"I think I've been here before," said he, when they got out of the taxi in a short, untidy, indeterminate street that was a cul-de-sac. The prospect ended in a garage, near which two women chauffeurs were discussing a topic that interested them. A hurdy-gurdy was playing close by, and a few ragged children stared at the hurdy-gurdy, on the end of which a baby was cradled. The fact that the street was midway between Curzon Street and Piccadilly, and almost within sight of the monumental new mansion of an American duchess, explained the existence of the building in front of which the taxi had stopped. The entrance to the flats was mean and soiled. It repelled, but Concepcion unapologetically led G.J. up a flight of four stone steps and round a curve into a little corridor. She halted at a door on the ground floor.
"Yes," said G.J. with admirable calm, "I do believe you've got the very flat I once looked at with a friend of mine. If I remember it didn't fill the bill because the tenant wouldn't sub-let it unfurnished. When did you get hold of this?"
"Yesterday afternoon," Concepcion answered. "Quick work. But these feats can be accomplished. I've only taken it for a month. Hotels seem to be all full. I couldn't open my own place at a moment's notice, and I didn't mean to stay on at Lechford House, even if they'd asked me to."
G.J.'s notion of the vastness and safety of London had received a shock. He was now a very busy man, and would quite sincerely have told anybody who questioned him on the point that he hadn't a moment to call his own. Nevertheless, on the previous morning he had spent a considerable time in searching for a nest in which to hide his Christine and create romance; and he had come to this very flat. More, there had been two flats to let in the block. He had declined them—the better one because of the furniture, the worse because it was impossibly small, and both because of the propinquity of the garage. But supposing that he had taken one and Concepcion the other! He recoiled at the thought....
Concepcion's new home, if not impossibly small, was small, and the immensity and abundance of the furniture made it seem smaller than it actually was. Each little room had the air of having been furnished out of a huge and expensive second-hand emporium. No single style prevailed. There were big carved and inlaid antique cabinets and chests, big hanging crystal candelabra, and big pictures (some of them apparently family portraits, the rest eighteenth-century flower-pieces) in big gilt frames, with a multiplicity of occasional tables and bric-a-brac. Gilt predominated. The ornate cornices were gilded. Human beings had to move about like dwarfs on the tiny free spaces of carpet between frowning cabinetry. The taste and the aim of the author of this home defied deduction. In the first room a charwoman was cleaning. Concepcion greeted her like a sister. In the next room, whose window gave on to a blank wall, tea was laid for one in front of a gas-fire. Concepcion reached down a cup and saucer from a glazed cupboard and put a match to the spirit-lamp under the kettle.
"Let me see, the bedroom's up here, isn't it?" said G.J., pointing along a passage that was like a tunnel.
Concepcion, yielding to his curiosity, turned on lights everywhere and preceded him. The passage, hung with massive canvases, had scarcely more than width enough for G.J.'s shoulders. The tiny bedroom was muslined in every conceivable manner. It had a colossal bed, surpassing even Christine's. A muslined maid was bending over some drapery-shop boxes on the floor and removing garments therefrom. Concepcion greeted her like a sister. "Don't let me disturb you, Emily," she said, and to G.J., "Emily was poor Queenie's maid, and she has come to me for a little while." G.J. amicably nodded. Tears came suddenly into the maid's eyes. G.J. looked away and saw the bathroom, which, also well muslined, was completely open to the bedroom.
"Whose is this marvellous home?" he added when they had gone back to the drawing-room.
"I think the original tenant is the wife of somebody who's interned."
"How simple the explanation is!" said G.J. "But I should never have guessed it."
They started the tea in a strange silence. After a minute or two G.J. said:
"I mustn't stay long."
"Neither must I." Concepcion smiled.
"Got to go out?"
There was another silence. Then Concepcion said:
"I'm going to Sarah Churcher's. And as I know she has her Pageant Committee at five-thirty, I'd better not arrive later than five, had I?"
"What is there between you and Lady Churcher?"
"Well, I'm going to offer to take Queen's place on the organising Committee."
"Con!" he exclaimed impulsively, "you aren't?"
In an instant the atmosphere of the little airless, electric-lit, gas-fumed apartment was charged with a fluid that no physical chemistry could have traced. Concepcion said mildly:
"I am. I owe it to Queen's memory to take her place if I can. Of course I'm no dancer, but in other things I expect I can make myself useful."
G.J. replied with equal mildness:
"You aren't going to mix yourself up with that crowd again—after all you've been through! The Pageant business isn't good enough for you, Con, and you know it. You know it's odious."
"I feel it's my duty. I feel I owe it to Queen. It's a sort of religion with me, I expect. Each person has his own religion, and I doubt if one's more dogmatic than another."
He was grieved; he had a sense almost of outrage. He hated to picture Concepcion subduing herself to the horrible environment of the Pageant enterprise. But he said nothing more. The silence resumed. They might have conversed, with care, about the inquest, or about the funeral, which was to take place at the Castle, in Cheshire. Silence, however, suited them best.
"Also I thought you needed repose," said G.J. when Concepcion broke the melancholy enchantment by rising to look for cigarettes.
"I must be allowed to work," she answered after a pause, putting a cigarette between her teeth. "I must have something to do—unless, of course, you want me to go to the bad altogether."
It was a remarkable saying, but it seemed to admit that he was legitimately entitled to his critical interest in her.
"If I'd known that," he said, suddenly inspired, "I should have asked you to take on something for me." He waited; she made no response, and he continued: "I'm secretary of my small affair since yesterday. The paid secretary, a nice enough little thing, has just run off to the Women's Auxiliary Corps in France and left me utterly in the lurch. Just like domestic servants, these earnest girl-clerks are, when it comes to the point! No imagination. Wanted to wear khaki, and no doubt thought she was doing a splendid thing. Never occurred to her the mess I should be in. I'd have asked you to step into the breach. You'd have been frightfully useful."
"But I'm no girl-clerk," Concepcion gently and carelessly protested.
"Well, she wasn't either. I shouldn't have wanted you to be a typist. We have a typist. As a matter of fact, her job needed a bit more brains than she'd got. However—"
Another silence. G.J. rose to depart. Concepcion did not stir. She said softly:
"I don't think anybody realises what Queen's death is to me. Not even you." On her face was the look of sacrifice which G.J. had seen there as they talked together in Queen's boudoir during the raid.
He thought, amazed:
"And they'd only had about twenty-four hours together, and part of that must have been spent in making up their quarrel!"
"I quite agree. People can't realise what they haven't had to go through. I've understood that ever since I read in the paper the day before yesterday that 'two bombs fell close together and one immediately after the other' in a certain quarter of the West End. That was all the paper said about those two bombs."
"Why! What do you mean?"
"And I understood it when poor old Queen gave me some similar information on the roof."
"What do you mean?"
"I was between those two bombs when they fell. One of 'em blew me against a house. I've been to look at the place since. And I'm dashed if I myself could realise then what I'd been through."
She gave a little cry. Her face pleased him.
"And you weren't hurt?"
"I had a pain in my side, but it's gone," he said laconically.
"And you never said anything to us! Why not?"
"Well—there were so many other things...."
"G.J., you're astounding!"
"No, I'm not. I'm just myself."
"And hasn't it upset your nerves?"
"Not as far as I can judge. Of course one never knows, but I think not. What do you think?"
She offered no response. At length she spoke with queer emotion:
"You remember that night I said it was a message direct from Potsdam? Well, naturally it wasn't. But do you know the thought that tortures me? Supposing the shrapnel that killed Queen was out of a shell made at my place in Glasgow!... It might have been.... Supposing it was!"
"Con," he said firmly, "I simply won't listen to that kind of talk. There's no excuse for it. Shall I tell you what, more than anything else, has made me respect you since Queen was killed? Ninety-nine women out of a hundred would have managed to remind me, quite illogically and quite inexcusably, that I was saying hard things about poor old Queen at the very moment when she was lying dead on the roof. You didn't. You knew I was very sorry about Queen, but you knew that my feelings as to her death had nothing whatever to do with what I happened to be saying when she was killed. You knew the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. For God's sake, don't start wondering where the shell was made."
She looked up at him, saying nothing, and he savoured the intelligence of her weary, fine, alert, comprehending face. He did not pretend to himself to be able to fathom the enigmas of that long glance. He had again the feeling of the splendour of what it was to be alive, to have survived. Just as he was leaving she said casually:
"Very well. I'll do what you want."
"What I want?"
"I won't go to Sarah Churcher's."
"You mean you'll come as assistant secretary?"
She nodded. "Only I don't need to be paid."
And he, too, fell into a casual tone:
Thus, by this nonchalance, they conspired to hide from themselves the seriousness of that which had passed between them. The grotesque, pretentious little apartment was mysteriously humanised; it was no longer the reception-room of a furnished flat by chance hired for a month; they had lived in it.
She finished, eagerly smiling:
"I can practise my religion just as much with you as with Sarah Churcher, can't I? Queen was on your committee, too. Yes, I shan't be deserting her."
The remark disquieted his triumph. That aspect of the matter had not occurred to him.
Late of that same afternoon G.J., in the absence of the chairman, presided as honorary secretary over a meeting of the executive committee of the Lechford hospitals. In the course of the war the committee had changed its habitation more than once. The hotel which had at first given it a home had long ago been commandeered by the Government for a new Government department, and its hundreds of chambers were now full of the clicking of typewriters and the dictation of officially phrased correspondence, and the conferences which precede decisions, and the untamed footsteps of messenger-flappers, and the making of tea, and chatter about cinemas, blouses and headaches. Afterwards the committee had been the guest of a bank and of a trust company, and had for a period even paid rent to a common landlord. But its object was always to escape the formality of rent-paying, and it was now lodged in an untenanted mansion belonging to a viscount in a great Belgravian square. Its sign was spread high across the facade; its posters were in the windows; and on the door was a notice such as in 1914 nobody had ever expected to see in that quadrangle of guarded sacred castles: "Turn the handle and walk in." The mansion, though much later in date, was built precisely on the lines of a typical Bloomsbury boarding-house. It had the same basement, the same general disposition of rooms, the same abundance of stairs and paucity of baths, the same chilly draughts and primeval devices for heating, and the same superb disregard for the convenience of servants. The patrons of domestic architecture had permitted architects to learn nothing in seventy years except that chimney-flues must be constructed so that they could be cleaned without exposing sooty infants to the danger of suffocation or incineration.
The committee sat on the first floor in the back drawing-room, whose furniture consisted of a deal table, Windsor chairs, a row of hat-pegs, a wooden box containing coal, half a poker, two unshaded lights; the walls, from which all the paper had been torn off, were decorated with lists of sub-committees, posters, and rows of figures scrawled here and there in pencil. The room was divided from the main drawing-room by the usual folding-doors. The smaller apartment had been chosen in the winter because it was somewhat easier to keep warm than the other one. In the main drawing-room the honorary secretary camped himself at a desk near the fireplace.
When the clock struck, G.J., one of whose monastic weaknesses was a ritualistic regard for punctuality, was in his place at the head of the table, and the table well filled with members, for the honorary secretary's harmless foible was known and admitted. The table and the chairs, the scraping of the chair-legs on the bare floor, the agenda papers and the ornamentation thereof by absent-minded pens, were the same as in the committee's youth. But the personnel of the committee had greatly changed, and it was enlarged—as its scope had been enlarged. The two Lechford hospitals behind the French lines were now only a part of the committee's responsibilities. It had a special hospital in Paris, two convalescent homes in England, and an important medical unit somewhere in Italy. Finance was becoming its chief anxiety, for the reason that, though soldiers had not abandoned in disgust the practice of being wounded, philanthropists were unquestionably showing signs of fatigue. It had collected money by postal appeals, by advertisements, by selling flags, by competing with drapers' shops, by intimidation, by ruse and guile, and by all the other recognised methods. Of late it had depended largely upon the very wealthy, and, to a less extent, upon G.J., who having gradually constituted the committee his hobby, had contributed some thousands of pounds from his share of the magic profits of the Reveille Company. Everybody was aware of the immense importance of G.J.'s help. G.J. never showed it in his demeanour, but the others continually showed it in theirs. He had acquired authority. He had also acquired the sure manner of one accustomed to preside.
"Before we begin on the agenda," he said—and as he spoke a late member crept apologetically in and tiptoed to the heavily charged hat-pegs—"I would like to mention about Miss Trewas. Some of you know that through an admirable but somewhat disordered sense of patriotism she has left us at a moment's notice. I am glad to say that my friend Mrs. Carlos Smith, who, I may tell you, has had a very considerable experience of organisation, has very kindly agreed, subject of course to the approval of the committee, to step temporarily into the breach. She will be an honorary worker, like all of us here, and I am sure that the committee will feel as grateful to her as I do."
As there had been smiles at the turn of his phrase about Miss Trewas, so now there were fervent, almost emotional, "Hear-hears."
"Mrs. Smith, will you please read the minutes of the last meeting."
Concepcion was sitting at his left hand. He kept thinking, "I'm one of those who get things done." Two hours ago, and the idea of enlisting her had not even occurred to him, and already he had taken her out of her burrow, brought her to the offices, coached her in the preliminaries of her allotted task, and introduced several important members of the committee to her! It was an achievement.
Never had the minutes been listened to with such attention as they obtained that day. Concepcion was apparently not in the least nervous, and she read very well—far better than the deserter Miss Trewas, who could not open her mouth without bridling. Concepcion held the room. Those who had not seen before the celebrated Concepcion Iquist now saw her and sated their eyes upon her. She had been less a woman than a legend. The romance of South America enveloped her, and the romance of her famous and notorious uncle, of her triumph over the West End, her startling marriage and swift widowing, her journey to America and her complete disappearance, her attachment to Lady Queenie, and now her dramatic reappearance.
And the sharp condiment to all this was the general knowledge of the bachelor G.J.'s long intimacy with her, and of their having both been at Lechford House on the night of the raid, and both been at the inquest on the body of Lady Queenie Paulle on that very day. But nobody could have guessed from their placid and self-possessed demeanour that either of them had just emerged from a series of ordeals. They won a deep and full respect. Still, some people ventured to have their own ideas; and an ingenuous few were surprised to find that the legend was only a woman after all, and a rather worn woman, not indeed very recognisable from her innumerable portraits. Nevertheless the respect for the pair was even increased when G.J. broached the first item on the agenda—a resolution of respectful sympathy with the Marquis and Marchioness of Lechford in their bereavement, of profound appreciation of the services of Lady Queenie on the committee, and of an intention to send by the chairman to the funeral a wreath to be subscribed for by the members. G.J. proposed the resolution himself, and it was seconded by a lady and supported by a gentleman whose speeches gave no hint that Lady Queenie had again and again by her caprices nearly driven the entire committee into a lunatic asylum and had caused several individual resignations. G.J. put the resolution without a tremor; it was impressively carried; and Concepcion wrote down the terms of it quite calmly in her secretarial notes. The performance of the pair was marvellous, and worthy of the English race.
Then arrived Sir Stephen Bradern. Sir Stephen was chairman of the French Hospitals Management Sub-committee.
"Sir Stephen, you are just too late for the resolution as to Lady Queenie Paulle."
"I deeply apologise, Mr. Chairman," replied the aged but active Sir Stephen, nervously stroking his rather long beard. "I hope, however, that I may be allowed to associate myself very closely with the resolution." After a suitable pause and general silence he went on: "I've been detained by that Nurse Smaith that my sub-committee's been having trouble with. You'll find, when you come to them, that she's on my sub-committee's minutes. I've just had an interview with her, and she says she wants to see the executive. I don't know what you think, Mr. Chairman—" He stopped.
"I should have her brought in," said the lady who had previously spoken. "If I might suggest," she added.
A boy scout, who seemed to have long ago grown out of his uniform, entered with a note for somebody. He was told to bring in Nurse Smaith.
She proved to be a rather short and rather podgy woman, with a reddish, not rosy, complexion, and red hair. The ugly red-bordered cape of the British Red Cross did not suit her better than it suited any other wearer. She was in full, strict, starched uniform, and prominently wore medals on her plenteous breast. She looked as though, if she had a sister, that sister might be employed in a large draper's shop at Brixton or Islington. In saying "Gid ahfternoon" she revealed the purity of a cockney accent undefiled by Continental experiences. She sat down in a manner sternly defensive. She was nervous and abashed, but evidently dangerous. She belonged to the type which is courageous in spite of fear. She had resolved to interview the committee, and though the ordeal frightened her, she desperately and triumphantly welcomed it.
"Now, Nurse Smaith," said G.J. diplomatically. "We are always very glad to see our nurses, even when our time is limited. Will you kindly tell the committee as briefly as possible just what your claim is?"
And the nurse replied, with medals shaking:
"I'm claiming, as I've said before, two weeks' salary in loo of notice, and my fare home from France; twenty-five francs salary and ninety-five francs expenses. And I sy nothing of excess luggage."
"But you didn't come home."
"I have come home, though."
One of those members whose destiny it is always to put a committee in the wrong remarked:
"But surely, Nurse, you left our employ nearly a year ago. Why didn't you claim before?"
"I've been at you for two months at least, and I was ill for six months in Turin; they had to put me off the train there," said Nurse Smaith, getting self-confidence.
"As I understand," said G.J. "You left us in order to join a Serbian unit of another society, and you only returned to England in February."
"I didn't leave you, sir. That is, I mean, I left you, but I was told to go."
"Who told you to go?"
Sir Stephen benevolently put in:
"But the matron had always informed us that it was you who said you wouldn't stay another minute. We have it in the correspondence."
"That's what she says. But I say different. And I can prove it."
"There must be some misunderstanding. We have every confidence in the matron, and she's still with us."
"Then I'm sorry for you."
He turned warily to another aspect of the subject.
"Do I gather that you went straight from Paris to Serbia?"
"Yes. The unit was passing through, and I joined it."
"But how did you obtain your passport? You had no certificate from us?"
Nurse Smaith tossed her perilous red hair.
"Oh! No difficulty about that. I am not without friends, as you may say." Some of the committee looked up suspiciously, aware that the matron had in her report hinted at mysterious relations between Nurse Smaith and certain authorities. "The doctor in charge of the Serbian unit was only too glad to have me. Of course, if you're going to believe everything matron says—" Her tone was becoming coarser, but the committee could neither turn her out nor cure her natural coarseness, nor indicate to her that she was not using the demeanour of committee-rooms. She was firmly lodged among them, and she went from bad to worse. "Of course, if you're going to swallow everything matron says—! It isn't as if I was the only one."
"May I ask if you are at present employed?"
"I don't quite see what that's got to do with it," said Nurse Smaith, still gaining ground.
"Certainly not. Nothing. Nothing at all. I was only hoping that these visits here are not inconvenient to you."
"Well, as it seems so important, I my sy I'm going out to Salonika next week, and that's why I want this business settled." She stopped, and as the committee remained diffidently and apprehensively silent, she went on: "It isn't as if I was the only one. Why! When we were in the retreat of the Serbian Army owver the mahntains I came across by chance, if you call it chance, another nurse that knew all about her—been under her in Bristol for a year."
A young member, pricking up, asked:
"Were you in the Serbian retreat, Nurse?"
"If I hadn't been I shouldn't be here now," said Nurse Smaith, entirely recovered from her stage-fright and entirely pleased to be there then. "I lost all I had at Ypek. All I took was my medals, and them I did take. There were fifty of us, British, French and Russians. We had nearly three weeks in the mahntains. We slept rough all together in one room, when there was a room, and when there wasn't we slept in stables. We had nothing but black bread, and that froze in the haversacks, and if we took our boots off we had to thaw them the next morning before we could put them on. If we hadn't had three saucepans we should have died. When we went dahn the hills two of us had to hold every horse by his head and tail to keep them from falling. However, nearly all the horses died, and then we took the packs off them and tried to drag the packs along by hand; but we soon stopped that. All the bridle-paths were littered with dead horses and oxen. And when we came up with the Serbian Army we saw soldiers just drop down and die in the snow. I read in the paper there were no children in the retreat, but I saw lots of children, strapped to their mother's backs. Yes; and they fell down together and froze to death. Then we got to Scutari, and glad I was."
She glanced round defiantly, but not otherwise moved, at the committee, the hitherto invisible gods of hospitals and medical units. The nipping wind of reality had blown into the back drawing-room. The committee was daunted. But some of its members, less daunted than the rest, had the presence of mind to wonder why it seemed strange and strangely chilling that a rather coarse, stout woman with a cockney accent and little social refinement should have passed through, and emerged so successfully from, the unimaginable retreat. If Nurse Smaith had been beautiful and slim and of elegant manners they could not have controlled their chivalrous enthusiasm.
"Very interesting," said someone.
Glancing at G.J., Nurse Smaith proceeded:
"You sy I didn't come home. But the money for my journey was due to me. That's what I sy. Twenty-five francs for two weeks' wages and ninety-five francs journey money."
"As regards the journey money," observed Sir Stephen blandly, "we've never paid so much, if my recollection serves me. And of course we have to remember that we're dealing with public funds."
Nurse Smaith sprang up, looking fixedly at Concepcion. Concepcion had thrown herself back in her chair, and her face was so drawn that it was no more the same face.
"Even if it is public funds," Concepcion shrieked, "can't you give ninety-five francs in memory of those three saucepans?" Then she relapsed on to the table, her head in her hands, and sobbed violently, very violently. The sobs rose and fell in the scale, and the whole body quaked.
G.J. jumped to his feet. Half the shocked and alarmed committee was on its feet. Nurse Smaith had run round to Concepcion and had seized her with a persuasive, soothing gesture. Concepcion quite submissively allowed herself to be led out of the room by Nurse Smaith and Sir Stephen. Her sobs weakened, and when the door was closed could no longer be heard. A lady member had followed the three. The committee was positively staggered by the unprecedented affair. G.J., very pale, said:
"Mrs. Smith is in competent hands. We can't do anything. I think we had better sit down." He was obeyed.
A second doctor on the committee remarked with a curious slight smile:
"I said to myself when I first saw her this afternoon that Mrs. Smith had some of the symptoms of a nervous breakdown."
"Yes," G.J. concurred. "I very much regret that I allowed Mrs. Smith to come. But she was determined to work, and she seemed perfectly calm and collected. I very much regret it."
Then, to hide his constraint, he pulled towards him the sheet of paper on which Concepcion had been making notes, and, remembering that a list of members present had always to be kept, he began to write down names. He was extremely angry with himself. He had tried Concepcion too high. He ought to have known that all women were the same. He had behaved like an impulsive fool. He had been ridiculous before the committee. What should have been a triumph was a disaster. The committee would bind their two names together. And at the conclusion of the meeting news of the affairs would radiate from the committee's offices in every direction throughout London. And he had been unfair to Concepcion. Their relations would be endlessly complicated by the episode. He foresaw trying scenes, in which she would make all the excuses, between her and himself.
"Perhaps it would be simpler if we decided to admit Nurse Smaith's claim," said a timid voice from the other end of the table.
G.J. murmured coldly, gazing at the agenda paper and yet dominating his committee:
"The question will come up on the minutes of the Hospitals Management Sub-committee. We had better deal with it then. The next business on the agenda is the letter from the Paris Service de Sante."
He was thinking: "How is she now? Ought I to go out and see?" And the majority of the committee was vaguely thinking, not without a certain pleasurable malice: "These Society women! They're all queer!"
THE INVISIBLE POWERS
Several times already the rumour had spread in the Promenade that the Promenade would be closed on a certain date, and the Promenade had not been closed. But to-night it was stated that the Promenade would be closed at the end of the week, and everybody concerned knew that the prophecy would come true. No official notice was issued, no person who repeated the tale could give a reliable authority for it; nevertheless, for some mysterious reason it convinced. The rival Promenade had already passed away. The high invisible powers who ruled the world of pleasure were moving at the behest of powers still higher than themselves; and the cloak-room attendants, in their frivolous tiny aprons, shared murmuringly behind plush portieres in the woe of the ladies with large hats.
The revue being a failure, the auditorium was more than half empty. In the Promenade to each man there were at least five pretty ladies, and the ladies looked gloomily across many rows of vacant seats at the bright proscenium where jocularities of an exacerbating tedium were being enacted. Not that the jocularities were inane beyond the usual, but failure made them seem so. None had the slightest idea why the revue had failed; for precisely similar revues, concocted according to the same recipe and full of the same jocularities executed by the same players at the same salaries, had crowded the theatre for many months together. It was an incomprehensible universe.
Christine suddenly shrugged her shoulders and walked out. What use in staying to the end?
It was long after ten o'clock, and an exquisite faint light lingering in the sky still revealed the features of the people in the streets. The man who had devoted half a life to the ingenious project of lengthening the summer days by altering clocks was in his disappointed grave; but victory had come to him there, for statesmen had at last proved the possibility of that which they had always maintained to be impossible, and the wisdom of that which they had always maintained to be idiotic. The voluptuous divine melancholy of evening June descended upon the city from the sky, and even sounds were beautifully sad. The happy progress of the war could not exorcise this soft, omnipotent melancholy. Yet the progress of the war was nearly all that could be desired. Verdun was held, and if Fort Vaux had been lost there had been compensation in the fact that the enemy, through the gesture of the Crown Prince in allowing the captured commander of the fort to retain his sword, had done something to rehabilitate themselves in the esteem of mankind. Lord Kitchener was drowned, but the discovery had been announced that he was not indispensable; indeed, there were those who said that it was better thus. The Easter Rebellion was well in hand; order was understood to reign in an Ireland hidden behind the black veil of the censorship. The mighty naval battle of Jutland had quickly transformed itself from a defeat into a brilliant triumph. The disturbing prices of food were about to be reduced by means of a committee. In America the Republican forces were preparing to eject President Wilson in favour of another Hughes who could be counted upon to realise the world-destiny of the United States. An economic conference was assembling in Paris with the object of cutting Germany off from the rest of the human race after the war. And in eleven days the Russians had made prisoners of a hundred and fifty thousand Austrians, and Brusiloff had just said: "This is only the beginning." Lastly the close prospect of the resistless Allied Western offensive which would deracinate Prussian militarism was uplifting men's minds.
Christine walked nonchalantly and uninvitingly through the streets, quite unresponsive to the exhilaration of events.
"Marthe!" she called, when she had let herself into the flat. Contrary to orders, the little hall was in darkness. There was no answer. She lit the hall and passed into the kitchen, lighting it also. There, in the terrible and incurable squalor of Marthe's own kitchen, Marthe's apron was thrown untidily across the back of the solitary windsor chair. She knew then that Marthe had gone out, and in truth, although very annoyed, she was not altogether surprised.
Marthe had a mysterious love affair. It was astonishing, in view of the intensely aphrodisiacal atmosphere in which she lived, that Marthe did not continually have love affairs. But the day of love had seemed for Marthe to be over, and Christine found great difficulty in getting her ever to leave the flat, save on necessary household errands. On the other hand it was astonishing that any man should be attracted by the fat slattern. The moth now fluttering round her was an Italian waiter, as to whom Christine had learnt that he was being unjustly hunted by the Italian military authorities. Hence the mystery necessarily attaching to the love affair. Being French, Christine despised him. He called Marthe by her right name of "Marta," and Christine had more than once heard the pair gabbling in the kitchen in Italian. Just as though she had been a conventional bourgeoise Christine now accused Marthe of ingratitude because the woman was subordinating Christine's convenience to the supreme exigencies of fate. A man's freedom might be in the balance, Marthe's future might be in the balance; but supposing that Christine had come home with a gallant—and no femme de chambre to do service!
She walked about the flat, shut the windows, drew the blinds, removed her hat, removed her gloves, stretched them, put her things away; she gazed at the two principal rooms, at the soiled numbers of La Vie Parisienne and the cracked bric-a-brac in the drawing-room, at the rent in the lace bedcover, and the foul mess of toilet apparatus in the bedroom. The forlorn emptiness of the place appalled her. She had been quite fairly successful in her London career. Hundreds of men had caressed her and paid her with compliments and sweets and money. She had been really admired. The flat had had gay hours. Unmistakable aristocrats had yielded to her. And she had escaped the five scourges of her profession....
It was all over. The chapter was closed. She saw nothing in front of her but decline and ruin. She had escaped the five scourges of her profession, but part of the price of this immunity was that through keeping herself to herself she had not a friend. Despite her profession, and because of the prudence with which she exercised it, she was a solitary, a recluse.
Yes, of course she had Gilbert. She could count upon Gilbert to a certain extent, to a considerable extent; but he would not be eternal, and his fancy for her would not be eternal. Once, before Easter, she had had the idea that he meant to suggest to her an exclusive liaison. Foolish! Nothing, less than nothing, had come of it. He would not be such an imbecile as to suggest such a thing to her. Miracles did not happen, at any rate not that kind of miracle.
In the midst of her desolation an old persistent dream revisited her: the dream of a small country cottage in France, with a dog, a faithful servant, respectability, good name, works of charity, her own praying-stool in the village church. She moved to the wardrobe and unlocked one of the drawers beneath the wide doors. And rummaging under the linen and under the photographs under the linen she drew forth a package and spread its contents on the table in the drawing-room. Her securities, her bonds of the City of Paris, ever increasing! Gilbert had tried to induce her to accept more attractive investments. But she would not. Never! These were her consols, part of her religion. Bonds of the City of Paris had fallen in value, but not in her dogmatic esteem. The passionate little miser that was in her surveyed them with pleasure, even with assurance; but they were still far too few to stand for the realisation of her dream. And she might have to sell some of them soon in order to live. She replaced them carefully in the drawer with dejection unabated.
When she glanced at the table again she saw an envelope. Inexplicably she had not noticed it before. She seized it in hope—and recognised in the address the curious hand of her landlord. It contained a week's notice to quit. The tenancy of the flat was weekly. This was the last blow. All the invisible powers of London were conspiring together to shatter the profession. What in the name of the Holy Virgin had come over the astounding, incomprehensible city? Then there was a ring at the bell. Marthe? No, Marthe would never ring; she had a key and she would creep in. A lover? A rich, spendthrift, kind lover? Hope flickered anew in her desolated heart.
It was the other pretty lady—a newcomer—who lived in the house: a rather stylish woman of about thirty-five, unusually fair, with regular features and a very dignified carriage, indeed not unimposing. They had met once, at the foot of the stairs. Christine was not sure of her name. She proclaimed herself to be Russian, but Christine doubted the assertion. Her French had no trace of a foreign accent; and in view of the achieve-merits of the Russian Army ladies were finding it advantageous to be of Russian blood. Still she had a fine cosmopolitan air to which Christine could not pretend. They engaged each other in glances.
"I hope I do not disturb you, madame."
"Not at all, madame. I am obliged to open the door myself because my servant is out."
"I thought I heard you come in, and so—"
"No," interrupted Christine, determined not to admit the defeat of having returned from the Promenade alone. "I have not been out. Probably it was my servant you heard."
"Ah!... Without doubt."
"Will you give yourself the trouble to enter, madame?"
"Ah!" exclaimed the Russian, in the sitting-room. "You will excuse me, madame, but what a beautiful photograph!"
"You are too amiable, madame. A friend had it done for me."
They sat down.
"You are deliciously installed here," said the Russian perfunctorily, looking round. "Now, madame, I have been here only three weeks. And to-night I receive a notice to quit. Shall I be indiscreet if I ask if you have received a similar notice?"
"This very evening," said Christine, in secret still more disconcerted by this further proof of a general plot against human nature. She was about to add: "I found it here on my return home," but, remembering her fib, managed to stop in time.
"Well, madame, I know little of London. Without doubt you know London to the bottom. Is it serious, this notice?"
"I think so."
"You see, there is a crisis. It is the war that in London has led to the discovery that men have desires. Of course, it will pass, but—"
"Oh, of course.... But it is grotesque, this crisis."
"It is perfectly grotesque," Christine agreed.
"You do not by hazard know where one can find flats to let? I hear speak of Bloomsbury and of Long Acre. But it seems to me that those quarters—"
"I am in London since now more than eighteen months," said Christine. "And as for all those things I know little. I have lived here in this flat all the time, and I go out so rarely—"
The Russian put in with eagerness:
"Oh, I also! I go out, so to speak, not at all."
"I thought I had seen you once in the Promenade at the—"
"Yes, it is true," interrupted the Russian quickly. "I went from curiosity, for distraction. You see, since the war I have lived in Dublin. I had there a friend, very highly placed in the administration. He married. One lived terrible hours during the revolt. I decided to come to London, especially as—However, I do not wish to fatigue you with all that."
Christine said nothing. The Irish Rebellion did not interest her. She was in no mood for talking about the Irish Rebellion. She had convinced herself that all Sinn Feiners were in German pay, and naught else mattered. Never, she thought, had the British Government carried ingenuousness further than in this affair! Given a free hand, Christine with her strong, direct common sense would have settled the Irish question in forty-eight hours.
The Russian, after a little pause, continued:
"I merely wished to ask you whether the notice to quit was serious—not a trick for raising the rent."
Christine shook her head to the last clause.
"And then, if the notice was quite serious, whether you knew of any flats—not too dear.... Not that I mind a good rent if one receives the value of it, and is left tranquil."
The conversation might at this point have taken a more useful turn if Christine had not felt bound to hold herself up against the other's high tone of indifference to expenditure. The Russian, in demanding "tranquillity," had admitted that she regularly practised the profession—or, as English girls strangely called it, "the business"—and Christine could have followed her lead into the region of gossiping and intimate realism where detailed confidences are enlighteningly exchanged; but the tone about money was a challenge.
"I should have been enchanted to be of service to you," said Christine. "But I know nothing. I go out less and less. As for this notice, I smile at it. I have a friend upon whom I can count for everything. I have only to tell him, and he will put me among my own furniture at once. He has indeed already suggested it. So that, je m'en fiche."
"I also!" said the Russian. "My new friend—he is a colonel, sent from Dublin to London—has insisted upon putting me among my own furniture. But I have refused so far—because one likes to know more of a gentleman—does not one?—before ..."
"Truly!" murmured Christine.
"And there is always Paris," said the Russian.
"But I thought you were from Petrograd."
"Yes. But I know Paris well. Ah! There is only Paris! Paris is a second home to me."
"Can one get a passport easily for Paris?... I mean, supposing the air-raids grew too dangerous again."
"Why not, madame? If one has one's papers. To get a passport from Paris to London, that would be another thing, I admit.... I see that you play," the Russian added, rising, with a gesture towards the piano. "I have heard you play. You play with true taste. I know, for when a girl I played much."
"You flatter me."
"Not at all. I think your friend plays too."
"Ah!" said Christine. "He!... It is an artist, that one."
They turned over the music, exchanged views about waltzes, became enthusiastic, laughed, and parted amid manifestations of good breeding and goodwill. As soon as Christine was alone, she sat down and wept. She could not longer contain her distress. Paris gleamed before her. But no! It was a false gleam. She could not make a new start in Paris during the war. The adventure would be too perilous; the adventure might end in a licensed house. And yet in London—what was there in London but, ultimately, the pavement? And the pavement meant complications with the police, with prowlers, with other women; it meant all the scourges of the profession, including probably alcoholism. It meant prostitution, to which she had never sunk!
She wished she had been killed outright in the air-raid. She had an idea of going to the Oratory the next morning, and perhaps choosing a new Virgin and soliciting favour of the image thereof. She sobbed, and, sobbing, suddenly jumped up and ran to the telephone. And even as she gave Gilbert's number, she broke it in the middle with a sob. After all, there was Gilbert.
"Get back into bed," said G.J., having silently opened the window in the sitting-room.
He spoke with courteous persuasion, but his peculiar intense politeness and restraint somewhat dismayed Christine. By experience she knew that they were a sure symptom of annoyance. She often, though not on this occasion, wished that he would yield to anger and make a scene; but he never did, and she would hate him for not doing so. The fact was that under the agreement which ruled their relations, she had no right to telephone to him, save in grave and instant emergency, and even then it was her duty to say first, when she got the communication: "Mr. Pringle wants to speak to Mr. Hoape." She had omitted, in her disquiet, to fulfil this formality. Recognising his voice, she had begun passionately, without preliminary: "Oh! Beloved, thou canst not imagine what has happened to me—" etc. Still he had come. He had cut her short, but he had left whatever he was doing and had, amazingly, walked over at once. And in the meantime she had hurriedly undressed and put on a new peignoir and slipped into bed. Of course she had had to open the door herself.
She obeyed his command like an intelligent little mouse, and he sat down on the edge of the bed. He might inspire foreboding, alarm, even terror. But he was in the flat. He was the saviour, man, in the flat. And his coming was in the nature of a miracle. He might have been out; he might have been entertaining; he might have been engaged; he might well have said that he could not come until the next day. Never before had she made such a request, and he had acceded to it immediately! Her mood was one of frightened triumph. He was being most damnably himself; his demeanour was as faultless as his dress. She could not even complain that he had forgotten to kiss her. He said nothing about her transgression of the rule as to telephoning. He was waiting, with his exasperating sense of justice and self-control, until she had acquainted him with her case. Instead of referring coldly and disapprovingly to the matter of the telephone, he said in a judicious, amicable voice:
"I doubt whether your coiffeur is all that he ought to be. I see you had your hair waved to-day."
"You should tell the fellow to give you the new method of hair-waving, steaming with electric heaters—or else go where you can get it."
"New method?" repeated Christine the Tory doubtfully. And then with sudden sexual suspicion:
"Who told you about it?"
"Oh! I heard of it months ago," he said carelessly. "Besides, it's in the papers, in the advertisements. It lasts longer—much longer—and it's more artistic."
She felt sure that he had been discussing hair-waving with some woman. She thought of all her grievances against him. The Lechford House episode rankled in her mind. He had given her the details, but she said to herself that he had given her the details only because he had foreseen that she would hear about the case from others or read about it in the newspapers. She had not been able to stomach that he should be at Lechford House alone late at night with two women of the class she hated and feared—and the very night of her dreadful experience with him in the bomb-explosion! No explanations could make that seem proper or fair. Naturally she had never disclosed her feelings. Further, the frequenting of such a house as Lechford House was more proof of his social importance, and incidentally of his riches. The spectacle of his flat showed her long ago that previously she had been underestimating his situation in the world. The revelations as to Lechford House had seemed to show her that she was still underestimating it. She resented his modesty. She was inclined to attribute his modesty to a desire to pay her as little as he reasonably could. However, she could not in sincerity do so. He treated her handsomely, considering her pretensions, but considering his position—he had no pretensions—not handsomely. She had had an irrational idea that, having permitted her to see the splendour of his flat, he ought to have increased her emoluments—that, indeed, she should be paid not according to her original environment, but according to his. She also resented that he had never again asked her to his flat. Her behaviour on that sole visit had apparently decided him not to invite her any more. She resented his perfectly hidden resentment.
What disturbed her more than anything else was a notion in her mind, possibly a wrong notion, that she cared for him less madly than of old. She had always said to herself, and more than once sadly to him, that his fancy for her would not and could not last; but that hers for him should decline puzzled her and added to her grievances against him. She looked at him from the little nest made by her head between two pillows. Did she in truth care for him less madly than of old? She wondered. She had only one gauge, the physical.
She began to talk despairingly about Marthe, whom, of course, she had had to mention at the door. He said quietly:
"But it's not because of Marthe's caprices that I'm asked to come down to-night, I suppose?"
She told him about the closing of the Promenade in a tone of absolute, resigned certainty that admitted of no facile pooh-poohings or reassurances. And then, glancing sidelong at the night-table, where the lamp burned, she extended her half-bared arm and picked up the landlord's notice and gave it to him to read. Watching him read it she inwardly trembled, as though she had started on some perilous enterprise the end of which might be black desperation, as though she had cast off from the shore and was afloat amid the waves of a vast, swollen river—waves that often hid the distant further bank. She felt somehow that she was playing for all or nothing. And though she had had immense experience of men, though it was her special business to handle men, she felt herself to be unskilled and incompetent. The common ruses, feints, devices, guiles, chicaneries were familiar to her; she could employ them as well as any and better than most; they succeeded marvellously and absurdly—in the common embarrassments and emergencies, because they had not to stand the test of time. Their purpose was temporary, and when the purpose had been accomplished it did not matter whether they were unmasked or not, for the adversary-victim—who, in any event, was better treated than he deserved!—either had gone for ever, or would soon forget, or was too proud to murmur, or philosophically accepted a certain amount of wile as part of the price of ecstasy. But this embarrassment and this emergency were not common. They were a supreme crisis.
"The other lady has had notice too," she said, and went on: "It's the same everywhere in this quarter. I know not if it is the same in other districts, but quite probably it is.... It is the end."
She saw by the lifting of his eyebrows that he was impressed, that he secretly admitted the justifiability of her summons to him. And instantly she took a reasonable, wise, calm tone.
"It is a little serious, is it not? I do not frighten myself, but it is serious. Above all, I do not wish to trouble thee. I know all thy anxieties, and I am a woman who understands. But except thee I have not a friend, as I have often told thee. In my heart there is a place only for one. I have a horror of all those women. They weary me. I am not like them, as thou well knowest. Thus my existence is solitary. I have no relations. Not one. See! Go into no matter what interior, and there are photographs. But here—not one. Yes, one. My own. I am forced to regard my own portrait. What would I not give to be able to put on my chimney-piece thy portrait! But I cannot. Do not deceive thyself. I am not complaining. I comprehend perfectly. It is impossible that a woman like me should have thy photograph on her chimney-piece." She smiled, smoothing for a moment the pucker out of her brow. "And lately I see thee so little. Thou comest less frequently. And when thou comest, well—one embraces—a little music—and then pouf! Thou art gone. Is it not so?"
"But thou knowest the reason, I am terribly busy. I have all the preoccupations in the world. My committee—it is not all smooth, my committee. Everything and everybody depends on me. And in the committee I have enemies too. The fact is, I have become a beast of burden. I dream about it. And there are others in worse case. We shall soon be in the third year of the war. We must not forget that."
"My little rabbit," she replied very calmly and reasonably and caressingly. "Do not imagine to thyself that I blame thee. I do not blame thee. I comprehend too well all that thou dost, all that thou art worth. In every way thou art stronger than me. I am ten times nothing. I know it. I have no grievance against thee. Thou hast always given me what thou couldst, and I on my part have never demanded too much. Say, have I been excessive? At this hour I make no claim on thee. I have done all that to me was possible to make thee happy. In my soul I have always been faithful to thee. I do not praise myself for that. I did not choose it. These things are not chosen. They come to pass—that is all. And it arrived that I was bound to go mad about thee, and to remain so. What wouldst thou? Speak not of the war. Is it not because of the war that I am in exile, and that I am ruined? I have always worked honestly for my living. And there is not on earth an officer who has encountered me who can say that I have not been particularly nice to him—because he was an officer. Thou wilt excuse me if I speak of such matters. I know I am wrong. It is contrary to my habit. But what wouldst thou? I also have done what I could for the war. But it is my ruin. Oh, my Gilbert! Tell me what I must do. I ask nothing from thee but advice. It was for that that I dared to telephone thee."
G.J. answered casually:
"I see nothing to worry about. It will be necessary to take another flat. That is all."
"But I—I know nothing of London. One tells me that it is in future impossible for women who live alone—like me—to find a flat—that is to say, respectable."
"Absurd! I will find a flat. I know precisely where there is a flat."
"But will they let it to me?"
"They will let it to me, I suppose," said he, still casually.
A pause ensued.
She said, in a voice trembling:
"Thou art not going to say to me that thou wilt put me among my own furniture?"
"The flat is furnished. But it is the same thing."
"Do not let such a hope shine before me—me who saw before me only the pavement. Thou art not serious."
"I never was more serious. For whom dost thou take me, little-foolish one?"
"Oh, you English! You are chic. You make love as you go to war. Like that!... One word—it is decided! And there is nothing more to say! Ah! You English!"
She had almost screamed, shuddering under the shock of his decision, for which she had impossibly hoped, but whose reality overwhelmed her. He sat there in front of her, elegant, impeccably dressed, distinguished, aristocratic, rich, in the full wisdom of his years, and in the strength of his dominating will, and in the righteousness of his heart. One could absolutely trust such as him to do the right thing, and to do it generously, and to do it all the time. And she, she had won him. He had recognised her qualities. She had denied any claim upon him, but by his decision he had admitted a claim—a claim that no money could satisfy. After all, for eighteen months she had been more to him than any other woman. He had talked freely to her. He had concealed naught from her. He had spoken to her of his discouragements and his weaknesses. He had had no shame before her. By her acquiescences, her skill, her warmth, her adaptability, her intense womanliness, she had created between them a bond stronger than anything that could keep them apart. The bond existed. It could not during the whole future be broken save by a disloyalty. A disloyalty, she divined, would irrevocably destroy it. But she had no fear on that score, for she knew her own nature. His decision did more than fill her with a dizzy sense of relief, a mad, intolerable happiness—it re-established her self-respect. No ordinary woman, handicapped as she was, could have captured this fastidious and shy paragon ... And the notion that her passion for him had dwindled was utterly ridiculous, like the notion that he would tire of her. She was saved. She burst into wild tears.
"Ah! Pardon me!" she sobbed. "I am quite calm, really. But since the air-raid, thou knowest, I have not been quite the same ... Thou! Thou art different. Nothing could disturb thy calm. Ah! If thou wert a general at the front! What sang-froid! What presence of mind! But I—"
He bent towards her, and she suddenly sprang up and seized him round the neck, and ate his lips, and while she strangled and consumed him she kept muttering to him:
"Hope not that I shall thank thee. I cannot. I cannot! The words with which I could thank thee do not exist. But I am thine, thine! All of me is thine. Humiliate me! Demand of me impossible things! I am thy slave, thy creature! Ah! Let me kiss thy beautiful grey hairs. I love thy hair. And thy ears ..."
The thought of her insatiable temperament flashed through her as she held him, and of his northern sobriety, and of the profound, unchangeable difference between these two. She would discipline her temperament; she would subjugate it. Women were capable of miracles—and women alone. And she was capable of miracles.
A strange, muffled noise came to them across the darkness of the sitting-room, and G.J. raised his head slightly to listen.
"Repose! Repose thyself in the arms of thy little mother," she breathed softly. "It is nothing. It is but the wind blowing the blind against the curtains."
And later, when she had distilled the magic of the hour and was tranquillised, she said:
"And where is it, this flat?"
Christine said to Marie, otherwise La Mere Gaston, the new servant in the new flat, who was holding in her hand a telegram addressed to "Hoape, Albany":
"Give it to me. I will put it in front of the clock on the mantelpiece."
And she lodged it among the gilt cupids that supported the clock on the fringed mantelpiece in the drawing-room. She did so with a little gesture of childlike glee expressing her satisfaction in the flat as a whole.
The flat was dark; she did not object, loving artificial light. The rooms were all very small; she loved cosiness. There was a garage close by, which might have disturbed her nights; but it did not. The bathroom was open to the bedroom; no arrangement could be better. G.J. in enumerating the disadvantages of the flat had said also that it was too much and too heavily furnished. Not at all. She adored the cumbrous and rich furniture; she did not want in her flat the empty spaces of a ball-room; she wanted to feel that she was within an interior—inside something. She gloried in the flat. She preferred it even to her memory of G.J.'s flat in the Albany. Its golden ornateness flattered her. The glittering cornices, and the big carved frames of the pictures of impossible flowers and of ladies and gentlemen in historic coiffures and costumes, appeared marvellous to her. She had never seen, and certainly had never hoped to inhabit, anything like it. But then Gilbert was always better than his word.
He had been quite frank, telling her that he knew of the existence of the flat simply because it had been occupied for a brief time by the Mrs. Carlos Smith of whom she had heard and read, and who had had to leave it on account of health. (She did not remind him that once at the beginning of the war when she had noticed the name and portrait of Mrs. Carlos Smith in the paper, he, sitting by her side, had concealed from her that he knew Mrs. Carlos Smith. Judiciously, she had never made the slightest reference to that episode.) Though she detested the unknown Mrs. Carlos Smith, she admired and envied her for a great illustrious personage, and was secretly very proud of succeeding Mrs. Carlos Smith in the tenancy. And when Gilbert told her that he had had his eye on the flat for her before Mrs. Carlos Smith took it, and had hesitated on account of its drawbacks, she was even more proud. And reassured also. For this detail was a proof that Gilbert had really had the intention to put her "among her own furniture" long before the night of the supreme appeal to him.... Only he was always so cautious.
And Gilbert was the discoverer of la mere Gaston, too, and as frank about her as about the flat. La mere Gaston was the widow of a French soldier, domiciled in London previous to the war, who had died of wounds in one of the Lechford hospitals; and it was through the Lechford Committee that Gilbert had come across her. A few weeks earlier than the beginning of the formal liaison Mrs. Braiding had fallen ill for a space, and Madame Gaston had been summoned as charwoman to aid Mrs. Braiding's young sister in the Albany flat. With excellent judgment Gilbert had chosen her to succeed Marthe, whom he himself had reproachfully dismissed from Cork Street.
He was amazingly clever, was Gilbert, for he had so arranged things that Christine had been able to cut off her Cork Street career as with a knife. She had departed from Cork Street with two trunks and a few cardboard boxes—her stove was abandoned to the landlord—and vanished into London and left no trace. Except Gilbert, nobody who knew her in Cork Street was aware of her new address, and nobody who knew her in Mayfair knew that she had come from Cork Street. Her ancient acquaintances in Cork Street would ring the bell there in vain.
Madame Gaston was a neat, plump woman of perhaps forty, not looking her years. She had a comprehending eye. After three words from Gilbert she had mastered the situation, and as she perfectly realised where her interest lay she could be relied upon for discretion. In all delicate matters only her eye talked. She was a Protestant, and went to the French church in Soho Square, which she called the "Temple". Christine and she had had but one Sunday together—and Christine had gone with her to the Temple! The fact was that Christine had decided to be a Protestant. She needed a religion, and Catholicism had an inconvenience—confession. She had regularised her position, so much so that by comparison with the past she was now perfectly respectable. Yet if she had been candid in the confessional the priest would still have convicted her of mortal sin; which would have been very unfair; and she could not, in view of her respectability, have remained a Catholic without confessing, however infrequently. Madame Gaston, as soon as she was sure of her convert, referred to Catholicism as "idolatry".
"Put your apron on, Marie," said Christine. "Monsieur will be here directly."
"Ah, yes, madame!"
"Have you opened the kitchen-window to take away the smell of cooking?"
"Am I all right, Marie?"
Madame Gaston surveyed her mistress, who turned round.
"Yes, madame. I think that monsieur will much like that negligee." She departed to don the apron.
Between these two it was continually "monsieur," "monsieur". He was seldom there, but he was always there, always being consulted, placated, invoked, revered, propitiated, magnified. He was the giver of all good, and there was no other Allah, and he had two prophets.
Christine sang, she twittered, she pirouetted, out of sheer youthful joy. She had forgotten care and forgotten promiscuity; good fortune had washed her pure. She looked at herself in the massive bevelled mirror, and saw that she was fresh and young and lithe and graceful. And she felt triumphant. Gilbert had expressed the fear that she might get lonely and bored. He had even said that occasionally he might bring along a man, and that perhaps the man would have a very nice woman friend. She had not very heartily responded. She was markedly sympathetic towards Englishmen, but towards English women—no! And especially she did not want to know any English women in the same situation as herself. Lonely? Impossible! Bored? Impossible! She had an establishment. She had a civil list. Her days passed like an Arabian dream. She never had an unfilled moment, and when each day was over she always remembered little things which she had meant to do and had not found time to do.
She was a superb sleeper, and arose at noon. Three o'clock usually struck before her day had fairly begun—unless, of course, she happened to be very busy, in which case she would be ready for contact with the world at the lunch-hour. Her main occupation was to charm, allure, and gratify a man; for that she lived. Her distractions were music, the reading of novels, Le Journal, and Les Grandes Modes. And for the war she knitted. In her new situation it was essential that she should do something for the war. Therefore she knitted, being a good knitter, and her knitting generally lay about.
She popped into the dining-room to see if the table was well set for dinner. It was, but in order to show that Marie did not know everything, she rearranged somewhat the flowers in the central bowl. Then she returned to the drawing-room, and sat down at the piano and waited. The instant of arrival approached. Gilbert's punctuality was absolute, always had been; sometimes it alarmed her. She could not have to wait more than a minute or two, according to the inexactitude of her clock.... The bell rang, and simultaneously she began to play a five-finger exercise. Often in the old life she had executed upon him this innocent subterfuge, to make him think she practised the piano to a greater extent than she actually did, that indeed she was always practising. It never occurred to her that he was not deceived.
Hear Marie fly to the front door! See Christine's face, see her body, as in her pale, bright gown she peeps round the half-open door of the drawing-room! She lives, then. Her eyes sparkle for the giver of all good, for the adored, and her brow is puckered for him, and the jewels on her hand burn for him, and every pleat of her garments visible and invisible is pleated for him. She is a child. She has snatched up a chocolate, and put it between her teeth, and so she offers the half of it to him, smiling, silent. She is a child, but she is also a woman intensely skilled in her art....
"Monster!" she said. "Come this way." And she led him down the tunnel to the bedroom. There, in a corner of the bathroom, stood an antique closed toilet-stand, such as was used by men in the days before splashing and sousing were invented. She had removed it from the drawing-room.
"Open it," she commanded.
He obeyed. Its little compartments, which had been empty, were filled with a man's toilet instruments—brushes, file, scissors, shaving-soap (his own brand), a safety-razor, &c. The set was complete. She had known exactly the requirements.
"It is a little present from thy woman," she said. "In future thou wilt have no excuse—Sit down. Marie!"
"Take off the boots of Monsieur."
Christine found the new slippers.
"And now this!" she said, after he had washed and used the new brushes, producing a black house-jacket with velvet collar and cuffs.
"How tired thou must be after thy day!" she murmured, patting him with tiny pats.
"Thou knowest, my little one," she said, pointing to the gas-stove in the bedroom fireplace. "For the other rooms a gas-stove—I am indifferent. But the bedroom is something else. The bedroom is sacred. I could not tolerate a gas-stove in the bedroom. A coal fire is necessary to me. You do not think so?"
"Yes," he said. "You are quite right. It shall be seen to."
"Can I give the order? Thou permittest me to give the order?"
In the drawing-room she cushioned him well in the best easy-chair, and, sitting down on a pouf near him, began to knit like an industrious wife who understands the seriousness of war. Nothing escaped the attention of that man. He espied the telegram.
"Ah!" she cried, springing up and giving it to him. "Stupid that I am! I forgot."
He looked at the address.
"How did this come here?" he asked mildly.
"Marie brought it—from the Albany."
He opened the telegram and read it, having dropped the envelope into the silk-lined, gilded waste-paper basket by the fender.
"It is nothing serious?" she questioned.
He might have shown it to her—he had shown her telegrams before—but he stuck it into his pocket. Then, without a word to Christine, he rang the bell, and Marie appeared.
"Marie! The telegram—why did you bring it here?"
"Monsieur, it was like this. I went to monsieur's flat to fetch two aprons that I had left there. The telegram was on the console in the ante-chamber. Knowing that monsieur was to come direct here, I brought it."
"Does Mrs. Braiding know you brought it?"
"Ah! As for Mrs. Braiding, monsieur—"
Marie stopped, disclaiming any responsibility for Mrs. Braiding, of whom she was somewhat jealous. "I thought to do well."
"I am sure of it. But surely you can see you have been indiscreet. Don't do it again."
"No, monsieur. I ask pardon of monsieur."
Immediately afterwards he said to Christine in a gay, careless tone:
"And this gas-stove here? Is it all right? Have we tried it? Let us try it."
"The weather is warm, dearest."
"But just to try it. I always like to satisfy myself—in time."
"Fusser!" she exclaimed, and ignited the stove.
He gazed at it absently, then picked up a cigarette and, taking the telegram from his pocket, folded it into a spill and with it lit the cigarette.
"Yes," he said meditatively. "It seems not a bad stove." And he held the spill till it had burnt to his finger-ends. Then he extinguished the stove.
She said to herself:
"He has burned the telegram on purpose. But how cleverly he did it! Ah! That man! There is none but him!"
She was disquieted about the telegram. She feared it. Her superstitiousness was awakened. She thought of her apostasy from Catholicism to Protestantism. She thought of a Holy Virgin angered. And throughout the evening and throughout the night, amid her smiles and teasings and coaxings and caresses and ecstasies and all her accomplished, voluptuous girlishness, the image of a resentful Holy Virgin flitted before her. Why should he burn a business telegram? Also, was he not at intervals a little absent-minded?
G.J. sat on the oilcloth-covered seat of the large overhanging open bay-window. Below him was the river, tributary of the Severn; in front the Old Bridge, with an ancient street rising beyond, and above that the silhouette of the roofs of Wrikton surmounted by the spire of its vast church. To the left was the weir, and the cliffs were there also, and the last tints of the sunset.
Somebody came into the coffee-room. G.J. looked round, hoping that it might, after all, be Concepcion. But it was Concepcion's maid, Emily, an imitative young woman who seemed to have caught from her former employer the quality of strange, sinister provocativeness.
She paused a moment before speaking. Her thin figure was somewhat indistinct in the twilight.
"Mrs. Smith wishes me to say that she will certainly be well enough to take you to the station in the morning, sir," said she in her specious tones. "But she hopes you will be able to stay till the afternoon train."
"I shan't." He shook his head.
"Very well, sir."
And after another moment's pause Emily, apparently with a challenging reluctance, receded through the shadows of the room and vanished.
G.J. was extremely depressed and somewhat indignant. He gazed down bitterly at the water, following with his eye the incredibly long branches of the tree that from the height of the buttresses drooped perpendicularly into the water. He had had an astounding week-end; and for having responded to Concepcion's telegram, for having taken the telegram seriously, he had deserved what he got. Thus he argued.
She had met him on the hot Saturday afternoon in a Ford car. She did not look ill. She looked as if she had fairly recovered from her acute neurasthenia. She was smartly and carelessly dressed in a summer sporting costume, and had made a strong contrast to every other human being on the platform of the small provincial station. The car drove not to the famous principal hotel, but to a small hotel just beyond the bridge. She had given him tea in the coffee-room and taken him out again, on foot, showing him the town—the half-timbered houses, the immense castle, the market-hall, the spacious flat-fronted residences, the multiplicity of solicitors, banks and surveyors, the bursting provision shops with imposing fractions of animals and expensive pies, and the drapers with ladies' blouses at 2s. 4d. Then she had conducted him to an organ recital in the vast church where, amid faint gas-jets and beadles and stalls and stained glass and holiness and centuries of history and the high respectability of the town, she had whispered sibilantly, and other people had whispered, in the long intervals of the organ. She had removed him from the church before the collection for the Red Cross, and when they had eaten a sort of dinner she had borne him away to the Russian dancers in the Moot Hall.
She said she had seen the Russian dancers once already, and that they were richly worth to him a six-hours' train journey. The posters of the Russian dancers were rather daring and seductive. The Russian dancers themselves were the most desolating stage spectacle that G.J. had ever witnessed. The troupe consisted of intensely English girls of various ages, and girl-children. The costumes had obviously been fabricated by the artistes. The artistes could neither dance, pose, group, make an entrance, make an exit, nor even smile. The ballets, obviously fabricated by the same persons as the costumes, had no plot, no beginning and no end. Crude amateurishness was the characteristic of these honest and hard-working professionals, who somehow contrived to be neither men nor women—and assuredly not epicene—but who travelled from country town to country town in a glamour of posters, exciting the towns, in spite of a perfect lack of sex, because they were the fabled Russian dancers. The Moot Hall was crammed with adults and their cackling offspring, who heartily applauded the show, which indeed was billed as a "return visit" due to "terrific success" on a previous occasion. "Is it not too marvellous," Concepcion had said. He had admitted that it was. But the boredom had been excruciating. In the street they had bought an evening paper of which he had never before heard the name, to learn news of the war. The war, however, seemed very far off; it had grown unreal. "We'll talk to-morrow," Concepcion had said, and gone abruptly to bed! Still, he had slept well in the soft climate, to the everlasting murmur of the weir.
Then the Sunday. She was indisposed, could not come down to breakfast, but hoped to come down to lunch, could not come down to lunch, but hoped to come down to tea, could not come down to tea—and so on to nightfall. The Sunday had been like a thousand years to him. He had learnt the town, and the suburbs of it; the grass-grown streets, the main thoroughfares, and the slums; by the afternoon he was recognising familiar faces in the town. He had twice made the classic round—along the cliffs, over the New Bridge (which was an antique), up the hill to the castle, through the market-place, down the High Street to the Old Bridge. He had explored the brain of the landlord, who could not grapple with a time-table, and who spent most of the time during closed hours in patiently bolting the front door which G.J. was continually opening. He had talked to the old customer who, whenever the house was open, sat at a table in the garden over a mug of cider. He had played through all the musical comedies, dance albums and pianoforte albums that littered the piano. He had read the same Sunday papers that he read in the Albany. And he had learnt the life-history of the sole servant, a very young agreeable woman with a wedding-ring and a baby, which baby she carried about with her when serving at table. Her husband was in France. She said that as soon as she had received his permission to do so she should leave, as she really could not get through all the work of the hotel and mind and feed a baby. She said also that she played the piano herself. And she regretted that baby and pressure of work had deprived her of a sight of the Russian dancers, because she had heard so much about them, and was sure they were beautiful. This detail touched G.J.'s heart to a mysterious and sweet and almost intolerable melancholy. He had not made the acquaintance of fellow-guests—for there were none, save Concepcion and Emily.
And in the evening as in the morning the weir placidly murmured, and the river slipped smoothly between the huge jutting buttresses of the Old Bridge; and the thought of the perpetuity of the river, in whose mirror the venerable town was a mushroom, obsessed him, mastered him, and made him as old as the river. He was wonder-struck and sorrow-struck by life, and by his own life, and by the incomprehensible and angering fantasy of Concepcion. His week-end took on the appearance of the monstrous. Then the door opened again, and Concepcion entered in a white gown, the antithesis of her sporting costume of the day before. She approached through the thickening shadows of the room, and the vague whiteness of her gown reminded him of the whiteness of the form climbing the chimney-ladder on the roof of Lechford House in the raid. Knowing her, he ought to have known that, having made him believe that she would not come down, she would certainly come down. He restrained himself, showed no untoward emotion, and said in a calm, genial voice: "Oh! I'm so glad you were well enough to come down."
She sat opposite to him in the window-seat, rather sideways, so that her skirt was pulled close round her left thigh and flowed free over the right. He could see her still plainly in the dusk.
"I've never yet apologised to you for my style of behaviour at the committee of yours," she began abruptly in a soft, kind, reasonable voice. "I know I let you down horribly. Yes, yes! I did. And I ought to apologise to you for to-day too. But I don't think I'll apologise to you for bringing you to Wrikton and this place. They're not real, you know. They're an illusion. There is no such place as Wrikton and this river and this window. There couldn't be, could there? Queen and I motored over here once from Paulle—it's not so very far—and we agreed that it didn't really exist. I never forgot it; I was determined to come here again some time, and that's why I chose this very spot when half Harley Street stood up and told me I must go away somewhere after my cure and be by myself, far from the pernicious influence of friends. I think I gave you a very fair idea of the town yesterday. But I didn't show you the funniest thing in it—the inside of a solicitor's office. You remember the large grey stone house in Mill Street—the grass street, you know—with 'Simpover and Simpover' on the brass plate, and the strip of green felt nailed all round the front door to keep the wind out in winter. Well, it's all in the same key inside. And I don't know which is the funniest, the Russian dancers, or the green felt round the front door, or Mr. Simpover, or the other Mr. Simpover. I'm sure neither of those men is real, though they both somehow have children. You remember the yellow cards that you see in so many of the windows: 'A MAN has gone from this house to fight for King and Country!'—the elder Mr. Simpover thinks it would be rather boastful to put the card in the window, so he keeps it on the mantelpiece in his private office. It's for his son. And yet I assure you the father isn't real. He is like the town, he simply couldn't be real."
"What have you been up to in the private office?" G.J. asked lightly.
"Making my will."
"Isn't it the proper thing to do? I've left everything to you."
"You haven't, Con!" he protested. There was absolutely no tranquillity about this woman. With her, the disconcerting unexpected happened every five minutes.
"Did you suppose I was going to send any of my possessions back to my tropical relatives in South America? I've left everything to you to do what you like with. Squander it if you like, but I expect you'll give it to war charities. Anyhow, I thought it would be safest in your hands."
He retorted in a tone quietly and sardonically challenging:
"But I was under the impression you were cured."
"Of my neurasthenia?"
"I believe I am. I gained thirteen pounds in the nursing home, and slept like a greengrocer. In fact, the Weir-Mitchell treatment, with modern improvements of course, enjoyed a marvellous triumph in my case. But that's not the point. G.J., I know you think I behaved very childishly yesterday, and that I deserved to be ill to-day for what I did yesterday. And I admit you're a saint for not saying so. But I wasn't really childish, and I haven't really been ill to-day. I've only been in a devil of a dilemma. I wanted to tell you something. I telegraphed for you so that I could tell you. But as soon as I saw you I was afraid to tell you. Not afraid, but I couldn't make up my mind whether I ought to tell you or not. I've lain in bed all day trying to decide the point. To-night I decided I oughtn't, and then all of a sudden, just now, I became an automaton and put on some things, and here I am telling you."
She paused. G.J. kept silence. Then she continued, in a voice in which persuasiveness was added to calm, engaging reasonableness:
"Now you must get rid of all your conventional ideas, G.J. Because you're rather conventional. You must be completely straight—I mean intellectually—otherwise I can't treat you as an intellectual equal, and I want to. You must be a realist—if any man can be." She spoke almost with tenderness.
He felt mysteriously shy, and with a brusque movement of the head shifted his glance from her to the river.
"Well?" he questioned, his gaze fixed on the water that continually slipped in large, swirling, glinting sheets under the bridge.
"I'm going to kill myself."
At first the words made no impression on him. He replied:
"You were right when you said this place was an illusion. It is."
And then he began to be afraid. Did she mean it? She was capable of anything. And he was involved in her, inescapably. Yes, he was afraid. Nevertheless, as she kept silence he went on—with bravado:
"And how do you intend to do it?"
"That will be my affair. But I venture to say that my way of doing it will make Wrikton historic," she said, curiously gentle.
"Trust you!" he exclaimed, suddenly looking at her. "Con, why will you always be so theatrical?"
She changed her posture for an easier one, half reclining. Her face and demeanour seemed to have the benign masculinity of a man's.
"I'm sorry," she answered. "I oughtn't to have said that. At any rate, to you. I ought to have had more respect for your feelings."
"You aren't cured. That's evident. All this is physical."
"Of course it's physical, G.J.," she agreed, with an intonation of astonishment that he should be guilty of an utterance so obvious and banal. "Did you ever know anything that wasn't? Did you ever even conceive anything that wasn't? If you can show me how to conceive spirit except in terms of matter, I'd like to listen to you."
"It's against nature—to kill yourself."
"Oh!" she murmured. "I'm quite used to that charge. You aren't by any means the first to accuse me of being against nature. But can you tell me where nature ends? That's another thing I'd like to know.... My dear friend, you're being conventional, and you aren't being realistic. You must know perfectly well in your heart that there's no reason why I shouldn't kill myself if I want to. You aren't going to talk to me about the Ten Commandments, I suppose, are you? There's a risk, of course, on the other side—shore—but perhaps it's worth taking. You aren't in a position to say it isn't worth taking. And at worst the other shore must be marvellous. It may possibly be terrible, if you arrive too soon and without being asked, but it must be marvellous.... Naturally, I believe in immortality. If I didn't, the thing wouldn't be worth doing. Oh! I should hate to be extinguished. But to change one existence for another, if the fancy takes you—that seems to me the greatest proof of real independence that anybody can give. It's tremendous. You're playing chess with fate and fate's winning, and you knock up the chess-board and fate has to begin all over again! Can't you see how tremendous it is—and how tempting it is? The temptation is terrific."
"I can see all that," said G.J. He was surprised by a sudden sense of esteem for the mighty volition hidden behind those calm, worn, gracious features. But Concepcion's body was younger than her face. He perceived, as it were for the first time, that Concepcion was immeasurably younger than himself; and yet she had passed far beyond him in experience. "But what's the origin of all this? What do you want to do it for? What's happened?"
"Then you believe I mean to do it?"
"Yes," he replied sincerely, and as naturally as he could.
"That's the tone I like to hear," said she, smiling. "I felt sure I could count on you not to indulge in too much nonsense. Well, I'm going to try the next avatar just to remind fate of my existence. I think fate's forgotten me, and I can stand anything but that. I've lost Carly, and I've lost Queen.... Oh, G.J.! Isn't it awful to think that when I offered you Queen she'd already gone, and it was only her dead body I was offering you? ... And I've lost my love. And I've failed, and I shall never be any more good here. I swore I would see a certain thing through, and I haven't seen it through, and I can't! But I've told you all this before.... What's left? Even my unhappiness is leaving me. Unless I kill myself I shall cease to exist. Don't you understand? Yes, you do."
After a marked pause she added:
"And I may overtake Queen."
"There's one thing I don't understand," he said, "as we're being frank with each other. Why do you tell me? Has it occurred to you that you're really making me a party to this scheme of yours?"
He spoke with a perfectly benevolent detachment deriving from hers. And as he spoke he thought of a man whom he had once known and who had committed suicide, and of all that he had read about suicides and what he had thought of them. Suicides had been incomprehensible to him, and either despicable or pitiable. And he said to himself: "Here is one of them! (Or is it an illusion?) But she has made all my notions of suicide seem ridiculous."
She answered his spoken question with vivacity: "Why do I tell you? I don't know. That's the point I've been arguing to myself all night and all day. I'm not telling you. Something in me is forcing me to tell you. Perhaps it's much more important that you should comprehend me than that you should be spared the passing worry that I'm causing you by showing you the inside of my head. You're the only friend I have left. I knew you before I knew Carly. I practically committed suicide from my particular world at the beginning of the war. I was going back to my particular world—you remember, G.J., in that little furnished flat—I was going back to it, but you wouldn't let me. It was you who definitely cut me off from my past. I might have been gadding about safely with Sarah Churcher and her lot at this very hour, but you would have it otherwise, and so I finished up with neurasthenia. You commanded and I obeyed."
"Well," he said, ignoring all her utterance except the last words, "obey me again."
"What do you want me to do?" she demanded wistfully and yet defiantly. Her features were tending to disappear in the tide of night, but she happened to sit up and lean forward and bring them a little closer to him. "You've no right to stop me from doing what I want to do. What right have you to stop me? Besides, you can't stop me. Nothing can stop me. It is settled. Everything is arranged."
He, too, sat up and leaned forward. In a voice rendered soft by the realisation of the fact that he had indeed known her before Carlos Smith knew her and had imagined himself once to be in love with her, and of the harshness of her destiny and the fading of her glory, he said simply and yet, in spite of himself, insinuatingly:
"No! I don't claim any right to stop you. I understand better, perhaps, than you think. But let me come down again next week-end. Do let me," he insisted, still more softly.
Even while he was speaking he expected her to say, "You're only suggesting that in order to gain time."
But she said:
"How can you be sure it wouldn't be my inquest and funeral I should be 'letting' you come down to?"
"I could trust you."
A delicate night-gust charged with the scent of some plant came in at the open window and deranged ever so slightly a glistening lock on her forehead. G.J., peering at her, saw the masculinity melt from her face. He saw the mysterious resurrection of the girl in her, and felt in himself the sudden exciting outflow from her of that temperamental fluid whose springs had been dried up since the day when she learnt of her widowhood. She flushed. He looked away into the dark water, as though he had profanely witnessed that which ought not to be witnessed. Earlier in the interview she had inspired him with shyness. He was now stirred, agitated, thrilled—overwhelmed by the effect on her of his own words and his own voice. He was afraid of his power, as a prophet might be afraid of his power. He had worked a miracle—a miracle infinitely more convincing than anything that had led up to it. The miracle had brought back the reign of reality.
"Very well," she quivered.
And there was a movement and she was gone. He glanced quickly behind him, but the room lay black.... A transient pallor on the blackness, and the door banged. He sat a long time, solemn, gazing at the serrated silhouette of the town against a sky that obstinately held the wraith of daylight, and listening to the everlasting murmur of the invisible weir. Not a sound came from the town, not the least sound. When at length he stumbled out, he saw the figure of the landlord smoking the pipe of philosophy, and waiting with a landlord's fatalism for the last guest to go to bed. And they talked of the weather.
The next night G.J., having been hailed by an acquaintance, was talking at the top of the steps beneath the portal of a club in Piccadilly. It was after ten by the clocks, and nearly, but not quite, dark. A warm, rather heavy, evening shower had ceased. This was the beginning of the great macintosh epoch, by-product of the war, when the paucity of the means of vehicular locomotion had rendered macintoshes permissible, even for women with pretensions to smartness; and at intervals stylish girls on their way home from unaccustomed overtime, passed the doors in transparent macintoshes of pink, yellow or green, as scornful as military officers of the effeminate umbrella, whose use was being confined to clubmen and old dowdies.
The acquaintance sought advice from G.J. about the shutting up of households for Belgian refugees. G.J. answered absently, not concealing that he was in a hurry. He had, in fact, been held up within three minutes of the scene of his secret idyll, and was anxious to arrive there. He had promised himself this surprise visit to Christine as some sort of recompense and narcotic for the immense disturbance of spirit which he had suffered at Wrikton.
That morning Concepcion had been invisible, but at his early breakfast he had received a note from her, a brief but masterly composition, if ever so slightly theatrical. He was conscious of tenderness for Concepcion, of sympathy with her, of a desire to help to restore her to that which by misfortune she had lost. But the first of these sentiments he resolutely put aside. He was determined to change his mood towards her for the sake of his own tranquillity; and he had convinced himself that his wise, calm, common sense was capable of saving her from any tragic and fatal folly. He had her in the hollow of his hand; but if she was expecting too much from him she would be gradually disappointed. He must have peace; he could not allow a bomb to be thrown into his habits; he was a bachelor of over fifty whose habits had the value of inestimable jewels and whose perfect independence was the most precious thing in the world. At his age he could not marry a volcano, a revolution, a new radio-active element exhibiting properties which were an enigma to social science. Concepcion would turn his existence into an endless drama of which she alone, with her deep-rooted, devilish talent for the sensational, would always choose the setting, as she had chosen the window and the weir. No; he must not mistake affectionate sympathy for tenderness, nor tolerate the sexual exploitation of his pity.
As he listened and talked to the acquaintance his inner mind shifted with relief to the vision of Christine, contented and simple and compliant in her nest—Christine, at once restful and exciting, Christine, the exquisite symbol of acquiescence and response. What a contrast to Concepcion! It had been a bold and sudden stroke to lift Christine to another plane, but a stroke well justified and entirely successful, fulfilling his dream.
At this moment he noticed a figure pass the doorway in whose shadow he was, and he exclaimed within himself incredulously:
"That is Christine!"
In the shortest possible delay he said "Good-night" to his acquaintance, and jumped down the steps and followed eastwards the figure. He followed warily, for already the strange and distressing idea had occurred to him that he must not overtake her—if she it was. It was she. He caught sight of her again in the thick obscurity by the prison-wall of Devonshire House. He recognised the peculiar brim of the new hat and the new "military" umbrella held on the wrist by a thong.
What was she doing abroad? She could not be going to a theatre. She had not a friend in London. He was her London. And la mere Gaston was not with her. Theoretically, of course, she was free. He had laid down no law. But it had been clearly understood between them that she should never emerge at night alone. She herself had promulgated the rule, for she had a sense of propriety and a strong sense of reality. She had belonged to the class which respectable, broadminded women, when they bantered G.J., always called "the pretty ladies," and as a postulant for respectability she had for her own satisfaction to mind her p's and q's. She could not afford not to keep herself above suspicion.
She had been a courtesan. Did she look like one? As an individual figure in repose, no! None could have said that she did. He had long since learnt that to decide always correctly by appearance, and apart from environment and gesture, whether an unknown woman was or was not a wanton, presented a task beyond the powers of even the completest experience. But Christine was walking in Piccadilly at night, and he soon perceived that she was discreetly showing the demeanour of a courtesan at her profession—she who had hated and feared the pavement! He knew too well the signs—the waverings, the turns of the head, the variations in speed, the scarcely perceptible hesitations, the unmistakable air of wandering with no definite objective.
Near Dover Street he hastened through the thin, reflecting mire, amid beams of light and illuminated numbers that advanced upon him in both directions thundering or purring, and crossed Piccadilly, and hurried ahead of her, to watch her in safety from the other side of the thoroughfare. He could hardly see her; she was only a moving shadow; but still he could see her; and in the long stretch of gloom beneath the facade of the Royal Academy he saw the shadow pause in front of a military figure, which by a flank movement avoided the shadow and went resolutely forward. He lost her in front of the Piccadilly Hotel, and found her again at the corner of Air Street. She swerved into Air Street and crossed Regent Street; he was following. In Denman Street, close to Shaftesbury Avenue, she stood still in front of another military figure—a common soldier as it proved—who also rebuffed her. The thing was flagrant. He halted, and deliberately let her go from his sight. She vanished into the dark crowds of the Avenue.
In horrible humiliation, in atrocious disgust, he said to himself:
"Never will I set eyes on her again! Never! Never!"
Why was she doing it? Not for money. She could only be doing it from the nostalgia of adventurous debauch. She was the slave of her temperament, as the drunkard is the slave of his thirst. He had told her that he would be out of town for the week end, on committee business. He had distinctly told her that she must on no account expect him on the Monday night. And her temperament had roused itself from the obscene groves of her subconsciousness like a tiger and come up and driven her forth. How easy for her to escape from la mere Gaston if she chose! And yet—would she dare, even at the bidding of the tiger, to introduce a stranger into the flat? Unnecessary, he reflected. There were a hundred accommodating dubious interiors between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square. He understood; he neither accused nor pardoned; but he was utterly revolted, and wounded not merely in his soul but in the most sensitive part of his soul—his pride. He called himself by the worst epithet of opprobrium: Simpleton! The bold and sudden stroke had now become the fatuous caprice of a damned fool. Had he, at his age, been capable of overlooking the elementary axiom: once a wrong 'un, always a wrong 'un? Had he believed in reclamation? He laughed out his disgust ...