Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 29

Wilfrid had obeyed impulse when he ran down into Cork Street. Ever since the sudden breaking off of that fierce undignified scuffle at Royston, and the sight of Dinny standing in the car covering her eyes with a hand, his feelings towards her had been terribly confused. Now at the sudden sight, sound, scent of her, warmth had rushed up in him and spent itself in kisses; but the moment she left him his insane feeling had returned and hurled him down into a London where at least one could walk and meet no one. He went south and became involved with a queue of people trying to get into ‘His Majesty’s.’ He stood among them thinking: ‘As well in here as anywhere.’ But, just as his turn came, he broke away and branched off eastward; passed through Covent Garden, desolate and smelling of garbage; and came out into Ludgate Hill. Hereabouts he was reminded by scent of fish that he had eaten nothing since breakfast. And, going into a restaurant, he drank a cocktail and ate some hors-d’oeuvre. Asking for a sheet of paper and envelope, he wrote:

“I had to go. If I had stayed, you and I would have been one. I don’t know what I’m going to do — I may finish in the river to-night, or go abroad, or come back to you. Whatever I do, forgive, and believe that I have loved you. Wilfrid.”

He addressed the envelope and thrust it into his pocket. But he did not post it. He felt he could never express what he was feeling. Again he walked east. Through the City zone, deserted as if it had been mustard-gassed, he was soon in the cheerier Whitechapel Road. He walked, trying to tire himself out and stop the whirling of his thoughts. He moved northwards now, and towards eleven was nearing Chingford. All was moonlit and still when he passed the hotel and went on towards the Forest. One car, a belated cyclist, a couple or two, and three tramps were all he met before he struck off the road in among the trees. Daylight was gone, and the moon was silvering the leaves and branches. Thoroughly exhausted, he lay down on the beech mast. The night was an unwritten poem — the gleam and drip of light like the play of an incoherent mind, fluttering, slipping in and out of reality; never at rest; never the firm silver of true metal; burnished and gone like a dream. Up there were the stars he had travelled by times without number, the Wain, and all the others that seemed meaningless, if not nameless, in this town world.

He turned over and lay on his face, pressing his forehead to the ground. And suddenly he heard the drone of a flying machine. But through the heavily-leafed boughs he could see no gliding, sky-scurrying shape. Some night-flier to Holland; some English airman pricking out the lighted shape of London, or practising flight between Hendon and an East Coast base. After flying in the war he had never wished to fly again. The very sound of it brought back still that sick, fed-up feeling from which the Armistice had delivered him. The drone passed on and away. A faint rumbling murmur came from London, but here the night was still and warm, with only a frog croaking, a bird cheeping feebly once, two owls hooting against each other. He turned again on to his face, and fell into an uneasy sleep.

When he woke light was just rifting the clear darkness. A heavy dew had fallen; he felt stiff and chilled, but his mind was clear. He got up and swung his arms, lit a cigarette, and drew the smoke deep in. He sat with his arms clasped round his knees, smoking his cigarette to its end without ever moving it from his lips, and spitting out the stub with its long ash just before it burned his mouth. Suddenly he began to shiver. He got up to walk back to the road. Stiff and sore, he made poor going. It was full dawn by the time he reached the road, and then, knowing that he ought to go towards London, he went in the opposite direction. He plodded on, and every now and then shivered violently. At last he sat down and, bowed over his knees, fell into a sort of coma. A voice saying: “Hi!” roused him. A fresh-faced young man in a small car had halted alongside. “Anything wrong?”

“Nothing,” muttered Wilfrid.

“You appear to be in poor shape, all the same. D’you know what time it is?”

“No.”

“Get in here, and I’ll run you to the hotel at Chingford. Got any money?”

Wilfrid looked at him grimly and laughed.

“Yes.”

“Don’t be touchy! What you want is a sleep and some strong coffee! Come on!”

Wilfrid got up. He could hardly stand. He lay back in the little car, huddled beside the young man, who said: “Now we shan’t be long.”

In ten minutes, which to a blurred and shivering consciousness might have been five hours, they were in front of the hotel.

“I know the ‘boots’ here,” said the young man; “I’ll put you in charge of him. What’s your name?”

“Hell!” muttered Wilfrid.

“Hi! George! I found this gentleman on the road. He seems to have gone a bit wonky. Put him into some decent bedroom. Heat him up a good hot bottle, and get him into bed with it. Brew him some strong coffee, and see that he drinks it.”

The boots grinned. “That all?”

“No; take his temperature, and send for a doctor. Look here, sir,” the young man turned to Wilfrid, “I recommend this chap. He can polish boots with the best. Just let him do for you, and don’t worry. I must get on. It’s six o’clock.” He waited a moment, watching Wilfrid stagger into the hotel on the arm of the ‘boots,’ then sped away.

The ‘boots’ assisted Wilfrid to a room. “Can you undress, governor?”

“Yes,” muttered Wilfrid.

“Then I’ll go and get you that bottle and the coffee. Don’t be afraid, we don’t ‘ave damp beds ’ere. Were you out all night?”

Wilfrid sat on the bed and did not answer.

“‘Ere!” said the ‘boots’: “give us your sleeves!” He pulled Wilfrid’s coat off, then his waistcoat and trousers. “You’ve got a proper chill, it seems to me. Your underthings are all damp. Can you stand?”

Wilfrid shook his head.

The ‘boots’ stripped the sheets off the bed, pulled Wilfrid’s shirt over his head; then with a struggle wrenched off vest and drawers, and wrapped him in a blanket.

“Now, governor, a good pull and a pull altogether.” He forced Wilfrid’s head on to the pillow, heaved his legs on to the bed, and covered him with two more blankets.

“You lie there; I won’t be gone ten minutes.”

Wilfrid lay, shivering so that his thoughts would not join up, nor his lips make consecutive sounds owing to the violent chattering of his teeth. He became conscious of a chambermaid, then of voices.

“His teeth’ll break it. Isn’t there another place?”

“I’ll try under his arm.”

A thermometer was pressed under his arm and held there.

“You haven’t got yellow fever, have you, sir?”

Wilfrid shook his head.

“Can you raise yourself, governor, and drink this?”

Robust arms raised him, and he drank.

“One ‘undred and four.”

“Gawd! ‘Ere, pop this bottle to his feet, I’ll ‘phone the Doc.”

Wilfrid could see the maid watching him, as if wondering what sort of fever she was going to catch.

“Malaria,” he said, suddenly, “not infectious. Give me a cigarette! In my waistcoat.”

The maid put a cigarette between his lips and lit it. Wilfrid took a long pull.

“A-again!” he said.

Again she put it between his lips, and again he took a pull.

“They say there’s mosquitoes in the forest. Did you find any last night, sir?”

“In the sys-system.”

Shivering a little less now, he watched her moving about the room, collecting his clothes, drawing the curtains so that they shaded the bed. Then she approached him, and he smiled up at her.

“Another nice drop of hot coffee?”

He shook his head, closed his eyes again, and shivered deep into the bed, conscious that she was still watching him, and then again of voices.

“Can’t find a name, but he’s some sort of nob. There’s money and this letter in his coat. The doctor’ll be here in five minutes.”

“Well, I’ll wait till then, but I’ve got my work to do.”

“Same ’ere. Tell the missus when you call her.”

He saw the maid stand looking at him with a sort of awe. A stranger and a nob, with a curious disease, interesting to a simple mind. Of his face, pressed into the pillow, she couldn’t see much — one dark cheek, one ear, some hair, the screwed-up eye under the brow. He felt her touch his forehead timidly with a finger. Burning hot, of course!

“Would you like your friends written to, sir?”

He shook his head.

“The doctor’ll be here in a minute.”

“I’ll be like this two days — nothing to be done — quinine — orange juice —” Seized by a violent fit of shivering, he was silent. He saw the doctor come in; and the maid still leaning against the chest of drawers, biting her little finger. She took it from her mouth, and he heard her say: “Shall I stay, sir?”

“Yes, you can stay.”

The doctor’s fingers closed on his pulse, raised his eyelid, pushed his lips apart.

“Well, sir? Had much of this?”

Wilfrid nodded.

“All right! You’ll stay where you are, and shove in quinine, and that’s all I can do for you. Pretty sharp bout.”

Wilfrid nodded.

“There are no cards on you. What’s your name?”

Wilfrid shook his head.

“All right! Don’t worry! Take this.”

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