Who comforts the comforter?
Lionel said: ‘I had hopes … you know … that the uniform, the glamour, might lift me a little towards her height. But it’s not a height, is it – in the sense we know. It’s something different. Jane, you know her well. Do you think I have … well, not a chance, but … Has she said anything? Just a clue …’
Jane remembered Rosemary in the afternoon, shrugging Lionel off in a few words. ‘The handsome soldier going to the wars.’ She felt a movement of warmth towards his hopelessness, the more hopeless for still hoping. My talent, she thought with a flicker of humour, and I’m developing it naturally. All these poor, futile, ridiculous men seeking shelter. Marvelling at her own age, she said:
‘She’s young yet, isn’t she? She likes you, I know. Why not let things wait … ? Soon you will be back …’
The words did not matter; all that mattered was the inflexion of sympathy, the comforting voice, the warm hand in the dark. She felt his fingers tighten on her palm and all her body above her waist constricted with a pain that burst up into her throat. Just a foretaste, a glimpse of how bad it could be. Even without the mystery, without the virility, there was something that could tear her like an animal. She half-turned to Lionel, but withdrew again. Who comforts the comforter?
Lionel said: ‘If I come back.’
There was the edge of drama in his voice, so that she guessed he was enjoying the thought of lying cold under foreign stars while his splendid virgin danced heedlessly in the warm lights of London. Forsaken men must be magnificently forsaken.
‘You will come back,’ she said, pressing his wrist despite the tightening, bursting pain. ‘A hero, with medals and a bronze face. Quite, quite all-conquering.’
‘You’re good, Jane,’ he said. ‘I wonder if you realise how good.’
The music had stopped in the ballroom. A couple came out on to the terrace, opening the high windows and spilling the chatter from inside out into the wet, low-hanging night. Jane stood up. She had done her duty – no, that was dramatic, silly. Fulfilled her function, rather. Now that she recognised it, it would be easier in future. If only the pain, the stupid, unnecessary pain, would hold off.
‘Let’s go in,’ she said. ‘The lights will cheer you up.’
He took her arm with tender competence and led her in.
‘We are proud of you, Lionel,’ she said. ‘All of us. There’s Rosemary on the other side, quite unattached.’