Christopher Tietjens is probably the last real eighteenth century Tory in the England of pre-World War I. A thoroughly good man, he is so much a gentleman that he will not divorce his wife, Sylvia Tietjens, even though she is flagrantly unfaithful to him. It is even doubtful that the child she gave birth to is his, and she had earlier gone off for several weeks with another man; Christopher, however, holds that no gentleman should ever publicly disgrace a woman by divorcing her or even by admitting her infidelities. Sylvia hates her husband blindly because she could never break down his reserve, and all of her plots and meanness were for that purpose alone. She detested the various men she lived with, but she hated Christopher’s virtue more.
Christopher’s old-fashioned type of virtue grew out of his family background. His oldest brother, Mark, who had inherited the estate of Groby and its vast income, lives with a Frenchwoman whom he will probably never marry and who will certainly have no children, and the estate will one day belong to Christopher. The brothers fear that their father had committed suicide, for Sylvia had manipulated the old man into believing that Christopher lived off the earnings of immoral women and that he had sold her, his wife, to influential friends. Christopher thinks his father’s suicide had been a sign that the family is weakening; consequently, he will not accept one penny of the estate for himself. Mark, therefore, had proposed to set Sylvia up at Groby, with arrangements for the estate to go to her son. Even if the boy were not Christopher’s son, he must be treated as if he were a Tietjens. The plan suits Christopher, who has no interest in anything except protecting his wife’s name and his son’s future. Knowing that war is imminent, he wants to gather up the loose ends of his life before he leaves.
Christopher is one of the most brilliant men in the government service but, strangely, his brilliance coupled with his goodness makes everyone want to hurt him. His only real friend is Macmaster, a Scotsman and a Whig, who also is in the service. Perhaps their friendship is due primarily to the fact that Macmaster owes Christopher a great deal of money. Christopher has also loaned money to other men who, although they admire him, seem bent on ruining him.
Christopher often wishes to make Valentine Wannop his mistress. Valentine is a young suffragist, the daughter of his father’s best friend, and a novelist whom Christopher admires greatly. Valentine is willing to accept Christopher as her lover, but they seem destined to have their plans obstructed by someone bent on hurting Christopher. Although no word of their desire is ever spoken between them, their feelings are obvious to others, who believe that Valentine already is Christopher’s mistress. On the night before his departure for the army, Christopher asks Valentine to spend the night with him. She consents, but again they are kept apart. Later, they both agree that it had been for the best, as neither seemed suited for an affair.
In France, unjustified troubles continue to haunt Christopher. Sylvia is at the bottom of most of them. Because she seems to think he will soon be killed and out of her reach, she seems compelled to hurt him as much as possible while he still lives. Christopher’s godfather, General Campion, is his highest ranking officer. The general, convinced by Sylvia that she is an abused wife, constantly berates Christopher for his brutality as a husband. He also berates him for getting dirty, mixing with his men, and helping them with their personal troubles; it is not fitting for an English officer to get into the dregs of war.
Christopher often thinks he is surrounded by people with troubles. One of his fellow officers, almost insane over an unfaithful wife, often has fits of madness that threaten to destroy company morale. The first in command is a drunken colonel whom Christopher tries to shield, thus getting himself into trouble with General Campion. Once, Christopher refuses leave to a Canadian because he knows his wife’s lover would kill the man if he went home. When the Canadian is killed in battle later on, it preys on Christopher’s mind that he had saved the soldier from one death only to lead him into another. Christopher’s good intentions constantly bring him discredit.
To Christopher’s distress, Sylvia travels to France to see him. Having accepted at last...