Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 24

Wilfred’s taxi-cab, whose tank he had caused to be filled to the brim, ground slowly up Haverstock Hill towards the Spaniard’s Road. He looked at his watch. Forty miles to Royston — even in this growler he would be there by nine! He took out a letter and read it through once more.

“Liverpool Street Station.

“Friday.

“SIR,

“You will agree that the matter of this afternoon cannot rest there. Since the Law denies one decent satisfaction, I give you due notice that I shall horsewhip you publicly whenever and wherever I first find you unprotected by the presence of a lady.

“Yours faithfully,

“J. MUSKHAM.

“The Briery, Royston.”

‘Whenever and wherever I first find you unprotected by the presence of a lady!’ That would be sooner than the swine thought! A pity the fellow was so much older than himself.

The cab had reached the top now, and was speeding along the lonely Spaniard’s Road. In the early glistening morning the view was worth a poet’s notice, but Wilfrid lay back in the cab, unseeing, consumed by his thoughts. Something to hit at. This chap, at any rate, should no longer sneer at him! He had no plan except to be publicly on hand at the first possible moment after reading those words: “Unprotected by the presence of a lady!” Taken as sheltering behind a petticoat? Pity it was not a real duel! The duels of literature jig-sawed in his brain — Bel Ami, Bazarov, Dr. Slammer, Sir Lucius O’Trigger, D’Artagnan, Sir Toby, Winkle — all those creatures of fancy who had endeared the duel to readers. Duels and runs on banks, those two jewels in the crown of drama — gone! Well, he had shaved — with cold water! — and dressed with as much care as if he were not going to a vulgar brawl. The dandified Jack Muskham and a scene of low violence! Very amusing! The cab ground and whirred its way on through the thin early traffic of market and milk carts; and Wilfrid sat drowsing after his almost sleepless night. Barnet he passed, and Hatfield, and the confines of Welwyn Garden City, then Knebworth, and the long villages of Stevenage, Graveley and Baldock. Houses and trees seemed touched by unreality in the fine haze. Postmen, and maids on doorsteps, boys riding farm horses, and now and then an early cyclist, alone inhabited the outdoor world. And, with that wry smile on his lips and his eyes half closed, he lay back, his feet pressed against the seat opposite. He had not to stage the scene, nor open the brawl. He had but to deliver himself, as it were registered, so that he could not be missed.

The cab slowed up.

“We’re gettin’ near Royston, governor; where d’you want to go?”

“Pull up at the inn.”

The cab resumed its progress. The morning light hardened. All, now, was positive, away to the round, high-lying clumps of beeches. On the grassy slope to his right he saw a string of sheeted race-horses moving slowly back from exercise. The cab entered a long village street, and near its end stopped at an hotel. Wilfrid got out.

“Garage your cab. I’ll want you to take me back.”

“Right, governor.”

He went in and asked for breakfast. Just nine o’clock! While eating he enquired of the waiter where the Briery was.

“It’s the long low ’ouse lying back on the right, sir; but if you want Mr. Muskham, you’ve only to stand in the street outside ’ere. ‘E’ll be passing on his pony at five past ten; you can set your watch by him going to his stud farm when there’s no racing.”

“Thank you, that will save me trouble.”

At five minutes before ten, smoking a cigarette, he took his position at the hotel gate. Girt-in, and with that smile, he stood motionless, and through his mind passed and repassed the scene between Tom Sawyer and the boy in the too-good clothes, walking round each other with an elaborate ritual of insults before the whirlwind of their encounter. There would be no ritual today! ‘If I can lay him out,’ he thought, ‘I will!’ His hands, concealed in the pockets of his jacket, kept turning into fists; otherwise he stood, still as the gatepost against which he leaned, his face veiled in the thin fume rising from his cigarette. He noticed with satisfaction his cabman talking to another chauffeur outside the yard, a man up the street opposite cleaning windows, and a butcher’s cart. Muskham could not pretend this was not a public occasion. If they had neither of them boxed since schooldays, the thing would be a crude mix-up; all the more chance of hurting or being hurt! The sun topped some trees on the far side and shone on his face. He moved a pace or two to get the full of it. The sun — all good in life came from the sun! And suddenly he thought of Dinny. The sun to her was not what it was to him. Was he in a dream — was she real? Or, rather, were she and all this English business some rude interval of waking? God knew! He stirred and looked at his watch. Three minutes past ten, and there, sure enough, as the waiter had said, coming up the street was a rider, unconcerned, sedate, with a long easy seat on a small well-bred animal. Closer and closer, unaware! Then the rider’s eyes came round, there was a movement of his chin. He raised a hand to his hat, checked the pony, wheeled it and cantered back.

‘H’m!’ thought Wilfrid. ‘Gone for his whip!’ And from the stump of his cigarette he lighted another. A voice behind him said:

“What’d I tell you, sir? That’s Mr. Muskham.”

“He seems to have forgotten something.”

“Ah!” said the waiter, “he’s regular as a rule. They say at the stud he’s a Turk for order. Here he comes again; not lost much time, ‘as ‘e?”

He was coming at a canter. About thirty yards away he reined up and got off. Wilfrid heard him say to the pony, “Stand, Betty!” His heart began to beat, his hands in his pockets were clenched fast; he still leaned against the gate. The waiter had withdrawn, but with the tail of his eye Wilfrid could see him at the hotel door, waiting as if to watch over the interview he had fostered. His cabman was still engaged in the endless conversation of those who drive cars; the shopman still cleaning his windows; the butcher’s man rejoining his cart. Muskham came deliberately, a cut-and-thrust whip in his hand.

‘Now!’ thought Wilfrid.

Within three yards Muskham stopped. “Are you ready?”

Wilfrid took out his hands, let the cigarette drop from his lips, and nodded. Raising the whip, the long figure sprang. One blow fell, then Wilfrid closed. He closed so utterly that the whip was useless and Muskham dropped it. They swayed back clinched together against the gate; then, both, as if struck by the same idea, unclinched and raised their fists. In a moment it was clear that neither was any longer expert. They drove at each other without science, but with a sort of fury, length and weight on one side, youth and agility on the other. Amidst the scrambling concussions of this wild encounter, Wilfrid was conscious of a little crowd collecting — they had become a street show! Their combat was so breathless, furious and silent, that its nature seemed to infect that gathering, and from it came nothing but a muttering. Both were soon cut on the mouth and bleeding, both were soon winded and half dazed. In sheer breathlessness they clinched again and stood swaying, striving to get a grip of each other’s throats.

“Go it, Mr. Muskham!” cried a voice.

As if encouraged, Wilfrid wrenched himself free and sprang; Muskham’s fist thumped into his chest as he came on, but his outstretched hands closed round his enemy’s neck. There was a long stagger, and then both went crashing to the ground. There, again as if moved by the same thought, they unclinched and scrambled up. For a moment they stood panting, glaring at each other for an opening. For a second each looked round him. Wilfrid saw Muskham’s blood-stained face change and become rigid, his hands drop and hide in his pockets; saw him turn away. And suddenly he realised why. Standing up in an open car, across the street, was Dinny, with one hand covering her lips and the other shading her eyes.

Wilfrid turned as abruptly and went into the hotel.

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