Mark Tietjens, his umbrella swinging sheepishly, his bowler hat pushed firmly down on to his ears to give him a sense of stability, walked beside the weeping girl in the quadrangle.
‘I say,’ he said, ‘don’t give it to old Christopher too beastly hard about his militarist opinions . . . Remember, he’s going out to-morrow and he’s one of the best.’
She looked at him quickly, tears remaining upon her cheeks, and then away.
‘One of the best,’ Mark said. ‘A fellow who never told a lie or did a dishonourable thing in his life. Let him down easy, there’s a good girl. You ought to, you know.’
The girl, her face turned away, said:
‘I’d lay down my life for him!’
‘I know you would. I know a good woman when I see one. And think! He probably considers that he is . . . offering his life, you know, for you. And me, too, of course! . . . It’s a different way of looking at things.’ He gripped her awkwardly but irresistibly by the upper arm. It was very thin under her blue cloth coat. He said to himself:
‘By Jove! Christopher likes them skinny. It’s the athletic sort that attracts him. This girl is as clean run as . . . He couldn’t think of anything as clean run as Miss Wannop, but he felt a warm satisfaction at having achieved an intimacy with her and his brother. He said:
‘You aren’t going away? Not without a kinder word to him. You think! He might be killed . . . Besides. Probably he’s never killed a German. He was a liaison officer. Since then he’s been in charge of a dump where they sift army dustbins. To see how they can give the men less to eat. That means that the civilians get more. You don’t object to his giving civilians more meat? . . . It isn’t even helping to kill Germans . . .
He felt her arm press his hand against her warm side. ‘What’s he going to do now?’ she asked. Her voice wavered.
‘That’s what I’m here about,’ Mark said. ‘I’m going in to see old Hogarth. You don’t know Hogarth? Old General Hogarth? I think I can get him to give Christopher a job with the transport. A safe job. Safeish! No beastly glory business about it. No killing beastly Germans either . . . I beg your pardon, if you like Germans.’
She drew her arm from his hand in order to look him in the face.
‘Oh!’ she said, ’you don’t want him to have any beastly military glory!’ The colour came back into her face: she looked at him open-eyed.
‘No! Why the devil should he?’ He said to himself: ‘She’s got enormous eyes: a good neck: good shoulders: good breasts: clean hips: small hands. She isn’t knockkneed: neat ankles. She stands well on her feet. Feet not too large! Five foot four, say! A real good filly!’ He went on aloud: ‘Why in the world should he want to be a beastly soldier? He’s the heir to Groby. That ought to be enough for one man.’
Having stood still sufficiently long for what she knew to be his critical inspection, she put her hand in turn, precipitately, under his arm and moved him towards the entrance steps.
‘Let’s be quick then,’ she said. ‘Let’s get him into your transport at once. Before he goes to-morrow. Then we’ll know he’s safe.’
He was puzzled by her dress. It was very business-like, dark blue and very short. A white blouse with a black silk, man’s tie. A wide-awake, with, on the front of the band, a cipher.
‘You’re in uniform yourself,’ he said. ‘Does your conscience let you do war work?’
‘No. We’re hard up. I’m taking the gym classes in a great big school to turn an honest penny . . . Do be quick!’
Her pressure on his elbow flattered him. He resisted it a little, hanging back, to make her more insistent. He liked being pleaded with by a pretty woman: Christopher’s girl at that.
‘Oh, it’s not a matter of minutes. They keep ’em weeks at the base before they send ’em up . . . We’ll fix him up all right, I’ve no doubt. We’ll wait in the hall till he comes down.’
He told the benevolent commissionaire, one of two in a pulpit in the crowded grim hall, that he was going up to see General Hogarth in a minute or two. But not to send a bellboy. He might be some time yet.
He sat himself beside Miss Wannop, clumsily, on a wooden bench, humanity surging over their toes as if they had been on a beach. She moved a little to make room for him and that, too, made him feel good. He said:
‘You said just now: “we” are hard up. Does “we” mean you and Christopher?’
‘I and Mr Tietjens. Oh, no! I and mother! The paper she used to write for stopped. When your father died, I believe. He found money for it, I think. And mother isn’t suited to free-lancing. She’s worked too hard in her life.’
He looked at her, his round eyes protruding.
‘I don’t know what that is, free-lancing,’ he said. ‘But you’ve got to be comfortable. How much do you and your mother need to keep you comfortable? And put in a bit more so that Christopher could have a mutton-chop now and then!’
She hadn’t really been listening. He said with some insistence: ‘Look here! I’m here on business. Not like an elderly admirer forcing himself on you. Though, by God, I do admire you too . . . But my father wanted your mother to be comfortable . . . ’
Her face, turned to him, became rigid.
‘You don’t mean . . . ’ she began. He said:
‘You won’t get it any quicker by interrupting. I have to tell my stories in my own way. My father wanted your mother to be comfortable. He said so that she could write books, not papers. I don’t know what the difference is: that’s what he said. He wants you to be comfortable too . . . You’ve not got any encumbrances! Not . . . oh, say a business: a hat shop that doesn’t pay? Some girls have . . .
She said: ‘No. I just teach . . . oh, do be quick . . . ’
For the first time in his life he dislocated the course of his thoughts to satisfy a longing in someone else.
‘You may take it to go on with,’ he said, ‘as if my father had left your mother a nice little plum.’ He cast about to find his scattered thoughts.
‘He has! He has! After all!’ the girl said. ‘Oh, thank God!’
‘There’ll be a bit for you, if you like,’ Mark said, ‘or perhaps Christopher won’t let you. He’s ratty with me. And something for your brother to buy a doctor’s business with.’ He asked: ‘You haven’t fainted, have you?’ She said:
‘No. I don’t faint. I cry.’
‘That’ll be all right,’ he answered. He went on: ‘That’s your side of it. Now for mine. I want Christopher to have a place where he’ll be sure of a mutton-chop and an armchair by the fire. And someone to be good for him. You’re good for him. I can see that. I know women!’
The girl was crying, softly and continuously. It was the first moment of the lifting of strain that she had known since the day before the Germans crossed the Belgian frontier, near a place called Gemmenich.
It had begun with the return of Mrs Duchemin from Scotland. She had sent at once for Miss Wannop to the rectory, late at night. By the light of candles in tall silver stocks, against oak panelling she had seemed like a mad block of marble, with staring, dark eyes and mad hair. She had exclaimed in a voice as hard as a machine’s:
‘How do you get rid of a baby? You’ve been a servant. You ought to know!’
That had been the great shock, the turning-point, of Valentine Wannop’s life. Her last years before that had been of great tranquillity, tinged of course with melancholy because she loved Christopher Tietjens. But she had early learned to do without, and the world as she saw it was a place of renunciations, of high endeavour, and sacrifice. Tietjens had to be a man who came to see her mother and talked wonderfully. She had been happy when he had been in the house — she in the housemaid’s pantry, getting the tea-things. She had, besides, been very hard-worked for her mother; the weather had been, on the whole, good, the corner of the country in which they lived had continued to seem fresh and agreeable. She had had excellent health, got an occasional ride on the qui-tamer with which Tietjens had replaced Joel’s rig; and her brother had done admirably at Eton, taking such a number of exhibitions and things that, once at Magdalen, he had been nearly off his mother’s hands. An admirable, gay boy, not unlikely to run for, as well as being a credit to, his university, if he didn’t get sent down for his political extravagances. He was a Communist!
And at the rectory there had been the Duchemins, or rather Mrs Duchemin and, during most week-ends, Macmaster somewhere about.
The passion of Macmaster for Edith Ethel and of Edith Ethel for Macmaster had seemed to her one of the beautiful things of life. They seemed to swim, in a sea of renunciations, of beautiful quotations, and of steadfast waiting. Macmaster did not interest her personally much, but she took him on trust because of Edith Ethel’s romantic passion and because he was Christopher Tietjens’ friend. She had never heard him say anything original; when he used quotations they would be apt rather than striking. But she took it for granted that he was the right man — much as you take it for granted that the engine of an express train in which you are is reliable. The right people have chosen it for you . . .
With Mrs Duchemin, mad before her, she had the first intimation that her idolized friend, in whom she had believed as she had believed in the firmness of the great sunny earth, had been the mistress of her lover — almost since the first day she had seen him . . . And that Mrs Duchemin had, stored somewhere, a character of an extreme harshness and great vulgarity of language. She raged up and down in the candlelight, before the dark oak panelling, screaming coarse phrases of the deepest hatred for her lover. Didn’t the oaf know his business better than to . . .? The dirty little Port of Leith fish-handler . . .
What, then, were tall candles in silver sticks for? And polished panelling in galleries?
Valentine Wannop couldn’t have been a little ashcat in worn cotton dresses, sleeping under the stairs, in an Ealing household with a drunken cook, an invalid mistress, and three over-fed men, without acquiring a considerable knowledge of the sexual necessities and excesses of humanity. But, as all the poorer helots of great cities hearten their lives by dreaming of material beauties, elegance and suave wealth, she had always considered that, far from the world of Ealing and its county councillors who over-ate and neighed like stallions, there were bright colonies of beings, chaste, beautiful in thought, altruist and circumspect.
And, till that moment, she had imagined herself on the skirts of such a colony. She presupposed a society of beautiful intellects centring in London round her friends. Ealing she just put out of her mind. She considered: she had, indeed, once heard Tietjens say that humanity was made up of exact and constructive intellects on the one hand and on the other of stuff to fill graveyards . . . Now, what had become of the exact and constructive intellects?
Worst of all, what became of her beautiful inclination towards Tietjens, for she couldn’t regard it as anything more? Couldn’t her heart sing any more whilst she was in the housemaid’s pantry and he in her mother’s study? And what became, still more, of what she knew to be Tietjens’ beautiful inclination towards her? She asked herself the eternal question — and she knew it to be the eternal question — whether no man and woman can ever leave it at the beautiful inclination. And, looking at Mrs Duchemin, rushing backwards and forwards in the light of candles, blue-white of face and her hair flying, Valentine Wannop said: No! no! The tiger lying in the reeds will always raise its head!’ But tiger . . . it was more like a peacock . . .
Tietjens, raising his head from the other side of the tea-table and looking at her with his long, meditative glance from beside her mother: ought he then, instead of blue and protruding, to have eyes divided longitudinally in the blacks of them — that should divide, closing or dilating, on a yellow ground, with green glowings of furtive light?
She was aware that Edith Ethel had done her an irreparable wrong, for you cannot suffer a great sexual shock and ever be the same. Or not for years. Nevertheless she stayed with Mrs Duchemin until far into the small hours, when she fell, a mere parcel of bones in a peacock-blue wrapper, into a deep chair and refused to move or speak; nor did she afterwards slacken in her faithful waiting on her friend . . .
On the next day came the war. That was a nightmare of pure suffering, with never a let-up, day or night. It began on the morning of the fourth with the arrival of her brother from some sort of Oxford Communist Summer School on the Broads. He was wearing a German corps student’s cap and was very drunk. He had been seeing German friends off from Harwich. It was the first time she had ever seen a drunken man, so that was a good present for her.
Next day, and sober, he was almost worse. A handsome, dark boy like his father, he had his mother’s hooked nose and was always a little unbalanced: not mad, but always over-violent in any views he happened for the moment to hold. At the Summer School he had been under very vitriolic teachers of all sorts of notions. That hadn’t hitherto mattered. Her mother had written for a Tory paper: her brother, when he had been at home, had edited some sort of Oxford organ of disruption. But her mother had only chuckled.
The war changed that. Both seemed to be filled with a desire for blood and to torture: neither paid the least attention to the other. It was as if — so for the rest of those years the remembrance of that time lived with her — in one corner of the room her mother, ageing, and on her knees, from which she only with difficulty rose, shouted hoarse prayers to God, to let her, with her own hands, strangle, torture and flay off all his skin, a being called the Kaiser, and as if, in the other corner of the room, her brother, erect, dark, scowling and vitriolic, one hand clenched above his head, called down the curse of heaven on the British soldier, so that in thousands, he might die in agony, the blood spouting from his scalded lungs. It appeared that the Communist leader whom Edward Wannop affected had had ill-success in his attempts to cause disaffection among some units or other of the British army, and had failed rather gallingly, being laughed at or ignored rather than being ducked in a horse-pond, shot, or otherwise martyrized. That made it obvious that the British man in the ranks was responsible for the war. If those ignoble hirelings had refused to fight all the other embattled and terrorized millions would have thrown down their arms!
Across that dreadful phantasmagoria went the figure of Tietjens. He was in doubt. She heard him several times voice his doubts to her mother, who grew every day more vacant. One day Mrs Wannop had said:
‘What does your wife think about it?’
Tietjens had answered:
‘Oh, Mrs Tietjens is a pro-German . . . Or no, that isn’t exact! She has German prisoner-friends and looks after them. But she spends nearly all her time in retreat in a convent reading novels of before the war. She can’t bear the thought of physical suffering. I can’t blame her.’
Mrs Wannop was no longer listening: her daughter was.
For Valentine Wannop the war had turned Tietjens into far more of a man and far less of an inclination — the war and Mrs Duchemin between them. He had seemed to grow less infallible. A man with doubts is more of a man, with eyes, hands, the need for food and for buttons to be sewn on. She had actually tightened up a loose glove button for him.
One Friday afternoon at Macmaster’s she had had a long talk with him: the first she had had since the drive and the accident.
Ever since Macmaster had instituted his Friday afternoons — and that had been some time before the war — Valentine Wannop had accompanied Mrs Duchemin to town by the morning train and back at night to the rectory. Valentine poured out the tea, Mrs Duchemin drifting about the large book-lined room amongst the geniuses and superior journalists.
On this occasion — a November day of very chilly wet — there had been next to nobody present, the preceding Friday having been unusually full. Macmaster and Mrs Duchemin had taken a Mr Spong, an architect, into the dining-room to inspect an unusually fine set of Piranesi’s Views of Rome that Tietjens had picked up somewhere and had given to Macmaster. A Mr Jegg and a Mrs Haviland were sitting close together in the far window-seat. They were talking in low tones. From time to time Mr Jegg used the word ‘inhibition.’ Tietjens rose from the fire-seat on which he had been sitting and came to her. He ordered her to bring her cup of tea over by the fire and talk to him. She obeyed. They sat side by side on the leather fire-seat that stood on polished brass rails, the fire warming their backs. He said:
‘Well, Miss Wannop. What have you been doing?’ and they drifted into talking of the war. You couldn’t not. She was astonished not to find him so loathsome as she had expected, for, just at that time, with the facts that were always being driven into her mind by the pacifist friends of her brother and with continual brooding over the morals of Mrs Duchemin, she had an automatic feeling that all manly men were lust-filled devils, desiring nothing better than to stride over battlefields, stabbing the wounded with long daggers in frenzies of sadism. She knew that this view of Tietjens was wrong, but she cherished it.
She found him — as subconsciously she knew he was — astonishingly mild. She had too often watched him whilst he listened to her mother’s tirades against the Kaiser, not to know that. He did not raise his voice, he showed no emotion. He said at last:
‘You and I are like two people . . . ’ He paused and began again more quickly: ‘Do you know these soap advertisement signs that read differently from several angles? As you come up to them you read “Monkey’s Soap”; if you look back when you’ve passed it’s “Needs no Rinsing.” . . . You and I are standing at different angles, and though we both look at the same thing we read different messages. Perhaps if we stood side by side we should see yet a third . . . But I hope we respect each other. We’re both honest. I, at least, tremendously respect you and I hope you respect me.’
She kept silent. Behind their backs the fire rustled. Mr Jegg, across the room, said: ‘The failure to co-ordinate . . . ’ and then dropped his voice.
Tietjens looked at her attentively.
‘You don’t respect me?’ he asked. She kept obstinately silent.
‘I’d have liked you to have said it,’ he repeated.
‘Oh,’ she cried out, ‘how can I respect you when there is all this suffering? So much pain! Such torture . . . I can’t sleep . . . Never . . . I haven’t slept a whole night since . . . Think of the immense spaces, stretching out under the night . . . I believe pain and fear must be worse at night . . . ’ She knew she was crying out like that because her dread had come true. When he had said: ‘I’d have liked you to have said it,’ using the past, he had said his valedictory. Her man, too, was going.
And she knew too: she had always known under her mind and now she confessed it: her agony had been, half of it, because one day he would say farewell to her: like that, using the inflexion of a verb. As, just occasionally, using the word ‘we’— and perhaps without intention — he had let her know that he loved her.
Mr Jegg drifted across from the window: Mrs Haviland was already at the door.
‘We’ll leave you to have your war talk out,’ Mr Jegg said. He added: ‘For myself, I believe it’s one’s sole duty to preserve the beauty of things that’s preservable. I can’t help saying that.’
She was alone with Tietjens and the quiet day. She said to herself:
‘Now he must take me in his arms. He must. He must!’ The deepest of her instincts came to the surface, from beneath layers of thought hardly known to her. She could feel his arms round her: she had in her nostrils the peculiar scent of his hair — like the scent of the skin of an apple, but very faint. ‘You must! You must!‘ she said to herself. There came back to her overpoweringly the memory of their drive together and the moment, the overwhelming moment, when, climbing out of the white fog into the blinding air, she had felt the impulse of his whole body towards her and the impulse of her whole body towards him. A sudden lapse: like the momentary dream when you fall . . . She saw the white disk of the sun over the silver mist and behind them was the long, warm night . . .
Tietjens sat, huddled rather together, dejectedly, the firelight playing on the silver places of his hair. It had grown nearly dark outside: they had a sense of the large room that, almost week by week, had grown, for its gleams of gilding and hand-polished dark woods, more like the great dining-room at the Duchemins’. He got down from the fire-seat with a weary movement, as if the fire-seat had been very high. He said, with a little bitterness, but as if with more fatigue:
‘Well, I’ve got the business of telling Macmaster that I’m leaving the office. That, too, won’t be an agreeable affair! Not that what poor Vinnie thinks matters.’ He added: ‘It’s queer, dear . . . ’ In the tumult of her emotions she was almost certain that he had said ‘dear.’ . . . ‘Not three hours ago my wife used to me almost the exact words you have just used. Almost the exact words. She talked of her inability to sleep at night for thinking of immense spaces full of pain that was worse at night . . . And she, too, said that she could not respect me . . . ’
She sprang up.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘she didn’t meant it. I didn’t mean it. Almost every man who is a man must do as you are doing. But don’t you see it’s a desperate attempt to get you to stay: an attempt on moral lines? How can we leave any stone unturned that could keep us from losing our men?’ She added, and it was another stone that she didn’t leave unturned: ‘Besides, how can you reconcile it with your sense of duty, even from your point of view! You’re more useful — you know you’re more useful to your country here than . . . ’
He stood over her, stooping a little, somehow suggesting great gentleness and concern.
‘I can’t reconcile it with my conscience,’ he said. ‘In this affair there is nothing that any man can reconcile with his conscience. I don’t mean that we oughtn’t to be in this affair and on the side we’re on. We ought. But I’ll put to you things I have put to no other soul.’
The simplicity of his revelation seemed to her to put to shame any of the glibnesses she had heard. It appeared to her as if a child were speaking. He described the disillusionment it had cost him personally as soon as this country had come into the war. He even described the sunlit heather landscape of the north, where naïvely he had made his tranquil resolution to join the French Foreign Legion as a common soldier and his conviction that that would give him, as he called it, clean bones again.
That, he said, had been straightforward. Now there was nothing straightforward: for him or for any man. One could have fought with a clean heart for a civilization: if you like for the eighteenth century against the twentieth, since that was what fighting for France against the enemy countries meant. But our coming in had changed the aspect at once. It was one part of the twentieth century using the eighteenth as a cat’s -paw to bash the other half of the twentieth. It was true there was nothing else for it. And as long as we did it in a decent spirit it was just bearable. One could keep at one’s job — which was faking statistics against the other fellow — until you were sick and tired of faking and your brain reeled. And then some!
It was probably impolitic to fake — to overstate! — a case against enemy nations. The chickens would come home to roost in one way or another, probably. Perhaps they wouldn’t. That was a matter for one’s superiors. Obviously! And the first gang had been simple, honest fellows. Stupid, but relatively disinterested. But now! . . . What was one to do? . . . He went on, almost mumbling . . .
She had suddenly a clear view of him as a man extraordinarily clear-sighted in the affairs of others, in great affairs, but in his own so simple as to be almost a baby. And gentle! And extraordinarily unselfish. He didn’t betray one thought of self-interest . . . not one!
He was saying:
‘But now! . . . with this crowd of boodlers! . . . Supposing one’s asked to manipulate the figures of millions of pairs of boots in order to force someone else to send some miserable general and his troops to, say, Salonika — when they and you and common sense and everyone and everything else, know it’s disastrous? . . . And from that to monkeying with our own forces . . . Starving particular units for political . . . ’ He was talking to himself, not to her. And indeed he said:
‘I can’t, you see, talk really before you. For all I know your sympathies, perhaps your activities, are with the enemy nations.’
She said passionately.
‘They’re not! They’re not! How dare you say such a thing?’ He answered:
‘It doesn’t matter . . . No! I’m sure you’re not . . . But, anyhow, these things are official. One can’t, if one’s scrupulous, even talk about them . . . And then . . . You see it means such infinite deaths of men, such an infinite prolongation . . . all this interference for side-ends! . . . I seem to see these fellows with clouds of blood over their heads . . . And then . . . I’m to carry out their orders because they’re my superiors . . . But helping them means unnumbered deaths . . . ’
He looked at her with a faint, almost humorous smile:
‘You see!’ he said, ‘we’re perhaps not so very far apart! You mustn’t think you’re the only one that sees all the deaths and all the sufferings. All, you see: I, too, am a conscientious objector. My conscience won’t let me continue any longer with these fellows . . . ’
‘But isn’t there any other . . . ’
‘No! There’s no other course. One is either a body or a brain in these affairs. I suppose I’m more brain than body. I suppose so. Perhaps I’m not. But my conscience won’t let me use my brain in this service. So I’ve a great, hulking body! I’ll admit I’m probably not much good. But I’ve nothing to live for: what I stand for isn’t any more in this world. What I want, as you know, I can’t have. So . . .
She exclaimed bitterly:
‘Oh, say it! Say it! Say that your large hulking body will stop two bullets in front of two small anaemic fellows. And how can you say you’ll have nothing to live for? You’ll come back. You’ll do your good work again. You know you did good work . . . ’
‘Yes I believe I did. I used to despise it, but I’ve come to believe I did . . . But no! They’ll never let me back. They’ve got me out, with all sorts of bad marks against me. They’ll pursue me systematically . . . You see, in such a world as this, an idealist — or perhaps it’s only a sentimentalist — must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable. He haunts them at their golf . . . No; they’ll get me, one way or the other. And some fellow — Macmaster here — will do my jobs. He won’t do them so well, but he’ll do them more dishonestly. Or no. I oughtn’t to say dishonestly. He’ll do them with enthusiasm and righteousness. He’ll fulfil the orders of his superiors with an immense docility and unction. He’ll fake figures against our allies with the black enthusiasm of a Calvin and, when that war comes, he’ll do the requisite faking with the righteous wrath of Jehovah smiting the priests of Baal. And he’ll be right. It’s all we’re fitted for. We ought never to have come into this war. We ought to have snaffled other peoples’ colonies as the price of neutrality . . .
‘Oh!’ Valentine Wannop said, ‘how can you so hate your country?’
He said with great earnestness:
‘Don’t say it! Don’t believe it! Don’t even for a moment think it! I love every inch of its fields and every plant in the hedgerows: comfrey, mullein, paigles, long red purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name . . . and all the rest of the rubbish — you remember the field between the Duchemins’ and your mother’s — and we have always been boodlers and robbers and reivers and pirates and cattle thieves, and so we’ve built up the great tradition that we love . . . But, for the moment, it’s painful. Our present crowd is not more corrupt than Walpole’s. But one’s too near them. One sees of Walpole that he consolidated the nation by building up the National Debt: one doesn’t see his methods . . . My son, or his son, will only see the glory of the boodle we make out of this show. Or rather out of the next. He won’t know about the methods. They’ll teach him at school that across the counties went the sound of bugles that his father knew . . . Though that was another discreditable affair . . . ’
‘But you!’ Valentine Wannop exclaimed. ’You! what will you do! After the war!
‘I!’ he said rather bewilderedly. ‘I! . . . Oh, I shall go into the old furniture business. I’ve been offered a job . . . ’
She didn’t believe he was serious. He hadn’t, she knew, ever thought about his future. But suddenly she had a vision of his white head and pale face in the back glooms of a shop full of dusty things. He would come out, get heavily on to a dusty bicycle and ride off to a cottage sale. She cried out:
‘Why don’t you do it at once? Why don’t you take the job at once?’ for in the back of the dark shop he would at least be safe.
‘Oh, no! Not at this time! Besides the old furniture trade’s probably not itself for the minute . . . ’ He was obviously thinking of something else.
‘I’ve probably been a low cad,’ he said, ‘wringing your heart with my doubts. But I wanted to see where our similarities come in. We’ve always been — or we’ve seemed always to me — so alike in our thoughts. I daresay I wanted you to respect me . . . ’
‘Oh, I respect you! I respect you!’ she said. ‘You’re as innocent as a child.’
He went on:
‘And I wanted to get some thinking done. It hasn’t been often of late that one has had a quiet room and a fire and . . . you! To think in front of. You do make one collect one’s thoughts. I’ve been very muddled till to-day . . . till five minutes ago! Do you remember our drive? You analysed my character. I’d never have let another soul . . . But you see . . . Don’t you see?’
‘No! What am I to see? I remember . . . ’
‘That I’m certainly not an English country gentleman now; picking up the gossip of the horse markets and saying: let the country go to hell, for me!’
‘Did I say that? . . . Yes, I said that!’
The deep waves of emotion came over her: she trembled. She stretched out her arms . . . She thought she stretched out her arms. He was hardly visible in the firelight. But she could see nothing: she was blind for tears. She could hardly be stretching out her arms, for she had both hands to her handkerchief on her eyes. He said something: it was no word of love or she would have held it! it began with: ‘Well, I must be . . . ’ He was silent for a long time: she imagined herself to feel great waves coming from him to her. But he wasn’t in the room . . .
The rest, till that moment at the War Office, had been pure agony, and unrelenting. Her mother’s paper cut down her money; no orders for serials came in: her mother, obviously, was failing. The eternal diatribes of her brother were like lashes upon her skin. He seemed to be praying Tietjens to death. Of Tietjens she saw and heard nothing. At the Macmasters she heard, once, that he had just gone out. It added to her desire to scream when she saw a newspaper. Poverty invaded them. The police raided the house in search of her brother and his friends. Then her brother went to prison: somewhere in the Midlands. The friendliness of their former neighbours turned to surly suspicion. They could get no milk. Food became almost unprocurable without going to long distances. For three days Mrs Wannop was clean out of her mind. Then she grew better and began to write a new book. It promised to be rather good. But there was no publisher. Edward came out of prison, full of good-humour and boisterousness. They seemed to have had a great deal to drink in prison. But, hearing that his mother had gone mad over that disgrace, after a terrible scene with Valentine, in which he accused her of being the mistress of Tietjens and therefore militarist, he consented to let his mother use her influence — of which she had still some — to get him appointed as an A.B. on a mine-sweeper. Great winds became an agony to Valentine Wannop in addition to the unbearable sounds of firing that came continuously over the sea. Her mother grew much better: she took pride in having a son in a Service. She was then the more able to appreciate the fact that her paper stopped payment altogether. A small mob on the fifth of November burned Mrs Wannop in effigy in front of their cottage and broke their lower windows. Mrs Wannop ran out and in the illumination of the fire knocked down two farm labourer hobbledehoys. It was terrible to see Mrs Wannop’s grey hair in the firelight. After that the butcher refused them meat altogether, ration card or no ration card. It was imperative that they should move to London.
The marsh horizon became obscured with giant stilts: the air above it filled with aeroplanes: the roads covered with military cars. There was then no getting away from the sounds of the war.
Just as they had decided to move Tietjens came back. It was for a moment heaven to have him in this country. But when, a month later, Valentine Wannop saw him for a minute, he seemed very heavy, aged and dull. It was then almost as bad as before, for it seemed to Valentine as if he hardly had his reason.
On hearing that Tietjens was to be quartered — or, at any rate, occupied — in the neighbourhood of Ealing, Mrs Wannop at once took a small house in Bedford Park, whilst, to make ends meet — for her mother made terribly little — Valentine Wannop took a post as athletic mistress in a great school in a not very near suburb. Thus, though Tietjens came in for a cup of tea almost every afternoon with Mrs Wannop in the dilapidated little suburban house, Valentine Wannop hardly ever saw him. The only free afternoon she had was the Friday, and on that day she still regularly chaperoned Mrs Duchemin: meeting her at Charing Cross towards noon and taking her back to the same station in time to catch the last train to Rye. On Saturdays and Sundays she was occupied all day in typing her mother’s manuscript.
Of Tietjens, then, she saw almost nothing. She knew that his poor mind was empty of facts and of names; but her mother said he was a great help to her. Once provided with facts his mind worked out sound Tory conclusions — or quite startling and attractive theories — with extreme rapidity. This Mrs Wannop found of the greatest use to her whenever — though it wasn’t now very often — she had an article to write for an excitable newspaper. She still, however, contributed to her failing organ of opinion, though it paid her nothing . . .
Mrs Duchemin, then, Valentine Wannop still chaperoned, though there was no bond any more between them. Valentine knew, for instance, perfectly well that Mrs Duchemin, after she had been seen off by train from Charing Cross, got out at Clapham Junction, took a taxicab back to Gray’s Inn after dark and spent the night with Macmaster, and Mrs Duchemin knew quite well that Valentine knew. It was a sort of parade of circumspection and rightness, and they kept it up even after, at a sinister registry office, the wedding had taken place, Valentine being the one witness and an obscure-looking substitute for the usual pew opener another. There seemed to be, by then, no very obvious reason why Valentine should support Mrs Macmaster any more on these rather dreary occasions, but Mrs Macmaster said she might just as well, until they saw fit to make the marriage public. There were, Mrs Macmaster said, censorious tongues, and even if these were confuted afterwards it is difficult, if not impossible, to outrun scandal. Besides, Mrs Macmaster was of opinion that the Macmaster afternoons with these geniuses must be a liberal education for Valentine. But, as Valentine sat most of the time at the tea-table near the door, it was the backs and side faces of the distinguished rather than their intellects with which she was most acquainted. Occasionally, however, Mrs Duchemin would show Valentine, as an enormous privilege, one of the letters to herself from men of genius: usually North British, written, as a rule, from the Continent or more distant and peaceful climates, for most of them believed it their duty in these hideous times to keep alive in the world the only glimmering spark of beauty. Couched in terms so eulogistic as to resemble those used in passionate love-letters by men more profane, these epistles recounted, or consulted Mrs Duchemin as to, their love affairs with foreign princesses, the progress of their ailments or the progresses of their souls towards those higher regions of morality in which floated their so beautiful-souled correspondent.
The letters entertained Valentine and, indeed, she was entertained by that whole mirage. It was only the Macmasters’ treatment of her mother that finally decided Valentine that this friendship had died; for the friendships of women are very tenacious things, surviving astonishing disillusionments, and Valentine Wannop was a woman of more than usual loyalty. Indeed, if she couldn’t respect Mrs Duchemin on the old grounds, she could very really respect her for her tenacity of purpose, her determination to advance Macmaster and for the sort of ruthlessness that she put into these pursuits.
Valentine’s affection had, indeed, survived even Edith Ethel’s continued denigrations of Tietjens — for Edith Ethel regarded Tietjens as a clog round her husband’s neck, if only because he was a very unpopular man, grown personally rather unpresentable and always extremely rude to the geniuses on Fridays. Edith Ethel, however, never made these complaints that grew more and more frequent as more and more the distinguished flocked to the Fridays, before Macmaster. And they ceased very suddenly and in a way that struck Valentine as odd.
Mrs Duchemin’s grievance against Tietjens was that, Macmaster being a weak man, Tietjens had acted as his banker until, what with interest and the rest of it, Macmaster owed Tietjens a great sum: several thousand pounds. And there had been no real reason: Macmaster had spent most of the money either on costly furnishings for his rooms or on his costly journeys to Rye. On the one hand Mrs Duchemin could have found Macmaster all the bric-à-brac he could possibly have wanted from amongst the things at the rectory, where no one would have missed them and, on the other, she, Mrs Duchemin, would have paid all Macmaster’s travelling expenses. She had had unlimited money from her husband, who never asked for accounts. But, whilst Tietjens still had influence with Macmaster, he had used it uncompromisingly against this course, giving him the delusion — it enraged Mrs Duchemin to think! — that it would have been dishonourable. So that Macmaster had continued to draw upon him.
And, most enraging of all, at a period when she had had a power of attorney over all Mr Duchemin’s fortune and could, perfectly easily, have sold out something that no one would have missed for the couple of thousand or so that Macmaster owed, Tietjens had very forcibly refused to allow Macmaster to agree to anything of the sort. He had again put into Macmaster’s weak head that it would be dishonourable. But Mrs Duchemin — and she closed her lips determinedly after she had said it — knew perfectly well Tietjens’ motive. So long as Macmaster owed him money he imagined that they couldn’t close their doors upon him. And their establishment was beginning to be a place where you met people of great influence who might well get for a person as lazy as Tietjens a sinecure that would suit him. Tietjens, in fact, knew which side his bread was buttered.
For what, Mrs Duchemin asked, could there have been dishonourable about the arrangements she had proposed? Practically the whole of Mr Duchemin’s money was to come to her: he was by then insane; it was therefore, morally, her own. But immediately after that, Mr Duchemin having been certified, the estate had fallen into the hands of the Lunacy Commissioners and there had beno further hope of taking the capital. Now, her husband being dead, it was in the hands of trustees, Mr Duchemin having left the whole of his property to Magdalen College and merely the income to his widow. The income was very large; but where, with their expenses, with the death duties and taxation, which were by then merciless, was Mrs. Duchemin to find the money? She was to be allowed, under her husband’s will, enough capital to buy a pleasant little place in Surrey, with rather a nice lot of land — enough to let Macmaster know some of the leisures of a country gentleman’s lot. They were going in for Shorthorns, and there was enough land to give them a small golf-course and, in the autumn, a little — oh, mostly rough! — shooting for Macmaster to bring his friends down to. It would just run to that. Oh, no ostentation. Merely a nice little place. As an amusing detail the villagers there already called Macmaster ‘squire’ and the women curtsied to him. But Valentine Wannop would understand that, with all these expenses, they couldn’t find the money to pay off Tietj ens. Besides, Mrs Macmaster said she wasn’t going to pay off Tietjens. He had had his chance once: now he could go without, for her. Macmaster would have to pay it himself, and he would never be able to, his contribution to their housekeeping being what it was. And there were going to be complications. Macmaster wondered about their little place in Surrey, saying that he would consult Tietjens about this and that alteration. But over the doorsill of that place the foot of Tietjens was never going to go! Never! It would mean a good deal of unpleasantness; or rather it would mean one sharp: ‘C-r-r-unch!’ And then: Napoo finny! Mrs Duchemin sometimes, and with great effect, condescended to use one of the more picturesque phrases of the day.
To all these diatribes Valentine Wannop answered hardly anything. It was no particular concern of hers; even if, for a moment, she felt proprietarily towards Christopher as she did now and then, she felt no particular desire that his intimacy with the Macmasters should be prolonged, because she knew he could have no particular desire for its prolongation. She imagined him turning them down with an unspoken and good-humoured gibe. And, indeed, she agreed on the whole with Edith Ethel. It was demoralising for a weak little man like Vincent to have a friend with an ever-open purse beside him. Tietjens ought not to have been princely: it was a defect, a quality that she did not personally admire in him. As to whether it would or wouldn’t have been dishonourable for Mrs Duchemin to take her husband’s money and give it to Macmaster, she kept an open mind. To all intents and purposes the money was Mrs Duchemin’s, and if Mrs Duchemin had then paid Christopher off it would have been sensible. She could see that later it had become very inconvenient. There were, however, male standards to be considered, and Macmaster, at least, passed for a man. Tietjens, who was wise enough in the affairs of others, had, in that, probably been wise; for there might have been great disagreeablenesses with trustees and heirs-in-law had Mrs Duchemin’s subtraction of a couple of thousand pounds from the Duchemin estate afterwards come to light. The Wannops had never been large property owners as a family, but Valentine had heard enough of collateral wranglings over small family dishonesties to know how very disagreeable these could be.
So she had made little or no comment; sometimes she had even faintly agreed as to the demoralisation of Macmaster, and that had sufficed. For Mrs Duchemin had been certain of her rightness and cared nothing at all for the opinion of Valentine Wannop, or else took it for granted.
And when Tietjens had gone to France for a little time Mrs Duchemin seemed to forget the matter, contenting herself with saying that he might very likely not come back. He was the sort of clumsy man who generally got killed. In that case, since no I.O.U.s or paper had passed, Mrs Tietjens would have no claim. So that would be all right.
But two days after the return of Christopher — and that was how Valentine knew he had come back! — Mrs Duchemin with a lowering brow exclaimed:
‘That oaf, Tietjens, is in England, perfectly safe and sound. And now the whole miserable business of Vincent’s indebtedness . . . Oh!’
She had stopped so suddenly and so markedly that even the stoppage of Valentine’s own heart couldn’t conceal the oddness from her. Indeed it was as if there were an interval before she completely realised what the news was and as if, during that interval, she said to herself:
‘It’s very queer. It’s exactly as if Edith Ethel has stopped abusing him on my account . . . As if she knew!‘ But how could Edith Ethel know that she loved the man who had returned? It was impossible! She hardly knew herself. Then the great wave of relief rolled over her: he was in England. One day she would see him, there: in the great room. For these colloquies with Edith Ethel always took place in the great room where she had last seen Tietjens. It looked suddenly beautiful, and she was resigned to sitting there, waiting for the distinguished.
It was indeed a beautiful room: it had become so during the years. It was long and high — matching the Tietjens’. A great cut-glass chandelier from the rectory hung dimly coruscating in the centre, reflected and re-reflected in convex gilt mirrors, topped by eagles. A great number of books had gone to make place on the white panelled walls for the mirrors, and for the fair orange and brown pictures by Turner, also from the rectory. From the rectory had come the immense scarlet and lapis lazuli carpet, the great brass fire-basket and appendages, the great curtains that, in the three long windows, on their peacock-blue Chinese silk showed parti-coloured cranes ascending in long flights — and all the polished Chippendale arm-chairs. Amongst all these, gracious, trailing, stopping with a tender gesture to rearrange very slightly the crimson roses in the famous silver bowls, still in dark blue silks, with an amber necklace and her elaborate black hair, waved exactly like that of Julia Domna in the Musée Lapidaire at Arles, moved Mrs Macmaster — also from the rectory. Macmaster had achieved his desire: even to the shortbread cakes and the peculiarly scented tea that came every Friday morning from Princes Street. And, if Mrs Macmaster hadn’t the pawky, relishing humour of the great Scots ladies of past days, she had in exchange her deep aspect of comprehension and tenderness. An astonishingly beautiful and impressive woman: dark hair; dark, straight eyebrows; a straight nose; dark blue eyes in the shadows of her hair and bowed, pomegranate lips in a chin curved like the bow of a Greek boat . . .
The etiquette of the place on Fridays was regulated as if by a royal protocol. The most distinguished and, if possible, titled person was led to a great walnut wood fluted chair that stood askew by the fire-place, its back and seat of blue velvet, heaven knows how old. Over him would hover Mrs Duchemin: or, if he were very distinguished, both Mr and Mrs Macmaster. The not so distinguished were led up by turns to be presented to the celebrity and would then arrange themselves in a half-circle in the beautiful arm-chairs; the less distinguished still, in outer groups in chairs that had no arms; the almost undistinguished stood, also in groups, or languished, awe-struck, on the scarlet leather window seats. When all were there Macmaster would establish himself on the incredibly unique hearthrug and would address wise sayings to the celebrity; occasionally, however, saying a kind thing to the youngest man present — to give him a chance of distinguishing himself. Macmaster’s hair, at that date, was still black, but not quite so stiff or so well brushed; his beard had in it greyish streaks, and his teeth, not being quite so white, looked less strong. He wore also a single eyeglass, the retaining of which in his right eye gave him a slightly agonised expression. It gave him, however, the privilege of putting his face very close to the face of anyone upon whom he wished to make a deep impression. He had lately become much interested in the drama, so that there were usually several large — and, of course, very reputable and serious — actresses in the room. On rare occasions Mrs Duchemin would say across the room in her deep voice:
‘Valentine, a cup of tea for his highness,’ or ‘Sir Thomas,’ as the case might be, and when Valentine had threaded her way through the chairs with a cup of tea, Mrs Duchemin, with a kind, aloof smile, would say: ‘Your highness, this is my little brown bird.’ But as a rule Valentine sat alone at the tea-table, the guests fetching from her what they wanted.
Tietjens came to the Fridays twice during the five months of his stay at Ealing. On each occasion he accompanied Mrs Wannop.
In earlier days — during the earliest Fridays — Mrs Wannop, if she ever came, had always been installed, with her flowing black, in the throne and, like an enlarged Queen Victoria, had sat there whilst suppliants were led up to this great writer. But now: on the first occasion Mrs Wannop got a chair without arms in the outer ring, whilst a general officer commanding lately in chief somewhere in the East whose military success had not been considered, but whose despatches were considered very literary, occupied, rather blazingly, the throne. But Mrs Wannop had chatted very contentedly all the afternoon with Tietjens, and it had been comforting to Valentine to see Tietjens’ large, uncouth, but quite collected figure, and to observe the affection that these two had for each other.
But, on the second occasion, the throne was occupied by a very young woman who talked a great deal and with great assurance. Valentine didn’t know who she was. Mrs Wannop, very gay and distracted, stood nearly the whole afternoon by a window. And even at that, Valentine was contented, quite a number of young men crowding round the old lady and leaving the younger one’s circle rather bare.
There came in a very tall, clean-run and beautiful, fair woman, dressed in nothing in particular. She stood with extreme — with noticeable — unconcern near the doorway. She let her eyes rest on Valentine, but looked away before Valentine could speak. She must have had an enormous quantity of fair tawny hair, for it was coiled in a great surface over her ears. She had in her hand several visiting cards which she looked at with a puzzled expression and then laid on a card table. She was no one who had ever been there before.
Edith Ethel — it was for the second time! — had just broken up the ring that surrounded Mrs Wannop, bearing the young men tributary to the young woman in the walnut chair and leaving Tietjens and the older woman high and dry in a window: thus Tietjens saw the stranger, and there was no doubt left in Valentine’s mind. He came, diagonally, right down the room to his wife and marched her straight up to Edith Ethel. His face was perfectly without expression.
Macmaster, perched on the centre of the hearthrug, had an emotion that was extraordinarily comic to witness, but that Valentine was quite unable to analyse. He jumped two paces forward to meet Mrs Tietjens, held out a little hand, half withdrew it, retreated half a step. The eyeglass fell from his perturbed eye: this gave him actually an expression less perturbed, but, in revenge, the hairs on the back of his scalp grew suddenly untidy. Sylvia, wavering along beside her husband, held out her long arm and careless hand. Macmaster winced almost at the contact, as if his fingers had been pinched in a vice. Sylvia wavered desultorily towards Edith Ethel, who was suddenly small, insignificant and relatively coarse. As for the young woman celebrity in the arm-chair, she appeared to be about the size of a white rabbit.
A complete silence had fallen on the room. Every woman in it was counting the pleats of Sylvia’s skirt and the amount of material in it. Valentine Wannop knew that because she was doing it herself. If one had that amount of material and that number of pleats one’s skirt might hang like that . . . For it was extraordinary: it fitted close round the hips, and gave an effect of length and swing — yet it did not descend as low as the ankles. It was, no doubt, the amount of material that did that, like the Highlander’s kilt that takes twelve yards to make. And from the silence Valentine could tell that every woman and most of the men — if they didn’t know that this was Mrs Christopher Tietjens — knew that this was a personage of Illustrated Weekly, as who should say of county family, rank. Little Mrs Swan, lately married, actually got up, crossed the room and sat down beside her bridegroom. It was a movement with which Valentine could sympathize.
And Sylvia, having just faintly greeted Mrs Duchemin. and completely ignored the celebrity in the arm-chair — in spite of the fact that Mrs Duchemin had tried halfheartedly to effect an introduction — stood still, looking round her. She gave the effect of a lady in a nurseryman’s hothouse considering what flower should interest her, collectively ignoring the nurserymen who bowed round her. She had just dropped her eyelashes, twice, in recognition of two small staff officers with a good deal of scarlet streak about them who were tentatively rising from their chairs. The staff officers who came to the Tietjens were not of the first vintages; still they had the labels and passed as such.
Valentine was by that time beside her mother, who had been standing all alone between two windows. She had dispossessed, in hot indignation, a stout musical critic of his chair and had sat her mother in it. And, just as Mrs Duchemin’s deep voice sounded, yet a little waveringly:
‘Valentine . . . a cup of tea for . . . ’ Valentine was carrying a cup of tea to her mother.
Her indignation had conquered her despairing jealousy, if you could call it jealousy. For what was the good of living or loving when Tietjens had beside him, for ever, the radiant, kind and gracious perfection. On the other hand, of her two deep passions, the second was for her mother.
Rightly or wrongly, Valentine regarded Mrs Wannop as a great, an august figure: a great brain, a high and generous intelligence. She had written, at least, one great book, and if the rest of her time had been frittered away in the desperate struggle to live that had taken both their lives, that could not detract from that one achievement that should last and for ever take her mother’s name down time. That this greatness should not weigh with the Macmasters had hitherto neither astonished nor irritated Valentine. The Macmasters had their game to play and, for the matter of that, they had their predilections. Their game kept them amongst the officially influential, the semiofficial and the officially accredited. They moved with such C.B.s, knights, presidents and the rest as dabbled in writing or the arts: they went upwards with such reviewers, art critics, musical writers and archaeologists as had posts in, if possible, first-class public offices or permanent positions on the more august periodicals. If an imaginative author seemed assured of position and lasting popularity Macmaster would send out feelers towards him, would make himself dumbly useful, and sooner or later either Mrs Duchemin would be carrying on with him one of her high-souled correspondences — or she wouldn’t.
Mrs Wannop they had formerly accepted as permanent leader writer and chief critic of a great organ, but the great organ having dwindled and now disappeared the Macmasters no longer wanted her at their parties. That was the game — and Valentine accepted it. But that it should have been with such insolence, so obviously meant to be noted — for in twice breaking up Mrs Wannop’s little circle Mrs Duchemin had not even once so much as said: ‘How d’ye do?’ to the elder lady I— that was almost more than Valentine could, for the moment, bear, and she would have taken her mother away at once and would never have re-entered the house, but for the compensations.
Her mother had lately written and even found a publisher for a book — and the book had showed no signs of failing powers. On the contrary, having been perforce stopped off the perpetual journalism that had dissipated her energies, Mrs Wannop had turned out something that Valentine knew was sound, sane and well done. Abstractions of failing attention to the outside world are not necessarily in a writer signs of failing, as a writer. It may mean merely that she is giving so much thought to her work that her outside contacts suffer. If that is the case her work will gain. That this might be the case with her mother was Valentine’s great and secret hope. Her mother was barely sixty: many great works have been written by writers aged between sixty and seventy . . .
And the crowding of youngish men round the old lady had given Valentine a little confirmation of that hope. The book naturally, in the maelstrom flux and reflux of the time, had attracted no attention, and poor Mrs Wannop had not succeeded in extracting a penny for it from her adamantine publisher: she hadn’t, indeed, made a penny for several months, and they existed almost at starvation point in their little den of a villa — on Valentine’s earnings as athletic teacher . . . But that little bit of attention in that semi-public place had seemed, at least, as a confirmation to Valentine: there probably was something sound, sane and well done in her mother’s work. That was almost all she asked of life.
And, indeed, while she stood by her mother’s chair, thinking with a little bitter pathos that if Edith Ethel had left the three or four young men to her mother the three or four might have done her poor mother a little good, with innocent puffs and the like — and heaven knew they needed that little good badly enough! — a very thin and untidy young man did drift back to Mrs Wannop and asked, precisely, if he might make a note or two for publication as to what Mrs Wannop was doing. ‘Her book,’ he said, ‘had attracted so much attention. They hadn’t known that they had still writers among them . . . ’
A singular, triangular drive had begun through the chairs from the fireplace. That was how it had seemed to Valentine! Mrs Tietjens had looked at them, had asked Christopher a question and, immediately, as if she were coming through waist-high surf, had borne down Macmaster and Mrs Duchemin, flanking her obsequiously, setting aside chairs and their occupants, Tietjens and the two, rather bashfully following staff officers, broadening out the wedge.
Sylvia, her long arm held out from a yard or so away, was stretching out her hand to Valentine’s mother. With her clear, high, unembarrassed voice she exclaimed, also from a yard or so away, so as to be heard by everyone in the room:
‘You’re Mrs Wannop. The great writer. I’m Christopher Tietjens’ wife.’
The old lady, with her dim eyes, looked up at the younger woman towering above her.
‘You’re Christopher’s wife!’ she said. ‘I must kiss you for all the kindness he has shown me’
Valentine felt her eyes filling with tears. She saw her mother stand up, place both her hands on the other woman’s shoulders. She heard her mother say:
‘You’re a most beautiful creature. I’m sure you’re good!’
Sylvia stood, smiling faintly, bending a little to accept the embrace. Behind the Macmasters, Tietjens and the staff officers, a little crowd of goggle eyes had ranged itself.
Valentine was crying. She slipped back behind the tea-urns, though she could hardly feel the way. Beautiful! The most beautiful woman she had ever seen! And good! Kind! You could see it in the lovely way she had given her cheek to that poor old woman’s lips . . . And to live all day, for ever, beside him . . . she, Valentine, ought to be ready to lay down her life for Sylvia Tietjens . . .
The voice of Tietjens said, just above her head:
‘Your mother seems to be having a regular triumph,’ and, with his good-natured cynicism, he added, ‘it seems to have upset some apple-carts!’ They were confronted with the spectacle of Macmaster conducting the young celebrity from her deserted arm-chair across the room to be lost in the horseshoe of crowd that surrounded Mrs Wannop.
‘You’re quite gay to-day. Your voice is different. I suppose you’re better?’ She did not look at him. His voice came:
‘Yes! I’m relatively gay!’ It went on: ‘I thought you might like to know. A little of my mathematical brain seems to have come to life again. I’ve worked out two or three silly problems . . .
‘Mrs Tietjens will be pleased.’
‘Oh!’ the answer came. ‘Mathematics don’t interest her any more than cock-fighting.’ With immense swiftness, between word and word, Valentine read into that a hope! This splendid creature did not sympathise with her husband’s activities. But he crushed it heavily by saying: ‘Why should she? She’s so many occupations of her own that she’s unrivalled at!’
He began to tell her, rather minutely, of a calculation he had made only that day at lunch. He had gone into the Department of Statistics and had had rather a row with Lord Ingleby of Lincoln. A pretty title the fellow had taken! They had wanted him to ask to be seconded to his old department for a certain job. But he had said he’d be damned if he would. He detested and despised the work they were doing.
Valentine, for the first time in her life, hardly listened to what he said. Did the fact that Sylvia Tietjens had so many occupations of her own mean that Tietjens found her unsympathetic? Of their relationships she knew nothing. Sylvia had been so much of a mystery as hardly to exist as a problem hitherto. Macmaster, Valentine knew, hated her. She knew that through Mrs Duchemin; she had heard it ages ago, but she didn’t know why. She had never come to the Macmasters’ afternoons; but that was natural. Macmaster passed for a bachelor, and it was excusable for a young woman of the highest fashion not to come to bachelor teas of literary and artistic people. On the other hand, Macmaster dined at the Tietjens’ quite often enough to make it public that he was a friend of that family. Sylvia, too, had never come down to see Mrs Wannop. But then it would, in the old days, have been a long way to come for a lady of fashion with no especial literary interests. And no one, in mercy, could have been expected to call on poor them in their dog-kennel in an outer suburb. They had had to sell almost all their pretty things.
Tietjens was saying that after his tempestuous interview with Lord Ingleby of Lincoln — she wished he would not be so rude to powerful people! — he had dropped in on Macmaster in his private room, and finding him puzzled over a lot of figures had, in the merest spirit of bravado, taken Macmaster and his papers out to lunch. And, he said, chancing to look, without any hope at all, at the figures, he had suddenly worked out an ingenious mystification. It had just come!
His voice had been so gay and triumphant that she hadn’t been able to resist looking up at him. His cheeks were fresh coloured, his hair shining; his blue eyes had a little of their old arrogance — and tenderness! Her heart seemed to sing with joy! He was, she felt, her man. She imagined the arms of his mind stretching out to enfold her.
He went on explaining. He had rather, in his recovered self-confidence, gibed at Macmaster. Between themselves, wasn’t it easy to do what the Department, under orders, wanted done? They had wanted to rub into our allies that their losses by devastation had been nothing to write home about — so as to avoid sending reinforcements to their lines! Well, if you took just the bricks and mortar of the devastated districts, you could prove that the loss in bricks, tiles, woodwork, and the rest didn’t — and the figures with a little manipulation would prove it I— amount to more than a normal year’s dilapidation spread over the whole country in peace time . . . House repairs in a normal year had cost several million sterling. The enemy had only destroyed just about so many million sterling in bricks and mortar. And what was a mere year’s dilapidations in house property! You just neglected to do them and did them next year.
So, if you ignored the lost harvests of three years, the lost industrial output of the richest industrial region of the country, the smashed machinery, the barked fruit trees, the three years’ loss of four and a half-tenths of the coal output for three years — and the loss of life! — we could go to our allies and say:
‘All your yappings about losses are the merest bulls. You can perfectly well afford to reinforce the weak places of your own lines. We intend to send our new troops to the Near East, where lies our true interest!’ And, though they might sooner or later point out the fallacy, you would by so much have put off the abhorrent expedient of a single command.
Valentine, though it took her away from her own thoughts, couldn’t help saying:
‘But weren’t you arguing about your own convictions?’ He said:
‘Yes, of course I was. In the lightness of my heart! It’s always a good thing to formulate the other fellow’s objections.’
She had turned half round in her chair. They were gazing into each other’s eyes, he from above, she from below. She had no doubt of his love: he, she knew, could have no doubt of hers. She said:
‘But isn’t it dangerous? To show these people how to do it?’
‘Oh, no, no. No! You don’t know what a good soul little Vinnie is. I don’t think you’ve ever been quite just to Vincent Macmaster! He’d as soon think of picking my pocket as of picking my brains. The soul of honour!’
Valentine had felt a queer, queer sensation. She was not sure afterwards whether she had felt it before she had realized that Sylvia Tietjens was looking at them. She stood there, very erect, a queer smile on her face. Valentine could not be sure whether it was kind, cruel, or merely distantly ironic; but she was perfectly sure it showed, whatever was behind it, that its wearer knew all that there was to know of her, Valentine’s, feelings for Tietjens and for Tietjens’ feelings for her . . . It was like being a woman and man in adultery in Trafalgar Square.
Behind Sylvia’s back, their mouths agape, were the two staff officers. Their dark hairs were too untidy for them to amount to much, but, such as they were, they were the two most presentable males of the assembly — and Sylvia had snaffled them.
Mrs Tietjens said:
‘Oh, Christopher! I’m going on to the Basils’.’
‘All right. I’ll pop Mrs Wannop into the tube as soon as she’s had enough of it, and come along and pick you up!’
Sylvia had just drooped her long eyelashes, in sign of salutation, to Valentine Wannop, and had drifted through the door, followed by her rather unmilitary military escort in khaki and scarlet.
From that moment Valentine Wannop never had any doubt. She knew that Sylvia Tietjens knew that her husband loved her, Valentine Wannop, and that she, Valentine Wannop, loved her husband — with a passion absolute and ineffable. The one thing she, Valentine, didn’t know, the one mystery that remained impenetrable, was whether Sylvia Tietjens was good to her husband!
A long time afterwards Edith Ethel had come to her beside the tea-cups and had apologized for not having known, earlier than Sylvia’s demonstration, that Mrs Wannop was in the room. She hoped that they might see Mrs Wannop much more often. She added after a moment that she hoped Mrs Wannop wouldn’t, in future, find it necessary to come under the escort of Mr Tietjens. They were too old friends for that, surely.
‘Look here, Ethel, if you think that you can keep friends with mother and turn on Mr Tietjens after all he’s done for you, you’re mistaken. You are really. And mother’s a great deal of influence. I don’t want to see you making any mistakes: just at this juncture. It’s a mistake to make nasty rows. And you’d make a very nasty one if you said anything against Mr Tietjens to mother. She knows a great deal. Remember. She lived next door to the rectory for a number of years. And she’s got a dreadfully incisive tongue . . . ’
Edith Ethel coiled back on her feet as if her whole body were threaded by a steel spring. Her mouth opened, but she bit her lower lip and then wiped it with a very white handkerchief. She said:
‘I hate that man! I detest that man! I shudder when he comes near me.’
‘I know you do!’ Valentine Wannop answered. ‘But I wouldn’t let other people know it if I were you. It doesn’t do you any real credit. He’s a good man.’
Edith Ethel looked at her with a long, calculating glance. Then she went to stand before the fireplace.
That had been five — or at most six — Fridays before Valentine sat with Mark Tietj ens in the War Office waiting-hall, and, on the Friday immediately before that again, all the guests being gone, Edith Ethel had come to the tea-table and, with her velvet kindness, had placed her right hand on Valentine’s left. Admiring the gesture with a deep fervour, Valentine knew that that was the end.
Three days before, on the Monday, Valentine, in her school uniform, in a great store to which she had gone to buy athletic paraphernalia, had run into Mrs Duchemin, who was buying flowers. Mrs Duchemin had been horribly distressed to observe the costume. She had said:
‘But do you go about in that? It’s really dreadful.’ Valentine had answered:
‘Oh, yes. When I’m doing business for the school in school hours I’m expected to wear it. And I wear it if I’m going anywhere in a hurry after school hours. It saves my dresses. I haven’t got too many.’
‘But any one might meet you,’ Edith Ethel said in a note of agony. ‘It’s very inconsiderate. Don’t you think you’ve been very inconsiderate? You might meet any of the people who come to our Fridays!’
‘I frequently do,’ Valentine said. ‘But they don’t seem to mind. Perhaps they think I’m a Waac officer. That would be quite respectable . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin drifted away, her arms full of flowers and real agony upon her face.
Now, beside the tea-table she said, very softly:
‘My dear, we’ve decided not to have our usual Friday afternoon next week.’ Valentine wondered whether this was merely a lie to get rid of her. But Edith Ethel went on: ‘We’ve decided to have a little evening festivity. After a great deal of thought we’ve come to the conclusion that we ought, now, to make our union public.’ She paused to await comment, but Valentine making none she went on: ‘It coincides very happily — I can’t help feeling it coincides very happily! — with another event. Not that we set much store by these things . . . But it has been whispered to Vincent that next Friday . . . Perhaps, my dear Valentine, you, too, will have heard . . . ’
‘No, I haven’t. I suppose he’s got the O.B.E. I’m very glad.’
‘The Sovereign,’ Mrs Duchemin said, ‘is seeing fit to confer the honour of knighthood on him.’
‘Well!’ Valentine said. ‘He’s had a quick career. I’ve no doubt he deserves it. He’s worked very hard. I do sincerely congratulate you. It’ll be a great help to you.’
‘It’s,’ Mrs Duchemin said, ‘not for mere plodding. That’s what makes it so gratifying. It’s for a special piece of brilliance, that has marked him out. It’s, of course, a secret. But . . . ’
‘Oh, I know!’ Valentine said. ‘He’s worked out some calculations to prove that losses in the devastated districts, if you ignore machinery, coal output, orchard trees, harvests, industrial products, and so on, don’t amount to more than a year’s household dilapidations for the . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin said with real horror:
‘But how did you know? How on earth did you know? . . . ’ She paused. ‘It’s such a dead secret . . . That fellow must have told you . . . But how on earth could he know?’
‘I haven’t seen Mr Tietjens to speak to since the last time he was here,’ Valentine said. She saw, from Edith Ethel’s bewilderment, the whole situation. The miserable Macmaster hadn’t even confided to his wife that the practically stolen figures weren’t his own. He desired to have a little prestige in the family circle; for once a little prestige! Well! Why shouldn’t he have it? Tietjens, she knew, would wish him to have all he could get. She said therefore:
‘Oh, it’s probably in the air . . . It’s known the Government want to break their claims to the higher command. And anyone who could help them to that would get a knighthood . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin was more calm.
‘It’s certainly,’ she said, ‘Burke’d, as you call it, those beastly people.’ She reflected for a moment. ‘It’s probably that,’ she went on. ‘It’s in the air. Anything that can help to influence public opinion against those horrible people is to be welcomed. That’s known pretty widely . . . No! It could hardly be Christopher Tietjens who thought of it and told you. It wouldn’t enter his head. He’s their friend! He would be . . . ’
‘He’s certainly,’ Valentine said, ‘not a friend of his country’s enemies. I’m not, myself.’
Mrs Duchemin exclaimed sharply, her eyes dilated. ‘What do you mean? What on earth do you dare to mean? I thought you were a pro-German!’
‘I’m not! I’m not! . . . I hate men’s deaths . . . I hate any men’s deaths . . . Any men . . . ’ She calmed herself by main force. ‘Mr Tietjens says that the more we hinder our allies the more we drag the war on and the more lives are lost . . . More lives, do you understand? . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin assumed her most aloof, tender, and high air: ‘My poor child,’ she said, ‘what possible concern can the opinions of that broken fellow cause anyone! You can warn him from me that he does himself no good by going on uttering these discredited opinions. He’s a marked man. Finished! It’s no good Guggums, my husband, trying to stand up for him.’
‘He does stand up for him?’ Valentine asked. ‘Though I don’t see why it’s needed. Mr Tietjens is surely able to take care of himself.’
‘My good child,’ Edith Ethel said, ‘you may as well know the worst. There’s not a more discredited man in London than Christopher Tietjens, and my husband does himself infinite harm in standing up for him. It’s our one quarrel.’
She went on again:
‘It was all very well whilst that fellow had brains. He was said to have some intellect, though I could never see it. But now that, with his drunkenness and debaucheries, he has got himself into the state he is in; for there’s no other way of accounting for his condition! They’re striking him, I don’t mind telling you, off the roll of his office . . . ’
It was there that, for the first time, the thought went through Valentine Wannop’s mind, like a mad inspiration: this woman must at one time have been in love with Tietjens. It was possible, men being what they were, that she had even once been Tietjens’ mistress. For it was impossible otherwise to account for this spite, which to Valentine seemed almost meaningless. She had, on the other hand, no impulse to defend Tietjens against accusations that could not have any possible grounds.
Mrs Duchemin was going on with her kind loftiness:
‘Of course a fellow like that — in that condition! — could not understand matters of high policy. It is imperative that these fellows should not have the higher command. It would pander to their insane spirit of militarism. They must be hindered. I’m talking, of course, between ourselves, but my husband says that that is the conviction in the very highest circles. To let them have their way, even if it led to earlier success, would be to establish a precedent — so my husband says! — compared with which the loss of a few lives . . . ’
Valentine sprang up, her face distorted.
‘For the sake of Christ,’ she cried out, ‘as you believe that Christ died for you, try to understand that millions of men’s lives are at stake . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin smiled.
‘My poor child,’ she said, ‘if you moved in the higher circles you would look at these things with more aloofness . . . ’
Valentine leant on the back of a high chair for support.
‘You don’t move in the higher circles,’ she said. ‘For Heaven’s sake — for your own — remember that you are a woman, not for ever and for always a snob. You were a good woman once. You stuck to your husband for quite a long time . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin, in her chair, had thrown herself back. ‘My good girl,’ she said, ‘have you gone mad?’ Valentine said:
‘Yes, very nearly. I’ve got a brother at sea; I’ve had a man I loved out there for an infinite time. You can understand that, I suppose, even if you can’t understand how one can go mad merely at the thoughts of suffering at all . . . And I know, Edith Ethel, that you are afraid of my opinion of you, or you wouldn’t have put up all the subterfuges and concealments of all these years . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin said quickly:
‘Oh, my good girl. — If you’ve got personal interests at stake you can’t be expected to take abstract views of the higher matters. We had better change the subject.’
‘Yes, do. Get on with your excuses for not asking me and mother to your knighthood party.’
Mrs Duchemin, too, rose at that. She felt at her amber beads with long fingers that turned very slightly at the tips. She had behind her all her mirrors, the drops of her lustres, shining points of gilt and of the polish of dark woods. Valentine thought that she had never seen anyone so absolutely impersonate kindness, tenderness, and dignity. She said:
‘My dear, I was going to suggest that it was the sort of party to which you might not care to come . . . The people will be stiff and formal and you probably haven’t got a frock.’
‘Oh, I’ve got a frock all right. But there’s a Jacob’s ladder in my party stockings and that’s the sort of ladder you can’t kick down.’ She couldn’t help saying that.
Mrs Duchemin stood motionless and very slowly redness mounted into her face. It was most curious to see against that scarlet background the vivid white of the eyes and the dark, straight eyebrows that nearly met. And slowly again her face went perfectly white; then her dark blue eyes became marked. She seemed to wipe her long, white hands one in the other, inserting her right hand into her left and drawing it out again.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said in a dead voice. ‘We had hoped that, if that man went to France — or if other things happened — we might have continued on the old friendly footing. But you yourself must see that, with our official position, we can’t be expected to connive . . . ’
‘I don’t understand!’
‘Perhaps you’d rather I didn’t go on!’ Mrs Duchemin retorted. ‘I’d much rather not go on.’
‘You’d probably better,’ Valentine answered.
‘We had meant,’ the elder woman said, ‘to have a quiet little dinner — we two and you, before the party — for auld lang syne. But that fellow has forced himself in, and you see for yourself that we can’t have you as well.’
‘I don’t see why not. I always like to see Mr Tietjens!’ Mrs Duchemin looked hard at her.
‘I don’t see the use,’ she said, ‘of your keeping on that mask. It is surely bad enough that your mother should go about with that man and that terrible scenes like that of the other Friday should occur. Mrs Tietjens was heroic; nothing less than heroic. But you have no right to subject us, your friends, to such ordeals.’
‘You mean . . . Mrs Christopher Tietjens . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin went on:
‘My husband insists that I should ask you. But I will not. I simply will not. I invented for you the excuse of the frock. Of course we could have given you a frock if that man is so mean or so penniless as not to keep you decent. But I repeat, with our official position we cannot — we cannot; it would be madness — connive at this intrigue. And all the more as the wife appears likely to be friendly with us. She has been once: she may well come again.’ She paused and went on solemnly: ‘And I warn you, if the split comes — as it must, for what woman could stand it? — it is Mrs Tietjens we shall support. She will always find a home here.’
An extraordinary picture of Sylvia Tietjens standing beside Edith Ethel and dwarfing her as a giraffe dwarfs an emu, came into Valentine’s head. She said:
‘Ethel! Have I gone mad? Or is it you? Upon my word I can’t understand . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin exclaimed:
‘For God’s sake hold your tongue, you shameless thing! You’ve had a child by the man, haven’t you?’
Valentine saw suddenly the tall silver candlesticks, the dark polished panels of the rectory, and Edith Ethel’s mad face and mad hair whirling before them.
‘No! I certainly haven’t. Can you get that into your head? I certainly haven’t.’ She made a further effort over immense fatigue. ‘I assure you — I beg you to believe if it will give you any ease — that Mr Tietjens has never addressed a word of love to me in his life. Nor have I to him. We have hardly talked to each other in all the time we have known each other.’
Mrs Duchemin said in a harsh voice:
‘Seven people in the last five weeks have told me you have had a child by that beast: he’s ruined because he has to keep you and your mother and the child. You won’t deny that he has a child somewhere hidden away? . . . ’
Valentine exclaimed suddenly:
‘Oh, Ethel, you mustn’t . . . you mustn’t be jealous of me! If you only knew you wouldn’t be jealous of me . . . I suppose the child you were going to have was by Christopher? Men are like that . . . But not of me! You need never, never. I’ve been the best friend you can ever have had . . . ’
Mrs Duchemin exclaimed harshly, as if she were being strangled:
‘A sort of blackmail! I knew it would come to that! It always does with your sort. Then do your damnedest, you harlot. You never set foot in this house again! Go you and rot . . . ’ Her face suddenly expressed extreme fear and with great swiftness she ran up the room. Immediately afterwards she was tenderly bending over a great bowl of roses beneath the lustre. The voice of Vincent Macmaster from the door had said:
‘Come in, old man. Of course I’ve got ten minutes. The book’s in here somewhere . . . ’
Macmaster was beside her, rubbing his hands, bending with his curious, rather abject manner, and surveying her agonisedly with his eyeglass, which enormously magnified his lashes, his red lower lid and the veins in his cornea.
‘Valentine!’ he said, ‘my dear Valentine . . . You’ve heard? We’ve decided to make it public . . . Guggums will have invited you to our little feast. And there will be a surprise, I believe . . . ’
Edith Ethel looked, as she bent, lamentably and sharply, over her shoulder at Valentine.
‘Yes,’ she said bravely, aiming her voice at Edith Ethel, ‘Ethel has invited me. I’ll try to come . . . ’
‘Oh, but you must,’ Macmaster said, ‘just you and Christopher, who’ve been so kind to us. For old times’ sake. You could not..’
Christopher Tietjens was ballooning slowly from the door, his hand tentatively held out to her. As they practically never shook hands at home, it was easy to avoid his hand. She said to herself: ‘Oh, how is it possible! How could he have . . . ’ And the terrible situation poured itself over her mind: the miserable little husband, the desperately nonchalant lover — and Edith Ethel mad with jealousy! A doomed household. She hoped Edith Ethel had seen her refuse her hand to Christopher.
But Edith Ethel, bent over her rose bowl, was burying her beautiful face in flower after flower. She was accustomed to do this for many minutes on end: she thought that, so, she resembled a picture by the subject of her husband’s first little monograph. And so, Valentine thought, she did. She was trying to tell Macmaster that Friday evenings were difficult times for her to get away. But her throat ached too much. That, she knew, was her last sight of Edith Ethel, whom she had loved very much. That also, she hoped, would be her last sight of Christopher Tietjens — whom also she had loved very much . . . He was browsing along a bookshelf, very big and very clumsy.
Macmaster pursued her into the stony hall with clamorous repetitions of his invitation. She couldn’t speak. At the great iron-lined door he held her hand for an eternity, gazing lamentably, his face close up against hers. He exclaimed in accents of great fear:
‘Has Guggums? . . . She hasn’t . . .?’ His face, which when you saw it so closely was a little blotched, distorted itself with anxiety: he glanced aside with panic at the drawing-room door.
Valentine burst a voice through her agonised throat. ‘Ethel,’ she said, ‘has told me she’s to be Lady Macmaster. I’m so glad. I’m so truly glad for you. You’ve got what you wanted, haven’t you?’
His relief let him get out distractedly, yet as if he were too tired to be any more agitated:
‘Yes! yes! . . . It’s, of course, a secret . . . I don’t want him told till Friday next . . . so as to be a sort of bonne bouche . . . He’s practically certain to go out again on Saturday . . . They’re sending out a great batch of them . . . for the big push . . . ’ At that she tried to draw her hand from his: she missed what he was saying. It was something to the effect that he would give it all for a happy little party. She caught the rather astonishing words: ‘Wie im alten schönen Zeit.’ She couldn’t tell whether it was his or her eyes that were full of tears. She said:
‘I believe . . . I believe you’re a kind man!’
In the great stone hall, hung, with long Japanese paintings on silk, the electric light suddenly jumped; it was at best a sad, brown place.
‘I, too, beg you to believe that I will never abandon . . . He glanced again at the inner door and added: ‘You both . . . I will never abandon . . . you both!’ he repeated.
He let go her hand: she was on the stone stairs in the damp air. The great door closed irresistibly behind her, sending a whisper of air downwards.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08