Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 9

Sir Lawrence Mont, recently elected to Burton’s Club whereon he had resigned from the Aeroplane, retaining besides only ‘Snooks’ (so-called), The Coffee House and the Parthenæum, was accustomed to remark that, allowing himself another ten years of life, it would cost him twelve shillings and sixpence every time he went into any of them.

He entered Burton’s, however, on the afternoon after Dinny had told him of her engagement, took up a list of the members, and turned to D. ‘Hon. Wilfrid Desert.’ Quite natural, seeing the Club’s pretension to the monopoly of travellers. “Does Mr. Desert ever come in here?” he said to the porter.

“Yes, Sir Lawrence, he’s been in this last week; before that I don’t remember him for years.”

“Usually abroad. When does he come in as a rule?”

“For dinner, mostly, Sir Lawrence.”

“I see. Is Mr. Muskham in?”

The porter shook his head. “Newmarket today, Sir Lawrence.”

“Oh! Ah! How on earth you remember everything!”

“Matter of ‘abit, Sir Lawrence.”

“Wish I had it.” Hanging up his hat, he stood for a moment before the tape in the hall. Unemployment and taxation going up all the time, and more money to spend on cars and sports than ever. A pretty little problem! He then sought the Library as the room where he was least likely to see anybody; and the first body he saw was that of Jack Muskham, who was talking, in a voice hushed to the level of the locality, to a thin dark little man in a corner.

‘That,’ thought Sir Lawrence, cryptically, ‘explains to me why I never find a lost collar-stud. My friend the porter was so certain Jack would be at Newmarket, and not under that chest of drawers, that he took him for someone else when he came in.’

Reaching down a volume of Burton’s Arabian Nights, he rang for tea. He was attending to neither when the two in the corner rose and came up to him.

“Don’t get up, Lawrence,” said Jack Muskham with some languor; “Telfourd Yule, my cousin Sir Lawrence Mont.”

“I’ve read thrillers of yours, Mr. Yule,” said Sir Lawrence, and thought: ‘Queer-looking little cuss!’

The thin, dark, smallish man, with a face rather like a monkey’s, grinned. “Truth whips fiction out of the field,” he said.

“Yule,” said Jack Muskham, with his air of superiority to space and time, “has been out in Arabia, going into the question of how to corkscrew a really pure-strain Arab mare or two out of them for use here. It’s always baffled us, you know. Stallions, yes; mares never. It’s much the same now in Nejd as when Palgrave wrote. Still, we think we’ve got a rise. The owner of the best strain wants an aeroplane, and if we throw in a billiard table we believe he’ll part with at least one daughter of the sun.”

“Good God!” said Sir Lawrence. “By what base means? We’re all Jesuits, Jack!”

“Yule has seen some queer things out there. By the way, there’s one I want to talk about. May we sit down?”

He stretched his long body out in a long chair, and the dark little man perched himself on another, with his black twinkling eyes fixed on Sir Lawrence, who had come to uneasy attention without knowing why.

“When,” said Jack Muskham, “Yule here was in the Arabian desert, he heard a vague yarn among some Bedouins about an Englishman having been held up somewhere by Arabs and forced to become a Moslem. He had rather a row with them, saying no Englishman would do that. But when he was back in Egypt he went flying into the Libyan desert, met another lot of Bedouins coming from the south, and came on precisely the same yarn, only more detailed, because they said it happened in Darfur, and they even had the man’s name — Desert. Then, when he was up in Khartoum, Yule found it was common talk that young Desert had changed his religion. Naturally he put two and two together. But there’s all the difference in the world, of course, between voluntarily swapping religions and doing it at the pistol’s point. An Englishman who does that lets down the lot of us.”

Sir Lawrence, who during this recital had tried every motion for his monocle with which he was acquainted, dropped it and said: “But, my dear Jack, if a man is rash enough to become a Mohammedan in a Mohammedan country, do you suppose for a minute that gossip won’t say he was forced to?”

Yule, who had wriggled on to the very verge of his chair, said:

I thought that; but the second account was extremely positive. Even to the month and the name of the Sheikh who forced the recantation; and I found that Mr. Desert had in fact returned from Darfur soon after the month mentioned. There may be nothing in it; but whether there is or not, I needn’t tell you that an undenied story of that kind grows by telling and does a lot of harm, not only to the man himself, but to our prestige. There seems to me a sort of obligation on one to let Mr. Desert know what the Bedawi are spreading about him.”

“Well, he’s over here,” said Sir Lawrence, gravely.

“I know,” said Jack Muskham, “I saw him the other day, and he’s a member of this Club.”

Through Sir Lawrence were passing waves of infinite dismay. What a sequel to Dinny’s ill-starred announcement! To his ironic, detached personality, capricious in its likings, Dinny was precious. She embroidered in a queer way his plain-washed feelings about women; as a young man he might even have been in love with her, instead of being merely her uncle by marriage. During this silence he was fully conscious that both the other two were thoroughly uncomfortable. And the knowledge of their disquiet deepened the significance of the matter in an odd way.

At last he said: “Desert was my boy’s best man. I’d like to talk to Michael about it, Jack. Mr. Yule will say nothing further at present, I hope.”

“Not on your life,” said Yule. “I hope to God there’s nothing in it. I like his verse.”

“And you, Jack?”

“I don’t care for the look of him; but I’d refuse to believe that of an Englishman till it was plainer than the nose on my face, which is saying a good bit. You and I must be getting on, Yule, if we’re to catch that train to Royston.”

This speech of Jack Muskham’s further disturbed Sir Lawrence, left alone in his chair. It seemed so entirely to preclude leniency of judgment among the ‘pukka sahibs’ if the worst were true.

At last he rose, found a small volume, sat down again and turned its pages. The volume was Sir Alfred Lyall’s Verses Written in India, and he looked for the poem called ‘Theology in Extremis.’

He read it through, restored the volume, and stood rubbing his chin. Written, of course, more than forty years ago, and yet doubtful if its sentiments were changed by an iota! There was that poem, too, by Doyle, about the Corporal in the Buffs who, brought before a Chinese General and told to ‘kow-tow’ or die, said: ‘We don’t do that sort of thing in the Buffs,’ and died. Well! That was the standard even today, among people of any caste or with any tradition. The war had thrown up innumerable instances. Could young Desert really have betrayed the tradition? It seemed improbable. And yet, in spite of his excellent war record, might there be a streak of yellow in him? Or was it, rather, that at times a flow of revolting bitterness carried him on to complete cynicism, so that he flouted almost for the joy of flouting?

With a strong mental effort Sir Lawrence tried to place himself in a like dilemma. Not being a believer, his success was limited to the thought: ‘I should immensely dislike being dictated to in such a matter.’ Aware that this was inadequate, he went down to the hall, shut himself up in a box, and rang up Michael’s house. Then, feeling that if he lingered in the Club he might run into Desert himself, he took a cab to South Square.

Michael had just come in from the House; they met in the hall; and, with the instinct that Fleur, however acute, was not a fit person to share this particular consultation, Sir Lawrence demanded to be taken to his son’s study. He commenced by announcing Dinny’s engagement, which Michael heard with as strange a mixture of gratification and disquietude as could be seen on human visage.

“What a little cat, keeping it so dark!” he said. “Fleur did say something about her being too limpid just now; but I never thought! One’s got so used to Dinny being single. To Wilfrid, too? Well, I hope the old son has exhausted the East.”

“There’s this question of his religion,” said Sir Lawrence gravely.

“I don’t know why that should matter much; Dinny’s not fervent. But I never thought Wilfrid cared enough to change his. It rather staggered me.”

“There’s a story.”

When his father had finished, Michael’s ears stood out and his face looked haggard.

“You know him better than anyone,” Sir Lawrence concluded: “What do you think?”

“I hate to say it, but it might be true. It might even be natural for HIM; but no one would ever understand why. This is pretty ghastly, Dad, with Dinny involved.”

“Before we fash ourselves, my dear, we must find out if it’s true. Could you go to him?”

“In old days — easily.”

Sir Lawrence nodded. “Yes, I know all about that, but it’s a long time ago.”

Michael smiled faintly. “I never knew whether you spotted that, but I rather thought so. I’ve seen very little of Wilfrid since he went East. Still, I could —” He stopped, and added: “If it IS true, he must have told Dinny. He couldn’t ask her to marry him with that untold.”

Sir Lawrence shrugged. “If yellow in one way, why not in the other?”

“Wilfrid is one of the most perverse, complex, unintelligible natures one could come across. To judge him by ordinary standards is a wash-out. But if he HAS told Dinny, she’ll never tell us.”

And they stared at each other.

“Mind you,” said Michael, “there’s a streak of the heroic in him. It comes out in the wrong places. That’s why he’s a poet.”

Sir Lawrence began twisting at an eyebrow, always a sign that he had reached decision.

“The thing’s got to be faced; it’s not in human nature for a sleeping dog like that to be allowed to lie. I don’t care about young Desert —”

“I do,” said Michael.

“It’s Dinny I’m thinking of.”

“So am I. But there again, Dad, Dinny will do what she will do, and you needn’t think we can deflect her.”

“It’s one of the most unpleasant things,” said Sir Lawrence slowly, “that I’ve ever come across. Well, my boy, are you going to see him, or shall I?”

“I’ll do it,” said Michael, and sighed.

“Will he tell you the truth?”

“Yes. Won’t you stay to dinner?”

Sir Lawrence shook his head.

“Daren’t face Fleur with this on my mind. Needless to say, no one ought to know until you’ve seen him, not even she.”

“No. Dinny still with you?”

“She’s gone back to Condaford.”

“Her people!” and Michael whistled.

Her people! The thought remained with him all through a dinner during which Fleur discussed the future of Kit. She was in favour of his going to Harrow, because Michael and his father had been at Winchester. He was down for both, and the matter had not yet been decided.

“All your mother’s people,” she said, “were at Harrow. Winchester seems to me so superior and dry. And they never get any notoriety. If you hadn’t been at Winchester you’d have been a pet of the newspapers by now.”

“D’you want Kit to have notoriety?”

“Yes, the nice sort, of course, like your Uncle Hilary. You know, Michael, Bart’s a dear, but I prefer the Cherrell side of your family.”

“Well, I was wondering,” said Michael, “whether the Cherrel’s weren’t too straight-necked and servicey for anything,”

“Yes, they’re that, but they’ve got a quirk in them, and they look like gentlemen.”

“I believe,” said Michael, “that you really want Kit to go to Harrow because they play at Lords.”

Fleur straightened her own neck.

“Well, I do. I should have chosen Eton, only it’s so obvious, and I hate light blue.”

“Well,” said Michael, “I’m prejudiced in favour of my own school, so the choice is up to you. A school that produced Uncle Adrian will do for me, anyway.”

“No school produced your Uncle Adrian, dear,” said Fleur; “he’s palæolithic. The Cherrells are the oldest strain in Kit’s make-up, anyway, and I should like to breed to it, as Mr. Jack Muskham would say. Which reminds me that when I saw him at Clare’s wedding he wanted us to come down and see his stud farm at Royston. I should like to. He’s like an advertisement for shooting capes — divine shoes and marvellous control of his facial muscles.”

Michael nodded.

“Jack’s an example of so much stamp on the coin that there’s hardly any coin behind it.”

“Don’t you believe it, my dear. There’s plenty of metal at the back.”

“The ‘pukka sahib,’” said Michael. “I never can make up my mind whether that article is to the good or to the bad. The Cherrells are the best type of it, because there’s no manner to them as there is to Jack; but even with them I always have the feeling of too much in heaven and earth that isn’t dreamed of in their philosophy.”

“We can’t all have divine sympathy, Michael.”

Michael looked at her fixedly. He decided against malicious intent and went on: “I never know where understanding and tolerance ought to end.”

“That’s where men are inferior to us. We wait for the mark to fix itself; we trust our nerves. Men don’t, poor things. Luckily you’ve a streak of woman in you, Michael. Give me a kiss. Mind Coaker, he’s very sudden. It’s decided, then: Kit goes to Harrow.”

“If there’s a Harrow to go to by the time he’s of age.”

“Don’t be foolish. No constellations are more fixed than the public schools. Look at the way they flourished on the war.”

“They won’t flourish on the next war.”

“There mustn’t be one, then.”

“Under ‘pukka sahibism’ it couldn’t be avoided.”

“My dear, you don’t suppose that keeping our word and all that was not just varnish? We simply feared German preponderance.”

Michael rumpled his hair.

“It was a good instance, anyway, of what I said about there being more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of by the ‘pukka sahib’; yes, and of many situations that he’s not adequate to handle.”

Fleur yawned.

“We badly want a new dinner service, Michael.”

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