The pages of The Times grew semi-transparent, and G.J. descried Concepcion moving mysteriously in a mist behind them. Only then did he begin effectively to realise her experiences and her achievement and her ordeal on the distant, romantic Clyde. He said to himself: "I could never have stood what she has stood." She was a terrific woman; but because she was such a mixture of the mad-heroic and the silly-foolish, he rather condescended to her. She lacked what he was sure he possessed, and what he prized beyond everything—poise. And had she truly had a nervous breakdown, or was that fancy? Did she truly despair of herself as a ruined woman, doubly ruined, or was she acting a part, as much in order to impress herself as in order to impress others? He thought the country and particularly its Press, was somewhat like Concepcion as a complex. He condescended to Queenie also, not bitterly, but with sardonic pity. There she was, unalterable by any war, instinctively and ruthlessly working out her soul and her destiny. The country was somewhat like Queenie too. But, of course, comparison between Queenie and Concepcion was absurd. He had had to defend himself to Concepcion. And had he not defended himself?
True, he had begun perhaps too slowly to work for the war; however, he had begun. What else could he have done beyond what he had done? Become a special constable? Grotesque. He simply could not see himself as a special constable, and if the country could not employ him more usefully than in standing on guard over an electricity works or a railway bridge in the middle of the night, the country deserved to lose his services. Become a volunteer? Even more grotesque. Was he, a man turned fifty, to dress up and fall flat on the ground at the word of some fantastic jackanapes, or stare into vacancy while some inspecting general examined his person as though it were a tailor's mannikin? He had tried several times to get into a Government department which would utilise his brains, but without success. And the club hummed with the unimaginable stories related by disappointed and dignified middle-aged men whose too eager patriotism had been rendered ridiculous by the vicious foolery of Government departments. No! He had some work to do and he was doing it. People were looking to him for decision, for sagacity, for initiative; he supplied these things. His work might grow even beyond his expectations; but if it did not he should not worry. He felt that, unfatigued, he could and would contribute to the mass of the national resolution in the latter and more racking half of the war.
Morally, he was profiting by the war. Nay, more, in a deep sense he was enjoying it. The immensity of it, the terror of it, the idiocy of it, the splendour of it, its unique grandeur as an illustration of human nature, thrilled the spectator in him. He had little fear for the result. The nations had measured themselves; the factors of the equation were known. Britain conceivably might not win, but she could never lose. And he did not accept the singular theory that unless she won this war another war would necessarily follow. He had, in spite of all, a pretty good opinion of mankind, and would not exaggerate its capacity for lunatic madness. The worst was over when Paris was definitely saved. Suffering would sink and die like a fire. Privations were paid for day by day in the cash of fortitude. Taxes would always be met. A whole generation, including himself, would rapidly vanish and the next would stand in its place. And at worst, the path of evolution was unchangeably appointed. A harsh, callous philosophy. Perhaps.
What impressed him, and possibly intimidated him beyond anything else whatever, was the onset of the next generation. He thought of Queenie, of Mr. Dialin, of Miss I-forget-your-name, of Lieutenant Molder. How unconsciously sure of themselves and arrogant in their years! How strong! How unapprehensive! (And yet he had just been taking credit for his own freedom from apprehensiveness!) They were young—and he was so no longer. Pooh! (A brave "pooh"!) He was wiser than they. He had acquired the supreme and subtly enjoyable faculty, which they had yet painfully to acquire, of nice, sure, discriminating, all-weighing judgment ... Concepcion had divested herself of youth. And Christine, since he knew her, had never had any youthfulness save the physical. There were only these two.
Said a voice behind him:
"You dining here to-night?"
"Shall we crack a bottle together?" (It was astonishing and deplorable how cliches survived in the best clubs!)
"By all means."
The voice spoke lower:
"That Bollinger's all gone at last."
"You were fearing the worst the last time I saw you," said G.J.
"Auction afterwards?" the voice suggested.
"Afraid I can't," said G.J. after a moment's hesitation. "I shall have to leave early."
After dinner G.J. walked a little eastwards from the club, and, entering Leicester Square from the south, crossed it, and then turned westwards again on the left side of the road leading to Piccadilly Circus. It was about the time when Christine usually went from her flat to her Promenade. Without admitting a definite resolve to see Christine that evening he had said to himself that he would rather like to see her, or that he wouldn't mind seeing her, and that he might, if the mood took him, call at Cork Street and catch her before she left. Having advanced thus far in the sketch of his intentions, he had decided that it would be a pity not to take precautions to encounter her in the street, assuming that she had already started but had not reached the theatre. The chance of meeting her on her way was exceedingly small; nevertheless he would not miss it. Hence his roundabout route; and hence his selection of the chaste as against the unchaste pavement of Coventry Street. He knew very little of Christine's professional arrangements, but he did know, from occasional remarks of hers, that owing to the need for economy and the difficulty of finding taxis she now always walked to the Promenade on dry nights, and that from a motive of self-respect she always took the south side of Piccadilly and the south side of Coventry Street in order to avoid the risk of ever being mistaken for something which she was not.
It was a dry night, but very cloudy. Points of faint illumination, mysteriously travelling across the heavens and revealing the otherwise invisible cushioned surface of the clouds, alone showed that searchlights were at their work of watching over the heedless town. Entertainments had drawn in the people from the streets; motor-buses were half empty; implacable parcels-vans, with thin, exhausted boys scarcely descried on their rear perches, forced the more fragile traffic to yield place to them. Footfarers were few, except on the north side of Coventry Street, where officers, soldiers, civilians, police and courtesans marched eternally to and fro, peering at one another in the thick gloom that, except in the immediate region of a lamp, put all girls, the young and the ageing, the pretty and the ugly, the good-natured and the grasping, on a sinister enticing equality. And they were all, men and women and vehicles, phantoms flitting and murmuring and hooting in the darkness. And the violet glow-worms that hung in front of theatres and cinemas seemed to mark the entrances to unimaginable fastnesses, and the side streets seemed to lead to the precipitous edges of the universe where nothing was.
G.J. recognised Christine just beyond the knot of loiterers at the Piccadilly Tube. The improbable had happened. She was walking at what was for her a rather quick pace, purposeful and preoccupied. For an instant the recognition was not mutual; he liked the uninviting stare that she gave him as he stopped.
"It is thou?" she exclaimed, and her dimly-seen face softened suddenly into a delighted, adoring smile.
He was moved by the passion which she still had for him. He felt vaguely and yet acutely an undischarged obligation in regard to her. It was the first time he had met her in such circumstances. A constraint fell between them. In five minutes she would have been in her Promenade engaged upon her highly technical business, displaying her attractions while appearing to protect herself within a virginal timidity (for this was her natural method). In any case, even had he not set forth on purpose to find her, he could scarcely have accompanied her to the doors of the theatre and there left her to the night's routine. They both hesitated, and then, without a word, he turned aside and she followed close, acquiescent by training and by instinct. Knowing his sure instinct for what was proper, she knew at once that hazard had saved her from the night's routine, and she was full of quiet triumph. He, of course, though absolutely loyal to her, had for dignity's sake to practise the duplicity of pretending to make up his mind what he should do.
They went through the Tube station and were soon in one of the withdrawn streets between Coventry Street and Pall Mall East. The episode had somehow the air of an adventure. He looked at her; the hat was possibly rather large, but, in truth, she was the image of refinement, delicacy, virtue, virtuous surrender. He thought it was marvellous that there should exist such a woman as she. And he thought how marvellous was the protective vastness of the town, beneath whose shield he was free—free to live different lives simultaneously, to make his own laws, to maintain indefinitely exciting and delicious secrecies. Not half a mile off were Concepcion and Queen, and his amour was as safe from them as if he had hidden it in the depths of some hareemed Asiatic city.
Christine said politely:
"But I detain thee?"
"As for that," he replied, "what does that matter, after all?"
"Thou knowest," she said in a new tone, "I am all that is most worried. In this London they are never willing to leave you in peace."
"What is it, my poor child?" he asked benevolently.
"They talk of closing the Promenade," she answered.
"Never!" he murmured easily, reassuringly.
He remembered the night years earlier when, as a protest against some restrictive action of a County Council, the theatre of varieties whose Promenade rivalled throughout the whole world even the Promenade of the Folies-Bergere, shut its doors and darkened its blazing facade, and the entire West End seemed to go into a kind of shocked mourning. But the next night the theatre had reopened as usual and the Promenade had been packed. Close the Promenades! Absurd! Not the full bench of archbishops and bishops could close the Promenades! The thing was inconceivable, especially in war-time, when human nature was so human.
"But it is quite serious!" she cried. "Everyone speaks of it.... What idiots! What frightful lack of imagination! And how unjust! What do they suppose we are going to do, we other women? Do they intend to put respectable women like me on to the pavement? It is a fantastic idea! Fantastic!... And the night-clubs closing too!"
"There is always the other place."
"The Ottoman? Do not speak to me of the Ottoman. Moreover, that also will be suppressed. They are all mad." She gave a great sigh. "Oh! What a fool I was to leave Paris! After all, in Paris, they know what it is, life! However, I weary thee. Let us say no more about it."
She controlled her agitation. The subject was excessively delicate, and that she should have expressed herself so violently on it showed the powerful reality of the emotion it had aroused in her. Unquestionably the decency of her livelihood was at stake. She had convinced him of the peril. But what could he say? He could not say, "Do not despair. You are indispensable; therefore you will not be dispensed with. These crises have often arisen before, and they always end in the same manner. And are there not the big hotels, the chic cinemas, certain restaurants? Not to mention the clientele which you must have made for yourself?" Such remarks were impossible. But not more impossible than the very basis of his relations with her. He was aware again of the weight of an undischarged obligation to her. His behaviour towards her had always been perfection, and yet was she not his creditor? He had a conscience, and it was illogical and extremely inconvenient.
At that moment a young man flew along the silent, shadowed street, and as he passed them shouted somewhat hysterically the one word:
Christine clutched his arm. They stood still.
"Do not be frightened," said G.J. with perfect tranquillity.
"But I hear guns," she protested.
He, too, heard the distant sounds of guns, and it occurred to him that the sounds had begun earlier, while they were talking.
"I expect it's only anti-aircraft practice," he replied. "I seem to remember seeing a warning in the paper about there being practice one of these nights."
Christine, increasing the pressure on his arm and apparently trying to drag him away, complained:
"They ought to give warning of raids. That is elementary. This country is so bizarre."
"Oh!" said G.J., full of wisdom and standing his ground. "That would never do. Warnings would make panics, and they wouldn't help in the least. We are just as safe here as anywhere. Even supposing there is an air-raid, the chance of any particular spot being hit must be several million to one against. And I don't think for a moment there is an air-raid."
"Well, I don't," G.J. answered with calm superiority. The fact was that he did not know why he thought there was not an air-raid. To assume that there was not an air-raid, in the absence of proof positive of the existence of an air-raid, was with him constitutional: a state of mind precisely as illogical, biased and credulous as the alarmist mood which he disdained in others. Also he was lacking in candour, for after a few seconds the suspicion crept into his mind that there might indeed be an air-raid—and he would not utter it.
"In any case," said Christine, "they always give warning in Paris."
"I'd better get this woman home," and said aloud: "Come along."
"But is it safe?" she asked anxiously.
He saw that she was the primeval woman, exactly like Concepcion and Queen. First she wanted to run, and then when he was ready to run she asked: "Is it safe?" And he felt very indulgent and comfortably masculine. He admitted that it would be absurd to expect the conduct of a frightened Christine to be governed by the operations of reason. He was not annoyed, because personally he simply did not care a whit whether they moved or not. While they were hesitating a group of people came round the corner. These people were talking loudly, and as they approached G.J. discerned that one of them was pointing to the sky.
"There she is! There she is!" shouted an eager voice. Seeing more human society in G.J. and Christine, the group stopped near them.
G.J. gazed in the indicated direction, and lo! there was a point of light in the sky.
And then guns suddenly began to sound much nearer.
"What did I tell you?" said another voice. "I told you they'd cleared the corner at the bottom of St. James's Street for a gun. Now they've got her going. Good for us they're shooting southwards."
Christine was shaking on G.J.'s arm.
"It's all right! It's all right!" he murmured compassionately, and she tightened her clutch on him in thanks.
He looked hard at the point of light, which might have been anything. The changing forms of thin clouds continually baffled the vision.
"By god!" shouted the first voice. "She's hit. See her stagger? She's hit. She'll blaze up in a moment. One down last week. Another this. Look at her now. She's afire."
The group gave a weak cheer.
Then the clouds cleared for an instant and revealed a crescent. G.J. said:
"That's the moon, you idiots. It's not a Zeppelin."
Even as he spoke he wondered, and regretted, that he should be calling them idiots. They were complete strangers to him. The group vanished, crestfallen, round another corner. G.J. laughed to Christine. Then the noise of guns was multiplied. That he was with Christine in the midst of an authentic air-raid could no longer be doubted. He was conscious of the wine he had drunk at the club. He had the sensation of human beings, men like himself, who ate and drank and laced their boots, being actually at that moment up there in the sky with intent to kill him and Christine. It was a marvellous sensation, terrible but exquisite. And he had the sensation of other human beings beyond the sea, giving deliberate orders in German for murder, murdering for their lives; and they, too, were like himself, and ate and drank and either laced their boots or had them laced daily. And the staggering apprehension of the miraculous lunacy of war swept through his soul.
THE CHILD'S ARM
"You see," he said to Christine, "it was not a Zeppelin.... We shall be quite safe here."
But in that last phrase he had now confessed to her the existence of an air-raid. He knew that he was not behaving with the maximum of sagacity. There were, for example, hotels with subterranean grill-rooms close by, and there were similar refuges where danger would be less than in the street, though the street was narrow and might be compared to a trench. And yet he had said, "We shall be quite safe here." In others he would have condemned such an attitude.
Now, however, he realised that he was very like others. An inactive fatalism had seized him. He was too proud, too idle, too negligent, too curious, to do the wise thing. He and Christine were in the air-raid, and in it they should remain. He had just the senseless, monkeyish curiosity of the staring crowd so lyrically praised by the London Press. He was afraid, but his curiosity and inertia were stronger than his fear. Then came a most tremendous explosion—the loudest sound, the most formidable physical phenomenon that G.J. had ever experienced in his life. The earth under their feet trembled. Christine gave a squeal and seemed to subside to the ground, but he pulled her up again, not in calm self-possession, but by the sheer automatism of instinct. A spasm of horrible fright shot through him. He thought, in awe and stupefaction:
He thought about death and maiming and blood. The relations between him and those everyday males aloft in the sky seemed to be appallingly close. After the explosion perfect silence—no screams, no noise of crumbling—perfect silence, and yet the explosion seemed still to dominate the air! Ears ached and sang. Something must be done. All theories of safety had been smashed to atoms in the explosion. G.J. dragged Christine along the street, he knew not why. The street was unharmed. Not the slightest trace in it, so far as G.J. could tell in the gloom, of destruction! But where the explosion had been, whether east, west, south or north, he could not guess. Except for the disturbance in his ears the explosion might have been a hallucination.
Suddenly he saw at the end of the street a wide thoroughfare, and he could not be sure what thoroughfare it was. Two motor-buses passed the end of the street at mad speed; then two taxis; then a number of people, men and women, running hard. Useless and silly to risk the perils of that wide thoroughfare! He turned back with Christine. He got her to run. In the thick gloom he looked for an open door or a porch, but there was none. The houses were like the houses of the dead. He made more than one right angle turn. Christine gave a sign that she could go no farther. He ceased trying to drag her. He was recovering himself. Once more he heard the guns—childishly feeble after the explosion of the bomb. After all, one spot was as safe as another.
The outline of a building seemed familiar. It was an abandoned chapel; he knew he was in St. Martin's Street. He was about to pull Christine into the shelter of the front of the chapel, when something happened for which he could not find a name. True, it was an explosion. But the previous event had been an explosion, and this one was a thousandfold more intimidating. The earth swayed up and down. The sound alone of the immeasurable cataclysm annihilated the universe. The sound and the concussion transcended what had been conceivable. Both the sound and the concussion seemed to last for a long time. Then, like an afterthought, succeeded the awful noise of falling masses and the innumerable crystal tinkling of shattered glass. This noise ceased and began again....
G.J. was now in a strange condition of mild wonder. There was silence in the dark solitude of St. Martin's Street. Then the sound of guns supervened once more, but they were distant guns. G.J. discovered that he was not holding Christine, and also that, instead of being in the middle of the street, he was leaning against the door of a house. He called faintly, "Christine!" No reply. "In a moment," he said to himself, "I must go out and look for her. But I am not quite ready yet." He had a slight pain in his side; it was naught; it was naught, especially in comparison with the strange conviction of weakness and confusion.
"We've not won this war yet," and he had qualms.
One poor lamp burned in the street. He started to walk slowly and uncertainly towards it. Near by he saw a hat on the ground. It was his own. He put it on. Suddenly the street lamp went out. He walked on, and stepped ankle-deep into broken glass. Then the road was clear again. He halted. Not a sign of Christine! He decided that she must have run away, and that she would run blindly and, finding herself either in Leicester Square or Lower Regent Street, would by instinct run home. At any rate, she could not be blown to atoms, for they were together at the instant of the explosion. She must exist, and she must have had the power of motion. He remembered that he had had a stick; he had it no longer. He turned back and, taking from his pocket the electric torch which had lately come into fashion, he examined the road for his stick. The sole object of interest which the torch revealed was a child's severed arm, with a fragment of brown frock on it and a tinsel ring on one of the fingers of the dirty little hand. The blood from the other end had stained the ground. G.J. abruptly switched off the torch. Nausea overcame him, and then a feeling of the most intense pity and anger overcame the nausea. (A month elapsed before he could mention his discovery of the child's arm to anyone at all.) The arm lay there as if it had been thrown there. Whence had it come? No doubt it had come from over the housetops....
He smelt gas, and then he felt cold water in his boots. Water was advancing in a flood along the street. "Broken mains, of course," he said to himself, and was rather pleased with the promptness of his explanation. At the elbow of St. Martin's Street, where a new dim vista opened up, he saw policemen, then firemen; then he heard the beat of a fire-engine, upon whose brass glinted the reflection of flames that were flickering in a gap between two buildings. A huge pile of debris encumbered the middle of the road. The vista was closed by a barricade, beyond which was a pressing crowd. "Stand clear there!" said a policeman to him roughly. "There's a wall going to fall there any minute." He walked off, hurrying with relief from the half-lit scene of busy, dim silhouettes. He could scarcely understand it; and he was incapable of replying to the policeman. He wanted to be alone and to ponder himself back into perfect composure. At the elbow again he halted afresh. And as he stood figures in couples, bearing stretchers, strode past him. The stretchers were covered with cloths that hung down. Not the faintest sound came from beneath the cloths.
After a time he went on. The other exit of St. Martin's Street was being barricaded as he reached it. A large crowd had assembled, and there was a sound of talking like steady rain. He pushed grimly through the crowd. He was set apart from the idle crowd. He would tell the crowd nothing. In a minute he was going westwards on the left side of Coventry Street again. The other side was as populous with saunterers as ever. The violet glow-worms still burned in front of the theatres and cinemas. Motor-buses swept by; taxis swept by; parcels vans swept by, hooting. A newsman was selling papers at the corner. Was he in a dream now? Or had he been in a dream in St. Martin's Street? The vast capacity of the capital for digesting experience seemed to endanger his reason. Save for the fragments of eager conversation everywhere overheard, there was not a sign of disturbance of the town's habitual life. And he was within four hundred yards of the child's arm and of the spot where the procession of stretcher-bearers had passed. One thought gradually gained ascendancy in his mind: "I am saved!" It became exultant: "I might have been blown to bits, but I am saved!" Despite the world's anguish and the besetting imminence of danger, life and the city which he inhabited had never seemed so enchanting, so lovely, as they did then. He hurried towards Cork Street, hopeful.
At two periods of the day Marthe, with great effort and for professional purposes, achieved some degree of personal tidiness. The first period began at about four o'clock in the afternoon. By six o'clock or six-thirty she had slipped back into the sloven. The second period began at about ten o'clock at night. It was more brilliant while it lasted, but owing to the accentuation of Marthe's characteristics by fatigue it seldom lasted more than an hour. When Marthe opened the door to G.J. she was at her proudest, intensely conscious of being clean and neat, and unwilling to stand any nonsense from anybody. Of course she was polite to G.J. as the chief friend of the establishment and a giver of good tips, but she deprecated calls by gentlemen in the evening, for unless they were made by appointment the risk of complications at once arose.
The mention of an air-raid rendered her definitely inimical. Formerly Marthe had been more than average nervous in air-raids, but she had grown used to them and now defied them. As she kept all windows closed on principle she heard less of raids than some people. G.J. did not explain the circumstances. He simply asked if Madame had returned. No, Madame had not returned. True, Marthe had not been unaware of guns and things, but there was no need to worry; Madame must have arrived at the theatre long before the guns started. Marthe really could not be bothered with these unnecessary apprehensions. She had her duties to attend to like other folks, and they were heavy, and she washed her hands of air-raids; she accepted no responsibility for them; for her, within the flat, they did not exist, and the whole German war-machine was thereby foiled. G.J. was on the point of a full explanation, but he checked himself. A recital of the circumstances would not immediately help, and it might hinder. Concealing his astonishment at the excesses of which unimaginative stolidity is capable, even in an Italian, he turned down the stairs again.
He stopped in the middle of the stairs, because he did not know what he was going to do, and he seemed to lack force for decisions. No harm could have happened to Christine; she had run off, that was certain. And yet—had he not often heard of the impish tricks of explosions? Of one person being taken and another left? Was it not possible that Christine had been blown to the other end of the street, and was now lying there?... No! Either she was on her way home, or, automatically, she had scurried to the theatre, which was close to St. Martin's Street, and been too fearful to venture forth again. Perhaps she was looking somewhere for him. Yet she might be dead. In any case, what could he do? Ring up the police? It was too soon. He decided that he would wait in Cork Street for half an hour. This plan appealed to him for the mere reason that it was negative.
As he opened the front door he saw a taxi standing outside. The taxi-man had taken one of the lamps from its bracket, and was looking into the interior of the cab, which was ornate with toy-curtains and artificial flowers to indicate to the world that he was an owner-driver and understood life. Hearing the noise of the door, he turned his head—he was wearing a bowler hat and a smart white muffler—and said to G.J., with self-respecting respect for a gentleman:
"This is No. 170, isn't it, sir?"
The taxi-man jerked his head to draw G.J.'s attention to the interior of the vehicle. Christine was half on the seat and half on the floor, unconscious, with shut eyes.
Instantly G.J. was conscious of making a complete recovery from all the effects, physical and moral, of the air-raid.
"Just help me to get her out, will you?" he said in a casual tone, "and I'll carry her upstairs. Where did you pick the lady up?"
"Strand, sir, nearly opposite Romano's."
"The dickens you did!"
"Shock from air-raid, I suppose, sir."
"She did seem a little upset when she hailed me, or I shouldn't have taken her. I was off home, and I only took her to oblige."
The taxi-man ran quickly round to the other side of the cab and entered it by the off-door, behind Christine. Together the men lifted her up.
"I can manage her," said G.J. calmly.
"Excuse me, sir, you'll have to get hold lower down, so as her waist'll be nearly as high as your shoulder. My brother's a fireman."
"Right," said G.J. "By the way, what's the fare?"
Holding Christine across his shoulder with the right arm, he unbuttoned his overcoat with his left hand and took out change from his trouser pocket for the driver.
"You might pull the door to after me," he said, in response to the driver's expression of thanks.
The door banged. He was alone with Christine on the long, dark, inclement stairs. He felt the contours of her body through her clothes. She was limp, helpless. She was a featherweight. She was nothing at all; inexpressibly girlish, pathetic, dear. Never had G.J. felt as he felt then. He mounted the stairs rather quickly, with firm, disdaining steps, and, despite his being a little out of breath, he had a tremendous triumph over the stolidity of Marthe when she answered his ring. Marthe screamed, and in the scream readjusted her views concerning air-raids.
"It's queer this swoon lasting such a long time!" he reflected, when Christine had been deposited on the sofa in the sitting-room, and the common remedies and tricks tried without result, and Marthe had gone into the kitchen to make hot water hotter.
He had established absolute empire over Marthe. He had insisted on Marthe not being silly; and yet, though he had already been silly himself in his absurd speculations as to the possibility of Christine's death, he was now in danger of being silly again. Did ordinary swoons ever continue as this one was continuing? Would Christine ever come out of it? He stood with his back to the fireplace, and her head and shoulders were right under him, so that he looked almost perpendicularly down upon them. Her face was as pale as ivory; every drop of blood seemed to have left it; the same with her neck and bosom; her limbs had dropped anyhow, in disarray; a fur jacket was untidily cast over her black muslin dress. But her waved hair, fresh from the weekly visit of the professional coiffeur, remained in the most perfect order.
G.J. looked round the room. It was getting very shabby. Its pale enamelled shabbiness and the tawdry ugliness of nearly every object in it had never repelled and saddened him as they did then. The sole agreeable item was a large photograph of the mistress in a rich silver frame which he had given her. She would not let him buy knicknacks or draperies for her drawing-room; she preferred other presents. And now that she lay in the room, but with no power to animate it, he knew what the room really looked like; it looked like a dentist's waiting-room, except that no dentist would expose copies of La Vie Parisienne to the view of clients. It had no more individuality than a dentist's waiting-room. Indeed it was a dentist's waiting-room. He remembered that he had had similar ideas about the room at the beginning of his acquaintance with Christine; but he had partially forgotten them, and moreover, they had not by any means been so clear and desolating as in that moment.
He looked from the photograph to her face. The face was like the photograph, but in the swoon its wistfulness became unbearable. And it was so young. What was she? Twenty-seven? She could not be twenty-eight. No age! A girl! And talk about experience! She had had scarcely any experience, save one kind of experience. The monotony and narrowness of her life was terrifying to him. He had fifty interests, but she had only one. All her days were alike. She had no change and no holiday; no past and no future; no family; no intimate friends—unless Marthe was an intimate friend; no horizons, no prospects. She witnessed life in London through the distorting, mystifying veil of a foreign language imperfectly understood. She was the most solitary girl in London, or she would have been were there not a hundred thousand or so others in nearly the same case.... Stay! Once she had delicately allowed him to divine that she had been to Bournemouth with a gentleman for a week-end. He could recall nothing else. Nightly, or almost nightly, she listened to the same insufferably tedious jokes in the same insufferably tedious revue. But the authorities were soon going to deprive her of the opportunity of doing that. And then she would cease to receive even the education that revues can furnish, and in her mind no images would survive but images connected with the material arts of love. For, after all, what had they truly in common, he and she, but a periodical transient excitation?
When next he looked at her, her eyes were wide open and a flush was coming, as imperceptibly as the dawn, into her cheeks. He took her hands again and rubbed them. Marthe returned, and Christine drank. She gazed, in weak silence, first at Marthe and then at G.J. After a few moments no one spoke. Marthe took off Christine's boots, and rubbed her stockinged feet, and then kissed them violently.
"Madame should go to bed."
"I am better."
Marthe left the room, seeming resentful.
"What has passed?" Christine murmured, without smiling.
"A faint in the taxi, my poor child. That was all," said G.J. calmly.
"But how is it that I find myself here?"
"I carried thee upstairs in my arms."
"Why not?" He spoke lightly, with careful negligence. "It appears that thou wast in the Strand."
"Was I? I lost thee. Something tore thee from me. I ran. I ran till I could not run. I was sure that never more should I see thee alive. Oh! My Gilbert, what terrible moments! What a catastrophe! Never shall I forget those moments!"
G.J. said, with bland supremacy:
"But it is necessary that thou shouldst forget them. Master thyself. Thou knowst now what it is—an air-raid. It was an ordinary air-raid. There have been many like it. There will be many more. For once we were in the middle of a raid—by chance. But we are safe—that is enough."
"But the deaths?"
He shook his head.
"But there must have been many deaths!"
"I do not know. There will have been deaths. There usually are." He shrugged his shoulders.
Christine sat up and gave a little screech.
"Ah!" She burst out, her features suddenly transformed by enraged protest. "Why wilt thou act thy cold man?"
He was amazed at the sudden nervous strength she showed.
"But, my little one—"
"Why wilt thou act thy cold man? I shall become mad in this sacred England. I shall become totally mad. You are all the same, all, all, men and women. You are marvels—let it be so!—but you are not human. Do you then wish to be taken for telegraph-poles? Always you are pretending something. Pretending that you have no sentiments. And you are soaked in sentimentality. But no! You will not show it! You will not applaud your soldiers in the streets. You will not salute your flag. You will not salute even a corpse. You have only one phrase: 'It is nothing'. If you win a battle, 'It is nothing' If you lose one, 'It is nothing'. If you are nearly killed in an air-raid, 'It is nothing'. And if you were killed outright and could yet speak, you would say, with your eternal sneer, 'It is nothing'. You other men, you make love with the air of turning on a tap. As for your women, god knows—! But I have a horror of Englishwomen. Prudes but wantons. Can I not guess? Always hypocrites. Always holding themselves in. My god, that pinched smile! And your women of the world especially. Have they a natural gesture? Yet does not everyone know that they are rotten with vice and perversity? And your actresses!... And they talk of us! Ah, well! For me, I can say that I earn my living honestly, every son of it. For all that I receive, I give. And they would throw me on to the pavement to starve, me whose function in society—"
She collapsed in sobs, and with averted face held out her arms in appeal. G.J., at once admiring and stricken with compassion, bent and clasped her neck, and kissed her, and kept his mouth on hers. Her tears dropped freely on his cheeks. Her sobs shook both of them. Gradually the sobs decreased in violence and frequency. In an infant's broken voice she murmured into his mouth:
"My wolf! Is it true—that thou didst carry me here in thy arms? I am so proud."
He was not in the slightest degree irritated or grieved by her tirade. But the childlike changeableness and facility of her emotions touched him. He savoured her youth, and himself felt curiously young. It was the fact that within the last year he had grown younger.
He thought of great intellectuals, artists, men of action, princes, kings—historical figures—in whom courtesans had inspired immortal passion. He thought of the illustrious courtesans who had made themselves heroic in legend, women whose loves were countless and often venal, and yet whose renown had come down to posterity as gloriously as that of supreme poets. He thought of lifelong passionate attachments, which to the world were inexplicable, and which the world never tired of leniently discussing. He overheard people saying: "Yes. Picked her up somewhere, in a Promenade. She worships him, and he adores her. Don't know where he hides her. You see them about together sometimes—at concerts, for instance. Mysterious-looking creature she is. Plays the part very well, too. Strange affair. But, of course, there's no accounting for these things."
The role attracted him. And there could be no doubt that she did worship him utterly. He did not analyse his feeling for her—perhaps could not. She satisfied something in him that was profound. She never offended his sensibilities, nor wearied him. Her manners were excellent, her gestures full of grace and modesty, her temperament extreme. A unique combination! And if the tie between them was not real and secure, why should he have yearned for her company that night after the scenes with Concepcion and Queen. Those women challenged him, discomposed him, fretted him, fought him, left his nerves raw. She soothed. Why should he not, in the French phrase, "put her among her own furniture?" In a proper artistic environment, an environment created by himself, of taste and moderate luxury, she would be exquisite. She would blossom. And she would blossom for him alone. She would live for his footstep on her threshold; and when he was not there she would dream amid cushions like a cat. In the right environment she would become another being, that was to say, the same being, but orchidised. And when he was old, when he was sixty-five, she would still be young, still be under forty and seductive. And the publishing of his last will and testament, under which she inherited all, would render her famous throughout all the West End, and the word "romance" would spring to every lip. He searched in his mind for the location of suitable flats.
"Is it true that thou didst carry me in thine arms?" repeated Christine.
He murmured into her mouth:
"Is it true? Can she doubt? The proof, then."
And he picked her up as though she had been a doll, and carried her into the bedroom. As she lay on the bed, she raised her arm and looked at the broken wrist-watch and sighed.
"My mascot. It is not a blague, my mascot."
Shortly afterwards she began to cry again, at first gently; then sobs supervened.
"She must sleep," he said firmly.
She shook her head.
"I cannot. I have been too upset. It is impossible that I should sleep."
"Go and buy me a drug."
"If I go and buy her a drug, will she undress and get into bed while I am away?"
Calling Marthe, and taking the latch-key of the street-door, he went to his chemist's in Dover Street and bought some potassium bromide and sal volatile. When he came back Marthe whispered to him:
"She sleeps. She has told me everything as I undressed her. The poor child!"
G.J. went home at once, partly so that Christine should not be disturbed, partly because he desired solitude in order to examine and compose his mind. Mrs. Braiding had left an agreeable modest fire—fit for cold April—in the drawing-room. He had just sat down in front of it and was tranquillising himself in the familiar harmonious beauty of the apartment (which, however, did seem rather insipid after the decorative excesses of Queen's room), when he heard footsteps on the little stairway from the upper floor. Mrs. Braiding entered the drawing-room.
This was a Mrs. Braiding very different from the Mrs. Braiding of 1914, a shameless creature of more rounded contours than of old, and not quite so spick and span as of old. She was carrying in her arms that which before the war she could not have conceived herself as carrying. The being was invisible in wraps, but it was there; and she seemed to have no shame for it, seemed indeed to be proud of it and defiant about it.
Braiding's military career had been full of surprises. He had expected within a few months of joining the colours to be dashing gloriously and homicidally at panic-stricken Germans across the plains of Flanders, to be, in fact, saving the Empire at the muzzle of rifle and the point of bayonet. In truth, he found that for interminable, innumerable weeks his job was to save the Empire by cleaning harness on the East Coast of England—for under advice he had transferred to the artillery. Later, when his true qualifications were discovered, he had to save the Empire by polishing the buttons and serving the morning tea and buying the cigarettes of a major who in 1914 had been a lawyer by profession and a soldier only for fun. The major talked too much, and to the wrong people. He became lyric concerning the talents of Braiding to a dandiacal Divisional General at Colchester, and soon, by the actuating of mysterious forces and the filling up of many Army forms, Braiding was removed to Colchester, and had to save the Empire by valeting the Divisonal General. Foiled in one direction, Braiding advanced in another. By tradition, when a valet marries a lady's maid, the effect on the birth-rate is naught. And it is certain that but for the war Braiding would not have permitted himself to act as he did. The Empire, however, needed citizens. The first rumour that Braiding had done what in him lay to meet the need spread through the kitchens of the Albany like a new gospel, incredible and stupefying—but which imposed itself. The Albany was never the same again.
All the kitchens were agreed that Mr. Hoape would soon be stranded. The spectacle of Mrs. Braiding as she slipped out of a morning past the porter's lodge mesmerised beholders. At last, when things had reached the limit, Mrs. Braiding slipped out and did not come back. Meanwhile a much younger sister of hers had been introduced into the flat. But when Mrs. Braiding went the virgin went also. The flat was more or less closed, and Mr. Hoape had slept at his club for weeks. At length the flat was reopened, but whereas three had left it, four returned.
That a bachelor of Mr. Hoape's fastidiousness should tolerate in his home a woman with a tiny baby was remarkable; it was as astounding perhaps as any phenomenon of the war, and a sublime proof that Mr. Hoape realised that the Empire was fighting for its life. It arose from the fact that both G.J. and Braiding were men of considerable sagacity. Braiding had issued an order, after seeing G.J., that his wife should not leave G.J.'s service. And Mrs. Braiding, too, had her sense of duty. She was very proud of G.J.'s war-work, and would have thought it disloyal to leave him in the lurch, and so possibly prejudice the war-work—especially as she was convinced that he would never get anybody else comparable to herself.
At first she had been a little apologetic and diffident about her offspring. But soon the man-child had established an important position in the flat, and though he was generally invisible, his individuality pervaded the whole place. G.J. had easily got accustomed to the new inhabitant. He tolerated and then liked the babe. He had never nursed it—for such an act would have been excessive—but he had once stuck his finger in its mouth, and he had given it a perambulator that folded up. He did venture secretly to hope that Braiding would not imagine it to be his duty to provide further for the needs of the Empire.
That Mrs. Braiding had grown rather shameless in motherhood was shown by her quite casual demeanour as she now came into the drawing-room with the baby, for this was the first time she had ever come into the drawing-room with the baby, knowing her august master to be there.
"Mrs. Braiding," said G.J. "That child ought to be asleep."
"He is asleep, sir," said the woman, glancing into the mysteries of the immortal package, "but Maria hasn't been able to get back yet because of the raid, and I didn't want to leave him upstairs alone with the cat. He slept all through the raid."
"It seems some of you have made the cellar quite comfortable."
"Oh, yes, sir. Particularly now with the oilstove and the carpet. Perhaps one night you'll come down, sir."
"I may have to. I shouldn't have been much surprised to find some damage here to-night. They've been very close, you know.... Near Leicester Square." He could not be troubled to say more than that.
"Have they really, sir? It's just like them," said Mrs. Braiding. And she then continued in exactly the same tone: "Lady Queenie Paulle has just been telephoning from Lechford House, sir." She still—despite her marvellous experiences—impishly loved to make extraordinary announcements as if they were nothing at all. And she felt an uplifted satisfaction in having talked to Lady Queenie Paulle herself on the telephone.
"What does she want?" G.J. asked impatiently, and not at all in a voice proper for the mention of a Lady Queenie to a Mrs. Braiding. He was annoyed; he resented any disturbance of the repose which he so acutely needed.
Mrs. Braiding showed that she was a little shocked. The old harassed look of bearing up against complex anxieties came into her face.
"Her ladyship wished to speak to you, sir, on a matter of importance. I didn't know where you were, sir."
That last phrase was always used by Mrs. Braiding when she wished to imply that she could guess where G.J. had been. He did not suppose that she was acquainted with the circumstances of his amour, but he had a suspicion amounting to conviction that she had conjectured it, as men of science from certain derangements in their calculations will conjecture the existence of a star that no telescope has revealed.
"Well, better leave Lady Queenie alone for to-night."
"I promised her ladyship that I would ring her up again in any case in a quarter of an hour. That was approximately ten minutes ago."
He could not say:
"Be hanged to your promises!"
Reluctantly he went to the telephone himself, and learnt from Lady Queenie, who always knew everything, that the raiders were expected to return in about half an hour, and that she and Concepcion desired his presence at Lechford House. He replied coldly that he was too tired to come, and was indeed practically in bed. "But you must come. Don't you understand we want you?" said Lady Queenie autocratically, adding: "And don't forget that business about the hospitals. We didn't attend to it this afternoon, you know." He said to himself: "And whose fault was that?" and went off angrily, wondering what mysterious power of convention it was that compelled him to respond to the whim of a girl whom he scarcely even respected.
The main door of LECHFORD HOUSE was ajar, and at the sound of G.J.'s footsteps on the marble of the porch it opened. Robin, the secretary, stood at the threshold. Evidently she had been set to wait for him.
"The men-servants are all in the cellars," said she perkily.
G.J. retorted with sardonic bitterness:
"And quite right, too. I'm glad someone's got some sense left."
Yet he did not really admire the men-servants for being in the cellars. Somehow it seemed mean of them not to be ready to take any risks, however unnecessary.
Robin, hiding her surprise and confusion in a nervous snigger, banged the heavy door, and led him through the halls and up the staircases. As she went forward she turned on electric lamps here and there in advance, turning them off by the alternative switches after she had passed them, so that in the vast, shadowed, echoing interior the two appeared to be preceded by light and pursued by a tide of darkness. She was mincingly feminine, and very conscious of the fact that G.J. was a fine gentleman. In the afternoon, and again to-night—at first, he had taken her for a mere girl; but as she halted under a lamp to hold a door for him at the entrance to the upper stairs, he perceived that it must have been a long time since she was a girl. Often had he warned himself that the fashion of short skirts and revealed stockings gave a deceiving youthfulness to the middle-aged, and yet nearly every day he had to learn the lesson afresh.
He was just expecting to be shown into the boudoir when Robin stopped at a very small door.
"Her ladyship and Mrs. Carlos Smith are out on the roof. This is the ladder," she said, and illuminated the ladder.
G.J. had no choice but to mount. Luckily he had kept his hat. He put it on. As he climbed he felt a slight recurrence of the pain in his side which he had noticed in St. Martin's Street. The roof was a very strange, tempestuous place, and insecure. He had an impression similar to that of being at sea, for the wind, which he had scarcely observed in the street, made melancholy noises in the new protective wire-netting that stretched over his head. This bomb-catching contrivance, fastened on thick iron stanchions, formed a sort of second roof, and was a very solid and elaborate affair which must have cost much money. The upstreaming light from the ladder-shaft was suddenly extinguished. He could see nobody, and the loneliness was uncomfortable.
Somehow, when Robin had announced that the ladies were on the roof he had imagined the roof as a large, flat expanse. It was nothing of the kind. So far as he could distinguish in the deep gloom it had leaden pathways, but on either hand it sloped sharply up or sharply down. He might have fallen sheer into a chasm, or stumbled against the leaden side of a slant. He descried a lofty construction of carved masonry with an iron ladder clamped into it, far transcending the net. Not immediately did he comprehend that it was merely one of the famous Lechford chimney-stacks looming gigantic in the night. He walked cautiously onward and came to a precipice and drew back, startled, and took another pathway at right angles to the first one. Presently the protective netting stopped, and he was exposed to heaven; he had reached the roof of the servants' quarters towards the back of the house.
He stood still and gazed, accustoming himself to the night. The moon was concealed, but there were patches of dim stars. He could make out, across the empty Green Park, the huge silhouette of Buckingham Palace, and beyond that the tower of Westminster Cathedral. To his left he could see part of a courtyard or small square, with a fore-shortened black figure, no doubt a policeman, carrying a flash-lamp. The tree-lined Mall seemed to be utterly deserted. But Piccadilly showed a line of faint stationary lights and still fainter moving lights. A mild hum and the sounds of motor-horns and cab-whistles came from Piccadilly, where people were abroad in ignorance that the raid was not really over. All the heavens were continually restless with long, shifting rays from the anti-aircraft stations, but the rays served only to prove the power of darkness.
Then he heard quick, smooth footsteps. Two figures, one behind the other, approached him, almost running, eagerly, girlishly, with little cries. The first was Queen, who wore a white skirt and a very close-fitting black jersey. Concepcion also wore a white skirt and a very close-fitting black jersey, but with a long mantle hung loosely from the shoulders. Both were bareheaded.
"Isn't it splendid, G.J.?" Queen burst out enthusiastically. Again G.J. had the sensation of being at sea—perhaps on the deck of a yacht. He felt that rain ought to have been beating on the face of the excited and careless girl. Before answering, he turned up the collar of his overcoat. Then he said:
"Won't you catch a chill?"
"I'm never cold," said Queen. It was true. "I shall always come up here for raids in future."
"You seem to be enjoying it."
"I love it. I love it. I only thought of it to-night. It's the next best thing to being a man and being at the Front. It is being at the Front."
Her face was little more than a pale, featureless oval to him in the gloom, but he could divine from the vibrations of her voice that she was as ecstatic as a young maid at her first dance.
"And what about that business interview that you've just asked for on the 'phone?" G.J. acidly demanded.
"Oh, we'll come to that later. We wanted a man here—not to save us, only to save us from ourselves—and you were the best we could think of, wasn't he, Con? But you've not heard about my next bazaar, G.J., have you?"
"I thought it was a Pageant."
"I mean after that. A bazaar. I don't know yet what it will be for, but I've got lots of the most topping ideas for it. For instance, I'm going to have a First-Aid Station."
"What for? Air-raid casualties?"
Queen scorned his obtuseness, pouring out a cataract of swift sentences.
"No. First-Aid to lovely complexions. Help for Distressed Beauties. I shall get Roger Fry to design the Station and the costumes of my attendants. It will be marvellous, and I tell you there'll always be a queue waiting for admittance. I shall have all the latest dodges in the sublime and fatal art of make-up, and if any of the Bond Street gang refuse to help me I'll damn well ruin them. But they won't refuse because they know what I'll do. Gontran is coming in with his new steaming process for waving. Con, you must try that. It's a miracle. Waving's no good for my style of coiffure, but it would suit you. You always wouldn't wave, but you've got to now, my seraph. The electric heater works in sections. No danger. No inconvenience to the poor old scalp. The waves will last for six months or more. It has to be seen to be believed, and even then you can't believe it. Its only fault is that it's too natural to be natural. But who wants to be natural? This modern craze for naturalness seems to me to be rather unwholesome, not to say perverted. What?"
She seized G.J.'s arm convulsively.
Concepcion had said nothing. G.J. sought her eyes in the darkness, but did not find them.
"So much for the bazaar!" he said.
Queen suddenly cried aloud:
"What is it, Robin? Has Captain Brickly telephoned?"
"Yes, my lady," came a voice faintly across the gloom from the region of the ladder-shaft.
"They're coming! They'll be here directly!" exclaimed Queen, loosing G.J. and clapping her hands.
G.J. thought of Robin affixed to the telephone, and some scarlet-shouldered officer at the War Office quitting duty for the telephone, in order to keep the capricious girl informed of military movements simply because she had taken the trouble to be her father's daughter, and in so doing had acquired the right to treat the imperial machine as one of her nursery toys. And he became unreasonably annoyed.
"I suppose you were cowering in your Club during the first Act?" she said, with vivacity.
"Yes," G.J. briefly answered. Once more he was aware of a strong instinctive disinclination to relate what had happened to him. He was too proud to explain, and perhaps too tired.
"You ought to have been up here. They dropped two bombs close to the National Gallery; pity they couldn't have destroyed a Landseer or two while they were so near! There were either seven or eight killed and eighteen wounded, so far as is known. But there were probably more. There was quite a fire, too, but that was soon got under. We saw it all except the explosion of the bombs. We weren't looking in the right place—no luck! However, we saw the Zepp. What a shame the moon's disappeared again! Listen! Listen!... Can't you hear the engines?"
G.J. shrugged his shoulders. Nothing could be heard above the faint hum of Piccadilly. The wind seemed to have diminished to a chill, fitful zephyr.
Concepcion had sat down on a coping.
"Look!" she exclaimed in a startled whisper, and sprang erect.
To the south, down among the trees, a red light flashed and was gone. The faint, irregular hum of Piccadilly persisted for a couple of seconds, and then was drowned in the loud report, which seemed to linger and wander in the great open spaces. G.J.'s flesh crept. He comprehended the mad ecstasy of Queen, and because he comprehended it his anger against her increased.
"Can you see the Zepp?" murmured Queen, as it were ferociously. "It must be within range, or they wouldn't have fired. Look along the lines of the searchlights. One of them, at any rate, must have got on to it. We saw it before. Can't you see it? I can hear the engines, I think."
Another flash was followed by another resounding report. More guns spoke in the distance. Then a glare arose on the southern horizon.
"Incendiary bomb!" muttered Queen. She stood stock-still, with her mouth open, entranced.
The Zeppelin or the Zeppelins remained invisible and inaudible. Yet they must be aloft there, somewhere amid the criss-cross of the unresting searchlights. G.J. waited, powerfully impressed, incapable of any direct action, gazing blankly now at the women and now at the huge undecipherable heaven and earth, and receiving the chill zephyr on his face. The nearmost gun had ceased to fire. Occasionally there was perfect silence—for no faintest hum came from Piccadilly, and nothing seemed to move there. The further guns recommenced, and then the group heard a new sound, rather like the sound of a worn-out taxi accelerating before changing gear. It grew gradually louder. It grew very loud. It seemed to be ripping the envelope of the air. It seemed as if it would last for ever—till it finished with a gigantic and intimidating plop quite near the front of Lechford House. Queen said:
"Shrapnel—and a big lump!"
G.J. could see the quick heave of her bosom imprisoned in the black. She was breathing through her nostrils.
"Come downstairs into the house," he said sharply—more than sharply, brutally. "Where in the name of God is the sense of stopping up here? Are you both mad?"
Queen laughed lightly.
"Oh, G.J.! How funny you are! I'm really surprised you haven't left London for good before now. By rights you ought to belong to the Hook-it Brigade. Do you know what they do? They take a ticket to any station north or west, and when they get out of the train they run to the nearest house and interview the tenant. Has he any accommodation to let? Will he take them in as boarders? Will he take them as paying guests? Will he let the house furnished? Will he let it unfurnished? Will he allow them to camp out in the stables? Will he sell the blooming house? So there isn't a house to be had on the North Western nearer than Leighton Buzzard."
"Are you going? Because I am," said G.J.
"I shall go—and so will you, both of you."
"G.J.," Queen mocked him, "you're in a funk."
"I've got courage enough to go, anyhow," said he. "And that's more than you have."
"You're losing your temper."
As a fact he was. He grabbed at Queen, but she easily escaped him. He saw the whiteness of her skirt in the distance of the roof, dimly rising. She was climbing the ladder up the side of the chimney. She stood on the top of the chimney, and laughed again. A gun sounded.
G.J. said no more. Using his flash-lamp he found his way to the ladder-shaft and descended. He was in the warm and sheltered interior of the house; he was in another and a saner world. Robin was at the foot of the ladder; she blinked under his lamp.
"I've had enough of that," he said, and followed her to the illuminated boudoir, where after a certain hesitation she left him. Alone in the boudoir he felt himself to be a very shamed and futile person, and he was still extremely angry. The next moment Concepcion entered the boudoir.
"Ah!" he murmured, curiously appeased.
"You're quite right," said Concepcion simply.
"Can you give me any reason, Con, why we should make a present of ourselves to the Hun?"
"You're quite right."
"Is she coming?"
Concepcion made a negative sign. "She doesn't know what fear is, Queen doesn't."
"She doesn't know what sense is. She ought to be whipped, and if I got hold of her I'd whip her."
"She'd like nothing better," said Concepcion.
G.J. removed his overcoat and sat down.
IN THE BOUDOIR
"We aren't so desperately safe even here," said G.J., firmly pursuing the moral triumph which Concepcion's very surprising and comforting descent from the roof had given him.
"Don't go to extremes," she answered.
"No, I won't." He thought of the valetry in the cellars, and the impossible humiliation of joining them; and added: "I merely state." Then, after a moment of silence: "By the way, was it only her idea that I should come along, or did the command come from both of you?" The suspicion of some dark, feminine conspiracy revisited him.
"It was Queen's idea."
"Oh! Well, I don't quite understand the psychology of it."
"Surely that's plain."
"It isn't in the least plain."
Concepcion loosed and dropped her cloak, and, not even glancing at G.J., went to the fire and teased it with the poker. Bending down, with one hand on the graphic and didactic mantelpiece, and staring into the fire, she said:
"Queen's in love with you, of course."
The words were a genuine shock to his sarcastic and rather embittered and bullying mood. Was he to believe them? The vibrant, uttering voice was convincing enough. Was he to show the conventional incredulity proper to such an occasion? Or was he to be natural, brutally natural? He was drawn first to one course and then to the other, and finally spoke at random, by instinct:
"What have I been doing to deserve this?"
Concepcion replied, still looking into the fire: "As far as I can gather it must be your masterful ways at the Hospital Committee that have impressed her, and especially your unheard-of tyrannical methods with her august mother."
"I see.... Thanks!"
It had not occurred to him that he had treated the Marchioness tyrannically; he treated her like anybody else; he now perceived that this was to treat her tyrannically. His imagination leapt forward as he gazed round the weird and exciting room which Queen had brought into existence for the illustration of herself, and as he pictured the slim, pale figure outside clinging in the night to the vast chimney, and as he listened to the faint intermittent thud of far-off guns. He had a spasm of delicious temptation. He was tempted by Queen's connections and her prospective wealth. If anybody was to possess millions after the war, Queen would one day possess millions. Her family and her innumerable powerful relatives would be compelled to accept him without the slightest reserve, for Queen issued edicts; and through all those big people he would acquire immense prestige and influence, which he could use greatly. Ambition flared up in him—ambition to impress himself on his era. And he reflected with satisfaction on the strangeness of the fact that such an opportunity should have come to him, the son of a lawyer, solely by virtue of his own individuality. He thought of Christine, and poor little Christine was shrunk to nothing at all; she was scarcely even an object of compassion; she was a prostitute.
But far more than by Queen's connections and prospective wealth he was tempted by her youth and beauty; he saw her beautiful and girlish, and he was sexually tempted. Most of all he was tempted by the desire to master her. He saw again the foolish, elegant, brilliant thing on the chimney pretending to defy him and mock at him. And he heard himself commanding sharply: "Come down. Come down and acknowledge your ruler. Come down and be whipped." (For had he not been told that she would like nothing better?) And he heard the West End of London and all the country-houses saying, "She obeys him like a slave." He conceived a new and dazzling environment for himself; and it was undeniable that he needed something of the kind, for he was growing lonely; before the war he had lived intensely in his younger friends, but the war had taken nearly all of them away from him, many of them for ever.
Then he said in a voice almost resentfully satiric, and wondered why such a tone should come from his lips:
"Another of her caprices, no doubt."
"What do you mean—another of her caprices?" said Concepcion, straightening herself and leaning against the mantelpiece.
He had noticed, only a moment earlier, on the mantelpiece, a large photograph of the handsome Molder, with some writing under it.
"Well, what about that, for example?"
He pointed. Concepcion glanced at him for the first time, and her eyes followed the direction of his finger.
"That! I don't know anything about it."
"Do you mean to say that while you were gossiping till five o'clock this morning, you two, she didn't mention it?"
G.J. went right on, murmuring:
"Wants to do something unusual. Wants to astonish the town."
"Then you seriously tell me she's fallen in love with me, Con?"
"I haven't the slightest doubt of it."
"Did she say so?"
There was a sound outside the door. They both started like plotters in danger, and tried to look as if they had been discussing the weather or the war. But no interruption occurred.
"Well, she did. I know I shall be thought mischievous. If she had the faintest notion I'd breathed the least hint to you, she'd quarrel with me eternally—of course. I couldn't bear another quarrel. If it had been anybody else but you I wouldn't have said a word. But you're different from anybody else. And I couldn't help it. You don't know what Queen is. Queen's a white woman."
"So you said this afternoon."
"And so she is. She has the most curious and interesting brain, and she's as straight as a man."
"I've never noticed it."
"But I know. I know. And she's an exquisite companion."
"And so on and so on. And I expect the scheme is that I am to make love to her and be worried out of my life, and then propose to her and she'll accept me." The word "scheme" brought up again his suspicion of a conspiracy. Evidently there was no conspiracy, but there was a plot—of one.... A nervous breakdown? Was Concepcion merely under an illusion that she had had a nervous breakdown, or had she in truth had one, and was this singular interview a result of it?
Concepcion continued with surprising calm magnanimity:
"I know her mind is strange, but it's lovely. No one but me has ever seen into it. She's following her instinct, unconsciously—as we all do, you know. And her instinct's right, in spite of everything. Her instinct's telling her just now that she needs a master. And that's exactly what she does need. We must remember she's very young—"
"Yes," G.J. interrupted, bursting out with a kind of savagery that he could not explain. "Yes. She's young, and she finds even my age spicy. There'd be something quite amusingly piquant for her in marrying a man nearly thirty years her senior."
Concepcion advanced towards him. There she stood in front of him, quite close to his chair, gazing down at him in her tight black jersey and short white skirt; she was wearing black stockings now. Her serious face was perfectly unruffled. And in her worn face was all her experience; all the nights and days on the Clyde were in her face; the scalping of the young Glasgow girl was in her face, and the failure to endure either in work or in love. There was complete silence within and without—not the echo of an echo of a gun. G.J. felt as though he were at bay.
"People like you and Queen don't want to bother about age. Neither of you has any age. And I'm not imploring you to have her. I'm only telling you that she's there for you if you want her. But doesn't she attract you? Isn't she positively irresistible?" She added with poignancy: "I know if I were a man I should find her irresistible."
A look of sacrifice came into Concepcion's eyes as she finished:
"I'd do anything, anything, to make Queen happy."
"Yes, you would," retorted G.J. icily, carried away by a ruthless and inexorable impulse. "You'd do anything to make her happy even for three months. Yes, to make her happy for three weeks you'd be ready to ruin my whole life. I know you and Queen." And the mild image of Christine formed in his mind, soothingly, infinitely desirable. What balm, after the nerve-racking contact of these incalculable creatures!
Concepcion retired with a gesture of the arm and sat down by the fire.
"You're terrible, G.J.," she said wistfully. "Queen wouldn't be thrown away on you, but you'd be thrown away on her. I admit it. I didn't think you had it in you. I never saw a man develop as you have. Marriage isn't for you. You ought to roam in the primeval forest, and take and kill."
"Not a bit," said G.J., appeased once more. "Not a bit.... But the new relations of the sexes aren't in my line."
"New? My poor boy, are you so ingenuous after all? There's nothing very new in the relations of the sexes that I know of. They're much what they were in the Garden of Eden."
"What do you know of the Garden of Eden?"
"I get my information from Milton," she replied cheerfully, as though much relieved.
"Have you read Paradise Lost, then, Con?"
"I read it all through in my lodgings. And it's really rather good. In fact, the remarks of Raphael to Adam in the eighth book—I think it is—are still just about the last word on the relations of the sexes:
"Oft-times nothing profits more Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right Well-managed; of that skill the more thou know'st, The more she will acknowledge thee her head And to realities yield all her shows."
G.J., marvelling, exclaimed with sudden enthusiasm:
"By Jove! You're an astounding woman, Con. You do me good!"
There was a fresh noise beyond the door, and the door opened and Robin rushed in, blanched and hysterical, and with her seemed to rush in terror.
"Oh! Madame!" she cried. "As there was no more firing I went on to the roof, and her ladyship—" She covered her face and sobbed.
G.J. jumped up.
"Go and see," said Concepcion in a blank voice, not moving. "I can't.... It's the message straight from Potsdam that's arrived."
G.J. emerged from the crowded and malodorous Coroner's Court with a deep sense of the rigour and the thoroughness of British justice, and especially of its stolidity.
There had been four inquests, all upon the bodies of air-raid victims: a road-man, his wife, an orphan baby—all belonging to the thick central mass of the proletariat, for a West End slum had received a bomb full in the face—and Lady Queenie Paulle. The policemen were stolid; the reporters were stolid; the proletariat was stolid; the majority of the witnesses were stolid, and in particular the representatives of various philanthropic agencies who gave the most minute evidence about the habits and circumstances of the slum; and the jurymen were very stolid, and never more so than when, with stubby fingers holding ancient pens, they had to sign quantities of blue forms under the strict guidance of a bareheaded policeman.
The world of Queenie's acquaintances made a strange, vivid contrast to this grey, grim, blockish world; and the two worlds regarded each other with the wonder and the suspicious resentment of foreigners. Queen's world came expecting to behave as at a cause celebre of, for example, divorce. Its representatives were quite ready to tolerate unpleasing contacts and long stretches of tedium in return for some glimpse of the squalid and the privilege of being able to say that they had been present at the inquest. But most of them had arrived rather late, and they had reckoned without the Coroner, and comparatively few obtained even admittance.
The Coroner had arrived on the stroke of the hour, in a silk hat and frock coat, with a black bag, and had sat down at his desk and begun to rule the proceedings with an absolutism that no High Court Judge would have attempted. He was autocrat in a small, close, sordid room; but he was autocrat. He had already shown his quality in some indirect collisions with the Marquis of Lechford. The Marquis felt that he could not stomach the exposure of his daughter's corpse in a common mortuary with other corpses of he knew not whom. Long experience of the marquisate had taught him to believe that everything could be arranged. He found, however, that this matter could not be arranged. There was no appeal from the ukase of the Coroner. Then he wished to be excused from giving evidence, since his evidence could have no direct bearing on the death. But he was informed by a mere clerk, who had knowledge of the Coroner's ways, that if he did not attend the inquest would probably be adjourned for his attendance. The fact was, the Coroner had appreciated as well as anybody that heaven and the war had sent him a cause celebre of the first-class. He saw himself the supreme being of a unique assize. He saw his remarks reproduced verbatim in the papers, for, though localities might not be mentioned, there was no censor's ban upon the obiter dicta of coroners. His idiosyncrasy was that he hid all his enjoyment in his own breast. Even had he had the use of a bench, instead of a mere chair, he would never have allowed titled ladies in mirific black hats to share it with him. He was an icy radical, sincere, competent, conscientious and vain. He would be no respecter of persons, but he was a disrespecter of persons above a certain social rank. He said, "Open that window." And that window was opened, regardless of the identity of the person who might be sitting under it. He said: "This court is unhealthily full. Admit no more." And no more could be admitted, though the entire peerage waited without.
The Marquis had considered that the inquest on his daughter might be taken first. The other three cases were taken first, and, even taken concurrently, they occupied an immense period of time. All the bodies were, of course, "viewed" together, and the absence of the jury seemed to the Marquis interminable; he thought the despicable tradesmen were gloating unduly over the damaged face of his daughter. The Coroner had been marvellously courteous to the procession of humble witnesses. He could not have been more courteous to the exalted; and he was not. In the sight of the Coroner all men were equal.
G.J. encountered him first. "I did my best to persuade her ladyship to come down," said G.J. very formally. "I am quite sure you did," said the Coroner with the dryest politeness. "And you failed." The policeman had related events from the moment when G.J. had fetched him in from the street. The policeman could remember everything, what everybody had said, the positions of all objects, the characteristics and extent of the wire-netting, the exact posture of the deceased girl, the exact minute of his visit. He and the Coroner played to each other like well-rehearsed actors. Mrs. Carlos Smith's ordeal was very brief, and the Coroner dismissed her with an expression of sympathy that seemed to issue from his mouth like carved granite. With the doctor alone the Coroner had become human; the Coroner also was a doctor. The doctor had talked about a relatively slight extravasation of blood, and said that death had been instantaneous. Said the Coroner: "The body was found on the wire-netting; it had fallen from the chimney. In your opinion, was the fall a contributory cause of death?" The doctor said, No. "In your opinion death was due to an extremely small piece of shrapnel which struck the deceased's head slightly above the left ear, entering the brain?" The doctor said, Yes.
The Marquis of Lechford had to answer questions as to his parental relations with his daughter. How long had he been away in the country? How long had the deceased been living in Lechford House practically alone? How old was his daughter? Had he given any order to the effect that nobody was to be on the roof of his house during an air-raid? Had he given any orders at all as to conduct during an air-raid? The Coroner sympathised deeply with his lordship's position, and felt sure that his lordship understood that; but his lordship would also understand that the policy of heads of households in regard to air-raids had more than a domestic interest—it had, one might say, a national interest; and the force of prominent example was one of the forces upon which the Government counted, and had the right to count, for help in the regulation of public conduct in these great crises of the most gigantic war that the world had ever seen. "Now, as to the wire-netting," had said the Coroner, leaving the subject of the force of example. He had a perfect plan of the wire-netting in his mind. He understood that the chimney-stack rose higher than the wire-netting, and that the wire-netting went round the chimney-stack at a distance of a foot or more, leaving room so that a person might climb up the perpendicular ladder. If a person fell from the top of the chimney-stack it was a chance whether that person fell on the wire-netting, or through the space between the wire-netting and the chimney on to the roof itself. The jury doubtless understood. (The jury, however, at that instant had been engaged in examining the bit of shrapnel which had been extracted from the brain of the only daughter of a Marquis.) The Coroner understood that the wire-netting did not extend over the whole of the house. "It extends over all the main part of the house," his lordship had replied. "But not over the back part of the house?" His lordship agreed. "The servants' quarters, probably?" His lordship nodded. The Coroner had said: "The wire-netting does not extend over the servants' quarters," in a very even voice. A faint hiss in court had been extinguished by the sharp glare of the Coroner's eyes. His lordship, a thin, antique figure, in a long cloak that none but himself would have ventured to wear, had stepped down, helpless.
There had been much signing of depositions. The Coroner had spoken of The Hague Convention, mentioning one article by its number. The jury as to the first three cases—in which the victims had been killed by bombs—had returned a verdict of wilful murder against the Kaiser. The Coroner, suppressing the applause, had agreed heartily with the verdict. He told the jury that the fourth case was different, and the jury returned a verdict of death from shrapnel. They gave their sympathy to all the relatives, and added a rider about the inadvisability of running unnecessary risks, and the Coroner, once more agreeing heartily, had thereon made an effective little speech to a hushed, assenting audience.
There were several motor-cars outside. G.J. signalled across the street to the taxi-man who telephoned every morning to him for orders. He had never owned a motor-car, and, because he had no ambition to drive himself, had never felt the desire to own one. The taxi-man experienced some delay in starting his engine. G.J. lit a cigarette. Concepcion came out, alone. He had expected her to be with the Marquis, with whom she had arrived. She was dressed in mourning. Only on that day, and once before—on the day of her husband's funeral—had he seen her in mourning. She looked now like the widow she was.
Nevertheless, he had not quite accustomed himself to the sight of her in mourning.
"I wonder whether I can get a taxi?" she asked.
"You can have mine," said he. "Where do you want to go?"
She named a disconcerting address near Shepherd's Market.
At that moment a Pressman with a camera came boldly up and snapped her. The man had the brazen demeanour of a racecourse tout. But Concepcion seemed not to mind at all, and G.J. remembered that she was deeply inured to publicity. Her portrait had already appeared in the picture papers along with that of Queen, but the papers had deemed it necessary to remind a forgetful public that Mrs. Carlos Smith was the same lady as the super-celebrated Concepcion Iquist. The taxi-man hesitated for an instant on hearing the address, but only for an instant. He had earned the esteem and regular patronage of G.J. by a curious hazard. One night G.J. had hailed him, and the man had said in a flash, without waiting for the fare to speak, "The Albany, isn't it, sir? I drove you home about two months ago." Thenceforward he had been for G.J. the perfect taxi-man.
In the taxi Concepcion said not a word, and G.J. did not disturb her. Beneath his superficial melancholy he was sustained by the mere joy of being alive. The common phenomena of the streets were beautiful to him. Concepcion's calm and grieved vitality seemed mysteriously exquisite. He had had similar sensations while walking along Coventry Street after his escape from the explosion of the bomb. Fatigue and annoyance and sorrow had extinguished them for a time, but now that the episode of Queen's tragedy was closed they were born anew. Queen, the pathetic victim of the indiscipline of her own impulses, was gone. But he had escaped. He lived. And life was an affair miraculous and lovely.