The Honourable Wilfrid Desert’s rooms were opposite a picture gallery off Cork Street. The only male member of the aristocracy writing verse that any one would print, he had chosen them for seclusion rather than for comfort. His ‘junk,’ however, was not devoid of the taste and luxury which overflows from the greater houses of England. Furniture from the Hampshire seat of the Cornish nobleman, Lord Mullyon, had oozed into two vans, when Wilfrid settled in. He was seldom to be found, however, in his nest, and was felt to be a rare bird, owing his rather unique position among the younger writers partly to his migratory reputation. He himself hardly, perhaps, knew where he spent his time, or did his work, having a sort of mental claustrophobia, a dread of being hemmed in by people. When the war broke out he had just left Eton; when the war was over he was twenty-three, as old a young man as ever turned a stave. His friendship with Michael, begun in hospital, had languished and renewed itself suddenly, when in 1920 Michael joined Danby and Winter, publishers, of Blake Street, Covent Garden. The scattery enthusiasm of the sucking publisher had been roused by Wilfrid’s verse. Hob-nobbing lunches over the poems of one in need of literary anchorage, had been capped by the firm’s surrender to Michael’s insistence. The mutual intoxication of the first book Wilfrid had written and the first book Michael had sponsored was crowned at Michael’s wedding. Best man! Since then, so far as Desert could be tied to anything, he had been tied to those two; nor, to do him justice, had he realised till a month ago that the attraction was not Michael, but Fleur. Desert never spoke of the war, it was not possible to learn from his own mouth an effect which he might have summed up thus: “I lived so long with horror and death; I saw men so in the raw; I put hope of anything out of my mind so utterly, that I can never more have the faintest respect for theories, promises, conventions, moralities, and principles. I have hated too much the men who wallowed in them while I was wallowing in mud and blood. Illusion is off. No religion and no philosophy will satisfy me — words, all words. I have still my senses — no thanks to them; am still capable — I find — of passion; can still grit my teeth and grin; have still some feeling of trench loyalty, but whether real or just a complex, I don’t yet know. I am dangerous, but not so dangerous as those who trade in words, principles, theories, and all manner of fanatical idiocy to be worked out in the blood and sweat of other men. The war’s done one thing for me — converted life to comedy. Laugh at it — there’s nothing else to do!”
Leaving the concert hall on the Friday night, he had walked straight home to his rooms. And lying down full length on a monk’s seat of the fifteenth century, restored with down cushions and silk of the twentieth, he crossed his hands behind his head and delivered himself to these thoughts: ‘I am not going on like this. She has bewitched me. It doesn’t mean anything to her. But it means hell to me. I’ll finish with it on Sunday — Persia’s a good place. Arabia’s a good place — plenty of blood and sand! She’s incapable of giving anything up. How has she hooked herself into me! By trick of eyes, and hair, by her walk, by the sound of her voice — by trick of warmth, scent, colour. Fling her cap over the windmill — not she! What then? Am I to hang about her Chinese fireside and her little Chinese dog; and have this ache and this fever because I can’t be kissing her? I’d rather be flying again in the middle of Boche whiz-bangs! Sunday! How women like to drag out agonies! It’ll be just this afternoon all over again. “How unkind of you to go, when your friendship is so precious to me! Stay, and be my tame cat, Wilfrid!” No, my dear, for once you’re up against it! And — so am I, by the Lord! . . .’
When in that gallery which extends asylum to British art, those two young people met so accidentally on Sunday morning in front of Eve smelling at the flowers of the Garden of Eden, there were present also six mechanics in various stages of decomposition, a custodian and a couple from the provinces, none of whom seemed capable of observing anything whatever. And, indeed, that meeting was inexpressive. Two young people, of the disillusioned class, exchanging condemnations of the past. Desert with his off-hand speech, his smile, his well-tailored informality, suggested no aching heart. Of the two Fleur was the paler and more interesting. Desert kept saying to himself: “No melodrama — that’s all it would be!” And Fleur was thinking: ‘If I can keep him ordinary like this, I shan’t lose him, because he’ll never go away without a proper outburst.’
It was not until they found themselves a second time before the Eve, that he said:
“I don’t know why you asked me to come, Fleur. It’s playing the goat for no earthly reason. I quite understand your feeling. I’m a bit of ‘Ming’ that you don’t want to lose. But it’s not good enough, my dear; and that’s all about it.”
“How horrible of you, Wilfrid!”
“Well! Here we part! Give us your flipper.”
His eyes — rather beautiful — looked dark and tragic above the smile on his lips, and she said stammering:
“Wilfrid — I— I don’t know. I want time. I can’t bear you to be unhappy. Don’t go away! Perhaps I— I shall be unhappy, too; I— I don’t know.”
Through Desert passed the bitter thought: ‘She CAN’T let go — she doesn’t know how.’ But he said quite softly: “Cheer up, my child; you’ll be over all that in a fortnight. I’ll send you something to make up. Why shouldn’t I make it China — one place is as good as another? I’ll send you a bit of real ‘Ming,’ of a better period than this.”
Fleur said passionately:
“You’re insulting! Don’t!”
“I beg your pardon. I don’t want to leave you angry.”
“What is it you want of me?”
“Oh! no — come! This is going over it twice. Besides, since Friday I’ve been thinking. I want nothing, Fleur, except a blessing and your hand. Give it me! Come on!”
Fleur put her hand behind her back. It was too mortifying! He took her for a cold-blooded, collecting little cat — clutching and playing with mice that she didn’t want to eat!
“You think I’m made of ice,” she said, and her teeth caught her upper lip: “Well, I’m not!”
Desert looked at her; his eyes were very wretched. “I didn’t mean to play up your pride,” he said. “Let’s drop it, Fleur. It isn’t any good.”
Fleur turned and fixed her eyes on the Eve — rumbustious-looking female, care-free, avid, taking her fill of flower perfume! Why not be care-free, take anything that came along? Not so much love in the world that one could afford to pass, leaving it unsmelled, unplucked. Run away! Go to the East! Of course, she couldn’t do anything extravagant like that! But, perhaps — What did it matter? one man or another, when neither did you really love!
From under her drooped, white, dark-lashed eyelids she saw the expression on his face, and that he was standing stiller than the statues. And suddenly she said: “You will be a fool to go. Wait!” And without another word or look, she walked away, leaving Desert breathless before the avid Eve.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54