Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 18

Feelings at Condaford, after the General’s return, were vexed and uneasy. Dinny had said she would be back on Saturday, but it was now Wednesday and she was still in London. Her saying, “We are not formally engaged,” had given little comfort, since the General had added, “That was soft sawder.” Pressed by Lady Cherrell as to what exactly had taken place between him and Wilfrid, he was laconic.

“He hardly said a word, Liz. Polite and all that, and I must say he doesn’t look like a fellow who’d quit. His record’s very good, too. The thing’s inexplicable.”

“Have you read any of his verse, Con?”

“No. Where is it?”

“Dinny has them somewhere. Very bitter. So many writers seem to be like that. But I could put up with anything if I thought Dinny would be happy.”

“Dinny says he’s actually going to publish a poem about that business. He must be a vain chap.”

“Poets almost always are.”

“I don’t know who can move Dinny. Hubert says he’s lost touch with her. To begin married life under a cloud like that!”

“I sometimes think,” murmured Lady Cherrell, “that living here, as we do, we don’t know what will cause clouds and what won’t.”

“There can’t be a question,” said the General, with finality, “among people who count.”

“Who does count, nowadays?”

The General was silent. Then he said shrewdly:

“England’s still aristocratic underneath. All that keeps us going comes from the top. Service and tradition still rule the roost. The socialists can talk as they like.”

Lady Cherrell looked up, astonished at this flow.

“Well,” she said, “what are we to do about Dinny?”

The General shrugged.

“Wait till things come to a crisis of some sort. Cut-you-off-with-a-shilling is out of date and out of question — we’re too fond of her. You’ll speak to her, Liz, when you get a chance, of course . . .”

Between Hubert and Jean discussion of the matter took a rather different line.

“I wish to God, Jean, Dinny had taken to your brother.”

“Alan’s got over it. I had a letter from him yesterday. He’s at Singapore now. There’s probably somebody out there. I only hope it isn’t a married woman. There are so few girls in the East.”

“I don’t think he’d go for a married woman. Possibly a native; they say Malay girls are often pretty.”

Jean grimaced.

“A Malay girl instead of Dinny!”

Presently she murmured: “I’d like to see this Mr. Desert. I think I could give him an idea, Hubert, of what’ll be thought of him if he carries Dinny into this mess.”

“You must be careful with Dinny.”

“If I can have the car I’ll go up tomorrow and talk it over with Fleur. She must know him quite well; he was their best man.”

“I’d choose Michael of the two; but for God’s sake take care, old girl.”

Jean, who was accustomed to carry out her ideas, slid away next day before the world was up and was at South Square, Westminster, by ten o’clock. Michael, it appeared, was down in his constituency.

“The safer his seat,” said Fleur, “the more he thinks he has to see of them. It’s the gratitude complex. What can I do for you?”

Jean slid her long-lashed eyes round from the Fragonard, which she had been contemplating as though it were too French, and Fleur almost jumped. Really, she WAS like a ‘leopardess’!

“It’s about Dinny and her young man, Fleur. I suppose you know what happened to him out there?”

Fleur nodded.

“Then can’t something be done?”

Fleur’s face became watchful. She was twenty-nine, Jean twenty-three; but it was no use coming the elder matron!

“I haven’t seen anything of Wilfrid for a long time.”

“Somebody’s got to tell him pretty sharply what’ll be thought of him if he lugs Dinny into this mess.”

“I’m by no means sure there’ll be a mess; even if his poem comes out. People like the Ajax touch.”

“You’ve not been in the East.”

“Yes, I have; I’ve been round the world.”

“That’s not the same thing at all.”

“My dear,” said Fleur, “excuse my saying so, but the Cherrells are about thirty years behind the times.”

“I’m not a Cherrell.”

“No, you’re a Tasburgh, and, if anything, that’s a little worse. Country rectories, cavalry, navy, Indian civil — how much d’you suppose all that counts nowadays?”

“It counts with those who belong to it; and he belongs to it, and Dinny belongs to it.”

“No one who’s really in love belongs anywhere,” said Fleur. “Did you care two straws when you married Hubert with a murder charge hanging over his head?”

“That’s different. He’d done nothing to be ashamed of.”

Fleur smiled.

“True to type. Would it surprise you, as they say in the courts, if I told you that there isn’t one in twenty people about town who’d do otherwise than yawn if you asked them to condemn Wilfrid for what he did? And there isn’t one in forty who won’t forget all about it in a fortnight.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Jean flatly.

“You don’t know modern Society, my dear.”

“It’s modern Society,” said Jean, even more flatly, “that doesn’t count.”

“Well, I don’t know that it does much; but then what does?”

“Where does he live?”

Fleur laughed.

“In Cork Street, opposite the Gallery. You’re not thinking of bearding him, are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wilfrid can bite.”

“Well,” said Jean, “thanks. I must be going.”

Fleur looked at her with admiration. The girl had flushed, and that pink in her brown cheeks made her look more vivid than ever.

“Well, good-bye, my dear; and do come and tell me about it. I know you’ve the pluck of the devil.”

“I don’t know that I’m going at all,” said Jean. “Good-bye!”

She drove, rather angry, past the House of Commons. Her temperament believed so much in action that Fleur’s worldly wisdom had merely irritated her. Still, it was not so easy as she had thought to go to Wilfrid Desert and say: ‘Stand and deliver me back my sister-inlaw.’ She drove, however, to Pall Mall, parked her car near the Parthenæum, and walked up to Piccadilly. People who saw her, especially men, looked back, because of the admirable grace of her limbs and the colour and light in her face. She had no idea where Cork Street was, except that it was near Bond Street. And, when she reached it, she walked up and down before locating the Gallery. ‘That must be the door, opposite,’ she thought. She was standing uncertainly in front of a door without a name, when a man with a dog on a lead came up the stairs and stood beside her.

“Yes, miss?”

“I am Mrs. Hubert Cherrell. Does Mr. Desert live here?”

“Yes, ma’am; but whether you can see him I don’t know. Here, Foch, good dog! If you’ll wait a minute I’ll find out.”

A minute later Jean, swallowing resolutely, was in the presence. ‘After all,’ she was thinking, ‘he can’t be worse than a parish meeting when you want money from it.’

Wilfrid was standing at the window, with his eyebrows raised.

“I’m Dinny’s sister-inlaw,” said Jean. “I beg your pardon for coming, but I wanted to see you.”

Wilfrid bowed.

“Come here, Foch.”

The spaniel, who was sniffing round Jean’s skirt, did not respond until he was called again. He licked Wilfrid’s hand and sat down behind him. Jean had flushed.

“It’s frightful cheek on my part, but I thought you wouldn’t mind. We’ve just come back from the Soudan.”

Wilfrid’s face remained ironic, and irony always upset her. Not quite stammering, she continued:

“Dinny has never been in the East.”

Again Wilfrid bowed. The affair was not going like a parish meeting.

“Won’t you sit down?” he said.

“Oh, thank you, no; I shan’t be a minute. You see, what I wanted to say was that Dinny can’t possibly realise what certain things mean out there.”

“D’you know, that’s what occurred to me.”

“Oh!”

A minute of silence followed, while the flush on her face and the smile on Wilfrid’s deepened. Then he said:

“Thank you so much for coming. Anything else?”

“Er — no! Good-bye!”

All the way downstairs she felt shorter than she had ever felt in her life. And the first man she passed in the street jumped, her eyes had passed through him like a magnetic shock. He had once been touched by an electric eel in Brazil, and preferred the sensation. Yet, curiously, while she retraced her steps towards her car, though worsted, she bore no grudge. Even more singularly, she had lost most of her feeling that Dinny was in danger.

Regaining her car, she had a slight altercation with a policeman and took the road for Condaford. Driving to the danger of the public all the way, she was home to lunch. All she said of her adventure was that she had been for a long drive. Only in the four-poster of the chief spare room did she say to Hubert:

“I’ve been up and seen him. D’you know, Hubert, I really believe Dinny will be all right. He’s got charm.”

“What on earth,” said Hubert, turning on his elbow, “has that to do with it?”

“A lot,” said Jean. “Give me a kiss, and don’t argue . . .”

When his strange young visitor had gone, Wilfrid flung himself on the divan and stared at the ceiling. He felt like a general who has won a ‘victory’— the more embarrassed. Having lived for thirty-five years, owing to a variety of circumstances, in a condition of marked egoism, he was unaccustomed to the feelings which Dinny from the first had roused within him. The old-fashioned word ‘worship’ was hardly admissible, but no other adequately replaced it. When with her his sensations were so restful and refreshed that when not with her he felt like one who had taken off his soul and hung it up. Alongside this new beatitude was a growing sense that his own happiness would not be complete unless hers was too. She was always telling him that she was only happy in his presence. But that was absurd, he could never replace all the interests and affections of her life before the statue of Foch had made them acquainted. And, if not, for what was he letting her in? The young woman with the eyes, who had just gone, had stood there before him like an incarnation of this question. Though he had routed her, she had left the query printed on the air.

The spaniel, seeing the incorporeal more clearly than his master, was resting a long nose on his knee. Even this dog he owed to Dinny. He had got out of the habit of people. With this business hanging over him, he was quite cut off. If he married Dinny, he took her with him into isolation. Was it fair?

But, having appointed to meet her in half an hour, he rang the bell.

“I’m going out now, Stack.”

“Very good, sir.”

Leading the dog, he made his way to the Park. Opposite the Cavalry Memorial he sat down to wait for her, debating whether he should tell her of his visitor. And just then he saw her coming.

She was walking quickly from Park Lane, and had not yet seen him. She seemed to skim, straight, and — as those blasted novelists called it —‘willowy’! She had a look of spring, and was smiling as if something pleasant had just happened to her. This glimpse of her, all unaware of him, soothed Wilfrid. If she could look so pleased and care-free, surely he need not worry. She halted by the bronze horse which she had dubbed ‘the jibbing barrel,’ evidently looking for him. Though she turned her head so prettily this way and that, her face had become a little anxious. He stood up. She waved her hand and came quickly across the drive.

“Been sitting to Botticelli, Dinny?”

“No — to a pawnbroker. If you ever want one I recommend Frewens of South Molton Street.”

“YOU, at a pawnbroker’s?”

“Yes, darling. I’ve got more money of my own on me than I ever had in my life.”

“What do you want it for?”

Dinny bent and stroked the dog.

“Since I knew you I’ve grasped the real importance of money.”

“And what’s that?”

“Not to be divided from you by the absence of it. The great open spaces are what we want now. Take Foch off the lead, Wilfrid; he’ll follow, I’m sure.”

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