THE PRETTY LADY
"Virtue has never yet been adequately represented by any who have had any claim to be considered virtuous. It is the sub-vicious who best understand virtue. Let the virtuous people stick to describing vice—which they can do well enough."
1. THE PROMENADE
2. THE POWER
3. THE FLAT
6. THE ALBANY
7. FOR THE EMPIRE
9. THE CLUB
10. THE MISSION
11. THE TELEGRAM
13. IN COMMITTEE
15. EVENING OUT
16. THE VIRGIN
17. SUNDAY AFTERNOON
18. THE MYSTIC
19. THE VISIT
21. THE LEAVE-TRAIN
22. GETTING ON WITH THE WAR
23. THE CALL
24. THE SOLDIER
25. THE RING
26. THE RETURN
27. THE CLYDE
29. THE STREETS
30. THE CHILD'S ARM
32. MRS. BRAIDING
33. THE ROOF
34. IN THE BOUDOIR
35. QUEEN DEAD
37. THE INVISIBLE POWERS
38. THE VICTORY
40. THE WINDOW
41. THE ENVOY
The piece was a West End success so brilliant that even if you belonged to the intellectual despisers of the British theatre you could not hold up your head in the world unless you had seen it; even for such as you it was undeniably a success of curiosity at least.
The stage scene flamed extravagantly with crude orange and viridian light, a rectangle of bedazzling illumination; on the boards, in the midst of great width, with great depth behind them and arching height above, tiny squeaking figures ogled the primeval passion in gesture and innuendo. From the arc of the upper circle convergent beams of light pierced through gloom and broke violently on this group of the half-clad lovely and the swathed grotesque. The group did not quail. In fullest publicity it was licensed to say that which in private could not be said where men and women meet, and that which could not be printed. It gave a voice to the silent appeal of pictures and posters and illustrated weeklies all over the town; it disturbed the silence of the most secret groves in the vast, undiscovered hearts of men and women young and old. The half-clad lovely were protected from the satyrs in the audience by an impalpable screen made of light and of ascending music in which strings, brass, and concussion exemplified the naive sensuality of lyrical niggers. The guffaw which, occasionally leaping sharply out of the dim, mysterious auditorium, surged round the silhouetted conductor and drove like a cyclone between the barriers of plush and gilt and fat cupids on to the stage—this huge guffaw seemed to indicate what might have happened if the magic protection of the impalpable screen had not been there.
Behind the audience came the restless Promenade, where was the reality which the stage reflected. There it was, multitudinous, obtainable, seizable, dumbly imploring to be carried off. The stage, very daring, yet dared no more than hint at the existence of the bright and joyous reality. But there it was, under the same roof.
Christine entered with Madame Larivaudiere. Between shoulders and broad hats, as through a telescope, she glimpsed in the far distance the illusive, glowing oblong of the stage; then the silhouetted conductor and the tops of instruments; then the dark, curved concentric rows of spectators. Lastly she took in the Promenade, in which she stood. She surveyed the Promenade with a professional eye. It instantly shocked her, not as it might have shocked one ignorant of human nature and history, but by reason of its frigidity, its constraint, its solemnity, its pretence. In one glance she embraced all the figures, moving or stationary, against the hedge of shoulders in front and against the mirrors behind—all of them: the programme girls, the cigarette girls, the chocolate girls, the cloak-room girls, the waiters, the overseers, as well as the vivid courtesans and their clientele in black, tweed, or khaki. With scarcely an exception they all had the same strange look, the same absence of gesture. They were northern, blond, self-contained, terribly impassive. Christine impulsively exclaimed—and the faint cry was dragged out of her, out of the bottom of her heart, by what she saw:
"My god! How mournful it is!"
Lise Larivaudiere, a stout and benevolent Bruxelloise, agreed with uncomprehending indulgence. The two chatted together for a few moments, each ceremoniously addressing the other as "Madame," "Madame," and then they parted, insinuating themselves separately into the slow, confused traffic of the Promenade.
Christine knew Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Regent Street, a bit of Oxford Street, the Green Park, Hyde Park, Victoria Station, Charing Cross. Beyond these, London, measureless as the future and the past, surrounded her with the unknown. But she had not been afraid, because of her conviction that men were much the same everywhere, and that she had power over them. She did not exercise this power consciously; she had merely to exist and it exercised itself. For her this power was the mystical central fact of the universe. Now, however, as she stood in the Promenade, it seemed to her that something uncanny had happened to the universe. Surely it had shifted from its pivot! Her basic conviction trembled. Men were not the same everywhere, and her power over them was a delusion. Englishmen were incomprehensible; they were not human; they were apart. The memory of the hundreds of Englishmen who had yielded to her power in Paris (for she had specialised in travelling Englishmen) could not re-establish her conviction as to the sameness of men. The presence of her professed rivals of various nationalities in the Promenade could not restore it either. The Promenade in its cold, prim languor was the very negation of desire. She was afraid. She foresaw ruin for herself in this London, inclement, misty and inscrutable.
And then she noticed a man looking at her, and she was herself again and the universe was itself again. She had a sensation of warmth and heavenly reassurance, just as though she had drunk an anisette or a creme de menthe. Her features took on an innocent expression; the characteristic puckering of the brows denoted not discontent, but a gentle concern for the whole world and also virginal curiosity. The man passed her. She did not stir. Presently he emerged afresh out of the moving knots of promenaders and discreetly approached her. She did not smile, but her eyes lighted with a faint amiable benevolence—scarcely perceptible, doubtful, deniable even, but enough. The man stopped. She at once gave a frank, kind smile, which changed all her face. He raised his hat an inch or so. She liked men to raise their hats. Clearly he was a gentleman of means, though in morning dress. His cigar had a very fine aroma. She classed him in half a second and was happy. He spoke to her in French, with a slight, unmistakable English accent, but very good, easy, conversational French—French French. She responded almost ecstatically:
"Ah, you speak French!"
She was too excited to play the usual comedy, so flattering to most Englishmen, of pretending that she thought from his speech that he was a Frenchman. The French so well spoken from a man's mouth in London most marvellously enheartened her and encouraged her in the perilous enterprise of her career. She was candidly grateful to him for speaking French.
He said after a moment:
"You have not at all a fatigued air, but would it not be preferable to sit down?"
A man of the world! He could phrase his politeness. Ah! There were none like an Englishman of the world. Frenchmen, delightfully courteous up to a point, were unsatisfactory past that point. Frenchmen of the south were detestable, and she hated them.
"You have not been in London long?" said the man, leading her away to the lounge.
She observed then that, despite his national phlegm, he was in a state of rather intense excitation. Luck! Enormous luck! And also an augury for the future! She was professing in London for the first time in her life; she had not been in the Promenade for five minutes; and lo! the ideal admirer. For he was not young. What a fine omen for her profound mysticism and superstitiousness!
Her flat was in Cork Street. As soon as they entered it the man remarked on its warmth and its cosiness, so agreeable after the November streets. Christine only smiled. It was a long, narrow flat—a small sitting-room with a piano and a sideboard, opening into a larger bedroom shaped like a thick L. The short top of the L, not cut off from the rest of the room, was installed as a cabinet de toilette, but it had a divan. From the divan, behind which was a heavily curtained window, you could see right through the flat to the curtained window of the sitting-room. All the lights were softened by paper shades of a peculiar hot tint between Indian red and carmine, giving a rich, romantic effect to the gleaming pale enamelled furniture, and to the voluptuous engravings after Sir Frederick Leighton, and the sweet, sentimental engravings after Marcus Stone, and to the assorted knicknacks. The flat had homogeneity, for everything in it, except the stove, had been bought at one shop in Tottenham Court Road by a landlord who knew his business. The stove, which was large, stood in the bedroom fireplace, and thence radiated celestial comfort and security throughout the home; the stove was the divinity of the home and Christine the priestess; she had herself bought the stove, and she understood its personality—it was one of your finite gods.
"Will you take something?" she asked, the hostess.
Whisky and a siphon and glasses were on the sideboard.
"Oh no, thanks!"
"Not even a cigarette?" Holding out the box and looking up at him, she appealed with a long, anxious glance that he should honour her cigarettes.
"Thank you!" he said. "I should like a cigarette very much."
She lit a match for him.
"But you—do you not smoke?"
"Try one of mine—for a change."
He produced a long, thin gold cigarette-case, stuffed with cigarettes.
She lit a cigarette from his.
"Oh!" she cried after a few violent puffs. "I like enormously your cigarettes. Where are they to be found?"
"Look!" said he. "I will put these few in your box." And he poured twenty cigarettes into an empty compartment of the box, which was divided into two.
"Not all!" she protested.
"But I say NO!" she insisted with a gesture suddenly firm, and put a single cigarette back into his case and shut the case with a snap, and herself returned it to his pocket. "One ought never to be without a cigarette."
"You understand life.... How nice it is here!" He looked about and then sighed.
"But why do you sigh?"
"Sigh of content! I was just thinking this place would be something else if an English girl had it. It is curious, lamentable, that English girls understand nothing—certainly not love."
"As for that, I've always heard so."
"They understand nothing. Not even warmth. One is cold in their rooms."
"As for that—I mean warmth—one may say that I understand it; I do."
"You understand more than warmth. What is your name?"
She was the accidental daughter of a daughter of joy. The mother, as frequently happens in these cases, dreamed of perfect respectability for her child and kept Christine in the country far away in Paris, meaning to provide a good dowry in due course. At forty-two she had not got the dowry together, nor even begun to get it together, and she was ill. Feckless, dilatory and extravagant, she saw as in a vision her own shortcomings and how they might involve disaster for Christine. Christine, she perceived, was a girl imperfectly educated—for in the affair of Christine's education the mother had not aimed high enough—indolent, but economical, affectionate, and with a very great deal of temperament. Actuated by deep maternal solicitude, she brought her daughter back to Paris, and had her inducted into the profession under the most decent auspices. At nineteen Christine's second education was complete. Most of it the mother had left to others, from a sense of propriety. But she herself had instructed Christine concerning the five great plagues of the profession. And also she had adjured her never to drink alcohol save professionally, never to invest in anything save bonds of the City of Paris, never to seek celebrity, which according to the mother meant ultimate ruin, never to mix intimately with other women. She had expounded the great theory that generosity towards men in small things is always repaid by generosity in big things—and if it is not the loss is so slight! And she taught her the fundamental differences between nationalities. With a Russian you had to eat, drink and listen. With a German you had to flatter, and yet adroitly insert, "Do not imagine that I am here for the fun of the thing." With an Italian you must begin with finance. With a Frenchman you must discuss finance before it is too late. With an Englishman you must talk, for he will not, but in no circumstances touch finance until he has mentioned it. In each case there was a risk, but the risk should be faced. The course of instruction finished, Christine's mother had died with a clear conscience and a mind consoled.
Said Christine, conversational, putting the question that lips seemed then to articulate of themselves in obedience to its imperious demand for utterance:
"How long do you think the war will last?"
The man answered with serenity: "The war has not begun yet."
"How English you are! But all the same, I ask myself whether you would say that if you had seen Belgium. I came here from Ostend last month." The man gazed at her with new vivacious interest.
"So it is like that that you are here!"
"But do not let us talk about it," she added quickly with a mournful smile.
"No, no!" he agreed.... "I see you have a piano. I expect you are fond of music."
"Ah!" she exclaimed in a fresh, relieved tone. "Am I fond of it! I adore it, quite simply. Do play for me. Play a boston—a two-step."
"I can't," he said.
"But you play. I am sure of it."
"And you?" he parried.
She made a sad negative sign.
"Well, I'll play something out of The Rosenkavalier."
"Ah! But you are a musician!" She amiably scrutinised him. "And yet—no."
Smiling, he, too, made a sad negative sign.
"The waltz out of The Rosenkavalier, eh?"
"Oh, yes! A waltz. I prefer waltzes to anything."
As soon as he had played a few bars she passed demurely out of the sitting-room, through the main part of the bedroom into the cabinet de toilette. She moved about in the cabinet de toilette thinking that the waltz out of The Rosenkavalier was divinely exciting. The delicate sound of her movements and the plash of water came to him across the bedroom. As he played he threw a glance at her now and then; he could see well enough, but not very well because the smoke of the shortening cigarette was in his eyes.
She returned at length into the sitting-room, carrying a small silk bag about five inches by three. The waltz finished.
"But you'll take cold!" he murmured.
"No. At home I never take cold. Besides—"
Smiling at him as he swung round on the music-stool, she undid the bag, and drew from it some folded stuff which she slowly shook out, rather in the manner of a conjurer, until it was revealed as a full-sized kimono. She laughed.
"Is it not marvellous?"
"That is what I wear. In the way of chiffons it is the only fantasy I have bought up to the present in London. Of course, clothes—I have been forced to buy clothes. It matches exquisitely the stockings, eh?"
She slid her arms into the sleeves of the transparency. She was a pretty and highly developed girl of twenty-six, short, still lissom, but with the fear of corpulence in her heart. She had beautiful hair and beautiful eyes, and she had that pucker of the forehead denoting, according to circumstances, either some kindly, grave preoccupation or a benevolent perplexity about something or other.
She went near him and clasped hands round his neck, and whispered:
"Your waltz was adorable. You are an artist."
And with her shoulders she seemed to sketch the movements of dancing.
After putting on his thick overcoat and one glove he had suddenly darted to the dressing-table for his watch, which he was forgetting. Christine's face showed sympathetic satisfaction that he had remembered in time, simultaneously implying that even if he had not remembered, the watch would have been perfectly safe till he called for it. The hour was five minutes to midnight. He was just going. Christine had dropped a little batch of black and red Treasury notes on to the dressing-table with an indifferent if not perhaps an impatient air, as though she held these financial sequels to be a stain on the ideal, a tedious necessary, a nuisance, or simply negligible.
She kissed him goodbye, and felt agreeably fragile and soft within the embrace of his huge, rough overcoat. And she breathed winningly, delicately, apologetically into his ear:
"Thou wilt give something to the servant?" Her soft eyes seemed to say, "It is not for myself that I am asking, is it?"
He made an easy philanthropic gesture to indicate that the servant would have no reason to regret his passage.
He opened the door into the little hall, where the fat Italian maid was yawning in an atmosphere comparatively cold, and then, in a change of purpose, he shut the door again.
"You do not know how I knew you could not have been in London very long," he said confidentially.
"Because I saw you in Paris one night in July—at the Marigny Theatre."
"Not at the Marigny."
"Yes. The Marigny."
"It is true. I recall it. I wore white and a yellow stole."
"Yes. You stood on the seat at the back of the Promenade to see a contortionist girl better, and then you jumped down. I thought you were delicious—quite delicious."
"Thou flatterest me. Thou sayest that to flatter me."
"No, no. I assure you I went to the Marigny every night for five nights afterwards in order to find you."
"But the Marigny is not my regular music-hall. Olympia is my regular music-hall."
"I went to Olympia and all the other halls, too, each night."
"Ah, yes! Then I must have left Paris. But why, my poor friend, why didst thou not speak to me at the Marigny? I was alone."
"I don't know. I hesitated. I suppose I was afraid."
"So to-night I was terribly content to meet you. When I saw that it was really you I could not believe my eyes."
She understood now his agitation on first accosting her in the Promenade. The affair very pleasantly grew more serious for her. She liked him. He had nice eyes. He was fairly tall and broadly built, but not a bit stout. Neither dark nor blond. Not handsome, and yet ... beneath a certain superficial freedom, he was reserved. He had beautiful manners. He was refined, and he was refined in love; and yet he knew something. She very highly esteemed refinement in a man. She had never met a refined woman, and was convinced that few such existed. Of course he was rich. She could be quite sure, from his way of handling money, that he was accustomed to handling money. She would swear he was a bachelor merely on the evidence of his eyes.... Yes, the affair had lovely possibilities. Afraid to speak to her, and then ran round Paris after her for five nights! Had he, then, had the lightning-stroke from her? It appeared so. And why not? She was not like other girls, and this she had always known. She did precisely the same things as other girls did. True. But somehow, subtly, inexplicably, when she did them they were not the same things. The proof: he, so refined and distinguished himself, had felt the difference. She became very tender.
"To think," she murmured, "that only on that one night in all my life did I go to the Marigny! And you saw me!"
The coincidence frightened her—she might have missed this nice, dependable, admiring creature for ever. But the coincidence also delighted her, strengthening her superstition. The hand of destiny was obviously in this affair. Was it not astounding that on one night of all nights he should have been at the Marigny? Was it not still more astounding that on one night of all nights he should have been in the Promenade in Leicester Square?... The affair was ordained since before the beginning of time. Therefore it was serious.
"Ah, my friend!" she said. "If only you had spoken to me that night at the Marigny, you might have saved me from troubles frightful—fantastic."
He had confided in her—and at the right moment. With her human lore she could not have respected a man who had begun by admitting to a strange and unproved woman that for five days and nights he had gone mad about her. To do so would have been folly on his part. But having withheld his wild secret, he had charmingly showed, by the gesture of opening and then shutting the door, that at last it was too strong for his control. Such candour deserved candour in return. Despite his age, he looked just then attractively, sympathetically boyish. He was a benevolent creature. The responsive kindliness of his enquiring "How?" was beyond question genuine. Once more, in the warm and dark-glowing comfort of her home, the contrast between the masculine, thick rough overcoat and the feminine, diaphanous, useless kimono appealed to her soul. It seemed to justify, even to call for, confidence from her to him.
The Italian woman behind the door coughed impatiently and was not heard.
In July she had gone to Ostend with an American. A gentleman, but mad. One of those men with a fixed idea that everything would always be all right and that nothing really and permanently uncomfortable could possibly happen. A very fair man, with red hair, and radiating wrinkles all round his eyes—phenomenon due to his humorous outlook on the world. He laughed at her because she travelled with all her bonds of the City of Paris on her person. He had met her one night, and the next morning suggested the Ostend excursion. Too sudden, too capricious, of course; but she had always desired to see the cosmopolitanism of Ostend. Trouville she did not like, as you had sand with every meal if you lived near the front. Hotel Astoria at Ostend. Complete flat in the hotel. Very chic. The red-haired one, the rouquin, had broad ideas, very broad ideas, of what was due to a woman. In fact, one might say that he carried generosity in details to excess. But naturally with Americans it was necessary to be surprised at nothing. The rouquin said steadily that war would not break out. He said so until the day on which it broke out. He then became a Turk. Yes, a Turk. He assumed rights over her, the rights of protection, but very strange rights. He would not let her try to return to Paris. He said the Germans might get to Paris, but to Ostend, never—because of the English! Difficult to believe, but he had locked her up in the complete flat. The Ostend season had collapsed—pluff—like that. The hotel staff vanished almost entirely. One or two old fat Belgian women on the bedroom floors—that seemed to be all. The rouquin was exquisitely polite, but very firm. In fine, he was a master. It was astonishing what he did. They were the sole remaining guests in the Astoria. And they remained because he refused to permit the management to turn him out. Weeks passed. Yes, weeks. English forces came to Ostend. Marvellous. Among nations there was none like the English. She did not see them herself. She was ill. The rouquin had told her that she was ill when she was not ill, but lo! the next day she was ill—oh, a long time. The rouquin told her the news—battle of the Marne and all species of glorious deeds. An old fat Belgian told her a different kind of news. The stories of the fall of Liege, Namur, Brussels, Antwerp. The massacres at Aerschot, at Louvain. Terrible stories that travelled from mouth to mouth among women. There was always rape and blood and filth mingled. Stories of a frightful fascination ... unrepeatable! Ah!
The rouquin had informed her one day that the Belgian Government had come to Ostend. Proof enough, according to him, that Ostend could not be captured by the Germans! After that he had said nothing about the Belgian Government for many days. And then one day he had informed her casually that the Belgian Government was about to leave Ostend by steamer. But days earlier the old fat woman had told her that the German staff had ordered seventy-five rooms at the Hotel des Postes at Ghent. Seventy-five rooms. And that in the space of a few hours Ghent had become a city of the dead.... Thousands of refugees in Ostend. Thousands of escaped virgins. Thousands of wounded soldiers. Often, the sound of guns all day and all night. And in the daytime occasionally, a sharp sound, very loud; that meant that a German aeroplane was over the town—killing ... Plenty to kill. Ostend was always full, behind the Digue, and yet people were always leaving—by steamer. Steamers taken by assault. At first there had been formalities, permits, passports. But when one steamer had been taken by assault—no more formalities! In trying to board the steamers people were drowned. They fell into the water and nobody troubled—so said the old woman. Christine was better; desired to rise. The rouquin said No, not yet. He would believe naught. And now he believed one thing, and it filled his mind—that German submarines sank all refugee ships in the North Sea. Proof of the folly of leaving Ostend. Yet immediately afterwards he came and told her to get up. That is to say, she had been up for several days, but not outside. He told her to come away, come away. She had only summer clothes, and it was mid-October. What a climate, Ostend in October! The old woman said that thousands of parcels of clothes for refugees had been sent by generous England. She got a parcel; she had means of getting it. She opened it with pride in the bedroom of the flat. It contained eight corsets and a ball-dress. A droll race, all the same, the English. Had they no imagination? But, no doubt, society women were the same everywhere. It was notorious that in France....
Christine went forth in her summer clothes. The rouquin had got an old horse-carriage. He gave her much American money—or, rather, cheques—which, true enough, she had since cashed with no difficulty in London. They had to leave the carriage. The station square was full of guns and women and children and bundles. Yes, together with a few men. She spent the whole night in the station square with the rouquin, in her summer clothes and his overcoat. At six o'clock in the evening it was already dark. A night interminable. Babies crying. One heard that at the other end of the square a baby had been born. She, Christine, sat next to a young mother with a baby. Both mother and baby had the right arm bandaged. They had both been shot through the arm with the same bullet. It was near Aerschot. The young woman also told her.... No, she could not relate that to an Englishman. Happily it did not rain. But the wind and the cold! In the morning the rouquin put her on to a fishing-vessel. She had nothing but her bonds of the City of Paris and her American cheques. The crush was frightful. The captain of the fishing-vessel, however, comprehended what discipline was. He made much money. The rouquin would not come. He said he was an American citizen and had all his papers. For the rest, the captain would not let him come, though doubtless the captain could have been bribed. As they left the harbour, with other trawlers, they could see the quays all covered with the disappointed, waiting. Somebody in the boat said that the Germans had that morning reached—She forgot the name of the place, but it was the next village to Ostend on the Bruges road. Thus Christine parted from the rouquin. Mad! Always wrong, even about the German submarines. But chic. Truly chic.
What a voyage! What adventures with the charitable people in England! People who resembled nothing else on earth! People who did not understand what life was.... No understanding of that which it is—life! In fine ...! However, she should stay in England. It was the only country in which one could have confidence. She was trying to sell the furniture of her flat in Paris. Complications! Under the emergency law she was not obliged to pay her rent to the landlord; but if she removed her furniture then she would have to pay the rent. What did it matter, though? Besides, she might not be able to sell her furniture after all. Remarkably few women in Paris at that moment were in a financial state to buy furniture. Ah no!
"But I have not told you the tenth part!" said Christine.
"Terrible! Terrible!" murmured the man.
All the heavy sorrow of the world lay on her puckered brow, and floated in her dark glistening eyes. Then she smiled, sadly but with courage.
"I will come to see you again," said the man comfortingly. "Are you here in the afternoons?"
"Every afternoon, naturally."
"Well, I will come—not to-morrow—the day after to-morrow."
Already, long before, interrupting the buttoning of his collar, she had whispered softly, persuasively, clingingly, in the classic manner:
"Thou art content, cheri? Thou wilt return?"
And he had said: "That goes without saying."
But not with quite the same conviction as he now used in speaking definitely of the afternoon of the day after to-morrow. The fact was, he was moved; she too. She had been right not to tell the story earlier, and equally right to tell it before he departed. Some men, most men, hated to hear any tale of real misfortune, at any moment, from a woman, because, of course, it diverted their thoughts.
In thus departing at once the man showed characteristic tact. Her recital left nothing to be said. They kissed again, rather like comrades. Christine was still the vessel of the heavy sorrow of the world, but in the kiss and in their glances was an implication that the effective, triumphant antidote to sorrow might be found in a mutual trust. He opened the door. The Italian woman, yawning and with her hand open, was tenaciously waiting.
Alone, carefully refolding the kimono in its original creases, Christine wondered what the man's name was. She felt that the mysterious future might soon disclose a germ of happiness.
G.J. Hoape—He was usually addressed as "G.J." by his friends, and always referred to as "G.J." by both friends and acquaintances—woke up finally in the bedroom of his flat with the thought:
"To-day I shall see her."
He inhabited one of the three flats at the extreme northern end of the Albany, Piccadilly, W.I. The flat was strangely planned. Its shape as a whole was that of a cube. Imagine the cube to be divided perpendicularly into two very unequal parts. The larger part, occupying nearly two-thirds of the entire cubic space, was the drawing-room, a noble chamber, large and lofty. The smaller part was cut horizontally into two storeys. The lower storey comprised a very small hall, a fair bathroom, the tiniest staircase in London, and G.J.'s very small bedroom. The upper storey comprised a very small dining-room, the kitchen, and servants' quarters.
The door between the bedroom and the drawing room, left open in the night for ventilation, had been softly closed as usual during G.J.'s final sleep, and the bedroom was in absolute darkness save for a faint grey gleam over the valance of the window curtains. G.J. could think. He wondered whether he was in love. He hoped he was in love, and the fact that the woman who attracted him was a courtesan did not disturb him in the least.
He was nearing fifty years of age. He had casually known hundreds of courtesans in sundry capitals, a few of them very agreeable; also a number of women calling themselves, sometimes correctly, actresses, all of whom, for various reasons which need not be given, had proved very unsatisfactory. But he had never loved—unless it might be, mildly, Concepcion, and Concepcion was now a war bride. He wanted to love. He had never felt about any woman, not even about Concepcion, as he felt about the woman seen for a few minutes at the Marigny Theatre and then for five successive nights vainly searched for in all the chief music-halls of Paris. (A nice name, Christine! It suited her.) He had given her up—never expected to catch sight of her again; but she had remained a steadfast memory, sad and charming. The encounter in the Promenade in Leicester Square was such a piece of heavenly and incredible luck that it had, at the moment, positively made him giddy. The first visit to Christine's flat had beatified and stimulated him. Would the second? Anyhow, she was the most alluring woman—and yet apparently of dependable character!—he had ever met. No other consideration counted with him.
There was a soft knock; the door was pushed, and wavy reflections of the drawing-room fire played on the corner of the bedroom ceiling. Mrs. Braiding came in. G.J. had known it was she by the caressing quality of the knock. Mrs. Braiding was his cook and the wife of his "man". It was not her place to come in, but occasionally, because something had happened to Braiding, she did come in. She drew the curtains apart, and the day of Vigo Street, pale, dirty, morose, feebly and perfunctorily took possession of the bedroom. Mrs. Braiding, having drawn the curtains, returned to the door and from the doorway said:
"Breakfast is practically ready, sir."
G.J. perceived that this was one of her brave, resigned mornings. Since August she had borne the entire weight of the war on her back, and sometimes the burden would overpower her, but never quite. G.J. switched on the light, arose from his bed, assumed his dressing-gown, and, gazing with accustomed pleasure round the bedroom, saw that it was perfect.
He had furnished his flat in the Regency style of the first decade of the nineteenth century, as matured by George Smith, "upholder extraordinary to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales". The Pavilion at Brighton had given the original idea to G.J., who saw in it the solution of the problem of combining the somewhat massive dignity suitable to a bachelor of middling age with the bright, unconquerable colours which the eternal twilight of London demands.
His dome bed was yellow as to its upper works, with crimson valances above and yellow valances below. The yellow-lined crimson curtains (of course never closed) had green cords and tassels, and the counterpane was yellow. This bed was a modest sample of the careful and uncompromising reconstitution of a period which he had everywhere carried out in his abode.
The drawing-room, with its moulded ceiling and huge recessed window, had presented an admirable field for connoisseurship. Here the clash of rich primary colours, the perpendiculars which began with bronze girls' heads and ended with bronze girls' feet or animals' claws, the vast flat surfaces of furniture, the stiff curves of wood and a drapery, the morbid rage for solidity which would employ a candelabrum weighing five hundredweight to hold a single wax candle, produced a real and imposing effect of style; it was a style debased, a style which was shedding the last graces of French Empire in order soon to appeal to a Victoria determined to be utterly English and good; but it was a style. And G.J. had scamped no detail. Even the pictures were hung with thick tasselled cords of the Regency. The drawing-room was a triumph.
Do not conceive that G.J. had lost his head about furniture and that his notion of paradise was an endless series of second-hand shops. He had an admirable balance; and he held that a man might make a faultless interior for himself and yet not necessarily lose his balance. He resented being called a specialist in furniture. He regarded himself as an amateur of life, and, if a specialist in anything, as a specialist in friendships. Yet he was a solitary man (liking solitude without knowing that he liked it), and in the midst of the perfections which he had created he sometimes gloomily thought: "What in the name of God am I doing on this earth?"
He went into the drawing-room, and there, by the fire and in front of a formidable blue chair whose arms developed into the grinning heads of bronze lions, stood the lacquered table consecrated to his breakfast tray; and his breakfast tray, with newspaper and correspondence, had been magically placed thereon as though by invisible hands. And on one arm of the easy-chair lay the rug which, because a dressing-gown does not button all the way down, he put over his knees while breakfasting in winter. Yes, he admitted with pleasure that he was "well served". Before eating he opened the piano—a modern instrument concealed in an ingeniously confected Regency case—and played with taste a Bach prelude and fugue.
His was not the standardised and habituated kind of musical culture which takes a Bach prelude and fugue every morning before breakfast with or without a glass of Lithia water or fizzy saline. He did, however, customarily begin the day at the piano, and on this particular morning he happened to play a Bach prelude and fugue.
And as he played he congratulated himself on not having gone to seek Christine in the Promenade on the previous night, as impatience had tempted him to do. Such a procedure would have been an error in worldliness and bad from every point of view. He had wisely rejected the temptation.
In the deep blue arm-chair, with the rug over his knees and one hand on a lion's head, he glanced first at the opened Times, because of the war. Among the few letters was one with the heading of the Reveille Motor Horn Company Ltd.
G.J. like his father, had been a solicitor. When he was twenty-five his father, a widower, had died and left him a respectable fortune and a very good practice. He sold half the practice to an incoming partner, and four years later he sold the other half of the practice to the same man. At thirty he was free, and this result had been attained through his frank negative answer to the question, "The law bores me—is there any reason why I should let it continue to bore me?" There was no reason. Instead of the law he took up life. Of business preoccupations naught remained but his investments. He possessed a gift for investing money. He had helped the man who had first put the Reveille Motor Horn on the market. He had had a mighty holding of shares in the Reveille Syndicate Limited, which had so successfully promoted the Reveille Motor Horn Company Limited. And in the latter, too, he held many shares. The Reveille Motor Horn Company had prospered and had gone into the manufacture of speedometers, illuminating outfits, and all manner of motor-car accessories.
On the outbreak of war G.J. had given himself up for lost. "This is the end," he had said, as a member of the sore-shaken investing public. He had felt sick under the region of the heart. In particular he had feared for his Reveille shares. No one would want to buy expensive motor horns in the midst of the greatest war that the world, etc., etc.
Still the Reveille Company, after sustaining the shock, had somehow continued to do a pretty good business. It had patriotically offered its plant and services to the War Office, and had been repulsed with contumely and ignominy. The War Office had most caustically intimated to the Reveille Company that it had no use and never under any conceivable circumstances could have any use whatever for the Reveille Company, and that the Reveille Company was a forward and tedious jackanapes, unworthy even of an articulate rebuff. Now the autograph letter with the Reveille note-heading was written by the managing director (who represented G.J.'s interests on the Board), and it stated that the War Office had been to the Reveille Company, and implored it to enlarge itself, and given it vast orders at grand prices for all sorts of things that it had never made before. The profits of 1915 would be doubled, if not trebled—perhaps quadrupled. G.J. was relieved, uplifted; and he sniggered at his terrible forebodings of August and September. Ruin? He was actually going to make money out of the greatest war that the world, etc. etc. And why not? Somebody had to make money, and somebody had to pay for the war in income tax. For the first time the incubus of the war seemed lighter upon G.J. And also he need feel no slightest concern about the financial aspect of any possible developments of the Christine adventure. He had a very clear and undeniable sensation of positive happiness.
FOR THE EMPIRE
Mrs. Braiding came into the drawing-room, and he wondered, paternally, why she was so fidgety and why her tranquillising mate had not appeared. To the careless observer she was a cheerful woman, but the temple of her brightness was reared over a dark and frightful crypt in which the demons of doubt, anxiety, and despair year after year dragged at their chains, intimidating hope. Slender, small, and neat, she passed her life in bravely fronting the shapes of disaster with an earnest, vivacious, upturned face. She was thirty-five, and her aspect recalled the pretty, respected lady's-maid which she had been before Braiding got her and knocked some nonsense out of her and turned her into a wife.
G.J., still paternally, but firmly, took her up at once.
"I say, Mrs. Braiding, what about this dish-cover?"
He lifted the article, of which the copper was beginning to show through the Sheffield plating.
"Yes sir. It does look rather impoverished, doesn't it?"
"But I told Braiding to use the new toast-dish I bought last week but one."
"Did you, sir? I was very happy about the new one as soon as I saw it, but Braiding never gave me your instructions in regard to it." She glanced at the cabinet in which the new toast-dish reposed with other antique metal-work. "Braiding's been rather upset this last few days, sir."
"This recruiting, sir. Of course, you are aware he's decided on it."
"I'm not aware of anything of the sort," said G.J. rather roughly, perhaps to hide his sudden emotion, perhaps to express his irritation at Mrs. Braiding's strange habit of pretending that the most startling pieces of news were matters of common knowledge.
"Well, sir, of course you were out most of yesterday, and you dined at the club. Braiding attended at a recruiting office yesterday, sir. He stood three hours in the crowd outside because there was no room inside, and then he stood over two hours in a passage inside before his turn came, and nothing to eat all day, or drink either. And when his turn came and they asked him his age, he said 'thirty-six,' and the person was very angry and said he hadn't any time to waste, and Braiding had better go outside again and consider whether he hadn't made a mistake about his age. So Braiding went outside and considered that his age was only thirty-three after all, but he couldn't get in again, not by any means, so he just came back here and I gave him a good tea, and he needed it, sir."
"But he saw me last night, and he never said anything!"
"Yes, sir," Mrs. Braiding admitted with pain. "I asked him if he had told you, and he said he hadn't and that I must."
"Where is he now?"
"He went off early, sir, so as to get a good place. I shouldn't be a bit surprised if he's in the army by this time. I know it's not the right way of going about things, and Braiding's only excuse is it's for the Empire. When it's a question of the Empire, sir...." At that instant the white man's burden was Mrs. Braiding's, and the glance of her serious face showed what the crushing strain of it was.
"I think he might have told me."
"Well, sir. I'm very sorry. Very sorry.... But you know what Braiding is."
G.J. felt that that was just what he did not know, or at any rate had not hitherto known. He was hurt by Braiding's conduct. He had always treated Braiding as a friend. They had daily discussed the progress of the war. On the previous night Braiding, in all the customary sedateness of black coat and faintly striped trousers, had behaved just as usual! It was astounding. G.J. began to incline towards the views of certain of his friends about the utter incomprehensibility of the servile classes—views which he had often annoyed them by traversing. Yes; it was astounding. All this martial imperialism seething in the depths of Braiding, and G.J. never suspecting the ferment! Exceedingly difficult to conceive Braiding as a soldier! He was the Albany valet, and Albany valets were Albany valets and naught else.
Mrs. Braiding continued:
"It's very inconsiderate to you, sir. That's a point that is appreciated by both Braiding and I. But let us fervently hope it won't be for long, sir. The consensus of opinion seems to be we shall be in Berlin in the spring. And in the meantime, I think"—she smiled an appeal—"I can manage for you by myself, if you'll be so good as to let me."
"Oh! It's not that," said G.J. carelessly. "I expect you can manage all right."
"Oh!" cried she. "I know how you feel about it, sir, and I'm very sorry. And at best it's bound to be highly inconvenient for a gentleman like yourself, sir. I said to Braiding, 'You're taking advantage of Mr. Hoape's good nature,' that's what I said to Braiding, and he couldn't deny it. However, sir, if you'll be so good as to let me try what I can do by myself—"
"I tell you that'll be all right," he stopped her.
Braiding, his mainstay, was irrevocably gone. He realised that, and it was a severe blow. He must accept it. As for Mrs. Braiding managing, she would manage in a kind of way, but the risks to Regency furniture and china would be grave. She did not understand Regency furniture and china as Braiding did; no woman could. Braiding had been as much a "find" as the dome bed or the unique bookcase which bore the names of "Homer" and "Virgil" in bronze characters on its outer wings. Also, G.J. had a hundred little ways about neckties and about trouser-stretching which he, G.J., would have to teach Mrs. Braiding. Still the war ...
When she was gone he stood up and brushed the crumbs from his dressing-gown, and emitted a short, harsh laugh. He was laughing at himself. Regency furniture and china! Neckties! Trouser-stretching! In the next room was a youngish woman whose minstrel boy to the war had gone—gone, though he might be only in the next street! And had she said a word about her feelings as a wife? Not a word! But dozens of words about the inconvenience to the god-like employer! She had apologised to him because Braiding had departed to save the Empire without first asking his permission. It was not merely astounding—it flabbergasted. He had always felt that there was something fundamentally wrong in the social fabric, and he had long had a preoccupation to the effect that it was his business, his, to take a share in finding out what was wrong and in discovering and applying a cure. This preoccupation had worried him, scarcely perceptibly, like the delicate oncoming of neuralgia. There must be something wrong when a member of one class would behave to a member of another class as Mrs. Braiding behaved to him—without protest from him.
"Mrs. Braiding!" he called out.
"Yes, sir." She almost ran back into the drawing-room.
"When shall you be seeing your husband?" At least he would remind her that she had a husband.
"I haven't an idea, sir."
"Well, when you do, tell him that I want to speak to him; and you can tell him I shall pay you half his wages in addition to your own."
Her gratitude filled him with secret fury.
He said to himself:
"Futile—these grand gestures about wages."
In the very small hall G.J. gazed at himself in the mirror that was nearly as large as the bathroom door, to which it was attached, and which it ingeniously masked.
Although Mrs. Braiding was present, holding his ebony stick, he carefully examined his face and appearance without the slightest self-consciousness. Nor did Mrs. Braiding's demeanour indicate that in her opinion G.J. was behaving in a manner eccentric or incorrect. He was dressed in mourning. Honestly he did not believe that he looked anywhere near fifty. His face was worn by the friction of the world, especially under the eyes, but his eyes were youthful, and his hair and moustache and short, fine beard scarcely tinged with grey. His features showed benevolence, with a certain firmness, and they had the refinement which comes of half a century's instinctive avoidance of excess. Still, he was beginning to feel his age. He moved more slowly; he sat down, instead of standing up, at the dressing-table. And he was beginning also to take a pride in mentioning these changes and in the fact that he would be fifty on his next birthday. And when talking to men under thirty, or even under forty, he would say in a tone mingling condescension and envy: "But, of course, you're young."
He departed, remarking that he should not be in for lunch and might not be in for dinner, and he walked down the covered way to the Albany Courtyard, and was approved by the Albany porters as a resident handsomely conforming to the traditional high standard set by the Albany for its residents. He crossed Piccadilly, and as he did so he saw a couple of jolly fine girls, handsome, stylish, independent of carriage, swinging freely along and intimately talking with that mien of experience and broad-mindedness which some girls manage to wear in the streets. One of them in particular appealed to him. He thought how different they were from Christine. He had dreamt of just such girls as they were, and yet now Christine filled the whole of his mind.
"You can't foresee," he thought.
He dipped down into the extraordinary rectangle of St. James's, where he was utterly at home. A strange architecture, parsimoniously plain on the outside, indeed carrying the Oriental scorn for merely external effect to a point only reachable by a race at once hypocritical and madly proud. The shabby plainness of Wren's church well typified all the parochial parsimony. The despairing architect had been so pinched by his employers in the matter of ornament that on the whole of the northern facade there was only one of his favourite cherub's heads! What a parish!
It was a parish of flat brick walls and brass door-knobs and brass plates. And the first commandment was to polish every brass door-knob and every brass plate every morning. What happened in the way of disfigurement by polishing paste to the surrounding brick or wood had no importance. The conventions of the parish had no eye save for brass door-knobs and brass plates, which were maintained daily in effulgence by a vast early-rising population. Recruiting offices, casualty lists, the rumour of peril and of glory, could do nothing to diminish the high urgency of the polishing of those brass door-knobs and those brass plates.
The shops and offices seemed to show that the wants of customers were few and simple. Grouse moors, fisheries, yachts, valuations, hosiery, neckties, motor-cars, insurance, assurance, antique china, antique pictures, boots, riding-whips, and, above all, Eastern cigarettes! The master-passion was evidently Eastern cigarettes. The few provision shops were marmoreal and majestic, catering as they did chiefly for the multifarious palatial male clubs which dominated the parish and protected and justified the innumerable "bachelor" suites that hung forth signs in every street. The parish, in effect, was first an immense monastery, where the monks, determined to do themselves extremely well in dignified peace, had made a prodigious and not entirely unsuccessful effort to keep out the excitable sex. And, second, it was an excusable conspiracy on the part of intensely respectable tradesmen and stewards to force the non-bargaining sex to pay the highest possible price for the privilege of doing the correct thing.
G.J. passed through the cardiac region of St. James's, the Square itself, where knights, baronets, barons, brewers, viscounts, marquesses, hereditary marshals and chief butlers, dukes, bishops, banks, librarians and Government departments gaze throughout the four seasons at the statue of a Dutchman; and then he found himself at his bootmaker's.
Now, his bootmaker was one of the three first bootmakers in the West End, bearing a name famous from Peru to Hong Kong. An untidy interior, full of old boots and the hides of various animals! A dirty girl was writing in a dirty tome, and a young man was knotting together two pieces of string in order to tie up a parcel. Such was the "note" of the "house". The girl smiled, the young man bowed. In an instant the manager appeared, and G.J. was invested with the attributes of God. He informed the manager with pain, and the manager heard with deep pain, that the left boot of the new pair he then wore was not quite comfortable in the toes. The manager simply could not understand it, just as he simply could not have understood a failure in the working of the law of gravity. And if God had not told him he would not have believed it. He knelt and felt. He would send for the boots. He would make the boots comfortable or he would make a new pair. Expense was nothing. Trouble was nothing. Incidentally he remarked with a sigh that the enormous demand for military boots was rendering it more and more difficult for him to give to old patrons that prompt and plenary attention which he would desire to give. However, God in any case should not suffer. He noticed that the boots were not quite well polished, and he ventured to charge God with hints for God's personal attendant. Then he went swiftly across to a speaking-tube and snapped:
A trap-door opened in the floor of the shop and a horrible, pallid, weak, cringing man came up out of the earth of St. James's, and knelt before God far more submissively than even the manager had knelt. He had brushes and blacking, and he blacked and he brushed and breathed alternately, undoing continually with his breath or his filthy hand what he had done with his brush. He never looked up, never spoke. When he had made the boots like mirrors he gathered together his implements and vanished, silent and dutifully bent, through the trap-door back into the earth of St. James's. And because the trap-door had not shut properly the manager stamped on it and stamped down the pale man definitely into the darkness underneath. And then G.J. was wafted out of the shop with smiles and bows.
The vast "morning-room" of the Monumental Club (pre-eminent among clubs for its architecture) was on the whole tonically chilly. But as one of the high windows stood open, and there were two fires fluttering beneath the lovely marble mantelpieces, between the fires and the window every gradation of temperature could be experienced by the curious. On each wall book-shelves rose to the carved and gilded ceiling. The furlongs of shelves were fitted with majestic volumes containing all the Statutes, all the Parliamentary Debates, and all the Reports of Royal Commissions ever printed to narcotise the conscience of a nation. These calf-bound works were not, in fact, read; but the magnificent pretence of their usefulness was completed by carpeted mahogany ladders which leaned here and there against the shelfing, in accord with the theory that some studious member some day might yearn and aspire to some upper shelf. On reading-stands and on huge mahogany tables were disposed the countless newspapers of Great Britain and Ireland, Europe and America, and also the files of such newspapers. The apparatus of information was complete.
G.J. entered the splendid apartment like a discoverer. It was empty. Not a member; not a servant! It waited, content to be inhabited, equally content with its own solitude. This apartment had made an adjunct even of the war; the function of the war in this apartment was to render it more impressive, to increase, if possible, its importance, for nowhere else could the war be studied so minutely day by day.
A strange thing! G.J.'s sense of duty to himself had been quickened by the defection of his valet. He felt that he had been failing to comprehend in detail the cause and the evolution of the war, and that even his general ideas as to it were inexcusably vague; and he had determined to go every morning to the club, at whatever inconvenience, for the especial purpose of studying and getting the true hang of the supreme topic. As he sat down he was aware of the solemnity of the great room, last fastness of the old strict decorum in the club. You might not smoke in it until after 10 p.m.
Two other members came in immediately, one after the other. The first, a little, very old and very natty man, began to read The Times at a stand. The second, old too, but of larger and firmer build, with a long, clean-shaven upper lip, such as is only developed at the Bar, on the Bench, and in provincial circles of Noncomformity, took an easy-chair and another copy of The Times. A few moments elapsed, and then the little old man glanced round, and, assuming surprise that he had not noticed G.J. earlier, nodded to him with a very bright and benevolent smile.
"Well, Sir Francis, what's your opinion of this Ypres business. Seems pretty complicated, doesn't it?"
Sir Francis answered in a tone whose mild and bland benevolence matched his smile:
"I dare say the complications escape me. I see the affair quite simply. We are holding on, but we cannot continue to hold on. The Germans have more men, far more guns, and infinitely more ammunition. They certainly have not less genius for war. What can be the result? I am told by respectable people that the Germans lost the war at the Marne. I don't appreciate it. I am told that the Germans don't realise the Marne. I think they realise the Marne at least as well as we realise Tannenberg."
The slightly trembling, slightly mincing voice of Sir Francis denoted such detachment, such politeness, such kindliness, that the opinion it emitted seemed to impose itself on G.J. with extraordinary authority. There was a brief pause, and Sir Francis ejaculated:
"What's your view, Bob?"
The other old man now consisted of a newspaper, two seamy hands and a pair of grey legs. His grim voice came from behind the newspaper, which did not move:
"We've no adequate means of judging."
"True," said Sir Francis. "Now, another thing I'm told is that the War Office was perfectly ready for the war on the scale agreed upon for ourselves with France and Russia. I don't appreciate that either. No War Office can be said to be perfectly ready for any war until it has organised its relations with the public which it serves. My belief is that the War Office had never thought for one moment about the military importance of public opinion and the Press. At any rate, it has most carefully left nothing undone to alienate both the public and the Press. My son-in-law has the misfortune to own seven newspapers, and the tales he tells about the antics of the Press Bureau—" Sir Francis smiled the rest of the sentence. "Let me see, they offered the Press Bureau to you, didn't they, Bob?"
The Times fell, disclosing Bob, whose long upper lip grew longer.
"They did," he said. "I made a few inquiries, and found it was nothing but a shuttlecock of the departments. I should have had no real power, but unlimited quantities of responsibility. So I respectfully refused."
Sir Francis remarked:
"Your hearing's much better, Bob."
"It is," answered Bob. "The fact is, I got hold of a marvellous feller at Birmingham." He laughed sardonically. "I hope to go down to history as the first judge that ever voluntarily retired because of deafness. And now, thanks to this feller at Birmingham, I can hear better than seventy-five per cent of the Bench. The Lord Chancellor gave me a hint I might care to return, and so save a pension to the nation. I told him I'd begin to think about that when he'd persuaded the Board of Works to ventilate my old Court." He laughed again. "And now I see the Press Bureau is enunciating the principle that it won't permit criticism that might in any way weaken the confidence of the people in the administration of affairs."
Bob opened his mouth wide and kept it open.
Sir Francis, with no diminution of the mild and bland benevolence of his detachment, said:
"The voice is the Press Bureau's voice, but the hands are the hands of the War Office. Can we reasonably hope to win, or not to lose, with such a mentality at the head? I cannot admit that the War Office has changed in the slightest degree in a hundred years. From time to time a brainy civilian walks in, like Cardwell or Haldane, and saves it from becoming patently ridiculous. But it never really alters. When I was War Secretary in a transient government it was precisely the same as it had been in the reign of the Duke of Cambridge, and to-day it is still precisely the same. I am told that Haldane succeeded in teaching our generals the value of Staff work as distinguished from dashing cavalry charges. I don't appreciate that. The Staffs are still wide open to men with social influence and still closed to men without social influence. My grandson is full of great modern notions about tactics. He may have talent for all I know. He got a Staff appointment—because he came to me and I spoke ten words to an old friend of mine with oak leaves in the club next door but one. No questions asked. I mean no serious questions. It was done to oblige me—the very existence of the Empire being at stake, according to all accounts. So that I venture to doubt whether we're going to hold Ypres, or anything else."
Bob, unimpressed by the speech, burst out:
"You've got the perspective wrong. Obviously the centre of gravity is no longer in the West—it's in the East. In the West, roughly, equilibrium has been established. Hence Poland is the decisive field, and the measure of the Russian success or failure is the measure of the Allied success or failure."
Sir Francis inquired with gentle joy:
"Then we're all right? The Russians have admittedly recovered from Tannenberg. If there is any truth in a map they are doing excellently. They're more brilliant than Potsdam, and they can put two men into the field to the Germans' one—two and a half in fact."
Bob fiercely rumbled:
"I don't think we're all right. This habit of thinking in men is dangerous. What are men without munitions? And without a clean administration? Nothing but a rabble. It is notorious that the Russians are running short of munitions and that the administration from top to bottom consists of outrageous rascals. Moreover I see to-day a report that the Germans have won a big victory at Kutno. I've been expecting that. That's the beginning—mark me!"
"Yes," Sir Francis cheerfully agreed. "Yes. We're spending one million a day, and now income tax is doubled! The country cannot stand it indefinitely, and since our only hope lies in our being able to stand it indefinitely, there is no hope—at any rate for unbiased minds. Facts are facts, I fear."
Bob cried impatiently:
"Unbiased be damned! I don't want to be unbiased. I won't be. I had enough of being unbiased when I was on the Bench, and I don't care what any of you unbiased people say—I believe we shall win."
G.J. suddenly saw a boy in the old man, and suddenly he too became boyish, remembering what he had said to Christine about the war not having begun yet; and with fervour he concurred:
"So do I."
He rose, moved—relieved after a tension which he had not noticed until it was broken. It was time for him to go. The two old men were recalled to the fact of his presence. Bob raised the newspaper again.
Sir Francis asked:
"Are you going to the—er—affair in the City?"
"Yes," said G.J. with careful unconcern.
"I had thought of going. My granddaughter worried me till I consented to take her. I got two tickets; but no sooner had I arrayed myself this morning than she rang me up to say that her baby was teething and she couldn't leave it. In view of this important creature's indisposition I sent the tickets back to the Dean and changed my clothes. Great-grandfathers have to be philosophers. I say, Hoape, they tell me you play uncommonly good auction bridge."
"I play," said G.J. modestly. "But no better than I ought."
"You might care to make a fourth this afternoon, in the card-room."
"I should have been delighted to, but I've got one of these war-committees at six o'clock." Again he spoke with careful unconcern, masking a considerable self-satisfaction.
The great dim place was full, but crowding had not been permitted. With a few exceptions in the outlying parts, everybody had a seat. G.J. was favourably placed for seeing the whole length of the interior. Accustomed to the restaurants of fashionable hotels, auction-rooms, theatrical first-nights, the haunts of sport, clubs, and courts of justice, he soon perceived, from the numerous samples which he himself was able to identify, that all the London worlds were fully represented in the multitude—the official world, the political, the clerical, the legal, the municipal, the military, the artistic, the literary, the dilettante, the financial, the sporting, and the world whose sole object in life apparently is to be observed and recorded at all gatherings to which admittance is gained by privilege and influence alone.
There were in particular women the names and countenances and family history of whom were familiar to hundreds of thousands of illustrated-newspaper readers, even in the most distant counties, and who never missed what was called a "function," whether "brilliant," "exclusive," or merely scandalous. At murder trials, at the sales of art collections, at the birth of musical comedies, at boxing matches, at historic debates, at receptions in honour of the renowned, at luscious divorce cases, they were surely present, and the entire Press surely noted that they were present. And if executions had been public, they would in the same religious spirit have attended executions, rousing their maids at milkmen's hours in order that they might assume the right cunning frock to fit the occasion. And they were here. And no one could divine why or how, or to what eternal end.
G.J. hated them, and he hated the solemn self-satisfaction that brooded over the haughty faces of the throng. He hated himself for having accepted a ticket from the friend in the War Office who was now sitting next to him. And yet he was pleased, too. A disturbed conscience could not defeat the instinct which bound him to the whole fashionable and powerful assemblage. For ever afterwards, to his dying hour, he could say—casually, modestly, as a matter of course, but he could still say—that he had been there. The Lord Mayor and Sheriffs, tradesmen glittering like Oriental potentates, passed slowly across his field of vision. He thought with contempt of the City, living ghoulish on the buried past, and obstinately and humanly refusing to make a pile of its putrefying interests, set fire to it, and perish thereon.
The music began. It was the Dead March in Saul. The long-rolling drums suddenly rent the soul, and destroyed every base and petty thought that was there. Clergy, headed by a bishop, were walking down the cathedral. At the huge doors, nearly lost in the heavy twilight of November noon, they stopped, turned and came back. The coffin swayed into view, covered with the sacred symbolic bunting, and borne on the shoulders of eight sergeants of the old regiments of the dead man. Then followed the pall-bearers—five field-marshals, five full generals, and two admirals; aged men, and some of them had reached the highest dignity without giving a single gesture that had impressed itself on the national mind; nonentities, apotheosised by seniority; and some showed traces of the bitter rain that was falling in the fog outside. Then the Primate. Then the King, who had supervened from nowhere, the magic production of chamberlains and comptrollers. The procession, headed by the clergy, moved slowly, amid the vistas ending in the dull burning of stained glass, through the congregation in mourning and in khaki, through the lines of yellow-glowing candelabra, towards the crowd of scarlet under the dome; the summit of the dome was hidden in soft mist. The music became insupportable in its sublimity.
G.J. was afraid, and he did not immediately know why he was afraid. The procession came nearer. It was upon him.... He knew why he was afraid, and he averted sharply his gaze from the coffin. He was afraid for his composure. If he had continued to watch the coffin he would have burst into loud sobs. Only by an extraordinary effort did he master himself. Many other people lowered their faces in self-defence. The searchers after new and violent sensations were having the time of their lives.
The Dead March with its intolerable genius had ceased. The coffin, guarded by flickering candles, lay on the lofty catafalque; the eight sergeants were pretending that their strength had not been in the least degree taxed. Princes, the illustrious, the champions of Allied might, dark Indians, adventurers, even Germans, surrounded the catafalque in the gloom. G.J. sympathised with the man in the coffin, the simple little man whose non-political mission had in spite of him grown political. He regretted horribly that once he, G.J., who protested that he belonged to no party, had said of the dead man: "Roberts! Well-meaning of course, but senile!" ... Yet a trifle! What did it matter? And how he loathed to think that the name of the dead man was now befouled by the calculating and impure praise of schemers. Another trifle!
As the service proceeded G.J. was overwhelmed and lost in the grandeur and terror of existence. There he sat, grizzled, dignified, with the great world, looking as though he belonged to the great world; and he felt like a boy, like a child, like a helpless infant before the enormities of destiny. He wanted help, because of his futility. He could do nothing, or so little. It was as if he had been training himself for twenty years in order to be futile at a crisis requiring crude action. And he could not undo twenty years. The war loomed about him, co-extensive with existence itself. He thought of the sergeant who, as recounted that morning in the papers, had led a victorious storming party, been decorated—and died of wounds. And similar deeds were being done at that moment. And the simple little man in the coffin was being tilted downwards from the catafalque into the grave close by. G.J. wanted surcease, were it but for an hour. He longed acutely, unbearably, to be for an hour with Christine in her warm, stuffy, exciting, languorous, enervating room hermetically sealed against the war. Then he remembered the tones of her voice as she had told her Belgian adventures.... Was it love? Was it tenderness? Was it sensuality? The difference was indiscernible; it had no importance. Against the stark background of infinite existence all human beings were alike and all their passions were alike.
The gaunt, ruthless autocrat of the War Office and the frail crowned descendant of kings fronted each other across the open grave, and the coffin sank between them and was gone. From the choir there came the chanted and soothing words:
Steals on the ear the distant triumph-song.
G.J. just caught them clear among much that was incomprehensible. An intense patriotism filled him. He could do nothing; but he could keep his head, keep his balance, practise magnanimity, uphold the truth amid prejudice and superstition, and be kind. Such at that moment seemed to be his mission.... He looked round, and pitied, instead of hating, the searchers after sensations.
A being called the Garter King of Arms stepped forward and in a loud voice recited the earthly titles and honours of the simple little dead man; and, although few qualities are commoner than physical courage, the whole catalogue seemed ridiculous and tawdry until the being came to the two words, "Victoria Cross". The being, having lived his glorious moments, withdrew. The Funeral March of Chopin tramped with its excruciating dragging tread across the ruins of the soul. And finally the cathedral was startled by the sudden trumpets of the Last Post, and the ceremony ended.
"Come and have lunch with me," said the young red-hatted officer next to G.J. "I haven't got to be back till two-thirty, and I want to talk music for a change. Do you know I'm putting in ninety hours a week at the W.O.?"
"Can't," G.J. replied, with an affectation of jauntiness. "I'm engaged for lunch. Sorry."
"Who you lunching with?"
The Staff officer exclaimed aghast:
"Yes. Why, dear heart?"
"My dear chap. You don't know. Carlos Smith's been killed. She doesn't know yet. I only heard by chance. News came through just as I left. Nobody knows except a chap or two in Casualties. They won't be sending out to-day's wires until two or three o'clock."
G.J., terrified and at a loss, murmured:
"What am I to do, then?"
"You know her extremely well, don't you? You ought to go and prepare her."
"But how can I prepare her?"
"I don't know. How do people prepare people?... Poor thing!"
G.J. fought against the incredible fact of death.
"But he only went out six days ago! They haven't been married three weeks."
The central hardness of the other disclosed itself as he said:
"What's that got to do with it? What does it matter if he went out six days ago or six weeks ago? He's killed."
"Of course you must go. Indicate a rumour. Tell her it's probably false, but you thought you owed it to her to warn her. Only for God's sake don't mention me. We're not supposed to say anything, you know."
G.J. seemed to see his mission, and it challenged him.
As soon as G.J. had been let into the abode by Concepcion's venerable parlour-maid, the voice of Concepcion came down to him from above:
"G.J., who is your oldest and dearest friend?"
He replied, marvellously schooling his voice to a similar tone of cheerful abruptness:
"Difficult to say, off-hand."
"Not at all. It's your beard."
That was her greeting to him. He knew she was recalling an old declined suggestion of hers that he should part with his beard. The parlour-maid practised an admirable deafness, faithfully to confirm Concepcion, who always presumed deafness in all servants. G.J. looked up the narrow well of the staircase. He could vaguely see Concepcion on high, leaning over the banisters; he thought she was rather fluffilly dressed, for her.
Concepcion inhabited an upper part in a street largely devoted to the sale of grand pianos. Her front door was immediately at the top of a long, straight, narrow stairway; so that whoever opened the door stood one step higher than the person desiring entrance. Within the abode, which was fairly spacious, more and more stairs went up and up. "My motto is," she would say, "'One room, one staircase.'" The life of the abode was on the busy stairs. She called it also her Alpine Club. She had made upper-parts in that street popular among the select, and had therefore caused rents to rise. In the drawing-room she had hung a horrible enlarged photographic portrait of herself, with a chocolate-coloured mount, the whole framed in German gilt, and under it she had inscribed, "Presented to Miss Concepcion Iquist by the grateful landlords of the neighbourhood as a slight token of esteem and regard."
She was the only daughter of Iquist's brother, who had had a business and a palace at Lima. At the age of eighteen, her last surviving parent being dead, she had come to London and started to keep house for the bachelor Iquist, who at that very moment, owing to a fortunate change in the Ministry, had humorously entered the Cabinet. These two had immediately become "the most talked-of pair in London," London in this phrase signifying the few thousand people who do talk about the doings of other people unknown to them and being neither kings, princes, statesmen, artistes, artists, jockeys, nor poisoners. The Iquists had led the semi-intelligent, conscious-of-its-audience set which had ousted the old, quite unintelligent stately-homes-of-England set from the first place in the curiosity of the everlasting public. Concepcion had wit. It was stated that she furnished her uncle with the finest of his mots. When Iquist died, of course poor Concepcion had retired to the upper part, whence, though her position was naturally weakened, she still took a hand in leading the set.
G.J. had grown friendly and appreciative of her, for the simple reason that she had singled him out and always tried to please him, even when taking liberties with him. He liked her because she was different from her set. She had a masculine mind, whereas many even of the males of her set had a feminine mind. She was exceedingly well educated; she had ideas on everything; and she never failed in catching an allusion. She would criticise her set very honestly; her attitude to it and to herself seemed to be that of an impartial and yet indulgent philosopher; withal she could be intensely loyal to fools and worse who were friends. As for the public, she was apparently convinced of the sincerity of her scorn for it, while admitting that she enjoyed publicity, which had become indispensable to her as a drug may become indispensable. Moreover, there was her wit and her candid, queer respect for G.J.
Yes, he had greatly admired her for her qualities. He did not, however, greatly admire her physique. She was tall, with a head scarcely large enough for her body. She had a nice snub nose which in another woman might have been irresistible. She possessed very little physical charm, and showed very little taste in her neat, prim frocks. Not merely had she a masculine mind, but she was somewhat hard, a self-confessed egoist. She swore like the set, using about one "damn" or one "bloody" to every four cigarettes, of which she smoked, perhaps, fifty a day—including some in taxis. She discussed the sexual vagaries of her friends and her enemies with a freedom and an apparent learning which were remarkable in a virgin.
In the end she had married Carlos Smith, and, characteristically, had received him into her own home instead of going to his; as a fact, he had none, having been a parent's close-kept darling. London had only just recovered from the excitations of the wedding. G.J. had regarded the marriage with benevolence, perhaps with relief.
"Anybody else coming to lunch?" he discreetly inquired of his familiar, the parlour-maid.
She breathed a negative.
He had guessed it. Concepcion had meant to be alone with him. Having married for love, and her husband being rapt away by the war, she intended to resume her old, honest, quasi-sentimental relations with G.J. A reliable and experienced bachelor is always useful to a young grass-widow, and, moreover, the attendant hopeless adorer nourishes her hungry egotism as nobody else can. G.J. thought these thoughts, clearly and callously, in the same moment as, mounting the next flight of stairs, he absolutely trembled with sympathetic anguish for Concepcion. His errand was an impossible one; he feared, or rather he hoped, that the very look on his face might betray the dreadful news to that undeceivable intuition which women were supposed to possess. He hesitated on the stairs; he recoiled from the top step—(she had coquettishly withdrawn herself into the room)—he hadn't the slightest idea how to begin. Yes, the errand was an impossible one, and yet such errands had to be performed by somebody, were daily being performed by somebodies. Then he had the idea of telephoning privily to fetch her cousin Sara. He would open by remarking casually to Concepcion:
"I say, can I use your telephone a minute?" He found a strange Concepcion in the drawing-room. This was his first sight of Mrs. Carlos Smith since the wedding. She wore a dress such as he had never seen on her: a tea-gown—and for lunch! It could be called neither neat nor prim, but it was voluptuous. Her complexion had bloomed; the curves of her face were softer, her gestures more abandoned, her gaze full of a bold and yet shamed self-consciousness, her dark hair looser. He stood close to her; he stood within the aura of her recently aroused temperament, and felt it. He thought, could not help thinking: "Perhaps she bears within her the legacy of new life." He could not help thinking of her name. He took her hot hand. She said nothing, but just looked at him. He then said jauntily:
"I say, can I use your telephone a minute?" Fortunately, the telephone was in the bedroom. He went farther upstairs and shut himself in the bedroom, and saw naught but the telephone surrounded by the mysterious influences of inanimate things in the gay, crowded room.
"Is that you, Mrs. Trevise? It's G.J. speaking. G.J.... Hoape. Yes. Listen. I'm at Concepcion's for lunch, and I want you to come over as quickly as you can. I've got very bad news indeed—the worst possible. Carlos has been killed at the Front. What? Yes, awful, isn't it? She doesn't know. I have the job of telling her."
Now that the words had been spoken in Concepcion's abode the reality of Carlos Smith's death seemed more horribly convincing than before. And G.J., speaker of the words, felt almost as guilty as though he himself were responsible for the death. When he had rung off he stood motionless in the room until the opening of the door startled him. Concepcion appeared.
"If you've done corrupting my innocent telephone ..." she said, "lunch is cooling."
He felt a murderer.
At the lunch-table she might have been a genuine South American. Nobody could be less like Christine than she was; and yet in those instants she incomprehensibly reminded him of Christine. Then she started to talk in her old manner of a professional and renowned talker. G.J. listened attentively. They ate. It was astounding that he could eat. And it was rather surprising that she did not cry out: "G.J. What the devil's the matter with you to-day?" But she went on talking evenly, and she made him recount his doings. He related the conversation at the club, and especially what Bob, the retired judge, had said about equilibrium on the Western Front. She did not want to hear anything as to the funeral.
"We'll have champagne," she said suddenly to the parlour-maid, who was about to offer some red wine. And while the parlour-maid was out of the room she said to G.J., "There isn't a country in Europe where champagne is not a symbol, and we must conform."
"A symbol of what?"
"Ah! The unusual."
"And what is there unusual to-day?" he almost asked, but did not ask. It would, of course, have been utterly monstrous to put such a question, knowing what he knew. He thought: I'm not a bit nearer telling her than I was when I came.
After the parlour-maid had poured out the champagne Concepcion picked up her glass and absently glanced through it and said:
"You know, G.J., I shouldn't be in the least surprised to hear that Carly was killed out there. I shouldn't, really."
In amazement G.J. ceased to eat.
"You needn't look at me like that," she said. "I'm quite serious. One may as well face the risks. He does. Of course they're all heroes. There are millions of heroes. But I do honestly believe that my Carly would be braver than anyone. By the way, did I ever tell you he was considered the best shot in Cheshire?"
"No. But I knew," answered G.J. feebly. He would have expected her to be a little condescending towards Carlos, to whom in brains she was infinitely superior. But no! Carlos had mastered her, and she was grateful to him for mastering her. He had taught her in three weeks more than she had learnt on two continents in thirty years. She talked of him precisely as any wee wifie might have talked of the soldier-spouse. And she called him "Carly"!
Neither of them had touched the champagne. G.J. decided that he would postpone any attempt to tell her until her cousin arrived; her cousin might arrive at any moment now.
While the parlour-maid presented potatoes Concepcion deliberately ignored her and said dryly to G.J.:
"I can't eat any more. I think I ought to run along to Debenham and Freebody's at once. You might come too, and be sure to bring your good taste with you."
He was alarmed by her tone.
"Debenham and Freebody's! What for?"
"To order mourning, of course. To have it ready, you know. A precaution, you know." She laughed.
He saw that she was becoming hysterical: the special liability of the war-bride for whom the curtain has been lifted and falls exasperatingly, enragingly, too soon.
"You think I'm a bit hysterical?" she questioned, half menacingly, and stood up.
"I think you'd better sit down, to begin with," he said firmly.
The parlour-maid, blushing slightly, left the room.
"Oh, all right!" Concepcion agreed carelessly, and sat down. "But you may as well read that."
She drew a telegram from the low neck of her gown and carefully unfolded it and placed it in front of him. It was a War Office telegram announcing that Carlos had been killed.
"It came ten minutes before you," she said.
"Why didn't you tell me at once?" he murmured, frightfully shocked. He was actually reproaching her!
She stood up again. She lived; her breast rose and fell. Her gown had the same voluptuousness. Her temperament was still emanating the same aura. She was the same new Concepcion, strange and yet profoundly known to him. But ineffable tragedy had marked her down, and the sight of her parched the throat.