Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 6

Clare Cherrell’s wedding, in Hanover Square, was ‘fashionable’ and would occupy with a list of names a quarter of a column in the traditional prints. As Dinny said:

“So delightful for them!”

With her father and mother Clare came to Mount Street from Condaford overnight. Busy with her younger sister to the last, and feeling an emotion humorously disguised, Dinny arrived with Lady Cherrell at the Church not long before the bride. She lingered to speak to an old retainer at the bottom of the aisle, and caught sight of Wilfrid. He was on the bride’s side, far back, gazing at her. She gave him a swift smile, then passed up the aisle to join her mother in the left front pew. Michael whispered as she went by:

“People HAVE rolled up, haven’t they?”

They had. Clare was well known and popular, Jerry Corven even better known, if not so popular. Dinny looked round at the “audience”— one could never credit a wedding with the word congregation. Irregular and with a good deal of character, their faces refused generalisation. They looked like people with convictions and views of their own. The men conformed to no particular type, having none of that depressing sameness which used to characterise the German officer caste. With herself and her mother in the front pew were Hubert and Jean, Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Em; in the pew behind sat Adrian with Diana, Mrs. Hilary, and Lady Alison. Dinny caught sight of Jack Muskham at the end of two or three rows back, tall, well-dressed, rather bored-looking. He nodded to her, and she thought: Odd, his remembering me!

On the Corven side of the aisle were people of quite as much diversity of face and figure. Except Jack Muskham, the bridegroom, and his best man, hardly a man gave the impression of being well-dressed or of having thought about his clothes. But from their faces Dinny received the impression that they were all safe in the acceptance of a certain creed. Not one gave her the same feeling that Wilfrid’s face brought of spiritual struggle and disharmony, of dreaming, suffering, and discovery. ‘I’m fanciful,’ she thought. And her eyes came to rest on Adrian, who was just behind her. He was smiling quietly above that goatee beard of his, which lengthened his thin brown visage. ‘He has a dear face,’ she thought, ‘not conceited, like the men who wear those pointed beards as a rule. He always will be the nicest man in the world.’ And she whispered: “Fine collection of bones here, Uncle.”

“I should like your skeleton, Dinny.”

“I mean to be burned and scattered. H’ssh!”

The choir was coming in, followed by the officiating priests. Jerry Corven turned. Those lips smiling like a cat’s beneath that thin-cut moustache, those hardwood features and daring, searching eyes! Dinny thought with sudden dismay: ‘How could Clare! But after all I’d think the same of any face but one, just now. I’m going potty.’ Then Clare came swaying up the aisle on her father’s arm! ‘Looking a treat! Bless her!’ A gush of emotion caught Dinny by the throat, and she slipped her hand into her mother’s. Poor mother! She was awfully pale! Really the whole thing was stupid! People WOULD make it long and trying and emotional. Thank goodness Dad’s old black tail-coat really looked quite decent — she had taken out the stains with ammonia; and he stood as she had seen him when reviewing troops. If Uncle Hilary happened to have a button wrong, Dad would notice it. Only there wouldn’t be any buttons. She longed fervently to be beside Wilfrid away at the back. He would have nice unorthodox thoughts, and they would soothe each other with private smiles.

Now the bridesmaids! Hilary’s two girls, her cousins Monica and Joan, slender and keen, Little Celia Moriston, fair as a seraph (if that was female), Sheila Ferse, dark and brilliant; and toddly little Anne — a perfect dumpling!

Once on her knees, Dinny quietened down. She remembered how they used to kneel, night-gowned, against their beds, when Clare was a tiny of three and she herself a ‘big girl’ of six. She used to hang on to the bed-edge by the chin so as to save the knees; and how ducky Clare had looked when she held her hands up like the child in the Reynolds picture! ‘That man,’ thought Dinny, ‘will hurt her! I know he will!’ Her thoughts turned again to Michael’s wedding all those ten years ago. There she had stood, not three yards from where she was kneeling now, alongside a girl she didn’t know — some relative of Fleur’s. And her eyes, taking in this and that with the fluttered eagerness of youth, had lighted on Wilfrid standing sideways, keeping watch on Michael. Poor Michael! He had seemed rather daft that day, from excessive triumph! She could remember quite distinctly thinking: ‘Michael and his lost angel!’ There had been in Wilfrid’s face something which suggested that he had been cast out of happiness, a scornful and yet yearning look. That was only two years after the Armistice, and she knew now what utter disillusionment and sense of wreckage he had suffered after the war. He had been talking to her freely the last two days; had even dwelled with humorous contempt on his infatuation for Fleur eighteen months after that marriage which had sent him flying off to the East. Dinny, but ten when the war broke out, remembered it chiefly as meaning that mother had been anxious about father, had knitted all the time, and been a sort of sock depot; that everybody hated the Germans; that she had been forbidden sweets because they were made with saccharine, and finally the excitement and grief when Hubert went off to the war and letters from him didn’t often come. From Wilfrid these last few days she had gathered more clearly and poignantly than ever yet what the war had meant to some who, like Michael and himself, had been in the thick of it for years. With his gift of expression he had made her feel the tearing away of roots, the hopeless change of values, and the gradual profound mistrust of all that age and tradition had decreed and sanctified. He had got over the war now, he said. He might think so, but there were in him still torn odds and ends of nerves not yet mended up. She never saw him without wanting to pass a cool hand over his forehead.

The ring was on now, the fateful words said, the exhortations over; they were going to the vestry. Her mother and Hubert followed. Dinny sat motionless, her eyes fixed on the East window. Marriage! What an impossible state, except — with a single being.

A voice in her ear said:

“Lend me your hanky, Dinny. Mine’s soakin’, and your uncle’s is blue.”

Dinny passed her a scrap of lawn, and surreptitiously powdered her own nose.

“Be done at Condaford, Dinny,” continued her aunt. “All these people — so fatiguin’, rememberin’ who they aren’t. That was his mother, wasn’t it? She isn’t dead, then.”

Dinny was thinking: ‘Shall I get another look at Wilfrid?’

“When I was married everybody kissed me,” whispered her aunt, “so promiscuous. I knew a girl who married to get kissed by his best man. Aggie Tellusson. I wonder. They’re comin’ back!”

Yes! How well Dinny knew that bride’s smile! How could Clare feel it, not married to Wilfrid! She fell in behind her father and mother, alongside Hubert, who whispered: “Buck up, old girl, it might be a lot worse!” Divided from him by a secret that absorbed her utterly, Dinny squeezed his arm. And, even as she did so, saw Wilfrid, with his arms folded, looking at her. Again she gave him a swift smile, and then all was hurly-burly, till she was back at Mount Street and Aunt Em saying to her, just within the drawing-room door:

“Stand by me, Dinny, and pinch me in time.” Then came the entry of the guests and her aunt’s running commentary.

“It IS his mother — kippered. Here’s Hen Bentworth! . . . Hen, Wilmet’s here, she’s got a bone to pick. . . . How d’you do? Yes, isn’t it — so tirin’. . . . How d’you do? The ring was so well done, don’t you think? Conjurers! . . . Dinny, who’s this? . . . How do you do? Lovely! No! Cherrell. Not as it’s spelled, you know — so awkward! . . . The presents are over there by the man with the boots, tryin’ not to. Silly, I think! But they will. . . . How d’you do? You ARE Jack Muskham? Lawrence dreamed the other night you were goin’ to burst. . . . Dinny, get me Fleur, too, she knows everybody.”

Dinny went in search of Fleur and found her talking to the bridegroom.

As they went back to the door Fleur said: “I saw Wilfrid Desert in the church. How did he come there?”

Really Fleur was too sharp for anything!

“Here you are!” said Lady Mont. “Which of these three comin’ is the Duchess? The scraggy one. Ah! . . . How d’you do? Yes, charmin’. Such a bore, weddin’s! Fleur, take the Duchess to have some presents. . . . How d’you do? No, my brother Hilary. He does it well, don’t you think? Lawrence says he keeps his eye on the ball. Do have an ice, they’re downstairs. . . . Dinny, is this one after the presents, d’you think? — Oh! How d’you do, Lord Beevenham? My sister-inlaw ought to be doin’ this. She ratted. Jerry’s in there. . . . Dinny, who was it said: ‘The drink, the drink!’ Hamlet? He said such a lot. Not Hamlet? . . . Oh! How d’you do? . . . How d’you do? . . . How d’you do, or don’t you? Such a crush! . . . Dinny, your hanky!”

“I’ve put some powder on it, Auntie.”

“There! Have I streaked? . . . How d’you do? Isn’t it silly, the whole thing? As if they wanted anybody but themselves, you know. . . . Oh! Here’s Adrian! Your tie’s on one side, dear. Dinny, put it right. How d’you do? Yes, they are. I don’t like flowers at funerals — poor things, lyin’ there, and dyin’. . . . How’s your dear dog? You haven’t one? Quite! . . . Dinny, you ought to have pinched me. . . . How d’you do? How d’you do? I was tellin’ my niece she ought to pinch me. Do you get faces right? No. How nice! How d’you do? How d’you do? How d’you do? . . . That’s three! Dinny, who’s the throwback just comin’? Oh! . . . How d’you do? So you got here? I thought you were in China. . . . Dinny, remind me to ask your uncle if it was China. He gave me such a dirty look. Could I give the rest a miss? Who is it’s always sayin’ that? Tell Blore ‘the drink,’ Dinny. Here’s a covey! . . . How d’you do? . . . How de do? . . . How do? . . . Do! . . . Do! . . . How? . . . So sweet! . . . Dinny, I want to say: Blast!”

On her errand to Blore Dinny passed Jean talking to Michael, and wondered how anyone so vivid and brown had patience to stand about in this crowd. Having found Blore, she came back. Michael’s queer face, which she thought grew pleasanter every year, as if from the deepening impress of good feeling, looked strained and unhappy.

“I don’t believe it, Jean,” she heard him say.

“Well,” said Jean, “the bazaars do buzz with rumour. Still, without fire of some sort there’s never smoke.”

“Oh! yes, there is — plenty. He’s back in England, anyway. Fleur saw him in the church today. I shall ask him.”

“I wouldn’t,” said Jean: “if it’s true he’ll probably tell you, and if it isn’t, it’ll only worry him for nothing.”

So! They were talking of Wilfrid. How find out why without appearing to take interest? And suddenly she thought: ‘Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Anything that matters he must tell me himself. I won’t hear it from anyone else.’ But she felt disturbed, for instinct was always warning her of something heavy and strange on his mind.

When that long holocaust of sincerity was over and the bride had gone, she subsided into a chair in her uncle’s study, the only room which showed no signs of trouble. Her father and mother had started back to Condaford, surprised that she wasn’t coming too. It was not like her to cling to London when the tulips were out at home, the lilacs coming on, the apple blossom thickening every day. But the thought of not seeing Wilfrid daily had become a positive pain.

‘I HAVE got it badly,’ she thought, ‘worse than I ever believed was possible. Whatever is going to happen to me?’

She was lying back with her eyes closed when her uncle’s voice said:

“Ah! Dinny, how pleasant after those hosts of Midian! The mandarin in full feather! Did you know a quarter of them? Why do people go to weddings? A registrar’s, or under the stars, there’s no other way of preserving decency. Your poor aunt has gone to bed. There’s a lot to be said for Mohammedanism, except that it’s the fashion now to limit it to one wife, and she not in Purdah. By the way, there’s a story going round that young Desert’s become a Moslem. Did he say anything to you about it?”

Dinny raised her startled head.

“I’ve only twice known it happen to fellows in the East, and they were Frenchmen and wanted harems.”

“Money’s the only essential for that, Uncle.”

“Dinny, you’re getting cynical. Men like to have the sanction of religion. But that wouldn’t be Desert’s reason; a fastidious creature, if I remember.”

“Does religion matter, Uncle, so long as people don’t interfere with each other?”

“Well, some Moslems’ notions of woman’s rights are a little primitive. He’s liable to wall her up if she’s unfaithful. There was a sheikh when I was in Marakesh — gruesome.”

Dinny shuddered.

“‘From time immemorial,’ as they say,” went on Sir Lawrence, “religion has been guilty of the most horrifying deeds that have happened on this earth. I wonder if young Desert has taken up with it to get him access to Mecca. I shouldn’t think he believes anything. But you never know — it’s a queer family.”

Dinny thought: ‘I can’t and won’t talk about him.’

“What proportion of people in these days do you think really have religion, Uncle?”

“In northern countries? Very difficult to say. In this country ten to fifteen per cent of the adults, perhaps. In France and southern countries, where there’s a peasantry, more, at least on the surface.”

“What about the people who came this afternoon?”

“Most of them would be shocked if you said they weren’t Christians, and most of them would be still more shocked if you asked them to give half their goods to the poor, and that would only make them well disposed Pharisees, or was it Sadducees?”

“Are you a Christian, Uncle Lawrence?”

“No, my dear; if anything a Confucian, who, as you know, was simply an ethical philosopher. Most of our caste in this country, if they only knew it, are Confucian rather than Christian. Belief in ancestors, and tradition, respect for parents, honesty, moderation of conduct, kind treatment of animals and dependents, absence of self-obtrusion, and stoicism in face of pain and death.”

“What more,” murmured Dinny, wrinkling her nose, “does one want except the love of beauty?”

“Beauty? That’s a matter of temperament.”

“But doesn’t it divide people more than anything?”

“Yes, but willy nilly. You can’t make yourself love a sunset.”

“‘You are wise, Uncle Lawrence, the young niece said.’ I shall go for a walk and shake the wedding-cake down.”

“And I shall stay here, Dinny, and sleep the champagne off.”

Dinny walked and walked. It seemed an odd thing to be doing alone. But the flowers in the Park were pleasing, and the waters of the Serpentine shone and were still, and the chestnut trees were coming alight. And she let herself go on her mood, and her mood was of love.

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