AT the best of times it is a long way from Chicago to Blaybury in Wiltshire, but war has fixed between them a great gulf. In the circumstances, therefore, it seemed an act of singular devotion on the part of Peter Jacobsen to have come all the way from the Middle West, in the fourth year of war, on a visit to his old friend Petherton, when the project entailed a single-handed struggle with two Great Powers over the question of passports and the risk, when they had been obtained, of perishing miserably by the way, a victim of frightfulness.
At the expense of much time and more trouble Jacobsen had at last arrived; the gulf between Chicago and Blaybury was spanned. In the hall of Petherton’s house a scene of welcome was being enacted under the dim gaze of six or seven brown family portraits by unknown masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Old Alfred Petherton, a grey shawl over his shoulders—for he had to be careful, even in June, of draughts and colds—was shaking his guest’s hand with interminable cordiality.
“My dear boy,” he kept repeating, “it is a pleasure to see you. My dear boy . . .”
Jacobsen limply abandoned his forearm and waited in patience.
“I can never be grateful enough,” Mr. Petherton went on—“never grateful enough to you for having taken all this endless trouble to come and see an old decrepit man—for that’s what I am now, that’s what I am, believe me.”
“Oh, I assure you . . .” said Jacobsen, with vague deprecation. “Le vieux crétin qui pleurniche,” he said to himself. French was a wonderfully expressive language, to be sure.
“My digestion and my heart have got much worse since I saw you last. But I think I must have told you about that in my letters.”
“You did indeed, and I was most grieved to hear it.”
“Grieved”—what a curious flavour that word had! Like somebody’s tea which used to recall the most delicious blends of forty years ago. But it was decidedly the mot juste. It had the right obituary note about it.
“Yes,” Mr. Petherton continued, “my palpitations are very bad now. Aren’t they, Marjorie?” He appealed to his daughter who was standing beside him.
“Father’s palpitations are very bad,” she replied dutifully.
It was as though they were talking about some precious heirloom long and lovingly cherished.
“And my digestion. . . . This physical infirmity makes all mental activity so difficult. All the same, I manage to do a little useful work. We’ll discuss that later, though. You must be feeling tired and dusty after your journey down. I’ll guide you to your room. Marjorie, will you get someone to take up his luggage?”
“I can take it myself,” said Jacobsen, and he picked up a small gladstone-bag that had been deposited by the door.
“Is that all?” Mr. Petherton asked.
“Yes, that’s all.”
As one living the life of reason, Jacobsen objected to owning things. One so easily became the slave of things and not their master. He liked to be free; he checked his possessive instincts and limited his possessions to the strictly essential. He was as much or as little at home at Blaybury or Pekin. He could have explained all this if he liked. But in the present case it wasn’t worth taking the trouble.
“This is your humble chamber,” said Mr. Petherton, throwing open the door of what was, indeed, a very handsome spare-room, bright with chintzes and cut flowers and silver candlesticks. “A poor thing, but your own.”
Courtly grace! Dear old man! Apt quotation! Jacobsen unpacked his bag and arranged its contents neatly and methodically in the various drawers and shelves of the wardrobe.
It was a good many years now since Jacobsen had come in the course of his grand educational tour to Oxford. He spent a couple of years there, for he liked the place, and its inhabitants were a source of unfailing amusement to him.
A Norwegian, born in the Argentine, educated in the United States, in France, and in Germany; a man with no nationality and no prejudices, enormously old in experience, he found something very new and fresh and entertaining about his fellow-students with their comic public-school traditions and fabulous ignorance of the world. He had quietly watched them doing their little antics, feeling all the time that a row of bars separated them from himself, and that he ought, after each particularly amusing trick, to offer them a bun or a handful of pea-nuts. In the intervals of sight-seeing in this strange and delightful Jardin des Plantes he read Greats, and it was through Aristotle that he had come into contact with Alfred Petherton, fellow and tutor of his college.
The name of Petherton is a respectable one in the academic world. You will find it on the title-page of such meritorious, if not exactly brilliant, books as Plato’s Predecessors, Three Scottish Metaphysicians, Introduction to the Study of Ethics, Essays in Neo-Idealism. Some of his works are published in cheap editions as text-books.
One of those curious inexplicable friendships that often link the most unlikely people had sprung up between tutor and pupil, and had lasted unbroken for upwards of twenty years. Petherton felt a fatherly affection for the younger man, together with a father’s pride, now that Jacobsen was a man of world-wide reputation, in having, as he supposed, spiritually begotten him. And now Jacobsen had travelled three or four thousand miles across a world at war just to see the old man. Petherton was profoundly touched.
“Did you see any submarines on the way over?” Marjorie asked, as she and Jacobsen were strolling together in the garden after breakfast the next day.
“I didn’t notice any; but then I am very unobservant about these things.”
There was a pause. At last, “I suppose there is a great deal of war-work being done in America now?” said Marjorie.
Jacobsen supposed so; and there floated across his mind a vision of massed bands, of orators with megaphones, of patriotic sky-signs, of streets made perilous by the organized highway robbery of Red Cross collectors. He was too lazy to describe it all; besides, she wouldn’t see the point of it.
“I should like to be able to do some war-work,” Marjorie explained apologetically. “But I have to look after father, and there’s the housekeeping, so I really haven’t the time.”
Jacobsen thought he detected a formula for the benefit of strangers. She evidently wanted to make things right about herself in people’s minds. Her remark about the housekeeping made Jacobsen think of the late Mrs. Petherton, her mother; she had been a good-looking, painfully sprightly woman with a hankering to shine in University society at Oxford. One quickly learned that she was related to bishops and country families; a hunter of ecclesiastical lions and a snob. He felt glad she was dead.
“Won’t it be awful when there’s no war-work,” he said. “People will have nothing to do or think about when peace comes.”
“I shall be glad. Housekeeping will be so much easier.”
“True. There are consolations.”
Marjorie looked at him suspiciously; she didn’t like being laughed at. What an undistinguished-looking little man he was! Short, stoutish, with waxed brown moustaches and a forehead that incipient baldness had made interminably high. He looked like the sort of man to whom one says: “Thank you, I’ll take it in notes with a pound’s worth of silver.” There were pouches under his eyes and pouches under his chin, and you could never guess from his expression what he was thinking about. She was glad that she was taller than he and could look down on him.
Mr. Petherton appeared from the house, his grey shawl over his shoulders and the crackling expanse of the Times between his hands.
“Good morrow,” he cried.
To the Shakespearian heartiness of this greeting Marjorie returned her most icily modern “Morning.” Her father always said “Good morrow” instead of “Good morning,” and the fact irritated her with unfailing regularity every day of her life.
“There’s a most interesting account,” said Mr. Petherton, “by a young pilot of an air fight in to-day’s paper,” and as they walked up and down the gravel path he read the article, which was a column and a half in length.
Marjorie made no attempt to disguise her boredom, and occupied herself by reading something on the other side of the page, craning her neck round to see.
“Very interesting,” said Jacobsen when it was finished.
Mr. Petherton had turned over and was now looking at the Court Circular page.
“I see,” he said, “there’s someone called Beryl Camberley-Belcher going to be married. Do you know if that’s any relation of the Howard Camberley-Belchers, Marjorie?”
“I’ve no idea who the Howard Camberley-Belchers are,” Marjorie answered rather sharply.
“Oh, I thought you did. Let me see. Howard Camberley-Belcher was at college with me. And he had a brother called James—or was it William?—and a sister who married one of the Riders, or at any rate some relation of the Riders; for I know the Camberley-Belchers and the Riders used to fit in somewhere. Dear me, I’m afraid my memory for names is going.”
Marjorie went indoors to prepare the day’s domestic campaign with the cook. When that was over she retired to her sitting-room and unlocked her very private desk. She must write to Guy this morning. Marjorie had known Guy Lambourne for years and years, almost as long as she could remember. The Lambournes were old family friends of the Pethertons: indeed they were, distantly, connections; they “fitted in somewhere,” as Mr. Petherton would say—somewhere, about a couple of generations back. Marjorie was two years younger than Guy; they were both only children; circumstances had naturally thrown them a great deal together. Then Guy’s father had died, and not long afterwards his mother, and at the age of seventeen Guy had actually come to live with the Pethertons, for the old man was his guardian. And now they were engaged; had been, more or less, from the first year of the war.
Marjorie took pen, ink, and paper. “DEAR GUY,” she began—(“We aren’t sentimental,” she had once remarked, with a mixture of contempt and secret envy, to a friend who had confided that she and her fiancé never began with anything less than Darling.)—“I am longing for another of your letters. . . .” She went through the usual litany of longing. “It was father’s birthday yesterday; he is sixty-five. I cannot bear to think that some day you and I will be as old as that. Aunt Ellen sent him a Stilton cheese—a useful war-time present. How boring housekeeping is. By dint of thinking about cheeses my mind is rapidly turning into one—a Gruyère; where there isn’t cheese there are just holes, full of vacuum . . .”
She didn’t really mind housekeeping so much. She took it for granted, and did it just because it was there to be done. Guy, on the contrary, never took anything for granted; she made these demonstrations for his benefit.
“I read Keats’s letters, as you suggested, and thought them too beautiful . . .”
At the end of a page of rapture she paused and bit her pen. What was there to say next? It seemed absurd one should have to write letters about the books one had been reading. But there was nothing else to write about; nothing ever happened. After all, what had happened in her life? Her mother dying when she was sixteen; then the excitement of Guy coming to live with them; then the war, but that hadn’t meant much to her; then Guy falling in love, and their getting engaged. That was really all. She wished she could write about her feelings in an accurate, complicated way, like people in novels; but when she came to think about it, she didn’t seem to have any feelings to describe.
She looked at Guy’s last letter from France. ”Sometimes,” he had written, “I am tortured by an intense physical desire for you. I can think of nothing but your beauty, your young, strong body. I hate that; I have to struggle to repress it. Do you forgive me?” It rather thrilled her that he should feel like that about her: he had always been so cold, so reserved, so much opposed to sentimentality—to the kisses and endearments she would, perhaps, secretly have liked. But he had seemed so right when he said, “We must love like rational beings, with our minds, not with our hands and lips.” All the same . . .
She dipped her pen in the ink and began to write again. “I know the feelings you spoke of in your letter. Sometimes I long for you in the same way. I dreamt the other night I was holding you in my arms, and woke up hugging the pillow.” She looked at what she had written. It was too awful, too vulgar! She would have to scratch it out. But no, she would leave it in spite of everything, just to see what he would think about it. She finished the letter quickly, sealed and stamped it, and rang for the maid to take it to the post. When the servant had gone, she shut up her desk with a bang. Bang—the letter had gone, irrevocably.
She picked up a large book lying on the table and began to read. It was the first volume of the Decline and Fall. Guy had said she must read Gibbon; she wouldn’t be educated till she had read Gibbon. And so yesterday she had gone to her father in his library to get the book.
“Gibbon,” Mr. Petherton had said, “certainly, my dear. How delightful it is to look at these grand old books again. One always finds something new every time.”
Marjorie gave him to understand that she had never read it. She felt rather proud of her ignorance.
Mr. Petherton handed the first of eleven volumes to her. “A great book,” he murmured—“an essential book. It fills the gap between your classical history and your mediæval stuff.”
“Your” classical history, Marjorie repeated to herself, “your” classical history indeed! Her father had an irritating way of taking it for granted that she knew everything, that classical history was as much hers as his. Only a day or two before he had turned to her at luncheon with, “Do you remember, dear child, whether it was Pomponazzi who denied the personal immortality of the soul, or else that queer fellow, Laurentius Valla? It’s gone out of my head for the moment.” Marjorie had quite lost her temper at the question—much to the innocent bewilderment of her poor father.
She had set to work with energy on the Gibbon; her bookmarker registered the fact that she had got through one hundred and twenty-three pages yesterday. Marjorie started reading. After two pages she stopped. She looked at the number of pages still remaining to be read—and this was only the first volume. She felt like a wasp sitting down to eat a vegetable marrow. Gibbon’s bulk was not perceptibly diminished by her first bite. It was too long. She shut the book and went out for a walk. Passing the Whites’ house, she saw her friend, Beatrice White that was, sitting on the lawn with her two babies. Beatrice hailed her, and she turned in.
“Pat a cake, pat a cake,” she said. At the age of ten months, baby John had already learnt the art of patting cakes. He slapped the outstretched hand offered him, and his face, round and smooth and pink like an enormous peach, beamed with pleasure.
“Isn’t he a darling!” Marjorie exclaimed. “You know, I’m sure he’s grown since last I saw him, which was on Tuesday.”
“He put on eleven ounces last week,” Beatrice affirmed.
“How wonderful! His hair’s coming on splendidly . . .”
It was Sunday the next day. Jacobsen appeared at breakfast in the neatest of black suits. He looked, Marjorie thought, more than ever like a cashier. She longed to tell him to hurry up or he’d miss the 8.53 for the second time this week and the manager would be annoyed. Marjorie herself was, rather consciously, not in Sunday best.
“What is the name of the Vicar?” Jacobsen inquired, as he helped himself to bacon.
“Trubshaw. Luke Trubshaw, I believe.”
“Does he preach well?”
“He didn’t when I used to hear him. But I don’t often go to church now, so I don’t know what he’s like these days.”
“Why don’t you go to church?” Jacobsen inquired, with a silkiness of tone which veiled the crude outlines of his leading question.
Marjorie was painfully conscious of blushing. She was filled with rage against Jacobsen. “Because,” she said firmly, “I don’t think it necessary to give expression to my religious feelings by making a lot of”—she hesitated a moment—“a lot of meaningless gestures with a crowd of other people.”
“You used to go,” said Jacobsen.
“When I was a child and hadn’t thought about these things.”
Jacobsen was silent, and concealed a smile in his coffee-cup. Really, he said to himself, there ought to be religious conscription for women—and for most men, too. It was grotesque the way these people thought they could stand by themselves—the fools, when there was the infinite authority of organized religion to support their ridiculous feebleness.
“Does Lambourne go to church?” he asked maliciously, and with an air of perfect naïveté and good faith.
Marjorie coloured again, and a fresh wave of hatred surged up within her. Even as she had said the words she had wondered whether Jacobsen would notice that the phrase “meaningless gestures” didn’t ring very much like one of her own coinages. “Gesture”—that was one of Guy’s words, like “incredible,” “exacerbate,” “impinge,” “sinister.” Of course all her present views about religion had come from Guy. She looked Jacobsen straight in the face and replied:
“Yes, I think he goes to church pretty regularly. But I really don’t know: his religion has nothing to do with me.”
Jacobsen was lost in delight and admiration.
Punctually at twenty minutes to eleven he set out for church. From where she was sitting in the summer-house Marjorie watched him as he crossed the garden, incredibly absurd and incongruous in his black clothes among the blazing flowers and the young emerald of the trees. Now he was hidden behind the sweet-briar hedge, all except the hard black melon of his bowler hat, which she could see bobbing along between the topmost sprays.
She went on with her letter to Guy. “. . . What a strange man Mr. Jacobsen is. I suppose he is very clever, but I can’t get very much out of him. We had an argument about religion at breakfast this morning; I rather scored off him. He has now gone off to church all by himself;—I really couldn’t face the prospect of going with him—I hope he’ll enjoy old Mr. Trubshaw’s preaching!”
Jacobsen did enjoy Mr. Trubshaw’s preaching enormously. He always made a point, in whatever part of Christendom he happened to be, of attending divine service. He had the greatest admiration of churches as institutions. In their solidity and unchangeableness he saw one of the few hopes for humanity. Further, he derived great pleasure from comparing the Church as an institution—splendid, powerful, eternal—with the childish imbecility of its representatives. How delightful it was to sit in the herded congregation and listen to the sincere outpourings of an intellect only a little less limited than that of an Australian aboriginal! How restful to feel oneself a member of a flock, guided by a good shepherd—himself a sheep! Then there was the scientific interest (he went to church as student of anthropology, as a Freudian psychologist) and the philosophic amusement of counting the undistributed middles and tabulating historically the exploded fallacies in the parson’s discourse.
To-day Mr. Trubshaw preached a topical sermon about the Irish situation. His was the gospel of the Morning Post, slightly tempered by Christianity. It was our duty, he said, to pray for the Irish first of all, and if that had no effect upon recruiting, why, then, we must conscribe them as zealously as we had prayed before.
Jacobsen leaned back in his pew with a sigh of contentment. A connoisseur, he recognized that this was the right stuff.
“Well,” said Mr. Petherton over the Sunday beef at lunch, “how did you like our dear Vicar?”
“He was splendid,” said Jacobsen, with grave enthusiasm. “One of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.”
“Indeed? I shall really have to go and hear him again. It must be nearly ten years since I listened to him.”
Marjorie looked at Jacobsen carefully. He seemed to be perfectly serious. She was more than ever puzzled by the man.
The days went slipping by, hot blue days that passed like a flash almost without one’s noticing them, cold grey days, seeming interminable and without number, and about which one spoke with a sense of justified grievance, for the season was supposed to be summer. There was fighting going on in France—terrific battles, to judge from the headlines in the Times; but, after all, one day’s paper was very much like another’s. Marjorie read them dutifully, but didn’t honestly take in very much; at least she forgot about things very soon. She couldn’t keep count with the battles of Ypres, and when somebody told her that she ought to go and see the photographs of the Vindictive, she smiled vaguely and said Yes, without remembering precisely what the Vindictive was—a ship, she supposed.
Guy was in France, to be sure, but he was an Intelligence Officer now, so thatshe was hardly anxious about him at all. Clergymen used to say that the war was bringing us all back to a sense of the fundamental realities of life. She supposed it was true: Guy’s enforced absences were a pain to her, and the difficulties of housekeeping continually increased and multiplied.
Mr. Petherton took a more intelligent interest in the war than did his daughter. He prided himself on being able to see the thing as a whole, on taking an historical, God’s-eye view of it all. He talked about it at meal-times, insisting that the world must be made safe for democracy. Between meals he sat in the library working at his monumental History of Morals. To his dinner-table disquisitions Marjorie would listen more or less attentively, Jacobsen with an unfailing, bright, intelligent politeness. Jacobsen himself rarely volunteered a remark about the war; it was taken for granted that he thought about it in the same way as all other right-thinking folk. Between meals he worked in his room or discussed the morals of the Italian Renaissance with his host. Marjorie could write to Guy that nothing was happening, and that but for his absence and the weather interfering so much with tennis, she would be perfectly happy.
Into the midst of this placidity there fell, delightful bolt from the blue, the announcement that Guy was getting leave at the end of July. “DARLING,” Marjorie wrote, “I am so excited to think that you will be with me in such a little—such a long, long time.” Indeed, she was so excited and delighted that she realized with a touch of remorse how comparatively little she had thought of him when there seemed no chance of seeing him, how dim a figure in absence he was. A week later she heard that George White had arranged to get leave at the same time so as to see Guy. She was glad; George was a charming boy, and Guy was so fond of him. The Whites were their nearest neighbours, and ever since Guy had come to live at Blaybury he had seen a great deal of young George.
“We shall be a most festive party,” said Mr. Petherton. “Roger will be coming to us just at the same time as Guy.”
“I’d quite forgotten Uncle Roger,” said Marjorie. “Of course, his holidays begin then, don’t they?”
The Reverend Roger was Alfred Petherton’s brother and a master at one of our most glorious public schools. Marjorie hardly agreed with her father in thinking that his presence would add anything to the “festiveness” of the party. It was a pity he should be coming at this particular moment. However, we all have our little cross to bear.
Mr. Petherton was feeling playful. “We must bring down,” he said, “the choicest Falernian, bottled when Gladstone was consul, for the occasion. We must prepare wreaths and unguents and hire a flute player and a couple of dancing girls . . .”
He spent the rest of the meal in quoting Horace, Catullus, the Greek Anthology, Petronius, and Sidonius Apollinarius. Marjorie’s knowledge of the dead languages was decidedly limited. Her thoughts were elsewhere, and it was only dimly and as it were through a mist that she heard her father murmuring—whether merely to himself or with the hope of eliciting an answer from somebody, she hardly knew—“Let me see: how does that epigram go?—that one about the different kinds of fish and the garlands of roses, by Meleager, or is it Poseidippus? . . .”