"All that—what good does it do to wounded men?... True, I comprehend nothing of it—I!"
Then she sat to the piano, whose gorgeous and fantastic case might well have intimidated even a professional musician.
"Dare I?" She took off her gloves.
As she began to play her best waltz she looked round at G.J. and said:
"I adore thy staircase."
And that was all she did say about the flat. Still, her demeanour, mystifying as it might be, was benign, benevolent, with a remarkable appearance of genuine humility.
G.J., while she played, discreetly picked up the telephone and got the Marlborough Club. He spoke low, so as not to disturb the waltz, which Christine in her nervousness was stumbling over.
"I want to speak to Mr. Montague Ryper. Yes, yes; he is in the club. I spoke to him about an hour ago, and he is waiting for me to ring him up.... That you, Monty? Well, dear heart, I find I shan't be able to come to-night after all. I should like to awfully, but I've got these things I absolutely must finish.... You understand.... No, no.... Is she, by Jove? By-bye, old thing."
When Christine had pettishly banged the last chord of the coda, he came close to her and said, with an appreciative smile, in English:
"Charming, my little girl."
She shook her head, gazing at the front of the piano.
He murmured—it was almost a whisper:
"Take your things off."
She looked round and up at him, and the light diffused from a thousand lustres fell on her mysterious and absorbed face.
"My little rabbit, I cannot stay with thee to-night."
The words, though he did not by any means take them as final, seriously shocked him. For five days he had known that Mrs. Braiding, subject to his convenience, was going down to Bramshott to see the defender of the Empire. For four days he had hesitated whether or not he should tell her that she might stay away for the night. In the end he had told her to stay away; he had insisted that she should stay; he had protested that he was quite ready to look after himself for a night and a morning. She had gone, unwillingly, having first arranged a meal which he said he was to share with a friend—naturally, for Mrs. Braiding, a male friend. She had wanted him to dine at the club, but he had explained to Mrs. Braiding that he would be busy upon hospital work, and that another member of the committee would be coming to help him—the friend, of course. Even when he had contrived this elaborate and perfect plot he had still hesitated about the bold step of inviting Christine to the flat. The plan was extremely attractive, but it held dangers. Well, he had invited her. If she had not been at home, or if she had been unwilling to come, he would not have felt desolated; he would have accepted the fact as perhaps providential. But she was at home; she was willing; she had come. She was with him; she had put him into an ecstasy of satisfaction and anticipation. One evening alone with her in his own beautiful flat! What a frame for her and for love! And now she said that she would not stay. It was incredible; it could not be permitted.
"But why not? We are happy together. I have just refused a dinner because of—this. Didn't you hear me on the 'phone?"
"Thou wast wrong," she smiled. "I am not worth a dinner. It is essential that I should return home. I am tired—tired. It is Sunday night, and I have sworn to myself that I will pass this evening at home—alone."
Exasperating, maddening creature! He thought: "I fancied I knew her, and I don't know her. I'm only just beginning to know her." He stared steadily at her soft, serious, worried, enchanting face, and tried to see through it into the arcana of her queer little brain. He could not. The sweet face foiled him.
"Then why come?"
"Because I wished to be nice to thee, to prove to thee how nice I am."
She seized her gloves. He saw that she meant to go. His demeanour changed. He was aware of his power over her, and he would use it. She was being subtle; but he could be subtle too, far subtler than Christine. True, he had not penetrated her face. Nevertheless his instinct, and his male gift of ratiocination, informed him that beneath her gentle politeness she was vexed, hurt, because he had got rid of Mrs. Braiding before receiving her. She had her feelings, and despite her softness she could resent. Still, her feelings must not be over-indulged; they must not be permitted to make a fool of her. He said, rather teasingly, but firmly:
"I know why she refuses to stay."
She cried, plaintive:
"It is not that I have another rendezvous. No! But naturally thou thinkest it is that."
He shook his head.
"Not at all. The little silly wants to go back home because she finds there is no servant here. She is insulted in her pride. I noticed it in her first words when she came in. And yet she ought to know—"
Christine gave a loud laugh that really disconcerted him.
"Au revoir, my old one. Embrace me." She dropped the veil.
He could play a game of pretence longer than she could. She moved with dignity towards the door, but never would she depart like that. He knew that when it came to the point she was at the mercy of her passion for him. She had confessed the tyranny of her passion, as such victims foolishly will. Moreover he had perceived it for himself. He followed her to the door. At the door she would relent. And, sure enough, at the door she leapt at him and clasped his neck with fierceness and fiercely kissed him through her veil, and exclaimed bitterly:
"Ah! Thou dost not love me, but I love thee!"
But the next instant she had managed to open the door and she was gone.
He sprang out to the landing. She was running down the stone stairs.
She did not stop. G.J. might be marvellously subtle; but he could not be subtle enough to divine that on that night Christine happened to be the devotee of the most clement Virgin, and that her demeanour throughout the visit had been contrived, half unconsciously, to enable her to perform a deed of superb self-denial and renunciation in the service of the dread goddess. He ate most miserably alone, facing an empty chair; the desolate solitude of the evening was terrible; he lacked the force to go seeking succour in clubs.
A single light burned in Christine's bedroom. It stood low on the pedestal by the wide bed and was heavily shaded, so that only one half of the bed, Christine's half, was exempt from the general gloom of the chamber. The officer had thus ordained things. The white, plump arm of Christine was imprisoned under his neck. He had ordered that too. He was asleep. Christine watched him. On her return from the Albany she had found him apparently just as she had left him, except that he was much less talkative. Indeed, though unswervingly polite—even punctilious with her—he had grown quite taciturn and very obstinate and finicking in self-assertion. There was no detail as to which he did not formulate a definite wish. Yet not until by chance her eye fell on the whisky decanter did she perceive that in her absence he had been copiously drinking again. He was not, however, drunk. Remorseful at her defection, she constituted herself his slave; she covered him with acquiescences; she drank his tippler's breath. And he was not particularly responsive. He had all his own ideas. He ought, for example, to have been hungry, but his idea was that he was not hungry; therefore he had refused her dishes.
She knew him better now. Save on one subject, discussed in the afternoon, he was a dull, narrow, direct man, especially in love. He had no fancy, no humour, no resilience. Possibly he worshipped women, as he had said, perhaps devoutly; but his worship of the individual girl tended more to ritualism than to ecstasy. The Parisian devotee was thrown away on him, and she felt it. But not with bitterness. On the contrary, she liked him to be as he was; she liked to be herself unappreciated, neglected, bored. She thought of the delights which she had renounced in the rich and voluptuous drawing-room of the Albany; she gazed under the reddish illumination at the tedious eternal market-place on which she exposed her wares, and which in Tottenham Court Road went by the name of bedstead; and she gathered nausea and painful longing to her breast as the Virgin gathered the swords of the Dolours at the Oratory, and was mystically happy in the ennui of serving the miraculous envoy of the Virgin. And when Marthe, uneasy, stole into the sitting-room, Christine, the door being ajar, most faintly transmitted to her a command in French to tranquillise herself and go away. And outside a boy broke the vast lull of the Sunday night with a shattering cry of victory in the North Sea.
Possibly it was this cry that roused the officer out of his doze. He sat up, looked unseeing at Christine's bright smile and at the black gauze that revealed the reality of her youth, and then reached for his tunic which hung at the foot of the bed.
"You asked about my mascot," he said, drawing from a pocket a small envelope of semi-transparent oilskin. "Here it is. Now that is a mascot!"
He had wakened under the spell of his original theme, of his sole genuine subject. He spoke with assurance, as one inspired. His eyes, as they masterfully encountered Christine's eyes, had a strange, violent, religious expression. Christine's eyes yielded to his, and her smile vanished in seriousness. He undid the envelope and displayed an oval piece of red cloth with a picture of Christ, his bleeding heart surrounded by flames and thorns and a great cross in the background.
"That," said the officer, "will bring anybody safe home again." Christine was too awed even to touch the red cloth. The vision of the dishevelled, inspired man in khaki shirt, collar and tie, holding the magic saviour in his thin, veined, aristocratic hand, powerfully impressed her, and she neither moved nor spoke.
"Have you seen the 'Touchwood' mascot?" he asked. She signified a negative, and then nervously fingered her gauze. "No? It's a well-known mascot. Sort of tiny imp sort of thing, with a huge head, glittering eyes, a khaki cap of oak, and crossed legs in gold and silver. I hear that tens of thousands of them are sold. But there is nothing like my mascot."
"Where have you got it?" Christine asked in her queer but improving English.
"Where did I get it? Just after Mons, on the road, in a house."
"Have you been in the retreat?"
"And the angels? Have you seen them?"
He paused, and then said with solemnity:
"Was it an angel I saw?... I was lying doggo by myself in a hole, and bullets whizzing over me all the time. It was nearly dark, and a figure in white came and stood by the hole; he stood quite still and the German bullets went on just the same. Suddenly I saw he was wounded in the hand; it was bleeding. I said to him: 'You're hit in the hand.' 'No,' he said—he had a most beautiful voice—'that is an old wound. It has reopened lately. I have another wound in the other hand.' And he showed me the other hand, and that was bleeding too. Then the firing ceased, and he pointed, and although I'd eaten nothing at all that day and was dead-beat, I got up and ran the way he pointed, and in five minutes I ran into what remained of my unit."
The officer's sonorous tones ceased; he shut his lips tightly, as though clinching the testimony, and the life of the bedroom was suspended in absolute silence.
"That's what I saw.... And with the lack of food my brain was absolutely clear."
Christine, on her back, trembled.
The officer replaced his mascot. Then he said, waving the little bag:
"Of course, there are fellows who don't need mascots. Fellows that if their name isn't written on a bullet or a piece of shrapnel it won't reach them any more than a letter not addressed to you would reach you. Now my Colonel, for instance—it was he who told me how good my mascot was—well, he can stop shells, turn 'em back. Yes. He's just got the D.S.O. And he said to me, 'Edgar,' he said, 'I don't deserve it. I got it by inspiration.' And so he did.... What time's that?"
The gilded Swiss clock in the drawing-room was striking its tiny gong.
The officer looked dully at his wrist-watch which, not having been wound on the previous night, had inconsiderately stopped.
"Then I can't catch my train at Victoria." He spoke in a changed voice, lifeless, and sank back on the bed.
"Train? What train?"
"Nothing. Only the leave train. My leave is up to-night. To-morrow I ought to have been back in the trenches."
"But you have told me nothing of it! If you had told me—But not one word, my dear."
"When one is with a woman—!"
He seemed gloomily and hopelessly to reproach her.
"What o'clock—your train?"
"But you can catch it. You must catch it."
He shook his head. "It's fate," he muttered, bitterly resigned. "What is written is written."
Christine sprang to the floor, shuffled off the black gauze in almost a single movement, and seized some of her clothes.
"Quick! You shall catch your train. The clock is wrong—the clock is too soon."
She implored him with positive desperation. She shook him and dragged him, energised in an instant by the overwhelming idea that for him to miss his train would be fatal to him—and to her also. She could and did believe in the efficacy of mascots against bullets and shrapnel and bayonets. But the traditions of a country of conscripts were ingrained in her childhood and youth, and she had not the slightest faith in the efficacy of no matter what mascot to protect from the consequences of indiscipline. And already during her short career in London she had had good reason to learn the sacredness of the leave-train. Fantastic tales she had heard of capital executions for what seemed trifling laxities—tales whispered half proudly by the army in the rooms of horrified courtesans—tales in which the remote and ruthless imagined figure of the Grand Provost-Marshal rivalled that of God himself. And, moreover, if this man fell into misfortune through her, she would eternally lose the grace of the most clement Virgin who had confided him to her and who was capable of terrible revenges. She secretly called on the Virgin. Nay, she became the Virgin. She found a miraculous strength, and furiously pulled the poor sot out of bed. The fibres of his character had been soaked away, and she mystically replaced them with her own. Intimidated and, as it were, mesmerised, he began to dress. She rushed as she was to the door.
"Madame?" replied the fat woman in alarm.
"Run for a taxi."
"But, madame, it is raining terribly."
"Je m'en fous! Run for a taxi."
Turning back into the room she repeated; "The clock is too soon." But she knew that it was not. Nearly nude, she put on a hat.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Do not worry. I come with you."
She took a skirt and a jersey and then threw a cloak over everything. He was very slow; he could find nothing; he could button nothing. She helped him. But when he began to finger his leggings with the endless laces and the innumerable eyelets she snatched them from him.
"Those—in the taxi," she said.
"But there is no taxi."
"There will be a taxi. I have sent the maid."
At the last moment, as she was hurrying him on to the staircase, she grasped her handbag. They stumbled one after the other down the dark stairs. He had now caught the infection of her tremendous anxiety. She opened the front door. The glistening street was absolutely empty; the rain pelted on the pavements and the roadway, each drop falling like a missile and raising a separate splash, so that it seemed as if the flood on the earth was leaping up to meet the flood from the sky.
"Come!" she said with hysterical impatience. "We cannot wait. There will be a taxi in Piccadilly, I know."
Simultaneously a taxi swerved round the corner of Burlington Street. Marthe stood on the step next to the driver. As the taxi halted she jumped down. Her drenched white apron was over her head and she was wet to the skin.
In the taxi, while the officer struck matches, Christine knelt and fastened his leggings; he could not have performed the nice operation for himself. And all the time she was doing something else—she was pushing forward the whole taxi, till her muscles ached with the effort. Then she sat back on the seat, smoothed her hair under the hat, unclasped the bag, and patted her features delicately with the powder-puff. Neither knew the exact time, and in vain they tried to discern the faces of clocks that flew past them in the heavy rain. Christine sighed and said:
"These tempests. This rain. They say it is because of the big cannons—which break the clouds."
The officer, who had the air of being in a dream, suddenly bent towards her and replied with a most strange solemnity:
"It is to wash away the blood!"
She had not thought of that. Of course it was! She sighed again.
As they neared Victoria the officer said:
"My kit-bag! It's at the hotel. Shall I have time to pay my bill and get it? The Grosvenor's next to the station, you know."
She answered unhesitatingly: "You will go direct to the train. I will try the hotel."
"Drive round to the Grosvenor entrance like hell," he instructed the driver when the taxi stopped in the station yard.
In the hotel she would never have got the bag, owing to her difficulties in explaining the situation in English to a haughty reception-clerk, had not a French-Swiss waiter been standing by. She flung imploring French sentences at the waiter like a stream from a hydrant. The bill was produced in less than half a minute. She put down money of her own to pay for it, for she had refused to wait at the station while the officer fished in the obscurities of his purse. The bag, into which a menial had crammed a kit probably scattered about the bedroom, arrived unfastened. Once more at the station, she gave the cabman all the change which she had received at the hotel counter. By a miracle she made a porter understand what was needed and how urgently it was needed. He said the train was just going, and ran. She ran after him. The ticket-collector at the platform gate allowed the porter to pass, but raised an implacable arm to prevent her from following. She had no platform ticket, and she could not possibly be travelling by the train. Then she descried her officer standing at an open carriage door in conversation with another officer and tapping his leggings with his cane. How aristocratic and disdainful and self-absorbed the pair looked! They existed in a world utterly different from hers. They were the triumphant and negligent males. She endeavoured to direct the porter with her pointing hand, and then, hysterical again, she screamed out the one identifying word she knew: "Edgar!"
It was lost in the resounding echoes of the immense vault. Edgar certainly did not hear it. But he caught the great black initials, "E.W." on the kit-bag as the porter staggered along, and stopped the aimless man, and the kit-bag was thrown into the apartment. Doors were now banging. Christine saw Edgar take out his purse and fumble at it. But Edgar's companion pushed Edgar into the train and himself gave a tip which caused the porter to salute extravagantly. The porter, at any rate, had been rewarded. Christine began to cry, not from chagrin, but with relief. Women on the platform waved absurd little white handkerchiefs. Heads and khaki shoulders stuck out of the carriage windows of the shut train. A small green flag waved; arms waved like semaphores. The train ought to have been gliding away, but something delayed it, and it was held as if spellbound under the high, dim semicircle of black glass, amid the noises of steam, the hissing of electric globes, the horrible rattle of luggage trucks, the patter of feet, and the vast, murmuring gloom. Christine saw Edgar leaning from a window and gazing anxiously about. The little handkerchiefs were still courageously waving, and she, too, waved a little wisp. But he did not see her; he was not looking in the right place for her.
She thought: Why did he not stay near the gate for me? But she thought again: Because he feared to miss the train. It was necessary that he should be close to his compartment. He knows he is not quite sober.
She wondered whether he had any relatives, or any relations with another woman. He seemed to be as solitary as she was.
On the same side of the platform-gate as herself a very tall, slim, dandy of an officer was bending over a smartly-dressed girl, smiling at her and whispering. Suddenly the girl turned from him with a disdainful toss of the head and said in a loud, clear Cockney voice:
"You can't tell the tale to me, young man. This is my second time on earth."
Christine heard the words, but was completely puzzled. The train moved, at first almost imperceptibly. The handkerchiefs showed extreme agitation. Then a raucous song floated from the train:
"John Brown's baby's got a pimple on his—shoooo— John Brown's baby's got a pimple on his—shoooo— John Brown's baby's got a pimple on his—shoooo— and we all went marching home. Glory, glory, Alleluia! Glory, glory ..."
The rails showed empty where the train had been, and the sound of the song faded and died. Some of the women were crying. Christine felt that she was in a land of which she understood nothing but the tears. She also felt very cold in the legs.
GETTING ON WITH THE WAR
The floors of the Reynolds Galleries were covered with some hundreds of very well-dressed and very expensively-dressed women and some scores of men. The walls were covered with a loan collection of oil-paintings, water-colour drawings, and etchings—English and French, but chiefly English. A very large proportion of the pictures were portraits of women done by a select group of very expensive painters in the highest vogue. These portraits were the main attraction of the elegant crowd, which included many of the sitters; as for the latter, they failed to hide under an unconvincing mask of indifference their curiosity as to their own effectiveness in a frame.
The portraits for the most part had every quality save that of sincerity. They were transcendantly adroit and they reeked of talent. They were luxurious, refined, sensual, titillating, exquisite, tender, compact, of striking poses and subtle new tones. And while the heads were well finished and instantly recognisable as likenesses, the impressionism of the hands and of the provocative draperies showed that the artists had fully realised the necessity of being modern. The mischief and the damnation were that the sitters liked them because they produced in the sitters the illusion that the sitters were really what the sitters wanted to be, and what indeed nearly every woman in the galleries wanted to be; and the ideal of the sitters was a low ideal. The portraits flattered; but only a few guessed that they flattered ignobly; scarcely any even of the artists guessed that.
The portraits were a success; the exhibition was a success; and all the people at the private view justly felt that they were part of and contributing to the success. And though seemingly the aim of everybody was to prove to everybody else that no war, not the greatest war, could disturb the appearances of social life in London, yet many were properly serious and proud in their seriousness. It was the autumn of 1915. British troops were triumphantly on the road to Kut, and British forces were approaching decisive victory in Gallipoli. The Russians had turned on their pursuers. The French had initiated in Champagne an offensive so dramatic that it was regarded as the beginning of the end. And the British on their left, in the taking of Loos and Hill 70, had achieved what might have been regarded as the greatest success on the Western Front, had it not been for the rumour, current among the informed personages at the Reynolds Galleries, that recent bulletins had been reticent to the point of deception and that, in fact, Hill 70 had ceased to be ours a week earlier. Further, Zeppelins had raided London and killed and wounded numerous Londoners, and all present in the Reynolds Galleries were aware, from positive statements in the newspapers, that whereas German morale was crumbling, all Londoners, including themselves, had behaved with the most marvellous stoic calm in the ordeal of the Zeppelins.
The assembly had a further and particular reason for serious pride. It was getting on with the war, and in a most novel way. Private views are customarily views gratis. But the entry to this private view cost a guinea, and there was absolutely no free list. The guineas were going to the support of the Lechford Hospitals in France. The happy idea was G.J.'s own, and Lady Queenie Paulle and her mother had taken the right influential measures to ensure its grandiose execution. A queen had visited the private view for half an hour. Thus all the very well-dressed and very expensively-dressed women, and all the men who admired and desired them as they moved, in voluptuous perfection, amid dazzling pictures with the soft illumination of screened skylights above and the reflections in polished parquet below—all of both sexes were comfortably conscious of virtue in the undoubted fact that they were helping to support two renowned hospitals where at that very moment dissevered legs and arms were being thrown into buckets.
In a little room at the end of the galleries was a small but choice collection of the etchings of Felicien Rops: a collection for connoisseurs, as the critics were to point out in the newspapers the next morning. For Rops, though he had an undeniable partiality for subjects in which ugly and prurient women displayed themselves in nothing but the inessentials of costume, was a classic before whom it was necessary to bow the head in homage.
G.J. was in this room in company with a young and handsome Staff officer, Lieutenant Molder, home on convalescent leave from Suvla Bay. Mr. Molder had left Oxford in order to join the army; he had behaved admirably, and well earned the red shoulder-ornaments which pure accident had given him. He was a youth of artistic and literary tastes, with genuine ambitions quite other than military, and after a year of horrible existence in which he had hungered for the arts more than for anything, he was solacing and renewing himself in the contemplation of all the masterpieces that London could show. He greatly esteemed G.J.'s connoisseurship, and G.J. had taken him in hand. At the close of a conscientious and highly critical round of the galleries they had at length reached the Rops room, and they were discussing every aspect of Rops except his lubricity, when Lady Queenie Paulle approached them from behind. Molder was the first to notice her and turn. He blushed.
"Well, Queen," said G.J., who had already had several conversations with her in the galleries that day and on the previous days of preparation.
"Well, I hope you're satisfied with the results of your beautiful idea."
The young woman, slim and pale, had long since gone out of mourning. She was most brilliantly attired, and no detail lacked to the perfection of her modish outfit. Indeed, just as she was, she would have made a marvellous mannequin, except for the fact that mannequins are not usually allowed to perfume themselves in business hours. Her thin, rather high voice, which somehow matched her complexion and carriage, had its customary tone of amiable insolence, and her tired, drooping eyes their equivocal glance, as she faced the bearded and grave middle-aged bachelor and the handsome, muscular boy; even the boy was older than Queen, yet she seemed to condescend to them as if she were an immortal from everlasting to everlasting and could teach both of them all sorts of useful things about life. Nobody could have guessed from that serene demeanour that her self-satisfaction was marred by any untoward detail whatever. Yet it was. All her frocks were designed to conceal a serious defect which seriously disturbed her: she was low-breasted.
G.J. said bluntly:
"May I present Mr. Molder?—Lady Queenie Paulle."
And he said to himself, secretly annoyed:
"Dash the infernal chit. That's what she's come for. Now she's got it."
She gave the slightest, dubious nod to Molder, who, having faced fighting Turks with an equanimity equal to Queenie's own, was yet considerably flurried by the presence and the gaze of this legendary girl. Queenie, enjoying his agitation, but affecting to ignore him, began to talk quickly in the vein of exclusive gossip; she mentioned in a few seconds the topics of the imminent entry of Bulgaria into the war, the maturing Salonika expedition, the confidential terrible utterances of K. on recruiting, and, of course, the misfortune (due to causes which Queenie had at her finger-ends) round about Loos. Then in regard to the last she suddenly added, quite unjustifiably implying that the two phenomena were connected: "You know, mother's hospitals are frightfully full just now.... But, of course, you do know. That's why I'm so specially glad to-day's such a success."
Thus in a moment, and with no more than ten phrases, she had conveyed the suggestion that while mere soldiers, ageing men-about-town, and the ingenuous mass of the public might and did foolishly imagine the war to be a simple affair, she herself, by reason of her intelligence and her private sources of knowledge, had a full, unique apprehension of its extremely complex and various formidableness. G.J. resented the familiar attitude, and he resented Queenie's very appearance and the appearance of the entire opulent scene. In his head at that precise instant were not only the statistics of mortality and major operations at the Lechford Hospitals, but also the astounding desolating tales of the handsome boy about folly, ignorance, stupidity and martyrdoms at Suvla.
He said, with the peculiar polite restraint that in him masked emotion and acrimony:
"Yes, I'm glad it's a success. But the machinery of it is perhaps just slightly out of proportion to the results. If people had given to the hospitals what they have spent on clothes to come here and what they've paid painters so that they could see themselves on the walls, we should have made twenty times as much as we have made—a hundred times as much. Why, good god! Queen, the whole afternoon's takings wouldn't buy what you're wearing now, to say nothing of the five hundred other women here." His eye rested on the badge of her half-brother's regiment which she had had reproduced in diamonds.
At this juncture he heard himself addressed in a hearty, heavy voice as "G.J., old soul." An officer with the solitary crown on his sleeve, bald, stoutish, but probably not more than forty-five, touched him—much gentler than he spoke—on the shoulder.
"Craive, my son! You back! Well, it's startling to see you at a picture-show, anyhow."
The Major, saluting Lady Queenie as a distant acquaintance, retorted:
"Morally, you owe me a guinea, my dear G.J. I called at the flat, and the young woman there told me you'd surely be here."
While they were talking G.J. could hear Queenie Paulle and Molder:
"Where are you back from?"
"Suvla, Lady Queenie."
"You must be oozing with interest and actuality. Tell G.J. to bring you to tea one day, quite, quite soon, will you? I'll tell him." And Molder murmured something fatuously conventional. G.J. showed decorously that he had caught his own name. Whereupon Lady Queenie, instead of naming a day for tea, addressed him almost bitterly:
"G.J., what's come over you? What in the name of Pan do you suppose all you males are fighting each other for?" She paused effectively. "Good god! If I began to dress like a housemaid the Germans would be in London in a month. Our job as women is quite delicate enough without you making it worse by any damned sentimental superficiality.... I want you to bring Mr. Molder to tea to-morrow, and if you can't come he must come alone...."
With a last strange look at Molder she retired into the glitter of the crowded larger room.
"She been driving any fresh men to suicide lately?" Major Craive demanded acidly under his breath.
G.J. raised his eyebrows.
Then: "That's not you, Frankie!" said the Major with a start of recognition towards the Staff lieutenant.
"Yes, sir," said Molder.
They shook hands. At the previous Christmas they had lain out together on the cliffs of the east coast in wild weather, waiting to repel a phantom army of thirty thousand Germans.
"It was the red hat put me off," the Major explained.
"Not my fault, sir," Molder smiled.
"Devilish glad to see you, my boy."
G.J. murmured to Molder:
"You don't want to go and have tea with her, do you?"
And Molder answered, with the somewhat fatuous, self-conscious grin that no amount of intelligence can keep out of the face of a good-looking fellow who knows that he has made an impression:
"Well, I don't know—"
G.J. raised his eyebrows again, but with indulgence, and winked at Craive.
The Major shut his lips tight, then stood with his mouth open for a second or two in the attitude of a man suddenly receiving the onset of a great and original idea.
"She's right, hang it all!" he exclaimed. "She's right! Of course she is! Why, what's all this"—he waved an arm at the whole scene—"what's all this but sex? Look at 'em! And look at their portraits! You aren't going to tell me! What's the good of pretending? Hang it all, when my own aunt comes down to breakfast in a low-cut blouse that would have given her fits even in the evening ten years ago!... And jolly fine too. I'm all for it. The more of it the merrier—that's what I say. And don't any of you high-brows go trying to alter it. If you do I retire, and you can defend your own bally Front."
"Craive," said G.J. affectionately, "until you and Queen came along Molder and I really thought we were at a picture exhibition, and we still think so, don't we, Molder?" The Lieutenant nodded. "Now, as you're here, just let me show you one or two things."
"Oh!" breathed the Major, "have pity. It's not any canvas woman that I want—By Jove!" He caught sight of an invention of Felicien Rops, a pig on the end of a string, leading, or being driven by, a woman who wore nothing but stockings, boots and a hat. "What do you call that?"
"My dear fellow, that's one of the most famous etchings in the world."
"Is it?" the Major said. "Well, I'm not surprised. There's more in this business than I imagined." He set himself to examine all the exhibits by Rops, and when he had finished he turned to G.J.
"Listen here, G.J. We're going to make a night of it. I've decided on that."
"Sorry, dear heart," said G.J. "I'm engaged with Molder to-night. We shall have some private chamber-music at my rooms—just for ourselves. You ought to come. Much better for your health."
"What time will the din be over?"
"Now I say again—listen here. Let's talk business. I'll come to your chamber-music. I've been before, and survived, and I'll come again. But afterwards you'll come with me to the Guinea-Fowl."
"But, my dear chap, I can't throw Molder out into Vigo Street at eleven o'clock," G.J. protested, startled by the blunt mention of the notorious night-club in the young man's presence.
"Naturally you can't. He'll come along with us. Frankie and I have nearly fallen into the North Sea or German Ocean together, haven't we, Frankie? It'll be my show. And I'll turn up with the stuff—one, two or three pretty ladies according as your worship wishes."
G.J. was now more than startled; he was shocked; he felt his cheeks reddening. It was the presence of Molder that confused him. Never had he talked to Molder on any subjects but the arts, and if they had once or twice lighted on the topic of women it was only in connection with the arts. He was really interested in and admired Molder's unusual aesthetic intelligence, and he had done what he could to foster it, and he immensely appreciated Molder's youthful esteem for himself. Moreover, he was easily old enough to be Molder's father. It seemed to him that though two generations might properly mingle in anything else, they ought not to mingle in licence. Craive's crudity was extraordinary.
"See here!" Craive went on, serious and determined. "You know the sort of thing I've come from. I got four days unexpected. I had to run down to my uncle's. The old things would have died if I hadn't. To-morrow I go back. This is my last night. I haven't had a scratch up to now. But my turn's coming, you bet. Next week I may be in heaven or hell or anywhere, or blind for life or without my legs or any damn thing you please. But I'm going to have to-night, and you're going to join in."
G.J. saw the look of simple, half-worshipful appeal that sometimes came into Craive's rather ingenuous face. He well knew that look, and it always touched him. He remembered certain descriptive letters which he had received from Craive at the Front,—they corresponded faithfully. He could not have explained the intimacy of his relations with Craive. They had begun at a club, over cards. The two had little in common—Craive was a stockbroker when world-wars did not happen to be in progress—but G.J. greatly liked him because, with all his crudity, he was such a decent, natural fellow, so kind-hearted, so fresh and unassuming. And Craive on his part had developed an admiration for G.J. which G.J. was quite at a loss to account for. The one clue to the origin of the mysterious attachment between them had been a naive phrase which he had once overheard Craive utter to a mutual acquaintance: "Old G.J.'s so subtle, isn't he?"
G.J. said to himself, reconsidering the proposal:
"And why on earth not?"
And then aloud, soothingly, to Craive:
"All right! All right!"
The Major brightened and said to Molder:
"You'll come, of course?"
"Oh, rather!" answered Molder, quite simply.
And G.J., again to himself, said:
"I am a simpleton."
The Major's pleading, and the spectacle of the two officers with their precarious hold on life, humiliated G.J. as well as touched him. And, if only in order to avoid the momentary humiliation, he would have been well content to be able to roll back his existence and to have had a military training and to be with them in the sacred and proud uniform.
"Now listen here!" said the Major. "About the aforesaid pretty ladies—"
There they stood together in the corner, hiding several of Rops's eccentricities, ostensibly discussing art, charity, world-politics, the strategy of war, the casualty lists.
Christine found the night at the guinea-fowl rather dull. The supper-room, garish and tawdry in its decorations, was functioning as usual. The round tables and the square tables, the tables large and the tables small, were well occupied with mixed parties and couples. Each table had its own yellow illumination, and the upper portion of the room, with a certain empty space in the centre of it, was bafflingly shadowed. Between two high, straight falling curtains could be seen a section of the ball-room, very bright against the curtains, with the figures of dancers whose bodies seemed to be glued to each other, pale to black or pale to khaki, passing slowly and rhythmically across. The rag-time music, over a sort of ground-bass of syncopated tom-tom, surged through the curtains like a tide of the sea of Aphrodite, and bathed everyone at the supper-tables in a mysterious aphrodisiacal fluid. The waiters alone were insensible to its influence. They moved to and fro with the impassivity and disdain of eunuchs separated for ever from the world's temptations. Loud laughs or shrill little shrieks exploded at intervals from the sinister melancholy of the interior.
On Christine's left, at a round table in a corner, sat G.J.; on her right, the handsome boy Molder. On Molder's right, Miss Aida Altown spread her amplitude, and on G.J.'s left was a young girl known to the company as Alice. Major Craive, the host, the splendid quality of whose hospitality was proved by the flowers, the fruit, the bottles, the cigar-boxes and the cigarette-boxes on the table, sat between Alice and Aida Altown.
The three women on principle despised and scorned each other with false warm smiles and sudden outbursts of compliment. Christine knew that the other two detested her as being "one of those French girls" who, under the protection of Free Trade, came to London and, by their lack of scruple and decency, took the bread out of the mouths of the nice, modest, respectable, English girls. She on her side disdained both of them, not merely because they were courtesans (which somehow Christine considered she really was not), but also for their characteristic insipidity, lackadaisicalness and ignorance of the technique of the profession. They expected to be paid for doing nothing.
Aida Altown she knew by sight as belonging to a great rival Promenade. Aida had reached the purgatory of obesity which Christine always feared. Despite the largeness of her mass, she was a very beautiful woman in the English manner, blonde, soft, idle, without a trace of temperament, and incomparably dull and stupid. But she was ageing; she had been favourably known in the West End continuously (save for a brief escapade in New York) for perhaps a quarter of a century. She was at the period when such as she realise with flaccid alarm that they have no future, and when they are ready to risk grave imprudences for youths who feel flattered by their extreme maturity. Christine gazed calmly at her, supercilious and secure in the immense advantage of at least fifteen years to the good.
And if she shrugged her shoulders at Aida for being too old, Christine did the same at Alice for being too young. Alice was truly a girl—probably not more than seventeen. Her pert, pretty, infantile face was an outrage against the code. She was a mere amateur, with everything to learn, absurdly presuming upon the very quality which would vanish first. And she was a fool. She obviously had no sense, not even the beginnings of sense. She was wearing an impudently expensive frock which must have cost quite five times as much as Christine's own, though the latter in the opinion of the wearer was by far the more authentically chic. And she talked proudly at large about her losses on the turf and of the swindles practised upon her. Christine admitted that the girl could make plenty of money, and would continue to make money for a long, long time, bar accidents, but her final conclusion about Alice was: "She will end on straw."
The supper was over. The conversation had never been vivacious, and now it was half-drowned in champagne. The girls had wanted to hear about the war, but the Major, who had arrived in a rather dogmatic mood, put an absolute ban on shop. Alice had then kept the talk, such as it was, upon her favourite topic—revues. She was an encyclopaedia of knowledge concerning revues past, present, and to come. She had once indeed figured for a few grand weeks in a revue chorus, thereby acquiring unique status in her world. The topic palled upon both Aida and Christine. And Christine had said to herself: "They are aware of nothing, those two," for Aida and Alice had proved to be equally and utterly ignorant of the superlative social event of the afternoon, the private view at the Reynolds Galleries—at which indeed Christine had not assisted, but of which she had learnt all the intimate details from G.J. What, Christine demanded, could be done with such a pair of ninnies?
She might have been excused for abandoning all attempt to behave as a woman of the world should at a supper party. Nevertheless, she continued good-naturedly and conscientiously in the performance of her duty to charm, to divert, and to enliven. After all, the ladies were there to captivate the males, and if Aida and Alice dishonestly flouted obligations, Christine would not. She would, at any rate, show them how to behave.
She especially attended to G.J., who having drunk little, was taciturn and preoccupied in his amiabilities. She divined that something was the matter, but she could not divine that his thoughts were saddened by the recollection at the Guinea-Fowl of the lovely music which he had heard earlier in his drawing-room and by the memory of the Major's letters and of what the Major had said at the Reynolds Galleries about the past and the possibilities of the future. The Major was very benevolently intoxicated, and at short intervals he raised his glass to G.J., who did not once fail to respond with an affectionate smile which Christine had never before seen on G.J.'s face.
Suddenly Alice, who had been lounging semi-somnolent with an extinct cigarette in her jewelled fingers, sat up and said in the uncertain voice of an inexperienced girl who has ceased to count the number of glasses emptied:
"Shall I recite? I've been trained, you know."
And, not waiting for an answer, she stood and recited, with a surprisingly correct and sure pronunciation of difficult words to show that she had, in fact, received some training:
Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicean barks of yore, That gently o'er a perfumed sea The weary, wayworn wanderer bore To his own native shore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam, Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, Thy naiad airs have brought me home To the glory that was Greece, To the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! In your brilliant window niche, How statue-like I see thee stand, The agate lamp within thy hand! Ah, Psyche from the regions which Are Holy Land!
The uncomprehended marvellous poem, having startled the whole room, ceased, and the rag-time resumed its sway. A drunken "Bravo!" came from one table, a cheer from another. Young Alice nodded an acknowledgment and sank loosely into her chair, exhausted by her last effort against the spell of champagne and liqueurs. And the naive, big Major, bewitched by the child, subsided into soft contact with her, and they almost tearfully embraced. A waiter sedately replaced a glass which Alice's drooping, negligent hand had over-turned, and wiped the cloth. G.J. was silent. The whole table was silent.
"Est-ce de la grande poesie?" asked Christine of G.J., who did not reply. Christine, though she condemned Alice as now disgusting, had been taken aback and, in spite of herself, much impressed by the surprising display of elocution.
"Oui," said Molder, in his clipped, self-conscious Oxford French.
Two couples from other tables were dancing in the middle of the room.
Molder demanded, leaning towards her:
"I say, do you dance?"
"But certainly," said Christine. "I learnt at the convent." And she spoke of her convent education, a triumphant subject with her, though she had actually spent less than a year in the convent.
After a few moments they both rose, and Christine, bending over G.J., whispered lovingly in his ear:
"Dear, thou wilt not be jealous if I dance one turn with thy young friend?"
She was addressing the wrong person. Already throughout the supper Aida, ignoring the fact that the whole structure of civilised society is based on the rule that at a meal a man must talk first to the lady on his right and then to the lady on his left and so on infinitely, had secretly taken exception to the periodic intercourse—and particularly the intercourse in French—between Christine and Molder, who was officially "hers". That these two should go off and dance together was the supreme insult to her. By ill-chance she had not sufficient physical command of herself.
Christine felt that Molder would have danced better two hours earlier; but still he danced beautifully. Their bodies fitted like two parts of a jigsaw puzzle that have discovered each other. She realised that G.J. was middle-aged, and regret tinctured the ecstasy of the dance. Then suddenly she heard a loud, imploring cry in her ear:
She looked round, pale, still dancing, but only by inertia.
Nobody was near her. The four people at the Major's table gave no sign of agitation or even of interest. The Major still had Alice more or less in his arms.
"What was that?" she asked wildly.
"What was what?" said Molder, at a loss to understand her extraordinary demeanour.
And she heard the cry again, and then again:
She recognised the voice. It was the voice of the officer whom she had taken to Victoria Station one Sunday night months and months ago.
"Excuse me!" she said, slipping from Molder's hold, and she hurried out of the room to the ladies' cloak-room, got her wraps, and ran past the watchful guardian, through the dark, dubious portico of the club into the street. The thing was done in a moment, and why she did it she could not tell. She knew simply that she must do it, and that she was under the dominion of those unseen powers in whom she had always believed. She forgot the Guinea-Fowl as completely as though it had been a pre-natal phenomenon with her.
But outside she lost faith. Half a dozen motor-cars were slumbering in a row near the door of the Guinea-Fowl, and they all stirred monstrously yet scarcely perceptibly at the sight of the woman's figure, solitary, fragile and pale in the darkness. They seemed for an instant to lust for her; and then, recognising that she was not their prey, to sink back into the torpor of their inexhaustible patience. The sight of them was prejudicial to the dominion of the unseen powers. Christine admitted to herself that she had drunk a lot, that she was demented, that her only proper course was to return dutifully to the supper-party. She wondered what, if she did not so return, she could possibly say to justify herself to G.J.
Nevertheless she went on down the street, hurrying, automatic, and reached the main thoroughfare. It was dark with the new protective darkness. The central hooded lamps showed like poor candles, making a series of rings of feeble illumination on the vast invisible floor of the road. Nobody was afoot; not a soul. The last of the motor-buses that went about killing and maiming people in the new protective darkness had long since reached its yard. The seductive dim violet bulbs were all extinguished on the entrances of the theatres, and, save for a thread of light at some lofty window here and there, the curving facades of the street were as undecipherable as the heavens above or as the asphalte beneath.
Then Christine's ear detected a faint roar. It grew louder; it became terrific; and a long succession of huge loaded army waggons with peering head-lamps thundered past at full speed, one close behind the next, shaking the very avenue. The slightest misjudgment by the leading waggon in the confusion of light and darkness—and the whole convoy would have pitched itself together in a mass of iron, flesh, blood and ordnance; but the convoy went ruthlessly and safely forward till its final red tail-lamp swung round a corner and vanished. The avenue ceased to shake. The thunder died away, and there was silence again. Whence and why the convoy came, and at whose dread omnipotent command? Whither it was bound? What it carried? No answer in the darkness to these enigmas!... And Christine was afraid of England. She remembered people in Ostend saying that England would never go to war. She, too, had said it, bitterly. And now she was in the midst of the unmeasured city which had darkened itself for war, and she was afraid of an unloosed might....
What madness was she doing? She did not even know the man's name. She knew only that he was "Edgar W." She would have liked to be his marraine, according to the French custom, but he had never written to her. He was still in her debt for the hotel bill and the taxi fare. He had not even kissed her at the station. She tried to fancy that she heard his voice calling "Christine" with frantic supplication in her ears, but she could not. She turned into another side street, and saw a lighted doorway. Two soldiers were standing in the veiled radiance. She could just read the lower half of the painted notice: "All service men welcome. Beds. Meals. Writing and reading rooms. Always open." She passed on. One of the soldiers, a non-commissioned officer of mature years, solemnly winked at her, without moving an unnecessary muscle. She looked modestly down.
Twenty yards further on she described near a lamp-post a tall soldier whose somewhat bent body seemed to be clustered over with pots, pans, tins, bags, valises, satchels and weapons, like the figure of some military Father Christmas on his surreptitious rounds. She knew that he must be a poor benighted fellow just back from the trenches. He was staring up at the place where the street-sign ought to have been. He glanced at her, and said, in a fatigued, gloomy, aristocratic voice:
"Pardon me, Madam. Is this Denman Street? I want to find the Denman Hostel."
Christine looked into his face. A sacred dew suffused her from head to foot. She trembled with an intimidated joy. She felt the mystic influences of all the unseen powers. She knew herself with holy dread to be the chosen of the very clement Virgin, and the channel of a miraculous intervention. It was the most marvellous, sweetest thing that had ever happened. It was humanly incredible, but it had happened.
"Is it you?" she murmured in a soft, breaking voice.
The man stooped and examined her face.
She said, while he gazed at her: "Edgar!... See—the wrist watch," and held up her arm, from which the wide sleeve of her mantle slipped away.
And the man said: "Is it you?"
She said: "Come with me. I will look after you."
The man answered glumly:
"I have no money—at least not enough for you. And I owe you a lot of money already. You are an angel. I'm ashamed."
"What do you mean?" Christine protested. "Do you forget that you gave me a five-pound note? It was more than enough to pay the hotel.... As for the rest, let us not speak of it. Come with me."
"Did I?" muttered the man.
She could feel the very clement Virgin smiling approval of her fib; it was exactly such a fib as the Virgin herself would have told in a quandary of charity. And when a taxi came round the corner, she knew that the Virgin disguised as a taxi-driver was steering it, and she hailed it with a firm and yet loving gesture.
The taxi stopped. She opened the door, and in her sombre mantle and bright trailing frock and glinting, pale shoes she got in, and the military Father Christmas with much difficulty and jingling and clinking insinuated himself after her into the vehicle, and banged to the door. And at the same moment one of the soldiers from the Hostel ran up:
"Here, mate!... What do you want to take his money from him for, you damned w——?"
But the taxi drove off. Christine had not understood. And had she understood, she would not have cared. She had a divine mission; she was in bliss.
"You did not seem surprised to meet me," she said, taking Edgar's rough hand.
"Had you called out my name—'Christine'?"
"You are sure?"
"Perhaps you were thinking of me? I was thinking of you."
"Perhaps. I don't know. But I'm never surprised."
"You must be very tired?"
"But why are you like that? All these things? You are not an officer now."
"No. I had to resign my commission—just after I saw you." He paused, and added drily: "Whisky." His deep rich voice filled the taxi with the resigned philosophy of fatalism.
"Of course I joined up again at once," he said casually. "I soon got out to the Front. Now I'm on leave. That's mere luck."
She burst into tears. She was so touched by his curt story, and by the grotesquerie of his appearance in the faint light from the exterior lamp which lit the dial of the taximeter, that she lost control of herself. And the man gave a sob, or possibly it was only a gulp to hide a sob. And she leaned against him in her thin garments. And he clinked and jingled, and his breath smelt of beer.
The flat was in darkness, except for the little lamp by the bedside. The soldier lay asleep in his flannel shirt in the wide bed, and Christine lay awake next him. His clothes were heaped on a chair. His eighty pounds' weight of kit were deposited in a corner of the drawing-room. On the table in the drawing-room were the remains of a meal. Christine was thinking, carelessly and without apprehension, of what she should say to G.J. She would tell him that she had suddenly felt unwell. No! That would be silly. She would tell him that he really had not the right to ask her to meet such women as Aida and Alice. Had he no respect for her? Or she would tell him that Aida had obviously meant to attack her, and that the dance with Lieutenant Molder was simply a device to enable her to get away quietly and avoid all scandal in a resort where scandal was intensely deprecated. She could tell him fifty things, and he would have to accept whatever she chose to tell him. She was mystically happy in the incomparable marvel of the miracle, and in her care of the dull, unresponding man. Her heart yearned thankfully, devotedly, passionately to the Virgin of the VII Dolours.
In the profound nocturnal silence broken only by the man's slow, regular breathing, she heard a sudden ring. It was the front-door bell ringing in the kitchen. The bell rang again and again obstinately. G.J.'s party was over, then, and he had arrived to make inquiries. She smiled, and did not move. After a few moments she could hear Marthe stirring. She sprang up, and then, cunningly considerate, slipped from under the bed-clothes as noiselessly and as smoothly as a snake, so that the man should not be disturbed. The two women met in the little hall, Christine in the immodesty of a lacy and diaphanous garment, and Marthe in a coarse cotton nightgown covered with a shawl. The bell rang once more, loudly, close to their ears.
"Are you mad?" Christine whispered with fierceness. "Go back to bed. Let him ring."
It was afternoon in April, 1916. G.J. rang the right bell at the entrance of the London home of the Lechfords. Lechford House, designed about 1840 by an Englishman of genius who in this rare instance had found a patron with the wit to let him alone, was one of the finest examples of domestic architecture in the West End. Inspired by the formidable palaces of Rome and Florence, the artist had conceived a building in the style of the Italian renaissance, but modified, softened, chastened, civilised, to express the bland and yet haughty sobriety of the English climate and the English peerage. People without an eye for the perfect would have correctly described it as a large plain house in grey stone, of three storeys, with a width of four windows on either side of its black front door, a jutting cornice, and rather elaborate chimneys. It was, however, a masterpiece for the connoisseur, and foreign architects sometimes came with cards of admission to pry into it professionally. The blinds of its principal windows were down—not because of the war; they were often down, for at least four other houses disputed with Lechford House the honour of sheltering the Marquis and his wife and their sole surviving child. Above the roof a wire platform for the catching of bombs had given the mansion a somewhat ridiculous appearance, but otherwise Lechford House managed to look as though it had never heard of the European War.
One half of the black entrance swung open, and a middle-aged gentleman dressed like Lord Lechford's stockbroker, but who was in reality his butler, said in answer to G.J.'s enquiry:
"Lady Queenie is not at home, sir."
"But it is five o'clock," protested G.J., suddenly sick of Queen's impudent unreliability. "And I have an appointment with her at five."
The butler's face relaxed ever so little from its occupational inhumanity of a suet pudding; the spirit of compassion seemed to inform it for an instant.
"Her ladyship went out about a quarter of an hour ago, sir."
"When d'you think she'll be back?"
The suet pudding was restored.
"That I could not say, sir."
"Damn the girl!" said G.J. to himself; and aloud: "Please tell her ladyship that I've called."
"Mr. Hoape, is it not, sir?"
By the force of his raisin eyes the butler held G.J. as he turned to descend the steps.
"There's nobody at home, sir, except Mrs. Carlos Smith. Mrs. Carlos Smith is in Lady Queenie's apartments."
"Mrs. Carlos Smith!" exclaimed G.J., who had not seen Concepcion for some seventeen months; nor heard from her for nearly as long, nor heard of her since the previous year.
"Ask her if she can see me, will you?" said G.J. impetuously, after a slight pause.
He stepped on to the tessellated pavement of the outer hall. On the raised tessellated pavement of the inner hall stood two meditative youngish footmen, possibly musing upon the problems of the intensification of the Military Service Act which were then exciting journalists and statesmen. Beyond was the renowned staircase, which, rising with insubstantial grace, lost itself in silvery altitude like the way to heaven. Presently G.J. was mounting the staircase and passing statues by Canova and Thorwaldsen, and portraits of which the heads had been painted by Lawrence and the hands and draperies by Lawrence's hireling, and huger canvasses on which the heads and breasts had been painted by Rubens and everything else by Rubens's regiment of hirelings. The guiding footman preceded him through a great chamber which he recognised as the drawing-room in its winding sheet, and then up a small and insignificant staircase; and G.J. was on ground strange to him, for never till then had he been higher than the first-floor in Lechford House.
Lady Queenie's apartments did violence to G.J.'s sensibilities as an upholder of traditionalism in all the arts, of the theory that every sound movement in any art must derive from its predecessor. Some months earlier he had met for a few minutes the creative leader of the newest development in internal decoration, and he vividly remembered a saying of the grey-haired, slouch-hatted man: "At the present day the only people in the world with really vital perceptions about decoration are African niggers, and the only inspiring productions are the coloured cotton stuffs designed for the African native market." The remark had amused and stimulated him, but he had never troubled to go in search of examples of the inspiring influence of African taste on London domesticity. He now saw perhaps the supreme instance lodged in Lechford House, like a new and truculent state within a great Empire.
Lady Queenie had imposed terms on her family, and under threats of rupture, of separation, of scandal, Lady Queenie's exotic nest had come into existence in the very fortress of unchangeable British convention. The phenomenon was a war phenomenon due to the war, begotten by the war; for Lady Queenie had said that if she was to do war-work without disaster to her sanity she must have the right environment. Thus the putting together of Lady Queenie's nest had proceeded concurrently with the building of national projectile factories and of square miles of offices for the girl clerks of ministries and departments of government.
The footman left G.J. alone in a room designated the boudoir. G.J. resented the boudoir, because it was like nothing that he had ever witnessed. The walls were irregularly covered with rhombuses, rhomboids, lozenges, diamonds, triangles, and parallelograms; the carpet was treated likewise, and also the upholstery and the cushions. The colourings of the scene in their excessive brightness, crudity and variety surpassed G.J.'s conception of the possible. He had learned the value of colour before Queen was born, and in the Albany had translated principle into practice. But the hues of the boudoir made the gaudiest effects of Regency furniture appear sombre. The place resembled a gigantic and glittering kaleidoscope deranged and arrested.
G.J.'s glance ran round the room like a hunted animal seeking escape, and found no escape. He was as disturbed as he might have been disturbed by drinking a liqueur on the top of a cocktail. Nevertheless he had to admit that some of the contrasts of pure colour were rather beautiful, even impressive; and he hated to admit it. He was aware of a terrible apprehension that he would never be the same man again, and that henceforth his own abode would be eternally stricken for him with the curse of insipidity. Regaining somewhat his nerve, he looked for pictures. There were no pictures. But every piece of furniture was painted with primitive sketches of human figures, or of flowers, or of vessels, or of animals. On the front of the mantelpiece were perversely but brilliantly depicted, with a high degree of finish, two nude, crouching women who gazed longingly at each other across the impassable semicircular abyss of the fireplace; and just above their heads, on a scroll, ran these words:
"The ways of God are strange."
He heard movements and a slight cough in the next room, the door leading to which was ajar. Concepcion's cough; he thought he recognised it. Five minutes ago he had had no notion of seeing her; now he was about to see her. And he felt excited and troubled, as much by the sudden violence of life as by the mere prospect of the meeting. After her husband's death Concepcion had soon withdrawn from London. A large engineering firm on the Clyde, one of the heads of which happened to be constitutionally a pioneer, was establishing a canteen for its workmen, and Concepcion, the tentacles of whose influence would stretch to any length, had decided that she ought to take up canteen work, and in particular the canteen work of just that firm. But first of all, to strengthen her prestige and acquire new prestige, she had gone to the United States, with a powerful introduction to Sears, Roebuck and Company of Chicago, in order to study industrial canteenism in its most advanced and intricate manifestations. Portraits of Concepcion in splendid furs on the deck of the steamer in the act of preparing to study industrial canteenism in its most advanced and intricate manifestations had appeared in the illustrated weeklies. The luxurious trip had cost several hundreds of pounds, but it was war expenditure, and, moreover, Concepcion had come into considerable sums of money through her deceased husband. Her return to Britain had never been published. Advertisements of Concepcion ceased. Only a few friends knew that she was in the most active retirement on the Clyde. G.J. had written to her twice but had obtained no replies. One fact he knew, that she had not had a child. Lady Queenie had not mentioned her; it was understood that the inseparables had quarrelled in the heroic manner and separated for ever.
She entered the boudoir slowly. G.J. grew self-conscious, as it were because she was still the martyr of destiny and he was not. She wore a lavender-tinted gown of Queen's; he knew it was Queen's because he had seen precisely such a gown on Queen, and there could not possibly be another gown precisely like that very challenging gown. It suited Queen, but it did not suit Concepcion. She looked older; she was thirty-two, and might have been taken for thirty-five. She was very pale, with immense fatigued eyes; but her ridiculous nose had preserved all its originality. And she had the same slightly masculine air—perhaps somewhat intensified—with an added dignity. And G.J. thought: "She is as mysterious and unfathomable as I am myself." And he was impressed and perturbed.
With a faint, sardonic smile, glancing at him as a physical equal from her unusual height (she was as tall as Lady Queenie), she said abruptly and casually:
"Am I changed?"
"No," he replied as abruptly and casually, clasping almost inimically her ringed hand—she was wearing Queenie's rings. "But you're tired. The journey, I suppose."
"It's not that. We sat up till five o'clock this morning, talking."
"Queen and I."
"What did you do that for?"
"Well, you see, we'd had the devil's own row—" She stopped, leaving his imagination to complete the picture of the meeting and the night talk.
He smiled awkwardly—tried to be paternal, and failed.
"She never wanted me to leave London. I came back last night with only a handbag just as she was going out to dinner. She didn't go out to dinner. Queen is a white woman. Nobody knows how white Queen is. I didn't know myself until last night."
There was a pause. G.J. said:
"I had an appointment here with the white woman, on business."
"Yes, I know," said Concepcion negligently. "She'll be home soon."
Something infinitesimally malicious in the voice and gaze sent the singular idea shooting through his mind that Queen had gone out on purpose so that Concepcion might have him alone for a while. And he was wary of both of them, as he might have been of two pagan goddesses whom he, a poor defiant mortal, suspected of having laid an eye on him for their own ends.
"You've changed, anyhow," said Concepcion.
He was startled, not displeased.
"More sure of yourself," said Concepcion, with a trace of the old harsh egotism in her tone. "It appears you're a perfect tyrant on the Lechford Committee now you're vice-chairman, and all the more footling members dread the days when you're in the chair. It appears also that you've really overthrown two chairmen, and yet won't take the situation yourself."
He was still more startled, but now positively flattered by the world's estimate of his activities and individuality. He saw himself in a new light.
"This what you were talking about until five a.m.?"
The butler entered.
"Shall I serve tea, Madam?"
Concepcion looked at the man scornfully:
One of the minor stalwarts entered and arranged a table, and the other followed with a glittering, steaming tray in his hands, while the butler hovered like a winged hippopotamus over the operation. Concepcion half sat down by the table, and then, altering her mind, dropped on to a vast chaise-longue, as wide as a bed, and covered with as many cushions as would have stocked a cushion shop, which occupied the principal place in front of the hearth. The hem of her rich gown just touched the floor. G.J. could see that she was wearing the transparent deep-purple stockings that Queen wore with the transparent lavender gown. Her right shoulder rose high from the mass of the body, and her head was sunk between two cushions. Her voice came smothered from the cushions:
"Damn it! G.J. Don't look at me like that."
He was standing near the mantelpiece.
"Why?" he exclaimed. "What's the matter, Con?"
There was no answer. He lit a cigarette. The ebullient kettle kept lifting its lid in growing impatience. But Concepcion seemed to have forgotten the tea. G.J. had a thought, distinct like a bubble on a sea of thoughts, that if the tea was already made, as no doubt it was, it would soon be stewed. Concepcion said:
"The matter is that I'm a ruined woman, and Queen can't understand."
And in the bewildering voluptuous brightness and luxury of the room G.J. had the sensation of being a poor, baffled ghost groping in the night of existence. Concepcion's left arm slipped over the edge of the day-bed and hung limp and pale, the curved fingers touching the carpet.
She was sitting up on the chaise-longue and had poured out the tea—he had pushed the tea-table towards the chaise-longue—and she was talking in an ordinary tone just as though she had not immodestly bared her spirit to him and as though she knew not that he realised she had done so. She was talking at length, as one who in the past had been well accustomed to giving monologues and to holding drawing-rooms in subjection while she chattered, and to making drawing-rooms feel glad that they had consented to subjection. She was saying:
"You've no idea what the valley of the Clyde is now. You can't have. It's filled with girls, and they come into it every morning by train to huge stations specially built for them, and they make the most ghastly things for killing other girls' lovers all day, and they go back by train at night. Only some of them work all night. I had to leave my own works to organise the canteen of a new filling factory. Five thousand girls in that factory. It's frightfully dangerous. They have to wear special clothing. They have to take off every stitch from their bodies in one room, and run in their innocence and nothing else to another room where the special clothing is. That's the only way to prevent the whole place being blown up one beautiful day. But five thousand of them! You can't imagine it. You'd like to, G.J., but you can't. However, I didn't stay there very long. I wanted to go back to my own place. I was adored at my own place. Of course the men adored me. They used to fight about me sometimes. Terrific men. Nothing ever made me happier than that, or so happy. But the girls were more interesting. Two thousand of them there. You'd never guess it, because they were hidden in thickets of machinery. But see them rush out endlessly to the canteen for tea! All sorts. Lots of devils and cats. Some lovely creatures, heavenly creatures, as fine as a queen. They adored me too. They didn't at first, some of them. But they soon tumbled to it that I was the modern woman, and that they'd never seen me before, and it was a great discovery. Absurdly easy to raise yourself to be the idol of a crowd that fancies itself canny! Incredibly easy! I used to take their part against the works-manager as often as I could; he was a fiend; he hated me; but then I was a fiend, too, and I hated him more. I used often to come on at six in the morning, when they did, and 'sign on'. It isn't really signing on now at all; there's a clock dial and a whole machine for catching you out. They loved to see me doing that. And I worked the lathes sometimes, just for a bit, just to show that I wasn't ashamed to work. Etc.... All that sentimental twaddle. It pleased them. And if any really vigorous-minded girl had dared to say it was sentimental twaddle, there would have been a crucifixion or something of the sort in the cloak-rooms. The mob's always the same. But what pleased them far more than anything was me knowing them by their Christian names. Not all, of course; still, hundreds of them. Marvellous feats of memorising I did! I used to go about muttering under my breath: 'Winnie, wart on left hand, Winnie, wart on left hand, wart on left hand, Winnie.' You see? And I've sworn at them—not often; it wouldn't do, naturally. But there was scarcely a woman there that I couldn't simply blast in two seconds if I felt like it. On the other hand, I assure you I could be very tender. I was surprised how tender I could be, now and then, in my little office. They'd tell me anything—sounds sentimental, but they would—and some of them had no more notion that there's such a thing on earth as propriety than a monkey has. I thought I knew everything before I went to the Clyde valley. Well, I didn't." Concepcion looked at G.J. "You know you're very innocent, G.J., compared to me."
"I should hope so!" said G.J., impenetrably.
"What do you think of it all?" she demanded in a fresh tone, leaning a little towards him.
He replied: "I'm impressed."
He was, in fact, very profoundly impressed; but he had to illustrate the hardness in himself which she had revealed to him. (He wondered whether the members of the Lechford Committee really did credit him with having dethroned a couple of chairmen. The idea was new to his modesty. Perhaps he had been underestimating his own weight on the committee. No doubt he had.) All constraint was now dissipated between Concepcion and himself. They were behaving to each other as though their intimacy had never been interrupted for a single week. She amazed him, sitting there in the purple stockings and the affronting gown, and he admired. Her material achievement alone was prodigious. He pictured her as she rose in the winter dark and in the summer dawn to go to the works and wrestle with so much incalculable human nature and so many complex questions of organisation, day after day, week after week, month after month, for nearly eighteen months. She had kept it up; that was the point. She had shown what she was made of, and what she was made of was unquestionably marvellous.
He would have liked to know about various things to which she had made no reference. Did she live in a frowsy lodging-house near the great works? What kind of food did she get? What did she do with her evenings and her Sundays? Was she bored? Was she miserable or exultant? Had she acquaintances, external interests; or did she immerse herself completely, inclusively, in the huge, smoking, whirring, foul, perilous hell which she had described? The contemplation of the horror of the hell gave him—and her, too, he thought—a curious feeling which was not unpleasurable. It had savour. He would not, however, inquire from her concerning details. He preferred, on reflection, to keep the details mysterious, as mysterious as her individuality and as the impression of her worn eyes. The setting of mystery in his mind suited her.
He said: "But of course your relations with those girls were artificial, after all."
"No, they weren't. I tell you the girls were perfectly open; there wasn't the slightest artificiality."
"Yes, but were you open, to them? Did you ever tell them anything about yourself, for instance?"
"Did they ever ask you to?"
"No! They wouldn't have thought of doing so."
"That's what I call artificiality. By the way, how have you been ruined? Who ruined you? Was it the hated works-manager?" There had been no change in his tone; he spoke with the utmost detachment.
"I was coming to that," answered Concepcion, apparently with a detachment equal to his. "Last week but one in one of the shops there was a girl standing in front of a machine, with her back to it. About twenty-two—you must see her in your mind—about twenty-two, nice chestnut hair. Cap over it, of course—that's the rule. Khaki overalls and trousers. Rather high-heeled patent-leather boots—they fancy themselves, thank God!—and a bit of lace showing out of the khaki at the neck. Red cheeks; she was fairly new to the works. Do you see her? She meant to be one of the devils. Earning two pounds a week nearly, and eagerly spending it all. Fully awake to all the possibilities of her body. I was in the shop. I said something to her, and she didn't hear at first—the noise of some of the shops is shattering. I went close to her and repeated it. She laughed out of mere vivacity, and threw back her head as people do when they laugh. The machine behind her must have caught some hair that wasn't under her cap. All her hair was dragged from under the cap, and in no time all her hair was torn out and the whole of her scalp ripped clean off. In a second or two I got her on to a trolley—I did it—and threw an overall over her and ran her to the dressing-station, close to the main office entrance. There was a car there. One of the directors was just driving off. I stopped him. It wasn't a case for our dressing-station. In three minutes I had her at the hospital—three minutes. The car was soaked in blood. But she didn't lose consciousness, that child didn't. She's dead now. She's buried. Her body that she meant to use so profusely for her own delights is squeezed up in the little black box in the dark and the silence, down below where the spring can't get at it.... I had no sleep for two nights. On the second day a doctor at the hospital said that I must take at least three months' holiday. He said I'd had a nervous breakdown. I didn't know I had, and I don't know now. I said I wouldn't take any holiday, and that nothing would induce me to."
"Because I'd sworn, absolutely sworn to myself, to stick that job till the war was over. You understand, I'd sworn it. Well, they wouldn't let me on to the works. And yesterday one of the directors brought me up to town himself. He was very kind, in his Clyde way. Now you understand what I mean when I say I'm ruined. I'm ruined with myself, you see. I didn't stick it. I couldn't. But there were twenty or thirty girls who saw the accident. They're sticking it."
"Yes," he said in a voice soft and moved, "I understand." And while he spoke thus aloud, though his emotion was genuine, and his desire to comfort and sustain her genuine, and his admiration for her genuine, he thought to himself: "How theatrically she told it! Every effect was studied, nearly every word. Well, she can't help it. But does she imagine I can't see that all the casualness was deliberately part of the effect?"
She lit a cigarette and leaned her half-draped elbows on the tea-table, and curved her ringed fingers, which had withstood time and fatigue much better than her face; and then she reclined again on the chaise-longue, on her back, and sent up smoke perpendicularly, and through the smoke seemed to be trying to decipher the enigmas of the ceiling. G.J. rose and stood over her in silence. At last she went on:
"The work those girls do is excruciating, hellish, and they don't realise it. That's the worst of it. They'll never be the same again. They're ruining their health, and, what's more important, their looks. You can see them changing under your eyes. Ours was the best factory on the Clyde, and the conditions were unspeakable, in spite of canteens, and rest-rooms, and libraries, and sanitation, and all this damned 'welfare'. Fancy a girl chained up for twelve hours every day to a thundering, whizzing, iron machine that never gets tired. The machine's just as fresh at six o'clock at night as it was at six o'clock in the morning, and just as anxious to maim her if she doesn't look out for herself—more anxious. The whole thing's still going on; they're at it now, this very minute. You're interested in a factory, aren't you, G.J.?"
"Yes," he answered gently, but looked with seemingly callous firmness down at her.
"The Reveille Company, or some such name."
"Making tons of money, I hear."
"You're a profiteer, G.J."
"I'm not. Long since I decided I must give away all my extra profits."
"Ever go and look at your factory?"
"Any nice young girls working there?"
"I don't know."
"If there are, are they decently treated?"
"Don't know that, either."
"Why don't you go and see?"
"It's no business of mine."
"Yes, it is. Aren't you making yourself glorious as a philanthropist out of the thing?"
"I tell you it's no business of mine," he insisted evenly. "I couldn't do anything if I went. I've no status."
"Possibly. But systems can't be altered like that. Systems alter themselves, and they aren't in a hurry about it. This system isn't new, though it's new to you."
"You people in London don't know what work is."
"And what about your Clyde strikes?" G.J. retorted.
"Well, all that's settled now," said Concepcion rather uneasily, like a champion who foresees a fight but lacks confidence.
"Yes, but—" G.J. suddenly altered his tone to the persuasive: "You must know all about those strikes. What was the real cause? We don't understand them here."
"If you really want to know—nerves," she said earnestly and triumphantly.
"Overwork. No rest. No change. Everlasting punishment. The one incomprehensible thing to me is that the whole of Glasgow didn't go on strike and stay out for ever."
"There's just as much overwork in London as there is on the Clyde."
"There's a lot more talking—Parliament, Cabinet, Committees. You should hear what they say about it in Glasgow."
"Con," he said kindly, "you don't suspect it, but you're childish. It's the job of one part of London to talk. If that part of London didn't talk your tribes on the Clyde couldn't work, because they wouldn't know what to do, nor how to do it. Talking has to come before working, and let me tell you it's more difficult, and it's more killing, because it's more responsible. Excuse this common sense made easy for beginners, but you brought it on yourself."
She frowned. "And what do you do? Do you talk or work?" She smiled.
"I'll tell you this!" said he, smiling candidly and benevolently. "It took me a dickens of a time really to put myself into anything that meant steady effort. I'd lost the habit. Natural enough, and I'm not going into sackcloth about it. However, I'm improving. I'm going to take on the secretaryship of the Lechford Committee. Some of 'em mayn't want me, but they'll have to have me. And when they've got me they'll have to look out. All of them, including Queen and her mother."
"Will it take the whole of your time?"
"Yes. I'm doing three days a week now."
"I suppose you think you've beaten me."
"Con, I do ask you not to be a child."
"But I am a child. Why don't you humour me? You know I've had a nervous breakdown. You used to humour me."
He shook his head.
"Humouring you won't do your nervous breakdown any good. It might some women's—but not yours."
"You shall humour me!" she cried. "I haven't told you half my ruin. Do you know I meant to love Carly all my life. I felt sure I should. Well, I can't! It's gone, all that feeling—already! In less than two years! And now I'm only sorry for him and sorry for myself. Isn't it horrible? Isn't it horrible?"
"Try not to think," he murmured.
She sat up impetuously.
"Don't talk such damned nonsense! 'Try not to think'! Why, my frightful unhappiness is the one thing that keeps me alive."
"Yes," G.J. yielded. "It was nonsense."
She sank back. He saw moisture in her eyes and felt it in his own.
Lady Queenie arrived in haste, as though relentless time had pursued her up the stairs.
"Why, you're in the dark here!" she exclaimed impatiently, and impatiently switched on several lights. "Sorry I'm late, G.J.," she said perfunctorily, without taking any trouble to put conviction into her voice. "How have you two been getting on?"
She looked at Concepcion and G.J. in a peculiar way, inquisitorial and implicatory.
Then, towards the door:
"Come in, come in, Dialin."
A young soldier with the stripe of a lance-corporal entered, slightly nervous and slightly defiant.
"And you, Miss I-forget-your-name."
A young woman entered; she had very red lips and very high heels, and was both more nervous and more defiant than the young soldier.
"This is Mr. Dialin, you know, Con, second ballet-master at the Ottoman. I met him by sheer marvellous chance. He's only got ten minutes; he hasn't really got that; but he's going to see me do my Salome dance."
Lady Queenie made no attempt to introduce Miss I-forget-your-name, who of her own accord took a chair with a curious, dashed effrontery. It appeared that she was attached to Mr. Dialin. Lady Queenie cast off rapidly gloves, hat and coat, and then, having rushed to the bell and rung it fiercely several times, came back to the chaise-longue and gazed at it and at the surrounding floor.
"Would you mind, Con?"
Concepcion rose. Lady Queenie, rushing off again, pushed several more switches, and from a thick cluster of bulbs in front of a large mirror at the end of the room there fell dazzling sheets of light. A footman presented himself.
"Push the day-bed right away towards the window," she commanded.
The footman inclined and obeyed, and the lance-corporal superiorly helped him. Then the footman was told to energise the gramophone, which in its specially designed case stood in a corner. The footman seemed to be on intimate terms with the gramophone. Meanwhile Lady Queenie, with a safety-pin, was fastening the back hem of her short skirt to the front between the knees. Still bending, she took her shoes off. Her scent impregnated the room.
"You see, it will be barefoot," she explained to Mr. Dialin.
The walls of London were already billed with an early announcement of the marvels of the Pageant of Terpsichore, which was to occur at the Albert Hall, under the superintendence of the greatest modern English painters, in aid of a fund for soldiers disabled by deafness. The performers were all ladies of the upper world, ladies bearing names for the most part as familiar as the names of streets—and not a stage-star among them. Amateurism was to be absolutely untainted by professionalism in the prodigious affair; therefore the prices of tickets ruled high, and queens had conferred their patronage.
Lady Queenie removed several bracelets and a necklace, and, seizing a plate, deposited it on the carpet.
"That piece of bread-and-butter," she said, "is the head of my beloved John."
The clever footman started the gramophone, and Lady Queenie began to dance. The lance-corporal walked round her, surveying her at all angles, watching her like a tiger, imitating movements, suggesting movements, sketching emotions with his arm, raising himself at intervals on the toes of his thick boots. After a few moments Concepcion glanced at G.J., conveying to him a passionate, adoring admiration of Queen's talent.
G.J., startled by her brightened eyes so suddenly full of temperament, nodded to please her. But the fact was that he saw naught to admire in the beautiful and brazen amateur's performance. He wondered that she could not have discovered something more original than to follow the footsteps of Maud Allan in a scene which years ago had become stale. He wondered that, at any rate, Concepcion should not perceive the poor, pretentious quality of the girlish exhibition. And as he looked at the mincing Dialin he pictured the lance-corporal helping to serve a gun. And as he looked at the youthful, lithe Queenie posturing in the shower-bath of rays amid the blazing chromatic fantasy of the room, and his nostrils twitched to her pungent perfume, he pictured the reverberating shell-factory on the Clyde where girls had their scalps torn off by unappeasable machinery, and the filling-factory where five thousand girls stripped themselves naked in order to lessen the danger of being blown to bits.... After a climax of capering Queen fell full length on her stomach upon the carpet, her soft chin accurately adjusted to the edge of the plate. The music ceased. The gramophone gnashed on the disc until the footman lifted its fang.
Miss I-forget-your-name raised both her feet from the floor, stuck her legs out in a straight, slanting line, and condescendingly clapped. Then, seeing that Queen was worrying the piece of bread-and-butter with her teeth, she exclaimed in agitation:
Mr. Dialin assisted the breathless Queen to rise, and they went off into a corner and he talked to her in low tones. Soon he looked at his wrist-watch and caught the summoning eye of Miss I-forget-your-name.
"But it's pretty all right, isn't it?" said Queen.
"Oh, yes! Oh, yes!" he soothed her with an expert's casualness. "Naturally, you want to work it up. You fell beautifully. Now you go and see Crevelli—he's the man."
"I shall get him to come here. What's his address?"
"I don't know. He's just moved. But you'll see it in the April number of The Dancing Times."
As the footman was about to escort Mr. Dialin and his urgent lady downstairs Queen ordered:
"Bring me up a whisky-and-soda."
"It's splendid, Queen," said Concepcion enthusiastically when the two were alone with G.J.
"I'm so glad you think so, darling. How are you, darling?" She kissed the older woman affectionately, fondly, on the lips, and then gave G.J. a challenging glance.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, and called out very loud: "Robin! I want you at once."
The secretarial Miss Robinson, carrying a note-book, appeared like magic from the inner room.
"Get me the April number of The Dancing News."
"Times," G.J. corrected.
"Well, Times. It's all the same. And write to Mr. Opson and say that we really must have proper dressing-room accommodation. It's most important."
"Yes, your ladyship. Your ladyship has the sub-committee as to entrance arrangements for the public at half-past six."
"I shan't go. Telephone to them. I've got quite enough to do without that. I'm utterly exhausted. Don't forget about The Dancing Times and to write to Mr. Opson."
"Yes, your ladyship."
"G.J.," said Queen after Robin had gone, "you are a pig if you don't go on that sub-committee as to entrance arrangements. You know what the Albert Hall is. They'll make a horrible mess of it, and it's just the sort of thing you can do better than anybody."
"Yes. But a pig I am," answered G.J. firmly. Then he added: "I'll tell you how you might have avoided all these complications."
"By having no pageant and simply going round collecting subscriptions. Nobody would have refused you. And there'd have been no expenses to come off the total."
Lady Queenie put her lips together.
"Has he been behaving in this style to you, Con?"
"A little—now and then," said Concepcion.
Later, when the chaise-longue and Queen's shoes had been replaced, and the tea-things and the head of John the Baptist taken away, and all the lights extinguished save one over the mantelpiece, and Lady Queenie had nearly finished the whisky-and-soda, and nothing remained of the rehearsal except the safety-pin between Lady Queenie's knees, G.J. was still waiting for her to bethink herself of the Hospitals subject upon which he had called by special request and appointment to see her. He took oath not to mention it first. Shortly afterwards, stiff in his resolution, he departed.
In three minutes he was in the smoking-room of his club, warming himself at a fine, old, huge, wasteful grate, in which burned such a coal fire as could not have been seen in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Russia, nor anywhere on the continent of Europe. The war had as yet changed nothing in the impregnable club, unless it was that ordinary matches had recently been substituted for the giant matches on which the club had hitherto prided itself. The hour lay neglected midway between tea and dinner, and there were only two other members in the vast room—solitaries, each before his own grand fire.
G.J. took up The Times, which his duties had prevented him from reading at large in the morning. He wandered with a sense of ease among its multifarious pages, and, in full leisure, brought his information up to date concerning the state of the war and of the country. Air-raids by Zeppelins were frequent, and some authorities talked magniloquently about the "defence of London." Hundreds of people had paid immense sums for pictures and objects of art at the Red Cross Sale at Christie's, one of the most successful social events of the year. The House of Commons was inquisitive about Mesopotamia as a whole, and one British Army was still trying to relieve another British Army besieged in Kut. German submarine successes were obviously disquieting. The supply of beer was reduced. There were to be forty principal aristocratic dancers in the Pageant of Terpsichore. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had budgeted for five hundred millions, and was very proud. The best people were at once proud and scared of the new income tax at 5s. in the L. They expressed the fear that such a tax would kill income or send it to America. The theatrical profession was quite sure that the amusements tax would involve utter ruin for the theatrical profession, and the match trade was quite sure that the match tax would put an end to matches, and some unnamed modest individuals had apparently decided that the travel tax must and forthwith would be dropped. The story of the evacuation of Gallipoli had grown old and tedious. Cranks were still vainly trying to prove to the blunt John Bullishness of the Prime Minister that the Daylight Saving Bill was not a piece of mere freak legislation. The whole of the West End and all the inhabitants of country houses in Britain had discovered a new deity in Australia and spent all their spare time and lungs in asserting that all other deities were false and futile; his earthly name was Hughes. Jan Smuts was fighting in the primeval forests of East Africa. The Germans were discussing their war aims; and on the Verdun front they had reached Mort Homme in the usual way, that was, according to the London Press, by sacrificing more men than any place could possibly be worth; still, they had reached Mort Homme. And though our losses and the French losses were everywhere—one might assert, so to speak—negligible, nevertheless the steadfast band of thinkers and fact-facers who held a monopoly of true patriotism were extremely anxious to extend the Military Service Act, so as to rope into the Army every fit male in the island except themselves.