Author of the Three Sisters, etc.
Of course this story can't be published as it stands just yet. Not—if I'm to be decent—for another generation, because, thank Heaven, they're still alive. (They've had me there, as they've always had me everywhere.) How they managed it I can't think. I don't mean merely at the end, though that was stupendous, but how they ever managed it. It seems to me they must have taken all the risks, always.
I suppose if you asked him he'd say, "That's how." It was certainly the way they managed the business of living. Perhaps it's why they managed it on the whole so well. I remember how when I was shilly-shallying about that last job of mine he said, "Take it. Take it. If you can risk living at all, my dear fellow, you can risk that."
And he added, "If I'd only your luck!"
Well, that's exactly what he did have. He had my luck, I mean the luck I ought to have had, all the time, from the beginning to the very end. But there is one thing he can't take from me, and that is the telling of this story. He can hold it up as long as he lives—as long as she lives—as he has held up pretty nearly everything where I was concerned. But he can't take it from me. He doesn't "want" it. Even he with his infernal talent couldn't do anything with it. Unscrupulous as he was, and I assure you he'd stick at nothing (he'd "take" his mother's last agony if he "wanted" it badly enough), indecent as he was, he'd stick at that.
I don't mean he couldn't take his wife, part of her, anyhow, at a pinch. And I don't mean he couldn't take himself, his own emotions, his own eccentricities, if he happened to want them, and his own meannesses, if nobody else's, so to speak, would do. But he couldn't and wouldn't take his own big things, particularly not that last thing.
When I say that I can't publish this story yet as it stands, I'm not forgetting that I have published the end of it already. But only in the way of business; to publish that sort of thing was what I went out for; it was all part of my Special Correspondent's job.
And when you think that it was just touch and go—Why, if I hadn't bucked up and taken that job when he told me to I might have missed him. No amount of hearing about him would have been the same thing. I had to see him.
What I wrote then doesn't count. I had to tell what I saw just after I had seen it. I had to take it as I saw it, a fragment snapped off from the rest of him, and dated October 11th, 1914, as if it didn't belong to him; as if he were only another splendid instance. And of course I had to leave her out.
Told like that, it didn't amount to much.
This is the real telling.
I must get away from the end, right back to the beginning.
I suppose, to be accurate, the very beginning was the day I first met him in nineteen-six—no, nineteen-five it must have been. It was at Blackheath Football Ground, the last match of the season, when Woolwich Arsenal played East Kent and beat them by two goals and a try. He was there as a representative of the Press, "doing" the match for some sporting paper.
He held me up at the barrier (yes, he held me up in the first moment of our acquaintance) while he fumbled for his pass. He had given the word "Press" with an exaggerated aplomb that showed he was young to his job, and the gate-keeper challenged him. It was, in fact, the exquisite self-consciousness of the little man that made me look at him. And he caught me looking at him; he blushed, caught himself blushing and smiled to himself with the most delicious appreciation of his own absurdity. And as he stood there fumbling, and holding me up while he argued with the gate-keeper, who didn't know him, I got his engaging twinkle. It was as if he looked at me and said, "See me swank just then? Funny, wasn't it?"
He hung about on the edge of the crowd for a while with his hands in his pockets, sucking his little blond moustache and looking dreamy and rather incompetent. I was a full-blown journalist even then, and I remember feeling a sort of pity for his youth. He was so obviously on his maiden trip, and obviously, I fancied, doomed never to arrive in any port.
Well—well; I came upon him afterwards at a crisis in the game. He was taking notes in shorthand with a sort of savagery between his tense and concentrated glares at the scrimmage that was then massed in the centre of the field. Woolwich Arsenal and East Kent, locked in each other's bodies, now struggled and writhed and butted like two immense beasts welded together by the impact of their battle, now swayed and quivered and snorted as one beast torn by a solitary and mysterious rage.
Self-consciousness had vanished from my man. He stood, leaning forward with his legs a little apart. His boyish face was deeply flushed; he had sucked and bitten his blond moustache into a wisp; he was breathing heavily, with his mouth ajar; his very large and conspicuous blue eyes glittered with a sort of passion. (He wore those eyes in his odd little ugly face like some inappropriate decoration.)
All these symptoms declared that he was "on." They made up a look that I was soon to know him by.
I remember marvelling at his excitement.
I remember also discussing the match with him as we went back to town. It must have been then that he began to tell me about himself: that his name was James Tasker Jevons; that he lived, or hoped to live, by going about the country and reporting the big cricket and football matches.
At least he called it reporting. I shouldn't think there has ever been any reporting like it before or since.
I told him I was out for my paper, the Morning Standard, too. Not exactly reporting, in his sense (I little knew what his sense was when I put it that way); and there left it. You see, I didn't want to rub it into the poor chap that the stranger he had been unfolding himself to so quaintly was a cut above his job.
But he saw through it. I don't know how he managed to convey to me that my delicacy needn't suffer. Anyhow, he must have had some scruples of his own, since he waited for another context before remarking quietly that what I was doing now he would be doing in another six months. (And he was.) These things, he said, took time, and he gave himself six months. (Yes; in less than six months he was holding me up, again, in my own paper. I had to wait till he was "out" before I could get in.) He didn't seem to boast so much as to trace for my benefit the path of some natural force, some upward-tending, indestructible Energy that happened to be him.
All this I remember. But I cannot remember by what stages we arrived at dining together, as we did that night in a little restaurant in Soho. Perhaps there were no stages; we may have simply leaped by one bound at that consummation. He had swung himself into my compartment as the train was leaving the platform at Blackheath; so I suppose it was destiny. After that I was tempted to conceive that he fastened on me as on something that he had need of; but I think it was rather that I fell to his mysterious attraction.
While we dined he informed me further that he had been reporting football matches for six weeks. Before that he had been proof-reader for a firm of printers for about a year. Before that he had been a compositor. And before that again he had worked in an office with his father, who was Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths for some parish down in Hertfordshire. He chucked that because he found that the registration of births, marriages and deaths was spoiling his handwriting quite as much as his handwriting was spoiling the registration of births, marriages and deaths. (He was, he said, cultivating a careless, scholarly hand.) He liked his present job, because it took him out pretty often into the open air. Also he liked looking on at football matches and prize fights.
He said it made him feel manly.
You should have seen him sitting there and telling me these things in a gentle, throaty and rather thick voice with a cockney accent and a sort of tenor ring in it and a queer, humorous intonation that was like an audible twinkle, as if he saw himself as he thought I must see him, mainly in the light of absurdity. You should have seen his face, its thin cheeks, its vivid flush, its queer, inquisitive, contradictory nose that had a slender, high bridge and a tilted, pointed end in profile and three-quarters, and turned suddenly all broad and blunt in a full view; and his mouth that stood ajar with excitement, and even in moments of quiescence failed to hide the tips of two rather prominent white teeth pressed down on the lower lip. I don't say there was anything unmanly about Jevons's figure (he wasn't noticeably undersized), or about his mouth and jaw. I knew a great General with a mouth and jaw like that, and he was one of the handsomest figures in the Service. I'm not hinting at anything like effeminacy in Jevons, only at a certain oddity that really saved him. If he'd been handsome he'd have been dreadful. His flush, his decorative eyes, his dark eyebrows and eyelashes, his sleek, light brown hair, would have made him vulgar. As it was, his queerness gave them a sort of point.
I dwell on these physical details because, afterwards, I found myself continually looking at him as if to see where his charm lay. To see, I suppose, what she saw in him.
If anybody had asked me that night what I saw in him myself beyond an ordinary little journalist "on the make," I don't suppose I could have told them. But there's no doubt that I felt his charm, or that night would have been the end instead of the beginning.
We sat in the restaurant when he had done telling me about himself; I remember we sat quite a long time discussing an English writer—our contemporary—whom I rather considered I had discovered. In those days I used to apply him as an infallible test. Jevons had read every word of him; it was he, in fact, who brought him into the conversation. He confessed afterwards that he had done it on purpose. He had been testing me.
Even so our acquaintance might have lapsed but for the thing that happened when the waiter came up with the bill. My share of it was three and twopence, and I found myself with only ninepence in my pocket. I had to borrow half a crown, from Jevons. You mayn't see anything very dreadful in that. I didn't at the time, and there wasn't. The dreadful thing was that I forgot to pay him back.
Yes. Something happened that put Jevons and his half-crown out of my head for long enough. I forgot to pay him, and he had to go without his dinner for three nights in consequence. It was his last half-crown.
He told me this as an immense joke, long afterwards.
And Viola Thesiger cried.
That crying of hers, that child-like softening and breaking down under him, in itself so unexpected (I didn't know she could do it), that sudden and innocent catastrophe, was the first sign to me that I was done for—wiped out. There wasn't any violence or any hysteria about it, only grief, only pity. It was an entirely simple, gentle and beautiful performance, and it took place in my rooms after Jevons had left us. But, as I say, this was long afterwards. The agony of my undoing was a horribly protracted affair.
I needn't say that what happened—I mean the thing that made me forget all about Jevons and his half-crown—was Viola Thesiger.
I had his address, but the next day—the day after the match—was Sunday, so I couldn't get the postal order I had meant to send him. And on Monday she walked into my rooms at ten in the morning.
The appointment, I may remark, was for nine-thirty. I had fixed that early hour for it because I wanted to get it done with. I wasn't going to have my morning murdered with violence when it was two hours old; neither did I intend it to be poisoned by the thought of this interview hanging over me at the end.
I had just sent for Pavitt, my man, and told him that if Miss Thesiger called he was on no account to let her in. He was to say that the appointment was for nine-thirty and that Mr. Furnival was now engaged. She would have to call again at three if she wished to see him. When engaging a typist it is as well to begin as you mean to go on, and I was anxious to let Miss Thesiger know at once that I was not a man who would stand any nonsense. I was abominably busy that morning.
And Pavitt let her in. (It was the first time he had failed in this way.) He never explained or apologized for it afterwards. He seemed to think that when I had seen Miss Thesiger I would see, even more vividly than he did, how impossible it was to do otherwise, unless he had relinquished all claim to manhood and to chivalry. The look he sent me from the threshold as he retreated backwards, drawing the door upon himself like a screen and shutting me in alone with her, said very plainly, "You may curse, sir, and you may swear; but if you think you'll get out of it any better than I have you're mistaken."
Yes: it was something more than her appearance and her manner, though they, in all conscience, were enough.
I do not know what appearance and what manner, if any, are proper to a young woman calling on a young man at his rooms to seek employment. The mere situation may, for all I know, bristle with embarrassments. Anyhow, I can imagine that in some hands it might have moments, let us say, of extreme difficulty on either side. Miss Thesiger's appearance and her manner were perfect; but they didn't suggest by any sign or shade that she was a young woman seeking employment, that she was a young woman seeking anything; but rather that she was a young woman to whom all things naturally came.
She approached me very slowly. Her adorable little salutation, with all its maturity, its gravity, was somehow essentially young. She was rather tall, and her figure had the same serious maturity in youth. She carried her small head high, and held her shoulders well back, so that she got a sort of squareness into the divine slope of them (people hadn't begun to slouch forward from the hips in those days), a squareness that agreed somehow with the character of her small face. I didn't know then whether it was a pretty face or not. I daresay it was a bit too odd and square for prettiness, and, as for beauty, that had all gone into the lines of her body (which was beautiful, if you like). When you looked carefully, you got a little square, white forehead, and straight eyebrows of the same darkness as her hair, and very distinct on the white, and eyes also very dark and distinct, and fairly crystalline with youth; and a little white and very young nose that started straight and ended absurdly in a little soft knob that had a sort of kink in it; and a mouth which would have been too large for her face if it hadn't made room for itself by tilting up at the corners; and then a little square white chin and jaw; they were thrust forward, but so lightly and slenderly that it didn't matter. It doesn't sound—does it?—as if she could have been pretty, let alone beautiful; and yet—and yet she managed that little head of hers and that little odd face so as to give an impression of beauty or of prettiness. It was partly the oddness of the face and head, coming on the top of all that symmetry, that perfection, that made the total effect of her so bewildering. I can't find words for the total effect (I don't know that you ever got it all at once, and I certainly didn't get it then), and if I were to tell you that what struck me first about her was something perverse and wilful and defiant, this would be misleading.
She smiled in her mature, perfunctory manner as she took the chair I gave her. She cast out her muff over my writing-table, and flung back the furs that covered her breast and shoulders, as if she had come to stay, as if it were four o'clock in the afternoon and I had asked her to tea for the first time.
I remember saying, "That's right. I'm afraid this room is a bit warm, isn't it?"—as if she had done something uninvited and a little unexpected, and I wished to reassure her. As if, too, I desired to assert my position as the giver of assurances.
(And it was I who needed them, not she.)
She hadn't been in that room five minutes before she had created a situation; a situation that bristled with difficulty and danger.
To begin with, she was so young. She couldn't have been, then, a day older than one-and-twenty. My first instinct (at least, I suppose it was my first) was to send her away; to tell her that I was afraid she wouldn't do, that she was too unpunctual, and that I had found, between nine-thirty and ten o'clock, somebody who would suit me rather better. Any lie I could think of, so long as I got out of it. So long as I got her out of it.
I don't know how it was she so contrived to impress me as being in for something, some impetuous adventure, some enterprise of enormous uncertainty. It may have been because she looked so well-cared-for and expensive. I do not understand these matters, but her furs, and her tailor-made suit of dark cloth, and the little black velvet hat with the fur tail in it were not the sort of clothes I had hitherto seen worn by typists seeking for employment. So that I doubted whether financial necessity could have driven her to my door. Or else I had a premonition. She herself had none. She was guileless and unaware of taking any risks. And that, I think, was what disturbed me. The situation bristled because she so ignored all difficulty or danger.
Please don't imagine that I regarded myself as dangerous or even difficult, or her as being, in any vulgar sense, out for adventure, or as balancing herself even for amusement on any perilous edge. It was not what she was out for, it was, as I say, what she might possibly be in for; and what she would, in consequence, let me in for too. She made me feel responsible.
"Let me see," I said; "it's typing, isn't it?"
I began raking through drawers and pigeon-holes, pretending to find her letter and the sample of her work that she had sent me, though I knew all the time that they lay under my hand hidden by the blotter. I wanted to give myself time; I wanted to create the impression that I was old at this game; that I had to do with scores and scores of young women seeking employment; to make her realize the grim fact of competition; to saturate her with the idea that she was only one of scores and scores, all docketed and pigeon-holed, any one of whom might have superior qualities; when it would be easy enough to say, "I'm sorry, but the fact is, I rather think I've engaged somebody already."
"Yes," she said, "it's typing. I can't do anything else. But if you want shorthand, I could learn it."
This gave me an opening. "Well—I'm sorry—but the fact is—"
"Did you like what I sent you?"
That staggered me. I hadn't allowed for her voice. For a moment I wondered wildly what had she sent me?
"Oh, yes. I liked it. But—" I began it again.
She leaned forward this time, peering under my elbow (the minx! I'm convinced she knew the infernal thing was there).
"I see," she said. "You've lost it. Don't bother. I can do another. As long as you liked it, that's all right."
I remember thinking violently: "It isn't all right. It's all wrong. And the more I like it (if I do like it) the worse it's going to be." But all I said was, "You wrote from Canterbury, didn't you?"
It was as if she challenged me with: "Why not? Why shouldn't one write from Canterbury?" And she stuck out her little chin as her eyes opened fire on me at close range.
"Do you live there?" I said.
"Yes." She corrected herself. "My people live there."
"Oh! Because—in that case—I'm sorry—but—the fact is, I'm afraid—" I floundered, and she watched me floundering. Then I plunged. "I must have a typist who lives in London." (And I might have added "a typist who won't open fire on me at close range.")
"But," she said, "I do—at least, I'm going to to-morrow evening."
I must have sat staring then quite a long time, not at her, but at one of Roland Simpson's sketches on the wall in front of me.
She followed, but not quite accurately, the direction of my thoughts.
"If you want references, I can give you heaps. General Thesiger's my uncle. Why? Do you know him?"
I had ceased staring. He was not the General I knew, but she had spoken a sufficiently distinguished name. I said as much.
"Of course lots of people know him," she went on with a sort of radiant rapidity. "And he knows lots of people. But I wouldn't write to him if I were you. He'll only be rude, and ask you who the devil you are. There's my father, Canon Thesiger. It's no good writing to him, either. It'll worry him. And there's—no, you mustn't bother the Archbishop. But there's the Dean. You might write to him! And there's Colonel Braithwaite and Mrs. Braithwaite. They're all dears. You might write to any of them. Only I'd much rather you didn't."
"Why?" I said. I thought I was entitled to ask why.
"Because," she said, "it'll only mean a lot more bother for me."
I believe I meditated on this before I asked her, "Why should it?"
"Because it isn't easy to get away and earn your own living in this country. And they'll try, poor dears, to stop me. And they can't."
"If they don't," I said, "are you sure it won't mean a lot of bother for them?"
"Not," she said gravely, "if they're left alone and not worried. It will, of course, if you go and write and stir them all up again."
"I see. For the moment, then, they are placated?"
"Rather." (I wondered on what grounds.) "We settled that last night."
"Then—" I said, "forgive my asking so many questions—your people know you had this appointment with me?"
Her eyebrows took a little tortured twist in her pity for my stupidity.
"Oh no. That would have upset them all for nothing. It doesn't do to worry them with silly details. You see, they don't know anything about you."
It was exquisite, the innocence with which she brought it out.
"But," I insisted, "that's rather my point. You don't know anything about me either, do you?"
"Yes, I do. I knew," she said, "the minute I came into the room. If it comes to that, you don't know anything about me."
I said I did; I knew the minute she came into the room. And she faced me with, "Well then, you see!" as if that settled it.
I suppose it did settle it. I must have decided that since nobody could stop her, and I wasn't, after all, a villain, if she insisted on being somebody's typist, she had very much better be mine. You see, she was so young. I wanted to protect her. Not that there was anything helpless and pathetic about her, anything, except her innocence, that appealed to me for protection. On the contrary, she struck me as a creature of high courage and defiance. That, of course, was what constituted the danger. She would insist on taking risks. Presently I heard myself saying, "Yes, the Close, Canterbury. I've got that. But where am I to find you here?"
She gave me an address that made me whistle.
I asked her if she knew anything, anything whatever, about the people of the house?
She said she didn't. She had chosen it because it had a nice green door, and there was an Angora cat on the door-step. A large orange cat with green eyes.
Had she actually taken rooms there?
No. But she had chosen them (I think she said because they had pretty chintz curtains.) She was going to take them now.
She had her hand on the door. She was eager, like a child that has got off at last, after irritating delay.
I closed the door against her precipitate flight. I said I thought we could settle that here, over the telephone.
And I settled it.
Having settled it, I sent Pavitt, my man, to get rooms for her that afternoon in Hampstead, with his sister-in-law, in a house overlooking the Heath. I said I couldn't promise her chintz curtains and a green door and an orange Angora cat with green eyes, but I thought she would be fairly comfortable with Mrs. Pavitt.
She told me a week later that the Hampstead rooms had chintz curtains and there was a Persian kitten too. A blue Persian, with yellow eyes.
There was. But I didn't tell her who put them there.
The kitten alone (it was a pure-bred Persian) cost me three guineas; and to this day she thinks that Pavitt, who brought it to her, found it on the Heath.
Yet, with all my precautions, there was trouble when Canterbury heard about my typist. (She had become my typist, though I had never said a word about engaging her.)
This, of course, was owing to the criminal secrecy with which Viola conducted her affairs. The Minor Canon wrote to me as if I had seduced, or was about to seduce, his daughter. (He had upset himself by rushing up to take her back to Canterbury, and finding that she wouldn't go with him.) I think, in his excitement, he ordered me to give her up. He was a guileless and indeed a holy man; and it's always the guileless and the holy people who raise the uncleanest scandals. And Mrs. Thesiger wrote, and the General and the Dean; and I've no doubt the Archbishop would have written too, if I hadn't unearthed my General at his club, and asked him if he knew the Thesigers, and found out that he did, and implored him to arrange the horrid business for me as best he could. I said he might tell them that if the girl had been left to them to look after her, she would have got into rooms in—I named the street, and testified to the sinister character of the house. And my General wrote and explained to the other General and to the Minor Canon what a thoroughly nice chap I was, and how lamentably they had misunderstood what I believed he was pleased to call my relations with Miss Thesiger. I'm not at all sure that he didn't even go farther and stick in a lot about my family, and suggest that I was eligible to the extent that, though my fortunes were still to make, I had (besides private means that enabled me to live in spite of journalism) considerable expectations (he knew an aunt of mine—better, it would seem, than I did). In short, that I was a thoroughly nice chap, and that the father of seven daughters (five unmarried) might do far worse than cultivate my acquaintance. He must have gone quite as far as that, or farther, otherwise I couldn't account for the peculiarly tender note that the Minor Canon put into the letter of apology that he wrote me, still less for the invitation I received by the same post from Mrs. Thesiger to spend Whitsuntide with them at Canterbury. (Viola had said she was going home for Whitsuntide.)
Dear lady, she was herself the daughter of a Canon, and she had lived all her life in a cathedral close, and the atmosphere of a cathedral close may foster innocence, but I cannot think it could have been entirely responsible for the kind of indiscretion Mrs. Thesiger was guilty of. Neither do I think Mrs. Thesiger was entirely responsible herself. She is a nice woman, and I am sure she couldn't have written as she did unless my friend the General had led her to believe that there was some sort of an understanding between me and Viola. But still, for all she knew about me, I might have been a villain. Not perhaps the gross villain the Minor Canon took me for, but a villain in some profound and subtle way inappreciable to my friend the General.
Well, of course I didn't spend Whitsuntide with the Thesigers at Canterbury. It would have been sheer waste of Viola. For the worst of all this confounded rumpus was that it made me put off proposing to Viola till she had forgotten all about it. She would never have listened to me while the trail of the scandal still lingered.
In fact, it was only the marked coldness of my manner to her just then that saved me.
* * * * *
It saved me to suffer. I didn't know it was possible to suffer as she made me suffer—I mean as they made me, between them.
It didn't begin all at once. It didn't begin, really, for another three months, the end of those six months that Jevons had given himself. Not even then. Not, you may say, for a whole year; because he gave himself another six months as soon as he saw her. He was always giving himself these periods of time, as if, with his mania for taking risks, he was always having some prodigious bet on himself. I never knew a man back his own enterprises as he did.
But until he turned up again I was happy. I say I, not we. I don't know whether Viola was happy or not, though she looked it. I had enough sense to see that her happiness, if she was happy, had nothing to do with me except in so far as I was the humble means, under Providence, of the definite escape from Canterbury.
For I very soon saw what had been the matter with her. She was one of nine, the youngest but one of seven daughters. The Minor Canon had only been able to educate one of the seven properly, because he had had a son at Sandhurst, and the other was still reading for the Bar, which is pretty expensive too if you're as amiably stupid as Bertie Thesiger. (I mention Bertie because, though he doesn't come into this story, his stupidity and his amiability combined to tighten the situation considerably for Viola.) And Mrs. Thesiger had only been able to marry off two of her seven daughters. Of the others, one (the one who had been to Girton) was a High School teacher in Canterbury and she lived at home; one was a trained nurse and lived at home between cases; that left three girls living continually at home and, as Viola put it, eating their heads off.
These were the circumstances which Viola (with some omissions) recited by way of justification for her revolt; the fact being that she would have revolted anyway. She was, as I have said, a creature of high courage and vitality and she was tied up much too tight in that Cathedral Close, besides being much too well fed; and she longed to do things. To do them with her hands and with her head. She was tired of playing tennis on the velvet lawns of the Canons' gardens; she was tired of calling on the Canons' wives and talking to their daughters. I am aware that Canterbury is a garrison town and that other resources, and other prospects, I suppose, were open to Viola. But Viola was tired of talking to the garrison. I think she would have been tired in any case, even if the garrison hadn't been bespoken, as it were, by her unmarried sisters. (It is, humanly speaking, impossible that, even in a garrison town, seven sisters will all marry into the Service, as I fatuously supposed Mrs. Thesiger must have realized when she asked me to Canterbury.) It always bored Viola to do what her family did, and what her family, just because they did it, expected her to do. And somehow, in the long hours spent in the Cathedral Close, she had acquired a taste for what she called "literature," what she innocently believed to be literature. She was of an engaging innocence in this respect; so that typing authors' manuscripts appealed to her as a vocation that combined one of the highest forms of cerebral activity with I don't know what glamour of romantic adventure.
Her enthusiasm, her veneration for the written word made her an admirable typist. But not all at once. To say that she brought to her really horrible task a respect, a meticulous devotion, would give you no idea of the child's attitude; it was a blind, savage superstition that would have been exasperating if it had not been so heart-rending. It cleared gradually until it became intelligent co-operation.
I trained her for six months.
I don't suppose I ever worked harder than I did in that first half year of her. I mean my output was never greater. For every blessed thing I wrote was an excuse for going to see her, or for her coming to see me. It was a perpetual journeying between my rooms in Brunswick Square, and her rooms in Hampstead overlooking the Heath. The more I wrote the more I saw of her.
I trained her for six months—until Jevons was ready for her.
When I tell you that she reverenced my performances you may imagine in what spirit she approached his.
For their meeting, as for what happened afterwards, I alone am responsible. I brought it on myself. By sheer quixotic fuss and interference with what, after all, wasn't my affair. For little Jevons most decidedly was not. I might easily have let that sleeping dog lie. He certainly did sleep, in some obscure kennel of London; he had slept ever since I had left him at the door of that restaurant in Soho. He slept almost for the six months he had then given himself.
And then, before (according to his own schedule) he was quite due, he appeared in the columns (in my columns) of the Morning Standard. I had almost forgotten his existence; but when I saw his name, James Tasker Jevons, stick out familiarly under the big headlines, I remembered that that name, on a card with an address, had been lying in my left-hand writing-table drawer all this time; I remembered that it was there because he had lent me half a crown, and that I had never paid him. Then he came back to me—he lived again.
I sent him a postal order and an apology. I referred, very handsomely as I thought, to his cuckoo's nesting in my paper. (I informed him, in fact, that he "did it" better than I did); and because I had worked myself up to a pitch of affability and generosity, I asked him to come and see me at such time as he should be free. And because, also, I was indifferent and lazy and didn't want to be seriously bothered with him, instead of asking him to lunch or dine with me, I said I was generally free myself between four and five.
Between four and five was an hour when Viola was very apt to come in.
In the instant that followed the posting of that letter I saw what I had done. And I wrote to him the next day asking him to dinner, in order that he should not come in between four and five. For some weeks, whenever I fancied he was about due at four o'clock, I wrote and asked him to dinner. That was how I fastened him to me. There wasn't any sense in which he fastened on me. I wasn't by any means his only hope.
I may say at once I was prostrated as any slave before his conversation.
I shall never forget the radiance of his twinkle when he told me he had been sacked three weeks ago from the sporting paper that had provided him with his sole visible means of subsistence. It was his blessed (only he didn't call it blessed) style that had dished him: the suicidal elan that he brought to the business. He was warned, he said. He was aware that his existence as a reporter hung by the bare thread of statement (wearing thinner and thinner) on which he weaved his fantastic web. His editor told him he was engaged to report football, not to play it with the paper. But he couldn't help it. He had got, he said, the ensanguined habit. Still, I was not to imagine that he bungled things. He jolly well knew his way about. In his wildest flights there was a homing impulse; he was preparing a place for himself all the time (that it happened to be my place didn't seem to afflict him in the least). Like St. Paul, he knew how to abound and he knew how to abstain. His abstinence, in fact, gave the measure of his abundance. He held himself in for five perilous weeks; and when he let himself rip again it was with a burst that landed him in the front page of the Morning Standard.
What he sketched for me had no resemblance to the career of a peaceful man of letters. It was a hot race, a combat as bloody (his own word) as those contests of which he was the delighted eye-witness.
He had come thin and worn out of the struggle, but you gathered that he had borne himself in it with coolness and deliberate caution. His phrases produced a false effect of vehemence and excitement. You saw that he had simply followed out a calculated scheme, not one step of which had miscarried. And you felt that his most passionate affairs would be conducted with the same formidable precision.
I ought to have felt it. For we were precious soon in the thick of it—of his most passionate affair.
I had dined him, I suppose, about three times, and I had lunched him twice. And I had had tea with him once in his bedroom. He was living in one room in a street off the Euston Road, and he called it his bedroom because it looked so much more that than anything else. I might have let it go at that. But I didn't. I had seen his bedroom. I took the liberty of inquiring into his finances. They were, he said, as yet undeveloped. He had a scheme of his own for improving them, but while it was maturing he was, he certainly was open to offers of work. I got him some translation. (He was a fairly good French scholar.)
Then—it was the fatality of the proceedings that impressed them on my memory—then (I forgot to say that at that time I was reader to a firm of publishers; these things are in themselves so inessential to this story) I turned over to him any books that came more into his province than mine. His province, I can tell you, was pretty extensive, too.
He began by doing me the honour to consult me about any instances that seemed doubtful.
And so—you see how carefully I had prepared his path for him—one afternoon he turned up at my rooms, uninvited, between four and five. He said he remembered I had told him I should be free at that hour.
He remembered. Yes; I don't think Tasker Jevons ever forgot anything, anything likely to be useful to him, in his life.
And he hadn't been with me ten minutes before Viola Thesiger came in.
He was saying, "Why the Heaven-afflicted idiot" (his author) "should think it necessary—" when Viola came in.
She came in, and suddenly I made up my mind that she was beautiful. I hadn't seen it before. I don't know why I saw it now. It may have been some turn of her small, squarish head that surprised me with subtle tendernesses and curves; or more likely it may have been her effect on him. I may have seen her with his eyes. I don't know—I don't know. I hardly like to think he saw anything in her I hadn't seen first.
He stopped talking. They looked at each other. I introduced him. Not to have introduced him would have struck him as a slight.
I ordered tea at once in the hope of hastening his departure. He had been curiously silent since she had come in.
But he didn't go. He just sat there, saying nothing, but looking at her furtively now and again, and blinking, as if looking at her hurt him. Whenever she said anything he stared, with his mouth a little open, breathing heavily.
She hadn't paid very much attention to him. Then, suddenly, as if intrigued by his silence, she said:
"Who is the Heaven-afflicted idiot?"
I said, "Ask Mr. Jevons."
Jevons didn't answer her. He simply looked at her and blinked. Then he looked away again.
"Come," I said, "you might finish what you were going to say."
"I don't know," he muttered, "that I was going to say anything—Oh yes—that thing you sent me. Why the silly blighter should suppose it's necessary to stick in a storm at sea when it's quite obvious he hasn't seen one—he talks about a brig when he means a bark, and from the way he navigates her you'd say the wind blew all ways at once in the Atlantic."
I said it might for all I knew; and I asked him if he'd ever seen a storm at sea himself.
It seemed he had. He'd been ordered a sea-voyage for his health after his spell of printing; and his uncle, who was a sea-captain, took him with him to Hong-Kong in his ship. And he had been all through a cyclone in the Pacific.
I got him—with some difficulty, for he had become extremely shy—I got him to tell us about it.
He did. And by the time he had finished with us we had all been through a cyclone in the Pacific.
It was too much. The little beast could talk almost as well as he wrote. A fellow who can write like Tasker Jevons has no business to talk at all.
Viola left soon after six. He had outstayed her. I went downstairs with her. When I came back to him he was still staring at the doorway she had passed through.
"Who's that girl?" he said.
I said she was my typist.
He meditated, and brought out as the result: "Do you mind telling me how much she charges you?"
I told him. He looked dejected.
"I can't afford her," he said presently. "No. I can't possibly afford her. Not yet." He paused. "Do you mind giving me her address?"
"I thought you said you couldn't afford her?"
"I can't. Not yet. But I will afford her. I will. I give myself another—" He stopped. His mouth fell ajar, and I saw his lips moving as he went through some inaudible calculation—"another six months."
He hid his face in his hands and ran his fingers through his hair. Then, as if he conceived himself to be unobserved behind this shelter, he let himself go; and I became the witness of an agony, a passion, a self-abandoned nakedness, to the utter shedding of all reticences and decencies, with nothing but those thin hands and that hair between me and it.
"I'll work," he said. "I'll work like a hundred bloody niggers. Like ten hundred thousand million sweated tailors in a stinking cellar. I'll pinch. I'll skimp and save. I'll deny myself butter. I'll wear celluloid collars and sell my dress-suit. My God! I'd sell the coat off my back and the shoes off my feet; I'd sell my own mother's body off her death-bed, and go without my dinner for nine months to see her again for five minutes. Just to see her for five minutes. Five (unprintable) little minutes that another man wouldn't know what to do with, wouldn't use for tying up a bootlace in."
"I didn't know it hurt. I didn't know a girl's face could land you one like this, and her eyes jab you, and her voice turn round and round in your stomach like a circular saw. That's what it feels like. Exactly.
"Dry up, you old Geyser, yourself. I'm getting it, not you. You'd spout if you'd had to sit tight with all the gas in the shop blazing away under you for the last hour. If you can turn it off at the meter, turn it. I can't. No, I won't have another cup of tea. And I won't get up and clear out, I'm going to sit here another five minutes. I'm not well, I tell you, and it relieves me to talk about it. I don't care if you don't listen. Or if you do. I'm past caring.
"D'you notice that I didn't speak a word to her—not one blessed word the whole time? I should have choked if I'd tried to. I didn't want to look at her, to think of her. That's why I told that rotten story, just to keep myself going. What a blethering idiot she must have thought me! What a putrid ass! The sea—And me!
"And the way she looked at me—"
I said, "D'you mean to say, Jevons, it didn't happen?"
And he groaned. "Oh, it happened all right. I can't invent things to save my life.
"God! It isn't even as if she was pretty. I could understand that."
He grabbed his throat suddenly and began to cough.
I tried to be kind to him. "Look here," I said, "old chap. I'm awfully sorry if it takes you this way. But it's no good."
He turned on me coughing and choking. I cannot remember all he said or half the things he called me, but it was something like this: "You snivelling defective." (Cough) "You septic idiot." (Cough) "You poisonous and polluted ass." (Cough, cough, cough) "You scarlet imbecile." (I have to water down the increasing richness of his epithets.) "You last diminutive purple embryo of an epileptic stock, do you suppose I don't know that? No good? Of course it's no good—yet. I got to wait for another six months. And you can take it from me, if a fellow knows what he wants, and doesn't try to get it—doesn't know how to get it—in six months—and doesn't find out—he's no good, if you like."
These words didn't strike me at the time as having any personal application. He was to repeat them later on, however, in circumstances which I defy anybody to have foreseen.
* * * * *
I cannot recall the precise phases of their remarkable friendship. I wasn't present at its earliest stages.
I had my first intimation of its existence one evening in the winter of nineteen-five, when he dropped in on me to consult me, he said, about a rather delicate matter, in which I gathered there lurked for his inexperience the most frightful pitfalls of offence. That he should come to me in this spirit was evidence that a certain chastening had been going on in him.
The delicate matter was this. He had given Miss Thesiger a lot of work, the typing of a whole book, in fact. And—he had immense difficulty in getting to this part of it—she had refused to take any payment. She had got it into her head that he was hard up. He had sent her a cheque three times, and three times she had returned it. She was as obstinate as a mule about it. And now she was saying that she had never meant him to pay her; she had done the whole thing out of friendship, which, of course, was very pretty of her, but it put him in a beastly position. He'd never been precisely in that position before and he didn't know what to do about it. He didn't want to offend her and yet he didn't see—did I?—how he could let her do it. It was, he said, all the wrong way about, according to his notions. And for the life of him he didn't know what to do. It might seem to me incredible that such virgin innocence as his should exist in a world where the rules for most sorts of conduct were fairly settled. He had lived all his life in an atmosphere of births, marriages and deaths, and he knew all the rules for the registration of them. And that was about all he did know. And it was the most infernally hard luck to be stumped like this at the very beginning, just when he wanted most awfully to do the right thing.
Besides, it had knocked him all to bits—the sheer prettiness of it.
He laid bare for me all the curious intricacies of a soul tortured by its own delicacy. There was agony in his eyes.
If he were to take this kindness from a lady—would it, in my opinion, or would it not, be cricket?
I didn't like to tell him that he had brought his agony on himself by his imprudence in employing a typist when he couldn't afford one. So I only said that, if I knew the lady, he would find her uncommonly hard to move.
He hadn't any hope, he said, of moving her; but did I think that if he made her a present—say, the Collected Works of George Meredith, it would meet the case?
I said it would meet the case all right, but that in my opinion it would spoil its prettiness. If Miss Thesiger didn't want to be paid in one way, she wouldn't at all care about being paid in another. Perhaps Miss Thesiger liked being pretty. Hadn't he better leave it at that, anyhow, for the present?
You see I looked on Viola and Viola's behaviour as infinitely more my concern than his. I found myself replying for her as she would have wished me to reply, as if I could claim an intenser appreciation of her motives than was his, as if she and I were agreed about this question of helping Tasker Jevons and I were the custodian of her generosity.
He said he supposed it wouldn't hurt him to leave it at that. It wasn't as if it wouldn't be all one in the long run. He gave himself three months.
I supposed he meant to pay her in.
Three weeks later I heard that Jevons was actually living up in Hampstead in the same house as Viola. I didn't hear it from Viola, but from my man, Pavitt, who had it from his sister-in-law. And what Pavitt came to tell me was that Mr. Jevons had been ill.
I went up to Hampstead that afternoon to see him.
I found him in a back room, at the top of the house, sitting by the fire in an easy-chair, wrapped in a blanket. He was as thin as a lath and his face was a bright yellow. The very whites of his eyes were yellow. I would have said you never saw a more miserable object, but that Jevons was not miserable. He was happy. And as far as his devastated condition would allow him, he looked happy. This face, yellow with jaundice, was doing its best to smile. The smile was a grimace, not an affair of the lips at all, but of the deep crescent lines drawn at right angles to them. Still, he was smiling. In a sort of ecstasy.
He was smiling at Viola, who sat in the chair facing him on the other side of the hearth. She looked as if she had been there for ages. Also, as if she had been sitting up all night.
She was smiling too, straight at Jevons. What I saw was the beatitude of his response.
He tried to smile at me, too, as I came in, but the effort was a failure. He wasn't really a bit glad to see me. Viola got up and left me with him. I wasn't to stay with him for more than ten minutes, she said. It was the first day he had been allowed to sit up.
I sat with him for fifteen minutes.
He was lodged, as before, in one room; but its domestic character was disguised by many ingenious devices giving you the idea that it was nothing but his study.
Well, there he was, haggard and yellow with jaundice, utterly pitiable as to his appearance and surroundings; and yet he looked at me in, positively, a sort of triumph, as much as to say, "Yes. Here I am. And you, with all your superior resources, haven't managed half so well."
And I thought that he (not knowing Viola so well as I did) was suffering from a lamentable delusion.
He said she had been awfully good to him. But it was rather hard luck on him, wasn't it, that he should have gone and turned this beastly colour?
I said rather loftily I didn't suppose it mattered to Viola what colour he turned.
(What could it matter to her?)
She came in presently and took me down to her sitting-room, and gave me tea. She owned to having sat up three nights with Jevons. She couldn't have believed it possible that anybody could be so ill. For three days and three nights the poor thing hadn't been able to keep anything down—not even a drop of water. But to-day she had been feeding him on the whites of eggs beaten up with brandy.
She seemed to me to be obsessed with Jevons's illness, and I made her come out with me for ten minutes for a blow on the Heath. I tried to lead her mind to other things, and she listened politely. Then there was silence, and presently I felt her arm slide into mine (she had these adorable impulses of confidence).
"Furny," she said, "what does jaundice come from?"
I said it generally came from chill.
She frowned, as if she were not satisfied with that explanation. And there was another silence. Then she began again:
"Would being unhappy—very, very unhappy—give it you?"
I thought I saw how her mind was working and I advised her to put that idea out of her head. Happiness, I said, wouldn't be good for Jevons.
She said, "Oh, wouldn't it!" And, after prolonged meditation, "I wonder if he'll stay that funny yellow colour all his life."
I found out from her that he had been living in that top room above hers for three weeks—ever since he had finished his book. It looked as if he had become frantic when he saw the end of his pretexts and occasions for meeting her, and had cast off all prudence and had followed her, determined to live under the same roof.
I looked on it as a madness that possessed him.
But that it should ever possess her—that was inconceivable.
The brilliant orange of his jaundice faded to lemon, and the lemon to a sallow tint that cleared rapidly as it was flooded by his flush.
I did not realize then what sources he was drawing on. Looking back on it all, I am amazed at my own stupidity. I was, of course, aware that Viola was sorry for him; but I might have known that a girl's pity was not a stimulant that would keep a man like Jevons going for very long. I am sure he would never have lowered himself by any appeal to it. Why, the bare idea of pity would have been intolerable to him, bursting, as he was, with vitality and invading with the courage and energy and genius of a conqueror a world that was not his.
He laid before me very soon what I can only call his plan of campaign. Journalism with him was a purely defensive operation; but the novel and the short story were his attack. The work that Viola had typed for him was his first novel. He had dug himself in very securely that winter, and each paper that he had occupied and left behind him was a line of trenches that shifted nearer and nearer towards the desired territory. He didn't begin his assault on the public before he had secured his retreat.
I know I am writing about a man whom many people still consider a great novelist and a great playwright. God knows I don't want to disparage him. But to me what he has written matters so little; it has no interest for me except as his vehicle, the vehicle in which he arrived; which brought him to his destination quicker perhaps than any other which he could have chosen. His talent was so adroit that he might have chosen almost any other; chance and a happy knack and a habit of observation determined his selection of the written word. Compared with the spectacle of his arrival, what he has written is neither here nor there. What I have written myself is neither here nor there. For the purposes of this history it counts only as the means which enabled me to witness the last act of his drama.
That is why I say so much about his adventure, his campaign, his business, and so little about his books. In this I am adopting his own values, almost his own phrases. He wanted most awfully to arrive. How far he took himself seriously as a writer nobody will ever know. Viola was convinced, and always will be convinced, that he was a great genius. (There's no doubt he traded with her on her conviction. He wanted most awfully to arrive, but more than anything he wanted Viola.) Still, he was too clever, I think, ever to have quite convinced himself.
His adventure, then, began with his reporting; his campaign with his journalism, and his earlier novels; his business was to follow later in the long period of peace and prosperity he saw ahead of him.
His first novel, he told me, was calculated, deliberately, to startle and arrest; to hit the public, rather unpleasantly, in the eye. That, he said, was the way to be remembered. It wouldn't sell. He didn't want it to sell. What he wanted first was to gain a position; then to consolidate it; then to build. He talked like the consummate architect of his own fortunes.
His second novel would be designed, deliberately, to counteract the disagreeable effects of his first.
"Why," I asked, "counteract them?"
Because, he said, if he went on being disagreeable, he'd alienate the very sections of the public he most wished to gain. His retirement was simply the preparation for the Grand Attack.
It was in his third novel that he meant, still deliberately, to come into his kingdom and his power and his glory, for ever and ever, Amen. His third novel, he declared, would sell; and it would be his best. On that utterly secure and yet elevated basis he could build afterwards pretty much as he pleased. I asked him if it wasn't a mistake to put his best so early in the series? Wouldn't it be more effective if he worked up to it? But he said No. He'd thought of that. There wasn't anything he hadn't thought of. That third novel was to start his big sales. And the worst of a big sale was this, that when you'd caught your public you were bound to go on giving them the sort of thing you'd caught them with, therefore, he'd be jolly careful to start 'em with the sort of thing he happened to like himself, otherwise he'd have to spend the rest of his life knuckling under to them. He could get a cheaper glory if he chose to try for it; but a cheaper glory wouldn't satisfy him. That was why he decided to make for the highest point he could reach in the beginning, so that his very fallings-off would be glorious and would pay him as no gradual working up and up could possibly be made to pay. Besides, he wanted his glory and his pay quick. He couldn't afford to wait a month longer than his third novel. As for the different quality in the glory it would be years before anybody but himself could tell the difference, and by the time they spotted him he'd be at another game. A game in which he defied anybody to catch him out.
He'd be writing plays.
All this he told me, sitting in an arm-chair in my rooms, with his feet up on another chair, and smiling, smiling with one side of his mouth while with the other he smoked innumerable cigarettes. I can see his blue eyes twinkle still, through the cigarette smoke that obscured him. That night he had got down to solid business.
It was quite clear that Jevons's business was the business of the speculator who loves the excitement of the risks he takes. I remember exhorting him to prudence. I said: "This isn't art, it's speculation. You're taking considerable risks, my friend."
He took his cigarette out of his mouth, dispersed the smoke, and looked at me very straight and without a twinkle.
"I've got to make money," he said, "and to make it soon. I should be taking worse risks if I didn't."
It's marvellous how he has pulled it off. Just as he said, dates and all. For he named the dates for each stage of his advance.
That was in March; about a week before Easter, nineteen-six.
* * * * *
The next day I went up to Hampstead towards teatime, to see how Viola was getting on. I didn't expect to see Jevons there, for he'd left. He told me in a burst of confidence he'd had to. He couldn't stand it. It was getting too risky. He was living now in rooms in Bernard Street, not far from mine.
At Hampstead I was told that Miss Thesiger was out. She had gone for a walk on the Heath with Mr. Jevons, but they were coming in at half-past four for tea. If I'd step upstairs into the sitting-room I'd find her brother, Captain Thesiger, waiting there.
I stepped upstairs and found Captain Thesiger. I was glad to find him, for I don't mind owning that by this time I was getting somewhat uneasy about Viola.
It was all very well for Viola to nurse Jevons through his jaundice, she might have done that out of pure humanity; but she had no business to be going for walks with the little bounder. Even the charm of his conversation and his personality (and it had a charm) couldn't conceal the fact that he was a little bounder. Why, in moments of excitement he had gestures that must have made her shudder all down her spine, and more than once I have known his aitches become fugitive, though, on the whole, I must say he was pretty careful. And Viola was letting herself in for him. In sheer innocence and recklessness she was letting herself in. I felt that if ever it should come to getting her out I would be glad of an ally. Now that I saw what Viola was capable of, I began to feel some sympathy with her people at Canterbury who had tried so ineffectually to hold her in.
There was nothing ineffectual about Reggie Thesiger. I suppose he would have been impressive anyway from the sheer height and breadth of him, his visible and palpable perfection; but what "had" me was not his perfection, but the odd likeness to his sister which he combined, and in some mysterious way reconciled, with it. His face had taken over not only the dominant and defiant look of hers, exaggerated by his sheer virility; but it had the very tricks of her charm, even to the uptilted lines of her mouth; his little black moustache followed and gave accent to them. I said to myself: "Here is a young man who will not stand any nonsense."
He greeted me with a joy that I could not account for all at once in an entire stranger, and it was mixed with a childlike and candid surprise. I wondered what I had done that he should be so glad to see me.
His manner very soon left me in no doubt as to what I had done. I had brought the most intense relief to the Captain's innocent mind. I do not know by what subtle shades he managed to convey to me that, compared with the queer chap I so easily might have been, he found me distinctly agreeable. It was obvious that I existed for him only as the chap, the strange and legendary chap, that Viola had taken up with, and that in this capacity he, to his own amazement, approved of me. I gathered that, knowing his sister, he had feared the worst, and that the blessed relief of it was more than he could bear if he didn't let himself go a bit.
He had quite evidently come, or had been sent, to see what Viola was up to. Possibly he may have had in his mind the extraordinary treatment I had received from his father, and he may have been anxious to atone.
Any relief that I might have brought to Captain Thesiger was surpassed by the reassurance that I took from my first sight of him. It was as if I had instantly argued to myself: "This is the sort of thing that has produced Viola. This is the sort of man she has been brought up with. When Viola thinks of men it is this sort of man she is thinking of. It is therefore inconceivable that Tasker Jevons should exist for her otherwise than as a curious intellectual freak. Even her perversity couldn't—no, it could not—fall so far from this familiar perfection." Though Captain Thesiger's perfection might not help me personally, it did dispose of little Jevons. Looking at him, I felt as if my uneasiness, you may say my jealousy, of Jevons (it almost amounted to that) had been an abominable insult to his sister.
Reggie—he is my brother-in-law now, and I cannot go on calling him Captain Thesiger—Reggie was good enough to say that he had heard of me from his sister. His voice conveyed, without any vulgar implication, an acknowledgment of my right to be heard of from her—but, of course, he went on agreeably, he had heard of me in any case; he supposed everybody had. My celebrity was so immature that I should not have recognized this allusion to it if Reggie had not gone on even more genially. He said he liked awfully the things I did in the Morning Standard. Most especially and enthusiastically he liked my account of the big boxing match at Olympia. You could see it was written by a chap who knew what he was talking about.
I had to confess that Tasker Jevons was the chap who wrote it. Reggie, quite prettily abashed, tried to recover himself and plunged further. He brought up from his memory one thing after another. And all his reminiscences were of Jevons. He had mixed us up hopelessly, as people did in those days. They knew I was associated with the Morning Standard, and that was all they knew about me; if they wanted to recall anything striking I had done, it was always Jevons they remembered. Poor Reggie was so inveterate in his blundering that after his fourth desperate effort he gave it up. His memory, he said, was rotten.
I said, on the contrary, his memory for Jevons was perfect, and he looked at me charmingly and laughed.
While he was laughing Viola came in. She had Jevons with her.
It was evident that neither of them was prepared for Reggie Thesiger. They had let themselves in with a latch-key and come straight upstairs without encountering Mrs. Pavitt.
At the sight of her brother Viola betrayed a feeling I should not have believed possible to her. For the first and I may say the last, time in my experience of her, I saw Viola show funk.
It was the merest tremor of her tilted mouth, the flicker of an eyelash, an almost invisible veiling of her brilliant eyes; I do not think it would have been perceptible to anybody who watched her with a less tense anxiety than mine. But it was there, and it hurt me to see it.
There was one person, only one person, in the world whom Viola was afraid of, and that was her brother Reggie. She was afraid of him because she loved him. He was the person in the world that she loved best, before—before the catastrophe. And this fear of hers that I alone saw (Reggie most certainly had not seen it) ought to have warned me if nothing else had.
It probably would have warned me but for what she did next; but for her whole subsequent behaviour.
She broke loose from Reggie, who had closed on her with a shout of "Hallo, Vee-Vee!" and an embrace; she broke loose from Reggie and turned to me, all laughing and rosy from his impact, with an outstretched hand and a voice that swept to me and rippled with a sort of nervous joy. And she said: "Oh, Wally, this is nice of you! You'll stop for tea."
Her mouth said that. But her eyes—they had grown suddenly pathetic—said a lot more. They said: "Don't go, Wally, please don't go. Whatever you do, don't leave me alone with him." At least, I can see now that that's what they were saying. And even at the time I saw on her dear face the same blessed relief (at finding me there) that I had seen on Reggie's.
Neither Reggie nor I, mind you, had seen Jevons yet (I am speaking of fractions of seconds of time); and he wasn't actually in the room; but Viola and I were aware of him outside. If he had not paused on the landing to dispose of his overcoat and his hat and his stick, their entrance would have been simultaneous.
That pause saved them.
His stick slipped and tumbled down on the landing with a clatter. We heard him prop it up again. Our eyes met. I'm afraid mine said: "What are you going to do now?"
Then he came in and I saw the gallant Reggie take the shock of him. I don't suppose he had ever before met anything like Jevons—I mean really met him, at close quarters—in his life. But he was gallant, and he had his face well under control. Only the remotest, vanishing quiver and twinkle betrayed the extremity of his astonishment.
Viola, with an admirable air of detachment from Jevons, introduced them. I don't know how she did it. It was as if, without any actual repudiation, she declined to hold herself responsible for Jevons' appearance; for the extraordinary little bow he made; for his jerky aplomb and for his "Glad to meet you, Captain." And for the rest, she just handed him over to her brother and trusted Reggie to be decent to him.
I had wondered: Are they going to let on that they've been out together? She cannot—she cannot own up to that. But how are they going to get out of it, and will he betray her?
I saw how they were going to get out of it. If they didn't say in as many words that they'd met on the doorstep they implied it in everything they said. They asked each other polite questions, all to the tune of: "What have you been doing since I last saw you?"—to convey the impression that they had met thus casually after a long interval. Jevons played up to her well, almost too well; so well, in fact, did he play, that not long afterwards I was to ask myself: Was this perfection the result of collusion? Had they anticipated just such a sudden, disconcerting encounter? Had they thought it all out and arranged with each other beforehand how they should behave? I don't know. I never cared to ask her.
The game lasted some little time. I didn't like to see her driven to these shifts (I was afraid, in fact, they'd overdo it), and I came to her help by telling Jevons that Captain Thesiger was an enthusiastic admirer of his work; and Reggie burst in jubilantly—he was evidently glad to be able to meet Jevons on this happy ground—with: "Are you the chap who wrote those things I've been reading? I say, Vee-Vee, you might have told me."
He fastened upon Jevons then and there. He started him off on the boxing match. There was very little about boxing that Reggie didn't know, but he appealed to Jevons with a charming deference as to an expert. The dear boy had a good deal of his sister's innocent veneration for the chaps who wrote the things they'd been reading, who could, that is to say, do something they couldn't do.
And Jevons, once started on the boxing match, fairly let himself go. He careered over the field of sport, interrupting his own serious professional elan with all sorts of childlike and spontaneous gambols. In some of his turns he was entirely lovable. It was clear that Reggie loved him as you love a strange little animal at play, or any vital object that diverts you. From his manner I gathered that, provided he were not committed to closer acquaintance with Jevons, he was willing enough to snatch the passing joy of him.
I do not know by what transitions they slid together on to the Boer War. The Boer War happened to be Reggie's own ground. He had served in it. You would have said that Jevons had served in it too, to hear him. He traced the course of the entire campaign for Reggie's benefit. He showed him by what error each regrettable incident (as they called them then) had occurred, and by what strategy it might have been prevented.
And Reggie—who had been there—listened respectfully to Jevons.
Viola had lured me into a corner where only scraps of their conversation reached us from time to time. So I do not know whether it was in connection with the Boer War that Jevons began telling Reggie that journalism was a rotten game; that from birth he had been baulked of his ambition. He had wanted to be tall and handsome. He had wanted to be valorous and athletic. And here he was sent into the world undersized and not even passably good-looking. And what—he asked Reggie—could he do with a physique like his?
I remember Reggie telling Jevons his physique didn't matter a hang. He could be a war correspondent in the next war. I remember Jevons saying in an awful voice: That was just it. He couldn't be anything in the next war—and, by God, there was a big war coming—he gave it eight years—but he couldn't be in it. He was an arrant coward.
That, he said, was his tragedy. His cowardice—his distaste for danger—his certainty that if any danger were ever to come near him he would funk.
And I remember Reggie saying, "My dear fellow, if you've the courage to say so—" and Jevons beating off this consolation with a funny gesture of despair. And then his silence.
It was as if suddenly, in the midst of his gambolling, little Jevons had fallen into an abyss. He sat there, at the bottom of the pit, staring at us in the misery of the damned.
I looked at Viola. Her eyelids drooped; her head drooped. Her whole body drooped under the affliction of his stare, and she would not look at me.
Reggie (he really was decent) tried to turn it off. "I wouldn't worry, if I were you," he said. "Wait till the war comes."
"Oh, it's coming all right," said little Jevons. "No fear."
And as if he could no longer bear to contemplate his cowardice, he said good-bye to us and left. Reggie's eyes followed his dejected, retreating figure.
"How quaint!" he said. "But he's a smart chap, anyway. And, mind you, he's right about that war."
I said (Heaven knows why, except that I think I must have wanted Reggie's opinion of Jevons): "D'you think he's right about his own cowardice?"
Reggie said, "Ask me another. You can't tell. I only know I've seen men look like that and talk like that before an engagement."
Viola raised her head. Her voice came with the clear tremor of a bell: "And did they funk?"
"They didn't run away, if that's what you mean. I daresay they felt like Jevons. I've felt like Jevons myself."
Of course, knowing Jevons as I do now, I have sometimes fancied his talk about cowardice may have been mere bravado, the risk he took with Reggie. But here again I am not quite sure. I don't really know.
I am, however, entirely enlightened as to the game Viola played with me that night.
Jevons had stayed till half-past six. He had talked for two hours and a half. When I got up to go, Reggie suggested that his sister should come and dine with him somewhere in town and do a play afterwards.
She said, All right. She was on. And Furny would come too.
He said, of course I was coming too. That was what he had meant (it wasn't).
And in the end I went. I say in the end—for of course I protested. It was his one evening with his sister. But Viola's poor eyes signalled to me and implored me: "Don't leave me alone with him, whatever you do." She wanted to put off the dreadful moment that must come when he would ask her: "Where on earth did you pick up that shocking little bounder?"
But the question never came. To begin with, Reggie was so enthralled by the funny play we went to that he forgot all about Jevons. And then Viola's game, that started in the restaurant and went on all through dinner, began again and continued in the taxi after the play. And though Reggie was discretion itself, you could see that he had taken it for granted—and no wonder—that she and I were, well, on the brink of an engagement if we hadn't fallen in. As for Jevons, he simply couldn't have conceived him in that connection. To Reggie, Jevons was simply an amusing little scallywag who could write. That Viola should have taken Jevons seriously surpassed his imagination of the possible. So that she never was in any danger of discovery, and there was no need for her manoeuvres. He couldn't have so much as found out that she had gone for a walk with Jevons, because it wouldn't have entered his head that you could go for a walk with him. People didn't do these things.
Besides, he never was alone with her that evening. She took good care of that. She insisted on dropping him at his hotel, which we passed on our way northwards. She actually said to him, "You must get out here. Furny'll see me home. I want to talk to him."
And instead of talking to me, she sat leaning forward with her back half turned to me, staring through the window at nothing at all.
That was how I came to propose to Viola in the taxi. I had been afraid to do it before. I wasn't going to do it at all unless I was sure of her. But it seemed to me that she had been trying all afternoon and all evening to tell me that I might be sure.
* * * * *
Well—she wouldn't have me. She was most decided about it. I had no hope and no defence and no appeal from her decision. Unless I was prepared to be a bounder—and a fatuous bounder at that—I couldn't tell her that she had given me encouragement that almost amounted to invitation. To do her justice, until the dreadful moment in the taxi she hadn't known that she had given me anything. She confessed that she had been trying to convey to Reggie the impression that if her affections were engaged in any quarter it was in mine. She had been so absorbed in calculating the effect on Reggie that she had never considered the effect on me. She said she thought I knew what she was up to and that I was simply seeing her through. She spoke of Jevons as if he was a joke—a joke that might be disastrous if her family took it seriously. It might end in her recall from town. She intimated that there were limits even to Reggie's enjoyment of the absurd; she owned quite frankly that she was afraid of Reggie—afraid of what he might think of her and say to her; because, she said, she was so awfully fond of him. As for me, and what I might think, it was open to me to regard her solitary stroll with Jevons as a funny escapade.
I do not believe the poor child was trying to throw dust in my eyes. It was her own eyes she was throwing dust in. She didn't want to think of herself what she was afraid of Reggie thinking.
As to the grounds of my rejection (I was determined to know them), she was clear enough in her own little mind. She liked me; she liked me immensely; she liked me better than anybody in the world but Reggie. She admired me; she admired everything I did; she thought me handsome; I was the nicest-looking man she knew, next to Reggie. But she didn't love me.
"What's more, Furny," she said, "I can't think why I don't love you."
I couldn't see her clearly and continuously in the taxi. The lamp-posts we passed on the way to Hampstead lit her up at short, regular intervals, and at short, regular intervals she faded and was withdrawn from me. And in the same intermittent way, her soul, as she was trying to show it to me, was illuminated and withdrawn.
"I ought to love you," she went on. "I know I ought. It would be the very best thing I could do."
The folly in me clutched at that admission and gave tongue. "If that's so," I said, "don't you think you could try to do what you ought?"
The lamp-light fell on her then. She was smiling a little sad, wise smile. "No," she said. "No. I think that's why I can't love you—because I ought."
And then she went on to explain that what she had against me was my frightful rectitude.
"You're too nice for me, Furny, much too nice. And ever so much too good. I simply couldn't live with integrity like yours." She paused and then turned to me full as we passed a lamp-post.
"I suppose you know my people would like me to marry you?"
I said a little irritably that I had no reason to suppose anything of the sort.
"They would," she said. "Why, bless you, that's what they asked you down at Whitsuntide for! I don't mean that they said to each other: Let's ask him down and then he'll marry Viola. They wouldn't even think it—they're much too nice. Poor dears—they'd be horrified if they knew I knew it! But it was underneath their minds, you know, pushing them on all the time. I believe they sent Reggie up to have a look at you, though they don't know that either. They think they sent him to see what I was up to. You see, Furny dear, from their point of view you are so eligible. And really, do you know, I think that's what's dished you—what's dished us both, if you like to put it that way. I'm sure you may."
I said it didn't matter much what dished me or how I put it, provided I was dished. But—was I?
Oh yes! She left me in no doubt that I was dished. And I saw—I still see, and if anything more clearly—why.
I was everything that Canterbury approved of. And Viola, in her young revolt, was up against everything of which Canterbury approved. Her people were dear people; they were charming people, well-bred people; they had unbroken traditions of beautiful behaviour. And they had tied her up too tight in their traditions; that was all. Viola would never marry anybody on whom Canterbury had set its seal.
And seeing all that, I saw that I had missed her by a mere accident. It was my friend the General who had dished me when he testified to my entire eligibility. That's to say, it was my own fault. If I had let well alone; if I hadn't turned the General on to them, I should have been in the highest degree ineligible; I should have been a person of whom Canterbury most severely disapproved; when I've no doubt that Viola, out of sheer perversity, would have insisted on marrying me.
She said as much. So far she saw into herself and no farther.
The Northern Heights were favourable to this interview, for the taxi broke down in an attempt to scale East Heath Road, so that we walked the last few hundred yards together to her door.
It was while we were walking that—stung by a sudden fear, a reminiscence of the afternoon—I asked her: Was there anybody else?
No, she said, there wasn't. How could there be? Hadn't she told me she liked me better than anybody else, next to Reggie?
"Are you sure?" I said. "Are you quite sure?"
She stopped in the middle of the road and looked at me.
"Of course," she said. "There isn't anybody. Except poor, funny little Jevons. And you couldn't mean him."
That was as near as we got to him then.
But a week later—the week before Easter—he came to us suddenly in my rooms where Viola was correcting proofs for me.
He had come to tell us of his good luck. His novel had been accepted.
I was glad, of course. But Viola was more than glad. She was excited, agitated. She jumped up and said: "Oh, Jimmy!" (She called him Jimmy, and her voice told me that it was not for the first time.) "Jimmy! How simply spiffing!"
And I saw him look at her with a grave and tender assurance, as a man looks at the woman he loves when he knows that the hour of his triumph is her hour.
And I thought even then: It's nothing. It's only that she's glad the poor chap has pulled it off.
Then she said: "Let's all go and dine somewhere together. You don't mind, Furny dear, do you? I'll take it home and sit up with it."
Oh, I didn't mind. We all went somewhere and dined together. We went, for the sheer appropriateness of it, to that restaurant in Soho where I had dined with Jevons for the first time. That was how it happened—what did happen, I mean, afterwards, in my rooms where Jevons had left us.
We had gone back there for coffee and cigarettes. (Canterbury wouldn't have approved of this.)
He had said good night to us when he turned on the threshold with his reminiscence. The restaurant in Soho had aroused it.
"I say, Furnival, do you remember that half-crown you borrowed from me?"
I said I did. And that to remind me of it now was a joke in very questionable taste.
He said, "You never really knew the joke. I kept it from you most carefully. That little orgy of ours had just about cleared me out and the half-crown was my last half-crown. I had to go without any dinner for three days."
I mumbled something about his not meaning it.
He said, "Of course I meant it. Why, my dear chap, that's the joke!"
He stood there in the doorway, rocking with laughter. Then he saw our faces.
"I say, I wouldn't have told you if I'd thought it would harrow you like that. Thought you'd think it funny. It is funny."
I said, "No, my dear fellow, it's just missed being funny."
I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed him from the room. (I had seen Viola's face and I didn't want him to see it.) I led him gently downstairs with a hand still on his shoulder. He was a little grieved at giving pain when he had hoped to give pleasure.
At the bottom of the stairs he turned and looked at me with his ungovernable twinkle. "It was funny," he said. "But it wasn't half so funny, Furnival, as your face."
I found Viola sitting at my writing-table, with her arms flung out over it and her head bowed on them. And she was crying—crying with little soft sobs. I've said that I didn't think she could do it. And I didn't. She wasn't the sort that cries. I'm convinced she hadn't cried like this for years, perhaps never since she was a child.
I put my arms round her as if she had been a child; I held her soft, warm, quivering body close to mine; I wiped her tears away with her pocket-handkerchief. And like a child she abandoned herself to my—to my rectitude. She trusted in it utterly. I might have been her brother Reggie.
I said: "You mustn't mind. He was only rotting us." And she said: "He wasn't. It was true. He told me that six months ago he was starving."
I said: "Vee-Vee, if he was, you mustn't think about him. You mustn't, really."
Then she drew away from me and dried her eyes herself, carefully and efficiently, and said in a calm and measured voice: "I'm not thinking about him."
I went on as if I hadn't heard her: "You mustn't be sorry for him. Jevons is quite clever enough to take care of himself. He isn't a bit pathetic. You mustn't let him get at you that way."
She raised her head with her old, high defiance. "He isn't trying to get at me. I'm not sorry for him—any more than he's sorry for himself."
I said, "You don't know. You're just a dear little ostrich hiding its head in the sand."
"No," she said. "No. I'm not a fool, Furny. Even an ostrich isn't such a fool as it looks. It doesn't imagine for a moment that it isn't seen. It hides its head because it knows it's going to be caught, anyway, and it's afraid of seeing what's going to catch it."
I asked her then, Was she afraid?
She was standing beside me now, leaning back against my writing-table. Her two hands clutched the edge of it. Her eyes had a far-seeing, candid gaze.
"I'm not afraid," she said, "of anything outside me. Only of things inside me—sometimes."
"What sort of things?"
She smiled, the queerest little, far-off smile.
"Oh, funny things—things you wouldn't understand, Furny."
To that I said, "I wish you'd marry me, Viola."
She shrugged her shoulders and said, so did she, and it was much worse for her than it was for me. And then: "Do you know, Reggie liked you immensely. He told me so."
I said it would be more to the point if she did. But since she didn't, since she couldn't marry me, I wished—"I wish," I said, "you'd go back to Canterbury and marry some nice man like Reggie."
"Can't you see," she cried, "that I shall never marry a nice man like Reggie?"
The next thing that happened was that she went off with Jevons.
At least, to all appearances she went off with him. They were in Belgium, at Bruges and Antwerp and Ghent and Bruges again together. I found them at Bruges after having tracked them through all the other places.
It was Captain Thesiger who started me. Reggie (whose family seemed to employ him chiefly to find out what Viola was up to) had called at my rooms after Easter to ask me if I could give him his sister's address. He said they hadn't got it at Hampstead, where he had been to see her, and they didn't know where she was staying. They thought it was in the country somewhere, and that she wouldn't be very long away, as she told them not to forward any letters. He thought I might possibly have her address.
I told him that I hadn't, and that I didn't know how to get it, either.
He said, "It's a rotten habit she's got of sloping off like this without telling you." It wouldn't matter, only his regiment was ordered off to India. He was sailing next week. She was to have come down to Canterbury for Easter and she hadn't. If he only knew the people she was stopping with—if he'd any idea of the town or the village or the county, he'd try and find her. But she might be in the Hebrides for all he knew.
I said I was sorry I couldn't help. All I knew was she had gone into the country (I didn't know it, but I assumed the knowledge for her protection). She had told me she might be going (she had), and I didn't think she'd be away for more than a day or two. I was pretty sure she'd be back before he sailed.
I'd no reason, you see, to suppose she wouldn't be. Anyhow, I satisfied him.
I marvel now at the ease with which I did it. But he was used to Viola's casual behaviour; and the monstrous improbability of the thing she had done this time was her cover. Who in the world would have dreamed that she would go off with Jevons? I don't really know that I dreamed it myself at the moment. I may be mixing up with my first vague dread the certainty that came later. But sometimes I wonder why Reggie didn't suspect me. I suppose my rectitude that had dished me with Viola saved me with her brother.
He took me to lunch with him at his club, and went off quite happily afterwards to the Army and Navy Stores to see about his kit.
I went straight to Jevons's rooms in Bernard Street. Jevons was away. Had been away since Easter. His landlady couldn't give me his address. He hadn't told them where he was going to, and they rather thought he was abroad. His letters were all forwarded to his publishers. They might give me his address.
I went to his publishers. They wouldn't give me his address. They weren't allowed to give addresses, but they would forward any letters to Mr. Jevons. I said I was a friend of Mr. Jevons's. Could they at least tell me whether he was or was not in England? They said that when they had last heard from him he was not.
Then I went down to Fleet Street, to his editor, my editor. He couldn't give me Jevons's address because he hadn't got it. He rang up the office. In the office they rather thought Jevons was in Belgium. They'd had a manuscript from him posted at Ostend. They looked up the date. It was three days ago.
I sailed that night for Ostend.
Of course I had no business to follow Jevons. He had a perfect right to travel—to travel anywhere he liked, without interference from anybody. And in fixing on a time to travel in, nothing was more likely than with his mania upon him he would choose a time that had become valueless to him—a time that he had no other use for, the time when Viola Thesiger was away. The poverty of his resources was such that he couldn't afford to waste any opportunity of seeing her. So that I really could not have given any satisfactory answer if I had been asked why I had jumped to the preposterous conclusion that, because they were away at the same time, they were away together. It ought to have been as inconceivable to me as it was to Reggie. I can only say that in following him I acted on an intimation that amounted to certainty, founded on I know not what underground flashes of illumination and secret fear.
I must have trusted to more flashes in pursing his trail. For when I reached Folkestone there wasn't any trail at all. My only clue was that three days ago Jevona had posted a manuscript at Ostend. He might not be in Belgium at all. He might be in Holland or in France or Germany by this time.
When we got to Ostend I made systematic inquiries at the Post Office and at all probable hotels. At the eleventh hotel (a very humble one) I heard that a "Mr. Chevons" had stayed there one night, three nights ago. No, he had nobody with him. He had left no address. They didn't know where he was going on to. I found out under another rubric that Englishmen never came to this hotel. There was no point in making a separate search for Viola; if my intuition held good, all I had to do was to find out where Jevons was.
I went on to Bruges. Why, I cannot tell you. I had never heard either Viola or Jevons say they would like to see Bruges. But Bruges was the sort of place that people did like to see.
No trace of Jevons or of Viola in Bruges.
I went on to Antwerp (it was another of the likely places), and then, in sheer desperation, to Ghent.
And in Ghent, in a certain hotel in the Place d'Armes, I ran up against Burton Withers, the man who used to be on the old Dispatch, and the very last person I could have wished to see. I didn't ask him if he'd seen Jevons; I didn't mention Jevons; but before we'd parted he had told me that, by the way, he'd come across Jevons in Bruges. He was going about with my typist, Miss Thesiger. They were staying in the same hotel.