Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 17

Arriving at the Chelsea Flower Show, Lady Mont said thoughtfully: “I’m meetin’ Boswell and Johnson at the calceolarias, Dinny. What a crowd!”

“Yes, and all plain. Do they come, Auntie, because they’re yearning for beauty they haven’t got?”

“I can’t get Boswell and Johnson to yearn. There’s Hilary! He’s had that suit ten years. Take this and run for tickets, or he’ll try and pay.”

With a five-pound note Dinny slid towards the wicket, avoiding her uncle’s eyes. She secured four tickets, and turned smiling.

“I saw you being a serpent,” he said. “Where are we going first? Azaleas? I like to be thoroughly sensual at a flower show.”

Lady Mont’s deliberate presence caused a little swirl in the traffic, while her eyes from under slightly drooped lids took in the appearance of people selected, as it were, to show off flowers.

The tent they entered was warm with humanity and perfume, though the day was damp and cool. The ingenious beauty of each group of blossoms was being digested by variegated types of human being linked only through that mysterious air of kinship which comes from attachment to the same pursuit. This was the great army of flower-raisers — growers of primulas in pots, of nasturtiums, gladioli and flags in London back gardens, of stocks, hollyhocks and sweet-williams in little provincial plots; the gardeners of larger grounds; the owners of hothouses and places where experiments are made — but not many of these, for they had already passed through or would come later. All moved with a prying air, as if marking down their own next ventures; and alongside the nurserymen would stop and engage as if making bets. And the subdued murmur of voices, cockneyfied, countrified, cultivated, all commenting on flowers, formed a hum like that of bees, if not so pleasing. This subdued expression of a national passion, walled-in by canvas, together with the scent of the flowers, exercised on Dinny an hypnotic effect, so that she moved from one brilliant planted posy to another, silent and with her slightly upturned nose twitching delicately.

Her aunt’s voice roused her.

“There they are!” she said, pointing with her chin.

Dinny saw two men standing so still that she wondered if they had forgotten why they had come. One had a reddish moustache and sad cow-like eyes; the other looked like a bird with a game wing; their clothes were stiff with Sundays. They were not talking, nor looking at the flowers, but as if placed there by Providence without instructions.

“Which is Boswell, Auntie?”

“No moustache,” said Lady Mont; “Johnson has the green hat. He’s deaf. So like them.”

She moved towards them, and Dinny heard her say:

“Ah!”

The two gardeners rubbed their hands on the sides of their trousered legs, but did not speak.

“Enjoyin’ it?” she heard her aunt say. Their lips moved, but no sound came forth that she could catch. The one she had called Boswell lifted his cap and scratched his head. Her aunt was pointing now at the calceolarias, and suddenly the one in the green hat began to speak. He spoke so that, as Dinny could see, not even her aunt could hear a word, but his speech went on and on and seemed to afford him considerable satisfaction. Every now and then she heard her aunt say: “Ah!” But Johnson went on. He stopped suddenly; her aunt said “Ah!” again and came back to her.

“What was he saying?” asked Dinny.

“No,” said Lady Mont, “not a word. You can’t. But it’s good for him.” She waved her hand to the two gardeners, who were again standing without sign of life, and led the way.

They passed into the rose tent now, and Dinny looked at her watch. She had appointed to meet Wilfrid at the entrance of it.

She cast a hurried look back. There he was! She noted that Hilary was following his nose, Aunt May following Hilary, Aunt Em talking to a nurseryman. Screened by a prodigious group of ‘K. of Ks.’ she skimmed over to the entrance, and, with her hands in Wilfrid’s, forgot entirely where she was.

“Are you feeling strong, darling? Aunt Em is here, and my Uncle Hilary and his wife. I should so like them to know you, because they all count in our equation.”

He seemed to her at that moment like a highly-strung horse asked to face something it has not faced before.

“If you wish, Dinny.”

They found Lady Mont involved with the representatives of ‘Plantem’s Nurseries.’

“That one — south aspect and chalk. The nemesias don’t. It’s cross-country — they do dry so. The phloxes came dead. At least they said so: you can’t tell. Oh! Here’s my niece! Dinny, this is Mr. Plantem. He often sends — Oh! . . . ah! Mr. Desert! How d’you do? I remember you holdin’ Michael’s arms up at his weddin’.” She had placed her hand in Wilfrid’s and seemingly forgotten it, the while her eyes from under their raised brows searched his face with a sort of mild surprise.

“Uncle Hilary,” said Dinny.

“Yes,” said Lady Mont, coming to herself. “Hilary, May — Mr. Desert.”

Hilary, of course, was entirely his usual self, but Aunt May looked as if she were greeting a dean. And almost at once Dinny was tacitly abandoned to her lover.

“What do you think of Uncle Hilary?”

“He looks like a man to go to in trouble.”

“He is. He knows by instinct how not to run his head against brick walls, and yet he’s always in action. I suppose that comes of living in a slum. He agrees with Michael that to publish ‘The Leopard’ is a mistake.”

“Running my head against a brick wall — um?”

“Yes.”

“The die, as they say, is cast. Sorry if you’re sorry, Dinny.”

Dinny’s hand sought his. “No. Let’s sail under our proper colours — only, for my sake, Wilfrid, try to take what’s coming quietly, and so will I. Shall we hide behind this firework of fuchsias and slip off? They’ll expect it.”

Once outside the tent they moved towards the Embankment exit, past the rock gardens, each with its builder standing in the damp before it, as though saying: ‘Look on this, and employ me!’

“Making nice things and having to cadge round to get people to notice them!” said Dinny.

“Where shall we go, Dinny?”

“Battersea Park?”

“Across this bridge, then.”

“You were a darling to let me introduce them, but you did so look like a horse trying to back through its collar. I wanted to stroke your neck.”

“I’ve got out of the habit of people.”

“It’s nice not to be dependent on them.”

“The worst mixer in the world. But you, I should have thought —”

“I only want you; I think I must have a nature like a dog’s. Without you, now, I should just be lost.”

The twitch of his mouth was better than an answer.

“Ever seen the Lost Dogs’ Home? It’s over there.”

“No. Lost dogs are dreadful to think about. Perhaps one ought to, though. Yes, let’s!”

The establishment had its usual hospitalised appearance of all being for the best considering that it was the worst. There was a certain amount of barking and of enquiry on the faces of a certain number of dogs. Tails wagged as they approached. Such dogs as were of any breed looked quieter and sadder than the dogs that were of no breed, and those in the majority. A black spaniel was sitting in a corner of the wired enclosure, with head drooped between long ears. They went round to him.

“How on earth,” said Dinny, “can a dog as nice as that stay unclaimed? He IS sad!”

Wilfrid put his fingers through the wire. The dog looked up. They saw a little red under his eyes, and a wisp of hair loose and silky on his forehead. He raised himself slowly from off his haunches, and they could see him pant very slightly as though some calculation or struggle were going on in him.

“Come on, old boy!”

The dog came slowly, all black, foursquare on his feathered legs. He had every sign of breeding, making his forlorn position more mysterious than ever. He stood almost within reach; his shortened tail fluttered feebly, then came to a droop again, precisely as if he had said: ‘I neglect no chance, but you are not.’

“Well, old fellow?” said Wilfrid.

Dinny bent down. “Give me a kiss.”

The dog looked up at them. His tail moved once, and again drooped.

“Not a good mixer, either,” said Wilfrid.

“He’s too sad for words.” She bent lower and this time got her hand through the wire. “Come, darling!” The dog sniffed her glove. Again his tail fluttered feebly; a pink tongue showed for a moment as though to make certain of his lips. With a supreme effort Dinny’s fingers reached his muzzle smooth as silk.

“He’s awfully well bred, Wilfrid.”

“Stolen, I expect, and then got away. Probably from some country kennel.”

“I believe I could hang dog-thieves.”

The dog’s dark-brown eyes had the remains of moisture in their corners. They looked back at Dinny, with suspended animation, as if saying: ‘You are not my past, and I don’t know if there is a future.’

She looked up. “Oh, Wilfrid!”

He nodded and left her with the dog. She stayed stooped on her heels, slowly scratching behind the dog’s ears, till Wilfrid, followed by a man with a chain and collar, came back.

“I’ve got him,” he said; “he reached his time-limit yesterday, but they were keeping him another week because of his looks.”

Dinny turned her back, moisture was oozing from her eyes. She mopped them hastily, and heard the man say:

“I’ll put this on, sir, before he comes out, or he might leg it; he’s never taken to the place.”

Dinny turned round.

“If his owner turns up we’ll give him back at once.”

“Not much chance of that, miss. In my opinion that’s the dog of someone who’s died. He slipped his collar, probably, and went out to find him, got lost, and no one’s cared enough to send here and see. Nice dog, too. You’ve got a bargain. I’m glad. I didn’t like to think of that dog being put away; young dog, too.”

He put the collar on, led the dog out to them, and transferred the chain to Wilfrid, who handed him a card.

“In case the owner turns up. Come on, Dinny; let’s walk him a bit. Walk, boy!”

The nameless dog, hearing the sweetest word in his vocabulary, moved forward to the limit of the chain.

“That theory’s probably right,” said Wilfrid, “and I hope it is. We shall like this fellow.”

Once on grass they tried to get through to the dog’s inner consciousness. He received their attentions patiently, without response, tail and eyes lowered, suspending judgment.

“We’d better get him home,” said Wilfrid. “Stay here, and I’ll bring up a cab.”

He wiped a chair with his handkerchief, transferred the chain to her, and swung away.

Dinny sat watching the dog. He had followed Wilfrid to the limit of the chain and then seated himself in the attitude in which they had first seen him.

What did dogs feel? They certainly put one and one together; loved, disliked, suffered, yearned, sulked, and enjoyed, like human beings; but they had a very small vocabulary and so — no ideas! Still, anything must be better than living in a wire enclosure with a lot of dogs less sensitive than yourself!

The dog came back to her side, but kept his head turned in the direction Wilfrid had taken, and began to whine.

A taxi cab drew up. The dog stopped whining, and began to pant.

“Master’s coming!” The dog gave a tug at the chain.

Wilfrid had reached him. Through the slackened chain she could feel the disillusionment; then it tightened, and the wagging of the tail came fluttering down the links as the dog sniffed at the turn-ups of Wilfrid’s trousers.

In the cab the dog sat on the floor with his chin hanging over Wilfrid’s shoe. In Piccadilly he grew restless and ended with his chin on Dinny’s knee. Between Wilfrid and the dog the drive was an emotional medley for her, and she took a deep breath when she got out.

“Wonder what Stack will say,” said Wilfrid. “A spaniel in Cork Street is no catch.”

The dog took the stairs with composure.

“House-trained,” said Dinny thankfully.

In the sitting-room the dog applied his nose to the carpet. Having decided that the legs of all the furniture were uninteresting and the place bereft of his own kind, he leaned his nose on the divan and looked out of the corners of his eyes.

“Up!” said Dinny. The dog jumped on to the divan.

“Jove! He does smell!” said Wilfrid.

“Let’s give him a bath. While you’re filling it, I’ll look him over.”

She held the dog, who would have followed Wilfrid, and began parting his hair. She found several yellow fleas, but no other breed.

“Yes, you do smell, darling.”

The dog turned his head and licked her nose.

“The bath’s ready, Dinny!”

“Only dog fleas.”

“If you’re going to help, put on that bath gown, or you’ll spoil your dress.”

Behind his back, Dinny slipped off her frock and put on the blue bath gown, half hoping he would turn, and respecting him because he didn’t. She rolled up the sleeves and stood beside him. Poised over the bath, the dog protruded a long tongue.

“He’s not going to be sick, is he?”

“No; they always do that. Gently, Wilfrid, don’t let him splash — that frightens them. Now!”

Lowered into the bath, the dog, after a scramble, stood still with his head drooped, concentrated on keeping foothold of the slippery surface.

“This is hair shampoo, better than nothing. I’ll hold him. You do the rubbing in.”

Pouring some of the shampoo on the centre of that polished black back, Dinny heaped water up the dog’s sides and began to rub. This first domestic incident with Wilfrid was pure joy, involving no mean personal contact with him as well as with the dog. She straightened up at last.

“Phew! My back! Sluice him and let the water out. I’ll hold him.”

Wilfrid sluiced, the dog behaving as if not too sorry for his fleas. He shook himself vigorously, and they both jumped back.

“Don’t let him out,” cried Dinny; “we must dry him in the bath.”

“All right. Put your hands round his neck and hold him still.”

Wrapped in a huge bath towel, the dog lifted his face to her; its expression was drooping and forlorn.

“Poor boy, soon over now, and you’ll smell lovely.”

The dog shook himself.

Wilfrid withdrew the towel. “Hold him a minute, I’ll get an old blanket; we’ll make him curl up till he’s dry.”

Alone with the dog, who was now trying to get out of the bath, Dinny held him with his forepaws over the edge, and worked away at the accumulations of sorrow about his eyes.

“There! That’s better!”

They carried the almost inanimate dog to the divan, wrapped in an old Guards’ blanket.

“What shall we call him, Dinny?”

“Let’s try him with a few names, we may hit on his real one.”

He answered to none. “Well,” said Dinny, “let’s call him ‘Foch.’ But for Foch we should never have met.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37