Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 23

Those who love, when the object of their love is in trouble, must keep sympathy to themselves and yet show it. Dinny did not find this easy. She watched, lynx-eyed, for any chance to assuage her lover’s bitterness of soul; but though they continued to meet daily, he gave her none. Except for the expression of his face when he was off guard, he might have been quite untouched by tragedy. Throughout that fortnight after the Derby she came to his rooms, and they went joy-riding, accompanied by the spaniel Foch; and he never mentioned that of which all more or less literary and official London was talking. Through Sir Lawrence, however, she heard that he had been asked to meet the Committee of Burton’s Club and had answered by resignation. And, through Michael, who had been to see him again, she heard that he knew of Jack Muskham’s part in the affair. Since he so rigidly refused to open out to her, she, at great cost, tried to surpass him in obliviousness of purgatory. His face often made her ache, but she kept that ache out of her own face. And all the time she was in bitter doubt whether she was right to refrain from trying to break through to him. It was a long and terrible lesson in the truth that not even real love can reach and anoint deep spiritual sores. The other half of her trouble, the unending quiet pressure of her family’s sorrowful alarm, caused her an irritation of which she was ashamed.

And then occurred an incident which, however unpleasant and alarming at the moment, was almost a relief because it broke up that silence.

They had been to the Tate Gallery and, walking home, had just come up the steps leading to Carlton House Terrace. Dinny was still talking about the pre-Raphaelites, and saw nothing till Wilfrid’s changed expression made her look for the cause. There was Jack Muskham, with a blank face, formally lifting a tall hat as if to someone who was not there, and a short dark man removing a grey felt covering, in unison. They passed, and she heard Muskham say:

“That I consider the limit.”

Instinctively her hand went out to grasp Wilfrid’s arm, but too late. He had spun round in his tracks. She saw him, three yards away, tap Muskham on the shoulder, and the two face each other, with the little man looking up at them like a terrier at two large dogs about to fight. She heard Wilfrid say in a low voice:

“What a coward and cad you are!”

There followed an endless silence, while her eyes flitted from Wilfrid’s convulsed face to Muskham’s, rigid and menacing, and the terrier man’s black eyes snapping up at them. She heard him say: “Come on, Jack!” saw a tremor pass through the length of Muskham’s figure, his hands clench, his lips move:

“You heard that, Yule?”

The little man’s hand, pushed under his arm, pulled at him; the tall figure turned; the two moved away; and Wilfrid was back at her side.

“Coward and cad!” he muttered: “Coward and cad! Thank God I’ve told him!” He threw up his head, took a gulp of air, and said: “That’s better! Sorry, Dinny!”

In Dinny feeling was too churned up for speech. The moment had been so savagely primitive; and she had the horrid fear that it could not end there; an intuition, too, that she was the cause, the hidden reason of Muskham’s virulence. She remembered Sir Lawrence’s words: “Jack thinks you are being victimised.” What if she were! What business was it of that long, lounging man who hated women! Absurd! She heard Wilfrid muttering:

“‘The limit!’ He might know what one feels!”

“But, darling, if we all knew what other people felt, we should be seraphim, and he’s only a member of the Jockey Club.”

“He’s done his best to get me outed, and he couldn’t even refrain from THAT.”

“It’s I who ought to be angry, not you. It’s I who force you to go about with me. Only, you see, I like it so. But, darling, I don’t shrink in the wash. What IS the use of my being your love if you won’t let yourself go with me?”

“Why should I worry you with what can’t be cured?”

“I exist to be worried by you. PLEASE worry me!”

“Oh! Dinny, you’re an angel!”

“I repeat it is not so. I really have blood in my veins.”

“It’s like ear-ache; you shake your head, and shake your head, and it’s no good. I thought publishing The Leopard would free me, but it hasn’t. Am I ‘yellow,’ Dinny — am I?”

“If you were yellow I should not have loved you.”

“Oh! I don’t know. Women can love anything.”

“Proverbially we admire courage before all. I’m going to be brutal. Has doubt of your courage anything to do with your ache? Isn’t it just due to feeling that other people doubt?”

He gave a little unhappy laugh. “I don’t know; I only know it’s there.”

Dinny looked up at him.

“Oh! darling, don’t ache! I do so hate it for you.”

They stood for a moment looking deeply at each other, and a vendor of matches, without the money to indulge in spiritual trouble, said:

“Box o’ lights, sir?” . . .

Though she had been closer to Wilfrid that afternoon than perhaps ever before, Dinny returned to Mount Street oppressed by fears. She could not get the look on Muskham’s face out of her head, nor the sound of his: “You heard that, Yule?”

It was silly! Out of such explosive encounters nothing but legal remedies came nowadays; and of all people she had ever seen, she could least connect Jack Muskham with the Law. She noticed a hat in the hall, and heard voices, as she was passing her uncle’s study. She had barely taken off her own hat when he sent for her. He was talking to the little terrier man, who was perched astride of a chair, as if riding a race.

“Dinny, Mr. Telfourd Yule; my niece Dinny Cherrell.”

The little man bowed over her hand.

“Yule has been telling me,” said Sir Lawrence, “of that encounter. He’s not easy in his mind.”

“Neither am I,” said Dinny.

“I’m sure Jack didn’t mean those words to be heard, Miss Cherrell.”

“I don’t agree; I think he did.”

Yule shrugged. The expression on his face was rueful, and Dinny liked its comical ugliness.

“Well, he certainly didn’t mean YOU to hear them.”

“He ought to have, then. Mr. Desert would prefer not to be seen with me in public. It’s I who make him.”

“I came to your Uncle because when Jack won’t talk about a thing, it’s serious. I’ve known him a long time.”

Dinny stood silent. The flush on her cheeks had dwindled to two red spots. And the two men stared at her, thinking, perhaps, that, with her cornflower-blue eyes, slenderness, and that hair, she looked unsuited to the matter in hand. She said quietly: “What can I do, Uncle Lawrence?”

“I don’t see, my dear, what anyone can do at the moment. Mr. Yule says that he left Jack going back to Royston. I thought possibly I might take you down to see him tomorrow. He’s a queer fellow; if he didn’t date so, I shouldn’t worry. Such things blow over, as a rule.”

Dinny controlled a sudden disposition to tremble.

“What do you mean by ‘date’?”

Sir Lawrence looked at Yule and said: “We don’t want to seem absurd. There’s been no duel fought between Englishmen, so far as I know, for seventy or eighty years; but Jack is a survival. We don’t quite know what to think. Horse-play is not in his line; neither is a law court. And yet we can’t see him taking no further notice.”

“I suppose,” said Dinny, with spirit, “he won’t see, on reflection, that he’s more to blame than Wilfrid?”

“No,” said Yule, “he won’t. Believe me, Miss Cherrell, I am deeply sorry about the whole business.”

Dinny bowed. “I think it was very nice of you to come; thank you!”

“I suppose,” said Sir Lawrence, doubtfully, “you couldn’t get Desert to send him an apology?”

‘So THAT,’ she thought, ‘is what they wanted me for.’ “No, Uncle, I couldn’t — I couldn’t even ask him. I’m quite sure he wouldn’t.”

“I see,” said Sir Lawrence glumly.

Bowing to Yule, Dinny turned towards the door. In the hall she seemed to be seeing through the wall behind her the renewed shrugging of their shoulders, the ruefulness on their glum faces, and she went up to her room. Apology! Thinking of Wilfrid’s badgered, tortured face, the very idea of it offended her. Stricken to the quick already on the score of personal courage, it was the last thing he would dream of. She wandered unhappily about her room, then took out his photograph. The face she loved looked back at her with the sceptical indifference of an effigy. Wilful, sudden, proud, self-centred, deeply dual; but cruel, no, and cowardly — NO!

‘Oh! my darling!’ she thought, and put it away.

She went to her window and leaned out. A beautiful evening — the Friday of Ascot week, the first of those two weeks when in England fine weather is almost certain! On Wednesday there had been a deluge, but today had the feel of real high summer. Down below a taxi drew up — her Uncle and Aunt were going out to dinner. There they came, with Blore putting them in and standing to look after them. Now the staff would turn on the wireless. Yes! Here it was! She opened her door. Grand opera! Rigoletto! The twittering of those tarnished melodies came up to her in all the bravura of an age which knew better than this, it seemed, how to express the emotions of wayward hearts.

The gong! She did not want to go down and eat, but she must, or Blore and Augustine would be upset. She washed hastily, compromised with her dress, and went down.

But while she ate she grew more restless, as if sitting still and attending to a single function were sharpening the edge of her anxiety. A duel! Fantastic, in these days! And yet — Uncle Lawrence was uncanny, and Wilfrid in just the mood to do anything to show himself unafraid. Were duels illegal in France? Thank heaven she had all that money. No! It was absurd! People had called each other names with impunity for nearly a century. No good to fuss; tomorrow she would go with Uncle Lawrence and see that man. It was all, in some strange way, on her account. What would one of her own people do if called a coward and a cad — her father, her brother, Uncle Adrian? What COULD they do? Horsewhips, fists, law courts — all such hopeless, coarse, ugly remedies! And she felt for the first time that Wilfrid had been wrong to use such words. Ah! But was he not entitled to hit back? Yes, indeed! She could see again his head jerked up and hear his: ‘Ah! That’s better!’

Swallowing down her coffee, she got up and sought the drawing-room. On the sofa was her Aunt’s embroidery thrown down, and she gazed at it with a feeble interest. An intricate old French design needing many coloured wools — grey rabbits looking archly over their shoulders at long, curious, yellow dogs seated on yellower haunches, with red eyes and tongues hanging out; leaves and flowers, too, and here and there a bird, all set in a background of brown wool. Tens of thousands of stitches, which, when finished, would lie under glass on a little table, and last till they were all dead and no one knew who had wrought them. “Tout lasse, tout passe! The strains of Rigoletto still came floating from the basement. Really Augustine must have drama in her soul, to be listening to a whole opera.

“La Donna è mobile!”

Dinny took up her book, the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson; a tome in which no one kept any faith to speak of except the authoress, and she only in her own estimation; a loose, bright, engaging, conceited minx, with a good heart and one real romance among a peck of love affairs.

“La Donna è mobile!” It came mocking up the stairs, fine and free, as if the tenor had reached his Mecca. Mobile! No! That was more true of men than of women! Women did not change. One loved — one lost, perhaps! She sat with closed eyes till the last notes of that last act had died away, then went up to bed. She passed a night broken by dreams, and was awakened by a voice saying:

“Someone on the telephone for you, Miss Dinny.”

“For me? Why! What time is it?”

“Half-past seven, miss.”

She sat up startled.

“Who is it?”

“No name, miss; but he wants to speak to you special.”

With the thought ‘Wilfrid!’ she jumped up, put on a dressing-gown and slippers, and ran down.

“Yes. Who is it?”

“Stack, miss. I’m sorry to disturb you so early, but I thought it best. Mr. Desert, miss, went to bed as usual last night, but this morning the dog was whining in his room, and I went in, and I see he’s not been in bed at all. He must have gone out very early, because I’ve been about since half-past six. I shouldn’t have disturbed you, miss, only I didn’t like the look of him last night . . . Can you hear me, miss?”

“Yes. Has he taken any clothes or anything?”

“No, miss.”

“Did anybody come to see him last night?”

“No, miss. But a letter came by hand about half-past nine. I noticed him distraight, miss, when I took the whisky in. Perhaps it’s nothing, but being so sudden, I . . . Can you hear me, miss?”

“Yes. I’ll dress at once and come round. Stack, can you get me a taxi, or, better, a car, by the time I’m there?”

“I’ll get a car, miss.”

“Is there any service to the Continent he could have caught?”

“Nothing before nine o’clock.”

“I’ll be round as quick as I can.”

“Yes, miss. Don’t you worry, miss; he might be wanting exercise or something.”

Dinny replaced the receiver and flew upstairs.

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