The incident was not of course one that could be entirely forgotten, but I had neither occasion nor desire to refer to it again over the ensuing days, and by the time fixed for Jeremy and Jane to leave it had passed to the back of my mind. The Perahera had provided a fitting climax to our trip and the following week had been packed with frenzied attempts to fit in as much sea and sun as possible. I did not realize at that time that anything untoward had occurred; so that I was almost overwhelmed by horror when, just before she got into the car to leave for the airport, Jane said softly to me, ‘I had a letter from your uncle, along with some pamphlets, and I thought I’d better reply and thank him. Can I leave the letter with you to post?’
It was useless, and beyond me, to pretend that I did not know what she was talking about. ‘He didn’t!’ I said, and went on, for it seemed best to make a clean breast of things, ‘He did ask me whether it would be all right to write, and I’m afraid I didn’t say no, but I never thought that he would. I’m terribly sorry.’
‘Why should you be?’ Jane smiled wryly. I could think of several reasons, but the path of further self-incrimination was too much for me. ‘He was only doing his duty. I can appreciate that – although it did come as a shock.’
‘You poor thing.’ I had changed my tone. A semi-conspiratorial attitude of mockery seemed the only way I could survive this conversation further. ‘He does this to everyone in the family, without the slightest regard for tact. I suppose in a sense you ought to feel honoured he’s treated you so intimately. But it’s always very annoying when he does it.’
‘Oh don’t worry.’ Jane was a very comforting person. ‘You forget that I’m a Catholic. I can’t get annoyed, because he has every right to say what he thinks when he’s doing his duty as a priest. It was unnecessary, of course.’ She smiled. ‘I know what I’m doing. But I can appreciate his intentions.’
That interview then was not too bad. But I was still upset, and when Jane burst into tears at the airport and said that she never wanted to leave, my sense of guilt grew worse. I had to do something. In the absence of my uncle, I resolved to tackle my grandmother.
She was sitting at her desk when I returned, as she usually did after dinner, writing innumerable letters in her sloping spidery script. The one bright light on the table at her side illuminated just her face and the area before her. The rest of the room was in darkness, even the opposite side of the wide desk, at which I stood.
‘I’m afraid something dreadful has happened,’ I began firmly. ‘And I think it’s your fault. My uncle has written to Jane, interfering quite unwarrantably with her private life.’
My grandmother laid down her pen and looked up at me steadily. ‘He had to. It was his duty as a clergyman. She was sleeping with that young man, and they were not married.’
I was startled. I had wanted this to be a forthright discussion, but my grandmother taking the lead in this fashion was not something I had bargained for. It struck me, somewhat tangentially, that this was the first time such a topic had been broached between us. ‘She was not.’ I said hastily. ‘I mean, nothing happened in this house.’
‘That is not the case. My son wrote to me that you had admitted everything to him.’
In fact my uncle confessed to me later that he had told her, very simply, that I had confirmed her suspicions and that he would therefore be writing to Jane. He would not grant that this was an outrageous breach of confidence: I had not stressed that my information was confidential and, even if such things generally were, he was accustomed to discussing such things with his mother and did not therefore feel that he had done anything improper. I was so astounded by this that I made less than I might have done about the fact that he had not made it clear that nothing had happened in the house; his answer was that that had in fact slipped his mind, but it was in any case irrelevant to the basic moral issue. I gave up at that point.
All this emerged later, when I had time to reflect on my own contribution to the disaster. In front of my grandmother I almost lost my temper. ‘He had no business to tell you anything.’
She was calm. ‘Of course he did. It’s my house.’
Once again, in my anxiety to justify myself, I blundered. It meant that I dropped the point about the breach of confidence and I was not able to return to it again. ‘They didn’t do anything in this house. I made that very clear to him.’
‘I don’t know what you told him, but that is certainly not the case. The ayah heard them together.’
‘I suppose she could identify exactly every sound that she heard.’ This was coarse, but I could not resist responding to the bizarre image of the ayah prowling around on my grandmother’s account, her ear to the wall to pick up the slightest sound of misbehaviour.
‘They should not have been in each other’s rooms at all after they had gone to bed.’
‘But – they promised me that they would not sleep together here.’ Later, when I taxed Jeremy with this, he told me that of course they had not; but they had not thought – nor indeed had I intended them to – that my instructions precluded mild displays of affection. He insisted on the qualification, and I saw no reason to disbelieve him.
‘The servants were not to know that, were they? Even a kiss at that time of night, since they were neither married nor related to each other, was not calculated to set the correct tone. Why,’ my grandmother was clearly warming to her theme, ’the ayah asked me on the very first day whether they were brother and sister, or how they were related to one another.’
‘She’s an interfering old busybody,’ I said bitterly.
My grandmother went on regardless. ‘I told your mother before they arrived that she should have put the girl upstairs, and then none of this would have arisen. But she wouldn’t listen. After this I shall have to insist.’
‘She did ask me.’ I resented this attempt to transfer the responsibility wholesale to my mother, though I’m not sure whether this was more on her account or my own, ’I told her to let things stand. I had explained things to them and they promised not to do anything objectionable, so I saw no reason to turn the whole house upside down.’
‘And that’s another thing.’ My grandmother folded up the letter she had been writing and laid it aside. I remember thinking that this must be a prelude to a full scale offensive. It was. ‘You should not have brought them to this house at all. If you knew that their situation was such that you had to ask them to behave properly, you should have realized that they were not the sort of person that I wanted to have in my house.’
It was doubtless the realization that I had blundered that made me stray into irrelevancy. ‘I thought you said you wouldn’t have minded if they had been put in separate rooms.’
‘That was only when I wasn’t sure.’ My grandmother folded her hands together on the desk and looked at me benignly. ‘I don’t believe in not giving people the benefit of the doubt. All we can do in such a situation is take every precaution possible to ensure that there is not the slightest trace or suspicion of anything improper. But when we are sure of our facts, then there can be no question at all of countenancing such facts by making such people welcome.’
‘But isn’t that a most unchristian attitude?’ It was foolish to try to fight the battle on her grounds, but at that stage it seemed to me that I was making a telling point. ‘Surely the Bible asks us to forgive.’
‘To forgive, yes, but not to indulge sin. If they have sinned, and have not repented, which also means being determined not to sin again, we are not doing our duty even by them if we do not make it clear that we will have nothing more to do with them.’
‘But —–‘ All this was really too much for me to take. ‘In that case I don’t see how you can allow anyone in here. I mean, hardly anyone’s perfect in that sense. I’d say even I was here under false pretences, if that’s your attitude.’
My grandmother looked at me with deep sympathy. ‘If it is a question of going out with prostitutes, that’s quite different,’ she said, with perfect aplomb. This was not exactly what I had meant, but protest was impossible. She was too much for me altogether. ‘Such things are over and done with at once. But in this case we have two people tainting each other insidiously every moment that they continue in their association. They are not only in a state of sin, they are intensifying it all the time, and affecting everything with which they come in contact. I will not have them in my house.’
‘In that case you had better ask me to leave. As long as I am here, I shall continue to ask my friends to stay with me as and when I like.’
‘Not while I’m alive.’ It was the most effective way she could have chosen of shutting me up at once. I have no doubt she was aware of this. ‘After I die, you and your parents can do what they like. But while I live, this house will continue to maintain the high standards it has always done.’
There was nothing more to be said. Talking to my uncle later it was the same: I had given far too much away myself to be effective. I did not blame myself alone, but I came pretty close to it. By not being sure where I stood myself, I had made the matter much worse for everyone. The only consolation was that I knew both Jane and Jeremy well enough to be sure they would not be too upset; but I had let them down badly, and throughout the rest of my stay at home I felt that I had failed utterly, both as a friend and as a host.