Sylvia Tietjens rose from her end of the lunch-table and swayed along it, carrying her plate. She still wore her hair in bandeaux and her skirts as long as she possibly could: she didn’t, she said, with her height, intend to be taken for a girl guide. She hadn’t, in complexion, in figure or in the languor of her gestures, aged by a minute. You couldn’t discover in the skin of her face any deadness: in her eyes the shade more of fatigue than she intended to express, but she had purposely increased her air of scornful insolence. That was because she felt that her hold over men increased to the measure of her coldness. Someone, she knew, had once said of a dangerous woman, that when she entered the room every woman kept her husband on the leash. It was Sylvia’s pleasure to think that, before she went out of that room, all the women in it realized with mortification — that they needn’t! For if coolly and distinctly she had said on entering: ‘Nothing doing!’ as barmaids will to the enterprising, she couldn’t more plainly have conveyed to the other women that she had no use for their treasured rubbish.
Once, on the edge of a cliff in Yorkshire where the moors come above the sea, during one of the tiresome shoots that are there the fashion, a man had bidden her observe the demeanour of the herring gulls below. They were dashing from rock to rock on the cliff face, screaming, with none of the dignity of gulls. Some of them even let fall the herrings that they had caught and she saw the pieces of silver dropping into the blue motion. The man told her to look up; high, circling and continuing for a long time to circle; illuminated by the sunlight below, like a pale flame against the sky was a bird. The man told her that that was some sort of fish-eagle or hawk. Its normal habit was to chase the gulls which, in their terror, would drop their booty of herrings, whereupon the eagle would catch the fish before it struck the water. At the moment the eagle was not on duty, but the gulls were just as terrified as if it had been.
Sylvia stayed for a long time watching the convolutions of the eagle. It pleased her to see that, though nothing threatened the gulls, they yet screamed and dropped their herrings . . . The whole affair reminded her of herself in her relationship to the ordinary women of the barnyard . . . Not that there was the breath of a scandal against herself; that she very well knew, and it was her preoccupation just as turning down nice men — the ‘really nice men’ of commerce — was her hobby.
She practised every kind of ‘turning down’ on these creatures: the really nice ones, with the Kitchener moustaches, the seal’s brown eyes, the honest, thrilling voices, the clipped words, the straight backs and the admirable records — as long as you didn’t enquire too closely. Once, in the early days of the Great Struggle, a young man — she had smiled at him in mistake for someone more trustable — had followed in a taxi, hard on her motor, and flushed with wine, glory and the firm conviction that all women in that lurid carnival had become common property, had burst into her door from the public stairs . . . She had overtopped him by the forehead and before a few minutes were up she seemed to him to have become ten foot high with a gift of words that scorched his backbone and the voice of a frozen marble statue: a chaudfroid effect. He had come in like a stallion, red-eyed, and all his legs off the ground: he went down the stairs like a half-drowned rat, with dim eyes and really looking wet, for some reason or other.
Yet she hadn’t really told him more than the way one should behave to the wives of one’s brother officers then actually in the line, a point of view that, with her intimates, she daily agreed was pure bosh. But it must have seemed to him like the voice of his mother — when his mother had been much younger, of course — speaking from paradise, and his conscience had contrived the rest of his general wetness. This, however, had been melodrama and war stuff at that: it hadn’t, therefore, interested her. She preferred to inflict deeper and more quiet pains.
She could, she flattered herself, tell the amount of empressement which a man could develop about herself at the first glance — the amount and the quality too. And from not vouchsafing a look at all, or a look of the barest and most incurious to some poor devil who even on introduction couldn’t conceal his desires, to letting, after dinner, a measured glance travel from the right foot of a late dinner partner, diagonally up the ironed fold of the right trouser to the watch pocket, diagonally still, across the shirt front, pausing at the stud and so, rather more quickly, away over the left shoulder, while the poor fellow stood appalled, with his dinner going wrong — from the milder note to the more pronounced she ran the whole gamut of ‘turnings down.’ The poor fellows next day would change their bootmakers, their sock merchants, their tailors, the designers of their dress-studs and shirts: they would sigh even to change the cut of their faces, communing seriously with their after-breakfast mirrors. But they knew in their hearts that calamity came from the fact that she hadn’t deigned to look into their eyes . . . Perhaps hadn’t dared was the right word!
Sylvia, herself, would have cordially acknowledged that it might have been. She knew that, like her intimates — all the Elizabeths, Alixs, and Lady Moiras of the smooth-papered, be-photographed weekly journals — she was man-mad. It was the condition, indeed, of their intimacy as of their eligibilities for reproduction on hot-pressed paper. They went about in bands with, as it were, a cornfield of feather boas floating above them, though to be sure no one wore feather boas; they shortened their hairs and their skirts and flattened, as far as possible, their chest developments, which does give, oh, you know . . . a certain . . . They adopted demeanours as like as possible — and yet how unlike — to those of waitresses in tea-shops frequented by city men. And one reads in police court reports of raids what those are! Probably they were, in action, as respectable as any body of women; more respectable, probably, than the great middle class of before the war, and certainly spotless by comparison with their own upper servants whose morals, merely as recorded in the divorce court statistics —that she had from Tietjens — would put to shame even those of Welsh or lowland Scotch villages. Her mother was accustomed to say that she was sure her butler would get to heaven, simply because the Recording Angel, being an angel — and, as such, delicately minded — wouldn’t have the face to put down, much less read out, the least venial of Morgan’s offences . . .
And, sceptical as she was by nature, Sylvia Tietjens didn’t really even believe in the capacity for immoralities of her friends. She didn’t believe that any one of them was seriously what the French would call the maîtresse en titre of any particular man. Passion wasn’t, at least, their strong suit; they left that to more — or to less — august circles. The Duke of A . . . and all the little A’s . . . might be the children of the morose and passion-stricken Duke of B . . . instead of the still more morose but less passionate late Duke of A . . . Mr C, the Tory statesman and late Foreign Minister, might equally be the father of all the children of the Tory Lord Chancellor E . . . The Whig front benches, the gloomy and disagreeable Russells and Cavendishes trading off these — again French —collages sérieux against the matrimonial divagations of their own Lord F and Mr G . . . But those armours of heavily titled and born front benchers were rather of august politics. The hot-pressed weekly journals never got hold of them: the parties to them didn’t, for one thing, photograph well, being old, uglyish and terribly badly dressed. They were matter rather for the memoirs of the indiscreet, already written, but not to see the light for fifty years . . .
The affairs of her own set, female front benchers of one side or other as they were, were more tenuous. If they ever came to heads, their affairs, they had rather the nature of promiscuity and took place at the country houses where bells rang at five in the morning. Sylvia had heard of such country houses, but she did not know of any. She imagined that they might be the baronial halls of such barons of the crown as had patronymics ending in schen . . . stein . . . and baum. There were getting to be a good many of these, but Sylvia did not visit them. She had in her that much of the papist.
Certain of her more brilliant girl friends certainly made very sudden marriages; but the averages of those were not markedly higher than in the case of the daughters of doctors, solicitors, the clergy, the lord mayors and common council-men. They were the product usually of the more informal type of dance, of inexperience and champagne — of champagne of unaccustomed strength or of champagne taken in unusual circumstances — fasting as often as not. They were, these hasty marriages, hardly ever the result of either passion or temperamental lewdness.
In her own case — years ago now — she had certainly been taken advantage of, after champagne, by a married man called Drake. A bit of a brute she acknowledged him now to be. But after the event passion had developed: intense on her side and quite intense enough on his. When, in a scare that had been as much her mother’s as her own, she had led Tietjens on and married him in Paris to be out of the way — though it was fortunate that the English Catholic church in the Avenue Hoche had been the scene of her mother’s marriage also, thus establishing a precedent and an ostensible reason! — there had been dreadful scenes right up to the very night of the marriage. She had hardly to close her eyes in order to see the Paris hotel bedroom, the distorted face of Drake, who was mad with grief and jealousy, against a background of white things, flowers and the like, sent in overnight for the wedding. She knew that she had been very near death. She had wanted death.
And even now she had only to see the name of Drake in the paper — her mother’s influence with the pompous front bencher of the Upper House, her cousin, had put Drake in the way of colonial promotions that were recorded in gazettes — nay, she had only involuntarily to think of that night and she would stop dead, speaking or walking, drive her nails into her palms and groan slightly . . . She had to invent a chronic stitch in her heart to account for this groan, which ended in a mumble and seemed to herself to degrade her . . .
The miserable memory would come, ghost-like, at any time, anywhere. She would see Drake’s face, dark against the white things; she would feel the thin night-gown ripping off her shoulder; but most of all she would seem, in darkness that excluded the light of any room in which she might be, to be transfused by the mental agony that there she had felt: the longing for the brute who had mangled her: the dreadful pain of the mind. The odd thing was that the sight of Drake himself, whom she had seen several times since the outbreak of the war, left her completely without emotion. She had no aversion, but no longing for him . . . She had, nevertheless, longing, but she knew it was longing merely to experience again that dreadful feeling. And not with Drake.
Her ‘turnings down’ then of the really nice men, if it were a sport, was a sport not without a spice of danger. She imagined that, after a success, she must feel much of the exhilaration that men told her they felt after bringing off a clean right and left, and no doubt she felt some of the emotions that the same young men felt when they were out shooting with beginners. Her personal chastity she now cherished much as she cherished her personal cleanliness and persevered in her Swedish exercises after her baths before an open window, her rides afterwards, and her long nights of dancing which she would pursue in any room that was decently ventilated. Indeed, the two sides of life were, in her mind, intimately connected: she kept herself attractive by her skilfully selected exercises and cleanlinesses: and the same fatigues, healthful as they were, kept her in the mood for chastity of life. She had done so ever since her return to her husband; and this not because of any attachment to her husband or to virtue as such, as because she had made the pact with herself out of caprice and meant to keep it. She had to have men at her feet: that was, as it were, the price of her — purely social — daily bread: as it was the price of the daily bread of her intimates. She was, and had been for many years, absolutely continent. And so very likely were, and had been, all her Moiras, and Megs, and Lady Marjories — but she was perfectly aware that they had to have, above their assemblies as it were, a light vapour of the airs and habits of the brothel. The public demanded that . . . a light vapour, like the slight traces of steam that she had seen, glutinously adhering to the top of the water in the crocodile-houses of the Zoo.
It was, indeed, the price; and she was aware that she had been lucky. Not many of the hastily married young women of her set really kept their heads above water in her set: for a season you would read that Lady Marjorie and Captain Hunt, after her presentation at Court on the occasion of her marriage, were to be seen at Roehampton, at Goodwood and the like: photographs of the young couple, striding along with the palings of the Row behind them, would appear for a month or so. Then the records of their fashionable doings would transfer themselves to the lists of the attendants and attachés of distant vice-regal courts in tropics bad for the complexion. ‘And then no more of he and she,’ as Sylvia put it.
In her case it hadn’t been so bad, but it had been nearish. She had had the advantage of being an only daughter of a very rich woman: her husband wasn’t just any Captain Hunt to stick on a vice-regal staff. He was in a first-class office and when Angélique wrote notes on the young ménage she could — Angélique’s ideas of these things being hazy — always refer to the husband as the futurc Lord Chancellor or Ambassador to Vienna. And their little, frightfully expensive establishment — to which her mother, who had lived with them, had very handsomely contributed — had floated them over the first dangerous two years. They had entertained like mad, and two much-canvassed scandals had had their beginnings in Sylvia’s small drawing-room. She had been quite established when she had gone off with Perowne . . .
And coming back had not been so difficult. She had expected it would be, but it hadn’t. Tietjens had stipulated for large rooms in Gray’s Inn. That hadn’t seemed to her to be reasonable; but she imagined that he wanted to be near his friend and, though she had no gratitude to Tietjens for taking her back and nothing but repulsion from the idea of living in his house, as they were making a bargain, she owed it to herself to be fair. She had never swindled a railway company, brought dutiable scent past a customhouse or represented to a second-hand dealer that her clothes were less worn than they were, though with her prestige she could actually have done this. It was fair that Tietjens should live where he wished, and live there they did, their very tall windows looking straight into those of Macmaster across the Georgian quadrangle.
They had two floors of a great building, and that gave them a great deal of space; the breakfast-room, in which during the war they also lunched, was an immense room, completely lined with books that were nearly all calf-backed, with an immense mirror over an immense, carved, yellow and white marble mantelpiece, and three windows that, in their great height, with the spideriness of their divisions and their odd, bulging glass — some of the panes were faintly violet in age — gave to the room an eighteenth-century distinction. It suited, she admitted, Tietjens, who was an eighteenth-century figure of the Dr Johnson type — the only eighteenth-century type of which she knew, except for that of the beau something who wore white satin and ruffles, went to Bath and must have been indescribably tiresome.
Above, she had a great white drawing-room, with fixings that she knew were eighteenth century and to be respected. For Tietjens — again she admitted — had a marvellous gift for old furniture: he despised it as such, but he knew it down to the ground. Once when her friend Lady Moira had been deploring the expense of having her new, little house furnished from top to toe under the advice of Sir John Robertson, the specialist (the Moiras had sold Arlington Street lock, stock, and barrel to some American), Tietjens, who had come in to tea and had been listening without speaking, had said, with the soft good nature, rather sentimental in tone, that once in a blue moon he would bestow on her prettiest friends:
‘You had better let me do it for you.’
Taking a look round Sylvia’s great drawing-room, with the white panels, the Chinese lacquer screens, the red lacquer and ormolu cabinets and the immense blue and pink carpet (and Sylvia knew that if only for the three panels by a fellow called Fragonard, bought just before Fragonards had been boomed by the late King, her drawing-room was something remarkable), Lady Moira had said to Tietjens, rather flutteringly and almost with the voice with which she began one of her affairs:
‘Oh, if only you would.’
He had done it, and he had done it for a quarter of the estimate of Sir John Robertson. He had done it without effort, as if with a roll or two of his elephantine shoulders, for he seemed to know what was in every dealer’s and auctioneer’s catalogue by looking at the green halfpenny stamp on the wrapper. And, still more astonishingly, he had made love to Lady Moira — they had stopped twice with the Moiras in Gloucestershire and the Moiras had three times week-ended with Mrs Satterthwaite as the Tietjens ens’ invités . . . Tietjens had made love to Lady Moira quite prettily and sufficiently to tide Moira over until she was ready to begin her affair with Sir William Heathly.
For the matter of that, Sir John Robertson, the specialist in old furniture, challenged by Lady Moira to pick holes in her beautiful house, had gone there, poked his large spectacles against cabinets, smelt the varnish of table tops and bitten the backs of chairs in his ancient and short-sighted way, and had then told Lady Moira that Tietjens had bought her nothing that wasn’t worth a bit more than he had given for it. This increased their respect for the old fellow: it explained his several millions. For, if the old fellow proposed to make out of a friend like Moira a profit of 300 per cent — limiting it to that out of sheer affection for a pretty woman — what wouldn’t he make out of a natural — and national — enemy like a United States senator!
And the old man took a great fancy to Tietjens himself — which Tietjens, to Sylvia’s bewilderment, did not resent. The old man would come in to tea and, if Tietjens were present, would stay for hours talking about old furniture. Tietjens would listen without talking. Sir John would expatiate over and over again about this to Mrs Tietjens. It was extraordinary. Tietjens went purely by instinct: by taking a glance at a thing and chancing its price. According to Sir John one of the most remarkable feats of the furniture trade had been Tietjens’ purchase of the Hemingway bureau for Lady Moira. Tietjens, in his dislikeful way, had bought this at a cottage sale for £3 10s., and had told Lady Moira it was the best piece she would ever possess: Lady Moira had gone to the sale with him. Other dealers present had hardly looked at it: Tietjens certainly hadn’t opened it. But at Lady Moira’s, poking his spectacles into the upper part of the glazed piece, Sir John had put his nose straight on the little bit of inserted yellow wood by a hinge, bearing signature, name and date: Jno. Hemingway, Bath 1784.’ Sylvia remembered them because Sir John told her so often. It was a lost ‘piece’ that the furnishing world had been after for many years.
For that exploit the old man seemed to love Tietjens. That he loved Sylvia herself, she was quite aware. He fluttered round her tremulously, gave fantastic entertainments in her honour and was the only man she had never turned down. He had a harem, so it was said, in an enormous house at Brighton or somewhere. But it was another sort of love he bestowed on Tietjens: the rather pathetic love that the aged bestow on their possible successors in office.
Once Sir John came in to tea and quite formally and with a sort of portentousness announced that this was his seventy-first birthday, and that he was a broken man. He seriously proposed that Tietjens should come into partnership with him with the reversion of the business — not, of course, of his private fortune. Tietjens had listened amiably, asking a detail or two of Sir John’s proposed arrangement. Then he had said, with the rather caressing voice that he now and then bestowed on a pretty woman, that he didn’t think it would do. There would be too much beastly money about it. As a career it would be more congenial to him than his office . . . but there was too much beastly money about it.
Once more, a little to Sylvia’s surprise — but men are queer creatures! — Sir John seemed to see this objection as quite reasonable, though he heard it with regret and combated it feebly. He went away with a relieved jauntiness; for, if he couldn’t have Tietjens he couldn’t, and he invited Sylvia to dine with him somewhere where they were going to have something fabulous and very nasty at about two guineas the ounce on the menu. Something like that! And during dinner Sir John had entertained her by singing the praises of her husband. He said that Tietjens was much too great a gentleman to be wasted on the old-furniture trade: that was why he hadn’t persisted. But he sent by Sylvia a message to the effect that if ever Tietjens did come to be in want of money . . .
Occasionally Sylvia was worried to know why people — as they sometimes did — told her that her husband had great gifts. To her he was merely unaccountable. His actions and opinions seemed simply the products of caprice — like her own; and, since she knew that most of her own manifestations were a matter of contrariety, she abandoned the habit of thinking much about him.
But gradually and dimly she began to see that Tietjens had, at least, a consistency of character and a rather unusual knowledge of life. This came to her when she had to acknowledge that their move to the Inn of Court had been a social success and had suited herself. When they had discussed the change at Lobscheid — or rather when Sylvia had unconditionally given in to every stipulation of Tietjens! — he had predicted almost exactly what would happen, though it had been the affair of her mother’s cousin’s opera box that had most impressed her. He had told her, at Lobscheid, that he had no intention of interfering with her social level, and she was convinced that he was not going to. He had thought about it a good deal.
She hadn’t much listened to him. She had thought, firstly, that he was a fool and, secondly, that he did mean to hurt her. And she acknowledged that he had a certain right. If, after she had been off with another man, she asked this one still to extend to her the honour of his name and shelter of his roof, she had no right to object to his terms. Her only decent revenge on him was to live afterwards with such equanimity as to let him know the mortification of failure.
But at Lobscheid he had talked a lot of nonsense, as it had seemed to her: a mixture of prophecy and politics. The Chancellor of the Exchequer of that date had been putting pressure on the great landlords; the great landlords had been replying by cutting down their establishments and closing their town houses — not to any great extent, but enough to make a very effective gesture of it, and so as to raise a considerable clamour from footmen and milliners. The Tietjens — both of them — were of the great land-owning class: they could adopt that gesture of shutting up their Mayfair house and going to live in a wilderness. All the more if they made their wilderness a thoroughly comfortable affair!
He had counselled her to present this aspect of the matter to her mother’s cousin, the morosely portentous Rugeley. Rugely was a great landowner — almost the greatest of all; and he was a landowner obsessed with a sense of his duties both to his dependants and his even remote relatives. Sylvia had only, Tietjens said, to go to the Duke and tell him that the Chancellor’s exactions had forced them to this move, but that they had done it partly as a protest, and the Duke would accept it almost as a personal tribute to himself. He couldn’t, even as a protest, be expected to shut up Mexborough or reduce his expenses. But, if his humbler relatives spiritedly did, he would almost certainly make it up to them. And Rugeley’s favours were on the portentous scale of everything about him. ‘I shouldn’t wonder,’ Tietjens had said, ‘if he didn’t lend you the Rugeley box to entertain in.’
And that is exactly what had happened.
The Duke — who must have kept a register of his remotest cousins — had, shortly before their return to London, heard that this young couple had parted with every prospect of a large and disagreeable scandal. He had approached Mrs Satterthwaite — for whom he had a gloomy affection — and he had been pleased to hear that the rumour was a gross libel. So that, when the young couple actually turned up again — from Russia — Rugeley, who perceived that they were not only together, but to all appearances quite united, was determined not only to make it up to them, but to show, in order to abash their libellers, as signal a mark of his favour as he could without inconvenience to himself. He, therefore, twice — being a widower — invited Mrs Satterthwaite to entertain for him, Sylvia to invite the guests, and then had Mrs Tietjens’ name placed on the roll of those who could have the Rugeley box at the opera, on application at the Rugeley estate office, when it wasn’t wanted. This was a very great privilege and Sylvia had known how to make the most of it.
On the other hand, on the occasion of their conversation at Lobscheid, Tietjens had prophesied what at the time seemed to her a lot of tosh. It had been two or three years before, but Tietjens had said that about the time grouse-shooting began, in 1914, a European conflagration would take place which would shut up half the houses in Mayfair and beggar their inhabitants. He had patiently supported his prophecy with financial statistics as to the approaching bankruptcy of various European powers and the growingly acquisitive skill and rapacity of the inhabitants of Great Britain. She had listened to that with some attention: it had seemed to her rather like the usual nonsense talked in country houses — where, irritatingly, he never talked. But she liked to be able to have a picturesque fact or two with which to support herself when she too, to hold attention, wanted to issue moving statements as to revolutions, anarchies and strife in the offing. And she had noticed that when she magpied Tietjens’ conversations more serious men in responsible positions were apt to argue with her and to pay her more attention than before . . .
And now, walking along the table with her plate in her hand, she could not but acknowledge that, triumphantly — and very comfortably for her! — Tietjens had been right! In the third year of the war it was very convenient to have a dwelling, cheap, comfortable, almost august and so easy to work that you could have, at a pinch, run it with one maid, though the faithful Hullo Central had not let it come to that yet . . .
Being near Tietjens she lifted her plate, which contained two cold cutlets in aspic and several leaves of salad: she wavered a little to one side and, with a circular motion of her hand, let the whole contents fly at Tietjens’ head. She placed the plate on the table and drifted slowly towards the enormous mirror over the fireplace.
‘I’m bored,’ she said. ‘Bored! Bored!’
Tietjens had moved slightly as she had thrown: the cutlets and most of the salad leaves had gone over his shoulder. But one, couched, very green leaf was on his shoulder-strap, and the oil and vinegar from the plate — Sylvia knew that she took too much of all condiments — had splashed from the revers of his tunic to his green staff-badges. She was glad that she had hit him as much as that: it meant that her marksmanship had not been quite rotten. She was glad, too, that she had missed him. She was also supremely indifferent. It had occurred to her to do it and she had done it. Of that she was glad!
She looked at herself for some time in the mirror of bluish depths. She pressed her immense bandeaux with both hands on to her ears. She was all right: high-featured: alabaster complexion — but that was mostly the mirror’s doing — beautiful, long, cool hands — what man’s forehead wouldn’t long for them? . . . And that hair! What man wouldn’t think of it unloosed on white shoulders! . . . Well, Tietjens wouldn’t! Or, perhaps, he did . . . she hoped he did, curse him, for he never saw that sight. Obviously sometimes, at night, with a little whisky taken he must want to!
She rang the bell and bade Hullo Central sweep the plateful from the carpet; Hullo Central, tall and dark, looking with wide-open eyes, motionless at nothing.
Sylvia went along the bookshelves, pausing over a book back, ’Vitare Hominum Notiss . . . ’ in gilt, irregular capitals pressed deep into the old leather. At the first long window she supported herself by the blind-cord. She looked out and back into the room.
‘There’s that veiled woman!’ she said, ‘going into eleven . . . It’s two o’clock, of course . . . ’
She looked at her husband’s back hard, the clumsy khaki back that was getting round-shouldered now. Hard! She wasn’t going to miss a motion or a stiffening.
‘I’ve found out who it is!’ she said, ‘and who she goes to. I got it out of the porter.’ She waited. Then she added:
It’s the woman you travelled down from Bishop Auckland with. On the day war was declared.’
Tietjens turned solidly round in his chair. She knew he would do that out of stiff politeness, so it meant nothing.
His face was whitish in the pale light, but it was always whitish since he had come back from France and passed his day in a tin hut among dust heaps. He said:
‘So you saw me!’ But that, too, was mere politeness.
‘Of course the whole crowd of us from Claudine’s saw you! It was old Campion who said she was a Mrs . . . I’ve forgotten the name.’
‘I imagined he would know her. I saw him looking in from the corridor!’
‘Is she your mistress, or only Macmaster’s, or the mistress of both of you? It would be like you to have a mistress in common . . . She’s got a mad husband, hasn’t she? A clergyman.’
Sylvia checked suddenly in her next questions, and Tietjens, who in these discussions never manoeuvred for position, said:
‘She has been Mrs Macmaster over six months.’ Sylvia said:
‘She married him then the day after her husband’s death.’
She drew a long breath and added:
‘I don’t care . . . She has been coming here every Friday for three years . . . I tell you I shall expose her unless that little beast pays you to-morrow the money he owes you . . . God knows you need it!’ She said then hurriedly, for she didn’t know how Tietjens might take that proposition:
‘Mrs Wannop rang up this morning to know who was . . . oh! . . . the evil genius of the Congress of Vienna. Who, by the by, is Mrs Wannop’s secretary? She wants to see you this afternoon. About war babies!’
‘Mrs Wannop hasn’t got a secretary. It’s her daughter who does the ringing-up.’
‘The girl,’ Sylvia said, ‘you were so potty about at that horrible afternoon Macmaster gave. Has she had a war baby by you? They all say she’s your mistress.’
Tietj ens said:
‘No, Miss Wannop isn’t my mistress. Her mother has had a commission to write an article about war babies. I told her yesterday there weren’t any war babies to speak of, and she’s upset because she won’t be able to make a sensational article. She wants to try to make me change my mind.’
‘It was Miss Wannop at that beastly affair of your friend’s?’ Sylvia asked. ‘And I suppose the woman who received was Mrs What’s -er-name: your other mistress. An unpleasant show. I don’t think much of your taste. The one where all the horrible geniuses in London were? There was a man like a rabbit talked to me about how to write poetry.’
‘That’s no good as an identification of the party,’ Tietjens said. ‘Macmaster gives a party every Friday, not Saturday. He has for years. Mrs Macmaster goes there every Friday. To act as hostess. She has for years. Miss Wannop goes there every Friday after she has done work for her mother. To support Mrs Macmaster . . . ’
‘She has for years!’ Sylvia mocked him. ‘And you go there every Friday! to croodle over Miss Wannop. Oh, Christopher!’— she adopted a mock pathetic voice —‘I never did have much opinion of your taste . . . but not that! Don’t let it be that. Put her back. She’s too young for you . . . ’
‘All the geniuses in London,’ Tietjens continued equably, ‘go to Macmaster’s every Friday. He has been trusted with the job of giving away Royal Literary Bounty money: that’s why they go. They go: that’s why he was given his C.B.’
‘I should not have thought they counted,’ Sylvia said. ‘Of course they count,’ Tietjens said. ‘They write for the Press. They can get anybody anything . . . except themselves!’
‘Like you!’ Sylvia said; ‘exactly like you! They’re a lot of bribed squits.’
‘Oh, no,’ Tietjens said. ‘It isn’t done obviously or discreditably. Don’t believe that Macmaster distributes forty-pounders yearly of bounty on condition that he gets advancement. He hasn’t, himself, the least idea of how it works, except by his atmosphere.’
‘I never knew a beastlier atmosphere,’ Sylvia said. ‘It reeked of rabbit’s food.’
‘You’re quite mistaken,’ Tietjens said; ‘that is the Russian leather of the backs of the specially bound presentation copies in the large bookcase.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Sylvia said. ‘What are presentation copies? I should have thought you’d had enough of the beastly Russian smells Kiev stunk of.’
Tietjens considered for a moment.
‘No! I don’t remember it,’ he said. ‘Kiev? . . . Oh, it’s where we were . . . ’
‘You put half your mother’s money,’ Sylvia said, ‘into the Government of Kiev 12½ per cent. City Tramways . . .
At that Tietjens certainly winced, a type of wincing that Sylvia hadn’t wanted.
‘You’re not fit to go out to-morrow,’ she said. ‘I shall wire to old Campion.’
‘Mrs Duchemin,’ Tietjens said woodenly. ‘Mrs Macmaster that is, also used to burn a little incense in the room before the parties . . . Those Chinese stinks . . . what do they call them? Well, it doesn’t matter,’ he added resignedly, Then he went on: ‘Don’t you make any mistake. Mrs Macmaster is a very superior woman. Enormously efficient! Tremendously respected. I shouldn’t advise even you to come up against her, now she’s in the saddle.’
Mrs Tietjens said:
‘That sort of woman!’
‘I don’t say you ever will come up against her. Your spheres differ. But, if you do, don’t . . . I say it because you seem to have got your knife into her.’
‘I don’t like that sort of thing going on under my windows,’ Sylvia said.
‘What sort of thing? . . . I was trying to tell you a little about Mrs Macmaster . . . she’s like the woman who was the mistress of the man who burned the other fellow’s horrid book . . . I can’t remember the names.’
Sylvia said quickly:
‘Don’t try!’ In a slower tone she added: ‘I don’t in the least want to know . . . ’
‘Well, she was an Egeria!’ Tietjens said. ‘An inspiration to the distinguished. Mrs Macmaster is all that. The geniuses swarm round her, and with the really select ones she corresponds. She writes superior letters, about the Higher Morality usually; very delicate in feeling. Scotch naturally. When they go abroad she sends them snatches of London literary happenings; well done, mind you! And then, every now and then, she slips in something she wants Macmaster to have. But with great delicacy . . . Say it’s this C.B . . . she transfuses into the minds of Genius One, Two and Three the idea of a C.B. for Macmaster . . . Genius No. One lunches with the Deputy Sub-Patronage Secretary, who looks after literary honours and lunches with geniuses to get the gossip . . . ’
‘Why,’ Sylvia said, ‘did you lend Macmaster all that money?’
‘Mind you,’ Tietjens continued his own speech, ‘it’s perfectly proper. That’s the way patronage is distributed in this country; it’s the way it should be. The only clean way. Mrs Duchemin backs Macmaster because he’s a first-class fellow for his job. And she is an influence over the geniuses because she’s a first-class person for hers . . . She represents the higher, nicer morality for really nice Scots. Before long she will be getting tickets stopped from being sent to people for the Academy soirées. She already does it for the Royal Bounty dinners. A little later, when Macmaster is knighted for bashing the French in the eye, she’ll have a tiny share in auguster assemblies . . . Those people have to ask somebody for advice. Well, one day you’ll want to present some débutante. And you won’t get a ticket . . . ’
‘Then I’m glad,’ Sylvia exclaimed, ‘that I wrote to Brownie’s uncle about the woman. I was a little sorry this morning because, from what Glorvina told me, you’re in such a devil of a hole . . . ’
‘Who’s Brownie’s uncle?’ Tietjens asked. ‘Lord . . . Lord . . . The banker! I know Brownie’s in his uncle’s bank.’
‘Port Scatho!’ Sylvia said. ‘I wish you wouldn’t act forgetting people’s names. You overdo it.’
Tietjens’ face went a shade whiter . . .
‘Port Scatho,’ he said, ‘is the chairman of the Inn Billeting Committees, of course. And you wrote to him? . . . ’
‘I’m sorry,’ Sylvia said. ‘I mean, I’m sorry I said that about your forgetting . . . I wrote to him and said that as a resident of the Inn I objected to your mistress — he knows the relationship, of course! — creeping in every Friday under a heavy veil and creeping out every Saturday at four in the morning.’
‘Lord Port Scatho knows about my relationship,’ Tietjens began.
‘He saw her in your arms in the train,’ Sylvia said. ‘It upset Brownie so much he offered to shut down your overdraft and return any cheques you had out marked R.D.’
‘To please you?’ Tietjens asked. ‘Do bankers do that sort of thing? It’s a new light on British society . . .!
‘I suppose bankers try to please their women friends, like other men,’ Sylvia said. ‘I told him very emphatically it wouldn’t please me . . . But . . . ’ she hesitated, ‘I wouldn’t give him a chance to get back on you. I don’t want to interfere in your affairs. But Brownie doesn’t like you . . . ’
‘He wants you to divorce me and marry him?’ Tietjens asked.
‘How did you know?’ Sylvia asked indifferently. ‘I let him give me lunch now and then because it’s convenient to have him manage my affairs, you being away . . . But of course he hates you for being in the army. All the men who aren’t hate all the men that are. And, of course, when there’s a woman between them, the men who aren’t do all they can to do the others in. When they’re bankers they have a pretty good pull . . . ’
‘I suppose they have,’ Tietjens said vaguely; ‘of course they would have . . . ’
Sylvia abandoned the blind-cord on which she had been dragging with one hand. In order that light might fall on her face and give more impressiveness to her words, for, in a minute or two, when she felt brave enough, she meant really to let him have her bad news! — she drifted to the fireplace. He followed her round, turning on his chair to give her his face.
‘Look here, it’s all the fault of this beastly war, isn’t it? Can you deny it? . . . I mean that decent, gentlemanly fellows like Brownie have turned into beastly squits!’
‘I suppose it is,’ Tietjens said dully. ‘Yes, certainly it is. You’re quite right. It’s the incidental degeneration of the heroic impulse: if the heroic impulse has too even a strain put on it the incidental degeneration gets the upper hand. That accounts for the Brownies . . . all the Brownies . . . turning squits . . . ’
‘Then why do you go on with it?’ Sylvia said. ‘God knows, I could wangle you out if you’d back me in the least little way.’
‘Thanks I prefer to remain in it . . . How else am I to get a living? . . . ’
‘You know then,’ Sylvia exclaimed almost shrilly. ‘You know that they won’t have you back in the office if they can find a way of getting you out . . . ’
‘Oh, they’ll find that!’ Tietjens said . . . He continued his other speech: ‘When we go to war with France,’ he said dully . . . And Sylvia knew he was only now formulating his settled opinion so as not to have his active brain to give to the discussion. He must be thinking hard of the Wannop girl! With her littleness; her tweed-skirtishness . . . A provincial miniature of herself, Sylvia Tietjens . . . If she, then, had been miniature, provincial . . . But Tietjens’ words cut her as if she had been lashed with a dog-whip. ‘We shall behave more creditably,’ he had said, ‘because there will be less heroic impulse about it. We shall . . . half of us . . . be ashamed of ourselves. So there will be much less incidental degeneration.’
Sylvia, who by that was listening to him, abandoned the consideration of Miss Wannop and the pretence that obsessed her of Tietjens saying four words, against a background of books at Macmaster’s party. She exclaimed:
‘Good God! What are you talking about? . . . ’
Tietjens went on:
‘About our next war with France . . . We’re the natural enemies of the French. We have to make our bread either by robbing them or making cat’s -paws of them . . . ’
‘We can’t! We couldn’t . . . ’
‘We’ve got to!’ Tietjens said. ‘It’s the condition of our existence. We’re a practically bankrupt, over-populated, northern country: they’re rich southerners, with a falling population. Towards 1930 we shall have to do what Prussia did in 1914. Our conditions will be exactly those of Prussia then. It’s the . . . what is it called? . . .
‘But . . . ’ Sylvia cried out, ‘you’re a Franco-maniac . . . You’re thought to be a French agent . . . That’s what’s bitching your career!’
‘I am?’ Tietjens asked uninterestedly. He added: ‘Yes, that probably would bitch my career . . . ’ He went on, with a little more animation and a little more of his mind:
‘Ah! that will be a war worth seeing . . . None of their drunken rat-fighting for imbecile boodlers . . . ’
‘It would drive mother mad!’ Sylvia said.
‘Oh, no it wouldn’t,’ Tietjens said. ‘It will stimulate her if she is still alive . . . Our heroes won’t be drunk with wine and lechery: our squits won’t stay at home and stab the heroes in the back. Our Minister for Water-closets won’t keep two and a half million men in any base in order to get the votes of their women at a General Election — that’s been the first evil effects of giving women the vote! With the French holding Ireland and stretching in a solid line from Bristol to Whitehall, we should hang the Minister before he had time to sign the papers. And we should be decently loyal to our Prussian allies and brothers . . . Our Cabinet won’t hate them as they hate the French for being frugal and strong in logic and well-educated and remorselessly practical. Prussians are the sort of fellows you can be hoggish with when you want to . . . ’
Sylvia interjected violently:
‘For God’s sake stop it. You almost make me believe what you say is true. I tell you mother would go mad. Her greatest friend is the Duchesse Tonnerre Château-Herault . . . ’
‘Well!’ Tietjens said. ‘Your greatest friends are the Med . . . Med . . . the Austrian officers you take chocolates and flowers to. That there was all the row about . . . We’re at war with them and you haven’t gone mad!’
‘I don’t know,’ Sylvia said. ‘Sometimes I think I am going mad!’ She drooped. Tietjens, his face very strained, was looking at the tablecloth. He muttered: ‘Med . . . Met . . . Kos . . . ’ Sylvia said:
‘Do you know a poem called Somewhere? It begins: “Somewhere or other there must surely be . . . "’
‘I’m sorry. No! I haven’t been able to get up my poetry again.’
‘Don’t!’ She added: ‘You’ve got to be at the War Office at 4.15, haven’t you? What’s the time now?’ She extremely wanted to give him her bad news before he went; she extremely wanted to put off giving it as long as she could. She wanted to reflect on the matter first; she wanted also to keep up a desultory conversation, or he might leave the room. She didn’t want to have to say to him: ‘Wait a minute, I’ve something to say to you!’ for he might not, at that moment, be in the mood. He said it was not yet two. He could give her an hour and a half more.
To keep the conversation going, she said:
‘I suppose the Wannop girl is making bandages or being a Waac. Something forceful.’
‘No; she’s a pacifist. As pacifist as you. Not so impulsive; but, on the other hand, she has more arguments. I should say she’ll be in prison before the war’s over . . . ’
‘A nice time you must have between the two of us,’ Sylvia said. The memory of her interview with the great lady nicknamed Glorvina — though it was not at all a good nickname — was coming over her forcibly.
‘I suppose you’re always talking it over with her? You see her every day.’
She imagined that that might keep him occupied for a minute or two. He said — she caught the sense of it only — and quite indifferently that he had tea with Mrs Wannop every day. She had moved to a place called Bedford Park, which was near his office: not three minutes’ walk. The War Office had put up a lot of huts on some public green in that neighbourhood. He only saw the daughter once a week, at most. They never talked about the war; it was too disagreeable a subject for the young woman. Or rather, too painful . . . His talk gradually drifted into unfinished sentences . . .
They played that comedy occasionally, for it is impossible for two people to live in the same house and not have some common meeting ground. So they would each talk: sometimes talking at great length and with politeness, each thinking his or her thoughts till they drifted into silence.
And, since she had acquired the habit of going into retreat — with an Anglican sisterhood in order to annoy Tietjens, who hated convents and considered that the communions should not mix — Sylvia had acquired also the habit of losing herself almost completely in reveries. Thus she was now vaguely conscious that a greyish lump, Tietjens, sat at the head of a whitish expanse: the lunch-table. There were also books . . . actually she was seeing a quite different figure and other books — the books of Glorvina’s husband, for the great lady had received Sylvia in that statesman’s library.
Glorvina, who was the mother of two of Sylvia’s absolutely most intimate friends, had sent for Sylvia. She wished, kindly and even wittily, to remonstrate with Sylvia because of her complete abstention from any patriotic activity. She offered Sylvia the address of a place in the city where she could buy wholesale and ready-made diapers for babies which Sylvia could present to some charity or other as being her own work. Sylvia said she would do nothing of the sort, and Glorvina said she would present the idea to poor Mrs Pilsenhauser. She Glorvina — said she spent some time every day thinking out acts of patriotism for the distressed rich with foreign names, accents or antecedents . . .
Glorvina was a fiftyish lady with a pointed, grey face and a hard aspect; but when she was inclined to be witty or to plead earnestly she had a kind manner. The room in which they were was over a Belgravia back garden. It was lit by a skylight, and the shadows from above deepened the lines of her face, accentuating the rather dusty grey of the hair as well as both the hardness and the kind manner. This very much impressed Sylvia, who was used to seeing the lady by artificial light . . .
She said, however:
‘You don’t suggest, Glorvina, that I’m the distressed rich with a foreign name!’
The great lady had said:
‘My dear Sylvia; it isn’t so much you as your husband. Your last exploit with the Esterhazys and Metternichs has pretty well done for him. You forget that the present powers that be are not logical . . . ’
Sylvia remembered that she had sprung up from her leather saddle-back chair, exclaiming:
‘You mean to say that those unspeakable swine think that I’m . . . ’
Glorvina said patiently:
‘My dear Sylvia, I’ve already said it’s not you. It’s your husband that suffers. He appears to be too good a fellow to suffer. Mr Waterhouse says so. I don’t know him myself, well.’
Sylvia remembered that she had said:
‘And who in the world is Mr Waterhouse?’ and hearing that Mr Waterhouse was a late Liberal Minister, had lost interest. She couldn’t, indeed, remember any of the further words of her hostess, as words. The sense of them had too much overwhelmed her . . .
She stood now, looking at Tietjens and only occasionally seeing him, her mind completely occupied with the effort to recapture Glorvina’s own words in the desire for exactness. Usually she remembered conversations pretty well; but on this occasion her mad fury, her feeling of nausea, the pain of her own nails in her palms, an unrecoverable sequence of emotions, had overwhelmed her.
She looked at Tietjens now with a sort of gloating curiosity. How was it possible that the most honourable man she knew should be so overwhelmed by foul and baseless rumours? It made you suspect that honour had, in itself, a quality of the evil eye . . .
Tietjens, his face pallid, was fingering a piece of toast. He muttered:
‘Met . . . Met . . . It’s Met . . . ’ He wiped his brow with a table-napkin, looked at it with a start, threw it on the floor and pulled out a handkerchief . . . He muttered: ‘Mett . . . Metter . . . ’ His face illuminated itself like the face of a child listening at a shell.
Sylvia screamed with a passion of hatred:
‘For God’s sake say Metternich . . . you’re driving me mad!’
When she looked at him again his face had cleared and he was walking quickly to the telephone in the corner of the room. He asked her to excuse him and gave a number at Ealing. He said after a moment:
‘Mrs Wannop? Oh! My wife has just reminded me that Metternich was the evil genius of the Congress of Vienna . . . ’ He said: ‘Yes! Yes!’ and listened. After a time he said: ‘Oh, you could put it stronger than that. You could put it that the Tory determination to ruin Napoleon at all costs was one of those pieces of party imbecility that, etc . . . Yes; Castlereagh. And of course Wellington . . . I’m very sorry, I must ring off . . . Yes; to-morrow at 8.3o from Waterloo . . . No; I shan’t be seeing her again . . . No; she’s made a mistake . . . Yes; give her my love . . . good-bye.’ He was reversing the earpiece to hang it up, but a high-pitched series of yelps from the instrument forced it back to his ear: ‘Oh! War babies!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’ve already sent the statistics off to you! No! there isn’t a marked increase of the illegitimacy rate, except in patches. The rate’s appallingly high in the lowlands of Scotland; but it always is appallingly . . . high there . . . ’ He laughed and said good-naturedly: ‘Oh, you’re an old journalist: you won’t let fifty quid go for that . . . ’ He was breaking off. But: ’Or,’ he suddenly exclaimed, ‘here’s another idea for you. The rate’s about the same, probably because of this: half the fellows who go out to France are reckless because it’s the last chance, as they see it. But the other half are made twice as conscientious. A decent Tommie thinks twice about leaving a girl in trouble just before he’s killed . . . The divorce statistics are up, of course, because people will chance making new starts within the law . . . Thanks . . . thanks . . . ’ He hung up the earpiece . . .
Listening to that conversation had extraordinarily cleared Sylvia’s mind. She said, almost sorrowfully:
‘I suppose that that’s why you don’t seduce that girl.’ And she knew — she knew at once from the suddenly changed inflection of Tietjens’ voice when he had said ‘a decent Tommie thinks twice before leaving his girl in trouble!’— that Tietjens himself had thought twice.
She looked at him now almost incredulously, but with great coolness. Why shouldn’t he, she asked herself, give himself a little pleasure with his girl before going to almost certain death . . . She felt a real, sharp pain at her heart . . . A poor wretch in such a devil of a hole . . .
She had moved to a chair close beside the fireplace and now sat looking at him, leaning interestedly forward, as if at a garden party she had been finding —par impossible! — a pastoral play not so badly produced. Tietjens was a fabulous monster . . .
He was a fabulous monster not because he was honourable and virtuous. She had known several very honourable and very virtuous men. If she had never known an honourable or virtuous woman except among her French or Austrian friends, that was, no doubt, because virtuous and honourable women did not amuse her or because, except just for the French and Austrians, they were not Roman Catholics . . . But the honourable and virtuous men she had known had usually prospered and been respected. They weren’t the great fortunes, but they were well-offish: well spoken of: of the country gentleman type . . . Tietjens . . .
She arranged her thoughts. To get one point settled in her mind, she asked:
‘What really happened to you in France? What is really the matter with your memory? Or your brain, is it?’ He said carefully:
‘It’s half of it, an irregular piece of it, dead. Or rather pale. Without a proper blood supply . . . So a great portion of it, in the shape of memory, has gone.’
‘But you! . . . without a brain! . . . ’ As this was not a question, he did not answer.
His going at once to the telephone, as soon as he was in the possession of the name ‘Metternich,’ had at last convinced her that he had not been, for the last four months, acting the hypochondriac or merely lying to obtain sympathy or extended sick leave. Amongst Sylvia’s friends a wangle known as shell-shock was cynically laughed at and quite approved of. Quite decent and, as far as she knew, quite brave menfolk of her women would openly boast that, when they had had enough of it over there, they would wangle a little leave or get a little leave extended by simulating this purely nominal disease, and in the general carnival of lying, lechery, drink, and howling that this affair was, to pretend to a little shell-shock had seemed to her to be almost virtuous. At any rate if a man passed his time at garden parties — or, as for the last months Tietjens had done, passed his time in a tin hut amongst dust heaps, going to tea every afternoon in order to help Mrs Wannop with her newspaper articles — when men were so engaged they were, at least, not trying to kill each other.
She said now:
‘Do you mind telling me what actually happened to you?’ He said:
‘I don’t know that I can very well . . . Something burst — or “exploded” is probably the right word — near me, in the dark. I expect you’d rather not hear about it? . . . ’
‘I want to!’ Sylvia said.
‘The point about it is that I don’t know what happened and I don’t remember what I did. There are three weeks of my life dead . . . What I remember is being in a C.C.S. and not being able to remember my own name.’
‘You mean that?’ Sylvia asked. ‘It’s not just a way of talking?’
‘No, it’s not just a way of talking,’ Tietjens answered. ‘I lay in bed in the C.C.S . . . Your friends were dropping bombs on it.’
‘You might not call them my friends,’ Sylvia said. Tietjens said:
‘I beg your pardon. One gets into a loose way of speaking. The poor bloody Huns, then, were dropping bombs from aeroplanes on the hospital huts . . . I’m not suggesting they knew it was a C.C.S.; it was, no doubt, just carelessness . . .
‘You needn’t spare the Germans for me!’ Sylvia said. ‘You needn’t spare any man who has killed another man.’
‘I was, then, dreadfully worried,’ Tietjens went on. ‘I was composing a preface for a book on Arminianism . . . ’
‘You haven’t written a book! ‘ Sylvia exclaimed eagerly, because she thought that if Tietjens took to writing a book there might be a way of his earning a living. Many people had told her that he ought to write a book.
‘No, I hadn’t written a book,’ Tietjens said, ‘and I didn’t know what Arminianism was . . .
‘You know perfectly well what the Arminian heresy is,’ Sylvia said sharply; ‘you explained it all to me years ago.’
‘Yes,’ Tietjens exclaimed. ‘Years ago I could have, but I couldn’t then. I could now, but I was a little worried about it then. It’s a little awkward to write a preface about a subject of which you know nothing. But it didn’t seem to me to be discreditable in an army sense . . . Still it worried me dreadfully not to know my own name. I lay and worried and worried, and thought how discreditable it would appear if a nurse came along and asked me and I didn’t know. Of course my name was on a luggage label tied to my collar; but I’d forgotten they did that to casualties . . . Then a lot of people carried pieces of a nurse down the hut: the Germans’ bombs had done that of course. They were still dropping about the place.’
‘But good heavens,’ Sylvia cried out, ‘do you mean they carried a dead nurse past you? . . . ’
The poor dear wasn’t dead,’ Tietjens said. ‘I wish she had been. Her name was Beatrice Carmichael . . . the first name I learned after my collapse. She’s dead now of course . . . That seemed to wake up a fellow on the other side of the room with a lot of blood coming through the bandages on his head . . . He rolled out of his bed and, without a word, walked across the hut and began to strangle me . . . ’
‘But this isn’t believable,’ Sylvia said. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t believe it . . . You were an officer: they couldn’t have carried a wounded nurse under your nose. They must have known your sister Caroline was a nurse and was killed . . . ’
‘Carrie,’ Tietjens said, ‘was drowned on a hospital ship. I thank God I didn’t have to connect the other girl with her . . . But you don’t suppose that in addition to one’s name, rank, unit, and date of admission they’d put that I’d lost a sister and two brothers in action and a father — of a broken heart, I dare say . . . ’
‘But you only lost one brother,’ Sylvia said. ‘I went into mourning for him and your sister . . .
‘No, two,’ Tietjens said; ‘but the fellow who was strangling me was what I wanted to tell you about. He let out a number of ear-piercing shrieks and lots of orderlies came and pulled him off me and sat all over him. Then he began to shout ”Faith!“ He shouted: “Faith! . . . Faith! . . . Faith!’ . . . ” at intervals of two seconds, as far as I could tell by my pulse, until four in the morning, when he died . . . I don’t know whether it was a religious exhortation or a woman’s name, but I disliked him a good deal because he started my tortures, such as they were . . . There had been a girl I knew called Faith. Oh, not a love affair: the daughter of my father’s head gardener, a Scotsman. The point is that every time he said Faith I asked myself “Faith . . . Faith what?” I couldn’t remember the name of my father’s head gardener.’
Sylvia, who was thinking of other things, asked: ‘What was the name?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t know to this day . . . The point is that when I knew that I didn’t know that name, I was as ignorant, as uninstructed, as a new-born babe and much more worried about it . . . The Koran says — I’ve got as far as K in my reading of the Encyclopaedia Britannica every afternoon at Mrs Wannop’s —“The strong man when smitten is smitten in his pride!” . . . Of course I got King’s Regs. and the M.M.L. and Infantry Field Training and all the A.C.I.s to date by heart very quickly. And that’s all a British officer is really encouraged to know . . .
‘Oh, Christopher!’ Sylvia said. ’You read that encyclopaedia; it’s pitiful. You used to despise it so.’
‘That’s what’s meant by “smitten in his pride,"’ Tietjens said. ‘Of course what I read or hear now I remember . . . But I haven’t got to M, much less V. That was why I was worried about Metternich and the Congress of Vienna. I try to remember things on my own, but I haven’t yet done so. You see, it’s as if a certain area of my brain had been wiped white. Occasionally one name suggests another. You noticed, when I got Metternich it suggested Castlereagh and Wellington — and even other names . . . But that’s what the Department of Statistics will get me on. When they fire me out. The real reason will be that I’ve served. But they’ll pretend it’s because I’ve no more general knowledge than is to be found in the encyclopaedia: or two-thirds more or less — according to the duration of the war . . . Or, of course, the real reason will be that I won’t fake statistics to dish the French with. They asked me to, the other day, as a holiday task. And when I refused, you should have seen their faces.’
‘Have you really,’ Sylvia asked, ‘lost two brothers in action?’
‘Yes,’ Tietjens answered. ‘Curly and Longshanks. You never saw them because they were always in India. And they weren’t noticeable . . . ’
‘Two!‘ Sylvia said. ‘I only wrote to your father about one called Edward. And your sister Caroline. In the same letter . . . ’
‘Carrie wasn’t noticeable either,’ Tietjens said. ‘She did Charity Organization Society work . . . But I remember: you didn’t like her. She was the born old maid . . . ’
‘Christopher!’ Sylvia asked, ‘do you still think your mother died of a broken heart because I left you?’ Tietjens said:
‘Good God, no. I never thought so and I don’t think so. I know she didn’t.’
‘Then!‘ Sylvia exclaimed, ‘she died of a broken heart because I came back . . . It’s no good protesting that you don’t think so. I remember your face when you opened the telegram at Lobscheid. Miss Wannop forwarded it from Rye. I remember the postmark. She was born to do me ill. The moment you got it I could see you thinking that you must conceal from me that you thought it was because of me she died. I could see you wondering if it wouldn’t be practicable to conceal from me that she was dead. You couldn’t, of course, do that because, you remember, we were to have gone to Wiesbaden and show ourselves; and we couldn’t do that because we should have to be in mourning. So you took me to Russia to get out of taking me to the funeral.’
‘I took you to Russia,’ Tietjens said. ‘I remember it all now — because I had an order from Sir Robert Ingleby to assist the British Consul-General in preparing a Blue Book statistical table of the Government of Kiev . . . It appeared to be the most industrially promising region in the world in those days. It isn’t now, naturally. I shall never see back a penny of the money I put into it. I thought I was clever in those days . . . And of course, yes, the money was my mother’s settlement. It comes back . . . yes, of course . . .
‘Did you,’ Sylvia asked, ‘get out of taking me to your mother’s funeral because you thought I should defile your mother’s corpse by my presence? Or because you were afraid that in the presence of your mother’s body you wouldn’t be able to conceal from me that you thought I killed her? . . . Don’t deny it. And don’t get out of it by saying that you can’t remember those days. You’re remembering now: that I killed your mother: that Miss Wannop sent the telegram — why don’t you score it against her, that she sent the news? . . . Or, good God, why don’t you score it against yourself, as the wrath of the Almighty, that your mother was dying while you and that girl were croodling over each other? . . . At Rye! Whilst I was at Lobscheid . . .
Tietjens wiped his brow with his handkerchief.
‘Well, let’s drop that,’ Sylvia said. ‘God knows, I’ve no right to put a spoke in that girl’s wheel or in yours. If you love each other you’ve a right to happiness and I daresay she’ll make you happy. I can’t divorce you, being a Catholic; but I won’t make it difficult for you in other ways, and self-contained people like you and her will manage somehow. You’ll have learned the way from Macmaster and his mistress . . . But, oh, Christopher Tietjens, have you ever considered how foully you’ve used me!’
Tietjens looked at her attentively, as if with magpie anguish.
‘If,’ Sylvia went on with her denunciation, ‘you had once in our lives said to me: “You whore! You bitch! You killed my mother. May you rot in hell for it . . . ” If you’d only once said something like it . . . about the child! About Perowne! . . . you might have done something to bring us together . . . ’
‘That’s, of course, true!’
‘I know,’ Sylvia said, ‘you can’t help it . . . But when, in your famous county family pride — though a youngest son! — you say to yourself: And I daresay if . . . Oh, Christ! . . . you’re shot in the trenches you’ll say it . . . oh, between the saddle and the ground! that you never did a dishonourable action . . . And, mind you, I believe that no other man save one has ever had more right to say it than you . . . ’
‘You believe that!’
‘As I hope to stand before my Redeemer,’ Sylvia said, ‘I believe it: . . . But, in the name of the Almighty, how could any woman live beside you . . . and be for ever forgiven? Or no: not forgiven: ignored! . . . Well, be proud when you die because of your honour. But, God, be humble about . . . your errors in judgment. You know what it is to ride a horse for miles with too tight a curb-chain and its tongue cut almost in half . . . You remember the groom your father had who had the trick of turning the hunters out like that . . . And you horse-whipped him, and you’ve told me you’ve almost cried ever so often afterwards for thinking of that mare’s mouth . . . Well! Think of this mare’s mouth sometimes! You’ve ridden me like that for seven years . . .
She stopped and then went on again:
‘Don’t you know, Christopher Tietjens, that there is only one man from whom a woman could take ”Neither do I condemn thee“ and not hate him more than she hates the fiend! . . . ’
Tietjens so looked at her that he contrived to hold her attention.
‘I’d like you to let me ask you,’ he said, ‘how I could throw stones at you? I have never disapproved of your actions.’
Her hands dropped dispiritedly to her sides.
‘Oh, Christopher,’ she said, ‘don’t carry on that old playacting. I shall never see you again, very likely, to speak to. You’ll sleep with the Wannop girl to-night: you’re going out to be killed to-morrow. Let’s be straight for the next ten minutes or so. And give me your attention. The Wannop girl can spare that much if she’s to have all the rest . . . ’
She could see that he was giving her his whole mind.
‘As you said just now,’ he exclaimed slowly, ‘as I hope to meet my Redeemer, I believe you to be a good woman. One that never did a dishonourable thing.’
She recoiled a little in her chair.
‘Then she said, ‘you’re the wicked man I’ve always made believe to think you, though I didn’t.’
‘No! . . . Let me try to put it to you as I see it.’
‘No! . . . I’ve been a wicked woman. I have ruined you. I am not going to listen to you.’
‘I daresay you have ruined me. That’s nothing to me. I am completely indifferent.’
She cried out:
‘Oh! Oh! . . . Oh!’ on a note of agony.
Tietjens said doggedly:
‘I don’t care. I can’t help it. Those are — those should be — the conditions of life amongst decent people. When our next war comes I hope it will be fought out under those conditions. Let us, for God’s sake, talk of the gallant enemy. Always. We have got to plunder the French or millions of our people must starve: they have got to resist us successfully or be wiped out . . . It’s the same with you and me . . . ’
‘You mean to say that you don’t think I was wicked when I . . . when I trepanned is what mother calls it? . . . ’
He said loudly:
‘No! . . . You had been let in for it by some brute. I have always held that a woman who has been let down by one man has the right — has the duty for the sake of her child — to let down a man. It becomes woman against man: against one man. I happened to be that one man: it was the will of God. But you were within your rights. I will never go back on that. Nothing will make me, ever!’
‘And the others! And Perowne . . . I know you’ll say that anyone is justified in doing anything as long as they are open enough about it . . . But it killed your mother. Do you disapprove of my having killed your mother? Or you consider that I have corrupted the child . . . ’
‘I don’t . . . I want to speak to you about that.’
‘You don’t . . .!
He said calmly:
‘You know I don’t . . . while I was certain that I was going to be here to keep him straight and an Anglican, I fought your influence over him. I’m obliged to you for having brought up of yourself the considerations that I may be killed and that I am ruined. I am. I could not raise a hundred pounds between now and tomorrow. I am, therefore, obviously not the man to have sole charge of the heir of Groby.’
Sylvia was saying:
‘Every penny I have is at your disposal . . . ’ when the maid, Hullo Central, marched up to her master and placed a card in his hand. He said:
‘Tell him to wait five minutes in the drawing-room.’ Sylvia said:
‘Who is it?’
‘A man . . . Let’s get this settled. I’ve never thought you corrupted the boy. You tried to teach him to tell white lies. On perfectly straight Papist lines. I have no objection to Papists and no objection to white lies for Papists. You told him once to put a frog in Marchant’s bath. I’ve no objection to a boy putting a frog in his nurse’s bath, as such. But Marchant is an old woman, and the heir to Groby should respect old women always and old family servants in particular . . . It hasn’t, perhaps, struck you that the boy is heir to Groby . . .
‘If . . . if your second brother is killed . . . But your eldest brother . . . ’
‘He,’ Tietjens said, ‘has got a French woman near Euston station. He’s lived with her for over fifteen years, of afternoons, when there were no race meetings. She’ll never let him marry and she’s past the child-bearing stage. So there’s no one else . . .
‘You mean that I may bring the child up as a Catholic.’ Tietjens said:
‘A Roman Catholic . . . You’ll teach him, please, to use that term before myself if I ever see him again . . .
‘Oh, I thank God that He has softened your heart. This will take the curse off this house.’
Tietjens shook his head:
‘I think not,’ he said, ‘off you perhaps. Off Groby very likely. It was, perhaps, time that there should be a Papist owner of Groby again. You’ve read Spelden on sacrilege about Groby? . . . ’
‘Yes! The first Tietjens who came over with Dutch William, the swine, was pretty bad to the Papist owners . . .
‘He was a tough Dutchman,’ Tietjens said, ‘but let us get on! There’s enough time, but not too much . . . I’ve got this man to see.’
‘Who is he?’ Sylvia asked.
Tietjens was collecting his thoughts.
‘My dear!’ he said. ‘You’ll permit me to call you “my dear”? We’re old enemies enough and we’re talking about the future of our child.’
‘You said “our” child, not “the” child . . . ’
Tietjens said with a great deal of concern:
‘You will forgive me for bringing it up. You might prefer to think he was Drake’s child. He can’t be. It would be outside the course of nature . . . I’m as poor as I am because . . . forgive me . . . I’ve spent a great deal of money on tracing the movements of you and Drake before our marriage. And if it’s a relief to you to know . . . ’
‘It is,’ Sylvia said. ‘I . . . I’ve always been too beastly shy to put the matter before a specialist, or even before mother . . . And we women are so ignorant . . . ’
‘I know . . . I know you were too shy even to think about it yourself, hard.’ He went into months and days; then he continued: ‘But it would have made no difference: a child born in wedlock is by law the father’s, and if a man who’s a gentleman suffers the begetting of his child he must, in decency, take the consequences: the woman and the child must come before the man, be he who he may. And worse-begotten children than ours have inherited statelier names. And I loved the little beggar with all my heart and with all my soul from the first minute I saw him. That may be the secret clue, or it may be sheer sentimentality . . . So I fought your influence because it was Papist, while I was a whole man. But I’m not a whole man any more, and the evil eye that is on me might transfer itself to him.’
He stopped and said:
‘For I must to the greenwood go. Alone a broken man . . . But have him well protected against the evil eye . . .
‘Oh, Christopher,’ she said, ‘it’s true I’ve not been a bad woman to the child. And I never will be. And I will keep Marchant with him till she dies. You’ll tell her not to interfere with his religious instruction, and she won’t . . .
Tietjens said with a friendly weariness:
‘That’s right . . . and you’ll have Father . . . Father . . . the priest that was with us for a fortnight before he was born to give him his teachings. He was the best man I ever met and one of the most intelligent. It’s been a great comfort to me to think of the boy as in his hands . . .
Sylvia stood up, her eyes blazing out of a pallid face of stone:
‘Father Consett,’ she said, ‘was hung on the day they shot Casement. They dare not put it into the papers because he was a priest and all the witnesses Ulster witnesses . . . And yet I may not say this is an accursed war.’
Tietjens shook his head with the slow heaviness of an aged man.
‘You may for me . . . ’ he said. ‘You might ring the bell, will you? Don’t go away . . .
He sat with the blue gloom of that enclosed space all over him, lumped heavily in his chair.
‘Spelden on sacrilege,’ he said, ‘may be right after all. You’d say so from the Tietjenses. There’s not been a Tietjens since the first Lord Justice cheated the Papist Loundeses out of Groby, but died of a broken neck or of a broken heart: for all the fifteen thousand acres of good farming land and iron land, and for all the heather on the top of it . . . What’s the quotation: “Be ye something as something and something and ye shall not escape . . . ” What is it?’
‘Calumny!’ Sylvia said. She spoke with intense bitterness . . . ‘Chaste as ice and cold as . . . as you are . . . Tietjens said:
‘Yes! Yes . . . And mind you none of the Tietjens were ever soft. Not one! They had reason for their broken hearts . . . Take my poor father . . .
‘Both my brothers were killed in Indian regiments on the same day and not a mile apart. And my sister in the same week: out at sea, not so far from them . . . Unnoticeable people. But one can be fond of unnoticeable people . . .
Hullo Central was at the door. Tietjens told her to ask Lord Port Scatho to step down . . .
‘You must, of course, know these details,’ Tietjens said, ‘as the mother to my father’s heir . . . My father got the three notifications on the same day. It was enough to break his heart. He only lived a month. I saw him . . . ’
Sylvia screamed piercingly:
‘Stop! stop! stop!’ She clutched at the mantelpiece to hold herself up. ‘Your father died of a broken heart,’ she said, ‘because your brother’s best friend, Ruggles, told him you were a squit who lived on women’s money and had got the daughter of his oldest friend with child . . . ’
‘Oh! Ah! Yes! . . . I suspected that. I know it, really. I suppose the poor dear knows better now. Or perhaps he doesn’t . . . It doesn’t matter.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54