‘It doesn’t seem quite fair, Valentine,’ Mrs Duchemin said. She was rearranging in a glass bowl some minute flowers that floated on water. They made there, on the breakfast-table, a patch, as it were, of mosaic amongst silver chafing dishes, silver epergnes piled with peaches in pyramids and great silver rose-bowls filled with roses, that drooped to the damask cloth, a congeries of silver largenesses made as if a fortification for the head of the table; two huge silver urns, a great silver kettle on a tripod, and a couple of silver vases filled with the extremely tall blue spikes of delphiniums that, spreading out, made as if a fan. The eighteenth-century room was very tall and long; panelled in darkish wood. In the centre of each of four of the panels, facing the light, hung pictures, a mellowed orange in tone, representing mists and the cordage of ships in mists at sunrise. On the bottom of each large gold frame was a tablet bearing the ascription: ‘J. M. W. Turner.’ The chairs, arranged along the long table that was set for eight people, had the delicate, spidery, mahogany backs of Chippendale; on the golden mahogany sideboard that had behind it green silk curtains on a brass-rail were displayed an immense, crumbed ham, more peaches on an epergne, a large meat-pie with a varnished crust, another epergne that supported the large pale globes of grapefruit; a galantine, a cube of inlaid meats, encased in thick jelly.
‘Oh, women have to back each other up in these days,’ Valentine Wannop said. ‘I couldn’t let you go through this alone after breakfasting with you every Saturday since I don’t know when.’
‘I do feel,’ Mrs Duchemin said, ‘immensely grateful to you for your moral support. I ought not, perhaps, to have risked this morning. But I’ve told Parry to keep him out till 10.15.’
‘It’s, at any rate, tremendously sporting of you,’ the girl said. ‘I think it was worth trying.’
Mrs Duchemin, wavering round the table, slightly changed the position of the delphiniums.
‘I think they make a good screen,’ Mrs Duchemin said.
‘Oh, nobody will be able to see him,’ the girl answered reassuringly. She added with a sudden resolution, ‘Look here, Edie. Stop worrying about my mind. If you think that anything I hear at your table after nine months as an ash-cat at Ealing, with three men in the house, an invalid wife and a drunken cook, can corrupt my mind, you’re simply mistaken. You can let your conscience be at rest, and let’s say no more about it.’
Mrs Duchemin said, ‘Oh, Valentine! How could your mother let you?’
‘She didn’t know,’ the girl said. ‘She was out of her mind for grief. She sat for most of the whole nine months with her hands folded before her in a board and lodging house at twenty-five shillings a week, and it took the five shillings a week that I earned to make up the money.’ She added, ‘Gilbert had to be kept at school of course. And in the holidays, too.’
‘I don’t understand!’ Mrs Duchemin said. ‘I simply don’t understand.’
‘Of course you wouldn’t,’ the girl answered. ‘You’re like the kindly people who subscribed at the sale to buy my father’s library back and present it to my mother. That cost us five shillings a week for warehousing, and at Ealing they were always nagging at me for the state of my print dresses . . . ’
She broke off and said:
‘Let’s not talk about it any more, if you don’t mind. You have me in your house, so I suppose you’ve a right to references, as the mistresses call them. But you’ve been very good to me and never asked. Still, it’s come up; do you know I told a man on the links yesterday that I’d been a slavey for nine months. I was trying to explain why I was a suffragette; and, as I was asking him a favour, I suppose I felt I needed to give him references too.’
Mrs Duchemin, beginning to advance towards the girl impulsively, exclaimed:
Miss Wannop said:
‘Wait a minute. I haven’t finished. I want to say this: I never talk about that stage of my career because I’m ashamed of it. I’m ashamed because I think I did the wrong thing, not for any other reason. I did it on impulse and I stuck to it out of obstinacy. I mean it would probably have been more sensible to go round with the hat to benevolent people, for the keep of mother and to complete my education. But if we’ve inherited the Wannop ill-luck, we’ve inherited the Wannop pride. And I couldn’t do it. Besides I was only seventeen, and I gave out we were going into the country after the sale. I’m not educated at all, as you know, or only half, because father, being a brilliant man, had ideas. And one of them was that I was to be an athlete, not a classical don at Cambridge, or I might have been, I believe. I don’t know why he had that tic . . . But I’d like you to understand two things. One I’ve said already: what I hear in this house won’t ever shock or corrupt me; that it’s said in Latin is neither here nor there. I understand Latin almost as well as English because father used to talk it to me and Gilbert as soon as we talked at all . . . And, oh yes: I’m a suffragette because I’ve been a slavey. But I’d like you to understand that, though I was a slavey and am a suffragette — you’re an old-fashioned woman and queer things are thought about these two things — then I’d like you to understand that in spite of it all I’m pure! Chaste, you know . . . Perfectly virtuous.’
Mrs Duchemin said:
‘Oh, Valentine! Did you wear a cap and apron? You! In a cap and apron.’
Miss Wannop replied:
‘Yes! I wore a cap and apron and sniffled “M’m” to the mistress; and slept under the stairs, too. Because I woud not sleep with the beast of a cook.’
Mrs Duchemin now ran forward and, catching Miss Wannop by both hands, kissed her first on the left and then on the right cheek.
‘Oh, Valentine,’ she said, ‘you’re a heroine. And you only twenty-two! . . . Isn’t that the motor coining?’ But it wasn’t the motor coming and Miss Wannop said: ‘Oh, no! I’m not a heroine. When I tried to speak to that Minister yesterday, I just couldn’t. It was Gertie who went for him. As for me, I just hopped from one leg to the other and stuttered: “V . . . V . . . Votes for W . . . W . . . W . . . omen!” If I’d been decently brave I shouldn’t have been too shy to speak to a strange man . . . For that was what it really came to.’
‘But that surely,’ Mrs Duchemin said — she continued to hold both the girl’s hands —‘makes you all the braver . . . It’s the person who does the thing he’s afraid of who’s the real hero, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, we used to argue that old thing over with father when we were ten. You can’t tell. You’ve got to define the term brave. I was just abject . . . I could harangue the whole crowd when I got them together. But speak to one man in cold blood I couldn’t . . . Of course I did speak to a fat golfing idiot with bulging eyes, to get him to save Gertie. But that was different.’
Mrs Duchemin moved both the girl’s hands up and down in her own.
‘As you know, Valentine,’ she said, ‘I’m an old-fashioned woman. I believe that woman’s true place is at her husband’s side. At the same time . . . ’
Miss Wannop moved away.
‘Now, don’t, Edie, don’t!’ she said. ‘If you believe that, you’re an anti. Don’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. It’s your defect really . . . I tell you I’m not a heroine. I dread prison: I hate rows. I’m thankful to goodness that it’s my duty to stop and housemaid-typewrite for mother, so that I can’t really do things . . . Look at that miserable, adenoidy little Gertie, hiding upstairs in our garret. She was crying all last night — but that’s just nerves. Yet she’s been in prison five times, stomach-pumped and all. Not a moment of funk about her! . . . But as for me, a girl as hard as a rock that prison wouldn’t touch . . . Why, I’m all of a jump now. That’s why I’m talking nonsense like a pert schoolgirl. I just dread that every sound may be the police coming for me.’
Mrs Duchemin stroked the girl’s fair hair and tucked a loose strand behind her ear.
‘I wish you’d let me show you how to do your hair,’ she said. ‘The right man might come along at any moment.’
‘Oh, the right man!’ Miss Wannop said. ‘Thanks for tactfully changing the subject. The right man for me, when he comes along, will be a married man. That’s the Wannop luck!’
Mrs Duchemin said, with deep concern:
‘Don’t talk like that . . . Why should you regard yourself as being less lucky than other people? Surely your mother’s done well. She has a position; she makes money . . . ’
‘Ah, but mother isn’t a Wannop,’ the girl said, ‘only by marriage. The real Wannops . . . they’ve been executed, and attaindered, and falsely accused and killed in carriage accidents and married adventurers or died penniless like father. Ever since the dawn of history. And then, mother’s got her mascot . . . ’
‘Oh, what’s that?’ Mrs Duchemin asked, almost with animation, ‘a relic . . .?
‘Don’t you know mother’s mascot?’ the girl asked. ‘She tells everybody . . . Don’t you know the story of the man with the champagne? How mother was sitting contemplating suicide in her bed-sitting-room and there came in a man with a name like Tea-tray; she always calls him the mascot and asks us to remember him as such in our prayers . . . He was a man who’d been at a German university with father years before and loved him very dearly; but had not kept touch with him. And he’d been out of England for nine months when father died and round about it. And he said: “Now, Mrs Wannop, what’s this?” And she told him. And he said, “What you want is champagne!” And he sent the slavey out with a sovereign for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. And he broke the neck of the bottle off against the mantelpiece because they were slow in bringing an opener. And he stood over her while she drank half the bottle out of her toothglass. And he took her out to lunch . . . o . . . o . . . oh, it’s cold! . . . And lectured her . . . And got her a job to write leaders on a paper he had shares in . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin said:
‘I know I am,’ the girl said. She went on very fast. ‘And of course, mother always wrote father’s articles for him. He found the ideas, but couldn’t write, and she’s a splendid style . . . And, since then, he — the mascot — Teatray — has always turned up when she’s been in tight places. Then the paper blew her up and threatened to dismiss her for inaccuracies! She’s frightfully inaccurate. And he wrote her out a table of things every leader-writer must know, such as that “A. Ebor” is the Archbishop of York, and that the Government is Liberal. And one day he turned up and said: “Why don’t you write a novel on that story you told me?” And he lent her the money to buy the cottage we’re in now, to be quiet and write in . . . Oh, I can’t go on!’
Miss Wannop burst into tears.
‘It’s thinking of those beastly days,’ she said. ‘And that beastly, beastly yesterday!’ She ran the knuckles of both her hands fiercely into her eyes, and determinedly eluded Mrs Duchemin’s handkerchief and embraces. She said almost contemptuously:
‘A nice, considerate person I am. And you with this ordeal hanging over you! Do you suppose I don’t appreciate all your silent heroism of the home, while we’re marching about with flags and shouting? But it’s just to stop women like you being tortured, body and soul, week in, week out, that we . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin had sat down on a chair near one of the windows; she had her handkerchief hiding her face.
‘Why women in your position don’t take lovers . . . ’ the girl said hotly. ‘Or that women in your position do take lovers . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin looked up; in spite of its tears her white face had an air of serious dignity:
‘Oh, no, Valentine,’ she said, using her deeper tones. ‘There’s something beautiful, there’s something thrilling about chastity. I’m not narrow-minded. Censorious! I don’t condemn! But to preserve in word, thought and action a lifelong fidelity . . . It’s no mean achievement . . . ’
‘You mean like an egg and spoon race,’ Miss Wannop said.
‘It isn’t,’ Mrs Duchemin replied gently, ‘the way I should have put it. Isn’t the real symbol Atalanta, running fast and not turning aside for the golden apple? That always seemed to me the real truth hidden in the beautiful old legend . . . ’
‘I don’t know,’ Miss Wannop said, ‘when I read what Ruskin says about it in the Crown of Wild Olive. Or no! It’s the Queen of the Air. That’s his Greek rubbish, isn’t it? I always think it seems like an egg-race in which the young woman didn’t keep her eyes in the boat. But I suppose it comes to the same thing.’
Mrs Duchemin said:
‘My dear! Not a word against John Ruskin in this house!’
Miss Wannop screamed.
An immense voice had shouted:
‘This way! This way . . . The ladies will be here!’
Of Mr Duchemin’s curates — he had three of them, for he had three marshland parishes almost without stipend, so that no one but a very rich clergyman could have held them — it was observed that they were all very large men with the physiques rather of prize-fighters than of clergy. So that when by any chance at dusk, Mr Duchemin, who himself was of exceptional stature, and his three assistants went together along a road the hearts of any malefactors whom in the mist they chanced to encounter went pit-apat.
Mr Horsley — the number two — had in addition an enormous voice. He shouted four or five words, interjected tee-hee, shouted four or five words more and again interjected tee-hee. He had enormous wrist-bones that protruded from his clerical cuffs, an enormous Adam’s apple, a large, thin, close-cropped, colourless face like a skull, with very sunken eyes, and when he was once started speaking it was impossible to stop him, because his own voice in his ears drowned every possible form of interruption.
This morning, as an inmate of the house, introducing to the breakfast-room Messrs Tietj ens and Macmaster, who had driven up to the steps just as he was mounting them, he had a story to tell. The introduction was, therefore, not, as such, a success . . .
‘A STATE OF SIEGE, LADIES! Tee-hee!’ he alternately roared and giggled. ‘We’re living in a regular state of siege . . . What with . . . ’ It appeared that the night before, after dinner, Mr Sandbach and rather more than half a dozen of the young bloods who had dined at Mountby, had gone scouring the country lanes, mounted on motor bicycles and armed with loaded canes . . . for suffragettes! Every woman they had come across in the darkness they had stopped, abused, threatened with their loaded canes and subjected to cross-examination. The countryside was up in arms.
As a story this took, with the appropriate reflections and repetitions, a long time in telling, and afforded Tietjens and Miss Wannop the opportunity of gazing at each other. Miss Wannop was frankly afraid that this large, clumsy, unusual-looking man, now that he had found her again, might hand her over to the police whom she imagined to be searching for herself and her friend Gertie, Miss Wilson, at that moment in bed, under the care, as she also imagined, of Mrs Wannop. On the links he had seemed to her natural and in place; here, with his loosely hung clothes and immense hands, the white patch on the side of his rather cropped head and his masked, rather shapeless features, he affected her queerly as being both in and out of place. He seemed to go with the ham, the meat-pie, the galantine and even at a pinch with the roses; but the Turner pictures, the aesthetic curtain and Mrs Duchemin’s flowing robes, amber and rose in the hair, did not go with him at all. Even the Chippendale chairs hardly did. And she felt herself thinking oddly, beneath her perturbations, of a criminal and the voice of the Rev. Mr Horsley that his Harris tweeds went all right with her skirt, and she was glad that she had on a clean, cream-coloured silk blouse, not a striped pink cotton.
She was right as to that.
In every man there are two minds that work side by side, the one checking the other; thus emotion stands against reason, intellect corrects passion and first impressions act just a little, but very little, before quick reflection. Yet first impressions have always a bias in their favour, and even quiet reflection has often a job to efface them.
The night before, Tietjens had given several thoughts to this young woman. General Campion had assigned her to him as maîtresse du titre. He was said to have ruined himself, broken up his home and spent his wife’s money on her. Those were lies. On the other hand they were not inherent impossibilities. Upon occasion and given the right woman, quite sound men have done such things. He might, heaven knows, himself be so caught. But that he should have ruined himself over an unnoticeable young female who had announced herself as having been a domestic servant, and wore a pink cotton blouse . . . that had seemed to go beyond the bounds of even the unreason of club gossip!
That was the strong, first impression! It was all very well for his surface mind to say that the girl was not by birth a tweeny maid; she was the daughter of Professor Wannop and she could jump! For Tietjens held very strongly the theory that what finally separated the classes was that the upper could lift its feet from the ground whilst common people couldn’t.
. . . But the strong impression remained. Miss Wannop was a tweeny maid. Say a lady’s help, by nature. She was of good family, for the Wannops were first heard of at Birdlip in Gloucestershire in the year 1417 — no doubt enriched after Agincourt. But even brilliant men of good family will now and then throw daughters who are lady helps by nature. That was one of the queernesses of heredity . . . And, though Tietjens had even got as far as to realize that Miss. Wannop must be a heroine who had sacrificed her young years to her mother’s gifts, and no doubt to a brother at school — for he had guessed as far as that — even then Tietjens couldn’t make her out as more than a lady help. Heroines are all very well; admirable, they may even be saints; but if they let themselves get careworn in face and go shabby . . . Well, they must wait for the gold that shall be amply stored for them in heaven. On this earth you could hardly accept them as wives for men of your own set. Certainly you wouldn’t spend your own wife’s money on them. That was what it really came to.
But, brightened up as he now suddenly saw her, with silk for the pink cotton, shining coiled hair for the white canvas hat, a charming young neck, good shoes beneath neat ankles, a healthy flush taking the place of yesterday’s pallor of fear for her comrade; an obvious equal in the surroundings of quite good people; small, but well-shaped and healthy; immense blue eyes fixed without embarrassment on his own . . .
‘By Jove . . . ’ he said to himself: ‘It’s true! What a jolly little mistress she’d make!’
He blamed Campion, Sandbach and the club gossips for the form the thought had taken. For the cruel, bitter and stupid pressure of the world has yet about it something selective; if it couples male and female in its inexorable rings of talk, it will be because there is something harmonious in the union. And there exists then the pressure of suggestion!
He took a look at Mrs Duchemin and considered her infinitely commonplace and probably a bore. He disliked her large-shouldered, many-yarded style of blue dress and considered that no woman should wear clouded amber, for which the proper function was the provision of cigarette holders for bounders. He looked back at Miss Wannop, and considered that she would make a good wife for Macmaster; Macmaster liked bouncing girls and this girl was quite lady enough.
He heard Miss Wannop shout against the gale to Mrs Duchemin:
‘Do I sit beside the head of the table and pour out?’ Mrs Duchemin answered:
‘No! I’ve asked Miss Fox to pour out. She’s nearly stone deaf.’ Miss Fox was the penniless sister of a curate deceased. ‘You’re to amuse Mr Tietjens.’
Tietjens noticed that Mrs Duchemin had an agreeable turret voice; it penetrated the noises of Mr Horsley as the missel-thrush’s note a gale. It was rather agreeable. He noticed that Miss Wannop made a little grimace.
Mr Horsley, like a megaphone addressing a crowd, was turning from side to side, addressing his hearers by rotation. At the moment he was bawling at Macmaster; it would be Tietjens’ turn again in a moment to hear a description of the heart attacks of old Mrs Haglen at Nobeys. But Tietjens’ turn did not come . . .
A high-complexioned, round-cheeked, forty-fivish lady, with agreeable eyes, dressed rather well in the black of the not-very-lately widowed, entered the room with precipitation. She patted Mr Horsley on his declamatory right arm and, since he went on talking, she caught him by the hand and shook it. She exclaimed in high, commanding tones:
‘Which is Mr Macmaster, the critic?’ and then, in the dead lull to Tietjens: ‘Are you Mr Macmaster, the critic? No! . . . Then you must be.’
Her turning to Macmaster and the extinction of her interest in himself had been one of the rudest things Tietjens had ever experienced, but it was an affair so strictly businesslike that he took it without any offence. She was remarking to Macmaster:
‘Oh, Mr Macmaster, my new book will be out on Thursday week,’ and she had begun to lead him towards a window at the other end of the room.
Miss Wannop said:
‘What have you done with Genie?’
‘Genie Mrs Wannop exclaimed with the surprise of one coming out of a dream. ‘Oh yes! She’s fast asleep. She’ll sleep till four. I told Hannah to give a look at her now and then.’
Miss Wannop’s hands fell open at her side.
‘Oh, mother!’ forced itself from her.
‘Oh, yes,’ Mrs Wannop said, ‘we’d agreed to tell old Hannah we didn’t want her to-day. So we had!’ She said to Macmaster: ‘Old Hannah is our charwoman,’ wavered a little and then went on brightly: ‘Of course it will be of use to you to hear about my new book. To you journalists a little bit of previous explanation . . . ’ and she dragged off Macmaster, who seemed to bleat faintly . . .
That had come about because just as she had got into the dog-cart to be driven to the rectory — for she herself could not drive a horse — Miss Wannop had told her mother that there would be two men at breakfast, one whose name she didn’t know; the other, a Mr Macmaster, a celebrated critic. Mrs Wannop had called up to her:
‘A critic? Of what?’ her whole sleepy being electrified.
‘I don’t know,’ her daughter had answered. ‘Books, I daresay . . . ’
A second or so after, when the horse, a large black animal that wouldn’t stand, had made twenty yards or so at several bounds, the handy man who drove had said:
Yer mother’s ‘owlin’ after yer.’ But Miss Wannop had answered that it didn’t matter. She was confident that she had arranged for everything. She was to be back to get lunch; her mother was to give an occasional look at Genie Wilson in the garret; Hannah, the daily help, was to be told she could go for the day. It was of the highest importance that Hannah should not know that a completely strange young woman was asleep in the garret at eleven in the morning. If she did the news would be all over the neighbourhood at once, and the police instantly down on them.
But Mrs Wannop was a woman of business. If she heard of a reviewer within driving distance she called on him with eggs as a present. The moment the daily help had arrived, she had set out and walked to the rectory. No consideration of danger from the police would have stopped her; besides, she had forgotten all about the police.
Her arrival worried Mrs Duchemin a good deal, because she wished all her guests, to be seated and the breakfast well begun before the entrance of her husband. And this was not easy. Mrs Wannop, who was uninvited, refused to be separated from Mr Macmaster. Mr Macmaster had told her that he never wrote reviews in the daily papers, only articles for the heavy quarterlies, and it had occurred to Mrs Wannop that an article on her new book in one of the quarterlies was just what was needed. She was, therefore, engaged in telling Mr Macmaster how to write about herself, and twice after Mrs Duchemin had succeeded in shepherding Mr Macmaster nearly to his seat, Mrs Wannop had conducted him back to the embrasure of the window. It was only by sitting herself firmly in her chair next to Macmaster that Mrs Duchemin was able to retain for herself this all-essential, strategic position. And it was only by calling out:
‘Mr Horsley, do take Mrs Wannop to the seat beside you and feed her,’ that Mrs Duchemin got Mrs Wannop out of Mr Duchemin’s own seat at the head of the table, for Mrs Wannop, having perceived this seat to be vacant next to Mr Macmaster, had pulled out the Chippendale armchair and had prepared to sit down in it. This could only have spelt disaster, for it would have meant turning Mrs Duchemin’s husband loose amongst the other guests.
Mr Horsley, however, accomplished his duty of leading away this lady with such firmness that Mrs Wannop conceived of him as a very disagreeable and awkward person. Mr. Horsley’s seat was next to Miss Fox, a grey spinster, who sat, as it were, within the fortification of silver urns and deftly occupied herself with the ivory taps of these machines. This seat, too, Mrs Wannop tried to occupy, imagining that, by moving the silver vases that upheld the tall delphiniums, she would be able to get a diagonal view of Macmaster and so to shout to him. She found, however, that she couldn’t, and so resigned herself to taking the chair that had been reserved for Miss Genie Wilson, who was to have been the eighth guest. Once there she sat in distracted gloom, occasionally saying to her daughter:
‘I think it’s very bad management. I think this party’s very badly arranged.’ Mr Horsley she hardly thanked for the sole that he placed before her; Tietjens she did not even look at.
Sitting beside Macmaster, her eyes fixed on a small door in the corner of the panelled wall, Mrs Duchemin became a prey to a sudden and overwhelming fit of apprehension. It forced her to say to her guest, though she had resolved to chance it and say nothing:
‘It wasn’t perhaps fair to ask you to come all this way. You may get nothing out of my husband. He’s apt . . . especially on Saturdays . . . ’
She trailed off into indecision. It was possible that nothing might occur. On two Saturdays out of seven nothing did occur. Then an admission would be wasted; this sympathetic being would go out of her life with a knowledge that he needn’t have had — to be a slur on her memory in his mind . . . But then, overwhelmingly, there came over her the feeling that, if he knew of her sufferings, he might feel impelled to remain and comfort her. She cast about for words with which to finish her sentence. But Macmaster said:
‘Oh, dear lady!’ (And it seemed to her to be charming to be addressed thus!) ‘One understands . . . One is surely trained and adapted to understand . . . that these great scholars, these abstracted cognoscenti . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin breathed a great ‘Ah!’ of relief. Macmaster had used the exactly right words.
‘And,’ Macmaster was going on, ‘merely to spend a short hour; a swallow flight . . . “As when the swallow gliding from lofty portal to lofty portal!” . . . You know the lines . . . in these, your perfect surroundings . . . ’
Blissful waves seemed to pass from him to her. It was in this way that men should speak; in that way — steel-blue tie, true-looking gold ring, steel-blue eyes beneath black brows! — that men should look. She was half-conscious of warmth; this suggested the bliss of falling asleep, truly, in perfect surroundings. The roses on the table were lovely; their scent came to her.
A voice came to her:
‘You do do the thing in style, I must say.’
The large, clumsy but otherwise unnoticeable being that this fascinating man had brought in his train was setting up pretensions to her notice. He had just placed before her a small blue china plate that contained a little black caviare and a round of lemon; a small Sevres, pinkish, delicate plate that held the pinkest peach in the room. She had said to him: ‘Oh . . . a little caviare! A peach!’ a long time before, with the vague underfeeling that the names of such comestibles must convey to her person a charm in the eyes of Caliban.
She buckled about her her armour of charm; Tietjens was gazing with large, fishy eyes at the caviare before her. ‘How do you get that, for instance?’ he asked.
‘Oh!’ she answered: ‘If it wasn’t my husband’s doing it would look like ostentation. I’d find it ostentatious for myself.’ She found a smile, radiant, yet muted. ‘He’s trained Simpkins of New Bond Street. For a telephone message overnight special messengers go to Billingsgate at dawn for salmon, and red mullet, this, in ice, and great blocks of ice too. It’s such pretty stuff . . . and then by seven the car goes to Ashford Junction . . . All the same, it’s difficult to give a breakfast before ten.’
She didn’t want to waste her careful sentences on this grey fellow; she couldn’t, however, turn back, as she yearned to do, to the kindredly running phrases — as if out of books she had read! — of the smaller man.
‘Ah, but it isn’t,’ Tietjens said, ‘ostentation. It’s the great Tradition. You mustn’t ever forget that your husband’s Breakfast Duchemin of Magdalen.’
He seemed to be gazing, inscrutably, deep into her eyes. But no doubt he meant to be agreeable.
‘Sometimes I wish I could,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t get anything out of it himself. He’s ascetic to unreasonableness. On Fridays he eats nothing at all. It makes me quite anxious . . . for Saturdays.’
She exclaimed — and almost with sharpness:
He continued to gaze straight into her eyes:
‘Oh, of course one knows all about Breakfast Duchemin!’ he said. ‘He was one of Ruskin’s road-builders. He was said to be the most Ruskin-like of them all!’
Mrs Duchemin cried out: ‘Oh!’ Fragments of the worst stories that in his worst moods her husband had told her of his old preceptor went through her mind. She imagined that the shameful parts of her intimate life must be known to this nebulous monster. For Tietjens, turned sideways and facing her, had seemed to grow monstrous, and as if with undefined outlines. He was the male, threatening, clumsily odious and external! She felt herself say to herself: ‘I will do you an injury, if ever —’ For already she had felt herself swaying the preferences, the thoughts and the future of the man on her other side. He was the male, tender, in-fitting; the complement of the harmony, the meat for consumption, like the sweet pulp of figs . . . It was inevitable; it was essential to the nature of her relationship with her husband that Mrs Duchemin should have these feelings . . .
She heard, almost without emotion, so great was her disturbance, from behind her back the dreaded, high, rasping tones:
‘Post coitum triste! Ha! Ha! That’s what it is?’ The voice repeated the words and added sardonically: ‘You know what that means?’ But the problem of her husband had become secondary; the real problem was: ‘What was this monstrous and hateful man going to say of her to his friend, when, for long hours, they were away?’
He was still gazing into her eyes. He said nonchalantly, rather low.
‘I wouldn’t look round if I were you. Vincent Macmaster is quite up to dealing with the situation.’
His voice had the familiarity of an elder brother’s . And at once Mrs Duchemin knew — that he knew that already close ties were developing between herself and Macmaster. He was speaking as a man speaks in emergencies to the mistress of his dearest friend. He was then one of those formidable and to be feared males who possess the gift of right intuitions.
Tietjens said: ‘You heard!’
To the gloating, cruel tones that had asked:
‘You know what that means?’ Macmaster had answered clearly, but with the snappy intonation of a reproving Don:
‘Of course I know what it means. It’s no discovery!’ That was exactly the right note. Tietjens — and Mrs Duchemin too — could hear Mr Duchemin, invisible behind his rampart of blue spikes and silver, give the answering snuffle of a reproved schoolboy. A hard-faced, small man, in grey tweed that buttoned, collar-like, tight round his throat, standing behind the invisible chair, gazed straight forward into infinity.
Tietjens said to himself:
‘By God! Parry! the Bermondsey light middle-weight! He’s there to carry Duchemin off if he becomes violent!’
During the quick look that Tietjens took round the table, Mrs Duchemin gave, sinking lower in her chair, a short gasp of utter relief. Whatever Macmaster was going to think of her, he thought now. He knew the worst! It was settled, for good or ill. In a minute she would look round at him.
‘It’s all right, Macmaster will be splendid. We had a friend up at Cambridge with your husband’s tendencies, and Macmaster could get him through any social occasion . . . Besides, we’re all gentlefolk here!’
He had seen the Rev. Mr Horsley and Mrs Wannop both interested in their plates. Of Miss Wannop he was not so certain. He had caught, bent obviously on himself, from large, blue eyes, a glance that was evidently appealing. He said to himself: ‘She must be in the secret. She’s appealing to me not to show emotion and upset the applecart I It is a shame that she should be here: a girl!’ and into his answering glance he threw the message: ‘It’s all right as far as this end of the table is concerned.’
But Mrs Duchemin had felt come into herself a little stiffening of morale. Macmaster by now knew the worst; Duchemin was quoting snufffingly to him the hot licentiousness of the Trimalchio of Petronius; snuffling into Macmaster’s ear. She caught the phrase: Froturianas, puer callide . . . Duchemin, holding her wrist with the painful force of the maniac, had translated it to her over and over again . . . No doubt, that too, this hateful man beside her would have guessed!
She said: ‘Of course we should be all gentlefolk here. One naturally arranges that . . . ’
Tietjens began to say:
‘Ah! But it isn’t easy to arrange nowadays. All sorts of bounders get into all sorts of holies of holies!’
Mrs Duchemin turned her back on him right in the middle of his sentence. She devoured Macmaster’s face with her eyes, in an infinite sense of calm.
Macmaster four minutes before had been the only one to see the entrance, from a small panelled door that had behind it another of green baize, of the Rev. Mr Duchemin, and following him a man whom Macmaster, too, recognized at once as Parry, the ex-prize-fighter. It flashed through his mind at once that this was an extraordinary conjunction. It flashed through his mind, too, that it was extraordinary that anyone so ecstatically handsome as Mrs Duchemin’s husband should not have earned high preferment in a Church always hungry for male beauty. Mr Duchemin was extremely tall, with a slight stoop of the proper clerical type. His face was of alabaster; his grey hair, parted in the middle, fell brilliantly on his high brows; his glance was quick, penetrating, austere; his nose very hooked and chiselled. He was the exact man to adorn a lofty and gorgeous fane, as Mrs Duchemin was the exact woman to consecrate an episcopal drawing-room. With his great wealth, scholarship and tradition . . . ‘Why then,’ went through Macmaster’s mind in a swift pin-prick of suspicion, ‘isn’t he at least a dean?’
Mr Duchemin had walked swiftly to his chair which Parry, as swiftly walking behind him, drew out. His master slipped into it with a graceful, sideways motion. He shook his head at grey Miss Fox who had moved a hand towards an ivory urn-tap. There was a glass of water beside his plate, and round it his long, very white fingers closed. He stole a quick glance at Macmaster, and then looked at him steadily with laughingly glittering eyes. He said: ‘Good morning, doctor,’ and then, drowning Macmaster’s quiet protest: ‘Yes! Yes! The stethoscope meticulously packed into the top-hat and shining hat left in the hall.’
The prize-fighter, in tight box-cloth leggings, tight whipcord breeches, and a short tight jacket that buttoned up at the collar to his chin — the exact stud-groom of a man of property — gave a quick glance of recognition to Macmaster and then to Mr Duchemin’s back another quick look, raising his eyebrows. Macmaster, who knew him very well because he had given Tietjens boxing lessons at Cambridge, could almost hear him say: ‘A queer change this, sir! Keep your eyes on him a second!’ and, with the quick, light tiptoe of the pugilist he slipped away to the sideboard. Macmaster stole a quick glance on his own account at Mrs Duchemin. She had her back to him, being deep in conversation with Tietjens. His heart jumped a little when, looking back again, he saw Mr Duchemin half raised to his feet, peering round the fortifications of silver. But he sank down again in his chair, and surveying Macmaster with an expression of singular cunning on his ascetic features, exclaimed:
‘And your friend? Another medical man? All with stethoscope complete. It takes, of course, two medical men to certify . . . ’
He stopped and with an expression of sudden, distorted rage, pushed aside the arm of Parry, who was sliding a plate of sole fillets on to the table beneath his nose.
‘Take away,’ he was beginning to exclaim thunderously, ‘these inducements to the filthy lusts of . . . ’ But with another cunning and apprehensive look at Macmaster, he said: ‘Yes! yes! Parry! That’s right. Yes! Sole! A touch of kidney to follow. Another! Yes! Grapefruit! With sherry!’ He had adopted an old Oxford voice, spread his napkin over his knees and hastily placed in his mouth a morsel of fish.
Macmaster with a patient and distinct intonation said that he must be permitted to introduce himself. He was Macmaster, Mr Duchemin’s correspondent on the subject of his little monograph. Mr Duchemin looked at him, hard, with an awakened attention that gradually lost suspicion and became gloatingly joyful:
‘Ah, yes, Macmaster!’ he said. ‘Macmaster. A budding critic. A little of a hedonist, perhaps? And yes you wired that you were coming. Two friends! Not medical men! Friends!’
He moved his face closer to Macmaster and said:
‘How tired you look! Worn! Worn!’
Macmaster was about to say that he was rather hard-worked when, in a harsh, high cackle close to his face, there came the Latin words Mrs Duchemin — and Tietjens! — had heard. He knew then what he was up against. He took another look at the prize-fighter; moved his head to one side to catch a momentary view of the gigantic Mr Horsley, whose size took on a new meaning. Then he settled down in his chair and ate a kidney. The physical force present was no doubt enough to suppress Mr Duchemin should he become violent. And trained! It was one of the curious, minor coincidences of life that, at Cambridge, he had once thought of hiring this very Parry to follow round his dear friend Sim. Sim, the most brilliant of sardonic ironists, sane, decent, and ordinarily a little prudish on the surface, had been subject to just such temporary lapses as Mr Duchemin. On society occasions he would stand up and shout or sit down and whisper the most unthinkable indecencies. Macmaster, who had loved him very much, had run round with Sim as often as he could, and had thus gained skill in dealing with these manifestations . . . He felt suddenly a certain pleasure! He thought he might gain prestige in the eyes of Mrs Duchemin if he dealt quietly and efficiently with this situation. It might even lead to an intimacy. He asked nothing better!
He knew that Mrs Duchemin had turned towards him-he could feel her listening and observing him; it was as if her glance was warm on his cheek. But he did not look round; he had to keep his eyes on the gloating face of her husband. Mr Duchemin was quoting Petronius, leaning towards his guest. Macmaster consumed kidneys stiffly.
‘That isn’t the amended version of the iambics. Wilamovitz Möllendorf that we used . . . ’
To interrupt him Mr Duchemin put his thin hand courteously on Macmaster’s arm. It had a great cornelian seal set in red gold on the third finger. He went on, reciting in ecstasy; his head a little on one side as if he were listening to invisible choristers. Macmaster really disliked the Oxford intonation of Latin. He looked for a short moment at Mrs Duchemin; her eyes were upon him; large, shadowy, full of gratitude. He saw, too, that they were welling over with wetness.
He looked quietly back at Duchemin. And suddenly it came to him; she was suffering! She was probably suffering intensely. It had not occurred to him that she would suffer — partly because he was without nerves himself, partly because he had conceived of Mrs Duchemin as firstly feeling admiration for himself. Now it seemed to him abominable that she should suffer.
Mrs Duchemin was in agony. Macmaster had looked at her intently and looked away! She read into his glance contempt for her situation, and anger that he should have been placed in such a position. In her pain she stretched out her hand and touched his arm.
Macmaster was aware of her touch; his mind seemed filled with sweetness. But he kept his head obstinately averted. For her sake he did not dare to look away from the maniacal face. A crisis was coming. Mr Duchemin had arrived at the English translation. He placed his hands on the table-cloth in preparation for rising; he was going to stand on his feet and shout obscenities to the other guests. It was the exact moment.
Macmaster made his voice dry and penetrating to say:
“Youth of tepid loves” is a lamentable rendering of puer callide! It’s lamentably antiquated . . . ’
Duchemin chewed and said:
‘What? What? What’s that?’
‘It’s just like Oxford to use an eighteenth-century crib. I suppose that’s Whiston and Ditton? Something like that . . . ’ He observed Duchemin, brought out of his impulse, to be wavering — as if he were coming awake in a strange place! He added:
‘Anyhow it’s wretched schoolboy smut. Fifth form. Or not even that. Have some galantine. I’m going to. Your sole’s cold.’
Mr Duchemin looked down at his plate.
‘Yes! Yes!’ he muttered. ‘Yes! With sugar and vinegar sauce!’ The prize-fighter slipped away to the sideboard, an admirable, quiet fellow; as unobtrusive as a burying beetle. Macmaster said:
‘You were about to tell me something for my little monograph. What became of Maggie . . . Maggie Simpson. The Scots girl who was model for Alla Finestra del Cielo?’
Mr Duchemin looked at Macmaster with sane, muddled, rather exhausted eyes:
‘Alla Finestra!’ he exclaimed: ‘Oh yes! I’ve got the watercolour. I saw her sitting for it and bought it on the spot . . . ’ He looked again at his place, started at sight of the galantine and began to eat ravenously: ‘A beautiful girl!’ he said. ‘Very long necked . . . She wasn’t of course . . . eh . . . respectable! She’s living yet, I think. Very old. I saw her two years ago. She had a lot of pictures. Relics of course! In the Whitechapel Road she lived. She was naturally of that class . . . ’ He went muttering on, his head over his plate. Macmaster considered that the fit was over. He was irresistibly impelled to turn to Mrs Duchemin; her face was rigid, stiff. He said swiftly:
‘If he’ll eat a little: get his stomach filled . . . It calls the blood down from the head . . . ’
‘Oh, forgive! It’s dreadful for you! Myself I will never forgive!’
‘No! No! . . . Why, it’s what I’m for!’
A deep emotion brought her whole white face to life:
‘Oh, you good man!’ she said in her profound tones, and they remained gazing at each other.
Suddenly, from behind Macmaster’s back Mr Duchemin shouted:
‘I say he made a settlement on her, dum casta et sola, of course. Whilst she remained chaste and alone!’
Mr Duchemin, suddenly feeling the absence of the powerful will that had seemed to overweigh his own like a great force in the darkness, was on his feet, panting and delighted:
‘Chaste!’ he shouted. ‘Chaste you observe What a world of suggestion in the word . . . ’ He surveyed the opulent broadness of his tablecloth; it spread out before his eyes as if it had been a great expanse of meadow in which he could gallop, relaxing his limbs after long captivity. He shouted three obscene words and went on in his Oxford Movement voice: ‘But chastity . . . ’
Mrs Wannop suddenly said:
‘Oh!’ and looked at her daughter, whose face grew slowly crimson as she continued to peel a peach. Mrs Wannop turned to Mr Horsley beside her and said:
‘You write, too, I believe, Mr Horsley. No doubt something more learned than my poor readers would care for . . . Mr Horsley had been preparing, according to his instructions from Mrs Duchemin, to shout a description of an article he had been writing about the Mosella of Ausonius, but as he was slow in starting the lady got in first. She talked on serenely about the tastes of the large public. Tietjens leaned across to Miss Wannop and, holding in his right hand a half-peeled fig, said to her as loudly as he could:
‘I’ve got a message for you from Mr Waterhouse. He says if you’ll . . . ’
The completely deaf Miss Fox — who had had her training by writing — remarked diagonally to Mrs Duchemin:
‘I think we shall have thunder to-day. Have you remarked the number of minute insects . . . ’
‘When my revered preceptor,’ Mr Duchemin thundered on, ‘drove away in the carriage on his wedding day he said to his bride: “We will live like blessed angels!” How sublime! I, too, after my nuptials . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin suddenly screamed:
‘Oh . . . no!’
As if checked for a moment in their stride all the others paused — for a breath. Then they continued talking with polite animation and listening with minute attention. To Tietjens that seemed the highest achievement and justification of English manners!
Parry, the prize-fighter, had twice caught his master by the arm and shouted that breakfast was getting cold. He said now to Macmaster that he and the Rev. Mr Horsley could get Mr Duchemin away, but there’d be a hell of a fight. Macmaster whispered: ‘Wait!’ and, turning to Mrs Duchemin he said: ‘I can stop him. Shall I?’ She said:
‘Yes! Yes! Anything!’ He observed tears; isolated upon her cheeks, a thing he had never seen. With caution and with hot rage he whispered into the prize-fighter’s hairy ear that was held down to him:
‘Punch him in the kidney. With your thumb. As hard as you can without breaking your thumb . . . ’
Mr Duchemin had just declaimed:
‘I, too, after my nuptials . . . ’ He began to wave his arms, pausing and looking from unlistening face to unlistening face. Mrs Duchemin had just screamed.
Mr Duchemin thought that the arrow of God struck him. He imagined himself an unworthy messenger. In such pain as he had never conceived of he fell into his chair and sat huddled up, a darkness covering his eyes.
‘He won’t get up again,’ Macmaster whispered to the appreciative pugilist. ‘He’ll want to. But he’ll be afraid to.’ He said to Mrs Duchemin:
‘Dearest lady! It’s all over. I assure you of that. It’s a scientific nerve counter-irritant.’
Mrs Duchemin said:
‘Forgive!’ with one deep sob: ‘You can never respect . . .
She felt her eyes explore his face as the wretch in a cell explores the face of his executioner for a sign of pardon. Her heart stayed still: her breath suspended itself . . .
Then complete heaven began. Upon her left palm she felt cool fingers beneath the cloth. This man knew always the exact right action! Upon the fingers, cool, like spikenard and ambrosia, her fingers closed themselves.
In complete bliss, in a quiet room, his voice went on talking. At first with great neatness of phrase, but with what refinement! He explained that certain excesses being merely nervous cravings, can be combated if not, indeed, cured altogether, by the fear of, by the determination not to endure, sharp physical pain — which of course is a nervous matter, too! . . .
Parry, at a given moment, had said into his master’s ear:
‘It’s time you prepared for your sermon to-morrow, sir,’ and Mr Duchemin had gone as quietly as he had arrived, gliding over the thick carpet to the small door.
Then Macmaster said to her:
‘You come from Edinburgh? You’ll know the Fifeshire coast then.’
‘Do I not?’ she said. His hand remained in hers. He began to talk of the whins on the links and the sanderlings along the flats, with such a Scots voice and in phrases so vivid that she saw her childhood again, and had in her eyes a wetness of a happier order. She released his cool hand after a long, gentle pressure. But when it was gone it was as if much of her life went. She said: ‘You’ll be knowing Kingussie House, just outside your town. It was there I spent my holidays as a child.’
‘Maybe I played round it a barefoot lad and you in your grandeur within.’
‘Oh, no! Hardly! There would be the difference of our ages! And . . . and indeed there are other things I will tell you.’
She addressed herself to Tietjens, with all her heroic armour of charm buckled on again:
‘Only think! I find Mr Macmaster and I almost played together in our youth.’
He looked at her, she knew, with a commiseration that she hated:
‘Then you’re an older friend than I,’ he said, ‘though I’ve known him since I was fourteen, and I don’t believe you could be a better. He’s a good fellow . . .
She hated him for his condescension towards a better man and for his warning — she knew it was a warning — to her to spare his friend.
Mrs Wannop gave a distinct but not an alarming scream. Mr Horsley had been talking to her about an unusual fish that used to inhabit the Moselle in Roman times. The Mosella of Ausonius; the subject of the essay he was writing is mostly fish . . .
‘No,’ he shouted, ‘it’s been said to be the roach. But there are no roach in the river now. Vannulis viridis, oculisque. No. It’s the other way round: Red fins . . . ’
Mrs Wannop’s scream and her wide gesture: her hand, indeed, was nearly over his mouth and her trailing sleeve across his plate! — were enough to interrupt him.
‘Tietjens!‘ she again screamed. ‘Is it possible? . . . ’
She pushed her daughter out of her seat and, moving round beside the young man, she overwhelmed him with vociferous love. As Tietjens had turned to speak to Mrs Duchemin she had recognized his aquiline half-profile as exactly that of his father at her own wedding breakfast. To the table that knew it by heart — though Tietjens himself didn’t! — she recited the story of how his father had saved her life, and was her mascot. And she offered the son — for to the father she had never been allowed to make any return — her horse, her purse, her heart, her time, her all. She was so completely sincere that, as the party broke up, she just nodded to Macmaster and, catching Tietjens forcibly by the arm, said perfunctorily to the critic:
‘Sorry I can’t help you any more with the article, but my dear Chrissie must have the books he wants. At once! This very minute!’
She moved off, Tietjens grappled to her, her daughter following as a young swan follows its parents. In her gracious manner Mrs Duchemin had received the thanks of her guests for her wonderful breakfast and had hoped that now that they had found their ways there . . .
The echoes of the dispersed festival seemed to whisper in the room. Macmaster and Mrs Duchemin faced each other, their eyes wary — and longing.
‘It’s dreadful to have to go now. But I have an engagement.’
‘Yes! I know! With your great friends.’
‘Oh, only with Mr Waterhouse and General Campion . . . and Mr Sandbach, of course . . . ’
She had a moment of fierce pleasure at the thought that Tietjens was not to be of the company: her man would be outsoaring the vulgarian of his youth, of his past that she didn’t know . . . Almost harshly she exclaimed:
‘I don’t want you to be mistaken about Kingussie House. It was just a holiday school. Not a grand place.’
‘It was very costly,’ he said, and she seemed to waver on her feet.
‘Yes! yes!’ she said, nearly in a whisper. ‘But you’re so grand now! I was only the child of very poor bodies. Johnston of Midlothian. But very poor bodies . . . I . . . He bought me, you might say. You know . . . Put me to very rich schools; when I was fourteen . . . my people were glad . . . But I think if my mother had known when I married . . . ’ She writhed her whole body. ‘Oh, dreadful! dreadful!’ she exclaimed. ‘I want you to know . . .
His hands were shaking as if he had been in a jolting cart . . .
Their lips met in a passion of pity and tears. He removed his mouth to say: ‘I must see you this evening . . . I shall be mad with anxiety about you.’ She whispered: ‘Yes! yes! In the yew walk.’ Her eyes were closed, she pressed her body fiercely into his. ‘You are the . . . first . . . man . . . ’ she breathed.
‘I will be the only one for ever,’ he said.
He began to see himself; in the tall room, with the long curtains: a round, eagle mirror reflected them gleaming: like a bejewelled picture with great depths: the entwined figures.
They drew apart to gaze at each other: holding hands . . . The voice of Tietjens said:
‘Macmaster! You’re to dine at Mrs Wannop’s to-night. Don’t dress; I shan’t.’ He was looking at them without any expression, as if he had interrupted a game of cards; large, grey, fresh-featured, the white patch glistening on the side of his grizzling hair.
‘All right. It’s near here, isn’t it? . . . I’ve got an engagement just after . . . ’ Tietjens said that that would be all right: he would be working himself. All night probably. For Waterhouse . . .
Mrs Duchemin said with swift jealousy:
‘You let him order you about . . . Tietjens was gone. Macmaster said absently:
‘Who? Chrissie! . . . Yes! Sometimes I him, sometimes he me . . . We make engagements. My best friend. The most brilliant man in England, of the best stock too. Tietjens of Groby . . . ’ Feeling that she didn’t appreciate his friend he was abstractedly piling on commendations: ‘He’s making calculations now. For the Government that no other man in England could make. But he’s going . . . ’
An extreme languor had settled on him, he felt weakened but yet triumphant with the cessation of her grasp. It occurred to him numbly that he would be seeing less of Tietjens. A grief. He heard himself quote:
“Since when we stand side by side!"’ His voice trembled.
‘Ah yes!’ came in her deep tones: The beautiful lines . . . They’re true. We must part. In this world . . . ’ They seemed to her lovely and mournful words to say; heavenly to have them to say, vibratingly, arousing all sorts of images. Macmaster, mournfully too, said:
‘We must wait.’ He added fiercely: ‘But to-night, at dusk!’ He imagined the dusk, under the yew hedge. A shining motor drew up in the sunlight under the window.
‘Yes! yes!’ she said. ‘There’s a little white gate from the lane.’ She imagined their interview of passion and mournfulness amongst dim objects half seen. That she could allow herself of glamour.
Afterwards he must come to the house to ask after her health and they would walk side by side on the lawn, publicly, in the warm light, talking of indifferent but beautiful poetries, a little wearily, but with what currents electrifying and passing between their flesh . . . And then: long, circumspect years . . .
Macmaster went down the tall steps to the car that gleamed in the summer sun. The roses shone over the supremely levelled turf. His heel met the stones with the hard tread of a conqueror. He could have shouted aloud!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08