HotFreeBooks.com
The Pretty Lady
by Arnold E. Bennett
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

She said:

"Couldn't. Besides, I had to see if I could stand it. Because I've got to stand it, G.J.... And, moreover, in our set it's a sacred duty to be original."

She snatched the telegram, tore it in two, and pushed the pieces back into her gown.

"'Poor wounded name!'" she murmured, "'my bosom as a bed shall lodge thee.'"

The next moment she fell to the floor, at full length on her back. G.J. sprang to her, kneeling on her rich, outspread gown, and tried to lift her.

"No, no!" she protested faintly, dreamily, with a feeble frown on her pale forehead. "Let me lie. Equilibrium has been established on the Western Front."

This was her greatest mot.



Chapter 12

RENDEZVOUS

When the Italian woman, having recognised him with a discreet smile, introduced G.J. into the drawing-room of the Cork Street flat, he saw Christine lying on the sofa by the fire. She too was in a tea-gown.

She said:

"Do not be vexed. I have my migraine—am good for nothing. But I gave the order that thou shouldst be admitted."

She lifted her arms, and the long sleeves fell away. G.J. bent down and kissed her. She joined her hands on the nape of his neck, and with this leverage raised her whole body for an instant, like a child, smiling; then dropped back with a fatigued sigh, also like a child. He found satisfaction in the fact that she was laid aside. It was providential. It set him right with himself. For, to put the thing crudely, he had left the tragic Concepcion to come to Christine, a woman picked up in a Promenade.

True, Sara Trevise had agreed with him that he could accomplish no good by staying at Concepcion's; Concepcion had withdrawn from the vision of men. True, it could make no difference to Concepcion whether he retired to his flat for the rest of the day and saw no one, or whether, having changed his ceremonious clothes there, he went out again on his own affairs. True, he had promised Christine to see her that afternoon, and a promise was a promise, and Christine was a woman who had behaved well to him, and it would have been impossible for him to send her an excuse, since he did not know her surname. These apparently excellent arguments were specious and worthless. He would, anyhow, have gone to Christine. The call was imperious within him, and took no heed of grief, nor propriety, nor the secret decencies of sympathy. The primitive man in him would have gone to Christine.

He sat down with a profound and exquisite relief. The entrance to the house was nearly opposite the entrance to a prim but fashionable and expensive hotel. To ring (and ring the right bell) and wait at Christine's door almost under the eyes of the hotel was an ordeal.... The fat and untidy Italian had opened the door, and shut it again—quick! He was in another world, saved, safe! On the dark staircase the image of Concepcion with her temperament roused and condemned to everlasting hunger, the unconquerable Concepcion blasted in an instant of destiny—this image faded. She would re-marry.... She ought to re-marry.... And now he was in Christine's warm room, and Christine, temporary invalid, reclined before his eyes. The lights were turned on, the blinds drawn, the stove replenished, the fire replenished. He was enclosed with Christine in a little world with no law and no conventions except its own, and no shames nor pretences. He was, as it were, in the East. And the immanence of a third person, the Italian, accepting naturally and completely the code of the little world, only added to the charm. The Italian was like a slave, from whom it is necessary to hide nothing and never to blush.

A stuffy little world with a perceptible odour! Ordinarily he had the common insular appetite for ventilation, but now stuffiness appealed to him; he scented it almost voluptuously. The ugliness of the wallpaper, of the furniture, of everything in the room was naught. Christine's profession was naught. Who could positively say that her profession was on her face, in her gestures, in her talk? Admirable as was his knowledge of French, it was not enough to enable him to criticise her speech. Her gestures were delightful. Her face—her face was soft; her puckered brow was touching in its ingenuousness. She had a kind and a trustful eye; it was a lewd eye, indicative of her incomparable endowment; but had he not encountered the lewd eye in the very arcana of the respectability of the world outside? On the sofa, open and leaves downward, lay a book with a glistening coloured cover, entitled Fantomas. It was the seventh volume of an interminable romance which for years had had a tremendous vogue among the concierges, the workgirls, the clerks, and the cocottes of Paris. An unreadable affair, not even indecent, which nevertheless had enchanted a whole generation. To be able to enjoy it was an absolute demonstration of lack of taste; but did not some of his best friends enjoy books no better? And could he not any day in any drawing-room see martyred books dropped open and leaves downwards in a manner to raise the gorge of a person of any bookish sensibility?

"Thou wilt play for me?" she suggested.

"But the headache?"

"It will do me good. I adore music, such music as thou playest."

He was flattered. The draped piano was close to him. Stretching out his hand he took a little pile of music from the top of it.

"But you play, then!" he exclaimed, pleased.

"No, no! I tap—only. And very little."

He glanced through the pieces of music. They were all, without exception, waltzes, by the once popular waltz-kings of Paris and Vienna, including several by the king of kings, Berger. He seated himself at the piano and opened the first waltz that came.

"Oh! I adore the waltzes of Berger," she murmured. "There is only he. You don't think so?"

He said he had never heard any of this music. Then he played every piece for her. He tried to see what it was in this music that so pleased the simple; and he saw it, or he thought he saw it. He abandoned himself to the music, yielding to it, accepting its ideals, interpreting it as though it moved him, until in the end it did produce in him a sort of factitious emotion. After all, it was no worse than much of the music he was forced to hear in very refined circles.

She said, ravished:

"You decipher music like an angel."

And hummed a fragment of the waltz from The Rosenkavalier which he had played for her two evenings earlier. He glanced round sharply. Had she, then, real taste?

"It is like that, isn't it?" she questioned, and hummed it again, flattered by the look on his face.

While, at her invitation, he repeated the waltz on the piano, whose strings might have been made of zinc, he heard a ring at the outer door and then the muffled sound of a colloquy between a male voice and the voice of the Italian. "Of course," he admitted philosophically, "she has other clients already." Such a woman was bound to have other clients. He felt no jealousy, nor even discomfort, from the fact that she lent herself to any male with sufficient money and a respectable appearance. The colloquy expired.

"Ring, please," she requested, after thanking him. He hoped that she was not going to interrogate the Italian in his presence. Surely she would be incapable of such clumsiness! Still, women without imagination—and the majority of women were without imagination—did do the most astounding things.

There was no immediate answer to the bell; but in a few minutes the Italian entered with a tea-tray. Christine sat up.

"I will pour the tea," said she, and to the Italian: "Marthe, where is the evening paper?" And when Marthe returned with a newspaper damp from the press, Christine said: "To Monsieur...."

Not a word of curiosity as to the unknown visitor!

G.J. was amply confirmed in his original opinion of Christine. She was one in a hundred. To provide the evening paper.... It was nothing, but it was enormous.

"Sit by my side," she said. She made just a little space for him on the sofa—barely enough so that he had to squeeze in. The afternoon tea was correct, save for the extraordinary thickness of the bread-and-butter. But G.J. said to himself that the French did not understand bread-and-butter, and the Italians still less. To compensate for the defects of the bread-and-butter there was a box of fine chocolates.

"I perfect my English," she said. Tea was finished; they were smoking, the Evening News spread between them over the tea-things. She articulated with a strong French accent the words of some of the headings. "Mistair Carlos Smith keeled at the front," she read out. "Who is it, that woman there? She must be celebrated."

There was a portrait of the illustrious Concepcion, together with some sympathetic remarks about her, remarks conceived very differently from the usual semi-ironic, semi-worshipping journalistic references to the stars of Concepcion's set. G.J. answered vaguely.

"I do not like too much these society women. They are worse than us, and they cost you more. Ah! If the truth were known—" Christine spoke with a queer, restrained, surprising bitterness. Then she added, softly relenting: "However, it is sad for her.... Who was he, this monsieur?"

G.J. replied that he was nobody in particular, so far as his knowledge went.

"Ah! One of those who are husbands of their wives!" said Christine acidly.

The disturbing intuition of women!

A little later he said that he must depart.

"But why? I feel better."

"I have a committee."

"A committee?"

"It is a work of charity—for the French wounded."

"Ah! In that case.... But, beloved!"

"Yes?"

She lowered her voice.

"How dost thou call thyself?"

"Gilbert."

"Thou knowest—I have a fancy for thee."

Her tone was delicious, its sincerity absolutely convincing.

"Too amiable."

"No, no. It is true. Say! Return. Return after thy committee. Take me out to dinner—some gentle little restaurant, discreet. There must be many of them in a city like London. It is a city so romantic. Oh! The little corners of London!"

"But—of course. I should be enchanted—"

"Well, then."

He was standing. She raised her smiling, seductive face. She was young—younger than Concepcion; less battered by the world's contacts than Concepcion. She had the inexpressible virtue and power of youth. He was nearing fifty. And she, perhaps half his age, had confessed his charm.

"And say! My Gilbert. Bring me a few flowers. I have not been able to go out to-day. Something very simple. I detest that one should squander money on flowers for me."

"Seven-thirty, then!" said he. "And you will be ready?"

"I shall be very exact. Thou wilt tell me all that concerns thy committee. That interests me. The English are extraordinary."



Chapter 13

IN COMMITTEE

Within the hotel the glowing Gold Hall, whose Lincrusta Walton panels dated it, was nearly empty. Of the hundred small round tables only one was occupied; a bald head and a large green hat were almost meeting over the top of this table, but there was nothing on it except an ashtray. A waiter wandered about amid the thick plushy silence and the stagnant pools of electric light, meditating upon the curse which had befallen the world of hotels. The red lips beneath the green hat discernibly moved, but no faintest murmur therefrom reached the entrance. The hot, still place seemed to be enchanted.

The sight of the hotel flower-stall recessed on the left reminded G.J. of Christine's desire. Forty thousand skilled women had been put out of work in England because luxury was scared by the sudden vista of war, but the black-garbed girl, entrenched in her mahogany bower, was still earning some sort of a livelihood. In a moment, wakened out of her terrible boredom into an alert smile, she had sold to G.J. a bunch of expensive chrysanthemums whose yellow petals were like long curly locks. Thoughtless, he had meant to have the flowers delivered at once to Christine's flat. It would not do; it would be indiscreet. And somehow, in the absence of Braiding, it would be equally indiscreet to have them delivered at his own flat.

"I shall be leaving the hotel in about an hour; I'll take them away myself then," he said, and inquired for the headquarters of the Lechford French Hospitals Committee.

"Committee?" repeated the girl vaguely. "I expect the Onyx Hall's what you want." She pointed up a corridor, and gave change.

G.J. discovered the Onyx Hall, which had its own entrance from the street, and which in other days had been a cafe lounge. The precious pavement was now half hidden by wooden trestles, wooden cubicles, and cheap chairs. Temporary flexes brought down electric light from a stained glass dome to illuminate card-indexes and pigeon-holes and piles of letters. Notices in French and Flemish were suspended from the ornate onyx pilasters. Old countrywomen and children in rough foreign clothes, smart officers in strange uniforms, privates in shabby blue, gentlemen in morning coats and spats, and untidy Englishwomen with eyes romantic, hard, or wistful, were mixed together in the Onyx Hall, where there was no enchantment and little order, save that good French seemed to be regularly spoken on one side of the trestles and regularly assassinated on the other. G.J., mystified, caught the grey eye of a youngish woman with a tired and fretful expression.

"And you?" she inquired perfunctorily.

He demanded, with hesitation:

"Is this the Lechford Committee?"

"The what Committee?"

"The Lechford Committee headquarters." He thought she might be rather an attractive little thing at, say, an evening party.

She gave him a sardonic look and answered, not rudely, but with large tolerance:

"Can't you read?"

By means of gesture scarcely perceptible she directed his attention to an immense linen sign stretched across the back of the big room, and he saw that he was in the ant-heap of some Belgian Committee.

"So sorry to have troubled you!" he apologised. "I suppose you don't happen to know where the Lechford Committee sits?"

"Never heard of it," said she with cheerful disdain. Then she smiled and he smiled. "You know, the hotel simply hums with committees, but this is the biggest by a long way. They can't let their rooms, so it costs them nothing to lend them for patriotic purposes."

He liked the chit.

Presently, with a page-boy, he was ascending in a lift through storey after storey of silent carpeted desert. Light alternated with darkness, winking like a succession of days and nights as seen by a god. The infant showed him into a private parlour furnished and decorated in almost precisely the same taste as Christine's sitting-room, where a number of men and women sat close together at a long deal table, whose pale, classic simplicity clashed with the rest of the apartment. A thin, dark, middle-aged man of austere visage bowed to him from the head of the table. Somebody else indicated a chair, which, with a hideous, noisy scraping over the bare floor, he modestly insinuated between two occupied chairs. A third person offered a typewritten sheet containing the agenda of the meeting. A blonde girl was reading in earnest, timid tones the minutes of the previous meeting. The affair had just begun. As soon as the minutes had been passed the austere chairman turned and said evenly:

"I am sure I am expressing the feelings of the committee in welcoming among us Mr. Hoape, who has so kindly consented to join us and give us the benefit of his help and advice in our labours."

Sympathetic murmurs converged upon G.J. from the four sides of the table, and G.J. nervously murmured a few incomprehensible words, feeling both foolish and pleased. He had never sat on a committee; and as his war-conscience troubled him more and more daily, he was extremely anxious to start work which might placate it. Indeed, he had seized upon the request to join the committee as a swimmer in difficulties clasps the gunwale of a dinghy.

A man who kept his gaze steadily on the table cleared his throat and said:

"The matter is not in order, Mr. Chairman, but I am sure I am expressing the feelings of the committee in proposing a vote of condolence to yourself on the terrible loss which you have sustained in the death of your son at the Front."

"I beg to second that," said a lady quickly.

"Our chairman has given his only son—"

Tears came into her eyes; she seemed to appeal for help. There were "Hear, hears," and more sympathetic murmurs.

The proposer, with his gaze still steadily fixed on the table, said:

"I beg to put the resolution to the meeting."

"Yes," said the chairman with calm self-control in the course of his acknowledgment. "And if I had ten sons I would willingly give them all—for the cause." And his firm, hard glance appeared to challenge any member of the committee to assert that this profession of parental and patriotic generosity of heart was not utterly sincere. However, nobody had the air of doubting that if the chairman had had ten sons, or as many sons as Solomon, he would have sacrificed them all with the most admirable and eager heroism.

The agenda was opened. G.J. had little but newspaper knowledge of the enterprises of the committee, and it would not have been proper to waste the time of so numerous a company in enlightening him. The common-sense custom evidently was that new members should "pick up the threads as they went along." G.J. honestly tried to do so. But he was preoccupied with the personalities of the committee. He soon saw that the whole body was effectively divided into two classes—the chairmen of the various sub-committees, and the rest. Few members were interested in any particular subject. Those who were not interested either stared at the walls or at the agenda paper, or laboriously drew intricate and meaningless designs on the agenda paper, or folded up the agenda paper into fantastic shapes until, when someone in authority brought out the formula, "I think the view of the committee will be—" a resolution was put and the issue settled by the mechanical raising of hands on the fulcrum of the elbow. And at each raising of hands everybody felt that something positive had indeed been accomplished.

The new member was a little discouraged. He had the illusion that the two hospitals run in France for French soldiers by the Lechford Committee were an illusion, that they did not really exist, that the committee was discussing an abstraction. Nevertheless, each problem as it was presented—the drains (postponed), the repairs to the motor-ambulances, the ordering of a new X-ray apparatus, the dilatoriness of a French Minister in dealing with correspondence, the cost per day per patient, the relations with the French civil authorities and the French military authorities, the appointment of a new matron who could keep the peace with the senior doctor, and the great principle involved in deducting five francs fifty centimes for excess luggage from a nurse's account for travelling expenses—each problem helped to demonstrate that the hospitals did exist and that men and women were toiling therein, and that French soldiers in grave need were being magnificently cared for and even saved from death. And it was plain, too, that none of these excellent things could have come to pass or could continue to occur if the committee did not regularly sit round the table and at short intervals perform the rite of raising hands....

G.J.'s attention wandered. He could not keep his mind off the thought that he should soon be seeing Christine again. Sitting at the table with a mien of intelligent interest, he had a waking dream of Christine. He saw her just as she was—ingenuous, and ignorant if you like—except that she was pure. Her purity, though, had not cooled her temperament, and thus she combined in herself the characteristics of at least two different women, both of whom were necessary to his happiness. And she was his wife, and they lived in a roomy house in Hyde Park Gardens, and the war was over. And she adored him and he was passionately fond of her. And she was always having children; she enjoyed having children; she demanded children; she had a child every year and there was never any trouble. And he never admired her more poignantly than at the periods just before his children were born, when she had the vast, exquisitely swelling figure of the French Renaissance Virgin in marble that stood on a console in his drawing-room at the Albany.... Such was G.J.'s dream as he assisted in the control of the Lechford Hospitals. Emerging from it he looked along the table. Quite half the members were dreaming too, and he wondered what thoughts were moving secretly within them. But the chairman was not dreaming. He never loosed his grasp of the matter in hand. Nor did the earnest young blonde by the chairman's side who took down in stenography the decisions of the committee.



Chapter 14

QUEEN

Then Lady Queenie Paulle entered rather hurriedly, filling the room with a distinguished scent. All the men rose in haste, and there was a frightful scraping of chair-legs on the floor. Lady Queenie cheerfully apologised for being late, and, begging no one to disturb himself, took a modest place between the chairman and the secretary and a little behind them.

Lady Queenie obviously had what is called "race". The renown of her family went back far, far beyond its special Victorian vogue, which had transformed an earldom into a marquisate and which, incidentally, was responsible for the new family Christian name that Queenie herself bore. She was young, tall, slim and pale, and dressed with the utmost smartness in black—her half-brother having gloriously lost his life in September. She nodded to the secretary, who blushed with pleasure, and she nodded to several members, including G.J. Being accustomed to publicity and to seeing herself nearly every week in either The Tatler or The Sketch, she was perfectly at ease in the room, and the fact that nearly the whole company turned to her as plants to the sun did not in the least disturb her.

The attention which she received was her due, for she had few rivals as a war-worker. She was connected with the Queen's Work for Women Fund, Queen Mary's Needlework Guild, the Three Arts Fund, the Women's Emergency Corps, and many minor organisations. She had joined a Women's Suffrage Society because such societies were being utilised by the Government. She had had ten lessons in First Aid in ten days, had donned the Red Cross, and gone to France with two motor-cars and a staff and a French maid in order to help in the great national work of nursing wounded heroes; and she might still have been in France had not an unsympathetic and audacious colonel of the R.A.M.C. insisted on her being shipped back to England. She had done practically everything that a patriotic girl could do for the war, except, perhaps, join a Voluntary Aid Detachment and wash dishes and scrub floors for fifteen hours a day and thirteen and a half days a fortnight. It was from her mother that she had inherited the passion for public service. The Marchioness of Lechford had been the cause of more philanthropic work in others than any woman in the whole history of philanthropy. Lady Lechford had said, "Let there be Lechford Hospitals in France," and lo! there were Lechford Hospitals in France. When troublesome complications arose Lady Lechford had, with true self-effacement, surrendered the establishments to a thoroughly competent committee, and while retaining a seat on the committee for herself and another for Queenie, had curved tirelessly away to the inauguration of fresh and more exciting schemes.

"Mamma was very sorry she couldn't come this afternoon," said Lady Queenie, addressing the chairman.

The formula of those with authority in deciding now became:

"I don't know exactly what Lady Lechford's view is, but I venture to think—"

Then suddenly the demeanour of every member of the committee was quickened, everybody listened intently to everything that was said; a couple of members would speak together; pattern-designing and the manufacture of paper ships, chains, and flowers ceased; it was as though a tonic had been mysteriously administered to each individual in the enervating room. The cause of the change was a recommendation from the hospitals management sub-committee that it be an instruction to the new matron of the smaller hospital to forbid any nurse and any doctor to go out alone together in the evening. Scandal was insinuated; nothing really wrong, but a bad impression produced upon the civilians of the tiny town, who could not be expected to understand the holy innocence which underlies the superficial license of Anglo-Saxon manners. The personal characters and strange idiosyncrasies of every doctor and every nurse were discussed; broad principles of conduct were enunciated, together with the advantages and disadvantages of those opposite poles, discipline and freedom. The argument continually expanded, branching forth like the timber of a great oak-tree from the trunk, and the minds of the committee ran about the tree like monkeys. The interest was endless. A quiet delegate who had just returned from a visit to the tiny town completely blasted one part of the argument by asserting that the hospital bore a blameless reputation among the citizens; but new arguments were instantly constructed by the adherents of the idea of discipline. The committee had plainly split into two even parties. G.J. began to resent the harshness of the disciplinarians.

"I think we should remember," he said in his modest voice, "I think we should remember that we are dealing with adult men and women."

The libertarians at once took him for their own. The disciplinarians gave him to understand with their eyes that it might have been better if he, as a new member attending his first meeting, had kept silence. The discussion was inflamed. One or two people glanced surreptitiously at their watches. The hour had long passed six thirty. G.J. grew anxious about his rendezvous with Christine. He had enjoined exactitude upon Christine. But the main body of the excited and happy committee had no thought of the flight of time. The amusements of the tiny town came up for review. As a fact, there was only one amusement, the cinema. The whole town went to the cinema. Cinemas were always darkened; human nature was human nature.... G.J. had an extraordinarily realistic vision of the hospital staff slaving through its long and heavy day and its everlasting week and preparing in sections to amuse itself on certain evenings, and thinking with pleasant anticipation of the ecstasies of the cinema, and pathetically unsuspicious that its fate was being decided by a council of omnipotent deities in the heaven of a London hotel.

"Mamma has never mentioned the subject to me," said Lady Queenie in response to a question, looking at her rich muff.

"This is a question of principle," said somebody sharply, implying that at last individual consciences were involved and that the opinions of the Marchioness of Lechford had ceased to weigh.

"I'm afraid it's getting late," said the impassive chairman. "We must come to some decision."

In the voting Lady Queenie, after hesitation, raised her hand with the disciplinarians. By one vote the libertarians were defeated, and the dalliance of the hospital staff in leisure hours received a severe check.

"She would—of course!" breathed a sharp-nosed little woman in the chair next but one to G.J., gazing inimically at the lax mouth and cynical eyes of Lady Queenie, who for four years had been the subject of universal whispering, and some shouting, and one or two ferocious battles in London.

Chair-legs scraped. People rose here and there to go as they rise in a music hall after the Scottish comedian has retired, bowing, from his final encore. They protested urgent appointments elsewhere. The chairman remarked that other important decisions yet remained to be taken; but his voice had no insistence because he had already settled the decisions in his own mind. G.J. seized the occasion to depart.

"Mr. Hoape," the chairman detained him a moment. "The committee hope you will allow yourself to be nominated to the accounts sub-committee. We understand that you are by way of being an expert. The sub-committee meets on Wednesday mornings at eleven—doesn't it, Sir Charles?"

"Half-past," said Sir Charles.

"Oh! Half-past."

G.J., somewhat surprised to learn of his expertise in accountancy, consented to the suggestion, which renewed his resolution, impaired somewhat by the experience of the meeting, to be of service in the world.

"You will receive the notice, of course," said the chairman.

Down below, just as G.J. was getting away with Christine's chrysanthemums in their tissue paper, Lady Queenie darted out of the lift opposite. It was she who, at Concepcion's instigation, had had him put in the committee.

"I say, Queen," he said with a casual air—on account of the flowers, "who's been telling 'em I know about accounts?"

"I did."

"Why?"

"Why?" she said maliciously. "Don't you keep an account of every penny you spend?" (It was true.)

Here was a fair example of her sardonic and unscrupulous humour—a humour not of words but of acts. G.J. simply tossed his head, aware of the futility of expostulation.

She went on in a different tone:

"You were the first to see Connie?"

"Yes," he said sadly.

"She has lain in my arms all afternoon," Lady Queenie burst out, her voice liquid. "And now I'm going straight back to her." She looked at him with the strangest triumphant expression. Then her large, equivocal blue eyes fell from his face to the flowers, and their expression simultaneously altered to disdainful amusement full of mischievous implications. She ran off without another word. The glazed entrance doors revolved, and he saw her nip into an electric brougham, which, before he had time to button his overcoat, vanished like an apparition in the rainy mist.



Chapter 15

EVENING OUT

He found Christine exactly as he had left her, in the same tea-gown and the same posture, and on the same sofa. But a small table had been put by the sofa; and on this table was a penny bottle of ink in a saucer, and a pen. She was studying some kind of official form. The pucker between the eyes was very marked.

"Already!" she exclaimed, as if amazed. "But there is not a clock that goes, and I had not the least idea of the hour. Besides, I was splitting my head to fill up this form."

Such was her notion of being exact! He had abandoned an important meeting of a committee which was doing untold mercies to her compatriots in order to keep his appointment with her; and she, whose professional business it was that evening to charm him and harmonise with him, had merely flouted the appointment. Nevertheless, her gestures and smile as she rose and came towards him were so utterly exquisite that immediately he also flouted the appointment. What, after all, could it matter whether they dined at eight, nine, or even ten o'clock?

"Thou wilt pardon me, monster?" she murmured, kissing him.

No woman had ever put her chin up to his as she did, nor with a glance expressed so unreserved a surrender to his masculinity.

She went on, twining languishingly round him:

"I do not know whether I ought to go out. I am yet far from—It is perhaps imprudent."

"Absurd!" he protested—he could not bear the thought of her not dining with him. He knew too well the desolation of a solitary dinner. "Absurd! We go in a taxi. The restaurant is warm. We return in a taxi."

"To please thee, then."

"What is that form?"

"It is for the telephone. Thou understandest how it is necessary that I have the telephone—me! But I comprehend nothing of this form."

She passed him the form. She had written her name in the space allotted. "Christine Dubois." A fair calligraphy! But what a name! The French equivalent of "Smith". Nothing could be less distinguished. Suddenly it occurred to him that Concepcion's name also was Smith.

"I will fill it up for you. It is quite simple."

"It is possible that it is simple when one is English. But English—that is as if to say Chinese. Everything contrary. Here is a pen."

"No. I have my fountain-pen." He hated a cheap pen, and still more a penny bottle of ink, but somehow this particular penny bottle of ink seemed touching in its simple ugliness. She was eminently teachable. He would teach her his own attitude towards penny bottles of ink.... Of course she would need the telephone—that could not be denied.

As Christine was signing the form Marthe entered with the chrysanthemums, which he had handed over to her; she had arranged them in a horrible blue glass vase cheaply gilded; and while Marthe was putting the vase on the small table there was a ring at the outer door. Marthe hurried off.

Christine said, kissing him again tenderly:

"Thou art a squanderer! Fine for me to tell thee not to buy costly flowers! Thou has spent at least ten shillings for these. With ten shillings—"

"No, no!" he interrupted her. "Five." It was a fib. He had paid half a guinea for the few flowers, but he could not confess it.

They could hear a powerful voice indistinctly booming at the top of the stairs. "Two callers on one afternoon!" G.J. reflected. And yet she had told him she went out for the first time only the day before yesterday! He scarcely liked it, but his reason rescued him from the puerility of a grievance against her on this account. "And why not? She is bound to be a marked success."

Marthe returned to the drawing-room and shut the door.

"Madame—" she began, slightly agitated.

"Speak, then!" Christine urged, catching her agitation.

"It is the police!"

G.J. had a shock. He knew many of the policemen who lurked in the dark doorways of Piccadilly at night, had little friendly talks with them, held them for excellent fellows. But a policeman invading the flat of a courtesan, and himself in the flat, seemed a different being from the honest stalwarts who threw the beams of lanterns on the key-holes of jewellers' shops.

Christine steeled herself to meet the crisis with self-reliance. She pointedly did not appeal to the male.

"Well, what is it that he wants?"

"He talks of the chimney. It appears this morning there was a chimney on fire. But since we burn only anthracite and gas—He knows madame's name."

There was a pause. Christine asked sharply and mysteriously:

"How much do you think?"

"If madame gave five pounds—having regard to the chic of the quarter."

Christine rushed into the bedroom and came back with a five-pound note.

"Here! Chuck that at him—politely. Tell him we are very sorry."

"Yes, madame."

"But he'll never take it. You can't treat the London police like that!" G.J. could not help expostulating as soon as Marthe had gone. He feared some trouble.

"My poor friend!" Christine replied patronisingly. "Thou art not up in these things. Marthe knows her affair—a woman very experienced in London. He will take it, thy policeman. And if I do not deceive myself no more chimneys will burn for about a year.... Ah! The police do not wipe their noses with broken bottles!" (She meant that the police knew their way about.) "I no more than they, I do not wipe my nose with broken bottles."

She was moved, indignant, stoutly defensive. G.J. grew self-conscious. Moreover, her slang disturbed him. It was the first slang he had heard her use, and in using it her voice had roughened. But he remembered that Concepcion also used slang—and advanced slang—upon occasion.

The booming ceased; a door closed. Marthe returned once more.

"Well?"

"He is gone. He was very nice, madame. I told him about madame—that madame was very discreet." Marthe finished in a murmur.

"So much the better. Now, help me to dress. Quick, quick! Monsieur will be impatient."

G.J. was ashamed of the innocence he had displayed, and ashamed, too, of the whole Metropolitan Police Force, admirable though it was in stopping traffic for a perambulator to cross the road. Five pounds! These ladies were bled. Five pounds wanted earning.... It was a good sign, though, that she had not so far asked him to contribute. And he felt sure that she would not.

"Come in, then, poltroon!" She cooed softly and encouragingly from the bedroom, where Marthe was busy with her.

The door between the bedroom and the drawing-room was open. G.J., humming, obeyed the invitation and sat down on the bed between two heaps of clothes. Christine was very gay; she was like a child. She had apparently quite forgotten her migraine and also the incident of the policeman. She snatched the cigarette from G.J.'s mouth, took a puff, and put it back again. Then she sat in front of the large mirror and did her hair while Marthe buttoned her boots. Her corset fitted beautifully, and as she raised her arms above her head under the shaded lamp G.J. could study the marvellous articulation of the arms at the bare shoulders. The close atmosphere was drenched with femininity. The two women, one so stylish and the other by contrast piquantly a heavy slattern, hid nothing whatever from him, bestowing on him with perfect tranquillity the right to be there and to watch at his ease every mysterious transaction.... The most convincing proof that Christine was authentically young! And G.J. had the illusion again that he was in the Orient, and it was extraordinarily agreeable. The recollection of the scene of the Lechford Committee amused him like a pantomime witnessed afar off through a gauze curtain. It had no more reality than that. But he thought better of the committee now. He perceived the wonderful goodness of it and of its work. It really was running those real hospitals; it had a real interest in them. He meant to do his very best in the accounts department. After all, he had been a lawyer and knew the routine of an office and the minutest phenomena of a ledger. He was eager to begin.

"How findest thou me?"

She stood for inspection.

She was ready, except the gloves. The angle of her hat, the provocation of her veil—these things would have quickened the pulse of a Patagonian. Perfume pervaded the room.

He gave the classic response that nothing could render trite:

"Tu es exquise."

She raised her veil just above her mouth....

In the drawing-room she hesitated, and then settled down on the piano-stool like a bird alighting and played a few bars from the Rosenkavalier waltz. He was thunderstruck, for she had got not only the air but some of the accompaniment right.

"Go on! Go on!" he urged her, marvelling.

She turned, smiling, and shook her head.

"That is all that I can recall to myself."

The obvious sincerity of his appreciation delighted her.

"She is really musical!" he thought, and was convinced that while looking for a bit of coloured glass he had picked up an emerald. Marthe produced his overcoat, and when he was ready for the street Christine gazed at him and said:

"For the true chic, there are only Englishmen!"

In the taxi she proved to him by delicate effronteries the genuineness of her confessed "fancy" for him. And she poured out slang. He began to be afraid, for this excursion was an experiment such as he had never tried before in London; in Paris, of course, the code was otherwise. But as soon as the commissionaire of the restaurant at Victoria approached the door of the taxi her manner changed. She walked up the long interior with the demureness of a stockbroker's young wife out for the evening from Putney Hill. He thought, relieved, "She is the embodiment of common sense." At the end of the vista of white tables the restaurant opened out to the left. In a far corner they were comfortably secure from observation. They sat down. A waiter beamed his flatteries upon them. G.J. was serenely aware of his own skilled faculty for ordering a dinner. He looked over the menu card at Christine. Nobody could possibly tell that she was a professed enemy of society. "These French women are astounding!" he thought. He intensely admired her. He was mad about her. His bliss was extreme. He could not keep it within bounds meet for the great world-catastrophe. He was happy as for quite ten years he had never hoped to be. Yes, he grieved for Concepcion; but somehow grief could not mingle with nor impair the happiness he felt. And was not Concepcion lying in the affectionate arms of Queenie Paulle?

Christine, glancing about her contentedly, reverted to one of her leading ideas:

"Truly, it is very romantic, thy London!"



Chapter 16

THE VIRGIN

Christine went into the oratory of St. Philip at Brompton on a Sunday morning in the following January, dipped her finger into one of the Italian basins at the entrance, and signed herself with the holy water. She was dressed in black; she had the face of a pretty martyr; her brow was crumpled by the world's sorrow; she looked and actually was at the moment intensely religious. She had months earlier chosen the Brompton Oratory for her devotions, partly because of the name of Philip, which had been murmured in accents of affection by her dying mother, and partly because it lay on a direct, comprehensible bus-route from Piccadilly. You got into the motor-bus opposite the end of the Burlington Arcade, and in about six minutes it dropped you in front of the Oratory; and you could not possibly lose yourself in the topographical intricacies of the unknown city. Christine never took a taxi except when on business.

The interior was gloomy with the winter forenoon; the broad Renaissance arches showed themselves only faintly above; on every side there were little archipelagos of light made by groups of candles in front of great pale images. The church was comparatively empty, and most of the people present were kneeling in the chapels; for Christine had purposely come, as she always did, at the slack hour between the seventh and last of the early morning Low Masses and the High Mass at eleven.

She went up the right aisle and stopped before the Miraculous Infant Jesus of Prague, a charming and naive little figure about eighteen inches high in a stiff embroidered cloak and a huge symbol upon his curly head. She had put herself under the protection of the Miraculous Infant Jesus of Prague. She liked him; he was a change from the Virgin; and he stood in the darkest corner of the whole interior, behind the black statue of St. Peter with protruding toe, and within the deep shadow made by the organ-loft overhead. Also he had a motto in French: "Plus vous m'honorerez plus je vous favoriserai."

Christine hesitated, and then left the Miraculous Infant Jesus of Prague without even a transient genuflexion. She was afraid to devote herself to him that morning.

Of course she had been brought up strictly in the Roman Catholic faith. And in her own esteem she was still an honest Catholic. For years she had not confessed and therefore had not communicated. For years she had had a desire to cast herself down at a confessional-box, but she had not done so because of one of the questions in the Petit Paroissien which she used: "Avez-vous peche, par pensee, parole, ou action, contre la purete ou la modestie?" And because also of the preliminary injunction: "Maintenant essayez de vous rappeler vos peches, et combien de fois vous les avez commis." She could not bring herself to do that. Once she had confessed a great deal to a priest at Sens, but he had treated her too lightly; his lightness with her had indeed been shameful. Since then she had never confessed. Further, she knew herself to be in a state of mortal sin by reason of her frequent wilful neglect of the holy offices; and occasionally, at the most inconvenient moments, the conviction that if she died she was damned would triumph over her complacency. But on the whole she had hopes for the future; though she had sinned, her sin was mysteriously not like other people's sin of exactly the same kind.

And finally there was the Virgin Mary, the sweet and dependable goddess. She had been neglecting the very clement Virgin Mary in favour of the Miraculous Infant Jesus of Prague. A whim, a thoughtless caprice, which she had paid for! The Virgin Mary had withdrawn her defending shield. At least that was the interpretation which Christine was bound to put upon the terrible incident of the previous night in the Promenade. She had quite innocently been involved in a drunken row in the lounge. Two military officers, one of whom, unnoticed by Christine, was intoxicated, and two women—Madame Larivaudiere and Christine! The Belgian had been growing more and more jealous of Christine.... The row had flamed up in the tenth of a second like an explosion. The two officers—then the two women. The bright silvery sound of glass shattered on marble! High voices, deep voices! Half the Promenade had rushed vulgarly into the lounge, panting with a gross appetite to witness a vulgar scene. And as the Belgian was jealous of the French girl, so were the English girls horribly jealous of all the foreign girls, and scornful too. Nothing but the overwhelming desire of the management to maintain the perfect respectability of its Promenade had prevented a rough-and-tumble between the officers. As for Madame Larivaudiere, she had been ejected and told never to return. Christine had fled to the cloak-room, where she had remained for half an hour, and thence had vanished away, solitary, by the side entrance. It was precisely such an episode as Christine's mother would have deprecated in horror, and as Christine herself intensely loathed. And she could never assuage the moral wound of it by confiding the affair to Gilbert. She was mad about Gilbert; she thrilled to be his slave; she had what seemed an immeasurable confidence in him; and yet never, never could she mention another individual man to him, much less tell him of the public shame that had fallen upon her in the exercise of her profession. Why had fate been thus hard on her? The answer was surely to be found in the displeasure of the Virgin. And so she did not dare to stay with the Miraculous Infant Jesus of Prague, nor even to murmur the prayer beginning: "Adorable Jesus, divin modele de la perfection ..."

She glanced round the great church, considering what were to her the major and minor gods and goddesses on their ornate thrones: St. Antony, St. Joseph, St. Sebastian, St. Philip, the Sacred Heart, St. Cecilia, St. Peter, St. Wilfrid, St. Mary Magdelene (Ah! Not at that altar could she be seen!), St. Patrick, St. Veronica, St. Francis, St. John Baptist, St. Teresa, Our Lady, Our Lady of Good Counsel. No! There was only one goddess possible for her—Our Lady of VII Dolours. She crossed the wide nave to the severe black and white marble chapel of the VII Dolours. The aspect of the shrine suited her. On one side she read the English words: "Of your charity pray for the soul of Flora Duchess of Norfolk who put up this altar to the Mother of Sorrows that they who mourn may be comforted." And the very words were romantic to her, and she thought of Flora Duchess of Norfolk as a figure inexpressibly more romantic than the illustrious female figures of French history. The Virgin of the VII Dolours was enigmatically gazing at her, waiting no doubt to be placated. The Virgin was painted, gigantic, in oil on canvas, but on her breast stood out a heart made in three dimensions of real silver and pierced by the swords of the seven dolours, three to the left and four to the right; and in front was a tiny gold figure of Jesus crucified on a gold cross.

Christine cast herself down and prayed to the painted image and the hammered heart. She prayed to the goddess whom the Middle Ages had perfected and who in the minds of the simple and the savage has survived the Renaissance and still triumphantly flourishes; the Queen of heaven, the Tyrant of heaven, the Woman in heaven; who was so venerated that even her sweat is exhibited as a relic; who was softer than Christ as Christ was softer than the Father; who in becoming a goddess had increased her humanity; who put living roses for a sign into the mouths of fornicators when they died, if only they had been faithful to her; who told the amorous sacristan to kiss her face and not her feet; who questioned lovers about their mistresses: "Is she as pretty as I?"; who fell like a pestilence on the nuptial chambers of young men who, professing love for her, had taken another bride; who enjoyed being amused; who admitted a weakness for artists, tumblers, soldiers and the common herd; who had visibly led both opponents on every battlefield for centuries; who impersonated absent disreputable nuns and did their work for them until they returned, repentant, to be forgiven by her; who acted always on her instinct and never on her reason; who cared nothing for legal principles; who openly used her feminine influence with the Trinity; who filled heaven with riff-raff; and who had never on any pretext driven a soul out of heaven. Christine made peace with this jealous and divine creature. She felt unmistakably that she was forgiven for her infidelity due to the Infant in the darkness beyond the opposite aisle. The face of the Lady of VII Dolours miraculously smiled at her; the silver heart miraculously shed its tarnish and glittered beneficent lightnings. Doubtless she knew somewhere in her mind that no physical change had occurred in the picture or the heart; but her mind was a complex, and like nearly all minds could disbelieve and believe simultaneously.

Just as High Mass was beginning she rose and in grave solace left the Oratory; she would not endanger her new peace with the Virgin Mary by any devotion to other gods. She was solemn but happy. The conductor who took her penny in the motor-bus never suspected that on the pane before her, where some Agency had caused to be printed in colour the words "Seek ye the Lord" she saw, in addition to the amazing oddness of the Anglo-Saxon race, a dangerous incitement to unfaith. She kept her thoughts passionately on the Virgin; and by the time the bus had reached Hyde Park Corner she was utterly sure that the horrible adventure of the Promenade was purged of its evil potentialities.

In the house in Cork Street she took out her latch-key, placidly opened the door, and entered, smiling at the solitude. Marthe, who also had a soul in need of succour, would, in the ordinary course, have gone forth to a smaller church and a late mass. But on this particular morning fat Marthe, in deshabille, came running to her from the little kitchen.

"Oh! Madame!... There is someone! He is drunk."

Her voice was outraged. She pointed fearfully to the bedroom. Christine, courageous, walked straight in. An officer in khaki was lying on the bed; his muddy, spurred boots had soiled the white lace coverlet. He was asleep and snoring. She looked at him, and, recognising her acquaintance of the previous night, wondered what the very clement Virgin could be about.



Chapter 17

SUNDAY AFTERNOON

"What is Madame going to do?" whispered Marthe, still alarmed and shocked, when they had both stepped back out of the bedroom; and she added: "He has never been here before."

Marthe was a woman of immense experience but little brains, and when phenomena passed beyond her experience she became rather like a foolish, raw girl. She had often dealt with drunken men; she had often—especially in her younger days—satisfactorily explained a situation to visitors who happened to call when her mistress for the time being was out. But only on the very rarest occasions had she known a client commit the awful solecism of calling before lunch; and that a newcomer, even intoxicated, should commit this solecism staggered her and left her trembling.

"What am I going to do? Nothing!" answered Christine. "Let him sleep."

Christine, too, was dismayed. But Marthe's weakness gave her strength, and she would not show her fright. Moreover, Christine had some force of character, though it did not often show itself as sudden firmness. She condescended to Marthe. She also condescended to the officer, because he was unconscious, because he had put himself in a false position, because sooner or later he would look extremely silly. She regarded the officer's intrusion as tiresome, but she did not gravely resent it. After all, he was drunk; and before the row in the Promenade he had asked her for her card, saying that he was engaged that night but would like to know where she lived. Of course she had protested—as what woman in her place would not?—against the theory that he was engaged that night, and she had been in a fair way to convince him that he was not really engaged that night—except morally to her, since he had accosted her—when the quarrel had supervened and it had dawned on her that he had been in the taciturn and cautious stage of acute inebriety.

He had, it now seemed, probably been drinking through the night. There were men, as she knew, who simply had to have bouts, whose only method to peace was to drown the demon within them. She would never knowingly touch a drunken man, or even a partially intoxicated man, if she could help it. She was not a bit like the polite young lady above, who seemed to specialise in noisy tipplers. Her way with the top-heavy was to leave them to recover in tranquillity. No other way was safe. Nevertheless, in the present instance she did venture again into the bedroom. The plight of the lace coverlet troubled her and practically drove her into the bedroom. She got a little towel, gently lifted the sleeper's left foot, and tied the towel round his boot; then she did the same to his other foot. The man did not stir; but if, later, he should stir, neither his boots nor his spurs could do further harm to the lace coverlet. His cane and gloves were on the floor; she picked them up. His overcoat, apparently of excellent quality, was still on his back; and the cap had not quite departed from his head. Christine had learned enough about English military signs and symbols to enable her to perceive that he belonged to the artillery.

"But how will madame change her dress?" Marthe demanded in the sitting-room. Madame always changed her dress immediately on returning from church, for that which is suitable for mass may not be proper to other ends.

"I shall not change," said Christine.

"It is well, madame."

Christine was not deterred from changing by the fact that the bedroom was occupied. She retained her church dress because she foresaw the great advantage she would derive from it in the encounter which must ultimately occur with the visitor. She would not even take her hat off.

The two women lunched, mainly on macaroni, with some cheese and an apple. Christine had coffee. Ah, she must always have her coffee. As for a cigarette, she never smoked when alone, because she did not really care for smoking. Marthe, however, enjoyed smoking, and Christine gave her a cigarette, which she lighted while clearing the table. One was mistress, the other servant, but the two women were constantly meeting on the plane of equality. Neither of them could avoid it, or consistently tried to avoid it. Although Marthe did not eat with Christine, if a meal was in progress she generally came into the sitting-room with her mouth more or less full of food. Their repasts were trifles, passovers, unceremonious and irregular peckings, begun and finished in a few moments. And if Marthe was always untidy in her person, Christine, up till three in the afternoon, was also untidy. They went about the flat in a wonderful state of unkempt and insecure slovenliness. And sometimes Marthe might be lolling in the sitting-room over the illustrations in La Vie Parisienne, which was part of the apparatus of the flat, while Christine was in the tiny kitchen washing gloves as she alone could wash them.

The flat lapsed into at any rate a superficial calm. Marthe, seeing that fate had deprived her of the usual consolations of religion, determined to reward herself by remaining a perfect slattern for the rest of the day. She would not change at all. She would not wash up either the breakfast things or the lunch things. Leaving a small ring of gas alight in the gas stove, she sat down all dirty on a hard chair in front of it and fell into a luxurious catalepsy. In the sitting-room Christine sat upright on the sofa and read lusciously a French translation of East Lynne. She was in no hurry for the man to waken; her sense of time was very imperfect; she was never pricked by the thought that life is short and that many urgent things demand to be done before the grave opens. Nor was she apprehensive of unpleasant complications. The man was in the flat, but it was her flat; her law ran in the flat; and the door was fast against invasion. Still, the gentle snore of the man, rising and falling, dominated the flat, and the fact of his presence preoccupied the one woman in the kitchen and the other in the sitting-room....

Christine noticed that the thickness of the pages read had imperceptibly increased to three-quarters of an inch, while the thickness of the unread pages had diminished to a quarter of an inch. And she also noticed, on the open page, another phenomenon. It was the failing of the day—the faintest shadow on the page. With incredible transience another of those brief interruptions of darkness which in London in winter are called days was ending. She rose and went to the discreetly-curtained window, and, conscious of the extreme propriety of her appearance, boldly pulled aside the curtain and looked across, through naked glass, at the hotel nearly opposite. There was not a sound, not a movement, in Cork Street. Cork Street, the flat, the hotel, the city, the universe, lay entranced and stupefied beneath the grey vapours of the Sabbath. The sensation to Christine was melancholy, but it was exquisitely melancholy.

The solid hotel dissolved, and in its place Christine saw the interesting, pathetic phantom of her own existence. A stern, serious existence, full of disappointments, and not free from dangerous episodes, an existence which entailed much solitude and loss of liberty; but the verdict upon it was that in the main it might easily have been more unsatisfactory than it was. With her indolence and her unappeasable temperament what other vocation indeed, save that of marriage, could she have taken up? And her temperament would have rendered any marriage an impossible prison for her. She was a modest success—her mother had always counselled her against ambition—but she was a success. Her magic power was at its height. She continued to save money and had become a fairly regular frequenter of the West End branch of the Credit Lyonnais. (Incidentally she had come to an arrangement with her Paris landlord.)

But, more important than money, she was saving her health, and especially her complexion—the source of money. Her complexion could still survive the minutest examination. She achieved this supreme end by plenty of sleep and by keeping to the minimum of alcohol. Of course she had to drink professionally; clients insisted; some of them were exhilarated by the spectacle of a girl tipsy; but she was very ingenious in avoiding alcohol. When invited to supper she would respond with an air of restrained eagerness: "Oh, yes, with pleasure!" And then carelessly add: "Unless you would prefer to come quietly home with me. My maid is an excellent cook and one is very comfortable chez-moi." And often the prospect thus sketched would piquantly allure a client. Nevertheless at intervals she could savour a fashionable restaurant as well as any harum-scarum minx there. Her secret fear was still obesity. She was capable of imagining herself at fat as Marthe—and ruined; for, though a few peculiar amateurs appreciated solidity, the great majority of men did not. However, she was not getting stouter.

She had a secret sincere respect for certain of her own qualities; and if women of the world condemned certain other qualities in her, well, she despised women of the world—selfish idlers who did nothing, who contributed nothing, to the sum of life, whereas she was a useful and indispensable member of society, despite her admitted indolence. In this summary way she comforted herself in her loss of caste.

Without Gilbert, of course, her existence would have been fatally dull, and she might have been driven to terrible remedies against ennui and emptiness. The depth and violence of her feeling for Gilbert were indescribable—at any rate by her. She turned again from the darkening window to the sofa and sat down and tried to recall the figures of the dozens of men who had sat there, and she could recall at most six or eight, and Gilbert alone was real. What a paragon!... Her scorn for girls who succumbed to souteneurs was measureless; as a fact she had met few who did.... She would have liked to beautify her flat for Gilbert, but in the first place she did not wish to spend money on it, in the second place she was too indolent to buckle to the enterprise, and in the third place if she beautified it she would be doing so not for Gilbert, but for the monotonous procession of her clients. Her flat was a public resort, and so she would do nothing to it. Besides, she did not care a fig about the look of furniture; the feel of furniture alone interested her; she wanted softness and warmth and no more.

She moved across to the piano, remembering that she had not practised that day, and that she had promised Gilbert to practise every day. He was teaching her. At the beginning she had dreamt of acquiring brilliance such as his on the piano, but she had soon seen the futility of the dream and had moderated her hopes accordingly. Even with terrific efforts she could not make her hands do the things that his did quite easily at the first attempt. She had, for example, abandoned the Rosenkavalier waltz, having never succeeded in struggling through more than about ten bars of it, and those the simplest. But her French dances she had notably improved in. She knew some of them by heart and could patter them off with a very tasteful vivacity. Instead of practising, she now played gently through a slow waltz from memory. If the snoring man was wakened, so much the worse—or so much the better! She went on playing, and evening continued to fall, until she could scarcely see the notes. Then she heard movements in the bedroom, a sigh, a bump, some English words that she did not comprehend. She still, by force of resolution, went on playing, to protect herself, to give herself countenance. At length she saw a dim male figure against the pale oblong of the doorway between the two rooms, and behind the figure a point of glowing red in the stove.

"I say—what time is it?"

She recognised the heavy, resonant, vibrating voice. She had stopped playing because she was making so many mistakes.

"Late—late!" she murmured timidly.

The next moment the figure was kneeling at her feet, and her left hand had been seized in a hot hand and kissed—respectfully.

"Forgive me, you beautiful creature!" begged the deep, imploring voice. "I know I don't deserve it. But forgive me! I worship women, honestly."

Assuredly she had not expected this development. She thought: "Is he not sober yet?" But the query had no conviction in it. She wanted to believe that he was sober. At any rate he had removed the absurd towels from his boots.



Chapter 18

THE MYSTIC

"Say you forgive me!" The officer insisted.

"But there is nothing—"

"Say you forgive me!"

She had counted on a scene of triumph with him when he woke up, anticipating that he was bound to cut a ridiculous appearance. He knelt dimly there without a sign of self-consciousness or false shame. She forgave him.

"Great baby!"

Her hand was kissed again and loosed. She detected a faint, sad smile on his face.

"Ah!"

He rose, towering above her.

"I know I'm a drunken sot," he said. "It was only because I knew I was drunk that I didn't want to come with you last night. And I called this morning to apologise. I did really. I'd no other thought in my poor old head. I wanted you to understand why I tried to hit that chap. The other woman had spoken to me earlier, and I suppose she was jealous, seeing me with you. She said something to him about you, and he laughed, and I had to hit him for laughing. I couldn't hit her. If I'd caught him an upper cut with my left he'd have gone down, and he wouldn't have got up by himself—I warrant you—"

"What did she say?" Christine interrupted, not comprehending the technical idiom and not interested in it.

"I dunno; but he laughed—anyhow he smiled."

Christine turned on the light, and then went quickly to the window to draw the curtains.

"Take off your overcoat," she commanded him kindly.

He obeyed, blinking. She sat down on the sofa and, raising her arms, drew the pins from her hat and put it on the table. She motioned him to sit down too, and left him a narrow space between herself and the arm of the sofa, so that they were very close together. Then, with puckered brow, she examined him.

"I'd better tell you," he said. "It does me good to confess to you, you beautiful thing. I had a bottle of whisky upstairs in my room at the Grosvenor. Night before last, when I arrived there, I couldn't get to sleep in the bed. Hadn't been used to a bed for so long, you know. I had to turn out and roll myself up in a blanket on the floor. And last night I spent drinking by myself. Yes, by myself. Somehow, I don't mind telling you. This morning I must have been worse than I thought I was—"

He stopped and put his hand on her shoulder.

"There are tears in your eyes, little thing. Let me kiss your eyes.... No! I'll respect you. I worship you. You're the nicest little woman I ever saw, and I'm a brute. But let me kiss your eyes."

She held her face seriously, even frowning somewhat. And he kissed her eyes gently, one after the other, and she smelt his contaminated breath.

He was a spare man, with a rather thin, ingenuous, mysterious, romantic, appealing face. It was true that her eyes had moistened. She was touched by his look and his tone as he told her that he had been obliged to lie on the floor of his bedroom in order to sleep. There seemed to be an infinite pathos in that trifle. He was one of the fighters. He had fought. He was come from the horrors of the battle. A man of power. He had killed. And he was probably ten or a dozen years her senior. Nevertheless, she felt herself to be older than he was, wiser, more experienced. She almost wanted to nurse him. And for her he was, too, the protected of the very clement Virgin. Inquiries from Marthe showed that he must have entered the flat at the moment when she was kneeling at the altar and when the Lady of VII Dolours had miraculously granted to her pardon and peace. He was part of the miracle. She had a duty to him, and her duty was to brighten his destiny, to give him joy, not to let him go without a charming memory of her soft womanly acquiescences. At the same time her temperament was aroused by his personality; and she did not forget she had a living to earn; but still her chief concern was his satisfaction, not her own, and her overmastering sentiment one of dutiful, nay religious, surrender. French gratitude of the English fighter, and a mystic, fearful allegiance to the very clement Virgin—these things inspired her.

"Ah!" he sighed. "My throat's like leather." And seeing that she did not follow, he added: "Thirsty." He stretched his arms. She went to the sideboard and half filled a tumbler with soda water from the siphon.

"Drink!" she said, as if to a child.

"Just a dash! The tiniest dash!" he pleaded in his rich voice, with a glance at the whisky. "You don't know how it'll pull me together. You don't know how I need it."

But she did know, and she humoured him, shaking her head disapprovingly.

He drank and smacked his lips.

"Ah!" he breathed voluptuously, and then said in changed, playful accents: "Your French accent is exquisite. It makes English sound quite beautiful. And you're the daintiest little thing."

"Daintiest? What is that? I have much to learn in English. But it is something nice—daintiest; it is a compliment." She somehow understood then that, despite appearances, he was not really a devotee of her sex, that he was really a solitary, that he would never die of love, and that her role was a minor role in his existence. And she accepted the fact with humility, with enthusiasm, with ardour, quite ready to please and to be forgotten. In playing the slave to him she had the fierce French illusion of killing Germans.

Suddenly she noticed that he was wearing two wrist-watches, one close to the other, on his left arm, and she remarked on the strange fact.

The officer's face changed.

"Have you got a wrist-watch?" he demanded.

"No."

Silently he unfastened one of the watches and then said:

"Hold out your beautiful arm."

She did so. He fastened the watch on her arm. She was surprised to see that it was a lady's watch. The black strap was deeply scratched. She privately reconstructed the history of the watch, and decided that it must be a gift returned after a quarrel—and perhaps the scratches on the strap had something to do with the quarrel.

"I beg you to accept it," he said. "I particularly wish you to accept it."

"It's really a lovely watch," she exclaimed. "How kind you are!" She rewarded him with a warm kiss. "I have always wanted a wrist-watch. And now they are so chic. In fact, one must have one." Moving her arm about, she admired the watch at different angles.

"It isn't going. And what's more, it won't go," he said.

"Ah!" she politely murmured.

"No! But do you know why I give you that watch?"

"Why?"

"Because it is a mascot."

"True?"

"Absolutely a mascot. It belonged to a friend of mine who is dead."

"Ah! A lady—"

"No! Not a lady. A man. He gave it me a few minutes before he died—and he was wearing it—and he told me to take it off his arm as soon as he was dead. I did so."

Christine was somewhat alarmed.

"But if he was wearing it when he died, how can it be a mascot?"

"That was what made it a mascot. Believe me, I know about these things. I wouldn't deceive you, and I wouldn't tell you it was a mascot unless I was quite certain." He spoke with a quiet, initiated authority that reassured her entirely and gave her the most perfect confidence.

"And why was your friend wearing a lady's watch?"

"I cannot tell you."

"You do not know?"

"I do not know. But I know that watch is a mascot."

"Was it at the Front—all this?"

The man nodded.

"He was wounded, killed, your friend?"

"No, no, not wounded! He was in my Battery. We were galloping some guns to a new position. He came off his horse—the horse was shot under him—he himself fell in front of a gun. Of course, the drivers dared not stop, and there was no room to swerve. Hence they had to drive right over him ... Later, I came back to him. They had got him as far as the advanced dressing-station. He died in less than an hour...."

Solemnity fell between Christine and her client.

She said softly: "But if it is a mascot—do you not need it, you, at the Front? It is wrong for me to take it."

"I have my own mascot. Nothing can touch me—except my great enemy, and he is not German." With an austere gesture he indicated the glass. His deep voice was sad, but very firm. Christine felt that she was in the presence of an adept of mysticism. The Virgin had sent this man to her, and the man had given her the watch. Clearly the heavenly power had her in its holy charge.

"Ah, yes!" said the man in a new tone, as if realising the solemnity and its inappropriateness, and trying to dissipate it. "Ah, yes! Once we had the day of our lives together, he and I. We got a day off to go and see a new trench mortar, and we did have a time."

"Trench mortar—what is that?"

He explained.

"But tell me how it works," she insisted, not because she had the slightest genuine interest in the technical details of war—for she had not—but because she desired to help him to change the mood of the scene.

"Well, it's not so easy, you know. It was a four and a half pound shell, filled with gun-cotton slabs and shrapnel bullets packed in sawdust. The charge was black powder in a paper bag, and you stuck it at the bottom end of the pipe and put a bit of fuse into the touch-hole—but, of course, you must take care it penetrates the charge. The shell-fuse has a pinner with a detonator with the right length of fuse shoved into it; you wrap some clay round the end of the fuse to stop the flash of the charge from detonating the shell. Well, then you load the shell—"

She comprehended simply nothing, and the man, professionally absorbed, seemed to have no perception that she was comprehending nothing. She scarcely even listened. Her face was set in a courteous, formal smile; but all the time she was thinking that the man, in spite of his qualities, must be lacking in character to give a watch away to a woman to whom he had not been talking for ten minutes. His lack of character was shown also in his unshamed confession concerning his real enemy. Some men would bare their souls to a cocotte in a fashion that was flattering neither to themselves nor to the cocotte, and Christine never really respected such men. She did not really respect this man, but respected, and stood in awe of, his mysticism; and, further, her instinct to satisfy him, to make a spoiled boy of him, was not in the least weakened. Then, just as the man was in the middle of his description of the functioning of the trench mortar, the telephone-bell rang, and Christine excused herself.

The telephone was in the bedroom, not by the bedside—for such a situation had its inconveniences—but in the farthest corner, between the window and the washstand. As she went to the telephone she was preoccupied by one of the major worries of her vocation, the worry of keeping clients out of each other's sight. She wondered who could be telephoning to her on Sunday evening. Not Gilbert, for Gilbert never telephoned on Sunday except in the morning. She insisted, of course, on his telephoning to her daily, or almost daily. She did this to several of her more reliable friends, for there was no surer way of convincing them of the genuineness of her regard for them than to vituperate them when they failed to keep her informed of their health, their spirits, and their doings. In the case of Gilbert, however, her insistence had entirely ceased to be a professional device; she adored him violently.

The telephoner was Gilbert. He made an amazing suggestion; he asked her to come across to his flat, where she had never been and where he had never asked her to go. It had been tacitly and quite amiably understood between them that he was not one who invited young ladies to his own apartments.

Christine cautiously answered that she was not sure whether she could come.

"Are you alone?" he asked pleasantly.

"Yes, quite."

"Well, I will come and fetch you."

She decided exactly what she would do.

"No, no. I will come. I will come now. I shall be enchanted." Purposely she spoke without conviction, maintaining a mysterious reserve.

She returned to the sitting-room and the other man. Fortunately the conversation on the telephone had been in French.

"See!" she said, speaking and feeling as though they were intimates. "I have a lady friend who is ill. I am called to see her. I shall not be long. I swear to you I shall not be long. Wait. Will you wait?"

"Yes," he replied, gazing at her.

"Put yourself at your ease."

She was relieved to find that she could so easily reconcile her desire to please Gilbert with her pleasurable duty towards the protege of the very clement Virgin.



Chapter 19

THE VISIT

In the doorway of his flat Christine kissed G.J. vehemently, but with a certain preoccupation; she was looking about her, very curious. The way in which she raised her veil and raised her face, mysteriously glanced at him, puckered her kind brow—these things thrilled him.

She said:

"You are quite alone, of course."

She said it nicely, even benevolently; nevertheless he seemed to hear her saying: "You are quite alone, or, of course, you wouldn't have let me come."

"I suppose it's through here," she murmured; and without waiting for an invitation she passed direct into the lighted drawing-room and stood there, observant.

He followed her. They were both nervous in the midst of the interior which he was showing her for the first time, and which she was silently estimating. For him she made an exquisite figure in the drawing-room. She was so correct in her church-dress, so modest, prim and demure. And her appearance clashed excitingly with his absolute knowledge of her secret temperament. He had often hesitated in his judgment of her. Was she good enough or was she not? But now he thought more highly of her than ever. She was ideal, divine, the realisation of a dream. And he felt extraordinarily pleased with himself because, after much cautious indecision, he had invited her to visit him. By heaven, she was young physically, and yet she knew everything! Her miraculous youthfulness rejuvenated him.

As a fact he was essentially younger than he had been for years. Not only she, but his war work, had re-vitalised him. He had developed into a considerable personage on the Lechford Committee; he was chairman of a sub-committee; he bore responsibilities and had worries. And for a climax the committee had sent him out to France to report on the accountancy of the hospitals; he had received a special passport; he had had glimpses of the immense and growing military organisation behind the Front; he had chatted in his fluent and idiomatic French with authorities military and civil; he had been ceremoniously complimented on behalf of his committee and country by high officials of the Service de Sante. A wondrous experience, from which he had returned to England with a greatly increased self-respect and a sharper apprehension of the significance of the war.

Life in London was proceeding much as usual. If on the one hand the Treasury had startlingly put an embargo upon capital issues, on the other hand the King had resumed his patronage of the theatre, and the town talked of a new Lady Teazle, and a British dye-industry had been inaugurated. But behind the thin gauze of social phenomena G.J. now more and more realistically perceived and conceived the dark shape of the war as a vast moving entity. He kept concurrently in his mind, each in its place, the most diverse factors and events: not merely the Flemish and the French battles, but the hoped-for intervention of Roumania, the defeat of the Austrians by Servia, the menace of a new Austrian attack on Servia, the rise in prices, the Russian move north of the Vistula, the raid on Yarmouth, the divulgence of the German axioms about frightfulness, the rumour of a definite German submarine policy, the terrible storm that had disorganised the entire English railway-system, and the dim distant Italian earthquake whose death-roll of thousands had produced no emotion whatever on a globe monopolised by one sole interest.

And to-night he had had private early telephonic information of a naval victory in the North Sea in which big German cruisers had been chased to their ignominious lairs and one sunk. Christine could not possibly know of this grand affair, for the Sunday night extras were not yet on the streets; he had it ready for her, eagerly waiting to pour it into her delicious lap along with the inexhaustible treasures of his heart. At that moment he envisaged the victory as a shining jewel specially created in order to give her a throb of joy.

"It seems they picked up a lot of survivors from the Blucher," he finished his narration, rather proudly.

She retorted, quietly but terribly scornful:

"Zut! You English are so naive. Why save them? Why not let them drown? Do they not deserve to drown? Look what they have done, those Boches! And you save them! Why did the German ships run away? They had set a trap—that sees itself—in addition to being cowards. You save them, and you think you have made a fine gesture; but you are nothing but simpletons." She shrugged her shoulders in inarticulate disdain.

Christine's attitude towards the war was uncomplicated by any subtleties. Disregarding all but the utmost spectacular military events, she devoted her whole soul to hatred of the Germans—and all the Germans. She believed them to be damnably cleverer than any other people on earth, and especially than the English. She believed them to be capable of all villainies whatsoever. She believed every charge brought against them, never troubling about evidence. She would have imprisoned on bread and water all Germans and all persons with German names in England. She was really shocked by the transparent idiocy of Britons who opposed the retirement of Prince Louis of Battenberg from the Navy. For weeks she had remained happily in the delusion that Prince Louis had been shot in the Tower, and when the awakening came she had instantly decided that the sinister influence of Lord Haldane and naught else must have saved Prince Louis from a just retribution. She had a vision of England as overrun with innumerable German spies who moved freely at inexpressible speed about the country in high-powered grey automobiles with dazzling headlights, while the marvellously stupid and blind British police touched their hats to them. G.J. smiled at her in silence, aware by experience of the futility of argument. He knew quite a lot of women who had almost precisely Christine's attitude towards the war, and quite a lot of men too. But he could have wished the charming creature to be as desirable for her intelligence as for her physical and her strange spiritual charm: he could have wished her not to be providing yet another specimen of the phenomena of woman repeating herself so monotonously in the various worlds of London. The simpleton of fifty made in his soul an effort to be superior, and failed. "What is it that binds me to her?" he reflected, imagining himself to be on the edge of a divine mystery, and never expecting that he and Christine were the huge contrivances of certain active spermatozoa for producing other active spermatozoa.

Christine did not wonder what bound her to G.J. She knew, though she had never heard such a word as spermatozoa. She had a violent passion for him; it would, she feared, be eternal, whereas his passion for her could not last more than a few years. She knew what the passions of men were—so she said to herself superiorly. Her passion for him was in her smile as she smiled back at his silent smile; but in her smile there was also a convinced apostleship—for she alone was the repository of the truth concerning Germans, which truth she preached to an unheeding world. And there was something else in her baffling smile, namely, a quiet, good-natured, resigned resentment against the richness of his home. He had treated her always with generosity, and at any rate with rather more than fairness; he had not attempted to conceal that he was a man of means; she had nothing to reproach him with financially. And yet she did reproach him—for having been too modest. She had a pretty sure instinct for the price of things, and she knew that this Albany interior must have been very costly; further, it displayed what she deemed to be the taste of an exclusive aristocrat. She saw that she had been undervaluing her Gilbert. The proprietor of this flat would be entitled to seek relations of higher standing than herself in the ranks of cocotterie; he would be justified in spending far more money on a girl than he had spent on her. He was indeed something of a fraud with his exaggerated English horror of parade. And he lived by himself, save for servants; he was utterly free; and yet for two months he had kept her out of these splendours, prevented her from basking in the glow of these chandeliers and lounging on these extraordinary sofas and beholding herself in these terrific mirrors. Even now he was ashamed to let his servants see her. Was it altogether nice of him? Her verdict on him had not the slightest importance—even for herself. In kissing other men she generally kissed him—to cheat her appetite. She was at his mercy, whatever he was. He was useful to her and kind to her; he might be the fount of very important future advantages; but he was more than that, he was indispensable to her. She walked exploringly into the little glittering bedroom. Beneath the fantastic dome of the bed the sheets were turned down and a suit of pyjamas laid out. On a Chinese tray on a lacquered table by the bed was a spirit-lamp and kettle, and a box of matches in an embroidered case with one match sticking out ready to be seized and struck. She gazed, and left the bedroom, saying nothing, and wandered elsewhere. The stairs were so infinitesimal and dear and delicious that they drew from her a sharp exclamation of delight. She ran up them like a child. G.J. turned switches. In the little glittering dining-room a little cold repast was laid for two on an inlaid table covered with a sheet of glass. Christine gazed, saying nothing, and wandered again to the drawing-room floor, while G.J. hovered attendant. She went to the vast Regency desk, idly fingering papers, and laid hold of a document. It was his report on the accountacy of the Lechford Hospitals in France. She scrutinised it carefully, murmuring sentences from it aloud in her French accent. At length she dropped it; she did not put it down, she dropped it, and murmured:

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse