Read CHAPTER VIII of The Belfry, free online book, by May Sinclair, on ReadCentral.com.

Norah has often told me that I exaggerated the importance of the Nougat Incident; that my weakness is a tendency to dwell with a morbid concentration on small, inessential details.  When I tell her that if I succeed in surviving Jimmy I shall write his biography, she tilts her chin and says I’m the last person who should attempt it.

“Between us,” she says, “we might manage it.  But if you’re left to yourself you’ll make him all nougat.”

When I retort that if she were left to herself she’d eliminate the very things that make him the engaging animal he is, and remind her that a straw will show the way the wind’s blowing, she asks me, “Did any big wind ever blow a straw before it all the way?”

Well, perhaps I am the very last person ­he made me the last person by what he did to me ­but when it comes to exaggeration I haven’t attached more importance to the Nougat Incident than Jevons did himself.  Why, when he shut himself up in his study that night, instead of hurling himself forward in the Grand Attack, he must have sat with his head in his hands brooding over it and wondering what he’d done; he must have gone straight upstairs to ask Viola what he’d done, or there’d have been no earthly sense in what we heard her saying.  The detail may have been small, but it was not inessential when it could turn Tasker Jevons from the Grand Attack as he was turned that night.

I tell you, and Jevons would tell you, it is of such small things that tragedies are made ­the bitterest, the most insidious.

And when Jevons did finally hurl himself, when he shut himself up, morning after morning and night after night, to labour violently on his greatest work, though (for just as long as he was actually engaged) he might be staving off his tragedy, he was nevertheless precipitating the event.  You may say that when you get him there in his study on his battlefield you are among the big forces at once; but the interesting thing is that those big forces by their very expenditure released a whole crowd of little, infinitely little ones that, in their turn, in their miniature explosion, worked for his destruction.  Jevons, struggling with his social disabilities, was like a giant devoured by microscopically minute organisms over whose generation he had no control.

And the greater the man, mind you, the greater the tragedy.

Still, for those two years in Edwardes Square, he staved it off.  It was the very violence of his labour, the prodigious front of the battle he delivered, that saved him.  Then there was his victory, his Third Novel, that for the time threw all minor happenings into the background.

He was right again in his forecast.  It was his best work, and (I use his own phrase) it did the trick.

When it came, the Grand Attack (which was bolder even than his first assault) carried, you may say, the whole position, after demolishing at one stroke the enemy’s defences.  For he had enemies.  He was the sort of man who does have them.  He didn’t make them, at least, not deliberately, he couldn’t have been bothered to make them; but he drew them; they seemed to rise out of the ground after every one of his appearances.

Well, they couldn’t say he hadn’t done it this time.

Done it.  There’s no good trying to express such a phenomenon as Jevons in terms of literature.  You can only think about him in terms of action, every book of his being an onslaught by which he laid his public low.

And this time he had conquered America.

Don’t ask me how many thousands he made by it.  I’ve forgotten.  They’ve melted into the tens of thousands that he made before he had finished.  Even in the years of the Grand Attack he was making his old father an allowance and investing large sums in case of accidents. (He had been putting by even in the Hampstead days.) How he did it I can’t think, though he has tried to explain it to me more than once.  The whole thing for him was as obvious as any business transaction (he had the sort of mind for which business transactions are obvious).  He had studied the public he set out to capture.  He presented the life it knew ­the moving, changing, fantastically adventurous life of the middle classes.  Until Jevons rushed on them and forced their eyes open, you may say at the point of the bayonet, the middle classes didn’t know they were moving and changing and being adventurous.  Nobody knew.  It was Jevons’s discovery.

Then, as he pointed out, there were innumerable discretions in his valour.  He knew to a hairbreadth how far he might go, and he went no farther.  He respected existing prejudices because they existed.  He didn’t ask awkward questions; he didn’t raise problems; he had the British capacity for doing serious things with an air of not taking himself seriously and frivolous things with an astounding gravity.

“You can do anything, Furnival,” he said, “if you’re only funny enough.”

Norah tells me that that really is his secret.

But, he said, the whole thing was as calculable as any successful deal on the Stock Exchange.  When you asked him:  “Then why can’t other people do it?” he said:  “God knows why.  They must be precious fools if they want to do it and don’t find out how. Ive had to find out.”

For one year ­the last year in Edwardes Square ­he enjoyed pure fame.  And he did enjoy it ­I think he enjoyed everything ­like a child with a mechanical toy, or a girl with a new gown, playing with it and trying it on by snatches when he could spare half an hour from his appalling toil.

Heavens, how he worked that year!  With a hard, punctual passion, a multiplied energy, like five financiers engaged on five separate transactions.  After victory in the campaign he had settled down to business and the works of peace.  There was the business of the short story; the business of the monograph; the business of the magazine article and the newspaper column, and the speculations that developed into the immense business of his plays. (I’ve forgotten how much he netted by his first curtain-raiser.) That’s five.

As I look back on him he seems to have torn through his stages at an incredible pace.  There are several that I haven’t counted, so suddenly did he leave them behind him:  the stage when he was literary adviser to a firm of publishers, who wouldn’t believe him when he said the thing was calculable; the stage when he ceased to be sub-editor of Sport and became editor, an appointment so lucrative that you may judge the risk he took when he abandoned it.  And in between there was his stage of cruelty, when he did reviewing.  It was a brief stage, but he contrived to strew the field with the reputations he had slaughtered (Viola used to plead with him for certain authors, like Queen Philippa for the burghers of Calais), until his job was taken from him in the interests of humanity.

Now ­I am speaking in the light of my later knowledge ­the first effect of these prodigious and passionate labours was beneficent, and I shouldn’t wonder if Jevons, who had calculated everything to a nicety, hadn’t allowed for this too.  To say nothing of the peculiar purity of his earlier fame, which set him in a place apart and assured beyond all possible depreciation, so long as he elected to stay there, the very conditions of his business saved him.  He enjoyed in those two desperate years the immunities of a recluse.  The results were prominently before the public, but Jimmy wasn’t.  His study was literally his sanctuary.  Sitting there nearly all day and half the night, he was removed from the world’s observation at the precise moment when it became inimical.  I don’t mean the observation of the confraternity of letters, which was and always had been kindly to his personality, and had taken little or no notice of his disabilities; I mean the observation of the world he married into, for which disabilities like Jimmy’s count.

He was also removed from Viola’s observation at a time when I think, almost unconsciously, she was beginning to criticize him.  When he came to her out of his sanctuary he came with its consecration on him.  And then there was the appeal he made to her tenderness.  If the shudders down her back began they were checked by the spectacle of his exhaustion.  She couldn’t shudder at the tired conqueror when he flung himself on the floor beside her and laid his head in her lap.

I’ve seen her with him like that ­once, one evening when Norah was with them, and I had turned in after dinner; it was upstairs in that drawing-room in Edwardes Square that they had made, back and front, in an L. Norah and I were in the long, narrow part at the back; you know how those little town rooms go when they’re knocked into one ­the fireplaces in the same wall and windows opposite each other, so that the back rakes the fireplace end of the front part.

Viola and Jevons were by the fireplace in the front, she in her low chair and he stretched out on the rug at her feet.  And we raked them.

They didn’t know they were observed.  I think they’d made up their minds that when Norah and I were together we couldn’t hear or see anything except ourselves.

And so we heard Viola saying, “What do you do it for?”

And Jimmy, “Oh, for the fun of the thing, I suppose.  What does one do things for?”

And she, “It’ll be fine fun for me, won’t it, when you’ve killed yourself?  When you’ve burst the top of your head off like the kitchen boiler?”

“I should have to run dry first,” said Jevons.

“Well, you will, boiling away seven ­eight ­nine hours a day for weeks on end.  Nobody else does it.”

“Nobody else can do it,” said Jimmy arrogantly.

“It’s all very well; but if you don’t burst your head open you’ll get neuritis, or cramp.  Look at that hand.”

“Which hand?”

“Your right hand, silly.”  She took it and poised it from the wrist.  “Look how it wobbles.”

He looked.

“It does wobble a bit.  Like a drunkard’s.  And I don’t drink.”

He was interested in his hand.

“You goose, where’s the fun of letting your right hand go to pieces?”

“Easy on.  They won’t amputate it,” said Jimmy.

That was in nineteen-nine.  This is nineteen-fifteen.  And only yesterday Norah asked me if I remembered what Jimmy said about his hand the night we were engaged.

Yes, that night I was engaged to Norah Thesiger.

I suppose it was our silence that made Viola and Jimmy aware of us at last, for presently I saw Jimmy sit up on the floor and take Viola’s hand and squeeze it, and then they got up and very quietly and furtively they left the room.

And the minute I found myself alone with Norah I proposed to her.

I don’t know if even then I should have had the courage to do it if I hadn’t been driven to it by sheer terror.  I forgot to say that I was in Edwardes Square for the weekend and that Norah was not staying with her sister this time, but with her uncle, General Thesiger, at Lancaster Gate.  And for three days, ever since her arrival at Lancaster Gate, I had seen the possibility of losing her.

Otherwise you would have said that if ever there was a spontaneous and unexpected performance, it was my proposal to Norah Thesiger.

But no; it seemed that it had been arranged for me by Jevons, planned with his customary deliberation and calculation long ago.  This may have been the reason why Norah said she wouldn’t tell Viola and Jimmy about it herself; she’d rather I did.

I thought:  I shan’t have to tell them till to-morrow.  I had to take Norah to Lancaster Gate in a taxi, and I walked back across the Serpentine between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, spinning out the time so that Viola and Jimmy might be in bed when I got to Edwardes Square.

I found them sitting up for me in Jimmy’s study.

I dreaded telling them more than I can say.  I don’t know with what countenance a man can come and tell the woman he has loved (and proposed to three times running) that he has consoled himself with her younger sister.  I wanted to avoid every appearance of a fatuous triumph in my success with Norah.  And after sticking for four years to my vow of everlasting devotion to Mrs. Jevons I shrank from the confession of a new allegiance.  On the other hand, I owed it to Norah to declare myself happy without any airs of deprecation and contrition.  And I had certain obligations to the Truth.  Why I should have supposed that the Truth should have been disagreeable to Mrs. Jevons Heaven only knows.  I suppose these scruples are the last illusions of our egoism.  Still, I think that only an impudent egoist like Jevons could have carried off such an embarrassment with any brilliance.

As it happened it was taken out of my hands.  Jimmy, who had foreseen the thing itself, foresaw also my predicament and provided for it.  As I came into the room he said, “It’s all right, old man.  You haven’t got to tell us.  We know all about it.”

I looked at Viola.  She was sitting on part of Jimmy’s chair, with her arm round his shoulder.

“Did Norah tell you, after all?” I said.

Viola pushed out her chin at me and shook her head.

“No, Furny dear, she didn’t tell me a thing.  It was your face.”

“Don’t you believe her,” Jimmy said.  “Your face hasn’t anything to do with it.  Your face is a tomb of secrets ­a beautiful, white tomb.  And you are all rectitude and discretion.  We knew it ages ago.”

“How could you possibly know it, when I didn’t?”

“Because it’s one of those things” (he twinkled) “that other people always do know.”

“Were we as obvious as all that?”

“I didn’t say you were obvious.  I said It was.”

I sat down facing them, and I suppose I must have looked supremely foolish, for Viola began to laugh and Jevons went on twinkling, not in the least as if he saw a joke, but with a thoughtful and complacent air, as if he were turning over the result of some private speculation that had come off entirely to his satisfaction.

Then she took pity on me.

“He means it was bound to happen.  It was the heaven-appointed thing.  The first minute I saw you, Wally, I thought, ’What an adorable husband he’d make for Norah!’ And Jimmy’s trying to tell you that we’ve been hoping it would come and wanting it to come and waiting for it to come for the last year.”

“I’m trying to tell him,” said Jimmy, “that we’ve been meaning it to come, and trying to make it come, and seeing it come for the last three years.”

This was a blow at the attitude of romantic devotion, and I had to defend it.

“Do you believe that, Viola?” I said.

“Of course I believe it if Jimmy says so.”

I sent her a look that was meant to say, “You ought to know better;” but it missed fire somehow.  She went on swinging her feet and laughing softly at me over Jimmy’s shoulder.  She seemed, like Jimmy, to be contemplating some exquisite knowledge that she had.  And at last she said: 

“Aren’t you glad now that you didn’t marry me?”

I said, “What am I to say to that?”

Jimmy got up and clapped me on the shoulder.  “Never mind her,” he said. 
“Tell the truth and shame the devil.  Tell her you’re thundering glad.”

At that she slid down from her perch and came round to me and patted me very gently on the head.

I am, Wally.  Jimmy, you’re a beast.”

And she went out of the room.  Jimmy said that nothing she had contributed to the discussion became her like her leaving it.

She had left it to him.

He got into his chair again and sat down to it.

“Now, perhaps,” he said, “you see how right I was.”

“When?”

“The first time we ever spoke about it.”

“My dear Jimmy, I haven’t spoken to anybody about it till to-night.”

“We spoke about it years ago,” he said.

“We couldn’t possibly have spoken about it years ago.”

“At Bruges.  Perhaps it was I who spoke.  I tell you I saw it coming.  Don’t you remember I gave you six months?”

“You were out there, anyhow.  It’s taken three and a half years.”

“Because you were such a duffer.  You behaved as if you expected the poor child to propose to you herself.  I’ve been trying to make you see it for the last three and a half years, and you wouldn’t.  There never was such a chap for not seeing what’s under his nose.”

“Norah isn’t under my nose; she’s miles above it, and if it comes to that, I’ve seen it for the last three years.”

He had tripped me up by the heels.

“There you are ­that brings it to the six months I gave you.”

“I didn’t mean I was thinking of it then.  How could I be?”

“Of course you weren’t thinking of it.  But she was.”

“Norah?  Not she!  A child of seventeen!”

“I don’t mean Norah.  I mean Viola.”

“Viola?”

“Yes.  You didn’t see what the unscrupulous minx was after.  She was plotting it and planning it the first time you were at Canterbury.  I got a letter from her at Bruges ­I can’t show it you ­telling me not to worry about you ­I was worrying about you, though you were such a damn fool, if you don’t mind my saying so.  She said you’d got over it all right.  She wouldn’t be surprised if some day you married Norah.

“So you see,” he said, “you needn’t bother about Viola.  She knew you couldn’t keep it up for ever.”

“Keep what up?”

(I knew; but something in his tone or in his twinkle made me pretend I didn’t.)

“Your wonderful attitude,” he said.  “She meant you to marry Norah.”

“Why ­on earth ­should she have wanted that?”

“Well ­because I worried about you, and she wanted me to be happy.  And because she worried about you, and wanted you to be happy.  And because she worried about the Kid, and wanted her to be happy.  And because she wanted the rest of them to be happy too.”

I said I didn’t know what I’d done to be so happy.

“You’ve done nothing.  You don’t owe it to yourself that you’re happy.  My dear fellow, you’ve been watched, and looked after, and protected for three and a half years with an incessant care.  If you’d been left to yourself you’d have bungled the whole business.  Either you wouldn’t have proposed to her at all, or you’d have proposed three times running when it was too late.”

I pointed out to him that I hadn’t proposed three times running, neither was I too late.

“All the same,” he said, “you wouldn’t have thought of it if she hadn’t gone to the Thesigers.  And she wouldn’t have gone to the Thesigers if Viola hadn’t got the Thesigers to ask her.  It was a put-up job.  I tell you, my son, you’ve been guided and guarded.  Why, you didn’t even see that the child was grown up till I drew your attention to it.”

There was no use pretending I liked it.  I didn’t.

I said, “Thank you.  If a thing comes off it’s your doing, and if it doesn’t it’s mine.”

He said it looked like that.

When I saw Norah in the morning she asked me whether Jimmy had said he knew it was coming?

I said he had.

“And I suppose he thinks he made it come?”

That, I said, was Jimmy’s attitude.

“Well, then,” she said, “he didn’t.  You don’t believe him, do you?”

Did I?  Not perhaps at the moment, and never at any time as Jimmy believed it himself.  But I do think he meant it to happen.  It was one of the moves in his difficult game.  He couldn’t afford to neglect any means of strengthening his position in his wife’s family.  When it came to acknowledging Jimmy his wife’s family was divided.  Portions of it, strange cousins whom I never met till after my marriage, refused to acknowledge him at all.  At Lancaster Gate he was received coldly in accordance with the discreet policy by which the Thesigers had avoided the appearances of scandal.  Down at Canterbury there were degrees and shades of recognition.  Norah openly loved him.  The Canon had what he called “a morbid liking for the fellow.”  Mildred and Victoria tolerated him.  Millicent endured him as an infliction.  Mrs. Thesiger concealed under the most beautiful manners and the most Christian charity an inveterate repugnance.

I have forgotten Bertie.  Bertie, who could generally be found at Lancaster Gate when he wasn’t in his chambers in the Temple, was apathetic and amiably evasive.  He took the line that Lancaster Gate took when he referred to his brother-in-law as a clever little beast.

And to all these shades Jevons was acutely sensitive.

I have known men (they were of the confraternity of letters) who declared that they could not understand why a man like Jevons, in Jevons’s position, should have bothered his head for two minutes about his wife’s family.  They considered that Jevons’s marriage was a disaster, not for the Thesigers, but for Jevons, and that his only safe and proper course was to leave the Thesigers alone.  But it wasn’t so easy to leave them alone when he had married into them; and to have left them would have been for Jevons a confession of failure.  He might just as well have laid down his arms or pulled down the shutters of his shop.  From the very beginning, ever since the day when he had met Reggie Thesiger, he conceived that the whole world of Thesigers had challenged him to hold his own in it, and he was too stubborn a fighter to retire on a challenge.  Besides, he couldn’t have retracted without taking Viola with him.

And you must remember that he was thirty-two when he married her, and that he had behind him an unknown history of struggle and humiliation and defeat.  The Thesigers stood for the whole world of things that he had missed, the world of admired refinements and beautiful amenities, that, without abating one atom of its refinement and amenity, had persistently kicked him out.  Besides ­and this was the pathetic part of it ­he had an irrepressible affection for the Canterbury Thesigers, and it hungered and thirsted for recognition.  It nourished itself in secret on any scraps that came its way.  He met tolerance with grace, and any sort of kindness with passionate gratitude.  I think he would have broken his neck to give Norah or the Canon or even Mrs. Thesiger anything they wanted.  And the Canon and Mrs. Thesiger wanted Norah to marry me.  It wouldn’t become me to say what Norah wanted.

Viola, in a serious moment, threw a light on it. (I had been dining in Edwardes Square on the evening of the day I came back from Canterbury after taking Norah down there.)

“I suppose you don’t know,” she said, “that Mummy and Daddy fell in love with you first?  Well, they did.  They wanted you to marry me to keep me out of mischief, but more than anything they wanted you to marry Norah.  You see, she’s their favourite.”

And it seemed there was even more in it than that.  They wanted to keep Norah out of mischief too.  “Not,” she said, “that Norah would ever have run off to Belgium, even with you.”  But that little adventure of Viola’s had made them nervous.  Norah was inclined to look down on the garrison; like Viola, she had declared in the most decided manner that she meant to strike out a line for herself; she wasn’t going to follow Dorothy’s and Gwinny’s lead (did I say that the two married sisters lived abroad at their husbands’ stations ­Gwinny at Gibraltar, and Dorothy at Simla?), and that for lack of originality Mildred’s engagement to Charlie Thesiger was “the limit.”

“It’s a good thing, Wally,” she said.  “It’ll knit us all tighter together.  That’s partly why we’ve wanted it so awfully.  Do you know that if it hadn’t been for you Norah wouldn’t have been allowed to come and stay with us?”

I said I was sure she was mistaken.  Canon Thesiger ­

“Oh,” she said, “it wasn’t Daddy.  He wouldn’t have minded.  It was Mummy.  She never could bear poor Jimmy.”

“But,” she went on, “you’re his friend.  And he worked it for you.  They can’t get over those two things.”

I remember wondering whether deep down in her heart she meant that my marriage would knit her and Jimmy closer?

I wondered whether Jimmy, in his wisdom, had calculated on that, too?

At that time I didn’t realize the innocence that went with Jimmy’s wisdom.  I think I credited him with insight that I know now he never had.  I know now that, even afterwards ­at the very worst ­he had no misgivings.  All the Hampstead time, all through the Edwardes Square time he was happy.  And afterwards ­well ­happiness wasn’t the word for it; he lived in a sort of ecstasy.  Which shows how little in those days she had let him see.

It was in nineteen-ten, their last year in Edwardes Square, that the tension began.  Norah and I were married in the autumn of nineteen-nine, and we were living in my flat in Brunswick Square.  In what I made out during this period I had Norah to help me, and she had wonderful lights.

I never could keep track of Jimmy’s accelerating material progress, but the Year-Books tell me that his fourth novel came out in the spring of nineteen-nine, and his first successful play was produced in the summer of that year, and ran for the whole season and on through the winter, and I remember that in nineteen-ten he was attacking another novel and another play, which ­But it’s the attack that is the important thing, the thing that fixes nineteen-ten for me.

You cannot go on attacking, for years on end, with concentrated and increasing violence, and not suffer for it.  The first effects of Jimmy’s appalling travail may have been beneficent, but its later workings were malign.  There’s no other word for it.  In nineteen-ten Jimmy was beginning to show signs of exhaustion.  Not of his creative energy or anything belonging to it, though he prophesied a falling off after Novel Three, and declared that he could detect it.  Nobody else could have detected it.  The exhaustion was in Jimmy himself, and more especially and fatally in the Jimmy who struggled against what he called “the damnable tendency to do the sort of thing your father does.”

He couldn’t keep it up.  He couldn’t stand for ever the double strain of attacking and defending himself against his tendency.  There’s no doubt that when he was tired he got careless.  I have known him come upstairs after dinner, entirely sober, but looking rather drunk, with his hair curling over his forehead and his tie crooked and the buttons of his irreproachable little waistcoat all undone.  I have known him do the oddest things with chairs and get into postures inconceivable to ordinary men.  I have known him drop his aitches for a whole evening because he was too dead beat to hang on to them.  And Norah, going home with me, would say, “Poor Jimmy ­he does get it very badly when he’s tired.”

And I have had to see Viola’s face while these things were happening.  Sometimes, when he was too outrageous, she would look up and smile with the queerest little half-frightened wonder, and I would be reminded of the time when Jimmy had jaundice and she asked me if I thought he would stay that funny yellow colour all his life?  It was as if she were asking me, Did I think he would keep on all his life doing these rather alarming things?  Sometimes he would catch himself doing them and say, “See me do that?  That’s because I’m agitated.”  Or, “There’s another aitch gone.  Collar it, somebody.”  Or, “I suppose that’s what Norah would call one of my sillysosms.”  Sometimes Viola would catch him at it and reprove him.  And then he would simply throw the responsibility on the poor old Registrar down in Hertfordshire.

I have heard him say to her with extreme sweetness and docility:  “My dear child, if I’d had a father and mother like yours I shouldn’t do these things.”  And I have heard him say almost with bitterness:  “Does that shock you?  Good Heavens, you should see my father!”

But he took good care she shouldn’t see him.  I used to think this wasn’t very nice of him.  But what can a man do in a case so desperate?  There were risks that even Jevons couldn’t take.  I used to think that he salved his conscience by making the Registrar an allowance that increased in proportion to his income and by going down into Hertfordshire regularly every three months to see him himself.  I used to think that Jimmy’s father must have admirable tact, because he never seemed to have inquired why Jimmy always came alone.  But Jimmy said it wasn’t tact.  It was pure haughtiness.  The old bird, he said, was as proud as a peacock with his tail up.  I used to think it wasn’t very nice of him to talk like that about his father.  And I used to think it wasn’t very nice of Viola never to go with Jimmy on his pilgrimages.

I was with them once when she was seeing him off at Euston, and I said to her, “Do you never go with him to see the poor old man?”

She turned to me. (I hadn’t seen her look stern and fiery before.)

“Wally,” she said, “I suppose it’s because you’re so good that you always think other people aren’t.  That poor old man was a perfect devil to Jimmy.  I don’t say that Jimmy always was an angel to him, but he’s been pretty decent, considering.  He’s told me things I couldn’t tell you; and there were things he couldn’t tell me.  He says he didn’t believe in God the Father when he was little, just because he wanted to believe in God.  He thought God couldn’t be anything so frightful as a father.

“That’s why he’s so awfully fond of Daddy.”

And so it went on.  She swung between slight shocks and passionate recoveries.  One minute Jimmy’s manners made her shudder all down her spine, and the next he would do some adorable thing that brought her to his feet.  Half the time she pretended that things hadn’t happened when they had.  And when her flesh crept she had memories that lashed it.

I used to wonder whether this oscillation would slacken or increase with time.  Would she swing on a longer and more dangerous rhythm?  Would she be flung backwards and forwards between fascination and repulsion?

And I would catch myself up and answer my own words, “Of course not.  The poor chap isn’t as bad as all that.”

Then early in nineteen-ten Reggie Thesiger came home on leave from India.

Looking back on it all now, I seem to see that until he came everything was going well.  The oscillations, even if I didn’t exaggerate them, couldn’t have counted.  Her heart was steady, and in her heart she adored her husband.  There could be no doubt about it, she adored him.  It was because she adored him that she suffered.  Nobody can stand imperfection in their god.

But then she adored Reggie too.

She hadn’t a misgiving.  When Norah rushed to her with the news that Reggie had got his leave, she went wild and nearly strangled poor little Jimmy in her joy.  She counted the weeks, the days, the hours till he landed.  She argued with Norah as to which of them should have him first and longest when he came to town.  Norah told me she didn’t think he would stop long with us if he could go to Viola.  Viola was his favourite sister.

Well, he didn’t go to Viola at all.  He went first to the Thesigers at Lancaster Gate.  Then he came on to us.

That was all right.  We had to arrange our dates to suit the General.

On the Sunday we dined at Lancaster Gate; Viola and Jevons were not there.  Reggie had come up on the Friday for ten days, and he stayed with the General for the weekend.

He said he could stay with us for the whole week if we could have him.

We were out in the hall saying good-bye, and he was getting Norah’s cloak for her.  The hall was full of Thesigers and guests.  I remember Norah saying, “We’d love to have you.  But ­we promised Vee-Vee to divide you with her.”

And I remember seeing Reggie’s face stiffen over the collar of the cloak as he held it.  He said he didn’t want to be divided.

It was so startling, she told me afterwards, that she lost her head.  She said out loud, so that everybody heard her, “Not with Vee-Vee?” And everybody heard his answer: 

“Not with Jevons.”

Then he laughed.

In spite of the laugh Norah was quite frightened.  She asked me, going home in the taxi, what I thought it meant.  I said I thought it meant that Reggie didn’t particularly care about meeting Jimmy.  She said, “Well, he’ll have to meet him to-morrow night.  I’m jolly glad we’ve asked them.”

She added pensively, “Reggie’s quite changed.  I suppose it’s India.”

I knew she didn’t suppose anything of the sort.  She thought the General had been telling him things; and I must confess I thought so too.  Here, I may say at once, we did that kindly and honourable gentleman a wrong.

He came to us in great distress the next morning.  He said Viola and Jevons were to have dined with them last night, only Reggie had declared he wouldn’t have anything to do with Jevons.  He didn’t want to meet him if he could help it.  He said, Couldn’t they ask Viola without him?  And they had asked Viola without him, and Viola had refused to come.

“And do you know” (he stared at us in a sort of helpless horror) “he hasn’t been to see her yet.”

The poor General went away quite depressed.  He lingered with me on the doorstep a moment.  “I’m afraid, Furnival,” he said, “Reggie’s going to make it very awkward for us.”

He did make it awkward.

It might have been discreet to have put off our dinner.  But I knew that Norah wouldn’t hear of it; all the more if Reggie was going to make it awkward.  You don’t suppose one Thesiger was going to knuckle under to another.  It wasn’t their way.  They were loyal to the last degree, but loyalty was another matter.  And if it came to that she was loyal to her sister.

I shall never forget that dinner.  I shall never forget Viola’s coming in with Jevons behind her.

She was, as I think I’ve said, a beautifully-made woman, with long limbs and superb shoulders, and a way of holding her small head high.  Well, she came in (they were a little late) with her head higher than ever, and with a sweep of her limbs, as if her crushed draperies (she was all in white) were blown backward by a wind; her gauze scarf billowed behind her as if it were wings or sails and the wind filled it.  She was like the Victory of Samothrace; she was like a guardian and avenging angel; she was like a ship in full sail breasting a sea.  Up to her eyes she was everything that was ever splendid and courageous and defiant.

But her eyes ­there was a sort of scared grief in them.

I had seen fright in her face once before, the day when she came into the room at Hampstead with Jevons behind her and saw Reggie there.  I said to myself, “She always was afraid of Reggie.”  But that, for the second that it lasted, was sheer fright.  This was different.  There was anguish in it; and it was only in her eyes.

And Jevons’s entry, this time, was simultaneous.  Little Jimmy came behind her, holding himself rather absurdly straight and breathing hard.

And there was Reggie Thesiger waiting for them, standing by the hearth between Norah and me.

Oh yes, India had changed him.  Surely, I thought, it must be India that had made him so lean and stiff and hard.  But he was handsomer even than he had been five years ago, and he looked taller, he was so formidably upright and well-built. (As a competitive exhibition Jimmy’s straightness was pitiful.  And yet, if his antagonist had been anybody but Reggie, it might have had a certain dignity.)

I wondered, “How is she going to greet him?  Will she lower her flag and kiss him, or what?”

She sailed up to Norah first and kissed her.  She shook hands with me.  She smiled at me (I don’t know how she managed it).  Then she turned to Reggie.

She didn’t lower her flag.  She said, “Well, Reggie,” as if they had met yesterday.  There was no kissing or any anticipation of a kiss; they shook hands, not at arm’s length, not in the least as if they had had a quarrel, but like well-bred people in the house of strangers.  It was all beautifully done.

Then it was Jimmy’s turn.  Reggie looked at him as if he wasn’t there.

If I could have run away with any decency I’d have run rather than face what came then.  But the women ­Heavens, how they stood to their guns!

Norah said, “Reggie, I think you know your brother-in-law?” with an air of stating a platitude rather than of recalling him to a courtesy he had forgotten.

“I don’t think so,” said Reggie.

But he bowed.  And Jimmy bowed.  There was no handshaking, at arm’s length or otherwise.

Viola said, “You do know him.  You met him four years ago in my rooms at Hampstead.”

“Did I?  I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.”

“You did meet, didn’t you, Jimmy?”

“I believe so,” said Jimmy, with a quite admirable indifference.

“Anyhow,” said Norah sweetly, “you can’t say you haven’t heard of him.”

She meant well, poor darling, but it was a bad shot.  It missed its mark completely, and it drew down the enemy’s fire.

“I have heard of Mr. Jevons,” said Reggie, and he looked at Jimmy as if he realized for the first time that he was there, and resented it.

Norah turned positively white.  It was Viola who saved us.

“Please don’t, Norah.  It’s really awful for poor Jimmy now he’s on all the buses and in the Tube?”

She referred to the monstrous posters that advertised his play in black letters eighteen inches high on a scarlet ground.

“How do you feel when you’re in the Tube?” said Norah.

“You feel,” said Jimmy ­he was sitting in one of his worst attitudes, with his legs stretched straight out before him and his feet tilted toes upwards.  I noticed that Reggie couldn’t bear to look at him ­“you feel first of all as if everybody was looking at you; you feel a silly ass; then you feel as if everybody was looking at the posters; then you know they aren’t looking at them.  Then you leave off looking at them yourself.  And if one does hit you in the eye you feel as if it referred to somebody else, and after that you don’t feel anything more.”

It wasn’t brilliant, but the wonder was he found anything to say at all.

I was thankful when Pavitt came in to tell us that dinner was served.  It delivered us from Jimmy’s attitudes.

When it came to dining at our small round table we saw how badly we had erred in not asking anybody else but Viola and Jimmy.  A sixth, a woman (almost any woman would have done in the circumstances), a woman to talk to Reggie might have pulled us through.  But with Reggie sitting beside Viola, with Jimmy opposite them by himself between me and Norah (the only possible arrangement) it was terrible.

Reggie persisted in talking to Viola like a well-bred stranger.  He persisted in ignoring Jevons.

And Jimmy retaliated by ignoring him.  There was nothing else for him to do.  Only it wasn’t one of the things he did well.  Beside Reggie’s accomplishment he looked mean and pitiful and a little vulgar.  God forgive me for putting it down, but that is how he looked.

And once or twice, under the strain of it, he dropped an aitch with the most disconcerting effect.

I often wonder what Pavitt thought of that family party.  He certainly served Viola as if he loved her, and Jimmy as if he was sorry for him, calling his attention to a dish or a wine which, he seemed to say, it would be a pity for him to miss ­it might prove a consolation to him.

Our agony became so unbearable that the women ended it when they could by leaving us at the stage of coffee and cigarettes.  Then, with us three men the position became untenable, and Reggie found that he’d have to go out at nine; he had an appointment with a fellow.  And at nine he went.

Viola and Jimmy left us very soon after.

She said, “It was dear of you to have us,” not in the least humbly, but as if they had enjoyed it.

Up to the very last she was magnificent, and even Jimmy played up well.  In fact, when Reggie’s perfection was no longer there to damage him he was rather fine.

It was poor little Norah who broke down.  I found her crying all by herself on the couch in my study when they’d gone.

She said, “Wally, this is awful.  It’s the most awful thing that could have happened.”

I said, “Oh, come ­” and she persisted.  “But it is.  She adored Reggie.  He used to adore her ­and ­you’ve seen him, how he was to-night.  It’ll kill her if he keeps it up.”

I said, “He won’t keep it up.”

“Oh, won’t he!  You don’t know Reggie.”

I said, “It’s odd.  He didn’t seem to mind Jimmy so much the first day he met him.”

“Oh, my dear ­he didn’t mind, because he never could have dreamed she’d marry him.”

“He’ll come round all right when he knows him,” I said.

She shook her head and made little dabs at her face with her pocket-handkerchief.

“That’s just it.  He thinks he does know him.  I mean he thinks he knows something.  I’m sure he thinks it.”

“My dear child, however could he?  He couldn’t even have heard.  If you mean that Belgian business, it was all over and done with four years ago.  Have we any of us thought of it since?”

“No ­but I think he had an idea then.  He guessed that there must be something.  You see ­we never told Vee-Vee, but ­he thought it was awfully queer of her to go off ­anywhere ­just when he was sailing.”

“Well,” I said, “it was a bit odd.  She must have been awfully gone on Jimmy.”

“She was.”

“Poor dear.  She said she meant to burn her boats.”

“Don’t you see ­that was part of the burning.  She had to break the hold that Reggie had on her.  You don’t know what it was like, Wally.  She had to break it or she could never have married Jimmy at all.  It was a toss-up between them; and Jimmy won.”

“Is it going to be a toss-up between them all over again, d’you think?” I said.

“No.  It’s going to be war to the knife.  They won’t either of them give in as long as Reggie’s got that idea in his head.”

“We must get it out of his head.  Surely,” I said, “we can do something.”

“No, we can’t.  There’s no way of getting it out.  It’s no good trying to make a joke of it.  You can’t joke with Reggie past a certain point.  And it’s not as if you could give him a hint.  You can’t hint at these things.”

“What do you think he’ll do?”

“He won’t do anything.  He won’t say anything.  He’ll just go on like this all the time, and she won’t be able to bear it.  It’ll break her heart.”

Well, though I agreed with her, I still thought that something could be done.  I tried to do it when Reggie got back that night after Norah had gone to bed.  I couldn’t of course assume that he had his idea.  My plan was to present Jevons to him in a light that was incompatible with his idea.  It was easy enough to say that Jevons might be rather startling, but that he was awfully decent and the soul of honour.  The soul of honour covered it ­absolutely ruled out his idea.

He didn’t contradict me.  He just sat there smoking amicably, just saying every now and then that he couldn’t stand him; he was sorry ­I might be perfectly right and Jevons might be everything I said ­only he couldn’t stand him; and he wasn’t going to.  Nothing would induce him to stop with Jevons.  He didn’t want to have anything to do with the little beast.

When I said, “I assure you, my dear fellow, it’s all right,” he only threw the onus of suspicion on me by replying suavely, “My dear fellow, I assure you I never said it wasn’t.”

It was as if he really knew it wasn’t, knew something that we didn’t know, and was determined to keep his knowledge to himself.

And when I’d finished he said, “The whole thing’s a mystery to me.  I thought she was going to marry you.”  And then ­“How she can stick him I can’t think.  D’you mind, old man, if I go to bed?  No, I don’t want any whisky and soda, thanks.”

It was Pavitt, of all people, who threw a light on it when he brought the whisky.

“Beg your pardon, sir,” said Pavitt, “but I believe I never told you that the Captain called here one day when you was in Belgium.”

“Are you quite sure, Pavitt?  He called the day I left.”

“Yes, sir, I remember his calling the day you left.  It’s only just come back to me that he called again, three days after, I think it was.  I told him you was gone to Belgium, and he said that was all he wanted.  He didn’t leave no message, else I should have remembered.  It was the young gentleman’s likeness to Mrs. Jevons, sir, what fixed him in my mind.”

I told Reggie this the next day as an instance of Pavitt’s wonderful memory.  “Only,” I said, “he forgot to tell me that you called.”

He smiled rather bitterly as if he remembered the incident well.

“Oh, I called all right,” he said.  “I wanted to know where you were.”

After that Norah and I made it out between us.  Not all at once, but bit by bit, as things occurred to us or as he suggested them.

He must have begun to suspect something when the time went on and Viola didn’t turn up.  Only he thought it was I who was at the bottom of it.  Perhaps, so long as he thought it was I, he had made up his mind that there could be no great harm in it.  He had been all right with her down at Canterbury those last few days.  Anyhow, he hadn’t said anything.

Then ­when he heard that she had married Jevons ­he had his idea.  It wasn’t necessary for him to have heard anything else.  And then, even if he hadn’t guessed it, there was Jimmy’s book, the “Flemish Journal,” to tell him she had been in Belgium with him.  And he knew she didn’t marry him till afterwards.

And so, he thought things.  If he didn’t think them of Viola he thought them of Jevons. (Even on the most charitable assumption he would consider his sister’s passion for Jimmy a piece of morbid perversity.) And anyhow, he was left with an appalling doubt.

And he wasn’t going to forgive either of them, ever.