Part 5 out of 5
"There must be some misunderstanding. We have every confidence in the
matron, and she's still with us."
"Then I'm sorry for you."
He turned warily to another aspect of the subject.
"Do I gather that you went straight from Paris to Serbia?"
"Yes. The unit was passing through, and I joined it."
"But how did you obtain your passport? You had no certificate from
Nurse Smaith tossed her perilous red hair.
"Oh! No difficulty about that. I am not _without_ friends, as you may
say." Some of the committee looked up suspiciously, aware that the
matron had in her report hinted at mysterious relations between Nurse
Smaith and certain authorities. "The doctor in charge of the Serbian
unit was only too glad to have me. Of course, if you're going to
believe everything matron says--" Her tone was becoming coarser,
but the committee could neither turn her out nor cure her natural
coarseness, nor indicate to her that she was not using the demeanour
of committee-rooms. She was firmly lodged among them, and she went
from bad to worse. "Of course, if you're going to swallow everything
matron says--! It isn't as if I was the only one."
"May I ask if you are at present employed?"
"I don't _quite_ see what that's got to do with it," said Nurse
Smaith, still gaining ground.
"Certainly not. Nothing. Nothing at all. I was only hoping that these
visits here are not inconvenient to you."
"Well, as it seems so important, I _my_ sy I'm going out to Salonika
next week, and that's why I want this business settled." She stopped,
and as the committee remained diffidently and apprehensively silent,
she went on: "It isn't as if I was the only one. Why! When we were in
the retreat of the Serbian Army owver the mahntains I came across
by chance, if you call it chance, another nurse that knew all about
_her_--been under her in Bristol for a year."
A young member, pricking up, asked:
"Were you in the Serbian retreat, Nurse?"
"If I hadn't been I shouldn't be here now," said Nurse Smaith,
entirely recovered from her stage-fright and entirely pleased to be
there then. "I lost all I had at Ypek. All I took was my medals, and
them I did take. There were fifty of us, British, French and Russians.
We had nearly three weeks in the mahntains. We slept rough all
together in one room, when there was a room, and when there wasn't we
slept in stables. We had nothing but black bread, and that froze in
the haversacks, and if we took our boots off we had to thaw them
the next morning before we could put them on. If we hadn't had three
saucepans we should have died. When we went dahn the hills two of
us had to hold every horse by his head and tail to keep them from
falling. However, nearly all the horses died, and then we took the
packs off them and tried to drag the packs along by hand; but we soon
stopped that. All the bridle-paths were littered with dead horses and
oxen. And when we came up with the Serbian Army we saw soldiers just
drop down and die in the snow. I read in the paper there were no
children in the retreat, but I saw lots of children, strapped to their
mother's backs. Yes; and they fell down together and froze to death.
Then we got to Scutari, and glad I was."
She glanced round defiantly, but not otherwise moved, at the
committee, the hitherto invisible gods of hospitals and medical units.
The nipping wind of reality had blown into the back drawing-room. The
committee was daunted. But some of its members, less daunted than the
rest, had the presence of mind to wonder why it seemed strange and
strangely chilling that a rather coarse, stout woman with a cockney
accent and little social refinement should have passed through, and
emerged so successfully from, the unimaginable retreat. If Nurse
Smaith had been beautiful and slim and of elegant manners they could
not have controlled their chivalrous enthusiasm.
"Very interesting," said someone.
Glancing at G.J., Nurse Smaith proceeded:
"You sy I didn't come home. But the money for my journey was due to
me. That's what I sy. Twenty-five francs for two weeks' wages and
ninety-five francs journey money."
"As regards the journey money," observed Sir Stephen blandly, "we've
never paid so much, if my recollection serves me. And of course we
have to remember that we're dealing with public funds."
Nurse Smaith sprang up, looking fixedly at Concepcion. Concepcion had
thrown herself back in her chair, and her face was so drawn that it
was no more the same face.
"Even if it is public funds," Concepcion shrieked, "can't you give
ninety-five francs in memory of those three saucepans?" Then she
relapsed on to the table, her head in her hands, and sobbed violently,
very violently. The sobs rose and fell in the scale, and the whole
G.J. jumped to his feet. Half the shocked and alarmed committee was on
its feet. Nurse Smaith had run round to Concepcion and had seized her
with a persuasive, soothing gesture. Concepcion quite submissively
allowed herself to be led out of the room by Nurse Smaith and Sir
Stephen. Her sobs weakened, and when the door was closed could no
longer be heard. A lady member had followed the three. The committee
was positively staggered by the unprecedented affair. G.J., very pale,
"Mrs. Smith is in competent hands. We can't do anything. I think we
had better sit down." He was obeyed.
A second doctor on the committee remarked with a curious slight smile:
"I said to myself when I first saw her this afternoon that Mrs. Smith
had some of the symptoms of a nervous breakdown."
"Yes," G.J. concurred. "I very much regret that I allowed Mrs. Smith
to come. But she was determined to work, and she seemed perfectly calm
and collected. I very much regret it."
Then, to hide his constraint, he pulled towards him the sheet of paper
on which Concepcion had been making notes, and, remembering that a
list of members present had always to be kept, he began to write down
names. He was extremely angry with himself. He had tried Concepcion
too high. He ought to have known that all women were the same. He
had behaved like an impulsive fool. He had been ridiculous before
the committee. What should have been a triumph was a disaster. The
committee would bind their two names together. And at the conclusion
of the meeting news of the affairs would radiate from the committee's
offices in every direction throughout London. And he had been unfair
to Concepcion. Their relations would be endlessly complicated by the
episode. He foresaw trying scenes, in which she would make all the
excuses, between her and himself.
"Perhaps it would be simpler if we decided to admit Nurse Smaith's
claim," said a timid voice from the other end of the table.
G.J. murmured coldly, gazing at the agenda paper and yet dominating
"The question will come up on the minutes of the Hospitals Management
Sub-committee. We had better deal with it then. The next business on
the agenda is the letter from the Paris Service de Sante."
He was thinking: "How is she now? Ought I to go out and see?" And the
majority of the committee was vaguely thinking, not without a certain
pleasurable malice: "These Society women! They're all queer!"
THE INVISIBLE POWERS
Several times already the rumour had spread in the Promenade that the
Promenade would be closed on a certain date, and the Promenade had not
been closed. But to-night it was stated that the Promenade would be
closed at the end of the week, and everybody concerned knew that the
prophecy would come true. No official notice was issued, no person
who repeated the tale could give a reliable authority for it;
nevertheless, for some mysterious reason it convinced. The rival
Promenade had already passed away. The high invisible powers who ruled
the world of pleasure were moving at the behest of powers still higher
than themselves; and the cloak-room attendants, in their frivolous
tiny aprons, shared murmuringly behind plush portieres in the woe of
the ladies with large hats.
The revue being a failure, the auditorium was more than half empty. In
the Promenade to each man there were at least five pretty ladies, and
the ladies looked gloomily across many rows of vacant seats at the
bright proscenium where jocularities of an exacerbating tedium were
being enacted. Not that the jocularities were inane beyond the usual,
but failure made them seem so. None had the slightest idea why the
revue had failed; for precisely similar revues, concocted according to
the same recipe and full of the same jocularities executed by the same
players at the same salaries, had crowded the theatre for many months
together. It was an incomprehensible universe.
Christine suddenly shrugged her shoulders and walked out. What use in
staying to the end?
It was long after ten o'clock, and an exquisite faint light lingering
in the sky still revealed the features of the people in the streets.
The man who had devoted half a life to the ingenious project of
lengthening the summer days by altering clocks was in his disappointed
grave; but victory had come to him there, for statesmen had at last
proved the possibility of that which they had always maintained to be
impossible, and the wisdom of that which they had always maintained to
be idiotic. The voluptuous divine melancholy of evening June descended
upon the city from the sky, and even sounds were beautifully sad. The
happy progress of the war could not exorcise this soft, omnipotent
melancholy. Yet the progress of the war was nearly all that could be
desired. Verdun was held, and if Fort Vaux had been lost there had
been compensation in the fact that the enemy, through the gesture of
the Crown Prince in allowing the captured commander of the fort to
retain his sword, had done something to rehabilitate themselves in the
esteem of mankind. Lord Kitchener was drowned, but the discovery had
been announced that he was not indispensable; indeed, there were those
who said that it was better thus. The Easter Rebellion was well in
hand; order was understood to reign in an Ireland hidden behind the
black veil of the censorship. The mighty naval battle of Jutland had
quickly transformed itself from a defeat into a brilliant triumph.
The disturbing prices of food were about to be reduced by means of a
committee. In America the Republican forces were preparing to eject
President Wilson in favour of another Hughes who could be counted
upon to realise the world-destiny of the United States. An economic
conference was assembling in Paris with the object of cutting Germany
off from the rest of the human race after the war. And in eleven
days the Russians had made prisoners of a hundred and fifty thousand
Austrians, and Brusiloff had just said: "This is only the beginning."
Lastly the close prospect of the resistless Allied Western offensive
which would deracinate Prussian militarism was uplifting men's minds.
Christine walked nonchalantly and uninvitingly through the streets,
quite unresponsive to the exhilaration of events.
"Marthe!" she called, when she had let herself into the flat. Contrary
to orders, the little hall was in darkness. There was no answer. She
lit the hall and passed into the kitchen, lighting it also. There, in
the terrible and incurable squalor of Marthe's own kitchen, Marthe's
apron was thrown untidily across the back of the solitary windsor
chair. She knew then that Marthe had gone out, and in truth, although
very annoyed, she was not altogether surprised.
Marthe had a mysterious love affair. It was astonishing, in view of
the intensely aphrodisiacal atmosphere in which she lived, that Marthe
did not continually have love affairs. But the day of love had seemed
for Marthe to be over, and Christine found great difficulty in getting
her ever to leave the flat, save on necessary household errands. On
the other hand it was astonishing that any man should be attracted
by the fat slattern. The moth now fluttering round her was an Italian
waiter, as to whom Christine had learnt that he was being unjustly
hunted by the Italian military authorities. Hence the mystery
necessarily attaching to the love affair. Being French, Christine
despised him. He called Marthe by her right name of "Marta," and
Christine had more than once heard the pair gabbling in the kitchen
in Italian. Just as though she had been a conventional _bourgeoise_
Christine now accused Marthe of ingratitude because the woman was
subordinating Christine's convenience to the supreme exigencies of
fate. A man's freedom might be in the balance, Marthe's future might
be in the balance; but supposing that Christine had come home with a
gallant--and no _femme de chambre_ to do service!
She walked about the flat, shut the windows, drew the blinds, removed
her hat, removed her gloves, stretched them, put her things away; she
gazed at the two principal rooms, at the soiled numbers of _La Vie
Parisienne_ and the cracked bric-a-brac in the drawing-room, at the
rent in the lace bedcover, and the foul mess of toilet apparatus in
the bedroom. The forlorn emptiness of the place appalled her. She had
been quite fairly successful in her London career. Hundreds of men had
caressed her and paid her with compliments and sweets and money. She
had been really admired. The flat had had gay hours. Unmistakable
aristocrats had yielded to her. And she had escaped the five scourges
of her profession....
It was all over. The chapter was closed. She saw nothing in front of
her but decline and ruin. She had escaped the five scourges of her
profession, but part of the price of this immunity was that through
keeping herself to herself she had not a friend. Despite her
profession, and because of the prudence with which she exercised it,
she was a solitary, a recluse.
Yes, of course she had Gilbert. She could count upon Gilbert to a
certain extent, to a considerable extent; but he would not be eternal,
and his fancy for her would not be eternal. Once, before Easter, she
had had the idea that he meant to suggest to her an exclusive liaison.
Foolish! Nothing, less than nothing, had come of it. He would not be
such an imbecile as to suggest such a thing to her. Miracles did not
happen, at any rate not that kind of miracle.
In the midst of her desolation an old persistent dream revisited her:
the dream of a small country cottage in France, with a dog, a
faithful servant, respectability, good name, works of charity, her
own praying-stool in the village church. She moved to the wardrobe
and unlocked one of the drawers beneath the wide doors. And rummaging
under the linen and under the photographs under the linen she
drew forth a package and spread its contents on the table in the
drawing-room. Her securities, her bonds of the City of Paris, ever
increasing! Gilbert had tried to induce her to accept more attractive
investments. But she would not. Never! These were her consols, part of
her religion. Bonds of the City of Paris had fallen in value, but not
in her dogmatic esteem. The passionate little miser that was in her
surveyed them with pleasure, even with assurance; but they were still
far too few to stand for the realisation of her dream. And she might
have to sell some of them soon in order to live. She replaced them
carefully in the drawer with dejection unabated.
When she glanced at the table again she saw an envelope. Inexplicably
she had not noticed it before. She seized it in hope--and recognised
in the address the curious hand of her landlord. It contained a week's
notice to quit. The tenancy of the flat was weekly. This was the last
blow. All the invisible powers of London were conspiring together to
shatter the profession. What in the name of the Holy Virgin had come
over the astounding, incomprehensible city? Then there was a ring at
the bell. Marthe? No, Marthe would never ring; she had a key and
she would creep in. A lover? A rich, spendthrift, kind lover? Hope
flickered anew in her desolated heart.
It was the other pretty lady--a newcomer--who lived in the house:
a rather stylish woman of about thirty-five, unusually fair, with
regular features and a very dignified carriage, indeed not unimposing.
They had met once, at the foot of the stairs. Christine was not sure
of her name. She proclaimed herself to be Russian, but Christine
doubted the assertion. Her French had no trace of a foreign accent;
and in view of the achieve-merits of the Russian Army ladies were
finding it advantageous to be of Russian blood. Still she had a fine
cosmopolitan air to which Christine could not pretend. They engaged
each other in glances.
"I hope I do not disturb you, madame."
"Not at all, madame. I am obliged to open the door myself because my
servant is out."
"I thought I heard you come in, and so--"
"No," interrupted Christine, determined not to admit the defeat
of having returned from the Promenade alone. "I have not been out.
Probably it was my servant you heard."
"Ah!... Without doubt."
"Will you give yourself the trouble to enter, madame?"
"Ah!" exclaimed the Russian, in the sitting-room. "You will excuse me,
madame, but what a beautiful photograph!"
"You are too amiable, madame. A friend had it done for me."
They sat down.
"You are deliciously installed here," said the Russian perfunctorily,
looking round. "Now, madame, I have been here only three weeks. And
to-night I receive a notice to quit. Shall I be indiscreet if I ask if
you have received a similar notice?"
"This very evening," said Christine, in secret still more disconcerted
by this further proof of a general plot against human nature. She was
about to add: "I found it here on my return home," but, remembering
her fib, managed to stop in time.
"Well, madame, I know little of London. Without doubt you know London
to the bottom. Is it serious, this notice?"
"I think so."
"You see, there is a crisis. It is the war that in London has led to
the discovery that men have desires. Of course, it will pass, but--"
"Oh, of course.... But it is grotesque, this crisis."
"It is perfectly grotesque," Christine agreed.
"You do not by hazard know where one can find flats to let? I hear
speak of Bloomsbury and of Long Acre. But it seems to me that those
"I am in London since now more than eighteen months," said Christine.
"And as for all those things I know little. I have lived here in this
flat all the time, and I go out so rarely--"
The Russian put in with eagerness:
"Oh, I also! I go out, so to speak, not at all."
"I thought I had seen you once in the Promenade at the--"
"Yes, it is true," interrupted the Russian quickly. "I went from
curiosity, for distraction. You see, since the war I have lived
in Dublin. I had there a friend, very highly placed in the
administration. He married. One lived terrible hours during the
revolt. I decided to come to London, especially as--However, I do not
wish to fatigue you with all that."
Christine said nothing. The Irish Rebellion did not interest her.
She was in no mood for talking about the Irish Rebellion. She had
convinced herself that all Sinn Feiners were in German pay, and naught
else mattered. Never, she thought, had the British Government
carried ingenuousness further than in this affair! Given a free hand,
Christine with her strong, direct common sense would have settled the
Irish question in forty-eight hours.
The Russian, after a little pause, continued:
"I merely wished to ask you whether the notice to quit was
serious--not a trick for raising the rent."
Christine shook her head to the last clause.
"And then, if the notice was quite serious, whether you knew of any
flats--not too dear.... Not that I mind a good rent if one receives
the value of it, and is left tranquil."
The conversation might at this point have taken a more useful turn if
Christine had not felt bound to hold herself up against the other's
high tone of indifference to expenditure. The Russian, in demanding
"tranquillity," had admitted that she regularly practised the
profession--or, as English girls strangely called it, "the
business"--and Christine could have followed her lead into the region
of gossiping and intimate realism where detailed confidences are
enlighteningly exchanged; but the tone about money was a challenge.
"I should have been enchanted to be of service to you," said
Christine. "But I know nothing. I go out less and less. As for this
notice, I smile at it. I have a friend upon whom I can count for
everything. I have only to tell him, and he will put me among my own
furniture at once. He has indeed already suggested it. So that, _je
"I also!" said the Russian. "My new friend--he is a colonel, sent from
Dublin to London--has insisted upon putting me among my own furniture.
But I have refused so far--because one likes to know more of a
gentleman--does not one?--before ..."
"Truly!" murmured Christine.
"And there is always Paris," said the Russian.
"But I thought you were from Petrograd."
"Yes. But I know Paris well. Ah! There is only Paris! Paris is a
second home to me."
"Can one get a passport easily for Paris?... I mean, supposing the
air-raids grew too dangerous again."
"Why not, madame? If one has one's papers. To get a passport from
Paris to London, that would be another thing, I admit.... I see that
you play," the Russian added, rising, with a gesture towards the
piano. "I have heard you play. You play with true taste. I know, for
when a girl I played much."
"You flatter me."
"Not at all. I think your friend plays too."
"Ah!" said Christine. "He!... It is an artist, that one."
They turned over the music, exchanged views about waltzes, became
enthusiastic, laughed, and parted amid manifestations of good breeding
and goodwill. As soon as Christine was alone, she sat down and wept.
She could not longer contain her distress. Paris gleamed before her.
But no! It was a false gleam. She could not make a new start in Paris
during the war. The adventure would be too perilous; the adventure
might end in a licensed house. And yet in London--what was there
in London but, ultimately, the pavement? And the pavement meant
complications with the police, with prowlers, with other women;
it meant all the scourges of the profession, including probably
alcoholism. It meant prostitution, to which she had never sunk!
She wished she had been killed outright in the air-raid. She had an
idea of going to the Oratory the next morning, and perhaps choosing
a new Virgin and soliciting favour of the image thereof. She sobbed,
and, sobbing, suddenly jumped up and ran to the telephone. And even
as she gave Gilbert's number, she broke it in the middle with a sob.
After all, there was Gilbert.
"Get back into bed," said G.J., having silently opened the window in
He spoke with courteous persuasion, but his peculiar intense
politeness and restraint somewhat dismayed Christine. By experience
she knew that they were a sure symptom of annoyance. She often, though
not on this occasion, wished that he would yield to anger and make a
scene; but he never did, and she would hate him for not doing so. The
fact was that under the agreement which ruled their relations, she had
no right to telephone to him, save in grave and instant emergency,
and even then it was her duty to say first, when she got the
communication: "Mr. Pringle wants to speak to Mr. Hoape." She had
omitted, in her disquiet, to fulfil this formality. Recognising his
voice, she had begun passionately, without preliminary: "Oh! Beloved,
thou canst not imagine what has happened to me--" etc. Still he had
come. He had cut her short, but he had left whatever he was doing
and had, amazingly, walked over at once. And in the meantime she had
hurriedly undressed and put on a new peignoir and slipped into bed. Of
course she had had to open the door herself.
She obeyed his command like an intelligent little mouse, and he sat
down on the edge of the bed. He might inspire foreboding, alarm, even
terror. But he was in the flat. He was the saviour, man, in the flat.
And his coming was in the nature of a miracle. He might have been out;
he might have been entertaining; he might have been engaged; he might
well have said that he could not come until the next day. Never before
had she made such a request, and he had acceded to it immediately!
Her mood was one of frightened triumph. He was being most damnably
himself; his demeanour was as faultless as his dress. She could not
even complain that he had forgotten to kiss her. He said nothing about
her transgression of the rule as to telephoning. He was waiting, with
his exasperating sense of justice and self-control, until she
had acquainted him with her case. Instead of referring coldly and
disapprovingly to the matter of the telephone, he said in a judicious,
"I doubt whether your coiffeur is all that he ought to be. I see you
had your hair waved to-day."
"You should tell the fellow to give you the new method of hair-waving,
steaming with electric heaters--or else go where you can get it."
"New method?" repeated Christine the Tory doubtfully. And then with
sudden sexual suspicion:
"Who told you about it?"
"Oh! I heard of it months ago," he said carelessly. "Besides, it's in
the papers, in the advertisements. It lasts longer--much longer--and
it's more artistic."
She felt sure that he had been discussing hair-waving with some woman.
She thought of all her grievances against him. The Lechford House
episode rankled in her mind. He had given her the details, but she
said to herself that he had given her the details only because he had
foreseen that she would hear about the case from others or read about
it in the newspapers. She had not been able to stomach that he should
be at Lechford House alone late at night with two women of the class
she hated and feared--and the very night of her dreadful experience
with him in the bomb-explosion! No explanations could make that
seem proper or fair. Naturally she had never disclosed her feelings.
Further, the frequenting of such a house as Lechford House was more
proof of his social importance, and incidentally of his riches. The
spectacle of his flat showed her long ago that previously she had
been underestimating his situation in the world. The revelations as
to Lechford House had seemed to show her that she was still
underestimating it. She resented his modesty. She was inclined
to attribute his modesty to a desire to pay her as little as he
reasonably could. However, she could not in sincerity do so. He
treated her handsomely, considering her pretensions, but considering
his position--he had no pretensions--not handsomely. She had had an
irrational idea that, having permitted her to see the splendour of
his flat, he ought to have increased her emoluments--that, indeed,
she should be paid not according to her original environment, but
according to his. She also resented that he had never again asked her
to his flat. Her behaviour on that sole visit had apparently decided
him not to invite her any more. She resented his perfectly hidden
What disturbed her more than anything else was a notion in her mind,
possibly a wrong notion, that she cared for him less madly than of
old. She had always said to herself, and more than once sadly to him,
that his fancy for her would not and could not last; but that hers
for him should decline puzzled her and added to her grievances against
him. She looked at him from the little nest made by her head between
two pillows. Did she in truth care for him less madly than of old? She
wondered. She had only one gauge, the physical.
She began to talk despairingly about Marthe, whom, of course, she had
had to mention at the door. He said quietly:
"But it's not because of Marthe's caprices that I'm asked to come down
to-night, I suppose?"
She told him about the closing of the Promenade in a tone of absolute,
resigned certainty that admitted of no facile pooh-poohings or
reassurances. And then, glancing sidelong at the night-table, where
the lamp burned, she extended her half-bared arm and picked up the
landlord's notice and gave it to him to read. Watching him read it
she inwardly trembled, as though she had started on some perilous
enterprise the end of which might be black desperation, as though she
had cast off from the shore and was afloat amid the waves of a vast,
swollen river--waves that often hid the distant further bank. She felt
somehow that she was playing for all or nothing. And though she had
had immense experience of men, though it was her special business
to handle men, she felt herself to be unskilled and incompetent. The
common ruses, feints, devices, guiles, chicaneries were familiar to
her; she could employ them as well as any and better than most; they
succeeded marvellously and absurdly--in the common embarrassments and
emergencies, because they had not to stand the test of time. Their
purpose was temporary, and when the purpose had been accomplished
it did not matter whether they were unmasked or not, for the
adversary-victim--who, in any event, was better treated than he
deserved!--either had gone for ever, or would soon forget, or was too
proud to murmur, or philosophically accepted a certain amount of
wile as part of the price of ecstasy. But this embarrassment and this
emergency were not common. They were a supreme crisis.
"The other lady has had notice too," she said, and went on: "It's the
same everywhere in this quarter. I know not if it is the same in other
districts, but quite probably it is.... It is the end."
She saw by the lifting of his eyebrows that he was impressed, that
he secretly admitted the justifiability of her summons to him. And
instantly she took a reasonable, wise, calm tone.
"It is a little serious, is it not? I do not frighten myself, but it
is serious. Above all, I do not wish to trouble thee. I know all thy
anxieties, and I am a woman who understands. But except thee I have
not a friend, as I have often told thee. In my heart there is a place
only for one. I have a horror of all those women. They weary me. I am
not like them, as thou well knowest. Thus my existence is solitary. I
have no relations. Not one. See! Go into no matter what interior,
and there are photographs. But here--not one. Yes, one. My own. I am
forced to regard my own portrait. What would I not give to be able
to put on my chimney-piece thy portrait! But I cannot. Do not
deceive thyself. I am not complaining. I comprehend perfectly. It
is impossible that a woman like me should have thy photograph on her
chimney-piece." She smiled, smoothing for a moment the pucker out
of her brow. "And lately I see thee so little. Thou comest less
frequently. And when thou comest, well--one embraces--a little
music--and then _pouf_! Thou art gone. Is it not so?"
"But thou knowest the reason, I am terribly busy. I have all the
preoccupations in the world. My committee--it is not all smooth,
my committee. Everything and everybody depends on me. And in the
committee I have enemies too. The fact is, I have become a beast of
burden. I dream about it. And there are others in worse case. We shall
soon be in the third year of the war. We must not forget that."
"My little rabbit," she replied very calmly and reasonably and
caressingly. "Do not imagine to thyself that I blame thee. I do not
blame thee. I comprehend too well all that thou dost, all that thou
art worth. In every way thou art stronger than me. I am ten times
nothing. I know it. I have no grievance against thee. Thou hast always
given me what thou couldst, and I on my part have never demanded too
much. Say, have I been excessive? At this hour I make no claim on
thee. I have done all that to me was possible to make thee happy. In
my soul I have always been faithful to thee. I do not praise myself
for that. I did not choose it. These things are not chosen. They come
to pass--that is all. And it arrived that I was bound to go mad about
thee, and to remain so. What wouldst thou? Speak not of the war. Is
it not because of the war that I am in exile, and that I am ruined? I
have always worked honestly for my living. And there is not on earth
an officer who has encountered me who can say that I have not been
particularly nice to him--because he was an officer. Thou wilt excuse
me if I speak of such matters. I know I am wrong. It is contrary to
my habit. But what wouldst thou? I also have done what I could for the
war. But it is my ruin. Oh, my Gilbert! Tell me what I must do. I
ask nothing from thee but advice. It was for that that I dared to
G.J. answered casually:
"I see nothing to worry about. It will be necessary to take another
flat. That is all."
"But I--I know nothing of London. One tells me that it is in future
impossible for women who live alone--like me--to find a flat--that is
to say, respectable."
"Absurd! I will find a flat. I know precisely where there is a flat."
"But will they let it to me?"
"They will let it to _me_, I suppose," said he, still casually.
A pause ensued.
She said, in a voice trembling:
"Thou art not going to say to me that thou wilt put me among my own
"The flat is furnished. But it is the same thing."
"Do not let such a hope shine before me--me who saw before me only the
pavement. Thou art not serious."
"I never was more serious. For whom dost thou take me, little-foolish
"Oh, you English! You are _chic_. You make love as you go to war. Like
_that_!... One word--it is decided! And there is nothing more to say!
Ah! You English!"
She had almost screamed, shuddering under the shock of his decision,
for which she had impossibly hoped, but whose reality overwhelmed
her. He sat there in front of her, elegant, impeccably dressed,
distinguished, aristocratic, rich, in the full wisdom of his years,
and in the strength of his dominating will, and in the righteousness
of his heart. One could absolutely trust such as him to do the right
thing, and to do it generously, and to do it all the time. And she,
_she_ had won him. He had recognised her qualities. She had denied any
claim upon him, but by his decision he had admitted a claim--a claim
that no money could satisfy. After all, for eighteen months she had
been more to him than any other woman. He had talked freely to her.
He had concealed naught from her. He had spoken to her of his
discouragements and his weaknesses. He had had no shame before her.
By her acquiescences, her skill, her warmth, her adaptability, her
intense womanliness, she had created between them a bond stronger than
anything that could keep them apart. The bond existed. It could not
during the whole future be broken save by a disloyalty. A disloyalty,
she divined, would irrevocably destroy it. But she had no fear on that
score, for she knew her own nature. His decision did more than fill
her with a dizzy sense of relief, a mad, intolerable happiness--it
re-established her self-respect. No ordinary woman, handicapped as she
was, could have captured this fastidious and shy paragon ... And the
notion that her passion for him had dwindled was utterly ridiculous,
like the notion that he would tire of her. She was saved. She burst
into wild tears.
"Ah! Pardon me!" she sobbed. "I am quite calm, really. But since the
air-raid, thou knowest, I have not been quite the same ... Thou! Thou
art different. Nothing could disturb thy calm. Ah! If thou wert a
general at the front! What sang-froid! What presence of mind! But I--"
He bent towards her, and she suddenly sprang up and seized him round
the neck, and ate his lips, and while she strangled and consumed him
she kept muttering to him:
"Hope not that I shall thank thee. I cannot. I cannot! The words with
which I could thank thee do not exist. But I am thine, thine! All of
me is thine. Humiliate me! Demand of me impossible things! I am thy
slave, thy creature! Ah! Let me kiss thy beautiful grey hairs. I love
thy hair. And thy ears ..."
The thought of her insatiable temperament flashed through her as
she held him, and of his northern sobriety, and of the profound,
unchangeable difference between these two. She would discipline
her temperament; she would subjugate it. Women were capable of
miracles--and women alone. And she was capable of miracles.
A strange, muffled noise came to them across the darkness of the
sitting-room, and G.J. raised his head slightly to listen.
"Repose! Repose thyself in the arms of thy little mother," she
breathed softly. "It is nothing. It is but the wind blowing the blind
against the curtains."
And later, when she had distilled the magic of the hour and was
tranquillised, she said:
"And where is it, this flat?"
Christine said to Marie, otherwise La Mere Gaston, the new servant
in the new flat, who was holding in her hand a telegram addressed to
"Give it to me. I will put it in front of the clock on the
And she lodged it among the gilt cupids that supported the clock on
the fringed mantelpiece in the drawing-room. She did so with a little
gesture of childlike glee expressing her satisfaction in the flat as a
The flat was dark; she did not object, loving artificial light. The
rooms were all very small; she loved cosiness. There was a garage
close by, which might have disturbed her nights; but it did not. The
bathroom was open to the bedroom; no arrangement could be better. G.J.
in enumerating the disadvantages of the flat had said also that it
was too much and too heavily furnished. Not at all. She adored the
cumbrous and rich furniture; she did not want in her flat the empty
spaces of a ball-room; she wanted to feel that she was within an
interior--inside something. She gloried in the flat. She preferred it
even to her memory of G.J.'s flat in the Albany. Its golden ornateness
flattered her. The glittering cornices, and the big carved frames
of the pictures of impossible flowers and of ladies and gentlemen in
historic coiffures and costumes, appeared marvellous to her. She had
never seen, and certainly had never hoped to inhabit, anything like
it. But then Gilbert was always better than his word.
He had been quite frank, telling her that he knew of the existence of
the flat simply because it had been occupied for a brief time by the
Mrs. Carlos Smith of whom she had heard and read, and who had had to
leave it on account of health. (She did not remind him that once at
the beginning of the war when she had noticed the name and portrait of
Mrs. Carlos Smith in the paper, he, sitting by her side, had concealed
from her that he knew Mrs. Carlos Smith. Judiciously, she had never
made the slightest reference to that episode.) Though she detested
the unknown Mrs. Carlos Smith, she admired and envied her for a great
illustrious personage, and was secretly very proud of succeeding Mrs.
Carlos Smith in the tenancy. And when Gilbert told her that he had had
his eye on the flat for her before Mrs. Carlos Smith took it, and had
hesitated on account of its drawbacks, she was even more proud. And
reassured also. For this detail was a proof that Gilbert had really
had the intention to put her "among her own furniture" long before the
night of the supreme appeal to him.... Only he was always so cautious.
And Gilbert was the discoverer of la mere Gaston, too, and as frank
about her as about the flat. La mere Gaston was the widow of a French
soldier, domiciled in London previous to the war, who had died of
wounds in one of the Lechford hospitals; and it was through the
Lechford Committee that Gilbert had come across her. A few weeks
earlier than the beginning of the formal liaison Mrs. Braiding
had fallen ill for a space, and Madame Gaston had been summoned as
charwoman to aid Mrs. Braiding's young sister in the Albany flat. With
excellent judgment Gilbert had chosen her to succeed Marthe, whom he
himself had reproachfully dismissed from Cork Street.
He was amazingly clever, was Gilbert, for he had so arranged things
that Christine had been able to cut off her Cork Street career as with
a knife. She had departed from Cork Street with two trunks and a few
cardboard boxes--her stove was abandoned to the landlord--and vanished
into London and left no trace. Except Gilbert, nobody who knew her in
Cork Street was aware of her new address, and nobody who knew her
in Mayfair knew that she had come from Cork Street. Her ancient
acquaintances in Cork Street would ring the bell there in vain.
Madame Gaston was a neat, plump woman of perhaps forty, not looking
her years. She had a comprehending eye. After three words from Gilbert
she had mastered the situation, and as she perfectly realised where
her interest lay she could be relied upon for discretion. In all
delicate matters only her eye talked. She was a Protestant, and went
to the French church in Soho Square, which she called the "Temple".
Christine and she had had but one Sunday together--and Christine had
gone with her to the Temple! The fact was that Christine had decided
to be a Protestant. She needed a religion, and Catholicism had an
inconvenience--confession. She had regularised her position, so much
so that by comparison with the past she was now perfectly respectable.
Yet if she had been candid in the confessional the priest would still
have convicted her of mortal sin; which would have been very unfair;
and she could not, in view of her respectability, have remained a
Catholic without confessing, however infrequently. Madame Gaston,
as soon as she was sure of her convert, referred to Catholicism as
"Put your apron on, Marie," said Christine. "Monsieur will be here
"Ah, yes, madame!"
"Have you opened the kitchen-window to take away the smell of
"Am I all right, Marie?"
Madame Gaston surveyed her mistress, who turned round.
"Yes, madame. I think that monsieur will much like that _negligee_."
She departed to don the apron.
Between these two it was continually "monsieur," "monsieur". He
was seldom there, but he was always there, always being consulted,
placated, invoked, revered, propitiated, magnified. He was the giver
of all good, and there was no other Allah, and he had two prophets.
Christine sang, she twittered, she pirouetted, out of sheer youthful
joy. She had forgotten care and forgotten promiscuity; good fortune
had washed her pure. She looked at herself in the massive bevelled
mirror, and saw that she was fresh and young and lithe and graceful.
And she felt triumphant. Gilbert had expressed the fear that she might
get lonely and bored. He had even said that occasionally he might
bring along a man, and that perhaps the man would have a very nice
woman friend. She had not very heartily responded. She was markedly
sympathetic towards Englishmen, but towards English women--no! And
especially she did not want to know any English women in the same
situation as herself. Lonely? Impossible! Bored? Impossible! She
had an establishment. She had a civil list. Her days passed like an
Arabian dream. She never had an unfilled moment, and when each day was
over she always remembered little things which she had meant to do and
had not found time to do.
She was a superb sleeper, and arose at noon. Three o'clock usually
struck before her day had fairly begun--unless, of course, she
happened to be very busy, in which case she would be ready for contact
with the world at the lunch-hour. Her main occupation was to charm,
allure, and gratify a man; for that she lived. Her distractions were
music, the reading of novels, _Le Journal_, and _Les Grandes Modes_.
And for the war she knitted. In her new situation it was essential
that she should do something for the war. Therefore she knitted, being
a good knitter, and her knitting generally lay about.
She popped into the dining-room to see if the table was well set
for dinner. It was, but in order to show that Marie did not know
everything, she rearranged somewhat the flowers in the central bowl.
Then she returned to the drawing-room, and sat down at the piano and
waited. The instant of arrival approached. Gilbert's punctuality was
absolute, always had been; sometimes it alarmed her. She could not
have to wait more than a minute or two, according to the inexactitude
of her clock.... The bell rang, and simultaneously she began to play a
five-finger exercise. Often in the old life she had executed upon him
this innocent subterfuge, to make him think she practised the piano
to a greater extent than she actually did, that indeed she was always
practising. It never occurred to her that he was not deceived.
Hear Marie fly to the front door! See Christine's face, see her body,
as in her pale, bright gown she peeps round the half-open door of the
drawing-room! She lives, then. Her eyes sparkle for the giver of all
good, for the adored, and her brow is puckered for him, and the jewels
on her hand burn for him, and every pleat of her garments visible and
invisible is pleated for him. She is a child. She has snatched up a
chocolate, and put it between her teeth, and so she offers the half
of it to him, smiling, silent. She is a child, but she is also a woman
intensely skilled in her art....
"Monster!" she said. "Come this way." And she led him down the tunnel
to the bedroom. There, in a corner of the bathroom, stood an antique
closed toilet-stand, such as was used by men in the days before
splashing and sousing were invented. She had removed it from the
"Open it," she commanded.
He obeyed. Its little compartments, which had been empty, were filled
with a man's toilet instruments--brushes, file, scissors, shaving-soap
(his own brand), a safety-razor, &c. The set was complete. She had
known exactly the requirements.
"It is a little present from thy woman," she said. "In future thou
wilt have no excuse--Sit down. Marie!"
"Take off the boots of Monsieur."
Christine found the new slippers.
"And now this!" she said, after he had washed and used the new
brushes, producing a black house-jacket with velvet collar and cuffs.
"How tired thou must be after thy day!" she murmured, patting him with
"Thou knowest, my little one," she said, pointing to the gas-stove
in the bedroom fireplace. "For the other rooms a gas-stove--I am
indifferent. But the bedroom is something else. The bedroom is sacred.
I could not tolerate a gas-stove in the bedroom. A coal fire is
necessary to me. You do not think so?"
"Yes," he said. "You are quite right. It shall be seen to."
"Can I give the order? Thou permittest me to give the order?"
In the drawing-room she cushioned him well in the best easy-chair,
and, sitting down on a pouf near him, began to knit like an
industrious wife who understands the seriousness of war. Nothing
escaped the attention of that man. He espied the telegram.
"Ah!" she cried, springing up and giving it to him. "Stupid that I am!
He looked at the address.
"How did this come here?" he asked mildly.
"Marie brought it--from the Albany."
He opened the telegram and read it, having dropped the envelope into
the silk-lined, gilded waste-paper basket by the fender.
"It is nothing serious?" she questioned.
He might have shown it to her--he had shown her telegrams before--but
he stuck it into his pocket. Then, without a word to Christine, he
rang the bell, and Marie appeared.
"Marie! The telegram--why did you bring it here?"
"Monsieur, it was like this. I went to monsieur's flat to fetch two
aprons that I had left there. The telegram was on the console in the
ante-chamber. Knowing that monsieur was to come direct here, I brought
"Does Mrs. Braiding know you brought it?"
"Ah! As for Mrs. Braiding, monsieur--"
Marie stopped, disclaiming any responsibility for Mrs. Braiding, of
whom she was somewhat jealous. "I thought to do well."
"I am sure of it. But surely you can see you have been indiscreet.
Don't do it again."
"No, monsieur. I ask pardon of monsieur."
Immediately afterwards he said to Christine in a gay, careless tone:
"And this gas-stove here? Is it all right? Have we tried it? Let us
"The weather is warm, dearest."
"But just to try it. I always like to satisfy myself--in time."
"Fusser!" she exclaimed, and ignited the stove.
He gazed at it absently, then picked up a cigarette and, taking the
telegram from his pocket, folded it into a spill and with it lit the
"Yes," he said meditatively. "It seems not a bad stove." And he held
the spill till it had burnt to his finger-ends. Then he extinguished
She said to herself:
"He has burned the telegram on purpose. But how cleverly he did it!
Ah! That man! There is none but him!"
She was disquieted about the telegram. She feared it. Her
superstitiousness was awakened. She thought of her apostasy from
Catholicism to Protestantism. She thought of a Holy Virgin angered.
And throughout the evening and throughout the night, amid her smiles
and teasings and coaxings and caresses and ecstasies and all her
accomplished, voluptuous girlishness, the image of a resentful Holy
Virgin flitted before her. Why should he burn a business telegram?
Also, was he not at intervals a little absent-minded?
G.J. sat on the oilcloth-covered seat of the large overhanging open
bay-window. Below him was the river, tributary of the Severn; in front
the Old Bridge, with an ancient street rising beyond, and above that
the silhouette of the roofs of Wrikton surmounted by the spire of its
vast church. To the left was the weir, and the cliffs were there also,
and the last tints of the sunset.
Somebody came into the coffee-room. G.J. looked round, hoping that it
might, after all, be Concepcion. But it was Concepcion's maid, Emily,
an imitative young woman who seemed to have caught from her former
employer the quality of strange, sinister provocativeness.
She paused a moment before speaking. Her thin figure was somewhat
indistinct in the twilight.
"Mrs. Smith wishes me to say that she will certainly be well enough to
take you to the station in the morning, sir," said she in her specious
tones. "But she hopes you will be able to stay till the afternoon
"I shan't." He shook his head.
"Very well, sir."
And after another moment's pause Emily, apparently with a challenging
reluctance, receded through the shadows of the room and vanished.
G.J. was extremely depressed and somewhat indignant. He gazed down
bitterly at the water, following with his eye the incredibly long
branches of the tree that from the height of the buttresses drooped
perpendicularly into the water. He had had an astounding week-end; and
for having responded to Concepcion's telegram, for having taken the
telegram seriously, he had deserved what he got. Thus he argued.
She had met him on the hot Saturday afternoon in a Ford car. She did
not look ill. She looked as if she had fairly recovered from her
acute neurasthenia. She was smartly and carelessly dressed in a summer
sporting costume, and had made a strong contrast to every other human
being on the platform of the small provincial station. The car drove
not to the famous principal hotel, but to a small hotel just beyond
the bridge. She had given him tea in the coffee-room and taken him out
again, on foot, showing him the town--the half-timbered houses, the
immense castle, the market-hall, the spacious flat-fronted residences,
the multiplicity of solicitors, banks and surveyors, the bursting
provision shops with imposing fractions of animals and expensive pies,
and the drapers with ladies' blouses at 2s. 4d. Then she had conducted
him to an organ recital in the vast church where, amid faint gas-jets
and beadles and stalls and stained glass and holiness and centuries
of history and the high respectability of the town, she had whispered
sibilantly, and other people had whispered, in the long intervals of
the organ. She had removed him from the church before the collection
for the Red Cross, and when they had eaten a sort of dinner she had
borne him away to the Russian dancers in the Moot Hall.
She said she had seen the Russian dancers once already, and that they
were richly worth to him a six-hours' train journey. The posters of
the Russian dancers were rather daring and seductive. The Russian
dancers themselves were the most desolating stage spectacle that G.J.
had ever witnessed. The troupe consisted of intensely English girls
of various ages, and girl-children. The costumes had obviously been
fabricated by the artistes. The artistes could neither dance, pose,
group, make an entrance, make an exit, nor even smile. The ballets,
obviously fabricated by the same persons as the costumes, had no plot,
no beginning and no end. Crude amateurishness was the characteristic
of these honest and hard-working professionals, who somehow contrived
to be neither men nor women--and assuredly not epicene--but who
travelled from country town to country town in a glamour of posters,
exciting the towns, in spite of a perfect lack of sex, because they
were the fabled Russian dancers. The Moot Hall was crammed with adults
and their cackling offspring, who heartily applauded the show, which
indeed was billed as a "return visit" due to "terrific success" on a
previous occasion. "Is it not too marvellous," Concepcion had said.
He had admitted that it was. But the boredom had been excruciating.
In the street they had bought an evening paper of which he had never
before heard the name, to learn news of the war. The war, however,
seemed very far off; it had grown unreal. "We'll talk to-morrow,"
Concepcion had said, and gone abruptly to bed! Still, he had slept
well in the soft climate, to the everlasting murmur of the weir.
Then the Sunday. She was indisposed, could not come down to breakfast,
but hoped to come down to lunch, could not come down to lunch, but
hoped to come down to tea, could not come down to tea--and so on to
nightfall. The Sunday had been like a thousand years to him. He had
learnt the town, and the suburbs of it; the grass-grown streets, the
main thoroughfares, and the slums; by the afternoon he was recognising
familiar faces in the town. He had twice made the classic round--along
the cliffs, over the New Bridge (which was an antique), up the hill to
the castle, through the market-place, down the High Street to the
Old Bridge. He had explored the brain of the landlord, who could
not grapple with a time-table, and who spent most of the time during
closed hours in patiently bolting the front door which G.J. was
continually opening. He had talked to the old customer who, whenever
the house was open, sat at a table in the garden over a mug of cider.
He had played through all the musical comedies, dance albums and
pianoforte albums that littered the piano. He had read the same Sunday
papers that he read in the Albany. And he had learnt the life-history
of the sole servant, a very young agreeable woman with a wedding-ring
and a baby, which baby she carried about with her when serving at
table. Her husband was in France. She said that as soon as she had
received his permission to do so she should leave, as she really could
not get through all the work of the hotel and mind and feed a baby.
She said also that she played the piano herself. And she regretted
that baby and pressure of work had deprived her of a sight of the
Russian dancers, because she had heard so much about them, and was
sure they were beautiful. This detail touched G.J.'s heart to a
mysterious and sweet and almost intolerable melancholy. He had not
made the acquaintance of fellow-guests--for there were none, save
Concepcion and Emily.
And in the evening as in the morning the weir placidly murmured, and
the river slipped smoothly between the huge jutting buttresses of the
Old Bridge; and the thought of the perpetuity of the river, in whose
mirror the venerable town was a mushroom, obsessed him, mastered
him, and made him as old as the river. He was wonder-struck
and sorrow-struck by life, and by his own life, and by the
incomprehensible and angering fantasy of Concepcion. His week-end took
on the appearance of the monstrous. Then the door opened again, and
Concepcion entered in a white gown, the antithesis of her sporting
costume of the day before. She approached through the thickening
shadows of the room, and the vague whiteness of her gown reminded him
of the whiteness of the form climbing the chimney-ladder on the roof
of Lechford House in the raid. Knowing her, he ought to have known
that, having made him believe that she would not come down, she
would certainly come down. He restrained himself, showed no untoward
emotion, and said in a calm, genial voice: "Oh! I'm so glad you were
well enough to come down."
She sat opposite to him in the window-seat, rather sideways, so that
her skirt was pulled close round her left thigh and flowed free over
the right. He could see her still plainly in the dusk.
"I've never yet apologised to you for my style of behaviour at the
committee of yours," she began abruptly in a soft, kind, reasonable
voice. "I know I let you down horribly. Yes, yes! I did. And I ought
to apologise to you for to-day too. But I don't think I'll apologise
to you for bringing you to Wrikton and this place. They're not real,
you know. They're an illusion. There is no such place as Wrikton and
this river and this window. There couldn't be, could there? Queen and
I motored over here once from Paulle--it's not so very far--and
we agreed that it didn't really exist. I never forgot it; I was
determined to come here again some time, and that's why I chose this
very spot when half Harley Street stood up and told me I must go away
somewhere after my cure and be by myself, far from the pernicious
influence of friends. I think I gave you a very fair idea of the town
yesterday. But I didn't show you the funniest thing in it--the inside
of a solicitor's office. You remember the large grey stone house in
Mill Street--the grass street, you know--with 'Simpover and Simpover'
on the brass plate, and the strip of green felt nailed all round the
front door to keep the wind out in winter. Well, it's all in the
same key inside. And I don't know which is the funniest, the Russian
dancers, or the green felt round the front door, or Mr. Simpover, or
the other Mr. Simpover. I'm sure neither of those men is real, though
they both somehow have children. You remember the yellow cards that
you see in so many of the windows: 'A MAN has gone from this house to
fight for King and Country!'--the elder Mr. Simpover thinks it would
be rather boastful to put the card in the window, so he keeps it on
the mantelpiece in his private office. It's for his son. And yet
I assure you the father isn't real. He is like the town, he simply
couldn't be real."
"What have _you_ been up to in the private office?" G.J. asked
"Making my will."
"Isn't it the proper thing to do? I've left everything to you."
"You haven't, Con!" he protested. There was absolutely no tranquillity
about this woman. With her, the disconcerting unexpected happened
every five minutes.
"Did you suppose I was going to send any of my possessions back to my
tropical relatives in South America? I've left everything to you to do
what you like with. Squander it if you like, but I expect you'll give
it to war charities. Anyhow, I thought it would be safest in your
He retorted in a tone quietly and sardonically challenging:
"But I was under the impression you were cured."
"Of my neurasthenia?"
"I believe I am. I gained thirteen pounds in the nursing home, and
slept like a greengrocer. In fact, the Weir-Mitchell treatment, with
modern improvements of course, enjoyed a marvellous triumph in my
case. But that's not the point. G.J., I know you think I behaved very
childishly yesterday, and that I deserved to be ill to-day for what
I did yesterday. And I admit you're a saint for not saying so. But
I wasn't really childish, and I haven't really been ill to-day. I've
only been in a devil of a dilemma. I wanted to tell you something. I
telegraphed for you so that I could tell you. But as soon as I saw you
I was afraid to tell you. Not afraid, but I couldn't make up my mind
whether I ought to tell you or not. I've lain in bed all day trying
to decide the point. To-night I decided I oughtn't, and then all of
a sudden, just now, I became an automaton and put on some things, and
here I am telling you."
She paused. G.J. kept silence. Then she continued, in a voice in which
persuasiveness was added to calm, engaging reasonableness:
"Now you must get rid of all your conventional ideas, G.J. Because
you're rather conventional. You must be completely straight--I mean
intellectually--otherwise I can't treat you as an intellectual equal,
and I want to. You must be a realist--if any man can be." She spoke
almost with tenderness.
He felt mysteriously shy, and with a brusque movement of the head
shifted his glance from her to the river.
"Well?" he questioned, his gaze fixed on the water that continually
slipped in large, swirling, glinting sheets under the bridge.
"I'm going to kill myself."
At first the words made no impression on him. He replied:
"You were right when you said this place was an illusion. It is."
And then he began to be afraid. Did she mean it? She was capable of
anything. And he was involved in her, inescapably. Yes, he was afraid.
Nevertheless, as she kept silence he went on--with bravado:
"And how do you intend to do it?"
"That will be my affair. But I venture to say that my way of doing it
will make Wrikton historic," she said, curiously gentle.
"Trust you!" he exclaimed, suddenly looking at her. "Con, why _will_
you always be so theatrical?"
She changed her posture for an easier one, half reclining. Her face
and demeanour seemed to have the benign masculinity of a man's.
"I'm sorry," she answered. "I oughtn't to have said that. At any rate,
to you. I ought to have had more respect for your feelings."
"You aren't cured. That's evident. All this is physical."
"Of course it's physical, G.J.," she agreed, with an intonation of
astonishment that he should be guilty of an utterance so obvious and
banal. "Did you ever know anything that wasn't? Did you ever even
conceive anything that wasn't? If you can show me how to conceive
spirit except in terms of matter, I'd like to listen to you."
"It's against nature--to kill yourself."
"Oh!" she murmured. "I'm quite used to that charge. You aren't by any
means the first to accuse me of being against nature. But can you tell
me where nature ends? That's another thing I'd like to know....
My dear friend, you're being conventional, and you aren't being
realistic. You must know perfectly well in your heart that there's no
reason why I shouldn't kill myself if I want to. You aren't going to
talk to me about the Ten Commandments, I suppose, are you? There's
a risk, of course, on the other side--shore--but perhaps it's worth
taking. You aren't in a position to say it isn't worth taking. And at
worst the other shore must be marvellous. It may possibly be terrible,
if you arrive too soon and without being asked, but it must be
marvellous.... Naturally, I believe in immortality. If I didn't, the
thing wouldn't be worth doing. Oh! I should hate to be extinguished.
But to change one existence for another, if the fancy takes you--that
seems to me the greatest proof of real independence that anybody
can give. It's tremendous. You're playing chess with fate and fate's
winning, and you knock up the chess-board and fate has to begin all
over again! Can't you see how tremendous it is--and how tempting it
is? The temptation is terrific."
"I can see all that," said G.J. He was surprised by a sudden sense
of esteem for the mighty volition hidden behind those calm, worn,
gracious features. But Concepcion's body was younger than her face.
He perceived, as it were for the first time, that Concepcion was
immeasurably younger than himself; and yet she had passed far beyond
him in experience. "But what's the origin of all this? What do you
want to do it for? What's happened?"
"Then you believe I mean to do it?"
"Yes," he replied sincerely, and as naturally as he could.
"That's the tone I like to hear," said she, smiling. "I felt sure
I could count on you not to indulge in too much nonsense. Well, I'm
going to try the next avatar just to remind fate of my existence. I
think fate's forgotten me, and I can stand anything but that. I've
lost Carly, and I've lost Queen.... Oh, G.J.! Isn't it awful to think
that when I offered you Queen she'd already gone, and it was only
her dead body I was offering you? ... And I've lost my love. And I've
failed, and I shall never be any more good here. I swore I would see a
certain thing through, and I haven't seen it through, and I can't! But
I've told you all this before.... What's left? Even my unhappiness
is leaving me. Unless I kill myself I shall cease to exist. Don't you
understand? Yes, you do."
After a marked pause she added:
"And I may overtake Queen."
"There's one thing I don't understand," he said, "as we're being
frank with each other. Why do you tell me? Has it occurred to you that
you're really making me a party to this scheme of yours?"
He spoke with a perfectly benevolent detachment deriving from hers.
And as he spoke he thought of a man whom he had once known and who had
committed suicide, and of all that he had read about suicides and what
he had thought of them. Suicides had been incomprehensible to him, and
either despicable or pitiable. And he said to himself: "Here is one
of them! (Or is it an illusion?) But she has made all my notions of
suicide seem ridiculous."
She answered his spoken question with vivacity: "Why do I tell you? I
don't know. That's the point I've been arguing to myself all night
and all day. _I'm_ not telling you. Something _in_ me is forcing me to
tell you. Perhaps it's much more important that you should comprehend
me than that you should be spared the passing worry that I'm causing
you by showing you the inside of my head. You're the only friend I
have left. I knew you before I knew Carly. I practically committed
suicide from my particular world at the beginning of the war. I was
going back to my particular world--you remember, G.J., in that little
furnished flat--I was going back to it, but you wouldn't let me. It
was you who definitely cut me off from my past. I might have been
gadding about safely with Sarah Churcher and her lot at this very
hour, but you would have it otherwise, and so I finished up with
neurasthenia. You commanded and I obeyed."
"Well," he said, ignoring all her utterance except the last words,
"obey me again."
"What do you want me to do?" she demanded wistfully and yet defiantly.
Her features were tending to disappear in the tide of night, but she
happened to sit up and lean forward and bring them a little closer to
him. "You've no right to stop me from doing what I want to do. What
right have you to stop me? Besides, you can't stop me. Nothing can
stop me. It is settled. Everything is arranged."
He, too, sat up and leaned forward. In a voice rendered soft by the
realisation of the fact that he had indeed known her before Carlos
Smith knew her and had imagined himself once to be in love with her,
and of the harshness of her destiny and the fading of her glory, he
said simply and yet, in spite of himself, insinuatingly:
"No! I don't claim any right to stop you. I understand better,
perhaps, than you think. But let me come down again next week-end. Do
let me," he insisted, still more softly.
Even while he was speaking he expected her to say, "You're only
suggesting that in order to gain time."
But she said:
"How can you be sure it wouldn't be my inquest and funeral I should be
'letting' you come down to?"
"I could trust you."
A delicate night-gust charged with the scent of some plant came in at
the open window and deranged ever so slightly a glistening lock on
her forehead. G.J., peering at her, saw the masculinity melt from her
face. He saw the mysterious resurrection of the girl in her, and felt
in himself the sudden exciting outflow from her of that temperamental
fluid whose springs had been dried up since the day when she learnt
of her widowhood. She flushed. He looked away into the dark water,
as though he had profanely witnessed that which ought not to be
witnessed. Earlier in the interview she had inspired him with shyness.
He was now stirred, agitated, thrilled--overwhelmed by the effect on
her of his own words and his own voice. He was afraid of his power,
as a prophet might be afraid of his power. He had worked a miracle--a
miracle infinitely more convincing than anything that had led up to
it. The miracle had brought back the reign of reality.
"Very well," she quivered.
And there was a movement and she was gone. He glanced quickly behind
him, but the room lay black.... A transient pallor on the blackness,
and the door banged. He sat a long time, solemn, gazing at the
serrated silhouette of the town against a sky that obstinately held
the wraith of daylight, and listening to the everlasting murmur of the
invisible weir. Not a sound came from the town, not the least sound.
When at length he stumbled out, he saw the figure of the landlord
smoking the pipe of philosophy, and waiting with a landlord's fatalism
for the last guest to go to bed. And they talked of the weather.
The next night G.J., having been hailed by an acquaintance, was
talking at the top of the steps beneath the portal of a club in
Piccadilly. It was after ten by the clocks, and nearly, but not quite,
dark. A warm, rather heavy, evening shower had ceased. This was the
beginning of the great macintosh epoch, by-product of the war,
when the paucity of the means of vehicular locomotion had rendered
macintoshes permissible, even for women with pretensions to smartness;
and at intervals stylish girls on their way home from unaccustomed
overtime, passed the doors in transparent macintoshes of pink, yellow
or green, as scornful as military officers of the effeminate umbrella,
whose use was being confined to clubmen and old dowdies.
The acquaintance sought advice from G.J. about the shutting up
of households for Belgian refugees. G.J. answered absently, not
concealing that he was in a hurry. He had, in fact, been held up
within three minutes of the scene of his secret idyll, and was anxious
to arrive there. He had promised himself this surprise visit to
Christine as some sort of recompense and narcotic for the immense
disturbance of spirit which he had suffered at Wrikton.
That morning Concepcion had been invisible, but at his early breakfast
he had received a note from her, a brief but masterly composition,
if ever so slightly theatrical. He was conscious of tenderness for
Concepcion, of sympathy with her, of a desire to help to restore
her to that which by misfortune she had lost. But the first of these
sentiments he resolutely put aside. He was determined to change his
mood towards her for the sake of his own tranquillity; and he had
convinced himself that his wise, calm, common sense was capable of
saving her from any tragic and fatal folly. He had her in the hollow
of his hand; but if she was expecting too much from him she would be
gradually disappointed. He must have peace; he could not allow a bomb
to be thrown into his habits; he was a bachelor of over fifty
whose habits had the value of inestimable jewels and whose perfect
independence was the most precious thing in the world. At his age he
could not marry a volcano, a revolution, a new radio-active element
exhibiting properties which were an enigma to social science.
Concepcion would turn his existence into an endless drama of which
she alone, with her deep-rooted, devilish talent for the sensational,
would always choose the setting, as she had chosen the window and the
weir. No; he must not mistake affectionate sympathy for tenderness,
nor tolerate the sexual exploitation of his pity.
As he listened and talked to the acquaintance his inner mind shifted
with relief to the vision of Christine, contented and simple and
compliant in her nest--Christine, at once restful and exciting,
Christine, the exquisite symbol of acquiescence and response. What a
contrast to Concepcion! It had been a bold and sudden stroke to lift
Christine to another plane, but a stroke well justified and entirely
successful, fulfilling his dream.
At this moment he noticed a figure pass the doorway in whose shadow he
was, and he exclaimed within himself incredulously:
"That is Christine!"
In the shortest possible delay he said "Good-night" to his
acquaintance, and jumped down the steps and followed eastwards the
figure. He followed warily, for already the strange and distressing
idea had occurred to him that he must not overtake her--if she it was.
It was she. He caught sight of her again in the thick obscurity by the
prison-wall of Devonshire House. He recognised the peculiar brim of
the new hat and the new "military" umbrella held on the wrist by a
What was she doing abroad? She could not be going to a theatre. She
had not a friend in London. He was her London. And la mere Gaston was
not with her. Theoretically, of course, she was free. He had laid
down no law. But it had been clearly understood between them that she
should never emerge at night alone. She herself had promulgated the
rule, for she had a sense of propriety and a strong sense of reality.
She had belonged to the class which respectable, broadminded women,
when they bantered G.J., always called "the pretty ladies," and as a
postulant for respectability she had for her own satisfaction to
mind her p's and q's. She could not afford not to keep herself above
She had been a courtesan. Did she look like one? As an individual
figure in repose, no! None could have said that she did. He had long
since learnt that to decide always correctly by appearance, and apart
from environment and gesture, whether an unknown woman was or was not
a wanton, presented a task beyond the powers of even the completest
experience. But Christine was walking in Piccadilly at night, and
he soon perceived that she was discreetly showing the demeanour of
a courtesan at her profession--she who had hated and feared the
pavement! He knew too well the signs--the waverings, the turns of the
head, the variations in speed, the scarcely perceptible hesitations,
the unmistakable air of wandering with no definite objective.
Near Dover Street he hastened through the thin, reflecting mire, amid
beams of light and illuminated numbers that advanced upon him in both
directions thundering or purring, and crossed Piccadilly, and hurried
ahead of her, to watch her in safety from the other side of the
thoroughfare. He could hardly see her; she was only a moving shadow;
but still he could see her; and in the long stretch of gloom beneath
the facade of the Royal Academy he saw the shadow pause in front of a
military figure, which by a flank movement avoided the shadow and went
resolutely forward. He lost her in front of the Piccadilly Hotel,
and found her again at the corner of Air Street. She swerved into Air
Street and crossed Regent Street; he was following. In Denman Street,
close to Shaftesbury Avenue, she stood still in front of another
military figure--a common soldier as it proved--who also rebuffed her.
The thing was flagrant. He halted, and deliberately let her go from
his sight. She vanished into the dark crowds of the Avenue.
In horrible humiliation, in atrocious disgust, he said to himself:
"Never will I set eyes on her again! Never! Never!"
Why was she doing it? Not for money. She could only be doing it
from the nostalgia of adventurous debauch. She was the slave of her
temperament, as the drunkard is the slave of his thirst. He had
told her that he would be out of town for the week end, on committee
business. He had distinctly told her that she must on no account
expect him on the Monday night. And her temperament had roused itself
from the obscene groves of her subconsciousness like a tiger and
come up and driven her forth. How easy for her to escape from la mere
Gaston if she chose! And yet--would she dare, even at the bidding
of the tiger, to introduce a stranger into the flat? Unnecessary,
he reflected. There were a hundred accommodating dubious interiors
between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square. He understood; he
neither accused nor pardoned; but he was utterly revolted, and wounded
not merely in his soul but in the most sensitive part of his
soul--his pride. He called himself by the worst epithet of opprobrium:
Simpleton! The bold and sudden stroke had now become the fatuous
caprice of a damned fool. Had he, at his age, been capable of
overlooking the elementary axiom: once a wrong 'un, always a wrong
'un? Had he believed in reclamation? He laughed out his disgust ...
No! He did not blame her. To blame her would have been ridiculous. She
was only what she was, and not worth blame. She was nothing at all.
How right, how cursedly right, were the respectable dames in the
accent of amused indifference which they employed for their precious
phrase, "the pretty ladies"! Well, he would treat her generously--but
through his lawyer.
And in the desolation, the dismay, the disillusion, the nausea which
ravaged him he was unwillingly conscious of fragments of thoughts that
flickered like transient flames far below in the deep mines of his
being.... "You are an astounding woman, Con." ... "Do you want me
to go to the bad altogether?" ... In offering him Queen had not
Concepcion made the supreme double sacrifice of attempting to bring
together, at the price of her own separation from both of them,
the two beings to whom she was most profoundly attached? It was a
marvellous deed.... Worry, volcanoes, revolutions--was he afraid
of them?... Were they not the very essence of life?... A figure of
nobility!... Sitting there now by the window over the river, listening
to the weir.... "I shall never be any more good." ... But she never
had a gesture that was not superb.... Was he really encrusted in
habits? Really like men whom he knew and despised at his club?... She
loved him.... And what rich, flattering love was her love compared
to--!... She was young.... Tenderness.... Such were the flames of dim
promise that nickered immeasurably beneath the dark devastation of his
mind. He ignored them, but he could not ignore them. He extinguished
them, but they were continually relighted.... A wedding?... What sort
of a wedding?... Poor Carlos, pathetically buried under the ruthless
happiness of others! What a shame!... Poor Carlos!
(Nice enough little cocotte, nothing else! But, of course,
incurable!... He remembered all her crimes now. How she had been late
in dressing for their first dinner. Her inexplicable vanishing from
the supper-party, never explained, but easily explicable now, perhaps.
And so on and so on.... Simpleton! Ass!)
He had walked heedless of direction. He was near Lechford House.
Many of its windows were lit. The great front doors were open. A
commissionaire stood on guard in front of them. To the railings was
affixed a newly-painted notice: "No person will be allowed to enter
these premises without a pass. To this rule there is no exception."
Lechford House had been "taken over" in its entirety by a Government
department that believed in the virtue of mystery and of long hours.
He looked up at the higher windows. He could not distinguish the
chimney amid the newly-revealed stars. He thought of Queen, the white
woman. Evidently he had never understood Queen, for if Concepcion
admired her she was worth admiration. Concepcion never made a mistake
in assessing fundamental character.
The complete silent absorption of Lechford House into the war-machine
rather dismayed him. He had seen not a word as to the affair in the
newspapers--and Lechford House was one of the final strongholds of
privilege! He strolled on into the quietness of the Park--of which
one of the gate-keepers said to him that it would be shutting in a few
He was in solitude, and surrounded by London. He stood still, and the
vast sea of war seemed to be closing over him. The war was growing, or
the sense of its measureless scope was growing. It had sprung, not
out of this crime or that, but out of the secret invisible roots of
humanity, and it was widening to the limits of evolution itself.
It transcended judgment. It defied conclusions and rendered equally
impossible both hope and despair. His pride in his country was
intensified as months passed; his faith in his country was not
lessened. And yet, wherein was the efficacy of grim words about
British tenacity? The great new Somme offensive was not succeeding in
the North. Was victory possible? Was victory deserved? In his daily
labour he was brought into contact with too many instances of official
selfishness, folly, ignorance, stupidity, and sloth, French as well as
British, not to marvel at times that the conflict had not come to an
ignominious end long ago through simple lack of imagination. He knew
that he himself had often failed in devotion, in rectitude, in sheer
The supreme lesson of the war was its revelation of what human nature
actually was. And the solace of the lesson, the hope for triumph,
lay in the fact that human nature must be substantially the same
throughout the world. If we were humanly imperfect, so at least was
Perhaps the frame of society was about to collapse. Perhaps Queen,
deliberately courting destruction, and being destroyed, was the symbol
of society. What matter? Perhaps civilisation, by its nobility and its
elements of reason, and by the favour of destiny, would be saved from
disaster after frightful danger, and Concepcion was its symbol....
All he knew was that he had a heavy day's work before him on the
morrow, and in relief from pain and insoluble problems he turned to
face that work, thankful; thankful that (owing originally to Queen!)
he had discovered in the war a task which suited his powers, which was
genuinely useful, and which would only finish with the war; thankful
for the prospect of meeting Concepcion at the week-end and exploring
with her the marvellous provocative potentialities that now drew them
together; thankful, too, that he had a balanced and sagacious mind,
and could judge justly. (Yes, he was already forgetting his bitter
condemnation of himself as a simpleton!)
How in his human self-sufficiency could he be expected to know that
he had judged the negligible Christine unjustly? Was he divine that
he could see in the figure of the wanton who peered at soldiers in the
street a self-convinced mystic envoy of the most clement Virgin, an
envoy passionately repentant after apostasy, bound at all costs to
respond to an imagined voice long unheard, and seeking--though in vain
this second time--the protege of the Virgin so that she might once
more succour and assuage his affliction?