The two young men—they were of the English public official class—sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage. The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician in Cologne. The compartment smelt faintly, hygienically of admirable varnish—the train ran as smoothly—Tietjens remembered thinking—as British gilt-edged securities. It travelled fast; yet had it swayed or jolted over the rail joints, except at the curve before Tonbridge or over the points at Ashford where these eccentricities are expected and allowed for, Macmaster, Tietjens felt certain, would have written to the company. Perhaps he would even have written to the Times.
Their class administered the world, not merely the newly-created Imperial Department of Statistics under Sir Reginald Ingleby. If they saw policemen misbehave, railway porters lack civility, an insufficiency of street lamps, defects in public services or in foreign countries, they saw to it, either with nonchalant Balliol voices, or with letters to the Times , asking in regretful indignation: "Has the British This or That come to this!" Or they wrote, in the serious reviews of which so many still survived, articles taking under their care, manners, the Arts, diplomacy, inter-Imperial trade or the personal reputations of deceased statesmen and men of letters.
Macmaster, that is to say, would do all that: of himself Tietjens was not so certain. There sat Macmaster; smallish; Whig; with a trimmed, pointed black beard, such as a smallish man might wear to enhance his already germinated distinction; black hair of a stubborn fibre, drilled down with hard metal brushes; a sharp nose; strong, level teeth; a white, butterfly collar of the smoothness of porcelain; a tie confined by a gold ring, steel-blue speckled with black—to match his eyes, as Tietjens knew.
Tietjens, on the other hand, could not remember what coloured tie he had on. He had taken a cab from the office to their rooms, had got himself into a loose, tailored coat and trousers, and a soft shirt, had packed, quickly, but still methodically, a great number of things in an immense two-handled kit-bag, which you could throw into a guard's van if need be. He disliked letting that "man" touch his things; he had disliked letting his wife's maid pack for him. He even disliked letting porters carry his kit-bag. He was a Tory—and as he disliked changing his clothes, there he sat, on the journey, already in large, brown, hugely-welted and nailed golf boots, leaning forward on the edge of the cushion, his legs apart, on each knee an immense white hand—and thinking vaguely.
Macmaster, on the other hand, was leaning back, reading some small, unbound printed sheets, rather stiff, frowning a little. Tietjens knew that this was, for Macmaster, an impressive moment. He was correcting the proofs of his first book.
To this affair, as Tietjens knew, there attached themselves many fine shades. If, for instance, you had asked Macmaster whether he were a writer, he would have replied with the merest suggestion of a deprecatory shrug.
"No, dear lady!" for of course no man would ask the question of anyone so obviously a man of the world. And he would continue with a smile: "Nothing so fine! A mere trifler at odd moments. A critic, perhaps. Yes! A little of a critic."
Nevertheless Macmaster moved in drawing-rooms that, with long curtains, blue china plates, large-patterned wallpapers and large, quiet mirrors, sheltered the long-haired of the Arts. And, as near as possible to the dear ladies who gave the At Homes, Macmaster could keep up the talk—a little magisterially. He liked to be listened to with respect when he spoke of Botticelli, Rossetti, and those early Italian artists whom he called "The Primitives." Tietjens had seen him there. And he didn't disapprove.
For, if they weren't, these gatherings, Society, they formed a stage on the long and careful road to a career in a first-class Government office. And, utterly careless as Tietjens imagined himself of careers or offices, he was, if sardonically, quite sympathetic towards his friend's ambitiousnesses. It was an odd friendship, but the oddnesses of friendships are a frequent guarantee of their lasting texture.
The youngest son of a Yorkshire country gentleman, Tietjens himself was entitled to the best—the best that first-class public offices and first-class people could afford. He was without ambition, but these things would come to him as they do in England. So he could afford to be negligent of his attire, of the company he kept, of the opinions he uttered. He had a little private income under his mother's settlement; a little income from the Imperial Department of Statistics; he had married a woman of means, and he was, in the Tory manner, sufficiently a master of flouts and jeers to be listened to when he spoke. He was twenty-six; but, very big, in a fair, untidy, Yorkshire way, he carried more weight than his age warranted. His chief, Sir Reginald Ingleby, when Tietjens chose to talk of public tendencies which influenced statistics, would listen with attention. Sometimes Sir Reginald would say: "You're a perfect encyclopædia of exact material knowledge, Tietjens," and Tietjens thought that that was his due, and he would accept the tribute in silence.
At a word from Sir Reginald, Macmaster, on the other hand, would murmur: "You're very good, Sir Reginald!" and Tietjens thought that perfectly proper.
Macmaster was a little the senior in the service as he was probably a little the senior in age. For, as to his roommate's years, or as to his exact origins, there was a certain blank in Tietjens' knowledge. Macmaster was obviously Scotch by birth, and you accepted him as what was called a "son of the manse." No doubt he was really the son of a grocer in Cupar or a railway porter in Edinburgh. It does not matter with the Scotch, and as he was very properly reticent as to his ancestry, having accepted him, you didn't, even mentally, make any enquiries.
Tietjens always had accepted Macmaster—at Clifton, at Cambridge, in Chancery Lane and in their rooms at Gray's Inn. So for Macmaster he had a very deep affection—even a gratitude. And Macmaster might be considered as returning these feelings. Certainly he had always done his best to be of service to Tietjens. Already at the Treasury and attached as private secretary to Sir Reginald Ingleby, whilst Tietjens was still at Cambridge, Macmaster had brought to the notice of Sir Reginald Tietjens' many great natural gifts, and Sir Reginald, being on the lookout for young men for his ewe lamb, his newly-founded department, had very readily accepted Tietjens as his third in command. On the other hand, it had been Tietjens' father who had recommended Macmaster to the notice of Sir Thomas Block at the Treasury itself. And, indeed, the Tietjens' family had provided a little money—that was Tietjens' mother really—to get Macmaster through Cambridge and install him in Town. He had repaid the small sum—paying it partly by finding room in his chambers for Tietjens when in turn he came to Town.
With a Scots young man such a position had been perfectly possible. Tietjens had been able to go to his fair, ample, saintly mother in her morning-room and say:
"Look here, mother, that fellow Macmaster! He'll need a little money to get through the University," and his mother would answer:
"Yes, my dear. How much?"
With an English young man of the lower orders that would have left a sense of class obligation. With Macmaster it just didn't.
During Tietjens' late trouble—for four months before Tietjens' wife had left him to go abroad with another man—Macmaster had filled a place that no other man could have filled. For the basis of Christopher Tietjens' emotional existence was a complete taciturnity—at any rate as to his emotions. As Tietjens saw the world, you didn't "talk." Perhaps you didn't even think about how you felt.
And, indeed, his wife's flight had left him almost completely without emotions that he could realise, and he had not spoken more than twenty words at most about the event. Those had been mostly to his father, who, very tall, very largely built, silver-haired and erect, had drifted, as it were, into Macmaster's drawing-room in Gray's Inn, and after five minutes of silence had said:
"You will divorce?"
Christopher had answered:
"No! No one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce."
Mr. Tietjens had digested that, and after an interval had asked:
"You will permit her to divorce you?"
He had answered:
"If she wishes it. There's the child to be considered."
Mr. Tietjens said:
"You will get her settlement transferred to the child?"
"If it can be done without friction."
Mr. Tietjens had commented only:
"Ah!" Some minutes later he had said:
"Your mother's very well." Then: "That motor-plough didn't answer," and then: "I shall be dining at the club."
"May I bring Macmaster in, sir? You said you would put him up."
Mr. Tietjens answered:
"Yes, do. Old General Ffolliott will be there. He'll second him. He'd better make his acquaintance." He had gone away.
Tietjens considered that his relationship with his father was an almost perfect one. They were like two men in the club—the only club; thinking so alike that there was no need to talk. His father had spent a great deal of time abroad before succeeding to the estate. When, over the moors, he went into the industrial town that he owned, he drove always in a coach-and-four. Tobacco smoke had never been known inside Groby Hall: Mr. Tietjens had twelve pipes filled every morning by his head gardener and placed in rose bushes down the drive. These he smoked during the day. He farmed a good deal of his own land; had sat for Holdernesse from 1876 to 1881, but had not presented himself for election after the redistribution of seats; he was patron of eleven livings; rode to hounds every now and then, and shot fairly regularly. He had three other sons and two daughters, and was now sixty-one.
To his sister Effie, on the day after his wife's elopement, Christopher had said over the telephone:
"Will you take Tommie for an indefinite period? Marchant will come with him. She offers to take charge of your two youngest as well, so you'll save a maid, and I'll pay their board and a bit over."
The voice of his sister—from Yorkshire—had answered:
"Certainly, Christopher." She was the wife of a vicar, near Groby, and she had several children.
To Macmaster Tietjens had said:
"Sylvia has left me with that fellow Perowne."
Macmaster had answered only: "Ah!"
Tietjens had continued:
"I'm letting the house and warehousing the furniture. Tommie is going to my sister Effie. Marchant is going with him."
Macmaster had said:
"Then you'll be wanting your old rooms." Macmaster occupied a very large storey of the Gray's Inn buildings. After Tietjens had left him on his marriage he had continued to enjoy solitude, except that his man had moved down from the attic to the bedroom formerly occupied by Tietjens.
"I'll come in tomorrow night if I may. That will give Ferens time to get back into his attic."
That morning, at breakfast, four months having passed, Tietjens had received a letter from his wife. She asked, without any contrition at all, to be taken back. She was fed-up with Perowne and Brittany.
Tietjens looked up at Macmaster. Macmaster was already half out of his chair, looking at him with enlarged, steel-blue eyes, his beard quivering. By the time Tietjens spoke Macmaster had his hand on the neck of the cut-glass brandy decanter in the brown wood tantalus.
"Sylvia asks me to take her back."
"Have a little of this!"
Tietjens was about to say: "No," automatically. He changed that to:
"Yes. Perhaps. A liqueur glass."
He noticed that the lip of the decanter agitated, tinkling on the glass. Macmaster must be trembling.
Macmaster, with his back still turned, said:
"Shall you take her back?"
"I imagine so." The brandy warmed his chest in its descent. Macmaster said:
"Better have another."
Macmaster went on with his breakfast and his letters. So did Tietjens. Ferens came in, removed the bacon plates and set on the table a silver water-heated dish that contained poached eggs and haddock. A long time afterwards Tietjens said:
"Yes, in principle I'm determined to. But I shall take three days to think out the details."
He seemed to have no feelings about the matter. Certain insolent phrases in Sylvia's letter hung in his mind. He preferred a letter like that. The brandy made no difference to his mentality, but it seemed to keep him from shivering.
"Suppose we go down to Rye by the 11:40. We could get a round after tea now the days are long. I want to call on a parson near there. He has helped me with my book."
"Did your poet know parsons? But of course he did. Duchemin is the name, isn't it?"
"We could call about two-thirty. That will be all right in the country. We stay till four with a cab outside. We can be on the first tee at five. If we like the course we'll stay next day: then Tuesday at Hythe and Wednesday at Sandwich. Or we could stay at Rye all your three days."
"It will probably suit me better to keep moving," Tietjens said. "There are those British Columbia figures of yours. If we took a cab now I could finish them for you in an hour and twelve minutes. Then British North America can go to the printers. It's only 8:30 now."
Macmaster said, with some concern:
"Oh, but you couldn't. I can make our going all right with Sir Reginald." Tietjens said:
"Oh, yes I can. Ingleby will be pleased if you tell him they're finished. I'll have them ready for you to give him when he comes at ten."
"What an extraordinary fellow you are, Chrissie. Almost a genius!"
"Oh," Tietjens answered. "I was looking at your papers yesterday after you'd left and I've got most of the totals in my head. I was thinking about them before I went to sleep. I think you make a mistake in overestimating the pull of Klondyke this year on the population. The passes are open, but relatively no one is going through. I'll add a note to that effect."
In the cab he said:
"I'm sorry to bother you with my beastly affairs. But how will it affect you and the office?"
"The office," Macmaster said, "not at all. It is supposed that Sylvia is nursing Mrs. Satterthwaite abroad. As for me, I wish..."—he closed his small, strong teeth—"I wish you would drag the woman through the mud. By God I do! Why should she mangle you for the rest of your life? She's done enough!"
Tietjens gazed out over the flap of the cab.
That explained a question. Some days before, a young man, a friend of his wife's rather than of his own, had approached him in the club and had said that he hoped Mrs. Satterthwaite—his wife's mother—was better. He said now:
"I see. Mrs. Satterthwaite has probably gone abroad to cover up Sylvia's retreat. She's a sensible woman, if a bitch."
The hansom ran through nearly empty streets, it being very early for the public official quarters. The hoofs of the horse clattered precipitately. Tietjens preferred a hansom, horses being made for gentlefolk. He had known nothing of how his fellows had viewed his affairs. It was breaking up a great, numb inertia to enquire.
During the last few months he had employed himself in tabulating from memory the errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica , of which a new edition had lately appeared. He had even written an article for a dull monthly on the subject. It had been so caustic as to miss its mark, rather. He despised people who used works of reference; but the point of view had been so unfamiliar that his article had galled no one's withers, except possibly Macmaster's. Actually it had pleased Sir Reginald Ingleby, who had been glad to think that he had under him a young man with a memory so tenacious and so encyclopædic a knowledge...
That had been a congenial occupation, like a long drowse. Now he had to make enquiries. He said:
"And my breaking up the establishment at twenty-nine? How's that viewed? I'm not going to have a house again."
"It's considered," Macmaster answered, "that Lowndes Street did not agree with Mrs. Satterthwaite. That accounted for her illness. Drains wrong. I may say that Sir Reginald entirely—expressly approves. He does not think that young married men in Government offices should keep up expensive establishments in the S.W. district."
"Damn him." He added: "He's probably right though." He then said: "Thanks. That's all I want to know. A certain discredit has always attached to cuckolds. Very properly. A man ought to be able to keep his wife."
Macmaster exclaimed anxiously:
"No! No! Chrissie."
"And a first-class public office is very like a public school. It might very well object to having a man whose wife had bolted amongst its members. I remember Clifton hated it when the Governors decided to admit the first Jew and the first nigger."
"I wish you wouldn't go on."
"There was a fellow," Tietjens continued, "whose land was next to ours. Conder his name was. His wife was habitually unfaithful to him. She used to retire with some fellow for three months out of every year. Conder never moved a finger. But we felt Groby and the neighbourhood were unsafe. It was awkward introducing him—not to mention her—in your drawing-room. All sorts of awkwardnesses. Everyone knew the younger children weren't Conder's. A fellow married the youngest daughter and took over the hounds. And not a soul called on her. It wasn't rational or just. But that's why society distrusts the cuckold, really. It never knows when it mayn't be driven into something irrational and unjust."
"But you aren't ," Macmaster said with real anguish, "going to let Sylvia behave like that."
"I don't know," Tietjens said. "How am I to stop it? Mind you, I think Conder was quite right. Such calamities are the will of God. A gentleman accepts them. If the woman won't divorce, he must accept them, and it gets talked about. You seem to have made it all right this time. You and, I suppose, Mrs. Satterthwaite between you. But you won't be always there. Or I might come across another woman."
"Ah!" and after a moment:
"God knows... There's that poor little beggar to be considered. Marchant says he's beginning to talk broad Yorkshire already."
"If it wasn't for that... That would be a solution."
Tietjens said: "Ah!"
When he paid the cabman, in front of a grey cement portal with a gabled arch, reaching up, he said:
"You've been giving the mare less licorice in her mash. I told you she'd go better."
The cabman, with a scarlet, varnished face, a shiny hat, a drab box-cloth coat and a gardenia in his buttonhole, said:
"Ah! Trust you to remember, sir."