Tietjens lit a pipe beside the stile, having first meticulously cleaned out the bowl and the stem with a surgical needle, in his experience the best of all pipe-cleaners, since, made of German silver, it is flexible, won’t corrode and is indestructible. He wiped off methodically, with a great dock-leaf, the glutinous brown products of burnt tobacco, the young woman, as he was aware, watching him from behind his back. As soon as he had restored the surgical needle to the notebook in which it lived, and had put the notebook into its bulky pocket, Miss Wannop moved off down the path: it was only suited for Indian file, and had on the left hand a ten-foot, untrimmed quicken hedge, the hawthorn blossoms just beginning to blacken at the edges and small green haws to show. On the right the grass was above knee high and bowed to those that passed. The sun was exactly vertical; the chaffinches said ‘Pink! Pink!’; the young woman had an agreeable back.
This, Tietjens thought, is England! A man and a maid walk through Kentish grass-fields: the grass ripe for the scythe. The man honourable, clean, upright; the maid virtuous, clean, vigorous: he of good birth; she of birth quite as good; each filled with a too good breakfast that each could yet capably digest. Each come just from an admirably appointed establishment: a table surrounded by the best people: their promenade sanctioned, as it were by the Church — two clergy — the State: two Government officials; by mothers, friends, old maids . . . Each knew the names of birds that piped and grasses that bowed: chaffinch, greenfinch, yellow-ammer (not, my dear, hammer! amonrer from the Middle High German for ‘finch’), garden warbler, Dartford warbler, pied-wagtail, known as ‘dishwasher.’ (These charming local dialect names.) Marguerites over the grass, stretching in an infinite white blaze: grasses purple in a haze to the far distant hedgerow: coltsfoot, wild white clover, sainfoin, Italian rye grass (all technical names that the best people must know: the best grass mixture for permanent pasture on the Wealden loam). In the hedge: our lady’s bedstraw: dead-nettle: bachelor’s button (but in Sussex they call it ragged robin, my dear): so interesting! Cowslip (paigle, you know from the old French pasque, meaning Easter); burr, burdock (farmer that thy wife may thrive, but not burr and burdock wive!); violet leaves, the flowers of course over; black bryony; wild clematis, later it’s old man’s beard; purple loose-strife. (That our young maid’s long purples call and literal shepherds give a grosser name. So racy of the soil!) . . . Walk, then, through the field, gallant youth and fair maid, minds cluttered up with all these useless anodynes for thought, quotation, imbecile epithets! Dead silent: unable to talk: from too good breakfast to probably extremely bad lunch. The young woman, so the young man is duly warned, to prepare it: pink india-rubber, half-cooked cold beef, no doubt: tepid potatoes, water in the bottom of willow-pattern dish. (No! Not genuine willow-pattern, of course, Mr Tietjens.) Overgrown lettuce with wood-vinegar to make the mouth scream with pain; pickles, also preserved in wood-vinegar; two bottles of public-house beer that, on opening, squirts to the wall. A glass of invalid port . . . for the gentleman! . . . and the jaws hardly able to open after the too enormous breakfast at 10.15. Midday now!
‘God’s England!’ Tietjens exclaimed to himself in high good humour. ‘Land of Hope and Glory! — F natural descending to tonic C major: chord of 6-4, suspension over dominant seventh to common chord of C major . . . All absolutely correct! Double basses, cellos, all violins: all wood wind: all brass. Full grand organ: all stops: special vox humana and key-bugle effect . . . Across the counties came the sound of bugles that his father knew . . . Pipe exactly right. It must be: pipe of Englishman of good birth: ditto tobacco. Attractive young woman’s back. English midday mid-summer. Best climate in the world! No day on which man may not go abroad!’ Tietjens paused and aimed with his hazel stick an immense blow at a tall spike of yellow mullein with its undecided, furry, glaucous leaves and its undecided, buttony, unripe lemon-coloured flowers. The structure collapsed, gracefully, like a woman killed among crinolines!
‘Now I’m a bloody murderer!’ Tietjens said. ‘Not gory! Green-stained with vital fluid of innocent plant . . . And by God! Not a woman in the country who won’t let you rape her after an hour’s acquaintance!’ He slew two more mulleins and a sow-thistle! A shadow, but not from the sun, a gloom, lay across the sixty acres of purple grass bloom and marguerites, white: like petticoats of lace over the grass!
‘By God,’ he said, ‘Church! State! Army! H.M. Ministry: H.M. Opposition: H.M. City Man . . . All the governing class! All rotten! Thank God we’ve got a navy! . . . But perhaps that’s rotten too! Who knows! Britannia needs no bulwarks . . . Then thank God for the upright young man and the virtuous maiden in the summer fields: he Tory of the Tories as he should be: she suffragette of the militants: militant here on earth . . . as she should be! As she should be! In the early decades of the twentieth century however else can a woman keep clean and wholesome! Ranting from platforms, splendid for the lungs: bashing in policemen’s helmets . . . No! It’s I do that: my part, I think, miss! . . . Carrying heavy banners in twenty-mile processions through streets of Sodom. All splendid! I bet she’s virtuous. But you can tell it in the eye. Nice eyes! Attractive back. Virginal cockiness . . . Yes, better occupation for mothers or empire than attending on lewd husbands year in year out till you’re as hysterical as a female cat on heat . . . You could see it in her: that woman: you can see it in most of ’em! Thank God then for the Tory, upright young married man and the suffragette kid . . . Backbone of England! . . . ’
He killed another flower.
‘But by God! we’re both under a cloud! Both! . . . That kid and I! And General Lord Edward Campion, Lady Claudine Sandbach, and the Hon. Paul, M.P. (suspended) to spread the tale . . . And forty toothless fogies in the club to spread it: and no end visiting books yawning to have your names cut out of them, my boy! . . . My dear boy: I so regret: your father’s oldest friend . . . By Jove, the pistachio nut of that galantine! Repeating! Breakfast gone wrong: gloomy reflections! Thought I could stand anything: digestion of an ostrich . . . But no! Gloomy reflections: I’m hysterical: like that large-eyed whore! For same reason! Wrong diet and wrong life: diet meant for partridge shooters over the turnips consumed by the sedentary. England the land of pills . . . Das Pillen-Land, the Germans call us. Very properly . . . And, damn it: outdoor diet: boiled mutton, turnips: sedentary life . . . and forced up against the filthiness of the world: your nose in it all day long! . . . Why, hang it, I’m as badly off as she. Sylvia’s as bad as Duchemin! . . . I’d never have thought that . . . No wonder meat’s turned to prussic acid . . . prime cause of neurasthenia . . . What a beastly muddle! Poor Macmaster! He’s finished. Poor devil: he’d better have ogled this kid. He could have sung: “Highland Mary” a better tune than “This is the end of every man’s desire” . . . You can cut it on his tombstone, you can write it on his card that a young man tacked on to a paulo-post Pre-Raphaelite prostitute . . . ’
He stopped suddenly in his walk. It had occurred to him that he ought not to be walking with this girl!
‘But damn it all,’ he said to himself, ‘she makes a good screen for Sylvia . . . who cares! She must chance it. She’s probably struck off all their beastly visiting lists already . . . as a suffragette!’
Miss Wannop, a cricket pitch or so ahead of him, hopped over a stile: left foot on the step, right on the top bar, a touch of the left on the other steps, and down on the white, drifted dust of a road they no doubt had to cross. She stood waiting, her back still to him . . . Her nimble footwork, her attractive back, seemed to him, now, infinitely pathetic. To let scandal attach to her was like cutting the wings of a goldfinch: the bright creature, yellow, white, golden and delicate, that in the sunlight makes a haze with its wings beside thistle-tops. No; damn it! it was worse; it was worse than putting out, as the bird-fancier does, the eyes of a chaffinch . . . Infinitely pathetic!
Above the stile, in an elm, a chaffinch said: ‘Pink! pink!’ The imbecile sound filled him with rage; he said to the bird:
‘Damn your eyes! Have them put out, then!’ The beastly bird that made the odious noise, when it had its eyes put out, at least squealed like any other skylark or tom-tit. Damn all birds, field naturalists, botanists! In the same way he addressed the back of Miss Wannop: ‘Damn your eyes! Have your chastity impugned then! What do you speak to strange men in public for? You know you can’t do it in this country. If it were a decent, straight land like Ireland where people cut each other’s throats for clean issues: Papist versus Prot . . . well, you could! You could walk through Ireland from east to west and speak to every man you met . . . “Rich and rare were the gems she wore . . . ” To every man you met as long as he wasn’t an Englishman of good birth: that would deflower you!’ He was scrambling clumsily over the stile. ‘Well! be deflowered then: lose your infantile reputation. You’ve spoken to strange pitch: you’re defiled . . . with the benefit of Clergy, Army, Cabinet, Administration, Opposition, mothers and old maids of England . . . They’d all tell you you can’t talk to a strange man, in the sunlight, on the links, without becoming a screen for some Sylvia or other . . . Then be a screen for Sylvia: get struck off the visiting books! The deeper you’re implicated, the more bloody villain I am! I’d like the whole lot to see us here: that would settle it . . . ’
Nevertheless, when at the roadside he stood level with Miss Wannop who did not look at him, and saw the white road running to right and left with no stile opposite, he said gruffly to her:
‘Where’s the next stile? I hate walking on roads!’ She pointed with her chin along the opposite hedgerow. ‘Fifty yards I’ she said.
‘Come along!’ he exclaimed, and set off at a trot almost. It had come into his head that it would be just the beastly sort of thing that would happen if a car with General Campion and Lady Claudine and Paul Sandbach all aboard should come along that blinding stretch of road: or one alone: perhaps the General driving the dog-cart he affected. He said to himself:
‘By God! If they cut this girl I’d break their backs over my knee!’ and he hastened. ‘Just the beastly thing that would happen.’ The road probably led straight in at the front door of Mountby!
Miss Wannop trotted along a little in his rear. She thought him the most extraordinary man: as mad as he was odious. Sane people, if they’re going to hurry — but why hurry! — do it in the shade of field hedgerows, not in the white blaze of county council roads. Well, he could go ahead. In the next field she was going to have it out with him: she didn’t intend to be hot with running: let him be, his hateful, but certainly noticeable eyes, protruding at her like a lobster’s; but she was cool and denunciatory in her pretty blouse . . .
There was a dog-cart coming behind them!
Suddenly it came into her head: that fool had been lying when he had said that the ‘police meant to let them alone: lying over the breakfast-table . . . The dog-cart contained the police: after them! She didn’t waste time looking round: she wasn’t a fool like Atalanta in the egg-race. She picked up her heels and sprinted. She beat him by a yard and a half to the kissing-gate, white in the hedge: panicked, breathing hard. He panted into it, after her: the fool hadn’t the sense to let her through first. They were jammed in together: face to face, panting! An occasion on which sweethearts kiss in Kent: the gate being made in three, the inner flange of the V moving on hinges. It stops cattle getting through: but this great lout of a Yorkshire-man didn’t know: trying to push through like a mad bullock! Now they were caught. Three weeks in Wandsworth gaol . . . Oh hang . . .
The voice of Mrs Wannop — of course it was only mother! Twenty feet on high or so behind the kicking mare, with a good round face like a peony — said:
‘Ah, you can jam my Val in a gate and hold her . . . but she gave you seven yards in twenty and beat you to the gate. That was her father’s ambition!’ She thought of them as children running races. She beamed down, round-faced and simple, on Tietjens from beside the driver, who had a black, slouch hat and the grey beard of St Peter.
‘My dear boy!’ she said, ‘my dear boy; it’s such a satisfaction to have you under my roof!’
The black horse reared on end, the patriarch sawing at its mouth. Mrs Wannop said unconcernedly: ‘Stephen Joel! I haven’t done talking.’
Tietjensns was gazing enragedly at the lower part of the horse’s sweat-smeared stomach.
‘You soon will have,’ he said, ‘with the girth in that state. Your neck will be broken.’
‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ Mrs Wannop said. ‘Joel only bought the turn-out yesterday.’
Tietjens addressed the driver with some ferocity:
‘Here, get down, you,’ he said. He held, himself, the head of the horse whose nostrils were wide with emotion: it rubbed its forehead almost immediately against his chest. He said: ‘Yes! yes! There! there!’ Its limbs lost their tautness. The aged driver scrambled down from the high seat, trying to come down at first forward and then backwards. Tietjens fired indignant orders at him:
‘Lead the horse into the shade of that tree. Don’t touch her bit: her mouth’s sore. Where did you get this job lot? Ashford market: thirty pounds: it’s worth more . . . But, blast you, don’t you see you’ve got a thirteen hands pony’s harness for a sixteen and a half hands horse. Let the bit out: three holes: it’s cutting the animal’s tongue in half . . . This animal’s a rig. Do you know what a rig is? If you give it corn for a fortnight it will kick you and the cart and the stable to pieces in five minutes one day.’ He led the conveyance, Mrs Wannop triumphantly complacent and all, into a patch of shade beneath elms.
‘Loosen that bit, confound you,’ he said to the driver. ‘Ah! you’re afraid.’
He loosened the bit himself, covering his fingers with greasy harness polish which he hated. Then he said:
‘Can you hold her head or are you afraid of that too? You deserve to have her bite your hands off.’ He addressed Miss Wannop: ‘Can you?’ She said: No! I’m afraid of horses. I can drive any sort of car: but I’m afraid of horses.’ He said: ‘Very proper!’ He stood back and looked at the horse: it had dropped its head and lifted its near hind foot, resting the toe on the ground: an attitude of relaxation.
‘She’ll stand now!’ he said. He undid the girth, bending down uncomfortably, perspiring and greasy: the girth-strap parted in his hand.
‘It’s true,’ Mrs Wannop said. ‘I’d have been dead in three minutes if you hadn’t seen that. The cart would have gone over backwards . . . ’
Tietjens took out a large, complicated, horn-handled knife like a schoolboy’s . He selected a punch and pulled it open. He said to the driver:
‘Have you got any cobbler’s thread? Any string? Any copper wire? A rabbit wire, now? Come, you’ve got a rabbit wire or you’re not a handy-man.’
The driver moved his slouch hat circularly in negation. This seemed to be Quality who summons you for poaching if you own to possessing rabbit wires.
Tietjens laid the girth along the shaft and punched into it with his punch.
‘Woman’s work!’ he said to Mrs Wannop, ‘but it’ll take you home and last you six months as well . . . But I’ll sell this whole lot for you to-morrow.’
Mrs Wannop sighed:
‘I suppose it’ll fetch a ten-pound note . . . ’ She said: ‘I ought to have gone to market myself.’
No!’ Tietjens answered: ‘I’ll get you fifty for it or I’m no Yorkshireman. This fellow hasn’t been swindling you. He’s got you deuced good value for money, but he doesn’t know what’s suited for ladies; a white pony and a basketwork chaise is what you want.’
‘Oh, I like a bit of spirit,’ Mrs Wannop said.
‘Of course you do,’ Tietjens answered: ‘but this turnout’s too much.’
He sighed a little and took out his surgical needle.
‘I’m going to hold this band together with this,’ he said. ‘It’s so pliant it will make two stitches and hold for ever . . .
But the handy-man was beside him, holding out the contents of his pockets; a greasy leather pouch, a ball of beeswax, a knife, a pipe, a bit of cheese and a pale rabbit wire. He had made up his mind that this Quality was benevolent and he made offering of all his possessions.
Tietjens said: ‘Ah,’ and then, while he unknotted the wire:
‘Well! Listen . . . you bought this turn-out off a higgler at the back door of the Leg of Mutton Inn.’
‘Saracen’s ‘Ed!’ the driver muttered.
‘You got it for thirty pounds because the higgler wanted money bad. I know. And dirt cheap . . . But a rig isn’t everybody’s driving. All right for a vet or a horse-coper. Like the cart that’s too tall! . . . But you did damn well. Only you’re not what you were, are you, at thirty? And the horse looked to be a devil and the cart so high you couldn’t get out once you were in. And you kept it in the sun for two hours waiting for your mistress.’
‘There wer’ a bit o’ lewth ‘longside stable wall,’ the driver muttered.
‘Well! She didn’t like waiting,’ Tietjens said placably. ‘You can be thankful your old neck’s not broken. Do this band up, one hole less for the bit I’ve taken in.’
He prepared to climb into the driver’s seat, but Mrs Wannop was there before him, at an improbable altitude on the sloping watch-box with strapped cushions.
‘Oh, no, you don’t,’ she said, ‘no one drives me and my horse but me or my coachman when I’m about. Not even you, dear boy.’
‘I’ll come with you then,’ Tietjens said.
‘Oh, no, you don’t,’ she answered. ‘No one’s neck to be broken in this conveyance but mine and Joel’s,’ she added: ‘perhaps to-night if I’m satisfied the horse is fit to drive.’
Miss Wannop suddenly exclaimed:
‘Oh, no, mother.’ But the handy-man having climbed in, Mrs Wannop flirted her whip and started the horse. She pulled up at once and leaned over to Tietjens:
‘What a life for that poor woman,’ she said. ‘We must all do all we can for her. She could have her husband put in a lunatic asylum to-morrow. It’s sheer self-sacrifice that she doesn’t.’
The horse went off at a gentle, regular trot.
Tietjens addressed Miss Wannop:
‘What hands your mother’s got,’ he said, ‘it isn’t often one sees a woman with hands like that on a horse’s mouth, . . . Did you see how she pulled up? . . . ’
He was aware that, all this while, from the road-side, the girl had been watching him with shining eyes: intently even: with fascination.
‘I suppose you think that a mighty fine performance.’ she said.
‘I didn’t make a very good job of the girth,’ he said. ‘Let’s get off this road.’
‘Setting poor, weak women in their places,’ Miss Wannop continued. ‘Soothing the horse like a man with a charm. I suppose you soothe women like that, too. I pity your wife . . . The English country male! And making a devoted vassal at sight of the handy-man. The feudal system all complete . . .
‘Well, you know, it’ll make him all the better servant to you if he thinks you’ve friends in the know. The lower classes are like that. Let’s get off this road.’
‘You’re in a mighty hurry to get behind the hedge. Are the police after us or aren’t they? Perhaps you were lying at breakfast: to calm the hysterical nerves of a weak woman.’
‘I wasn’t lying,’ he said, ‘but I hate roads when there are field-paths . . . ’
‘That’s a phobia, like any woman’s,’ she exclaimed. She almost ran through the kissing-gate and stood awaiting him.
‘I suppose,’ she said, ‘if you’ve stopped off the police with your high and mighty male ways you think you’ve destroyed my romantic young dream. You haven’t. I don’t want the police after me. I believe I’d die if they put me in Wandsworth . . . I’m a coward.’
‘Oh, no, you aren’t,’ he said, but he was following his own train of thought, just as she wasn’t in the least listening to him. ‘I daresay you’re a heroine all right. Not because you persevere in actions the consequences of which you fear. But I daresay you can touch pitch and not be defiled.’
Being too well brought up to interrupt she waited till he had said all he wanted to say, then she exclaimed:
‘Let’s settle the preliminaries. It’s obvious mother means us to see a great deal of you. You’re going to be a mascot, too, like your father. I suppose you think you are: you saved me from the police yesterday, you appear to have saved mother’s neck to-day. You appear, too, to be going to make twenty pounds profit on a horse deal. You say you will and you seem to be that sort of a person . . . Twenty pounds is no end in a family like ours . . . Well, then, you appear to be going to be the regular bel ami of the Wannop family . . . ’
‘I hope not.’
‘Oh, I don’t mean,’ she said, ‘that you’re going to rise to fame by making love to all the women of the Wannop family. Besides, there’s only me. But mother will press you into all sorts of odd jobs: and there will always be a plate for you at the table. Don’t shudder! I’m a regular good cook —cuisine bourgeoise of course. I learned under a real professed cook, though a drunkard. That meant I used to do half the cooking and the family was particular. Ealing people are: county councillors, half of them, and the like. So I know what men are . . . ’ She stopped and said good-naturedly: ‘But do, for goodness’ sake, get it over. I’m sorry I was rude to you. But it is irritating to have to stand like a stuffed rabbit while a man is acting like a regular Admiral Crichton, and cool and collected, with the English country gentleman air and all.’
Tietjens winced. The young woman had come a little too near the knuckle of his wife’s frequent denunciations of himself. And she exclaimed:
‘No! That’s not fair! I’m an ungrateful pig! You didn’t show a bit more side really than a capable workman must who’s doing his job in the midst of a crowd of incapable duffers. But just get it out, will you? Say once and for all that — you know the proper, pompous manner: you are not without sympathy with our aims: but you disapprove — oh, immensely, strongly — of our methods.’
It struck Tietjens that the young woman was a good deal more interested in the cause — of votes for women — than he had given her credit for. He wasn’t much in the mood for talking to young women, but it was with considerably more than the surface of his mind that he answered:
‘I don’t. I approve entirely of your methods: but your aims are idiotic.’
‘You don’t know, I suppose, that Gertie Wilson, who’s in bed at our house, is wanted by the police: not only for yesterday, but for putting explosives in a whole series of letter-boxes?’
‘I didn’t . . . but it was a perfectly proper thing to do. She hasn’t burned any of my letters or I might be annoyed; but it wouldn’t interfere with my approval.’
‘You don’t think,’ she asked earnestly, ‘that we . . . mother and I . . . are likely to get heavy sentences for shielding her? It would be beastly bad luck on mother. Because she’s an anti . . . ’
‘I don’t know about the sentence,’ Tietjens said, ‘but we’d better get her off your premises as soon as we can . . . ’
‘Oh, you’ll help?’
‘Of course, your mother can’t be incommoded. She’s written the only novel that’s been fit to read since the eighteenth century.’
She stopped and said earnestly:
‘Look here. Don’t be one of those ignoble triflers who say the vote won’t do women any good. Women have a rotten time. They do, really. If you’d seen what I’ve seen, I’m not talking through my hat.’ Her voice became quite deep: she had tears in her eyes: ’Poor women do!‘ she said, ‘little insignificant creatures. We’ve got to change the divorce laws. We’ve got to get better conditions. You couldn’t stand it if you knew what I know.’
Her emotion vexed him, for it seemed to establish a sort of fraternal intimacy that he didn’t at the moment want. Women do not show emotion except before their families. He said drily:
‘I daresay I shouldn’t. But I don’t know, so I can!’ She said with deep disappointment:
‘Oh, you are a beast! And I shall never beg your pardon for saying that. I don’t believe you mean what you say, but merely to say it is heartless.’
This was another of the counts of Sylvia’s indictment and Tietjens winced again. She explained:
‘You don’t know the case of the Pimlico army clothing factory workers or you wouldn’t say the vote would be no use to women.’
‘I know the case perfectly well,’ Tietjens said: ‘It came under my official notice, and I remember thinking that there never was a more signal instance of the uselessness of the vote to anyone.’
‘We can’t be thinking of the same case,’ she said.
‘We are,’ he answered. ‘The Pimlico army clothing factory is in the constituency of Westminster; the Under-Secretary for War is member for Westminster; his majority at the last election was six hundred. The clothing factory employed seven hundred men at 1s. 6d. an hour, all these men having votes in Westminster. The seven hundred men wrote to the Under-Secretary to say that if their screw wasn’t raised to two bob they’d vote solid against him at the next election . . . ’
Miss Wannop said: ‘Well then!’
‘So,’ Tietjens said: ‘The Under-Secretary had the seven hundred men at eighteenpence fired and took on seven hundred women at tenpence. What good did the vote do the seven hundred men? What good did a vote ever do anyone?’
Miss Wannop checked at that and Tietjens prevented her exposure of his fallacy by saying quickly:
‘Now, if the seven hundred women, backed by all the other ill-used, sweated women of the country, had threatened the Under-Secretary, burned the pillar-boxes, and cut up all the golf greens round his country house, they’d have had their wages raised to half a crown next week. That’s the only straight method. It’s the feudal system at work.’
‘Oh, but we couldn’t cut up golf greens,’ Miss Wannop said. ‘At least the W.S.P.U. debated it the other day, and decided that anything so unsporting would make us too unpopular. I was for it personally.’
‘It’s maddening,’ he said, ‘to find women, as soon as they get in Council, as muddleheaded and as afraid to face straight issues as men! . . . ’
‘You won’t, by-the-by,’ the girl interrupted, ‘be able to sell our horse to-morrow. You’ve forgotten that it will be Sunday.’
‘I shall have to on Monday, then,’ Tietjens said. ‘The point about the feudal system . . . ’
Just after lunch — and it was an admirable lunch of the cold lamb, new potatoes and mint-sauce variety, the mint-sauce made with white wine vinegar and as soft as kisses, the claret perfectly drinkable and the port much more than that, Mrs Wannop having gone back to the late professor’s wine merchants — Miss Wannop herself went to answer the telephone . . .
The cottage had no doubt been a cheap one, for it was old, roomy and comfortable; but effort had no doubt, too, been lavished on its low rooms. The dining-room had windows on each side and a beam across; the dining silver had been picked up at sales, the tumblers were old cut glass; on each side of the ingle was a grandfather’s chair. The garden had red brick paths, sunflowers, hollyhocks and scarlet gladioli. There was nothing to it all, but the garden-gate was well hung.
To Tietjens all this meant effort. Here was a woman who, a few years ago, was penniless, in the most miserable-off circumstances, supporting life with the most exiguous of all implements. What effort hadn’t it meant! and what effort didn’t it mean? There was a boy at Eton . . . a senseless, but a gallant effort.
Mrs Wannop sat opposite him in the other grandfather’s chair; an admirable hostess, an admirable lady. Full of spirit in dashes; but tired. As an old horse is tired that, taking three men to harness it in the stable yard, starts out like a stallion, but soon drops to a jog-trot. The face tired, really; scarlet-cheeked with the good air, but seamed downward. She could sit there at ease, the plump hands covered with a black lace shawl, and descending on each side of her lap, as much at ease as any other Victorian great lady. But at lunch she had let drop that she had written for eight hours every day for the last four years — till that day — without missing a day. To-day being Saturday, she had no leader to write:
‘And, my darling boy,’ she had said to him. ‘I’m giving it to you. I’d give it to no other soul but your father’s son. Not even to . . . ’ And she had named the name that she most respected. ‘And that’s the truth,’ she had added. Nevertheless, even over lunch, she had fallen into abstractions, heavily and deeply, and made fantastic misstatements, mostly about public affairs . . . It all meant a tremendous record . . .
And there he sat, his coffee and port on a little table beside him; the house belonging to him . . .
‘My dearest boy . . . you’ve so much to do. Do you think you ought really to drive the girls to Plimsoll tonight? They’re young and inconsiderate, work comes first.’
‘It isn’t the distance . . . ’
‘You’ll find that it is,’ she answered humorously. ‘It’s twenty miles beyond Tenterden. If you don’t start till ten when the moon sets, you won’t be back till five, even if you’ve no accidents . . . The horse is all right, though . . . ’
‘Mrs Wannop, I ought to tell you that your daughter and I are being talked about. Uglily!’
She turned her head to him; rather stiffly. But she was only coming out of an abstraction.
‘Eh?’ she said, and then; ‘Oh! About the golf-links episode . . . It must have looked suspicious. I daresay you made a fuss, too, with the police, to head them off her.’ She remained pondering for a moment, heavily, like an old pope:
‘Oh, you’ll live it down,’ she said.
‘I ought to tell you,’ he persisted, ‘that it’s more serious than you think. I fancy I ought not to be here.’
‘Not here!’ she exclaimed. ‘Why, where else in the world should you be? You don’t get on with your wife; I know. She’s a regular wrong ’un. Who else could look after you as well as Valentine and I.’
In the acuteness of that pang, for, after all, Tietjens cared more for his wife’s reputation than for any other factor in a complicated world, Tietjens asked rather sharply why Mrs Wannop had called Sylvia a wrong ’un. She said in rather a protesting, sleepy way:
‘My dear boy, nothing! I’ve guessed that there are differences between you; give me credit for some perception. Then, as you’re perfectly obviously a right ’un, she must be a wrong ’un. That’s all, I assure you.’
In his relief Tietjens’ obstinacy revived. He liked this house; he liked this atmosphere; he liked the frugality, the choice of furniture, the way the light fell from window to window; the weariness after hard work, the affection of mother and daughter; the affection, indeed, that they both had for himself, and he was determined, if he could help it, not to damage the reputation of the daughter of the house.
Decent men, he held, don’t do such things, and he recounted with some care the heads of the conversation he had had with General Campion in the dressing-room. He seemed to see the cracked wash-bowls in their scrubbed oak settings. Mrs Wannop’s face seemed to grow greyer, more aquiline; a little resentful! She nodded from time to time, either to denote attention or else in sheer drowsiness:
‘My dear boy,’ she said at last, ‘it’s pretty damnable to have such things said about you. I can see that. But I seem to have lived in a bath of scandal all my life. Every woman who has reached my age has that feeling . . . Now it doesn’t seem to matter . . . ’ She really nodded nearly off: then she started. ‘I don’t see . . . I really don’t see how I can help you as to your reputation. I’d do it if I could: believe me . . . But I’ve other things to think of . . . I’ve this house to keep going and the children to keep fed and at school. I can’t give all the thought I ought to to other people’s troubles . . .
She started into wakefulness and right out of her chair.
‘But what a beast I am!’ she said, with a sudden intonation that was exactly that of her daughter; and, drifting with a Victorian majesty of shawl and long skirt behind Tietjens’ high-backed chair, she leaned over it and stroked the hair on his right temple:
‘My dear boy,’ she said. ‘Life’s a bitter thing. I’m an old novelist and know it. There you are working yourself to death to save the nation with a wilderness of cats and monkeys howling and squalling your personal reputation away . . . It was Dizzy himself said these words to me at one of our receptions. “Here I am, Mrs Wannop,” he said . . . And . . . ’ She drifted for a moment. But she made another effort: ‘My dear boy,’ she whispered, bending down her head to get it near his ear: ‘My dear boy; it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t really matter. You’ll live it down. The only thing that matters it to do good work. Believe an old woman who has lived very hard; “Hard lying money” as they call it in the navy. It sounds like cant, but it’s the only real truth. You’ll find consolation in that. And you’ll live it down. Or perhaps you won’t; that’s for God in His mercy to settle. But it won’t matter; believe me, as thy days so shall thy strength be.’ She drifted into other thoughts; she was much perturbed over the plot of a new novel and much wanted to get back to the consideration of it. She stood gazing at the photograph, very faded, of her husband in side-whiskers and an immense shirt-front, but she continued to stroke Tietjens’ temple with a sublime tenderness.
This kept Tietjens sitting there. He was quite aware that he had tears in his eyes; this was almost too much tenderness to bear, and, at bottom his was a perfectly direct, simple and sentimental soul. He always had bedewed eyes at the theatre, after tender love scenes, and so avoided the theatre. He asked himself twice whether he should or shouldn’t make another effort, though it was almost beyond him. He wanted to sit still.
The stroking stopped; he scrambled on to his feet.
‘Mrs Wannop,’ he said, facing her, ‘it’s perfectly true. I oughtn’t to care what these swine say about me, but I do. I’ll reflect about what you say till I get it into my system . . .
‘Yes, yes! my dear,’ and continued to gaze at the photograph.
‘But,’ Tietjens said; he took her mittened hand and led her back to her chair: ‘What I’m concerned for at the moment is not my reputation, but your daughter Valentine’s .’
She sank down into the high chair, balloon-like, and came to rest:
‘Val’s reputation!’ she said, ‘Oh! you mean they’ll be striking her off their visiting lists. It hadn’t struck me. So they will!’ She remained lost in reflection for a long time.
Valentine was in the room, laughing a little. She had been giving the handy-man his dinner, and was still amused at his commendations of Tietjens.
‘You’ve got one admirer,’ she said to Tietjens. ‘“Punched that rotten strap,” he goes on saying, “like a gret of yaffle punchin’ a ‘ollow log!” He’s had a pint of beer and said it between each gasp.’ She continued to narrate the quaintness of Joel which appealed to her; informed Tietjens that ‘yaffle’ was Kentish for great green woodpecker; and then said:
‘You haven’t got any friends in Germany, have you?’ She was beginning to clear the table.
‘Yes; my wife’s in Germany; at a place called Lobscheid.’
She placed a pile of plates on a black japanned tray.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, without an expression of any deep regret. ‘It’s the ingenious clever stupidities of the telephone. I’ve got a telegraph message for you then. I thought it was the subject for mother’s leader. It always comes through with the initials of the paper which are not unlike Tietjens, and the girl who always sends it is called Hopside. It seemed rather inscrutable, but I took it to have to do with German politics and I thought mother would understand it . . . You’re not both asleep, are you?’
Tietjens opened his eyes, the girl was standing over him, having approached from the table. She was holding out a slip of paper on which she had transcribed the message. She appeared all out of drawing and the letters of the message ran together. The message was:
Righto. But arrange for certain Hullo Central travels with you. Sylvia Hopside Germany.’
Tietjens leaned back for a long time looking at the words; they seemed meaningless. The girl placed the paper on his knee, and went back to the table. He imagined the girl wrestling with these incomprehensibilities on the telephone.
‘Of course if I’d had any sense,’ the girl said, ‘I should have known it couldn’t have been mother’s leader note; she never gets one on a Saturday.’
Tietjens heard himself announce clearly, loudly and with between each word a pause:
‘It means I go to my wife on Tuesday and take her maid with me.’
‘Lucky you!’ the girl said, ‘I wish I was you. I’ve never been in the Fatherland of Goethe and Rosa Luxemburg.’ She went off with her great tray load, the table-cloth over her forearm. He was dimly aware that she had before then removed the crumbs with a crumb-brush. It was extraordinary with what swiftness she worked, talking all the time. That was what domestic service had done for her; an ordinary young lady would have taken twice the time, and would certainly have dropped half her words if she had tried to talk. Efficiency! He had only just realized that he was going back to Sylvia, and of course to Hell! Certainly it was Hell. If a malignant and skilful devil . . . though the devil of course is stupid and uses toys like fireworks and sulphur; it is probably only God who can, very properly, devise the long ailings of mental oppressions . . . if God then desired (and one couldn’t object but one hoped He would not!) to devise for him, Christopher Tietjens, a cavernous eternity of weary hopelessness . . . But He had done it; no doubt as retribution. What for? Who knows what sins of his own are heavily punishable in the eyes of God, for God is just? . . . Perhaps God then, after all, visits thus heavily sexual offences.
There came back into his mind, burnt in, the image of their breakfast-room, with all the brass, electrical fixings, poachers, toasters, grillers, kettle-heaters, that he detested for their imbecile inefficiency; with gross piles of hothouse flowers — that he detested for their exotic waxennesses — with white enamelled panels that he disliked and framed, weak prints — quite genuine of course, my dear, guaranteed so by Sotheby — pinkish women in sham Gainsborough hats, selling mackerel or brooms. A wedding present that he despised. And Mrs Satterthwaite, in negligé, but with an immense hat; reading The Times with an eternal rustle of leaves because she never could settle down to any one page; and Sylvia walking up and down because she could not sit still, with a piece of toast in her fingers or her hands behind her back. Very tall; fair; as graceful, as full of blood and as cruel as the usual degenerate Derby winner. Inbred for generations for one purpose: to madden men of one type . . . Pacing backwards and forwards, exclaiming: ‘I’m bored I Bored!’; sometimes even breaking the breakfast plates . . . And talking! For ever talking; usually, cleverly, with imbecility; with maddening inaccuracy; with wicked penetration, and clamouring to be contradicted; a gentleman has to answer his wife’s questions . . . And in his forehead the continual pressure; the determination to sit put; the decor of the room seeming to burn into his mind. It was there, shadowy before him now. And the pressure upon his forehead . . .
Mrs Wannop was talking to him now, he did not know what she said; he never knew afterwards what he had answered.
‘God!’ he said within himself, ‘if it’s sexual sins God punishes, He indeed is just and inscrutable!’ . . . Because he had had physical contact with this woman before he married her! In a railway carriage; coming down from the Dukeries. An extravagantly beautiful girl!
Where was the physical attraction of her gone to now? Irresistible; reclining back as the shires rushed past . . . His mind said that she had lured him on. His intellect put the idea from him. No gentleman thinks such things of his wife.
No gentleman thinks . . . By God; she must have been with child by another man . . . He had been fighting the conviction down all the last four months . . . He knew now that he had been fighting the conviction all the last four months, whilst, anaesthetized, he had bathed in figures and wave-theories . . . Her last words had been: her very last words: late: all in white she had gone up to her dressing-room, and he had never seen her again; her last words had been about the child . . . ‘Supposing,’ she had begun . . . He didn’t remember the rest. But he remembered her eyes. And her gesture as she peeled off her long white gloves . . .
He was looking at Mrs Wannop’s ingle; he thought it a mistake in taste, really, to leave logs in an ingle during the summer. But then what are you to do with an ingle in summer? In Yorkshire cottages they shut the ingles up with painted doors. But that is stuffy, too!
He said to himself:
‘By God! I’ve had a stroke!’ and he got out of his chair to test his legs . . . But he hadn’t had a stroke. It must then, he thought, be that the pain of his last consideration must be too great for his mind to register as certain great physical pains go unperceived. Nerves, like weighing machines, can’t register more than a certain amount, then they go out of action. A tramp who had had his leg cut off by a train had told him that he had tried to get up, feeling nothing at The pain comes back though . . .
He said to Mrs Wannop, who was still talking:
‘I beg your pardon. I really missed what you said.’
Mrs Wannop said:
‘I was saying that that’s the best thing I can do for you.’ He said:
‘I’m really very sorry: it was that that I missed. I’m a little in trouble, you know.’
‘I know: I know. The mind wanders; but I wish you’d listen. I’ve got to go to work, so have you, I said: after tea you and Valentine will walk into Rye to fetch your luggage.’
Straining his intelligence, for, in his mind, he felt a sudden strong pleasure; sunlight on pyramidal red roof in the distance: themselves descending in a long diagonal, a green hill: God, yes, he wanted open air. Tietjens said:
‘I see. You take us both under your protection. You’ll bluff it out.’
Mrs Wannop said rather coolly:
‘I don’t know about you both. It’s you I’m taking under my protection (it’s your phrase!). As for Valentine: she’s made her bed; she must lie on it. I’ve told you all that already. I can’t go over it again.’
She paused, then made another effort:
‘It’s disagreeable,’ she said, ‘to be cut off the Mountby visiting list. They give amusing parties. But I’m too old to care and they’ll miss my conversation more than I do theirs. Of course, I back my daughter against the cats and monkeys. Of course, I back Valentine through thick and thin. I’d back her if she lived with a married man or had illegitimate children. But I don’t approve, I don’t approve of the suffragettes: I despise their aims: I detest their methods. I don’t think young girls ought to talk to strange men. Valentine spoke to you, and look at the worry it has caused you. I disapprove. I’m a woman: but I’ve made my own way: other women could do it if they liked or had the energy. I disapprove! But don’t believe that I will ever go back on any suffragette, individual, in gangs; my Valentine or any other. Don’t believe that I will ever say a word against them that’s to be repeated —you won’t repeat them. Or that I will ever write a word against them. No, I’m a woman and I stand by my sex!’
She got up energetically:
‘I must go and write my novel,’ she said. ‘I’ve Monday’s instalment to send off by train to-night. You’ll go into my study: Valentine will give you paper; ink; twelve different kinds of nibs. You’ll find Professor Wannop’s books all round the room. You’ll have to put up with Valentine typing in the alcove. I’ve got two serials running, one typed, the other in manuscript.’
‘I,’ she exclaimed, ‘I shall write in my bedroom on my knee. I’m a woman and can. You’re a man and have to have a padded chair and sanctuary . . . You feel fit to work? Then: you’ve got till five, Valentine will get tea then. At half-past five you’ll set off to Rye. You’ll be back with your luggage and your friend and your friend’s luggage at seven.’
She silenced him imperiously with:
‘Don’t be foolish. Your friend will certainly prefer this house and Valentine’s cooking to the pub and the pub’s cooking. And he’ll save on it . . . It’s no extra trouble. I suppose your friend won’t inform against that wretched little suffragette girl upstairs.’ She paused and said: ‘You’re sure you can do your work in the time and drive Valentine and her to that place . . . Why it’s necessary is that the girl daren’t travel by train and we’ve relations there who’ve never been connected with the suffragettes. The girl can live hidden there for a bit . . . But sooner than you shouldn’t finish your work I’d drive them myself . . . ’
She silenced Tietjens again: this time sharply:
‘I tell you it’s no extra trouble. Valentine and I always make our own beds. We don’t like servants among our intimate things. We can get three times as much help in the neighbourhood as we want. We’re liked here. The extra work you give will be met by extra help. We could have servants if we wanted. But Valentine and I like to be alone in the house together at night. We’re very fond of each other.’
She walked to the door and then drifted back to say:
‘You know, I can’t get out of my head that unfortunate woman and her husband. We must all do what we can for them.’ Then she started and exclaimed: ‘But, good heavens, I’m keeping you from your work . . . The study’s in there, through that door.’
She hurried through the other doorway and no doubt along a passage, calling out:
‘Valentine! Valentine! Go to Christopher in the study. At once . . . at . . . ’ Her voice died away.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08