He had not been on his knees many minutes before they suffered from reaction. To kneel there comforting Fleur brought him a growing discomfort. He believed her tonight, as he had not believed her for months past. But what was Wilfrid doing? Where wandering? The face at the window — face without voice, without attempt to reach her! Michael ached in that illegitimate organ the heart. Withdrawing his arms, he stood up.
“Would you like me to have a look for him? If it’s all over — he might — I might —”
Fleur, too, stood up. She was calm enough now.
“Yes, I’ll go to bed.” With Ting-a-ling in her arms, she went to the door; her face, between the dog’s chestnut fur and her own, was very pale, very still.
“By the way,” she said, “this is my second no go, Michael; I suppose it means —”
Michael gasped. Currents of emotion, welling, ebbing, swirling, rendered him incapable of speech.
“The night of the balloon,” she said: “Do you mind?”
“Mind? Good God! Mind!”
“That’s all right, then. I don’t. Good-night!”
She was gone. Without reason, Michael thought: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ And he stood, as if congealed, overcome by an uncontrollable sense of solidity. A child coming! It was as though the barque of his being, tossed and drifted, suddenly rode tethered — anchor down. He turned and tore at the curtains. Night of stars! Wonderful world! Jolly — jolly! And — Wilfrid! He flattened his face against the glass. Outside there Wilfrid’s had been flattened. He could see it if he shut his eyes. Not fair! Dog lost — man lost! S. O. S. He went into the hall, and from the mothless marble coffer rived his thickest coat. He took the first taxi that came by.
“Cork Street! Get along!” Needle in bundle of hay! Quarter past eleven by Big Ben! The intense relief of his whole being in that jolting cab seemed to him brutal. Salvation! It WAS— he had a strange certainty of that as though he saw Fleur suddenly ‘close-up’ in a very strong light, concrete beneath her graceful veerings. Family! Continuation! He had been unable to anchor her, for he was not of her! But her child could and would! And, perhaps, he would yet come in with the milk. Why did he love her so — it was not done! Wilfrid and he were donkeys — out of touch, out of tune with the times!
“Here you are, sir — what number?”
“All right! Cool your heels and wait for me! Have a cigarette!”
With one between his own lips which felt so dry, he went down the backwater.
A light in Wilfrid’s rooms! He rang the bell. The door was opened, the face of Wilfrid’s man looked forth.
“Mr. Desert in?”
“No, sir. Mr. Desert has just started for the East. His ship sails tomorrow.”
“Oh!” said Michael, blankly: “Where from?”
“Plymouth, sir. His train leaves Paddington at midnight. You might catch him yet.”
“It’s very sudden,” said Michael, “he never —”
“No, sir. Mr. Desert is a sudden gentleman.”
“Well, thanks; I’ll try and catch him.”
Back in the cab with the words: “Paddington — flick her along!” he thought: ‘A sudden gentleman!’ Perfect! He remembered the utter suddenness of that little interview beside the bust of Lionel Charwell. Sudden their friendship, sudden its end — sudden even Wilfrid’s poems — offspring of a sudden soul! Staring from window to window in that jolting, rattling cab, Michael suffered from St. Vitus’s dance. Was he a fool? Could he not let well alone? Pity was posh! And yet! With Wilfrid would go a bit of his heart, and in spite of all he would like him to know that. Upper Brook Street, Park Lane! Emptying streets, cold night, stark plane trees painted-up by the lamps against a bluish dark. And Michael thought: ‘We wander! What’s the end — the goal? To do one’s bit, and not worry! But what is my bit? What’s Wilfrid’s? Where will he end up, now?’
The cab rattled down the station slope and drew up under cover. Ten minutes to twelve, and a long heavy train on platform one!
‘What shall I do?’ thought Michael: ‘It’s so darned crude! Must I go down — carriage by carriage?” Couldn’t let you go, old man, without”— blurb!’
Bluejackets! If not drunk — as near as made no matter. Eight minutes still! He began slowly walking along the train. He had not passed four windows before he saw his quarry. Desert was sitting back to the engine in the near corner of an empty first. An unlighted cigarette was in his mouth, his fur collar turned up to his eyes, and his eves fixed on an unopened paper on his hip. He sat without movement; Michael stood looking at him. His heart beat fast. He struck a match, took two steps, and said:
“Light, old boy?”
Desert stared up at him.
“Thanks,” he said, and took the match. By its flare his face was dark, thin, drawn; his eyes dark, deep, tired. Michael leaned in the window. Neither spoke.
“Take your seat, if you’re going, sir.”
“I’m not,” said Michael. His whole inside seemed turning over.
“Where are you going, old man?” he said suddenly.
“God, Wilfrid, I’m sorry!”
“Cut it out!”
“Yes, I know! Shake hands?”
Desert held out his hand.
Michael squeezed it hard.
A whistle sounded.
Desert rose suddenly and turned to the rack above him. He took a parcel from a bag. “Here,” he said, “these wretched things! Publish them if you like.”
Something clicked in Michael’s throat.
“Thanks, old man! That’s great! Good-bye!”
A sort of beauty came into Desert’s face.
“So long!” he said.
The train moved. Michael withdrew his elbows; quite still, he stared at the motionless figure slowly borne along, away. Carriage after carriage went by him, full of bluejackets leaning out, clamouring, singing, waving handkerchiefs and bottles. Guard’s van now — the tail light — all spread — a crimson blur — setting East — going — going — gone!
And that was all — was it? He thrust the parcel into his coat pocket. Back to Fleur, now! Way of the world — one man’s meat, another’s poison! He passed his hand over his eyes. The dashed things were full of — blurb!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54