Mrs Satterthwaite with her French maid, her priest, and her disreputable young man, Mr Bayliss, were at Lobscheid, an unknown and little-frequented air resort amongst the pinewoods of the Taunus. Mrs Satterthwaite was ultrafashionable and consummately indifferent — she only really lost her temper if at her table and under her nose you consumed her famous Black Hamburg grapes without taking their skin and all. Father Consett was out to have an uproarious good time during his three weeks’ holiday from the slums of Liverpool; Mr Bayliss, thin like a skeleton in tight blue serge, golden haired and pink, was so nearly dead of tuberculosis, was so dead penniless, and of tastes so costly that he was ready to keep stone quiet, drink six pints of milk a day and behave himself. On the face of it, he was there to write the letters of Mrs Satterthwaite, but the lady never let him enter her private rooms for fear of infection. He had to content himself with nursing a growing adoration for Father Consett. This priest, with an enormous mouth, high cheek bones, untidy black hair, a broad face that never looked too clean and waving hands that always looked too dirty, never kept still for a moment, and had a brogue such as is seldom heard outside old-fashioned English novels of Irish life. He had a perpetual laugh, like the noise made by a steam round-about. He was, in short, a saint, and Mr Bayliss knew it, though he didn’t know how. Ultimately, and with the financial assistance of Mrs Satterthwaite, Mr Bayliss became almoner to Father Consett, adopted the rule of St. Vincent de Paul and wrote some very admirable, if decorative, devotional verse.
They proved thus a very happy, innocent party. For Mrs Satterthwaite interested herself — it was the only interest she had — in handsome, thin and horribly disreputable young men. She would wait for them, or send her car to wait for them, at the gaol gates. She would bring their usually admirable wardrobes up to date and give them enough money to have a good time. When contrary to all expectations — but it happened more often than not! — they turned out well, she was lazily pleased. Sometimes she sent them away to a gay spot with a priest who needed a holiday; sometimes she had them down to her place in the west of England.
So they were a pleasant company and all very happy. Lobscheid contained one empty hotel with large verandahs and several square farmhouses, white with grey beams, painted in the gables with bouquets of blue and yellow flowers or with scarlet huntsmen shooting at purple stags. They were like gay cardboard boxes set down in fields of long grass; then the pinewoods commenced and ran, solemn, brown and geometric for miles up and down hill. The peasant girls wore black velvet waistcoats, white bodices, innumerable petticoats and absurd parti-coloured headdresses of the shape and size of halfpenny buns. They walked about in rows of four to six abreast; with a slow step, protruding white-stockinged feet in dancing pumps, their headdresses nodding solemnly; young men in blue blouses, knee-breeches and, on Sundays, in three-cornered hats, followed behind singing part-songs.
The French maid — whom Mrs Satterthwaite had borrowed from the Duchesse de Carbon Château-Herault in exchange for her own maid — was at first inclined to find the place maussade. But getting up a tremendous love affair with a fine, tall, blond young fellow, who included a gun, a gold-mounted hunting knife as long as his arm, a light, grey-green uniform, with gilt badges and buttons, she was reconciled to her lot. When the young Förster tried to shoot her —’et pour cause,’ as she said — she was ravished and Mrs Satterthwaite lazily amused.
They were sitting playing bridge in the large, shadowy dining-hall of the hotel: Mrs Satterthwaite, Father Consett, Mr Bayliss. A young blond sub-lieutenant of great obsequiousness who was there as a last chance for his right lung and his career, and the bearded Kur-doctor cut in. Father Consett, breathing heavily and looking frequently at his watch, played very fast, exclaiming: ‘Hurry up now; it’s nearly twelve. Hurry up wid ye.’ Mr Bayliss being dummy, the Father exclaimed: ‘Three no trumps; I’ve to make. Get me a whisky and soda quick, and don’t drown it as ye did the last.’ He played his hand with extreme rapidity, threw down his last three cards, exclaimed: ‘Ach! Botheranouns an’ all; I’m two down and I’ve revoked on the top av it,’ swallowed down his whisky and soda, looked at his watch and exclaimed: ‘Done it to the minute! Here, doctor, take my hand and finish the rubber.’ He was to take the mass next day for the local priest, and mass must be said fasting from midnight, and without cards played. Bridge was his only passion; a fortnight every year was what, in his worn-out life, he got of it. On his holiday he rose at ten. At eleven it was: ‘A four for the Father.’ From two to four they walked in the forest. At five it was: ‘A four for the Father.’ At nine it was: ‘Father, aren’t you coming to your bridge?’ And Father Consett grinned all over his face and said: ‘It’s good ye are to a poor ould soggart. It will be paid back to you in Heaven.’
The other four played on solemnly. The Father sat himself down behind Mrs Satterthwaite, his chin in the nape of her neck. At excruciating moments he gripped her shoulders, exclaimed: ‘Play the queen, woman!’ and breathed hard down her back. Mrs Satterthwaite would play the two of diamonds, and the Father, throwing himself back, would groan. She said over her shoulder:
‘I want to talk to you to-night, Father,’ took the last trick of the rubber, collected 17 marks 50 from the doctor and 8 marks from the unter-leutnant. The doctor exclaimed:
‘You gan’t dake that immense sum from us and then ko off. Now we shall pe ropped py Herr Payliss at gutt-throat.’
She drifted, all shadowy black silk, across the shadows of the dining-hall, dropping her winnings into her black satin vanity bag and attended by the priest. Outside the door, beneath the antlers of a royal stag, in an atmosphere of paraffin lamps and varnished pitch-pine, she said:
‘Come up to my sitting-room. The prodigal’s returned. Sylvia’s here.’
The Father said:
‘I thought I saw her out of the corner of my eye in the bus after dinner. She’ll be going back to her husband. It’s a poor world.’
‘She’s a wicked devil!’ Mrs Satterthwaite said.
‘I’ve known her myself since she was nine,’ Father Consett said, ‘and it’s little I’ve seen in her to hold up to the commendation of my flock.’ He added: ‘But maybe I’m made unjust by the shock of it.’
They climbed the stairs slowly.
Mrs Satterthwaite sat herself on the edge of a cane chair. She said:
She wore a black hat like a cart-wheel and her dresses appeared always to consist of a great many squares of silk that might have been thrown on to her. Since she considered that her complexion, which was matt white, had gone slightly violet from twenty years of make-up, when she was not made-up — as she never was at Lobscheid — she wore bits of puce-coloured satin ribbon stuck here and there, partly to counteract the violet of her complexion, partly to show she was not in mourning. She was very tall and extremely emaciated; her dark eyes that had beneath them dark brown thumb-marks were very tired or very indifferent by turns.
Father Consett walked backwards and forwards, his hands behind his back, his head bent, over the not too well-polished floor. There were two candles, lit but dim, in imitation pewter nouvel art candlesticks, rather dingy; a sofa of cheap mahogany with red plush cushions and rests, a table covered with a cheap carpet, and an American roll-top desk that had thrown into it a great many papers in scrolls or flat. Mrs Satterthwaite was extremely indifferent to her surroundings, but she insisted on having a piece of furniture for her papers. She liked also to have a profusion of hot-house, not garden, flowers, but as there were none of these at Lobscheid she did without them. She insisted also, as a rule, on a comfortable chaise longue which she rarely, if ever, used; but the German Empire of those days did not contain a comfortable chair, so she did without it, lying down on her bed when she was really tired. The walls of the large room were completely covered with pictures of animals in death agonies: capercailzies giving up the ghost with gouts of scarlet blood on the snow; deer dying with their heads back and eyes glazing, gouts of red blood on their necks; foxes dying with scarlet blood on green grass. These pictures were frame to frame, representing sport, the hotel having been a former Grand Ducal hunting-box, freshened to suit the taste of the day with varnished pitch-pine, bath-rooms, verandahs, and excessively modern but noisy lavatory arrangements which had been put in for the delight of possible English guests.
Mrs Satterthwaite sat on the edge of her chair; she had always the air of being just about to go out somewhere or of having just come in and being on the point of going to take her things off. She said:
‘There’s been a telegram waiting for her all the afternoon. I knew she was coming.’
Father Consett said:
‘I saw it in the rack myself. I misdoubted it.’ He added: ‘Oh dear, oh dear! After all we’ve talked about it; now it’s come.’
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘I’ve been a wicked woman myself as these things are measured; but . . .
Father Consett said:
‘Ye have! It’s no doubt from you she gets it, for your husband was a good man. But one wicked woman is enough for my contemplation at a time. I’m no St Anthony . . . The young man says he will take her back?’
‘On conditions,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said. ‘He is coming here to have an interview.’
The priest said:
‘Heaven knows, Mrs Satterthwaite, there are times when to a poor priest the rule of the Church as regards marriage seems bitter hard and he almost doubts her inscrutable wisdom. He doesn’t mind you. But at times I wish that that young man would take what advantage — it’s all there is! — that he can of being a Protestant and divorce Sylvia. For I tell you there are bitter things to see amongst my flock over there . . . ’ He made a vague gesture towards the infinite . . . ‘And bitter things I’ve seen, for the heart of man is a wicked place. But never a bitterer than this young man’s lot.’
‘As you say,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said, ‘my husband was a good man. I hated him, but that was as much my fault as his. More! And the only reason I don’t wish Christopher to divorce Sylvia is that it would bring disgrace on my husband’s name. At the same time, Father . . . ’
The priest said:
‘I’ve heard near enough.’
‘There’s this to be said for Sylvia,’ Mrs Satterthwaite went on. ‘There are times when a woman hates a man — as Sylvia hates her husband . . . I tell you I’ve walked behind a man’s back and nearly screamed because of the desire to put my nails into the veins of his neck. It was a fascination. And it’s worse with Sylvia. It’s a natural antipathy.’
‘Woman!’ Father Consett fulminated, ‘I’ve no patience wid ye! If the woman, as the Church directs, would have children by her husband and live decent, she would have no such feelings. It’s unnatural living and unnatural practices that cause these complexes. Don’t think I’m an ignoramus, priest if I am.’
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘But Sylvia’s had a child.’
Father Consett swung round like a man that has been shot at.
‘Whose?’ he asked, and he pointed a dirty finger at his interlocutress. ‘It was that blackguard Drake’s, wasn’t it? I’ve long suspected that.’
‘It was probably Drake’s,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said.
‘Then,’ the priest said, ‘in the face of the pains of the hereafter how could you let that decent lad in the hotness of his sin . . .?’
‘Indeed,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said, ‘I shiver sometimes when I think of it. Don’t believe that I had anything to do with trepanning him. But I couldn’t hinder it. Sylvia’s my daughter, and dog doesn’t eat dog.’
‘There are times when it should,’ Father Consett said contemptuously.
‘You don’t seriously,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said, ‘say that I, a mother, if an indifferent one, with my daughter appearing in trouble, as the kitchenmaids say, by a married man — that I should step in and stop a marriage that was a Godsend . . . ’
‘Don’t,’ the priest said, ‘introduce the sacred name into an affair of Piccadilly bad girls . . . ’ He stopped. ‘Heaven help me,’ he said again, ‘don’t ask me to answer the question of what you should or shouldn’t have done. You know I loved your husband like a brother, and you know I’ve loved you and Sylvia ever since she was tiny. And I thank God that I am not your spiritual adviser, but only your friend in God. For if I had to answer your question I could answer it only in one way.’ He broke off to ask: ‘Where is that woman?’
Mrs Satterthwaite called:
‘Sylvia! Sylvia! Come here!’
A door in the shadows opened and light shone from another room behind a tall figure leaning one hand on the handle of the door. A very deep voice said:
‘I can’t understand, mother, why you live in rooms like a sergeants’ mess.’ And Sylvia Tietjens wavered into the room. She added: ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’m bored.’
Father Consett groaned:
‘Heaven help us, she’s like a picture of Our Lady by Fra Angelico.’
Immensely tall, slight and slow in her movements, Sylvia Tietjens wore her reddish, very fair hair in great bandeaux right down over her ears. Her very oval, regular face had an expression of virginal lack of interest such as used to be worn by fashionable Paris courtesans a decade before that time. Sylvia Tietjens considered that, being privileged to go everywhere where one went and to have all men at her feet, she had no need to change her expression or to infuse into it the greater animation that marked the more common beauties of the early twentieth century. She moved slowly from the door and sat languidly on the sofa against the wall.
‘There you are, Father,’ she said. ‘I’ll not ask you to shake hands with me. You probably wouldn’t.’
‘As I am a priest,’ Father Consett answered. ‘I could not refuse. But I’d rather not.’
‘This,’ Sylvia repeated, ‘appears to be a boring place.’
‘You won’t say so to-morrow,’ the priest said. ‘There’s two young fellows . . . And a sort of policeman to trepan away from your mother’s maid!’
‘That,’ Sylvia answered, ‘is meant to be bitter. But it doesn’t hurt. I am done with men.’ She added suddenly: ‘Mother, didn’t you one day, while you were still young, say that you had done with men? Firmly! And mean it?’
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘And did you keep to it?’ Sylvia asked.
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘And shall I, do you imagine?’
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘I imagine you will.’
The priest said:
‘I’d be willing to see your husband’s telegram. It makes a difference to see the words on paper.’
Sylvia rose effortlessly.
‘I don’t see why you shouldn’t,’ she said. ‘It will give you no pleasure.’ She drifted towards the door.
‘If it would give me pleasure,’ the priest said, ‘you would not show it me.’
‘I would not,’ she said.
A silhouette in the doorway, she halted, drooping, and looked over her shoulder.
‘Both you and mother,’ she said, ‘sit there scheming to make life bearable for the Ox. I call my husband the Ox. He’s repulsive: like a swollen animal. Well . . . you can’t do it.’ The lighted doorway was vacant. Father Consett sighed.
‘I told you this was an evil place,’ he said. ‘In the deep forests. She’d not have such evil thoughts in another place.’ Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘I’d rather you didn’t say that, Father. Sylvia would have evil thoughts in any place.’
‘Sometimes,’ the priest said, ‘at night I think I hear the claws of evil things scratching on the shutters. This was the last place in Europe to be Christianised. Perhaps it wasn’t ever even Christianised and they’re here yet.’
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘It’s all very well to talk like that in the day-time. It makes the place seem romantic. But it must be near one at night. And things are bad enough as it is.’
‘They are,’ Father Consett said. ‘The devil’s at work.’
Sylvia drifted back into the room with a telegram of several sheets. Father Consett held it close to one of the candles to read, for he was short-sighted.
‘All men are repulsive,’ Sylvia said; ‘don’t you think so, mother?’
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘I do not. Only a heartless woman would say so.’
‘Mrs Vanderdecken,’ Sylvia went on, ‘says all men are repulsive and it’s woman’s disgusting task to live beside them.’
‘You’ve been seeing that foul creature?’ Mrs Satterthwaite said. ‘She’s a Russian agent. And worse!’
‘She was at Gosingeaux all the time we were,’ Sylvia said. ‘You needn’t groan. She won’t split on us. She’s the soul of honour.’
‘It wasn’t because of that I groaned, if I did,’ Mrs Satterthwaite answered.
The priest, from over his telegram, exclaimed: ‘Mrs Vanderdecken! God forbid.’
Sylvia’s face, as she sat on the sofa, expressed languid and incredulous amusement.
‘What do you know of her?’ she asked the Father.
‘I know what you know,’ he answered, ‘and that’s enough.’
‘Father Consett,’ Sylvia said to her mother, ‘has been renewing his social circle.’
‘It’s not,’ Father Consett said, ‘amongst the dregs of the people that you must live if you don’t want to hear of the dregs of society.’
Sylvia stood up. She said:
‘You’ll keep your tongue off my best friends if you want me to stop and be lectured. But for Mrs. Vanderdecken I should not be here, returned to the fold!’
Father Consett exclaimed:
‘Don’t say it, child. I’d rather, heaven help me, you had gone on living in open sin.’
Sylvia sat down again, her hands listlessly in her lap. ‘Have it your own way,’ she said, and the Father returned to the fourth sheet of the telegram.
‘What does this mean?’ he asked. He had returned to the first sheet. ‘This here: ”Accept resumption yoke“?’ he read, breathlessly.
‘Sylvia,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said, ‘go and light the spirit lamp for some tea. We shall want it.’
‘You’d think I was a district messenger boy,’ Sylvia said as she rose. ‘Why don’t you keep your maid up? . . . It’s a way we had of referring to our . . . union,’ she explained to the Father.
‘There was sympathy enough between you and him then,’ he said, ‘to have bywords for things. It was that I wanted to know. I understood the words.’
‘They were pretty bitter bywords, as you call them,’ Sylvia said. ‘More like curses than kisses.’
‘It was you that used them then,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said. ‘Christopher never said a bitter thing to you.’
An expression like a grin came slowly over Sylvia’s face as she turned back to the priest.
‘That’s mother’s tragedy,’ she said. ‘My husband’s one of her best boys. She adores him. And he can’t bear her.’ She drifted behind the wall of the next room and they heard her tinkling the tea-things as the Father read on again beside the candle. His immense shadow began at the centre and ran along the pitch-pine ceiling, down the wall and across the floor to join his splay feet in their clumsy boots.
‘It’s bad,’ he muttered. He made a sound like ‘Umbleumbleumble . . . Worse than I feared . . . umbleumble . . . ”accept resumption yoke but on rigid conditions.” What’s this: esoecially; it ought to be a “p,” ”especially regards child reduce establishment ridiculous our position remake settlements in child’s sole interests flat not house entertaining minimum am prepared resign office settle Yorkshire but imagine this not suit you child remain sister Effie open visits both wire if this rough outline provisionally acceptable in that case will express draft general position Monday for you and mother reflect upon follow self Tuesday arrive Thursday Lobscheid go Wiesbaden fortnight on social task discussion Thursday limited solely, comma emphasized comma to affairs."’
‘That means,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said, ‘that he doesn’t mean to reproach her. Emphasized applies to the word solely . . .!’
‘Why d’you take it . . . ’ Father Consett asked, ‘did he spend an immense lot of money on this telegram? Did he imagine you were in such trepidation . . .?’ He broke off. Walking slowly, her long arms extended to carry the tea-tray, over which her wonderfully moving face had a rapt expression of indescribable mystery, Sylvia was coming through the door.
‘Oh, child,’ the Father exclaimed, ‘whether it’s St Martha or that Mary that made the bitter choice, not one of them ever looked more virtuous than you. Why aren’t ye born to be a good man’s help-meet?’
A little tinkle sounded from the tea-tray and three pieces of sugar fell on to the floor. Mrs Tietjens hissed with vexation.
‘I knew that damned thing would slide off the teacups,’ she said. She dropped the tray from an inch or so of height on to the carpeted table. ‘I’d made it a matter of luck between myself and myself,’ she said. Then she faced the priest.
‘I’ll tell you,’ she said, ‘why he sent the telegram. It’s because of that dull display of the English gentleman that I detested. He gives himself the solemn airs of the Foreign Minister, but he’s only a youngest son at the best. That is why I loathe him.’
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘That isn’t the reason why he sent the telegram.’
Her daughter had a gesture of amused, lazy tolerance.
‘Of course it isn’t,’ she said. ‘He sent it out of consideration: the lordly, full-dress consideration that drives me distracted. As he would say: “He’d imagine I’d find it convenient to have ample time for reflection.” It’s like being addressed as if one were a monument and by a herald according to protocol. And partly because he’s the soul of truth like a stiff Dutch doll. He wouldn’t write a letter because he couldn’t without beginning it “Dear Sylvia” and ending it “Yours sincerely” or “truly” or “affectionately.” . . . He’s that sort of precise imbecile. I tell you he’s so formal he can’t do without all the conventions there are and so truthful he can’t use half of them.’
‘Then,’ Father Consett said, ‘if ye know him so well, Sylvia Satterthwaite, how is it ye can’t get on with him better? They say: Tout savoir c’est tout pardonner.’
‘It isn’t,’ Sylvia said. ‘To know everything about a person is to be bored . . . bored . . . bored!’
‘And how are you going to answer this telegram of his?’ the Father asked. ‘Or have ye answered it already?’
‘I shall wait until Monday night to keep him as bothered as I can to know whether he’s to start on Tuesday. He fusses like a hen over his packings and the exact hours of his movements.’ On Monday I shall telegraph: “Righto” and nothing else.’
‘And why,’ the Father asked, ‘will ye telegraph him a vulgar word that you never use, for your language is the one thing about you that isn’t vulgar?’
‘Thanks!’ She curled her legs up under her on the sofa and laid her head back against the wall so that her Gothic arch of a chinbone pointed at the ceiling. She admired her own neck, which was very long and white.
‘I know!’ Father Consett said. ‘You’re a beautiful woman. Some men would say it was a lucky fellow that lived with you. I don’t ignore the fact in my cogitation. He’d imagine all sorts of delights to lurk in the shadow of your beautiful hair. And they wouldn’t.’
Sylvia brought her gaze down from the ceiling and fixed her brown eyes for a moment on the priest, speculatively.
‘It’s a great handicap we suffer from,’ he said.
‘I don’t know why I selected that word,’ Sylvia said, ‘it’s one word, so it costs only fifty pfennigs. I couldn’t hope really to give a jerk to his pompous self-sufficiency.’
‘It’s great handicaps we priests suffer from,’ the Father repeated. ‘However much a priest may be a man of the world — and he has to be to fight the world . . .
Mrs Satterthwaite said:
‘Have a cup of tea, Father, while it’s just right. I believe Sylvia is the only person in Germany who knows how to make tea.’
‘There’s always behind him the Roman collar and the silk bib, and you don’t believe in him,’ Father Consett went on, ‘yet he knows ten — a thousand times! — more of human nature than ever you can.’
‘I don’t see,’ Sylvia said placably, ‘how you can learn in your slums anything about the nature of Eunice Vanderdecken, or Elizabeth B. or Queenie James, or any of my set.’ She was on her feet pouring cream into the Father’s tea. ‘I’ll admit for the moment that you aren’t giving me pi-jaw.’
‘I’m glad,’ the priest said, ‘that ye remember enough of yer schooldays to use the old term.’
Sylvia wavered backwards to her sofa and sank down again.
‘There you are,’ she said, ‘you can’t really get away from preachments. Me for the pyore young girl is always at the back of it.’
‘It isn’t,’ the Father said. ‘I’m not one to cry for the moon.’
‘You don’t want me to be a pure young girl,’ Sylvia asked with lazy incredulity.
‘I do not!’ the Father said, ‘but I’d wish that at times ye’d remember you once were.’
‘I don’t believe I ever was,’ Sylvia said, if the nuns had known I’d have been expelled from the Holy Child.’
‘You would not,’ the Father said. ‘Do stop your boasting. The nuns have too much sense . . . Anyhow, it isn’t a pure young girl I’d have you or behaving like a Protestant deaconess for the craven fear of hell. I’d have ye be a physically healthy, decently honest-with-yourself young devil of a married woman. It’s them that are the plague and the salvation of the world.’
‘You admire mother?’ Mrs. Tietjens asked suddenly. She added in parenthesis: ‘You see you can’t get away from salvation.’
‘I mean keeping bread and butter in their husbands’ stomachs,’ the priest said. ‘Of course I admire your mother.’
Mrs Satterthwaite moved a hand slightly.
‘You’re at any rate in league with her against me,’ Sylvia said. She asked with more interest: ‘Then would you have me model myself on her and do good works to escape hell fire? She wears a hair shirt in Lent.’
Mrs Satterthwaite started from her doze on the edge of her chair. She had been trusting the Father’s wit to give her daughter’s insolence a run for its money, and she imagined that if the priest hit hard enough he might, at least, make Sylvia think a little about some of her ways.
‘Hang it, no, Sylvia,’ she exclaimed more suddenly. ‘I may not be much, but I’m a sportsman. I’m afraid of hellfire; horribly, I’ll admit. But I don’t bargain with the Almighty. I hope He’ll let me through; but I’d go on trying to pick men out of the dirt — I suppose that’s what you and Father Consett mean — if I were as certain of going to hell as I am of going to bed to-night. So that’s that!’
‘“And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest!"’ Sylvia jeered softly. ‘All the same I bet you wouldn’t bother to reclaim men if you could not find the young, good-looking, interestingly vicious sort.’
‘I wouldn’t,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said. ‘If they didn’t interest me, why should I?’
Sylvia looked at Father Consett.
‘If you’re going to trounce me any more,’ she said, ‘get a move on. It’s late, I’ve been travelling for thirty-six hours.’
‘I will,’ Father Consett said. ‘It’s a good maxim that if you swat flies enough some of them stick to the wall. I’m only trying to make a little mark on your common sense. Don’t you see what you’re going to?’
‘What?’ Sylvia said indifferently. ‘Hell?’
‘No,’ the Father said, ‘I’m talking of this life. Your confessor must talk to you about the next. But I’ll not tell you what you’re going to. I’ve changed my mind. I’ll tell your mother after you’re gone.’
‘Tell me,’ Sylvia said.
‘I’ll not,’ Father Consett answered. ‘Go to the fortunetellers at the Earl’s Court exhibition; they’ll tell ye all about the fair woman you’re to beware of.’
‘There’s some of them said to be rather good,’ Sylvia said. ‘Di Wilson’s told me about one. She said she was going to have a baby . . . You don’t mean that, Father? For I swear I never will . . . ’
‘I daresay not,’ the priest said. ‘But let’s talk about men.’ ‘There’s nothing you can tell me I don’t know,’ Sylvia said.
‘I daresay not,’ the priest answered. ‘But let’s rehearse what you do know. Now suppose you could elope with a new man every week and no questions asked? Or how often would you want to?’
‘Just a moment, Father,’ and she addressed Mrs Satterthwaite: ‘I suppose I shall have to put myself to bed.’
‘You will,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said. ‘I’ll not have any maid kept up after ten in a holiday resort. What’s she to do in a place like this? Except listen for the bogies it’s full of?’
‘Always considerate!’ Mrs Tietjens gibed. ‘And perhaps it’s just as well. I’d probably beat that Marie of yours’ arms to pieces with a hair-brush if she came near me.’ She added: ‘You were talking about men, Father . . . ’ And then began with sudden animation to her mother:
‘I’ve changed my mind about that telegram. The first thing to-morrow I shall wire: ”Agreed entirely but arrange bring Hullo Central with you."’
She addressed the priest again.
‘I call my maid Hullo Central because she’s got a tinny voice like a telephone. I say: “Hullo Central”— when she answers “Yes, modd’m,” you’d swear it was the Exchange speaking . . . But you were telling me about men.’
‘I was reminding you!’ the Father said. ‘But I needn’t go on. You’ve caught the drift of my remarks. That is why you are pretending not to listen.’
‘I assure you, no,’ Mrs Tietjens said. ‘It is simply that if a thing comes into my head I have to say it . . . You were saying that if one went away with a different man for every week-end . . . ’
‘You’ve shortened the period already,’ the priest said. ‘I gave a full week to every man.’
‘But, of course, one would have to have a home,’ Sylvia said, ‘an address. One would have to fill one’s mid-week engagements. Really it comes to it that one has to have a husband and a place to store one’s maid in. Hullo Central’s been on board-wages all the time. But I don’t believe she likes it . . . Let’s agree that if I had a different man every week I’d be bored with the arrangement. That’s what you’re getting at, isn’t it?’
‘You’d find,’ the priest said, ‘that it whittled down until the only divvy moment was when you stood waiting in the booking-office for the young man to take the tickets . . . And then gradually that wouldn’t be divvy any more . . . And you’d yawn and long to go back to your husband.’
‘Look here,’ Mrs Tietjens said, ‘you’re abusing the secrets of the confessional. That’s exactly what Tottie Charles said. She tried it for three months while Freddie Charles was in Madeira. It’s exactly what she said down to the yawn and the booking-office. And the “divvy.” It’s only Tottie Charles who uses it every two words. Most of us prefer ripping! It is more sensible.’
‘Of course I haven’t been abusing the secrets of the confessional,’ Father Consett said mildly.
‘Of course you haven’t,’ Sylvia said with affection. ‘You’re a good old stick and no end of a mimic, and you know us all to the bottom of our hearts.’
‘Not all that much,’ the, priest said, ‘there’s probably a good deal of good at the bottom of your hearts.’ Sylvia said:
‘Thanks.’ She asked suddenly: ‘Look here. Was it what you saw of us — the future mothers of England, you know, and all — at Miss Lampeter’s — that made you take to the slums? Out of disgust and despair?’
‘Oh, let’s not make melodrama out of it,’ the priest answered. ‘Let’s say I wanted a change. I couldn’t see that I was doing any good.’
‘You did us all the good there was done,’ Sylvia said. ‘What with Miss Lampeter always drugged to the world, and all the French mistresses as wicked as hell.’
‘I’ve heard you say all this before,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said. ‘But it was supposed to be the best finishing school in England. I know it cost enough!’
‘Well, say it was we who were a rotten lot,’ Sylvia concluded; and then to the Father: ‘We were a lot of rotters, weren’t we?’
The priest answered:
‘I don’t know. I don’t suppose you were — or are — any worse than your mother or grandmother, or the patricianesses of Rome or the worshippers of Ashtaroth. It seems we have to have a governing class and governing classes are subject to special temptations.’
‘Who’s Ashtaroth?’ Sylvia asked. ‘Astarte?’ and then: ‘Now, Father, after your experiences would you say the factory girls of Liverpool, or any other slum, are any better women than us that you used to look after?’
‘Astarte Syriaca,’ the Father said, ‘was a very powerful devil. There’s some that hold she’s not dead yet. I don’t know that I do myself.’
‘Well, I’ve done with her,’ Sylvia said.
The Father nodded:
‘You’ve had dealings with Mrs Profumo?’ he asked. ‘And that loathsome fellow . . . What’s his name?’
‘Does it shock you?’ Sylvia asked. ‘I’ll admit it was a bit thick . . . But I’ve done with it. I prefer to pin my faith to Mrs Vanderdecken. And, of course, Freud.’
The priest nodded his head and said:
‘Of course! Of course . . . ’
But Mrs Satterthwaite exclaimed, with sudden energy:
‘Sylvia Tietjens, I don’t care what you do or what you read, but if you ever speak another word to that woman, you never do to me!’
Sylvia stretched herself on her sofa. She opened her brown eyes wide and let the lids slowly drop again.
‘I’ve said once,’ she said, ‘that I don’t like to hear my friends miscalled. Eunice Vanderdecken is a bitterly misjudged woman. She’s a real good pal.’
‘She’s a Russian spy,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said.
‘Russian grandmother,’ Sylvia answered. ‘And if she is, who cares? She’s welcome for me . . . Listen now, you two. I said to myself when I came in: “I daresay I’ve given them both a rotten time.” I know you’re both more nuts on me than I deserve. And I said I’d sit and listen to all the pi-jaw you wanted to give me if I sat till dawn. And I will. As a return. But I’d rather you let my friends alone.’
Both the elder people were silent. There came from the shuttered windows of the dark room a low, scratching rustle.
‘You hear!’ the priest said to Mrs Satterthwaite. ‘It’s the branches,’ Mrs Satterthwaite answered.
The Father answered: ‘There’s no tree within ten yards! Try bats as an explanation.’
‘I’ve said I wish you wouldn’t, once,’ Mrs Satterthwaite shivered. Sylvia said:
‘I don’t know what you two are talking about. It sounds like superstition. Mother’s rotten with it.’
‘I don’t say that it’s devils trying to get in,’ the Father said. ‘But it’s just as well to remember that devils are always trying to get in. And there are especial spots. These deep forests are noted among others.’ He suddenly turned his back and pointed at the shadowy wall. ‘Who,’ he asked, ‘but a savage possessed by a devil could have conceived of that as a decoration?’ He was pointing to a life-sized, coarsely daubed picture of a wild boar dying, its throat cut, and gouts of scarlet blood. Other agonies of animals went away into all the shadows.
‘Sport!’ he hissed. ‘It’s devilry!’
‘That’s perhaps true,’ Sylvia said. Mrs Satterthwaite was crossing herself with great rapidity. The silence remained.
‘Then if you’re both done talking I’ll say what I have to say. To begin with . . . ’ She stopped and sat rather erect, listening to the rustling from the shutters.
‘To begin with,’ she began again with impetus, ‘you spared me the catalogue of the defects of age; I know them. One grows skinny — my sort — the complexion fades, the teeth stick out. And then there is the boredom. I know it; one is bored . . . bored . . . bored! You can’t tell me anything I don’t know about that. I’m thirty. I know what to expect. You’d like to have told me, Father, only you were afraid of taking away from your famous man of the world effect — you’d like to have told me that one can insure against the boredom and the long, skinny teeth by love of husband and child. The home stunt! I believe it!
I do quite believe it. Only I hate my husband . . . and I hate . . . I hate my child.’
She paused, waiting for exclamations of dismay or disapprobation from the priest. These did not come.
‘Think,’ she said, ‘of all the ruin that child has meant for me; the pain in bearing him and the fear of death.’
‘Of course,’ the priest said, ‘child-bearing is for women a very terrible thing.’
‘I can’t say,’ Mrs Tietjens went on, ‘that this has been a very decent conversation. You get a girl . . . fresh from open sin, and make her talk about it. Of course you’re a priest and mother’s mother; we’re en famille. But Sister Mary of the Cross at the convent had a maxim: “Wear velvet gloves in family life.” We seem to be going at it with gloves off.’
Father Consett still didn’t say anything.
‘You’re trying, of course, to draw me,’ Sylvia said. ‘I can see that with half an eye . . . Very well then, you shall . . . ’
She drew a breath.
‘You want to know why I hate my husband. I’ll tell you; it’s because of his simple, sheer immorality. I don’t mean his actions; his views! Every speech he utters about everything makes me — I swear it makes me — in spite of myself, want to stick a knife into him, and I can’t prove he’s wrong, not ever, about the simplest thing. But I can pain him. And I will . . . He sits about in chairs that fit his back, clumsy, like a rock, not moving for hours . . . And I can make him wince. Oh, without showing it . . . He’s what you call loyal . . . oh, loyal . . . There’s an absurd little chit of a fellow . . . oh, Macmaster . . . and his mother . . . whom he persists in a silly mystical way in calling a saint . . . a Protestant saint! . . . And his old nurse, who looks after the child . . . and the child itself . . . I tell you I’ve only got to raise an eyelid . . . yes, cock an eyelid up a little when anyone of them is mentioned . . . and it hurts him dreadfully. His eyes roll in a sort of mute anguish . . . Of course he doesn’t say anything. He’s an English country gentleman.’
Father Consett said:
‘This immorality you talk about in your husband . . . I’ve never noticed it. I saw a good deal of him when I stayed with you for the week before your child was born. I talked with him a great deal. Except in the matter of the two communions — and even in these I don’t know that we differed so much — I found him perfectly sound.’
‘Sound.’ Mrs Satterthwaite said with sudden emphasis; ‘of course he’s sound. It isn’t even the word. He’s the best ever. There was your father, for a good man . . . and him. That’s an end of it.’
‘Ah,’ Sylvia said, ‘you don’t know . . . Look here. Try and be just. Suppose I’m looking at The Times at breakfast and say, not having spoken to him for a week: “It’s wonderful what the doctors are doing. Have you seen the latest?” And at once he’ll be on his high-horse — he knows everything! — and he’ll prove . . . prove . . . that all unhealthy children must be lethal-chambered or the world will go to pieces. And it’s like being hypnotised; you can’t think of what to answer him. Or he’ll reduce you to speechless rage by proving that murderers ought not to be executed. And then I’ll ask, casually, if children ought to be lethal-chambered for being constipated. Because Marchant — that’s the nurse — is always whining that the child’s bowels aren’t regular and the dreadful diseases that leads to. Of course that hurts him. For he’s perfectly soppy about that child, though he half knows it isn’t his own . . . But that’s what I mean by immorality. He’ll profess that murderers ought to be preserved in order to breed from because they’re bold fellows, and innocent little children executed because they’re sick . . . And he’ll almost make you believe it, though you’re on the point of retching at the ideas.’
‘You wouldn’t now,’ Father Consett began, and almost coaxingly, ‘think of going into retreat for a month or two.’ ‘I wouldn’t,’ Sylvia said. ‘How could I?’
‘There’s a convent of female Premonstratensians near Birkenhead, many ladies go there,’ the Father went on. ‘They cook very well, and you can have your own furniture and your own maid if ye don’t like nuns to wait on you.’
‘It can’t be done,’ Sylvia said, ‘you can see for yourself. It would make people smell a rat at once. Christopher wouldn’t hear of it . . . ’
‘No, I’m afraid it can’t be done, Father,’ Mrs Satterthwaite interrupted finally. ‘I’ve hidden here for four months to cover Sylvia’s tracks. I’ve got Wateman’s to look after. My new land steward’s coming in next week.’
‘Still,’ the Father urged, with a sort of tremulous eagerness, ‘if only for a month . . . If only for a fortnight . . . So many Catholic ladies do it . . . Ye might think of it.’
‘I see what you’re aiming at,’ Sylvia said with sudden anger; ‘you’re revolted at the idea of my going straight from one man’s arms to another.’
‘I’d be better pleased if there could be an interval,’ the Father said. ‘It’s what’s called bad form.’
Sylvia became electrically rigid on her sofa.
‘Bad form!’ she exclaimed. ‘You accuse me of bad form.’ The Father slightly bowed his head like a man facing a wind.
‘I do,’ he said. ‘It’s disgraceful. It’s unnatural. I’d travel a bit at least.’
She placed her hand on her long throat.
‘I know what you mean,’ she said,’ ‘you want to spare Christopher . . . the humiliation. The . . . the nausea. No doubt he’ll feel nauseated. I’ve reckoned on that. It will give me a little of my own back.’
The Father said:
‘That’s enough, woman. I’ll hear no more.’
‘You will then. Listen here . . . I’ve always got this to look forward to: I’ll settle down by that man’s side. I’ll be as virtuous as any woman. I’ve made up my mind to it and I’ll be it. And I’ll be bored stiff for the rest of my life. Except for one thing. I can torment that man. And I’ll do it. Do you understand how I’ll do it? There are many ways. But if the worst comes to the worst I can always drive him silly . . . by corrupting the child!’ She was panting a little, and round her brown eyes the whites showed. ‘I’ll get even with him. I can. I know how, you see. And with you, through him, for tormenting me. I’ve come all the way from Brittany without stopping. I haven’t slept . . . But I can . . . ’
Father Consett put his hand beneath the tail of his coat.
‘Sylvia Tietjens,’ he said, ‘in my pistol pocket I’ve a little bottle of holy water which I carry for such occasions. What if I was to throw two drops of it over you and cry: Exorcizo to Ashtaroth in nomine? . . .
She erected her body above her skirts on the sofa, stiffened like a snake’s neck above its coils. Her face was quite pallid, her eyes staring out.
‘You . . . you daren’t,’ she said. ‘To me . . . an outrage!’ Her feet slid slowly to the floor; she measured the distance to the doorway with her eyes. ‘You daren’t,’ she said again; ‘I’d denounce you to the Bishop . . . ’
‘It’s little the Bishop would help you with them burning into your skin,’ the priest said. ‘Go away, I bid you, and say a Hail Mary or two. Ye need them. Ye’ll not talk of corrupting a little child before me again.’
‘I won’t,’ Sylvia said. ‘I shouldn’t have . . . ’
Her black figure showed in silhouette against the open doorway.
When the door was closed upon them, Mrs Satterthwaite said:
Was it necessary to threaten her with that? You know best, of course. It seems rather strong to me.’
‘It’s a hair from the dog that’s bit her,’ the priest said. ‘She’s a silly girl. She’s been playing at black masses along with that Mrs Profumo and the fellow whose name I can’t remember. You could tell that. They cut the throat of a white kid and splash its blood about . . . That was at the back of her mind . . . It’s not very serious. A parcel of silly, idle girls. It’s not much more than palmistry or fortune-telling to them if one has to weigh it, for all its ugliness, as a sin. As far as their volition goes, and it’s volition that’s the essence of prayer, black or white . . . But it was at the back of her mind, and she won’t forget to-night.’
‘Of course, that’s your affair, Father,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said lazily. ‘You hit her pretty hard. I don’t suppose she’s ever been hit so hard. What was it you wouldn’t tell her?’
‘Only,’ the priest said, ‘I wouldn’t tell her because the thought’s best not put in her head . . . But her hell on earth will come when her husband goes running, blind, head down, mad after another woman.’
Mrs Satterthwaite looked at nothing; then she nodded. ‘Yes,’ she said; ‘I hadn’t thought of it . . . But will he? He is a very sound fellow, isn’t he?’
‘What’s to stop it?’ the priest asked. ’What in the world but the grace of our blessed Lord, which he hasn’t got and doesn’t ask for? And then . . . He’s a young man, full-blooded, and they won’t be living . . . maritalement. Not if I know him. And then . . . Then she’ll tear the house down. The world will echo with her wrongs.’
‘Do you mean to say,’ Mrs Satterthwaite said, ‘that Sylvia would do anything vulgar?’
‘Doesn’t every woman who’s had a man to torture for years when she loses him?’ the priest asked. ‘The more she’s made an occupation of torturing him, the less right she thinks she has to lose him.’
Mrs Satterthwaite looked gloomily into the dusk.
‘That poor devil . . . ’ she said. ‘Will he get any peace anywhere? . . . What’s the matter, Father?’
The Father said:
‘I’ve just remembered she gave me tea and cream and I drank it. Now I can’t take mass for Father Reinhardt. I’ll have to go and knock up his curate, who lives away in the forest.’
At the door, holding the candle, he said:
‘I’d have you not get up to-day nor yet to-morrow, if ye can stand it. Have a headache and let Sylvia nurse you . . . You’ll have to tell how she nursed you when you get back to London. And I’d rather ye didn’t lie more out and out than ye need, if it’s to please me . . . Besides, if ye watch Sylvia nursing you, you might hit on a characteristic touch to make it seem more truthful . . . How her sleeves brushed the medicine bottles and irritated you, maybe . . . or —you’ll know! If we can save scandal to the congregation, we may as well.’
He ran downstairs.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08