of gold tissue. Her matchless hair was coiled over her ears . . . She was humming Venusberg music: she knew music if she knew nothing else . . .
She said: ‘You call the compounds where you keep the W.A.A.C.’s Venusbergs, don’t you? Isn’t it queer that Venus should be your own? . . . Think of poor Elisabeth!’
The room where they were dancing was very dark . . . It was queer to be in his arms . . . She had known better dancers . . . He had looked ill . . . Perhaps he was . . . Oh, poor Valentine-Elisabeth . . . What a funny position! . . . The good gramophone played . . . Destiny! . . . You see, father! . . . In his arms! . . . Of course, dancing is not really . . . But so near the real thing! So near!‘Good luck to the special intention! . . . ’ She had almost kissed him on the lips . . . All but! Effleurer, the French call it . . . But she was not as humble . . . He had pressed her tighter . . . All these months without . . . My lord did me honour . . . Good for Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre . . . He knew she had almost kissed him on the lips . . . And that his lips had almost responded . . . The civilian, the novelist, had turned out the last light . . . Tietjens said, ‘Hadn’t we better talk? . . . ’ She said: ‘In my room, then! I’m dog-tired . . . I haven’t slept for six nights: . . . In spite of drugs . . . ’ He said: ‘Yes. Of course! Where else? . . . ’ Astonishingly . . . Her gown of gold tissue was like the colobium sindonis the King wore at the coronation . . . As they mounted the stairs she thought what a fat tenor Tannhäuser always was! . . . The Venusberg music was dinning in her ears . . . She said: ‘Sixty-six inexpressibles! I’m as sober as a judge . . . I need to be!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08