After dinner Michael set forth, without saying where he was going. Since the death of his father-inlaw, and the disclosure then made to him about Fleur and John Forsyte, his relations with her had been the same, with a slight but deep difference. He was no longer a tied but a free agent in his own house. Not a word had ever been spoken between them on a matter now nearly four years old, nor had there been in his mind any doubt about her since; the infidelity was scotched and buried. But, though outwardly the same, he was inwardly emancipated, and she knew it. In this matter of Wilfrid, for instance, his father’s warning had not been needed. He would not have told her of it, anyway. Not because he did not trust her discretion — he could always trust that — but because he secretly felt that in a matter such as this he would not get any real help from her.
He walked, ‘Wilfrid’s in love,’ he thought, ‘so he ought to be in by ten, unless he’s got an attack of verse; but even then you can’t write poetry in this traffic or in a club, the atmosphere stops the flow.’ He crossed Pall Mall and threaded the maze of narrow streets dedicated to unattached manhood till he came to Piccadilly, quiet before its storm of after-theatre traffic. Passing up a side street devoted to those male ministering angels — tailors, bookmakers and moneylenders — he rounded into Cork Street. It was ten o’clock exactly when he paused before the well-remembered house. Opposite was the gallery where he had first met Fleur, and he stood for a moment almost dizzy from past feelings. For three years, before Wilfrid’s queer infatuation for Fleur had broken it all up, he had been Wilfrid’s fidus Achates. ‘Regular David and Jonathan stunt,’ he thought, and all his old feelings came welling up as he ascended the stairs.
The monastic visage of the henchman Stack relaxed at sight of him.
“Mr. Mont? Pleasure to see you, sir.”
“And how are you, Stack?”
“A little older, sir; otherwise in fine shape, thank you. Mr. Desert IS in.”
Michael resigned his hat, and entered.
Wilfrid, lying on the divan in a dark dressing-gown, sat up.
“How are you, Wilfrid?”
“Congratulations, old man!”
“I met her first at your wedding, you know.”
“Ten years ago, nearly. You’ve plucked the flower of our family, Wilfrid; we’re all in love with Dinny.”
“I won’t talk about her, but I think the more.”
“Any verse, old man?”
“Yes, a booklet going in tomorrow, same publisher. Remember the first?”
“Don’t I? My only scoop.”
“This is better. There’s one that IS a poem.”
Stack re-entered with a tray.
“Help yourself, Michael.”
Michael poured out a little brandy and diluted it but slightly. Then with a cigarette he sat down.
“When’s it to be?”
“Registrar’s, as soon as possible.”
“Oh! And then?”
“Dinny wants to show me England. While there’s any sun I suppose we shall hang around.”
“Going back to Syria?”
Desert wriggled on his cushions.
“I don’t know: further afield, perhaps — she’ll say.”
Michael looked at his feet, beside which on the Persian rug some cigarette ash had fallen.
“Old man,” he said.
“D’you know a bird called Telfourd Yule?”
“His name — writer of sorts.”
“He’s just come back from Arabia and the Soudan; he brought a yarn with him.” Without raising his eyes, he was conscious that Wilfrid was sitting upright.
“It concerns you; and it’s queer and damaging. He thinks you ought to know.”
Michael uttered an involuntary sigh.
“Shortly: The Bedouin are saying that your conversion to Islam was at the pistol’s point. He was told the yarn in Arabia, and again in the Libyan desert, with the name of the Sheikh, and the place in Darfur, and the Englishman’s name.” And, still without looking up, he knew that Wilfrid’s eyes were fixed on him, and that there was sweat on his forehead.
“He wanted you to know, so he told my dad at the Club this afternoon, and Bart told me. I said I’d see you about it. Forgive me.”
Then, in the silence, Michael raised his eyes. What a strange, beautiful, tortured, compelling face!
“Nothing to forgive; it’s true.”
“My dear old man!” The words burst from Michael, but no others would follow.
Desert got up, went to a drawer and took out a manuscript.
“Here, read this!”
During the twenty minutes Michael took to read the poem, there was not a sound, except from the sheets being turned. Michael put them down at last.
“Yes, but YOU’D never have done it.”
“I haven’t an idea what I should have done.”
“Oh, yes, you have. You’d never have let sophistication and God knows what stifle your first instinct, as I did. My first instinct was to say: ‘Shoot and be damned,’ and I wish to God I’d kept to it, then I shouldn’t be here. The queer thing is, if he’d threatened torture I’d have stood out. Yet I’d much rather be killed than tortured.”
“Fanatics aren’t cads. I’d have sent him to hell, but he really hated shooting me; he begged me — stood there with the pistol and begged me not to make him. His brother’s a friend of mine. Fanaticism’s a rum thing! He stood there ready to loose off, begging me. Damned human. I can see his eyes. He was under a vow. I never saw a man so relieved.”
“There’s nothing of that in the poem,” said Michael.
“Being sorry for your executioner is hardly an excuse. I’m not proud of it, especially when it saved my life. Besides, I don’t know if that WAS the reason. Religion, if you haven’t got it, is a fake. To walk out into everlasting dark for the sake of a fake! If I must die I want a reality to die for.”
“You don’t think,” said Michael miserably, “that you’d be justified in denying the thing?”
“I’ll deny nothing. If it’s come out, I’ll stand by it.”
“Does Dinny know?”
“Yes. She’s read the poem. I didn’t mean to tell her, but I did. She behaved as people don’t. Marvellous!”
“Yes. I’m not sure that you oughtn’t to deny it for her sake.”
“No, but I ought to give her up.”
“She would have something to say about that. If Dinny’s in love, it’s over head and ears, Wilfrid.”
Overcome by the bleakness of the situation, Michael got up and helped himself to more brandy.
“Exactly!” said Desert, following him with his eyes. “Imagine if the Press gets hold of it!” and he laughed.
“I gather,” said Michael, with a spurt of cheerfulness, “that it was only in the desert both times that Yule heard the story.”
“What’s in the desert today is in the bazaars tomorrow. It’s no use, I shall have to face the music.”
Michael put a hand on his shoulder. “Count on me, anyway. I suppose the bold way is the only way. But I feel all you’re up against.”
“Yellow. Labelled: ‘Yellow’— might give any show away. And they’ll be right.”
“Rot!” said Michael.
Wilfrid went on without heeding: “And yet my whole soul revolts against dying for a gesture that I don’t believe in. Legends and superstitions — I hate the lot. I’d sooner die to give them a death-blow than to keep them alive. If a man tried to force me to torture an animal, to hang another man, to violate a woman, of course I’d die rather than do it. But why the hell should I die to gratify those whom I despise for believing outworn creeds that have been responsible for more misery in the world than any other mortal thing? Why? Eh?”
Michael had recoiled before the passion in this outburst, and was standing miserable and glum.
“Symbol,” he muttered.
“Symbol! For conduct that’s worth standing for, honesty, humanity, courage, I hope I’d stand; I went through with the war, anyway; but why should I stand for what I look on as dead wood?”
“It simply mustn’t come out,” said Michael violently. “I loathe the idea of a lot of swabs looking down their noses at you.”
Wilfrid shrugged. “I look down my nose at myself, I assure you. Never stifle your instinct, Michael.”
“But what are you going to DO?”
“What does it matter what I do? Things will be as they will be. Nobody will understand, or side with me if they did understand. Why should they? I don’t even side with myself.”
“I think lots of people might nowadays.”
“The sort I wouldn’t be seen dead with. No, I’m outcast.”
“I’ll settle that with her.”
Michael took up his hat.
“If there’s anything I can do, count on me. Good night, old man!”
“Good night, and thanks!”
Michael was out of the street before any thinking power returned to him. Wilfrid had been caught, as it were, in a snare! One could see how his rebellious contempt for convention and its types had blinded him to the normal view. But one could not dissociate this or that from the general image of an Englishman: betrayal of one feature would be looked on as betrayal of the whole. As for that queer touch of compassion for his would-be executioner, who would see that who didn’t know Wilfrid? The affair was bitter and tragic. The ‘yellow’ label would be stuck on indiscriminately for all eyes to see.
‘Of course,’ thought Michael, ‘he’ll have his supporters — egomaniacs, and Bolshies, and that’ll make him feel worse than ever.’ Nothing was more galling than to be backed up by people you didn’t understand, and who didn’t understand you. And how was support like that going to help Dinny, more detached from it even than Wilfrid? The whole thing was —!
And with that blunt reflection he crossed Bond Street and went down Hay Hill into Berkeley Square. If he did not see his father before he went home, he would not sleep.
At Mount Street his mother and father were receiving a special pale negus, warranted to cause slumber, from the hands of Blore.
“Catherine?” said Lady Mont: “Measles?”
“No, Mother; I want to have a talk with Dad.”
“About that young man — changin’ his religion. He always gave me a pain — defyin’ the lightnin’, and that.”
Michael stared. “It IS about Wilfrid.”
“Em,” said Sir Lawrence, “this is dead private. Well, Michael?”
“The story’s true; he doesn’t and won’t deny it. Dinny knows.”
“What story?” asked Lady Mont.
“He recanted to some fanatical Arabs on pain of death.”
“What a bore!”
Michael thought swiftly: ‘My God! If only everyone would take that view!’
“D’you mean, then,” said Sir Lawrence, gravely, “that I’ve got to tell Yule there’s no defence?”
“But if so, dear boy, it won’t stop there.”
“No, but he’s reckless.”
“The lightnin’,” said Lady Mont, suddenly.
“Exactly, Mother. He’s written a poem on it, and a jolly good one it is. He’s sending it in a new volume to his publisher tomorrow. But, Dad, at any rate, get Yule and Jack Muskham to keep their mouths shut. After all, what business is it of theirs?”
Sir Lawrence shrugged the thin shoulders which at seventy-two were only beginning to suggest age.
“There are two questions, Michael, and so far as I can see they’re quite separate. The first is how to muzzle club gossip. The second concerns Dinny and her people. You say Dinny knows; but her people don’t, except ourselves; and as she didn’t tell us, she won’t tell them. Now that’s not fair. And it’s not wise,” he went on without waiting for an answer, “because this thing’s dead certain to come out later, and they’d never forgive Desert for marrying her without letting them know. I wouldn’t myself, it’s too serious.”
“Agitatin’,” murmured Lady Mont. “Ask Adrian.”
“Better Hilary,” said Sir Lawrence.
Michael broke in: “That second question, Dad, seems to me entirely up to Dinny. She must be told that the story’s in the wind, then either she or Wilfrid will let her people know.”
“If only she’d let him drop her! Surely he can’t want to go on with it, with this story going about?”
“I don’t see Dinny droppin’ him,” murmured Lady Mont. “She’s been too long pickin’ him up. Love’s young dream.”
“Wilfrid said he knew he ought to give her up. Oh! damn!”
“Come back to question one, then, Michael. I can try, but I’m very doubtful, especially if this poem is coming out. What is it, a justification?”
“Bitter and rebellious, like his early stuff?”
“Well, they might keep quiet out of charity, but they’ll never stomach that sort of attitude, if I know Jack Muskham. He hates the bravado of modern scepticism like poison.”
“We can’t tell what’s going to happen in any direction, but it seems to me we ought all to play hard for delay.”
“Hope the Hermit,” murmured Lady Mont. “Good night, dear boy; I’m goin’ up. Mind the dog — he’s not been out.”
“Well, I’ll do what I can,” said Sir Lawrence.
Michael received his mother’s kiss, wrung his father’s hand, and went.
He walked home, uneasy and sore at heart, for this concerned two people of whom he was very fond, and he could see no issue that was not full of suffering to both. And continually there came back to him the thought: ‘What should I have done in Wilfrid’s place?’ And he concluded, as he walked, that no man could tell what he would do if he were in the shoes of another man. And so, in the spring wind of a night not devoid of beauty, he came to South Square and let himself in.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54