At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret bedroom. It had a sloping roof outlined by black oak beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. The room contained also a four-post bedstead, a corner cupboard in black oak, and many rush mats on a polished oak floor of very irregular planking. Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in these surroundings, appeared unreasonable. This was one of those restored old groups of cottages that it was at that date the fashion to convert into hostelries. To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper. Accustomed to what he called the grown-oldness of a morose, rambling Yorkshire manor house, he disliked being among collected and rather pitiful bits which, he said, made him feel ridiculous, as if he were trying to behave seriously at a fancy-dress ball. Macmaster, on the other hand, with gratification and a serious air, would run his finger tips along the bevellings of a darkened piece of furniture, and would declare it ‘genuine Chippendale’ or ‘Jacobean oak,’ as the case might be. And he seemed to gain an added seriousness and weight of manner with each piece of ancient furniture that down the years he thus touched. But Tietj ens would declare that you could tell the beastly thing was a fake by just cocking an eye at it and, if the matter happened to fall under the test of professional dealers in old furniture, Tietjens was the more often in the right of it, and Macmaster, sighing slightly, would prepare to proceed still further along the difficult road to connoisseurship. Eventually, by conscientious study, he got so far as at times to be called in by Somerset House to value great properties for probate — an occupation at once distinguished and highly profitable.
Tietjens swore with the extreme vehemence of a man who has been made, but who much dislikes being seen, to start.
Macmaster — in evening dress he looked extremely miniature! — said:
‘I’m sorry, old man, I know how much you dislike being interrupted. But the General is in a terrible temper.’
Tietjens rose stiffly, lurched over to an eighteenth-century rosewood folding washstand, took from its top a glass of flat whisky and soda, and gulped down a large quantity. He looked about uncertainly, perceived a notebook on a ‘Chippendale’ bureau, made a short calculation in pencil and looked at his friend momentarily.
Macmaster said again:
‘I’m sorry, old man. I must have interrupted one of your immense calculations.’
‘You haven’t. I was only thinking. I’m just as glad you’ve come. What did you say?’
‘I said, the General is in a terrible temper. It’s just as well you didn’t come up to dinner.’
‘He isn’t . . . He isn’t in a temper. He’s as pleased as punch at not having to have these women up before him.’ Macmaster said:
‘He says he’s got the police scouring the whole county for them, and that you’d better leave by the first train tomorrow.’
‘I won’t. I can’t. I’ve got to wait here for a wire from Sylvia.’
‘Oh dear! oh dear!’ Then he said hopefully: ‘But we could have it forwarded to Hythe.’
Tietjens said with some vehemence:
‘I tell you I won’t leave here. I tell you I’ve settled it with the police and that swine of a Cabinet Minister. I’ve mended the leg of the canary of the wife of the police-constable. Sit down and be reasonable. The police don’t touch people like us.’
‘I don’t believe you realise the public feeling there is . . . ’
‘Of course I do, amongst people like Sandbach,’ Tietjens said. ‘Sit down I tell you . . . Have some whisky . . . ’ He filled himself out another long tumbler, and, holding it, dropped into a too low-seated, reddish wicker armchair that had cretonne fixings. Beneath his weight the chair sagged a good deal and his dress-shirt bulged up to his chin.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ Tietjens’ eyes were bloodshot.
‘I tell you,’ Tietjens said, ‘I’m waiting for a wire from Sylvia.’
‘Oh!’ And then: ‘It can’t come to-night, it’s getting on for one.’
‘It can,’ Tietjens said, ‘I’ve fixed it up with the postmaster — all the way up to Town! It probably won’t come because Sylvia won’t send it until the last moment, to bother me. None the less, I’m waiting for a wire from Sylvia and this is what I look like.’
‘That woman’s the cruellest beast . . . ’
‘You might,’ Tietjens interrupted, ‘remember that you’re talking about my wife.’
‘I don’t see,’ Macmaster said, ‘how one can talk about Sylvia without . . . ’
‘The line is a perfectly simple one to draw,’ Tietjens said. ‘You can relate a lady’s actions if you know them and are asked to. You mustn’t comment. In this case you don’t know the lady’s actions even, so you may as well hold your tongue.’ He sat looking straight in front of him.
Macmaster sighed from deep in his chest. He asked himself if this was what sixteen hours’ waiting had done for his friend, what were all the remaining hours going to do?
‘I shall be fit to talk about Sylvia after two more whiskies . . . Let’s settle your other perturbations first . . . The fair girl is called Wannop: Valentine Wannop.’
‘That’s the Professor’s name,’ Macmaster said.
‘She’s the late Professor Wannop’s daughter,’ Tietjens said. ‘She’s also the daughter of the novelist.’
‘But . . . ’
‘She supported herself for a year after the Professor’s death as a domestic servant,’ Tietjens said. ‘Now she’s housemaid for her mother, the novelist, in an inexpensive cottage. I should imagine the two experiences would make her desire to better the lot of her sex.’
Macmaster again interjected a ‘But . . . ’
‘I got that information from the policeman whilst I was putting his wife’s canary’s leg in splints.’
‘The policeman you knocked down?’ His eyes expressed unreasoning surprise. He added: ‘He knew Miss . . . eh . . . Wannop then!’
‘You would not expect much intelligence from the police of Sussex,’ Tietjens said. ‘But you would be wrong. P.C. Finn is clever enough to recognise the young lady who for several years past has managed the constabulary’s wives’ and children’s annual tea and sports. He says Miss Wannop holds the quarter-mile, half-mile, high jump, long jump and putting the weight records for East Sussex. That explains how she went over that dyke in such tidy style . . . And precious glad the good, simple man was when I told him he was to leave the girl alone. He didn’t know, he said, how he’d ever a had the face to serve the warrant on Miss Wannop. The other girl — the one that squeaked — is a stranger, a Londoner probably.’
‘You told the policeman . . . ’
‘I gave him,’ Tietjens said, ‘the Rt. Hon. Stephen Fenick Waterhouse’s compliments, and he’d be much obliged if the P.C. would hand in a ‘No Can Do’ report in the matter of those ladies every morning to his inspector. I gave him also a brand new fi’ pun note — from the Cabinet Minister — and a couple of quid and the price of a new pair of trousers from myself. So he’s the happiest constable in Sussex. A very decent fellow; he told me how to know a dog otter’s spoor from a gravid bitch’s . . . But that wouldn’t interest you.’
He began again:
‘Don’t look so inexpressibly foolish. I told you I’d been dining with that swine . . . No, I oughtn’t to call him a swine after eating his dinner. Besides, he’s a very decent fellow . . .
‘You didn’t tell me you’d been dining with Mr Waterhouse,’ Macmaster said. ‘I hope you remembered that, as he’s amongst other things the President of the Funded Debt Commission he’s the power of life and death over the department and us.’
‘You didn’t think,’ Tietjens answered, ‘that you are the only one to dine with the great ones of the earth! I wanted to talk to that fellow . . . about those figures their cursed crowd make me fake. I meant to give him a bit of my mind.’
‘You didn’t!’ Macmaster said with an expression of panic. ‘Besides, they didn’t ask you to fake the calculation. They only asked you to work it out on the basis of given figures.’
‘Anyhow,’ Tietjens said, ‘I gave him a bit of my mind. I told him that, at threepence, it must run the country — and certainly himself as a politician! — to absolute ruin.’
Macmaster uttered a deep ‘Good Lord!’ and then: ‘But won’t you ever remember you’re a Government servant? He could . . . ’
‘Mr Waterhouse,’ Tietjens said, ‘asked me if I wouldn’t consent to be transferred to his secretary’s department. And when I said: “Go to hell!” he walked round the streets with me for two hours arguing . . . I was working out the chances on a 4/½d. basis for him when you interrupted me. I’ve promised to let him have the figures when he goes up by the 1.30 on Monday.’
‘You haven’t . . . But by Jove you’re the only man in England that could do it.’
‘That was what Mr Waterhouse said,’ Tietjens commented. ‘He said old Ingleby had told him so.’
‘I do hope,’ Macmaster said, ‘that you answered him politely!’
‘I told him,’ Tietjens answered, ‘that there were a dozen men who could do it as well as I, and I mentioned your name in particular.’
‘But I couldn’t,’ Macmaster answered. ‘Of course I could convert a 3d. rate into 4½d. But these are the actuarial variations; they’re infinite. I couldn’t touch them.’
Tietjens said negligently: ‘I don’t want my name mixed up in the unspeakable affair. When I give him the papers on Monday I shall tell him you did most of the work.’
Again Macmaster groaned.
Nor was this distress mere altruism. Immensely ambitious for his brilliant friend, Macmaster’s ambition was one ingredient of his strong desire for security. At Cambridge he had been perfectly content with a moderate, quite respectable place on the list of mathematical postulants. He knew that that made him safe, and he had still more satisfaction in the thought that it would warrant him in never being brilliant in after life. But when Tietjens, two years after, had come out as a mere Second Wrangler, Macmaster had been bitterly and loudly disappointed. He knew perfectly well that Tietjens simply hadn’t taken trouble; and, ten chances to one, it was on purpose that Tietjens hadn’t taken trouble. For the matter of that, for Tietjens it wouldn’t have been trouble.
And, indeed, to Macmaster’s upbraidings, which Macmaster hadn’t spared him, Tietjens had answered that he hadn’t been able to think of going through the rest of his life with a beastly placard like Senior Wrangler hung round his neck.
But Macmaster had early made up his mind that life for him would be safest if he could go about, not very much observed but still an authority, in the midst of a body of men all labelled. He wanted to walk down Pall Mall on the arm, precisely, of a largely lettered Senior Wrangler; to return eastward on the arm of the youngest Lord Chancellor England had ever seen; to stroll down Whitehall in familiar converse with a world-famous novelist, saluting on the way a majority of My Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. And, after tea, for an hour at the club all these, in a little group, should treat him with the courtesy of men who respected him for his soundness. Then he would be safe.
And he had no doubt that Tietjens was the most brilliant man in England of that day, so that nothing caused him more anguish than the thought that Tietjens might not make a brilliant and rapid career towards some illustrious position in the public services. He would very willingly — he desired, indeed, nothing better — have seen Tietjens pass over his own head! It did not seem to him a condemnation of the public services that this appeared to be unlikely.
Yet Macmaster was still not without hope. He was quite aware that there are other techniques of careers than that which he had prescribed for himself. He could not imagine himself, even in the most deferential way, correcting a superior; yet he could see that, though Tietjens treated almost every hierarch as if he were a born fool, no one very much resented it. Of course Tietjens was a Tietjens of Groby; but was that going to be enough to live on for ever? Times were changing, and Macmaster imagined this to be a democratic age.
But Tietjens went on, with both hands as it were, throwing away opportunity and committing outrage . . .
That day Macmaster could only consider to be one of disaster. He got up from his chair and filled himself another drink; he felt himself to be distressed and to need it. Slouching among his cretonnes, Tietjens was gazing in front of him. He said:
‘Here!’ without looking at Macmaster, and held out his long glass. Into it Macmaster poured whisky with a hesitating hand. Tietjens said: ‘Go on!’
‘It’s late; we’re breakfasting at the Duchemins’ at ten.’ Tietjens answered:
‘Don’t worry, sonny. We’ll be there for your pretty lady.’ He added: ‘Wait another quarter of an hour. I want to talk to you.’
Macmaster sat down again and deliberately began to review the day. It had begun with disaster, and in disaster it had continued.
And, with something like a bitter irony, Macmaster remembered and brought up now for digestion the parting words of General Campion to himself. The General had limped with him to the hall door up at Mountby and, standing patting him on the shoulder, tall, slightly bent and very friendly, had said:
‘Look here, Christopher Tietjens is a splendid fellow. But he needs a good woman to look after him. Get him back to Sylvia as quick as you can. Had a little tiff, haven’t they? Nothing serious? Chrissie hasn’t been running after the skirts? No? I daresay a little. No? Well then . . . ’
Macmaster had stood like a gate-post, so appalled. He had stuttered:
‘We’ve known them both so long,’ the General went on. ‘Lady Claudine in particular. And, believe me, Sylvia is a splendid girl. Straight as a die; the soul of loyalty to her friends. And fearless — she’d face the devil in his rage. You should have seen her out with the Belvoir! Of course you know her . . . Well then!’
Macmaster had just managed to say that he knew Sylvia, of course.
‘Well then . . . ’ the General had continued . . . ‘you’ll agree with me that if there is anything wrong between them he’s to blame. And it will be resented. Very bitterly. He wouldn’t set foot in this house again. But he says he’s going out to her and Mrs Satterthwaite.
‘I believe . . . ’ Macmaster had begun . . . ‘I believe he is . . . ’
‘Well then!’ the General had said: ‘It’s all right . . . But Christopher Tietjens needs a good woman’s backing . . . He’s a splendid fellow. There are few young fellows for whom I have more . . . I could almost say respect . . . But he needs that. To ballast him.’
In the car, running down the hill from Mountby, Macmaster had exhausted himself in the effort to restrain his execrations of the General. He wanted to shout that he was a pig-headed old fool: a meddlesome ass. But he was in the car with the two secretaries of the Cabinet Minister: the Rt. Hon. Edward Fenwick Waterhouse, who, being himself an advanced Liberal down for a week-end of golf, preferred not to dine at the house of the Conservative member. At that date there was, in politics, a phase of bitter social feud between the parties: a condition that had not till lately been characteristic of English political life. The prohibition had not extended itself to the two younger men.
Macmaster was not unpleasurably aware that these two fellows treated him with a certain deference. They had seen Macmaster being talked to familiarly by General Lord Campion. Indeed, they and the car had been kept waiting whilst the General patted their fellow guest on the shoulder; held his upper arm and spoke in a low voice into his ear . . .
But that was the only pleasure that Macmaster got out of it.
Yes, the day had begun disastrously with Sylvia’s letter; it ended — if it was ended! — almost more disastrously with the General’s eulogy of that woman. During the day he had nerved himself to having an immensely disagreeable scene with Tietjens. Tietjens must divorce the woman; it was necessary for the peace of mind of himself, of his friends, of his family; for the sake of his career; in the very name of decency!
In the meantime Tietjens had rather forced his hand. It had been a most disagreeable affair. They had arrived at Rye in time for lunch — at which Tietjens had consumed the best part of a bottle of Burgundy. During lunch Tietjens had given Macmaster Sylvia’s letter to read, saying that, as he should later consult his friend, his friend had better be made acquainted with the document.
The letter had appeared extraordinary in its effrontery, for it said nothing. Beyond the bare statement, ‘I am now ready to return to you,’ it occupied itself simply with the fact that Mrs Tietjens wanted — could no longer get on without — the services of her maid, whom she called Hullo Central. If Tietjens wanted her, Mrs Tietjens, to return to him he was to see that Hullo Central was waiting on the doorstep for her, and so on. She added the detail that there was no one else, underlined, she could bear round her while she was retiring for the night. On reflection Macmaster could see that this was the best letter the woman could have written if she wanted to be taken back; for, had she extended herself into either excuses or explanations, it was ten chances to one Tietjens would have taken the line that he couldn’t go on living with a woman capable of such a lapse in taste. But Macniaster had never thought of Sylvia as wanting in savoir faire.
It had, none the less, hardened him in his determination to urge his friend to divorce. He had intended to begin this campaign in the fly, driving to pay his call on the Rev. Mr Duchemin, who; in early life, had been a personal disciple of Mr Ruskin and a patron and acquaintance of the poet-painter, the subject of Macmaster’s monograph. On this drive Tietjens preferred not to come. He said that he would loaf about the town and meet Macmaster at the golf club towards four-thirty. He was not in the mood for making new acquaintances. Macmaster, who knew the pressure under which his friend must be suffering, thought this reasonable enough, and drove off up Iden Hill by himself.
Few women had ever made so much impression on Macmaster as Mrs Duchemin. He knew himself to be in a mood to be impressed by almost any woman, but he considered that that was not enough to account for the very strong influence she at once exercised over him. There had been two young girls in the drawing-room when he had been ushered in, but they had disappeared almost simultaneously, and although he had noticed them immediately afterwards riding past the window on bicycles, he was aware that he would not have recognized them again. From her first words on rising to greet him: ‘Not the Mr Macmaster!’ he had had eyes for no one else.
It was obvious that the Rev. Mr Duchemin must be one of those clergymen of considerable wealth and cultured taste who not infrequently adorn the Church of England. The rectory itself, a great, warm-looking manor house of very old red brick, was abutted on to by one of the largest tithe barns that Macmaster had ever seen; the church itself, with a primitive roof of oak shingles, nestled in the corner formed by the ends of rectory and tithe barn, and was by so much the smallest of the three and so undecorated that but for its little belfry it might have been a good cow-byre. All three buildings stood on the very edge of the little row of hills that looks down on the Romney Marsh; they were sheltered from the north wind by a great symmetrical fan of elms and from the south-west by a very tall hedge and shrubbery, all of remarkable yews. It was, in short, an ideal cure of souls for a wealthy clergyman of cultured tastes, for there was not so much as a peasant’s cottage within a mile of it.
To Macmaster, in short, this was the ideal English home. Of Mrs Duchemin’s drawing-room itself, contrary to his habit, for he was sensitive and observant in such things, he could afterwards remember little except that it was perfectly sympathetic. Three long windows gave on to a perfect lawn, on which, isolated and grouped, stood standard rose trees, symmetrical half globes of green foliage picked out with flowers like bits of carved pink marble. Beyond the lawn was a low stone wall; beyond that the quiet expanse of the marsh shimmered in the sunlight.
The furniture of the room was, as to its woodwork, brown, old, with the rich softnesses of much polishing with beeswax. What pictures there were Macmaster recognized at once as being by Simeon Solomon, one of the weaker and more frail aesthetes — aureoled, palish heads of ladies carrying lilies that were not very like lilies. They were in the tradition — but not the best of the tradition. Macmaster understood — and later Mrs Duchemin confirmed him in the idea — that Mr Duchemin kept his more precious specimens of work in a sanctum, leaving to the relatively public room, good-humouredly and with slight contempt, these weaker specimens. That seemed to stamp Mr Duchemin at once as being of the elect.
Mr Duchemin in person was, however, not present; and there seemed to be a good deal of difficulty in arranging a meeting between the two men. Mr Duchemin, his wife said, was much occupied at the week-ends. She added, with a faint and rather absent smile, the word, ‘Naturally.’ Macmaster at once saw that it was natural for a clergyman to be much occupied during the week-ends. With a little hesitation Mrs Duchemin suggested that Mr Macmaster and his friend might come to lunch on the next day — Saturday. But Macmaster had made an engagement to play the foursome with General Campion — half the round from twelve till one-thirty: half the round from three to half-past four. And, as their then present arrangements stood, Macmaster and Tietjens were to take the 6.30 train to Hythe; that ruled out either tea or dinner next day.
With sufficient, but not too extravagant regret, Mrs Duchemin raised her voice to say:
‘Oh dear! Oh dear! But you must see my husband and the pictures after you have come so far.’
A rather considerable volume of harsh sound was coming through the end wall of the room — the barking of dogs, apparently the hurried removal of pieces of furniture or perhaps of packing cases, guttural ejaculations. Mrs Duchemin said, with her far-away air and deep voice:
‘They are making a good deal of noise. Let us go into the garden and look at my husband’s roses, if you’ve a moment more to give us.’
Macmaster quoted to himself:
‘“I looked and saw your eyes in the shadow of your hair . . . "’
There was no doubt that Mrs Duchemin’s eyes, which were of a dark, pebble blue, were actually in the shadow of her blue-black, very regularly waved hair. The hair came down on the square, low forehead. It was a phenomenon that Macmaster had never before really seen, and, he congratulated himself, this was one more confirmation — if confirmation were needed! — of the powers of observation of the subject of his monograph!
Mrs Duchemin bore the sunlight! Her dark complexion was clear; there was, over the cheekbones, a delicate suffusion of light carmine. Her jawbone was singularly clear-cut, to the pointed chin — like an alabaster, mediaeval saint’s .
‘Of course you’re Scotch. I’m from Auld Reekie myself.’ Macmaster would have known it. He said he was from the Port of Leith. He could not imagine hiding anything from Mrs Duchemin. Mrs Duchemin said with renewed insistence:
‘Oh, but of course you must see my husband and the pictures. Let me see . . . We must think . . . Would breakfast now . . .?’
Macmaster said that he and his friend were Government servants and up to rising early. He had a great desire to breakfast in that house. She said:
‘At a quarter to ten, then, our car will be at the bottom of your street. It’s a matter of ten minutes only, so you won’t go hungry long!’
She said, gradually gaining animation, that of course Macmaster would bring his friend. He could tell Tietjens that he should meet a very charming girl. She stopped and added suddenly: ‘Probably, at any rate.’ She said the name which Macmaster caught as Wanstead.’ And possibly another girl. And Mr Horsted, or something like it, her husband’s junior curate. She said reflectively:
‘Yes, we might try quite a party . . . ’ and added, ‘quite noisy and gay. I hope your friend’s talkative!’ Macmaster said something about trouble.
‘Oh, it can’t be too much trouble,’ she said. ‘Besides it might do my husband good.’ She went on: ‘Mr Duchemin is apt to brood. It’s perhaps too lonely here.’ And added the rather astonishing words: ‘After all.’
And, driving back in the fly, Macmaster said to himself that you couldn’t call Mrs Duchemin ordinary, at least. Yet meeting her was like going into a room that you had long left and never ceased to love. It felt good. It was perhaps partly her Edinburgh-ness. Macmaster allowed himself to coin that word. There was in Edinburgh a society — he himself had never been privileged to move in it, but its annals are part of the literature of Scotland! — where the ladies are all great ladies in tall drawing-rooms; circumspect yet shrewd: still yet with a sense of the comic: frugal yet warmly hospitable. It was perhaps just Edinburgh-ness that was wanting in the drawing-rooms of his friends in London. Mrs Cressy, the Hon. Mrs Limoux and Mrs Delawnay were all almost perfection in manner, in speech, in composure. But, then they were not young, they weren’t Edinburgh — and they weren’t strikingly elegant!
Mrs Duchemin was all three. Her assured, tranquil manner she would retain to any age: it betokened the enigmatic soul of her sex, but, physically, she couldn’t be more than thirty. That was unimportant, for she would never want to do anything in which physical youth counted. She would never, for instance, have occasion to run: she would always just ‘move’— floatingly! He tried to remember the details of her dress.
It had certainly been dark blue — and certainly of silk: that rather coarsely woven, exquisite material that has on it folds as of a silvery shimmer with minute knots. But very dark blue. And it contrived to be at once artistic —-absolutely in the tradition! And yet well cut! Very large sleeves, of course, but still with a certain fit. She had worn an immense necklace of yellow polished amber: on the dark blue! And Mrs Duchemin had said, over her husband’s roses, that the blossoms always reminded her of little mouldings of pink cloud come down for the cooling of the earth . . . A charming thought!
Suddenly he said to himself:
‘What a mate for Tietjens I’ And his mind added: ‘Why should she not become an Influence!’
A vista opened before him in time! He imagined Tietjens, in some way proprietarily responsible for Mrs Duchemin: quite pour le bon, tranquilly passionate and accepted, motif; and ‘immensely improved’ by the association. And himself, in a year or two, bringing the at last found Lady of his Delight to sit at the feet of Mrs Duchemin — the Lady of his Delight whilst circumspect would be also young and impressionable! — to learn the mysterious assuredness of manner, the gift of dressing, the knack of wearing amber and bending over standard roses — and the Edinburgh-ness!
Macmaster was thus not a little excited, and finding Tietjens at tea amid the green-stained furnishings and illustrated papers of the large, corrugated-iron golf-house, he could not help exclaiming:
‘I’ve accepted the invitation to breakfast with the Duchemins to-morrow for us both. I hope you won’t mind,’ although Tietjens was sitting at a little table with General Campion and his brother-in-law, the Hon. Paul Sandbach, Conservative member for the division and husband of Lady Claudine. The General said pleasantly to Tietjens:
‘Breakfast! With Duchemin! You go, my boy! You’ll get the best breakfast you ever had in your life.’
He added to his brother-in-law: ‘Not the eternal mock kedgeree Claudine gives us every morning.’
‘It’s not for want of trying to steal their cook. Claudine has a shy at it every time we come down here.’
The General said pleasantly to Macmaster — he spoke always pleasantly, with a half smile and a slight sibilance:
‘My brother-in-law isn’t serious, you understand. My sister wouldn’t think of stealing a cook. Let alone from Duchemin. She’d be frightened to.’
Both these gentlemen were very lame: Mr Sandbach from birth and the General as the result of a slight but neglected motor accident. He had practically only one vanity, the belief that he was qualified to act as his own chauffeur, and since he was both inexpert and very careless, he met with frequent accidents. Mr Sandbach had a dark, round, bull-dog face and a violent manner. He had twice been suspended from his Parliamentary duties for applying to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer the epithet ‘lying attorney,’ and he was at that moment still suspended.
Macmaster then became unpleasantly perturbed. With his sensitiveness he was perfectly aware of an unpleasant chill in the air. There was also a stiffness about Tietjens’ eyes. He was looking straight before him; there was a silence too. Behind Tietjens’ back were two men with bright green coats, red knitted waistcoats and florid faces. One was bald and blond, the other had black hair, remarkably oiled and shiny; both were forty-fivish. They were regarding the occupants of the Tietjens table with both their mouths slightly open. They were undisguisedly listening. In front of each were three empty sloe-gin glasses and one half-filled tumbler of brandy and soda. Macmaster understood why the General had explained that his sister had not tried to steal Mrs Duchemin’s cook.
‘Drink up your tea quickly and let’s get started.’ He was drawing from his pocket a number of telegraph forms which he began arranging. The General said:
‘Don’t burn your mouth. We can’t start off before all . . . all these other gentlemen. We’re too slow.’
‘No, we’re beastly well stuck,’ Sandbach said. Tietjens handed the telegraph forms to Macmaster. ‘You’d better take a look at these,’ he said. ‘I mayn’t see you again to-day after the match. You’re dining up at Mountby. The General will run you up. Lady Claude will excuse me. I’ve got work to do.’
This was already matter for dismay for Macmaster. He was aware that Tietjens would have disliked dining up at Mountby with the Sandbachs, who would have a crowd, extremely smart but more than usually unintelligent. Tietjens called this crowd, indeed, the plague-spot of the party — meaning of Toryism. But Macmaster couldn’t help thinking that a disagreeable dinner would be better for his friend than brooding in solitude in the black shadows of the huddled town. Then Tietjens said:
‘I’m going to have a word with that swine!’ He pointed his square chin rather rigidly before him, and looking past the two brandy drinkers, Macmaster saw one of those faces that frequent caricature made familiar and yet strange. Macmaster couldn’t, at the moment, put a name to it. It must be a politician, probably a Minister. But which? His mind was already in a dreadful state. In the glimpse he had caught of the telegraph form now in his hand, he had perceived that it was addressed to Sylvia Tietjens and began with the word ‘agreed.’ He said swiftly:
‘Has that been sent or is it only a draft?’
‘That fellow is the Rt. Hon. Stephen Fenwick Waterhouse. He’s chairman of the Funded Debt Commission. He’s the swine who made us fake that return in the office.’
That moment was the worst Macmaster had ever known. A worse came. Tietjens said:
‘I’m going to have a word with him. That’s why I’m not dining at Mountby. It’s a duty to the country.’
Macmaster’s mind simply stopped. He was in a space, all windows. There was sunlight outside. And clouds. Pink and white. Woolly! Some ships. And two men: one dark and oily, the other rather blotchy on a blond baldness. They were talking, but their words made no impression on Macmaster. The dark, oily man said that he was not going to take Gertie to. Budapest. Not half! He winked like a nightmare. Beyond were two young men and a preposterous face . . . It was all so like a nightmare that the Cabinet Minister’s features were distorted for Macmaster. Like an enormous mask of pantomime: shiny, with an immense nose and elongated, Chinese eyes.
Yet not unpleasant! Macmaster was a Whig by conviction, by nature, by temperament. He thought that public servants should abstain from political activity. Nevertheless, he couldn’t be expected to think a Liberal Cabinet Minister ugly. On the contrary, Mr Waterhouse appeared to have a frank, humorous, kindly expression. He listened deferentially to one of his secretaries, resting his hand on the young man’s shoulder, smiling a little, rather sleepily. No doubt he was overworked. And then, letting himself go in a side-shaking laugh. Putting on flesh!
What a pity! What a pity! Macmaster was reading a string of incomprehensible words in Tietjens’ heavily scored writing. Not entertain . . . flat not house . . . child remain at sister . . . His eyes went backwards and forwards over the phrases. He could not connect the words without stops. The man with the oily hair said in a sickly voice that Gertie was hot stuff, but not the one for Budapest with all the Gitana girls you were telling me of! Why, he’d kept Gertie for five years now. More like the real thing! His friend’s voice was like a result of indigestion. Tietjens, Sandbach and the General were stiff, like pokers.
What a pity! Macmaster thought.
He ought to have been sitting . . . It would have been pleasant and right to be sitting with the pleasant Minister. In the ordinary course he, Macmaster, would have been. The best golfer in the place was usually set to play with distinguished visitors, and there was next to no one in the south of England who ordinarily could beat him. He had begun at four, playing with a miniature cleek and a found shilling ball over the municipal links. Going to the poor school every morning and back to dinner; and back to school and back to bed! Over the cold, rushy, sandy links, beside the grey sea. Both shoes full of sand. The found shilling ball had lasted him three years . . .
Macmaster exclaimed: ‘Good God.’ He had just gathered from the telegram that Tietjens meant to go to Germany on Tuesday. As if at Macmaster’s ejaculation, Tietjens said:
‘Yes. It is unbearable. If you don’t stop those swine, General, I shall.’
The General sibilated low, between his teeth:
‘Wait a minute . . . Wait a minute . . . Perhaps that other fellow will.’
The man with the black oily hair said:
‘If Budapest’s the place for the girls you say it is, old pal, with the Turkish baths and all, we’ll paint the old town red all right next month,’ and he winked at Tietjens. His friend, with his head down, seemed to make internal rumblings, looking apprehensively beneath his blotched forehead at the General.
‘Not,’ the other continued argumentatively, ‘that I don’t love my old woman. She’s all right. And then there’s Gertie. ‘Ot stuff, but the real thing. But I say a man wants . . . ’ He ejaculated, ‘Oh!’
The General, his hands in his pockets, very tall, thin, red-cheeked, his white hair combed forward in a fringe, sauntered towards the other table. It was not two yards, but it seemed a long saunter. He stood right over them, they looking up, open-eyed, like schoolboys at a balloon. He said:
‘I’m glad you’re enjoying our links, gentlemen.’
The bald man said: ‘We are! We are! First-class. A treat!’
‘But,’ the General said, ‘it isn’t wise to discuss one’s . . . eh . . . domestic circumstances . . . at . . . at mess, you know, or in a golf house. People might hear.’
The gentleman with the oily hair half rose and exclaimed:
‘0o, the . . . ’ The other man mumbled: ‘Shut up, Briggs.’
The General said:
‘I’m the president of the club, you know. It’s my duty to see that the majority of the club and its visitors are pleased. I hope you don’t mind.’
The General came back to his seat. He was trembling with vexation.
‘It makes one as beastly a bounder as themselves,’ he said. ‘But what the devil else was one to do?’ The two city men had ambled hastily into the dressing-rooms; the dire silence fell. Macmaster realised that, for these Tories at least, this was really the end of the world. The last of England! He returned, with panic in his heart, to Tietjens’ telegram . . . Tietjens was going to Germany on Tuesday. He offered to throw over the department . . . These were unthinkable things. You couldn’t imagine them!
He began to read the telegram all over again. A shadow fell upon the flimsy sheets. The Rt. Hon. Mr Waterhouse was between the head of the table and the windows. He said:
‘We’re much obliged, General. It was impossible to hear ourselves speak for those obscene fellows’ smut. It’s fellows like that make our friends the suffragettes! That warrants them . . . ’ He added: ‘Hullo! Sandbach! Enjoying your rest?’
The General said:
‘I was hoping you’d take on the job of telling these fellows off.’
Mr Sandbach, his bull-dog jaw sticking out, the short black hair on his scalp appearing to rise, barked: ‘Hullo, Waterslop! Enjoying your plunder?’
Mr Waterhouse, tall, slouching and untidy-haired, lifted the flaps of his coat. It was so ragged that it appeared as if straws stuck out of the elbows.
‘All that the suffragettes have left of me,’ he said laughingly. ‘Isn’t one of you fellows a genius called Tietjens?’ He was looking at Macmaster. The General said:
‘Tietjens Macmaster . . . ’ The Minister went on very friendly:
‘Oh, it’s you? . . . I just wanted to take the opportunity of thanking you.’
‘Good God! What for?’
‘You know!’ the Minister said, ‘we couldn’t have got the Bill before the House till next session without your figures . . . ’ He said slyly: ‘Could we, Sandbach?’ and added to Tietjens: ‘Ingleby told me . . . ’
Tietjens was chalk-white and stiffened. He stuttered: ‘I can’t take any credit . . . I consider . . . ’
‘Tietjens . . . you . . . ’ he didn’t know what he was going to say.
‘Oh, you’re too modest,’ Mr Waterhouse overwhelmed Tietjens. ‘We know whom we’ve to thank . . . ’ His eyes drifted to Sandbach a little absently. Then his face lit up.
‘Oh I Look here, Sandbach,’ he said . . . ‘Come here, will you?’ He walked a pace or two away, calling to one of his young men: ‘Oh, Sanderson, give the bobbie a drink. A good stiff one.’ Sandbach jerked himself awkwardly out of his chair and limped to the Minister.
Tietjens burst out:
‘Me too modest! Me! . . . The swine . . . The unspeakable swine!’
The General said:
‘What’s it all about, Chrissie? You probably are too modest.’
‘Damn it. It’s a serious matter. It’s driving me out of the unspeakable office I’m in.’
‘No! No! You’re wrong. It’s a wrong view you take.’ And with a good deal of real passion he began to explain to the General. It was an affair that had already given him a great deal of pain. The Government had asked the statistical department for figures illuminating a number of schedules that they desired to use in presenting their new Bill to the Commons. Mr Waterhouse was to present it.
Mr Waterhouse at the moment was slapping Mr Sandbach on the back, tossing the hair out of his eyes and laughing like an hysterical schoolgirl. He looked suddenly tired. A police constable, his buttons shining, appeared, drinking from a pewter-pot outside the glazed door. The two city men ran across the angle from the dressing-room to the same door, buttoning their clothes. The Minister said loudly:
‘Make it guineas!’
It seemed to Macmaster painfully wrong that Tietjens should call anyone so genial and unaffected an unspeakable swine. It was unjust. He went on with his explanation to the General.
The Government had wanted a set of figures based on a calculation called B7. Tietjens, who had been working on one called h29 — for his own instruction — had persuaded himself that h29 was the lowest figure that was actuarially sound.
The General said pleasantly: ‘All this is Greek to me.’
‘Oh no, it needn’t be,’ Macmaster heard himself say. ‘It amounts to this. Chrissie was asked by the Government — by Sir Reginald Ingleby — to work out what 3 x 3 comes to: it was that sort of thing in principle. He said that the only figure that would not ruin the country was nine times nine . . . ’
‘The Government wanted to shovel money into the working man’s pockets, in fact,’ the General said. ‘Money for nothing . . . or votes, I suppose.’
‘But that isn’t the point, sir,’ Macmaster ventured to say. ‘All that Chrissie was asked to do was to say what 3 X 3 was.’
‘Well, he appears to have done it and earned no end of kudos,’ the General said. ‘That’s all right. We’ve all, always, believed in Chrissie’s ability. But he’s a strong-tempered beggar.’
‘He was extraordinarily rude to Sir Reginald over it,’ Macmaster went on.
The General said:
‘Oh dear! Oh dear!’ He shook his head at Tietjens and assumed with care the blank, slightly disappointing air of the regular officer. ‘I don’t like to hear of rudeness to a superior. In any service.’
‘I don’t think,’ Tietjens said with extreme mildness, ‘that Macmaster is quite fair to me. Of course he’s a right to his opinion as to what the discipline of a service demands. I certainly told Ingleby that I’d rather resign than do that beastly job . . . ’
‘You shouldn’t have,’ the General said. ‘What would become of the services if everyone did as you did?’
Sandbach came back laughing and dropped painfully into his low arm-chair.
‘That fellow . . . ’ he began.
The General slightly raised his hand.
‘A minute!’ he said. ‘I was about to tell Chrissie, here, that if I am offered the job — of course it’s an order really — of suppressing the Ulster Volunteers . . . I’d rather cut my throat than do it . . . ’
‘Of course you would, old chap. They’re our brothers. You’d see the beastly, lying Government damned first.’
‘I was going to say that I should accept,’ the General said, ‘I shouldn’t resign my commission.’
‘Well, I didn’t.’
‘General! You! After all Claudine and I have said . . . ’ Tietjens interrupted:
‘Excuse me, Sandbach. I’m receiving this reprimand for the moment. I wasn’t, then, rude to Ingleby. If I’d expressed contempt for what he said or for himself, that would have been rude. I didn’t. He wasn’t in the least offended. He looked like a cockatoo, but he wasn’t offended. And I let him over-persuade me. He was right, really. He pointed out that, if I didn’t do the job, those swine would put on one of our little competition wallah head clerks and get all the schedules faked, as well as starting off with false premises!’
‘That’s the view I take,’ the General said, ‘if I don’t take the Ulster job the Government will put on a fellow who’ll burn all the farm-houses and rape all the women in the three counties. They’ve got him up their sleeve. He only asks for the Connaught Rangers to go through the north with. And you know what that means. All the same . . . ’ He looked at Tietjens: ‘One should not be rude to one’s superiors.’
‘I tell you I wasn’t rude,’ Tietjens exclaimed. ‘Damn your nice, paternal old eyes. Get that into your mind!’ The General shook his head:
‘You brilliant fellows!’ he said. ‘The country, or the army, or anything, could not be run by you. It takes stupid fools like me and Sandbach, along with sound moderate heads like our friend here.’ He indicated Macmaster and, rising, went on: ‘Come along. You’re playing me, Macmaster. They say you’re hot stuff. Chrissie’s no good. He can take Sandbach on.’
He walked off with Macmaster towards the dressing-room.
Sandbach, wriggling awkwardly out of his chair, shouted:
‘Save the country . . . Damn it . . . ’ He stood on his feet. ‘I and Campion . . . Look at what the country’s come to . . . What with swine like these two in our club houses! And policemen to go round the links with Ministers to protect them from the wild women . . . By God! I’d like to have the flaying of the skin off some of their backs I would. My God I would.’
‘That fellow Waterslops is a bit of a sportsman. I haven’t been able to tell you about our bet, you’ve been making such a noise . . . Is your friend really plus one at North Berwick? What are you like?’
‘Macmaster is a good plus two anywhere when he’s in practice.’
‘Good Lord . . . A stout fellow . . . ’
‘As for me,’ Tietjens said, ‘I loathe the beastly game.’ ‘So do I,’ Sandbach answered. ‘We’ll just lollop along behind them.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54