It has been remarked that the peculiarly English habit of self-suppression in matters of the emotion puts the Englishman at a great disadvantage in moments of unusual stresses. In the smaller matters of the general run of life he will be impeccable and not to be moved; but in sudden confrontations of anything but physical dangers he is apt — he is, indeed, almost certain — to go to pieces very badly. This, at least, was the view of Christopher Tietjens, and he very much dreaded his interview with Lord Port Scatho — because he feared that he must be near breaking point.
In electing to be peculiarly English in habits and in as much of his temperament as he could control — for, though no man can choose the land of his birth or his ancestry, he can, if he have industry and determination, so watch over himself as materially to modify his automatic habits — Tietjens had quite advisedly and of set purpose adopted a habit of behaviour that he considered to be the best in the world for the normal life. If every day and all day long you chatter at high pitch and with the logic and lucidity of the Frenchman; if you shout in self-assertion, with your hat on your stomach, bowing from a stiff spine and by implication threaten all day long to shoot your interlocutor, like the Prussian; if you are as lachrymally emotional as the Italian, or as drily and epigrammatically imbecile over inessentials as the American, you will have a noisy, troublesome and thoughtless society without any of the surface calm that should distinguish the atmosphere of men when they are together. You will never have deep arm-chairs in which to sit for hours in clubs, thinking of nothing at all — or of the off-theory in bowling. On the other hand, in the face of death — except at sea, by fire, railway accident, or accidental drowning in rivers; in the face of madness, passion, dishonour or — and particularly — prolonged mental strain, you will have all the disadvantages of the beginner at any game and may come off very badly indeed. Fortunately death, love, public dishonour and the like are rare occurrences in the life of the average man, so that the great advantage would seem to have lain with English society; at any rate before the later months of the year 1914. Death for man came but once: the danger of death so seldom as to be practically negligible: love of a distracting kind was a disease merely of the weak: public dishonour for persons of position, so great was the hushing-up power of the ruling class and the power of absorption of the remoter Colonies, was practically unknown.
Tietjens found himself now faced by all these things, coming upon him cumulatively and rather suddenly, and he had before him an interview that might cover them all and with a man whom he much respected and very much desired not to hurt. He had to face these, moreover, with a brain two-thirds of which felt numb. It was exactly like that.
It was not so much that he couldn’t use what brain he had as trenchantly as ever: it was that there were whole regions of fact upon which he could no longer call in support of his argument. His knowledge of history was still practically negligible: he knew nothing whatever of the humaner letters and, what was far worse, nothing at all of the higher and more sensuous phrases of mathematics. And the coming back of these things was much slower than he had confessed to Sylvia. It was with these disadvantages that he had to face Lord Port Scatho.
Lord Port Scatho was the first man of whom Sylvia Tietjens had thought when she had been considering of men who were absolutely honourable, entirely benevolent . . . and rather lacking in constructive intelligence. He had inherited the management of one of the most respected of the great London banks, so that his commercial and social influences were very extended: he was extremely interested in promoting Low Church interests, the reform of the divorce laws and sports for the people, and he had a great affection for Sylvia Tietjens. He was forty-five, beginning to put on weight, but by no means obese; he had a large, quite round head; very high-coloured cheeks that shone as if with frequent ablutions; an uncropped, dark moustache, dark, very cropped, smooth hair; brown eyes; a very new grey tweed suit, a very new grey Trilby hat, a black tie in a gold ring, and very new patent leather boots that had white calf tops. He had a wife almost the spit of himself in face, figure, probity, kindliness, and interests, except that for his interest in sports for the people she substituted that for maternity hospitals. His heir was his nephew, Mr Brownlie, known as Brownie, who would also be physically the exact spit of his uncle, except that, not having put on flesh, he appeared to be taller and that his moustache and hair were both a little longer and more fair. This gentleman entertained for Sylvia Tietjens a gloomy and deep passion that he considered to be perfectly honourable because he desired to marry her after she had divorced her husband. Tietjens he desired to ruin because he considered Tietjens to be an undesirable person of no great means. Of this passion Lord Port Scatho was ignorant.
He now came into the Tietjens’ dining-room, behind the servant, holding an open letter: he walked rather stiffly because he was very much worried. He observed that Sylvia had been crying and was still wiping her eyes. He looked round the room to see if he could see in it anything to account for Sylvia’s crying. Tietjens was still sitting at the head of the lunch-table: Sylvia was rising from a chair beside the fireplace.
Lord Port Scatho said:
‘I want to see you, Tietjens, for a minute on business.’ Tietjens said:
‘I can give you ten minutes . . . ’
Lord Port Scatho said:
‘Mrs Tietjens perhaps . . . ’
He waved the open letter towards Mrs Tietjens. Tietjens said:
‘No! Mrs Tietjens will remain.’ He desired to say something more friendly. He said: ‘Sit down.’
Lord Port Scatho said:
‘I shan’t be stopping a minute. But really . . . and he moved the letter, but not with so wide a gesture, towards Sylvia.
‘I have no secrets from Mrs Tietjens,’ Tietjens said. ‘Absolutely none . . . ’
Lord Port Scatho said:
‘No, of course not . . . But . . . ’
‘Similarly, Mrs Tietjens has no secrets from me. Again absolutely none.’
‘I don’t, of course, tell Tietjens about my maid’s love affairs or what the fish costs every day.’
‘You’d better sit down.’ He added on an impulse of kindness: ‘As a matter of fact, I was just clearing up things for Sylvia to take over . . . this command.’ It was part of the disagreeableness of his mental disadvantages that upon occasion he could not think of other than military phrases. He felt intense annoyance. Lord Port Scatho affected him with some of the slight nausea that in those days you felt at contact with the civilian who knew none of your thoughts, phrases or preoccupations. He added, nevertheless equably:
‘One has to clear up. I’m going out.’
Lord Port Scatho said hastily:
‘Yes; yes, I won’t keep you. One has so many engagements in spite of the war . . . ’ His eyes wandered in bewilderment. Tietjens could see them at last fixing themselves on the oil stains that Sylvia’s salad dressing had left on his collar and green tabs. He said to himself that he must remember to change his tunic before he went to the War Office. He must not forget. Lord Port Scatho’s bewilderment at these oil stains was such that he had lost himself in the desire to account for them . . . You could see the slow thoughts moving inside his square, polished brown forehead. Tietjens wanted very much to help him. He wanted to say: ‘It’s about Sylvia’s letter that you’ve got in your hand, isn’t it?’ But Lord Port Scatho had entered the room with the stiffness, with the odd, high-collared sort of gait that on formal and unpleasant occasions Englishmen use when they approach each other; braced up, a little like strange dogs meeting in the street. In view of that, Tietjens couldn’t say ‘Sylvia.’ . . . But it would add to the formality and unpleasantness if he said again ‘Mrs Tietjens!’ That wouldn’t help Port Scatho . . .
Sylvia said suddenly:
‘You don’t understand, apparently. My husband is going out to the front line. To-morrow morning. It’s for the second time.’
Lord Port Scatho sat down suddenly on a chair beside the table. With his fresh face and brown eyes suddenly anguished he exclaimed:
‘But, my dear fellow! You! Good God!’ and then to Sylvia: ‘I beg your pardon!’ To clear his mind he said again to Tietjens: ’You! Going out to-morrow!’ And, when the idea was really there, his face suddenly cleared. He looked with a swift, averted glance at Sylvia’s face and then for a fixed moment at Tietjens’ oil-stained tunic. Tietjens could see him explaining to himself with immense enlightenment that that explained both Sylvia’s tears and the oil on the tunic. For Port Scatho might well imagine that officers went to the conflict in their oldest clothes . . .
But, if his puzzled brain cleared, his distressed mind became suddenly distressed doubly. He had to add to the distress he had felt on entering the room and finding himself in the midst of what he took to be a highly emotional family parting. And Tietjens knew that during the whole war Port Scatho had never witnessed a family parting at all. Those that were not inevitable he would avoid like the plague, and his own nephew and all his wife’s nephews were in the bank. That was quite proper, for if the ennobled family of Brownlie were not of the Ruling Class — who had to go! — they were of the Administrative Class, who were privileged to stay. So he had seen no partings.
Of his embarrassed hatred of them he gave immediate evidence. For he first began several sentences of praise of Tietj ens’ heroism which he was unable to finish and then, getting quickly out of his chair, exclaimed:
‘In the circumstances then . . . the little matter I came about . . . I couldn’t of course think . . .
‘No; don’t go. The matter you came about — I know all about it of course — had better be settled.’
Port Scatho sat down again: his jaw fell slowly: under his bronzed complexion his skin became a shade paler. He said at last:
‘You know what I came about? But then . . .
His ingenuous and kindly mind could be seen to be working with reluctance: his athletic figure drooped. He pushed the letter that he still held along the tablecloth towards Tietjens. He said, in the voice of one awaiting a reprieve:
‘But you can’t be . . . aware . . . Not of this letter . . .
Tietjens left the letter on the cloth, from there he could read the large handwriting on the blue-grey paper:
‘Mrs Christopher Tietjens presents her compliments to Lord Port Scatho and the Honourable Court of Benchers of the Inn . . . 2 He wondered where Sylvia had got hold of that phraseology: he imagined it to be fantastically wrong. He said:
‘I have already told you that I know about this letter, as I have already told you that I know — and I will add that I approve! — of all Mrs Tietjens’ actions . . . ’ With his hard blue eyes he looked browbeatingly into Port Scatho’s soft brown orbs, knowing that he was sending the message: ‘Think what you please and be damned to you!’
The gentle brown things remained on his face; then they filled with an expression of deep pain. Port Scatho cried:
‘But good God! Then . . . ’
He looked at Tietjens again. His mind, which took refuge from life in the affairs of the Low Church, of Divorce Law Reform and of Sports for the People, became a sea of pain at the contemplation of strong situations. His eyes said:
‘For heaven’s sake do not tell me that Mrs Duchemin, the mistress of your dearest friend, is the mistress of yourself, and that you take this means of wreaking a vulgar spite on them.’
Tietjens, leaning heavily forward, made his eyes as enigmatic as he could; he said very slowly and very clearly:
‘Mrs Tietjens is, of course, not aware of all the circumstances.’
Port Scatho threw himself back in his chair.
‘I don’t understand!’ he said. ‘I do not understand. How am I to act? You do not wish me to act on this letter? You can’t!’
Tietjens, who found himself, said:
‘You had better talk to Mrs Tietjens about that. I will say something myself later. In the meantime let me say that Mrs Tietjens would seem to me to be quite within her rights. A lady, heavily veiled, comes here every Friday and remains until four on the Saturday morning . . . If you are prepared to palliate the proceeding you had better do so to Mrs Tietjens . . . ’
Port Scatho turned agitatedly on Sylvia.
‘I can’t, of course, palliate,’ he said. ‘God forbid . . . But, my dear Sylvia . . . my dear Mrs Tietjens. In the case of two people so much esteemed! . . . We have, of course, argued the matter of principle. It is a part of a subject I have very much at heart: the granting of divorce . . . civil divorce, at least . . . in cases in which one of the parties to the marriage is in a lunatic asylum. I have sent you the pamphlets of E. S. P. Haynes that we publish. I know that as a Roman Catholic you hold strong views . . . I do not, I assure you, stand for latitude . . . ’ He became then simply eloquent: he really had the matter at heart, one of his sisters having been for many years married to a lunatic. He expatiated on the agonies of this situation all the more eloquently in that it was the only form of human distress which he had personally witnessed.
Sylvia took a long look at Tietjens: he imagined for counsel. He looked at her steadily for a moment, then at Port Scatho, who was earnestly turned to her, then back at her. He was trying to say:
‘Listen to Port Scatho for a minute. I need time to think of my course of action!’
He needed, for the first time in his life, time to think of his course of action.
He had been thinking with his under mind ever since Sylvia had told him that she had written her letter to the benchers denouncing Macmaster and his woman; ever since Sylvia had reminded him that Mrs Duchemin in the Edinburgh to London express of the day before the war had been in his arms he had seen, with extraordinary clearness, a great many north country scenes though he could not affix names to all the places. The forgetfulness of the names was abnormal: he ought to know the names of places from Berwick down to the vale of York — but that he should have forgotten the incidents was normal enough. They had been of little importance: he preferred not to remember the phases of his friend’s love affair; moreover, the events that happened immediately afterwards had been of a nature to make one forget quite normally what had just preceded them. That Mrs Duchemin should be sobbing on his shoulder in a locked corridor carriage hadn’t struck him as in the least important: she was the mistress of his dearest friend: she had had a very trying time for a week or so, ending in a violent, nervous quarrel with her agitated lover. She was, of course, crying off the effects of the quarrel which had been all the more shaking in that Mrs Duchemin, like himself, had always been almost too self-contained. As a matter of fact, he did not himself like Mrs Duchemin, and he was pretty certain that she herself more than a little disliked him; so that nothing but their common feeling for Macmaster had brought them together. General Campion, however, was not to know that . . . He had looked into the carriage in the way one does in a corridor just after the train had left . . . He couldn’t remember the name . . . Doncaster . . . No! . . . Darlington; it wasn’t that. At Darlington there was a model of the Rocket . . . or perhaps it isn’t the Rocket. An immense clumsy leviathan of a locomotive by . . . by . . . The great gloomy stations of the north-going trains . . . Durham . . . No! Alnwick . . . No! . . . Wooler . . . By God! Woolen! The junction for Bamborough . . .
It had been in one of the castles at Bamborough that he and Sylvia had been staying with the Sandbachs. Then . . . a name had come into his mind spontaneously! . . . Two names! . . . It was, perhaps, the turn of the tide! For the first time . . . To be marked with a red stone . . . after this: some names, sometimes, on the tip of the tongue, might come over! He had, however, to get on . . .
The Sandbachs, then, and he and Sylvia . . . others too . . . had been in Bamborough since mid-July: Eton and Harrow at Lord’s, waiting for the real house parties that would come with the 12th . . . He repeated these names and dates to himself for the personal satisfaction of knowing that, amongst the repairs effected in his mind, these two remained: Eton and Harrow, the end of the London season: 12th of August, grouse shooting begins . . . It was pitiful . . .
When General Campion had come up to rejoin his sister he, Tietjens, had stopped only two days. The coolness between the two of them remained; it was the first time they had met, except in Court, after the accident . . . For Mrs Wannop, with grim determination, had sued the General for the loss of her horse. It had lived all right — but it was only fit to draw a lawn-mower for cricket pitches . . . Mrs Wannop, then, had gone bald-headed for the General, partly because she wanted the money, partly because she wanted a public reason for breaking with the Sandbachs. The General had been equally obstinate and had undoubtedly perjured himself in Court: not the best, not the most honourable, the most benevolent man in the world would not turn oppressor of the widow and orphan when his efficiency as a chauffeur was impugned or the fact brought to light that at a very dangerous turning he hadn’t sounded his horn. Tietjens had sworn that he hadn’t: the General that he had. There could not be any question of doubt, for the horn was a beastly thing that made a prolonged noise like that of a terrified peacock . . . So Tietjens had not, till the end of that July, met the General again. It had been quite a proper thing for gentlemen to quarrel over and was quite convenient, though it had cost the General fifty pounds for the horse and, of course, a good bit over for costs. Lady Claudine had refused to interfere in the matter: she was privately of opinion that the General hadn’t sounded his horn, but the General was both a passionately devoted and explosive brother. She had remained closely intimate with Sylvia, mildly cordial with Tietjens and had continued to ask the Wannops to such of her garden parties as the General did not attend. She was also very friendly with Mrs Duchemin.
Tietjens and the General had met with the restrained cordiality of English gentlemen who had some years before accused each other of perjury in a motor accident. On the second morning a violent quarrel had broken out between them on the subject of whether the General had or hadn’t sounded his horn. The General had ended up by shouting . . . really shouting:
‘By God! If I ever get you under my command . . . ’
Tietjens remembered that he had quoted and given the number of a succinct paragraph in King’s Regs. dealing with the fate of general or higher field officers who gave their subordinates bad confidential reports because of private quarrels. The General had exploded into noise that ended in laughter.
‘What a rag-bag of a mind you have, Chrissie!’ he said. ‘What’s King’s Regs. to you? And how do you know it’s paragraph 66 or whatever you say it is? I don’t.’ He added more seriously: ’What a fellow you are for getting into obscure rows! What in the world do you do it for?’
That afternoon Tietjens had gone to stop, a long way up in the moors, with his son, the nurse, his sister Effie and her children. They were the last days of happiness he was to know and he hadn’t known so many. He was then content. He played with his boy, who, thank God, was beginning to grow healthy at last. He walked about the moors with his sister Effie, a large, plain, parson’s wife, who had no conversation at all, though at times they talked of their mother. The moors were like enough to those above Groby to make them happy. They lived in a bare, grim farmhouse, drank great quantities of buttermilk and ate great quantities of Wensleydale. It was the hard, frugal life of his desire, and his mind was at rest.
His mind was at rest because there was going to be a war. From the first moment of his reading the paragraph about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand he had known that, calmly and with assurance. Had he imagined that his country would come in he would not have known a mind at rest. He loved this country for the run of its hills, the shape of its elm trees and the way the heather, running uphill to the skyline, meets the blue of heavens. War for this country could only mean humiliation, spreading under the sunlight, an almost invisible pall, over the elms, the hills, the heather, like the vapour that spread from . . . oh, Middlesbrough! We were fitted neither for defeat nor for victory: we could be true to neither friend nor foe. Not even to ourselves!
But of war for us he had no fear. He saw our Ministry sitting tight till the opportune moment and then grabbing a French channel port or a few German colonies as the price of neutrality. And he was thankful to be out of it; for his back-doorway out — his second! — was the French Foreign Legion. First Sylvia: then that! Two tremendous disciplines: for the soul and for the body.
The French he admired: for their tremendous efficiency, for their frugality of life, for the logic of their minds, for their admirable achievements in the arts, for their neglect of the industrial system, for their devotion, above all, to the eighteenth century. It would be restful to serve, if only as a slave, people who saw clearly, coldly, straight, not obliquely and with hypocrisy only, such things as should deviously conduce to the standard of comfort of hogs and to lecheries winked at . . . He would rather sit for hours on a bench in a barrack-room polishing a badge in preparation for the cruellest of route marches of immense lengths under the Algerian sun.
For, as to the Foreign Legion, he had had no illusion. You were treated not as a hero but as a whipped dog; he was aware of all the asticoteries, the cruelties, the weight of the rifle, the cells. You would have six months of training in the desert and then be hurtled into the line to be massacred without remorse . . . as foreign dirt. But the prospect seemed to him one of deep peace: he had never asked for soft living and now was done with it . . . The boy was healthy; Sylvia, with the economies they had made, very rich . . . and even at that date he was sure that if the friction of himself, Tietjens, were removed, she would make a good mother . . .
Obviously he might survive; but after that tremendous physical drilling what survived would not be himself, but a man with cleaned, sand-dried bones: a clear mind. His private ambition had always been for saintliness: he must be able to touch pitch and not be defiled. That he knew marked him off as belonging to the sentimental branch of humanity. He couldn’t help it: Stoic or Epicurean: Caliph in the harem or Dervish desiccating in the sand: one or the other you must be. And his desire was to be a saint of the Anglican variety . . . as his mother had been, without convent, ritual, vows, or miracles to be performed by your relics! That sainthood, truly, the Foreign Legion might give you . . . The desire of every English gentleman from Colonel Hutchinson upwards . . . A mysticism . . .
Remembering the clear sunlight of those naivetés — though in his blue gloom he had abated no jot of the ambition — Tietjens sighed deeply as he came back for a moment to regard his dining-room. Really, it was to see how much time he had left in which to think out what to say to Port Scatho . . . Port Scatho had moved his chair over to beside Sylvia and, almost touching her, was leaning over and recounting the griefs of his sister who was married to a lunatic. Tietjens gave himself again for a moment to the luxury of self-pity. He considered that he was dull-minded, heavy, ruined, and so calumniated that at times he believed in his own infamy, for it is impossible to stand up for ever against the obloquy of your kind and remain unhurt in the mind. If you hunch your shoulders too long against a storm your shoulders will grow bowed . . .
His mind stopped for a moment and his eyes gazed dully at Sylvia’s letter which lay open on the tablecloth. His thoughts came together, converging on the loosely written words:
‘For the last nine months a woman . . . ’
He wondered swiftly what he had already said to Port Scatho: only that he had known of his wife’s letter; not when! And that he approved! Well, on principle! He sat up. To think that one could be brought down to thinking so slowly!
He ran swiftly over what had happened in the train from Scotland and before . . .
Macmaster had turned up one morning beside their breakfast table in the farm house, much agitated, looking altogether too small in a cloth cap and a new grey tweed suit. He had wanted £50 to pay his bill with: at some place up the line above . . . above . . . Berwick suddenly flashed into Tietjens’ mind . . .
That was the geographic position. Sylvia was at Bamborough on the coast (junction Wooler); he, himself, to the north-west, on the moors. Macmaster to the northeast of him, just over the border: in some circumspect beauty spot where you did not meet people. Both Macmaster and Mrs Duchemin would know that country and gurgle over its beastly literary associations . . . The Shirra! Maida! Pet Marjorie . . . Faugh I Macmaster would, no doubt, turn an honest penny by writing articles about it and Mrs Duchemin would hold his hand . . .
She had become Macmaster’s mistress, as far as Tietjens knew, after a dreadful scene in the rectory, Duchemin having mauled his wife like a savage dog, and Macmaster in the house . . . It was natural: a Sadix reaction as it were. But Tietjens rather wished they hadn’t. Now it appeared they had been spending a week together . . . or more. Duchemin by that time was in an asylum . . .
From what Tietjens had made out they had got out of bed early one morning to take a boat and see the sunrise on some lake and had passed an agreeable day together quoting, ‘Since when we stand side by side only hands may meet’ and other poems of Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, no doubt to justify their sin. On coming home they had run their boat’s nose into the tea-table of the Port Scathos with Mr Brownlie, the nephew, just getting out of a motor to join them. The Port Scatho group were spending the night at the Macmasters’ hotel which backed on to the lake. It was the ordinary damn sort of thing that must happen in these islands that are only a few yards across.
The Macmasters appear to have lost their heads frightfully, although Lady Port Scatho had been as motherly as possible to Mrs Duchemin; so motherly, indeed, that if they had not been unable to observe anything, they might have recognized the Port Scathos as backers rather than spies upon themselves. It was, no doubt, however, Brown-lie who had upset them: he wasn’t very civil to Macmaster, whom he knew as a friend of Tietjens. He had dashed up from London in his motor to consult his uncle, who was dashing down from the west of Scotland, about the policy of the bank in that moment of crisis . . .
Macmaster, anyhow, did not spend the night in the hotel, but went to Jedburgh or Melrose or some such place, turning up again almost before it was light to have a frightful interview about five in the morning with Mrs Duchemin, who, towards three, had come to a disastrous conclusion as to her condition. They had lost their nerves for the first time in their association, and they had lost them very badly indeed, the things that Mrs Duchemin said to Macmaster seeming almost to have passed belief . . .
Thus, when Macmaster turned up at Tietjens’ breakfast, he was almost out of his mind. He wanted Tietjens to go over in the motor he had brought, pay the bill at the hotel, and travel down to town with Mrs Duchemin, who was certainly in no condition to travel alone. Tietjens was also to make up the quarrel with Mrs Duchemin and to lend Macmaster £50 in cash, as it was then impossible to change cheques anywhere. Tietjens got the money from his old nurse, who, because she distrusted banks, carried great sums in £5 notes in a pocket under her under-petticoat.
Macmaster, pocketing the money, had said:
‘That makes exactly two thousand guineas that I owe you. I’m making arrangements to repay you next week . . .
Tietjens remembered that he had rather stiffened and had said: ‘For God’s sake don’t. I beg you not to. Have Duchemin properly put under trustee in lunacy, and leave his capital alone. I really beg you. You don’t know what you’ll be letting yourselves in for. You don’t owe me anything and you can always draw on me.’
Tietjens never knew what Mrs Duchemin had done about her husband’s estate over which she had at that date had a power of attorney; but he had imagined that, from that time on, Macmaster had felt a certain coldness for himself and that Mrs Duchemin had hated him. During several years Macmaster had been borrowing hundreds at a time from Tietjens. The affair with Mrs Duchemin had cost her lover a good deal; he had week-ended almost continuously in Rye at the expensive hostel. Moreover, the famous Friday parties for geniuses had been going on for several years now, and these had meant new furnishings, bindings, carpets, and loans to geniuses — at any rate before Macmaster had had the ear of the Royal Bounty. So the sum had grown to £2,000, and now to guineas. And, from that date, the Macmasters had not offered any repayment.
Macmaster had said that he dare not travel with Mrs Duchemin because all London would be going south by that train. All London had. It pushed in at every conceivable and inconceivable station all down the line — it was the great rout of the 3-8-14. Tietjens had got on board at Berwick, where they were adding extra coaches, and by giving a £5 note to the guard, who hadn’t been able to promise isolation for any distance, had got a locked carriage. It hadn’t remained locked for long enough to let Mrs Duchemin have her cry out — but it had apparently served to make some mischief. The Sandbach party had got on, no doubt at Wooler; the Port Scatho party somewhere else. Their petrol had run out somewhere and sales were stopped, even to bankers. Macmaster, who after all had travelled by the same train, hidden beneath two bluejackets, had picked up Mrs Duchemin at King’s Cross and that had seemed the end of it.
Tietjens, back in his dining-room, felt relief and also anger. He said:
‘Port Scatho. Time’s getting short. I’d like to deal with this letter if you don’t mind.’
Port Scatho came as if up out of a dream. He had found the process of attempting to convert Mrs Tietjens to divorce law reform very pleasant — as he always did. He said:
‘Yes! . . . Oh, yes!’
Tietjens said slowly:
‘If you can listen . . . Macmaster has been married to Mrs Duchemin exactly nine months . . . Have you got that? Mrs Tietjens did not know this till this afternoon. The period Mrs Tietjens complains of in her letter is nine months. She did perfectly right to write the letter. As such I approve of it. If she had known that the Macmasters were married she would not have written it. I didn’t know she was going to write it. If I had known she was going to write it, I should have requested her not to. If I had requested her not to she would, no doubt, have done so. I did know of the letter at the moment of your coming in. I had heard of it at lunch only ten minutes before. I should, no doubt, have heard of it before, but this is the first time I have lunched at home in four months. I have to-day had a day’s leave as being warned for foreign service. I have been doing duty at Ealing. To-day is the first opportunity I have had for serious business conversation with Mrs Tietjens . . . Have you got all that? . . . ’
Port Scatho was running towards Tietjens, his hand extended, and over his whole shining personage the air of an enraptured bridegroom. Tietjens moved his right hand a little to the right, thus eluding the pink, well-fleshed hand of Port Scatho. He went on frigidly:
‘You had better, in addition, know as follows: The late Mr Duchemin was a scatological — afterwards a homicidal — lunatic. He had recurrent fits, usually on a Saturday morning. That was because he fasted — not abstained merely — on Fridays. On Fridays he also drank. He had acquired the craving for drink when fasting, from finishing the sacramental wine after communion services. That is a not unknown occurrence. He behaved latterly with great physical violence to Mrs Duchemin. Mrs Duchemin, on the other hand, treated him with the utmost consideration and concern: she might have had him certified much earlier, but, considering the pain that confinement must cause him during his lucid intervals, she refrained. I have been an eye-witness of the most excruciating heroisms on her part. As for the behaviour of Macmaster and Mrs Duchemin, I am ready to certify — and I believe society accepts — that it has been most . . . oh, circumspect and right! . . . There has been no secret of their attachment to each other. I believe that their determination to behave with decency during their period of waiting has not been questioned . . . ’
Lord Port Scatho said:
‘No! no! Never . . . Most . . . as you say . . . circumspect and, yes . . . right!’
‘Mrs Duchemin,’ Tietjens continued, ‘has presided at Macmaster’s literary Fridays for a long time; of course since long before they were married. But, as you know, Macmaster’s Fridays have been perfectly open: you might almost call them celebrated . . . ’
Lord Port Scatho said:
‘Yes! yes! indeed . . . I sh’d be only too glad to have a ticket for Lady Port Scatho . . . ’
‘She’s only got to walk in,’ Tietjens said. ‘I’ll warn them: they’ll be pleased . . . If, perhaps, you don’t look in to-night! They have a special party . . . But Mrs Macmaster was always attended by a young lady who saw her off by the last train to Rye. Or I very frequently saw her off myself, Macmaster being occupied by the weekly article that he wrote for one of the papers on Friday nights . . . They were married on the day after Mr Duchemin’s funeral . . .
‘You can’t blame ’em!’ Lord Port Scatho proclaimed.
‘I don’t propose to,’ Tietjens said. ‘The really frightful tortures Mrs Duchemin had suffered justified — and indeed necessitated — her finding protection and sympathy at the earliest possible moment. They have deferred this announcement of their union partly out of respect for the usual period of mourning, partly because Mrs Duchemin feels very strongly that, with all the suffering that is now abroad, wedding feasts and signs of rejoicing on the part of non-participants are eminently to be deprecated. Still, the little party of to-night is by the way of being an announcement that they are married . . . ’ He paused to reflect for a moment.
‘I perfectly understand!’ Lord Port Scatho exclaimed. ‘I perfectly approve. Believe me, I and Lady Port Scatho will do everything . . . Everything! Most admirable people . . . Tietjens, my dear fellow, your behaviour . . . most handsome . . . ’
‘Wait a minute . . . There was an occasion in August, ‘14. In a place on the border. I can’t remember the name . . .
Lord Port Scatho burst out:
‘My dear fellow . . . I beg you won’t . . . I beseech you not to . . . ’
Tietjens went on:
Just before then Mr Duchemin had made an attack on his wife of an unparalleled violence. It was that that caused his final incarceration. She was not only temporarily disfigured, but she suffered serious internal injuries and, of course, great mental disturbance. It was absolutely necessary that she should have change of scene . . . But I think you will bear me out that, in that case too, their behaviour was . . . again, circumspect and right . . .
Port Scatho said:
‘I know; I know . . . Lady Port Scatho and I agreed — even without knowing what you have just told me — that the poor things almost exaggerated it . . . He slept, of course, at Jedburgh?
‘Yes! They almost exaggerated it . . . I had to be called in to take Mrs Duchemin home . . . It caused, apparently, misunderstandings . . . ’
Port Scatho — full of enthusiasm at the thought that at least two unhappy victims of the hateful divorce laws had, with decency and circumspectness, found the haven of their desires — burst out:
‘By God, Tietjens, if I ever hear a man say a word against you . . . Your splendid championship of your friend . . . Your . . . your unswerving devotion . . . ’
‘Wait a minute, Port Scatho, will you?’ He was unbuttoning the flap of his breast pocket.
‘A man who can act so splendidly in one instance,’ Port Scatho said . . . ‘And your going to France . . . If any one . . . if any one . . . dares . . .
At the sight of a vellum-coloured, green-edged book in Tietjens’ hand Sylvia suddenly stood up; as Tietjens took from an inner flap a cheque that had lost its freshness she made three great strides over the carpet to him.
‘Oh, Chrissie! . . . ’ she cried out. ‘He hasn’t . . . That beast hasn’t . . . ’
‘He has . . . ’ He handed the soiled cheque to the banker. Port Scatho looked at it with slow bewilderment.
‘“Account overdrawn,"’ he read. ‘Brownie’s . . . my nephew’s handwriting . . . To the club . . . It’s . . . ’
‘You aren’t going to take it lying down?’ Sylvia said. ‘Oh, thank goodness, you aren’t going to take it lying down’
‘No! I’m not going to take it lying down,’ Tietjens said. ‘Why should I?’ A look of hard suspicion came over the banker’s face.
‘You appear,’ he said, ‘to have been overdrawing your account. People should not overdraw their accounts. For what sum are you overdrawn?’
Tietjens handed his pass-book to Port Scatho.
‘I don’t understand on what principle you work,’ Sylvia said to Tietjens. ‘There are things you take lying down; this you don’t.’
‘It doesn’t matter, really. Except for the child.’
‘I guaranteed an overdraft for you up to a thousand pounds last Thursday. You can’t be overdrawn over a thousand pounds.’
‘I’m not overdrawn at all,’ Tietjens said. ‘I was for about fifteen pounds yesterday. I didn’t know it.’
Port Scatho was turning over the pages of the passbook, his face completely blank.
‘I simply don’t understand,’ he said. ‘You appear to be in credit . . . You appear always to have been in credit except for a small sum now and then. For a day or two.’
‘I was overdrawn,’ Tietjens said, ‘for fifteen pounds yesterday. I should say for three or four hours: the course of a post, from my army agent to your head office. During these two or three hours your bank selected two out of six of my cheques to dishonour — both being under two pounds. The other one was sent back to my mess at Ealing, who won’t, of course, give it back to me. That also is marked “account overdrawn,” and in the same handwriting.’
‘But good God,’ the banker said. ‘That means your ruin.’
‘It certainly means my ruin,’ Tietjens said. ‘It was meant to.
‘But,’ the banker said — a look of relief came into his face which had begun to assume the aspect of a broken man’s —‘you must have other accounts with the bank . . . a speculative one, perhaps, on which you are heavily down . . . I don’t myself attend to clients’ accounts, except the very huge ones, which affect the bank’s policy.’
‘You ought to,’ Tietjens said. ‘It’s the very little ones you ought to attend to, as a gentleman making his fortune out of them. I have no other account with you. I have never speculated in anything in my life. I have lost a great deal in Russian securities — a great deal for me. But so, no doubt, have you.’
‘Then . . . betting!’ Port Scatho said.
‘I never put a penny on a horse in my life,’ Tietjens said. ‘I know too much about them.’
Port Scatho looked at the faces first of Sylvia, then of Tietjens. Sylvia, at least, was his very old friend. She said:
‘Christopher never bets and never speculates. His personal expenses are smaller than those of any man in town. You could say he had no personal expenses.’
Again the swift look of suspicion came into Port Scatho’s open face.
‘Oh,’ Sylvia said, ‘you couldn’t suspect Christopher and me of being in a plot to blackmail you.’
‘No; I couldn’t suspect that,’ the banker said. ‘But the other explanation is just as extraordinary . . . To suspect the bank . . . the bank . . . How do you account? . . . ’ He was addressing Tietjens; his round head seemed to become square, below; emotion worked on his jaws.
‘I’ll tell you simply this,’ Tietjens said. ‘You can then repair the matter as you think fit. Ten days ago I got my marching orders. As soon as I had handed over to the officer who relieved me I drew cheques for everything I owed — to my military tailor, the mess — for one pound twelve shillings. I had also to buy a compass and a revolver, the Red Cross orderlies having annexed mine when I was in hospital . . .
Port Scatho said: ‘Good God!’
‘Don’t you know they annex things?’ Tietjens asked. He went on: The total, in fact, amounted to an overdraft of fifteen pounds, but I did not think of it as such because my army agents ought to have paid my month’s army pay over to you on the first. As you perceive, they have only paid it over this morning, the 13th. But, as you will see from my pass-book, they have always paid about the 13th, not the 1st. Two days ago I lunched at the club and drew that cheque for one pound fourteen shillings and sixpence: one ten for personal expenses and the four and six for lunch . . . ’
‘You were, however, actually overdrawn,’ the banker said sharply.
‘Yesterday, for two hours.’
‘But then,’ Port Scatho said, ‘what do you want done? We’ll do what we can.’
‘I don’t know. Do what you like. You’d better make what explanation you can to the military authority. If they court-martialled me it would hurt you more than me. I assure you of that. There is an explanation.’
Port Scatho began suddenly to tremble.
‘What . . . what . . . what explanation?’ he said. ‘You . . . damn it . . . you draw this out . . . Do you dare to say my bank . . . ’ He stopped, drew his hand down his face and said: ‘But yet . . . you’re a sensible, sound man . . . I’ve heard things against you. But I don’t believe them . . . Your father always spoke very highly of you . . . I remember he said if you wanted money you could always draw on him through us for three or four hundred . . . That’s what makes it so incomprehensible . . . It’s . . . it’s . . . ’ His agitation grew on him. ‘It seems to strike at the very heart . . . ’
‘Look here, Port Scatho . . . I’ve always had a respect for you. Settle it how you like. Fix the mess up for both our sakes with any formula that’s not humiliating for your bank. I’ve already resigned from the club . . . ’
Sylvia said: ‘Oh, no, Christopher . . . not from the club!’
Port Scatho started back from beside the table.
‘But if you’re in the right!’ he said. ‘You couldn’t . . . Not resign from the club . . . I’m on the committee . . . I’ll explain to them, in the fullest, in the most generous . . . ’
‘You couldn’t explain,’ Tietjens said. ‘You can’t get ahead of rumour . . . It’s half over London at this moment. You know what the toothless old fellows of your committee are . . . Anderson! ffolliott . . . And my brother’s friend, Ruggles . . . ’
Port Scatho said:
‘Your brother’s friend, Ruggles . . . But look here . . . He’s something about the Court, isn’t he? But look here . . . ’ His mind stopped. He said: ‘People shouldn’t overdraw . . . But if your father said you could draw on him, I’m really much concerned . . . You’re a first-rate fellow . . . I can tell that from your pass-book alone . . . Nothing but cheques drawn to first-class tradesmen for reasonable amounts. The sort of pass-book Hiked to see when I was a junior clerk in the bank . . . ’ At that early reminiscence feelings of pathos overcame him and his mind once more stopped.
Sylvia came back into the room; they had not perceived her going. She in turn held in her hand a letter.
‘Look here, Port Scatho, don’t get into this state. Give me your word to do what you can when you’ve assured yourself the facts are as I say. I wouldn’t bother you at all, it’s not my line, except for Mrs Tietjens. A man alone can live that sort of thing down, or die. Bue there’s no reason why Mrs Tietjens should live, tied to a bad hat, while he’s living it down or dying.’
‘But that’s not right,’ Port Scatho said, ‘it’s not the right way to look at it. You can’t pocket . . . I’m simply bewildered . . . ’
‘You’ve no right to be bewildered,’ Sylvia said. ‘You’re worrying your mind for expedients to save the reputation of your bank. We know your bank is more to you than a baby. You should look after it better, then.’
Port Scatho, who had already fallen two paces away from the table, now fell two paces back, almost on top of it. Sylvia’s nostrils were dilated.
‘Tietjens shall not resign from your beastly club. He shall not! Your committee will request him formally to withdraw his resignation. You understand? He will withdraw it. Then he will resign for good. He is too good to mix with people like you . . . ’ She paused, her chest working fast. ‘Do you understand what you’ve got to do?’ she asked.
An appalling shadow of a thought went through Tietjens’ mind: he would not let it come into words.
‘I don’t know . . . ’ the banker said. ‘I don’t know that I can get the committee . . . ’
‘You’ve got to,’ Sylvia answered. ‘I’ll tell you why . . . Christopher was never overdrawn. Last Thursday I instructed your people to pay a thousand pounds to my husband’s account. I repeated the instruction by letter, and I kept a copy of the letter, witnessed by my confidential maid. I also registered the letter and have the receipt for it . . . You can see them.’
Port Scatho mumbled from over the letter:
‘It’s to Brownlie . . . Yes, a receipt for a letter to Brown-lie . . .? She examined the little green slip on both sides. He said: ‘Last Thursday . . . To-day’s Monday . . . An instruction to sell North-Western stock to the amount of one thousand pounds and place to the account of . . . Then . . . ’
‘That’ll do . . . You can’t angle for time any more . . . Your nephew has been in an affair of this sort before . . . I’ll tell you. Last Thursday at lunch your nephew told me that Christopher’s brother’s solicitors had withdrawn all the permissions for overdrafts on the books of the Groby estate. There were several to members of the family. Your nephew said that he intended to catch Christopher on the hop — that’s his own expression — and dishonour the next cheque of his that came in. He said he had been waiting for the chance ever since the war and the brother’s withdrawal had given it him. I begged him not to . . . ’
‘But, good God,’ the banker said, ‘this is unheard of . . . ’
‘It isn’t,’ Sylvia said. ‘Christopher has had five snotty, little, miserable subalterns to defend at courts-martial for exactly similar cases. One was an exact reproduction of this . . . ’
‘But, good God,’ the banker exclaimed again, ‘men giving their lives for their country . . . Do you mean to say Brownlie did this out of revenge for Tietjens’ defending at courts-martial . . . And then . . . your thousand pounds is not shown in your husband’s pass-book . . . ’
‘Of course it’s not,’ Sylvia said. ‘It has never been paid in. On Friday I had a formal letter from your people pointing out that North-Westerns were likely to rise and asked me to reconsider my position. The same day I sent an express telling them explicitly to do as I said . . . Ever since then your nephew has been on the ‘phone begging me not to save my husband. He was there, just now, when I went out of the room. He was also beseeching me to fly with him.’
‘Isn’t that enough, Sylvia? It’s rather torturing.’
‘Let them be tortured,’ Sylvia said. ‘But it appears to be enough.’
Port Scatho had covered his face with both his pink hands. He had exclaimed:
‘Oh, my God! Brownlie again . . . ’
Tietjens’ brother Mark was in the room. He was smaller, browner, and harder than Tietjens and his blue eyes protruded more. He had in one hand a bowler hat, in the other an umbrella, wore a pepper-and-salt suit and had race-glasses slung across him. He disliked Port Scatho, who detested him. He had lately been knighted. He said:
‘Hullo, Port Scatho,’ neglecting to salute his sister-in-law. His eyes, whilst he stood motionless, rolled a look round the room and rested on a miniature bureau that stood on a writing-table, in a recess, under and between bookshelves.
‘I see you’ve still got that cabinet,’ he said to Tietjens. Tietjens said:
‘I haven’t. I’ve sold it to Sir John Robertson. He’s waiting to take it away till he has room in his collection.’
Port Scatho walked, rather unsteadily, round the lunch-table and stood looking down from one of the long windows. Sylvia sat down on her chair beside the fireplace. The two brothers stood facing each other, Christopher suggesting wheat-sacks, Mark carved wood. All round them, except for the mirror that reflected bluenesses, the gilt backs of books. Hullo Central was clearing the table.
‘I hear you’re going out again to-morrow,’ Mark said. ‘I want to settle some things with you.’
‘I’m going at nine from Waterloo,’ Christopher said. ‘I’ve not much time. You can walk with me to the War Office if you like.’
Mark’s eyes followed the black and white of the maid round the table. She went out with the tray. Christopher suddenly was reminded of Valentine Wannop clearing the table in her mother’s cottage. Hullo Central was no faster about it. Mark said:
‘Port Scatho! As you’re there we may as well finish one point. I have cancelled my father’s security for my brother’s overdraft.’
Port Scatho said, to the window, but loud enough: ‘We all know it. To our cost.’
‘I wish you, however,’ Mark Tietjens went on, ‘to make over from my own account a thousand a year to my brother as he needs it. Not more than a thousand in any one year.’
Port Scatho said:
‘Write a letter to the bank. I don’t look after clients’ accounts on social occasions.’
‘I don’t see why you don’t,’ Mark Tietjens said. ‘It’s the way you make your bread and butter, isn’t it?’ Tietjens said:
‘You may save yourself all this trouble, Mark. I am closing my account, in any case.’
Port Scatho spun round on his heel.
‘I beg that you won’t,’ he exclaimed. ‘I beg that we . . . that we may have the honour of continuing to have you draw upon us.’ He had the trick of convulsively working jaws: his head against the light was like the top of a rounded gatepost. He said to Mark Tietjens: ‘You may tell your friend, Mr Ruggles, that your brother is empowered by me to draw on my private account . . . on my personal and private account up to any amount he needs. I say that to show my estimate of your brother; because I know he will incur no obligations he cannot discharge.’
Mark Tietjens stood motionless; leaning slightly on the crook of his umbrella on the one side; on the other displaying, at arm’s length, the white silk lining of his bowler hat, the lining being the brightest object in the room.
‘That’s your affair,’ he said to Port Scatho. ‘All I’m concerned with is to have a thousand a year paid to my brother’s account till further notice.’
Christopher Tietjens spoke, with what he knew was a sentimental voice, to Port Scatho. He was very touched; it appeared to him that with the spontaneous appearance of several names in his memory, and with this estimate of himself from the banker, his tide was turning and that this day might indeed be marked by a red stone:
‘Of course, Port Scatho, I won’t withdraw my wretched little account from you if you want to keep it. It flatters me that you should.’ He stopped and added: ‘I only wanted to avoid these . . . these family complications. But I suppose you can stop my brother’s money being paid into my account. I don’t want his money.’
He said to Sylvia:
‘You had better settle the other matter with Port Scatho.’ To Port Scatho:
‘I’m intensely obliged to you, Port Scatho . . . You’ll get Lady Port Scatho round to Macmaster’s this evening if only for a minute; before eleven . . . ’ And to his brother:
‘Come along, Mark. I’m going down to the War Office. We can talk as we walk.’
Sylvia said very nearly with timidity — and again a dark thought went over Tietjens’ mind:
‘Do we meet again then? . . . I know you’re very busy . . . ’
‘Yes. I’ll come and pick you out from Lady Job’s, if they don’t keep me too long at the War Office. I’m dining, as you know, at Macmaster’s; I don’t suppose I shall stop late.’
‘I’d come,’ Sylvia said, ‘to Macmaster’s, if you thought it was appropriate. I’d bring Claudine Sandbach and General Wade. We’re only going to the Russian dancers. We’d cut off early.’
Tietjens could settle that sort of thought very quickly. ‘Yes, do,’ he said hurriedly. ‘It would be appreciated.’ He got to the door: he came back: his brother was nearly through. He said to Sylvia, and for him the occasion was a very joyful one:
‘I’ve worried out some of the words of that song. It runs:
“Somewhere or other there must surely be
The face not seen: the voice not heard . . . ”
Probably it’s “the voice not ever heard” to make up the metre . . . I don’t know the writer’s name. But I hope I’ll worry it all out during the day.’
Sylvia had gone absolutely white.
‘Don’t!’ she said. ‘Oh . . . don’t.’ She added coldly: ‘Don’t take the trouble,’ and wiped her tiny handkerchief across her lips as Tietjens went away.
She had heard the song at a charity concert and had cried as she heard it. She had read, afterwards, the words in the programme and had almost cried again. But she had lost the programme and had never come across the words again. The echo of them remained with her like something terrible and alluring: like a knife she would someday take out and with which she would stab herself.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54