At luncheon Julia had no thoughts except for her guest who was coming that day. She drove to the station to meet him and brought him home to tea.
“Mummy, do look at Rex's Christmas present.”
It was a small tortoise with Julia's initials set in diamonds in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rug, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, ante-diluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of these needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake.
“Dear me,” said Lady Marchmain. “I wonder if it eats the same sort of things as an ordinary tortoise.”
“What will you when it's dead?” asked Mr. Samgrass. “Can you have another tortoise fitted into the shell?”
I heard the Mottrams' names in conversation; I saw their faces now and again peeping from the Tatler, as I turned the pages impatiently waiting for someone to come, but they and I had fallen apart, as one could in England and only there, into separate worlds, little spinning planets of personal relationship; there is probably a perfect metaphor for the process to be found in physics, from the way in which, I dimly apprehend, particles of energy group and regroup themselves in separate magnetic systems; a metaphor ready to hand for the man who can speak of these things with assurance; not for me, who can only say that England abounded in these small companies of intimate friends, so that, as in the case with Julia and myself, we could live in the same street in London, see at times, a few miles distant, the same rural horizon, could have a liking one for the other, a mild curiosity about the other's fortunes, a regret, even, that we should be separated, and the knowledge that either of us had only to pick up the telephone and speak by the other's pillow, enjoy the intimacies of the levee, coming in, as it were, with the morning orange juice and the sun, yet be restrained from doing so by the centripetal force of our own worlds, and the cold, interstellar space between them.
Julia asked for a cup of hot chocolate. I sat by her in the next cube.
“I never see you now,” she said. “I never seem to see anyone I like. I don't know why.”
But she spoke as though it were a matter of weeks rather than of years; as though, too, before our parting we had been firm friends. It was dead contrary to the common experience of such encounters, when time is found to have built its own defensive lines, camouflaged vulnerable points, and laid a field of mines across all but a few well-trodden paths, so that, more often than not, we can only signal to one another from either side of the tangle of wire. Here she and I, who were never friends before, met on terms of long and unbroken intimacy.
“She hasn't changed.”
“You have, Charles. So lean and grim; not at all the pretty boy Sebastian brought home with him. Harder, too.”
“And you're softer.”
“Yes, I think so...and very patient now.”
She was not yet thirty, but was approaching the zenith of her loveliness, all her rich promise abundantly fulfilled. She had lost that fashionable, spidery look; the head that I used to think quattrocento, which had sat a little oddly on her, was now part of herself and not at all Florentine; not connected in any way with painting or the arts or with anything except herself, so that it would be idle to itemise and dissect her beauty, which was her own essence, and could only be known in her and by her authority and in the love I was soon to have for her.
Time had wrought another change in her, too; not for her the sly, complacent smile of la Gioconda; the years had saddened her. She seemed to say: “Look at me. I have done my share. I am beautiful. It is something quite out of the ordinary, this beauty of mine. I am made for delight. But what do I get out of it? Where is my reward?”
That was the change in her from ten years ago; that, indeed, was her reward, this haunting, magical sadness which spoke straight to the heart and struck silence; it was the completion of her beauty.
“Sadder, too,” I said.
“Oh yes, much sadder.”
“I was glad when I found Celia was unfaithful,” I said. “I felt it was all right for me to dislike her.”
“Is she? Do you? I'm glad. I don't like her either. Why did you marry her?”
“Physical attraction. Ambition. Everyone agrees that she's the ideal wife for a painter. Loneliness, missing Sebastian.”
“You loved him, didn't you?”
“Oh yes. He was the forerunner.”
In that minute, with her lips to my ear and her breath warm in the salt wind, Julia said, though I had not spoken, “Yes, now,” and as the ship righted herself and for the moment ran steady, Julia led me below out of the sunset.
It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and the lime flowers. Now on the rough water there was a formality to be observed, no more. It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.
I remembered the exhibition, too, for another reason; it was the week I detected my wife in adultery. Then, as now, she was a tireless hostess, and I heard her say: “Whenever I see anything lovely nowadays – a building or a piece of scenery – I think to myself, 'that's by Charles.' I see everything through his eyes. He is England to me.”
I heard her say that; it was the sort of thing she had the habit of saying. Throughout our married life, again and again, I had felt my bowels shrivel within me at the things she said. But that day, in this gallery, I heard her unmoved, and suddenly realized that she was powerless to hurt me any more; I was a free man; she had given me my manumission in that brief, sly lapse of hers; my cuckold's horns made me lord of the forest.
Thus I came to the broken sentences which were the last words spoken between Julia and me, the last memories.
When her father died Julia remained some minutes with his body; the nurse came to the next room to announce the news and I had a glimpse of her through the open door, kneeling at the foot of the bed, and of Cara sitting by her. Presently the two women came out together, and Julia said to me: “Not now; I'm just taking Cara up to her room; later.”
While she was still upstairs Brideshead and Cordelia arrived from London; when at last we met alone it was by stealth, like young lovers.
Julia said, “Here in the shadow, in the corner of the stair – a minute to say good-bye.”
“So long to say so little.”
“Since this morning; since before this morning; all this year.”
“I didn't know till today. Oh, my dear, if you could only understand. Then I could bear to part, or bear it better. I should say my heart is breaking, if I believed in broken hearts. I can't marry you, Charles; I can't be with you ever again.”
“How can you know?”
“What will you do?”
“Just go on – alone. How can I tell what I shall do? You know the whole of me. You know I'm not one for a life of mourning. I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thåing unforgivable – like things in the school-room, so bad they were unpunishable, that only mummy could deal with – the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I'm not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God's. Why should I be allowed to understand that, and not you, Charles? It may be because of mummy, nanny, Cordelia, Sebastian – perhaps Bridey and Mrs. Muspratt – keeping my name in their prayers; or it may be a private bargain between and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won't quite despair of me in the end.”
“Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand.”
“I don't want to make it easier for you,” I said; “I hope your hear may break; but I do understand.”
The avalanche was down, the hillside swept bare behind it; the last echoes died on the white slopes; the new mound glittered and lay still in the silent valley.