Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 20

While Dinny was dressing her aunt came to her room.

“Your uncle read me that article, Dinny. I wonder!”

“What do you wonder, Aunt Em?”

“I knew a Coltham — but he died.”

“This one will probably die, too.”

“Where do you get your boned bodies, Dinny? So restful.”

“Harridge’s.”

“Your uncle says he ought to resign from his club.”

“Wilfrid doesn’t care two straws about his club; he probably hasn’t been in a dozen times. But I don’t think he’ll resign.”

“Better make him.”

“I should never dream of ‘making’ him do anything.”

“So awkward when they use black balls.”

“Auntie, dear, could I come to the glass?”

Lady Mont crossed the room and took up the slim volume from the bedside table.

“The Leopard! But he did change them, Dinny.”

“He did not, Auntie; he had no spots to change.”

“Baptism and that.”

“If baptism really meant anything, it would be an outrage on children till they knew what it was about.”

“Dinny!”

“I mean it. One doesn’t commit people to things entirely without their consent; it isn’t decent. By the time Wilfrid could think at all he had no religion.”

“It wasn’t the givin’ up, then, it was the takin’ on.”

“He knows that.”

“Well,” said Lady Mont, turning towards the door, “I think it served that Arab right; so intrudin’! If you want a latch-key, ask Blore.”

Dinny finished dressing quickly and ran downstairs. Blore was in the dining-room.

“Aunt Em says I may have a key, Blore, and I want a taxi, please.”

Having telephoned to the cab-stand and produced a key, the butler said: “What with her ladyship speaking her thoughts out loud, miss, I’m obliged to know, and I was saying to Sir Lawrence this morning: ‘If Miss Dinny could take him off just now, on a tour of the Scotch Highlands where they don’t see the papers, it would save a lot of vexation.’ In these days, miss, as you’ll have noticed, one thing comes on the top of another, and people haven’t the memories they had. You’ll excuse my mentioning it.”

“Thank you ever so, Blore. Nothing I’d like better; only I’m afraid he wouldn’t think it proper.”

“In these days a young LADY can do anything, miss.”

“But men still have to be careful, Blore.”

“Well, miss, of course, relatives are difficult; but it could be arranged.”

“I think we shall have to face the music.”

The butler shook his head.

“In my belief, whoever said that first is responsible for a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness. Here’s your taxi, miss.”

In the taxi she sat a little forward, getting the air from both windows on her cheeks, which needed cooling. Even the anger and vexation left by that review were lost in this sweeter effervescence. At the corner of Piccadilly she read a newspaper poster: “Derby horses arrive.” The Derby tomorrow! How utterly she had lost count of events! The restaurant chosen for their dinner was Blafard’s in Soho, and her progress was impeded by the traffic of a town on the verge of national holiday. At the door, with the spaniel held on a leash, stood Stack. He handed her a note: “Mr. Desert sent me with this, miss. I brought the dog for a walk.”

Dinny opened the note with a sensation of physical sickness.

“DINNY DARLING —

“Forgive my failing you to-night. I’ve been in a torture of doubt all day. The fact is, until I know where I stand with the world over this business, I have an overwhelming feeling that I must not commit you to anything; and a public jaunt like this is just what I ought to avoid for you. I suppose you saw The Daily Phase — that is the beginning of the racket. I must go through this next week on my own, and measure up where I am. I won’t run off, and we can write. You’ll understand. The dog is a boon, and I owe him to you. Good-bye for a little, my dear love.

“Your devoted

“W.D.”

It was all she could do not to put her hand on her heart under the driver’s eyes. Thus to be shut away in the heat of the battle was what, she knew now, she had been dreading all along. With an effort she controlled her lips, said “Wait a minute!” and turned to Stack.

“I’ll take you and Foch back.”

“Thank you, miss.”

She bent down to the dog. Panic was at work within her breast! The dog! He was a link between them!

“Put him into the cab, Stack.”

On the way she said quietly:

“Is Mr. Desert in?”

“No, miss, he went out when he gave me the note.”

“Is he all right?”

“A little worried, I think, miss. I must say I’d like to teach manners to that gentleman in The Daily Phase.”

“Oh! you saw that?”

“I did; it oughtn’t to be allowed is what I say.”

“Free speech,” said Dinny. And the dog pressed his chin against her knee. “Is Foch good?”

“No trouble at all, miss. A gentleman, that dog; aren’t you, boy?”

The dog continued to press his chin on Dinny’s knee; and the feel of it was comforting.

When the cab stopped in Cork Street, she took a pencil from her bag, tore off the empty sheet of Wilfrid’s note, and wrote:

“DARLING —

“As you will. But by these presents know: I am yours for ever and ever. Nothing can or shall divide me from you, unless you stop loving

“Your devoted

“DINNY.

“You won’t do that, will you? Oh! don’t!”

Licking what was left of the gum on the envelope, she put her half sheet in and held it till it stuck. Giving it to Stack, she kissed the dog’s head and said to the driver: “The Park end of Mount Street, please. Good-night, Stack!”

“Good night, miss!”

The eyes and mouth of the motionless henchman seemed to her so full of understanding that she turned her face away. And that was the end of the jaunt she had been so looking forward to.

From the top of Mount Street she crossed into the Park and sat on the seat where she had sat with him before, oblivious of the fact that she was unattached, without a hat, in evening dress, and that it was past eight o’clock. She sat with the collar of her cloak turned up to her chestnut-coloured hair, trying to see his point of view. She saw it very well. Pride! She had enough herself to understand. Not to involve others in one’s troubles was elementary. The fonder one was, the less would one wish to involve them. Curiously ironical how love divided people just when they most needed each other! And no way out, so far as she could see. The strains of the Guards’ band began to reach her faintly. They were playing — Faust? — no — Carmen! Wilfrid’s favourite opera! She got up and walked over the grass towards the sound. What crowds of people! She took a chair some way off and sat down again, close to some rhododendrons. The Habanera! What a shiver its first notes always gave one! How wild, sudden, strange and inescapable was love! ‘L’amour est enfant de Bohème’ . . .! The rhododendrons were late this year. That deep rosy one! They had it at Condaford . . . Where was he — oh! where was he at this moment? Why could not love pierce veils, so that in spirit she might walk beside him, slip a hand into his! A spirit hand was better than nothing! And Dinny suddenly realised loneliness as only true lovers do when they think of life without the loved one. As flowers wilt on their stalks, so would she wilt — if she were cut away from him. “See things through alone!” How long would he want to? For ever? At the thought she started up; and a stroller, who thought the movement meant for him, stood still and looked at her. Her face corrected his impression, and he moved on. She had two hours to kill before she could go in; she could not let them know that her evening had come to grief. The band was finishing off Carmen with the Toreador’s song. A blot on the opera, its most popular tune! No, not a blot, for it was meant, of course, to blare above the desolation of that tragic end, as the world blared around the passion of lovers. The world was a heedless and a heartless stage for lives to strut across, or in dark corners join and cling together . . . How odd that clapping sounded in the open! She looked at her wrist-watch. Half-past nine! An hour yet before it would be really dark. But there was a coolness now, a scent of grass and leaves; the rhododendrons were slowly losing colour, the birds had finished with song. People passed and passed her; she saw nothing funny about them, and they seemed to see nothing funny about her. And Dinny thought: ‘Nothing seems funny any more, and I haven’t had any dinner.’ A coffee stall? Too early, perhaps, but there must be places where she could still get something! No dinner, almost no lunch, no tea — a condition appropriate to the love-sick! She began to move towards Knightsbridge, walking fast, by instinct rather than experience, for this was the first time she had ever wandered alone about London at such an hour. Reaching the gate without adventure, she crossed and went down Sloane Street. She felt much better moving, and chalked up in her mind the thought: ‘For love-sickness, walking!’ In this straight street there was practically nobody to notice her. The carefully closed and blinded houses seemed to confirm, each with its tall formal narrow face, the indifference of the regimented world to the longings of street-walkers such as she. At the corner of the King’s Road a woman was standing.

“Could you tell me,” said Dinny, “of any place close by where I could get something to eat?”

The woman addressed, she now saw, had a short face with high cheek-bones on which, and round the eyes, was a good deal of make-up. Her lips were good-natured, a little thick; her nose, too, rather thick; her eyes had the look which comes of having to be now stony and now luring, as if they had lost touch with her soul. Her dress was dark and fitted her curves, and she wore a large string of artificial pearls. Dinny could not help thinking she had seen people in Society not unlike her.

“There’s a nice little place on the left.”

“Would you care to come and have something with me?” said Dinny, moved by impulse, or by something hungry in the woman’s face.

“Why! I would,” said the woman. “Fact is, I came out without anything. It’s nice to have company, too.” She turned up the King’s Road and Dinny turned alongside. It passed through her mind that if she met someone it would be quaint; but for all that she felt better.

‘For God’s sake,’ she thought, ‘be natural!’

The woman led her into a little restaurant, or rather public-house, for it had a bar. There was no one in the eating-room, which had a separate entrance, and they sat down at a small table with a cruet-stand, a handbell, a bottle of Worcester sauce, and in a vase some failing pyrethrums which had never been fresh. There was a slight smell of vinegar.

“I COULD do with a cigarette,” said the woman.

Dinny had none. She tinkled the bell.

“Any particular sort?”

“Oh! Gaspers.”

A waitress appeared, looked at the woman, looked at Dinny, and said: “Yes?”

“A packet of Players, please. A large coffee for me, strong and fresh, and some cake or buns, or anything. What will you have?”

The woman looked at Dinny, as though measuring her capacity, looked at the waitress, and said, hesitating: “Well, to tell the truth, I’m hungry. Cold beef and a bottle of stout?”

“Vegetables?” said Dinny: “A salad?”

“Well, a salad, thank you.”

“Good! And pickled walnuts? Will you get it all as quickly as you can, please?”

The waitress passed her tongue over her lips, nodded, and went away.

“I say,” said the woman, suddenly, “it’s awful nice of you, you know.”

“It was so friendly of you to come. I should have felt a bit lost without you.”

“SHE can’t make it out,” said the woman, nodding her head towards the vanished waitress. “To tell you the truth, nor can I.”

“Why? We’re both hungry.”

“No doubt about that,” said the woman; “you’re going to see me eat. I’m glad you ordered pickled walnuts, I never can resist a pickled onion, and it don’t do.”

“I might have thought of cocktails,” murmured Dinny, “but perhaps they don’t make them here.”

“A sherry wouldn’t be amiss. I’ll get ’em.” The woman rose and disappeared into the bar.

Dinny took the chance to powder her nose. She also dived her hand down to the pocket in her ‘boned body’ where the spoils of South Molton Street were stored, and extracted a five-pound note. She was feeling a sort of sad excitement.

The woman came back with two glasses. “I told ’em to charge it to our bill. The liquor’s good here.”

Dinny raised her glass and sipped. The woman tossed hers off at a draught.

“I wanted that. Fancy a country where you couldn’t get a drink!”

“But they can, of course, and do.”

“You bet. But they say some of the liquor’s awful.”

Dinny saw that her gaze was travelling up and down her cloak and dress and face with insatiable curiosity.

“Pardon me,” said the woman, suddenly: “You got a date?”

“No, I’m going home after this.”

The woman sighed. “Wish she’d bring those bl-inkin’ cigarettes.”

The waitress reappeared with a bottle of stout and the cigarettes. Staring at Dinny’s hair, she opened the bottle.

“Coo!” said the woman, taking a long draw at her ‘Gasper,’ “I wanted that.”

“I’ll bring you the other things in a minute,” said the waitress.

“I haven’t seen you on the stage, have I?” said the woman.

“No, I’m not on the stage.”

The advent of food broke the ensuing hush. The coffee was better than Dinny had hoped and very hot. She had drunk most of it and eaten a large piece of plum cake before the woman, putting a pickled walnut in her mouth, spoke again.

“D’you live in London?”

“No. In Oxfordshire.”

“Well, I like the country, too; but I never see it now. I was brought up near Maidstone — pretty round there.” She heaved a sigh with a flavouring of stout. “They say the Communists in Russia have done away with vice — isn’t that a scream? An American journalist told me. Well! I never knew a budget make such a difference before,” she continued, expelling smoke as if liberating her soul: “Dreadful lot of unemployment.”

“It does seem to affect everybody.”

“Affects me, I know,” and she stared stonily. “I suppose you’re shocked at that.”

“It takes a lot to shock people nowadays, don’t you find?”

“Well, I don’t mix as a rule with bishops.”

Dinny laughed.

“All the same,” said the woman, defiantly, “I came across a parson who talked the best sense to me I ever heard; of course, I couldn’t follow it.”

“I’ll make you a bet,” said Dinny, “that I know his name. Cherrell?”

“In once,” said the woman, and her eyes grew round.

“He’s my uncle.”

“Coo! Well, well! It’s a funny world! And not so large. Nice man he was,” she added.

“Still is.”

“One of the best.”

Dinny, who had been waiting for those inevitable words, thought: ‘This is where they used to do the “My erring sister” stunt.’

The woman uttered a sigh of repletion.

“I’ve enjoyed that,” she said, and rose. “Thank you ever so. I must be getting on now, or I’ll be late for business.”

Dinny tinkled the bell. The waitress appeared with suspicious promptitude.

“The bill, please, and can you get me THAT changed?”

The waitress took the note with a certain caution.

“I’ll just go and fix myself,” said the woman; “see you in a minute.” She passed through a door.

Dinny drank up the remains of her coffee. She was trying to realise what it must be like to live like that. The waitress came back with the change, received her tip, said “Thank you, miss,” and went. Dinny resumed the process of realisation.

“Well,” said the woman’s voice behind her, “I don’t suppose I’ll ever see you again. But I’d like to say I think you’re a jolly good sort.”

Dinny looked up at her.

“When you said you’d come out without anything, did you mean you hadn’t anything to come out with?”

“Sure thing,” said the woman.

“Then would you mind taking this change? It’s horrid to have no money in London.”

The woman bit her lips, and Dinny could see that they were trembling.

“I wouldn’t like to take your money,” she said, “after you’ve been so kind.”

“Oh! bosh! Please!” And, catching her hand, she pressed the money into it. To her horror, the woman uttered a loud sniff. She was preparing to make a run for the door, when the woman said:

“D’you know what I’m going to do? I’m going home to have a sleep. My God, I am! I’m going home to have a sleep.”

Dinny hurried back to Sloane Street. Walking past the tall blinded houses, she recognised with gratitude that her love-sickness was much better. If she did not walk too fast, she would not be too soon at Mount Street. It was dark now, and in spite of the haze of city light the sky was alive with stars. She did not enter the Park again, but walked along its outside railings. It seemed an immense time since she had parted from Stack and the dog in Cork Street. Traffic was thickening as she rounded into Park Lane. To-morrow all these vehicles would be draining out to Epsom Downs; the Town would be seeming almost empty. And, with a sickening sensation, it flashed on her how empty it would always feel without Wilfrid to see or look forward to.

She came to the gate by the ‘jibbing barrel,’ and suddenly, as though all that evening had been a dream, she saw Wilfrid standing beside it. She choked and ran forward. He put out his arms and caught her to him.

The moment could hardly be prolonged, for cars and pedestrians were passing in and out; so arm-inarm they moved towards Mount Street. Dinny just clung to him, and he seemed equally wordless; but the thought that he had come there to be near her was infinitely comforting.

They escorted each other back and forth past the house, like some footman and housemaid for a quarter of an hour off duty. Class and country, custom and creed, all were forgotten. And, perhaps, no two people in all its seven millions were in those few minutes more moved and at one in the whole of London.

At last the comic instinct woke.

“We can’t see each other home all night, darling. So one kiss — and yet — one kiss — and yet — one kiss!”

She ran up the steps, and turned the key.

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